The Idea of Micah Owings

October 25, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 11 Comments 

As we move through the fall, we’ll soon drown in the steady drip of minor roster moves and non-roster invites. They’ll blend together, as this reliever or that, or that guy who once had a good year in 2013 (or was it 2011?) signs a deal with Seattle (or was it Oakland?), complete with opt-outs. There will be best shape of his life quotes for the papers, and we won’t even have time to mull it over before the next one pops up on Twitter.

The M’s recently signed Micah Owings. Owings last played in the majors in 2012. In April of 2013, Bradley Woodrum penned this cri de curve that someone, ANYONE, should give Owings a roster spot. He didn’t get one, and after a so-so season in the minors, it looked like he was done. He played a handful of games in the Brewers and Nats systems that year, then a year with Miami, and the trail went cold. He popped up again this year with the York Revolution, putting up a pitching line that’s both encouraging for a guy who’d been out of organized ball for a few years, and also not inspiring for a league who’s 2016 batting champ was Endy Chavez. So is this just another meaningless bullpen pile signing? No. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.

In 2005, college junior Micah Owings transferred from Georgia Tech to Tulane. In 2 years in the ACC, Owings posted back to back 9-3 seasons on the mound, and hit a total of 25 HRs while keeping his OPS over .900 in each year. At Tulane, facing slightly weaker competition, Owings simply went nuts, with a slash line of .355/.470/.719, hitting 18 bombs. He also was the 2nd starter, going 12-4, and striking out 135 hitters and walking just *25* in 129 2/3 IP. The Diamondbacks signed him in the 3rd round, just 2 picks after they took Jason Neighborgall out of the Georgia Tech program that Owings had just left.* Owings wasn’t actually Tulane’s top prospect – that’d be Friday starter and OF Brian Bogusevic, who went in the first round to the Houston Astros. Bogusevic’s stats weren’t as gaudy as Owings’ but scouts loved him, as you can see in this frozen-in-amber scouting report from MLB, which compared him to Mark Mulder.

While Owings torched the Cal league with 30 Ks in 22 IP after signing, and backed it up in AA the following year, Bogusevic struggled to miss bats in the Houston system. Owings slowed down a bit in AAA, as his K rate started to settle in at around 7 per 9. He was a decent starter in some tough run environments, and while he didn’t have top-end velocity, a great breaking ball, or the the ability to throw left-handed, he was passable. From 2007-2009, Owings pitched more than 100 innings every year, with a couple of decent seasons for the D-Backs before velocity trouble and injuries sapped his effectiveness for Cincinnati. After transitioning to the bullpen, he had another solid year for Arizona, who re-acquired him in 2011, and then an injury plagued cup of coffee with San Diego in 2012.

But if you know anything about Owings, it’s that he’s much more interesting than a garden-variety failed starter. Owings could always hit. Not “for a pitcher” hit, but HIT hit. In a roughly half-season’s worth of ABs, Owings career line looks like something befitting his college statline: .283/.310/.502. The run environment was different than, so that’s “only” a 104 wRC+, but don’t miss that there are three digits in that figure. He was a (slightly) better than *league average* hitter. Many teams, including the Nats, who signed him as an OF, wanted to make more use of his bat, but they struggled to figure out how. The Nats had something of an excuse: they had a kid named Harper in RF and had given plenty of money to Jayson Werth, so they were full. The Pads can claim injury impaired their ability to innovate, sure, but why didn’t the Marlins in 2014? Hell, why didn’t York last year?

At some level, this isn’t hard: if a guy’s shown aptitude At the plate and bounced along as a so-so reliever, you should figure out how to maximize his utility. Owings’ career started just a couple of years after the last OF/RP hybrid player fizzled out. That was Brooks Kieschnick, a slugging left-handed OF who moonlighted as a right-handed set-up guy for the Brewers. While he had power, it wasn’t at Owings’ level, and his overall bat-to-ball ability wasn’t quite at Owings’ level. He was a decent enough hitter though, albeit not great for a corner OF bench bat. On the mound, he gave up lots of contact, and wouldn’t have survived as a starter, but at least had solid control. After two years, though, the Brewers had seen enough, and surprisingly (at least to me), Kieschnick never caught on anywhere else.

