Game 125, Yankees at Mariners

marc w · August 23, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. CC Sabathia, 7:10pm

Welcome back, Taijuan. Walker’s banishment to AAA lasted all of 2 starts, though he’s made 3 this month, if you include his rehab start against Albuquerque on the 1st. While Walker shut out the Nashville Sounds over 6 1/3 IP in his last start, there are still some warning signs: in every one of Walker’s starts this month, 3 in AAA and 1 in MLB, he’s walked or plunked more batters than he’s struck out. Walker’s vanishing K rate is a worrying sign, and it’s directly related to his problem with big innings; nothing helps a pitcher out of a jam like a big strikeout.

In his last game in the bigs, Walker was almost comically reliant on his four-seam fastball, throwing it on 50 out of 64 total pitches. It sounds like the M’s forced Walker to work on his secondary stuff in Tacoma, and that’ll be something to look for today. This will actually be his first game of the year with Mike Zunino as his battery mate. I don’t think Iannetta’s to blame for Walker’s poor start against the Angels, but if the M’s had a huge problem with his pitch selection, they need to make sure the M’s catchers are hearing that message as well. To be fair to both Walker and Iannetta – Walker’s curve didn’t look so good recently. He’s not getting the spin and thus the drop on it that he needs, and if it just didn’t feel right/wasn’t working, that may have played into their heater-centric game plan.

To make room for Walker, the M’s optioned Cody Martin to AAA. To bolster their bullpen, the M’s also activated Tony Zych from the 60-day DL today, with Stefen Romero surrendering his 25-man slot. They didn’t need to make a move on the 40-man, as they had an open slot in anticipation of either Zych or Evan Scribner being activated. Apparently Zych was further along.

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

Glad to see Zunino slide up a position in the batting order. Not a huge deal by any stretch, but the man simply deserves more at bats at this point.

Bob Dutton’s notebook article mentions that Hisashi Iwakuma’s about to trigger the vesting option in his contract for 2017. While Iwakuma’s looked shaky at times in the past year or two, that’s still good news for M’s fans. He, like Felix, has made a number of adjustments, and Iwakuma’s been a big part of the M’s recent surge.

The M’s 3 HRs last night take them to 92 home dingers on the year. That took them past last season’s total of 90 HRs hit at Safeco, and shockingly, ties them with the 92 they hit over 2010 and 2011…*combined.* In 2010, the M’s hit all of 35 home runs at home, which is one of the many stats about that club that is both horrifying and impossible to turn away from. If you’re wondering, the M’s allowed 69 HRs at home in 2010 and 77 in 2011, both far lower than this year’s 87, but the comparison isn’t as bonkers as it is for batters. The M’s allowed 90 last season at home, so they’ll certainly surpass that, but this year marks the continuation of an upward trend thanks both to the league-wide dinger uptick as well as the park-specific dimension changes a few years back. The offense, though…that’s harder to explain. I’ve certainly tried, but I think there’s still a lot of ground to plow in figuring out why Safeco’s suddenly playing so differently.

Mike Zunino’s Subtle Changes and Not-So-Subtle Results

marc w · August 23, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Zunino won the M’s another ball game last night with a late 3-run dinger. He crushed a pitch over the right field wall after laying off a two-strike slider the pitch before. It was, as many pointed out on twitter afterwards, a perfect encapsulation of how 2016 Mike Zunino differs from the 2015 version, who may recall was one of the worst hitters in recent memory. The transformation feels comprehensive, universal; it feels like he’s a completely different hitter thanks to a huge spike in walk rate, a drop in K%, the power surge, etc. Every aspect of his offensive production seems remade, whether by savvy player development, or the same dark magic that turned James Paxton into a Canadian Noah Syndergaard. And yet, the more you dig deeper, the smaller those changes appear.

Jeff’s got a great piece on his improvementat Fangraphs today, and he looks both at the staggering numbers Zunino’s put up thus far, and also a potential mechanical tweak to his swing: instead of a small stride forward, he’s keeping his front leg on the ground and transferring his weight without so much movement in his lower half. He also points out that Zunino’s giving away fewer at-bats by being more selective on 0-2 and 2-strike counts, as he did in last night’s game. Eno Sarris tweeted last night that he thinks a big part of Zunino’s surge has come from a bit more selectivity on breaking balls, regardless of the count, pointing to this Brooks chart of his whiff% by pitch types. Both of these explanations are probably factors in the drop in Zunino’s K rate and the dramatic improvement in his walk rate, but I’m still struck by just how subtle the changes look when you drill down to peripheral stats.

