Game 15, Astros at Mariners – Strikeouts, As Far As the Eye Can See

marc w · April 18, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Gerrit Cole, 7:10pm

Having beaten Dallas Keuchel, former Cy Young winner, the M’s were beaten in turn by future Cy Young candidate, Lance McCullers. Their reward from having split those two games? Facing Gerrit Cole, who’s been utterly dominant thus far.

Perhaps no pitcher in recent memory has moved between two organizations, or at least big league clubs, who have such a clear, obvious Strategy when it comes to pitching. The Pirates, under Ray Searage, famously preached throwing sinkers low in the zone. If you were a journeyman sinkerballer, you might flourish in a system that’s almost mono-maniacally focused on sinkers. But if you were, say, Gerrit Cole, #1 overall pick, blessed with a high-90s four-seam fastball, what would you do? Adjust the system to the player’s strengths, or adjust the player’s strengths to the system? Easy – Pittsburgh instructed Cole to throw a bunch of sinkers, and he did, and when he wasn’t hurt, he was pretty darn effective, capped by a brilliant 2015 in which he racked up 5.5 fWAR. Since then, and with the rise of the HR, Cole regressed a bit, throwing a solid but not outstanding 200 IP last year. As league-wide K rates continued to spike (more on that later), Cole’s stagnated and even dropped a bit.

What would happen when he got to Houston, a team that likes low pitches but loves breaking balls and whiffs even more? Cole is essentially unrecognizable, and, more importantly, unhittable. It’s early, but Cole’s K:BB ratio coming in is 36:4 in just 21 IP. Yes, yes, sure, that’s a tiny sample – but it’s just so out of line with his previous career. Cole has pitched in MLB since 2013, and in that time had exactly two starts with more than 10 Ks – one in 2013, and one in 2014. In three starts this year, he’s put up 11, 11, and 14 strikeouts. This is a new level of performance. The Astros’ approach, paired with Cole’s remarkable arm strength/quickness, has created a monster.

Strikeouts are up throughout the game, but even within that, Cole stands out. It’s rare that starters can get to 14 Ks, because they simply don’t pitch long enough anymore. Shorter starts and more innings shifted to the bullpen (which have grown as a result) in turn push league K rates ever higher, as teams don’t pay a times-through-the-order penalty, and as managers mix and match to get the platoon advantage as much as possible. You see that now, as relievers have thrown about 41% of the innings in the young season – and remember that’s before starting pitching depth has been battered by injury, and before teams have needed to use 5th starters as much. It may go up from here. For context, relievers threw 38.1% of IP last year, 36.7% the year before that, 33.5% in 2014. Right in line with that trend, you’ve got the league K/9 setting a new record every year for the past *10 years*. Given that, it shouldn’t be a shock that the league-wide K rate is up yet again, but the magnitude of it is pretty amazing – a half a percentage point, from 8.34 to 8.82, and this is in April, when pitch velocities are lower.

Reliever K/9 is already over 9, or a strikeout per inning, and obviously the overall K rate is closing in on 1/IP, and may get there either this year or the next. What would that look like? Well, for a preview, check out the minor leagues. After looking at yet another set of box scores littered with double-digit strikeout totals, I took a look at the league-wide strikeout rates in the full-season leagues this year. They’re up, and yes, it’s the latest point in a steady, upward trend line, but the magnitude of it floored me. Last year, the Texas League K/9 was 7.8 per 9, actually down slightly from the year before. This year, it’s 9.3. The entirety of the league now gets more than a strikeout per inning. How about the Southern League? 9.2, same as the International League. In the pitcher-friendly Midwest League, this trend is pretty advanced, as the league is closing in on a league-wide K/9 of 10 – they’re at 9.8 right now. The California League is at 9.8 too, but at least people hit HRs over there. I’m struggling to convey just how shocking I find this – a full season league has never had a K/9 of 9 before, and now I can only find a couple of leagues with a K/9 UNDER 9 (and just barely).

The M’s affiliates, stocked as they are with minor league free agents, are all over the map in this metric. The Rainiers are 2nd in the league, with a team K/9 near 10. But they’re among the lowest in the Cal League and in the Texas League. Clinton, though…Clinton. The Lumberkings currently have a team K/9 of over 12, and just a single pitcher has a K/9 under 10, some poor kid who’s only K’d 6 in 6 2/3 IP. Does this mean the M’s are bringing up a fireballing class of relief prospects? Not necessarily – if anything, it’s now harder to identify bat-missing that stands out from the crowd, now that seemingly every low-level 6th inning guy gets 12 Ks every 9 IP. A big part of WHY the minors has seen this explosion is that the minors have seen the most comprehensive changes in starter workload. No prospect throws 200 IP anymore, and that means starters are going 3-4-5, maaaaybe 6 IP. There are a lot of innings left over, and those are going to a fleet of relievers schooled in things like how to improve velocity. Teams don’t worry if batting prospects have high K rates as long as they’re effective overall, so there’s nothing countering this trend towards more and more strikeouts.

Is this what we’ll see in the majors in a few years? 200 IP seasons are already an endangered species; will we see a list of ERA qualifiers that’s like 10 names long? Would you care? As an M’s fan, I’d like to figure out where the next competitive advantage is going to come from. What is THIS org going to do better than everyone else, something that can give the team a real, tangible advantage. I keep thinking that they’re already at a disadvantage in this trend, no matter what Clinton’s doing, because teams like the Astros are already so far ahead – and Cleveland’s ahead of Houston in terms of maintaining a true-talent K rate near 25% or 9.5/9 innings. The M’s have attempted to zig while the league zags and get low-BABIP, non-turbocharged strikeout pitchers behind James Paxton, but to date, it hasn’t really worked.

Mike Leake looked like a good candidate for this strategy after he showed an ultra-low walk rate last year and some contact management. As decent as he’s pitched this year, those attributes haven’t been there for him in 2018 – he’s walked more than he’s struck out, and he’s given up some really crushed contact. Why? A part of it may be that his velocity’s down not only from where he was last September, but down by at least 1 MPH across the board from where he was in April of 2017. It’s been very cold, but that’s a worrying trend. He’s throwing his change-up more than he has since 2013, and it’s been fairly effective – but that’s balanced by a decline in the effectiveness of his cutter. That pitch used to take pressure off of his sinker, and give batters a different look, but as he’s shifted from the sinker to the cutter, the results are essentially a mix of the two – there’s no net gain in effectiveness.

1: Gordon, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Haniger, RF
7: Gamel, LF
8: Vogelbach, 1B
9: Freitas, C
SP: Leake

Welcome back, Ben Gamel. Ariel Miranda was optioned back to AAA to make room. Consider the can kicked for 5 days; the M’s pitching probable is listed as TBA on Sunday the 22nd, but it kind of looks like Erasmo Ramirez will make that start.

Tied at 2 in the 8th, the Rainiers scored 6 runs to beat Albuquerque 8-2, tatooing Isotopes reliever Austin “Burning Down the” House for all 6 runs. John Andreoli went 2-5 and still has a SLG% above .650. They’ll send Rob Whalen to the mound in tonight’s game.

Arkansas beat Corpus Christi 6-3, despite another great appearance from Hooks pitcher Josh James. James has faced Arkansas in his last two appearances and gone a combined 10 IP, given up no runs on 4 hits with 2 BBs and…16 strikeouts. The Traveleres are off today to, uh, travel.

