Game 151, Rangers at Mariners – What Now?

marc w · September 19, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Martin Perez, 7:10pm

A rematch of the game back on the 13th in Arlington, tonight’s pitching match-up pits sinkerballer Mike Leake against lefty Martin Perez. Perez and Leake remain low K pitchers, but they get a fair number of groundouts and thus avoid huge HRs-allowed totals. Perez walks too many, however, while Leake doesn’t, and that makes Leake better.

Leake’s been great since joining the M’s, marking a rare improvement for a player upon joining the club. His durability makes the 2018 rotation look noticeably better, too. Taking on a portion of his contract essentially gets the M’s a do-over for the Drew Smyly acquisition; Smyly’s in his last year of arb next year, but given the late date of his TJ, it’s hard to see the M’s tendering him an offer. Paxton/Felix/Leake isn’t a world-beating top 3, especially given Paxton’s injury history, but it’s also much better than what the M’s have had to throw out there this season, as the M’s top three in terms of number of starts were Ariel Miranda, Yovani Gallardo and Paxton. Andrew Moore looks like he’s improving, but it still seems like something’s missing in approach. The M’s have given up the 4th-most HRs in baseball this year, the same as they did last year. The Tacoma Rainiers gave up the most HRs of any team in any classification of the affiliated minors, and they – like the M’s – play in a nominal pitcher’s park. Avoiding the long ball is going to be critical if the M’s want their pitching staff to push them over the top.

The thinking this year, of course, was that the pitching just needed to be OK – the position players were going to be the engine of the club, though they’d do it a bit differently. It worked for a while, as the M’s OF defense kept BABIP low (partially mitigating the HR barrage), and the bats were better than anticipated, racking up about 4 runs over average. As engines go, you’d prefer a bit more displacement, but at least they were above average, and they were fairly efficient, too – scoring more runs than base runs would’ve predicted. But in the second half, they’re far below average, pulling the season total below 0, and there simply isn’t any help left in the system. The Rainiers were one of the best hitting clubs in the minors, but much of that production came from guys who are already gone (Leonys Martin, Boog Powell, Tyler O’Neill) or already struggling in the majors (Taylor Motter). The M’s have selected two position players that have made it to Seattle since the 2010 draft: Mike Zunino and the unforgettable Tyler Smith, who was DFA’d after 16 at-bats this year (admit it: you’d forgotten). A huge chunk of recent draft picks has already left the org in order to win in 2017, so this number may not move a whole lot in the next few years (though Braden Bishop’s progress is very encouraging, and hooray for Kyle Lewis).

This looks like a colossal failure of player development, and while that WAS the story for much of this time period, I don’t think we know as much about the Dipoto era. This isn’t an exoneration of the group, but it’s an acknowledgement that they haven’t really had much of a chance. This is the downside of the relentless churning the front office did in the minors, picking up tons and tons of minor league vets and shifting players here and there throughout the year. It’s hard to work on development in an environment like that, and while that doesn’t completely get them off the hook, it’s a mitigating circumstance. The problem is that this year could’ve been critical in developing or identifying depth – for both pitchers and position players – for 2018. Due to injuries and a complete inability to stand pat, the M’s essentially had a lost year in PD. That’s going to limit their options going forward.

The M’s have a lot of needs next year, and they need to triage them well. Starting pitching’s way up there, of course, but they need a new 1B and a new OF as well. Trading O’Neill was easier when the M’s thought they had three cost-controlled OFs in Ben Gamel, Guillermo Heredia and Mitch Haniger. But since then, Gamel’s hitting .224/.259/.367 and Heredia’s hit .233/.307/.327. These two had issues with isolated power which seemed to be addressed at times in the first half, but those concerns are back and can’t be ignored. The M’s need to take some pressure off these two by bringing in another OF. Would Jarrod Dyson want to return, or will he try his luck on the open market? Will the M’s go for Camerin Maybin instead? The free agent OFs aren’t great, but the M’s need to find someone. 1B is a bit more interesting, as they both retain a “prospect” who plays that position and have watched the market for 1Bs absolutely crater. I’m not sure what Yonder Alonso will get, but whatever it is, the M’s can afford it. If Dave’s right and Jose Bautista won’t scare up any offers, you could see him taking a cheap one-year deal, too. All of which puts a bit more pressure on Dan Vogelbach, who simply needs to start hitting at the big league level, and he can’t do that from the bench. If we get one thing out of the last 11 games, I hope it’s 30-40 Vogelbach PAs. My fear is that he won’t get any until the M’s are mathematically eliminated.

