Game 135, Mariners at Astros

August 31, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 54 Comments 

Joe Saunders vs. Dallas Keuchel, 4:10pm

So, a game featuring Joe Saunders and Dallas Keuchel, going up against the first Saturday of College Football season, with a Sounders game kicking off around the bottom of the 1st/top of the 2nd inning. This one may not grab a big ratings share.

Dallas Keuchel is a lefty with an 89mph sinker, a change, a curve, a slider and a cutter. He generates plenty of grounders, but the lack of an outpitch to righties and some HR issues mean…OK, no. I understand you want to read about Dallas Keuchel as much as I want to preview a late-August game between these two clubs. The M’s are going for a sweep, but we’ve got more important things to talk about; namely, Taijuan Walker.

There’s only so much you can read into a single start, but we certainly know a bit more about Walker’s repertoire and how he uses it. In a couple of spring training games in Peoria, he threw a 95mph four seamer with fairly normal armside horizontal movement and an above-average amount of “rise” or vertical movement. His curve came in at 76-77 with solid but unspectacular break on both planes. We knew he’s been working on different grips and speeds with his curveball, with his “spike” curve in the spring coming in faster than the one he showed in the minors this year. But it’s pretty stunning to see how much he’d changed through the pitch fx lens. His fastball averaged 95 again, but with much less horizontal movement. It’s very straight, with a lot of rise – meaning that the pitch *should* have lower platoon splits, as Max Marchi’s work found “rising” fastballs had the lowest platoon splits of any type of fastball. Was this a deliberate change in arm slot/grip, or just a case of the notoriously weird Peoria pitch fx system giving us a flawed view of his baseline? Not sure, but it’s telling that the curve ball looks quite different as well. As we thought, Walker’s 9 curves last night came in around 72-73, consistent with his AAA velocity. He didn’t get any whiffs with it, but batters beat it into the ground. Most impressively, the pitch moved nearly a foot more toward gloveside than his fastball, while dropping ~19″ vertically below the heater. That’s an astonishing amount of horizontal break. This is where I’d love to see the trackman data on its spin; part of the horizontal break may come from the angle he throws it at, but I’m guessing he’s got a well above-average amount of spin on it.

Ultimately, the rising fastball and big slow curve probably help ameliorate any platoon splits, because the change-up didn’t look like a finished product, and he had very little command of his cutter. Still, the amount of horizontal break he generated without slowing it down to slider speed was very impressive. Eventually, he’s going to have to command it, but again, many evaluators have seen him on nights when he HAS, and they speak of this pitch in reverent tones. His cutter came in at 90-91mph with over 6″ more gloveside movement than his fastball. David Price’s gets about 5-6, while Phil Hughes and James Shields get 6-7″. This kind of break is nice, but by itself doesn’t guarantee success. Hughes cutter couldn’t induce whiffs, and it was homer-prone, a combination that led him to ditch it this season. Still, for a pitch that’s essentially coming up on its first birthday, there’s a lot to like about the way Walker throws it.

Here’s his chart from showing the huge gap in speed and horizontal movement between his curve/fastball, and his intriguing if inconsistent cutter:
Walker horzspeed.php

So who does he look like overall? That’s tough, as Brooks Baseball’s similarity scores have been taken down. To me, there are a few pitchers that look similar. Zach Greinke comes to mind, as he combines a very similar fastball with a big, slow curveball. Greinke’s doesn’t move quite like Walker’s, though Greinke’s has a track record of generating whiffs, of course. Greinke’s gets plenty of ground balls, so that’s something to watch going forward. Greinke has a similar cutter as well. It’s not a perfect match, as Greinke has a change that gets far more armside run than Walker’s. Marlins phenom Jose Fernandez throws a touch harder than Walker, and doesn’t have many similarities, but he *does* generate an incredible amount of horizontal break on his curve as well (though it’s thrown about 10mph harder). Clayton Kershaw had a very similar four-seam fastball a few years ago (well, except for the whole left-handed thing), but his curve is much more 12-6, and his slider isn’t comparable to Walker’s cutter. Chris Tillman has a similar fastball (albeit slower) and cutter, though his curve looks very different. James Shields looks somewhat similar, just shifted a few inches towards the armside. He’s got a similar cutter, though his curve is nothing like Walker’s, and of course he’s got a great change while Walker…doesn’t, at least not yet. Greinke’s probably closest overall, though that’s perhaps not saying a whole lot.

If you think this is way too much to read into a handful of pitches in someone’s adrenaline-fueled MLB debut, well, you’re probably right. It’ll be fun to refine this as we see more of him, though we probably won’t see too much more in 2013. It’s just nice to talk about a real M’s success story. With Wlad Balentien killing it in Japan, with Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak’s path to stardom taking Mike-Morse-in-LF routes, and with Danny Hultzen suffering a lost season, the M’s player development system comes in for some criticism. Some of this is reactionary and poorly informed, and I say that who’s lobbed some reactionary/ill-informed criticism their way. But Walker (and to a much lesser extent, Brad Miller) represents an absolute coup by the player development group, and given how much flak we throw at the FO, it’s only fair to give them a standing ovation in this case. How much of it was the staff and how much was Walker the perfect combo of talent, teachability and heart? I don’t know, but Walker was a risk that seems to have really paid off.

OK, Joe Saunders and Dallas Keuchel. Right.

1: Miller, SS
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: Morales, 1B
5: Ibanez, DH
6: Franklin, 2B
7: Ackley, CF
8: Almonte, LF
9: Quintero, C
SP: Saunders

Smoak gets a day off, while Almonte moves from RF to LF. This isn’t the best possible defensive OF the M’s could run out there, but it’s not bad.

The Rainiers are in their final series of the year, with Blake Beavan on the hill tonight against Sacramento. Head on out to a game this weekend. After tonight’s 7pm game, Sunday and Monday’s games will be 1:35 starts…and that’s it for the year. Anthony Fernandez starts for Jackson, while prospect Edwin Diaz starts for Pulaski today.

