Game 159, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · September 29, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Ariel Miranda vs. Kendall Graveman, 7:10pm

Baltimore’s late comeback spoiled a perfectly good opportunity to gain some ground. The Tigers earned a rain-shortened win last night, but their game against Cleveland today was rained out, which introduces an odd possibility: if the Tigers are within a half game of the wildcard at season’s end, they’ll need to make that game up. The Indians, who’ve already won the Central, will need to fly to Detroit and play a game that means nothing to them, except as an annoyance. Instead of a day of rest, they’ll have to go to Detroit. The M’s (or Baltimore’s) fate could be decided by this exceedingly odd high-stakes exhibition game, a play-in game for the play-in game.

Today, the M’s entrust their playoff hopes to Ariel Miranda. The lefty had his best outing recently against Houston, but wasn’t too sharp in Minnesota. He’s been homer-prone of late, with 4 given up in his last 11 innings and 9 in his last 7 starts. That’s tanked his fielding independent stats, but given his walk rate and middling bat-missing skills, Miranda’s never going to be a FIP superstar. If he’s going to make it as a starter, he’s going to have to use his weird arm angles and movement to get soft contact. Thus far, he’s done enough (a .221 BABIP) to resemble a decent 5th starter, but it’s a tough act to maintain. The bit of statcast data on him don’t offer a clear picture, either. His average exit velocity isn’t special, and it’s the product of really high velo on fly balls/line drives (that’d be the HR problem) and very *low* velo on grounders. I love his splitter and would love to think this is skill and not luck, but whatever the case, Miranda doesn’t give up enough grounders for it to matter a whole lot. Still, there’s enough here (he throws two different change-ups!) that you can squint and hope for some development that makes him a valuable back-of-the-rotation guy.

Kendall Graveman seemed like he had an even lower ceiling than Miranda, an unexceptional sinkerballer with HR issues of his own, and that’s without even getting into the fact that he must remind A’s fans of the worst trade in recent franchise history. Yet he’s now mostly through his second straight year of giving up a lot fewer runs than you’d think by watching (or, again, from his FIP). Unlike with Miranda, there’s been no BABIP luck/wizardry, and he doesn’t seem all that adept at pitching with men on. Somehow, he’s just made his sinker/cutter arsenal work, and fired just shy of 300 perfectly adequate innings for the A’s. One thing that may have helped him this year is that he’s added about 2mph to his fastball. It’s still not a swing-and-miss pitch, but it may help him get grounders and, even better, weak grounders. His exit velocity profile looks just about identical to Miranda’s in 2016, but with a key difference: Graveman’s a ground ball pitcher, so he’s got below average exit speeds on the type of contact he gives up the most.

The M’s as a team fare a bit worse against groundballers like Graveman. I say “like Graveman” because Graveman himself doesn’t seem to benefit. He’s given up 36 hits in 21 2/3 IP against the M’s. He’s got normal platoon splits, so this’d be a great day for another Cano HR or more of this strange, late-season surge from Nori Aoki. Aoki’d been remarkably, freakishly consistent in recent years, which made his collapse in the first half more surprising. With this extended hot streak, he’s actually pulled his season line up to the point where it looks like a normal Nori Aoki season, maybe with a touch of age-related decline. Like so many things (among them: the M’s entrusting their playoff hopes to Ariel Miranda), if you’d told me that in June, I would’ve thought you were crazy.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: Miranda

Go M’s.

Game 157, Mariners at Astros

marc w · September 27, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Mike Fiers, 5:10pm

Happy Felix Day. Yes, Felix wasn’t at his best the last time he had a must-win game against these Astros, but hey, he bounced back in his next start. The M’s finally won a game started by Collin McHugh last night – now they need their ace to show he’s ready to dominate this Houston club.

I really thought they’d blown it. The M’s odds of winning were well over 90% in the top of the 9th, but after Edwin Diaz stumbled, the *Astros* odds surged to over 80%. Just look at the win probability chart:
win prob

Even after Cano’s HR, when the Astros got two on in the bottom of the inning, I thought it’d happen again. This is what being a fan for a long time does to you; even in your moments of triumph, you’re looking around, waiting to see how it’s going to be taken away from you, waiting to see who’s going to ruin it. The M’s have done what they absolutely needed to do these past two games, and while the last homestand pushed them to the brink, the M’s got some help in recent days from the Indians and Yankees. They’re somehow not out of it yet. And that’s why something like tonight’s Indians line-up in Detroit hurts more than it should. The Indians clinched the central the other day, so their line-up today (as pointed out by Bob Dutton) looks like a split-squad game in the first week of March. Someone named Michael Martinez is starting and batting 2nd; he’s had 570+ PAs, and has a career wRC+ of 36. Jesus Aguilar is the 1st baseman, and good old Abe Almonte is hitting 3rd and starting in an OF corner. Another former Mariner, one-time #1 prospect Adam Moore, starts at catcher. This is entirely appropriate for a team that’s already won the league, but it can’t help but feel like trolling.

