Game 22, Mariners at Astros

April 30, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners · 56 Comments 

James Paxton vs. Scott Feldman, 5:10pm

That certainly feels better, and it’s hard not to come away from the Texas series with the impression that the pitching staff is rounding into form a bit. The related, but much less encouraging, observation is hooooly crap, the Rangers are awful. The M’s swept the Rangers in Arlington, behind an out-of-sorts Tai Walker (who at least looked much better than he had), JA Happ (ok, Happ looked pretty good), and a King Felix pretty obviously cruising along at about 70% of maximum efficiency.

Today, the M’s head to Houston to face the division-leading Astros. As I mentioned yesterday, the division is no longer a two- or three-team race. The Astros weren’t supposed to be, you know, GOOD, but they’ve got 14 wins thus far that can’t be retracted. That’s pushed them from the fringes of the race right into the thick of it, as BP now has their odds at winning the division identical to the M’s. The projected final records are off by a fraction of a win. Fangraphs’ odds still show the M’s as the clear favorite, but the picture’s similar – the Astros have essentially eliminated the gap between themselves and the Angels, and have already left the Athletics in the dust. Is this luck? A hot streak? Or signs of a rebuild coming together?

Even in the preseason, the Astros looked incredibly balanced. They lacked big-time stars, but they seemed to have very few of the sinkhole positions that’ve killed recent M’s teams. As you might expect, their actual production’s been a lot more volatile/variable. Despite abysmal showings from their two-headed DH monster of Chris Carter and Evan Gattis,* the Astros still rank 5th in baseball in battting.

Perhaps more surprisingly, they’re third in baseball in ERA and sixth in FIP. Given the out-of-nowhere breakouts by Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh last year, the Astros were one of the tougher teams to project. The same was more or less true of the Indians, but given the Tribe’s huge advantages in strikeouts, velocity and stuff, they seemed like a safer bet to hold on to their gains. In actuality, it’s the Astros who have an advantage in FIP (albeit a tiny one), and a huge advantage in runs allowed. As you may have heard, the Indians have been undone by their defense, who’s team defensive efficiency is an obscene .642, which is far, far worse than any team in recent history. At the other end of that team DER table? Yep, the Astros. Maybe it’s better to talk about the Astros’ run prevention as opposed to just “their pitching staff” but the overall results have been quite good.

Scott Feldman, tonight’s starter, is a veteran righty who signed a three-year deal with the Astros when they were at a low ebb in their rebuild. He’s largely done what’s been asked – been a steady, unremarkable, healthy starter who overcomes a poor strikeout rate by pounding the zone and getting some ground balls. Feldman came up with the Rangers, and had some so-so years out of the bullpen in his early 20s. At 25, he got a chance to start, and it didn’t go well. His K rate plummeted, his walk rate increased, and he wasn’t getting ground balls like he used to. In Texas, that’s a bad combination. However he did it, he came back the next year and went 17-8, and despite a so-so K:BB ratio, he kept the ball in the ballpark and had a solid year in a tough environment. He did it with an interesting pitch mix – a sinker, a cutter and a curve. He’s got a change, but by and large, he’s a three pitch pitcher, and he’s had the same approach now for many years.** He uses it pretty much as you’d expect, with righties getting a lot of sinkers, curves and the odd cutter, and lefties seeing the cutter, curve and occasional change.

Feldman doesn’t have much in the way of platoon splits, but the ones he has are kind of interesting – over 2000 batters faced from either side, lefties have hit *worse* off of him than righties. The gap – which is there in pure wOBA/batting lines as well as FIP – is largely the result of home runs. Lefties have hit 14 fewer HRs off of him than righties in a bit more than 100 *more* plate appearances. And getting more granular than that, the home run gap is itself centered on Feldman’s curve. In his career, he’s thrown just shy of 2,000 curve balls to lefties, and they’ve managed 5 HRs on the pitch. Righties have seen just a hair *over* 2,000 curve balls, and they’ve hit 22 HRs on it. If Cruz can recognize the pitch, he can do some damage on it.

1: Smith, DH
2: Jackson, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Miller, SS
8: Ackley, LF
9: Zunino, C
SP: Paxton

Tacoma opens a series with Fresno, Houston’s new AAA affiliate, today with Jordan Pries facing off against Alex White, the first-rounder that went from Cleveland to Colorado (along with Drew Pomeranz) in the Ubaldo Jimenez deal years ago.

Jimmy Gilheeney gets a spot start for Jackson against Pensacola tonight. Gilheeney’s been excellent as the Generals long-man in the pen, and he’s got years of starting experience.

Bakersfield’s off today.

Clinton had another early one against Wisconsin today, and they came out on the losing side of a 3-1 score. Jefferson Medina struck out 9 in 5 IP, and Gianfranco Wawoe’s hitting streak continued, but other than that, the L-Kings couldn’t figure out the TimberRattlers pitchers. Alex Jackson went 0-4, and is now 0 for his last 17.

* Carter also gets a lot of PAs at 1B, where he teams up with Marwin Gonzalez to form another chimera of ineptitude. I say this not to suggest that Carter’s worthless…I said that years ago, and he’s done OK for himself. Still, the Astros have actually HAD black holes at DH and 1B and they’re STILL a good hitting team. If Carter and Gattis climb out of this early hole, the team could be even better.

** This approach caught the eye of his teammate in Texas, Brandon McCarthy, who modeled his own sinker/cutter shift on Feldman at the end of McCarthy’s Rangers tenure.

