Cactus League Game 4: Felix v. Kopech

February 28, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

M’s at White Sox
KING FELIX v. Michael Kopech, 12:10pm

A very happy Felix Day to all of you.

We’ve had the novelty of live baseball on the radio, and we’ve explored the some of the lower-tier roster battles that make up the meager drama that this spring can gin up. Today, though…today, we get something interesting, and a game that most baseball fans would tune in to if they could (seriously, still no TV?). King Felix takes the mound for the first time, showing off what a few months of training hard than he’s ever trained before can do. Opposing him is one of the crown jewels in the re-made White Sox farm system, and one of the hardest throwing pitchers in the minors last year, right up there with M’s reliever Thyago Vieira. Michael Kopech was a Red Sox prospect who garnered a lot of attention for throwing 100 and being a much more advanced pitcher than seemed fair. In high A last year, Kopech made 11 starts, spanning 52 innings, yielding just 25 hits and whiffing 82. That’s someone who needs a new challenge. Like Vieira, he was pushed to the Arizona Fall League, where he averaged 98.4 MPH on his four-seam. Yes, that’s a tick or two slower than Vieira, but remember: Kopech’s a starter.

The White Sox acquired him in the big Chris Sale deal, and if you’d heard of him before then, it was probably due to the story circulating that he hit 105 MPH with a pitch in the Carolina league. He’s also now in an organization that’s shown a remarkable ability to reduce pitcher attrition and DL trips. He’s still just 20 and hasn’t hit AA yet, but he’s certainly someone to watch.

So why’s he ranked “just” the 36th best prospect by BP? Two things: first, he has a tendency to walk people. It’s not dire, but he doesn’t have pinpoint command, and that runs his pitch counts up. Second, and much more importantly, many scouts and observers have him ticketed for the bullpen. That’s why this year’s so important. If he can shoulder a starter’s workload this year (his career high in IP came this year, at just 78), and if the Sox keep him healthy, he’s got a good shot at shooting up the rankings for next year. The Sox picked up a number of high-ceiling arms, including top 10 arm Lucas Giolito, but Kopech may end the year as the biggest “get” in the Sox rebuild.

The game’s in Glendale, which means there won’t be an pitch fx. However, it IS a Trackman ballpark, so hopefully that gets pushed to Gameday, and that the broadcasters can give us some information about how hard Felix and Kopech are throwing.

1: Gamel, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Vogelbach, 1B
6: Haniger, RF
7: Ruiz, C
8: Heredia, LF
9: O’Malley, 3B

Sooooo, Yovani Gallardo…. how about that?

Dylan Unsworth is in the clubhouse for this one, along with fellow non-40-man guys Andrew Moore, Jean Machi and UW product Braden Bishop.

What to Make of Jean Segura

February 27, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

About a week ago (I know – I’m slow), Bob Dutton of the News Tribune had a great article on Jean Segura and his strange path to both a breakout 2016 campaign and then to the M’s in perhaps the most critical trade in recent memory. You know the statistical story – a solid rookie campaign followed by two abysmal batting seasons before last year’s explosion. Dutton adds some detail that may partially explain this odd career trajectory, from a freak injury in 2014 to the loss of his child a few months later. On the plus side, there’s also more explanation on how he might have reinvented himself – from working with Robinson Cano in the offseason to working with Bobby Tewksbary in the D-Backs system, Segura really does seem to have changed his swing. So what now? What do you make of someone who’s been one of the worst AND one of the best hitters in recent years? Has he actually changed or merely had better luck on balls in play?

The new statcast data is still in its infancy, and we (or at least I) still don’t know how changes in statcast metrics like exit velocity impact things like actual production at the plate. But if there’s anything to this stuff at all, it should help answer the question of if and how Segura differed in 2016. I’m not going to bury the lede any more than I already have: Segura looked totally different. If you want to be optimistic, this helps. Here now I’m going to rely on that venerable blogging cliche, a table comparing Player A to Player B. Hey, it’s spring training for me too, okay?

