Uncertain Embarrassment

September 30, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 31 Comments 

I knew, immediately, it was all embarrassing for the organization. There are, at any one time, 30 managers in Major League Baseball. Many of them are safe, not at all fearing for their job. It’s a tough gig to land, not unlike being a major-league broadcaster, and so when you have one of those positions, it seems like it would take an awful lot to be compelled to give it up. Eric Wedge was managing the Mariners, and because of his experience, he removed himself from the running for managing this team in a year. He probably wasn’t going to get the chance anyway, but Wedge went out because he wanted to. The Mariners, essentially, were rejected by their own manager, a manager who had so confidently bought in. There’s no way for that to not make the organization look bad, and now this is all people want to talk about. Wedge quit the Mariners, they say. It’s just the latest turbo boost as the Mariners rocket toward irrelevance.

I know this is embarrassing. What I can’t figure out, though, is how embarrassed to feel. So the Mariners and Eric Wedge didn’t see eye-to-eye. What reason is there to believe Wedge had the right ideas? What more have we really learned about how the Mariners are run?

It seems like maybe there were failures of communication. Yeah, that’s kind of a part of this team. It seems like there are some accountability issues up top. Yeah, same. Maybe the Mariners don’t come off committed enough to trying to succeed. People have been saying this for years. Where did Wedge and the Mariners disagree, beyond just the Mariners’ confidence in Wedge himself?

Obviously, Wedge and the front office would’ve shared in the goal of seeing the Mariners get good. Differences must’ve been in how to get there, and to be honest, as much as I’m skeptical about the front office, it’s not like Wedge is a roster-management mastermind. His job isn’t to build a team — his job is to manage a team, and we can’t speak to the respective plans without knowing what they are. Wedge talked about committing to development, implying the Mariners might’ve been wavering, but he also alluded to a need to spend more, implying the Mariners might’ve wanted to stick with youth. I don’t know, and I suspect we won’t know. We don’t know where they disagreed — we just have an idea the Mariners aren’t losing a brilliant strategist.

As for the Mariners not committing to Wedge, well, what has he done? He most certainly hasn’t been the problem, but the team hasn’t gotten better. Wedge managed for three seasons, and it’s not like this roster feels like it’s on the verge of something special. Maybe, a year ago, Wedge wanted a longer commitment, and the Mariners were reluctant to make it, and maybe it would be better to have Wedge still around, but just as Wedge wasn’t the biggest issue, is the manager going to be the Mariners’ biggest solution? Ultimately, it’s the players who play the game. They get instruction from coaches, teammates, opponents, and experience, and it’s up to the players to make themselves better.

Wedge talked about the need for personnel continuity, consistency. Said it was extra important for a developing team like these Mariners. The Indians switched managers and now they’re a wild-card team. The A’s took off not under Bob Geren, but under Bob Melvin. Wedge has a vested interest in asserting that consistency is important. Consistency means a kept job. What he actually needs, now, is inconsistency somewhere else, so he can get a job there. Because, you know, Eric Wedge is a free agent.

Wedge was all-in with these Mariners, and you could genuinely see it in his eyes, and now he’s lost faith in the organization. He did what he could to leave on his own terms, not quite quitting, but conveying the idea. That doesn’t look good, and we all have reason to believe the Mariners are headed in the wrong direction. But then, that doesn’t mean Wedge was right, and it doesn’t mean the Mariners are worse off without him, and it doesn’t mean the Mariners are any further from success. I don’t know what Wedge envisioned, and I don’t know what the Mariners envision, but I don’t want either building a roster. Endy Chavez just batted 279 times. Wedge went out like a man, but he very well might not have been the man for the Mariners. He didn’t quite seem like the man for the Indians, although there at least he had success, and again, a manager can get only so much blame.

The Mariners might have a hard time finding their next manager, given the situation with their next manager’s boss. What the Mariners need more than a good manager are good baseball players, and that’s going to drive everything. Talent means wins and fans and success and respect and appeal, and everything would be helped rather considerably if the Mariners just stopped being bad. I suspect Wedge would’ve had relatively little to do with that. I think Wedge now has some personal issues with Zduriencik and Armstrong and Lincoln, but we all already did. So. I think we were kind of already embarrassed, and losing Wedge seems a hell of a lot better than overspending on Josh Hamilton.

After 2011, the Orioles had a hell of a time trying to find a general manager. Nobody wanted the job. They gave it to Dan Duquette, who wasn’t even involved in the game beforehand. It seemed like it must’ve been humiliating. Last year, the Orioles won 93 games, and this year they were involved in the race until the final one or two weeks. They seem to be in pretty good shape, and no one thinks of them as being a laughingstock anymore, at least. People don’t laugh at the Pirates, either. Maybe soon the Royals won’t be a joke.

