A Jeff Sullivan and Matthew Carruth podcast

March 31, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 15 Comments 

Hello there, USS Mariner.

I am Matthew Carruth. I used to comment here, and then I used to write across the street at Lookout Landing, but then SBN decided to be SBN, and so I left, and now I’m here. I don’t know how much or how often I will be writing as freed from obligation, this will purely be a when-I-fancy-it effort on my part. Hopefully I can add a little bit.

One thing I can add are these podcasts. Jeff and I used to do them semi-irregularly at LL and now we will do them semi-irregularly here. I make no assurances about your enjoyment of these. I myself am not an overwhelming podcast fan, but we always got positive responses from some people and so, written shrug, as long as it makes some people happy. It’s not like we force you to listen to these or that you’re paying for them.

I don’t have the same embedding options here that I did over yonder so please exercise one of the below links should you wish to listen.

Podcast with Jeff and Matthew: Direct link! || iTunes link! || RSS/XML link!

Jason Bay And Casper Wells Facts

March 31, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 31 Comments 

Some time ago it became abundantly clear that Jason Bay and Casper Wells were going to be fighting for the same job. Less time ago, it became pretty clear that the Mariners preferred Bay, and a few days ago, while the Mariners said they were going to let the competition play out, the team took Bay to Salt Lake while it left Wells in Arizona. Today, the expected became official: the Mariners put Bay on the 25-man roster, and they designated Wells for assignment. The team now has ten days to trade, release, or outright Wells, and several more days after that to try to forget that the Doug Fister deal ever happened. I personally haven’t been able to do that so I think we’re going to need some scientists.

Wells, probably, is going to end up getting traded to a team with a thin outfield in exchange for a non-roster barely-prospect. It’s hard to imagine that Wells would clear waivers, even at this point in time. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I wouldn’t plan on it. As such, I thought this would be a good time to present some Jason Bay and Casper Wells facts of interest.

Casper Wells is 28 years old. Jason Bay is 34 years old.

Wells has four more years of team control. Bay is on a one-year contract.

Wells and Bay are both right-handed.

Wells debuted in the majors in 2010. Since then, he’s batted 656 times, while Bay has batted 1,125 times. According to FanGraphs, Wells has averaged 3.6 WAR per 600 plate appearances, while Bay has averaged 0.4 WAR per 600 plate appearances. When I did an Excel search for “Jason Bay”, I accidentally did an Excel search for “Jason Ba”, and before I got down to Jason Bay I wound up at Jason Bartlett. Jason Bay has been less valuable than Jason Bartlett.

Part of that difference is because the defensive numbers like Wells and think less of Bay. But looking at offense only, Wells has posted a 110 OPS+, while Bay has posted a 90 OPS+. Wells has posted a .189 ISO, while Bay has posted a .135 ISO.

And we can’t just ignore defense, because defense is one of an outfielder’s responsibilities. Even if you aren’t a fan of the metrics we have at our disposal, it stands to reason that Wells is a better defender than Bay is. He’s younger, he’s more athletic, and people have trusted him to play center field. Bay is by no means slow, and some years ago we were probably too hard on him when he was a free agent, but all baseball authorities would agree that they’d rather have three Casper Wellses in the field with the game on the line than three Jason Bays.

Bay hasn’t played center in a meaningful game since 2005. Wells started nine games in center a year ago. The Mariners’ starting center fielder is Franklin Gutierrez, and their only other option is Michael Saunders, so Wells would’ve provided greater useful flexibility.

While Wells has drawn criticism for being streaky, or for not being a starter-caliber player, every player in baseball is streaky, and Wells wouldn’t have been expected to start. Bay’s the guy coming off a .240 wOBA. Bay hasn’t been a starter-caliber player for years, and now he is only older.

Bay is said to be a phenomenally nice guy and he’s got plenty of veteran experience, but the whole reason the Mariners targeted Raul Ibanez was because of his personality and experience and shouldn’t one be enough? What does it mean for the Mariners’ valuation of Ibanez if they felt like they also needed Bay at least in part because of his intangibles?

Rationally, there’s no question that Jason Bay could bounce back. I kind of expect him to, and based on our conversations, Dave feels kind of the same. Bay is healthier now, and he’s in a new environment, and he’s obviously looked good in the spring. Jason Bay, in 2013, could be useful, and we could even come to like him. He’s local. Hooray Jason Bay! Were it not for the Mariners having had Casper Wells, Bay would’ve made some amount of sense as a cheap acquisition. But the Mariners had Casper Wells, and he isn’t injured or sick. He’s young and healthy and the evidence points in his favor. Wells, too, is under control for a while, and while I get that Bay isn’t automatically gone after this year, especially if he’s productive, Wells is something of a long-term asset. Not an outstanding one, but one nonetheless.

