Game 46, Mariners at Nationals

marc w · May 23, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Christian Bergman vs. Joe Ross, 4:10pm

The end of the M’s last homestand could’ve gone better. I’ve heard the M’s brought up in more conversations these past few days than I have in months. Not for good reasons, unfortunately. People are on the verge of tuning out, which is why this road trip – a really tough one – is so important.

The M’s activated Robinson Cano from the DL, and that’ll help, but this team needs some pitching performances right now. Christian Bergman rekindling whatever magic he had in his last start would really help.

Joe Ross was a great pick up for the Nats out of the Padres org, and he posted two very encouraging half-seasons in 2015-16, but has also fought injuries. This year, his K and walk rates were about the same, but a serious HR problem has his stat line in tatters. He made a few starts in AAA, and is being recalled to make this start.

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Dyson, CF
9: Bergman, P

Nelson Cruz is in there at RF. This’d be a good day for Bergman to rediscover his ability to get a lot of ground ball contact.

Zunino and Emilio Pagan are back up, Tuffy Gosewisch and Dan Vogelbach are in Tacoma.

Game 45, White Sox at Mariners

marc w · May 21, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Chris Heston, sure, why not vs. Derek Holland, 1:10pm

The M’s lost last night 16-1, and their most successful pitcher was probably Mike Freeman, the back-up utility infielder, who threw a bunch of 65-70 MPH “fastballs”* and somehow only gave up 1 run. The loss dropped the M’s into last place in the admittedly competitive AL West, and knocked their Fangraphs’ wildcard odds below 10%. It’s been a rough couple of days. Jose Quintana dominating this line-up you can kind of understand, but Mike Pelfrey?

I mentioned it on twitter, but M’s catchers now have all of 19 hits on the season – that’s Zunino, Gosewisch and Ruiz combined. Ex-Mariner Rene Rivera – actually Rene Rivera – had 17 hits in his 11-game hitting streak that was sadly snapped last night. The same Rene Rivera who used to play for the Mariners now has 24 hits on the season. Chris Taylor is hitting .338/.454/.588. This isn’t a “why do they always get better” lament – it’s just pointing out that baseball is getting surreal. I’d be happier about it if the Mariners were benefiting a bit more, but it’s hard to be too disappointed that the M’s aren’t winning at a game that’s obviously drunk.

Derek Holland’s a familiar foe, having pitched for Texas for so long. The oft-injured lefty’s the same as ever by fielding independent metrics, but has a shiny ERA thanks to a low BABIP. His velocity’s down a couple of ticks from where it was from 2013-2015, but he can still sit at 92. Chris Heston’s still down 1-2 MPH, and unlike Holland, he wasn’t starting at 94-94.5. With a sinker that’s averaging just shy of 88, Heston’s command has to be pinpoint, and it just hasn’t been this year. He’s pitched fairly well in AAA, but even there, his walk rate is about 3.4 per 9, and including HBPs with walks pushes it to about 4/9 IP. He’s pitched around that in AAA by getting ground balls and getting somewhat lucky on fly ball contact, but both of those things are much harder to do here. This isn’t to say that the M’s shouldn’t have called him up; there’s essentially no other options (everyone else who could’ve come up pitched in the last day or two). It’s to say that Heston still isn’t quite “back” from his TJ surgery. I hope he gets there eventually – that he can sit at 90 and that his sinker can rack up ground balls. But he’s always had essentially no margin for error, and at 87, even *good* command might get punished.

1: Segura, SS
2: Heredia, LF
3: Cruz, DH
4: Seager, 3B
5: Motter, 2B
6: Gamel, RF
7: Vogelbach, 1B
8: Gosewisch, C
9: Dyson, CF
SP: Heston

As you can see, Dan Vogelbach’s been recalled with Freeman heading to Tacoma. Maybe to stretch out his arm?

Heston’s recall sends Overton back to Tacoma.
The Rainiers stunned the I-Cubs with a 9th inning comeback last night, turning a 4-3 deficit into a 7-4 lead that they held on to for a 7-5 win. Mike Zunino’s HR was the big blow in that fateful 9th inning. All of the runs, heck, all of the baserunners, came with 2 outs, too. Andrew Moore went 7, giving up 4 runs and striking out 9 with no walks. They’re back at it today, with Modesto call-up Nathan Bannister on the hill.

Arkansas edged Tulsa 6-5. Brett Ash got the win and former M’s prospect Edward Paredes took the loss. Lindsey Caughel’s on the mound for the Travs today.

Modesto dominated San Jose 14-4.

* Gameday initially classified Freeman’s pitches as “knuckleballs” because it’s not used to 65 MPH fastballs, but Freeman told Ryan Divish after the game they weren’t knuckleballs. It’s obvious from their spin, too, but while some neutral observers may be upset that they didn’t get to see the very rare combination of position-player-pitching with a knuckler. I’d like to suggest that Freeman tossing slow pitches – one of which was about 59 MPH – that ARE NOT knuckleballs is actually more special, more rare. Position players pitching are pretty much all the same: a lot of mid-80s fastballs, and the occasional change or slider-type-thing. Freeman reared back gently leaned back and slung balls designed to be slower than batting practice. It…well, it didn’t exactly work, but it wasn’t a disaster. A knuckleball, even a bad one, is an attempt at deception. There was absolutely no guile or deceit in what Freeman did, and I think it was remarkably brave. I’m not saying Dillon Overton should try it now, but I kind of hope another position player gets weird instead of throwing 82 MPH straight pitches.
I’d be remiss without noting that while Brooks Baseball classifies all of Freeman’s pitches as “fastballs,” I think there were two cutter/slider-y things. With a pitch at ~59 and one approaching ~79, I just don’t think he was trying to do the same thing with each pitch. Two of them had a kind of gyro spin that make me think they were breaking balls.

Game 43, White Sox at Mariners

marc w · May 19, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Ariel Miranda vs. Jose Quintana, 7:10pm

Yesterday’s game featured two of the least likely starters to throw quality starts, and despite the fact that neither *technically* did, it was a remarkably well-pitched game (until the bullpens got involved). Today’s game features what looks, on paper, like a mismatch: one of the game’s most sought-after, very-much-available starters in Jose Quintana, against Ariel Miranda, who was supposed to be Seattle’s #6 starter and finds himself in the #2 role all of the sudden.