Here’s a chart with a bunch of those peripherals. Here’s Zunino’s K rate, his O-swing rate (swings at balls), Z-swing rate (swings at strikes), his SwStr rate (whiffs) and his contact rate (duh).
zunino
There are encouraging signs, no doubt, particularly in K%, which we knew already. But there’s no massive transformation in his contact rate – he had a very low contact rate in 2015, and has a very low contact rate in 2016, too. Against fastballs, Zunino had one of the worst whiff rates in the game in 2015. Aaaand he’s still got one now! One of his many problems last year was that he couldn’t deal with high fastballs, and even swung and missed at about a quarter of fastballs *thrown right down the middle*. None of that’s changed this year, and he’s actually whiffing on *more* middle-middle fastballs now. How does this line up with the chart Jeff used showing the change in Zunino’s *production*? (I’ll copy and paste that here):
zunino-wrc

I initially thought that Zunino was learning to recognize different pitches, and that he was able to drive breaking balls instead of being absolutely flummoxed by spin. But in looking at his 2015 data, he actually slugged .500 against sliders last year – much, much better than he did against fastballs. He’s hit sliders well thus far in 2016, but despite a poor batting average against them, that was about the only thing he did *right* a year ago. I wondered how much of this was BABIP driven, but that doesn’t look like it either. His BABIP was awful last year, and while it’s better, it’s still not great – that just hasn’t hurt him because it excludes all of the glorious dingers Zunino’s mashing. Was it platoon related? Doesn’t look like it thus far.

It occurred to me that my entire approach to this problem was centered in looking at which of Zunino’s weaknesses he’d eliminated or improved. I don’t know for sure, but I’m starting to wonder if that wasn’t the default approach the last M’s player development group took too – O-swing’s too high in 2014, so they made an adjustment and lo and behold, Zunino’s O-swing was better in 2015. But whatever change they made *also* sapped his power and saw him take too many called strike threes.* This year, he’s taking even *more* called 3rd strikes, so the M’s new approach probably isn’t centered on reducing the myriad things Zunino struggles with at the plate. Instead, I think they’re focusing on what he does well.

Mike Zunino’s got an uppercut swing, and always has since he came into the league. In 2015, Zunino had the 4th lowest GB/FB ratio in MLB (out of 268 hitters w/more than 300PAs), surrounded by sluggers like Chris Carter, Lucas Duda and Brandon Moss. In 2016, it’s still among the lowest in the game. This helps explain why Zunino sometimes struggles against elevated fastballs, but it also means he should hit well against low pitches. *Should* hit well. In 2015, Zunino’s slugging percentage on contact with pitches in the lower third of the zone and below (the “low pitches” definition I used a lot in the posts about Safeco Field) was all of .293, or just about dead on his season SLG% of .300. Given the problems with high stuff, Zunino needs to clobber these pitches, and he was utterly unable to do so a year ago. It makes some sense, given that the lower the vertical location of a pitch, the more likely it is to turn into a grounder. To be fair, Zunino’s average launch angle on such pitches (11.7 degrees) exceeded the league average (6.8), showing that his uppercut helped him avoid some grounders. But too often, it led to pop-ups and lazy fly balls. How about in 2016? Thus far, Zunino is slugging *1.000* on contact with low pitches, with an even better launch angle of 15.7 (league ave. now = 7.6). Over half of his HRs have come on pitches in this zone, and he’s added some low-ball doubles, too. This, to me, seems like the critical part of the change: Zunino looks for pitches in his zone, and looks to ^$&*ing destroy them. If the ball isn’t in that zone, he may still struggle – he’ll swing through a fastball, get caught in-between on a good change, etc., but that’s true of everyone. What I think Zunino’s done, presumably with the M’s encouragement, is to focus on what he *does* do well, and his uppercut is a great weapon in a league where pitchers are throwing more and more low pitches, trying to take advantage of the new, lower strike zone. To be clear: laying off 2 strike chase pitches is a big part of this. You can’t hit the big 3-2 HR if you strike out on the 2-2 slider. But simply laying off tough pitches is *not* the key part of what Zunino’s doing. Annihilating the ball is the key part. Forget trying to “defend” with 2 strikes, forget trying to “stay alive” or advance the runners – Zunino’s never going to have enough pure bat-to-ball skill to do that. Zunino needs to find pitches he can drive and drive them, and maybe that’s all he needed to hear.**

* There was some work at BP, Fangraphs and BTBS a few years back on an expected K rate, using things like SwStr% as inputs – essentially, what would you expect the K rate of a guy with these peripherals to be? Given the big improvements in those metrics, particularly O-Sw%, you’d have imagined Zunino’s K% would’ve dropped markedly in 2015, and dropped more than the comparatively tiny improvements Zunino made from 2015 to 2016. But that’s not what we see at all, which I think strengthens the case that 1) Zunino was utterly, completely messed up last year, and probably guessing on most every pitch and 2) the most important “fix” is destroying pitches in his zone, and not worrying so much about trying to defend against pitcher’s pitches.

