Game 78, Astros at Mariners

marc w · June 25, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Ariel Miranda vs. Francis Martes, 1:10pm

The M’s won the game they were supposed to win, battering Joe Musgrove so comprehensively that the Astros demoted him to AAA. Then the Astros won the game they were supposed to win, when #2 starter and potential Cy Young candidate Lance McCullers drew M’s 5th starter Sam Gaviglio. That left today’s game, which initially looked like a tough one as suddenly effective Brad Peacock was scheduled to match up with Ariel Miranda. But Peacock’s expecting his first child any minute, and he made the appropriate/wise decision to fly back to be with his wife. Thus, the Astros turn to one of their top prospects, and a guy who cracked the top 30 prospect list in all of baseball in 2016, Francis Martes. This is a good thing for the M’s.

The Astros’ vaunted pro scouting department nabbed Martes as a throw-in in a deal involving Jarrod Cosart years ago; he’d been in rookie league for the Marlins. Almost immediately, he started carving through the minors; I remember Clinton facing him in the MWL in 2015 when his ERA was solidly below 1. He pitched in 3 levels that year, only slowing down when he hit AA. After a very good year in AA last year, he kicked off 2017 in the PCL, with everyone knowing he was the most important piece of pitching depth in the Astros system. Meanwhile, though, the PCL rudely started bashing him around. His last start in AAA came against the Tacoma Rainiers, oddly enough, and the Rainiers got to him for 6 hits and 7 runs in just 2 2/3 IP. Martes walked 4 in that game, and that’s become an increasingly big concern. In the big leagues, his walk rate’s down a bit from where it was in Fresno, but it’s still above 10%. He’s got swing and miss stuff, but he’s still got to throw strikes. By BIS or pitch fx, the percentage of his pitches that have been in the strike zone is about 7 percentage points below average. That can work if you induce a ton of out-of-zone swings, or if you have an incredible change-up that can elicit such swings. Martes’ o-swing rates are essentially dead-on average, so this approach is going to lead to plenty of free passes.

Ok, ok, so big time pitching prospect struggles a bit with command in his first MLB tour of duty. That could apply to about anyone, right? True, but the other reason this match-up looks somewhat favorable, despite Martes’ 95 MPH velocity, is that Martes’ pitches move eerily like someone the M’s just saw: Joe Musgrove. Martes and Musgrove both throw a flat four-seam fastball without a ton of vertical rise. It’s not a sinking fastball, but it’s also not a backspin-crazed riseball, either. Martes’ moves about 2″ laterally and 9″ vertically. Musgrove? 3″ and 8″, respectively. Both rely heavily on sliders, throwing them at least 30% of the time. Martes’ is a sweeping slider, moving 6″ gloveside, and dropping by 1″ more than if it was thrown without spin. Musgrove’s moves 6″ gloveside and with -1″ of vertical movement. They’re essentially identical. I know that there’s more to a pitch’s effectiveness than its movement, and it matters that all of Martes’ pitches come in 2 MPH faster. But just as there’s an advantage to a new pitcher facing a team that’s never seen him, that advantage is weakened/eliminated if you’re throwing pitches that look ~ the same as pitches the team just saw a few days ago.

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

The A’s youth movement continues, as they’ve called up a bunch of their top prospects, including Franklin Barreto, the centerpiece of the Josh Donaldson deal (lol). Barreto homered in his debut yesterday, one of three A’s to collect their first MLB HR in the same game.

Mike Zunino’s hitting 6th today, something he’s only done once previously this year. He did it a few times down the stretch last year, after his torrid streak after coming up from AAA, but he’s been stuck in 7-9th this year, and hasn’t been in 6th regularly since 2014.

In ex-M’s news, Ichiro just set a record by becoming the oldest player to start a game in CF, besting Ricky Henderson’s record. Congrats, Ichiro.

Game 77, Astros at Mariners

marc w · June 24, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Sam Gaviglio vs. Lance McCullers, 7:10pm

The M’s won the game they needed to win last night, teeing off on Joe Musgrove and giving Felix Hernandez (and Yovani Gallardo) an opportunity to get some work in in a low-stress situation. Now, things switch: on paper, this is a mismatch.

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Haniger, RF
7: Valencia, 1B
8: Dyson, CF
9: Ruiz, C
SP: Gaviglio

Game 76, Astros at Mariners

marc w · June 23, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Joe Musgrove, 7:10pm

A very, very happy Felix Day to you and yours. This is as excited as I’ve seen Mariners fans in some time; you’ve got the return of Felix Hernandez to the line-up (and coming off two very encouraging rehab starts) coinciding with a 5 game win streak and the M’s getting above .500 for the first time. This fortuitous alignment also occurs on a gorgeous summer evening, with temperatures expected to hit the low 80s a few hours before first pitch. This is a good day, people.

That confidence that the M’s (and their fans) are feeling may be helpful as they welcome baseball’s best team, the Houston Astros, to Safeco. The Astros are one of four pitching staffs bunched together in FIP and thus fWAR, and they’ve got the highest K rate of any of them. Not only does Dallas Keuchel appear to be fully back from his down year in 2016, but they’ve developed an amazing bullpen full of swing-and-miss pitchers who can pitch multiple innings, headlined by the bizarre and wonderful Chris Devenski. We’ll miss Keuchel in this series (thankfully), but may get to see their latest transformed hurler, Brad Peacock. With Peacock fitting in for an injured Charlie Morton, the Astros continue to pair a K-heavy bullpen with a K-heavy rotation. They are, frustratingly, an equally potent offense, with the highest ISO in the game, and one of the best batting lines. If they have a weakness, it’s their fielding, which pushes their position player fWAR below the Yankees, but the pitchers minimize the impact of team defense by striking everyone out. Just as their pitching staff gets contributions from guys like Peacock who’d pretty clearly demonstrated their own replacement-level abilities, their long-standing problem finding a 1B has been solved by turning Marwin Gonzalez, a light-hitting SS/UTIL, into a mashing 1B. Gonzalez, who had an ISO of around .100 in his first 750 PAs and who posted an 87 wRC+ last year, is now slashing .312/.400/.590. Great.

