Game 63, Mariners at Indians

marc w · June 11, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Justin Dunn vs. Aaron Civale, 4:10pm

The first of the day’s transactions is pretty obvious, as Justin Dunn’s coming off of the 10-day IL in order to make tonight’s start. In addition, they’ve activated Kendall Graveman from the Covid-related IL, so they’ve got a key rotation member AND their closer back. That’s necessitated two corresponding moves, and we’re getting an expected one and something of a head-scratcher. First, the M’s have DFA’d reliever Yacksel Rios, whom they picked up about a week ago from the Rays.* The stranger move is that the M’s have optioned Keynan Middleton to Tacoma. Sure, he wasn’t perfect in his last outing, closing out the Tigers in a non-save situation, but he’s been quite effective recently, and seemed to be getting high-leverage innings (especially in the Angels series). But as I’ve said, this seems to be the way the M’s want to run their team this year: churn through as many relievers as you can, even if that means a ridiculous amount of roster moves. Even if it means, as with Rios, bringing guys in, giving them a game or two, and moving on. I have to say, for a team that wants to claim that it’s building towards a championship-contending team in the near term, it’s an odd, and potentially counter-productive strategy.

Aaron Civale will be familiar to many of you as the right-hander who gave up Jarred Kelenic’s first big league hit, a home run to right. I’d said before the game that it may be a bad match-up for Kelenic, and that turned out not to be the case at all. In previous years, he’d showed reverse splits, thanks to an effective mix of breaking balls and a split-change that produces comparatively weak contact. But this year, it’s not exactly working: lefties are slugging *.808* off of Civale’s fastball, and they’re slugging close to .500 overall. On the other hand, he’s been great against right-handers, with his fastball/slider/curve/split mix. Civale doesn’t walk many, but also allows a lot of balls in play.

The other recent move the M’s have made was to pick up 1B/LF Jake Bauers from Cleveland. The one-time Tampa rookie and intriguing reclamation project for Cleveland moved up through both the Rays and Padres system showing patience and a low strikeout rate, paired with good but not great power. In the bigs, he’s shown gap power, though probably not enough for someone at his position, that same good walk rate, but a collapse in both his K rate and his BABIP. The BABIP thing *could* regress towards league average, I suppose, but his expected stats (based on exit velo and the like) don’t show a lot of room for optimism. It’s an interesting move for the M’s, particularly as Evan White begins his rehab assignment in Tacoma (and didn’t feel good enough to play in last night’s game); he was a well-regarded prospect recently. But his production has cratered thanks to something pretty common in baseball these days: bendy pitches. Bauers is slugging .280 off of breaking balls in his career, and an even-more-anemic .188 off of breaking balls. The word is out, I fear. He put a couple of fastballs in play against the Tigers, but late in the game, he saw 4 sliders out of 5 total pitches, with the lone heater a waste pitch out of the zone.

Kyle Lewis just had surgery to repair his torn meniscus, and has no timetable for his return. It could be a few months. We may get to see Jarred Kelenic again before too long, and I’m sure we’ll see more of Dillon Thomas in the meantime.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, DH
3: Seager, 3B
4: France, 1B
5: Fraley, LF
6: Long, 2B
7: Bauers, RF
8: Thomas, CF
9: Godoy, C
SP: Dunn

JP Crawford has been incredibly hot of late, pushing his OPS back over .700. I’ve been down on his new approach, but when he’s hot, he’s great to watch. John Trupin of LL wrote a great piece on his hot streak and low exit velos yesterday that’s definitely worth reading.

* I was going to write up Rios, but he wasn’t around long enough. The M’s picked him up while I was on a camping trip; this is NOT the kind of team you can miss a day’s news and reliably know who you’ll see in that night’s game. I checked MLB Gameday on my trip, saw that “Yacksel Rios” was pitching and thought I was on the wrong game. He threw quite hard, but struggled with the M’s. He’ll get another shot somewhere, as anyone who can touch 99 with some semblance of control will.

Game 61, Mariners at Tigers

marc w · June 9, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Chris Flexen vs. Casey Mize, 4:10pm

Casey Mize put together the best start of his young career back in Seattle last month. It’s the longest outing of his career at 7 2/3 IP, and that was due to the fact that he was ruthlessly efficient, and faced 27 batters to get those 7 2/3 IP. That meant he didn’t have to face anyone a fourth time. He gave up just 3 hits and one run on a solo HR. It wasn’t his first great start of the year – he went 7 shutout in April – but he’s been quite good since. If you need confidence, sometimes facing the Mariners is just the ticket.

Mize went through a rough spell in April, immediately after that sterling start against Houston. But as we saw, he got over it, and has been pitching quite well since. Has anything changed? Ehh, a tiny bit, sure: he’s stopped throwing his splitter as much, and he’s replaced it with sinkers. As I mentioned last time, he’s got a version of Marco Gonzales’ approach (or at least, Gonzales’ approach a few years ago) of throwing four pitches about equally: a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a slider, and his split-change. At the beginning of the year, four-seam and sliders were just about equal, followed by the splitter and then the sinker a step or two behind, and a curve rarer still. Now, the four-seam, sinker, and slider are all about equally likely, with the splitter and curve somewhat equal, but clearly behind the top three.

Is that enough to “explain” anything? No, I don’t really think so. What’s happened is that his BABIP has fallen through the floor: batters are hitting under .200 on just about every pitch he throws over the last month plus. He’s not the strikeout machine that I think people thought he could develop into when he was picked #1 overall, and thus his FIP is not all that impressive. But like Justin Dunn (whose FIP is nearly identical to Mize’s), you just ignore that and ignore the regression fears and hope he keeps doing what he’s doing. Or, er, if you’re an M’s fan, you say “Sure, getting everyone to hit into outs is easy enough in Seattle, but let’s see you do it in the more spacious Comerica outfield!”

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, DH
3: Seager, 3B
4: France, 1B
5: Fraley, LF
6: Trammell, CF
7: Long, 2B
8: Dillon Thomas, RF (MLB debut)
9: Godoy, C
SP: Flexen

Cal Raleigh nearly hit one over Cheney’s gigantic CF wall yesterday for the second time in a week, belting a long double about halfway up it to extend his hitting streak to 18. He’s knocking on the door pretty loudly at this point, which Jerry Dipoto acknowledged in a Q and A with reporters the other day. Tacoma beat Salt Lake 7-3 thanks to dingers from Jose Marmolejos and Jack Reinheimer. David Huff was great in 6 IP, giving up 1 R on 4 H. The R’s are off today, but host Sacramento beginning on Thursday.

Arkansas dropped an 8-6 contest to Springfield, as the Cards got 2 in the bottom of the 8th to win it. Cards prospect Nolan Gorman homered. Travs catcher Brian O’Keefe hit two bombs, giving him 7 on the year, and a .333/.404/.591 line. O’Keefe was once in the St. Louis system, and played for Springfield in parts of two seasons. Adam Hill starts for the Travs tonight.

Everett beat Eugene 8-6 in a somewhat ugly game that featured *22* walks, 11 by each team. Juan Then got the win despite a mediocre line of 5 IP, 3R, 4BB, 4K. C Carter Bins homered as part of a 2-2 with 3 BB game. He, too, has a gaudy season line of .300/.423/.588. Matt Brash takes the mound for the AquaSox in tonight’s contest.

