Cactuses, as far as the eye can see: Mariners at Rangers

marc w · March 16, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Matt Moore, 1:05pm

Take a look at the post below, and then check out today’s line-up. The M’s face the always-interesting Rangers today, who are looking to bounce back from a poor 2017 that saw them tied with the M’s. Looking through the lens of the net stats (or toys, more appropriately), the Rangers were one of the league’s worst clubs at net KW – thanks a lot, Joey Gallo – but fared better thanks to a positive net HR mark – thank you, Joey Gallo! Their line-up was beset by collapses from Rougned Odor and a stalled year of development from Nomar Mazara, but the big focus – as seen in a net KW mark of – 401 – is improving their pitching.

With Yu Darvish gone and the farm system going through a bit of a down phase, the Rangers got creative and brought in former Rays and Giants disappointment Matt Moore. It wasn’t that long ago that Moore was the #1 pitching prospect in the game, having led the minors in K’s in 2011 and waltzed into important innings for the contending Rays that year and then signed him to a 5-year extension. After a solid 2012, I think people expected a leap to becoming a top-of-the-rotation starter, but his 2013 was essentially a repeat of his 2012: solid strikeout numbers, but far too many walks. He missed nearly all of 2014 and much of 2015 after TJ surgery, and simply hasn’t been the same since. He’s not missing as many bats, and like everyone else in the game, he’s giving up more HRs than he used to. The Giants traded for him in 2016, and then he suffered his worst season as a pro in San Francisco last year, putting up an ERA of 5.52.

At this stage, he’s a fly ball pitcher, with a GB% in the high 30s. He came up with a fastball averaging 95-96, but he’s more like 92 in recent years. It’s got tremendous armside run, and it pairs well with a big breaking curveball – the outpitch that fueled his prospect hype in 2011. Even last year, his curveball still proved very difficult to square up, and it’s produced great results throughout Moore’s career. The problem’s been a decline in the effectiveness of his fastball; it gets fewer whiffs and yields more extra-base hits now than it did pre-injury.

All told, this was an interesting buy-low move by the Rangers, who are evidently hoping that their coaches can wring more out of the disappointing, but still freakishly talented Moore (and Tim Lincecum too, for that matter).


1: Gordon, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Heredia, LF
4: Zunino, C
5: Vogelbach, 1B
6: Marjama, DH
7: Nieuwenhuis, RF
8: Beckham, 3B
9: Muno, 2B
SP: Leake

The story of last night’s win wasn’t Taylor Motter’s grand salami, but Edwin Diaz’s immaculate inning. Diaz struck out the side *on nine pitches* in his single inning of work. Masterful.

The M’s recently signed 20-year large Brazilian son Igor Januario, a pitcher. The Rays had an Igor Januario in their system years ago, and THAT Januario has played for Brazil in international tournaments – as a hulking 1B (FG listed him at 6’6″, 240lbs). THIS Januario is a bit younger, but still huge at 6’7″ 240lbs. He’ll hopefully follow in the footsteps of Luiz Gohara, the zip-code-sized hurler who made the majors last year with Atlanta.

The State of the M’s Thus Far: Examining the Team through Questionably-Useful Lenses

marc w · March 16, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

I’m sorry for the lack of posts recently, but I’ve been completely slammed at work, and something had to give. That something has been posts admiring Dan Vogelbach’s hot spring, or Taylor Motter coming on strong or what have you. That said, I’ve tried to have a check-in post most springs that tries to wring some sort of information out of spring training statistics. This is dangerous territory, for a variety of reasons, but I figure if we caveat the whole thing and keep the focus at the team level, maybe we’ll find something.

Last year, I wrote about the M’s remarkable success at turning their own mantra into on-field results: the team preached controlling the zone, and then their pitchers AND hitters went out and did exactly that, posting solid ratios on both sides of the ball. Did that carry through to the regular season? Noooooo (damn you, tempting Arizona mirages). But even that was understandable, perhaps, given the M’s injuries and the transactions that some of them necessitated. Moreover, and I know this is familiar to anyone who’s read this site, the story of the M’s disappointing 2017 wasn’t just their zone ratios (K:BB, K-BB%, etc.), it was the fact that, for a second straight year, home runs stole the show. The problem with the M’s jury-rigged back-of-the-rotation wasn’t that they didn’t miss enough bats (though they didn’t miss enough bats), it was that they gave up so many HRs that K:BB ratio didn’t matter nearly as much.

