Game 125, Mariners at Phillies

marc w · August 20, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Cole Hamels, 10:05am
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 42.0%. Baseballprospectus.com: 47.1%

Great pitching match-up on getaway day between two pitchers who were the subject of trade rumors this offseason and, a bit less often, before the deadline.

I’ve always found it a bit surprising that Hamels has faced 3-4 times more right handed bats than lefties over his career. As the owner of the NL’s best change up, it’s not like righties have some big advantage over him; in his career his splits are even to a bit more favorable to *lefties.* In any event, the M’s line up is a lot more stable right now, and it’s pretty balanced, with five RHBs starting today.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Taylor, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Denorfia, LF
7: Morrison, RF
8: Sucre, C
SP: Paxton

Game 124, Mariners at Phillies

marc w · August 19, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. AJ Burnett, 4:05pm

Wildcard odds – Fangraphs.com: 42.2% Baseballprospectus.com: 43.2%

AJ Burnett was one of the biggest prizes on the free agent market this winter – a solid right-hander coming off a four win season, whose age would preclude the need for a long-term contract. The righty had an elite GB rate, which helped him avoid the dinger problems that plagued his Yankee tenure.

He signed a one-year, $16m deal in Philadelphia, and, like most things associated with this year’s Phillies, it hasn’t gone according to plan. To be clear, that’s not to say that he’s been terrible. His FIP and ERA are now above 4, as his K%, strand rate and GB rates have all fallen while his walk rate and HR rate rose. That said, he had some room to fall. He’s not going to post a 2-3 WAR season, but hes been mediocre instead of out-and-out bad. He’s throwing the same pitches- mostly a sinker, then a four-seam, a big curveball and the occasional change – at the same velocities. The big thing that’s changed is his command. He’s throwing a lot more balls, and that means he’s pitching behind. It’s interesting – if you just look at zone%, the delta looks tiny. But looking at the ‘ahead’/'behind’ numbers at Statcorner, or the Ball% numbers at Brooks Baseball shows a fairly dramatic decline.

That seems to be because the problem’s mostly affected his fastballs. A few more balls there, and he *has* to throw more strikes with his other pitches, leading to fewer whiffs, and more hitter’s counts mean more fastballs (especially sinkers) overall. This in turn puts pressure on his platoon splits. In his two good years in Pittsburgh, Burnett had the platoon advantage in a majority of PAs. That ratio’s lower this year, and the M’s will obviously pose a particular challenge for him. Of course, they should’ve posed a problem for Jerome Williams, too.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morrison, 1B
6: Chavez, RF
7: Zunino, C
8: Miller, SS
SP: Iwakuma

Great article on a new frontier for baseball analysts by Ben Lindberg today at Grantland.

Podcast: Great Week Sullied a Little by Today

Matthew Carruth · August 18, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Monday Evening Podcast! You never know when with us lately.

Today’s episode is chock full of some disjointed tangents and points. But almost entirely about the Mariners. It feels a little weird, to be honest.

Podcast with Jeff and Matthew: Direct link! || iTunes link! || RSS/XML link!

Thanks again to those that helped support the show and/or StatCorner┬áin general last week, and in the past, and hopefully in the future. It’s truly appreciated.

Game 123, Mariners at Phillies

marc w · August 18, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Roenis Elias vs. Jerome Williams, 4:05 pm
Wild Card Odds – Fangraphs.com: 50.1%. Baseballprospectus.com: 52.4%

The M’s head to Philadelphia with their wildcard odds now north of 50%. They face righty Jerome Williams, a pitcher they know well from his time with the Angels and Astros. Williams is now on his third team of the year; he started with Houston, was DFA’d and picked up by the injury-ravaged Rangers, got cut again, and was picked up this month by Philadelphia.

He’s had HR problems – issues that predate his move to hitter-friendly parks. This isn’t really a left/right issue; while his K:BB ratio is abysmal vs. lefties, righties have hit more dingers. It’s not really an arsenal thing – like an journeyman worth his salt, Williams is always tinkering, and throws 4-5 different pitches regularly. It’s…it’s just that whatever magic he had for reducing HRs and getting himself to the bigs appears to have expired in 2011.

That and a declining GB rate, which makes his higher than average HR/FB rate untenable.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Morrison, RF
8: Taylor, SS
SP: Elias

Elias replaces James Jones on the active roster.

