Game 157, Mariners at Athletics

September 28, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 72 Comments 

Blake Beavan vs. AJ Griffin, 7:05pm

It sure doesn’t seem like it, with the A’s holding on to a playoff spot and the M’s cruising to another last-place finish, but there are a lot of parallels between these two clubs. Neither team was really expected to contend, and both need their pitching and defense to make up for a mediocre/cobbled-together offense. The A’s big trade acquisition, Josh Reddick, has been substantially better than the M’s Jesus Montero, and the A’s young starters acquired in trade (Tom Milone, Jarrod Parker) have been worth about 7 WAR more than Hector Noesi. It’s not exactly apples to apples, as the M’s started the year with several high-paid players and one high-paid Figgins, whereas the A’s were only able to sign Cuban OF Yoenis Cespedes after purging their roster of anyone making decent money. Still, the A’s and M’s have filled out their rosters largely through small free agent deals and trades. The A’s just did a much better job.

To take that comparison a step further, AJ Griffin is the A’s version of Blake Beavan – he’s their physically large/broad right-handed control artist with a ~90mph fastball. Of course, this being Oakland in 2012, Griffin’s been brilliant. I talked about his stuff earlier this month before he shut down the M’s and beat King Felix, so I’m not going to do that again. I’d point out that he’s stumbled in his last two starts, giving up a combined 4 HRs and not making it out of the 5th inning either time, but that may tempt fate. So let’s just say that it’s exceedingly difficult for a righty with an 89-91 fastball to succeed by throwing said fastball in the strikezone so often. Drew Smyly made a huge splash this spring and then scuffled for much of May and June. Josh Collmenter was brilliant last year, and awful this year.

I’d point all of that out, and the A’s would refer me to Tommy Milone, who’s the exact same pitcher as Griffin but from the left side (and pocket-sized) – he’s been an above-average starter all year, and he’s got the same combination of solid K rate, miniscule BB rate, acceptable/so-so HR rate despite fly ball tendencies. Then they’d say that Griffin essentially replaced Bartolo Colon, the guy who essentially did nothing but throw 90mph fastballs over the plate and was bizarrely effective between 2011-12 before his suspension. I don’t know if this particular version of Beane’s shit is going to work in the playoffs, but just as with the Moneyball A’s, what we have here is some unusual shit.

One more thing to keep in mind, especially as the M’s try to continue their HR streak: the A’s home park has played awfully big this season. It hasn’t received as much attention as Safeco’s extreme splits, and with good reason, but the A’s have allowed opponents a .280 wOBA in Oakland, comparable to the M’s opponents’ .275 at Safeco. Both the M’s and A’s have allowed 60 HRs at home, compared to 100 and 81 (respectively) on the road. The A’s staff is still reasonably effective on the road, while the M’s have been below average, but whatever they call the Coliseum now is nearly as offense-sapping as the M’s home park.

1: Ackley
2: Wells
3: Seager
4: Montero (DH)
5: Jaso (C)
6: Smoak
7: Saunders
8: Robinson
9: Ryan
SP: Beavan

No Gutierrez a day after being removed from the game after running into the wall in Anaheim hauling in Mike Trout’s drive. Precautionary, we’re told, as we are every time in this situation. And there have been a lot of situations.
Wells hitting 2nd. Huh.

I suppose I should mention that the M’s have a new Director of Pro Scouting, Tom Allison, who came over from the Diamondbacks organization. This was the spot Carmen Fusco held until his firing 2 years ago in the wake of the Josh Lueke trade (the Cliff Lee deal, not the John Jaso deal). This isn’t to be confused with the scouting director, or amateur scouting side of the shop; Tom McNamara’s still there, doing his thing. This can be an advisory role, and that’s the way the M’s have seemed to use it. Perhaps Zduriencik merely got tired of giving his new advisors the “special assistant GM” description and decided to go back to “Pro Scouting Director” instead. In a little over a year, the M’s have added Joe McIlvaine, Pete Vuckovich as special assistant GMs and promoted Roger Hansen to the same role: player procurement. In addition to this group, they still retain three pro scouting coordinators, and now it seems that those scouts will report to Allison. The M’s have added a *lot* of people to pro scouting, but I don’t think that’s reflective of any grand strategy or ‘freezing out’ Tony Blengino or anything. Zduriencik just seems to love old scouts and guys he worked with in Milwaukee and New York, and so he’s hired a bunch of them.

This isn’t the only model for a pro scouting director. It’s going to be fascinating to see how the Astros use Kevin Goldstein, who wasn’t a pro scout and was employed by Baseball Prospectus before joining Sig Mejdal’s staff. Still, it’s easy to overthink a move like this. The role’s been empty for two years and no one’s really noticed. There’ve been solid trades and awful trades during the pro scouting interregnum, and there’ll be hits and misses in the years ahead. But here’s hoping Tom Allison helps the group and helps the M’s turn the corner.

