Game 103, Mariners at Twins

marc w · July 30, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

JA Happ vs. Phil Hughes, 5:10pm

The M’s faced Hughes early on this year, and I talked about how Hughes – the consummate tinkerer – might want to stop adjusting things if he wanted a repeat of his excellent 2014 season. This being Hughes, that simply hasn’t worked. He’s dropped his arm angle. He’s changed his pitch mix substantially this year…TWICE. In the early going, he was throwing nothing but fastballs and hard cutters. Now, the curve ball that was a big part of his arsenal last year is back in a big way. He’s still giving up essentially no walks, as he’s followed up last year’s 1.9% BB% with a 2.1% this year. But the home run problems that bedeviled his tenure with the Yankees are back, and thus his FIP is sky-high. His K rate has also dropped dramatically, from nearly 22% last season to just under 14% now. The Twins have shocked the baseball world for much of 2015, and they still have a decent lead over the suddenly-all-in Blue Jays and Orioles for a wild card. But Hughes isn’t a big part of the reason why.

In fact, it can be a bit difficult to assign credit for the 52-48 record the Twins are sporting. By FIP, the Twins pitchers rank 25th in baseball. Their batters have been better, however, ranking way up at…24th? The Twins are solidly below average at pitching, hitting and fielding. What they HAVE been good at is sequencing. By base runs, they “should be” 11 games under .500.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, RF
4: Smith, LF
5: Trumbo, 1B
6: Gutierrez, DH
7: Miller, SS
8: Taylor, 2B
9: Zunino, C
SP: Happ

DJ Peterson picked up a pair of singles in his first AAA game, a 5-1 win at El Paso. Ruggiano and Montero homered for Tacoma; Montero has been red hot since his demotion, and he’ll head north to take Dustin Ackley’s spot on the 25-man roster. Forrest Snow tries to tame the unruly Chihuahuas tonight in El Paso.

The End of the Ackley Era

marc w · July 30, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

The Mariners announced their line-up today in their series-opener against the Twins. Dustin Ackley was slated to bat 6th and start in LF. Some time after that went public, Jack Curry of the YES Network in New York broke the news that Ackley had been traded to the Yankees instead. In exchange, the M’s get two players who’ve had cups of coffee in the Bronx, but spent much of 2015 in AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barre: OF Ramon Flores and RP Jose Ramirez.

Of the two, Ramirez has been the most highly regarded. He’s a righty reliever with very good pure stuff, headlined by a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and touches 97-98. In the low minors, he was a fairly successful starter, but nagging injuries and the allure of closer-level stuff led to a role change. Since then (between the 2012 and 2013 seasons), Ramirez’s control has become a serious problem. Never a command pitcher, Ramirez’s walk rate has been above 10% since his first taste of AAA, back in 2015. To make matters worse, he’s yielding a very high BABIP. Ultimately, he became the perfect change of scenery candidate – whatever happened in 2013, the Yankees weren’t able to find it and correct it. He’d dropped out of the Yankees’ top 10 prospect lists at BA and MLB this year after peaking at #2 before the 2013 season.

Flores is a corner OF without much power, and a guy who’s been orbiting around the edge of the Yankees’ top 20 prospects for several years. Still just 23, Flores has shown advanced plate judgment for a while, and that’s obviously something the M’s have lacked. In his age-20 season, he put up a .370 OBP and 126 wRC+ in the pitching-friendly Florida State League, and putting him safely inside the Yankees top 20. Since then, though, the hoped-for power simply hasn’t materialized, and he’s seen as a tweener or 4th OF by many. He got 12 games this season with the Yankees, and while he maintained very good contact skills, he never walked as pitchers were content to throw him strikes and watch him make weak contact. The plate discipline is great, and the contact+walks template is pleasingly distinct from the “right handed power” fixation the M’s had developed. But a corner OF without pop or a whole lot of usable speed is tough to make work. Clearly, the Yanks were able to do it with Brett Gardner, a player whose own MiLB stats were worse than Flores’, but the M’s haven’t fared a whole lot better with players like this than they have with bat-first sluggers.

All in all, it’s not exactly a prospect haul, but what could the M’s expect? Ackley, for all his promise, had played his way out of a job, and commonly sat on the bench while Seth Smith started in LF. Always a streaky player, another of his confounding bad streaks sucked up a few critical months, and tanked his already-low value. As with Flores, Ackley had become a corner OF without power – a skillset that works only with the kind of elite plate discipline and ability to barrel up a variety of pitches that Ackley was *supposed* to have. He showed it briefly in the minors, and then showed it in his first call-up in 2011, but it was gone for good by 2012. Coming through the minors, Ackley displayed a very keen eye for the strike zone, racking up walks even while his slugging percentage (and average) were frustratingly low. After bottoming out in 2013, Ackley appears to have traded a bit of patience for increased power. His ISO is up substantially since that nadir, and a .150 or so ISO would be fantastic if Ackley could consistently hit .300. Coming out of UNC, Ackley’s pure bat-to-ball ability made a .300 average sound like his big league floor. Oops.

