Rule 5, SP Depth, and Free Agent Flyers

December 8, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 6 Comments 

1: MLB held the Rule 5 draft today at the winter meetings in Washington, DC, and with the M’s roster full, they weren’t able to make any selections in the big league phase. They were *involved,* however. Tampa took SP Kevin Gadea from the M’s with the 4th overall pick, and this one hurts…at least, as much as (potentially) losing a 22-year old who only made it to A-ball half-way through 2016 can hurt.

Gadea signed for just $42,000 out of Nicaragua in 2013 at the comparatively old age of 18. He’d been eligible for the July 2nd signing period before, but had languished as a light-hitting 3B before an M’s scout suggested he try pitching. That late start on the mound explains his relatively slow progression: he pitched in the Venezuelan league after signing in 2013, then moved up to the Arizona League in 2014, but struggled with his command, and ended up moving *back* to the Dominican League in 2015 (after the M’s shuttered their VSL operations). Something clearly clicked for him in 2015, as he looked like a different pitcher in 2016. Starting off again in the AZL, he walked 3 in 18 1/3 IP, and then moved up to join Clinton in the Midwest League. The Lumberkings eased him in, giving him some shorter outings in the early going, but he took off and was the ace of the Clinton staff by the end of the year. Luiz Gohara was great, and is the bigger prospect name, but Gadea posted better numbers: Gohara struck out 60 and walked 20 in 54 1/3 IP, while Gadea struck out *72* and walked just 11 in 50 1/3 IP. Gadea closed out the year on a phenomenal run – in his last 5 starts, Gadea struck out 48 while walking just 5 in 31 innings.

Yes, he *just* made it to the Midwest league and he’s 22, but that kind of command is pretty special in an ex-position player – and the M’s should know, given their 3B-to-RP conversions (eg. Ramon Morla). Gohara wasn’t available in the Rule 5 draft, but even if he was, I think you can make the case that Gadea would be as likely or perhaps even more likely to stick with a team. The Rays can stash Gadea in their bullpen for 2017, and then either try to start him again in 2018 or, if he does passably, develop him as an intriguing set-up man. For me, Gadea was easily a top-20 M’s prospect, with a possibility to start 2017 in the top 10. Damn it.

The M’s made some moves in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft as well, picking up crafty lefty reliever Paul Paez from the Mets and OF Chuck Taylor from the D-Backs, while losing overslot tools prospect Austin Wilson to the Cardinals. Paez has a FB in the 87mph range, and thus hasn’t been a big strikeout guy (though his K rate went up in his first taste of AA last year). He doesn’t seem to be a Rzepczynski clone – he’s a flyball pitcher, which is somewhat remarkable given his lack of HRs-allowed. That and his control are probably his most notable skills, and he figures to add some depth to Tacoma’s bullpen next year. The warning sign is that, despite some Ks, he got lit up in the AA Eastern League, giving up 4 HRs (doubling his career total) and 29 hits in less than 20 IP.

Chuck Taylor was a high-round draft pick of the Diamondbacks, and showed some solid tools, but has essentially zero power. That put a lot of pressure on his bat-to-ball skills, and ultimately, he just wasn’t able to hit enough to stick with the snakes. There’s potential in there somewhere, as Kiley McDaniel noted a few years ago, but Taylor’s collapsed since that note was written. Of course, one could say the same about Austin Wilson, the ex-Stanford corner OF whom scouts had been following for years. Like Taylor, Wilson could work a walk, but never hit for enough average or power to move up. Both players undoubtedly have some untapped ability in there somewhere, and so I kind of like viewing this as a kind of change-of-scenery trade. The Cards player development staff have been tremendous, and who knows, maybe they can make some adjustments, but there’s no sense lamenting losing Wilson, who K’d at a staggering 36% clip last year in the Cal League. Taylor makes much more contact, but it hasn’t helped him any, which implies a hell of a lot of slow ground balls. He’ll be an M’s project now, and figures to play in AA Arkansas or maybe A+ Modesto.