Game 156, Mariners at Angels

September 27, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 53 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Dan Haren, 12:37pm

For a guy whose signature pitch is a slider/cutter, Dan Haren’s never really shown huge platoon splits. That’s helped him stay a very good starter in both leagues in recent years, but this year it’s something of a problem. RHBs have knocked 12 HRs offof Haren, ensuring the righty has equivalently ugly HR rates this year. All of this may explain why Jesus Montero gets a rare start at catcher today against a RH starter. Good choice, Wedge.

It also highlights how weird last night’s line-up was. It’s almost like they try to make things as challenging as possible for their ace. Not so for Iwakuma, who gets Montero and Jaso in the line-up.

1: Ackley
2: Gutierrez
3: Seager
4: Montero (c)
5: Jaso (DH)
6: Smoak
7: Saunders
8: Wells
9: Ryan
SP: Iwakuma

That’s probably the best line-up the M’s can muster.

Rick Randall pointed out the unfathomable stat that after last night, Justin Smoak’s OPS now exceeds Dustin Ackley. If someone told you back in 2010 that Smoak would outhit Ackley, you might have said, “Yeah, I can see that,” but if they told you that anywhere from June ’11 through two weeks ago, it would have sounded nuts. It *is* nuts. Thank goodness for Ackley’s solid D, but I keep waiting for him to stop this realistic portrayal of a limited, single-happy hitter and drive the ball consistently.

Seriously, Miguel Olivo is The Worst

September 26, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 40 Comments 

Because he’s apparently made of teflon, Miguel Olivo will get no criticism from Eric Wedge or the local media for this loss, when in reality, his simple unwillingness to perform the basic function of a catcher – drop down and block a ball that is headed for the ground – put the winning run in scoring position in the ninth inning, and set in motion the chain of events that cost the Mariners the game.

Stephen Pryor might have blown the game anyway. We’ll never know, because with the winning run on first base, Miguel Olivo decided “nah, I don’t need to practice the fundamental skill that every catcher is taught when they’re eight-years-old.” And, naturally, the ball went through his legs. It was his ninth passed ball of the year, moving him into a tie for the American League lead. He hasn’t even played half a season. He’s started 61 games at catcher, and he’s tied of for the league lead in passed balls. It would his fifth time in the last seven years leading his league in passed balls. One of the year he’s didn’t he was injured. The other — last year — he finished third.

In April, I pointed out that Miguel Olivo had gotten a free pass on his laziness and fundamental flaws for far too long, after an easily blocked ball got away from him and eventually cost the Mariners the game. Same deal tonight. He simply will not do what any high school catcher in America is required to do before his coach will play him.

There’s no reason for Miguel Olivo to be a Major League player. He’s the least fundamentally sound player I’ve ever seen, and an absolute disaster both as a hitter and a fielder. That Eric Wedge continues to play him is an embarrassment. If anyone with the organization is considering exercising their team option for him in 2013, they should immediately resign in shame. Miguel Olivo’s career in Seattle should be over next week. In reality, his Major League career probably shouldn’t continue either. He’s just not good enough to play the game at this level.

Update: Apparently the official scorer in Anaheim decided to call that pitch by Pryor a wild pitch and not a passed ball. Because we live in a land of sanity, I’m going to overrule the official scorer and continue to call that a passed ball. The official scorer is apparently as good at his job as Olivo is at catching.

Game 155, Mariners at Angels

September 26, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 47 Comments 

Felix Hernandez vs. CJ Wilson, 7:05pm

Happy Felix Day!

The Angels signed left-hander CJ Wilson to a five year, $77.5m contract this past December, getting the most sought-after hurler on the free agent market to pair with the most sought-after hitter on the free agent market. Pairing Wilson with Jered Weaver and Dan Haren instantly made the Angels rotation one of the league’s best, and with Jerome Williams continuing his improbable comeback, Ervin Santana seemingly the league’s best #4 starter and prospect Garrett Richards waiting in the wings, the Angels looked set to post microscopic runs-allowed numbers. That hasn’t exactly happened, and the Angels and M’s come into today’s game with essentially dead even starting rotations. This is true despite the fact that the Angels added another Cy Young winner at mid-season while the M’s biggest improvement was simply taking the ball away from Hector Noesi for a while.

The M’s rotation has the slightly better FIP, but the Angels move ahead in overall value when you park-adjust. The Angels have the edge in xFIP, while the M’s take a tiny lead in ERA, RA, and innings pitched. This is a statistical dead heat, and while pitching and defense has been the M’s strength (almost by default) for years now, the fact that the Angels rotation has produced mediocre value this season is the primary reason they’re looking up at both the Rangers and Athletics.

CJ Wilson’s 2012 has been a microcosm of the Angels’. Wilson’s been perfectly serviceable, with an ERA and FIP just under 4; he’s earned 2.5 fWAR thus far, or 2.1 RA-9 WAR. That’s above average performance, and he’ll likely earn every penny of his $10m salary this year. That said, Angels fans may look differently at his $20m wage bill in 2016 than they did in December/January. This isn’t sour grapes, and Wilson is young enough that he could rebound to his 2011 form. With more cable TV deals looming (including the M’s ability to renegotiate their own in a few years), it’s possible that no one will care about $20m salaries in 2016. But the Angels were buying 2011 CJ Wilson, and so far, they’ve gotten the 2010 model.