I looked at each team’s zone stats in 2017 and then I added their net home runs – this is just home runs hit minus home runs allowed. Those of you who are yelling, “That’s essentially just re-stating FIP” aren’t wrong: walks, strikeouts and dingers are, of course, the three inputs in FIP, and thus it should come as no surprise that my “net KW” or net strikeouts and net walks (strikeouts earned by pitchers minus strikeouts taken by batters, plus walks earned by batters minus walks given by pitchers) and net HRs correlates really well with fangraphs pitching WAR which is, of course, FIP based. But you look at the standings last year, and it just sort of jumps off the page: the most surprising teams dominated in net HRs. The two best marks were earned by the Yankees and Diamondbacks, and the Brewers weren’t far behind. The league’s two worst clubs by net HRs were two of the worst teams in the game: the San Francisco Giants and Chicago White Sox. The best clubs in the game, the Astros, Dodgers and especially the Indians, were elite in BOTH net HRs and net KW, while clubs like the Nationals and Cubs looked solid, if a clear step behind the Astros/Dodgers/Indians. It’s not foolproof or anything – the Red Sox didn’t hit many HRs at all, and thus ended up with a sharply negative net HR mark, but they made up for it with an elite net KW mark. The A’s had a positive net HR mark, but gave it all away on the net KW side of the ledger. Of the two “stats”, net HRs correlated slightly better with wins, and both correlated slightly more than offensive WAR as measured by FG.

This is a single year of data – the year of the HR – so I’m not claiming these measures are anything more than an interesting diversion, but it highlights the importance of HRs in today’s game. The M’s had a net HR mark of -37, and that, more than anything, crushed their playoff hopes. All of that to say that the focus going forward needs to be on avoiding HRs. I think the M’s went for elevated fastballs and fly ball contact last year on the solid premise that the HR explosion was occurring on low pitches, and thus they could achieve better results on both HRs-allowed AND BABIP by generating whiffs and fly outs. They batted .500 on those premises. The problem was that the HR explosion proved a bit more ecumenical than previously thought, and a primary driver for THAT sure looks like the ball itself.

The M’s remarkably hands-off approach to roster building this off-season may be many things, from the product of ownership closing their wallet, to misreading the market to an honest, earnestly-held belief that the team literally has too many starters to go off in search of new ones in free agency. But what it clearly results in is elevating the importance of player development. The M’s now have to coach their way past their projections and the previously-measured abilities of their players. And because HRs are so, so prevalent now, and because the M’s pitchers now give them up at the same rate as Colorado pitchers did in 1999-2000, the *focus* of that teaching/coaching effort seems pretty clear.

So how are the M’s doing thus far down in Peoria? Uh, they’ve given up 31 HRs and hit 20. Look, spring training isn’t over, and the whole enterprise is beset by problems in trying to extract signal from noise. As Dan Rosenheck’s Economist piece back in 2015 details, it’s split between two fundamentally different run environments, it’s got a host of weird park effects, there’s the ultra-wide range of talent on the field – much wider than in MLB games. It all makes things hard (but not impossible) for those looking to find something meaningful in the practice games. That’s where net HRs or KW can be helpful: they’re intrateam measures first, so you don’t have to worry as much about the fact that HRs are much, much more common in Arizona than Florida. Like last spring, the Indians pitchers look particularly HR-prone, but then, their batters have clubbed more than any other team: this looks more like a park effect than a particular area of concern for a pitching staff that utterly dominated in these net stats in 2017. The M’s though… hey, it’s still early. But the M’s are getting dominated in these metrics by the Padres, a team who shares a home park with them, and whose rotation looks even more questionable than the M’s.

The M’s zone stats have also dropped off markedly this spring. Maybe it’s not as much of a point of emphasis, or maybe it’s the product of shifting ABs both to minor leaguers and the position battles that matter: utility infielder and back-up catcher, neither role of which is traditionally the source of gaudy offensive stats. But part of the reason for highlighting their success last year was that it lent credence to the idea that they could *teach* these skills. If that lesson is a fleeting one – and we don’t know that it is yet – then that’s a problem. If it’s less of a point of emphasis, especially for pitchers, that’s fine by me, but there are several approaches that could benefit BOTH K:BB ratio and HRs-allowed. I’d love to see more evidence that they’re implementing one.

Cactus League – The Avant-Garde Rockies at Mariners

marc w · March 6, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. German Marquez, 5:40pm

Another night game in the Cactus League as the M’s host Colorado tonight in Peoria. Mike Leake looks to build what’s been an absolutely brilliant start, and faces off with hard-throwing righty German Marquez. Marquez throws a four-seam fastball at about 96 MPH, pairing it with a hard curve, an occasional change, and a rarely-used, but effective-in-spots sinker. Marquez added plenty of velo in 2017, and was a generally effective/league-average-or-better starter for the Rockies, so he’s worth talking about in his own right, but I want to talk about the system that gave us German Marquez. The Rockies are doing something, and Marquez is just one example.

