Game 55, Tigers at Mariners

May 31, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 24 Comments 

Chris Young vs. Drew Smyly, 7:10pm

Tonight’s game’s an interesting match up in that it pits two pitchers with the same fundamental approach against each other. Chris Young’s famous for allowing more fly-ball contact than anyone and relying on guile and a certain je ne sais quoi to prevent those fly balls from becoming home runs. Drew Smyly also has a fly-ball generating fastball, with 12″ of vertical rise and very little horizontal movement. He’s also got the advantage of throwing left-handed AND averaging around 92mph with his fastball as opposed to Young’s 86. They both balance that FB with a slurvy-curve ball (Brooks Baseball classifies Smyly’s as a curve, while MLBAM calls it a slider, same as Young’s).

The differences are telling, though. Smyly’s velocity and sharper breaking ball allow him to get whiffs and strikeouts, particularly to lefties. His lack of a solid change make him vulnerable to righties, though. Young’s fastball-reliant approach minimizes platoon splits, but also prevent him from getting strikeouts…as if an 86mph fastball wasn’t enough to suppress K’s. On paper, you might take Smyly’s arsenal – more velo, more whiffs, and the ability to just neutralize lefties. Between the lines, though, Young’s been pretty effective despite his lack of velo and his reliance on whatever form of sorcery allows him to reliably yield 280 foot fly balls and not 350 foot fly balls.

1: Bloomquist?, 2B
2: Chavez?, CF
3: Zunino, DH
4: Smoak, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Romero, RF
7: Buck, C
8: Gillespie, LF
9: Franklin, SS
SP: Chris Young

The M’s maximize their right-handedness, as they should against someone with such prominent platoon splits. But the result is…uh, I mean…it’s kind of hard to argue that this is a major league line-up. Zunino’s RH power is a good match up, but he’s not a typical 3 hitter, and the less said about the top 2 the better. This looks pretty Pacific Coast League, frankly.

Game 54, Tigers at Mariners

May 30, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 32 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Justin Verlander, 7:10pm

Everyone talks about the painful sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Indians last year as a turning point in the season. To me, the tone was set in April, when the Tigers came to Seattle and essentially shut down the M’s. That awful extra-inning game in which the M’s wasted a brilliant start by Felix through a combination of poor strategy and poor roster construction…that felt ominous, and it was. That’s not to say that getting shut down by the Tigers was some damning indictment – their rotation last year was incredible. It was a test for the M’s against playoff-caliber opponents, with their own playoff-caliber starter on the hill. They failed the test.

Today, the Tigers are once again the class of the AL Central, which is again perhaps the weakest division in baseball. They’ve still got 2-time Cy Young winner Justin Verlander at the top of their rotation, and they’ve still got a powerful offense paced by Miguel Cabrera. Verlander’s been a key component of the Tigers success, as the righty’s been incredibly durable while maintaining excellent rate stats. Last year was the first sign that he might be slipping – his walk rate inched up, and his BABIP jumped as well. His velocity wasn’t changed much overall (though it seemed to come and go), and it would’ve been easy to assume it’d regress back to his very low career average. Instead, his walk rate’s up further and his BABIP’s crept still higher. He’s paired that with a drop in K rate too. Verlander is still an excellent pitcher, and he’s had plenty of room to fall from his peak and still add plenty of value for Detroit, but facing him doesn’t feel like quite the test it did just a few years ago.

You can argue that Hisashi Iwakuma is the better pitcher in this game, even if Verlander may still have the edge when you combine quantity and quality of innings. That doesn’t factor in quality of opponent, but it’s pretty good to go into a game against Verlander, a game with Endy Chavez leading off, and know that the M’s have a decent chance.

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

Sooooo….Endy Chavez is back, Cano is out, and Dustin Ackley is DH’ing. I may have spoken too soon when I said all that about a “decent chance.”

Brandon Maurer has mercifully been optioned to Tacoma, and Endy’s up and :sigh: leading off. Blake Beavan goes to the 60-day DL to free up a 40-man spot. Erasmo Ramirez, who was pretty effective last night in Tacoma, will take Maurer’s spot in the rotation.

Matt Palmer starts for Tacoma tonight against Salt Lake, one of his former teams. The Rainiers have been struggling, and pitching’s a big part of that. Palmer’s steadied the rotation since joining the team in mid-May, but he can’t do it alone. Despite a very good offense playing in one of the only pitcher’s parks in the circuit, the Rainiers’ team ERA is over 5. Of course, tonight’s opponent’s got a team ERA over 6. #PCLforLife.