There may not be enough time to settle the debate on whether Vogelbach’s a big leaguer, but they can re-start their examination. Then, Dipoto’s going to need to get creative to bring in a starter or two and an OF. But after a few moves, the M’s are going to need to pump the brakes a bit. They need to figure out what they have and what they need in the medium term, and it’s just harder to do that when you’re swapping out pretty much every pitcher in the system. They need to see if their vaunted development processes are working, or if they need to go study the Astros a bit more. They need to see if their first couple of draft classes adapt to their methods any better than the last few of Zduriencik’s cohorts. They need to do this, because while they can compete in 2018, it starts to look somewhat bleak after that. There’s a lot of salary coming off the books in the next few years, but there’s also some production leaving, too. The M’s will have some flexibility, but as they’ve learned, you can’t compete with the Astros/Indians if you’re not developing comparable talent.

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

Game 150, Mariners at Astros – On Going Gently, Good Nights, etc.

marc w · September 17, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Andrew Moore vs. Justin Verlander, 11:10am (Note: due to the Seahawks game, the M’s radio broadcast will be on AM 770 instead of 710)

The M’s are stuck at 3.5 games back in the wildcard race, but there are now just 12 games left in the regular season. It’s…ah…it’s not happening this year. The most important thing the M’s can do now is figure out who’s likely to be a part of a similar run in 2018, and that means figuring out what went wrong with the M’s pitching depth in 2017. Andrew Moore was one of the team’s top prospects and he was excellent in AA, pretty good in AAA, and then fell on his face in the big leagues. That happens to plenty of pitchers, but it’s critical that the M’s understand why it happened to Moore and what they plan to do about it. He was always better than he seemed when every other batter homered off of him and he was demoted and then lost his rotation spot. But the key is figuring out where he’ll slot next year, and what tweaks to his arsenal the M’s will make. Moore seems like a great learner, and I’ll be he has his own ideas of what to do, some of which he may be implementing now.

Justin Verlander’s turned back the clock since moving to Houston. In 2 starts and 14 IP, he’s given up 7 hits and just one run while striking out 16. After a dreadful August, the Astros are once again set up fairly well for the playoffs. Damn it.

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

Congrats to Jacob Hannemann on his first big league hit in yesterday’s game. It was a quintessentially M’s-of-2017 moment, as the M’s mounted a challenge but ultimately fell short. A young player made a good first impression, but 95% of serious M’s fans probably didn’t know who he was, where he came from, or when.

Game 149, Mariners at Astros

marc w · September 16, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Dallas Keuchel, 10:05am

After yesterday’s disappointment, it’s kind of nice to have an early game. We can’t linger on James Paxton’s disaster of a start, as we’ve got to focus on…uh, going up against a Cy Young winner. Great.

Paxton threw about 50 pitches without his normal velocity, command, or effectiveness, and mercifully pulled after 1 1/3 IP. With a pitch limit of 60, expecting him to work deep into the game or to look like the Paxton from April of this year wouldn’t have been realistic, but yesterday’s game raised a lot more questions than it answered.

A month or so ago, I noted that Erasmo Ramirez had thrown more four-seam fastballs since being traded to Seattle. He was throwing more fastballs of all types, but more four-seamers in particular. Jake Mailhot at LL wrote an article on this for LL as well, expanding far beyond my sentence-or-two observation. Erasmo’s made two starts since Jake’s article at LL, and since then, he’s all but abandoned his four-seam. After throwing 22 4-seam and 22 sinkers against Baltimore, he’s thrown *94* sinkers over his last two games against just 12 four-seamers. As soon as we noticed a shift in his pitch mix, he’s made another one. Whatever he’s doing, it’s worked pretty well – he’s on a streak of 6 consecutive quality starts.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Heredia, CF
8: Ruiz, C
9: Motter, LF
SP: ERASMO

The M’s have their righty-heavy line-up to face lefty Dallas Keuchel. Keuchel absolutely kills lefties, so that’s probably appropriate. Still, Keuchel’s effectiveness is based on his ability to locate his sinker on the edge of the zone and on inducing swings on it when it’s below the zone. Jean Segura’s the best M’s hitter on pitches on the low edge of the zone and below, while Danny Valencia and Robbie Cano have wOBAs on such pitches below .200 (yeeesh). Oddly enough, if we just look at batters’ performance against sinkers – regardless of their location – then Cano and Valencia look pretty good, while Segura falls to 339th out of 351 hitters who’ve put at least 10 in play.

Congratulations to the Modesto Nuts who completed a three game sweep of Lancaster to win the California League title. The M’s affiliates had a rougher go this season, but they won a title last year (AA) and one this year (high-A). Modesto didn’t lose a game in the postseason, and hit incredibly well. Joe Rizzo, Kyle Lewis and Jordan Cowan all hit especially well. And with that, another year of minor league baseball comes to a close.

