Game 8, Mariners at Twins

marc w · April 10, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Michael Pineda, 11:10am

Like you, I have no idea why this three-game series has an odd, Friday-shaped hole in it, but it does. That’s unfortunate, because I’m still at the stage of the season where I want to watch the M’s pretty much every day, and also because we have to stew on Marco Gonzales’ second-straight disaster of a start for a longer-than-usual time. It’s a great thing about baseball – if your team suffers an agonizing loss, or a starter looks lost, or the umpires blew a big call, more baseball comes along in a few hours and wipes it all away. There’s so much baseball, you simply can’t get hung up on one game.

But in the absence of Friday baseball, I’m going to get hung up on one game. After two starts, Gonzales has yielded 5 HRs and 5 walks – he gave up just 8 and 7, respectively, all of last year. Something is really off, as every one of his pitches is getting hit hard. It seems likely that his once-exceptional command is just a bit off, but it’s surprisingly hard to find evidence of that in part because it’s hard to really define what we mean by command. As Michael Ajeto explained over at LL, Gonzales has been elite in keeping his pitches in the edge of the strike zone and out of the middle. He was one of the best in baseball at that last year, and, predictably, he’s not in the top 10 now. But that said, he’s still above average – it’s not a complete collapse, it’s just what looks like some early-season jitters.

The problem isn’t that Gonzales is throwing center-cut meatballs (he’s actually thrown fewer of them this year) and missing his spots. The problem is that hitting his spots isn’t helping. Last year, when he hit the edge of the zone, batters put up a .201 wOBA. This year, in a tiny sample of course, it’s up at .571. You can hope that this is just noise, and that he’ll look like himself in his next start. But there’s not really a contingency plan if he doesn’t. With James Paxton now headed for TJ surgery, the M’s depth is pretty much already deployed. Sure, bring Nick Margevicius out of the pen or what have you, but I’m not convinced they can get a whole year out of some of the guys they have in there now, especially if Justin Dunn’s control keeps leaving him.

This has been the concern: that Gonzales throwing 88 has less margin for error than Gonzales throwing 91-92, and while his command was razor sharp last year, it wasn’t pinpoint in 2019, so it may not be as repeatable as we’d like. Moreover, there’s just not a clear roadmap to improvement. Ajeto suggests tunneling his four-seam and curve and throwing a lot fewer cutters. That’s probably a good place to start; the cutter’s been annihilated thus far. But I’m not sure that Gonzales can survive throwing elevated 88 mph fastballs in 2021, even if the ball’s *slightly* dampened from last year’s super ball.

Today, the M’s face old friend Michael Pineda, who came back from TJ surgery a few years ago and has been a pretty effective starter for Minnesota when he’s healthy. He’s not throwing in the mid 90s anymore, but his slider remains a formidable pitch. He only made 5 starts last year, but in them, batters *slugged* .119 off of that slider – the one Dave Niehaus so memorably called “diabolical” years and years ago. This year, it’s more of the same. When he’s on, that slider works, and he’s a very effective starter. Even when it’s less good, like 2018, he’s more of a middle of the rotation guy. It’s been a very strange, very stop-and-start career for Pineda, but he’s been effective, when healthy, since his first game with the M’s a decade ago.

1: Haniger, RF
2: France, DH
3: Seager, 3B
4: Marmolejos, 1B
5: Torrens, C
6: Moore, 2B
7: Trammell, CF
8: Haggerty, LF
9: Crawford, SS
SP: Kikuchi

Game 7, Mariners at Twins – Road Game #1

marc w · April 8, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. José Berríos, 1:10pm

I didn’t think Justin Dunn vs. Dallas Keuchel would feature a lot of Ks, and I suppose it didn’t. I didn’t think that the M’s could do a whole lot against what was supposed to be a very strong Chicago bullpen, and thus I thought that yesterday’s game might be a shorter, more action-packed affair. It was full of action, all right, but Dunn’s control problems made it a real slog, and it clocked in at nearly 4 hours. I’ve heard from so many people that these super-long games, even if they’re low scoring and finished in 9 innings, are kind of off-putting.

The question is what to do about it. I think we can all agree that M’s starting pitchers should avoid walking 8 opposing batters, so let’s mark that as done. But to get a bit solipsistic for a minute, I was chuckling about yesterday’s post when watching the at-bat that utterly turned the game around for Seattle yesterday: Ty France’s 11-pitch walk. Daniel Kramer’s got a good post about it at Mariners.com, and it’s worth checking out. France came back from an 0-2 count and spoiled a lot of good fastballs, but Matt Foster’s command of his change was wobbling. France took advantage, and made Foster work, until he finally walked him, loading the bases for Kyle Seager, who dropped a perfectly-placed opposite field lob shot to clear the bases.

If I was a Sox fan, this would’ve been frustrating as hell: the game just stops as France spoils pitch after pitch, then steps out of the box, back in, adjusts his batting gloves, etc. As an M’s fan, you knew you were watching something special; France wasn’t just staying alive, he was frustrating and whittling away at Foster’s effectiveness. As we talked about yesterday, relievers are built nowadays to come in and pump 15-20 96 MPH fastballs by people. Foster wasn’t “on” yesterday, but he sure wasn’t on after an 11 pitch AB. I’m not sure if it helped Seager see fastball or change out of Foster’s hand, or if Foster was just gassed, but few relievers can be effective after so many pitches.

Today, the M’s head to Minnesota to take on the 4-2 Twins. The Twins opened the year against Milwaukee, and then faced the Detroit Tigers. While I don’t think either of those teams is a big World Series contender, they can pitch. And thus, after six games, the Twins have a very high K rate, but it’s balanced by some patience and power. In other words, meet the new Twins, same as the old Twins. Gone is Eddie Rosaria, but they’ve got an interesting mix of super-low K contact guys, headlined by Luis Arraez and Willian Astudillo, and then some high-power, high-K guys, headlined by Miguel Sano. And in the middle, making it all work, is the ageless Nelson Cruz.

The Twins staff has obscenely good stats thus far, but it helps that half of their starts have come in Detroit, and the other half against a seriously scuffling Brewers team (what the hell happened to Keston Hiura? Yikes). Still, José Berríos is a guy the M’s know well, and know he can be very tough. He held the Brewers hitless through the 6th in his first start, so he’s off to a good start.

Berríos struck out 12 in 6 IP, so there weren’t that many balls in play, but the 6 that the Brewers did manage were hit exceptionally weakly. His curve/slider thing is a fascinating pitch, a bit like Lance McCullers’, in that it’s thrown from a slightly low angle, and thus features a ton of horizontal AND vertical movement. In that first start in Milwaukee, Berríos’ big breaking ball had even more vertical break than usual, which may account for some of the weak contact and whiffs. It’s certainly something to watch for today, particularly against the M’s right-handed bats.

1: Haniger, RF
2: France, DH
3: Seager, 3B
4: Marmolejos, 1B
5: Moore, 2B
6: Trammell, CF
7: Torrens, C
8: Haggerty, RF
9: Crawford, SS
SP: Gonzales

Evan White hurt his leg in yesterday’s game – what’s being described as a quad strain. We’ll see if he joins Jake Fraley (hamstring) on the IL. For now, they’re just going to give him a few days rest.