There exists a possibility that Bay will out-perform Wells in 2013. There exists a possibility that Wells has already peaked, and that there are things about him that suggest worse things to come. Any projection, however, will take Wells every time, and it’s not like the numbers give him a tiny advantage. The numbers give him a massive advantage, and the Mariners have made a decision against that. We can try to rationalize it, and it should and could be rationalized, but take a step back and there’s no way this doesn’t look silly. Wells is a useful, versatile, young, healthy outfielder, and the Mariners are getting rid of him to make room for another team’s Chone Figgins.

Maybe, somehow, Wells clears waivers and goes to Tacoma, not that there’s playing time to be found there what with Eric Thames, Endy Chavez, and Carlos Peguero. More likely, Wells leaves in exchange for basically nothing. More likely, the Mariners will effectively trade Casper Wells for a fringe prospect and Jason Bay. It’s not a hugely awful move that’s going to have devastating long-term consequences. You can replace a guy like Wells, and this is one of those moves where we say “little bad moves add up”. You don’t want to make too much of those moves individually. But you have to make something of them, and this is a move that doesn’t make any statistical sense. Sometimes the stats miss the point. More times, humans are wrong.

The Final Tune-Up: M’s vs. Rockies in Salt Lake

March 30, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 30 Comments 

Brandon Maurer vs. Jeff Francis, 12:05

It may be the proximity of opening day, or it may be the proximity to Jeff’s “If It Goes Right’ post but I’m unusually excited for today’s game. I’ll forgive the spring trainingness of the M’s facing off against the Rockies in the home of AAA team that neither is affiliated with. It’s a sell-out, and it looks great. The M’s are trotting out what looks to be their opening day line-up and the starter isn’t of the Jake Woods/Blake Beavan/Miguel Batista school of the back-of-the-rotation arms, but a legitimate prospect and the best story of the spring.

The M’s face Jeff Francis, the journeyman lefty with a penchant for long balls and a bad habit of underperforming his peripherals and fielding-independent stats. It’s one reason he’s been seen as decent value by people like our own Dave Cameron, but despite the solid FIP, he’s pretty marginal at this point in his career. Like Javier Vasquez, Francis is a gauge of one’s faith in FIP. Like Joe Saunders, he’s seen no reduction in his platoon splits over his career, and he’s coming off a year when righties put up a .380 wOBA off of him. In his career, his FIP’s over 1 full run worse versus righties than lefties, which shows that, like Saunders, he’s not bad at all against lefties.

Today’s line-up:
1: Gutierrez, CF
2: Saunders, RF
3: Morales, DH
4: Morse, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Montero, C
8: Ackley, 2B
9; Ryan, SS
SP: Brandon Maurer woooooo

Go M’s!

Cheney Stadium’s having its open house today beginning at 11. I think you can try out the new food, and there are kids activities and the like. It’s looking like the kind of day to just go stare at a baseball diamond, frankly. The M’s open house is Monday – the public’s first chance to check out the new video board.

If It Goes Right

March 29, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 19 Comments 

Just yesterday, for most teams in baseball, the 2013 season ended. It ended for some on a higher note than for others, but the highest notes — those are still to come. They’re going to come in the playoffs, and in a short while, for the Mariners, the 2013 season will continue, in October. Go back to March and tell yourself you’d be reading this paragraph and you’d swear it was nothing but Seattle Mariners fan-fiction. Some fantasy by some blogger both under-occupied and over-imaginative. It still reads like a fantasy today, but that’s not because of the 2013 Mariners. That’s because of many of the Mariners teams that came before them.

I’m writing this post to try to make sense of how we got here. I mean, we’ve been on the ride all six months long, living day by day by day, but it’s helpful to look at the bigger picture, and just half of one year ago, remember how certain we were of how things would end up? The Angels, the Rangers, and the Athletics would feud for first place. We couldn’t be sure of the order, but we were sure of the participants. The Mariners were to be locked into fourth. The Astros were to be locked into fifth. We accepted this as fact, or at least as much as fact as one can before the actual season begins. The Mariners, even as the ideally improved Mariners, were going to be a fourth-place team, and we’d keep ourselves interested by watching for dingers and development. You remember when “D&D” was a fan rallying cry. It feels like ages ago. It was.

What the hell is “first”? How did the Mariners pull this off? Even as a team people projected as a potential surprise, they only qualified as a potential surprise because they weren’t supposed to actually be good. People also projected the Padres as a potential surprise. You saw what happened to them. It doesn’t make any sense that the Mariners did what they did, but if you widen your scope, the clues were there. Maybe more people should’ve seen this coming, by which I mean maybe some people should’ve seen this coming.

Go back to 2009. That wasn’t that long ago. Felix was the runner-up for the American League Cy Young. Franklin Gutierrez was among the game’s premier everyday center fielders. That following offseason, Jesus Montero was Baseball America’s No. 4 prospect. Justin Smoak was BA’s No. 13 prospect. Dustin Ackley was BA’s No. 11 prospect. Michael Saunders was BA’s No. 30 prospect. Note also that Kendrys Morales finished fifth in AL MVP voting. This team didn’t come into the season short on talent, and I haven’t even yet noted guys like Michael Morse or Kyle Seager or Hisashi Iwakuma or Erasmo Ramirez. Christ, and I nearly forgot that, in 2009, Jason Bay smashed 36 dingers. I’m not saying the key to success is to assemble a bunch of players who were big deals years ago, but this had all the makings of a hell of a core, and a hell of a roster. And look what just developed, before our eyes.

