The M’s 2015: The Risks
With opening day tantalizingly close, and the M’s set to open their most anticipated season
since 2010, er, 2008, in a long time, the M’s remain the favorite in a revamped AL West. As we know, of course, projections don’t win actual games, and everything from trades to injury to breakout years and collapses mean that the season won’t play out the way PECOTA/ZiPS/Steamer/baseball writers see it. The M’s could be much, much better than their projection, and we will retroactively identify and scoff at the deficiencies in the projections. Alternatively, the M’s could underperform significantly, as anyone who’s followed this team for a while knows. So today and tomorrow we’ll take a look at some of the areas that could cause the M’s actual win total to diverge from the projection consensus of somewhere around 87-90 wins. We’ll start today with some of the reasons the M’s might underperform, because pessimism feels like an old comfortable old jacket at this point.. Ahhhhh.
1: Mike Zunino’s grasp of the strike zone remains tenuous
Mike Zunino did a brilliant job behind the plate last year, and the more we learn about catcher framing, the more we understand that Safeco field isn’t the only thing making the M’s pitchers look better than they otherwise would. He’s a leader, has the tools to become a perennial all-star, and just turned 24 last week. He also put up a .254 on base percentage last year, knocking 22 HRs but costing the M’s runs on offense thanks to his all-or-nothing approach. Zunino is both a catcher, and a catcher who hits freakishly few ground balls, so his BABIP is never going to be very high, but however many HRs you hit, striking out in a third of your plate appearances AND putting up a low BABIP is a recipe to getting reaaallly familiar with the Mendoza line.
There are two distinct issues here. The first, and the one that’s working very hard at correcting, is his strike zone judgment. Last year, he swung at nearly 40% of out-of-the-strike-zone pitches, up 10 percentage points from his call-up in 2013. As a result of this ecumenical approach to swinging, his K:BB ratio tanked – his 0.11 BB:K ratio was tied for the worst in MLB for anyone with at least 300 PAs. If this number is below the 0.16 put up by Javier Baez last year, you have a serious problem. What’s worrying is that it doesn’t appear that opposing pitchers have fully plumbed the depths of Zunino’s obsession with swinging. They threw him a slightly below-average number of strikes last year, but there’s some room for that number to drop. Pitchers understand that Pablo Sandoval *wants* to swing, and thus he gets far fewer strikes than average (or Zunino). As long as his O-swing stays around 40%, he’ll see his strike percentage drop, as pitchers learn there’s no need to risk strikes.
Second, it’s obviously a problem if Zunino swings and misses at breaking balls diving out of the zone. His other problem, though, is hitting them. Scott Lindholm had a great article on hitting pitches out of the zone a few months back at Beyond the Box Score. Within that is a great Tableau visualization/table comparing each batter’s BA and SLG% for in-zone pitches and out-of-zone pitches. It’s well worth diving into and playing with. What it’s showing you is that there are a few different ways to be a good hitter. For those hitters with massive, massive gaps in in-zone vs. out-of-zone production, you need to do serious damage on strikes. So, Jose Abreu, Devin Mesoraco, Giancarlo Stanton, Steve Pearce, Adam Dunn are all clustered near the top. Freakish, 70-80 grade power helps, but so does plate discipline – that’s why Dunn and Stanton are here.
That’s not the only approach, however. Sandoval has a predictably small gap. If he had his approach and wasn’t successful, he’d have washed out of the league years ago. As it is, he’s actually a pretty decent bad-ball hitter, and while his stats are worse, they’re not atrocious when he hits a ball. Same thing with Adam Jones, another guy with a poor BB:K ratio and some pop. He doesn’t really recognize the strike zone all that well, but he can hit bad balls well enough that the discipline issue isn’t critical. The final approach is just being good at everything, and that’s where we find Mike Trout, who destroys strikes and is suprisingly decent on balls, especially given his well-known struggles with high fastballs. In any event, just as you can be effective with a really small gap between strikes and balls, or with a really huge gap, you start to see the flip side of the coin, the evil Spock approach that could produce similar results. For example, if you’re not strong enough to do serious damage on strikes, then you’re going to have a Sandovalian gap but without Sandovalian production – this is the sad state that, say, Endy Chavez and Justin Smoak find themselves in. With Smoak in particular, it’s not that he didn’t recognize the strike zone – he was pretty good at that. It’s that even when he got his pitch, he couldn’t do much with it. And what the gap doesn’t tell you is the rate at which you put balls and strikes into play. Thus, having a very large gap isn’t helpful if you put too many bad pitches in play. Unfortunately, this is the situation Zunino finds himself in. He’s not yet good enough to SLG *enough* on balls that 2-strike counts aren’t a kind of death sentence. But unless he tightens the strike zone, he’ll keep seeing more and more balls.