Game 6, White Sox at Mariners – Day Baseball

marc w · April 7, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Justin Dunn vs. Dallas Keuchel, 1:10pm

Last night’s loss was dispiriting. The M’s fought back to tie the game at 3, but things went downhill from there, culminating in a Grand Slam to officially make the game a rout. The great Larry Stone summed it up in a tweet:

I’ve been thinking about the interrelated debates over pace of play and the growth of the three true outcomes a lot, and I think Stone gets at something important: some things may be awful when they happen TO you, but are thrilling and joyous when you’re able to do them yourself. If the M’s struck out 15 White Sox instead of the other way around, we’d be talking about how great Paxton looked, or the bullpen righting the ship or something. Instead, we have to talk about an offense that’s really, really struggling to make contact and another injury to the Big Maple.

The best pitcher to ever put on an M’s uniform was Randy Johnson, and, well, if you liked balls in play, he wasn’t your favorite player. Here’s a random Randy box score from 1993. There are innumerable things that instantly mark it as alien and impossible in the modern game – you can start with Randy’s pitch count of 158 and move on to the fact that Oakland let Jim Slusarski walk *8* to just 1 strikeout in 6 2/3 IP. But the game featured 31 walks/Ks out of its 78 plate appearances. That’s 40%, so less than last night, but not by much. Here’s another box score, this one from 1992. Randy was outdueled by a 45-year old Nolan Ryan, and fully 45% of the PAs ended in a walk or K. Was that boring and unwatchable, or something you’d tell your grandkids you saw?

What’s “bad for the game” and what’s just “bad when it happens to the M’s?” What’s bad all the time, and what’s bad because it happens 5 times a week? I’m asking because as many have pointed out, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. I don’t think teams are going to prefer pitch-to-contact pitchers just because fans complain about three true outcome games, and I don’t think teams are going to employ high contact hitters who don’t provide value outside of that contact (Nick Madrigal may want to start showing a hint of gap power). Pitchers throw mid-90s and can manipulate the shape of their ridiculous change-ups the way Lucas Giolito did last night; it took him a long time to figure all of this stuff out and he’s not going to abandon it now.

A part of what we hate, though, is the sheer amount of time this all takes. Those Randy Johnson games from the early 90s? Neither took anywhere near as long as last night’s game. One was 3:10, the other 3:04. Last night’s was 3:45. A big part of that isn’t the three true outcomes, it was the sheer number of batters faced – a number pushed higher, oddly, but the very un-2021 number of base hits. But the real culprit is the number of pitching changes. More pitchers pitch each game, and the workload of each of them continues to go down. This is, of course, changeable, but it’s hard given the way so many relievers have learned their trade: that the entire point is to come out and throw each pitch as hard as you possibly can for 15 pitches, and then the next guy will do the same.

The other culprit here is foul balls. In 2019, fouls represented 28.2% of total strikes (looking, swung at, put in play, etc.). In 2000, it was 27%, and it was under 27% in 1993. These are small changes, but they add up: pitches per plate appearance has moved up inexorably from 3.65 in 1993 to 3.75 in 2000 to 3.92 in 2019. It all adds up to tens of thousands more pitches at the season level. Those extra pitches aren’t ending up as walks; the walk rate used to be higher. They’re becoming K’s.

Another thing that fits into this, and was highlighted in last night’s slog of a loss, is the fact that it felt so inevitable. Rob Mains has written a great series on the three true outcomes penalty – how much worse a pitcher fares the third time in a game they face an opposing hitter. In the most recent one, he mentions that one side-effect of managers learning and reacting to this situation (going to the bullpen more often/earlier in a game) has been a league-wide decline in comebacks. Again, the change isn’t huge – teams trailing after 6 used to win 14.4% of the time (in 1970), but by 2020 it was just 12.6%.

I’m not saying that last night’s game was scintillating, or that the concern over pace and three-true-outcomes isn’t warranted. But in my own mind, I’m still having trouble separating out all of these league wide trends versus some very apparent and specific defects in our beloved Seattle Mariners. Last night’s game felt like it was lost when the M’s trailed the second time. In fact, it might have felt lost when the M’s had runners at 2nd and 3rd with one out and then struck out three consecutive times. Yes, a run scored on one of those K’s, because Baseball!, but the point was made: the M’s are going to squeeze fewer runs out of rallies because the middle of their line-up can’t stop striking out.

No trend or long-term arc in the game forces the M’s to bunch their high-K hitters together, and while the trend of more relievers with the platoon advantage and high-octane stuff doesn’t help, the M’s need to think about how they want to adapt to this reality.

And hey, if you like balls in play and fewer Ks? Today’s game looks like it might be a good one. The M’s face low-velo sinkerballer Dallas Keuchel, and they’ll have Justin Dunn on the mound, a righty with a career 7.4 K/9, which is what passes for a pitch-to-contact guy now that the entire league average is over 9Ks/9.

1: Haniger, DH
2: France, 2B
3: Seager, 3B
4: White, 1B
5: Moore, LF
6: Murphy, C
7: Trammell, CF
8: Haggerty, RF
9: Crawford, SS
SP: Dunn

Dylan Moore got the day off yesterday, as his contact problems have been especially acute in the early going. He leads all of MLB in in-zone fastballs whiffed on, and that’s not what you want to lead baseball in. It’s early, and he’s a better hitter than he’s shown; probably just a timing thing. Taylor Trammell’s contact issues are a bit more concerning, and moving him down in the line-up is probably for the best right now. Glad he’s not facing another Giolito, but he will have to face a lefty after getting the night off when the M’s faced Carlos Rodon.

Moore moves out to LF after Jake Fraley hit the 10 day IL with a hamstring strain last night. And of course, the bigger injury news is that James Paxton will join Fraley on the IL with a forearm strain. Watching Paxton last night, I feared the worst. He wasn’t waving off Scott Servais, he was pissed. He’d winced after 2-3 pitches before looking like his last pitch hurt *bad.* Forearm strains and elbow issues tend to go together, so we’ll have to keep an eye on this, but so much for the idea that the 6-man rotation and slowly increasing his workload would help keep him healthy.

Game 5, White Sox at Mariners

marc w · April 6, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

JAMES PAXTON vs. Lucas Giolito, 7:10pm

Last night’s game was a clunker. The M’s could not handle Carlos Rodon, who showed that the velo gains he made late in 2020 could still be put to good use, and his slider was as effective as ever. Hey, sometimes a reclamation project figures something out, and you’ve got to tip your cap to Rodon after a performance like that. Perhaps more concerning was Justus Sheffield’s outing, giving up 6 runs (4 earned) in 5 innings. Sheffield gave up 8 hits and issued three free passes (2 BB, 1 HBP), and giving up a home run (after allowing only 2 last year).

His slider wasn’t bad, but his sinker had a bit less sink. It’s only one game, and it came against a potent offense, but the M’s offense may not be able to help much if M’s starters falter. Sheffield, like Marco before him in game 1, needs to keep the game close.

