The All-Star break and the trade deadline are in the rearview mirror and the we've hit the dog days of summer. We're in crunch time now. We've reached the second half of the regular season and the postseason races are starting to heat up.
Our weekly series examining various trends across the league continues with a look at the most clutch team in baseball, a pitcher who is struggling since the foreign substance crackdown, and a young pitcher with a new-ish pitch. Last week we looked at the 162-game "season" since Opening Day 2020.
The clutch Mariners
At 58-50, the Mariners are two games behind the second wild card spot despite a minus-48 run differential. Run differential says they "deserve" something closer to a 49-59 record. Instead, they are 58-50 and in the hunt for their first postseason berth in a generation. In the end, only actual wins and losses matter. Not run differential or expected record.
"Just so you know I don't really look at (run differential)," Mariners manager Scott Servais told reporters, including The Athletic's Corey Brock, earlier this month. "... I understand why people look at it, but the coaches, myself, players, we don't look at it. We're focused on winning every series and go into every game thinking this is what gives us the best chance to win. I think we've done an excellent job of staying in the moment, not getting ahead of ourselves."
There is not one specific reason why the Mariners have outperformed their run differential so significantly. It's a combination of things. For starters, Seattle is not a good offensive team -- the Mariners are averaging 4.26 runs per game, 11th fewest in baseball -- but they have been outrageously good with runners in scoring position. Their numbers going into Tuesday:
|Bases empty||Runners in scoring position|
.199 (30th in MLB)
.268 (4th in MLB)
With the bases empty the Mariners are the worst offensive team in baseball across the board. Once you put ducks on the pond though, they suddenly transform into one of the best offenses in the game. They've hit for average and power with runners in scoring position despite not doing that at all in all other situations. It's pretty remarkable, really.
"Runners in scoring position" can be misleading because it lacks context, such as the score or the game situation. It's better to look at high-leverage stats, which includes those important factors. As a team, the Mariners are hitting .281/.353/.492 (129 OPS+) in high-leverage situations. They rank second in all categories to the Red Sox.
After Dylan Moore's slam tonight, the @Mariners have now had 5 different players hit a go-ahead grand slam in the last 52 days (Fraley/Crawford/Long/Haniger/Moore).— Stats By STATS (@StatsBySTATS) July 27, 2021
No other team in MLB history has had 5 different players hit a go-ahead grand slam in that short of a time span.
FanGraphs has a Clutch metric that essentially measures how well a player or team performs in high-leverage situations compared to all other situations. The Mariners offense leads baseball in Clutch by a mile:
The Mariners are so good in high-leverage situations and so bad the rest of the time that their Clutch score is through the roof. Only two teams this century have a Clutch score as high as the 2021 Mariners: 2010 Astros (7.92) and 2016 Rangers (8.20). The 2008 Angels (7.35) and 2005 Red Sox (7.32) are the only other teams this century over 7.00.
Secondly, the Mariners have a very good bullpen, though it got a little less good when they effectively replaced Kendall Graveman with Diego Castillo at the trade deadline. Paul Sewald and Drew Steckenrider both went from spring training non-roster invitees to trusted late-inning relievers. They took a 2.21 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 73 1/3 combined innings into Tuesday.
"Our bullpen has been awesome," Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto told reporters, including Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times, last month. "And it was roughly a number of guys that no one's ever heard of that just needed another chance."
Thanks to their strong bullpen, Seattle is 23-10 in one-run games and 10-2 in extra-inning games, both by the far the best records in baseball. One-run wins can be deceptive (for example, the Mariners took a 6-2 lead into the ninth inning against the Angels on July 16, then allowed three runs and stranded the tying run on third for a one-run win) but one-run wins are wins.
On paper, the Mariners have no business being in the postseason race. They have been thoroughly outscored four months into the season and their offense leaves so much to be desired. Timing is everything though, and Seattle has had a knack for timely hits and eking out close wins. If it continues, they could become the first team since the 2007 Diamondbacks to make the postseason with a negative run differential in a full 162-game season (the D-Backs won NL West at 90-72 with a minus-20 run differential in 2007).
"We've put ourselves in a position to play really meaningful games (in the second half)," Servais told Divish. "We'll see what August and September have in store for us. Our guys needed the (rest during the All-Star break). They've really busted it. I can't say enough about this group and how they bring the energy every day. It's been a lot of fun to watch."
Karinchak's reduced spin
It has been more than a month since MLB's foreign-substance crackdown took effect and what's most striking is just how quickly it became routine. In the first week we hadand . Now though, it's business as usual. The foreign-substance checks are just part of the game, and we haven't had any other on-field meltdowns.
As expected, spin rates have taken a tumble across the league since the crackdown. Pitchers were using foreign substances to weaponize spin -- they went far beyond using a little sunscreen or pine tar to improve grip -- and they had to stop cold turkey. The MLB average spin rate on four-seam fastballs went from 2,308 rpm before the crackdown on June 21st to 2,237 rpm since.
Among the pitchers who've experienced the largest spin rate decline is Cleveland righty James Karinchak. The twitchy 25-year-old is exactly the kind of pitcher who would benefit from increased spin because he pitches with four-seam fastballs up in the zone, and buries curveballs down. The higher the spin rate on four-seamers and curves, the better (high spin is not necessarily a good thing for every pitch type).
