Game 128, Mariners at Braves – Fly Ball Revolution Faces Setbacks

marc w · August 23, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Erasmo Ramirez vs. RA Dickey, 4:35pm

The M’s just got shut out in an important game against one of the worst pitching clubs in baseball. If they got something of a free win the night before when they kicked the ball around the diamond but still came away with a one-run win, they’ve given it away. This has been the frustrating thing about the team, as they look great for a spell and then just lose it for a day or a week. They’ve been hanging around .500 for a long, long time, and despite the fact that no one’s really running away with the second wild card, you get the sense that they can’t wait around for the wild card to fall to them by default: they need a 7-3, 8-2 stretch for a change.

As we’ve talked about a lot, the pitching staff’s woes mean that they’re going to need to hit. The M’s offense was very good in the first half, grading out as solidly above average. No, they weren’t mashing like the Astros/Dodgers, and they didn’t control the zone quite as much as Dipoto and Company would like, but they were buoyed by some great performances by young hitters like Ben Gamel, Guillermo Heredia, and Mitch Haniger. In the second half, they’ve seen Nelson Cruz come alive, and that’s helped push their ISO and power numbers above their first-half rates. The problem is that everything else has gotten worse, as the team’s walk rate’s down and those young outfielders are now actively hurting the cause. The M’s runs per game average of 4.66/game ranks 17th now. It’s always going to be a tall order to make the playoffs when your rotation includes guys that you’ve acquired from the minor league systems of other clubs, but this team simply can’t overcome the challenges they face with a below average offense.

So what happened here? I talked a lot about how Ben Gamel and Taylor Motter had improved their approach back in in April and May, and while I didn’t talk as much about Mitch Haniger, he was a standout performer in the early going. As far as guys with new/improved approaches at the plate, Yonder Alonso was one of the most talked about in baseball, and now HE plays for the M’s. Are these fly ball revolutionaries maintaining their higher launch angles? Again, there’s a lot of variance between players, but in general, pitchers have adjusted how they attack these guys, and the hitters haven’t yet made counter-adjustments.

Ben Gamel’s launch angle in 2016 was under 4 degrees, and upped that to nearly the league average in the early going. This generated a flurry of line drives that propelled his BABIP into the thermosphere for a while. After running GB/FB ratios of 1.2-1.4 consistently, he opened 2017 by halving that to 0.6-0.7 for a while. This wasn’t necessarily because he was hitting fly balls – that was Yonder Alonso’s adjustment. Instead, he was hitting everything on a line. Hitting line drives is great, and it made him insanely productive for a few months, but even then, there was something of a problem: he was hitting all of those line drives against fastballs, but he struggled against non-fastballs. Since then, a couple of things have happened. First, his production on *fastballs* fell, and second, he started putting more breaking balls into play.

Alonso was always a frighteningly under-powered 1B, and he cratered last year in Oakland, grading out as a below-average player. Instead of non-tendering him, the A’s were encouraged by reports of a swing change and saw their patience pay off as Alonso started the season on fire. The swing change basically doubled his average launch angle, and he was able to hit far more HRs than anyone would’ve thought in the early going. Since then, though, he’s had a rougher go of it. Like Gamel, he’d essentially halved his GB/FB ratio for a while, but it’s been creeping back up as he hits more and more ground balls. Like Gamel, his production on fastballs is down after a hot start as well.

There are a couple of possibilities here. One is the nihilistic view, which says that all of these statcast measures are essentially noise, and that hitters have less control over things like launch angle than we’ve thought. Yes, some hitters are capable of making lasting changes that benefit their production, but that fact isn’t related to launch angle, per se – rather, launch angle is the byproduct of other changes in things like pitch recognition, and so we’re focused on the wrong thing just because we now have more data on it. The slightly less nihilistic view is that launch angles are very much controllable by hitters, and that operationalizing this – putting something like “change your swing plane” into effect on a real-life baseball diamond – is probably at least partially related to the pitch type you’re trying to hit. That is, Yonder Alonso or Ben Gamel’s changes in swing plane as measured by launch angle came about because they were prepared to make a particular swing at a particular pitch (a fastball) in a particular location. Instead of trying to do X when you see a fastball in this zone, do Y instead. Both of them are very selective hitters and were presumably ready to pounce when a pitch meeting their favored attributes came along.

But you can’t simply wait for those pitches. Pitchers will try to avoid throwing the kinds of pitches that you’ve demonstrated mastery of, and with due respect to Alonso, I’m not sure it’s a timing issue, or if it is, the pitchers have some control over a batter’s timing. Through July 1st, Ben Gamel put 87 fastballs into play (including HRs, hits, outs), and Alonso put 91 into play. They put just 76 and 75 non-fastballs in play, respectively. Thus, their ratio of fastballs to non in play were 1.14:1 and 1.21:1, and for guys who demolished fastballs, that worked well. Since July 1, Gamel’s put 56 fastballs in play and Alonso’s chipped in with 52 – but their ratios have tanked. Gamel’s hit 73 non-fastballs while Alonso’s at 51. So Alonso’s 1.2 is now an even 1, while Gamel’s 1.14 is down to 0.77. It’s not that they’re missing fastballs, and it’s not even that they’re swinging through tough sliders or something – Gamel’s K rate is down in the 2nd half. But they’re not hitting their favored pitch types, and pitchers have noticed. Gamel’s average launch angle since July 1 is below 7 degrees, and it’s just 3 degrees on fastballs. He’s regressed into pretty much the exact same hitter he was in the minors and the guy we saw last year. Alonso’s launch angle is still fairly high, but along with some expected regression in his HR/FB ratio, he’s clearly mishitting pitches because pitchers are pitching him differently. He made a huge adjustment this offseason; now he’s going to have to make another one. If pitchers are keeping the ball away a bit more, especially low and away, it might take a different kind of swing adjustment than the one he used to obliterate fastballs over the middle or up. Gamel needs more help, and this will be a big test of Edgar Martinez’s teaching skills. Old habits are tough to break, but in this case, they really need breaking.