The good news here is that Zunino and the M’s are very aware of the problem, and Zunino’s spent the spring giving us reasons to believe he’s made serious strides in plate discipline. It’s tempting to look at his spring and his birthdate and assume that this is something he’s rapidly growing out of, and that he’ll improve his BB:K over time like most hitters. But the cautionary tale here is that of another young catcher whose power helped him overcome a terrible BB:K ratio for a while, but who never improved on his first full season in the big leagues. Look on the works of JP Arencibia and despair, M’s fans. Arencibia blew through the low minors and then had a bit of a hiccup in his first taste of AAA. Returning to the level and the deliciously hitter-friendly Cashman Field, Arencibia uncorked a slash line of .301/.359/.626 in 2010. In 2011, he was the Blue Jays starting C, hit 23 HRs, and though the .282 OBP wasn’t ideal, Arencibia could improve on his plate discipline with time, right? Instead, he’s been unable to make adjustments, and his BB:K ratio got worse. His o-swing% started high, but climbed a bit more in the years that followed, culminating in an abysmal 2013, with a BB:K ratio of 0.12, a .194 average and a .227 OBP. He was a 27 year old catcher who hit 21 HRs, and the Blue Jays didn’t make him an arbitration offer, effectively cutting him. He’s now in the Orioles’ minor league system. Oh yeah – the spring before that career-nuking 2013 season? The one where his approach cratered? That spring, Arencibia hit .439/.477/.902.
That’s a worst-case scenario, clearly, but it’s a bit terrifying that Zunino’s o-swing and BB:K is ALREADY where Arencibia’s ended up in 2013. He’s younger, and honestly, his spring has produced some reasons to think he can get a lot better at the plate in 2015. It’s great that the coaching staff have worked on this so much with Zunino, because as we saw with Zunino from 2013 to 2014, or Arencibia from 2011 to 2013, it’s not enough to say that experience will take care of the problem. Fixing the problem takes care of the problem.
2: The bullpen acts like a bullpen, and puts up very different numbers this year
OK, you could write this about any team, in any year. High variance isn’t the point of a bullpen, but it seems to be the price we pay for the highly specialized and generally highly effective modern reliever corps. In 2014, the M’s had the lowest bullpen ERA in baseball. They had the best strand rate, even platoon splits, and a very high strikeout rate. While FIP didn’t love them for a few reasons, they were clearly an asset for the club, and you see that clearly in their 4-in-the-AL win probability added. The bullpen is largely unchanged this year, so can we chalk up another sub-3.00 ERA? The problem is that in 2013, the M’s had the *worst* strand rate in baseball and a terrible ERA *despite* an even better K rate than they had last year. Some of this is just sequencing – the difference in the bullpen’s FIP from 2013 to 2014 isn’t *that* big, but the M’s were unlucky on balls in play and sequencing in 2013, but very lucky on balls in play and sequencing in 2014.
So far, so orthodox. Regression to the mean, people! But this isn’t purely about luck. The specific relievers the M’s have come with a specific set of skills, and a specific set of concerns. The M’s got a brilliant rookie season from Dominic Leone last year, as the righty used a 95mph fastball to rack up a 25% K rate and an ERA hovering around 2. The issue isn’t so much that he “beat” his FIP, it’s that he was never a huge swing-and-miss guy in the minors. In 2013, he had one of the lowest swinging strike rates for the Jackson Generals, and his K% in the A+ and AA didn’t approach the mark he put last year. Some times pitchers figure something out and become far more hittable than they were in the minors (or in college), but it’s equally likely that an out-of-nowhere reliever can put up great numbers and then struggle to sustain them – Mark Lowe in 2006, Julio Mateo in 2003, etc. Dominic Leone has the tools to be good for a while, but it was just odd that big leaguers found him harder to square up than the California League. Spring training generally means nothing, but it makes me squeamish to see Leone give up 17 hits in just seven spring innings. Obviously, if your fourth or fifth righty in the pen is your problem, you’re living right. If Leone tanks, the M’s can swap in Carson Smith and not miss a beat. If it was *just* Leone, that’d be one thing.
