Game 52, Mariners at Rangers

marc w · May 22, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Jesse Chavez/Adrian Sampson, 11:10am

The M’s are now firmly in last place in the AL West, and their opening day starter is reeling, having given up 17 runs in 16 2/3 IP this month. After an odd but impressive April, the wheels have come off of both the Mariners and Marco Gonzales, and it’s imperative that both figure out how to re-attach wheels immediately. Marco’s bizarre velocity drop has ceased, as his May velos are up slightly from April. However, they remain lower than his *lowest* month of 2018, and the longer term trend here is troubling. Gonzales sat at 92 after the trade, and was within a fraction of that in May of 2018. Since then, it’s been a fairly steady drop through 2018 and into 2019. That makes the cessation of the drop worth celebrating, but if 89 is the new normal, then he’s going to figure out how to adjust the way he attacks hitters, and the M’s should probably be thinking about how an important starter lost 3 MPH in just over a year.

The M’s face old friend and Bellevue College alum Adrian Sampson today. Jesse Chavez will act as the opener before Sampson takes over to take the bulk of the innings. That’s the plan, at least; Sampson’s had some rough outings in the early going. I was going to call him a poor man’s Tommy Milone, but that’s probably not fair to either pitcher. Sampson ends up in a somewhat similar place as Milone, but he gets there rather differently. Milone throws a really slow four-seam fastball with tons of rise and pairs it with a change-up. This approach generates a lot of fly-ball contact, which is nice if the ball stays in play, and dangerous if it keeps flying into the seats. Sampson throws much harder – he’s at 93 with his four-seam fastball – but has much less vertical rise than average. His outpitch, if you can call it that, is a slider that he throws to righties and lefties. The slider is fairly middle of the road, and to his credit, Sampson doesn’t have the splits issues you might think (he actually has substantial reverse splits, though in only 69 IP in his career). But the issue is ultimately the same as it is for Milone: Sampson generates a ton of fly balls. In 2019. In Texas. Worse, he gets fewer strikeouts. If the ball stays in play, this sort of works for a 5th starter, but he’s now given up 15 HRs in 69 career IP. By FIP he looks ~ replacement level, and by DRA he’s pretty clearly below it. But by good old ERA, he hasn’t been a total disaster, which is why he’s already tossed 41 IP for these Rangers.

1: Haniger, RF
2: Vogelbach, DH
3: Encarnacion, 1B
4: Narvaez, C
5: Bruce, LF
6: Crawford, SS
7: Moore, 3B
8: Long, 2B
9: Smith, CF
SP: Gonzales

Congrats to Shed Long on his first MLB hit last night.

Erik Swanson struggled a bit in his return to AAA, going 3 IP and giving up 3 R with 2 BB, 2 Ks and 1 HR. That said, the R’s won comfortably 12-3 by beating up on ex-UW Husky Austin Voth and generating 19 hits in the game. Ian Miller went 4-5 with 5 RBIs from the 9 spot, bringing his seasonal line to .302/.352/.523. Justus Sheffield takes the mound for Tacoma today as they host Fresno.

Arkansas was rained out, so they’ll play two today. Ricardo Sanchez starts game 1, not sure who’ll start game 2.

Modesto was off last night, but they play San Jose tonight. Their ace, Ljay Newsome, gets the start, so good luck with that, San Jose.

West Virginia lost 10-7 to Greensboro last night, as Damon Casetta-Stubbs struggled. The youngster from Vancouver didn’t give up a run in his first 12+ IP this year, but is in a skid in which he’s given up 22 runs in his last 15 1/3 IP, with 34 hits allowed in that span. Jarred Kelenic homered for the Power, and his seasonal line stands at .299/.385/.515. They’ll play Greensboro again today with Steven Moyers taking the hill.

Game 51, Mariners at Rangers

marc w · May 21, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Tommy Milone vs. Lance Lynn, 5:05pm

Are you ready for the Tommy Milone era of Mariners baseball? The M’s made a flurry of transactions today, including sending Dee Gordon and Ryon Healy to the IL, optioning Parker Markel to AAA and selecting the contract of Tommy Milone. Milone signed a minor league deal this year, and has pitched pretty well in the inflated offense of the PCL thus far. And with 130 big league starts under his belt, the M’s probably feel he’s a known commodity after the rude introductions suffered by Erik Swanson and Justus Sheffield (to say nothing of Markel).

He also fits right in. Milone’s a righty with a fastball that averaged 87 last year, and he’s worked in that range his entire career. Early on, he was fairly effective for the A’s, pitching to about a league-average rate thanks to low walks. The low offensive environment helped, as Milone’s, uh, leisurely fastball has tons of rise, making it very easy for batters to elevate. His career GB% is 38%, so his game is about producing outs in the air and sneaking strikeouts when he can. Milone in 2012-Oakland is just about the best environment for that skillset. I have no idea where that skillset will work in juiced-ball 2019.

