Let's be honest with ourselves - if we'd known ahead of time that the Mariners were going to split their first two games against New York, we would've taken it without a second thought. They may not have won the game we'd expect them to, considering who they started both nights, but that's the neat thing about baseball. Or the really aggravating thing, depending on how you look at it. The point is, tonight aside, this assclown team was still able to do something Boston couldn't in five tries. Haha.
Biggest Contribution: Chris Snelling, +1.2%
Biggest Suckfest: Felix Hernandez, -30.7%
Most Important At Bat: Beltre strikeout, -3.0%
Most Important Pitch: Cano single, -16.4%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): -30.5%
Total Contribution by Position Players: -20.2%
If only we got to face Jeff Karstens every night.
All the inexplicable good feelings I had last night leading up to the game were missing today, as I feared the worst. Both parts of the pitching matchup just seemed like they worked to the Mariners' disadvantage; Felix has the most success against aggressive lineups that chase pitches out of the zone, which the Yankees totally don't, and Wang seemed like a good bet for success since his nature as an extreme groundballer neutralized whatever kind of home run threat is posed by having Beltre/Sexson/Ibanez/Broussard in the order. When you're going up against a guy who keeps the ball on the ground, you need to work the count until you either draw a walk or get an elevated mistake that you can drive over someone's head. That's how you beat Chien-Ming Wang, but unfortunately that's also not something anyone in their right mind could reasonably expect the Mariners to do. In short, despite how much I love Felix Hernandez, and how much more talented he is than Wang, I wasn't expecting to win tonight.
...that is, unless Good Felix showed up, since when the kid's actually on his game he's positively unbeatable. Good Felix has a darting fastball that he keeps low in the zone for strikes, inducing weak grounders instead of swings and misses. As far as I was concerned, the only prayer the Mariners had tonight was riding Good Felix to a one- or two-run lead in the later innings and hoping that Putz could slam the door. The odds were slim, but if anyone on the team's capable of pulling seven or eight shutout innings out of his ass against the Yankee lineup, it's Felix, so I tuned in with fingers crossed.
And, whaddya know, that actually looked somewhat possible in the early going, as Johnny Damon and Derek Jeter led off the game with a pair of weak grounders to second. The pitches were good, the at bats were short, and the balls were weakly struck - all the signs of Good Felix were there, at least for the moment. Scholars would argue over whether or not the feeling that developed in my head was legitimate hope, but the debate was cut short when Felix lost control soon thereafter. While you couldn't blame Abreu's groundball single up the middle on Felix, the two walks that followed were most definitely his fault, so in a way he deserved the two-run single that sneaked into center field off the bat of Robinson Cano. Jorge Posada grounded out to end the inning, but as has been the case on countless occasions this season, Felix had allowed a few runs in the blink of an eye, and the Mariners faced an uphill battle.
Last night Dave and I talked a little bit about what it'd be like if a manager used five infielders and two outfielders when he had an extreme groundballer on the mound. We weren't really being serious at the time, but the more you think about it, the more it makes sense. The first inning tonight is really what brought the idea to the forefront of my mind - if Hargrove had an extra man playing either inside of or really close to the infield, Felix could've escaped the inning unscathed, because each of the hits were grounders right up the middle. Put another glove behind second base and it's a scoreless frame. We've seen a million of those seeing-eye singles get through to the outfield against him all year, and maybe it's time for a creative solution.
Now, there are much better ways to perform this analysis, but let's try a little simple math. According to The Hardball Times 2006 Baseball Annual, 74.8% of groundballs get turned into outs. Add another infielder and you can get that up to ~85-90%, a difference of at least one or two baserunners a game for a guy who generates as many groundballs as Felix does. That's pretty significant. According to the same book, 87.2% of outfield fly balls get turned into outs. Subtract an outfielder, play the two remaining guys in the gaps, and that probably goes down to roughly 65% or so, a difference of about one baserunner a game (again, for Felix).
So you see what I'm getting at. This setup would leave you more vulnerable to triples, and you'd need to have two athletic outfielders to make it work (say, Ichiro and Bohn), but in the realm of the entirely hypothetical, it's gotta be worth a shot, right? Particularly when the team isn't playing for anything anymore, and Hargrove's just trying to build up his resume for his next job interview. You could even customize it for each at bat - use five infielders against an extreme groundballer like Derek Jeter, then push the extra guy back into the outfield when Jason Giambi drags his penchant for greasy fly balls to the plate. You see, it even allows for the constant managerial tinkering that's defined Hargrove's entire career. At worst, the strategy would generate interest and publicity; at best, it would become a valuable tool for helping Felix keep guys off the bases.
Oh yeah, and it'd work even better for Chien-Ming Wang, who gets more grounders than Felix does. He began the game appropriately enough, getting Ichiro to ground out softly on the first pitch, bringing Chris Snelling to the plate. Now, remember what we said about the way to beat Wang - work the count until he either walks you or leaves a ball too far up. Looking at tonight's batting order, Snelling was pretty much the only guy who had even a 5% chance of following the game plan, and sure enough, his first at bat lasted eight pitches before he pulled a sharp single into right. Much like Mark Teahen in Kansas City, Snelling sticks out in this lineup because he's so completely unlike everyone else; he actually takes pitches and has an idea of what he wants to do with the ball depending on where it's thrown, as opposed to the "swing at everything and try to pull it if you can" approach to which we've become far too accustomed. His value to the team isn't just as a solid bat, but as a solid bat capable of actually wearing down a pitcher and drawing a walk. Getting on base (or avoiding outs) is the primary goal of any hitter, and I'd be willing to bet that Snelling's already better at that than anyone else on the team, save for Ichiro when he's going well (which he isn't).
