Cactus League Game 8, The Value of Durability

March 11, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Jeff Samardzija, 12:05pm

The M’s head to Scottsdale to face San Francisco, and their off-season acquisition, Jeff Samardzija. The right-hander signed a 5 year, $90 million deal with San Francisco despite the fact that his 2015 – his walk year – was, well, awful. After an excellent 2014, Samardzija signed with the White Sox and saw pretty much every indicator decline. His strikeout rate plummeted, he gave up some of the walk-rate gains he’d made, his HRs spiked, his ground-ball rate dropped by over 10 percentage points, and his velocity dropped. Sure, sure, the White Sox defended like they had some team-wide allergy to leather, but you can’t blame the defenders for the fact that his sinker no longer sunk. By FIP, he wasn’t bad – he was actually a bit above average – but the most important stat to the Giants, I’m guessing, was his IP total. 2015 was his third straight year surpassing 200 IP.

Hisashi Iwakuma’s topped 200IP once, and while he’s healthy now, I don’t know anyone who’d bet he’ll do it again. Given that MRIs of his shoulder have led TWO MLB clubs to back away in horror, Iwakuma’s not the kind of guy who’s going to sign a contract like Samardzija’s, especially not at his age. MLB puts a massive premium on pitcher health and durability. But looking at these two starters, you wonder if that premium’s gotten a bit out of hand.

By FIP, Samardzija’s been worth 9.5 WAR over the past three seasons. By the same measure, Iwakuma’s been worth just 8.6. But if FIP couldn’t capture how bad Samardzija’s 2015 was, it’s *never* been able to understand Iwakuma. Thanks to his HRs-allowed, FIP is reliably pessimistic on Kuma, and thus, Kuma’s consistently posted better ERAs. Meanwhile, Samardzija’s career ERA’s a bit higher than his career FIP. So what happens if we look at the recent past by fielding-DEpendent stats? Samardzija’s last three years fall to 6 WAR, and that includes his great, sub-3.00 ERA 2014. Meanwhile, Kuma shoots up to 12.3 – he had a single season that beats Samardzija’s RA9-WAR total from 2013-2015. WAR isn’t a rate stat, so these numbers are already giving Samardzija credit for his extra IP, and penalizing Iwakuma for his lack of durability. Depending on your organization, your bullpen and your position on the win curve, I can definitely see an argument that Samardzija’s age and durability make him the superior bet, and you wouldn’t want to extend Iwakuma a 5 year deal. But Samardzija, a pitcher, gets an absolutely guaranteed $90m, while Iwakuma gets a guarantee of $12m for 2016. Sure, Kuma’s got IP-based incentives that can tip a club option to a guaranteed option, and the IP-thresholds are low enough that they’re quite attainable. But by runs-on-the-scoreboard, Iwakuma’s been a much, much better pitcher. Samardzija’s been tantalizing, frustrating, he’s-figured-it-out!-oh-wait-whoopsadoodle, but healthy. Given pitcher attrition, the subject of yesterday’s post, durability absolutely should be valued, and paid accordingly. But it sure feels like the Iwakumas of the baseball world are a kind of market inefficiency.

1: Marte, SS
2: Martin, CF
3: Seager, 3B
4: Gutierrez, DH
5: Romero, RF
6: Lee, 1B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Navarro, LF
9: O’Malley

In this year’s version of one my favorite series, Sam Miller takes a look at the Rays farm system of 10 years ago and traces what happened to the players and the team. Short answer: that group of players fundamentally re-made the team from a laughingstock to a pennant winner, and they did so in a very different way than the Brewers’ great 2003 class. Whereas the Brewers held tight and built around Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks and JJ Hardy, the Rays kept Evan Longoria, but traded Delmon Young at the height of his value, then traded what they got for Young. Anyway, go read it.

Walker and Hultzen

March 10, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

They were the M’s first picks in consecutive drafts, but other than that (er, and the fact that they’re pitchers), there are very few obvious similarities between Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen. Walker, a right-hander, signed out of high school where he’d been seen by many as a basketball prospect. Hultzen, a lefty, pitched three full seasons for the University of Virginia, going from “Freshman of the Year” in 2009, Pitcher of the year in the ACC in 2010 to, arguably, the most accomplished pitcher in the nation in 2011. Hultzen was a high-school All-America, while Walker was seen as a risky project.

Walker’s stock shot up after signing, as he impressed scouts in instructs, and then showed that the glowing reports weren’t just hype when he debuted in the midwest league. Hultzen, too, moved quickly, and didn’t need to start in instructs. He got his start in the Arizona Fall League, and if he wasn’t the mid-90s, death-dealing change-up guy some scouts saw late in the college season in 2011, he was still really, really difficult to hit. His fastball in particular seemed to give hitters fits, and if his arm angle looked like it’d be easier for righties to pick up, his actual results against righties quickly dispelled that idea. He began his first full pro season in AA, and quickly overwhelmed it. In 13 starts and 75 1/3 innings, Hultzen struck out 79 and gave up an astonishing 38 hits. You could quibble a bit about the walks, but they simply didn’t matter: it seemed like no one could pick up the ball out of his hand.

Walker skipped the gauntlet of High Desert and was assigned to AA for 2012, where he was Hultzen’s teammate for the first half of the year. Sure, he was young, and there was nothing overtly concerning, but Walker faced some adversity for the first time. Command lapses led to problems both with free passes (his walk rate was the same as it had been in the MWL, but he started plunking lots of hitters) and home runs, a bad combination. His natural ability meant that he could get Ks, and thus wasn’t overwhelmed, but whereas he was able to avoid loud contact in the Midwest League, high-minors hitters would punish mistakes. It all added up to an RA/9 of about 5. Not a horrific number for a kid who turned 20 very late in the season, but not what fans of another go-nowhere M’s team wanted to see, either.

