The M’s 2016: The Upside
Opening day *should* be about optimism, and while this M’s club has some weaknesses – weaknesses we’ve spent perhaps too much time measuring/analyzing – the club is projected where it is because they’re fundamentally a good team. We’ve talked a lot about the complementary pieces, but given the roster churn, I hope we can get back to marveling at what a healthy Robinson Cano/Nelson Cruz and Felix Hernandez can do. Sure, the projections still don’t know what to make of Leonys Martin and Luis Sardinas, but through the spring, there are a number of players who could blow their projections out of the water. If a few of these happen, the M’s are a playoff team.
In last year’s article, I talked about three things: Taijuan Walker, the M’s OF, and apparent weakness in the Angels and A’s, the M’s supposed rivals. Walker disappointed a bit, his 2015 destroyed by an awful start, and the M’s *offensive* production from the OF was everything we could’ve hoped for, it just came with a side of horrific defense. The Angels and A’s did, in fact, collapse, but unfortunately the Astros and Rangers took advantage instead of the M’s. Taijuan Walker could be on this list every year; don’t take the fact that he’s not detailed below as some sort of slight. I think his ability to jump from “somewhat frustrating prospect” to “above-average MLB pitcher” is obvious, and I don’t want to rehash it every year. As I mentioned yesterday, the OF’s offense looks set to decline from 2015, but that’s by design, and it isn’t a huge problem. The big change isn’t acquiring Leonys Martin, it’s moving Nelson Cruz from RF to DH, a move that I think all of us celebrate. Getting Cruz’s offense with none of the unpleasantness of his defense? Great. So, these are the new, emerging areas for optimism – they haven’t so much erased the others as added to them.
1: Ketel Marte
Even with the SS position a bit thin, the M’s group, headed by Marte, are projected to be in the bottom half of MLB. It makes some sense: Marte’s young, has very little power, and his great 2015 call-up was propelled by patience, a skill he hadn’t really shown in the minors. Even with the big boost he gets from SS, Marte’s projected at under 2 fWAR in (mostly) full time play. Chris Taylor has been bad and is projected to remain bad, but still has a better projected OBP than Marte. So why’s Marte here, and not in the pessimistic post? Because the more you watch him, the more you start to believe that his bat-to-ball skills are as good as scouts say.
Marte’s skill set can *only* work with an elite hit tool. Not just an ability to avoid strikeouts, but an ability to hit the ball hard. This is the reason I was lower on Marte than others; I just didn’t see that kind of ability in the handful of times I saw him in Tacoma. But he followed his eye-opening 2015 with an even better spring, and he seems to be making the adjustments he needs to make. He’s gone from a guy who hit .300 by putting everything in play and running fast to a guy who’s hitting far more gaps than he did in the low minors. As a player who was often young for his league, and a player who’ll be just 22 this year, that kind of progression is great to see, and the fact that it’s been so consistent makes it less likely to be a PCL or small-sample mirage.
The SS position overall’s kind of in flux right now, as four of the top eight projected shortstops are guys with less than a year of MLB service time. The bottom of the list is dotted with a number of disappointing veterans who project even worse – Alexei Ramirez, Jonathan Villar, the over-ripe JJ Hardy, the just-happy-to-be-here Freddy Galvis. Putting that group aside, as even the projections see the Marte as superior, the more you look into it, the easier it gets to see Marte leapfrogging some of his divisional rivals, and joining his peers near the top of the rankings. Marcus Semien’s projected ahead of Marte despite his poor defense thanks largely to his power, but is it crazy to see Marte topping Semien’s projected .402 SLG%? Given the gap in contact rates, I don’t think it’s crazy at all. The Rangers second half surge last year was helped along by Elvis Andrus, who got himself off the autopsy table and started contributing again. He, too, is projected to outproduce Marte, thanks in part to superior defense. But Andrus isn’t the 10+ run-saving wizard he was five years ago, and his offense is now solidly 20% below league average. Worse, his platoon splits have become more and more obvious; his 2015 “rebound” was helped by seeing a lot more lefties than he did in 2014. He simply can’t hit righties anymore, and that makes him vulnerable in high-leverage at-bats in a way that Marte isn’t.
