Normally, the end of a baseball season isn’t something I would celebrate, but I join Marc is saying that I’m glad the 2011 season is over for the Mariners. There were some positives but more negatives, and for the last few months, the team just wasn’t a particularly compelling product. So, now, we look forward to 2012.
We start that off today with my final piece of the season over at Brock and Salk’s blog. Here’s the gist of the point:
With the M’s loss last night, they finished the season at 67-95. They ended the season with just a few actual Major League players in the lineup and the starting pitcher was perhaps the worst hurler in the history of the game. Given their struggles over the last few years, it’s common to hear people talk about why this team is several years away from contending, and how next year will probably be more of the same.
It doesn’t have to be however.
Need an example? The Arizona Diamondbacks are the NL West Champions, having finished the year with a 94-68 record that easily outpaced the rest of their division rivals. Their record in 2010? 65-97, worse than what the Mariners put up this year. And it’s not like they just had a down year due to injuries and then bounced back — they went 70-92 in 2009, giving them 135 wins in the two seasons prior to their dominance this year. That’s pretty darn close to the 128 wins the Mariners have compiled the last two years.
You’re going to hear a lot of people talk about what the Mariners “need to do” this winter. Some people think they need to raise payroll and sign Prince Fielder. Others think they need to commit to the youth movement and let the kids have a full year to show what they’re made of. While those sides don’t agree on specifics, they both come from the point of view that there’s a right path and a wrong path. I’d argue, however, that future performance is not written in stone nearly as much as people might think, and that staking your ground on one particular way of approaching this off-season isn’t a great idea.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll discuss the different options the organization has, the pros and cons of each, and talk about how the team might look depending on what way they choose to go. I just hope everyone realizes there’s not just one “right way” to approach this off-season.
Anthony Vasquez vs. Gio Gonzalez, 7:10pm
The final game of the season comes on a day with two great playoff races in the balance. The M’s and A’s aren’t involved, so this was always doomed to irrelevance, but somehow the contrast between David Price pitching for the Rays playoff life and Anthony Vasquez trying to avoid ending the year with more HRs than strikeouts just feels…magnified.
This season hasn’t been what any of us wanted. Even before the year began, we had to deal with the passing of Dave Niehaus. We hoped for a bounce-back from Milton Bradley, but watched a recently-great hitter descend into madness. We watched Franklin Gutierrez shuttle from doctor to doctor and diagnosis to diagnosis before coming back and attempting to major league pitching. We saw Justin Smoak struggle with a bruised hand, a broken jaw and heartbreak. We’re now dealing with a new acquisition battles an unknown neurological issue affecting his balance and sight. We no longer had to wonder what an “old” Ichiro would look like. I said earlier in the year that this was better, somehow, than the experience of watching the 2010 team – that the lack of expectations and the rookies made it a lesser evil than watching the 2010 team slowly disintegrate. I still believe that, but I’ve watched the Rangers move up another level, I’ve seen the Angels compete after their big off-season acquisition became one of the most expensive replacement level players ever. And then I tune in to watch Adam Kennedy DH against Gio Gonzalez, and well, that #3 pick in next year’s draft better be awesome. I will miss watching the M’s, I will look forward to 2012, but I will not miss this season.
The final line-up of 2011:
2: Robinson (CF)
4: Smoak (1B)
5: Carp (LF)
6: Kennedy (“DH”)
8: Seager (SS)
Blake Beavan vs. Trevor Cahill, 7:10pm
It’s not rational or anything, but my view of the M’s in 2011 and 2012 is highly impacted by how long it’s been since Justin Smoak has homered. In May, I thought this team wasn’t ready for prime time, but that the young core was intriguing. In August, I thought this team was bereft of hope; that if peak Ichiro and Felix weren’t enough to get the M’s over the top, then two or three Dustin Ackley’s wouldn’t matter either. Some of this is reactionary and emotional, sure, but this was a team that started a struggling Adam Kennedy at 1st and occasionally hit him 3rd in the line-up.
Thanks to Smoak’s homer last night, I’m feeling a bit better now. This team needed a productive Smoak to be relevant (some might say “watchable”) in 2011, and they’ll probably need a productive Smoak to be relevant in 2012. For so much of this year, he’s looked like a Southern Mike Saunders. It’s not just that his struggles hurt the team’s chance to win – they hurt our ability to hope.
