Treatment and Control of the Zone

December 30, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners · 12 Comments 

Jay did a great job summarizing the M’s PR video on a new, org-wide emphasis on the strike zone, but I had a few additional thoughts I wanted to throw out there. Essentially, my reaction to this exceedingly well-presented organizational philosophy has three components. One: we have seen an org-wide philosophy implemented, with bells and whistles we all thought sounded revolutionary at the time, and things…did not improve. Second, the philosophy espoused does not exactly match up with many of the M’s recent acquisitions. So third, the optimistic view is that the process by which this philosophy is disseminated is at least as important – probably more – than the philosophy itself. This is a player development challenge, and as Dipoto said, development doesn’t stop once a player’s promoted to the bigs.

Back in early 2010, the Mariners hired a director of sports science and performance, a man named Dr. Marcus Elliott. Elliott had worked with elite athletes on three continents, as well as NFL and NBA teams, but the M’s were his first foray into baseball (as far as I know). Elliott told Geoff Baker that baseball was “monolithic” and resistant to change, and that his focus on “rotational mechanics” could help unlock power as well as flexibility to help avoid injury. This was an early spring puff piece about a change in training, but given the timing – right after the successful 2009 season, the M’s looking interesting – most of us were very excited. The club’s mantra at the time was that “talent wins” and they identified what they saw as a market inefficiency in turning “talent” into runs and wins on the baseball field. The story made sense, and I’m not trying to slam Dr. Elliott at all – there are still articles written about his work in the NBA, and the M’s actually HAVE suffered fewer injuries than other teams in recent years. But let’s just say that big league results from this or any other facet of the organizational focus on talent and the unlocking of talent are lacking.

Were expectations perhaps a bit high? Yeah, definitely. In less sober moments, I imagined busloads of M’s minor leaguers venturing throughout the midwest, striking fear into their opponents by hitting home runs one-handed, or rotating their necks like owls. But almost immediately, the M’s overall talent level seemed to start slipping behind their competitors. The Tacoma Rainiers won the PCL in 2010, and have been around .500 since. That’s better than what’s happened lower down, where teams like Clinton and High Desert/Bakersfield have struggled mightily while the Astros affiliates dominate virtually every league they participate in. Some teams are able to generate system-wide improvements in performance, but the M’s haven’t been one of them.

But who’s to blame for that? JY’s absolutely right that there must have been some sort of disconnect in the previous regime, and I think it was clearest in regard to power hitters. The team quickly acquired the likes of Johermyn Chavez and Mike Carp, and worked hard to develop guys like Carlos Peguero, Greg Halman, Matt Mangini, Alex Liddi, etc. In recent years, they went overslot to grab guys like Austin Wilson and Gareth Morgan in the hopes that one day they wouldn’t need to continually shop for Mike Morse/Corey Hart/Jack Cust. Scouts fed the machine lots of powerful raw material, but virtually none of that raw material made an impact in the big leagues. Statistically, that could be slightly bad luck, or it could be that there was a gap between what the development staff was tasked with and what they were *good at*. It’s not like the group had NO notable successes in the past several years (covering two different directors), but their results were bad in precisely the area that the front office seemed to prize. At the very least, it’s clear now what everyone is supposed to prioritize, and you figure the M’s will be better about ensuring new coaches have some experience in and aptitude for teaching the strike zone.

So: if the strike zone is everything, why did the M’s trade for Wade Miley (below average BB%) and Nate Karns (below average BB%) and pick up Justin De Fratus (below average BB%), Cody Martin (yep)? They traded for Steve Clevenger, whose walk rate just plummeted, too. To be sure, they added plenty of guys with very *good* plate discipline numbers, from Evan Scribner to Adam Lind to Boog Powell, but you don’t see the kind of monomania described in the video in the M’s transaction logs. Not a bad thing, perhaps, but an odd one. If the M’s are to become a team that really controls the zone, not only is the player development team going to have to do some work, but the big league coaching staff needs to help the likes of Miley and Karns improve.

This is why I mentally underlined the same quote in the video as JY – the idea that development *must* continue at the big league level. The big, if tacit, idea in the video is not that the strike zone is important, it’s that it is teachable. That goes against some traditional baseball wisdom, or at least the experience of many fans, that says that you can make a low-walk player into a better version of a low-walk player, but you’re probably not going to make them into Kevin Youkilis. Part of the utility of a common vocabulary and emphasis throughout the org is that additional work could actually happen in the majors, though obviously it’s going to take more than a list of terms to ensure that this is successful.

And that’s why Andy McKay’s role is so critical. He’s the one ultimately in charge of making this happen, perhaps more so than the people actually acquiring baseball players. Soon we’ll see if it becomes a point of emphasis for the amateur scouting department, but it’s evidently not the *sole* focus of pro scouts. The M’s – and every other team – have organizational philosophies, and other teams like consistent messaging. But teams vary widely in putting those things into practice. If you’re cynical, you’d note that the Angels’ minor league system wasn’t much better than the M’s in terms of BB%, K-BB%, or, you know, wins and losses. Optimists might retort that the entire reason for Dipoto’s departure from Anaheim was that he was not capable of or allowed to implement his vision organization-wide,* and that getting everyone on the same page might help. Ultimately, the M’s are banking on the idea that proper coaching can transform plate discipline for pitchers as well as hitters, and that it can do so relatively quickly. It’ll be interesting to see if they’re right.

As lofty a goal as it is, I don’t think it’s impossible. The Astros’ led the classification (not just the league!) in run differential at A ball, high-A, AA, AAA** and they led baseball in minor league winning percentage as a result. How? Well, they led baseball in system-wide BB% for hitters, as well as walk-strikeout ratio, HRs, and runs. Sure, they had a great system, headlined by Carlos Correa, but these sorts of uberprospects are few and far between and often (like Correa) extremely young for their league. To get *system-wide* results like these, you need a heck of a lot more than solid years from your top 5 prospects. To get results like these up and down the ladder, and with a shifting mix of players thanks to trades and promotions, you need to be doing something different. We’ll see if it continues, but 2015 in the Astros system seems like a demonstration of how successful player development can be.

* This is somewhat undercut by the fact that the farm system coordinator was trusted ally Scott Servais. Dipoto couldn’t get through to his big league manager, but he and Servais were clearly on the same page. Maybe the difficulty in connecting with managers afflicted the farm system too, or maybe they didn’t quite have the right people in place to carry off something like what they’re attempting in Seattle.

** I can’t overstate how incredible that is. Everything about amateur player acquisition is geared at fighting this – the existence of a draft, the bonus pools, restrictions on international signings, all of it. It’d be one thing if the Astros just loaded each level of older MiLB free agents, but no, the Astros’ affiliates were *younger*, on average, than their competitors. Yes, yes, years of awful results gave them some high draft picks, but Carlos Correa was 20, and played in all of 53 minor league games.

Mariners Send Passive-Aggressive Message to Their Exes

December 29, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

Post-Winter Meetings and pre-Spring Training represents a news lull where the only thing you might otherwise have to hope for are prospect lists and the ever-thrilling arbitration negotiations in which a player may or not be shit-talked about by his co-workers and superiors. Being a time of planning, recuperation, and internal inventories, you can occasionally get the landmark release of boilerplate organizational philosophy or possible rebranding as the most loyal of the base eagerly open the next door on their Fanfest advent calendar. As such, the Mariners announced a new campaign to Control the Zone as part of the new regime’s restructuring.

For anyone who has been interested in analytics, since, I don’t know, the last time the Mariners made the playoffs, the information wasn’t revelatory. Throw good strikes. Force other pitchers to throw good strikes. Profit, as success on both fronts would serve to maximize winning potential. I’m not going to pretend like this is anything new to any of the regular readers of this here blog, but going so far as to publically articulate a vision isn’t something that we should undersell. It’s a pretty big paradigm shift, even if the packaging is a lot of blue, quick cuts between people smiling and shaking hands as baseball stuff occurs, and run-of-the-mill uplifting, inspirational music.

Parsing it out a bit into discrete categories, you can see a contrast developing between the previous administration and the current one which bring to light. Immediately, there’s an emphasis on getting pitchers to be able to throw quality secondary offerings for strikes even when behind in the count. Having likewise articulated a concern about mental preparation and frame of mind, one might imagine that the new group might be less inclined to piss on Erasmo Ramirez merely for not being their platonic ideal of a pitcher. There are additional goodies from there, such as Servais talking about how the batting average on 2-1 is almost double what it is on 1-2, with a clever little B-R citation, but the major shots fired were in the realm of crafting an organizational identity.

Claiming, as DiPoto did, that “development should not stop once you’ve reached the major league level” is as cold and accurate a take as you’re going to get on the results achieved by the previous group, particularly with regard to hitting. Talking about how important it is to have a consistent terminology and communication flow from one level to the next, how playing one minor league affiliate should be representative of playing the whole organization, this all signals how divergent the communication must have been in the previous coaching and how players were getting mixed signals and messages, sometimes encountering something that worked well for them and sometimes not. It doesn’t completely serve to explain what was a complete institutional collapse last season, but filtering things through multiple personnel with some oversight in offensive and defensive coordinators as we are now should serve to achieve greater consistency in message.

One should bear in mind that change rarely comes to industries that believe that they are doing just fine on their own. Rather, it’s entirely logical to infer that the old boys network of baseball past had functioned okay while it was ubiquitous, providing little incentive to shake things up. This type of thinking never permeated the sport because there was never a need for it as long as everyone was exercising the same biases and mistakes in thinking. Changes have been occurring throughout baseball for the last decade plus. In this instance, we just get to belatedly participate in it, as opposed to self-destructively fantasizing about whether or not it would actually be worse to have Amaro as our GM as we have been. If you want some added schadenfreude, you might also consider what DiPoto is executing now as an indictment of the kind of thinking that has been guiding the Angels organization in recent years.

