Game 102, Red Sox at Mariners

marc w · July 25, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Drew Pomeranz, 7:10pm

Happy Felix Day! It’s always great to have a Felix Day after a dominating pitching performance like Paxton’s last night. He’s really putting that injury and mechanical hiccup from May/June behind him and reestablishing himself as one of the AL’s top starters. I also wanted to say hi to the relatively new “Maple Grove” cheering section, populated by a bunch of familiar faces to anyone in the M’s blogosphere/twittersphere. They featured prominently on the broadcast last night and then got a mention on ESPN, too. The team’s getting into it, and went so far as to give them an actual maple tree, and reporters asked Paxton about it after the game (he’s pro, unsurprisingly). They’ll be in section 182 for Paxton’s next start, which looks like it’s Sunday.

Rob Arthur of had a great article yesterday about pitchers adjusting to the HR surge by throwing more high fastballs. I’ve talked a bit about this as it related to Felix, and then a bit about Boston, Detroit and Minnesota trying to use this strategy to limit HRs. But while DET/MIN have failed, Boston’s been great. No team in baseball throws higher fastballs than the Red Sox, and the Red Sox have the 2nd-lowest ground ball rate behind Detroit. But while the Tigers/Twins/Mariners give up tons of HRs, Boston’s actually got a lower-than-average HR rate as a staff – they’re tied with the Yankees, and only surpassed by Cleveland and Kansas City among AL teams. It’s not that they’re generating a ton of pop-ups, either – the M’s are actually way better at that. Instead, they’re simply generating weak contact among all hit types – they have the highest average fastballs, the highest average pitches put in play, and the lowest wOBA on fastballs in baseball.

Now, some of this is a function of employing the likes of Chris Sale, David Price and others, but you can see the Sox strategy by looking at how it’s changed recent acquisitions. Drew Pomeranz, tonight’s starter, throws the highest average fastball of any starter besides Jake Odorizzi – it’s over 3′. Chris Sale’s a bit behind him at 2.85′. For reference, Felix’s average fastball is just
Last year, Sale’s average was 2.65, and Pomeranz was at 2.78 as a member of the A’s in 2015. The Sox take very good pitchers, make some tweaks to their approach, and let a very good defensive outfield do the rest. Rick Porcello, erstwhile ground ball pitcher, is the best example of the Sox new mania for high fastballs, but the whole team’s taken it to heart.

Pomeranz, a lefty, throws that super-high four-seamer at 92 MPH and a big breaking curve at 79-80. Pomeranz gets some rise on his fastball, as it looks like the Sox have him throwing a bit more upright, but the story’s the movement on his curve. He gets absurd vertical movement despite a below-average spin rate, meaning the spin he imparts is incredibly efficient – almost all of it goes towards movement, with very little gyro or bullet spin. This is somewhat reminiscent of Andrew Moore’s fastball, which, despite sub-par spin rates ranks among MLB’s best in terms of vertical movement. Pomeranz is probably a good guy for Moore to watch and maybe model himself after. While Moore’s average fastball’s pretty high – maybe the 90th percentile in the league – he may need to go higher. Right now, he’s around the plate so much that batters are hitting fastballs right in the zone. Even if it might mean risking more walks, I think Moore needs to use that vertical movement to throw pitches that look like they’ll drop into the zone only to stay a few inches higher. Moore’s curve is never going to break like Pomeranz’s, so I’m not quite sure what to do there, but a better fastball game plan may help everything else play up a bit.

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

Casey Lawrence, Lindsey Caughel, Spencer Herrman and Oliver Jaskie take the mound for M’s affiliates today. The pitching star of the system yesterday is an easy call: Anthony Misiewicz of Arkansas fired 8 shutout innings, giving up 4 hits and 1 walk while striking out 7. Misiewicz was so-so in the Cal League, but has been great in AA in 5 starts. For position players, we’ll go with Joe Rizzo of Clinton, who had three hits, including a HR off of former #1 overall draft pick Brady Aiken.

In scarier news, M’s top prospect Kyle Lewis had to come out of Modesto’s game in the 4th with a knee problem. It’s not expected to be serious – more of a bruise – but everything knee-related is worrying with Lewis, who’s struggled to stay on the field this year following last year’s serious leg injury. Get well soon, Kyle!

The M’s Record in Pitcher Trades

marc w · July 25, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

I’ve seen/heard a lot of commentary about the M’s two trade deals last week, and much of it has been far more positive from the M’s point of view than my rather bleak assessment. One of the reasons is that I’m perhaps subconsciously discounting the eventual production of a guy like Marco Gonzales due to the M’s record when acquiring pitchers in trade. Is that fair? I obviously think so, but I’m open to counterarguments. This is one of the key bits of context for this or other trades that I didn’t spell out as well as I could’ve in the articles on the trades. So let’s fix that now!

Jerry Dipoto and company have made 27 separate trades (not waiver claims, not free agent deals) to acquire a grand total of 30 pitchers.* These range from blockbusters like the Tai Walker for Jean Segura/Mitch Haniger (it also included Zac Curtis, remember!) to the instantly forgettable, like acquiring Bryan Bonnell from the Rays for cash. Of these 30 pitchers, 21 have thrown at least one pitch for the Seattle Mariners. The sum total of their FIP-based WAR contributions to the M’s is less than 4; it’s slightly worse using ERA-based WAR. In other words, every pitcher the M’s have acquired in trade in the Dipoto era have produced roughly as much WAR as Chris Taylor has this year for the Dodgers. Depending on the WAR framework you prefer, 8-10 of them have put up *negative* WAR for the M’s. In return, the M’s have given up roughly 15-16 WAR in major league production in 2017 plus 6 prospects ranked in the system’s top 10. They’ve given up another 9 or so players ranked in the 10-20 range, too. The M’s haven’t gotten a whole lot from any of these deals; you’re talking about James Pazos’ first half, Evan Scribner’s 2016 and David Phelps first appearance. The trades that have produced the most pitching WAR for the M’s are not ones that most M’s fans feel unambiguously positive about: they’re the Seth Smith for Yovani Gallardo trade (using fWAR only) and the two deals involving Wade Miley.

I don’t want to oversell this. The M’s *do not* have wholesale issues in pro scouting or player development. While they didn’t get much when trading Erick Mejia for Joe Wieland, flipping Jio Orozco for Ben Gamel has worked out rather nicely. The M’s farm system wasn’t great, so that limits their ability to acquire talent in trade – they’re shopping in the bargain aisle, so of course there aren’t as many clear wins. Injuries have hurt, too, as Shae Simmons and Drew Smyly might’ve been great if they were healthy. And of course, guys like Gonzales may contribute for 6 years later on, but haven’t had the opportunity to produce for the M’s yet. The same works in reverse, though, too; the M’s have traded/sold several pitchers who are now interesting prospects for other teams, and if you want to feel more positive about the history of this FO, you should absolutely not look at the stats of guys like Luiz Gohara or Zack Littell.

