Wednesday and Thursday Game Chats

March 26, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 17 Comments 

For those of you who think that 3 am is a fantastic time to be awake and watching baseball, I’ll be hosting live chats during both of the games against the A’s on Wednesday and Thursday morning. We’ll set up a game thread for both as normal, so you can make comments just like before, but we’ll also embed a CoverItLive window in the game thread for ongoing commentary as the games go along. The chats will be hosted both here and on FanGraphs, so it will be a mix of people hanging out and enjoying some early morning baseball.

So, if you’re one of the crazies who is going to skip out on sleep to watch the M’s play in the middle of the night, you can come hang out with us here. It should be fun.

Japan Exhibition Game One

March 24, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 57 Comments 

The first of the M’s two exhibition games – this one against Hanshin, current home of Kenji Johjima – kicks off in about a half hour. The M’s are running out the regulars, and my guess is they’ll probably play the whole game.

Figgins, 3B
Ackley, 2B
Ichiro, RF
Smoak, 1B
Montero, C
Carp, LF
Olivo, C
Saunders, CF
Ryan, SS

Hector Noesi gets the start. Since they’re carrying extra pitchers and he hasn’t been fully stretched out, I’m guessing he’s looking at a five or six inning appearance.

A Quick Guide to Pronouncing Japanese Words

March 23, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 23 Comments 

Edit: I’ve made a few corrections, most importantly on “E,” but there are also clarifications on the “n/m” and double consonants. I’m just some gaijin who hasn’t had any practical outlet for the knowledge in the past ~ten years, so thanks to those of you who dropped by with comments.
I’ve been listening to the Mariners spring training games on the radio this past week [ed. note: when they aren’t preempted by the 24-hour football news cycle] and it’s been bugging me. I know, the team is in Japan now, and the announcers were obligated to make some references to Japanese baseball, but when I’m sitting here and the “Han” in “Hanshin” rhymes with “pan” in English or the “Yom” in “Yomiuri” rhymes with “mom,” it’s like daggers in my ears. So, to ease us through this period, I’m drafting this based off of my four years of taking Japanese in high school. I’m sure someone with actual fluency could do a better job, but I’m the one with the keys to… the keyboard. Yeah.

The Basics

Unlike a lot of the other languages in the region, Japanese is not tonal as spoken, which means that you can generally count on vowels doing the same predictable things over and over [with a few exceptions I’ll get to later]. Therefore, there’s no straining your ears over the difference between the third and fifth inflection of any given sound and trying to determine what that means for the whole sentence. It’s easy.

Where English tends to group things around letters, in Japanese it tends to be organized around syllables. Vowels are syllables on their own, and vowels preceded by consonants are also unique syllables. Again, there are a few exceptions here which we’ll arrive at in the advanced portion, but for the most part, that’s what you need to know to move forward to pronouncing these syllables. English would have us go the aeiou method, but Japanese as it was taught to me goes aiueo and I’m going to follow that.

A – This one should be somewhat familiar from the days when we had Sasaki closing for us, and Kawasaki making the team, it may still be present in your mind. When the doctor makes you stick out your tongue and say “ah,” it’s the same idea, shorter sound. As an English reference point, think of the a in “father” and you’ll be as close as you need to be.

I – It’s been a long time since I’ve heard anyone try to pronounce it Itchiro, so I think we’ll be okay here. “I” in Japanese is a long “e” in English. “Ichi” rhymes with “peachy” (or “Pee Chee” if you’re still in primary school). I don’t know if Ichi is generally peachy, but here we are.

U – I’d expect that this one shouldn’t be too hard either. “Suzuki,” right? Both of those u’s are doing the same thing. My clever baseball analogy is that some people have been known to “boo” certain players and the “oo” is the same sound the “u” makes in Japanese. Or, when you “ooo” and “ahh” over something, you’re approximating the Japanese sounds for “u” and “a,” respectively.

E – This one is a little less common, and the exposure we’ve had to it so far is the “e” in “Munenori.” The important thing to remember is that we already have something making the long “e” sound, so it’s clearly not that. In this case, it’s the short “eh” that you hear in words like “bed,” or “head,” or the “eh” one uses as an interjection to indicate disinterest in a given topic (not at all like the Canadian “eh?”). What I had written previously fell apart on a pretty common word, “sensei:” the “sen” is the same as it is in “sent,” whereas the “sei” sounds more like “say.”