The reflexive response to this sort of material would be to respond to the array of clichés offered with one more: Talk is cheap. Yet, if the talk is at least attempting to guide the team into a more progressive direction, we can hope that it will eventually find its way to a proper execution. I’m still more than a little irked about trading Patrick Kivlehan to the Rangers as a PTBNL, having long anticipated crafting a sign that read “KIVVLES AND HITS” and staking out some place in the bleachers. But for all the wheeling and dealing that was done over the offseason, we’ve retained a lot of the major prospects like Alex Jackson and D.J. Peterson and Tyler O’Neill, all of whom could benefit from some on-base related instruction. Relatively little of what was dealt was near-term in contribution, or major in its prospect status. A more coherent system of instruction could go a long way in reclaiming some of the earlier value that some of these pieces formerly had. We’re in it for a bit of a haul and we’re not going to rebuild the minor league depth overnight, but we at least know that we’re now moving in a direction that cannot be simplified into “Dingers are The Truth. Hit Dingers. Never give them up. Zduriencik 2014″.

Welcome Back, Kuma

December 18, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners · 19 Comments 

I suppose it’s a good reminder: most deals are contingent on a physical. We all expect that to be a formality, but they’re not, and when you’re talking about an older pitcher with a fairly extensive injury history, it’s even less of one. Yesterday, word came down that Hisashi Iwakuma, who’d just agreed to a three-year deal with the Dodgers, had failed his physical. Evidently, it didn’t take Iwakuma and the M’s long to come to an alternative arrangement, as Jerry Dipoto sprung this surprise at the M’s holiday party:

A few weeks after M’s fans were learning to accept a Kuma-less rotation, he was back – this time on a one year deal with two vesting options. That is, Iwakuma’s minimum guaranteed money drops from the $45m the Dodgers offered (and then rescinded after seeing some X-rays), to $12m for 2016. However, the total dollar value could exceed $45m if Kuma’s healthy. This is about as close to a win-win as you could imagine – the M’s were wary of committing tens of millions if Iwakuma suddenly imploded, and now they don’t have to. On the other hand, the story isn’t just that Iwakuma stood to make $45m, and now can’t. There’s no doubt that Iwakuma and his agent would prefer the Dodger contract, but whatever medical issues spooked the Dodgers are presumably real and have an impact on his market value, or at least on the share of the risk teams are willing to shoulder. Still, he can get to that total compensation level if he’s healthy, which would be great for him and a bargain for the M’s.

A few thoughts:
1: The low initial outlay – the $12m guarantee- probably made this possible, but here’s to ownership for stepping up and actually making room in the budget when a ridiculous bargain fell into their laps. It’s easy to say, “of COURSE they expanded their budget – they already said they would pay MORE in 2016 before Kuma agreed with LA.” But of course, the M’s have made other decisions since then, and you can imagine a scenario where owners aren’t willing to exceed a budget cap they helped set. You and I might agree that such a hard-and-fast rule is foolish, and needlessly restrictive, but I bet there are some teams that wouldn’t or couldn’t.

2: Ah, but what about the MRI that enabled this? Isn’t it scary? A team had a deal sewn up, took a look at some medical records, tried to renegotiate the deal for what must’ve been 15-30 solid minutes, and then walked away. What was on the MRI? A stapler, a couple of ball bearings and a small WD-40 reservoir? Look: I take it for granted that Iwakuma’s shoulder looks awful the closer doctors look at it. Not just, “there’s fraying here and here,” but, “I assume this X-ray belongs to an 80-year old with serious mobility issues.” There has to be something there that caused Iwakuma to miss time in Japan, and it has to be something so bad that the OAKLAND A’S walked away from the opportunity to negotiate a below-market deal with him in 2011. The M’s signed him in January 2012 because he cost the princely sum of $1.5m. The risk had to be so minimal that arm-spiders or the complete absence of a labrum no longer fazed them.

The risk THIS time is of course much higher, but the M’s are operating with a hell of a lot more information. They have the benefit of comparing medical records from 2012 to those from each year, and yes, while Iwakuma’s given them a REASON to keep assessing his arm’s overall health, his shoulder and arm have generally held up. The M’s know much more than the A’s in 2011 or the Dodgers in 2015 how Iwakuma’s shoulder’s changed over time, and they’ve seen what his arm is capable of, irrespective of how it looks in x-rays. That’s a big, and very real, advantage. Also: it will never not be funny that the Athletics couldn’t sign him and the M’s got him for $1.5m. Never. After all of the health problems this organization’s pitchers suffered, we get to have one, small thing we can blow out of proportion and laugh about.

3: This would seem to put the M’s out on the remaining free agent pitchers, from Scott Kazmir to another big Japanese star, Kenta Maeda. We haven’t talked as much about Maeda, who likely was never in the M’s plans – not only would the posting fee cost money the M’s say they don’t want to spend (yes, yes, “separate budgets” or whatever, but that’s never made a ton of sense), but the M’s and Dipoto have shied away from the international market in recent years. The M’s don’t appear to have been in on Masahiro Tanaka, and didn’t make a big push for some of the recent Cuban signings. The Angels under Dipoto were much the same – after years as big players in the DR, they backed away from the international market around the same time the M’s did, amid scandals and recriminations (just like the M’s). Dipoto made one fairly large Cuban signing, but Roberto Baldoquin had an absolutely awful year in the Cal League, which isn’t the kind of experience that leads you to do a big re-think on the value of the international free agent market.

Maeda, 27, has been posted by his club, the Hiroshima Carp. Any MLB club that wants to negotiate with Maeda must agree to a $20m posting fee – multiple teams will qualify, and then one will ultimately sign a deal and thus pay the posting fee to the Carp. In recent years, Maeda’s put up a lovely ERA, but he’s clearly a few steps behind the dominant stars Yu Darvish and Tanaka. His ERA was better than Kuma’s, but then Kuma’s last few years in Japan were marred by injury, and you get into the changing baseball itself around that time – scoring in Japan varied wildly in those years.* Maeda’s fastball’s a tick above Kuma’s at 90-91, and he’s got a sweeping slider at 80-81, and a slow curve at 70-71. Kuma has those three pitches, but if that was all he had, he’d never have made the M’s roster. Kuma’s splitter is a legitimate plus pitch in the big leagues, and it’s the key to his success. Maeda doesn’t throw one, but he does have a change-up with good, almost splitter-like drop. Indeed, by pitch fx, Maeda’s change and Kuma’s split are fairly close in release point and movement. That’s a good sign for Maeda, but my guess is that he won’t make the kind of splash Iwakuma has.

For one, his change is delivered slower, and that’s an issue. As Harry Pavlidis found, the closer in speed a change is to the fastball, the more grounders it gets. That’s part of what makes Kuma so special, as I talked about before. The pitch is tough to lay off of, and produces bad results when hitters swing. Maeda has thrown his change less, and it’s slower. That’s not the kiss of death or anything, and the movement similarities to Kuma’s split are really encouraging, but not only will Maeda need to adjust to the new league and new usage pattern (every 5 days instead of every week), he may need to tweak his change and slider. Maybe he can! But at this point, the aging Kuma with his scary medical history feels like not only a cheaper option, but one with equivalent risk AND a higher potential reward.

4: A lot of the (happy) discussion about this surprising deal has turned on the M’s newfound rotation depth. They’ve got Felix/Kuma/Miley/Walker locked in as 1-4 starters, and then Nate Karns, James Paxton, Mike Montgomery would fight for the 5th spot (and Vidal Nuno and Anthony Bass have big league starting experience, too). That’s important, no doubt, but it also doesn’t change things TOO much. This doesn’t mean you try harder to move James Paxton, as there are questions in the rotation that depth is going to be critical. But it makes Mike Montgomery something of the odd man out: before, you might stash him in the bullpen. After the Cishek deal and with another bullpen spot likely going to the loser of the Karns/Paxton 5th-starter competition, Montgomery gets harder and harder to keep on the 25 man roster. As he’s out of options, they can’t send him down, and his utility as a LOOGY is minimal, considering he’s got strong reverse platoon splits thanks to his big change-up. Let’s be clear: the decision to pick up Kuma is a great one, and if it “costs” them Montgomery, so be it. But it’s odd the way the M’s staff looks now that Montgomery may be in exactly the position Erasmo Ramirez was last spring: pitching for a job somewhere else.

The projections at Fangraphs love the M’s rotation: the positional depth charts show the M’s rotation tied for 3rd best in the AL, behind Cleveland and New York’s (and tied with Boston’s). That’s critical, because the M’s still have some holes. Their position players may beat their WAR projections (looking at you, Nelson Cruz), but they’re still a ways back of their rivals: their group ranks 13th in baseball in 6th in the AL, and rank behind Houston and Anaheim in the AL West. The bullpen is projected to be the real problem, tied with Detroit’s as the AL’s worst unit at 1.8 WAR. Obviously, Dipoto’s “buy low” approach disagrees with the projections’ methodology, but I think most M’s fans are a bit nervous of the new, Carson Smith-less bullpen. That’s why it’s so critical that the M’s starters perform. Not only does the rotation become a strength that counters other clubs’ positional advantages, but a great rotation can consume more innings, leaving less for the marginal arms in the pen. The fewer 5th and 6th innings the M’s pen needs to work, the better, and with adequate depth, it’s easier to enable that to happen, even with guys like Paxton and Karns who don’t have 200 IP seasons in their history.

