Game 103, Astros at Mariners – M’s Acquire a Rent-a-Starter

marc w · July 28, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Jake Odorizzi, 12:40pm

Yesterday was quite the day. The afternoon trade of Kendall Graveman from the home to the away dugout unleashed a torrent of (on background) emotion from M’s players, as Ryan Divish’s story lays out. Graveman was clearly a leader in the clubhouse, and players were sad and ultimately outraged about the move. Jerry Dipoto said repeatedly (though not to the players themselves, another sore spot) that this was only the first in a series of moves, and midway through the game, we heard about the next domino to fall: the M’s acquired SP Tyler Anderson from the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for two minor prospects, headlined by AA C, Carter Bins.

Anderson’s a fastball/cutter left-hander, and typically sits around 90 mph with his fastballs (he’s also got a sinker). A former first round pick by the Rockies, Anderson came up in 2016 with Colorado and made an instant impact: he tossed 114 well above-average innings for the Rocks that year, with an ERA and FIP both right around 3.5. He was worth 2.4 fWAR in that partial season, and seemed to give the Rockies another piece to build around – they had Jon Gray coming, Kyle Freeland,, Anderson… but while Anderson didn’t really collapse, he’s never quite regained the form he showed in 2016. After an injury plagued 2019 in which he tossed about 20 awful innings, the Rockies waived him, and San Francisco scooped him up as part of their strategy to bring in a lot of former hyped players coming off awful stretches of play.

He wasn’t exactly Kevin Gausman for the Giants, but he worked out just fine. In about 60 IP, he was more or less league avereage-ish. A fly ball pitcher, especially at this stage of his career, San Francisco was a good spot for him, as is Seattle. Pittsburgh was…less so, as his HRs allowed have increased pretty dramatically this year. But as always seems to be the case, other aspects of his game have compensated. He’s walking fewer than he has in years, and his K rate, while still low, is up a tick.

As far as deadline deals go, this is not a sexy one. There’s no raw stuff just waiting to be unlocked, no clear “just get him away from Park X, and he’ll be fine.” As a pending free agent, this isn’t about improving him over the offseason or coaxing another mph from his heater. He’s here to eat some innings in a perfectly average, business-like way. And let’s be clear: the M’s need that. With so many starters on the shelf and with some starters perhaps tiring, the M’s can’t just turn things over to Darren McCaughan or someone else from the minors. They need a little bit more certainty from the rotation, and that’s what Anderson figures to give them. Is acquiring a rental player a questionable decision, particularly after Dipoto seemed to waive the white flag on 2021 with the other move yesterday? Eh, in this case, the price was right. It’s an easier way to demonstrate to the team that you’re not completely giving up while not losing their big, name-brand prospects.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, DH
3: Seager, 3B
4: France, 1B
5: Toro, 2B
6: Kelenic, CF
7: Murphy, C
8: Bauers, RF
9: Long, LF
SP: Kikuchi

Abraham Toro made a good impression last night with a pinch-hit HR, and now he’ll show off his positional versatility by playing 2B. Normally a 3B, he’s certainly more useful if he can also spell someone at 2B, but I’m still not sure how much having another Ty France-style utility infielder helps. In any event, what the M’s need from Toro – IF they keep him and don’t move him in a subsequent deal – is for his bat to develop really quickly. Where he plays is a secondary issue, and, as we talked about yesterday, 3B is about to open up with the impending departure of Kyle Seager.

Update: You know who’s only a game up in the Wild Card race and is now shoring up their team? The A’s. A day after acquiring LHRP Andrew Chafin from Chicago, the A’s just acquired rental OF and one of the better bats available, Starling Marte. In exchange, the Marlins get troubled SP/RP prospect, Jesus Luzardo. Luzardo seemed poised to give the A’s an excellent #2 starter for years after a scintillating debut in 2019, but scuffled a bit in 2020 (when he was my preseason pick as the AL ROY…oops). He wasn’t *bad*, but lacked consistency. This year…this year, he was actually bad, and after being demoted to AAA, was even worse. This could be a huge get for the Marlins, who’ve turned into a remarkably effective pitching development org. It could also help the A’s keep their grip on the Wild Card. They can turn to free agency for that next starter spot, or hope that Cole Irvin is able to develop a bit. I’d still say the A’s need someone with more upside than that, and I’m not sure I see it in their system (beyond the oft-injured AJ Puk).

Mariners Trade Their Closer to Houston…For Some Reason

marc w · July 27, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Ok, hit post a bit too quickly on the gamer, as the context around just got upended. After last night’s confidence-boosting comeback, and with the M’s a game out of playoff position, the M’s have decided to trade closer Kendall Graveman and erstwhile closer Rafael Montero (who’d recently been DFA’d) to…Houston, the team in the away dugout. In exchange, the M’s get 3B Abraham Toro and RP Joe Smith. Uhhhh, yeah.

Abraham Toro has been a prospect for years thanks to a good combination of contact skills/low-K rates and a discerning eye that led him to post high walk totals in the minors. When he started driving the ball in AA, his stock rose further, and while Alex Bregman seemed to block him, he’s had opportunities with injuries to both Bregman and SS Carlos Correa (who would often be replaced by…Bregman). He has, sadly, not taken advantage of those opportunities, and over the course of short stints in three seasons, put up a career MLB line of .193/.276/.350. He’s just 25, and there remains some promise here; it’s not hard to see him putting up something like a Kyle Seager-in-2020 type year with roughly equal Ks and BBs, mixed in with some pop. But he’s not there right now, and it’s an open question both if he’s going to be able to consistently have average power for the corner IF, or if he’ll be able to hit for any kind of average.

Joe Smith is the long-tenured veteran righty. He’s 37, and was great for the Astros as recently as 2019, but seems to be breaking down a bit. He’s a very low-arm-slot/side-arming sinker/slider guy, for the most part. His sinker averages about 86 and gets a tremendous amount of sink…but that may be due to gravity as much as spin. His slider has tons of horizontal movement, too, which you’d kind of expect with his sub-4′ release point. He’s been tough on righties for his career, as you’d expect, but he’s nearing the end and righties have absolutely crushed him this season. The M’s sent one DFA’d player to Houston, and I assume Smith is in this deal in lieu of being DFA’d himself.

What’s the idea here? I mean, I get it, at some level: the M’s are selling high from a position of depth – that’s just what I talked about in yesterday’s post on Jerry’s trade history. I think this cannot be the final deal before the deadline, as, on its own, this simply hurts the team. I know they were never going to mortgage the future to improve 2021, but I also don’t think it’ll fly with either the fanbase or the clubhouse to start stripping 2021 for parts in the middle of a wild card run. I can imagine there are some frustrated players pulling on M’s jerseys tonight.

