Game 122, Mariners at Athletics: Stop The Bleeding

marc w · August 15, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Brett Anderson, 12:35pm

There’ve been a few days in this month-long slide the M’s are on where it felt like the M’s had hit bottom. The day they lost their lead in the playoff spot to these A’s. Felix’s horrific last start in Texas. Pick your bullpen implosion of choice. For good or ill, none of really felt like THE signature moment. The M’s recovered after the Rangers series and swept the Astros. The rotation looked dead and buried, but has gotten better – as has the bullpen. Cano’s return makes us look differently at an offense that’s been stuck for so much of summer.

All of that said, last night really, really hurt. James Paxton took a line drive off of his left arm and left the game in the 1st. He’ll be placed on the 10-day DL. Even Felix’s gutsy long-relief outing couldn’t shake the fact that it looked like the M’s were up against a better team. The A’s newly-remade bullpen held up, and they’re now 50-0 in games they’ve led in the 7th inning. Mike Fiers was…fine, I guess, and he and his home park conspired to turn a so-so start into a very useful one. The offense showed signs of life, only for the A’s to make a series of brilliant defensive plays, illustrating why the A’s have the lowest BABIP in baseball.

The A’s are good, and the M’s now need to outplay them down the stretch instead of just run out the clock with a big lead. Their rotation’s been great, but it’s now showing signs of stress, with Marco Gonzales in a tailspin and Paxton hitting the DL. The club desperately needs Mike Leake to close 2018 the way he closed 2017. The fact that it happened last year shows it’s possible, but the entirety of Leake’s career and his 2018 numbers show it’s not exactly likely.

Most importantly, the M’s offense needs to shake the rust off and break out again. Their overall season numbers rank them 18th at Fangraphs, and while that’s in part due to some poor defense, they’ve got the 19th-best OBP in baseball. Kyle Seager has struggled all year, as have Dee Gordon and Ryon Healy. Guillermo Heredia isn’t quite ready to be an everyday player, and while it’s nice that with Denard Span and Cameron Maybin, they don’t need too much out of Heredia, the fact remains that the M’s aren’t putting their best offense on the field. Yes, they won so many 1-run games in the first half thanks to Edwin Diaz and a great bullpen, but they’re not winning them all now. They don’t have the kind of offense that’s going to bludgeon teams to death, nor a shut-down pitching staff. They’re going to need to make each run count, and that’s why it’s insane that Ben Gamel remains in Tacoma. He’s no savior at the plate, but the M’s are struggling to score enough runs and it would appear that one of their better offensive outfielders is in the PCL. Fix it, M’s.

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

Christian Bergman’s the injury replacement on the active roster with Paxton hitting the DL.

Heredia’s a righty and the M’s are facing a lefty in Brett Anderson. But the M’s are moving things around to have Guillermo Heredia start in an outfield corner in a playoff race. I dunno, man.

Game 121, Mariners at Athletics: Welcome Back, Robbie

marc w · August 14, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Mike Fiers, 7:05pm

Mike Fiers makes his second start in Oakland green tonight, five days after a very solid debut against the Dodgers. Fiers is undersized and his fastball velocity is still well below average, but exceptional backspin gives his fastball very good vertical rise, enabling him to miss more bats than you’d think. He puts that spin to good use with his primary breaking ball, a huge diving 12-6 curveball thrown in the low-70s. With nearly 12″ of vertical drop compared to a ball thrown without spin, it’s a remarkable pitch. Fiers is fairly consistent, but his results have been more volatile recently, as his up-in-the-zone approach made contact with the juiced baseball. If he keeps the ball in the ballpark, he can be a very effective FIP-beating, low-BABIP middle of the rotation guy. When a few fly balls turn into HRs, his ERA/runs-allowed suffers. Dingers, Mariners…Dingers.

On the other end of the FIP-vs-ERA spectrum is James Paxton, who’s been excellent by FIP since he became, y’know, JAMES PAXTON back in 2016. But his ERA’s lagged behind a bit. 2016 seemed like horrible BABIP luck mixed in with some strand rate weirdness. A lot of the noise has fallen away since then, but in 2017 and 2018, his actual runs allowed is stubbornly higher than his FIP would predict. I’m not ready to put him in the Javier Vasquez group of pitchers whose ERA was always worse than their FIP, but we’re at the point in the year where I’d love to see some zeroes on the board. More games like that breathtaking start against Houston in Seattle, James! Less of the 5 2/3 with 3R allowed type things like your last start!

Robinson Cano has sat out his 80-game suspension and is ready to rejoin the club. He’s in the line-up at 1B tonight, giving Ryon Healy a night off. It sounds like the plan is for Cano to move around the diamond a bit, but I think he’ll get most of his time at 1B. He played a bit of 3B in Everett, so he may give the scuffling Kyle Seager a breather as well.

1: Haniger, RF
2: CANO!!!, 1B
3: Segura, 3B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Span, LF
6: Seager, 3B
7: Zunino, C
8: Maybin, CF
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Paxton

Game 120, Mariners at Athletics: The Showdown

marc w · August 13, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Sean Manaea, 7:05pm

The M’s unlikely sweep of the Astros in Houston has remade the AL West. The M’s are just 4 out of first, and 1.5 back of the A’s in 2nd place. The season seemed to be settling in to the M’s in 2nd behind the Astros who looked like they’d run away with things the way everyone expected. Injuries and trouble in the clutch have confounded those expectations, at least temporarily. The biggest beneficiaries of the Astros’ stumbles, though, have been the A’s, who continue to steamroll their way through their 2nd half schedule. The A’s are a very good team, but they share a common attribute with the M’s, one that’s essentially the inverse of the Astros’ current foible: they are dominant when they get a lead.

