The M’s 2016 : The Risks
The M’s open the season tomorrow against Texas, the start of a long season in an AL West that’s almost unrecognizable from last year. Houston’s *good* now? Texas can win despite an ongoing injury plague of biblical proportions? Los Angeles is…well, actually, they look pretty bad at the moment, but we’ll get to that in the optimistic post. Despite the roster churn, despite the fact that there isn’t a really bad club in the division (or maybe the League), despite last year’s disappointments, the M’s are in a pretty good position. The projection systems all have them a few wins above .500 in a very tightly packed race, and that means the M’s playoff odds aren’t bad. With an aging but still elite core, the team could very easily blow those projections out of the water. But any M’s fan who’s been paying attention for a year or more knows that risks are always lurking. Last year, I ran delved into a few of those risks, including regression by Mike Zunino and a bad bullpen, and, well, those risks kind of killed the team. I am quite confident that lightning won’t strike twice, and I look forward to laughing about these in August. For a team that’s undergone as much turnover as the 2016 M’s, the same issues won’t crop up again. R…right?
Last year’s risks were a disparate grouping of things, from Mike Zunino’s plate discipline to Austin Jackson’s aging to bullpen regression. There really wasn’t a common theme tying them together. This year, I see the same basic issue with all of them; they’re all different iterations of the same basic problem. That problem can be stated rather bluntly: many of the players the M’s brought in around their core were terrible last year. If you’re economically minded, you can talk about buy-low candidates, or the benefits of regression. Finance types might talk about undervalued assets. If you’re sabermetrically inclined, Fangraphs will give several reasons for hope: an absurd HR:FB ratio, a FIP lower than an ERA, a batter whose line doesn’t fit with his batted ball ratio, an aching wrist, etc. There are plenty of ways to couch and caveat the central truth here, but that truth is rather troubling for a contending ballclub: the M’s went out and acquired players who sucked in 2015.
1: The Bullpen
Last year, the M’s bullpen was actually *supposed* to be good. Well, they were supposed to be in the top half anyway, after a surprisingly good 2014. That didn’t happen, obviously, and thus it’s the bullpen that’s seen the most turnover. Of the top 10 in projected IP last year, only Charlie Furbush and David Rollins are still with the club, and the former’s on the DL and the latter’s in the minors. Fernando Rodney was DFA’d, Carson Smith, Yoervis Medina, Tyler Olson, Danny Farquhar, Tom Wilhelmsen and Dom Leone were all traded, and Lucas Luetge was essentially waived. The M’s were able to restock through trades, free agency and the like, and a clear pattern’s emerged: the M’s have tried to acquire guys with clear skills and…spotty performance records.
Evan Scribner posted a brilliant K:BB ratio but gave up plenty of runs thanks to a barrage of HRs. Ryan Cook’s season was mercifully cut short as he tried to come back from injury. Nick Vincent was felled by shoulder trouble and a ridiculous BABIP. Joel Peralta had a low-key version of Evan Scribner’s year on his way to a sub-replacement-level campaign for the Dodgers. Steve Cishek’s control left him, and the same overall contact rate as he’s always allowed somehow produced far fewer strikeouts. Again, there are clear and easy sabermetric reasons to bet on improvement, but even WITH regression, the M’s bullpen’s projected to be the worst in the AL.* If that’s anywhere close to true, the M’s are going to find it hard to beat back the Astros and hold off the Rangers. Last year, Oakland had a great run differential through the first half and a terrible, terrible record thanks to their bullpen. No one’s forecasting the kind of horrific luck or historically bad performance that befouled the Coliseum to happen to the M’s, but it’s an example of how important a bullpen can be to a team’s success.
It’s a measure of how consistently the M’s have opted for bounce-back guys that the exception to this rule is Joaquin Benoit, who’ll turn 39 this year (while Peralta will be 40). Surrounding these newbies are what passes for home-grown talent around here – two guys the M’s acquired last year: Tony Zych and Mike Montgomery. Zych’s coming off a shocking, out-of-nowhere 2015, in which he went from minor league cast-off who was literally acquired for a dollar to potential set-up man with a 96mph fastball and hellish slider. That sounds great, and it is, but of course Zych was sold for $1 for a reason: he was awful in AA in 2014, and his AAA stat line shows that his 2015 major league call-up may have been a bit lucky. Optimists may say Zych’s K% rise from 2014 and from AA to AAA to the big leagues as the product of mechanical changes, a change in mental outlook, or what have you. Pessimists might point out that relievers who dazzle in less-than-20 IP samples are more common than you’d think. Montgomery was a starter whose performance fell off badly in the second half, and has been moved to the bullpen by necessity; he’s out of options, and probably wouldn’t have made it through waivers. Thus, the fastball-change-up specialist, the guy with large reverse platoon splits, will be the second lefty in the pen and will get to face left-handed bats despite not having an average or plus pitch to throw at them.