Podcast: Mariners Sweep

April 30, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

We again make fun of Jered Weaver; we again gush over Felix; I make the case that the Mariners are in first place; there’s some more ding-donger talk; we get around to the Josh Hamilton trade. Those are some of the topics!

Podcast with Jeff (@based_ball) and Matthew (@msea1): 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. And thank you to our sponsor for this episode, TodayIFoundOut!

Game 21, Mariners at Rangers

April 29, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners · 39 Comments 

King Felix vs. Wandy Rodriguez, 5:05pm

Happy Felix Day. This is more like it – King Felix on the hill, going for a series sweep. Such a different feeling than King Felix, heroically trying to stop a losing streak almost single-handedly.

The Rangers were projected to be terrible, and for as much as you-can’t-predict-baseball remains true, it’s nice to see some confirmation every now and again. The Rangers have a wRC+ of 71 as a team, or a bit worse than Derek Jeter hit last year. Their staff’s xFIP is 4.19, and they’ve already dealt with injuries to Derek Holland and Yu Darvish. It’s those injuries that have allowed former Astro Wandy Rodriguez another shot in MLB.

The lefty was a minor star with Houston, making his debut in their pennant-winning 2005 team, and racking up some 3-4 WAR seasons from 2007 to 2010. In 2011, he was traded to Pittsburgh, and that’s where the wheels came off. He dealt with minor injuries here and there, but lost his effectiveness pretty dramatically in 2014. The Pirates cut him, despite him having one of their richest contracts, in May of last year. This December, he signed a minor league deal with the dumpster-fire Phillies, but failed a physical. He signed another minor league deal with the Braves, but was cut early this month. The Rangers are trying to resuscitate the lefty’s career, and he actually won his first start against the Angels. The Rangers are risking nothing here, and he may soak up some meaningless innings to save development time for the Rangers’ prospects (or just kill time until Holland’s healthy). But man, these are the games you target as an opponent.

Rodriguez was always a fastball/curve guy. He’s got a four-seamer with tons of vertical rise, a sinker, and that big curve. He’s also got a change-up that he’s used pretty sparingly. His arsenal shouldn’t produce a ton of platoon splits, and that’s what we see – when he was good, they’d be normal, even, or even reversed, and when he was awful, he was an equal-opportunity offender. This isn’t a case where the M’s need to really overload their line-up, though if they do, that’s not the end of the world.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ruggiano, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Weeks, LF
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Bloomquist, 3B
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: King. Felix.

I know, I know, it’s not the end of the world, but man, the line-up looks different when Bloomquist replaces Seager. It’s equally true that Seager’s played nearly 150 straight games and the M’s really *should* give him more days off.

Apropos of nothing, Chris Taylor hit another double last night. Just…throwing that out there. The Rainiers lost the game 3-1 to Sacramento, however, wasting a pretty good pitching performance from Mike Montgomery. The lefty gave up doubles to ex-Mariner SS Carlos Triunfel AND Ronny Cedeno. The Rainiers have a well-earned travel day today.

Jackson beat Montgomery again 7-6 in 10 innings. DJ Peterson is showing some signs of life, going 2-4 with a double. The two clubs played an early one today on getaway day, and Jackson *again* nipped the Biscuits with a late-inning comeback. Today, DJ Peterson racked up yet another double, part of a 2-5 day. More, please. The star of the day was reliever Trevor Miller, who pitched 3 1/3 IP in the middle of the game, giving up no runs and striking out 7.

Bakersfield lost to Stockton 5-3, but I’d like to tip my cap to Tyler Pike who, while hit fairly hard, struck out 5 and walked only 1 in 5 IP. He was opposed by rehabbing A’s star Jarrod Parker, but the Blaze got to the lefty, scoring 3 runs in 5 IP, with Justin Seager picking up a 2B. Today, Edwin Diaz pitched six more brilliant innings, striking out 7 and giving 3 hits, 1 walk and no runs. The Blaze beat the Ports 2-1 on a Luis Caballero walk-off single in the 9th.

Clinton beat Wisconsin 7-2, behind a good start from Pat Peterson, who struck out 10 in 5 IP. Arby Fields homered for the L-Kings, and Gianfranco Wawoe extended his hitting streak to 13. Today, the TimberRattlers got their revenge, clubbing Clinton 10-2. Lukas Schiraldi was bad, and Osmer Morales was equally bad in relief. Joe DeCarlo had a good game at the plate, and yes, Gianfranco Wawoe got another hit and two walks. His slash line is now .365/.443/.500.

Game 20, Mariners at Rangers

April 28, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners · 20 Comments 

JA Happ vs. Ross Detwiler, 5:05pm

Now that’s more like it, Taijuan. Armed with better command, Walker carved up the Rangers line-up, and while the Rangers aren’t exactly Murderer’s Row, they had enough lefties to give someone like Walker fits. That they didn’t is very good news. Early on, he used his curve ball, and that seemed like a good change of pace, but then he put it away and stuck with his FB/cutter and change (the M’s announcers mentioned that he used his curve more, but he only threw 4 on the day). To me, the biggest takeaway was that Walker was able to find a pitch that worked when he didn’t have his best stuff. Against the Rangers’ lefties, I expected that pitch to be his splitter, but unfortunately, the splitter is still a work in progress – it was better than it’s been, and he gave up some hard contact even when he put it where he wanted to (like Rougned Odor’s single), but it’s simply not fooling anyone, and I’m still not sure why. That said, his cutter picked up the slack, and he felt comfortable using it against lefties – the strikeout of Choo in the 2nd, for example, or the double play that Leonys Martin hit into. Put it all together, and Walker had his second best career start, and he did it essentially without a change-up and using his curve 4 times total. I’d still like to see what he could do with three or four pitches functioning at the same time, but it’s nice to know he doesn’t HAVE to have that to win.

