CoronaVision: M’s at White Sox, 4/16/1992

marc w · March 14, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

On Friday, I watched the Governor’s press conference closing schools in King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties. As a Thurston County resident, we weren’t mentioned, but we all knew it would only be a matter of time. Everything moved quickly, the way the sports world dominoes had fallen the day before. I was set to take my youngest to her first soccer practice of the year, but the league cancelled all practices about 90 minutes before it was set to start. A few hours later, we were notified: schools were closing, effective Monday, until late April. It was an odd end to an unforgettable week, as we went from thinking Covid-19 might not impact our lives very much, to getting used to the idea that sports would take place in empty stadiums, to basically all sports leagues postponing or cancelling their seasons, a grim procession described here by the Ringer’s Michael Baumann. I’m going to be working from home and simultaneously trying to be a teacher.

It’s a daunting task, and one I don’t really feel equipped for. I’ve been trawling twitter and youtube for lesson ideas, particularly in math. Luckily, my twitter feed of nerdy baseball people overlaps with math twitter, and I’ve got some ideas, though admittedly, I’m not sure my best laid plans can survive first contact with frustration, boredom, or elementary-age attention spans. Teachers are trained for this, and I’m…not. A part of me wants to really dive into the surreal nature of our present moment, and get them to journal this stuff – the frustration of missing out on anticipated field trips and just the routine of school. It’s why I’m doing this (don’t worry, I’m gonna get to baseball in a bit). I think there are object lessons in why we teach kids math all around us, and how you evaluate arguments and claims. But I’m also cognizant that they may want a break from all of that, from this unseen enemy that’s taking all of their favorite activities from them, and leaving them with an unprepared pseudo-teacher and his scrawled math problems.

When my oldest was very young, she watched whatever I watched on TV. Not having any idea of the choices on offer, she took interest in what interested me, and baseball was familiar and soothing, as I’d taken her to countless Rainiers games from the time she was a baby. I’d thought that perhaps she’d grow up with baseball as a way to mark time, the way it is for so many fans. If I see an old box score, or scroll to the right baseball-reference page, I often get little memories coming back about thinking so-and-so was going to lift the M’s to glory, or what a calamitous trade had brought us whatshisface, and in the process, memories of what it was like to be the kid thinking those thoughts. Of course, my kid eventually found other, less Dad-ish, forms of entertainment, and she’ll mark time some other way.

But for me, this game brings back a flood of memories:

The M’s open the 1992 season full of promise. They’d just had their very first winning season in 1991, as Ken Griffey Jr. had made the leap from potential star to the undisputed face of baseball, and Edgar Martinez turned in his second consecutive 5 WAR season. The pitching staff was rounding into shape following the franchise-altering Mark Langston trade, and 2nd round pick Erik Hanson had established himself as the ace of the staff in 1990, only to lose much of 1991 to injury. With Hanson back, with Randy Johnson’s ascent in progress, and with what would be the first of many transcendent Edgar seasons ahead, the M’s had to like their chances in 1992. One potential issue was their new manager, Bill Plummer. After contract negotiations broke down, the M’s parted ways with Jim Lefebvre, their most successful manager in their short history. Plummer’d been the third base coach and had been in the M’s system since his playing days, so while it wasn’t exactly encouraging that Lefebvre was gone, they had an inside man to keep things on the right track.

The season started inauspiciously. Opening day saw the M’s blow an 8-3 lead when the M’s bullpen gave up *9* runs in the 8th, capped by a pinch-hit three-run HR by Gino Petralli of the Rangers. Mike Schooler, who’d been lights out in 1990, and battling through injury in 1991, was in the death throes of his career, but no one knew it yet. The M’s would go on to start 0-4, but they were trying to turn things around: they’d swept the Royals in 3, and headed to Chicago to take on the Sox. In the first game, they lost 1-0, but shut out Chicago in game 2 behind 7 2/3 scoreless from their out-of-nowhere rookie, Dave Fleming. This is the rubber game of the series, with the Sox coming at at 5-3 and the M’s at 4-5.

Back in Tacoma, the spring of 1992 was an exciting time. I’d just received something I wanted desperately, but thought I’d never actually get. Metallica’s “Wherever We May Roam” tour was winding its way across the globe, having spent the latter part of summer 1991 in Europe and then the winter in the US. They played in Hartford as this game was going on, then took a break to fly to London for the Freddie Mercury tribute concert – Mercury died of AIDS-related illness in late 1991. But they’d be back to play Seattle in May, and I’d just received a ticket and permission to go with my friend. Not only my first big concert, but my first big concert on my own, without parents. It wasn’t exactly a window into adulthood, but it was a vision of what teenage freedom could be, when the amps were cranked loud enough. My parents told me to be worried of crowd behavior, but the crowd was remarkably civil. The night of the show, my friend and I filed in to Seattle Center towards the Coliseum, while a very different crowd went to the Seattle Opera House.

Back on the south side, things had gotten off to an inauspicious start. The M’s new manager had somehow filed a line-up card that had not one but two first basemen. Both Pete O’Brien and Tino Martinez were listed at 1B, meaning that the M’s had to make one a DH *and* then lose the DH for the rest of the game. Pete O’Brien became the DH, popped out with the bases loaded and no one out, and then was lifted for pinch-hitters the rest of the game, as the M’s had to make an unplanned bullpen day. This is the same Pete O’Brien who started the famous Brian Holman game at DH back in April of 1990. With Holman carrying a perfect game late, the M’s somewhat inexplicably moved O’Brien to 1B for defensive purposes, replacing Alvin Davis. They’d lose the DH, but that wasn’t really the point. Unfortunately, the M’s had a long inning in the 9th, and Alvin Davis’ spot in the order came up again. Brian Holman, three outs from immortality, had to grab a bat. He slapped a grounder to 2B that Tacoma Tigers legend Mike Gallego misplayed, so Holman had to run the bases. The M’s scored 4 runs in the inning, but Holman was taken out of his routine and plunked into a warm-up jacket. In the bottom of the inning, the A’s pinch hit for Gallego with ex-Mariner Ken Phelps.