Edwin Diaz just racked up a save in all four wins against Houston, the perfect capstone to the perfect series for the Mariners. On paper, the Astros are better at hitting, pitching, and defense, but Diaz gives the M’s a clear edge in an important phase of the game. While the new crop of situational relievers (and the pre-deadline set-up men) have had their ups and downs, the M’s essentially have things won when they turn the ball to Sugar. That’s essentially the A’s plan, too. In Blake Treinen, the A’s have a similar kind of lock-down closer, one who enables them to overachieve their base talent level, particularly given the rash of injuries they’ve had to deal with.

By Fangraphs’ WAR, Eddie Diaz is the top reliever in the game at 3.1, thanks to an other-wordly FIP borne of his K:BB dominance. By RA9-based WAR, Treinen jumps ahead, and essentially blows MLB out of the water. Treinen doesn’t have the same kind of K rate as Diaz, but he’s given up all of 1 HR and has stranded more runners. To be clear: some of this is due to factors outside of Treinen’s control – his spacious home park, the A’s excellent defense (especially 3B Matt Chapman). Still and all, the A’s closer has an ERA that starts with 0, and while you can justifiably say it won’t last, it’s a huge reason why the A’s keep on surging.

Diaz has his psychedelic slider, a pitch with late, angry break, to confound hitters with. Treinen generally sticks with his fastball, using his 98-MPH four-seam and sinker over 60% of the time. A west coast Zach Britton, Treinen’s sinker often looks like a near-100-MPH breaking ball, with serious late downward break. The sheer life on the pitch make any kind of worries about platoon splits moot. Sure, they’re there…kind of, but he’s got a FIP below 2 against both lefties and righties. Picking who’s got an “advantage” seems like a great way to miss the point.

Of course, we wouldn’t be talking about either Diaz or Treinen if they didn’t have save opportunities, and that’s meant that much of the focus on both clubs has gone towards the starting rotation. The M’s were high on the rotation coming into the year, and health is a big reason why that faith has been at least partially rewarded. Sure, they could’ve used another starter at times, and maybe they’d be neck and neck with the Astros if they’d splurged on someone, but their starting pitching has been remarkably solid all year long. Contrast that with the A’s, who’ve already gone through a few years worth of starting pitchers. When the year started, their rotation looked like this:
1: Kendall Gravemann
2: Sean Manaea
3: Daniel Mengden
4: Andrew Triggs
5: Daniel Gossett

Top prospect AJ Puk waited in the wings for either the super 2 deadline or just a few weeks to give the club an extra year of club control.

Within a few weeks, the rotation was a smoldering pile of ash. Gravemann was demoted and has since had TJ surgery. Daniel Gossett was demoted and had TJ surgery. Andrew Triggs remains on the 60-day DL with forearm tightness but as of this writing, has not yet had TJ surgery, which makes him a kind of success story. Daniel Mengden was merely demoted, so is even more of a success story. AJ Puk had TJ surgery before the year even started. Only Sean Manaea remains, and he’s been reinforced by a motley crew of journeymen, ex-prospects and waiver fodder. Trevor Cahill joined at the end of April, followed by his old teammate Brett Anderson in early May. Paul Blackburn and Frankie Montas joined near the end of May. Chris Bassitt and Edwin Jackson came on in June before the most recent signing, Mike Fiers, joined at the deadline. Blackburn and Bassitt have already departed, the latter optioned to AAA while Blackburn was shut down with, yes, an arm injury. This last iteration of the rotation has been their most successful yet, and currently includes:
1: Sean Manaea
2: Edwin Jackson
3: Trevor Cahill
4: Mike Fiers
5: Brett Anderson

Manaea’s been the rock, but the club wouldn’t be handing the ball to Treinen without Jackson, Cahill, and Anderson turning the clock back to the early years of this decade. Jackson in particular seems like an out-of-nowhere savior, as he hasn’t posted a big league season above replacement level since 2014, and hasn’t posted at least 1 win by RA9-based war since 2012. Everyone gets hot from time to time, but this is every bit as fascinating to me as the Yankees pitching PD success. At least those guys are working with youngsters (CC Sabathia excepted) – the A’s are fueling their comeback with has-beens.