Meanwhile, Hultzen hit his first rough patch as well. After blowing away AA, he moved up to Tacoma in June of 2012, making his debut in Colorado Spings, and going just 3 innings, giving up 5 hits and, oddly, 5 walks. It’s the ‘Springs – way more elevation than Denver, and just a weird environment to play in. Slider doesn’t slide. And after joining the team in Tacoma the night before, he’d had to meet the team at 4:30am that day to catch the flight to Colorado. No worries. He made his home debut later in the month against Jamie Moyer, of all people, and struck out two in the first. In the second, he walked three hitters to force in a run. Plenty of pitchers have little command lapses, little mechanical hitches that cause the ball to fly up or to one side. They may walk a batter or two, eliciting a conversation with the catcher or pitching coach to remind them about their front shoulder or something. With Hultzen, it just came on so suddenly and didn’t look like one specific flaw. The consummate control pitcher now had the yips.

Whatever he did in the offseason, he fixed the problem. Hultzen was back with sub-10% walk rates, and was slicing his way through the PCL when he suffered a shoulder injury. We didn’t know it at the time – it was just “dead arm” but that ominous sign was confirmed late in the year when we heard he had labrum damage and underwent surgery. Through it all, though, Hultzen remained accountable, talking to the press even if he had no idea what was going on. There’s a reason people like Ryan Divish and Shannon Drayer write about Hultzen the way they do. He had competitiveness that never slid into cockiness – an aggressive demeanor on the mound, coupled with a thoughtful, contemplative nature off of it.

Walker, too, fixed whatever was troubling him in 2012, and if he was still giving up more HRs than you’d like, he was 20 and occasionally dominant in AA. Promoted to AAA, Walker ran into occasional trouble with his control, but his strikeout rate was still great, and he was pitching around a very high BABIP admirably. At the end of the year, he made his M’s debut, a ray of hope in another sunk season. In the 2.5 years since, we’ve seen the same basic pattern. Walker takes a step forward, has to regroup and refocus a bit, consolidate and incorporate what he’s learning into some adjustment, and then he’s off again.

Yesterday, Walker hit 98mph with his fastball, and seemed to be on top of it a bit more, leading to less horizontal movement and more rise. Whether it was that more up-and-down plane, a slight change in his position on the rubber, or just facing some Royals scrubs, Walker’s splitter looked otherworldly. It sat at 89-91, touching nearly 92 at one point. The pitch is a change-up, and it was sitting in the low-90s. The Royals couldn’t really touch it, and didn’t put one in play. Walker’s curve looked better, too. This was a pitch he all but abandoned at times last year in favor of a cutter, but Walker located his big hook yesterday and actually shelved the cutter, at least for one start. It’s easy to talk about Walker’s 2015 as a tale of two halves, but within each half, Walker would sprinkle great outings and disasters. Games like yesterday’s offer a glimpse of his potential – of what he could be if he could reliably command the ball. It’s spring training, it was just 3 IP, I know. But that’s what spring is for, right, to take a quick look at a player or a prospect and say, “yes, I’ve seen enough that hope doesn’t feel forced, something you do because it’s a cliche and you miss baseball – it feels natural, logical, obvious, correct.”

Yesterday, Danny Hultzen was shut down with soreness in his left shoulder. Again. Scott Servais says Hultzen is “evaluating his options.” This, too, is another rite of spring. The oft-injured player who’s fought so hard to get back, who’s dedicated himself to training or rehab or changing his lifestyle, only to see it blow up in the crucible of camp. We always talk about spring training as a time of hope, but in reality, it’s February or January where things really feel limitless: Hultzen was moving to the bullpen, where there’d be less stress on his arm. Mark Lowe is back, and scouts say he looks impressive. Carlos Quentin’s healthy again, and he signed a no-risk minor league deal with the M’s! Sometimes, these stories become better after Spring Training, but many of them don’t survive; they’re just opening sentences in unfinished, discarded drafts. Baseball is cruel, and because spring training is a time when the population of players is at its highest, it’s probably the single cruelest place and time on the baseball calendar.

This isn’t about draft strategy or “safe” picks versus upside. Hultzen and Walker turned out to be equally competitive and equally coachable, two traits that helped them move up the minor league ranks. It was expected from Hultzen, and perhaps not as expected of Walker, but for a team whose player development group had been something of a disaster, their work with Hultzen and Walker is pretty impressive. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough to “save” Hultzen, as if such a thing is even possible. The M’s thought they’d ID’d the problem in Hultzen’s stride, and his throwing across his body, but Hultzen’s had problems after that “fix” and there’s nothing obviously problematic about his motion, either the new one or the one he used to demolish the Southern League. People who know pitching far more than I do are working to identify weakness in the shoulder and elbow before the tendons are pushed past the breaking point, but we’re never going to wipe injuries out entirely. If the M’s didn’t catch Hultzen’s injury early in 2013, they also didn’t just have him pitch through it. This is *hard* and I’m not sure there’s much point in assigning blame. The point is Hultzen may be at the point where he’s thinking about something other than baseball, and if so, I wish him well, and hope other M’s pitchers learn a bit from his example. I think Walker already has.

Oh, hey, there’s a Cactus League game today. M’s play the Cubs in Peoria, with Bellarmine Prep’s Jon Lester on the hill for Chicago. Wade Miley gets the ball for the Mariners, and the first pitch is scheduled for 12:10.

