Game 96, Mariners at Blue Jays

marc w · July 22, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Marco Estrada, 4:07pm

After winning a series against the suddenly-open-to-selling White Sox, the M’s head to Toronto to face a team whose wild card chances are a bit better, the 54-42 Jays. If the M’s have a move in them, now’s perhaps their last decent shot.

They’re not quite the offensive juggernaut they were last year, but Toronto still boasts an impressive offense. Josh Donaldson has improbably improved upon his MVP season last year, and while Jose Bautista’s fallen off, his production has been offset by growth from ex-M’s Michael Saunders and Ezequiel Carrera. What’s striking about their offense, though, is just how *similar* it is to the M’s. The M’s slash line of .260/.328/.439 looks an awful lot like the Jays’ .253/.334/.439. The Jays have blasted 137 HR, the M’s, 138. The Jays have stolen 31 bags to Seattle’s 26, ranking 25th and 27th in MLB, respectively. The value that both teams get from their powerful offenses are tempered by struggles in on the base paths. The M’s are 29th in baserunning runs, while the Jays are 24th. The one area where the Jays shine, though, is defense, as their position players have added significant runs above a league average club while the M’s have lost about 30 runs more than average thanks to poor defending.

Pitching for Toronto is unlikely All Star Marco Estrada, the exteme over-the-top, rising fastball maestro who shook off home run trouble in Milwaukee to become a BABIP ace. A right-hander with an 89mph fastball, Estrada seems like an unlikely candidate for stardom, but he’s honed his four-seamer into a bizarre outpitch. Over the pitch fx era, Estrada ranks 5th in vertical four-seam rise at 12″ or so, a bit behind Chris Young. With Toronto, Estrada’s made a couple of very minor moves that seem to have paid off. First, he ditched the sinker he threw occasionally with Milwaukee – while the pitch got more GBs, it wasn’t effective – batters destroyed it, while they were more feast or famine on his four-seam (poor batting average, but a fair number of HRs). Second, he was able to adjust the angle on the four-seam to squeeze out a bit more vertical rise (and a bit less horizontal movement). Focusing just on 2016, Estrada’s now #1 in vertical movement, surpassing Young, Clayton Kershaw and Drew Smyly. He’ll still give up HRs on the pitch, but his BABIP on four-seamers continues to drop, and while batters hit ~ .240-.250 on it in Milwaukee, they’ve hit .195 and .184 in Toronto. Think about that: this is his four-seam fastball, a slower than average, extremely straight offering that he, like basically every other pitcher, throws MORE often with the batter ahead in the count and LESS often when he’s got 2 strikes.

He complements the pitch with a good change-up that’s his strike-out pitch and a cutter and curve he’ll use to change eye level and/or get a ground ball. He’s closing in on 300 IP with the Jays, and he’s been oddly consistent for a guy who struggled in that department before. After a 3.13 ERA last year, he’s at 2.93 this year, good for 7.7 RA9-based WAR. By FIP, his so-so walk rate and continued long ball issues push his value down to 3.6 WAR, but Estrada’s insanely low BABIP doesn’t look like a fluke. Estrada is a challenge to DIPS theory, which, in simple terms, argues that pitchers don’t have much control over balls in play. In over 800 career innings, Estrada’s BABIP is just .253, and it’s been lower still in Toronto. On the plus side for Seattle, Estrada’s just back from a back injury, as he’s being activated from the DL to make this start.

Speaking of BABIP, another hit to DIPS came today, as Jonathan Judge and BaseballProspectus refined their new pitching stat by explicitly INcluding balls in play; they found it actually helped their new version of DRA or deserved run average.*

Today’s line-up:
1:
2:
3:
4:
5:
6:
7:
8:
9:
SP: Paxton

The M’s recalled Luis Sardinas to take Mike Montgomery’s spot on the 25-man roster, but they’ll make another move today, as Ketel Marte’s been placed on the DL with mononucleosis. He’d been sick for a few days, and not responding well…now they know why. Not sure who’ll come up, but Dutton speculates it’ll be David Rollins, a lefty who seems a good fit with the M’s losing a lefty reliever in trade.

Bad news from the minors, as #1 draft pick Kyle Lewis will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL, an injury he suffered Wednesday in a collision at the plate. And in what seems more like acknowleging reality than breaking news, the M’s announced Danny Hultzen’s shoulder hasn’t responded well to rest and that he’s likely looking at other “career opportunities.”

Tacoma lost a late lead, as Blake Parker blew his first save of the season in OKC’s 6-4 win at Cheney. Parker came in with a 4-3 lead, gave up two hits, and then a 3R HR to Okoyea Dickson (he had Dickson 0-2, before Dickson worked the count full and then hit a good curve out). Ah well. Joe Wieland starts tonight against Salt Lake’s Nate Jones.

Tyler Herb’s control wasn’t great, but everything else about his night was OK, as Herb and the Generals blanked Chattanooga 6-0. Herb went 6 IP, and then Forrest Snow worked 2 perfect IP with 3 Ks, and Dan Altavila closed it out with 2 Ks of his own. Kyle Petty tripled. Andrew Moore takes the hill tonight against the Lookouts’ Omar Bencomo.

Osmer Morales had a rare complete game L in Bakersfield’s 3-0 loss to Modesto. The Blaze K’d 11 times against three Nuts pitchers. Increasingly interesting prospect Zack Littell starts for Bakersfield tonight.

Clinton’s 3 errors hurt their cause in a 7-5 loss to Lansing. Luiz Gohara starts for the L-Kings tonight, and tries to sustain the momentum he’s had this season.

Everett lost to Salem-Keizer 12-5, and, perhaps more worryingly, lost starter Ljay Newsome to a leg injury in the 1st. It doesn’t sound serious, but Joselito Cano replaced him in the 2nd, and instantly gave up 5 runs and that was essentially that.

* Interestingly, at least to me, DRA still doesn’t buy Estrada; his DRA looks pretty much like his FIP, not like his ERA.

Mariners Send Mike Montgomery to Cubs for 1B/DH Dan Vogelbach

marc w · July 20, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

With the trade deadline approaching, the M’s made an intriguing trade today, sending left-handed pitcher Mike Montgomery to the Cubs in exchange for 1B/DH Dan Vogelbach. The clubs also exchanged high-minors starting pitching depth, with Jordan Pries moving to the Cubs and Paul Blackburn joining the M’s org. SP depth is nice and all, but the deal really centers on Montgomery and Vogelbach.

