Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Justin Verlander, 10:10am
Not going to spend a long time on this one, as the tarp’s on the field and it may not happen, but the M’s go for a series win today following yesterday’s command performance by James Paxton.
Paxton tossed 103 pitches, 74 of which were fastballs. The heater averaged 97, generated 12 swinging strikes, and essentially gave the Tigers no chance. Paxton’s cutter is really rounding into shape these days. I think that pitch more than any other benefited from Paxton’s lower release point, and now its vertical movement has more separation from his fastball. His curve’s fine, but it almost feels unnecessary at this point. Paxton’s velo and command are just overwhelming teams right now.
Iwakuma’s velo and command are NOT overwhelming right now, but his uptick in his last start was a very encouraging sign. I think everyone’s going to be looking at gameday if this game ends up getting played.
Justin Verlander’s off to a poor start, walking a bunch of people and getting hit harder than he has since 2014. Let’s hope that continues today.
1: Segura, SS
2: Motter, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Gamel, RF
7: Heredia, LF
8: Ruiz, C
9: Dyson, CF
James Paxton vs. Daniel Norris, 4:10pm
It’s been a rough 24 hours. The M’s gave up 19 runs in Comerica as Felix and then Chris Heston and Evan Marshall imploded. The M’s then lost their best hitter thus far, Mitch Haniger, to an apparent oblique injury that he’ll fly back to Seattle tonight to have evaluated. And, worst of all, Felix Hernandez has been placed on the DL with “shoulder tightness” and “dead arm” after tossing a couple of lackluster innings. Felix is the beating heart of the team, or rather, of M’s fandom. At this point, it’s pretty obvious that there are better players on the team, however you want to measure that, and that he hasn’t been among the game’s elite pitchers for a couple of years. But M’s fans are scared right now. Felix has, almost singlehandedly, justified mental energy spent on the M’s. His personality, his approach on the mound, the way he threw himself into Seattle and this region – he was the return on our collective investment.
I have no idea what will come of the inevitable tests on his right shoulder, but I’ve found comfort in the fact that I’ve felt like this before. It was April 18th, 2007. Felix came into that season off of a disappointing 2006 in which his dominating stuff produced less-than-dominating results. HRs and high BABIP led to too many big innings, but we all knew what he was capable of. That April, he showed us. He struck out 13 in 8 utterly dominating shutout innings against Oakland on opening day, and then in what became a defining game for him, he upstaged Daisuke Matsuzaka on his home debut, one-hitting Boston in a CG masterpiece. If you were around the M’s blogosphere then, you remember the feeling. Jeff Sullivan, then at Lookout Landing, was AT that game at Fenway, and all of us were going nuts as we watched Felix ascend the throne and make his nickname (which many other fans began to use pejoratively in 2006) manifest and obvious. And then came the 18th, his next start. It was at home against the Twins, and he looked off immediately. He was getting hit, and then couldn’t find the zone. After two straight walks, the trainers came out, and his day was done after just 1/3 of an inning. Later that night and the next day, we heard why: Felix experienced pain in his right elbow, and was placed on the disabled list. I was certain the TJ surgery was being scheduled. The M’s later said he’d be reevaluated and could come off the DL in May, but it seemed too improbable, and unbelievable from a team that suffered a wave of pitching arm injuries. An entire fan base tensed up for a blow that never came. Felix wasn’t quite Felix the rest of that year, but he was healthy, and made the leap to superstardom soon enough. I’m feeling today a lot of what I felt on April 19th, 2007, and the only thing making it easier is knowing that I was completely wrong the last time I thought the worst about an injury to El Cartelua.
The M’s game in Detroit takes on a very different feel now, and there are already articles discussing a potential rebuild. As we’ve talked about, that’s simply not an option for the M’s. Their core is older and signed to long-term contracts that, while they wouldn’t scare teams off, reduce the potential return. The farm system was raided to bring in the complementary pieces on this club. There’s not much help on the farm right now, as Felix’s rotation spot will be filled for the moment by Chase de Jong. This is the greatest test of the team’s vaunted culture. If they can stay positive and competitive now, then their work on a loose, positive clubhouse enviroment will have been one of the best investments in the club in years. If not, then the old sabermetric notion that wins produce a positive culture much more than a positive culture produces wins will get more supporting evidence.
James Paxton starts today in, what, his third must-win, please-don’t-let-us-down game of the year already? The M’s have loaded a ton of expectations on Paxton’s shoulders, and now they’ll load plenty more as Paxton’s going to have to pitch like an ace all year and hope the patched-together rotation keeps the team afloat. The loss of Haniger may be just as problematic, as the team has plenty of reasonably athletic corner OFs, but none with Haniger’s demonstrated ability at the plate. In the short-medium term, Taylor Motter simply becomes an OF full time. Kyle Seager’s scheduled to be back from his hip issue tomorrow, and thus the infield’s back to full strength. Ben Gamel’s up as the team’s best RF defender now, but Motter can play LF and move Heredia either to spot-starting in CF, or to RF when the M’s face a lefty. Gamel starts today, but we’ll see what the M’s do once Motter’s pushed to the OF.
Daniel Norris is a lefty who’s taken a while to make it in the big leagues. He throws 94, and has a good slider/change-up, but HRs and command problems made his results more mediocre than his talent would indicate. He shook that off last year after spending much of the year in the minors, returning to post a well above-average K rate and K-BB% in 13 starts. Despite the lefty velocity, he doesn’t have strong platoon splits; this isn’t a game where you’d want to get righties in the line-up at all costs. His command seems a bit off again this year, as his K:BB ratio is awful thus far, and he’s throwing more balls on every pitch type. Part of this is that batters are simply swinging less; he’s never been one to get a lot of out-of-zone swings, and this year, batters’ patience has paid off.
1: Segura, SS
2: Heredia, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Motter, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Gamel, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Dyson, CF
SP: Paxton. Save us, Paxton.
The M’s predictably sent Chris Heston and Evan Marshall to AAA, and called up a new long reliever for the third time in a row. Today, it’s Dillon Overton’s turn. Joining him are Ben Gamel, and “Tasty” Chase de Jong, who’ll be slotted into Felix’s rotation spot. In a surprising move, the M’s also purchased the contract of reliever Casey Fien, whom they’d outrighted 2 weeks ago. Steve Cishek may not quite be ready, and Dan Altavilla was sent down less than 10 days ago, so they had fewer options than you’d think, but given that the move required creating a 40-man spot, they could’ve called up anyone in Tacoma. With Mark Lowe/Nick Hagadone struggling, I guess Fien sort of makes sense? I’m still a bit surprised they didn’t simply recall Altavilla. Rule 11(b)(1) prohibits a team from recalling a player within 10 days of being optioned, but there are exceptions. One of them is if another player is DL’d within that 10 day time frame. Felix’s DL trip seems like a tailor-made allowable exception to the rule. Maybe the team simply wants Altavilla to continue working with Tacoma’s coaches. It’s a mess.
Tacoma’s game yesterday was postponed, and they’ve got a travel day today.
Arkansas beat Tulsa 3-2 as Dylan Unsworth K’d 8 in 6 solid innings. Unsworth seemed poised to become the first African-born player in the majors this spring, but today the Pittsburgh Pirates called up SS Gift Ngoepe, another South African. Ngoepe’s a great story, and I’m excited for him – he’s a plus glove at SS, but not much of a hitter. Unsworth can become the second if he continues to pitch well. We’ll see if he can move back up to Tacoma given all of this roster churn. Peter Tago got the save for Arkansas; the righty whom the M’s picked up on waivers this off-season has been solid thus far. Tyler Herb and Colt Hynes face off today.