Still, this is a pretty appalling record when you consider what the M’s gave up. Like DMZ, I’m all about evaluating a trade based on what we knew at the time, but a team’s track record starts to matter as the sample of trades grows. Part of the reason, as I mentioned in the post about the O’Neill/Gonzales swap, is that Dipoto seems to target low-ceiling/high-floor command guys, perhaps because that’s what’s available in his price range. But just as the Zduriencik-era M’s had a big disconnect between the scouting group’s love of power-hitting right-handed bats and the player development group’s ability to develop such players, I worry that the M’s PD system hasn’t been able to do a ton with command/control guys throwing 88-92. I don’t want to pin too much of this on PD; guys like Lance Painter have done an admirable job getting a ton of AAA production out of the odds and ends handed to him by the FO, and of course, there’s the small matter of James Paxton turning into JAMES PAXTON on his watch. Another factor could simply be that the players Dipoto loves to target have been the most impacted by baseball’s HR binge – command guys who “should” see their HR/FB regress have seen them rise instead as the entire league’s HR/FB gets ratcheted upwards.

It’s impossible to disentangle all of these factors, and when we’re talking about 2-dozed+ players, many of whom were acquired for cash considerations, it’s entirely possible that the entire record is dumb luck, and it shouldn’t impact our evaluation of Gonzales at all. But as well as some of his trades have worked out, the team really seems to have struggled to add pitching. This isn’t blaming Dipoto for not landing Cy Young candidates. Rather, it’s wondering why there are so many negative WAR figures dotted around the 2017 stats for the guys the M’s traded for. Dipoto’s work in free agency is a mixed bag, but the trade record is so important because it’s pretty much the only way Dipoto’s filled out the M’s rotation. He inherited Felix and Paxton (and sort of inherited Iwkauma), but pretty much everyone else who’s started this year has been acquired in trade – Miranda, Gallardo, Heston, Whalen, Gaviglio, Overton, de Jong were all trade guys. Only Andrew Moore (drafted), Christian Bergman and Ryan Weber (waiver claims) weren’t trade targets. If his clear MO is to build a rotation through deals, then it’s imperative that the M’s actually succeed at that strategy. They haven’t yet.

* I tallied this up manually by scrolling through transaction logs; I’ve probably missed something(s). Here’s the list, for those interested:

Traded Acquired
7/3/2017 Tyler Herb Cash
7/20/2017 Brayan Hernandez, Lukas Schiraldi, Pablo Lopez, Brandon Miller David Phelps
7/21/2017 Tyler O’Neill Marco Gonzales
7/24/2017 Jean Machi, Mark Lowe cash
5/9/2017 Cash Bryan Bonnell
4/14/2017 Paul Fry Cash
3/1/2017 Drew Jackson, Aneuris Zabala Chase de Jong
3/2/2017 Pat Venditte Joey Curletta
1/6/2017 Seth Smith Yovani Gallardo
1/6/2017 Nate Karns Jarrod Dyson
1/11/2017 Carlos Vargas, Ryan Yarbrough, Mallex Smith Drew Smyly
1/11/2017 Luiz Gohara, Thomas Burrows Shae Simmons, Mallex Smith
1/26/2017 Jason Goldstein Dillon Overton
12/7/2016 PTBNL Chris Heston
12/9/2016 Tyler Pike PTBNL
11/7/2016 Vidal Nuno Carlos Ruiz
11/12/2016 Paul Blackburn Danny Valencia
11/18/2016 Andrew Kittredge, Dylan Thompson, Dalton Kelly Taylor Motter, Richie Shaffer
11/18/2016 Zack Littell James Pazos
11/23/2016 Taijuan Walker, Ketel Marte Jean Segura, Mitch Haniger, Zac Curtis
11/23/2016 Alex Jackson, PTBNL Max Povse, Rob Whalen
9/1/2016 Jake Brentz, Pedro Vasquez Arquimedes Caminero
9/13/2016 Wade LeBlanc PTBNL
9/14/2016 Joe Wieland PTBNL
8/6/2016 Tim Lopes Pat Venditte
8/31/2016 Jio Orozco, Juan De Paula Ben Gamel
7/20/2016 Mike Montgomery, Jordan Pries Dan Vogelbach, Paul Blackburn
7/26/2016 Joaquin Benoit Drew Storen
7/31/2016 Wade Miley Ariel Miranda
6/11/2016 Justin de Fratus Pat Kivlehan
6/19/2016 Chris Taylor Zach Lee
6/22/2016 PTBNL Wade LeBlanc
3/30/2016 PTBNL Nick Vincent
1/12/2016 Erick Mejia Joe Wieland
12/2/2015 Mark Trumbo, CJ Riefenhauser Steve Clevenger
12/4/2015 Jose Ramirez Ryne Harper
12/7/2015 Carson Smith, Roenis Elias Wade Miley, Jonathan Aro
12/8/2015 Trey Cochran-Gill Evan Scribner
12/9/2015 Daniel Missaki, Freddy Peralta, Carlos Herrera Adam Lind
12/18/2015 Tyler Olson Cash
11/5/2015 Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, Danny Farquhar Nate Karns, CJ Riefenhauser, Boog Powell
11/12/2015 Enyel de los Santos Joaquin Benoit
11/16/2015 Tom Wilhelmsen, James Jones, Pat Kivlehan Leonys Martin, Anthony Bass

Game 101, Red Sox at Mariners

marc w · July 24, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Eduardo Rodriguez, 7:10pm

Sorry for the radio silence over the weekend; I was extremely busy with family stuff. I had fun, and didn’t mind (too much) that the M’s limped into the Red Sox series having lost 3 of 4 to the Yankees.

The Red Sox come in with a 2.5 game lead over New York in the AL East. Clearly a playoff-caliber team, they’re kicking the tires on deadline acquisitions, but their biggest move was an internal one. Today, the Red Sox have called up their top prospect, 20-year old 3B Rafael Devers. He’s not starting tonight, but is expected to tomorrow. Devers takes over for Pablo Sandoval, who was DFA’d a little while ago. In less promising news, lefty David Price was in the news on the flight up to Seattle for berating Red Sox color commentator Dennis Eckersley for some comments the latter made on air about a rehab start made by tonight’s starter, Eduardo Rodriguez. Rodriguez missed essentially all of June and half of July recovering from a knee injury.

Rodriguez is a hard-throwing lefty the Sox acquired for Andrew Miller in what was widely seen as a steal – for Boston. Miller left for greener pastures while Rodriguez turned heads in the minors, often sitting in the high 90s with his fastball and dominating lower-level hitters. After a couple of up-and-down seasons, he seemed poise to make the leap to #2 starter this year, and put up solid numbers in April and May, leading to a flurry of stories about him turning a corner. The injury and a so-so start in Toronto have put that supposed developmental leap in question, as he struggled with command in the minors (hence Eckersley’s Price-enraging comments) and walked 4 in 5 1/3 IP in his return to the big leagues. He was great against the M’s back in May, when he shut them out over 6 IP, but even then, he walked 3 and K’d just 4.

His velocity is, at this point, down significantly from the perhaps-over-enthusiastic reports of 97 MPH. He’s averaging a bit under 94 now, and it gets less-than-average vertical movement. Movement-wise, it reminds me of Thyago Vieira’s fastball, though Vieira of course throws 1) much harder and 2) right-handed. Rodriguez’s best pitch may be his running change-up, thrown around 87 MPH. Like Marco Gonzales/Mike Montgomery, it has 10″+ of armside run, but gets more drop than either of them. This pitch is the primary reason he’s shown essentially no platoon splits over his big league career. He has a cutter and slider, too, with the slider his primary breaking ball to lefties. It’s nothing much to write home about, but then he doesn’t see enough lefties for it to matter much. The most notable thing about him is his reliance on his four-seam fastball; he’s in the top 10 in baseball in the frequency he throws it, at just under 65%.