  Exit Vel. Launch Ang. Avg. Dist.
Player A 91.6 5.4 207
Player B 87.3 6 182

In 2015, both players had statistical down years. Their launch angles were nearly half of the league average, and while they didn’t K much, they just hit the ball on the ground a bit too much. Player A hit it hard, so had a better overall line, but both were disappointments. Let’s check in on both of them last year:

  Exit Vel. Launch Ang. Avg. Dist.
Player A 90.8 11.8 217
Player B 89.9 11.5 216

The gap in exit velocity’s narrowed considerably, but it’s launch angle that’s changed the most for both players. Their average distance is up, as you’d expect since they’re hitting the ball in the air a bit more. In this case, both players exceeded their own career average production, and at least from this carefully-curated-probably-misleading view, they look like doppelgangers.

Player B, is, of course, Segura, and Player A is his off-season training partner and new teammate, Robinson Cano. Both improved markedly, and both improved in similar ways from 2015 to 2016. Segura needed to stop hitting too many ground balls, and Cano needed to get back to hitting the ball in the air more. Both accomplished those goals. Segura’s exit velocity and angle averages now compare pretty well to Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez. That’s remarkable for a guy who was one of baseball’s weakest hitters in 2015.

Segura’s launch angle and exit velocity are more or less league average now, so it’s not like he’s in the upper echelons in either metric. But for players like Segura (and Cano), you might not want to be. The launch angle leaders include guys like Kris Bryant, but also Chris Carter and Todd Frazier. There seems to be a bit of a trade-off here: you can eliminate a lot of ground balls, but you pay for it in strikeouts. Segura makes a lot of contact, so of course he’s not going to run similar numbers to Carter or Frazier – and no one would want him to. To be fair: you can be successful with the opposite strategy, as Christian Yelich and his flurry of well-struck grounders shows. But a middle infielder with league average velocity and angle numbers AND low K’s – that seems like a recipe for success.

On the other hand, you’ve got the weight of baseball history here; it’s just hard to find hitters who’ve maintained gains like we’ve just seen with Segura. There are a number of ways to look for similar batters, so I may as well start with the easiest: his BBREF list titled, uh, “similar batters.” Here’s the top 10:

1. Xander Bogaerts (938.7)
2. Alex Cintron (937.1)
3. Angel Berroa (934.4)
4. Kazuo Matsui (932.1)
5. Billy Myers (931.6)
6. Topper Rigney (926.0)
7. Andrelton Simmons (924.4)
8. DJ LeMahieu (923.4)
9. Ernie Johnson (920.4)
10. Carlos Garcia (919.3)

Xander Bogaerts is a great comp from an M’s fan point of view, but Bogaerts’ career arc looks nothing like Segura’s. He scuffled in his first full year, then got better in year 2, before improving a touch more in year 3. Bogaerts’ rise looks downright normal; an adjustment period, then age-appropriate gains after figuring things out. If that’s one template, the next two represent textbook examples of its inverse: the flashes in the pan. Alex Cintron was great in his first full season in 2003, and then played *sub-replacement-level* ball for the rest of his career. Angel Berroa was essentially the AL version of Cintron, winning the ROY in 2003 and immediately turning into a replacement-level player before fizzling out. Matsui struggled, then had a decent breakout in his early 30s, but probably isn’t a great comp here for a variety of reasons (he was much older than Segura when he first came to the US). Myers and Rigney were both D-first infielders in the 20s/30s without a Segura-esque parabolic career arc. Andrelton Simmons has simply never been a positive force at the plate. DJ LeMahieu…that’s intriguing. The Rockies 2B had 2 years that were nearly as bad as Segura’s before improving a bit in 2015 and then going nuts in 2016, leading the NL in average and posting an OPS 250 points higher than his 2014 mark.