Game 134, Taijuan Walker at Astros

August 30, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 36 Comments 

Taijuan Walker vs. Brad Peacock, 5:10pm

I’ve read Dave’s concerns about promoting Walker now, and the 40-man spot that it ties up over the offseason (an offseason that’s going to require quite a bit of movement). I’ve also read Jeff’s piece about letting go and just enjoying watching Tai Walker pitch for the M’s. I started off clearly in Dave’s camp, but as the hours tick down towards 5, I’m more and more in the “who cares…woohoo!” camp. That’s not to ignore the 40-man spot, or Walker’s impending innings cap, or any of the perfectly valid reasons to be a tiny bit squeamish about this. But as I’ve written for the past few days, it’s been really hard – it’s been impossible, really – to actually look forward to an M’s game. And here I am, really looking forward to watching an M’s game. For a fan base that’s been as brutalized as this one, on the very day a major off-season acquisition was quietly sent packing for a basic minor league OF, that’s important. It’s important to be reminded that it’s possible to really care about this team, and the development of a core group of players who could actually compete someday. Is this a low bar to get over? Yes, it is, but that doesn’t mean we’ve cleared it very often.

Taijuan Walker burst onto the prospect scene a few years ago after being drafted as an exceedingly raw athlete out of Yucaipa, CA. Many talent evaluators and front offices were impressed with his arm, but everyone noted that he’d had very little advanced coaching, and how he’d adapt to life as a pro and to professional instruction was anyone’s guess. It didn’t take long to get an answer. Kevin Goldstein, then of BP, tweeted in the winter/spring of 2010-11 that Taijuan Walker was blowing everyone away in instructs, touching 98 and flashing a good curveball. Expectations were thus raised for the 2011 season, when the teenager hit Clinton. Goldstein covered his debut there against Cubs prospect Hayden Simpson, and prospect hounds like me started following each start he made in the Midwest League. The results were eye-opening, as Walker was able to generate strikeouts and grounders against much more advanced hitters. The following year, he skipped over the problematic California League (and High Desert) and had a solid start for AA Jackson before tiring down the stretch.

Late in 2012, he added a cutter to his arsenal, and he hit Spring Training ready to show it off. It became what many people considered his best pitch, and while it’s never been all that consistent when I’ve seen it in person, it’s a great weapon to pair with his overhand curve. His inconsistency is pretty understandable when you remember that he’s pitching more innings each year, learning a new pitch, changing his curve ball grip a few times, and moving levels. That inconsistency was one reason I thought the M’s would leave him in the minors this season, but ultimately they thought they’d seen enough when he put a few bad outings behind him and tossed a gem in what may be his final minor league game. In a few years, he’d gone from impossibly raw project to a worthy sidekick to Danny Hultzen to one of the best pitching prospects in all of baseball, and tonight he’ll hit the majors ahead of Paxton/Hultzen. His family will be there in Houston tonight, and most M’s fans know exactly who he is and why he matters.

Thanks to the paper transaction of moving Erasmo Ramirez to the minors (the MiLB season ends and rosters expand before he’s scheduled to start again), the M’s were also able to bring up Abe Almonte, the OF out of the Yankees system the M’s got for DFA’d reliever Shawn Kelley. Almonte’s had a brilliant season for Tacoma, and for a month or so has essentially BEEN the Rainiers offense. As an older corner OF with some injury history, he was a non-prospect when the M’s got him – he was essentially a faster Xavier Avery – but he’s put himself on the map by flashing a bit more power than you’d think and by consistently hitting line drives against some good pitchers. This is a huge break for Almonte, and it’s a move that makes sense for the M’s – they get an extra OF for the weekend, and while he’s taking a 40-man spot now too, the M’s aren’t in the position where they absolutely have to keep him. The M’s are probably looking at replacing say, Carlos Peguero’s spot with Almonte’s in any event. Almonte isn’t up here just to watch and soak up a big leaguer’s per diem – he’ll start tonight, playing RF. He’s a switch hitter, and while some like him there, he’s not a natural CF. He’s had great stolen base numbers, but he’s not a true burner – just a guy with a good first step.

Opposing the new-look M’s is Brad Peacock, the over-the-top righty who beat the M’s back in April. It’s been a rough campaign for Peacock, who spent a rough campaign in the A’s minor league system before coming over in the Jed Lowrie deal. His FIP’s at 6 for the year, and that earned him a demotion in June. He was excellent in the PCL, and he’s been much better since his return to the AL in early August, with four decent starts and 25 Ks in 25 innings. It’s not been missed bats that have hurt him, though, it’s home runs. As a fly-baller with extreme vertical movement on his 93mph fastball, this seems like it’s going to be a perennial problem, but he’s running a HR/9 over 2 for the year, and he’s given up 5 HRs in his 4 post-call-up starts. It’s not like he’s “fixed” that problem. Peacock’s also struggled against lefties this year, though that’s not a problem he’d dealt with in the minors. Like Brandon Maurer, it may be that Peacock’s change was perfectly serviceable in the minors, but not ready for prime time. Or, he may just have had rotten luck. We’ll see with tonight’s lefty-heavy line-up.

1: Miller, SS
2: Franklin, 2B
3: Seager, 3B
4: Morales, DH
5: Ibanez, LF
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Ackley, CF
8: Almonte, RF
9: Blanco, C
SP: Taijuan Walker

It’s odd when you follow someone’s journey so closely and he makes his debut. *I’m* nervous. Can’t imagine what this is like for Walker. The whole following-his-every-move thing makes me think back to 2005, as Jeff did in his post. Back in 2003-4-5, many of us USSM readers came here to read Dave, JMB and DMZ recap each of Felix’s starts – at Everett, then in Inland Empire, and finally in Tacoma. Due to injuries and his low profile early in his career, there was nothing like that for Michael Pineda, and while Danny Hultzen started strong, that bizarre hiccup in AAA in 2012 stopped the momentum/wishcasting.

