Game 1, Mariners at Angels

March 31, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 163 Comments 

King Felix vs. Jered Weaver, 7:00pm (ESPN2/ROOT Sports TV)

Happy Felix Night, and I hope you’re all enjoying a pleasant Opening Day 2014.

I can’t think of a more wide-open AL race in years. Certainly, the AL West is more tightly-bunched than it’s been in recent memory, and the super-teams – the Tigers and Red Sox – have also come back to the pack a bit. It’s not just that there are more teams bunched more tightly around 81 wins, within the margin of error (or the margin of luck). It’s that there seem to be reasons to believe that the variance of these forecasts is somehow higher. Jose Abreu and Masahiro Tanaka are two of the bigger off-season signings, and we don’t have minor league or major league data to generate a projection. Or, looking at MLB veterans, think about how vital bullpen performance has been to so many recent “out-of-nowhere” contenders. The Royals were fringe contenders last year not because of their great young position players, but because no one could touch their bullpen. Not their closer, not their set-up guys…no one. Baltimore pulled this off in 2012 (without all of the strikeouts…even weirder), and then the group fell back to earth in 2013. The Blue Jays were awful in 2012, and then pretty good in 2013 (though every other facet of the team was awful). The point is, bullpen performance is perhaps more important than it’s been in quite some time given the narrower spread in talent. But bullpen performance is notoriously hard to project.

The M’s have holes throughout, but we can be reasonably sure that their team wRC+/wOBA will be better than it was in 2013*. The question remains: will it matter? Tonight’s just one game, but it’s an important early look at another really difficult team to project, the Angels. Mike Petriello had a good article on them today at Fangraphs, and I see that Dave and others have picked them to win the division (gun to my head, they’d be my pick too, but hopefully that won’t be necessary). Albert Pujols’ plantar fasciitis and Jered Weaver’s ailing elbow sidelined two of their best players for a short while, and contributed to poor-by-their-standards performance while they played through pain. Especially on the pitching side, more innings went to replacement-level and below arms, and the depth that they’d acquired blew up in their face.

Now, the Angels rely on a very different Jered Weaver. Since 2011, his average four-seam fastball has fallen from 90mph to 87.5mph last year. This spring, it’s in that same vicinity or a bit lower, and it looks like he’s mixing in more of a sinker around 86mph. Weaver was never a big velo guy, but he’s having to adjust to very different stuff than he had when he came up. With that pop-up generating fastball, he hasn’t had much in the way of platoon splits, but using a sinker more often is usually a way to see platoon splits rise. Thanks to a minor league system bereft of good pitchers, and the departure of guys like Tommy Hanson or Joe Blanton (which most Angels fans applaud) has left them short of good depth. They have Mike Trout though, so…

1: Almonte, CF
2: Miller, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Smoak, 1B
5: Morrison, DH
6: Seager, 3B
7: Saunders, RF
8: Ackley, LF
9: Zunino, C
SP: King Felix


* This is not a case of projecting growth off a prior season, or mixing up true talent and observed performance. This is about a full year of Brad Miller/Robby Cano and not dealing with Brendan Ryan/Dustin-Ackley-at-2B. It came at a very high cost, and the future’s uncertain, injuries, blah blah blah, but the M’s added one of the 5 best hitters on the planet and subtracted one of the five worst hitters (among everyday players) on the planet. That has an impact on true talent.

The Troubled Mind of the M’s Fan

March 31, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 11 Comments 

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior


We are, thankfully, a year removed from the acrimonious debates over the Jaso/Morse trade. The past year has probably been kinder to the M’s than to most of their divisional rivals, due to a combination of injury and Robinson Cano. We’ve spent the past four years, or, if you really think about it, the last TEN years, searching for progress. Here, as the 2014 season begins, we have it. We can quibble about the magnitude of the progress, or what it says about management, or any number of things, but the M’s start the 2014 season with a real chance at postseason baseball. After years of doubt, scorn, and apathy, M’s fans must be ecstatic, right? Well, no, not really. Jeff described the psychological state of the M’s fans in his “If It Goes Right” post, and it’s worth repeating: the 2004-2013 Mariners are a classic case of operant conditioning. A decade spent eradicating hope; glimmers of promise felled by a series of misfortunes (Guti) and missteps (Horacio Ramirez). You can argue that this metaphor obscures more than it helps: that a bad trade for a crappy DH either one or seven years ago doesn’t illuminate the 2014 season, it just illuminates your own cynicism. The problem is that you can’t pretend that these moves aren’t linked. If you’ve lamented the direction the team’s gone, you can’t just tell yourself that the moves this FO made in the past have no bearing on the moves they’ll make in the future. If you believe that there’s something fundamentally wrong in how the team assesses pro talent, you probably aren’t convinced that everything will work out now that the stakes are higher.

So here I am, feeling both excitement and dread at the same time. Picking apart every minor move because they seem so haphazard and picking apart every minor move because, for the first time in a while, they might actually matter. Lamenting the missed opportunities and the obvious holes, but looking around the division and seeing obvious holes everywhere. Worrying that way too much is needed from Dustin Ackley, Mike Zunino and Roenis Elias, and thinking that I’d rather have Zunino over JP Arencibia, and Elias over Nick Martinez, and wait, are you seriously starting Josh Wilson at 2B, Texas? The M’s bought the premier player in free agency, and then everyone told them that Cano, on his own, wasn’t enough to change the AL West picture. The M’s stayed put, and then the baseball gods changed the AL West picture for them. And now our brains can’t stop debating it all.

“Chris Young is a great stopgap for the 5th rotation spot. This isn’t about giving an “Ex-All Star” a job based on his name, and it’s not about a good spring training line. Chris Young was broken, and now M’s scouts are convinced he’s not. Thoracic Outlet surgery changes the picture completely, and it has the benefit of being a much easier procedure to rehab from than a labrum or rotator cuff tear. Randy Wolf was bad, and then left when he demanded more security than the M’s felt comfortable offering. Young’s problem has been durability, and now he’s in a position where durability just isn’t a big concern. Young’s been good, and with the 45-day opt out, the M’s can remake the rotation in May if Hisashi Iwakuma’s ready to go.”

“Let the record show that perhaps the best argument in favor of the Young pick-up is that he recently had his third shoulder surgery. I’m told he’s now throwing 88mph again, much better than he showed last year. But this sort of thing is trotted out about as often as “best shape of his life” stories. I mean, it wasn’t that long ago that Scott Baker came in amid whispers he was throwing harder than he was last year with the Cubs. He came out in early March and touched *92*. Jeremy Bonderman did this last year. The real reason Young is here is that he signed the 45-day opt out and Wolf didn’t. That’s it. Flexibility is important, and no team wants to just waste $500-750,000. But this kind of flexibility can be overstated. In any event, the M’s are going into the 2014 season projected to be very close to the division’s top teams, and the best they they could do was to see what Roenis Elias was capable AND buy high-ish on Chris Young?