And maybe soon, the Mariners won’t be, either. I know I’m supposed to be embarrassed by what’s happened, and I think I am, a little bit, but I have a stronger sensation of how I’m supposed to feel than with my actual feelings. Just how black is this black eye?

And So It Ends

September 30, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 67 Comments 

The 2013 season is over. It was, in my personal opinion, the least enjoyable season to follow since I started paying attention to the team back in the mid-80s. There have been worse Mariners teams, certainly, but this particular roster represented just such a huge step in the wrong direction for the entire organization. And, of course, it didn’t have to be this way. That this was an intentional construction in an effort to build a winning team would have been hilarious if it wasn’t so sad.

The organization continues to sell hope, even as it looks more and more dysfunctional by the day. You’ve probably noticed that I stopped buying what they were selling a while ago, and 2013 didn’t do anything to restore my hope that the team was right and I was wrong. So, now, I’ve basically adopted a new hope; that this team was so awful, so unwatchable, so embarrassing that there’s a reevaluation of internal beliefs.

We’ve already seen this front office pivot after failure before. They went for pitching-and-defense, and when that didn’t work out, we got this abomination of a dingers-and-leadership roster. That it didn’t work either might — might — make a case for just focusing on good all around players. Guys who can hit, and field, and run, and pitch, and if they’re good in the clubhouse, then that’s a nice bonus. That’s what this team needs – good players, of all shapes and sizes.

The defense was atrocious, but it isn’t so simple as getting better defenders. The pitching was bad, but this team isn’t a couple of new pitchers away from being good. The Mariners need a lot of new players, most of them better than the ones that got a lot of playing time in 2013. My hope is not in these players magically improving, but in the 2013 season being a wake-up call that there is no championship core in place, and that the team needs to change course and go get some better players to open 2014.

They have two good pitchers in Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. They have a good third baseman in Kyle Seager, and a shortstop who looks like he might be pretty good in Brad Miller. Those four should enter spring training next year as the entrenched starters at their positions. The other 21 spots on the roster should be sources of potential upgrade. That doesn’t mean I think Mike Zunino, Dustin Ackley, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, et al are totally useless. A couple of them might actually help the team next year. They just shouldn’t be counted on. Their contributions in 2014 should be bonuses, not a prerequisite for the team to succeed.

It’s time to move on from Justin Smoak as the team’s starting first baseman. The team needs at least two new outfielders, and if Kendrys Morales keeps asking for crazy money, they need a new DH too. They should acquire a stopgap catcher who can play everyday to start the year, allowing Mike Zunino to learn how to hit in the minor leagues like he should have done this year. They need at least one starting pitcher, maybe two. And the bullpen and bench both need work.

It’s a pretty long list. It’s a lot to accomplish in one winter. Maybe too much. Maybe there are just too many holes to put together a winning team next year. But, there are useful role players to be had, quality additions to be made, and the possibility for the team to go from utterly useless to at least acceptably okay. These upgrades are easier than going from good to great. It shouldn’t be that hard to find reasonable Major League players to fill the spots that were given to totally useless scrubs this season.

The organization just first has to realize that that’s actually what they did. They have to stop blaming the kids for this team’s failures and realize that it was the cavalcade of horrible veterans that dragged this team into the depths of despair. They need better veterans, and to get those, they need to realize that last year’s ideas about roster construction were entirely wrong.

That’s the hope I have. Jack Z and his team have changed course before, following an attempt to win that didn’t work. Maybe they’ll do it again. I have my doubts, but if you’re looking for hope in 2014, that’s probably a better spot to look than hoping that all the young kids magically become good overnight.

Game 162, Athletics at Mariners

September 29, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 48 Comments 

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Sonny Gray, 1:10pm

It’s over. No more pain. No more sparring in the press between the team and beatwriters, between blogs and beatwriters, blogs and blogs, manager and GM, fans and everyone associated with this mess. It’ll start up soon, but for today, all eyes are properly on the compelling wild card chase between Cleveland, Tampa and Texas. This game, on the other hand, is a perfunctory performance before improvement can begin.

