Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The King and Lee: Previewing the Mariners' Aces

After last night's dud ended the little winning streak the Twins had been on, they now have the unfortunate task of facing two of the AL's best pitchers on back-to-back nights. Although the Mariners' run-prevention-based strategy hasn't exactly panned out so far (in the sense that although only the Twins and Rays have allowed fewer runs in the AL, the M's are second-to-last in runs scored, good for a -22 run differential), Cliff Lee has been as good as advertised. Felix Hernandez is coming of a dominant 2009 season that saw him finish 2nd in Cy Young voting, but has looked slightly more vulnerable so far this year. Needless to say, they're a formidable one-two punch, and the Twins certainly have their work cut out for them.

Lee has fared well against the Twins in recent years, owning a 2.41 ERA vs Minnesota from 2007 to 2009, and this year he's been even better than his 3.22 ERA shows. His FIP is a ridiculous 1.43, largely a function of his incredible 14.00 K/BB ratio, a BABIP that's a little high at .328, and a strand rate that's significantly below average at 56.8%. Due to his injury to start the season, he's a little behind the rest of the league in terms of sample size, but 44.2 innings is enough to realize that striking out 8.6 batters per nine while walking only .60 is pretty darn good. He has yet to give up a home run this year, so xFIP puts him at 2.84, but Lee has been every bit the ace the Mariners wanted when they traded for him.

Lee won't overwhelm you with velocity, but he features excellent control of five pitches - four-seam fastball, slider, curve (including the infamous "spike curve"), changeup, and a cutter. According to FanGraphs, he's started using the cutter much more frequently the last two years, featuring it 17.7% of the time thus far this season. His fastball averages 91.1 mph, and he keeps hitters off-balance with an 84 mph changeup and a 76 mph curve. He has enough confidence in his impeccable command that he'll throw any of his pitches at any point in the count. He's issued only three walks all season, none of which have been to lefties, so he figures to challenge the Twins' patient approach.

Should the Twins be able to get a win versus Lee, they won't have much time to rest on their laurels with El Cartelua (Felix's nickname in Venezuela, roughly translated as "The Badass") waiting in the wings. The 24-year-old righty broke into the league in 2005 at the age of 19 and owns a 3.45 career ERA, posting his best season as a pro last year. He went 19-5 with a 2.49 ERA and struck out 181 in 238.2 innings, a great season by any standard (although FIP liked him slightly less at 3.09). This year, his FIP has risen to 3.82, partly due to an increase in his BB/9 rate from 2.68 in 2009 to 3.50 this season. That's really the only difference in his peripherals - he's generating ground balls at roughly the same rate, and his velocity has stayed consistent.

Hernandez features four pitches - a hard fastball, a devastating slider, a curve and a changeup. Although he doesn't have quite the pinpoint control, he's got better raw stuff on his primary pitches than Lee does - his fastball averages 94 mph, and his slider averages 85 with excellent movement. So far this season, Felix has relied less on the slider and more on his other breaking pitches - his curve % has increased from 10 to 12.6%, and his changeup has increased from 13.6 to 16.7%. He's also generating slightly more swings on balls outside the strike zone than he did the last few years. The wins haven't been coming as easily due to the Mariners' struggling offense, but I don't think there's a whole lot for Seattle fans to be worried about.

If the Twins can take one of these games, I'll gladly take a series split. On offense, it's going to require taking advantage of of some of the opportunities that they haven't been able to lately. Certainly the home runs in the last few games have been nice, but I've been disappointed with the failure to move runners over and stay out of the double play, the so-called "little things" that have become a cliche in Minnesota (and which aren't exactly true of the way this team plays anymore, at least offensively). Slowey and Pavano will have to be on top of their game, as it may be hard to muster a lot of runs. I'm optimistic that this team can at least get one win against the Mariners' dynamic duo, but it will definitely be a challenge. Let's hope the West Coast swing gets back on the right track tonight.

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