Game 127, Mariners at Red Sox

August 22, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 116 Comments 

King Felix vs. Joe Kelly, 4:10pm
Wild Card Odds – Fangraphs.com: 41.2% Baseballprospectus.com: 40.6%

That series in Philadelphia was neither entertaining nor helpful. Now, the M’s head to Fenway, where they’ve lost nine consecutive games. Ahhh, but we’ve got Felix and you’ve got…Joe (checks again) uh, Kelly. The guy with the…(checks) sinker? A guy with a sinker.

So yes, Mr. Kelly, who came over from St. Louis in the John Lackey deal, throws a very hard sinker, a curve, and a change-up. When he first came up in 2012, his primary breaking ball was a slider, but after working on his curve (and looking at his wide platoon splits), he evidently decided to go with the hook instead. And it’s been a good pitch for him – unlike many curve balls, he gets an extraordinary amount of ground ball contact with it. According to BrooksBaseball, his curve’s GB/balls-in-play ratio is over three standard deviations from the mean, which is good, considering his sinker is pretty standard. So he gets over 50% of ground balls, and almost no one can elevate the curve. Is he a great pitcher? Well, no.

In 2013, Kelly posted a brilliant ERA in over 100 innings despite a poor FIP that resulted from his low K% and poor BB%. The grounders helped him avoid HRs (for the most part), but as Dave and others pointed out, what was driving that sparkly ERA wasn’t HRs, it was BABIP, or more accurately, BABIP in certain situations. Everyone talked about the Cardinals’ offense, and their incredible hitting with runners in scoring position. Kelly was the pitching version of Allen Craig last year, running a .224 BABIP with RISP, and thus generating a strand rate over 82%. Just as Craig’s RISP numbers tumbled this season, Kelly’s BABIP with RISP this year is .304, and that’s helped knock his strand rate down to just over 70%. That’s not the ONLY thing that’s changed with Kelly, but it’s another example of why it’s usually a good idea to be skeptical that a small-sample performance is predictive. A year after posting an ERA well over a full run lower than his FIP, his ERA’s now OVER his FIP, and he’s been essentially replacement level on the year.

In his career, he’s yielded a .350 wOBA to lefties and a .295 wOBA to righties. By FIP, it’s about one run higher to lefties than righties. This is a sinkerballer, after all, so it’s not terribly shocking. And he’s faced more RHBs than lefties in his career – another perk of pitching for St. Louis in the NL Central. Since moving to Boston, he’s actually faced two NL Central teams (including, famously, the Cardinals – in his first start in a Boston uniform) and the Astros. This is a pitcher with real problems against lefties, and for whatever reason, those problems weren’t as evident in 2013 thanks to BABIP and all of that. But they’re just as real in 2014 as they were in 2012, and this is a good opportunity for the M’s to use their lefty-heavy line-up to gain a significant advantage…er, even more of an advantage than they had by just starting King Felix.

Kelly’s sinker is a lively one, averaging around 95mph, and that’s something of a worry. The M’s platoon splits against lefties have been discussed quite a bit, and by picking up Jackson/Denorfia, the M’s have tried to address the issue. But their splits against ground-ball pitchers are actually worse. Henderson Alvarez comes to mind, as does Kyle Gibson. Those two had much better control, however. One way for the M’s to avoid 4-3’ing their way to a loss is to be a lot more patient. Kelly’s thrown a below-average percentage of strikes throughout his career, and it’s been quite low this year. He’s not been able to get batters to chase, either, as his slider – the pitch he doesn’t throw much anymore – was the pitch that got him a lot of out-of-zone swings.

Some might wonder if Kelly was always going to struggle after leaving the Cardinals thanks to their incredible pitch-framer Yadier Molina. Catchers adept at picking up the low strike can be extremely beneficial to sinkerballers, and obviously Molina’s adept at essentially every aspect of catching. It’s probably true that a portion of Kelly’s brilliant 2013 shouldn’t be called “luck” – it should be called “Molina.” But there’s a new catcher in the league who’s among the very best pitch framers we’ve yet seen. I…ok, yes, that description might work for Mike Zunino, but I’m talking about Red Sox backstop Christian Vasquez. Jeff’s article at Fangraphs is a good introduction. If you’re in a hurry, 1) why are you reading this game preview (thank you!), and 2) just go to the second gif in that article. If someone doesn’t understand the concept of pitch framing, or what it is that a catcher’s supposed to DO to get a strike call, have them watch that. Maybe part of it is an artifact of the gif itself, but it looks a bit like magic. Vasquez has caught Kelly twice – two games, two wins, two solid-ish performances for a guy without good control or a swing-and-miss pitch. Kelly’s one awful game for Boston came against Houston, and was caught by Daniel Butler. Am I saying…no, I’m not saying anything, I’m just…look at that gif again, would you?