Earlier on in the year, the M’s had a somewhat deceptive ERA – a decent enough ERA and then a lousy FIP/DRA. Now, though, every single indicator is bad. Their ERA is 5.21, and that doesn’t count their league-leading unearned runs. They’ve given up 21 more runs than *Baltimore*, and have given up over 50 more base hits than second-worst Texas. I have no idea what to do with the bullpen, which has been an utter disaster (they lead the league in walks, and have allowed 3X more HRs than Houston’s pen).

The team is on the verge of becoming unwatchable, and for some of you, they may already have fallen below that threshold. What’s frustrating is…well, everything, but just how comprehensively players collapse upon promotion. Markel’s a great example. He throws a really weird ball at 96, and has a slider that has completely puzzled minor league hitters. I completely understand that the level of competition he’s facing in the majors is much better, and that “it’s a game of adjustments” and all, but Markel is *doing something* or being told to do something that’s absolutely killing his effectiveness. I simply don’t believe that you can take someone *that* dominant in AA/AAA and have them pitch as poorly as Markel did in his… 3 2/3 IP. Sure, it’s a tiny sample. They all are. But looking at a per-PA or even per-pitch measure, he looked unrecognizable. Markel throws a four-seam fastball with a higher-than-average release point but over two standard deviations less vertical rise. That’s an oddity, and it *should* be effective at that kind of velocity. Maybe his command was atrocious, but I’m still baffled as to how this can happen, even in a sample of less than 50 batters.

Lance Lynn is a throwback. He throws a fastball (usually four-seam, but also some sinkers) nearly 70% of the time, in a league that’s down to ~58% or so. He’s also got a hard cutter, so you can argue that it’s more like 80-85% fastballs. The M’s are a good fastball-hitting team, but as they know, they have to be just to keep their club in it.

1: Haniger, CF
2: Santana, LF
3: Vogelbach, DH
4: Encarnacion, 1B
5: Narvaez, C
6: Bruce, RF
7: Beckham, 3B
8: Crawford, SS
9: Long, 2B
SP: Milone

As you can see, Long’s back, too, taking Gordon’s spot at 2B as Gordon eventually DID hit the IL with that wrist contusion.

Erik Swanson makes his first start in AAA since his demotion tonight, as Tacoma faces Fresno away from the charnel house that was Reno. Ray Kerr takes the hill for Modesto, and Ricardo Sanchez starts for Arkansas.

Game 50, Mariners at Rangers – Like Looking In A Mirror

marc w · May 20, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Mike Minor, 5:05pm

After struggling against a fairly complete Twins team, the M’s now visit their southern doppelgangers, the Texas Rangers.
The Rangers’ offense puts up runs, scoring 5.77 runs per game, but they’re let down by a shaky pitching staff. The M’s, too, can score, but their pitching staff has yielded even more runs than the Rangers’ group. On the year, the M’s give up 2/3 of a run for every inning they pitch, while the Rangers are at 0.625 runs per inning. Both marks are, scientifically, not-close-to-good-enough, but credit to the Rangers for managing a positive run differential with that kind of headwind.

At a high level, the two clubs’ offenses look quite similar. They both work the count and can take a walk, and both feature tons of power. Both clubs have been led thus far by a large adult son that’s faced some skepticism about his eventual utility to a club, and both are getting some solid seasons out of supposedly declining veterans. That’s helped balance down years from some younger players. Scratch the surface a bit, and there are of course some important differences. Joey Gallo doesn’t really play like Daniel Vogelbach, even if their overall offensive value is similar. No, Gallo’s not a brilliant defender, but he plays out there, while the M’s – even while suffering through their worst defensive season in memory – won’t let Vogelbach touch a mitt. Both clubs have regulars that have absolutely crashed, as the M’s Mallex Smith has counterparts in the Rangers’ Jeff Mathis and Rougned Odor, but it’s still defense that threatens to separate these two clubs.

The M’s have, by some measures, outhit the Rangers. But the Rangers position players remain more valuable thanks to the M’s crippling defensive woes. BP gives the M’s a slight lead in rest-of-season deserved run average, but I’m not sure that will produce the gap in runs-allowed thanks to that defense. Still and all, it’s nice and schadenfreude-y to see the way some really good prospects like Odor and Nomar Mazara have stagnated, or to see Martin Perez break out the second he left. It’s not just us!