Realistically, the M’s need to go about 5-1 to have a chance. That’d put them at 88 wins, right where Baltimore would end up if they go 3-3. They’ve got the Jays to deal with now (who are definitely not at the let’s-just-start-some-prospects stage) and then finish with New York. Detroit finishes with the Braves, so they have a shot at matching a 4-2, 5-1 run by the M’s, but it’d be tough. A tie would be fascinating, of course, and while I’m not sure it’d play to the M’s strengths, I think it’d be very rough on Baltimore, a team that might need to give critical, one-game-playoff-type innings to Wade Miley.*

Mike Fiers just shut the M’s down in Seattle 10 days ago. The underpowered righty has a 90mph fastball with tons of rise that he pairs with one of the biggest breaking curve balls in the game. The two pitches differ in vertical movement by about 2 *feet*. His curve’s been tough to hit in recent games, which is good for Fiers, because he’s struggled a bit with his fastball. Not against the M’s, of course, but Fiers can be homer-prone. He’s also got a decent change-up, and his arsenal’s been quite good against left-handed bats- Fiers has reverse splits this year and for his career. In about 570 career IP, lefties have a .302 wOBA against Fiers while righties are up at .323.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Sucre, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: El Cartelua

Every year, someone comes up and posts a bonkers slash line in a handful of plate appearances and either makes fans irrationally hopeful about his subsequent season, or causes fans (and teams!) to think that a veteran made some critical adjustment. Think Bloomquist’s M’s debut, or Abe Almonte’s last month in 2013 – for a slightly less cynical take, there was Jose Bautista’s final month of 2009, when he went from journeyman to JOSE BAUTISTA and hasn’t stopped all-caps’ing since. I don’t think anyone’s going to suggest that Jesus Sucre get the bulk of the playing time next year, but Sucre is, against all odds, hitting .500/.560/.727. No, it doesn’t mean anything, but Sweet Jesus has a quarter of his career XBH in his last 2 games. Yes, it’s a miniscule sample, but it’s also *Jesus Sucre*. The guy’s had plenty of small samples and his best SLG% in the majors was the .246 mark he managed in 2014. This is that rare and wonderful intersection of baffling and fun.

* This is similar to Baltimore in 2012, which rallied to win a wild card and had to turn to Joe Saunders in a one-game, do-or-die contest in Arlington. Saunders won that game, and earned himself a contract from the M’s in the off-season. That went somewhat less well than the WC game.

Game 156, Mariners at Astros

marc w · September 26, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Collin McHugh, 5:10pm

The M’s enter the final week of 2016 with a shot at the playoffs. That’s an unalloyed good thing, but to win they need to be nearly flawless AND get a lot of help. They’re long shots, and to give themselves any chance at all, they’re going to need to figure out Collin McHugh. The righty’s made 4 starts against Seattle, and won all 4, yielding 16 hits and 8 walks in 25 IP, with 24Ks; he’s given up a grand total of 3 runs to them. The M’s are hitting just .186/.263/.279 against him, while the rest of the league is hitting .306/.346/.457. The M’s inability to hit one of the league’s more hittable pitchers has been both bizarre and, as we’ve seen down the stretch, incredibly important.

In recent games, McHugh’s been much tougher, with three straight solid outings against the M’s, Cubs and A’s. He’s only really had one clunker in the past month – a forgettable start against Texas immediately on September 4th. In the past month or so, he’s been using his four-seam fastball a bit more, but it’s been pretty subtle. He used it even more against the M’s, and that’s something to look for tonight – the degree to which he goes after the M’s with elevated fastballs. He’d all but scrapped his change-up, but brought it out of storage against Mariners like Robbie Cano back in Seattle; we’ll see if he does that again, or just sticks with his curve and cutter. The curve in particular’s been good of late, and he’s using it a bit more too. Throughout the year, he’s had decent results with both of his breaking balls, but he’s also allowed a lot of HRs – like so many pitchers this year, his mistakes have been punished much more severely than in the past.

I’ve always thought of Houston as a launching pad, particularly with the short porch in LF. It’s obviously cavernous to center, but it’s a park that can reward contact that isn’t quite perfect, particularly down the lines. Of the 161 HRs hit there, 54 haven’t been ‘barreled’, the 2nd highest percentage in the league. But it’s also giving up fewer HRs on contact that IS perfectly struck. In this sense, Houston’s like the anti-Safeco: Safeco was always a smothering pitcher’s park especially for fly balls, but it’s now seeing a flurry of HRs. Houston always allowed HRs, but it’s now playing like a solid pitcher’s park overall. Baseball-Reference’s park factor for it this year is a stingy 94. While Statcast still shows that it inflates HRs, it also reduces run scoring. Both Astros hitters and pitchers have large splits; the pitchers’ OPS against is *127 points worse* on the road, and their ERA is a full 1.50 runs better at home, while the batters have an OPS that’s 46 points better away from Houston.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: Iwakuma

So many great articles and tidbits in the outpouring of grief following Jose Fernandez’s death yesterday. Dave Cameron’s article at Fangraphs was great and includes some amazing links. Here’s one of them:

Be happy

Fernandez’s Reaction to Stanton HR

For scoreboard watchers, the Blue Jays host the Yankees, with JA Happ facing off with Luis Severino. The Yankees clean-up hitter is the actual Billy Butler.
Cleveland heads to Detroit, where the match-up’s a bit better for M’s fans: Corey Kluber takes the hill opposite Buck Farmer.