Sean Manaea was once a potential 1st overall draftpick with a mid-90s fastball and a wipeout slider, but arm trouble and inconsistency knocked him down the draft board. With a low 3/4 slot and low spin rate fastball, he seemed like a great Justin Masterson-style high-GB% starter, albeit one who might struggle with right-handed bats (Manaea’s a lefty). In his first two years, those platoon split problems plagued him, but he still managed league-average years in the A’s makeshift rotations. This year, he’s taken a step forward despite a somewhat worrying drop in velocity. As LL’s Jake Mailhot detailed back in May, he pitched around his declining velo with swerving horizontal movement and increased confidence. Only, a strange thing has happened to his plus horizontal movement – it’s dropping just as fast as his velocity. When he came up, he had sidearm-quality armside run, averaging over 11″. It’s now down to something like 7″, pushing him from long-tail edge case to…normal pitcher. It hasn’t exactly hurt; he’s having his best season even as his K rate drops. The key’s been that his change and fastball are now confusing *righties*. He doesn’t really throw his slider to righties, so his developmental arc has been predicated on developing his solid split-change into a useful weapon. Armed with a new release point that’s practically on top of 1B, Manaea seems to have upped his deception, and that’s enabled him to be an equal-opportunity pitcher. Trevor Cahill and Edwin Jackson always had more muted platoon splits, but they too seem to be doing something more deceptive than in the past. And while Andrew Triggs can’t stay healthy, he was the right-handed version of Manaea – a very low 3/4 sinker/slider guy who looks for all the world like a situational reliever but whose mechanics or stride or something seems to be confusing to opposite-handed batters. I have no idea what the the A’s are doing with these guys, but as of today, the A’s starting pitchers – including a bunch of guys who’ve been demoted and injured or both – have a lower ERA and way, way less hits-allowed than the M’s. Sure, they’ve pitched fewer innings, but even on a rate basis, they’ve given up fewer runs.

The M’s control the zone much better, and the A’s are among the league’s worst at missing bats. But then, they know they don’t have to get outs themselves. Their job is to keep things close, rely on their defense (and yes, their spacious park), and then turn things over to Treinen and company in the bullpen. That *seemed* to be the M’s plan, but Marco Gonzales’ development and Mike Leake’s sheer durability have allowed them to get more innings out of their starters…which is good, as relief arms like James Pazos and Nick Vincent seem to be slowing down a bit. In the past 30 days or so, the A’s starting pitching has morphed into a strength, kind of the way the M’s SPs did in May. How each group fares in September will determine who picks up the second wildcard.

Tonight’s line-up:
1: Haniger, RF
2: Maybin, LF
3: Segura, SS
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Heredia, CF
9: Romine, 2B
SP: Gonzales

Game 119, Mariners at Astros

marc w · August 12, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Dallas Keuchel, 11:10am

Three games against the toughest set of opposing starters the M’s have faced, with the possible exception of Chris Sale, and the M’s head into today with a three-game winning streak. The offense teed off against Justin Verlander, but they won the last two thanks in large part to great, timely, pitching. Solid starts from Wade LeBlanc and Mike Leake, and then solid relief efforts leading up to the nearly-unhittable Edwin Diaz. If you squint, you see a true AL contender, a team with good-but-not great everything leading up to an undeniably great closer – a team whose greatness doesn’t bowl you over, but reveals itself slowly through consistency and calm. Of course, this is the same club that played terrible baseball in Arlington and have put themselves behind the A’s, so it’s hard to give them TOO much credit for consistency, but the team could’ve let the last few weeks overwhelm them. No one would’ve batted an eye if they’d lost these last three, so it’s a testament to the club and to the eternal weirdness of baseball that the M’s are riding somewhat high again.

And that brings us to Erasmo Ramirez. The Nicarguan righty hasn’t started since April, when he gave up 5 HRs in 5 IP against Cleveland. It’s been a strange, strange career for the afterthought of a prospect, who ignored the doubters and rose to the M’s in 2012 behind a much better than advertised FB and a true weapon in his diving change-up. He threw 93-95 that first year, and his change came in about 12 MPH slower, leading to tons of swings and misses. That gap was important, because the movement on the pitch was quite similar to his sinker, and the M’s loved having him pitch off of that sinking fastball, perhaps as a way to reduce his dinger problems. Almost immediately, though, things deteriorated. His FB velocity dipped by 1 then 2 MPH. That 12 MPH gap between SI and CH shrunk with it. More importantly, he always struggled to develop a real breaking ball – something to throw against right-handed batters. He had a slider, and the M’s kept tweaking it, but nothing really worked. By 2014, batters slugged .731 off of his slider, with 5 HRs against a sparingly-used 3rd pitch, and the M’s had seen enough.

Erasmo revived his career in Tampa, with a slower slider, a different approach, and then a hard cutter. Used as a swingman and occasional high-leverage long-reliever (there’s a concept for you), he thrived. His FB never recovered its 93-95 velo, but he had enough guile and deep enough repertoire that it didn’t really matter. As the game approached Peak Dinger, Erasmo suffered, but he remained playable thanks to a low BABIP and low walk rates. Upon returning to Seattle last season, though, his gopheritis returned with a vengeance. He gave up 12 HRs in 11 starts (62 IP) down the stretch, and then 7 in just 2 starts (9 2/3 IP) this year. That’s 19 HRs in just over 70 IP, and while that will regress, that’s…that’s ugly. The velo gap between FB and CH is down to 8 MPH, and there’s essentially no difference in the vertical movement between his sinker and cambio. He uses his 88 MPH cutter as a fastball now, but while there’s a big horizontal movement gap between the sinker/cutter, it means he’s throwing 88 MPH fastballs to left-handed batters an awful lot. The slider’s regressed yet again, as batters are back to slugging over .700 against it since he arrived last August. But they’re slugging .765 against his primary fastball, his sinker.

There are a number of options here. He could go back to using his four-seamer, which maximizes the gap between FB and CH, and which has been successful for him in Seattle. He could use his cutter up in the zone a bit more, instead of keeping it low (same as his sinker). I’d love to have more confidence that the M’s are the team to unlock Erasmo’s potential. And frankly, potential’s too strong a word for it – he just needs to do what he was doing for a few years in Tampa. He’s regressed badly, and if he’s going to stabilize this post-Felix rotation, he needs to be the guy he was in St. Pete again. If not, then the M’s won’t have improved by demoting their icon to the ‘pen.