RA Dickey, the nearly 43-year old ex-Mariner knuckleballer is still hanging on thanks to a perpetually low BABIP-allowed. His HR rate fairly high, but it’s nothing too problematic; he should be used to it, anyway, as his HR/9 was in the 1.4 range a few times when he played for Toronto. As you might expect, he’s shown no real persistent platoon splits. Knuckeballers are weird.

1: Segura, SS
2: Alonso, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Valencia, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Haniger, LF
7: Zunino, C
8: Heredia, CF
9/SP: Erasmoooo Ramirez

The development of Danny Valencia as a corner OF is still in its early stages, but it seems to have enabled the M’s to make a surprising move. David Phelps is healthy and was activated from the 10-day DL today. To make room on the active roster, the M’s have once again DFA’d OF Leonys Martin. Martin hit for a bit of power since rejoining the M’s, but his overall line wasn’t pretty, so the M’s may think they can once again slip him through waivers and stash him in Tacoma. The move leaves the M’s with three healthy OFs in Heredia, Gamel, and Haniger, but Jarrod Dyson should be back soon. With Valencia stepping in at RF, the M’s obviously think they have enough on hand to survive without Martin until Dyson heals, and they may think they can bring up a youngster from AAA if they need a late-inning defensive replacement or a pinch runner. I get not wanting to lose Martin for nothing, but given his prolonged offensive struggles and the fact that his best asset – OF defense- is at least somewhat redundant on this team, I’ll defer to the M’s on this one. If they’d optioned Taylor Motter, they wouldn’t really be able to give the infielders an off day, and he’d have to stay in the minors for 10 days. They could option a relief pitcher, but the current plan seems to be to limit starters to 4+ innings, and in THAT context, going with an 8-man pen seems understandable. I was a bit surprised Martin slid through waivers before, and the M’s may be in a position to know with some certainty that he could do so again. Whoever’s in the OF going forward, the M’s need offense.

Probables in the minors tonight include Everett’s own Aaron West, whom the M’s picked up from Houston on July 30th. He’ll start for Arkansas, and he’s pretty familiar with the Texas League, having pitched for Corpus Christi in parts of 2014, 2015 and 2016. Modesto turns to Tyler Jackson, whom the M’s signed as an undrafted free agent this year out of Clemson. Steven Ridings starts for Clinton while Randy Bell pitches for Everett.

Sam Gaviglio’s 5 IP, 1 ER performance with no walks and 6 Ks edges Ljay Newsome for pitching line of the day for yesterday, while Joey Wong’s 2-3 with a HR in his very first game for Tacoma takes the nod for batting lines.

Game 127, Mariners at Braves

marc w · August 22, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Lucas Sims, 4:35pm

I mentioned Lucas Sims briefly in yesterday’s game post as another example of an advanced pitching prospect (a top-50-in-baseball type) who’s had an extremely rough transition to the big leagues. Perhaps a better way of framing this would be to say that Sims is a mirror image of Marco Gonzales.

Sims has a four-seam fastball and a sinker that he throws from a release point just shy of 6′ – he’s a classic 3/4 to low-3/4 pitcher. He complements the FB (he averages 91-92) with a slider at 86, and then a curve that features more horizontal than vertical movement. He’s also got a change-up at 84 that shows some moderately interesting vertical movement, especially compared to his four-seam fastball. He’s got a pretty deep arsenal, and he’s improved his control of all of them as he’s moved up the ladder in the Braves system. Overall, he was a big strikeout pitcher in the minors despite the lack of premium velo or a real wipeout pitch; like a number of pitchers, variety enabled him to rack up strikeouts in the minors, but it’s not happening thus far in the NL. Through 4 starts – a minuscule sample, I know – his K rate stands at an Andrew Moore-esque 10.9%. His walk rate’s been solid, but he’s also giving up HRs. No Ks, plenty of HRs is a really, really bad sign.

Marco Gonzales has a four-seam fastball and a sinker that he throws from a release point just shy of 6′ too…it just happens to come from the left side. Gonzales’ velo is now 91-92 as well, so they are almost identical in that regard. Their sinkers have a similar shape as well, though Sims’ four-seam is much straighter. Marco’s change has more horizontal movement, while Sims’ has more separation in vertical movement, but both pitches were seen as potential plus offerings when they were minor leaguers. Both of them had K rates at or above 20% in the minors, with Sims’ a bit higher, but both are fly-ball pitchers, and thus both have had some HR difficulty at times.