Of course, the M’s may be better suited to help their pitchers do that thanks to the six man rotation and the extra day of rest it provides the starters. It might *really* help today’s starter, James Paxton. Paxton’s injury history is…extensive, and he suffered volatility in his velo during his time with the Yankees. If he’s healthy and throwing well, he gives the M’s rotation a quality it doesn’t really have without him. I’d say he adds depth, but that’s what Nick Margevicius and Ljay Newsome brings. He brings #1/#2 stuff to the middle of the rotation, and if he’s able to do so consistently, and if he’s able to increase his workload this year, it turns an average-ish rotation into a strength.

Part of keeping him healthy is going to be ensuring that he’s stretched out, and after missing some time mostly for visa issues this spring, the M’s are going to limit his workload tonight to 75 pitches or so. We’ll take what we can get, as Paxton’s going to be fun to watch. One thing to keep an eye on is his pitch mix. With Seattle, everything worked off of his four-seam fastball, and he added a hard cutter/slider as his putaway pitch, with his curve and rare change to round out the arsenal. With the Yankees, he went more to a sinker, and de-emphasized his four-seam. Was that a conscious decision, given the homer-friendly park? Classification error? Or a new weapon? We’ll soon find out.

Lucas Giolito was the best arm in his draft class (2012), which was saying something, given his own HS team also included Max Fried and Jack Flaherty. But he lost most of his senior year to elbow pain, causing him to fall to Washington at #16 overall. Soon after signing, the Nats confirmed it: he’d need TJ surgery. He rehabbed and reclaimed his place as one of baseball’s best prospects, and while the K rate wasn’t eye-popping as he moved up the ladder, the results were mostly there. He got a cup of coffee for Washington in 2016, and then was traded to Chicago as part of the Adam Eaton deal. Despite so-so stats in AAA, he got another big league opportunity in 2017, and was..fine. But everything collapsed in 2018, as he suffered through a long season with an ERA over 6 – an ERA he earned by walking nearly 12% of hitters and posting a poor 16% K rate.

He was just 23, but the Sox outlook suddenly looked cloudier. Carlos Rodon stagnated. Dylan Covey struggled. Yoan Moncada, the big prospect in the Chris Sale deal, was a below-average hitter, and shortstop of the future Tim Anderson posted a .281 OBP. Wasn’t the re-build supposed to be showing signs of life by now? Instead, the pitchers seemed to be going in reverse.

Everything changed for Giolito in 2019. Renewed confidence in his change gave him an outpitch, and his four-seam fastball went from being a real liability to an excellent pitch. He increased the spin rate on his heater, and was able to increase its vertical movement from essentially dead-on average to a few inches above average. He ditched his sinker, and swapped his curve for a slider. All in all, he’s gone from a clearly below-average starter to the unquestioned ace of the White Sox, with newfound bat-missing ability and confidence. He’s become the pitcher that scouts saw back in 2011 or so, but took a winding path to get there.

I think about the White Sox a lot, ever since writing that post coming out of the All Star break in 2017: the White Sox had a young club, signed to team-friendly extensions and the blew it all up, collecting a murderer’s row of prospects in the process. They looked set to become a threat, but the prospects took longer to gel than we’d thought. Is that how it’s going to be in Seattle? Is that what’s going on right now, or in 2020 – are what looks like growing pains for, say, JP Crawford actually incredibly important development, allowing him to make the leap that Tim Anderson did for the Sox in 2019? Are these guys closer than we think? Or was it always folly to think that the M’s could chop several years off the timeline for a rebuild, especially if they had to do it without the kind of international free agent talent (Luis Robert) and trade chips (Moncada and Kelenic may be a push, but the Sox also had Giolito, Dylan Cease, Reynaldo Lopez, etc.) that Chicago had?

1: Haniger, RF
2: France, 2B
3: Seager, 3B
4: White, 1B
5: Trammell, CF
6: Marmolejos, DH
7: Torrens, C
8: Fraley, LF
9: Crawford, SS
SP: James Paxton, woooo

Game 4, White Sox at Mariners

marc w · April 5, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Justus Sheffield vs. Carlos Rodón, 7:10pm

After a great series win against San Francisco, the M’s welcome in the first contending team they’ll face this year: the Chicago White Sox. The south siders made the playoffs last year before being bounced by the AL West champs from Oakland. It’s been a long, hard road back to contention for Chicago after going into a rebuild by trading away Chris Sale and Adam Eaton.

A key consideration in that rebuild was tonight’s starter, Carlos Rodon. The Sox drafted him #3 overall in 2014 out of NC State, where he’d come into his junior year as the prohibitive favorite to go #1 overall, but some up-and-down velocity readings dropped him a couple of places. He made his big league debut in 2015 and was pretty successful early on, including his first full season, where he dropped his slightly elevated walk rate and tossed 165+ IP.

Unfortunately, that total remains his career high, and after shoulder problems, bursitis, and then TJ surgery, he’s combined to throw less than 43 innings since 2018. He’s been working with a new, external coach to try and help him stay healthy, and in his very brief return last year, he touched 97-98 at times. But he struggled anyway, and with a career walk rate at about 10%, it couldn’t have come as a complete shock when the Sox non-tendered him this winter. He ultimately re-signed with the club on a one-year show-us-what-you’ve-got contract, and looked good enough this spring that he won his old job back and is once again in the middle of the Sox rotation.

That’s impressive given the Sox goals this year. After a first round exit last year, the Sox are clearly gunning for the World Series, trading for Lance Lynn to help the rotation and bolstering an already impressive bullpen with Liam Hendriks. Their first series of the year didn’t go according to script, though, as they lost 3 of 4 to an Angels team that looked fairly impressive on offense.

Rodón’s best pitch since college has been his slider. Even after over 2,500 of them in his big league career, batters are still *slugging* just .236 off of it. Despite good velocity, batters have not had similar problems with his fastball. He came up with a four-seam and sinker, but has moved away from the sinker over time. Not a huge surprise, as batters slugged .526 off of it. They’ve had slightly less success off of the four-seam, but fundamentally, Rodón wants to get ahead and then fire off some sliders. As you might expect, this plan has worked a lot better against lefties than it has against righties, and thus the M’s will trot out a slightly tweaked, righty-heavy line-up tonight with Sam Haggerty in CF and Taylor Trammell getting a night off.

Chris Flexen was great in his first game with Seattle. He sat at 94 with his fastball, and showed off a cutter than looked unhittable at times. It was just one game, it’s early, yadda yadda, but he showed the stuff of a legitimate rotation mainstay. If he can keep that up, his signing really is one of the steals of the offseason.

1: Haniger, RF
2: France, DH
3: Seager, 3B
4: White, 1B
5: Moore, 2B
6: Murphy, C
7: Fraley, LF
8: Haggerty, CF
9: Crawford, SS
SP: Sheffield

The M’s can’t go as righty-heavy as other teams without hurting their defense, and of course, they don’t have Kyle Lewis available right now. But it does make sense to have Trammell start on the bench, I think, and get as righty-heavy as is practicable.

Steven Goldman’s article on the debates around pace of play and three-true-outcome dominant baseball at BP is worth your time ($). It’s the latest in a series of articles on how baseball got into the predicament wherein it’s increasingly rare that plays involve fielders, and who’s to blame. “Analytics” have been blamed by many, but as Goldman puts it, there’s no way to unlearn what we’ve learned about anything from the wisdom of bunting a runner to 2nd to the value of stolen bases or even how to train pitchers.