I decided to trawl through old stats and look for players who’d gained at least 15-20 points in wRC+ from one year to the next, with an eye to players who’d also LOST ground in wRC+ before their breakout year. Here’s that list:

Alex Gordon
Trevor Plouffe
Placido Polanco
Kelly Johnson
Aaron Hill
Jose Lopez
Chone Figgins
Brandon Inge
Mike Moustakas
Junior Spivey
Marco Scutaro
Felipe Lopez
Mark Bellhorn

That’s a lot of names, so let’s break them up a bit. Inge, Spivey and Jose Lopez have some volatility in their offensive numbers, but the more you look at them, the more you see a fairly normal – if short – peak with a drop off on either side. Spivey’s peak came right when he entered the league. Inge, like Lopez, needed a while to get there, and then dropped off quickly. Felipe Lopez and Mark Bellhorn each had two good years and bunch of bad ones. Moustakas took a while to get going, and then get hurt last year, so he’s tough to use as a comp. Chone Figgins was reasonably steady in Anaheim thanks to his OBP, but then cratered in…you know what, let’s just move on.

Aaron Hill and Kelly Johnson (traded for each other in 2011) represent peak volatility, two players whose batting lines have bounced around like crazy, and producing several peaks and valleys. Hill was a glove-first SS with the Jays, before tapping into his power and raising his wRC+ by 17 points in 2007. Thanks to injuries, he cratered in 2008 before going off in 2009, hitting 36 homers and raising his wRC+ by 30 points. In 2010, it dropped again by *37*, thanks to a sub-.200 BABIP. He started well for Toronto, but after being traded to the D’Backs, he cratered again. In his first full year in the desert, though, he again established himself as an offensive force, raising his wRC+ by a staggering 56 points and holding on to some of that before cratering again (!) in 2014. It’s a strange career, is what I’m saying.

Johnson had a great first two full years in Atlanta before his own BABIP-fueled collapse in 2009. He had a huge bounce-back year in 2010, raising his wRC+ by 46 points a year after seeing it drop by 27. He struggled again with the Jays, but had a half-decent year at the plate as recently as 2015. These two players represent a cautionary tale to the idea that development is linear and smooth, or that huge gains in production represent a new skill level/baseline towards which to regress a player.

That leaves Plouffe and Gordon, two hefty corner bats with no physical or swing similarities to Segura, but whose career arcs look pretty familiar. Plouffe was drafted as a SS, but has played mostly 3B in the majors. After a dreadful start, he tapped into his power and had a decent year at the plate in 2012. He couldn’t drive the ball in 2013, but largely figured things out after that. His peaks were never as high as Segura’s, but he also never looked quite as lost as Segura did in 2014-15. Plouffe’s career is like a regressed version of Segura’s, then. There’s some hope that Segura could maintain *most* of his gains, with the recognition that there may be some down years going forward, too.

The more you look at it, the more Gordon seems like the best-case comp, which, again, is weird to say about a small middle infielder like Segura. After being one of the best college hitters in recent memory and tearing through the minors, Gordon hit poorly in his rookie year of 2007. A spike in OBP helped him easily clear the league-average mark in 2008, and seemed to set him on the path to stardom. Unfortunately, everything fell apart in 2009 and 2010, as Gordon struggled mightily at the plate, and was sent to the minors. Part of this was injury-related, as he tore a labrum in his hip in 2009 and broke his thumb in 2010, but even when he was on the field, he looked lost, with subpar power for a corner OF and what looked like a consistently low batting average. Of course, then Gordon posted a brilliant 2011, slashing .303/.376/.502 and raising his wRC+ by over 50 points from his 2009-10 average, and while he slipped back in 2012 a bit, he was a consistently above-average hitter through 2015. Yes, he collapsed again in 2016, but that’s not relevant to Segura in 2016. Gordon’s the best example in recent years of a player who was solid, then bad, then great, and managed to hold on to most of his skill improvements for a number of years.

What have he learned here? 1: It’s actually really tough to find players like Segura and Gordon, who’ve been good, then terrible at the plate, and then great. 2: As you’d expect, most players who have large improvements in their batting line regress in the next year. Many of them were good again in the year after that, but in general, there’s generally a hefty regression tax to pay. 3: We all do it, but player comparisons are necessarily limited; each player is an n of 1. 4: If you want to be pessimistic, these data would seem to support that, but there are still enough Gordons or even Marco Scutaros that suggest Segura can hold on to most of his gains.

Cactus League Game 3: Let’s See Motter

February 27, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

M’s Versus Royals

Yovani Gallardo v. Jason Vargas, 11:10pm. Radio Only. Note the earlier start time.