1: Aoki, CF
2: Sardinas, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Romero, LF
5: Lind, 1B
6: Sanchez, DH
7: Smith, RF
8: Lucas, 3B
9: Clevenger, C
SP: Miley

The Cubs line-up features Javier Baez, the talk of spring 2 years ago, Kyle Schwarber, one of the breakout stars of the Cubs’ great 2015, and Kris Bryant, the talk of spring last year, and yet another breakout star – God damn it, writing about the Cubs must be fun right about now.

Looks like we’ll see Joaquin Benoit and lefty Paul Fry among the relievers after Miley. Very interested to see if Fry’s the guy we saw in the regular season last year, or the somewhat underwhelming version in the AFL. If it’s the former, Fry’s a guy who could reach the majors quite quickly.

Cactus League Game 7, Mariners vs. Royals prospects

March 9, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

Taijuan Walker vs. Matt Strahm, 12:10pm

This one’s on Root Sports, so you don’t need an subscription to watch it, though of course you DO need a cable subscription.

Taijuan Walker takes the mound today for his second start of the spring, and first in Peoria, so we can get an early look at any changes he may have made to his repertoire. Without an innings limit or serious challenge to a rotation spot, this is a big year for the young right hander. The M’s stumbled out of the gate in part because of another poor offense, but also because Walker and James Paxton were both pretty terrible in the spring. To his credit, Walker fought hard and became a solid pitcher by the end of the year, and he’s obviously got the potential to be more than that. Avoiding those early-season problems is going to be important for the M’s this year if they’re going to catch up to the Astros.

That job may be slightly tougher now, as Bob Dutton reports that new relievers (and ex-A’s teammates) Evan Scribner and Ryan Cook will both begin the season on the DL due to lat sprains in their back. Neither sounds particularly serious, but it’s a problem that Scribner’s dealt with before, and the M’s want to be cautious. M’s fans remember the seemingly-minor lat strain that essentially nuked two Stephen Pryor seasons, and while that’s something of a worst-case scenario, it’s a reminder that there really isn’t such a thing as a back injury that’s nothing to worry about. The M’s, like every team, have plenty of hard-throwing options in their bullpen pile behind Scribner/Cook, so this isn’t a huge setback from the team’s point of view. Scribner wasn’t the closer or primary set-up guy, but he DID bring some upside to camp; you could see how he could become a real asset thanks to a video-game K:BB ratio. Joel Peralta/Jonathan Aro/Justin De Fratus/Blake Parker/Donn Roach don’t have that upside, but they’re healthy and at least Parker/Peralta/De Fratus have some prior MLB success to point to.

The M’s are facing a split-squad Royals team today, so in addition to Lorenzo Cain and ex-Mariner Kendrys Morales, the M’s get to see prospects like OF Reymond Fuentes, 3B Hunter Dozier, and SP Matt Strahm. Dozier was a first round pick, and a notable player (and, to be fair, someone notable for being a signability guy that allowed KC to *also* grab Sean Manaea later in the draft), and Fuentes has been a solid but injury plagued guy who came up initially with the Padres. But Strahm? Never heard of him. Apparently, he’s the Royals’s 8th best pitching prospect, and a guy who lost 2013 and almost all of 2014 due to Tommy John surgery. He was drafted out of North Dakota community college, so let’s just say he doesn’t have Dozier’s prospect pedigree. What he DOES have is impressive strikeout rates in the few innings he’s been able to tally. He finished 2015 in the Carolina league, so he hasn’t yet pitched above high-A. Reading the scouting report in the Fangraphs article and scanning his stats, I’d say he throws a rising fastball, and what sounds like a decent curve. The left-hander has some minor/normal platoon splits, but seems to be tough on lefties. At least, he’s been tough on *A-ball* lefties.

1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Gutierrez, LF
6: Montero, 1B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Sanchez, DH
9: Martin, CF
SP: Walker

That is NOT a split-squad line-up.

Felix Hernandez threw a 2-IP simulated game today and remains on track to make his Cactus League debut on Monday against Colorado. Sounds like that one may be televised as well.

More bad news on potential M’s relievers: LHP Danny Hultzen’s been shut down with shoulder pain. That’s certainly not what any M’s fan wanted to hear, and while it too is being described as minor, it’s part of a pretty disturbing pattern. Ryan Divish praised Hultzen’s work ethic and patience, but this would test even the most optimistic player. Get well soon, Danny.

Cactus League Game 6, M’s vs. Indians (

March 8, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Nate Karns vs. Trevor Bauer, 12:05pm

Today’s game’s televised on Indians broadcast only, but hey, I’ll take it.

Yesterday’s game featured long HRs from Dae Ho Lee and Kyle Seager, balanced by some bad pitching by the M’s. James Paxton’s velocity still isn’t where I’d like to see it, though it’s still early March and the readings were a bit low for some of the relievers as well. Still, Paxton’s been extremely hittable, and I’d just love to have some sort of explanation for that, or some mitigating circumstances to point to. In the Arizona Fall League, he wasn’t throwing a curve. Still solid K:BB ratio, not throwing his best breaking ball, fine, it’s just BABIP and “developing his change” related stuff. Now, he IS throwing his curve, and he’s giving up a bunch of hits. As the broadcast team mentioned, most were on the ground, and Peralta had two hits grounding away from the shift, so the hit total itself may be a bit inflated, but Paxton still gave up lots of loud contact and struck out only one. If he’s learning to pitch up in the zone, we just haven’t seen much of it yet. That’s not a slam on him; I’d imagine changing your approach takes time. I just thought he’d be a bit further along at this point just because he got some work in for Peoria in October/November.