2: The M’s bolstered their starting pitching depth by picking up RHP Chris Heston from the Giants for a player to be named later. Heston famously tossed a no-hitter against the Mets in 2015 as a rookie starter. He pitched nearly 180 IP and made 31 starts for SF that year, with a perfectly acceptable 4.02 FIP, 3.95 ERA. He’s not overpowering, with sinker in the 90mph range and a big breaking slurvy slider, a curve and a change-up, and unfortunately, he’s not a great control guy, either. Thanks to his low-rise sinker and change, he’s a decent GB arm, but his real carrying card is his ability to shut down righties. The sinker/slider combo is highly correlated with platoon splits, and Heston’s pitches move quite a bit, thanks to a lower release point that is itself correlated with difficulties with opposite-handed hitters. Indeed, lefties torched him in 2015, hitting .270/.356/.462, which is pretty bad for an NL starter pitching half his games in San Francisco. Of course, the flip side is that he dominated righties, with a 3.3 K:BB ratio, very few HRs and a FIP under 3.

He missed nearly all of 2016 with an oblique injury; he logged just 4 IP for SF, and looked like a different pitcher, often struggling to hit 87. This is a solid bounce-back move, and is pretty much risk free, though we’ll have to see who the PTBNL is, of course. To make room on the 40-man, the M’s DFA’d Richie Shaffer, the promising-but-struggling IF they acquired from the Rays earlier this offseason.

3: The M’s have been quite open about their desire to acquire another solid MLB starter to make up for the loss of Taijuan Walker in the Jean Segura trade. Heston helps with depth, but is clearly not someone the M’s can just pencil into the big league rotation; the odds are good he doesn’t make the M’s roster and heads out in search of another opportunity. Thus, if the M’s want to acquire some rotation upside, they may look to the free agents still available. In general, that’s something of a scary thought, given the overall quality of the FA pitchers this year. The best of them have already signed anyway, now that Rich Hill inked a deal with the Dodgers. At this point, anyone on the market comes with a host of red flags, but that may actually make them MORE enticing to Jerry Dipoto, who’s been very active in baseball’s bargain bin the past year.

Isabelle Minasian has a great article on perhaps the most intriguing of the broken toys on the market, ex-Padres RHP Tyson Ross. Ross, an Oakland native, came up with the Athletics in 2010, and was then shipped to San Diego in the immortal Andy Parino deal of 2012. The Padres got him to use his tight-spinning slider more, and he turned into an incredibly valuable starter, racking up 9.5 fWAR in the 3 years from 2013-2015. He’s always been somewhat injury prone, and ended up losing his 2016 with his most severe injury yet: a shoulder problem that was eventually diagnosed as Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.

Ross had thoracic outlet surgery on his right shoulder this past October, which means it’s likely he won’t be ready for spring training, but the recovery time from TOS is much, much less than it is from Tommy John or more serious shoulder procedures. In a perfect world, he could pitch most of the year and bounce all the way back to his pre-injury self. Years ago, thoracic outlet syndrome was an extremely rare/rarely-diagnosed issue that would show up as numbness in the arm or fingers. It’s caused by nerves getting pinched or compressed by the upper ribs and arm, and doctors found that an easy fix to give the nerve bundle more room was just to remove a rib (presumably the 1st rib, just under the clavicle). I’ve joked for years on this blog that it could’ve been named the Texas Rangers surgery, as the Rangers seemed to be the first to diagnose it in ballplayers – Kenny Rogers and Hank Blalock were among the first to have it done around 10 years ago. And once they started looking for it, they found it everywhere. John Rheinecker, Matt Harrison, etc. Soon, other teams cottoned on, and it’s now somewhat common. The M’s picked up Chris Young after he had it, and signed Jeremy Bonderman after he restarted his career following the procedure.

That said, just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s safe and routine. Just as Tommy John surgery isn’t foolproof, TOS isn’t minor surgery. Shaun Marcum never really recovered following his, and the Padres – a team with essentially no rotation – were scared enough to non-tender Ross despite positive reports from Ross’ surgeon. His Steamer projection has him as a better-than-league average starter in just shy of 150 IP, which seems high, but attainable. He’s apparently looking for a one-year deal in the range of $9m-$11m, which is probably a bit more than he’d have gotten in arbitration. That’s a lot of money for a guy who just got stitches in his shoulder removed, but it’s also a one-year commitment to an All-Star caliber pitcher.

