Game 45, Mariners at Rays

marc w · May 26, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

JA Happ vs. Alex Colome, 4:10pm

Yesterday’s game worked out pretty well, and the game plan for today’s pretty similar. Alex Colome’s a right-hander with a good fastball, a four-seamer with lots of vertical rise and almost no horizontal movement. In that respect, he’s likely roughly EVERY OTHER STARTER THE M’S HAVE FACED ON THIS TRIP*. Seriously, this is kind of interesting to me. The M’s recently faced the Orioles, whose starters feature an abnormally high average “rise” on their fastballs, and now they face the Rays, who actually lead the league in rising fastballs. The Rays take it a step further in another way, though. The Orioles rotation features guys with big four-seamers, but many of them (like Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen) mix in some sinkers as well. Not too many, as the Orioles rank 3rd in MLB in the percentage of four-seamers (FA in Fangraphs’ leaderboards) thrown by starters. The Rays again lead the league in four-seamer percentage, as they’ve all but eliminated sinking fastballs. If you add sinkers and two-seamers together (I still don’t know that there’s an actual distinction here), you find that the average team throws about 23% sinking fastballs, with the Pirates nearing 40%. Only the Rays are under 10%, at just over 7%, and much of that’s come courtesy of Erasmo Ramirez, who clearly isn’t endearing himself to the Rays or their fans at this point, and Drew Smyly, who’s out for the year. The gap between the Rays and Yankees in 2nd place is larger than the gap between the Yankees and Marlins, down in 9th place.

So the Rays – even more than the Orioles – clearly put a premium on establishing rising four-seamers. It’s an interesting approach, as you might expect it to reduce BABIP and contact, but result in tons of HRs. You can kind of see the opposite approach at work down in Houston, where the Astros rank last in four-seamers thrown overall, and 2nd in GB% behind the like-minded Pirates. The Astros HR/FB is a bit higher than the Rays, but by limiting the denominator, they rank fairly well in HR prevention, and as a result, they’ve got a team FIP of about 3.6. The Rays give up fly balls, but also get more strikeouts and have fewer baserunners, and, thanks to the likes of Kevin Kiermaier and Evan Longoria, run a low BABIP. The puts and takes are quite different, but the Rays end up with a team FIP of 3.7, and an ERA that’s a bit better than that. Neither team spends a ton of money period, and the Rays spend little on their rotation. They just cut their highest paid pitcher overall (Grant Balfour), and with Drew Smyly, Alex Cobb and Matt Moore rehabbing, the most expensive starter is Chris Archer, pulling in just over $1m per year. This pitcher type might be a way to cobble together a decent rotation – or rotation depth – on the cheap. I don’t think the Rays went into the year planning on Alex Colome and Nate Karns getting a ton of innings, but they’ve been decent when the Rays needed them.

So, back to Colome: his FB comes in around 95, and in prior years he’s been a change-up/slider pitcher. He developed a curve ball in 2014, and has been throwing that a bit more in 2015, particularly to lefties. But the big change in Colome’s repertoire is a move away from a slider and towards a firmer cutter (yes, the same move Odorizzi’s been making too). He always had a very hard slider – it was 88mph last year and it’s 87 this year, but the cutter’s even harder than that. It has very little horizontal movement, and as you’d expect, a bit less vertical drop. In 5 starts thus far, Colome’s control’s noticeably better – his walk rate’s under 3% despite throwing an average number of pitches in the zone. He can apparently throw a strike when he needs to. That said, his contact rate’s been rising, and he’s not the swing-and-miss guy he seemed like he might be when he debuted back in 2013. His splits have been all over the place in a very small sample (this’ll be his 12th big league start), and given the changes he’s made to his pitch mix, there’s just not much to go on there.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Castillo, C
8: Miller, LF
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Happ

The M’s are sending down Danny Farquhar to Tacoma to make room for Austin Jackson. That makes some sense, but it’s really just prolonging the big decision point facing the M’s. The club doesn’t want to go with six bullpen arms indefinitely, so this just buys them some time while they figure out if they want to option someone like Chris Taylor or jettison a vet like Dustin Ackley, Rickie Weeks or Justin Ruggiano. Bob Dutton’s blog post covers the options quite well.

Yesterday’s late loss dropped the Rainiers to 18-27. They face Omaha today, but haven’t named a starter at this point. With Taijuan Walker struggling, many would like to see the struggling righty switch places with someone in the Rainiers’ rotation, but that’s a bit tougher than it looks. Mike Montgomery’s on the 40-man and has pitched fairly well, but the team may want to get him more work in AAA – he’s struggled at the AAA level since 2011, and the M’s may want to take it slow with the talented but enigmatic Montgomery. Justin Germano would require a 40-man move (which isn’t THAT big of an impediment at this point thanks to the maybe-still-dinged-up Edgar Olmos), but hasn’t logged significant MLB time since 2010. McClendon favorite Jordan Pries was ineffective and is now hurt and another guy with big-league experience, Mike Kickham, was ineffective and then cut, so after that you’re looking at very short-term solutions like giving someone a spot start or two. If you’re going to do something like that, you may as well just have a bullpen day with Tom Wilhelmsen starting, so the M’s are in something of a bind here. The M’s need Walker to improve, and there just isn’t much depth behind him at this point.

Jackson, who you’ll remember rank last in the Southern League in ERA, face Montgomery today as Edwin Diaz tries to figure out AA. The righty’s had two sub-par starts in his introduction to the high minors, and now faces the SL’s 2nd-ranked offense.

Bakersfield lost the series finale to High Desert by a score of 4-3. Today’s an off-day, and then they’ll take their last-place offense to league leading Visalia. Austin Wilson hit his 3rd HR yesterday, which is something.

Clinton’s got the best record of the M’s affiliates at 21-24, and they’ll have Zack Littell – coming off a strong start where he threw 6 scoreless – on the mound against Peoria today. The L-Kings swept a double-header yesterday, taking game 1 5-1 over Burlington behind Lukas Schiraldi, and then winning the nightcap 2-1 on a 7th inning walk-off single from Chris Mariscal.

* Except Mark Buehrle, who at this point isn’t terribly similar to anyone.

Game 44, Mariners at Rays

marc w · May 25, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Roenis Elias vs. Jake Odorizzi, 4:10pm

The M’s loss yesterday pushed them behind the Rangers and into 4th place in the AL West. The Rangers’ surge hasn’t dented the M’s playoff odds that much, both because the Rangers are bad, and because it’s coincided with 2 straight losses by the Angels.

The M’s head to St. Petersburg today to face the surprising Rays, who currently lead the AL East. Many expected something of a rebuild this year from Tampa after losing David Price, Wil Myers AND GM Andrew Friedman over the past year. Instead, they’ve been remarkably solid in all phases of the game – a 101 wRC+ at the plate, a 6th-best ERA/10th-best FIP from the staff, and excellent defense. Ex-Mariner Rene Rivera was a known defensive asset, and Kevin Kiermaier may be one of the best defensive OFs in the game, but they’re getting defense from unlikely sources, like, er, ex-Mariner farmhand Asdrubal Cabrera. They currently sport the 2nd best BABIP-against/DER in baseball, behind only the Royals. This has been critical, as they’re already missing two of their better pitchers in Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly. Cobb’s been a brilliant but injury-prone starter for Tampa, but he’s still contributing to the club.

