Baseball Savant does a fun thing for game recaps these days. When a bit of hard contact is given up by a pitcher, a little flame emoji appears next to their line in the box score. A new flame appears for each instance of hot contact. It’s hard to avoid hard hit balls entirely when you’re playing against MLB hitters, and hard contact isn’t the end-all be-all since it can be wasted if it’s just hit hard into the ground, but it’s usually a good sign when the flames are absent and a troublesome one when they start to look like a firewall. Today the latter happened, and boy howdy did it show.
While opener Cory Gearrin got things off to an inauspicious start Wade LeBlanc baked a full shepherd’s pie of struggle into his 4.1 IP as the headliner, two of Seattle’s rookie bullpen arms had sharp outings. They held the line to give Seattle’s bats a shot at a comeback, which Matt Magill would ultimately fumble away, but before I get back to that, I want to look at something interesting in those rookies. The “how” is even more important than the “what”.
Reggie McClain and Taylor Guilbeau represent a dramatic shift in personnel that is upcoming for the Mariners in the bullpen over the next couple years. The team is only now fully flushing from its system the failed efforts of 2016-17 to build a cheap, fly ball-inducing pitching staff around their aging stars that could survive thanks to spacious née Safeco Field. This year’s club is smack dab in the middle: a 43.0% groundball rate which is 15th in MLB. In 2018, they were just a tick lower, with the 21st-highest GB% at 42.5%. In 2017, however, they were 29th, with a 40.3% GB%, and the increasingly juiced baseball ate them alive.
Now, with McClain and Guilbeau already churning grounders just as they have through the minors. Though they’re currently on the IL, Rule-5 pick Brandon Brennan and Hubba Bubba enthusiast Austin Adams share that proclivity for getting dirt-based contact. The high-minors are brimming with these same types: Jack Anderson, Art Warren, Wyatt Mills, Aaron Fletcher, and even minor league free agents who have made significant adjustments like Aaron Northcraft and current bullpen occupant Zac Grotz.
The Mariners are getting grounders from their bullpen, and will continue to get more and more for the foreseeable future. That might’ve been a horrifying thought in April, but with Tim Beckham replaced by J.P. Crawford and Ryon Healy relieved by Kyle Seager, that’s a recipe for run prevention. That’s true in the macro, as we’ll hopefully be privy to seeing over the next several seasons, but also in the micro, as it made a big difference in a key moment today.
With the bases loaded and one out in the 6th inning, Seattle called upon the rookie McClain to escape a jam. Despite his inexperience, he’s a good fit for the job thanks to his aforementioned groundball-inducing abilities. He got a weak chopper that Kevin Kiermaier beat out to score a run on a fielder’s choice, then brought about another to end the inning with Seager’s diving stop.
It wouldn’t be enough, ultimately, but the offense wasn’t to blame. In a game that felt like a return to April’s high-scoring both ways style, most of the offense had a highlight. J.P. Crawford blazed around the bases for a triple, smacked a double, and in general looked like the above-average player he seems to already be. Omar Narváez reminded us Tom Murphy isn’t the only offensively-gifted backstop the M’s have. Daniel Vogelbach got jammed and still hit a dome-scraping homer. Austin Nola and debut boy Jake Fraley can compare shiners on the flight back to Seattle for their HBPs. Mallex Smith had a key RBI triple in the 9th to drive in the then-go-ahead run. It was a smorgasbord of little moments that made for a six-run night by the bats.
It wasn’t enough, and Matt Magill can tell you why.
Seattle intentionally walked pinch-hitter Ji-Man Choi and brought in a 5th infielder in Dylan Moore, but unless they stuck him in the Rays batter’s box (which would be a balk in high school but simply subject to chastisement and eventual ejection in the bigs) it wouldn’t have mattered. Magill spiked a breaking ball and Omar Narváez offered a feeble block attempt, giving Willy Adames plenty of time to waltz home.
As walk-off losses go, it was hardly gutting - the team competed because its consequential players kept them competitive, against Cy Young candidate Charlie Morton no less. A day off tomorrow before the Blue Jays, Justus Sheffield, and, on Saturday, King Félix come to town.