Game 122, Mariners at Tigers

marc w · August 17, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Chris Young Vs. Robbie Ray, 10:05am

It’s our magical giant versus the prospect that only Dave Dombrowski thought was worth Doug Fister. Guess I’m glad he did, though, as Fister’s arrival in Washington made Young expendable.

Ray, a lefty, has been terrible thus far, though not awful by FIP.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Denorfia, RF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Taylor, SS
9: Sucre, C

Game 121, Mariners at Tigers

marc w · August 16, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. David Price, 4:08pm

I’m not going to say this is the biggest game of Felix’s career. That it might be is actually a bit depressing, so forget I mentioned it.

This game features two recent Cy Young winners, and the winner will take the lead in the wild card chase. What more do you need? This *feels* like the biggest game the M’s have played since…what, 2003?
The Tigers are reeling and now they deal with Felix. Go Mariners.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Denorfia, RF
6: Seager, 3B
7: Zunino, C
8: Morrison, 1B
9: Taylor, SS

Game 120, Mariners at Tigerss

marc w · August 15, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Rick Porcello, 4:08pm
Mariners Wild Card Odds- Fangraphs.com 44.1% Baseballprospectus.com: 49.8%

After a sweep at the hands of the M’s, the Blue Jays playoff odds are now on life-support. The Tigers too have been hurt in the past week thanks to a few heartbreaking losses to the same Jays team, and thanks to the fact that the Royals have essentially stopped losing. After falling out of the divisional lead, the Tigers found themselves trying to re-take the lead and hold off the M’s just in case Kansas City runs away with the AL Central. The Wild Card is doing exactly what it was meant to do, with these fascinating temporary rivalries and fleeting allegiances (I’ve been rooting for the A’s the past few days, and now I’m a kind of Twins fan).

The Tigers starting pitching made them a juggernaut in the Central last year, and despite the struggles of their erstwhile ace, Justin Verlander, they’re still the top rotation by fWAR this year. They pair that elite rotation with an equally-impressive offense; last season, their 113 team wRC+ ranked second in baseball behind the World Champion Red Sox. This year, despite losing Prince Fielder and with a down year (by his standards) from Miguel Cabrera, they’re still at 108, and still second in baseball. So why are they trailing the Royals by a half-game?

First of all, their actual runs-allowed hasn’t quite matched up to their shiny FIPs. Anibal Sanchez and Justin Verlander in particular have been hurt by absurdly low strand rates, and thus, while the Tigers ERA’s still decent, by fielding dependent WAR, the Tigers are neck and neck with the Royals. A big reason for this has been Detroit’s poor defense. The Tigers rank 27th in baseball by UZR, and 26th by defensive efficiency. By defensive runs saved, they’re all the way down at 29th. They’ve been especially weak in the outfield, with ex-Tiger Austin Jackson’s poor UZR numbers pulling them down a bit, and thanks to Torii Hunter’s quick slide from elite corner defender to liability. And then there’s the Tigers atrocious bullpen. By ERA, they rank 27th in MLB. By FIP, they’re 28th (yes, the defenders have hurt them too, but the Tigers’ pen has been bad even putting balls in play aside). Joba Chamberlain, Al Albuquerque and Blaine Hardy have been solid most of the season, but big off-season acquisition Joe Nathan’s and veteran Phil Coke have been replacement-level this season. That’s the reason the Tigers grabbed Joakim Soria from Texas in July, but the ex-closer had a terrible run with his new team (six runs allowed in his first 1 2/3 IP), and just when he appeared to get back on track, he was sidelined with an oblique strain. The M’s have a massive, massive advantage in both defense and bullpen strength/depth.

Today’s starter, Rick Porcello, posted one of the worst strand rates of any starter from 2010-2013, and thus his ERA was always much higher than his FIP. He’s continually tweaked his approach – last year, his strikeout rate jumped dramatically, but he gave away most of that improvement this year. After years of a terrible BABIP and a terrible ERA, he’s posted the best strand rate and the lowest BABIP of his career, and after years of getting hit hard by lefties, he’s posting reverse splits this year. So what’s he doing differently? For one, he’s throwing a lot more four-seam fastballs to lefties, and that’s taken the pressure off of his 92mph sinker. His GB% at a career low (though it’s still a touch above average), and that’s certainly helping his BABIP. He ditched his slider in favor of a curve ball last year, and he’s gotten better at commanding it. It’s not a swing-and-miss curve, but it generates some ground-ball contact, which helps balance out his batted-ball profile. In two seasons of pretty heavy use, no lefty’s hit a home run off of it, which helps Porcello’s other long-standing problem. Clearly, there are things you can point to that help explain his improvement, and he’s got the status as the top HS-pitching prospect in his draft class and all of that too.

