BA Locates Names of Ten Mariners Prospects

Jay Yencich · January 19, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners, Minor Leagues

Just before the holidays, fans of prospecting in general were gifted a tweet by Baseball America’s JJ Cooper which said what many had been thinking for a while:

Reading the back of the Mariners Top 30 for the Prospect Handbook. The back of this list is…..fascinating in a “Wow, we’re ranking this guy, and this guy and this guy and this guy.”

The Mariners have been in a precarious position for a while now, having traded off substantial amounts of lower minors prospects for near-ready depth with modest ceilings. Coupled with this, our draft strategy has been primarily to target competent and competitive replacements, and perhaps where we’ve had our greatest success is in selecting arms that we feel we can slot into bullpen work in short order. As such, the DiPoto era has almost excused itself from the trickier tasks of long-term development, as anything promising is quickly jettisoned and we’re left with an organization filled with organizational players. I said at the beginning of last draft that we were reaching a tipping point, beyond which was dangerous, in which we needed to focus on higher ceilings rather than replacement players. For a couple rounds, that was where our aims were, and then thereafter, not so much, which is part of why it’s not all that surprising to see a BA top ten list that has the first three names, the fifth and sixth, and then something of a free-for-all:

1. OF Kyle Lewis
2. 1B Evan White
3. RHP Sam Carlson
4. OF Julio Rodriguez
5. CF Braden Bishop
6. RHP Max Povse
7. RHP Matt Festa
8. RHP Art Warren
9. 3B Joe Rizzo
10. SS Juan Querecuto

Trending: DOWN Trades of eight players who ranked in the Top 30 Prospects a year ago have depleted the ranks.

I’m sparing you the next line which identifies as the non-coveted “worst farm system in baseball.”

If there’s anything promising that’s come out of listening into offseason conversations, it’s that DiPoto on the Wheelhouse podcast specifically stated that he thinks that we have finally arrived at the “tread water” point for our upper minors depth and can now comfortably focus on players that might take a little longer to bring along. He’s not wrong either in terms of how our depth is configured. Haniger, Gamel, Heredia, and Dee Gordon means that we can afford not to pressure Kyle Lewis or Braden Bishop. Ryon Healy, Vogelbach, and MAYBE Mike Ford mean that Evan White isn’t going to be counted on to be the first player of his draft class to hit the majors. For whatever else you think of Miranda, Erasmo Ramirez, and Mike Leake, they’ve at least got us fairly stable in the short term. One could also say that the fact that Jean Segura is locked into a long term contract makes it okay that we have traded away nearly every capable shortstop prospect we’ve had in recent memory.

In the longer run, sending away a lot of stuff leaves us with questions of resource allocation and whether it was worthwhile to, as some have characterized, make twenty moves only to still hover around .500. Hindsight makes such questions easier to answer, but in terms of prospecting, would you rather have Enyel de los Santos or what we got from Joaquin Benoit? Freddy Peralta or the Adam Lind experiment? Erick Mejia or Joe Wieland? Mike Montgomery and a quad-A starter or Daniels Valencia and Vogelbach? Zach Lee for Chris Taylor and the package that got us Smyly / Simmons were unexpected blow-ups, and had things worked out in the expected way, they would likely have been worthwhile. But the slow, untreated bleedout can ruin you just as easily as the bigger blow. Right now, I don’t feel confident in our ability to develop or to correctly evaluate more long-term assets.

It’s a bleak take on things, but then this is probably the thinnest, most top-heavy system I’ve seen in my sixteen+ years of following. There are positives to be taken away, such as the team continues to recruit Driveline guys as minor league free agents, has brought in Dr. Lorena Martin to help standardize conditioning practices, and has coaches that are increasingly savvy to how pitching and hitting mechanics are modeled. These are all great things to have to help you develop the talent that you have. We need more talent though. We need it badly.

Rene Rivera is an Angel

marc w · January 18, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

In 2001, the Mariners won 116 games, as you may have heard. Their future looked bright as well, as the great Sam Miller reminded us yesterday. A great roster, the 2nd best farm system in the game, and a wonderful new stadium. Their draft that year – June of 2001 – looked…odd, but a system that good could overcome a reach on Michael Garciaparra. After that pick, the M’s took a young catcher out of Puerto Rico named Rene Rivera.

That well-regarded system that Sam mentioned? None of the prospectors were talking about Rene Rivera. The M’s already *had* their catcher of the future: Ryan Christianson, whom the M’s took with the 11th overall pick in 1999. He reached AA in 2002, and he was the guy M’s fans pictured catching Ryan Anderson’s untouchable fastballs for years to come. An injury to Christianson and Rivera’s great defense allowed the Puerto Rican teen to rise quickly, and he ended up getting a cup of coffee with the M’s at age 20 in 2004, but during that lost season, the M’s traded away Freddie Garcia and, with Christianson stalled out, acquired their next catcher of the future: Miguel Olivo. Olivo was just 25 then, and had been the Sox #2 prospect before getting a solid half-season of work on the South Side in 2003. Olivo brought power while Rivera…did not.

Olivo had the starting job locked up in 2005, but found himself mired in a historic slump. At the end of May, Olivo was slashing .145/.174/.236 with 33 Ks and 4 BBs in 110 PAs, and the M’s sent him down. His wRC+ in 157 total PAs with the club that year was 12, or the worst in club history for any batter with at least 100 plate appearances. In late July, they officially gave up, swapping him for veteran Miguel Ojeda. Was this Rivera’s moment? No, unfortunately. A few weeks before trading Olivo to San Diego, the M’s made a last-minute decision to skip SS Troy Tulowitzki and instead take USC catcher Jeff Clement with the 5th overall pick in the 2005 draft. Again, the M’s had a catcher of the future, and again, it wasn’t Rene Rivera.

This story isn’t just about Rivera getting picked over, though. He didn’t get *much* of a chance, but he got one in 2006 as a back-up to Kenji Johjima, newly arrived from Japan and the M’s catcher of the present. Rivera got to bat 106 times, and slashed .152/.184/.253, good for a wRC+ of 9. Just…9. The ink wasn’t even dry on Olivo’s dubious record, and Rivera had somehow lowered the bar. This blog took note, heaping scorn on the hapless Rivera and the woeful 2001 draft that set the stage for the collapse of the M’s system (though that collapse had more to do with the curious implosion of the prospect haul the M’s got from Chicago – the one that included Olivo and Jeremy Reed). Rivera was demoted to AA for 2007 and after another bad year at the plate, he was gone.

First the Dodgers in 2008, then the Mets the following year. He moved to the Yankees after a brief stint in the independent leagues for the Camden Riversharks, and when that came to nothing, signed on with the Twins in 2011. He hit well in in AAA, and with Joe Mauer injured, the Twins had a need for back-up catchers. Their own Drew Butera was on hand, but even Butera knew he couldn’t hit. He’d put up a slash line of .211/.268/.292 *in AAA* in 2009, but that was good enough, and he’d been the bench catcher for 2010 and 2011. Rivera actually had a slugging percentage that started with a 4 in AAA in 2011, and with Butera cratering to a big league line of .167/.210/.239, the Twins gave Rivera a shot. Butera’s wRC+ that year was just 19, one of the worst marks in THAT franchise’s long history for anyone with over 100 PAs, but Rivera – who just a year ago was in the Atlantic League – would give Butera some cover. In 114 PAs, Rivera hit .144/.211/.202, good for a wRC+ of 12. It was the worst mark in franchise history since 1964.

Rene Rivera had two semi-extended chances in the big leagues, separated by 5 years. In *both* of them, he became the worst hitter either team had seen in at least 45 years. However, I came here not to bury Rivera, but to praise him. In a sense, Rivera’s timing was perfect. By hanging on as a guy with a great defensive reputation, Rivera found himself in an era in which offense cratered league wide. No, he wasn’t exactly catching up to league average, but fortunately enough, league average was charging headlong towards him. And around this time, some amateur analysts at Baseball Prospectus and elsewhere started trying to quantify some hitherto ignored components of catcher defense. Dan Turkenkopf figured the run value of changing a ball to a strike, and then Mike Fast (and then Max Marchi) calculated these cumulative run values catchers could accrue by “framing” strikes. Rene Rivera had been the embodiment not merely of replacement level, but the *dregs* of freely-available players. He was “I don’t care anymore” made flesh and draped in catchers gear. But a combination of changes in how we viewed the game and changes in Rivera himself would make him a valuable player.