A reliever in his first few years with the Rangers, Wilson made the transition to the rotation in 2010 and turned in a surprisingly good season for the AL Champs. He struck out 20% of the hitters he faced and rode an amazing BABIP to a great ERA and 15 wins. Still, there were signs that he might regress in 2011 – the BABIP was too good to be true, and his HR rate was just as lucky. He walked too many batters, and no one knew how a career reliever would fare in his second year of a 200 inning marathon in the rotation. In 2011, his BABIP regressed and his HR rate regressed (as expected), but his peripherals improved dramatically. Not even Ranger fans projected this new, improved Wilson – the guy who somehow threw harder than in 2011 while cutting his walks AND increasing his strikeouts. Wilson posted 6 WAR (using FIP or RA) in his walk-year.

Wilson’s velocity is higher this year than in either of his two previous campaigns, and his GB% is up a bit – but other than that, it’s astonishing how much his 2012 resembles his 2010. He’s K rate’s 19.9% now compared to 20.0% then, and his walk rate’s a bit lower at 10.2% than 2010’s 10.9%. But fundamentally, he’s having a very similar season, albeit without the freakishly low HR/FB% and BABIP. One problem is that he’s falling behind more, as his strike percentage is nearly identical to his 2010 mark. And when batters swing, they make contact at similar rates to 2010 – rates that are noticeably higher than they were in 2012.

In hindsight, one of the keys to Wilson’s 2011 may have been his performance against right-handers. As a lefty, Wilson faces a steady diet of RHBs – he’s typically faced about 3.5 times as many right-handers than lefties. His xFIP against them in 2010 was 4.36, nearly identical to this year’s 4.34. In 2011, he posted a much better K:BB ratio, which more than balanced out his increased HR rate. In addition, he was able to work around batter’s counts in 2011, as his four-seam fastball was either well-located enough or lucky enough to avoid the sweet spot, whereas in 2012, hitters are able to sit on the fastball in 1-0, 2-0 counts.

As Wilson’s own career demonstrates, all of these factors – factors that often underlie a pitcher’s “true” outcomes – can be volatile. None of this argues that Wilson’s contract was foolish or that he’ll continue his slide from his 2011 peak. It’s just a recognition that free agent pitchers are a huge gamble, and that the M’s have essentially matched the production of what was once thought of as the best rotation in baseball for pennies on the dollar. This isn’t because of injury (Wilson has been extremely durable thus far, which bodes well for the Angels), it’s because veteran pitchers aren’t the safe bets that many fans think they are.

Except for Felix.

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

Wow. I know Wilson’s a lefty, and he’s got platoon splits, but the M’s sit Jaso for a Felix start to get Olivo in there? And Figgins?
Larry Stone’s got a great blog poston the MLB umpires’ strike of 1979. The recent labor unpleasantness in the NFL also reminds me of the recent *minor* league umpire strike, which affected the 2006 season. In 1979, MLB was able to call up at least a few umpires from the minors after the regular umps walked out. When minor league umps walk out, you’re really down to high school/little league umps and the results often reflected this low level of preparation. Players were often vocal about what they saw (rightly) as egregious errors of judgment and poor knowledge of the rules. The umps tended to give the players a longer leash, but struggled to gain control when all of this simmering discontent bubbled over. Birmingham Barons manager removed his team from the field -thereby forfeiting the game – following brawls, saying that the umpires couldn’t protect his players. Uberprospect Delmon Young’s notorious bat-throwing incident also occurred during this strike.

So this write-up may lead people to conclude that the Angels and Mariners are closer than they are. Let’s leave on a more pessimistic note. Everyone knows the Angels have the far, far superior line-up, but if you remove defense (and the Angels and M’s have essentially equal team defenses), the M’s position players have been worth 110 runs above replacement level. Mike Trout, again removing defense, has been worth 78.3. The Angels position players have been worth 20+ wins more than their Mariner counterparts. The Angels had two players with negative WAR on the season; neither are still with the team, and they combined for under 30 plate appearances. The M’s have given 300 to the combination of Munenori Kawasaki and Chone Figgins.

Gutierrez’s Encouraging Finish

September 26, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 20 Comments 

While we noted on Monday that Justin Smoak’s strong finish to the year shouldn’t guarantee him a job on the 2013 club, the fact that he’s playing his way back into the conversation is a positive. You don’t want to overreact to a few good weeks of performance, but it’s better to have guys like Smoak finishing strong than simply limping to the end. And, while most of the focus has gone towards Smoak’s offensive surge, the most encouraging sign over the last month has come from someone else – Franklin Gutierrez.

Since he came off the DL on August 27th, the Mariners have played 26 games – Guti has started 23 of those, including the 18 inning game and the game the next day. He’s essentially been an everyday player for the last month, which is something we haven’t seen from Guti in a couple of years now. And, more than just taking the field, he’s actually been pretty good.