Vogelbach was drafted in the 2nd round out of a Florida high school, and the Cubs bought him out of a commitment to LSU. While Vogelbach could hit, the pick was somewhat controversial – at the time, Vogelbach was generously listed at 5’11″ 280 lbs. A HS player who looked like this in his showcase events is not…it’s not what scouts are used to seeing, or what they LIKE to see. Almost immediately, though, Vogelbach started to slim down, and he’s now listed at 6’0″, 250 – he’s not svelte, but that’s playable.

Despite a huge half-season for Boise in the Pioneer league in 2012, many were still unsold on his overall ceiling – 1B prospects need to hit a ton, and it wasn’t clear how he’d do against advanced pitching with power that isn’t off-the-charts good. Indeed, Vogelbach’s numbers slipped a bit in the Midwest League and Florida State Leagues (two of the tougher leagues for hitters in the minors), but he’s made some key adjustments as he’s risen through the system. He’s having his best season since that 2012 rookie-league breakout this year for Iowa in the PCL, and he’s demonstrated that he doesn’t need 35 HR power to be successful. Vogelbach is a much more complete hitter, with a good sense of the strike zone and the ability to drive the ball against righties and lefties – platoon issues dogged him in the low minors, but he’s slugging .506 against them this year in AAA.

That’s all well and good, but he still doesn’t get great reviews on his defense, which has led people to assume he’d get traded to an AL team for years. The M’s don’t have a DH opening at the moment, but they could rotate him in there as soon as next year, and they could platoon him with the similarly proportioned Dae-ho Lee at 1B. There’s a reason 1B prospects don’t have a ton of value, and there are even more reasons why Vogelbach is often underrated even within the ranks of 1B/DHs, but he’s hitting well enough that he might be a good fit for the organization.

It’ll be interesting to see Mike Montgomery’s role in Chicago. For this year, he’ll bail out a scuffling Cubs bullpen, but with several years of club control left, they may try him in the rotation down the line. The Cubs were reportedly in on Drew Pomeranz, who they planned to trade on for a young starter. That deal obviously fell through, but Montgomery could give them a cost-controlled starter, which might be nice as their payroll swells. That said, their rotation’s already pretty full, as Dave Cameron mentioned today. Jason Hammel’s got a club option for 2017, but I don’t really know why the Cubs would decline it the way he’s pitching. Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester aren’t going anywhere, and Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey have been great, too. All four of them are under contract for 2017. Thus, if Monty pitches well down the stretch, they could trade him again in the offseason if someone wants to make him a starter.

Losing a cheap, cost-controlled player like Montgomery hurts, especially for an old team like Seattle. But there’s something to be said for selling high on relievers in July, when prices are high. Vogelbach is a pretty good get, and while he’s got the ceiling of a 5th starter, Paul Blackburn’s would seem to have more of a future than Jordan Pries. Dipoto’s done pretty well here, as he’s shored up a weakness in the M’s system while leaving the bullpen mostly whole (especially if Charlie Furbush can make it back soon). It’s not a *big* move – I don’t want to oversell it – but it seems fair for both sides, and it opens up a huge opportunity for Vogelbach, who was blocked by Anthony Rizzo and National League rules before. Welcome to the M’s, Dan. Keep hitting, please.

Game 95, White Sox at Mariners

marc w · July 20, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Miguel Gonzalez, 12:40pm

Happy Felix Day! It’s been a while, and it’s been a brutal interregnum for the M’s. On the day Felix last pitched, the M’s were in first place in the division by 1.5 games, and their playoff odds stood at about 74%. Since then, the M’s have gone 19-28 and their playoff odds have dwindled to just under 15%. We’ve missed you, Felix.

Of course, the reasons for the M’s swoon go beyond Felix, and his return won’t automatically make the club a contender again. But it helps, and it’s an important left for a club that sorely needs one. Felix looked great in Tacoma the other day, so he shouldn’t be *too* rusty.

Miguel Gonzalez, the long time Baltimore Oriole who signed with Chicago this year after being released by the O’s in spring training, starts for the White Sox. As you may remember, he’s a righty with underwhelming stuff who’s tended to beat his mediocre FIP through lower BABIPs and a flurry of fly balls and pop-ups. Unsurprisingly, he’s had home run issues in the past, but they weren’t enough to derail him. Moving to a very homer-friendly park seems to have caused a change in his repertoire. He’s using less of his high-rising four-seam fastball and using a cutter much more often. He had the cutter before, but threw only a handful of them with Baltimore. This year, he’s throwing it about 20% of the time. His splitter is a decent swing-and-miss pitch, though it gets less whiffs than the average split. This new pitch mix gives him options to throw lefties and righties alike, and fewer four-seamers has meant fewer fly balls and fewer home runs. Unfortunately, the change in approach may be contributing to the fact that he’s no longer a FIP-beating BABIP wizard. His ERA’s now well above his (better than career average) FIP, and with his walk rate at a career high 8.7%, there are some worrying signs for the 32 year old. Still, Gonzalez has underwhelmed his way to 1.2 fWAR or 0.9 RA9-WAR thus far, and that’s not too bad for a guy whom the O’s found on the scrap heap this April.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: O’Malley, SS
SP: El Cartelua

Lots of changes. In addition to Felix, Norichika Aoki and Mike Zunino are back, with David Rollins, Daniel Robertson and Jesus Sucre optioned to make room.

Game 94, White Sox at Mariners

marc w · July 19, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Wade Miley vs. Jose Quintana, 7:10pm

Last night’s game may or may not have implications for the playoff race, but after one of the most unlikely comebacks the M’s have had in years, the explosion of joy and bewilderment showed that not everything needs some larger context. We’re M’s fans, so we know this well: we watch Felix, and as much as it’d be nice to watch him in a World Series, we can still take some pleasure in watching him carve up some random line-up in a meaningless-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things August game. Adam Lind has been pretty darn awful this year, but I will remember that home run, and the jump shot of his batting helmet, for many, many years.

Today the M’s get the White Sox *other* ace, lefty Jose Quintana. After signing with Chicago as a minor league free agent after being released by the Yankees, Quintana found his way to the big leagues and turned in a respectable but still marginal year in 2012. He didn’t miss bats, and his control was only so so, he wasn’t a ground ball guy… he didn’t allow many runs, but the whole thing looked very Blake Beavany. But whereas Beavan couldn’t adjust, Quintana grew in his role, honing his curve into a real weapon, and slowly but steadily gaining some fastball velocity. In 2014-15, Quintana accumulated about 10 fWAR, and he’s pitched at least 200 IP in his last 3 seasons. His raw stuff isn’t anything like Chris Sale’s, and he’s never going to be dominant in a Kershaw/Arrieta sense, but Quintana’s been incredibly valuable to the Sox, and he’s in the midst of another fine season.