Modesto lost to IE 7-2, as the 66ers broke open a close game with 4 runs in the 9th. Reggie McClain was solid again for the Nuts, and Ricky Eusebio homered again, but Braden Bishop’s hit streak was snapped with an 0-4 night. Nathan Bannister starts today against Austin Robichaux.
Beloit shut out Clinton yesterday, as Michael Murray and Dakota Chalmers gave the Lumberkings fits. Joe Rizzo continued his hot start with a 2-4 day that actually reduced his batting average to .583. They played again today, and Clinton came back from an early 4-0 deficit and tied Beloit with 2 runs in the 9th, but then watched as the Snappers walked off with a 5-4 win on a, uh, walk-off single by “Pale Imitation Of” Edwin Diaz. Rizzo was a mere 1-4 with a 2B.
King Felix vs. Jordan Zimmermann, 4:10pm
Happy Felix Day!
The M’s take on a Tigers team that’s tied for the lead in the AL Central, and – if the projections are any guide – one of their primary rivals in the hunt for a wild card. They’ll do so with Felix on the mound against Jordan Zimmermann, the former Nat who signed a $110 million deal with Detroit to replace/upgrade the hole in their rotation left by Rick Porcello.
Zimmermann was a low-key star, a pitcher with a fastball that averaged nearly 95 and who racked up at least 3 fWAR in 5 consecutive seasons, and who’d kept his ERA and FIP under 4 while averaging 200 IP for his last 4 years in Washington DC. In his first three outings for Detroit, he tossed nearly 20 innings and didn’t give up a single run. Still, there were some warning signs: Zimmermann’s fastball was down 2 ticks, averaging just 92.4 MPH. And while his walk rate was still better than average, it was higher than his own established level of performance – Zimmermann had kept his walk rate in the vicinity of 5% for years. As the summer wore on, Zimmermann started to feel pain in his neck, and he was DL’d in July after giving up 12 runs in 9+ innings. After returning, he was still not quite the same, giving up another 12 runs in just 2 1/3 IP in 2 disastrous starts. Between bouts of ineffectiveness and trying to work his way back into game shape, he failed to pitch more than 4 IP the rest of the season. The result was a poor overall season line, with K rates far below his established average, higher walk rates, higher HR rates, and lower velocity.
It wasn’t all bad, of course, as he showed flashes of his previous self, and ultimately figured out what was bothering his neck/shoulder (a pinched nerve, apparently). But three starts in to 2017, it’s not like Zimmermann’s back to being the exceptionally steady #2/#3 he was in DC. He’s still walking people, and his K rate is stuck well below average. In DC, Zimmermann’s fastball had slightly less “rise” than most, and was thrown from a 3/4 arm slot. In Detroit, he’s moved his arm slot up, albeit very slightly. This has led to more rise, as more of the spin is back spin as opposed to side spin. There are plenty of reasons why a pitcher might want that, but the results for Zimmermann are a fastball that’s easier than ever to elevate, and one that gets fewer whiffs. In general, a fastball with more vertical movement might be expected to get MORE swinging strikes, but Zimmermann’s ceteris is not very paribus: the significantly lower velocity swamps any effect of more vertical movement (and the movement/arm slot differences are pretty minor).
Zimmermann relies on his fastball quite a bit, and also throws a slider and curve. He’s been toying with a change-up for years, and seems to be throwing more of it this year, but I don’t know if that’s just a fluke or if he has more confidence in it now. He has fairly normal platoon splits – probably a bit on the small side, actually, which is somewhat surprising for a fastball/slider guy. The M’s have their first-choice line-up in there, so hopefully they can get to him early or at the very least run up his pitch count.
1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Motter, 3B
6: Vogelbach, 1B
7: Heredia, LF
8: Zunino, C
9: Dyson, CF
Welcome back, Jean Segura. The debate about how to get Taylor Motter ABs will pick up after Kyle Seager returns from his hip issue, but until then, hey, more Motter. Minor leaguer Jonathan Aro, whom the M’s acquired in the Miley-Carson Smith deal, was suspended 50 games for a positive drug test.
Lots going on in the minors, with more players joining affiliates who started the season in extended ST or on the DL. One such player was the unfortunate starter in Tacoma’s bullpen day in Albuquerque yesterday, Rafael Pineda. Pineda was a 30th round pick back in 2013, and first played in Pulaski, a level of pro ball the M’s did away with not long after. Pineda’s been hurt for a while, but made his first appearance since getting a handful of innings in Bakersfield last year. It didn’t go well. He gave up 5 runs in 2/3 of an inning, and that was essentially that for Tacoma in an 12-8 loss. Mike Freeman had 2 hits in his return to AAA, Tyler O’Neill hit his 3rd HR and also had 2 2Bs, and Boog Powell had 4 hits including 2 2Bs of his own. The R’s and Isotopes were scheduled to play today, but it was rained out.
A day after Andrew Moore’s first not completely successful start (the Travs lost to Cards prospect Jack Flaherty and Springfield 8-1), Max Povse had a nearly identical start in a nearly identical game (this time, the Travs lost to Tulsa 8-1). Not creepy at all! Povse gave up 4 runs to Moore’s 3, so his ERA is now 1.82, while Moore’s is *totally different* at 1.46. Chuck Taylor doubled and tripled in a losing effort. One reliever who pitched in the game for Tulsa was a familiar face – Edward Paredes, now in the Dodger org, who pitched for Tacoma and Everett 10 years ago. He was a decent prospect in the M’s system what seems like a lifetime ago. He’s been in the minors so long, he appears in our ancient “Future Forty” prospect lists (Carlos Triunfel – projected star)! Arksansas looks for revenge tonight with Dylan Unsworth on the hill.
Inland Empire scored 7 runs in the middle innings to pull away from Modesto, 9-4. Rehabbing Angel Luis Valbuena had a 2-R 2B, and Matt Thaiss added 2 2Bs for the 66ers, while Braden Bishop extended his hitting streak to 15 and Ricky Eusebio homered for the Nuts. The two clubs play again tonight; no word on the pitching match-ups.
Clinton completed the org sweep by losing 10-7 to the Beloit Snappers. A furious comeback fell a bit short, as Clinton scored 5 in the 9th, but they needed at least 8. Joe Rizzo, the M’s overslot 2nd rounder last year out of a Virginia HS went 4-5, and is now 5-8 in 2 games. This is an aggressive assignment for the teenager, but it’s a great sign that the org believes he can handle it. Nick Zammarelli, one of Everett’s best hitters last year, played his 2nd game and 1st at 1B – he’s off to a good start as well, going 3-9 with a HR in his first action of 2017. Tim Viehoff takes the mound for the Lumberkings tonight.
No M’s game today, as the club travels to Detroit and a series with the Tigers, but there’s still things to talk about.
1: The biggest news of the day yesterday wasn’t the recall of Dan Vogelbach, another El Motterdor homer, or even Nelson Cruz getting his first HR of the year. Instead, it was the unexpected jettisoning of their starting CF, Leonys Martin.