It was Cobb who taught today’s starter Jake Odorizzi a splitter, and changed the career trajectory of the young right-hander. Odorizzi was part of two huge trades (one for Greinke, one for Shields) but never had an outpitch. He seemed like a solid #4-5 guy, but nothing more. Worse, with a sub-par change-up, lefties destroyed him. Before the 2014 season, he picked up Alex Cobb’s split-change thing (both Cobb and Odorizzi actually call it ‘the Thing’) and began throwing it a lot. He threw about 1/3 splitters last season, and he’s actually begun 2015 by throwing *more* of them. He now throws it nearly 1/2 the time to lefties, and now instead of getting destroyed by lefties, he’s running reverse splits. The pitch isn’t perfect – it gets fewer whiffs and grounders than Cobb’s or Iwakuma’s splitters. He gave up 6 HRs on it last year, or one fewer than Iwakuma’s given up in his *career*. The pitch also helps Odorizzi balance his fly-ball heavy fastball. With a 11″ of rise and little in the way of horizontal movement, Odorizzi’s fastball is an extreme fly ball pitch, and you can see that in his overall stats: only Chris Young had a lower GB rate than Odorizzi last season. That’s led to some issues with HRs, and that may be what’s behind his changing use of the pitch.

This year, Odorizzi is throwing fewer fastballs, with lefties seeing a lot more splitters and righties seeing more cutters. He started moving away from his slider last year and towards a firmer cutter, and that transition’s essentially done this year – he’s not thrown any sliders. The cutter isn’t really a swing and miss pitch; Odorizzi seems to use it to generate weak contact. And because he uses it so much to righties, it’s a big reason for his odd platoon splits. Odorizzi doesn’t just have a better wOBA against or FIP vs. lefties – he looks like a different pitcher. Lefties strike out much more and walk less. His K-BB% was twice as good vs. lefties last year, and this year the gap’s even bigger. Instead of chasing Ks, it looks like he’s trying to limit HRs and hard contact, and thus far, he’s done so. Still, given his approach and his improving command, the M’s should really get as many *right* handed hitters in the line-up as they can.

1: Smith, RF
2: Miller, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Ruggiano, CF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Taylor, SS
9: Zunino, C
SP: Elias

Oh well.

The Rainiers dropped the finale of their series against the I-Cubs yesterday 7-4, as Cubs prospect Javier Baez knocked two HRs against R’s starter Sam Gaviglio. Jesus Montero and Pat Kivlehan homered for Tacoma, and Kevin Gregg pitched his 2nd scoreless inning since joining the team. The Rainiers played an early game today in Omaha, and lost a tough one. The Storm Chasers scored five runs in the bottom of the 8th to beat Mayckol Guaipe and the Rainiers 8-5. Forrest Snow started and pitched well before he lost his command all of the sudden in the 2nd. Logan Bawcom came in, got out of a bases loaded jam, and pitched another 3 innings after that.

Jackson reeled in the Pensacola Blue Wahoos 6-5. The Generals trailed 4-0 before mounting a comeback. Dan Paolini had a 2 run triple that gave Jackson the lead. More importantly, the game featured Jabari Blash pinch hitting for Jabari Henry, the best pinch-hit since Corey Hart pinch hit for the other Corey Hart back in 2005. Jimmy Gilheeney starts for Jackson today against Wandy Peralta of Pensacola.

High Desert held off Bakersfield yesterday in 11 innings despite HRs from Tim Lopes and Carlton Tanabe. Dan Altivilla pitched well, but the 3-4-5 hitters for Bakersfield went 0-11. Tyler Pike starts today for the Blaze.

Clinton was rained out yesterday, and they’re playing two today. Lukas Schiraldi went in game 1, and Jarrett Brown starts game 2 against Burlington.

Game 43, Mariners at Blue Jays

marc w · May 24, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Aaron Sanchez, 10:07am

So the series finale features either a preview of two future stars or two command-challenged, over-hyped young fireballers.

Aaron Sanchez throws 95-99, and blew threw the low minors quickly. In the high minors, though, some issues started to appear. For one, he walked too many. For another, he stopped missing bats, and settled in around 7 K/9 or so. It didn’t hurt him too much thanks to all of that velocity and his avoidance of HRs. That wasn’t just luck, either, as Sanchez’s main fastball is a sinker at 96, and that’s why he’s got a GB% of around 60% in his brief MLB career. His K:BB ratio may never be pretty, but he still hasn’t given up too many runs. He made 20-odd appearances at the end of 2014 as a reliever, but he’s been the Jays 5th starter this season, and while his stats have declined, he’s still starting, which many prospect watchers believed he simply couldn’t do in the bigs.

That said, starting really has magnified some of the…issues Sanchez has. For one, his control problems have worsened, and in 45 IP this year he’s struck out 30, but walked 32 (and plunked a pair of hitters, too). For another, while he’s been death on a stick against righties, he’s developed some serious platoon issues. In his career, righties are hitting .129/.225/162 with 0 HRs while lefties enjoy a line of .258/.388/.451 with 6 HRs. Sanchez’s primary breaking ball is a curve that’s actually been effective against both, but he also throw a really hard (89-90) change-up that looks to have great movement (tons of horizontal run, plus sink), but that doesn’t seem to trouble lefties as much as it should. Taijuan Walker knows how that goes.

1: Miller, 2B
2: Smith, LF
3: Cano, DH
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Castillo, C
8: Ackley, CF
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Walker

Six lefties in the lineup.

The Rainiers lost to Iowa yesterday 13-7 in Justin Germano’s first truly bad outing of the year. Patrick Kivlehan homered off of Yoervis Medina in the 7th, and Franklin Gutierrez had 3 hits. Sam Gaviglio starts today opposite Donn Roach, a one-time Angels farmhand who moved to SD in the Ernesto Frieri deal and was signed off waivers by the Cubs. He’s an extreme sinkerballer who posts eye-popping GB rates but little else.

Jackson beat Pensacola in 11 IP yesterday. Reds prospect Robert Stephenson got out of the first against the Generals, and ended up striking out *11* in just 4 2/3, but Jackson ran his pitch count up (he walked 5 in that stretch), and did some damage against the bullpen. DJ Peterson had a triple and IF Tyler Smith had two doubles. Jake Zokan starts against the Blue Wahoos today.

Bakersfield got blanked 5-0 last night against High Desert. Mavericks starter Richelson Pena had a perfect game into the 7th, as he’d retired the first 19 hitters to face him, but he gave up a single to Tim Lopes with 1 out. Ryan Yarbrough took the loss. Dan Altavilla starts today.

Clinton beat Burlington 10-2. Gianfranco Wawoe had 2 hits including his 3rd HR of the year. Patrick Peterson starts today.

Game 42, Mariners at Blue Jays

marc w · May 23, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Mark Buehrle, 10:07am

Oh great, another absurdly early start.

The M’s face long-time foe Mark Buehrle, who’ll make his 18th career start against Seattle. The lefty’s fastball is now only about 85-86, but he put up a 3 fWAR season last year at the age of 35. He throws a four- and two-seam fastball, a good change-up, a cutter and a curve. Partly because he doesn’t strike anyone out, he’s known at least as much for his pace than his repertoire. On average, Buehrle’s delivered a pitch every 17 seconds or so, compared to a league average around 23. It’s early, but he’s cut another second off that average this year, averaging just over 16 seconds between pitches. With new rules in place to speed up the hitters that used to slow Buehrle down, it makes sense that his pace should be down a bit from his career numbers. By eschewing overthinking and routine, Buehrle shaves plenty of time off a game. This is how you come up with something like this: a game between the M’s and White Sox in 2005 that took 1:39 to complete.