Game 148, Mariners at Astros

marc w · September 15, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton (!) vs. Charlie Morton, 5:10pm

A day after getting their heart and soul back from an extended DL trip, the M’s today activate their *best* player, lefty James Paxton. By fWAR, Paxton’s been the best player on the M’s by about a full win, and by RA9-WAR by more than half a win. It’s a counting stat, so Paxton’s already penalized for missing time like, uh, James Paxton, so that says something about the rate at which he accumulates production: when healthy, no one on the M’s comes close to Paxton’s level this year.

That’s…that’s a double-edged sword, though, isn’t it? Jeff had a good post today about which tranche of players on each team have contributed WAR. The Indians have the most as a team, followed by the Dodgers, so perhaps it won’t come as a huge surprise that those teams’ top 5 and 10 players are much better than other teams’ top 5 and 10 players. The Astros are also remarkably deep, having the 5th best group of 1st-5th-best players, and the single best collection of supporting stars, and the 5th best collection of depth players (players below the top 10 in WAR). The Mariners come in around the middle in each group, and thus come in around the middle in overall WAR. They have 7 position players at or above 2 WAR on the year, compared to the Astros 6. But those 6 players on the Astros combine for 24 fWAR, while the M’s top 7 add up to just 19. And while the M’s have just one pitcher above 2 WAR, the Astros have four of them.

That’s a big reason why the Astros are looking to officially wrap up the AL West during this series. They’ve been remarkable successful in developing talent through the minors, and thus not only do they have a number of great young players, but they’ve also been able to make a number of trades to shore up weaknesses they’ve had. They’ve turned their top prospects into productive regulars, and then they’ve gotten remarkable production from less-than-can’t-miss prospects like Jose Altuve or Brad Peacock. This ability to turn big-time prospects into at least starting-caliber players and then hit on a player development lottery ticket or two has been huge for the darlings of baseball right now, the Indians. Francisco Lindor was a top-100 prospect, and he’s now a superstar. But Jose Ramirez seemed like org depth until last year, and he’s a top-10 fWAR position player now. The Astros are getting contributions from George Springer, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa, but they’re also getting them from Altuve and Dallas Keuchel, whom essentially no one saw as future stars.

The M’s have a solid core of players; they’re not playing at last year’s level, but that’s partially balanced by improvements in the 6th-10th-place players. The problem is that their stars can’t compete with Houston’s, and they can’t compete with Houston’s sheer number of contributors. Other than that, it’s a pretty balanced contest. The M’s have developed a handful of players who essentially came out of nowhere to be contributors – Emilio Pagan’s one, and you can add Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia to that list too. In the past, the biggest star the M’s produced from outside of their top 10 was Doug Fister, whom they traded away before he was arb eligible. The emergence of Mike Zunino’s been a huge story this year, and an all-important player development win, but it’s impossible not to notice the difference in the quantity and quality of home-grown success stories between the two clubs. Sure, the Astros had a lot of high draft picks, but so have the M’s the past several years.

Morton looks like one of the better free agent pick-ups of the offseason, as if Houston needed further successes. As we talked about when the M’s saw him (against Paxton, actually) back in April, he’s seen a velo bump and now sits at 96 with his four-seamer and swerving sinker. That sinker’s the key to Morton’s continually-high ground ball rate, but after settling in for many years with K% rates in the teens (in the NL), he’s now scraping 27%, and thus his K-BB% is far and away a career high. This combination of strikeouts and grounders sort of reminds you of peak Felix, and while Morton isn’t quite at that level, he should easily pass 3 fWAR in a season marred by injury stints.

Of note, Morton’s shown remarkably reversed platoon splits this year, with lefties utterly lost against him while righties have been successful. Yes, a .100 point gap in BABIP explains a lot of it, but it’s there in FIP too – his K% and HR rates are just better against lefties. Lefties haven’t fared well against his sinker, but they’ve been particularly flummoxed by Morton’s curveball. It’s not a perfect comparison, but it reminds me a bit of the reverse splits put up this year by Astros’ relief ace Chris Devenski, whose fastball confounds lefties – they’re *slugging* .111 on his four-seam fastball this year. I have no idea why the release point or mechanics with these guys so confuses opposite-handed hitters, but I have a hunch the Astros do.

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

Game 147, Mariners at Rangers – The Return of the King

marc w · September 14, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

FELIX vs. Andrew Cashner, 5:05pm

:clears voice: Happy Felix Day.
Man, that feels good to say again. Felix’s season hasn’t gone at all like we’d hoped, so assessing where he is now is an important part of how the M’s view their 2018 season. Felix remains the heart of the club, even if he’s far from its most productive member. There’s been a lot of talk this year about how Felix’s slide means his days as an above-average pitcher are over, and I get that, but pitchers are strange. Let’s hope the King is strange, too, and that just continuing 2-year trend lines below replacement level looks silly next year.