That said, the Rangers may have helped Mike Minor. After a solid bounce-back campaign in 2018, Minor’s broken out a bit with a career-high K% (as a starter). He’s throwing fractionally harder, but if he’s done anything, it’s trusted in his change. A lefty, Minor typically faces line-ups stocked with right-handed bats. He’s been OK at dealing with them, thanks to a deep arsenal of a straight four-seam, a slider, and then a curve to go along with a change-up with tons of armside run. In the past, and especially as a reliever in Kansas City, Minor used his slider to righties quite a bit – about twice as often as he went to that change. As a starter, he threw more change-ups, but it was close, and used more breaking balls in total than his offspeed. This worked decently well, to be fair; it was his four-seam that righties hit harder. But it seems that sometimes, a change in pitch mix can have an impact on pitches that weren’t involved in the swap. This year, he’s throwing a lot more change-ups, and righties haven’t hit it at all. Even his fastball’s having better luck. Sure, the breaking balls are now getting hit more, but the overall impact has been a positive one. If the production on sliders is just small-sample nothingness, then Minor can survive even if batters warm to his fastball in mid-summer.

Mike Leake remains Mike Leake. I mentioned that he’s barely hanging on as his velocity dips and batters rip line drives whenever he misses a spot, but he really battled against the A’s and I maintain that it can be compelling watching. He’s not going to be great, and he and Marco Gonzales are going to battle all year to see who gives up the most total base hits in the AL, but he’s about as dependable as declining pitchers get.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Haniger, RF
3: Encarnacion, DH
4: Santana, LF
5: Healy, 1B
6: Beckham, 3B
7: Crawford, SS
8: Murphy, C
9: Smith, CF
SP: Leake

Mallex Smith was hitting .255/.339/.392 coming into the game against Houston on April 13th. Since that time, he’s hitting .098/.179/.164 in 19 MLB games. I will never understand how a player like Smith – or Shed Long – can be in a tailspin like this, and then hit the seams off the ball in AAA *immediately* upon being demoted. Unfortunately, that time in AAA hasn’t helped in Smith’s return. You feel bad for the guy.

In better news, Logan Gilbert got the #1 ranking in this week’s prospect hot sheet at Baseball America, listing top prospects who are coming off of dominant weeks.

Ryne Inman starts for West Virginia tonight, with Justin Dunn taking the mound in Arkansas. Modesto’s off, and Tacoma probably wishes they’d not played the final game in the Reno series. Spot-starter Anthony Misiewicz came up from AA, and he and a parade of relievers had…a really bad time in Reno’s 25-8 win. Tacoma just couldn’t get off the field on third downs, and Reno’s offensive line proved too much for the front seven. For the second time this year, Tacoma used a teenage reliever who was making his high-minors debut, and this time didn’t go as well. Christian Pedrol, an 18-year old Brazilian, worked 1 1/3 IP and gave up 6 runs on 4 dingers. A rough welcome to the PCL, but hey, Misiewicz had a nearly identical line in 1 2/3, with 6 R on 3 dingers. Christian Bergman and Tyler Danish were equally ineffective. Catcher David Sheaffer finished it up with 2/3 IP of scoreless ball. Shed Long went 3-5, but that damnable Kevin Cron had his second 2-HR game in the series, and Yasmany Tomas managed to hit *4* HRs in the contest. Tomas finished 5-6 with 8 RBIs. The PCL plus the new juiced baseball…it’s quite something.

Mariners, Braves Swap Expiring Contracts in Trade That Barely Involves Baseball

marc w · May 20, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

The Mariners traded their one-time closer, Anthony Swarzak, for the Braves’ one-time closer, Arodys Vizcaino today. So far, so normal for a trade involving the M’s – there’s a bullpen arm, there’s targeting players in their final year of arb or contract. But this trade isn’t like most of the others in that Arodys Vizcaino will never play for the Mariners.

Vizcaino had a solid season last year, with 16 saves and a low ERA thanks to a lot of strikeouts and the resultant high strand rate. But it was cut short when Vizcaino’s shoulder began troubling him, and after a couple of games this season, that shoulder issue was back and worse than ever. Thus, Vizcaino’s final year of arbitration ended very early when he went under the knife for shoulder surgery. He’s on the 60-day DL, and he’ll remain there for the rest of the season.

Swarzak dealt with injuries last year, too, and skipped the M’s early start, making his first appearance in early April, in the team’s 8th game. He was sharp early, but has had trouble putting hitters away. That issue became a critical flaw on May 7th, when he threw an awful 0-2 pitch to the Yankees’ Gio Urshela, who hit it out to CF for a 3-run HR and a Yankee win. It was his second consecutive loss, both on HRs, and that was essentially that for Swarzak’s tenure as a high-leverage reliever. His next appearance came early in a disastrous Erik Swanson start, an eventual 14-1 loss. Owed $8M this year (he was acquired to match salaries in the Robinson Cano deal), the M’s could’ve just DFA’d him. But by throwing a bit of money at the Braves to essentially match numbers with Vizcaino’s dead money, the Braves threw in Jesse Biddle, the lefty they’d DFA’d back on May 15th.