A’s prospect Jesus Luzardo (an 80-grade name for fans of 90s noise-punk bands) K’d 9 in 5 no-hit innings and Stockton blanked Modesto, 4-0. Even Mike Zunino couldn’t help, going 0-4. Danny Garcia starts for the Nuts.

Clinton edged Burlington 3-2, with L-Kings hurlers striking out 16 Bees, making up for the 13 strikeouts Burlington pitchers racked up in 8 IP of work. 29 strikeouts, 5 total runs, 3 earned, 0 HRs. The 2018 Midwest League, everybody. Sam Delaplane is the K leader of the Lumberkings, as his season line is now at 10 Ks and 1 BB in 4 2/3 IP. Clinton/Burlington was rained out today, which, I suppose is an improvement on being snowed out? Maybe?

Game 15, Astros at Mariners

marc w · April 17, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Ariel Miranda vs. Lance McCullers,7:10pm

The M’s use their 5th starter for the first time tonight, and the timing…could be better. Facing a very good Astros team and an excellent opposing starter, the M’s have to go to the relatively unexciting Ariel Miranda. It’s a good reminder of how important it was to win last night’s game, but also a good test for the M’s offense, and a good yardstick to see how Miranda reacts to last year’s explosion of dingers.

McCullers exemplifies a new generation of pitching strategy, and one that upends what’s come before: McCullers uses 94-95 MPH fastball relatively sparingly, opting instead to throw a blizzard of slurvy curve balls. McCullers’ breaking ball is an elite pitch; for a curveball, it’s got essentially unparalleled velocity, and for a slider, it’s got exceptional vertical bite. It’s thrown from a lower 3/4 arm slot, but is every bit as deadly to lefties as it is to righties. That vertical movement means that when batters DO put it in play (they’re more likely to just whiff), they do so on the ground.

Essentially, McCullers has turned a breaking ball into a change-up/curve hybrid: it elicits the high rate of swings that a good splitter/change does, and the high GB% is common to splitters/change-ups as well…but the whiff rate and horizontal movement are typical of breaking balls. Thrown over 50% of the time, the pitch has the effect of speeding up McCullers’ fastball, and that may be why McCullers generates swings on less than 40% of his fastballs.

It’s a pretty cool trick if you can pull it off, but it’s not clear that McCullers himself is capable. He’s missed plenty of time due to injuries, capped off with a TJ surgery on his elbow. He hit the DL with back issues twice last year, and thus he has a Paxton-esque career high in MLB innings of just 125, set back in 2015.

Miranda’s made two starts thus far, one in Modesto and one in Tacoma. In his 9 IP, he’s walked 5 and K’d 7, but given up 8 runs on 12 hits. On the positive side, he’s yet to allow a HR, and the walks and hits may reflect the fact that he was just working on a particular pitch. It sounds like the M’s may option Miranda back to Tacoma after tonight in order to make room for Ben Gamel, and to give Erasmo Ramirez – who starts tonight for the Rainiers – more time.

Whatever the M’s decide to do, they’re still faced with a number of roster decisions. They made the first of them today when they optioned Taylor Motter back to AAA to make room for Miranda. They could swap out Miranda for Erasmo in a few days, or use Miranda’s roster spot for Gamel and buy a bit of time. At this point, Ichiro’s still on the club, but it’s going to be tough for him to hold that spot with Gamel back in the fold AND once Mike Zunino’s done with his own rehab.

Line-up:
1: Gordon, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Haniger, RF
7: Vogelbach, 1B
8: Ichiroooo, LF
9: Marjama, C
SP: Miranda

I enjoyed this John Trupin article at LL going over how the M’s have been both lucky and unlucky on the young season. Their pitching staff still rates poorly by most metrics, but it hasn’t hurt their record, while it’s tough to categorize the M’s as the beneficiaries of luck when they’ve lost so many starters to injury. Take joy from the M’s while you can, M’s fans.

There were only 2 MiLB games in the system last night, with Arkansas getting bombed 9-0 by Houston affiliate Corpus Christi in the Texas League, while Modesto was doubled by Stockton 6-3. Mike Zunino went 1-3 with a double in the latter game, catching 5 innings. Evan White had a hit and two walks, so that was his most successful day at the plate this year, but the 1B is still looking for his first extra-base hit of the year.

Tonight’s starters include Oliver Jaskie for Clinton, who leads the L-Kings into a series with Burlington; Chase DeJong in Arkansas, facing Josh James and Corpus Christi; John Richy for Modesto; and Josh Smith as Tacoma kicks off a series against Albuquerque.

Game 14, Astros at Mariners

marc w · April 16, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Dallas Keuchel, 7:10pm

The Astros haven’t run away with the division yet, and head into Seattle in a virtual dead heat with the M’s, who are coming off yet another series win. I’ve said before and still believe that the Astros are comprehensively better, top to bottom, but that fact doesn’t actually mean they should just cancel the series and add three wins to the Astros’ total. The M’s need to play really well and hopefully get a bit of luck, but that’s not asking for the impossible.

One thing that makes it a bit easier: the Astros formidable offense is slumping a bit. Similar to the Indians, the Astros are simply underperforming at the plate. They’ve got a decent walk rate, but the two things that made them so great last year – high ISO/power AND elite contact skills – have eroded. Their K rate ranks 17th in the early going, while their ISO is down in 21st place. They were the league’s best in both measures in 2017. Youngsters like Alex Bregman and Derek Fisher haven’t hit their stride yet, while Jose Altuve (while productive over all) hasn’t hit for power. George Springer’s also gotten off to a bit of a slow start, and it’ll be interesting to see if the M’s can keep it that way; he killed the M’s last year, posting an OPS over 1.000 against M’s pitching.

Today’s starter, Dallas Keuchel, hasn’t been himself, either. After years of a walk rate under 6%, he comes into tonight’s game with a rate over 12%. Meanwhile, his K rate has dropped as well, and while he was effective without missing a ton of bats once before, it’s tougher to do now that the ball is supercharged (if it still is; it’s been a weird year). His pitch location’s up slightly compared to last year, but it’s still lower than it was in 2016, so I don’t think he’s doing anything radically different – he’s just not as effective. Thus, tonight’s game – with ace James Paxton on the mound – may be the M’s best chance, and so they’ve got to take advantage. It’s baseball, so momentum is a weird concept, but everything feels different when the team’s coming off a win against a Cy Young winner like Keuchel.

It’d also make me less worried about the rest of the series. The Astros are 10-5 *despite* some mediocre offense because their pitching (Keuchel aside) has been phenomenal. They’ve got the best runs allowed per game mark in the, uh, game, at just over 3. Charlie Morton looks like an ace now, and so do both Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander. The bullpen has half a dozen absolutely ridiculous strikeout arms, from Brad Peacock to Chris Devenski to Hector Rondon and even Collin McHugh.

Paxton’s looked quite good in his last two starts, and I’m fine with just forgetting about his initial start of the year, but I’d love to see him run off a string of great starts in front of the Maple Grove. As a team, the M’s have a better K:BB ratio at home, and their low-BABIP plan is working to perfection in a park like Safeco which suppresses BABIP. The problem, and I know you’re sick of hearing me say this, is home runs, or more broadly, really hard contact. Safeco Field has seen the highest percentage of pitches turn into “barrels” – Statcast’s definition of ideal contact – of any park. Sure, you say, that’s because the Mariners play there, and we just had a nice tall glass of A’s bullpen, too. True! But the M’s seem to think Safeco will minimize the impact of hard contact, and that’s just not true anymore.