He signed on with the Padres org in 2013, and ended up getting plenty of time as Yasmani Grandal’s back-up in 2014 when Nick Hundley got hurt. Rivera responded to his 3rd extended stint in the pros – over 300 PAs! – by hitting .252/.319/.432 with 11 HRs. A change in his swing led him to hit a lot more fly balls, and thus, while his HR/FB ratio was pretty much unchanged from his minor league stints, the sheer number of fly balls pushed his HR and SLG% numbers way, way up. He played for the Mets again in 2016-17, with a lower average but a decent number of dongers, and he excelled after a late-season move to the Cubs. A free agent, Rivera signed a deal with the Angels this month for $2.8 million.

Rene Rivera has gone from near-forgotten org depth to punch line for two different teams, and then, as the game changed, to a perfectly respectable veteran presence back-up catcher. I’m not an Angels fan by any stretch, but I’ve been inordinately happy for Rivera since the signing was announced. This game belongs to the sluggers now, the Aaron Judges, Mike Trouts, and, improbably, Jose Altuves. I keep thinking that Kris Bryant literally couldn’t have chosen a better year to debut than 2015, and Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmermann, Josh Donaldson, Yonder Alonso and others figured out how to adjust to the changing game and excelled. All of them have figured out how to maximize their own talent. But I keep thinking of guys like Rivera who personify the changing game in large part because their careers span multiple eras or epochs within the game. When Rivera started out, it was us statheads mocking the concept of catcher ERA or the measurable components of catcher defense. That was problematic for a no-hit catcher, but then all of us went ahead and changed: offense dropped, making glove-first Cs less of a run-sucking black hole in a line-up. The statheads reversed course, and finally figured out how to measure a lot of the things that had seemed unquantifiable. And Rivera actually improved. The game changed, how front offices view the game changed, and Rivera changed, too. In a hot stove season in which so few players are actually signing FA deals, I’m really, really glad that Rivera signed one, and that – at age 34, having spanned the Ryan Christianson era through the present, from the M’s being the best club in history through their entire playoff drought – Rivera will get a sizable raise and earn the largest salary of his career.

The Changing Battle Between Batters and Pitchers

marc w · January 9, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

This is a strange post without real conclusions that was sparked by an unrelated quote from M’s manager Scott Servais. I’ve grabbed a whole bunch of data from Statcast, Pitch Fx and Fangraphs, and it tells the story of how much – and how *fast* – the game has changed over the past 10 years, and the last 3-4 years in particular. I think that’s interesting enough for a post in this remarkably slow hot stove season; I mean, what else are we going to do?

On January 4th, David Laurila had one of his characterically-great quote round-up posts, this one focused on how teams valued speed in today’s game. It featured a quote from Servais, noting:

“Where the power is come from in the game — obviously we’re going to focus on it. You see guys… I call it ‘hunting their pitch.’ They’re shrinking the strike zone and trying to drive the ball out of the ballpark, trying to get the ball in the air more consistently. I think that’s the biggest change. Hitters are more aware, mechanically, of their swings — what they need to do to get the ball in the air. And not chasing pitches, but sitting on their pitches and trying to pull the ball in the air. The result has been more home runs.”

This quote, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is NOT about speed at all, but about home runs and what’s causing the HR spike in the game. Servais points to “hunting” pitches, and I wanted to see if this was true or not. So, how should we go about verifying this? How would “hunting pitches” and then really swinging hard at a narrower band of the strike zone (“shrinking the strike zone”) show up in pitch data? To me, I think, given the quote, that we’d see fewer swings overall and more called strikes. Do we? No, we do not.

What we DO see is that total pitches are up notably, by over 10,000 compared to 10 years ago, and by *22,000* compared to 2015. The problem is that these “extra” pitches aren’t a bunch of called pitches – they’re increased swings. Batters are swinging the bat more frequently these days, rising from about 45% of all pitches in 2008-2010 to about 47% from 2015-2017. With increased HRs and a rising league-wide on-base percentage, the league is seeing both more plate appearances than we did during the little batting ice age of 2010-2014, but also a steady, unbroken increase in pitches per plate appearance. Even though there were more plate appearances in 2008 compared to 2017, 2017 saw more pitches as pitches per plate appearance grew dramatically between 2014-2017. Again, batters offer at more of these pitches, as both foul balls and whiffs are up, while called strikes are down. Called balls dropped around 2009 and stayed low through 2015, and then recovered slightly in 2016-17; this is consistent with everything we’ve heard about the growth of the strike zone over this time period.

All of these swings haven’t related in more balls in play, of course. Strikeout rate has risen in each year between 2008-2017, and the league’s HR rate has followed suit. Walk rate declined markedly at the start of the 2010, and while its grown in each of the last three years, it’s still below 2008-2009 levels. While the trend isn’t quite as clear, fastball usage league-wide is lower than it was in previous years, dropping in each of the last four years, and dropping three entire percentage points from 2009-2017. This would seem to play a role in the increase in whiffs and perhaps foul balls.

The story here, such as it is, has much less to do with Servais’ conjecture and much more to do with league-wide trends that would seem to require more pitchers (to throw more pitches) and that recognize that batters are swinging more. The M’s have endeavored to control the zone in recent years, not so much by increasing whiff rates/K rates (though they’ve done that), but by limiting bases on balls. The M’s walk rate lags the league average, while their K rate is more-or-less at parity with the league. The M’s began the 2008-2017 with a remarkably bad pitching staff, leading to bloated walk rates. Jack Z’s new-look M’s quickly took care of that, but they did so by dropping K rates as well. It’s stabilized more recently, but the M’s again fell behind the league average K rate for the first time in quite a while in 2017. Still, what we’ve seen, especially over the past 5 years (the years of Safeco’s new dimensions) is that walk rates have been consistently low, while K rates have been more or less average. It’s been easier to get to an average or better K-BB% or K/BB ratio or whatever than it has been for many teams, and this despite the M’s not spending a ton of money on big-name free agent pitchers (though of course this time period covers peak Felix). What HASN’T been so easy is keeping the ball in the ballpark.

The jump in HRs league-wide is both striking and much-discussed; I don’t think it’s a shock to anyone at this point. But what’s interesting to me at least is just how much quicker things have jumped for the M’s. The M’s allowed over 200 HRs in a season a couple of times before 2016 – once in the old Kingdome, and once in 2004 with a truly, memorably bad pitching staff. To do so in two straight years is remarkable, especially given where the club was in 2013-2014. If the M’s gave up HRs at their own 2014 HR% rate, they’d have given up 141, or nearly *100 fewer* than 237 they actually gave up. Even using the league-wide rate for 2017 – the year of the HR, remember – would produce 202 HRs when applied to the M’s actual number of batters faced, or 15% less than they actually yielded.

If you’ve followed this site for a while, you know that this is something of a theme. The question for the M’s is what to do about it. There are a lot fewer HRs than there are walks and strikeouts, and like so much, HR rate is volatile when you restrict it to one team and one year. HR rate results from a variety of factors, from pitcher quality to opponent quality to ballpark mix and even the atmospheric conditions in games…all mixed in with a big random component for chance/variance that isn’t strictly limited to one of the aforementioned factors. I understand why a team might bet on some regression in HR rate, especially when it’s outpacing league-wide HR% growth by so much. But at this point, I’d suggest weighting this factor more heavily than the M’s may have previously. Hell, maybe they do, and they just got bit by a combination of injuries, a new, springier ball and climate change. Maybe it was dumb (bad) luck.

The desire to shift more innings to relievers may be part of the team’s means of addressing this alarming spike. Relievers tend to allow fewer HRs/FB than starters, and thus whereas teams didn’t need a whole slew of set-up men, it might make sense for the M’s to employ as many as possible.