Quintana was nearly traded in the offseason, when teammates Chris Sale and Adam Eaton moved on, but the White Sox held out for a better package, and thought Quintana could build value through the season. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened, as Quintana got off to a horrible start, and still sports a walk rate that’s *double* what it was in 2015. He’s striking people out, but walks and HRs have left him with a FIP and ERA well into the 4’s. Quintana was never the kind of guy who’d command a princely haul in trade just because he looks so…normal. There’s no premium velocity, no clear out-pitch. He’s just been remarkably consistent for several years, pitching like a very different kind of #2 starter. He reminds me a bit of Hisashi Iwakuma’s good years, where he’d post a vanishingly low walk rate, a good but not great K rate, and sneak up on people as an extremely effective pitcher. Iwakuma’s age and injury history prevented him from developing really demonstrated consistency, but Quintana’s essentially matched Iwakuma’s line, but over more IP and starts. That’s why it’s so damaging to have a season like this, even when it doesn’t look like anything’s glaringly wrong. If your primary selling point is consistency, a bad patch looks a lot worse.

It’s weird- Quintana isn’t throwing that many more balls, and batters’ average exit velocity is down a bit from last year. His K rate’s still a career high. His BABIP’s higher than it was in 2016, but still lower than his 2015 mark. Even his pitches per plate appearance are down from career averages. He shouldn’t *be* struggling like this, especially with his control. As you can probably guess, a big part of the problem has been that he’s been much worse with men on base. In his career, he’s given up a .319 wOBA with men on base (including 2017). It was under .309 every year from 2013-2016. It’s .353 now, with both HRs and walks increasing. His career FIP w/men on is 3.57; it’s nearly two full runs higher than that in 2017. He’s never had sequencing or situational issues before, so it’s not like this is a long-standing problem. He’s still unlucky if you compare the expected outcome of the balls in play he’s given up versus what actually happened, but there’s some evidence he’s slipping a bit against righties. As a lefty, he’s always had platoon splits, but they’re normal, and he held righties’ performance down such that it wasn’t a problem. Righties are hitting him much better this year, and while that could regress a bit, it indicates that good right-handed hitting teams might give him some problems. Cruz/Segura/Valencia/Motter (man, I want Mitch Haniger back) might give him some problems.

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

Tacoma split a double-header with Omaha despite having a patched-together pitching staff. They won game 1 1-0 on a Josh Staumont wild pitch. That gave Emilio Pagan the win in relief of Tyler Cloyd, who went 4. Game 2 featured MiLB Rule 5 pick-up Paul Paez starting, giving up 2 runs in 4 IP, and 2 IP of relief from Steven Ridings, who was recently called up to Arkansas from extended, and who’d pitched less than 9 IP in total in his pro career. Fun times! Rob Whalen starts tonight in Iowa against the I-Cubs.

Arkansas finally beat the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, as Tyler Herb tossed his best game of the year, limiting NWA to 1 run on 7 hits in 7 IP (with 7 Ks and 0 BBs). Kyle Waldrop homered for the Travs in a 7-3 win. Brett Ash starts tonight for Arkansas in Tulsa.

Nick Neidert pitched around a 2-HR, 4-R first inning to lead Modesto to a 12-7 win against Lancaster. Neidert managed 5 IP, and benefited from *9* extra-base hits by the Nuts offense. He also helped himself by getting two pick-offs. Chris Mariscal had 3 hits, including a 2B and a HR. Top Rockies prospect Brendan Rogers doubled, but it was CF Wes Rogers, who (like many on Lancaster) played for Modesto last year, who HR’d off of Neidert. Today, it’s Anthony Misiewicz on the hill, taking on Matt Krook and the San Jose Giants. Krook’s yielded quite a few krooked innings this year; he’s somehow given up 27 runs in 17 2/3 innings.

Clinton lost to Burlington 8-5, as the Angels top prospect, OF Jahmai Jones, had 3 extra-base hits out of the leadoff spot to pace the Bees. Luis Liberato homered for the Lumberkings. SP Danny Garcia got bombed, yielding 11 hits and 8 runs in 3 1/3 IP. Brandon Miller toes the rubber for Clinton tonight.

Game 42, White Sox at Mariners

marc w · May 18, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Sam Gaviglio vs. Dylan Covey, 7:10pm

Sam Gaviglio’s about to turn 27, and was *just* added to the 40-man a week or two back. He’s broken free from the “organizational depth” tag that had been dropped on him, but he had some help in the form of a plague of injuries to M’s pitchers. Christian Bergman was in much the same place (though he had plenty of MLB experience), and he certainly looked great yesterday. Still, the point I want to make is that Gaviglio may be the most unlikely starting pitcher ever to be a 2:1 favorite in Fangraphs’ game odds. They may change when the line-ups come in, but as of this writing, the M’s have a 66.3% chance of winning a game started by Sam Gaviglio. Why would a non-roster invitee to spring training have that kind of odds? Because he’s matched up with a Rule 5 pick who’s being beaten like a metal band’s kick drum.

Dylan Covey was an A’s farmhand for several years, but was known well before that as an elite prep arm. He was drafted #14 overall in 2010, one pick after Chris Sale. He’d been unreal as a junior, and even going at #14 overall seemed like a bit of a disappointment – a reaction to slightly lower velo in his senior year. Thus, Covey spurned the Brewers and enrolled at the University of San Diego, hoping to rebuild his draft stock. It…didn’t work out that way. His command left him, and his velocity never returned, so in his draft year, he gave up 90 hits in 76 2/3 IP and walked another 43. His ERA of 5.05 was artificially suppressed by the *11* unearned runs he gave up. Given all of that, it’s somewhat amazing that he went in the 4th round, but that’s where the A’s grabbed him. His MiLB career has been underwhelming, too, but at least it was trending up despite an injury-plagued 2016.