The M’s pitching staff has plenty of problems, and they lead the league in barrel frequency when they’re on the road. But they give up *even more* at Safeco. From what we’ve seen this year and last, pretty much the only thing that can slow Paxton down is a big HR, and that’s why he’s got to try and limit them against a line-up like Houston’s that can punish mistakes…even if they’ve not done so yet this year. Yes, the K:BB ratio is great, and yes, the M’s are pitching around those dingers, as exemplified by Felix yesterday. But they’re giving up soooo many dingers, and a team that considers itself a playoff contender can’t be neck and neck with the patently-not-a-major-league-staff Cincinnati Reds in this measure. The M’s HR/9 coming into today is 1.74, and that’s without needing a 5th starter *at all* this year.

1: Gordon, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Haniger, RF
7: Heredia, LF
8: Motter, 1B
9: Freitas, C
SP: PAXTON!

Motter starts at 1B with Vogelbach on the bench against a tough lefty.

Lots of talk about a steep drop in attendance in baseball this year. The weather has clearly played some role, and game cancellations are up dramatically, but that’s not the only factor. Jeff Passan’s article points to the number of teams “tanking” this year as a potential contributing factor, and the perennial issue of cost came up a lot on twitter. I’m not sure what to think at this point, but I’ll just note that Seattle hasn’t been affected – attendance is pretty solid thus far for the M’s. We’ll see how it stacks up at the end of the year, but they’re 4th in the AL in average attendance.

Christian Bergman continued his hot start yesterday in Sacramento, throwing 5 IP of 1R ball to raise his season ERA to 0.51. Kirk Nieuwenhuis and John Andreoli homered in the R’s 15-5 win – rehabbing Ben Gamel walked 3 times, and should head north in this series.. a move that could come with some tough choices. Tacoma’s game today was rained out.

Arkansas lost to Corpus Christi in 11 innings on 3-run HR from Yordan Alvarez. Andrew Moore struck out *9* in 4 2/3 IP, but gave up 5 runs. Moore’s now struck out 26 in 16 1/3 IP in AA. The new extra inning rules are going to play havoc with reliever numbers, as poor Stephen Perakslis gave up 5 runs for the Travs yesterday…but had the pleasure of starting TWO innings with a runner placed on 2B. Those runners scored in each inning, and were charged to Perakslis. Sure, they’re unearned runs, but the runs are still there, and it’s got to change how you pitch. Arkansas sends Spencer Herrman to the mound tonight against Cuban Cionel Perez of Corpus Christi.

Speaking of extra innings, Modesto lost in 12 4-3. The game was tied at 1 after 9, then both clubs scored their free runner in the 11th, before Visalia scored 2 to the Nuts 1 in the 12th. Randy Bell went 7 IP, giving up 1 R on 3 H and 1 BB (he K’d 2). The Nuts open a series with Stockton today, and they’ll send Ljay Newsome to the hill. Catching him, at least to start off, will be Mike Zunino, who’s starting his rehab assignment. Sounds like he’ll catch 5-6 IP tonight, DH tomorrow, and then catch 8-9 IP the following day.

Clinton was snowed out yesterday, and they’re off today. Lots of bad weather in the midwest this year, with a ton of snow falling in April.

Game 13, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · April 15, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Sean Manaea, 1:10pm

A belated Happy Felix Day to you and yours. Yesterday’s game was a perfect summation of the M’s and A’s path to contention: slug a bunch of dingers, and things will work out. Unfortunately for the A’s, their bullpen now appears every bit as threadbare as their rotation. The low-K, low-BB thing *can* work in today’s game, even if it looks as old school and out of fashion as perms and non-stop sacrifice bunting, but to work, it MUST be paired with HR-avoidance. The pick-up of Emilio Pagan seemed to show that the A’s understood this, and would take the high K-BB%, stick him in a park that limits dingers, and watch as his low-BABIP/fly-balling ways got them out of jams. Instead, poor Emilio’s no longer missing bats, and thus there’s nothing to balance the scales as his HR/FB ratio regresses towards the league mean.

The M’s ‘pen has not covered itself in glory, though. Juan Nicasio and Marc Rzepczynski are not pitching like two of the highest-paid free agents, and even Dan Altavilla, who’s been solid, still gets punished for hanging a slider every now and again. It just doesn’t matter if the bats maintain this pace. They can’t, of course; not even if the entire schedule was made out of soft, supportive Oakland Athletics. But it’s nice to see what the line-up can do now that Dan Vogelbach has awoken.

1: Gordon, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Haniger, RF
7: Heredia, LF
8: Motter, 1B
9: Marjama, C
SP: FELIX

Game 12, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · April 14, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Kendall Graveman, 6:10pm

After pulling away from the A’s late, the M’s face Kendall Graveman today under the roof at Safeco. America’s Large Adult Son hit his first home run to give the M’s some breathing room, and with Ryon Healy coming back soon, that’s good to see: Vogelbach needs to separate himself a bit and show that he can add value with his bat. He’s had a slow start after a torrid spring, but a 1B position that’s within shouting distance of league average would be huge for an M’s offense that’s probably gotten used to black holes over there.

Soooo, Kendall Graveman. I’ve mentioned it before, but there are a few pitchers that I seem to have to write about all the time. If a starter’s healthy and stays in the division for 3-4 years, the M’s face him 3-4-5 times a year, and that means I need to figure out something to say 3-4-5 times a year. Thankfully for me, Graveman’s changed rather dramatically since we first started seeing him midway through 2015. At that time, he was a low-spin, pitch-to-contact sinkerballer. He’d known about spin rate since college, as Mississippi state had a trackman unit, and he learned his low-spin sinker was great at getting ground balls. He threw 91 or so, and mixed in a cutter, curve and change, all with sink.

In 2016, he was similar, but he’d gained a tick or two on his fastball, and now averaged more like 93 with his fastballs. That boost in velo helped his spin, which bumped up to average, or a touch beyond. Far from reducing his ground balls, the extra velo made him more effective overall, and his GB% went from 50% to about 52%. His K rate dipped, but then it was never all that great to begin with, and thus not a big part of his game.

Last year, the same trends continued: suddenly, he could sit at 94, and touch 96-97. His spin rate was way above average, and he was off to a great start before being sidelined with an injury. Even though he was quite a bit worse after his return, he still posted a decent season, albeit an incomplete one. Thus far in 2018? Yep, same thing. He’s now sitting at 95 (and remember, pitcher velocity is down a MPH or two in April compared to later in the year. No, he’s still not able to miss bats, but this is a pretty remarkable thing. Of course, that lack of K’s limits his upside. Even though he’s now well above average in speed and spin, he’s not going to be a great (or even good) pitcher without strikeouts.

Still, he’ll improve from his first couple of starts in 2018 – he’s your classic “high floor” arm. Graveman’s sinker and cutter work surprisingly well to left-handed bats, which helps make up for the fact that they’re bafflingly mediocre against righties.