Today’s Fun Fact

May 30, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

There are 248 players who have batted at least 100 times this season, who also batted at least 100 times last season. Here are the top five biggest gainers in contact rate, by percentage points:

  1. Ike Davis, +9.8 percentage points
  2. Dan Uggla, +8.8
  3. Pedro Alvarez, +8.4
  4. Michael Saunders, +8.2
  5. Dioner Navarro, +8.1

Last year, and for his career to that point, Michael Saunders missed once for every four swings. This year, he’s missed once for every six swings, which is a substantial gain. That doesn’t always mean it’s a substantial improvement — one can, in theory, make a lot more bad contact, which is worse than no contact — but Saunders doesn’t seem to be making bad contact. Saunders is delivering, and more consistently than he did before.

A related way of looking at this: the two years previous, 36% of Saunders’ swings resulted in a ball hit fair. So far this year, 45% of Saunders’ swings have resulted in a ball hit fair. Back when Saunders first emerged in 2012, the announcers couldn’t say enough about his new and heightened aggressiveness. Saunders isn’t as aggressive as he was in 2012. He’s almost back to what he used to be, in terms of his swing patterns. But he’s better than ever about knowing the zone, and he’s better about finding the baseball with the bat.

Saunders has made more contact out of the zone, and he’s made more contact within it. But maybe the biggest difference is this: between 2012-2013, Saunders made 59% contact against high pitches. This year, he’s at 84%, no longer so vulnerable to being blown away. While I’m not an expert when it comes to swing mechanics, it stands to reason Saunders has probably shortened things up, as his swing used to be exploitably long. His swing has long been a work in various progresses, and now he’s finding a balance between adding contact and preserving power.

Saunders hit a few mammoth home runs back in 2012. Four of them went at least 430 feet. He hit no such home runs in 2013, and he’s hit no such home runs in 2014. But he’s still running a decent ISO, and he just went deep last night. If you think about it, there were only so many ways for Saunders to get better at the plate. He could’ve increased his walks, decreased his strikeouts, or increased his power. His walks right now are fine, and his power isn’t absent, and where before Saunders struck out a quarter of the time, this year he’s at 18%. He’s better against both righties and lefties, and in this way Saunders has altered his own profile. He was fine in 2012, and now he’s differently fine, perhaps with some upside.

A very simple comparison:

Average Outfielder: 8.4% walks, 21% strikeouts, .147 ISO
Michael Saunders: 8.5% walks, 18% strikeouts, .154 ISO

So Saunders looks like something in the neighborhood of an average bat. And he might become an above-average player if you’re a believer in his power potential, his baserunning, or his defense. He’s only now 27 years old, and he’s doing something he’s never done before at this level. Lloyd McClendon is of the belief that Saunders is starting to put everything together, and while McClendon is a believer in a lot of his guys, it’s nice to see Saunders in a manager’s good graces for once. He’s not a great player, and he’ll presumably never become one, but what we’re seeing might be Michael Saunders as an actual legitimate regular. If he adds more power he could be real good. If he doesn’t, he can at least be steady, a non-negative contributor in all areas, including handsomeness.

So this is Michael Saunders with bat control. Unless it’s sample-size noise, which it might be, but which it probably isn’t. It isn’t a sign that Saunders is taking a massive leap forward in value. He’s simply reducing an old vulnerability, and while I’ve always been biased in Saunders’ favor as a player, it’s nice to be biased in favor of a player who’s not getting worse. I like when Mariners don’t get worse.

Gam3 53, Angels at Mariners

May 29, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 62 Comments 

Brandon Maurer vs. Matt Shoemaker, 7:10pm

There’s nothing like seeing Felix pitching well. He started the year brilliantly, then struggled, culminating in a weirdly un-Kingly game in which he struck out no one. But since then, he’s gone 31 1/3 IP with 30 strikeouts to just four walks. That’s encouraging, and it’s good to remember and ponder, because today’s match-up does not feature that kind of potential.

Today’s game features Matt Shoemaker, the righty who’s struggled mightily for many years in AAA, but who came up for a single start last year and, predictably, blanked the M’s over 5 innings. He’s been OK as a spot starter this year as well, though he’s continued to bounce back and forth between Anaheim and the PCL, his personal hell. The start was supposed to be lefty Wade LeBlanc’s, but after Sean Burnett’s injury, they’ve moved LeBlanc to the bullpen to have another southpaw. That meant Shoemaker didn’t have to spend the normally-required ten days in the minors after being optioned.

Last year, we knew nothing about Shoemaker, but now at least we know what he throws. He’s a fastball/change-up guy primarily, with a slider and the occasional curve. He tops out around 91, but his slider looks like an OK pitch. His change has been oddly successful in the majors, as it’s clearly not fooling minor league lefties. His start last year certainly was very successful, though perhaps not predictive; that game’s M’s line-up included Carlos Triunfel, Franklin Gutierrez, Henry Blanco, Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez.

Today’s line-up:
1: Jones, CF
2: Saunders, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Smoak, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Franklin, DH
7: Ackley, LF
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: :deep sigh: Brandon Maurer. C’mon big fella.

Eight lefties – very nice.

