Game 80, Red Sox at Mariners

June 30, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 234 Comments 

Ramirez Furbush vs. Beckett, 7:10 pm.

Posting late enough that Ramirez has been removed early, apparently due to some kind of injury. I know Blake Beavan is still hanging around in Tacoma, but with Millwood coming up lame every other start as well, this team can’t really afford to lose guys out of the rotation. There may be sentiment to go ahead and call Hultzen up, but though he’s arguably already as good as the middling guys behind Felix, so far in Tacoma he’s showing there’s no reason to rush him.

RF-L Ichiro
CF-R Wells
3B-L Seager
DH-L Jaso
1B-B Smoak
2B-L Ackley
C-R Olivo
LF-B Figgins
SS-L Kawasaki

Game 79, Red Sox at Mariners

June 29, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 90 Comments 

Hector Noesi vs. Aaron Cook, 7:10pm.

Wow. I realize that not every day can be King Felix-and-Hultzen day, and I realize the M’s aren’t the only team involved in the game, but this is…this is not an inspiring match-up.

On the plus side, facing the 33-year old Cook might do more for the M’s offense than any stadium reconfiguration. Cook’s had a broken leg, a pulmonary embolism, shoulder problems and then this year, in his first start, this nasty gash in his leg that sent him back to the DL. At this point in his career, Cook simply throws sinking fastballs in the zone and hopes for the best. He is a slightly modified pitching machine. Those of you who remember Cook from his days in Colorado may argue that all he’s ever done is throw sinkers in the zone, but he used to mix in a cutter and even a curveball from time to time. He appeared to be increasing his curve usage in 2010 and 2011, but in his very brief time with the Red Sox this season, he’s thrown sinkers 83% of the time. His last start, against the Braves, offers a blueprint of his approach, though the word “blueprint” implies a level of sophistication and detail that’s entirely unwarranted here. In his two starts, he’s thrown a blizzard of sinkers and one time the results were pretty good, and one time the results were really bad. He has struck out nobody.

Hector Noesi’s coming off a good start against the Padres and desperately needs to build on that momentum. The win statistic is dumb and all, but he hasn’t had one since May 6th, and he hasn’t had a quality start against someone other than San Diego since May 27th. Having easy-to-fix issues (like Noesi’s struggles on 0-2 pitches) is wonderful and all, but it makes the repeated failure to actually go ahead and, you know, correct them all the more maddening. The Red Sox have hit lefties better than righties so far this year, but they’re still a dangerous line-up and Noesi needs to avoid the center of the plate.

The M’s line-up includes last night’s hero John Jaso at catcher, but it’s also time for the monthly Figgins start. I know it’d be bad form if Figgins never played at all, but in a Noesi/Cook start? Maybe it’s a good idea to start him when the Sox are in town, as thousands of faux-Bostonians are going to buy tickets anyway. Wells gets the start in CF for the injured Franklin Gutierrez which is odd given that Cook’s a right-hander. Maybe Mike Saunders needed a day off, but I’m sure it didn’t escape Wedge’s attention that the Sox started a lefty just last night.

1: Ichiro
2: Wells (CF)
3: Seager
4: Montero (DH)
5: Jaso (C)
6: Smoak
7: Ackley
8: Figgins (LF)
9: Ryan
SP: Hector Noesi

In other news, the M’s have apparently reached an agreement with first-round pick Mike Zunino…we just don’t know what it is. Lots of speculation that it’ll come in around $4 million, thus saving the M’s from all matter of unpleasantness with the new draft system. If so, hooray.

The Effects of Safeco in 2012

June 29, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 44 Comments 

So, I’ve been looking into this Safeco Field home/road split thing for the last week or two, and finally got around to writing up some information from a data-centered perspective. While everyone seems to focus on the team’s lack of hitting at home, the reality is that the evidence suggests that there’s just some crazy park effect going on in Seattle this year. It’s not just the Mariners hitters that are struggling in Safeco, it’s everyone, and to almost the same degree.