Who’s the fastest worker on the M’s staff? It’s actually today’s starter, James Paxton, whose pace ranks 10th in the league so far (Buehrle is, obviously, #1). Paxton seems to have righted the ship a bit after a poor start, and he continues to benefit from a low BABIP, but his control issues have resulted in lots of hitters’ counts thus far. That may be part of the reason why he’s given up so many more fly balls this year than ever before. He’s still a ground ball guy, but definitely not as extreme as he was before 2015. Toronto’s obviously a place where fly balls get punished, as park factors or Mark Buehrle’s elevated HR rate will tell you.

1: Weeks, LF
2: Bloomquist, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Ruggiano, CF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Paxton

Lots of righties today, but Buehrle doesn’t have much in the way of platoon splits.

Justin Germano starts for Tacoma today in Iowa. The I-Cubs topped Tacoma 10-9 last night, getting a walk-off win against Mayckol Guaipe in the 9th. Leon Landry and Carlos Rivero homered for the Rainiers.

Jackson faces Pensacola and enigmatic Reds prospect Robert Stephenson today. The Generals knocked Stephenson out in the 1st last month, but he’s still a guy with 97-98mph velo as a starter. The Blue Wahoos blanked the Generals yesterday 3-0. Jackson got 6 singles and 7 walks, but couldn’t get a timely hit to score a run. Today’s starter for Jackson is well-traveled vet TBD.

Bakersfield lost to High Desert 5-2, as Eddie Campbell did indeed get out of the first, but was knocked out after 2 IP and 5 runs allowed. That lowered his Cal League ERA to 37.13. Tyler O’Neill hit his 11th home run in the 8th. He’s got an OPS over 1.000 in May after struggling mightily in April. Still only 19, the OF from Maple Ridge, BC seems to have figured something out; his K:BB ratio was 31:1 in April, but just 15:6 in May, with the same number of ABs in each month. Ryan Yarbrough starts tonight for the Blaze.

Burlington beat Clinton 10-7 yesterday, despite two doubles from Gianfranco Wawoe. Tyler Herb starts tonight’s game against Jeremy Rhoades of the Bees.

Every good bullpen is the same; every bad bullpen is bad in its own way

marc w · May 22, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

With Danny Farquhar’s loss yesterday to Baltimore, the M’s tied the historically hapless Athletics with 12 bullpen losses on the year, the most in the majors. M’s fans know well, of course, that the pen hasn’t been operating at peak effectiveness, and that it’s cost the M’s several wins, but nationally, the M’s bullpen struggles may fly under the radar because they’re within the normal range, whereas Oakland’s struggles really do seem pretty unique. Dave wrote a great article at Rob Neyer’s Just a Bit Outside site on the A’s, but I wanted to look at the myriad ways bullpens can become a problem by looking at the M’s and Marlins struggles, and how they differ from the A’s.

The job of the bullpen’s pretty clear: don’t let inherited runners score, and snuff out any potential comebacks before they occur. The best way to do this, it seems, is to pair high-strikeout guys with platoon specialists, and in so doing limit balls in play, hits and runs. This is all pretty obvious, but if we’re going to talk about how this can go wrong, we should probably start with the platonic ideal of a bullpen. In recent years, the closest thing to a platonic idea we’ve seen has been the Kansas City and Atlanta bullpens, who’ve combined high-K set-up and closers with some highly effective left-handed specialists, and given up very few runs as a result. You can make a go of it in other ways, and the M’s had a good run for a year with the likes of Roy Corcoran, who induced a lot of weak (ground ball) contact for a while, and then abruptly stopped doing so. To be consistently good, the Aroldis Chapman/Craig Kimbrel/Jordan Walden type is effective because you take a lot of lucky elements out of play. There’s no BABIP fluctuations to worry about with strikeouts, and high-velocity pitchers often run lower BABIPs and HR/FB ratios because they’re just much harder to barrel up. A great K:BB ratio and lower HRs produces a great FIP, and that’s generally correlated with good runs-on-the-board results.

But not always. As of today, the Marlins rank 3rd in baseball in bullpen FIP at 2.93, essentially tied with the 2nd place Astros (?). They’ve got the lowest HR rate of any team, and they pair that with the 7th best K:BB ratio. Because their home park, some of that low HR rate isn’t related to their performance, but even after park adjusting with FIP-, they rank 5th in baseball. They’ve been good.

Sort to ERA, though, and the Marlins rank 21st, and by WPA, they’re consorting with the M’s and A’s – they rank 28th. There are a number of somewhat complicated factors at work here and one big simple one. First, their balls in play have found holes, and that’s pushing up their ERA relative to the fielding-independent numbers. Partly as a result of that high BABIP, they’re terrible at stranding inherited runners – they rank 3rd worst in all of baseball with 43% of inherited runners scoring, and they’ve converted just 4 of the 12 save opportunities they’ve had. This points to the simple factor here: their closer just lost it. Steve Cishek has been a solid if non-traditional closer for a few years, and he’s generally been quite good. A high-GB guy, he’s limited home runs, but he’s not just a Corcoran clone: his K rate started around 25% in 2012 and hit 30% last year. From 2012 through 2014, Cishek ranked 5th in baseball in WPA, with 6.98, just ahead of Koji Uehara, Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman. This year, he’s last in baseball, and it’s not even close. Other players have chipped in, of course. Bryan Morris really WAS more of a Corcoran clone, with a high GB rate covering over a sub-par K rate and bad walk rate, but it worked for him in Pittsburgh and again last year in Miami, until it suddenly stopped working in 2015.

Lessons: getting a good MLB closer out of nowhere happens somewhat often, but a bad couple of months from a closer can absolutely kill your WPA, dent your playoff chances, and piss off your fans. The Marlins have had some luck go against them, and they seem to have a good closer candidate now in AJ Ramos, so they won’t finish the year with this huge gap between ERA, FIP and WPA, but it illustrates that a great FIP doesn’t always translate into great results. This reminds me a bit of the Athletics of last year, whose bullpen was good overall, but suffered through the implosion of Jim Johnson’s closing career in April/May.

The Mariners are the opposite of the Marlins in many respects. The percentage of inherited runners that they’ve allowed to score is lower than league average, for example, and the percentage of save opportunities they’ve converted is dead on the league average. Their FIP isn’t pretty despite a low HR rate because they’ve walked far too many hitters – their 10.7% BB rate is 28th in baseball. But they’ve pitched around it, thanks in part to a good BABIP, and that’s left their ERA at a decent 3.60 – far below their FIP, and not something you’d associate with their low WPA, which ranks 26th.