Game 155, Mariners at Twins

marc w · September 25, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Hector Santiago, 11:05am

Baseball lost one of its brightest stars today. Jose Fernandez was 24 years old. If anyone would encourage baseball to keep playing and find joy in every aspect of the game – from playoff chases to random moments of brilliance from Mike Freeman to Nelson Cruz – it’d be Jose. I know this, but I can’t do it just yet.

Fernandez was a test. Was his ever-present smile a bug or a feature? When he laughed while dominating a line-up or hitting a home run about his own joy, or was it mean-spirited and against several unwritten rules? Was his personality a much-needed boost to the game, or an unwelcome, invasive import from a different (and tacitly or not-so-tacitly irreconcilable) baseball culture? Unlike so many things in the game, there really was a right and a wrong answer to this.

Fernandez was about to become a father, and should’ve given Clayton Kershaw a run for NL Cy Young for years. I’m sad I didn’t see him enough. I’m sad baseball can’t build off a guy like that. I’m sad for players around the league, many of whom are clearly taking this pretty hard. I’m sad for Marlins fans, who’ve lost the face of their franchise. Most of all, I’m sad for his family, who’ve been through so much, and now have to go through the unimaginable.

The M’s are 2.5 games out of the wildcard. Dylan Bundy faces off with Braden Shipley in Baltimore, Edinson Volquez starts opposite Detroit’s Matt Boyd (a Seattle native), Michael Pineda and Marco Estrada start for the Yanks and Jays, respectively, and someone named Daniel Wright leads the Angels against Joe Musgrove and the Astros.

1: Heredia, LF
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lee, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Sucre,
9: O’Malley, SS
SP: Walker

Yet Another Update on Safeco Field, Home Run Haven

marc w · September 24, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

I mentioned it in the last game thread, but like most of you, I’ve been really confused by the fact that Safeco Field’s seen the most HRs hit in baseball. Seriously – more than Coors Field, more than Boston, more than Arlington. Safeco Field, once a park that absolutely destroyed fly ball contact, particularly to left field, is suddenly a launching pad. Just as I was trying to wrap my head around *that*, I read Tony Blengino’s batted ball park factor articles at Fangraphs, wherein he used actual batted ball data to make the claim that Safeco was still a pitcher’s park; sure, lots of balls had been hit out of the park, but if it wasn’t for Safeco’s fly suppressing ways, it’d look even MORE like Coors Field, circa 2000.

This implies, as I wrote back in July, that batters make a lot more “good” contact at Safeco. I wondered why that might be, and investigated a couple of hypotheses that…well, they didn’t work out. Then, this week, MLB.com and saber-luminaries Tom Tango and Daren Willman introduced a new metric for extremely well-struck batted balls, the Barrel. Essentially, these are batted balls that combine exit velocity (speed of the ball off the bat) with the launch angle (angle of the ball off the bat) such that the minimum expected slugging percentage is 1.500. This combination of speed and angle accounts for the majority of home runs, and while there are some fly outs in the group, the league is batting .822 on these things this year. Instead of setting somewhat arbitrary cut-offs at 100mph (lots of ground balls qualify) or just looking at fly balls (who cares about shallow pop-ups?), this definition focuses on the balls that do the most damage.

If Safeco Field sees a ton of HRs, and yet ALSO rates poorly in the percentage of 100mph fly balls that go over the fence, we’d need to see a LOT of ‘barrels’ in Safeco. And we do! Safeco ranks 5th in MLB with 266 barrels, just behind Target Field in Minnesota:

Barrels player_id total_pitches pitch_percent
312 ARI 24078 1.3
291 DET 21402 1.36
274 TOR 22270 1.23
270 MIN 23926 1.13
266 SEA 22981 1.16

That final column is a rate stat – the percentage of total pitches that’ve been barreled up. Here, Safeco leapfrogs Target Field (though it’s only 6th in MLB). As you might expect, the *results* on barrels vary pretty widely by park. Parks like Coors and Fenway not only see a lot of HRs hit, but those ‘barreled’ balls that stay in the park tend to go for hits – in Coors because the park is physically gigantic, and in Boston because of the odd dimensions/Green Monster – the BABIP on these hits in Coors is .783, and it’s .733 in Boston. At the other end of the spectrum is Detroit, where the BABIP is just .364. In Safeco, it’s just .418.

