Game 72, Mariners at Tigers

marc w · June 22, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Michael Fulmer, 4:10pm

Is this road trip over yet? Remember when fans were convinced the M’s biggest problem was playing at home? Good times.

The M’s, who now find themselves just a half-game up on the 3rd place Astros, face Detroit’s young Michael Fulmer today at Comerica Park. Fulmer, a right-hander whose fastball sits at 96, was the big prize the Tigers got from the Mets in the Yoenis Cespedes deal about a year ago. After slowly moving up in the Mets system since being drafted in the 1st round in 2011, something clicked and he posted great numbers at AA first in the Mets’ system, and then carried that success over to Detroit’s affiliate. While he gave up a few too many HRs early in the year in AAA, he’s been something of a revelation for Detroit, with solid K rates, and some poor contact leading to very few runs scoring against him – this is how he had a long (33 1/3 IP) scoreless IP streak earlier this year.

It’s funny – when he was in the minors, he was one of those prospects (James Paxton was another) that many saw as a future reliever. Good FB, good slider, command is so-so, and his change-up is worse than that. Lots of effort in the delivery, etc. In the Fangraphs’ article on the Tigers’ top prospects, Fulmer’s ceiling in the rotation was given as a #3 starter, with a better chance to be a late-inning reliever. I’m not trying to pick on Fangraphs, or the broad consensus about Fulmer’s strengths and weaknesses at the time or projected 5-10 years into the future, but I struggle to see that picture when I look at what he throws. His four-seamer, as mentioned, averages 96, with very little horizontal movement and lots of vertical rise. That great slider is thrown around 86-87, drops quite a bit compared to the fastball, and has little horizontal cut to it. But the “below average” change-up…now that looks like something. It, too, is thrown quite hard, at 85 or so, has 7″ of armside run, and even more vertical “drop” than the slider. It looks like a very solid splitter.

Of all Fulmer’s pitches, it’s that change-up that he’s thrown for strikes the most, it’s the pitch that’s gotten the most swings, and yet it’s the pitch that’s been put into play the *least*. When it is, it’s overwhelmingly on the ground. It’s his third pitch, and he uses it as such: he throws it mostly to left-handers, and he throws it most when he’s *behind in the count*. It’s amazing to me to look at the pitch results after looking at how he uses it. In 3-1 counts to opposite-handed hitters, and you have results like this? This is in no way a “below average” pitch. Luckily for the M’s, he doesn’t throw nearly as many of them. His slider’s a good pitch too, to be fair, and he’s comfortable throwing it to lefties, but man, that change looks intriguing. My broader question is: did Fulmer’s change-up suddenly get a whole lot better? Did he improve his arm action and/or command, and so the lingering worries about it are more outdated than out and out wrong? Or is there something about a change-up that’s harder to evaluate, especially when looking at a fireballing FB/SL guy’s third pitch? 2 strike sliders low and away *look* really good, and they are of course. But do evaluators overrate them vis a vis a solid change that can keep lefties off balance, even if it doesn’t make them look completely silly?

Anyway, Fulmer’s running reverse splits thus far. Well, he’s striking out a ton of righties, and walking too many lefties, but lefties just haven’t hit him very hard at all. Righties are pulling the ball against him at a rate 10 percentage points higher than lefties, and lefties have zero HRs against him. The change is something to watch, is what I’m saying.

1: Martin, CF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Lee, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Marte, SS
8: Clevenger, C
9: Aoki, LF
SP: Iwakuma

The M’s starter for Friday won’t be Tai Walker, who’s still struggling with tendinitis in his foot. And it won’t be new Rainier Zach Lee. Instead, it’ll be ex-Padres/Blue Jays soft-tossing lefty change-of-speed guy Wade LeBlanc, whom the M’s just acquired for “cash considerations.”

In addition, Tom Wilhelmsen is back in the M’s bullpen after signing a deal with Seattle. The Rangers dropped him from their 40 man the other day, and the bartender refused an outright assignment to AAA. The overworked bullpen needs help, and I think Wilhelmsen is much, much better than he showed in Texas, but I’d like to hear an actual explanation for what happened down there, whether mechanical or mental. To make room, Jonathan Aro’s headed back to Tacoma. The M’s will need to make another move to get LeBlanc on the active roster.

I’m going to be on a quick family trip for the next few days, so I can’t promise to get anything up. Hopefully a line-up or something, but even that’ll depend on phone reception. Hopefully the M’s will have figured out whatever it is that’s causing them to lose repeatedly by the time I’m back.

Game 71, Mariners at Tigers

marc w · June 21, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Justin Verlander, 4:10pm

The M’s lost another close game after yet another disappointingly short starting pitching outing and despite scoring enough runs to win. Texas won, again, and now the M’s face a 9.5 game deficit in the AL West, and find the Astros perilously close behind. The Astros have gone ahead of the M’s in expected wins for the season, in fact. This despite the fact that the Astros have a negative run differential, while the M’s are up at + 53. That’s not the best in the league, but it’s far, far better than the Rangers, Giants, and a number of teams the M’s are looking up at in the standings. Last year, the Rangers won the division despite carrying a negative run differential into the season’s final month, and Kansas City’s similarly bested its win projections over the past several years (they’re currently 38-31 despite a negative run differential). The M’s do not seem to be appreciably worse than the Rangers, but this is year 2 of the M’s needing to console themselves with that thought as they watch Texas race off ahead of them. This is a frustrating season, and the fact that it’s *differently* frustrating from 2010-2012 (“The M’s have no business being on the field with real, actual, major league baseball teams”) doesn’t make it any easier to stomach. It also lends itself to a frenzy of quasi-psychological explanatations, from lacking a will to win, to tut-tutting about bullpen construction when the M’s bullpen has given up 33 fewer runs than Texas’ despite pitching more innings.