Erasmo Ramirez starts tonight for Tacoma. Taijuan Walker made it through three so-so innings, but gave up four runs on a three-run HR to Efren Navarro and then Luis Jimenez went back-to-back. Still, there’ve been no reports of soreness, or inflammation or other problems following the outing. Again, it was his first outing of the year, something most M’s hurlers got out of the way back in February or early March.

Felix Hernandez Is Trending

May 29, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 5 Comments 

Felix Hernandez, last night, was absolutely outstanding, again. He didn’t quite get the official complete game, because the Angels are dicks, but he did dominate from the first pitch, because the Angels are stupid. Basically, Felix is one of the best pitchers in baseball, and he pitched like one of the best pitchers in baseball, which isn’t something that he’ll always do, but which is something he’ll do more often than most.

You’ll remember that, not long ago, Felix had a whole start where he didn’t strike out a single batter. Turns out Felix knows what he’s doing. Since then, in four games, he’s whiffed 30 while walking four, and because of that little tiny skid that overlapped with Felix also being sick, we’ve been able to appreciate these performances without taking them totally for granted. That’s the danger of steady near-perfection — you assume it, and you enjoy it less. Throw in the occasional clunker and you keep everything fresh, and we all got to enjoy seeing Felix mow down a talented division rival.

One of the storylines coming out of the game is that Felix threw some pitches in the mid-90s, which is old territory for him. When asked about the velocity, Felix said “I still got it” with a grin, and he’s clearly been feeling strong on the recent end of the flu. Now, it needs to be noted that Felix doesn’t still have his old velocity in his back pocket. His annual maximum velocity has been dropping, to go along with his average velocities. But because people have been talking about some of Felix’s trends, I thought I’d note a small handful of them. They’re not being woven into a narrative, but what they all have in common is that they have to do with Felix Hernandez, and Felix is the best.

Let’s begin with the velocity angle, using data from Brooks Baseball. What Felix doesn’t have are his old top velocities. But here’s a table of average speed by pitch. You might notice something. If you don’t, I’ll point it out to you in words, because I noticed something, hence this table being embedded.

Year Four-seam Sinker Change Slider Curve
2008 95.7 94.8 87.9 87.3 82.3
2009 95.2 94.5 89.8 87.0 82.5
2010 95.0 94.4 90.4 86.6 82.9
2011 94.2 94.0 90.1 86.9 82.4
2012 93.1 92.5 89.3 85.7 82.1
2013 92.8 92.4 89.7 84.9 81.3
2014 93.7 93.3 90.4 85.5 81.6

The classifications aren’t perfect. Surely, some four-seamers and sinkers are in the wrong bins, and, surely, some changeups are in the wrong bins. But don’t worry about those little details, because what’s important is the bigger trend the data captures. Felix’s average velocity is actually up. He’s throwing harder four-seamers. He’s throwing harder sinkers. He’s throwing harder changeups and sliders and curveballs. We all got used to Felix slowing down, and he hardly suffered because of it, but now this is unexpected. Felix’s velocities have turned back the clock, and if you consider that he spent a lot of his velocity decline period learning how to pitch better, probably the last thing hitters want to see is a better-pitching version of Felix Hernandez who also throws a bit harder. I don’t know how much this boost helps, but it’s not at all something we would’ve been looking for.

Now let’s move on from there. Let’s spend a little time talking and thinking about pitch locations. First, here’s a table estimating Felix’s rates of grooved pitches. This is arbitrary, so I came up with two methods. Basically, this is a table showing Felix’s rates of pitches over the middle of the plate, with some elevation. The columns are different, with the numbers in the last column being bigger, but the same story gets told.

Year %Grooved, 1 %Grooved, 2
2008 8.9% 18%
2009 9.1% 18%
2010 9.3% 20%
2011 8.0% 18%
2012 8.1% 17%
2013 8.8% 18%
2014 6.3% 16%

The lowest number in the first column: 2014’s. The lowest number in the second column: 2014’s. The differences aren’t huge, but Felix has been grooving fewer pitches than ever, to the tune of one or two pitches a game. That’s one or two fewer potential meatballs, and meatballs are the ones you feel most bad about. Consider this evidence that Felix has improved his command. And we can look at something else more significant.

Felix is a guy who always says he wants to be pitching down in the zone. How often has he actually been doing that? Let’s set a threshold, at two feet above the ground at the front of the plate. Following, a table, with Felix’s rates of pitches thrown below that bar.

Year Under 2
2008 29%
2009 35%
2010 34%
2011 38%
2012 36%
2013 44%
2014 51%

Used to be, Felix threw about a third of his pitches down. That rate hiked up in 2013, and it’s hiked up again this year, to the point where half of his pitches are down. That rate ranks third-highest in baseball at the moment, Felix surrounded by a bunch of groundball pitchers, and this probably has a lot to do with Mike Zunino and Felix’s trust in Zunino to get him strikes. It also has to do with what Zunino calls, and it also has to do with Felix being better able to locate all of his pitches.