From there, the risks just get riskier. Lefty Brett Anderson is someone I wouldn’t mind the M’s making a play for. He missed nearly all of 2016 after accepting the Dodgers qualifying offer for him, so he figures to make considerably less. His injury history spans several leather-bound volumes, and he’s made 30 starts just twice in his 8-year MLB career. Still, he was decent as recently as 2015, and helps balance an M’s rotation that’s grown increasingly right-handed. You can’t count on him the whole year, but that might allow the M’s to get a longer look at Ariel Miranda. Safeco is no longer a great place to pitch for lefties, but there are worse places to go if you’re looking for a one-year pillow contract.

Derek Holland’s available after the Rangers declined their option on him. Another lefty, and another guy with an extensive injury history (he needed knee surgery after being undercut by his dog, once, and has had severe, lingering shoulder problems), Holland pitched over 100 (so-so) innings last year, and may command a bit more money solely because he was able to take the ball in 2016. That said, he hasn’t really been good since 2013, and has had serious HR issues for much of his career. If you’re willing to accept some risk and the need for more than a one-year commitment, it might be better to look at Jason Hammel, who also had his team option declined. Hammel struggled at the end of the year, and has had some injury issues of his own in recent years, but his topped 150 IP in each of the last three years. This is what passes for an interesting option in this horrific FA market, but it’s possible that teams stay away and the price on all of these guys – and Doug Fister – drops, but the M’s might want to go with a short FA commitment instead of trading more of their prospects away.

Casey Fien and Spin Rates

December 6, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 4 Comments 

Not that long ago, I had a post about some early contenders for the bullpen pile after the M’s acquired Dean Kiekhefer in a waiver claim. With his low 3/4 delivery and the resultant horizontal movement, he looked a bit like fellow new-Mariner, Ryan Weber. Two things are clear at this point, some 13-14 months into the Jerry Dipoto tenure: first, the man cannot stop acquiring relievers, and second, when he does, he seems to like to acquire two or three guys with the same approach/skills.

I thought back to that “buy in bulk” strategy when looking into new Mariner Casey Fien. John Trupin has a handy overview of Fien over at Lookout Landing. The short version is that he was once a perfectly, er, fine member of the Twins bullpen, who was absolutely destroyed by the home run ball last year. His career walk rate is under 5% too, so at first glance, this looked a bit like acquiring another Evan Scribner. Solid K-BB%, horrific HR/9 buy-low guys who can appear to improve a ton thanks to some regression in their HR/FB rates. Scribner gave up an astonishing 14 HRs in 60 IP for Oakland in 2015, which is why he was available for a low-level prospect despite posting one of the best K-BB% marks in all of baseball. Well, Fien gave up 13 HRs last year in just 39 1/3 IP, good for a vertiginous HR/9 of 2.97. That’ll get you waived, and indeed, Minnesota waived him last year. He caught on with the Dodgers, but didn’t fare any better, so he’ll cost the M’s $1.1 million if he sticks on the MLB roster.

The more you look at how he pitches, though, the less like Scribner he looks. Scribner has a fairly high-spin fastball, at 2,286 RPMs and a 91mph velocity. Fien actually blows Scribner out of the water in this measure, with a high-spin, 2,501 RPM fastball at 93.9mph. To borrow a concept from Kyle Boddy, who likes to use the ratio of RPM to MPH, Fien still gets more spin per MPH than Scribner, and more still than the MLB league average ratio for four-seam fastballs.* Looking at each pitcher’s curve, the picture’s reversed. Scribner has elite curveball spin (well over 2,800 RPM, compared to a league avrerage of 2,471), which I’m sure was something that attracted the attention of the M’s analytical staff. Fien’s comes in at 2,620, so higher than league average, but far short of Scribner’s. But look at pitch movement, and they look completely different: Evan Scribner’s fastball has a lot of effective spin, meaning the spin is producing movement (in this case, rise). Fien’s four-seam rises a tiny bit more than average, but it’s nothing to write home about. Fien’s second pitch, a pitch he goes to about *40% of the time* is his cutter, which again has remarkably high spin rates (2,500+ RPMs) and not much in the way of actual movement. Does this sound familiar?