The M’s face Ross Detwiler, the guy who started the great 11-10 comeback game 9 days ago. As I mentioned then, Detwiler’s got massive platoon splits, with righties hitting .282/.347/.446 off of him in his career. This year, their wOBA is a Nelson-Cruz-inflated .523. He hasn’t pitched since that wild game at Safeco, and he’s given up 18 runs in 12+ innings – it’s not like Texas has a lot of good alternatives, but you’ve got to assume he’s another bad start or two from swapping roles with a current reliever. The M’s will try to hasten that along with their righty-centric line-up.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ruggiano, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Weeks, LF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Miller, SS
9: Zunino, C
SP: Happ

The Rainiers lost 6-5 to Sacramento in extra innings last night, failing to hold a few late leads. Ronny Cedeno tied the game with a HR off of Joe Saunders in the bottom of the 8th to send it to extras. I love the PCL sometimes because of blasts from the recent pasts like that, perhaps the most 2009 sentence you’ll read on this blog all year. Chris Taylor went 3-5 with a 2B and 3B, while Carlos Quentin went 2-3 before being lifted for a pinch runner. Mike Montgomery starts today against Austin Fleet.

Jackson was on the other end of a late comeback, scoring 4 runs over the final two innings to beat Montgomery 5-4. Stephen Landazuri was sharp in the early going, and then the line-up bailed the Generals out after some shaky relief work in the middle innings. Gabby Guerrero had two hits and Dario Pizzano three. Lefty Kyle Hunter starts today for the Generals.

Bakersfield lost to Stockton 9-4, as starter Paul Fry recorded only a single out, giving up 5 runs on 6 hits. Tyler Marlette went 2-5 with a HR, and 2B/SS Brock Hebert pitched a scoreless inning in relief – the only Blaze pitcher not to yield a run. Tyler Pike starts today, and maybe *this* will be the start where his control clicks back into place. I know I’ve been saying that for the best part of a year now. Annnnny day now.

Clinton faces ex-M’s affiliate Wisconsin today. Pat Peterson starts for the L-Kings, and David Burkhalter goes for the TimberRattlers.

Game 19, Mariners at Rangers….Maybe

April 27, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners · 37 Comments 

Taijuan Walker vs. Yovani Gallardo, 5:05pm

The thunder storms that plagued the Dallas metro area last night (forcing the M’s plane to divert to San Antonio) are still in the area, so it’s not clear that the M’s will get this one off. If they do, it’s something of a big series. First, Texas just signed LF Josh Hamilton, after the Angels/Rangers and players union agreed on a split of Hamilton’s remaining contract. The Angels are still on the hook for most of it, but Texas will pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $7m for the remainder of Hamilton’s deal. Initially, it seemed like all parties would agree to write down some of the $83m total that Hamilton’s still owed. It now looks like that isn’t the case – it’s just that Hamilton is taking “less” because he’s paying income tax on the deal. He receives less money than if he’d signed the deal with Texas (which has no state income tax) in the first place, but that’s quite a bit different from Hamilton – or the Angels – taking less than he’s owed. Hamilton won’t be suiting up in this series; he’s going to do some work at extended spring training and then may go on a rehab assignment in the minors. It’s still a big deal in the AL West, and it will eventually give Texas more options in LF. Texas is doing pretty well for themselves here, though it’s worth remembering how close the M’s came to signing Hamilton to an ill-considered contract. Yeesh.

Second, the M’s come in with the AL West even more muddled than it was before the season started. Their poor homestand hasn’t hurt their playoff odds as much as you’d think, largely because the Angels and A’s haven’t taken advantage. But what we do see is Houston’s playoff odds have gotten off the floor, and are now higher (by Fangraphs) than Oakland’s were on opening day. The Astros gain has come from the supposed front-runners, and while they’re clearly still the underdog, it’s kind of stunning that there are four teams in the running, even in the early going. If you look at BP’s playoff odds, the picture’s a bit different. Because BP had the Angels as the clear favorite, the fact that the M’s have had a poor start hurts them more – they’ve dropped 10% of playoff odds in the past week, and have seen their odds of winning the division fall below 20% – just 4+ percentage points ahead of Houston. You can quibble with one or the other, and you can quibble with the idea of even looking at such things so early, but the M’s had a chance to rack up wins against some of their weaker opponents, and couldn’t. However, their chance isn’t entirely gone. A run against Texas, Houston and LA would help quite a bit.

And that’s where Taijuan Walker comes in. Despite some improvements in his last start, the M’s haven’t won any of the games he’s started, and while he battled a bit more, his command still hasn’t really shown up. A big part of the M’s struggles can be laid at the feet of some poor pitching performances, Walker’s among them. I’ve mentioned that his BABIP is due to come down purely due to regression, but Walker can help matters by locating his pitches and getting batters to chase. It’s interesting that for all of Walker’s raw stuff, he’s never generated even average chase numbers – his contact rate’s better than average, so this isn’t the kiss of death, but a guy with a 95mph fastball and even a decent split should do pretty well in oSwing. I’d love to think someone’s looking at his arm action really carefully to see if he’s giving the change/splitter away – and I’d love it even more if the person looking really closely worked for the M’s.

