The Mariners Begin to Build for 2021

marc w · December 16, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Going into the offseason, Jerry Dipoto was quite candid about what would be on his shopping list: bullpen arms, primarily, but they would investigate lower-cost, lower-risk deals if any presented themselves. In December, they’ve begun to execute that somewhat low-stakes plan, first by picking up reliever Will Vest in the Rule 5 draft, then by grabbing SP/RP Chris Flexen, fresh off of a successful run in the Korean KBO. This week, they traded for Rangers reliever Rafael Montero. Today, they picked up hard-throwing, TJ-rehabbing reliever Keynan Middleton.

There’s no real way to spin these as win-now moves, but they do address a real weakness of the 2020 team (the bullpen and the back of the rotation). We’ll get to the specific players here in a minute, but at this point, the moves reflect an interesting sort of line the M’s are trying to walk. Because, for the first time in a while, they have high-end prospects nearing the majors, they are very, very hesitant to bring in any higher-end free agent who could block one of their prized prospects. We see this in the rotation, to an extent, but they’re most acute in the outfield, where the M’s get Mitch Haniger back for 2021 and will need to fit in Jarred Kelenic before too long.

At a time when the Rangers are squarely in the midst of a rebuild, when the Angels’ haven’t had decent pitching in years, and when teams across the league seem to be cutting costs, this cautious, incremental approach the M’s are taking may be frustrating. The M’s bounty of prospects needn’t *prevent* the club from improving in other ways, and with players like Francisco Lindor to Blake Snell to Nolan Arenado on the block, it seems weird to sit back and content ourselves with the Keynan Middletons of the game.

A big part of this is that it feels awful to be uncertain all the time, a fact brought home to most of us on the evening of Nov. 3rd. What I mean is that it’s hard to ascertain exactly where the M’s are in their own rebuild, and how to evaluate its success. It’s harder than normal not simply because of the usual mix of encouraging and discouraging signals generated by the bizarre and brief 2020 season, but because MLB itself keeps frantically changing the rules around the playoffs and even the games themselves.

That the game is in flux doesn’t get the M’s off the hook. The M’s remaking their bullpen in the offseason has happened roughly every single season of the Dipoto era, and you can’t blame Rob Manfred for that. The issues surrounding the team predate the sudden expansion of the playoffs or the universal DH or the pitch clock. The M’s have continually tried to leverage their real improvements in player development to help the pitching staff wait for Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, and Emerson Hancock to be ready, and the record’s decidedly mixed. They’ve seen big breakouts from Austin Nola and Dylan Moore, but they’ve been balanced out by offensive collapses from veterans like Dee Strange-Gordon and Mallex Smith to newcomers like Shed Long and Evan White; it’s worth remembering that the M’s commercials last year featured Long, White, and Smith, a group who combined to hit [CENSORED] in the regular season.

It appears that the League is pushing strongly for the playoff format of 2020 to remain in place, with an extra round of the postseason allowing in a few more mediocre teams. I’ve been pretty adamant that this isn’t great for baseball and its regular season, and while it may gin up some TV money, I think it will depress the free agent market further (above what Covid already did). But if that’s going to be the way it goes, you can kind of see this as a season in which Dipoto gets to play with house money: if they fall short, well, that’s OK, we were always really building for 2022, despite public pronouncements about 2019, 2020, and 2021. If they grab a playoff spot – and they came kind of close last year – then Dipoto’s the guy who ended the drought and the rebuild gets a weird sort of validation.

But beyond the playoff drought, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a season in which public opinion on the state of club is so divided. Evan White either got his feet wet and won the first of a dozen gold gloves, or his 42% K rate and, frankly, disastrous batting line is the reddest of red flags (in case it’s not clear, I’m in the latter camp). Kyle Lewis’ Rookei of the Year award is either the feather in the cap of the development system from turning an injured, whiff-prone corner OF into a middle-of-the-order and middle-of-the-diamond beast, or they let their guard down, as the league dominated him in the second half. Kyle Seager’s solid season is either something to build around, or wasted on a team that still can’t reliably hold teams scoreless nor outslug teams like Oakland, Houston, Minnesota, New York…you get the idea. You can do this with JP Crawford, Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Yohan Ramirez, and a big chunk of the prospects. The team is either right on track, or clearly in need of another infusion of experienced talent. The individual pieces can be debated, and what they all combine into can be debated. I know, it’s sports, that’s what we do, but I don’t recall such variance in where fans see the M’s in 2022-23 – everything from World Series champs to .500 to rebuilding again seems to have a side advocating for their view.

So no, these recent moves are not going to settle this. They will improve a bullpen that looked like it was in bad shape, though. Rafael Montero is already the M’s top projected relief arm by Steamer, for example. Let’s see what the M’s are getting, or at least, what the M’s see in the guys they’ve acquired.

1: Montero easily has the most big league experience. He came up as a starter with the Mets, showing brilliant control in the minors, which allowed him to move up despite middling raw stuff. That control did not follow him to the big leagues, however. His walk rate is over 11% for his career, and was worst in his starting role, before improving a bit in the Rangers’ pen. That transition to the pen greatly improved his fastball velocity, which went from 93 up to 96 in 2019. The other thing the Rangers seemed to do was to take a bunch of spin *off* of his fastball; his raw spin rates declined markedly when he moved from Queens to Arlington, and that’s despite the aforementioned increase in velo.