Still, you wouldn’t want to bet anything you cared about that this can continue. After a career of struggling against lefties, it’s unlikely throwing a couple more four-seamers has entirely eradicated that problem. Chris Young can throw lefties high four-seam fastballs and get away with it, but I’m not sure a career sinker-baller can do that consistently. As so much of his improved splits is due to a low HR-rate to lefties, it looks even less sustainable. It’s not like he’s striking them out, he’s just keeping them in the ballpark for the first time. The low strikeout rate also makes it harder to believe that the strand rate belongs up there ahead of King Felix’s. Porcello, as basically every sabermetrically-inclined fan has said, was never as bad as his lousy ERAs, but I’m not convinced he’s as good as this year’s, either.

Line-up:
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Chavez, RF
9: Taylor, SS
SP: James Paxton

The Mariners are Now Bumming Out Other Teams

Jay Yencich · August 13, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

There’s always a sort of impetus to kick off these posts, something that sat us down to look and then type frantically for however many minutes and hours until, bam, front page post. Sometimes it’s just as simple as looking at a stat sheets and going “wull, that’s weird” and then going from there and other times it’s something that we pick up from video observations, which are more easily repeated in the wild.

I get most of my game intake from radio, which means the perspective I get is somewhat skewed. I don’t have a TV in the same room as my computer because I might never leave otherwise, and besides, I work most of the time. But the point I’m attempting to get at here: Over the past couple of days I’ve been listening to games and have also had the privilege of visually catching some of last night’s game at a bar [with Matthew and others] and tonight’s game while at home.

One of the things that I’ve noticed over the past series on radio is there have been a few instances in which a strikeout pitch got a bit wild and got away from the catcher du jour. In many of those instances (one excludes Mune because Mune, Tolleson because WHO IS HE), I’ve heard or seen the same batters victimized by those strikeouts looking at the balls with a flat “WELP.” No running for first, just existential misery. Or, more commonly, they’re staring at the called third strike or the swing is a bail swing, defensive, reflexive, not hoping for much more than staying alive. The example I would point to is the Melky Cabrera strikeout late in today’s game, but there are others that are available as well and I’ve reviewed what pitching videos I could up to this moment.

These types of swings, I’m kind of used to seeing from the Mariners. Used to seeing Smoak or Montero or Bad Ackley take a hack or watch a bad pitch and then go stoically to the dugout (Michael Saunders doesn’t count, has need of mouth soap). I’m not used to the Mariners causing it to happen outside of Felix. But the Blue Jays are a good team. They don’t really have much pitching, but they’re the fifth best team in the American League by hitter WAR and fourth best by wRC+ and third in runs scored. Their strikeout rate only ranks tenth. And at times during this series, they’ve looked utterly demoralized, incapable of executing on what they needed to do in order to keep in it. They had twenty-seven Ks in 100 ABs. Fangraphs is telling me that they K’d in 20.7% of their ABs coming into this particular game. We outdid that mark by about a third.

This was a series with playoff implications and the Mariners, by strength of their pitching, sometimes loud hitting, and a weird outburst by Kendrys Morales, but mostly pitching, have made the Blue Jays look and act like losers. In Safeco, where the ‘Ners didn’t even have a winning record coming into the homestand. Meanwhile, the offense has done what it was supposed to do to pitchers that had middling track records, which is to say, get leads.

Consider this information over the off day, delighting in it, or applying the habituated skepticism.

Game 119, Blue Jays at Mariners

marc w · August 13, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. RA Dickey, 7:10pm

RA Dickey was the 2012 NL Cy Young award winner, and he signed a big (ok, maybe “moderate” is more accurate) contract with the Jays the year after. And yet, he’s clearly the second best pitcher tonight, and that’s the big reason why Fangraphs gives the M’s a better-than-60% chance of completing the series sweep tonight.