O – We have the “ro” in “Ichiro” to help us out here. The Japanese “o” is pronounced like the long “o” in English, so “row,” “go,” etc are all applicable here.

Combinations! – Of course, you’re not always going to see the vowels in isolation. Sometimes they’re sitting right next to each other! What then? Generally, the same rules apply. If you see two of the same vowel, as happens in some cases, it’s just a longer version of the same sound. The exception here is the “o” sound which, when drawn out, usually takes a “u” next to it, but this doesn’t really change how you say it (there are a few exceptions to take on a case-by-case basis). The only areas that people might trip up on are the “ai” and the “ei,” where the pronunciation has become so close that it’s not as distinct anymore, but has become a unit of sound. “Ai” sounds like “eye” does to the English speaker, whereas “ei” is the same sound you get in “play” or “neigh.”

Advanced Stuff

What’s written above will get you through the next week or so without any issues. But it won’t get you all the way there, so if you really want more, here are some additional bits.

Dropped Vowels – This comes up most frequently in the formal case of the verbs, which all end in “-masu,” but it appears in other places often enough to at least make mention of it. The “u” in “-masu” isn’t pronounced consistently, and in some cases the ending sounds more like “moss” would to an English listener. At the same time, don’t expect other “u’s” to disappear like that; the ending “u” for the island of “Shikoku” is still pronounced.

N’s and M’s – Alert readers would have picked up on the fact that I referenced “Hanshin” and then talked about syllable groupings around the consonant-vowel pattern. “But what are those N’s doing there?” someone asks, still scratching their head. N is the only consonant that has its own little character in the two syllabic forms of writing, which you might also see come up with the main island of “Honshuu.” If I were to write “hanshin” using one of syllabaries, it would come out as ha-n-shi-n. “Han” is not a thing unto itself. One weird feature of this system is that there are cases where you might see the “n” transcribed as “m,” as happens with “shimbun,” which is the word for “newspaper.” This is probably some error of messy handwriting or typography that we foolishly persist in; there are no actual stand-alone “m”s.

Other Consonant Groupings – This is another thing that you probably noticed going through. In Japanese, you also have substitutions and replacements going on within the consonant-vowel tree, so instead of there being a “ti,” you have “chi” instead. “Tsu” takes the place of “tu,” “shi” replaces “si” as “ji” replaces “zi,” and “fu” takes the spot of “hu.” In traditional Japanese, “a,” “u,” and “o” are used most frequently and some consonant trees lack the other pieces. The “y” tree doesn’t have a “yi” or “ye” in the system used for native sounds, nor is there anything in the “w” tree beyond “wa” and “wo,” which is basically a particle where the “w” isn’t really pronounced.

There are also syllables that combine two sounds, like “kyu,” which is represented with “ki” and then a subscript “yu” (as you would find in “yakyuu,” their word for baseball). You can also get “shu” this way with a “shi” a subscript “yu.” This eventually extends to such sounds as “rya,” “ryu,” and “ryo” which are really difficult for English speakers to make. My geographic examples here are “Ryuukyuu” and “Kyuushuu,” the former an island chain and the latter the island in the southwest corner of the four main islands.

Double Consonants – This is sort of misleading and I lack the linguistics background to do it proper justice, but here’s a shot. I looked it up in the Wikipedia and they described it as a “gemination,” which probably does not mean much to any of you, but it has to do with consonant length. Say you’re stringing words together and one word ends with the same consonant that the next word begins with (Wikipedia gives me the example of “calm man,” someone else later suggested “bookcase,” which I think works better). You don’t elide that, but pronounce both the ending “m” and the beginning “m” distinctly. In Japanese, there’s a little subscript character that they use to indicate this, such as in the case of the northern island of “Hokkaidou.” TIF says that “hok-kai-dou” is probably a good approximation, but it’s not easy to explain without hearing it.

That’s it for today’s lesson. I hope that you found it helpful, or at least that you are not more confused now than you were coming in.