Yesterday, Shawn O’Malley got to make his case for the utility role, and today the M’s will get a look at newly-acquired UTIL, Taylor Motter. Both were drafted by the Rays, and both have a lot of experience in both the infield and outfield. O’Malley has the incumbent’s advantage, as the M’s staff and front office have seen him play; Scott Servais penciled his name in the starting line-up at *6* different positions last year. On the other hand, Motter is younger and shows a bit more promise with the bat, as indicated in his superior projections and minor league ISO numbers. Motter has much less big-league experience, but he too got starts at 6 different positions last year.

As position battles go, this one doesn’t matter a whole lot. With guys like Cano/Segura in the middle infield and with 5 or 6 guys capable of playing CF already on the roster, you could make the case that this role is LESS important to the M’s than it is to just about any other club. That said, it could be a window into how the M’s make roster decisions and what they value. Taylor Motter’s projections show a player ever so slightly better at controlling the strike zone, but O’Malley is probably the better defender.

Today, Yovani Gallardo makes his first start with the M’s. The trade Jerry Dipoto made to acquire him was panned by most saber-inclined fans. Gallardo’s coming off his worst year as a pro, and after missing time with scary-sounding shoulder pain, you don’t have to be a pessimist to see how this year could go south on him. On the other hand, he recovered after a slow start, and was averaging 91 on his fastball down the stretch, up from 87+ in April. He missed 6 weeks in May/June to recuperate and work on things in the minors, so he may be healthier/more mechanically sound now than he was a year ago. But while he was throwing harder in July/August last year, he was not necessarily throwing better. His walk rate spiked after his return, and while it too was better down the stretch, it highlights the fact that there are multiple red flags with Gallardo. A lot of people are going to be scrutinizing Gallardo this spring, and for good reason.

It’s February, so the temptation to over-analyze is huge, but the M’s rotation is so intriguing, you pretty much can’t help it. James Paxton spent 6 weeks in Tacoma last year, and came up looking unrecognizable – throwing 100, different arm-slot, etc. Felix Hernandez just had his worst season, and spent the offseason working harder than he’s ever worked. Drew Smyly is talented, but coming off a down year and his fourth consecutive increase in HR rate. As a group, there’s a tremendous amount of talent and upside here. There’s also a lot of risk…I mean, even more than you’d have with 5 random pitchers.

I mentioned yesterday that the pitch FX readings on Chris Heston may be more important than for most, as he’s continuing his recovery from TJ surgery. It’s still February, but his old velocity wasn’t back, as he peaked at 89 and averaged about 88. He pitched well, so this isn’t a damning indictment of his 2017 chances, but poring over his numbers has another benefit. As I’ve mentioned many times, Peoria’s pitch FX system is miscalibrated, and has been for years. It seems to be reasonably good for velocity, but the movement numbers frequently take on a surrealistic quality. Sometimes, the natural movement is greatly exaggerated, and you’ll see pitchers throwing fastballs with 20″ to 2 feet of vertical movement. Yesterday, though, Heston threw a slider that went 79mph, had essentially no horizontal movement (so far so slider-y) but 13″ of vertical rise, far more than his average fastball. This is incredibly nerdy, and I apologize to those who’ve read this far, but let me be clear: that pitch is impossible. You can’t throw a pitch that slow with movement like that. But, noting that this pitch does not exist, I’m wondering if we might need to invent it. Some readers might point out that it looks suspiciously like a slow Chris Young fastball; a Chris Young 45 played at 33rpm. That’s true, but as the pitch slows down, gravity has more time to work on pulling it towards the ground. To maintain Young-like rise with 5-6mph off the velocity requires a lot more spin. Ok, ok: long story short: I know it isn’t real, but I would love to see this inverted splitter thing in the wild.

Today’s batting order:
1: Dyson, LF
2: Segura, SS
3: Seager, 3B
4: Valencia, 1B
5: Haniger, RF
6: Zunino, C
7: Motter, 2B
8: Marlette, DH
9: Martin, CF
SP: Gallardo

It’s good to see 2011 draft pick and perpetual marc w fave Tyler Marlette get a look early in camp. Like most of the org, he had a dreadful 2015 and seemed at risk of losing his roster spot, but improved markedly in 2016. He capped it off with a stint in the Arizona Fall League. The catcher figures to start with AA Arkansas this year.