If he can sneak past those guys, it’s not crazy to think he could end the year as a top 10 shorstop. Fangraphs’ 8-10 are Addison Russell, Didi Gregorius and Brad Miller. Marte’s contact skills are worlds better than Russell and Miller’s, and he may hit the ball harder than Gregorius. Russell’s projection is helped by his defense – he purportedly saved over 17 runs defensively despite not playing the whole year, and Gregorius is another glove-first guy. Miller obviously lost his starting gig in Seattle thanks to defensive concerns that UZR just hasn’t seen, but he too is projected to out-defend Marte. Now: is it unreasonable to think that, if things break right, Marte could out-produce a young SS who might strike out in 30% of is plate appearances? Or the guy whose job he took six months ago? Or a no-hit SS playing in a bandbox whose projection is boosted by a one-year spike in UZR last year? I feel like I’m preaching to the choir here, but despite the M’s constant tinkering, shortstop was never really a problematic position for the M’s. It’s not projected to be one this year. But the M’s – and Marte – seem like they could be on the cusp of making it a real competitive advantage for years.
The obvious, obvious counterpoint to all of this is that M’s fans know better than anyone that a solid half-season call-up does not a future all-star make. From Willie Bloomquist to Jeremy Reed to Dustin Ackley to Brad Miller, the M’s have seen quite a few players impress in their first tour of the majors and then never reach that level of production again. What separates Marte from Chris Taylor or Ackley? This is where Marte’s abilty to square up tough pitches, and plus velocity, becomes important. Reed and Ackley took plenty of walks in the minors, but couldn’t consistently translate that to the majors. Ackley in particular can look extremely similar to Marte: in 2013, Ackley hit grounders about 50% of the time, kept his K’s under 20% and had a solid but not great walk rate. That 88 wRC+ is essentially dead on Marte’s projection. That wouldn’t be the end of the world, given Marte’s position, but if we learned anything from Ackley’s time in Seattle, it’s that not all grounders are created equal.
Last year, Ackley hit over half of the balls in play tracked by Statcast between 80-100 MPH. He hit .200 on those balls-in-play. Just under half of Marte’s balls-in-play fell into this mid-range, 80-100mph zone, but Marte’s speed produced a .360 BABIP on them (it helps that, as a switch hitter, Marte wasn’t hitting every grounder to second base). Ackley’s over-100mph balls-in-play jumped markedly after his trade to NY, so they both look good on that score, but the point is that *even if his batted ball profile doesn’t change* Marte can wring more value out of it than Ackley.
2: Nate Karns
Karns won the 5th spot in the rotation almost by default, as James Paxton looked off throughout the spring. That said, as a guy coming off a sneaky-good 2015, he gives the M’s rotation the potential to easily surpass their already-good projections. 5th starters aren’t generally workhorses, and Karns only tossed 147 IP for the Rays, the team that let their starters pitch the fewest the innings last year. But it’s not just that Karns’ rate stats look a bit low, it’s that he’s only projected for 130 IP. Give him 160-180, and you’ve got a 5th starter creeping up on league average.
Of course, if that was his upside, I probably wouldn’t highlight him here. Luckily, I don’t think that’s his ceiling. Anyone who combines a high strikeout rate with some tantalizing signs of being able to ‘beat’ FIP through strand rate and BABIP has the potential to add real value. Karns high-fastball and improving change-up mean he doesn’t have the platoon split worries that many pitchers face. Over his career, he’s actually been better against lefties than righties. When he’s been hurt, it’s been against right-handers.* The M’s know that there are several things that jump out as regression candidates here: first, those reverse platoon splits should be regressed, and then his HR/FB ratio, particularly against righties, may come down as well. Just do the latter and it essentially accomplishes the former, after all. A version of Nate Karns with strikeouts and a better SLG%-against versus righties starts to look pretty good.