If their rotation has a weak spot, it’s Joe Musgrove. Musgrove came up through the Jays and then Astros systems as a strike throwing machine, allowing absurdly low walk totals that made up for so-so K rates and pure stuff. He’s got a four-seam fastball at 92-93, a weird one-seam sinker at 91, and a slider he’s relying on heavily these days. Despite a very over-the-top delivery and high spin rates, he doesn’t get much vertical rise on his pitches. His best trait is his control; he routinely ran walk rates in the 3% range in the minors, but while still better than league average, they’re creeping up of late: it’s 7.4% at the moment. His K%’s fallen below 20%, and combined with normal HR rates for a guy with grounder rates in the low 40s, it’s not a shock to see his FIP up at 4.74. His ERA’s even worse, as he’s allowed a .316 BABIP – it’s tempting to lay the blame for that on Houston’s subpar defense, but he’s a guy without an out pitch, and thus needs to share some of the blame. Not all of it, though; by xwOBA, he’s been very unlucky. One final odd tidbit: he’s shown reverse splits in his career, with righties racking up XBHs against him. It’s not just BABIP, at least not at this point, and it probably shouldn’t sway the M’s line-up decisions, but this is not a game where I worry about Cruz/Valencia.

Felix’s last two starts in AAA covered 11 IP. In those innings, he allowed 1 R on just 5 hits, with 1 walk allowed against 13 K’s. It was vintage Felix, and while I think everyone’s coming to terms with the fact that Felix isn’t royalty on the field anymore, and may not be again, I was going to lose my $^&% if Felix kind of faded away after this year and 2016. I don’t need him to carry the team on his back anymore. I just need to see flashes of the guy we all went crazy for. This M’s resurgence is compellingly watchable, thanks to a batting order that has several ways to beat you. Add that to Felix’s own charisma, talent and drive, and you have the makings of a really, really fun summer, whatever ends up happening with the playoff chase.

Speaking of the chase, it’s nice that the M’s have again leapfrogged Texas and Anaheim and are set up to play meaningful games again. My only concern is that those three AL West clubs are still essentially tied. The M’s have been great, and the Angels haven’t had Mike Trout…what are they still doing here? Texas lost to Christian Bergman the other day, and their pitching staff’s about as bad as the Felix-/Paxton-/Smyly-less Mariners’. That’s why this series is so big. All three of these teams are playing top-shelf opposition. Texas is in the Bronx, Anaheim’s in Boston, while the M’s host Houston. This might be a good opportunity to actually carve out a bit of space, if the M’s can find a way to beat these Astros.

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Haniger, RF
7: Valencia, 1B
8: Dyson, CF
9: Zunino, C
SP: El Rey

Tacoma lost a walk-off in Reno last night despite HRs from Boog Powell and Leonys Martin. Jean Machi had a rare off-night to take the loss, which came on a rare walk-off missed catch error by Martin. Casey Lawrences matches up with ex-Mariner Aaron Laffey tonight in Reno.

Springfield beat Arkansas 4-2 behind a great game from 2016 1st rounder and good sinkerballer Dakota Hudson. Not sure who’s starting tonight.

Modesto got smashed 11-1 in Stockton, as Pablo Lopez and Lukas Schiraldi had outings to forget. Braden Bishop doubled and singled, though. There’s that. Anthony Misiewicz starts tonight’s game.

Clinton scored 4 in the 4th, highlighted by a Luis Rengifo HR, to beat Clinton 6-2. Ronald Dominguez K’d 4 in 2 scoreless IP. Ljay Newsome takes the hill tonight.

Everett beat Vancouver 5-1 as Brayan Hernandez’s bat awakened, hitting his 1st HR, and reaching base 3 times. SP Jose Santiago kept the Canadians off the board for 4 1/3, but walked 5. Andres Torres starts for the AquaSox tonight.

Game 75, Tigers at Mariners, the Psychological Barrier of .500

marc w · June 22, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Andrew Moore vs. Daniel Norris, 7:10pm

The M’s have had three chances to get above .500 this year, and each time they’ve failed, losing a few more and generally looking for all the world like a team who’s season is over. But to their credit, they’re back with another shot at it today, and as luck would have it, today’s their big pitching prospect’s MLB debut. This could go wrong, although I think the number of M’s fans who, given the stakes, are clamoring to give the ball to Yovani Gallardo or Rob Whalen are limited to direct family members of Yovani Gallardo or Rob Whalen. It could also signal that the M’s are going to go about the rest of the season a bit differently, and, pace the talk of a month ago, could even be buyers at the deadline.

