Game 2, Mariners at Athletics

marc w · March 20, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Marco Estrada, 2:30am again, gah. ESPNgoi

The M’s and A’s both went out to the free agent market and picked up new starters this offseason. The stepping-back M’s got Japanese left-hander Yusei Kikuchi, who figures to be a co-leader of the rotation with Marco Gonzales, and could be the de facto #1 before too long. The A’s, a team coming off a 97 win season and with a wide open playoff picture in front of them…picked up Marco Estrada for 1 year and $4m. He’s coming off a year that every single way we evaluate pitchers, from DRA at the most complicated to runs-allowed-per-9 at the simplest agree was an unmitigated disaster. He sat below replacement-level by DRA (-3+ WAR, almost unthinkably bad), by RA-9 WAR (-0.2), and was somehow just above replacement by FIP despite a FIP in the mid 5’s. That…that’s how you stabilize your contending rotation, Oakland?

The fact that Gio Gonzales just signed a *minor league deal* for less money than Estrada would seem to indicate that the A’s actually screwed up “going bargain shopping,” but maybe the market for bounce-back guys collapsed faster than they thought. There’s nothing really wrong with picking up Estrada: he’s a dinger-prone fly-baller who’ll now pitch in a dinger-suppressing park, and the whole scrap-heap rotation approach worked wonders for them last year. But it’s a symbol of the game’s bizarre competitiveness problem that Marco Estrada is starting the 2nd game of the regular season while, say, Dallas Keuchel remains unsigned. There’s literally no one who would argue that picking up Keuchel would help the A’s a lot more than Estrada. It’s a sad state of affairs where players have to drop *below* a threshold of ability before they become attractive free-agent signings. Wherever that line is, Estrada is firmly on one side of it, and so he’ll try his luck in…heh..the Tokyo Dome tonight.

Mike Fiers gives up a ton of HRs, but could survive in MLB by limiting walks, getting some Ks, and hoping his defense can help. Wade LeBlanc didn’t have Fiers’ high-spin stuff, but a solid change kept him around as a back-of-the-rotation guy, and someone who can also look surprisingly decent in the right context (especially in a HR-suppressing park). Estrada has the under-powered-but-spin-crazy four-seam fastball like Fiers, but pairs it with a LeBlanc-style change-up. This has helped him post solid strikeout numbers, sure, but it’s also made him an extreme, extreme fly-ball pitchers. That’s…not helped his HRs-allowed, with a career HR/9 over 1.4, and over 1.8 last year. But when he was good – and he was good for 3-5 years – it restricted his BABIP. All the fly balls that weren’t quite barreled up ended up as lazy fly balls, and thus Estrada’a *career* BABIP in nearly 1,300 innings is in the low .260s.

All good things come to an end, though. With a subtle loss of command, the ever-changing baseball, or just age, the old trick just isn’t working any more. Estrada’s posted BABIPs of .295 and .285 in the past two years, and he’s walked too many for three years running. Fiers can get away with a ton of HRs if he limited runners through Ks and few walks. Estrada could if he eliminated non-HR base hits. But without those things, he’s been a punching bag. And now he has to try and figure out the Tokyo Dome, which has been playing like a little league field this month. Good luck with that, Marco.

Speaking of good things coming to an end, it’s been refreshing to watch the M’s get a second crack at the whole “sending Ichiro off in style” thing. Last year, they tried to convince everyone that it was a make or break year AND that Ichiro playing LF helped that pursuit. Without the burden of self-imposed deadlines and expectations, we can simply appreciate Ichiro getting to play meaningful, regular-season games in his home country. Ichiro deserves a lot, and while he’s not making this team better, that’s the luxury of a step-back: you can do things because they’re fun, or because honoring a team legend ties the current team to its last, hazy memories of greatness. It reminds the modern game that at least there used to be multiple ways to succeed, including ways that didn’t involve 30 HR seasons. Ichiro isn’t taking the place of anyone right now, unless you’re particularly interested in Jay Bruce playing OF. He’s going out on his own terms, and virtually no one gets to do that. I’m really glad it’s worked out this way, and that we’ll likely be spared the sheer “what do those words mean?” of last season’s not-quite-a-retirement…thing. I’d like to think Felix will get this treatment, but I don’t believe he will.

I’ve been doing this a long time, but it takes a debut like Kikuchi’s to remind me that I’ve never done…whatever this is without pitch tracking data. It’s always been there since I’ve been here, or in other things I’ve written. I guess you could call it a crutch, but it’s just a thing I use to make sense of pitching, because I’m not that good at describing mechanics, nor armchair psycho-analyzing a pitcher’s approach. Others can do these things; I can’t. Yusei Kikuchi is one of the most important players on the team, an absolutely crucial player to the M’s plan to compete in 2021, and…there’s not a whole lot I can say. His player card at Brooks Baseball is literally a blank page, and I felt a mild fight-or-flight response. He had pitch tracking data in Japan, but they use a different ball, and in any event, the one thing everyone says about him is just how variable his velo and mix is. That’s going to be fascinating to watch even as it makes pitch tracking data (when we get it) harder to draw conclusions from. For now, all we can do is watch the hitters tell us how his breaking stuff looks, and if his arsenal makes him a decent #3-4, or a sneaky great #2.