In Safeco’s case, the culprit here’s one we’ve know about, though I didn’t know it was this important: it’s essentially impossible to hit a double in Seattle. Just 31 ‘barrels’ went for doubles or triples in Safeco, almost *one-third* the number that fell in at Chase Field in Arizona. Arizona obviously gets a ton of barrels – even more on a per-pitch basis than Safeco -thanks to some good hitting and so-so pitching, but the range of outcomes after that is more varied. In Seattle, a barrel has a much better shot of going for a HR than it does in Arizona (or Detroit). This table shows the parks that’ve seen the most ‘barreled’ HRs, and the fraction of ‘barreled’ contact that’s left the park. Seattle’s seen more such HRs than any other park, and it’s well above the league average in the fraction of barrels that end up as HRs (league average is 59.2%):

Barrels player_id HRs HR Pct.
266 SEA 175 66%
312 ARI 174 56%
260 BAL 172 66%
240 TEX 165 69%
270 MIN 155 57%

That measure, the fraction of really well-struck balls that turn into HRs, makes for a pretty handy HR park factor, I’d say. You’re already controlling for quality of contact, and if some combination of bad hitters or really good pitchers suppress HRs, well, that’d show up in fewer barrels, too, I’d think. By this ‘barrel’ ratio, Safeco looks like a strong HR park in 2016, which is good, because, you know, all of the home runs that’ve been hit there this year. It’s not the best, though. Yankee Stadium’s seen 72% of the barrels leave the yard, and that shouldn’t be a big surprise, as Yankee Stadium rates as a strong hitters park no matter how you run the numbers. At the other end of the spectrum is AT&T park in San Francisco, where just 41% of barrels have left the yard, and where teams have hit 70 2Bs+3Bs. Kansas City’s seen a ton of barrels, and on a rate basis, more than Safeco, but just 50% have left the yard.

That said, there’s another way of looking at this: how many NON barreled shots turn into HRs? If plenty of mis-hit fly balls or low line drives go for HRs, it’s probably a good hitter’s park. Here, parks like Boston (duh), Houston and Cincinnati (which has seen *80* non-barreled HRs) come to the fore, while Seattle falls to below average. 23% of all HRs have been these non-barrels. In Safeco, only 21% of non-barrels have left the yard, and it’s just 13% in Oakland. You get some oddities, like Texas and Arizona coming in below Safeco, so I’m not suggesting this is a great measure, but it complicates things a bit, and shows a bit more how taking a different look at batted ball data could produce a very different conclusion.

Another way of looking at this is just using home/road data for the M’s line-up. The M’s line-up has produced 268 barrels after Cruz’s 2 last night, with 52.2% coming at home (just 49.5% of their total PAs have been at Safeco thus far). For the pitchers who’ve played for the M’s all year, the fraction’s similar – a bit more than half of the best-struck balls have come at home. This doesn’t really prove anything, but it’s consistent with Safeco being a park that somehow generates or facilitates or encourages barreled balls. We still don’t have an explanation for WHY, but it’s fairly consistent with the original hypothesis that the M’s pitch *differently* at home, perhaps thinking the park will bail them out. The M’s K-BB% is much better at home (15.6%) compared to the road (11.8%), suggesting that they attack batters a bit more, generating more K’s and fewer walks. But they’ve paid a price in HRs, as evidenced by their 1.44 HR/9 at home to just 1.22 on the road.

Interestingly, the pitches that have generated barrels are somewhat different at Safeco. Here’s a pitch heatmap for the 266 barreled hits in Seattle – you’ll notice that they peak middle-up in the zone. It’s not high enough to be a ‘high strike’ that I looked at back in July; these are at the top edge of the middle of the zone:
SEA heatmap
Compare that to Arizona, where batters have most often barreled up pitches at the *low* end of the center of the zone:
Arizona
Minnesota’s more purely middle-middle, but again noticeably lower than Seattle:
MIN
M’s pitchers have tended to throw more low strikes, but these high (but not TOO high!) pitches have really been hammered in Seattle. It’s tempting to connect the higher average pitch with the higher-than-average ratio of barrels to HRs, but remember, the launch angle on ALL of these pitches is consistent with long fly balls.

Moreover, this doesn’t appear to be a 2016 phenomenon. In 2015, there were a lot fewer barreled hits overall- just 0.88% of pitches became barrels last year, compared to 1.03% this year. But Safeco was far above average in both years, coming in at 1.01% last year and 1.16% this year. While much of the discussion of Safeco’s HR issues this year has centered on the dimension changes making things easier for right-handed bats, Safeco seems to generate more barrels for *lefties* than righties. Not sure what to make of that.

So where are we? I’d say that these data challenge the notion that Safeco’s still suppresses fly balls. More of the best-contacted balls are hit at Safeco, and when they are, more of them become HRs than in other parks. Safeco may still be something of a pitchers park because it’s very difficult to hit doubles there. But even more than that, it plays like a pitcher’s park because the M’s (and their opponents I’d guess) walk fewer batters and strike out more. This seems like a difference in approach more than something to do with the park itself, but whatever the cause, it’s still somewhat more difficult to score in Safeco than elsewhere. It’s NOT, however, a park where HRs go to die. Whether that’s due to the same shift in approach, a shift in the marine layer, or a shift in the ball still isn’t clear.