The M’s line-up was:
1: Harold Reynolds
2: Edgar Martinez
3: Ken Griffey Jr.
4: Kevin Mitchell
5: Pete O’Brien
6: Tino Martinez
7: Jay Buhner
8: Dave Valle
9: Rich Amaral

That’s an impressive line-up, even if Amaral was still a year away from his break-out/only good season. The M’s would finish 4th in batting WAR, per Fangraphs, but they couldn’t overcome a disastrous pitching staff – one which led the league in walks by a mile thanks to Johnson, Schooler, and young righty Jeff Nelson. We think of the late ’90s as the height of the steroid era, but the early ’90s show why chemical enhancement proved so attractive: the M’s were one of only four teams with a SLG% above .400, and the league as a whole slugged .377, easily lower than the nadir of our recent little batting ice age in 2014, when the league slugged .386. And because both base hits and were less prevalent in 2014, the league’s ISO was lower still back in 1992. HRs were rare, even for Griffey, who’d soon begin a historic HR tear, but set a then-career high in HRs in 1992 with just 27.

In the second inning, the Sox broadcast discusses Bill Swift, who’d earned his third win for San Francisco that day. Swift was the centerpiece of the trade that netted the M’s Kevin Mitchell, the 1989 NL MVP. After hitting 47 HRs for San Francisco, his dinger production dropped a bit as the league must’ve changed the baseball following the spike of 1987. Mitchell would spend one injury-plagued and largely ineffective season in Seattle, while Swift followed an encouraging 1992 with a brilliant 1993 that saw him finish 2nd in Cy Young voting.

The White Sox and M’s each scored in the first. The M’s starter Rich DeLucia, a righty, had a sinker, curve, slider, and change, and threw from a whippy, low-3/4 arm angle. He didn’t throw particularly hard, though, while the Sox Alex Fernandez was something of a fireballer for the time. In the second, the Sox push across another 2 runs on a double from Ozzie Guillen (who’d see his season end in about a week) and a sac fly/error on a bad throw by Griffey. They’d add to it in the third on a two-run HR by George/Jorge Bell, the 1987 AL MVP with Toronto.

The top of the fourth saw Pete O’Brien’s spot in the line-up come up again, and thus it was DeLucia’s time to hit. The M’s pinch hit with Dave Cochrane, who doubled to right, but was stranded there. Jim Acker would take over on the mound for Seattle after that – a guy I must confess I’d forgotten completely. 1992 was the end of his career, a career that began back in 1983 with Toronto. He’d walk 12 and K 11 in 30+ innings for the M’s in 1992.

The M’s close the gap to 5-2 in the 6th on a solo shot by Tino Martinez, but Fernandez managed to go 7 IP yielding only the two runs. Acker kept the Sox scoreless through 2 1/3, and with the pitcher’s spot coming up, was lifted for the lefty Dennis Powell in the 7th. Powell wasn’t exactly a LOOGY, though guys like Jesse Orosco were already bringing that concept to the league. He struggled mightily for the M’s from 1987-1990, and then was sent down to AA by Milwaukee, who picked him up after the M’s let him go. Coming back to the M’s in 1991 on a minor league deal, he worked as a starter for the M’s AAA affiliate in Calgary, but didn’t get back to the big leagues until 1992. Still, pause a while and reflect that Plummer brought in Powell, a lefty with large career platoon splits, to face lefty Ozzie Guillen, but also Tim Raines, a switch-hitting star. It worked out, but it’s not shocking to me that Plummer would not manage again in the big leagues.

In the 8th, the White Sox go to young righty reliever Scott Radinsky, who’d later pitch (well) with the Dodgers. Radinsky was great when healthy, but lost a lot of time to injury. That gave him some time to devote to his other occupation: punk singer. His bands Pulley and Ten Foot Pole got a lot of attention, with both releasing music on up and coming label Epitaph (soon to be a giant label thanks to Rancid, NOFX, and the Offspring, then pivoting to post-hardcore and emo). Take a listen here.

With one out in the 9th, the Sox turn the ball over to their closer, Bobby Thigpen. Thigpen set the all-time single-season record for saves in 1990, a record that would stand until 2008 (and would be equalled in 2018 by the M’s Edwin Diaz). But after that breakout year that got him Cy Young and MVP votes, he was only above-average in 1991. And as we saw in this game, things’d get worse in 1992. With one out, he’d give up hits to Dave Valle and Greg “Pee-Wee” Briley. After getting the second out on a Harold Reynolds on a fielders choice, Edgar doubled. Thigpen then intentionally walked Ken Griffey Jr., leaving the game up to Kevin Mitchell with Edgar on 3B (after a WP). Mitchell got a center-cut fastball and smashed it to 3B, but right at gold glover Robin Ventura, who threw to 2B to end the game. In the first, Mitchell struck out with the bases loaded and nobody out, then grounded out with the tying run on 3B.

1992 turned out to be one of the low-key depressing years for the M’s, with the promise of their young rotation spoiled by too many walks and the ominous decline of Hanson. The bullpen was a mess, as Schooler would be sent packing at the end of the year. So too would Plummer, replaced by the fiery former Yankee player and manager, Lou Piniella. Edgar would be lost for most of 1993, but a huge trade involving Hanson would get the M’s Bret Boone, Dan Wilson, and new closer Norm Charlton. Griffey would hit 45 HRs, sparking a HR revolution in the game. He’d lead the league in 1994, but the strike wiped out much of the second half of the season, and reduced the length of 1995, an M’s season you may have heard about. It was the last time before right now that we’d be without regular season baseball for any long stretch of time.