I felt that same pang of not knowing what exactly was going on with each pitch when watching Marco Gonzales…uh, today. The results weren’t great, but he settled in after a while, and I’m not sure what changed, exactly. His change was decent, but is he throwing it differently, or did he just have a good one that night? He gave up a big HR and the RBI single on elevated curves: how did it do overall, and what does its shape look like compared to last year? Piscotty hit a FB out, but it looked like a good pitch. But without knowing the velo, it’s hard to say. I’m not great at this, so I’ll turn it over to you: what did you think of the way Gonzales threw? How hard would you say he was throwing, and does his curve or change look any different to you?

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Haniger, CF
3: Bruce, 1B
4: Encarnacion, DH
5: Santana, LF
6: Narvaez, C
7: Beckham, SS
8: Healy, 3B
9: Ichiroooo, RF
SP: KIKUCHI!

Game 1: Mariners at Athletics (Tokyo)

marc w · March 19, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Mike Fiers, gaaahh 2:35am (ESPN)

The M’s and A’s kick off the season with a brief two-game set in the TokyoDome. The last time the M’s and A’s kicked off a season in Japan was 2012. Like this year, the M’s had essentially no expectations, coming after the disasters of 2010-11, but the A’s ended up unlikely division winners. The A’s won’t sneak up on anyone this year, not after 97 wins last season, but the M’s team has that 2012-ish “team in transition” feel. Ultimately, a season without expectations is freeing, and I vaguely remember 2012 being sort of fun, as it marked Kyle Seager’s first full year, and Brad Miller was tearing up the minors. But as hard as I’ve been on this front office, and as much as I agree with the strategy of the step-back this year, I worry that they haven’t done enough to put this team in the position to contend all that early. The team needs an overhauled development system to fix some holes in the line-up, and then really re-make a pitching staff that fell flat last season. They’ll need to do it with a lot less help from the bullpen than last season, and with some remaining questions on defense, as well.

That’s not to say that this is hopeless. The M’s line-up is spotty, but they’ll score some runs thanks to Mitch Haniger, new LF Domingo Santana, and (hopefully) new C Omar Narvaez. There are still problems, and having Ryon Healy playing 3B for up to 2 months is up there, but they shouldn’t be completely hopeless. There’s also the possibility that the team looks completely different in August, with Edwin Encarnacion, Jay Bruce, Mike Leake and others potentially swapped out for younger players. And for the first time in quite a while, the M’s will have replacements in the high minors beyond minor league free agents and standard MiLB org depth guys.

They’ll kick things off tonight in Tokyo behind last year’s break-out pitcher Marco Gonzales. The A’s can throw out a lot of good righties, so it’s imperative that Marco use his curve and change-up well and that he avoid the HR troubles that sunk his 2017 season. He lost just about all of the velocity that he’d seemingly gained last year, so it’ll be good to monitor that in March/April. He was able to pound the strike zone last season without giving up too many dingers because he mixed his pitches quite well, relying on really three different fastballs to go with his breaking ball and change. But he’s no longer coming out of nowhere; teams will know to look for his cutter, and they’ll have gotten more repetitions against him. His degree of difficulty is ramping up, but last year’s a hell of a base to grow from.

He’ll start opposite Mike Fiers, the veteran righty who throws even slower than Gonzales. It’s kind of amazing to look at the A’s who are coming off 97 wins and ready to fight again for a postseason berth and their rotation is currently Fiers, Marco Estrada, Brett Anderson, Frankie Montas and Daniel Mengden/Chris Bassitt. Yes, yes, their defense can make some of these guys look better, and the fly-ballers like Fiers/Estrada get a boost from their home park, but…yikes. That’s not a rotation that screams playoff team. Their bullpen is excellent, though, and it’ll be interesting to see if breakout star Blake Treinen can come close to the remarkable season he put up last year.

Of course, the M’s aren’t playing in the A’s home stadium, so Fiers’ ability to pitch around HRs is going to be sorely tested. Fiers gives up HRs even in spacious parks, but he’s worked around it thanks to shockingly good K rates and low walks. His best-known pitch is a straight fastball at 90MPH with well above-average spin and rise. He also throws a sinker, a change with solid vertical drop (especially compared to his rise-ball four-seamer), a curve with well-above average depth (spin and gravity combine well here), and a cutter. Marco Gonzales gets the most out of his pure stuff, but Fiers’ has sneakily more stuff than you’d imagine a righty throwing 89 has any right to possess. Give Marco Fiers’ curve OR that change-up break and you’d have a star. Of course, despite that stuff, the margin for error is still super fine. Hence Fiers’ consistently high HRs-allowed. Putting Fiers in a park where the M’s have been pinging dingers around in their pre-season friendlies could be a recipe for a solid win. But get to him early; not looking forward to trying to come back against Treinen.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Haniger, CF
3: Bruce, 1B
4: Encarnacion, DH
5: Santana, LF
6: Narváez, C
7: Healy, 3B
8: Beckham, SS
9: Ichirooooo, RF
SP: Gonzales

Predictions!
M’s win 77 and finish in 4th. The Angels improve and are neck and neck with the A’s. The Padres, Reds and Tigers are better than people think, while the Nats will struggle.

