Game 158, Athletics at Mariners – Happy Brashday

marc w · September 28, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Chris Bassitt vs. Tyler Anderson, 7:10pm

It’s been about a month or so since a Jerry Dipoto interview dropped a most intriguing nugget of information: that the M’s considered promoting AA SP pitching prospect Matt Brash to the Mariners bullpen for the close of the season. With Brash’s season winding down and with some of the M’s bullpen arms looking a little tired, you could see the thinking. Brash has mid to high-90s velo, and the kind of break on his slider (and two-seamer) that instantly goes viral on social media. You can debate his future value vis a vis George Kirby, but you can’t debate the fact that it’s…intriguing to imagine what Brash could do in shorter stints in the majors.

That info drop was a tease, as we didn’t really hear anything about it for a while after that. Brash’s season ended along with Arkansas, and, shock of shocks, he wasn’t able to keep up his mind-bending hot streak where AA batters struggled to even foul pitches off against him. Tacoma’s season rolled on, as did the M’s, but there was a lull in news about Brash and a possible promotion. What changed had nothing to do with Brash, but it’s what’s got him here with the Mariners: Yusei Kikuchi got bad in a hurry.

After a series of clunkers, the M’s suddenly decided that they couldn’t send Kikuchi out against the A’s – not with the team just 1.5 games out of the Wild Card. Thus, Brash was promoted to Tacoma, but he never joined the team down in Round Rock. They wanted to make sure they had a healthy crew of bullpen arms, and Chris Flexen’s start yesterday ensured that they would. So, Brash is up to make his MLB debut in a short start? Not…quite.

The M’s have made the somewhat odd decision to give the actual start to Tyler Anderson, last season on Saturday in an outing worse than anything Kikuchi’s produced in a while. Anderson’s been amazing since joining the M’s, but is coming off of that atrocious start on 3 days rest. He won’t likely pitch very much, but it seems odd to me in this context to piggy back Brash with a short-rested Anderson.

That said, the M’s may want to whipsaw A’s hitters by having them face a left-handed low-velo change-of-speeds guy like Anderson before giving the people what they want in the high-octane, ridiculous-breaking slider GIF-machine like Brash. It makes it much harder for the platoon-loving A’s to stack their line-up with lefties vs. Brash. They can pinch hit whenever the change is made, but that just guts their bench for the late innings.

As I mentioned before, my concern here isn’t that Brash isn’t up to this. It’s that he hasn’t thrown *this* specific baseball. AA uses the minor league ball, which are made in China and a different product than the MLB ball, which is made in Costa Rica and uses slightly different specifications. That ball’s been in use in AAA, but hasn’t filtered down to AA. When Brash was initially called up to AAA, I thought it might have been to get him used to the seams and feel of the new baseball, but he never actually threw with Tacoma, who wasn’t anywhere near the Pacific Northwest at the time. So, we’ll just have to see how this goes. As Brash’s control is maybe a weaker point, it’s something to keep an eye on, and you figure the M’s coaches will do just that.

All of that said, and as suspicious as I was about this Anderson-on-short-rest business, I think Brash’s call-up does show that the club is taking this chase seriously, and it probably does give them a better shot than sticking with Kikuchi. It could all go wrong, but hey, Anderson’s last start went wrong – the fact that anything can happen cannot be used to block what gives the M’s their best shot at keeping the A’s off the board.

The M’s saw Bassitt not too long ago, and he pitched well against them – but he only went 3 IP. That was his first start off the IL, so we’ll see how long he gets to go. No matter how good he looks, the M’s batters are clearly pretty confident that they can hit whomever the A’s bring out of the pen. They did it in Oakland, and they really, really hit the A’s pen hard last night. Anderson’s only faced the A’s once this year, and he obviously didn’t throw too many pitches in his abbreviated start against the Angels, and of course none of the A’s have seen Brash. The M’s have a good opportunity tonight, and they need to seize it.

1: Crawford, SS
2: France, 1B
3: Seager, 3B
4: Haniger, RF
5: Toro, 2B
6: Kelenic, CF
7: Torrens, DH
8: Fraley, LF
9: Murphy, C
SP: Anderson/Brash?

Tacoma’s off today, and will be back in Tacoma tomorrow, kicking off a series with Salt Lake.

Game 157, Athletics at Mariners – Let Chaos Reign

marc w · September 27, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Chris Flexen vs. Cole Irvin, 7:10pm

Ok, six games left, and the M’s are 2 back of the 2nd wildcard after the Yankees swept the Red Sox. The M’s finish with three against the A’s, and then three against the Angels. The Blue Jays and Yankees square off for three, and then the Jays finish up against Baltimore (darn), while the Yankees face Tampa. Boston finishes with three against Baltimore (darn) and three against Washington (darn). It’s the Yankees WC to lose at this point, but they’ve clearly got the toughest schedule. Boston can get right again with their schedule, and the M’s is in between.

Given that there are two teams ahead of them, and that both of those teams play the Orioles, the M’s realistically need to go 5-1 to have any real shot at this, and 6-0 wouldn’t guarantee anything. But it IS nice to have meaningful games here in late September, and to feel motivated to look up rival teams’ schedules. It’s a reminder that every game can and should matter, meaning that teams that manipulate service time might be harming themselves. I’d lambast the M’s for manipulating Jarred Kelenic’s time a bit more if he didn’t end up getting sent down again anyway, but still.