Hell, his opponent today is a good example of this. Cashner teased with his high-90s velocity with the Padres, but while he put up decent FIP-based stats for years, he never quite made the leap to staff ace that many expected. BABIP struggles in 2015 and then 2016 led him to post 2 straight below-replacement level seasons by RA9-based WAR, and with his velocity dropping fast, the Pads flipped him to Miami last year, whereupon he put up perhaps his worst stretch of pitching as a professional. He was released by the Marlins and struggling with injuries, but the Rangers signed him to a one-year deal because their pitching coach was convinced he could unlock something. He was activated in April (against the M’s, actually), and while his velo is lower than ever, and though his K:BB ratio is abysmal, he’s got an RA9-WAR of 4.2 on the year. 4 wins! Yes, yes, FIP still doesn’t buy it, but not many runs have scored on Cashner this year, despite his inability to miss bats. After two years of getting BABIP’d to death, he’s morphed into a contact manager, at least temporarily. Part of the story there is a shift in how he uses his fastballs, throwing his sinker more to same-handed batters and his four-seam to opposite-handed bats. This is what the “numbers” (pitch type platoon splits) would suggest, but surprisingly few teams do it. His change is still a decent pitch, but he ditched his slider for a harder cutter, and that seems to have helped him this year.

If Felix can stay healthy, can he figure out his HR problems? As a pitcher who’s made countless adjustments thus far, I don’t really see why not. Age and injuries are formidable foes, of course, but Felix doesn’t have to be royal again to be effective. The story of the past few years has been Felix’s ineffective fastball(s). After years of dominating lefties with the game’s best change-up, lefties started to batter his fastballs, especially in fastball counts. Righties have gotten into the act now too, even as they continue to struggle against Felix’s change. He’s thrown fewer and fewer fastballs, but the ones he HAS thrown just get hit harder and harder. We know where the problem is, so now he just needs to adjust. One potential could be the cutter that’s he’s toyed with off and on for years – something to give very different movement to his sinker. It’s his sinker that’s been the primary offender, and I said he should consider moving back to his four-seamer and throw it up in the zone more, but as I mentioned the other day, the league as a whole is hitting those pitches more better now. Felix has gotten hit especially hard up in the zone (sorry Felix! Don’t listen to me!), but I think he can learn to nibble the way Zach Davies (and others) does and get some bad contact on pitches just out of the zone. As a guy with a splitter-like change, that should be easier for him than most: he can already induce swings on out-of-zone pitches. He’s just got to keep his fastballs out of the center of the zone, even if that means a few more balls and a few more walks. That’s where the cutter could help – once batters think armside movement will take a pitch out of the zone, say, a cutter could bring it back to the corner. Once hitters look for *that*, then they’ll be more like to swing at sinkers as they dart out of the zone. Rinse/repeat.

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

Modesto beat Lancaster in extra innings last night 8-5 on a three-run shot by local kid Jordan Cowan. That gives the Nuts a 2-0 lead in the Cal League championship series, and a win would help erase the bad taste the 2017 MiLB season’s left. RP Art Warren touched 96-97 in the 8th according to Bobby DeMuro, who was at the game.

Speaking of bad tastes, the M’s former #1 prospect Luiz Gohara recently made his MLB debut for Atlanta after rising from high-A ball all the way through the minors. His second start was last night, opposite Max Scherzer and the Nats, and the young Brazilian pitched a gem, going 6 IP with 6 hits allowed, 2 runs (1 earned), no walks and 6 Ks. He was efficient with his pitches, allowing him to sit at 97-98 with his fastball into the 6th. He threw several change-ups along with a slurvy slider. He’s still somewhat raw, and his fastball command isn’t there, but…he was in A ball this year, and is now sitting comfortably in the high-90s against Anthony Rendon and the Nats. No, Gohara wouldn’t have had this season here, but that doesn’t make this deal any easier to forget. This one could sting, and sting for a while, particularly given that the primary return for Gohara (Mallex Smith, who became Drew Smyly), will likely never pitch in an M’s uniform. Sigh.

Game 146, Mariners at Rangers – Shohei Otani

marc w · September 13, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

My Clique vs. Martin Perez, 5:05pm

The M’s remain 3.5 games behind the Twins in the wildcard chase, and while it’s fun to see how well Mike Leake’s adjusted to the AL, their odds of winning this particular race remain slim. As such, it’s not a shock that M’s fans now have a great distraction from 2017’s frustrations: Shohei Otani is going to be posted. There are two main reasons to think the M’s could be in the running to win the right to offer him an absurdly below-market-value contract.