The other big factor affecting Karns’ home run rate is his home park. Just as with the relievers the M’s acquired, Karns’ elevated HR-rate figures to drop if only because he’s moving from a solid hitter’s park in a hitter-friendly division to a pitcher’s park on the marine layered west coast. If that was the only thing happening, it’d help. But I hope Karns takes it a step further, and uses Safeco to build confidence in throwing the ball up in the zone. Here’s how Karns has used his fastball against right-handers. Plenty of elevated four-seamers, but there are a lot of low and away and low-middle pitches, too. Now take a look at the average batted-ball speed by location for Karns, courtesy of Baseball Savant:
I’m not suggesting Karns should abandon the low strike entirely, but Karns’ movement and his new home park are tailor-made to just target the top of the zone or above it like Chris Young. Let the curve ball do the work low in the zone – it’ll be harder to pick up, and batters hit the curve softer than they hit his fastball last year anyway.
Another thing that’s preventing Karns from making the leap to middle-of-the-rotation workhorse, it’s his control. While his K/9 sits among some elite pitchers, his walks/9 sticks out as a problem. Could Safeco help with that as well? Maybe, but this may just be a part of his game going forward, or he may not be able to materially improve his walk rate without a corresponding increase in homers. Luckily, there are a few examples of pitchers who’ve become very good starters with similar K and BB numbers. Lance Lynn of the Cardinals posted a 22.2% K rate and a 9.1% BB rate last year. Karns’ numbers, in the American League, mind you, were 23.4% and 9.0%, respectively. Lynn, a fastball-heavy pitcher without much of a change-up, has big platoon splits as well. He’s been effective despite of these red flags by keeping his strand rate high. Part of that may be whatever Cardinals devil magic allowed their BABIP to tumble with runners in scoring position, but part of it seems to be a choice not to give in to hitters: Lynn’s K rate AND walk rate rose with RISP. Hector Santiago has a similar arsenal to Karns, and has carved out a nice little career posting consistently low ERAs and ugly FIPs thanks to a combo of walks and homers. Santiago’s strategy with men on is essentially the same as Lynn’s: his walk rate gets close to 5 per 9IP with RISP, but his BABIP collapses at the same time, leading to a lot of stranded runners. Karns’ strand rate was in the same range as Santiago and Lynn last year, and again, his home park may make it easier for him to target the top of the zone with RISP where BABIP is lower and whiffs higher than the center or bottom of the zone. Santiago was worth 2.5 fielding dependent WAR last year, while Lynn added 3.6 (and over 4 in 2014), so this seems like a fairly easy path to middle-of-the-rotation success for Karns.
3: The Astros Have Breakout Potential and Weaknesses in Roughly Equal Measure
The Astros have Carlos Correa, the best projected SS in baseball, and a lot of talent in the upper minors to boot. They’re the favorites for a reason, and they look likely to be the favorites for years and years, considering the age of their core: Correa is 21, Jose Altuve is not yet 26, George Springer is 26, and Dallas Keuchel is an old man at 28. It should be easy to build around a core like that, and as last year’s remarkable run showed, they’ve proven fairly adept at that. Still, it’s not like they’ve built a juggernaut. There’s a reason their projections are just a tiny bit better than the M’s, and they’ve got concerns sprinkled around their 25-man roster.
Their catching group is headed up by Jason Castro, a 28 year old who’s essentially been the starter since 2012. He came through the minors as a guy with great patience and enough contact skills to be a real asset at the plate, and while he wasn’t exactly good in his debut year of 2010, he posted a solid walk rate and a K rate under 20%. Improve the BABIP, and you’d have something. After losing a year to injury, that’s what Castro did: an improved BABIP led to a nearly league-average line in 2011, and if the Ks crept up, they were still well under control. In 2013, Castro appeared to break out – trading lots more Ks for lots more pop, his overall line was about 30% *better* than the league average. Since then, though, Castro has collapsed. Last year, his K rate soared to over 30%, and his production has tumbled to the point where he’s now about as far below league average as he was above it in 2013. As anyone who watched Mike Zunino (or JP Arencibia) knows, aging curves are different for different players, and the Astros can’t just assume Castro’s offense will bounce back.
