’22 40-Man Preview Extravaganza

Jay Yencich · November 4, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners

Baseball is generally regarded as slower to catch up with other sports in certain areas, but this season marks a particularly interesting phase-out before next year’s “new normal.” What I’m referring to here is that the 2019 draft, for which college players are now eligible for the Rule 5, was the last year of the draft going up to forty rounds. As we know, the pandemic limited the 2020 draft to five rounds, and thereafter, the new CBA has affirmed a twenty-round draft moving forward. The minor league contraction ensures that it will probably remain this. While I miss the all-day marathon drafts of yesteryear and lament on behalf of fun late-round draftees who made good, I’m also not sure if the unionization efforts at the minor league level would have been tolerated had the overall numbers not dropped. Besides, guys can still sign for six-figures as NDFAs.

As indicated, this year, we’re looking at college draft guys from 2019, of which there are a lot, and also high school draftees, U-19 international signings, and other holdovers from the 2018 class, with the caveat that there isn’t a whole lot there (Gilbert, Raleigh, and 33rd rounder Penn Murfee already headlining). Many of the qualifiers were traded away in the rebuild phase and Jerry likes to add guys early, but there’s still enough to warrant a good old-fashioned preview even if I’m not around for much else these days. The deadline is Friday, November 18th. I think.

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ALDS Game 3: Astros AT Mariners – Welcome Home

marc w · October 15, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners

George Kirby vs. Lance McCullers, Jr., 1:07pm

Playoff baseball in Seattle. It’s been a while. Given how the first two games have gone, there’s not a ton of optimism regarding the series, but the thrill of having a game like this at home will make this a party and give the M’s some much-needed home field advantage.

So, before the first game, I went through some keys to the series. The first had to do with Yorda- okay, no. I don’t want to talk about that, and I think we’re all Yordaned out at the moment. I’d say put it to the side, but we all know it’s looming over everything. Damn it. Ok, the second concerned bullpens, and this has been the story of the series thus far, or, at least, it WOULD be if we weren’t talking about that one guy (I try to not talk about it, but it’s just THERE, in everything). The M’s have had chances against the Astros all-righty pen, but they haven’t been able to break through. The next key was free passes, and neutralizing the Astros exceptional patience. By and large, the M’s have done this – they’ve won this competition. They drew SEVEN walks against the Astros in game 2, and while the Astros only gave up 1 in game 1, that’s just because the M’s racked up so many hits. The M’s are NOT making it easier on the Astros by putting them on, and it’s a big reason why the series has been so close.

That would figure to continue today with George Kirby on the mound. Kirby’s stinginess with free passes is a huge part of his success, and his K:BB ratio is elite because of it. Like his rotation mate Logan Gilbert, he’ll give up his share of hard contact, but he will make you hit your way on base. That trade-off, that combination of hard contact but no walks, plays perfectly in T-Mobile park, where the hit-suppressing park makes him somehow even more aggressive with the strikezone. It is not, however, a panacea. His HR rate was higher at home, where he yielded 9 of his 13 HRs.

And that brings us to a key to this pitching match-up, and the 4th key to the series: platoon advantages. George Kirby has been much, much better against LEFT handed batters in his first 130 MLB innings. He’s given up 9 of his 13 HRs to RIGHT handers, though it must be said he’s given up all of one home run since June. Why would a guy like Kirby have reverse splits? The answer lies not in his four-seam fastball, which is deadly to righties and plenty effective against lefties. Instead, something weird is going on with his breaking balls – a slider and a curve. Both remain works in progress, and the lack of a wipe-out breaker has limited his ceiling somewhat. But they haven’t limited his effectiveness against lefties. Lefties have 13 total bases off Kirby’s breakers and have struck out on them 17 times; they’re hitting under .150 on them, combined.

Now, he’s not getting them to swing and miss. His best swing-and-miss pitch remains, bizarrely, his fastball, and that’s true for righties as well as lefties. But lefties can’t do anything when they put his breaking balls in play. Meanwhile, righties – who SHOULD struggle against them – are slugging over .600 on them, with 6 HRs. Against this line-up, Kirby needs to be aware of this, and pitch accordingly. He’s always relied heavily on his fastball, and he needs to stick with it to right-handers and be stingy with the breaking balls he throws them. Again: make the Altuves and Bregmans hit their way on, and trust that his fastball’s good enough to get those guys out. Against lefties, everything’s fair game. Give Alvarez and Tucker plenty of sliders and mix in some curves. We talked about Logan Gilbert’s reverse splits before game 1, and I think Gilbert did a solid job for the most part, really only one bad pitch to….:sigh:

Lance McCullers offers another view on how to beat platoon advantages. As a righty with a low 3/4 delivery, McCullers *should* have wide splits. His sweeping, diving curve helped minimize them when he came up, but it’s worth remembering that McCullers is very, very different from the essentially two-pitch guy he was back from 2015-2018. After returning from injury this year, he features a sinker, sweeping slider with tons of horizontal movement, and a slower curve – each of these pitches are thrown about 25% of the time. The balance is a change and a newfangled cutter, both of which he reserves for lefties. Why does a sinker/slider guy with his arm angle have reverse splits this year, and indeed for his entire career? Because against lefties, he’s not a sinker/slider guy at all.

McCullers has had problems with his sinking fastball this year, and the M’s need to jump on it when they get one. Batters are hitting over .400 on his sinker this year, and it’s been trending that way for a while – it was easily his worst pitch last year. So when a left-hander’s in the batter’s box, McCullers just…doesn’t throw it. For all of its nuance and complexity, sometimes baseball can be simple to understand. Against righties, he’s overwhelmingly a sinker/slider guy – a slider/sinker guy, actually. Against lefties, he has a completely different approach, throwing curves half the time, and then mixing in change-ups and cutters. He threw all of three curveballs to righties this year, and nearly 200 to lefties.

The curve has always been effective against lefties, but he added a sweeper to be better against right-handers – and it’s worked. RHBs are slugging .234 off of it over the past two seasons. The M’s right-handers need to take advantage of the sinkers he gives them, and the left-handers need to be patient. That wouldn’t work against Justin Verlander, and thankfully, their aggressive approach paid off. They DID need to make Framber Valdez throw strikes, and they worked three big walks off of him in less than 5 IP, setting up an early lead. McCullers has always been wild, with pitches that move and dive out of the zone. They need to swing at strikes, and they know it. McCullers doesn’t induce swings very much – he’s the anti-Kirby in that respect. Get in good counts, M’s.

