After a rough debut, the Mariners and their fans were hoping that Brandon Maurer's second start would serve as a better indication of his talents. On paper, it was a good match-up for the 22-year-old. The game was at home, and the opponent was the hapless Houston Astros, who entered the contest with an offensive strike outs per nine innings ratio of 11.90. I'm not sure offensive SO/9 has ever been used as a statistic before, but it's reflective of the Astros performance at the plate this year, and it indicates that they've been terrible. More concretely, Houston had scored just nine runs over their last six games, and were hitting near the Mendoza Line as a team. If ever there was an opponent to cruise against, this was it.
Obviously, things didn't go so well. The Astros tagged Maurer for seven hits and six runs before Eric Wedge, opting to remove his right-hander before disaster turned into calamity, pulled his starter after only two-thirds of an inning. There were positives: Maurer did strike out two hitters and he was a little unfortunate that none of the seven balls in play found a glove. On the whole though, it was another poor outing.
Like in his debut, Maurer found himself in trouble because he commanded his fastball and slider poorly. He threw plenty of strikes, but they were again hittable strikes, and even a lousy big league team can rough up a guy who can't hit his spots. One thing that struck me was how little Maurer worked north and south of the strike zone. Take a look at this image:
As you can see, just about everything is between the knees and shoulders. Damningly, very few of his pitches late in the count were buried in the dirt or elevated above the letters. When Maurer most needed a swinging strike, he was still inclined to pitch near the zone, and Houston made him pay for it.
Perhaps most notable of all was his inability to locate his slider:
(Hat-tip Brooks Baseball for both of those)
Of the 12 sliders Maurer threw, only two or three were pitches likely to induce a swing and a miss, and most hung up in the top half of the strike zone. His slider is a great pitch when located well: he throws it in the upper 80's, and as Yoenis Cespedes found out, the ball has plenty of break. It just doesn't do Maurer a whole lot of good if he parks it in the middle of the strike zone.
In short, this was a bad start. You can't put a happy face on six runs in two-thirds of an inning at home against the Astros. Ultimately, though, a bad start is all this is. Maurer's velocity was normal -- his fastball touched 95 -- and he while he wasn't locating well, he wasn't wild either. But for missing command, he's been as advertised so far. Command is huge, of course, but he's had it in the minor leagues and he showed it again in spring training this year. I understand that after two bad starts there may be some sentiment to send Maurer to Tacoma, but I think that's hasty. If his command doesn't show up for a month, then we can discuss how a stint in the minors might help him. For now, this is just two bad games. He'd certainly have liked to begin his career a little better, but the history of baseball is littered with pitchers who took a few games to get going, and I'm willing to be patient with the rookie.
Besides, on a practical level, who is going to replace Maurer in the rotation? Erasmo Ramirez remains injured. If Jeremy Bonderman were an option, he probably would have broke camp with the big league club in the first place. Danny Hultzen and James Paxton are trying to overcome their own control and command problems and it makes no sense to replace one erratic young pitcher with another. Kameron Loe hasn't started a game since 2007 and he's on DFA's doorstep anyways. Hector Noesi isn't a viable candidate for reasons we all remember. The M's theoretically could promote a Triple-A starter like Andrew Carraway, but he doesn't have the raw stuff to thrive in a big league rotation, and he'd need to be placed on the 40-man roster anyways. In hindsight, it's easy to see how Maurer made the rotation. He's a talented pitcher and a part of the organization's future, but he didn't have a whole lot of competition for the job. The M's just have to stay the course and hope it gets better from here. He's talented enough that it probably will.
Anyways, I've gotten a bit distracted. Loe was as bad as Maurer in relief, and by the third inning the game was a blowout. Watching it in person, in a very sparse crowd, was kind of strange. Houston's barrage of runs made the outcome a foregone conclusion and the game lacked any kind of flow. After a while, it felt like the teams were trading turns at bat not because they were playing for anything, but because hitting round things with a stick is fun, and what the hell, we're all here, so why not.
I think it's time for bullets:
- I'm planning on writing more about bullpen construction in the morning, so I'll be brief for now, but tonight's game underscores why it's a good idea to have a long reliever or a swing guy on the roster. The M's are carrying seven relievers and it's ridiculous that they can't count on one of them to throw four or five innings. Lucas Luetge, of all people, had to throw three last night. The current set-up is a particularly bad match for this rotation. Maurer is a rookie and will have his share of short outings. Joe Saunders, just by the nature of his arsenal, will toss an occasional stinker. Ditto Blake Beavan. All three will periodically tax the bullpen on any given night, and if they stack a couple of bad starts on top of each other, this team is in a real bind without a long man. Even now, they'll need to make a roster change in the morning or play shorthanded tonight.
- Speaking of the bullpen, I'm not sure why Wedge opted to use all three of his lefty relievers yesterday. Luetge and Charlie Furbush threw multiple innings and Oliver Perez pitched the ninth. Only Perez will be available today, and he can't be counted on for much work either. I know the Astros lineup leans right, but Wedge hamstrung the M's a little bit on the match-ups today. I don't want to make a big deal out of this, but why didn't, say, Stephen Pryor throw the ninth? Or Robert Andino? No reason to burn anybody in a ten run game.
- Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez regularly take a beating on here, so it's only fair to mention that each had a great game. Both players came on as substitutes, and each went 2-2 with a home run and a walk. Bay's homer was particularly well-hit, a no-doubter down the left field line that was estimated to have traveled 397 feet. There's nothing a 14-3 game needs like a dinger and on this occasion, both deserve credit for obliging.
- If you squint, you can see how Bay might be a productive player. 2012 was a lost year for the Gonzaga product, but he was a slightly better than league average hitter over 2010 and 2011. As recently as two years ago, he mashed when he had the platoon advantage, tagging lefties for a .300/.418/.500 triple-slash line that season. If injuries are to blame for his performance last year (and most of 2011 too) there's a chance he's not done at the plate. Given enough rest and platooned effectively, Bay could be a good player for the Mariners.
- Whether a good version of Bay was worth losing Casper Wells or not, we can debate into the night. I have no interest in re-hashing that here, but it's worth noting that Wells will find out which organization likes him more than this one today, as the ten days Seattle had to trade or release him have come to an end.
- Erik Bedard returned to Safeco's mound and he pitched pretty well, striking out three while allowing just one hit and no runs. He worked with his trademark slow pace, mixing an effective curveball with a fastball that topped out in the low 90's. A low pitch count -- Bedard threw only six innings all spring -- limited him to four innings, so rookie Paul Clemens (no relation to Roger) got the win in his first big league outing.
- Rick Ankiel received some attention after striking out in 12 of his first 14 plate appearances, but Brett Wallace has been nearly as bad. He picked up the golden sombrero yesterday, giving him 17 whiffs in 22 chances. Had the two-time Pac-10 Player of the Year not been in the lineup, the game might still be going. As it is, this is a strange run of futility: Wallace posted a 104 wRC+ in 254 plate appearances just last season. That's not great for a first basemen, but it's still a pretty good performance in the aggregate. Yesterday, I felt bad for him. He was clearly pressing and guessing, and on a day when his teammates couldn't do anything wrong, he had no answers at the plate.
- As I left the stadium, I noticed that the club was selling Josh Kinney jerseys. I didn't want to buy one, but I was a little curious to see what the M's were charging for them . Answer: $180. Oh, and it was on sale; the original price was $300. I have nothing but respect for Josh Kinney and all that he has worked for and accomplished as a big leaguer, but has anyone outside of his friends and family considered throwing down three figures for his jersey?