I’ve written more about Yovani Gallardo this year than I ever thought I would, so if you’d like a crash course, check out the game preview here, or this look in spring training. Thus far, his numbers have been pretty good. His K% is up, and while yes, he has faced the whiff-tastic Astros, but the other 3 teams are average or better. His HR rate is high, but that’s always going to be part of his game, and his strand rate doesn’t look out of line with his career numbers. I’d imagined that the transition to the AL would’ve been tougher than it’s been to date, but that could always change. Here’s the line-up that will go about trying to change it:

1: Ruggiano, CF
2: Smith, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Weeks, LF
7: Miller, SS
8: Bloomquist, 1B
9: Zunino, C
SP: Walker

Tarp on the field, rain in the air…I don’t have a good feeling about this, but we’ll see.

I know Gallardo hasn’t had much in the way of platoon splits, but that’s a remarkably right-handed line-up. It’s not like even small-sample hitter-vs-pitcher stats are to blame, given Weeks has never faced him (they’ve spent their careers up to 2015 as teammates). Lomo’s probably out because he’s 1-16 against him, but Bloomquist is 2-14, and Lomo at least had two walks. I can understand giving a night off to Ackley, but the Rangers have two lefties scheduled to start Tuesday and Wednesday’s games.

Mike Kickham, Steven Landazuri and Carlos Misell get the starts in AAA, AA and A+ tongiht – Clinton’s got a day off after they got swept in a double-header (technically, a game and a continuation) yesterday.

The Rainiers sputtered to a 6-2 defeat in Sacramento, as Chris Taylor and Carlos Quentin both went 0-4, while starter Sam Gaviglio got knocked around, giving up two home…you’ve stopped reading, haven’t you?

Jackson lost to Montgomery 3-2, and starter Austin Pruitt, who was very sharp against the Generals – he faced the minimum through 5. DJ Peterson was 0-4 with 3 Ks, dropping his season line to .179/.242/.196. Misael Siverio put together another fine start in a losing effort; he’s now given up only 7 H and 2 R in 16 1/3 IP and has a 15:4 K:BB ratio.

Bakersfield lost to San Jose, with Dan Altivilla taking the loss after walking 4 (to 2 strikeouts) in 4 2/3 IP. Trey Cochran-Gill gave up his second run of the year in relief as well. Tyler O’Neill continues to move past his early struggles, and went 2-4 with a double.

Game 18, Twins at Mariners

April 26, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners · 47 Comments 

Roenis Elias vs. Kyle Gibson, 1:10pm

James Paxton couldn’t overcome some errors, and while I agree with Lloyd McClendon that his start showed some improvement, the M’s are still 7-10, and Paxton’s numbers are still ugly. Of interest is his strand rate, which is currently below 50%. As you might imagine, this is in turn the product of his incredibly poor results with men on base. With nobody on, Paxton’s giving up a .208/.250/.377 slash line. As soon as someone gets on base, that plummets to .412/.477/.618. He’s been terrible with two outs as well, though that may be the result of one awful inning against Texas. Still, it makes you wonder if there’s something out of whack when he’s in the stretch. His HR rate is elevated, but while it’ll likely come down, we’re getting close to having to say that his previous record of HR *suppression* was more small-sample-oddity than real, lasting skill. Hope I’m wrong there.

Today, the M’s look to win the series behind Roenis Elias, just called up from Tacoma after yesterday’s game. As you probably know, Hisashi Iwakuma was placed on the 15-day DL with a lat injury, but he’s having an MRI on his shoulder, so that’s….that’s just fantastic. Elias was one of the surprises of 2014, but he was so so in the spring, and he’s been a bit worse than that in three starts for Tacoma. The Cuban lefty’s given up 21 hits in 15 2/3 IP, along with three HRs – one for each start. Last year, Elias was good enough against righties despite a low 3/4 delivery that *looked* like it would make his pitches easier for righties to track. He gave lefties fits, often dropping down to make his arm angle even more extreme, but it was his performance against righties that enabled a very solid 1.3 fWAR year. It could mean nothing, and it could be the result of working on specific pitches, but AAA righties have dominated Elias in the early going, and that’ll be something to look for today. Elias remains a great option for the rotation. Not every team can recall a guy who pitched 163 *good* big league innings last year. It’s just that this isn’t the way the M’s wanted to deploy Elias, and there’s now a bit more pressure on Taijuan Walker, as there’s no one else on the 40-man who could conceivably slot in. Making a 40-man move isn’t the end of the world, and pitchers get hurt all the time, but the pitching depth drops off markedly after Elias, and you’d hate to require a DFA just to bring in someone the team didn’t think was ready.

Kyle Gibson is a ground-balling righty with a sinker, a change and a slider. His fastball sits around 92 and has good arm-side run, but, as with everything Gibson throws, the intent is poor contact, not whiffs. In the minors, Gibson was something of a strikeout pitcher, with K% over 20% most everywhere, and over 21% in two long stints in AAA. Upon his call-up, though, the K’s were essentially gone – his K% hit 14% last year, a bit higher than the 12% he managed in 2013. This year, he’s K’d 3 of the 73 batters he’s faced, or 4%. Worse, he’s walked 9 and plunked another. Grounders can help you pitch around some control problems, but Gibson’s GB% is down as well in 2015 – all in all, it’s not been a great start to the year for Gibson. That’s a bit surprising, given that there were reports in the off-season and spring that Gibson’s velocity was up, and he had a solid spring, leading the Twins in strikeouts. It’s actually nice to see the whole “great spring, regular season face plant” thing happen to other teams too. For a sinker guy, he’s had relatively minor platoon split issues, but this does seem like a good spot for the M’s lefties.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Smith, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Elias

With Elias on his way up, Forrest Snow got a spot start last night for Tacoma and pitched well, as the Rainiers downed Sacramento 6-1. Snow went 4 2/3 allowing a run on 5 hits and no walks, while striking out 4. Joe Beimel pitched an inning, and then Logan Bawcom closed it out. Chris Taylor went 2-4, and John Hicks had a big double to help the offense. Sam Gaviglio starts today against Ty Blach.