Moreover, they may want to explore just how much of the HR explosion, or more accurately, the batters’ swing changes to generate elevated contact, are related to changes in how batters react to fastballs. I touched on this in May, but looking at the data over 10 years versus 2 months is instructive. The share of HRs that have come on FBs has bounced around over this time period, from 59.2% in 2008 to 58.5% in 2017. It hasn’t dropped significantly; though it’s down from its peak in 2009 and down a bit from the average, it’s still close to 59% overall. What *has* changed is the share of *fastballs* that become HRs. In 2008, 0.71% of FBs went over the fence. After a brief increase for 2009, this ratio dropped noticeably from 2010-2014, before rising back to 0.74% in 2015. Since then, though, it’s jumped again, to 0.82% in 2016 and then 0.89% in 2017. For the Mariners, though, the picture is even *more* dramatic. After starting at the league average of 0.71% in 2008, the M’s have steadily seen more fastballs become dingers than the league average. In the HR-era, though, they’ve been even more dinger-prone, rising to 1.04% of all fastballs in 2017. The M’s have *consistently* given up more HRs per fastball than the league, and if anything, the gap is growing.

Again, this may simply be the result of injuries dramatically reducing their own fastball quality last year. But the M’s have been pretty consistent in terms of the HRs they’ve allowed on FBs: they’ve ranked in the top 10 in baseball 5 of the past 6 years, and ranked 4th last season. The M’s have talked about how they evaluate a pitcher’s fastball, and the multitude of individual metrics that make up an overall fastball grade. It’s possible that giving up a few more HRs is the price they need to pay to have solid K/BB numbers without breaking the bank for name-brand, free-agent hurlers. But this seems like it bears watching. Much of the overall data fits the narrative we’ve already created: batters are swinging at more pitches now, reacting to the growth of the strike zone. The time lag means swings are up even after the growth in the zone stopped. HRs are up due to the ball, and the growth in OBP means more plate appearances and thus more HRs even as fastball usage declined. What I can’t yet fit into some narrative or just-so story is why the M’s have been quite so homer-prone, or why their fastballs are smacked around the way they are. To compete in 2018 and beyond, the M’s need this to change. That’s not news, that’s not a meaningful conclusion. The M’s offense does not appear to be much better in terms of OBP than last year’s model, so to the extent their runs-allowed/runs-scored improves, it sort of stands to reason that the improvement will come from the pitchers. Health will play a role, of course, but figuring out this HR problem would make that job much, much easier.

What’s Past is Prologue…Maybe

marc w · December 22, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

In one of the least heralded of his latest flurry of transactions, the M’s picked up right-handed reliever Shawn Armstrong from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for some of the international bonus pool spending authority they’d accumulated to try and sign Shohei Otani. Armstrong has never started, and though he bounced around the fringes of the Indians’ top 20 list, the sense that he was destined for middle relief limited his appeal as a real prospect. He’s now out of options, a fact that may see him signed/released by several teams in the next few months.

Armstrong’s thrown 43+ innings in three separate stints with the Tribe, accumulating zero runs above replacement. Do projection systems see untapped potential here? Er, no, they see a guy who’s been replacement-level and project him as…replacement level. There’s nothing really shocking here, despite some gaudy AAA strikeout rates. Those haven’t quite translated to the big leagues, and his walk rates are scary, and, perhaps most importantly, big league relievers – as a group – are really, really good now. You don’t look at Armstrong’s Fangraphs page and see someone likely to help immediately. And since he’s out of options, you *also* don’t see a project who might work something out in Tacoma.

This blog, at its core, has been organized around the idea that the right statistics give us some insight into a pitcher’s talent, and that a pitcher’s results are, given a decent sample, related to that talent. Variance/luck/etc. will result in some mismatches between talent and results, and again, that’s where the stats can be valuable – they can aid in identifying undervalued players. In the main, on average, this theory works pretty well. A great pitcher whose results are sullied by a freakishly high BABIP will likely post better results down the road. Individual players can change, and the very phrase “true talent” almost implies something immutable or fixed, something that’s not true at all. But every game post, I’m looking at, say, pitch fx data or FIP or something other than a guy’s W/L record, or how’s he’s fared against AL West teams on Tuesday nights, because those numbers give us some sense of what we’re going to see. If you look at Shawn Armstrong’s numbers, you’re not encouraged. If past is prologue, then Armstrong will cycle through a bunch of teams as he’s waived, and will eventually sign a minor league deal with an opt-out.

But Armstrong looks…familiar. Here’s a table featuring one of the ol’ stand-by blogging devices – my apologies, it’s December and I’m not feeling creative at all:

FB Spin FB Vert. Movement FB Horiz. Movement Cutter Spin Cutter Vert. Movement Cutter Horiz. Movement
Player A 2396 9.28 -3.71 2483 5.78 1.37
Player B 2363 9.3 -2.82 2486 4.83 1.21

Player A throws a four-seam fastball with 2396 RPM spin, while Player B’s at 2363. For context, the league average value last season was 2255; 632 players threw at least 25 four-seamers (including Chris Gimenez? Really?), and so both A and B are solidly in the top 3rd in spin rate. Movement-wise, the pitches are even more freakishly similar – just 2 hundreths of an inch difference in vertical rise, and less than an inch in horizontal break (there’s very little of it from either hurler). They both throw cutter/slider things, and both are thrown hard (meaning thrown at a velocity close to their fastball), and with a bit of cut and sink. These cutters have high spin rates as well; the league average is 2344, and A and B are next to each other on the spin rate leaderboards (in the top 1/4th). High spin fastball and high spin cutter – if you thought “Nick Vincent” congratulations, he’s Player A. B is Armstrong. Remember that Vincent was signed when HE was out of options and could’ve been waived by the Padres. Vincent had had much more big league success, but was essentially freely-available back before the 2016 season.

Vincent never threw as hard as Armstrong, but – and I’d actually forgotten this – used his cutter and fastballs to dominate righties. Lefties ate him alive, but he really controlled righties, which is something I wrote about when the M’s picked him up. With the M’s, Vincent’s shown essentially no platoon splits, and has handled lefties remarkably well. Vincent and the M’s took something that was a part of his statistical record and changed it. It’s still too early to say definitively whether this is variation or if his “true talent” changed, but the M’s got two solid years out of Vincent – two years in which he’s been dominant against lefties, a fact that’s enabled him to pitch in higher leverage situations and to face more batters than anyone relying on his fangraphs page would’ve expected. I’ve beaten the M’s up these past two years for their mediocre record in player development and their inability to keep players around long enough to try, but Vincent’s a – maybe THE – example of a clear-cut developmental success.

One of the keys has been how Vincent attacks lefties, something Jerry Dipoto talked about with regard to Juan Nicasio in the last Wheelhouse podcast. Here’s where Vincent spotted his fastball against lefties with the Padres:
Vincent FB usage to lefties 12-15
This usage reflects a pretty common idea: righties should keep fastballs away from lefties – or righties, for that matter. It’s harder to pull them, after all, and thus harder to drive. Vincent threw his fastballs up and middle-away to righties, and away to lefties. It worked against righties, and didn’t work at all against lefties. What’s he done with the Mariners?

This:
Vincent FB usage to lefties 16-17

There’s no longer a clear difference in how he attacks lefties and righties: both get elevated four-seam fastballs, and lefties are now more likely to see an *inside* fastball than an away version. To understand why the M’s might prefer this approach, we’ll go back to the Wheelhouse podcast and Jerry’s discussion of “effective velocity” in episode 2. Here, they’re not referring to the effective velocity measurement in statcast, which accounts for a pitcher’s stride toward the plate. Instead, he’s referring to Perry Husband’s concept. A hitter needs less time to get his bat to an away fastball than he does to an inside fastball. A down and away fastball isn’t worthless, but because a batter can react later to it, it makes the pitch seem slower – a batter needs less time to put that pitch in play than a fastball with the exact same velocity thrown inside. Vincent stopped turning his 89-MPH heater into an effectively-86-MPH heater, and became an all-around reliever.