So, one way to look at this is that the M’s *paid money* to acquire an injured player who’ll never pitch for them and a DFA’d LOOGY. The other is…no, there’s not really too many ways to slice and dice this. The Mariners like Biddle, who wasn’t bad last year, and throws 95 with a couple of breaking balls. But in general, you don’t have to give up much for DFA’d players, especially DFA’d players whose clock was running out. The M’s response may be that they were about to DFA Swarzak, so the money’s sunk anyway. They’ll still pay a roster spot they aren’t using, but technically speaking, they’ll pay about $1.6M less than they would’ve if they’d just let Swarzak go. That’s because they’re splitting the money with Atlanta, with both teams spending $6.4 M (Vizcaino’s owed $4.8M this year. Add $1.6 M to that, or take $1.6 M from Swarzak’s $8 M, and you’ve got parity).

This is fine in theory, but the optics stink. Beyond the optics, the whole idea here is that they are the club to unlock Biddle’s potential – he’s been undone by control problems – but yet they’re also the team that had to cut bait on Swarzak, a guy with some MLB success on his resume. That they had an opening at LOOGY in the first place is the result of their failure to help Zac Rosscup overcome his own control issues. How is this supposed to work?

It’s hard to say. It’s also hard to care. The M’s aren’t trying this year, and with this accountant-style trade of non-useful parts (it’s tempting to call this a write-down rather than a trade), they’ll do so by continuing to cycle through low-leverage relievers. With their bullpen in ruin, it’s tempting to go with someone else – anyone else. But I think we’d all like to see growth/development in the pen, even if it comes too late to help in 2019. The continual cycling makes that goal nearly impossible to achieve.

Game 48, Twins at Mariners

marc w · May 18, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Wade LeBlanc vs Jose Berrios, 7:10pm

Just as this series taught us that Erik Swanson wasn’t quite ready for regular rotation duty, so it reminded us that Marco Gonzales is *always* on a knife’s edge. When his command is great, he can confuse and confound hitters. But if something isn’t quite right, he’s throwing 89 MPH fastballs without pinpoint command, which…which is hard. To his credit, his command is good enough that he can get by most games. But yesterday reminds us that most is not the same as all.

If anyone knows that struggle, it’s Wade LeBlanc. LeBlanc’s velo is among the lowest in the game, and while he has an excellent change, he’s got to contrast it with fastballs. And now he’s got to do so while working his way back from injury.

Tonight, the Mariners face the Twins young ace-in-waiting Jose Berrios. Berrios hasn’t been the most consistent, but he has an interesting, hard curve that can be a true outpitch. It’s half-slider, half-curve, and it seems made for viral gifs on twitter.

Interestingly, it seems to be losing its mojo a bit this year. His fastballs are picking up the slack, especially to righties. But it’s righties are pummeling his odd hybrid breaking ball. Can the M’s righties take advantage?

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Haniger, RF
3: Vogelbach, DH
4: Encarnacion, 1B
5: Narvaez, C
6: Healy, 3B
7: Bruce, LF
8: Crawford, SS
9: Smith, CF
SP: Wade. LeBlanc.

Game 47, Twins at Mariners

marc w · May 17, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Martin Perez, 7:10pm

You know, I’m starting to think Erik Swanson may not be the answer right now. After another disastrous start in which he gave up 4 HRs to the admittedly-powerful Twins, Swanson’s ERA is over 8 and his FIP is creeping up near 7. That’s not going to play. I’m not sure if the M’s are going to wait until Wade LeBlanc comes back, which could be quite soon, or swap out his turn in the rotation with either Justus Sheffield (who pitches today, so that’s less likely) or Ricardo Sanchez (who pitched last night, same as Swanson). Swanson’s an interesting arm, but he needs to make adjustments, and may need more AAA seasoning. This is one of the odd cases where the PCL using the same juiced ball as MLB can be helpful; it’d be less useful for his particular struggles if he could get away allowing fly balls in the spacious, somewhat pitcher-friendly confines of Cheney Stadium. With the juiced ball, no matter where he is, he’s going to need to learn to avoid elevated/well-struck contact. Fittingly, he’s been optioned back to Tacoma tonight.

One of the great things about baseball is the way the most unlikely players can make some adjustment and get good. Both BP and Fangraphs had articles this week about Tommy LaStella, the utility guy with the Cubs who’s turned into a power-hitting force with the Angels this year. Justin Turner is a classic example. Jason Vargas had that out-of-nowhere run in the first half of 2017, though he hadn’t been out-and-out bad before then. Brandon McCarthy years ago is another good example, and tonight’s starter Marco Gonzales is trying to turn into another. But for me, there are few such examples more perplexing than what Martin Perez is doing this year.

