2012 First Half Review: Yes, It was That Bad
I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed an All-Star Break more. I didn’t see any of the home run derby or the game itself – I just needed to stop seeing the M’s so much.
Other writers have capably summed up just how bad the team’s been in 2012, but I just want to chime in and say: it’s every bit as bad as it’s looked, probably worse.
No, the M’s haven’t “deserved” their atrocious record. They’ve been bad, but perhaps not exactly this bad – sequencing has hurt a bit, as has the famous Safeco Field problem. But fundamentally, this is a team that’s nowhere closer to contention than it was in 2010. That’s a problem, because the top two teams in the division are every bit as good, if not better. The M’s weren’t supposed to be decent in 2009, so when they stumbled in 2010, it wasn’t a big problem – the team wouldn’t compete in 2011 either, but 2012 would be fun. They might not overcome the Rangers, but they’d be fun to watch and they’d put the pressure on Texas and probably eclipse a fading Angels team. I think we could all accept that the rebuild wasn’t going as smoothly as we’d anticipated after a Gutierrez HR in 2009, but the exquisite torture of 2012 is watching the young position players the team counted on fail, and fail hard.
Dustin Ackley started his MLB career brilliantly, with a .304/.364/536 line through July 12th, 2011. Since then, his slugging percentage is well below .400. His K:BB ratio is no longer amazing, and is nearing just plain “bad.” With his pedigree and scouting reports, I’m reasonably confident that he can get it going again, but I’m not confident that we’re going to have someone that’s clearly head-and-shoulders better than whoever the opponent can throw out. It’s not that he’s been worse than Howie Kendrick or Ian Kinsler, it’s that I can’t say that he’s going to have the edge on Jurickson Profar in a year or two. Ackley’s BABIP has dropped precipitously, particularly on ground balls. It’s at .222 in 2012, compared to .352 in 2011, which implies he’s due for some regression, but one of Ackley’s problems is that he’s become predictable – 58% of his GBs are pulled and only 12.5% go to the opposite field, pretty much dead on average of this group of pull-happy sluggers. This is one consequence of not swinging at as many pitches on the outer-half of the plate.
The picture’s worse with Justin Smoak. Despite making an acceptable amount of contact, Smoak’s produced an unacceptable line, with a particularly galling slugging percentage. Dave recounted his struggles making contact with off-speed/breaking balls, and I talked about his production versus fastballs – while the nature of his struggles change, he’s struggled against every pitch type in virtually every location thus far in his big league career. Smoak’s now got a career OPS of .672 and a wOBA of .297. People talk about his production against left-handers, and rightly so, but he’s hitting .220 against both, and the wOBA gap isn’t that huge – it’s not that he’s held his own against lefties, it’s that he hasn’t hit right-handers either. The team needed production at 1B, and it simply hasn’t gotten it. Now, the M’s seem likely to give Mike Carp more PAs at 1B, but while it’s nice the team’s got a 1B ready to step in, Carp’s no sure thing either.
Carp enjoyed a break-out 2011 (as a LF) thanks to above-average power and, the skeptics pointed out, a high BABIP. He made up for a high swinging-strike rate by stinging the ball when he did make contact. The problem is that he’s always had a something of a hole – Carp seems to struggle with elevated pitches, especially fastballs. He hasn’t been successful when he’s made contact with high strikes, mind you. He’s done well on low pitches, and he’s killed inside pitches. The sample’s tiny, but it sure looks like pitchers are giving him more high FBs in 2012 than 2011. I’m happy that Carp’s going to get a chance at 1B, or maybe I’m happy that Smoak’s going to focus on something other than trying to right the ship in front of thousands of fans every night. I’m still worried that the American League is adjusting to the M’s faster than the M’s are adjusting to the League.
2012 was the year Blake Beavan’s subtle charms abruptly stopped working, like Beane’s sh*t in the playoffs. The control’s there, his K rate’s up a bit, but he suffered the fate that many predicted from a guy who repeatedly throws non-sinking 90 mph fastballs over the plate. The’s M’s had a replacement with talent and a great back-story in Erasmo Ramirez, and after a shaky start or two, he turned in a gem…and then went on the DL with elbow trouble. Hector Noesi was worse than Beavan, and his replacement tore through AA, but’s gotten stuck in AAA for a while. James Paxton is just back from a knee injury. Taijuan Walker’s triumphant waltz through AA hit a bit of a snag. The M’s have a team FIP of 4.14, but this is buoyed by a bullpen made up of a bartender, a rule 5 LOOGY, a guy just back from Tommy John surgery and Oliver freaking Perez.
Meanwhile, Texas and Los Angeles are better than we thought they’d be a few years ago. Texas is the two-time AL Champion, and have one of the better prospects in baseball in AA. The Angels survived the Napoli trade, the Vernon Wells contract and Dan Haren’s ineffective 2012 thanks to the remarkable Mike Trout and a break-out year for Mark Trumbo. Yeah, they added Albert Pujols, but they did so in large part because they were on a part of the win curve that justified a breathtaking contract. Both of these teams exhibit above-average to elite player development staffs. Trumbo was in his 6th minor league season in his break-out 2010 (which is one reason I’ve always underestimated him), and Trout hasn’t appeared to need the adjustment time that so many M’s position players seem to require. The Angels have maximized the utility of guys like Peter Bourjos, Kendrys Morales (when he’s healthy), and even late-career Torii Hunter. The Rangers have seen their patience pay off with Matt Harrison and Elvis Andrus, and they appear to have replacements for an aging roster in Profar, Cody Buckel, and Mike Olt.