It’s an important debate as the league mulls a variety of ways to increase balls in play, and at least in the early going, the ball does seem to be limiting HRs to a degree. But as important as it is, I felt a little weird about that whole debate this morning. Why? Because the story of last night was Shohei Ohtani doing Shohei Ohtani things. He hit 101 with his fastball, and his splitter was utterly ridiculous, eliciting swings on pitches that traveled 57 feet…and you couldn’t blame the hitters. Then, in the first, Ohtani (hitting 2nd!) launched a long, long HR. It was the most electrifying performance on the young season, and it was…all three true outcomes stuff. Ohtani tossed 4 2/3 IP (before coming out after a collision at the plate that the Angels swear wasn’t injurious in any way), walking *5* and striking out 7.

Perhaps no one is doing more to make baseball as viral or “cool” on social media than Rob Friedman, the Pitching Ninja. For years, he would make GIFs of the nastiest pitches in the game. At first, MLB banned him for it, but relented and essentially brought him into the fold. Every day, he tweets out a ton of GIFs and talks to pitchers about how they throw them. He’s become popular not only among online fans, but among pitchers themselves, who’ve learned grips from his interviews with their colleagues.

It’s awesome, and I love watching pitches like Devin Williams’ airbender that we haven’t gotten to see due to the pandemic and the general paucity of games between Seattle and the NL central. But it strikes me that we as fans are going nuts over the *exact* thing that is making the game so three-true-outcomes heavy. We can’t get enough of Shohei Ohtani’s 100 MPH fastball and 91 MPH splitter. We love dingers. We don’t actually want to return to 2014, even if we keep saying we do! Our heart simply isn’t in it!

And this year shows that trying to reduce the ratio of home runs to fly balls can have other consequences – the new ball does indeed seem to be reducing HR/FB, but strikeouts are up markedly in the early going, as pitchers have appreciated the more standardized seam height. The nuclear option here remains moving the mound back and giving hitters a bit more time. But as Driveline’s Kyle Boddy mentions, it’s not clear that even that would come without serious unintended consequences: he believes it would aid breaking ball movement (giving a curve more time to move, or a slider to slide), potentially increasing both walks AND strikeouts. We may be seeing a bit of that already in the early going, as the new ball has sent walks and K’s up in the first few games.

I think the interim solution may simply be to increase the size of the OF, meaning Seattle and other teams may need to abandon the new OF alignment and move the fences back where they were when the park opened. Same in Comerica, same in Citi Field, etc. The league freaked out when offense nosedived from 2010-2014, and teams like the M’s moved fences in. Then, the ball ushered in a HR era the likes of which we’d never seen before. Before we try and move the mound, and before the league tries to seriously deaden the ball, why not flip things back to 2011 or so and move the fences? I know, I know: it’s really expensive. But it seems a bit more in keeping with the balance between hitters and pitchers than endless changes with the ball, and it seems less likely to come with serious unintended consequences than moving the mound.

Game 3, Giants at Mariners – New Ball, Same as the Old Ball

marc w · April 3, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Chris Flexen vs. Logan Webb, 6:10pm

Last night, it was the M’s bullpen’s turn to struggle, as Drew Steckenrider couldn’t keep the Giants off the board, and the M’s lost 6-3. The M’s seemed to have Johnny Cueto on the ropes early on, but the veteran ended up pitching a decent game. Yusei Kikuchi was better than just decent, striking out 10 to just 1 walk in 6 innings. But for the second game in a row, the M’s allowed some dingers, allowing the Giants to get back in the game.

The M’s couldn’t punish the Giants last night for starting a guy coming off a couple of bad seasons, but hey, they’ll get another chance tonight. Logan Webb was the Giants 4th round pick in 2014 out of California high school, and rose up through the system thanks to very high ground ball rates and a change-up that’d miss some bats. He was never a big strikeout pitcher, and still isn’t, though he does manage to strike out about 20% of opposing hitters.

He’s got a four-seam fastball that sinks, and what looks like an interesting sinker with tons of armside run and sink. He uses the four-seamer to lefty batters, and does his best Marco Gonzales impression vs righties, where he’ll throw about 1/4 four-seamers, 1/4 sinkers, 1/4 change-ups, and 1/4 breaking balls. He’s got a curve, and picked up a hard cutter last year, thrown at 90-91 (his fastball’s only 93).

The change-up counters the platoon issues with a sinking fastball, so he doesn’t have big platoon splits at all; at this point, they’re actually negative. But like Cueto, his real problem has been stranding runners. Webb walks a few too many and doesn’t strike out enough batters to compensate. His GB tendencies and his home park have helped him keep the HR monster at bay, but with a BABIP of .340 in his short career, he’s just putting too many on base.

All of that said, he was the talk of the Giants spring, going 2-0 in 17 IP with 22 Ks to just 2 BBs. He allowed just 7 hits in those 17 innings, leading to a lot of hope among Giants fans that the 24-year old has figured something out. Does a performance that good illustrate that his success will carry over into the season, or is spring training still meaningless?

The Giants now lead MLB in homers with 6 in their first two games, while the M’s are one of several teams who haven’t hit one yet. It’s still way too early to say much about the new baseball, but if the idea was that the looser yarn would depress scoring…it hasn’t happened. The league batting average on contact and wOBA on contact is much, much higher, driven at least in part by a big spike in BABIP (remember BABIP had been down in recent years). That said, the percentage of balls in play that have gone for dingers IS down, at least after, uh, two games. We’ll have to check back later, but as of right now, strikeouts are up, walks are waaay up (though that may just be the Giants opening day performance spoiling the data), and scoring’s up, despite the fact that no one’s faced a 4th/5th starter yet.

Line-up:

1: Haniger, DH
2: France, 2B
3: Seager, 3B
4: White, 1B
5: Trammell, CF
6: Moore, LF
7: Fraley, RF
8: Torrens, C
9: Crawford, SS
SP: Flexen

Game 2, Giants at Mariners

marc w · April 2, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Johnny Cueto, 7:10pm

How do you top that? The M’s are 1-0 after one of the strangest, most unlikely comebacks we’ve seen in years. After the top of the 8th inning last night, the M’s trailed 6-1, and had scrounged up just two hits and two walks against Kevin Gausman, who looked dominant at times. For the bottom of the inning, the Giants went to the ‘pen, bringing in ex-Mariners Matt Wisler, and that’s when things fell apart for San Francisco.

Wisler walked the first batter to face him, JP Crawford. Mitch Haniger singled. Ty France hit a two-strike slider off the end of the bat for a dying quail single, and getting the M’s a run to make it 6-2. Wisler didn’t have it, so the Giants brought in Jarlin Garcia. He, too, walked the first batter to face him, loading the bases with no outs. He came back to K Evan White on a full count, but then walked Taylor Trammell to allow a run. Tyler Rogers replaced Garcia, and immediately yielded an opposite field double, and then hit Jake Fraley in the back. The Giants then booted an easy double-play ball off the bat of Jose Marmolejos, giving the M’s a 7-6 lead, before Rogers came back to get Crawford and Haniger.