Baseball again sets all-time K rate records, but walks drop and HRs stabilize, even trending downward, continuing last year’s about-face.
With Severino hurting, the Cy Young race comes down to Chris Sale and :shudders: James Paxton. In the NL, it’s Noah Syndergaard’s year. MVP goes to…let’s keep things interesting and say Mike Trout in the AL, and Manny Machado in the NL.

GO MARINERS!

The Upside, 2019 Edition

marc w · March 19, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

It’s somehow almost opening…uh..night-morning? As I’ve done for several years, I’m going to lay out two visions for how the season could play out, one optimistic, and the other rather less optimistic. We’ll start with optimism, as there’s something about kicking off a rebuild/step back that seems to get dedicated fans optimistic. Those who’ve been fans a long time will note that we’ve seen quite a few such step-backs fail, but there’s no doubt that there’s a new energy to the team given how much younger they are and given that the club has an actual farm system for the first time in several years.

Let’s be clear: the M’s don’t plan to compete, so the job of this post isn’t to figure out a way in which the M’s become out-of-nowhere contenders for the AL Pennant. It’s not impossible (and see Baseball Prospectus, who found one simulated season in 100,000 in which the M’s won 101 games, most in the AL), but the possibility is remote enough that we can evaluate the M’s progress the way they say THEY’LL evaluate it: on the development of a new core. As great as a bounce-back from Edwin Encarnacion would be, it would likely be cashed in for prospects at the trade deadline. Here are three key examples of what would count as demonstrable improvement in the condition of the franchise at the end of the 2019 season.

1: The M’s identify one (at minimum) player capable of 6-8 WAR seasons.
Before last season, I wrote that Mitch Haniger was the most important player on the team. A player young enough and promising enough that he could break out and anchor the line-up for a few years. His projections weren’t great, and he was coming off a solid – if injury-shortened – year, and lo and behold, he went out and put up an even better season in 2018. The problem is that it’s not enough.

Essentially all of his component numbers moved forward last year, from his walk rate to his batting average to, crucially, his plate appearances and games-played. That was good enough for a 3.9 WARP mark by BP, and over 4 WAR from Fangraphs. That’s really good, and at 28, he’s young enough that the systems think he’ll stick in that neighborhood. But it’s tough to build around when the Astros have younger players with much more of a track record. It’s not Haniger’s fault that Alex Bregman, Mike Trout, Carlos Correa, Shohei Ohtani, Matt Chapman, etc. are all younger. But for the M’s to really see this year as a success, they need to identify one player capable of a good season from one of these guys.

Haniger’s the most likely to actually accomplish this, but of course it doesn’t have to be him, specifically. Marco Gonzales turned in an excellent season (hey, one of last year’s Upside things came true!), but without a ton of swing-and-miss ability, his impact may be capped at or near what he put up last season. One way to prove that the M’s player development had truly turned a corner, then, would be if Marco made another plateau leap by increasing his strikeouts.

It’s tough to do at 90 MPH, but he could potentially get there by transforming his aesthetically-pleasing-but-not-actually-all-that-effective change-up. We all identified several potential reasons why Gonzales COULD break out before 2018, from increased velocity to a lower release point, to a new cutter, to disguising his cambio more effectively. The real reason had nothing to do with any of these; it had much more to do with pitch mix and a revitalized curve. That’s great and all, but there’s still potential in Marco’s change: he just needs some better pitch design. Right now, the pitch doesn’t drop very much compared to his fastball; it has tailing action rather than splitter-like vertical dive. It functions like a slower sinker, rather than a pitch that’s very distinct from his fastball, and that trend has been growing. The velocity difference between his fastball and change was nearly 11 MPH when he debuted with the Cardinals in 2014. Last year, it was under 7 MPH.

There are valid reasons to have a change like this that’s trying to elicit bad contact, but it’s not really doing that either. It’s put in play shockingly often, and batters slugged .413 off of it last year. If the M’s can help him change his grip to choke off a bit of velocity and hopefully modify the spin axis a bit, he could have a pitch that moves more vertically. That combination of drop and velo can help generate swings and misses versus leaving things up to the BABIP gods. The Astros have been remarkably effective at coaching this type of pitch (think of Chris Devenski or now Josh James), as have the Yankees. Pitch design would require the buy-in of the pitcher, but luckily Gonzales seems like one of the more coachable/hardest working players on the team.