The Sox grabbed him in Rule 5, and have plopped him into their rotation. At this point, he’s given up 9 HRs in less than 30 IP. Armed with a 92 MPH four-seam and sinker, a rarely-used change and a slider-y cutter, he’s supposed to be a command/control guy, but it hasn’t happened quite yet. His K-BB% of 5% is less than half of the league average, and an ERA of about 8 and a FIP over 7 are similarly poor marks. Essentially, this is a long bet on the ability of pitching coach Don Cooper to work his magic once again. The Sox big haul in the Adam Eaton trade, Lucas Giolito, is struggling in AAA. One of the big names from the Chris Sale deal, Michael Kopech, has been solid in AA, but is still struggling with walks. If Cooper can turn 2 of these guys back into legitimate MLB starters, he’ll have produced a ton of value. Clearly, Kopech/Giolito are far ahead of Covey in the prospect world, but Covey is yet another lottery ticket, and Covey still has more prospect sheen than Jose Quintana had.

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, RF
3: Cruz, DH
4: Seager, 3B
5: Valencia, 1B
6: Powell, LF
7: Motter, 2B
8: Dyson, CF
9: Ruiz, C
SP: Gaviglio

Didn’t mention it yesterday, but the M’s made yet another transaction, optioning Chase de Jong back to Tacoma and recalling recently-acquired pitcher Casey Lawrence. Lawrence has been roughly as bad as Covey this year, but has been solid for the Jays’ AAA team in 2016-17.

Tacoma got a split of a doubleheader yesterday in Omaha, winning the first 7-2 before dropping the nightcap 4-2. Kyle Hunter pitched well in Game 1, and Chris Heston pitched 4 solid innings in Game 2, but the bats were held in check. Danny Muno, yet *another* new face, homered in Game 2, and the R’s got HRs from Vogelbach/Pizzano/Martin in game 1. They’re playing *another* doubleheader today. Game 1’s started by newcomer Tyler Cloyd, who faces off with Royals prospect Josh Staumont. Cloyd’s coming off TJ surgery, and is limited to 45 pitches, per Mike Curto. Game 2’s starter’s still TBD, so we could have a loooong bullpen day in Omaha.

NW Arkansas is still perfect against regular, vanilla Arkansas. NWA (not THAT NWA) beat Dylan Unsworth and the Travs 4-1. Unsworth gave up all 4 runs in the 2nd IP, but was solid after that, working 6 innings. Zac Curtis was great in relief, buoyed by his success in the big leagues, no doubt. Tyler Herb tries to turn the tide for Arkansas against Corey Ray and the Naturals.

Lancaster beat Modesto 9-5, as Pablo Lopez gave up 8 runs in 4 2/3 IP. Joe DeCarlo and Logan Taylor homered for the Nuts, and Braden Bishop had a standard Bishop game with one hit and two walks; his OBP is now .407. Nick Neidert starts tonight opposite Trey Killian of the JetHawks.

Clinton lost a pitcher’s duel to Wisconsin 2-1. Ljay Newsome gave up 2 runs on 5 H and 1 BB in 5 2/3 IP, striking out 4. But the Lumberkings couldn’t figure out Thomas Jankins, who went 7 2/3 IP in what was by far his longest outing as a professional. OK, Nick Zammarelli did, as he homered, but the L-Kings managed just three singles outside of that blast. Clinton kicks off a series with Burlington tonight; Danny Garcia takes the mound for Clinton.

Four-Seam Fastballs and the Home Run Tidal Wave

marc w · May 18, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

David Laurila posted another of his typically excellent interviews this morning at Fangraphs, and it’s especially of interest for M’s fans. He interviewed OF prospect Gareth Morgan, the Canadian power prodigy I’ve talked about frequently here – the guy whose inability to make contact look like an absolutely fatal flaw, one that might end his career before he got to full-season ball, but who’s now having a nice spring for Clinton in the MWL…despite a K rate that’s down to “only” 39.3%. Asked what he’s doing differently now than in previous years, Morgan responded, “I’ve simplified my approach to where I’m just looking for a fastball to drive to the middle of the field.” You hear echoes of that from other players, including many big leaguers: you simply can’t adapt to everything, so many players simply look for a pitch – preferably a “fastball to drive” – in a specific zone, and swing like hell at it. Other pitches, even pitches that they know may be called strikes, they watch.

This got me to thinking about a throwaway line in my post about bullpens the other day. No, not the one about how the M’s should go to the bullpen rather than let Christian Bergman pitch 7 innings…that was just…forget about that. I was trying to figure out why batters were hitting more HRs and just generally hitting better against relievers this year, and wondered, “Maybe the fact that relievers throw more four-seam fastballs matters.” Put it together with Morgan’s quote above, and you’ve got something to look into. Two things, actually. First, are batters hitting more HRs off of four-seam fastballs than other kinds of pitches (and a higher percentage than in recent years)? And if so, does that mean that pitchers should throw different pitches?

Thus far this season, four-seamers have been hit for HRs at a greater rate than any other pitch. I don’t think this is all that shocking, but I’ll admit to some surprise at just how different contact on four-seamers is compared with other pitches. There have been 581 HRs on four-seamers, and 500 on every other type of fastball, plus off-speed pitches. Now, of course, we should control for swings and the number of pitches thrown. On a per-swing basis, we get the following:

Pitch Type HRs per Swing
4-Sm 2.00%
SI/2-Sm 1.72%
SL 1.58%
CH/SPL 1.56%
CU 1.37%

No matter how you look at it, four-seamers are more likely to end up in the seats. The reason’s pretty clear, too: batters hit them harder and hit them in the air. Here’s another, very similar, table which looks at the average exit velocity off the bat and the launch angle by pitch type for 2017:

Pitch Type Exit Vel. Launch Ang.
4-Sm 88.4 15.7
SI/2-Sm 88.2 6
SL 85.2 11.4
CH/SPL 84.6 7.6
CU 85.4 8.5

It’s no wonder batters hit proportionally more HRs on four-seamers than 2-seam/sinkers: their launch angle is about *10 degrees* higher! They hit the average four-seamer 3 MPH harder than curves, and about 4 MPH harder than offspeed pitches.