1: Juliiiooooooooooo, CF
2: France, 1B
3: Suarez, 3B
4: Raleigh, C
5: Haniger, RF
6: Santana, DH
7: Frazier, 2B
8: Kelenic, LF
9: Crawford, SS
SP: Kirby

With McCullers coming off of injury, I’d expect we’ll see another 4 IP from the Astros bullpen. The day off may have helped them recover, but the M’s bats need to do something especially now that they’ve seen many of these guys before. On the M’s side of things, I’m kind of at a loss; I’d still give Andres Munoz high leverage innings, but I no longer feel confident about it. Paul Sewald will probably still get to pitch, but I think he’ll be used early, as he was in Toronto. We haven’t seen Erik Swanson yet, but I think Matt Brash might get a later-inning, higher-leverage appearance today.

I’m very jealous of all of you with tickets who can go and make T-Mobile loud. Playoff baseball really is special, and even despite the best efforts of that one guy in a Houston jersey, it’s been exhilarating to watch.

ALDS Game 2: The Pitch and What Follows

marc w · October 13, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners

Luis Castillo vs. Framber Valdez, 12:37pm

Yordan Alvarez’s soul-crushing home run in Game 1 was the most consequential hit, as measured by win probability added, in postseason history. This ensures we will see it as long as MLB continues to have a postseason. There’s no escape from it. The only thing to do is to change the context in which we see it repeated again and again, and for that, the M’s need to win the series. Make it one of those unreal performances that everyone can enjoy, because Houston fans will love thinking about it, and everyone else can think of what came next. I’m sure Reds fans don’t mind the perennial replays of Carlton Fisk’s 1975 World Series home run, just as I don’t mind seeing highlights from Derrick Thomas’s NFL record for sacks in a game (against the Seahawks), because I know how that game ended. It’s a tough task, but it’s not an impossible one.

I don’t want to rehash Game 1 too much, because there’s so much good writing about it. First, this Patrick Dubuque article at Baseball Prospectus is my favorite baseball article ever. I was shaking by the end of this; some sort of weird nervous energy at finding art that’s essentially perfect. I don’t like the context that this came from, but if Yordan’s walk-off shot is what it took for this to get written, then it’s pretty much worth it. The great Jake Mailhot as an article on the decision to bring in Ray over at Fangraphs that’s well worth a read, and you can read about the decision from the club and manager directly, courtesy of this Daniel Kramer article.

That said, I can’t quite believe the M’s found themselves in that situation, and I can’t believe the decision they made once in it. I think it’s fair to say I might not be entirely rational about Alvarez, whose numbers against Seattle are MVP-caliber, but not the .550/.700/1.400 I would’ve guessed. I said in my preview that the M’s simply had to not allow Alvarez to beat them, even if that meant facing Alex Bregman/Kyle Tucker/Jose Altuve in a tough spot. Your view on the relative scariness of the Astros hitters may vary, but I stand by what I wrote in the preview, and sure as hell won’t be revisiting it now. But what was the alternative? Walking Alvarez to load the bases for Bregman? Uh, yeah, that is one alternative, and I would take that in a heartbeat over what occurred. Pitch way around him? Let Paul Sewald stay in? All of the above, maybe? I don’t really know. But what I *do* know is that the M’s decided to put everything on the line to get Alvarez. They wanted their last stand to be with Yordan Alvarez at the plate, and I simply do not understand that at all.

What I mean is that by bringing in Ray, they left themselves in a weaker position if Alvarez walked or singled – any sort of PA that extended the game. Ray vs. Bregman with the bases loaded or with the winning run in scoring position is not good. You’d probably rather have Sewald in that position, right? The bases would be loaded, so you couldn’t exactly walk in a run to face Tucker. I get it, kind of: Alvarez has fared worse against lefty sinkers than pretty much any type of pitch, with the acknowledgement that the sample sizes on all of this stuff are just woefully small. The problem is that the sinker is Ray’s *worst pitch* and bringing him in cold in the middle of the 9th means you have no idea what his command is like. You just throw him in to face Alvarez, with the game on the line, in a situation he’s never been in before. As many people, from Chris Crawford on the radio to Joe Sheehan in his newsletter, have said: this is putting Ray in a position to fail, essentially the opposite of how Servais has managed this year.

And yes: the game never should’ve come down to this, because the M’s best two relievers normally don’t have bad games on the same day. The whole game didn’t turn on that last, inevitable-seeming result – no matter what WPA says. I have to point out that it was the second time they pitched to Alvarez with men on base, and it went about as expected the first time, too. But by the 9th, the game was slipping, and we all felt it. We just have to hope that they got it out of their system, and that reliever volatility can work FOR us, the way it did in Toronto, instead of against us.

For that to happen, the M’s should get to sinkerballer Framber Valdez early. I’d say that normally, this would be an atrocious match-up. Valdez had the best ground ball rate in the game and, relatedly, the lowest HR/9. To beat him, you simply have to string together a ton of hits. The M’s offense…struggled to do so in the regular season. But it’s essentially all they’ve done in the postseason, having done it against Kevin Gausman and the Jays’ bullpen, and then doing it to Justin freaking Verlander in Game 1. Part of that has been the success of guys with the platoon advantage: the bottom of the line-up like JP Crawford and Jarred Kelenic in Game 1, but part of it is just Juliooooo being Juliooooo. The M’s will have the advantage a ton today with Dylan Moore slotting into LF in place of Kelenic, and with Cal Raleigh and Carlos Santana flipping around to bat righty.

Valdez throws his sinker over 1/2 the time, a swerving 94mph with good sink from his release point. His best secondary is a big-breaking curve that has serious drop. Batters slugged under .200 off of it this year, and are at .209 over his career. He has a cutter/slider at 83 that also sinks a ton, and a change-up that he’ll show off to righties occasionally. Valdez has platoon splits, but has been successful based on holding right handed bats in check, and HR-avoidance is a huge part of that. The M’s haven’t been a great offense vs. ground ball pitchers; BBREF has their OPS at just under .700 against them, lower than vs. fly-ballers or neutral arms. But again, the offense hasn’t looked anything like the team that played in the regular season, so why should they let the past be prologue now?