I love Erasmo Ramirez, but this has been a rough year for the young Nicaraguan. Arm trouble, command trouble, HR trouble – he’s had the full set, and it’s impacted his ability to use his best pitch. I think the off-season is probably just what he needs at this point. Sonny Gray, on the other hand, may find himself in the playoff rotation after a brilliant start to his MLB career. The diminutive righty uses a 94mph four-seamer that’s arrow straight coupled with a big breaking curve ball. The curve’s thrown around 80mph, and includes a lot of two-plane break; this is not Brandon Maurer’s slow yakker. As a result, he may be a bit more vulnerable to lefties, as the pitch can get slurvy. He showed fairly typical splits in the minors, and his (brilliant) line against lefties thus far in MLB doesn’t extend to his K:BB ratio – it’s a testament to his ability to keep the ball down and keep the ball in the park. Still, it’s always interesting when a guy with good but nowhere near great numbers comes up and succeeds in MLB. Certainly, his BABIP-against figures to drop as fielders (and fields themselves) improve. He may not be as successful the second time through the league as advance scouting catches up with him. But for now, Gray’s done everything asked of him and more.

Erasmo’s not only having trouble with his change-up – he’s struggling with his fastball command too. In 2012, Erasmo threw his four-seamer for a ball about 32% of the time. This season, it’s up to 38%. That’s led him to throw more sinkers, particularly to lefties (he’s done a better job of keeping that pitch in the zone). But at this point, the movement on his sinker and change-up are extremely close – both have a lot of armside run and sink. The difference in speed is significant, but if lefties can make contact with the change, they often pull it (if they look sinker, they may just be ahead on the change; the vertical movement difference between the two pitches is just 2″) – and he’s gotten killed on pulled-contact. Now of course *every* pitcher gets killed on pulled contact – that’s why Matthew tracks it at statcorner, for example. But not like Erasmo. Felix’s OPS-against on pulled-contact to righties is .944. To lefties, it’s .750 (thank you, Royal Change-up). Maurer, of course, has been eaten alive – his splits on pulled-contact are 1.341/1.261. Iwakuma’s at 1.115/.925. So Erasmo’s 1.667/1.070 line will get your attention. If it’s me, I’d throw fewer sinkers and more four-seamers – though of course, that’s dependent on Ramirez’ feel for his fastball. In any event, some rest and some tweaks to his approach would be good.

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

So the Wedge dismissal/resignation thing is getting ugly. Yesterday, a defiant Wedge denied that his contract status was the reason he’s leaving – the exact reasoning that Zduriencik gave the press. So, the M’s will have a new manager next year. Applicants know that Zduriencik is officially on the hot-seat with his contract expiring in 2014. In addition, they’ll know that the last manager’s relationship with that GM blew up fairly publicly. Get those resumes in, fellas. I feel like I need a macro for this on my keyboard, but: this situation could’ve been handled better.

Game 161, Athletics at Mariners

September 28, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 51 Comments 

Brandon Maurer vs. Jarrod Parker, 1:10pm

So we’re in the familiar spot of searching for hopeful signs amidst the wreckage of the 2013 season – a season that’s cost the M’s a manager, and may yet cost them their GM. It’s tough to take much from a handful of appearances, but Brandon Maurer’s turnaround or at least improvement is something to watch today. Since returning from Tacoma, he’s still posted spotty results (especially in the pen), but he’s put together two good starts against some good offenses in Kansas City and Detroit. More importantly, he’s made some mechanical changes that may pave the way for a much better 2014.

In April, his average four-seamer’s release point was about a foot and a quarter towards 3B, and it got a moderate amount of arm-side run and slightly lower than average ‘rise.’ I use ‘average’ advisedly, because I can’t remember seeing anyone with a less consistent release. Some of this may have been an attempt to change things up, or to move on the rubber against righties and lefties, but whatever he was doing, it wasn’t working. Some times his horizontal release would be about one foot different…within a single at-bat.

Since returning from AAA, he looks to have tightened up his consistency, and he’s moved that release point up – slightly more over the top than the 3/4 he started the season with. It’s always dangerous to attribute results to small changes in release point, but I’d certainly LIKE to think that Maurer’s made lasting improvements. From April-June, Maurer threw over 100 four-seamers and sliders to lefties, and had whiff rates below 10% with both – remember, this was when lefties were slugging something like .700 off Maurer. Since returning, his whiff rate to lefties on his slider’s roughly doubled and he’s not given up an extra-base hit on it. His curve may still be his best weapon against lefties long term, but it’s nice to see that the slider isn’t a massive, easily-exploitable flaw.

