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Oakland A's at Seattle Mariners: Series preview

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The Seattle Mariners are in many ways worse than the Athletics so far.

Roenis Elias reacts to giving up a two-run home run to the Los Angeles Angels.
Roenis Elias reacts to giving up a two-run home run to the Los Angeles Angels.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

If there is one thing Oakland Athletics (12-18) fans might be thankful for, it's at least we are not Seattle Mariners (11-17) fans right now. The Mariners suffered their fifth walk off defeat of the year on Wednesday night and wrapped up a 4-6 road trip that started with a three-game sweep of the Texas Rangers. In each of the last two games against the Angels, these Mariners came from behind to hand Huston Street a blown save only for their squad to give up the game winner in the bottom of the ninth. They are below the A's on percentage points and 7½ games behind the Houston Astros.

Three games against a division opponent at any time has heightened importance, but right now these two teams are fighting for whether they can get to turn their seasons around just to meet their preseason predictions: the A's at least around .500 and the Mariners as division contenders. Neither team can climb all the way back this weekend, but one could easily dig a deeper hole from which there may be no recovery.

Starting pitchers

Hisashi Iwakuma remains on the disabled list, and the A's will go against struggling young right-hander Taijuan Walker, left-hander J.A. Happ, and right-handed A's killer Felix Hernandez.

Friday

Friday
Sonny Gray vs. Taijuan Walker
1.67 ERA 8.74
2.88 FIP 5.45
3.97 xFIP 4.84
21.0% K% 18.4%
1.25 GB/FB 1.14

Taijuan Walker seems to have a case of the Gravemans. Awesome in spring training (0.67 ERA in 27 innings), Walker has already failed three times in five tries to advance to the fifth inning of his starts, and has just one quality start on his ledger, April 27 against Texas.

This year, he's throwing a 96 mph fastball, splitter, cutter, curve, and rare sinker, according to Brooks Baseball. With the new Soft/Medium/Hard hit classifications at Fangraphs, we can see that more batters are getting hard hit contact against Walker, 38.0% of balls in play this year, compared to the 23.8% he had in his limited appearances last year. The result is more fly balls and more home runs per fly ball. If he qualified for pitching titles, Walker's HR/FB of 14.3% would tie him for 11th among 49 starting pitchers.

Saturday

Saturday
Jesse Hahn vs. J.A. Happ
4.33 ERA 3.51
3.23 FIP 3.82
3.81 xFIP 3.44
14.3% K% 17.8%
2.10 GB/FB 1.52

Brooks Baseball has J.A. Happ throwing a 93 mph fastball, sinker, curve, cutter, and change. Happ does qualify for pitching titles, and his HR/FB of 13.8% ranks 14th out of 49 qualified AL starters. What seems to be keeping Happ out of trouble is that he is working on a career low overall fly ball percentage of 28.2%, 14th lowest of the 49.

Why is Happ getting fewer fly balls than ever? He has so far been a lot less reliant on his four-seam fastball than before, dropping from 53% usage to 38%. In its place, a little bit more of every other pitch, actually. Hitters can't sit fastball anymore without risking falling behind, and Happ's career low walk rate of 1.62 batters per nine innings reflects that.

The mixture also could mean he's setting up batters better, causing them to whiff on that fastball a lot more than in recent years, jumping from 18% whiff rates in 2013 and 2014 to 29% this season.

Sunday

Sunday
Jesse Chavez vs. Felix Hernandez
1.80 ERA 1.73
2.76 FIP 2.39
3.87 xFIP 2.58
24.8% K% 28.0%
0.83 GB/FB 2.56

Felix Hernandez. The very name strikes resignation at the mere hope of a sweep against the Seattle Mariners. From Mariners fans, he enjoys soulful prose, such as, "I am, as of today, on record that if he plays out his contract with the Mariners sans major injury I believe he is the greatest single athlete in the history of this city."