Sure, sure, Rafael Montero immediately blew the save by giving up a dinger to the first batter he faced, but whatever. The M’s went quietly in the 9th, but in the bottom of the 10th, the M’s started with a runner on second, and new pitcher Jose Alvarez…walked three in a row, and the M’s won 8-7. The Giants bullpen allowed 7 walks, a HBP, and 3 hits in 2 1/3 innings. They had the game won, facing a line-up that their started utterly dominated, and they simply could not throw a strike.

I’d wondered if the whiff-prone bottom of the M’s order would prove problematic, and White’s bases-loaded, no-out strikeout vs. a struggling Garcia looked like a harbinger of an improbable escape by the Giants. But instead, they just kept walking (or plunking) guys with 30% K rates. Jake Fraley has not set the baseball world on fire in two short cups of coffee. You’d think the Giants would love to force Jake Fraley to beat them in late-game situations, and in two massive, high-leverage PAs in the 8th and then 10th, they hit him in the back and walked him with the bases loaded.

The insanity of the win helped distract from the ugliness of the first 7 innings. Marco Gonzales looked bad, frankly, with a sinker averaging 87, 3 home runs allowed, and, uncharacteristically, 3 walks against just 2 strikeouts. He had poor command, and was punished for it. Rafael Montero’s M’s debt could’ve gone better, and while White doubled and scored the M’s first run, he went 1-5 with 2 Ks. Perhaps worse was JP Craawford, who made a run-scoring error in the field, and went 0-3 with a walk and a K.

The M’s bullpen looked…pretty good, aside from Montero’s meatball to Alex Dickerson. Casey Sadler K’d 2, Will Vest wasn’t razor sharp, but made his big league debut and did fine, and Anthony Misiewicz pitched the 10th and didn’t allow the automatic runner to score.

Today, the M’s face veteran crafty righty, Johnny Cueto. Cueto’s become famous in recent years for varying the timing on his pitches to confuse hitters, using a quick pitch at times, and then hanging out with his front leg in the air for what seems like 5 minutes before delivering a pitch. He sits 91-92 these days, and has something of a sinking four-seam fastball (or at least, it’s not a real backspin-heavy four-seam), and his best pitch is a diving, splitter-style change. If you remember from last night’s post, that’s similar to Gausman’s approach, though of course Gausman adds mid-90s velocity to the package. Against righties, Cueto’s been throwing more change-ups than fastballs, almost the way late-period Zack Greinke has adjusted his approach (last night he threw, on consecutive pitches, an 88 MPH fastball and then an 88 MPH change).

Unfortunately, all of the timing tricks in the world can’t fool father time. Cueto’s change made him impervious to platoon splits for most of his career, but even a solid change can’t make up for declining velo and slipping secondaries. Lefties killed him in 2019, and it sunk his season – he was still fairly effective against righties, but teams noticed, and he faced plenty of lefties. Last year, it was more of the same, as he walked a ton of lefties. His splits looked more normal, but that wasn’t a good thing – it just meant he allowed a bunch of HRs to righties, and he posted a second-straight season with an ERA over 5.

Yusei Kikuchi knows a thing or two about two straight sub-par seasons despite pitching in an offense-suppressing home park. He was electric at times last year, as he gained velocity and debuted a wicked cutter at 90 MPH, a pitch that was quite effective against lefties and righties alike. Let’s hope he gets off to a strong start this year and helps solidify the M’s rotation.

The line-up:
1: Haniger, RF
2: France, DH
3: Seager, 3B
4: White, 1B
5: Trammell, CF
6: Moore, 2B
7: Fraley, LF
8: Torrens, C
9: Crawford, SS
SP: Kikuchi

Really not sure what to make of batting White 4th again, particularly given Cueto’s a righty. They need to get as many ABs as possible to Dylan Moore, I’d think. Harping on the batting order isn’t really this blog’s primary area of concern, but it looks strange to me.

Game 1, Giants at Mariners

marc w · April 1, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Kevin Gausman, 7:10pm

Well, here we go. The M’s season kicks off tonight in the first-ever interleague opening day for Seattle. Marco Gonzales makes his third consecutive opening day start, and he’s coming off a brilliant, if short, season. After a 2019 that showed him survive serious regression in his walk and K rates – driven in part by lower velocity – he improved every facet of his game in 2020. His walks dropped below 1 per 9IP, an unfathomably low mark, and he did it while increasing his strikeouts. No, that missing velocity didn’t come back, but with a variety of pitches thrown with command (and seam-shifted wake adding to batters’ confusion), he didn’t miss it.

The Giants come to Seattle in a similar place, organizationally. The glory of their three World Series championships has faded a bit, and they’re now in something of a rebuild. Catcher of the future, Joey Bart, had a rough introduction to MLB, but the club hit the ball well thanks to a bounce-back year from Brandon Belt, and a breakout campaign from OF Mike Yastrzemski, and a good year from new 2B Wilmer Flores. They had some holes in the line-up, but overall, the strength of the team was their position-player group.

The pitching staff wasn’t terrible, but it had very little depth. Unfortunately for the Giants, there’s not a lot of depth in their system at the moment. Their system leans towards position players, and the guy nearest to the majors is Hunter Bishop, brother of the M’s Braden Bishop. Hunter doesn’t pitch, though, so the Giants have to hope their jury-rigged rotation holds together. To their credit, the Giants have done pretty well scrounging the waiver wire for pitchers.

Their rotation’s mainstay is 35-year old Johnny Cueto, but they had almost no one behind him to fill out the other four spots. They picked up tonight’s starter, Kevin Gausman, off of waivers before last year, and watched him become the staff ace. They also got Jeff Samardzija, whom they cut in September, and Drew Smyly, who left after the year. So, back to free agency they went, but the bargain bin of free agency. They weren’t in on Trevor Bauer, but picked up Aaron Sanchez and hope he’ll be healthy enough to pitch, and got Anthony DeSclafini from the Reds org.

Gausman was the big prize, and his growth was a feather in the cap of the big league coaches. Gausman’s been an elite talent since college; the Orioles picked him 4th overall out of LSU in 2012 thanks to a mid-90s fastball, a slider, and a real outpitch: a hard sinking splitter. He’s got velocity, movement, and a bat-missing weapon that works against righties and lefties alike. How’s this guy in the *bargain bin?*

We can see the velocity numbers, his arsenal, and, these days, things like spin rate. But ultimately, only batters determine how good a pitcher’s stuff is. That…that was unfortunate for Mr. Gausman. Despite touching the high-90s at times, batters have simply never been troubled by Gausman’s fastball. After throwing over 10,000 of them in his big league career, batters are hitting .288 and slugging .461 off of the heater. But it gets worse: off of Gausman’s slider, his one breaking ball after ditching an ineffective curve, batters are hitting .321 and slugging *.564*. Off of a breaking ball. For his (long-ish) career. That’s stunningly bad.

It’s a testament to that velo and of course that transcendent splitter (career .191 average, and SLG% just over .300) that he’s still getting offers. Despite sporadic success, he’s fallen hard in 2017 and then again in 2019, despite finally missing the bats that pitching coaches all thought he should. Home runs have been a fairly consistent problem, but the real issue has been his BABIP. Yes, it’s often seen as random, but in Gausman’s career, it’s at .313, and has dipped below .300 only twice (including last year). Whatever the opposite of deception? That’s Gausman’s fastball to batters.