As one of Wlad Balentien’s biggest backers when he was coming through the M’s system, his jaw-dropping season in Japan has been pretty cool to follow. And if you thought there was a chance I wouldn’t link to this recap of it on LL, well, what’s that? You knew I would? Yeah, good call. Miss you, Wladdy.

The newly eliminated Tacoma Rainiers have a rejiggered roster with Taijuan Walker in the bigs, so Forrest Snow makes a spot start tonight. It’s been a weird year and a half for the local product, but he’s been lights out this month. Hopefully he can get back to where he was at the beginning of 2012, following a great Arizona Fall League stint. James Jones is up from AA to help replace Abe Almonte, Nick Hill will take Snow’s spot in the bullpen and Xavier Avery will join the team as well.

Michael Morse Traded Back to Mid-Atlantic Region

August 30, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 32 Comments 

The awkwardness only lasted a day in the end. The M’s were able to work out a deal with Baltimore to send the DH/”LF” in exchange for, well, nothing much. Morse’s 2013 season got off to a great start, and I think we all hoped that we could put the divisive trade behind us and cheer on some dingers. It didn’t work out that way, as injuries and age seem to have sapped Morse’s ability to consistently utilize his raw power.

Through no fault of his own, Morse became the embodiment of the changing approach of the front office. Morse didn’t ask to be traded for John Jaso (and in fact wasn’t really traded for John Jaso – the Nats re-acquired RHP AJ Cole for him), he didn’t alter this front office’s view of player value. He’s just a big guy who was supposed to overcome a lack of defensive chops and positional flexibility with raw power and a better-than-you’d-expect hit tool. It could’ve worked out, or at least, it could’ve gone better than it did. Zduriencik needed a good year from Morse, and unfortunately, he didn’t get one. I’m still stunned at how much vitriol and how much ink his acquisition spawned, and I have no desire to replay/rehash that. Good luck, Michael. Hope you get to see the playoffs this year.

Game 133, Mariners at Astros

August 29, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 11 Comments 

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Jordan Lyles, 5:10pm

The Seahawks have a preseason game, so if you’d like to tune in to this game, it’s on 770am and 104.5fm in Seattle.

Hey, at least the M’s didn’t lose yesterday’s game on a shady balk call, right? Huh?

At some level, we’re looking past *every* M’s game these days. It’s another lost season after decade full of lost seasons. Yes, yes, there are individual players to keep an eye on – growth, development, the ever-elusive taking-a-step-forward that we’ve seen from Kyle Seager and essentially not one single person in ten worthl…sorry. Anyway, today’s game is even more overlookable to coin an ugly phrase. Tomorrow’s game is the major league debut of the most exciting M’s pitching prospects since King Felix. Tomorrow’s game may come hours after resolution of Michael Morse’s status with the club. Today’s game, however, is a contest between two bad teams. Today, Taijuan Walker is tossing a football with his new teammates and Michael Morse is suiting up and pretending that the whole situation – his season, the waiver claim, all of it – isn’t completely awkward. Half of Houston can’t watch this game, and many fans in both cities may take a day off.

That’s not to say it’s worthless. I think Erasmo’s an important part of the M’s 2014, but some of his shine’s off after his second DL stint in two years, and the rough road to recovery he had in 2013. He’s just crossed the 100IP mark in his brief career, and so much has gone wrong – from a big HR spike this year to the time off and the command issues that time off’s spawned. But he’s been a perfectly serviceable pitcher, racking up 1 WAR in 1/2 a “season” of play. Plenty’s gone wrong, and he’s had some ugly patches, and he’s still more or less league average. If he catches a break, or if his HR/FB comes down, it’s easy to see him as a pretty good pitcher in a rotation that really needs some pretty good pitchers. His last two starts have been his best, and he has the advantage of playing the Astros tonight (though the Astros have hit well recently and still play in a hitter-friendly park). The projection systems all had his K rate falling this year, and it’s to his credit that it’s right where it was in 2012 despite everything. The HR and increased walk rate show that he’s not got pinpoint command, but there’s something about Erasmo that makes me want to accentuate the positive.

Jordan Lyles is the groundballing FB/Curve/Slider/Change guy that the M’s have seen several times this season, the last being in late July. As I mentioned then, his raw stats had improved over his career averages thanks to a drop in his previously-ugly HR rate. Well, since that time, he’s yielded 7 HRs in 5 starts and a couple of relief appearances and his raw stats now look exactly like those of his two previous seasons. Nothing to see here. The curve’s helped his GB rate, but he’s given up a few HRs to righties with it. The slider helps minimize HRs, but lefties and righties have no trouble barreling it up. He’s not a terrible pitcher, especially taking his defense and park into consideration, but he’s not a good one either.

1: Miller, SS
2: Franklin, 2B
3: Seager, 3B
4: Ibanez, DH
5: Smoak, 1B
6: Gutierrez, RF
7: Saunders, LF
8: Ackley, CF
9: Quintero, C
SP: Erasmooooo

Happy birthday to Henry Blanco, who turns really, really old today.

Rainiers need to win tonight to keep their playoff hopes alive. They send Hector Noesi to the hill in the last game of the homestand. It’s been raining all day, but who knows, they could get it in. Anthony Vasquez and Stephen Landazuri start in AA and high-A, respectively. Of note, South African control artist Dylan Unsworth continues his road back after an injury scare, as he starts today for Clinton. Unsworth went down with shoulder soreness in early June, then made three short appearances in the Arizona League. Tonight’s his first start back with Clinton, where he’s amassed an impressive 44:2 strikeout to walk ratio. Yes, that’s a 2. Add in his rehab appearances in Peoria, and it’s 54:2 in 68 IP this year. Can’t wait to see how he fares in High Desert next year; stay healthy, Dylan.