Like the Marlins, the M’s have one big offender in the WPA department. Danny Farquhar’s WPA of -1.41 ranks second worst in baseball, distantly trailing Cishek’s. Farquhar’s strikeout rate has tumbled this year to under 19%. It was 28% last year, and nearly 35% just two seasons ago. To make matters worse, his HR/9 has gone from 0.32 in 2013 to 0.63 last year to 1.17 thus far in 2015. I’d worried a lot about a decline in velocity, but it’s movement that tells the story much better – Farquhar’s cutter really looked like a hard slider in previous years, but this year it’s behaving like a slow version of his fastball – the difference in horizontal movement from his four seam is less than 4″ now, down from 6.5″ or so last year, and the vertical drop is less than 2″ different. It’s a straight fastball now, and batters have responded by killing it. But he’s not a closer, so you’d think that the M’s could quarantine the damage a bit, especially given worsening movement on his cutter. That hasn’t happened yet, as Farquhar leads the team in bullpen IP.

The M’s have done all right in save opportunities, but the Fernando Rodney experience hasn’t been kind to the team’s WPA. He’s at -0.54, largely the result of back-to-back appearances early in the year. He blew a save in LA, taking a -0.8 hit in WPA just two days after a dramatic game in Oakland in which Fernando gave up *4* runs in the 9th to the A’s, sending the game to extras. But of course that just meant the M’s got to face Oakland’s historic bullpen, and thus Tyler Clippard served up a Nelson Cruz HR in the 10th. WPA isn’t predictive overall, and it really really isn’t predictive in a case like this, where two games exert such a strong pull on his overall number because we’re only 25% of the way through the season for a pitcher who’s only going to throw 60 IP or so. Rodney won’t keep putting up an awful WPA, especially if he keeps converting saves. The TEAM won’t continue to have an odd gap between ERA and WPA, because Farquhar’s eventually going to cede time to Carson Smith and the now-healthy Tom Wilhelmsen. Dominic Leone (2nd worst WPA) is in Tacoma. This is the kind of bad luck that’s bound to even out. But while that’s true, that’s not the only form of luck operating here. The M’s still haven’t really paid for their poor K:BB ratio, and if regression helps in one area, it can just as easily hurt in another. In some ways, the Marlins have it easier, because they isolated the big problem and can now wait for their solid FIP to result in better actual-runs-allowed.

Lesson: especially early in the year, little things can cascade and have a big impact on a team’s record. The bullpen has been extremely deep in recent years, and just the other day, the M’s were able to deal Yoervis Medina for big-league help. But a 15-day DL stint and a lack of confidence in Medina (ironically, Medina leads the M’s bullpen in WPA) meant that Lloyd McClendon felt he had to continue to use Farquhar. Poor starts from Taijuan Walker’s left the bullpen somewhat overtaxed, and pushed everyone’s workload up, and the offense has struggled against non-Oakland bullpens, meaning the M’s pen has had a lot on its shoulders. Despite decent runs-allowed stats and good work with inherited runners, they’ve given up critical runs in tie games. Not all of this is likely to last, but it’s a big reason the M’s playoff odds have been cut in half in a month, and a big reason why they trail the Angels by 2.5 games.

As I think you may be tired of reading, none of this is predictive. The Marlins and Mariners could finish with above-average bullpens, and could even fare well by WPA by the end of the year. More save opportunities for AJ Ramos, and more innings period for Carson Smith and the picture could change. But it’s kind of interesting how many ways a bullpen can struggle. The A’s have had the misfortune of hitting on all of them at once, as Dave mentioned – their ERA sucks, their FIP sucks, and the impact’s been even worse due to sequencing and leverage (when the pressure’s greatest, the A’s get worse). All of this is magnified early in the year, of course, but knowing that things may regress is very different from how it FEELS to watch the M’s, or how it must feel to Marlins fans when Cishek trots in. It’s often said that sabermetrics can’t get at emotions – they can’t illuminate what it’s like to watch a dominant pitcher, or what it feels like when a team wins. In this limited case, however, I think they do a decent job. You just need to know which numbers to look at. FIP isn’t great at emotion. WPA, on the other hand, is a wonderful proxy for angst.

Game 41, Mariners at Blue Jays

marc w · May 22, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Marco Estrada, 4:07pm

Happy Felix Day / Bonne Fete de la Roy Felix

Another day, and another tough loss after the M’s offense scrabbled together a few runs to get out of an early hole. I’ll have a post on that coming up, but the M’s bullpen has struggled in very different ways than, for example, the A’s remarkably terrible one. At least the loss didn’t hurt, as both the Astros and Angels lost as well. The Astros came back late against David Price and the Tigers only to lose in extras, so it wasn’t just the M’s who saw comebacks nullified by a bullpen slip-up.

Today’s game pits our valiant King against Marco Estrada, who features a low-90s four-seamer with tons of vertical rise, leading to high fly ball rates and lots of home runs. Seriously, didn’t I just write this preview yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that? I know managers sometimes like to structure their rotations to balance lefties and righties, but this is kind of amazing. If there’s anything to the idea that a team can adjust to the movement on a fastball, the M’s should be in good shape. I’m not sure there IS anything to that idea, or if it’s just an idea I made up this morning, but we can hope.

Estrada came up with the Nationals, but is best known as a solid part of the Brewers staff from about 2011-2014. He broke out in 2012, compiling a K-BB% over 20%. He had swing-and-miss stuff, great control, and if he gave up a few too many HRs, that was an acceptable price to pay. Fangraphs had him at 3.2 fWAR that year in only 23 starts and 138 IP. Injuries limited him to less than 130 IP the following year, but he was still effective, if not quite the potential star he’d looked like in 2012. Each of his peripherals were trending the wrong way, and by the end of 2013, he didn’t have much room to fall and still be effective. Unfortunately for Estrada, he fell off markedly – his K% dropped from 23% to 20%, his walk rate increased, and his HR rate spiked to 1.73HR/9. That all added up to a sub-replacement-level season, and got him shipped out of town for Adam Lind. So, a pitcher struggling mightily with HRs prepared to head not only from the NL to the AL, but to one of the few parks that boosts HRs as much as Milwaukee’s Miller Park: Rogers Centre. When it became clear that Estrada would get some time in the rotation, Joe Sheehan tweeted a reminder that the MLB record for HRs in a year was 50. Estrada’s making only his fourth start today, and has thrown just 25 innings, so Bert Blyleven’s record is probably safe for now. But he’s already yielded 5, or one every 5 IP, so the idea that Estrada would struggle to be effective in Toronto is still very much alive.

Unlike the Orioles troika of high-FB, high-HR, surprisingly low-ERA hurlers, Estrada’s never really “beaten” his FIP. In fact, his FIP’s actually a bit better than his ERA over his career. When he’s on, he uses his rising FB with a curve and a good change to rack up strikeouts, and that makes it easier to pitch around the occasional homer. His K% is actually back *up* this year after years of decline, though that’s probably got something to do with the fact he started the year in the bullpen. Since 2012, he’s gone away from his curve – which used to be his second-most-frequent pitch behind the four-seam – to his change-up, which he now throws nearly 40% of the time. It’s a good swing-and-miss pitch, unlike the curve, but while it’s not quite as much of a fly-ball pitch as his fastball, it’s still easy for batters to elevate. The curve tends to get hit on the ground, which seems like an attractive option for a guy with a dinger problem. On the other hand, strikeouts are perhaps the only way for Estrada to balance things out. If he can keep his K rate near 25%, he’s got a shot to stick around like his ex-teammate Carlos Villanueva. Of course, Villanueva never could last in a rotation full time, so maybe the better approach is to focus on keeping his walks under 5%, like late-period Dan Haren.