Fresno dominated Modesto 9-1 behind Breiling Eusebio’s 6 IP, 2 H, 0R, 0BB, 7K gem. Victor Labrada had a single and a walk. No word on the Nuts’ starter tonight.

Game 60, Mariners at Tigers

marc w · June 8, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Matthew Boyd, 4:10pm

Another day, another set of roster moves. The M’s purchased the contract of Dillon Thomas, the minor league free agent who’s off to a great start in Tacoma. To make room, they’ve DFA’d Jacob Nottingham, who’s now been DFA’d by the Brewers twice, claimed by the M’s twice, traded, and DFA’d by the M’s. Since May 1. Goodness.

Thomas is a great story, a former Rockies farmhand who never quite clicked in parts of seven seasons in the system. He spent most of 2018 with the Texas Air Hogs in Independent ball and went nuts, chasing a triple crown and hitting for power, something he’d never really done in affiliated ball. The Brewers picked him up for the end of 2018 and then 2019, and while he was better, he was still an old-for-the-league OF. The M’s picked him up this off-season, and he’s hit .338/.459/.625 in 80 at-bats. He’ll make his big league debut almost exactly 10 years after he was drafted out of a Houston high school.

Hopefully he can fare a bit better than most of the players the M’s have brought in from Tacoma, and that he can figure out whatever’s bedeviling players who’ve played in both Tacoma and Seattle. Yesterday’s post was all about this, and while there are multiple things going on, including the different MLB baseball in AAA and MLB, it seems to me like there’s something going on with how the M’s prepare hitters for MLB. Is it a pervasive thing? I don’t know how to define it, and it clearly didn’t stop Kyle Lewis from winning Rookie of the Year, but between Kelenic’s long slump, Taylor Trammell’s initial struggles, and Evan White’s…ordeal, I worry that there’s something amiss. Could it be development, advance scouting, coaching, mental skills? Yes, all of the above, or none of the above. But they better be examining their practices, just to be clear.

Had some very good discussions on twitter on this, with several folks gently pushing back on the theory that there’s something systematically wrong, but I’m just not sure how else to interpret the numbers that I shared last night. I’d still say that while many players have thrived – Tom Murphy and Austin Nola, for example – many of their highly regarded hitters have had results that no one could’ve seen coming. If that happens once or twice, that’s one thing, but if it happens repeatedly, an audit may be worth doing.

Today, the M’s face Detroit, the team who swept them in humiliating fashion in Seattle. The M’s couldn’t really figure out Tigers pitching then, and to be fair, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal have been better since the M’s gave them a confidence boost. The M’s picked themselves off the floor, though, and have been a very good team since then. I still see them as wildly more entertaining than their true talent would suggest, and that’s true even after Kelenic’s struggles. As we saw in the Angels system, they can look overmatched, and then pounce if a team/bullpen offers them an opportunity.

Matthew Boyd, the Washington native left-hander, starts for the Tigers tonight. With sky-high K totals despite average velocity, he looked like a prime trade target after a good 2018 for a go-nowhere Tigers club. His four-seam fastball’s about 92 mph, and he’s confident enough to throw it up and out of the zone to try and miss bats *despite* the fact that it’s actually a sinking FB, and doesn’t have the kind of ride/rise you’d pair with that kind of approach. To righties, he throws an 80 mph change-up with plenty of armside run, and he’ll mix in his slider (his primary breaking ball) with a rarer curve. To lefties, he really pitches off of the slider, mixing in fastballs and curves.

His willingness to pitch up got him high K totals, but it also led to his biggest problem: home runs. He had a sub-30% ground ball rate in 2018, so while his HR/FB ratio wasn’t too bad, he still gave up 27 dingers, for a 1.43 HR/9 mark. With the livelier ball in 2019, things were even worse. His K rate spiked to 30%, but he gave up 39 home runs, for a HR/9 of 1.85. Last year, everything sort of collapsed for him, as his HR/9 flew past 2, and his strikeouts disappeared. His trade value was essentially gone.

His strikeout rate’s now below 20%, but instead of fading into irrelevance, he’s thriving. For many years, the root of his big HR problem has been platoon issues: righties simply demolished the two primary pitches he threw to them. Righties hit 32 of 39 HRs in 2019, and 14 of the 15 he gave up last year. Sure, he sees righties more often, but that’s kind of insane. Those splits are just *gone* this year. There’s nothing really different about his pitches or pitch mix, though he’s throwing a few more cambios to righties. It *seems* more like he’s just given up trying to chase strikeouts, even if it meant giving up the occasional homer. He’s always done well by targeting the edge of the strikezone, and he’s doing even better this season. But he’s also been a bit better in the heart of the zone. This could be dumb luck, something reinforced by his HR/FB ratio, which is a fraction of last year’s. But it may also be because he’s disguising his pitches a bit better, allowing him to sneak a fastball or change there when batters are looking for something else.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: France, 1B
4: Seager, DH
5: Murphy, C
6: Long, 2B
7: Trammell, CF
8: Mayfield, 3B
9: Walton, LF
SP: Gonzales

Kind of a short-handed line-up; certainly hope Thomas can get there and spell Walton if need be. Glad to see the M’s get Seager a night off defensively, though.

Salt Lake beat Tacoma 9-2 yesterday, as Matt Thaiss hit two dingers and a triple off of R’s starter Logan Verrett. A Jantzen Witte two-run shot accounted for the Tacoma scoring. Cal Raleigh extended his hitting streak to 17 games. The R’s should get Eric Filia and Luis Liberato back soon after they clear Covid intake protocols; both were playing in the Olympic qualifying tournament, won by Filia’s US team, who qualify for the Olympics. Liberato’s Dominican Republic team (also Julio Rodriguez’s team) have another chance to qualify later on in a tournament in Mexico. David Huff starts today’s game for Tacoma, and then they’ll travel on Wednesday.

Arkansas faces the Springfield Cardinals today, with Alejandro Requena facing off against Dalton Roach of the Cards.

Juan Then starts for Everett, who’ll host the Eugene Emeralds at Funko Field tonight.

Modesto hosts the Fresno Grizzlies, an organization essentially demoted from the old Pacific Coast League to low-A’s version of what was once the California League. Fresno’s departure made room for Sugar Land to move from the Independent leagues into the top rung of the affiliated minors and kind of balance out the West/East divisions in AAA-West. Fresno’s now a Rockies affiliate, and they’ll have Dominican prospect Breiling Eusebio on the hill. No word on Modesto’s starter at this point.

Jarred Kelenic Optioned to Tacoma

marc w · June 7, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Jarred Kelenic, the talk of baseball after hitting three extra-base hits in his second MLB game, is in the midst of an 0-39 slump. Days after Scott Servais said publicly that he wasn’t worried about Kelenic, the M’s decided to option him back to Tacoma. For a prospect the club itself had hyped up even as it messed with his service time, this was a tough blow. What went wrong here, and who’s to blame?

There are essentially three things that could be happening here. Kelenic could simply not be as good as the hype around him; all of the evaluators, all of the minor league numbers – it could all be wrong, somehow. Or, perhaps the Mariners were right to insist on giving him more seasoning in the minors – perhaps the discussion about how many minor league PAs he’d amassed or how many upper-minors games wasn’t just a post-hoc rationalization, but was based on something real. Finally, we could be seeing an odd combination of bad luck plus an unprecedented gap between the minors and majors. Let’s take a look at each.