I always want to see the M’s act like the games matter, and not just use it as a marketing push for this final homestand. Today, they may be showing signs of doing that. As we talked about earlier, the M’s still haven’t announced who’ll start tomorrow night. They put out a series of pitching probables that had Yusei Kikuchi penciled in for it, but they’ve admitted to the beat writers that it’s currently TBD, fueling more suspicion that the M’s will throw caution to the wind and bring in Matt Brash to start, or at least get some innings in. But, that may all depend on how much work their bullpen gets tonight: if their bullpen gets worked hard tonight, they may not want to throw Brash out there. To shore up that pen, the M’s made the zwischenzug* or in-between move of calling up Wyatt Mills from Tacoma and optioning Justus Sheffield. This gives the M’s another arm for tonight, and might pave the way for Brash to be called up to make the start tomorrow.

Chris Flexen just dominated the A’s in this same fixture five days ago, so he’s as good a bet as the M’s have to work deep into the game. A’s starter Cole Irvin once (rather accurately) demeaned the M’s offense, saying “a team like that should not be putting up 10 hits against me or anyone,” after a May game. Irvin has now made four starts against Seattle, the team with the lowest batting average in the majors. He’s taken the loss in each of those starts, and the M’s are hitting a cool .377 against him with an OPS over .950. Maybe they shouldn’t be putting up a ton of hits against you, but you keep allowing them to, so….

The A’s are still alive and kicking in the wildcard race themselves, but of course they have the toughest road, and they’ll need to do it without Elvis Andrus, who picked up an injury the other day. The A’s are where they are in large part due to their inability to beat Seattle. They’ve dominated the Angels, and played the Astros quite tough, but they’re 4-12 against Seattle. A big part of *that* has been the performance of their bullpen. In this recent stretch of the A’s being a perennial playoff contender, a great bullpen has been a huge key to their success. They’ve never spent a ton of money on it, but between the star turns of Sean Doolittle, Grant Balfour and then Liam Hendriks to the initial success from guys like Lou Trivino or Blake Treinen to the consistency of Yusmeiro Petit, they’ve had depth and quality. But the magic’s mostly gone now.

The A’s bullpen has the lowest K/9 in the American League, and 29th out of 30 in MLB. They’ve turned into a team that plays to its ballpark’s strengths, as they have the lowest GB% in the league, and thus a very low BABIP-allowed. The problem is that they don’t always play in Oakland, and so their approach of “throw it in the zone and allow elevated contact” doesn’t always work – some times, even in Oakland, their closer gives up two HRs in an inning to the Mariners.

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

Tacoma destroyed Round Rock 8-3 last night, getting homers from Jose Marmolejos and Dillon Thomas. Logan Verrett has been one of the rocks of Tacoma’s staff this year, and he was brilliant for 7 IP. Verrett has tossed 106 IP, and while his ERA’s near 5, that’s pretty good in the freakish offensive environment of the AAA-West. It’s a bullpen day today in Round Rock in the final road game of the year. As Mike Curto notes, they finish off the year with a series against Salt Lake, where Tacoma’s Marmolejos faces off with the Bees’ Michael Stefanic for the AAA-West batting title. Marmo’s got the edge going into tonight .350 to Stefanic’s .346.

* I’ve watched a lot of chess during the pandemic.

Game 155, Mariners at Angels – Scoreboard Watching

marc w · September 25, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Tyler Anderson vs. Jaime Barria, 6:07pm

After yet another 1-run win and another great bullpen performance from Paul Sewald, the M’s gained more ground on the wild card leaders, the Red Sox. The surging Yankees are, of course, a problem, but the gap between the M’s and the top teams is going down. A late grand slam from Giancarlo Stanton today opens the door yet again – the gap’s currently only 2.5 games, and the M’s are tied with Toronto, who’s currently playing Minnesota. It’s still an incredibly tall ask, which is why even after a 6-game winning streak, the M’s odds are just 6.5%.

Yesterday’s game always felt like it’d go to the late innings, which is another way of saying that it felt like the M’s would find a way to win. Despite the bullpen giving the Angels some openings, Sewald, Steckenrider, and Sadler were up to the job. Part of that has been their willingness to simply walk Shohei Ohtani and not risk the big play.

So with the M’s still alive and with Yusei Kikuchi struggling, there’s been a lot of talk about turning Kikuchi’s next start over to SP prospect Matt Brash. Brash, my pitcher of the year in AA Arkansas, probably is the most big-league ready prospect the M’s have, and certainly the healthiest. It’s still a risk, as Brash doesn’t have the pinpoint control of someone like George Kirby, and, critically, he’d have to adjust to a brand new baseball: while AAA uses the MLB ball, AA does not. That may be one of the reasons that the M’s yesterday promoted Brash, whose season was already over, up to AAA Tacoma, who’s still playing.