I mentioned this last year when the M’s and Rockies squared off in interleague play, but the Rockies have overhauled their approach to pitching. Playing at altitude requires you to think very carefully about your approach, or else you end up with the Rockies pitching staffs of the pre-humidor era, the nadir of which intersected with the steroid era. Over 1999-2000, the Rockies hurlers allowed 458 home runs, and put up a collective ERA of 5.66 with a FIP of 5.32. *After* the humidor, the Rockies have been, I think, underappreciated for their HR-suppressing ability. The Mariners have given up more HRs than the Rockies in most years since 2004, and that’s continued into this most recent HR explosion. Other teams looking to reduce HRs have attempted to minimize the pitches that go for homers most often: four-seam fastballs. The Astros throw a ton of pitches low in the zone, and feature a steady diet of non-fastballs. Same with the Yankees, who threw shockingly few fastballs in 2017, a strategy which led them to give up about 50 fewer HRs than their batters’ knocked. The Rockies know that ground balls are the surest way to avoid HRs, but they’ve taken a completely different approach to producing them: they throw a blizzard of…four-seam fastballs.

The Rockies led baseball last year in ground ball rate. They also led baseball in the percentage of four-seamers thrown, and by quite a ways. This strategy’s been kicking around Colorado for a while, as they led baseball in four-seamers from 2010-2015 (the little HR ice age), too. But they’d never come close to their percentage last year, and had a four-seam percentage 10 percentage points lower as recently as 2015.

To be clear, the Rockies are not the only team that’s tried a steady diet of four-seamers. The Rays were the prime example of this approach in recent years, as they had pitchers with high spin rates (and lots of vertical rise) trying to generate fly balls in a HR-suppressing ballpark with an OF patrolled by Kevin Kiermaier. The approach made their breaking balls/splitters more effective, and played to the strength of their defense. The Rockies are the first to use this approach to get *ground balls* – and they’ve been shockingly good at it. It hasn’t made them a great overall staff, and they’ve given up some HRs and plenty of extra-base hits, but so much of that comes from their spacious park. They’ve turned middle-to-back-of-the-rotation pitching prospects like Marquez, Antonio Senzatela and Kyle Freeland into…middle-to-back-of-the-rotation major league pitchers. And not just “eh, that’ll play in Colorado, I guess,” but legitimate league-average production. I would really like to know how.

The Mariners have talked a lot about fastballs this off-season. It’s been a subject on the Wheelhouse Podcast several times, and so we now scrutinize each new addition’s fastball metrics, from spin to movement to approach. Given the run environment, or more specifically, the home run environment the game operates in, each team *should* spend time thinking about how to use each pitcher’s arsenal to limit hard-hit, pulled contact. The M’s clearly do. But here’s the problem:

HRs Allowed
M’s, 2016-17 450
Rockies, 1999-00 458

The M’s pitchers have yielded essentially exactly the same number of HRs as the abysmal Rockies’ staffs of 1999-2000. Whatever the M’s have done, it hasn’t worked. Yes, yes, injuries. And what about the new ball? The Reds gave up way more! That’s all very true. But if you’re in the same neighborhood in HRs-allowed as pre-humidor Colorado…yeesh.

I guess I hadn’t realized just what a difference it’s made, as the Rockies haven’t had a season with over 200 HRs allowed since 2002 (they gave up exactly 200 in 2004). The M’s have gone above 200 a few times, including 2004 and then blowing past it these past two seasons. Part of this is the fact that the dimension changes in Safeco have made for a very different environment, but part of it seems to be that the M’s approach is either not quite working, or is not well-suited to Safeco. Not sure which at this point, but the M’s really may want to look at what Colorado’s doing. An M’s staff with Colorado’s HR rates would be a formidable one.

No word on who’s coming off the 40-man to make room for Ichiro!. Ryan Divish reports that it’ll be a reliever. Armstrong/Morin/Moll/Bradford have to be nervous.
1: Gordon, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Ford, 1B
8: Perkins, RF
9: Andreoli, LF
SP: Leake

Ichiro Returns

marc w · March 5, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

The news on Ben Gamel wasn’t good – his oblique issue that kept him out of the game a few days back would sideline him for 4 weeks or more. Even a grade 1 strain, the mildest form of the injury, averages 27 days or so for position players to return from. The M’s now know they’ll be without a player they’d penciled into their starting line-up. Meanwhile, Mitch Haniger’s hand problems have prevented him from practicing, let alone participating in Cactus League games. The M’s clearly saw their young OF as a potential strength coming into 2018, particularly with Dee Gordon adapting well to CF. But as of this morning, it had become a glaring need.

Ichiro Suzuki is now a part-time player, and at 44, it looked like his MLB career was over. The rebuilding Marlins jettisoned the three players ahead of him on the OF depth charts, but they didn’t want him back. I’m not sure what I would’ve expected from the tail end of Ichiro’s completely unique career, but I have to admit, I didn’t really see this coming. As someone so particular about every aspect of his practice to his pre-pitch routine, I would’ve imagined that a year like 2015 would’ve absolutely destroyed him. He hit .229/.282/.279 in over 400 PAs, playing for a go-nowhere club in Miami. Perhaps wanting to show that not even age could destroy his finely-wrought skill, he rebounded to hit .291/.354/.376 the next year. There – he’d proven his point. But he was back again in 2017, slumping to a mid-70s wRC+ and getting far fewer PAs. He still wasn’t done. He wanted a big league deal, and now he’ll get one: Ichiro signed a 1-year contract with the M’s today.

