Miscellany: The AL West, Edwin Diaz, Minor Leagues
This post was supposed to be out yesterday for the off-day, but I… I didn’t finish it. Darn. Let’s talk about various things, but only briefly. Let’s not linger, for baseball is always approaching. It is relentless, and it is wonderful.
1: You know what else is wonderful? This picture:
This is Fangraphs’ Playoff Odds in the AL West from the beginning of the year until May 11th, when Jeff Sullivan used it in this post at Fangraphs. Jeff mentions that this isn’t just Fangraphs’ odds overreacting to the Astros slow start, but because visuals are nice, here’s BP’s Playoff Odds through yesterday:
In both, the M’s started out with the second-highest odds behind Houston, and in both, the M’s passed the Astros as the most likely playoff team some time in April. At the other end of the division, the A’s and Angels have quickly fallen off the pace, and especially in BP’s version, they’ve got essentially no shot now. This is pretty remarkable, given that the teams seemed bunched around .500. That said, this kind of wholesale re-shuffling of the playoff odds is only possible *because* the teams started off so close together. With the teams’ true talent near .500, the first month or so of actual games – and the M’s actual, sizable lead over Houston – is crucial. Houston was the favorite not because the systems thought they were great, but that they had a consistent yet small advantage. Even if that were true, it’s not going to be enough at this point. The M’s hot start means something.
The interesting thing, at least to me, is Texas. They’re the only team sticking around with the M’s, but Fangraphs thought they’d be awful, or whatever passes for awful in the parity-stricken AL. Thus, even now, they haven’t passed the Astros in playoff odds. In BP’s version, they started out ahead of the A’s and Angels, and thus their hot start combined with a not-abysmal estimate of true talent means their playoff odds are second-highest in the division.
That Texas is in second right now doesn’t really shock me – I thought they’d be a tough team, and thought they were being overlooked before the season. What HAS surprised me is the degree to which the division’s separated itself so distinctly so early. Some of this is due to injury: the Angels suffered some bad luck in the spring, and it’s only accelerated since the season began. They’ve now lost their ace, Garrett Richards, for the season, and must turn to Brendan Ryan at SS due to Andrelton Simmons’ injuries. Oakland, though, is harder to understand. I don’t think anyone thought their rotation was going to carry them, but the A’s are giving up 5.17 runs per game, well above even the Angels’ 4.47, and the Astros’ 4.72. Some of this is bad luck; Sonny Gray won’t have an ERA of 6 the whole year, and Jesse Hahn’s already replaced some of the stragglers. But Sean Manaea was supposed to help, and he’s allowed 16 runs in 12 2/3 IP. Kendall Graveman wasn’t supposed to be an All-Star, but his FIP’s over 6 at this point. They’re the A’s, and they play in a cavern: their run prevention will improve, and improve markedly. But I think any estimate of their true talent needs to be revised downwards a bit. Sonny Gray isn’t bad, by any stretch, but he may not be a true #1 starter. Graveman seemed like a perfectly fine #4-5, but if he’s closer to replacement level than that, then the A’s are kind of sunk.
Meanwhile, the early returns on some of the M’s big gambles look pretty promising. I don’t know that I’d even put Nate Karns in the “gamble” category, but the fact that the M’s weren’t sure he’d make the rotation 7-8 weeks ago sounds hilarious now. Steve Cishek really WAS a gamble, an ex-closer with declining velocity and someone who’d been traded off by a go-nowhere Marlins club. Dae Ho Lee, too, was no guarantee to make the roster, and has been the kind of bench bat/spot starter the M’s simply haven’t had in years, and his presence allows the M’s some flexibility in dealing with Adam Lind’s struggles. The M’s have been the beneficiaries of some good breaks, but they’ve also shown some aptitude for finding value. They’re in the best position this franchise has been in for many, many years.
2: So perhaps THAT’S why the M’s decided that now was the time to pull the plug on Edwin Diaz as a starting pitcher. As I mentioned the other day, Diaz led all of AA in K-BB%, and if his change-up wasn’t well developed, it clearly wasn’t preventing him from missing bats. Moreover, it’s not like Diaz was struggling against opposite-handed hitters. In his career, Diaz has been better against lefties than righties. Last year, over two levels, Diaz allowed a .730 OPS to righties, but just a .585 mark to lefties. His OBP-against has been better against lefties *every year*. I’m not saying that this proves he’ll always have reverse splits, but it seems to suggest that he’s learned how to use his slider against lefties effectively. The flipside is that he’s not a guy who’s succeeded by dominating righties, which means it’s harder to assume he’d instantly become a great situational reliever.