1: Gordon, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Haniger, RF
7: Vogelbach, 1B
8: Ichiroooo, LF
9: Freitas, C
SP: Gonzales

Welcome back, Nelly Cruz! To make room for the return of Cruz, the M’s optioned Casey Lawrence back to AAA. Ben Gamel’s still in Tacoma, and may return next week. According to Ryan Divish (quoting Scott Servais), Gamel’s perfectly healthy – it’s just that the M’s are waiting until after they face some tough lefties to bring him back so he doesn’t get activated only to sit on the bench. The fact that this buys some time while they figure out what the corresponding move should be probably doesn’t hurt, either.

Tyler Herb and Rob Whalen matched each other for 6 IP yesterday; both gave up 2 runs in the first, and then both settled into a groove, getting through the next 5 innings without giving up another run. They each ended with 6 Ks. Shawn Armstrong and Erik Goeddel dominated the rest of the way, totaling 5 Ks in 3 IP, and thus the Rainiers emerged with a 3-2 win. Max Povse starts today.

Arkansas doubled up San Antonio, 8-4. Beau Amaral had 4 hits and 4 RBI, while Chris Mariscal homered – these performances helped balance out the red-hot Josh Naylor who hit his 6th dinger of the year for the Missions. Johendi Jiminian wasn’t as sharp this time, throwing 4 IP of 2-R ball, and giving up 2 dingers (including Naylor’s). The fascinating relief prospect Robert Stock finished things up for SA, giving up Mariscal’s HR; Stock was a blue-chip C recruit about 10 years ago, and enrolled early at USC, but had an up and down career in the Pac12. Drafted in 2009 by St. Louis, he played pro ball as a catcher for 3 or so years, before being moved to the mound in 2012. Command problems looked like they’d spell the end of that experiment, and he found himself without a team for a while. Training at Driveline seems to have helped his velo; we’ll see how his control looks by the end of the year – I’m rooting for the guy. Nathan Bannister faces off with Jerry Keel tonight.

Modesto edged Visalia 4-3 in 10 innings. The Rawhide scored a run in their half of the 10th, only to watch the Nuts walk it off in the bottom – we’ll see a lot more high scoring innings now that the minors start extra innings with a runner on 2nd. Evan White went 1-5, and the Nuts had 14 strikeouts to only 2 BBs, but somehow kept it close – it helped that their pitchers racked up 12 Ks and only gave up 2 walks themselves. Darren McCaughan takes the mound for Modesto tonight.

Clinton shut out Cedar Rapids 2-0 behind Tommy Romero, who went 6 IP, giving up just 2 hits and striking out *8*. Ariel Sandoval continued his hot start with a double. Clinton’s game today was rained out.

Game 11, Athletics at Mariners – Hit Enough, And You Won’t Have to Worry About Pitching

marc w · April 13, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Andrew Triggs, 7:10pm

The M’s return home to kick off intra-divisional play, and they await the imminent return of guys like Ben Gamel, Mike Zunino and Nelson Cruz. All of them should play at some point on this homestand, and while the timetable for Gamel’s been pushed back a day or two, Cruz may be ready to go this weekend at some point. As this TJ Cotterill piece at the TNT lays out, the M’s will have some roster decisions to make as their starters return from injury. At least initially, this “problem” can be solved by going back to only an 8 man bullpen, and sending a pitcher back to Tacoma. After that, it gets a little trickier. Would the club ditch Ichiro, who’s a platoon bat and who leaves for a defensive replacement most nights anyway? Would they option someone like Guillermo Heredia, which would mean eliminating a natural platoon partner for Gamel? Or :gasp: go to a 7 man bullpen, something seen as luxurious only a few years ago, but which might give Scott Servais night terrors today?

While the A’s and Mariners had vastly different expectations and payrolls, the two teams’ overall plans for 2018 look remarkably similar: put together a tough line-up, get just enough pitching, and then hope one of the front-runners stumbles a bit. Neither team is built to take on the Astros, and I expect both front offices would admit as much (off the record, of course). Both teams ended 2017 with very good offenses, and both teams returned most all of those players for 2018. The M’s look to have made a tremendous upgrade in CF, with Dee Gordon taking to the outfield and really taking to AL pitching. The Athletics’ offense was buoyed by a crop of somewhat under-the-radar prospects who hit the majors at the same time; their big off-season addition was picking up Jonathan Lucroy to catch. The M’s want their core to hang on while hoping for improvements in production and health from Mitch Haniger, Ben Gamel, and Dan Vogelbach/Ryon Healy. The A’s just need their young core’s strikeout rates to moderate a bit with experience, while hoping the vets they’ve brought in around them (Lucroy, Jed Lowrie) don’t collapse. They’re almost inverse tactical approaches to the same strategic goal, but in the end it’s remarkable how well it’s worked out for both.

The M’s offense was a 110 wRC+, and is keeping the M’s afloat. The A’s offense has been even better, with a 117 wRC+, and that’s against some of the better teams in the league. The A’s have scored a few more runs thus far, and Fangraphs’ projections think that’ll continue, despite the offense-suppressing stadium they call home; the A’s youngsters, led by Matt Chapman, are simply really, really good. The A’s seem to have a fatal flaw, and it’s not their hitters’ whiff rate. It’s that none of those youngsters can pitch. I’ve been wondering if Shohei Ohtani’s success might change the way MLB thinks about two-way players (“it’s a distraction” “it can’t be done” “you delay development”), and I especially wonder if the combination of exposure to Ohtani AND desperation might lead the A’s to see how well Chapman’s amazing arm would play on the mound.

The A’s and M’s both entered 2018 with a few reasons to expect that their pitchers would hold up their (short) end of the bargain. The M’s had a full year of Mike Leake, more bullpen options, and expected growth from guys like Marco Gonzales. The A’s hoped for better health, and then bounceback/regression-to-the-mean years from Jharel Cotton/Daniel Mengden, while their top prospect, AJ Puk, cooled his jets in AAA. Yes, at one point, it looked like the A’s might have the superior starting pitching depth. Unfortunately for both teams, that depth would soon get tested. The M’s lost Erasmo Ramirez to a lat injury, and then their bullpen took a hit with injuries to David Phelps and Nick Rumbelow. The A’s had it even worse, losing Cotton to a blown elbow, and then losing Puk to TJ surgery as well. The M’s get Erasmo back momentarily (he pitched in AAA last night), but A’s fans will see a whole lot of mediocre Daniels Gossett and Mengden this season.

With opening day starter Kendall Graveman looking terrible through 3 starts, this club desperately needs someone to step up. Sean Manaea has shown signs that he might finally develop into a better-than-average starter, but the A’s best chance at darkhorse contention is a full, healthy, solid season from tonight’s starter, Andrew Triggs. Triggs was a reliever in the Royals and then Orioles system, which makes sense given his lack of velocity and sidearm release (he profiles as a ROOGY type). But some tweaks to his delivery have made him a shockingly deceptive pitcher, which is essentially the only way to explain how a sinkerballer throwing 89 and releasing the ball from near the third base line can be as effective against lefties as Triggs has been. The problem is that Triggs hasn’t been able to stay healthy. He started out 2017 like an out-of-nowhere star, then spent his last 10 or so innings hurting and getting pounded mercilessly, and spending most of the year on the DL. His sinker has essentially the same movement as ex-M’s reliever Carson Smith’s, albeit without Smith’s velocity. He backs that up with a sweeping curve that again looks a bit like a slower, even more frisbee-like, version of Smith’s slider. Like Smith, Triggs’ pitch movement and pitch mix looks like it should produce huge platoon splits, but it…doesn’t.