In part, I think the emergency of both Paul Sewald and Drew Steckenrider made this move *possible*, and it really fills an area of need for Houston (as we, uh, saw last night). But Toro is such on odd get for a closer-at-the-deadline like Graveman. The M’s have to be far higher on Toro than the projections and industry; Toro’s projections show a league average bat (that is, they show clear improvement). But an average defensive 3B with a league average bat does not add up to a league-average 3B.

This is the move of a very, very confident GM, and while I can admire the chutzpah, this move looks pretty bad from a baseball and morale point of view. Perhaps the Mariner most upset right now? Kyle Seager. I have never really imagined that the M’s would pick up his $15M+ team option for 2022, but this move all but slams the door on that. In his final year, his team was making one last run at the postseason he’s never played in. Now, the M’s make a trade that makes that dream much less likely while at the same time bringing in his replacement for 2022.

Game 102, Astros at Mariners – How Do You Top THAT?

marc w · July 27, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Chris Flexen vs. Lance McCullers, Jr., 7:10pm

We’re less than 24 hours removed from one of the most unlikely comeback wins I’ve ever seen. Darren McCaughan gave up 6 runs in the first, and Luis Garcia was dealing, and it just looked like he needed to eat innings. The M’s spotted a far, far better team a six spot in the first. And they won. I… this whole team makes no sense whatsoever, and it is glorious.

I mentioned yesterday that Joe Sheehan had found that the M’s performance in high leverage situations was the best *compared to their own overall performance* of any team since integration. The gap between how the M’s play in low-leverage situations vs. high-leverage situations (close/late, etc.) was massive. I worried during the game that the M’s were messing with that narrative, especially when Cal Raleigh hit a three-run double in a game that still felt 100% done. But the M’s had more up their sleeve, and sure enough, they chipped away until they actually got themselves into a high-leverage plate appearance, and on cue, Dylan Moore hit the winning grand slam to left.

That winning grand slam capped a rally that started with a man on and two outs, and the next batters had OBPs of .190, .250, and .274. I remain unsure how that group won the game for the M’s, just as I’m unsure how they had 7 runs by that point in the first place. I mentioned this on Twitter, but this gap between how the M’s play when no one’s on and how they play in these crucial moments is something that would get laughed out of a script. Cal Raleigh still has no hits with the bases empty. Make this make sense, if you can!

Statcast has new zones to categorize pitch locations beyond divvying up the strike zone into a 3X3 grid, with zones outside of the zone as well. They break into four big buckets: pitches in the heart of the plate, which are 99% *always* called a strike, so it’s really a subset of the rulebook zone, which they call “heart” pitches; then, the pitches on the edge of the zone in either direction – some are in, some are out, but all of them are *close* (“shadow” pitches). Then, tough pitches that might induce a swing (“chase” pitches), but which are unambiguous balls, and finally “waste” pitches which generally don’t get swings at all. Pitches in the “heart” category have the highest wOBA against – right now, the league has a .361 wOBA against them. (Why not higher? Because they’re all strikes, so if you don’t swing, it’s a guaranteed strike against you. This is just wOBA, not wOBACON).

With nobody on base, the M’s wOBA on “heart” pitches is .295, by far the worst in the game. Remember, league average is .361. This is remarkably low, and the M’s are the only club below .300. Now, what happens on “heart” pitches with runners in scoring position? The M’s hit to a .467 clip, easily – *easily* – the best in baseball.

I don’t think there’s any real way to spin this into a skill or a kind of heightened concentration. This is hilarious and deeply silly, and I think that odd blend really captures what it *feels* like to watch this team.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: France, 1B
5: Raleigh, C
6: Torrens, DH
7: Kelenic, CF
8: Moore, 2B
9: Long, LF
SP: Flexen

It’s funny that the M’s have just completely blown up any correlation between run differential and record, or between “being bad at hitting” and “contending” but here we are. It’s odd, because as Robert Arthur notes, the Majors are set up for a supremely boring end of the season in terms of playoff drama. In a fascinating post, he notes that the playoff races are pretty much over, with some very good teams taking early leads and running away with things, and even the wildcard races looking fairly clear, at least to projection systems. This means that the results of each game changes the playoff odds less than in other years – a trend that’s accelerated recently. We don’t get playoff chaos anymore. I would note that the projections all giving the M’s odds at under 5% even with them a game out of the wild card says quite a bit about those projection systems. That is, I completely get why there IS such unanimity around a pending M’s collapse out of the running, but man, I would give this bizarre, dumb, fun, weird team a better than a 1/20 chance given that they are, somehow, 9 games over .500. Every projection assumes the Angels will finish ahead of Seattle, and, uh, I’ve seen the Angels. I dunno that I’d put money on that. (That said, I wouldn’t put money on the M’s magical run continuing, either).

The M’s hired a new President of Business Operations today, Catie Griggs, who recently held a similar position for Atlanta United in MLS. This is something like Kevin Mather’s replacement, but as you may recall back when Mather was fired, M’s owner John Stanton really wanted to separate the President position from Baseball Operations; Mather had a foot in both sides of the house. I don’t know anything about Griggs, but the M’s made an exhaustive search, and she seems like she’s been vetted pretty well. Welcome to Seattle, Catie.

Tacoma beat Sacramento 7-4 at home, with Jake Hager homering and helping Logan Verrett earn his sixth win. Vinny Nittoli starts the final game of the series tonight. It’s off to Nevada after this, with 6 in Las Vegas and 6 in Reno.

Arkansas visits Springfield today to start their series. Alejandro Requena takes the mound for the Travs opposite former M’s prospect Tyler Pike. Pike was sent to Atlanta in one of the M’s many trades with the Braves before the 2017 season, and played some independent league ball in 2019.

Everett hosts Eugene, with Stephen Kolek on the mound for the AquaSox.

Modesto kicks off a series with Rancho Cucamonga.

Game 101, Astros at Mariners

marc w · July 26, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Darren McCaughan vs. Luis Garcia, 7:10pm

What did the M’s big series win over the A’s get them? It improved their playoff odds at the margins, sure, but it gave a real shot in the arm to the team’s confidence, and, perhaps just as critically, it gave them some breathing room. I’m sure the clubhouse is all-in for this series against Houston, but winning against the A’s means the M’s don’t absolutely NEED to win this one. They can catch their breath and do something they haven’t had the opportunity to do in a few years: do some scoreboard watching.