Using that straight-over-the-top delivery that so many Brewers pitchers favored (Yovani Gallardo being another good example), Estrada’s platoon splits have always been pretty even. The change-up helps with that, but it’s something of an all-or-nothing pitch: it generates more swinging strikes than any of his other pitches, but it’s also got a higher HR/FB ratio than his FB, which is a HR pitch in its own right. This does not seem like a game where the M’s need to focus on stacking the line-up with lefties…

1: Miller, CF
2: Smith, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Castillo, C
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
SP: King. Felix.

…and yet Welington Castillo, DH? Sure, Estrada doesn’t have big platoon splits, but Castillo does. No one’s looking to see Dustin Ackley’s bat at DH, but Ackley actually has a higher wRC+ in his career against righties than Castillo does. Or if you want to give Ackley a rest, and I’m for that by the way, what about Justin Ruggiano, who has a higher wRC+ against righties than either Castillo or Ackley?

So, Brad Miller is officially a big league CF now. This should be interesting. I’m still skeptical of the Miller-as-Zobrist idea, just because no one has made it clear to me why he shouldn’t be a shortstop. His value takes a hit with a number of starts in OF corners, but CF has been a problem for the M’s, and if Miller can help cover it, I guess that’s making the best of a bad situation.

Mike Montgomery picked up his fourth win last night as Tacoma beat the I-Cubs 5-3. Old friend Yoervis Medina pitched in that game, giving up a hit to Austin Jackson (who promptly stole 2nd) and walking James Jones and Jesus Montero, but he didn’t give up any runs. Jackson, Pat Kivlehan and Jesus Sucre each had two hits, and Tony Zych pitched a scoreless inning in relief. Picked up from the Cubs org a while ago, Zych is putting together a solid run in recent games. Zych uses a plus fastball at 95+ and a slider. He’s yet to allow a walk on the year, either in Jackson or Tacoma, and has struck out about a batter an inning, something he struggled to do consistently with the Cubs. Today, Stephen Landazuri steps up from AA to make the start for Tacoma.

Jackson lost to Pensacola 8-5, as the Blue Wahoos bats finally came alive against Edwin Diaz. Diaz was great through 4, then gave up 2 runs in the 5th, and left after the first two batters reached in the 6th. The Generals bullpen let those two score and added four more of their own, and that was essentially that. DJ Peterson is still in deep freeze, going 0-4 with 3 Ks. Jordy Lara had three hits. One-time intriguing draft pick Jordan Shipers – who threw a no-hitter for Clinton in 2012 – continues to struggle. He looked solid in High Desert after a move to the bullpen, but he struggled with Jackson last year, but he’s taken it to a new level in 2015. In 21 innings, he’s given up 39 hits and 12 walks for 24 runs (not counting the inherited runs he’s allowed, of course). Something’s wrong here. Anyway, Misael Siverio tries to break out of his own personal slump against Pensacola tonight.

Bakersfield beat Stockton 8-3 thanks to 6 scoreless IP from Carlos Misell and a 2B and HR from Tyler O’Neill. The Blaze were up 8-0 after 2 and coasted to the easy win. Eddie Campbell starts tonight against High Desert. Campbell didn’t make it out of the first inning in his first career Cal League start, so there’s nowhere to go but up from there.

Zack Littell threw 6 shutout innings as Clinton blanked Quad Cities 3-0. Jefferson Medina leads the L-Kings against Burlington today.

Game 40, Mariners at Orioles

marc w · May 21, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

JA Happ vs. Chris Tillman, 9:35am

It’s early.

Very nice win yesterday, as Roenis Elias continued to pitch far, far better in the bigs than his minor league track record would indicate. A reminder: When Elias was called up, he’d made 3 starts in Tacoma and had an ERA over 8 – he’d given up 15 runs in just shy of 16 innings. In the majors, he’s given up 10 in just shy of 33 innings. K:BB ratio in the PCL? 12:7. In the bigs? 25:9. He’s unrecognizable from the guy who scuffled, and I’m really, really glad. Elias has been a vital stabilizing force for a rotation that looked like it could spiral into disarray.

Today’s opponent is old M’s farmhand Chris Tillman. It’s been a bit over 4 years since he beat the M’s and noted that he felt a bit of extra motivation in facing the team that traded him away. At that point, he was a hard-throwing tools prospect who seemed to have little idea where the ball was going. While he was sorting out how to deal with the rest of the AL, he was fattening up on the Mariners. Even when he was bad (2009-2011) he was great against the M’s. Then, once his walk rate fell below 10%, he was solid-to-very-good against the league as a whole…but he was still gave the M’s fits. He’s gone from a Danny-Waechter-with-a-grudge to an All-Star In his career, he’s made 6 starts against Seattle, and he’s 6-0 with an ERA of 2 and 32 Ks to 9 walks. M’s batters are *slugging* .282 against Tillman, and that’s the one thing most other teams have done decently well against the righty.

In a sense, you could cut and paste everything I’ve written about the previous two O’s starters and it’d work for Tillman as well. At some point, it’s not a coincidence – this is a player type that the O’s prefer and seem to scout for. They’ve assembled a United Nations of fly-balling, rising-four-seamer guys who’ll give up HRs but “beat” their FIP. Yesterday I mentioned that Miguel Gonzalez is #1 in baseball since 2012 for the biggest (negative) gap between his ERA and FIP – and that Wei Yin Chen was just outside of the top 10. Well, Chris Tillman ranks #4. We talked about HR/9 rate, and how Gonzalez and Chen ranked highly as well (Gonzalez at #4, Chen at #10) – Tillman’s #11.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise, because they pitch similarly. Tillman’s four-seam fastball’s only 92 or so, but it has extremely high vertical “Rise” – #1 in baseball among qualified starters this year and last. With that kind of movement, you pretty much know that Tillman’s never going to be a ground ball guy, so his fly ball rates fit in nicely with his teammates Gonzalez and Chen. Like them, that’s helped push his BABIP down, and that’s one reason why his career ERA is significantly lower than his FIP. Another thing that helps is an absence of platoon splits. Against righties, he’s got a cutter and a curve ball, but he’ll also throw a change every once in a while. To lefties, he’ll stick mostly with the curve and change. The curve’s a weapon, and scouts have been talking about since just before the M’s drafted him out of a California HS. Lefties have struggled with it, but they’ve also done a bit worse on his fastball. A true over the top four-seamer shouldn’t have much in the way of platoon splits, but it’s possible there’s some deception in his delivery to lefties that’s led to a significantly higher HR rate against *righties* than southpaws.

Today’s line-up:
1: Smith, RF
2: Miller, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Castillo, C
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Ackley, CF
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Happ

Welcome to the club, Welington Castillo.

Mike Montgomery leads Tacoma against the Iowa Cubs and Felipe Paulino today.

Edwin Diaz makes his second AA start. He scuffled a bit against the loaded Tennessee Smokies; we’ll see how he fares against Pensacola, the Southern League’s most hapless offense.

The Bakersfield Blaze take on Stockton again behind Carlos Misell. Stockton won last night 8-6, as the Blaze bullpen faltered after a solid start from Tyler Pike. Guillermo Pimentel went 4-5 and Martin Peguero homered in a losing effort.

Zack Littell makes his second start for Clinton. Like Diaz, he was roughed up in his first, but unlike Diaz, Littell has to make his second appearance against his league’s BEST offense, Quad Cities. Clinton won last night 7-6, torching the River Bandits bullpen after starter Akeem Bostick held them in check for 7 innings. Estarlyn Morales homered, and then the L-Kings got a walk-off walk in the 9th to win it.