Given that change, the shape of his fastballs is a bit different, with his four-seam and sinker now showing increased sink/decreased rise. That’s an interesting decision, given that his best secondary pitch is a change-up. Now, to be clear, that change-up is still plenty good, and one of things I’d expect the M’s to do is to get him to throw it more often, the way he did in his breakout 2019. He has a slider, too, which seems perfectly fine, I suppose.

The problem with the drop in spin and drop in vertical movement on his fastballs is that the movement differential between his pitches – particularly the sinker and change, or sinker and slider – gets smaller. Everything comes up sinking, and I will always have flashbacks of this happening to Erasmo Ramirez. The velocity gap means this isn’t necessarily disqualifying, but I just think this makes things easier on the hitter, particularly for pitches that he’ll use in similar parts of the zone.

Montero’s a big fly-baller with HR trouble, and despite the damage that profile’s caused the M’s since 2016, the M’s still love to bet on regression towards the league mean. Makes sense and all, but given Montero’s batted ball profile, even post-sinkering, I’m not sure regression alone is going to solve it. That said, Montero has big league experience and cost the M’s a young pitcher who’d yet to throw a professional pitch plus a PTBNL. We don’t know who that is, but this seems like a decent bet, despite the fact that Montero hit 30 recently.

2: Keynan Middleton was drafted by Jerry Dipoto out of a Eugene, OR community college in 2013. Dipoto’s Angels drafts were not the stuff legends are made of, but Dipoto is nothing if not a loyal evaluator, having picked up Austin Adams, RJ Alvarez, and now Middelton after having drafted them with the Angels. Middleton’s carrying card is a 97 MPH fastball. It’s a pitch with decent if not-terribly-remarkable movement, and, perhaps relatedly, not terribly-great results. Batters have slugged .489 in Middleton’s career, which has been interrupted by injuries. He gets solid K rates with a hard slider, but he doesn’t have the kind of platoon splits you’d think of with a FB/SL arsenal. He does have a change-up he can throw to lefties, but he hasn’t made much use of it.

Like Montero, Middleton’s an extreme fly ball guy, and like Montero, that’s gotten him into trouble with long balls. Despite pitching in a home park that suppressed dingers, Middelton has a 1.32 HR/9 in his short career, and with GBs accounting for only about 1/3 of his balls in play, it’s easy to see why. Again, it’s not lefties who are hurting him: it’s right handers, and they’re doing the damage on his fastball. RHBs are slugging .550 with 8 HRs off of his four-seamer, and I’d think the M’s are going to try and figure out why.

He’s coming off of two years lost to injury, and he’s on a one-year, $800,000 contract. This is a riskless signing, really, and while I’m not sure that Middleton’s going to give you more than competent 7th-inning-guy stuff (despite the velo), it’s pretty hard to argue with it.

3: In Chris Flexen, the M’s have a potential rotation piece, which would merit a lot more attention than the rest of these bullpen moves. Flexen is another guy who came up in the Mets system with solid control only to see that control collapse completely in the bigs. Flexen has a negative K-BB% ratio for his career, due to a walk rate over 15%. He had a 93 MPH fastball with some rise to it, and a hard slider at 87, and he’d also play with a curve and change, but none of it seemed to work.

All of that changed in 2020 when he joined the Doosan Bears of the KBO. He posted a K/9 over 10 and, crucially, a K:BB ratio of 4.4:1. He was tough to hit in a hitter-friendly league, and essentially had the season of his life. The question is how it’ll translate back to the big leagues. The case of Merrill Kelly is an encouraging one, as the career MiLB guy took off in the KBO, as he posted good but not Flexen good K rates in the for years. Returning with the Diamondbacks, Kelly’s been a reliable middle-of-the-rotation piece with solid control. If the M’s get Merrill Kelly-liek results, they’d be thrilled.

In Korea, Flexen relied on the combination of his 93 mph fastball (quite firm for the league) and his curve, a pitch that may have been his fourth-best offering before. Despite his control issues with New York, he threw in the zone even less, getting whiffs on his curve that was set up by high four-seamers. We’ll see if this approach can work for him in MLB, or if batters will make him prove that he can throw the curve (or slider) for strikes.

Flexen signed a two-year deal for $7M guaranteed, making this perhaps my favorite of the four acquisitions we’ll talk about. There’s upside here that far exceeds even Montero’s, just given the innings he could log. And with the M’s confirming they’ll use a six-man rotation, there’s some room for him to do so. I’ve said it for years, but the six-man rotation and increased rest may be ideal for pitchers like Flexen and Yusei Kikuchi who’ve pitched in Asia, where starters typically get more rest than MLB’s five-man rotations offer. The M’s simply do not have the talent that many of their rivals do, and thus it’s incumbent upon them to get more out of the talent that they have. Taking a flyer that the KBO in some sense “fixed” Flexen, once the Mets #4 prospect, and pairing that with a six-man rotation, is a great way to try and do that.