I’ll be clear: I think Ichiro is one of the coolest players I’ve ever seen, and cheering for him for a decade – though the absolute peaks of the franchise’s existence as well as the nadir – has been a privilege. I’m going to enjoy watching him for the M’s again, if only because he’s now doubly unique/inscrutable: he’s *Ichiro* and he’s *44 years old*. More than at any time in his career, he’ll be flanked by similar players – players trying to survive the home run boom through contact ability and defense. Thankfully, no one’s looking at him to carry the team, or even be a full-time player. That said, that Ichiro kind of makes sense here is something of a bad sign.

Ben Gamel’s ZiPS projection has a slash line of .250/.303/.384, not all that different from Ichiro’s .264/.323/.344, or from Guillermo Heredia’s .242/.323/.324. All are fractionally better than the projections of the other OFs in camp/on the 40-man, like Cam Perkins or John Andreoli. Even those who demand the M’s sign a free agent on the right side of 40 have to admit, the pickings have grown slim: CF John Jay would cost quite a bit more, and his own projections are only slightly better. No one should pay money to play Jon Jay in an OF corner. You could get Melky Cabrera, who’d be better at the plate, but with defensive metrics showing he’s been at least a full win below average every year since 2013, it would clearly go against one of Jerry Dipoto’s roster-building strategies. The best bet may be Seth Smith, but as a platoon player with defensive shortcomings, I can’t see Dipoto wanting to bring him back. Ichiro’s a glove-first guy who makes a lot of contact, so Dipoto was probably predisposed to at least kick the tires, even before you get to the whole franchise-icon thing.

So those fans who are stoked to have Ichiro back around are right to be excited: it’s ICHIRO. And those fans who see this as a move that doesn’t move the needle at all are right too. The M’s don’t look like they’ve done enough to capitalize on their decent position on the win curve, and seem to have been passed by teams from Anaheim to Minnesota, and they’ve acquired some outfielders, like Perkins, who they clearly don’t trust with even part-time fill-in duty (Perkins is older than Heredia, Haniger and Gamel, by the way). But how we, as fans, deal with this situation is up to us. I’ve seen Ichiro on good M’s teams, awful M’s teams, and middle-of-the-pack M’s teams. Ichiro made things a bit better in each situation, and watching Ichiro do Ichiro things on a frustrating M’s team is something I’ve done a hell of a lot of. I’m in for another round of it.

Cactus League: M’s at Brewers; Bloggers vs. Information Gap

marc w · March 2, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Junior Guerra, 12:05 (radio on 710, delayed until 7)

The M’s head to Maryvale to take on one of the most intriguing teams of 2018, the Milwaukee Brewers. After getting a jump-start on their rebuild by swapping current M’s SS Jean Segura, the Brewers made a series of deals in 2016 and have turned themselves into a contending team faster than anyone would’ve hoped. After a near miss last year, they’ve added CF Lorenzo Cain and traded for OF Christian Yelich. Their offense was solid last year, and looks to be even better now. The key is going to be pitching. While they were excellent last year, the projection systems simply aren’t buying the impressive seasons of guys like Chase Anderson and Jimmy Nelson. That they’ve now got Yovani Gallardo and Wade Miley for depth doesn’t help their projections, either.

Today’s starter, Junion Guerra, may help pitch the innings that went to Matt Garza last year (who’s left in free agency), and may prevent the Brewers from needing to squeeze serious innings out of Gallardo. Guerra’s an interesting story, having been drafted as a catcher and not starting to pitch until he was in his early 20s. Even from that point, it took him years to reach the majors, getting 4 innings with the White Sox in 2015. Claimed off of waivers, the Brewers made him a starter, and after a solid half-year with them in 2016, became the club’s opening day starter last year at age 32. 2017 was a rough one, however, as he logged just 70 IP, and lost his starting job. Plagued by shoulder injuries for a few years, Guerra’s velo was off noticeably in 2017, with his four-seam fastball down about 2 full MPH from 2016.

It’d be cool for Brewers fans to see how he’s doing, and as a Mariner fan, I’m really intrigued by the cutter Marco Gonzales is re-introducing this spring. The problem is that one of the key information sources for things like this – pitch fx – has been switched off. No longer can we get real-time data on what pitchers are throwing and how it’s working. Mike Leake’s tweaked his changeup to increase the velocity gap between it and his fastball, as this great Ryan Divish piece details. I’d love to see more stats on how many times he’s thrown it and what batters have done, but in 2018, that’s no longer possible. It’s tough to complain about access to data now that every game has statcast and gobs and gobs more data than we could ever really use. But getting information on pitchers in the spring was awesome – a great way to see who might be on the verge of a breakout and who might be slowing down.