This year, batters share of HRs coming on four-seamers is up slightly compared to 2015, the last year before this current wave of HRs. Thus far, 41.26% of all HRs have come on 4-SM fastballs, compared to 39.69% in 2015. That’s a tiny change, but of course the percentages are multiplied against several thousand HRs. Of note: the real shift we’ve seen since 2015 is a *decline* in the share of NON-4-SM fastballs. The “all other fastballs” category accounted for 28% of all HRs in 2015, but 25% this year. All breaking balls plus knuckleballs have accounted for fractionally more HRs this year, but the sheer numbers are greatest with four-seamers. The easiest way to see the change is by looking at how HRs per swing has changed over the Statcast era:

4-SM HRs per Swing
2015 1.66%
2016 1.83%
2017 2.00%

Remember, the denominator here is swings on four-seam fastballs, so the numbers really add up. There were well over 100,000 swings in 2015 and 2016. If you applied 2017’s HR/SW percentage to 2015’s number of swings, you’d have *400* more HRs hit, just on four-seamers. The entire HR surge of 2016 produced 700 (ok, 701) more HRs than 2015. The difference between 2016 and 2017’s rate would account for about 200 of those HRs. The fact that it’s still going up so much from 2016 to 2017 seems to highlight the degree to which batters are keying in on four-seamers, and that’s before we’ve even gotten to the warmer months, when HRs typically rise. However you look at it, a good chunk of this big wave of HRs washing over the league is the result of much better contact on four-seam fastballs.

So pitchers should throw sinkers instead, right? Well, we haven’t proved that. There are plenty of other reasons to throw four-seamers, like a higher whiff rate and potentially a lower BABIP. There’s a reason why teams like the Tigers, Red Sox and Nationals are throwing more four-seamers and throwing more of them up in the zone. Pitchers like Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer are great not in spite of their four-seam usage, but because of it. Both of them are reliably among the leaders in HRs-allowed, but this doesn’t make them ineffective.

Baseball’s strikeout rate has been rising for a long time, and it’s at least in part due to the fact that teams are no longer scared off of high strikeout totals. Once teams stopped selecting for contact and started selecting for a broader measure of offense, the strikeout rate was bound to go up. Teams have also selected for strikeout pitchers, and thus the trend got another boost. As strikeouts rose, a player with a high K rate was no longer freakishly abnormal. What’s this have to do with HRs? I wonder if we’re at a point where teams will look past a high HR rate if a pitcher’s overall effectiveness looks decent. Obviously, it’s harder to do this with relievers, as old friend Shawn Kelley’s now discovering. He’s given up 5 HRs on four-seamers this year, and even with a positive WPA and a sky-high K rate, he’s losing his closer job in Washington, DC. But Max Scherzer? While he gives up plenty of HRs, he’s still one of the better starters in the National League.

The best of both worlds, of course, would be the benefits of the four-seamer without its loud side effect. This was Chris Young’s M.O. for some time, and it’s worked for others here and there. Only a few have had the command necessary to pull it off for a long time (longer than a season or two). Chris Young’s trick was to locate the ball very precisely up in the one to make batters hit underneath the ball. He could do it (until he couldn’t), but while high pitches have lower SLG%-against in recent years than low fastballs, it’s not like throwing high FBs is some sort of HR-prevention trick: a higher percentage of HIGH four-seamers has been converted into souvenirs than low ones.

Knowing this, and I’m sure teams do, there are two possible responses. One is to all but abandon the four-seam, especially high ones, and just throw a million low sinkers or a blizzard of breaking balls. The Houston Astros exemplify this, as Dallas Keuchel and company lead the majors both in the percentage of low pitches thrown, and they’re throwing a ton of breaking balls+change-ups, too. More interesting in light of all of this is the Colorado Rockies. They play at altitude, and batters have long hit more HRs in Denver than elsewhere. Breaking balls don’t break the same, etc. It’s no surprise then that they’ve emphasized ground ball contact; they were 3rd in MLB in GB/FB ratio in 2015, 2nd in 2016, and are #1 (easily) this year. What’s more interesting is that they’ve taken the opposite approach to the Astros. In 2015, the Rockies threw four-seamers 36.6% of the time, 12th highest in the league, but far, far below the Rays, who were nearly at 50% (49.34%). The following year, the Rockies moved up to 4th in four-seam percentage, clocking in at around 43%. This year, they’re #1 by over 2 full percentage points. The numbers have all come down as fastball usage overall drops, but the Rockies are still climbing: they’re at 46.6% four-seamers, and lead the league in swings and balls in play off of four-seamers. Given everything we’ve talked about, you’d expect the Rockies are playing 2000-style baseball again, but they’re not. Their HR rate is much lower than average, and waaaaay below the Mariners’. How’s this possible? I don’t know, I’m sorry…I’ve let you down again. What I can say is that they’re getting the lowest average launch angle on four-seamers, and again, it’s not particularly close. They’re giving up well-below-average exit velocities on them as well. They don’t appear to be pitching up, or down, or anything, as you can see from this heatmap showing all four-seamers put in play (it looks pretty similar to the heatmap of all four-seamers thrown, too):
Rockies heatmap

I get what the Astros are doing, and why they’re doing it. I don’t quite understand what the Rockies are doing, or rather, why what Colorado’s doing seems to be working, and I would really, really like to know. In summary, four-seamers are going for HRs more these days, and that’s part of the reason for the HR barrage league wide. It seems like batters are waiting for specific pitches and then jumping on them, ala Gareth Morgan’s quote to David Laurila. This explains why HRs are going up along with K rate, and potentially why relievers (who throw more four-seamers) are giving up more runs. It’s not necessarily the case that teams should just swap out four-seamers for sinkers, though, as teams like the Nationals and Rockies illustrate.

Game 41, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · May 17, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Christian Bergman vs. Jesse Hahn, 7:10pm

With the M’s bullpen still in free-fall, we’re perilously close to calling an end to the M’s playoff chances in 2017. They’re not far below .500, and hey, look, the Cubs are struggling, but the M’s chances were always based on a number of things going right, and not enough of those things show signs of happening. As I mentioned yesterday, that’s not to say it’s been a total bust; this season’s been awesome for you if you’re in the physical therapy business, of course.