In this 23 game stretch, Guti is hitting .261/.320/.413, which is good for a 107 wRC+. In his breakout 2009 season where he racked up +6.3 WAR, he posted a 105 wRC+, and the stats the measure his core skills (walk rate, strikeout rate, isolated slugging) are pretty much dead on with what he put up three years ago. Even when Guti was on the field the last couple of years, he didn’t show much in the way of power, likely due to the intestinal issues and the loss of weight that occurred as a result. This year, 13 of Gutierrez’s 36 hits have gone for extra bases, compared to just 14 of 72 last year.

With his defense, Gutierrez doesn’t have to be a great hitter to be a productive part of a winning team – he simply needs to be an average-ish hitter and stay on the field. For the last month of the season, that’s pretty much exactly what he’s done. To give it some context, Gutierrez’s 110 wRC+ for the season is an almost exact match for Michael Saunders’ 111 wRC+, and I think we’d all agree that he’s had an encouraging year at the plate. When he’s been able to play, Guti has essentially been Saunders’ offensive equal.

The absolute ideal scenario for the Mariners is to have those two play side by side next year, producing average-ish offense in both left and center while providing significant defensive value in the spacious gaps of Safeco Field. They can’t plan on the ideal scenario — Guti has proven to be too brittle to be relied upon — but Guti’s durability and performance over the last month has at least created some reason to at least give him a chance to play regularly next year. They’ll need to commit to a strong fourth outfielder who can play regularly if pushed into that role, since Wedge clearly doesn’t trust Casper Wells with that position, but Guti’s performance over the last month means that they can probably focus this winter on acquiring just one starting outfielder, and then adding a good fourth OF as a reserve behind Gutierrez and Saunders. That’s certainly an easier task than going out and getting two everyday guys.

Like with Smoak, we can’t simply take the final month and extrapolate it out to 150 games next year. Baseball doesn’t work that way. But, we can be encourages that Gutierrez is showing that for a reasonable period of time, he’s both able to play regularly and hit like he did when he was one of the best center fielders in baseball.

Game 154, Mariners at Angels

September 25, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 70 Comments 

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Zack Greinke, 7:05pm

It’s time once again for a “Pitcher A, B, C” comparison, the lifeblood of the baseball blog. Take your valid concerns about sample size, selective endpoints and selective measures and lock them away for a minute. The M’s are going to finish last in their division for the third consecutive year, and silly comparisons based on small samples are something we can cling to in the long night of the offseason. Sure, I’d rather think about the M’s player development system’s myriad success stories and how they herald a competitive M’s team in 2013 and beyond, but the record there is mixed. You know what’s not ambiguous? This:

Player: Pitcher A Pitcher B Pitcher C
K% 23.7 23.4 19.9
BB% 3.0 5.8 7.1
FIP 2.73 2.91 3.95
xFIP 3.25 3.24 3.91
GB% 35.1 48.5 43.2
IFFB% 15.4 10.3 10.3
Strike% 67.5 65.1 62.3
Contact% 77.3 77.0 79.2

Pitchers A and B are pretty similar in their results, but different in their batted-ball profile. Pitcher C seems like a step behind across the board. That A and B have good walk rates makes sense, as both are comfortably above the league average strike rate for starters of 62.5%. So who are they?

Pitcher A is Erasmo Ramirez, Pitcher B is Felix Hernandez and Pitcher C is Erasmo’s opponent today, Zack Greinke. Caveat time: these are Erasmo’s stats *as a starter* and this is Greinke’s line with the Angels only. I’m taking Ramirez’s 6 starts because he really seems like a different pitcher since joining the rotation, and since his call-up in September. We’ll get to that in a second. I only included Greinke’s AL stint since it gets tougher to compare K rates when one pitcher’s in the AL and the other’s facing pitchers each game. Incidentally, Felix’s stats were compiled in well over 200 innings and stacks up quite nicely with a strong six-start run from Erasmo (or AJ Griffin, etc.). Felix is completely amazing.

The Erasmo Ramirez we’ve seen in September’s similar to the version we saw in April-May-June, but he’s made some key adjustments that seem to be paying dividends. First, he’s using his change-up far more often; he used it about 18% of the time before going down to Tacoma in June, and he’s using it over 30% of the time now. Second, his velocity’s not only holding up despite moving into the rotation, it’s getting better. He averaged 93mph with his fastball in his last start against Baltimore, and averaged 91-92mph in his first *relief* appearance in Seattle back in April. We knew he could touch 94 or even 95 on occasion, but he was hitting 94-95 with regularity deep in games with the Rainiers, and that stamina’s carried over with the M’s.

Ramirez has an interesting approach in that he’s a very different pitcher against righties and lefties. Against righties, he uses his fastball more and gets fewer strikeouts but more grounders and pop-ups and very few walks. Against lefties, he uses a blizzard of change-ups to generate a lot of strikeouts, while keeping his walks low. Another nice approach, just a very different one. Of course, all of this is based on tiny samples of MLB data, but it seems to match his minor league numbers too: in the minors in 2011-12 combined, his GB% was 10 percentage points higher against righties, while his strikeout and walk rates were 4 and 3 percentage points lower (respectively). His slider’s been better since his return though it’s still not a real chase pitch, which means Erasmo could get *better*. Right now, his change-up’s been about the equal of Felix’s statistically. It’s generating ridiculous contact rates, and he hasn’t really thrown a bad one since the hanging change that Josh Hamilton hit out way back in Erasmo’s major league debut. That may regress towards the mean a bit, but Erasmo has a weapon. Sure, his strike% is actually a bit better than Blake Beavan’s, but Erasmo’s got swing-and-miss stuff. If his slider continues to develop, look out.