Dallas Keuchel remains an extraordinarily successful sinkerballer despite below-average velocity, and he’s maintained a well above-average HR rate throughout the HR-explosion of 2016-18. His low spin pitches stay down, and his command enables him to make the most of so-so stuff. Fundamentally, he’s got the same basic repertoire as Erasmo, with a rare four-seamer, a sinker, a cutter, and then a slider and change. Erasmo’s pitches have much higher spin rates and are thrown from a lower arm angle, and I wonder if that’s part of the problem. You look at Erasmo’s mechanics, and then the whole sinker/slider, high-ground ball thing makes some sense. But his sinker’s got above-average spin, 200 RPMs more than Keuchel’s, and that gap remains after taking into account Erasmo’s higher velo. The gap’s even larger for his cutter. Erasmo’s got a very high spin rate cutter, and he’s now targeting the bottom of the zone with it. Sure, cutters show higher spin rates, but I’m just not convinced that he should be trying to get grounders and whiffs on a pitch with the kind of spin he puts on the ball. Keuchel’s pitches have much lower than average spin, hence his GB-centric approach makes sense. Erasmo’s HIGHER than average spin would seem to conflict with his cutters-and-sinkers-at-the-knees approach.

1: Haniger, RF
2: Maybin, LF
3: Segura, SS
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Heredia, CF
9: Romine, 2B
SP: Erasmooooo

Another day off for Dee Gordon as the M’s face a tough lefty starter. After facing three super-high-velocity starters in Verlander/Cole/Morton, we’ll see how they adjust to a low-velo, command and sink guy like Keuchel today. They’ve shown very little in the way of splits against fly ball or groundball pitchers this year.

Game 114, Mariners at Rangers

marc w · August 7, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Bartolo Colon, 5:05pm

Happy Felix Day. Apparently, Felix did enough in his last start against the Jays to get another. I still can’t quite believe that this day-to-day, start-to-start nonsense is how the team chooses to motivate Felix freaking Hernandez.

It’s interesting – nearly the entire arc of Felix’s career, and certainly since 2007-8 or so, has been a story of declining velocity. It’s not new, it’s just that there was nowhere for his velocity to go. He arrived as a teenager touching triple digits with a four-seam fastball, and, a ton of HRs-allowed later, morphed into the guy we know and love: a sinker/change guy with a FB that settled in around 93-95, then 92-94, then 91-93, then 89-92. His Cy Young year of 2010 he averaged 95, but he was better in 2014, when he threw 93. What’s the point of this historical digression? The point isn’t that Felix never learned to deal with a slower FB; that’s literally all he’s ever done. The point is that when it dipped below 91-92 or so, it stopped being playable.

Felix’s control improved over the course of his career, and his contact management followed suit for a while. But his velocity seemed to cross some invisible line right around when the ball got juiced, and Felix hasn’t adjusted back. That’s at least *partially* on him, but it’s still interesting to me that so much of the decline in his results have come on his sinker, and in particular, against left-handed batters. Back in 2014, Felix had reverse splits, and has many times throughout his career. This isn’t a huge shock for a guy whose best pitch is a change-up of death, and one that looks a hell of a lot like his sinker. But something seemed to change in 2015 that caused lefties to start picking up that pitch much better.

Lefties slugged .423 vs. his sinker in 2014, but since then, that figure’s skyrocketed: .566 in 2015, then .588 in 2016, wayyy up to .706 last year, and .731 this year. Sure, there’s BABIP in there, and there are sample issues, and noise, etc. But you can’t survive in the majors when people are slugging 6-700 on your primary fastball. Shockingly, his change is still effective against lefties, so this isn’t a case where the lower-velo sinker is just getting mushed up with his change. He’s got a good change and an awful fastball. Using the four-seamer could help with this, and that’s what many have been saying (including Jerry Dipoto!) for a few years now.

But I want to draw to your attention just how weird it is that Felix’s SI would just die a horrible death at 90 MPH, *especially* given that his SLG-agaisnt vs. righties is under. 450 this year. Isn’t it possible that the problem here is that he’s either tipping it or that he’s lost whatever kind of deception he had just a few years ago? These are kind of “Strong” and “Weak” forms of the same argument: Felix’s FB is worse, sure, but it’s unusable in games because people are reading it. If that’s the case – and it very well might not be – the problem here isn’t with Felix. It’s using all of the wonderful technology we have to see if we can spot a tell and help him fix it. Instead of carping at him, or grudgingly giving him another start (especially with Erasmo still on the mend), give him a fix, give him an actionable thing to work on.

Look, this may be the end for Felix, and it’s entirely possible that he’s not tipping the pitch, and that lefties simply get too long a look at it in flight. There may be no well to go back to. But if I’m the M’s, and I’m now down in the wildcard, and the A’s picked up some rotation depth…I’d figure out if there wasn’t a way to make 2018 Felix the equivalent of 2018 Mike Fiers. There’s no reason Felix can’t do the high-HR, low-BB sorta-mostly good thing. And if he does, this team gets a whole lot more interesting down the the stretch.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Haniger, RF
3: Span, LF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Herrmann, C
8: Maybin, CF
9: Romine, SS
SP: EL CARTELUA

The struggling Jean Segura gets a day off today. Robbie Cano continued his rehab in Tacoma, singling today AND yesterday and making some plays at 1B. The Colorado SkySox beat the R’s tonight in the final game the two franchises will play. Mike Curto reports that this brought the overall series between the clubs – which dates back to 1988 – to a dead heat: both teams have won 174 and lost 174.