Ex-Lookout Landing editor Nathan Bishop penned this great essay last night about the M’s fortune to find themselves, almost by accident, in a playoff race. As Bishop mentions, the key to this turnaround – beyond the M’s offense – has been the general mediocrity of the AL wild card hopefuls. For whatever reason, it’s generally taken 88-89 wins to grab the second wild card. That may not be necessary this year, as the group of teams below the Yankees/Red Sox pairing is all bunched up around .500. The Tigers have utterly collapsed, and look out of it. Minnesota can’t pitch, and while there’s some pot/kettle stuff going on when an M’s fan lays that charge…I mean, seriously, those guys can’t pitch. With the M’s offense clicking, you kind of have to like their chances against the likes of Tampa, Minnesota and Toronto. To be fair, just as the M’s weren’t as bad as they looked a month ago, they’re not going to score 7 runs a night from here on out.

That’s why tonight’s start is so important. We think, or at least hope, that Andrew Moore’s fundamentally different from Christian Bergman and Rob Whalen, but at just 23 years old, it’s not immediately clear that he is. He’s got better command and gets rave reviews for his competitiveness and guile, but this is a huge spot to land in for your MLB debut. This isn’t pressure you’d put on most rookies, so it just reinforces the fact that the M’s have all but said, “This is no ordinary prospect,” for the past two years. He’s not an ace, he’s not a fireballer, but the team believes in his ability to adjust and get people out. I hope they’re right.

Moore faces Daniel Norris, another 2nd round pick, but one who’s taken a very different path. Norris was drafted at #72 overall in 2011. Moore was drafted #74 overall in 2015. Norris was drafted out of high school, where his solid FB velocity, breaking ball, and change made him a very hot commodity. By 2014, he was a big-time prospect in the Jays org, and reached #18 overall coming into 2015. Andrew Moore wasn’t a big time recruit out of HS as he was less than 6′ tall and didn’t throw terribly hard; no big shock that he wasn’t selected in the draft back then. He went to Oregon State, coming out of the gate strong with a 14-2 season with an ERA under 2. After two more solid years, the M’s grabbed him in the 2nd round in what was widely seen as a bit of a reach. He’s gained velocity as a pro, and sat at 92 this spring. His trademark command has followed him up the ladder, and thus he’s forecast to have a below average walk rate. As I mentioned yesterday, that’ll be important if he continues to give up so many fly balls and home runs. I’d like to think that, thanks to that command, he may be the kind of guy – like Hisashi Iwakuma was – who consistently “beats” his FIP. How much that matters depends on that HR rate, which is essentially impossible to predict. Keep it in the park, Andrew, and you’ll be fine.

As I hinted at in yesterday’s oh-so-prophetic post (I thought Verlander was going to throw a perfecto just to spite me), Norris has regressed a bit after what looked like a breakout 2016. His walk rate’s way up, and while he’s not giving up too many HRs, his BABIP’s been quite high in recent years. He’s throwing fewer strikes with all of his pitches, and his four-seam fastball’s getting hit more than it ever has. Not sure what the reason is. His change-up and curve look like interesting pitches, and both are showing more vertical drop; the change in particular looks more intriguing from a movement point of view this year. The problem is that they’re dropping out of the zone, and batters aren’t chasing them. The change in particular is notable for just how often batters have taken it. A good change-up generally gets more swings than any pitch type, often including fastballs. Erasmo Ramirez is getting swings on 65% of his cambios. I’ve mentioned this in the past with regard to Iwakuma, who gets a ton of swings on his splitter (a subspecies of change-up) despite throwing it out of the zone. This year, Norris has the second-worst swing rate of anyone who’s thrown at least 100 change-ups. Ouch.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Gamel, LF
8: Heredia, CF
9: Zunino, C
SP: ANDREW MOORE

Great performances in the M’s minors last night include Lindsey Caughel’s 6 scoreless innings in Arkansas’ 1-0 win over NWA and Greifer Andrade’s 2 hits in Everett’s loss in Vancouver. Modesto and Clinton are back at it tonight after enjoying their league all-star breaks.

Ben Gamel and One More Adjustment

marc w · June 22, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Ben Gamel extended his hitting streak to 13 last night in the M’s incredible comeback win, and Gamel’s hot streak has propelled the M’s back to .500. By park adjusted runs created (an all-in-one batting stat), Gamel ranks 21st in MLB thus far, somewhere north of 40% better than average. Focusing just on batting (and not position and defense), he’s been better than Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Nelson Cruz, Eric Thames and Corey Seager. To say this came out of nowhere is something of an understatement: his combination of essentially zero power and above average strikeouts seemed like the worst possible combination, and his approach didn’t seem conducive to productivity. He was a corner OF who hit a ton of ground balls and looked like he’d K from 20-26% of the time. The Ben Gamel we’ve seen this year has some surface similarities – he’s still a bit underpowered for a corner OF, and his K% is right at 25% – but is now spraying line drives everywhere.

His increase in average launch angle is a big part of the reason he’s been one of the most productive hitters in the game, and it’s driven a line drive rate that’s 3rd best in the game. Those things alone are not going to keep his BABIP sitting at a cool .471: nothing will. But that’s not really under Gamel’s control right now; regression may come, but Gamel’s approach can keep the mean his BABIP regresses towards a bit north of the league average. But I’m not here to talk about BABIP. If he wants to avoid Taylor Motter’s fate as a guy who has an incredible hot streak and then falls back to the pack (and, in Motter’s case, behind it), there’s one more adjustment he needs to make.