Meanwhile, the M’s still don’t quite know what they’ve got in Carlos Triunfel, Vinnie Catricala and Denny Almonte. They may know more about what they’ve got in Rich Poythress, Johermyn Chavez and Trayvon Robinson, but that doesn’t make this story any happier. I’ve been thinking about the myriad failures of the player development group recently – that maybe some of their failures were really the fault of scouting or some other factor, but at this point it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the M’s are getting their clocks cleaned in developing talent. Last year, I said that player development was crucial in the M’s jumping back into contention. The deadline deals and the draft had restocked the system and seriously narrowed the talent gap at the sub-major league level. Since then, the M’s have again benefited from a high draft pick, but we still don’t know who the starting OF’s going to be, and the enviable MLB depth in the oF’s turned into enviable OF depth in AAA. This would appear to be a serious problem.
It’s all well and good to say that the dearth of talent anywhere on the 40-man when Zduriencik was hired necessarily means that the rebuild would take longer than we thought, especially after the tease that was 2009. But the discussion heading into the All-Star break this year concerned possibly sending both Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley to the minors. Think back to 2010, or to the date of the Smoak trade. Think if someone had told you that, midway through 2012, the M’s might send Smoak and Ackley to AAA to figure something out – your vision of what the 2012 season must be like, given that hypothetical, would be right on the money.
Images of the first half – four moments that sum up what this half-season’s felt like:
Bartolo Colon, in a billowing, anachronistic throwback, shutting down the M’s for 8 2/3 innings. Bartolo Colon, throwing fastball after fastball in the zone, as a collections of M’s hitters popped up. The M’s had Felix starting, and given the King’s performance, they had a great opportunity to win the final series of the half. No, a ‘series win’ against a mediocre team like Oakland wouldn’t prove much, but think of how awful it felt after the M’s dropped this game in the 13th? Colon stands on the mound, with a look somewhere between ennui and resignation. He looks like a chunky dog whose owners have stuffed it into an ill-fitting sailor suit. In the outfield, hundreds of seagulls circle, as if the sky’s being drained. A few hundred die-hard Oakland fans still boo Ichiro, which used to feel like a badge of honor and now seems more like kicking a man when he’s down. Fastball after fastball, making the M’s look as silly as Colon does.
Bartolo Colon is pitching in Japan. By itself, that phrase would be perfectly cromulent as a thing that happened in 2012. But it’s late March, 2012, and the M’s are playing the A’s at some ridiculous time of morning, and Colon is pitching. The M’s bats looked decent against the A’s in the opener, but this is the same old thing: mis-hits, sawed-off grounders, infield pops. The sole run scores when Justin Smoak swings late at an outside fastball and hits it down the LF line. The ball creeps over the short fence for a home run. Ichiro and Ackley go a combined 0-8, and the M’s pen blows the game. No problem, it’s nothing – Colon’s going to have games like that, and Ackley’s fine – remember that bomb he hit last night? Colon gets the win, pitching 8 innings, giving up one run, in a packed Tokyo Dome, as thousands of people bang plastic noise-makers. The M’s return to the US to resume spring training; they must regroup and face Colorado at Talking Stick field.
The home opener, April 13th, 2012. The M’s stood at 4-4 after an encouraging series in Arlington. The A’s no longer have Eric Sogaard at SS, but still have Josh Donaldson at 3B and a struggling Coco Crisp batting 2nd. King Felix is on the mound, and King’s court is in fine voice. Only Bartolo Colon stands between the M’s and a big win. Colon was fine in Japan, but the M’s got to him in Oakland a week or so back. Whatever weird magic he had working had worn off – it’s like an accelerated version of his 2011 season, when he started so strong and then finished up with an awful second half. The M’s weren’t going to wait that long this time – they were going to prove that while you could throw 90mph fastballs right past the 2010 M’s, and you could reduce the 2011 M’s to tears by putting a fastball on the outside edge, the 2012 M’s weren’t messing around. No sir. Colon tosses 7 shut-out innings and hand Felix Hernandez his first loss of the year. People say: Colon’s good, he’s a solid pitcher. You throw 38 consecutive strikes and you’re a force out there. He’s allowed a slugging percentage against of .426 this year, but remove the M’s and it jumps to .471. His K:BB ratio drops from 3.71:1 down to 2.93:1. Colon’s been an above average pitcher this year, but so much of that’s tied up in the fact that he faced the M’s four times. Four times. 19 strikeouts to 2 walks. RA/9 under 3. Bartolo Colon, again.
Justin Smoak rounds first base, and watches his long drive settle into the glove of Chris Denorfia. He slams his batting helmet into the infield dirt. “That’s all I’ve got” he tells reporters after the game. This is a crucial moment in the “bring the fences in” debate, as it appears that Safeco field’s gotten into Smoak’s head. He no longer feels capable of hitting a ball out of his home ballpark. People pore over the splits, they discuss how much to bring in the fences – more in left, less in right. It’s hurt everyone, but something’s going on here – this is excessive. If Justin Smoak can’t hit one out, by golly, your ballpark isn’t a pitcher’s park, it’s a joke. You can’t take your starting 1B, a young guy who this franchise needs (Mike Saunders is batting now, facing lefty Joe Thatcher), and have a park crush his confidence. How can anyone come to work (Saunders lifts a long drive to dead center field) and work at improving? Everyone’s going to tell him not to change his approach (Maybin goes back to the track, then the wall), but how is that possible? How’s it possible to stay focused on just squaring up the ball when it’s impossible (and it’s gone!) to hit a ball out at night?