A prospect darling as a teenager, he made the Rangers in 2012 and had been in Texas ever since, reliably disappointing those who saw him as an uber-prospect. The reasons were pretty simple: he didn’t miss bats and he walked too many. He put a lot of runners on, and in part due to the lack of an outpitch, couldn’t strand them, meaning his ERA was generally worse than his meh FIP. And it wasn’t growing pains, either – not after seven years. Here’s a table of his K% and K%-BB% by year. It’s consistent, and consistently bad:

Year K% K-BB%
2012 14.1 5.7
2013 15.9 8.9
2014 16.9 7.7
2015 14.2 7.1
2016 12.1 3.2
2017 14.2 6.4
2018 13.1 4

So the M’s are gonna win, right? Well, here’s his numbers THIS year:

Year K% K-BB%
2019 24.0 14.6

I don’t get it. Perez signed a one-year, $3.5M deal with Minnesota and started the year in the bullpen. It went poorly, as he gave up 8 runs in 8 1/3 IP, but the Twins faced some injuries, and Perez had tons of starting experience, and…well, he’s pitched 38 IP as a starter, gone 4-1 with a 2.13 ERA and struck out 34 and walked only 9. He walked 9 in his 8 1/3 IP as a reliever! Who is this person, and why is he wearing Martin Perez’s jersey?

There are a couple of ways in which Perez looks different from his Texas days, but I wouldn’t expect either of them – or the combination of them – to be THIS effective. First, he’s throwing harder. He’s been around 95 this year, after several years between 92-94. It’s better, it’s an improvement, but he sucked when he threw 93-94, so going to 94-95 doesn’t seem that transformational. Second, he’s now throwing a cutter, a pitch he’s not used before, as his primary pitch, and sprinking in the sinker and four-seamer that used to be his bread and butter (he’d throw his two fastballs 60% of the time or more with Texas). That sounds like a big deal, but the new cutter is not wholly different from his old slider. It’s slightly faster than the fastest iteration of his slider, but then, so are his fastballs. It’s got a bit of gloveside cut and decent sink compared to his fastball, but that description works for his old slider (or at least one version of it). Whatever happened here, it’s been very effective, as Perez blanked Houston over 8 IP three starts ago, then blanked the Jays in Toronto over 7 IP the next. I have no idea what witchcraft produced this, but I don’t like it. I demand Perez go back to being boringly mediocre, or, failing that, that the M’s force him to divulge his secrets. If this is just small-sample-nothingness, then let the regression begin tonight, and let it begin loudly.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Haniger, RF
3: Encarnacion, DH
4: Santana, LF
5: Healy, 1B
6: Beckham, 3B
7: Crawford, SS
8: Murphy, C
9: Smith, CF
SP: Gonzales

The Nick Rumbelow experiment is officially over, as the M’s DFA’d the righty reliever today. With that roster spot, the M’s signed old friend Andrew Moore, who they’d previously traded to Tampa, and who was recently waived by the Giants. In addition, the M’s DFA’d Zac Rosscup, who had persistent difficulties finding the strike zone, but induced a lot of strikeouts when he did. To take their place, the M’s have brought back RP Matt Festa and Ryan Garton. Garton was another reliever who came over in a trade with Tampa, and as I noted when the M’s picked up Rumbelow, Garton’s pitches moved eerily similarly to Rumbelow’s. The M’s were able to keep Garton after DFA’ing him in October of 2017 after a 13-game trial in Seattle. Andrew Moore never got going in the Rays system, and has suffered through an utterly disastrous 2019; the M’s are sending him to AA to see if they can help him find the form he had in 2016-17.

Ljay Newsome is getting bored in the Cal League. The righty went 6 shutout IP last night, yielding 3 H, 1 BB and striking out 9. The Nuts lost it 1-0 to a walk-off HR in the 9th, but maaaan. Newsome needs a new challenge.

The aforementioned Ricardo Sanchez had his third straight rough start in a loss to Tulsa, but he’s a lefty, on the 40-man, and has looked solid at times this year. The winning pitcher in last night’s game was ex-Tacoma Rainier Justin De Fratus, and Tulsa continues the theme tonight, as ex-Rainier Logan Bawcom will make his first start of the year for the Drillers.

Tacoma destroyed Reno 14-5 despite two HRs by the Aces’ Kevin Cron, the brother of Minnesota’s CJ Cron. The Cron boys did a lot of damage against the M’s/their affiliates last night. Thankfully, Cron couldn’t keep up with a Tacoma line-up that bashed 23 hits including 3 HRs. Shed Long and Braden Bishop continue to be as unstoppable at AAA as they were…stoppable in limited MLB action. Justus Sheffield gets the start tonight.