Right now, Ben Gamel’s been one of game’s best hitters on fastballs. Pitch type linear weights (run values) aren’t ideal, but they can give you an idea of what pitches a batter’s hitting well and what types they’re struggling with. At the moment, Gamel’s racked up 16.7 runs above average on fastballs this year, ranking 6th in the league. That puts him slightly ahead of Miguel Sano, Aaron Judge and Justin Smoak (?), and just behind Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt and Bryce Harper. Remember, this is a counting stat, and Gamel’s had fewer PAs than any of those guys. He’s feasting on fastballs of all types, and while he’s not hitting a ton of extra base hits (though he’s hitting some), he’s not missing them, and he’s not swinging at balls. That’s a great combination.

Statcast’s view of the situation is similar. Focusing only on balls in play, Gamel’s wOBA on fastballs ranks 7th out of *417* hitters who’ve hit at least 25 fastballs. Isn’t this just confirming what we already knew, though? His BABIP’s at .471, so looking at Statcast wOBA is basically just sciencing up that BABIP. By *expected* wOBA, Gamel doesn’t look quite so extraordinary, and even drops out of the top decile. But a .418 xwOBA on fastballs ranks ahead of Mike Trout and Nelson Cruz, two guys who’ve done some damage on fastballs in recent years. Unlike Motter, there’s no one certain zone where Gamel does his damage, and that’s because he’s using the whole field. Motter sells out to pull inside fastballs, but Gamel goes with the pitch and hits line drives up the middle or wherever he can.

However, pitchers have been known to get a little tricky and throw things *other* than fastballs. When they’ve done so, Gamel’s…Gamel doesn’t like it when they do that. His xwOBA on something other than a fastball ranks 440th out of 506 batters. Instead of beating out Mike Trout or Nellie Cruz, he ranks just ahead of Robbie Ray, Matt Harvey and Ty Blach. Those are pitchers. If we go with actual, not estimated, production and let his good luck work for him, he pulls ahead of the pitchers, but still has a wOBA safely under .200. If we go back to pitch type run values, we see his production on sliders is like the inverse of his fastball production: he ranks 6th *worst* in baseball on sliders, and the same asterisk still applies: he ranks 6th worst in a counting stat despite racking up far fewer plate appearances than many players who began the year in the majors.

Have pitchers noticed? Eh, not really…not yet, anyway. He’s seen about 58% fastballs, which ranks him in the top quarter or so of all batters who’ve had 200 plate appearances. Many of the other guys who kill FBs see far, far less. Miguel Sano is last at just over 40%, and the new and improved Yonder Alonso’s near by. Alonso’s an interesting case, as he’s seen his FB% drop nearly 10 percentage points this year, after demonstrating that he was now capable of crushing them. Pitchers can drop their FB usage to average and that’d still make quite a dent in Gamel’s production…unless he makes an adjustment. Alonso – and Gamel himself – made an adjustment that allowed them to do much more damage on fastballs. Now, Gamel needs to do something similar on bendy stuff.

It’s not impossible, and it’s not unprecedented. Aaron Judge was lost on curveballs last year, and now has one of the highest wOBAs on non-fastballs in the league. Freddie Freeman’s much better now against sliders. It happens. But it’s a bit tougher considering Gamel isn’t a power hitter. Freeman/Judge hit fly balls over the fence, and Gamel’s problem on bendy stuff has been that he hits fly balls *short* of the fence. He can’t raise his launch angle on these pitches – it’s already far higher than it is against fastballs, and indeed, that’s precisely the problem. Gamel hits a lot of fly balls to left and center on breaking balls, and he simply doesn’t hit them hard enough to do damage. Nearly all of these balls in play looks like an easy out, which is why his xwOBA is so bad. He doesn’t need a .400 wOBA on breaking balls; he just needs to fight them to a draw.

And that’s why he should look to another guy who’s already set his scouting report on fire this year, ex-Mariner Chris Taylor. Taylor’s the only other guy on a list of the best hitters in the league by wOBA/wRC+ or what have you who kind of sort of looks like Gamel. Taylor’s ISO’s a little higher at .214 (and yes, I laugh ruefully every time I write Taylor’s stats), but they have similar K rates without the insane ISOs of Judge, Sano, Freeman, etc. The guys with similar ISOs (Buster Posey, Daniel Murphy, Justin Turner), generally strike out a lot less. Anyway, Taylor’s wOBA on bendy stuff is a perfectly decent .325, and while he hasn’t been as good on fastballs, he’s not *that* far behind Gamel. More importantly, Taylor’s xwOBA on fastballs hasn’t really changed; it was .350+ in 2015+16, and it’s .350+ now. The difference is that he raised his xwOBA on non-fastballs by nearly 100 points. That’s come with a few more Ks, and now Chris Taylor’s a high-K, decently powered CF and baseball is strange and beautiful, so it’s possible further adjustments may see Gamel’s K rate rise. But that’s not a hard and fast rule; indeed, improving his (already good) plate discipline – like Taylor did – may help him lay off low breaking balls. But at the very least, I’m glad to see that hitters can make these adjustments and make them quickly.

None of this is to pour cold water on Ben Gamel’s incredible run, or to say he’s just been lucky. A line drive rate near 30% is amazing, and he’s clearly stinging the ball. I just hope the M’s are working on setting the foundation for him to improve. His BABIP will regress, we know that. Now let’s see if he can make another big set of adjustments and become an above-average hitter for years to come.

Game 74, Tigers at Mariners

marc w · June 21, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Justin Verlander, 7:10pm

Now that’s a pitching match-up. Not an 88 MPH fastball in sight. This would be among the more anticipated match-ups of the year, but – there’s always a ‘but’ with this team – the recent context makes this more complicated. Instead of tuning in and getting swept up in a game featuring two pitchers operating at the very edge of human capability, we’ll tune in and scrutinize everything (“Why did he just shake his arm there?”).