It’s funny, because I think of Marco Gonzales as the anti-Gausman: he has poor velocity, no real “wow” outpitch (when he was drafted, everyone thought that pitch would be his change, but it’s never really happened), and elite command. All that said, Gonzales struggled for years with…home runs and BABIP. Even after solving those issues in recent years, Gonzales’ career BABIP is still pretty high. But the pitcher perhaps most akin to Gausman in terms of BABIP woes-despite-high-octane-stuff is James Paxton, who has the exact same BABIP since 2016 as Gausman: .317.

The Line-up:

1: Haniger, RF
2: France, DH
3: Seager, 3B
4: White, 1B
5: Trammell, CF
6: Moore, 2B
7: Fraley, LF
8: Murphy, C
9: Crawford, SS
SP: Marcooooo Gonzales

I love flipping Crawford to 9th and hitting Mitch Haniger lead-off. It takes pressure off of Crawford, and gives the M’s some sneaky OBP in the bottom of the order. That said, I’m definitely not a fan of starting Evan White at clean-up.

So, as usual, it’s time for some predictions.
I’ve complained for years that the M’s key indicators are always ambiguous. JP Crawford is neither an all-star nor washes out, he’s…fine. The team gets massive improvement from some of their prospects, but Evan White faceplants, etc. It’s added up to some incremental improvement, but it’s not the kind of improvement where you can easily say “look out for this team in 2022.” So, as I argued in the last post, they really need to finish around .500. 80 wins is a successful season, and 73-74 has to be seen as failure: it doesn’t close the gap between where they were and where they need to be to have a couple of free agents help them become contenders. Given all of that, I think they continue confounding our efforts to figure out how this :gestures grandly: whole thing is going, and finish right in the middle with 77 wins.

I think the Dodgers and Yankees are the class of the league, and think that 2021 will set new records for strikeouts and home runs. Even if the ball is dampened – again, it’s not clear they’ve done that correctly – the problem will be that the quality of pitching will decline as teams will be forced to dip way into high-minors depth to eat the glut of innings. Even good starters can’t/shouldn’t go from 55 IP to 200 IP, and that means we’ll need a lot more middle relievers. Good luck trying to hold down scoring with that game plan.

On the plus side, I think we *will* see more balls in play. Again, the tidal wave of 7th-8th-9th options out of the pen will play a big role in that, but the baseball and a new trend towards teams selecting players for their contact ability will also play a part. Nick Madrigal, Luis Arraez, Ketel Marte, Mookie Betts, DJ LeMahieu, David Fletcher, and Nolan Arenado are going to have an impact as they get tons of PAs for their respective teams. We’re seeing an interesting trend of pitcher Ks increasing even as veteran bats like Arenado and Freddie Freeman improve their own K rates. If teams have to dip into the minors more for pitchers than for position players – and I think they will – the balance of power shifts a bit towards the batters.

I’ve got Cy Young, MVP, and ROY predictions up over at BaseballProspectus, so go check those out too.

Go M’s.

The Risks: 2021

marc w · April 1, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

It’s opening day, a day for optimism. In a year of loss, polarization, and isolation, baseball is back to be a constant companion. It asks little, and simply exists along side you. You can go immerse yourself in it, but it’s not required. If you don’t want it right now, that’s fine. Another game will start in a few hours, or you can just come back tomorrow. I’m surprised at how excited I am for another 162-game season, and for that near-daily interaction with my imaginary friends on the radio and on TV. If you can’t be hopeful and happy on a day like this (and it helps that it’s absolutely gorgeous as I write this in the northwest), you may need professional help.

Around 8:00am this morning, the opening day match-up between Jacob deGrom and the Mets vs. Max Scherzer and the Nats was cancelled due to a Covid outbreak on the latter club. The new Detroit Tigers pitching coach can’t be with his own club, as he, too, tested positive, leading to contract tracing protocols and isolation for several close contacts on the club. That optimism, that happiness, that longed-for return to normalcy was *there*, but you had to wake up pretty early to really bask in it.

If you missed it, I’m sorry. It’s time to be brutally realistic, and to imagine all that can go wrong. This task is easier for us M’s fans, of course. With one opening day game already banged due to the pandemic, and with the M’s projected by many to post an equal or *worse* winning percentage than last year, this is not a difficult post to write. The M’s President admitted to service time manipulation, insulted two of the M’s most beloved players of different eras, and then got fired. The relationship with their top prospect may not recover. This post could write itself.

1: The Mariners Offense is Sunk by a Wave of Strikeouts

The Mariners opening day line-up includes *five* batters with either a career K% over 30% or at least one projection of 30%. They are bunched together from 5th-8th. Sure, sure, you say – this isn’t the preferred line-up, though. With Kyle Lewis out, the M’s have to use Taylor Trammell and Jake Fraley together, instead of essentially platooning them. The problem is, Lewis has a career 31.5% K rate.

Strikeouts are up throughout the league, and teams can be very effective offensively despite a lot of whiffs. The Rays won the AL Pennant despite finishing 2nd in MLB in team K rate. The White Sox struck out more than the M’s did, but hit enough to make the playoffs. It can be done. But it takes something to balance the whiffs – the White Sox hit for average *and* hit for a much higher ISO. The M’s can’t count on either thing, but they certainly hope to hit for more power in 2021 with Tom Murphy and Mitch Haniger returning, but both of those guys swing and miss, too.

For a lesson in the importance of strikeout rate, we can look back at last season, and the sad saga of the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers had perhaps the game’s best bullpen with ROY Devin Williams and brand name closer, Josh Hader. Those two helped the club post the second-best K% *for pitchers* in the game, en route to the 4th-most fWAR in MLB. But despite a great walk rate, the offense couldn’t take advantage of the advantage they had in run prevention. They’d been projected to be a contender with the reigning NL MVP, hyped rookie Keston Hiura, and vets like Lorenzo Cain and old friend Omar Narvaez. But they ended up worse than the sum of those impressive parts, as they put up a team average around .220 and one of the highest K rates in the game.

The M’s have kind of a bi-modal distribution of K rates, with Kyle Seager and JP Crawford posting very low rates, and the OF and catcher spots striking out frequently. But the club is built a bit differently than the club that started 2020…and put up the 8th-highest K rate. Gone is Austin Nola, a low-K guy, and in his place the M’s will use Tom Murphy (highest projected rate on the team) and Taylor Trammell. Dylan Moore, who has a career 30.8% K rate, will play all over, and the utility guys behind him include Sam Haggerty (16 Ks in 50 career ABs) and, at some point, Shed Long (career 26% Ks). The preferred line-up is K-heavy, and the back-ups…are just as whiff-prone.

And we haven’t even touched on the elephant in the room, here. Evan White’s K rate was over *40%* and the second-highest in MLB. He actually fared slightly better with men on base, but a K rate of over 38% in those situations certainly cut some rallies short. The good news is that he’s projected to improve markedly, cutting that rate by ten percentage points. The projections pull him strongly towards the mean, because there’s just not a lot of precedent for MLB hitters striking out like this.