We’ll never know if the multiple position changes had anything to do with his stagnation. In college, he’d played CF, but after TJ surgery spent his junior year at 1B. After drafting him, the M’s had him play the Arizona Fall League as a CF, but almost immediately changed their minds and moved him to 2B by the time he hit the affiliated minors. After playing the position in the majors reasonably effectively, the M’s again moved him back to CF during a stint in AAA Tacoma, and then called him up to play center in 2013. Later that year, they decided he might benefit from a move back down the defensive spectrum, and thus they settled on LF. There’s certainly no clear link between his position and his batting line. You can argue he’s been walking less and hitting the ball harder (albeit less often) since moving to LF, but the move off of the IF (or CF) hasn’t made him a better hitter overall.

The flashes we’ve seen of the “old” (hoped-for?) Ackley fade by the time anyone’s analyzed what he was doing. There was the bizarre batting stance of 2013, an experiment he ended after a disastrous start. He focused more on his mental approach in 2014, but the swing was always in flux. That’s not a criticism – pitchers are seen as intelligent and crafty if they’re always tinkering, and hitters are constantly told to make adjustments. Well, he’s done plenty of that. He’ll now have the freedom to make a critical adjustment he was never able to make here: the ability to work without sky-high expectations. Without being labeled a bust, or compared to others from his draft class (OMG MIKE TROUT WENT 25th), and without being saddled with the burden of saving a franchise that had been mired in mediocrity for years. Enjoy being a complementary player instead some kind of emblem or avatar of a team that couldn’t develop elite talent. Maybe the 15th swing-tweak will be The One. Best of luck to you, Dustin.

Game 102, Diamondbacks at Mariners

marc w · July 29, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Patrick Corbin, 12:40pm

Happy Felix day in the actual day time, everyone.

While the King’s fielding-independent stats are down, he’s still having a remarkable season, and one that FIP may tend to underestimate. His K:BB ratio is a bit worse than it’s been in recent years, but at the same time, his strand rate and ground ball rate continue to rise. The key here, as usual when discussing veteran (as opposed to flamethrowing-rookie) Felix is his change-up. Felix went from throwing curves to lefties to throwing change-ups to lefties, and the platoon issues that cropped up occasionally (like in 2008) vanished. The pitch produced a lot of ground ball contact *and* whiffs, but the key thing was that it generated swings. All of those whiffs and ground-outs helped lower his walk rate, and then his command improved to the point where the pitch type didn’t really matter: he’s never going to have control problems again. In 2014, Felix greatly increased the number of cambios he threw to *righties*, which meant that he was throwing more change-ups in general. As a result, his ground ball rate shot up from 51% to 56%.

Felix can essentially choose his ground ball rate now, as we can see when he’s in a jam. With the bases empty, Felix gets ground balls on 53% of balls in play. Once runners are on, and especially with RISP, his use of the change increases to nearly 40% of all pitches thrown, and his GB% soars to 62%. It’s important to note that his GB rate’s rise this year isn’t solely due to the change-up – Felix is using more curve balls than ever before. Fully 1/5th of his pitches are now curves – a level he’s never been at in the pitch fx era. This is a pitch mix we haven’t seen since April of of 2007.

As usual whenever I choose to write about something, Jeff Sullivan’s beaten me to it and done a better job of it. The wrinkle here isn’t *just* that Felix’s curve is again so good that it gets swings out of the zone and takes in the zone, but that it’s every bit as grounder-heavy as his change. It isn’t swung at as much – which is nice in certain high-leverage situations – and consequently, it’s not put in play as much as the change. But when it IS put into play, it’s remarkably difficult to elevate, and in 2015, Felix is throwing a ton of it with men on base, and particularly to left-handers. It’s a pitch that no one’s managed to drive all year – not only has he not surrendered a home run on it, he hasn’t given up a double. This isn’t to say it always generates bad contact – his batted-ball velocity on curves isn’t elite. But exit speed is only one part of the puzzle: angle matters, too. What Felix’s curve seems to do is trade angle for velo. Collin McHugh, just as an example, has a good curve, and batters have tended to put it in play more slowly than they’ve put Felix’s in play. But because so much of the contact against Felix is on the ground, that contact can’t do much damage. Batters are slugging .307 against McHugh’s this year, while they’re slugging just .096 against Felix’s.

Today’s opponent is Patrick Corbin, once a throw-in prospect from the Angels in the Dan Haren/Joe Saunders deal, he saw his velocity grow and turn from a pitchability lefty potential #5 starter into a solid #3. Of course, that was before Ulnar, God of Elbows paid a visit to him in 2013, and thus Corbin is only just returning to the big leagues this month. So far, he’s looked good – his velocity is actually up a tick compared to 2013, and he’s still getting very good run on his fastball. He’s got a so-so change-up that moves just like his sinker but comes in 10mph slower, but his best pitch is a good slider with two-plane break. Because of its downward movement, he’s comfortable using it to righties as well as lefties, and both have struggled against it. Thanks to the slider, Corbin’s o-swing% has been well above average, and it’s touching 40% in his first 22 IP back this year.