Set Michael Morse Free

August 29, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 19 Comments 

I wasn’t a big fan of the Michael Morse/John Jaso trade from the beginning. This isn’t to say I told you so — plenty of people were in the same boat. Especially here. It hardly counted as a controversial opinion, but it was an opinion, one that ran counter to that of the Mariners themselves. I assumed that Morse would go on to be a mediocre overall player who fans would enjoy because of his personality and dingers. The kind of guy because of whom we’d have to issue periodic reminders that it’s also important to play defense and reach base. Turns out I assumed wrong. Morse has been worse than that. He’s been worse than mediocre, and he doesn’t have the fans I pegged him for.

In related news, the Mariners have pulled Kendrys Morales off waivers, but Morse has been claimed by the Orioles and that window’s still open. Players get claimed off waivers all the time, and usually nothing happens, but Morse could soon end up on a fringe contender, and I think the Mariners ought to let him go. I don’t think they even need to ask for anything back.

Oh, they will, if they haven’t already. No harm in asking, and the Orioles’ DH situation is pretty sad. Morse is a DH, and nothing more than that, but the Orioles don’t have a regular for the position and Morse might actually provide for them a little boost. Maybe they’re willing to give up an uninteresting prospect for that. But I’d be happy with the Mariners just taking the savings. Morse is due a little more than $1 million before the end of the season, and, yeah, I’d trade Michael Morse for a million dollars. I don’t even know what the Mariners would do with that money, but I know they wouldn’t be giving it to Michael Morse.

What’s the argument for keeping Morse around? At the trade deadline, the Mariners wanted to keep their veterans in order to ensure a competitive finish. The Mariners, right now, suck, and there’s just a month left. It’s not like Morse is too valuable to hand off — he’s been one of the least valuable players in baseball, if you at all trust what WAR is screaming in your face. Then there’s the matter of Franklin Gutierrez being back, and while Gutierrez is always an injury risk, and while he’s presumably gone next year too, the point is there’s a crowd. Justin Smoak plays first and Morales is in at DH. In the outfield, you’ve got Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders and Raul Ibanez and Endy Chavez and Gutierrez and possibly Abe Almonte, soon. Ackley and Saunders ought to play a whole bunch. You can’t just never play the other guys. Morse doesn’t have room on his own team.

Maybe it’s about having a better chance to bring Morse back for 2014? He might be more likely to re-sign if the Mariners don’t make him move across the country for a month. I think the strongest counter-argument is:

  • no

No, don’t do that. Don’t try to bring Morse back. The thing is he’s not real good. He’s probably not this bad, but he might be, and the last two years he’s been a little below replacement-level, if you believe in that. He’s fragile and he strikes out and he doesn’t play defense. He’s probably going to want to be a starter. The Mariners shouldn’t let Morse be a starter for them a year from now.

But if the Mariners were absolutely determined to bring Morse back for a second chance, trading him now shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. We all heard how amped up Morse was to be joining the Mariners last offseason. He seemed to love it here. Maybe he still loves it here. Maybe he could understand that he’d just be moved in this situation because of the team’s best overall interests. Teams before have re-signed players they’ve traded. The Mariners could go after free-agent Morse, even though, no, absolutely, do not do that.

Michael Morse is:

  1. a free-agent-to-be
  2. with a non-negligible salary
  3. and bad numbers
  4. on a team without room for him

He should be handed off for a million bucks. If the free-agent market value of a win is about five million dollars, then by giving Morse away, the Mariners could save the equivalent of a fifth of a win, which is more than Morse has been worth to date. I agree with those who think his numbers have been made worse by playing through injury. I agree that peak, healthy Morse is probably still a pretty productive hitter. But Morse isn’t durable, so you can’t count on having peak, healthy Morse very much. He’s going to get hurt, and if he chooses to play through the pain, he won’t hit as well. If he sits out instead, he adds no value. We can’t evaluate Morse by his hottest stretches, because the aches and pains are a part of the reality, and they probably won’t get less frequent as Morse gets older and older.

The Mariners have too many players, and many of them aren’t very good. They’ve been presented with an opportunity to shed one of those players, and even pick up a few bucks in the process. There is no compelling argument for keeping Michael Morse around, so he should be given to the Orioles, if they refuse to trade a player. Morse’ll be fine — the Orioles are a better team, with something to play for, still. Keeping him for September wouldn’t make one lick of sense. I trust the Mariners can see that. I need for the Mariners to be able to see that.

Taijuan Walker To Make Life More Interesting

August 28, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 54 Comments 

I remember an awful lot about Felix Hernandez’s major-league debut in 2005. I hardly remember anything from conversations I had with people literally just last night, but Felix’s debut is crystal clear. I remember exactly how I felt, exactly how excited I was all morning long. I remember exactly where I was when I tuned in, and I remember almost exactly how I explained it to my boss, since I was at work. I remember exactly what I said when loaded up for the matinee in Detroit: “just what the **** is up with this camera angle?” And I remember dealing with that camera angle, willingly, because I didn’t have a choice, but more because, whoa, Felix.

Taijuan Walker is not Felix Hernandez. He’s not that level of prospect, and he probably won’t become that level of pitcher (today be damned) (seriously) (like, damned, literally). But Walker is one of the very best pitching prospects in baseball, and he’s Mariners property, and he’s going to make his big-league debut this coming Friday against the Astros, taking Aaron Harang’s place in the rotation. Walker’s debut, then, won’t come with the anticipation preceding Felix’s debut, but we’re all collectively more desperate now, and I remember what it was like when we first got glimpses of Michael Pineda. This should be kind of like that. Walker is that kind of electric.