“The M’s OF depth isn’t great on paper, but the M’s will be able to mix and match players and get the platoon advantage while also improving the OF defense overall. Abraham Almonte showed signs that he could be a league-average bat, and using Saunders/Ackley in the corners will give the M’s much more range than they had last year. The M’s OF defense was -17.5 runs by UZR in 2013, 1.5 WINS worse than the Angels’, and 2-3 wins worse than the A’s/Rangers. Push them to average, and the division is basically a toss-up. Against good lefties, they can deploy Corey Hart and/or Stefen Romero. That’s an offense-for-defense trade to be sure, but it illustrates that the M’s have actual options both when they look at pitching probables and for late-game situations. This is the M’s weak point, and the ability to swap players around means that it shouldn’t be a black hole. Their depth in AAA isn’t excellent, but it’s no worse than their rivals. Importantly, it means that if Almonte’s awful, they can just swap him out.”

“The M’s actions this offseason, particularly regarding the outfield, show that THEY don’t believe they’re contenders. The division is incredibly tight and the M’s all but gave the starting CF job to a guy with a career MiLB slugging percentage of .399, and who wasn’t really a full-time CF until he was pressed into the job due to injuries/promotions/other people failing. The team has more speed in the OF corners, but they have career wRC+ numbers of 89 and 86, respectively. If they couldn’t run, they’d be out of baseball. And running’s nice, but Ackley hasn’t demonstrated great range in the OF. That’s not necessarily is fault, and the tools are there, but he’s learning on the job, as is Romero. If Hart plays significant time in RF, the OF defense could still be a problem. Hart’s progress has been achingly slow, which seems to hurt the group’s chances of adding value offensively. To top it off, Almonte starts the year in the lead-off spot for reasons no one can fathom. The M’s were contenders by default, and their lack of attention to a clear, known weakness will prevent them from taking advantage of it.”

“How can you criticize the M’s for not making more moves to shore up the team when your biggest fear was management making rash moves to protect their jobs? The cynics were the ones lamenting an overpay for Nelson Cruz or David Price or [insert trade candidate here] before they happened; they can’t then turn around and say the M’s didn’t do enough to improve. The division’s tight, and the M’s still have Nick Franklin and Tai Walker in the fold. Walker will be an important part of the M’s rotation and Franklin could either be a factor for the team in the 2nd half or a potentially even-more-valuable trade chip at the deadline. More importantly, the M’s have positioned themselves for 2015 and beyond. They haven’t closed any doors by overreacting to spring training injuries to Oakland/Texas. This means they can actually compete in 2014 while at the same time assessing which players they can count on for 2015. Is Dustin Ackley slow to develop, or is it just not going to work? Is Nick Franklin’s struggles against lefties fixable? Is Mike Zunino making steady progress, or will his contact issues plague him? The M’s have a free year – they’re figuring out who’s going to be a part of the next great M’s team AND they can compete in the short term thanks to Felix/Iwakuma/Cano/Miller.”

“If the only options were “Stand pat” and “make stupid, panic-driven overpays,” we wouldn’t spend much time on baseball. Those are *never* the only options. The M’s shouldn’t have traded the farm for David Price, but they saw Ervin Santana sign a one-year deal and opted to go with Roenis Elias instead. Teams around baseball need help at SS/2B, and the M’s held tight to Nick Franklin, waiting to be blown away by a ludicrous offer that never came. Like Nelson Cruz or Santana, the M’s could’ve adapted to the market, or they could’ve gone for one of the free agents once their market tanked. It’s not enough to say that the M’s can evaluate their youngsters this year when they’ve shown no ability to have contingencies. That’s why they started the season last year with Jesus Montero at C, Justin Smoak at 1B and Dustin Ackley at 2B. Zunino helped them avoid the full effects of Montero’s collapse, but they still need Ackley and Smoak to produce. They’ve had the same “youngsters” for years, and while Cano is a huge upgrade, they’re still surrounded by Almonte/Saunders/Zunino. What, exactly, is going to change next year?”

I’m really glad I’m not anticipating big philosophical arguments with fans of the Morse deal, but all that means is that the big philosophical arguments have moved to my own head. This is a strange, strange 2014, and despite all of the angst and teeth-gnashing, it’s a better version of strange than we’ve seen in a while. How much that has to do with the FO and how much has to do with pitcher attrition elsewhere is still a big question. However you resolve it is up to you, and ultimately, it’s fun that circumstances (“no! prudent management.” “I’ll concede the point only if you can identify the team’s employee who decimated Texas’ clubhouse this spring”) let us have the debate with the gap between the M’s and their rivals smaller than at any point since 2009.

Monday Podcast with Jeff and Matthew

March 31, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 8 Comments 

Monday morning podcast(s) continues/begins.

If you’re new to these, this isn’t anything special. Jeff and I go into a recording with a vague idea of stuff to talk about and it sort of organically goes how it goes. It usually goes negative, as much as neither of us prefer it to. I would really like for people to get something out of these other than just us basically chatting with each other, but Jeff has way too many other things to do throughout each day and I’m just kinda lazy. Sorry! Not really, though, because this is free to you.

This week we talked a little about Randy Wolf and the payroll, and got sidetracked into hating the Mariners’ past teams and current FO. Whoops!

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

In hopes of capturing some creative juice again, I’m playing around with the format a little. Intro music is The Temperature of the Air on the Bow of the Kaleetan by Chris Zabriskie. I don’t know if Kaleetan refers to Basque or the Chinook or something completely else. Context suggests the ferry?

If It Goes Right

March 31, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 16 Comments 

I’m sitting here right now, hating the Red Sox. Expressed like that, this is hardly unfamiliar. I remember I made the mistake of rooting for the Red Sox in 2003 and 2004, when I was living in New England, and as good an experience as it was when they won that first World Series, boy do I ever look back on that and shake my head. I haven’t been able to stand the Red Sox since the first day of 2005, and I’ve been pretty actively rooting against them for years. But this whole time, that whole decade, I’m not going to pretend like a lot of it wasn’t jealousy. Or envy. Is there a difference? I couldn’t stand them in large part because they were so successful. I was bitter about my own baseball team, content to lash out. For some time, I’ve hated the Red Sox, and I’ve rooted against them in important games. For the first time, I’m hating the Red Sox because I don’t want them to knock out the Mariners. Used to be I hated them because of what they were. Today I hate them because of what they aren’t. They aren’t us. They’re kind of in our way.