He throws both a four- and two-seam fastball, preferring to target the top of the zone with the former, while moving the latter around. The slider is thrown down and away to lefties and low and in to righties – that is, it’s thrown to the same spot no matter who’s batting. He’s got good command, but for whatever reason, he’s given up a fair number of home runs already in his four starts. Part of this may be due to throwing more four-seamers this year, but he’s actually given up more off the sinker. Perhaps it’s rust after the long layoff, but the M’s should be somewhat aggressive – he’s been prone to mistakes with his fastball, and the M’s need to capitalize.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, RF
4: Gutierrez, LF
5: Trumbo, DH
6: Miller, 2B
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
SP: El Rey

The M’s promoted DJ Peterson to Tacoma this morning; an interesting move given Peterson’s struggles at the plate this year. Maybe a change in environment will do him some good.

Game 101, Diamondbacks at Mariners

marc w · July 28, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Zack Godley, 7:10pm

So, yeah, not every game can end with a Gutierrez walk-off, and the M’s overtaxed bullpen is clearly struggling at this point. My heart still flutters when Carson Smith trots in from the bullpen; I’m not too worried about his mini-slump, but I would like to see the M’s play some easy games and not have Smith rack up tons of stressful innings.

I’m going to be honest: I’ve talked my share of s$#% about the Diamondbacks front office and their odd approach to player development. This is the team that seemingly gave up on their 2014 first-rounder Touki Toussaint, the team that insisted for a month or two that Yasmany Tomas was a 3rd baseman before moving him to the OF, and then insisted that Peter O’Brien was a catcher before quickly giving up and moving him to the OF where he could be blocked by Tomas. The return when they traded a veteran starting catcher seemed light – a Dominican phenom named Jeferson Mejia who was pitching well, but in the complex league, and a minor-league reliever who had good K numbers but was old for his league… some guy named Zack Godley.

As soon as he got to the D-Backs, they converted Godley to a starter and the results have been fairly remarkable. He maintained a lot of swing-and-miss but was easily able to work deep into games and flashed good control with ground-ball tendencies. Godley never sniffed the top 20 in a loaded Cubs system, but he was an afterthought in the D-Backs…less loaded system, too. No one seemed to know who he was when the D-Backs called him up to fill in for an injured Chase Anderson. He’s spent most of the 2015 season pitching for Visalia in the California league, where he faced the M’s affiliate Bakersfield twice. Less than a month ago, we talked about him briefly when he made his AA debut against Jackson – he went 5 shutout innings in that contest, striking out 2. It’s not that Arizona doesn’t have other options. Highly-touted prospect Aaron Blair is in AAA, and while he’s not exactly excelling, he’s seen a lot more of the high-minors than Godley. They could try out Allen Webster again, just as they did earlier in the year – he’s a known-quantity, on the 40-man and in AAA, though it’s worth noting that he’s been an absolute mess for Reno. The D-Backs instead called upon Godley, someone pretty much only they knew about, and he responded by throwing 6 shutout innings in his big league debut.

So what does Godley throw? It can be a bit tough to find information when Brooks is down and we’re talking about a guy who seemed like an org lifer 5 months ago, but here’s what we’ve got. Godley has 2 to 3 different fastballs, all thrown from 90-93. Gameday shows him with a sinker, a four-seamer and a cutter, and I think that’s probably true, though Gameday isn’t quite sure where the boundary between the pitches lies. I think he’s got an arrow-straight four-seam without much vertical rise, and the cutter has almost the same movement, but a touch more sink – that said, the difference is so slight that if Godley says they’re all cutters (or four-seamers), that’s fine by me. The sinker’s clearly distinct, and while it doesn’t have a ton of run, it’s a fairly text-book sinker and should get some grounders.

He should also get plenty of groundouts with his change-up – a pitch that almost looks like a splitter. It often comes in with very little horizontal movement and breaks sharply down, wherein it confuses the Gameday algorithm *again* by looking suspiciously like his curve. So much of what Godley throws breaks in a very narrow band around 0, and everything’s either 80-82 or 90-92. It’s somewhat odd, and I wonder how much of it is just pitch fx effects and not “real” – I guess we’ll find out tonight. Still, with what LOOKS like an interesting change-up, Godley seems both a bit odd and someone who shouldn’t have huge platoon issues. I have no idea what kind of report the M’s hitters got on him, and it’ll be fun to see how they approach their task.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, DH
4: Cano, 2B
5: Smith, RF
6: Trumbo, 1B
7: Miller, SS
8: Zunino, C
9: Ackley, LF
SP: Iwakuma

Tacoma heads to El Paso to take on the Chihuahuas tonight; Chien-Ming Wang gets the start for the Rainiers against former Padre and Ranger Daniel McCutchen.

Jackson faces the Biloxi Shuckers and former Angels prospect and Milwaukee Brewer Jonny Hellweg, who’s trying to come back from TJ surgery he had in 2014. South African Dylan Unsworth takes the hill for the Generals.

Bakersfield begins a series with ex-M’s affiliate High Desert tonight. Scott DeCecco, recently sent down from AA, starts versus Richelson Pena.

Clinton heads home to host Cedar Rapids, and Lukas Schiraldi will share the mound with 80s prep-school movie villain Keaton Steele.