So, give him some time to get familiar with the MLB ball in practice, maybe toss an inning or two in a game, and then promote him? Nothing’s that easy in baseball these days. Just this week, AAA has made *yet another adjustment* to the baseball. As Baseball America, CBS Sports and others reported, AAA will use a pre-tacked baseball for this week. This is a partial response to the mid-season ban on sticky stuff, and pitchers complaining about the slippery baseballs they could no longer tack up with sunscreen (or other stuff). It’s something the NPB has done for years in Japan, and those balls were used in this year’s Olympics, which were greeted with approval from players in the US minor leagues. It seems like a good change, but it’s still very odd to do with a week or so left in the season, and it adds yet another wrinkle to the M’s decision-making. All else equal, Brash probably gives the M’s a pretty good shot, especially at 3-4 high-energy innings. But all else is NOT equal. I still hope to see it, but I’m not convinced that we should mark 3-4 shutout innings in the scorebook at this point.

Today’s Angels starter, Jaime Barria, is a righty with a four-pitch mix – a four-seam and sinker at 93, a hard slider at 86, and a rare change at 86 as well. He had a solid first season in 2018 with a superficially lovely ERA that was buoyed by sequencing and BABIP luck. That luck went 100% the other direction the following year, when Barria was so bad, he was essentially unplayable. Like so many in 2019, HRs were the primary reason. He returned last year and put together his best campaign, albeit in a tiny sample. He’s been solid this year, but it’s been essentially midway between 2019 and 2020. His K rate is way down, and his walk rate is up, but his HRs are down, and he’s been a bit better than replacement level overall. I think Barria’s better than he’s shown this year, but that’s not really my problem. The Angels continue to struggle with run prevention not because they can’t identify promising pitchers. They’ve had quite a few come up and have some success initially, like Barria did in 2018. What they haven’t been able to do is turn that initial success into lasting production. The M’s have struggled with that at times on the position player front (Shed Long, Dylan Moore, to an extent Tom Murphy), but the Angels seem really star-crossed with young pitchers.

1: Crawford, SS
2: France, 1B
3: Seager, 3b
4: Haniger, RF
5: Kelenic, CF
6: Toro, 2B
7: Torrens, DH
8: Fraley, LF
9: Raleigh, C
SP: Anderson

Tacoma lost to Round Rock 4-3 despite another HR from Jose Marmolejos. They’re back at it now, with Round Rock up early. Recently outrighted SP Kohei Arihara is facing recently outrighted slugger Marmolejos and the R’s. C’mon Tacoma!

Game 154, Mariners at Angels

marc w · September 24, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Logan Gilbert vs. Jose Suarez, 6:35pm

There’s no wrong time to pull off a road sweep of a divisional rival, but that four-gamer in Oakland could not have come at a better time if the M’s could pick before the season started. What I find difficult about this team from an analytic standpoint (I seriously don’t know how to *learn* from what they do, or to make sense of it, really) is exactly why this team is so fun.

The M’s, like most teams, fare poorly at the plate in games they lose, and do much better in games they win. This is…obvious stuff, of course. If you hit better, you can score runs, which give you a chance to win. Okay, so, the M’s have a slash line *in victories* of .250/.330/.444, which, honestly is pretty terrible. Compared to other teams in *their* wins, it’s way, way below average (sOPS+ of 84). In losses, though, they’re hopeless: they hit .190/.266/.311. That’s an OPS well below .600. This makes sense after watching this team – they alternate a ton of comeback 5-4 wins with the odd clunker; like a 12-1 loss to Houston or something.

What yesterday’s win reinforced to me was that this pattern of blowout losses and close-fought wins, while obvious in hindsight, is imperceptible *during* a game (unless it’s 12-0 in the 2nd inning). What I mean is, yesterday’s game had the look of one of those snooze-fest losses. Chris Bassitt was dealing, the A’s got an early lead, responded when the M’s scored a run, and…then everything changed. The M’s bullpen was completely dominant, picking up a gassed Yusei Kikuchi, and the offense become a completely different animal. Cal Raleigh – CAL RALEIGH – who came in with an OPS under .500 and who’s looked utterly lost for a long time, became a legit power threat, and Luis Torrens, who’s been cold, but nowhere near as cold as Raleigh, got the big hit to put the M’s ahead – the only time in Jake Diekman’s career he’s given up 2 HRs in a game. It looked like a blowout loss, and then, suddenly, almost violently, shifted into one of those close, comeback wins.

That earns the M’s yet another most-important-series-of-the-year, this time at an out-of-it Angels club. The story remains the same with the Halos – they simply can’t pitch, and it’s ruined another MVP season. Shohei Ohtani’s season is the kind of thing I will tell my grandkids about, a season that I’m still shocked is actually happening. And it’s all going to be for nought.

Jose Suarez has always looked intriguing to me, with a very split-like change that mimics his four-seam fastball’s horizontal movement. It’s pretty clearly his best pitch, and one he goes to almost 30% of the time. But all of that good-on-paper stuff didn’t help Suarez in 2019-2020, when he threw 83 IP of well below replacement level slop at the AL. This year, though, something appears to have clicked a bit. He’s got more velo by a tick or two, and that probably helps. But he’s also getting more ground balls, which is great, given that HRs was his biggest problem, and the biggest reason for his ugly ERAs and FIPs. He’s still not exactly stingy with long balls, but it’s well within the normal range this season. Lefties (Suarez is a southpaw) will see a lot of high-70s curves and four-seam fastballs with the occasional cambio, while righties get mostly four-seams and change-ups, with the curve sprinkled in, especially as a first-pitch strike-stealer.