Montgomery downed Jackson 7-4, as Dylan Unsworth gave up 5 runs in 2 IP. DJ Peterson had three hits for the Generals, though all were singles. Misael Siverio leads the Generals today, with Montgomery countering with mustached righty Austin Pruitt.

Bakersfield twirled yet another shutout, their 5th on the year, to beat San Jose 3-0. Ryan Yarbrough went 6 for the win, and Tyler O’Neill supplied the offense with a three-run HR. Bakersfield, who plays in the Cal League, in a park where the CF wall is 354′ away, now has a team ERA below 3.00. Dan Altavilla starts today against San Jose’s Nick Vander Tuig.

Clinton dropped a 4-3 contest to Beloit, though Gianfranco Wawoe’s hitting streak remains intact. Wawoe’s hitting .349/.417/.512 on the year in a pitcher-friendly league. Clinton plays a double header today, with Daniel Missaki and Tyler Herb starting.

Game 17, Twins at Mariners

April 25, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners · 29 Comments 

James Paxton vs. Trevor May, 6:10pm

Felix, man. There’s nothing like watching Felix when he’s got his best stuff, except maybe watching Felix with his best stuff in a playoff game. Get on that, M’s.

Today the M’s face local kid Trevor May. The righthander grew up in Kelso, and the Phillies signed him out of a UW commitment. He excelled in the Philadelphia system, pitching around a few too many walks by racking up strikeouts thanks to a plus fastball and a solid change-up. Like many young pitchers, he hit a bit of a snag in his first trip through AA. In 2012, May walked 78 and plunked another 11 in 149+ innings. To make matters worse, his rising FB led to lots of elevated contact, and that produced 22 home runs. May was clearly still a prospect, but one with plenty of question marks. After that season, the Phillies flipped him to Minnesota in the Ben Revere trade. His second tour of duty in the Eastern League was a bit better, but his walk rate was still over 10%.

Some tweaks heading into 2014 helped May avoid the long ball, and while his walk rate was still troubling, he was still striking out nearly a batter an inning. May got called up to the Twins in August, and made his debut against Oakland. The results were not encouraging: 7 walks, no K’s, and 4 runs in just 2 innings. In his first 5 MLB starts, he pitched 5 innings just once, and gave up 23 runs in 19 innings. The Twins apparently made some mechanical changes and May finished strong, with a 10K, no walk performance against the White Sox and then a 7K, 1 BB game against Detroit to close out the year. His season numbers were ugly, but there were some encouraging signs heading into 2015.

Twins manager Paul Molitor thought May struggled with his emotions last year, so the Twins worked with May on avoiding big innings by staying positive. In general, these are a subset of “best shape of his life” stories we hear every spring – every pitcher has a “new attitude” or “renewed focus” or some such. There’s also no way to apportion credit/blame to something like “focus”, but through two starts in 2015, May’s walked only 1. He’s not just aping Phil Hughes, though. May still throws his share of balls, but he’s able to get swings on a fair number of them.

The primary reason is his change, a pitch BA lists as the best in the system. It’s got somewhat unusual movement for a change – it’s got almost as much vertical rise as his four-seam fastball, and as much vertical rise as any change in baseball (along with Danny Duffy, Clayton Kershaw and Chris Tillman). In his brief career, that change gets whiffs on 43% of swings, and batters swing at it over half the time – not bad considering May’s crippling control problems last year. This season, he’s using a sinker a bit more, and he’s cut back on his slider – the slider was easily his worst pitch in 2014. His primary breaking ball is a curve with good horizontal movement – May’s low 3/4 delivery probably helps.

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

The Rainiers beat Albuquerque 3-2, as Jordan Pries put together a great start, going 6 1/3 IP with 7 Ks and allowing 2 runs. Chris Taylor went 2-4 with a double, and Carlos Quentin doubled as well for his first Tacoma hit. Roenis Elias starts tonight in Sacramento.

Edwin Diaz made up for his one poor start of the year, blanking San Jose over 5 1/3 IP.

Jackson and Clinton were rained out.

Game 16, Twins at Mariners

April 24, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners · 25 Comments 

King Felix vs. Phil Hughes, 7:10pm

Last season, King Felix finished 4th in baseball in pitcher WAR. Slotting in 5th was Phil Hughes, Yankee cast-off, budget signing, and a guy who’d never come all that close to 3 WAR in a season before 2014’s 5.7. He set an all-time record for K:BB ratio, got his home runs under control and was rewarded with a generous contract extension that’ll run through 2019. There were a number of keys to his breakout season, but the most obvious one was a determination – really a single-minded obsession – to stick to the strike zone. Hughes has always had solid control, but in 2014 he all but stopped throwing balls. Not only was his walk rate the lowest in baseball, but his zone%, the percentage of pitches thrown in the zone, led all qualified hurlers by a mile. These days, this really is a side contest between Hughes and Bartolo Colon, and Hughes took it handily last year (Colon leads in the early-going of 2015, however – game on). This is interesting, because Hughes’ big problem in New York was the long ball. It seems odd that one could cure a meatball problem by throwing more strikes, but it seemed to work for Hughes (as did moving out of new Yankee Stadium, of course). Now, as a legitimate rotation ace, Hughes is attempting to show that his adjustments can last, and that his 2014 wasn’t a fluke.