One way to see Triggs’ deception is to look at his swing rate. As this FG post explains, Triggs’ generates fewer swings overall than league average. With a healthy called-strike percentage and solid out-of-zone swing and contact rates, and a low contact rate overall, Triggs would seem to check every box as an uncomfortable AB: batters struggle to recognize where the ball is, and thus struggle first with the decision to swing or not, and then with the putting-the-bat-on-the-ball part, too. Triggs has tossed 130 MLB innings from 2015-2018. I’m not sure the A’s would LET him throw 200, but a full year from Triggs would do wonders for the beleaguered A’s rotation.

As a staff, the M’s have famously gone for fly balls and whiffs by pitching up in the zone. Do the A’s have a strategy? I’m not sure how much is intentional and how much is the product of cost-control and injuries, but the A’s simply won’t walk people. The A’s have the lowest BB% in the game, and their relievers are especially stingy with walks. This isn’t backed up by the traditional reliever attribute, the big K rate. The entire staff looks like it was ripped from a 2009-ish Minnesota Twins roster. For years, the Twins opted for pitchability and zone control – perfectly traditional things, but which looked more and more anachronistic as league-wide K rates spiked. Other teams had fireballing phenoms, but the Twins opted for Nick Blackburns and Scott Diamonds. It occasionally went well, but the lack of Ks was tough to overcome *especially* when mixed with lots of HRs (which was the undoing of Blackburn/Diamond/etc.). The A’s may have this problem, though A’s fans would probably point out that the A’s HR/9 is *still* lower than the Mariners’.

1: Gordon, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Haniger, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Marjama, C
8: Ichirooo, LF
9: Romine, 1B
SP: Leake

The Rainiers’ 9th inning comeback fell short last night in Fresno, as the Grizzlies held on for a 5-3 win. Grizz starter Cy Sneed went 5 scoreless, but Erasmo Ramirez gave up just 1 run in his 4 IP of work. The R’s bullpen wasn’t sharp, as Mike Morin and Ryan Cook gave up two runs each before Erik Goeddel pitched another scoreless inning. Goeddel’s thrown 2 scoreless on the year with 2 Ks. John Andreoli was the hitting star again, and had half of the R’s 6 total hits, including their only XBHs, a 2B and a 3B. He’s now hitting .407/.467/.741, which is rather good. Tonight, Rob Whalen faces Tyler Herb in a rematch of the April 8th game up in Tacoma…a game neither starter wants to remember.

Arkansas dropped a close one to San Antonio 3-2 thanks to two HRs from Missions’ 1B Josh Naylor. Naylor, a Canadian power prospect built like fellow Canuck Tyler O’Neill, struggled a bit coming up through the minors, but is off to a very hot start. Chase de Jong tossed 6 very good innings for the Travelers, but the Missions’ bullpen day largely matched him. Johendi Jiminian, who was brilliant in his first start, takes the mound tonight against lefty Logan Allen, part of the Padres’ return when they dealt Craig Kimbrel to Boston.

Modesto’s probably ready to move on after losing to Inland Empire 7-0. Griffin Canning, one of the Angels’ top pitching prospects, flummoxed them through 4+, and they couldn’t get anything going against the 66ers bullpen, either. Meanwhile, Ljay Newsome, who looked good in the Cactus League, had a much better outing, giving up 3 runs in 6 IP with 6 Ks and 0 BBs. The Nuts lost two of three to Inland Empire, and were shut out in both losses. I miss the days when the Angels had essentially no farm system, and you’d look forward to playing their affiliates. Tonight, the Nuts take on Visalia, a D-Backs affiliate, and one that’s been quite good the last few years. Danny Garcia starts for Modesto, opposite Riley Smith of Visalia, a 2016 late-round draft pick out of LSU.

Clinton lost the final game of their series with Wisconsin 6-4, despite a 3-R HR from OF Dimas Ojeda. Wisconsin starter Alec Bettinger K’d 9 Lumberkings in 5 IP, giving 3 runs on the aforementioned dinger. Nick Wells continues to struggle with his control, walking 4 in 4 1/3 IP. The L-Kings kick off a series with Cedar Rapids tonight, with Tommy Romero on the hill against 2017 Twins draft pick Bryan Sammons, who’s now posted 72 strikeouts over the course of his 54 1/3 professional innings.

Of note, 2017 top pick Evan White’s joined Modesto from extended spring training. He’s now 1-11 with a walk in 3 games.

The position players of each of the M’s full-season affiliates has the oldest average age in each league they play in: Midwest League, Cal League, Texas League, and PCL. I’m not making a value judgment, just an oddity that popped up when doing research for a post a few days ago. This is unlikely to change if/when Jayson Werth joins the Rainiers.

Home Runs are Down; Home Runs are More Important Than Ever

marc w · April 12, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

A couple of weeks ago, I appended some guesses (“projections,” excuse me) to the opening day game post. Like so much of what I write here, they have fared poorly in their initial skirmishes with reality. Key among my assumptions – and it really felt more like an assumption rather than a projection – was that HRs would continue to rise. It’s very, very early, but HRs, as described in this Athletic piece by Rob Arthur ($), have dropped fairly dramatically. First, oops. Second, what?

The first thing that jumps off the page in the early-season league-wide stats is just how *well* batters are hitting the ball. Ground ball rate is down by over a full percentage point from last April, and 1.7 percentage points from April 2016. The drop in batting average on balls in play we’ve seen over the past few years has continued, but it’s not reflected in Statcast measures like average exit velocity. Both exit velocity AND launch angle are up, not down, and they’re up fairly substantially. In April of last year, a year when the ball was flying over the fence at unprecedented rates, the average exit velocity for all contact was 86.7 MPH. This year, it’s 88.2 MPH. If we focus just on the *best* contact, the combination of angle and velocity that’s most likely to turn into HRs and extra-base hits – the contact Statcast calls “barrels” – there’s never been more of it. The percentage of pitches that were “barreled” last year was 1.09%, essentially the same as 2016’s 1.11%. In the early going in 2018, that figure is 1.29%.

What’s changed is the value of a barrel. In 2016, about 57% of barrels flew over the fence as homers. In 2017, that went up to about 62%. In the first week or two this year, that figure has cratered to 46%. All of this has Statcast’s xwOBA – expected wOBA based on angle and velocity – a bit confused. In 2017, the league-wide xwOBA – wOBA was .321 – .321, or zero. In 2016, it was .316-.318, or -0.002. This year, Statcast would expect the league to have a wOBA of .334, dwarfing the production of 2017. Instead, it’s actually .304, suggesting that MLB’s xwOBA’s had about as tough a time with projections this year as I have.

As Rob Arthur’s article argues, this pretty much screams out as a change in the ball. To be fair, there have been so many changes designed to tamp down the HR explosion in the past year or so, from Arizona’s new humidor to the league requiring balls to be kept in air-conditioned rooms, but Arthur still detects increased drag on the ball – a reversal of what we’d seen in the past few years, where drag was steadily dropping. Combine this with cold temperatures, and you’d probably expect fewer HRs, all things being equal. But the magnitude of the drop is still pretty dramatic; we haven’t seen this sharp a drop in YTY (April only) HR/9 or HR/FB in the past decade.