Jarrod Parker’s April was just about as bad as Maurer’s, but he’s bounced back to post nearly 2 WAR. It’s still not what A’s fans expected from him, and it’s stunning that the A’s have won so many games without a big year from Parker (or Reddick or Cespedes etc.), but his second-half performance helped them pass the Rangers and take control of the AL West. The change-up specialist struggled against lefties in the early going, yielding six HRs to lefties alone in his first eight starts. Since then, he’s been much better against RHB and LHBs alike. Improvement in his sinker since suffering a neck strain (perhaps after watching four HRs fly out of Cleveland in a disastrous May start) seems to have been the key, though that’s clearly hindsight talking. Whatever the cause, Parker’s again holding lefties to a below-average wOBA.

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

That’s EIGHT lefties in the line-up to face Parker. The M’s aren’t a great offense, but they can certainly stack the line-up against righty starters. Of course, that’s less effective against Parker than it is against others, but still.

Game 160, Athletics at Mariners

September 27, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 40 Comments 

King Felix vs. Bartolo Colon, 7:10pm

Ah yes, the final series against the A’s in a lost season. I know thee well. The classic of the genre, a tragedy, naturally, occurred in 2008, when the M’s came in to the final series at 58-101 and proceeded to sweep the hapless A’s and rise from 30th to 29th in baseball, thereby missing out on first pick in the 2009 draft – Stephen Strasburg. Yes, Strasburg’s been injured, and the M’s have been intermittently pleased with Dustin Ackley, but the whole thing was seen by many as perhaps the most Mariners thing ever – they lost 101 games, but in the end, they couldn’t even lose effectively, and in doing so lost out on a generational talent.

Tonight’s match-up is one of those completely incongruous Cy Young battles. Felix has the edge in WAR (behind Max Scherzer who, let’s be clear, is going to win), while Colon’s got the edge in ERA and the whole going-to-the-playoffs thing. I’ve mentioned so many times that the A’s are one of the strangest good teams in recent memory, and it all begins with their portly ace, Bartolo Colon. He came out of retirement or rehab or whatever the hell he was doing in 2010 to post a surprisingly decent 2011 with the Yankees. That’s all well and good, but you’d have had a hard time convincing anyone at that time that the A’s signing him to a free agent deal in 2012 was one of the most important deals of the off-season. With Oakland, he refined the approach he’d shown with the Yankees – gone were the big fastball and hard slider. In their place was, by and large, well-located fastballs. That’s….that’s it.

Like many, I saw Colon as a classic regression candidate. Not only was he 40 years old without much in the way of offspeed pitches, he’d been suspended for PEDs, which made his success seem tainted. Instead, he’s returned this year to post even better numbers. He’s throwing a few more (softer) sliders this year, but he’s fundamentally a four- and two-seam fastball guy who pitches to weak contact. None of this seems sustainable, particularly if you’re watching the 40-year bowling ball putting this approach into practice. But here we are, with the A’s as two-time defending AL West champs, and with Colon racking up nearly 6.5 fWAR in two abbreviated seasons.

(Since that final series in 2008, the A’s have won 418 ball games. The M’s have won 358.)

1: Miller, SS
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: Morales, DH
5: Ibanez, LF
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Saunders, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Franklin, 2B
SP: King Felix

Eric Wedge is Leaving

September 27, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 41 Comments 

The Mariners just announced that Eric Wedge won’t be back next year. The way they phrased it was designed to make it sound like it was his decision to not return, so that’s how this story is going to be spun. In reality, Wedge made it very clear a few days ago that he thought he deserved to be retained and wanted to continue on, but was unhappy with the way his situation was handled. This may have technically been a “you can’t fire me, I quit” kind of thing, but the way the situation has been handled, it’s not terribly surprising that Wedge felt unwanted.

I’m not going to miss Eric Wedge. I don’t think he was a significant asset, and at times, he was a real problem. Maybe the next guy Jack hires will care more about performance than aggressiveness. Realistically, though, it’s going to be someone already in the organization, since the good outside candidates aren’t going to want to come into this situation. Ted Simmons and Robby Thompson seem like the most likely candidates. I’d imagine this won’t take very long, since it’s going to be a promote-from-within situation.

Defending the Defensible Saunders

September 26, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 41 Comments 

A few days ago and already a few months late, the Mariners made the announcement that Joe Saunders would not be starting another game this season. A relief to me at least, with one fewer game that I purposefully ignore, and a sure sign that we’ve made up some ground since the dog days of him, Harang, and Bonderman as 60% of the starting five. Ryan Divish made a tweet a few weeks ago to the effect of the Mariners going thirty seconds without being on the wrong side of things, with Joe giving up a leadoff home run on the first pitch. It felt about in line with my own sentiments. Joe Saunders has been terrible. Everyone who’s been paying attention knows that. Some people have not been paying attention partly because of it.