Anyway, I ended up writing 1,500 words on the subject over at Fangraphs, and you can read the full explanation over there, but the gist of it is that I think the weather is probably the main culprit. Seattle has been abnormally cool this year, especially relative to the rest of the country, and the park is just destroying home runs while turning balls that would be extra base hits into outs. From an observational standpoint, it appears that the marine air has been holding the balls up long enough for outfielders to run under them, and the climate in Seattle this year has turned Safeco into Petco North.

Whether this will continue or not, I have no idea — I’m not a meteorologist and I can’t speak to expected climate changes. It seems like, though, that this isn’t something that will persist, as Safeco’s been open for 13 years now and we’ve never seen it play anything like this before. My guess is that eventually the weather will get warmer and the ball will start to fly a bit.

Until then, though, realize that this is not something that is just affect the Mariners hitters. This is a park effect that is treating everyone equally, and we need to adjust our understanding of player performance accordingly.

Danny Hultzen’s Cheney Stadium Debut Wrap-Up

June 29, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 16 Comments 

For all the talk of the Rainiers game overshadowing the M’s, I feel weird posting this after what Felix did to the Red Sox tonight. The quotes coming out of the Sox locker room *almost* make me wish I’d stayed home and watched that game. But I wasn’t – I was at a sold-out Cheney Stadium watching Danny Hultzen take on Jamie Moyer and the Las Vegas 51s.
Danny Hultzen throws a pitch to Anthony Gose of Las Vegas
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Game 78, Red Sox at Mariners, Danny Hultzen’s Cheney Debut, General Excitement

June 28, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 194 Comments 

Felix Hernandez vs. Franklin Morales, 7:10pm
Danny Hultzen vs. Jamie Moyer, 7:05pm

Happy Felix?hultzen day, yet again! Let’s hope it goes slightly better than last time, when Hultzen couldn’t find the plate in Colorado Springs. There are obviously a lot of excuses for that – from nerves to altitude to the fact that the city was on fire – but he won’t have them (and hopefully won’t need them) tonight. The Las Vegas 51s start a familiar face, the incomparable Jamie Moyer, who was just picked up by the Blue Jays organization this week. John McGrath’s got a good column pointing out that Jamie Moyer called one of Hultzen’s College World Series games when he worked at ESPN during his Tommy John rehab, and everyone everywhere is trotting out those “Jamie Moyer is older than X” factoids.

Felix Hernandez is coming off a very encouraging start against the Padres at Petco Park, striking out 10 in 7 innings. He’s going to be facing a tougher offense tonight; the Red Sox have the 3rd best wOBA while the Padres are 2nd worst. He’ll be opposed by Franklin Morales, another hard-throwing Venezuelan. Morales came up in the Rockies organization, where he was renowned for a plus fastball that occasionally hit the upper 90s, or even 100mph. Fellow fireballer Juan Morillo, a young Dominican, was coming up at the same time, and they were both about one year behind Ubaldo Jimenez; for a month or so in 2006, it really looked like the Rockies were going to deal with playing at altitude by cornering the market on guys who threw ridiculously fast. The problem was that neither Morales nor Morillo knew where the ball was going. This proved fatal for Morillo’s MLB career, and it forced Morales to the bullpen, where he’s been pretty effective as he’s finally found some control. With injuries in their rotation, the Sox have had Morales make a few starts, and he’s been lights out. He’s still got a very good FB for a lefty, averaging around 95, and he’s got a curve and change-up that he uses against lefties and righties, respectively. As a starter, his control’s been impeccable, so the M’s need to get a good pitch and drive it. He rather memorably gave up a long home run to Mike Carp last year when he was working in relief.

1: Ichiro
2: Gutierrez
3: Seager
4: Montero (DH)
5: Wells
6: Smoak
7: Olivo (C)
8: Ackley
9: Ryan
SP: King Felix

Larry Stone’s going to live-blog the Hultzen start (which means I don’t have to!), but I’ll be spouting off about it all night on twitter, so check out one or both of those things!

Game 77, Athletics at Mariners

June 27, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 52 Comments 

Kevin Millwood vs. Jarrod Parker, 12:40pm

Matinee game at Safeco for the rubber match between the A’s and M’s. The A’s start Jarrod Parker, the big prize in the Tim Cahill deal this winter. The rookie’s been brilliant in the past two months, and faces an M’s line-up that’s struggled against Tom Milone and Travis Blackley, two pitchers with less pure stuff than Parker.