It’s a tough time to be a fan right now, and I’m definitely feeling it too. The bullpen’s an easy target, despite the quality of their stats overall, just because it’s generally way worse for a reliever to give up a home run than a starter. And the M’s bullpen gives up *a lot* of home runs. We’ve talked a lot about how that was part of the plan – the M’s actively acquired pitchers who’d given up lots of dingers, and bet on regression. They’ve actually GOTTEN that regression, but they’ve gotten the dingers too, and a homer-prone bullpen’s a great way to post a worse actual record than your baseruns or pythagorean record would expect.

All of that said, at this point, I’m kind of struck by just how *accurate* the overall pre-season projections have been for the M’s. They made a hash of the M’s rivals – remember that Texas was picked last, and everyone was wayyyy too high on Oakland, evidently. But the systems all had the M’s as a slightly-better-than-.500 team, and that’s pretty much what they’ve been. Sure, some of the individual forecasts are off, but they did a decent job of capturing the M’s in a big picture sense.

James Paxton’s a fireballing rebuke to the cyncism and pessimism you get from watching the M’s fritter away a division lead, or struggle with bullpen overuse and dingers. When so much seems to go against the M’s, or when Joe West’s “Strike zone” is the last thing you need to struggle with as the M’s continue to lose in June, it’s nice to remember that fate can actually smile upon Seattle every so often. I was looking again at some of Paxton’s games this spring, when he pitched in a pitch fx ballpark in Peoria. On the 2nd of March, Paxton pitched a few innings and averaged 91.5mph with his fastball. 10 days later, he was up to 92. The trail goes dark after that, but the next game we have reliable measurement from is his start in San Diego on June 1st, where he averaged 98. He *averaged* 99.0mph in his next outing. Justin Verlander is pitching today, and Paxton makes Verlander look like late-period Jamie Moyer at this point. This makes absolutely no sense, and I love it.

Verlander’s velocity is actually much more volatile than I remember it, so even back in 2008-09, he had games where his FB averaged 93, and others where he sat 95-96, but I can’t find any starts that rival what Paxton’s just done several times in a row. Sure, Verlander averaged 99 a few times in the All-Star Game, but that’s throwing a single inning, or at most 2. In 2011, he had a game against Toronto in which he sat at 98+, and he’s had a few games averaging 97, but those are all several years old. Anyway, Verlander’s change and cutter have been very good pitches against left-handed hitters, which is one reason he has very even – or even slightly reversed – platoon splits over his long career. In recent years, in fact, his slash lines against lefties are actually much better than righties, though FIP thinks that’s all just BABIP luck. But clearly, Verlander’s not a guy you need to be too concerned with getting in an all-lefty line-up or anything.

1: Martin, CF
2: Smith, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Marte, SS
9: Aoki, LF
SP: Paxton

It’s the All-Star break for most full-season affiliates, but there’s still plenty going on in the minors. Everett’s Ljay Newsome made his short season debut last night a memorable one, as he tossed 7 scoreless IP, giving up 2 H and 0 BB while striking out 6. He was a late round pick-up out of a Maryland high school in the 2015 draft, and pitched a bit in the Arizona League last year. Everett won, 10-0, by the way.

Fresno edged Tacoma 2-1, despite a 9th inning HR from Stefen Romero. Cody Martin pitched 7 brilliant IP, with 4 H, 0 BB allowed, and the Gonzaga product K’d 7. Steve Johnson, who was recently outrighted back to Tacoma, pitched a scoreless 8th. Brad Mills starts for Tacoma today as they open a series in Sacramento.

The Arizona League M’s won their first one, 9-6 over their hated rivals on the Padres. Joe Rizzo’s first pro hit was a 3R inside-the-park HR to CF. Catcher Juan Camacho went 4-5. Danny Hultzen made the start and went 1 IP, and hopefully hasn’t re-injured anything. We’re all pulling for you, Danny, or, you know what, forget we said anything about pulling. We wish you well. Another 2015 HS draft pick, Jio Orozco, pitched 5 solid IP after that.

Game 70, Mariners at Tigers

marc w · June 20, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Nate Karns vs. Mike Pelfrey, 4:10pm

Lots to talk about today, and very little time, so we’ll just bullet point this out:

1: Still tossing around the Taylor-for-Lee swap in my head. The question “do you like the trade?” seems woefully inadequate, or at least, I’m conflicted in how I’d answer. I think that Chris Taylor’s not ready to play in the big leagues for the M’s – he showed that last year, and he showed it in his brief call-up. Everything we’ve seen from him in AAA says the opposite: that while he’s not going to be a star, he could add some value. There’s a huge chasm between those two piles of evidence, and for whatever reason, the M’s haven’t been all that interested in helping Taylor bridge it. If that’s where the M’s found themselves – with a player who simply didn’t fit into their long term plans thanks to the likes of Luis Sardinas and Steve O’Malley, then the M’s were right to move Taylor for the shiniest bauble they could find.