Line-up:
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Chavez, RF
9: Miller, SS

The big story of the baseball world today is the signing of Cuban OF Rusney Castillo by the Red Sox. Boston beat out a number of teams, including the Tigers and M’s, to ink Castillo to a 6-year, $72m contract. It’s back-loaded, so Castillo will make something like the $500,000 this year. Castillo’s contract beats out the $68m the White Sox gave Jose Abreu in the offseason in a deal that’s worked out pretty nicely. The rapidly rising prices paid for international free agents has a few causes – from the quicker-than-expected impact from guys like Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, Masahiro Tanaka and Abreu, to the dampening of bonuses paid both to draft-eligible players and the July 2nd international signings. International signings are still discounted, of course, because we’re still not quite sure how they’ll fare in the US (I’m shaking my head at all of the unnamed scouts/executives who questioned Abreu’s batspeed this offseason), but they’re able to produce right away, giving teams bidding on their services more information about their own place on the win curve. Thanks in part to the nearly-instant success of Puig/Abreu, some talked about Castillo moving right into the Boston line-up. I’m not sure that’s going to happen, especially given that Boston’s out of the race in 2014, but he’s probably not long for the minors.

Here’s your basic Sam Miller article auto-link: Has Replay Killed Lying in Baseball? It’s Sam Miller, it’s gifs of attempted subterfuge…just click it.

Tacoma’s final homestand of the season continues tonight at 7:05 against Omaha. The red-hot Rainiers send Jimmy Gilheeney to the mound against Aussie control-pitcher/HR-maven Liam Hendriks. Lefty Tyler Pike starts for Jackson. There are always ups and downs as prospects move up the ladder, but I have to say I’ve been especially dismayed by Pike’s 2014. He struggled in High Desert, and that’s understandable, but the walk rate has been absurd. In hindsight, it never really matched up to the “plus pitchability” scouting reports, but it’s gone haywire this year. Pike is talented, and in AA before he can legally drink, so don’t take this as me writing him off. It’s just a statistical line that I would never have guessed we’d see from him.

Speaking of prospects, RP Carson Smith – a guy I thought could make an impact in MLB this season – is locked in for Tacoma right now. He suffered an injury early in the season, and had a very poor April, but in his last 26 innings, going back to June 6th, he’s given up three runs, struck out 29 and walked 7. In the process, he’s knocked his ERA down from 6.00 to 2.93.

Game 125, Mariners at Phillies

August 20, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 86 Comments 

James Paxton vs. Cole Hamels, 10:05am
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 42.0%. Baseballprospectus.com: 47.1%

Great pitching match-up on getaway day between two pitchers who were the subject of trade rumors this offseason and, a bit less often, before the deadline.

I’ve always found it a bit surprising that Hamels has faced 3-4 times more right handed bats than lefties over his career. As the owner of the NL’s best change up, it’s not like righties have some big advantage over him; in his career his splits are even to a bit more favorable to *lefties.* In any event, the M’s line up is a lot more stable right now, and it’s pretty balanced, with five RHBs starting today.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Taylor, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Denorfia, LF
7: Morrison, RF
8: Sucre, C
SP: Paxton

Game 124, Mariners at Phillies

August 19, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 51 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. AJ Burnett, 4:05pm

Wildcard odds – Fangraphs.com: 42.2% Baseballprospectus.com: 43.2%

AJ Burnett was one of the biggest prizes on the free agent market this winter – a solid right-hander coming off a four win season, whose age would preclude the need for a long-term contract. The righty had an elite GB rate, which helped him avoid the dinger problems that plagued his Yankee tenure.

He signed a one-year, $16m deal in Philadelphia, and, like most things associated with this year’s Phillies, it hasn’t gone according to plan. To be clear, that’s not to say that he’s been terrible. His FIP and ERA are now above 4, as his K%, strand rate and GB rates have all fallen while his walk rate and HR rate rose. That said, he had some room to fall. He’s not going to post a 2-3 WAR season, but hes been mediocre instead of out-and-out bad. He’s throwing the same pitches- mostly a sinker, then a four-seam, a big curveball and the occasional change – at the same velocities. The big thing that’s changed is his command. He’s throwing a lot more balls, and that means he’s pitching behind. It’s interesting – if you just look at zone%, the delta looks tiny. But looking at the ‘ahead’/’behind’ numbers at Statcorner, or the Ball% numbers at Brooks Baseball shows a fairly dramatic decline.