Everett had a day-game today to finish off their series with Vancouver, and the AquaSox came away with an 8-5 win. While starter Andrew Moore pitched fairly well, the game was notable because Moore finally walked a batter – his first on the year, bringing his K:BB ratio down from infinity to a mere 27:1. Anthony Misiewicz, an 18th rounder out of Michigan State, followed Moore and again delivered a whiff-filled performance, going 4 IP and striking out 6 without a walk. In his last two appearances, he’s thrown 8 innings, given up no runs on 2 hits and 1 walk, and K’d 13.

Uniquely Great

marc w · July 27, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

I:
As a baseball-obsessed kid, I used to look at the career and peak numbers of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Frank Robinson, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and wonder what it must’ve been like to watch them play. I always assumed it’d be obvious – that you could tell which one was the all-time great from the moment he jogged out from the dugout. Maybe he’d subtly glow, like a nimbate icon or a video game character. Failing that, I was sure you’d see it in their play. Every out would be lined right at someone. Every routine play would demonstrate freakish athleticism and the smoothness borne of instinct and hours of practice.

I thought about Mays and Ruth, and then I watched/listened to the Mariners of the 1980s. It seems like more of a juxtaposition now than it felt like at the time. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t see any obvious hall of famers when I headed to the Kingdome – it’s that I saw them *everywhere.* Mickey Brantley hit .300 in 90+ games in 1987. All he needed to do was keep it up, and boom, Hall of Fame. Phil Bradley had the look of a Hall of Famer, too. Alvin Davis and Mark Langston were obvious HOFs-in-waiting. What was frustrating wasn’t that the M’s couldn’t build a great team, but that the M’s had assembled all of this greatness and couldn’t quite out gun their rivals. This was understandable, given that every road trip was a walk down multiple muderer’s rows. The Blue Jays had Jorge Bell, Jesse Barfield and Lloyd Moseby 4-5-6 with Tony Fernandez leading off. Kelly Gruber, a potential Hall of Famer, batted *8th*. The Yankees had Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly. The Red Sox had Mike Greenwell, Jim Rice, Wade Boggs and Ellis Burks, and the A’s had Carney Lansford ahead of Canseco and McGwire. We were awash in greatness.

So you’d expect given the standard my youthful brain set for greatness that Randy Johnson, a man who actually seemed to BE larger than life, would seem like the greatest of all. Instead, he seemed like some kind of carnival freak. Johnson’s walk totals were staggering, and for his first few years, they kept going up. Worse, the walks seemed like the natural product of a 6’10″ man hurling a ball with a motion that looked stiff, disjointed and unathletic. Grant Brisbee’s excellent article on RJ includes this description of young RJ’s mechanics: “It wasn’t like watching a pitcher. It was more like watching a gigantic pitcher costume being manipulated by three smaller pitchers inside.” As a kid, I wanted to believe Johnson would put it all together, but then I wanted to believe Manute Bol would turn into a true NBA weapon, too, and I think I gave Bol slightly better odds.

For the first year or so, RJ just didn’t *look* like a Hall of Famer. Erik Hanson had a plus curve and actually knew where it was going. Brian Holman seemed like the safest part of the Langston return, and both he and Hanson were younger. Johnson was the same age as Scott Bankhead, who was what passed for the M’s best starter with Langston gone, and who put together his best year in 1989. RJ took a step forward in 1990, but then again, so did Hanson – Hanson not only looked better in the old-school stats of the day, he actually had a better strikeout rate than Johnson that year. In 1991, Johnson’s stuff had developed to the point where he was reliably getting strikeouts, but his walk rate wasn’t improving – it was getting worse. RJ walked 152 batters that year, good for a walk rate of 17% and by far the most in baseball. Sure, Nolan Ryan had walked over 200 a year in the 70s, but that’s because he pitched so many innings – on a rate basis, RJ was walking more than Ryan ever had.

At the time, the best comparison wasn’t Nolan Ryan, but rather Bobby Witt, a highly-touted fireballer who the Rangers kept nurturing despite two years of walk rates around 20%. But in 1990-92, Witt looked like a control artist in comparison with RJ, and he was a year younger, too. At the time, I thought it was possible that RJ would get eventually fight his control problems to a draw and become someone with average-to-mediocre walk rates. But I thought that any process that would allow RJ to throw strikes would have to sap his bat-missing abilities in the process, and at any rate would come too late to make him any kind of Hall candidate.

II:
In 1996, Johnson suffered a bulging disc in his back, and ultimately had it surgically repaired, putting an end to his first season as the defending Cy Young winner. When he went under the knife, he was a few weeks away from his 32nd birthday. 1997 was Johnson’s best year for the M’s, and the team rode their ace to the AL West title and the first in a series of playoff disappointments. It was thrilling to watch – every game felt like a potential no-hitter. My friend and I were home for the summer, and before we headed back to college (and Europe), we both decided to catch an RJ start. 5 days later, we did it again. Throughout the summer, if we didn’t have to work, we’d grab an OF seat and see the most unique athlete a Seattle team had ever produced. We watched because he was clearly in that “you’ll tell your grandkids about this” class, but also because every game felt like it could be his last. Tommy John surgery was becoming routine back then, though it wasn’t (and still isn’t) a sure thing. Back surgery on nearly 7′ pitchers whose mechanics now looked smoother, but also like they’d put a lot of pressure on the spine? That was terrifying.

