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The Mariners vs Lance McCullers and curveballs

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The Mariners are very bad at hitting curveballs, Lance McCullers is very good at throwing them, so how was last night not a total disaster?

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

We, as Mariners fans, are so overwhelmingly fortunate to have the broadcast team that we do. At any given point, whether you’re tuning in to the radio or color commentary, you’re getting quality insight, entertaining stories, and calls that give you chills. Last night it was Mike Blowers and Aaron Goldsmith in the TV booth and at the start of the second inning the camera panned over to Edgar Martinez, and Blowers mentioned something interesting - that Edgar had been working with the team on a different approach against Lance McCullers, Jr.

It’s still a relatively small sample size, but the Mariners have, historically, struggled mightily when facing the Astros young right-hander.

In both his mini-series preview and at Fangraphs last month, Jake Mailhot wrote about how McCullers, once an icon of Houston’s breaking-ball-focused rotation, has altered his usage of the curveball and the changeup now figures more prominently in his repertoire. This seemed to bode well for the Mariners, since that curve had wreaked havoc on them since McCullers’ debut. Really, though McCullers’ curve is elite, it’s actually not all that special in the way it stymies M’s hitters - this season the Mariners have been overwhelmingly abysmal at hitting curveballs, period. We’re talking just-barely-better-than-the-Marlins abysmal.

True to both McCullers’ form and the Mariners’, the M’s didn’t start hitting the curve until their third time through the lineup- when McCullers has traditionally struggled, as Jake pointed out.

It seems unlikely that Edgar’s grand plan for success against McCullers was to wave a magic wand over this team and teach them how to hit scary bendy pitches, but if I were to hazard a guess, it seems as though the starting lineup, at least the first two times through the order, had been encouraged to consistently take the first pitch and, if that failed, to jump on McCullers early to avoid letting him get into a deep count. In fact, just six in McCullers’ six innings did the Mariners swing at the first pitch, and all but two of those swings resulted in hits.

We saw this with Dee Gordon’s leadoff double:

And Jean Segura’s single:

And Mitch Haniger’s follow-up single:

And, yes, Denard Span’s home run:

In fact, the only two other hits that McCullers allowed came from Ryon Healy’s 0-2 single and Nelson Cruz’s 1-0 home run.

It’s unlikely that we’ll ever get confirmation about exactly how Edgar sought to change the team’s approach against Lance McCullers and his Mariner-mystifying curveball of doom, but this take-early, pounce-early approach was a success. Yesterday was just the third time in McCullers’ career that he allowed more than three earned runs against Seattle so, perhaps, we’ll see more of this the next time they face off against each other.