And incomplete. They’re all always some degree of incomplete, and Walker’s definitely still got work to do. Pineda didn’t yet have a good changeup. Walker doesn’t yet have a consistent pitch below the high-80s. All the Mariners’ pitching prospects are flawed, and they could’ve played it safe by giving Friday’s start to, hell, I don’t know, Blake Beavan. Hector Noesi. Someone uninteresting but someone we wouldn’t have to pay close attention to, someone who could suck without it mattering. It’s going to be Walker, though — there’s a press release and everything — and there’s a buzz. If nothing else, the news is a convenient distraction from the fact that the Mariners suck again.

As usual, I could approach this with a negative perspective if I so desired. There’s a good argument to be made that Walker shouldn’t be coming up yet. After throwing a bunch of strikes early on with Tacoma, more recently Walker has struggled with his location. Everything but his fastball has been inconsistent, and he doesn’t have the wipeout slider that Pineda was able to rely on. Walker, also, will gather a month’s worth of big-league service time, making it more likely the Mariners won’t bother caring about that potential seventh year of control. This feels like it’s a pattern for them — it’s noble, arguably, but it’s also business-inefficient. This can be messy to discuss.

And Walker isn’t on the 40-man roster. He’s about to be. The Mariners have open slots, so they won’t have to dump anyone, but they didn’t need to give a spot to Walker yet. They could’ve used that spot elsewhere, say, on a talented waiver claim or what have you. Dave has written in the past about the value of 40-man roster flexibility, and it’s not irrelevant. It’s one of those things that matters a little bit, and if you put together a bunch of things that matter a little bit, you can end up with one towering pile of beans.

But I can’t summon the energy to actually be down about this. Sure, it’s not the best move the Mariners could make, and they haven’t exactly earned the benefit of the doubt, but, it’s happening, and the upside is that Walker is neat. So maybe he’s not ready. He could benefit from the brief experience, and Friday he’ll just have to go through the Astros instead of a real team with real players on it. The Mariners probably weren’t going to utilize any service-time shenanigans. And the Mariners probably weren’t going to use their 40-man roster flexibility all clever-like. And there are players on the roster who probably don’t need to be, and how often do waiver claims end up mattering? Oddly, this would be a more questionable move were it made by a sharper organization. This being the Mariners, it feels like less is lost. They aren’t going to be brilliant about things, so now they’ll be non-brilliant while paying Walker more money.

And at the end of the day, Taijuan Walker is going to make life more interesting. Not for long, not in 2013 — he’s approaching an innings limit. But he gives people something to care about, at a time when it’s otherwise terrifyingly easy to forget the Mariners exist. With guys like Nick Franklin and Brad Miller and Mike Zunino, it’s fun to catch glimpses of a possible future in which they’re solid regulars. Walker could and should offer glimpses of more than that — sometimes, Walker’s going to look like an ace, and people love potential aces. Potential aces allow people to daydream, and if Walker does well, people will be illustrating futures with Felix and Walker at the front of the rotation. Hell, if Walker’s really good, right away, on his own he could make people think 2014 could be a special year. One player, of course, can’t make that kind of difference, but there are people desperate to grasp, and Walker’s talent is eminently graspable.

This feels like an opportunity to not have the season end on a sour note. If Walker pitches well, people will get ahead of themselves. If he doesn’t, at least people will have seen his fastball and his cutter and his curve and the rest, and they’ll imagine a more controlled, harnessed future. Nothing tickles the baseball fan quite like pure stuff, and Walker’s got it. He’s also got the look and the personality, so already he’s likable, without having ever thrown a pitch in Seattle. Taijuan Walker’s promotion is a thing to care about.

The Mariners haven’t been interesting. People thought they would be, when they introduced the youth infusion, but bad baseball is bad baseball, no matter who’s performing it. One way to make baseball more interesting is to play better at it. Another way is to add more youth. More youth is being added, and even though it’s probably not a terrific decision on the organization’s part, it’s by no means crippling, and all we want as Mariners fans is to be able to give a crap about the Mariners. Every last one of us can give a crap about Taijuan Walker.

Game 132, Rangers at Mariners

August 28, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 65 Comments 

King Felix vs. Martin Perez, 12:40pm

Happy Felix Day. It’s a bit more subdued even than recent understated Felix Days thanks to this losing streak, and thanks to the fact that the M’s lost a game on a crucial late-inning, go-ahead balk. Maybe I should be happy that the M’s are changing things up, and that I’d be even more bored if it was just a line drive single that scored Kinsler. But I don’t feel that way at all – I feel that baseball is trolling me. On the internet, the maxim “Don’t feed the troll” is great advice. But this is what we do here – we discuss, analyze, hope, worry, get swept up in baseball. I don’t have the option not to feed the troll. As I feel like I’ve said dozens of times this year, at least there’s Felix.

1: Miller, SS
2: Franklin, 2B
3: Seager, 3B
4: Morales, DH
5: Ibanez, LF
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Saunders, RF
8: Ackley, CF
9: Blanco, C
SP: El Rey

After a few days off, Raul Ibanez returns to his usual LF spot, and I’m oddly glad. I think at this point that Raul may actually be the superior defensive option in LF over Morse. Ladies and Gentlemen, your 2013 Seattle Mariners.

Game 131, Rangers at Mariners

August 27, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 94 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Derek Holland, 7:10pm

Thanks to the unbalanced schedule and the fact that the baseball season is 162 games long*, I get to write about certain opponents a lot. I feel like I’ve written more about Derek Holland – his volatile HR rate, his taste in music, his splits – than I have about, I don’t know, Joe Saunders. That’s not necessarily bad – it’s somewhat fun to follow a career trajectory without fandom layering on things like disappointment, wildly inflated hope, etc. So hello again, Derek Holland. It’s been nearly two months since I’ve looked at your Fangraphs page.