30 Man Roster for Japan Trip Announced

March 22, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 32 Comments 

The M’s waited until the last possible minute to announce the group of 30 that they’re taking to Japan, but the roster is finally out. The group includes:

Catchers: Miguel Olivo, John Jaso, Jesus Montero, Guillermo Quiroz

Infielders: Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Brendan Ryan, Chone Figgins, Kyle Seager, Munenori Kawasaki, Alex Liddi

Outfielders: Mike Carp, Michael Saunders, Ichiro Suzuki, Casper Wells, Carlos Peguero

Starting Pitchers: Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas, Hector Noesi, Blake Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez

Relief Pitchers: Hisashi Iwakuma, George Sherrill, Tom Wilhelmsen, Shawn Kelley, Lucas Luetge, Brandon League, Steve Delebar, Charlie Furbush, Chance Ruffin

You’ll note that Kevin Millwood isn’t on the roster, as he’s not going to fly over to Japan. He’ll be added to the roster once the team gets back to the U.S. and prepares for their opener down in Oakland. That means that there will be a pitcher on the roster in Japan who will then get optioned out after they get back – my bet would be on that guy being Erasmo Ramirez, but they might not make that decision until they get over there.

In terms of guys flying over there who will only be in the exhibition games, you’re looking at Quiroz, Liddi, Ruffin, Delebar, and either Peguero or Wells. Let’s hope sanity carries the day and Wells ends up on the team.

Also, for those few remaining die hard Cesar Jimenez fans, the team announced that he cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A today.

Why I’m OK with Blake Beavan in the Rotation

March 22, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 9 Comments 

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Fly-Outs:

Maybe it’s the league-wide change in strikeout rate that makes low-K pitchers seem so worthless, or maybe we just don’t know what to do with a young pitcher who’s both not a true prospect but not organizational depth either. We mock them, call them names (“He’s like a another Nick Blackburn. Ewwww.”), we tell them to stay in Minnesota where they can be with their own kind, and then we get back to wishcasting that some fireballer like Felipe Paulino or Dan Cortes can put it all together. I think that’s the context for M’s fans reaction to the news that Blake Beavan had been named the M’s 5th starter yesterday ahead of Hisashi Iwakuma.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s not a terrible plan. Hisashi Iwakuma’s 2005 season was marred by a shoulder injury – an injury that limited him to around 129 innings in 2006 and 2007 combined. He returned better than ever, winning an Eiji Sawamura award (Japan’s Cy Young award) in 2008, and posting 200 innings in 2010. But shoulder issues returned in 2011, and he pitched only 119 innings. He was pretty successful in those innings, though offense appeared to be down league-wide last year, but either due to the injury or a long layoff after he was shut down, his stuff’s still not back to his 2008-2009 peak.

At the World Baseball Cup in 2009, Iwakuma’s fastball averaged about 91 MPH and he showed a plus splitter at around 86 mph. Here’s Mike Fast’s pitch fx scouting report from ’09, and you can look at the data from the WBC here. In his first start in camp this year (on 3/5), his velocity was down enough that the Pitch FX algorithm thought he was throwing mostly splitters. His first fastball registered only 86 mph, and he averaged 89 mph for the game. Against the Dodgers on 3/10, he touched 91, and was able to differentiate his splitter and FB enough for Pitch FX to recognize them, but he still averaged 89 mph. In both starts, his velocity actually crept up over the course of the outing, which is encouraging.

It’s not that Iwakuma’s broken, or that he’s not the same pitcher he was – he’s just not that pitcher right now. Let’s not forget how difficult this transition is for Japanese starters: in Japan, Iwakuma started once a week, and never tallied more than 28 starts. Last season, he made only 17, and now he’s not only trying to get his arm strength back, he’s trying to learn to pitch more often too. Given a “normal” spring training schedule, he’d have half a chance, though I’m doubtful that another couple of weeks would be enough. This year’s anything but normal though, and the compressed schedule left him essentially no chance to be ready to throw effectively every five days. Eric Wedge’s plan to ease him in to MLB by serving as a long-reliever seems reasonable given this context, and taking things slowly in April might help the M’s to maximize his effectiveness in the second half.
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Beavan in Rotation, Iwakuma to Bullpen

March 21, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 36 Comments 

The M’s just announced on Twitter that the rotation to open 2012 will be Felix, Vargas, Noesi, Millwood, and Beavan. Noesi and Iwakuma will start the two exhibition games, so neither is likely to pitch in the regular season affairs over there.

As we talked about last night, this has been brewing for a few days, but I’m not sure it’s the right call. Beavan has an extremely limited upside, and he hasn’t done anything this spring that should make anyone think he’s more than just a back-end starter. Iwakuma might end up as that same kind of pitcher as well, but we just don’t really know what he is at this point, and I’m more interested in seeing if his success in Japan can translate to the big leagues than I am in whether Beavan can turn into Nick Blackburn.