I remember, during the offseason, a few of us came to know a little more about how the Mariners’ front office worked. We weren’t fond of the changes, in personnel or in process, and I had more than a few conversations about whether or not it would be best to root for a crash and burn season. Something to allow the executives to clean house and start over. There was an argument in favor of it, even if we couldn’t be certain the front office would be replaced by a better front office. Remember, we fell madly in love with this front office a few years ago. Some of the decision-making stung. The John Jaso trade stung. The Jason Bay decision stung. Signing Raul Ibanez was weird, and so on and so forth. There was reason to believe the Mariners were no longer going down the right path.

But, a few things. For one, crash and burn seasons suck. They suck to witness, as all the enjoyment just gets ripped out of the game all summer long. For two, what would be necessary for a crash and burn season? It stands to reason that would involve a lot of young players not taking steps forward. Maybe some of them take steps back. Maybe some of them get injured. Had the Mariners done poorly, maybe the people in charge would’ve been replaced, but the talent would’ve performed at such a level that the overall team did poorly. That would be a long-term concern. And for three, there’s been method to the front office’s perceived madness.

They’ve remained committed to building from within and accumulating cost-controlled talent. They’ve drafted well, scouted well, developed pretty well. Look at the young players in the system. Look at the young players in the system before these guys took over. It’s night and day. This team has a present and a future, where those old Mariners had neither. And then as much as we made fun of the pursuit of experience and the pursuit of dingers…I mean, I’m not saying things worked out this way because of that formula, but there was that formula, and then things worked out this way. There might be something there.

To hell with lineup protection. Nobody’s ever found evidence of helpful lineup protection. But mentorship? Reduced pressure? Who’s to say? With some experienced blocks in the middle of the order, some of the Mariners’ other young hitters improved. Maybe, before, they were trying to do too much. Maybe, this way, they could stay within themselves, which means everything and nothing depending on how you think about it. When there’s pressure on you to perform, you can feel stressed, and then you can spiral. When there’s less pressure, you can relax a little more, and it’s funny how much better a relaxed mind is than an anxious mind. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, maybe I’m giving the plan too much credit, but I’m feeling positive and I’m feeling like giving some people the benefit of the doubt. At least, we don’t know that adding dingers didn’t help. Michael Morse slugged like he was supposed to. Kendrys Morales slugged like he was supposed to. Jason Bay bounced back. Practically everyone but Brendan Ryan contributed to the offense, making this a very different sort of Mariners team. A successful, watchable, enjoyable Mariners team!

So those conversations about replacing the front office look kind of silly today. This outcome is a lot better than that other outcome. I don’t even think the front office saw this coming. How could they have, and why would they have, given the competition? I think they just wanted the team to be okay, to take a step toward competing in 2014. But this is why it pays to upgrade even an ordinary team over an offseason. This is why there’s value in adding pieces to what you think might be a .500 ballclub. We can’t actually project that well, and every win projection comes with significant error bars. It’s seldom a bad idea to increase one’s odds of making the playoffs, because sometimes the playoffs are more within reach than they seem. The Mariners put themselves in position to surprise, and lo and behold, I get to write this post.

It’s funny how many more “moments” there are in a competitive season. It’s funny how there are so many heroes. In 2012, we had that combined no-hitter and we had the Felix perfect game, and those were amazing, but they were also two of the only moments to stand the test of time. The Mariners had some big hits and some dramatic wins, but the leverage was low since the team wasn’t going to the postseason. Low leverage reduces memorability. Increase the stakes and all of a sudden almost everyone on the roster has a critical season highlight. Everyone on the roster helped the Mariners get to where they are. Were it not for this specific equation of players and plays, where might things be instead?

I mean, obviously, we probably would’ve long remembered Guti’s three-dinger outburst. Regardless of the context, it’s not every day someone drives in nine runs with 14 total bases. But, geez, Robert Andino beating Mariano Rivera? The Jason Bay pinch-hit? Mike Zunino’s walk-off in his second-ever start? The four-game sweep of the Angels with the 11 home runs? Lucas Luetge nullifying that suicide squeeze? Luke Gregerson striking out the side after the bases were walked full? These are just the things I’m pulling off the top of my head. There have been so many moments, so many of them still vivid, so many of them still electrifying when I pull up the highlights on MLB.com. Every season, from the best year to the worst one, has special moments, but when they really matter, when they actually make a difference, they’re glued into your mental scrapbook. Everybody was a hero. Everybody did something we haven’t forgotten.