* In 2010, Central League teams scored 4.3 runs per game. That collapsed to 3.15 a year later. It was 4.2 in 2014, but 3.4 in 2015. The scoring was in part due to a change in the baseball itself, and the circumstances surrounding the “juiced ball”‘s release cost the commissioner his job.

Steve Cishek and the Framing Effect

December 14, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners · 38 Comments 

Righty reliever Darren O’Day recently inked a four-year deal to remain with Baltimore which will earn him $31 million over four years. O’Day throws side-arm and often struggles to push his fastball past 86, but he’s undeniably one of the toughest relievers to hit in MLB right now. O’Day combines high strikeout rates with moderate walks, but as you’d expect from a soft-tossing righty, his success depends in part on his ability to generate weak contact. O’Day isn’t a ground-ball pitcher, but his funky arm angle and ability to back-door his slider to left-handed bats not only allows him to produce fly balls without too many HRs, it allows him to avoid the platoon splits that you’d figure given his pitches and how he throws them. Even a few years ago, giving a 4-year deal to anyone but an absolute no-doubt, lock-down closer would’ve been frowned upon (“they’re too volatile!” “You can just grow your own!”), and after Rafael Soriano and, to a lesser extent, Jonathan Papelbon’s deals went south, you’d be forgiven if you thought we wouldn’t see more such deals for anyone below the Chapman/Kimbrel/Jansen class, or lower AAV deals buying out free agency years for the likes of Ken Giles and Dellin Betances.

Obviously, the deal O’Day just signed – and the supportive reaction it’s received – is in part a sign of baseball’s financial health and the recognition not only that a shut-down bullpen can be critical to team success, but that some relievers really do seem to have the ability to “beat” their fielding-independent stats. That is, O’Day’s appearances come in highly leveraged situations, and he seems to have the ability to strand runners both due to his K rate and the whole infield-pops and opposite-field-texas-leaguers thing. Some may still quibble with this; giving $31m to a 33 year old seems risky, and if all relievers are volatile, the ones in their mid-30s who throw 85-88 might seem to be especially prone to it. Still, there’s no question that the market is more and more comfortable giving longer contracts to relievers. Relievers are getting more guaranteed money, over longer contracts – call it the Royals effect, after Kansas City’s bullpen-fueled run to consecutive AL Pennants and a WS Title, or chalk it up to the rising tide of MLBAM revenues or whatever, but it’s real, and it’s going to continue.

Carson Smith, as I’m sure you’ll recall, was the centerpiece in a trade for a young, cost-controlled *starting* pitcher this offseason, but you can *still* make the case he was undervalued. Smith’s 2.1 fWAR ranked 5th in baseball in 2015, the product of a great K rate and another kind of contact management: a freakish GB rate. His platoon splits, like O’Day’s, should be a problem despite the fact he throws 93, not 86: he’s a sinker/slider guy, two pitches that are generally the worst offenders in platoon split problems. Smith doesn’t backdoor his slider to lefties, he throws it in the same spot he throws it to righties, but the break and his deceptive delivery mean lefties just roll it over. Sure, sure, righties roll it over too, but lefties do so even more, and the *idea* of it – of defending against a weird slider you’re having trouble picking up out of Smith’s hand – makes his sinker more effective. Smith does it in a very different way to O’Day, but Smith too is able to pitch effectively against lefties: no lefty has homered off of Smith yet.

The Astros recently completed a trade with Philadelphia that sent young fireballing reliever Ken Giles to Houston. The Astros gave up young, hard throwing SP Vincent Velasquez (who K’d 25% of the batters he faced in the majors, and *35%* in AA last year), recently-drafted control artist Thomas Eshelman, and fly-balling back-of-the-rotation workhorse Brett Oberholtzer. Late last week, we learned that Philadelphia would *also* receive former #1 overall draft pick Mark Appel from Houston. The Phillies got quite a haul for Ken Giles, is what I’m saying. I think Wade Miley is a perfectly good #3-#4, and given his contract, that’s not a bad return, but the Giles package is categorically different. I think it’s possible that Giles may have drawn more interest from teams given his velocity, but again: Smith’s K rate was *better* despite pitching in the AL. You can hate fWAR for relievers all you want – Smith’s *FDP-WAR* was great too. Better than noted contact-manager Joaquin Benoit’s the last two years, better than Giles’, and on par with Andrew Miller’s – the guy who signed a 4-year, $36m deal last year. Smith is clearly in that Miller/O’Day class, but he makes the league minimum and, whether he wants to be or not, under the control of the Red Sox for 4+ years.

Ok, that’s a long-winded introduction to a post that’s supposed to be about Steve Cishek. The point here should be clear, but I’ll spell it out: how you feel about the M’s signing ex-Marlins closer Steve Cishek to a 2-year, $10m deal probably has a lot to do with your frame of reference for the move. On the one hand, Cishek looks an awfully lot like Darren O’Day, from the funky side-winding delivery to the domination of left-handed bats to the elevated strikeout rate. And hey, due to what may have been due to BABIP-luck and a weird but ultimately meaningless tired arm early in the year, he’ll have to take a *fraction* of what O’Day’s getting from the Orioles. The M’s bought low, and get a high-quality reliever’s bounce-back years for very little. From the other point of view, O’Day deal is completely irrelevant. The M’s needed a reliever to replace Carson Smith, and they got one, only older and with some serious red flags (Cishek’s velocity dropped by between 1-2 MPH last year), and signed him to a contract that’ll pay him roughly *10 times* what Smith would earn.

Advocates for seeing this as a great buy-low move might point out that given reliever volatility, shopping for relievers coming off of down years should be a clear arbitrage opportunity, and a way to add impact talent to the 2016 roster instead of waiting around for the overhauled system to produce another pre-arb-but-great reliever. The Smith fans would say that you can’t argue that reliever salaries are skyrocketing, or that relievers are increasingly seen as critical to team success, to justify the Cishek signing *AND* accepting “just” Miley and Aro in the Smith deal. The M’s would say that they used Smith to get something the team needed – starting pitching that would help the club in 2016 – and then replaced the bullpen hole by dumpster diving for an undervaled Cishek. Others counter that you can’t get a ton of credit for filling a hole that you’d just made after not accurately assessing how the league currently values relief pitchers.

That’s a lot of hypothetical arguing, and as is my wont, I’m not really interested in weighing in on one side or the other. If you read this blog at all over the past few years, you know I’m perhaps irrationally exuberant about Carson Smith, so I’ll say it was not a great imaginative leap for me to write from that side. But there’s definitely a case to be made that given salary inflation in general, a cheap starter and a cheap-but-great bullpen arm is worth more than a really cheap Carson Smith, some implied cash savings, and shopping for starters on the open market.*

Thus far, we’ve talked a lot about value and markets and not much about Steve Cishek, new Seattle Mariner. Let’s rectify that. Cishek has a very low arm angle, like O’Day’s, and has a similar pitch-mix: he throws 50-55% fastballs (overwhelmingly sinkers) and 45-50% sliders, with a handful of change-ups (a splitter, in Cishek’s case) mixed in. Like O’Day, Cishek throws his slider to lefties a lot, and like O’Day, he likes to keep his slider *away* from lefties. This has a couple of ramifications. For one, it allows him to grab some strikes-looking, and for another, it gets lefties to hit soft fly balls. Why? Because fly balls are more likely than GBs to be hit to the opposite field. The development of this backdoor slider resulted in both better K rates AND better results overall against lefties. Combined with a slight change in his approach with his fastball, and Cishek’s GB rate plunged in 2014 while his K rate rose.

This is essentially Darren O’Day’s approach. Despite the low arm-angle and the flurry of sinkers, O’Day is a *flyball* pitcher. Like Cishek, lefties hit fewer grounders against him than righties, but neither hits that many. O’Day shows the sinker early, then gets whiffs with his (slow) four-seamer by throwing it later in the count after batters, especially lefties, have seen his slider and sinker. Cishek *used* to do this, but hasn’t thrown his four-seamer much at all in recent years. Brooks has his throwing zero in 2015, but that’s likely a classification error – but that only highlights that Cishek wasn’t able to make his pitches distinct last year. O’Day’s command allows him to post walk rates that are much better than league average, but even so, he’s careful with lefties – he doesn’t pound the zone against them as much as he invites them to swing at pitcher’s pitches, only some of which are strikes. That was Cishek’s plan in 2014, but it fell apart in 2015. Last year, he walked/plunked 18 lefties, while striking out…18. Coupled with the somewhat alarming velocity loss, there are very good reasons why Cishek was first traded for a minor prospect midway through the year and then available cheaply in December.

Still, Cishek had a four-year track record in Florida that compares well with plenty of good relievers. The year after that run wasn’t great, but even with the lower velo and control problems, Cishek missed some bats and kept the ball in the park. After moving to St. Louis, the BABIP pendulum swung all the way back. While BABIP luck isn’t how you make your case for a new signing, it at least suggests that his ability to avoid barrels wasn’t entirely lost. It’s not so much that his BABIP was low in St. Louis as that the absurdly high rates in Miami weren’t indicative of his true talent.

Another player who has a similar approach and is even signed to a similar deal is the Astros’ Pat Neshek. Neshek has a funky arm angle, but, like Carson Smith, ends up delivering the ball higher than O’Day/Cishek. Neshek is something of an extreme fly-ball guy, and again, lefties hit more flies than righties do thanks in part to his delivery hiding the ball. He throws 90-91, or in between O’Day and Cishek, and his command is probably the best of the three. Late last year, Neshek started losing some velocity and he ended up scuffling badly down the stretch, though of course his Astros teammates were all playing poorly. Still, Neshek’s an example of someone with the same basic repertoire who’s able to succeed (mostly) at 90-91.