What’s interesting is that the drop in HRs doesn’t feel noticeable, at least to me. At a very chilly Safeco Field, I noted that the ball wasn’t carrying well at all, but then a few minutes later, Dee Gordon was rocketing a HR to right, and Mitch Haniger and Edwin Encarnacion were blasting dingers to left. At least to me, it doesn’t feel like there are fewer HRs because HRs are still every bit as important to run scoring as they were last year. Which is to say, HRs continue to be *more important to run scoring than at any time in baseball history.*

Baseball Prospectus tracks a stat called the Guillen Number, which is just the percentage of all of a team’s runs that scored on HRs. Pretty easy. For much of the past 70 years, teams scored somewhere in the range of 20-40% of their runs through dingers, and got the majority the old fashioned way: base hits, sac flies, etc. Throughout the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s, you’d go years and years without seeing a team crack 40%. It happened occasionally, like in 1968 when run scoring (the denominator) was so suppressed that a team or two could exceed 40%. And it happened in 1987, the culmination of a run of HRs that saw a league-wide dinger explosion that stopped *immediately* in 1988. As you got into the the expansion era, it got more commonplace, but even in the peak of the steroid era, you didn’t see teams get to 50% – the steroid era featured remarkably high run scoring overall, so the dingers were balanced by a comparable explosion in doubles and singles. Only one team got above 50% from 1950-2015, the 2010 Jays. But even as recently as 2014, only two MLB clubs topped 40%, as run scoring and dingers were both suppressed. Last year, 22 teams eclipsed 40%, with 2 above 50%.

This is the result of several trends that I and essentially every other ball writer has talked about: the increase in strikeouts, the increase in reliever innings, the potential impact of increased shifting, and the definite impact of bouncier, slicker baseballs. Unlike the steroid era, plain old base hits haven’t kept pace – they’re actually getting rarer. The steady increase in strikeouts means fewer balls in play, which is why we don’t see a collapse in BABIP. The relievers and the related-but-distinct increase in velocity help explain what we’re seeing, which leaves HRs as the big variable here. This April, league-wide BABIP is down a few points, and if history’s a guide, it’ll be in the lower .290s by the end of the year, rather than the upper .290s. Combine that with yet another increase in K rate, and you’ve got a real drag on scoring. Thus, even if HRs are down – even down substantially – from 2017, the game is still completely reliant on dingers to score. With 9-man bullpens and Shohei Otanis and Paxtons and Scherzers, it’s asking a hell of a lot to string together 3-4 hits before getting 3 outs.

So how does this impact the M’s? It’s tough to say, though again, the M’s pitchers continue to give up HRs like it’s 1999 at Coors field. One impact is that waiting for the HR tidal wave to sink the M’s wild card competitors may be a fool’s errand. The Twins and Angels haven’t been great when it comes to avoiding the HR, but they’re still more middle of the pack than Seattle. If the Angels can avoid dingers long enough for Andrew Heaney and others to get healthy, and if a drop in dingers can help Tyler Skaggs become a decent #3, that’s a problem. On the other hand, isn’t this exactly what the M’s have been counting on? They already have the fly-balling staff and solid OF defense in place; the only problem was the league HR/FB was pegged at “ludicrous.” If it’s not anymore, the M’s could benefit more than most teams. The impact on the offense is even harder to figure – the M’s have hit plenty of HRs in the past two years, so they’ve been dependent on the longball to score. But if HRs are suppressed significantly, their newfound high-average/speed approach could pay some dividends; the Royals success of 2014-15 wouldn’t have been possible in, say, 2017, but emulating the Royals in an environment that’s more 2015-y (that’s a technical term) might be feasible. It’s still early, and we’ll have to see if Safeco Field is even more of an outlier for both BABIP and HRs-allowed than in previous years, but I’m fascinated to see how this year of 4-2 games with 3 total HRs works.

Game 9, Mariners at Royals

marc w · April 10, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Eric Skoglund, 5:15pm

Happy Felix Day? We’ve been in a period of remarkable volatility from our once constant, implacable, king. It’s still great to look up the probables in what’s looking more like a big game (yes, yes, I know they haven’t even played 10 games yet) and see that royal name. But, like every other M’s fan, I no longer think of the game as a likely win. I’ll be honest: I have no idea what to expect from Felix today. He’s coming off a terrible start, and to his credit, he’s been very good at making little adjustments when he hits turbulence. But those forgettable starts are getting more and more frequent, and thus there’s only so much that KC’s punchless offense can do to ameliorate my worry here. Seeing them demolish Marco Gonzales and company last night isn’t helping.

John Trupin at LL diagnosed an overreliance on sinkers as Felix’s problem in his last start against San Francisco. Indeed, Brooks shows his sinker usage soaring compared to his opening day start. I’m sympathetic; I wrote about Felix needing to get away from low sinkers before last season began. However, Felix’s four-seamer got destroyed last year every bit as systematically as his sinker. As batters got better at destroying high fastballs, the impact of Felix changing things up by mixing in elevated four-seamers didn’t help matters, and may have actively made things worse. His sinker was very clearly inferior to his four-seamer in 2016, but I’m not sure it is any more – and that’s not a complement to his sinker.

Felix has a cutter, too, which he’s used sparingly, and which could give him another fastball option. Only one’s been put into play this year, but it soon went back out of play by flying over the wall in SF. This is where a good game-managing catcher might help; it feels like it’s going to be more and more important to gauge Felix’s command and the movement on each of his pitches on a game by game basis and tailor his pitch mix accordingly.

Today, the M’s face tall lefty Eric Skoglund, a pitch-to-contact/pitchability lefty who ranks in the Royals top 10 prospects. His ceiling tops out at back-of-the-rotation starter, but he scuffled in a brief call-up last year. He reminds me a little bit of Andrew Moore, in that the overall package was somewhat better than the grade on any of his pitches. Of course, Moore, a righty, seems to have gained a bit of stuff in his rise through the minors and now throws harder than Skoglund. Skoglund’s command didn’t catch the bus from Omaha, and his walk rate and strand rate went to hell in his 5 starts in 2017. That wasn’t Moore’s issue, of course, but again, they strike me as pitchers that tools-obsessed prospect hounds might overlook. That said, given the way the game’s changing, the margin of error for this type grows ever smaller: batters stalk HRs, and while there are more pitches thrown really hard, batters aren’t getting a lot better at turning them into dingers. They ARE getting a lot better at turning 90-93 MPH fastballs into dingers, which is why teams are throwing fewer fastballs overall.

1: Gordon, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Haniger, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Heredia, LF
7: Vogelbach, DH
8: Marjama, C
9: Motter, 1B
SP: FELIX. please.

A day after a 44-year-old Ichiro served as the DH for this banged-up M’s club, Seattle starts Taylor Motter, last seen inexplicably pitching in yesterday’s rout, at first base. The M’s are going with a 9-man bullpen, which is what made Motter’s appearance so bizarre. Here’s an example of where it hurts: they don’t have an able bodied bat-first player beyond Vogelbach. It’s tough to make a roster move to bring up a bench bat, or a random bat-first 1B, as that might require a DFA right before this short term problem goes away; Nelson Cruz should return when the club gets back to Seattle. Maybe the issue isn’t the short-term roster management at all and it’s just another symptom of a farm system that’s full of minor league free agents. There’s nothing *wrong* with MiLB free agents, necessarily, but the M’s essentially don’t have anything resembling a “prospect” or “bat” who’s healthy and on the 40-man. All of the guys on the 40-man but not the active roster are relief pitchers, so I guess it’s not a shock that whenever the M’s need a body quickly they call on Chasen Bradford or whoever. When Cruz/Gamel/Healy are back, I’ll be curious to see how the M’s re-balance that 40-man roster.