4: Finally, the M’s again made a selection in the MLB Rule 5 draft earlier this month. They picked reliever Will Vest, who had been in the Tigers system. Vest was drafted in 2017, and has been up-and-down in his career in the Tigers’ system. That club has seen a player development transformation as well, with guys like Tarik Skubal, Casey Mize, Alex Faedo and others give them a lot of near-majors pitching. I say that not only to highlight why a guy like Vest may have been available, but to highlight one of the things that’s made the Tigers system notable: guys pick up velocity.

Skubal, the old Seattle University product, is perhaps the big example, but it looks like it happened to Vest, too. He didn’t make his college team’s varsity squad until late, and into the draft, he was talked about as a low-mid-90s guy with some armside run. By early 2019, he was throwing 94-96 according to this YouTube video, and then showed up in instructs this fall touching the high 90s.

He’s got a hard slider around 88, and the workings of an interesting change (though, to me, most change-ups are interesting) in the mid-80s. I think this is an intriguing pick, and I hope he’s both able to stick on the roster the way Yohan Ramirez did AND have a bit more control than the ex-Astros farmhand showed. It’s simply not allowed to complain about Rule 5 picks, and Vest could be a solid member of the developing bullpen, particularly if he’s able to hit 97 more often.

’20 40-Man Preview Extravaganza

Jay Yencich · November 9, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

As has been the case for *most* of the year, we’re in uncharted territory. Certain questions were resolved with in-season additions of good friends such as Ljay Newsome, Aaron Fletcher, and (way ahead of time) Joey Gerber, but this offseason provides more conundrums than are characteristic. How much will teams be ready to gamble on Rule 5 selections amidst limited alternate site data? If the market looks to be flush with relievers, then how do you weight your own potential in-house additions? And then there was last year’s fun where we signed Evan White to a long-term contract a season early, didn’t add anyone we needed to, but neither did we lose anyone at the major league level. Are we planning to use the Rule 5 to our own advantage again? When it comes to choosing between seemingly clear options, Jerry Dipoto has been a huge fan of selecting “what’s in the box,” particularly if the box has the potential of containing an upper-90s relief arm (hi, Yohan Ramirez!).

Conventional rulings on the matter would dictate that we are adding, or risking the loss of, college players from the 2017 draft and high school and July 2nd signings from 2016. At least two, maybe three of the additions seem to me to be rather obvious, but there are multiple relievers we have from the year’s college crop that qualify as intriguing. It’s just a question of how much 40-man space you want to devote to the bullpen, especially when it’s the strength of what looks to be a bone-chilling marketplace. For other teams, position scarcity might drive up the value of, say, starters, but we don’t have much to offer there either. Thus, what we’re looking at here are one guaranteed outfield addition, one in pitching (wherever he lands), and a few appealing bullpen arms. Lacking the usual numbers to crunch here, I’ll be supplying 2019 stats instead. We’re looking at a November 20th deadline.
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Game 57, Mariners at Athletics

marc w · September 25, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Chris Bassett, 6:40pm

The M’s season ends in Oakland, who just clinched the division. Tonight, we get a match up that kind of typifies the strange ease with which the A’s have outpaced the M’s in recent years. Chris Bassitt has pitched exactly 200IP if you combine this year and last year. In that time, he’s gone 17-7 with an ERA in the low/mid 3’s. Yusei Kikuchi has pitched 202 innings over the same two seasons, but has fared a bit worse: he’s 8-15 with a 5.55 ERA.

Yes, sure, Bassitt’s FIP is higher than his ERA, while the opposite is true for Kikuchi. And Kikuchi’s been better in 2020, with a velo spike leading to much better results in terms of K:BB and home runs allowed. But as encouraging as all of that is, Chris Bassitt, just a guy, ex-White Sox farmhand, trade throw-in, has helped the A’s win a lot more games than Kikuchi, free agent steal, WBC stalwart.

Look at the pitch stats, and there are no grand revelations to be had. Kikuchi throws harder, and his new cutter is pretty clearly better than anything Bassitt throws. Bassitt relies on mixing a four-seam, sinker, and cutter with well-timed curves and change-ups. Kikuchi’s cutter is a ground ball machine, giving Kikuchi the edge in ground ball rate. Bassitt’s ultra slow curve poached some called strikes, but batters don’t offer at it enough to be a real strikeout pitch.

I don’t want to talk down Bassitt even as I praise him. He throws 94; it’s not like he’s just a junkballer. But his fastball(s) don’t have any kind of distinguishing movement. This was supposedly one of the problems with Kikuchi’s fastball. There’s no obvious tell, it’s just that the A’s guy keeps coming out on top.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Lewis, CF
3: Seager, 3B
4: France, 2B
5: Marmolejos, DH
6: White, 1B
7: Lopes, LF
8: Bishop, RF
9: Odom, C
SP: Kikuchi

Game 55, Astros at Mariners

marc w · September 22, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Ljay Newsome vs. Framber Valdez, 6:10pm

After an absolute gem from Marco Gonzales, the M’s beat the Astros to pull back to three-or-really-four games behind Houston. The Blue Jays won, so reaching the wild card is probably out of the running, but for now, the AL is providing us something of a race for the 2nd spot in the West. Whether that’s a good thing or not is, perhaps, up for debate. MLB will apparently try to convince the players to keep this playoff system next year and down the road, under the theory that more playoff spots will attract a new generation of fans and provide more revenue to more teams/cities.