Game 112, Jays at Mariners

marc w · August 5, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Sam Gaviglio, 1:10pm

I suppose it’s been a while since we’ve had such a crystallizing series. The parallels to 2007’s LollaBlueza against the Angels essentially write themselves. This one’s been marred by the presence of thousands of drunk/annoying Jays fans (Hosebullah?) but then, their arrival wasn’t much of a shock. It’s just that the M’s weren’t really in a position to prevent it, and let’s face it, I don’t think anyone forecast the M’s to be ~20 games over .500 when this series started.

They’re not 20 games over anymore, and the A’s, improbably, are. The A’s have stabilized their decimated rotation by adding guys like Edwin Jackson, first seen dueling peak-era Randy Johnson 15 years ago, and Frankie Montas, the hard-throwing prospect who’s now in his 4th org in the last 5 seasons. I will freely admit that the way we evaluate player development and the overall value of a front office is too often skewed by the last month or two of results. I don’t think the A’s magically “fixed” anything with Jackson, any more than the Padres did when Jackson pitched an absolute gem in the one game I’ve ever seen in Pittsburgh. Still, the contrast between the A’s getting a modicum of production from their waiver-wire crew and the M’s still chirping at Felix is…palpable. We don’t know that the M’s PD has “failed” because we/I don’t know what they’ve tried, what Felix’s reaction has been, and what alternatives they’ve explored. But again, players around the game and, pretty crucially, within the division have turned their careers around because they’ve worked hard and had the right help.

I wrote about Sam Gaviglio, ex-Mariner, in late July, as another example of a pitcher who’d seemingly gained another gear. He pitched poorly that day, and in general, his July went about as bad as possible. After outpitching a miserable FIP in Seattle/KC last year (the ol’ Ryan Franklin deal of giving up tons of solo HRs), he’s now got an ERA worse than a so-so FIP. Neither’s really all that encouraging, but at least they’re *different*. Gaviglio seemed like a classic AAAA guy, without the pure stuff that could miss big league bats. Given that and the overall environment, he seemed like he’d always give up HRs and couldn’t balance that with any positive attribute. He’s still pretty marginal, but incremental improvements in his slider and especially change have at least enabled him to miss a few bats. He’s no longer on David Price’s tail in K% or anything, and may still be a AAAA pitcher, but for a team like this, he’s a decent enough flyer.

Dee Gordon’s missing his 2nd straight day with an injured ankle.
Ben Gamel went 4-5 in yesterday’s game, bringing his line since his demotion to 7 for 13 with 3 doubles and a HR. I completely understand the flexibility that Heredia provides the defense, but the M’s can’t score any runs right now and their active roster management doesn’t seem to suggest that they see this as a problem. Ben Gamel is not a great offensive player, and can’t stop the M’s offensive woes by himself. But when you’re in an offensive funk like this, I’d assume that the M’s would go all-out in trying to put their best offensive line-up out there. They…don’t seem to agree. Even if it’s marginal, you kind of have to go for it, right? There’s a reason Chris Herrmann is up instead of Freitas, and the equivalent reasoning would argue for Gamel. Mini-rant over.

1: Span, LF
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Herrmann, C
8: Heredia, CF
9: Romine, 2B
SP: Leake

Game 110, Jays at Mariners: Big Game Marco, We Need You

marc w · August 3, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Ryan Borucki, 7:10pm

Last night’s game was frustrating on so many levels, from losing to a team that’s kicked off a rebuild, to the bullpen continuing their slide, to, uh, the small matter of the Oakland A’s overtaking the M’s in the wildcard race. The fan base is anxious/angry, and the A’s kick off a series at home against the similarly-rebuilding Detroit Tigers. The M’s really, really need a win here. In the first game of the Astros series, the M’s were similarly desperate, and they turned to Big Game James who delivered one of his best performances right when the M’s needed it. Today, the M’s desperately need Marco Gonzales, someone the FO clearly thinks is one of the best SPs in the league, to be on his game tonight, as the playoff expectancy of this game is higher than any the M’s have played this year. To be clear: the FO’s not wrong in their assessment of Gonzales. By Fangraphs fWAR, Gonzales ranks 19th in MLB at 2.6, and by BP’s DRA-based WARP, he’s 26th at 2.9. He’s at 2.7 by BBREF’s RA9-based WAR, but I’m not exactly sure where that ranks him, but he’s in a statistical dead heat with his teammate James Paxton, which is a good spot to be.

Opposing him is Ryan Borucki, a former 15th-round pick and org-depth sort of prospect who’s popped up in a big way this year, tossing 5 quality starts in his 6 MLB opportunities. After being injured off and on for a few years, he broke out in 2016 as an over-aged soft-tossing lefty in A ball, but ran through 3 levels the following year. For Borucki, his game depends on getting to his plus change-up, a pitch with pretty odd movement. Borucki’s fastball is only 91-92, and it’s thrown from a 6′ release point that’s more or less dead on average. It’s just that the thing MOVES like it’s a sinker thrown by a low-3/4 arm slot guy like Adam Conley or Sean Manaea. All in all, his fastball is almost a dead ringer for Manaea’s, right down to the 92-ish velo. Borucki’s gets a touch more horizontal movement and maybe slightly less vertical movement (though it’s really, really close). That’s why it’s so weird that Borucki’s got the slightly more elevated release point. You can see in the gifs of that FG post linked above that his delivery *looks* kind of side-army, but it’s released from 6’+. The dissonance of movement and release point may be making it harder on batters.