On the other side, the Astros didn’t face Luis Castillo this year, and that lack of familiarity may be an advantage for Seattle. He’ll face a line-up that also swaps out Chas McCormick for Jake Meyers, another RHB, but one without the experience/success of McCormick. That said, this is still a very tough test for any pitcher. One thing he has going for himself, of course, is top-shelf velocity. Even good hitters struggle at 97+, and Castillo will show them 97+ often. Yuli Gurriel has a sub .300 wOBA against high-velo fastballs this year, and it turns Alex Bregman and Trey Mancini into easy outs. Alvarez fares better, so once more, with extra feeling, they need to not allow Alvarez to beat them. The best of their remaining hitters against elite velo? Jose Altuve. Chas McCormick fared quite well against it too, so the Astros may feel the drop from McCormick’s high-velo wOBA (.383) to Meyers’ (.161).

1: Juliooooo, CF
2: France, 1B
3: Suarez, 3B
4: Haniger, RF
5: Santana, DH
6: Moore, LF
7: Raleigh, C
8: Frazier, 2B
9: Crawford, SS
SP: Castillo

Go M’s.

ALDS Game 1 – Series Preview

marc w · October 11, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners

Logan Gilbert vs. Justin Verlander, 12:37pm

The Astros are insanely good. This series is five games long at most. This isn’t the factor that most raises the M’s odds – that’s the addition of Luis Castillo – but it does help. There simply isn’t enough time for the Astros’ talent advantage to reliably show up. As we’ve just seen, the playoffs are like summer camp, affording players the opportunity to try on completely different personalities for a while. Cal Raleigh hit .211 in the regular season, then played like a combination of Edgar Martinez and Tony Gwynn in Toronto. Adam Frazier put up an empty .612 OPS (a .612 OPS is, by definition, empty, but it needs an adjective because after watching Frazier this year, you would swear there was no way his OPS was north of .600), but an even 1.000 in two brilliant games against the Jays. My last series preview got blown up by reality, and I am okay with that. I’m just hoping the M’s can do…whatever this is…some more.

The M’s strength this season has been their pitching, and after the acquisition of Luis Castillo and the emergence of George Kirby, especially starting pitching. In a short series, that’s a nice strength to have. The problem is that the Astros had the best starters and the best pitching staff in baseball, with a TEAM ERA under 3 and the best FIP in baseball. They gave up 3.2 runs per game in a park we all used to think was hitter-friendly. The Astros have two starters with absolutely elite four-seam fastballs in Justin Verlander and Cristian Javier. They’ve got Framber Valdez and his elite sinker, powering the highest GB% of any starter in MLB (and it’s not close). Lance McCullers has an elite breaking ball that he throws a ton of, and to make matters worse, the staff gave up the fewest HRs in the American League.

If they have a weakness, it may be control. Justin Verlander is coming off a brilliant season, tying his career low in walk rate. But behind him, the Astros starters will give up free passes, while M’s batters’ strength is their patience. Javier, Valdez, and McCullers all have walk rates over 3 per 9 innings. If the M’s are able to get solid ABs from the bottom of their line-up, the way they did in Toronto, then this could be an equalizer. Meanwhile, the Astros haven’t seen Castillo in an M’s uniform, and got several of their wins against Seattle before the M’s solidified/improved their bullpen.

That helps, because the Astros line-up is a bit scary. It’s anchored by Yordan Alvarez, the hitter I fear most as an M’s fan. I was half-joking earlier in the season when I said I’d walk him every time he’s at the dish, but as time’s gone by, I’m increasingly comfortable with that strategy. A part of that is that a few of the Astros superstars have fallen back a bit. Alex Bregman had a very good year, with more walks than Ks. He put up a 136 wRC+, but I would throw him plenty of strikes. Bregman hit 41 HRs in 2019, then fell off a cliff with a bizarrely awful 2020, before a partial bounce-back in 2021. He’s been better this year, but he’s simply not hitting for as much power as he once had. The baseball is part of that, certainly, but he’s a player that derives a lot of his value from bases on balls, and the M’s staff doesn’t give up many. Bregman’s BABIP has been low for a while, so the M’s need to make him earn his way on base. Kyle Tucker’s in a similar position. He doesn’t quite have Bregman’s eye, but it’s close. Like Bregman, Tucker has a very high average launch angle, and thus hits plenty of fly balls. He’s a good hitter, but the M’s should be aggressive with him. On the flip side, Jose Altuve’s decline may have been exaggerated. The 2B had a career-high walk rate while maintaining his unlikely slugging ability. If he had a weakness in a 6.6 fWAR season, it’s that he was much better against left-handed pitching. I don’t think this match-up will determine if Robbie Ray gets a start in this series, but it’s an issue given the M’s wealth of righty SP options.

1: Julioooooo, CF
2: France, 1B
3: Suarez, 3B
4: Raleigh, C
5: Haniger, RF
6: Santana, DH
7: Frazier, 2B
8: Kelenic, LF
9: Crawford, SS
SP: Gilbert

The keys to the series for me:

1: Alvarez. If Yordan Alvarez has a bunch of RBIs and critical hits, something’s gone wrong. If he’s on base when someone else hits a HR, that’s unfortunate, but it wouldn’t make me as annoyed as if the M’s allow Alvarez to beat them. He will! Don’t let him!

2: Battle of the Bullpens. The Astros are a bit banged up, as RP Phil Maton’s off the roster after breaking a finger punching his locker. The ‘Stros bullpen performed well overall, but it doesn’t feel like a shutdown unit. Former Mariner Rafael Montero’s been great all year, but closer Ryan Pressly was awful against Seattle a year ago, and hasn’t pitched up to his FIP for several years. Meanwhile, the M’s have to hope that Paul Sewald got his one big clunker of an outing out of his system in Toronto. Andres Munoz getting a day off yesterday helps, but the M’s pen isn’t as rested as Houston’s. We’ll see if that matters.