The M’s will post a below-average K rate on offense, and they’ll quite likely post a below-average batting average. They absolutely need to hit for power and walk at a decent clip, and that’s where the new ball becomes important. The league has said they were trying to reduce fly ball distance, and thus HRs, by tweaking the ball’s construction. It’s not at all clear that they’ve succeeded. But what does seem clear is that the new baseball *moves* more. Curves snap more menacingly, and fastballs move more as well. That’s pushed the K rate in the spring higher with the new ball as compared to the 2020 baseball. If there’s one thing the M’s don’t need right now, it’s the baseball giving pitchers an advantage.

2: The Mariners Finish with 74-75 Wins, Declare Victory

In a great piece on the AL West yesterday, Yahoo’s Hannah Keyser spoke to Jerry Dipoto about expectations for the year, and what results the M’s are looking for – what would constitute a success in 2021? Jerry Dipoto emphasized that he’s worked for years in Seattle to get people to focus more on process than results, and that the real key for the year is just to improve. He’d like to get just a bit better in every category: “we’re going to look just to get 1 percent better in every area with the idea that if we just get 1 percent better at our ability to get on base, 1 percent better at our ability to hold other teams down, to not allow runs, the way we run the bases.”

That sounds good, because those 1% gains compound across so many different areas, and because it’s reminiscent of what Gonzaga coach Mark Few said literally the day before this piece came out after his club demolished USC to make the Final Four. This is just what great teams do, right?

Not necessarily. If the club still sees contention as a year away, and Dipoto made it clear to Keyser that he does, they simply do not have time for incremental improvement any more. They could argue that, in 2019, the fact that the club lost 94 games was irrelevant – they were embarking on a rebuild. They can claim in 2020 that their bullpen was awful because they didn’t emphasize it, and that they were still running through a bunch of unknown pitchers to see what they had. At some point, the bullpen can’t simply go from a 5.92 ERA to a 5.81 ERA to a 5.56 ERA. The offense can’t go from 5.1 WAR to 6.0. They have to get *better* in a hurry. Gonzaga can improve at the margin, because they’re the best in their sport. The M’s have to pick up the pace.

One of the problematic aspects of the idea that the M’s have essentially solved their long-standing player development woes is that we don’t see it consistently. The club that’s helped Logan Gilbert become a top prospect is also the club that’s trotted out replacement-level bullpens in consecutive years. In that light, how much of Gilbert’s success is just a function of Logan Gilbert? If their coaching allows some players to improve, but struggles with others, that sounds remarkably like…every other PD group in the game. Several years in, it’s time for the M’s to show, and stop telling.

The M’s need to be near .500 for this to be a successful season. They can’t have some bright spots, some regression, and have it all add up to 74 wins. They absolutely CAN finish with 74 wins, and essentially every projection system thinks they will. But I have no interest in hearing from the club how that was a really *good* 74 wins, or a super-encouraging path to 74 wins. If the projections are right, it constitutes failure, period.

3: The Dip in the Quality of the AL West is Negated by Improvements Elsewhere

As we talked about yesterday, the AL West has gotten weaker in recent years. The Astros are no longer a juggernaut after losing Justin Verlander to injury, and George Springer/Gerrit Cole to free agency. Charlie Morton’s gone, Carlos Correa’s been injury prone. Now Framber Valdez is hurt. The A’s lost Liam Hendriks and Marcus Semien. If you squint, you see a clear path to the playoffs in a year, especially if the Astros lose Correa and the Athletics do what they always do and think about trading Matt Chapman before he gets too expensive.

The problem for the M’s is twofold. First, the gap between themselves and the best teams in the division is still sizable. The Astros have fallen back, but they haven’t yet fallen *apart*. They’re still projected to win over 90 games, and that’s pretty rarefied air. Second, in an environment with multiple wild cards, the division matters less. The M’s have been competing for years with clubs in the AL East for one of the wild cards, and that competition’s only grown stronger. The East has the defending AL champs in Tampa, the best projected team in the AL in New York, and a very talented Boston team that could surprise people. They’ve also got the Blue Jays, who’ve improved mightily and look very solid. Worse, the AL Central – long the worst division in the league, and thus not likely to supply wild card contenders – is improving. Minnesota remains a powerful team, but Chicago is knocking on the door. Even after selling off Francisco Lindor, Cleveland’s remarkable pitching development keeps them in the hunt.

The Angels and A’s are still a bit better than the M’s, and may be better in the years to come. If they play well, the M’s could pass one or both, as they passed Anaheim last season. It’s just that that isn’t enough. *10 AL Teams* have playoff odds greater than 20% per Fangraphs. The M’s odds are below 5% because there are so many paths to the playoffs for other, better teams. Worse, those teams are just as young – or younger – than the M’s. The Blue Jays got older this year as they push for short-term contention, but their stars were 21, 22, and 25 last year. The Red Sox best players were 23, 24 and 27. This is a problem the M’s will be contending with (or not) for years to come until they can figure out a way to ignore wild card races and compete for a division title. That hasn’t happened since 2001, though, a fact that you may have heard once or twice in recent years.

The Upside, 2021

marc w · March 31, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Another season is upon us. Hope *generally* spring eternal, even if it often misses my house, but there’s a lot to be hopeful about right now. The vaccine roll-out is picking up speed, heralding a return to normalcy or something like it within a few months. The M’s care enough about Jarred Kelenic to mess with his service time, and Kelenic himself just showed us all what he can do in an electrifying spring. The team’s brought in some wild cards, like Chris Flexen and Rafael Montero, who could really solidify the team’s run prevention. And for the first time in several years, the best teams in the league and division don’t feel completely out of reach – like they’re playing a completely different sport.

Thus, it’s time for another post on the potential upsides to 2021 for the M’s. No, they don’t really figure to contend, but a lot *could* go right, and set up them up nicely for 2022. This isn’t about starry-eyed optimism and ignoring projections or track record entirely. Instead, this is about figuring out where there are gaps that projections might miss, and potential production that hasn’t shown itself in a projectable track record to date.

1: The Projections are Fundamentally Too Low on the M’s Due To Bad Luck
Ok, I’ll admit it. After saying this isn’t just ignoring the projections, this looks a heck of a lot like…ignoring the projections. It’s not – or at least, it’s not JUST that. The point here is that the M’s in 2020, and to a degree in 2019, wildly under-performed even their own meager true-talent level. Especially in the shortened season of 2020, weird statistical anomalies can creep in, and ossify as objective data for future projections to work from.

For example, the Mariners finished dead last – 30th out of 30! – in batting vs. left-handed pitchers last year. No one’s going to confuse the 2020 Mariners with Murderer’s Row, but that’s 1) weird and 2) less relevant to 2021 than you might expect. Sure, many of the M’s left-handed hitters or lefty-dominant guys like JP Crawford or Dee Strange-Gordon struggled against lefties. But what really *sunk* the M’s was the production from *righties*. Kyle Lewis was fine, but Ty France, Evan White, and Dylan Moore showed weird reverse splits.