Darren McCaughan’s back after a bizarre but effective MLB debut in Colorado. Opposing him is Luis Garcia, the latest break-out prospect from the Astros taking the league by storm. Garcia has a straight, rising fastball at 93 – it looks a bit like Logan Gilbert’s or Yusei Kikuchi’s, though it’s not as firm as either of those guys’. But his secondaries are a pitch design wonderland. His slider swerves *hard* to the gloveside, and gets unreal sink at 80 mph. It’s slurvey in the best sense, a two-plane breaking ball that’s like a super-hard curve, kind of like his teammate Lance McCullers’. Then, he’s got a change-up with extreme *arm*side run and some sink compared to that fastball. It’s slightly harder at 83, and it helps him keep lefties in check. Then, his out-pitch: a hard (86 mph) cutter than sinks sharply, making it work almost like a split to lefties. It’s got some gloveside movement, so it’s clearly a breaking ball, but a hard pitch breaking down 8″ lower than the fastball… that’s going to play, and it’s been highly effective for Garcia this year.

Joe Sheehan‘s newsletter today focused on the M’s and their remarkable clutch stats. This is something I’ve talked about beginning in April, but Sheehan found some stats that blew my mind. Baseball Reference splits pages compare a team’s performance to the league average, which is helpful, but also to the team’s own performance. By this latter measure, the M’s high-leverage batting line of .277/.348/.494 is the best in MLB history since integration. The M’s overall batting line, as I talked about in the last post, is atrocious, with the club sporting a sub-.300 OBP, driven by a terrible batting average. They seem to lull the opposition into a sense of calm by being so utterly *bad* at hitting. Until the game’s on the line, whereupon they hit like an All-Star. It’s not driven by one player, and it hasn’t really changed since the first few series of the season. At least for 2021, this is just *who they are* and if this isn’t entertaining, I don’t know what is. I remember watching the Texas Rangers in 2016 and going crazy because they were outplaying their true talent without any real reason why. The shoe is on the other foot now; the Rangers are coming off one of the worst 10-game stretches in history, and the M’s shrug-emoji their way to victory after victory. Yes, the bullpen’s unreal performance is driving their record in one-run games, but they have to score some runs, too. They always seem to score exactly as many runs as they need, and I, for one, find this perplexing and delightful in equal measure. The Mariners! Lucky!? What is this?

There are serious questions about the Other Shoe Dropping, not just in 2021, but how this sets up the team’s contention in 2022. I realize that, just as I realize – boy do I – Jarred Kelenic’s “batting” line. I just choose to focus on the random, wonderful brand of baseball the M’s are playing right now, and suggest you do the same.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: France, DH
5: Raleigh, C
6: Torrens, 1B
7: Kelenic, CF
8: Long, 2B
9: Bauers, LF
SP: McCaughan

What Would “Going For It” Look Like?

marc w · July 26, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

There are two distinct but interrelated questions all of us are trying to figure out right now: 1) Should the Mariners, 1.5 games out of the wild card but with an offense putting up a .294 OBP and with a negative run differential, trade some of their prospects for help? And 2) If the answer is yes, what kind of moves are most likely?

Because 1 is exceedingly hard to answer in a vacuum, we’ll spend most of our time poking around at 2. There are many, many trade scenarios that would add value to the line-up but which don’t make a whole lot of sense, and many of these Dipoto has talked about: rental players in exchange for significant prospects. No one expects that, Dipoto doesn’t want to make such moves, and we can pretty much ignore them. On the other hand, we’ve got deals that literally anyone would make: trades that add some modicum of benefit to this year’s club AND who have at least another year of club control, in exchange for prospects who are years away and/or players with a lower ceiling. If you can convince another team to make *that* kind of deal, you do so, and no one’s going to argue about it. So we’ll set aside Kris-Bryant-for-Julio Rodriguez, and we’ll set aside Jose-Berrios-for-a-PTBNL-and-cash-considerations at this point and try to examine Dipoto’s own history of deadline trades. Because he’s Jerry Dipoto, there are a lot of deals to talk about.

For this, we’ll look at instances where a Dipoto-led team made trades to improve in the current year. We’re not talking about interim-GM-Jerry’s trade of Dan Haren for Tyler Skaggs back in 2010, because the D’backs were awful, and were trying to rebuild. Likewise, we’re not talking about trading James Paxton for Justus Sheffield, as that wasn’t a deadline deal, and wasn’t a win-now deal, either. I’m not sure how exhaustive a list to make it, so some minor things I’ll skip over, but let’s see if we can find any patterns.

2012: Los Angeles Angels
Deadline Record: 57-47, 2nd in AL West

Jerry Dipoto became the GM in the late-autumn of 2011, and quickly found himself in an ideal situation. His boss, owner Arte Moreno, opened his checkbook, allowing Dipoto to sign Albert Pujols and the top SP on the FA market, CJ Wilson, on the same December day. Hyped rookie Mike Trout, who’d debuted in 2011, had an all-time rookie season, cruising to 10 WAR in 2012. Trout drove the offense, and Pujols chipped in with his last Pujolsian season. CJ Wilson was…fine, but Jered Weaver went 20-5, and the Angels were in a great position at 10 games over at the deadline.

As good as the offense was, the pitching staff was merely good. The bullpen was middle-of-the-pack in July, and the rotation was about the same. Neither group was bad or anything, but the problem was that the Angels were fighting tooth and nail with two clubs, the Athletics and defending AL Champion Rangers, who both had stronger bullpens than the Angels. The Angels rotation was a clear step ahead of the A’s by record, but not by FIP. The out-of-nowhere A’s were behind in the standings, but shockingly not as bad as everyone thought they’d be.

With no real allegiance to the prospects he’d inherited from Tony Reagins and with encouragement from an owner who’d splashed out for Pujols, Dipoto went all in. On July 27th, Dipoto sent prized IF prospect Jean Segura and other prospects for the biggest rental player on the market: SP Zack Greinke of Milwaukee.

Did it work?
Eh, not really. The Angels finished 89-73, but finished in 3rd place and missed the playoffs. The Rangers, long thought the prohibitive favorite, won 93 games and the wildcard as the A’s pipped them at the post, winning 94 games and the divisional title. The Rangers humiliation would continue, as they’d lose the play-in game to the Baltimore Orioles, who started Mariners cast-off (and one-time Angel) Joe Saunders.

Is this type of trade likely this year?

Absolutely not. There are plenty of big-name rentals available, though perhaps none quite as sought-after as Greinke was in 2012. Dipoto has said time and again he’s not interested.

Minor trade of note: In early May, Dipoto swapped IF prospect Alexi Amarista for Padres reliever Ernesto Frieri, and the Angels had their closer.

2014 Los Angeles Angels:
Deadline Record: 64-43, 2nd in AL West

After a disappointing 2013, things came together the following year. The offense still had Mike Trout, who was still unreal despite league-wide offense tanking. Albert Pujols sad decline was in effect, but essentially everyone on the team was at least league-average at the plate. They weren’t going to blow anyone out of the water at the plate, but particularly for their (pitcher-friendly) park, their line-up was an overall plus.