You probably know where this is going. Here’s Shawn Armstrong’s fastball usage to lefties:
Armstrong FB usage to lefties

Armstrong hasn’t had the same trouble with lefties in the bigs, but then, he’s not exactly maximizing his effective velocity to righties, either. And it’s righties who’ve absolutely killed his fastball. Armstrong is very, very similar in many ways to Vincent, and Vincent has completely changed his approach since he got here, making him a much more effective pitcher overall. It’s possible Armstrong could break free of his statistically-inferred true talent, too, and by following the same general change in approach.

The more I’ve written on this statistically-obsessed blog, the more I’ve come to the idea that it’s these critical shifts in “true talent” are what drive team success. Critics sneer that sabermetrics turns real flesh-and-blood players into trend lines and probability stats, and while that’s grossly oversimplified, there’s…there’s something there. What’s the alternative, shout aggrieved saber-wonks? Rely on how a player looks in uniform? Go by draft order? I’m going to stick to the stats, personally, but I’ll say this: the most important thing the M’s need to do is to have a few of their players make their past statistics utterly irrelevant. Jean Segura did this with Arizona, of course, and Nelson Cruz didn’t become a different player, but became a vastly *better* version of himself in his mid-30s. On paper, this M’s team lacks the talent to compete with either the Astros or Angels. It doesn’t sound like the M’s are going to materially change their talent level between now and April. Ergo, the M’s need to fundamentally change the talent of the guys they already have.

Heading into 2014, Jose Altuve had played 2.5 seasons of perfectly fine baseball. If he was remarkable, it was due to his comically small stature, and the fact that he’d come from nowhere to become a starting player on a team that pretty clearly valued him for his minimal paycheck. In 2014, Altuve had his best season, one that seemed like the logical peak for someone with his (powerless) skillset. A nice BABIP pushed his average way up, and thus Altuve was valuable. Since *then*, however, Altuve’s become something unrecognizable, and something much, much more dangerous. After racking up 21 HRs in his first 3.5 MLB seasons, he’s hit 24 in EACH of the past two. Jose Altuve just slugged .547 on his way to a well-deserved MVP award. Carlos Correa is amazing. #1 draft picks are great, and offer unbelievable talent. Altuve was an afterthought, and then a stopgap, and then a force. No one looking at either Jose Altuve or Jose Altuve’s stats would’ve projected this, but there it is.

You may have seen the photo of Tim Lincecum training about 50 miles north of here at Driveline that’s flown around Baseball Twitter. The great Patrick Dubuque wrote about it at BP here, and he’s right – Lincecum doesn’t *need* to do anything more. His career – his meteoric rise to the top of baseball – was enough, and he has nothing left to prove. We all saw Lincecum’s last appearance in the bigs, pitching for the Angels, in what’s sure to be a tough pub quiz question 10 years hence. He pitched 3+ IP against Seattle, giving up 6 runs on 9 hits, and with an ERA standing at over 9, the Angels released him after that day in August of 2016. The statistical record looks pretty damning: declining velo leading to worse and worse results, and there you go – an early peak, an early fall, and hey, pitchers, amirite? As we’ve seen so often, though, players have much, much more control over their true talent than people like me ever imagined. Does this mean Lincecum’s back? Is Shawn Armstrong the next Nick Vincent? Will Ben Gamel hit 30 HRs? I don’t know, I don’t know, and I doubt it. But if I could make the M’s better than their rivals at any aspect of running a team, it’d be this ability to make a player unrecognizable – to blow the trend and the carefully-constructed scouting report out of the water. The Astros did this with a number of players, and that ultimately meant more to their World Series win than drafting Carlos Correa (though for the record, I’d like the M’s to draft the next Carlos Correa). The M’s trail the Astros in talent, and they need an out-of-nowhere leap in ability from a few of their players. That’d make a fine Christmas gift.

Still More Winter Transactions: Welcome Juan Nicasio and Mike Ford

marc w · December 15, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

I don’t think the pixels were dry on my last transactions recap when the M’s made a few more moves, signing RP Juan Nicasio to a two-year, $17 M contract and selecting ex-Yankee farmhand 1B Mike Ford in the Rule 5 draft. Fittingly, the two moves are linked thematically/roster-needs-wise to another of GM Jerry Dipoto’s moves in the offseason: the trade of Emilio Pagan for 1B Ryon Healy. Let’s talk about who the M’s got and why.

Nicasio was an injury-plagued starter in Colorado who pitched in perhaps the worst possible environment for a pitcher with nothing to throw to left-handed batters. He threw a lot of four-seam fastballs with plus velocity and not much else, and he threw a tight slider that occasionally confused righties. He tried to keep lefties off balance with a change up, but batters hit .429 over the course of two half-seasons in 2011-12. Over the course of his long career, batters still have a combined .719 slugging percentage off of Nicasio’s cambio. Moving to the bullpen took some of the pressure off of his change, not least because he could now sit at 95 with his fastball. His slider usage is up over 25%, too, and he’s finally found the confidence to throw it to lefties instead of his sub-par change. All of that pushed his strikeout rate higher, and some work with Ray Searage in Pittsburgh may have helped him keep his walk rate down.

More importantly, as Kate Preusser’s exultant post at LL reminds us, Nicasio’s history as a starter and his usage in LA and Pittsburgh shows that he’s quite capable of pitching multiple innings. This is, then, not simply a standard set-up guy who’ll pitch the 7th or 8th. What he does is replace the remarkably useful Emilio Pagan, who averaged about 1.5 innings per appearance last year. With question marks in the back of the rotation, and with the M’s looking to give more innings to the bullpen in 2018, this ability is crucial, and it’s why LL is so high on Nicasio. Plus, Nicasio’s shift to FB/SL against lefties has transformed him from a guy with awful platoon splits to a guy who ran reverse splits last year.

Nicasio’s K rate dropped a bit last year as batters put his fastball in play more often; their whiff rate was constant, but they hit more of them in fair territory in 2017. Moreover, his K rate against righties has fallen off, from over 10 per 9 in 2016 to under 7 per 9 last year. It’s been steady versus lefties, but small samples and exceedingly volatile HR rates make it hard to know what to expect next year. He was worth 1.4 fWAR in each of the past two seasons, but that masked volatility in runs-allowed, thanks to those crazy HR rates and some issues with stranding runners. To take these in reverse order, Nicasio’s never shown much of an abiltity to strand runners. He was above average last year, but that was the first time in his career you could say that. Yes, it’s not a terribly reliable stat, but Nicasio’s career rate of 70% is straight-up bad, and his since-becoming-a-good-reliever rate is…normal-ish. Great relievers show a consistent ability to strand runners, with your Kenley Jansens and Craig Kimbrel’s averaging 85% or so and getting above 90% with some regularity. Those guys cost an arm and a leg. But even lower-tier guys from Mychal Givens to Addison Reed to Zach Duke to Will Harris can stay in the 80s. Nicasio’s never done that. That’s why his ERA/RA9 has been higher than his FIP in two of the last three years. The M’s need the 2017 version of Nicasio, not the fluke-FIP 2015 version or the 2016 HR-troubled version.

The Yankees, armed with one of the deepest farm systems around, always knew they’d get poached in the Rule 5 draft. It’s why they made so many trades in the run-up to the draft to clear off 40-man spots, like the one they’d just given to Nick Rumbelow. Even with their efforts in November/December, they still lost *4* players in yesterday’s Rule 5 draft, the most of any franchise. With the 11th pick, the M’s selected 1B Mike Ford, a lefty-hitting/righty-throwing guy who’d put up solid numbers in the high minors last year. Similar to fellow new-Mariner Matt Hague, Ford is a control-the-zone star, posting great walk rates but little of the power you associate with the position. He’s projected for an ISO in the mid-150s, and a league average slash line of .241/.334/.398 that looks like a dead ringer for fellow LHB/RH throwing 1B Dan Vogelbach (whose projection is slightly worse at .242/.331/.393). Hague is a righty, and while he doesn’t have a projection at this point, it’d look pretty much the same. All of these guys post very good MiLB walk rates and surprisingly low K rates. Hague had the lowest AAA K% in 2017, while Ford’s done it more consistently. Vogelbach’s 6 months younger than Ford, while Hague’s much older at 32.