First, there’s the M’s demonstrated interest. Jerry Dipoto attended Otani’s first start of the year the other day along with the M’s scouting director, Tom Allison. As a two-way player who’s currently a starter and DH, an AL team may make the most sense for him, as he could rack up more total ABs in the junior circuit than he would in the NL. A former OF, a team could conceivably use him in an OF corner, but given his (non-arm) injury history, I think most would be loathe to expose Ohtani to that much risk. The M’s history with Japanese players and Seattle’s spot on the West coast with non-stop flights to Japan may help a bit, too.

Second, and perhaps much more importantly, Ohtani can’t make his initial decision based on his initial contract. Last year’s changes in the CBA affected the posting system in a way that seemed designed to personally impact Otani. Previously, 16-23 year olds were subject to the international bonus pools, designed to stop teams from lavishing multi-million dollar deals on teenage prospects in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Players older than 23, and thanks to the NPB’s rules on free agency, it was essentially impossible to have a player posted younger than that, weren’t subject to that system, and could sign with the highest bidder. That’s why, say, Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish generated huge posting fees and signed significant major league contracts. It’s why Yoenis Cespedes could sign a 4-year deal and reach free agency faster than a regular draft pick or international signing. The new CBA raises the age to which the international bonus pool rules apply to 25. Otani’s age? 23. Thus, Darvish/Tanaka/Cespedes money is officially off the table, and posting fees themselves are now capped at $20 million. Whichever team signs him is going to get a ridiculous bargain, and at least at the outset, a willingness to break the bank for a long-term contract isn’t relevant the way it usually would be.

But wait, haven’t a bunch of teams blown past the international bonus pool caps, accepted the penalties, and gone about their business? Why wouldn’t some team thrown $100 million at Otani if the penalty means they’d have to take a break on signing international 16-year olds for a while? The new CBA prevents that as well, by turning the bonus pools into hard caps. If you wanted to design a set of rules *specifically* to prevent Shohei Otani from coming to MLB in 2018, I’m not sure you could’ve done better than what the league and player’s union did last year. And yet he’ll be here next year.

That doesn’t mean that teams aren’t feverishly working to get around the restrictions they agreed to in the CBA. Dave Cameron’s article notes that a team could have an under-the-table agreement to sign a multi-year extension, though that would probably have to wait until after Otani’s first year in the majors – otherwise, MLB would likely revoke the contract as an obvious attempt to dodge the rules. He further mentions both opt-outs and an opt-IN to arbitration, so if the player thought he could make more than his contract through arbitration, that option would be available; Jose Abreu’s contract with Chicago had this, and he used it to get a small raise this year. Players like Chris Sale and Evan Longoria signed team-friendly extensions soon after arriving in the majors, and one-time Astros 1B Jon Singleton famously signed an extension while still in the minors. Otani won’t BE in the minors, and MLB will probably police any extensions given out as soon as he steps onto a big league field, but if they didn’t stop Singleton’s extension, they’d have a hard time preventing a team from giving Otani a much bigger paycheck fairly soon. The question is if that’s going to sway him. Kate’s article at LL talks about his spartan lifestyle and lifelong dream to play in MLB. Would making the league minimum for 3 years while, I don’t know, Marc Rzepczynski earned 10 times that eat at him?

Given these restrictions, what would the M’s best, uh, pitch to Otani be? Otani would presumably like to live somewhere nice, something Seattle could offer. He’d probably like an agreement in place about hitting/DHing, something the M’s could conceivably do, even with Nelson Cruz around for 2018. Finally, he may want to play for a contender; somewhere offering very good odds on reaching baseball’s biggest stage. That one’s going to be tougher for the M’s to compete on. Now, because of previous penalties, some of the biggest competitors for Otani’s services – the Dodgers, Cubs, Astros- are restricted from going above a measly $300,000 this year. If Otani wants to play for LA, and he wanted to out of high school, then he’ll either need to take $300,000 as a signing bonus (as opposed to ~$10,000,000 from another team) or LA’s lawyers will need to get pretty creative. The Yankees and Dodgers simply can’t outspend everyone, and the M’s still have their bonus pool money, but it still may be a tough sell. This is one side of the GM job that’s so hard for outsiders to evaluate, but is so critical: how good is a GM at getting what he/she wants? I think Jerry Dipoto can present a very good case that his organization has historical links to Japanese baseball icons, that it works hard to take care of those players, and knows the NPB well. I’m not sure that they’ve done as much as some other teams to strengthen those ties, and I hope that doesn’t hurt them here.