Every bullpen is volatile, and given the M’s needs at other positions and costs tied up in Cano/Cruz/Felix/Iwakuma, it probably makes some sense to go bargain shopping in the bullpen. But there’s hoping for regression, and there’s identifying and correcting flaws. From the outside, we just have to hope that the M’s are doing some of the latter. The singular focus on the park and a specific *kind* of regression – that is, counting on lowered HR rates going forward – makes me wonder, though. Steve Cishek, the M’s anointed closer, has essentially average GB rates. Behind him, the M’s are absolutely stacked with rising-fastball guys with ground ball percentages in the low-30s. Vidal Nuno, Scribner, Benoit, Vincent, Peralta – they’re all career 33-36% GB guys. The only potential GB guy is Tony Zych, who simply hasn’t thrown enough to know for sure. Who do they go to if they need a ground ball in a key situation in the 7th? Just bring in Cishek? Zych, even if the batter’s a lefty? Nuno? You look down at AAA, and outside of Donn Roach, it’s the same thing: Jonathan Aro, Cody Martin, Joe Weiland are all high-FB, low ground ball pitchers. Last year, the M’s hoped their park (and the other AL West venues) would help their pen avoid HR troubles, but that hope was dashed. The new GM has changed out nearly the entire pen for guys who gave up even *more* HRs. The new Safeco isn’t some instant fix for players with gopher ball problems. Yeah, you say, but HRs can’t stay high forever, right? Except that they grew league-wide last year (and this spring!), and despite the true-in-the-aggregate nostrum that HR:FB ratios tend to average out, some players give up lots of HRs because they throw bad pitches. Fingers crossed, M’s fans.
2: The Catcher spot
Last year, M’s catchers “hit” .160/.208/.259, as Mike Zunino imploded and the M’s had to turn to perhaps the most purely defensive catcher in decades, Jesus Sucre. Let’s be clear here: the M’s catchers will be better, because that 2015 line is mind-bendingly bad. The former FO should’ve been fired for that alone. Anyway, Jerry Dipoto wisely saw that an upgrade at catcher could help transform the offense and might not cost a lot. So, he went and got Chris Iannetta, his hand-picked C in Anaheim, and a guy he’d helped draft in Colorado. Iannetta’s walk rate alone makes him an attractive option at the plate, but Iannetta’s got enough power that pitchers can’t just throw down the middle. So far, so good, but Iannetta, who’ll turn 33 next week, is coming off a line of .188/.293/.335 line, good for an 80 wRC+.
As with the relievers, there’s a clear, sabermetric-101 explanation here. Iannetta’s awful average on balls in play helped push his average – and thus his line – south of the Mendoza line. Still: Iannetta’s a catcher in his mid-30s. His career BABIP wasn’t exactly good, and it’s projected to be just below .270, which has his average down in the .210 range. Thanks to his walk rate, Iannetta’s average matters less than it does for most players (and that’s a low bar to begin with), but a low average nukes some of the value of that patience. A sub .300 OBP is bad, whether it’s from an over-praised .280 swing-at-anything hitter or a patient-but-declining catcher with a 12% walk rate.
Iannetta is used to spacious home parks, but that doesn’t mean he’s thrived in them. He had large home/road splits last year, performing poorly at home and better on the road. Even in his very good 2014, he struck out more at home, and had a better overall line on the road – a kind of cosmic payback for his years at altitude, I guess. Of course, performing worse in a pitcher’s park is to be expected, and given the overall run environment, doesn’t really matter. But last year makes you wonder if he’s the kind of hitter who needs an architectural thumb on the scale.
The BABIP of .225 can’t last, but then you notice that his fly ball rate spiked and his hard contact rate hit its lowest level since he was a rookie and you start to wonder how much of this “fluke” was equal parts “aging” and “change in approach.” Again, the M’s are saying all the right things about development and coaching at the big league level, and having a former player development chief as the field manager could work. But M’s fans have seen how catchers can fall off a cliff – Miguel Olivo was solid, then awful-and-a-Mariner, then league average, then awful-and-a-Mariner again and then his career as a full-time C was over. Kelly Shoppach was clearly a poor man’s Chris Iannetta and looked like another savvy buy-low pick-up until he cratered and, like Olivo, never got another shot.
Luckily, the M’s got a back-up that’d enable Mike Zunino to spend a year in AAA and really work on his swing. Whatever happens this year, that’s a great move. What made it possible was acquiring Steve Clevenger from Baltimore. Clevenger’s not a defender, which has really hurt his chances of earning a full-time gig. He’s been a back up for the Cubs and Orioles, and unfortunately for him, failed repeatedly in small call-ups. Last year was his best year by far (why on earth was HE targeted, Jerry?), but he still put up a below-average line in 100 or so PAs. In the minors, the ex-infielder showed Iannetta-like patience, but in the majors, it’s been accompanied by Iannetta-in-2015 averages, which has sunk his value. Last year, his overall line was much better, but he didn’t walk *at all* – his BB% collapsed to under 4%. If this new approach works better, that’s fine. But let’s be clear: the back-up to a 33-year old Chris Iannetta, coming off an 80 wRC+, is a 30 year old (hey, happy birthday, Steve!) career back-up who’s hit .228/.280/.327 over more-or-less one full season. That that’s better than what Sucre would give you doesn’t matter. Kind of like the bullpen, if we look back at another smoking crater of a catcher position, it’ll be hard to be too surprised. 33 year old starter, untested back-up, Mike Zunino. If it works, it’s great, but everyone knows there’s collapse potential here.