Their rotation was, again, a strength, as Matt Shoemaker has his best year as a rookie, and Garrett Richards had the kind of season that ensured he’ll always find work in MLB despite injuries and ineffectiveness marring his career. CJ Wilson had a down year, but Jered Weaver was still quite good.

There was a problem, though. Their bullpen ranked 26th in fWAR in the first half. Frieri turned into a pumpking, sporting an ERA well over 6 when he was traded for Pirates reliever Jason Grilli in late June.

Grilli was coming off some very successful seasons in Pittsburgh, but had a down first-half by his standards. It was a solid change-of-scenery deal for both teams, but Dipoto wasn’t done. After taking a flyer on AAA veteran and last-chance lefty Rich Hill on July 1, Dipoto pushed his chips all in and traded some of his best pitching prospects for Padres closer Huston Street. Trading for Padres relievers had worked so well in 2012, so he decided to go for the top closer on the market. He also nabbed Street’s set-up man, acquiring Joe Thatcher in a separate deal. All in all, Dipoto parted with his #1, #7, #8, and #10 prospects (per https://www.minorleagueball.com/2014/1/11/5297876/los-angeles-angels-top-20-prospects-for-2014).

Did it Work?
Yes, I think this has to be seen as a success. The Angels bullpen improved, and they cruised to a 98-win season, 10 games up on the A’s (who won the Wild Card). The context here was that the division itself was down, as the Rangers window was closing, and the A’s seemingly always about to collapse. The Mariners were moving up fast, finishing a game behind the Angels, but were probably a year or two away.

Is this type of trade likely this year?
Not exactly, no. There are some big-name relievers on the market, including Rich Rodriguez of Pittsburgh, but I can’t imagine that’s something the M’s would be involved in. However, I think this solidified in Dipoto’s mind the importance of a strong bullpen. He hasn’t always shown the ability to reliably create one, mind you, but looking for buy-low relievers has been top of mind since before he got the M’s job. A move like the Joe Thatcher deal may be much more likely than a Huston Street-style splash.

Minor trade of note:
The Angels acquired reliever Vinnie Pestano from Cleveland in exchange for low-lever SP flyer Mike Clevinger. Pestano was great for the Angels, albeit in less than 10 IP. Clevinger eventually became a top SP, but is out with TJ rehab after joining the Padres.

2016 Seattle Mariners
Deadline record: 52-51, 3rd in AL West

The new GM inherited what seemed like a talented but underperforming club with a poor farm club. That script seemed to be playing out in 2016, as the Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano-led offense finished 2nd in the AL in home runs, which helped them play around some black holes in the line-up, notably SS Ketel Marte, C Chris Iannetta, and CF Leonys Martin. The division was tough, but winnable, with the Astros a year away from full-spectrum dominance (with an asterisk, of course). Texas had their last hoorah as a force in the division, but they made no sense. They led the division at the break, but had a negative run differential. In the end, they’d win the division going away despite a pythagorean record of 82-80.

The M’s bullpen was a strength in the first half, and the line-up was powerful, if allergic to leather – they had the second worst defensive numbers in the game.

The starting rotation had been revamped before the year, with Wade Miley and Nate Karns coming in. Both struggled, especially with long-balls in a year that would challenge all-time records for HRs – records that were about to be smashed, repeatedly. The M’s were in third place, and the wild card looked impossible in late July. Teams in the AL East and Central had sizable leads. Thus, the M’s played it safe, making a series of small addition-by-subtraction moves.

Wade Miley was off to Baltimore in exchange for Ariel Miranda. Struggling reliever Joaquin Benoit was swapped for fellow struggling-reliever Drew Storen. The M’s swapped low-level relief prospect Jake Brentz for hard-throwing Arquimedes Caminero. And Dipoto re-acquired Wade LeBlanc, a player he’d picked up in Anaheim, and would continue to look for in Seattle. The headline move, though, was something of a head-scratcher. The M’s newest relief ace was lefty set-up guy Mike Montgomery, in his first year in the pen after his debut with the M’s a year earlier. The M’s were on the fringes of a playoff race, but swapped an effective reliever for a prospect: in this case, Cubs 1B/DH prospect, Dan Vogelbach.

Did it work?
Yes, actually. Storen was decent, Caminero looked good at times, and importantly, neither looked as bad as Benoit. Wade Miley needed to go, and did. Of course, things also worked out well for the other teams: Mike Montgomery helped the Cubs win the World Series that year, pitching the last out in relief. Jake Brentz is, finally, in the majors and pitching well, though not for the club that traded for him.

Is this type of trade likely this year?

I wouldn’t be surprised. As good as trading for need is, sometimes dealing from depth is just as important a maxim. The M’s have a lot of bullpen depth suddenly, and while it would piss off the clubhouse, I can imagine Dipoto deciding to sell high on, say, Drew Steckenrider, particularly if the M’s series with Houston doesn’t go well.

Minor trade of note:
Well, they were all minor that year, but a minor trade this year is one of the most painful: in June, the M’s sent IF Chris Taylor to the Dodgers for SP Zach Lee. Taylor, the new NL Player of the Week, has become an excellent hitter capable of playing all over the IF and OF. He posted a nearly 5-WAR season in 2017, and is on his way to something similar here in 2021. If the M’s want to reacquire him, and they absolutely should, it’ll cost quite a bit in free agency.

2017 Seattle Mariners:
Deadline Record: 54-53, 2nd in AL West

The 2017 Mariners still had an excellent offense and fixed some of their defensive ineptitude from 2016. The division was, perhaps, a bit weaker, but it had a runaway leader: the newly dominant Houston Astros, who’d go on to win over 100 games. But despite a great record in one-run games, the M’s pitching was in shambles. Trade target Yovani Gallardo imploded, and Ariel Miranda, who’d looked interesting in the second half of 2016, looked much less so in 2017. Injuries and ineffectiveness led the M’s to cycle through guys like Christian Bergman, Sam Gaviglio, and Andrew Moore. Hisashi Iwakuma and Felix Hernandez battled injuries and ineffectiveness.

Worse, the bullpen wasn’t always able to bail them out. Edwin Diaz wasn’t as good as he’d been in 2016, and while $1 special Tony Zych was great, Marc Rzepczynski was not, and James Pazos was up-and-down. So with the team in 2nd, but facing an uphill climb to make the playoffs, the M’s made a couple of moves to shore up their beleaguered pitching staff. They flipped OF prospect Tyler O’Neill for Cards lefty Marco Gonzales, buying low on a guy still working his way back from injury. They probably foresaw Gonzales getting big league innings in 2017, and he did, so you can kind of call it a move to supplement the big-league team, but it was much more a move to improve the M’s rotation down the road.