Lee’s so interesting because it seems like he’s got a similar issue to Taylor, where you see some ability and some flashes of real MLB-ready talent, but it’s lost in inconsistency and stalled growth. Even if Lee hears the same thing from his new pitching coaches (and Tacoma’s Lance Painter is an excellent one), it’s probably worth hearing it from a different voice.

I like the deal, and I’m still bewildered and maybe a bit miffed that it had to be made. But because it so obviously did, hey, Lee’s a better lottery ticket than many stalled-out prospects can fetch.

2: Soooo, those playoff odds. The last time we looked at ‘em, the M’s and Rangers were neck and neck, with the Rangers having made up a ton of ground since the opening day forecasts had them last in the division. OK Fangraphs, graph me up today’s version:
Playoff odds
Gaahh! Damn it, Texas. The M’s are 3-7 in their last ten ball games, while the Rangers have gone 8-2 and opened up the second-biggest divisional lead in baseball, after the Cubs scorched earth policy in the NL Central. The division is rapidly becoming a runaway win for the Rangers, which makes this series against an AL Central team all the more important. Losing 2 of 3 in Boston to *that* team certainly didn’t feel good, and the M’s had so many chances to do more, but it’s an understandable series loss. But if you’re going to allow yourself some room for error when playing very good teams, you need to take care of business in winnable games. That’s what the M’s haven’t done of late, and it’s what they desperately need to do now.

3: Former Mets/Twins starter Mike Pelfrey played 3 seasons for Minnesota, logging 341 IP with an ERA right around 5. A groundballer without extreme GB rates, he’s notable mostly for his pitch-to-contact approach. While his FIP numbers were a bit better thanks to his avoidance of home runs, he was injury-plagued and not terribly successful at preventing runs for the Twins. Pelfrey signed a two-year, $16 million deal with Detroit this off-season, a deal that was roundly mocked by internetting commenters, and also held up as a sign of just how bonkers the market for starting pitching had become. For everyone unhappy with the return in the Carson Smith trade, Pelfrey’s deal at least gave you pause. Is pitching just worth more than we thought? Or were the Tigers insane? I suppose that question’s still up in the air, as Pelfrey’s been reliably bad, just in different ways. The HR luck he had didn’t make it across state lines, so Pelfrey now has an above-average HR rate to go with an awful K:BB ratio. This makes his FIP abysmal, but he’s stranded some runners, so his ERA is only bad as opposed to awful. He was paid for something like 1 WAR per season, and he’s going to have to work pretty hard in the 2nd half to get there, but at the same time, he’s given them a bunch of not-awful innings, and maybe they saw value in that. The guy he sort-of replaced in Detroit’s rotation, Alfredo Simon, has an ERA of 9.45 and a FIP of 7.20 in 11 starts, and has a lingering shoulder issue. That shouldn’t matter to how they value Pelfrey, but I can imagine someone in the Tigers FO thinking that things have generally worked out.

4: As a sinkerballer with a slider as his primary breaker, Pelfrey is clearly vulnerable against left-handed hitters. He’s tried to combat this with a splitter, a pitch he throws a lot to lefties. It’s got good sink to it, and it’s somewhat effective overall, but it’s not a real outpitch the way Hisashi Iwakuma’s is.

5: The Arizona Rookie League starts up today, so we’ll have another league with a bunch of new draft picks to follow. Thomas Burrows, the 4th round pick, appears on the roster, though MLB’s signing tracker hasn’t seen him sign yet. I assume he has, and that Donnie Walton’s the last of the top 10 round guys still unsigned. All told, the M’s didn’t save a ton of money, thanks to 2nd rounder Joe Rizzo going about $500,000 over slot. They signed him, and they made up most of that amount with their 6th-9th rounders, but I don’t think there’s a ton left over to take a run at the 32-35th round high-ceiling high schoolers. We’ll see, though.

The line-up:
1: Martin, CF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Aoki, LF
9: Marte, SS
SP: Karns

Donn Roach tossed 8 shutout IP in Tacoma’s extra-inning 1-0 win over Fresno. Adrian Sampson’s been more consistent, but Roach has really come on after a disastrous April. He’s not the ground ball phenom he’s been in the past, but he’s on quite a roll in Tacoma’s rotation. Cody Martin starts for Tacoma tonight at Cheney Stadium.

Gareth Morgan got a few games for Jackson before he suits up for Arizona now that the complex league opens, and he knocked 3 doubles in 2 games – Jackson won last night to get a franchise-record 46 wins in a half-season. Morgan also K’d six times in 10 PAs, so there’s still a ways to go, but three XBHs in 2 games is great to see from the young Canuck.

Chantz Mack had 5 hits, 5 RBIs and hit for the cycle last night in Bakersfield’s 12-2 win.

Ljay Newsome, an interesting HS pitcher out of Maryland the M’s signed in the 2015 draft, makes his short-season debut tonight.