That seems to be because the problem’s mostly affected his fastballs. A few more balls there, and he *has* to throw more strikes with his other pitches, leading to fewer whiffs, and more hitter’s counts mean more fastballs (especially sinkers) overall. This in turn puts pressure on his platoon splits. In his two good years in Pittsburgh, Burnett had the platoon advantage in a majority of PAs. That ratio’s lower this year, and the M’s will obviously pose a particular challenge for him. Of course, they should’ve posed a problem for Jerome Williams, too.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morrison, 1B
6: Chavez, RF
7: Zunino, C
8: Miller, SS
SP: Iwakuma

Great article on a new frontier for baseball analysts by Ben Lindberg today at Grantland.

Podcast: Great Week Sullied a Little by Today

August 18, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 5 Comments 

Monday Evening Podcast! You never know when with us lately.

Today’s episode is chock full of some disjointed tangents and points. But almost entirely about the Mariners. It feels a little weird, to be honest.

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

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

Game 123, Mariners at Phillies

August 18, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 55 Comments 

Roenis Elias vs. Jerome Williams, 4:05 pm
Wild Card Odds – Fangraphs.com: 50.1%. Baseballprospectus.com: 52.4%

The M’s head to Philadelphia with their wildcard odds now north of 50%. They face righty Jerome Williams, a pitcher they know well from his time with the Angels and Astros. Williams is now on his third team of the year; he started with Houston, was DFA’d and picked up by the injury-ravaged Rangers, got cut again, and was picked up this month by Philadelphia.

He’s had HR problems – issues that predate his move to hitter-friendly parks. This isn’t really a left/right issue; while his K:BB ratio is abysmal vs. lefties, righties have hit more dingers. It’s not really an arsenal thing – like an journeyman worth his salt, Williams is always tinkering, and throws 4-5 different pitches regularly. It’s…it’s just that whatever magic he had for reducing HRs and getting himself to the bigs appears to have expired in 2011.

That and a declining GB rate, which makes his higher than average HR/FB rate untenable.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Morrison, RF
8: Taylor, SS
SP: Elias

Elias replaces James Jones on the active roster.

Game 122, Mariners at Tigers

August 17, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 40 Comments 

Chris Young Vs. Robbie Ray, 10:05am

It’s our magical giant versus the prospect that only Dave Dombrowski thought was worth Doug Fister. Guess I’m glad he did, though, as Fister’s arrival in Washington made Young expendable.

Ray, a lefty, has been terrible thus far, though not awful by FIP.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Denorfia, RF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Taylor, SS
9: Sucre, C

Game 121, Mariners at Tigers

August 16, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 50 Comments 

King Felix vs. David Price, 4:08pm

I’m not going to say this is the biggest game of Felix’s career. That it might be is actually a bit depressing, so forget I mentioned it.

This game features two recent Cy Young winners, and the winner will take the lead in the wild card chase. What more do you need? This *feels* like the biggest game the M’s have played since…what, 2003?
The Tigers are reeling and now they deal with Felix. Go Mariners.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Denorfia, RF
6: Seager, 3B
7: Zunino, C
8: Morrison, 1B
9: Taylor, SS

Game 120, Mariners at Tigerss

August 15, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 57 Comments 

James Paxton vs. Rick Porcello, 4:08pm
Mariners Wild Card Odds- Fangraphs.com 44.1% Baseballprospectus.com: 49.8%

After a sweep at the hands of the M’s, the Blue Jays playoff odds are now on life-support. The Tigers too have been hurt in the past week thanks to a few heartbreaking losses to the same Jays team, and thanks to the fact that the Royals have essentially stopped losing. After falling out of the divisional lead, the Tigers found themselves trying to re-take the lead and hold off the M’s just in case Kansas City runs away with the AL Central. The Wild Card is doing exactly what it was meant to do, with these fascinating temporary rivalries and fleeting allegiances (I’ve been rooting for the A’s the past few days, and now I’m a kind of Twins fan).

The Tigers starting pitching made them a juggernaut in the Central last year, and despite the struggles of their erstwhile ace, Justin Verlander, they’re still the top rotation by fWAR this year. They pair that elite rotation with an equally-impressive offense; last season, their 113 team wRC+ ranked second in baseball behind the World Champion Red Sox. This year, despite losing Prince Fielder and with a down year (by his standards) from Miguel Cabrera, they’re still at 108, and still second in baseball. So why are they trailing the Royals by a half-game?