That said, it’s not like they cut Iwakuma or anything, so if Beavan isn’t very good and he pitches well out of the bullpen, it won’t be too hard to swap them out. This isn’t the kind of thing that is carved in stone, and since the team has alternatives, Beavan will either be good or be replaced.

Cactus League Game 22: White Sox at Mariners

March 21, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 31 Comments 

Want to know what the Mariners Opening Day line-up is going to look like? Just look at today’s. With the club leaving for Japan tomorrow afternoon, Wedge has decided to roll out his starting nine for today’s game against the White Sox, and you can make a pretty safe bet that this is the line-up that will take the field against the A’s next week.

Figgins, 3B
Ackley, 2B
Ichiro, RF
Smoak, 1B
Montero, DH
Carp, LF
Olivo, C
Saunders, CF
Ryan, SS

Hernandez, P

If you were wondering if Kyle Seager’s power surge down in Peoria had won him the third base job, you’ve got your answer. He’s probably played himself into more playing time than he might have had otherwise, but the team is apparently committed to the Figgins experiment, and with Saunders also having a strong spring, third base was the only spot for him to play. So, for now, Saunders plays and Seager sits.

My guess is that those two are going to end up splitting time, with Figgins bouncing between 3B and CF for the first few weeks of the year. And, if Figgins is bad, he won’t hold onto a regular job for very long.

We know that Seager, Kawasaki, and Jaso are going to make up 75% of the bench. We don’t yet know who the last guy is going to be. Casper Wells hasn’t had a very good spring, and there’s been some rumblings that he might begin the season in Triple-A. If Wedge sees Figgins as the guy who is going to split time with Saunders in CF, then he could justify not carrying Wells and keeping Carlos Peguero, his favorite pet toy. It’s a lousy idea, since Peguero is bad and any playing time he’d be given would come at the expense of a better player, but it sounds like it’s still a possibility. Both Wells and Peguero are likely to make the trip to Japan, and my guess is that they won’t finalize that roster spot until they have to.

Update: Shawn Camp has been released. Looks like Steve Delebar or Erasmo Ramirez might have beat him out for a job, or this could be an indication that they’re going to use Iwakuma in the bullpen. More to come.

Perception and Reality

March 20, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 14 Comments 

If you’ve been following the reports about the Mariners starting pitching candidates this spring, you’ve no doubt read about how Hisashi Iwakuma’s “struggles” have been concerning to the coaching staff, which is part of the reason why there’s a chance he begins the year in relief, rather than as the #3 or #4 starter as expected. The other reason has been the “strong spring” performance of Blake Beavan, who began March on the outside looking in but has pitched well enough to give himself a real chance at starting the year in the rotation.

At least, that’s the story. Now, here’s the reality.

Hisashi Iwakuma: 57 batters faced, 2 walks, 9 strikeouts, 1 home run
Blake Beavan: 59 batters faced, 2 walks, 8 strikeouts, 1 home run

In the three things that a pitcher has some reasonable amount of control over, they’ve performed identically. Yes, Iwakuma’s given up 19 hits and Beavan just 12, but hits allowed aren’t really something that have any predictive value during the regular season, and that goes double for spring training. Evaluating a pitcher based on how many balls are falling in during Cactus League games in March is nothing short of absurd. It’s a bad use of results based analysis during the regular season, when teams are trying to win and rolling out Major League defenders on big league fields – during spring training, it’s insane.

In reality, Beavan hasn’t “performed” any better than Iwakuma this spring. If the Mariners actually do start the season with Beavan in the rotation and Iwakuma in the bullpen, it better be because they saw something in Iwakuma’s arsenal that they didn’t like, or because he showed worse stuff over here than he was throwing in Japan. There could be legitimate reasons for bumping Iwakuma from the rotation and giving Beavan the job instead – those reasons just don’t have anything to do with the results either pitcher actually got when they took the mound.

Cactus League Game 21: Mariners at Reds

March 20, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 18 Comments 

Yesterday’s 12-7 loss probably didn’t do a whole lot to settle the 25 man roster; Jason Vargas was terrible, but Jason Vargas isn’t on the bubble. Steve Delabar got blasted, but he was something of a longshot anyway. Kyle Seager homered, which might help his case to at least make the trip to Japan, but the hitting star was probably Justin Smoak who went 3-3 with two walks. The M’s figure to get more production out of the C, CF and 3B spots, though this is largely because they were historically bad in 2010-11. A full year of a healthy, productive Smoak really starts to transform the line-up, however. Instead of Ackley, Montero and please-be-good Ichiro followed by some question marks, they could start putting together a line-up that puts some pressure on pitchers.