The growth/development of the M’s newcomers may be the most important thing to come out of 2017, and that’s why it’s important that the M’s really see where they are in July. As I’ve mentioned, the M’s don’t have much to sell, but if they really saw the situation as bleak, I wonder if they’d take calls on Jean Segura? Segura’s proven that his 2016 wasn’t a fluke, and wouldn’t be a rental – he’s signed through 2018. The problem is, the likely buyers at the deadline don’t need shortstops. The Venn diagram of the best clubs in baseball and teams with awesome young shortstops is essentially a circle. The M’s/Reds have a great SS, but aren’t competing, while the surprising Brewers and D-Backs are competing despite poor SS production.* There’s also too much supply, as former M’s target Zack Cozart is finally hitting on a go-nowhere Reds club. As such, there’s no compelling reason to move Jean, and thus the M’s need to think about how to carve out some money to extend him this off-season. That’s going to be tough, given the clear need for more pitching depth, but hopefully the M’s can get it done. A core of Segura and Haniger isn’t ideal, but it’s a very good start.

Jeff Sullivan had a good article about the dearth of high fastballs in a league that’s seen batters change their approach to hit *low* fastballs in recent years. Over time, the percentage of all pitches that are high fastballs has dropped, and the percentage of *fastballs* that are thrown up in the zone has also dipped, although it’s ticked upwards a bit over the last year plus. This year, the Twins and Red Sox are throwing a lot more high fastballs, but the real story – it jumps off the page in Jeff’s graphs – is the Astros all but abandoning the pitch, and locking in on the bottom of the zone. That’s a big reason why Dallas Keuchel’s GB% – which was already very high – has risen by over 10 percentage points this year. As I mentioned the other day, one factor that might be keeping the league GB% steady even as hitters like Ben Gamel, Francisco Lindor and Yonder Alonso hit far more fly balls, is this monomania for low pitches.

That’s all a fairly long prologue for this somewhat mundane observation: Christian Bergman turned himself into a ground ball pitcher. As a guy with well below average velocity and pitching in Colorado, being a fly-ball pitcher would seem to complete the trifecta of woe, and indeed, Bergman struggled there. But immediately after latching on with Tacoma, he started producing ground ball rates unlike any he’d shown in the high minors or in Colorado. He’s maintained them thus far in Seattle, as he’s essentially been the anti-Gamel. Bergman’s average launch angle has dropped by over 10 degrees from 2015-16, and his GB% has skyrocketed by about 16 percentage points. Remember, Gamel *increased* his launch angle by 10 degrees, cutting his GB% by around 18 percentage points.

Part of the reason is, yes, that he’s throwing more low fastballs. He threw 16-19% of his fastballs (four-seam, cutter, sinker, whatever) in the upper third of the zone and above in Colorado. In his brief time with Seattle, that figure’s dropped to 8%. That’s significant, I guess, but it’s not like Bergman’s pitching like Keuchel now; he’s not filling the bottom of the zone with fastballs. He’s thrown a few more low pitches, but his zone profile doesn’t look that different.

The same’s true of his pitch movement. He’s always had lower vertical “rise” on his four-seam, cutter, and sinker, and he still does. He HAS made a slight tweak to his release point, dropping it down a bit and lowering his vertical movement and increasing his armside run. That alone should increase his GB%, but we’re talking about fractional/marginal changes. Maybe this is all a fluke, and he’ll settle in with GB rates in the low 40s again, but that wouldn’t explain his very high AAA GB%. Maybe the big change has something to do with Colorado’s thinner air, but that hasn’t stopped the now-Bergman-less Rockies from posting baseball’s highest GB%. The takeaway here once again is just how mutable players are. One of sabermetrics important insights has been that some statistics are less volatile than others, and that a player’s results may differ quite a bit from his “true talent” this or that. It started with velocity, where pitchers just started picking up 3 MPH right when received wisdom would predict a decline. You had hitters whose batted ball profile seemed very, very steady suddenly turn themselves into completely different guys. And while different pitches or arm slot changes can transform a pitcher, some guys seem to milk fairly radical changes to some pretty key, fundamental attributes – things I might’ve assumed were more innate a few years ago.

I don’t know if Bergman can keep this up, and worse, I don’t know that it’ll matter. At some point, if you throw a lot of 84-85 MPH cutters, you run the risk of blending in with a Jered Weaver or 2017 Hisashi Iwakuma. Those two had interesting secondaries and lots of experience, too. Still, running a very high GB% might be a way to make it as an underpowered righty in a homer-happy league.

I should point out that after a somewhat slow start, Safeco hit the league average for total HRs per game at 2.39. Back to back nights of 4 and then 5 HRs will do that for a park. Safeco may still be something of a pitcher’s park, but its days as a HR-suppressing park really do appear to be over.

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, RF
3: Cruz, DH
4: Seager, 3B
5: Valencia, 1B
6: Motter, 2B
7: Powell, LF
8: Heredia, CF
9: Gosewisch, C
SP: Bergman

Tacoma was rained out in Omaha yesterday, so they’re playing two today. Kyle Hunter pitched the R’s to a Game 1 win with 5 IP of 1 run ball, and Dan Vogelbach, Dario Pizzano and Leonys Martin homered in a 7-2 win. Chris Heston starts the nightcap.

Arkansas lost to NW Arkansas 7-6, as Max Povse got knocked out after 2 innings, giving up 5 hits and 3 runs. New/returning pitcher Justin DeFratus gave up 4 runs in 5 2/3 of long relief. NW Arkansas is now 6-0 against plain ol’ Arkansas. Dylan Unsworth tries to change that tonight.

Lancaster jumped all over Modesto starter Nathan Bannister, scoring 9 runs in 5 1/3 off of him in their 9-5 win. Chris Mariscal had 2 hits and 2 walks, and Braden Bishop and Jordan Cowan each doubled and walked. No word on tonight’s starter.

Clinton, as mentioned yesterday, won 15-3 against Wisconsin. They’re back at it tonight, with Ljay Newome matching up with Thomas Jankins of the Timber Rattlers.