As I take this short breather to reflect, I think what gets me the most is the very obviousness of this outcome. Not that the Mariners, of course, were ever the favorites in this division, but look at the way things played out. This wasn’t a team that needed any miracles, nor was it a team that received any miracles. We had a sense this would be a talented young team, with upside given development. Talented players developed. Talented players produced and prevented runs. Talented players won games. If you forgot everything you heard about the front office, you’d almost be tempted to think, hey, this team did everything right. They entered the season with upside, and they were carried into first by baseball ability we all already knew about.

I remember paying so much attention to projected standings even weeks before the start of the year. FanGraphs rolled out its Cool Standings stuff, and then there were projections and then there were projected records. Initially, the Mariners were projected to be pretty close to the rest of the AL West best. Then they never really fell away. Not when the system was updated. Not when the depth charts changed. Not when ZiPS was included. PECOTA was saying similar things. On several occasions, I tried to figure out where the projections were going wrong. It seemed like the Mariners were being overrated, and the rivals were being underrated. Now in hindsight I feel like I was just acting damaged. The Mariners made me expect the Mariners to disappoint. It sure looks now like the projections were telling us the truth all along. The Mariners were right there with the other three from the start. The Mariners were a few player developments away from being division champs.

Obvious. The Mariners as a successful baseball team was obvious. Not obvious as a certainty, but obvious as a possibility. So many of us just weren’t ready to believe it. It was obvious the Mariners would be good in 2008, too. It was obvious they’d be good in 2010. When you’re hurt that bad, when you’re caught that much off guard, it changes your psychological DNA. We didn’t want to think that the flower might bloom, but the dirt was fertile and the sun was coming out. Flowers blossom in the right conditions, and it’s as simple as nature.

It was obvious that Felix would dominate. Felix always dominated. Why wouldn’t he continue to dominate? It’s always fair to point out that pitchers are unreliable and success and health can be fleeting, but when it comes to one’s own, there’s an over-inclination to be concerned. How often have we freaked out about Felix’s velocity? How often have we expressed worry when nothing was wrong? It never felt quite right for the Mariners to have one of the greatest players in the world, but that was on us, not him. Felix was amazing, so Felix would be amazing. That’s just pattern recognition.

It was obvious that Robinson Cano would be incredible. That’s what you pay $240 million for. Again, some of us acted like victims of abuse. We entertained notions of Cano coming apart in Seattle. One doesn’t soon forget Chone Figgins or Jeff Cirillo. One doesn’t soon forget another team’s experience with Albert Pujols. But what reason was there to be worried, actually? Cano had been one of the most consistently healthy and valuable players in baseball. Having Robinson Cano wasn’t all that different from having Miguel Cabrera. Cano was a superstar, and he played like a superstar. Yeah.

It was obvious there was other talent. One day in March, for reasons I never figured out, I flipped on a Marlins spring-training game. The broadcasters were talking about Jose Fernandez, then some guy hit a fly ball out to Giancarlo Stanton. I watched and thought, “hey, the Marlins have two unbelievable superstars, and they’re still projected to be the worst team in the league. Why should the Mariners be special?” It took me too long to realize, “oh yeah, the Mariners also have other guys.” Felix and Cano were the selling points. They were the stars, aligned. But there was always an abundance of talented support.

It was obvious Dustin Ackley wouldn’t be a disaster forever. He’d been obvious from the date of his drafting, and he’d shown signs of improvement down the stretch in 2013. It was obvious Kyle Seager would hit enough, because he was the reliable guy before Robinson Cano was the reliable guy. It was obvious Brad Miller would be a stud shortstop, even with the defensive issues, because his bat adjusted to the majors immediately and it always felt like he had a high floor. It was obvious Mike Zunino would improve from his initial, hurried cup of coffee. It was obvious Abraham Almonte would be a better player on this side of his alcoholism. It was obvious Michael Saunders would be regularly playable. It was obvious Justin Smoak would be just good enough.

It was obvious Corey Hart would hit, when he could play. It was obvious Taijuan Walker could overpower quality big-leaguers. It was obvious James Paxton could outmaneuver quality big-leaguers. It was obvious nothing would be wrong with Hisashi Iwakuma’s split-finger. It was obvious there was talent in the bullpen. It was even — dare I say — obvious the Mariners were in better hands with Lloyd McClendon than they had been in recent seasons past. In spring, I kept waiting to find reasons to be annoyed by McClendon as a manager. Obviously there were a few things, there are always a few things, but as managers go, I’ve been surprisingly pleased, and maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. McClendon was saying a lot of the right things from the beginning.

I’m saying too much about a season that isn’t over yet but I can’t really gain control of my fingers. They’re just typing at this point, happily typing about a baseball season I’m maybe trying to prove to myself actually happened. The more words I write about the 2014 Mariners, the deeper it’ll sink in that, yeah, those Mariners happened, and they’re still happening, and before long they’ll happen before a sellout October crowd at Safeco Field. People have said for years that the fan base was there — the Mariners just needed to find a way to tap back into it. Turns out Safeco can get full and loud, too. Mariners fans, Seahawks fans, Sounders fans — they’re all fans from the same city, and many of them are some loud sons of bitches.

This year’s Mariners aren’t done making memories. Maybe the rest of them will be bad, I don’t know. I thought I would’ve expected so, but these Mariners make me feel differently. Whatever happens, we already have quite the assortment of seemingly unforgettable season highlights. The 2012 perfect game made me feel deeply proud of a Mariner. The four-game May sweep of the Angels made me feel deeply proud of the Mariners, after thrashing their opponents — delightfully — 43-8. That gave me a feeling I hadn’t had in years. There were the two Walker showdowns against Yu Darvish, and it feels like ages ago we were worrying about those pitch counts. I think I remember two-thirds of the pitches Chris Young threw in his one-hitter right after Erasmo Ramirez’s elbow thing. Stefen Romero’s walk-off? Miller’s walk-off inside-the-parker? The game-ending play at the plate in Toronto? The consecutive huge rallies against New York? Every win had something. Every win always has something, but in a successful season, those somethings are connected, lifted to feel like and mean something greater than they would on their own.