While his curve is his out-pitch, and his one real swing-and-miss offering, he’s surprisingly effective with his 92-93mph fastball. Quintana’s command is such that his four-seamer ties batters in knots – batters are slugging .406 off of it lifetime, and just .352 this year, which is remarkable given that he throws it more often when behind in the count. He’s got a traditional 3/4 motion, and he’s got correspondingly traditional platoon splits, hence the repeat of this righty-heavy line-up.

After Mike Montgomery’s spotty but solid game, with Felix returning tomorrow, and with the M’s looking at some off-days soon, Wade Miley may be pitching for his spot in the rotation according to the TNT’s Bob Dutton. Wade LeBlanc had another quality start last night, so the pressure’s on Miley tonight.

1: O’Malley, SS
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lee, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Martin, CF
9: Robertson, LF
SP: Miley

The big story out of the minors today is that the M’s #1 draft pick Kyle Lewis came out of today’s game after injuring his knee in a collision at home plate. It happened in the 7th inning of today’s game against Tri City in Everett, and Jose Leal replaced Lewis in the OF for the 8th. No word yet on its severity.

Jordan Pries starts today for Tacoma against an old teammate, OKC’s Logan Bawcom. Bawcom came to the M’s org in the trade that sent Brandon League to Los Angeles. Bawcom pitched in the M’s org for a few years, but got DFA’d when the M’s signed Justin Ruggiano in 2014. He re-signed with Seattle last year, but joined the Dodgers org as a minor league free agent this year. Tacoma beat OKC 5-4 in 12 innings last night, walking off the Dodgers on a DJ Peterson single. The R’s fell behind 4-3 in the top of the inning, but scored 2 in their half of the frame to win again – they’re now 54-40.

Sean Newcomb shut down the Jackson Generals in a 5-0 win for Mississippi. Last year’s #1 overall pick Dansby Swanson homered off of Ryan Yarbrough.

Speaking of shutouts, Visalia blanked Bakersfield 2-0. Both Bakersfield and Jackson are off today.

Game 93, White Sox at Mariners

marc w · July 18, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Wade Le Blanc vs. Chris Sale, 7:10pm

If you looked at nothing but each starting pitcher’s preseason projections, this would look like a complete mismatch, as Chris Sale’s projections reflected the fact that Sale’s a legitimate ace, while Wade Le Blanc’s were probably something like “Korean league, maybe?” Thankfully, that’s NOT all we have to go on. The M’s are playing at home, the Sox’s line-up has been poor recently, and even Sale’s coming off a streak of surprising vulnerability. In his last outing, Sale gave up 3 HRs to the notoriously powerless Braves, capping off a streak of 3 starts and 20 IP which has seen the gaunt lefty yield 6 dingers and 15 runs. After opening the year with quality starts in 8 of his first 9 games, he’s just 3 for his last 6.

He’s still *Chris Sale* so this is a tall order for the M’s line-up, but it must be said that the early returns for Chris Sale, pitch to contact guy, are not great. His FIP’s exactly one full run higher than it was last year, and while he IS working slightly deeper into games than he did last year, we can’t definitively say it’s due to his new approach. All we can say is that he’s gotten worse in every measure of bat-missing. Fewer Ks, higher contact rate, etc. Last season, he combined an amazing K rate with low HRs, but suffered a bit from BABIP bad luck, the product of an abysmal Chicago defense. The White Sox defense is a lot better now, and Sale’s BABIP has swung all the way around to “lucky” but the combination of lower strikeouts and HR problems is a bit concerning for fans of the club.

Chicago raced out to an early lead in the AL Central, holding it through April and most of May. Even into June, before the Indians woke up and starting playing up to their potential, the White Sox were clearly in the thick of the wild card race. A poor finish to May continued into June, and by the time the calendars hit July, both the M’s and Sox’s playoff odds were on fumes. At this point, the Sox have less than a 5% chance, according to Fangraphs odds, with the M’s a bit better at 12%. Beating up on the Sox won’t do too much for the M’s, but if they *are* to get back in the race, they need to start picking off some of the competition. The White Sox are the most elderly wildebeest, the gimpiest gazelle in the herd, with the possible exception of the Yankees, who may soon sell off their vaunted bullpen. Getting some separation from the not-really-up-to-it fringe of the wild card race may not do anything, but it’d certainly feel nice. Even with two wild cards, enjoying a season like this means defining joy down to attainable, low-calorie, bite-size pieces.

That said, the M’s will need to do more than beat up on the non-Sale members of the White Sox rotation if they’re going to erase the stench of yesterday’s game. Equal parts frustrating, dull, and sloppy, it had the feeling of a total mismatch, even though the M’s kept threatening to score on a faltering Collin McHugh early. They didn’t, and then they played like it wouldn’t have mattered if they HAD scored early. Let’s just move on from that, shall we? Today, Wade LeBlanc gets to face a line-up stacked with right-handed hitters. After leadoff man Adam Eaton, it’s righties all the way to CF JB Shuck. As a change-up heavy lefty, LeBlanc’s got strong reverse splits, so this helps the M’s.

1: Robertson, LF
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lee, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Martin, CF
9: O’Malley, SS
SP: LeBlanc

Lots of righties for the M’s against Sale, who’s good against RHBs, but downright unfair against lefties.

The M’s minor league affiliates feature Zach Lee starting for Tacoma against his old club, the OKC Dodgers. The Dodgers start sinkerballer Todd Oaks; gametime’s 7:05 in Tacoma. The big prospect of the day isn’t an M’s farmhand, but Mississippi Braves SP Sean Newcomb, the primary return in the Andrelton Simmons trade this off-season. He’ll go up against Sam Gaviglio and the Jackson Generals tonight. Dominican righty Pedro Vasquez just moved up from the complex league to Clinton, and he pitched well in today’s early game. Jake Brentz and Eddie Campbell round out the day’s probables for Everett and Bakersfield, respectively.

Last night’s performance of the day belonged to Everett starter Reggie McClain, who faced 13 Hillsboro Hops in 4 IP and struck out *10* of them. That pushed his season K:BB up to 25:0. Speaking of gaudy K:BB ratios, ex-WSU couger Joe Pistorese’s pitching with Clinton after a long suspension, and he’s maintaining the excellent control that he displayed for Everett last year. He got the win in yesterday’s game, and he’s now got 15 strikeouts to 1 walk in 12 1/3 IP for the Lumberkings. Tacoma completed a four-game sweep of Colorado Springs, as DJ Peterson homered once and Patrick Kivlehan homered twice. Joe Wieland had a quality start and Blake Parker earned his 15th save. He’s now got 46 Ks to 7 walks in 33 1/3 excellent innings, and has been, if anything, even better than erstwhile closer Casey Coleman, who caught on with the Durham Bulls.