* The Orioles have received nothing from the SS position, but they wouldn’t trade much for a SS, as they employ Manny Machado, whom they can move to the position and instantly have one of the best SS – maybe THE best – in the game.

Game 40, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · May 16, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Chase de Jong vs. Andrew Triggs, 7:10pm

As we approach the quarter mark on the season, the M’s playoff odds rest between 15% (Fangraphs) and 25% (BP). That sounds more optimistic than it should, considering the glut of teams in their way. Click to Fangraphs Wildcard Odds graphs, and…the M’s don’t appear, as there are six teams with better chances. There are a number of reasons for this state of affairs, from the horror-movie like injury rate amongst pitchers to the fact that Baltimore/New York and especially Houston have already booked a ton of wins. It looks bleak, friends. And yet the news that Mitch Haniger is nearing his return and was doing agility and sprint drills in the OF today has me feeling, well, no, not optimistic (that would be weird and off-brand), but something like curious. For a long, long time, we’ve seen a train wreck approaching. The M’s had guaranteed hundreds of millions to their aging core plus Kyle Seager, and struggled to find anything like a competent supporting cast. Their window to contend seemed – seems – to be closing pretty soon, and if they *really* fall out of this, there’s not much they can DO. They can’t sell high on Nelson Cruz, because his surplus value and age mean he’s not going to command the kind of prospect haul that other teams, even those selling baseball players who aren’t as good, netted in return. They closed the book on selling Felix in a rebuild when they signed him to a market value contract (and once again: I’m really glad they did), and then injuries came along and burned the book. You get the argument here.

Without a big-time trade, the M’s would have to either land a Kris Bryant-type in the draft, which hasn’t happened to date, *and* find young, could-be-superstars some other way. International free agency worked for the M’s a long time ago (when they found Felix, for example), but Jerry Dipoto hasn’t seemed all that interested in that realm, so you’re down to the draft (and the non-rebuilding M’s aren’t going to have #1-#3 picks) or comparatively minor trades. If Jean Segura keeps this up, and if Mitch Haniger is anywhere close to as good as he’s shown, they may have done so. I don’t want to sugarcoat this: Segura’s a free agent soon, and Haniger’s been amazing at the big league level for something like 72 hours. But those two plus Gamel start to look intriguing, and cost the M’s a few seasons of an enigmatic starter and the desiccated husk of Dustin Ackley. Baseball is strange.

Wanted to follow up a bit on my musings about the rise in home runs and fly balls a bit. Travis Sawchick quoted the piece in a typically great article at Fangraphs, and today Russell Carleton shows some intriguing data over at BP. It’s a fascinating topic, and I’m especially interested in Carleton’s graphs showing the percentage of HRs that have come against fastballs in recent times. Are batters simply better at hitting fastballs now? Are they simply looking for fastballs and just about ignoring everything else? That’s one of the reasons Carleton links the surge in HRs to the ever-growing strikeout rate. If true, we should see a drop in batting average, and we do, somewhat. We should also see some effect from the fact that fastball usage is declining, though, and I’m not sure we do.

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, RF
3: Cruz, DH
4: Seager, 3B
5: Valencia, 1B
6: Motter, 2B
7: Heredia, LF
8: Dyson, CF
9: Ruiz, C
SP: de Jong

Robinson Cano was supposed to start yesterday, but was pulled back, and may miss another few days. It’s not another DL trip, but it’s still frustrating. [Edit] Ha ha ha ha…not another DL trip, says the guy who’s learned enough this season to avoid tempting fate. Actually, Cano HAS JUST BEEN PLACED ON THE DL thanks to his hurting quad. The M’s have recalled Boog Powell. We need to bring back code words for players, though of course, that wasn’t enough to save Chris Snelling all those years ago.

The M’s bullpen nearly blew another lead last night, and we’ll probably see some changes at the ends of games. Edwin Diaz’s struggles this year have been immensely frustrating, as his command seems to come and go (and mostly go). Getting him right again is crucial for this team, which honestly hasn’t had a tremendous amount of success with pitchers at the big league level recently (with the possible exception of Yovani Gallardo).

Gallardo’s fastball command wasn’t great last night, and he gave up a loooong HR on one, but it still enabled him to work out of trouble and log another quality start.

Tacoma’s in Omaha to start a series with the Stormchasers tonight. Chris Heston takes the ball for the Rainiers.

Arkansas gave up 3 in the first to NW Arkansas and couldn’t overcome it, dropping a 6-2 decision in the end. Lindsey Caughel went 7, and then Thyago Vieira had another ugly outing in relief; there’ve been a number of disappointing performances in the early going this year, but Vieira’s stands out given his light-speed improvements last year. Max Povse starts for the Travelers tonight.

Modesto beat Cal Quantrill and Lake Elsinore 4-3, with Reggie McClain getting his 5th win and dropping his ERA to 2.59. He’s struck out 17 and walked 1 in his last 3 starts, covering 19 innings. Braden Bishop and Chris Mariscal were both on base 3 times from the 1-2 spots (respectively) in the line-up. No word on tonight’s starter.

Clinton dominated Wisconsin, winning 10-3, as Tim Viehoff started the game with 7 consecutive K’s. He finished the game with..uh, just those 7 Ks in 5 innings. Joe Rizzo had a double and 3 RBIs and Anthony Jimenez had 3 hits for the Lumberkings. The TimberRattlers looked for revenge today, but found an even worse beating, as Clinton won 15-3. 2 Lumberkings had 4 hits each, but the star of the game was clearly Gareth Morgan, who homered twice. The K rate is still nauseating, and he’s not walking quite enough, but he’s somehow upped his slash line to .299/.361/.486, which is very good for the Midwest League. He’s definitely a most improved player candidate.

Game 39, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · May 15, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Yovani Gallardo vs. Sean Manaea, 7:10pm

The M’s return home to face the Athletics, who are now just a half game behind the M’s in 4th position in the division. The pitching probables after today are Chase de Jong, Christian Bergman, then TBD and TBD. The M’s desperately need to string together some wins against the A’s and White Sox, particularly with a tough road trip looming on the horizon, but the injury plague to their rotation makes that difficult.