I’m not convinced about that. We’re in this situation because expanding the playoffs *this* much allows for a couple of pretty flawed teams to make the postseason. This happens in other sports, but none of them have baseball’s long regular season, which allows good teams to overcome variance/luck and show that they’re better than their rivals. Playoffs don’t do this, and that’s sort of a bug and a feature at the same time.

Personally, I liked the old system, but this isn’t just random old-person-yelling-at-cloud stuff. I was skeptical about the second wild card and the new one-game playoff for the two WC teams. Traditionalists were aghast at picking a winner without even a short playoff series. But it’s done what it was designed to do, which was to simultaneously expand the playoffs while also providing a powerful incentive to win the division. In this new system, there is zero benefit to winning a division. The A’s won the west last night, but it doesn’t matter. They’ll be treated just the same as the Astros whom they easily outpaced during the season. In many divisions, there are two teams that are head and shoulders above the other three. Why would either of those two frontrunners spend any money under this new system? Why would youngsters flock to a sport with this format – a long tournament appended uneasily on a bloated, over-long, questionably-meaningful regular season?

If there’s a benefit this year (when fans can’t reciprocate the excitement of a playoff push by actually, you know, attending games), it has to be to the players, who now have experience in sort-of-meaningful games. Of course, you can now argue that for more than half the league. But hey, I’m damned impressed by what Marco Gonzales has shown this year, and last night, and Justus Sheffield has gotten stronger as the year’s moved on as well.

But beyond that, beyond the probably-illusory gains that they’ve made in this odd “race,” there’s something big that they can take from this series. The Astros are still going to win more than they lose against Seattle, but this is now a much fairer fight. The M’s do not appear intimidated by the Astros, and they should no. Perhaps the most important thing to come to light this season wasn’t Kyle Lewis’ ability or Justus Sheffield’s vastly improved game. It may have been seeing that the Astros have come back to the pack, and are now just a good-but-flawed team. The M’s are slowly improving, but as I’ve said too many times on this blog, that’s not enough. They need to get better *than their rivals.* The zero-sum nature of this competition can be maddening, but it’s just a fact. If the M’s get better and the Astros get better, the M’s are screwed. Thankfully, the Astros came crashing back to earth this season, and they have some hard decisions on the horizon.

Framber Valdez may be what passes for a good story on the Astros this year. He’s missing bats, has a sky-high ground ball rate, and he took a massive leap forward in his control. He’s even avoiding home runs. What he hasn’t done is strand runners or produce consistent results. Some of this is not his fault; he’s been unlucky with BABIP at times. He’s also faded a bit after a very strong start, so we’ll see what he’s like tonight. When he’s on, he features a very tough three-pitch mix of a sinker, a hard change-up, and a great curve with two-plane break.

1: Crawford, SS
2: France, 2B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Torrens, C
6: White, 1B
7: Lopes, DH
8: Fraley, LF
9: Ervin, RF
SP: Newsome

Dylan Moore’s on the IL for the concussion protocol after taking yet another fastball off of his head late last night. He stayed in the game, just as he did a week or so ago, but his season’s now over after the 7-day IL stint. He’s obviously been one of the bright lights in the line-up, and seems like he’s made a case for regular duty even when players like Shed Long and Mitch Haniger return. Jake Fraley’s up from Tacoma to fill his spot, and he’ll start tonight in LF.

Game 54, Astros at Mariners

marc w · September 21, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Lance McCullers, Jr. 6:10pm

The final homestand can now actually take place at home, as the M’s welcome the Astros. A few days ago, the M’s and Astros were dueling for the automatic playoff birth that now comes from finishing 2nd in the division, but an ill-timed couple of losses has (mostly) closed the door on that form of excitement. In lieu of the increasingly-desperate paths to the 8th playoff spot, we can close this year the way we began it: by focusing on the M’s rebuild, and what we can learn from watching the youngsters close out this bizarre campaign.

One of the stories of July was the freakishly low BABIP (batting average on balls in play) early in 2020. Despite all the shifting that teams do, despite increases in velocity (and Ks), and despite changes in the actual baseball, BABIP was remarkably sticky, wavering around in the .293-.297 range for many, many years. Early this year, it was hanging around .270, an absurd decline, particularly given that BABIP generally peaks in July/August with warmer weather (and it’s lowest in April). Well, so much for that. It’s now .291 – low, but not insanely so. But what we see thanks to the abbreviated schedule is that the range for players and teams is still really wide; it averages out, but there are still teams that are stuck on one side or the other of that distribution. There’s simply more variance, given that they’re only playing a couple of months of games.

So, there are usually a team or two with a BABIP just under .280. Sometimes, there are none. This year, as of today, there are 10. They range from the incredible (the Dodgers) to the abysmal (the Rangers), and the poor Reds are hanging in a playoff run despite a BABIP (as a team!) of .244. So what does this all have to do with the Mariners, you ask? Well, the M’s themselves are at .278, and it’s making it harder to really evaluate certain players. Kyle Seager’s season is really, really strange, capped off by a low BABIP and a slump-driven collapse in his batting average. But the issue is perhaps more important with JP Crawford, whose poor BABIP has led to an average of .223, with a slugging percentage of just .313. It’d be easy to write off the .266 BABIP as bad luck, but this is now year 2 of the same thing. He hit .226 last year, in part due to a .275 BABIP. Crawford is not a liability on this club, but despite the walk rate, his projections look totally different if he’s simply not going to hit more singles (or extra-base hits! We like those too!).