3: Walks. Logan Gilbert has pitched very well against Houston and has learned the most important lesson in facing them: don’t give them free bases. With Gilbert and Castillo, plus the potential for a George Kirby start, the M’s are poised to neutralize one of the Astros’ strengths. If the M’s offense is going to score, they could use some free bases of their own. If the M’s out-walk the Astros’ line-up, that would go a long way towards evening things up, and at least on paper, that’s a real possibility. On the other hand, if Gilbert/Kirby are a bit worn down, and Kirby’s late-season control issues return, it gets a lot harder to see them overcoming this juggernaut of a team.

4: Platoon advantages. Leo Morgenstern’s great preview at Fangraphs mentions platoon splits for Logan Gilbert and how good he’s been against lefties. But I think this is an intriguing series, and a very different one compared to the Wild Card series against the aggressively-right-handed Jays. The rules on reliever usage make it harder to make mid-inning changes, and the Astros can altenrate *tough* righties and lefties in the middle of their order. Matt Boyd is going to get some very high leverage appearances as a left-handed reliever, but the M’s don’t really have much behind him. If the M’s can handle the Astros’ lefties, and if the M’s can get critical hits from their own lefties, they have a chance. During the regular season, that didn’t often happen, as guys like Jarred Kelenic, Adam Frazier, and Carlos Santana had rough years. But in the playoffs, Frazier, Santana, and especially Cal Raleigh came up clutch (although Santana’s biggest hit came as a RHB). They need to do so again, as the Astros’ probable starters are all righties, and the bulk of their bullpen is as well. All of them have been good-to-great against lefties, but still – the M’s need all the advantages they can get.

Recent Events Fill Mariners Fans With Unexpected Emotions

marc w · October 11, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners

When the M’s eliminated the Jays, I quite literally didn’t know what to do. I ended up cleaning the kitchen, a task I generally loathe. The nature of the game was a part of that confusion – a warm, comfortable variant of confusion – but the biggest part of it was that I was not fully aware that baseball could produce feelings like this. 21 years of failure constrained my emotional response to critical games because it constrained my imagination. I was not prepared for a world in which the M’s could come back from 8-1 down in Toronto to win. And thus, my brain did not really process that fact.

It was fitting, then, that the image I will always carry with me from that day was photos from T-Mobile park at the M’s watch party. Thousands of people, watching a bonkers game on the jumbotron, with shoes perched on their heads. It is simultaneously relatable (“sports!”), and completely ridiculous. Faced with perhaps the most unlikely comeback in 20 years after 20 years of missing the playoffs in a variety of cruel ways, people spontaneously responded to the blessed nonsense of it all in kind. By raising the nonsense, by wallowing in it, basking in it.

AL Wild Card Series Game 2: The Ray Game

marc w · October 8, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners

Robbie Ray vs. Kevin Gausman, 1:07pm

Well, Game 1 could not have possibly gone any better. Luis Castillo has been good for the M’s since the trade, but the kind of performance he had yesterday is exactly why you trade so many prospects for him. In the playoffs, on the road, against one of the best line-ups in baseball, Castillo stole the show. He had everything working, and utterly destroyed the Jays spirit. I will remember the sinker running in that got Vlad Guerrero Jr. swinging *while also nearly hitting him in the gut* for the rest of my life. This is the kind of game that makes fans for generations, and justifies the focus on the playoff drought. Even I have been a bit dismissive about ending the drought through a newly-expanded wild card while the team’s line-up still isn’t elite. This felt like sneaking in the back door as opposed to winning 100 games and running away with the AL West. But yesterday reminded me that the playoffs are the playoffs – every game is capable of delivering the kind of instant-classic, memorable performance we just saw. It’s been a focus of M’s fans because we’ve never had the possibility of a player going thermo-nuclear on some unsuspecting opponent.

On the other side of the coin, the M’s *clearly* didn’t read my post about Alek Manoah’s contact management. They hit him hard, and often. But in all honesty, the game was over at the end of the first inning. The M’s scored three in the top, and then Castillo calmly brushed aside the Jays in the bottom of the inning, and that ended up being that. How did the M’s jump out to that early lead? It felt oddly…familiar. Manoah’s slider was working yesterday, as seen in the three-pitch K of Julio Rodriguez. But in the first, it was a weapon he generally kept holstered. By the end of the game, he’d thrown 29 sliders, more than any other pitch type. But in the first, he really attempted that age-old pitching advice that rings a little different for long-time readers here: he tried to Establish the Fastball. He had lead-off man Julio Rodriguez with two strikes, and hadn’t thrown him a slider. What did he do? He threw a sinker up that ran in and hit Julio on the hand. He got France on a breaker, but then Suarez hit a fastball 103 MPH into right for a double. Cal Raleigh lofted a fastball out to right right for an instant 3 run lead, before Manoah got Haniger to ground out on a fastball, then struck out Santana…on a fastball.

He made the adjustment, and went to the slider more often, and had generally good results. I’m still pretty amazed by this. The M’s line-up isn’t great, but they can do one thing: hit fastballs. Sure, Julio and Suarez have been good against sinkers, and Julio in particular is better than average against breaking stuff, but the overall team lives on fastballs. This is the kind of approach that, had it worked, would’ve been lauded – “He doesn’t care about the other team’s strengths, he’s just focused on his own game plan,” or “He wanted to shove it down their throats,” or some other aggressive cliche. But it backfired big time, and now the Jays are a game away from elimination.

Today, they’ll send second ace Kevin Gausman to the hill. Gausman’s splitter is every bit the weapon that Manoah’s slider is, and I don’t think he’s going to shelve it early, no matter what the pitching coach’s advice may be. Gausman is a three-pitch guy, with a four-seam fastball that’s got some armside run, a show-me slider with plenty of gyro spin and thus not a ton of movement, and that big, diving 85 mph splitter with the armside run of a sinker, but the drop of a breaking ball. As you probably know, the splitter is my favorite pitch type, and Gausman shows why: it induces a swing over 61% of the time, even though he throws it at and under the bottom of the strike zone. There are many ways to become an effective major league pitcher, but among the easiest is somehow getting major league batters to swing at balls out of the zone. Gausman is among the best in the game at this. Batters swing and miss at about 45% of these splitters, and are *slugging* .293 against it. When they put it in play, the average ball in play comes out at 83 mph.