For all of the rotation’s problems, Yovani Gallardo’s already surpassed M’s fans’ expectations, I’d think. Gallardo’s FIP of 3.77 would be his best mark since 2011 if he can sustain it, and to his credit, he’s been improving throughout April and into May. Early in the season, his fastball command wasn’t great, as his four-seamer couldn’t generate strikes (called or swinging) and was hit hard when it was put in play. Since his start on April 23rd, his four-seam’s been a very good pitch; batters have zero extra-base hits against it, he’s thrown fewer balls with it, and he’s actually getting some strikeouts. He seems to have a very different approach depending on the handedness of the batter. Here’s a heatmap of his fastballs (combining sinkers/four-seam now) to left-handers, and here’s his fastballs to righties. To southpaws, he’s throwing the ball up and out of the zone, trying to get whiffs and pop-ups. To righties, he’s focused down and away, trying to prevent hitters from pulling the ball. Righties are hitting a few more GBs, and they’re not pulling the ball much. They’re also not striking out, but Gallardo seems content with that trade-off. He’s by no means an ace, but it’s been good to see how Gallardo’s made adjustments and improved his game as the season’s gone on…and as the M’s have come to depend on him more and more.

Sean Manaea remains an intriguing enigma, a pitcher with tremendous talent who doesn’t quite seem to know what he wants to be when he grows up. With a hard four-seamer with plenty of “rise,” Manaea impressed in the second half of 2016, posting low HR and walk totals. This year, his control’s all over the place, but his HRs-allowed have plummetted thanks in part to a ground ball rate that’s nearly *20 percentage points higher* than last year’s. He hasn’t changed arm slot or anything, and his four-seamer seems to have MORE rise than last year. He’s shifted how he pitches to righties (and nearly everyone he faces has been righty) a bit, taking a page out of Gallardo’s book and keeping his fastball away. But unlike Gallardo, that hasn’t shown up in his batted ball profile – they’re still pulling the ball, they’re just doing so on the ground.

Part of his command problems may be due to the shoulder discomfort that sent him to the disabled list in April. He’s been activated for this start, so we’ll see if he’s a bit rusty. This might be a good day to have a patient approach, as the A’s bullpen’s been poor (again) this year.

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

I joked that I didn’t write anything yesterday because every time I write something, a Mariner gets hurt. How’d that go? Well, the M’s transaction today is activating Steve Cishek from the DL, and optioning Zac Curtis back to Arkansas. Not only that, but Robbie Cano’s back in the line-up. I stop writing and the number of hurt Mariners actually drops…:kisses fingers:

Tacoma kept on winning, taking a 6-4 decision from Round Rock and winning their 4th straight series. Andrew Moore went 6 strong innings, giving up 2 runs on 3 hits and 3 walks, while striking out 5. Tyler Smith and Dan Vogelbach homered and Tyler O’Neill tripled off the big wall in CF. The Rainiers are off today.

Arkansas got a walk-off single from Ian Miller to down Springfield 8-7. The Travs couldn’t hold leads of 5-2 and 7-4, but all’s well that ends well. Miller had 3 hits, and SS Joey Wong went 4-4. New pick-up Austin Kubitza (brother of long time Angels prospect Kyle Kubitza) debuted with an inning of 2 H, one HBP, one K ball, giving up a run, and Peter Tago K’d 6 in two scoreless IP. Lindsey Caughel leads the Travs against Northwest Arkansas tonight.

Lake Elsinore downed Modesto 7-5 thanks to a 4-run 6th, as starter Anthony Misiewicz ran into trouble, and reliever Lukas Schiraldi couldn’t get out of it. Eric Filia had four hits for the Nuts, and CF Braden Bishop doubled and walked. The two teams are back at it tonight, with the Storm sending top prospect Cal Quantrill to the mound.

Clinton starts a series with Wisconsin tonight up in Appleton, facing Nattino Diplan of the TimberRattlers. This isn’t Brewers prospect Marcos Diplan, who’s now in AA, and who pitched for Wisconsin last year, but rather more of an org depth type who’s been hit hard in the MWL (at age 23).

Have We Hit ‘Peak Reliever?’

marc w · May 15, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

The M’s lost yesterday, painfully, on a Kevin Pillar walk-off HR off of an Edwin Diaz slider. Diaz’s FIP is now 3 runs higher than it was last year, and around 2.8 runs higher than his pre-season projections. The M’s bats were awful in the four-game sweep in Toronto, but as Bob Dutton notes, they’d have won a game or two – despite the offensive woes – with better relief pitching. That’s the context in which I read this article at BaseballProspects about the potentially historic performances (in a bad way) by several bullpens this year. The M’s bullpen has an ERA of 5.22 and a FIP of 4.75, and they’re just dishonorable mentions when discussing the worst ‘pens of 2017. What’s going on here?

Two trends in baseball are more reliable: over time, MLB bullpens pitch more innings and strike out more batters. In 10 years between 2007 and 2016, reliever K/9 went up every single year, and is now essentially at 9, or a K per inning. As the *league average.* Those raised on baseball in the 1980s will never fully be able to comprehend that statistic, but we’ve eased our way to it with small gains every year. At the same time, reliever innings pitched has gone up too, albeit in a slightly different fashion. Reliever’s share of total innings pitched dipped a bit in 2010 and 2011, as the drop in run scoring made starters look better, but it’s risen every year since then. By 2015-16, reliever share of total innings had blown past where it was in 2007-8, and it doesn’t show signs of stopping now.

This makes some sense, given the shift in recent years to building super-pens with two or three dominant set-up men, often highly compensated. This is what I talked about before the 2016 season, when the Yankees assembled Champman/Betances/Miller, and the Royals were coming off a WS win headlined by their pen (Davis/Holland/Herrera). However, despite the big increase in valuation and yet another increase in workload, relievers, as a group, didn’t pitch any better. After bottoming out in 2014, reliever ERA rose in 2015 and 2016, and is higher still thus far in 2017 – same with FIP. The share of inherited runners that score has increased in each year since 2014, when relievers let only 28% of runners score. It was 30% last year and 31% this year, a figure not seen since 2010. Relievers are giving up more runs themselves, and giving up more that are charged to others. That’s not ideal.