Ah, adjustments. If there’s one thing Hughes is known for, it’s that he can’t stop making adjustments. Jeff’s talked about it, I’ve talked about it, and it seems like there’s a story about some change Hughes is making to his pitch mix or his arm angle. Hughes reacts to the ways batters react to him – if a pitch isn’t working, he drops it and uses another. Traditionally, this has taken the form of swapping out a slider and cutter, or curve and slider. In general, I think this sort of a thing is laudable, and it speaks to why scouts remark on a prospect’s “coachability.” There’s a humility to it all that you’d think guys with 4+ ERAs would have, or anyone in baseball, really, but in general, humility isn’t correlated too well with succeeding at the upper levels of baseball. Hughes’ adaptability seemed like a good proof of concept for how to bring sabermetrics into player development, and not just GM development – if you’ve got a guy who’ll follow the data, and someone capable of making changes to his repertoire based on data (and do so quickly), that sounds pretty cool. Now, however, Hughes faces a very different challenge.

Is Phil Hughes physically capable of NOT changing? Hughes tinkered so much because he hadn’t found an approach that’s led to consistent success as a starting pitcher. Righties annihilated his curve ball in 2012, so he ditched it and went to the slider. So, in 2013, lefties torched him, hitting .294/.354/.509 off him. 2014 brought the focus on the strike zone and he swapped the slider out again, this time going with a cutter and a slightly harder curve. A 5.7 fWAR season resulted, and I’m sure Hughes – and the Twins – would love to see him maintain the same approach. So how’s that going? Not so well. So far in 2015, he’s still throwing strikes, but the curve is all but gone, as Hughes almost out-Colons Colon, throwing a mix of 60% four-seamers, 16% sinkers and 18% cutters – all have average velocities between 90 and 92.2mph. Moreover, he’s changed his arm angle *again*, releasing the ball closer to the 3rd base side than he did last season (but similar to his 2012 arm angle). I have no idea how much of this is intentional, but it’s the most Phil Hughes thing ever.

Thus far, this new and…uh…different Phil Hughes hasn’t been able to recapture last year’s form. In 18 2/3 innings on the young season, he’s given up 11 runs on *4* HRs. The walks are still low, but he’s a quarter of the way to his 2014 HR total already. Like last season, it’s actually *righties* who are doing the most damage, and like last year, his BABIP’s still on the high end of normal. FIP loved his K:BB ratio and low HRs last year, but his actual runs allowed came in quite a bit above his fielding-independent stats.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Smith, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Ackley, LF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: El Cartelua

Tacoma’s Jordan Pries looks to avoid the big inning today and put together his first really good outing of the year. He’ll face off against Albuquerue starter Leuris Gomez, a swingman who came up as a position player, then toiled away as a starter who got big K numbers, but couldn’t keep teams off the board, to an intermittently successful reliever to…this. Mike Montgomery (and the R’s bullpen) combined on a 3 hit shutout of the Isotopes yesterday, winning 3-0. Montgomery gave up 1 hit in 6 IP, with 5 Ks, and Chris Taylor hit his second HR. As you may have heard, the M’s signed ex-White Sox RF Carlos Quentin to a minor league deal, and he was in the line-up for Tacoma, going 0-3 in his first game. He’s going to DH mostly, but may play 1B a few times a week. Quentin was traded to Atlanta recently purely to even out salaries in the BJ Upton deal, but was released immediately. ZiPS has him projected for a .340 MLB wOBA in limited duty.

Jackson faces off against the Tennessee Smokies today with Dylan Unsworth taking the hill against former 2nd round pick Rob Zastryzny. Tyler Pike walked 6 in 3 2/3 yesterday, half the Generals total of 12 free passes. As you might imagine, it didn’t go well, with the Smokies winning 9-2. Ex-M’s relief prospect Matt Brazis made his debut for Tennessee yesterday – he’s the guy the M’s sent to Chicago in exchange for Justin Ruggiano. Speaking of M’s/Cubs stuff, the Rainiers signed pitcher Tony Zych, who played parts of three seasons with the Smokies, and he’s made two appearances out of the pen for Jackson, the last one coming against Tennessee.

Edwin Diaz starts tonight as Bakersfield takes on San Jose. Bakersfield nipped the Giants 3-2 yesterday, with Tyler Marlette’s HR tying the game in the 6th, and a walk, 2 wild pitches and a single producing a walk-off win for the Blaze. Trey Cochran-Gill pitched a grounder-filled inning in relief for the win. The righty has yielded 2 hits and 1 run in 11 2/3 IP thus far with 12 Ks. As a major-college guy, he’s probably in line for a call-up in a while.

Clinton beat Kane County 7-1 yesterday, with Lukas Schiraldi and Osmer Morales pitching well, and Alex Jackson tallying two hits. German native Markus Solbach took the loss. Today, Jeferson Medina faces off with Daniel Gossett – it’s a rematch of the game 5 days ago that Clinton won easily.

Two Early M’s Observations

April 23, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners · 8 Comments 

The Mariners have played 15 games – not terribly well, as it happens, but they remain an intriguing and promising team. Less than 10% of the way through the regular season, we’re not yet able to say a whole lot about true talent. We can identify some patterns in their results, but we can’t say that those results are representative. We can’t yet say what the Mariners *are* as a team, but we can say what they’ve *done* as a team. Through 15 games. This isn’t a gripping lead-in, but I’m describing a 6-9 team in April.