If he was healthy, he was always going to be in the conversation as the league’s best pitcher, but how long would a surgically-repaired back hold out? The M’s weren’t so sure, and their unwillingness to give Johnson a long-term contract set off a simmering feud that destroyed any chance of Johnson staying in Seattle after 1998. The off-season between 1997 and 1998 was filled with rumors about potential trade partners and rumors, with both New York clubs interested (Mariano Rivera was part of a rumored Yankee return at one point). Johnson was never good with the press, and a string of un-Randy like results in 1998 meant that much of Seattle wasn’t *too* upset about losing their ace. 9 months of debating about returns meant that most M’s fans (and I sheepishly include myself here) wanted to maximize the return and move on – you have to get SOMEthing for him, and in any event, the team was building around A-Rod and a still-only-28 year old Ken Griffey, Jr.

Freed from a team whose management he despised, RJ became the best deadline acquisition of all-time, helping the Houston Astros to the playoffs. To a segment of the M’s fanbase, this proved it – he’d been sandbagging it in Seattle, pitching poorly on purpose to force a trade. He’d been amazing, but he wasn’t a team player, and anyway, that spine is a time bomb.

III:
Randy Johnson went into the Hall of Fame as a Diamondback thanks to a mind-blowing first four seasons in the desert. He pitched 1,030 innings from 1999-2002, striking out 1,420 batters along the way. His walk rate had settled down to around 7%, but his stuff was better than ever. He’d been snubbed in Cy Young races before, but won 4 in a row for Arizona, the final one unanimously. In that 2002 season, RJ was 38. There were a lot of odd career arcs around that time, from Omar Vizquel’s development and slow decline (playing over 800 games after the M’s deemed him unable to play in 2004) to Jamie Moyer’s rebirth in Seattle. Still, there’s really never been a pitcher who’s aged like RJ did. A perfect game and a 9.5 WAR campaign at age 40. 5 Cy Young wins and 235 of his 303 wins *after* turning 30.

He was Seattle’s greatest pitcher ever, and for a variety of justifiable reasons, we missed out on the best part of his career. M’s fans got to watch RJ’s remarkable development, and we saw the perennial losers turn into an AL force thanks in part to that development. We watched him come back not just from crippling control problems and then almost-actually-crippling back problems. We watched as he turned his slider from an experiment to one of the best pitches in the game, and we watched as that pitch caused left-handers to take sick days instead of facing him. He became a dominant force, but he never became the real focus of most of the fanbase. There’s no way to overestimate Griffey’s appeal in the 90s, and A-Rod’s emergence came right after Edgar Martinez fashioned himself into one of the best hitters in baseball. That’s an attempt at giving us M’s fans something of a pass, but it’s also a reminder: teams and fans often fail to recognize how non-linear greatness is, and how unique talent like RJ’s can be.

M’s fans always used to wonder how much production they could’ve gotten from Edgar Martinez if someone had simply realized that he was a great hitter before the age of 27. Why would professional scouts watch him pummel the ball in Calgary and focus on his glove, power stroke or whatever the excuse of the day was. More recently, Paul Goldschmidt was killing the ball at every stop in the minors, and no one knew what it meant. No top-100 rankings. Hell, most (very good) prospect writers didn’t include him in the TEAM’S top 10 lists. This happens more than I’d think. RJ’s just the opposite. For as much grief as the M’s get – and they deserve it – for missing Edgar, they should get credit for sticking with RJ. Edgar was one of the best hitters on the planet slamming doubles around a small Alberta stadium, but RJ was just velocity and risk. Velocity earned him a shot, but no one would’ve blamed the M’s in 1992 if they’d decided to make him someone else’s pet project.

RJ’s greatness had a kind of momentum. Once the first light bulb went on for him between 1992 and 1993, it didn’t just make him a better pitcher – it made it more likely that other light bulbs might go on, too. This is essentially the process we’ve watched with Felix, where he’s gone from talented underachiever to consistent dominance by refining, by making adjustments. Baseball is always regressing things to the mean, pulling non-Trout players back toward their career averages after a big year, or sapping power as hitters age. On the population as a whole, this process is continuous and unrelenting. But individuals can get a kind of escape velocity, and RJ managed it. RJ had the longest improvement phase in a career we’ll ever see, and watching him head into Cooperstown takes some of the sting out of the fact that M’s fans missed the peak of one of the most unique great ballplayer ever.

Game 99, Blue Jays at Mariners

marc w · July 26, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Mark Buehrle, 1:10pm

Taijuan Walker’s had a very strange season, with two distinct slumps and a nice month or two of quality starts. This most recent slump covers his last three starts and 15 1/3 IP – three games in which he’s given up 18 runs and 5 HRs in total. The two games with Detroit highlighted his struggles this year with right-handed bats; righties have a slash line of .281/.340/.492 off of Walker with 10 HRs. Walker’s newfound command of his splitter helped him improve against lefties, but he’s all but abandoned his slider/cutter thing, giving him no real breaking ball. When he’s on, it hasn’t mattered a whole lot, but it still seems like a breaking ball he’ll use and has confidence in should be on his off-season to-do list.