Is Kelenic a hype-job, and simply not anywhere near as good as people have said?


That’s it? Just “No?”

Seriously, no. There’s far too much evidence that he deserves the hype. He’s a top-10-in-baseball prospect, and has been for a year. He’s posted modest strikeout rates, and hit for power at essentially every stop along the way, and particularly in the M’s system. He struck out all of one time in the Cactus League, and while all of these stops are, kind of by definition small samples, they’re small because he hit so consistently and well. He’s seen decent pitching – not amazing, by any stretch – and dominated it at every level, save one. This is not a high draft pick getting by on so-so stats, and this is not a random guy putting up a good line in high-A. This is a player *universally* judged to be one of the best young prospects in the game, who has put up the numbers befitting that designation. Kelenic wasn’t over-hyped, he was simply under-lucked, and then started pressing. Does he have things to work on? Yes, of course. He wasn’t hitting the ball hard in recent games, and while he wasn’t striking out at alarming rates, his K rate was pretty elevated. He needs to adjust, but is not a bad hitter by any stretch of the imagination.

So, were the M’s right to insist on getting him more seasoning?


Wait, this ag

…No, sorry. The problem here is that the M’s gave the game away when they admitted that they would have brought him up in *2020* had he signed a team-friendly extension. I’m not good enough to determine exactly when a prospect is “ready,” but the M’s had decided months and months before they finally brought him up. As much as they’d like to memory-hole this, as much as it might be a helpful way to shut down complaints from a long-suffering fan base, Kelenic’s struggles do not retroactively prove the wisdom of Jerry Dipoto’s comments about his lack of professional PAs. If *the Mariners* believed any of that, they would not have brought him north after less than 30 AAA plate appearances. There’s no way to argue that those 29 PAs taught the M’s something that they didn’t already know, but it did save them the embarrassment of bringing him up before the minor league season started.

The issue isn’t simply that he didn’t have many minor league PAs, it’s that the outcry over his “manipulation” was so great, the M’s felt forced to bring him up before a more rational timeline would dictate.

Again, the M’s were perfectly content to bring him up in September of 2020. In a vacuum, you could make this claim, that the front office was somehow bamboozled by fans, talk radio, national baseball writers, whatever. That would not reflect well on the front office, but you could make that argument. The problem is that, thanks to the Bellevue Rotary Hour of Candor, we know what really happened – no one is guessing, no one is putting words in anyone’s mouth, no one is pretending to have access when all they have is an opinion. Would a more traditional amount of upper-minors seasoning have helped Kelenic? Maybe, though I’m not even sure we know that for sure, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute. But what we do know is that Kelenic had cleared whatever threshold the M’s set for him a season ago.

So what’s all this about the gap between the high minors and MLB?

Ok, thanks for asking, this is essentially why I’m writing this post. What I mean is that, for a variety of reasons, the long-standing relationship between AAA stats and MLB stats isn’t holding. Using the league translations from Clay Davenport, who’s been doing this for ages, and pioneered some of the league adjustments/projections for Baseball Prospectus back in the day, Jose Marmolejos’ AAA line is the equivalent of a big league slash line of .333/.415/.556 line. Are you, uh, taking the over or the under on that?

Here’s what I wanted to show you. In 2021, ten players have played for both the Mariners and the Rainiers. They range from uber-prospects like Kelenic to minor league roster churn like Eric Campbell, but we’ll add them all up to give us a larger sample. Those ten players, collectively, have 358 PAs in Tacoma and 583 in Seattle. In Tacoma, they had an average of .324 and slugged .571. Their strikeout rate was 20.3% and their walk rate was 8.9%. If this was one player, we would be ecstatic – there’s a reasonable amount of plate discipline, a lot of bat-to-ball skill, and plenty of power. You’d need to shrink all of those numbers (er, except the strikeout rate), but you’re starting from a really good spot.

In Seattle, these same players have hit .170, and slugged .306. Their K rate is just over 25%, and the walk rate is 8.1%. The K:BB stuff is *more or less* what we’d expect; there’s nothing shocking with an uptick in Ks and a slight drop in walks. What *is* noteworthy is the utter lack of, you know, hits. ISO is down over 100 points as well. These may as well be two completely different groups.

Is this due to spin and sticky substances and the general inhuman level of MLB pitching?

That’s a piece of it, but probably not a huge piece. Here’s a table of how well MLB rookies have fared at the plate in every season since 2009. It’s early yet, but 2021’s crop has produced the lowest wRC+ of any year in our sample. But it’s not *freakishly* low – the 2014 wRC+ of 80 is nearly identical to this year’s 79. Maybe the lesson is, whenever hitting is down in general, rookies will fare worse.

But some rookies – as always – are faring just fine. The M’s couldn’t figure out Adolis Garcia in their recent series with Texas, and they’re not alone. And as much as the talk about spin rate and artificial means to enhance it has taken off, the league-wide changes aren’t *that* big. Fastball spin is up a bit, but so is velo, and neither is up all that much. They’re up in ways that they’ve been up before, meaning the mere fact that they’ve changed cannot explain all of :gestures broadly: this.

What’s causing this? I think there several interconnected things, but it’s definitely not simply that major league pitching is completely unrecognizable to minor league hitters. It’s better than AAA pitching, but it’s *always* been better than AAA pitching. The question is what’s different *now?* One easy answer is the baseball. MLB changed the ball, making it lighter, and thus capable of more break. But it’s also deadened, so it doesn’t fly as far. AAA uses major league baseball…balls. They’re made at the same factory in Costa Rica, and completely different from the balls used in the lower levels (which are made in China). But this year, AAA is using all of the balls that went unused last year, when the season was wiped out by Covid. Thus, they’re using a ball that flies farther, but perhaps spins slightly less. Is this enough to explain the vast chasm between a .170/.306 line and a .324/.571 one? No, it’s probably not, but it might help explain why batters are struggling so much. It doesn’t help that so many of the AAA-West environments are at altitude, which further restricts pitch break. Now, that shouldn’t matter to Kelenic, who only played in Tacoma – not on the road. But anything that makes a slider look different helps shed some light on what’s going on here.

And seriously, does anyone think that minor leagues haven’t discovered sticky substances beyond pine tar? If big leaguers found SpiderTack, and there’s now a huge wage premium associated with spin rates…do you think that no one in the minor leagues has heard of it/ordered it online?

Does that mean that Kelenic’s been sent to work on things that don’t really have relevance to MLB hitting?

I mean, kind of, right? If these numbers mean anything (and it’s not just the M’s; Padres prospect Luis Campusano’s line is worse than Kelenic’s, though to be fair, he wasn’t exactly tearing it up in AAA), they mean that hitting a ton in AAA is no guarantee of anything. Given what we know about the baseballs, there’s *some* reason to believe this isn’t mere small-sample noise. So is seeing more of the pitches he knows how to hit going to teach Kelenic about the pitches he doesn’t yet know how to hit? Part of it must be getting him comfortable again, as happened with Taylor Trammell, who went from scuffling to impossible-to-get-out as soon as he went down, and, importantly, has looked better since his return. Beyond spin rates and the average weight of a regulation baseball and slider sweep, there really is something to being confident and knowing you can do something. Here’s hoping Kelenic can get back to that. Here’s hoping the M’s can make that transition, and that learning process, something easy for him to incorporate.