So with all of those swings at out-of-zone pitches, surely Gausman benefits from a low BABIP, right? Ha ha, no. Well, he did in his 2021 renaissance in San Francisco, but his BABIP this year is an unreal .363. Among qualified starters, that’s the highest by 35 points (his teammate Jose Berrios is second at .328). You can probably guess what his problem has been – that four-seam fastball he throws about 1/2 the time. Park factors are useful, but there are some times I think they can vastly underestimate an impact on an individual player. Gausman’s fastball doesn’t LOOK any different than the one he had in San Francisco. It’s actually coming in slightly faster, with fractionally more rise. It’s just not working the same, as batters have a .371 wOBA against it this year, a far sight from last season’s .335. Batters are swinging a bit more often, and putting the pitch in play slightly more often, and from there, the park can help them out. Moving from San Francisco to Toronto is one of the more extreme park effect shifts a player can make, and it’s been costly for Gausman. Batters exit velo on fastballs is up over 2 MPH from 2021 to 2022. No, his home park is not the only reason why his BABIP is sky high, but it is definitely A factor, and it’s one I hope the M’s can use to their advantage today, just as they did to Manoah. It’s fun to hit in Toronto, and I want the M’s to have a lot of fun.

1: Julioooooo, CF
2: France, 1B
3: Suarez, 3B
4: Raleigh, C
5: Haniger, RF
6: Frazier, 2B
7: Santana, DH
8: Kelenic, LF
9: Crawford, SS
SP: RAY

Because of that devilish splitter, Gausman has pronounced reverse splits this year. Lefties have a .258 OBP against Gausman in 2022, with righties way up at .328. Righties success in general is a big reason why Gausman’s struggled with balls in play this year. Righties had a .262 BABIP last year, but it’s at *.399* this season. I had to read that three times before feeling confident that it was correct. If you’re wondering why the line-up is essentially unchanged, and because Raleigh’s a switch hitter, features five straight righties at the top? Well, that’s why.

As I mentioned in the series preview, this is the biggest game of the series. If Ray can put a quality start together in a somewhat unfavorable match-up, the M’s are moving on. I don’t mind the match-up tomorrow with what looks like Logan Gilbert going up against Ross Stripling, and Castillo’s gem has turned down the pressure on the M’s. But with momentum on their side, I certainly wouldn’t mind the M’s throttling the Jays today and saving Gilbert for round 2.

AL Wild Card Series, Game 1: Here We Go

marc w · October 7, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners

Luis Castillo vs. Alek Manoah, 1:07pm

After 21 years, the M’s are back in the playoffs, and unlike their first playoff game, they’ve had time to set up this mouth-watering pitching match-up; this isn’t a Chris Bosio/Bob Wolcott and hope kind of a situation. These are two aces facing off in a packed Rogers Centre.

This is a great series for starting pitching, and your view of who the best of this rarified bunch is is going to depend on how you measure pitching. Alek Manoah is 3rd in baseball, 2nd in the AL, in RA9-based WAR, meaning just counting up the runs (ALL the runs, not just the earnies) and comparing that to league average. But by fielding-independent WAR, Kevin Gausman is the ace around here, finishing 5th in baseball. The difference is that while RA9 is agnostic about how/why those runs score, FIP is focusing solely on the things MOST in the pitcher’s control: walks, strikeouts, and home runs. Your view may be that FIP is too reductive, that it’s not true that pitchers have no impact on BABIP or overall run scoring on balls in play. Or, you may prefer FIP’s superior year-over-year reliability and its ability to cut through the noise and randomness that contribute to ERA/RA9 or more inclusive measures of worth. How you answer that question may color your view of today’s match-up.

Alek Manoah is 6’6″ and built like a defensive end. A right hander, he doesn’t throw especially hard – his four-seam fastball comes in at around 94, and he has a sinker that he’ll throw to RHB and LHBs alike. He has an excellent slider, and that’s the pitch that’s made him an ace. To lefties, he’ll mix in a change, but they still see the slider, too. Manoah’s strikeout rate of 22.9% is essentially league average (22.4%), but unlike his rookie year, he’s limited walks, giving him a solid K:BB ratio. He struck out nearly 28% last year, so in one sense, he seems less dominant, but you can’t convince AL hitters of that. Manoah finished with a 2.24 ERA, the 2nd best in Toronto history among qualified starters. Average Ks, very much NOT average ERA – he’s obviously doing very well in balls in play. Can that last?

I think one of the most important things we’ve learned since I’ve been doing this is that a number of early sabermetric nostrums just don’t hold up – or they’re perfectly accurate in answering a very narrow question, but fall apart when we try to use them to answer a broader one. Voros McCracken came up with defense independent pitching stats and pointed out how volatile BABIP is, and while it’s LESS under the control of a pitcher than, say, walk rate, that doesn’t mean that a pitcher has NO control over it. This year, Manoah ranks in the 73rd percentile for exit velocity, 92nd percentile in hard hit%, and 80th percentile in the percentile of balls in play that were barreled. OK, but that’s just one season. What did he do in 2021? 86th, 93rd, and 81st, respectively. His BABIP in 2021 was .246, and in 2022, it’s .244. He has a solid defense, and that’s part of the story, but part of this just what Manoah does.

Another big factor in Manoah’s much better ERA than FIP is the fact that he pitches much better with men on base. He quite consciously changes up his approach, getting fewer strikeouts, but more ground balls. He’s a fly-ball pitcher with no one on, and a more average/balanced one with men on base – and that GB% goes up further with men in scoring position. This marked quite a change from last year, where he became MORE FB heavy with men on, but it seems to have helped. Part of the reason for this change is how he locates his pitches with men on. He’s burying his slider down and below the zone to righties more so than he did last year. And he’s getting more ground balls on sliders, particularly against righties, than in 2021. He’s trading a few whiffs for more balls in play on the pitch, but those balls in play are significantly worse than average. So much of what Manoah does is going to be invisible to FIP, but he remains a formidable opponent.

