Mariners At Twins Game 49

May 25, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 82 Comments 

Bedard vs Duensing, 10:05 am.

The last few days, my life has been one never-ending Chone Figgins at-bat. We’ll try to return to normalcy soon.

Ichiro, RF
Figgins, 3B
Smoak, DH
Olivo, C
Gutierrez, CF
Kennedy, 1B
Wilson, LF
Ryan, SS
Wilson, 2B

What’s Going On in Tacoma?

May 24, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 4 Comments 

Yesterday, someone on twitter asked what was going on with the Tacoma Rainiers’ starters’ ERA this year. The team ERA is nearly 5.40, over a full run worse than it was in 2010 – and that’s despite the fact that the 2011 figure doesn’t include the midsummer months. It’s not a BABIP thing: the picture’s largely the same using tRA or FIP. Obviously, the staff’s not exactly the same, and some of the guys who’ve pitched in both years look considerably worse from a scouting standpoint (Luke French, take a bow). The culprit’s pretty easy to identify: the staff’s hemorrhaging home runs.

In 2010, the Rainiers staff gave up 1 home run every 10.5 innings pitched. This year, it’s one per 7.6 IP. So far this year, teams have hit 63 home runs at the new Cheney Stadium through 22 games; that’s 2.9 HRs per game in Tacoma. Through 22 games in 2010, teams combined for 26 HRs, or 1.2 per game. One more crazy stat: through the first 22 games at Cheney in 2010, 9 were homerless. This year? None. Every game at new Cheney’s had at least one long ball.

Throughout its history, Cheney’s been one of the tougher PCL parks to hit homers in (check the park factors here or here). In 2011, it’s blowing the funhouse ballparks like Albuquerque out of the water: Despite video-game style HR factors (thanks in part to altitude), teams averaged 2.5 HR/game through 22 games last year in Albuquerque.

This isn’t about a dominant 2011 offense: the 2010 Rainiers led the league in home runs. It’s probably not about weather; you don’t need a baseball blog to tell you how cold and wet this spring’s been in the northwest. What’s changed since last year is the ballpark and the outfield walls. The OF dimensions haven’t changed at all, and the massive wall in CF (425 feet away) remains. The OF fences in left and right have been lowered, however. Rainiers announcer Mike Curto’s been keeping an unofficial tally of 2011 HRs that probably would’ve struck the wall in the old configuration, and he’s got 22 (probably 23 after today’s game). That is, a bit more than one ball per game has just cleared the new, lower walls at the new Cheney Stadium.

Personally, I just can’t see how lowering the fences would so radically change how the ballpark plays. My guess is that the new, much taller stadium has changed how wind moves through the outfield. That’s just a guess, but it makes more sense to me than the idea that teams would be battering the upper half of the walls in the old stadium. Seriously – if you cut the Safeco fence in half, or eliminated it entirely, would it have this kind of effect?

To be fair, the sample (22 games) is small, so this could just be coincidence. Given the weather, that’d be unlikely, but it’s not like Cheney’s never seen the wind blowing out before. It could also be the pitching staff. After yielding 7 HRs in 2010, French has already surrendered 15 in 2011. His velocity’s been down a bit too. Chaz Roe’s been awful in his first season with the club. Chris Seddon’s nearing his 2010 HR-allowed total already as well. The staff may not be great, but part of the reason they appear so bad is the spike in HR rate.

This highlights how difficult it can be to put minor league stats in their proper context. Omaha radically altered their ballpark this year too. Portland no longer exists, and Tucson’s back in the Pacific Coast League after the previous Tucson franchise moved to Reno a few years back. Multi-year factors help ameliorate year-to-year variance, but it’s tough when the league itself changes so much. Keep this in mind when you see Rainier pitcher RAs, or when you marvel at Mike Carp/Alex Liddi/Dustin Ackley’s home run totals.

Any other theories on what might be going on in Tacoma? Visiting hitters more comfortable now that their clubhouse is no longer a portable beyond the OF wall? Teams taking extra BP to stay warm on some frigid April nights?

Mariners At Twins, Game 48

May 24, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 73 Comments 

Fister vs Blackburn, 5:10 pm.

Don’t have time for anything more pithy than “Go M’s” today.