Sims’ is still in the top 10 for most HRs-allowed in the International League this year, despite having thrown just 100 IP. Marco Gonzales has a career HR/9 in AAA of 1.06, while Sims is way up at 1.69. Sims wasn’t really able to pitch around that, so his AAA stats aren’t exactly great. Gonzales’ has allowed a lower BABIP, so his numbers aren’t bad in the upper minors, but the more I see of this type, the more I think that an elevated HR rate in the upper minors is a serious, serious issue. A HR rate of 1.06 in the big leagues is fine; that’s more than playable. But given the uptick in HRs at the big league level, you need to be sure that a pitcher isn’t going to see that climb up near 2, which is a hell of a lot less playable. We’ve gotten used to this with K%, and needing to see prospects get their K rates down pretty far, so that when they increase in the big leagues – and in general, they will – it increases to a tolerable level.

Gonzales has had injury issues, and he could really use a better curve to give hitters something else to look for. I’d also love to see him get more separation between his change and four-seam, kind of like Sims has. Sims, though, I’m not really sure about. Coming up, scouts seemed to love his curve and change, but by pitch fx, I’m not really seeing what’s so special about either. Same with his fastball, frankly. He’s only 23, so he has even more development time to go, and he could turn into a pretty good starter at any point. But to do so, he’s going to have to make a huge leap forward in his command, or he’s going to have to find a bit more raw stuff – more velo, more bite on the curve, more something. It’s interesting, too, that he doesn’t throw his curve that much. He throws his slider twice as much, despite that pitch not rating a mention in this old BP scouting report.

1: Segura, SS
2: Alonso, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Haniger, CF
7: Gamel, LF
8: Zunino, C
9/SP: Marco Gonzales

Tacoma used a 7-run second inning to blow past El Paso en route to a 9-6 win. Jonathan Aro, who’s still hanging around as one of the very few Rainiers who played on last year’s club, got his 6th win in relief. Everett got all the runs they needed in the 7th, scoring 4 times to beat Vancouver 4-2. Anjul Hernandez tossed 5 shutout IP in that one.

Today’s probables include Sam Gaviglio, with Chase de Jong starting in Arkansas, Ljay Newsome, and Oliver Jaskie.

Game 126, Mariners at Braves

marc w · August 21, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Andrew Albers vs. Mike Foltynewicz, 4:35pm

After a successful series in Florida, the M’s could really use a sweep against the rebuilding Braves in Atlanta. The M’s trot out a cobbled-together collection of starting pitchers, as Andrew Albers, Marco Gonzales and Erasmo Ramirez were all acquired near the trade deadline. But Atlanta’s pitching has been dreadful all year, and we’re at the point where I’m actually a bit disappointed that the M’s won’t face Julio Teheran, the nominal ace of this disappointing staff.

The Braves are at an interesting point in their rebuild. A few years ago, they finished 79-83, 2nd in the NL East. With the 2nd wildcard coming in and with a solid young core of players like Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Teheran, Alex Wood, Evan Gattis, Andrelton Simmons and Justin Upton, they appeared ready to contend for several years. Management obviously disagreed, as they undertook one of the most aggressive demolitions of a decent team in recent memory, selling off Gattis, Simmons, Heyward, Wood and Upton in a series of trades. Those moves overhauled their farm system, turning a below-average group to the #1 ranked (by some people) in 2016 and again in 2017. Even after that first wave of deals, they’ve continued to acquire prospects, and currently have a handful of players ranked in baseball’s top 50 prospects. It’s been a painful year or two, but things are looking up as the Braves get used to a brand new stadium, right?

I’m not so sure. The Braves aggressive move to spurn the prospect of “contending” while hanging around .500 seems to have inspired the White Sox and Padres to do the same, and the Sox are the one group that can challenge the Braves for sheer depth of minor league talent. But it’s now 2017, and the Braves really should be further along than they are. That first wave of trades included the Evan Gattis deal with Houston that netted the Braves today’s starter, Mike Foltynewicz. Folty’s blessed with an arm that routinely touched 100 MPH even as a starter when he was coming up in the ‘Stros system, and he averaged 98+ in his first stint in the majors. He’s down to 95 now, which is still well above average and nothing to sneeze at. He’s been one of the Braves best pitchers, too, and while his walk rate (always a concern) is up from 2016, it’s still playable. The problem is that the total package is a bit…underwhelming. He’s now thrown 350+ innings at the big league level, and is settling in at “below average player” kind of levels. He’s not a replacement-level arm, but for a guy with ace potential, you’d like to see a FIP/ERA below the high-4s. At nearly 26, he may still have some development left, but he’s well beyond prospect stages. The problem isn’t that Folty’s been a bust – he absolutely hasn’t. It’s that he’s the high water mark at this point.