Jaso catches Millwood today, but otherwise it’s nice to see something like a regular line-up take shape:
1: Ichiro
2: Gutierrez
3: Seager
4: Montero
5: Saunders
6: Jaso (C)
7: Smoak
8: Ackley
9: Ryan

Minor League Wrap (6/18-24/12)

June 27, 2012 · Filed Under Minor Leagues · 11 Comments 

Some of this is moderately slapdash as I’m filling it in between events. Gosh, I hope this is coherent.

Stuff going on:
* There was this feature on the Jackson Generals winning the first-half title.
* Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker made the U.S. roster for the Futures Game.
* Fangraphs scouted Danny Hultzen. So did Baseball America, with some additional notes on Walker and Capps.
* Alex Liddi was tenth on BA’s Prospect Hot Sheet.
* In addition to being named Southern League Hitter of the Week last time around (Mike Wilson was also named for the PCL), Joe Dunigan won the SL Home Run Derby with eight dingers.
* The Pulaski rotation seems to be Ogando/Kaalekahi/Garcia/Marte/Chen.
* There seem to have been a few pre-July 2nd international signings. I’m seeing OF Jose Guedez, a Venezuelan, on the AZL roster and the DSL M’s added C Jose Rosa, who had been on the AZL roster a few days without playing. Both have 1994 as their year of birth. These types of signings trickle in every year around this time.

To the jump!
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Game 76, Athletics at Mariners

June 26, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 165 Comments 

Jason Vargas vs. Travis Blackley, 7:10pm

Ah, Travis Blackley. It seems like it was only yesterday when the young Aussie left-hander made his debut with the 2004 Mariners. He’d torn up the Texas League in 2003 (at age 20), with a sparkling ERA and impressive strikeout totals for a guy whose fastball was basically 89-90.

He struggled a bit with his command in Tacoma, and his strikeout rate was down, but holy crap the 2004 M’s were terrible. It was one of Jamie Moyer’s worst years in Seattle, the year Joel Pineiro went from “phenom” to “problem.” All told, the M’s, playing in Safeco, gave up 5.1 runs per game. When the M’s traded Fredy Garcia, they brought up Blackley who’d been excellent in his first few months of AAA. We all remember what happened next – 26 terrible innings, followed by a demotion and another month or two of bad AAA performance followed by a shoulder injury that developed into a torn labrum. After rehab, he made a few appearances in the M’s system before being released and picked up by San Francisco. After 2007, he’s pitched almost anywhere people are paid to pitch baseballs, from Australia to Korea to :shudder: Reno. After being out of affiliated ball in 2011, he started off the season pitching like his 21-year old self for Fresno and earned a call-up with the Giants. A few games later, he was cut and then picked up by the A’s, who didn’t necessarily have a place for him, but it had been a few days since they’d made a roster move and Billy Beane needed a fix bad.

Blackley’s still got the same 89-91 mph fastball, though he’s using a two-seamer now to good effect. Always a fly-ball pitcher with the M’s, he’s got a 50% ground ball rate now with the A’s. His slow curve ball’s still there, though it’s never really been a great pitch. His change-up is his best pitch in terms of generating whiffs and grounders, so that’s something the M’s right-handers should look for (he’s thrown zero to lefties). The two-seamer’s helped his HR problems, and he’s also greatly improved his command somehow. He’s coming off of his best performance as a major leaguer, an 8IP no decision in which he essentially matched Clayton Kershaw pitch for pitch (OK, it’s more like he functioned as a slow-motion replay of each Clayton Kershaw pitch), finishing with 3 hits allowed, 1 run, 6 Ks to no walks. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care, as an old Travis Blackley signed baseball sits on my desk. *

Jason Vargas gets to pitch at home and not Arizona, which is a positive, but I’d love to see some sign that he’s tweaked his delivery or is able to pitch down in the zone again. I’ve been worried with Vargas’ slide these past few months, and tonight would be a nice night to stop it.