Like many of his teammates, Rodriguez is targeting the high strike these days, and his ground ball rate and GB/FB ratios have dropped as a result. That’s made him somewhat vulnerable to home runs, but it should also keep his BABIP low – which it is, at .278. What’s remarkable is that he’s put up that BABIP despite a terrible infield pop-up rate; he’s been good at inducing pop-ups before, but they’re just not showing up this year.

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

I was going to use this space to write about how great Emilio Pagan’s been recently. The extreme fly-balling long reliever has been working not just in low-leverage situations, but in some close games, as he did twice in the Yankees series. Anyway, no need for me to go on about him, as Bob Dutton did it in the News Tribune. Check it out.

The M’s acquired former Nationals and Angels IF Danny Espinosa yesterday, a move that sent Taylor Motter to AAA. I’d assume the M’s will activate Espinosa before tonight’s game. Espinosa hit 20+ HRs for the Nats twice, but problems, er, controlling the zone led to abysmal batting averages and OBPs, which made him tough to play, even though he’s a good defender at SS. He cratered in Anaheim this year, slashing just .162/.237/.276 with the 2nd-lowest zone-contact and overall contact rates in the game. Once a high-ISO, high-K guy, Espinosa’s spent 2017 as Joey Gallo-but-without-power, which is not a bankable skill. Still, I understand the M’s desire to see if Edgar can coax some zone-control into a guy who hit 24 HRs as recently as 2016.

The long-rumored, on-again, off-again trade between the Twins and Braves involving LHP Jaime Garcia finally went through today, with the Twins getting Garcia in exchange for a package headlined by RP prospect Huascar Ynoa, 19, who’s scuffled a bit in the Appy League but throws hard and is already 6’3″, 220. Garcia’s a free agent at the end of the year, so it’s not really comparable to the Marco Gonzales deal, but… this isn’t going to make M’s fans feel any better about losing Tyler O’Neill. Ynoa was the Twins #22 prospect, and he returned a league-averageish starting pitcher, who’ll slot right into the Twins rotation. The Twins, of course, are a bit ahead of the M’s in the wild card race, and just acquired a rent-a-starter for live-armed peanuts, while the M’s traded for a guy who one day might pitch about as well as Garcia will down the stretch. I acknowledge that Jerry Dipoto is not playing for 2017 *alone* and that getting a contolled starter -not a rental- was a priority. That’s understandable. But paying inflated, deadline prices for cost-controlled depth looks suspicious not only in light of what such pitchers go for in the off-season, but what rentals cost. Sure, you’d RATHER have a pitcher under contract for 5 years rather than 5 months, but the M’s had already signaled that they wanted to make a run in 2017. Garcia would’ve worked pretty well, and now he’ll be pitching for a wild card rival. Great.

Speaking of the trade market, this piece says that the M’s are trying to get involved in the Sonny Gray market. There are a number of reasons this is unlikely, starting with the fact that Tyler O’Neill is now a Memphis Redbird, but extending to the fact that teams with deep farm systems are also likely to be involved. Gray’s a free agent after 2018, so he’s more than just a rental. If the M’s DID want him, it’d take pretty much every other big prospect they’ve got…so, Kyle Lewis and Nick Neidert.

This report says that the M’s have inquired with the Giants and Padres about pitching help, and with Giants’ farm team Sacramento in Tacoma, that’s where Jerry Dipoto was today. The day game in beautiful Tacoma was also Marco Gonzales’ first start in the M’s system, and the Gonzaga product got the win, pitching 6 IP, giving up 6 H, 3 R, 1 BB and 5 Ks. A perfectly solid game, and while I’m trying not to be too pessimistic, it’s the kind of start Christian Bergman’s thrown roughly 78 of for Tacoma this year. Dan Vogelbach homered in the R’s 4-3 win. One of the Giants’ top pitching prospects, Tyler Beede, was scheduled to start this game, but hurt his groin during warm-ups, so it was a bullpen day for the RiverCats.

Other probables in the M’s system tonight include Danny Garcia, Anthony Misiewicz and Jose Garcia.

Game 98, Yankees at Mariners

marc w · July 21, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Andrew Moore vs. CC Sabathia, 7:10pm

I’ve had a few hours to deliberate, calmly reevaluate my assumptions and take another, deeper, look at Marco Gonzales. With the benefit of time and reflection, I can now… nope, sorry, still don’t get this one.

I talked the other day about the boom-and-bust M’s, and how maybe a team like this *shouldn’t* be searching for stability – they should own their own volatility. Andrew Moore is not a high ceiling guy, but in turning over the slot to a rookie, the M’s acknowledge that they’ll get some good games and some clunkers, as they’ve seen. That’s fine – that helps Moore’s growing process and Moore’s unfamiliarity to AL hitters might help him sneak up on some teams. That said, with the Gonzales acquisition, the M’s have shown that they are completely obsessed with this template of command pitchers with so-so velocity. I’ve said plenty about the M’s getting value for MiLB talent, and I’d argue that this has been a serious, on-going problem, but part of the issue is what they’re *buying* with that talent. This came up in Dave’s write-up of the trade at Fangraphs; the M’s have spent a lot of effort and a good chunk of their top prospects gathering pitchers that kind of look like fungible depth. From the trade for Wade Miley forward, the M’s seem to value #3-5 starters very highly. While the league has placed a pretty high value on established #3-4 guys in free agency, they’ve not generally commanded much in trade, and for good reason. The M’s have traded upside for depth (in Dave’s words) for approximately the 1,346th time, which itself is a good argument that either the M’s should stop trading for depth or take a very healthy reexamination of their process for identifying depth. Something isn’t working.

The idea of trading upside for stability or trading ceiling for floor only works if you accurately identify both. That’s a truism, but seriously: even MLB teams can be really bad at this. You can’t predict the future, or baseball, so you *really* can’t predict future baseball. This is why you see teams draft Brian Bullington and Greg Reynolds. Anyone who thinks it’s somehow safer to get low-velo, command and control guys should proceed directly to Dillon Overton’s baseball-reference page.

Andrew Moore could use a good start. He had three straight quality starts, but after a terrible 4th start in which he gave up 3 HRs in 3 1/3 IP, the M’s are going to need to see him make some adjustments. For a guy so often praised for his competitiveness and savvy, that’s probably a strength of his. All of that said, Moore represents another, closely linked, fixation of Dipoto and Co over the past year or so: a preference for fly-ball pitchers who pair with a spacious park and a phenomenal OF defense. The theory makes great sense, but as we’ve seen with the Tigers and Twins, in this day and age, there is no park that can cover a pitcher in the new live-ball era. I’d go so far as to say that we’ve now seen enough to know with pretty good certainty that Dipoto’s attempt to build a top-10 pitching staff on fly balls has failed. Boston can get away with it, because they can go grab David Price or Chris Sale. High fastballs themselves aren’t the issue. They may actually be effective at *limiting* HRs. The problem is rising fastballs thrown in the middle or down in the zone. Moore’s smart enough to see where he’s been punished, but his arsenal is pretty much always going to result in elevated contact. A shift towards high (really high) fastballs and curves might help, as his change is still a bit straight (and has a ton of rise).