M’s, Dodgers Complete Classic Change-of-Scenery Trade

marc w · June 19, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

The M’s and Dodgers just traded one disappointing ex-prospect for another. I’m sure both fanbases are feeling a similar mixture of disappointment in the return and yet a weird sense of closure. Chris Taylor, the M’s out-of-nowhere SS prospect turned SS of the future turned shrug emoji will head to Los Angeles, while Zach Lee, former bonus baby pitching prospect whom people have finally stopped expecting a big breakout from, will head to Tacoma.

Lee was a highly regarded high school quarterback, and his commitment to play for LSU caused him to slip in the 2010 amateur draft. The Dodgers bought him out of that commitment with a then-team-record $5.25 million signing bonus, and assigned him to the Midwest League in 2011. After a solid debut, he was a consistent top-100 in baseball prospect, though his results came and went. 2012, split between high-A and AA, was a down year results wise, but he made some adjustments and had a great 2013. He was promoted to AAA to begin the 2014 campaign, and his debut happened to be in Tacoma, where he faced off with a brand new shortstop the Rainiers were trying out with Nick Franklin sliding over to 2B. Again, he struggled at the new, higher, level and finished the year with poor stats, but like before, he made some adjustments and had a very good year in the PCL in 2015.

Few prospects have been so scrutinized, so anticipated, than Lee, and that made Lee’s declining K rates as he ascended the Dodgers system all the more worrisome, a fact that led to even more scrutiny. Lee reportedly had mid-90s velocity, but he would commonly work in the high-80s, and his slider and change weren’t big swing and miss pitches. In a perfect world, Lee’s a solid back-of-the-rotation guy who can get lots of ground balls thanks to a well-located sinker, paired with a very firm slider to righties and a change-up to lefties. He’s got a four-seamer with lots of vertical rise, so the M’s could remake him as a high-FB, slow curve fly-ball pitcher if they wanted to.

Ultimately, the Dodgers just ran out of patience with him, and despite a multitude of injuries to their pitching staff, they always had someone else ahead of him in the pecking order. This spring, it was Ross Stripling. Last year, it was Mike Bolsinger. Next year, it…it wouldn’t have been Zach Lee. While nothing about Lee’s path to this point recalls Chris Taylor, the glove-first, no-expectations 5th round pick out of UVA, this sense that not only had he been passed over, but that regular looks were going to be difficult, feels familiar. The M’s SS of the future was supposed to be Brad Miller, the SS they took higher in the draft, and who played in the same conference at the same time as Taylor. Miller flew threw the minors, which actually worked in Taylor’s favor. Despite being drafted a year later, there was always room at a higher level, because Miller kept dominating and needing another challenge. Taylor’s reputation with the glove helped out, but after a swing overhaul, he was hitting far more than even M’s fans would’ve expected, and essentially forcing himself into the conversation at the big league level.

His breakthrough came in 2014, right as Zach Lee’s ascent was stalling out. In his first taste of AAA, Taylor thrived, hitting for more power than ever. After an OPS of nearly 1.000 in April, he hit .391/.452/.652 in May. Brad Miller was a revelation in his 2nd-half debut for the M’s in 2013, but 2014 was a disappointing slog of a season, with his OBP under .300 most all year, and the club grousing about mental mistakes in the field. Taylor was the right man at the right time, and earned himself a shot at a job-share agreement – it helped that Miller hit lefty while Taylor was a righty. The M’s continued to mess around with Miller throughout the next 12 months, moving him to CF, and then to both OF corners. The starting SS job was there for the taking, a fact confirmed when younger SS Ketel Marte started working out in CF for Tacoma.

And then Taylor collapsed. Among the 445 batters who logged at least 100 plate appearances last year, Taylor’s wRC of 23 (a line of .170/.220/.223) was the 6th worst, just ahead of another failed SS-of-the-future, Luis Sardinas. As the gap power and bat-to-ball skills went AWOL, defensive lapses became too much to ignore. Miller wasn’t seizing his job back, or at least, the M’s weren’t thrilled with the idea of just giving it to him by default. Into this sorry state of affairs stepped Ketel Marte, and the rest is history.

I’ll be clear: I saw a lot of Taylor in early 2014, and the guy I saw can play SS in the big leagues. My opinion of Taylor will always be colored by that stretch of high-level play, a level even I have to admit now may be his career peak. I was encouraged that Taylor’s big league debut in 2014 was nearly as encouraging, but any M’s fan knows how those stories tend to end – hell, ask Marte about his nearly-10% walk rate from last year. Given Marte’s emergence, and the new FO’s stated opinion from day 1 in the spring that Marte was the starter, you can make the case that this trade has been an inevitability for 6-10 months. Once the M’s decided that Marte, and not Taylor, was the starter, the M’s needed to move Taylor just as they moved another middle IF prospect, Nick Franklin.

When the M’s acquired Sardinas, I assumed they wanted big league utility depth to stash in AAA. But when Sardinas mashed in the spring and took to playing 3B far more readily than did Taylor, then Taylor’s days in Seattle were pretty clearly numbered. Not only was Taylor not going to beat out the starter, but he wasn’t going to have a shot at the utility role…and both Marte and Sardinas are *younger* than Taylor. The only thing left was to rebuild value with a great season in AAA, and that’s exactly what he’s done. Sure, his brief horror-show of a call-up may have put a dent in that, but it’s nothing compared to 2015.