2: A minor league player takes a massive step forward from “good prospect” to “one of the best prospects in the game”

High bar, I know, but if Haniger/Gonzales *don’t* become capable of 6-8 WAR seasons, then one of the kids is going to have to do it. Kyle Lewis’ spring was perhaps the story of the 2019 spring, but it’ll be an even better story if he’s able to build on it and become an elite prospect. The talent’s there, he just hasn’t been healthy or consistent enough for it to turn into production.

Before this spring, I was pretty worried about Justus Sheffield’s ceiling and his ability to deal with righties and/or the strike zone. I’m less worried now, and while I still don’t think he’s got super-star upside, he could be a very good player for the M’s. As I mentioned, we have only a couple of throws from a trackman park this spring, but it looked like the M’s had started to tweak his change in just the way I’d like them to tweak Marco’s: it’s less of a running sinker and more of a true change-up. It’s still too close in velo, but it’s better than in his cup of coffee in New York. We’ve seen that he can be an exceedingly tough AB. Now, he just needs to build consistency and show he’s capable of shutting down line-ups start after start. He’s already in the top 50, and he probably won’t be down in the minors long enough to really qualify here, but I would love to see him put in a month or two of dominant performances in the PCL.

Evan White had an excellent second half last year in the Cal League, changing his swing and tapping into power for the first time as a professional. That’s a very welcome sign from a player I was beginning to get worried about, but too many M’s prospects have put up great lines in High-A only to falter in the high-minors (DJ Peterson, where have you gone?). It’s next to impossible for a 1B prospect to be seen as an elite prospect, but then, White’s always been a weird prospect. Marry his batting eye with legitimate power and contact ability AND defense and you’d have something pretty unique. All it would take is a thunderous performance in the Texas league. I think White’s going to have a good year, but this is probably the least likely one just given the way people evaluate 1Bs, but that may be changing. It’s also going to require a massive leap in ISO. I know his first half holds him down, but a wRC+ of under 130 and middling overall power numbers aren’t going to cut it. Even in the second half, his ISO was a bit under .200. He can’t simply repeat those solid months, he’s got to build off of them and do even more. Here’s hoping he can, and that the M’s coaching staff can help him do it.

3: JP Crawford looks like an All-Star again

Crawford isn’t really a prospect anymore, and I don’t think anyone thinks he’s got the 6-8 WAR ceiling. That said, the M’s look like a completely different team if he’s one day able to become something like the hitter Jean Segura was for this club. I don’t mean that he’d put up a batting line like Segura’s – Crawford is much more patient, but K’s a lot more – I mean seasons with Segura-like production. By BP’s DRC, that’s 5% or so above the league average. By Fangraphs’ wRC+, it’s more like 10-12% above average. It’s not asking for massive, Correa-level or even Andrelton Simmons-level hitting. It’s just getting on the right side of the average line.

Crawford’s been beset by injuries and it’s led to an inconsistent swing. He’s shown gap power at times, and he’s shown good bat to ball skills, but they haven’t really aligned, and his K rate’s increased as he’s moved up to the majors worryingly (this has been Dan Vogelbach’s issue). But it’s not crazy to think he could put things together and become a lower-average, higher-OBP, solid .400s SLG% hitter that’s an amazing table setter and contributing part of an effective line-up.

To do that, he’s going to have to cut his Ks and continue to pull the ball when he can. One good sign is that the M’s line-up generally improved their K rates last year. The M’s development hasn’t been great all around, but credit where it’s due, Haniger, Cruz, Segura, and guys like Ben Gamel improved their contact ability over time with the M’s. We tend to focus on the development misses like Zunino, but contact has been a forte for the coaching staff (and I know they’ve largely changed over time).

Crawford’s now got loft on his swing, but it’s come at the expense of average. Ks are a big part of it, but he’s simply got to get more base hits. I certainly haven’t seen him enough to know if he’s vulnerable to certain kinds of pitches or approaches pitchers use on him, but the M’s desperately need to close some holes in his swing. He’ll start in Tacoma, but he should be in Seattle for a good chunk of the year. Crawford doesn’t need to be a franchise savior or a clean-up hitter – he just needs to be a threat at the plate.

Cactus League – Is it Time to Worry?

marc w · March 12, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Carlos Rodon, 1:10pm MLB.tv/Gameday Live Audio

Lookout Landing published an optimistic article yesterday evaluating what the M’s might look like in 2021, the year M’s GM Jerry Dipoto expects the M’s to compete for the playoffs. “It’s hard not to look at this team and be excited,” writes Grant Brondson. Maybe I’m still surly from the news that Kyle Seager will miss a month-plus with surgery on his hand/wrist, but I think I’m up to the task.

As currently constructed, the M’s are a team in transition. They’ve got clear areas of strength, like the outfield, and some areas of real concern/weakness, like the infield and the bullpen. That’s fine; they’re not really trying to win in 2019, so the point is to figure out which of the youngsters who’ll be counted on to play meaningful innings this year will be around for the 2021 playoff push. Will Justin Dunn join Justus Sheffield as a rotation mainstay? Will Seager be a major leaguer in 2021? Perhaps most importantly, will JP Crawford demonstrate he’s more than just a competent starter who can rely on a good batting eye? As Brondson’s article demonstrates, by 2021, you can easily see a path to a team in which their present question marks and deficits get resolved. What’s harder to see is a path to team that’s better than their rivals.

