Hours before it got ugly at T-Mobile Park – the seven runs, seven hits, two errors and 13 Twins coming to the plate in one inning sort of ugly – Mariners manager Scott Servais was asked about the difficulties and developmental highs and lows that a rookie starting pitcher endures during his first season in Major League Baseball and how the team should evaluate them.
It wasn’t specifically about Thursday night’s starter Erik Swanson, but he’s certainly proving to be a viable test subject for that transitional philosophy.
Servais listed two keys:
- Can they make adjustments from start to start?
- When they get hit, do they continue to throw pitches in the strike zone or become afraid.
If he gets the opportunity to make his next turn in the rotation, Swanson will get a chance to adjust from a brutal outing. As for part two, he got hit plenty in Thursday’s start and showed no fear about still throwing pitches in the strike zone. The problem was they weren’t quality strikes and they continued to get hit.
Swanson suffered through his worst outing in his first season in the big leagues, lasting just three innings while giving up eight runs on nine hits, including four homers. The Mariners tossed in two errors and some missed plays in a seven-run fourth inning to make sure any hope of a comeback was impossible in an 11-6 loss.
“We knew coming into the game that Minnesota was pretty hot,” Servais said. “They got on him pretty good and the fourth inning got away from us. I think we gave them six outs in that inning. That really turned the game.”
It wasn’t going to be an easy night for Swanson. The young right-hander relies heavily on using a fastball that isn’t overpowering at 93-94 mph, but has a high spin rate, which makes it deceptive and difficult for hitters to put on the barrel of their bat.
Meanwhile, the Twins attack fastballs with great success. Even though the lineup card seems filled with largely unheard of players to the average fan, it’s a group of young mashers that came into the game having hit 76 homers this season – third only to the 83 dingers that the Mariners and Astros have each mashed on the season. Of those 76 Twins homers, 32 have come on fastballs. Per Baseball Savant’s MLB Statcast search, Minnesota has a .597 slugging percentage vs. fastballs – which trails only Houston’s .605 slugging percentage.
“They’re a good fastball hitting team and that’s Swanny’s pitch,” Servais said. “It’s about location. You can still use your best pitch. You have to.”
In the clash of strengths, the Twins, who didn’t even have an injured Nelson Cruz in the lineup, prevailed because Swanson had trouble commanding his best pitch.
“A handful of fastballs just poorly executed in the middle of the plate and guys took advantage of them,” Swanson said. “They barreled them up and did some damage.”
Three of the four homers allowed by Swanson came on fastballs that caught too much of the middle of the plate. It’s a painful lesson that many rookies have lived through before him – MLB hitters don’t miss hittable mistakes.
“At the upper levels, if you leave a fastball in the middle of the plate, a good hitter is going to take advantage of it,” Swanson said. “It’s the same in Triple-A as well. Moving forward I have to make sure I do what I need to do to make sure it doesn’t happen.”
It’s the second straight suboptimal start for Swanson, having allowed seven runs on seven hits and two homers in his previous outing in Boston. He’s scheduled to start again on Tuesday in Texas. But will he get to make it?
Yes, he’s adjusting to a vastly differently level of competition. Struggles are expected. And there will be that start-to-start adjustment that Servais spoke about. How does Swanson take these last two starts and make improvements? But there is also a point where it hurts his development.
“We’ll see,” Servais said. “We’ll continue to talk about it. … He’s had some good starts. He’s had some patches that have been very good and you say, ‘Hey this guy has a bright future ahead of him.’ But the consistency is the big thing. We’ll talk about it in the next few days and see where he’s at going forward.”
The Mariners don’t have the luxury of just bringing in a pitcher to fill his spot. Lefty Wade LeBlanc is returning from the disabled list to fill Felix Hernandez’s spot in the rotation and will start on Saturday.
Top pitching prospect Justus Sheffield is scheduled to pitch for Tacoma on Friday night so it doesn’t quite match up to make that swap. Sheffield also hasn’t pitched well enough to make the Mariners believe it will be any better for his development to call him up.
Seattle could look at using veterans like Tommy Milone, who pitched on Thursday night for Tacoma, or Christian Bergman to fill that spot temporarily. But they would need to clear a 40-man roster spot to do that.
Or they could let Swanson make at least one more start to see if he can take what’s gone wrong in the past two starts and find a solution to the problem. He’s done it once before this season. After getting rocked by the Rangers in a four-inning outing on April 28, Swanson came back and delivered his best outing of the season – pitching six shutout innings and allowing one hit against the Indians on May 5. With an off day on Thursday, Seattle would then be able to choose from Sheffield or Milone if they wanted to make a chance.
Swanson cruised through the first inning without incident. He gave up back to back singles to start the second but worked out of trouble, aided by a nice throw from Domingo Santana in left to cut down a runner at third base.
The homer barrage started in the third. Jason Castro crushed a solo homer off a changeup to start the inning. Later with one out, Max Kepler ambushed a grooved, first-pitch 93-mph fastball for a line drive solo homer to right.
The Mariners cut the lead to 2-1 when Mallex Smith hit a solo home run off Twins starter Michael Pineda. It was Smith’s first at-bat since being called up Class AAA Tacoma earlier in the day. It snapped a 0-for-24 streak at the MLB level for him.
Swanson started the fourth inning and never got an out.
Eddie Rosario started with a leadoff single and C.J. Cron followed with a prodigious two-run blast into the upper deck in left-center. Statcast measured it at 453 feet.
The Twins continued to hit Swanson. Marwin Gonzalez singled and Miguel Sano hit a line drive double to left field where Santana made a sliding catch attempt only to see the ball hit his glove and drop out.
“Not an easy play, but a play at this level that needs to be made,” Servais said.
A throwing error on a fielder’s choice by Edwin Encarnacion allowed another run to score and then Byron Buxton ended Swanson’s outing by hammering a belt-high, 92-mph fastball over the wall in center for a three-run homer.
The Twins put nine of Swanson’s fastballs in play with an average exit velocity of 100.4 mph.
The seventh run of the inning was an unearned run off reliever Parker Markel. With two outs, Smith dropped a line drive in center that allowed another run to score and also forced Markel to throw 21 pitches in the inning.
“There’s no doubt it was knuckling, but I’m sure Mallex would agree that it’s a ball that has to be caught,” Servais said.
The Mariners got all their runs off homers. Ryon Healy and J.P. Crawford hit back-to-back homers in the fifth off Pineda.
Down 10-3 in the eighth, Daniel Vogelbach made the final score a little more respectable with a three-run homer to deep right-center off right-hander Tyler Duffey. It was Vogelbach’s third straight game with a homer.