Game 46, Twins at Mariners

marc w · May 16, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Erik Swanson vs. Michael Pineda, 7:10pm

The Twins come to town with a 4 1/2 game lead in the AL Central and the 2nd-best record in the American League. Powered by a deep, potent offense, they’re scoring over 5.2 runs per game and trail the M’s and Astros for the lead in HRs by just 7. And while the M’s have hit more total dingers, they’ve done so in 168 more plate appearances.

But they’re also getting a lot more out of their pitching staff than anyone expected. Jake Odorizzi was an intriguing acquisition last year, but he face-planted a bit as the Twins fell back after the successes of 2017. He’s taken a big step forward this year, though, leading the team in WAR thanks to a much-improved strand rate. That’s the case with Jose Berrios as well, as his ERA is now well below his FIP for the first time as runners are stranded on base. Part of that is their excellent team defense, but another part has been the growth and development in their bullpen. Their overall numbers don’t reflect it thanks to some sketchy work put in by the up-and-down guys, but the core of the bullpen – Taylor Rogers, Trevor May and, inexplicably, ex-M’s org-depth-guy Ryne Harper – have been excellent.

Michael Pineda’s one of a few reclamation projects the Twins have, and the one I’d have bet on working out. But thus far, Pineda’s struggled with the juiced ball and a slower fastball than he’s used to. Instead, ex-Rangers lefty Martin Perez has been the cream of the scrap-heap-crop, but you’ve got to think that Pineda can figure something out if he stays healthy. He’s still a fastball-slider pitcher, and his fastball – while it no longer sits at 95 – still has the same almost cutter-ish movement without a lot of rise. But as always when you think of Pineda, you think of his slider, the one Dave Niehaus famously called “diabolical.” The problem this year, after another long injury layoff, is that his slider is refusing to slide. It’s never been big in terms of horizontal movement, but it would get to the glove side. This year, it’s staying glove side. If his fastball had tons of horizontal/arm-side run, maybe that could work. But with a straight fastball, a straight slider pairs…less well, and batters are hitting better off of his slider this year than his fastball.

Going back to his first season, many of us worried that he’d show platoon splits given his slider-happy ways and so-so change-up. That hasn’t happened; he’s done just as well against lefties in his career. Instead, the decline in effectiveness in his slider has led righties to fare a lot better recently. This isn’t a guy they really need a lefty-line-up for, and with Haniger/Encarnacion, I guess they can’t, really.

Back with the team is CF Mallex Smith, who couldn’t hit at all in the month before his demotion, but could not STOP hitting in AAA. That’ll help, as Braden Bishop looked a touch overmatched in his first taste of MLB. So too did Shed Long, who was optioned back to make room for Smith. Long went 0-9 in 11 PAs, and it’ll be good for him to get regular time again in Tacoma.

Erik Swanson needs a good outing against someone other than the Indians, and I’m not sure this is the line-up that’ll allow that to happen. That said, old friend Nelson Cruz isn’t in the line-up as he works his way back from a wrist injury he picked up on Sunday. He’s not on the IL, so we may see him this series, but I’m sure Swanson won’t mind facing CJ Cron at the DH spot instead tonight.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Haniger, RF
3: Encarnacion, 1B
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: Santana, LF
6: Narvaez, C
7: Healy, 3B
8: Crawford, SS
9: Smith, CF
SP: Swanson

Game 45, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · May 14, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Brett Anderson, 7:10pm

The M’s look to build on an exciting comeback win last night and get a mini-sweep of this two-game set with the A’s. Yusei Kikuchi was solid, but gave up 3 solo HRs, and his relievers yielded 2 more solo shots. The M’s were quiet after Mitch Haniger’s leadoff dinger, but tied the game late on a 3-run shot to CF by Daniel Vogelbach. It does not appear that the ball is any less bouncy in May as it was in April, which is frankly not great news for M’s hurlers, but it may help an offense that’s been stuck for a few weeks.

With all of the talk about the seemingly inexorable rise in strikeouts and average velocity in the league, tonight’s game offers a rare glimpse of an old-school clash between pitch-to-contact guys without big fastballs. The national attention will be on Chris Paddack-vs-Clayton Kershaw or Charlie Morton-vs-Caleb Smith, but we get a different kind of drama: two guys desperately trying to hang on. Graph Mike Leake’s average fastball velocity over time and you get just a simple downward slope. If anything, he’s accelerating, and his average sinker is now under 88 MPH. Only Kyle Hendricks has a slower average fastball among qualified pitchers (at least until Wade LeBlanc comes back). Worse, he’s not getting ground balls anymore, as his GB% has gone from 53.7% in 2016 and 2017 to 48.7% last year and all the way down to 44.4% this year. BrooksBaseball thinks he throwing a four-seamer more, but it’s close enough to his sinker it’s hard to be sure. What IS certain is that the batted ball results on the sinker are manifestly different than they once were; it’s simply no longer a reliable ground ball offering. He’s responded by throwing more secondaried: a change that still IS a great GB% pitch, a slider and a cutter that, like his sinker, has become less and less of a grounder-inducing pitch over time.