I’m definitely thrilled to have finally washed the taste of Lollablueza out of my mouth. I couldn’t believe how long it had been since the Mariners played at least some later-summer games of significance, and this time they didn’t wilt. They didn’t wilt after losing the first one; if anything, it seemed to inspire them. The 2007 Mariners were never going to do anything anyway. It’s not like they could’ve been champs, had they just beaten the hell out of the Angels. But that series made me feel embarrassed, personally embarrassed by a baseball team I like, and now those demons are exorcised. Now it’s time to exorcise some other ones.

When Matthew and I would talk in the before-times, we’d often discuss whether or not we were even Mariners fans anymore. We certainly didn’t feel like it. We felt like they were just going to be terrible, and we felt like that was okay, and we felt like we weren’t even thrilled about the prospect of rooting for this team given some of the decisions it had made. I always knew I liked the Mariners the most, but for long stretches I didn’t feel like I was into them. I wanted to know how I’d feel about a successful baseball team. I couldn’t know, just imagining it.

I’m into them. We’re all into them. We were mostly all always into them — we just also had to protect ourselves. The introspective, philosophical baseball fan is a baseball fan of a bad baseball team. A baseball fan of a good baseball team doesn’t really give a shit about the bigger questions, not in the moment, because the moment is about winning the next baseball game against the next enemy baseball team. It’s just sports. You have to question yourself when you’re following bad sports. There’s nothing to question when you’re following good sports. In our defense, we couldn’t have known that.

I just want to read everything. I want to immerse myself in this, to bathe myself in this, to let this seep into every nook and cranny of my tall and awkward physical and emotional form. I always had so much trouble writing things like series previews about the playoffs for my job, because they always felt so uncreative and it always felt like no one would be interested in whatever analysis I could provide. I couldn’t in any way relate to the audience. I get it now — when your team’s in the playoffs, you never want to stop consuming media coverage, no matter how insubstantial. You just want to experience everything, and you want to force yourself to continue to experience everything. Used to be I’d feel a renewed love of baseball come playoff time, when I could watch good teams in boisterous atmospheres without the Mariners being terrible. Now the Mariners are in the playoffs. I’m not prepared for this, but I really want to try to be.

When I’m not writing about the Mariners, I’m reading about the Mariners. And right now, no matter what I’m doing, I’m also hating the Red Sox. Right now, the Red Sox are the baseball team I hate the very most. It’s not weird to be hating the Red Sox — I’ve been hating the Red Sox for a long, long time. But to hate them the very most? To hate them as my first or second thought after waking up in the morning? To hate them with every sip of hot, delicious, northwest-roasted pour-over coffee? This is all new. The only baseball team I’m used to hating that much is the Mariners.

I still don’t know what it means to be true to the blue. This season has raised a whole lot of questions, which, perhaps, is always going to be the case. I like new questions, anyway. Make me feel curious. But this season has also provided one big answer, separate from the littler ones. I know that I am a Seattle Mariners fan. And it’s October, and I know that I’m going to be an emotional wreck. How about that?

Cactus League Game…2nd to Last, Rockies at Mariners

March 28, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 10 Comments 

Roenis Elias vs. TBD, 7:05pm

A live game on Root Sports/ as the M’s near the finish line of the Cactus League Season. This’ll be Roenis Elias’ last game before officially joining the M’s rotation, along with Chris Young. Think about that sentence.

The game is crucial for Elias, and for the M’s in projecting how his initial month-or-so in the rotation might go. The first time we saw him, his release point was all over the map, but he had a surprisingly lively fastball. Since then, he and the M’s have talked about changes they’ve made to simplify his delivery. So, on the eve of the regular season, is he noticeably more consistent? Does this help or hurt his platoon splits (it looked like he dropped down vs. lefties against LA)? And how does he deal with a Rockies club who’s seen him before? Elias is a great story, and he’s worked hard to earn his spot, but we’re talking about promoting a guy from AA based on a good-not-great spring training featuring an 8:8 K:BB ration. I wish him all the best, and it sounds like he may be more mentally ready for the challenge than Brandon Maurer, last year’s surprising promoted-from-AA Cactus League star.

One thing that’s going to be critical to Elias as a pitch-to-contact guy who generates a lot of fly balls is the outfield defense behind him. On paper, he’s a good fit for Safeco, as lefty flyball pitchers benefit more from the marine layer’s RH-power-suppressing properties. But a terrible OF defense – as the M’s trotted out last year – can counter that advantage. Elias posted a 40% GB rate the past two years in the minors by MLCentral; Statcorner has him around 41 or so, against a league average of 46%. Whatever number you pick, he’s been below average in the minors, where GBs are MORE common than in AAA/MLB. His strikeout rate isn’t huge, as his primary breaking ball (the slow slurve) probably isn’t going to rack up whiffs. Couple this with the M’s new acquisition posting the lowest GB rate in MLB in recent years, and suddenly Dustin Ackley and Abe Almonte are a bit more important than they otherwise would’ve been. Ackley in particular looked a bit lost in the OF last year, but that had a lot to do with his lack of (recent) experience. He’s been better in the spring, and the upgrade from Ibanez/Morse to Ackley – even a still-learning Ackley – seems like a massive one. Ackley was always going to be a key to the season, as going from a well-below average hitter to a league average one could really help the line-up’s balance and productivity.* With Elias/Young, his defense will be all the more important as well.

1: Almonte, CF
2: Miller, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Smoak, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, DH
7: Ackley, LF
8: Saunders, RF
9: Zunino, C
SP: Elias

That’s probably your opening day line-up right there.

The final issue in camp has been what to do with Nick Franklin. Once he lost the supposed SS battle, and once the M’s decided not to snap at any of the offers they got for him, they could transition him to a super-sub role, or they could send him to AAA. Today, they opted for the latter. This has to be bitterly disappointing to Franklin, who’s been great this spring, but it *does* mean he’ll continue to get regular at-bats and can either concentrate on the middle infield, or refine his routes in the OF if the M’s are serious about the super-sub thing. The M’s will go with Stefen Romero in the 5th-OF/back-up CIF role.

* We’ve mentioned it before, but the M’s have scored far fewer runs than you’d expect just judging from their total number of walks/hits/HRs/etc. This was probably due – in part – to the fact that the bottom of the line-up was sooooo bad. Of course actual runs would trail hits/walks when you had Brendan Ryan/M’s catchers/2012 Ackley trying to knock runners in.

Chris Young Isn’t Randy Wolf

March 28, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 8 Comments 

It’s because of Randy Wolf we’ve all learned about the existence of the 45-day advanced-consent release. And it’s because of the 45-day advanced-consent release that Randy Wolf isn’t on the Mariners anymore, after having learned they wanted him in the starting rotation. Basically, the Mariners didn’t want to guarantee seven figures to a potentially temporary starting pitcher. Wolf wanted the commitment. Ultimately he opted out, preferring the freedom of free agency. That’s how Randy Wolf ceased playing for Seattle before even setting foot in the actual city.