That’s surprising, as there were several high-profile pitcher-to-position player (or vice versa) moves around this time. Owings’ college teammate, first-round-pick Brian Bogusevic, finally abandoned pitching and somehow made the majors as a light-hitting corner OF, garnering 800 plate appearances, largely with the truly awful Astros teams of a few years ago. Bogusevic had a partial Kieschnick in 2012, when he pitched an inning for the Phillies in addition to coming off the bench as an OF, but that was more of a common “throw someone out there who used to pitch and save the bullpen” cases. Adam Loewen made the majors as a starting pitcher in 2006, but injuries made him turn to hitting full time in 2010. He made the majors as an OF the next year for Toronto, and then moved *back* to the mound for the Phillies in 2015; he too had a partial Kieschnick, tossing 19 1/3 IP and batting three times for Philadelphia that year. He had a cup of coffee with Arizona last year, so he’s yet another candidate for hybrid player if anyone’s interested.

To me, it’s pretty remarkable that no one’s really tried to utilize an Owings or Loewen as a true hybrid player. “They’re not good enough at any one skill,” you say, convincingly. That’s a good point, and it’s clearly what doomed Kieschnick, as he couldn’t miss bats right around the time MLB bullpens turned into nuclear-powered strikeout factories. Owings isn’t going to give you that, even if his velocity’s back. His fastball’s most salient feature is that it’s arrow-straight – almost cutter-like. It also has below-average “rise”. Arrow straight, slow, and neither-rising-nor-sinking isn’t how you want a pitcher’s FB described, but here we are. He’s got a slider and change, but both have far-below-average whiff rates. Still: have you seen what clubs carry in their pen? Would he be worse than, I don’t know, JC Ramirez? Maybe, maybe not. And the upside here seems pretty clear: you get the benefit of a bench bat without the defensive issues. Throughout baseball, teams have gone from 11 to 12 to now 13-man pitching staffs, cutting corners on their bench. Given the need for a back-up C and someone who can credibly play SS, teams often have just 1 or 2 options, generally the off-side of a platoon. Having a decent hitter you could deploy AND give your pen a rest or face one or two same-handed hitters…that seems like an exceptionally helpful thing. It scratches the modern itch of ensuring your pen is full of options, while going old-school on the bench. You could start a guy in the OF, bring him in to pitch, then move him back. Or bring him in to face a righty, put him in LF for lefty, then bring him back to the mound. It’s weird and fun, and the batting line, even if it is older now than Mike Trout’s career, is tantalizing enough to make you think you’re not getting a replacement-level bench bat, but an actual bat. The problem isn’t that he isn’t good enough at either skill – the problem is that he’s only *actually* valuable if he’s used as a hybrid…the one thing teams don’t seem willing to do.

And that probably includes the Mariners. He’s listed as a RHP, and again, he never came to bat for York last year. It really seems like he’s given up hitting. That’s a shame, because the odds on his arm carrying him are long. I’m all for giving him a shot, as he’s been a favorite of mine for years. I just wish he got the opportunity to Kieshnick full time, and truth be told, I wish he got it about 5 years ago. That’s a bit of a downer, so let’s end on a positive. With Arizona, he threw from a normal 3/4 delivery, with that arrow-straight fastball. His lack of backspin on the fastball is what prevented him from generating a lot of “rise” on the pitch; it had the vertical movement of a sinker with none of the horizontal run, and thus, despite a lack of rise, batters elevated it easily. His arm angle dropped very slightly in later years, perhaps due to the injuries he struggled with, but his fastball movement never really changed much. Every once in a while, though, he seemed to toy with a sinker. Brooks doesn’t show one in his stats, but if you pore through game logs, you’ll see a group of “four seamers” that had some horizontal movement. A two-seam grip and low spin seems like a good start to throwing a proper sinker, if only he’d drop his arm angle *on purpose.* This would help him generate more horizontal movement by adding side spin to the ball. Ok – go look at that Lookout Landing article again, and notice the picture at the bottom of it. That looks just about right- a low 3/4 delivery. It’s not much to go on, and you can find similar shots from his MLB days. But it seems like the mechanical tweak would be so small that it could work. A groundballing ROOGY can work, sort of. A flyballing, rusty reliever in what’s suddenly a HR-prone ballpark sounds like a tougher sell.