There’s also another Saunders we have, the more Canadian one, whom a lot of people probably regard as being also terrible this year. Because the Mariners have been awful for many years, and because Michael Saunders was a homegrown, young, and somewhat local player who had also been awful for many years, everyone started to rally around him when he started to turn in what was only an average offensive performance last season. Remember all those jokes we made about rubber bands and Josh Bard’s brother and how we were going to hire them to be our hitting coach? It seems like only a year ago.

Trouble is that the Mariners field mentality for under the current field staff has been to play though any injury to the detriment of, I don’t know, everything. Just rub some dirt on it, you’ll be fine. Hultzen probably went to the team’s doctors and they told him there wasn’t enough dirt in his shoulder. And he was all like “that’s not a real diagnosis!” and they were all like “you didn’t go to med school, you only had that mysterious story universally reported about millions of dollars of inheritance money if you did, which was totally a lie.” Why, Michael Morse rubbed some dirt on that busted finger of his and hell, he’s hit more home runs since than he did before. Wait, he’s actually hit fewer? And with almost twice as many plate appearances? Criminy.

Michael Saunders probably got sucked into that mentality too. Back in April, when there were still hopes of not finishing with a protected pick, Saunders smashed into an outfield wall and busted himself up but good. Eighteen days later, he was back on the field for the Mariners after a short rehab in Tacoma, playing at his presumably not-best. Up through the end of the first half, he had a 82 wRC+ and looked as bad as he’d previously been all these years. A number of people jumped up and declared his 2012 season to be not steps in the right direction, but wholly a mirage, and started to float the idea of him as a redundant piece and a potential non-tender candidate.

Others of us, who listen to games for want of evening radio programming, have remembered that he was also hurt and came back way too quickly. Let’s look at some numbers for a moment.

2012 Saunders: 553 PA, .246/.306/.432, 7.8% BB, 23.9% K, 108 wRC+
2013 Saunders (1H): 265 PA, .225/.303/.364, 10.6% BB, 26.8% K, 82 wRC+
2013 Saunders (2H): 195 PA, .263/.364/.461, 13.3% BB, 22.6% K, 128 wRC+

To give some context to this, Saunders’ first half wRC+ over the course of a season would put him in the company of Alexei Ramirez and the surprisingly not-good Elvis Andrus of late. Erick Aybar and Jose Altuve would have produced more. His second half similarly stretched would land him around the 34th highest wRC+ in baseball and would have him keeping company with guys like Justin Upton, Evan Longoria, and Prince Fielder (really?), and better than Chase Utley, Jason Kipnis, and various others. I’m not cherry-picking numbers either; month-to-month in the second half, his wRC+ has been 141 in July, 126 in August, and now 129 in September after last night’s home run/walk combo. And that walk rate, extended to the length of this season, would land eighth for all of baseball, sandwiched between Miguel Cabrera and Dexter Fowler. Boy howdy.

The Good Saunders is looking at arbitration for the first time this offseason, which is expected him to make him marginally more expensive. But we’re also expecting to see Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez on the outs, along with Raul if we have enough sense [we probably don’t]. There are only so many internal options after that, and only so many players on the free agent market that are going to be worth pursuing.

Michael Saunders isn’t a great player or anything. His defense has some flaws, he’s had some trouble with lefties this season, and he really doesn’t seem like he uses his speed as much as he could. But he could be a good player, reasonably priced. Given that his second half has trumped even his previous breakout, I think that it stands to reason that he should be given his opportunities with the Mariners next season and we can see where things go from there.

Game 159, Royals at Mariners

September 25, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 26 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Ervin Santana, 7:10pm

With the Royals all but eliminated, the Wild Card chase is essentially a two-team battle between Cleveland and Texas. The M’s had a very minor impact on the playoff race in September, but it wasn’t zero. Tampa had to take on fellow AL East teams New York and Baltimore while the Royals played Seattl, Texas played the Astros and Cleveland faced the White Sox. As it happened, Tampa and Cleveland swept series while the Royals dropped a critical game and with it their last chance to catch the Tribe.

I talked about Ervin Santana’s use of a sinker this year to cut down his HR issues to problematic-but-manageable size the last time he faced the M’s. Today, the pitching probables highlight the odd similarity between these two. Let’s be clear: Iwakuma and Santana don’t look anything alike on TV. Iwakuma’s bread and butter pitch is the splitter, a pitch that gets him whiffs despite a low zone%, reverse platoon splits, and an above-average ground ball percentage. Santana’s always been a slider-heavy pitcher, and his slider/FB arsenal’s produced below-average ground-ball rates and standard to high platoon splits (look at 2012).