James Paxton’s velo was down in his past three starts, though one was in Texas, home of the especially, uh, modest velo readings. More than that, though, he’s just seemed out of sorts – he’s given up 9 walks in those starts (covering less than 13 IP) after walking 6 in April (covering 39+ IP). He’s simply not missing bats like he once did, as batters are hitting .351 off of him in June after hitting below the Mendoza line in April+May. Paxton says the issues are purely mechanical, and that he has an idea about what to do to correct them. I sincerely hope he’s right.

Meanwhile, Verlander’s been just as bad: his walk rate’s 11.6% right now, far, far worse than it’s ever been. His K% dropped by over 7 percentage points compared to last year, too; he’s given back a huge chunk of the gains he made last year. By ERA and FIP, he’s been a mediocre, below-average pitcher just a year after an unexpected 5-6 WAR season. Oddly for someone on the Tigers, HRs haven’t been a huge problem. He’s given up 10 this year, which is higher than his career average HR/9 would predict, but it’s completely in line with recent years and his fly balling ways. Instead, Verlander’s very low BABIP in 2015-16 has reverted to average, and, combined with the decline in his K and BB numbers, made him much easier to score on. That *could* be bad luck, but his balls in play have been hit much harder, with his average exit velocity up 2.5 MPH from 2015 to 2017. That in turn has pushed his expected wOBA from .263 in 2015 to .277 in 2016 and now .350 this year.

As with Jordan Zimmermann, much of the blame for that can be directed at Verlander’s fastball. Verlander actually halted and then reversed years of velo decline, and his average heater this year is faster than it was in any year since 2011. He’s not throwing it differently, either. He’s been one of the most vocal pitchers about the value of throwing his fastball up in the zone, so he’s continuing to do that. It’s just that batters are now hitting those high fastballs harder than ever. Looking at fastballs near the top of the zone and above, batters average exit velocity is up by about 6 MPH since 2015, from just over 85 MPH to nearly 92.

Worse, his breaking pitches haven’t been able to bail him out. As great as he was with his fastballs, batters struggled even more against his curve/slider (this makes sense, given he’s more likely to throw them when ahead in the count). But now, batters have a wOBA of .325 against his non-fastballs, compared to a league average of .282. Verlander isn’t alone in this (he’s flanked by guys like Jake Arrieta, Kenta Maeda, and Jacob de Grom), but this seeming diminution of his entire repertoire is concerning, and as the Tigers plummet in the AL Central race, it should be the focus of their pitching coach’s work. Why have Zimmermann, Verlander, Matt Boyd, and Anibal Sanchez all collapsed this year?

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Haniger, RF
8: Dyson, CF
9: Zunino, C
SP: Paxton

The PCL will look a bit different next year, as Colorado Springs will drop down to the short season Pioneer League. Meanwhile, ex-M’s Texas League affiliate San Antonio will step up to the PCL. To balance that league, Amarillo will join, keeping the league at 8 teams. (hat tip: Mike Curto)

Two games in the minors today, with Lindsey Caughel starting for Arkansas and Michael Suarez, who turned in the best performance that the AquaSox have seen thus far, making his 2nd start of the year in Vancouver.

Andrew Moore Joins M’s, Takes Yovani Gallardo’s Rotation Slot

marc w · June 21, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

A day or two after calling up Max Povse to shore up the bullpen, the M’s just called up their top starting pitching prospect in the high minors, Andrew Moore. The Oregon State product is taking Yovani Gallardo’s spot in the rotation, per Greg Johns, which would make tomorrow’s game his MLB debut. The M’s have already used 12 different starters this year, but with Christian Bergman struggling and the Super 2 deadline safely past, the M’s decided to call up someone who’s much more of a long-term option than many of the guys who’ve cycled through the 4th-5th rotation slots this year. The M’s haven’t yet said what this means for Gallardo; I assume he’ll move to the pen or maybe a quick trip to the DL.

Moore throws a straight, rising fastball that often sits 89-91, but he averaged 92 in Peoria, so it may sit at the high end of that range in Seattle. He pairs it with a curve in the high 70s, a straight change without much armside run, and Kate Preusser over at LL says he’s been toying with a slider (click that link to see gifs of his mechanics and pitches). His command and location are his best tool by far. He’s walked 8 batters in 8 starts and 48 IP for Tacoma this year, and his 44:8 K:BB ratio has to grab the attention of a front office that’s obsessed with controlling the zone.

That rising fastball and the fact that he’s around the zone so much means that he gives up a ton of fly ball contact. That’s not necessarily bad – it’s a part of the reason his BABIP is so low – but it means he runs the risk of giving up plenty of HRs. You see that reflected in his Steamer projection, for example, and of course he had a string of 8 straight games with a HR-allowed this year across AA and AAA. He’s been pretty good at limiting them (his HR/FB ratio isn’t bad), but given MLB’s HR binge, it’s tough to rely on the Chris Young method of giving up lots of fly balls but very few dingers. I think he’ll probably give up a few, so it’ll be incumbent upon him to limit baserunners and keep his walks to a minimum.