** I was talking about Zunino last night on twitter with two of my favorite baseball internetters, Brendan Gawlowski of BP and Lookout Landing and Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball. While we’re in agreement that the M’s PD group should get a huge amount of praise for these changes, we had a bit of a debate over what caused his slide from 2013 to 2015 – Kyle/Brendan think most/nearly all of his problems can be traced back to the disastrous decision to promote him in 2013 after less than a full year in the minors. To me, that clearly played a role, but something else must’ve played a role in the collapse of 2015 – from K% to ISO to walk rate, everything got much, much worse. I’m not really sure if that’s right, but it’s the kind of season that just cries out for additional explanation – something like that shouldn’t happen to anyone, least not someone with a season and a half of big league experience, but Brendan and Kyle are smarter than me, and may be completely right that it’s all driven by his initial struggles, and the inability to work on them out of the public eye. Anyway, one of the things that Kyle’s always tweeting about is the importance of “intent” for pitchers. That is, working on one’s fitness and mechanics to the point where you’re physically capable of directing 100% of your effort into a pitch (and doing so safely, repeatably, etc.). I keep coming back to that concept when I watch Zunino stalk and smash pitches these days, and think about how that’s essentially the polar opposite of going to the plate focused on a series of things to avoid (“Don’t chase the low-away slider; watch out for the high fastball; 2-2 pitch, maybe look change and react to FB?; he struck you out on Y last time, so protect against that, etc.”).

Game 124, Yankees at Mariners

marc w · August 22, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Cody Martin vs. Michael Pineda, 7:10pm

The trade was so long ago now, but it still feels weird. You want to move on, but the Jesus Montero career arc won’t let you.

So, the Yankees are in town, with a 63-60 record that leaves them with almost no chance of a playoff spot, and a roster in transition. With guys like Carlos Beltran and Andrew Miller traded away, A-Rod retired, and new RF Aaron Judge now installed, the Yankees are in a transition period, and for once they’re not trying to jumpstart the process by bringing in more veteran guys.

If the Yankees were realistically going to challenge for the AL East this year, the key was going to be their starting pitching. In Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, they’d built one of the most fearsome bullpens in history, but with an aging line-up, they needed their starters to hand the ball off to their reliever cerberus with the Yankees close enough for that late-inning dominance to matter. That didn’t quite happen; though their starting pitching FIP is middle-of-the-pack, their ERA ranks 21st. The big culprit has been HRs, as their K-Bb% is 7th best. Masahiro Tanaka’s been solid, and CC Sabathia has fought the demons of aging and attrition to a draw, but the back of the rotation’s been something of a mess.

Michael Pineda was a pivotal player, in that he was supposed to be a strong #2, bridging the gap between Tanaka and the questionable arms like Nate Eovaldi or Ivan Nova and the youngsters like Luis Severino who started the year in the minors. Fully healthy now, Pineda’s velocity is creeping back to the 95 or so he sat at with Seattle all the way back in 2011, and he’s destroying his previous career high in K%. But like so many of his teammates, the batters who have put the ball in play have hit it really hard. Pineda’s given up 21 HRs on the year, along with 41 doubles-and-triples, meaning he’s surrendered an extra-base hit to 10.6% of all batters he’s faced. That’s absurdly high for someone with his skills and K rate.

Pineda statline yields a bunch of these seeming contradictions. His o-swing rate is at a career high, approaching 40%, showing that he’s fooling batters like never before. His overall swinging strike rate is also up. But his BABIP is .334, almost dead on last year’s mark of .332. In his past 300 IP, Pineda has looked like an absolute ace at times, and like a batting practice guy at others. Over that period, he’s got a K-BB% of 20%, well above average – but batters are slugging over .600 every time they’ve put the ball in play off him, way above the league average, which was .547 in 2016 and .523 in 2015.