Kyle Lewis and Dylan Moore are inverses of Crawford: slugging, middle-of-the-order hitters with sky-high BABIPs producing nice, well-rounded batting lines. In Moore’s case, that BABIP is still propped up by a torrid start to the season. He’s been in a minor slump in the second half, with a much lower BABIP holding him down. To be clear: he hasn’t exactly struggled, even in the second half. The key is to figure out what his overall ceiling may be, as that might drive how he’s used in 2021. Even a low-ish average, high-K approach can work for Moore, as long as he’s able to hit for this much power.

Lewis’ season looks a bit like Moore’s, only cranked up to 11. Lewis ran a BABIP of .444 in the first half, and that’s plummeted down to .205 in the second half. Lewis really is in a prolonged slump, with his OPS in the second half now under .600. But that’s small sample luck, even if his first half really was too good to be true. But as a guy with some swing and miss in his game, I’d love to see Lewis finish the year strong. Lewis has done more than enough to show that he’s a guy who can be part of a good team going forward, and he’s the first of their young prospects to really break out. But I’d love to see him look a bit more complete at the plate. He’s more than capable, I think, but again, it’s harder to get a read on these guys with BABIP yanking their production all over the place.

On a different subject entirely, here’s one of the many, many bets you could’ve won with me before the season began: Marco Gonzales currently has a higher strikeout rate than his opponent tonight, Lance McCullers. It’s not just that Gonzales’ walk rate is under *3%* or that he’s still oddly hard to hit. He’s missing bats like he’s…uh, like he was the Lance McCullers of a few years ago. But with legitimate control/command! Kyle Lewis gets the credit – deservedly – for being a bright spark on this team, but I continue to be flabbergasted by Gonzales’ remarkable improvement this season.

For a while, Gonzales was someone whom FIP probably overrated. His walks were low, and the HRs were normal-ish, and FIP couldn’t tell when Gonzales had trouble stranding runners. With a low K rate, that was always a risk with him, and so his actual runs-allowed came in higher than his FIP. This was notable in 2018, and hidden in 2019 thanks to the flurry of unearned runs he allowed. But in 2020, I think FIP, if anything, is underselling the transformation thanks to a small uptick in his HR rate.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Moore, 2B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: France, DH
6: Marmolejos, LF
7: Torrens, C
8: White, 1B
9: Lopes, RF
SP: Gonzales

Game 51, Padres at Mariners (at Padres) – The Home Stretch

marc w · September 18, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Chris Paddack, 6:40pm

There are ten games left. The M’s are *effectively* four games out. The on-again, off-again playoff chase seems pretty well locked in the “off” position, but these games are not without their appeal. Today’s pitching match-up is an intriguing one between two pitchers who’ve disappointed for different reasons.

Yusei Kikuchi is, by FIP, a remarkable success story; a guy who made a massive leap from a flop of a debut season, and one of the team leaders in fWAR. By ERA, it’s another frustrating campaign despite a big uptick in velocity and strikeouts. Paddack was a much-heralded rookie last year and rode a funky change-up and pinpoint control to a solid season. He missed bats, didn’t walk anyone, and was able to pitch around some dinger issues by limiting hits on balls in play. Was that *him* limiting hits, though, or just some BABIP fluctuation?

By MLB’s xBA and xWOBACON, stats based on how hard and at what angle batters put Paddack’s pitches in play, he was great -a lowish exit velocity led to a low “expected” batting average. If batters were able to figure him out, they could do damage, as seen from the high HR rate, but lots of Ks and pop-ups or weak contact is a great combination. This year, though, that’s all changed. His xBA is now approaching .300, thanks to nearly half of the contact coming off the bat at over 95 MPH. His HR rate has gone up even higher, which is countering a drop in his already-negligible walk rate.

The culprit here is the fastball, as batters hit .205 with a sub-.400 SLG% on his heater last year. This year? Uh, they’re slugging over *.700.* It’s not any slower. It *is* different, though. It’s getting less vertical movement, the result of a decent-size drop in spin, and a small decline in spin efficiency. He’s also getting fewer first-pitch strikes, which may lead to more fastball counts. Either way, it’s something of a perfect storm. Paddack will need to make some changes, but he can also hope that the pendulum swings back the other way, and that some of his awful fastball results are the inverse of the good luck he had in 2019. I think we can all say 2020 has been an unlucky year.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Moore, 2B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: France, DH
6: Marmolejos, LF
7: Torrens, C
8: White, 1B
9: Ervin, RF
SP: Kikuchi

The M’s had to move White down in the line-up. Not that batting order is a huge deal, especially in the bottom half, but he’s hitting .167/.273/.188 slide in his last 55 PAs, and is 1 for his last 23 with 11Ks in his last 7 games. It’s rough out there.