3: Center Field
Leonys Martin’s floor is higher than the other two risks thanks to his defense. His glove (and, really, his arm) is good enough that the M’s can carry his bat because he’ll be saving runs for the pitching staff no matter what he does at the plate. But again, this is the same reasoning that kept a traumatized Mike Zunino in the line-up. Martin had several ailments that, in part, explain his putrid line of .219/.264/.313, but this is the player – ailments and all – that the M’s have entrusted their CF spot to. The M’s got almost nothing from center fielders in 2014, and they nearly made the playoffs – a good line-up can carry a bad spot, especially at a premium defensive position. But given the risks elsewhere, it’d be nice if they didn’t have to.
Martin’s collapse in 2015 followed a solid 2014. Unlike Iannetta, though, that “peak” wasn’t very high. Martin hit .275/.325/.364, which, when you play half your games in Arlington, is only worth an 89 wRC+. The larger problem is that the power he showed – at times – in Cuba and in his early years with Texas has dried up. To be clear, a worse-than-average hitter can still be valuable, as we’ve seen with Kevin Kiermaier in Tampa, or Martin in 2014. But after posting ISO-power in the .130 range, he’s been under .100 for two straight seasons. In Arlington. Moving to Seattle is certainly not going to help that, and while healing his wrist might, it’s certainly odd that his *lowest* ISO came in his “good” 2014 campaign.
And that brings us to defense, that skill that seems the least likely to suffer slumps, but also the one we know the least about identifying and measuring. Martin’s been one of the best defenders for a few years, but there’s something odd about many public measures of defense, especially for team switchers. Shane Victorino was an average defender in Philadelphia, then, if you believe UZR, one of the best in baseball for Boston in 2013, and then below average after that. Martin’s teammate David Murphy had a very solid 2013, then instantly became one of the league’s worst offenders after moving to Cleveland. Michael Bourn: very good with Houston, great with Atlanta, and then instantly terrible with Cleveland. Yunel Escobar was great early on, then had two diametrically opposed years with Tampa before an awful one in DC. Chase Headley was awful in San Diego and great in New York, etc. There’s no rhyme or reason here, and this is obviously not a scientific study, but it’s not *obviously* random. Each park has its unique wind patterns, layout and sight lines; one really could become an expert in knowing how a ball will move in one park and be a step behind in another. This is important, because Martin’s value is so, so dependent on his defense, and there’s just not much depth behind him.
Boog Powell’s an intriguing prospect, but when so many scouts give him the 4th OF tag, it’s clear he’s not going to start the year in AAA because of service time concerns. He’s got a bit more to prove, especially after a moderately disappointing 2015. He had nowhere to play in Tampa, and getting him in the Nate Karns/Brad Miller swap was exactly what the M’s needed. But while the walk rate means his margin for error is larger, the lack of power means it may not play in the majors (ask Steve Clevenger).
The M’s CFs don’t have to be good. They’re projected as a bottom-half group – about where the M’s have been projected in recent years. But just as the M’s didn’t wring a lot of “but regression!” out of Austin Jackson, they can’t bank on the 2 or so fWAR Martin’s projected for, either. Safeco can be a tough hitting environment – for the bullpen’s sake, let’s hope it is – and it’s tough to ask a guy coming off a horrendous year mentally and physically to make some necessary improvements in the thick of the marine layer. This situation is a bit different from the previous two, in that a 28 year old starter and a near-ready 23 year old prospect and perhaps an out-of-position Norichika Aoki just doesn’t scream “collapse,” but the M’s could really use some production here. Austin Jackson wasn’t awful last year, but he was bad enough that he provoked some panic in the M’s, leading to the ill-advised move of Brad Miller to the OF (and Ketel Marte to CF in Tacoma, albeit briefly). I think Dipoto’s hand will be a bit steadier on the tiller, but this is the full, terrible lesson that certain Mariners teams seem born to teach: each individual failing cascades and multiplies, like the butterfly effect but for dung beetles, and it takes bystanders, seasons, and contention windows with it.
It probably won’t be that bad, but I don’t think I need to remind you that it was, in fact, that bad in 2015. To turning over new leaves! Go M’s!
* Thanks to late-breaking trades and injuries, the M’s have crept above the Tigers in the most recent projections. Onward and upward!