Game 39, Mariners at Orioles

marc w · May 20, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Roenis Elias vs. Wei-Yin Chen, 4:05pm

Soooo, with the Angels pushing a game over .500, they’ve overtaken the M’s in Fangraphs playoff odds, albeit fractionally. It just reaffirms BP’s pre-season opinion that the Angels were the class of the division, as the Angels and Astros now have identical end-of-season records there, with the Angels’ odds a tiny bit higher. The Angels started slow, as we thought they might, and have picked up their game since Garrett Richards returned. The M’s started slow, as…ok, wasn’t really expecting that, and they have… what, really? They’re better, as they’re 6-4 in their last 10 games, but that streak has left them a game further out than when they started. They’ve shored up their catcher spot disaster area by bringing in Welington Castillo, but they haven’t solved the riddle of Taijuan Walker or Robby Cano’s possible decline. There are always signs of life, from James Paxton’s improvement to Brad Miller’s resurgence to Carson Smith’s emergence as a true late-inning stopper. But the M’s need to make a move here as June looms. The A’s can lament their luck and wonder how a bullpen that was relatively effective last year has turned into a squad of lead-incinerating pyromaniacs, or they can work the phones and remake their team again for the third time in 12 months. I’m not saying the M’s are there – Oakland does what they do because they have to – but they need to figure out what they want to do a month from now. Are they going to focus on acquiring MLB rotation depth, or are they going to retool for 2016? I’m sure many will argue – not least the M’s themselves – that the two shouldn’t be seen as polar opposites: if the team moves on from Dustin Ackley, are they getting better now, or rebuilding? It *can* be both, and that’s nice and all, but it’s also a big, big problem.

Today would be a decent time to start a nice stretch of wins against potential Wild Card foes. The Orioles are 27th in the league in FIP, play in a tough division, and still have a better record at this stage (though, for now, worse playoff odds). The Orioles have been better against right-handed pitching this year than lefties, which is interesting given their RH-heavy line-up. In any event, Roenis Elias will seek to keep that trend going. He’ll face off with Wei-Yin Chen, who is essentially a left-handed Miguel Gonzalez. This isn’t an original thought exactly, but that’s just because it’s true. Chen pitches off a 91-92mph four-seamer with lots of vertical rise, creating plenty of elevated contact. If you look at all starters who’ve thrown 400 IP since 2012 (the year Chen joined the league) and sort them by fly ball rate, Miguel Gonzalez ranks 10th (of 92). In 11th spot sits Wei-Yin Chen.* Just as with Gonzalez, there’s no weird Chris-Young-like ability to give up fly balls but avoid HRs. Chen gives up lots of homers, nearly the same number as Gonzalez. And like his teammate, Chen’s ERA has trailed his FIP, though not to the same degree. With Chen, there’s no BABIP magic (his career .285 mark is lower than average, but about what you’d expect for a fly-balling lefty), no HR/FB magic, or “clutch” pitching magic.

Chen survives because he’s been pretty good at avoiding walks. His career BB% of around 6% is significantly better than average, which is good. It’s a trait that essentially makes him a poor man’s Hisashi Iwakuma. Kuma’s K% is about 1% higher, and his BB% 1%+ lower, and he’s given up fewer HRs thanks to higher GB rates, but you’re looking at a control pitcher who limits baserunners, and thus doesn’t pay as big of a price for the HRs he gives up as FIP thinks he “should.” Let’s be clear here: Iwakuma’s much, much better and that’s because at these margins, marginal differences matter, and marginal differences in pretty much every category makes a bigger-than-you’d-think difference overall. But both of these guys have been better than their FIP, and both of these guys have similar arsenals. Chen throws his four-seamer around 50% of the time, and he’s got a sinker that he’ll throw around 10%. He’s also got a splitter, but it’s got very different movement than Kuma’s. Chen’s isn’t a swing-and-miss pitch, but it does generate ground balls (again, not as well as Kuma’s, but that should pretty much go without saying), and it’s a good pitch to use against righties, and it clearly limits HRs. He doesn’t use it all that much, though – only about 15% of his pitches *to righties* and essentially never against lefties. Against same-handed hitters, Chen features a slider that may be his best pitch. It comes in around 83, and features good two-plane break; it actually drops, while his splitter (oddly) doesn’t. It’s made Chen effective against lefties, or, if you prefer, it’s produced the totally normal platoon splits that he’s shown since 2012. As a result, Chen’s faced heavily skewed line-ups: just one quarter of the batter’s he’s faced have been lefties.

How about tonight?

1: Weeks (DH)
2: Bloomquist, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Ruggiano, CF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Elias

6 of 9 are righties, but… man, that’s an odd line-up.

The M’s made a couple of minor moves today, reinstating lefty reliever Edgar Olmos, and assigning him to Tacoma. Joining him there will be righty reliever Kevin Gregg, the veteran reliever the Reds DFAd a little while ago. Gregg has been a big league closer, but he’s also been at or below replacement level six of the past seven seasons. He’s thrown 20 IP in the bigs since the start of 2014, which is obviously a tiny sample, but he’s given up 12 runs on 10 walks and 5 HRs. It’s been rough, is what I’m saying.

Tacoma’s off today, but they’ll start a road-trip tomorrow in Iowa. Austin Jackson’s first rehab appearance yesterday – he went 1-4 – apparently resulted in some swelling in his injured ankle.

Jackson was blanked 3-0 by Ivan Pineyro and the Tennessee Smokies yesterday. Jabari Blash had the only XBH for the Generals, a double, but the team couldn’t capitalize on six walks – 3 from Pineyro and 3 from big prospect Carl (CJ) Edwards. The righty suffered a shoulder injury last year, so he’s now working from the pen after 230+ brilliant innings as a starter. His stats have actually slipped a bit this year, but he did strike out 3 in 2 IP yesterday. Jackson got their revenge in today’s getaway day match-up, with reliever Trey Cochran-Gill earning his 3rd win despite a so-so 2 1/3 IP. Since moving to AA, he’s given up more hits, and his K:BB ratio is now even, but everyone’s still hitting the ball into the ground. Over 3 levels this year, Cochran-Gill’s sporting an ERA of 1.57 and 4 ground-outs for every air out. Dario Pizzano homered, and Blash added two more, giving him 6 on the year for Jackson and 8 total.

Bakersfield takes on Stockton tonight with Tyler Pike on the mound against Joel Seddon. The Blaze beat the Ports last night 8-7, racking up 12 hits including a HR from DH Guillermo Pimentel, and knocked out starter Kyle Finnegan in the 1st inning.

Clinton lost to Quad Cities 8-5, as Patrick Peterson gave up all 8 runs in 5 1/3 IP – a 4 run sixth ended his day. Daniel Torres (a catcher the M’s drafted back in 2013) had the L-Kings only XBH. The two teams face off again today, with Lukas Schiraldi facing the league’s top offense in Quad Cities, and SP Akeem Bostick, a solid prospect the Astros picked up from Texas in the Carlos Corporan trade. Bostick played 3 sports in HS, and his cousin is Brandon Bostick, a back-up Packers tight-end whom everyone may remember from his rather important touch in the NFC championship game. Akeem’s a big guy at 6’6″, 215, and is something of a scout’s dream with the frame and building blocks to be a solid MLB starter. The results haven’t been there yet in his pro career; he got knocked around in the Sally league last year, and he’s only thrown 9 IP in the pitcher-friendly MWL so far.