The numbers we have are limited, of course, and may not prove a whole lot. Brandon Maurer didn’t show much in the way of platoon splits in the minors, and then looked completely defenseless against lefties as a big league starter. If the M’s foresee those kinds of problems, the move makes some sense. Diaz’s delivery is low-3/4, releasing the ball around 5 1/2 feet above the ground, and way off towards third base. That delivery screams platoon splits, as it should give lefties a long look at the ball. That minor league lefties haven’t learned how to exploit it doesn’t necessarily mean that big leaguers won’t. The numbers don’t identify Diaz as a clear reliever candidate, but his body type and arm angle might.
That said, I’ve never really been clear on why such a move helps. Andrew Miller, Wade Davis, Zach Britton – these guys were all starters in the majors, and many other excellent relievers only moved to the pen when they’d failed as starters in the minors (or failed at hitting, in the case of Kenley Janson and Jason Motte). The M’s have a 20-day plan for Diaz that includes pitching on back-to-back days, and that’s the kind of thing that makes some sense to test months before you attempt it in the majors. But it seems like starting is a great way to build stamina, overall arm strength, and learning how read/attack hitters.
In general, I’m against letting the big club’s success drive player development goals and timelines. As pretty much the only high-ceiling pitching prospect in the M’s system, Diaz seemed too valuable for a role change in early May, particularly given how well he was pitching. I don’t think the M’s did Brandon Morrow any favors years ago by switching his role around, and I keep thinking about that experience when reading about Diaz. But while it’s only been a month and a half, the M’s player development group has earned a benefit of the doubt, at least a grudging one. Diaz has already improved his command, and it’s not insane to think he actually could help the big league club. If you change a prospect’s role because of an injury to a set-up man or two, that’s insane. If you accelerate a timeline because of an aromatic stew of injuries, a radically changed playoff picture and a big-league need, well, that’s still a bit crazy, but so is Steve Cishek: shut-down closer, so I’ma let you finish.
So what would Diaz look like as a reliever? Luckily, we got a preview during last year’s all-star break, when Diaz pitched out of the pen for the World team in the Futures Game. He gave up a dinger to Josh Bell, so the overall results weren’t great, but it afforded us a look at how his stuff plays in short stints, and how his pitches move. His velocity was excellent, sitting near 95, but touching higher. His slider looked pretty good as well, albeit without a ton of vertical break. Still, it’s his fastball that has me intrigued, and may be what got moved up the M’s timeline for him. BrooksBaseball categorizes it as a sinker, and it’s got impressive armside run (as you might expect from the whippy, low-3/4 angle) and very good sink for a pitch moving so fast.
Which relievers throw 95-97mph sinkers with 4″ of vertical movement? Well, that’s pretty much exactly what Zach Britton’s devastating sinker looks like, as Jeff Sullivan wrote about here. Now, that’s not to say Diaz has *pitched* like Britton or gotten batted ball results that look anything LIKE Britton’s. That in itself is something of a mystery to me, and something I hope this change in role might correct. I say that not because I think Diaz needs to pitch at the knees exclusively, but that his raw stuff could really play up if he tried to attack hitters the way Britton does. Obviously, it took Britton himself a long time to figure this out, and many years of getting annihilated as a starter, so I don’t think this is something that a 20-day plan can instill. But a change in approach is much easier to implement than an overhaul of mechanics or stuff.
Mechanically, Diaz and Britton are nothing alike. Britton’s much more over the top, which makes the horizontal run on his sinker *more* impressive. But given Diaz’s command, there’s no reason he couldn’t get ground balls when he needed to, and that’s something the M’s bullpen could actually use. The M’s bullpen currently ranks 5th in MLB in FB%. Cishek, Vincent, Nuno, Peralta and to a degree Benoit are all strongly fly-ball oriented, which means your GB guys are simply the ones without much of a big league track record: Mike Montgomery, Tony Zych and Mayckol Guaipe. Slotting Diaz in, particularly if he’s able to target his sinker a bit differently, could add a different dimension to the pen.