As you no doubt remember, Holland’s a lefty with a 94mph+ fastball and a big slider that he throws to righties and lefties alike. After struggling with HRs and nebulous injury concerns last year – he gave up 32 HRs in less than 180 IP – he’s putting together a brilliant 2013 campaign. His FIP is a career low by a mile, his ERA’s under 3, and his K% is at a career best. What’s changed? In terms of pitch mix, he’s relying on the slider much more often this year, essentially ditching his curve ball and using fewer change-ups. It’s an interesting move, but it’s been very successful. Unlike Travis Blackley, righties never had trouble elevating and punishing Holland’s curve, as they’ve slugged .553 on it in his career. Meanwhile, they’ve struggled with his slider, with a much higher whiff rate and poor quality of contact (viewed by ISO/SLG, which isn’t great, but hey). Overall pitch-type platoon splits are useful, but Holland smartly adduced that continuing to watch his curve get blasted was no fun, and it’s paid off for him.

Like many lefties, Holland sees line-ups stacked with righties, so figuring out how to minimize his platoon splits is critical. The M’s aren’t able to stack their line-up with credible righties, however, so it’s less important now than it would be if he was facing someone else. The M’s are hitting .228/.294/.375 against lefty starters this year, well below what they hit against RHSPs. This isn’t shocking, of course, as the M’s have a number of lefty bats, and a fair number of switch hitters who hit worse from the right-hand side. Theoretically, Michael Morse was supposed to stabilize the line-up against lefties, giving the M’s righty power to punish any mistakes. Injuries and ineffectiveness scuppered that plan, though. Seriously: this is essentially what Morse is here for, and he’s batting 6th tonight. It has not been a good year for Mr. Morse.

The M’s *are* trying to get as many righties in the line-up as they can, it’s just that when they do… Brendon Ryan is starting, is what I’m trying to say. All in all, not a bad move to get Nick Franklin a day off. He came back a bit earlier than expected from his injury, and he looked completely lost against a journeyman lefty with an OK breaking ball last night. He’s going to need to compete against the Derek Hollands and CC Sabathias of the world eventually, but there’s no need for him to take some meaningless lumps right now.

1: Miller, 2B
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: Morales, DH
5: Smoak, 1B
6: Morse, LF
7: Ackley, CF
8: Quintero, C
9: Ryan, SS
SP: Iwakuma

James Paxton starts tonight for Tacoma, as he tries to make a good impression in his last few outings of the minor league year. It’s been a very odd, somewhat frustrating year for the Canuck; the door was wide open for him to get a chance at the big league level, and he’s not been able to take advantage. He’s shown flashes, but then that’s never been the problem. Consistency is, and in that respect, it’s harder to find evidence of growth and improvement. I really like his curveball, though.

The M’s announced their selections for the Arizona Fall League. They’re sending Carson Smith, Dominic Leone, Danny Hultzen, Brandon Maurer, Patrick Kivlehan, Stefen Romero and Chris Taylor. Smith and Romero both played in the AFL last year, while Hultzen was a Peoria Javelina two seasons ago. For whatever reason, the M’s are fond of repeating that league; Dustin Ackley went twice too. Maurer’s the interesting pick, though it certainly makes sense to get him right back into game action after the big league season’s over. Smith has been a dominating reliever after a shaky April, and could pitch credibly in the majors right now. I’m hopeful that another solid AFL campaign will position him to make a run at the big league bullpen in 2014. Chris Taylor’s the UVA-trained shortstop who hit his way to AA this year. Drafted as a glove-first player, he’s hit quite well in the M’s system. Leone’s a small righty reliever out of Clemson who pitched well in High Desert and made it to AA in his second year in the org. Kivlehan’s the ex-Rutgers football player who hit well in Everett last year, despite a worrying strikeout rate. Moved up to Clinton this year, his strikeouts dropped, but so did his overall offensive production. He was promoted to High Desert anyway, and like many, found the Cal League much more to his liking. As a 23-year old in the low minors (due in part to his comparative lack of baseball experience), this is a great opportunity to show that he belongs in the high minors, and that his improved contact skills are real. I’d say no one has more to gain from this assignment than Kivlehan. I’ll be interested to see where Stefen Romero plays. He’s done a bit of everything in the system, moving from 3B to 2B to LF. He played IF and DH with Peoria last year, but I’m guessing he’ll focus on LF this go-round. We’ll see.

* I’ve long been a fan of the marathon 162-game schedule, and the meaningfulness of MLB’s regular season. These past 3.67 years have given me pause, however. The M’s haven’t been good, and that’s fine. Rebuilds are fascinating from an intellectual point of view, and they take on the patina of character-building, weren’t-those-the-days nostalgia when you look back once a team’s actually a contender. All of that is true, but watching a team scuffle for…600+ games can get to you.

Game 130, Rangers at Mariners

August 26, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 44 Comments 

Joe Saunders vs. Travis Blackley, 7:10pm

A battle of lefty pitch-to-contact guys who have a striking inability to deal with right-handed hitters tonight. Thus, your first look at a game like this is to ask yourself which team has the superior right-handed bats. But that’s no fun, because the answer is as obvious as asking yourself “which of these two teams is better?” and then you find yourself tuning out or reading, or improving yourself in one of any number of ways. That’s not what we’re about, though – all of that perfectly sensible, good-for-you crap. I don’t think I have anything like a mission statement with these posts, because that’s a wee bit too business school for me and this is all supposed to be, well, no, not “fun.” I guess what I’m saying is that every once in a while we can put aside the fact that you can make a really good case to do literally anything else, and just wallow in the Mariners together.

Ok, here are the career splits for tonight’s starters:
That one guy, vs. lefties: .237/.288/.328
The other guy, vs. lefties: .228/.297/.374
That one guy, vs. righties: .287/.347/.485
The other guy, vs. righties: .262/.352/.494

Let’s be clear: those are not *identical* lines; they’re not as close as those plate discipline stats in Jeff’s post below. Other’s guy’s clearly got bigger problems with HRs, which drive up his ISOs, though to be fair, he yields fewer hits (thanks to more Ks; it’s not a pure BABIP thing). So there are differences here, but they’re relatively small. You’d think the two were more similar than not, if this was all you had to go by. Essentially, this small gap is one way to understand the gap between a respected veteran (and the myriad cliches that adhere to respected veterans – “knows how to pitch” “keeps you in the ballgame” etc.) and a guy who was just cut by the actual Houston Astros.