Why might this be important? During the PITCHf/x era, Felix has allowed a dinger every 128 strikes above two feet. Meanwhile, he’s allowed a dinger every 191 strikes below two feet. Felix this season has allowed three home runs, and zero since April 26. A lot of dinger prevention is noise, but some of it can be under a pitcher’s control, and by staying down so much, Felix might be able to sustain some of his dinger suppression. Or, in easier words: low strikes better than higher strikes. For Felix, anyhow.

We’re not done, but we’re getting there. Let’s shift again, to stuff having to do with pitch mix. Here’s a table, showing the percentage of Felix’s strikeouts ending with a breaking ball:

Year BreakingK%
2008 36%
2009 40%
2010 26%
2011 25%
2012 27%
2013 18%
2014 7.2%

The slider? The curveball? Good pitches, both of them, but no longer really used as putaway pitches. Felix has gone to his fastballs more, and his changeup more, and as you’ve noticed, he’s remained fantastic, with a whole lot of strikeouts. You think of breaking balls as being swing-and-miss pitches, but maybe Felix knows hitters are thinking that, too. Yet he has perhaps the greatest changeup in the galaxy, and in countless senses it’s probably unfair. And his changeup is basically a fastball, and he also has other fastballs, and the long and short of it is hitters should probably try not to get into two-strike counts when Felix is on the mound because what hope do you have?

At last, a relatively minor thing. Felix hasn’t abandoned his curveball — he still uses it often against lefties. He just uses it more often to get himself set up. The curveball shows up earlier in counts, and here’s a table of his annual curveball strike rates:

Year CU Strike%, LHB
2008 58%
2009 56%
2010 62%
2011 59%
2012 61%
2013 58%
2014 67%

Never before until this year was it a reliable strike pitch. Maybe the differences seem small to you, but the difference between a 60% strike rate and a 67% strike rate is the difference between Fernando Rodney and Felix himself. Felix has had a better feel for his curve so far this year against lefties, keeping it in or around the zone. And Mike Zunino has done a good job of catching the curve down in the zone, allowing Felix to gain a strike on the given unfortunate batter. Pitching is complicated, but Felix is doing basically all of it well. It’s true on the macro level, and it’s true on the micro level.

That’s what I’ve got. It’s a lot to consume. The gist: Felix has been amazing for a while. But, underneath, he’s been changing and adjusting, in order to stay around elite level. And this year, he might be the best he’s been, given his approach, his intellect, and his command. It doesn’t hurt to also have a hell of a catcher. What you don’t see when you stare at a rock are all of its spinning electrons. But that rock, in a way, is in constant motion. The rock is a different rock every second, even if it looks like the same old rock. We’ve got us a pretty rock.

Game 52, Angels at Mariners

May 28, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 21 Comments 

King Felix vs. CJ Wilson, 7:10pm

Ah, April 1st, 2014. The M’s were riding high off of Felix’s opening day masterpiece, and they faced CJ Wilson in game 2 of the season – a familiar divisional rival who’d been extremely tough on them in 2013. That success, of course, came against the OLD Mariners. You know – the hitless wonders who paraded a series of failing DHs, Oylerian glove-first, declining shortstops and prospects that failed to develop. These were the NEW Mariners – with dynamic lead-off man Abe Almonte, with elite SS Brad Miller, and with enviable pitching depth.

On that day, the M’s battered Wilson for six runs on eight hits over 5 2/3 innings. Brad Miller took Wilson, a lefty, deep, and then he hit another one out off of righty Michael Kohn. Almonte doubled to set the table for Cano and Smoak, and Dustin Ackley hadn’t looked this good since 2011. Meanwhile, Erasmo Ramirez was brilliant – giving up only two runs (on a mistake pitch that Raul hit out) over seven innings and striking out NINE without a walk. The M’s were firing on all cylinders while the Angels still appeared to have holes. Pujols wasn’t hitting. WIlson’s dominance of lefties seemed to be faltering, and the Halos bullpen was *clearly* crappy. We’d said at the start of the year that the M’s needed to hang around .500 until Iwakuma and Walker got healthy, and then their offense could carry them to contention. At least on April 1st, that looked like a foregone conclusion – they could take charge of the division BEFORE Walker threw a pitch.

Last night, I had a twitter conversation with Colin from Lookout Landing about the year so far. The M’s ARE hanging around .500, and have been all year, despite missing Iwakuma for a month and Walker entirely. So why don’t we feel good about the team? What is it about a loss like last night’s, or the losses to Price and Odorizzi in the Tampa series, that feels so deflating? If the M’s had the exact same record, but LOOKED like the team that played on April 1st, would we feel the same way?