If he isn’t hurt, Cishek should add some value to the M’s pen, though exactly how much is hard to say. Steamer isn’t bullish, with a FIP/ERA in the David Rollins range. If he’s all the way back to his 2013-14 peak, he could add 1.5-2 FDP-WAR over the course of the deal. At this point, the M’s are handing him the closer’s job, so if he *is* effective, the innings he pitches figure to be pretty important ones.

* Yes, I realize the omission here is any discussion of Roenis Elias. If you think he’s got some value (and some of the projection systems do), then the M’s POV is harder to understand. If you don’t, and there are likewise many who’d agree with you, he’s simply not good enough to change the shopping list very much.

** This is just a random aside, and I thank you for reading all of this just to get some random thoughts that don’t quite fit the rest of the post, but here goes: the wisdom of the “buy low” FA signing seems well-studied and supported and all of that, but how often do RELIEVERS lose it for a year or two and then bounce back? I mean, we say relievers are volatile, but are we really saying that a successful reliever has only one way to go? Look at a list of great relievers from 2012-2014, and sure, many of them fared poorly in 2015, though injuries had a lot to do with that. Who are the guys who were great, then struggled, then turned good again? I hate to bring it up, but does Fernando Rodney count? I think Joaquin Benoit probably does, as does Joe Nathan. Mark Melancon’s 2011-2012-2013 looks purely, violently volatile, but while Glen Perkins’ 2015 was better than his 2014, but it wasn’t anything like his 2012-13. Anyone know of any studies on this?

More Small Moves: Adam Lind Acquired, Jabari Blash Taken in Rule 5 Draft

December 11, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners · 18 Comments 

Seriously can’t keep up with Jerry Dipoto this month, so I took a couple of days off of kvetching about minor M’s roster moves. Back at it, then. The biggest move of the past few days is the acquisition of 1B Adam Lind in a trade with Milwaukee. The M’s add a righty-killing bat at the very reasonable cost of three A-ball and below pitchers. Yesterday, the M’s lost OF Jabari Blash in the Rule 5 draft, with the A’s taking the slugging righty and then shipping him to San Diego. Here’s a not-so-brief run-down on these moves:

1: Adam Lind is a career .274/.332/.466 hitter in over 4,000 plate appearances for Toronto and Milwaukee. Sure, he’s a 1B/DH, but that’s not bad – it adds up to a 112 wRC+, solidly above average. Why was he acquired for a package of pitchers *headlined* by a a small righty who’s tossed 6 games above rookie league ball and then had Tommy John surgery? Chances are, if you know anything at all about Lind, you know he’s got some of the widest, most persistent platoon splits of any player in baseball. In a great post about the Lind and Scribner pick-ups at Fangraphs, Jeff Sullivan finds that Lind’s platoon splits are the largest in the game since 2002, easily eclipsing Seth Smith’s, Shin-Soo Choo’s, and Garrett Jones’.

You’ve got to keep that in mind, but the M’s seem aware, as Scott Servais has talked about the need for a platoon partner. RHB Jesus Montero would seem the likely candidate for the job, but the M’s could make another minor deal for a righty-hitting 1B, or they could move Nelson Cruz to 1B if a righty-hitting OF becomes available. I don’t mind platoons; I think getting the platoon advantage is a small, easy way of putting your team in the best position to succeed. There are obvious downsides, from squeezing the roster to a potential lack of flexibility and effectiveness in critical late-game situations. That said, I think platoons can help overall production and allow for an effective bench with hitters beyond the standard backup C and random UTIL/pinch runner.

However, with this move in particular, there’s another factor to keep in mind. Even at 32 (Lind will turn 33 in July), Lind destroys righties, but how much he plays – how many plate appearances he gets – is often a function of how many left-handed pitchers he faces. When he came up, the Blue Jays played Lind every day, and he typically saw around 72-75% right-handed pitchers, give or take. As the magnitude of his platoon issue became apparent, the Blue Jays got more intentional about how to deploy him, and that percentage rose above 80%, approaching 90% in 2014. That and recurring back problems limited him in many seasons with the Jays: he got just 318 PAs in 2014 and 353 in 2012. Last year, with the Brewers, Lind played a full season and *still* managed to face righties in 80.4% of his PAs. The question is: will that sort of usage be possible in Seattle?

Here is an admittedly rough look at platoon splits by league/division. In the table, you’ll see the total number of PAs vs. LHP by division for 2014 and 2015. To do this properly, you’d probably use a percentage of total PAs or something, but I haven’t done that – this is just adding up the raw PAs by year and team (and then rolling it up to the division level):

PA vs. LHP, 2014 PA vs. LHP, 2015
AL West 8,868 9,701
AL Central 8,864 8,805
AL East 8,402 8,663
NL West 8,277 7,684
NL Central 7,203 7,490
NL East 7,617 7,224

In 2014, no team faced a left-handed pitcher more than the Seattle Mariners. In 2015, the Rangers led baseball, and the M’s were 5th, one spot below the Astros. In 2015, the Brewers ranked 21st in PAs vs. lefties, with the Cubs and Pirates down at 25-26. In 2014, the Brewers ranked 26th with Pirates last in baseball. This is something I’ve found fascinating since reading this article back before the 2014 season: the NL Central just doesn’t really have many lefties, and may not focus as much as others on bullpen match-ups. They’re not alone, as the NL East shows similar tendencies. The other thing that jumps off the page is just how many more PAs vs. lefties you see in the AL. Apparently, one way for pitchers to deal with the DH is to specialize, but the effect (the AL West faced lefties 30% more than the NL central last year, and 23% the year before!) is so big, it can’t be all about interminable LOOGY/ROOGY appearances.

Look at the likely starters in the AL West next year. The Angels may have 3 lefty starters (CJ Wilson, Hector Santiago, Andrew Heaney), and the Rangers could have 3 as well (Derek Holland, Cole Hamels, Martin Perez). The A’s have 2 in Sean Nolin and Rich Hill, and while Houston has only 1, he’s pretty good and faces a lot of hitters (Dallas Keuchel). Whoever Lind’s caddy is will get plenty of action, and that means Lind won’t see as much action in 2016 even if he’s 100% healthy all year. This is a factor, but let’s be clear: Lind’s price was very low – both in terms of salary and the talent needed to acquire him. Lind’s platoon splits make him affordable, and even if the M’s may not be able to squeeze as much value out of him as the Brewers did, there’s still a valuable skill-set in there.

For their part, the Brewers are doing the same sort of thing. In Daniel Missaki, Carlos Herrera and Freddy Peralta, the Brewers picked up three righties with very good K:BB ratios whose physical size make them unlikely candidates for top prospect lists. Missaki, whom the M’s signed out of Brazil, tossed 7 IP of a combined no-hitter for Clinton (maybe the only good thing that happened to that team in 2015), but then tore his UCL soon thereafter. Missaki has a career K:BB ratio of 111:26, and was even better in his abbreviated 2015 (34:5), but is listed at 6′, 170, and if you could discount questions about his durability based solely on his size, his TJ surgery will be harder to explain away. Freddy Peralta repeated the Arizona league this year, putting up a 67:8 K:BB ratio, but he’s actually smaller than Missaki, listed at 5’11” 175. Herrera was in the Dominican League where he posted a 73:15 K:BB ratio, and is listed as 6’2″ (a comparative giant!) and 150lbs. These are three lottery tickets, and they all have the same statistical/physical profile.

2: Jabari Blash was one of the most entertaining members of the workmanlike 2015 Tacoma Rainiers. The giant 6’5″, 220lb LF/RF knocked 32 HRs between AA and AAA, hitting one of the longer HRs I saw in 2015, and slugging .640 for Tacoma in 228 PAs. PCL or no, that’s going to attract attention. If we think we know what Jerry Dipoto likes in relief pitchers, and if we think we know what the Brewers see as undervalued assets in the low-minors, we also know what the new M’s front office sees as big red flags. Jabari Blash has contact problems, and there may not be a more damning statistic than that, at least as far as the M’s GM is concerned. Blash’s K rate last year was 25.8%, and 27.6% in AAA. That was actually an improvement on his 30%+ mark in almost 200 PAs for Tacoma in 2014, when his season was cut short for a PED suspension.

It’s somewhat telling that Blash couldn’t quite crack the big league roster despite having the RH-power that Jack Zduriencik craved, and despite a very good minor league walk rate. By some statistical models, Blash was an intriguing, if old-for-his-level prospect. Tweaking the assumptions slightly produces a much less auspicious set of comparisons. Ex-Fangraphs scouting guy/current Atlanta Braves scouting guy Kiley McDaniel wasn’t high on Blash heading into 2015, but it’s worth noting that he showed some real improvements throughout the year, hence the insane slash line in Tacoma. That said, I have my doubts, given how high his hands were before his swing and how far his (really long) arms had to move to get the bat into the zone. Like, say, Carlos Peguero, Blash has good batspeed, but it takes a long time for the bat to get to that top speed. As I said last September, this is the kind of guy some team will stash on their bench, using him sparingly as a bench bat and really working with him on his hitting. I was kind of interested to see what Edgar Martinez would do with him, but he’s Mark Kotsay’s uh, Alan Zinter’s project in San Diego for now. Defensively, he has a plus arm, but wasn’t a great route-runner.

Okay, no discussion of Blash is complete without mention of his glorious name. Jabari Blash and Jabari Henry are the only two Jabaris I can find in pro baseball history, which makes the fact that they were in the same organization – *and in the same OF for part of 2015* – all the more remarkable. It’s easy to forget that, coming into 2015, it was Jabari HENRY that everyone was interested in. Henry hit 30 bombs in the Cal League in 2014, while Blash whiffed 30% and then got suspended in AAA. Henry hit .170/.284/.347 for Jackson, so to say that Blash is the Jabari of choice these days is quite an understatement. That said, it’s nice to have a spare Jabari with Blash off to San Diego. Henry is much smaller than Blash, but both are RHB OFs with some power and a lot of patience at the plate.