It’s easy to be cynical about Spring Training, pointing out that the stats aren’t predictive, lamenting injury risk, and looking out at a field full of org depth and A-ball prospects by the 6th inning, but M’s prospect Dylan Unsworth provides an antidote in this video from his twitter feed. In it, the 24 year old righty from Durban, SA speaks about his excitement at being called up to his first big league spring training game. Note: he did not play in the game, and we’re still talking about ST, but he got to be in the locker room with Felix, Cano, Seager, etc. While I imagine it can be easy to focus on small improvements and take joy in each promotion, I bet toiling away in the minors can seem pointless at times. A sisyphean torture, in which the high draft pick with worse stats gets the promotion. Every no-bat catcher you’ve ever seen gets to be in big league camp while you strike out this year’s crop of 19-year old Arizona League hackers. I hadn’t imagined, but should of, what it would mean to walk across the parking lot and suit up with the big league club, even just once or twice. The sense of validation, the sense of acknowledgement. The fact that the pre-game spread might actually fill you up and not sink your per-diem might help, too, but maaan. To leave your home, try to make it in baseball while learning a new culture, trying to shut out everyone who’s telling you it’s pointless and you’ll never make it…spring training kind of validated itself the other day. Good luck, Sharkie.

Cactus League Game 2: Position Battle edition

February 26, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

Chris Heston v. Zach Lee, 12:10pm

Yesterday’s game featured a line-up that looked pretty much like opening day’s. That’s cool and all, but it doesn’t tell us a whole lot. Or rather, the utility of seeing Segura hit in front of Cano is balanced by injury concerns. None of those guys are fighting for a job, so it’s just about getting their timing right and giving those of us who’ve missed baseball a sneak preview. For the record, they look good.

Today, though, is different. With Jarrod Dyson on the club, they may not have room on the opening day club for Ben Gamel. Shawn O’Malley’s bid to hold on to the utility spot will get a big challenge from Taylor Motter. Tyler O’Neill’s a long shot to make the club, but he has *a* shot. And as mentioned yesterday, Chris Heston has a lot to prove to get the inside track on the 6th rotation spot. With more time passed since his TJ rehab, we can actually learn something about his arm strength today, too. If he’s still near 88, that’s not great. Above 90, and the M’s may have something.

Zach Lee toiled for Tacoma last year, but it was the worst year in a pro career plagued by inconsistency and mediocrity. His arsenal isn’t as important as the fact that betters hit everything he throws hard. Would a piggy-back rotation help? I don’t know, and would think even the Pads have better candidates for that, but with his prospect pedigree, some player development staff will always give it a chance. If there’s one pitcher who desperately needs a velocity-gain off-season program, it’s Lee.

1: Gamel, RF
2: Valencia, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Ruiz, C
6: O’Neill, LF
7: Freeman, 3B
8: Heredia, CF
9: O’Malley, 3B
SP: Heston

Cactus League Game 1: It Begins

February 25, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

I’m still not in regular season shape, so some articles on Segura and others will have to wait, but…seriously, there’s a Mariner game on today.

How do I do this again? Oh yeah, that’s right:
M’s “at” Padres
Ariel Miranda vs. Paul Clemens, 12:10pm

It’s not just the M’s, but there’s something comfortable about kicking off the spring with a guy desperately pitching for a job. Erasmo Ramirez did this a few years ago, and ended up winning one…in Tampa. Last year, it was Nate Karns, who went first in a duel with James Paxton for the 5th rotation spot. In a series of events that highlight that spring training means little and that baseball is unpredictable, Karns won that battle, sending the pitcher that many N’s fans consider the team’s ace to AAA to start the year (and gain several MPH on his fastball).

This year, there’s no big competition. Barring injury, the rotation’s set, and all Miranda can do is demonstrate stuff that might play well out of the bullpen or lay claim to the first starter called up from Tacoma. THAT battle is actually going to be pretty intense, with Miranda, Chris Heston and ex-Athletic Dillon Overton all decent 6th-7th starters with a dash of upside.