Here’s a look at the Braves top 10 prospects from 2016, about 18 months ago. 6 have already made the majors (that’s awesome!), and they’ve contributed -0.1 WAR for the Braves this year (not so awesome). That’s unfair, you say – these are youngsters rushed to the bigs because the big league club is terrible. That’s understandable, and it certainly ameliorates the problem. But the Braves made Dansby Swanson a starter at the beginning of the year, and he needed to be sent back to the minors in July. Ozzie Albies was a little better, but as someone without a ton of power and who may need to move off SS to accomodate Swanson, his ceiling’s limited – and he’s a ways off from reaching it. Sean Newcomb, the big return for Andrelton Simmons, started the season extremely well with quality starts in his first 4 games, but his old control problems clearly haven’t been fixed, and he’s sporting a FIP of 4.80. He’s also 24, just a few months younger than Matt Wisler, whose career ERA is now over 5. Aaron Blair and Max Fried have been hammered in the minors this year and in brief big league trials. Lucas Sims, who’ll start in this series, has seen his MiLB K% drop by more than 50% while he’s maintained the sky-high HR rates he showed in AAA.

Development isn’t a straight line path, and these guys are generally young (and talented) enough that they can figure it out. But if they’re honest, I’m sure the Braves would say that they expected a lot more from the first wave of talent, much of it college-trained and close to the majors, and acquired up to 2+ years ago. Yes, they’ve got another wave in AA headlined by teenage pitchers Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka, but those guys were supposed to be complementary pieces to a core that was supposed to be establishing itself about now. I’m not about to say that there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect, or that the tear-it-down-and-rebuild strategy is doomed; the Astros and Cubs show that it can work if done well. Rather, the Braves are starting to look like a club that’s great at accumulating talent but poor at developing it. This was a serious problem for the M’s (who weren’t even all that great at accumulating talent), and it’s been an issue with a club like San Diego, too. We’ll have to wait and see with the White Sox, too, but it’s always a good reminder that getting a top flight minor league system does not imply an impending MLB juggernaut. The Braves free agent moves haven’t really helped, and if anything look like the kind of easily-undoable moves designed to get around accusations of profit-taking. But they’re also not the point; yes, Bartolo Colon was bad, and no, I’m not really sure why the Braves employ Nick Markakis and Matt Kemp, but those guys aren’t responsible for the Braves predicament. The Braves haven’t been beaten up too much for their poor record, especially as they’re a lot more successful than the 90+ loss clubs of the past two years. But this club shouldn’t be 12 games under at this point in their development, and it’s not impatience to suggest that.

Folty throws a four-seam fastball and a hard slider with a slurvy curveball and a rare change-up. He’ll mix in quite a few sinkers, but he’s not a ground ball pitcher; he’s bounced around 40% GBs for a few years. All of those fly balls have made him somewhat homer-prone, though his pure velocity helps him somewhat there. SunTrust park seems to suppress HRs a bit, but it doesn’t seem extreme. All in all, his stuff looks like a souped-up version of Lucas Sims, whom the M’s will see in a few days, and a bit like the Rays’ Austin Pruitt. Folty, like Aaron Blair, Lucas Sims and Matt Wisler, has the pedigree of a prospect once ranked in MLB’s top 50. Pruitt and fellow ray Jacob Faria were never ranked anywhere close to that, but have outperformed the Braves contingent at this (early) stage.

1: Segura, SS
2: Alonso, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Haniger, RF
6: Gamel, LF
7: Zunino, C
8: Martin, CF
9: Albers, SP

Albers of course was in the Braves org until a few weeks ago. At 31, he wasn’t in the Braves youth-focused plans, but was having a great year in AAA. Since he was last in MLB (with Minnesota), he’s changed in a few important ways. First, he’s now throwing a sinker. In his prior stints, he had a four-seam fastball with some armside run, but he’s now throwing two very distinct fastballs instead of a single one that sort of blended elements of both. Second, he threw his slider a ton the other day – about 1/3 of his pitches. It’s not a great pitch in terms of movement and velo, but it’s worked fairly well, and I wouldn’t mind seeing him continue to rely on it. Third/finally, he’s throwing a tick or so faster than he used to as a starter. He’d average 90 as a one-inning reliever, but only 87-88 as a starter. He averaged 89 with his four seam and 88 with the sinker the other day. Both are still below average, but I’ll take 89 over 87 any day.

Hope everyone got to see the eclipse today and I hope your eyes are still functioning. It was pretty fun, I’ll admit, though I would’ve loved to be in the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes stadium to see the big eclipse in the park promotion. I’m glad the clouds stayed away from pretty much the entirety of the northwest; suck it, Carbondale, IL.

Clinton played a day game in Peoria today, another park that had an eclipse promotion. But their big eclipse glasses promotion fell through when suppliers couldn’t deliver any glasses, and then Clinton went and beat the Chiefs 7-6.

Tyler Cloyds faces off with Kyle Lloyd tonight at Cheney Stadium. Modesto and Arkansas are off tonight, but Anjul Hernandez takes the mound for Everett, and Clinton’s already won.

El Paso beat the Rainiers 5-1 last night, spoiling a solid 4 IP start from Andrew Moore who K’d 6 and yielded 1 hit and no runs.

Lindsey Caughel got roughed up and the Travelers couldn’t figure out A’s prospect AJ Puk in a 9-1 loss to Midland yesterday. The Travs are off today.

Modesto’s Reggie McClain got much the same treatment vs. Stockton on the way to a 15-3 loss. Clinton got blanked 2-0 by Peoria, and Everett lost to Vancouver 5-3, so it was a clean sweep of M’s affiliates yesterday.