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

Tacoma kicked off its series with Round Rock with a heartbreaking late-inning collapse. The Rainiers were up 6-0 (with much of the damage off of Rangers SP prospect Cole Winn) in the 7th, but gave up 1 in the 7th, 3 in the 8th, and 3 in the 9th to lose 7-6. Texas super-prospect Josh Jung homered, and Wyatt Mills allowed the final three runs in the walk-off win for the Express. They’re back at it today, and it’s 1-1 in the early innings. Ryan Weber’s on the mound for Tacoma.

Game 153, Mariners at Athletics

marc w · September 23, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Chris Bassit, 12:00pm

The M’s go for a rare four-game sweep *in Oakland* today, as they try to add to their dominance of the A’s this year. As of right now, the M’s have an 11-4 record against the A’s. In a very real sense, the M’s performance against the A’s and Rays (owners of the AL’s best record) is the reason why they’re in the position of still hunting a wild card here in late September. That’s an odd outcome given that those teams are built on very good pitching.

The M’s struggle against starting pitching. They have an OPS of .698 against starting pitchers, and that includes teams like the Orioles whose starters couldn’t hold down that role for any other team. Their OPS against relievers is, oddly, even worse: it’s jut .667. The thing the M’s have going for them is pressure: they do well in the clutch, and string together solid at-bats, although it seems like they’re equally adept at stringing together crushing strikeouts. However they do it, I still find it fascinating that the M’s – a well below-average hitting team – can not only fight pitching-first teams like the A’s and Rays to a draw, but consistently beat them.

There was a great conversation last night after Corey Brock mentioned that Chris Flexen is now in the top 5 in the AL in ERA. It’s true, as of this morning, he’s 4th! What’s unreal about all of this is that he’s 4th out of a total of 16 qualified starters. As the role of pitching changes, so many of the old ways we think about pitchers – and on what to expect from a starter – have had to change. This has been ably covered by Rob Mains over at BP in a series that’s worth thinking about and wrestling with.

This isn’t really changing; there are fewer than 10 qualified pitchers in AAA-West, and that’s with modified criteria. Teams will need to pay starting pitchers less going forward, and shift payroll costs to an ever-growing number of at least partially fungible relievers. In this odd transitional period, I think it has shown the value in pitchers like Flexen and his opposite number today, Chris Bassitt. Bassitt *just* dropped off of eligibility for qualified starters; he should re-join that group if he pitches a decent number of innings, but he’s making his first start after a 10-day IL stint. If/when that happens, he’ll slot in with the third-best ERA in the league.

Bassitt’s someone who I’ve long been fascinated with, as it’s difficult to see exactly *why* he’s so successful, but after a brilliant/short season in 2020, he’s backed it up with his most valuable season to date in 2021. Avoiding HRs has always been a part of his success, but he’s helped himself with his best K:BB ratio and best K% of his career this year. He’s never been overpowering, and still isn’t: he’s just has six pitches to mix around, and the way each of them moves adds up to a very harmonious arsenal. That makes a bit of sense to me, but it’s still hard to pinpoint *why.* In what way, exactly, does a cutter, change, and four-seam’s movement add up to something that you wouldn’t get just be looking at their movement in isolation? I don’t really know, but that seems like a great research project for fans but also for teams looking to help pitchers with pitch design. Even if the best, say, slider has X or Y movement properties, it may be just as good or better to consider a movement pattern that better plays off of a fastball or cutter.

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

Raleigh’s frigid start and Kelenic’s hot streak has focused more of the concern for fans on the young catcher. Raleigh’s wRC+ is the 3rd lowest out of 95 rookie-eligible hitters, just ahead of ex-M’s C prospect, Alex Jackson.

Speaking of ex-M’s, Jack Mayfield had another big XBH last night for the Angels. He’s still not exactly a great hitter, but his slash line with the Halos is now .209/.274/.429. Ok, yeah, that’s not great, but what it looks like is a low BABIP power hitter’s line. Mayfield look nothing like this when he was (briefly) with the M’s this year. He hit 0 HRs for Seattle or Tacoma, and now has 10 with the Angels and 5 with Salt Lake. It’s a slash line that looks suspiciously Kyle-Seager-in-2021-like. Kyle’s better, of course, with his .216/.292/.454 line. But they’re oddly similar, right down to the atrocious BABIPs (.229 for Mayfield, .226 for Seags). Seager has a better walk rate, too, but I just never imagined that Mayfield’s value would come from power, nor that his line with the Angels would be kind of a dead ringer for Seager’s slash line in late-July. Not sure what that says about either player, or either season.

Game 152, Mariners at Athletics

marc w · September 22, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Chris Flexen vs. Cole Irwin, 6:40pm

The M’s continued their mastery over the A’s last night to pull into a tie for 2nd in the AL West, and for third in the Wild Card standings. The Rays took care of Toronto earlier, so we’ll hope for good news out of New York, and focus on the game at hand here in Oakland.