The problem is simple: the best players in the league are not only better than the M’s best players, they’re also younger. The Astros have been better than the M’s in recent years, and will be far better in 2019. In 2021, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa will be 27 and 26, respectively. Mitch Haniger will be 30. Correa and Bregman both have two-year stints that exceeded 10 WAR, as does Jose Altuve, who’s a half-year older than Haniger. Haniger’s best year is shy of 5 WAR by Fangraphs and shy of 4, by BP’s WARP metric. He’s forecasted to stay under 4 by PECOTA, ZiPS, Steamer, etc. The M’s best postition player, the player who they would seem to need to pace their 2021 contention campaign, looks like he’s in a different class to the Astros’ top players, who’ll be entering their theoretical prime right when the M’s window supposedly opens.

It’s not just the Astros. Mike Trout’s younger than Haniger, Andrelton Simmons is coming off of back-to-back 5+WAR seasons, and their teenage phenom’s seen as a better bet than Jarred Kelenic. We’ve got Kikuchi, they’ve got Ohtani. This isn’t to say things are hopeless, but that something pretty big needs to change for the M’s to really look like they can swat away their rivals and take charge in what’s realistically a wild card chase in 2021.

What about pitching, you ask? Marco Gonzales’ PECOTA projection is downright scary, so ignore it and go with ZiPS and Steamer, but you’re still looking at a solid-average #3. Yusei Kikuchi’s projected to be a below-average starter this year, but even if we double his projected contributions, we’re most likely looking at a top of the rotation that’s a bit underpowered given the division. The M’s would get a major boost if Justus Sheffield shakes off his control issues and if Justin Dunn builds on a great 2018. But the Astros have *4* pitchers in the league’s top 100 prospects to the M’s 2, and while they may lose Gerrit Cole to free agency, by the end of 2019, we may learn more about what Josh James and Forrest Whitley can do in extended big league appearances. Friends, I’m not sure I’m going to like that answer.

Beyond the Astros young pitchers, 2019 should get us a lot more information about the competition down the road. The A’s Franklin Barreto has been great this spring, and we’ll see if he can make a bit more contact. The A’s will call up Jesus Luzardo as soon as they’ve extracted another year of club control, and we could see AJ Puk in the second half. The Astros 1B/DH issues could be cleared up if Tyler White shows his 2018 wasn’t a fluke, and/or if AJ Reed steps up. The biggest issue will be the development of the Astros young starters, and the M’s younger position players, specifically JP Crawford. Fangraphs sees Crawford as a decent but unspectacular starter. But BP’s PECOTA sees a near-replacement-level player in 2019, and with only moderate growth in the years to come. To be clear: if the M’s are going to compete in 2021, those projections *have to be completely wrong.* One of Gonzales/Sheffield/Kikuchi can’t be merely above-average. They’ve got to be stars. Otherwise, the M’s will have demolished a team that was stuck in the purgatory of being pretty good to create a team that…might become merely pretty good.

Crawford’s the key for the position players. He’s always had a solid eye, but he hasn’t made enough contact at the major league level to overcome only middling power. A low-BA, low-HR SS isn’t unplayable, but I just don’t like the M’s chances to hold off, say, the Rays and Twins in 2021 with that, forget the Astros and potentially Angels. Crawford’s going to have to make a plateau jump this year, and he’s clearly young enough to do so. Today, he’ll face a tough lefty in FB/Slider maven Carlos Rodon. One way to help ensure he can get his average up over .250-.265 (a far cry from the .210-.220s of his projections) would be to shore up his ability to hit same-handed pitching. He’s shown that ability to an extent in the minors, though not having big splits isn’t a saving grace if the overall line isn’t outstanding. The M’s need JP Crawford, and I hope their entire hitting coaching staff is plotting out what they’ll do with him in Tacoma (where he’ll be sent to get an extra year of club control) and then in Seattle.

1: Haniger, CF
2: Santana, LF
3: Encarnacion, DH
4: Narvaez, C
5: Healy, 3B
6: Vogelbach, 1B
7: Gordon, 2B
8: Bishop, RF
9: Crawford, SS
SP: Kikuchiiiii!

NEVERMIND
GAME CANCELED DUE TO RAIN, PER GREG JOHNS

Cactus League Game 12: Cubs at Mariners

marc w · March 8, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Duncan Robinson, 5:40pm TV GAME woooo

I’ve been talking about the weird landscape baseball finds itself in, and how the current CBA couldn’t or didn’t foresee what Tommy Craggs calls post-competitive baseball. Craggs’ article is a wonderful summary of our current moment, one that sees the Indians both selling off pieces and also forecasted to win their division going away, for example. Or a recent Cy Young winner unsigned with opening day looming. Or the farcical stories about this year’s top prospect not being quite ready to start the season in the majors for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with service time manipulation.