The other problem is that his secondaries are just as weird. His signature change has plenty of armside run, but *less* than his four-seam fastball (that’s not unheard of, but it’s not super common). It also has MORE vertical rise (which I’ve almost never seen from an overhand pitcher). His slider sinks a ton, again simulating a pitch thrown by a sidewinder. AAA hitters seemed unfazed by this gap between expected and actual movement, as he threw 77 IP in the IL this year with a FIP of just over 4. That’s not bad, but it doesn’t scream instant success, either. I wonder if MLB hitters get more coaching preparing them to react to arm angles – if they mentally make little adjustments based on cues like release point MORE than minor league hitters, who may not have as much access to video scouting and the like. In any event, he’s been much tougher in the bigs, with a FIP of 2.5 over those 6 starts.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, LF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Maybin, CF
9: Heredia, LF
SP: GONZALES

I get, intellectually, the idea of keeping Guillermo Heredia over Ben Gamel. Tonight’s game with a tough lefty on the hill would seem to validate it. But now the M’s, in a complete offensive tailspin, get to take defense-first Heredia and stick him in an *outfield corner*. I love platoon splits, and they matter and all, but the answer to persistent offensive struggles is not Guillermo Heredia in LF. No, you don’t need your 4th OF to spark the offense, and no, Ben Gamel’s no great shakes vs. lefties. But the M’s seemed to prioritize defensive flexibility here, and I find that kind of strange. Cameron Maybin has reverse splits for his career, which…I don’t know. This is all a very small point, but at this point in the season, with anxiety peaking, we’re all picking at a lot of the small things.

Game 109, Jays at Mariners: Do Not Go Gentle

marc w · August 2, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Jaime Garcia, 7:10pm

Happy Felix Day. I want to write that, because I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to do so again. The M’s are in a playoff race, and Felix has struggled, as the M’s point out at every opportunity. Hey, gotta be ruthless, right? Team over individual.

I’m not denying the logic of the M’s tough love approach here (though the love is currently below detectable levels). What I’m really angry about is the way 100% of the blame is directed at Felix. What possible use is a peak performance team, a mental skills team, multiple pitching brains on the coaching staff, if not to help in this precise moment? For better or worse, the M’s built a coaching/development/culture group to interface with players, and they seem unwilling to acknowledge that, if Felix is cooked at 32, then all of those people failed along with El Cartelua.

This is where the game is going. The M’s aren’t behind the Astros because they didn’t have as high of draft picks. They’re behind the Astros because Justin Verlander – with the same miles on the odometer that Felix has – is suddenly an ace again. Because Gerrit Cole uncovered previously unknown levels of ability, just as Charlie Morton (years older than Felix) did. Not all of these changes were implemented in Houston, though they did a few. It’s that they can encourage and maintain progress, they can identify flaws, and work toward improvement. There’s nothing magic about that. It’s hard, hard work, but it can be done. This is, in short, the M’s vision of their own approach. And the M’s are getting their clocks cleaned, comprehensively, at their own approach.

I have always hated the idea of Felix coming into Safeco wearing some unfamiliar gray and dominating the M’s. There’s a reason “Felix is ours and you can’t have him,” was such an effective rallying cry for a woebegone fan base like this one. After the past few weeks, I don’t think I’d hate it anymore. It’d make me happy, angry, sad, hurt, and uplifted all at once. Love is strange like that.

I don’t want Felix to go out with a good game. I want to change the trajectory he’s on, not forestall impact. Yes, yes, that all sounds like a naive little boy who can’t accept the reality that’s screaming as loud as the HR ball off of Mike Trout’s bat, but the modern game is about more than Ks and HRs. It’s about ignoring population-wide stats like aging curves or HR/FB. And if that makes me a naive little fanboy, well love is strange like that, too.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Span, LF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Haniger, RF
6: Seager, 3B
7: Healy, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Maybin, CF
SP: King Felix. Siempre.

Give ‘em hell, Felix.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Game 107 – Astros at Mariners

marc w · July 31, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Charlie Morton, 7:10pm

Last night’s game was, in your author’s humble opinion, the best of the 2018 season. Sure, the offense looked lost at times, but they were facing Gerrit Cole, an ace having a beast of a season for Houston. Cole was on fire, and would’ve made any offense look silly. James Paxton’s the M’s ace, but you understood why the Astros were slight favorites, even in Seattle: Paxton’s had great games, but also a few clunkers, and didn’t have the pure runs-allowed numbers you’d love from the ace of a playoff team. But when he’s on, he’s right there with the Coles and Verlanders of the league. Big Maple became the Ace(r) that the M’s needed, and matched Cole inning for inning before the M’s scratched two runs across on a huge, huge 2-out double from Nelson Cruz.

