What I Learned This Week
Ok, so it was both a week and about two weeks, but the M’s and their full-season affiliates have now played a couple of opponents each. This is a situation ripe for reading way too much into small samples, of course. I’m aware of the danger here, but hey, we’ve been waiting for months to have real games to look at, so what the hell:
1: Felix Hernandez has enough faith in his new cutter to throw it in “real” games. In theory, this ought to be something new that he can use against lefties who are used to a steady diet of his change-up. In practice, well, this. Felix put that pitch in a pretty good spot against a hitter who hadn’t shown a lot of HR power, so it’s hard to fault him for it, but Felix missed his target badly. This’ll be something to watch in his next start – if he’s able to command the pitch well enough to hit the black, or if this is going to be relegated to a side show; something to give hitters a different look, but not something used to get outs directly. I’m excited to see what he does tonight and how he mixes the pitch in against a line-up that’s seen it already.
2: James Paxton’s off to the best start of the three top prospects in AA Jackson. A week ago, he was absolutely dominant, striking out 10 of the 19 hitters he faced with (crucially) no walks. Paxton’s command problems didn’t hurt him in the Midwest League, but bouts of wildness popped up at times in his spring training outings, so it’s great to see what he can do when he’s not yielding free passes. His second start (this past Wednesday) was less impressive, as he walked a batter and ran a number of three ball counts which increased his pitch count and led to an early exit. His command wasn’t great, but he was able to get fastballs over when he needed to and struck out 7 of the 19 Tennessee Smokies that faced him. If 4 hits, 1 walk and 7Ks are what we get in a so-so Paxton start, then he might need to move up a level. He’s got things to work on, but he’s in the enviable position of being able to throw fastballs by people in 3-1 counts and feel pretty confident that if they’re hit, they won’t be hit hard. That approach probably won’t work in MLB and it probably wouldn’t be as effective in the video-game run environments of the PCL. I’d initially thought that Danny Hultzen might move quicker given his pedigree and the fact that he’s on the 40-man, but Paxton’s first week was eye-opening.
3: Danny Hultzen’s debut was a lot better than the box score may indicate; he K’d 7 hitters, generated a lot of ground balls (several of which went for hits), and his command issues may be a combination of nerves and a tight zone (Cameron Bayne of Birmingham, a guy with decent career walk rates, walked 5 in 4 2/3 IP too). I’m still worried that his arm slot might give him problems against good right-handed hitters, but righties weren’t a huge problem last week (it could be argued that the White Sox system doesn’t have anyone that could be described as a “good right-handed hitter”). 3 of the runs charged to Hultzen scored on Yoervis Medina’s watch, but the first two were legitimate. After a one-out single, Hultzen gave up a triple to a very flawed lefty in Birmingham’s Jared Mitchell, and then scored Mitchell on a wild pitch. He’s facing a slightly better line-up today in the Cubs AA affiliate so we’ll hopefully know more this evening. The game starts at 4:15 pacific (so, in just a few minutes), and it’ll be shown live on milb.tv.
4: The High Desert Mavericks are going to score a lot of runs. No, I’m serious. While their league and park are such that a random smattering of commenters here could be counted on to plate a couple runs per game, the Mavs have several great hitters with college experience. Last year’s Mavs had several very talented, high-ceiling hitters that were drafted out of high school and moved up through the ranks – Nick Franklin was the biggest name, but Denny Almonte and Danny Carroll were tools picks out of high school. This year’s team includes SS Brad Miller, Cs John Hicks and Jack Marder, IFs Stefen Romero and Steven Proscia. So far, the college guys are getting it done – they’ve scored over 8 runs a game, and are slugging .565 as a team. Yes, the park is silly in some ways, and yes, it’s difficult to properly evaluate anyone playing there, but this isn’t 100% park effect – the team has the fewest strikeouts and the most walks in the California League.
(Incidentally, if you have the twitters and want to follow High Desert, give Victorville Daily Press reporter Kyle Glaser a follow – @KyleAGlaser)
5: Kyle Seager’s pretty good. After his long HR yesterday, Seager’s got the team’s best wOBA and he’s K’d only twice in 29 plate appearances – the latter stat’s interesting, as the M’s led the league in both swinging strike rate and strikeout rate in 2011. These whiffs obviously weren’t balanced out by power, patience or much of anything. While I viewed Bill Bavasi’s bizarre antipathy to Ks as counterproductive (ahhh, Jose Vidro), the fact remains that the M’s couldn’t even get lucky on balls in play when they were incapable of hitting balls in play. Seager’s absurd sub-3% whiff rate will regress, but I think last season’s call-up undersold his contact ability. Again, the contact rate is perfectly fine, but it’s got to be accompanied by something more – and after a 446 foot HR off of a lefty, I’d say Seager’s showing signs that he can hit the ball with more authority than he did last year. Now that the line-up’s been De-Custed (and with Carlos Peguero recuperating), there are only a few whiff-prone hitters in the everyday line-up. Miguel Olivo’s the big offender, of course, but if this team wants to avoid shutouts in Arlington, Justin Smoak’s going to have to improve his plate discipline a bit more.