Game 92, Astros at Mariners

marc w · July 17, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Montgomery vs. Collin McHugh, 1:10pm

After a great spot start in Kansas City, Mike Montgomery’s earned the start today against Houston. Montgomery’s become a key member of the M’s pitching staff this year despite nearly getting waived in the spring. Two developments have helped him go from marginal big leaguer to shut-down reliever: increased velocity and trust in his suddenly dominant curveball. Some of the velo bump’s the result of his role change, but not all of it – instead of a 1-2 mph increase, Montgomery gained 4-5 and he’s sat at 95 with his four-seam fastball the whole year. Even better, he maintained nearly all of that velocity in his last start in Kansas City. He averaged 94 and touched 96 on July 10th, *averaging* more than his top fastball in 2015.

But velocity, as helpful as it is, can’t fully explain Montgomery’s results – just ask James Paxton. Last year, Montgomery’s change helped him keep righties off balance, but lefties ate him alive. His curveball was a good third pitch, but his cutter wasn’t working. This year, his slightly reworked curve is now his second pitch, with the changeup a third offering to righties. With Montgomery’s improved arm speed, the curve’s spinning more and thus has more movement. While his curve was already a solid ground ball pitch, the new and improved hook now generates a ton of whiffs to go with those grounders. In the game in Kansas City, it had 2400-2500 RPMs, above the league average, and it’s now a true weapon against lefties and righties alike. Lefties are slugging .231 against Montgomery this year (they slugged .461 in 2015), and righties aren’t faring much better (.319).

Collin McHugh knows all about spin rates – his high spin curve was one of the reasons the Astros plucked him off the waiver wire a few years ago. While Montgomery’s curve is more 12-6 (or 11-5), and features more vertical drop, McHugh’s hook has a lot more horizontal movement. In his first season with the Astros, it was easily his best pitch, and it helped McHugh post gaudy strikeout totals and get a ground ball if he needed one. But over time, hitters seem to be adjusting. His ground ball rate on his curve’s dropped each year since, and thus batters are doing more damage when they make contact with it. It’s still a good pitch, to be clear, but after giving up just 4 extra base hits on his 577 curves in 2014 (0.69%), he’s given up 13 in 501 (2.59%) this year. That’s a big reason why McHugh’s HR/9 has moved up from 0.76 in 2014 to 0.84 last year and 1.15 this season.

It seems clear that McHugh isn’t the potential #2 he looked like in 2014, but he’s been hit harder than his FIP might indicate. A .346 BABIP screams bad luck, especially when its paired with one of the league’s lowest average exit velocities. But part of it may be some increasing problems against left-handed hitters, something that never bothered him in the past few seasons. Again, it’s possible this is dumb luck, but I’d bet the Astros’ coaches and their analytics team is exploring other possibilities. McHugh’s been tough on the M’s, so maybe it won’t matter.

1: Smith, LF
2: Martin, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lee, 1B
7: Lind, DH
8: Sucre, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: Montgomery

Lee’s solid against righties and lefties alike, so I understand the temptation to get both Lee and Lind in the line-up, but that forces Nelson Cruz – gimpy foot and all – into RF, and that seems sub-optimal. They’ve been doing this a lot, and maybe they figure it’s the only way to get him out of his slump, but sticking Cruz in right so you can DH a guy with a .258 OBP….hmmmm.

After a night off, both Ketel Marte and Nelson Cruz are back in the line-up. After his second slide-related injury (Marte sprained his ankle on Friday), the M’s are going to do some remedial sliding instruction for their young shortstop.

DJ Peterson hit his 4th HR for Tacoma as the R’s beat Colorado Springs 7-2 last night. Jarrett Grube was solid for 5, and the bullpen – now featuring newcomers Kevin Munson and Guido Knudson – blanked the SkySox the rest of the way. Joe Weiland starts for Tacoma today.

Mississippi edged Jackson 5-4, as the Generals gave up a couple of unearned run and paid the price for it. Forrest Snow K’d 4 in 2 IP of relief. Andrew Moore takes the mound for the Generals today.

Bakersfield blanked Visalia 4-0 as Zack Littell continues to impress in the Cal League. The 20 year old right-hander struck out 7 in 6 shutout IP, and has given up just 3 runs total and 2 walks in 18 innings with the Blaze. SS Drew Jackson continues to rake in recent weeks; a few days after a walk-off grand slam, Jackson had 3 hits last night. Tyler Pike starts today’s game against the Rawhide and German righty Markus Solbach.

Clinton beat West Michigan 4-3 in 11. Dalton Kelly’s 3R-HR was the big blow, but Rayder Ascanio’s walked it off with a single in the 11th. Joey Strain starts for the Lumberkings today in what’s looking like a bullpen day.

Ljay Newsome was solid for 5+ for Everett, but it wasn’t enough, as Hillsboro scored 2 late runs to win it 3-2. Newsome now has 28 Ks to just 5 walks in his 29 innings for the AquaSox. Reggie McClain starts for Everett. The great control he showed at Missouri’s been evident in the NWL; he’s K’d 15 and has yet to walk anyone as a pro.

Brayan Hernandez, the heralded Dominican OF that was tearing up the DSL has been promoted to the M’s rookie league team in the Arizona League. He had a single in 5 at-bats for Peoria in his debut yesterady.

Game 91, Astros at Mariners

marc w · July 16, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Lance McCullers, 1:10pm

After losing to Doug Fister and the Astros last night, it’s not going to get any easier today, as the M’s face hard throwing Lance McCullers. The young righty uses a hard, sinking four seam fastball averaging 95 mph around 40% of the time, but his primary pitch is an extremely hard curveball that gets some serious movement and is thrown at 85. He throws that hook almost half the time, mixing in a rare change and cutter.

Coming up through the minors, McCullers struggled with walks, a problem he seemed to largely correct last year. This year, though, the problem’s back; his walk rate’s over 13%. It hasn’t mattered, somehow. McCullers’ ground ball rate and hard breaking curve have helped him limit HRs, and they’re also pushing his K rate up near 29-30%.

1: Robertson, LF
2: Martin, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Lee, 1B
6: Lind, DH
7: Gutierrez, RF
8: Sucre, C
9: O’Malley, SS
SP: Iwakuma

That line-up is…something.

Chris Taylor had a career day for the Dodgers last night, finishing a single short of the cycle and launching a long grand slam for his first HR. The HR in particular looked like a swing he just wasn’t capable of when he was here. I still wonder what the M’s tried to do with Taylor, especially in 2015, where the M’s seemed to focus on hitting to the opposite field and working counts.