Zach Lee’s disappointed, and now has no clear role in the Dodgers org. Chris Taylor over-delivered before stalling, and getting passed by younger players. He too has no real shot at a long-term job on this club. To be clear, a change of scenery trade like this doesn’t come with an automatic job opportunity, especially given that both of these clubs are fighting for a wild card spot. Despite the M’s starting pitcher injuries, Adrian Sampson’s ahead of Lee right now, and Taylor’s looking up at an even younger, even more talented incumbent in Corey Seager. But there’s always the chance that a different org, different coaches, and different rosters might afford them more of a shot than they had before. I’ll be the first to admit that I was always high – maybe TOO high – on Taylor, and that it sucks to see them trade kind-of-low on him, especially given that they’re also buying low on Lee. But given the M’s needs and the development of Sardinas, Taylor had no realistic path to playing time here.

So what does Lee need to do? I’m honestly not sure, but I think James Paxton’s development’s been encouraging. That black swan of a development path will get far too much use as an exception that proves a rule, but I’m guessing Lee has more in his arm than he’s shown. If not, there’s only so much you can get in exchange for a guy like Taylor, who can’t get even the extended big league trials that Nick Franklin got due both to his own face-plants and the success of others. Here’s hoping the M’s pitching coaches can unlock something in Lee, who’ll start off in the Tacoma rotation. Here’s hoping Taylor becomes a super-sub for the Dodgers.

One last thing: when these two players met for the first time, back in April of 2014, Taylor stepped in against Lee, who reared back and missed badly with a fastball, plunking the Rainiers SS. Here’s that pitch:
lee-plunks-taylor

Not a great photo, but it’s one of those cool coincidences that baseball abounds with. That game was a fascinating document about the different paths the M’s and Dodgers were taking. Starting in CF for Albuquerque was another youngster new to AAA, Joc Pederson. The R’s leadoff man was Endy Chavez. Albuquerque featured a couple of ex-M’s flameouts in Miguel Olivo, former-SS-of-the-future Carlos Triunfel, and 2012 Mariner Trayvon Robinson. The Rainiers had prospects like Taylor, Jesus Montero, Nick Franklin and James Jones – all of whom are now in other orgs.

Game 69, Mariners at Red Sox

marc w · June 19, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. David Price, 10:35am

The Red Sox have been great thus far, which probably means David Price’s slow start’s gotten less, uh, attention than it otherwise would. The Sox offense really has covered a multitude of, if not sins, then disappointments. Carson Smith’s been hurt, and now languishes on the 60-day DL. Last year’s big FA targets, Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, were disappointing, and Sandoval lost his job to an unheralded rookie, and is now on the DL himself. And Price, who inked a 7-year $217 million deal this offseason, is struggling a bit with home runs.

To be fair, he’s righted the ship a bit; his ERA’s fine in June after a disastrous April. But that doesn’t mean everything’s back to normal. Even in June, he’s given up 5 dingers despite facing fewer than 100 batters. His FIP was brilliant back in April, when Price was undone mostly by BABIP and sequencing. But as his ERA results have improved, his FIP has been dropping down to meet his ERA. Even now, his fielding independent stats are quite a bit better than his actual results, but it’s tough to know what to make of Price right now.

The same’s true of Tai Walker, of course, just without the pedigree, contract, or lengthy MLB career. Walker still looks maddeningly inconsistent – dominant in one start, and then hittable and unable to get out of big innings in the next. Walker’s been remarkably dinger-prone this year, but at least his actual runs allowed aren’t close to what FIP would expect. Still, this is a big game and a big stage, and after yesterday’s somewhat predictable loss (though Sampson pitched pretty well), the M’s could really use a game-stealing performance from Walker.

1: Marte, SS
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lee, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Martin, CF
9: O’Malley, LF
SP: Walker

Go read Larry Stone’s great piece on Mel Stottlemeyer Sr. and Jr. on this Father’s Day. Just a little dusty over here, that’s all.

Game 68, Mariner at Red Sox

marc w · June 18, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Adrian Sampson vs. Rick Porcello, 1:10pm

Adrian Sampson’s a strike thrower whose primary breaking ball’s a slider. He’s shown some sizable platoon splits in the minors, as his change hasn’t quite been MLB-quality. David Ortiz looms in the middle of Boston’s order, but that said, you can kind of see the thought process here, as the M’s opt to call up the righty Sampson instead of using Vidal Nuno for a spot start. Nuno’s a lefty reliever, and with David Rollins on the club last night, they could’ve backfilled Nuno’s role in the pen. But outside of Ortiz, the Red Sox line-up features a number of formidable and patient right-handed hitters. The Sox lead off with Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia, and Xander Bogaerts, three (good) RHBs. All told, the Sox have just three lefties in the line-up today.

Now, the Sox haven’t exactly struggled against righties this year, despite their righty-heavy line-up. Their wRC+ is actually a bit better against RHPs, though it’s pretty much even. Still, given both Nuno’s recent workload and historical struggles with right handed bats, bringing in Sampson probably gives the M’s a bit better chance.