Just for reference, at 15 games in last year, we would’ve focused on the near total collapse of Kyle Seager’s batting line, and the signs of hope from Nick Franklin and Corey Hart. So let’s forget about individual players, and look at what’s defined the Mariners as a group thus far. I’ve got two random, unrelated observations here: 1) The M’s defense has been remarkably lousy/unlucky. 2) The M’s sequencing on offense has been about perfect. The former goes a long way towards explaining both why the M’s pitching staff’s ERA is so much worse than its FIP, and also why the team strand rate’s poor. The latter says that while their luck may improve on the run prevention front, they’ve been pretty fortunate on *when* they’ve scored runs.

1) Mike Petriello had a good piece at Fangraphs this morning about the Cleveland Indians defense, and how the club sought to improve it this past offseason. Last year, you can make the case that defense prevented the Indians from running away with the Central, or, more conservatively, that the over 120 run gap in UZR between the Indians and the Royals *might* have been a factor in the Royals edging out the Indians for the wild card. It’s early yet, but despite a number of personnel changes, the Indians still rate poorly. They have reason to hope that they won’t be awful for long, but awful they’ve been.

One of the ways this awfulness is demonstrated is by looking at a team’s BABIP against, or defensive efficiency. By Fangraphs’ BABIP, the M’s rank 28th in baseball, easily ahead of Cleveland, but edging out the Rangers as well. By Baseball Prospectus’ defensive efficiency stat, the M’s are 29th, a bit *worse* than the Rangers. The M’s have allowed 420 balls in play, while the A’s have allowed 419; the M’s have allowed 26 more base hits than have the A’s, which, if you’re into that sort of thing, pretty much explains the A’s advantage in the standings.

What’s interesting is that this defensive problem isn’t so much a problem with the outfield – an outfield that’s seen a whole lot of Nelson Cruz, thanks to Seth Smith’s groin injury – it’s been an infield issue. I mentioned it in yesterday’s game thread, but the M’s positioning and first step hasn’t been up to par yet, and that’s meant that ground balls that would normally be turned into outs have bounded into the outfield. The M’s staff has generated a good number of ground balls, but they’ve been awful at turning double plays. The Rangers and A’s have each turned 5 more DPs this year despite the fact that the M’s pitchers have induced more ground balls.

Personally, I’m a bit encouraged by this. It hasn’t been fun to watch, of course, and the loss to the Astros on Tuesday was an object lesson in how BABIP can kill, but this doesn’t seem to be a systematic weakness. By advanced metrics, the M’s defense looks OK. The fact that the problem’s concentrated on the IF means that guys like Robinson Cano just haven’t gotten to a few balls. If Robbie Cano is the problem, it’s probably not going to be a problem for long. Sure, the OF defense could get worse, especially if Cruz continues to see a lot of time in right, and if Austin Jackson’s first step doesn’t return. But if the M’s start turning grounders into outs, they’ll start to chip away at the yawning chasm between their fielding-dependent and fielding-independent pitching marks, and that’d mean fewer total runs allowed.

2) As unlucky as M’s pitchers have been, their bats have been remarkably fortunate. The Hardball Times founder Dave Studeman mentioned it on twitter, but the M’s have a high offensive win probability added despite relatively few total runs scored. The M’s rank 21st in both runs scored and on-base percentage, but 5th in WPA, a stat measuring how the offense improved the team’s chance of winning games. Traditionally, and this is one of those groundbreaking sabermetric insights, offenses that make a ton of outs don’t improve their team’s odds of winning. A line-up that HAS been quite good at improving WPA despite a sub-.300 OBP is something of an odd duck, though it’s worth noting both that the M’s had a surprisingly good WPA given their putrid output in April of 2014, and also that the team that led the league in WPA last April was the Minnesota Twins’ juggernaut of an offense.

Some stats *feel* right – they highlight something that you see while watching a game, but that doesn’t get picked up in traditional stats. This one…depends. What’s happening is that the M’s offense has racked up plenty of WPA in their big comebacks, two extra-inning wins in Oakland, and then the wild 11-10 comeback against the Rangers. That said, it’s not like the M’s are a clear Pythagorean outlier – if you re-allocated the M’s total runs scored, you might come out with a similar W/L record. Sure, any runs added in that 12-0 shellacking in Oakland would be wasted, but the M’s have two one-run losses and four two-run losses on the year.* An optimist would point out that this is more an artifact of great M’s offensive performances coinciding with awful pitching, allowing the O to take all of the WPA spoils (as the pitching WPA in those three big games was negative). The pessimist would point out that the M’s are 6-9, and have an OBP below .300, and wouldn’t deign to talk about WPA.

I don’t really know what to think about either of these stats, and it’s quite possible neither will persist much into May. I don’t *think* the M’s are going to be a lousy defensive team, but it’d be concerning if they weren’t as good on the IF as we thought. You can’t count on WPA luck to stick around and help you win a pennant, but it doesn’t really need to. The M’s won three games they very easily could’ve lost, and here’s hoping we’ll remember them when toasting a divisional championship – the gap between runs and WPA could shrink either because the M’s sequencing luck deserts them, or because they *start scoring lots of runs*. Which of those is more likely depends on what you expect from Logan Morrison, Mike Zunino and Rickie Weeks.

* Outside of that one game in Oakland, *every game* the M’s has been decided by three or fewer runs.