All of that’s quite true, so it’s not that they use similar means, just that they get to a similar place. Over the past four years, Santana’s run an ERA of 3.85 despite a FIP a half-run higher. Iwakuma’s career ERA is 2.91 with a FIP of 3.83. I don’t want to reopen the whole FIP vs. fielding dependent, true-talent vs. what-actually-happened argument – it’s just a similarity borne of a similar problem: home runs. Both Iwakuma and, to a lesser extent, Santana post very good K:BB ratios. Both yield a lot of home runs. Both have low-ish BABIP-alloweds, in large part because some of the really hard contact they give up flies a really long way, and is thus not included in the BABIP denominator. This in turn can affect how they’re perceived – Iwakuma and Santana have had good, clearly above-average seasons, but they’re not in Fangraphs’ top 20 WAR leaderboard. This isn’t a complaint, or a criticism – the rankings are tabulated accurately. And, as Matt Cain’s 2013 demonstrates, it’s fairly perilous to assume you can spot guys who can reliably “beat” their FIP by looking at the past few seasons. Still and all, Iwakuma and Santana have been better than their FIP in part because they’re just stingier with men on base. 73% of Iwakuma’s HRs have been solo shots. This year, it’s 72% for Santana, and it’s 63% for the past four years (2012 was really, really unkind to Santana – both ERA and FIP).

This isn’t to say they’re undervalued, or over-valued, or buy-low or sell-high candidates. It’s just an indication of what you need to do if you want to run a gorgeous ERA and a good-but-not-excellent FIP: limit BABIP and hope the HRs come with the bases empty. Iwakuma obviously has a bit more room for error, given his high GB rate, high strand rate, and extremely low walk rate. More specifically, Iwakuma could become an interesting test case in that he’s got a completely different motion with men on base, and thus his splits in those situations may not simply be luck, the product of a mind that doesn’t get flustered, or the will to win. Santana on the other hand is going to be somewhat volatile, as we’ve seen. His GB% is up this year thanks to his sinker, and that may help reduce his volatility, but he’s still been a very valuable pick-up for the Royals.

And that highlights Dave’s argument below. It’s not that the Royals went for it and came up short against a Tigers juggernaut and an Indians team riding a well-timed hot streak. The Royals have had a brilliant season helped in no small part by Santana’s brilliant RA, Bruce Chen’s best season in years, and a shut-down bullpen. They’ve got the 4th best ERA and the 10th best FIP.* That is, this is a team that’s had no shortage of luck. I’m sure the Royals will argue that their rebuild came up just a few games short, and that the trade and the other moves they made justify their pre-season assessment of the gap between their club and the AL Central leaders. To me, it highlights just how large that gap really was – the club got better AND got luckier, and still couldn’t overcome the large gap in talent.

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

* Ok, ok, I should mention this: the Royals are baseball’s best defensive team by UZR, so some of the gap in ERA-FIP has less to do with HRs and solo shots and strand rates and more to do with defenders turning balls-in-play into outs. But Santana’s had this issue for four years, only one of which was in KC, and Iwakuma’s been similar in both his years in Seattle, despite the fact that the defense behind him changed rather substantially from 2012 to 2013.

Danny Hultzen And Dealing With Pitchers

September 25, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 6 Comments 

People like to think of collegiate draft picks as safer draft picks. Picks who have a good chance of getting to the majors, and picks who have a good chance of sticking around for a while, even if they fall short of being stars. Comes up every year. The safe catcher the Mariners picked in 2005 is presently a triple-A first baseman with more games at DH. The safe pitcher they picked in 2006 is presently hurt, hoping to avoid surgery, and his results have never really matched his stuff. The safe reliever they picked in 2008 is presently a mediocre reliever for baseball’s worst team. The safe, can’t-miss infielder they picked in 2009 might be in the process of figuring things out, but he’s been more of a bust than a non-bust. And the safe pitcher they picked in 2011 might have problems with his labrum.

The 2013 season has been lost for Danny Hultzen and the Seattle Mariners.

On Tuesday afternoon at Safeco Field, general manager Jack Zdruriencik announced that their prized pitching prospect will head to Birmingham, Ala., to see noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews for a second opinion on his  ailing throwing shoulder.
“Ed saw him and quite frankly he doesn’t like what he sees,” Zduriencik said. “He saw some damage that he was unhappy with. It’s not the rotator cuff. It’s the tendon area, labrum area.”

