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The Odds May Be Against Luke French

Yeah, I know, Luke French just spun seven solid innings against the Twins this afternoon. But he spun seven solid innings against a Twins lineup without Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Jim Thome. It's fair to say they kind of turned down the dimmer switch.

Anyway, when the Mariners traded Jarrod Washburn last summer, Mauricio Robles was the hotshot young prospect coming back, but Luke French also seemed to have some potential as a steady back-of-the-rotation starter. After a series of unimpressive seasons in the minors, French had turned it up in 2009, and the pitch he credited was a new, improved slider. In large part because of the slider, French saw his minor league K/9 hop from 4.7 to 7.9 despite a jump to AAA, and he'd also managed to strike out 19 batters in 29.1 innings with Detroit. Because of the slider, French turned himself into an interesting young piece.

Then 2010 rolled along, and French reported to AAA Tacoma. He was able to maintain a nice ERA all season, and he finished his PCL campaign at 2.94. However, his strikeouts dropped back to 5.0, which was troubling, to say the least. And so far with the Mariners, we've only seen 22 strikeouts over 52.1 innings. While watching him pitch, I also noticed that I wasn't seeing many sliders. I had to wonder - had something happened to the pitch that put French on the map?

Something most certainly has happened. French is deliberately throwing it less often.

This season, French has made an effort to change his approach to pitching and to the change-up. He’s embraced the idea of "pitching to contact" that former Mariners pitching coach Rick Adair preached.
"I don’t remember who said it to me, but it was something like, ‘A slider isn’t a pitch that’s put in play very often,’ " he said. "So I can sit here and try to throw pitches with the slider and it’s not a put-it-in-play pitch. The way I pitch, I want them to put the ball in play. I want them to hit it. I want to get them out in the first couple pitches.

Now, a comparison:

Pitch 2009 2010
Fastball% 59.7% 67.1%
Changeup% 16.5% 25.7%
Slider% 23.7% 7.2%

A year ago, in the Majors, three-fifths of French's pitches were fastballs, and of the other two, he preferred the slider. This year, his fastballs are up to two-thirds, and his changeup is also way up, at the expense of his slider. Where, in 2009, French might've averaged a slider per at bat, now he's averaging more like a slider per inning.

And he's not striking anyone out. He didn't strike anyone out in Tacoma, and he's predictably struck out even fewer hitters in the bigs. It's at this point that I tell you that French's contact rate on his slider last season was 61.6%.

61.6%. Batters took 151 swings at his slider, and 58 of them missed. That pitch - that's a legitimate weapon. That's a pitch you use to dominate same-handed hitters, and a pitch you use to give guys on the opposite side another look.

And now that weapon's been largely fazed out so French can throw more of his fastball - which is bad - and his changeup - which is okay, but not Jason Vargas level, and certainly not Jamie Moyer level. I don't dislike Luke French's changeup. It's a Major League pitch. It's just not good enough to be someone's go-to choice. Luke French's changeup is a pitch you throw when you don't want to throw your best one.

I'm never big on the chances of a pitch-to-contact starter succeeding. I'm even more bearish when the pitch-to-contact starter rarely generates a groundball. And it's just annoying when a pitch-to-contact starter decides to be a pitch-to-contact starter when he doesn't necessarily have to be. That slider is in there somewhere. It isn't a great pitch, and it isn't a pitch that's ever going to send Luke French to the Hall of Fame, but it's the best pitch he throws. And he's practically avoiding it.

I get that Luke French made an All-Star team and posted a sub-three ERA pitching like this. That's great news for his 2011 baseball card. It could, however, be lousy news for his baseball cards further in the future. That's just reinforcing a pitching style that's going to make it really hard for him to have sustained success at the Major League level.

I hope French makes this work, because he's a Mariner, and I want all the best for the Mariners. But you can go ahead and color me skeptical. What made Luke French interesting a year ago was a newfound slider that let him miss a lot of bats. Without those missed bats, he's a worse Ryan Feierabend.

It's interesting that French and Brandon League joined the organization with one standout weapon that they now seldom throw.