The M’s have essentially set up a competition at 1B featuring two righties in Healy/Hague and two lefties in Ford/Vogelbach. Ford goes back to the Yankees if he doesn’t make the club (or come down with a mysterious injury allowing the M’s to DL him), and Hague’s a minor league free agent. But three of these guys have similar skill sets: the precise opposite of Healy’s. I think Dipoto would love to have a bench bat who could spell Healy AND provide a lot more plate discipline than Healy’s going to give you, and thus it’d be nice if this pseudo-platoon guy batted lefty. This competition may be Vogelbach’s last shot to prove that he can contribute to this team, and I could see him moved in the spring if Ford grabs the job. Of course, it’s awfully hard to carry a 1B-only bench bat when you have an 8 man bullpen, as the M’s apparently will. Tying up two roster spots in marginal 1Bs may squeeze more production out of the line-up spot (and it won’t cost the M’s much), but it really makes the 25-man roster a bit more limited.

This gets to the issue with the Healy deal. Not only did the M’s lose a multi-inning RP making league minimum in Emilio Pagan, but the cheap 1B starter they acquired has tons of red flags. In a full year last year, Healy was worth 0.2 fWAR thanks to a very low OBP. His projection for 2018 is 0.2 again. The M’s can’t compete with a below-average-hitting 1B, and that’s essentially where they are. TO blow those projections out of the water, they can either show a hell of a lot more player development chops *at the big league level* than they’ve shown heretofore, or they can supplement Healy’s pop with a healthy dose of a high-OBP platoon partner. No team wants to count on production from a Rule 5 guy; that’s a recipe for disappointment. But if it all goes right, Ford could potentially be a contributor. Is that enough? We’ll see.

The Most Important Mariner

marc w · December 15, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Not content with explaining his process to podcast listeners, Jerry Dipoto made his case that he and his underlings are doing a fantastic job to Larry Stone and the Seattle Times today. Couple a disastrous (and old) 40-man roster, a foundering farm system and an aging core, and Dipoto would argue that the team was worse than the 76-86 record that got Jack Zduriencik fired. The injury wave that broke over the M’s last year hid the progress his re-tooled roster made. Thus, argues Jerry, the team has actually rebuild on the fly, and is preparing to contend.

The M’s lack of activity in free agency is a feature, not a bug. “If you build your club in free agency, you are going down a very long and dark hallway,” he said to Stone. This is an important philosophical point, and one fans often conflate with penny-pinching owners; Dipoto legitimately doesn’t believe in signing huge contracts that have the potential to limit flexibility for years. That’s perfectly understandable, but it means that the M’s need to get star players through other means. The M’s have not been terribly aggressive in international free agency (Ohtani aside), and they’ve resisted trading for prospects, opting instead to trade their own prospects for immediate help like David Phelps. Clearly, the M’s have been very active in the trade market, using it to rebuild their bullpen and their outfield. The result has been a much more well-rounded roster, with the M’s getting production from complementary players in a way they never did under Zduriencik.

The problem is that their core isn’t as productive as it once was. With Felix’s fall from grace, and Robinson Cano’s production becoming a bit more volatile, the M’s problem *now* is that they don’t really have a superstar player. Nelson Cruz, the Nelson Cruz who’ll turn 38 next season, posted the team’s highest position-player fWAR/bWAR in 2017 at around 4. For a DH, that’s spectacular, but if the M’s can’t count on 4-6 from Cano and Felix, they need someone else to step up. The M’s hoped Jean Segura would be that player, as he was coming off a 5 win season in Arizona. Injuries and a lack of power pushed his production around 3, and while his projections look laughably low, it’s perfectly reasonable to think Segura may have peaked in 2016. Dee Gordon’s come close to 5 wins before, but given a position change and a park that severely impacts doubles and triples, it’s going to be tougher for him to get there in Seattle. The M’s need a star-level player and they’re not getting one in free agency, and the minors aren’t going to supply one anytime soon. If the M’s are going to get a star-level player, if they’re going to pack serious production into one roster spot, they need a huge improvement from someone currently on the roster. If the M’s are going to make a playoff run, they’re going to need a big year from Mitch Haniger.

Haniger always seemed like a very intriguing piece of the Segura/Tai Walker trade, and even after fighting through injuries, he posted a .282/.352/.491 line, good for a 129 wRC+. That’s not intriguing, that’s not “a nice second piece,” that’s really good, and there’s reason to believe his trajectory is still headed up. Thanks to a so-so cup of coffee with Arizona and his age, Haniger’s Steamer projections aren’t that great; he’s projected for a 105 wRC+, 4th on the club behind three “core” members of the franchise. If Haniger’s able to maintain his power production and play a few more games, he’s the one non-Cano/Seager/Cruz Mariner capable of producing a 5-6 WAR season.

Wait, wait, what about Segura? Segura could conceivably get there, especially once you factor in his position. To get back to the lofty heights of his 2016 season would require much more gap and HR power than he showed last year. While I’ve been banging on about Safeco no longer being a HR-suppressing park, it’s clearly a different – and tougher – park to play in than Chase Field in Arizona. That park seems to produce an inordinate amount of well-struck contact (whether this is atmospheric, or something to do with the batters’ view, I don’t know), and it’s also got plenty of room for well struck balls to rattle around in. Safeco’s dimensions help with HRs, but make it very hard to get doubles and triples. Add it up, and Segura’s extra-base hit rate went from 9.8% of plate appearances in 2016 to 7.6% in 2017. That’s perfectly fine from your SS! With a couple more HRs or a better BABIP, Segura could easily crest 3.5 WAR, and that would help a top of the line-up that may need help to maintain the solid OBPs they posted last year. I’m glad the M’s extended Segura, but the younger/more complete hitter in Haniger’s the guy they need to make the leap to great player.

What about Paxton? He could easily get to 5 WAR (he was at 4.6 fWAR last year), but it’s going to take something he’s not been able to do in any season, and that’s to stay healthy consistently. Paxton is the team’s best player on a rate basis, but his injury history is impossible to ignore, and he’ll play next season at 29. The M’s need a star player not for a year or two, but for several years: they need a new core to build around. Paxton’s incredible, but tougher to plan around; much of that is simply due to his position, of course. But for all of Dipoto’s moves, the M’s still haven’t solved the question of who the team’s going to build around once Cruz walks at the end of 2018 and Cano/Seager are no longer in their peak seasons. Dipoto’s all but said he doesn’t want to replace these cornerstones through free agency, and Kyle Lewis aside (whose knee injury has proven much more severe than we first thought), there’s really no one in the system capable of becoming such a player. As such, the team desperately needs Mitch Haniger to develop into a star-level player and not just a promising, late-blooming corner OF. Paxton’s incredible, and Segura’s a critical top-of-the-line-up hitter, but Mitch Haniger’s the most important Mariner for 2018 and beyond.

Mid-December Back-of-the-Roster Moves

marc w · December 13, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

It’s the middle of December, the Winter Meetings are in full swing, and Shohei Otani – and his slightly dinged-up elbow ligaments – is officially an Angel. What’s a GM to do? Well, depends on the GM, of course, but if there’s one thing we know about Jerry Dipoto, it’s that he believes it’s *always* a good time to work on roster spots 35-40.

In the past few days, the M’s have added several players through MiLB free agency, waiver claims and, of course, trade. It’s somewhat likely that none of them will play an inning for the Seattle Mariners, but you never know, and in the absence of larger moves to talk about, there’s no harm in recapping the newest members of the M’s organization

1: Perhaps the most interesting, at least to me, is ex-Cubs farmhand John Andreoli. Andreoli’s a stocky CF with serious in-game speed; he stole 55 bags in the Florida State League years ago, and while he’ll play next year at 28, he’s still a plus runner. A college teammate of Astros’ CF George Springer, Andreoli’s game was based on slapping at the ball and utilizing his speed. In his draft year at UConn, Andreoli had an ISO of just .031; that’s a grand total of 7 extra-base hits (and zero HRs) in 254 at-bats.