Martin’s season started with a new swing, a move that only in hindsight makes it reminiscent of Dustin Ackley’s 2013 and not like Mitch Haniger’s 2016. Baseball is about adaptation, but it’s difficult to select for adaptability itself as a skill. We all know that, say, Daniel Murphy’s swing changes turned him into a completely different player, or that Haniger/Motter or doing similar things for the M’s. On the other end of the scale, we’ve got Ackley or Brendan Ryan trying something – anything – to unlock the mystery of hitting at the highest level. Some of these changes work, and some don’t, and I don’t think anyone really knows why. Being coachable doesn’t seem to be enough; Eric Wedge once blamed Ackley’s struggles on too MUCH willingness to change, and Scott Servais clearly thinks Leonys was willing and able to implement changes – but nothing worked.
And it really has been a while since Martin was a competent hitter. Since July 1 of last year, Martin’s batted 390 times. His slash line in that time frame is .220/.252/.294. It’s also been falling throughout that time period. When the Mariners acquired Jarrod Dyson, they had to see this move as a possibility; moving Dyson to CF makes better use of Dyson’s range, and both are left-handed bats. While the move to grab multiple “athletic” outfielders could be framed as a way to help the pitching staff (“three CFs out there!”), it also sets up an implicit competition, in which the M’s could move on from whoever didn’t work out.
You can see the move as a results-trump-culture statement by the front office, and that no amount of personality can make up for 4-6 months of abysmal hitting. That frame gets the coaches off the hook, though. Not only are the coaches the ones supporting and embracing the team’s loose, positive culture, they’re supposed to be the ones using it to drive development and improvement. And Martin may be their highest profile failure. When Martin looked reborn in April-May of 2016, the coaches got a fair amount of credit. It seemed to make sense – new batting coach, plus a reunion with Servais, who’d worked with him in the minors – but I think there’s probably a little too much credit given to coaches when players take off, and too little blame applied when players falter and fail.
Ultimately, I don’t really care about apportioning blame in this situation. I just want the organization to succeed with, say, Dan Vogelbach, or Yovani Gallardo. Martin’s poor start would’ve cost him his job at some point, and if the M’s really thought they couldn’t do any more for him, then DFA’ing now may be everyone’s best interest (particularly as clubs are looking for defensive help in the OF). I hope the M’s understand what went wrong with Martin, and how they can help avoid it in the future.
Many M’s fans lament the 8-man bullpen and argue that the preference for carrying so many arms made Martin’s DFA possible. My bias is that no team needs an 8 man pen, particularly if you have long-relievers you can switch in from AAA, just the way the M’s are doing. I don’t know if this is a lack of faith in a bullpen that’s gotten off to a rocky start, or if it makes them feel more confident given their slightly banged-up rotation, but I think it’s hard to justify logically. That said, the point of a bench is to give the manager something different from his starting line-up, and I have no idea how Leonys Martin, bench bat, was supposed to work. He could be a late-inning defensive replacement! But in LF, where he hasn’t played? Or would he bump Dyson to a corner? What if Dyson’s the superior defender at this point (as I kind of think he is)? Do you bump Mitch Haniger? He’d be a good pinch runner, I suppose, but even cutting the bullpen down by 1 or 2 players doesn’t create space on the bench for THAT specialized a skill.
2: In late November, Sam Miller penned a great article about WAR using Arizona lefty Robbie Ray as an example of how different WAR frameworks saw pitcher skill. By Baseball-Reference RA/9-based WAR, Robbie Ray was a bit below average, harmed by a sky-high BABIP-allowed (which RA/9 WAR included). By Fangraphs’ FIP-based WAR, he was slightly better than average thanks to a really good K rate (which is included in FIP, unlike BABIP). By Baseball Prospectus’ DRA-based WARP, Ray was a minor star with a sub-3 ERA-equivalent. All told, the gap between the three was pretty large, at 2 runs per 9 innings, and a handful of wins above replacement (I can’t see his DRA-based WAR now; DRA was updated this spring, and his DRA changed from 2.90 to 4.33).
Today, I stumbled upon an even bigger discrepancy. A pitcher for the Cardinals in the 1960s named Ray Sadecki had a solid career, logging 2,500 IP and going 135-131 with an ERA and FIP in the high 3’s. He started at 19, though, and things were a little hit and miss early on in his career, but by and large, he settled in fairly quickly, and while he pitched in a low run-scoring era, he doesn’t seem out of the ordinary at all. In 1963, he gave up a number of unearned runs, and the combination of environment, park, and defense meant that by BBREF’s WAR, he was just slightly below replacement level. By Fangraphs’ measure, he was getting the hang of things, and his FIP was far better than his RA/9, so he accounted for a below-average-but-not-bad-at-all 1.2 WAR. By WARP, though, Sadecki was abominable. At a staggering *NINE WINS* below replacement, Sadecki’s normal looking season is by far the worst on record at Baseball Prospectus. I have no idea why; I’d love to see it apportioned out by defense, park, or what have you, but even since seeing it, I’ve been trying to envision what *NINE WINS BELOW REPLACEMENT* would even look like. Murdering a teammate on the field? Collapsed in a heap on the mound, sobbing uncontrollably, while the umpire calls automatic balls for hours on end? The closest I can get is to assume me, right now, starting 32 games in the majors. That might do it.
Not far below Sadecki on the list of worst seasons ever on this questionable but fun leaderboard sits Dave Fleming‘s 1994. Fleming was an unheralded lefty who threw in the mid-80s and who’d somehow been the M’s most valuable pitcher in 1992, when Erik Hanson had a down year and Randy Johnson was still trying to figure out how to be RANDY JOHNSON, something he’d figure out the next year. But in 1992, Fleming’s rise kind of made up for the disappointment of Hanson, who’d bounce back the next year. For a while there, despite the presence of the most electifying position player to ever wear the uniform, you could squint and make out a contending M’s team that focused on run prevention. Johnson/Hanson/Fleming would combine for nearly 14 BBREF WAR in 1993 (fWAR has it about the same). The next year, the ill-fated 1994, told a different story. By then, Jay Buhner had broked out, Edgar was Edgar, and Junior had become the greatest player in the game. They had A-Rod laying waste to the minor leagues. And what of the rotation? Hanson was traded
for WITH Bret Boone and for Dan Wilson and Bobby Ayala, but Randy had made the leap and was worth 7 WAR in 1994. But beyond that…devastation. Fleming’s ERA ballooned to 6.46, and he was never the same again. Chris Bosio, who’d been very good for the M’s in 1993 suffered a down year as well. Top prospect Roger Salkeld made 13 regrettable starts that were somehow worse than Greg Hibbard’s 14. The M’s, despite a having 4 starters with SLG% over .500, saw their winning percentage tumble nearly 70 points from the false-dawn of 1993. 1995 made up for things, but 1994 was tough for baseball fans everywhere, but *especially* in Seattle.
BPro’s WARP stat declares that Fleming’s 1994 season was 5.1 wins BELOW replacement level, a figure that doesn’t seem logical, but is emotionally on the money. Even as the promised prospects began to deliver, and began to blow away the already sky-high expectations we had, the key supporting cast members were falling like flies. That’s the way it’d be in Seattle for the next few years, as the offense became a historical juggernaut, and occasionally found ways to bail out a pitching staff that was Randy Johnson, maybe one other good player, some random guy who’d get hot for a year, and then an absolute nightmare. In 1994, Bobby Ayala looked like a star. In 1995, it was Norm Charlton. In 1996…no, just checked, everyone was bad that year (RJ was hurt). In 1997, Jamie Moyer joined RJ and propelled the M’s to the playoffs. It’s in that context that Fleming’s 1994 *felt* disastrous, when a look at the stats wouldn’t make it jump out at you (there were a LOT of higher-than-6 ERAs back then). He was emblematic of the M’s inability to hold on to the key secondary pieces that could’ve made the difference for them. It’s in that spirit that I embrace the figure of 5 wins below replacement, even if I cannot really accept it.