Hope got another boost today as Taijuan Walker was named the Midwest League’s top prospect today by Baseball America. I’ve been perhaps too excited by Walker since he debuted for Clinton this year, so it’s great to see BA honor him like this. It’s not just me! He shouldn’t be able to do what he’s doing! He could get better!
I suppose we should discuss tonight’s game. Trevor Cahill had a sub-3.00 ERA last year that was driven partially by a very low BABIP. This year, despite the exact same FIP (4.19), his ERA’s jumped by over a full point. He’s still a guy who can get ground balls and get enough swinging strikes, but his command hasn’t been there this season, and that’s contributed to his slide. He’s had a particular struggles against lefties this year, and while that’s probably not indicative of his true talent, it’s enough that managers are trying to get more lefties in the line-up against him.
Blake Beavan continues his run as one of the most whiff-phobic pitchers in the league. His walk rate’s similar to Brandon McCarthy’s, but his K rate’s more similar to a pitcher from the 1980s. I would love to see Beavan explore developing a sinker/cutter like McCarthy did – here’s an object lesson in how to go from AAAA guy to an extremely valuable #3 starter. Of course, Beavan hasn’t struggled like McCarthy has, and pitchers who’ve had success might not see the need to overhaul their approach. But then again, it was only a year ago that Beavan was getting battered by PCL hitters, and he’s already made some adjustment. I’d think Beavan more than many guys understands just how fine the line is between being dead meat in AAA to semi-respectability in MLB, so he might want to start exploring ways to better himself before the next wave of pitching talent reaches the majors.
Ackley gets a night at DH, which allows him a bit of a rest and allows Seager to demonstrate his ability to play all over the IF. Good move.
2: Rodriguez (SS)
3: Ackley (DH)
4: Carp (LF)
5: Smoak (1B)
7: Seager (2B)
9: Saunders (CF)
Jason Vargas vs. Brandon McCarthy, 7:10pm
The M’s season mercifully comes to an end with a three-game series against fellow punching bags, the Oakland A’s. Like the M’s, the A’s have a terrible offense and a solid pitching staff; the A’s FIP is just slightly better than the Mariners’. This won’t shock anyone – pitching was supposed to be the strength of both teams back in March. But while the M’s staff’s been led by the deliciously consistent Felix Hernandez, the A’s are enjoying an out-of-the-blue 5 win season from… Brandon McCarthy.
Coming into the year, McCarthy was an oft-injured journeyman, a fly-baller with so-so command, mediocre velocity and a rare shoulder condition that leaves him vulnerable to stress fractures. He signed a one-year free agent deal with Oakland for $1m and set about reinventing himself. Of course, stories about pitchers tweaking their mechanics in spring training are the new, more detailed twists on the hoary old “best shape of his life” cliche. He was going to ditch his four-seamer and pitch to contact with a sinker and cutter, apparently, and he’d lower his arm angle to ease the wear and tear on his shoulder. Evidently, some small fraction of those spring training stories are significant.
He’s more than halved his walk rate while improving his K rate. His new sinker’s greatly improved his ground-ball rate, which has helped him control HRs. His new cutter’s a legitimate swing-and-miss pitch, and to top it all off, he’s throwing harder than ever before. The cutter’s particularly interesting to me. It appears he’s throwing it much more often than gameday’s algorithm thinks (it’s hard to distinguish it from a four-seamer), and he’s generating whiffs and keeping it low in the zone. It all culminates in one of the unlikeliest great seasons in recent memory, and yes, I know that Doug Fister *also* has 5 wins. Brandon McCarthy, the Brandon McCarthy many thought was a bust and AAAA roster filler, leads the American League in FIP.
In some ways, McCarthy’s emergence is bad for the M’s. He plays for a divisional rival (though it was only a one-year deal! Jack – call his agent!) after all. But the takeaway for me is that large-scale transformation is possible, and it’s possible a lot quicker than many of us thought. That’s not exactly earth-shattering to fans of the team that employs Steve Delabar, but I think many of us view a pitcher’s skillset as essentially fixed. A guy’s a fastball-curve guy who gets fly balls, or he’s a sinker-slider-grounder guy, and you can’t go from one bucket to the next. That’s still largely true, but McCarthy offers proof that it’s not a hard and fast rule. The M’s *need* to get more out of the raw talent they have in the system, and someone in Pedro Grifol’s shop really needs to study this test case.
