Sinking feeling: New strategy pays off for Kaprielian

RHP dominates Mariners, ends prolonged personal streak of 6 IP or fewer

September 22nd, 2022

OAKLAND -- was well aware of the dubious record he possessed.

Entering Wednesday night's start against the Mariners, Kaprielian was going on 34 consecutive starts in which he’d pitched six innings or fewer, by far the longest such streak in A’s history. Sensing that the opportunity to snap the frustrating stretch was within reach after retiring Ty France on a flyout to end the top of the sixth, Kaprielian cast a stern look over toward Oakland’s bullpen, where A.J. Puk had been warming up, and waved his right hand in a downward motion as if to call off the activity.

"I think we know," Kaprielian said when asked what he meant by the gesture. "I think we know."

Given the chance to go back out for the seventh, Kaprielian delivered an emphatic 1-2-3 frame to polish off a gem of a performance in a 2-1 A’s victory over Seattle, firing seven shutout innings, allowing just two hits and one walk with six strikeouts. The outing matched a career high in innings pitched for the right-hander, marking his first start beyond six innings since July 4, 2021, against the Red Sox.

"For me, it’s just doing my job," Kaprielian said. "It’s nice to go seven and give a lot of those guys in the bullpen who have been huge for us all year a break. Obviously, I wanted to go out there for the eighth. But I don’t want to get greedy. You take what you can get."

Maintaining an economical pitch count was key in snapping the streak. Of his 23 batters faced, Kaprielian only found himself in a three-ball count twice -- both times to catcher Cal Raleigh. Aside from that, Kaprielian got ahead with first-pitch strikes often and relied heavily on his defense, which made a few spectacular plays behind him throughout the night.

"From pitch one, I saw that Kap we’ve seen [before], especially last year," said A’s manager Mark Kotsay. "He started the game out with a slider for a strike and went straight to the sinker. Those two sinkers he threw [Julio] Rodríguez to start the game off were sinkers we really haven’t seen the majority of this year. ... It was probably his best night of the year, and the results are there to support it."

What stood out from Kaprielian’s dazzling effort was his high usage of the sinker. According to Statcast, the most sinkers he’d ever thrown in one start prior to Wednesday was 14, which he'd done three times. Against Seattle, he more than doubled that amount, throwing 36 sinkers -- which generated 23 swings and five whiffs (swings-and-misses) -- among his 92 total pitches. It’s the pitch he used to retire France on the flyout on a 2-2 count, which came shortly after Rodríguez had snapped Kaprielian's streak of 12 straight batters retired with a two-out single.

So what led to the decision to throw the sinker more? Kaprielian cited different discussions he had during the team's most recent road series in Houston, including one with catcher Sean Murphy.

"We just talked pitching for a little bit, and that was one of the things that came up," Kaprielian said. "Throwing that sinker a little bit more to the glove side and using it in the right situations. Murph and I were just in agreement with some stuff."

There was a point just a couple of weeks ago where Kaprielian faced the possibility of finishing out the season as a reliever. Following a rough start against the Nationals on Aug. 31, the A’s moved him to the bullpen until an injury to Adam Oller just a few days later allowed him to rejoin the rotation.

Since then, Kaprielian has followed up with a pair of strong outings against two playoff contenders to lower his ERA to 4.43 on the year. He fared well against the Astros last week with six innings of two-run ball, building toward what he hopes can be a strong finish to what has been an up and down campaign for him.

"I was working extremely hard every single day," Kaprielian said. "I missed a start when they put me in the bullpen for a day or whatever it was. Then I get a freak accident and can’t make a start. But I’m watching film. I’m talking to guys. That time where I was throwing sides, I was excited to get back on the mound and actually have a baseball in my hand. To finally go back out there and face a team like Houston and have a good one there ... I wanted to apply it again today, and we’re seeing the steps."