The biggest story of the night came in Tacoma, where Felix Hernandez tossed 5 2/3 brilliant innings against Colorado Springs. Felix gave up 1 run on a solo HR, and he struck out 7 while walking only 1. DJ Peterson had 2 hits, and Tyler Smith homered. Jarrett Grube starts for the R’s tonight.

Luiz Gohara struck out 9 in 6 solid innings for Clinton, giving up 2 R in the L-Kings 4-2 win. Perhaps no prospect in the M’s system has seen his results improve as much as Gohara – not DJ, not Alex Jackson, not Tyler Herb. Great to see the Brazilian go from talented enigma to low-minors force.

Speaking of Herb, he’s in AA now, and he’s starting for Jackson today.

Game 90, Astros at Mariners

marc w · July 15, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Doug Fister, 7:10pm

The second half kicks off tonight as the M’s host the Astros in yet another series that might fit under a broad definition of “pivotal.” The M’s are 45-44 and 5 games out of the AL Wild Card lead. One of the biggest efforts of the season, to turn around a player development system that lay in ruins, is off to a great start, as this chart demonstrates.
MLB affiliate winning pctg.
That’s the M’s, leading all of baseball in their total minor league winning percentage. Let’s just say that the chart looked substantially different a year ago.

While the Fangraphs playoff odds for the M’s look fairly bleak, the picture’s a little brighter by Baseball Prospectus’ methodology. Tyler O’Neill’s development has been quicker than expected, and DJ Peterson’s back from the prospect brink as well, meaning the club has two bats sitting in the high minors that could contribute next year and/or interest some clubs with pitching to sell. You can combine all of these facts into a pretty compelling picture, and that’s just what David Skiba did in this great, optimistic piece over at LL today.

I lead with that in part because I want something to break up the gloom I’m feeling. I want someone to show me I’m wrong, and hell, David gave it a good shot. The M’s *are* talented, and they’ve been hurt by injuries, and in the grand scheme of things, 5 games out of the Wild Card just ain’t that much. But I think you can make the case that the way this season’s played out spells serious trouble for the Mariners, and that the problems go deeper than their 2016 Wild Card odds.

The preseason projections figured the M’s as about an 84 win team. Right now, BP figures they’ll win 84, and Fangraphs has it at 82. We’ve talked about this before, but they’ve essentially nailed the M’s. The projections have utterly failed to forecast what *kind* of AL race we’d see. The projections missed low on not just one or two but several AL teams, and to me, that’s much more troubling. The M’s had a window of contention with a team whose talent would allow them to hold off rivals and compete with other good-but-flawed teams for 83-89 wins. They could get hot and run down the Orioles or Blue Jays, but with so many teams now projected to win 89, they’re going to have to play out of their minds AND have 3-4 teams underperform to get there.

What’s worse, if the projections missed low on, say, Texas and Baltimore and Cleveland, then it’s possible that those teams are further along in the development of a talented core than we thought. If THAT’S true, then we need to check out how the M’s club is constructed, and how prepared they are to compete with Texas, Cleveland, Kansas City, Houston, etc. And that’s not an optimism-inducing project. Fangraphs allows you to look at team stats filtered by age. This table shows the number of plate appearances by players 27 and under for every team in the majors. The Cubs top the list with 2,200+ thus far, the rebuilding Phillies and D-Backs come next, and a ways back, at about 2,000 even, are the Astros. The M’s rank dead last, 30th of 30, with an insane 389 PAs. Only one person who’s had such a PA is still on the club right now – SS Ketel Marte, who’s, uh, scuffled. The M’s wRC+ from their youngsters is 3rd worst in the league.

The M’s do not have the depth of young talent that their rivals do. This impacts everything from their odds of making the playoffs at any point during Nelson Cruz’s contract to their ability to add pitching if they wanted to go all-in and make a run. They have one player on the midseason top 100 prospect lists from BA, BP and Keith Law. The M’s, somewhat obviously, have given the most PAs to over-30 players in the league, and those players have performed admirably, but the club hasn’t been able to fill in contributors around them, and the clock is ticking. In a few days, Adam Lind will turn 33, meaning the M’s will have 2 regulars 32 and under. It’s not so much that the M’s core players are due to collapse or anything, but that it’s hard to project a lot of improvement.

On the pitching side, Felix’s incredible durability may be wearing down, and Hisashi Iwakuma’s inconsistency mean the rotation is more of a concern than it was back in April, and that’s after factoring in the chances of a breakout, finally, from Tai Walker and tonight’s starter, James Paxton. They’ve already used their best starting pitching prospect to fill a hole in their bullpen (and Edwin Diaz has been revelatory, don’t get me wrong). They can hope Wade Miley regresses, too, but it’s tougher to see them going after the big name starters on the block right now – Julio Teheran, Rich Hill, etc. – not only because their odds are poor but because they don’t have the pieces to move that other clubs do.

There are a few other clubs in this predicament, I’d say. Oakland’s young core looks like Marcus Semien and a whole lot of fringe AAAA types, and while they have some depth in the high minors (Franklin Barreto), they may be in trouble for a few years, and their big trades of Josh Donaldson, Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, and Drew Pomeranz just haven’t worked out, which means fans are probably cringing now as the Billy Beane shops Josh Reddick. They’re nowhere near contention this year and don’t have the financial resources the M’s do. The Angels have money, but are spending a ton of it on disastrous contracts that increase with time, and after trading Sean Newcomb have essentially no farm system. The M’s are by no means in the worst position, but that’s cold comfort to me right now.

So, uh, let’s get at it. Let’s watch the M’s try to figure out their old friend, Doug Fister. The 32-year old righty is sporting a career-worst walk rate, which, combined with a low K rate give him his worst K-BB%. He’s struggling mightily against lefties, who are slugging .534 against him. His FIP’s around 5, but he’s got an incongruously good ERA. His strand rate looks suspiciously high, but the man’s put together a very solid run, with 10 quality starts in his last 15 tries (with a couple of near-misses in there, too). He’s had a few clunkers, but he’s kept his team in the game despite not missing bats and despite his formerly pinpoint control deserting him. I think the Astros expected a poor man’s Colby Lewis (especially with Fister’s velocity continuing to slide), but he’s been a bit more like a poor man’s Scott Feldman, and given the Astros some understated, FIP-beating goodness.