Zack Greinke been solid but unspectacular since coming over to the Angels. His ERA and W-L records are fine, but he hasn’t been a dominant force that could help the Angels track down the A’s. This isn’t his fault any more than CJ Wilson’s a-bit-above-average season’s the reason the Angels find themselves in 3rd. But it’s a useful reminder that deadline deals and free-agent pick ups can’t win divisions by themselves. Greinke’s been good – his velocity’s right where it has been, his contact rate’s still above average, but I wonder what Angels fans think about the move in hindsight. It was a solid, aggressive play from a team looking to get better return on their investment in Wilson and Pujols, and it nearly worked out – I don’t think anyone in the front office is kicking themselves over it – but the Angels playoff odds sit under 25% right now, despite being only 2 games behind Oakland. I’ll just say that Angels fans will think a lot more highly of the trade if Greinke’s able to shut the M’s down tonight.

The line-up:
1: Ackley
2: Gutierrez
3: Seager
4: Jaso (DH)
5: Smoak
6: Saunders
7: Olivo (C)
8: Robinson
9: Ryan
SP: Erasmooooo

Today’s an important date in baseball history. On this date in 1974, Dr. Frank Jobe transferred a tendon from Tommy John’s right wrist into the hurler’s left elbow, and completed the first ulnal collateral ligament reconstruction, AKA Tommy John surgery.

Justin Smoak Complicating Matters

September 24, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 42 Comments 

For the first 5 1/2 months of 2012, Justin Smoak was awful. In a make-or-break year, Smoak put up his worst numbers in nearly every meaningful category and lost his spot on the roster, ending up back in Triple-A to try and fix his swing. He only got recalled to the Majors because Mike Carp got injured and they didn’t have any other alternatives at first base in the organization, so despite the fact that he was lousy in Tacoma too, he came back up before he had really gotten his act together. And then he continued to be lousy against Major League pitching.

On September 12th, Smoak was hitting .190/.260/.312 and had been worth -1.4 WAR. He was in the running for worst player of 2012. And then, out of nowhere, Smoak started hitting.

Over the last 10 games, Justin Smoak has come to the plate 38 times, and he’s reached base in 20 of them. He’s only struck out five times. He even has three doubles, which is as many as he had in the first three months of the season put together, and he’s hit the ball over the wall twice.

Five extra base hits in 10 games isn’t anything special for a first baseman, but for Smoak, it’s a pretty big step forward from what he’d done previously. And, it’s come at the same time that he’s making contact and stinging singles all over the plate, so the total package has resulted in a crazy .455/.526/.727 line that is second best in baseball over the last 14 days – only Ichiro Suzuki has been better. I wonder what the odds in June would have been for Ichiro and Smoak being the two best hitters in baseball down the stretch. Baseball is weird.

So, after 5 1/2 months of being hopeless, Smoak has given us 10 days of being amazing, and is threatening to leave a lasting positive memory of his performance on the organization going into the off-season. An off-season in which one of the main priorities is to figure out what they’re going to do at first base, because they simply can’t go into 2013 with Justin Smoak penciled in as a starter. But, now, all of the sudden, having him around to at least fight for a job in spring training doesn’t seem all that crazy, given his shorter swing and the results its producing. It’s worth figuring out if this is for real, right?

Well, maybe. Keep in mind, Smoak has done this before, and even put together a run like this earlier in the season. From May 25 to June 2nd, Smoak hit .394/.459/.879 over 37 plate appearances. He hit five home runs in eight games while only striking out six times. He won AL Player of the Week. And then it all disappeared in an instant – from June 3rd to June 17th, he hit .137/.241/.137, failing to even knock a single extra base in 14 games. Smoak’s crazy hot streak didn’t have any predictive value then, and we should be careful assuming that this one does simply because we might not have enough time left in the season to actually see the regression take place.

I hope Justin Smoak has figured something out. It doesn’t make sense that he’s truly one of the worst hitters in baseball, and it’s nice to see that he is still capable of hitting the ball hard for short bursts of time. But, I don’t think our opinion of what the team should do with Justin Smoak next year should have changed much over the last 10 days.

Because he was never optioned to the minors in 2011, he still one option year remaining, meaning the Mariners can have him start 2013 in Tacoma if they want. And they should want to. If he’s really retooled his swing in a way that will lead to long term success, starting out in the hitter’s heaven of the PCL should allow him to prove it in an environment where hitting the ball hard is often rewarded. While I’m sure these last 10 days have been a confidence boost, sustained success with his new swing can’t hurt, and he’s more likely to get that kind of confidence-inspiring success in the minors than he is in the Majors. And, to be honest, the Mariners need more proof that he really is a changed hitter, capable of racking up doubles in bunches and avoiding all those weak pop-ups he hit this year.