While he’s the M’s best close-to-the-majors SP, his ultimate ceiling isn’t all that high. That’s fine – the M’s don’t need an ace, they need someone who can keep them in games and, ideally, someone who’ll develop into a dependable starter for a few years. Moore’s got a good shot of that, considering his improvements within the system and what seems like intense drive. Just last year, the PCL graduated a number of 23-24 year old guys without huge fastballs but very good command: Dillon Overton, Daniel Mengden, Joe Musgrove, and Kyle Freeland. The first two face-planted, while Musgrove’s been a so-so 5th starter. Freeland’s broken out with Colorado, and actually improved upon the numbers he put up in AAA. None of these guys really pitch like Moore, so the utility of the comps isn’t great, but of the four, Mengden’s probably the closest. Even pitching in a HR-suppressing park for half his games, Mengden gave up 13 HRs in 80 IP and is now back in the PCL. Some version of that’s your pessimistic forecast: walks creep up, HRs flying out of the park everywhere, and a higher BABIP leading to another shot at developing in the minors. Freeland’s the optimistic view, though as a groundballing lefty, probably the least similar.

Christian Bergman’s been optioned to Tacoma to open up a spot on the active roster, while Tyler Cloyd’s been DFA’d to open a 40-man spot. Moore’s done everything expected of him and then some. Seen as a command/control, low-velo/low-ceiling guy, he’s added some oomph to his fastball and is striking guys out in the high minors (something Kyle Freeland didn’t do, for example). I think a lot of people – myself included, to a degree – have been waiting for a hint of a struggle in his ascent up the ladder: AA will be the test…whoops, well, maybe AAA, then? None of it’s slowed him down. He’s earned this shot, and even if he struggles to get acclimated to the fact that even 7-8 hitters can hit the ball over the fence, I have a feeling we’ll be seeing him a lot the next few years.

Game 73, Tigers at Maruninos

marc w · June 20, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Ariel Miranda vs. Jordan Zimmermann, 7:10pm

Last night’s win was keyed, of course, by the two big HRs hit by Mike Zunino, baseball’s RBI leader in the month of June, and, for the second time, seemingly resurrected after a demotion to Tacoma. Zunino’s resurgence remakes this line-up. When the bottom of the line-up is a walking, talking 1-2-3 inning, the team is wholly dependent on its core. When Jarrod Dyson and Zunino are hitting, the opposing team doesn’t get a breather, and that not only helps the M’s run total directly, it has a knock-on effect on the 3-4-5 hitters, too. Thus, answering the question, “Is Zunino fixed?” is a pretty important one.

The short answer is that it’s way too soon to tell. Last year, Zunino came up from Tacoma because the team was desperate, particularly on the heels of the historically awful performance of M’s catchers in 2015. For his first 91 plate appearances (carefully chosen endpoint alert!), Zunino batted .280/.396/.707. The rest of the year, over 101 plate appearances, he collapsed to a .146/.248/.270 line. This has continually been the issue with Zunino. We have a view of him as a high-K, high-HR hitter, and over his career, that’s probably true. That overall average masks the fact that he’s extremely streaky, and subject to long periods without power at all. That is, the Zunino of 2016 (and 2017!) comprises a long stretch of high-K, low-power awfulness, and some high-K, high-power awesomeness. The key is to get more of the latter and less of the former, particularly as his minor league options run out and he can go re-charge and get right in AAA.

It’s interesting, because the one thing Zunino is *extremely* consistent on…well, yes, ok, good point, he’s consistently a risk to strike out. But over many years, he’s had a very consistent batted ball profile, borne of a consistently high launch angle. Mike Zunino is not, and has never been a ground ball hitter. Even in his powerless stretches, he’s hitting the ball in the air. His average launch angle when he was awful in 2016: 21.9 degrees. In his superhuman stretch in the middle of 2016? 21.7 degrees. Early 2017? 19.3 degrees. Recently? 18.7. In every period, he’s amongst the leaders in baseball in this metric, and while they’ve gone down slightly, I don’t think that’s the issue. The issue is how those angles are distributed.
Here’s Zunino early in 2017:
Zunino through may 22

There are some batted balls at that great 30 degree angle, but also a bunch above 60 degrees (pop-ups), and a few at 0 (grounders). Overall, it averages out to 19 degrees.

Here’s Zunino more recently this year:
Mike Zunino since May 22

Now, the batted balls are more tightly grouped from about 10 to 30 degrees. There are still some pop-flies, and a few grounders, but the grouping is much tighter, and it’s bunched around the angles that are conducive to batting average and slugging. Mike Zunino may be slightly lucky during this hot streak, but he’s doing all he can and hitting a lot of dangerous balls in play. In the previous stint, he was probably UNlucky, but even if he got all the expected hits you’d get from a batted ball profile like that, he’d still have been an awful hitter. When Zunino’s on, he’s tracking the ball and putting consistent swings on it, leading to consistently good launch angles and exit velocity (that’s the great thing about consistent contact – it naturally increases exit velocity. The obvious flip-side: pop flies reduce exit velocity). When he’s not, he’s swatting at the ball and producing a lot of mis-hits. The focus for Edgar from here through 2017 MUST be to isolate what he’s doing and how to replicate this. Zunino and Edgar need to know what it looks like when he loses this consistency, and how to get it back. Given the massive swings in production and even expected production based on angle/exit velo, it’s remarkable how minor many of these changes are. That’s nice, I guess, but as we’ve seen, it’s easy to slip back into old habits, and given their subtlety, it’s harder to spot when he does.