Nate Karns stands to gain if Paxton scuffles, of course. Bob Dutton of the News Tribune has a good article on Karns’ competition for the 5th spot, and how fighting for a roster spot feels pretty normal for him.

1: Aoki, CF
2: Sardinas, 3B
3: Smith, RF
4: Montero, DH
5: Lee, 1B
6: O’Malley, 2B
7: Zunino, C
8: Taylor, SS
9: Robertson, LF
SP: Karns

Scott Servais has said Ketel Marte may eventually become the #2 hitter for Seattle, which seems to show just how highly they think of him at the plate. More and more, it’s looking like Marte – perhaps even more than Martin – is absolutely critical to the M’s season. He’s got bad projections but glowing scouting reports, and the offense could look very different if the projections miss low.

Cactus League Game 4, Welcome Back, ‘Kuma

March 6, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Nick Tepesch, 12:10pm

Through the drama/confusion of Iwakuma’s courtship by the Dodgers, and the questions about his health, it can be easy to overlook the simple fact that he’s ready to go here in early March. Sure, the M’s may not get 200 IP per year from the righty, but this looks a heck of a lot better than 2014, when a finger issue lingered and kept him out for much of the first few months. Or 2012, when shoulder soreness sapped some of his strength in the spring and the early part of the regular season. Or 2015, when injuries nuked his entire first half. Very, very few pitchers are consistently healthy, and I think it’s fair to say Iwakuma’s less durable than most, which means I tend to be happier whenever there’s a lack of injury news. It’s not much to get excited about, but hey, Iwakuma’s an integral part of the M’s rotation, and a healthy ‘Kuma has a big impact on the M’s playoff chances.

Nick Tepesch missed all of 2015 due to injury, and was pretty ineffective in 2014 as well. Tepesch filled in for the oft-injured Derek Holland in 2013 and filled in for the injured..everyone in 2014 before succumbing himself. His velocity was down around 2 ticks in 2014, and his ground ball rate collapsed as well. That’s odd, given that Tepesch gets good sink and all of his pitches, including his four-seam fastball. He throws a sinker as well, a knuckle-curve and a change, but his primary breaking ball is a slider that he’ll throw to both lefties and righties. As Dave noted back in early 2014, Tepesch was similar to Martin Perez – the two had very similar 2013 campaigns, but Tepesch was unrecognizable in 2014. Perhaps due to lower velocity, Tepesch couldn’t miss any bats at all, and ended up DFA’d. When he was hurt last spring, the Rangers were kind enough to keep him on the MLB 60-day DL, meaning Tepesch got a pro-rated MLB minimum salary instead of a pro-rated minor league salary. This year, they gave him a non-roster invite, and he’ll try to earn a spot before Yu Darvish comes back from his TJ rehab.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Martin, CF
3: Sanchez, 1B
4: Smith, RF
5: Lee, DH
6: Iannetta, C
7: Sardinas, SS
8: Taylor, 3B
9: O’Malley, 2B
SP: Iwakuma

Sardinas and Martin each get to face their ex team. Chris Taylor makes his first start at 3B after working out there for much of the past week.

Cactus League Game 3, Dipoto’s Ex Pays a Visit

March 5, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 5 Comments 

Wade Miley vs. Nate Smith, 12:10pm

Mike Scioscia and the Angels head to Peoria to face the M’s today, with Wade Miley making his debut for the M’s. After sorting out some work visa issues, 1B Dae Ho Lee figures to see his first action of the spring as well; sound like he’ll come off the bench today. The Angels are sending something of a B team today; there’s no Mike Trout, no Kole Calhoun, and the starting pitcher is coming off a disastrous half-year in the PCL.

Nate Smith is an Angels prospect, which is to say, he’s not thought of highly by the prospecting community. An 8th round save-some-money signability pick by Dipoto’s Angels after 4 so-so years for Furman,* Smith shot through the Angels system on the strength of a very good change-up. Without plus velocity, Smith didn’t rack up tons of strikeouts, but he showed a remarkable ability to miss the sweet spot, leading to extraordinarily low BABIPs and hits-allowed. Whether it was the elevation playing havoc with his change, the advanced bats or what, none of this “skill” followed him to Salt Lake, where he gave up 48 hits (7 homers) and 36 runs in 36 innings. Sure, the PCL is difficult, and 36 innings tell you almost nothing, but for a guy who scouts always doubted despite great AA numbers, it seemed to confirm a lot of that skepticism. With the Angels other top prospects shipped to Atlanta for today’s leadoff hitter, Andrelton Simmons, Smith is pretty much the only near-MLB arm the Angels have. He’s a top 10 prospect for the Angels, but ranking 9th in that system seems like damning with faint praise, particularly given his level (the other pitchers are generally in the low-minors). We’ll see if he’s legitimate depth or a Craig Anderson-style arm, built to confuse AA with a workable change-up, but unable to back it up with anything else to keep AAA/MLB hitters honest.

The M’s aren’t messing around, throwing out something like their first-choice 1-6 hitters and their big off-season addition to the starting rotation in Wade Miley. Miley’s an intriguing guy in that he throws quite a few four-seam fastballs along with a sinker, but gets grounders with both. The four-seamer’s been particularly effective against lefties, but that may be just a function of Miley’s normal platoon splits. In any event, it’ll be interesting to see if he throws more of the pitch this season after moving from Boston and the AL East to homer-suppressing Seattle and the AL West.