The M’s have reiterated that they were never going to call up Jarred Kelenic or Logan Gilbert this year, opting to stick with their plan to wait until they’re able to see them in game action, meaning some time after some time in the minors next year. I get it, and wouldn’t expect anything else, and I’m thankful to Shannon Drayer for summarizing and embedding the interview (linked above). I just think that it’s completely transparent *why* they never considered bringing them up, and all of the faux reasoning that we insist GMs offer us is a weird ritual. You know, I know, Kelenic and Dipoto know why they’re not bringing them up. I can also understand that chasing this weird 8th playoff spot may not seem like a sufficient reward to mess up their sweet, sweet team control status. But it’s just kind of odd that we have to go through this theater about game action or staying the course or what have you. You know where’s the *only* place that has actual game action right now? Seattle/MLB.

Game 49, Mariners at Giants (At Mariners?)

marc w · September 16, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Ljay Newsome vs. Drew Smyly, 6:40pm

Soooo, we’re back, and the M’s are playing as the home team down in San Francisco against the Giants, where the air is a bit less toxic. The M’s face one-time quasi-Mariner Drew Smyly tonight. Back in 2017, Smyly drew raves for his performance in the World Baseball Classic, then sat out his first spring training start with a bit of dead arm, and then…nothing. He underwent TJ surgery, and after hitting free agency during rehab, never saw the mound in Seattle.

The trade that got Smyly to Seattle in 2017 sent fellow lefty Ryan Yarbrough to Tampa, where he’s been remarkably effective for a guy topping out around 88, and throwing little mid-80s cutter-darts around the AL east. That deal also included Mallex Smith, who had a couple of good years in Tampa before cratering back in Seattle. Interestingly, it was the second time Smyly was involved in an M’s trade, as he was part of the three-team trade that sent David Price from Tampa to Detroit in 2014. That deadline deal involved 2B Nick Franklin going from Seattle to Tampa and Detroit OF Austin Jackson coming to the M’s for a couple of lackluster half-seasons.

Smyly not only missed all of 2017, but all of 2018 as well. He had some minor league deals in that time, but just couldn’t pitch until 2019, when he popped up with the Texas Rangers. His velocity was right back to where it was pre-injury, but his control and command very much were not, and after a few months of wildness and an ERA well into the 8’s, Texas released him, whereupon the Phillies picked him up. He wasn’t great or anything, but looked much more like a decent major leaguer, with high Ks and under-control walks. He still gave up too many HRs, which kind of goes with the territory of being a high-release-point, high-rise four-seam and curve pitcher in 2019.

He’s been something of a revelation this year when he’s been able to take the ball, which, to be fair, has not been terribly often. Still, he’s got 19 Ks to 5 walks in his 12+ innings, and his velocity’s up noticeably; he now sits 94 and can get more. Smyly’s always been an interesting pitcher in that he just cannot get gloveside movement on his pitches. There are 12-6 curveballs, and then there’s Smyly’s curve, which *still* has a little bit of armside run. So too does his cutter, which comes in around 90 and gets less rise than his straight four-seam fastball.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Moore, 2B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: France, DH
6: Torrens, C
7: White, 1B
8: Lopes, LF
9: Ervin, RF
SP: Newsome

JP Crawford’s back from the bereavement list, with Donovan Walton heading back to Tacoma. Meanwhile Matt Magill’s short DL stint will get a lot longer after news came out that he had a shoulder debridement procedure by M’s surgeon Neal El Attrache.

Newsome’s low-spin stuff has been sort of remarkable. He isn’t a true junkballer, trying to entice swings on pitches diving out of the zone. He just throws 92-93 MPH heaters and 85 MPH change-ups in the zone and dares you to make him stop. He’s allowed no walks yet, and as Lucas Apostoleris wrote over at BP, that wasn’t an accident: his fastball is tied for #1 in baseball in called strike probability – essentially a better version of how often it’s thrown in the zone. Who’s he tied with? Why, Drew Smyly of the Giants.

Giants-at-Mariners Postponed, Series Rescheduled for San Francisco

marc w · September 15, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

A week ago, I was looking at the apocalyptic-looking pictures coming out of San Francisco and marveling that the M’s would be playing a game in such conditions. Life, much like smoke, comes at you fast. The Giants arrived in Seattle today, took a look around, and said, “Yeah, no way we’re playing in this.” Thus, the series will move back to San Francisco, where the air is now clearly and yet unbelievably much cleaner than it is in Seattle.

Yesterday’s double-header was the most bizarre baseball I’ve seen. It seemed almost dystopian; I’ll always remember Ramon Laureano – wearing a respirator – making a great diving catch, just like I’ll remember watching Kyle Lewis grand slam robbery (of Laureano!) through a haze as thick as decades-old memory. The M’s comeback in game 1 was legitimately thrilling. Tim Lopes playing the hero was one of those improbabilities that the game offers every so often, and it overshadowed the bullpen’s recent signs of life.

The Players Association put out a statement that they were aware of the issue (which is good, considering it was televised and all) and were working with ownership to fashion a policy similar to the NFL’s (air quality over X would be an automatic postponement, or what have you). That was never really going to happen yesterday, as the games were, themselves make-ups for when Covid-19 led the A’s to postpone several games. They couldn’t reschedule a game for historic smoke because they’d already rescheduled for a historic, global pandemic. Damned if you do, etc.