That basic MO carried over into the pro ranks, where he knocked 5 HRs in his first 1,000 or so pro plate appearances, where he supplemented his so-so contact skills with an improved walk rate. Without any power, that was about the best he could hope for – a high OBP, solid defense and baserunning path to 5th OF or pinch runner at the big league level. Somewhere around 2014, though, Andreoli made some pretty big changes to his swing. His ground ball rate dropped, and his fly ball rate surged by about 6 percentage points. This shift in approach had some consequences, and all of them were negative: without power to turn those fly balls into HRs, his BABIP tumbled, and so did his slash line. 2014 was the worst year of Andreoli’s career. Perhaps shockingly, he was undeterred.

Andreoli came back in 2015 and pushed his GB% below 40%, and had the first inklings of in-game power. He knocked 5 HRs that year, which isn’t any good in the PCL, but was as many as he’d had in his entire pro AND collegiate career combined. A high BABIP helped keep his batting average acceptable, and thus he was a fairly productive player, albeit with some warning signs. Andreoli went all-in at this point, and while his average dipped in 2016 thanks to a climbing K rate, he was still a productive player. His speed helped his BABIP, and he swiped 40+ bases to go with an unthinkable-for-Andreoli 12 HRs. He’s no one’s idea of a power hitter, but again, this is quite remarkable considering his own baseline. In 2017, Andreoli carried these swing changes to or nearly to their logical limit. His GB% tanked to below 29%, sending his fly ball rate above 50%. Andreoli’s batted ball profile looks like Trevor Story’s, or a slightly more restrained version of fly ball maven Ryan Schimpf.

Schimpf, despite his tiny size, always showed power through the minors thanks to his approach, and it helped him post a very good season with the Padres in 2016. But his low average (and thus OBP) led the Pads to demote him in 2017, and he’s just moved to the Rays. Schimpf is famous for this approach, but it’s not clear it’s worked for him. Andreoli may be similar – with a K% over 27% in AAA and 14 HRs in a hitting-friendly league, Andreoli and his new approach seems like he’d struggle in the majors. Andreoli’s production surged vs. lefties (Andreoli’s a righty) last year for the first time, and if THAT kept up, you’d at least have a bench-bat/platoon role for him. We’ll see. But it’s an absolutely fascinating transformation, and if he can pair it with improved discipline, you could have something. Even in the meantime, he figures to push Andrew Aplin for Tacoma’s starting CF job, and it may be fun to watch him in the PCL. As a minor league free agent, Andreoli is NOT currently on the M’s 40-man.

2: A more traditional Dipoto-style OF, the M’s grabbed Cam Perkins from the Phillies this past Monday. Perkins came up a corner IF, then moved to the OF corners, but has recently seen some time in center field as well, so you’d figure him as a Ben Gamel-style OF. His strengths/weaknesses look similar to Gamel’s as well. Perkins has generally run good contact rates, and while he doesn’t walk a whole lot, putting the ball in play is a decent way to end up with a good average/OBP (especially in the minors). A righty, Perkins’ limited power means he’s got the same issues as Gamel: not quite enough power for an OF corner, and not quite enough speed/D to play CF. Perkins cup of coffee in Philadelphia this year went about as well as Gamel’s did in Seattle in 2016.

Perkins’ walk rate and power both improved markedly this year, so maybe the M’s think they can coax a bit more out of the 27 year old. A pull-happy hitter with a penchant for infield pop-ups, he reminds me a bit of Taylor Motter, especially when Motter was in the minors, though Motter was better at the plate and offered more defensive flexibility. Still, Perkins is a perfectly cromulent AAA OF, and will help Tacoma in 2017 (if he sticks around). Perkins was on Philadelphia’s 40-man, and as a waiver claim, he’s on the M’s 40-man roster now as well.

3: One question fans have had since the M’s lost out on Shohei Otani was: what are the M’s going to do with their newly-acquired international bonus pool funds? There are a few high profile FAs still around, though teams like the Rangers – who have plenty of $$$ and more of a history in the international market – may be tough competition. Well, today we got a partial answer: they’ll trade it. The M’s took my concept of roster churn somewhat literally and RE-acquired lefty Anthony Misiewicz from Tampa in exchange for a few hundred thousand in…what, it’s not actual money – we’ll call it spending authority. The M’s got Misiewicz back after a few months in the Rays org is exchange for Tampa being allowed to spend more of its own money on international players.

The Rays needed to, because they had a deal worked out with highly regarded prospect Jelfre Marte for more money than the Rays were legally allowed to spend. Marte signed a $3 million + deal with Minnesota this summer, but it was voided shortly thereafter when the Twins detected some sort of vision problem in Marte. The Rays will sign him for $800,000. Somewhat different circumstances, but it reminds me of Christopher Torres having a handshake deal with the Yankees for millions, and, when the Yankees backed out of it, the M’s swooped in and signed him for a fraction of that amount. Anyway, Misiewicz was a late round draft pick out of Michigan State who’s risen to AA thanks to solid control. After an up and down start in the Cal League, Misiewicz had a few great starts for Arkansas, then hit a rough patch, but was solid for the Rays’ southern league affiliate, Montgomery. Misiewicz was drafted in 2015, so is under M’s club control and is not on the 40-man.

I know some wanted the M’s to scoop up more of the ex-Braves prospects that hit the market again after MLB voided their contracts, and Cuban OF Julio Pablo Martinez, so this kind of move may be a bit of a downer. On the plus side, the M’s still have plenty more, and should be able to make very competitive offers to Martinez or whoever else is still available. Marte’s deal with Tampa shows that we’re getting towards the end of the 2017-18 signing period, though – guys who’ve had deals voided due to issues in their physicals, or, in the case of the Braves, by MLB. The best of the Braves haul have already re-signed elsewhere, so while the cupboard isn’t exactly bare, it’s trending that way.

4: Drew Smyly signed a 2-year deal with the Cubs for $10 million ($3m this year, when he’ll mostly be rehabbing from TJ surgery, and $7m the next), with incentives pushing the max value to near $17m. The M’s apparently offered him a 2-year deal, but he’ll head to Chicago.

5: The best name of the newly-acquired M’s goes to RHP Johendi Jiminian, late of the Colorado Rockies org. Jiminian had a forgettable 2017 in AA and AAA, but has a decent fastball and a good change-up.

6: 1B Matt Hague comes to the M’s from the Minnesota Twins system, where he played at the AAA level in 2017. Hague’s from Bellevue originally, so seemed pretty excited about coming to the M’s. Hague’s an extreme contact hitter, with very low strikeout rates and very good walk rates; he’d be the Control the Zone champion of this round of roster moves. He’s had short stints in the big leagues with Pittsburgh and Toronto, but is on a minor league deal with Seattle. The trade off to the elite contact skills is a relative dearth of power, which is an issue for a 1B. His minor league career ISO is just .132, but he also has a career .375 OBP.

7: Returning to the M’s minor league system (non-40-man) are Casey Lawrence, the pitcher the M’s acquired from Toronto and who made several appearances for Seattle, and 2B/IF Gordon Beckham, the one-time White Sox phenom who parlayed a decent season in Tacoma into a September call-up with the M’s. Both players were on the 40-man at some point last year, but both are non-roster players now.

Uh-oh

marc w · December 8, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

As usual during a Mariner offseason, I can’t get through one post without huge news breaking. The M’s will not be signing Shohei Ohtani. Ohtani just annouced that he’d be signing with the Angels. I’m typing that through gritted teeth, which is not a metaphor that really works, but… seriously, damn it.

The Angels had acquired some bonus pool funds recently in a deal with the Braves, but had much less to offer than either the M’s or Rangers, the two clubs with (by far) the most. Not only do the M’s miss out, but Ohtani will suit up for the team that’s probably their biggest rival for the 2nd wild card spot, and a divisional opponent. This… this is bad, folks.