As nice as it is to have two Jabaris on one team, the M’s weren’t the first club to consider the possibility that Jabaris were a potential market inefficiency. In 2009, the Texas Rangers drafted Blash in the 9th round (#274) and then drafted Henry in the 39th round out of HS (#1174 overall). Neither player signed, leaving Blash on the board for the M’s to draft in 2010, and allowing Henry to play 3 years of college ball before drafting him in 2012. Take THAT, Rangers. Interestingly (maybe? not really?), the Rangers not only failed to sign a single Jabari, but they couldn’t ink their first-rounder, Texas HS hurler Matt Purke. Purke went to TCU before blowing out his arm and slipping to the 3rd round in 2011.

M’s Continue to Remake Bullpen, Acquire Evan Scribner

December 9, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners · 17 Comments 

In my last post, I mentioned that recently-acquired bullpen arm Jonathan Aro looks a lot like Evan Scribner, then of the A’s, in terms of movement and approach. Pretty clearly, Jerry Dipoto doesn’t mind a pitcher who pitches up in the zone and gives up a lot of elevated contact, even if that’s caused HR issues in the past. Not content with grabbing a guy who could, if things break right, become a Scribner-like arm, Dipoto has gone and traded for the genuine article.

The price is reliever Trey Cochran-Gill, a right-hander with a good sinker/slider. Cochran-Gill was a 17th rounder out of Auburn, but thanks to a great, if abbreviated, 2014, found his way to #20 on the pre-season M’s top 30 prospect list put together by He pitched fairly well in the Spring for the M’s, and then started off the season with great numbers for Bakersfield. He then settled in at AA Jackson, and his control left him – he ended up with more walks than Ks in the Southern League, and was remarkably hittable.

Evan Scribner is coming off two sub-replacement level campaigns for Oakland. On the face of it, this looks like a minor swap: a struggling minor league sinkerballer for an out-of-options big leaguer with serious home run issues. But as we talked about yesterday, Scribner does have a remarkable K:BB ratio and a track record of missing bats at the highest level. HR rate is much, much more volatile than strikeout rate or walk rate, so simple regression to the mean *might* take care of some of the problem.

On twitter, many people pointed out that a fly-ball guy with a HR pitcher should do fine in Safeco field, thanks to its HR-killing mariner layer. The problem with this is that, by essentially any measure, Oakland is now a more *difficult* park to homer in than Safeco. Fangraphs’ park factors (for 2014, admittedly) show Oakland’s HR factor as 92, while Safeco’s is 98. By Statcorner, Oakland’s LHB/RHB HR factors are 81 and 80, respectively, while Seattle’s are 104 and 92. Just counting up the long balls shows that Oakland pitchers gave up 79 dingers at home, compared to 93 on the road. The M’s gave up 90 at home and 91 on the road.* As if to prove the point, Scribner threw 4 1/3 IP in Safeco last year, giving up 7 runs on two HRs (let this Gutierrez bomb to CF just wash over you).

So while the park helps in a general and limited sense, Safeco and the M’s outfield defense aren’t going to solve this on their own. I’d love to think the M’s have figured something out either in Scribner’s delivery or approach that can limit elevated contact. Scribner has struggled most against righties, which may make sense given the shape of his fastball and the fact that his primary breaking ball is a big overhand curve ball – both pitches tend to have small platoon splits. So: could a bit of deception in his delivery help? Maybe. Scribner’s also given up several home runs on outside pitches. These should be harder for batters to drive, but they’re obviously not having much trouble doing so; Scribner might do better keeping his fastball low on the outside corner, and elevate it when pitching inside. Of Scribner’s 24 HRs, *11* have come in 0-1 or 1-2 counts, which could indicate some predictable pitch sequencing.

Beyond the specific players involved, the trade for Scribner (and grabbing Aro in the Miley deal) seems to indicate a preference not just for fly-ball relievers, but for generalists. Scribner has essentially no platoon splits, and Justin De Fratus has reverse splits for his career. They’re replacing the sidewinding Carson Smith who, with his arsenal and arm angle *really should* have platoon splits, but didn’t. Gone is Tom Wilhelmsen, who struggled mightily against lefties last year, and has “normal” platoon splits for his career. And, when Dipoto wanted Scribner, he used another sinkerballer with a low arm-angle in Trey Cochran-Gill who could not get AA lefties out (K:BB ratio of 13:20). There’s an interesting argument embedded here that baseball’s hyper-specialization has gone too far, and that a team with Scribners may be harder to pinch-hit against. Taking it further, you could envision a team with generalists running a 6-man pen, handing the bats another position to use against the opponents’ LOOGYs and ROOGYs. At the same time, I think the advantage of a Carson Smith (or someone worse, say, Roy Corcoran or Sean Green) wasn’t just the platoon advantage – it was that they could generate a specific type of contact. We haven’t seen the final, opening-day M’s bullpen, but I hope that’s still a consideration.

Last season, the A’s bullpen had the 2nd slowest average fastball in the game, just ahead of Houston. Their bullpen imploded, and while it’s absolutely not the case that you can’t succeed without velo (look at Houston or San Francisco), Billy Beane and co. have remade their bullpen this off-season and clearly prioritized velocity. Gone is Scribner with his below-average (92mph) FB, and in is Ryan Madson and his 95mph heater. As August Fagerstrom wrote at Fangraphs, they’ve ditched many of their worst performers from last year, many of whom were comparative soft-tossers: Edward Mujica, Eric O’Flaherty, Dan Otero.

The M’s, who ranked in the middle of the pack last year, are again moving in the opposite direction. The A’s swapped out Scribner’s 92 for Madson’s 95, while the M’s shipped out Wilhelmsen’s 95 for Scribner’s 92. Justin De Fratus is around 92 as well, Bass and Aro are around 93-94, while Cody Martin’s more like 89-90. The M’s hardest thrower is now Tony Zych, the guy acquired for cash considerations last spring. Again, that’s not necessarily bad, but it DOES look different. Some of the big off-season stories involve teams trying to create something akin to Kansas City’s death-dealing bullpen – Boston’s traded for Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith and have, on paper at least, a shut-down pen. Oakland’s is at least no longer a clear weakness. The Dodgers looked to be acquiring Aroldis Chapman *despite already having a dominant closer*, before Chapman’s ugly, ugly domestic violence arrest put his future in question. Even with the pick-up of trusted-closer ™ Joaquin Benoit, the M’s are moving in a different direction. Bucking the consensus is a great way to innovate or reap big returns, and it’s also a way to fail. Here’s hoping the M’s – and their pitching coaches – can help the M’s build an effective ‘pen out of not just undervalued but unwanted parts.

* To be clear: Safeco is still a pitcher’s park, though less so than before the remodel. It’s just that Safeco aids pitchers by suppressing hits – it’s really hard to hit doubles there, for example, which may have something to do with its small total outfield area.

Carson Smith and Roenis Elias Swapped for Wade Miley and Jonathan Aro

December 7, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners · 32 Comments 

In my post about Hisashi Iwakuma’s departure in free agency, I said that some would say that the move (or non-move, rather) can only be seen in context, and to properly judge it, we’d need to see Jerry Dipoto’s Plan B. As I was pressing ‘post’ on that one, Dipoto was unveiling that plan B by finalizing a trade with Boston, headlined by lefty starter Wade Miley. So there you go, context-hounds. We now have more information, and can say that it’s not just Iwakuma for payroll flexibility and a comp. pick. It’s Hisashi Iwakuma, Carson Smith and Roenis Elias for Wade Miley, Jonathan Aro and a comp. pick. There, doesn’t that…no? That doesn’t make you feel any better?

To be fair: Dipoto doesn’t consider this plan B. Take it away, Jerry:

It’s not Plan B, it’s Plan 1-A once Iwakuma left. “That’s just re-defining what ‘Plan B’ means!” you shout, correctly. So it is, but it’s nice to hear some confidence about exactly how the M’s wanted to respond: “This was the preferred route.” So who is Wade Miley, and why is this route so attractive? Miley’s a left-handed starter who’s been remarkably durable, tossing at least 193 IP in each of the last four years. He throws a fastball in the 91-92mph range, has a change-up and then a slider and curve. Coming up, he leaned more on the curve, but has increasingly shifted to the slider as his primary breaking ball. As you’d expect, he faces quite a few right-handers, so he’s thrown the change-up more than either of his breakers in recent years.

In an ironic inversion of Iwakuma’s FIP-mastery, Miley’s “undervalued” in part because of his *inability* to pitch to his FIP. After sticking close to his FIP in 2012 and 2013, Miley’s ERA was significantly worse in 2014 and, especially, 2015. In part, that’s BABIP related, as he’s allowed BABIPs north of .300 in both years, and his career mark is now above league average. His K rate is below average as well, at around 17-18%. He managed to get it as high as 21% in his final year with the Diamondbacks, but it fell, as you’d expect, with the move to the American League. He’s below average by o-Swing (swings at pitches out of the zone), and thus his contact rate’s a bit worse than average as well. Thanks mostly to his change and slider, Miley gets his fair share of ground balls, which helps him keep the ball in the park – he gave up only 17 HRs last year despite being a lefty in Boston.