This isn’t Hultzen’s first shoulder problem of the year, but it’s the first indication that the labrum might be involved. That’s the bad part. This all began with Hultzen not being able to get loose, and nobody seemed too concerned, but shoulder issues are always concerning, and the Mariners altered Hultzen’s mechanics. Now he might have a labrum thing, which might be the worst problem for a shoulder short of just not having one. The Mariners selected Danny Hultzen, with his health and delivery. Now he has worse health and a different delivery. We don’t know much yet about what’s really wrong, but the whispers are enough to make you wince.

Granted, all these picks could’ve worked out. Some of them might still. Who knows how they would’ve done under different circumstances, maybe in different organizations? What if Clement were drafted by the, I don’t know, Giants? Everybody agreed he was an excellent player. Maybe the Mariners have just gotten unlucky. But the point’s pretty obvious: there’s no such thing as a safe draft pick. Especially if you’re talking about a pitcher. There are safer and riskier draft picks, but only relatively speaking — you should bet against just about all of them. They’re all capable of great disappointment. Think of draft picks like pitchers hitting — with a better-hitting pitcher, announcers will say “this guy’s a good hitter,” when what they mean is “this guy’s a good hitter, for a pitcher,” which means he still sucks. The best-hitting pitchers hit kind of a lot like Brendan Ryan.

Obviously, we don’t want to panic yet, before we have official word on the matter with Hultzen’s body. That should come soonish, and with it, a prognosis. Even in the various worse-case scenarios, Hultzen will have decent chances of getting back. Pitcher careers have survived torn labrums. The medicine’s always improving, and surgeons know more about shoulders than they used to. Unless they find terminal cancer in there, Hultzen’s going to remain a Mariners pitching prospect, and he’s going to keep trying to make the majors. Maybe he’ll ultimately be greatly successful. But this is just how things can go. Give a hug to your nearest Felix Hernandez.

With pitchers, you can go one of two ways. You can distance yourself, emotionally, protecting yourself from getting hurt. That’s perfectly sensible, I suppose, because no one likes being let down, and pitchers let you down all the time. They don’t mean to; they’re diseased. But I think the better route is to keep celebrating pitchers, to keep embracing them, to try to appreciate the now. To delight in what you see pitchers do, because you don’t know if each one will keep doing it. I love Felix to death, in large part because of his durability, but I’m not fool. I know what could happen, and I think that’s a part of the way that I feel — you better appreciate what Felix is, because that guy’s not lasting forever. Mike Trout’s a risk, but he’s not the same kind of risk. I love the King’s Court, because each Felix start is an occasion. Those are people, actively appreciating. They’re open to being hurt, because that’s how you love.

Healthy pitchers are fun. Healthy pitchers become unhealthy pitchers. I think the answer to how to deal with pitchers is trying to live more in the moment. You’re aware from the beginning there are only so many moments, and you don’t know when each moment reservoir will run dry. The answer can’t be less love. That’s cold and rational, and that doesn’t belong in the fan landscape. By rooting for a baseball team, you’re already opening yourself up to bitter defeat and despondence. Within that framework, why give yourself minor protections, if it means you have less fun? Have as much fun as you can because one day you’ll be dead. You. You, the reader. You will fertilize the earth. Loved ones will speak of you in the past tense.

Hopefully, Hultzen will be okay. Right now, Felix is okay. He’ll probably be okay for his next and last start of the season. Let the love in, and accept what it gives you. If you didn’t already agree to being disappointed by uniformed strangers, you wouldn’t be reading this blog.

James Paxton’s Company

September 25, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 10 Comments 

It’s been a bit of a dark stretch. Danny Hultzen needs to have his shoulder amputated. The man in charge is going to stay the man in charge. The savior of the organization passed away. And the Mariners suck. Can’t really skip over that last part. There’s a lot of young talent on the team, yeah, and this wasn’t ever going to be a real contender, sure, but the Mariners are in line to have a protected first-round draft pick, which you don’t get without sucking. The team’s been just about unwatchable, and now we get to look forward to an offseason of probable desperation. We’ve long talked about the parallels between the Mariners and the Royals. There could be big mistakes on the way.

There are two reasons to keep watching a bad team. Maybe you just really like baseball! Totally acceptable. I really like bagels, but I’m not particularly picky about them, so I’ll eat a good bagel or a bad one and it won’t make much of a difference. Yeah, I’d be happier with a good bagel, but a bagel’s a bagel and if a bad bagel’s all I can get, I’ll take it when I’m in the mood. Alternatively, you’re in it for the young guys. Actually, let me put that a different way — alternatively, you’re in it for the signs of development. You’re in it for the hope you can feel for the future. This season might be shot, but you’re well past worrying about this season. You’re skipping ahead, and now the rest of this season kind of feels like the next season’s spring training. Next season could be the season!