Thus, the games yesterday functioned as a dark microcosm of everything bad about the sport right now. That’s not fair to, say, Jose Marmolejos, who’s finally getting a shot after 10 years in the minors and is on an absolute tear. But seriously: the league was plainly unable to prevent players playing in unhealthy conditions, and thanks to the Covid schedule, only a minority of teams ever had the possibility of playing in…this. The A’s are playing double header after double header after a player tested positive for Covid-19, throwing a wrench into their standard bullpen rotation; lefty Jake Diekman didn’t play last night when he probably would have under more normal conditions, for example. And the Mariners, who are fighting – however improbably, however reduced due to the circumstances – for a playoff spot for the first time in nearly 20 years, won’t call up Logan Gilbert or Jarred Kelenic. These were games that should not have happened, played by teams left weaker than they could be. We all know why, and despite the fact that none of the reasons approach a reasonable standard of good-enough, we press on.

Go M’s, or something. They’ll be the home team in San Francisco beginning tomorrow.

Games 47-48, Athletics at Mariners: Nature vs. Baseball

marc w · September 14, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Game 1: Marco Gonzales vs. Jesus Luzardo, 1:10pm 2:10pm
Game 2: Walker Lockett/Jimmy Yacabonis vs. Mike Minor

The A’s are in town to face the M’s for two at T-Mobile Park, but there were worries earlier that Seattle’s smoky air might make playing the game – let alone two of them – too dangerous. The air yesterday cancelled the M’s taxi squad practices, and it doesn’t look appreciably better now. I’m in the south sound, where it has, blessedly, begun to rain. Hopefully that system heads north, as it might knock some particulates out of the air.

So, does anyone actually want the second AL West playoff spot? The Astros are in free fall, while the M’s arrested their slide by winning the final two games of their series in Arizona. Again, we’re seeing the impact of these imbalanced schedules, as the Astros have been playing actual good teams for the past few weeks – the A’s, the Dodgers – while the M’s really haven’t in some time. Sure, the sweep in San Francisco against a mediocre Giants team wasn’t great, but it at least happened when Oakland was taking care of the reeling Astros. The M’s are now about to face quality opposition for the first time in a while, and have another shot at meaningful late-season baseball.

It kicks off in game 1 with one of the better pitching match-ups we’ve seen in a while. The revamped, improved, clear ace-of-the-staff Marco Gonzales faces the A’s rookie lefty, Jesus Luzardo. Luzardo throws a very hard sinker at 96-97 with extreme armside run, a four-seamer with plenty of run and just shy of average rise at 97, and a very good high-80s change-up. He’s got a slider/curve thingy in the lower 80s as well, and that he throws a lot of to lefties and more rarely against righties.

He’s got as good an arsenal in terms of pure stuff as any youngster in the league, with the possible exceptions of Sixto Sanchez and Dustin May, but while he’s been good, he hasn’t dominated the way, say, Sanchez has. Part of it is so me slight HR trouble, and part is some bad results with runners in scoring position. But the biggest issue is platoon splits. Despite a good change, he’s not really dominating righties the way he could. Overall, he has good control, but it’s failed him slightly against righties, and all of his HR issues -100% of them – have come to righties.

1: Moore, SS
2: France, 2B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: White, 1B
6: Torrens, C
7: Ervin, RF
8: Marmolejos, DH
9: Lopes, LF
SP: Gonzales

The M’s have been buoyed by the remarkable hot streak from Jose Marmolejos, the career MiLB guy who got a chance due to injuries, trades, and the implosion of Dan Vogelbach. He and Dylan Moore have carried an offense that’s seen Kyle Lewis endure his first real slump, and the reappearance of strikeout woes for Evan White, who has K’d 16 times in his last 40 at-bats over 11 games.

The M’s can potentially score some runs against Luzardo, but the strength of the A’s has been their untouchable bullpen, similar to recent years when guys from Blake Treinen to Liam Hendriks to Lou Trivino have put together great seasons.

The M’s recalled Tim Lopes and sent Aaron Fletcher down to Tacoma. The A’s have been busy on the transaction wire, too. The big blow was an injury that’s ended all-world 3B Matt Chapman’s season. To get some depth, they picked up ex-UW Husky Jake Lamb, whom I mentioned had been DFAd by Arizona back when the M’s opened their series against the snakes. They brought up long-time Brewers farmhand Nate Orf, but they’ll start recently-acquired Tommy LaStella at 3B in Game 1, with Tony Kemp sliding from the OF to 2B.

Game 2:

Can I just say, this is the strangest game to watch of any ball game I can remember. The OFs all masked up (thankfully) as they play through a thick wall of smoke/fog and an AQI in the 220s at game time. Yuck. As usual, the AQI is rising through the afternoon and into the evening, so that 220 a few hours ago is apparently right around 250. We’ll see if this game happens.