Game 15, Astros at Mariners

April 22, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners · 20 Comments 

JA Happ vs. Roberto Hernandez, 7:10pm

Last night’s loss was probably the toughest to take of the M’s young season – a young season that’s already produced more than its share of painful defeats. For the first time this year, Taijuan Walker managed to pitch out of trouble, and generate actual whiffs/strikeouts. His fastball velocity looked OK, and he was able to use all of his pitches, even though his command still hasn’t been good, and his results were skewed a bit by CB Bucknor impressionistic umpiring. Despite what is now the highest walk rate of any starting pitcher with at least 10 IP, Walker isn’t missing the zone too often – the percentage of his pitches that are in the pitch fx strike zone is far higher than Felix’s, for example. Walker’s been done in by command lapses and an awful BABIP. I thought about that last night as fly ball after fly ball fell in front of Austin Jackson, and what could’ve been a critical double play ball off the bat of Marwin Gonzalez seemingly crossed up Robbie Cano, scooting into right and kick-starting the Astros big rally. To date, the M’s rank poorly both by DRS and regular old defensive efficiency despite any clear defensive black holes – especially last night, with Nelson Cruz DHing. It’s way too early to prove, but I’m going to be watching the M’s positioning going forward. None of this gives Walker a pass, as his FIP is still plenty awful thanks to that walk rate. But it may be a factor, and getting Walker from “tire fire” back to “OK 5th starter” would really help the M’s right now.

In the course of researching the above, I found it kind of odd that zone% – the percentage of pitches thrown in the zone – and walk rate don’t correlate better. Sure, the guys at the very very top of that ranking – Bartolo Colon, Phil Hughes, etc. – never walk anyone. But Felix has one of the league’s lowest zone%, and he’s not exactly walking the world. Zack Greinke and Scott Kazmir are in the top (er, bottom?) 20 and they have low walk rates. There are command-challenged walk machines in there too, but by and large it’s not an iron clad lock that a poor zone% = a poor BB%. You just have to do something *else* to compensate. Felix and Greinke get plenty of swings on out-of-the-zone pitches, for example. Jason Vargas generates tons of contact, and tries hard to entice hitters to make contact on balls, but if that doesn’t work, he’ll give you a strike to hit. That’s essentially the approach Roberto Hernandez takes, and he comes in to tonight’s game with the lowest zone% amongst all starting pitchers in baseball. A bit more than 1/3 of his pitches are in the zone – one THIRD. He’s never been a low BB% guy, but that still strikes me as an absurdly low percentage. What he does is generate ground balls. Back in 2007-2010, when he was known as Fausto Carmona, Hernandez posted GB% over 60%, and with a 94mph fastball, a change and slider, he got a solid number of Ks to go with them. His ability to create so many grounders mitigated the walk rate, as all they did was create double play opportunities.

Unfortunately for Hernandez, the velocity’s not what it was, and injuries and swings in BABIP and HRs have made him one of the least consistent pitchers you’ll find; this should probably not be a shock given that he was not able to maintain a consistent legal identity over his career. At this stage, he throws an 89-90mph sinker without quite as much drop as it once had, and he’s moving away from his slider. Instead, he’s throwing his change-up a bit more, including to righties. At 83-84, it’s pretty firm, and looks more like a splitter by pitch FX – it has a bit less horizontal break than his sinker, but it drops more. As Hisashi Iwakuma knows, a splitter (or any change-up, really) is a great pitch for getting swings on balls not in the zone. Good arm action disguises the pitch, and it *looks* like a strike right until it dives below the knees. It’s a good pitch to use on opposite-handed hitters, but it hasn’t prevented Hernadez from showing some pretty standard platoon splits. Lefties have fared much better against him in his career, as he’s simply not able to strike them out. They may top his change, but they’re not whiffing on it.

At 34, Hernandez isn’t a world beater. He’s just hanging on, though it’s worth pointing out that he can go through some pretty effective stretches every now and again – he had one in April last year, in fact. He’s a stop-gap, and paired with a good IF defense, he can be a decent one. He’s had mixed results in his two starts this year, but the M’s need to be patient and wait for him to elevate a sinker. The M’s have been baaaad against ground ball pitchers in recent years, but they’ve been slightly better thus far thanks largely to Nelson Cruz.

The line-up:
1: Smith, DH
2: Jackson, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Zunino, C
SP: Happ

The Rainiers dropped the first game of their series against Albuquerque 8-6 after Sam Gaviglio turned in his first dud of a start. The teams face off again tonight with Mike Kickham facing Chad Bettis.

Jackson beat Tennessee in comeback fashion, 5-3; the Generals scored 4 runs over the final two innings to win. Stephen Landazuri gave up 3 runs, but James Gilheeney and Matt Anderson combined to allow just two singles and no walks over the final 3 1/3IP. Tonight, Scott DeCecco gets the ball for Jackson.

Bakersfield stayed hot, beating Stockton 5-1 behind solid pitching from Dan Altavila (6 IP, 1R, 7Ks), Nick Valenza (2 IP, 0R , 3Ks) and Trey Cochran-Gill (1IP, 0R 1K). Austin Wilson is showing further signs of life, going 2-4 with a double. That made up for Tyler O’Neill and Tyler Marlette going 0-8. O’Neill had 4Ks, too, and now has 21 Ks to 1 BB on the year. It’s early. Carlos Misell faces off against Kyle Finnegan, a one-time college teammate of Carson Smith.

Clinton dropped a 5-2 contest to Kane County. Gianfranco Wawoe, the splendidly-named 2B from Curacao, extended his hitting streak to 8 games. And, since the L-Kings have already played – and won – today, I can report that Wawoe now has a 9-game streak, going 13-32 with 2 HRs over that span. Pat Peterson started today’s 2-1 win, but the bullpen came up big, with Ryan Horstman again looking sharp, with 2 Ks and 0 hits in 1 1/3IP, after coming in with a man on 3rd.

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