Dickey’s always been just about impossible to project. In his first few seasons as a knuckleballer, first with the M’s and then with Minnesota, his control got him into trouble, and while he limited BABIP (the knuckleballer addendum to Voros McCracken’s DIPS theory), it wasn’t enough to make him more than replacement level. But upon joining the Mets in 2010, he suddenly stopped walking so many and nearly instantly became a good, solid MLB starting pitcher. He posted better-than-league average WARs in 2010 and 2011, and that clearly understated his value: because his true talent BABIP was lower than the average (something FIP ignored), he was much better on the field than you’d know by looking at his fielding independent stats. In 2012, he went nuts and became a strikeout pitcher as well, as batters started chasing his knuckler out of the zone. His control was excellent, and that allowed him to get ahead of hitters and get them to expand the zone. In addition, the low BABIP meant higher than average strand rates, and boom, 20 wins, less-than-3.00 ERA, hardware.

Before he signed with Toronto, Dave tried to correct the idea that Dickey was a one-year wonder, and indeed, Toronto ended up paying not for his extraordinary 2012, but something like his 2010-2011 level of performance. In a lot of ways, that’s what they’ve gotten. His BABIP is right where it was, his walks are up a bit (expected after switching leagues), but his K’s have stayed fairly high too. He’s not getting as many whiffs, but that’s not the story. The story is that he’s lost that traditional knuckleballer skill of stranding baserunners because of his low BABIP. The low BABIP’s still there, but the strand rate keep falling.

Most pitchers have a very similar pattern in their three-true-outcome stats when the bases are empty and when there are runners in scoring position. Traditionally, K rates are highest, walk rates are lowest, and HR rates highest with the bases empty. Hisashi Iwakuma is the best example, as he challenges hitters with the bases empty, then gets a bit cagier with RISP (even if that means pitching around a tough hitter). Dickey was just like everyone else when he was with the Mets, but now, the reverse is happening. Or rather, he’s not seeing any gains in HR-rate from his losses in BB rate with RISP. He walks more hitters, but he’s giving up his HRs when they hurt the most. The odd thing is that it’s not JUST Dickey. The entire Blue Jays team has a higher HR rate with RISP than they do with the bases empty. That makes no sense. Not sure you can blame this on the HR-inflating properties of the Rogers Centre, not sure if it’s pitch calling, or something the catchers are doing, but it’s really weird. Dickey’s retained some of the benefit that adheres to knuckleballers, but he’s lost the others. No idea if he can get them back.

Line-up:
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Denorfia, RF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller SS
SP: Iwakuma

Game 118, Not-As-Blue-As-Steller’s-Jays at Mariners

marc w · August 12, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Chris Young vs. J.A. Happ, 7:10pm
Mariners wild card odds – Fangraphs.com: 34.7% BaseballProspectus.com: 37.7%

I’m going to start putting the playoff odds for the M’s up at the top of these posts. I have been here since 2010, so at no point was this a priority, or a thing I needed to think about, or discuss with Jeff/Dave/a qualified therapist. This is fun. For reference, BP’s odds also calculate the one-day and seven-day change in these playoff odds, and you can get a sense of how volatile they can be when two teams chasing the same prize play each other by looking at how they change from day to day. For example, yesterday’s game improved the M’s odds by 8%, while the Blue Jays’ dropped by about the same (actually, 8.9%). To be clear – I’m just posting the wild card odds. Their overall playoff odds are a tiny bit higher, reflecting their odds of catching both the A’s and Angels. This is more of an issue for the Blue Jays, who could conceivably catch Baltimore, but I’m not going to worry about it for Seattle. The M’s are focused on that second wild card, and thus I’ll focus on that too. If you want to make a run at the division, though, I am willing to revisit this, OK M’s?

Yesterday’s game was a great one – it featured yet another dominant outing from Felix (who really made one bad pitch and paid for it; he was close to getting Bautista with an earlier change/sinker, but then really hung a pitch), a suprisingly tense early period where Hutchison pitched effectively, and then an offensive explosion that turned the later innings into a party that featured lots of Canada-taunting. That said, yesterday’s was the game they were *supposed* to win. The next two are arguably more important than beating a jet-lagged, exhausted team throwing Brad Mills to the wolves. Today’s game features lefty J.A. Happ, a fastball/curve/change-up hurler the Blue Jays picked up from Houston in exchange for the curdled dregs of Francisco Cordero’s career.