1: Moore, 2B
2: France, 3B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, DH
5: White, 1B
6: Lopes, RF
7: Marmolejos, LF
8: Walton, SS
9: Odom, SS
SP: Yacabonis-and-then-Lockett

What an unbelievable win in Game 1. Down 5-0, the M’s pounced when Luzardo suddenly lost effectiveness, and then took the lead when the A’s seemingly didn’t want to put in their best relievers – using Joakim Soria instead of Jake Diekman. This is what their Covid scare does – they just played a DH a few days ago, have one today, and more on the horizon. They have to think about balancing their workload and can’t look at each game in isolation.

What a game for Tim Lopes, who’d been demoted earlier and mired in a bad slump, but three doubles in three at-bats did wonders for the M’s chances of winning as well as his own confidence. Not bad for the 29th man. Evan White, on the other hand…yeeesh. And that was easily Marco Gonzales’ worst game of the year, giving up two dingers, plunking two, and walking another. Just no command at all, but credit the team for coming back.

All of that said, for all the legitimate kudos the M’s deserve for the rally – I can’t quite believe this game happened. Luzardo’s already complained, somewhat obliquely, about it. I have no idea if it affected Marco Gonzales, but, uh…how could it not?

The M’s trot out the B-team line-up for game 2, including what looks to be a bullpen day on the mound. I don’t fault them for giving some guys a day off in this frankly dangerous air, but man, if the team wanted to win, they could start bringing up good players. (I know they won’t, and I know why, but…whatever).

Game 45, Mariners at Diamondbacks

marc w · September 12, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Justus Sheffield vs. Zac Gallen, 5:10pm

Last night’s loss seems to have officially ended the bizarre, week-long run of the M’s being back door playoff contenders. In a way, this is better. With everything going on, it’d be a shame to then be emotionally crushed by a late-season loss to the A’s or Astros. The M’s really aren’t very good, and no one claimed they would be a month or two ago. We’ve all just taken a random, sometimes fun, sometimes less so detour to end up back in the same spot. Just enjoy baseball as a diversion from everything else.

In addition to the M’s putting JP Crawford on the bereavement list, the M’s made a small roster move in IL’ing 2B Shed Long with a hairline fracture in his shin. It may or may not explain Long’s prolonged slump, but it’s clearly better to let Long heal and come back looking more like the guy we saw in 2019.

In addition, the M’s officially outrighted Mallex Smith to Tacoma, essentially ending his tenure w/Seattle by removing him from the 40-man roster. This one stings a bit. Smith was coming off of a 3.5 WAR season in 2018, with a 118 wRC+ and 40 steals. He was young, seemingly on the upswing, and capable of holding down CF for a long while. Instead, he utterly collapsed, hitting just .220/.290/.323 over parts of two seasons, and suffering defensive lapses as well. His strikeout rate climbed, which was the death knell for a player who didn’t hit the ball hard. The speedy-of-goes-to-Seattle-and-craters was a staple feature of M’s baseball in the 1990s, but I thought we were past these hackneyed, overplayed storylines (though Leonys Martin was kind of a throwback to the Brian L Hunters of old). I found/find Smith’s collapse really odd, both in its severity and how immediate it was. I would love to know what Tampa had him do vs. what M’s coaches told him to do, but it’s probably a mixture of BABIP regression and a decline in his batting eye.

The M’s lost a one-run game after Yusei Kikuchi struggled early, and the bullpen kept the M’s in the game long enough to mount a comeback. But even the improvement in the bullpen, who rarely look like the absolute worst group in the game anymore, seems to come too late. Now, it’s the offense’s turn to struggle, as they’re hitting for a 96 wRC+ in the past two weeks. Worse, they’ve hit fewer HRs in that span than any other club.

When the M’s are going well, it’s largely thanks to the Kyles. Lewis leads the team in dingers at 9, and Seager chipping in with an excellent K:BB ratio and .200+ ISO of his own. Dylan Moore’s been fantastic all year, and having his bat in the line-up is keeping the M’s in games, but Lewis’ recent slump has coincided with the M’s losing streak. Lewis is an odd duck, in that he’s not at all the player I think we thought we were getting after his eye-opening cup of coffee a year ago. Whereas 2019 Lewis had an abysmal K:BB ratio, this new one is drawing a ton of walks and has cut his K% noticeably. But while the 2019 Lewis had a huge ISO thanks to 6 HRs in short succession, the 2020 Lewis isn’t slugging as much as I would’ve thought, or at least, he’s not slugging like he was a month ago.

Maybe that’s too much to ask – please, Kyle Lewis, come in for your rookie season during Covid-19 disruptions and put up a .300/.400/.550 for us. But despite an average nearly right at .300, Lewis is slugging in the .480s. The reason is that he has just *2* doubles on the year. Look, given the choice between doubles and dingers, I take the latter every time. This is not exactly a complaint. But it’s odd that given how complete of a hitter he’s looked, and despite good speed, he’s not pulling liners or putting the occasional ball in the gap. All told, only 23% of his hits have gone for extra bases, and while the vast majority of *those* have left the yard, that’s a surprisingly low ratio. I’m happy for the singles he’s hit. But I’m stunned that – despite a home park that suppresses doubles – he hasn’t muscled a few more gappers. Going forward, that would do a lot for his overall value.

1: Moore, 2B
2: France, DH
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Marmolejos, LF
6: White, 1B
7: Torrens, C
8: Walton, SS
9: Ervin, RF
SP: Sheffield

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