This high-spin, meh-movement repertoire was something I spent far too long discussing in the context of Rob Whalen, another new Mariner. Fien’s cutter looks a bit like Whalen’s odd fastball. Both come in around 90mph, have ~0 horizontal movement, and less-than-normal-fastball amounts of vertical rise. As cutters produce, *on average*, worse contact, a team might want to look at high-spin pitchers who, for whatever reason, don’t get much transverse (movement-causing) spin on the ball. That’s the theory, anyway. On the field, Fien’s cutter got obliterated last year, with batters slugging .649 on it. Even looking at his career as a whole, they’re slugging .452, which is pretty high for a reliever who’s spent his career in the low-scoring 2010’s. That said, it may help disguise his flat four-seamer, which has been pretty effective for him, 2016 aside. If the M’s think he was tipping his pitches or have some other tweak in mind, he’d be a perfectly serviceable middle-relief guy, though it’s worth noting that the M’s bullpen’s already pretty full. In any event, while Fien is definitely not a clone of Rob Whalen, there are some surface similarities that make me wonder if they’re traits that the M’s are actively searching for.

I’d love to know more about how teams value gyro spin, and why it might be useful. In the public analytical space, we tend to focus on movement, and for some very good reasons: high-spin, high-movement curves really do seem to be “better.” But I’m not at all convinced that gyro spin is bad in a *slider.* A high-spin, low movement fastball might also provide some sort of advantage, either by producing weaker contact or by confusing hitters whose swing paths essentially build in the horizontal movement that nearly all fastballs have. Spin efficiency, the ratio of transverse to total spin, is useful in some contexts, but less so in others. Why is that, and how might a pitcher’s arsenal – or pitch sequencing – take advantage of it?

* Boddy calls this ratio “Bauer Units.” The league average for four-seamers was 24.3 last year. Scribner’s fastball ranked at 25.3, while Fien was up at 26.6. Using his league indexed BU+ measure, Fien comes in at 109.

Mariners Fulfill Pledge To Sign Free Agent LOOGY for Some Reason

December 5, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

You’ve got to hand it Jerry Dipoto: there’s no subterfuge, no hiding his wish-list. He’s told everyone who’ll listen for months that a high priority of the team was signing a veteran left-hander to round out the team’s bullpen, so we can’t be shocked that he’s signed Marc Rzepczynski to a two-year deal.

I think we *can* be a little surprised that he’s guaranteed the player nicknamed Scrabble 2 years and $11 million, slightly more than the 2-year, $10 million deal he gave Steve Cishek, and the second largest contract he’s given out in his tenure as GM. He signed last year’s starting catcher for 1 guaranteed year, and he’ll pay Chooch Ruiz $5m to back up Mike Zunino this year. Obviously the biggest deal was Hisashi Iwakuma’s extension, but even in that 3-year deal, only the first year was guaranteed. Iwakuma hit the IP threshold to give him a second year, and could earn that third year if he stays healthy, but Dipoto’s been somewhat reluctant to dive into the free agent market, unless he’s shopping for relievers. And he’s seemingly always shopping for relievers.

Marc Rzepczynski’s legitimately great at two things: absolutely neutralizing left-handed power and getting ground balls. Since 2010, Rzepczynski’s .293 SLG% allowed to lefties ranks 9th out of 265 pitchers, just behind Clayton Kershaw, but a bit above Brett Cecil, who just signed a 4-year deal with St. Louis. Those are legitimate strengths, and Rzepczynski’s consistency is a key reason he’s been traded mid-season *four times* already. A contending team that believes they’ll face some critical, high-leverage situations involving a tough left-handed hitter could do worse than picking up Marc Rzepczynski. It’s just that the going rate for Rzepczynski hasn’t been all that high- Cleveland got him for a non-prospect from Toronto. Oakland got him as a smaller part of the Yonder Alonso deal, and then swapped him for a lower-ranked (but intriguing!) prospect from Washington.