Back in June, I wrote that I was ready to give up on Justin Smoak. My feelings from that post still haven’t changed – the Mariners have to do better at first base next year than simply giving Smoak another opportunity. But, now, instead of shipping him off as a change-of-scenery guy, keeping him around as depth in Tacoma doesn’t seem like a terrible idea. If these changes are real, and he’s going to keep hitting in the future, having him start 2013 in the minors to earn his way back to the big leagues isn’t a terrible idea. If he lights up the PCL next April, I’m sure the Mariners won’t have a problem finding room for him on the roster, and if he doesn’t, then they’ll be happy they didn’t waste another year hoping that this is the season Justin Smoak gets hot for more than a week or two at a time.

10 days ago, it was fairly safe to write Smoak out of the team’s plans for next year. Now, he’s forced himself back into the discussion, but 10 good games shouldn’t be enough to overwhelm the months and years of failure that he’s put up previously. While I’m happy to see Smoak doing well, the M’s need to view his recent run of success with some skepticism, at least when it comes to planning for who is getting playing time in 2013. He’s hit well enough to avoid being a write-off, but he shouldn’t yet be given any kind of starring role in the team’s future plans. Now, you keep around as a curiosity and depth, but you still can’t go into next year with Smoak as the scheduled starter at first base. He hasn’t earned that, even with a really strong finish to the year.

Game 152, Rangers at Mariners

September 22, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 30 Comments 

Beavan vs. Harrison, 6:10 pm.

Ackley is out tonight, so we get a little bit improvisatory lineup. Considering that they’re facing a lefty, it’s not bad to give him a day off anyway, and they need to improvise considering that they have yet to find a combination that works against Harrison.

Gutierrez CF-R
Wells RF-R
Seager 2B-L
Montero C-R
Smoak 1B-B
Saunders LF-L
Liddi 3B-R
Jimenez DH-L
Ryan SS-R

Game 151, Rangers at Mariners

September 21, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 10 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Martin Perez, 7:10pm

It’s odd when you look forward to playing one of the better teams in baseball, but I’m pretty sick of playing the magical birds from Baltimore. Dave’s post on the in-game strategy is spot on, but it marked the second time in as many days that the M’s made completely bizarre moves in the late innings. Wedge hasn’t excelled in in-game strategy, but he also hasn’t been shockingly, aggressively bad either. Couple an entire series’ worth of ill-timed, ill-fated bunts, Jasoless pinch-hitting and the stolen base call, then add it to an errant pick-off throw that somehow didn’t hurt the Orioles after it plunked the first base coach in the gut and rolled back to the first basemen and the conclusion is clear: the Orioles are actually magic. The Rangers are merely excellent at baseball; the Orioles are excellent at conjuring and mind-control. No contest.

The Rangers come in on a high after two solid wins over their rivals, the Angels. They haven’t mathematically clinched anything, but the AL West race is essentially over. CoolStandings and Baseball Prospectus have the Rangers playoff odds at 99.9% and 100%, respectively. It’s in that context that the Rangers turn to 21-year old lefty Martin Perez, who replaces Scott Feldman and will make his 4th MLB start tonight. Perez has been a prospect so long, Baseball America may name its top 100 list after him. Despite great stuff – a good curve ball, a solid change-up, above average velocity – Perez tended to disappoint statistically, especially in the high minors. He seemed like a classic tools-prospect bust; a guy lingering on prospect lists out of inertia. This was especially true after his May start at Cheney Stadium in which he gave up 7 runs in two atrocious innings. At that point, his fastball was in the 89-92 range, and his change wasn’t good enough to fool minor-league righthanders.

Injuries forced him to the Rangers not long after, but I had him down in my own mind as the Rangers’ version of Carlos Triunfel, a prospect who was famous for being a prospect as opposed to someone who could help the big club win. Now, several months into his career as a bullpen lefty/spot starter, he’s been far better than I would have thought. He hasn’t been excellent, but his stuff’s better than it was, with 92-94mph fastballs and a better curve. In recent appearances, the velocity’s down a tad, but he’s still a far sight better than he was in May. He uses a four-seam fastball (primarily to lefties) and a two-seamer/sinker (to righties) both around 92-93mph, along with a curve in the 75mph range and a change-up at 83mph. Like many, he uses the change more to right-handers and uses the curve (and a rare slider) on lefties. The change isn’t actually his put-away pitch; he uses it more when he’s behind in the count. This may indicate that he’s more confident in his control with the pitch, as walks have been a problem for him for years.

Perez shows clear, persistent platoon splits, so the M’s need to get right-handers some at-bats tonight. Over the past two years in the minors, he put up a 3.29 FIP vs. lefties and a 4.42 FIP against righties. He’s walked more right-handed batters than he’s K’d, and his overall line would look worse if his BABIP regressed towards the mean, so this is a good match-up for someone like Casper Wells and Jesus Montero. Of course, Perez just faced the M’s a week ago and dominated them, so who knows. He faced a middle of the order on that day that included Seager, Jaso, Saunders and Thames, so that certainly helped.