3: Mike Freeman’s been optioned to AAA Tacoma, where he’s in tonight’s line-up against Albuquerque. That means that Jean Segura’s back from his rehab assignment in Arkansas, and the M’s will now need to get creative in order to keep the un-benchable bat of Taylor Motter in the line-up. As a righty, he could spell Dan Vogelbach at 1B against lefties, but they could also use him in LF. None of these options are ideal. The M’s don’t want to freeze out Danny Valencia entirely, I don’t think, and they also may want to see how Vogelbach responds to same-handed pitching. Guillermo Heredia’s in LF, and he’s a right-handed bat who’s come on in recent games; can’t imagine they’d love to bench him at the moment. Kyle Seager’s ailing hip will buy them some time, but they’ll either have to sit a starter once a night or under-utilize Motter as a bench bat.
I’m sure the M’s want to see what they have in Heredia, but in the short term, LF seems like the path of least resistance for Motter. Cutting loose Danny Valencia would also ease the roster crunch, but I can’t see Dipoto waiving his self-identified key free agent target from the off season so soon. Whatever they decide to do, Motter needs to stay in the line-up. Statcast has just completely re-done their data pages, filling in missing data that Trackman missed for one reason or the other. Most of these “misses” are on very weak contact like pop-ups and grounders, so some average exit velocities have come down as a result of the changes. Motter, of course, hasn’t changed. He’s still in the top 10 in MLB this year, and has yet to make any sort of “weak contact” according to Trackman. He’s elevating the ball and hitting it very, very hard. Look:
Taylor Motter, 2017
Last year, only 8% of his balls in play were “solid contact” or better. This year, he’s already got 12 such balls in play, or 32% of his balls in play. This is why Motter has 11 extra base hits on the year and only 2 singles.
Yovani Gallardo vs. Andrew Triggs, 1:05pm
Last year, the M’s hosted the A’s in their first homestand after opening the season in Texas. The A’s swept the M’s, kicking off an abysmal start at home that left fans wondering why the M’s were so much better on the road. This year, it’s just the reverse, with the M’s struggling mightily on the road, and the A’s again looking better than we thought.
Just like last year, there’s no real meaning to the M’s lopsided home/road splits, and just like last year, a solid start doesn’t necessarily mean that the A’s are going to be darkhorse contenders. Both teams’ records at this point have a lot of noise and a bit of signal buried in it. The M’s don’t have some weird psychological break about playing on the road, just like they didn’t have psychological issues that prevented them from winning in Seattle in April of 2016. That doesn’t mean that everything’s fine, and the M’s slow start is irrelevant, and it ALSO doesn’t mean that the A’s really are terrible – it means that we need to look for factors outside of the team’s record in their first 19 games.
I mentioned it before the series started, but the A’s have a chance at building a remarkably solid rotation on the cheap. Getting Sonny Gray back and healthy is going to be important to reaching that goal, but the A’s group of unheralded young starters may be better going forward than former first-rounder Gray. The perfect example of this is today’s starter, Andrew Triggs. As Jeff Sullivan detailed last year at Fangraphs, Triggs was a career reliever, with prototypical reliever-only mechanics. His release point looks a bit like Steve Cishek’s or Carson Smith’s, but it’s pushed even more towards the third base line. The best match in terms of release point may be yet another ex-Mariner, Carter Capps’, but without the weird crow-hop delivery and definitely without the 99 MPH velocity. So he seemed destined to fill a Sean Green role of a righty-specialist, or maybe a ground ball guy, but he showed very good K:BB ratios in the minors.
You’d think that a team would see that and fast-track him to the majors, but Triggs has faced skepticism at every turn. Despite putting up some good numbers, the Royals sold him to Baltimore, not even getting a PTBNL in return. He made the Orioles 40-man roster, but didn’t make it out of AA – a AA season in which he laid waste to the eastern league, with an ERA of just about 1 and 10 K’s per 9. Again, though, he was released when the Orioles needed a spot on their 40-man, and the A’s picked him up. The A’s gave him a shot in their bullpen, and while he didn’t exactly set the world on fire, he’s been unbelievable since a short-handed A’s team decided to move him to the rotation.
Given his release point and his Carson Smith-style slider, you’d expect he’d run huge platoon splits like Justin Masterson. So far, that hasn’t happened, and even in the minors, his splits looked pretty even. There are two main reasons why. First, he’s developed a good change-up that breaks away from lefties. Second, that insane release point’s created by stepping across his body with his right leg. This produces some deception to hitters, but lefties in particular seem to struggle picking up the ball as it’s hidden behind Triggs’ (hefty) frame. He’s posted exactly even splits thus far in his career, and while you might expect that lefties have an advantage that’ll grow as he pitches longer, he doesn’t seem to be the kind of guy you want to pack as many lefties as possible into the line-up.
This year, he hasn’t been striking people out, but it hasn’t mattered. He’s kept his sinking fastball away from both lefties and righties, and racked up ground balls. No, he probably won’t continue to post a sub-.200 BABIP to say nothing of a 0.00 ERA, but he’ll continue pitching like an underpowered Zach Britton until batters learn to elevate the ball against him. The M’s have really struggled against guys like this; Triggs throws 71% of his pitches to the bottom of the zone or below, which is pretty near 2017-Dallas Keuchel, and we saw how that worked out for the M’s. They’ve struggled against GB pitchers, which I don’t think Dipoto and company foresaw. With plenty of fly ball hitters, this was supposed to be a team strength. Why it hasn’t worked out that way is a mystery, at least to me, but I’m hoping Edgar Martinez is working with them on it.
1: Dyson, CF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Vogelbach, 1B
6: Motter, SS
7: Heredia, LF
8: Freeman, 3B
9: Zunino, C
Yep, that’s Dan Vogelbach in the line-up at 1B, replacing Danny Valencia. The corresponding move was somewhat unexpected/dramatic: the M’s have DFA‘d erstwhile starting CF Leonys Martin. The M’s also swapped out de facto long-relievers, calling up Chris Heston and sending Chase de Jong back to Tacoma. There’s something admirable about decisive moves like this, and not letting a black hole in the line-up tank the overall offense. Leonys Martin has looked lost for a while now, and the M’s now have plenty of CF depth. The move at 1B also reflects the M’s 1B depth, but it essentially reverses the equally bold, decisive, win-in-2017 move that they made about one month ago – the move that sent Vogelbach to AAA and gave Valencia the 1B job on his own, instead of in the expected platoon. Either Tacoma’s coaches very, very quickly sorted something out with Vogelbach, or the M’s are essentially admitting that their last move backfired.
Tacoma won again, taking the first game in Albuquerque 5-3. The R’s scored 4 in the first and coasted to the win behind another good start from Christian Bergman. Sam Gaviglio starts today opposite Zach Jemiola.
Arkansas’ had a strange game, but it ended well. They took a 4-0 lead, then allowed Springfield to tie it up, and then scored 2 late runs for a 6-4 win. Thyago Vieira got the win in relief with one of his best performances of the year. Jean Segura singled in 3 at bats. It’s a prospect showdown today, as Andrew Moore and Arkansas face off with Cards prospect Jack Flaherty.