Game 124, Mariners at Rays – Struggling Pitcher vs. Struggling Line-up

marc w · August 19, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Ariel Miranda vs. Jake Odorizzi, 3:10pm

The M’s win last night pushed them closer to the 2nd wildcard, and continued a dreadful string for the Rays, who seemed to have the inside track at the wildcard a few weeks back. There’s really no mystery as to what’s gone wrong: the Rays have simply stopped hitting. In the 2nd half of the year, the Rays wRC+ is just 73, far and away the worst in MLB. Their team OBP in just .290 over that stretch, and the team that hit the 3rd-most dingers in the AL in the first half have the fewest in the second. Their big deadline acquisition, Lucas Duda, has been fine. The problem’s widespread among the rest of the Rays’ line-up. Brad Miller’s in a deep freeze, as was Tim Beckham, who seemed to snap out of it upon being shipped to Baltimore. Corey Dickerson, Adeiny Hechevarria, Logan Morrison, Mallex Smith – there are very few signs of life from 1-9. As a group, they’re better than their current form, as their first half form illustrates. But it’s got to be frustrating that the Rays positioned themselves really well to make a run and then fall into a team-wide slump like this one.

The M’s offense hasn’t been great themselves; Nelson Cruz’s hot streak has coincided some poor stretches for others, and thus the M’s offense is slightly below average in the 2nd half. The M’s pitching hasn’t been all that great either, thanks to their long-standing dinger issues, but they’ve been much better in pure strikeout and walk terms. It’s funny – the M’s and Rays pitchers have looked eerily similar since the trade deadline, with solid K rates and low walk rates. Both have had HR troubles, with the M’s predictably giving up more, and both have been GOOD at turning balls in play into outs (and thus both have ERAs below their FIPs). But the Rays offense has absolutely killed them while the M’s have been blessed by the sequencing fairy and have been a solid team despite a slightly worse than average offense AND slightly worse than average pitching.

Speaking of slumps, Ariel Miranda knows the feeling well. After being one of the M’s most unlikely heroes through June, he’s faltered badly since then. His last win and last quality start came on June 30th, and his RA/9 is 7.71 since then. The big problem, as we’ve talked about ad nauseum, has been the longball, as Miranda’s yielded the 2nd-most in baseball. As Bob Dutton’s preview notes, Jake Odorizzi’s been just as bad, as his HR/9 is actually the worst in the league (he just hasn’t pitched as many innings as Miranda). For the longest time, Odorizzi’s secret weapon has been his reverse platoon splits. Thanks to a great splitter – a pitch he throws about twice as often to lefties – he’s kept the ball in the ballpark and generally stymied left-handers. Righties have always been tougher for the right-handed Odorizzi, as his cutter’s not been great, and he doesn’t seem to trust his slider too much. He throws his splitter to righties as well, but it’s not quite as effective, and the bigger issue is that righties tee off on his fastball. Add it up, and his FIP is 1.5 runs higher against righties over his career. Those reverse splits are still there in 2017, but the ball’s just flown off of everyone’s bat, and thus he’s now giving up plenty of dingers to lefties…it’s just that righties are hitting even more.

This would be an interesting test of the M’s line-up construction, but as has happened far too often, injuries have made that impossible. Mitch Haniger’s back with the club after missing time after taking a Jacob DeGrom fastball in the face, but the M’s have lost CF Jarrod Dyson to a groin injury. The M’s also recalled Casey Lawrence, sending Sam Gaviglio back to Tacoma.

1: Segura, SS
2: Alonso, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Haniger, RF
7: Gamel, LF
8: Heredia, CF
9: Zunino, C
SP: Miranda

Alonso 2nd against Odorizzi? At least Dyson’s injury forces Heredia in there, and Haniger’s return helps the right-handedness of the line-up as well. Good match-up for Nellie Cruz who’s never homered off of Odorizzi. Let’s see if that changes today.

Game 123, Mariners at Rays – Stuck in Neutral

marc w · August 18, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Austin Pruitt, 4:10pm

The M’s face yet another of their many wildcard rivals tonight as they head to St. Pete for a series with the Rays. Both the M’s and Rays made some interesting moves to shore up their clubs for the playoff push, with the Rays acquiring 1B Lucas Duda from the Mets and Steve Cishek from, uh, the M’s, while the M’s upgraded their rotation with Erasmo and their bullpen by acquiring David Phelps. Teams like Baltimore, Toronto, Texas and Anaheim did nothing, rationally seeing that their odds were miniscule and that it didn’t make sense to give up young talent for a quixotic push for a one-and-done game. Since that time, the M’s have risen and then fallen back to the pack (and then behind it a bit), and the Rays have fallen from 2 games over and about 1/4 odds for the wildcard to 3 games under, with WC odds of just 9%. These teams did the “right” thing and have seen several teams that all but announced they were giving up pass them in the standings.