I mentioned it above, but I want to reiterate just how much things have changed from 2015. That jump in the percentage of pitches that turn into barrels is pretty remarkable; teams have already hit more than 800 more barrels than in all of 2015. And slightly more of them have become HRs – 59.2% vs. 58.5%. The jump in some parks is also remarkable – Detroit going from 1% to 1.36%, Baltimore from 0.98% to 1.15%, etc. The increase in the percentage of barrels that leave the park is certainly consistent with a juiced ball, but the rest of it seems like a difference in approach, though one could argue that a juiced ball would lead to higher exit velocity and thus more ‘barrels.’ None of this is dispositive, but it’s an interesting way to look at what’s happened in Safeco this year, and it bears watching in the future. ‘Barrels’ are a really interesting way of looking at quality of contact, and they hold the promise of helping improve swing paths as well as merely describing events.

Game 153, Mariners at Twins

marc w · September 23, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Kyle Gibson, 5:10pm

That walk-off win against the Jays kept the M’s playoff hopes on life support, and they’ll get a further boost from the fact that the teams chasing the wild card all finish off the year playing intradivisional games. That means the M’s finish up against the out-of-it-A’s, while the Orioles and Jays are beating up each other, and tussling with the Red Sox. Of course, the Astros get the Angels to end with, AND they face the M’s at home after this series. Any gains the M’s get from their easier closing schedule are moot if they can’t actually win some series against the team’s they’re chasing.

But first, they face the Twins, a team whose rebuild looked great last year, but has collapsed to 98 losses thus far. They’ve done it despite Brian Dozier setting the HR record for 2Bs, and the team as a whole has drawn a decent number of walks. It’s just that so many of their youngsters have scuffled – Byron Buxton was the headliner here, but Miguel Sano took a step back as well – and the team compounded its weaknesses by being an inept defensive club. The pitching hasn’t helped either. Today’s starter, Kyle Gibson, was coming off of two consecutive better-than-league-average-by-fWAR seasons, but he’s fallen back thanks to a spate of home runs. Those HRs haven’t just troubled Gibson – they’ve been an anchor around a Twins staff that still doesn’t strike enough batters out to get away with dinger problems. For Gibson, part of the problem has been a spike in his platoon splits – lefties are destroying him this year. As a sinker/slider pitcher, you’d expect this, and he’s had sizeable splits his whole career, but this year, his results against lefties have gone from bad to gross.

No team in the AL’s given up more HRs than the Twins – the M’s are in 2nd, of course, 9 back of Minnesota. While Minnesota’s given up a lot of fly balls, the problem affects everyone, including GB guys like Gibson. I’ve been looking at park data for yet another post about Safeco, so I’ll say that this doesn’t appear to be just a case of awful pitchers pitching awfully; the Twins have given up more HRs at home, and a LOT more extra-base hits. I mentioned this way back in early July, but thanks to all the new data we have access to, there are a lot of ways to think about park factors. Tony Blengino’s batted-ball factors show Target Field as a good doubles park, but somewhat hard to homer in. But just this week, we got another way to think about this. Ex-M’s employee and saber-man-about-town Tom Tango and BaseballSavant guru Daren Willman came up with a new way to categorize really well-hit balls. They’re called ‘barrels’ – as in, when a batter really barrels up a ball. The definition combines launch angle and velocity such that the *minimum* ‘barrel’ has a slugging percentage of 1.500. These are elevated shots hit hard, so most HRs in the game qualify. Anyway, the point is: Target Field’s seen a lot of ‘barrels’ this year…even more than Safeco Field (they’ve had to pitch more in Target Field, so Safeco wins on a rate basis). I’m trying to square this circle wherein Blengino tells us that Safeco and Target are still limiting home runs with all of the actual home runs flying out of both parks. More on this shortly.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: Paxton

Speaking of Buxton, he’s had a very rough year and ended up getting sent back to AAA earlier, but man, he’s looked like a different hitter since returning. He’s hitting .300/.355/.686 in September (77 PAs). No, he’s not drawing enough walks and yes, the K rate is still vertiginous, but he’s driving the ball after spending most of the year popping the ball up to infielders.

As you probably expect, the M’s leader in ‘barrels’ is Nelson Cruz, who’s hit 60 of them. Exactly half have come at home.

The Astros welcome the Angels to Houston, with Alex Meyer and Doug Fister facing off right as the M’s game starts. The Orioles host the D-Backs (who are thinking about canning their front office, apparently), while the Jays host the Yankees.

Game 152, Blue Jays at Mariners

marc w · September 21, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Aaron Sanchez, 12:40pm

Ha…happy, uh, Felix Day everyone. Woo! Not sure anyone’s feeling it.

If it makes you feel better, thanks to the past week, the importance of today’s game has dropped dramatically. No, doesn’t make me feel better either.