Modesto scored 4 runs in three separate innings in their 12-4 domination of Visalia. Nick Neidert was, by his standards, only so so, but the Nuts’ bullpen was solid, with Kody Kerski striking out 5 in 2 shutout innings, and Joe Pistorese K’ing 3 in 2 perfect IP of his own. Today, it’ll be a battle of starters who would love to just hit reset on the year. Pablo Lopez takes the ball for Modesto, with Justin Donatella pitching for Visalia. Both starters’ ERA are over 10.
Clinton beat Quad Citied 6-1 behind another solid start from Ljay Newsome. He struck out 4 in 6 IP, and walked his FIRST batter of the year. His K:BB ratio is now definable, and is 22:1 in 21 IP. His ERA is still kind of ugly thanks to his first start of the year, but yesterday was his third straight solid outing. Danny Garcia and Jorge Alcala face off today in Quad Cities.
Ariel Miranda vs. Jharel Cotton, 1:05pm
The M’s are now 1-8 on the road, and in serious danger of a sweep in their current series in Oakland. After James Paxton’s unexpectedly poor start, the M’s got a remarkably encouraging game from Hisashi Iwakuma, but it still wasn’t enough. Now, they’ll face intriguing young change-up maven Jharel Cotton, and have to hope that their struggling bats can get their timing back against a pitcher adept at messing with it.
Last season, Cotton made 5 very encouraging starts for the go-nowhere A’s. He flew through the Dodger system, and continued after a trade brought him north to Oakland. His K rate wasn’t otherworldly, but he limited walks and thanks to a slow, screwball like change-up, got a lot of weak contact on pitches out of the strikezone. He seemed poise to build on that debut in 2017, but instead, the A’s seem to be pushing him to throw less of his fantastic change and more sinkers/cutters. A’s gonna A.
Throwing from a fairly high arm slot, Cotton’s four-seam had solid rise, and averaged about 93 MPH. It seemed to be a good pairing for his splitter-style change that came in at 77 or so. But as they’ve done with so many pitchers, the A’s seem to have called for a big change in pitch mix. He’s throwing more of what BrooksBaseball calls a sinker this year, and while it has surprisingly similar movement to his four-seam, it gets less rise (as you’d expect), meaning it’s more similar to the change. And as for the change, it’s now a clear 3rd or 4th pitch, and in its place is the typically-Oakland cutter. Cotton’s is 89 MPH, and has different vertical break from his four-seam, but can almost function like a hard change. It looked like a good pitch last year, and I’m not suggesting it’s bad, but it just seems like an odd choice to use in the place of Cotton’s best pitch.
Maybe it’s all the changes to his mix, or maybe it’s just small sample nothingness, but Cotton’s getting fewer swings out of the zone (compare this view of 2016 to this one from 2017), so he’s got essentially no chance to repeat his BABIP success of 2016. That’s meant he’s walked a lot more batters than he did last year; if the M’s can be patient, they may draw some walks.
So, Hisashi Iwakuma. When I heard Chase de Jong was coming up, my first thought was that Iwakuma was heading to the DL. Instead, he uncorked a couple of 90 MPH fastballs last night, something I would’ve bet plenty of money he was no longer capable of doing. In terms of velocity and stuff, he looked more like the Iwakuma of old…or at least, the Iwakuma of 2015-16. His command still isn’t right, and he really struggled to throw his fastballs for strikes. He’s throwing way more sliders, and it looks like he might have more control of that pitch than his fastballs, but whatever the issue, he can’t continue to give up so many free passes. He’s walked 10 and hit a batter this year, and struck out just 9. His FIP is nearly 7 and a half, so it’s to Iwakuma’s credit that he’s been as effective as he has, and hopefully he can build off of this game and move forward.
1: Dyson, CF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Motter, SS
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Heredia, LF
8: Freeman, 3B
9: Zunino, C
Mike Freeman gives Kyle Seager a day off today, and Jarros Dyson stays in CF, extending Leonys Martin’s break.
Tacoma got another comeback win in El Paso, thanks to another grand slam. Dan Vogelbach hit one on Thursday, and yesterday it was Zach Shank’s turn. That punctuated a 5-run 4th, and turned a 4-2 deficit into a 7-4 lead they’d never give up – the final score was 11-8, as both bullpens had some issues in the 8th/9th. Shank only batted because Gordon Beckham was hit on the arm by a pitch, but he homered and walked twice. DJ Peterson also homered and Boog Powell walked three times. Steve Cishek got the start and worked 2/3 of an IP before hitting his pitch count. He walked 2 and give up a hit before yielding to Brett Ash who was called up from AA. Today, Christian Bergman gets the start today.
Arkansas beat Springfield 5-3, as 4 Travelers notched 2 hits each. Jean Segura wasn’t among them, as he went 0-3 with a walk out of the lead-off spot (and DH’ing). The Travs got to Dakota Hudson, scoring all 5 runs off the first-round pick in the first 5 innings. Ryan Horstman got the win in relief, pitching the 5th and 6th IP, giving up 1 run, but striking out 5. Today, it’ll be Lindsey Caughel against Matt Pearce of the Cardinals.
Modesto and Visalia were locked in a pitcher’s duel last night, until the Nuts tired of that and scored 7 runs in the 6th. Nathan Bannister was the pitcher who benefited from this bounty, getting his first pro win. He went 5 IP with 7 Ks and no walks. Joey Curletta had 3 XBH, and Gianfranco Wawoe and Eric Filia both added three hits of their own. Nick Neidert starts today against Trevor Simms, who used to kick off for the Tulane football team.
Clinton lost 3-1 to Quad Cities, as Nick Wells gave up 2 HRs in 5 solid innings. The offense obviously never got much going, striking out 10 times and drawing just a single walk. Ljay Newsome starts today against someone with the striking name of Enoli Paredes.
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Sean Manaea, 7:05pm
Hmmm. This series takes on a different look now that the M’s dropped game 1 – the one pitching match-up that looked completely lopsided in the M’s favor. Now it gets a bit trickier, as the M’s face a decent young pitcher and have to hope that Iwakuma brings the best command of his life to the hill to work around his vanishing fastball.
Sean Manaea’s had a fascinating start to 2017. He currently leads the major leagues in contact rate, with batters making any kind of contact on just less than 66% of his pitches. He still throws a swerving four-seam fastball that acts like a sinker, and has a good slider that’s essentially all gyro spin: it generates ~ zero movement. Both his horizontal and vertical movement are within a fraction of an inch of a ball thrown without any spin at all. The lefty is very tough on LHBs, given the above, so he sees line-ups that are tilted towards righties, and that’s why the development of his change-up has been so important. He didn’t really need it as a small college pitcher (Indiana State), but it’s been the focus of his development both in the Royals system and then with the A’s (he was traded for Ben Zobrist a while ago). His change kind of reminds me of Cesar Valdez’s last night, with its splitter-style movement, but it’s thrown harder. It’s produced remarkably good results for him, though he sometimes struggles to command his non-fastballs.
That’s been a concern since his MiLB days. Manaea’s walk rate this year is over 12%, and while it was good last year, it’s been inconsistent throughout his career. Inconsistency in general has been a problem, really. After dazzling in the Cape Cod league heading into his junior season, he seemed destined to be the #1 overall pick, but lower velocity, lost slider command and some nagging injuries pushed him down to #34. He struggled mightily out of the gate in 2016, and has reprised that in 2017, giving up 12 runs despite giving up only 8 hits in 71 batters faced. Odder still has been his variable ground ball rate; he’s been a ground ball guy at times in the minors, and average-to-fly-ball leaning at others. After a 44% GB rate last year, he’s kicked off 2017 by increasing that nearly 20 percentage points. Yes, it’s definitely early, but I wonder if this is the product of an organizational emphasis on the low pitch – something we talked about in yesterday’s post.