It’s not, though. Not while Danny Farquhar’s velocity seemed to be down this spring. It’s always impossible to know what to do with that – maybe he was working on something, maybe he was tired one day and that screwed up the overall averages. Still, let’s remember that Farquhar was a frequent guest of the waiver wire, and struggled to latch on until he started throwing 95. Sure, the big change was a mechanical overhaul, and it’s not like Farquhar’s throwing sidearm again, but this is a guy who threw 89mph for years, and then induced his small frame to throw 95. His velocity dropped by over 1mph last year, and he proved he could still be effective at 94. However, Farquhar averaged 92.6 in Arizona. If he’s around 92 in Seattle, can he still avoid HRs the way he’s done the past two years? Farquhar’s smart and knows several pitches. He ditched his sinker in 2014, and though his four-seamer wasn’t quite as good in 2014, his cutter could compensate. Changing his approach – switching back to the four-seam and curve, say – can help him accommodate lower velo, but it’s not a fix. If he comes out throwing 95-96 again, then the point is moot. For the M’s sake, let’s hope he does.
That brings us to Tom Wilhelmsen, the most enigmatic/important of the M’s relievers. The Bartender led the bullpen in WPA last year, and he paired the biggest workload with the lowest ERA. We all know what he’s capable of, and that’s part of the reason his 2013 was so disappointing. Wilhelmsen struggled with his control all year, and that made his top-shelf stuff play down. He didn’t get as many strikeouts in part because he was behind in counts. His overall results were much better in 2014, but it’s worth remembering that he didn’t entirely solve the problem. His walk rate was still over 11%, and his K rate was good, but not in line with his excellent FB/CU combo. For a variety of reasons, Wilhelmsen’s been inconsistent, trading months with off-the-charts performances with months where he couldn’t find the zone. What helped him tremendously last year was his insane .200 BABIP. A pitcher with great velo can run lower-than-average BABIPs, but .200 just isn’t sustainable. To compensate, he needs to get back to the form he showed in 2012, with a 27% K rate and a walk rate safely under 10%.
So, finally, we’ve got the Fernando Rodney experience. Rodney is 38, and coming off a year in which his fastball lost 1.5MPH. It’s still a good pitch, and the change-up is mind-altering, but this is still the guy who was cut in 2011, and whose grasp of the closer job seemed shaky in April/May. His dominance the rest of the way was a huge part of the M’s run to contention, and if they want to get past the Angels/A’s, another year from the archer would really help. I’m wary of all non-Felix pitchers, though, and 38-year old closers are rare enough that it’s tough to feel absolutely safe about this. As Fangraphs and others have noted, the M’s could have the best bullpen in baseball this year. If one or two of the guys listed here struggles, they could still have an excellent group that adds value to the team overall. But the potential – however remote – is there for a more systemic collapse, or at least regression, that spells the difference between the division and a one game crapshoot, or the playoffs and another frustrating season. We need those arrows to be real.
3: The *good* Austin Jackson never returns
In the aggregate, we can say something meaningful about player aging curves, but that doesn’t help you understand an individual player. It’s nice to know when the median player peaks, or how gradually the average player (who is allowed to decline on a major league roster) declines. In the face of all of these averaged, combined numbers, we have the actual records of thousands of individual cases – and while that can help us understand just how uncommon a particular career arc is, it by definition can’t help identify the statistical anomalies, the great players who defy aging and those whose aging seems to run in fast-forward.
Since his 2010 debut, everyone has *known* what would doom Austin Jackson’s batting stats. After posting a sky-high .396 BABIP in 2010, it’s been easy to assume that his stats would regress. The problem is that Jackson continued to post sky-high (if not quite as high as .396) BABIPs, while also making each ball in play do a bit more damage. Not only that, but Jackson transformed himself from an extremely high K% hitter to someone with essentially average K rates. All of this speaks volumes about Jackson’s ability to adapt and change his approach. That’s good, because it’s crucial that he make further adjustments.