Just because Diaz throws a good sinker doesn’t mean he’s destined to become a great, Britton-esque reliever. If you just look at horizontal and vertical movement, there are other names that pop up as similar, including some whose mechanics look more like Diaz. Names like Trevor Gott, which is a name I’d not encountered before. There are no guarantees in life, but especially in pitching. That’s one of the reasons this move makes me nervous. That said, there are reasons to think this could work out.
3: #1 and #2 above are clearly linked. The M’s are doing well, they’re projected to be a contender, and that causes other things to happen, both within the organization and outside of it. How we as fans react to that depends a lot on our experience as M’s fans: where have we seen something like this before? What happened then? These are completely normal questions, almost hard-wired into the human brain, but that’s not to say they always lead to good answers. As M’s fans, we have seen a lot of bad things, and thus any precedent, anything that reminds you of something that came before is highly likely to be an unpleasant memory. How do you enjoy this ride when that keeps happening?
I saw this conversation with author David Rieff today about Rieff’s new book, “In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies,” and thought that it applied rather well to being a fan. Rieff’s thesis is that the old nostrum that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it is obviously, conclusively false from an actual, empirical basis, and not all that convincing from a theoretical point of view. His solution is, as you can see by the title, to forget.
Baseball often seems like a very applied branch of history; it can seem to outsiders like it’s all tradition and memory, with a dash of Mike Trout and Aroldis Chapman thrown in to give it an athletic veneer. I don’t totally agree with that, but there are so many things about baseball, starting with its exhaustive documentation, that set it up for historical comparisons, for finding precedents, for connecting 2016 with 1986, 1956 and 1916. I think that’s kind of nice, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t sometimes prevent you from getting swept up in something. Baseball kindly builds drama over a long season to such an extent that something like the 1995 season, or a playoff run like Kansas City’s in 2014 will absolutely overwhelm the “don’t forget about Brandon Morrow!” parts of the brain. They can shut them out entirely. But until you get there, the historical memory is going to keep pointing stuff out.
I think there’s been a lot of talk on twitter, and presumably on the radio, about how to react to this M’s team, and I’ve seen a lot of arguments that any argument from the past necessarily has no bearing on the present season. That just because Bill Bavasi was bad at his job doesn’t mean Jerry Dipoto has to be (my brain is telling me they both came from the Angels, and I’m telling myself to shut up). Or that just because Dustin Ackley flopped doesn’t mean, say, Ketel Marte has to. This is objectively true, of course, but I think what the pessimists are pointing to are patterns of behavior on the part of the org, not specific players. That is, we’ve seen overreactions to short bursts of success, and those things have hindered the club. This doesn’t mean that Jerry Dipoto’s going to trade Asdrubal Cabrera for Eduardo Perez again. It just means that we’ve been thoroughly conditioned to worry.
That’s not fun, I know. But my long tenure with this team means I am *always* waiting for the other shoe to drop, and I think that any suggestion that shoes can’t keep dropping ignores the powerful, Adidas-laden supercell that’s parked itself over Seattle for the past 10 years. If you keep getting hit in the face every time you look up, you learn to lower your gaze. That’s perfect for an analytical fan like me, as I can dive into other things and not feel crushed by a year like 2015, which felt familiar, almost routine to me, and seemed to drive other M’s fans batty. Today, though, I’m dealing with the opposite problem, and it’s something I’m trying to think through. The first rule of analytics is that you don’t dump 10 years of data because “he really looked different in May,” so I don’t think I’m capable of shutting off the “this feels familiar, and by familiar I mean dangerous” comments from my brain. I’m not sure I’m capable of the “Active forgetting” that David Rieff (and Nietzche) talk about. Maybe it’s just a matter of finding the subtle distinctions and clutching to them like they’re dispositive. Maybe Dae-Ho Lee is the gateway drug, and I just need to hear a few more Korean HR calls. As far as problems go, this is probably one of the best to have, so I’m not really complaining. But complaining, or rather suffering, is so ingrained at this point that everything feels a bit weird. I can’t imagine, but really want to try, what the playoffs would feel like now.