Speaking of odd results and the potential influence of org philosophies, we need to talk about Dan Altavilla. The righty was again something of a mess yesterday, giving up 3 runs on 2 walks and a 3-run HR. After starting off the year remarkably well, and getting plaudits for his new, high-octane slider, he’s fallen back significantly. To me, one key problem is that he looks like a different pitcher with men on base. Thus far in his brief MLB career, he’s got a 13:2 K:BB ratio with no one on – that works out to a K rate of 28%, and a K-BB% of over 20% (yes, yes, I know the samples are too small). With men on, that plummets to a 7:5 ratio, or a 17% K rate and a K-BB% in the neighborhood of 5%. This was something of an issue last year in AA, too, where he had a 40:13 K:BB ratio in just 29 IP with the bases empty, but just 25:9 with men on, and like in the majors, his K rate dropped while his walk rate crept up. In general, EVERYone has fewer Ks and more BBs as they start to nibble a bit with runners on, but Altavilla seems like an exceptional case, like he can’t quite find his release point when he’s distracted by runners.
I mentioned this on twitter, and LookoutLanding’s Kate Preusser mentioned that the problem she sees is that his slider command’s completely out of whack. While batters aren’t *hitting* his slider, his lack of command means they can effectively ignore it, and wait for fastballs once they’re safely ahead in the count. That sounded interesting, and looking into it, there’s definitely some evidence of it. The percentage of sliders he threw for a ball last year was under 30%, but it’s spiked to over 45% in the early going in 2017. To righties, he likes to keep it low, and that reminds me a bit of what the M’s told Felix this off-season: batters recognize a pitch and just wait for it to fall below the strike zone. The walk to Ryon Healy right before the Plouffe home run was a great example – it wasn’t a bad pitch at all, and wasn’t *that* far out of the zone. If Altavilla’s pitching well, he might get a chase on that pitch, but Healy was unmoved, and didn’t look like he contemplated a swing, even with 2 strikes.
It’s possible that both of these explanations work together, and that his command *really* worsens with men on. Whatever the cause, the M’s need to get him straightened out soon. After a good spring and a dominant performance in his first game, Altavilla looked set to take on higher leverage innings. His competition kept dropping off, as Casey Fien was soon outrighted, Evan Scribner’s looked a bit off, and Nick Vincent’s velo was a bit off in the early going. With Vincent emerging, the M’s may not need as many high-leverage IP from Altavilla, though last night’s meltdown wasn’t super high. Altavilla simply needs to get comfortable again, and work on his location. It’s way too early, but I do wonder if he’s trying to adapt to the new fly-ball doctrine the M’s have talked about, and if that’s gotten him out of his comfort zone. His pitch location maps don’t look that different, though there are a few pitches up and out of the zone. That could simply be a manifestation of his command problems (they’re fastballs, though, not sliders), or it could be he’s struggling to implement a game plan that’s somewhat new to him. *Update* He’ll get to work on re-locating his command in Tacoma, as he was just optioned to AAA.
1: Heredia, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Motter, SS
7: Valencia, 1B
8: Ruiz, C
9: Dyson, CF
Ryan Divish reports that Chase de Jong’s on his way to join the team in Oakland. It was his scheduled start day in Tacoma, so he’d be ready to pitch whenever the M’s need him. We’ll see what the roster move is; kind of wondering if they’re going to sit Iwakuma for a while. *Update* Ok, now we know: Altavilla’s the one going down.
*Update 2* Chooch Ruiz has been added to the lineup in place of Mike Zunino. Doesn’t sound like anything’s wrong w/Mike, just a late call to give Ruiz the start.
Tacoma had a great comeback last night, and beat El Paso 6-5 in extras. The R’s fell behind 5-0 as Dillon Overton struggled, and the R’s could not figure out Pads prospect Dinelson Lamet (who K’d 13 in just 5 1/3), but the M’s got a run in the 6th, and then tied it up in the 7th on a grand slam by 1B Dan Vogelbach. It went to the 10th, where a Tuffy Gosewisch double brought in Boog Powell. Today, it was supposed to be Chase de Jong on the mound for Tacoma against Bryan Rodriguez, but that’s obviously not going to happen. We’ll see if someone’s up from Arkansas to make this one, or if they’ll go with a bullpen day – tougher to do that after an extra-inning game, of course. They could also push Christian Bergman’s day up, but that seems riskier. Steve Cishek will pitch an inning tonight for them, that much is certain.
Dylan Unsworth’s return to AA wasn’t all that bad, but Austin Gomber held the Travelers in check, and Springfield emerged with a 6-3 win. Unsworth gave up 3 R in 5 IP, while Thyago Vieira gave up another 2 on 2 walks and a hit. Ian Miller had 2 hits and 2 stolen bases. Today, Arkansas takes on Dakota Hudson, the Cardinals first-round pick last year out of Mississippi State. The Travs counter with Tyler Herb, who *just* missed pitching on 4/20.
Reggie McClain and Modesto edged out Stockton 3-2 last night. McClain gave up 2 runs in 5 2/3 IP, and the bullpen made it hold up, despite team totals of just 4 Ks and 4 BBs on the night. Braden Bishop led the offense with 3 hits (incl. 2 2Bs) from the lead-off spot. Today, Nathan Bannister leads the Nuts in to Visalia and a series against the Arizona affiliate.
Clinton fell behind early and couldn’t ever get back into it in an 8-2 loss to Quad Cities. Nick Wells takes the hill tonight opposite Brett Adcock, a 4th rounder out of Michigan last year. He’s made 2 MWL starts, and K’d *16* in 9 innings.
James Paxton vs. Cesar Valdez, 7:05pm
The M’s head into Oakland for a series against the surprisingly resilient Athletics. Before the season, the A’s looked like a team that simply wasn’t built to compete in the AL. With a questionable rotation and a line-up that’d struggle to make contact, it looked like a rebuilding year in the making. It still may be one, but a hot start from LF Khris Davis and a surprisingly deep starting 5 means that the A’s are tied with Seattle, and might hang around the fringes of contention longer than we thought.
As in the Texas series, the M’s miss the A’s #1 starter, the suddenly-fascinating Kendall Graveman. Unfortunately, it’s not just a scheduling thing – the righty’s on the DL with a strained shoulder. The A’s will also be missing starting SS Marcus Semien, who fractured a bone in his wrist and is scheduled to have surgery on it. In Graveman’s place, the A’s have brought up Cesar Valdez, a Dominican starter who hasn’t pitched in the majors since *2010*. If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t heard of him, but I’m guessing Jerry Dipoto knows the guy. Valdez was signed out of the DR at a suspiciously advanced age (20); maybe he was a converted position player, I don’t know. He moved to the affiliated minors in 2006, starting off in Yakima, under the newly-installed director of player personnel and scouting, working with AJ Hinch to oversee the Snakes’ minor leagues. Valdez rose through the ranks and had a cup of coffee with the D-Backs in May/June of 2010, right before Dipoto became the interim GM. Almost immediately after replacing Dipoto, Kevin Towers traded away Valdez and he’s spent years in the Mexican League, trying to remake himself from a junkballer with so-so command to a junkballer with very good command. After a great year in Mexico in 2015, the Astros brought him back to affiliated ball and he pitched well in the PCL in 2016. They had no room, though, so he signed with Oakland as a free agent and with a brief stop-off for the DR in the World Baseball Classic, he’s been lights out in a couple of AAA starts for Nashville.