1: Ichiro (DH)
2: Gutierrez (CF)
3: Seager (3B)
4: Montero (C)
5: Smoak (1B)
6: Saunders (LF)
7: Wells (RF)
8: Ackley (2B)
9: Ryan (SS)
SP: Jason Vargas

* It sits next to Bobby Madritsch and Chris Snelling signed baseballs. It is officially the saddest of all possible desks.

Giving Up on Justin Smoak

June 26, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 88 Comments 

A month ago, Justin Smoak was on fire, hitting home runs left and right and reminding everyone that there was a reason he was once a first round pick. Since then, though, Smoak has gone right back to being the massive disappointment that we’re all familiar with, and his June has actually been even worse than his lousy April. May now seems like a distant memory. And, unfortunately, it’s getting close to the time where we might just have to admit that Justin Smoak is a bust.

Yes, he’s only 25-years-old. There is talent there, and it’s tempting to just keep rolling him out there hoping that it starts to turn into production. But, at this point, history suggests that those hopes are probably not well founded.

In the last 30 years, there have been 55 first baseman (including Smoak) who have been given 1,000+ plate appearances through their age 25 season. Every single one of them hit better than Smoak has, and we’re not just talking raw numbers that can be explained away by Safeco Field or the change in run environments. By wRC+, which accounts for both a player’s home park and the average performance of the league at the time, Smoak’s 87 is the worst of the 55 players on the list.

Travis Lee was better. Greg Colbrunn was better. Casey Kotchman was better. John Mabry was better. Conor Jackson was better. Brad Fullmer was better.

Yes, there are examples of guys who sucked early and then developed later. Erik Karros was lousy through age 26, then put together a nice five year run from 27-31, including two years where he was a legitimate all-star. Tino Martinez didn’t have his first really good year until he was 27, and then he had a nice little peak for a few years after that. Carlos Pena bounced around the league until he was 29 before turning into a monster. So, it’s not impossible that Justin Smoak will eventually become a fairly useful player.

There’s a few problems, though. The obvious one is the point we’ve already made – all of those guys were better through age 25 than Smoak, and they all produced at around an average clip before turning into above average hitters. Smoak hasn’t done that for more than a few weeks at a time. Here and there, he gives glimpses of being good, but over a consistent period of time, he’s never been more than just okay. All of those guys improved substantially, but they had long stretches earlier in their career where they were actually good. Smoak has never had a long stretch of being a good Major League hitter.

Beyond that, though, it’s worth noting that even the peaks of the guys who did improve weren’t all that great. Karros had +5 win seasons at 27 and 31, but from 28-30, he was basically an average player. Martinez had two +5 win seasons at 27 and 29, but was more of a +3 win player at 28, 30, and 31. These are the best case scenarios, and they were more solid players than stars. You wouldn’t mind having their peak years, but they weren’t franchise first baseman, and they didn’t have very long peaks even after they took a step forward.

How long does the organization want to commit to letting Smoak develop on the hope that he might be an outlier that turns into a slightly above average player in a couple of years? I mean, really, at this point, that’s the upside. That’s what you’re investing your playing time into hoping he becomes, but it’s more likely that he’s just the new Travis Lee – an underpowered first baseman who is good enough at everything to keep getting jobs but not good enough at anything to actually help anyone win. Lee hung around in the Majors through age 31, and actually had one good year himself at age 28, but his overall career was essentially a failure.

And through age 25, Lee had outhit Smoak. He walked more, struck out less, and showed about the same amount of power. Yes, the ball flew further back then, and Lee didn’t have to contend with Safeco Field, but Smoak’s a switch hitter and is supposed to have gap power that can play in a bigger ballpark. Instead, he has just three doubles all season, the lowest total of any regular in Major League Baseball. Stephen Strasburg has more doubles than Justin Smoak this year. Stephen Strasburg is a pitcher.

I’m not advocating benching Smoak just to bench him, but the team should probably start planning for alternatives at first base next year. Barring a monstrous second half, it’s probably fair to say that Smoak has played himself out of a job. The Mariners probably shouldn’t bring Justin Smoak to camp as a guy in the mix for regular playing time next year. If they think he fits as a bench guy who might work hard enough to salvage his career, then there’s probably a role for him as a pinch-hitter. If they don’t think he fits in that spot, then you make him a change-of-scenery guy and wish someone good luck in getting more out of him than the Mariners have.