Still, there’s a reason he’s a “buy-low” candidate. He had a 4.80 ERA in the first half last year, and his seasonal mark was 4.46. Given the park, that’s not awful, but it’s still 6% above league average, slightly better than the 14% below average mark he turned in for Arizona in 2014. In his “good” second half with Boston, his BABIP stayed about where it was, despite the Sox giving Hanley Ramirez less time in LF. His K:BB ratio got better, but he still gave up plenty of runs. And that brings us to another reason he isn’t Iwakuma: with men on, Miley’s pitched worse. For his career, batters are putting up a .310 wOBA with no one on, and .336 with men on base. In 2015, those figures are .310 and .340, respectively. Again, for reference, in Iwakuma’s career, batters hit .292 with the bases empty and .278 with men on.’s just…something in my eye. :sniff:

It’s easy, and, considering the context of the past 12-24 hours, tempting to overemphasize Miley’s weaknesses. He put up 4.1 fWAR in 2012 for Arizona. He’s 29 this season, and he’s signed to an extremely team-friendly deal that’ll pay him just shy of $15m for 2016 and 2017 combined. The M’s also get his $12m team option for 2018. That’s great for a guy projected for just under league average for 2016, and if you squint, there’s some room for optimism there given his new park and the defense behind him. His history of underperforming his FIP is less conclusive than Iwakuma’s history of OUTperforming it, so maybe DIPS will help us out. Given the contract, it’s harder to even call this a buy-low situation – it’s more like taking advantage of loss-aversion, where Boston’s sense of Miley’s value may be influenced by a bad year, while Seattle is looking at the larger picture of expected contribution versus guaranteed outlay.

The problem is not that I think Miley’s bad. I saw him in AAA in what had been a disappointing year for him (this was 2011) and thought he’d be good. The durability is a clear plus, and it’s the one area where he’s head and shoulders above Iwakuma. The problem here is what it cost the M’s. The M’s sent lefty Roenis Elias east, and while many on Twitter believe Elias is straight-up better than Miley, I’m not among them. I would note that there are “team friendly contracts” and then there are pre-arb contracts like Elias’ that pay around the league minimum. That’s gotta be attractive to the team that just committed hundreds of millions to David Price.

And then there’s the fact that Elias – whose production is just slightly behind Miley’s on a rate basis in their Steamer projections – isn’t even the centerpiece of the deal for Boston. That’s not my read of it, that’s Dipoto’s. The M’s didn’t just send a cost-controlled starter, they sent their cost-controlled bullpen ace, Carson Smith. As an early Smith fan and president-for-life of the Carson Smith fanclub, I want to acknowledge that I may be biased here. I know the M’s got a righty bullpen arm in return, and that Jonathan Aro has pleasant minor league K rates and the like. But a bullpen isn’t – or shouldn’t – be an assemblage of K rates. A great bullpen should have a balanced set of skills, so that there’s an arm that can excel in any number of situations. Carson Smith is an elite – unquestionably elite – arm against right-handers, and he’s elite if the situation calls for a ground ball. The M’s bullpen clearly don’t have anyone as good against righties at the moment, and there’s no one in the same zip code as Smith if you’re up 1 in the 8th with the bases loaded and 1 out.*

I understand completely that Smith bombed out as closer, and that his results went south right when his velocity dipped in July. But the idea that Smith is or will be damaged goods isn’t air-tight. First, by Fangraphs’ velocity numbers, Smith’s velo drop looks especially dire. In July, Fangraphs had Smith’s FB velo down about 2 MPH from his April through June average. This coincided with some awful appearances, so it was definitely a concern. Still, there are two problems. First, Smith started throwing a change-up more in the second half to attempt to deal with the increasing numbers of lefties he was facing. MLBAM didn’t know he was throwing a change, and by movement, you can see why: it just wasn’t that different from his sinker. As a result, Fangraphs shows him throwing a lot more “sinkers” and a lot fewer “change-ups” than Brooks Baseball, and the reason is MLBAM miscoded a couple dozen cambios. Second, by Brooks, his velo mostly bounced back in September. I don’t want to oversell this: Smith had a velo drop in July, and his velo was inconsistent from game to game thereafter. But the idea that Smith’s velo just tanked in the second half is wrong.

So, can Jonathan Aro be another Carson Smith? No, I know we’re supposed to say that there are no stupid questions, but that…that is not a good question. Aro throws from a somewhat similar low 3/4 arm slot, though it’s not quite as sidearm. Instead of Smith’s sinking, buckets-of-armside-run fastball, Aro uses a four-seamer that gets above-average *vertical* movement. He’s got a change, but his outpitch was supposed to be a slider. He only threw 22 of them in the bigs, so we can’t say much, but this pitch generated zero whiffs and had 5+” of vertical movement. The different arm action makes a straight comparison pointless, but Smith’s slider dives well below 0 in vertical movement, and it’s a big reason why he runs GB% in the 65% range. Aro’s GB% – in 10 innings, of course – was 16.2%. Even in the minors, Aro is an extreme fly-ball pitcher. You can see what Dipoto’s thinking, given the ballpark and the OF defense he’s assembling, and you may think fly-balls-in-Safeco is the new market inefficiency, but they didn’t get a Carson Smith replacement, they got the opposite of Carson Smith.

Okay, we know who Aro *isn’t* and *won’t* be, but who does he remind you of? Vertical movement of 5″ on a slider is actually pretty rare, so we can narrow things down quickly. There’s one pitcher who throws a fastball with very similar movement and a slider that’s almost a dead ringer to Aro’s. Meet Athletics bullpen stalwart Evan Scribner. Scribner does some things very well: Scribner’s K-BB% is elite – fractionally ahead of Carson Smith’s – not only because he strikes out more than a batter per inning, but because he never, ever walks anyone. Seriously, Scribner goes months between walks, and has 4 BBs in the last 72 IP covering two seasons. Aro didn’t have THAT kind of control in the minors, but his BB rates were very low in AAA and in low-A. The problem Scribner has, and one that Aro shows signs of as well, is the long ball. Scribner gave up more HRs than any reliever in baseball last year, and while Aro didn’t show any HR-issues in the minors, he did in his cup of coffee. Aro and Scribner trade whiffs for fly balls by throwing up in the zone and having a slider that’s easier to elevate. You can do some great things with that, but HRs will be a perennial worry. Scribner’s essentially replacement level DESPITE an utterly bonkers K:BB ratio because of this. Jonathan Aro is not doomed to repeat Scribner’s mistakes, but he’ll have to figure something out.

The M’s seemed to give up an awful lot when you consider the pre-arb contracts Smith and Elias were on. Miley has the most experience and is better than he showed for Boston last year, but this deal stings. Dipoto told Bob Dutton that he preferred Miley to grabbing a free agent pitcher and sacrificing their first-round pick, but the past 24 hours makes you think more and more that Dipoto didn’t really HAVE that option. A few posts back, I mentioned that the M’s needed to fill out their roster and make a push given their average age. Dipoto’s first few moves were for mid-career guys, not youngsters, and dealing Smith/Elias pushes them more and more in that direction. Given the amount committed to Felix, Seager, Cano and Cruz, though, that was going to be tough. Either the M’s would need to open their pocketbook a bit more, or the M’s would need to trade to fill in their missing pieces. Letting Iwakuma walk because you couldn’t extend him a third year and then giving up a solid return for Miley suggests that the M’s simply didn’t have enough to sign mid-tier guys, and the flurry of trades kind of corroborates that. I don’t know the constraints Dipoto is operating under, so it feels uncharitable to castigate the man about this deal, but it’s been a bad day to be an M’s fan.

* The M’s apparently extended a NRI invite to Donn Roach, so there’s your extreme ground ball guy. I’ve liked Roach for years, and it’s a good move, but Roach is no Carson Smith.

This One Hurts

December 7, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners · 22 Comments 

It’s only in hindsight that this feels inevitable. No one can say that the Dodgers signing a free agent is shocking, or that it came out of nowhere, but I expected the M’s to resign Hisashi Iwakuma, and they did not. Ownership weighed in at the trade deadline that Iwakuma would stay, giving the M’s not only one of the most unlikely great pitchers in the game toss a no-hitter at home, but a window to work something out. Taking Iwakuma OFF the trading block certainly *seemed* to indicate a willingness to extend him another few years, and because we want to see patterns or some semblance of a plan where we want to, I kind of assumed-wished that maybe everyone had a handshake deal back in July.

Last night, we learned that the Dodgers signed Iwakuma to a three-year deal for about $45 million. For true connoisseurs of Mariners-pain, the first reaction was probably something like, “Soooo, a bit less than Carlos Silva got from Seattle?” It’s not just that the Dodgers swooped in to offer a contract, it’s that they didn’t even look tacky and nouveau-riche about it. They didn’t take a page out of the new Zack Greinke deal, the old Zack Greinke deal, the Jon Lester deal, or whatever Edwin Jackson got years ago. Instead, it felt like working up from Bronson Arroyo’s last deal. Or maybe starting with Mark Buehrle’s four-year deal and working backwards. This was a deal that literally any team in baseball could afford, so you can’t even fire off a shrug-emoji tweet about the Dodgers being the Dodgers. The Dodgers are still easy to hate, but they’re still innovating new ways to make you hate them.

Hisashi Iwakuma will be 35 next season. He throws 89, and has made it to 30 starts once in his four years in Seattle. By a certain set of numbers, the gnashing of teeth in M’s-land feels out of place. Let the Dodgers pay for his decline! Iwakuma was sweet, sweet $$/WAR gold – don’t mess that up high-AAV+advanced-age nonsense! Anyone who actually watched him for a while in Seattle knows why this hurts, and more than most, another set of numbers illuminates why. Hisashi Iwakuma took just about every piece of Defense-Independent Pitching statistics and upended them. He took a core component of sabermetric orthodoxy (especially around 2012), gave that little ‘Kuma smile, and left it looking as reductive and absurd as any of the slugging DHs he struck out swinging on a pitch in the dirt.