The Rainiers send Christian Bergman to the mound today as they kick off their first road series tonight in Fresno. He’ll face Mike Hauschild, an Astros draftee who was picked up by Texas on waivers, then sent back to Houston after 8 ignominious innings in Arlington last year. The R’s got swept in a double-header last night by the Sacramento RiverCats, losing game 1 3-2 and the nightcap 6-5. Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Gordon Beckham each hit their 1st dinger of the year for Tacoma. Max Povse was solid, going 5 IP with 3 R allowed and 7 Ks to just 2 BBs, while Ryan Cook was excellent in his single inning of work. Alas, Chris Heston and the Sacto bullpen made 3 runs hold up. In the nightcap, Lindsay Caughel couldn’t get out of trouble in the 2nd inning, and he and reliever Pat Light ended up giving up all 6 of the RiverCats runs in that frame. John Andreoli and Zach Vincej each went 2-4.

Arkansas beat Corpus Christi 8-3, as Nathan Bannister and one of the myriad recently-acquired-from-Royals-org relievers held the Hooks in check. It helps when you draw 10 walks, too. They played an early game today, and the aforementioned Andrew Moore was stellar, tossing 6 scoreless innings of 2-hit ball while striking out *10* Hooks with just a lone walk allowed. The bullpen was a bit shaky after that, and the Travs went into the 9th down 3-0. Two walks and a Joey Curletta dinger later, they were tied, and they went on to win it on a Beau Amaral walk-off single a few batters (and a pitching change) later.

Modesto starter Darren McCaughan was great in his first taste of the Cal League, giving up 1 run in 4 2/3 IP with 4 Ks, but Angels prospect Joe Gatto made it hold up in Inland Empire’s 1-0 win. Wyatt Mills K’d 2 in 2 scoreless IP. Former Mariner farm hand Luis Rengifo, sent to Tampa in the Mike Marjama deal, leads off for Inland Empire. 10th round pick last year Randy Bell makes his own Cal League debut tonight as the 66ers/Nuts go at it again. Bell got hit pretty hard at Everett last year, but posted a 29:5 K:BB ratio.

Clinton’s mystery starter Raymond Kerr got knocked around a bit by Wisconsin in a 10-4 loss. He was followed by a few more 2017 college draft picks, and they got hit in turn. DH Ariel Sandoval, acquired a few weeks ago from the Dodgers org, hit his 3rd HR on the year. They too played an early game, so I can report that Sandoval has homered yet again, this time in Clinton’s 5-1 win. Sandoval is slugging 1.118 on the young season. Still, the star of the game for M’s prospect watchers was SP Ryne Inman. Inman, a projectable righty the M’s drafted out of a Georgia HS in 2015, tossed 5 2/3 IP, giving up 1 run, striking out 7 and walking just 1. After an up and down 2017, and after spending 2015 and 2016 in the complex league, this is a good sign. Inman’s still just 21, making him much younger than most of his teammates; only SP Tommy Romero is younger. (Clinton’s got the oldest group of position players, and 3rd oldest group of pitchers in the 16-team Midwest League).

Game 8, Mariners at Royals – Two Very Similar Pitching Staffs

marc w · April 9, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Jakob Junis, 5:15pm

The M’s head to Kansas City to take on the struggling Royals today. For all of the issues with projections and the whole “you can’t predict baseball” trope, people have noticed that the 2018 Royals were probably going to suck for about 2-3 years. Here we are in 2018, and…yeah. The Royals position players rank dead last in total WAR, in a near tie with…wait a minute, Cleveland? That doesn’t fit my narrative, so please ignore it for now. With Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer leaving for greener pastures and free agent riches, the Royals have jury-rigged a team together, though having Mike Moustakas drop back into their laps when no one wanted him certainly didn’t hurt. All told, the Royals are tied for the fewest home runs in baseball, with just 2, and they’ve squandered a great K% with a terrible BABIP. They’re hitting .205 as a unit, but it’s worse than that: it’s an exceptionally empty .205.

Their pitching staff is no great shakes either, but they’re perfectly fine. To date, they’ve been remarkably similar to the Mariners’ hurlers. They rank 24th and 25th in K%, and 18th and 21st in BB%. Both groups are extremely fly-ball oriented, ranking 25th and 27th in GB%, and that’s a partial reason that both staffs are running very low BABIPs – they rank 27th and 29th in that metric. Thanks to James Paxton, the M’s staff as a whole throws a bit harder, but limit it to relievers, and they have the exact same average fastball velocity. The Royals have had slightly better results to date, and that’s thanks to the longball. The M’s staff has surrendered the highest HR/9 mark in baseball, and it’s not close. Some of this may be due to the opponents each club has played, as KC got to deal with the equally abysmal Detroit Tigers to start the year, but then, the M’s have played a few frigid games at home and in Minnesota, then two in HR-suppressing San Francisco. As always, the M’s HR troubles bear watching as the season moves along.

In all, Kansas City’s a park that favors pitchers a bit. The spacious OF paired perfectly with their defense-first style, and it’s interesting to see them recreate that approach on a budget, with Jon Jay swapping in for Cain. Paulo Orlando and Alex Gordon are holdovers from the Royals heyday of 2014-15, and are glove-first guys, helping to balance out the arrival of sluggers like Jorge Soler and Lucas Duda. The Royals pitching approach of trying to elicit fly ball contact makes some sense, then, and to date it’s worked decently. The M’s staff hasn’t been bad, per se, but they continue to struggle in balancing the desire for fly balls and a low BABIP with the need to avoid the long ball. Maybe KC’s a place where the park effects will handle that balance for them.

So the two clubs are similar at a macro level (at least for pitching; on offense, not so much), and today’s probables are mirror images of each other. They’re not *identical*, as Jakob Junis doesn’t throw a change-up more than 2-3 times a game and there’s the matter of his right-handedness. But he’s got two different fastballs and a slider that he’ll throw to righties and lefties alike. He throws from the same lowish-3/4 arm slot as Marco Gonzales, albeit flipped towards the 3rd base bag instead of 1st. Importantly, Junis disguised his slider quite well in his first start of the year, a game that saw him pitch 7 scoreless. Gonzales had a solid outing, but he’d like to avoid the 2 dingers he gave up in San Francisco.

Like last year, Gonzales seems to have a very different release point for his signature change-up than he does for his fastballs, and that may be one of the reasons his change has never quite had the kind of on-field results you’d expect from such a good looking offering. Last year, his average horizontal release point with his four-seamer was 2.08 feet, but for change-ups, it was way over at 2.61 feet (these are the distances from the center of the rubber). That seems pretty noticeable to me. Junis’ four-seam release point is 2.48′, and his slider is a near dead-on 2.49′. More like that, Marco! To his credit, the gap was a bit lower this year, as Marco’s slightly lower arm slot has pushed his four-seam release point out a bit – it’s still not all that close to the change, but it’s in the same zip code, I guess.