The M’s line-up:
5: Smoak (1B)
Today in the Seattle Times, Geoff Baker has a helpful overview of the team’s ownership structure. It includes a list of the 17 participants in the ownership group and identifies those who sit on the board of directors (not completely clear is whether the board has any members without an ownership stake, or “independent directors” in corporate parlance, but from what’s been revealed in the past I don’t believe so).
Howard Lincoln is of course the most visible of these on a regular basis, since he acts as the team CEO as well, and as you probably know already, Hiroshi Yamauchi is (via Nintendo) the controlling shareholder. They are both significant people to be aware of in understanding team decisions – witness the Johjima extension a few years ago, or the noises already being made about Ichiro’s next contract. But perhaps the more important aspect this article gets across is just how fundamentally corporate this ownership group is. It’s embedded in their decisionmaking, how they present themselves publicly, the affiliations and even the personalities of the individual members.
What that means is that the team is inevitably going to be run using business principles and priorities, more than to gratify personal ambitions. We can argue about whether individual or corporate team ownership is a better model for operating a baseball franchise, but at any rate these characteristics aren’t going to change significantly unless the team is sold to a different person or group. Even if they had the resources, these owners probably would never spend like the Steinbrenners, but the team is also somewhat protected from the personal vagaries of things like a really messy divorce. This is also part of what leads to awkward expressions suggesting the team values being competitive (but profitable) over winning championships.
One other point to take from the article is that the ownership group has been remarkably stable. Death has produced the same amount of turnover within the group as has the sale of individual shares. And in describing who the owners are, it’s striking how often words like “former” get used. Even Yamauchi and the other Nintendo guys are largely retired or have emeritus roles at the company (although the way Japanese companies operate, they have much more influence than, say, Chris Larson has over the Microsoft of today). Some of the owners have gone on to second acts in business, particularly those in the wireless industry, whose institutions have morphed and evolved more frequently in the years since. But overall, it’s not just that the group looks like a Microsoft/Nintendo/Boeing consortium; considering that it was formed in response to calls for local business leaders to save the team from moving out of town, that’s to be expected. In reality, it’s a Microsoft/Nintendo/Boeing consortium that’s stuck in the early 1990s (remember McCaw Cellular?).
So if you wonder why the team takes detours from its rebuilding process to indulge in things like a Griffey farewell tour, it’s not just because the fans demand it, or that he has a great relationship with Chuck Armstrong. To a significant extent, the direction in which these owners have been taking the team is still defined by the times and the environment in which they bought it. I’m not saying that they’ve completely failed to adapt; payrolls did go up as the team brought in greater revenues from Safeco Field, and bringing in Zduriencik was somewhat of a shift from the past. But to really restore the Mariners as a competitive franchise, additional strides forward are required. The ownership group has been in place for nearly two decades; it’s time that they figure out how to move everyone beyond the glories of the first decade, and support further changes if they want the team to be relevant in their third decade.
Charlie Furbush vs. Derek Holland, 12:05pm (ROOT sports tv, and the local radio broadcast is on 770AM, as KIRO 710 is broadcasting the Seahawks game)
Today’s game promises to be better than the game preceding it, if only because yesterday’s game was one of the worst games I’ve ever seen. The Rangers strung together a number of swinging bunts, watched the M’s cough up runs on questionable defensive plays, and then knocked Felix out of the game with a line-drive to his right forearm. If the Rangers hit 5 HRs off of Furbush tonight, at least it’ll look like a proper beating. Even better: today’s the final road game of the season. The end really is nigh!
And the 5 HR thing isn’t out of the question with the way Charlie Furbush has looked recently. His velocity’s down noticeably from a month or so ago. Whereas he was able to hit 93 MPH with one of his final pitches against Boston in mid-August, he barely hit 91 in his last start against Cleveland, and was under 90 for much of the game. The game before that, he started normally, but had trouble maintaining his velocity in the middle innings. Furbush has been inconsistent and frustrating in his time with Seattle, but at least he’s been moderately intriguing. He’s had good velocity and the makings of a good breaking ball. Homers and righties have killed him, but he’s looked like someone with enough stuff to make some adjustments. The Furbush of the past few weeks? The one without great stuff, who relies on a weird delivery to fool a few hitters? That’s not intriguing.