It could be a consequence of the growth in workload, though. With more innings to go around, maybe teams are giving more appearances to guys who simply aren’t MLB quality. If *that* were true, we’d probably see each team’s context stats stay the same or improve while the overall run totals and averages declined. It’s one thing to give the last man in the bullpen some garbage time when leverage is lowest, but it’d not like those guys are poaching closers’ innings. This is much tougher to show, as stats like RE24 and RE Wins are much, much more volatile. However, it’s worth noting that bullpens have averaged 269 runs above average in bullpen RE24, or about 29 wins per year from 2007-2016. This year, they’re on pace for 94 runs and 8 wins, respectively. Their context stats have fallen through the floor, implying that this reliever swoon we’ve seen extends far past the Overtons of the world.

As Rob Mains wrote in that BP piece I linked above, he noted that bullpen ERA’s advantage over starter ERA is down this year, and while traditionally a bit less than 1/4 of teams have a bullpen ERA higher than their starters’, 12 out of 30 do this year. I’ve done some of my own digging, and can say that relievers’ share of total runs allowed is higher this year than it’s been since 2007, and presumably a lot longer ago than that. Same with their share of total HRs-allowed. That may be due to increasing usage, of course, so I tried to correct for that by taking the ratio of the pen’s share of runs allowed to their share of IP. When we do, we see that relievers’ share of runs allowed, controlling (poorly, probably) for IP has generally ticked up since 2012.

Share of Runs (Cont.)  
2012 91.6%  
2013 92.9%  
2014 95.6%  
2015 95.2%  
2016 94.1%  
2017 97.7%

By ERA, RE24, FIP, whatever, that 2012 year stands out as a local maximum for bullpen performance. Yes, overall run scoring was lower then, but even still, relievers were dominant vis a vis starters. The gap between relief and starting ERA peaked that year, and the share of runs attributed to the bullpen – accounting for IP – was the lowest in our 2007-2017 sample. Since that time, K rates have gone up, and we keep talking about giving even more innings to the most dominant pitchers of their era (Miller, Betances, etc.), and yet the group keeps slipping. It’s possible that this is a fluke; WPA and context metrics are volatile, after all, and FIP likes the 2017 bullpen crew a lot better than ERA and RE24. Further, the delta between starters’ OPS-against and relievers is unchanged (and higher than it was a few years back). But what if there’s signal hidden in the noise of the context stats? Given that ERA has been rising along with the share of runs allowed, what if hitters are simply better at hitting relievers, even as they’re still more likely to strike out? What if it’s harder to sustain excellent relief pitching performance, and thus relievers really are more volatile than we thought – look at Edwin Diaz, or Darren O’Day, or Sam Dyson, etc? If it *is,* then baseball looks a bit different. It was just a few years ago that we were worried that we’d see fewer and fewer lead changes late in games. That doesn’t seem to be happening.

Ultimately, this may be more of an issue for front offices and how they assign a dollar value to relievers than it is about how teams should utilize their players. The times-through-the-order penalty hasn’t gone away, and it’s madness to suggest the M’s stick with :checks notepad: Christian…Bergman? through the 7th inning rather than handing the ball to the pen and, yes, Diaz. But a year or two after thinking that relievers were still undervalued and that the future of baseball would look more like the 2016 playoffs, I wonder if we might have hit Peak Reliever. The more batters react to and adjust to guys who pop up with dominant reliever seasons, the harder it is to sustain that level of success (even accounting for regression), as you can see by looking at last year’s fWAR leaderboard. Addison Reed, Seung-Hwan Oh, Jeurys Familia and Kyle Barraclough have been replaced by the likes of Corey Knebel, Tommy Kahnle and Ross Stripling. Sure, your name brand guys like Miller, Kimbrel and Jansen remain, but there’s a lot of churn outside that group. Managers need to figure out – quickly – if this is bad luck or batters “booking” certain relievers. Maybe they’re becoming more used to elite velocity thanks to seeing the likes of Noah Syndergaard and James Paxton as starters. Maybe the fact that relievers throw more four-seam fastballs matters, or maybe it’s pure coincidence. I don’t know. But it’s not just Mariner fans who think that the bullpen’s been worse this year, and the implications of that could be far-reaching.

Game 37, Mariners at Blue Jays

marc w · May 13, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Ryan Weber vs. Marcus Stroman, 10:07 am

The logic imposed by MLB roster rules is unforgiving. Given the scale of the M’s injury problems, a remarkable number of players who opened the year on minor league contracts or off of the 40-man roster have gotten a chance to play in the big leagues. But as the M’s search for starters has deepened (Hisashi Iwakuma is now out for 4-6 weeks, not 10 days), other non-roster players are getting squeezed. To make room for Ryan Weber on the 25- and 40-man, the M’s DFA’d RP Jean Machi. Machi had pitched pretty well, but can’t pitch again this weekend after a long stint yesterday. They can’t recall Dan Altavilla after just sending him down, and can’t cycle through back end starters anymore, because all of them are needed. Hence, Machi may leave a pitching-starved org after pitching reasonably well.

Ryan Weber pitched for Atlanta last year, but seems to have refined his command in Tacoma, as he’s been great for the Rainiers. The low arm-slot righty has been a ground ball machine in AAA, and has posted a low walk rate and hit rate, too. As with Christian Bergman, he seemed to be on the outside looking in, frozen behind starters on the 40-man like Dillon Overton and Chase de Jong, even while comprehensively outpitching them in AAA. Injuries have democratized opportunities, though, and now everyone gets a turn.

The M’s face Marcus Stroman, who’s somehow making his first start against them. The undersized RHP has a great sinker at about 94 MPH and some serious sink. It’s made Stroman a ground ball pitcher, which has in turn allowed him to keep his HRs-allowed pretty low for given he pitches in Toronto in 2016-17. He throws a slider, too, but doesn’t exhibit huge platoon splits.

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, RF
3: Cruz, DH
4: Seager, 3B
5: Valencia, 1B
6: Motter, 2B
7: Heredia, LF
8: Dyson, CF
9: Gosewisch, C

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