We’re just at the point in the season – and I think this is *especially* true this year, following the shortened 2020 mini-campaign – where teams are fraying at the edges. The M’s bullpen had been unreal for months, but while still great overall, has shown some signs of slipping. The A’s starting rotation essentially pitched the A’s into playoff position, but has been worse over the past 30 days. The M’s historic “clutch” performance? It’s still there, kind of, but it’s fading, if something as elusive and intangible can “fade.”

But that’s not all bad. It’s time for the M’s to become a good team without resorting to “I don’t know how, but some random player in the midst of a terrible season will hit a game winning HR tonight,” in lieu of a sustainable model. No, we’ve had enough dingers-ex-machina endings, as awesome as they’ve been (again, this has been the most *fun* season in recent memory). So it’s great to see Ty France end the season on a high note, and even better to see Jarred Kelenic put game after game together where he looks like an offensive force.

Kelenic, like Abraham Toro, who had a similar run after coming over, still has below-average exit velo, and that’s a bit of a red flag. He’s not striking out like Evan White or Taylor Trammell, but it’s elevated enough that he’s either got to learn to hit for power (something he’s showing some aptitude for at the moment), or he’s going to have to maintain a very high BABIP in a park that makes that very hard to do. Kelenic’s season-long BABIP is .211, which is just ridiculously low. It took a hot streak to get it over .200, so yeah, he’s been unlucky. But the problem is that the M’s have several hitters whose approach look similar, and who consistently run very low BABIPs: this is Kyle Seager’s big problem.

Seager has never had a full season BABIP over .300, and hasn’t been above .250 since 2018 (.251!). The reason is that, despite hitting fewer ground balls than average, teams know he’ll pull the ones he does hit. Thus, Kyle’s BABIP on grounders is below .200. Well, Kelenic’s BABIP on grounders is way, way worse than Seager’s. It’s not always going to float dangerously close to .100, but it may never be high, exactly.

And that’s why the most helpful sign from Kelenic recently has been the drop in his GB%. Kelenic’s K% is actually up in September compared to August, but his GB:FB ratio went from 1.67 in July to 1.42 in August to just 0.70 in September. Along with that shift has been a decrease in his pull rate and an ability to spray line drives from gap to gap. That’s an approach that can work. That is, in a nutshell, Ty France’s deal. France is having a great year in many ways, and his low K% is one example of why. But he had a more or less average K rate last year, and still put together a solid season at the plate: France’s approach has led to consistently high BABIPs. He’s at .330 for his career, which is pretty much exactly what he’s running now. He’s not fast, he hits more grounders than Kyle, and his pull rate has been high (2020) and medium (2021) and it hasn’t changed much. He doesn’t have incredible exit velo, either. He just consistently hits the ball on a line. That’s something Kelenic has shown flashes of, and it’s one way to turn what’s been a forgettable rookie season into a long, successful career.

A more easily obtainable outcome, and maybe something like an intermediate step for Kelenic, would be to take Chris Taylor’s approach. Taylor has a nearly identical K rate, and similar numbers in terms of exit velo and hard hit rates. Like France, he has a good idea of the strike zone, and lays off of balls (leading to a good walk rate). But Taylor essentially sells out for power. He has less true raw power than Kelenic, I’d guess, but he gets into balls and barrels them up more than France does. Thus, Taylor has a consistently high BABIP as well, even with a lower batting average due to the higher K rate. Are there some red flags there? Yeah, probably, but Taylor’s a very good player who’ll be a sought-after free agent. If Kelenic’s second act is to refine his approach and hit mistakes harder, that’d be pretty good – no need to go from 0-60 in a year.

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

Tacoma lost 8-4 loss to El Paso. Tyler Herb took the loss in his first start up from Arkansas. The R’s start a series at Round Rock on Thursday.

Game 150, Mariners at Athletics

marc w · September 20, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Tyler Anderson vs. Sean Manaea, 6:40pm

Thanks in large part to Jarred Kelenic’s dominant performance in KC, the M’s still have a chance to play meaningful games here in Mid-September. Because they face the A’s, now two games ahead of them, and because the Rays and Jays are playing each other…well, the odds are overwhelmingly against. But it’s fun to look at different scenarios and find *some* path to a wildcard, however remote.

It’s also better to watch these games now that they’re winning them according to the pre-season plan: with good starting pitching and their prospects producing and flashing potential.

In September, Kelenic looks like a completely different player. It’s true that Evan White ended 2020 on a high note in terms of OPS, but his K rate was still alarming; even the hot streak contained a red flag. That’s why it’s great to see Kelenic producing without the contact issues he had in July/August. He’s hitting the ball extremely hard and making contact, a pretty cool combination. Hopefully Cal Raleigh can get it going soon.

With most of the minor league season ending yesterday, I thought we’d take a look at some of the system’s standout performances. Tacoma ends their regular season tonight, but as their late season onslaught resulted in them having the best record in AAA-W, they’ll be in the playoffs starting later this week.

No other teams made it, though Everett’s hot start gave them the best run differential in their league (the M’s stole all of Everett’s run differential luck, I guess), and Modesto had a very good record.

Low-A Modesto:
Position Player of the Year: Noelvi Marte, duh.