1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lind, 1B
6: Gutierrez, RF
7: Zunino, C
8: Powell, CF
9: Robertson, LF
SP: Miley

Daniel Robertson is another ex-Angel whom Dipoto snagged this off-season, along with Efren Navarro, Chris Iannetta and Scott Servais. An extreme contact hitter, Robertson is an odd corner OF with essentially zero power but who balances it out by being nearly impossible to strike out. It’s worked for Nori Aoki, but it hasn’t quite worked yet for Robertson. Last year in half a season with Salt Lake, Robertson was nearly as bad as Nate Smith, and he managed to pair a .299 OBP with a solid .270 average in his cup of coffee with the Angels. As you can see, patience, like power, may just not be a part of Robertson’s game. Still, with strikeouts sky high across the league, and with a modicum of speed, you could see how he could add value to a team. Of course, he was DFA’d by the M’s after they picked him up and made it through waivers, so I guess teams didn’t think he’d add enough value. He figures to head back to the PCL and put together the kind of year he had in 2013 when he was a Padres farmhand. This is the kind of depth teams need, though it may be the kind of depth that most teams have already (you could argue the M’s did too, in the form of Ramon Flores, but he was shipped out in exchange for Luis Sardinas).

We may get to see Tony Zych today along with Blake Parker. Zych has plenty of potential, and I think has the inside track to a set-up role, while Parker is attempting a comeback of sorts after missing nearly all of 2015 due to injuries. Parker had a great 2013 out of the Cubs bullpen, racking up 55 strikeouts in 46 1/3 IP thanks to an over-the-top, rising fastball and a good curve. Despite only so-so velocity, the arrow-straight movement and a somewhat deceptive delivery made him tough to pick up. Lefties in particular were flummoxed by the right-handed Parker. He struggled mightily in 2014 though, bouncing back and forth between the PCL (where he was dominant) and the NL (where he was not). His velo was slightly lower in 2014, but nothing that screamed injury risk. But Parker tossed 3 bad games in April, and was unable to pitch after that due to an elbow problem. The Cubs DFA’d him in May, and Parker took the rest of the season off to get his elbow healthy. It’s not often you find a guy with a 10+ K/9 season in the majors on the minor league scrap heap, but then again, “I was unable to pitch last year due to elbow pain” really does do a number to one’s value.

* Smith apparently signed for $12,000.

Cactus League Game 2, Battle of the Oddly Frustrating Young Fireballers

March 4, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

Taijuan Walker vs. Wily Peralta, 12:10pm

Wily Peralta won’t turn 27 for several months, and has three MLB campaigns with at least 100 IP (he missed a few months last season due to an oblique strain, but had ~ full seasons in 2013 and 2014). He throws a four-seam fastball AND a sinker that *average* in the mid- to high-90s, routinely sitting at 96-97, AND he’s not some walk-prone young chuck-it-and-hope thrower. With restrained walk rates and very high ground ball rates, if you drank enough, you could almost make out a young Felix Hernandez in his profile. Last season, Wily Peralta was essentially smack dab on replacement level by ERA, a tiny bit above by FIP, and over one full win below replacement level by BP’s WARP metric.

Taijuan Walker’s four-seam fastball also averages around 95mph, and he pairs it with a splitter, a pitch that should give him something to throw opposite-handed batters…a problem Peralta’s still trying to solve. After some command lapses in the minors and early in 2015, Walker’s established himself as a guy who can reliably limit walks, and if his fly balling ways will ensure HRs are always a worry, his K:BB ratio is good enough that this won’t be a fatal flaw. In just under 170 innings last year, Walker surrendered a staggering 92 runs. Yes, his FIP was much better than his ERA, and ERA is dumb for a variety of reasons, but as we all remember, Walker occasionally surrendered runs in bunches, and if he’s going to make the leap that his second half hinted at, he’s got to get better at stranding baserunners.

Both of these phenoms have shown flashes of real, tantalizingly sustained success, and both have the raw stuff that makes it easy to dream about the dominance that lies in wait once they mature/make a mechanical tweak/fiddle with a third pitch. Comparing them in this way isn’t a slam on either, and pointing out that they’ve been disappointing isn’t to say they were overhyped or that further development isn’t coming. Moreover, I’d say (as you’d probably expect) that Walker’s got the much better projection in 2016 *for good reasons* and that he’s clearly closer to whatever his ceiling is than Peralta, whose confounding (and injury-plagued) 2015 must make Brewers fans wonder if he’ll ever figure it out.

Basically, for two organizations who’ve dramatically remade themselves with new GMs and busy offseasons, these pitchers represent critical test cases for their new player development coaches. It’s one thing to take a top prospect and build his skills over the course of a multi-year march through the minors. It’s one thing to help a veteran pitcher improve his command or to help a utility IF go from having a .350 slugging percentage to .400, as important as that is. It’s rarer to have the opportunity to take a pitcher with below league average (or worse, in the case of Peralta), apply whatever magic that Andy McKay or Scott Servais or Jamie Moyer or Mel Stottlemeyer can conjure up, and turn them into a 5-WAR monster. Is that unlikely? Sure, everything in baseball is unlikely. But the potential gains are so high, and in this era of parity, so crucial, that you have to imagine the entire M’s PD group is giddy about this opportunity. I’d expect that same giddiness, that same “do this right, and you shave literal years off of the rebui-uhh, I mean, retooling” applies on the Brewers’ staff. After an utter collapse in 2015, and after watching two of their most prized players – Ryan Braun and Matt Lucroy – shed value alarmingly quickly, the Brewers have restocked the farm with intriguing prospects. A leap forward from Peralta would go a long way towards making the years before that new group is ready to become big league stars a bit brighter, a bit less painful, than it could be.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Martin, CF
3: Navarro, 1B
4: S. Smith, RF
5: Iannetta, C
6: Sardinas, SS
7: Zunino, DH (!)
8: Taylor, 3B (!)
9: O’Malley, 2B
SP: Walker

One of Peralta’s big problems is his platoon splits, as he became sinker/slider dominant last year. In previous years, he threw more four-seam fastballs, which is something he may want to explore again, just to give all batters a different shape pitch to contend with. Despite the flurry of sinkers, Peralta’s GB% didn’t improve. To be fair, it was already sky high, but that’s important: he can still post great (53%) GB rates despite throwing plenty of four-seamers. The shift to a sinker-heavy repertoire didn’t alter his batted ball profile, and everything he threw got hit harder in 2015. Seems like an easy thing to try, any way.

