Second Thoughts Game #42: Oakland 11, Cleveland 1
"The direful spring of woes unnumber'd: heavenly goddess, sing!"
To the surprise of all who watched Friday's Cleveland baseball tribulation, it might come as a surprise that this excerpt of Alexander Pope's translation of the Iliad referred to Achilles' wrath rather than Friday's 11-1 rout at the hands of the Athletics. Yet each of the baseball calamities in Friday's game has Homeric parallels - for instance, one might generally note that the Iliad concluding well before Troy falls coincides with the fact that very few fans of the Cleveland ballclub likely watched the game's conclusion. What follows are more parallels, exploring the absurd contours of an absurd game.
Zach McAllister's Start
Homeric Parallel: The Withdrawal of Achilles
The wrath of Achilles - the wrath of being dishonored - prompted the Greek warrior to withdraw and prompted a series of curses from Thetis and Zeus, leading to terrible casualties for Greece, in turn beginning all the other suffering that would ensue.
Similarly, it was the struggles of Zach McAllister that made the night problematic from the very outset. Entering the game with a tremendously low Home Run per Fly Ball rate of 1.9% (league average hovers around 10%), the author certainly regarded McAllister as a regression candidate, given that extreme high or low HR/FB rates are not frequently repeated. For reference, the lowest HR/FB ratio in an ERA-qualifying season since the beginning of the stat's tracking was 3.7%. Regression was inevitable, particularly with a season-to-date fastball heat map like the following:
Source: Brooks Baseball
Entirely unexpected was a regression quite this harsh, given that McAllister swung from a season HR/FB of 1.9% to a game HR/FB of 100.00%. Retrospectively, it seems an easy observation to make, that someone who works the center of the zone as often as McAllister would be susceptible to home runs, but therein lies the danger of allowing superficial results to cloud perception. If one wants to believe McAllister's xFIP, a peripheral, skill-based stat that clearly indicated negative regression, is flawed, one can come up with any number of explanations for it. Zach McAllister's start on Friday night serves as a reminder that peripheral stats, like xFIP, exist for a reason - to explain how much of a pitcher's success is skill-based, how much is defense-based, and how much is as a result of fate's whimsy.
This start, despite allowing three walks, two home runs, and eight runs in 1.1 IP, does not imply that Zach McAllister has a home run problem. Equally important to recognize is that, previous to tonight, McAllister never had preternatural home run prevention abilities, either. Z-Mac is approximately an average major league starter pitching in front of the league's worst defense. He's an entirely average pitcher - which is a valuable part of a major league rotation. It just so happens that, on this night, an average major league pitcher put up a performance that led to the desolation of the Greek army. Figuratively.
The Travails of the Bullpen
Homeric Parallel: Hector Falls to Achilles
The story of Hector was that of a condemned man. The Trojan equivalent of Achilles in both stature and fate, Hector - like Achilles - had been fated to die on the battlefield, a predestination that colors the reader's perception of the Trojan hero.
Similarly, the bullpen's performance was entirely valiant but gloomily predestined for failure. In the second inning, left-handed relief pitcher Kyle Crockett, who has received extensive coverage on this site, made his major league debut, making him the first 2013 draftee to appear in the majors for any club. As appeared to be a rite of passage on Friday, however, Crockett allowed a home run and a walk in his 1.1 IP of work. Nevertheless, Friday was certainly not the worst game for call-up nerves to play themselves out.
C.C. Lee and Josh Outman, likewise, allowed no runs in their respective 1.0 and 1.1 IP of work, the former with two walks and a strikeout, the latter with an entirely blank stat line. Yet most compelling was Carlos Carrasco's vain struggle against a predestined loss. As the game progressed, and after three innings without an appearance from the - nominal - long man, questions arose as to whether Carrasco would be permitted to see the field at all.
At the beginning of the fifth inning, however, Carlos Carrasco took the mound, posting a reasonably impressive performance in an unreasonably unimpressive game. Over four innings pitched, Carrasco struck out five, walked none, and allowed two runs on a home run in four innings pitched. Sabery types like the author would regard that line as a successful performance - although, like Hector's, an ultimately futile one.