CC Sabathia’s in his second year of an odd, late-career renaissance. After getting destroyed by the longball and right-handed bats, he’s changed his pitch mix significantly. He’s ditched his four-seam fastball, and he’s now throwing nearly 3/4 (!) breaking balls to RHBs – a cutter, a slider, and a change. Righties still fare well against his sinker/cutter, but they can help set up his slider – still his best pitch.

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

Okaaay, more trades. The M’s shipped non-40 man relievers Mark Lowe and Jean Machi to the White Sox org. They’ll report to Charlotte, according to Mike Curto, who also notes that the two MLB vets are huge clubhouse leaders for Tacoma. No word on the return, but it’s not going to be much.

So Tyler O’Neill’s last action in a Rainiers jersey was his 2-HR performance last night. Fare thee well, Tyler.

Chase de Jong starts for Tacoma tonight, with Brett Ash going in Arkansas, Nate Bannister in Modesto and Ryne Inman in Everett. No word on Clinton’s starter.

A Hater’s Guide to the Recent Trade

Jay Yencich · July 21, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners, Minor Leagues

One probably shouldn’t write analysis while still somewhat angry, although that’s what I find myself doing as a means of processing. In the hours following this morning’s trade, I’ve had a lot of back and forth with fellow fans, so I thought I might take the opportunity to share my thoughts since I technically have a platform to do so. I want to disclaim at the outset a few things that I think will help clarify my position a little. One is that I have been a Tyler O’Neill fan since he was drafted and regard him as a player who has a high potential to be Fun and this trade has depleted important Fun reserves. We all overvalue our own assets, particularly relative to what’s previously unknown to us, and time is necessary develop a coherent assessment that isn’t tinged with our own personal fondness. The second is that I don’t at all intend this as an attack on Gonzales, whom I hope does well. My problem with this trade tends to be more around the philosophies behind it.

A good starting point for commentary here would be Dave’s piece at FanGraphs, which has some important information I’d like to borrow. This trade, as Dave identifies, is part of a larger constellation of trades that has involved far too many pitchers: Miranda, de Jong, Bergman, Weber, and guys that are no longer even in the organization like Overton and Heston. Another helpful point I’d like to point to is that DiPoto admits to his involvement with the trade market and how the demand for pitching, with a good many teams clustered around the wild card standings, has resulted in a situation where you have a seller’s market. It’s easy to say we should go out and knock on our interleague rival’s doors and ask what they might need in exchange for Cahill or Chacin, but harder still to come up with something that works as a solution because so are maybe a dozen other teams of various strengths who are similarly making calls in their Sunday best. In this sense, it’s good that we saw one of DiPoto’s favorite qualities, team control, crop up in this particular exchange, as I think a lot of us would be more miffed if we were going all in and giving up prospects for impending free agents, especially since we follow a team with an aging core.

The Mariners in their present, healthy configuration don’t appear to be all that bad, or at least not so bad that making moves looks necessarily foolish. The team has been strong on offense and most of its liabilities there, Martin, Vogelbach, Gosewich, are no longer with the club nor necessarily expected to help in the stretch run. The value we’ve gotten from pitching, however, is of a far different nature and our position is more to hope and pray that the same guys we used in April and May are not integral to our playoff chase. As Greg Johns noted, the team has used a historic number of pitchers so far, breaking established team records, and we’re not even into August yet. Thus, while on average, our pitching looks pretty vulnerable, those averages are also dependent on guys that are not on the team right now, your Hestons and your Overtons and your Fiens. The superficial take is that it’s Paxton + maybe good Felix again? + Vincent/Diaz + mooks, but it’s not really as bad as all that and we appear to have gotten into something more stable that could also be productive. That being said, it’s not wrong to want to look around and try to come up with someone who isn’t Sam Gaviglio to start every fifth day.

The philosophical problems I have with this is the general sensation that we’re trying to throw good money after bad. The team was interesting enough coming out of the offseason, as we expected Smyly to solidify the rotation and maybe we’d get bounce-backs elsewhere and Paxton would figure out his stuff. Paxton has been pretty rad, but otherwise our luck has been terrible. Not only did Smyly’s injury leave us scrambling (the injury to Shae Simmons shouldn’t be undersold either, even if it’s not something we pay much lipservice to), what options we’ve had to replace him and others have done as much harm as good. If any of these pitchers had managed to contribute at a competent level, we probably wouldn’t have to make this trade today. Mind you, even with the rep as a minor league analyst, I don’t have as much of an issue with the Zach Littell for James Pazos trades as long as they contribute, what I take issue with are the trades that resemble Enyel de los Santos for Joaquin Benoit. From my vantage, we’re giving away good assets in an attempt to patch over bad luck. All playoff teams need good breaks in order to get where they’re going, but buying at a premium to offset a series of bad breaks doesn’t seem to be the right way to go, particularly when the market has already set its own premiums.

Beyond the rather curious use of internal resources, there’s the matter of trying to evaluate O’Neill versus Gonzales in their respective prospect statuses. O’Neill is very much a boom or bust prospect who has been booming lately. He’s often been portrayed as one-dimensional for that by outside evaluators, a guy who is going to be striking out a lot and maybe get you some longballs in exchange. He could be anything from a middle of the order hitter who plays competent defense for a slugger to a guy that you keep as a platoon hitter whom you sometimes use as a pinch-hitter and cross your fingers. What Gonzales provides you is more stable, in theory, because pre-injury he was regarded as a potential plus #3 starter, but those qualifiers are awfully important. Gonzales has already had Tommy John surgery, and while a version of Tyler O’Neill that doesn’t reach his potential can still be somewhat useful, a version of Gonzales that is injured and unable to pitch is not.

Furthermore, the Cardinals will be getting three option years with which to figure out what they need to do with O’Neill and are in no rush to get him into the lineup. Last I checked, Gonzales is out of options after this year and if his recovery or the development of a viable breaking ball takes some time, it’s something that we’d have to let him do in the major leagues. This doesn’t even touch on the likelihood that we will have to use him soon while simultaneously trying desperately not to overwork him and screw up his arm again. I’d like to hope that this year has helped demonstrate the virtues of patience in player development, as there’s only so much you can teach a guy who is trying to help you win games now.

The Mariners were operating under a series of constraints both internal and external. They’d had bad luck in the major leagues, a farm system that has ranked in the bottom third for a long time, and needed pitching at a time when pitching was going to go for a premium. In light of this, they still decided to send off one of their more interesting assets in a swap of skillset risk for injury risk. That’s not an exchange I feel terribly confident in us coming ahead on, and it’s telling that even with a farm system that rates ahead of ours, most flash analysis put O’Neill higher internally with the Cardinals than Gonzales is rated with us.