Speaking of Walker, and his potential to break out, the Times’ Matt Calkins wrote this great profile of his 2015 and what he’s looking to do differently this year.

Stefen Romero came out of the game yesterday after a weird plan, in which a Jon Jay one-hop smash caromed off of his knee, right to SS Tyler Smith at the 2nd base bag, who then completed an odd 3-6-3 double play. Sounds like Romero’s fine.

Robbie Cano addressed that weird Andy Van Slyke rant in an interview on 710am radio today. Read about it here.

Efren Navarro entered in the middle innings of yesterday’s game, and is a recent waiver-wire claim from the Angels organization. As Mike Curto details here, he’s been an absolute beast in the PCL, but has struggled in a few call-ups to the big leagues. Given the competition as the right-sided half of the 1B platoon, I’d imagine Navarro will start the year in Tacoma.

Cactus League Game 1: Seattle Will Have Her Revenge on Philip Humber

March 3, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 4 Comments 

Nate Karns vs. Philip Humber, 12:10pm

Phil Humber’s had about as frustrating a career as one can have while being a #3 overall draft pick and tossing a perfect game. Aside from the pre-draft hype as a member of perhaps the greatest college rotation ever, and aside from tossing the 21st perfect game in history at the M’s, Humber has simply never lived up to the potential that so many saw when he was at Rice. He moved from the Mets to the Twins as part of the Johan Santana trade, but never got established in Minnesota, hurling a few abbreviated, sub-replacement-level seasons before signing on with Kansas City and then Chicago. He never missed many bats and gave up lots of elevated contact, so he had very little margin of error: if more hits fell in, he couldn’t pitch around them. If he walked even a league-average number of batters, he couldn’t strand them. And if a few of those fly balls crept over the wall, he was sunk. Working with Don Cooper for the White Sox in 2011, Humber finally appeared to put it all together. Sticking all year in the rotation, he tossed 160+ innings and put up an out-of-nowhere 3 WAR season. He kicked off 2012 in style, tossing that perfecto at Safeco in April, eliciting this funny-in-hindisght-post from Dave Cameron at Fangraphs. The shift to a hard slider meant he could actually get the occasional strikeout, and a seeming improvement in command kept the HR ogre at bay. You know how the story goes from here: Humber was DFAd mere months after the perfect game, undone by a blizzard of long balls, a spike in walk rate, and the gradual realization that he simply didn’t have anything in his arsenal to use against left-handed bats.

He moved to Houston for a while, but somehow pitched worse, and then spent 2014 in the PCL trying to refashion himself as a reliever.* Last year, he decided to try the Korean League, and so he moved back into the rotation for Kia. Unfortunately for Humber, Korean batters found his pitches every bit as easy to elevate as their MLB counterparts, and Humber headed home after 50 abysmal innings in the KBO. Now he’s trying to crack the Padres roster, and we’ll see if he looks different from the last time we had any pitch fx data on him…way back in 2013.

Throughout his travels in MLB, the thing that sticks out to me about Humber is how *little* he’s changed. Sure, he picked up that cutter/slider thing after starting out mostly as a fastball/curve/change guy, but his four-seam fastball was remarkably stable in terms of velocity and movement throughout most of his career. From 2008-2012, Humber’s four-seamer stayed right between 91-92 mph on average, with basically dead-on average vertical movement and a bit above average arm-side run. It’s never been a particularly effective pitch, and while Humber’s curve was decent, the slider thing turned out to be something of a bust as well, particularly to lefties.

He’s opposed today by Nate Karns, the primary “get” in the Brad Miller deal, and a much more effective fly-ball pitcher. Sort of like Erlin/Paxton yesterday, Karns attacks hitters with a rising fastball that he’s comfortable throwing up in the zone, and then a big breaking curveball that gets both whiffs and some grounders. Karns also throws a change-up with some decent sink. Karns posted strongly reverse splits last season, thanks to righties knocking 14 of the 19 HRs he allowed on the year. Karns’ curveball was quite effective against RHBs/LHBs alike, but righties hit four HRs, while lefties hit none. Unfortunately for Karns, both lefties and righties found his fastball pretty easy to square up, but the move to Safeco and general regression towards the mean should help him this year. Thanks to his approach – and a solid yakker – Karns actually gets strikeouts, which helps him pitch around a mediocre walk rate and some HR issues. Karns seems tailor-made for Seattle, even as a right-hander, and most projection systems have him as a better bet than Paxton this year. This is one of the few actual battles this spring, and Paxton had some good results (and some mildly concerning velocity readings) yesterday. Now it’s Karns first opportunity to claim the last rotation spot.