When he was coming up in Seattle, a worry was that given his FB/SL repertoire, lefties might be able to hit him, but that’s not what’s happened. In pretty much every year, he’s had very even platoon splits, and that’s still true today: lefties are hitting him better in 2016, but then, so are righties. He’s changed his primary fastball from the four-seamer he had with the M’s to a hard cutter. It’s got similar velocity, but has very little horizontal movement. All told, it’s not a pitch with great results – he’s given up some loud contact on the cutter, and it gets fewer whiffs than his old four-seamer did. That said, it’s more of a ground ball pitch, and that can be important for a guy whose HR/FB is spiraling out of control. Still, I just wonder about the cutter-slider combo; if you’re going to essentially use two pitches – and Pineda throws 50+% cutters and *40+%* sliders – then you’re minimizing the gap between your pitches. You’re taking armside run out of the equation. Given Pineda’s injury issues, if the cutter’s any easier for him to throw, then sure, you use it. But absent that, it just seems like the cutter/slider combo means the hitter can quickly rule out certain zones: if the ball looks like it’s on the inside corner, then you just don’t have to worry about it running in and off the plate. If it looks like it’s off the plate away, you can forget about it perhaps running back over the outside corner.

Cody Martin will make his second start tonight for the M’s. The righty’s velocity’s down a bit from 2015, though that makes some sense, given that he was used out of the pen in the first half of last year. The cutter he developed with Oakland’s still a part of his arsenal, but it looks like he agrees with me on the whole cutter/slider combo deal: he ditched the slider in favor of his curve once he started throwing the cutter. He throws the cutter low and away to righties, so it kind of functions as a hard slider, which further differentiates the pitch from his four-seam, which he throws up in the zone, much the way he did in Atlanta at the start of last year.

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

Big news in the minors today, as the California League announced they’d be contracting two teams, the High Desert Mavericks and the Bakersfield Blaze. That’s the M’s last affiliate and their current affiliate. It sounds like the Carolina League will add a couple of teams, one in Fayetteville and one in Kinston. High Desert’s already clinched a playoff berth and Bakersfield’s close, so they’ll go out with some post-season games, at least. It’s looking likely that the M’s may have a team in the Carolina League for the first time in team history.

Nick Neidert highlights the pitchers starting tonight for M’s affiliates. Last night’s games featured an org sweep, 2 players with 2 HRs (Joe DeCarlo and Kristian Brito), and Jake Brentz extending his scoreless streak since joining Clinton to 7 1/3 IP, with 1 1/3 scoreless in relief of Luiz Gohara.

MiLB to Shuffle Affiliates; M’s Counting Cards

Jay Yencich · August 22, 2016 · Filed Under Minor Leagues

Perhaps you’re looking for something to wash the foul taste out of your mouth after last night’s game. Well, there’s only so much I can do other than to point out that, hey, at least we have playoff contention to consider here.

In truth, I’m only by on account of something I noticed coming through the wire last night. You see, it being an even-numbered year, the minor leagues are due to have their affiliation contracts renewed or perhaps exchanged. In light of this, it was noted last night on Today’s Knuckleball, which is a fine baseball site not given its proper due, that the Cal League is set to contract Bakersfield and High Desert. The rationale for why, you can read within the article, but both franchises have long been vexed by various on-field issues. Bakersfield has a poor infield and a bad orientation and had long been rumored as a candidate to move to Salinas or elsewhere. High Desert, home of Battleship Baseball, was built in the anticipation of local growth that never came through, nor did its own potential movement to another city with better infrastructure.

This news is relevant to Mariners fans in that we’ve been affiliated with both teams after the Inland Empire 66ers traded up and got themselves a honey of a deal with the Dodgers. I’ll always have fond memories of High Desert although not likely for the right reasons. In truth, we all know the practical elements of the Mariners having major pitchers skip the Cal League to avoid it and the situation in Bakersfield, preferable if the team moved, was also troubled in its own way for aforementioned circumstances. Hard infield. Old stadium. Westward facing? The sun’s only set in that direction for so long, you guys.

Now, where does this leave the Mariners? Incidentally, they have already been planning ahead. You see, according to reports, they have purchased a 51% stake in the Modesto Nuts. While the consequences in terms of “Deez Nuts” jokes are obvious, this has actually been a match-up I’ve wanted for a long time. The Mariners had never been inclined to buy ownership stakes previously, but Modesto is one of the very few California League ballparks that has conditions similar to Safeco. According to Statcorner, home runs are suppressed at a factor of 44 and 64 for left- and right-handed bats respectively. Overall offense is reduced by an 87 factor. I imagine Modesto is probably more livable than other places too, which is an asset as you want your players to be able to focus on baseball.