Maybe this article from Jonah Keri will help. Nope, that didn’t work either.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Sucre, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: Felix

Game 151, Blue Jays at Mariners

marc w · September 20, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. JA Happ, 7:10pm

Last night’s loss was a tough one. Between Marco Estrada’s brilliance and a stadium full of Canadians cheering him on, it didn’t feel like a critical M’s game. The M’s continue to struggle against pitchers like Estrada and Mike Fiers, which sucks, as JA Happ’s rising four-seamer could presage more harmless fly outs. To be fair to the M’s, they hit the ball somewhat hard later in the game – Cano’s bases-loaded warning track drive was the most frustrating example. The loss knocked the M’s playoff odds down to 15+%, down about 7 percentage points from yesterday. The Blue Jays not only got a big win, but saw the Orioles lose as well, so their odds crossed the 70% mark, up about 9 percentage points on the day.

Tonight they face 2015 Mariner JA Happ, who I think doesn’t get enough attention for how odd he’s been over the last 3 years or so. For several years, he was a garden variety 5th starter, who walked too many and gave up too many HRs thanks to a deadly combination of both below-average velocity and “stuff” AND below-average control and command. Things started improving, seemingly out of nowhere, in 2014, when Happ was 31. He began throwing more strikes and added 2mph on his FB. His 90-91mph rising four-seamer and sinker were suddenly 92-93+, and while he still had some HR issues, he at least offered a bit of potential. That was enough for Seattle, who traded Mike Saunders for him despite his looming free agency. At the time, I wasn’t thrilled with the trade, but thought that Happ could adapt to his new surroundings by ditching his sinker and actively courting fly balls. He didn’t really listen, and while his GB% crept up slightly, he gave up a ton of base hits and thus too many runs in Seattle. He’d be great at times, but inconsistency doomed him, and he was shipped to Pittsburgh for unheralded SP prospect Adrian Sampson.

Under Ray Searage, Happ completely abandoned the sinker, and started firing four-seamers over 70% of the time. This sounds like a bigger change than it was; he’d often thrown a ton of fastballs, going all the way back to his days in Philadelphia. And he’d typically thrown them up in the zone – batters swung at more of them there, and the location plus his rising action allowed Happ to miss more bats than he otherwise would, given his so-so velocity. But in Pittsburgh, he was flat-out dominant. His K rate spiked to over 26% and he essentially stopped walking people at all. Curiously, though, his GB% didn’t really move. No one cared, because no one could actually hit him, and he looked like a completely different pitcher.

The Jays thought that was enticing enough to extend him a 3-year, $36m contract in a move that left a lot of people shaking their heads. Thus far, Happ’s been worth it. The weird thing is that he’s been successful by abandoning the approach that worked in Pittsburgh. From the beginning of the year, he’s been throwing more sinkers. Not just more than he threw in Pittsburgh (none) or Seattle (15%), but far more than he’s ever thrown – nearly 30% of his pitches. Eno Sarris notes that Happ’s sinker has a lot more drop than his four-seam, and that’s true – but it’s also not new. That was true very late in 2014, and the gap was even bigger in Seattle than it is now.

So with this new-fangled approach, he’d have to have a different batted ball profile, right? Well, no. His GB% now is essentially unchanged from where it was last year. Even comparing just his Pittsburgh stats (zero sinkers) to this year’s Toronto numbers (lotsa sinkers) shows a delta of less than 2 percentage points. The pitch is put in play often, goes for grounders often, and he’s throwing more of it…but his batted ball profile is stuck at around 40% grounders. The key here is that the approach is doing something to his *four-seamer*. His whiff/swing ratio on his four-seam is over 26%, way higher than in the past, and one of the best in baseball. Not only that, but because batters are more likely to swing at it when it’s up (or out of) in the zone, when they DO put it in play, it’s most likely a fly ball or pop-up. The increased grounders he’s getting with the sinkers are offset by the decrease he’s inducing with his four-seam.

So, are fly balls good? When he was moving to Seattle, I thought they would be, and indeed, Happ had pretty good success on fly balls last year. Like everything else, this was magnified in his time in Pittsburgh, where an ultra-low HR/FB ratio helped keep his ERA and FIP gaudy. He’s got a very low BABIP, and again, he’s been pretty successful on fly balls this year, though it’s worth noting that his HR/FB luck ran out, and he’s giving up MORE dingers than he did in Seattle. What’s actually driving that low BABIP (and thus a big gap between ERA and FIP) is ground balls. In 2015, batters slugged .305 on GBs against him (data from statcast, so it doesn’t match Fangraphs/BBREF exactly). This year, that figure is .217. BBREF has it as .207, a figure that gives him an sOPS+ of 58 (relative to the league average of 100). Why? Statcast shows a slight change in his modal or mean launch angle – here’s 2015’s and here’s 2016’s – you’ll see a bigger grouping of GBs around -10 degrees in 2016, and those grounders should theoretically be easier to convert into outs. But what about playing in front of an infield featuring Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Darwin Barney, Devon Travis, etc.? Toronto’s IF defense rates very high by advanced and regular metrics, and that’s probably driving some of the improvement as well.