Blackley was always one of my favorite M’s prospects. His superficially dazzling line with San Antonio in 2003, the early run of success in Tacoma, and the big breaking yakker, all wrapped in an intensely competitive personality. His confidence must’ve taken a hit in his years in the baseball wilderness, capped by essentially sitting 2011 out, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from watching him last year. He was the swingman/spot-starter on the playoff A’s, getting plenty of action thanks to suspension and injuries, and he performed admirably for a 5th starter. It wasn’t a shock that the A’s let him go, and it was probably even less of a shock that the Astros saw him as an upgrade. But as Joe Saunders can tell you, it’s one thing to have “trouble” with right-handed hitters in Seattle or Anaheim, and a very different, uglier, thing to have “trouble” with righties in Houston and Arlington. They’re vanishingly small, but for laughs: Blackley’s batting line against *at home* this year is .292/.380/.672. His home FIP is 8.58. He’s given up a HR every 10 PAs in the state of Texas this year, and just one in 66 PAs anywhere else. Vs. Lefties, away from home, he looks like an OK 4th starter. At home, vs. righties, his numbers might make Fangraphs’ database gravely ill.

Think about how odd, at least on the surface, it is for Texas to claim Blackley from the Astros. The Rangers are in a playoff race with the Athletics. The Astros *were* in a contest with Miami to see which god-awful team was the worst, but that “race” is all but over. Sure, the Rangers have had injury woes in the rotation, same as every team; Blackley could be gone when Nick Tepesch returns, and that could be fairly soon. But it’s somewhat telling that the Rangers saw past the barrage of HRs and thought Blackley could hold down the fort for a little while. Blackley still throws a 90-91mph four- and two-seam fastball, a change-up, a cutter and the big, slow curve ball. In recent years, he’s used the cutter/slider much more frequently and the curve relatively less. That trend was magnified this season, as he’s used the cutter more than any other single pitch, and the curve makes only rare appearances. In his first start with Texas, covering four innings, he threw just one curve. The cutter’s been a perfectly successful pitch for him – his problem lies in setting it up with his fastball. 42 at-bats have ended on Blackey fastballs this year. He’s struck out three hitters, walked ten, and yielded seven homers.

Like many, he throws sinkers more often to righties, and throws more four-seamers to lefties, despite the fact that stat-nerds would argue the opposite. In the spacious confines of the Oakland Coliseum, his fly-ball tendencies didn’t hurt him, and he kept righties in the park, allowing him to use his other pitches. In Houston, that just didn’t work out, as batters both hit more balls in the air and turned more of those balls into home runs. Now, if you followed those pitch type platoon split links you might see that curves are great pitches to throw opposite-handed hitters. Not quite as effective as change-ups, but definitely not in the sinker/slider category either. That’s what makes Blackley’s shift from the curve to the cutter so odd. Not just because that defies a pattern that people have discovered amongst the entire population of pitchers, but because Blackley *has* a curve and used it often in 2012. It’s all the more mystifying when you consider that Blackley has given up zero career HRs on the curve ball. None. I’m going to repeat this more for myself than anyone, but here we go: a pitcher who is in danger of bombing out of MLB in large part due to a home run problem has a pitch that has never been hit for a home run, and he’s choosing (or being told) not to use it. Ok.

The M’s are pulling out, well, SOME of the stops in an effort to put together a RH-heavy line-up tonight. To that end, they’ve activated CF Franklin Gutierrez,* putting his LHP-killing splits up against Blackley’s RHB-enhancing splits. To do this, they’ve DFA’d Aaron Harang. Just last night, many talked about how it was unlikely the M’s would make a move today,** just a few days before rosters expand on Sept. 1. That says something about how interested the M’s were in playing out the string with Mr. Harang, as does their plan to fill his spot in the rotation (essentially, “uh, you know, some guys”). Nick Franklin moves to leadoff, too:

1: Franklin, 2B
2: Miller, SS
3: Gutierrez, RF
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morse, LF
7: Smoak, 1B
8: Ackley, CF
9: Quintero, C
SP: Joe Saunders

Edwin Diaz headlines the affiliate starting pitchers tonight, with Blake Beavan (AAA), Trevor Miller (AA) and Thyago Viera (SS-A) also taking their turns.

* No Franklin Gutierrez-has-been-activated-or-DL’d story would be complete without a new diagnosis, and today’s is one I’ve never heard of. Apparently, we can add “Ankylosing Spondylitis” to Guti’s roster of maladies. AS is a type of spinal arthritis, apparently. It’s churlish to point to dollars owed or games lost or anything of the kind when dealing with someone’s health, but I sincerely wonder if Guti wouldn’t be better off retiring. I don’t believe he gets a new disease every time he falls awkwardly; I believe the more doctors examine him, the more they find.

** Credit to Rick Randall, who heard rumbling about this last night, and tweeted about it even though it seemed far-fetched. Good bit of reporting.

Dustin Ackley: Player Of Not No Consequence

August 26, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 10 Comments 

They say the key to good writing is to give away the ending immediately and insult your audience, so, listen up, idiots: in this post, Dustin Ackley is not figured out. This post is not the last word on Dustin Ackley; this post cannot tell his future. No baseball post can ever tell anyone’s future, no matter the evidence presented, but here I’ll admit it up front. Lower all of your expectations. This is, essentially, commentary, dressed up as freshman analysis.