Minor League Wrap (5/16-22/11)

May 24, 2011 · Filed Under Minor Leagues · 29 Comments 

I’m back! Things should be resuming their usual schedule from here out. On the plus side, the Generals and the Mavericks both won five games this week! On the negative end of things, the Lumberkings, in spite of all of their personnel changes, still have an awful record, and yet remain fascinating to watch on certain days. Tacoma’s in the middle, but Ackley is still amazing, so that’s something.

To the jump!
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Game 47, Mariners At Twins

May 23, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 222 Comments 

Vargas vs Pavano, 5:05 pm.

Considering that the Mariners can’t play themselves, their best match-ups in terms of keeping their opponents off the board are almost certainly Minnesota and San Diego. Both teams have lousy offenses and play in big parks where it’s really hard to hit home runs. The last week has been fun, but it’s also been an exercise in the importance of park factors and quality of opponent. For three more days, though, we should be able to continue to enjoy the M’s pitchers all looking like Cy Young.

Ichiro, RF
Figgins, 3B
Smoak, 1B
Cust, DH
Gutierrez, CF
Peguero, LF
Ryan, SS
WIlson, 2B
Gimenez, C

Patience Is A Virtue

May 22, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 61 Comments 

Nearly everyone who covers the Mariners will be writing about the team’s ridiculous run of pitching as of late. While it’s definitely impressive, I don’t necessarily feel the need to chime in on the subject. The guys have been great, but I’m not sure what else there is to say.

So, let’s talk about Chone Figgins for a second. After a lousy 2010 season, many (including myself) pointed to a bounce back from him as an area where the team could expect improvement. Instead, he’s regressed even further, and at this point he might just be the worst player in the line-up – and that’s saying something. How has Figgins managed to go from bad to even worse?

It’s pretty simple – he decided to “be aggressive”. At some point either over the off-season or during spring training, Figgins (or someone around him) decided that part of his problem was his willingness to take pitches. Eric Wedge has already expressed frustration with the team’s willingness to take strikes, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this was more of a coaching emphasis, but whoever came up with the idea that Figgins needs to swing more, they should be punched in the mouth.

This year, Chone Figgins is swinging more than he ever has in his career – 43.2% of the time. That’s up from 39.3% last year and 36.6% in his final year in Anaheim, the last year he was actually an effective offensive player. Not surprisingly, the increase in swing rate has directly led to a drop in walk rate, and Figgins has only drawn nine free passes in 181 trips to the plate this year. This is a guy who drew 101 walks two years ago, and he’s on pace to draw 36 this year if he gets an equal amount of plate appearances.

That’s 65 fewer free trips to first base, a huge step backwards for a guy whose entire game is built around getting on base and using his legs to add value to the team. The lack of walks could be off-set if Figgins was swinging at pitches that he could easily convert into base hits, but that’s simply not the case. In fact, the real rise in Figgins’ swing rate has come on pitches out of the strike zone.

Figgins has swung at 60.2% of the pitches he’s been thrown in the strike zone this year, but that’s actually below his career average of 61.8%. On pitches out of the strike zone, though, he’s at 26.2% – way above the 17.2% mark he’s set throughout his career. In 2009, he swung at just 15.1% of pitches out of the zone.

He’s also making contact with these pitches at a drastically higher rate, but that’s not exactly a good thing. In general, contact on pitches out of the zone lead to weak contact and easy outs, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen from Figgins this year. Despite being one of the fastest players in baseball and a ground ball hitter, Figgins has a batting average on balls in play of just .234, 100 points lower than his career average. Some of that is probably bad luck, with balls just being hit right at guys, but some of it is also Figgins chasing pitches that he has no business swinging at and hitting into easy groundouts because of his new aggressive approach.

Someone needs to intervene here. Whether they thought it was a good idea or not, the concept of a free-swinging Chone Figgins is a miserable failure. He only really has two Major League skills – a discerning eye at the plate and good speed – and this new approach has crippled one of them. Now, the team basically has a fast guy who can’t get on base often enough to make use out of his speed, and the overall package is a highly paid replacement level player.

Someone in the organization needs to sit down with Chone Figgins and say “Hey, this isn’t working. Go back to doing what you did two years ago when you didn’t suck. Stop swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. Try to take a walk every game. Crouch more if you have to.” Maybe they can say it with more tact than that, but the general message needs to be forceful. This version of Chone Figgins is awful, and there’s simply no reason anyone should be encouraging a guy with marginal bat speed and no power to be trying to hit his way on base more often.