He first garnered attention in 2009, when he went 12-4 with a sparkling 2.93 ERA in a hitter’s park for Philadelphia. The sabermetrically-inclined blogosphere noted that he benefited from an absurdly high strand rate, and didn’t seem to have a dominant skill – his K% was so-so, his walk rate was so-so, and while his HR/FB was low, he didn’t magically avoid HRs. He threw 90mph, and had normal platoon splits. In a rare moment of lucidity and brilliance, Ruben Amaro Jr. flipped him to Houston in exchange for Roy Oswalt, and he again posted a good RA/9 despite bad peripherals. Was he another Jarrod Washburn, or, and you hate to even mention the king of the “peripherals don’t matter” pitchers, Chris Young? Apparently not. From 2011-2013, Happ decided to see how the other half lived, and posted better peripherals (thanks to an uptick in K rate) and god-awful actual results. Suddenly, FIP wasn’t the big meany telling him he wasn’t actually worth nearly 5 wins in 2009, it was about the only thing saying that Happ was better than replacement level.

This year’s been an interesting one for the lefty. He’s finally brought his walks under control again after several years of posting BB% over 10%, and he’s got a K% of 20% for the first time in his career. He’s still not exactly great; that 85% (!) strand rate that produced 2009′s lovely ERA never returned. But he’s suddenly throwing a lot harder than he had in the past. Happ actually gained about 1 MPH on his fastball from 2009 to 2012-13, but this year, it’s up even more, and he’s now averaging 93-94mph on it. His four-seamer has a lot of vertical rise, and thus he’s generally been a fly-ball pitcher. It’s nowhere near as extreme as Chris Young’s and thus his FB% is likewise a bit more moderate. Happ’s also gone away from his slider/cutter, a pitch he used as his primary breaking ball before. Instead, he’s relying on a curve at around 78mph and a hard change at 86. The change in particular has been easy for right-handers to elevate, and thus he’s struggled a bit against them this year. It’s hard to know if it’s just a small sample thing (he’s had a decent change-up in the past) or if there’s some issue with his change and sinker (another pitch he’s throwing more of) getting too similar. Adding the two- and four-seamers together (and he still throws far more of the latter than the former), Happ throws his fastball around 70% of the time, which is actually a bit more than Chris Young’s 65% rate this season, but right in line with Young’s career mark.

Today’s line-up:
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Denorfia, RF
7: Zunino, C
8: Morrison, 1B
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Young

Great (but math-heavy!) article from Russell Carleton at BP (free) today investigating clutch hitting. It’s very interesting; Carleton used player-specific regressions to examine change in behavior (in this case swing rates) in high-leverage situations. That’s a step or three removed from what we think of as “clutch hitting” but it’s important to start to tease out if and how players react to clutch situations. Hopefully he’ll look at more components of hitting and we’ll start to piece together a picture of what some players are able to do in high-leverage moments.

Sticking at BP, Sam Miller wrote about ($) the sudden, sad decline of the Texas Rangers, a team that looked in 2012 to be a perennial powerhouse.

You’ve just read Jeff’s article on Felix and the AL MVP race (just below this one), now take a look at Dave’s examination of how starters have fared in MVP voting recently. Mostly bad, of course, but hey, Verlander in 2011! I think the list of pitcher MVPs highlights how strange that award really is. Everyone has a different definition of value, so you can’t *just* go by WAR, but you combine the oddities like Rollie Fingers in 1981 with the blunders like Ivan Rodriguez and Mo Vaughn and the whole thing looks a bit strange. It’s clearly gotten much better in recent years, which is why Felix will win the Cy Young even if, say, Scott Kazmir finishes with more wins. But Felix is an MVP, and while I don’t think he’ll get one, that’s no fault of his.

The Rainiers are in New Orleans tonight, taking on prospect Andrew Heaney. Not sure who’s starting for Tacoma, but it isn’t Roenis Elias; sounds like Elias will get 3-4 innings on Wednesday (hat tip Greg Johns). Cam Habson starts in AA, and Scott DeCecco takes the hill for High Desert (also facing a prospect – this time, it’s Astros fireballer Lance McCullers).

Speaking of the Rainiers, M’s SS prospect Ketel Marte’s now in AAA with the club, and he went 2-5 in his AAA debut yesterday. The 20-year old has very little power, but he’s improved as he’s moved up the ladder, and has a good defensive reputation. You may have seen him in spring training with the M’s in recent years.

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