People talk about destiny like destiny exists. Google “team of destiny” and look at the number of results. Consider how many of those teams didn’t win the championship, or even make the playoffs. The Mariners aren’t riding the wave of destiny, just as the White Sox aren’t, either. But there have been those moments that made it feel like they were. There have been those moments where it seemed like something, somewhere, didn’t want to allow the Mariners to lose. The improbable three consecutive July walk-offs. The eight-run rally in Tampa Bay. That Bay pinch-hit, again. Felix, with the King’s Court at his back, giving the Royals absolutely no chance to do anything, abruptly halting their ten-game winning streak. In retrospect, that looks like the day the Royals were broken. Felix did that to them. The Mariners did that to them. In a clash of Cinderellas, the Mariners emerged decisively victorious.

I guess the last thing you need is more of a 2013 season recap. The 2013 season, after all, isn’t over, and we’re just now getting to the games of the greatest consequence. We all want to think about the playoffs, and the Mariners playing in them. But I think it’s been worth pausing to smell the roses, because it should be appreciated how we’ve gotten to this point. Don’t take this for granted. Even if the Mariners get wiped out, don’t take this season for granted. Every season is a learning experience, but this one’s been a treat. A treat we didn’t expect, but a treat for which we had a voracious appetite.

Is it crazy that Felix pitched like an ace? Is it crazy that talented young hitters hit like talented young hitters? Is it crazy that Guti didn’t have another freak accident or disease? Is it crazy that the veterans did what they were supposed to? Is it crazy that the rotation bent without breaking, and that the bullpen turned out the lights? Is it crazy that the baseball fans in Seattle didn’t disappear, that they just needed a team to want to come support? Is it crazy that the Mariners worked out? Is it actually, when you consider how it all happened? I’ll admit it’s a little crazy that the Mariners were the best. But the right error bars overlapped. There was always some probability of this, which means in some universes, it was going to happen. This happened to be one of them.

I remember wondering aloud whether seeing Felix throw a perfect game at home was better than watching the Mariners win the World Series. I wondered that seriously, when it seemed like the Mariners weren’t particularly close to contention. I don’t know if a few weeks from now I’m going to find out, but I know there still exists that chance. For all but a few teams, that chance is dead. What’s one more long shot? This team has overcome a longer shot.

The Reality Of Justin Smoak

March 29, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 16 Comments 

Do you consider yourself more of an optimist or more of a pessimist? Do you even know, or are you curious now? Think about how you think about spring training. That’ll give you your answer, at least with regard to your thought processes concerning baseball and probably general sports. An optimist will celebrate the good in spring training while dismissing the bad as insignificant. A pessimist won’t do that. A realist won’t do that either, and realism sits in between optimism and pessimism, but I don’t recall asking if you consider yourself a realist. Today we’re going binary.

For the Mariners, this has been a hell of a spring. Particularly a hell of a spring for Mariners optimists, given all the good we’ve observed. The team isn’t playing today and they’ve still hit three dingers, and right at the core of it all is Justin Smoak, who some might say is breaking out. Smoak’s been so disappointing as a Mariner that a lot of us came into the offseason prepared to have him start 2013 in Triple-A. The team ruled that out, saying they wanted Smoak in the bigs, and he’s done nothing in spring to lose that opportunity.

Plenty has been written about Smoak over the past several weeks, as he’s simply been beating the crap out of the ball. Smoak has earned himself a lot of believers, or re-believers, and this has colored the way he’s been written about. What I’d like to do here is lay everything out, objectively, and then see how you guys feel. I’m not going to deny that I’m something of a baseball optimist, but I’m still burdened by critical thought. Sometimes it sucks. Onward, with a very reader-friendly format! You’re welcome, friends!

Reality: Justin Smoak has been one of baseball’s best hitters in spring training. He’s got eight doubles, four dingers, a 1.250 OPS, and any number of well-hit line drives. Even if Smoak had come to camp needing to earn a job, he would’ve earned it with his performance.

Reality: They’re spring-training numbers. Chris Getz has batted .450. Somebody named Shane Robinson has been as productive as Smoak has. According to Ben Lindbergh, Smoak has always been a strong spring-training hitter, to the tune of a career .999 OPS in north of 200 plate appearances. This isn’t the first time Smoak’s been hot in March.

Reality: Smoak’s really killed the ball batting left-handed. This was a weakness of his before. He’s worked specifically on improving his left-handed swing, and you couldn’t ask for much better results.

Reality: Carlos Peguero also killed the ball batting left-handed. Smoak killed the ball batting left-handed in spring training 2009. All splitting spring-training numbers does is give us an even smaller sample size of spring-training numbers.

Reality: Justin Smoak has changed his swing, beginning upon his demotion to the minors last summer. It’s different to the eye, in a variety of ways, and Smoak came back and had a hell of a September, before his torrid spring training. It’s not like this is the exact same guy generating different results — this is a different version of the same guy, generating different results, lending them more weight.

Reality: Guys are always tweaking their swings. Especially guys who struggled. Every adjustment sounds like the right thing to do, to the player and in the press, because if it weren’t the right thing to do, the player wouldn’t do it. Every adjustment is intended to make a player better. Most players don’t get that much better, if they get better at all. Every bad hitter has taken steps to try to not be a bad hitter anymore.