And so began the most surreal chapter of my entire month, and earlier this month I got into a staring contest with a cat in another apartment. The Internet was suddenly flooded with angry, emotional Mariners fans. Mariners fans who were angry because Randy Wolf wasn’t going to be a part of the roster in the year 2014. Mariners fans who immediately assumed the worst of the whole situation, which, I’ll grant, is sort of what we’ve been conditioned to do. But everybody took Wolf’s side. Everybody got on the organization, and the controversy(?) even made its way to god-damned Deadspin, the young white Internet’s primary go-to source of whatever it does. “The Mariners are cheap!” they yelled. “The Mariners are embarrassing!” they…yelled, too.

Chris Young has taken Randy Wolf’s place. From Shannon Drayer:

“Yeah I signed an advance consent. It really was a non-issue,” [Young] said of the document that allows the club to release him for any non-health related reason in the first 45 days of the season. “I always tell myself it is a performance-based game and the club has the right to release you at any point. It’s just a matter of whether your salary is guaranteed for the rest of the season. For me I don’t play for the money. I play because I love the game. The opportunity to be out here and be healthy, I am just super excited to be out there and making the most of the opportunity.”

It reads, a tiny little bit, as a shot at Randy Wolf. Probably, that’s not what was intended, and Young really is just thankful for this opportunity. For him, it was a non-issue. And that’s more or less what the Mariners thought it would be for Randy Wolf: a non-issue. Young didn’t pitch in the majors in 2013 after surgery. He can expect only so much of a commitment. Wolf didn’t pitch in the majors in 2013 after surgery. He, too, can expect only so much of a commitment. What the Mariners presented to Wolf was something common, something accepted. The response had less to do with the team, and more to do with Wolf.

Players sign these things every year. It’s usually the teams that have all the leverage, and while players would prefer to have guaranteed full-year salaries, the sort of player who ends up in this situation is the sort of player fighting for any kind of playing time. You can see why Wolf would’ve been bothered by the paperwork, which the Mariners, by rule, couldn’t have introduced when they first inked him as an NRI. You can also see why the Mariners wouldn’t have expected Wolf to react as he did. Players might sometimes sign these things begrudgingly, but they haven’t made a habit of complaining to the press.

Think about what the Mariners were then faced with. They could’ve guaranteed Wolf’s seven-figure salary. Or they could’ve opted for the alternatives. Is Wolf really better than Blake Beavan and Roenis Elias? Those two guys are cheaper. And then there were free agents, free agents just like Chris Young. Was it worth it to give Wolf what he wanted, or were there other deals? Seems to me the Mariners wound up with a good deal. Young’s inexpensive, and he seems a bit promising.

With Randy Wolf, the Mariners made a business decision. That cost them Wolf, but they’ve emerged none the worse for wear. Without question, I think they’ve looked a little bad. This makes them look really cheap, and Wolf’s story was published by someone as prominent as Ken Rosenthal. Maybe this makes you question the Mariners’ ethics. But while the Mariners are stingy with even just six-figure sums, that’s hardly unique to them. You want to pretend like you’re watching fair, ethical baseball? Don’t examine the baseball too closely.

Remember: front offices don’t do players favors. Nobody gives money away if money doesn’t need to be given away. Pretty much every single contract has a team paying a player as little as it can get away with, and the whole search for inefficiencies is built around the principle of paying players less than they’re worth. Every team wants to maximize every dollar. Every team thinks about every little payment, even if the roster happens to feature a $240-million second baseman.

The Mariners liked Randy Wolf the most, but the margin wasn’t worth Wolf’s guarantee. So they went in search of a better deal. Baseball is about business, not people, and the business can be judgmental and cold. You like Kyle Seager, right? Important part of the ballclub. This year the Mariners will pay him $0.54 million. Basically half what they’ll pay John Buck. Last year Seager made $0.51 million. The Mariners are paying Seager only what they need to, even though he’s an important everyday contributor. I also remember a controversy with the Angels a year ago. They renewed Mike Trout’s contract at $0.51 million, despite him having been the best player in baseball the season before. Trout’s agent complained to the media. The Angels didn’t care. Pretty soon the two sides will agree to a massive multi-year contract extension. Baseball is a lopsided game, in terms of financial “fairness”, and the Mariners aren’t the first team to make a decision over a seemingly inconsequential amount of cash. Everybody does it, and Randy Wolf just called attention to the factually ordinary.

I imagine this reads like I’m on the Mariners’ side. I don’t have a side. There’s no question Randy Wolf made the Mariners look bad. They did make a decision to go another way over a few hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s enough to rub people the wrong way, but I think what’s important to understand is that the Mariners didn’t do anything unusual. Wolf’s is the party that acted unusually, as every team in baseball makes these kinds of calls. If you don’t like it, you can plead for change within the industry, and sit there dissatisfied over the injustice. Or, if you don’t like it, you can try to put it out of mind, and just watch the baseball players play baseball and think of other things. You know who has an incredible story? Roenis Elias. It’s so good of the Mariners to give him a chance to fulfill his wildest dreams. What an organization!

Five Interesting Things About New Mariner Chris Young

March 27, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 19 Comments 

On one hand, the Mariners revealed themselves to have some pretty lousy starting-pitching depth. On the other hand, we only got here because of unforeseen injuries to Taijuan Walker, Brandon Maurer, and Hisashi Iwakuma, because Scott Baker under-performed, and because Randy Wolf decided he was a principled man. Just yesterday, people were lamenting that the Mariners would open the season starting both Roenis Elias and Blake Beavan. People thought such a situation was embarrassing, regardless of the reasons. The Mariners agreed! So the Mariners are no longer in that situation, as they’ve picked up the tall white pitching Chris Young after he was dropped by the Nationals.

Young’s been signed to a major-league contract, and it would appear that he’ll take Beavan’s place out of the gate. Or he could get hurt, like he does, but reports from Florida have been encouraging, and this is why one shouldn’t complain too much about Blake Beavan until Blake Beavan is actually throwing relevant innings. The 40-man casualty is Bobby LaFromboise, and there are things to be said about that, but they aren’t things you’ll find here. Understand that I always feel guilty being so dismissive of professional athletes. Understand, by the same token, one can’t cover everything in everything. What’s most important here is Chris Young, and, following, please find five interesting things about him. In a list, on the Internet!