I’ve said it many times: I don’t want the M’s to play for the 2nd wildcard like it’s some valuable trophy. I want the M’s to compete – really compete – with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Astros. The M’s have a better record than anyone in the NL, but it can be hard some times to scan through the rosters in Houston or Chicago or LA and think, “Yes, the M’s can absolutely win a 7 game series against them.” There’s more than a little M’s-inspired pessimism there; I mean, of COURSE the M’s can beat them in a 7 game series. Anything can happen in a 7 game series! But you know what I mean – it’s not enough to just have a solid team with a great closer that overachieves and is suuuuper happy to be the road team in the wildcard game and get that playoff drought monkey off their back. I’d like a top 3 in the rotation that could go toe to toe with Verlander-Cole-Morton or Sale-Price-Rodriguez-Porcello. Still, with Paxton looking like he brings his best stuff in big games, you could see that the M’s would be a very tough out in the wildcard game, and if Marco Gonzales continues to improve, and if Mike Leake just stays consistent. Games like last night makes even the most pessimistic fan squint and see a playoff squad. Even starting Andrew Romine at 3B didn’t take away from the effect.

Tonight, the M’s face Charlie Morton, who averages 97 on a swerving four-seamer and 96 on a death-dealing sinker. He has a massive, sweeping curve at 80 MPH that breaks gloveside by 10″ while his sinker gets 10″ of armside movement, and then he’s got a cutter and split-change, because why not. He was signed to a two-year deal before 2017 for $14 M, or easily less than Juan Nicasio got. Development allows you to do so much, like completely remake the career trajectory of a former journeyman 5th starter. This is not about minimizing Morton’s payroll. He’s absolutely been worth 10X more than Houston’s paying him, and that’s unfortunate, but here’s the thing: Charlie Morton – the Charlie Morton who signed a couple of small deals just to stick around – is now in line for a major payday. Development can turn a low-bonus signing into Jose Altuve or Luis Severino, just as it can take the #1 overall pick like Carlos Correa and mold him into a superstar. It can do so much, you have to wonder why the Astros felt such urgency to go out onto the market and pick up Roberto Osuna, still serving a suspension for a horrific attack on his girlfriend. He’s not eligible yet, as he’s got a court date and then his suspension clock still has a few days left, but as pretty much everyone’s been saying, the Astros somehow get to use Osuna in the playoffs. The Astros have Hector Rondon, who’s been great as closer once Ken Giles was sent away, and Collin McHugh, sporting a 1.05 ERA at the back of their pen. Given their touch with guys like, er, Rondon and McHugh, it’s really, really hard to justify the need to bring in Osuna. Go get a win, M’s.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Span, LF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Haniger, RF
6: Herrman, C
7: Healy, 1B
8: Heredia, CF
9: Romine, 3B
SP: Leake

Trade Deadline Wrap-Up

marc w · July 31, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

The M’s had a busy trade deadline, sneaking in a last-minute trade for Marlins CF Cameron Maybin. Perhaps the most gratifying move for this FO wasn’t even one involving the M’s – it was watching the Angels pull the plug and move Ian Kinsler to an actual contender. Let’s go over the M’s moves.

1: The M’s acquire duel bullpen specialists in Zach Duke and Adam Warren

I wrote at length about Duke yesterday, so I’ll focus more on Warren here. Warren’s obviously a righty, and he’s been a solid contributor to a bullpen that simply has no room for more contributors. The Yankees bullpen is the game’s best by quite a ways, and one of the big reasons is its depth. Yes, yes, Chapman and Betances at the back, but they’re getting phenomenal seasons from Jonathan Holder, Chad Green and AJ Cole. The result, as Dan Szymborski wrote about today, is that Adam Warren’s been relegated to mop-up duty because that’s the only spot they’ve got for him. With Zach Britton joining the ‘pen, the Yankees are selling off the bottom third or so of their relievers, many of whom have actual value, as opposed to the bottom third of most other teams’ bullpen.

In exchange, the M’s give up merely international bonus pool money. A few years ago, the Yankees followed the logic of the CBA-dictated international bonus pools and spent many multiples of their putative “cap,” bringing them a windfall of international talent – talent they’ve been relatively good at developing. This year, they’re taking the market by storm again, but they’re staying within their cap as well. How? By selling off excess relievers for bonus pool spending authority. The deal for Chasen Shreve helped them net the best pitching prospect in this year’s class in Osiel Rodriguez. The deal for Warren will probably fund another deal they already had a handshake on. The Yankees stay under the luxury tax, avoid penalties in the J2 signing period, and reap huge rewards if they’re able to turn one of their signings into the next Luis Severino. The trade makes plenty of sense for the Yankees.

It also makes sense for the M’s, who don’t give up any talent to pick a guy with a strong three-pitch mix with good deception. Despite the pedestrian velocity on Warren’s four-seam fastball, it’s a real swing-and-miss pitch. He pairs it with a slider with some two-plane break and what used to be his bread and butter, a diving change-up around 7 MPH slower than his 91-92 MPH fastball. This season, he has pronounced platoon splits, with righties struggling against fastball and slider while lefties have seen his FB much better. Over his career, though, those splits disappear – he’s had essentially no splits to speak of, thanks to that great change-up. In 2014, for example, he had fairly noticeable reverse splits. He’s fine to use as a ROOGY before the M’s get to Colome/Diaz, but he’s not hopeless against lefties.