Today the M’s play the Reds at Goodyear, as both Kevin Millwood and Hisashi Iwakuma attempt to get stretched out for the regular season. The M’s also play a minor league game, where Erasmo Ramirez will get several innings as well. The big position player battle today concerns the team’s 3B prospects, as Kyle Seager, Alex Liddi and Vinnie Catricala are all in the line-up. Charlie Furbush and George Sherrill should see some action against the Reds; both pitched yesterday, so this will be a good opportunity to see how Furbush fares in his new role and how ready Sherrill is for opening day.

The line-up:
1: Kawasaki (SS)
2: Rodriguez (2B)
3: Carp (LF)
4: Montero (C)
5: Seager (3B)
6: Liddi (1B)
7: Catricala (DH)
8: Peguero (RF)
9: Wells (CF)
SP: Kevin Millwood

Bob Condotta’s got a story on Franklin Gutierrez’s recuperation from a strained oblique. He’s still not able to throw, and doesn’t know when he’ll get the go-ahead to do so. So, uh, go Mike Saunders!

The M’s are scheduled to make another round of cuts today, as they fly to Japan on Thursday. They’ve got 39 players in camp, and several key battles for the last few spots. Obviously, the bullpen’s the most wide-open, especially after the release of Kuo. I’d guess Chance Ruffin and Steve Delabar haven’t done enough to keep them on the 25-man to start the year, and that Cesar Jimenez is probably not long for the active roster either. 3B’s the other big problem to solve. I think Seager’s on the team, forcing Catricala and probably Liddi down. Keeping Kawasaki means they can’t carry a bench bat like Peguero or Liddi, and Kawasaki has the upper hand over Luis Rodriguez. Liddi/Peguero probably makes the trip to Japan as a member of the taxi squad, but don’t figure to be a part of the 25-man roster at this time. The other big decisions are the #5 starter and whether to go with an 11- or 12-man ‘pen.

Go M’s.

Hong-Chih Kuo Released

March 19, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 10 Comments 

When the Mariners signed Hong-Chih Kuo last month, I was a bit surprised that he got a Major League deal. Generally, guys with significant health issues who are also fighting “Steve Blass Disease” get minor league deals that make them prove they can get batters out before they are added to the roster. However, the M’s bet on Kuo returning to prior form, and were willing to give him a non-guaranteed Major League deal in order to secure the potential in case he got back to what he was in 2010. By cutting him now, the team will only owe him a portion of the $500,000 he was due, rather than being on the hook for the full amount had he made the Opening Day roster.

Kuo was absolutely awful during the first few weeks of camp, struggling with his command and showing no signs of the life he used to have on his fastball. During his excellent run with LA, he sat in the mid-90s, but he was more along the lines of 89-92 in Peoria. Bad command of diminished stuff is a problem, and Kuo got beat up all spring long.

His release paves the way for the team to carry Rule 5 reliever Lucas Luetge, who has had a good spring, or potentially shift the bullpen makeup altogether. Hisashi Iwakuma is going to pitch in relief of Kevin Millwood tomorrow, and his mediocre spring – along with the strong effort being put together by Blake Beavan – could mean that Iwakuma starts the year in the long role. That would allow Charlie Furbush to make the team as a lefty reliever if they decided they wanted him in that role, or he could start in Tacoma and the team could carry Luetge.

The bullpen is a bunch of moving pieces right now. The guys who likely have jobs locked up are League, Wilhelmsen, Kelley, Camp, and Sherrill, but the last two spots are in flux. If Beavan gets a starting job, Iwakuma would take one of those jobs, but if they stick with Iwakuma in the rotation, it sounds like Beavan will head to Tacoma, and they might go with Erasmo Ramirez as the long man.

With the team leaving for Japan on Thursday, these decisions will have to be made fairly soon. They’re allowed to take 30 players to Japan and don’t have to decide on a 25 man roster until next week, but they’re going to want to have a pretty decent idea of who is going to work in relief by the end of the week. Kuo’s release clarifies things a bit, but we’ll likely see even more definition in the next day or two.

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