What’s wrong with France, White, and Moore? Well, nothing. It was a 60-game season, and now we’re splitting it in less-than-half. Weird stuff can happen. Is there any real, fundamental, baseball-reason why Ty France can’t hit lefties? Of course not – he had all of 33 PAs against them in an M’s uniform. It’s utterly, utterly meaningless. Evan White struggled overall, but his .212 BABIP had more to do with his reverse splits than any meaningful trouble in seeing the ball out of a lefty’s hand. This is just noise.

And that means that the M’s simply didn’t show their true talent in 2020. It happens, particularly when the season’s cut to just 60 games. But even if it WAS their true talent, you’d have to be excited by the return of Mitch Haniger and Tom Murphy, two powerful right-handed bats. If anything, this club is primed to do damage against lefties *more* than righties, and the fact that the club was kind of okay against righties thus becomes an encouraging omen.

The same is true for the pitchers. The M’s were flummoxed by left-handed batters last year, and a number of *lefties* like Yusei Kikuchi were the prime offenders. Look, there’s no way that a fastball/slider/cutter guy with Kikuchi’s velocity is going to struggle against lefties. Marco Gonzales is a completely different style of pitcher, and the fact that he doesn’t really show platoon splits makes sense, but I don’t think he has some special vulnerability to same-handed bats. Why would he? And just to be sure, just for that extra layer of protection, the M’s re-signed James Paxton, another high-powered lefty arm. The 2020 M’s had a weird vulnerability, but it can’t drive our expectations about the 2021 club.

As solid as the starters were in 2020, the bullpen was remarkably bad. As a crew of waiver-claims and minor-league signings, you wouldn’t have predicted great things, but I think their statistical record is at least partially the result of bad luck. The massive turnover in the group makes it harder to claim that the poor record hurts the M’s projections for 2021, but it clearly has some impact for guys like Aaron Fletcher, Kendall Graveman, and Nick Margevicius.

The M’s bullpen had the worst walk rate in the game. They had one of the worst home run rates. Thanks to Philadelphia, they weren’t clearly the most inept group out there, but man, Philly’s bullpen cleaned Seattle’s clock in K:BB. But what do you expect? The M’s fielded essentially a AAA pen of minor league vets, and then traded off anyone who was close to league average. What’s that got to do with this group?

Well, the M’s bullpen has been reinforced not just by the relatively minor FA and waiver claims, but also by the club’s starting pitching depth. This is where a Margevicius or Newsome can help out with reasonable IP that don’t sink the team. Importantly, neither guy is liable to run unpalatable walk rates. Reinforcements like Domingo Tapia are waiting in the wings. I’m not saying they’ll be great; they don’t really need to be, and yet again, if they are, they’ll get moved at the deadline. What I’m saying is that the M’s had a weakness that looked worse than it actually was due to luck, and the perception is that they didn’t do enough to address it. In that narrow sense, they’re probably OK, just as we saw with the line-up. Their past performance was unreasonably bad, and their future performance isn’t dictated by those unsightly numbers.

2: The M’s Finally – FINALLY – Have OF Depth

Taylor Trammell played his way on to a big league OF that returns both reigning ROY Kyle Lewis (ok, after he heals from a bone bruise) and 2018 All-Star Mitch Haniger. Jarred Kelenic, Mathered away in Arizona, is only a call away, and is able to help the team *responsibly* in only the couple of weeks it takes for the club to gain an extra year of club control. Jake Fraley could figure some things out in the pressure-free first month of the season, and we’re not even getting to Julio Rodriguez.

In recent years, if there’s been one constant to the M’s woes, it’s been the production from their outfielders. Mallex Smith was brought in to solidify the group, but face-planted. Dee Strange-Gordon was traded for to become a CF, but that was quickly abandoned (not that it mattered where he played, given his batting line). LF famously became a revolving door, much to Kelenic and his agent’s frustration.

The M’s were attempting to buy time while guys like Rodriguez and Kelenic developed, and they’ve *mostly* done that. Importantly, they get Haniger back right when Trammell went nuts during the spring, both bringing some hope to 2021 while giving the team some options while Lewis recovers. Both Trammell and Haniger are especially hard to project given what happened in 2020 *and* 2019. Trammell was an underperforming prospect in 2019, then hung out at two different alternate sites in 2020, away from meaningful games. Haniger’s 2019 and 2020 were, if anything, worse, given that they began with a destroyed testicle in 2019 and, improbably, got worse from there.

But both looked rejuvenated in the spring, and after a horrific start, Fraley looked ready to be a competent back-up – a role he’s failed at in extremely brief looks in 2019 and 2020. Importantly, no one needs this group to be world-beaters. The projections already have Trammell imploding and Haniger regressing towards his disappointing 2019 half-season. It doesn’t take some improbable set of circumstances for this group – headlined by Lewis, of course – to become a league-average or better unit. And if that happens, the M’s offense isn’t the dead weight the projections think it is.

3: The AL West Got Bad in a Hurry

For years, I’ve been fretting not just about Houston’s advantage in current talent – guys like Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Yordan Alvarez will make you feel insecure about your team, too – but about their farm system. If Houston turned their prospects into big league production at a better clip than the M’s, then not only would the M’s finish behind the ‘Stros, but the gap would get wider and wider over time, the way it did from 2015-2019.

Worse, it wasn’t just Houston. The Angels had been, if anything, worse than Seattle in developing talent, at least in the post-Trout world. So, in 2020, they stopped trying, and simply signed Anthony Rendon. Now, they’ve tried to solidify an awful pitching staff by picking up Jose Quintana, after last year’s reclamation project – Dylan Bundy – turned out so well. That’s great and all, but their pitching has been bad for years, and despite the change in GM, they haven’t shown a clear skill in getting more out of the free agent market OR the draft in terms of pitching production.

The division lost Gerrit Cole to free agency last year, then Justin Verlander to injury a couple of innings into 2020. This year, they lost Framber Valdez to injury, and saw perennial pitching prospect Forrest Whitley go down with TJ surgery. The A’s lost world-beating closer Liam Hendriks to free agency this past off-season, and have seen injuries delay the arrival of most of their best pitching prospects, like AJ Puk and James Kaprelian. Texas hasn’t developed a serious pitching prospect since, what, Derek Holland? Not only did the division fail to increase the gap, the gap narrowed without the M’s doing anything.

The Mariners aren’t the laggards in player development anymore, and now boast by far the division’s best prospects. In a multiple wild card environment, it’s not clear that we should be as focused on the division as we were before, but even still, the M’s rank among the game’s elite systems. They’ve been there before, and managed to turn that expected production into some minor trades, a waiver claim, and a flying ice cream sandwich, so things can go south at any time. But the gap between the M’s and their divisional rivals hasn’t been this narrow since 2015-17, and the M’s haven’t had the edge in minor league systems since 2010-12. This is a fundamentally different picture than the one the M’s confronted in 2019 and even at the beginning of 2020.

The M’s can’t simply wait it out, though. After a down year in 2020, the Astros are projected for 92-95 wins, easily 20 better than Seattle. But there’s a path to contention now, and one that doesn’t rely on increasingly unlikely developmental wins. The M’s aren’t there yet, but you can see a pathway to contention in a way that wasn’t there in recent years, no matter what Jerry Dipoto said.

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