M’s Trade Tyler O’Neill to St. Louis for SP Marco Gonzales

marc w · July 21, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

The M’s made it pretty clear that they were trying to win now with their trade of prospects for set-up man David Phelps. Thus, it can’t be *too* shocking to see them part with their biggest high-minors trade chip, OF Tyler O’Neill, in return for some pitching help. What *is* shocking is that they’ve turned to ex-Gonzaga Bulldog Marco Gonzales to help their beleaguered rotation. Gonzalez made one start for the Cardinals this year, gave up about a HR per inning, and was unceremoniously optioned back to AAA. He made one start for them a year ago, got battered around, and was then optioned back to AAA. In a move that seemingly eliminates any possibility of claiming that this is a win now move, the M’s will cut out the “one bad big league start” middle-man and send Gonzales straight to Tacoma.

Jerry Dipoto said the club needed to be realistic and creative in their pursuit of a playoff spot in 2017 and the near future. They didn’t have a ton of minor league talent to deal from, and they need help rebuilding pitching depth that’s been hammered by injuries and ineffectiveness. I understand that given the league-wide need for pitching and the M’s mediocre farm system that they wouldn’t be buying name-brand starters, but I thought they would at least bring back an actual big league pitcher. After the Phelps trade, I argued that if they wanted a starter, Phelps might be a decent option, and one they obviously had the talent to afford. I’m not sure what the plan is with Gonzalez, or more accurately, *when* he’s supposed to add value. To be fair to the M’s, Gonzalez has 40+ innings and less than 1 full year of service time, so he’s under club control for a long while. But then, so was Tyler O’Neill. If, as everyone acknowledges, the price in talent rises at the trade deadline would the M’s pick *now* to pick up a long-term project?

Gonzales throws a running four-seam (and, rarely, a sinker) at about 90-91 and pairs it with his best pitch, a change-up, with fairly extreme armside run. Overall, the entire package reminds me a bit of former Mariner Mike Montgomery, back before Montgomery’s trip to the bullpen and velocity increase. Back when he first joined the M’s, Montgomery threw about 91 with a four-seamer that moved a lot like Gonzales’, and featured a change-up with nearly identical movement. Both are lefties of course. Both had been noted high-floor prospects, and then both spent time wandering the baseball wilderness – Montgomery couldn’t solve the high minors and was in danger of being released. Gonzalez had a great initial season with the Cards, and then spent 2015 struggling and dealing with shoulder pain, before missing all of 2016 with TJ surgery. Maybe that’s the reason for his struggles now, and maybe there’s some untapped potential there that the M’s could mine. But if the *Cardinals* couldn’t get maximum value out of a moderately-talented baseball rat, what chance do the M’s have?

Gonzales’ change-up racks up a ton of swinging strikes, but batters *also* put it in play a lot. They swing a lot, and when they make contact, it tends to be hit pretty hard. This is why he doesn’t show the righty-suppressing stats of someone whose change-up misses so many bats; he has better K rates against righties (in majors and minors), but also higher hit rates. His K rates against lefties have suffered because while he’s toyed with a slider and curve, neither are big-league quality quite yet. They may get there eventually, but they’ve been show-me offerings thus far, and his usage rates reflect that. There’s raw material here, but the M’s player development staff have a lot to do, and Gonzales is 25 already.

While O’Neill was the M’s top position player prospect, that doesn’t mean he’s seen as a premium prospect by the league. He battled contact issues, and while they’d gotten better, he’s always going to have swing-and-miss in his game. His power was evident in the Cal League and in his recent hot streak in Tacoma, but it wasn’t 70-80 grade. What the Cardinals are buying is a trajectory, a trend line. O’Neill was a very raw player out of British Columbia who switched positions, lost some time to injury, and then needed to learn to harness his impressive strength. And while his raw OPS or wOBA numbers weren’t amazing (though last year’s was pretty darn good), they showed growth. Combine a propensity to learn and adjust with a young age, and you’ve got someone who might be more interesting than the surface numbers would indicate. As a bat-first corner OF, O’Neill needs to hit a *ton* to add value. The growth from 2015 to 2016, and even the growth from April/May of this year to June/July shows why the M’s – and others – have interest.

He’ll now head to a team that’s had some success with players of this type. I’ve long thought of O’Neill as a pocket-sized Randall Grichuk, and while Grichuk’s struggled this year, the Cards got a surprising amount of production out of a slugger who showed far less minor league production than O’Neill. Tommy Pham struggled with contact in the minors, and it took him about 10 years of seasoning to get a shot, but I could see O’Neill putting up lines like Pham’s 2016 in fairly short order. The question is, can they help him do more, and get up to something like Pham’s 2017 line? O’Neill is not a perfect prospect, and there are still red flags splashed across his Fangraphs page. But the Cardinals got a cost-controlled, pre-arb OF they can take some time to develop, and all it cost them was a pitcher who likely wasn’t in their plans anymore.

Yes, O’Neill’s status as the top of a thin farm system may have worked against him here, but Gonzales ranked 16th in Fangraphs’ list of Cardinals prospects this year, and the Cardinals aren’t challenging the White Sox or Braves for preeminent farm system. I thought the M’s didn’t strike a hard bargain in the Phelps trade, but in comparison, this is probably worse. Put aside the M’s public statements about 2017, the high prices for deadline deals, or Gonzales’ former 1st-round-pick status. What do starters with a solid MiLB track record and very poor MLB numbers go for? Mike Montgomery (1st round pick) cost Erasmo Ramirez, an out-of-options guy the M’s would’ve had to release. Dillon Overton (2nd round pick) was a very good four-seam/change-up guy in the PCL in 2016, and then had a crappy cup of coffee in Oakland before the A’s let him go to the M’s for one Jason Goldstein, senior-sign catcher. Eddie Butler, once a top-100-in-baseball prospect (and a supplemental 1st rounder), was swapped straight up for a minor-league reliever. I’m sure there are examples of a top OF being traded for a project, but even there, you’d expect that project to have a bit more upside than Gonzales, who realistically is a #4 or so if everything works out.

The M’s have made some disastrous win now deals of MiLB outfielders, and while I’m not fond of this, I think it’s a far cry from Shin-Soo Choo-for-Ben Broussard. But this combines my frustration at Dipoto and Company’s ability to extract maximum value from their system with a more generalized confusion about the plan going forward. Rebuilding pitching depth is important in a system where Nick Neidert is still in the Cal League. Getting a post-hype prospect with plenty of club control makes some sense, too, in a vacuum – but it doesn’t seem to fit with the team’s desire to improve the 2017 club.

Many in the M’s twitter/blogosphere note that this is important information about how the league saw and valued O’Neill. O’Neill didn’t really have a place to play in the now-crowded Seattle outfield, so I understand making him available, but if THIS is how the market valued him, the M’s needed to wait and make a deal in the off-season. If the M’s were willing to swap him for down-the-road help, then making the trade *now* seems like very poor strategy. By waiting, the M’s could take more advantage of his second-half surge (assuming it continued) and wouldn’t have to pay a premium for a post-TJ command/control change-up guy, especially if he was never the answer to a particular 2017-specific problem.