The Wroth Sonny Gray
Homeric Parallel: Achilles enters the battle after the death of Patroklos
When Achilles does rejoin the fighting, it becomes clear that, favored by the gods and unparalleled among mortals in terms of strength, Achilles is without peer. In the effort to reclaim the body of his beloved Patroklos, Achilles single-handedly instigates a great slaughter of the Trojans.
Wholly less violent but no less one-sided was the mastery of the Cleveland offense by Sonny Gray. While he was imperfect, allowing three walks and a first-inning solo home run to Nick Swisher, his nine strikeouts were sufficient to hold the Indians to only two hits over six innings. Sonny Gray, likely, was wroth with Swisher, who grievously robbed the Oakland pitcher of a baseball in the first inning. It would be the only run the Indians would score over the course of the game, much as the Trojan advances made before death of Patroklos would be the decisive chance for Troy to push the Greek armies to defeat.
Ominously, Achilles is told that he will emerge victoriously but at the cost of his own life. If the parallel holds, Oakland must beware the safety of Sonny Gray's UCL, else Dr. James Andrews's diagnosis serve the same purpose as Paris's arrow to Achilles' heel: the sole weak point on a pitcher who, on Friday, appeared peerless.
John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimm. He can also be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The ongoing flurry of errors and the lack of clutch hitting is designed to convince the rest of the AL that the Tribe sucks and is not a threat to advance to the playoffs. But at some point the Tribe will spring the trap.
I'll say this - they're doing a great job of convincing the Trojans that they are sailing back to Greece.
A way to explain this dissonance was simply to dismiss the relationship, to say that the numbers didn't capture Carrasco's hothead mentality, and that he would always run a substantial gap between K% and SwStr%.
However, the explanation that was popular among certain FanGraphs writers, Eno Sarris and Mike Podhorzer, for instance, was that Swinging Strike rate is the driver, and that a high SwStr% would lead to a high K% - this, for them, was a major reason to believe Carrasco's K rate would normalize.
What has happened this season? Carrasco's K rate has fallen in line with his Swinging Strike rate. Despite the objections that SwStr% wouldn't lead to strikeouts in Carrasco's particular case, it turns out that in the end, it actually *did* predict Carrasco's current above-average strikeout rate.
I suspect the same thing's going on with his xFIP. His xFIP is average-to-above-average. His ERA isn't. We can simply grant that xFIP doesn't capture Carrasco's head problems, or we can learn from what the convergence of Carrasco's SwStr%/K% have taught us: that peripheral stats (SwStr%, xFIP) DO predict superficial result stats (K%, ERA).
I'm in the latter category. Learn from the lessons of the past, is my approach.
As for Zach Mac, the guy is a bona fide major league starter, he just unravelled out there in the second inning. Looked like he couldn't get a good physical or mental grip in the raw weather and he wasn't getting the sharp downward bite that makes him so effective, and the A's do have some thumpers. Reddick is a low ball hitter and the pitches he went to deep on were right where he likes them- I don't know that the Indians coaches, pitchers and catchers are discussing strengths and weakness in opposing hitters enough before the games. Watching him and Salazar pitch on consec turns it seems they both were pitching from a wack'em and stack 'em mindset- trying to strike'em all out because the offense is weak and the defense is bad. After the game I looked at the defensive team stats. The Indians have committed 40 errors- most in the majors including Houston and 25% more than their nearest AL rival Oakland. Doesn't exactly make you want to pitch to contact. The A's broadcasters were unkind to the Indians front office- said they mistook their over-achievement last year for talent and did absolutely nothing in the off-season to improve the team. Lumped them together with Pittsburgh in that regard.
He throws offspeed/breaking stuff - always has - but, by process of elimination, throws them less than 25% of the time combined. I suspect he can't consistently throw either for strikes. Change hovers at 75% out-of-zone, Slider around 66% out-of-zone.
"Can't throw 'em for strikes? Don't throw 'em" appears to be the order of the day for Z-Mac.
I remember on your site when we acquired McCallister for Kearns, that your scouting report had him with a solid four-pitch mix. However, it seems over the last 2 years, all he ever throws are fastballs. I know he gained some velocity on the fastball after he came here, but did he just lose confidence in his other 3 pitches? Starting pitchers just can't rely on a fastball (see Salazar) so I guess I am just curious why he doesn't throw off-speed despite the scouting reports from the trade.