The remaining four affiliates are TBD at this point. I don’t imagine that we’re going to leave Tacoma or Everett and we’ve been in Jackson for ten years now, with the team recently having broken their season wins record as a Seattle affiliate, and counting. The system itself leads the minor leagues in winning percentage after being bottom five last year. You shouldn’t extrapolate too much from that, as it doesn’t mean that our system has quite suddenly become an unstoppable jugglenaut of prospect power. On the whole, though, things are looking up. What’s happening sucks for those people who have worked for High Desert and Bakersfield these past many years, but from a player development standpoint, this will definitely benefit us going forward.

Game 123, Brewers at Mariners

marc w · August 21, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Ariel Miranda vs. Matt Garza, 1:10pm

The M’s closed to within a game of the 2nd wild card by beating the hapless Brewers yesterday, and they go for a sweep today behind Ariel Miranda. I mentioned before that Miranda reminds me of ex-Mariner lefty Roenis Elias, but the parallels are adding up. Elias may have more swing and miss in his game (though neither are ever going to be high K pitchers), but they have two of the *least* consistent release points in the game. With the M’s, Elias was famous for having very different release points for righties and lefties, and then he’d alter it more when facing left-handed bats:
elias release2

Miranda doesn’t do that, but his release point varies by nearly *two feet* from pitch to pitch. This probably makes some pitching coaches cringe, but if a pitcher can command it, it’d give each of his pitches a very different look. When the M’s acquired him, I noted that he had really odd movement on his fastball, with the high vertical movement that you might get throwing straight over the top, and the high horizontal movement you’d get throwing low 3/4. I don’t think Miranda’s altering his *vertical* release point all that much, but changing his position on the rubber and changing his horizontal release point might give him different angles on his fastball and may make it tougher to hit.
Here’s Miranda’s release points in his last start – note the smear of pitches stretching from right about 0 all the way to 2′.
miranda release

At least, that’s the theory. It’s too soon to say much, but he hasn’t shown an ability to limit BABIP, walks or hard contact. Given his raw stuff, I’m not sure Miranda will ever be more than a back of the rotation starter (like Elias), but I kind of like that there’s something odd about his game. It’s just kind of strange that the M’s sent Elias away, seemingly as a throw in, and then found someone similar on another team’s scrap heap.

Soooo, Felix. Last night’s game provides the best evidence both that Felix is back to being a top of the rotation starter, and that Felix’s ability to make adjustments is still just about unparalleled. Every time he hits a rough patch, and to be honest, they’re coming more frequently now, he’s able to snap out of it. He’s at an age where it’s not enough to assume it’s regression (although that’s certainly playing a part, too); he’s got to do something differently. In his last few games, he’s actually striking people out – something he wasn’t doing before his injury – and he’s throwing his change a lot more. In addition, the change is moving a bit differently than it did earlier, with a bit less sinker-like run. A good version of Felix makes me much, much more optimistic about this playoff chase.

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

Game 121, Brewers at Mariners

marc w · August 19, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Wade LeBlanc vs. Brent Suter, 7:10pm

The M’s welcome the Milwaukee Brewers to town tonight, as Harvard product Brent Suter will make his big league debut at Safeco Field.

Suter’s a lefty the Brewers drafted in the 31st round. He moved somewhat slowly up the ladder for a few seasons, showing decent command, but not showing he was much more than organizational depth. He flashed some potential in High A, but a poor end to the season left his stat line unimpressive, especially considering the Florida State League’s reputation as a pitcher’s haven. He took a step forward in 2014, holding his own in AA, and limiting hits; an increase in his walk rate was concerning, however. In 2015, he put it all together, combining a very low walk rate with poor contact, and it added up to a sub-2 ERA in 20 games in AA. A promotion to AAA went well, and thus Suter began 2016 in AAA with a growing reputation.

Milwaukee’s AAA affiliate is in Colorado Springs, one of the most notorious hitters’ parks in the minors. While the humidor has taken the edge off the scoring levels, much as it did down the road in Denver, it’s still played at nearly 6,000′ of elevation, and that impacts how the ball travels. So while Suter’s overall ERA doesn’t scream “prospect” the fact that he allowed just 5 HRs in 110 2/3 IP is pretty remarkable. He’s allowed just 14 walks in that span, too, while registering just 75 strikeouts. His command’s played well at altitude, and despite a fairly over the top delivery, he’s shown the ability to get ground balls when he needs to. He’d been sharp in late July and early August, but had a clunker in his last start in the one park that may rival Colorado Springs for offense, Albuquerque. He gave up 2 of his 5 HRs on the year on August 13th, yielding 7 runs in 5 IP.