Remainder of Spring Training Cancelled; Opening Day Delayed 2 Weeks

marc w · March 12, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Due to the Covid-19 outbreak – and then the suspension of the rest of the NBA season – MLB has postponed Opening Day by at least two weeks and cancelled the rest of Spring Training. Following some cancellations of spring sports in the NBA, the NCAA announced today that there would be no championships held for spring sports, meaning the College World Series is off (which makes sense given how few teams may have wanted to compete for it).

Minor League Baseball, an operation that relies so much on gate revenue from opening day, is also postponing its season. I would imagine we’d see MLB and MiLB trying to align their moves going forward, and I’d imagine that cancelling the entirety of the 2020 campaign is on the table given the spread of the virus.

With news that NBA players Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell have tested positive, the NBA now has the task of tracking down who all they may have come into contact with. One such person may be Mitchell’s father, who works for the New York Mets. With reports continuing to come in about people who’ve tested positive, it’s almost certain that at least a few MLB players already have it, or at the very least, will get it soon.

In a time of unease and crisis, we used to come together around sports. I’m not really sure what can fill that void right now, but I will say I’m going to enjoy watching March Madness, empty arenas and all. For years, people told us sabermetrically-inclined bloggers to get our heads out of a spreadsheet and watch a damn game. We always loved watching games; the critique was always wrong from the start. But just remembering those arguments feels surreal now. We’d ALL love to watch a damn game, and then some of us would like to glean what we could from data produced in that game. I really don’t know what we’ll do for a while. Any suggestions are welcome.

Weird Cactus League: M’s vs. Padres

marc w · March 11, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Dinelson Lamet, 6:40pm

Today we learned that the M’s won’t be making their season-opening homestand. They’ll be somewhere else, maybe in Arizona. It’s like an extended version of the Cactus League, I guess? But the games count? It’s going to be seriously weird, but hopefully it might play some small role in getting Covid-19 transmission under control in King County.

Shed Long summed it how everyone’s feeling in a two-word tweet: This sucks.

It’s so strange to focus on baseball right now, and stranger to focus on spring training. It’s done what it needed to do, which is to supply some optimism to a fanbase that needs it. Justus Sheffield’s looked great, Kyle Lewis has hit bombs, Jarred Kelenic did well, and Logan Gilbert was sharp the other day. The team’ll be bad this year, but the Cactus League isn’t about that: it’s about giving fans a glimpse of what a good M’s team might look like. I’m still somewhat skeptical that the M’s can keep up with their rivals, who, let’s remember, have prospects of their own to dream on, and whose big league roster is a little less, uh, bad. But that’s for another day, when we can go to a game and have a beer and argue about Sheffield’s new sinker, or Kyle Lewis’ strike rate, or JP Crawford’s ceiling.

1: Long, 2B
2: White, 1B
3: Vogelbach, DH
4: Lewis, RF
5: Marmolejos, LF
6: Nola, C
7: Crawford, SS
8: Smith, CF
9: Lopes, 3B
SP: Marco Gonzales

Corona Virus Prompts Cancellation of M’s Home Games

marc w · March 11, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

This morning, Governor Jay Inslee, along with the County Executives in King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties, issued an executive order banning public gatherings of more than 250 people through the end of March. That means the M’s home opener and the series vs. Texas and Minnesota will not be happening at T-Mobile Park. The M’s and MLB are scrambling to find another venue for the games, as it seems to be the strong preference of both parties that the games happen elsewhere. In recent days, many players, including members of the Rangers, expressed concerns over travelling to Seattle, so just playing the game in an empty stadium may not have been enough.

I’d expect that we’ll see similar actions taken throughout the rest of the league, probably beginning with the California teams. The NCAA tournament is now set to go on with only family members present in the stands, and as colleges tell students to stay off campus after spring break, many spring sports are also imperiled; the Ivy League cancelled all spring sports, including baseball, today. UW’s baseball program will restrict access to home games to “Essential personnel” only.

It’s a tough year to be an M’s fan, and it’s going to get tougher. I hope MLB considers relaxing its blackout rules to allow more Washington/Northwest residents the ability to watch the M’s – wherever they’re playing – through That said, this is obviously bigger than baseball, and flattening the curve on the spread of Covid-19 is more important than gathering to watch Evan White and Justus Sheffield. The Sounders will have their home games cancelled/moved as well, and things like concerts and conferences may be cancelled (I had Bikini Kill tickets for Monday, but they’re wisely skipping the Northwest). Be good to people, wash your hands, take the recommendations seriously. Go Mariners and all of that. As sports fans, we always dream of an unforgettable season. Whatever happens on the field, and wherever those fields are, we’re never going to forget the 2020 season.

Cactus League Nights: Mariners at Brewers – The Spin Zone

marc w · March 9, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Corbin Burnes, 7:05pm

After an evening game against the Dodgers, the M’s have a true night game against the Milwaukee Brewers, who’ve been to the playoffs in consecutive years. In many ways, the Brewers are the model the M’s look to for their shortened rebuild. The Brewers had been adrift for several years after a brilliant 2011 run ended in the NLCS. After a couple of years of pretty-good and hanging around .500, they cleaned house in the FO, and had two down years in 2015 and 2016. But the stars aligned in 2017 thanks to an out-of-nowhere pitching staff, headlined by Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, and Jimmy Nelson. Their bullpen had a great closer, and the intriguing set-up man Josh Hader made his debut. KPB import Eric Thames got a lot of attention, but the team was led by that great staff. So, before 2018, they saw their contention window open, and they went for it. In came not only CF Lorenzo Cain, but also Christian Yelich thanks to a trade with the Marlins that now looks like one of the bigger heists in MLB history. Their pitching staff hasn’t recreated the magic that carried them in 2017, but of course it no longer needs to. At this point, it’s their line-up that’s one of the best in the National League, and they enter 2020 with Yelich under a brand new contract extension. They’re one of the better teams – and better stories – in recent years, and I think the M’s are particularly drawn to that out of nowhere rotation, a rotation that didn’t boast big strikeout guys or blistering velocities.