Mark Buerhle is as remarkably consistent as Walker is volatile. This year, Buerhle’s walk rate has plunged below 4%, making him even more…Buerhle than ever. He’s missing fewer bats, though of course that’s never been a big part of his game. He’s also getting more ground balls despite using his four-seam fastball more so than he has in recent years. His sequencing and command are still elite, and he’s tweaked how he uses his change slightly. This has made his change a serious ground ball pitch, and pushed his overall GB% near 50% for the first time since 2008.

More notably, of course, today marks Randy Johnson’s official enshrinement in Cooperstown. I’ll have a post on RJ later.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, RF
4: Cano, DH
5: Gutierrez, LF
6: Trumbo, 1B
7: Taylor, 2B
8: Miller, SS
9: Zunino, C
SP: Walker

Buehrle doesn’t have much in the way of platoon splits, but several of the M’s bats do, hence the distinctly right-handed line-up.

I can’t believe Ezequiel Carrera homered. I saw a lot of him in Tacoma in 2010 and thought his swing was the least powerful from a mechanical perspective than any other minor leaguer I’d ever seen. That year he hit 0 HRs for the slugging Rainiers, and posted a SLG% of .315 in the PCL. I know he’s homered in the big leagues before, but I simply couldn’t envision it. Thanks to Rodney, I now can. Carrera now has 4 HRs, one off of Chris Tillman, a very homer-prone starter, but the other 3 have all come off of ex-closers – Rodney, Joaquin Benoit, and Joe Nathan.

Tacoma got a walk-off win over Fresno when Jabari Blash homered in the 9th. The Rainiers struggled against Mark Appel, but mounted a furious comeback, scoring 5 in the 8th to take the lead. But Logan Bawcom gave up 2 runs in the 9th to tie the game at 7-7. Blash led off the 9th with his 5th AAA HR, and that was that. Jordan Pries starts today for Tacoma against Fresno’s Brett Oberholtzer.

Montgomery beat Jackson 11-6 despite DJ Peterson’s 7th HR. Misael Siverio gave up 7 runs in 2 2/3 and Jackson just couldn’t crawl out of that hole. Moises Hernandez gets the start for Jackson today against righty Jaime Schultz, who has 114 Ks (but also 71 walks) in 94 1/3 IP on the year.

Bakersfield beat San Jose 7-4 thanks in part to the red-hot Tyler O’Neill’s 19th homer. Tyler Pike had a recurrence of his control problems, walking 4 and K’ing 1 in 3 2/3 IP, but the Blaze bullpen was great, shutting the Giants out the rest of the way. Brett Ash shares the mound with San Jose’s Chase Johnson today.

Kodi Medeiros and Angel Ventura combined on a 4 hit shutout of Clinton. Medeiros only went 3, striking out 1, but Ventura pitched the final 6 innings with 11 Ks and 2 walks. Gianfranco Wawoe’s double was the only XBH for the Lumberkings. Pat Peterson starts today’s game against Wisconsin.

Spokane destroyed the AquaSox 10-1, with Luke Lanphere tossing 7 shutout innings for the Indians. Luiz Gohara struggled for Everett. Braden Bishop had 2 hits, extending his run at the plate – he had a 10 game hitting streak snapped the day before, and has 15 hits in his last 12 games, but is still slugging just .298.

Game 98, Blue Jays at Mariners

marc w · July 25, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

J.A. Happ vs. Drew Hutchison, 1:10pm

Soooo, Drew Hutchison’s been sick for a while, forcing the Jays to substitute RA Dickey on Thursday and then Marco Estrada yesterday. He’s again listed as the starter today, but after last night, I wouldn’t be shocked if they skipped him again. You can review yesterday’s game thread for info about Hutchison and his frustrating 2015. Today, the M’s attempt to win 3 straight for the first time since late May. I think we need to see a streak here, not because they’ll get back in the race, but because watching the team bounce along at 6-8 games under .500 is the most boring kind of mediocrity. I think we’ve all been burned enough times not to see it as yet another sign that Next Year’s Gonna Be Awesome, but because watching good baseball is fun. Given that we’re going to be watching pointless baseball, we may as well get some aesthetically pleasing pointless baseball.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, RF
4: Cano, 2B
5: Smith, LF
6: Trumbo, DH
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Taylor, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Happ

Every one of the M’s full-season affiliates lost last night. Tacoma got pounded 9-3 by Fresno, as Dan Straily threw 8 shutout innings at the Rainiers. Marcus Littlewood hit 2 HRs for Jackson, but they still lost 5-4 to Montgomery. Dan Altavilla threw 6 quality innings against San Jose, but lost 2-1. Clinton lost to Wisconsin 6-5, bringing the two clubs into a tie for worst MWL record at 32-66. Everett broke ranks by beating Spokane 8-6 thanks to a 6-run 7th inning, and SS Drew Jackson hit his first pro homer.