Reality: That Smoak changed his swing does make his spring-training numbers more interesting to look at.

Reality: Regardless of anything else, they’re all still spring-training numbers. Or, if you prefer, spring-training results of spring-training processes. I don’t know how many times we need to say “spring-training statistics really suck, in terms of predictiveness.” Not that we’ve ever used those specific words.

Reality: New-swing Smoak did have that awesome September before this awesome spring, increasing the sample size of post-adjustment success.

Reality: Smoak has had three pretty good Septembers. In September 2010 he posted a 1.001 OPS, just below 2012’s 1.005 OPS. In 2011, Smoak started strong and then disappointed, for reasons that aren’t as easily explained as hand injuries.

Reality: Smoak was a high draft pick and a highly-ranked prospect, and scouts loved his ability and approach. There’s obviously a lot of talent in there, which is one of the reasons he was the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade return. Smoak might now be tapping into what was always suspected to be present.

Reality: Smoak has a career .683 OPS in the majors. He owns a .788 OPS in Triple-A, and his minor-league ISO is a reasonable but hardly earth-shattering .170. He’s hit one minor-league dinger per 36 plate appearances. He’s hit one major-league dinger per 30 plate appearances. Over 700 plate appearances, that’s a 23-dinger pace. Jose Lopez hit 25 dingers in 2009.

The bottom line is that Smoak’s numbers, post-adjustment, are very encouraging. He’s shortened his swing, and he keeps both hands on the bat throughout, and it’s better for post-adjustment Smoak to be good than for post-adjustment Smoak to be bad. But all he’s actually done is had a good September and a good March, and he’s done those things before. If you believe Smoak’s spring numbers because he has a different swing, you’re still only believing in spring numbers. Sometimes, as with Michael Saunders, spring predicts a breakout. Other times it most certainly does not.

So I’m curious about your level of optimism. Hence the poll below, and if you’re unfamiliar with wRC+, it’s just OPS+ with a better statistic. If you’re unfamiliar with OPS+, it’s basically park-adjusted OPS compared to the league average, where better than 100 is good. If you’re unfamiliar with OPS, how did you get here? Why are you still reading this post? May I study you? May a few of us study you?

There’s lots to like about the new Justin Smoak. We figured there was lots to like about the Justin Smoak the Mariners originally traded for. Behold the complexities of the human brain. And then vote in the poll. Smoak’s wRC+ last year was 85. For his career, it’s 90.

I’m Going to Have To Ask You To Wrap Things Up, Cactus League: Mariners at Cubs

March 28, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 30 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Carlos Villanueva, 12:05pm

Note the 12pm start time!

The rotation’s set, the team’s looking forward to the game in Salt Lake and gearing up for opening day on Monday, but there’s still this game to play. There’s one final roster decision to come: who’ll be the 25th man/5th OF? Will it be Jason Bay, local boy made good, then bad, then maybe, hopefully, decent again? Or Casper Wells, the jack of all trades except consistent contact, who offers plus defense and power but whom the team is clearly down on. This is an interesting decision, but it’s not a critical one. We’re not talking about a starter, and while Franklin Gutierrez is as injury-prone as anyone in baseball, Michael Saunders is available to play CF, and now that Endy Chavez is only 30 miles away, Wells’ ability to play CF isn’t critically necessary. That said, casting him aside would mean crumpling up and discarding something of value, and the M’s still aren’t in a position to do things like that.

The M’s look like they’re going to take their time on this one, as Greg Johns reports that they won’t decide today and may not until Sunday, but it definitely looks like Bay’s their choice. This isn’t a shock, but with Wells staying in Peoria to play minor league games while Bay travels with the M’s to Mesa and then Salt Lake, well, if it walks like a decision and talks like a decision….

Carlos Villanueva appeared in Dave’s off-season plan post, but the M’s front office went a different direction by snagging Joe Saunders for less money than Villanueva ended up getting. Chicago looked past persistent home run problems and durability concerns and signed the righty to a two-year, $10m contract. Villanueva’s change-up is a legitimate swing-and-miss weapon, and he posted excellent strike-out rates last year, but was burned by the long-ball – he gave up 23 in 125 innings last year with Toronto. Because of his change-up, he doesn’t really have platoon splits. They’re normal to a little smaller than normal over his career, so he represents a very different type of pitcher than Joe Saunders, and how you view the importance of splits may inform how you value Villanueva and Saunedrs. I’m still stunned Saunders was available for less money/years than Villanueva, but so many of the AL West’s best hitters are righties at the moment.