Overall, the skillset and lanky 6’5″ body reminds me a lot of a young Doug Fister. Fister bumped along in the minors for a while, not looking like a prospect at all (his stats in AA in 2007-08 are atrocious) but something clicked in 2009, and he rode an extreme pitch-to-contact style to the major leagues (it helps that the M’s were awful, kind of like the 2016 Brewers). Fister eventually adjusted and turned himself into an extremely valuable hurler, but Suter’s move from underpowered lefty to pinpoint control craftsman looks kind of familiar.

The Brewers are terrible at the moment, but their future is fairly bright, thanks to a series of trades executed by new GM David Stearns. Stearns turned over a quite a bit of the roster in the offseason, and with the recent Jonathan Lucroy deal, he’s kept it up during the season as well. Fully half of their organizational top 10 prospects were added to the org within the past year or so, from the sell-high deal of Carlos Gomez (man did THAT work out well for them), the Will Smith deal with San Francisco and the Lucroy trade with Texas. Stearns and Jerry Dipoto hooked up for a minor trade this off-season, too, the epic Luis Sardinas for Ramon Flores deal that changed the course of two divis…sorry. Sardinas’ has been DFA’d while Flores slotted in as the Brewers starting RF, putting up a line of .205/.294/.261 in 289 PAs.

As bad as that slash line is, it hints at an approach that the Brewers seem to target: their club walk rate of 10.2% ranks second in baseball behind the Cubs. They rank *first* in strikeout rate; often times the way to get undervalued, high-walk players is by accepting some Ks, hence Chris Carter, Jonathan Villar and Kirk Niewenhuis are all fixtures in the Brewers’ line-up. Also of note: they steal a lot of bases. Their 133 swipes also rank first in the game…by 24 over 2nd place Cincinnati. They’re not a great hitting team, and they’re no great shakes in the field, but by drawing some walks and adding value on the basepaths, they’re not the disaster that, say, the Reds and Braves are.

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

The M’s made a series of roster moves prior to the game, with OF Stefen Romero heading back up to Seattle, replacing struggling 1B Dae-ho Lee. Hmmm. I’ll say this: Romero’s been white-hot in AAA, and has probably earned some kind of shot. Not sure that Lee’s the guy I’d swap out, but Lee told Ryan Divish that his timing had been off, and that it was affecting his confidence.

Steve Cishek’s back, following his rehab stint, with Joe Wieland moving back to Tacoma to accommodate the erstwhile closer.

Game 120, Mariners at Angels

marc w · August 18, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Matt Shoemaker, 7:05pm

It’s a splitter battle in Anaheim as two right-handers with excellent split-fingered fastballs and relatively poor uh, regular fastballs face off. Both are known for great control, an ability to miss bats, and home run problems. Iwakuma’s been the better, more consistent, pitcher over his big league tenure, as he’s tended to suppress BABIP and strand runners, meaning his ERA’s been consistently below his still-pretty-decent- FIP. Shoemaker, on the other hand, has under-pitched his peripherals by a bit, as he’s running a career ERA a bit higher than his FIP. A big part of Shoemaker’s seeming inconsistency has been his troubles away from his home park. On the road, he has a career FIP of 4.42 and ERA of 4.91, compared to home marks of 3.06 and 2.79, respectively. It seems like we’ve been wondering what sort of devil magic the Angels cook up at home, but it’s worked for Shoemaker: not only are is HRs suppressed (and as that’s his biggest weakness, that’s a huge factor), but his K-BB% is much better as well. He’s a pitch to contact control arm on the road, but a high-K, low-HR near-ace in Anaheim.

Also of note is that he’s run reverse platoon splits over the years, and they’re freakishly wide this year. I’m not saying his 2016 are his true talent, but this is not a guy you’d automatically put out your left-handed batting line-up against. It’s odd, because he strikes out more righties, but righties seem better able to capitalize on Shoemaker’s mistakes. Righties have a higher HR rate despite hitting fewer fly balls. I can see why managers might not trust what’s essentially a HR/FB oddity, but there may be more to it: righties are hitting Shoemaker’s third pitch, his slider, fairly hard. Even more similarities with Iwakuma!