The game of the day in the minors takes place in Tacoma, as Forrest Snow faces off with Astros prospect and former #1 overall pick Mark Appel. Blessed with easy velocity and the makings of a great breaking ball, Appel’s always seemed like a scouts dream, but he’s been oddly hittable even in college. That pattern’s continued in the pros, and in his brief stint in AAA he’s given up 27 hits and 15 runs in less than 20 innings. Tyler Pike, Luiz Gohara and Misael Siverio also start for the M’s affiliates. Clinton faces a top Brewers prospect in Kodi Medeiros today in the MWL, as well.

Game 97, Blue Jays at Mariners

marc w · July 24, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Drew Hutchison, 7:10pm

Happy Felix Day. I’m sorry I missed the last two games of the Detroit series, if only because Guti’s pinch-hit slam was probably the best moment in this go-nowhere year. Iwakuma matching up with fellow trade-deadline-target David Price wasn’t bad either, if you can get past the volume of missed chances the M’s had.

Today, the M’s welcome the Jays, a team that’s close enough in the wild card chase to be a buyer over the next week. One reason they’re targeting pitching has been the disappointing year from tonight’s starter, Drew Hutchison, who was dominant down the stretch last year. He altered his slider a bit and it turned into a righty-killing strikeout pitch, and helped elevate Hutchison from “promising” to potential star. There were problems, though. His change-up wasn’t terribly effective, and as a result, lefties hit him hard. Like most pitchers in Toronto, he gave up a few too many HRs, and despite a solid K rate, he allowed too many baserunners to score thanks to dreadful numbers from the stretch. He seemed to find a way forward in the second half of 2014, but he had a well-defined list of issues to work on as well.

In 2015, he’s been a different pitcher. Instead of working on his weaknesses, it’s what we thought were his strengths that have failed him. The slider is back to its first-half-of-2014 shape, and righties are now hitting it without a lot of trouble. Worse, they’re also teeing off on his fastball. Some of this is BABIP related, and some of this is the result of a terrible April when his velo was down a tick. I don’t think a bad April can explain away all of the problems, however. One thing he may want to look at is predictability. Hutchison loves to use his fastball up, especially against lefties. He throws his slider to one spot – low and away to righties. That’s a decent spot and all, but he’s thrown it there more than he has thrown it in every part of the strikezone combined. Whatever the reason, the result is that righties are hitting him harder than *lefties* did last year, and his strand rate has only gotten worse. Last year, he seemed like a guy on the cusp of a breakout thanks to an ERA that was well above his FIP. Instead, he’s just pushed that gap wider, as his ERA is now 1.4 runs higher than his FIP.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, RF
4: Cano, 2B
5: Smith, LF
6: Trumbo, DH
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Miller, SS
9: Zunino, C
SP: King. Felix.

Tacoma was crushed 9-2 by the Salt Lake Bees, though the game was notable for the CF debut of Ketel Marte. Marte homered in the game as well, but Chien-Ming Wang was hit hard.
The M’s MWL affiliate got no-hit last night by Peoria. Rehabbing Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia went the first 5, and the Chiefs bullpen kept the Lumberkings hitless.
Edwin Diaz pitched pretty well, notching seven consecutive strikeouts at one point, but his Jackson Generals were shut out by Montgomery. Have I mentioned how dispiriting this year’s been in the minors? Yeah.
Tyler O’Neill hit 2 HRs in his first game back from Pan-Am games duty with Team Canada, and Bakersfield beat San Jose 8-5. Those were O’Neill’s 17th and 18th bombs on the year.
Everett cruised past Spokane 8-1 behind solid pitching from Anthony Misiewicz and Andrew Moore. Misiewicz had 7 Ks in 4 IP, and Moore still hasn’t given up a walk this year in 18 IP. \

Jimmy Gilheeney, Stephen Landazuri, Dan Altavilla, Tyler Herb and good ol’ TBD start for the M’s affiliates today. The game of the day is probably in the Cal League where Altavilla faces off with Giants’ prospect Martin Agosta, who blanked Bakersfield over 8 IP recently.

Hisashi Iwakuma and the Evolving Market

marc w · July 24, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

The M’s are going nowhere in 2015, and they have a few veterans who are free agents at the end of the season. Normally, the M’s would be obvious sellers, and the contending teams would be sending plenty of advance scouts to watch the likes of JA Happ, Austin Jackson and Hisashi Iwakuma. A month or so ago, it seemed like this would be the perfect year for sellers, as the sheer number of teams in contention for the wild cards meant that they’d heavily outweigh the selling teams. But the market appears to have changed, at least for pitchers. Thanks mostly to the disappointing Padres and Reds, selling teams are all selling the same thing.

That’s all well and good, but what about the M’s? Hisashi Iwakuma’s coming off three straight good starts, and Dave correctly ID’d him as a potential deadline bargain. The problem is that age, health and 2015 performance will all conspire to sap his value, and in a crowded market for starting pitching, he may seem more like a lottery ticket than a quality, playoff-ready starter. Here’s a table of on-the-market starters. This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but it’s a quick snapshot of the market for starting pitchers.