1: Heredia, LF
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lee, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Iannetta, C
9: O’Malley, SS
SP: Iwakuma

Big changes in the M’s minor league system, as the Jackson Generals signed a two-year affiliation agreement with the Arizona Diamondbacks. That’s pushed the M’s out of the Southern League and back to the Texas League, where they had a club from 2001-2006. Back then, they were with San Antonio, a club that featured a fair to pitcher-friendly run environment. Now, the M’s affiliate will be the Arkansas Travelers, one of the toughest parks for home runs in all of AA. Statcorner’s park factors give it an almost comical HR factor of 57 for right-handed bats. Arkansas was an Angels affiliate recently.

With Bakersfield sadly contracted, the M’s needed a high A affiliate, too. I’d thought that they may need to go to the Carolina league, who’ll grow by the two teams the Cal League shed, but instead they’ve inked a deal with the Modesto Nuts. The ex-A’s affiliate and more recently Colorado Rockies affiliate, is another park that really suppresses HR, though of course the Cal League as a whole sees more HRs than the Texas League. By Statcorner, their HR factors are 46 for LHB and 61 for RHBs. That sounds insane, but I assume the league values are inflated by High Desert, Lancaster and some of the other launching pads. It’ll certainly make a change from Sam Lynn ballpark, which featured the shortest CF distance in all of professional baseball, and thus had HR factors of 120/142 (LHB/RHB).

Speaking of the minors, it’s impossible to see this Toronto line-up and not think of the 2010 Tacoma Rainiers. Sure, I think of the 2010 Rainiers when I look at most things, but Toronto has three key offensive players from that PCL-winning team: Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders, and Ezequiel Carrera. It’s tough to predict MLB success, and so much is down to opportunity, blah blah, but I will never stop being stunned that Ezequiel Carrera is a better 2016 big leaguer than Smoak, Ackley, Matt Mangini, Mike Carp, etc. Saunders has been better, of course, and we’re not even getting into guys like Michael Pineda or Shawn Kelley, but Carrera was one of the worst players I saw that year. He hit 0 HRs in 64 games and generally looked like a slap-hitting 4th OF for a AAA team. The M’s traded him in June and I thought we’d never hear from him again. He’s not been good, mind you, but he’s been more valuable than Smoak, and with Ackley hurt and so many other prospects of 2010 now out of baseball, Carrera’s pretty far up the list of most successful alumni. Baseball is baffling.

Game 150, Blue Jays at Mariners

marc w · September 19, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Marco Estrada, 7:10pm

Yesterday’s win gave the M’s about a 5 percentage point boost in playoff odds, as it not only knocked the Astros back a game, but it was paired with a Blue Jays loss. That M’s game essentially came at the expense of Toronto, who saw their own odds drop from about 66% to 61%. That’s still an enviable position, but the M’s have a chance here to make up the gap: the Jays have a 2 game lead as this 3 game set kicks off.

A sweep would radically change the race, given that we’re now about 2 weeks away from the end of the season. It coincides with the Astros facing off with the A’s, so losing the series may see the M’s go from tied-for-3rd in the WC standings down to 4th or even 5th. This is clearly Taijuan Walker’s biggest start, and thanks to his dominant performance against the Angels, I’m less concerned about that than I would’ve been a few weeks ago. To be clear: the Blue Jays are a much better offense than Anaheim, and Walker’s gem came after a string of dismal starts. If you want to feel pessimistic about tonight’s game, you’ve got plenty of ammo. Still – they’re a better club against left-handed pitching, and old scouting reports on Walker may be less useful now.

Whatever Walker does, the M’s need to score some runs. They faced two crafty right-handed batters who don’t mind pitching up in the zone and allowing elevated contact, and they looked awful doing it. Tonight, of course, they face another crafty right-handed change-of-speed guy who pitches up in the zone. And it’s not just a matter of fly ball pitches flummoxing the fly ball hitting M’s offense (they’ve been fine against them overall on the year) – the problem is that the M’s offense has slowed down considerably in the second half. As the weather’s gotten warmer, the M’s ISO has fallen from .181 to .159, and their wRC+ has dropped from 110 to 102. They’re still OK (on offense – the defense is still atrocious), but a 110 wRC+ can paper over some things on the pitching-and-defense side of the ball a lot better than an essentially league-average offense can. Let’s hope Seth Smith – long one of the M’s streakiest hitters – stays hot.