If the problem isn’t Kelenic, is it the M’s?

This is THE question. The club has built a reputation for being a player development colossus, but that reputation hasn’t translated into big league success at this point. I don’t mean to imply that it’s all smoke and mirrors – there are clear, demonstrated cases of players who didn’t project as big leaguers becoming big leaguers, and fringe big leaguers becoming excellent players. But Kelenic’s merely the latest player with some momentum through the minor leagues to absolutely face-plant. The team’s built its player dev name around pitching, but they’ve helped plenty of minor league hitters, too. But something seems to trip them up when they hit the big leagues. Evan White is probably the textbook example here, as he showed no real sign of the contact problems that sunk his 2020 nor the slap-hitting that’s plagued his 2021. All of that development wasn’t able to help him in the bigs, like it didn’t help Kelenic. While JP Crawford’s looked revelatory in the past week or two, the same could be said of him, even as a player with some big league time in another org: the M’s didn’t just help him work on the problems he had, they seemingly gave him new problems. This is all so anecdotal, so it’s hard to know what to make of it, but it certainly *seems* like an issue. Why did Mallex Smith implode? What the hell, Dan Vogelbach? Shed Long, now taking Kelenic’s roster spot – what happened to him even before his shin injury last year? Who’s holding the PD staff accountable for all of this, and if there is an innocent explanation (the big leagues are *hard*, bad luck, the marine layer, etc.), what is it, and how is IT going to get better going forward?

Game 59, Mariners at Angles

marc w · June 4, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Robert Dugger vs. Shohei Ohtani, 6:35pm

Yesterday’s win was impressive – they got a good pitching performance from Justus Sheffield, who gave up 2 solo shots, and that was about it. They got runs from the top and bottom of the line-up, and they added on throughout the game after taking the lead on a big 3-R shot by Jake Fraley. And then the patched-together, 3rd-choice bullpen was absolutely dominant, setting the Angels down with ease.

I’ve said it before, but the M’s probably aren’t quite as weird as they look on TV. As we keep seeing, they’re a better hitting team on the road, and it’s pretty obvious. The M’s have a road wRC+ of 93 – that’s not good by any stretch, but it’s far from the worst in the league. It’s mediocre as opposed to awful. They hit for power, but struggle to get on base. It’s ok; it happens to lots of teams. But at home, they simply can’t catch a break. The new ball has cratered HRs, and a combination of the ball and new/deeper OF and IF positioning has turned more balls in play into outs.

This is a serious problem throughout baseball, but it’s especially severe in Seattle, where the small OF means that balls hit to the outfield don’t have any room to fall in. If a fly ball’s not a homer there, it’s not a potential double, the way it might be in Colorado. It’s just a can of corn. As such, the M’s look utterly helpless when batting at home – they’re hitting .191, 16 points lower than the second-worst home average in baseball. Their wRC+ is 83, and that’s with the “+” giving them bonus points for trying to hit there. Their wOBA is .275 at home and over .300 elsewhere. They hit for less power thanks to the marine layer and the ball, and they post a .240 BABIP because of the space available. It’s a tremendously distorting view, and we see it 81 times a year.

And the reverse is true for the pitchers. The M’s home/road splits for pitching are pronounced, but they’re dramatically different in BABIP. They’re not really a strikeout group no matter where they throw, but they give up a lot of hits/runs on the road, and not as many at home. If you’ve been around a while, all of this will give you some pretty powerful deja vu: This is the exact state of affairs before the M’s moved the outfield fences in. The run environment was too skewed; hitters wouldn’t sign there in free agency. Pitchers looked great at home, but got knocked around on the road. Something had to be done.

I can’t blame the M’s too much for this; that they couldn’t foresee a series of changes to the baseball might make their plan backfire isn’t really on them. But the M’s humidor, fence arrangement, IF/OF positioning, and the ever-changing ball make the game really, really weird there.

Perhaps no *pitcher* has benefited from the BABIP plunge as Justin Dunn. It’s something I’ve talked about a lot this season. But today brought word that Dunn’s been moved to the 10-day IL with shoulder soreness, which…no matter what, it’s always going to sound ominous. Robert Dugger’s been recalled a day after being optioned, and he’ll start tonight.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, DH
3: Seager, 3B
4: France, 1B
5: Fraley, RF
6: Kelenic, CF
7: Murphy, C
8: Trammell, LF
9: Walton, 2B
SP: Dugger

Do you have opinions on the new MLB rules, style of play, or robot umps? If so, or even if you’re ambivalent about them all, take this short survey by BP’s Russell Carleton – it’ll be used in a future BP article, and it should make for a cool set of data.

Tacoma lost to Salt Lake 10-5, as the Bees pulled away late, but Tacoma got an absolute bomb of a HR by Cal Raleigh, just to the RF side of the huge CF wall that only a few players have ever cleared. It gave the catcher a 15-game hitting streak. Darren McCaughan starts for Tacoma.

Arkansas lost to Wichita in walk-off fashion, 7-6. The game was the first real clunker from SP Ian McKinney who gave up 5 R in 3 IP thanks to 6 hits and 4 BB. Connor Lien hit two dingers for the Travs. Penn Murfee gets the ball for Arkansas tonight opposite Cole Sands of Wichita, a name that seems like it’s a reference to an industrial process or a slag heap or something.

Everett lost to Hillsboro 7-2. Emerson Hancock gave up 2 R in 3 IP, and then Michael Limoncelli gave up 3 (2 ER) in 2 1/3. Limoncelli’s been pushed, and command’s the last thing back after TJ, but he’s given up 4 walks to just 1 K thus far. Not worried about him, but it’s just not the start I’m sure he wanted. Tough to make your pro debut in High-A. George Kirby starts for the Frogs tonight. He’s been announced a couple times, but hasn’t pitched since May 14th; hope he’s back and pitching well.

San Jose demolished Modesto 9-1, as Adam Macko gave up 6 runs in 3 1/3. Noelvi Marte went 1-4, but made a pair of errors, and Cade Marlowe was 0-4 with a hat trick. That’s enough about that stupid game. No word on Modesto’s starter tonight.

Game 58, Mariners at Angels

marc w · June 3, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Justus Sheffield vs. Griffin Canning, 7:10pm

After a rough loss yesterday, the M’s head out on the road to face the Angels. The Angels seem mired in yet another aimless season, this time due to injuries to stars like Anthony Rendon. But the main problem remains an enduring lack of production from their pitching staff. A really odd inability to develop pitchers has been the primary reason Mike Trout’s not sniffed the postseason in years, and it’s doomed multiple front offices, including Jerry Dipoto’s run as GM. Yes, yes, he battled with Mike Scioscia, but there’d be less battling if more of the starters they drafted clicked.

But before we get to today’s starter, the Angels’ latest potential home-grown savior, I want to talk about spin rate. It was all over Twitter today, as Gerrit Cole registered his lowest four-seam rate and by far the lowest spin rate/MPH (Bauer Units) measure of the year. Coupled with a Jon Heyman tweet about the league getting ready to crack down on sticky substances pitchers are using (and seriously, read this Travis Sawchick article about how he measured his own spin rate with and without various powders, goos, and glops), and people made the leap that maybe Cole was pitching au naturel, and his stuff was suffering for it. The experts tried to get people to downplay it, pointing out he’s had games like this in previous years, and small-sample hawkeye data can be pretty unreliable, but given that Cole was a guy who used to get a special sticky substance from the Angels’ own disgraced former clubbie, those calls for calm didn’t stop the speculation.