Of course, the M’s have to show that they can actually develop pitchers into effective MLB weapons. It’s all well and good to *say* that pitchers can be effective without big time heaters, but it’s another thing to show that you can coach such arms to sustained big league success. The M’s need to get their staff – projected to be among the game’s worst – to much, much higher levels of performance. With a big shake-up in the big league coaching staff, that’s a possibility, but it’ll take some work.

We got an early example of some of that work the other day, when Justus Sheffield had a great game against the Giants (admittedly, not exactly Murderer’s Row) with his brand new fastball: a sinker. This is a good sign, and something I advocated he try when he came back from his minor league re-set last year. With his freakishly low spin rates AND low spin efficiency, his fastball simply isn’t designed to be a swing and miss pitch. With more arm-side run and more natural sink, he could settle in as a ground ball guy who gets poor contact. I’d be worried – I *am* worried – about platoon splits with that approach, but his slider has been surprisingly effective against righties, which ameliorates those concerns.

Sheffield’s low spin rates highlights my issue with that metric. Sure, Sheffield’s spin rates are terrible. Tonight’s opposing starter, Corbin Burnes had absolutely elite spin rates on his four-seam fastball, which led him to be tabbed as a breakout candidate for the Brewers last year. Burnes has been able to produce very good strikeout totals thanks in part to his high-spin fastball. But it didn’t make him *effective.* He gave up 52 runs in 49 IP last season, and was demoted first to the bullpen and then to the minors. Chris Stratton’s elite spin rate couldn’t save him from being DFA’d. It’s not the spin or movement are immaterial – it’s just that the metric of raw spin rate flattens or ignores context.

One consequence of the race for spin has been the near-abandoning of the sinker. Is it a worry that Sheffield’s going to a pitch everyone’s telling their pitchers to stop throwing? No, not really. At some level, if teams are moving away from a pitch/approach, meaning that batters see more and more of a similar attack pattern, the bigger the impact of teaching that ignored pitch could be. If the league suddenly moves one way, it can sometimes be advantageous to go the other. We saw that last year with the Cincinnati Reds. Among qualified pitchers, only 22 had cumulative (positive) run values with sinkers above 2 runs. Julio Teheran and Mike Soroka led the way with Atlanta, but four of the top 20 played for the Reds: Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, Trevor Bauer, and Anthony DeSclafini. The Reds have been awful in the pitching department for years, but a big change at pitching coach followed by this season’s overhaul of coaching and development (including hiring Driveline founder and friend of the blog Kyle Boddy) has already paid off, and make them one of the most intriguing teams in 2020…along with their rivals in the Central, Milwaukee.

To be fair: the Reds pitchers’ sinkers don’t look a lot like Sheffield’s. Gray in particular throws a particularly high spin variety, and they work more on armside run – in using that spin to generate non-“rise” movement. A low spin sinker will sink, but that may not be enough. By spin, Sheffield’s sinker may look a lot like Texas’ Ariel Jurado’s. So far at least, you do not want a sinker like Ariel Jurado’s. If Sheff can get some improved efficiency or a good combo with his slider, the low spin won’t be too much of a problem, but I think the change-up will be a big pitch for him going forward. They can pair really well with sinkers, as the aforementioned Luis Castillo shows.

This’ll be a great showcase for Taijuan Walker, too. After glowing reports about his work in a “B” game, it’ll be nice to see him on TV and facing a real line-up.

1: Long, 2B
2: White, DH
3: Vogelbach, 1B
4: Lewis, RF
5: Marmolejos, LF
6: Crawford, SS
7: Nola, C
8: Lopes, 3B
9: Smith, CF
SP: Walker

Cactus League Rolls On: Mariners at Dodgers + Evan White’s Opportunity

marc w · March 6, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Nick Margevicius vs. Ross Stripling, 5:05pm

The M’s play an evening game tonight over in Glendale against a pretty-much-full-strength Dodgers line-up. Nick Margevicius makes his initial spring start, as he gets set to (presumably) start the year in Tacoma’s rotation. The ex-Padre throws a four-seam fastball at 88-89 with almost no horizontal movement and above-average “rise.” So is Margevicius a big spin-rate guy, or perhaps a spin efficiency expert? Nah, not really. He’s got below-average overall spin and low spin efficiency. I think he adds just enough cut/gyro spin to lower his efficiency, and imitate the movement of a high-efficiency fastball thrown from a more over-the-top angle. That *sounds* interesting, but it hasn’t quite worked out. Batters slugged in the mid .500s against his fastball last year, and, even worse, they slugged .577 against his primary breaking ball, a slider.

All told, his pitches are somewhat similar to Yusei Kikuchi’s. Kikuchi throws harder (and maybe even harder now), but they both throw the same four pitches in roughly similar percentages, and with similar efficiency. Maybe it’s coincidence, but both of them struggled in their first taste of MLB last year.

The Dodgers counter with Ross Stripling, the swing man who was, briefly, traded to the Angels this off-season, before that component of the trade got called off. Stripling is now 30, having risen slowly through the Dodger ranks, and then, despite a lot of MLB success, struggling to get regular turns in what may be the game’s best rotation. Like Margevicius, he throws an arrow-straight, rising four-seamer with poor spin efficiency. Like Margevicius, batters have done a bit better off of it than he’d like, but with that same four-pitch mix, Stripling has been able to get good results. Part of this is command. Stripling’s always shown plus control, but he’s able to sneak a lot more strikeouts than you’d think given his so-so raw stuff. He can throw his breaking/offspeed stuff for strikes, but he can also get ground ball contact with it. All of his pitches, except for the rising fastball, get grounders, and the slider in particular is more of a weak-contact pitch than a swing-and-miss pitch. That’s enabled him to post above-average ground ball rates. He’s far from overpowering, but I’m pretty glad the Angels didn’t end up with him.