Stand there with the bat on your shoulder, Chone. We didn’t sign up for four years of an expensive Josh Wilson, but that’s essentially what you’ve turned yourself into. Take some pitches. Work counts. And if anyone tells you to be more aggressive, plug your ears and walk away.

Game 46, Mariners At Padres

May 22, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 144 Comments 

Hernandez vs Stauffer, 1:05 pm.

Happy Felix Day!

Over the last week, the Mariners starters have an ERA of 0.50. It’s funny what a combination of good pitchers, games in Safeco Field and Petco Park, and facing the Twins/Padres will do for you.

Ichiro, RF
Figgins, 3B
Smoak, 1B
Kennedy, 2B
Olivo, C
Peguero, LF
Ryan, SS
Saunders, CF
Hernandez, P

Game 45, Mariners At Padres

May 21, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 109 Comments 

Pineda vs Richard, 7:05 pm.

Nice to see the M’s play well, but the congratulations of the day go to contributor Marc W, whose wife gave birth to a (presumably) beautiful baby girl last night. Naming suggestions are now being taken – you can certainly do better than his initial response…

Game 44, Mariners At Padres

May 20, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 81 Comments 

Bedard vs Latos, 7:05 pm.

Sorry this one is going up late.

Ichiro, RF
Figgins, 3B
Smoak, 1B
Kennedy, 2B
Gutierrez, CF
Olivo, C
Peguero, LF
Ryan, SS
Bedard, P

The six-man bullpen

May 20, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 27 Comments 

As you know, the six-man bullpen is something we’ve lobbied for repeatedly around here. In a way, a road trip that includes interleague play is perfect timing for it, because playing National League rules significantly increases the importance of your bench for in-game strategy. As terrifying as it sounds, there will be times when “Jack Wilson, pinch-hitter” is a better option than “ordered to keep the bat on my shoulder in spring training” Michael Pineda or “swing with my eyes closed” Felix.

Despite this logic, however, the trend in baseball has overwhelmingly favored carrying seven and sometimes even eight guys in the pen. Even National League teams who bring bats off the bench on a daily basis haven’t really resisted it. I think the overall phenomenon might be ready to move in the other direction, though, and in going to a six-man bullpen, the Mariners could become part of a reversal in this trend.

Ultimately, the real driving force is likely to be the change in the run-scoring environment, more than any difference between the leagues. It’s a product of the psychology of baseball managers as much as anything. If you’re playing 7-6 ballgames and can get offense out of your lineup from top to bottom (even from the likes of Jose Lopez), when looking for that little bit of advantage so you end up with the 7 and not the 6, you end up focusing more on who your relief options are and having enough of them, because it seems like there’s a bigger difference between them. In that setting, it seems to matter a great deal whether you’re bringing in an Arthur Rhodes or a Julio Mateo.

On the other hand, in an environment full of 3-2 scores, it stands to reason that starting pitchers will be able to go deeper into games (including underwhelming Doug Fister types; I’d say Erik Bedard, but that would just be getting greedy) and you’ll have less opportunity and need for all of those relievers. In that context, suddenly a guy like Jamey Wright can get people out in the late innings, and you’re never going to use Tom Wilhelmsen, so why bother keeping him around? As they adjust to this, managers will start focusing more on scratching out that third run with their position players, as opposed to holding the other team off with their bullpen. And it will seem to them, and in turn the front office, that having a versatile bench matters more, relatively speaking, than having lots of relief pitching options.

Now if this kind of transition happens, it will take place gradually, and managers will take time to re-learn how they want to use a fuller bench. Some of the changes may involve the re-emergence of the traditional platoon system, which had seemed to be very much in decline around baseball. Carlos Peguero and Mike Wilson aren’t the greatest left field options, but if that’s all you have they should at least be platooned, so that much the Mariners have figured out. Eventually Eric Wedge may also stop counting on sun-aided base hits from Peguero when he faces a lefthanded relief pitcher.

There are other developments we might anticipate, but will have to wait and see on. For example, having some kind of black hole in your lineup is practically inevitable these days. The Mariners have more than most because of a lousy roster, but you’re almost bound to have at least one Brendan Ryan. If you have somebody on your bench who can hit, maybe you pinch-hit for Ryan more in close games. Also, now that Franklin Gutierrez is back, hopefully Wedge figures out that Michael Saunders has by far the best glove for left field, and really should be out there as a defensive replacement with a lead in the late innings.

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