Iwakuma’s looking to finish the season strong after a bad game against Oakland and mixed results in Texas last week. His velocity’s surprisingly unchanged for a pitcher coming off injury and pitching more frequently; his last start in Texas looked low, but the pitch fx velo numbers seem consistently low there. Still, this is a great test – playing a good line-up for the second time in as many weeks. He faced the Angels twice in about 3 weeks, and shut them out for 7 innings the second time, so it’s not like other teams automatically ‘book’ him. He’s a crafty pitcher who’s ability to learn from the hitters and adapt to them has been more impressive than his splitter.

The line-up:
1: Ackley
2: Gutierrez
3: Seager
4: Montero (DH)
5: Smoak
6: Saunders
7: Olivo (C)
8: Wells
9: Triunfel
SP: Iwakuma

Another Possible Option for Jesus Montero

September 20, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 49 Comments 

A little over a month ago, I noted that the progression of John Jaso and Mike Zunino meant that there was no real reason to continue pretending like Jesus Montero had a future as a catcher in this organization. Projecting him as a regular catcher was always a big reach anyway, and now that the Mariners had better options both now and in the future, the decision to convert him into a first baseman seems obvious. The Mariners don’t have any real first base prospects in the organization, and Montero’s lack of athleticism could be somewhat hidden at the easiest spot on the field to defend. There’s also some hope that allowing him to just focus on hitting, rather than futilely trying to improve his defense behind the plate, might speed up the development of his offense.

So, given the configuration of talent in the organization, making Montero the regular first baseman for 2013 seems to be the obvious move. However, there’s a less obvious option that might actually be better for the organization – trade him.

No, this isn’t simply a reaction to Montero’s disappointing 2012 season. I’m not suggesting that any 22-year-old who doesn’t immediately come to the big leagues and tear the cover off the ball is a bust, or that we can definitively say that Montero isn’t going to become what the team envisioned when they acquired him last winter. I will suggest, however, that Montero isn’t as close to becoming that hitter as they had hoped, and now that it’s clear that he has no future as a catcher in Seattle, perhaps his particular skillset is a better fit for another organization.

Last January, I wrote a post over at FanGraphs about the career paths that similar hitting prospects over the last 20 years have taken. Using a few different variables, we came up with two dozen guys who had reached the Majors at an early age by bashing their way through the minor leagues, and the good news was that a good chunk of the had gone on to become really terrific Major League hitters. The bad news was that the majority of them just became above average hitters, though, and Montero’s minor league performances were closer to the guys at the lower end of the spectrum rather than the higher end.

Well, we now have an extra year of information, and we can reevaluate where Montero stands relative to those comparisons through his age-22 season. 22 of the 24 comparisons on the list had some MLB experience by age 22; just Chipper Jones (blew out his knee as a rookie) and Mike Piazza (didn’t reach the Majors until age 23) don’t really offer us any additional information to compare to Montero’s first full year (plus his brief debut last year) as a big leaguer. So, below is a table of where Montero fits in the list of those players, with their total Major League performance through their age-22 season.

Alex Rodriguez 2,271 7% 17% 0.229 0.341 0.313 0.364 0.543 135
Miguel Cabrera 1,716 9% 21% 0.223 0.343 0.300 0.366 0.523 131
Ben Grieve 786 13% 19% 0.169 0.346 0.291 0.389 0.460 125
Juan Gonzalez 1,390 6% 21% 0.235 0.278 0.259 0.308 0.494 119
B.J. Upton 914 10% 26% 0.162 0.362 0.280 0.356 0.442 113
Justin Upton 1,728 11% 26% 0.199 0.345 0.272 0.352 0.471 111
Prince Fielder 710 9% 20% 0.209 0.303 0.272 0.344 0.481 109
Manny Ramirez 391 11% 21% 0.233 0.274 0.254 0.335 0.487 108
Hank Blalock 787 8% 18% 0.200 0.309 0.282 0.340 0.482 108
Andruw Jones 1,890 10% 20% 0.216 0.287 0.260 0.335 0.476 108
Vladimir Guerrero 381 5% 11% 0.176 0.302 0.293 0.339 0.469 107
Eric Chavez 1,019 11% 15% 0.198 0.283 0.267 0.346 0.466 104
Adrian Beltre 1,918 8% 16% 0.160 0.298 0.270 0.335 0.430 100
Carlos Delgado 161 16% 29% 0.221 0.247 0.214 0.354 0.435 99
Jesus Montero 582 6% 19% 0.146 0.302 0.269 0.311 0.415 98
Shawn Green 445 5% 17% 0.203 0.295 0.268 0.306 0.471 95
Jay Bruce 839 9% 22% 0.220 0.261 0.240 0.309 0.460 94
Delmon Young 1,435 4% 18% 0.121 0.341 0.292 0.326 0.413 94
Vernon Wells 197 5% 17% 0.102 0.336 0.285 0.320 0.387 84
Aramis Ramirez 613 6% 19% 0.125 0.279 0.239 0.290 0.364 65
Andy Marte 244 8% 21% 0.163 0.240 0.204 0.270 0.367 61
Paul Konerko 247 7% 17% 0.112 0.230 0.214 0.275 0.326 60
Karim Garcia 421 6% 23% 0.142 0.252 0.211 0.254 0.354 51

The Alex Rodriguez/Miguel Cabrera comparisons were always a little ridiculous, but this illustrates just how far Montero is from those levels. Those guys were already elite sluggers at this point in their career, two of the best hitters in baseball with significant established track records. Of course, not being Rodriguez or Cabrera doesn’t mean there’s no hope, as there were plenty of other guys who weren’t yet what they would become at this same age.