For the rest of the year, what does that do to the roster from a practical standpoint? Well, if you’re taking Smoak out of the guys-who-need-to-play-everyday role, that opens up some playing time for Mike Carp once he comes back from the DL. I’m still not sold on Carp as an everyday guy in the big leagues either, but he’s shown more at the Major League level than Smoak has at least. There’s also the reality that Jesus Montero is not a catcher long term, and he’d provide more value as a guy who could play first base than if he was strictly limited to DH duties. Even if you just pitch it to him as the Mike Napoli role, rotating between C/1B/DH, that gives the team another chance to get Montero and Jaso in the line-up more regularly even if the team isn’t comfortable with them behind the plate. If the organization really believes that Mike Zunino is their catcher of the future, then getting Montero ready to play first base isn’t a bad idea. You don’t have to make him an everyday 1B, but just getting his feet wet at the position when the games don’t count will help make the conversion easier in a year or two.

For Smoak, this was a make or break year. He either needed to figure out how to make more contact or hit for more power. He’s not doing either. We’re nearly 1,200 plate appearances into the Justin Smoak experience, and at this point, I’ve lost hope that it’s going to pay off in a significant way. He can still improve, and he probably will, but is he going to improve into something that’s worth keeping around through his arbitration years? The Dodgers have been hanging onto James Loney for years, waiting for a similar breakout, and now he’s dragging down a contending offense because they’ve never bothered to go get someone better.

The Mariners should look for a better first baseman than Justin Smoak.

Game 75, Athletics at Mariners

June 25, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 122 Comments 

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Tom Milone, 7:10pm

The A’s have cycled through six first-basemen so far this season. Due to a combination of injuries and an almost pathological need to make minor transactions, the A’s have used 20 pitchers and four catchers (and people thought the M’s carrying three was insane). They have acquired, willingly, Brandon Inge. They have essentially taken the Pacific Coast League all-stars of recent years and given them a few weeks to see what they could do at the big league level. Brandon Allen? Nope. Kila Ka’aihue? Nah. Collin Cowgill? Ehhh, not awful, I guess. How about Michael Taylor? The A’s are so ecumenical that they’re now starting 2003 Futures Game player Travis Blackley (as an aside, I’m thrilled for Blackley). This isn’t a typical rebuilding job – these guys aren’t exactly young, and none of them are really heralded. It’s also not surprising; the A’s acquired many of these guys in various deals this past off-season. All of this suggested a team that was a step behind the M’s, whose wholesale rebuilding job brought in name-brand prospects and whose starting rotation, while admittedly jury-rigged, included a mix of veterans and a few interesting young kids. The A’s starting 3B in April was an average hitter in the PCL last year, and he was mostly a catcher. Few things can make you feel a tiny bit better about being a fan of the team employing Chone Figgins, and I’m not even sure the Josh Donaldson experiment qualifies, though his sub-.400 OPS helps.

The M’s begin this series 4.5 games behind Oakland, and the A’s come in having won 7 of their last 10. The A’s soft-tossing lefty out of USC is Tom Milone, who came over in the Gio Gonzalez trade. The M’s tried a soft-tossing lefty out of USC last year, and that didn’t go so well. In the past decade, every M’s fan has grumbled about how everything seems to work out for the Angels – that even their jaw-dropping mistakes don’t sink the team, or the way they always beat their pythag winning percentage. I’ve developed that sort of feeling about the 2012 Athletics. They shouldn’t be better than the M’s. You can make a good case that the A’s themselves weren’t TRYING to be better than this year’s M’s. But here we are.

Let’s watch a baseball game!
1: Ichiro (RF)
2: Gutierrez (CF)
3: Seager (3B)
4: Montero (DH)
5: Smoak (1B)
6: Saunders (LF)
7: Olivo (C)
8: Ackley (2B)
9: Ryan (SS)
SP: Erasmo!

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