Rick Porcello’s still striking out a few more batters than he did when he was with the Tigers, but he’s still not a real strikeout pitcher. With very low walk rates, he can be pretty effective when his defenders turn batted balls into outs, and there’s no rhyme or reason to his BABIPs. He’s had awful years, like last year, where his ERA spikes, and good (or, “lucky”) years like this one where his ERA looks a lot better. His FIP is essentially unchanged from last year, but the batted ball luck means his ERA’s currently a full run lower than it was in 2015 (when, to be clear, 1B Hanley Ramirez was trying to play LF). Porcello’s historically run some normal platoon splits, hence the M’s lefty-heavy line-up.

1: Martin, CF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Clevenger, C
8: Aoki, LF
9: Marte, SS
SP: Sampson

The Rainiers beat up on Astros pitching prospect Joe Musgrove on their way to a comfy 10-4 win. Boog Powell and Tyler Smith homered for Tacoma. Old friend Jarret Grube, recently resigned with Tacoma, starts tonight’s game.

Jackson scored all of three runs *total* in their doubleheader with Tennessee yesterday, but that was enough for the Generals to earn a sweep. They won the first game 2-1 in “Extra” innings – they walked it off in the 9th (MiLB double-header games are 7 IP). They had another walk-off win in the nightcap with Brock Hebert’s bases loaded walk giving the Generals a 1-0 win. Lots of great pitching, but the bullpen was great with Ryan Horstman effective in the first one and Ryne Harper getting the win in relief in game 2. Jordan Pries starts today.

Bakersfield had no trouble with Lancaster, as they beat the Astros affiliate 12-5. Tyler Herb K’d 10 Jethawks against just 1 walk and 4 hits. He gave up 5 runs, though none were earned. Kyle Petty homered twice, and Justin Seager added another for the Blaze. Tyler Pike takes the hill today.

Clinton split a double header against Kane County, losing the first game 1-0 in a tidy 1 hour and 21 minutes. The Lumberkings won the nightcap in extras, getting 3 runs in the 11th to win 5-2. Zack Littell and Pablo Lopez were both excellent on the day, and Braden Bishop had 3 hits in total on the day, including the only base hit off of Alex Young in game 1. I would be remiss if I didn’t note here that Kane County has an infielder named Galli Cribs. I thought you should know.

M’s Reshuffle Pitching Staff as Miley Hits DL

marc w · June 18, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

This is the first time the M’s have seen the Red Sox since their big offseason swap of relief ace Carson Smith for middle-of-the-rotation arm Wade Miley. And, because we’re dealing with pitchers, the only two players who might actually face their old teams this series are Roenis Elias (the M’s second piece) and Jonathan Aro (the Sox throw-in).

Wade Miley’s shoulder has apparently been bugging him for a while, and he’ll head to the 15 day DL to rest it. The M’s – and Miley – seem to think he’ll be ready to make his start on the 28th. With the bullpen logging so many innings in both the Texas and Tampa series, the M’s have made a flurry of moves to help out. As we saw last night, David Rollins came up from Tacoma, but after his 1 1/3 IP last night, he’s returning to the Rainiers. In his place will be two more Rainiers, Aro, a right-handed reliever, and starting pitcher Adrian Sampson. To make room for Sampson, the M’s DFA’s Steve Johnson.*

Adrian Sampson’s the pitcher the M’s got from Pittsburgh in exchange for JA Happ last year. Sampson’s went to Skyline HS in Sammamish and then Bellevue College before signing with the Pirates org in 2012. His first taste of the PCL last year was very unpleasant, giving up *60* hits and 38 runs in just 38 2/3 IP. But in 2016, he’s been unrecognizable, throwing harder (hitting 94-95 routinely in spring training), and using improved command to pitch brilliantly for the Rainiers. With a K:BB ratio over 5 and limited hits, he’s been one of the most consistent starters in the PCL. His fastball has some decent run and sink, but it’s not a great ground ball pitch. His command of it has helped him immensely, and a very low walk rate’s probably what caught the M’s attention when they were trying to consummate the trade with Pittsburgh. He pairs it with a slider with very good sinking action and a change-up that’s got exceptional armside run.

Here’s Sampson pitching against Albuquerque this year:
sampson

Aro pitched briefly for Boston last year, showing a low-90s rising FB, a slider, and a poor man’s Mike Montgomery change-up. Thanks to his FB movement, he’s been a big fly ball pitcher, and that may help explain his real calling card in the minors: a low BABIP and opponent’s batting average. He’s been decent at missing bats, but especially in this day and age, his K rate is really nothing special at all. Instead, he tries to get pop-ups and fly balls – and that game plan’s worked this year in the PCL, just as it worked last year in the IL for Pawtucket. It’s worth saying, of course, that this didn’t work at all in his short cup of coffee with Boston, but that was all of 10 IP.

None of the flurry of moves yesterday and today make a big impact to the club. There’s no Edwin Diaz in this group. But the M’s needed to do something, as Vidal Nuno and Mike Montgomery have looked shakier as their workload’s increased. Rollins and Sampson have earned a shot, and as someone who’s been higher than most on Rollins, I was encouraged by what I’ve seen this year. Sampson too has earned a shot with his performance in Tacoma’s rotation, and while his stay in Seattle won’t be too long this time, it’s possible we could see him again in 2016, potentially in the bullpen.