John Trupin’s article at LL notes that Dipoto mentioned that he was scouting some *other* pitchers on the Nippon Ham Fighters, which sounds like a ridiculous statement, but might be key to the M’s pitch. I wonder if the idea isn’t to sign 2 or even 3 players at once. Otani could take a buddy to MLB, and the M’s would get still more pitching depth. If you want to get sneaky, you could envision a scenario in which the M’s worked out another deal where the over-25 pitcher would get an inflated deal and essentially give some of it to Otani. This practice happened a lot in the days before the international bonus pools came into effect, with extra money going to trainers or even international scouting directors. MLB investigated these, so they’ve got experience in policing this, so it’d be insane for a team to try and get away with it. Still, the idea of taking on a teammate might help the M’s separate themselves from the mass of teams offering literally everything they’re allowed to offer. So, if the M’s want to be in this fight, and they do, they should maximize their chance by presenting themselves as NPB friendly as possible. Iwakuma’s contract includes things like first-class plane tickets to Japan 8 times a year or whatever, so they could include those, and perhaps provide housing in Seattle’s insane market. They can sign at least one more NPB player, preferably a teammate, and they can commit to playing him at least part time at DH. I still think the two LA teams, Texas, Boston and maybe the Cubs have a better shot, but the M’s aren’t almost certainly out of the running the way they were with Darvish and Tanaka.

Right, right, there’s a game on soon. The M’s again face Martin Perez, the one-time prospect darling turned fairly steady #3-4 starter. His K rate never really improved, and it’s just difficult to be a contact manager in Texas on a consistent basis, so while he had a decent ERA last year, he’s now *over*rated by FIP, as his ERA’s closer to 5. Mike Leake’s had two very encouraging starts in Seattle, and he got very close to 94 MPH at times in his last start. That’s higher than his peak velo in his first start for the M’s, which itself had a higher peak than any of his recent starts with St. Louis. This is a good trend.

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

With the lefty on the mound again, Danny Valencia gets the start at 1B, and Gamel moves to the 9 spot. Let’s hope Gamel’s recent power surge continued; he homered off of a lefty on Friday, in Leake’s last start.

Game 145, Mariners at Rangers – There’s Always Next Year

marc w · September 12, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Miguel Gonzalez, 5:05pm

Whoa, wait, Miguel Gonzalez is on the Rangers now? He’s made one start for the club, which is to be expected as he pitched – for the White Sox – on the waiver trade deadline of August 31st. The Rangers, like a few other teams, probably had to rethink things during August as they stumbled back into the race for the 2nd wildcard after dealing ace Yu Darvish to the Rangers.

Gonzalez is still the same fly-balling righty we got to know from his days with the Orioles – he still throws a rising four-seam fastball at 91-92, doesn’t miss a ton of bats, and gives up a fair number of home runs as a result. It’s somewhat odd that he’s been so consistent in ground ball rate after developing a sinker and throwing it much more than he used to. Despite that new pitch, his GB% is still within a percentage point of his career average. His HRs-allowed are more volatile, of course, but given his fly-balling ways, he’s managed to run a low BABIP and thus post better ERA’s than his FIP would predict.

This is essentially what we’d like to see out of Andrew Moore, and Moore showed some encouraging signs last night. He had 7 strikeouts, and *all* of them came on fastballs. Moore’s got even more rise on his fastball than Gonzalez, and that should help him get a couple more whiffs on the pitch. Of course, Gonzalez also has a decent slider and a splitter, while Moore’s secondaries are still works in progress. His change-up looked better last night, and he certainly threw it often, but his fastball seems like his putaway pitch, which is unusual. Former Reds starter and current Dodger reliever Tony Cingrani struck out staggering numbers of minor league batters with a fastball that sat at 91 and that he threw over 80-90% of the time. It was remarkable, and it still pretty much is – he’s been in the majors full time (pretty much) since 2013, and he’s still a one-pitch, low-velo fastball guy. As impressive as that is, it’s not been a great career, and he obviously got bumped from the rotation along the way. His 2013 season is essentially what we’d all hope to see from Moore someday, while his 2014+15 seems more like Moore’s season line from this year. Moore’s fastball is an interesting one, and last night was his most successful usage of it yet. But it still got dinged for a home run, and thus Moore needs better secondaries. The change is the furthest along, and it’s great to see his growing confidence in it, but I’d love to see his slider improve. The curve – again, it kind of reminds me of Cingrani’s for its lack of vertical movement – may be a lost cause. Still, that performance will likely earn Moore another shot to start, just as Marco Gonzales’ great long relief game made tonight’s start possible.

It certainly didn’t hurt him in his last outing, but Gonzales seems to have a very different release point for his fastball than his change or breaking balls. Here’s his release point from the 2nd against Oakland:
Spot the fastballs!
There’s a big grouping of pitches represented by the black squares around 2′ to the first base side. Then, there’s a smudge of yellow and blue, over 2.5′ towards first. The change is the furthest away, and the fastball grouping is distinct; there’s zero overlap between fastball and non-fastball. Gonzales has always had somewhat distinct release points, but it looked more like a continuous blob as opposed to two distinct groups. Here’s a start of his from 2014:
gonz release 14

So does this matter? I’m not sure how much, but you’d think it’s something hitters would pick up on. We’re talking a few inches here, so it’s not like it’s going to be as obvious to a hitter as it is in those tidy graphs, but hitters, hitting coaches, and other personnel using technology (apple watches!) get paid to turn observations into actionable information, so I bet at least some are taking advantage.