First of all, their actual runs-allowed hasn’t quite matched up to their shiny FIPs. Anibal Sanchez and Justin Verlander in particular have been hurt by absurdly low strand rates, and thus, while the Tigers ERA’s still decent, by fielding dependent WAR, the Tigers are neck and neck with the Royals. A big reason for this has been Detroit’s poor defense. The Tigers rank 27th in baseball by UZR, and 26th by defensive efficiency. By defensive runs saved, they’re all the way down at 29th. They’ve been especially weak in the outfield, with ex-Tiger Austin Jackson’s poor UZR numbers pulling them down a bit, and thanks to Torii Hunter’s quick slide from elite corner defender to liability. And then there’s the Tigers atrocious bullpen. By ERA, they rank 27th in MLB. By FIP, they’re 28th (yes, the defenders have hurt them too, but the Tigers’ pen has been bad even putting balls in play aside). Joba Chamberlain, Al Albuquerque and Blaine Hardy have been solid most of the season, but big off-season acquisition Joe Nathan’s and veteran Phil Coke have been replacement-level this season. That’s the reason the Tigers grabbed Joakim Soria from Texas in July, but the ex-closer had a terrible run with his new team (six runs allowed in his first 1 2/3 IP), and just when he appeared to get back on track, he was sidelined with an oblique strain. The M’s have a massive, massive advantage in both defense and bullpen strength/depth.

Today’s starter, Rick Porcello, posted one of the worst strand rates of any starter from 2010-2013, and thus his ERA was always much higher than his FIP. He’s continually tweaked his approach – last year, his strikeout rate jumped dramatically, but he gave away most of that improvement this year. After years of a terrible BABIP and a terrible ERA, he’s posted the best strand rate and the lowest BABIP of his career, and after years of getting hit hard by lefties, he’s posting reverse splits this year. So what’s he doing differently? For one, he’s throwing a lot more four-seam fastballs to lefties, and that’s taken the pressure off of his 92mph sinker. His GB% at a career low (though it’s still a touch above average), and that’s certainly helping his BABIP. He ditched his slider in favor of a curve ball last year, and he’s gotten better at commanding it. It’s not a swing-and-miss curve, but it generates some ground-ball contact, which helps balance out his batted-ball profile. In two seasons of pretty heavy use, no lefty’s hit a home run off of it, which helps Porcello’s other long-standing problem. Clearly, there are things you can point to that help explain his improvement, and he’s got the status as the top HS-pitching prospect in his draft class and all of that too.

Still, you wouldn’t want to bet anything you cared about that this can continue. After a career of struggling against lefties, it’s unlikely throwing a couple more four-seamers has entirely eradicated that problem. Chris Young can throw lefties high four-seam fastballs and get away with it, but I’m not sure a career sinker-baller can do that consistently. As so much of his improved splits is due to a low HR-rate to lefties, it looks even less sustainable. It’s not like he’s striking them out, he’s just keeping them in the ballpark for the first time. The low strikeout rate also makes it harder to believe that the strand rate belongs up there ahead of King Felix’s. Porcello, as basically every sabermetrically-inclined fan has said, was never as bad as his lousy ERAs, but I’m not convinced he’s as good as this year’s, either.

Line-up:
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Chavez, RF
9: Taylor, SS
SP: James Paxton

The Mariners are Now Bumming Out Other Teams

August 13, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 24 Comments 

There’s always a sort of impetus to kick off these posts, something that sat us down to look and then type frantically for however many minutes and hours until, bam, front page post. Sometimes it’s just as simple as looking at a stat sheets and going “wull, that’s weird” and then going from there and other times it’s something that we pick up from video observations, which are more easily repeated in the wild.

I get most of my game intake from radio, which means the perspective I get is somewhat skewed. I don’t have a TV in the same room as my computer because I might never leave otherwise, and besides, I work most of the time. But the point I’m attempting to get at here: Over the past couple of days I’ve been listening to games and have also had the privilege of visually catching some of last night’s game at a bar [with Matthew and others] and tonight’s game while at home.