* Neighborgall is another fascinating story that any stathead of a certain age will remember. He threw blazingly fast but couldn’t quite figure out where it was going. Signed as a “project”, his control problem went from bad to worse in pro ball, leading to one of the most baffling statlines you’ll ever see. In 42 career innings, Neighborgall walked…128 batters. In his final stop, and he posted the heartbreaking line of 1 3 12 12 0 12 2. Yes – he pitched one inning, yielding 3 hits and 12 runs on, uh, just checking this one more time…ok, *12 walks* and 2 Ks. This led pre-politics Nate Silver to pen a post about how this low-minors fireballer had essentially broken his PECOTA forecasting system.

What If the M’s Hadn’t Traded Mike Montgomery?

October 7, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 17 Comments 

The pain of the M’s season-ending loss to Oakland is still fresh; it’s been less than a week before that crazy game officially eliminated the M’s from the wild card chase. In a season in which their late-season push came up *just* short, you can’t help but wonder if this or that game, or this or that at-bat could’ve swung something. These are all counterfactuals, and so by definition there’s nothing to really learn here. That said, as the Chicago Cubs play their first playoff game tonight, I find myself thinking about an important piece of their (juggernaut) club, a piece they picked up from Seattle in late July: lefty Mike Montgomery.

Montgomery opened some eyes with the Cubs, pitching well in relief and as a spot starter (he made 5 starts for the Cubs in August/September) and stabilizing a bullpen that’s now one of the league’s best. Corinne Landrey’s article at Fangraphs goes over what he’s doing differently (throwing a ton of curves) and what he’s maintained (high velocity) since the trade, and given the plaudits Monty’s racked up and some of the crushing bullpen collapses the M’s suffered after the trade, well…would the M’s have won a wild card berth if they’d kept him?

Obviously, it’s impossible to know, but if you think he was the missing piece, I’d think you’d need to show a clear pattern in the 2nd half losses: 1) that the M’s bullpen had fewer/worse left-handed options, and thus lacked the platoon advantage more often; 2) that this led to lefties enjoying more success against the M’s pen, and 3) the way Montgomery was typically used would’ve made a difference. The third is important, because we don’t just want to take the M’s worst 2nd half reliever and swap him out for Montgomery. We can’t just plop this hypothetical Monty in any situation that went poorly and say the M’s would’ve won the game. I’m going to be up front here, the data for this is a little spotty. I can’t get platoon splits vs. relievers for a certain date range. I’m using first half/second half splits because they’re easy to get, but you and I will make a mental note that Monty was traded before the AS break. We’re going to have to do the best we can with limited data. Ok? Ok.

Let’s start with a bit of context. The M’s bullpen in the first half of 2016 was a very high-K, high-HR club, and the plusses and minuses even out and produce the 14th-most valuable bullpen by fWAR. Their ERA was 3.44 and their FIP was 3.97; the ERA was aided by an impressive .278 BABIP-against. The club’s most-utilized reliever in the first half? Mike Montgomery, with just over 50 innings, over 10IP more than 2nd place Steve Cishek. In the second half, the bullpen’s K rate came down substantially, but this was balanced by an improved walk rate and a slight improvement in HR rate. All of this and a good-but-not-great BABIP pushed their ERA up to 3.68, and sent their FIP soaring from 3.97 to 3.98. All told, they were, again, the 14th most valuable unit. Nothing changed.

That’s not true, of course. They were led by Edwin Diaz, who logged the most innings in the second half, again with a 10IP margin over 2nd place Cishek/Nick Vincent. Diaz’s emergence was a critical factor in the M’s push; he finished with a FIP *under 2* and struck out nearly everyone. With Evan Scribner’s return and Steve Cishek’s improvement, it’s kind of amazing that the bullpen didn’t really change; the M’s added the best reliever they’ve had in years and yet the bullpen’s overall numbers were unchanged. It’d seem that regression came for some of the lesser lights of the ‘pen.