As Ryan Divish notes, the M’s can use their newly-acquired bonus pool bounty to sign players through June 15th of next year, but with the J2 crop mostly signed, and with the best players from Atlanta’s rule-breaking haul last year signed to new deals as well (it’s worth remembering that the best of them, Kevin Maitan, ALSO signed with the Angels), the pickings will be somewhat slim. The M’s best options, especially given the fact that they’ve gutted their prospect lists, may be to avoid the J2-eligible signings from Venezuela and the DR and see if there are some intriguing Cuban players looking to make the move north. Whoever they get will both 1) help a seriously depleted farm system and 2) not make this hurt any less.

Mariners Acquire Dee Gordon To Play CF. Are You Not Entertained, Shohei Ohtani?

marc w · December 8, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Two days ago, the M’s traded recent draft pick, a high-floor catcher who’d rank around their 10th-best prospect to Minnesota in exchange for international bonus pool money. Yesterday, the M’s acquired Dee Gordon from the Marlins *to play CF* in exchange for two of their very few remaining prospects, along with an intriguing pop-up arm who did well in Clinton. Again, the M’s got international bonus pool money in the swap – enough to barely overtake the Rangers and become the team able to offer Shohei Ohtani the largest signing bonus.

The Gordon trade is fascinating in and of itself, and reaction to it has been all over the map. But even as we try to process it on its merits, we all have to agree that these moves don’t mean much without knowing where Ohtani lands. If these moves get the M’s over the top, and Ohtani happily signs an obscenely below-market deal with the Mariners, then they’re great. If not, the M’s have spent their remaining prospect assets to add risk.

Risk is the one word that’s come up in pretty much every analysis of this trade. Dee Gordon has played exactly zero innings in the outfield as a major leaguer, and has posted below-average batting lines the past couple of seasons. Of course, that’s not to say Gordon isn’t valuable: he’s been worth 9 WAR over the past three seasons by Fangraphs and just under that by baseball reference. While much of that was the result of his stellar defense at 2B, the M’s clearly think he’ll be able to transfer that defensive skill to CF. The optimistic side of that is raised in the Baseball Prospectus transaction analysis, which notes that even a much slower player like Jason Kipnis had his UZR/DRS/Fielding runs transfer from 2B to CF essentially unchanged; in Kipnis’ case, that just meant a below-average 2B became a below-average CF. So, the thinking goes, now do the same for a well ABOVE average 2B. The experience of Delino De Shields Jr. is a bit more concerning, however. De Shields ranks right with Gordon as one of the fastest major leaguers, and came up as a middle infielder (like his dad), but switched to CF nearer the big leagues. After a poor year in CF, he’s bounced between CF and LF, though to be fair his defensive metrics have improved markedly since 2015. This Fangraphs piece by Jeff Zimmermann examines several other 2B-to-OF position switchers, from Craig Biggio to Ben Zobrist to Alfonso Soriano. Overall, Zimmermann’s pretty confident Gordon can do it, though most of the comps here didn’t play CF. If he can, and if he can add some runs above average, Gordon figures to give the M’s a decent boost above what Guillermo Heredia would give them.

Gordon’s under contract through 2020 for $38 million, so while this is a multi-year deal for a 30-year old player, the outlay isn’t huge by any stretch. But think of what the M’s have done this offseason: they’ve traded Emilio Pagan, their #2, ~#6 and ~#10th best prospects, they’ve traded potential bullpen asset Thyago Vieira. In return, they have an iffy 1B and a CF who’s never played CF before, outside of winter ball. They’ve taken on salary, and traded for a bunch of international bonus pool funding to tempt Ohtani. That is, the M’s have spent money and potentially made their bullpen worse, and while they’re potentially a bit better on paper, they haven’t yet made the kind of move that leaves the Angels/Rangers/A’s in the dust. Everyone knows what THAT move entails, and pretty much every trade I mentioned above has been made with an eye towards getting Ohtani to sign. But in making themselves a more attractive destination, they’ve removed essentially all margin of error. Given where the M’s are on the win curve, you can make the case that the M’s need risk – they need to go for it. But instead of practicing a trapeze act, the M’s have sold off the net, pushed the trapezes a thousand feet up, and now a key member of the act informs you that they’ve never done trapeze before, but they were a great gymnast, and how different could it be?

I don’t think my negative reaction here is the product of overrating the M’s prospects; the M’s top prospects simply aren’t equivalent to other teams’ top 10 guys. While it hurts to lose Nick Neidert, his struggles in AA illustrate that he’s far from a sure thing, and reports of high-80s velo late in the year is…well, that’s Miami’s problem now. But over the past year or two, the M’s have absolutely torn down their top 20 prospect list, and the team isn’t a whole lot better. It’s better, of course, but the question is by how much? It’s fair to point out that many of their former top-20 talents have been DFA’d, so you might as well trade while guys have value. But that gets back to my constant fretting about player development. If the team’s struggling to develop young talent, are they going to get the most out of Ryon Healy (the Vogelbach experience here isn’t encouraging)? The previous front office absolutely bungled player position changes, declaring the actual Chris Taylor unfit for multi-position use, watching Brad Miller struggle in the OF, and tentatively moving Ketel Marte to CF, then pulling him back. This FO should be better (and Gordon’s clearly better), but I’d love to think that their coaches can help ease this transition.

There’s an overarching issue here, I think, that makes me skeptical of the moves we’ve seen so far. Last year, the M’s ranked 5th in walk rate in the AL West, which has 5 teams. They ranked 4th in ISO, and 5th in baserunning runs. The M’s divisional rivals are improving on the offensive side of the ball, and meanwhile, the M’s project as an offense that will be *worse* in on base percentage/walk rate and *worse* in slugging. 144 players qualified for the batting title last year. Of these, Ryon Healy ranked 140th in walk rate. One spot behind him, in 141st, is Dee Gordon. Now, the M’s figure to strike out less, and that’s great, but the M’s have spent the past two years getting absolutely flattened by the home run explosion and how it’s changed the game. This year, the M’s are trying to build a team around balls in play. The M’s tried last year to build a great pitching staff around the idea that you could run a really low BABIP with great OF defenders. They did it, and watched it come to nothing thanks to a flood of dingers. This year, the M’s appear to be betting that with Gordon, Segura and Gamel, they can run a freakishly HIGH offensive BABIP. If league HR rates stay where they are, the same problem may occur: the M’s will have a high average and lots of base hits, but as many or fewer runs than plodding teams like Oakland who’ll rely on the three true outcomes.

I agree with Nathan Bishop that while there’s risk here, there’s also the potential for a big reward. Gordon could take to CF and become a 4-win player. These moves may get the M’s the Ohtani, in which case it’s completely worth it. I think the M’s have made a decisive move to address their need at CF, and it’s a better one than trying to bring back Jarrod Dyson (while Gordon has platoon splits, they’re not as problematic as Dyson’s). Going after Lorenzo Cain would’ve been nice, but I can imagine the M’s want to save some money for a big FA pitcher, and while their 2018-2019 payroll won’t be prohibitive, they are probably already thinking about what it’d cost to extend Ohtani should he sign with them. This is not another bullpen-tweak type move, another of which just happened while I was writing this. But beyond how we value Gordon, the ease of position shifts, or how much more likely the signing of Ohtani just got, I get the feeling the M’s have a very different idea of how to build a great team than I do. That’s OK, they’re the professionals, and I’m the keyboard cassandra with no stake in it. But part of being an M’s fan is that every move comes complete with a tragic precedent. That doesn’t mean the team is doomed, but it means it doesn’t take a leap of imagination to see why it might go wrong. I hope this doesn’t go wrong, and again, if the M’s get Ohtani in part because of these trades, they become retroactively awesome. Strange times we live in.

What We (and the M’s) Mean When We Talk About Spin Rates

marc w · December 4, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

One of the best things about this off-season – and admittedly there hasn’t been a whole lot to talk about yet – has been the introduction of the Wheelhouse podcast. It’s essentially a conversation between GM Jerry Dipoto and broadcaster Aaron Goldsmith, and covers the M’s, their focus for the offseason, etc., all with an analytical bent. As such, in addition to talking Shohei Ohtani, the last episode featured a lot of discussion of pitch spin rates, and what the M’s look for in a potential pitcher, and why, for example, Nick Rumbelow or Nick Vincent were guys they acquired. The M’s like high spin fastballs, and they don’t care who knows it.