I told myself I wouldn’t write about post-recall Ackley until he hit a home run. I wasn’t actually going to hold myself to that, at least in the event Ackley never homered again, but just yesterday afternoon, Ackley went deep off Jered Weaver with what I’ll lovingly refer to as a puddlejumper. I think that word conveys the right impression, even if it doesn’t make any sense on its own in a baseball context. Yesterday might’ve been the best game yet for Ackley since he returned from Tacoma, and though none of his teammates thought to contribute themselves, this was a game between the Mariners and the Angels, and the wins and losses didn’t matter. At this point we’re in it for the individual storylines, and Ackley’s been busy writing one. One of success, one of redemption.

The most popularly-cited split these days: Ackley’s performance since the All-Star break. Over just short of 100 plate appearances, Ackley has hit a spectacular .330, with an encouraging .833 OPS. That’s more like the Dustin Ackley we expected to play for the Mariners, and less like the decent-hitting pitcher Ackley used to hit like. Whenever a pitcher bats, and an announcer says “for a pitcher, he can swing the bat,” what the announcer leaves off is, “he still sucks though.” Ackley was hitting like a pitcher when he went down. Now he’s back! Look at those numbers since the All-Star break!

You might immediately see one problem. Well, really, two. One, it’s not even a hundred plate appearances. Two, Ackley wasn’t brought back from Tacoma during the All-Star break. Ackley returned to the Mariners in time to play on June 26, and between then and the break, he went 9-for-44. Just because there are pre- and post-break splits doesn’t mean they make sense to use, since that’s just a widely accepted arbitrary endpoint. Since his recall, over nearly 150 plate appearances, Ackley has hit a solid .289, with an acceptable .738 OPS. Those initial numbers can’t just be discarded.

But, all right. Two things: that’s certainly an improvement over Ackley’s .516 OPS when he went down. Tuberculosis would be an improvement over a .516 OPS. And, maybe Ackley is just getting more and more comfortable. So maybe what he’s done after the break means more than what he did just before the break. If I recall, the Mariners didn’t want to bring Ackley back quite as soon as they did. And last year, after working on his swing in Tacoma, Justin Smoak came back and had a lousy August before a five-alarm September. Everything is a process, and why wouldn’t players be able to get better and better?

The important thing is that Dustin Ackley has been hitting. He’s been spraying line drives and hitting balls to gaps, and yesterday he finally sent a ball over a fence. People who know about this stuff have pointed out some improved swings, and Ackley himself says he’s feeling more confident. Subjectively, he’s been making better and more consistent contact, and that’s what’s been driving the improved results. The good version of Dustin Ackley looks a lot more like this guy than this same guy in April, or last summer. There’s no question we’re seeing improvement.

What’s maybe most interesting is how the improvement is mostly psychological. Ackley has admitted he wasn’t ready to hit before, and now he’s feeling more like himself. This season, we don’t observe big changes in his swing rates. Ackley hasn’t gone from being passive to being aggressive, not outwardly, not in the numbers. Though he’s swung more in the second half, he’s also seen more pitches in the zone than any other Mariner in the second half, and that’ll lift a guy’s swing rate. You’re not going to figure out Dustin Ackley by examining his plate-discipline statistics.

Because in there, it’s all subtle. In there, too much is lost or left out. Let’s look at some numbers from 2011 to the present. One of these players is Dustin Ackley since his debut.


  • Player A: 25%
  • Player B: 25%


  • Player A: 54%
  • Player B: 54%


  • Player A: 39%
  • Player B: 39%


  • Player A: 51%
  • Player B: 50%


  • Player A: 19%
  • Player B: 20%

The other of those players is Mike Trout, by the way. It doesn’t matter which is which, because everything’s basically the same, and we all know that Dustin Ackley has slumped and Mike Trout has been the best player in baseball. By the plate-discipline numbers, Ackley and Trout have a whole lot in common. By the more important numbers, they don’t, so we know there’s nothing crippling about Ackley’s plate-discipline profile. Probably, a good version of Ackley would profile very similarly, because he’s not the type to turn into an over-aggressive hacker.

Ackley’s always going to be a little more patient than average, and he’s always going to make more contact than average. This was the case when he was bad, and this remains the case now that he’s been pretty all right. The changes are somewhat to his swing but mostly in his head, and so it’s hard to find those changes in the sabermetric details. We’re left more settling with observation of his in-game performance and his wOBA or OPS or whatever you like to like.

Ackley’s been seeing a lot of strikes, and lately he’s been hitting them pretty hard. Finally, he hit a home run, and we’ll see if pitchers start nibbling a little more. Then there could be an opportunity for Ackley to draw a few more walks, since he hasn’t been walking, since he hasn’t really been getting the chances. As Ackley has wanted to be more aggressive, pitchers have cooperated by also being more aggressive. Now we’ll see if someone responds to the other someone.

For Ackley, the problem’s never been as simple as the lefty strike. Somehow that idea took off, but it’s always been more complicated, and earlier this season Ackley’s confidence hit a professional low. His confidence pretty much mirrored Tom Wilhelmsen’s, and as difficult a concept as that is to analyze, confidence is one of the most fundamental components of on-field success. Enough smart players have said as much, to smart people. Now Ackley’s confidence is returning, and with a tweaked swing, he’s generating numbers that aren’t pathetic. Ackley, in short, is making himself worth paying attention to again. He got dangerously close to going the way of Jesus Montero.

Don’t know if he’s going to keep hitting. Don’t know if he’s actually going to hit for any real power. Don’t know what position he’s going to play, or for which team. So, don’t know Dustin Ackley’s realistic career WAR ceiling. There’s lots I don’t know about Dustin Ackley these days. But one thing I do know is that Dustin Ackley made me want to look at his recent statistics. And I don’t mean hate-look, the way I look at Aaron Harang’s statistics. There might still be a future with Dustin Ackley in it. Along the Jeremy Reed career path, Ackley might have found a spur.

Next Page »