Evan White starts tonight’s game at 1B, and that should be a familiar sight this year. White isn’t expected to carry the offense or anything, but again, a solid season from White at the plate would go a long way towards demonstrating that the M’s player development group is on the right track. A swing change in 2018 seemed to unlock some power after a disappointingly weak first few months in the power-friendly California League. His surface numbers last year, which he spent in AA Arkansas, would appear to show an underpowered-for-a-1B stroke, but they mask the park effects that held down his ISO. As a result, projections are all over the map for White, with ZiPS forecasting a dire .227/.275/.376. Steamer is comparatively bullish, at .253/.310/.424. But just as PECOTA was off-the-scale negative with its projection of Justus Sheffield, its projection for White is unrecognizable compared to the others. It has White slated for a .268/.316/.477. That slugging percentage slots him in right between Khris Davis and Ryan Braun, and ahead of last year’s break-out star, Marcus Semien. It looks like they’re forecasting a completely different player than ZiPS.

Part of the issue is that PECOTA’s using park-specific factors, where many others use *league* adjustments for raw slash lines. Part of it is how you treat older stats; how much credence you give to his full-season SLG% in 2018 will have a big impact on his major league projection, for example. But let’s be clear: this is a massive range of potential outcomes, and thus a massive range of grades we can assign the M’s player development group for White’s introduction to being a big league regular. If White ends the year with a SLG% that’s ahead of Texas’ Nick Solak, for example, that’d be a great sign that White’s swing can function effectively in the big leagues, and also that he’s making enough contact/getting enough base hits for a solid-average ISO to get his SLG% into the .480 range. But even more importantly, I’d love to see his OBP come in at the high line of these projections. He’s not demonstrated a high walk rate in the minors, and his K% was slightly elevated in AA, so there’s a chance here that the OBP could come in pretty low, rendering even a good SLG% unplayable. If he’s able to keep his K% in the very low 20s, and out of the upper 20s, he could get his OBP up near .330, and have a shot at coming close to, say, Ramon Laureano’s level.

Another test for White is coming close to the overall production of a group of relatively cheap stop-gap 1Bs around the like – guys on one-year deals, like Eric Thames or CJ Cron. I’d put Jose Aguilar and even Ji-Man Choi in this group. In general, the group has a better OBP projection than White, though of course with a decent year, White could catch them. But White’s the best athlete in this group by a mile, and thus he’ll have an advantage in baserunning and, of course, fielding/defense.

Today’s line-up:
1: Fraley, LF
2: White, 1B
3: Vogelbach, DH
4: Lewis, RF
5: Nola, C
6: Crawford, SS
7: Kelenic, CF
8: Gordon, 2B
9: Moore, 3B
SP: Margevicius

The M’s have Marco Gonzales going in a B game on a back field, and Sam Tuivailala will get some work in there as well. Expected to see time behind Margevicius are Erik Swanson and Joey Gerber.

Cactus League: M’s v. Padres, and JP Crawford vs. Willy Adames

marc w · March 5, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Dinelson Lamet, 12:10pm – Live radio at

It’s derby day in Peoria, as the two resident teams sharing a complex face off. Yusei Kikuchi looks to build on a very strong spring, while the Padres Dinelson Lamet gets to face a…uh…limited Mariners line-up. The Padres righty was great in limited duty last season, as he was coming back from TJ surgery that held him out all of 2018. When healthy, he’s tough thanks to a fastball that averages 96 MPH and one of the better sliders from a starting pitcher. Lamet got whiffs on *half* of the swings against that slider last year. It’s his primary pitch, which he throws nearly half the time, and it got induced more swings than either of his fastballs (a four-seam and a rather poorly differentiated sinker). He also works in a rare change-up; it’s rare enough that I wouldn’t mention it except for the fact that it averages 91-93 MPH, making me think of prime-era Felix’s deadly, firm, change. Lamet has struck out just over 30% of the batters he’s faced in the big leagues, and over 33% last year. The Padres had a slightly below average rotation last year, but healthy campaigns from Lamet and Chris Paddack would make them a good bet to improve on that in 2020. Pitching could really be a strength for the club with a bullpen headed by Kirby Yates that now also boasts ex-Mariner Emilio Pagan. That’d be nice, as their offense could scuffle, as they need CF Trent Grisham to hit in his first full MLB season, they need a bounce-back from Eric Hosmer at 1B, and need to hope Franchy Cordero and friends can provide *anything* from the RF position.

But I don’t want to talk about a Cactus League game featuring very few M’s starters. Instead, I want to continue the series that began with the last post about Justus Sheffield. Today, I’d like to focus on M’s SS JP Crawford. It’s not Crawford’s fault that he’s become a starting SS right when the position is as talented and deep as I’ve ever seen it. Crawford could be a perfectly good MLB-quality shortstop and still be the worst in the division, and one of the worst in the league. He was better than Elvis Andrus in 2019, but that was about it. The problem is essentially all in his bat, where he’s been a remarkably streaky hitter in his short time in the bigs between Philadelphia and Seattle. At times, he’s shown solid-enough pop, and at times he’s shown above-average bat-to-ball ability, but it’s been harder to align those two. Looking at his Statcast metrics for 2019, he deserved every bit of his poor slash line. His average exit velocity was 84 MPH, one of the lower figures in the league. Worse, his hardest-hit balls had a fairly low angle – he hit some line drives quite hard, but comparatively few fly balls at 95 MPH or better. He hit the ball a bit like the Twins’ Luis Arraez, but Arraez struck out in less than 8% of of his PAs, a far cry from Crawford’s 21%. If he hits the ball with Arraez-level authority, he needs Arraez-level contact. If he strikes out anywhere near 21-23%, as he’s projected to do, he’s got to hit the ball a lot harder. What kind of hitter does Crawford want to be?

