It is a crummy day outside after a delicious taste of pre-summer weather on Saturday. The Mariners aren't playing to distract us for the 15 minutes it takes to realize that the team isn't going to suddenly and magically regress all at once. The Rainiers cannot score either. It is easy to get down with the Mariner doldrums.
Jeff just posted about some of the biggest disappointments welcoming 2011 into the record books. This is not meant to counter that. Make no mistake that this is a bad team playing badly. However, there have been some positives and with the sniper scope focus needed to keep away the bad thoughts, I went digging for anything remotely resembling an encouraging sign. First, I need to issue an important warning.
Do not gloss over this paragraph. This season is early and the following player is a pitcher. Pitchers are subject to a lot of variation in their numbers and take quite a while before we can say things with confidence about how they are performing. Furthermore, this is a relief pitcher so it's even more wild. He has faced 46 batters. What you are about to read are not statements of certainty. I would not even call them conclusions. They are simply investigations into early season numbers and possible, possible!, drivers behind them. Heed this warning and go forth only if ye be not dim.
Aaron Laffey did not arrive in the Seattle blogosphere with much fanfare. Most of us didn't like the trade when it was announced even though we didn't know who was going to Cleveland in exchange. Aaron Laffey was so lackluster that even getting him for free was viewed with distrust. More people were worried about Laffey soaking up an undeserved amount of innings than they were about what he could add to the team.
Those people weren't really wrong. Laffey was boring and bore too similar a numerical appearance to Horacio Ramirez for any of us to be truly pleased about his acquisition, even if Matt Lawson isn't even composed of the same sort of organic material* as Rafael Soriano.
*Matt Lawson is made entirely of 100% recyclable Minor League infielders.
Laffey has been a surprise so far this season though and not the bad kind of surprise like when your dickish friends throw you a surprise birthday party but instead of balloons, cake and presents it's just spiders and Styrofoam peanuts everywhere. No, Laffey's been one of those good surprises like when you're putting on that light spring jacket you haven't worn in months and find delicious ice cream in the pocket that you forgot about. How has this happened?
The first guess might be that he's facing more left-handers. Laffey has been a starter most of his career and given a chance to focus and be deployed exclusively as a reliever we could rightfully expect Laffey to face more left-handers this season than in years past. That has not been the case to date. Laffey has faced about 30% lefties compared to a career mark of 29%. He's also not throwing any faster or throwing anything new so it does not appear to product of different match ups or different stuff.
What has happened is that hitters have taken a different approach to facing Laffey. They are swinging at his pitches in the strike zone far more often than previously. They're missing a little more frequently as well, but Major League hitters don't miss hitting strikes all that often. This could be causing at bats to terminate quicker. Coming into this year Aaron Laffey needed an average of 3.7 pitches per plate appearance. He has used just 3.3 so far in 2011, a sizeable downgrade. Hitters haven't stuck around long enough to work a walk. Will that continue? Who knows; it's 46 batters, stupid.
Another good sign is a higher ground ball rate from a guy who was already holding his own in that regard. We are treading on even shakier ground here with a smaller sample size, but there is pitch data that might explain the movement. Pitch F/X is recording the average Aaron Laffey pitch at about two inches lower than his previous career average. Again, this could be an early season number mirage. It could be a purposeful attempt. It could be Pitch F/X error. It could even be unrelated to the extra ground balls. I will refer you to the very important third paragraph.
Stripping away the qualification language for a moment, there are two noticeable differences in Aaron Laffey's per pitch numbers. Hitters are swinging more often at his strikes and his pitches are located a little bit lower. Those could be motivating the drop in walks and rise in ground balls. They might not. Either way, Aaron Laffey has, so far, been not as bad as we anticipated and hooray for that.