But this gets to something I’ve been stewing on for years, and wrote an article at BP about. Why is spin rate so important to pitchers? In Sawchick’s article, he says, “More spin means more Magnus effect, which is the invisible force governing most pitch movement.” But this isn’t quite right: active spin can lead to movement, but you can boost your spin rate by cutting the ball, which is how Garrett Richards can have one of the spinniest fastballs in the game, but well *below* average movement. If the idea is that spin is the raw material for Magnus-based movement, why not just measure – and stay with me here – Magnus-based movement? Given its correlation with velocity (more velo, more spin), it’s even harder to isolate the value that it can add absent a whole bunch of caveats.

This is why Marcus Stroman can be effective despite a sinker with above-average spin but below-average spin efficiency, for example. I looked at Kendall Graveman’s spin rate, partially out of curiosity and partly to see if his turbo-sinker was as high-spin as it looks. The answer: no, it’s not. Graveman’s sinker gets only average spin, and thus below-average Bauer units given its high velocity. And what’s more, that spin rate has gone *down* – and markedly – in recent years. I went and looked at perhaps the most famous turbo-sinker in the game, Blake Treinen’s, and the same pattern held: he had pretty good spin rates in his 2018 Oakland peak, but it’s dropped off in each year since, and is now in a statistical dead heat with Marco Gonzales’ non-turbo-sinker. In spin efficiency and Bauer units, Gonzales “beats” both Treinen and Graveman’s pitches handily. But, and I know this is a stat-focused blog, just *watch the pitches.*

Some of this has to do with the seam-shifted wake, the fact that another force can cause a pitch to move than just the Magnus effect. This seems particularly true for Stroman, for example, and may also be at play with Justus Sheffield, the M’s starter tonight. But whatever the reason, it’s not simply the case that spin leads directly to movement, and it’s not the case that spin (in and of itself) leads to effectiveness. Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff, or Bauer himself and Yu Darvish, have been very successful and create tons of spin. But they all throw really, really hard. Bauer gets a ton of movement, while Woodruff doesn’t. And pitchers like Jack Flaherty, Shane Bieber, and Blake Treinen can be successful despite average fastball spin.

Still, tell that to the pitchers. This season’s seen a ton of talk about cracking down on foreign substances. Mike Schildt’s press convo after his pitcher had his hat confiscated was the most famous example, but there’s constant chatter about the league taking balls to sample. Today’s word that they may begin, uh, doing something with all the evidence they presumably have plays into it. It seems that pitchers have seen what’s happened to Bauer and Cole’s spin rates over the years, and are trying new things to increase their grip on the ball. If a non-athlete reporter like Sawchick could add 400 rpms by using something, hey, what could they add? I’m sure a lot of pitchers are using stuff, but I keep thinking that if some of these new substances were that transformative, we’d see it in league-wide spin rates and movement patterns in a magnitude that would jump off the page. We DO see spin rate inching up, but then, so is velo. Movement’s up too, but as Rob Arthur mentioned, much of that could be due to the baseball being lighter.

Anyway, Griffin Canning’s a 25-year old righty with a high-ish spin four-seam fastball at 94, a hard slider at 88, and an even-harder change-up at 90 (I love the Felix-style hard change). He misses bats with all three, and generates a lot of fly balls, which should theoretically reduce his BABIP. That hasn’t actually happened yet, which is odd. What *has* happened – especially in 2021 – is that a bunch of those fly balls became home runs. He’s given up 10 in 8 starts thus far, over 2 per 9 innings. That’s not going to play, and thus he enters tonight with an ERA well over 5 and sits at replacement level by FIP despite a decent strikeout rate.

Is his HR/FB going to come down eventually? Yes, it pretty much has to. But it’s been high-ish in his first two years, and the fact that his walk rate’s up too suggests that he needs more than dinger regression to really become an effective starter.

Justus Sheffield has one of the lowest spin rates around, which was part of the reason he embraced the sinker last year. It’s not a great pitch at this point, but it allows him to get to his slider. One problem this year for him has been BABIP, the same thing that’s helped teammate Justin Dunn so much. Sheffield’s just not going to miss bats with his raw stuff, so to give up hits like it’s 1981 instead of 2021 is a problem. Why isn’t T-Mobile park’s freakish anti-BABIP power helping him? Well, it is. At home this year, he’s got a BABIP of .274. On the road, though…it’s .403.

While HRs aren’t a part of BABIP, I wanted to link to this Devan Fink article about HR rates by park, as it shows the magnitude of the drop-off in many parks, including Seattle’s. Fink tried to isolate the park by only looking at balls in play at 95+ mph and in specific angle ranges (as a previous article showed that these balls in play seemed the most impacted by the changes to the baseball). In Seattle, almost 60% of these balls in play were homers in 2019, but this year, just 43% have gone over the wall. A 16+ percentage point drop! And that’s less than the effect seen in Oakland, LA, and St. Louis! As we’ve talked about, Seattle’s OF is quite small, so a reduction in HRs doesn’t mean an increase in doubles and triples. Since moving the walls in, Seattle is *death* to 2B/3B. So, fewer HRs means more outs in play.

I keep thinking that the combined effect of the humidor and the new ball are having unpredictable or outsized impacts on balls in play. Seattle and the Mets’ Citi Field both showed dramatic drops from 2019-2021, but then, Fenway and Chase Field didn’t (Chase even saw *more* HRs this year), so I’m not sure. I just think MLB has made a number of changes simultaneously, making it both more likely that different parks will play radically differently from year to year and also making it harder to determine which change is doing what.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: France, 1B
5: Kelenic, CF
6: Godoy, C
7: Trammell, LF
8: Fraley, DH
9: Walton, 2B
SP: Sheffield

Justus Sheffield’s got one of the lowest spin rates in the game, so now that his brother is in the big leagues, how do they compare? Well, Jordan Sheffield has one of the absolute highest rates in the game, ahead of Corbin Burnes and Garrett Richards.

Tacoma’s back home to host the Salt Lake Bees tonight. It’s another bullpen day, with Ryan Dull getting the start. Cal Raleigh’s got a 14-game hitting streak going. After a weird 2019 where he didn’t hit for much power in AAA (despite the two-HR game that got rained out in Tacoma) and then and awful 2020 MLB debut, Jo Adell of the Bees is going nuts, leading the PCL with 12 HRs already.

Arkansas beat Wichita 5-2 behind a stellar relief outing from Leon Hunter, who K’d 5 in 2 1/3 scoreless. Hunter was acquired in trade (for cash considerations) from Texas in late April. Tonight, Ian McKinney tries to keep his eye-opening season going; he’ll start for the Travs.

Everett lost to Hillsboro 6-2. The offense is struggling a bit without Julio Rodriguez, who’s busy in Olympic qualifying (and hitting 2 dingers in a recent game vs. Nicaragua). Emerson Hancock starts for the AquaSox tonight.

Modesto beat up on San Jose 10-5, as Noelvi Marte hit his sixth home run – this one an inside-the-park job. Cade Marlowe went 2-4 with 4 runs scored. No word on tonight’s starter.