1: Boog Powell, CF
2: Ketel Marte, SS
3: Robinson Cano, 2B
4: Kyle Seager, 3B
5: Stefen Romero, RF
6: Steve Clevenger, C
7: Jesus Montero, 1B
8: Gaby Sanchez, DH
9: Mike Baxter, LF
SP: Karns

Mike Baxter’s a veteran utility guy who’s seen time with the Cubs, Mets, Padres and Dodgers. A PCL lifer, he played for Portland in parts of three seasons before shuttling off to some of the more extreme hitting environments of Las Vegas and Albuquerque. Baxter’s not a power guy at all, though – he’s been a gap hitter, which, paired with his LF/RF/1B profile as a defender, explain his lack of consistent big league opportunities. Perhaps he’ll add Tacoma to his list of PCL teams played-for this year.

* If he’d been an A’s farmhand in 2015 instead of 2014, he probably would’ve gotten an opportunity. Timing often has as much to do with a journeyman’s opportunities as his own performance.

Combined M’s Top 10 Prospects

March 2, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 6 Comments 

It’s the eve of the Cactus League, and the M’s minor leaguers are already flooding back fields and batting cages in Peoria. It’s March, so they’re all in better shape than expected, fortified with new pitches and new approaches, and wiser by far thanks to the lessons learned over a long season in 2015. It’s a hopeful time, of course, but realistically, the M’s know their system is a bit light on talent. It’s not bereft of it, by any stretch, but part of the reason they’ve focused so much on development (like installing a PD guy who’s never managed as the M’s field manager) is that they know they simply have to get more out of this group than the scouts and prospect ranking folks expect. Baseball America has this system ranked at #28. MLB Pipeline would be close, with the position players ranking 22nd and the pitching coming in at 29th.

Teams like Texas have a wealth of talent in the high minors, ready to step in if their big league depth falters. Lewis Brinson and Nomar Mazara will probably make their Texas debuts this year, and Joey Gallo will see if he can cut his K% in a longer call-up. The Astros remain a deep system despite trading a number of players for big league help. Colin Moran figures to be ready to help the big club this year, and the minors’ top HR hitter last year, AJ Reed, can step in at 1B/DH if Jon Singleton struggles again. On the pitching side, Francis Martes and Joe Musgrove figure to begin the year in the high minors. On the other end of the spectrum are the Angels, who struggled with depth in the few years that Jerry Dipoto ran the show, and then saw Billy Eppler ship everything that was left to Atlanta in exchange for Andrelton Simmons. There’s no one to call for the Angels, meaning they’ll have to get creative or constantly scan the waiver wire if they need some help. Oakland’s done a decent job of rebuilding their system after cashing much of it in during their 2014 playoff push, and they’re particularly stocked at the shortstop position, thanks to top prospect Franklin Barreto (#8 in baseball) and three more shortstops who each rank in the BA’s top 50 by position: Richie Martin, Chad Pinder, and Yairo Munoz. Their pitching depth is a bit weaker, but Sean Manaea is a top prospect who could see the majors this year.

How about the M’s? Unfortunately, much of the strength of the system is further away, though a bounce-back year from DJ Peterson and a great spring from Boog Powell will ameliorate this. Powell in particular seems to have a legitimate shot at a big league job this year as Leonys Martin’s back-up, and his OBP-heavy, high-floor, low-ceiling projection isn’t the kind of thing that requires service-time manipulation. Peterson, though, is something of an enigma – a great hitter who simply couldn’t drive the ball at all in 2015, leading some scouts to conclude his hit tool/power grades had been inflated before. Peterson isn’t alone as an M’s prospect coming off a terrible statistical 2015. Brazilian lefty Luiz Gohara repeated short-season ball, and while he was better, he still got hit way harder than you’d like for a top-5 prospect in the system. #1 prospect Alex Jackson’s year was, if anything, even worse – an abysmal start after a challenge assignment in Clinton, and then a so-so year in Everett with solid production but sky-high strikeouts. The M’s coaches, many of whom are new to the system, have their work cut out for them.

With that said, here’s the M’s top ten prospects, averaged over five rankings. For this exercise, we’re using Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, MLB Pipeline, Rick Randall’s SeattleClubhouse list, and Jason Churchill’s Prospect Insider top 25. Each prospect gets an unweighted average ranking. There are clear differences in approach between these five lists, with some focusing on ceiling and others on floors. BA’s list gives high rankings to Drew Jackson and Braden Bishop, whose defense may help them get a look in the majors, while Randall ranks Austin Wilson – incredibly gifted athlete who just hasn’t tapped into his potential yet – higher than the rest.

Average Rank Player
1.2 Alex Jackson
2.6 Edwin Diaz
4.6 Tyler O’Neill
5.4 DJ Peterson
5.4 Luiz Gohara
7.4 Boog Powell
7.8 Nick Neidert
8.4 Drew Jackson
10.8 Ryan Yarbrough
11.6 Andrew Moore
12.8 Braden Bishop
13 Luis Liberato