He was a sinker/slider guy way back in 2010, but seemed to feature a lot of a split-style change-up in spring training this year, and I’d imagine the M’s will see a lot of them tonight. He gets surprisingly good sink on his fastball, and always had a reputation as a ground ball guy coming through the Arizona farm system.
Given that thumbnail sketch, you can kind of see why the A’s were interested. The Astros have gone all-in on the low pitch this year, with fully 61% of their pitches thus far classed as in the bottom third of the zone or below (the usual 5-zone definition at BaseballSavant that I/others use a ton). But the A’s are remarkably close, at 59.4%, ranking 3rd in MLB in such pitches. They believe in sinkers, as they have a starter in Graveman who’s essentially abandoned all other pitches and JUST throws sinkers at the knees now. Their other starters keep the ball down in other ways: Jharel Cotton’s tumbling change-up falls through the bottom of the zone, and as a change-up, it generates plenty of out-of-zone swings. Andrew Triggs relies on a heavy sinker from a low arm-slot and has all but abandoned the top of the zone. You get the idea. If Valdez can do that through a combination of 88 MPH sinkers and 80 MPH split/changes, then he’ll fit right in.
One result of the A’s approach is intuitive, but worth pointing out: they throw a LOT of balls out of the strike zone. The A’s lead baseball in the percentage of pitches tracked by Statcast that come in out of the strike zone, with the Angels close behind. And look at the M’s! They’re dead last, and are last *by a mile*.
The M’s apparently take their zone-controlling seriously, and, perhaps problematically, quite literally. You see the same thing in the Zone% numbers at Fangraphs, with the M’s #1 and the A’s at #30. As you’d expect, the A’s staff has walked significantly more than the M’s, despite a nearly identical K rate. But it’s actually the A’s who’ve posted the superior FIP numbers on the year, thanks to the fact that the M’s have nearly doubled the A’s in HRs allowed. The A’s stay down in the zone (and below) for a reason, and they seem quite willing to trade walks for HRs. The M’s seem more willing to pitch up (though they could stand to do it more), and MUCH more likely to challenge batters, even if it means giving up some loud contact. Felix is obviously the best example, as he finally walked his first batter of the season yesterday. He’s given up 5 HRs already, tied for 2nd-most in the league. Look at the spike in his Zone%! It’s admirable to challenge hitters, and not be scared off of your own gameplan, but we may not have seen the last 440’+ HR of the season hit off our valiant King.
James Paxton’s pitched like a demigod thus far. These “trade offs” described above don’t really apply to someone pitching like Paxton, so he hasn’t made any. His control issues cleared up last year, so there’s no big shift in his Zone%, and he’s obviously not allowed a HR all year. His contact rate is in the top 10 in baseball, and it’s driven by phenomenally good marks on IN-ZONE contact. There are two things pitchers can do that are difficult, but critical: either make batters swing at balls, or make them miss on strikes. Of the two, the latter’s probably the toughest, but it’s working for Paxton thus far. Mind you, while his overall contact rate is near the likes of Chris Sale and Danny Salazar, his zone contact rate’s sandwiched between the unlikely pairing of Jason Vargas (#1!) and Ian Kennedy. Baseball is weird, and early-season leaderboards are often surreal.
By pretty much any metric you want to look at, Paxton’s been unreal. ERA? Obviously. FIP? K-BB%? Contact%? Exit velocity? Check, check, check. He hasn’t met the high expectations M’s fans had following last year – he’s blown them out of the water. The only pitchers who’ve been near his level in the early going are Chris Sale in Boston and Noah Syndergaard in New York. I’m still giddy from seeing his last start, so I’ll stop before getting too hyperbolic, but enjoy this run.
1: Dyson, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Motter, SS
7: Valencia, 1B
8: Martin, CF
9: Zunino, C
The Rainiers bullpen suffered an ill-timed meltdown in yesterday’s 9-4 loss in El Paso. Chris Heston was decent through 5 IP, leaving with a tie game at 3-3. Nick Hagadone, who’d K’d 10 of the 11 batters he’d faced on the year came in and gave up a run, and then Mark Lowe gave up a 5 spot, and that was essentially that. 2 hits from DJ Peterson and Dan Vogelbach knocked his first HR of the year for Tacoma. Today, Dillon Overton makes his first start for Tacoma. With Overton back in Tacoma (he was sent down when the M’s activated Tony Zych), the Rs now have 6 starting pitchers on the club – Weber, Gaviglio, Heston, de Jong, Bergman and Overton. We’ll see how they divvy up the games, but one thing was certain: someone needed to go help out in AA instead.
That person was Dylan Unsworth, who’ll start today’s game for the Arkansas Travelers against Springfield and big Cardinals prospect Austin Gomber.
Modesto lost to Stockton and A’s prospect AJ Puk 5-2. The Nuts scored two unearned runs off of Puk through 4 IP, but had only a single hit against him. The lefty has 20 Ks in 12 IP on the year, and is probably about due for a promotion to AA. Today, Reggie McClain tries to get some revenge against Stockton and Casey Meisner, who tumbled down the prospect rankings after a rough 2016. Thus far in 2017, it’s been even rougher.
Clinton beat Wisconsin 6-3 behind a solid start from Brandon Miller and 2 XBH including a HR from 1B Kristian Brito. Today, the Lumberkings kick off a series with Astros’ affiliate Quad Cities, and Tim Viehoff will take the mound for Clinton against 2016 14th rounder Carson LaRue, who’s only pitched in a handful of innings between 2016-17, but has been extremely hard to hit thus far.
The other day, I wrote about Leonys Martin’s struggles, and how he’s hitting the ball hard into the ground, and softly in the air, a combination that produces…well, 2017 Leonys Martin. Anyway, Jake Mailhot at Lookout Landing wrote about Taylor Motter’s success at doing the opposite. It’s great, and you should read it. Today, he followed up with a post about Motter and his approach: Motter’s focused on pitches on the inner half, and he’s had great success in doing so. The theory is that Motter’s focused on inside pitches (particularly fastballs) and he’s aggressive with them when they show up. I wanted to piggy-back on that a bit by making a point that may be too obvious to even mention.
There are many numbers-focused baseball posts that make you see the game in a different way; that make you think about the game differently. Other research may add depth and nuance to a simple, commonly-understood phenomenon. This is a different kind of article. This is about stating the obvious, with numbers. I’m not sure that’s what you’re here to read about, and I’m not sure this is helpful to write, but…uh, here goes. Taylor Motter is having success in the majors this year because he is swinging the bat really, really hard. I know: it’s not earth shattering. But the more I look into it, the more I think what’s changed about Motter isn’t the kind of pitches he likes, improved selectivity, or anything like that. It’s about selling out contact for power, and reaping the rewards (and paying the price) for that trade.
Coming up, Motter was a player known for his speed and defensive utility, but it wasn’t until a breakout 2015 that he had much of a profile as a hitter. He wasn’t in the Rays top 20 prospects in 2015, but landed on the back end of the list in 2016 thanks to a power surge in AA/AAA. Still, the thing that drew your eye – heh – was his strike zone discipline. He drew walks and posted low strikeout totals, and coupled with some gap power, that was enough to get himself on the radar despite his advanced age (for a prospect). He was added to the 40-man before 2016 and came up to Tampa in May of that year. It…it didn’t go well. He didn’t make it to 100 plate appearances, and while he drew a fair number of walks, he simply didn’t hit enough to warrant keeping around. A .217 BABIP didn’t help, of course, but if you look at his Statcast numbers, it almost seemed earned.