The M’s new #2 prospect lived up to high expectations and hit for serious power as a teenager in the full season league. He really went toe to toe with Marco Luciano of the Giants, a top-10-in-baseball type of prospect, and fully earned a promotion to Everett. 17 HRs by a teenager in 99 full-season games is impressive, no matter the league context. Sure, he’s got some whiffs, and there’s talk he may move off SS, but all of those issues are ameliorated by power. He showed that and the ability to not just hang around but succeed in full season ball.

Pitcher of the Year: Sam Carlson
The team’s leader in IP isn’t going to wow anyone with his raw stats, but some times it’s enough to come back and demonstrate health as much as any other tool. I think a lot of us were starting to wonder if he’d ever get to triple digits in innings pitched. He has now, and has a year to build on for next year – a make-or-break campaign.

Pop-up of the Year: CF Corey Rosier, a 2021 pick out of UNC-Greensboro hit .390/.461/.585 in 118 ABs.

High-A Everett:
Position Player of the Year: I mean, it’s Julio Rodriguez, but we’ll save him for AA and go with Cade Marlowe. The center fielder out of West Georgia put up a .911 OPS in high-A, and hit a total of 26 HRs and a system-best 108 RBIs in just 105 games. Yes, it helps having Julio on base in front of you, but this was an eye-opening season in terms of run production. He even stole 23 bags. There are serious swing-and-miss issues, but when you hit 60 XBH and drive in over 100, I’ll let it slide.

Pitcher of the Year: George Kirby
He only made 9 starts at the level, but he made them count, and edges out Levi Stoudt. Before the year, this was seen as an absolutely loaded rotation, and that was more or less borne out by their actual results, but we still had some surprises. Juan Then struggled, while Matt Brash dominated. And in the middle of it all was George Kirby, refining that great control and missing bats. He didn’t have the raw whiffs of Brash, but he only walked 8 at Everett and gave up a single dinger across both of his MiLB stops. He was expected to be too good for this level, and that’s exactly what he was.

Pop-up of the Year: Ben Onyshko
Onyshko’s a reliever from Alberta, and like fellow eastern-European-named Albertan Adam Macko, Onyshko misses bats. His numbers at Everett aren’t great overall, but anyone with a season line of 75 Ks in 46 2/3 IP between high-A and AAA gets some attention. His walk rate wasn’t great, but also not terrible. Instead, he was undone by sequencing and dingers, though again, three of those came in the video-game-baseball of AAA-West.

AA Arkansas:

Position Player of the Year: Julio Rodriguez
Again with the easy answers. Julio got off to a great start in Everett, and then headed off to the Olympics to play for the Dominican Republic. Upon his return, his forced his way to AA and just like Brash, he kicked it into another gear. Still just 20, Rodriguez hit .362/.461/.546 in AA in 174 ABs, and stole 21 bags on the year between High-A and AA. This is the M’s #1 prospect, and one of the absolute elite in the game, and he had a season to remember. Whatever goals, whatever numbers you would’ve wanted him to hit, he flew past them. He even cut his K% moving up to AA. I dunno, man. He looks like the real deal.

Pitcher of the Year: Matt Brash
The least heralded of Everett’s opening day rotation, Brash forced his way to Arkansas by running right with Kirby in his dominance of high-A hitters. But what happened after his promotion makes this the easiest call of the entire series. Brash got *better*, striking out 80 in 55 utterly dominant AA innings, yielding just 32 hits. It was all highlighted by his 6 no-hit innings in a combined no-no and a string where he had double-digit Ks in three straight games. The highlights looked fake – a slider bending comically, a bit like Tanner Houck’s. A two-seamer swerving violently arm-side. It was all enough for Jerry Dipoto to publicly mull promoting him to the M’s bullpen in September. As it is, he’s re-ordering the M’s pitching-rich top prospect lists and looks set to debut in the majors next year after some seasoning in Tacoma.

Pop-up of the Year:
Ray Kerr, an undrafted free agent signing by the M’s back in 2017 out of a California JuCo hit 100 MPH and blew away AA as a great closer prospect. Between AA and AAA, he struck out 55 batters in 35 2/3 IP, yielding just 21 hits. He’s been in the system for years, and was Modesto’s closer for part of 2019, so this may be stretching the definition of a pop-up guy, but while we’d heard rumors of added velo, this was the first time we’d seen the lefty simply blow away opposing batters, and he did it in the high minors.

AAA Tacoma
Position Player of the Year: Jose Marmolejos
He was DFA’d twice, and didn’t do that well in Seattle, but what do you want me to say about a guy who hit .360/.452/.700 in AAA? The team caught fire after a so-so start, and Marmolejos was in the middle of most of that, with 72 games played as of now (he’s back with them). 91 hits and 177 total bases in 72 games… the mind reels. He’s not a real prospect at this point, but then, Tacoma’s roster’s is full of these guys. Marmo was just the absolute best of them. I’m tempted to give the nod to Taylor Trammell, but it wouldn’t be right. This was Marmo’s masterpiece.