To help the bullpen, the M’s packaged prospects OF Brayan Hernandez and SP Pablo Lopez to the Marlins for reliever David Phelps. Phelps was having a great year, and the M’s prospects were in the lower levels, but this turned into a disaster when Phelps blew out his elbow a few weeks after coming over. Much better was the trade a week later to reacquire Erasmo Ramirez from Tampa in exchange for erstwhile closer Steve Cishek.

Still figuring out if they were in or out, the M’s then made a splash just after the deadline, trading OF Boog Powell for 1B Yonder Alonso. Alonso had been known for his discipline, but had shown little power for a 1B, but was on a power spree in early 2017 with Oakland.

Did it work?
It’s a mixed bag, here, but the short and longer term answer is probably no. The M’s slumped in August and September, finishing below .500 and out of the race. Alonso’s discipline-but-no-power approach was back, Gonzales got hit very hard in Seattle, and, as mentioned, Phelps got hurt. Erasmo Ramirez pitched pretty well down the stretch of increasingly less important games.
We debated the O’Neill/Gonzales trade furiously, as I worried that the M’s had given up the best player. O’Neill is having a breakout season now, but won’t add as much value as Gonzales did between 2018-2020, though his collapse this year is a real concern. What no one knew at the time was that the best player traded in this spree wasn’t either guy – it was Lopez, the pitchability lefty the M’s added in what was then the Hernandez-for-Phelps deal. He hasn’t logged the IP or WAR as Gonzales, but he’s grown into a very good #2 SP, though he is on the shelf at the moment with shoulder discomfort, which is never good.

Is this type of trade(s) likely this year?
I think so. As with the previous year, Dipoto likes to hedge his best, combining win-now moves with some attention to longer term needs. I don’t say that disparagingly at all, he’s been better at that than I’ve given him credit for, and it’s one reason why the M’s are in this position. I don’t think he has some remarkable acumen in talent ID; the Taylor-for-Lee swap would disabuse anyone of that notion. But his process has been better than we bloggers often realize, and that’s worth something. I can see people getting upset if he does something like that this year, but with their playoff odds still remote and with the team firmly in negative run differential territory, you can argue for playing for a year in which Jarred Kelenic hits better than .100.

Minor trade of note: Anthony Misiewicz and Luis Rengifo for Mike Marjama and Ryan Garton
This trade didn’t mean much, especially with Rengifo regressing in Anaheim, but it’s a testament to how often the same names repeat themselves in Dipoto’s trade logs. He’d reacquire Misiewicz later on, and he’d become a solid part of the M’s bullpen this year. You could do this with everyone from Keynan Middleton and Vinnie Nittoli to Tyler Skaggs and Wade LeBlanc. If you’re a player wondering if Dipoto still has your agent’s number, don’t worry: he does.

2018 Seattle Mariners
Deadline Record: 63-44, 2nd in AL West

The division was still Houston’s to lose, but the M’s unreal start had them in control of the Wild Card. The bullpen was now a strength, leading to a great record in one-run games yet again. Gonzales’ emergence solidified the rotation, and that group, too, was above average. The bats were merely league-average, but the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Mitch Haniger, just acquired from Arizona, was a revelation, as was the guy he came over with, Jean Segura (see what I mean about names repeating?). Dan Vogelbach was taking longer than expected, and Mike Zunino fell off of his brilliant 2017 pace, but even if you wanted to argue that the team was lucky – and let’s be clear, they were: they had a negative run differential despite a huge win total – you couldn’t take away all of those wins that they’d banked.

The focus at the deadline was shoring up the team, and particularly the bullpen. Lucky was one thing, but lucky AND good was the goal. Thus, relief prospect Seth Elledge was flipped for Sam Tuivailala, SP prospect Andrew Moore went to Tampa for Denard Span and Alex Colome, and then the M’s flipped cash and lower-level prospects for rental relievers Zach Duke from the left side and Adam Warren from the right.

Did it work?
No. All told, the M’s bullpen had a better ERA in the 2nd half than in the 1st (albeit with a poorer FIP), but the gamble failed, as the luck that had alighted on the M’s skipped town. The team was already looking shakier in July, and then had a mediocre August. They finished in third place in the strong AL West behind Houston and Oakland. Their record of 89-73 looked nothing like their Pythagorean record of 77-85, and ultimately convinced Dipoto and ownership to embark on the step-back/rebuild that they’re still navigating today.

Is this type of trade likely this year?
Despite their bullpen being a signal strength, I think we could see another Duke+Warren style swoop. It cost them very little and seemed to make sense. Warren came from the Yankees, possessors of a bullpen that was too good to give innings to him, for example. I know Dipoto doesn’t want rentals, but a nearly-free guy getting shut out of high-leverage innings might be too tempting.

Minor trade of note: Bryson Brigman for Cameron Maybin
Again, good idea to get a former uber-prospect at a position of need, but this didn’t quite work out.

What have we learned?
Jerry Dipoto wants to blend near-term and medium-term improvements, and Zack Greinke ain’t happening in 2021. He learned in 2014 and potentially again in 2016-18 how important bullpen success is, and thus I wouldn’t be surprised to see the former reliever target bullpen upgrades as much for load management as anything else. The M’s have serious needs at the plate, and that’s why they’re being linked with Royals 2B Whit Merrifield, but Merrifield may cost more than the M’s want to spend, as he’s under contract for 2022 and has a team option for 2023.

The M’s aren’t moving Kelenic/Raleigh/Rodriguez/Gilbert, and probably won’t sell low-ish on George Kirby and Emerson Hancock, who are pitching sparingly as the M’s manage their workload. Thus, it might center on the M’s willingness to part with Noelvi Marte. I simply can’t see that happening. If the M’s wanted to move some of their pitching depth, it would take more than Hancock on his own, and the Royals may be loathe to go for Kirby if they’re worried he’s not 100%.

Thus, I think we might see more bullpen help, and probably some selling of solid contributors as well as buying near-term help as the M’s go all-in (kind of) in 2022.

Game 100, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · July 25, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Cole Irwin, 1:10pm

Wow. The M’s won late yet again last night, with a wild pitch again plating the winning run. The M’s bullpen has been the club’s clearest strength, ranking 2nd in fWAR in MLB behind the Rays (who, predictably, have a huge edge in innings pitched). Paul Sewald aside, they’re really not a traditional bullpen, racking up tons and tons of strikeouts. The M’s are actually below average in bullpen K rate despite getting a bit over 1 per inning (that’s a modern baseball stat if ever there was one). Instead, they trade walks for hard contact. Their walk rate is…okay, but they don’t give up many HRs. Obviously, that’s an extremely volatile stat, and could regress, but you see the approach at work. Kendall Graveman is a sinkerballer, so can attack hitters without needing punchouts AND without worrying as much about HRs. He doesn’t need to throw elevated fastballs to chase strikeouts when 97 mph sinkers will swerve and bend and get weak contact if batters can hit them. Paul Sewald *does* throw elevated 93 mph four-seam fastballs, and gets very few ground balls. But, and I cannot stress this enough: he is Paul Sewald, so he gets to do what he wants. A K/9 of nearly 16 and a low HR rate driven, at least in part, by accepting walks as the byproduct of his approach has made him one of the top 20 most valuable relievers in baseball this year, and he’d be higher if he didn’t start the year in Tacoma.