Jordan Zimmermann’s having a rough year. We had some fun at Anibal Sanchez’s expense, but Zimmermann’s been the biggest culprit in the Tigers’ rotation’s struggles. He’s allowed 17 HRs thus far (tied with Clayton Kershaw, oddly), which has pushed his FIP up to 5.77 and his WAR down to 0. This isn’t what you want from a pitcher in year 2 of a 5-year, $110 million contract. His velocity dropped ominously in 2016, but it appears to be back, more or less. He still averages 93+ on his fastball, and while he’s dropped his release point, he’s getting more vertical movement. The problem is that his strikeouts have dropped dramatically since his days in the NL with the Nationals. A specific concern has to do with his fastball: batters slugged .465 off of his four-seamer in 2015, and then .604 in 2016, rising to .746 this year.

My initial thought was that he’d bought into the Tigers approach of pitching up in the zone. This was what gave Justin Verlander’s career a second lease on life, and it would make sense for Zimmermann, as he was someone who threw in the top of the zone pretty frequently in the NL: about 44% of his pitches in 2015 were in the upper third of the zone or above. That’s fallen to under 25% this season. That’s odd, as those high pitches aren’t the ones batters are crushing. He does well in the bottom of the zone, but that’s entirely due to his (still good) slider. Low *fastballs* are getting crushed to the tune of a .678 wOBA (“low” defined here as below 2.25 feet, or about the middle of the zone and below). Fastballs HIGHER than the middle of the zone are still hit hard, but a .436 wOBA, while still pretty bad, is a far sight better than .678.

1: Gamel, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Dyson, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Motter, SS
SP: Miranda

Hisashi Iwakuma’s rehab start in Cheney did not go well. He gave up 4 runs in 2 IP, walking 2 and striking out 3, and he gave up a solo HR. As Mike Curto notes, though, some portion of it was due to bad luck in the big 2nd inning in which Salt Lake scored 3 runs. Chase De Jong starts for Tacoma tonight against Dustin Ackley and the Bees.

The damn Naturals from NW Arkansas, always messing things up. Arkansas took a 2-0 lead into the 7th and final inning last night, with Dylan Unsworth pitching a gem. He faltered in that inning, and he and a reliever ultimately coughed up 3 runs, losing the game 3-2. In the 2nd game of the doubleheader, the Naturals jumped ahead early, holding on for another 3-2 win.

Modesto and Clinton were off, as the all-star festivities in their respective leagues kicked off. Both leagues had HR derbies, which are way, way faster than the big league versions, but the story of the game was that players in Visalia for the Cal League game participated in some livestock-related challenges. The planned pig race had to be cancelled, as pigs apparently faint in the 107 degree heat of Visalia, so they replaced it with a chicken race. Modesto’s Reggie McClain, a huge reason why the Nuts won the first half title, took home the coveted title of champion chicken chaser. And they say the minors aren’t very glamorous. Congrats, Reggie.

Everett got blitzed by the Hillsboro Hops, 9-2. 2B Joe Rosa and OF Greifer Andrade are off to good starts, while CF Brayan Hernandez is still getting his timing right.

Game 72, Tigers at Mariners

marc w · June 19, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Sam Gaviglio vs. Anibal Sanchez, 7:10pm

One of the big issues that baseball’s been cogitating about has been the decline in balls in play. So many of the common complaints about baseball in the year 2017 stem from those missing plays; as strikeouts and dingers increase, games get longer, and they *feel* longer still. It often seems like a series of all-or-nothing confrontations – something like a home run derby, maybe, or a kind of exhibition. Here’s a statistical example: Ozzie Smith had 8 seasons with at least 500 assists, including one with 600. Andrelton Simmons has never had a season with 500 assists. There used to be 3-4 SS per year with at least 500, now we get 3-4 such seasons per decade.

This trend’s a long one; HRs dipped after 2010, but K’s have been going up for a generation. When you see something like that, a common question is, “Where does it end?” This kind of eschatological thinking – or maybe it’s just slippery-slopeism – often leads to poor conclusions, but it can be interesting to try to envision a version of baseball that looks nothing like ours, but is played with the same rules. I look back on my earliest years as a baseball fan – so, the early/mid-80s – and it seems pretty much the same, but it’s *already* completely different. It just happened slowly enough that I could never quite see it. No one struck out back then, except for Gorman Thomas. HRs were low compared to other eras (not that I had any first-hand knowledge of other eras), and so speed/defense played more of role in each game. At a 30,000 foot level, the game seemed very different, though I don’t know that we’d notice it too much if we just watched a game from 1984.

But, no, seriously: what would baseball look like if you extrapolated the current K and HR trends out for another 10, 20, 30 years? My guess is it would look something like Anibal Sanchez’s 2017. Sam Gaviglio’s pitched about as decently as anyone could considering he’s given up 9 HRs in just 34 1/3 innings pitched. Anibal will see your puny 2.36 HR/9 mark, Sam, and, with a smirk, go all-in. Sanchez has also allowed 9 HRs thus far, but in just 21 innings, good for a 3.86 HR/9 mark. Yes, yes, fun with small sample sizes – I know. But Sanchez has kept his K% above 20%, and his K/9 is even higher – it’s 9.43/9 IP. Sanchez is simply not allowing too many balls in play. Close to 40% of the PAs against him this year have ended in one of the three true outcomes. Yes, Randy Johnson used to do that sort of a thing, but it looked a bit different. Randy Johnson is transcendent, and thus kind of difficult to use to envision what average players might do in the future; Randy and “Average” are mutually exclusive. Sanchez, though… this could work. You could envision an arms race where batters are selected primarily for power, and with balls in play down, no one would care if you could field. Future Mike Morse could move back to shortstop, and pitchers wouldn’t really be concerned with HRs so long as they K’d enough hulking sluggers. Does this version of baseball sound appealing? No, not to me either, but I want to thank Anibal Sanchez for granting us a sneak peak and giving us a chance to change our ways if we’d like.