However, note Montero’s placement on the list, especially in the three core skills categories – 17th in walk rate, 13th in strikeout rate, 18th in isolated slugging. While his overall performance relative to league average is basically a tie with Carlos Delgado, Delgado had already shown plate discipline and power, and simply needed to get his strikeouts under control and wait for his BABIP to normalize. Vladimir Guerrero wasn’t a great hitter at 22, but he had the best strikeout rate of anyone on the list and hit for decent power, which is of course the combination that made him so great once he took off. Jay Bruce was basically the same as Delgado, showing significant power but needing refinement in his approach.

Montero hasn’t really set himself apart in any of these areas, so in that way, he’s hanging out with guys like Adrian Beltre, Aramis Ramirez, Paul Konerko, Karim Garcia, and Delmon Young. And, if that’s the kind of career path Montero is on, the Mariners simply can’t count on him taking a huge step forward next year. Aramis Ramirez had a good year at 23, but then regressed back to average-ish the next few years and didn’t establish himself as a consistent offensive threat until age-26. Beltre muddled around until age-25, when he went nuts in his final year with the Dodgers, the kind of production he’s only gotten close to again in his 31-33 seasons. Konerko took a nice step forward at 23 and became a productive player, but didn’t post his first season over +2.5 WAR until age-29. And of course, Young has never turned into anything useful and Garcia was a total bust.

We can talk about the huge years that guys like Vladimir Guerrero, Prince Fielder, and Manny Ramirez had at 23 after being fairly pedestrian the year before, but we have to acknowledge that each of them had shown more offensive promise in the big leagues prior to their breakout season than Montero has to date. Right now, Montero looks a lot more like the guys who took their time developing, and eventually became good hitters in their mid-20s.

The Mariners don’t have several years to wait for Montero to turn into a good hitter, especially not as a first baseman. This is a team that needs production at first base sooner than later, and it’s not clear that Montero is going to hit well enough next year to be a real asset at first base. So, instead of going through another year of growing pains while he transitions to a new position and tries to figure out how to lay off the slider breaking off the outside of the plate, maybe the organization is better off trading him to a team that can afford to be a little more patient and might still see him as a catcher.

While he hasn’t been good behind the plate, he has caught 52 games in the Majors this year without the entire pitching staff falling apart, so it’s certainly possible that another team has upgraded their evaluation of him as a Mike Napoli/Carlos Santana type of catcher, and would be willing to continue to let him develop behind the plate in the hopes of getting a premium bat at a position where those aren’t very common. A team that might be willing to be a little more patient with Montero, accepting the fact that they might need to wait a couple more years for him to turn into the kind of player that he was hyped up to be while in the minors. A team that doesn’t already have an above average big league catcher and probably the best catching prospect in baseball knocking on the door, as the Mariners do.

Maybe a team like the Pirates, the Marlins, the Cubs, or the Mets would want to continue the Montero-as-catcher experiment, and pay for the right to be the one to try and reap the rewards if he sticks behind the plate. Maybe they wouldn’t — I’m totally speculating here — but it only takes one or two teams to think that catcher defense is overrated or that Montero was better than advertised to generate an interesting offer for Jack to consider.

If Montero could net you a package of players that included a young-ish first baseman like Logan Morrison or Ike Davis (and some other stuff, as he clearly has more trade value than either), perhaps the Mariners could use Montero to fill their biggest organizational need without actually using Montero though, and come out with some other useful piece as well. Or, maybe you use Montero to get a player from another team that the Diamondbacks covet and ship that guy to Arizona for Justin Upton. Obviously, without talking to other teams and figuring out if any of them would want to pay for Montero-as-a-catcher, this is all just wild speculation.

But it’s probably the worth making a few phone calls and gauging interest. They obviously don’t have to trade him, as he gives them a first base option for both next year and the future, but my long standing issue with Montero is that the bat doesn’t look special to me as a first baseman, and now the reality of the talent in Seattle is that he has no future as catcher here. But, maybe some other team thinks he still has a future as a catcher, and sees him as a premium young position player in a market where there aren’t very many of those available.

For the Mariners, he’s just a first baseman going forward, and it’s not obvious that the bat is going to make him a good first baseman any time soon. They shouldn’t be anywhere close to giving up on him, but exploring his trade value this winter to see if they can get a comparable young first baseman and some other stuff in return while he still might be viewed as a catcher seems like research worth doing. If everyone else just sees him as a first baseman too, then you just keep him and hope he has a big year in 2013. If someone sees him as a guy who is still worth keeping behind the plate for a while longer, though, then Montero may very well have more value to someone else than he does to the Mariners. And perhaps he’s the chip that gets them the good young hitter that they desperately need.

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