So: Leake’s throwing slower and batters are elevating it more in a league with a juiced baseball. What could possibly go wro…oh, right. Leake’s HR/9 is over 2, and it’s killing the value of an increased K rate (the product, I guess, of throwing more breaking balls/offspeed pitches?). He’s stranding runners as well; if he paired his raw results with last year’s strand rate, things would get very ugly in a hurry. All of this is true, but there’s something about watching him work, watching him perform the high-wire act of running through a line-up multiple times armed only with an 87 MPH sinker and assorted slower pitches, that’s pretty compelling.

Brett Anderson, tonight’s opponent, is fighting a similar battle. The oft-injured lefty has hung around the past few years by seemingly reinventing himself at each stop. Last year, he was a pitch-to-contact guy with a very low walk rate, a lefty version of Mike Leake, almost – he had a 55% GB%, so he was perhaps more Leake than Leake. He’d walked too many in previous years and had been essentially replacement level, so the focus on strike-throwing helped, even though at this point in his career, he can’t miss bats (meaning it can be dangerous to be around the plate too much). In 2014-15, he was an extreme GB pitcher, and used that to run low HR rates, which again helped overcome low K rates. This year, the walks have returned and his GB rate *and* K rates have dropped. By K:BB, he looks totally cooked. A freakishly low HR rate has kept him around, but it’s hard to count on something like that. He’s responded to the age-related decline in his natural stuff by pulling an anti-Leake. Instead of abandoning his sinker for a flurry of offspeed stuff, he’s throwing it more. When he’s behind, he doesn’t throw a get-me-over pitch – he’ll allow the batter to walk. He walked 5 batters last year (and plunked 2) on sinkers – the entire year. Thus far in 2019, he’s already walked 8 on sinkers. He’s already matched 2018’s number of walks issued on sliders as well. All of this leads to funny splits. By BBREF’s splits, batters have an OBP over .500 against him in PAs that go through counts in which the batter’s ahead – but critically, they’re slugging under .400. Leake is just the opposite, with a lower OBP, but with batters slugging nearly .800 in those counts. Get ahead, and Anderson will just pitch to the next guy. Leake won’t quit in any PA, but he’s paid a price for that doggedness.

1: Haniger, CF
2: Santana, LF
3: Encarnacion, 1B
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: Healy, 3B
6: Bruce, RF
7: Beckham, 2B
8: Murphy, C
9: Crawford, SS
SP: Leake

The Rainiers came back from a 6-0 deficit to beat Las Vegas today. Christian Bergman was bombed for 6 runs in 2/3 of an inning, but Ryan Garton and then Taylor Scott were great in relief to hold the Aviators while the offense woke up. Braden Bishop hit 2 HRs and Austin Nola added another.

Game 44, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · May 13, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Mike Fiers, 7:10pm

Ok. So the M’s came back to earth following their amazing start, but at this point, it feels more like they’ve hit the ground and are stuck several feet below the surface. Their offense’s season line is still quite good, but it’s amazing how bad the team looks when they stop scoring 7-8 runs per game.

Of course, even at 7-8 runs, it wouldn’t have helped in that Boston series. That was about as ugly as I’ve seen the M’s in quite a while, and I covered the 2010-2012 M’s. Their starting pitching has regressed, but it’s worth noting that today’s starter, Yusei Kikuchi, may present a small ray of hope.

Here’s a fact that is not fun, but incredibly illuminating: after giving up a few more unearned runs yesterday, Marco Gonzales has now given up more unearned runs on the year than the Angels, Astros, Rays, Reds and Rockies. Like, the entire teams. There’s been a lot written already about the M’s poor defense, and at this rate, there’ll be a lot more as they make their run at history. But maaaaan, is it hard to watch. It was kind of funny when Beckham would hit a HR or two for every error. It’s…it’s less funny now.

The defense *deserves* the blame here, but it’s important to note that the M’s pitching style magnifies the impact of their allergic-to-leather position-player teammates. The M’s allow the most balls in play out of any team, just fractionally ahead of tonight’s opponents, the A’s. As in recent years, the M’s are built around allowing defenders to make plays, it’s just that Jarrod Dyson isn’t here anymore, and they don’t really HAVE defenders. With a staff who missed more bats, the M’s would give their fielders less opportunities for embarrassment, though of course that’d cost more money.