Part of the problem is that the Jays are a better team against sinkers and sliders than the M’s, but as I mentioned yesterday, the M’s have hitters who excel against those pitches. I think you can pencil in Julio Rodriguez in as the key to M’s line-up for the next, oh, 15 years or so, but it’s especially true here. The M’s odds to win aren’t great if they need to string a bunch of hits together. They’re much better if Julio Rodriguez and/or Eugenio Suarez can drive a hanging slider or a sinker out of the park. The M’s offensive strength has been their patience, but that’s going to be tough without Jesse Winker AND going up a Jays team that throws a ton of strikes. They need to drive those strikes and use the park to their advantage.

This all sounds like the Jays should be overwhelming favorites, and if you look at the betting markets and most observers’ predictions, well, they are. But they have a legitimate chance. Joe Sheehan wrote in his newsletter the other day that, out of the non-juggernaut Astros/Dodgers, maybe Braves, teams that could do some damage this postseason, he’s picking the M’s. Why? Because in the playoffs, two factors tend to rise to the top to an extreme degree compared to the regular season: home run power and bullpen strength. Sure, the Jays have power, but the M’s combination of pop AND a deep pen (particularly deep in RH power relievers) gives them a shot. The conventional wisdom essentially my whole life was that home run power wouldn’t play in the playoffs, being too infrequent, and potentially neutralized by excellent opposing pitchers. But watch the playoffs now, and that’s not how it happens. I’m watching the Rays/Guardians, and the only runs have come off dingers – a solo shot for the Rays, and a 2R-HR for Cleveland. It’s the only way to score on a Shane McClanahan. No team in baseball, writes Sheehan, has won a playoff series with less than 180 HRs since Kansas City in 2015 (neither the Rays/Guardians have, so that’ll change).

The Rays teams of recent years, and maybe especially 2020, might be a good comparison for the M’s. It’s nearly impossible to use 2020 stats, but that Rays club had a poor batting average, and was even more dependent on dingers than this year’s M’s. Famously, their bullpen was incredibly deep, featuring arms with a bewildering variety of arm angles. They had a rookie go on a home run spree in the playoffs, and they waltzed to the World Series as a wild card club. I worry about the black holes and low averages in the M’s line-up, but that Rays club had Mike Zunino’s .147 regular season average and a down year from Kevin Kiermaier. They still look much the same, and they’re still in the playoffs year after year. Could Julio go nuts the way Randy Arozarena did? Hell, it would be LESS surprising for Julio to do it than Arozarena, so hey, why not. Go M’s.

1: Juliooooo, CF
2: France, 1B
3: Suarez, 3B
4: Raleigh, C
5: Haniger, RF
6: Santana, DH
7: Kelenic, LF
8: Frazier, 2B
9: Crawford, SS
SP: Castillo

Castillo had a few bad starts down the stretch in which he fell victim to the big inning, much the same way as Robbie Ray’s April/May. The Jays can score in bunches, and while it’s obvious to say, let’s just get it out of the way: that cannot happen today.

This is a fascinating line-up, and I’ve grown to really appreciate it. Raleigh hasn’t seen much time in the clean-up position, but it’s great to get a left-hander in with the very right-handed top of the line-up, and Mitch in the 5 hole seems like a great choice. The M’s bottom of the line-up has been an issue at times, and while this looks fairly standard, it’s VERY left-handed, giving them the platoon advantage on four consecutive hitters, maximizing the chance that Julio can come up with someone on.

AL Wild Card Series Preview: The Battle of Robbie Ray

marc w · October 6, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners

I have been writing about this team for a long, long while – comments on early iterations of this site, Lookout Landing, and then joining to write above the comment box in 2009 or so. I…don’t quite know what to do now? The M’s are in a playoff series, albeit entirely on the road, and it’s a short little amuse bouche of a series. The Toronto Blue Jays are a formidable opponent, and will be more so in their home park. But while they have the talent edge at the plate, the M’s may have one in run prevention. A three-game set won’t allow a team with a clear talent edge to coast on that talent; there’s not enough time for talent to rise above randomness (ok, they’d have an advantage, but the point is it wouldn’t be decisive on its oww). But the downside is that the M’s edge in *depth* won’t really have time to shine either. So what wins out? The Blue Jays’ deep, deep line-up? Or the M’s and their game-shortening bullpen following up on excellent starting pitchers? Here are the most important factors in this series for me.

1: Robbie Ray.

Robbie Ray starts game two, on Saturday afternoon. He won the Cy Young with these Jays last year, then signed his big free agent deal in Seattle. The game two match-up between Kevin Gausman of Toronto and Ray for Seattle, for me, will make or break this series. Ray is an excellent pitcher and worth his contract. Moreover, he was excellent in his single start against Toronto this year. But in a game to either win or stay alive, Ray has to come up huge in a match-up that, on paper, looks a bit rough for him.

Much has been made of the Jays’ right-handed orientation, with so many of their best hitters batting from that side. That’s true, but they actually hit slightly better against right-handed pitchers this year than left (though they battered both). The problem is more on Ray’s end. He had sizable platoon splits last year, and they’re just as big this year. As a fastball/slider guy nearly exclusively, how could they not be? Ray’s going to neutralize lefties, and then hopefully contain right handers. He gets plenty of whiffs and strikeouts, but he allows some very loud contact, and always has. It’s part of the package, and when that loud contact finds gloves, he’s fine. When that loud contact occurs with no one on base, he’s fine. When it happens in streaks, or in high-leverage situations, or, more importantly, you’re in a park that rewards hard contact, it could go south.

These are just trends, this isn’t saying he’s doomed or anything. But it does play up the fact that this second game is really the must-have. Outside of Gausman and game one starter Alek Manoah, the Jays starting pitching gets thin. The M’s have a solid chance in the deciding game 3 – should it come to that. But they have to get through the gauntlet of Manoah/Gausman, and they have to do it against a line-up that is capable of scoring in multiple ways.

2: Home Runs.

Both of these offenses rely on home runs, but the M’s lower average/OBP means they’ve been especially reliant on them. Again, a good part of this is due to the home park they play in, and this is the ONE good thing about this series being played outside of Seattle. Julio Rodriguez and Eugenio Suarez are the clear offensive leaders, but the M’s can get home runs from Cal Raleigh, Ty France, and Mitch Haniger, and they may need them. The Blue Jays 1 and 2 starters have been brilliant this year at avoiding home runs, but they can’t do so forever. Gausman yielded no home runs in his first seven starts before the M’s hit one in his eighth. Manoah generates such weak contact, but again, without a brilliant change-up, he could be vulnerable to a good lefty slugger like Raleigh.