As we all saw in 2014, the version of Austin Jackson that the M’s acquired from Detroit turned out to be a terrible hitter. Jackson’s K% crept back up to 25% after the move, but that’s still below his K% in Detroit in 2010 and 2011, when he was a moderately effective hitter. His BABIP was low for him, but not extraordinarily low for the league. Instead, Jackson’s problem was that his contact produced shockingly weak results. I mean, NL pitcher-esque results. With the M’s, over 236 plate appearances, Jackson produced an ISO of .031, or exactly the same as NL pitchers managed in 2014. As many have pointed out, his production on fly balls was particularly poor. But anything abnormally poor should regress to the mean as surely as the M’s bullpen’s strand rate, right? Wellll, this is where the difference between a population and a specific player becomes pretty important.
Jackson’s ISO on fastballs dropped from .189 in 2012 to .073 in 2014. It is essentially impossible to remain a legitimate MLB starter at that level. James Jones’ SLG% on hard pitches was .080, for reference, and James Jones is not, as of this date, a legitimate MLB CF. Because Jackson’s been effective in 2012-2013, the projection systems forecast something of a bounce-back for 2015. It makes sense – if you average his production over the previous three years, you come out with a pretty good CF.
Only that ignores the fact that his ISO and BABIP have been moving in tandem. Jackson’s sort of the flip side of Mike Zunino, in that his plate discipline has actually gotten better over the years. He’s swinging at fewer balls, swinging at fewer pitches overall, and making more contact. This is the blueprint of a hitter who gets more selective in order to do more damage on each ball in play, only Jackson has left out the all-important do-more-damage-on-each-ball-in-play part. Like we talked about with Zunino, pitchers are going to notice they aren’t getting punished for leaving pitches up or in the zone, and that’s going to put even more pressure on Jackson’s walk rate. Jackson’s walk rate was as low as it had been since 2010 last year, but pitchers started to throw him a few more strikes in 2014. If they continue to do so, and if Jackson can’t run the .350+ BABIPs that sustained his first few years in the league, then he’s in trouble. He’s either got to do much more damage on balls in play, or he’s got to be extraordinarily selective (and great at defense). Unfortunately, he’s already exceptionally selective, so there just isn’t a whole lot of room for improvement there.
There IS, obviously, room to improve his ISO and his production on balls in play. Angel Pagan looked like he was winding down at age 29 before leading the Giants to a World Series title at age 30. Marlon Byrd wasn’t really a decent player *until* he was 29-30. Brian McRae’s career arc followed Jackson’s, with some early struggles, some success around age 27, some bad years after that, but then a nice bounce-back at 30. Clearly it’s possible to be productive after a year as barren as the one Jackson just suffered through. But not everyone manages it, and the problem is that after shipping Michael Saunders to Toronto, the M’s just don’t have a plan B.
Last year, the M’s turned to James Jones when Abe Almonte proved himself unable to handle the CF job. When his lack of pop and/or discipline proved too great an obstacle, the M’s traded for Jackson. That Jackson proceeded to put up a half year even worse than Jones’ line puts the M’s CF depth into question. At this point, the M’s have Jackson as the unquestioned starter, with Justin Ruggiano and Jones behind him. Ruggiano is a competent back-up, but he’s generally a platoon player hitting from the right side. Jones can hit lefty, but hasn’t proven he can hit at all, at this point. The M’s lack of a half-decent CF spot doomed their 2014, and their plan for 2015 is essentially, “What are the odds THAT happens again, right?”
Again, none of this is to suggest that Jackson is doomed, or that a bad year from Jackson (or Zunino, or Leone) will doom the M’s. It’s just that there are certain positions where you can kind of see the weak points in the armor. One problem the M’s have had in recent years has been unbalanced line-ups, with some decent players, some so-so guys, and then some automatic outs. Each year, the M’s have attempted to rid their line-up of Brendan-Ryan-style out machines, and they’ve done a decent job of it. Having one up-the-middle-defender put up an awful batting line won’t harm the M’s, but two might. One plus a bullpen decline might prove critical. Obviously, the M’s have some upside risk as well, and all of the risks we’ve talked about have equivalents in their divisional rivals. But if the M’s underperform, I’m betting these three issues will prove critical.
What do you think? What are you worried about for 2015?