James Paxton can throw 100mph, but has been worth just 0.1 RA-9 WAR on the year. His FIP is a hair under 3.00, but his actual ERA is close to 4. Yes, Paxton won’t continue to allow a BABIP of .390, but if Fister and Feldman have any FIP-beating advice, I’m sure Paxton would love to hear it. Batters are hitting .352, a .406 BABIP, against Paxton’s 4-seam fastball, which, and no I won’t stop writing this, averages 98-99mph. Both righties and lefties are hitting it, and I’d love to know if Paxton’s either tipping his pitches somehow or if his new mechanics are giving batters a longer look at the ball. Some of it’s luck, but Paxton’s average exit velocity is well above the league average. It’s not a problem with perceived velocity, as his long stride means his velocity *should* be playing up. James Paxton is a solvable problem, and a hell of a lot rides on the M’s coaching staff figuring him out.

1: Marte, SS
2: Smith, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lee, 1B
7: Lind, DH
8: Iannetta, C
9: Martin, CF
SP: Paxton

A lot of prospect watchers had this game circled on their calendar, as rumors were swirling last week that the Astros would be bringing up SS/3B Alex Bregman. That hasn’t happened, in large part because incumbent 3B Luis Valbuena’s having a career year. Bregman’s got an OPS over 1.000 split between AA and AAA and has nothing left to prove in the minors, but the Astros may wait a while to see if they could move Valbuena over to 1B with AJ Reed struggling (Reed could DH). Anyway, the Astros have managed to capture the prospecting spotlight today in another way. Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com is reporting that the Astros have signed the biggest international free agent name on the market, Cuban IF Yuliesky Gurriel, for a reported $47.5 million over 5 years. Gurriel isn’t a J2 prospect – at 32, he’s expected to contribute right away, though the plan seems to be to get him a few dozen games in the minors before bringing him up. I wonder if this, too, had an impact on the Astros plans for Bregman/Valbuena. Someone’s going to need to go to the outfield, and it’s not clear who that might be.

The Rainiers second half sprint is underway; the PCL’s, uh, ambitious, schedule means the R’s have a 54-games-in-54-days march to the finish line. They’ll get a boost today, as someone named Felix Hernandez starts for them at home against Colorado Springs. He’ll face struggling Brewers pitcher Wily Peralta, who was sent down after 13 awful starts for Milwaukee. The R’s beat the SkySox 3-1 yesterday behind a good start from Cody Martin. Former Rangers OF Ryan Strausborger hit his first Tacoma HR, as did CF Guillermo Heredia. Strausborger was acquired recently for some international bonus pool slot money. Anyway, HAPPY FELIX DAY.

Luiz Gohara is the big prospect name amongst the other M’s affiliate starters. Kyle Hunter starts for Jackson, while Brandon Miller takes the hill for Everett.

Safeco Field in 2016: It’s Weirder Than I Thought

marc w · July 14, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

My post a few days ago was perhaps short on data about Safeco Field itself and long on speculation. There’s nothing really wrong with that, I don’t think (but I *would* think that, wouldn’t I?), but without any real conclusions beyond “Safeco’s 2016 spike in HRs could be the result of any number of things,” it was pretty unsatisfying. The premise rested on a series of hypotheses that it’s probably time to make plain. First, that the M’s (and perhaps their opponents too) are throwing more pitches up in the strike zone, leading to more fly balls. Second, that some pitchers aren’t really suited to this, and therefore their “high strikes” are hit like Chris Young’s in 2016, not like Chris Young’s in every other year. Third, that the M’s believed Safeco field to suppress the value of fly balls whether it actually does so anymore or not. I decided to look into these assumptions using the incredible BaseballSavant.com’s statcast/pitch fx search tool. And now I’m not sure that any of my assumptions were right. Safeco Field really DOES seem to be making each fly ball more dangerous, but it’s got nothing to do with how the M’s themselves are pitching. Where that leaves us, I’m not entirely sure.

I decided to look at how often pitchers in Safeco Field (M’s and their opponents) have thrown pitches in the top of the strikezone and higher, and what happened when batters put those pitches into play. Safeco’s dimensions changed between 2012 and 2013, so I thought it’d be good to look from 2012-2016; we get one year of “old Safeco” and then some trend data on “new Safeco.” I also did the same thing for the league as a whole, so we have something to compare the Safeco results to. This table shows the slugging percentage on contact of high pitches by season. Two data points kind of jump out of the table, I think:

Year HP SLGCON LG SLGCON
2012 0.420 0.507
2013 0.516 0.491
2014 0.499 0.468
2015 0.497 0.505
2016 0.612 0.514

(HP SLGCON= The slugging percentage on contact of all elevated pitches in Safeco, LG SLGCON=The slugging percentage on contact of all elevated pitches in MLB)

In 2012, the league *slugged* .420 in Safeco on high pitches, compared to a league average of .507. To make a crude “+” metric comparing Safeco to the average, 2012 comes in at 82.8. But look at 2016! Out of nowhere, batters are slugging *.612* on those same pitches this year. Whereas Safeco ranked dead last in MLB in 2012, it’s now 2nd (barely) behind Coors Field. The 2016 SLUGCON+ figure is 119, or about as far from average now as Safeco played in 2012. That’s…that seems insane to me, even as all of us know that a hell of a lot of HRs have been hit in Seattle this year.

So is this because pitchers and coaches *remember* old Safeco field and blithely assume that the marine layer will absolve their pitching sins? Does it cause pitchers to throw more high pitches (which are hit in the air more often) because they assume, perhaps wrongly, that fly balls are harmless in Seattle? Well, no, that’s not what’s happening. This next table compares the percentage of all pitches that are elevated, by year, in Safeco and MLB as a whole. To see if the M’s are pitching differently than their opponents, the last column includes only Mariners hurlers at Safeco.

Year HP% LG HP% M’s HP%
2012 34.24% 33.97% 35.49%
2013 31.26% 34.11% 28.99%
2014 31.66% 32.92% 30.79%
2015 28.62% 31.10% 27.75%
2016 29.12% 30.66% 29.56%

(HP%= Percentage of elevated pitches in Safeco, LG HP%= Percentage of elevated pitches in MLB, and M’s HP%= Percentage of elevated pitches in Safeco thrown by Mariners pitchers)
Outside of 2012, Safeco’s seen *fewer* high pitches than the league average. Even in 2016, with Nick Vincent, Nate Karns and the like, the M’s are solidly below average in the fraction of pitches they elevate. That’s interesting, given the numbers we looked at in the last post – the M’s giving up more fly ball contact at home, more strikeouts, fewer walks.

