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Darren McCaughan is, at worst, interesting

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Technically, it’s possible that he’s interesting and not good

MLB: JUL 21 Mariners at Rockies Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One of the bigger surprises of the MLB season has been the Seattle Mariners. Despite ranking in the bottom-10 in run differential, the Mariners have found themselves in the thick of the AL Wild Card race. They’ve done this with an elite bullpen that ranks second in WAR and by being the best hitters in high leverage situations in baseball. Their starting pitching hasn’t been much, and their bats have been even lesser. So if they want to have any shot at the postseason, they’re going to need to get some more out of their starters and hitters.

On the hitting side, there are reinforcements on the way. Jake Fraley is only a few days away from returning from the COVID-IL, while Kyle Lewis is apparently nearing some light work, hitting off of a tee and playing soft toss. That should do a lot to lengthen the lineup. A bigger question mark, though, is what the team is going to do in the stead of Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield. For now, it seems that the plan is Darren McCaughan. The Mariners should probably make a deadline move for a starter, but McCaughan could be a stronger option than one might think.

I didn’t get to actually watch the game in real-time, so when I saw that the Mariners had called up a Triple-A pitcher that I’d never heard of, I expected a crummy outing — especially in Colorado. When I saw that he sits short of 89 mph with his sinker, I further disregarded the game and chalked it up as a loss mentally. Then I saw the box score. Five innings, one run, three walks, no strikeouts. Had it not been for Keynan Middleton’s five-run first inning, we probably would have seen McCaughan walk away with a win in his major league debut.

What struck me about McCaughan’s debut is that he threw 61 pitches, and yet he only induced one whiff. One whiff! Here it is:

It might look like Sam Hilliard makes contact, but Tom Murphy just doesn’t catch the ball. Hilliard flings his bat down the first-base side towards the dugout, and McCaughan nets himself a swinging strike — the only one he would get. As you might imagine, McCaughan didn’t throw strikes particularly well, as he posted a 21% CSW on the day. The way that he mitigated any runs or hits on the day wasn’t by racking up strikes, but inducing weak contact. McCaughan allowed 14 balls into play. None of them were barreled.

McCaughan’s day wasn’t quite unprecedented, but it was rather rare. Only 15 other pitchers this season had thrown 50 pitches and only generated one swinging strike. That is, until McCaughan tacked on another. That’s not so much a thing to flaunt as something that’s awfully impressive. McCaughan managed to have such a good day despite allowing a ton of balls in play at Coors Field. And perhaps there’s something to that.

There’s a reason that McCaughan intrigues me, and it’s that he’s a seam-shifted wake darling. Consider the difference in his spin upon release, and when his pitches arrive at the plate:

sinker = light blue, slider = tan

I know that this isn’t the easiest chart to read. One chart includes spin rate, and one includes distance. It’s also from the catcher’s perspective, which is wildly unhelpful. For our purposes, what matters is the position of the respective pitches as it pertains to the time on a clock face, or as the degrees listed. For starters, McCaughan’s sinker comes out of his hand with its spin tilt at about 203-degrees, or at 12:45 on a clock. When it arrives at the plate, though, its tilt is at about 235-degrees, or 2:00 on a clock. This means that McCaughan’s sinker moves much more to his arm-side than you would anticipate given its spin on release. That can be awfully tricky for hitters.

Perhaps it’s why Brendan Rodgers (sort of) offered at this 0-0 pitch:

Or why C.J. Cron couldn’t do much with this sinker:

Or perhaps why Trevor Story swung at this pitch:

That last one? Story is probably just protecting in a 2-2 count. And Cron’s batted ball could just be a typical mishit. But in general, McCaughan’s sinker might have the potential to give hitters fits, even at 88 mph. He can run it in on righties’ hands, and he can front door it against lefties. There are many ways to be a deceptive pitcher. Sometimes it’s by arm slot. Sometimes it’s a little funk in the delivery. For McCaughan, it’s seam-shifted wake. And it might help his sinker be a legitimate barrel suppressor.

Then there’s his slider. If you want to scroll back up, you’re free to do so. But if you don’t, I’ll make it easy on you. At release, McCaughan’s slider is released with a 9:30 spin direction, with its tilt at 102-degrees. But when it arrives at the plate, it’s changed to an 8:00 spin direction, and its tilt at 72-degrees. So while his sinker is actually more to his arm-side than his release spin suggests, his slider is spinning down to his glove-side more than a hitter would think. It’s a tough look as a hitter. That isn’t to say that he’s alone in benefiting from the effects of seam-shifted wake on his pitches. In fact, the spin of his sinker and slider are awfully similar to another seam-shifted wake guy in Spencer Turnbull. But it does seem like there’s a path for some level of success.

Here’s a good example of how he can weaponize his slider:

Back door, called strike. That’s a pretty tough way to start off an at-bat. It seems plausible that his slider can be used like so to steal strikes, but it has just as much utility as a pitch to run off the plate and induce weak contact.

He does that here, against Cron:

And then again, against Story:

Both are good hitters, and yet both are coaxed into routine ground balls by McCaughan’s slider, diving out of the zone. There’s a part of me that thinks this can work. I think it’s reasonable to think that McCaughan’s sliders change their spin direction just enough to throws off Cron and Story, inducing their groundouts. Maybe it was just his day. Maybe it wasn’t their day! Who’s to say?

There’s an argument to be made that, as the worst hitting team in baseball, the Rockies are the sole reason that McCaughan managed a decent line. Even Story has mustered just an 84 wRC+ this season, and he’s been one of the most productive hitters in MLB for half a decade. Cron represents the lone above-average hitter on the team. It’s fair to think.

I suppose I should clarify that, for me, McCaughan is more charming than compelling. There’s something exciting about pitchers making it work with stuff that seems underwhelming. They’re the reason I love writing about baseball. So I concede that I’m indulging in some wishful thinking, but it’s not outlandish to think that McCaughan can hack it for a handful of starts. Crazier things have certainly happened.

On Wednesday, Darren McCaughan made his major league debut against the worst hitting team in baseball. It doesn’t get cushier than that. Tonight, he’s set to make his start during his turn in the rotation, this time against the best hitting team in baseball. It remains to be seen how he’ll fare, but lucky for him, expectations aren’t very high. If he pulls it off, McCaughan might be a legitimate short-term option. But if he gets touched up like he probably should, then the Mariners will probably need to use the trade deadline to figure out another solution.