The A’s, on the other hand, have the bullpen that generates the fewest strikeouts in the game. They knew they would have a less outright dominant pen this year when they let Liam Hendriks walk, but I assume they guessed they’d get more out of trade pick-up Adam Kolarek or Jesus Luzardo, once the latter washed out of the rotation.

This bullpen strength is why the M’s have been so much fun to watch: if they can scrape a couple of runs off of a starter, they’re *in* virtually every game. They may not win them all, but it always seems like they have a chance, even if the opposing starter lands a haymaker the way Sean Manaea did in game 1. It’s nice that this effectiveness isn’t concentrated in one dominant closer, too. The M’s depth helps them avoid workload concerns, though I think it remains to be seen how pitchers fare come August/September. But that’s a league-wide issue, not an M’s-specific one, and if anything, the M’s might be better off there than most. But all of that depends on getting enough innings from their starters, and with Logan Gilbert getting knocked out early, they really need some innings from Marco Gonzales today.

The opposing starter in this final game of the series is Cole Irwin, a former Phillies cast-off who’s been a vital cog in the A’s rotation. The lefty out of the University of Oregon mixes 4 pitches (really 5 if you include a rare curve): a four-seam fastball that’s his primary pitch, a sinker, a slider, and a change-up. He’s only 90-91 with the hard stuff, but he throws a very firm change-up at 84-85. It doesn’t have dramatically different movement from his fastball, especially the sinker, so if you guessed that it’s not really a swing-and-miss pitch, you’re right. Like many change-ups, it generates a *ton* of swings, and because it’s not really going to get whiffs, it’s put in play a lot. That’s the idea, and it’s worked. He’s had almost as many batted balls off of the pitch as he’s generated with his four-seam, despite throwing that four-seam nearly twice as often.

League wide, the wOBA-on-contact (wOBACON) overall is .370 this year, down from .378 in the bouncy-ball 2019 season. On four-seam fastballs, it’s .399 this year, down from .409 in 2019. But for change-ups, it’s only .341 (which is actually higher than it was in 2019). That’s the idea here. As it happens, Irvin has produced lower average/wOBA off of his four-seamer this year, but that can be volatile. In general, getting batters to put *anything other than fastballs* in play is a good way to go. If you can just strike everybody out, yeah, go ahead and do that. But if that’s not really possible, a good contingency plan is to induce swings on something else, and change-ups are effective because they generate so many more swings than breaking balls do.

It’s an open question for a guy like Irwin, as it is for Yusei Kikuchi, whether it’s better to throw a change like this that gets so much contact. Kikuchi keeps tweaking his, I think, looking for the best balance of command but also bat-missing power. I think Irwin’s making a different calculation, and it may be the right call for him, but I do wonder what that pitch would look like if he could cut 2 mph off of its velocity.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: France, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Torrens, DH
6: Murphy, C
7: Kelenic, RF
8: Moore, 2B
9: Bauers, LF
SP: Gonzales

This is the M’s big lefty-killer line-up, but Irvin’s run reverse splits this year. I don’t think he’s a true-talent righty-killer, but it’s a game where I don’t think I’d work hard to find a spot for Jake Bauers. Torrens at DH, though, that’s good stuff.

JP Crawford is back to being mired in a slump after he ended the first half on an absolute tear. I mentioned it on Twitter last night, but I think he’s the spiritual successor to Raul Ibanez. No, his game is nothing like Ibanez’s, the big power/average but no defense stalwart. Crawford’s slick-up-the-middle-defense-plus-walks game is the exact inverse of Raul’s, but both are among the streakiest players I’ve ever seen. A decade or more ago, M’s fans kept freaking out that the end of Raul’s career was nigh because he’d go into a month-or-two long slump and look like a shell of himself. Just when we’d talk ourselves into to trying whatever corner OF was hitting best in Tacoma, he’d have a month where he was the best hitter in baseball. He did the same in Kansas City. Well, JP Crawford reminds me of that. April/May this year he looked lost and absolutely bereft of power. His slugging percentage was under .300 in April, remember. In June, he slugged .530 and had a 158 wRC+. In July, it’s down to 36, far lower than April. He’s nowhere near as bad as he’s looked in the past few weeks, but he’s not the guy he looks like when he’s on fire. DomeandBedlam had a poll that asks: has he taken a step forward this year, a step back, or just the same? I voted that he’s taken a slight step forward, though WAR stats may show a bit of a decline. That’s largely related to defense and baserunning, and those are so noisy in small samples. Yes, his offensive stats are freakishly noisy, too, but I will just say that I would’ve bet money that he couldn’t hit 5 HRs in a season, and he’s done so. Getting a tiny bit of gap power transforms him from a poor man’s Omar Vizquel to a decently valuable piece. He’s not a star, and he’s going to be frustratingly streaky, but hopefully it all adds up to a slight plus overall.

Game 99, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · July 24, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Logan Gilbert vs. Chris Bassitt, 7:10pm

The M’s got a great team win last night, taking the lead on a hustle single, stolen base, and two wild pitches. But the night really belonged to Yusei Kikuchi who stopped his mini-slump with a career high in strikeouts. But he’s had great games before – was there anything noteworthy about this one? Yes.

Since he came over to MLB, Kikuchi’s been a fastball/slider guy, and then developed a third pitch – his cutter – that’s literally half-way in between the other two. He’s had a curve, but he hasn’t thrown it much at all recently. What does he throw to righties? In the past, the answer’s been the cutter, but he’s needed something else to get them off of his fastball, which, for all of its velocity, has had a worrying tendency to get drilled if batters guess it’s coming.

For years, he’s had a change, but he’s used it very, very sparingly, and essentially never to left-handed batters. Earlier this year, ex-M’s pitcher and current team coach (and Kevin Mather annoyer, somehow) Hisashi Iwakuma taught Kikuchi his split-change grip. The results have been…subtle. It doesn’t move a whole lot differently from his old change, and neither version got a ton of horizontal movement anyway. It wasn’t a 12-6 style splitter the way ‘Kuma’s was, and it wasn’t an arm-side running swerveball the way, say, Pablo Lopez’s is. It’s been in the middle.