I think the answer’s no, and it’s not just because bloggers are hypercritical, soul-sucking, joy-denying losers. The promise of the season rested on two assumptions. First, that the division was incredibly tight, with no great teams, and only one terrible outlier. Second, that the M’s offense was going to be significantly better, and that the second wave of prospects could cover both pitching injuries and the holes left by failures/stagnation of the first wave of prospects. Tons of parity and growth from future starts like Miller, plus contributions from solid players like Kyle Seager and Erasmo, meant that the M’s could hang around and peak during the final months. Neither assumption appears correct at this point. The Oakland A’s are good. Again. This is the third straight year they’ve looked so-so (or worse) on paper, but the third straight year they’re actually good on the field. Pujols’ health, Garrett Richards emergence and CJ Wilson’s refining of his junkball arsenal have helped the Angels take a step forward as well. They’re now forecast for 88 wins – 8 more than the M’s. Meanwhile, the M’s rank last in the AL in OBP, and second-to-last in wRC+. It’s all so familiar.

The problem clearly isn’t their record, which is fine. It’s not that there’s been nothing to cheer about; Roenis Elias is a great story, and if he’s not been as untouchable as he was in Yankee Stadium, he’s still done far more than I’d have ever believed. Chris Young’s been solid. The back of the rotation has simply not been the problem we all thought it was, and thus, the M’s pitching’s been solid. The problem that it still seems like the aging curve for position players just doesn’t work in Seattle. Dustin Ackley was great when he came up, then struggled. Jesus Montero was great for the Yankees, then OK, but encouraging in Seattle, and then simply atrocious. On April 1st, I would’ve picked Brad Miller as an all-star, and a candidate for a big extension in the off-season. To his credit, Ackley’s actually improved, but that says more about how bad he was in 2013 than anything. A left-fielder with a just-below-league average bat is a platoon player, and that’s what Ackley’s become. Smoak’s Smoak. Nick Franklin has plenty of promise, but after his first month in the big leagues, he was hitting .302/.368/.500. I haven’t looked, but I think his line since then is a bit worse.

These are, theoretically, independent events. Montero has no bearing on Zunino, and Ackley’s arc isn’t predictive of Franklin’s. But a team with such a poor track record of player development needed to show that it had figured something out, whether that “something” was internal processes/coaching, or player selection. The M’s have shown a freakish ability to develop minor league infielders. I have no earthly idea why that doesn’t translate into MLB production. Not superstar production, just production. The M’s are right around .500 – basically right where I hoped they’d be. But their problems seem more systemic than they did in March, and that’s a problem.

They could erase a lot of these doubts with a big winning streak, of course. So let’s do that, M’s. I miss April 1st because that first week was one of the very few since I’ve been doing this that I didn’t feel dispassionate and clinical. I felt like a fan. I’m still a fan, and I always will be, but I recognize I’m a very different kind of fan. I don’t mind that, and of course there’s no right or wrong way to BE a fan, but April 1st felt pretty good. Hopefully someday soon we can feel like that again, whatever the M’s record is.

1: Jones, CF
2: Romero, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Smoak, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Buck, “DH”
7: Ackley, LF
8: Zunino, C
9: Franklin, SS

The M’s have injury problems, and a manager has to choose from among the players available, but John Buck is a questionable DH pick. I get it – the other options are Bloomquist and Cole Gillespie (CJ Wilson has large platoon splits over his career, so you really want a righty at DH). But if you’re not going to use Gillespie, go get someone you’re OK playing. My guess is that this has to do with Buck’s “career success” against Wilson – he’s 3 for 5 against him, with a double and a homer (which came in 2007 and 2008, respectively). I know, I know: this team had Brendan Ryan at DH last year. Twice. Endy Chavez DH’d three times. There’s a precedent for necessity to invent some of the worst line-ups imaginable. I just wish we were past this point a bit. In my mind, I’ll just transpose Buck and Zunino’s positions.

Ok, so that preview was a bit glum. You want good news? Taijuan Walker makes his 2014 debut today for Tacoma. Go watch it at Cheney tonight. He’ll throw around 75 pitches or so, and then Erasmo Ramirez may get some work in (April 1st feels like yeaaarrrrs ago).

Victor Sanchez starts for Jackson; the Nimitz-class righty’s struggled following his DL trip. Here’s hoping he snaps out of it against Mobile. Tyler Pike blah blah blah K:BB ratio, blah blah disappointing. I don’t want to pick on either of these two, both of whom came into the year far, far, far more highly regarded than Roenis Elias. I just want to see some signs of improvement.

Game 51, Angels at Mariners

May 27, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 28 Comments 

Roenis Elias vs. Jered Weaver, 7:10pm

I mentioned it in the opening day game thread, but Jered Weaver’s had to make some adjustments in recent years. He’s not throwing 90 anymore – he’s at 85-88. Perhaps due to elbow problems that have put a dent in his workload, he’s using his slider less and a slow curve more. All of these changes can be placed in the “aging” bucket, of course: he’s older, so the aches and pains start to add up, the body takes longer to recover, and he can’t throw as hard as he did at 24-25. What’s interesting is just how well Weaver’s adapted. He’s giving the Angels fewer innings, but he’s yielding fewer runs when he’s out there.