Gaviglio’s HRs are too high, but that’s the combination of small sample and marginal ability. I love the way he competes, but it’s going to be tough for him to carve out a lasting role with the M’s. Prove me wrong, Sam!

1: Gamel, RF
2: Heredia, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Dyson, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Motter, SS
SP: Gaviglio

Two big stories in the M’s system. First, Hisashi Iwakuma makes a rehab start in Tacoma tonight against Salt Lake. If you’re in the South Sound, you should check it out. Second, in a rare move (the first for Clinton since the 1960s), the M’s have fired minor league manager Pat Shines, who’d been leading the Clinton Lumberkings. Shines was in his first season in the org, having come over from Miami. Not sure what this was all about. (Hat tip Mike Curto).

The M’s have signed 26 of their 40 draft choices already, including 11 of the first 12. The only one they haven’t inked is 2nd rounder Sam Carlson, but there’s no worry there – he’s just pitching in the highschool playoffs and can sign a pro contract just yet. First-rounder Evan White signed for a few hundred thousand below slot, so the M’s would seem to have plenty of room to sign Carlson within their pool amount. Nice job, M’s, and scouting director Scott Hunter.

Game 71, Mariners at Rangers

marc w · June 18, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Christian Bergman vs. Yu Darvish, 12:05pm

Happy Fathers Day!

After losing the first three games of the series and four in a row overall, the M’s turn to Christian Bergman to stop the skid. Bergman, who got annihilated in a 20-7 loss his last game. The guy now pitching for his job as the M’s wheel of 5th starters continues to spin. Bergman’s big test occurs in Arlington, where the ball’s been flying, and occurs opposite the Rangers’ ace, Yu Darvish. Fangraphs’ odds give the M’s a 36.1% chance in this one, a figure that seems almost charmingly optimistic.

The big M’s transaction of the day is notable not because Rob Whalen was optioned back to the minors (to AA, actually), but because of who’s coming up to replace him. The M’s have brought in an actual prospect, 6’8″ Max Povse, who looked dominant at times this spring and in early April with Arkansas, but has lost a bunch of time with a hamstring injury. He’s thrown just 3 1/3 IP since coming off the DL, and has thrown less than 6 innings in total since May 5th. There are a number of reasons NOT to do something like this, but it seems like the M’s have tired of rotating through fungible, replacement-level starting depth. Rob Whalen, Dillon Overton, Bergman…none of them have been consistently effective, and so the M’s – now that we’re safely past the Super 2 date – will try something different. I worry that given his injury-riddled past 6 weeks, Povse won’t be as effective as he would otherwise be; I worry that they’re putting him in a position to fail. But I sympathize with Dipoto’s plight here, even if it’s at least partially of his own making.

The other story regarding the M’s pitching depth is an easier, better one: Felix Hernandez was again dominant in his 3rd rehab outing, shutting out the Salt Lake Bees over 6 IP, giving up 4 hits, no walks and striking out 8. From all accounts, he was in complete control and ready to head back up I-5 to Seattle.

Darvish is still one of the most compelling pitchers to watch in all of baseball, with the deepest repertoire in the game, and impressive velocity. He’ll be a free agent after this year, and teams are probably already asking Texas about him for the stretch run. With Texas in 2nd place in the West and in the wild card mix, they may not move him unless they get a ridiculous offer, but Darvish is the kind of player that engenders such proposals. Unfortunately for the Rangers, he’s having a down year by his own lofty standards. Darvish’s ERA is more than a run below his FIP (so far, so Rangers), and that FIP’s crept up past 4. It’s never been close to that mark over his career. His K rate’s still great, but it’s declined, and his improvement in walk rate from 2012-2016 is gone, too. His ERA’s been saved by a career high strand rate and a .230 BABIP; he’s still good, but this just isn’t the guy we saw last season, to say nothing of 2014.

As Greg Johns of MLB.com tweeted, the M’s now grade out as baseball’s best defensive OF by both UZR and DRS. Their improvement from a rough start has been consistent and rapid, and the team deserves credit for that. I’m still a bit suspicious of the magnitude of the numbers reported, just because the simple defensive efficiency numbers (the percentage of balls in the air they’ve converted into outs) lags many other teams, especially the Yankees (who are #2 by UZR). The M’s DE on fly balls, per Baseball Prospectus, is .901, good for 10th-best in the league. Oddly, the M’s 17th-ranked OF last year put up a DE of .906 on fly balls. There were 22 teams with a fly ball efficiency of at least .900 in 2016, while just 10 are on pace to do that now.

1: Gamel, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Dyson, CF
8: Ruiz, C
9: Smith, SS
SP: Bergman

Felix’s gem gave the Rainiers their 11th shutout victory of 2017. It’s just mid June, and they play in the PCL. Remarkable. Closer Jean Machi has given up just 1 run this year, and now sports an ERA of 0.40.

Nick Neidert’s the big prospect to watch among the M’s MiLB probables. Dylan Unsworth starts in AA, and the intriguing Robert Dugger starts for Clinton. The 18th-round pick from last year’s draft has given up 5 runs in his last 30+ innings, yielding just 20 hits.

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