Years ROS WAR Age
David Price 0.5 2 30
Jeff Samardzija 0.5 1.6 30
Johnny Cueto 0.5 1.6 29
Cole Hamels 4.5 1.6 31
James Shields 3.5 1.4 34
Mat Latos 0.5 1 28
Yovanni Gallardo 0.5 0.9 29
Andrew Cashner 1.5 0.9 29
Mike Leake 0.5 0.8 28
Hisashi Iwakuma 0.5 0.8 34
Mike Fiers 4.5 0.8 30
Dan Haren 0.5 0.7 35
JA Happ 0.5 0.7 33
Ian Kennedy 0.5 0.6 30

Judging by rest-of-season WAR projections (from ZiPS), Iwakuma is hanging around Dan Haren and Mike Leake, not Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto or even Mat Latos. Now, those WAR projections don’t take Iwakuma’s consistently good BABIP, which has allowed him to post actual runs-allowed at lower rates than FIP would predict. That’s an important thumb on the scale for Iwakuma, but I’d guess the health concerns more than counteract that effect.

If you make some assumptions and squint a bit, you could almost envision a scenario that moves Iwakuma up the ladder a bit. Say the Tigers decide not to move Price, and say Cueto’s “no seriously, I’m perfectly fine” start before the deadline is a disaster (it’ll be at Coors field). Maybe move Hamels/Shields to another category. Maybe a team with a big park is interested in Iwakuma specifically and don’t want, say, Mike Leake. There’s definitely a case to be made that Iwakuma is flat out more talented than a number of the guys with superficially better WAR projections, and that any team worth its salt would rather have Iwakuma start for them than, I don’t know, Dan Haren or Mat Latos. He’d be a very good fit for some team, but there’s no way his value is in Cueto/Samardzija’s class, and Iwakuma’s odds of producing little to no WAR are probably much higher than the other guys, given the recent lat problems and recurring blister issues (which, to be fair, haven’t hampered him much).

The return Scott Kazmir netted the A’s isn’t bad – they got 2 Cal League prospects from the Astros, including one who might be a top 100 prospect next year (albeit on the back half of the list). Kazmir had a very slight edge in ROS WAR, is younger, has excellent numbers this year, and will be a free agent at the end of the year, same as Iwakuma. There’s probably no way that Iwakuma gets the same return. The M’s therefore have something of a painful choice – they can let Iwakuma play out the string in Seattle, meaning he could walk away next year and net them nothing. Or they can move him into a somewhat crowded market for an A-ball player that isn’t as highly touted as the one the A’s picked up. Neither option looks particularly appealing, but to me, and I realize this is somewhat anathema to the stereotypical sabermetric line, the M’s shouldn’t move him. This has been a painful year, and the M’s have earned the ire of a good portion of the fanbase. A lottery ticket is a better return than nothing, but it’s statistically close enough to nothing that it doesn’t provide a definitive answer to this problem.

The M’s should definitely listen to offers, and they should also listen to Iwakuma himself. I’m not really sure what he’d value – the opportunity to play for a winner, or the opportunity to stay in a community he knows and have a bit more control over his future. But the M’s should also think about M’s fans. The dream of a playoff run is over, but we’ve had quite a few seasons recently where coming to a game in late August/early September meant catching a start by Chris Seddon, Anthony Vasquez, or Blake Beavan. The M’s pitching depth is a bit better now thanks to Mike Montgomery, but with Paxton still hurting and Happ on the market as well, the possibility’s clearly there of another bitter ending to a soul-sucking season. Watching Iwakuma throw some meaningless innings against the A’s AAA team in September won’t make that a whole lot better, but getting a so-so return for Iwakuma would feel like another kick at a fanbase that’s already been traumatized. These are the metaphors and similes your 2015 Mariners attract. Happy Felix day, fellow masochist.

Game 94, Mariners at Tigers

marc w · July 21, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Shane Greene, 4:05pm

While the game that really hurt the M’s playoff chances (at least according to Fangraphs – their odds were the last holdouts on our fair ballclub) was the finale of the Yankees series, yesterday’s loss gave the M’s sole possession of last place in the AL. They may not stay there, and because it’s 2015, any of six or seven teams has a real shot to finish the season there, but it’s pretty important now that we’re 10 or so days from the trade deadline. Or at least, it WOULD be, if the M’s had something to sell beyond JA Happ or Logan Morrison.

Shane Greene’s a righty who surprised a lot of people with a very solid season with the Yankees last year. He threw 93-94, got plenty of grounders, and had a good enough slider/cutter combo to run very good K rates. Not bad for a 15th rounder. As a sinker/slider guy, though, lefties were a bit of a concern. To further his development, the Yankees had Greene work on pitching up in the zone, presumably to provide some contrast with his sinkers-at-the-knees approach. He’s done so, and the results have been… wow, thanks a LOT, Yankees. His ground-ball rate has plummeted, and his HR rate has spiked despite moving from Yankee stadium to more spacious Comerica. His FIP is now approaching 5, while his ERA is well over 6 thanks to a terrible time trying to strand runners. It’s been a lost year for Greene, who’s young enough to perhaps re-think the advice he got from a team that was weeks from trading him away.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, DH
4: Cano, 2B
5: Smith, RF
6: Ackley, LF
7: Miller, SS
8: Morrison, 1B
9: Zunino, C
SP: Walker

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