I remember, many many years ago, before I even considered Dave and myself friends, he sent me an email as part of an exchange, and he said, paraphrased, that Chris Young threw crap. It wasn’t just Dave’s opinion — it was everyone’s opinion. Young used to work in the high 80s, and more recently he’s come down to the mid 80s, and that’s not the kind of velocity you like to see from a right-handed pitcher. Yet Young was successful in the majors nevertheless, and it’s because there’s actual velocity, and there’s perceived velocity, and it’s the second one that’s the big one.

Of course, usually, they’re awfully similar. But Young’s extreme. Because of his height, and because of his forward stride, Young releases the baseball unusually close to home plate, which means it has to cover less distance than an average pitcher’s pitch. So it gets on the hitter faster, and, here’s one supporting quote:

“When you’re standing there on deck and you see the ball coming out of his hand, there’s nothing special to it,” said Florida Marlins outfielder Logan Morrison, who faced Young in his last spring-training start. “But when you get in the box, it gets on you quick. Even though he’s throwing 85, you have to treat it like 90, 92.”

In effect, Chris Young’s stuff plays up, which is one reason he’s had a long career despite the burden of Barry Zito’s arm strength. His fastball these days is around 84-85, but it doesn’t seem that way, and I should also note, relatedly, that Young’s delivery is a bit deceptive because of his height and his arm path. Chris Young can’t succeed at any velocity. He probably can succeed at his current velocity, because his current velocity isn’t the velocity hitters think that he has.

(edit: Young topping out at 88 in the spring? What do you know? Players love to say how healthy they feel, but, Young feels really healthy, and stronger than he has in years past.)

We don’t have public HITf/x data, but we have been given glimpses in the past. In November 2011, Mike Fast performed a full analysis of numbers from 2008. He found that Chris Young allowed weaker contact than average, and he ranked tenth-best in baseball in average horizontal batted-ball speed off bat (regressed). Granted, 2008 was a long time ago! Young threw a little bit harder back then. But consider this additional evidence that Young is unusually difficult to square up, and that’s probably less about his velocity, and just more about him.


Chris Young has a career groundball rate of 27%. Since 2002, 403 starters have thrown at least 200 major-league innings. Young’s groundball rate is the lowest in the group, with Chuck James nearest at 30%. The median is about 44%. Young is a super-extreme fly-baller, and he’s also a pretty extreme infield-fly-baller. You can thank his over-the-top delivery and his preference to work up in the zone. Or, if not thank, then blame, if you really don’t like fly balls. Young’s fly balls usually aren’t that bad. Again, weaker contact. Again, deceptiveness.

Over Young’s career, baserunners have attempted 179 stolen bases. On 162 occasions — 91% — they’ve been successful. That’s the highest success rate against any starting pitcher since at least 1969. In 2006, runners were 41 out of 45. The next season, they were 44-for-44. Obviously, when it comes to steals, the catcher plays some kind of role, but the pitcher plays the more important role, and Young has been easy to steal on because he’s basically a 6’10 MechWarrior with an awful lot of moving parts that doesn’t deal well with having to move suddenly in a different direction. Because of the baserunners, Young has suffered a little bit in the stranded-runner department. Runners have a slightly easier time scoring against him. It doesn’t cancel out the batted-ball effects, but it does negate a chunk.


Young didn’t pitch in the majors in 2013. When he pitched in the majors in 2012, he was mediocre. He’s become one of the more fragile starting pitchers in the game, sort of a more polite Erik Bedard, and he has the right shoulder of a mummy in a museum display. There’s absolutely no counting on Young to remain healthy all the way through this season. Thankfully, the Mariners don’t need him to do that. Really, they just need him to last until Iwakuma and/or Walker can come back, and then anything beyond that is gravy. So the Mariners just need Chris Young for a handful of starts, and if he’s throwing as well as recent reports have suggested, this could have actual upside. We all, naturally, know better than to believe too fiercely in a guy like Chris Young, since we’re accustomed to pain and he’s also accustomed to pain, but this is depth at no cost. Young’s probably better than Randy Wolf. He would’ve made the Nationals if they had a thinner rotation. The Mariners have a thin rotation, for the time being, and now Young’s coming into a big park with an improved outfield defense. I can understand, maybe, not liking this. I can’t understand disliking this.

Cactus League Game Suddenly Bereft of Meaningful Roster Battles, Mariners at Rangers

March 26, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 27 Comments 

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Colby Lewis, 12:05pm

It’s been an interesting couple of days in M’s camp. First, Scott Baker opted out of his contract when it became clear he wouldn’t make the rotation out of spring. That one’s somewhat easy to understand, whatever nervousness you have about Blake Beavan/Hector Noesi. It’s not just that his raw stat line is ugly, or that it’s ugly precisely in the “true talent” areas of K:BB ratio, but it’s that there just didn’t seem to be any evidence of progress. Baker’s recovery from Tommy John wasn’t as smooth as some, and it’d be perfectly understandable if he wasn’t quite in MLB-rotation shape on March 1st. But the problem is that March 1st was by far his best appearance.

In that game, he pitched two scoreless with a walk and a K against the Angels. He got OK results in his next outing, though he didn’t miss any bats. Then came a disastrous start against the Angels in which he gave up 5 runs on 5 hits and 3 plunked batters (that’s three *consecutive* hit batsmen), and he may have been worse against Oakland on March 22nd. He’d been better in a minor league game in between, but having a so-so outing against AA-AAA hitters and a 10-1 free pass to K ratio against AAA-MLB hitters didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. The M’s most critical need for SP depth is in April. Baker seemed like a guy who, if everything broke right, could contribute later, and would get knocked around in April while he tried to find his mechanics and command. Now he’ll do that for Texas; the Rangers signed him to a minor league deal, and he’ll spend the first part of the year in AAA.

Moving to the Rangers org makes a lot of sense. Like the M’s, they’ve been beset by injuries, and have a real need for a back-of-the-rotation starter in April, before Matt Harrison comes back from back/neck stiffness. The Rangers would love to pencil in today’s starter, Colby Lewis, but the veteran (who’s ALSO coming back from serious injury – he missed the 2nd half of 2012 with elbow surgery, and then needed hip surgery last season. Ex-Mariner Ryan Feierabend may make the Rangers opening day bullpen, to give you an idea of their need for pitchers who can throw without pain, but Colby Lewis doesn’t look to be ready. He’s gone four innings total this spring, giving up 8 runs on 8 hits, seven free passes and just two K’s. It’s been ugly. As is their wont, the Rangers are converting some bullpen arms to fill their rotation needs. Robbie Ross was brilliant in his last start, while Tanner Scheppers could be a decent stop-gap, as long as his balky shoulder holds out. Joe Saunders is almost certainly going to make this team, and he won’t be the fifth starter. The Rangers, everybody!