In the first half of the season, the M’s bullpen logged a total of 280 1/3 IP. Of these, left-handers pitched 86 1/3, or 31%. In the second half, the Monty-less bullpen tossed another 242 IP, but lefties pitched just 44, or 18%. The M’s pen was clearly less left-handed, and the lefties that filled in (Nuno, David Rollins, and sometimes-lefty Pat Venditte) weren’t exactly world-beaters. It’s not clear that these guys pitched the innings Monty used to get, though. Despite his success, Montgomery wasn’t given particularly high-leverage innings in the first half; his leverage index was a bit under 1. That would’ve probably gone up, but not as high as Edwin Diaz’s. By WPA, the guys who “got” Monty’s innings were Arquimedes Caminero, Drew Storen and Nick Vincent, with Vidal Nuno thrown in as well as the team’s primary lefty. Caminero, Vincent and Nuno combined to put up a -1.24 Win Probability Added, with Vincent and Nuno finishing 2nd-to-last and last on the club in reliever WPA. This is circumstantial evidence, but you could make a case that Montgomery would’ve led to the M’s using less of their most unhelpful relievers, but the picture’s still mixed: Storen was oddly effective, putting up a plus-1 WPA all by himself.

Since I don’t have platoon splits that’d shed some light on if lefties suddenly started destroying the M’s pen, we’re going to have to do this the old-fashioned way. Let’s take a look at the M’s second half bullpen losses and see where we think Monty may have been used. Of course, these situations may have been different if Monty had been there, and the M’s may have suffered different bullpen losses if they hadn’t made the trade, but this is what we can do without time machines and alternate universes. If you’d like to dive into some very masochistic qualitative data, follow on:
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Game 162, Athletics at Mariners

October 2, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 20 Comments 

King Felix vs. Sean Manaea, 12:10pm

It’s both a blessing and a curse that things change quickly in baseball. 2 years ago, the M’s headed into their final game knowing they wouldn’t be going to the playoffs, but thinking they could in 2015; I wrote back then that they’d narrowed the gap between themselves and the Angels (lol). 2 years ago, Felix pitched a brilliant game, a fitting coda in his brilliant season, one that came very close to earning him a 2nd Cy Young. It’s 2016, the M’s came up just short, but Felix is both despondent and vulnerable now. We’re all just waiting to see what happens next. It’s always been a possibility, but the odds that the M’s won’t make the playoffs in Felix’s M’s career are getting larger. That hurts.

To put my cards on the table, last night’s agonizing loss isn’t close to the most painful I’ve experienced. It stung, no doubt, because it always felt winnable, right up to Seager’s fly out (“they’re pitching to him? Ha!”). But coming so close in an irrationally fun, against-all-odds late season push trumps blowing a solid lead late (2014 sucked) any day. It beats David Justice, it beats Alfonso Soriano, Paul $&@!ing Assenmacher. I can’t, in a very literal sense, hurt as bad as I did back then. But there’s something about seeing Felix so heartbroken last night that makes me forget that I’d written off this season plenty of times before last night. I thought this was all fun, playing on house money, and then I see Felix and I’m reminded that the players aren’t going to say, “Well we certainly beat the odds for several weeks!”

Do you want a silver lining? Here you go: I always wondered how to weight the various components of a GM’s job: the amateur draft, trades, free agent pick-ups, and player development. I thought the M’s failures in player development played an outsized role in their struggles, and this year would seem to support that. The M’s minor league success wasn’t just great for the affiliates, it gave the M’s Edwin Diaz, without whom the M’s wouldn’t be in a position to curse Edwin Diaz for last night’s loss. Remember that Paxton and Zunino started this year in AAA. The strides they made in PD covered so many flaws elsewhere and give me a lot of hope going forward. I still don’t know how to rank PD in a team’s skill set, but it absolutely has to be near the top.

Why am I so confident about that? Because *so* much of the other stuff went against the M’s, and decisively so. The M’s traded the MLB leader in home runs for a back-up catcher who made a name for himself for all the wrong reasons. The M’s traded Brad Miller for a pitcher they demoted, then 60-day DL’d, while Miller hit 30+ bombs. Joaquin Benoit was so-so, then traded on, while the big free agent moves were a mixed bag as well. None of them really sucked, but Scribner was hurt, Lee lost confidence, and Cishek struggled in high-leverage situations.

