After two dreary outings, Brandon Maurer fired the best game of his Mariner career on Sunday. The 6-foot-five right-hander allowed three runs -- two earned -- in six innings, striking out five while walking one. From both a results and a process perspective, it was a much better outing for the rookie than either of his previous tries.
Maurer's first two starts were marred by poor command. While he was throwing plenty of strikes, his fastball wasn't pinpoint and he caught too much plate with his slider. Today, he was better with both offerings. He moved his fastball -- which sat at about 93 and touched 96 -- around the zone, and he used his breaking ball effectively as a strikeout pitch, generating eight whiffs with his slider. A look at two strike zone plots demonstrates his improvement from last Tuesday:
(via www.brooksbaseball.net for both)
Two things strike me when looking at the charts. First, Maurer did a much better job of commanding his slider today. All of those sliders on the bottom right of the lower chart are pitches very likely to induce a swing and a miss, and he located well when he was ahead of hitters. We also see that he's able to throw strikes with the pitch early in the count, and still use it as a whiff-weapon when he had the advantage. It's a fantastic pitch and I was encouraged that he used it so effectively today.
On a more concerning note, Maurer is becoming a two-pitch pitcher. It's no secret that his fastball and slider are ahead of his other offerings but he only used his curve and change up a handful of times and he needs to work them in occasionally to avoid becoming too predictable. He's particularly in trouble with lefties long term if he can't throw a change. He barely used the pitch today, and not coincidentally, the Rangers lefties ate him up: they went 3-9 with a walk, two extra base hits, a couple of line drive outs, and zero strike outs. I'm not worried yet: Maurer has flashed a decent change up in the past and he is learning on the job at the moment. It is an issue to monitor though, and I'll bet Ron Washington stacks the lineup with lefties when Maurer meets the Rangers in Arlington next weekend.
As for the rest of the game, the Mariners pulled ahead in the bottom of the sixth after Kyle Seager, Jesus Montero, and Dustin Ackley pieced together a two run rally to pull ahead 4-3. Hopefully that was just the first of many occasions that those three contribute to a big inning this year. After the injuries to Michael Saunders and Michael Morse, it's increasingly difficult to envision the M's as a .500 team without significant help from at least two of those three (along with Justin Smoak). For one day at least, those four did their part to carry the offense.
Nobody scored after the sixth, and Tom Wilhelmsen worked a 1-2-3 ninth inning to salvage a series split with the Rangers.
- Raul Ibanez the good hit cleanup today. He went 2-4 with a bomb deep to right-center, his second homer of the campaign. I'm still not excited about having Ibanez on the roster. This bench is too thin for the M's to carry both him and Jason Bay, and when this team is at full strength, he's relegated to pinch hitting duty. That said, Ibanez isn't useless. He was good against righties last year, in 2011, and in pretty much every season before that too. Properly deployed, he can help this team win games with his bat.
- Raul Ibanez the bad played left field today. He didn't drop anything or fire a lawn dart, but he did allow Nelson Cruz to take third on a routine fly ball. True, he was running to his left, and he did have to battle the sun, but a major league outfielder shouldn't be letting a runner tag up in that situation. It wasn't a deep fly ball and even with his poor arm, Cruz would have been hosed if Ibanez had been in proper position.
- One of the most annoying things about the 2013 Mariners is how the team has a number of players who aren't just slow, but are painfully immobile. I'm not even counting Ibanez, who runs hard enough and with just enough pace to kinda sorta challenge a shortstop on a slow grounder. Montero, Smoak, Kendrys Morales, and Kelly Shoppach, though? These are some of the slowest guys in the league. The M's are going to lose a handful of runs this year on double plays and an inability to advance runners from station to station.
- Shifting gears to a player who might stand a chance in a foot race against a kindergartner, let's talk about Endy Chavez. In his first three starts, the slap-hitting lefty has shown off all of what he can do on the diamond. He's quick, he plays a decent center field, and he uses a short stroke to put the ball in play. On the year, he's now 3-12 with one strikeout and a lot of soft contact.
For better or worse, that's about all one can expect out of Chavez's bat. Nobody's going to walk him, and he doesn't have enough power to do more than leg out the occasional double. He's posted a 74 wRC+ throughout his career, and I don't see any reason to project him to top that by much this season. With that in mind, would it be to much to ask Eric Wedge to take him out of the leadoff spot in the lineup? I know the batting order doesn't matter much, but one of the few big mistakes managers can make with their lineups is placing their worst hitters at the top of the order. Chavez, for whatever else he brings, is basically Brendan Ryan at the plate and he shouldn't be leading off just because he's fast.
- Stephen Pryor exited the game in the eighth, apparently with a strained lat. We won't know more about the severity of the injury until tomorrow at the earliest. There's a chance this boils over soon: Ryan Divish suggested that it was just a cramp, and tweeted that the reliever was already feeling better after the game.
- Before he left the contest, Pryor was as impressive as he's been in a Mariner uniform. He's had control problems in the past -- it should be noted that he did walk a batter this afternoon as well -- but he threw 16 of his 28 pitches for strikes. He fanned two, generating swings and misses with both his fastball and slider. If Pryor throws strikes and stays in the upper 90's like he did today, there's no reason he can't be as good as anyone in this bullpen.
- Oliver Perez relieved Pryor and, after allowing a bloop single to David Murphy, retired Geovany Soto to extinguish the Rangers last scoring chance. Never forget how weird it is that Perez is a dependable reliever in the Mariner bullpen. In 2010 his BB/9 was a tick under 9. In 2011, he was a mediocre Double-A starter. Now, he's working out of late inning jams in the big leagues. Crazy. It's also a lesson to never give up on a good arm until he's tested as a reliever first.
Contributors: Jesus Montero (.199), Kyle Seager (.184), Stephen Pryor (.181)
Strugglers: Brandon Maurer (-.228), Jason Bay (-.109)