Last night, something seemed to change: he threw a staggering 29 of them, and got 9 of his 12 strikeouts on the pitch. He threw it to lefties and righties alike, and it helped him rack up swinging strikes and grounders. He’d never thrown 20 of them in a game before; his high was 18 set back in his rookie year. Moreover, the spin rate was down by 400 RPM, leading to very little horizontal run. I think he’s changed something, either setting the ball deeper in his fingers, or adapting the grip a bit. It wasn’t a perfect pitch; Matt Olson deposited one deep in the seats. But the fact that he threw one to Matt Olson at all would be noteworthy, and that he did so in a game in which the pitch looked different and helped him set a strikeout mark…this is worth keeping an eye on.

You know who’s fastball looks a bit like Kikuchi’s, albeit from the right side? Logan Gilbert’s. You know who’s used his change sparingly thus far? Yeah, Gilbert. Gilbert hasn’t really needed something else, as his fastball’s been quite effective in combination with that slider. But he’s had recent games where he’s throws zero curve balls. If he can get some confidence in his change, it could really help him develop.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: France, 1B
5: Raleigh, C
6: Torrens, DH
7: Kelenic, CF
8: Moore, 2B
9: Bauers, LF
SP: Gilbert

Congrats to Cal Raleigh on his first big league HR, a 444’ shot to right. He’s looked much more comfortable at the plate recently. Hopefully some of that can rub off on Jarred Kelenic, who hit a few balls hard recently, but is still mired in a brutal slump.

Tacoma blanked Sacramento 4-0 behind David Huff’s great start and 9 hits from the bats. Dillon Thomas had an inside-the-park dinger called back for failing to touch a base or some BS. They’ll play tonight at Cheney; game time’s 7:05 if you’re local….

Arkansas walked off Wichita last night, 4-3. Austin Shenton had two hits and is solidifying as one of the better bats on a promotion-weakened Travs line-up. Devin Sweet starts tonight’s game.

Everett beat Vancouver 8-3, getting all 8 runs in the first two innings. Jake Anchia hit his 5th home run. Tim Elliot got the win, going 6 1/3 IP, giving up 2 runs on 2 hits (but 4 walks).

Fresno beat Modesto 6-3, and Noelvi Marte went 0-4, so enough about that.

Game 97, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · July 23, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Frankie Montas, 7:10pm

Frankie Montas just tipped over 100 IP in 2021. It’s his first time hitting the century mark, and it’s come in his sixth season. Sure, for a year or two, he was a reliever, and relievers just Don’t Do That Anymore, which is perhaps a discussions for a different day. But he’s been a starter now for a handful of years, and never managed it. Why not? I think Montas has essentially dabbled with each reason a pitcher can have for not pitching a lot. First, and what most might consider easiest, was that he’s gotten hurt. He had a rib resection and a broken rib, he had a finger issue, and, this year, caught Covid-19. Second, and what is *actually* the easiest reason not to log a lot of injuries, he’s been pretty mediocre at times. He had a decent ERA in his first A’s season, but he didn’t miss any bats. The year before that, his last time as a reliever, he racked up strikeouts, but nearly matched them with walks. Finally, in 2019, in the midst of a breakout season, he was suspended after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug.

The seemingly-random wheel of Frankie Montas results spun again last year, as he struggled mightily with HRs, pushing his RA/9 towards 6 despite plenty of strikeouts. This year, he’s improved, though he’s still not flashing the kind of results he showed in 2019. Montas, when he’s on, looks every bit the ace: he throws a four-seamer and sinker at 96-97, and mixes in a splitter to lefties and a slider to righties, both of which can be effective bat-missing weapons. As a long-term member of the splitter fan club, it’s no surprise I think it’s his best pitch, and it’s done exceedingly well for him this year. But it hasn’t always been so; it’s a volatile pitch, I guess? Let’s hope tonight’s an off night for him, as the M’s have struggled quite a bit with change-ups/splitters this year.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, DH
3: Seager, 3B
4: France, 2B
5: Raleigh, C
6: Torrens, 1B
7: Kelenic, CF
8: Bauers, RF
9: Long, 2B
SP: Kikuchi

The M’s big free agent move of the off-season, acquiring Rafael Montero to close, didn’t go as planned. After a poor outing last night, he’s now sporting an ERA over 6. That experiment’s now over, as the M’s DFA’d Montero.

Looks like we’ll be seeing more of Luis Torrens at 1B, and it makes some sense as the team absolutely needs his bat in the line-up and also wants to get a look at Cal Raleigh. Torrens has absolutely been one of the stories of 2021. He was sent down looking completely lost at the plate, and returned as a younger Gary Sanchez.

Game 97, Athletics at Mariners – A Critical Homestand

marc w · July 22, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Chris Flexen vs. Sean Manaea, 7:10pm

The M’s wildcard odds took a hit with yesterday’s loss; they’re now just below 3%. That sounds bad, but look at the standings, and the M’s are only behind Oakland for the second wild card. The M’s odds are so low because projection systems keep waiting for the Angels to wake up and play well, and frankly, I’ve just seen the Angels, and that – predicting the Angels will suddenly have pitching – is not something I’d put money on. This doesn’t mean that the M’s have it made. The A’s are better and ahead of them. But it means games leading up to the deadline *against the team they’re chasing* take on additional importance. Games like, oh, tonight’s.

The Mariners need pitching and they need upgrades to a couple of positions that are holding them back. Jerry Dipoto remains focused on the longer term needs of the team, and doesn’t want to spend prospect capital on a rental – meaning, they don’t want a player who’ll become a free agent at the end of the season. That’s fine, but given the number of teams that are completely out of it, supply of players under contract for at least 2022 won’t be all that hard to find. Typically, what we need is for someone to go first and sort of set the market.

Someone just did. The Rays, the team currently sitting in the *first* wild card position just acquired Nelson Cruz from Minnesota. That’s a really good fit, and it strengthens their chances not only of making it into a playoff game, but pushing Boston for the AL East title. It also amps up the pressure on teams like Seattle to do something – anything – to try and keep up.

Thus, the M’s are in kind of a chicken/egg situation in this homestand. If they play poorly, they may throw in the towel on acquiring another starter, say. If they close the gap, the pressure to make a deal grows. But, of course, making a deal sooner would actually help them close the gap. Whatever the M’s decide to do, this series is a big one, as Jake Mailhot lays out in this preview at LL.