To be clear, reporters are notifying everyone of these pitch/repertoire changes, and you can see snippets of them in highlight clips, but it’s still really, really useful to get a record of what batters do against a pitch. Leake and Gonzales are absolutely critical to the M’s playoff chances this year, and any kind of change to their arsenal may make it more likely that they can contribute the way Jerry Dipoto believes they’re capable. But every spring is full of stories like this, and many of them are left behind in Peoria when the season starts; not sure how many years we’ve heard about Felix experimenting with a cutter, for example.

Leake’s change is a fascinating example. It’s always been thrown extremely hard – it’s averaged 85-86 since Leake entered the majors, and his fastball’s been around 91. That small gap in velocity should lead to very low whiff/swinging strike rates, and that’s indeed what we’ve seen. That said, it’s been his best groundball pitch, better even than his sinker. Early in his career, it was hit quite hard, with batters often slugging over .500 against him on cambios. In recent years, Leake’s results on his change have improved markedly. It’s a nice weapon to have to pair with his cutter, especially against lefties, who’ve troubled him from time to time over his career (not too surprising for a sinkerballing righty). So Leake was already doing something with his change; some adjustment between 2015 and 2016 generated much more drop at more or less the same velocity. Will the new, larger, velocity gap make Leake more of a strikeout pitcher? I guess we’ll see – it’d be cool to see his whiff rates on it thus far, but I guess that’s not in the cards.

1: Gamel, LF
2: Romine, SS
3: Zunino, DH
4: Vogelbach, 1B
5: Lake, LF
6: Motter, 3B
7: Beckham, 2B
8: Marjama, C
9: Bishop, CF
SP: Gonzales

Vogelbach’s, uh, back in the field and starts at 1B. The M’s have been oddly consistent in where their utility-IF candidates play – Romine’s essentially only been at SS, while Motter’s played 3B. Huh.

2018 Baseball Prospectus Annual

marc w · March 1, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Hey, a non-game post here for a second. I was going to mention this earlier, but I never actually believed it would happen until I actually held the thing in my hands, but I’ve written the Mariners essay in the 2018 Baseball Prospectus Annual. More importantly, they’ve actually gone and published it.

This blog and BP go way back, as Derek and Dave wrote for BP 15-20 years ago, helping to build that site from offshoot of particularly fecund online forums to what it is now, a breeding ground for MLB team analysts and a place to find some of the best baseball writing anywhere. As a fan of BP for years, it’s a surreal feeling to see something I wrote in a BP annual, and while the essay itself may feel familiar for those 3-4 of you who religiously read each game past, I think M’s fans will get something out of it.

It’s on sale at your neighborhood book store, and it’s also at Amazon (and it’s on sale). Other M’s-blogosphere people who’ve got essays in the book include the inimitable Patrick Dubuque of BP (formerly of Lookout Landing), who wrote the Diamondbacks essay and Meg Rowley of The Hardball Times (formerly of BP and Lookout Landing) who wrote about the Astros. It’s all worth reading, and I’d be grateful if you picked one up.

Cactus League Game 7, Royals at Mariners

marc w · March 1, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Burch Smith, 12:10pm

The M’s lost to Cleveland yesterday, dropping their Cactus League record to 2-4, which is about as meaningless a thing as you’re liable to run across today. The M’s starting pitching – a disastrous start by Andrew Moore aside – has been excellent, and Mike Leake looks to continue that today. The rebuilding Royals are undefeated thus far, which just reinforces the fact that wins/losses in Arizona don’t really matter – this is where Munenori Kawasaki was a batting star, where Mike Zunino couldn’t make an out if he tried right before one of the worst seasons in Mariners history. Some things, some stats, some indicators matter. Wins and losses are not among those indicators.

Opposing Leake today is the fascinating ex-Ray/ex-Padre righty Burch Smith. Smith was utterly dominant in the Pads system in 2013, rising from AA to the majors thanks to solid control of a plus fastball and change. He throws from a low 3/4 slot, making him especially tough on right-handed bats. That said, his 10-game cup of coffee with San Diego was a frustrating one, as he hemorrhaged runs and while his K rate was nice, it didn’t make up for newfound control woes and a complete inability to deal with lefties. As Carson Cistulli (an early fan) noted at Fangraphs many years ago, one of the big issues he had was maintaining his good velocity. He averaged 93 on his four-seam fastball, but that average was the result of a much wider range than most starters. Early in the game, Smith would touch 98, and Brooks has him throwing at least one pitch at 99 in May of 2013. For a starter, that’s pretty remarkable. The problem was that by the end of his outing, he’d be at 91.