It’d be great to capitalize on this run of bad luck (Jurickson Profar is *also* out 10-12 weeks…ouch), but the M’s haven’t quite shown they know how. Yesterday’s big story was Randy Wolf declining to sign a 45-day option and becoming a free agent. It’s perfectly within the M’s rights under the collective bargaining agreement to ask this of Wolf, and it’s obviously his right to say no. But the press around this has been uniformly bad, and it’s pretty easy to understand why. The M’s had apparently decided that they wanted Wolf in the rotation, and thus, Wolf figured the contract he signed would apply – 1 year, $1 million assuming he made the team. The M’s wanted the added flexibility of an opt-out – they’d owe Wolf only a pro-rated portion of that salary instead of the whole thing if they cut him within 45 days. I get it: the M’s will know a lot more about the state of their rotation, Iwakuma’s health, Brandon Maurer’s progress, etc. 45 days from now. In that sense, paying for Wolf on the installment plan makes loads of sense. But look at what this says: the M’s, suddenly fringe contenders as the Rangers camp starts to look like the Battle of the Somme, decide they can’t commit $1 million to their own preferred 5th starter-candidate. That they prize the financial flexibility over a pro-rated portion of $1 million to starting the season with Roenis Elias AND Blake Beavan/Hector Noesi in their rotation. The M’s open with 16-straight divisional games.

One of the cool things about twitter is hearing directly from players and ex-players when odd situations come up like 45-day options. Ex-reliever CJ Nitkowski’s twitter feed includes a lot of brief, barbed comments about the M’s move, and he re-tweeted Russ Ortiz mentioning that he was in a similar situation years ago. Ortiz declined to mention which team gave him the sign-it-or-you’re-out ultimatum, saying he didn’t want to “rat the team out,” which gives you a pretty clear idea of how players view this move. I completely understand players not being happy with management using a tool that grants them (management) more leverage over players. But a late-spring roster move involving Randy freaking Wolf has become something of a national story.

This isn’t the first time the tight-lipped, headline-averse Mariners have blundered their way above the fold for minor moves. Last year, the front office and manager Eric Wedge engaged in a public dispute over why Wedge wouldn’t be returning for 2014….during the tail end of the 2013 season. This all culminated, of course, in Geoff Baker’s story on the M’s “dysfunction” featuring plenty of quotes from Wedge. Again, not too many people would argue that moving in a different direction at manager was unwarranted or unfair. Slightly fewer people, but some, could argue that the competition between Wolf and Beavan was so close, and NOT having the flexibility of the 45-day contract was the thumb on the scale for the guy they’ve developed. But the situations have been handled…let’s be nice and say “questionably” and essentially made a distraction out of issues that shouldn’t be. I want to feel confident that the M’s gains (Cano chief among them) and the Rangers slipping might *mean* something. There’s no reason why terrible press, by itself, should change the projections. But it’s hard to be confident, isn’t it?

1: Chavez, CF
2: Miller, SS
3: Cano, DH
4: Smoak, 1B
5: Saunders, RF
6: Franklin, 2B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Bloomquist, 3B
9: Buck, C
SP: Erasmoooo

The M’s officially ended the notion that Nick Franklin was “competing” with Brad Miller for the starting SS job, and actually put Franklin in RF for a few innings last night. Today, he’s back at his 2013 position, 2B, with Cano DH’ing. Not sure if the M’s want to use him in a Zobristian-super-sub manner, or if they want to showcase his flexibility for others, but as many, many of you asked last night, why start this now, less than a week from opening day? Showcasing his SS skills is one thing, but failing to make a deal and THEN shifting course may not help Franklin or the front office.

Corey Hart’s ailing forearm (and a season’s worth of accumulated rust) has opened the door for RH-outfielder Stefen Romero. With Endy Chavez slated to open in Tacoma, the roster is more or less set at this point, with a bullpen spot or two potentially in play. That’s great news for Romero, obviously, and the Oregon State product’s been solid this spring, but he’s very new to the OF and looked shaky in LF for Tacoma last year. He also posted a .779 OPS in the offense-friendly PCL. Like the rotation, the M’s clearly had needs in the OF. Like the rotation, they’ve suffered some bad luck. But they’re now preparing to open the season giving a number of jobs to guys with a lot of question marks. Hey, at least Dustin Ackley’s hitting, right? Brad Miller looks really good.

Cactus League Game Whoa, Stanford, Holy Crap

March 23, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 33 Comments 

Randy Wolf vs. Josh Lindblom, 1:05

Lindblom is a fly-baller RHP with a fastball, slider, change and the odd curveball. At this point, he’s probably more well known as a secondary piece in a surprising number of trades. Drafted by LA, he went to Philadelphia as a part of the Shane Victorino deal, then went to Texas when Michael Young headed east. This off-season, the Rangers included Lindblom in the Craig Gentry-for-Michael Choice deal.

1: Almonte, CF
2: Magic “Fingers” Beans, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Smoak, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, RF
7: Ackley, LF
8: Saunders, DH
9: Zunino, C
SP: Wolf

James Paxton’s Impossi-ball

March 23, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

James Paxton was a pleasant surprise at the end of last season, and the more you dig into his brief MLB career, the stranger it looks. I don’t mean to imply that Paxton got by on luck, or that he doesn’t have the talent to be an excellent pitcher in the big leagues. It’s just that he pitched so differently from the views we’d seen in the minors, the AFL and in spring training. The obvious one – and the factor that had the biggest impact on his runs allowed – was his strand rate. The guy who was completely undone by big innings early in the PCL season stranded nearly every baserunner he allowed (small sample size, of course). The guy who stranded just shy of 66% of runners in the minors shot to the majors and stranded 88.5%! It’s odd, but it’s not the strangest thing, at least to me. The strangest thing was that his ground ball rate was higher than Justin Masterson’s.

Paxton had essentially average GB rates coming up, hitting 50% for Tacoma by Statcorner, or 46% by The exact number doesn’t really matter; the point is, he was typically in the high 40% range, against league averages from 46-44% (as you probably know, the league-wide ground ball rate slowly drops as you rise through the minor league levels). In the majors, he posted a 59% rate, higher than any month he had in AAA. I get it – he made 4 (four) starts. Maybe it’s a fluke, but the M’s clearly don’t think so, and they (or rather Rick Waits) made some sort of an adjustment to his motion mid-way through the 2013 campaign. If he’s really going to run GB rates a standard deviation or two above the mean, that’d be huge for his projections.