Today’s game marks Erasmo’s first return to Tampa since his trade from the Rays, and making it even more interesting is that Austin Pruitt essentially joined the rotation thanks to the series of moves culminating in the Erasmo-for-Cishek swap. The M’s acquired Erasmo on July 28th, and later that day, Austin Pruitt made his first start. Pruitt’s stuff isn’t all that remarkable: he throws an arrow-straight four-seam fastball at around 92, a slider with primarily downward movement, a 12-6 curve, and a change. Movement-wise, you’d expect him to be an over-the-top, Andrew Moore-style arm, but there’s nothing remarkable about his release points, either. This is about as generic as it gets, with the possible exception being that he gets very, very little horizontal movement on anything he throws. But he’s been OK for the Rays, first out of the pen and now in the rotation. A low walk rate helps, of course, and he’s kept the ball in the park pretty well, especially by 2017 standards. Like so many young Mariner hurlers, his fastballs (he also has a sinker he’ll throw on occasion) have been hit pretty hard – as I’ve mentioned, a lot of the revolution on elevated contact has been the result of batters waiting for an attacking fastballs. But UNlike so many Mariners, Pruitt’s attempting to work around it by throwing these problematic pitches less and less. On the year, he’s thrown a slider, curve or change-up 57% of the time. As a result, he’s given up far more balls in play on bendy stuff than on his fastballs. This isn’t exactly a recipe for greatness: Pruitt’s BABIP’s very high, and that’s a big reason why his ERA’s way higher than his FIP. Maybe his breaking stuff simply isn’t good enough to do this long term, I don’t know. But this is a prescription I’ve urged some M’s to take a look at.

Not sure what to make of it, but he’s put up ridiculously backwards platoon splits on the year. He’s a rookie, so you’d expect that to regress; it could be noise. But the lack of movement and the fact that his change seems to be his best pitch make you wonder where it’ll regress towards.

Erasmo’s pitched pretty well for Seattle, particularly given his need to stretch his arm back out after being limited to bullpen duty this season. One thing seems a bit strange, though, and that’s a drop in his K rate of late. It’s only a few games, but he’s only K’d 3 of the past 45 batters he’s faced. Why? I’ve been wondering about this as Andrew Moore’s K rate tumbled upon his promotion to MLB, and Marco Gonzales has K’d just 1 of the last 38 hitters he’s seen. That’s a bigger issue, and one we’ll need to dive into soon, but for now, I wonder about the M’s approach to the fastball. Before his move to Seattle, Erasmo threw four-seamers and sinkers a combined 41% of the time; four-seamers were particularly rare, at under 9% of his pitches. Since moving back west, Erasmo’s throwing more than 51% four-seam+sinkers, with his four-seam usage doubling to 16.5%. His four-seam’s been good this year, so maybe that’s a good idea, but it’s just a striking example of how different the M’s and Rays approach to pitching seems to be.

1: Segura, SS
2: Alonso, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, RF
7: Gamel, LF
8: Heredia, CF
9: Zunino, C
SP: Erasmoooo Ramirez

Newfangled line-up with Danny Valencia in RF – the M’s won’t hesitate to make defensive subs later in the game, of course. Kyle Seager returns from an illness that kept him out a couple of games.

It’s been a while, so let’s do a quick check of the M’s affiliates. At present only one of them, Modesto, is in line to make the playoffs. Modesto won their division’s first half title, so will get to go to the California League playoffs despite a so-so second half of the year. Tacoma, Clinton and Arkansas are all but eliminated at this point. Everett’s only a game back of Vancouver for the division lead, but they’re 29-31. Tacoma’s 61-64, while Clinton’s 12 games under .500 and Arkansas is 13 under.

Randy Bell, Steven Ridings, Tyler Jackson, Nick Neidert and Christian Bergman are your pitching probables today in the system. Mike Curto notes that yesterday snapped a string of 13 consecutive days with a Rainiers roster move. Yikes.

Game 121, Orioles at Mariners – Women in Baseball Night

marc w · August 15, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Andrew Albers vs. Wade Miley, 7:10pm

The game last night continued a slide that’s seen the M’s fall from sole possession of the 2nd wildcard to being a team tied for 4th behind Anaheim. Last night’s win elevated Baltimore into a tie with Seattle in the wildcard chase, and cut Seattle’s playoff odds from over 20% about a week ago to 8% now. It’s been a rough week.

It may get rougher. For tonight’s game, the M’s turn to newly acquired lefty Andrew Albers, the latest in a line of Wade LeBlanc knock-offs. You could argue that Wade Miley was the real model starter Dipoto’s been after, with LeBlanc just a handy (and beguiling) fill-in. Either way, the idea has been to get a lefty with enough stuff to hang around in MLB, but not enough to make them universally desired. Fly balls are a feature, not a bug, and plus command is plus awesome. We’ll see how Albers fires the mold; he was essentially freely-available, but was having a nice year for Gwinnett in the Braves system.

Beyond the frisson of seeing a new Mariner make his debut, the big reason to go to tonight’s game is to check out the Women in Baseball night organized by Meg Rowley of BP and the M’s. Shannon Drayer will be there, along with the Orioles director of analytics, Sarah Gelles. This sounds really cool, and something I hope they do every year. I’d take my family, but I find myself on the wrong coast. If you go, please let me know what you think below in comments or on twitter.