Go by FIP, and you see the skeletal hand of aging at work. From 2010-2014, Weaver’s FIP has inched upwards: 3.06, 3.20, 3.75, 3.82, 4.06. A large part of this is due to his K% falling back down after spiking in 2010 – it’s gone from nearly 26% to around 19% in recent years. Lower velo, fewer strikeouts, a walk rate that’s fairly stable but higher than it was in 2010, etc. – it all shows a pitcher in decline. But look at his RA! From 2011-2014, over 645 innings, Weaver’s giving up 2.90 runs (earned and unearned) per 9. For that same time period, Justin Verlander’s RA is 3.31…and he won two Cy Young awards in those years. Let’s be clear about this: I’m not advocating ditching FIP for ERA, or that Weaver is waaaay better than Verlander.* I’m saying that Weaver’s been sneaky good if all you look at is FIP. On a *rate* basis, though, Weaver’s been excellent despite the drop in apparent skill. So is he just the luckiest guy in the American League?

Let’s step back a bit. When he broke into the Angels’ rotation in 2006, he posted great results and a poor FIP and saber-friendly fans/blogs ID’d him as a regression candidate. For the next several years, Weaver essentially proved them right. When his strand rate wasn’t off-the-charts great, he was a good-but-not-great pitcher. From 2007-09, his RA was over 4, pretty much dead on his FIP. As a FB/SL guy, the problem centered on platoon splits. As a guy with a whippy, 3/4 delivery, his fastball (which righties describe as deceptive) was easier to pick up. Beginning in 2009, Weaver began using a sinker to lefties, and by 2010, it was his primary pitch to them.** To righties, his delivery and odd movement meant he could throw fastballs in the center of the zone and up in the zone and not pay for it. To lefties, he learned to keep the ball away and use his other pitches to keep lefties from pulling the ball in the air. He’s stopped chasing strikeouts, and instead offers hitters the opportunity to hit the ball to center field. And it’s worked.

Weaver’s made a number of changes, but one thing’s been constant: he’s an extreme fly-ball pitcher. His fastball movement’s the key to his reliably extreme GB rates – his four-seamer now has essentially zero horizontal movement and much more vertical “rise” than most. As a result, the pitch is hit in the air (for a fly ball or pop-up) over half the time batters make contact. Righties in particular basically can’t hit ground balls even if they wanted to. Since the introduction of his sinker, the story with lefties is a bit more complicated. They still hit plenty of fly balls, but he’s clearly not as extreme. The blizzard of fly balls and the existence of Mike Trout (and Peter Bourjos before him) help keep his BABIP very low, which in turn has boosted his strand rate. In the past several seasons, his average strand rate’s about 80%. Essentially, Jered Weaver has become Chris Young. Neither one LOOKS like an ace, and both post lackluster fielding independent stats, but both routinely post much better ERAs thanks in part to low BABIPs and high strand rates. And they do it despite fly-ball velocities that wouldn’t look out of place in a good high school league.

All of that said, he’s struggled in Safeco. His magical BABIP-suppression works wonders at home (career ave. of .264), less so in Safeco (.314). He’s not bad by any stretch, but think of how poorly the M’s have hit in Safeco during Weaver’s career. The fact that they’re hitting .283 against anyone is kind of miraculous. That it’s against Weaver is kind of shocking.

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

Jordan Pries starts for Tacoma today against ex-Rainier Jarrett Grube of Salt Lake tonight at Cheney.

Speaking of Cheney, it looks like Taijuan Walker’s on track for a rehab start with Tacoma tomorrow at 7. May it go better than Paxton’s.

* Weaver pitched 645 innings (so far) from 2011-2014. Verlander’s at 779. ‘
** “OK, but aren’t you the guy that’s always saying pitchers should use four-seamers to OPPOSITE handed hitters and target same-handed bats with sinkers?” Guilty, but again, nothing about Weaver makes a lot of sense from a traditional saber POV. He throws slow FBs at the top of the zone and gives up a ton of fly ball contact, but he thrives. The fact that his pitch usage is out of step with pitch type run values is perhaps the least surprising thing about him.

Podcast: Memorial Day of Mariners

May 26, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Monday morning podcast(s) continues/begins.

It was kind of a Mariner week, you know? .500, splitting both series versus Texas teams. Nick Franklin is up, but not really hitting. Stuff happened but it kind of feels like it’s the same as it always has been. It’s Memorial Day.

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

Thanks again to those that helped support the show and/or StatCorner work in general last week, and in the past, and hopefully in the future. It’s truly appreciated.