He is one of those every fifth day automatic wins, going 5-0 in six starts this year. But what of that sixth? Oh that was against the A's on April 12, he exited that one early due to injuring his left ankle, and by that point the A's had managed to score three runs in five innings on Seattle's star. The Mariners won that contest in extra innings. I guess my point is, Felix Hernandez is very, very, very, very good. But even perennial Cy Young candidates have bad days. Jesse Chavez opposes him, and he's done quite well jumping into the rotation.

Hernandez's primary pitch is his sinker at 92 mph, Brooks Baseball says, and he also throws a change, curve, fastball at 93, and slider. They're all so good. Do you realize that for the last four seasons, around 40% of swings at Hernandez's change up have just been straight up whiffs? That it's been over 30% with the slider and the curve?

Don't ever forget that it's not just the A's. Felix Hernandez is very good.

At the plate and in the field

A's AL Ranks Mariners
4th (4.83) RS/G 13th (3.64)
5th (105) wRC+ 11th (94)
8th (26) HR 3rd (35)
4th (.265) AVG 12th (.236)
7th (.322) OBP 15th (.289)
7th (.403) SLG 8th (.402)
11th (.139) ISO 5th (.166)
7th (16) SB 8th (15)
15th (27) Errors 11th (19)
8th (-4) DRS 11th (-7)
15th (-17.7) UZR/150 14th (-12.3)

Usually the various offensive ranks tend to line up with one another, but the Mariners have one of the wider divisions between slugging and on base percentage. The reason, of course, is Nelson Cruz, who with 14 home runs through 28 games is leading the MLB home run race by four! Cruz's isolated power is .423. Oakland's team slugging is .403.

Nelson Cruz is great, obviously, with a wRC+ of 212. But after Cruz you see a steep drop off, and it's why the Mariners have only managed 3.64 runs per game so far. Seth Smith is the only other Mariner with a better than 100 wRC+, most of the others are running just below average, and only 163 of 1,062 plate appearances (15%) have been given to non-pitchers batting below the Sogard Line (66 wRC+).

Bullpen

A's AL Ranks Mariners
9th (91.1) IP 12th (84.1)
15th (5.22) ERA 13th (4.06)
14th (4.33) FIP 12th (4.29)
12th (4.36) xFIP 15th (4.48)

Both bullpens are really terrible, but the Mariners get Tom Wilhelmsen back from the 15-day disabled list today. They ran with Yoervis Medina and Tyler Olson for awhile before they optioned them both to the minors. Olson had given up eight earned runs in 11 appearances, but Medina was sporting a 3.00 ERA when he was sent down to allow Mark Lowe and Joe Beimel to come up.

The Mariners are tied with the A's with five blown saves, yet Seattle's bullpen has thrown seven fewer innings. Fernando Rodney is somehow 8-for-9 in save opportunities despite a 5.56 ERA.

2015 Stats Recent usage (pitch count from www.rosterresource.com)
Player Hand IP ERA K% GB% FB% 7-May 6-May 5-May 4-May 3-May 2-May 1-May
Fernando Rodney R 11.1 5.56 22.0% 56.3% 25.0% 17
Carson Smith R 12.2 1.42 28.0% 63.3% 20.0% 9 10 20
Danny Farquhar R 14.1 5.02 18.3% 36.6% 34.1% 21 4
Charlie Furbush L 6.1 2.84 19.2% 47.4% 31.6% 7
Tom Wilhelmsen R 2.2 6.75 21.4% 70.0% 10.0%
Mark Lowe R 0.2 0.00 0.0% 50.0% 50.0% 4
Joe Beimel L 0.1 0.00 0.0% 100.0% 0.0% 1

The games

A series victory can lock in a 5-5 road trip before they return home to face the Boston Red Sox.

Time (PT) Probable starters Television
Friday 7:10 PM Sonny Gray vs. Taijuan Walker CSN California
Saturday 6:10 PM Jesse Hahn vs. J.A. Happ CSN California
Sunday 1:10 PM Jesse Chavez vs. Felix Hernandez CSN California