He answered that rhetorical question by bulking up in the off-season and coming to camp with more strength. That’s good, because if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past few years, it’s just how mutable a batter’s quality of contact can be. One of the few hitters who hit the ball softer than Crawford in 2019 was Ketel Marte. Er, the version of Ketel Marte that played for the Mariners. That changed markedly in Arizona, and Marte averaged about 90 MPH on the balls he put in play last year, up from 88.5 MPH in 2018. Another guy who dramatically altered his exit velocity is the Twins’ other surprising middle IF, Jorge Polanco. As recently as 2018, Polanco’s average exit velo was 83.9 MPH, just *below* Crawford’s 2019. But last year, Polanco saw that figure rise to 87 – not great, but much better than 84. And more importantly, when he hit the ball really hard (over 95 MPH), he elevated it – he averaged 18 degrees on hard-hit balls, up from 9.5 in 2018, and well above Crawford’s 7 degrees last year. Tim Anderson of the White Sox is another similar story, improving his exit velocity from sub-Crawford to well-above-Crawford last year.

Crawford can change his batted-ball authority and loft fairly easily. Hell, he’s done it before. In 2018, he showed more pop and more loft on hard-hit balls in his shortened year with the Phillies. Unfortunately, it came at a cost of a career-worst K%, though of course it’s hard to take much from anything in his 2018 given his paucity of plate appearances. Adding some contact to improved strength would be huge for the M’s, who don’t really have another starting-caliber-SS in the system until you get to Noelvi Marte, who played in the DSL last year. Crawford can add value with his defense and discerning eye at the plate, but if the M’s rebuild is doing what it’s supposed to, Crawford will be a lot more than that. If Crawford’s going to be something more like a middle-of-the-league SS and not rank somewhere in the 20-25th best SS in the league, he’ll need to raise his ISO and/or lower his K%.

No one’s expecting him to produce in the Lindor/Correa/Semien tier, but if he’s slumming it with Andrus and Jose Iglesias, then the M’s have a problem. So who’s projected to be in the same general neighborhood as Crawford? I’d suggest the Rays’ Willy Adames. Adames is a few months younger than Crawford, and really is just keeping the SS seat warm until #1 prospect-in-baseball Wander Franco’s ready. He hit 20 bombs last year, but his ISO isn’t really that different from Crawford’s. He strikes out more often than the M’s SS, too, so he’s not an up-and-coming uberprospect, but a perfectly fine SS with near-average batting lines and a-bit-above-average defense. They have similar career OBPs, but they’ve come by them differently. Crawford uses his eye to run elite walk rates. Adames hits the ball harder (he is in many ways a more similar hitter to Shed Long) and has produced high BABIPs. Neither guy is a world-beater, not at a position that now features 21-year-olds like Fernando Tatis, Jr. and Bo Bichette, pushing the graybeards like Carlos Correa (25) and Gleyber Torres (23). But if Crawford makes some strides, he could pass Adames and become a real middle tier SS, allowing Seattle not to worry about the SS position for a few years and dedicating their FA spending elsewhere. If he doesn’t, though, the M’s may be in a bind. A team doesn’t need a big-hitting SS to win, but the M’s are behind their rivals all over the diamond. If the rebuild is going to work, they need to close those holes with players currently on the team. Crawford’s talented enough to be a part of the solution, but he’s going to have to improve fairly dramatically at the plate to do so.

Crawford’s projection aren’t as all-over-the-map as Sheffield’s. ZiPS and PECOTA see Crawford bobbing along his 2019 level of batting, improving his 2019 wRC+ of 86 only to 87 (ZiPS) or doing more of the same at 86 (PECOTA). Steamer’s relatively optimistic, at 91. That’s in line with where they see Adames, with Steamer again the optimist at 99, and PECOTA/ZiPS coming in around 90. It’s close, but Adames has the slight edge in past performance and projection. It wouldn’t be a big shock to see Crawford beat Adames here, but if the M’s are going to do anything in 2021, he really needs to.

Cactus League Game vs. Colorado, and a Test of the M’s Rebuild: Sheffield vs. Urquidy

marc w · March 2, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Justus Sheffield vs. Jon Gray, 12:10pm

So, the M’s have another Cactus League game today, as enigmatic Rockies erstwhile ace Jon Gray faces off with Justus Sheffield and the M’s. Gray’s an intriguing story in his own right, but that’s not what I’d like to talk about today. Instead, I’d like to offer up Sheffield as a key test of the success or progress of the M’s step-back/rebuild.

As it’s become clear that the M’s aren’t going to compete in 2020, we need some other metric to gauge the progress of the M’s rebuild. We can’t use wins and losses in the near term, so we’re going to need proxies of some sort. A popular choice has been to focus on farm system rankings, and the M’s rise from #26-28 or so a few years ago to #8-12 or so now. After last year, wishing on Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic became a passion project for many who just wanted to the 2019 season to stop. But as I’ve talked about, in order for Kelenic/Rodriguez to push the M’s into contention, the rest of the roster has to be good enough to make that a realistic possibility. Thus, in a year like this one where neither OF uberprospect will start with the M’s, we need to focus on the progress of the youngsters the M’s are counting on *now*.