Anyway, here’s today’s line-up:
1: Saunders, CF
2: Seager, 3B
3: Morales, DH
4: Morse, RF
5: Ibanez, LF
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Montero, C
8: Andino, 2B
9: Ryan, SS
SP: Iwakuma

That’s More Like It, Cactus League: Clayton Kershaws at King Felixes

March 27, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 20 Comments 

2010 AL Cy Young vs. 2011 NL Cy Young, 1:05pm

I don’t mind the fact that spring training involves lots of players who may one day become MLB-quality, or were fairly recently MLB quality. It’s part of the charm, and you’ve got to make that mental adjustment that sports fans are accustomed to making. As a prospect fan, it’s often more exciting to watch a Brandon Maurer step up rather than sitting through Joe Saunders-working-on-something sort of a start. That said, some times fate gives you Maurer vs. Votto and some times fate gives you Jeremy Bonderman vs. Sugar Ray Marimon. So while it *still* doesn’ t mean anything, and while opening day’s so close it makes it hard to concentrate on Arizona, today’s pitching match-up is pretty damn cool.

Felix pitched brilliantly in his last outing against the Padres, and Kershaw’s rounding into regular season form as well. The game’s in Peoria, so we can obsess on velocity readings if that’s your thing. If not, we’ll at least get a look at Michael Saunders and Dustin Ackley facing one of the toughest lefties in the game. Kershaw’s interesting in that he’s got an extreme over-the-top delivery. His rising fastball from a high arm slot probably helps him against righties, as this type of pitch has lower platoon splits than a sinker coming from a lower arm slot. That said, his curve and slider are so good that he’s still got platoon splits. He’s quite good against righties, but his lack of a change-up (he’s got one, he just doesn’t throw it much) means his K rate is noticeably lower (though still above average!) against them.

1: Gutierrez, CF
2: Saunders, RF
3: Morales, 1B
4: Morse, DH
5: Montero, C
6: Bay, LF
7: Ackley, 2B
8: Andino, SS
9: Miller, 3B
SP: El Rey

Yesterday’s game would seem to doom Bonderman’s chances at making the opening day rotation. Not only did he get knocked around in the 5th, he came out in the 6th throwing in the mid-80s. This isn’t unexpected for a guy coming off surgery less than a year ago, but I hope it helps convince Bonderman to accept an assignment to Tacoma to begin the year. As a six-year MLB veteran, the M’s must give Bonderman $100,000 on top of his split contract to report to Tacoma, and I hope that’s enough to convince both sides its in their interest. A Bonderman-with-more-arm-strength could be useful depth at some point, and he could mentor James Paxton for a while as well. He also makes it a tiny bit less likely that Hector Noesi starts the year in Tacoma’s rotation. I’m not saying I want the M’s to cut him, but they need to figure out what’s wrong with Noesi’s approach without needlessly inflicting him on paying customers in Tacoma.

[UPDATE: According to Drayer, Divish, Johns, etc., the starting rotation is set: Felix, Iwakuma, Saunders, Maurer, Beavan. No word yet on whether Bonderman will accept an assignment to the minors.]

Mike Zunino Apparently Passes Chance Ruffin

March 27, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 10 Comments 

On August 17, 2011, Chance Ruffin threw pitches as a member of the Seattle Mariners’ bullpen. On that same date, Mike Zunino was still several months away from being drafted and becoming a professional baseball player. Let’s say someone would’ve asked you on August 17, 2011 which player — between Ruffin and Zunino — would be closer to the major leagues in March 2013. Your first response would be “that’s a weird and oddly specific question.” Your second response would be “Ruffin, of course”, because Ruffin was already in the majors, of course. He was a highly-drafted reliever with little left to prove. Zunino was a collegiate backstop.

Well as it happens, right now is March 2013, and Ruffin ain’t closer to the major leagues than Zunino is. Quite the opposite, in fact, at least according to recent reports. According to Mike Curto, Ruffin is being transitioned into a starter, and he’s probably going to open in Double-A. Meanwhile, according to Wednesday reports, Zunino is going to open in Triple-A Tacoma. The latter has been suspected for a while. The former is brand new.

We’ll look at Ruffin first. These days Ruffin is easily forgotten about, but he’s still on the 40-man roster, and he’s only 24 years old. Though he reported to big-league camp, he was cut pretty quickly, so he was never in serious competition for a Mariners bullpen role. Given that the Mariners are presumably about to give Casper Wells away to someone, Ruffin is of present-day interest with regard to desperately trying to salvage the Doug Fister deal.

For Ruffin, 2011 was a success, because he made it to the majors. But 2012 was a letdown, because he stayed in the minors and was bad. Where the year before he struck out 29% of batters, in 2012 he struck out 17% of batters, and his walk rate went up too. That Ruffin remains on the roster is an indication that he isn’t off the organizational radar completely, but his day job’s about to change.

This is a weird one. Generally, it’s highly-successful relievers who get shots at starting, and it’s unsuccessful starters who get shots at relieving. Ruffin is an unsuccessful reliever getting a shot to start, which he hasn’t done since early in college. I haven’t yet heard an organizational explanation, and I’m sure they have legitimate reasons for this, but it seems to me like it’s mostly about a change, a jolt. Maybe starting will force Ruffin to polish his mechanics and focus on further development of his secondary stuff. Maybe the Mariners just want to see what Ruffin can do with his three-pitch repertoire, since relieving seems to have stagnated. The Mariners selected Ruffin from the Tigers because they liked his arm; this could be a last shot to squeeze something out of his arm before giving up on it.