The Astros had a great catcher in the low-minors who posted a breakout season last year, but they ended up trading him to Oakland in the Scott Kazmir deal (Oakland then swapped him for Khris Davis). Nottingham will start the year in AA and could theoretically see the Majors this year for the rebuilding Brewers. He’d look great as insurance for Castro. As it is, the Astros just traded for veteran back-up Erik Kratz, a 35 year old who hasn’t posted an OBP over .280 since 2012. If Castro continues to slide, there’s just not much the Astros can do to staunch the bleeding. Their top C prospect is Alfredo Gonzalez, who broke out across three levels last year, but Gonzalez was mediocre-to-average for four years prior to that, and in any event doesn’t crack the Astros top 20 prospects.
For a team that hit so well, the Astros have really struggled to get even adequate production out of 1B and DH. The M’s know all about that, of course, but it’s odd given that the Astros can find 20 year old shortstops with power to spare, or get a bunch of HRs out of ex-2B prospect Luis Valbuena. But while Chris Carter had his moments with Houston, the Astros let him walk and turned over their 1B job to Jon Singleton. Singleton face-planted in 2014, and has done everything in his power to turn the job down. The Astros depth at 1B is much, much better than it is at catcher, so this doesn’t seem like a big problem at first. The Astros plan is to have Tyler White start, and if he fails, they’ll give it to top prospect AJ Reed.
White’s an interesting prospect, as he’s a low draft pick who’s destroyed minor league pitching at every level, but he’s never been seen as a top prospect. Part of the problem has been his age-relative-to-league, but the biggest red flag is his lack of home run power. White’s walked more than he’s struck out, and he’s hit enough doubles to post great wRC+ at every level of the minors, so many Astros fans believe the 1B position will be a strength starting today. But as August Fagerstrom wrote about at Fangraphs, this player type – the high BB, gap hitting, low-HR 1B – has an awfully high bust potential. Anyone who cut their prospecting teeth in the years following Money Ball’s publication can probably rattle off the names Fagerstrom pulls up: Daric Barton was a can’t miss, big-league hitter for the A’s, until he did in fact miss. Dan Johnson seemed even more similar to White, and he’s now a knuckleball pitcher. Justin Smoak was a heralded prospect, and his minor league lines are somewhat similar, though White’s been better overall. Clint Robinson mashed in the KC system, and had plenty more power than White, but hasn’t really been able to get a major league job.
The name I thought of that surprisingly wasn’t on the list was another ex-KC 1B, a name familiar to anyone following the minors 10 years ago: Kila Ka’aihue. Ka’aihue had more power, but was known most of all for his walk rate. White’s 12-17% walk rates are elite, no doubt, but Ka’aihue posted *20%* walk rates in both AA and AAA. White walked more than he K’d at AA, but Ka’aihue had TWICE as many walks as Ks at the same level. Given an (overdue) shot in 2010 with the Royals, Ka’aihue just failed to hit despite a decent K:BB ratio. Maybe White is more Olerud than Ka’aihue, but even Olerud needed an adjustment period (it didn’t help that he went straight from WSU to the majors, of course). White’s stats and major league equivalencies are great, but not swinging at anything except middle-middle pitches works wonders in the minors and just doesn’t work as well in the AL.
Meanwhile, the Astros grabbed Evan Gattis to be their DH, then watched him get off to a horrendous start. He improved down the stretch (while his teammates imploded), but has suffered through injuries this spring, and will begin the year on the disabled list. Preston Tucker may start the year as the DH, and while Tucker was league average at the plate last year, he’s projected to be a replacement level DH this year. If Gattis’ injuries linger, this could become a problem. Sure, everyone expects AJ Reed to hit the moment he arrives, but he can’t play two positions, and top prospects often need a while to get established (okay, sure, Correa sure didn’t). These aren’t huge flaws for the Astros, but they’re weaknesses, and with the M’s so close in true talent, neither team may be able to survive a 2-3 WAR under-performance.
Let’s go M’s.
* This is similar to James Paxton, who’s seen line-ups stacked with righties even as he’s *struggled* against lefties.