The M’s don’t have – and haven’t had – a great farm system since Dipoto took over. He’s made plenty of trades from it, but simply hasn’t gotten a ton of value in return. In the past year, the M’s have dealt a number of top-10 prospects (yes, yes, top 10 in a weak system). Drew Jackson went to LA in the Chase de Jong deal. Luiz Gohara and Alex Jackson went to the Braves for Mallex Smith (swapped with Ryan Yarbrough for Drew Smyly), and Max Povse/Rob Whalen. Injuries have bit them, and Povse’s still a talented youngster, but the M’s have spent an awful lot of chips in order to take flyers on Whalen/de Jong/Overton/Bergman-type arms. The vast gulf between what it’s taken to acquire, say, Overton with what it took to get Gonzeles doesn’t seem to concern them. It concerns me.

Game 97, Yankees at Mariners

marc w · July 20, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Luis Severino, 7:10pm

A Happy Felix Day to you and yours, and it certainly *feels* celebratory, with the M’s having traded for a pitching upgrade and the M’s kicking off the homestand with one of their most important series of the year. The M’s are now 1.5 games behind the Yankees for the 2nd wildcard, and while neither team has played lights out baseball since May, the M’s have benefited from the Yankees swoon that’s lasted about a month and a half. Even Aaron Judge has cooled off, as the Yanks rookie is putting up his first below-average month of the year in July.

While Judge and company get the attention, their pitching staff’s been the unsung heroes. The starters – with the exception of Michael Pineda, now lost to TJ surgery – wasn’t forecasted to do much. Today’s starter, Luis Severino, was a rare bright spot, but even then, his 4.20 ERA and 4.00 FIP weren’t much to get excited about. He’s already blown his projections out of the water, as the righty’s 3.49 ERA/3.09 FIP (while pitching in the Bronx bandbox that is Yankee Stadium half the time) have earned him 3.2 fWAR. He’s a fairly uncomplicated hurler: he’s got a four-seam fastball that averages 97 (!) and a hard, diving slider at 88. He’s also got a change-up, and for a clear third pitch, it’s not too bad – it’s about 10 MPH slower than his fastball with a bit more drop. He’ll use it to lefties, but when he gets ahead, batters (lefties or righties) will see his devastating slider. As that Tom Verducci article I linked to yesterday details, the Yanks aren’t afraid to tell their pitchers to go to their breaking stuff early and often, and Severino is throwing over 40% sliders to right-handers. That seems like it’d make him vulnerable to lefties, but the slider’s good (not AS good, but good) against them, too. Over his brief MLB career, his platoon splits are nearly equal, though I don’t think they’ll stay that way.

Severino’s strikeout rate ranks 10th in baseball thus far (among starters), and thanks to much-improved command, he ranks even better by K-BB% (7th). This is a challenging assignment for King Felix and the M’s, who need to get some balls in the air off of Severino AND keep Judge and company in the ballpark. For whatever reason, the Yankees are suffering through a power outage at the moment, as they’re slugging .370 in the past 30 days, with 26 HRs – 10 less than the M’s over that span. Part of the reason for that is that they lost another breakout star to injury in June, OF Aaron Hicks. The same Aaron Hicks that was among the league’s worst hitters in 2013-14 was in the midst of an out-of-nowhere great season, slashing .290/.398/.515 until an oblique injury sidelined him. As a result, the Yanks have had to play more of Jacoby Ellsbury. Take advantage, M’s.

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: El Rey

Welcome back, Mitch Haniger!

Classic PCL game today in Albuquerque as Tacoma escaped New Mexico with a 14-11 win. The game was tied at 7 after 2 IP, as each team had a 6-run half inning in the early going. Dan Vogelbach homered, but Gordon Beckham and Tyler O’Neill each hit 2.

Ljay Newsome, Justin DeFratus, Spencer Herrman and Oliver Jaskie take the mound for M’s affiliates tonight.

M’s Acquire David Phelps, RP – Once and Future Starter?

marc w · July 20, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

The rumors began swirling last night and the details got ironed out this morning: the M’s made a move to strengthen their surging club, picking up RH set-up man David Phelps from the Miami Marlins. Phelps, 30 (he’ll turn 31 right around the end of the season), had been a starter for several years with the Yankees before moving to relief full time last year. As a reliever, he’s added 3-4 MPH to his fastball and turned in a great season in 2016 before regressing a bit this year. The return is, even given the M’s weak system, pretty steep for a non-elite non-closing reliever: the M’s will send their preseason #7 prospect (CF Brayan Hernandez) along with SP prospect Brandon Miller, SP Pablo Lopez and RP Lukas Schiraldi. There’s not a low-risk prospect among them, and the M’s have protected their most valuable trade chips, but remember: this package acquired a 30 year old righty set-up guy making $4.6 M this year and under club control for one more season (in which that salary will rise considerably). I understand that prices are high at the deadline, and win-now teams may have to overpay in talent a bit, but fundamentally, this is too much for a reliever with whose rest-of-season projections are fractionally better than Emilio Pagan’s. The M’s could probably use a righty reliever, but with Nick Vincent’s magical season continuing and with Tony Zych contributing, the gains from Phelps would be imperceptible. That’s why this deal makes sense only if they didn’t get Phelps to a set-up man at all.

Phelps has a four-seam fastball with average armside run, a decent sinker with a bit more movement, and two breaking balls: a hard curve that now comes in at around 81 and a very hard cutter at 90-91 that’s essentially his bread and butter pitch. Against lefties, he uses the cutter more than either of his true fastballs, and he’ll throw his curve frequently. He pitches off the four-seamer to righties, but he mixes in the curve and cutter pretty liberally. As a starter with the Yankees he had a change-up as well that worked decently, but he struggled with it for a few years and has all but abandoned it in his new role. Still, we’re talking about a guy with four usable pitches plus a fifth that he put away in part due to results and in part due to the fact that no relief pitcher needs five pitches. The cutter may be his best pitch, but this is not a huge swing and miss pitch – his fastballs miss more bats. Rather, its horizontal movement can create poor contact and fouls, allowing Phelps to get ahead before putting hitters away with fastballs (his four-seam was 91 as a starter, but is now sitting at 95) and his curve. After striking out nearly a third of the batters he faced last year in his first go-round as a full-time reliever, he’s settled in this year at around 25%. That’s better than league average, but barely: relievers – as a whole – have struck out 23.4% of batters this year. Phelps walks more than average as well; his walk rate this year is nearly 11%, right about where it was last year, too. Thus, his K-BB% is more or less league average. The cutter and his newfound velocity have helped him post lower-than-average HR rates, but much more likely is that his park is helping him out: in the past two years, he’s given up 2 HRs in his spacious home park, but 9 on the road. His HR-suppression seems tied to Miami.

He’s got pretty normal platoon splits this year after spending 2016 as a more extreme death-to-righties arm. Overall, this is something of an odd profile for a reliever. So much about him seems to work better, or be more valuable, as a starter. Despite the velo jump, his HR rate and K-BB% numbers look pretty similar in either role. Yes, he had a brilliant 2016, but the M’s didn’t – or shouldn’t have – acquired him assuming that was what he’d be in late 2017. The M’s have Andrew Moore and Sam Gaviglio in their rotation at the moment, and the minors won’t be sending in replacements unless they want to shift Max Povse back to the rotation, or take another look at Christian Bergman. Meanwhile, righties in their bullpen behind Edwin Diaz include Nick Vincent and Tony Zych (both of whose rest-of-season projections are easily better than Phelps’) as well as Yovani Gallardo, Steve Cishek, and Emilio Pagan; Dan Altavilla’s a short drive away as well. The M’s clear need is at SP. The pitcher they acquired seems to fit better in that role. Make it happen, M’s.