Karinchak has lost several hundred rpms on both pitches since the foreign-substance crackdown. A spin rate decline in the 50-75 rpm range is nothing, really. That fits into normal game-to-game fluctuation. Spin rate declines in the 200-plus rpm range suggest the pitcher is using sticky stuff though, and Karinchak's spin rate decline is well within that range:
Prior to the foreign-substance crackdown Karinchak was averaging 2,406 rpm with his fastball and 2,384 rpm with his curveball. Since the crackdown, it's 2,179 rpm on the fastball and 2,173 rpm on the curveball. Those are significant spin rate declines and, coincidentally or not, Karinchak's performance has suffered. Here are the before and after numbers:
The post-crackdown sample is small. It's also the worst stretch of Karinchak's career. He's allowed multiple runs three times in 16 games since the crackdown after allowing multiple runs only six times in his first 66 career appearances. At one point last month Karinchak, a pitcher who has struck out 40.1 percent of the batters he's faced in his career, went 17 batters between strikeouts. He's struck out only three of the last 38 batters he faced overall (7.9 percent). Something is amiss.
"He's working through some things mechanically to try and get back to the point where his pitches work the way they want them to," Cleveland president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti told reporters, including Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com, over the weekend. "It's a work in progress."
Mechanical issues are a common excuse when a pitcher is in a slump () and hey, sometimes they are to blame for a slump. We can't ignore the spin rate decline following the spin rate reducing foreign-substance crackdown though. That may not be the reason Karinchak is struggling, but it would be foolish to dismiss it as a reason.
I don't think we should rush to declare what we see in July 2021 to be the real version of any pitcher in the post-crackdown era. We have to give these guys a chance to adjust. Cole, for example, has since gotten on track and had several vintage Gerrit Cole outings. Karinchak can right the ship as well. It just might take him more time to figure things out than others.
For now, Karinchak's spin rates are down and his performance has slipped. Those are the facts. How much the former has caused the latter is unclear, and whether Karinchak can make the necessary adjustments to get on track remains to be seen.
Howard's new-ish slider
To me, the Phillies shipping recent top prospect Spencer Howard to the Rangers in the Kyle Gibson/Ian Kennedy trade was among the biggest surprises of the trade deadline. Trading Howard always seemed possible, sure, though I didn't think the Phillies would give him up for a good but not great starter and a rental reliever. Either way, Howard seems excited for the fresh start.
"Yeah, it was tough to find a routine in there," Howard told reporters after the trade (video link). "I did my best to focus mostly on what I could control. Arm care routine, weightlifting, stuff like that to try and just be prepared for whatever they threw at me. But even then it was just a tough go up there. I'm very excited to be here."
Howard allowed 19 runs in 28 1/3 innings with the Phillies this season and they really did him no favors. His role changed every other week it seemed. He went from MLB starter to MLB reliever to Triple-A starter back to MLB reliever, so on and so forth. Howard is a still-developing 25-year-old and Philadelphia didn't give him much of a chance to settle into a role this year.
Anyway, in his final few outings with the Phillies, Howard showed a new-ish slider that had much more velocity than the slider he had previously worked with, jumping from 79 mph on average in May and June to 88 mph in July. It also has more spin and tighter break. Here is Howard's slider in June:
That's a 78.9-mph slider with a 1,909 rpm spin rate. The pitch had decent shape and it was located well, though it's a bit loopy and that spin doesn't stand out at all. The league average spin rate on sliders is 2,432 rpm. Now here's another Howard slider, this one from July:
Howard didn't get the call -- that was a pretty good pitch right at the corner -- but, more importantly, that was an 87.6-mph slider with a 2,176 rpm spin rate. An increase of nearly 10 mph and 300 rpm! The pitch also has much tighter break as well. It almost looks like a cutter whereas the old slider was loopy and could almost be confused for a curveball.
"Yes, I've been working on that," Howard told reporters, including Scott Lauber of the Philadelphia Inquirer, when asked about the slider two weeks ago. "Just messing around with it in catch play and thought it was better than the one that I had been throwing and definitely more consistent, more in the zone, so I just decided to run with it."
Howard first starting tinkering with his slider in Triple-A earlier this season, according to Tom Housenick of the Morning Call, and it should be noted Howard has always been a tinkerer. He's messed around with the harder version of the slider in the past, so this isn't so much a new pitch as it is an old pitch he's brought back and refined. Either way, the difference between his current slider and the slider he had not even two months ago is stark.
Texas is expected to use Howard as a starter -- he threw a bullpen session Sunday and the team lists Thursday's starter as TBA, which seems like a decent bet for Howard's first start with the Rangers -- and it'll be good for him to get into a set routine rather than bounce back and forth between roles. If that and the new-ish slider can help Howard settle into a groove and get comfortable, the Rangers could have a potential rotation building block.
"He's one of the top young right-handed starters in the game," Rangers president of baseball operations Jon Daniels told reporters, including MLB.com's Kennedi Landy, following the trade. "He's hit a little bit of a speed bump in the big leagues, and he's working through that. Quite frankly, we looked at that as an opportunity to get him. I think if he was having immediate success, he probably wouldn't have been available. So we're excited about that opportunity and excited to have him come here and work with our pitching coaches and continue to advance his career."