This is pretty bad. Execs are forced, or force themselves, to say things they don’t believe to an audience who doesn’t believe them either. Mid-tier player who reach free agency are no longer seen as worthy additions to clubs, *including* clubs that are ostensibly in contention. I get why the Astros don’t need Denard Span or Adam Jones, but I’m not sure why a bunch of other teams don’t. The issue, as Craggs and others point out, is that teams make money for things that have nothing to do with winning games. This isn’t new, exactly. It’s been true for as long as teams have received huge, guaranteed influxes of cash in exchange for local cable rights, and the spasms of spending that often happened after deals were renegotiated. Those revenue sources haven’t dried up just yet, but for many teams, the spending has. With ticket sales shrinking as a percentage of revenue, and as teams find that revenue sharing and cable means that their overall revenue is much less sensitive to winning percentage, there’s no real need to push to improve.

I know people don’t want to read about the business of the game, but I think it’s important to understand why Justus Sheffield won’t break camp with the M’s, or why JP Crawford is likely ticketed for Tacoma, too. I’m not rooting for a strike, but I think it’s time all parties agreed that the next CBA address incentives. Having the pay structure that the game has not only hurts minor leaguers, who try to get by on subsistence wages, but it’s now clearly hurting free agents, too. The game thought parity would increase the stock of teams looking to improve, but revenue trends and player development advances mean that teams either don’t need to improve or prefer to improve with younger players. The league desperately needs to incent winning, and that means going back on a generation of effort to introduce more competitive balance. Can they do this in time for the next CBA? I don’t see why not. Fangraphs had one suggestion this week; I’m sure there’ll be more. If they don’t, I think it’s going to be hard to fight the perception that many teams – the majority, in fact – aren’t really trying to win in any kind of reasonable time frame, and that even wild card contenders are ambivalent about reaching the playoffs.

The AL is highly stratified already, and while the NL is more bunched, it has seemingly no impact on teams motivations. This long-term drive for competitive balance produces only sporadic bouts of it (as with Milwaukee’s push last year), and, of course, it hasn’t helped the M’s reach the playoffs since 2001. Let’s try something different.

Today’s game features Marco Gonzales against Cubs prospect Duncan Robinson, a former 9th-round pick out of noted baseball-factory Dartmouth. A command/control righty with a low-90s FB and a curve ball, he’s parlayed low walks and hits-allowed into a quick ascent up the ladder; he finished 2018 in AAA and hasn’t really struggled at any stop.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Haniger, CF
3: Bruce, 1B
4: Encarnacion, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Santana, LF
7: Narvaez, C
8: Crawford, SS
9: Ichiroooo, RF
SP: Gonzales

Cactus League Rolls On: Where the Focus Should Be

marc w · March 7, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

It’s 2019, the M’s are rebuilding/stepping back, and they’ve remade their roster. The pitching staff gets a lot of attention for being a question mark, but I think most of that is focused on the bullpen, and that’s fine. Many/most of these guys won’t be in featured roles on the next great M’s team, and it may not make sense to assemble a high-grade bullpen on a team that by its own estimation isn’t really competing this year. But the group that’s really pulling the M’s down in the minds of projection systems isn’t the pitchers. It’s the infield.

The M’s are a bit unsettled at SS, with the heralded but streaky JP Crawford coming over as the long term solution, but who will almost assuredly start in Tacoma due to service time manipulation the veteran presence of Tim Beckham. Neither is projected to do a whole lot, but Crawford’s growth is perhaps the story of the season, at least as position players go (Justus Sheffield is the story of the season for pitchers). At 2B, Dee Gordon tries to bounce back from an unmitigated disaster of a 2018, but at 30 years of age, it almost doesn’t matter what he does. If he posts career highs, he’d likely be moved at the deadline. If he struggles again, he’d be sidelined for Dylan Moore or Shed Long. The options at 1B are younger, but project as the weakest of the bunch. Ryon Healy figures to get some time at 1B, and like Gordon, he needs to prove his 2018 was some sort of aberration. Dan Vogelbach’s spring line is great, but then, it was great last year, too, and he still couldn’t take the job from the imploding Healy. Edwin Encarnacion’s still here, as is Jay Bruce, but their performance doesn’t matter so much as it’s an insurance against the kind of 1B black hole the M’s have featured so often.

Crawford, Sheffield, perhaps Domingo Santana, and then the AA group of Evan White, Kyle Lewis and Jake Fraley – that’s who we’ll all be watching in 2019 as we try to suss out whether the M’s have a complement to Mitch Haniger. All the same, that means that this is the first year in quite some time when we *won’t* be too interested in Felix or Kyle Seager. I’d love both of them to bounce back; that would make the season more watchable on a nightly basis. But their success or failure just won’t provide much information about how the M’s are supposed to take two steps forward after this off-season’s step back. Crawford’s ceiling’s probably seen as being lower now than in the past, after struggling to both stay healthy and demonstrate consistent pop and even contact skill. But that’s all subject to change. I think the same could be said for Sheffield’s ceiling, but he’s moved it higher just by what he’s done this spring. He’s still a top prospect, but one who looks a bit better now than he did last October/November. That’s a good sign, and hopefully he’ll be joined by others throughout the year.