* Use the same cut-offs and sort for HR/9, and you’ll find Gonzalez at 4th in MLB and Chen at 10th. Oh, and if you sort by the gap between ERA and FIP (ERA-FIP), no one in baseball has had a larger gap since 2012 than Gonzalez, and Chen’s not TOO far behind at 11th, one spot behind Hisashi Iwakuma.

Game 38, Mariners at Orioles

marc w · May 19, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Miguel Gonzalez, 4:05pm

The M’s head east to take on the Orioles, owners of one of baseball’s best offenses in the early going. Despite losing Nelson Cruz, the Birds are 6th in wRC+ as a team, and 5th in SLG%. They’re not perfect, of course, not with a low OBP and park effects taking some of the shine off of that SLG number. But this is still a pretty good test, especially in Baltimore, for M’s pitchers. And this is the time Taijuan Walker needs to take two steps forward, without all of those annoying steps back.

Jeff mentioned this back in the spring, when Walker was utterly dominant, but Walker’s splitter’s somewhat interesting in that it seems fairly easy to identify. That is, Taijuan Walker releases his split/change thing both lower (vertically) and more towards third base (horizontally) than his fastball. That’s the kind of thing that seems like a “tell” and when you add the fact that he throws it most often against lefties, it’s the kind of thing that batters can learn to look for. To be fair, this isn’t new – this isn’t a 2015 phenomenon. He had a very similar gap in 2013 and 2014. That said, batters certainly *seem* to be reacting to it like they know what’s coming. His whiff rate with the pitch is down substantially, and then there’s his slash line on the pitch this year: batters are averaging .519, and slugging .741. Against lefties, it’s even worse, though it’s worth reiterating that we’re talking about less than 100 pitches thrown. But his struggles with the pitch, or whatever word conveys vastly more than a bad bounce here or there, matter. He’s had multiple issues with multiple pitches, but if he has nothing to throw at lefties, then his future prospects come down. Tonight’s a good test for Taijuan. At this point, he knows what’s working and what’s not, and he’s probably got a few concrete steps to improve those weaknesses. Bringing his release point closer to his FB is probably the biggest one.

He’ll face off against Miguel Gonzalez, a former Rule 5 pick by the Red Sox who toiled in the minors without a great deal of success (and got released by Boston in late 2011) before something clicked with the O’s in 2012. Since that time, he’s been a solid back-of-the-rotation starter for Baltimore, racking up nearly 4 fWAR over 3+ seasons. It’s a cool story, but it still may be selling him short. Fangraphs’ WAR is based on FIP, but if you look at their fielding-DEpendent wins above replacement, he’s already over 6, with a 3 WAR season in 2014. By Baseball-Reference’s RA9-based WAR, he’s over 8. If you believe in Gonzalez’s sterling strand rates and ERAs, you’re saying that he’s a Chris Young type – a guy whose ERA hasn’t just been below his FIP, but will continue to be below his FIP for the foreseeable future. So, how similar is he to Young? Fastball with well above average vertical rise? Check. Lots of fly balls, but also lots of infield pop-ups? Check. Consistently low HR/FB ratio? Nnnnoooo.

Thanks to his season last year, Chris Young is a great recent example of someone who “beats” his FIP. In years past, Matt Cain was always the guy people associated with this class of hurlers. But there are probably multiple ways to get there. You can consistently run low BABIPs like knuckleballers or Jamie Moyer, and reduce your FIP that way. You could strike errybody out, which reduces baserunners, and thus lessens the impact of the occasional HR or walk while also improving strand rate). Or, you could do that weird Chris Young magic trick of allowing plenty of HRs that fly precisely 270′ and not 350′. Gonzalez has given up plenty of fly balls, and he’s given up plenty of home runs. He’s never been a strikeout guy, and doesn’t get a ton of out-of-the-zone swings, so he’s not going the Clayton Kershaw route either. Instead, it may be the result of a very different approach with men on. With no one on, he’s given up over 1.5 HR/9, and with men on, it’s under 1. Neither is particularly impressive, but if his OVERALL rate was 1.5, we wouldn’t be talking about Gonzalez, because he wouldn’t be a major leaguer. His overall line with runners on isn’t THAT different, so we’re not talking about a radically different approach, but he will throw more splitters, esp. to lefties. His “clutch” stats are solid as well – in high leverage situations, he’s been much better than average, while he’s below average in low-leverage situations. Finally, he’s got a career BABIP of .262. Sum it up, and you’ve got a guy who’s better than average in just about every way that a sabermetric fan would dismiss as luck.

I’m not ready to do that, though, given the consistency with which Gonzalez has piled up these stats. I don’t think he’s a true talent 3.00 ERA guy, but I think he’s probably a bit better than the rich man’s Blake Beavan that FIP describes. I’m not quite sure what to make of a guy who’s been so effective against same-handed hitters despite failing to strike them out, or a guy who gives up lots of home runs and few runs (though this always makes me think of M’s broadcast descriptions of Ryan Franklin). I’m not Gonzalez’s biggest fan, or anything, and wonder what he’d do in the AL West where he might actually run a low HR/FB ratio, but I’m glad we’ve got these statistical anomalies to examine. And ultimately root against, as the case may be.

1: Smith, LF
2: Miller, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Ackley, CF
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Walker

So, the M’s swung a trade with the Cubs this morning for C Wellington Castillo, the Cubs starter in 2013-14 who gave way to Miguel Montero this year. Castillo’s got a career wRC+ of 97, and was worth 5.5 fWAR the last two seasons, but who rates abysmally in catcher framing metrics. The return is reliever Yoervis Medina, a hard-throwing righty with great GB% who’s been fairly effective despite ugly walk rates. Medina’s ERA has been lower than his FIP by almost as much as Miguel Gonzalez, albeit in a much smaller sample, and the M’s were unhappy enough to demote him a while back. The M’s are clearly quite deep at reliever, and they may get deeper down the line when David Rollins comes off his suspension.

In the near term, Castillo is replacing Jesus Sucre, who’s been optioned to AAA. If Castillo is going to unseat Zunino, that hasn’t happened yet, and the M’s see Zunino as the starter for now. In fact, nothing’s changing today, as Castillo isn’t in Baltimore yet. But Zunino has to be looking over his shoulder a bit more than when Sucre/John Hicks/John Baker were the competition. Zunino’s still a tantalizing talent who combines great pitch framing/defense with plus raw power, but he’s been ineffective at the plate and he hasn’t been getting better. If regular old aging and experience haven’t been enough, it’s time to start wondering why, and what IS going to help that process. I really hope the M’s have a plan here. In the meantime, they’ve got someone to beat up on lefties (Castillo has a career 129 wRC+ against ‘em), or a starter that could hold down the fort while Zunino went back to learn the things he skipped in the minors. That said, the M’s have tried this particular approach many, many times – with Ackley, Montero and Justin Smoak in particular – and it’s not clear there’s a clear protocol to backfill development time for guys who moved up quickly/too quickly.