I don’t put a ton of stock in ending a season on a high note, but Furbush (and many of the rookies in the line-up) could use a quality start today. There are a couple of lefties with much, much better stuff in the system behind him and his platoon splits have always made a bullpen role a possibility. It’s late September, Furbush has played for two different organization and two different levels. It’s ultimately not all that shocking that he’s tiring a bit. Today’s meaningless game isn’t a referendum on Furbush as a major-league starter, but it’d be a good time to show the organization that he’s got the repertoire and strength to succeed in the role.
6: Pena (DH)
8: Seager (SS)
King Felix vs. Alexi Ogando, 1:11pm
Happy (final) Felix Day!
This season hasn’t gone according to plan, unless the plan itself is terrible. Only Felix and Pineda have had full seasons and lived up to expectations. Everyone else has battled inconsistency, injury, and general lack of skill. I’m really glad that we get to watch Felix every five days, and I’m glad he seem to really like playing for this team, and while it’s trite to wish that we had a better supporting cast around him, it’s also not wrong. I want to skip ahead and see Felix playing for a contending M’s team, but on days like this, it’s sort of hard to see how to get from here to there.
The M’s face Alexi Ogando, the Rangers rookie, and a compact version of Michael Pineda. Both Ogando and Pineda feature plus fastballs from the right side, and also throw a slider. Both have a change that’s a work in progress which they go to rarely, and both are fly ballers. Ogando’s done exceptionally well against righties, but has struggled with HRs to lefties. It’s a tiny sample for both, but in some sense Ogando’s season is what we thought a great Pineda season would look like. Instead, Pineda FIP’s about the same against both lefties and righties, while Ogando’s got the big platoon splits many feared we’d see from Pineda. Pineda’s been more dominant – his K%, contact rate and K:BB ratio easily beat Ogando’s. But Ogando’s been just as valuable by limiting walks and by being tougher on righties than Pineda.
The M’s have attempted to stack their line-up with lefties to take advantage of Ogando’s relative weakness, but that means we get more Adam Kennedy. Hmmm.
2: Seager (SS)
4: Carp (LF)
5: Smoak (DH)
7: Kennedy (1B)
8: Robinson (CF)
Anthony Vasquez vs. Matt Harrison, 5:05pm
I talked about Matt Harrison the other day and he went out and dominated a toothless M’s line-up. That game featured Felix Hernandez in his final home start of the year. This game features Anthony Vasquez’s debut in Arlington. I’ve got a bad feeling here.
Vasquez hasn’t pitched like a major leaguer thus far; that’s not exactly news, and it’s also not all that damning. As exciting as he’s been, Trayvon Robinson has been below replacement-level too. The M’s are playing out the string – these games are more about development than anything. But I think it’s time for Vasquez to give us some reason to expect that, with experience, he’ll be more than a punching bag. Yes, he’s had one solid start, but he’s also giving up HRs like it’s 1999 and missing bats like it’s 1949.
In fact, Vasquez could make some history this year. As you can probably imagine, the list of pitchers who’ve given up more HRs than strike-outs isn’t a long one. If you restrict it to a minimum of 30 innings, only 7 pitchers have managed this feat. If you have a minimum of 10 HRs, only one pitcher qualifies: Bill Hubbell in 1923 (perhaps thankfully, Bill is no relation to HOFer Carl Hubbell who also pitched in the ’20s). Vasquez, heading into Arlington, has given up 9 HRs and has racked up 11 Ks in 24 innings.
Ex-Mariner hurler Glenn Abbott appears on the list – he gave up 9 HRs and got only 8 Ks in 44 innings (!) for Detroit in 1984, but his 1979 with the M’s was remarkable too. He gave up 19 HRs to only 25 Ks in over 116 innings. We talk about how much baseball’s changed since the steroid-addled 1990s, but baseball in the 1980s was basically unrecognizable. I say that as someone who watched the Argyros-M’s from the Kingdome quite often; everyone talked about HRs, and we missed the fact that (perhaps) the bigger change was the increasing importance of the K.