We can’t talk about weird playoff chases despite poor underlying metrics without mentioning that the M’s were in a very similar position back in 2006, when they leveraged a good farm system to upgrade their anemic line-up. It…it did not go well. They did something similar after 2007, and that may have actually gone worse somehow. But this year’s team has advantages those earlier ones don’t. For one, the farm system is actually deeper than it was in the Choo/Jones/Cabrera years. I don’t mean “this crop is guaranteed to put up better MLB numbers,” as that is both a high bar and completely unknowable. But I mean that the M’s have highly regarded prospects within the industry, and they have desirable prospects beyond the big ones like Kelenic/Rodriguez that everyone’s been talking about for years. The Athletic/Keith Law’s midseason top 50 list just came out, and includes Noelvi Marte, for example.

Sean Manaea’s having one of his better seasons this year at the age of 29. He’s had ups and downs in terms of his raw stuff and his results, but he’s been remarkably similar in terms of approach. He throws a four-seamer around 60% of the time, and uses his change to righties and slider to lefties. He’s had low-K seasons like 2018 and 2020, but his K rate is up noticeably this year. One of the drivers is that he’s around the plate, and is generating more swings off of his fastball.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: France, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Torrens, DH
6: Murphy, C
7: Kelenic, CF
8: Moore, 2B
9: Long, LF
SP: Flexen

Game 95, Mariners at Rockies – Improving the Offense

marc w · July 20, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. German Marquez, 5:40pm

The M’s strong run has them 6 games above .500, blowing their pre-season projections out of the water. Sure, their playoff odds have moved from “negligible” to “still below 5%” but they’re driven by those same projections. The problem here is that either by BaseRuns or pythagorean runs, the M’s really aren’t that great: their record using both systems (essentially stripping out sequencing and “clutch” stats) comes out at 42-52, a far cry from their actual 50-44 record. The bullpen’s been great, and they’ve been the clutchiest team in the game, but what accounts for this massive disparity?

The thing every projection, every system using run differential (which is all pythagorean runs are) is keying on is this: the M’s can’t hit very well. Before the year, they were projected to score very few runs, a product not only of an underwhelming/developing line-up, but also a park that supresses run scoring. They had a fair-to-middling projected number of runs allowed, but the problem was that they couldn’t take advantage of being average in one area if they were pretty bad in another. But that’s just what was *projected.* What’s ACTUALLY happened?

The projections….nailed it. The M’s are giving up 4.67 runs per game, which is a more than average, but it’s not a massive problem. What perhaps no one but the M’s pitching coaches and Jerry Dipoto saw coming was an elite bullpen that survived a faceplant from Rule 5 pick Will Vest and vaunted closer Rafael Montero to become the key element allowing the M’s to win close games and make a mockery of their run differential. That they’ve done all of this despite a swath of injuries torpedoing their opening day rotation is nothing less than amazing. How about the runs scored part? They’re scoring 4.1 runs per game, which is a bit more than you’d assume, just looking at their actual number of hits, walks, and homers. But here, the projections have been more or less right on. They were projected to score right around 4 runs per game, and to give up more than that. That’s exactly what they’ve done.

Even for some of the players, and even for players who are not hitting anything like their projected line, some of the projections are eerily accurate. Jarred Kelenic was projected by ZiPS for a 29.7 K% and a 7.6% BB rate. So far this year, he’s at 30.5% and 7.6%, respectively. Literally everything else about that projection hasn’t come to fruition; his OPS is nowhere near the mid-700s, and I think mid-20s in HRs is probably not in the cards for 2021, but it nailed the K/BB stuff. The same is largely true for Taylor Trammell, though not to the same degree.

The problem here isn’t just that the M’s have a high K rate. That might be expected due to the fact that they’re running out a very young line-up. The problem is what happens when they actually make contact. The M’s BABIP is the lowest in the game in part because they have the highest rate of infield fly balls. These are essentially always outs, so of course your BABIP will suffer if you hit them. The M’s, and the league, are hitting fewer grounders, but getting less out of them in part because the club doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard.

The New York Times has an article today about how the crackdown on sticky stuff has impacted strikeouts (down) and walks (up), leading to an increase in OBP. It will be interesting to see if the M’s can improve their BABIP and OBP given these changes. I don’t think it’s mattered a whole lot for the M’s staff, save perhaps Yusei Kikuchi, whose July swoon began a bit after the crackdown. Guys like Logan Gilbert, Chris Flexen, Kendall Graveman, etc. never had high spin rates, and don’t seem to have changed materially since June.

All of that has made it harder to identify exactly what changed with Gilbert, who was, again, lights out in the M’s last game. His fastball is about as hard as it was when he first came up, and he’s still prone to hard contact. His whiff rate remains so-so, but his command has improved markedly, leading to more strikeouts and fewer baserunners. There’s nothing really in the data that helps define what “rookie jitters” or “nerves” actually *does* to a pitcher. They don’t throw slower, they don’t change their release point, and for Gilbert, it’s not like he started out by walking tons of hitters. When batters put it in play, they still hit it fairly hard, but there are fewer balls in play, and he’s able to get whiffs when *he* wants to, and not in some 3-1 count. His growth has been unbelievable to watch, and he gives the M’s serious hopes for 2022, and more evidence (along with that bullpen) that the M’s player development group can be successful with pitchers. That’s important given the wave of pitchers they may need to call in in 2022 and 2023, especially if Marco Gonzales and Justus Sheffield remain a bit shaky.

But to really put themselves in contention for division titles in what’s looking like an increasingly open division in the next year or two is serious improvement in their offense. Moving from 4 runs a game to 4.7-5 is really, really hard to do, but starting with one of the younger line-ups around will help. Beyond mere regression in infield fly rate or BABIP, they need to figure out why the likes of Trammell, Kelenic, and potentially Raleigh are struggling in their first go-round in MLB, just as Evan White did. What was different about Kyle Lewis, and how can they turn Kelenic/Trammell around? Answering that will have as much to say about the M’s playoff odds next year as any free agent they may acquire.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: France, 1B
5: Raleigh, C
6: Kelenic, CF
7: Moore, 2B
8: Long, LF
9/SP: Gonzales

Tacoma destroyed Salt Lake last night 12-2 behind HRs from Kennie Taylor, Brian O’Keefe, Justin Hager, Jantzen Witte, and Jose Marmolejos. Logan Verrett was solid and got the win. Mike Curto discusses Taylor here; he was picked up early in the year (along with seemingly half of the team) from the Mets org, then was kind of without a team for a while, and was brought back a few days ago. The life of a minor leaguer; jeesh. Speaking of which, former Rainier and Mariner Ryan Weber was just picked up off of waivers from Milwakuee. He’ll start for Tacoma tonight.

Arkansas begins a series against Wichita at home at Dickey-Stephens park.

Everett travels to Hillsboro to take on the Vancouver Canadian-Oregonians.

Modesto heads to Fresno’s Chukchansi park to play the Grizzlies.

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