* Johnson started brilliantly, earning some positive press and fewer garbage-time appearances, but it’s a sign of how vulnerable life can be for a guy like Johnson that he’s both lost the M’s trust and now his roster spot just two weeks or so after stories like this. If he was a prospect/had options, he’d just head back to the minors and get some atta-boys, but life’s tougher for the out-of-options journeymen out there. I almost don’t know what to hope for – it’d be nice to see him clear waivers and head back, but he could go through another couple of organizations by the time the season’s out.

Game 67, Mariners at Red Sox

marc w · June 17, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Roenis Elias, 4:10pm

The M’s head to Boston to take on the highest scoring team in baseball. David Ortiz’s remarkable final season is a big reason why they lead baseball in runs scored, but it’s far from the only one. Boston’s remarkable in that they combine a high ISO with a very low K rate – they’re 28th in K%, but #1 in SLG% and 4th in ISO. It shouldn’t be a shocker that a team that puts so many balls in play would have a high team batting average (they’re #1 in that, too), but there really isn’t much of a correlation between a low K rate and any kind of overall batting success – the Angels are baseball’s toughest club to K, but their offense is more annoying than good. The Braves are above average in K rate, but historically below average in basically everything else.

Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia have aged well, and combine contact ability with power, so that’s helped, but the Sox offense in 2016 has been the story of the massive developmental leaps made by a trio of young players: Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley, Jr., and Xander Bogaerts. Bradley’s the only one with a K rate over 20% (and it’s barely over it), but that’s down from 29% and 27% in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Bogaerts had a K rate of 23% a few years back, but he’s trimmed that to about 15% now, a major reason he’s hitting .352. But more than just more contact, all three are doing more damage on that contact than they have before – often at levels their minor league track records never hinted at. The diminutive Betts has an ISO of .228 and 14 HRs already, while Bogaerts has raised his own ISO from .101 last year to .161 now. And Bradley’s is at a stratospheric .268 despite never surpassing .200 in the minors. The Astros, Cardinals, and Rangers get well deserved credit for their impressive player development groups, and have turned many later-round draft picks and projects into real prospects. But I’m not sure I can think of a better example of turning solid prospects into regulars, and from *there* turning them into stars. They progressed plenty in the minors, but these huge jumps a few years into their big league careers is really impressive. Maybe that’s just the M’s fan in me, but that’s a facet of development that just killed the M’s under Zduriencik.

The Red Sox have the run scoring thing down pat, and even with Carson Smith hurt for most of the year, they’re doing fine as a bullpen; you put Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa in the same pen, and you’re going to strike plenty of dudes out. The starting pitching, however, has been pretty dicey. By FIP and ERA, they’re in the bottom third, but it doesn’t look too bad (in part thanks to the more comprehensive dumpster fires in the Minnesota and Oakland rotations), but the *distribution* of their WAR is quite remarkable. At the top, the Sox have an expensive ace in David Price, who’s struggled, but whose FIP is still more or less OK. There’s Rick Porcello, who never quite made the leap Boston clearly anticipated him making, but is having a perfectly normal, boring, Rick Porcello-y season. Even better, they’ve stumbled on to a valuable, finely aged knuckleball savant in Steven Wright, who’s kicked around as their swingman for a few years, and has looked brilliant in the rotation this season. That’s 40 starts at around a combined FIP in the high 3s. Price has underpeformed his, while Wright’s overperformed, so it kind of nets out. Unfortunately, that’s not enough starters. The REST of the rotation, covering 25 starts, has been breathtakingly bad. In 122 2/3 IP, these back of the rotation guys have given up 95 runs, good for an RA/9 of 7. *7*.

Clay Buchholz was so bad, he’s been banished to the bullpen, and Joe Kelly remains enigmatically bad, striking out more but giving up a run per inning. Pitching prospect Henry Owens gave up 3 HRs and walked 12 in 12+ innings. Former top prospect and solid pitcher last year Eduardo Rodriguez has given up 6 HRs in 20 1/3 IP. If you’re wondering why Roenis Elias was summoned from AAA to make this start, let’s just say the incumbents in the rotation haven’t solidified their spot in the rotation. Elias has been better in the IL than he was in the PCL last year, as his K rate’s up a bit. He’s still walking a few too many, and he still has platoon splits, but at this point, if he can just give the Sox what he gave the M’s last year, it’d be a tremendous upgrade.

The M’s rotation has been frustrating at times, and clearly Wade Miley has underperformed, but *no* Mariners starter has been below replacement level by fWAR. Karns has underperformed his FIP, and thanks to their HR rates, neither Iwakuma nor Tai Walker’s season lines look all that great, but there aren’t any ERAs starting with 7s and 8s here. There’s something to be said for avoiding black hole performances, and while it’s a low bar to get over, the M’s sure couldn’t do it in the recent past.

1: Marte, SS
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lee, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Martin, CF
9: Aoki, LF
SP: Iwakuma

Tacoma bludgeoned Salt Lake yesterday 12-7, behind HRs from Daniel Robertson and Mike Zunino. A day after his first five hit game, Chris Taylor singled and walked, too. Interesting Astros prospect Joe Musgrove starts tonight as Fresno head to Tacoma to take on Joe Wieland and the Rainiers.