We could do this with just about anyone, from JP Crawford to Shed Long to Evan White to Justin Dunn, but 1) Justus Sheffield starts today, and thus I’m making a random early-march Cactus League game topical, and 2) I’d argue Sheffield is more important to the M’s in 2021-2023 than just about any Mariner. Right now, the M’s have young players around the diamond with the possible exception of 3B. Not a ton is expected of them, but that’s arguably OK; it’s conceivable that the likes of Crawford/Long/White can give them league average or better production in a few years. What’s harder to see, at least from looking at the projections, is where a MLB-quality starting rotation will come from. Marco Gonzales, sure. And Logan Gilbert is the best prospect of the bunch, but in order to be where they want to be, they need Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn to make a big leap and take hold of those starting pitcher slots. Sheffield’s got more MLB experience and was the more bally-hooed prospect, so I’d argue he’s the most likely to settle in as a long-term middle-of-the-rotation starter.

So how does that help us evaluate the rebuild? A decent test of the rebuild will be if Justus Sheffield turns in a better season than the Astros’ Jose Urquidy. It’s not fair to ask Sheffield to be better than, say, Justin Verlander or something. It’s also not fair to compare him to a player who has no realistic path to 20 starts or 120 IP or so. Urquidy is likely the Astros #4 starter, and while he had no prospect pedigree before last year, enters 2020 on the back end of Top 100 prospect lists. He’d previously been a command/control guy, but started racking up strikeouts and made his way to some key postseason starts in Houston in 2019. He had a better first go-round in MLB, but neither of them is a finished product, and both pitched only about 40 IP last year in the majors.

While Urquidy is a righty, he and Sheffield have nearly identical fastball velocities: both sit at 93+ with their four-seamers. Sheffield’s lower arm angle and freakishly low spin means his 93 bowling ball produces lower launch angles and many more ground balls. Urquidy throws his fastball higher, and while it’s not some spin-rate or spin-efficiency marvel, it has normal rise. The combination of those things means Urquidy’s FB is an extreme fly-ball pitch. Both throw sliders with comparable break off the fastball, but Sheffield’s angle means his sinks a bit more overall. But here, Sheffield allows more elevated contact, while Urquidy’s is neutral. Both throw developing change-ups, too. Urquidy has a curve that he uses even more than his slider, so he’s got a true four-pitch mix, while Sheffield only has 3 – but you can argue that Sheffield’s slider is the only out-pitch either hurler throws.

It’s easy to see why Sheffield could walk away with this: Urquidy’s flyballing ways could lead to serious HR troubles, a potential hinted at by ZiPS and other projections that show him with a FIP/ERA in the high-4s, thanks to HR rates in the 1.6 range or so (which is very high, even in the modern game). Sheffield’s GB% can help him avoid the long ball, and thus pitch around his much, much higher walk rate. From there, he just needs to be steady, and ZiPS and Steamer have him with a similar projection of a high-4s FIP. Likewise, it’s easy to see why you might favor Urquidy. Sheffield’s walk rates give him less of a margin for error, and Urquidy’s already shown he can run sub-4 FIP/ERAs, albeit over a small sample. In a game where even good pitchers give up tons of HRs, Sheffield’s walk rate makes each HR he allows much more damaging. Urquidy comes out ahead slightly by Fangraphs’s projections, but they’re in the same ballpark.

BaseballProspectus’ PECOTA projections offer a worst-case scenario for M’s fans. In this system, Urquidy’s slightly better than ZiPS/Steamer see him: he’s an above average starter with a DRA/FIP/ERA closer to 4. Meanwhile, Sheffield is a below-average arm, undone by walks AND HRs, with a DRA closer to 6 than 5. It’s a system that was down on Sheffield last year, so while it’s not a shock that it’s not impressed with his skillset, it IS shocking to see the magnitude of the divergence from ZiPS/Steamer/etc. It’s fair to say that if anything like what PECOTA sees comes true, the rebuild will be in a very bad place. If Sheffield’s replacement-level, then the forecasted improvement due to age and experience won’t have materialized, and the M’s pitching staff will likely be worse than Fangraphs’ poor projections thought. The M’s would need to regroup in 2021, and wouldn’t be close to contention.

If Sheffield outpitches Urquidy, though, then it’d be a big sign that the player development overhaul is bearing fruit not just in prospect rankings, but in MLB production. It would beat the projections, and beat the Astros at their own development game. That needs to start happening at a team and organization-wide level, but it’d be great to see it in this microcosm of that org-level battle. Either Sheffield would trim his walks and become something more like a true #3, or maybe Urquidy would hit a wall and have his HR tendencies exploited to the point where he wasn’t really viable anymore. That would seem far-fetched, but then, last year wasn’t great for the Astros’ pitching development, Urquidy aside. Josh James looked ready to become a dominant force with his high-90s velo, but struggled even as a middle reliever. Forrest Whitley suffered through another lost year in the minors, and the team traded away other prospects like JB Bukauskas. Logan Gilbert leapfrogging Whitley would’ve seemed ludicrous last year; it’s not at all ludicrous now. But if the M’s are going to take advantage, they need Sheffield to make some big strides of his own, and I think the Urquidy comparison is an interesting one for both teams.

Today’s line-up:
1: Long, 2B
2: White, 1B
3: Seager, 3B
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: Lewis, LF
6: Gonzalez, RF
7: Fraley, CF
8: Murphy, C
9: Gordon, SS
SP: Sheffield

White’s back after a minor groin strain kept him out a day or two. Sounds like the M’s won’t start Taijuan Walker in the main Cactus League game on Wednesday, but will have him go in a B game on a back field. In more depressing injury news, RP Matt Festa was diagnosed with a ligament tear, and will undergo Tommy John surgery.

Cactus League Game 8 – Royals at Mariners

marc w · February 29, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Stephen Woods 12:10pm

After yesterday’s performance by Yusei Kikuchi, it’s a bit easier to feel optimistic. He sat at 96 with his fastball, and those readings come from statcast, not a wonky radar gun. Of course, he teased at this last year, too – sitting 94 and touching 96-97 early in the year before losing a tick or two as the summer wound on. But it’s safe to say his average is up this year, and he’s also picked up speed on his slider, which is now a cutter-y 90-91. That should flatten out the movement on it, but then, Kikuchi’s slider never really had much to begin with. It could be a very effective pitch at higher velos, because it’s not slurv-y at all. Kikuchi’s problem was never stuff – it’s always been about consistency, and that’s not something we can see he’s fixed in a single spring start (or even in an entire spring). But if we’re going to look for encouraging signs, Kikuchi’s start yesterday would certainly qualify.