BABIP tends to hover around league average, or .293-.295 or so. Iwakuma’s has never been that high, and would be below .270 for his career absent a horrible stretch in 2014 (when his season BABIP was *still* below average). OK, OK, *some* pitchers have a true-talent BABIP that’s lower than league average: really high velocity is one way to do it, as is being left-handed or a knuckleballer. Iwakuma, of course, is none of these things. Iwakuma blazed his own trail to BABIP-success: forcing batters to hit “bad” pitches. In practice, this means ignoring other little tidbits of received wisdom, either old-school pitching coach stuff or further sabermetric wisdom. Iwakuma throws his four-seam fastball up in the zone, and got a lot of the plate with it. Sure, he tried to keep it away to righties – kind of – but he still threw plenty of well-below average velocity pitches straight down the middle. Against lefties, the zone he threw the MOST four-seam fastballs in his *career* was right down the middle. That’s kind of insane, and it wasn’t *always* successful – he’s given up a lot of home runs, remember. But the fastball was a means to an end, not an end in itself.

He threw so many strikes with his fastball that he made it all but impossible to NOT swing at his splitter. Batters swung at an Iwakuma splitter over 60% of the time. Remember that the swing rate in baseball – for all pitches – is in the 46-47% range. And they swung over 60% of the time despite the fact that Iwakuma threw his splitter here:
Iwakuma splitter map
They simply couldn’t hold up, and that meant Iwakuma had no need to throw strikes with it. As a result, Iwakuma got plenty of whiffs on the pitch, but either in spite or because of his lack of a top-flight fastball, even THAT isn’t why the pitch was so remarkable. It’s because when batters did put it in play, they hit it on the ground. Masahiro Tanaka or even Matt Shoemaker get more whiffs on their splitters, but no one whose thrown it a lot got a higher percentage of ground balls.

It’s that, I think, that helped him overcome another bit of received wisdom: that pitchers don’t really have a lot of control over their sequencing. Or, you can run a high strand rate by striking out everybody, but if you don’t have a superhuman fastball, there’s no way to outpitch BaseRuns. Again, though, Iwakuma has yet to record a single season with a league average LOB%. With runners on base, the league average pitcher is a bit worse than he is with the bases empty. It makes sense: 1B-2B hole’s a bit bigger. The pitcher may get more of the plate to avoid walking a runner into scoring position. Maybe it’s nerves. Iwakuma had the option, thanks to his splitter, of becoming a very different pitcher. The splitter allowed him to dial in his GB%, and that’s pretty much what we see: his GB% is lowest with no one on, and it rises with men on, and rises some more with men in scoring position. Because grounders tend to be pulled and because the M’s knew the pattern, Iwakuma’s BABIP *on grounders* was also below league average, allowing him to pitch better than you’d expect with men on base. The splitter allowed Iwakuma to post a better than average BABIP, and it allowed him to post better-than-average strand rates by throwing it more often.

So, great – man bites FIP. THIS is why he was a fan favorite? I can’t speak for other fans, but there is something about his trajectory from afterthought to unlikely ace that made his M’s tenure particularly fun. Remember that Iwakuma was never supposed to be a Mariner. In 2011, the Athletics won the right to negotiate with Iwakuma, but couldn’t get a deal done. Iwakuma returned to the Rakuten Golden Eagles…and got hurt, tossing 119 IP a year after topping 200, and so the M’s signed him to a one-year, $1.5m base salary deal in 2012. We got to see Iwakuma pitch in the spring, and he was unremarkable but fine. The M’s opened the season in Japan that year, and they played a few exhibition game against NPB teams before facing off with Oakland a few days later. Iwakuma got the chance to start one exhibition game against the Yomiuri Giants and was summarily destroyed, leaving the M’s worried about his arm.

Iwakuma opened 2012 as the long-man in the bullpen, the 7th of 7th bullpen arms. He didn’t get to pitch much, but when he did he was awful. Through July 1, 2012, Iwakuma was 1-1 with an ERA of 4.75 thanks to a terrible HR rate (1.8/9IP) and a nearly-as-bad walk rate (4.45/9IP). Batters were slugging .459 against him, and his average leverage index, measuring the importance of the situations he appeared in, was 0.48, lowest on the team. The M’s had a Rule 5 pick in the bullpen that year, Lucas Luetge, whose average LI through June was 0.83, so…yeah. So far, so Mariners: the M’s lucked out when an intriguing buy-low candidate fell into their laps, but he was broken, so nothing good came of it. But in an extremely Mariners twist, the rotation was in shambles. The M’s started the year with Hector Noesi, Kevin Millwood AND Blake Beavan in their rotation, so the bar was set fairly low for a bullpen arm to pitch their way into starting. The M’s decided that Iwakuma had “built up enough arm strength” to do that, and so, when Kevin Millwood got hurt, Iwakuma got the chance to start in early July. Expectations were, shall we say, low around much of the M’s blogosphere. After a series of mediocre-to-good-ish starts, Iwakuma faced the Toronto Blue Jays in late July at Safeco. Toronto’s first batter, Rajai Davis, worked a full count, then blasted an Iwakuma four-seamer for a home run. He settled in after that, though, and started to show signs that he wasn’t a typical 5th starter. When it was over, Iwakuma tossed 8 IP, giving up only the one run, walking three, giving up 4 hits, and striking out *13*. From 7/30 through the end of the year, Iwakuma was a revelation – a 3.6:1 K:BB ratio, a very low ERA, an OBP-against of .288.

Iwakuma’s arm-strength, as measured by pure velocity, never ticked up. He threw slower in the rotation than out of the pen, because that’s what everyone does. His dominant 2013 wasn’t the result of honing his slider – a pitch he started off throwing more than his splitter in 2012 – and which was mentioned as his outpitch in 2012. Instead, it felt like Iwakuma had to go through his struggles to learn a new and better repertoire. With his normal frame and below-average velo, it felt like Iwakuma had either stumbled onto a cheat-code or, through hard work and struggle, discovered an algorithm that befuddled opposing line-ups. Here was the anti-LeBron, the antithesis of Justin Verlander or David Price. Even after the M’s gave away bear hats in his honor, you would never think of Iwakuma when people in Seattle kept talking about “Beast Mode.” It’s probably unfair to both pitchers to compare him to Jamie Moyer. Iwakuma’s stuff is much better, Moyer is a singularity, etc., but there’s something compelling about excelling in sports without pure physical gifts. *Compared to MLB pitchers in 2012-2015* Iwakuma lacks pure physical ability, but you watch him day in and day out for years, and you almost start to forget. He’s not a pure pitch to contact guy; the whiffs pile up, and he looks like a strikeout guy. But he never walks anyone and seems to be able to summon double-play balls at will.

It seemed that the only thing that kept him from dominating the way he did in 2013 was succession of small health concenrs. He caught his finger in a screen before spring training in 2014. He pulled a lat muscle last year. If you want, you can include the dead arm from early 2012. The shoulder problem that knocked him out for months back in Japan in 2011 never returned, thankfully, but the injuries kept Iwakuma from becoming a more well-known pitcher nationally. Again, he felt human-sized, unique, and ours. Scouts presumably thought he was a trick-pitch guy who’d get found out thanks to his fastball’s location and speed. Saber writers could toss off “likely ERA regression candidates” posts featuring Hisashi each year. Even M’s fans worried as he moved towards his mid-30s and it took him longer and longer to return from injuries. But he kept returning, and he kept reminding us why he was among the most fun Mariners to watch ever. Not even an interminable time between pitches could stop it – it started to feel comical, like Johnny Cueto’s weird pauses and hitches *mid*-delivery.

It’s easy to see why the new GM wouldn’t resign Iwakuma for what he got from LA: Can’t go to 3 years. Lots of alternatives out there, maybe in the trade market. Gotta think long-term. 35-year pitcher, injury history. It’s just as easy to assert that no one coming into the organization NOW and assessing Iwakuma on a page would miss what made him special. And hey,the M’s get a sandwich-round draft pick out of this (a consolation prize that feels roughly equivalent to televising a number of games featuring Vin Scully calling Iwakuma starts, which is to say, not too shabby). Maybe we need to see what Plan B is. Whatever the case, this one hurts.

The M’s Have Been Rather Busy of Late

December 2, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners · 29 Comments 

Baseball’s GMs, analysts and assorted job-seekers meet next week for the Winter Meetings in Nashville, but Jerry Dipoto decided to take care of some business before heading out to meet with his counterparts. In recent days, the M’s traded their recently acquired 1B for a backup catcher, signed a RF, signed a RP, and went dumpster-diving for a waiver-wire 1B. Coupled with the recent trades of Brad Miller and Tom Wilhelmsen, and the M’s have made substantial changes to their roster. Let’s take a look at some of the recent moves and what they say (and don’t say) about the M’s plan for 2016 and beyond.

1: Look, Mark Trumbo was not going to play here. Dipoto traded him from Anaheim as Angels GM, and he’s traded him again with Seattle. As someone who’s publicly talked about the need to both “get more athletic” and reduce strikeouts, Dipoto pretty clearly doesn’t see Mark Trumbo as his type of player. What’s changed in the two years between Trumbo trades is what the rest of the league thinks of him. After 2013, Dipoto netted pitchers Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago. Skaggs was highly-thought of, and Santiago’s been a reasonably effective back-of-the-rotation starter for four years now, turning in 300 IP with a solid RA (and a terrible FIP, though his career ERA is a full run lower than his career FIP).