Marco Estrada is a remarkable pitcher, fashioning himself into an All-Star in a ballpark that seems so ill-suited to him. He throws a rising fastball (it gets more vertical movement than any other starter in the game) in the middle and up in the zone, and actively courts fly ball contact. That approach – and the movement he gets on his fastball – allows him to generate above-average strikeouts despite velocity that’s now in the mid-high 80s; his average fastball this year of 88.9mph ranks 2nd slowest in MLB among those who’ve thrown at least 1,000 four-seamers this year. In Milwaukee, he gave up tons of home runs and struggled to consistently gain the benefit of a profile like this, namely, a low BABIP (lots of fly balls and pop-ups = low BABIP). Something changed when he moved to Toronto, though. Yes, last year’s phenomenal year was driven in large part by an unsustainable .216 BABIP. But it’s regressed only as far as .241, giving him three straight years and over 450 IP with a low (.257 was the high mark) BABIP. The M’s need home runs. Of course, Estrada still gives up plenty. He yielded 24 last year, and he’s already at 22 this year, and he, like so many others, may not have cottoned on to the fact that Safeco’s playing like a launching pad this year.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: Walker

The Great Lakes Loons beat Clinton to lift the Midwest League championship trophy, so the season’s officially over in the M’s system. We’ve talked at length about the M’s disastrous 2015, so it’s only fitting to close it out with this chart, showing the M’s leading all of baseball with a minor league winning percentage of 59.4%. This will never stop being astonishing to me, especially given what happened a year ago. Is this a sign that the M’s farm system is a lot better than people think? Not exactly; you can win in the minors without blue-chip prospects. But it IS a sign that the front office’s talk about changing habits and building a winning culture was more than nice-sounding pabulum. Something’s going on.
MiLB WP%

Game 149, Astros at Mariners

marc w · September 18, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Ariel Miranda vs. Doug Fister, 1:10pm

The last two games have nearly cut the M’s playoff odds in half; it would’ve been worse if the Blue Jays, Orioles AND Tigers hadn’t all lost yesterday. But that’s cold comfort to a fanbase that’s seen the M’s offense look terrible in consecutive games – games that had an outsized impact on their chances of playing in the postseason.

I’m sure that’ll elicit lots of armchair psychology about the M’s wilting under pressure, but the Astros have had the M’s number all year. Lots of teams have bad games, and the Astros have looked just as helpless whenever they’ve played the Rangers, but it’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder if the Astros’ advanced scouting hasn’t spotted something. Dan Vogelbach’s slow start hasn’t helped much, either, and with Adam Lind healthy again, Vogelbach heads back to the bench today.

Doug Fister’s skirted danger the whole year, and while his FIP’s edging towards replacement level, he’s given up a decent number of runs for a 5th starter. This late-period Fister isn’t striking anyone out, and his trademark control is mostly gone, too, so his K-BB% has dropped to its lowest level ever. He’s giving up more HRs than he did in his peak, too, which explains why his FIP’s been below average for three years running. It’s not really BABIP that’s bailed him out; it was over .300 last year, and it’s .291 this year, right in line with his career numbers. Instead, he’s been much better (or much luckier, depending on your view of how much a pitcher controls his own sequencing) with men on base. In the past, he had a low BABIP and very low walks allowed in all situations. Even in recent years, his bases-empty HR/9 and men-on-base HR/9 climbed together. But this year, as he’s giving up an awful 1.59 HR/9 with no one on, his men-on-base rate has plummeted to 0.54. In rate terms, he’s given up a HR in 3.9% of PAs with no one on and just 1.6% once someone reaches. Hisashi Iwakuma did something similar for years, of course, so it’s not like you can just chalk it up to luck. But given Fister’s waaaay low HR/FB ratio with men on (he’s still giving up fly balls, they’re just not making it to the wall) AND the fact that this split is limited to 2016 makes it hard to give Fister all of the credit.

Speaking of bad luck, Fister’s been annihilated by left-handers this year, something that hasn’t been a consistent problem for him in the past. Given that track record, and another HR/FB-driven difference, we probably shouldn’t get too carried away with the whole “he can’t get lefties out anymore!” stuff. The advantage isn’t as big as his raw slash lines would indicate, but it’s an advantage nonetheless. If the M’s lefties get some challenge pitches from Fister, they need to deal with them. Speaking of lefties: Nori Aoki is now hitting .333/.381/.488 since returning from AAA. I wouldn’t have that he was capable of that over any stretch, particularly since he was slugging .313 when he was sent down.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: O’Malley, SS
SP: Miranda

I’ll admit I’m feeling somewhat nauseous about Miranda making this start, by far the biggest game he’s even been a part of. That said, I’m reminded of a game in 2014 when the M’s had a must-win against the Astros and turned to rookie Cuban lefty Roenis Elias, and Elias pitched 6IP, giving up just a single run. He kept his team in it, matching up against M’s nemesis, Collin McHugh. I’d take one of those, Mr. Miranda. (Yoervis Medina gave up a run in that one, and the M’s lost 2-1. Even the scores in this series remind me of previous crushing losses in September to the Astros).

Speaking of nausea, Ketel Marte’s made 4 errors in his last 5 games and he’s 3 for 16 in that span. Since HIS return from injury rehab, he’s slashing .244/.281/277. I don’t think anyone will mind seeing Shawn O’Malley in there today.

Next Page »