And while Manoah especially mixes in a sinker along with his primary four-seam fastball, Julio and Eugenio have destroyed sinkers this year; both guys have run values of +11 on sinkers. It’ll be more important for the M’s to avoid yielding HRs. Ray threw about 20% sinkers this year, but gave up 9 HRs on the pitch. Batters slugged .530 on it, but under .400 on his other two primary pitches. Yes, the new wrinkle probably contributed to the success of the slider/four-seam, but on its own, the sinker wasn’t all that good. He should still show it, but he has to be judicious with it, especially given the way it breaks for right-handed batters.

Rogers Centre is a good offensive environment, and the ball is conducive to long fly balls. Fly balls and line drives end up being about 40 points of wOBA better in Toronto than in Seattle. Asking the M’s pitchers to keep the Jays off the board entirely doesn’t seem fair, so the M’s offense has to take advantage of their environment and score some runs. Just based on what they’re best at, and looking at how playoff teams have scored recently (see the great note on playoff team scoring through HRs in this great Sarah Langs piece), the home run seems the best/most likely path to doing that.

3: The Bullpen.

Ok. The short story here is that the M’s one clear, convincing, univerally-acknowledged edge over Toronto is in the bullpen. The seasonal numbers show that, but they underestimate the edge due to the M’s not really figuring out who should be IN their bullpen until June or so. It widens if we look at it in the second half of the season, but even that’s misleading, because no team is going to use the back of its bullpen in a three-game mini-series. Who has depth at the TOP of the pen? The M’s.

So how best do they deploy it? They have to utilize the advantage to get anything out of it, right? But how do you have an early hook for Luis Castillo and Robbie Ray considering that games like these are precisely why you acquire them? As Joe Sheehan and Eric Longenhagen note, the M’s have great right-handed relievers who excel at precisely the kinds of things that Matt Chapman and especially Vlad Guerrero, Jr struggle with. It sounds sacrilegious, but the M’s don’t need Castillo facing Vlad three times. Robbie Ray positively shouldn’t be allowed to. It worked out exceedingly well for Toronto in another short series where the Orioles lost without ever utilizing their best reliever in a close, extra-inning game. The key here is for the M’s to use every one of their situational and high-leverage relievers through the first two games. Munoz, Sewald, of course. But they should use Matt Boyd, Penn Murfee (situational righty!), and Matt Brash too. Diego Castillo. Everyone gets an outing. The depth really shows itself when the M’s have not just options but GOOD options late in the game to essentially have the platoon advantage in all key situations. Take that advantage.

4: Health/Athleticism

The M’s lost Jesse Winker and Sam Haggerty to the IL just before the regular season ended. While Winker wasn’t a stolen base threat or a fine defender, Haggerty had value in a close and late situation in this series. The Jays are getting both Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. and Santiago Espinal back from injury, but it’s not clear how ready they are to play in the field or if Espinal can use his defensive flexibility and baserunning. Neither of these teams ran a lot during the year, and they may run even less now.

But then again, maybe they might? The M’s are calling up Cade Marlowe to make his MLB debut in this series, or at least his first stint on the active roster. The former 20th-rounder is a speed/power threat, coming off 42 steals in the minors against 10 caught-stealings. His MiLB K% is not particularly pleasant to look at, but at least he gives the M’s some options in a close game. The Jays equivalent is probably Bradley Zimmer, the ex-Cleveland and Philadelphia OF. He’s great defensively, but after swiping 15 bags in 18 tries in part-time duty last year, he was only at 3 and 2, respectively, last year.

Ty France’s solid final two weeks did a lot to allay concerns that he was playing through injury, as his numbers have fallen hard after his unreal start to 2022. Cal Raleigh is perhaps moving the other direction, with a cool stretch to end the year, likely due in part to his injured thumb. The M’s absolutely need both to be contributors, and it’s hard to know how much their injuries are still impacting them. The M’s may have an intriguing pinch running option, but they likely can’t count too much on the depth behind a lot of these guys, as Curt Casali is in there to handle the pitching staff, while Taylor Trammell is 1 for his last 21.

Does the lack of Haggerty impact the M’s OF defense? It’s honestly not that bad, especially considering the M’s don’t have a choice regarding Winker in LF. It’s more the flexibility they lose out on with him. The Jays have the option of putting out a great OF defense, but they can’t punt too much offense to do it. Gurriel’s hamstring may prevent him from playing too much LF, and if so, the Jays may need to use a much worse batter.

Game 162, Tigers at Mariners

marc w · October 5, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Tyler Alexander, 1:10pm

For the first time in the decade-plus I’ve been doing this, the Game 162 post isn’t about how the team fell short, or ran out of time, or never got going. The regular season is over, but we’re…not..done? What is this? As with yesterday’s double header, we’ll probably see some non-traditional arrangements out there, and maybe another position player pitching, as we saw with Game 1 winner, Luis Torrens. Normally, that would be annoying, but right now, in this context, it’s just good management.

I wasn’t sure about the hire of Jerry Dipoto’s personal friend with no MLB management experience as M’s manager. I’m not sure Scott Servais was 100% ready, and I think Servais himself would’ve agreed with that. But for this team to go from 10-games under to where they are now, Scott Servais has grown in the job. Judging managers is hard, but however you want to do it, Servais grades out well, and this season has been his masterpiece. From his managing of the bullpen and the inherent volatility involved to his facilitating a club culture that helped them overcome an awful May and pull together to hold off the Orioles, he’s been a true asset. I’m not sure what he does day in and day out, but from our vantage point as fans, whatever he’s doing sure looks like leadership.

The M’s face 28-year old lefthander Tyler Alexander in the regular season finale. Alexander is something of a throwback, a kind of pitcher we don’t really see much anymore: the old school left-handed control guy. He throws 90, has a strikeout rate in the 3rd percentile and a swing-and-miss rate in the 1st percentile. Making guys miss is simply not his game. Instead, he’ll just try to direct your contact at fielders – it’s hard to do in this day and age, and it’s why we don’t see as many pitchers of this type. On the plus side, he doesn’t walk very many hitters. MLB is always trying to tweak the rules to create more balls in play, more action. Well, here you go. You want that? It looks like Tyler Alexander, LHP for Detroit, with a FIP of 4.78. Are we happy with that? I suppose I’d have to say that as a Mariner fan, yes, this looks good.