Game 56, Athletics at (Injured) Mariners

marc w · June 1, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Chris Bassitt, 7:10pm

It’s a glorious day in the Northwest after a mostly-glorious holiday weekend. Hope you all managed to get out and enjoy the weather.

The M’s get their opening day starter back off the injured list today, but the M’s aren’t celebrating. Going TO the injured list is CF Kyle Lewis, a big part of an offense that could use all the help it can get. Taylor Trammell, red hot in Tacoma, returns, but he won’t be in CF. Instead, the M’s are giving the gig to Jarred Kelenic, as he’d played the position in previous years, and obviously if he’s able to do so at this level, he provides the team some valuable flexibility.

To make room, the M’s have optioned Robert Dugger back to Tacoma and waived Travis Blankenhorn, who was picked up by the Mets. In less than two months, Blankenhorn has been with the Twins, Dodgers, Mariners, and Mets organizations. It doesn’t have the Kafkaesque humor of the Jacob Nottinham M’s/Brewers situation, but it seems equally annoying and hard on one’s career. It’s great to be wanted, and it beats no one giving you a uniform at all, but I just hope he isn’t paying rent in like three different time zones simultaneously.

At the other end of the player distribution, we’ve got Mitch Haniger, who’s been red hot, and whose 138 wRC+ is easily the best on the team (Kyle Lewis’ 112 was second, which is why losing him is such a blow). If the M’s two struggling rookies – Taylor Trammell and Jarred Kelenic – find their stroke, or hell, even if they don’t, would the M’s look to move Haniger in trade? He’d be a fascinating player to value, given the combination of his age, club control, salary, etc. I think the M’s probably don’t unless they get a huge offer, but I do wonder if a team might see him as someone that could help them win a pennant race.

I think one complicating factor here is what to make of the minor leagues, and AAA in particular. We’ve talked about it a bit this year, but AAA uses the exact same baseball that MLB does, but it’s hard to know what to make of that when MLB keeps changing their ball. It seems like minor league teams like Tacoma are using up their 2020 balls, which makes sense, and also means the ball is different than the one MLB uses *now*. The league realignment/MLB takeover means that the old Pacific Coast League was shorn of its midwestern wing, a set of clubs without the altitude and other hitting-friendly park factors that came to be associated with the PCL. Thus, the AAA-West has a completely different run environment that AAA-East. It’s 1 full run per game higher in the West, for each team.

Because the MLB ball was made lighter, it’s coming off the bat harder, but because it’s less bouncy, it doesn’t fly as far. It’s lowered weight helps it spin more, which increases the Magnus effect causing the ball to bend and break. All of this has created havoc in MLB, where you’ve got the Mariners sitting with a .205 team average. But that’s not happening in AAA-West due to the slightly different ball and atmospheric/other conditions in effect. All of this has meant that it’s essentially impossible to know what to *make* of stats in AAA-West even setting aside the fact that all of them are small samples. Taylor Trammell hit .385, but what does that tell us? I don’t know. I’d love to figure this out, but for now, I just need to point out that these dramatically different environments make the usual translated stats or projections kind of useless.

The M’s face one of the more unheralded pitchers in the AL, Chris Bassitt. Once a high-floor back-of-the-rotation arm and a throw-in to the trade that brought Marcus Semien to Oakland, Bassitt’s become the de facto ace of the A’s rotation – a rotation beset by injuries during his time with the club. A former 16th-round pick, he’s a righty without big-time velo or raw stuff. If you were going to draw up a pitcher to get overlooked or discounted, this would be it. I’d say that kind of applies to Marco Gonzales, but let’s not forget: Marco was a first round draft pick and flew through the minors, pitching in the postseason a year after being drafted.

Bassitt moved up the White Sox system, making his debut in 2014, and then he got a brief look with the A’s in 2015 and then an injury-plagued 2016. He didn’t miss many bats and walked a few too many, which is not a great look. After his injury, I don’t think many would’ve considered him a likely rotation candidate, but the A’s have had a terrible run of injuries to their starters sandwiched around things like Frankie Montas’ long suspension for PEDs. Bassitt got that second chance, and since then, he’s been remarkable, going 22-12 with an ERA of 3.27. His FIP hasn’t been as impressed, but it’s coming around now, too. Bassitt’s currently striking out more than 1/4 of batters facing him, something that would’ve been ludicrous in 2015, and his walk rate has dropped every year since 2016. With the new ball and a spacious ballpark, he’s been stingy with home runs.

What’s the difference? A big part of it seems to be the cutter he added in 2018. He’s now got six distinct pitches – a four-seam, a sinker, a cutter, a slider, a change, and a slow, slow curve. Nothing jumps off the page, there are now freakish spin rates, no velo spikes, no wild movement – but the approach just works. To righties, he pitches off of his sinker, keeping the ball down, and then trying to get a whiff with the breaking stuff. To lefties, it’s a Marco Gonzales-style equal mix of the three hard pitches (four-seam, sinker, cutter), then some cambios and the curve.

That new cutter doesn’t look great judging by results – batters are hitting over .300 this year, about what they’ve always done off of it. But this different look seems to have unlocked the rest of his repertoire – his curve (and slider, when he throws it) are now real out-pitches despite not being all that different than they were in 2015-16. And his fastballs, the sinker in particular, plays completely differently when batters have to keep an eye out for a hard pitch breaking the opposite way. It’s a classic case of a new pitch making every OTHER pitch great, even if it doesn’t look great in isolation.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Hangier, DH
3: Seager, 3B
4: France, 1B
5: Fraley, RF
6: Kelenic, CF
7: Trammell, RF
8: Murphy, C
9: Walton, 2B
SP: Gonzales

Tacoma beat Reno 11-4 behind two Sam Travis long balls and a great start from Logan Verrett. Verrett gave up 1 R in 7 IP, striking out 4 and walking none. No word on the starter tonight.

Arkansas begins a series against the Wichita WindSurge. Alejandro Requena is on the mound for the Travs.

Everett’s back home to face the Hillsboro Hops. Matt Brash in on the mound for the AquaSox; he’s got 27 punch outs in 15 2/3 IP thus far.

Modesto opens a series with San Jose tonight. They’ll face Giants prospect Kyle Harrison, a 19-yo draft pick out of a Concord, CA HS… kind of cool he can begin his pro-career fairly close to home. He was a 3rd rounder in the 2020 draft, and has struck out 28 batters in his first 13 2/3 professional innings, which is kind of bonkers, even for 2021 baseball.

Game 55, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · May 31, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Logan Gilbert vs. James Kaprielian, 1:10pm

The M’s swept the Texas Rangers, and now face a better, though beatable, team. As I’ve said several times already, the M’s have shown an admirable ability to beat the teams they should beat – they’re better than, say, the Orioles, and they’ve won many of those series (Note: principle not valid vs. Detroit). They’ve struggled with teams like Houston and LA, but the entire sport struggles with those teams. When the M’s have really collapsed, they’ve done it comprehensively, and the obvious tell is that they start losing to the bad teams, which is very frustrating until the realization dawns that the M’s are a bad team, too. This has been the lesson of years like 2010, and the realization can actually be helpful, as it reduces the sting of each loss.