Today’s game sees the M’s take on the Reds in Goodyear. Cincy sends righty flamethrower Luis Castillo to the mound. Castillo averages 97+ on his four-seam, though it was down a bit in 2018 as he logged more innings. It’s got run, but not a ton of rise, and he pairs it with an interesting sinker that’s been solid vs. RHBs, but which LHBs have demolished. His best pitch is a hard change-up at 87 or so. Batters have offered at at nearly 60% of the time he’s thrown it, and they’ve come up empty on over 40% of those swings. This is a legitimate outpitch, but his breaking ball (a slider) has lagged far behind. Between the issues with lefties and a small home park, HR troubles have bedeviled him, though it’s good to remember he’s 26, throws 97, and has a good cambio. This is a base a good team can work with, and while Cincinnati hasn’t been a good team in a while, Castillo could be really good in the right situation.

1: Fraley, CF
2: Lewis, RF
3: Narvaez, C
4: Healy, 1B
5: Vogelbach, DH
6: Ichirooooo
7: Beckham, SS
8: Long, 2B
9: Negron, 2B
SP: KIKUCHI woooo

Cactus League Game 9, Mariners at Royals

marc w · March 2, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Brad Keller, 12:10pm

A year ago at this time, I talked about how home runs were becoming more important to scoring, and thus the M’s emphasis on stringing base hits together didn’t sound like a great plan, especially if they couldn’t figure out how to arrange a pitching staff capable of keeping the ball in the yard. I focused on HR differential as opposed to the M’s vaunted “Control the Zone” metric, and noted that the M’s were giving up more HRs than they hit. So, thus far this spring, the M’s have hit 12 dingers and yielded just 8. Kyle Lewis can’t stop hitting the snot out of the ball, and meanwhile no one can touch Justus Sheffield. I’ve said it already this spring, but I don’t think the M’s could have looked any better.

Does that change their projections for the season? Eh, no, not really, but 1) it’s fun to see, and 2) you can dream on changes in PD that could produce such wonders as Dee Gordon drawing 2 walks in a game and sporting on OBP north of .500. Yes, yes, tiny samples, I get that. But I’m just not sure we’ve seen even tiny samples in which Gordon’s looked this patient, or Lewis this dangerous. Justus Sheffield looks like a different pitcher from his scouting reports, set aside his disastrous couple of innings in the Bronx. Domingo Santana looks like his 2017 self and nothing like the 2018 model.

Brad Keller is a righty with an arrow-straight four-seamer that almost looks cutter like, and then a sinker with a bit of armside run. His breaking ball is a solid slider, and he’s developing a change. He can get it into the mid-90s, but doesn’t miss a ton of bats – instead, he uses his odd four-seam movement and decent command of his slider to generate ground balls and avoid dingers. It all added up to a surprisingly good season for the Royals last year – not bad for a Rule 5 pick. It’s interesting – he doesn’t do the typical sinker/slider thing of pounding the knees with low and sinking pitches. Instead, he’ll throw any pitch in any location. Something about his delivery and then the movement on his pitches allows him to get ground ball contact pretty much everywhere. Sure, he’ll get a few more at the bottom of the zone or below, but I’m still kind of amazed a guy can get a fair number of groundballs throwing four-seamers in the middle of the zone. Elevate, Mariners, elevate!

1: Long, 2B
2: Crawford, SS
3: Santana, LF
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: Healy, 1B
6: Lewis, CF
7: Ichiro!, RF
8: Moore, 3B
9: Freitas, C
SP: KIKUCHI

Cactus League Game 6, White Sox at Mariners

marc w · February 28, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Lucas Giolito, 12:10pm

Happy Felix Day to you and yours. I don’t know how many more times I’ll get to type that, so I want to make sure I don’t miss any now.

Looking at the M’s 2019 projections from Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, and Clay Davenport, there’s a consensus that the M’s won’t be very good. There’s disagreement about where the M’s are on offense, but the real question mark – the thing that could see the M’s ending with some solid growth and a nearly .500 record or crash and burn to 70 wins – is their pitching. The bullpen’s been torn down, but more than that, the rotation’s still somewhat of an unknown, which is fascinating when you think how experienced all of these guys are. There aren’t any rookies, besides Kikuchi, who shouldn’t really count as one. The guys that the projections can’t agree on are guys like Marco Gonazales.

There’s one guy, of course, that all projection systems think they’ve got sussed. Essentially everyone now assumes Felix will be hide-your-eyes awful, and seeing Felix come back strong is perhaps the biggest thing that would help the M’s overachieve. It pains me to say it, but Felix won’t be on the next M’s team that’s an actual contender, so you could argue that his performance in 2019 is completely meaningless to the M’s franchise. That’s a really nihilistic thing to say, though. More accurately, if the overhauled M’s coaching staff, now armed with racks of Rapsodo and Edgertronic cameras, can make meaningful improvements in Felix, then that’s a really good sign that guys like Marco really will become better than the projection systems could dream of.