1: Gordon, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Haniger, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Vogelbach, 1B
7: Heredia, LF
8: Ichiro, DH
9: Freitas, C
SP: Gonzales

Ryon Healy injured his ankle in a postgame workout the other day, so he joins Zunino/Cruz on the 10-day DL. RP Chased Bradford’s up from Tacoma to take his spot on the 25-man roster.

Tacoma tried to get in a double-header yesterday at rain-soaked Cheney Stadium; they finished the first, then pushed the second game to tonight. So, in Game 1, we’ll get our initial look at Max Povse, who faces off with 2017 Rainier/Mariner Chris Heston. In Game 2, Lindsey Caughel, just called up from AA Arkansas, will make his AAA debut against wily veteran TBD for Sacramento. Neither Tyler Herb nor Rob Whalen were all that effective last night, but the R’s bullpen outdueled Sacto’s, with Erik Goeddel getting the win after John Andreoli walked it off with a 7th inning HR. Andreoli’s off to a hot start, as is IF Zach Vincej.

Arkansas got out to a 7-0 lead against Corpus Christi and then held on after the Hooks scored 5 in the 9th to make it interesting. Johendi Jiminian was great for 5 2/3, giving up just 1 hit and 1 walk (0 runs) with 5 Ks. Spencer Herrman was charged with all 5 runs in relief, though a couple scored after he gave way to Matt Walker. Tonight, Nathan Bannister leads the Travs against Cionel Perez and Corpus Christi. The Astros signed Perez out of Cuba before last season, and the young lefty was decent but unremarkable across three levels.

Modesto got blitzed 14-9 by the Lancaster JetHawks last night, as Danny Garcia struggled early for the Nuts, and then new-to-the-org reliever Colin Rodgers struggled late. Rodgers is one of several pitchers the M’s got from the Royals org near the end of spring training in a minor trade. Logan Taylor doubled and homered for Modesto, while rehabbing Ben Gamel went 1-4. Tonight, Darren McCaughan makes his season debut. McCaughan was a 12th round pick out of Long Beach State last year, and pitched all of 12 innings in the Arizona league; this is a “push” assignment, similar to the one Nathan Bannister had last year.

Clinton had a double header yesterday, and both games were shutouts. They lost the first 1-0, with Tommy Romero the hard-luck loser after striking out 8 and giving up just 2 hits in 5 2/3. The bats came alive in the nightcap, though, and Oliver Jaskie and two relievers K’d 11 Kane County Cougars in 7 innings. CF Jack Larsen hit a grand slam. Speaking of unknown hurlers, tonight’s starter is Raymond Kerr, an undrafted free agent signed out of Lassen Community College last August. Kerr pitched all of one inning in the AZL, and now takes the hill in the Midwest League. At age 23, he’ll need to move quickly.

Game 7, Mariners at Twins

marc w · April 7, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Jose Berrios, 11:10am

Another day, another day game. This has been the strangest start to a season I can remember, purely from the logistics and scheduling of it all – and that doesn’t even get into the eagle alighting on James Paxton the other day. Not sure what it all means, but I’d like to think it’s keeping the players fresh. I just wonder how they’ll react once the standard schedule kicks in and they’re playing night games pretty much every day.

Mike Leake turned in one of the most impressive performances of the year so far from a starter last Sunday in Seattle. He held a very good line-up in check for 7 innings, and showed a bit more bat-missing stuff than he’d shown previously. The M’s will need him to build on that, as the top of the rotation has shown some signs of weakness. Paxton was mostly great two days ago, but HRs have resulted in a couple of brief starts. Felix…let’s not talk about San Francisco.

The M’s face tough righty Jose Berrios, a righthander who throws two fastballs, a change, and a death-dealing slurve/curveball from a low 3/4 arm slot. His release point is way over towards third base, and he generates an obscene amount of run and break on his pitches. As a result, he can start his curve at a RHB’s hip and it’ll break over the plate or even off the plate away. He can throw a sinker that starts well wide, but might catch the outside edge by the time it gets to the plate.

With a sweeping breaking ball and sinking fastball (even his four-seam has run to it), you’d expect Berrios to have platoon splits, and that’s exactly what we see: his career FIP is under 4 vs. righties, but over 5 vs. lefties. He’s improved after a disastrous initial call-up in 2016, so his true talent splits may not be THAT wide, but there’s no doubt that his breaking ball is way, way ahead of his change, and thus he’s going to be much tougher against right-handed bats.

One thing that might help him reduce those platoon splits is to refine his pitch mix to lefties. His four-seam fastball’s been pretty effective against both LHB/RHBs, but that running sinker has tailed on to the barrel of many lefties. They’ve destroyed the pitch, and thus, widened those platoon splits. This makes sense: a sinker has high “natural” platoon splits; it’s common for them to be much more effective against same-handed batters. Even though it’s not Berrios’ primary FB against lefties, it’s been so bad that it’s sunk his overall numbers against lefties. This would be an easy change, of course…maybe one he can make in some other game.

Berrios tossed a complete game in his season debut, going 9 without giving up a run, and striking out 6. He only walked one, which is a good sign considering the trouble he had with walks in 2016. He’d brought his walk rate down last year, but if he can bring it down still further – without a corresponding increase in dingers – he can really help stabilize a rotation that could use solid innings.

1: Gordon, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Haniger, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Healy, 1B
8: Ichiro, LF
9: Marjama, C
SP: Leake

Tacoma got beat 8-2 last night, but the won their season opener on Thursday 5-0. They face Sacramento again today with Erasmo Ramirez getting a rehab start opposite ex-M’s prospect Tyler Herb. It was a bullpen day yesterday, as Josh Smith got the start and went 4 IP, giving up 3 runs on 3 solo HRs. He gave way to new guy Ashton Goudeau who gave up 3 runs in 3, and then Pat Light went the final 2, giving up 2 runs of his own. New C Garrett Kennedy hit his first AAA HR for Tacoma, while Ian Miller led off and went 0-5 with 4 Ks; that’s 5 in 7 ABs now, which is odd, as he’s not been a big swing-and-miss guy in the past. Christian Bergman was the star of Game 1, throwing 5 2/3 shutout and striking out 8 – one shy of his career high in Ks. The R’s didn’t need more than 5 hits, as they controlled the zone to the tune of 7 walks drawn to 6 strikeouts.

The Arkansas Travelers won their season opener 3-1, with Andrew Moore outdueling Padres top prospect Cal Quantrill, who walked 5 in less than 4 IP. Moore K’d 7 and walked 1 in 5 2/3 solid innings, and then Darin Gillies got the win with 2 1/3 spotless IP in relief. The Travs were rained out yesterday, but they’ll try and get in a doubleheader today, with Anthony Misiewicz and Chase de Jong starting.

Modesto lost their opener 9-7 despite a dinger from Gareth Morgan, as Ljay Newsome gave up 7 earned in the first two IP before settling in a bit. Yesterday, a similar scene unfolded, as rehabbing Ariel Miranda gave up 5 runs in the first two, before settling down and eventually earning the win as the Nuts came back against Lancaster, 7-5. The Nuts got HRs from Anthony Jimenez and the unlikely pair of Donnie Walton and Bryson Brigman. No word on their starter today.

Clinton would very much like to play, but haven’t been able to yet due to the snowstorms in the midwest.

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