Let’s be clear: this is all results-based, and the M’s had their reasons, some of them good, for making each move. The point isn’t to assess Dipoto’s trade acumen, but to say that in 2016, a whole lot of breaks went against the M’s and *still* they played a meaningful game 161. It also gives me some confidence when I say that a great player development group covers over a multitude of trade and/or free agent sins.

Thanks so much to all of you who’ve read this stuff. It’s a strange compulsion, and compulsion’s the only word for something so irrational, impecunious, and pointless as talking about not-quite-every Mariner game. But many of you stop by, and it makes all of this worth while. I’ve never met the vast majority of you, so I can’t even chalk it up to my winning personality. Seasons like 2015 make me want to quit, or at least, the only motivation to stay is to write some cutting remark on the front office’s tombstone. This feels different, and less schadenfreude-riffic.

It also feels familiar, and ‘familiar’ is always bad when you’re an M’s fan. I, like many others, felt encouraged by 2014 and where the AL West teams stood after it. 2015 was a long, drawn-out torture for prideful, hopeful M’s fans, and highlighted just how quickly Houston moved from laughing-stock to long-term contender. The point is: the M’s must build on this season, or the repercussions will be long-lasting. Nelson Cruz is aging, and has 2 years left on his contract. Hisashi Iwakuma has one guaranteed year. They don’t really have a 1B. There are holes, and a combination of free agents and the fruits of their player development tree will need to fill them. Given my experience, I find my own optimism/confidence distasteful, but there it is: 2016 can turn the most pessimistic among us back into fanboys/fangirls, and I’ll always be grateful to 2016 for that.

1: Heredia, CF
2: O’Malley, SS
3: Cano, DH
4: Gutierrez, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lee, 1B
7: Gamel, LF
8: Iannetta, C
9: Freeman, 2B
SP: King Felix Hernandez

Game 161, Athletics at Mariners

October 1, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 123 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Jharel Cotton, 6:10pm

It’s the second to last game of the year, and the M’s are still alive. That’s not bad. Hell, even a week ago, I wouldn’t have thought it possible. The M’s are favorites again with a reliable vet on the hill facing an A’s line-up that’s last in all of baseball in WAR thanks to poor performance in essentially every aspect of the game, from defense to baserunning to batting.

That said, this feels like a trap game. They’re facing a rookie pitcher who’s K rate doesn’t wow you, but who has a legitimate plus pitch in his change. You may have seen his name pop up in minor league game wraps here and there, but he was a Dodger draft pick, a kid out of the Virgin Islands who attended a US college, but never attracted a lot of attention. Even despite notching solid strikeout rates in the minors, he moved slowly through the Dodger system. That started to change in 2015, when he got off to a fast start repeating the Cal League and ended the year in the AAA bullpen. He took another big step forward this year, and was thus one of the big prospects the A’s got from LA when they traded Rich Hill and Josh Reddick.

He’s an undersized righty at 5’11”, and has just average velocity on his fastball at 92 mph or so. His big weapon has been his change, which depends entirely on his arm action. At 77mph, it often looks like a curve when he throws it (it’s slower than his actual curveball somehow), but batters can’t pick it up. Movement wise, it’s more akin to a splitter, though it’s got a bit less vertical movement than you’d imagine given its slow velocity. Cotton really sells it well, and while he’s only thrown it 93 times, batters have managed just a single, er, single off of it. Lefties are hitting a combined 1 for 32 off of Cotton, while righties have 13 hits including 3 HRs. He’s got a cutter he’ll throw to righties, and a curveball that’s his 4th pitch. Pretty early to tell on either, though his cutter’s had solid results thus far in terms of whiffs. This is a day to chuck the standard vs-RHP line-up out the window. Of course, I noted that Alcantara’d been better v. LHBs, and Cano and company ripped him up, so hey, maybe do some damage early and see about the dregs of the Oakland bullpen.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: Iwakuma

But…but that’s just the standard vs-RHP line-up.