So, should M’s fans banish any doubts from their mind and cheer this solid investment in a low-risk bullpen arm, the baseballing equivalent of investing in treasury bonds? Here’s another leaderboard, looking at how pitchers have fared against RIGHT handed batters since 2010, with a minimum of 150 IP. Marc Rzepczynski’s OBP-against is the highest, out of 372 qualified pitchers, at .391. Yes, yes, regress those results, and you need 2,000 PAs of average splits, etc. But the problem is, Rzepczynski’s splits are just getting worse, not better, with time. Scrabble hasn’t allowed righties to post an OBP below .400 since *2012.* “Usage will take care of this,” you say. The problem is that it’s really, really hard to ensure any pitcher will see a steady diet of same-handed hitters. Last year, Scrabble faced 102 RHBs and 113 LHBs. For his career, he’s faced 960 righties and 768 lefties. Even with benches constricted by the growth of the modern bullpen, teams can, and do, pinch hit when they see splits like Scrabble’s. It’s likely that his high walk rate is his adaptation to life as a pitcher whom righties see really well, and that’s further solidified his role as a true LOOGY (Lefty One-Out-GuY). He’s made over 70 appearances in each of the last 3 years, but hasn’t tossed 50 IP in any of them.

The M’s aren’t going to get a lot of total innings from their $11 million man, so they need to make sure those innings count. For whatever reason, that hasn’t usually been the case for Scrabble. For obvious reasons, Rzepczynski isn’t a threat to close, and closers typically post the highest leverage index for players, meaning that they enter the game with the highest stakes: the situations featuring the biggest possible swing in win expectancy. Closers might get near a gmLI of 2, with elite set-up men/firemen coming in around 1.5. Scrabble was at 1.13 last year, and 1.18 for his career, meaning he was used in equivalent situations as Drew Storen, and a bit less critical than Tom Wilhelmsen. The M’s bullpen *averaged* a gmLI of 1.16 last year, with Cishek and Diaz leading the group. If this move is going to pay off, the M’s need to get Scrabble in at crucial times.

At one point, the M’s seemed to be after a high-octane, flame-throwing lefty, and Rzepczynski isn’t that. He now throws about 91, with a big slider as his primary weapon. Rzepczynski’s consistent dominance of lefties mean he can be used in late-inning, pressure-packed situations, but he’s not an Andrew Miller type. Dipoto has, in fact, already made a move for a lefty reliever with premium velocity and high upside in his trade for James Pazos. Signing Rzepczynski makes that move a bit harder to figure out; the M’s now have fewer situations in which they can use Pazos, and while letting him pitch low-leverage innings seems like a good way to ease him in to the majors, it means the M’s may now struggle to find enough IP for two pieces they spent a decent amount of capital on.

Of course, this worry about cost and IP may be yet another understandable miscalculation of the baseball market. $11M for 2 years of *anything* in baseball isn’t much anymore, and again, with proper usage, it could become money well spent. It’s just surprising given Dipoto’s reticence to dive into the market elsewhere. Take Steve Pearce, the lefty-mashing RH bat that just signed for Toronto for just a touch more than Scrabble will get. Both players have limitations and both are seen more as platoon players. To me, Pearce makes a heck of a lot more sense, especially given the fact that the M’s already *have* a high-octane, lefty-destroying bullpen arm in Edwin Diaz. This isn’t to say Scrabble doesn’t have value – he does – but it just underscores the importance Dipoto and the M’s place on the bullpen. A year ago, the M’s seemed to be the one team avoiding the mad rush to spend money on super ‘pens, like the one the Yankees constructed. The M’s stayed out of that, and focused on role on certain types: guys who’d been stung by high HR rates, but walked no one. It’s not that they didn’t *spend* on the bullpen, they just looked for different (and cheaper) skillsets than the Yanks and Red Sox sought. They seem to be taking the same approach this year – leaving Aroldis Chapman to someone else, and instead building a pen around some key roles, roles that don’t require 103mph fastballs. That’s sensible enough, but you wonder if the somewhat unorthodox approach isn’t as blind to a pitcher’s market value as a spend-at-all-cost alternative would be.