I mentioned this a bit over a month ago when the M’s were facing the Yanks, but Warren’s another product of the freakishly effective Yankee pitching development program. That post noted that new starter Jonathan Loaisiga’s FB had nearly identical movement to Luis Severino’s – both were just shy of 9.4″ of vertical rise. Adam Warren checks in this year at 9.46. Ex-Yankee Nick Rumbelow’s at 9.78″. Domingo German’s at 9.0″. What about Jonathan Holder? 9.33. You get the point. All of these fastballs are remarkable similar in terms of vertical movement. They’re fairly similar in horizontal movement, but the vertical movement part is almost spooky. Why? Because I’ve traditionally thought that vertical movement is a byproduct of backspin that’s strongly influenced by your arm angle. Higher arm angle = more backspin, as your spin becomes more efficient. Is this just the Yanks hording high-spin pitchers and molding their mechanics?

No – take a look at this table on spin rate from Statcast. Domingo German really does have freakishly high spin rates. But Nick Rumbelow’s are almost as freakishly LOW. Adam Warren’s are well below average, while Luis Severino’s are above average. The Yankees are taking guys with much, much different spin rates and still getting the exact pitch “shape” they want – a mostly straight version with good-not-great vertical rise. If they wanted Domingo German, say, or Jonathan Holder, to have a big-time rising FB, they could probably do that. If they wanted Nick Rumbelow to throw a bowling ball sinker, they could probably do that. They don’t, though. They’ve got to tailor the spin efficiency of each to produce this 9-and-change vertical profile. It’s that pitch that seems to pair best with a change and breaking ball, either slider or hard curve. I don’t get why you’d want carbon copies, but I’m not going to judge the ballclub that’s created one of the most fearsome bullpens of all time.

The one concern I’d point out is that sometimes when you acquire a Yankee, the Yankee development magic stays in the Bronx. Nick Rumbelow has…underwhelmed, let’s just say. Adam Warren himself was traded once, in 2016, when the eventual Champs in Chicago picked him up for the stretch run. He was…fine, I guess. Sure, sure, David Robertson (cutter – he doesn’t throw a four-seam – vertical movement? 9.34″) did fine for a while with the White Sox, and Chapman was fine with the Reds and Cubs, but it’s something to watch. Still, the M’s needed a surer reliever in a tough spot in the 6th-7th than either the out-of-favor Juan Nicasio or the scuffling Nick Vincent, and now they have one. They improved their 2018 odds without sacrificing any prospects. Tough to complain about this one.

2: M’s get CF Cameron Maybin from Miami for SS Bryson Brigman+international bonus pool money

The M’s have not gotten a lot of production from their center fielders. Dee Gordon hit better there than he has at 2B, but that’s both not saying much and balanced by some poor defense as he got used to playing OF. Guillermo Heredia started off the season brilliantly, drawing plenty of walks and hitting for a decent average. Since then, though, it’s been a free fall, as pitchers just throw the ball down the middle (his walk rate in July is 1.7%) and his BABIP has fallen as well. Heredia’s season wRC+ is down to 85, and worse, it’s forecasted to be even worse going forward. Worse, his career defensive numbers are ugly in CF. The M’s needed an upgrade, and got one.

Cameron Maybin is not a world-beater, and with a better season line AND better batting projections AND better CF defense, he figures to be an improvement over Heredia and the plan B of just stuffing Ben Gamel in CF. But the M’s may be hoping for more than just incremental improvement while they try to work on Heredia’s swing in AAA. Maybin’s ground ball rate is still pretty high, but he’s running his lowest GB:FB ratio since 2010. That’s backed up by Statcast data, which says he’s essentially doubled his launch angle to 8.6 degrees this year from 4.1 last year, continuing a trend from 1.9 in 2015. None of that showed up as actual *production* early on, though. Maybin was dreadful in April and May, but has really come on in July, hitting his only 3 HRs of the season, and batting .309/.426/.456 over 82 PAs. If they know he did something or if they suspect any mechanical changes are feeling more normal to him, then maybe he could clear higher bars than “a better hitter than Guillermo Heredia.”

To get the vet, the M’s gave up their 3rd-round pick from the 2016 draft, SS Bryson Brigman. Brigman had been a notable prospect as a kid/high schooler, but went to the University of San Diego instead, whereupon the M’s drafted him as an eligible sophomore. He was talented enough to get picked in the 3rd round, but lacked any semblance of in-game power, putting up a so-so ISO with metal bats. That seemed to be confirmed in his first go-round in pro ball: his SLG% was under .300 in both 2016 and ’17. He’s fared much better in 2018 in the hitter-friendly Cal League, but even with an average over .300, his SLG% is still below .400. There’s bat-to-ball skill, and some solid plate discipline, but he’s not a can’t miss guy by any stretch.

ANY trade for a rental (Maybin’s a free agent after this season) can come back to bite you, but this seems like a decent deal for an upgrade at a position of need right now. Do the M’s need to restock their system? Yes, clearly. But is this a worthwhile price to pay for a non-elite MLB’er like Maybin? Yes, just as clearly. The M’s have made it clear that they’re playing for 2018 – it’s wild card or bust. We can have a separate debate over whether that was a good strategy, but given where they are in the standings, and given Oakland just saw their 4th SP have Tommy John surgery out of their expected 5-man rotation this year…you give up a bit of potential to give yourself the best possible shot. People like, uh, me have been saying that while the deals for relievers are perfectly fine, they’re technically upgrades on the M’s best player group. The biggest problem at this point is the line-up, and today the M’s decided they couldn’t say they gave it their all if they didn’t deal with their CF problems. This has to hurt for Guillermo, but he’s young and can regroup in AAA. Another day, another deal I legitimately can’t find too much fault with.

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