It’d be great for Marco Gonzales to follow Kikuchi’s sterling start with one of his own. He gets to face a Royals line-up that isn’t going to terrify anyone, as this great Patrick Dubuque piece (hilariously) details. This game’s on TV, so if you’d like to tune in and actually see what Gonzales’ approach might be, it’ll be on Root Sports. The Royals are forecasted to be essentially equal to the M’s, or perhaps even a game up (thanks to a weaker division), but how we think about the two clubs is quite different. This is the power of a great farm system, or, more cynically, this is the result of a year-plus all-out PR campaign to hype up the M’s prospects. Right now, both clubs look like cellar-dwellers, but the M’s are a *hopeful* kind of celler dweller, while the Royal sub-species has a number of young players, just young players from whom much less is expected. The Royals figure to be a lot worse than the M’s in 3-4 years, but this is the kind of thinking that’s gotten the M’s in trouble in the past.

The Royals starter, Stephen Woods Jr., was an 8th round pick of the SF Giants out of a SUNY campus back in 2016. He had a solid season in the NWL with Salem-Keizer, and then a good campaign in the Sally League that enabled him to be a part of the return for Evan Longoria. He missed all of 2018, but came back to have a solid half-year for Charlotte, the Rays affiliate in the Florida State League. But at 24 and with a decent injury history and having just hit high-A, the Rays waived him. The pitching-starved Royals picked him up in December, and he’ll likely get some high-minors seasoning this year. Not a lot of info out there, but the one thing that jumps off the page with the guy is the fact that he hasn’t given up many HRs at all. He’s given up 6 in over 230 career innings, and last year held batters to a slugging percentage under .300. That’s the FSL, though, perhaps the most pitcher-friendly circuit in affiliated ball. We’ll see how he deals with this line-up:

1: Long, Jr. DH
2: Crawford, SS
3: Seager, 3B
4: Vogelbach, 1B
5: Murphy, C
6: Gonzalez, RF
7: Kelenic, CF
8: Gordon, 2B
9: Siri, LF
SP: Marcoooooo

Yoshihisa Hirano, Taylor Guilbeau, and others should get an inning today. For those wondering about 5th-starter-contender Taijuan Walker, he’s been brought along slowly, doing simulated games and the like, but it sounds like he could make a Cactus League start on Wednesday.

Cactus League Games 5-6: Mariner Mitosis

marc w · February 27, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Logan Gilbert vs Tyler Beede (SF) 12:10 and
Ljay Newsome vs. Ross Detwiler (CHA) 12:05pm

The M’s split up and take on the Giants and White Sox today in what looks like an interesting pitching prospect day. Ljay Newsome was something of a breakout star last year, rising from org depth to put himself on the map by striking out a ton of Cal League batters. His time at M’s gas camp gave him several more ticks on what had been an underpowered fastball, and he used his pinpoint control to run amazing K:BB ratios for most of the summer. His AA stint was a bit of a struggle, which helps account for the fact that the M’s didn’t protect in the Rule 5 draft, but he comes into 2020 on the radar. This isn’t his first big league camp, as he won a spot a year ago thanks to leading the org in controlling the zone, but it’s his first time as an actual quasi-prospect. He’ll go up against well-traveled arm Ross Detwiler, who pitched in exactly one game for the Mariners in 2018.

Logan Gilbert’s own breakout requires fewer modifiers. He was a first-round pick who put up gaudy K numbers in college. He was supposed to move fast after being assigned to West Virginia, and he…moved really fast, overwhelming the Sally League and then the Cal League, becoming one of the minors top young arms. He could very easily see himself in a Mariners uniform this summer if he can repeat what he did in AA for another few months. A 165:33 K:BB ratio exceeded the wildest dreams of most fans, and presumably the team as well. As such, it should be fun to see how he does against a line-up sprinkled with MLB vets. He’ll be opposed by Tyler Beede, like Gilbert a first-round pick who became a top prospect in 2014-2015. But unlike Gilbert, Beede kept running into problems on his ascent. His first taste of AA went poorly, and his first TWO attempts at AAA were worse. Predictably, he wasn’t sharp in his initial foray into MLB – a couple of games in 2018 – but he managed to top 100 innings with the Giants last year, and will get plenty of opportunities this year with a rebuilding/go-nowhere club.

I’ve already made a fastball comp to Justus Sheffield, but Beede’s 94 MPH heater has some of Sheffield’s sink, and a similar release point. The real problem, though, is that Beede doesn’t have an outpitch breaking ball like Sheffield. Beede/Sheffield have had nearly identical results off the fastball, but Beede mixes a curve, cutter, and a rare slider to little effect. The curve’s probably the best of the bunch, but he doesn’t lean on it the way Sheffield leans on his slider. Maybe he should?

Line-up vs. SF:
1: Long, 2B
2: Crawford, SS
3: Seager, 3B
4: Carlos Gonzalez, DH
5: Murphy, C
6: Kelenic, RF
7: J. Marmolejos, 1B
8: Bishop, CF
9: Siri, LF
SP: Gilbert

Line-up vs. CHA:
1: Fraley, LF
2: Smith, CF
3: Lewis, RF
4: Vogelbach, 1B
5: Wisdom, 3B
6: Lopes, 2B
7: Raleigh, C
8: Cowgill, DH
9: Walton, SS
SP: Newsome

Good to see another start for Jarred Kelenic, and one for catching prospect Cal Raleigh.

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