Now, Nick Vincent checks out as a high spin guy, but if you go to the Statcast data, as Jake Mailhot did in this piece, you find something a bit odd: Nick Rumbelow sure looks like a (well) below-average spin rate pitcher. The podcast also namechecked James Paxton as a high spin guy, but again, he looks below average by Statcast. Andrew Moore, the guy with absolutely elite levels of vertical rise on his fastball – also below average in actual spin rate. What’s going on here?

First, spin and movement are correlated, as spin is what *creates* movement in the first place. No spin, no movement. But if you correlate spin rate and vertical movement of the type measured by pitch fx or Trackman/Statcast, you’ll find that the correlation is pretty darn weak. Again, Andrew Moore had one of the highest vertical movement averages of any pitcher in baseball, but that pure backspin wasn’t the product of elite spin – it was the product of an extremely over-the-top motion that allowed all of the spin he DID impart to work to provide rise. That is, Andrew Moore’s spin was exceptionally efficient – a huge proportion of it went towards moving the ball.

What’s INefficient spin? Doesn’t all spin move the ball? No, that would be too easy. There are two types of spin, as Alan Nathan wrote about in a seminal baseball article at BP, and which I essentially pilfered for this write-up of inefficient spin king Garrett Richards. Transverse spin results in pitch movement. The other type, Gyro or bullet spin (think of a spiral in football), does not. Any pitch has some of both, but the degree to which one pitcher’s fastball is gyro or transverse-heavy varies a great deal. The best example of the *anti-Andrew Moore* – a guy with remarkably LOW spin efficiency – was just in the M’s transaction wire last week: ex-A’s hurler Sam Moll. Moll’s fastball spin rate would’ve been the highest on the M’s, displacing 2017 champions Casey Fien (remember him?) and Ariel Miranda. Moll’s vertical movement is nearly 1 standard deviation *below* average for four-seam fastballs.*

If you imagine two axes – let’s put spin rate on the Y axis and spin efficiency or pure vertical movement on the X axis – you create four quadrants related to spin. In the upper right are the guys with high spin rates and high pitch movement/spin efficiency. Ariel Miranda’s way up in the corner in this hypothetical thought experimenty diagram, with Nick Vincent (whose efficiency isn’t all that remarkable) more towards the middle. In the bottom right are the Andrew Moores, Nick Rumbelows and Ryan Gartons – the spin efficiency specialists. Moll, Rob Whalen and Dan Altavilla are in the upper left, with high spin rates but INefficient spin leading to cutter-like fastball movement. And in the final quadrant, you get the low spin, low movement guys who are more ground ball focused: Felix, Tony Zych, and the pitcher with one of the lowest spin rates in the Statcast database, Jean Machi. It may be better to just show what I mean here:
Spin Rate on Y axis, spin efficiency on X
As Mailhot mentions in his LL piece, it’s possible that Rumbelow’s placement in the Andrew Moore zone is the result of measurement error; maybe Dipoto mentioned him as a spin rate target because in the 2 years since he last pitches in the majors, he’s changed his mechanics and now actually DOES throw a high spin fastball. That’s certainly possible, but the point of this post is to posit that the M’s don’t seem to care so much about spin rate in and of itself. It matters, as many of their targets – from Vincent to Moll to Arquimedes Caminero – may have resulted from spin rate numbers. But it’s clearly not ALL they look at. Moll and Whalen – two high spin, low movement guys with nothing all that pleasing in their stat lines – may have been targeted BECAUSE of their inefficiency, something I mentioned RE: Whalen here. And the team clearly loved Moore (and Paxton, of course) for the movement he generates; they care about Moore’s transverse spin, and DON’T care about a relative paucity of gyro spin. They also went out and acquired Jean Machi last year, a guy with freakishly low spin. Goldsmith asked in the episode if it’s just a matter of being either high or low, and staying out of the middle, and I think he’s on to something, but it makes sense if you view spin as more than just the Statcasted RPM calculation. The M’s want someone with distinctive spin. It can be very efficient, very inefficient, very high, or very low, but they want it out of the middle of the above graphic.

One reason why high spin pitchers may be better than the pure spin efficiency guys is that high spin breaking balls are pretty clearly better. Garrett Richards pairs his cutter-like ultra-inefficient fastball with the game’s highest spinning slider and curve, and batters simply can’t hit them (Richards can’t stay on the field, but that’s another matter). Similarly, Dan Altavilla’s slider has much more break than average, and it was unhittable last year, even as his fastball struggled. Nick Vincent and Rob Whalen also feature high-spin breaking balls. This contrasts with Moore, whose curveball has one of the lowest spin rates on the team. Ryan Garton’s breaker was at least efficient, but neither Rumbelow nor Moore get much movement on their curves, something that helps explain why Moore’s curve was annihilated in the big leagues (in an admittedly tiny sample). With the discussion about the combination of fastball and curve and how one pitch plays off another, a high spin, high movement pitch helps create the separation that Dipoto mentioned.

While they’re ecumenical about spin, they clearly have a favorite outcome, and that’s a fastball up in the zone with high vertical movement. Sorry Sam Moll – the pitch they love is Nick Vincent or Andrew Moore painting the black at the top of the zone with a FB with 10-12″ of vertical rise. That pitch plays into the strategy that I ascribed to Dipoto back in July and that he lays out in detail in the podcast: they want fly balls, and pitchers with lots of movement who can pitch up will generate a ton of them (along with whiffs). That helps the pitchers post consistently low BABIPs, and thus opens a gap between a pitcher’s/team’s FIP and their actual runs allowed. The problem, as we’ve seen, is the home run. Safeco was supposed to ameliorate the flaw in this strategy, but it hasn’t been up to the job, and thus the M’s ultra low-ground ball rate pitchers have hemorrhaged long balls. A good spin rate *is* correlated with improved whiff rates, but at least for the M’s last year, it had ZERO correlation with wOBA on fastballs (it was 0.039). Andrew Moore’s (Ariel Miranda’s) vertical movement wasn’t enough to stave off home runs, and Dan Altavilla’s LOW movement fastball (but high spin rate!) didn’t fare any better.

The M’s need to use this data for more than potential transactions. Most importantly, they need to figure out what kind of HR/FB rate Safeco’s likely to support. In 2017, it’s become too risky to go out and court fly balls, no matter how low of a BABIP you’re able to run. The M’s strategy worked perfectly last year, and they STILL gave up far too many runs. With Mike Leake in the fold, and – fingers crossed – the return of Felix Hernandez, the M’s may give up fewer fly balls in 2018. Now they need to use spin rate information to help tailor their pitchers’ approaches – tweak Andrew Moore’s breaking balls, or see if Miranda can either drop his arm angle a bit (he does this a lot against lefties) or throw a sinker, etc.

* For more on spin and what they call “useful” spin – another way to frame spin efficiency – see this article at Driveline Baseball from Michael O’Connell. It goes into great detail about the differences between pitch types and the specific axis each pitcher’s ball has. They’re able to measure spin directly and isolate transverse spin with Rapsodo technology, which they use to tailor training to each pitcher. Andrew Moore’s a client there, I believe.

A note on data: I pulled statcast spin rates for the 2017 M’s and compared it to movement data from Pitch Info/BrooksBaseball. Whiff rate was calculated from Statcast. All of the data are for four-seam fastballs, so many pitchers had very few (or no) four-seamers to measure. The correlations are NOT weighted by playing time/number of pitches. That means Casey Fien’s handful of pitches counts as much as Miranda’s couple-thousand. The alternative would be to account for pitches, but that just introduces a different kind of bias. I don’t think the way I did it was great, but I didn’t like the alternative. Besides, we’re looking at pitchers’ spin rates and movement, not a game/league average. The low n just means those specific measurements have wider error bars. The correlation of spin and V-Mov was 0.243 and the correlation with wOBA was, as mentioned, 0.039.

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