So, league-wide, batters are doing a bit more damage on high pitches, and they’re doing a TON more damage in Seattle specifically, so perhaps the league is right to avoid throwing elevated pitches. I decided to run the same analysis but with low pitches – the bottom 1/3 of the zone and below. Here, Safeco Field doesn’t look all that remarkable. It’s got a lower SLGCON than the league average, but 2016 looks just about the same as 2013. 2012 was again the low mark, but Safeco’s SLGCON on low pitches has risen along with the rest of the league.

Year LP SLGCON LG SLGCON
2012 0.405 0.48
2013 0.478 0.463
2014 0.421 0.468
2015 0.477 0.483
2016 0.48 0.517

(LP SLGCON= The slugging percentage on contact of all low pitches in Safeco, LG SLGCON= The slugging percentage on contact of all low pitches in MLB)

And as you’d imagine after seeing that pitchers are throwing fewer high strikes now, they’re targeting the bottom of the zone more often:

Year LP% LG LP% M’s LP%
2012 49.67% 50.35% 48.16
2013 51.55% 49.98% 53.52
2014 51.80% 51.09% 53.05
2015 56.05% 53.38% 57.06
2016 54.78% 53.71% 54.66

(LP%= Percentage of low pitches in Safeco, LG LP%= Percentage of low pitches in MLB, and M’s LP%= Percentage of low pitches in Safeco thrown by Mariners pitchers)

It makes sense that pitchers are throwing the ball lower than ever, because that’s precisely where the strike zone’s been growing. These new strikes are harder to elevate, and thus it’s kind of a pitching sweetspot – you’re rewarded if they don’t swing, and not punished too much if they put it in play. So good on the M’s for throwing at the knees! Well, not so fast. Look at that final league-wide SLGCON figure. For the first time in this little 5-year look, batters have a higher SLGCON on LOW pitches. That’s clearly not true at Safeco, but it’s true for the league as a whole.

Moreover, it seems like it’s harder for batters to actually put those high pitches in play (this part’s much less counterintuitive than the SLGCON thing). The percentage of high pitches that are actually put in play is lower than it is for low pitches, and what’s more, it’s still trending down. Back in 2012, batters put 5.3% of high pitches in play in Safeco, nearly identical to the league-wide rate. Now, batters put less than *4%* of such pitches in play in Safeco, a much lower percentage than the league as a whole:

Year Con% LG Con%
2012 5.29 5.27
2013 4.73 5.22
2014 4.84 4.89
2015 3.91 4.5
2016 3.83 4.21

High pitches seem harder to hit in Safeco, but they’re now doing much more damage when they ARE hit. This same trend towards less and less contact doesn’t show up with low pitches – they’re put in play just under 9% of the time, which is a bit higher than the 8% of 2012-13. The big trend for low pitches is somewhat worrying: HRs per pitch are going up, and they’ve blown past HRs per pitch on high pitches. Batters appear to be adjusting to the new, lower zone by elevating lower pitches better than before. Given that batters put more low pitches in play, AND hit more HRs, maybe high strikes aren’t as bad as we thought.

That hasn’t helped the M’s, and it doesn’t help us understand what’s going on in Safeco Field this year, where fewer high pitches have produced lots more dingers. At this point, we’re back to speculating. Commissioner Manfred’s already come out and denied that the baseball itself is behind the trend towards more HRs, but everything we’ve seen would be consistent with the “juiced ball” hypothesis. Both in Safeco and the league as a whole, batters have a higher SLG% on contact for high and low pitches. They’re making *less* contact on high pitches and more on low pitches, which could also be the result of teams now consciously or unconsciously selecting for low-ball hitters – these players may be harmed less by the strikezone’s continued southward march. By the same token, maybe teams are now selecting for low-ball pitchers, especially those who can command breaking balls and fastballs down without relying purely on sinkers and two-seamers (as that would show up in league-wide ground ball rates) – guys who can get ahead in the count by sneaking a four-seam or slider at the bottom of the strike zone for a called strike one. Maybe the marine layer took an El Nino-themed vacation for a year, I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s NOT the case that the M’s are targeting the upper zone; wherever they’re getting their fly balls from, it doesn’t look like it’s high strikes. Is it possible that as more and more pitchers throw more and more low strikes that they’ve essentially forgotten how (or never learned) to throw up effectively? I have no idea, but if so, it’d kind of be a sabermetric own-goal – many of us have preached the value of the ground ball and the risks of pitching up, but the facts on the ground may be changing. Just like last time, there are no clear answers here, just more questions.

Safeco Field in 2016: Mental Park Effects

marc w · July 12, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

One of the striking things about the Mariners’ first half of 2016 has been the sharp increase in the number of HRs M’s pitchers have given up. If you’ve followed the baseball news today, you know that this isn’t just some M’s specific phenomenon: commissioner Rob Manfred addressed the league-wide HR rate increase, and denied that it had anything to do with PEDs or the baseballs themselves. So HRs are up overall, but no one’s quite sure why. For the M’s, though, what’s striking isn’t just that their HR rate is up – it’s that it’s higher at Safeco than it is on the road. Is Safeco Field a pitcher’s park anymore?

The answer to that question depends on what you *mean* by the phrase “pitchers park.” Park factors have long been calculated by looking at how a team fares at their home park compared to how they fare on the road. Ideally, you’d build in adjustments for the quality of opposition, the unbalanced schedule, regression, etc. If you want to keep it simple, you’d just look at run scoring in one environment versus another, without getting into the specifics of how those runs scored. Alternatively, you’d slice and dice them into components, with different factors for righties and lefties, or however else you want to do it. Still, it’d be based on looking at results in one place and comparing them to results in other places.

Now that we have Statcast, though, you can drill a layer deeper and look at what happens to *nearly identical batted balls* in various places. Forget defense, or context, or a pitcher’s approach, Statcast can reduce park factors to an applied physics problem. A batted ball in Seattle is traveling at speed X at launch angle Y – what are the odds it goes for a dinger? Take the same initial speed and angle, but substitute Arlington for Seattle…then what? Looking at Statcast data, Safeco appears to be a “pitchers park” if the question we’re asking has to do with how a batted ball flies through the air. The marine layer, lower temperatures, power alley dimensions all add up to make a 100mph fly ball a bit “worse” in Seattle than it is in Texas.

And if we look at “old” park factors, especially ones that are based on runs allowed, we see the same thing. Despite pulling in the fences before the 2013 season, teams score fewer runs in Safeco than they do on the road, in large part because it’s harder to hit doubles in Seattle than in other places. The M’s But if there’s anything that this year tells us, it’s that park factors are much, much more than an applied physics problem. If a team *plays differently* in one park than another, then that will show up in the park factor, and that difference in approach has nothing to do with Statcast data, nor with outfield dimensions. The M’s pitchers have given up more HRs in Seattle than the road despite the fact that they’ve pitched fewer innings at home. While other things may have played a role, the Mariner pitchers seem to have made Safeco play like a HR-friendly ballpark.