It would also be bizarre, given his throwing motion. There are a few attributes of a pitch that lead to higher ground ball rates. The first is location. If a pitch is down in the zone (or, even better, out of the zone), it’s more likely to be a ground ball. As Dave Allen wrote years ago, a pitch’s whiff rate increases and the ground ball rate *decreases* the higher it is. But this effect may be dwarfed by a pitch’s movement. A sinker or two-seam fastball can often get strikeouts in the middle of the zone simply because the pitch appears to sink more than most fastballs, and batters don’t always adjust. As Dan Lependorf found, it often helps a fastball to have a lot of horizontal movement as well, as two-seamers and change-ups do. This is why Carson Smith has always run, and WILL always run crazy ground ball rates. His sinker is tailor-made to get ground balls. But Paxton’s fastball – and his whole throwing motion – is the opposite of that. He has an over-the-top delivery and has shown a lot of vertical movement. Paxton got tons of grounders on his fastball, and he got them pretty much wherever he threw them. The answer pretty much has to be in the movement on his fastball.

When Paxton hit the Arizona Fall League in 2012, we finally got to see some legitimate velocity and movement readings on him. The results were encouraging, and matched up with the his mechanics pretty well. His fastball checked in around 95mph (woohoo!), showed very little horizontal movement, and a ton of “rise” or horizontal movement. This made sense: the more a pitcher comes “over the top,” he imparts less side spin, and much more backspin . Look at a list of the guys with the highest GB rates and you see plenty of side-armers for a reason. Guys with over-the-top deliveries like Josh Collmenter, Chris Tillman, or Stephen Pryor don’t get ground balls. So how’s this possible?

Well, we can just check pitch fx and see what that change he made in Tacoma was all about, right? Well, this is where the park-by-park calibration of the pitch fx system comes in. Paxton hasn’t thrown too many pitches in front of pitch fx, and unfortunately for us, the two parks we’ve seen him at most – Safeco and Peoria Stadium – are two of the biggest oddballs around. Safeco’s raw movement readings look strange -they’re consistently shifted down vertically by around 3″. Brooks Baseball adjusts for this, but there are a few games when the system’s calibration error is much larger than normal. As it happens, Paxton’s MLB debut was one of them. The raw data show Paxton’s fastball in the first inning had about -5 inches of vertical movement, or about the same as the average curve ball. This is just garbled stuff, really – instead of shifting the vertical movement down 3″, it was down around a foot or so.* The data were clearly adjusted by the time they were posted on Fangraphs/Brooks, but they’re not terribly comparable with any other movement readings we’ve seen from Paxton. Since he only had 4 big league starts, this game exerts a pretty big impact on his season averages. So, to sum up, Paxton’s averages in the spring/AFL and his averages in his brief call-up look nothing alike. Both Peoria and the MLB data is somewhat problematic. Awesome.

OK, I’ve got a few guesses as to what’s going on.
1) Paxton used to throw a four-seam fastball, but either shifted to a two-seamer or made a slight tweak to his release in July/August of last year. That’s what explains the slight bump in horizontal movement. Sure, it doesn’t have actual sinking movement, but maybe much of the contact on pitches coded as “four-seamers” are actually stealth sinkers. Hard-throwing reliever Jeremy Jeffress of Toronto used to have movement very much like Paxton’s, with almost zero horizontal movement and a ton of “rise” on his plus fastball, but like Paxton, he got above-average GB rates all the way up the ladder. Last year, he also made a slight tweak to his fastball, adding a bit more horizontal movement, and he posted a nearly 70% GB rate (in a small sample, of course). This hints at the third attribute of a grounder-inducing pitch: velocity. The harder it’s thrown, the more grounders it’d get, all other things equal. But the problem is that the baseline – given the vertical movement we’re talking about – is so low, that velo alone doesn’t seem enough to explain it. Again, it’s not like Stephen Pryor has elite (or even average) GB rates.

2) Paxton’s GB rate, which he’s maintained throughout the spring, is going to fall as he moves through the regular season. For reasons I’m not sure on, hitters may hit the ball on the ground when facing new pitchers, especially if they’re throwing hard. Yordano Ventura of the Royals saw a bump in his GB rate when he hit the majors as well, and he’s got Paxtonian vertical movement on his 100mph fastball. That’s probably not going to stick around either, as he always had slightly below average GB rates in the minors. But there may be something to the combination of hitters seeing someone for the first time and velocity that makes it really hard to elevate the ball. This is the “it’s all a small-sample mirage” explanation; looking at his minor-league career numbers, it’s tempting to go with this. But it doesn’t explain why his career numbers are still higher than you’d guess, and it doesn’t explain why he’s continuing to rack up worm-burners in the spring.

3) There’s something in Paxton’s delivery that gives hitters some trouble in locating the ball. The other “anomaly” in the over-the-top pitchers is the guy the M’s told Paxton to model his delivery after – Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers. Kershaw’s fastball looks like Tillman’s via pitch fx. It’s no longer got plus velocity, it’s arrow straight and it has plenty of “rise.” But while Kershaw’s GB% is below 50%, it’s a bit above average, and he’s able to get GBs from everywhere in the zone on his four-seam fastball. It’s not a sequencing issue, where hitters expecting FBs hit over the top of sliders – the beat a rising fastball into the ground. Gabe Kapler talks about Kershaw’s delivery here. That said, the aspect Kapler mentions – Kershaw’s mid-motion pause – isn’t something I associate with Paxton. On the other hand, Kershaw’s GB rate was higher with men on base/RISP last year, when he’s pitching from the stretch and not his stop-start wind-up. It may be that Kershaw, Paxton and Jeffress are able to hide the ball longer than other pitchers with similar motions, and this is what gives the pitch the appearance of sink – the dreaded “heavy ball.”

What about the old stand-by, the vaunted “Downhill plane?” Well, the problem is that hitters’ swings have loft, which counteracts the benefit of a pitch coming in at an angle. And again, if “downhill plane” on its own made for a flurry of ground balls, the purely over-the-top pitchers – the Collmenters and Pryors and Tillmans – would be near the top of the league in GB rates, not clustered together at the bottom. Paxton’s intriguing for a number of reasons, but I’m really curious about his GB rates for 2014. If I’m honest, this is less about how plus-plus GB rates would affect his projections or the M’s wild card chances and more about wanting to learn something new about baseball and how pitching works.

* This happens every now and again. For another example, look at Felix’s 9/1/2012 start against the Angels.

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