Something to work on for Smith, then, and at just 23 years old in 2013, he had plenty of time. Unfortunately, injuries got in the way. Just after he was traded to Tampa in the huge Wil Myers/Steven Souza/Trea Turner 3-way swap (what I call the Rene Rivera deal for short), he started feeling arm pain, which limited him to a handful of minor league innings in 2014. After all that rest, he was ready to make a run at the Rays rotation in 2015, but his elbow gave out and he underwent Tommy John surgery in April of 2015. After a setback with he rehab in 2016, he didn’t throw a pitch in 2015 or 2016, and had thrown all of 5+ innings in three full years. He made it back on the field for the Rays system in 2017, tossing less than 60 IP across three levels. He’s still racking up strikeouts, but you can tell he’s been Rays-ified: his fly ball rate spiked after being something of a ground ball guy in the Pads system. The Royals – desperate for pitching – swooped in and made a deal to acquire him in the Rule 5 draft this year.

It’ll be interesting to see if he’s gone full Tampa and raised his arm slot, or if he’s back in his old low, low 3/4 slot. While he won’t pitch enough to see if he’s learned to maintain his velocity, I’m kind of curious if he’s capable of touching the mid-upper-90s anymore, or if that premium velo was left on the operating table back in 2015.

1: Gordon, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Nieuwenhuis, RF
8: Hague, 1B
9: Miller, LF
SP: Leake

Matt Hague’s getting some good looks at 1B with the injury to Ryon Healy. Mike Ford – the lefty-swinging 1B the M’s got in the Rule 5 draft – has had a slow start, but he’s really competing with Vogelbach anyway. Hague still has a steep uphill climb to make the opening day roster (assuming Healy’s ready), but if Healy has a setback, you never know. The M’s wouldn’t want to just send Ford back to NY, but they presumably wouldn’t want two LHH 1Bs, either.

Felix sounds like he’ll only miss one start, which would be about the best possible outcome following his (terrifying) run-in with a line drive. To really beat their projections, the M’s need a return to form of the King.

I mentioned Seth Elledge the other day, but he didn’t make it into a game. He’s in the bullpen today, so we’ll see if he gets a look. Also available is ex-Gonzaga reliever Wyatt Mills, the underslot 3rd rounder who tore through the low-minors with his funky sidearm delivery and good command. Jack Anderson, the submariner who got touched up a bit in the Cubs game, is also in the pen.

Cactus League Split Squad Day – M’s vs. Royals and Padres

marc w · February 27, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Clayton Richard, 12:10 (audio on and also
Andrew Moore vs. Wily Peralta, 12:05 (audio on Mariners Radio Network)

The first split squad day features two moderately interesting pitching battles. Or at least, as interesting as it gets in February in which both starters will go 2 IP at most.

At one point early in last season, Clayton Richard and James Paxton were neck and neck in Baseball Prospectus’ DRA value metric. They got there in very different ways, of course: Paxton struck everyone out and held a very good Astros line-up in check. Richard had a great opening start of 2017, then got hit hard in his next two. FIP loved – and loves – Paxton, while DRA seemed enamored of Richard’s sinker and general contact-limiting approach. Richard’s sinking FB runs about 91, with heavy, heavy sink and tailing action. He throws from off near 1B, and features a change and so-so curve at 81. All in all, this is kind of a LOOGY-ish repertoire, and indeed, platoon splits have been his undoing with the Padres. One of the key values of plus velocity is the ability to neutralize platoon splits, as we see with James Paxton. Paxton’s career splits are actually reversed, and even after lowering his arm slot (which would help righties pick up the ball), he’s still dominating opposite-handed hitters. Sure, lefties fare even worse, but the point is righties are not some sort of unsolvable problem the way they were for Richard.

The key issue with Richard, as with so many pitchers last year, is the long ball. Since lowering his own arm slot, Richard has bumped his GB rate to near 60% or even above, limiting the number of fly balls he allows. The problem is that those fly balls seem to be particularly well struck – so well that even Petco Park couldn’t contain them. Normally, a 19% HR/FB ratio screams out for regression, but going into year 3.5 of the new HR era, it’s not clear where we should regress that number towards. Plus, there’s the issue that Richard’s average exit velocity on fly balls/liners was above average.

Andrew Moore and Wily Peralta is another match-up of opposites. Moore came through the system needing to prove he had just enough stuff to be a #5 starter, something many evaluators thought he’d struggle to accomplish. He’s closer than many would’ve thought, in large part due to impeccable control. Unlike Richard, Moore’s an extreme fly-ball guy, so he’s also going to run a low BABIP (Richard’s was over .350 last year, while Moore’s was under .250), but like Richard, Moore was utterly undone by home runs. That’s going to be his top priority this year – to figure out what he needs to do to avoid dingers and give his team a chance. Lefties were a particular challenge, as he gave up 8 HRs to them in just over 100 plate appearances, for a ratio of not-close-to-acceptable.