I say this because it’s not just a (slight) difference in HR rate, but because the M’s approach overall seems different at home. The M’s K-BB% at home is 17.4%, 6th in baseball. On the road, it’s just 11.2%, or 18th in the league. The league rate overall is better at home and worse on the road, but the gap is much smaller and the teams that are generally good at home are really good, albeit just not quite AS good, on the road. The M’s K-BB% at home is excellent – far above the league average for home teams. On the road, they’re just average to a bit below compared to the average for road teams. At home, the M’s go right at hitters, and rack up far more Ks than they do on the road, where their walk rate starts creeping up.

Their batted ball profile looks different, too. At home, M’s pitchers have given up the third-highest fly ball rate at 38.6%, but they’re down in 19th in ROAD fly ball rate. Their approach at home not only gets them more strikeouts and fewer walks, it also gives them infield fly balls – they get fewer pop-ups on the road. This could be nothing – the differences aren’t huge, and we’re talking about a half a season. But if you were looking for evidence of a coordinated strategy, it’d look a lot like this.

One way to think about this is to look at a specific pitcher, and the M’s have the textbook example in Wade Miley. Miley spent last season (and really his whole career) pitching in hitters’ parks, and he’s had some HR issues in the past as a result. This year, he was moving to a park that’s suppressed runs – would that play into his approach? Miley’s given up 9 HRs at home to just 6 on the road, despite facing 60 more batters on the road. His K-BB% at home is over 13%, but just 6.1% on the road. His home FB% is right at 40%, but just 29% on the road. How does this happen? Because he’s throwing a lot of high fastballs at home. Here’s a heatmap of Miley’s 2016 fastballs overall:
Miley FB overall
There’s a big blob between 2′-3′. Now, take a look at Miley’s heatmap for HOME fastballs:
Miley home FBs
Look at the concentration of high FBs, on the inside part of the plate to righties. Miley is pitching differently at home, and the results are kind of a mixed bag. If you just look at the slash line he’s given up, he’s been better at home. Sure, the SLG% is too high, but it adds up to a .333 wOBA, a hell of a lot better than the .366 he’s given up on the road. But by FIP, he’s been better on the road, where the lower HR rate counts, whereas his very good home BABIP doesn’t. Despite that overall wOBA gap, there’s a case to be made here that Miley really shouldn’t be targeting the upper reaches of the strikezone. From 2012-2015, Miley pitched in some very difficult parks, but kept his FIP below 4 in part because of a strong GB%, that occasionally topped 50%. It’s down at 45% this year, and the low HOME rate is the reason why. Miley’s pitched down for his career, and while he’s still given up HRs, he’s obviously been solid enough with his approach to be a league-average or better starter.

This reminds me of our discussion of Jon Niese, or this great Neil Weilberg piece about the new Pirates pitcher. In Niese’s case, he still a GB pitcher with the same fastball, but he’s giving up a lot more HRs this year. He’s also throwing his FB *lower* than he ever did with New York. Low fastballs are great, and Ray Searage has helped plenty of pitchers succeed with this approach, but he and Miley may be examples of pitching coach overreach – maybe it’s better to let a pitcher stick with what’s worked rather than try to tailor a pitcher to his ballpark. Maybe it’s best to target pitchers who know and trust their approach, and not target park effect arbitrage opportunities.

So the M’s look different at home – do other teams do this? The other team that comes to my mind is another AL West club that plays in a marine layered stadium: the LA Angels. It’s hard to tell this year with Garrett Richards hurt and Jered Weaver on life support, but the Angels have been a great example of a team altering their approach at home to get better results than they would overall. Their overall K rate is so low, but their K-BB% is mediocre at home, and abysmal on the road. This is something we’ve talked about before – this 2015 preview piece noted the Angels’ ability to avoid HRs at home. For the three years spanning 2013-15, the Angels ranked 23rd in home HR/9, but 5th on the road. The same pattern appears with K-BB%, albeit shifted lower – their K:BB ratio, the walk rate, everything looks a lot like what the M’s have done this year, with one, huge, exception. For the Angels, this approach worked WITHOUT a spike in HRs. The M’s adopted the Angels approach, but their own home park hasn’t prevented fly balls from finding seats.

Given the Angels experience, it’s easy to try to connect this to Jerry Dipoto – he was the Angels GM during that 2013-15 time frame. I have no idea if that’s true or not, or if this is just a common strategy for handling a staff full of fly ball pitchers. If there’s anything we DO know about Dipoto, it’s that he seems to like getting fly ball pitchers. Still, it’s tempting to see the combo of K-BB% improvement and HR rate issues as connected with his bullpen strategy – the M’s picked up some pitchers who looked good by K-BB%, but gave up too many HRs. Maybe the thought was: just stick them in Safeco, and you’ll get all of the good with 1/2 of the bad, the same way you stick Matt Shoemaker in Anaheim and he’s great (career 3.07 FIP), and you just hope he can keep the team in the game on the road (4.77 FIP away). What seems to be happening is that Safeco’s no longer the HR-suppressing park that Anaheim is. That’s shown up in HR park factors, of course, but again, what matters is how pitchers think about a park. The M’s hurlers are pitching in Seattle the way Anaheim’s do in Anaheim, and that has a certain set of consequences.

To be clear, we’re talking about a half-season of data, and the rates are really close. For every Wade Miley, there’s a Nate Karns, who’s got a better K-BB% on the road, with fewer dingers. So it’s possible that this is just luck, or that it was driven in part by guys who aren’t here anymore, like Joel Peralta (and the gap between home and road K-BB%, HR/9, etc. were much more striking a few weeks back when I was first looking at this). It’s also possible that the M’s really just give up tons of HRs, and it’s only some other factor that’s suppressed their ROAD HR/9 – something like the unseasonably cold spring in the upper midwest/northeast that Tony Blengino talked about back in May. Maybe some difference in the line-ups they’ve faced is driving this – lots of patient hitters on the road, lots of Mark Trumbos at home, somehow. I wonder if batters have made some adjustments to high fastballs league wide, or that teams are now selecting more for high FB hitters after pitchers found success getting batters to swing under high fastballs? And I ought to reiterate: despite the homers, the M’s have fared a bit better at home, thanks to that great K-BB% and Seattle’s continuing doubles dearth. Their ERA’s under 4 at home, and their FIP’s significantly better, too. Whatever the cause, and however much it’s the result of planning and not dumb luck, it’ll be fun to follow the rest of the way, and to try to ferret out any shifts in approach.

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