Franklin Gutierrez returns to the Tacoma line-up after missing some time with an injury, and yes, I have a keyboard macro for that phrase. The Rainiers played a day game against Las Vegas and lost 2-0, despite another good start from Forrest Snow (7IP, 2R, 0BB, 7Ks). They simply couldn’t figure out Duane “the Love” Below, who tossed a complete game 4-hitter. The R’s beat the 51s last night 5-4, getting 9Ks from starter Sam Gaviglio and HRs from Ketel Marte and Jesus Montero. Marte’s line is now up to .346/.390/.446. Not a bad line for the top prospect I think most M’s fans were the LEAST confident in of all the M’s top 10 prospects.

AA Jackson takes on the Tennessee Smokies tonight with Jake Zokan on the hill. The Generals blanked Tennessee 11-0 yesterday behind Scott DeCecco and a HR from Jordy Lara. Dario Pizzano went 2-4 with 2 2Bs, Jack Reinheimer had 3 hits, and DJ Peterson hit a 2B in 6 trips to the plate. Moises Hernandez closed it out with three perfect innings. Felix’s bro has actually pitched decently in his fifth campaign with Jackson. The Generals face Ivan Pineyro of Tennessee tonight, a righty tools prospect who’s been delayed by injuries and inconsistency, but who’s having a solid year in 2015. If you’ve got MiLB.tv, this is a game worth watching, as Tennessee features several top Cubs prospects, including C/DH Kyle Schwarber, 1B Dan Vogelback and CF Albert Almora.

High Desert topped Bakersfield 7-6 last night, dropping the Blaze to 15-22 on the year. Tylers O’Neill and Marlette went 0-8 combined, but Austin Wilson awoke from his slumber to knock a HR. Ryan Yarbrough was shaky again, giving up 5 runs in 4 IP, despite 7 Ks. Dan Altavilla starts today against Kyle Finnegan of Stockton. The Blaze knocked Finnegan around back on April 22nd. More of the same, let’s hope.

Clinton lost 14-10 to Quad Cities, as Tyler Herb and a host of reliever got lit up. SS Erick Mejia had three hits to lead the Lumberkings, and Joe DeCarlo homered. Gianfranco Wawoe got a base hit; the Curacao native has been in a tailspin since his long hitting streak was snapped, and has seen his average fall from .350 to .277. Patrick Peterson, the L-Kings best starter, goes tonight.

Mariners Trade Yoervis Medina For Mike Zunino Off Days

Jeff Sullivan · May 19, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Officially, the deal is Yoervis Medina to the Cubs in exchange for catcher Welington Castillo. And, indeed, that’s what’s happening — the Mariners are giving up the Medina asset, and they’re receiving a whole new person, who will have a locker in the clubhouse and everything. But this isn’t a deal that’s really about Medina, from the Mariners’ perspective, nor is it really about Castillo. Castillo’s positive quality is that, okay, he’s fine enough. So he’s a catcher actually capable of letting Mike Zunino get some rest.

There’s any number of reasons why the Mariners have been relatively disappointing, and I suppose you don’t have to look much further than Robinson Cano, who, I’ll remind you, has another eight years after this year. And Dustin Ackley sucks, even more than he’s ever sucked, and you wonder if he’s okay or if he’s been replaced by one of those alien people-impersonators from Men In Black. But at some point you get to Mike Zunino, who has yet to make offensive progress. In fairness, he’s actually been one of the team’s better hitters in May. But, in May, he also hasn’t walked. His approach has become less disciplined. His last base on balls was 18 strikeouts ago.

Zunino, basically, looks like Zunino looked last season. Maybe a little better, maybe a little worse, depending on the day you see him. There was talk in spring training he was learning to use the opposite field, but actually he’s pulled more baseballs this year than he did last year or the year before. The defense? Zunino is good at defense. He knows how to catch, and he seems to know how to handle a pitching staff. Big responsibilities, for a player his age. But, catching is hard. There’s a reason why catchers tend to develop slower offensively than other guys. They have a lot going on, and one theory is that Zunino is just too exhausted to improve.

This year he’s fifth in baseball in innings caught. Last year he was fourth. There have been six games this year Zunino didn’t start, but he’s still played in four of them. A catcher on a roster with two catchers can never completely take a day off, because you don’t know if the other guy might get hurt, but there are degrees of rest, of peace of mind. Zunino’s been given a heavy workload, and Jesus Sucre couldn’t give him much of a breather. Sucre, we know, is a skilled defensive catcher. We all liked his framing, back when the Mariners didn’t have a framer. But Sucre swings the bat like a head of lettuce you put a baseball bat next to. You don’t want a Sucre in the lineup on back-to-back days. You don’t want Sucre at the plate in a high-leverage late-inning situation. You pinch-hit for a Sucre. When you pinch-hit for a catcher, you have to bring in the other catcher.

Welington Castillo is not good. Welington Castillo is not bad. You now understand Welington Castillo. He’s not as good a defender as Sucre. He’s certainly not as good a defender as Zunino. He’ll lose these pitchers some strikes. But, he makes a decent amount of contact. From time to time, he’ll draw a walk. Last year he hit a home run 432 feet. The year before he reached 443. Castillo projects as a slightly below-average hitter, which is not unlike what he’s been for his career. He just turned 28 a few weeks ago. And, significantly, last year Castillo played in 110 games. That followed a 113-game campaign. Granted, the Cubs went 86-124 in his starts, and 53-61 in games he didn’t start, and that’s troubling, but there’s also a lot of noise in those numbers and the Cubs were bad. Castillo is adequate, maybe a third-tier backstop, and he’s handled a regular major-league workload while also handling being a reserve.

For now, the hope is that having Castillo can buy Zunino some rest. He shouldn’t need to play as often as he does, and the team will be more comfortable using Castillo more than it used Sucre. And that could be important for Zunino, as rest might be able to keep him from getting into and developing bad habits. More bad habits, I guess. With more rest, there’s more focus. With more focus, there might be better results. With Welington Castillo, Mike Zunino can afford to relax on designated days.

And if, in time, it still doesn’t look like Zunino is getting better, Castillo’s a more capable stopgap than Sucre. Either Castillo could take more of Zunino’s playing time, or Zunino could get demoted, and then Sucre or somebody else could come up while Zunino tries to learn some lessons in Tacoma. From the sounds of things, the organization is pretty committed to trying to get Zunino to work out in the bigs, but maybe that’s stubbornness, or maybe things just haven’t gotten bad enough. One should hope that they never do, but things can have a way of going wrong, and minds can be changed by enough swings and enough misses.

On Tuesday, the Mariners added a new catcher, and it seems to me to be about the old catcher, who’s also something of a new catcher. He’s a young catcher in whom the Mariners believe, and he’s a young catcher the Mariners think should be a part of the long-term core. Before that happens, the catcher needs to not suck when he’s hitting, and maybe he just needs a little more rest. We’re easily impressed by those who soldier through fatigue, but seldom is it actually helpful. Your body needs time to restore. Mike Zunino is presumably no different.

As for Medina going away? He’s got live stuff and bad command. He’s missing a couple miles per hour now, relative to before, and the Cubs think it’s probably mechanical. If Medina were to put everything together, he could close. If Medina were to put just enough together, he’d be last year’s Medina. Last year’s Medina was no one’s favorite bullpen arm. These guys are everywhere, and it’s impossible to predict which ones will have futures and which ones will frustrate through to retirement. If it makes you feel better, Medina probably wasn’t going to find his strikes as a Mariner. One of the upsides in not believing in your own player development.

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