He had a good swing plane, with a launch angle over 13 degrees. The problem was that there simply wasn’t anything behind it. There were 455 players in the league who hit at least 50 balls in play last year, and Motter’s exit velocity ranked 397th. If you are in a statistical tie in an offensive metric with Ketel Marte in 2016…you’re…you’re gonna want to NOT be near Ketel Marte. Using exit velocity, Statcast actually tracks a measure of batspeed – estimated swing speed. By THAT measure, Marte edges past Motter, who’s hanging out with the Billys (Burns and Hamilton).
What about inside pitches? Last year, Motter clearly liked to swing at them, as Mailhot shows in his post. The problem was that he couldn’t DO anything against them. Motter hit 13 inside fastballs, with a below-average exit velocity of 88 MPH. He put 20 inside pitches in play, of any pitch type. He went 3 for 20 on those contacts, going .167 with a slugging percentage of .250. He’s slugging .714 on such pitches this year, for the record. Motter’s the same guy against outside pitches this year, but he looks unrecognizable on inside pitches. Here’s a table of his exit velo and launch angles on inside/outside pitches in 2016 and 2017:
|Inside, 2016||Inside, 2017||Outside, 2016||Outside, 2017|
Ok, let’s say you’re Taylor Motter, and you’ve just been promoted, and now you get to face incredible pitching for the first time (MORE incredible than the pretty-incredible you’re used to). It’s confusing – you don’t know the pitchers, the stadia are different, there are many, many cameras – and you want to focus on your own strengths. What would Motter have offered up as his biggest strength in 2016? I have no idea; I don’t know the man. But my guess is that he was trying to focus on contact and strike zone discipline. He set out to control the zone, and he did! That’s great! He was also a terrible hitter. Baseball is hard, and even when you succeed at something, it’s frequently not enough to make you useful (Blake Beavan: great control).
This year, Taylor Motter seems to have made a very different decision. Instead of trying to be a useful utility man by avoiding Ks and drawing the occasional walk, Motter is trying to hit dingers. Again, it’s kind of difficult to talk about this without spouting truisms or seeming to just state the obvious, but I think this is the result of a very conscious change, and not just “getting good pitches to hit” or whatever cliche you like. Motter isn’t just swinging at inside pitches – he’s always done that. He’s trying to obliterate them, and that seems very new. Motter’s estimated swing speed this year ranks *7th* out of 337 batters with at least 10 balls in play. He’s a touch behind Miguel Sano and Miguel Cabrera, but ahead of Nelson Cruz, Khris Davis and Giancarlo Stanton. The samples for Motter are miniscule in both years, but going from ~ the worst to ~ the best seems like the result of a fairly big change.
This change comes at a cost. Motter’s contact rate is down substantially in the early going, and it’s down on pitches within the strike zone. If you’re going to survive with so-so contact rates *within* the zone, you better hit the ball extremely hard. Motter does, so I guess it all works out. His K rate is up, as you’d expect, but to date, Motter’s been disciplined in his out-of-zone swing rate. That’s important, because as Mailhot mentions, pitchers are going to start to make adjustments, and his K rate may go up from here. That’s all speculative. ALL OF THIS is speculative. But I want to underscore just how remarkable it is; if this is at all right, it’s the product of a very gutsy decision. Motter knew his K rate could translate more or less, and I’m sure someone pointed out that the exact same approach plus a regressed BABIP would produce a decent line for a utility man. Motter took what was behind door #2 instead.
Why? Let’s heap more speculation on to the pile of speculation we’ve already made. Motter played for the Rays from mid May to the end of June in 2016. At that time, he had a teammate with a nearly identical launch angle, who was succeeding because he swung the shit out of the bat. This produced a K rate that many thought would doom him. His OBP was pretty terrible, frankly. But dingers. Man, the dingers. I’m talking about former Mariner Brad Miller, who hit 8 HRs and knocked 19 extra-base hits in May/June of 2016, on his way to a 30-HR season. Interestingly, Miller always swung hard – his breakout wasn’t the result of a wholesale change in approach. But I wonder what Motter thought as he looked at a guy with a very similar swing path – a guy who didn’t seem to mind striking out, but was going to punish the ball when he made contact.
Motter seems to have that approach now. It speaks to something that I mentioned as a side note in this post about Mike Zunino last year: intent. Motter’s a different hitter this year for a number of reasons, including all the ones Mailhot mentions and all of the ones Daniel Rathman mentioned at BP. He’s quicker to the ball thanks to lower hands at the beginning of his swing. But all of this seems to miss the forest for the trees. The massive difference in results (not just HRs, but exit velocity, swing speed, all of it) has to be the product of an intent to swing *hard*. I don’t think Motter had that last year, and I’m pretty sure he does this year. We’ll see what happens going forward, and we may see some ugly stretches of strikeouts, but that shift in mindset has been incredibly important thus far.
King Felix vs. Edinson Volquez, 12:40pm
Edinson Volquez is on the Marlins now? I know I read this article about it, and. Volquez’ admirably consistent velocity, but must’ve forgotten the specifics. I felt the same last night watching Brad Ziegler pitch. The Marlins? Really?
Sooo, the M’s came very, very close to being no-hit by Wei Yin Chen, somehow. While Yovani Gallardo wasn’t sharp, he kept the M’s close-ish and didn’t walk anyone. He gave up a lot of loud contact, and Justin Bour took him deep. Of course, the batted ball hit the furthest last night wasn’t the HR – it was a Taylor Motter fly out. The M’s hit a lot of balls well, but each found a glove until Mitch Haniger’s face-saving gapper.
Edinson Volquez still throws 93-94 somehow, and still has a good change that’s allowed him to run even-to-slightly-reversed splits over his career. He lacks great command, so patient teams can drive up his walk total/pitch count.
Felix is an anti-Volquez. Felix’s velocity has…not stayed the same, but he’s been a much more consistent performer over his (longer) MLB career. Whereas Volquez is still wild, Felix’s control got better in recent years before last year’s disappointment, and it’s been phenomenal this year, as Felix has yet to give up a walk in 2017.
1: Dyson, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Motter, SS
7: Freeman, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Martin, CF
The Rainiers lost in El Paso 4-3 despite HRs from DJ Peterson and Gordon Beckham. Ex-Rainiers Carter Capps and Logan Bawcom pitched well in relief for the Chihuahuas, with Capps getting the win. Today, Chris Heston faces off with Padres pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins.
Arkansas got another me-too start from Max Povse, who went 6 strong IP giving up 1 run. Andrew Moore gave up no runs in his first 2 games, then just 1 in his 3rd game the other day. Povse, too, gave up no runs in his first 2 games, and now he’s given up 1 in his 3rd start. Great stuff! Kinda creepy! The Travelers won, and Kyle Waldrop homered and doubled. The Travelers have an off-day tomorrow.
Pablo Lopez continues to struggle in the Cal League, giving up 4 R in 4 IP. The Nuts pushed Stockton to extras, though, ultimately winning by a score of 8 to 7. Gianfranco Wawoe had the walk-off base hit. Tomorrow, Anthony Misiewicz starts opposite one of the A’s big prospects, LHP AJ Puk.
Clinton lost yesterday to Wisconsin, as detailed in yesterday’s post. Today, Brandon Miller of the Lumberkings takes on Wisconsin and Trey Supak, who’s yet to allow a run in 8 + IP, with 11 Ks and just 1 BB.