And as signs of development go, last night James Paxton turned in a big flashy one. Facing a team fighting for its playoff life, Paxton spun seven shutout innings, and more importantly, he did it with ten strikeouts and not one single walk. Paxton looked every bit the ace, and for good measure, he kept almost every ball in play on the ground. Obviously, Paxton isn’t an ace right now, but the question is what he’ll be, and when. Last night, though just one start, could offer some clues.

I should point something out: yeah, strikeout rates are up. There are more strikeouts these days than there have ever been. On the other hand, the Royals have baseball’s lowest strikeout rate against lefties, and second-lowest strikeout rate overall. Whiffs aren’t that easy to come by against Kansas City, but Paxton missed bats, and also, the no-walks thing. This is James Paxton, after all.

A game like yesterday’s usually isn’t a fluke. Nobody averages a start like that, but generally speaking, you have to possess a certain amount of talent to be able to turn in ten whiffs and zero walks. For worse pitchers, it’s just almost too statistically improbable. Picture a normal curve, on a graph. In the middle is a pitcher’s true talent. The curve tells you about his expected game results. Good pitchers, obviously, are more capable of good games than bad pitchers. It’s math.

I decided to look up other starts like Paxton’s. Taking to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, I looked at the last three years, setting strikeouts at 10+, walks at zero, and hit batters at zero. I came up with a list of 59 other pitchers who’ve had at least one such start. Felix is the leader, with six. Cliff Lee and David Price each have four. Then the rest. It’s a list that features an awful lot of incredible names.

Obviously they’re not all good. The list also features, say, Wade LeBlanc and James McDonald. Hey look, there’s Aaron Harang! But out of the group, the average career ERA+ is 111. The median career ERA+ is 109. If you’re confused by ERA+ and ERA-, with ERA+, above-average is above 100. With ERA-, above-average is below 100. Generally, it’s been good pitchers having these starts, so if you have one of these starts, odds are better you’re a good pitcher.

I also looked all-time, even though, again, strikeout rates have changed a lot. I found 352 other pitchers who had at least one such qualifying start. Out of the group, the average career ERA+ is 107. The median career ERA+ is 105. Maybe of interest, excluding the actives, the average number of career innings is north of 2,100. The median number of career innings is just south of 2,000. The median’s 282 career starts. It’s a list with names like Ruben Quevedo, Matt Perisho, and Kevin Jarvis, but it’s also a list with names like Pedro Martinez, Matt Harvey, and Lefty Grove. Most baseball lists are going to have a blend of better players and worse players, but lists like this have better players in greater proportions. One start is only as meaningful as one start, and it’s probably not fair to compare Paxton to guys who’ve had several such starts, but Paxton might do that, too. His career’s just beginning.

Six pitchers, ever, have had a start like this within the first four games of their careers. Stephen Strasburg had two! 13 pitchers ever have had a start like this within the first ten. I didn’t think John Lannan and David Purcey would be two of them. Well now I’m less excited. James Paxton: some probability of turning into John Lannan. He’s getting the grounders. I guess he’s had a long career.

The analysis above is biased: I know that it selected for better pitchers, by grouping guys who threw a lot of these starts with guys who only ever threw one. But I took just a straight, unweighted average, so hopefully that mitigates things. And, really, we don’t even necessarily need the numbers, so long as we can understand the theory — the odds of a good pitcher having this start are better than the odds of a bad pitcher having this start. On that basis alone, we can feel more encouraged about Paxton. He did have a bit of trouble against the Tigers, but the Tigers happen to be great. You lower your standards.

Naturally, the thing with Paxton’s always been about the inconsistency. He’s done that thing where he’s alternated brilliance with unwatchability. Over a seven-start stretch this year in the minors, he had eight walks and 43 strikeouts. Over his next five starts, he had 17 and 13. He followed that with a gem against Salt Lake. With Paxton, it’s been hard to tell what’s coming next, and that’s why people have thought of him as occupying a tier below Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen. But what we have is a lefty starter in the bigs who can touch 98, and he just had a game with ten strikeouts and zero walks. There’s a good pitcher in there. Maybe a real good one. I’ve never been afraid of the Erik Bedard comparisons, because Bedard had a lot of success in between the DL stints.

I’m going to make you like James Paxton, dammit. That’s what I feel like I’m writing today. I don’t know what he’ll be, but I know what he was last night, and I know what that does to the math. And Paxton’s pace? 19.4 seconds. It isn’t Bedards all the way down.

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