Pitcher of the Year: Darren McCaughan
Tacoma used over 50 pitchers this year. They had entire waves of newcomers signed and veterans released. They had a shuttle between low-A Modesto and Tacoma. There was zero continuity, but a few guys stood up and ate innings in the worst possible pitching environment: the 2021 AAA-West. Darren McCaughan started in AA, but ended up with the most IP on Tacoma, and pitched as well as anyone could expect, going 5-4 with a 4.47 ERA. Only two Tacoma pitchers even qualified for the ERA title. McCaughan obviously pitched well enough to get a big league promotion, and while that went poorly, he’s done everything the org has asked. He doesn’t miss too many bats, and the ball is flying out of high-elevation parks, but he limits walks. It doesn’t sound like I’m selling the guy, but in this environment, all of that is incredibly valuable, and it added up to the regular season championship for Tacoma.

Pop-up of the Year: Kevin Padlo
Padlo was downright bad for the Rays org this year, but since coming to Tacoma, all he’s done is hit .355/.467/.694 in 62 ABs. It’s a tiny sample, but again, the Rainiers were basically an evolving mass of waiver claims throughout the year. This one was positively Marmolejan for a month, and gets the nod. He’s still just 24, too.

OK, back to tonight’s M’s game:
1: Crawford, SS
2: France, 1B
3: Haniger, RF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Torrens, DH
6: Toro, 2B
7: Kelenic, CF
8: Murphy, C
9: Moore, LF
SP: Anderson

Probably Seattle’s best line-up, and I like France and Haniger switching 2nd/3rd. Swap Toro and Torrens, and it’s exactly how I’d draw it up.
Go M’s. At present, the Yankees and Rays are winning, with Toronto behind Tampa.

Game 145, Mariners at Royals

marc w · September 17, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Chris Flexen vs. Jon Heasley, 5:10pm

Jon Heasley? Who the heck is that? Heasley was plucked from AA to make his MLB debut tonight. The probable had been Brady Singer, one of the Royals many young pitchers, and KC’s first round pick in 2018. Heasley was drafted in that same draft, but a few hundred picks later in the 13th round. That 2018 draft was a pitching-heavy one, and it’s been pretty successful just a few years later. In fact, as Rany Jazayerli notes, Heasley will be the *5th* member of the Royals 2018 class to make a start for Kansas City thus far, a new MLB record.

What’s the best class in Mariners history? I mean, the easy answer is that it’s A-Rod and/or Ken Griffey Jr., and you don’t particularly care who else they drafted.* I mean, that’s true, right? It means a lot more to get a singular, game-changing talent who stars for your team than the *likely* contributions of Jon Heasley and Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic, etc. Still, this is a very good sign for their player development, an area in which that org repeatedly and ruthlessly shot themselves in the foot for the best part of a decade from 2000-2010.

The M’s playoff odds are….low, at this point. The A’s win puts them ahead of the M’s at the moment, and pushes the M’s fangraphs odds below 1%. That hasn’t stopped the M’s from playing incredibly hard, and with a series against a weaker opponent, the M’s can jump back into this race. The problem is that they have to hope a whole bunch of other things happen, and that’s getting increasingly unlikely.

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

The playoff odds are better for Tacoma, who can clinch a spot *tonight* if Sugarland and Reno both lose and Tacoma wins.

* If you care about quantity over transcendent quality, it’s probably 2009, with Ackley and, more importanly, Kyle Seager. Taijuan Walker and James Paxton was a pretty good two-fer the next year, but we’re a long ways from either 5 MLB starting pitchers or the kind of value that A-Rod put up at his peak.

Game 146, Red Sox at Mariners

marc w · September 15, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Tanner Houck, 1:10pm

Another day, another critical game in the M’s wild card pursuit. The matinee features the M’s opening day starter, who’s been sharp in the second half, but is coming off of a couple of mediocre starts against the toothless Diamondbacks. His re-emergence has been huge for the M’s, who have desperately needed the good version of Marco all year. His FIP is now nearly 1.4 runs above his ERA, so he’s still yielding too many walks and HRs, but it’s impressive that he’s managed to get his ERA back down to where it always seems to be – right around 4. That’s not an ace, but any semblance of dependability is very worthwhile right now.

Opposing him is Tanner Houck, a right-handed Chris Sale clone whom the Sox drafted in the first round in 2017. He struck out a few, but wildness and BABIP issues meant that his raw numbers never looked all that great in the minors. Happily for the Red Sox, he’s been much, much better in MLB, striking out a ton (29% K rate between 2020 and 2021) and getting his walks under control. He’s got Sale’s low 3/4 delivery, and thus gets the same kind of sink on his fastballs (he throws both a four-seam and sinker). He also throws a slider and splitter that’s helped him keep left handed bats honest.

He doesn’t have huge platoon splits, but clearly lefties have an advantage over righties, who are really struggling against him (despite a high BABIP). We’ve seen that the Red Sox defense is rough around the edges, so with Houck’s BABIP history and the general immovable-slugger vibe of Schwarber + Renfroe, the M’s need to put the ball in play and see what happens. The other plus is that Houck’s still not working deep into games as the Red Sox manage his innings. He’s gone 5 innings three times this year, and has lots of 3+ and 4+ IP mini-starts, so hey, even if he’s nails today, the M’s can wait it out and try their luck with the Sox bullpen.