I don’t recall hearing about Ruffin as a potential starter when the Mariners got him, so I don’t think this was in the cards from the beginning. I think this is a response to observations, and for whatever it’s worth, this is hardly encouraging:

Of course, that’s one guy watching Ruffin on one day in spring training. But as a starter, Ruffin’s fastball stands to hover around 90-91. His strength has always been his breaking ball, but as a starter, he’ll also need to rely on a presently unimpressive changeup. In terms of further analysis, I don’t have anything. I don’t know how this is going to go, and I don’t actually know why this has been decided on in the first place. It’s unusual, but at the end of the day, if it fails, is it going to matter? How many of you were still thinking about Chance Ruffin as a part of the future? And if it fails, Ruffin could always try relieving again. Maybe by that point he wouldn’t be with the Mariners anymore. Maybe Ruffin takes quite the liking to being a starter and excels. The ultimate point: the Mariners are doing something unusual with a pitcher you haven’t been thinking about lately. At least, now, you’re thinking about him.

This brings us to the Zunino news. It’s been evident from the start that the Mariners have had Zunino on the fast track, and now he’ll open the season one step — or several miles — away from Seattle. The Rainiers, as a consequence, are going to be a very interesting minor-league baseball team. But the composition of the Rainiers could and will change, and it might not be long before Zunino earns himself another promotion.

Which isn’t to suggest we all ought to get ahead of ourselves and assume Zunino’s big-league career. But he’s the closest he’s been, and the guy standing in his way in the majors is Jesus Montero. Zunino’s going to learn some stuff in Tacoma, from Ronny Paulino and from others. But if he hits and if he fields, he should be in position to learn some stuff from Eric Wedge.

With regard to Zunino, people like to point to the Buster Posey timetable. Posey was drafted in 2008, and he became a big-league regular at the end of May 2010. In between, he racked up 172 games of minor-league experience. Zunino, at present, has 44 games of minor-league experience, not counting the AFL. He seems to be moving even faster than Posey did, and Posey moved unusually fast.

Is Zunino being moved too quickly? We can’t answer that, but there are a few things to consider. One, Mike Zunino isn’t Buster Posey, so how Posey was handled means only so much for Zunino’s handling. And two, look at Posey’s immediate impact. He had a .959 OPS at the All-Star break. The Giants were 25-22 before Posey debuted, then they went 22-19 leading into the break and got going in the second half. That year, the Giants won the World Series. Posey probably could’ve been promoted before he was, so just because he was still in the minors in April and May 2010 doesn’t mean he was still meaningfully developing. Posey might’ve been ready before the Giants made a move as if he were ready.

So Posey didn’t take long to get himself in big-league shape. The Mariners are counting on Zunino doing the same, and if he has a strong few months, he could conceivably be in Seattle around June or July. How would the Mariners make space, given their commitment to Montero behind the plate? It wouldn’t be hard — they could just trade the free-agent-to-be Kendrys Morales, freeing up DH. Morales is almost certain to get moved if he hits and if the Mariners don’t contend, and the Mariners don’t see Montero as a long-term catcher. Nobody does. So that could be abandoned as soon as Zunino provides a reason. That’s not the only way this could go, but it seems like the most likely.

We don’t know for sure that Mike Zunino is going to be a good big leaguer. We don’t know for sure that Mike Zunino is going to be a good Pacific Coast Leaguer. Don’t you ever take a prospect for granted. But everything’s been good with Zunino so far, and if things continue in that vein, it won’t be long before he’s handed the torch. The Mariners have designated Zunino as the catcher of the future. That future is sneaking up on us.

Jesus Montero Infield Single Analysis

March 27, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 13 Comments 

On Tuesday, Michael Morse clobbered a dinger over the batter’s eye in center field in Peoria. Wow! That is a heck of a dinger! Observers can’t recall the last time they saw someone achieve the same feat, and for Morse that’s an impressive accomplishment, but, we knew Michael Morse is strong. That’s kind of his whole “thing”. He strikes out, he hits dingers, he fields better than you probably could, and he displaces a lot of water from a drawn bath. There’s no reason to believe Morse is suddenly more strong than he used to be. He’s Michael Morse, with all the understood strengths and weaknesses.

But just the other day, Jesus Montero legged out an infield single. Wow! That is a heck of an infield single! Unlike with Morse’s strength, there is reason to believe Jesus Montero is suddenly faster than he used to be. He spent a lot of his offseason “learning how to run” — not my words — and he was coached in agility and form. This is because, previously, there was no agility or form. There was the complete absence of both. The Mariners told Montero to try to improve, so Montero tried to improve, and now he has an infield single to his name. Not long ago, he hit a legitimate triple in a spring-training game that didn’t count.