This time, the return for Trumbo was…substantially less. In exchange for Trumbo + a reliever, the Baltimore Orioles will send backup catcher Steve Clevenger, a long-time minor league backstop who was drafted as a 2B and switched to catching in the low minors. Given that background, it’s probably not a shock that Clevenger’s defense is not his calling-card. In his career, he’s thrown out 11 of 80 basestealers, a success rate under 14%. Given that he’s only caught less than 700 big league innings at catcher, or less than half a year’s worth, there’s not a lot to say about his pitch framing. However, what CAN be said is that it doesn’t look disastrous; in his career, Clevenger’s saved a handful of runs through framing, most of them coming back in 2012 with the Cubs. It’s not a lot to go on, but he certainly wouldn’t be the first catcher to excel at framing while rating poorly at controlling the running game or blocking pitches.*

Offensively, Clevenger has been terrible, but he’s been terrible in very different ways than the incumbents in the C spot for the M’s. Unlike Mike Zunino, who really can spend some time in AAA now, Clevenger’s a contact hitter. In the minors, he paired a solid walk rate with well-below-average K rates, and that made up for a near total lack of power. In the big leagues, Clevenger’s patience wasn’t necessarily a virtue, as his low swing rates put him in bad counts and his lack of pop meant he saw too many strikes to walk enough to be passable. In Baltimore, though, he seems to have made an adjustment, as his swing rate climbed from below average to well-above average. Normally, this would be a bad thing, but Clevenger seems to have been convinced that the old strategy wasn’t working. His walk rate’s fallen, but so has his K rate. He doesn’t swing and miss, so taking away a bunch of called-strikes seems like it’s worth a try. As Clevenger still isn’t 30 (despite being drafted back in 2006), it’s not crazy to see him using this new approach to good effect in a park where his lack of power isn’t a huge problem. Let’s be clear: Clevenger is an out-of-options career backup who might not be able to throw out Mark Trumbo stealing, even in a pitch out. He may very well fail and become waiver-wire fodder in several months, but if he does fail, he’ll fail *differently* than his predecessors here. The fact that he bats lefty makes it easier to platoon him and put him in a good position to succeed as well.

The first reaction to this trade on the part of many M’s fans was horror that a starting 1B and a guy the M’s had given up some serious talent for months earlier was a no-hit catcher. That’s understandable, given Trumbo’s power and his status as an ex-All Star, like ex-All Star Kevin Correia or ex-All Star Roger Pavlik. Trumbo himself isn’t yet 30 either, and is in his final year of arbitration, so this isn’t a case of a player stuck with an anchor of a contract. Ultimately, Dipoto wasn’t able to convince teams that Trumbo’s solid final month meant a whole lot, and that’s understandable: Trumbo’s inconsistency is a big reason why he was in danger of getting non-tendered at today’s deadline. A player who might very well be non-tendered, and thus a free agent, is not a player who can command a lot in the trade market. That the estimate of Trumbo’s arb award was under $10m underscores his value. Trumbo at 1 year/~$9m wasn’t enough of an enticement to net Steve Clevenger straight up – the M’s actually had to sweeten the pot (they sent reliever CJ Riefenhauser to Baltimore as well). Why?

Part of it is that Trumbo’s OF defense has pretty much officially closed the door on playing anything other than 1B or DH. That severely restricts the teams who could figure out how to play him. The M’s actually DO have an opening at 1B, but Trumbo’s platoon splits make him hard to start against right-handers, and given the M’s obligations to their stars, $9m for a platoon DH/1B just doesn’t sound like a great way to spend money. But deciding that is one thing – the M’s actually needed a plan to utilize that payroll savings for something they actually needed…

2: …enter Nori Aoki, the M’s new RF. Aoki will be 34 next year, and will cost somewhere in the $3-$5m range. The deal isn’t official (Aoki still needs to pass a physical, and after suffering some bad post-concussion symptoms after being beaned by Jake Arrieta, the physical is probably pretty important), but it sounds like it’s for one year with an option for 2017. Aoki is an elite contact hitter, with K rates under 10% in every year he’s played in MLB – almost unheard of in today’s whiff-prone game. His walk rate isn’t elite, probably because he has very little power, but his pure hit tool allows him to post very good on-base-percentage numbers. With a batting average that’s bounced around between .285 and .288 (!) in his four years, his OBP has reliably settled in around .350 every year as well. Considering Mark Trumbo will make more, can’t play OF, and is projected to get on base at a .309 clip, the M’s seem to have done well here.

Aoki’s defense is something of a divisive topic. We’ve seen him take…non-traditional routes to balls in the OF, and while he’s speedy, he doesn’t have, say, Ichiro’s instincts and first step. All of that said, UZR’s seen him as a solid defender in each of the past three years. DRS doesn’t agree, however, as it sees a steep drop off from 2013 to 2014 and 2015, with a solid arm making up for very poor range. The M’s cannot expect to have a gold glover in RF if that’s where Aoki starts, but even if you take the DRS trend line an extend it down (due to age-related decline), Aoki will be worlds better defensively than last year’s combo of Nelson Cruz and Mark Trumbo.

3: With the other chunk of savings from the Trumbo trade, the M’s acquired reliever Justin de Fratus from Philadelphia. De Fratus was awful last year, posting a 5.51 ERA and a still-bad 4.28 FIP for the rebuilding Phillies, but in 2014, he was effective in 50+ games, with a 4.08 K:BB ratio and a sparkly ERA to match. De Fratus isn’t overpowering, with a fastball in the 92-94 range and a solid slider at 82, but he’s not a ROOGY: he’s been better against *lefties* in his career, and when he’s been bad, right-handers have been his undoing. Why? De Fratus has a change up that he’ll throw lefties, but lefties have been flummoxed by his slider to a surprising degree. They’ve slugged .237 on it in De Fratus (admittedly short) career, while righties are slugging .346.

De Fratus throws a four-seamer and a sinker, and he’s shifted which one he favors a few times. In 2014, he was a sinker/slider guy. Last year, he threw a lot more four-seamers and cut his rate of sinkers by two thirds. I’m not saying that this alone is the reason he struggled, but righties have always hit his four-seamer fairly well. More than a change in his pitch mix, the M’s might want to look at his delivery; De Fratus is far, far more hittable than he should be, and there may be something he could do to get a bit more deception. The M’s DFA’d Edgar Olmos today, so there’s a bit of room in the bullpen, and De Fratus is a good low-risk bet: his one-year deal will set the M’s back all of $750,000.

4: Among the minor moves of the day, the M’s lost prospect Pat Kivlehan to Texas, as he was the PTBNL in the Leonys Martin/Tom Wilhelmsen deal. Also leaving the org is catcher John Hicks, who was signed by Minnesota. Hicks had been DFA’d in November when the M’s signed Chris Iannetta. With a spot on the 40-man open (after Olmos was DFA’d), the M’s signed minor league 1B Andy Wilkins as well. Wilkins got a cup of coffee with the White Sox, the club that drafted him in 2010, but bounced between the Jays and Dodger orgs last year. Wilkins doesn’t strike out a ton, but doesn’t have enough power to play 1B. In the PCL last year, Wilkins slugged .479 for Oklahoma City. He was great in the International League in 2014, but last year’s regression made that look more like an outlier than a sign of development and growth. Wilkins hits lefty, which is nice considering the only other 1B on the 40-man is righty Jesus Montero. Wilkins is not a solution to 1B, and has less of a chance than Montero, which is saying something. But the M’s are clearly weak at the position, so if you’re going to pick through freely-available players, you may as well prioritize 1Bs.

None of these moves radically remake the team, but Dipoto’s style is pretty apparent. In Aoki and Clevenger, the M’s are showing a clear preference for contact skills, and the pick-ups of De Fratus and Martin highlight that Dipoto prefers to buy low with guys with poor recent stats. But beyond that stylistic change, one thing’s pretty apparent: the M’s are categorically not rebuilding. This was never really in doubt, not with Robbie Cano and Felix around, and not with Nelson Cruz coming off the year he had. But the M’s have NOT shown a preference for getting younger, even in these minor moves. Aoki will be 34, Clevenger 30. Leonys Martin is older than Brad Miller and Logan Morrison, who’s more or less the same age as Andy Wilkins. This isn’t good or bad on its own – the M’s seem to want a specific set of skills rather than a specific development path, and that’s fine. Given the age of Cano/Cruz/Felix, this is understandable, even laudable. It does, however, put a premium on fixing the remaining roster holes.

And that’s going to be tough unless the M’s allow the payroll to rise, probably above last year’s $120-123m mark. The M’s haven’t done what we all sort of expected and signed Hisashi Iwakuma, but he’ll cost more than the $7m he made last season. Given the contracts pitchers are getting this off-season – JA Happ’s $12m per year to David Price’s $31m per, it’s easy to see Iwakuma doubling or tripling his annual salary. The M’s have already committed $94-97m to just 9 players (depending on what Aoki gets), and they’ve extended contracts to their arb-eligible players, too. They don’t have a whole lot of room to go shopping, but they’re not sold on just turning the 1B job over to Montero or counting on full years from James Paxton/Nate Karns/Vidal Nuno in the rotation. The M’s have clearly been willing to part with Paxton, and that might help shore up 1B, but then it’s even more critical that the M’s reduce the uncertainty in the rotation.

* Intuitively, this is odd, but when you think about it more, it makes sense. Your body position to frame a low strike is probably different than your body position would be if you wanted to ensure there was no way the ball would get past you. Jose Molina, the godfather of pitch framing, had poor rates of passed balls/wild pitches. Wellington Castillo was not letting the ball by, but he was an awful, awful pitch framer. This isn’t a hard and fast rule or anything; Jonathan Lucroy was great at both, as is Yadier Molina. And some of this may just be selection; Sal Perez doesn’t need to impress teams with his framing – they’re still agog at his 80-grade arm. Francisco Cervelli can’t do that, so he adds value through framing.