It hasn’t all been a waste. Omar Narvaez was available in part because of a bad defensive reputation that seems pretty well earned, but at this point, I don’t care. I believe he’s cost the staff with poor framing, but again, I wonder if that matters less to teams whose pitchers are just going to give up contact anyway. It would still matter, of course, but I can’t think it would be the same for teams whose pitchers strike people out. But beyond that, he’s hitting so well that I’ll look past suspect defense. The M’s needed to upgrade their batting line at the position, and they’ve done so in spades. Narvaez is one reason why the catching position – lambasted in recent years for low and declining offensive production – is enjoying a bit of a recovery this year. Of course, like everything involving the M’s, that’s a double-edged sword. It’s awesome to see the M’s get an under-the-radar C and watch him go nuts on opposing pitchers, but then you see that hey, so did the Astros, and wait, what the hell’s going on with the Twins?.

The M’s face Mike Fiers, who’s coming off of his second no-hitter, a 130+ pitch effort against Cincinnati. It was a strange game, as it didn’t start until 9pm or so due to problems with the lights at the Oakland coliseum. But it was a reminder of what can happen when you have a pitcher whose true-talent BABIP is one of the lowest in the league, and you play an April game in Oakland. It’s still incredibly rare, but if you’re gonna get a no-hitter, Mike Fiers-in-Oakland has a better chance than most. Which is kind of funny to say about a pitcher who’s been hit really hard this year, but that’s baseball for you.

We’ll have to see if the A’s ask the umps to check Kikuchi’s hat or glove for pine tar…

1: Haniger, CF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Encarnacion, 1B
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: Santana, LF
6: Narvaez, C
7: Bruce, RF
8: Healy, 3B
9: Long, 2B
SP: Kikuchi

Sounds like Kyle Seager is joining the Rainiers in Las Vegas to start his rehab assignment, and that he’ll be ready to come off the IL on schedule later in the month. This club could really, really use him.

Game 43, Mariners at Red Sox – The King Has Fallen

marc w · May 12, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Hector Velazquez vs. persistent rain, probably-not-10:05am

The M’s grabbed a 4-0 lead in the first, and then watched it all burn yesterday in a thoroughly dispiriting 9-5 loss. Felix was mostly solid through 2, and then hit a wall in the 3rd, and left with one out and the game tied. The bullpen quickly untied it, and Felix was charged with 7 runs. Worse, he’s now been placed on the IL with shoulder pain, saying he felt “pinching” in his right shoulder on his last few pitches. Thankfully, his velocity didn’t seem to be impacted, as he threw a 90+ fastball a pitch or two before coming out. The flip side is that all of his secondaries aren’t working anymore.

If there’s anything good to come out of this, it’s that this opens the door for the MLB debut of one Parker Markel, a former Rays farmhand who pitched in the independent American Association last year. He always threw hard, but struggled to put batters away, posting K/9 in the 7 range. Despite that, he made it up to AAA in 2016 before getting released. That K rate jumped in independent ball, and the M’s pounced this offseason. Would he look more like the org guy he was in his last taste of affiliated baseball, or more like the power arm strikeout artist in Sioux City? The answer was neither, really. He was good in independent ball, but the guy we’ve seen first in Arkansas and then in Tacoma has been utterly untouchable.

Markel struck out 18 in 7 2/3 IP in AA, or 18 of the 27 hitters to face him. He walked just 2, and gave up 2 hits and no runs. Called up to AAA, he’s struck out 17 in 9 2/3 IP, giving him a K/9 of over 18 on the year. He was not terribly likely to earn a call-up, but he’s made it impossible to keep him down.

The M’s also recalled Dan Altavilla, who struggled in Tacoma before righting the ship a bit in Arkansas. To make room, the M’s are optioning Braden Bishop back to Tacoma after he went 2-20 with 7 Ks and no BBs. He’ll get another shot soon, but with Mallex Smith stinging the ball, it’s likely we’ll see Smith early next week. That means one of Altavilla/Markel will likely head down.

The M’s take on 30-year old righty swingman Hector Velazquez today (if the game gets played). A mexican league vet, the Sox picked him up based on his control and a solid split-fingered fastball. He’s pitched in a few seasons, mostly out of the pen, and has been pretty good for someone with no prospect pedigree. The splitter is one of my favorite pitches, and he shows why: it limits platoon splits, it induces a ton of swings, and it gets ground balls. All of that’s true for Velasquez, who gets a ton of grounders with both his sinker and the split. There’s surprisingly little separation in movement or velo between those two pitches, but he’s largely made it work. Unfortunately, batters are swinging a bit less this year, and that’s pushed his walk rate higher.

1: Haniger, CF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Encarnacion, DH
4: Vogelbach, 1B
5: Santana, LF
6: Narvaez, C
7: Bruce, RF
8: Beckham, 3B
9: Long, 2B
SP: Gonzales

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