I feel like I’ve talked about Shoemaker a lot, going all the way back to his big league debut in 2013. I don’t want to say too much more, because even I get tired of my write-ups on AL West pitchers we see twice a month. So let’s talk about this:
ALW PO Odds 8-18

As you can see, the M’s playoff odds have improved markedly since late July, rising from a low of around 11% to the current ~40% in a matter of a few weeks. That’s good, and the M’s played well in that stretch, but…holy crap, look at the Astros. There own odds have cratered, falling from over *69%* in late July to 8.5%. They’ve shaved over 60 percentage points from their playoff odds in a matter of less than three weeks. That’s kind of astonishing. They had a four-game winning streak a week ago! Part of this is due to the fact that both Seattle and Texas have been incredibly hot, so that even when Houston won, they couldn’t really gain ground. But the bigger factor has been that nearly every loss they’ve had has been to a wild card rival. They’ve dropped 5 of 6 to Toronto in recent weeks, and they got swept by the Tigers.

Overall, Houston’s a decent hitting club, and their pitching hasn’t been too bad, despite a down year from Dallas Keuchel. There’s no big sequencing issue here, as their baseruns record is almost exactly the same as their real one. Last year’s bullpen collapse hasn’t repeated itself, as their club has a very good WPA. Instead, they’re suffering from some sort of weird meta-sequencing. The distribution of runs matches their record, but the distribution of their losses has sunk them. Clearly, no matter how they got to 61-59, they’d be in the same position today. But their season’s been so bizarre, so streaky, that it’s like they were designed to produce huge spikes in playoff odds.

A big part of *that* has been their inability to coax much value from their vaunted prospects like AJ Reed and Alex Bregman. No one could’ve foreseen Carlos Gomez’s collapse, or Dallas Keuchel’s (really) down year, but they were supposed to have depth to cover over whatever holes developed. Instead, when Tyler White faltered, Reed faltered *worse*. After dominating the minors, Bregman’s taking a while to adjust to big league pitching. A year after getting a huge lift from Carlos Correa, the Astros player development machine has given them some good Joe Musgrove starts and not much else.

Meanwhile, the Athletics not only have to deal with having the worst group of position players in MLB by fWAR, but also the festering conflict with erstwhile star and team leader, Coco Crisp. Crisp’s been hurt, and he hasn’t had a season above (or even near) league average since 2013, so it’s pretty natural that the A’s would scale back his playing time in favor of some young hitters. But Crisp’s got an option that vests if he plays in a certain number of games, and given his PT now, it looks like he’ll fall just short. If there’s one team that really needs to avoid paying out a player option for a declining vet, it’s the A’s; to many, this’ll be a vindication of their trade-early, trade-often philosophy – that trading, say, Josh Reddick before he becomes an albatross is the way to go, even if you have to suffer a Josh Donaldson or two. But the A’s can’t *just* be worried about their 2017 payroll. Given Donaldson and Reddick AND a string of poor seasons, their fans may be weary of rooting for a club whose operations make it virtually impossible to have a favorite player. Moreover, they may make it even less likely that free agents will want to sign with them. Won’t their prospects look at Crisp’s comments when they’re presented with contract extensions?

Anyway, here’s tonight’s line-up:
1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Martin, CF
9: O’Malley, SS
SP: Iwakuma

The M’s and A’s AAA farm teams meet up today as well, as Taijuan Walker faces off with the A’s top AAA starter, Daniel Mengden. Mengden made 9 lackluster starts in MLB, but has been really tough to hit in AAA.

Other starters include Andrew Moore going up against Birmingham, Ronald Dominguez facing Quad Cities, and Eddie Campbell pitching against San Jose.

Game 119, Mariners at Angels

marc w · August 17, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Cody Martin vs. Tyler Skaggs, 7:05pm

I suppose the bullpen wasn’t going to be unhittable forever. Gonzaga product Cody Martin could really help them out with a strong start.

We talked about Tyler Skaggs recently, but he’s not looking like a great comeback story as much anymore. He tossed scoreless outings in his first two games back from a very long recovery from TJ surgery, but he was hit pretty hard by the M’s, and then demolished in 5 IP against Cleveland the other day.

He’s still showing better velo than he did before his injury, and he’s still got a big breaking curve that’s been his best pitch. They’re not out of control, but he has some normal platoon splits.