Lucas Giolito is one of several high-risk/high-reward prospects the White Sox got when they committed to a rebuild and sold off their star players like Adam Eaton and Chris Sale. A rebuild takes time, say GMs, but I’d be pretty worried if I was a Sox fan. Giolito isn’t yet 25, but he’s coming off a below-replacement-level season, and has now thrown 240 abysmal innings in the big leagues. He doesn’t miss bats, the walk rate is awful, and the projection systems see him making only minor improvements in 2019. Yoan Moncada was disappointing-but-average by Fangraphs, but sub-replacement level by BP’s measures. There are serious problems all over that roster, and it’s not clear who you’d identify as the core stars who will lead them back to redemption and contention. As much as the Cubs or Astros are now seen as the models for how to rebuild successfully, I think they’re also paradoxically showing that rebuilds are no longer needed. That player development doesn’t hinge on a transformative #1 overall draft pick but rather with turning some random org-depth guy into Josh James or getting the absolute most from your 17th-overall guy (Forrest Whitley) than your 1-1 (Mark Appel). The White Sox should be a cautionary tale, and while it’s a little early to call the whole thing a failure, it’s starting to look like one.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Haniger, RF
3: Bruce, LF
4: Encarnacion, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Narvaez, C
7: Crawford, SS
8: Fraley, CF
9: Ackley, DH
SP: EL CARTELUA

Cactus League Game 5, Rangers at Mariners

marc w · February 26, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Adrian Sampson, 12:10pm

Well, Kikuchi didn’t really disappoint, and the M’s got a HR from Kyle Lewis, so I really don’t see how the past few days could’ve gone any better. This is the point where I start to get nervous after years of conditioning as an M’s fan.

Marco looked good in his, uh, 1 inning of work in the rained out first game of the spring, so it’ll be fun to see him pitch an entire two innings today. Unfortunately, it’s in Peoria, so we don’t have the kind of information we got on Sunday. In the olden days, Peoria was one of a few pitch fx ballparks in the Cactus League, and that made these games a bit more interesting – we could SEE when people were working on a new pitch, or had velo increases (or decreases), and if the movement numbers were surreal, eh, that was just the price of admission for actual data.

Now, they’ve switched off the public pitch fx feed, and we have to wait until the M’s play in a statcast park, and since their home park ain’t one of them, we’re almost as data starved as we were waaaaaay back in 2007-08.

Adrian Sampson’s the local kid who pitched for the M’s briefly before sustaining a major arm injury. He went to Bellevue College and was with the Pirates org before coming to the M’s as the return for JA Happ a few years back. He signed on with the Rangers and is apparently healthy now. His is a good story, and I’m glad he’s worked his way back.

Today’s line-up:
1: Gordon, 2B
2: Haniger, RF
3: Encarnacion, DH
4: Bruce, LF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Vogelbach, 1B
7: Crawford, SS
8: Nola, C
9: Bishop, CF
SP: Gonzales

Over at LL, Jake Mailhot has come up with a non-results-based pitch quality metric using velo, movement, spin rate, and a command component based on the edge/heart numbers that Bill Petti and Jeff Zimmermann developed. I have some issues with it, but it’s worth a look/your time. As you might expect, no Mariner starter grades out as above average in it. Marco comes closest thanks to his change and curve.

Cactus League Game 4 – Yusei Kikuchi’s Debut

marc w · February 25, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Alex Wood (Reds), 12:10pm (TV!)

The M’s got everything they could’ve wished for from Justus Sheffield’s debut yesterday, as the lefty brushed aside my concerns about his bat missing ability vs. opposite-handed batters by striking out *4* righties in 2 scoreless innings. Yusei Kikuchi, can you top that?

We get to see the big off-season acquisition against live batters today for the first time, and I’m irrationally excited about it. What will his velo look like (Sheffield sat 92-93, touching 94)? How will he mix his pitches? Does his deceptive delivery hide his breaking pitches?

If that wasn’t enough, former top prospect Kyle Lewis gets the start in RF. After years of injury rehab, Lewis almost feels like a forgotten man, and I’ve worried that he’s lost a step and years of developmental time, but maaaaan would this system look better with a breakout campaign from Lewis.

1: Long, 3B
2: Beckham, SS
3: Encarnacion, DH
4: Narvaez, C
5: Santana, LF
6: Healy, 1B
7: Lewis, RF
8: Thompson-Williams, CF
9: Negron, 2B
SP: KIKUCHI

Shed Long gets the start at 3B, as the M’s assess his flexibility/utility value. Also our first look at Edwin Encarnacion.

The Reds re-made their team this offseason, and I’m kind of interested to see how it goes. Ex-Dodger Alex Wood gets the start today, but they’ll see if they can coax a bounceback year from Sonny Gray, too. Good luck, Cincy, and thanks for Shed Long.

Go M’s.

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