The top 5 or 6 are fairly consistent, but the back end of the list is variable. MLB has Luis Liberato, a toolsy OF who had a solid year for Everett, as the 7th best prospect, but he ranks just 27th in Churchill’s list. Andrew Moore lurked in the 12-15 region, but Baseball America like his command and change-up, and pushed him into the top 10. The other divisive player is former UW Husky Braden Bishop, who gets as high as 7th in BA’s list but doesn’t make the top 20 in Randall’s. Like Drew Jackson, Bishop’s defense in CF and great speed mean he’s got a bigger margin of error with his bat, though scouts seem divided on if he’ll ever be able to clear that (lower) bar – his bat to ball skills were surprisingly good in Everett, but a 2% walk rate and sub-.100 ISO show that he’s going to need to for average consistently. Philosophically, I think I’m closer to the BA list this year, in that I’m fairly sure Andrew Moore will move quickly up the ranks (though I’m not sure what kind of impact he’d make in the bigs), and I think Drew Jackson’s defense, helped by his howitzer arm and plus speed, will keep him moving even if his bat doesn’t come close to matching his 2015 slash line again. As mentioned, I think Powell may be a touch low, though I completely understand many/most view him as a fourth-outfielder, which takes some of the shine off of the fact that he’s all but assured to have *some* kind of big league career. The same thing’s at play with relievers. I thought Carson Smith was far too low on many lists last year, and I think the same might be said of guys like Paul Fry this year. But if there’s one player who’s almost assuredly too low, it’s Tony Zych, who will most likely break camp on the 25 man roster and is coming off a successful 2015 capped off by an eye-opening cup of coffee with the M’s. Yes, some high-bonus international free agent may have louder tools and, should he make it, be much more valuable, but Zych is already here, already contributing.

For the system to make a big jump forward this year, the M’s will need more than a nice draft. They’ll need continued development from the HS arms they took last year, especially Nick Niedert and Dylan Thompson, development from the college kids who overwhelmed short-season competition last year (Moore, Drew Jackson, Braden Bishop), and rebound years from Alex Jackson and DJ Peterson. More than that, though, they’ll need to finally tap into the potential of some players who’ve always tantalized scouts but whose skills haven’t translated into consistent production. Austin Wilson and Gohara head the list, but catcher Tyler Marlette (who’ve I’ve seen as a top 10 guy for years, but who simply hasn’t hit enough), OF Brayan Hernandez and Gareth Morgan, too. As Jay mentioned a while back, the M’s brought in a lot of boom or bust, high-power, low-contact hitters, and outside of Tyler O’Neill’s brilliant/surprising 2015, they don’t have a lot to show for it. They still have a bit of time with these guys, and a new staff and new approaches may unlock something that the last regime couldn’t.

Charity Game – Mariners vs. Padres

March 2, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

James Paxton vs. Robbie Erlin, 12:10pm

That snuck up on me. There’s an actual Mariners baseball game today, as the M’s and Padres play their annual charity game in Peoria. James Paxton gets the start for the M’s, trying to show he’s fully healed after last year’s injury-plagued campaign and trying to hold off Nate Karns for the last rotation spot. We last saw the Canuck pitching in the Arizona Fall League, where he maintained 93-94mph velocity but gave up 37 hits in just 29 1/3 IP. What accounts for that? Well, for one, Paxton was told not to throw his curve, his best breaking ball. Leaning on a cutter and change, Paxton may have just gotten too much of the plate. His K:BB was great, so the experiment may have helped him hone the command of his change, a pitch that occasionally looks great, but has looked very much like a work-in-progress in previous big league campaigns.

Opposing Paxton is Padres lefty Robbie Erlin, a one-time Rangers prospect. Erlin came up with a number of soft-tossing control-artists in the Rangers system, but moved to San Diego in a 2011 deal for reliever Mike Adams (new Mariner Joe Wieland was also in that deal). Wieland/Erlin and Robbie Ross all played together for Hickory in the Sallie League in 2010, with Cody Buckel following the next season. All had miniscule walk rates, though scouts were never sure about their 89-91mph velo. All except Buckel (who probably put up the best numbers) made the majors, though all have struggled to gain a real role for a team. (Buckel is attempting to return from the yips with the help of Driveline Baseball and local pitching guru Kyle Boddy).

Erlin featured a very Paxton-like repertoire, albeit missing 3-4mph in velociyt: his fastball had 11″ of rise, not much horizontal movement, and he threw a big, breaking curveball that broke straight down. High spin rates maximized its drop, while his fastball generated pop-ups and fly balls. Unfortunately, Erlin’s stuff wasn’t quite good enough to get many strikeouts, and Petco wasn’t quite big enough to prevent him from having occasional HR problems. Somewhat interestingly, he’s posted really odd platoon splits. Judging by the slash lines, he’s put up reverse splits, as lefties have put up a .347 wOBA compared to the .312 for righties. But these numbers are nearly entirely driven by BABIP. Use FIP, and Erlin’s K:BB ratio and especially his HR rate are much, much better against lefties. Righties don’t have a good batting average against him, but when they hit the ball, they tend to hit it very hard.

Perhaps as a result of that, Erlin seemed to change his approach markedly last year. We don’t have a lot of data, as Erlin spent much of the year getting absolutely pummeled in the PCL, but when he came back up, Erlin’s Paxton-like fastball was gone. Instead of 11″ of rise, he showed a perfectly average-ish 8 or so, with lots more horizontal movement. BrooksBaseball still has it as a four-seam, but either he’s doing something different with his finger/wrist at release, or he’s now throwing a sinker. His curve, too, showed less spin, and thus the huge drop that he’d shown in 2013-2014 wasn’t there. All in all, that sounds like a bad trade. Home runs are bad, and Erlin’s right to try different ways of avoiding them, but I’m a bit skeptical of taking two pitches with very good, very distinctive movement and trading them in for a so-so sinker and slurving-up his curve. Maybe the handful of games he pitches last year were just the growing pains that accompany reinvention, and Erlin will have worked the kinks out. If he’s going to grab the Padres’ 5th rotation spot, he’ll need to show that his tweaks are both effective and not an impediment to consistency.

Line-up! Woohoo baseball!
1: Aoki, LF
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Gutierrez, DH
5: Lind, 1B
6: Smith, RF
7: Iannetta, C
8: Marte, SS
9: Martin, CF
SP: Paxton

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