Jackson beat Tennessee 3-2 thanks in large part to another solid start from Ryan Yarbrough. Tim Lopes and DJ Peterson doubled in the game. Andrew Moore makes the start in Game 1 of a twin bill for the Generals today, who’ve already clinched the first half title, and even after taking their foot off the gas a bit (they’re 5-5 in their last 10 games) lead the SL by a mile. Andrew Kittredge makes a spot start in Game 2.

Bakersfield blew another 9th inning lead, but redeemed themselves by winning 6-4 in 12 innings. Aaron Barbosa and Chantz Mack both had 3 hits, and both tripled. Anthony Misiewicz pitched a good 6 IP (with 7 Ks).

Clinton blew a 6-2 lead in their 7-6 loss to Kane County. Alex Jackson went 3-5 with a dinger, and that probably means a bit more to us than the game’s result. He’s still struck out 32 times in 100 ABs, but he’s hit in 5 straight games and seems to be coming around. Zack Littell starts Game 1 of another double header for the L-Kings today, with Pablo Lopez on the mound in Game 2.

Speaking of the minors, one guy who’s certainly looked impressive in the early going is OF Brayan Hernandez of the M’s Dominican Summer League team. Hernandez was a big name, and the highest ranked international free agent the M’s signed in many years, but he’s been progressing a bit slowly the past few years. Thus far, he’s had about as good of a 50-PA or so start as you can, with a line of .362/.400/.702. He’s tied for the league lead in HRs. Now, there are quite a few guys hitting well, so his stat line alone doesn’t qualify him for uberprospect status, but it’s great to see all the same.

2016 Everett Aquasox Preview

Jay Yencich · June 17, 2016 · Filed Under Minor Leagues

While my current annual schedule could make the full-blown, four-team minor league previews impossible, the good news, if you’re an aficionado of giant walls of text, is that I’m almost certainly going to be free to do Everett Aquasox previews. I figure it’s helpful for a team that draws on the regional Northwest to have a team preview for their affiliate in the Northwest League.

As is typical of NWL rosters, this one has more players than you could shake a wood bat at, which makes projecting who ends up where tricky at times. I feel like I could maybe draw up the first five of a lineup card, but thereafter it would be scribbles and assorted ciphers. “SS Brigman, RF Filia, 3B Zammarelli, RF Lewis, DH/IF Greer, (wingdings) C Goldstein, LF Leal? (further wingdings).” I’m also not at all confident in my projection of the rotation and am using the precedent of not having college guys rank up too much extra mileage to presume that the whole rotation is former HS draft picks and an international signing. We’ll see, I guess.

But outside of what looks like a young rotation, the rest of the lineup has a pretty veteran appearance and looks like they’ll get on-base and swing bats. I would say that run-scoring isn’t a concern for me, but that the success of the team is likely to be dictated by how well the rotation performs under the circumstances. How I ended up writing in the neighborhood of 3500 words is also a mystery, but one of these mysteries will be resolved while the other will be nodded at and kept at a respectful, out-of-earshot distance. Read on to hear who the emergency catcher will be!
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Game 66, Mariners at Rays

marc w · June 16, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Blake Snell, 10:10am

I completely understand that many fans might need a mental break from the M’s for a bit, and that 10am games aren’t helpful for many over here on the West coast, but if you can, this is a game to watch. James Paxton is pretty much appointment television at this point, and his opponent is Shoreline native turned uberprospect, Blake Snell.

We talked about Snell briefly last year in some minor league recaps, as the lefty made the leap from ‘solid lefty arm’ to ‘dominant.’ He started the year in high-A, and didn’t give up a run in 21 IP, so he moved up to AA. After a brilliant campaign for Montgomery, he ended in AAA Durham. All told he K’d 163 in 134 IP with an ERA of 1.41. He had a solid spring, but began the year in AAA to work on his command (like Kris Bryant needed to work on his defense) and, let’s be honest, give the Rays another year of club control.

He did make one spot start for the Rays, a 5 IP teaser in Yankee Stadium. There, we got to see what his stuff looked like against big league hitting, and what we saw was kind of intriguing. We talked a lot about rising fastballs yesterday, with Nate Karns and Drew Smyly matching up, and we talked about the Orioles love of rising four seamers with Chris Tillman and Wei-Yin Chen (when he was there last year). Those guys feature fastballs with 10-11″ of vertical “rise” – meaning backspin prevents the ball from falling as quickly as a ball thrown the same speed but without spin. What’s this got to do with Snell? In that one outing in New York, Snell’s FB had more rise than any starter’s in the game.

Jeff Sullivan talked about it here, and you should click that to see gifs of Snell and his lanky, over the top delivery in action. With that kind of movement, Snell should be an extreme fly ball guy, but it any pitch that’s several standard deviations from the mean should get more whiffs as well.

The bullpen could use a rest, so the M’s may bring up an arm from AAA Tacoma, reports Ryan Divish. No word on that yet.

1: Marte, SS
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lee, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Aoki, LF
9: O’Malley, CF
SP: Paxton

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