There’s a question, then: is Jesus Montero actually faster? We can’t, for now, address this question conclusively, but we can address it, with the help of Ryan Divish and his uploaded video. Without that video, this post wouldn’t exist. Or, without that video, this post wouldn’t exist as it is. These sentences certainly wouldn’t be included.

For the sake of background, we have to acknowledge that Jesus Montero has come through with infield singles before. According to FanGraphs, last year Montero had eight of them. According to Baseball-Reference, last year Montero had 11 of them. I don’t know which number is right, or more right, but the important thing is that the number isn’t zero. This was not Montero’s first-ever infield single.

So now we trust a principle: a batter who legs out an infield single will have been running about as fast as he can. When a batter hits a baseball and senses that he might be able to beat the throw to first, he sprints down the line. For me, it passes the smell test, and an additional benefit is that we don’t need much of a sample size if we’re going to time a guy’s running speed. We need hundreds of plate appearances before we understand a guy’s hitting. We don’t need many examples of his sprinting, because sprinting is sprinting and a guy will sprint at or around his true talent, provided he doesn’t stumble or isn’t sick.

So for a reference, I looked at three Jesus Montero infield singles from 2012. I’ll link to the .gifs:

I looked at Montero from the time his bat made contact with the ball to the time his foot made contact with the base. For one of those .gifs, we’re talking about 137 frames, or 4.57 seconds. For another of those .gifs, we’re talking about 139 frames, or 4.63 seconds. And for the last of those .gifs, we’re talking about 141 frames, or 4.70 seconds. They’re all in the same ballpark, and we get an average of 4.63 seconds to first.

Now for Montero’s most recent infield single, in March 2013. Here’s a link to the .gif. The camera is shooting from a different perspective, but it seems to me we’re talking about 137 frames, or 4.57 seconds. So pretty much the same. You could point to the slight difference between this number and the average of the three above, but note that, for this infield single, it looks like Montero was leaning a little toward first when he swung and made contact. That might’ve put him in position to get a better start, shaving some time off due to reasons I wouldn’t consider positive. Or you could say, all right, Jesus Montero has improved his time to first by one-fifteenth of one second.

If Jesus Montero is faster, that wasn’t made abundantly clear by his recent infield single. I’m not saying it isn’t true, but Montero himself has said he’s still slow, and he mostly just has better form. According to the Fan Scouting Report, last year Montero was judged to be one of the very slowest runners in baseball. So he presumably remains. But he’ll look a little better as he steps around the dirt, and I’d settle for Montero just not being embarrassing anymore. Better to be inconspicuously slow than very conspicuously slow. I can’t believe I’m writing again about Jesus Montero’s footspeed. In my defense, it’s less aggravating than writing about Jesus Montero’s batting approach.

Jesus Montero spent a lot of the offseason learning how to run. Based on preliminary data, he isn’t now markedly faster. He’s an old pair of roller skates with a new painted stripe on the side. It’s not that Montero won’t derive benefits from his offseason labor. It’s that the benefits won’t really help him in a lion attack.

The Cactus League Isn’t Even Trying Anymore: Royals at Mariners

March 26, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 15 Comments 

Jeremy Bonderman vs. Sugar Ray Marimon, 1:05

The Royals pulled Bruce Chen from his scheduled start today when they decided they’d pull him from their starting rotation entirely, opting to go with Luis Mendoza in the #5 spot instead. All over the league, teams are putting the finishing touches on their 25-man rosters, but the M’s remain tight-lipped about the #4 and #5 spots. Brandon Maurer now seems to have the inside track, so that would seem to put even more pressure on Jeremy Bonderman today. Maurer shut out the Reds (with Votto) for 5 IP yesterday. Bonderman faces a lesser opponent, and given his so-so spring, you’d really have to see something eye-popping today to narrow the gap. There’s still plenty of speculation that Bonderman may start the year in AAA as rotation depth. If he does, the M’s will have to kick in some extra money: the new CBA mandates that a player with as much MLB service time

Sugar Ray Marimon is a Colombian righty with a low-90s rising fastball and a plus-plus name. He pitched well in the Carolina league last year but scuffled when he moved up to AA. His size and lack of an out-pitch prevent him from cracking the Royals top 20 prospects, but he’s not terrible.

The M’s 25-man decisions, such as Kameron Loe getting a roster spot and Josh Kinney moving to the 60-day dl, not only clarify Seattle’s roster, they help cut through the clutter in Tacoma. Mike Curto’s been on top of it, as you’d expect. Mike Jacobs packing his bags mean the club still has a decision to make at 1B, but the outfield looks pretty much set now with Endy Chavez’s arrival.

The line-up:
1: Gutierrez, CF
2: Seager, 3B
3: Morales, DH
4: Morse, LF
5: Ibanez, RF
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Ackley, 2B
8: Shoppach, C
9: Ryan, SS
SP: Bonderman

That’s pretty close to the opening day line-up, I’d guess.

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