So, if they *really* acquired a starter, does that make the return look a bit more balanced? Maybe a bit, but yet again I’m wondering who the M’s were bidding against? This team seems like it’s struggled to value relief pitching in general, from the contracts given to Cishek and Marc Rzepczynski to the trades involving Carson Smith and James Pazos. Many of these have worked out great! But I’d like to feel that the M’s are driving a hard bargain, and not fixating on a particular player and then yielding too much in return. There are legitimate concerns with Brayan Hernandez, the centerpiece of this deal. He’s still only 19 and not tearing up the NWL (which would be a pretty high bar, I realize). But a top 10 prospect, perhaps another on the fringe of the top 10 (Miller), for an over-30 reliever with 1.5 years of control and a 2018 salary of $5-6 million? Yes, he might command a bit more as teams know he was a starter, and presumably could be again. But how *much* more? It’s so difficult to compare across systems and trades, but the D-Backs sent 1 top-10 prospect (Dawel Lugo) and a back-end of the top 20 (Sergio Alcantara) plus some stuff to Detroit for JD Martinez. Is this package similar? Eh, that’s a stretch considering how close Lugo is to the majors, but the D-Backs get one of the best bats on the market, while the M’s get either their new 3rd-4th best set-up man or a shot at a starting pitcher conversion. I like Phelps (as a starter), and like that the M’s didn’t part with Tyler O’Neill or Nick Neidert to potentially improve their rotation. I’d love to feel a bit more comfortable about the M’s ability to get value in trade, though.

Game 96, Mariners at Astros – Paxton’s Situational Splits

marc w · July 19, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Charlie Morton, 11:10pm

It’s an early one today for getaway day in a pretty important series. Tied at a game apiece, the M’s could get an important psychological and playoff-odds boost by beating the Astros in Houston, and the M’s are handing the ball to their ace, James Paxton.

It’s been another very good season for Paxton, full of the full spectrum of Paxtonian features we’re so familiar with. He’s remarkably difficult to hit, with a H/9 ratio that would rank in the top 10 in the AL if he qualified (he’d be nearly tied with teammate Ariel Miranda, actually). His easy velocity and deathly curveball allow him to rack up strikeouts at obscene rates, even by the K-saturated 2017 standards – again, if he qualified, his K/9 would rank in the top 5 in the AL. On the down side, he’s already spent some time on the DL, which seems almost inevitable at this point, and he’s also got an ERA far higher than his FIP. That last one’s kind of odd, as we often expect pitchers with tons of velocity and bat-missing stuff to post higher strand rates – it’s a lot easier to get out of a jam when you can just strike out a few batters in a row, after all. Paxton’s BABIP’s a lot more normal this year than last, so it’s not that he’s getting BABIP’d to death. Instead, it looks more like a case of struggles with men on base.

It’s easy to chalk that up to random noise. After all, he had a lower ERA than FIP back in 2015 *and* 2014. Of course, Paxton changed everything between 2015 and 2016, so maybe he’s doing something different now. To check, I looked up some statcast numbers to see if I could see why his wOBA is nearly 100 points higher with men on base than with the bases empty this year, and why he’s shown huge splits in this measure 2 years running. For some context, let’s take a look at the league as a whole. The league’s wOBA-against with no one on this year is .323, and with runners on base, it rises to .331. This rise is despite a *drop* in exit velocity on contact from 87 to 86 MPH (though expected wOBA does rise slightly). This makes some sense, as a 1B holding a runner on can provide more holes for ground balls to reach the outfield. Finally, there’s zero difference in the pitch height that pitchers throw or that batters hit with men on vs. not – the league average pitch height is 2.33 feet regardless.

Paxton looks quite different, though. With no one on, his expected WOBA is a dominant .220, which rises to .300 with men on. That huge wOBA spread isn’t purely luck, then; he’s been somewhat unlucky, but the real story is that he’s giving up much different contact in these different situations. The bulk of THAT comes from a huge 3+ MPH jump in the average exit velocity he’s giving up with men on base. Remember, the league as a whole showed *lower* exit velocities with men on. Moreover, his average pitch height changes, dropping about 0.2 feet with men on base. So he’s just throwing it lower, and that’s his problem? No, not exactly. Overall, he’s at his best when he IS throwing low. His wOBA-against is about 100 points lower when the ball crosses the plate 2 feet high or lower – the bottom half of the zone and below. While he’s still got those weird splits with men on base, he’s *still* limiting damage on low pitches (unlike the league, which is hitting more and more HRs off of low pitches). Oddly, it’s not that batters wait for an elevated fastball, either – they hit better on balls near the top of the zone and above, but it’s nothing dramatic. What *is* dramatic is what happens on pitches right in the heart of the zone. With no one on, Paxton gets away with these pitches (.230 wOBA this year, .310 over 2016+2017 combined). With men on, for some reason, he doesn’t (.525 wOBA this year, .423 combined).

Paxton throws more non-fastballs with men on, as many pitchers do. It’s not extreme by any stretch, but he’ll throw more curves and cutters. Batters aren’t hitting those pitches, however – he’s got a tremendous wOBA-allowed on breaking stuff in all situations. This is strictly a fastball problem. Despite throwing more breaking stuff with men on, batters have put a higher percentage of balls in play off of Paxton’s fastball than they have with no one on…when he throws fewer fastballs. This seems like a situation where batters focus in on a very small part of the zone and look for a specific pitch in that zone. When they see it, they swing like hell at it. So what can Paxton do? Well, he might want to throw more breaking balls in these situations. Tom Verducci has a great article at SI today about the Yankees throwing the fewest fastballs despite having a pitching staff with super high average fastball velocity. I’ve mentioned this philosophy a lot this year, as this is essentially the Astros’ game plan, too. Paxton’s got a great fastball, and I don’t think he should adopt a full-on Astros/Yanks-style pitch mix. Rather, in order to have fewer grooved fastballs in situations where grooved fastballs can hurt him most, he should throw fewer of them, and perhaps use them a bit differently.

All of this is small-sample stuff, which is kind of obvious given Paxton’s injury history. I haven’t proven anything definitively. But I hope the M’s aren’t just banking on some regression and not worrying about these splits. Paxton’s been great, and that’s a huge help to the M’s. He doesn’t have to throw many pitches with men on base thanks to the aforementioned greatness and his success at limiting hits. That there’s still some room between his unbelievable talent and his actual runs-allowed is kind of encouraging. Over the past two seasons, Ariel Miranda, acquired for Wade Miley and never a big prospect, has allowed an RA9 of 4.24 in 165 2/3 IP for the M’s. James Paxton, 98 MPH-throwing, curveball wizard, staff ace, has allowed a 4.10 RA9 in that time period, in 208 1/3 IP. In this day and age, that’s pretty good, but if his RA9 was close to his FIP across 2016-17, he’d have allowed *30* fewer runs. That’s…that’s a lot. Throw out all the unearned runs he’s allowed, and if you pulled his ERA down to where his FIP’s been, he’d have allowed around 20 fewer runs in roughly a full season’s worth of innings. As a marginal playoff hopeful, these marginal improvements matter.