Game 50, Angels at Mariners

May 26, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 26 Comments 

Chris Young vs. Tyler Skaggs, 1:10pm

Happy Memorial Day, and thanks to all who’ve served.

The M’s got outplayed yesterday, and lost to Dallas Keuchel, who’s on fire right now. M’s manager Lloyd McClendon provided some bulletin board material by implying that the M’s had more to do with scoring just one unearned run than Mr. Keuchel did. Members of the Astros organization seem perturbed, as they would and probably should. I understand, at some level, McClendon’s frustration: Keuchel throws 90mph and came into the year with a career ERA over 5. He’s pitched like an ace for a month-plus, but McClendon’s probably not tracking breakout seasons from opponents – he’s properly more concerned about some implosions on his own roster. Still, part of going with an old-school baseball lifer at skipper is that they’re so attuned to the unwritten rules of baseball that they can keep their own club out of trouble and fire their team up about breaches of protocol. This is an unintentional slight, but a completely unnecessary one.

Today’s game features Tyler Skaggs, the ex-Angel prospect turned D-Backs prospect turned back into an Angels prospect. He went to Arizona in the Dan Haren deal, and while he pitched effectively in the D-Backs system, his velocity dropped noticeably over time. He wasn’t hurt, but apparently a mechanical tweak the D-Backs made sapped some velocity. When he debuted with Arizona, he was throwing 90mph and getting hit fairly hard. I saw him for Reno and saw a decent but by no means eye-popping prospect – more of a command lefty; a potential #4. Others saw a lot more, to be fair, but I still wonder how much of that was the residue of his initial season or two in the Angels system. In any event, he moved back to Anaheim when the Halos shipped Mark Trumbo to the NL, and the Angels pretty much instantly (and very publicly) talked about essentially un-doing the mechanical tweak the D-Backs had made. And, pretty much instantly, that “missing” velocity was back. Last season, Skaggs averaged a touch over 90mph on his FB. This year, he’s scraping 93, and his FIP’s down by over a full run.

Now, that’s not to say Skaggs is an ace or anything. In his initial call-ups with Arizona, he had home run trouble and platoon split issues – or rather, his platoon split problems manifested in lots of HRs to righties. He’s given up 16 HRs to righties in his career against 2 to southpaws. As a lefty, he faces overwhelmingly right-handed line-ups, so on a rate basis, it’s not quite so stark. But HRs were an issue in Arizona, and simply moving to Anaheim may have helped him control his gopheritis. That said, 2.5 extra MPH on his fastball can’t hurt either. It may be the combination of velocity and the mechanical tweak, but his four-seamer is now much more over-the-top, with tons of vertical rise and very little arm-side run. His sinker’s very distinct, with lots of run and much less rise. Like so many pitchers, though, the way he uses them seems backwards to me. Against lefties, he’s a four-seam/curve ball pitcher. Righties see far more sinkers, the curve, and some change-ups. To his credit, Skaggs used to throw four-seamers to righties and they creamed it, so it’s not like he never even attempted to pitch in alignment with pitch type platoon splits.

Skaggs’ K rate is down markedly, which is odd considering the velo gain, but by getting ground balls and avoiding walks and HRs, he’s been more effective overall. He still lacks an outpitch to righties, which may be contributing to his poor strand rate (it’s why his ERA is higher than his FIP). But thanks to Corey Hart’s injury, the M’s aren’t really set up to take advantage of Skaggs’ weaknesses. It’s not a bad match-up, as the M’s don’t show huge platoon splits as a club, but ideally, the team would have a tougher righty to put at DH than Stefen Romero. Save us, Mike Zunino!

1: Jones, CF
2: Saunders, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Smoak, 1B
5: Zunino, C
6: Seager, 3B
7: Romero, DH
8: Ackley, LF
9: Franklin, SS
SP: Young

James Paxton’s bullpen session was cancelled today as he’s still dealing with forearm tightness after his rehab start. Awesome.

Speaking of which, the Mets have placed top prospect Noah Syndergaard on the minor league DL with elbow soreness of a particular type strongly correlated with ligament damage. I’m not a Mets fan, but I got to watch Syndergaard pitch, and I sincerely hope that’s not what’s going on.

Edwin Diaz is on the mound for Clinton today. Tacoma’s Memorial Day game versus El Paso gets underway at 1:35; they face one of the Padres top prospects in LHP Matt Wisler. He’ll be opposed by Andrew Carraway. Read Mike Curto’s story on the Rainiers wild 14-12 loss last night; Jabari Blash hit two HRs for the Rainiers.

Game 49, Astros at Mariners

May 25, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 26 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Dallas Keuchel, 1:10pm

First off, sorry for the lack of a game thread yesterday. I took Jeff’s advice and did non-baseball activities all day with the family. Hope you’re all enjoying the holiday weekend as well. If so, yesterday’s game was one to miss, as Brandon Maurer had a forgettable start – and one that could be his last for a while. Following along on twitter was sort of interesting, as everyone was impressed with Maurer between the 2nd and 4th innings, and then everyone was convinced he needed to be sent down.