Like seemingly every pitcher on the Tigers, Alexander has had a real issue with home runs. You can’t throw 89-90 MPH rising fastballs, put up a sub-40% grounder rate and NOT have an issue with home runs. He’s been used in relief as well as a starter over the past four seasons, and as you’d expect, his K rate drops the more he starts. He throws a cutter, a four-seamer, a sinker, a change-up and a slider, with the four-seamer probably the best of the bunch. His change looks OK, but it’s been a quiet disaster this year, as it’s put in play more than any other pitch type. No, it’s not his big HR-issue pitch, but you can’t have a pitch that batters hit well over .300 against AND have other, separate, problems with HRs on your other pitches.

The big news today is that Jesse Winker has been IL’d with a neck/upper back problem. The M’s are losing OFs, and after Jarred Kelenic’s HBP yesterday, he’ll get a day off to recover. Taylor Trammell is back, and he’ll be in LF today. I really do wonder how much injuries played a role in Winker’s down year. It’s good to see Julio back in CF, and I’m glad Cal Raleigh’s getting some extra rest to allow his thumb to be 100% for the playoffs. Because the M’s are going to the playoffs.

The first game in Toronto will be at 1:07pm this Friday, withe Game 2 starting at the same time on Saturday. Game 3 will be Sunday morning, 11:07am.

1: Julioooooo, CF
2: France, 1B
3: Haniger, RF
4: Santana, DH
5: Torrens, 2B
6: Trammell, LF
7: Toro, 3B
8: Casali, C
9: Crawford, SS
SP: Marcooooo

Games 160 and 161: Tigers at Mariners

marc w · October 4, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners

1: Chris Flexen vs. Eduardo Rodriguez, 3:10pm
2: Justus Sheffield vs. Elvin Rodriguez, 6:40pm

The M’s end the season with Chris Flexen, Justus Sheffield, and Marco Gonzales as the probable starters. Yes, we’ve got a double header today, but the other factor here is that the Toronto Blue Jays wrapped up the WC1 spot and home field advantage in the divisional round. As such, the M’s are resting their starters and getting their rotation ready for the Jays. Luis Castillo will pitch game 1, and Robbie Ray game 2. Based on yesterday and just days of rest, you’d have to assume that game 3 would go to Logan Gilbert, but it’s long enough away that they could go with George Kirby if they really wanted to.

It was another disappointing outing for Kirby yesterday, as the command/control expert walked 3 in just 4 IP, giving up a home run too. He’s now pitched 156 2/3 IP this year between the majors and minors, after pitching a grand total of 90 2/3 IP as a pro since 2019. To be fair, if you include his college innings, he topped 100 in 2019, but after the 2020 layoff and then totalling under 70 IP last year, this is a major, major step up in workload. He’s handled it beautifully, but I also wouldn’t begrudge him if he’s feeling pretty gassed.

I asked yesterday why they wouldn’t have Chris Flexen pitch 3-4 IP yesterday behind Kirby and we now have our answer. They wanted to use him here as a starter, which is also a completely understandable use case for a long man in a now-meaningless game. The same thing’s true of having Justus Sheffield up as the double header’s temporary 29th roster spot. You want to keep your playoff roster from being overworked, you want to get them rested for Toronto, so there’s no sense in burning either Gilbert, Marco, or a bunch of relievers. Give it to Sheffield. It’s a sad commentary on the degree to which Shef’s star has dimmed, but it’s pretty hard to argue with right now.

In Game 1, the M’s face Eduardo Rodriguez, the ex-Red Sox lefty and one of the Tigers big free agent pick-ups this past off-season. Injuries have limited his innings this year, and they may be playing a role in the sudden collapse of his strikeout rate. It’s under 18% coming into today, the lowest of his career, and a far sight from last year’s 27.4%. Rodriguez has always had a good change-up that has helped him get Ks against right-handed bats, and his fastball has been good for called strikes and backwards Ks, too. This year, that’s not happening as much. The first reason is that his control isn’t what it was, another indication that injuries might be partially to blame. His change induces a lot of swings, but batters are taking more of them for called balls this year, leading to higher walk rates. Their swings have produced slightly more balls in play this year, too. And that gets to the second reason: velo. His fastball is down about 1 MPH; nothing much, but it’s perhaps more important for someone now at 91-92. Importantly, the velocity gap between his change and fastball (which was never large to begin with) is down – his change-up is coming in fractionally higher than last year, pushing the velo gap from 7 MPH to 6 MPH.

But by far his biggest problem is that sinking four-seam fastball. Its whiff rate has been cut in half from last year, and it’s hard to know what to attribute that to. It’s not necessarily even a bad thing; his overall results on the fastball are just fine, especially compared to last year, it’s just that they’re much, much worse in this one narrow peripheral. Good things have happened – for Eduardo – when batters hit his fastball, which is nice, because they sure are hitting his fastball.

In game 2, we get another E. Rodriguez, this one Elvin (which sounds like a Tolkien reference or something). This Rodriguez is a right-hander with a more traditional, rising four-seam fastball. That rising fastball has been a disaster for him, however, as he’s given up 6 HRs and 11 extra-base hits in just 55 at-bats or 47 balls in play. Batters have a slugging percentage over .700 on it. He has a change and slider, but batters should be looking to hit and elevate a heater, especially in hitters’ counts. And he has no problem getting behind in the count; he’s also walking far too many. I get why Detroit wants to see what they have here, and he’s just 24, but he’s been Detroit’s least-valuable pitcher by WAR, and he’s thrown less than 30 IP. Ouch.

1: Crawford, SS
2: France, 1B
3: Haniger, RF
4: Suarez, 3B
5: Santana, DH
6: Kelenic, CF
7: Toro, 2B
8: Frazier, LF
9: Casali, C
SP: Flexen

Curt Casali’s back from the paternity list. Brian O’Keefe’s two day party tour is at an end. Abe Toro is back replacing Sam Haggerty, who went on the IL, effectively ending his season unless the M’s make the ALCS.

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