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

Jarrod Dyson’s having surgery to repair a sports hernia, so he’s done for the year and may have just played his last game in an M’s uniform. That, coupled with last night’s loss, would certainly seem to put an end to this year’s playoff race. No, they’re not eliminated yet, but the drop from Dyson to Heredia defensively is pretty steep, and while the rotation’s looking better than it has in a while – particularly with Paxton/Felix ready to return on this road trip, there just isn’t enough time to track down the Twins/Angels. Assuming Dyson goes elsewhere, the M’s have some shopping to do in the offseason to build another contending team. They’ll need a 1B, as Alonso/Valencia can walk, and they may need another true CF. Would Dyson take a cheap extension to stay, given that his value may be hurt by the way his 2017 season ended? Either way, the M’s will probably be buyers as they can fairly easily contend for the wild card next year in Cruz’s final year in Seattle. It gets more interesting after that, when the M’s either need to have developed more star-caliber players (Kyle Lewis?) or they’ll need to spend even more in free agency. The make up of the club and contracts make it a pretty easy decision to essentially stay the course for 2018, but 2019 could look very different.

Game 144, Mariners at Rangers – Org Churn

marc w · September 11, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Ariel Miranda vs. Cole Hamels, 5:05pm

It’s pretty simple: the M’s currently sit in 4th place in the AL West, and to have any shot at the 2nd wildcard, they need to finish 2nd. They just took a series from the Angels, the team currently occupying 2nd place, but they remain 2 games behind them. Today, they begin a series against Texas, the team currently in 3rd, and just a half game ahead of the M’s. The M’s need to win the series, because time’s running out and they really need to start passing some teams. The fact that the 2nd wildcard is still pretty open is great, and being within a handful of games mattered how the M’s viewed their playoff odds and their club in general a month or two ago. Now, it’s not enough. There just aren’t enough games left.

Today the M’s activated pitcher Ryan Weber from the 60-day DL and outrighted him to Tacoma. This is what the M’s did with Christian Bergman on the 1st of the month, and it essentially means Weber’s tenure in the org is over. They picked Weber up on a waiver claim from the Braves, as he seemed to offer decent depth, given his experience both as a starter and a reliever. Weber didn’t disappoint; after an outing or two as a reliever, he moved into the Rainiers rotation in mid-April and proceeded to absolutely dominate, running an ERA of 0.85 over 31+ innings, which earned him a call-up in May. He blew his arm out 3 innings into his M’s career, and has been on the DL until today. I bring it up because that means that 4 of the Rainiers’ primary April starters have been DFAd – Weber, Sam Gaviglio, Christian Bergman, and Chris Heston. The other two, Chase de Jong and Dylan Unsworth ended up demoted to AA, and only de Jong is on the 40-man. Of the Rainiers 9 opening day relievers, only Emilio Pagan and Tony Zych are still in the org, and Zych was only in Tacoma on a rehab assignment. The sheer number of DFAs, waiver claims and minor league transactions this year has been staggering, and while some of that comes with the territory, the degree of attrition and replacement this year feels well nigh unprecedented. The Rainiers used 54 pitchers this year. Texas’ club used fewer than 40. Beyond the churn, though, I think I have *less* of a sense of how to prioritize the club’s pitching depth. This wasn’t throwing a bunch of prospect spaghetti at the wall and seeing who sticks. This was throwing minor league free agents at the wall, and even if they stuck, those guys can just go elsewhere. The M’s *had* to rely on minor league vets because they didn’t have a ton of homegrown players. Now, having sent off pretty much every remaining M’s-drafted player, it’s not clear where they go from here. They’re going to need to do it again next year just to fill out rosters, so get ready for the M’s to be active on the waiver wire and in minor league free agency. That’s…fine, I guess, but there’s no way to spin this season as anything but a failure in terms of pitching development overall.

There have been so many stunning stat lines this year from guys with essentially zero power who’ve knocked a bunch of home runs and pushed their SLG% way up. Jake Marisnick, Chris Taylor, the list goes on. We saw Elvis Andrus run an ISO far beyond his career averages last year, but you still wouldn’t call him a slugger or anything – he slashed .302/.362/.439, which is a very good season for an up-the-middle defender, and he posted his career high in HRs with 8. So, this year, he’s slashing .306/.348/.497. He’s sitting on 20 HRs and counting, and could tip over the .500 mark in SLG% by the end of this series (or game). He went from a bad hitter, to someone posting Jean Segura-in-2017 last year, and now he’s posting Segura’s 2016 slash line. It’s remarkable, and it’s remarkably frustrating as an M’s fan. Andrus in 2015 hit .257/.309/.357, and in a few years is within a few percent of Kyle Seager’s *best* batting season.