Today’s game’s a bit more interesting, as we’ve got a fascinating pitcher’s match-up. I’ve spent too much time mocking Keuchel’s name and not enough about his startling rise to prominence this year. Check out a list of the top FIPs in MLB, and Keuchel’s solidly in the top 20, ahead of some big names like Cueto, Samardzija, and Scherzer. His actual RA’s right in line with that FIP too, which is pretty stunning for a pitcher who’s had an ERA over 5 in each of the past two years.

Full credit to Eno Sarris at Fangraphs who ID’d Keuchel as a potential break out last year when he ditched an ineffective curveball for a slider that racked up solid whiff rates. I remember thinking at the time that his breaking ball was missing the point – Keuchel wasn’t great against lefties, he had huge problems against right-handed hitters. For a guy with platoon split problems, adding a slider seemed odd; like a batter who’s having trouble catching up to good velocity switching to a heavier bat. As it turned out, though, the pitch was a key part of a broader transformation.

When Keuchel came up with Houston, he threw two fastballs around 88, a change-up and a curve (and an occasional cutter). He threw the four- and two-seamers in equal proportion, and the four-seamer got pounded. The change-up got grounders, but righties hit it well if he hung one. Part of the issue may have been its velo – his change averaged 75 mph, or about the same as a slow curve ball. After watching Felix for years, I’m not doctrinaire about an 8mph gap between FB and CH velocities, but that gap seemed sub-optimal. Last season, he gained velocity on each pitch – his FB now averages a touch over 90. He still had a large gap between FB and CH, and the pitch was again hit fairly hard. Still, the big problem was his four-seamer. Pitch type slash lines can be tough to interpret, as Keuchel’s never going to throw an 0-2 or 1-2 four-seamer, but in 2013, batters slugged *.810* against the four-seamer. Caveat that all you want, that’s a problem.

This season, his slider’s incredibly effective against lefties, and he’s adopted a very different approach to his four-seam, which he throws more often to righties. Instead of trying to throw it low and away (or just off the plate away), he’s trying to tie up righties by putting it just under their hands. Meanwhile, the change-up’s now up at 80mph+, making the gap between the FB and CH a bit more normal. Keuchel’s getting both more whiffs AND more grounders with it, and perhaps more importantly, he’s actually running reverse platoon splits this year. That’s probably not going to continue, but he’s not getting annihilated by RHBs anymore. Finally, he’s refined the sinker/two-seamer to the point where it’s a historic ground-ball generating machine. To date this season, about 84% of sinkers put in play are on the ground, which has led to Keuchel’s impossible 67.7% ground ball rate. Keuchel was always a ground baller, but he’s become an off-the-charts worm burner despite the fact that his new slider’s not a real GB pitch. Instead, the change-up and sinker combine to make it almost impossible for righties to elevate the ball.

Mike Petriello notes that a part of the reason Keuchel’s generating so many grounders is that he’s getting hitters to expand the zone by targeting the area just below the zone. Both pitch fx and BIS show that his zone% dropped from 2013 to 2014, despite the fact that his walk rate has dropped for the second year in a row – plummeting to 5% in 2014. Still, if you look at any one pitch, nothing looks transformative. It’s not like he used to throw his change-up or sinker down the middle and now puts them all 4″ below the bottom of the zone. It’s a reminder of how a small change, or a series of small changes, can make a huge difference to a pitcher’s overall results.

1: Jones, CF
2: Romero, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Smoak, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Saunders, RF
8: Gillespie, LF
9: Miller, SS
SP: Iwakuma

He doesn’t have the name recognition, but Keuchel’s now a very tough opponent. It’s nice to acknowledge that and still have some confidence that the M’s guy’s better. Never leave us, Hisashi Iwakuma.

James Paxton had an up and down rehab start in Game 1 of the Rainiers double-header yesterday. On the plus side, he pitched in a professional game. On the down side, he gave up three runs in 3 IP with 5 Ks and 2 BBs. Worse, he told Lloyd McClendon he had some forearm tightness, which he characterized as “normal” but which probably isn’t reassuring to anyone.

Today’s MiLB starters include Lars Huijer in Clinton, Cam Hobson for Jackson, and James Gilheeney for Tacoma.

Speaking of the minors, the big story in the PCL today is that the Iowa Cubs have signed Manny Ramirez as a player/coach. Mike Curto helpfully points out that the I-Cubs visit Tacoma for the last home games of the year, from August 24th-27th. It’s possible that struggling superprospect Javier Baez may still be with them then too. In fact, having Ramirez work with Baez seems to be one of the reasons the Cubs made this move. Could be fascinating.

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