We warned you over the winter not to forget Evan Marshall, and he reemerged in spring training, holding Cactus League hitters to a .205 batting average in 11 innings with 8 punchouts and just 2 free passes. Marshall’s rookie season was excellent by any metric, but it wasn’t just the 2.74 ERA over five months of pitching: it was the fantastic strikeout rate (9.85 K/9) that he somehow combined with a near-Ziegler 60.7% ground ball percentage.
Marshall’s 2014 was a strong indication that a high ground ball percentage could go a long way in Arizona, where dried out baseballs make outfield contact look like a game of ping pong. For all we know, he — along with the legacies of Brandon Webb, Byung-Hyun Kim and Brad Ziegler — could have been a big part of the new front office’s inspiration to experiment with ground ball percentage and sinkers. If that’s true, he may have indirectly contributed to his own struggles in early 2015.
Why? Because despite capturing lightning in a bottle in 2014 while throwing his sinker just 33% of the time, Marshall upped that percentage over 46% in 2015, throwing a few more sliders, a few fewer changeups, and a lot fewer fourseam fastballs. In addition to getting all of those easy outs, Marshall’s sinker did have a fairly high .431 slugging percentage in 2014 — and throwing it a lot more in 2015, it was completely tuned up by the opposition. A .758 slugging percentage is a strong indication that something is not working.
Yet another 2015 mystery solved with that one single answer: the quest for ground ball percentage. Or was it?
On Tuesday, I tooled around the movement and platoon split histories of eight D-backs RHP relievers who are likely to get significant time in the bullpen this season. The goal was to make some educated guesses on who among them should be steered most vigorously toward right-handed hitters, and who might be helpful against lefties. I wanted to include Marshall, but it was just going to take me too far off track. And that’s because I’m not sure who he is right now.
The 2016 data is from spring training — it’s pretty skimpy. But the movement readings match what the D-backs saw from Marshall in 2015, too — and that was so, so different from what they saw in 2014.
It’s really about fastballs. Believe it or not, but Marshall’s 2014 sinker actually did have much more “sink” than the average two-seamer, with predictable results (the change also stood out that way). Meanwhile, Marshall’s fourseamer looked a lot like Rubby De La Rosa‘s — right in the sweet spot for lefty hitters, in terms of movement. Both fastballs killed righties (.265 SLG fourseam and .293 SLG sinker), but both were killed by lefties (.500 SLG fourseam and .548 SLG sinker).
In 2015, he didn’t just increase his sinker usage from 33% to 46% — he did it all against lefties. He threw the sinker a mind-numbing 61% of the time to lefties, even though they had completely scorched it, and even though fastballs with that kind of movement (even the changed variety) usually get scorched by lefties. It was a terrible idea, and it had terrible consequences.
And in Marshall’s MLB time last season, lefties slugged .941 on his sinker.
So no, if Marshall’s sinker and fourseam movement is about the same as last season, I’m not too high on the likelihood he’ll get lefties out regularly. Marshall’s fourseam and especially sinker remain delicious looking to lefties, but we also saw him bring his cutter back this spring, and so his pitch mix could literally cut both ways (zing!). I’m still at something of a loss. There are a lot of things you can’t change as a pitcher: it’s probably not possible to suddenly throw a few mph faster, etc. But some things you can.
One of those things is release point. Movement, like life, is a circle; and in 2014, Marshall was releasing his fastballs almost exactly at 6′ high, but about 2’8″ from the center of the mound. Since then, it’s been about 6’3″ high but only 2’2″ or so from the center of the mound — he moved from low three quarters to high three quarters, actually releasing the ball over his head.
Another: his pitch usage. Yes, maybe Marshall will throw the cutter, but will he throw it enough for it to matter? Will he continue rely so heavily on the sinker against lefties, or will he switch to a combination of the cutter and the more vertical (and, consequently, likely less platoon-prone) fourseam? Those are choices, and they could change immediately.
What happens next with Marshall is going to be interesting, but also important. Few relievers in the majors were more valuable in 2014, and for a team that just can’t seem to stop starving for pitching, even a chance of getting that back is worth keeping an eye on. Chances, and choices, and a .941 SLG reminder that if Marshall doesn’t go back to how he handled things in 2014, he may not be able to handle MLB hitters again.
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