Game 96, Mariners at Astros
Joe Saunders vs. Bud Norris, 5:10pm
The Mariners begin the 2nd half (sic) of the season tonight in Houston against the woeful Astros. There’ve been a few points in the season at which fan opinion swung from typical cynicism to palpable optimism. The M’s had a hot spell to get up to about .500 in May and many fans, desperate for something to cheer about, bought in. As you know, the M’s promptly tanked and haven’t been terribly close to .500 since. This time’s slightly different, though, in that the personnel have changed and because the M’s are actually hitting. As Jeff’s mentioned, it feels different tuning in to watch the team these days, and if they’re all but eliminated, that just takes some pressure off of Miller, Zunino and Franklin. That’s great. But how different is this, really? Weren’t we here in 2011, when Dustin Ackley came up and looked like a perennial all-star at his new position? Kyle Seager shot through the minors and made his MLB debut. Justin Smoak, who’d looked lost for a few months, had come back from AAA Tacoma and looked like a different player. Their 2nd half record was marred by a bad September, but they looked almost good in August, and at least the team was getting production from guys who’d be around in a few years.
In 2012, the team fell out of the race early, but they’d made some changes and looked like a completely different team in the second half. Hisashi Iwakuma moved to the starting rotation and was brilliant in that role. Kyle Seager became a very good player at age 24. Michael Saunders…MICHAEL SAUNDERS…finally looked like he could play at the big league level. It was easy to spot some glaring problems that they wouldn’t have to deal with going forward: Miguel Olivo wouldn’t tempt Eric Wedge with his veteranness. John Jaso could get more playing time, and Chone Figgins would finally just go away. Jesus Montero held his own, and if he wasn’t much of a catcher, some improvement at DH would come in handy in the years to come. Justin Smoak, who’d looked lost for a few months, had come back from AAA Tacoma and looked like a different player. Their 2nd half record was legitimately good, and the team was getting production from guys who’d be around in a few years.
I point this out NOT to engage in needless cynicism. I blog about this team almost daily. Cynicism is essentially hard-wired, but indulging in it – wallowing in it- isn’t helpful to anyone and it’s often harmful to any attempt at analysis. The point is that optimism in the second half isn’t new, though – it’s what we do. The M’s haven’t been good enough to seriously challenge the top teams in the division, and at some point mid-year, the team realizes this and at least makes the team interesting and/or fun to watch. For the moment, I’m not terribly upset about this pattern. We never thought the M’s would contend this year anyway. What we’ve seen is that the first “franchise core” the M’s tried to build around failed them, and that cost them big time in the first half. But they’ve got another shot now with a completely different franchise core, and at least this time, the players they’re trying to build around play premium defensive positions (and actually play them, not what Jesus Montero was doing with the catcher’s gear on). So while these optimistic feelings are nothing terribly new, and while the signs of life we’ve spotted in years past haven’t been enough to get this franchise out of critical condition, they’re welcome and encouraging all the same.
I mentioned it when Bud Norris faced the M’s in June, but the Astros righty’s been a very different pitcher than he has been in the past. He’s always had an above-average K%, but he gave up too many home runs. This year, his K% is down substantially, but he’s given up far fewer HRs. Norris is primarily a fastball/slider pitcher; against righties, he’s basically at a 50:50 split. He throws a change and a sinker as well, both of them primarily to left-handed batters. While he has the pitches to succeed against lefties, his sinker and change haven’t worked at all against them, and both his four-seam fastball and slider haven’t been good enough against them that he could ditch the sinker/change entirely. Against righties, his fastballs have been excellent (even the sinker, which he hardly ever throws to them), and his slider’s functioned as a real wipeout pitch. He’s a flyballing pitcher (thanks to his rising four-seamer) in Houston, so he’s given up too many HRs to righties, but he’d been effective overall against them.
This year, lefties are still troubling him, with a .376 wOBA and a slugging percentage near .500, but he’s kept the ball in the ballpark against righties. There been no observable change, at least to a guy looking at BrooksBaseball and the two games he’s thrown against Seattle this year. He still throws righties a four-seamer and a slider, it’s just that no righties have homered on Norris’ fastball this year. None. It’s the same speed it was in 2011, he throws it in the same location (down and away from righties). To be fair to Norris, righties are hitting the ball on the ground more than they have in the past, but you’d never guess that from looking at the pitch’s movement. If the Astros coaching staff (or Mike Fast; to any saber-inclined observer, anything good the Astros do seems like it could be the product of some Mike Fast discovery) has made a tweak to Norris’ fastball, it’s a subtle one. If this is great luck, well, congratulations Bud Norris. Now knock him around the park, M’s.
The M’s don’t really need luck – they’ve got left-handers. Today’s line-up includes the best stories from the first half, like Brad Miller and Raul Ibanez – guys who can tee off on Norris’ sub-par sinker/change. The M’s have faced Norris twice – the first time, Norris was so-so, but kept the team in it and they beat a red-hot Hisashi Iwakuma in a close game. The second time, Norris was *still* so-so, but didn’t have much of a chance when Aaron Harang threw a CG shutout. Still, this is a much tougher test for a righty with platoon splits. In June, Norris saw an M’s line-up that included righties Alex Liddi, Kelly Shoppach, Brendan Ryan and Mike Morse. Those guys aren’t here tonight; instead, only Zunino will bat from the right side against Norris.
1: Miller, SS
2: Franklin, 2B
3: Ibanez, LF
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Saunders, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Ackley, 2B
SP: Joe Saunders
The big news from the minors over the break was the first 9-inning no-hitter of the year for the M’s system, thanks to teenager Victor Sanchez. Sanchez’s linebacker (some might say nose-tackle) body doesn’t set scouting hearts aflutter, and his lack of strikeouts in the pitcher-friendly MWL has been something to watch, but there are plenty of positives, too. Sanchez was born in 1995, and just threw a CG no-no against a college-heavy line-up, with no walks (though he did hit a batter) and 8 Ks. The Venezuelan doesn’t have top-flight stuff, but he’s walked only 8 on the year in 60+ innings. He’s battled injuries and fitness issues, but he’s succeeding at the level, and he’s more than proven that his eye-opening debut for Everett last year (at age 17) wasn’t a fluke.
Jesus Montero (remember him?) had been playing in the AZL, but he’s back with Tacoma. Franklin Gutierrez began his 58th rehab assignment for Tacoma last night as well, and Stephen Pryor joined the team after two successful simulated games with Seattle. Fittingly, Montero tripled in his return to AAA because nothing makes any sense.
Brandon Maurer made an important start for Tacoma yesterday in Fresno. He’d been awful in recent games, and thus his merely mediocre performance was something of a step up. Still, this is starting to get concerning. He’s got a new pitching coach to talk to, as the M’s flipped the AAA and AA PCs. This allows Tai Walker to work with the same guy he started 2013 with in Jackson, and may help Chance Ruffin stay on track in his first year of starting. And, it may be time for a different set of eyes on Maurer. None of this is to put the blame for Maurer’s struggles on Dwight Bernard; the M’s made it clear this move was more about getting Terry Clark to AAA to work with guys he’d spent half a year developing. But it couldn’t hurt to see if he notices something in Maurer’s mechanics.
Taijuan Walker starts tonight – so flip over to MiLB.tv when the M’s game’s over. Anthony Vasquez starts for Jackson, trying to build on a brilliant outing a week ago.
Mike Curto asks a legitimate question when he wonders if the pitching coach swap mentioned above might make it harder for the Rainiers to attract and keep quality coaches if they know they could get moved mid-season. He also points out that Tai Walker’s numbers were better in AAA than in AA, in an admittedly small sample.