The line-up that’ll be
2: Robinson (CF)
5: Carp (LF)
6: Smoak (DH)
7: Seager (SS)
9: Gimenez (1B)
Hoooo boy. The major changes from the last time the M’s faced Harrison is Robinson hitting second and Gimenez playing 1B. Sure, Smoak replaces Wily Mo at DH, but this is… wow.
If you need a laugh, check out Grant Brisbee’s article at SBN on possible follow-ups to the new Moneyball movie.
Blake Beavan vs. Anthony Swarzak, 10:10am
The M’s go for a rare road sweep this morning in Minnesota with Blake Beavan matching up against Anthony Swarzak in a dream match-up for fans who find strike-outs too showy or selfish. Swarzak, like his brothers in the Twins’ cloning program Nick Blackburn and Liam Hendriks, is the epitome of a pitch-to-contact guy. In fact, this is one of the rare games where Blake Beavan has a better contact/swinging strike rate than his opposite number. If you’re tuning in to watch whoever those people are in Twins uniforms play defense, you’re in luck. Of course, he IS facing the Mariners today, so a career-high in K’s isn’t out of the question.
1: Ichiro (RF)
2: Rodriguez (SS)
3: Ackley (2B)
4: Carp (1B)
5: Smoak (DH)
6: Seager (3B)
7: Robinson (LF)
8: Gimenez (C)
9: Saunders (CF)
A couple of great sabermetric articles while you wait:
First, Mike Fast’s look at pitch-framing has garnered a lot of well-deserved praise. It goes beyond refining how we measure pitch framing and gets to HOW catchers might influence an umpire’s call. For M’s fans, it also highlights just how bad our catchers have been in recent years. That’s not news or anything, but Kenji Johjima was amongst the worst in baseball and Rob Johnson wasn’t much better. Miguel Olivo is quite close to average, but when none of these guys is elite in pitch-blocking, and they range from “meh” to “amongst the worst in baseball” in pitch-framing, you better hope they bring a lot of offense to the table. Kenji did for a while; the others are Rob Johnson, Adam Moore and Miguel Olivo. I know it’s unfair to put the blame squarely on the M’s catching coach Roger Hansen, but while we heard a lot about how much these guys improved under his tutelage, the M’s have had a hell of a time developing catchers who could catch. Maybe the M’s thought so much of him that they gave him guys spectacularly ill-suited to the job (this may be the case with Rob Johnson, who was an OF in college). I love baseball articles that make you think, but beware: this one will might make you reevaluate/pine for the Rene Rivera era.
Second, Josh Weinstock’s got a great article at THT on how a pitcher’s repertoire might impact his BABIP. It focuses on my favorite pitch, the change-up. The takeaway is that throwing a lot of change-ups may lower a pitcher’s BABIP. We’ve seen a few articles breaking down BABIP, HR/FB or batted-ball rates by pitch, but I think we can learn a whole lot more about how pitchers might influence what happens after they release the ball. We’ve known for a while that while their influence isn’t huge and tends to be pretty volatile, it’s not zero either. How we apportion credit/blame is one of those things that divides the saber camp, particularly when it comes to awards. The one-sentence summary of DIPS theory works reasonably well in most cases, but if we can refine the theory based on repertoire, we’re going to alter the way we evaluate pitchers.
Michael Pineda vs. Kevin Slowey, 5:10pm
This will be Michael Pineda’s final start of 2011. The hulking righty is comfortably among the top 10 pitchers in baseball in fastball velocity, K rate, and batting average against and he’s among the most valuable rookie pitchers in baseball. He’s been remarkable despite being so obviously raw. He still doesn’t throw his work-in-progress change-up all that much. He’ll miss spots significantly – throwing 4 consecutive fastballs out of the zone, or throw a slider in the middle of the plate. But, in general, he’s so talented that he’s not hurt in the way that other pitchers are. When your fastball is so good, hitters are more vulnerable to offspeed pitches – even the occasional *bad* offspeed pitch.
Michael Pineda has been an absolute joy to watch, and his development is a joy to dream about. You’re not supposed to be raw AND YET a good control pitcher. You’re not supposed to work on your offspeed stuff in the majors and get away with it. Get a win for him, M’s.
4: Carp (LF)
5: Smoak (DH)
7: Kennedy (1B)
9: Robinson (CF)