1: Segura, SS
2: Heredia, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Valencia, 1B
6: Zunino, C
7: Martin, RF
8: Espinoza, 3B
9: Dyson, CF
SP: Albers

Game 120, Orioles at Mariners – Two Struggling Rotations Collide

marc w · August 14, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Yovani Gallardo vs. Kevin Gausman, 7:10pm

So I’ve just flown off on vacation, and to make things interesting, I’ve come down with some stupid illness, so I don’t think I can watch this one. Did the series against the Angels literally sicken me? We can’t rule it out, friends.

The Orioles were supposed to be a team that could win despite a lackluster rotation. They had a great offense last year, and a dominant bullpen, headlined by closer Zach Britton. With steady if uninspiring guys like Chris Tillman and Wade Miley around, this really could’ve worked. Instead, everyone in the rotation regressed, including tonight’s starter and perennial ‘Maybe he’ll put it together this season’ tease, Kevin Gausman.

The M’s kind of liked their rotation coming out of spring training. Felix had done strength training, Paxton turned into PAXTON midway through last year, and Smyly/Iwakuma could add some innings. A whole lot went wrong there, and now the O’s and M’s are among the league’s worst rotations. The O’s actually have it worse, because while the M’s defense drives a low BABIP and thus fewer runs than FIP would think, Baltimore’s defense adds fuel to the dumpster fire that is their rotation, pushing their ERA to a steroid-era-esque 5.53.

I mocked the O’s inability to develop pitchers yesterday, but Gausman’s the new example of this longstanding phenomenon. The 26 year old throws 96, and has two different fastballs along with a splitter and slider. This should be enough to do some damage, and he’s put together two good partial years, but then he’ll have a season like this one. Homers have always been an issue, but they’re not appreciably higher than last year. Gausman’ been hurt by his defense and a problem putting away lefties.

1: Segura, SS
2: Alonso, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Heredia, LF
7: Gamel, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Dyson, CF
SP: Gallardo

Game 119, Angels at Mariners – Battle of Baltimore Cast-offs

marc w · August 13, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Ariel Miranda vs. Parker Bridwell, 1:10pm

The M’s try to salvage a game from this ill-fated series today behind Ariel Miranda. The M’s three-game slide certainly feels like a gut punch, but it hasn’t doomed the M’s playoff run as much as you might think, thanks to the Royals’ and Rays’ poor form. Of course, that’s balanced by the fact that these Angels are now a game ahead of all three. BP’s playoff odds still likes the Rays to end up with the 2nd wildcard, while Fangraphs thinks the Angels have the edge; BP likes the M’s chances better than Fangraphs, but both have the M’s with a slightly worse than 1 in 5 shot.

Today’s game features a pair of pitchers whom the perpetually pitching-starved Orioles essentially gave away. Miranda came to the M’s last year in exchange for Wade Miley, who’d pitched his way off the M’s, and has gone on to post a replacement-level year or so with Baltimore. Parker Bridwell, like Miranda, was a lower-tier prospect in the O’s org until this year when Baltimore gave up on him and sold him to Anaheim for cash considerations. Baltimore’s starting rotation makes the M’s look decent, as they’ve compiled a 5.49 ERA and just 4.5 fWAR this season. They are the primary reason Baltimore’s not in playoff position despite a hot start. Meanwhile, they’ve traded away legitimate starting pitchers in each of the last *5* seasons, as this Baltimore Sun article from earlier this year mentions: Jake Arrieta in 2013, Eduardo Rodriguez in 2014, Zach Davies in 2015, Miranda in 2016, and now Bridwell in 2017 (this last one came too late to be included in the article). Those five traded guys have put up 6 fWAR this season, so, uh, nice one, Baltimore.

Bridwell has a 92-93 MPH four-seam fastball and a 90 MPH cutter that he uses a lot of against righties. His outpitch is a true slider at 80, but he’s also got a change and curve. While he’s been effective for the Angels thus far, his FIP’s a lot higher, and he’s shown troubling platoon splits – lefties are pounding him. In the O’s system, Bridwell always struggled with his control, but he’s been surprisingly decent in that department with the Angels; his walk rates plummeted immediately after joining the Angels organization. He’s also a fairly extreme fly ball guy, which helps explain his somewhat high HR rates. Miranda’s home run rates are a much bigger concern, of course, and they’ve killed his effectiveness after an eye-opening start to the season. If the M’s want to re-take the wild card lead, Miranda’s going to have to figure out how to keep the ball in the park. Seriously, Ariel: use your splitter. A lot.

1: Segura, SS
2: Alonso, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Dyson, CF
7: Heredia, LF
8: Martin, RF
9: Ruiz, C
SP: Miranda

Tacoma won an incredible game last night in Cheney 10-9 in 11 IP. Mike Curto details it in his blog post, but the short story is that the R’s scored 4 in the 9th to tie the game at 6. After Reno scored 3 in the 10th to take a 9-6 lead, the R’s got two HRs in their half to tie it back up, and then won it on a Dan Vogelbach walk-off hit in the 11th. The win got the Rainiers back to .500 at 60-60. Bryan Evans, whom the M’s recently got out of the indie leagues to fill in for Arkansas, will come up to AAA to make the start today.

Arkansas beat Midland 5-4 thanks to a decent start from Nick Neidert and a two-run shot by longtime MiLB catcher Steven Baron.