His counterpart today is former Brewer Wily Peralta, who despite minor league K:BB ratios that pale in comparison to Moore’s, got a chance to start and put together a very solid 2014. Peralta averages 96-97 with his fastball and sinker, giving him one of the best starter velocities in the game. He’s never limited walks, and he’s had a problem with home runs, platoon splits, AND stranding runners, all of which snowballed last year, leading to an ERA nearing 8 and a replacement-level FIP. He signed a one-year deal with the rebuilding Royals because as long as he still throws 97, he’s going to get chances. Every pitching coach in baseball wants a project like Wily Peralta, and you can see why: if he ever figures it out, he’s going to be really, really tough to hit. His slider features some solid downward movement, and has been a solid pitch for him over his career.

The issue is why his fastballs simply don’t get past hitters. Since the rabbit-ball era really took hold in 2016, Peralta’s giving up a SLG% of about .550 on his four-seam and nearly .500 on his sinker. He’s done this despite adding velocity through this time period, and the pitch’s results have deteriorated as it’s gained speed. It’s pretty odd.

In Peoria:
1: Gordon, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3b
6: Zunino, C
7: Ford, 1B
8: Andreoli, RF
9: Miller, LF

Three CFs!

In Surprise:
1: Bishop, CF
2: Romine, SS
3: Gamel, LF
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: Perkins, RF
6: Motter, 3B
7: Hague, 1B
8: Beckham, 3B
9: Gosewisch, C
SP: Moore

Felix was struck by a line drive in his forearm/elbow area, but x-rays were negative, and so he’ll just take some time off while his contusion subsides. Scary, scary moment in the 2nd of yesterday’s game. Speaking of contusions/good results from x-rays, Dan Vogelbach’s foot is good enough that he’s been given the start today at DH; Junior Lake was originally supposed to start there, but it’s good to see Vogelbach’s ready to hit again…and he should get a game at 1B in the next few days.

Cactus League Game 4: M’s at Cubs

marc w · February 26, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Tyler Chatwood, 12:05pm

Happy First Felix Day of 2018.

The M’s blanked the Dodgers yesterday, and so far, their pitching’s been decent. I’d love to dive into it a bit more, but after years of odd, surrealist pitch fx data from Peoria stadium, MLB’s turned off the tap, and we’ve got to go by TV and radio notes on what pitchers are throwing and how hard. It’s not the end of the world or anything, but it’s kind of frustrating. I do kind of wonder if last year’s Hisashi Iwakuma experience may have influenced the decision to just turn off a system that pretty much nobody used and one that was clearly never calibrated. I’m still bummed about it. Onward! We will find new ways to nerd out, friends.

Today the M’s head on the road to take on the Cubs and their new FA acquisition, former Rockies sinkerballer Tyler Chatwood. I say sinkerballer because he runs a great ground ball rate and has very little rise on his fastball, but, like everyone else on the Rockies last year, Chatwood actually threw a bunch of four-seamers. He came up with the Angels before getting traded by GM Jerry Dipoto in one of his first moves after taking the reins in Anaheim (in one of the many, many times Dipoto has acquired Chris Iannetta), and initially he really WAS a sinkerballer. He threw very hard, but lacked anything like an out pitch, and thus put up abysmal K rates and K:BB numbers (you can see why Dipoto wasn’t buying it). But beginning in mid 2016, he’s made his four-seamer his primary fastball. It’s arrow straight, and averaged over 95mph last year – pretty exceptional for a starting pitcher. It’s got a decent amount of rise, but Chatwood’s placement and velocity combine to give him far, far more ground balls than you’d expect. In fact, since switching over to a much more four-seam-heavy approach, his ground ball rate has gone *up* and he’s now an elite GB guy.

It’ll be interesting to see what the Cubs do with him. All of those grounders didn’t make him more effective last year. The poor HR/FB ratio figures to get better now that he’s not pitching at altitude, but he’s also never figured out how to avoid walks, either. Chatwood’s breaking balls help boost his GB rates, too, and there again, Chatwood’s made some changes. He now throws a ton of sliders to righties, after coming up as a sinker/curve/change guy.

More importantly for the M’s, there are some intriguing pitchers who’ll get some time once King Felix leaves the field. Shawn Armstrong, the reliever the M’s got from the Indians earlier in the offseason, makes his second appearance. Later on, we may get to see Seth Elledge, a 4th round pick out of Dallas Baptist last year. Elledge is a hard-throwing reliever who figures to get lots of closing opportunities in the minors this year, and who could move pretty rapidly this year. I don’t know how much it matters, given the state of the M’s system, but I think he’s being overlooked a bit, and would probably be in my system top 10, though he isn’t in BA’s or Fangraphs’. If you’ve listened to the M’s Wheelhouse podcast, you may have heard about the competition the M’s run, in which the pitcher and hitter with the best “control the zone” stats (generally K:BB ratio) get some time in big league camp in spring training. I believe Ljay Newsome won that award this year, and he figures to get in a game today as well. The youngster out of a Maryland high school was drafted in 2015, and has walked just 31 in 201 professional innings since, with 179 Ks. He’s not going to blow anyone away, and he’s struggled with HRs as an extreme fly ball guy, but he’s clearly on board with the M’s approach, and has been pretty young for his league.