Cody Martin made a few starts for Oakland after starting 2015 in the Braves bullpen. As I mentioned when the M’s acquired him, Oakland changed his repertoire substantially. With Atlanta, he had a four seam fastball, a curve and a slider. In Oakland, they ditched the four seam in favor of a cutter, which took the place of both his fastball and slider. That didn’t go terribly well, so the four seam is back now, but he’s keeping the cutter too. That cutter’s an odd one; batters swing at it a ton, and put it in play a ton, but thanks to its sink, most of that contact is on the ground.

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

Game 118, Mariners at Angels

marc w · August 16, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Ariel Miranda vs. Jhoulys Chacin, 7:05

The Angels have now dropped 11 in a row, a perfect encapsulation of a season – and window – that’s gotten away from them. Their pitching’s collapsed to the point where Ricky Nolasco and Jhoulys Chacin make sense as stopgaps, their erstwhile SP depth in the minors has been shipped to Atlanta and Minnesota, and their payroll crunch gets more difficult each year.

The team has money and the best player in the game signed to a team-friendly deal, so I’m not writing an obituary for their 2018 season, but I can’t think of the last time it was more fun to be an M’s fan than an Angels fan.

Ariel Miranda’s making his second start for the M’s, and while it’s still way too early to say much about his results, but it’s early enough to say that I like the look of his splitter. He’s thrown all of 16 with the M’s, but the movement looks decent compared to his four seam fastball, and it’s essentially the only pitch that seems to mess with hitters’ timing.

Jhoulys Chacin had lost his spot in the Angels rotation, but with trades and injuries, he’s been pressed back into duty. He had a couple of nice starts when he first joined the Angels, including a quality start in Seattle that was his first in an Angels uniform. A disastrous June/early July cost him his spot, and his return to the rotation wasn’t auspicious: he yielded 7 runs in just 1 1/3 IP.

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

Game 117, Mariners at Angels

marc w · August 15, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Felix Hernandez vs. Ricky Nolasco, 7:05pm

A splendid Felix Day to you all!

Tonight, the M’s face off with ex-Twins hurler Ricky Nolasco, traded to Anaheim in something of an odd deadline deal that sent Hector Santiago to Minnesota. We’ve talked a lot on this blog about pitchers that for whatever reason consistently “beat” their fielding-independent stats. Chris Young had a consistently low HR/FB ratio (until this year), and knuckleballers often post very low BABIPs, and some high-K pitchers have the ability to strand more runners. In Nolasco, we’ve got a textbook example of the *opposite* phenomenon – a guy whose FIP makes him look decent, worth extending a 4-year, $49 million deal to, as the Twins did, but has posted just one above-average (2 WAR) season in a fairly lengthy career.

By Fangraphs’ FIP-based WAR, Nolasco’s been worth nearly 23 WAR over his career, which is more than respectable. His career average FIP is 3.86, and paired with decent durability (he’s been hurt a bit more recently), that drives some real value. But his ERA is 4.59, and it’s been well over 5 for his last 300IP over three seasons. That pushes his fielding DEpendent WAR under 10, a bit more in line with what you’d expect from a pitcher who’s allowed so many actual runs. Part of his problem is a stubbornly high BABIP, but Nolasco compounds it by failing to strand runners. Yes, I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth reiterating after the Angels not only took on the end of Nolasco’s deal, but also sent a so-so prospect to the Twins. Sure, sure, they got back injured-but-formerly-highly-regarded Alex Meyer, but fundamentally, the Angels took on salary presumably because they saw this as a decent buy-low guy. By FIP, it’s a decent bargain – it’s a roll of the dice, but you could get a bit of value and not have to burn service time on your actual prospects while your window of contention is closed. But how many innings is enough to confirm to us that Nolasco simply isn’t as good as that perfectly solid FIP?

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

The M’s made a minor trade today, sending UTIL/SS Luis Sardinas to San Diego for a PTBNL or cash considerations. Sardinas was coming off a terrible year at the plate in 2015, and despite a very good spring training, had another awful year at the plate this year. Sardinas just can’t hit – after a .457 OPS last year, he “regressed” to .467 this year.

Most teams run instructional league teams where guys who’ve been hurt or need extra work can play games but without worrying about their stats. The M’s made the somewhat surprising move of not fielding a team this fall - they’re opting to send more guys to the Caribbean winter leagues, but also they want their players to work on things *outside* of game action. It’s easy to see this as a cynical move to save money, but as Andy McKay’s said in that BA article, they want to replicate what they see as the success of that “hitting summit” they held last winter – a workshop on reworking hitting mechanics outside of games. Given their success this season, it’s hard to quibble with that.

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