So, after Snelling demonstrated to more than 41,000 people how Wang could be defeated, Adrian Beltre looked at two pitches near the belt and swung through two more before Richie Sexson bounced out on a 1-0 sinker below the knees to end the inning. Already you could tell that it was just going to be another one of those games where the Mariners go up hacking because they're afraid to get two strikes. Edgar Martinez must be rolling in his grave. (Of retirement.)
Felix wouldn't allow anyone else to score in the second or third innings as he looked to be settling into a groove. A couple cheap singles put him in a jam, but he got Derek Jeter to roll over on a pitch for an inning-ending double play. He also struck out Craig Wilson, Jason Giambi, and Jorge Posada swinging in the span of six batters, which is no small task. His curveball was all over the place, but it was consistently low and had enough sharp break to induce a bunch of awkward swings. That was the good news. The bad news was that Wang was also cruising, extending his streak to eight consecutive batters retired with a 1-2-3 third despite falling behind all three batters he faced in the inning. The bats very clearly weren't interested in showing up tonight.
Which brought us to the fourth, one of the more unpleasant innings I've watched all year. From the get-go Felix's delivery was inconsistent, alternating between that of Good Felix and Bad Felix literally from pitch to pitch. The consequence was that his command was off - again - and that just doesn't bode well against this kind of lineup. Cano worked a four-pitch walk, and so began our misery; seven of nine batters reached in the inning before Felix was yanked from a 7-0 ballgame. His pitches weren't elevated, and nobody really beat the crap out of the ball, but the Yankees were taking advantage of his mistakes by either walking or lining the ball to the right side. If this were a one-time thing I'd write it off as bad luck, but we've seen opposing teams nickel-and-dime Felix to death all year, and at some point you have to consider that the guy on the hill may be to blame. Don't get me wrong, Felix certainly wasn't getting any good bounces tonight, and overall he's done a good job of eliminating the home run problem in the second half, but he didn't pitch well at all. Come-and-go command just continues to be his Achilles' heel, and until he straightens that out by maintaining a consistent delivery, he's going to have too many starts like this one against lineups that don't offer at pitches out of the zone.
Felix's exit prompted many to switch off the game, as Joel Pineiro jogged his sorry ass to the mound. There was really nothing to look forward to, as far as his appearance was concerned; his stuff's still the same, we're not going to need him for a playoff push down the stretch, and he won't be back in 2007. And yet, if nothing else, it didn't take long before I noticed a difference in his delivery. The image file's too big to post on the main page, but you can see it here; the three on top are from a start in Boston a few months ago, while the three on bottom are from tonight. The thing that stands out is that, where Joel used to "pitch uphill" by lowering his right shoulder and raising his glove, today he was much more level, bringing the ball forward in a straight line, rather than around as an arc. He also lowered his arm slot from being pretty overhand to a much more standard 45-degree angle. In theory, the effects of this change would be twofold: (1) better control, since by eliminating the arc, he's minimizing the forces that push the ball away from the driveline, and (2) two-dimensional movement, rather than the strictly up-and-down stuff he featured from an overhand slot. We've always known Joel as a guy who threw a decent 12-6 curveball, but as long as he's throwing like this, that pitch is going to be more like a 2-8 or 3-9.
Why did Joel change his delivery? I can't say for sure, although "he sucks" probably isn't too bad of a guess. All things considered, he didn't do that poorly when you remember that two of the four walks he issued were intentional. MLB.tv wasn't giving me any graphics, so I don't know if he gained any velocity, but a general rule of thumb is that pitchers become more effective when they switch from starting to relieving, and early indications are that Joel is no exception. Mind you, the new delivery makes a straight comparison between Today Joel and Before Today Joel nearly impossible, but we can only go with what we've got, so there.
While Joel did whatever it is he was doing on the mound, Wang continued to give the Mariners fits, with a ground-rule double by Sexson being the only ball that was legitimately crushed. The lineup staged a little rally in the seventh when they trimmed the lead to 7-2 and put two on for Kenji Johjima, but a quick groundout ended the threat and reminded us that, despite the signs of life, it was still a five-run game. To top it all off, Joel promptly gave the two runs right back minutes later, and for all intents and purposes the game was over. Because of that fact I wasn't too upset when Mike Hargrove pinch-hit TJ Bohn for Chris Snelling against a lefty again. Facing Mike Myers was pretty much the perfect opportunity for the rookie to reach base for the first time in what's going to be a remarkably brief ML career, since Myers can't pitch to righties for beans and has only struck them out at a 7.8% clip since 2003, but Bohn still found a way to whiff. I wonder how many more times this has to happen before Hargrove starts leaving Snelling alone.
All told, it was a poor effort. Chien-Ming Wang, with the lowest strikeout rate of any qualified starter in baseball, fanned five in seven innings and got 12 swinging strikes on 90 pitches, where the league average would've been around 8, and someone of Wang's caliber would've been around 4. The Mariners swung themselves into outs all night long, and thanks to a lousy performance by a guy everyone was relying on to be the staff ace, the game got out of hand in a hurry. Honestly, after the fifth and sixth runs crossed the plate, there was just no reason to keep watching.
Randy Johnson and Jarrod Washburn tomorrow at 7:05pm PDT. Washburn's got the better ERA, but xFIP tells us that RJ's been almost a full run better this year. Factoring in the two lineups they'll be facing, this one's got the potential to be ugly, although after tonight I'm not sure it can really get much worse. Predicted home runs: Jason Giambi (several times) and Eduardo Perez (once). Be there.