One of the things that I’ve noticed over the past series on radio is there have been a few instances in which a strikeout pitch got a bit wild and got away from the catcher du jour. In many of those instances (one excludes Mune because Mune, Tolleson because WHO IS HE), I’ve heard or seen the same batters victimized by those strikeouts looking at the balls with a flat “WELP.” No running for first, just existential misery. Or, more commonly, they’re staring at the called third strike or the swing is a bail swing, defensive, reflexive, not hoping for much more than staying alive. The example I would point to is the Melky Cabrera strikeout late in today’s game, but there are others that are available as well and I’ve reviewed what pitching videos I could up to this moment.

These types of swings, I’m kind of used to seeing from the Mariners. Used to seeing Smoak or Montero or Bad Ackley take a hack or watch a bad pitch and then go stoically to the dugout (Michael Saunders doesn’t count, has need of mouth soap). I’m not used to the Mariners causing it to happen outside of Felix. But the Blue Jays are a good team. They don’t really have much pitching, but they’re the fifth best team in the American League by hitter WAR and fourth best by wRC+ and third in runs scored. Their strikeout rate only ranks tenth. And at times during this series, they’ve looked utterly demoralized, incapable of executing on what they needed to do in order to keep in it. They had twenty-seven Ks in 100 ABs. Fangraphs is telling me that they K’d in 20.7% of their ABs coming into this particular game. We outdid that mark by about a third.

This was a series with playoff implications and the Mariners, by strength of their pitching, sometimes loud hitting, and a weird outburst by Kendrys Morales, but mostly pitching, have made the Blue Jays look and act like losers. In Safeco, where the ‘Ners didn’t even have a winning record coming into the homestand. Meanwhile, the offense has done what it was supposed to do to pitchers that had middling track records, which is to say, get leads.

Consider this information over the off day, delighting in it, or applying the habituated skepticism.

Game 119, Blue Jays at Mariners

August 13, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 58 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. RA Dickey, 7:10pm

RA Dickey was the 2012 NL Cy Young award winner, and he signed a big (ok, maybe “moderate” is more accurate) contract with the Jays the year after. And yet, he’s clearly the second best pitcher tonight, and that’s the big reason why Fangraphs gives the M’s a better-than-60% chance of completing the series sweep tonight.

Dickey’s always been just about impossible to project. In his first few seasons as a knuckleballer, first with the M’s and then with Minnesota, his control got him into trouble, and while he limited BABIP (the knuckleballer addendum to Voros McCracken’s DIPS theory), it wasn’t enough to make him more than replacement level. But upon joining the Mets in 2010, he suddenly stopped walking so many and nearly instantly became a good, solid MLB starting pitcher. He posted better-than-league average WARs in 2010 and 2011, and that clearly understated his value: because his true talent BABIP was lower than the average (something FIP ignored), he was much better on the field than you’d know by looking at his fielding independent stats. In 2012, he went nuts and became a strikeout pitcher as well, as batters started chasing his knuckler out of the zone. His control was excellent, and that allowed him to get ahead of hitters and get them to expand the zone. In addition, the low BABIP meant higher than average strand rates, and boom, 20 wins, less-than-3.00 ERA, hardware.

Before he signed with Toronto, Dave tried to correct the idea that Dickey was a one-year wonder, and indeed, Toronto ended up paying not for his extraordinary 2012, but something like his 2010-2011 level of performance. In a lot of ways, that’s what they’ve gotten. His BABIP is right where it was, his walks are up a bit (expected after switching leagues), but his K’s have stayed fairly high too. He’s not getting as many whiffs, but that’s not the story. The story is that he’s lost that traditional knuckleballer skill of stranding baserunners because of his low BABIP. The low BABIP’s still there, but the strand rate keep falling.

Most pitchers have a very similar pattern in their three-true-outcome stats when the bases are empty and when there are runners in scoring position. Traditionally, K rates are highest, walk rates are lowest, and HR rates highest with the bases empty. Hisashi Iwakuma is the best example, as he challenges hitters with the bases empty, then gets a bit cagier with RISP (even if that means pitching around a tough hitter). Dickey was just like everyone else when he was with the Mets, but now, the reverse is happening. Or rather, he’s not seeing any gains in HR-rate from his losses in BB rate with RISP. He walks more hitters, but he’s giving up his HRs when they hurt the most. The odd thing is that it’s not JUST Dickey. The entire Blue Jays team has a higher HR rate with RISP than they do with the bases empty. That makes no sense. Not sure you can blame this on the HR-inflating properties of the Rogers Centre, not sure if it’s pitch calling, or something the catchers are doing, but it’s really weird. Dickey’s retained some of the benefit that adheres to knuckleballers, but he’s lost the others. No idea if he can get them back.

Line-up:
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Denorfia, RF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller SS
SP: Iwakuma

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