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

Game 95, Mariners at Astros

marc w · July 18, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Sam Gaviglio vs. Brad Peacock, 5:10pm

Last night’s game was the strangest, most unlikely, most entertaining win of the year for me. My game post went to great lengths extolling the Astros’ remarkable season and their utter dominance, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. The M’s were facing their most dominant starter on a per-inning basis, and although he’d struggled recently, Lance McCullers was the reason Fangraphs’ odds game the Astros a stunning 70% chance of winning the game. Even today’s game, with Sam Gaviglio flying in from AAA, only has the Astros as 64-36% favorites. The M’s right-handers gave the M’s an early lead, but when the Astros came back and took the lead late, it felt both final and inevitable. And then, of course, the M’s rallied, fought off a 9th-inning challenge, and then won it in the 10th. Dave’s Fangraphs post about which teams are buyers/sellers noted for a few teams – like the M’s – that the first week or two after the break was pivotal, as the general mass of mediocre teams in the AL starts to separate. In their most important 2 weeks since last September, the M’s have played themselves back into the race. This team is volatile as hell, and, oddly, I find that kind of endearing as opposed to aggravating. Maybe that’s because I thought their season was over a month ago, but there’s something fun about a team capable of the game we saw last night, even if they are ALSO the team that’s capable of losing 3 of 4 at home to a terrible White Sox team, or punting easily winnable games left and right. Consistency is great, it’s admirable, and I tip my hat at the Dodgers of the world. The M’s don’t have that kind of talent, so they need to embrace their lack of consistency. Lose 4 in a row? Annoying, sure, but that just means you better come back and win 6 in a row.

The game did highlight another Astros weakness: their bullpen. To be clear: the Astros bullpen *looks* great. Ken Giles, Chris Devenski, a bunch of other guys that strike everyone out (James Hoyt!) – there’s depth, and sheer bat-missing ability here that pretty much no team can match. The problem is that they’ve been horrific in clutch situations, even as their peripherals look great. The Astros’ relievers have a HR/9 of 1.48 with no one on, but it’s 0.85 with men on base. They lead the league in K/9 in all situations, and while their FIP is lower with men on, that’s true of pretty much every team, so their FIP ranking goes up with men on; that is, they rank 7th in baseball with no one on, but 3rd with men on base. Despite low expected wOBA on contact, despite all of those strikeouts, the Astros’ pen has just given up a ton of runs. The more critical the situation, the worse it gets. Thus, you have a team that ranks so highly by K-BB% or any kind of defense-independent metric but ranks in the middle of the pack by win probability added. Chris Devenski was untouchable early in the year, so the Astros built up some positive WPA there, but they’ve been steadily giving it back. They’re now all but tied with the Mariners, the team that dug themselves a massive WPA hole early in the year.

This same sort of thing happened in 2015, when the Astros raced out to an out-of-nowhere, and seemingly insurmountable, divisional lead only to watch a leaky bullpen yield the division to the Texas Rangers. By RE24, so *even accounting for runners on base and situation* the Astros were one of the best, if not THE best bullpen in baseball that year. The problem was that every misstep seemed to come at the exact worst possible time. The Rangers were, famously, sequencing masters that year, as their oddball bullpen put up very average performances, but got a great performance every time they absolutely needed one. This sort of thing is, as you’d expect, pretty volatile and not indicative of real skill. But yet…Kansas City and Texas ended up “beating” their BaseRuns and RE24 numbers, and now this is the Astros’ second time in 3 years of significantly underperforming it. Of course, the Astros’ bullpen WPA was awesome last year, so it’s pretty hard to string some kind of narrative out of this, but it’s funny to see a perfect inverse of the old Baltimore Oriole ‘pen of 2012 who put up a staggering 13.5 Wins above average by WPA despite a closer who didn’t strike anyone out. The Astros strike *everyone* out, and limit hits, but if it’s a tie game late, they’ve given up long HRs or 3 straight seeing-eye singles. This is probably much less funny to Astros fans.

Brad Peacock, like so many Astros, has been a replacement-level, fungible 5th starter, but decided this year to just strike everyone out. Charlie Morton started it last year, so this shouldn’t really be so shocking to me anymore, but here we are. Peacock throws a four-seamer at about 93 from a low 3/4 release point, but his most-used pitch is his slider – a sweeping frisbee-like offering at 81. He has a curve that he saves for lefties, and it looks like a good pitch, but his slider is his primary breaking ball against all batters. Again, the release point and heavy slider usage should create a pitcher with huge platoon splits, and Peacock isn’t like McCullers – he has normal platoon splits, with lefties hitting him a bit better than righties. But I still can’t figure out how the Astros can be so effective against opposite-handed hitters despite approaches/repertoires that should *maximize* platoon split issues, not minimize them. Yes, he’s better against righties, but how is Peacock’s FIP vs. LHBs under 3? How does McCullers disguise his slurve to lefties? How does Dallas Keuchel survive throwing 88 MPH sinkers at line-ups featuring 8 righthanders and win Cy Young awards? It’s tempting to just say “Command” and with Keuchel, you might have a point, but I’m not sure McCullers really has plus command at this point, and I’m 100% sure Brad Peacock doesn’t (he’s walking over 14% of batters faced). Something else is going on.

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

To make room for Gaviglio, the M’s have optioned OF Boog Powell back to Tacoma. He’s in the line-up for the R’s today in Albuquerque. The R’s comeback against the Isotopes fell just short last night, as Albuquerque prevailed 6-5. Christian Bergman was tagged with his first AAA loss of the year. Tylers Smith and O’Neill homered for Tacoma. Today, they play a doubleheader, with Cody Martin starting game 1, and a bullpen day for the nightcap. Luckily, both games are only 7 IP.

Arkansas demolished the Tulsa Drillers 13-2, handing Tim Shibuya his first AA loss. Dylan Unsworth was great, tossing 6 IP of 1 run ball with 5 Ks. Chuck Taylor homered twice and knocked in 5. It’ll be Anthony Misiewicz on the hill tonight for the Travs.

Modesto beat Inland Empire behind a bend-don’t-break start from Nick Neidert. The M’s top pitching prospect gave up 1 run in 5 IP, but walked and K’d 3, and he also gave up 7 hits. Eric Filia doubled twice for the Nuts, who’ll send Pablo Lopez to the mound today against IE, the Angels’ affiliate.

I mentioned Robert Dugger’s 7 shutout IP yesterday. He’s now made 9 starts after starting the year in the pen, and in those 9 games and 45 2/3 IP, Dugger has given up 34 hits, 6 runs, 9 walks, and 46 Ks. That’s a 1.18 ERA and a K:BB ratio over 5 for about 2 months as a starter.

Eugene beat Everett 5-4 despite Brayan Hernandez’s 3B and 2 RBIs. The Emeralds walked it off against Gonzaga product Wyatt Mills in the bottom of the 9th. JP Sears had 2 Ks in 1 1/3 IP, so he’s now at 22 Ks and 3 walks in 10 2/3 IP. Someone seems ready for the MWL, in my humble opinion.

Kyle Lewis went 2-6 for the Arizona League M’s in a rehab appearance last night.

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