All of that to say that the M’s have fashioned themselves – through two months – into a modern baseball rarity: a truly mediocre/average team. The league seems bifurcated between great teams and “rebuilds” and while there are quite a few teams near the M’s in terms of winning percentage, they’re clearly faking it until they make it. The Astros are a few games ahead of the M’s, but they’re a good team who’s going through a rough patch. They’re not as good as they used to be, by any stretch, but they’re still able to crank out decent pitchers. The *Yankees* are kind of in the M’s neighborhood, but this is even more of a mirage. The Yanks have an amazing line-up that’s simply not quite clicking yet, and their pitching has been legitimately good. The M’s, still self-identifying as in some pre-contending purgatory where they want to show improvement but point to a timeline as a reason to hold off on acquiring more really good players, aren’t like the Yankees at all.

It gets tougher with teams like the Blue Jays, closer in both approach and record to the M’s, but even there, the differences are clear. The Jays’ big core prospects are now in the bigs, and have gotten over some of their adjustment periods (the one Jarred Kelenic’s still in, for example). They’re clearly attempting to contend, and can point to the free agency pitching acquisitions to prove it. It’s not going poorly, per se, but they’re in a rough division. Cleveland may be the closest comparison, though again, they’re built around pitching, and have seen what few hitting prospects they’ve either developed or acquired in trade scuffle. And despite all of that, they’re contending anyway, and the idea that they COULD contend despite not really trying has been a key component of THEIR messaging to fans. It’s a different situation, even if it leads to some of the same short-term strategies.

I think I’ve been clear that the M’s could’ve really helped themselves and their process by being a bit more aggressive on the FA market, or on the trade market when teams like the Cubs have decided to sell off vets. They will *certainly* need to be more aggressive this coming off-season. I’m skeptical about many parts of this rebuild, but I have to say that if the M’s are able to maintain this level of play, the season will be a success according to the M’s own stated strategy. Ideally, if they’re able to maintain a ~.500 level of play, they’ll do so for reasons other than a freakishly timely-though-bad offense or solid bullpen management by Scott Servais. They should ideally show us something that influences what types of players they can be aggressive over in free agency. Does Logan Gilbert figure it out? Are Dunn/Sheffield more consistently good? Whither JP Crawford? What do you do with Haniger? There’s a lot left to learn about this team, and I’m still thankful that they don’t make learning completely awful to actually watch, the way they did in 2010 or 2015.

1: Kelenic, LF
2: Lewis, CF
3: Seager, 3B
4: France, 1B
5: Crawford, SS
6: Fraley, RF
7: Godoy, C
8: Nottingham, DH
9: Walton, 2B
SP: Gilbert

Jake Fraley’s back, as you can see. The M’s optioned Eric Campbell back to Tacoma.

James Kaprielian had his best start in the majors against Seattle his last time out. Will the M’s have better AB’s against him, having just seen him a few days ago? Seems like it’d help, but it didn’t really hurt Mike Foltynewicz, and, if anything, it seemed to help John Means. I know I bang on about this all the time, but the M’s batters remain dead last in MLB with a BABIP of .250 (that’s come up in the past week!), and their pitchers are below average with a BABIP-allowed of .279. I’m not sure if this is just park, just noise, or a fascinating interplay between park and the team’s baseball ops people figuring something out, but hits are hard to get in T-Mobile. That’s not always great for the Mariners, but it has been a lifeline to a rotation that’s sometimes struggled, especially on the road.

Tacoma lost a tough one in Reno, 7-6. They took a 6-2 lead to the bottom of the 9th, but gave up 5 to lose in walk-off fashion. The R’s got HRs from Dillon Thomas, Cal Raleigh, and Luis Torrens. The R’s have hit a ton of HRs recently.

Arkansas dropped a pitcher’s duel to Tulsa, 2-1. Tyler Herb was great for the Travs, tossing 7 IP with both runs allowed on 6 H, 2 BB and 5 Ks.

Everett also lost 2-1, this time in the bottom of the ninth to the Vancouver-by-way-of-Hillsboro Canadians. Juan Then tossed 6 scoreless innings giving up just two hits.

Modesto beat Visalia 6-3. Damon Casetta-Stubbs tossed 6 no-hit innings for the Nuts, and Victor Labrada went 1-3 with two walks.

Game 53, Rangers at Mariners

marc w · May 29, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Justin Dunn vs. Mike Foltynewicz, 7:10pm

We just saw Foltynewicz a few weeks ago when the M’s visited Arlington, so hopefully this one goes about the same – the M’s got to Folty for 4 runs in 6 2/3 IP. The last time we saw Justin Dunn, he had just about the most Dunn game ever, finishing with a BABIP of exactly .000; he gave up one hit, and it left the building.

The great Eric Nusbaum asked a question this morning on twitter, and it sent me down a stats rabbit hole. Eric’s youngster asked if there are more foul balls or fair balls (balls in play) in baseball – a great, simple question that just ends up highlighting how baseball keeps changing. For much of baseball’s history, there have been more balls in play, with somewhat fewer fouls balls. But in another example of balls in play becoming increasingly rare, they’ve now fallen behind foul balls. In recent years – 2009-2014 or so, there were about 18% balls in play, with fouls coming in about 16-17%. In 2017, the two results finished in a statistical dead heat, but with fouls just barely overtaking balls in play. Thus far in 2021, there’ve been fouls on 17.5% of pitches, but balls in play have fallen down to 16.8%.

This is the same basic process, though much less severe, as what happened to the ratio of hits to strikeouts. In 2002, there were about 12,000 more base hits than strikeouts, or a ratio of almost 1.4 to 1. Since that time, hits have more or less stayed in the vicinity of where they were – around 42,000-43,000 (though they dipped in 2014, the peak of the little batting ice age). What’s changed has been the unbroked growth of strikeouts, which finally passed base hits in 2018, and which doesn’t show any sign of slowing down or stopping; the ratio is now 1.15:1 *in favor of strikeouts*. That’s the modern game, and it’s why so many people are worried, and looking for rule changes to bring balance back. That was the theme at Baseball Prospectus this week, and this tweet thread from their EIC Craig Goldstein goes through them. It started with the restrictor plate piece that Craig wrote with friend-of-the-blog Patrick Dubuque. It’s not an idea I’m completely sold on, but it’s a great article, and it’s worth thinking about. In the meantime, for all fans who’ve grown tired of the binary of home runs and strikeouts, might I suggest some Mariners baseball? The M’s are 29th in MLB in strikeout rate, ahead of only the Rockies, whose offseason and general outlook got their GM canned. The M’s feature the lowest team BABIP, so you’ll get to see fielders doing a lot of successful fielding, and while their pitchers give up some dingers, they give up far fewer than the Rockies or Astros, and essentially the same rate as the World Champ Dodgers.

1: Kelenic, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Seager, DH
4: Lewis, CF
5: France, 1B
6: Crawford, SS
7: Godoy, C
8: Campbell, 3B
9: Walton, 2B
SP: Dunn

Reno beat Tacoma in 10 innings 8-7 last night, despite a HR from Cal Raleigh. Jake Fraley hit a dinger of his own. Darren McCaughan had a rough outing, giving up 6 in 6 innings, but that’s often how it goes in Reno. Today, Vinny Nittoli started a bullpen day for the R’s, and they’re winning fairly easily.