Cole Hamels had a velocity spike from about 2014-16, where he went from 92 on his fastball to nearly 94, but that seems to have run its course now. He’s back at 92, so the big change from his heyday with the Phillies is that he’s now throwing a sinker a lot more. His usage has gone from about 5% to over 20% these days, so while he’s still known mostly for his change and to a lesser extent his cutter, he’s got two different fastballs that he features pretty often. Lefties see the pitch a lot more, and it’s been effective against them. His change is still quite good, but he’s run normal platoon splits for several years. They’re even for his career, but righties have hit him a bit better than lefties over the past 3-5 years, as you’d expect.

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

Modesto finished off Stockton to sweep their first round series in the California League playoffs, so they’ll kick off the championship series against Lancaster on Tuesday. Lancaster’s the Astros affiliate, and they’re led by Cal League batting champ Yonathan Daza, who hit .341/.376/.466 on the year and went 10-18 in their playoff series win over Rancho Cucamonga.

Game 142, Angels at Mariners

marc w · September 9, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Andrew Albers vs. Andrew Heaney, 6:10pm

Andrew Heaney, acquired in exchange for Howie Kendrick, had a great 2015 with the Angels. In 18 starts, he struck out fewer batters than average, but his great control and a low HR rate to a very good FIP and ERA.

Times change, though. After suffering a UCL tear, he rehabbed after TJ surgery and is now healthy again; he’s made four starts with the Angels. Four completely unrecognizable starts. Unlike 2015, he’s now striking out well more than a batter an inning. And the home runs…ohhhh, the HRs. In 4 starts totaling less than 20 IP, Heaney’s given up an astounding 11 dingers.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Heredia, CF
8: Ruiz, C
9: Motter, LF
SP: Albers

So Modesto

Game 141, Angels at Mariners

marc w · September 8, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Ricky Nolasco, 7:10pm

Time is growing short, and the number of teams the M’s need to hurdle is long. They’ve got to play nearly perfect baseball from here on out, and they still don’t have Felix or Paxton back yet. Stabilizing the rotation was why the M’s picked up Mike Leake, and to his credit, he was far better than advertised in his first game out, striking out 7 Oakland A’s in a convincing win. The M’s are going to need more of the same, and having another such performance against a much better opponent – like the Angels – would go a long way towards extending Seattle’s 2017 hopes and building some optimism for 2018.

Leake’s velocity dip in the second half this year was a worrying sign, especially as it coincided with a drop in Ks and overall effectiveness. Thus, it was great to see Leake’s velocity up noticeably in his first game in an M’s uniform. His sinker averaged 91+ and he touched 93. In his final start for St. Louis, he averaged 89+ and didn’t ever hit 92. He was 90-91 most of the second half, so it’s not like he’s suddenly throwing much harder, but it showed the declining trend was some kind of death sentence. He also threw more curveballs than in any start he’s made this year with the Cards; it’s a good pitch, and while he still threw more sliders, it’s nice to see that he’s got another pitch to keep hitters off of his sinker/slider combo. I’d say I hope we see more of the curve tonight, but by pitch type linear weights, the Angels struggle more with sliders, so if he wants to throw a bunch of those, be my guest.

I get something out of writing this blog, and there are times I can easily come up with reasons I spew words about pitching match ups every day, and the patterns of thought it engenders. Then I mentally tally the sheer volume of words I’ve written about Ricky Nolasco, and kind of want to quit. Why must the M’s face Ricky Nolasco so often? Can’t he turn interesting, the way Doug Fister has, or any number of other pitchers who either come back from near baseball death or transform themselves completely? No? Ok, Ricky Nolasco throws two fastballs around 91, has a decent-looking splitter, and a slider. He was once a decent starter, but settled in as a mediocre, near-replacement level arm after signing a contract with the Twins. He was traded for fellow HR-prone pitcher Hector Santiago, and both he and Santiago have continued to be mediocre, homer-prone starters in new cities.

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

The Modesto Nuts are the one M’s affiliate in their league’s playoffs, and they’re off to a great start. They got a HR from Kyle Lewis in an 11-5 drubbing of Stockton yesterday and now have a 2-0 lead in the best of 5 series. They go for the series win tonight behind Robert Dugger, who was dominant for Clinton but struggled a bit in his first taste of the offense-friendly Cal League.

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