1: Gordon, CF
2: Romine, SS
3: Perkins, DH
4: Lake, LF
5: Nieuwenhuis, RF
6: Motter, 3B
7: Hague, 1B
8: Freitas, C
9: Beckham, 2B

A 3-4-5 of Perkins/Lake/Nieuwenhuis (all waiver claims/MiLB signings) is peak spring training. We’ll see a few more of them coming up, as the M’s have their first split-squad day tomorrow.

M’s vs. Kershaw, Seager vs. Seager: Cactus League Game 3

marc w · February 25, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Clayton Kershaw, 12:10pm

Yesterday’s game featured very few players who’ll start games for the M’s this year, and the go-ahead run scored on a wild pitch. Today’s game features the best pitcher of his generation, and marks the very first time the Seager brothers – Kyle and Corey – will face off on a professional field. Oh, and for good measure, Nelson Cruz and Robbie Cano are back in the line-up. It’s a good one to watch.

Gonzales is essentially a microcosm of the tension between the M’s front office and the projection systems. The M’s viewed Gonzales as a huge get last year, sending one of their top prospects in Tyler O’Neill for the lefty who was coming off of TJ surgery. In his comments about him, Jerry Dipoto essentially laughed off his recent (and even career) numbers, saying that sometimes you see a guy return after injury and he’s simply not the same any more. Uh, in a good way, though.

One reason is velocity. Gonzales was throwing harder than he had in his initial call-ups in St. Louis down the stretch for Seattle, and of course velo matters. It didn’t help his results, but it’s the kind of indicator that helps explain why the M’s might see a breakout coming. Second, as John Trupin explains in a detailed article at LL, is a change in mechanics. He’s dropped his release point, and moved it out towards 1B a bit, lowering his arm slot in general, and giving his fastball (and his secondaries) more horizontal movement as well as, perhaps, unlocking some velocity.
Here’s his vertical release point – it’s subtle, but it’s pretty clear:
Gonzales' vertical release points

Finally, as Shannon Drayer’s article this morning explains, he’s attempting to bring back another pitch – a cutter – that he’d shelved since his arm troubles began several years ago. When he came up, Gonzales used a hard slider/cutter, especially to lefties, fairly often. He hasn’t thrown it since 2014, though, as he was up and down and then shelved with TJ surgery and rehab. The Cards told him to scrap the pitch, which is a bit harder on the elbow than fastballs/change-ups that allow the arm to pronate more, until he’d built up enough healthy innings, and he kept to that plan last year. Still healthy, it’s about time for him to start using it in games (he’s throwing it in bullpen sessions), though, interestingly, he tells Drayer he sees it as a weapon against *righties* this time.

All of those adjustments are critical, because as last year showed, he needs to make some changes. Despite the improved velocity, his fastball wasn’t an effective pitch overall. It got more whiffs, but much, much harder contact. As Trupin notes, part of that may be that the velocity gap between his FB and change dropped, making his change less effective (and it’s true, it WAS less effective). Finally, he pretty clearly needs something else to throw at righties, who’ve hit him especially hard, solid change-up or not. In summary, there are plenty of reasons to think Gonzales has plenty more in the tank than M’s fans have seen, and that he’s close to making the leap from frustrating prospect to solid #3/4 starter. None of those reasons are found anywhere in his statistical record, but they’re found in what we would’ve called scouting reports years ago. This is not 2003, and sabermetric fans are, to put it mildly, nowhere near as anti-scouting as we once were, or as Michael Lewis wrote. It’s too early to see if those scouting indicators are going to start showing up in Gonzales’ results, but I’d like to see more evidence that they’re real and developing. Let’s see him use that slider/cutter, and let’s see how his velo’s doing.

Today’s line-up:
1: Gamel, LF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Perkins, RF
8: Ford, 1B
9: Miller, CF
SP: Gonzales

A largely “real” line-up, plus a couple of intriguing additions. Ian Miller is the speedburning CF prospect NOT named Braden Bishop. Miller’s another very good defender, and is perhaps even more deficient in power/isolate slugging. On the plus side, he’s a brilliant baserunner, stealing 43 bags last year and 49 the year before while being caught just 8 times *in 2016-17 combined*. That’s a 92:8 ratio, which is good.

Logan Morrison hit 38 bombs last year and just signed a 1 year, $6.5 M deal with Minnesota, leading to this barbed tweet from national writer Matthew Pouliot:

In good news about the 1B position, the x-rays on Dan Vogelbach’s foot were negative – no broken bones, just a deep bruise. He should be ready to play in a few days. Nick Rumbelow came out of yesterday’s game with the trainers, seemingly due to a small cut. Hopefully that too’s a day-to-day situation and nothing serious.

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