Modesto and Clinton kept the streak going with one-run wins of their own, but Everett lost a one-run game to Boise, an 11-10 affair in extra innings. The AquaSox Greifer Andrade had the batting line of the night, going 4-6 with 3 2Bs. Pitching line…I guess we’ll go with Ljay Newsome’s 5 shutout innings for Clinton.

Game 118, Angels at Mariners

marc w · August 12, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Erasmo Ramirez vs. JC Ramirez, 6:10pm

Eeeeedddddddddgggggaaaaaaaaarrrrrr

As disappointing as the first two games of this series have been, Edgar was ours, and you can’t have him.

1: Segura, SS
2: Alonso, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Gamel, LF
7: Dyson, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Martin, RF
SP: Erasmooooo

Game 117, Angels at Mariners – Sometimes Nostalgia Is A Welcome Distraction

marc w · August 11, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Ricky Nolasco, 7:10pm

James Paxton’s now on the DL with a strained pectoral muscle; he’s expected to miss 3 weeks or so. Felix is on the DL. Iwakuma is on the DL. Drew Smyly’s Mariner career will be a single, unbroken DL stint. The M’s are still tied for the lead in the chase for the 2nd wildcard, but the news over the past 24 hours or so has been unrelentingly bad. Today, the M’s honor Edgar Martinez with a bobblehead giveaway and the start of Edgar Martinez weekend – Edgar’s #11 will be retired tomorrow, and then Sunday will be replica jersey day. Like many, I’ve sometimes been frustrated at a team that seems to peddle nostalgia when it struggles to sell an actual, competitive team. But today, it feels particularly welcome to celebrate a singular talent, and someone who seemed to will himself to greatness. Paxton can’t stay healthy, it’s true, but let’s remember that Edgar’s career didn’t properly begin until he was 27, just a year younger than Paxton is now. He survived a debilitating injury to his knee, shoulder surgery, and battled strabismus in his eyes. His own body seemed to be sabotaging him, so he worked tirelessly to improve it and his approach. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Great players always seem to make the game look easy – Ken Griffey Jr. is the classic example. Edgar never seemed that way; there were always too many signs that he was anything but a superhuman hero: the way he always flinched at high pitches (the product of the fact that he really couldn’t see them well at all), and of course his speed, or lack thereof. That’s what made his seven year peak from 1995-2001 one of the most remarkable runs I’ve ever seen. He was just clearly the best, most complete hitter around, and he did it despite all of these disadvantages. Griffey looked effortless, while Edgar seemed the product of years and years of careful, meticulous self-improvement. Griffey sprang, fully-formed, from some higher plane of existence. Randy Johnson was the most talented pitcher I’ve ever seen, but one who needed to work a bit to figure out his mechanics to become the inner-circle HOF’er he became. Edgar carried the M’s to new heights and became the heart and soul of some historic line-ups and he did it in a completely different way. He seemed like a one-man rebuke to the idea of the can’t miss prospect, of the generational talent. This probably isn’t fair either to Edgar (who was pretty clearly naturally talented) or to Griffey (who put some work in to become an icon), but it felt incredible – almost revolutionary.

It’s both shocking and almost fitting that the M’s haven’t made the playoffs since Edgar led the offense. This year’s group is good enough to get them there, but it’s looking like the pitching staff may not survive long enough to help. Marco Gonzales desperately needs a great start here to spare a bullpen that’s pretty clearly overtaxed. Andrew Moore’s been recalled to help that bullpen, but if he’s spent in long relief, I’m really not sure who’s going to take Paxton’s turn in the rotation. As I’m typing this, the M’s seem to have answered that: the M’s have just acquired LH pitcher Andrew Albers from the Braves. You’re…you’re never going to believe this, but he’s a lefty throwing about 87-88 who fits the command/control mold to a tee. I’ve seen him compared to Wade LeBlanc a few times. At 31 years old, he doesn’t quite fit in the Braves youth movement, but he’s dominated the International League. He’s seen a bit of MLB time, mostly with Minnesota, and pitched for Canada in the World Baseball Classic. He’s not a strikeout pitcher, but gets a few more grounders than Moore and that ilk. This is the most Mariner move I’ve seen in some time, but it’s hard to complain when injuries have wiped out so much of the M’s rotation. Sure, I’d love to see them expand their search beyond “poor man’s Jason Vargas,” but I recognize that beggars can’t be choosers.

I’ve spent far too much time over the past several years detailing the specific ways in which Ricky Nolasco is a steady, below-average baseball player, but one thing stood out for me today. In the past several years, his fastball’s declined to the point where it gets battered pretty regularly; he’s given up 20 dingers on fastballs (sinkers+ four-seam) this year, for example. His breaking stuff isn’t great, but he’s got a moderately interesting splitter that he reserves for lefties only. That’s produced some reverse platoon splits, as he’s essentially doing what I accused Ariel Miranda of doing: sidelining his best pitch and choosing to live or die on his fastball. It’s a common thing, but it doesn’t make it any more intelligible for me.

1: Segura, SS
2: Alonso, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Gamel, LF
7: Dyson, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Martin, RF
SP: Gonzales

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