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

Game 145, Red Sox at Mariners – Baseball as Comedy

marc w · September 14, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Tyler Anderson vs. Nathan Eovaldi, 7:10pm

The Mariners have a team OBP of .301, and thus have a real chance to have a sub-.300 OBP and be in the thick of a playoff chase. This is the fundemantal incongruity that we’ve all been dealing with for the past 5 months. We can worry about the future, we can lament the loss of a key free agent pick-up on the M’s playoff odds, we can wonder what to make of Jarred Kelenic’s struggles, or we can laugh and clap. It’s time to laugh and clap. The M’s are not a great baseball team. They don’t really look like a *good* baseball team most of the time, and that’s the reason why they’re in historical territory for wins above their expected (ie. pythagorean or BaseRuns) winning percentage. Why is this so compelling?

Aristotle defined comedy “as an imitation of men worse than the average,” and if that isn’t nearly too on-the-nose to abandon this entire analogy, I don’t know what is. Last night’s game was tied in the late innings, and the first two M’s batters made outs. Up to the plate strode Jake Bauers, decidedly worse than the average hitter or MLB-caliber ball player. He slapped an easy grounder to first, but Kyle Schwarber booted it, and the inning rolled along. Not long after, Mitch Haniger hit a 3R-HR that won the game. The M’s beat their wild card rival, and moved to 12 games over .500, and a big part of that hinged on *Jake Bauers* who has a career 81 wRC+ and a 64 this year, rolled over a grounder, and it worked. For some of last night, the M’s had a line-up without a single .800 OPS hitter, until Mitch Haniger’s 4-4 night pushed him over. The M’s may end the year with a sub-.300 OBP. The story – THE story – of 2021 is Jake Bauers hitting an easy ground ball to 1B over and over and somehow reaching base.

This is, I think objectively, hilarious. What we’re seeing here is subversion: we see the set-up, we see some initial results that illustrate important things about that set-up, and then something random happens and the M’s win. Sports, with their combination of true talent levels and just the right amount of variance, kick off so many pat narratives because both components: evaluating true talent and randomness provided by variance – lend themselves to them. Think of all of the easy stories we had going into this year. They started before the year with the evil and miserly team President bragging of service time manipulation. You had the story of the next wave of talent trying to break through. You had the Wisconsin WonderBoy calling out the Org and the destroying AAA for a week or two. You had Jerry Dipoto’s vaunted rotation and his repeated predictions of a big “step forward.”

So much of those easy (but potentially compelling!) stories have just blown up. None of it’s gone according to those scripts. FINALLY freed from service time manipulation, Jarred Kelenic didn’t carry the M’s – he’s been terrible. The M’s young rotation didn’t rise to the occasion, they showed themselves as, uh, “men worse than the average.” So is the easy narrative that Dipoto’s bluster and spin failed and he was taught some sort of lesson? No! The team is 12 games over .500 and he got a promotion and contract extension! Why? Because Jake Bauers keeps hitting ground balls that get booted.

This sounds like an easy farce, something that almost mocks sports. By essentially eliminating the true talent part and running a season on 100% variance, they’re replacing the outsized efforts and talents of the Blue Jays or Yankees and their stacked rosters with the fart jokes that are Jake Bauers ground balls and that week where Luis Torrens only hit clutch homers. This seems like 5 months of a Mr. Bean video or a direct-to-video “American Pie” sequel.

But it’s not. The subversion goes beyond that. In the Rob Arthur BP piece I linked above, he notes that this kind of divergence between expected and actual record is increasing in recent years. Thus, this surrealist comedy involving whole swaths of a line-up below the Mendoza line could actually teach us something. Is it the shift in total innings towards (more volatile) relief pitchers that keeps allowing the M’s to Jake Bauers their way to “underserved” wins? Is it the over-the-top run suppression going on at T-Mobile (the inability of the M’s to hit at home is like a bit the M’s keep going back to, or a leitmotif if you’re a fancy intellectual) that keep more games (that would’ve been out of reach had true talent been allowed to express itself) within striking/variance distance? Is this knowable/resolvable?

I’m not really sure, but I *am* enjoying the fact that essentially everyone’s priors, everyone’s expected stories of this season have been dashed. I didn’t think the M’s would be good, but here they are in a wild card chase – and not one borne of a season in which 83 wins would get you to the playoffs. The optimists expected Kelenic/Raleigh/Sheffield to step up and dominate. Dipoto and Servais thought the rotation would keep them in a lot of ballgames and give their offense a chance. Everyone thought that talent would win out, but we all disagreed on where we might find it. Instead, this season has essentially shown us what success looks like in its absence, a kind of success in negative space or those double images of a rabbit and a duck. None of this is very predictive, and it may not last until the end of the season, let alone the next one. But I think that just heightens the comedy and entertainment value of this season. This is pure, absurdist genius, and the fact that it has no real author makes it one of the most compelling things I can recall. The M’s history has had so much tragedy and so much losing. I never really imagined they could weave that right into a successful season, but here we are. I’m laughing just thinking about it.

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

Bauers DHing. Perfect.

Yes, Jake Fraley’s back from his rehab stint. Sadly, his return necessitated the DFA’ing of Jose Marmolejos.

Tacoma’s back in action against Sacramento to close out their series.
Arkansas faces Wichita tonight and former Jays/Mets prospect and current Twins prospect, Simeon Woods-Richardson.
Everett’s Taylor Dollard is on the hill vs. Spokane.
Modesto finally gets back to action after their Covid outbreak, and they’ll face Stockton.

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