Tulsa beat Arkansas 7-3. The Travs got their three runs on three solo HRs. Devin Sweet started today, and K’d 6 in 5 IP, giving up 3 R.

Everett got blanked by Vancouver 3-0. Michael Limoncelli made his pro debut, giving up 2 R in 1 IP. Brandon Williamson starts today’s game.

Modesto lost to Visalia 4-2, despite two more hits for the red-hot Cade Marlowe. Sam Carlson’s starting tonight’s rematch.

Game 52, Rangers at Mariners

marc w · May 28, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Justus Sheffield vs. Jordan Lyles, 7:10pm

The M’s try to keep some momentum going after a legitimately good win against a flawed-but-surprisingly-decent Rangers club. Chris Flexen pitched his best game in the majors, keeping the Rangers scoreless for 7 innings, and the bottom of the M’s order, heretofore a source of more embarrassment than run production, came through. Let’s hope it sparks something for guys like Tom Murphy.

Today’s game is a match-up between two former top prospects who seem to have settled in to back-of-the-rotation status. As I mentioned the last time these two faced off, Lyles was once the top Houston Astros prospect, before they were in the AL, and way before they became a player development force. Lyles has been a pitch-to-contact starter for years, in Colorado and now Texas, but has consistently – and severely – underperformed his FIP. His career FIP is 4.63; not great, but something you can live with in the 4-5 spot, especially given Lyles’ durability and rougher pitching environments. But his ERA is 5.25 in over 1,000 innings. Again, maybe beggars can’t be choosers in places like Colorado and a rebuilding Texas club, but that’s a fairly big discrepancy.

The problem is that Lyles can’t strand runners. His career mark is under 66%, and that’s despite a late-career improvement. He had a legitimately good year in 2019, spurred by improvement in that problematic metric, but he still hasn’t been able to reliably get out of innings. The problem may have something to do with his approach: the pitchers who strand 80%+ are guys like deGrom, Verlander, and Snell – guys who can get strikeouts with men on base. That’s harder for someone like Lyles, whose fastball is only 92-93, and is perhaps his worst pitch.

Lyles has responded to the erosion in his fastball’s results by embracing his inner junkballer. Against righties, he’ll throw more sliders than fastballs. That slider’s a hard one at 85-86, and has great vertical drop compared to his fastball. It generates a higher proportion of swings than his fastball does – and it’s not just the slider. Both his change (fairly normal) and curve (not normal) do too. This is essentially the Zach Plesac plan, of having a show-me fastball, and either keeping it out of the zone or throwing the bendy stuff in order to get weak contact. As batters generally have worse outcomes when they put non-fastballs in play, it kind of makes sense, especially if you’re struggling to out and out MISS bats.

His fastball’s now kind of fascinating to me. It gets comparatively few swings against it, and then the results of those swings are starkly divided between whiffs (he’s got a decent whiff rate on it now for seemingly the first time in his 11 years in MLB) and hard, hard contact (he’s given up 7 HRs on it already). All in all, the results aren’t pretty, but he could probably live with that if the rest of the plan was working. It’s not. His breaking stuff is being put in play, and too many of them are falling in for hits.

That’s my worry here. One of the big reasons for the offensive desert we’re watching in 2021 is a drop in BABIP, which is a topic Rob Arthur explored today at BP. What’s worse, there’s no place in the game that BABIP is lower than at T-Mobile park. A big part of *that* has been a reduction in the value of fly balls, or all non-grounders. A trend towards playing CFs deeper than before (and it looks like guys who are new/don’t appear to be as fast are positioned the deepest) coupled with the deadened ball has cut down even more on extra-base hits, which were always in short supply at T-Mobile. Now, it’s essentially impossible to get a base hit on a fly ball in Seattle without it going over the fence. It’s not like the M’s OF defense is world-class. It’s not bad, by any stretch, but it’s just not the first group you’d think of when you see how few balls drop in for hits.

All of this is good news for Lyles, who has a GB% well below 40%. It’s less helpful for Justus Sheffield, though he, too, is getting a few less grounders this year. The problem for Sheff hasn’t been base hits, though, it’s been homers. After giving up just 2 in 2020, he’s already given up 5. Worse, 4 of them have come off of sliders, which has been his outpitch since he was in the minors. It’s been effective against lefties and righties alike, and that’s allowed him to throw a lot of them, especially when ahead in the count.

But batters seem to be developing an approach against him: they’re sitting on the slider. To be fair, this isn’t exactly new. Sheffield’s always struggled to generate a lot of swings on the sinker (or, before that, his four-seam), but just like with Lyles, that’s not necessarily bad. If he can get called strikes, or if he can get weak contact on the slider – which batters swing at nearly *60%* of the time – then this is a feature, not a bug. Unfortunately, none of that is working right now. In 2020, poor results on the slider – which batters couldn’t lay off of – propelled him to his best season. So far this year, he’s not getting many called strikes on the fastball, and batters are battering the slider. Some of this may just be bad luck, but given that his slider’s the most likely pitch he throws to be hit in the air, it’s a calculated risk: more fly balls lead to more outs in play, but also more home runs.

1: Kelenic, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: Lewis, CF
5: France, 1B
6: Crawford, SS
7: Godoy, DH
8: Murphy, C
9: Walton, 2B
SP: Sheffield

The Rainiers are back in action tonight in Reno. Darren McCaughan gets the ball for Tacoma against former Rainier and ill-fated trade return Zach Lee.

Tulsa beat Arkansas in 13 innings last night by a 6-2 score. It was a pitchers duel most of the way through, with Ian McKinney’s 6 scoreless innings starting it off. He K’d 8, giving him 37 Ks and just 8 walks in 23 IP thus far. He’s still just 26, and probably needs to be the next guy up to Tacoma if they can find a way to play normal baseball and not just operate as Seattle’s off-site overflow bullpen. Today, Penn Murfee starts for the Travs.

Everett got walked-off by the Vancouver Canadiens-of-Hillsboro (they’re sharing a stadium with the Hops while the border remains closed) 5-4. The Frogs managed just four singles, but made them count, and also took advantage of three Vancouver miscues. Today’s starter was supposed to be George Kirby, who hasn’t appeared since May 14th, leading to some worries from M’s fans like Darren Gossler (whose payroll tracker I’m sure you’ve seen). Earlier today, Kirby was shown as the starter, and if you look at, he still is. However, the M’s Player Development twitter, which posts starting line-ups, has the starter as 2019 6th rounder Michael Limoncelli. That in and of itself is noteworthy, as Limoncelli underwent Tommy John before the draft, causing him to fall to the M’s in the 6th. This’ll be his professional debut. Hopefully, Kirby will come in after Limoncelli throws an inning or two to get back into the swing of things. It’s something to keep an eye on, though, especially if Kirby’s pushed back again. There’ll be no Julio Rodriguez, though, no matter who pitches: he’s joined the Dominican Republic team in the Olympic Qualification tournament. The R’s Eric Filia will be on Team USA.

Modesto detroyed Visalia, 9-3, thanks to 3 hits from Cade Marlowe and a 5 IP, 10 K performance from Adam Macko. The Nuts scored 5 in the first, 1 in the second, and 2 in the third to put it out of reach. Visalia is just 5-16 on the year. It’s not going to get any easier for them: today’s starter is strikeout maven, Taylor Dollard.

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