That’s not completely irrelevant – depth matters – but it’s perhaps not appointment television. And hey, the game is not on TV at all, so…problem solved. (It’s on 710am for those in the Seattle area.) At least for today, the pitching match up will take a back seat to seeing this new-look M’s line up in action. Can Dan Vogelbach play a credible 1B? Is Jean Segura a (permanently) changed hitter? How about this Haniger fellow? Today we get our first, fleeting, often misleading, glimpse at the 2017 Mariners. May the pain of our fandom be different this year; perhaps even constructive.

As usual, the M’s open with stadium-mates, the San Diego Padres. Between a huge sell-off, front office penalties and a reputation for a non-traditional take on rules and ethics, the Padres are in trouble in 2017. Yes, they have a nice farm system, but that’s been true for a while. Unfortunate trades and some player development hiccups left them in bad shape last year, and realistically, they’re not much better in 2017.

As a case in point, ex-Astros journeyman/replacement level hurler Paul Clemens takes the mound today. The righty throws a tailing fastball and a high-spin curve, but hasn’t been able to carve out a real MLB role thus far. His big problem has been the long ball, and since nearly all of them have come off fastballs, it’s better to say that his big problem is his heater. Despite some mildly interesting movement, righties seem to see it really well and habitually bully the pitch. His curve is fine, maybe even good, but he doesn’t (yet) pitch off of it like Rich Hill.

Maybe in an effort to make it more sinker-y, he dropped his arm slot last year. That makes sense, given his particular symptoms, but it didn’t really work: righties still hit him, and if he gave up fewer HRs, well, Petco probably played a role.

This year, the bereft-of-pitching Padres are considering a piggy-back rotation with a number of pitchers working a few innings before giving way to a reliever working a few more. The similarly-barren Rockies tried it – unsuccessfully – in 2012, but it makes some sense for a team that realistically can’t match up to its opponents’ starting pitching. If you can’t beat ’em at their game, change the game sufficiently that you…well, I don’t know exactly. It’s not like their bullpen’s great either. And their problem last year wasn’t so much pitchers tiring and getting hit the 2nd/3rd time through the line up- they got hammered in the first inning. In any event, it’ll be interesting to see if they do implement this strategy, and what it’ll mean for guys like Clemens.

The initial line up:
1: Dyson, LF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Haniger, RF
7: Vogelbach, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Martin, CF
SP: Miranda

Go M’s! Stretch properly! Nobody get hurt!

2017 Projections Time

February 15, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 5 Comments 

Sorry for the posting drought; I’d say it won’t happen again, but you know by now that I can’t promise that. It’s that quiet-before-the-storm portion of the off-season, where we get furtive glimpses of pitchers stretching, or dudes in t-shirts swinging bats. The big moves have mostly all happened now (though there are some surprisingly big names still waiting for a call), and thus we know the basic contours of each club in the AL West.

I ran a similar post to this one exactly one year ago, and a few things stand out about the view from February, 2016. First, beyond the win/loss estimates, the projections biggest “miss” was the run environment of 2016. The first thing that jumps off the page about the 2017 projections is that the runs scored/allowed numbers are all bigger – we’d all become somewhat accustomed to the depressed scoring environment of 2010-2014 or so, so it’s not a shock that the projections came in low. The average AL club scored just 677 runs in 2014. Last year, that figure was 731. The key driver was the explosion in home runs, a fact that won’t come as a shock to anyone who watched the 2016 M’s. This is probably a big reason why the parity that all the projections saw never really materialized – the AL schedule wasn’t a series of 3-2 and 4-3 games, so teams that excelled at clubbing the ball differentiated themselves a bit from the pack. That was a big reason the M’s not only beat the low estimates of their 2016 win total, but overcame some truly awful defense and baserunning – two factors that would’ve been more important in a low scoring environment.

The second thing, and again, this may be in part a product of more scoring, is that parity’s gone. Last year, the projections had four of the five AL West teams within 5 wins of each other. Cairo thought that’d be between 76-81 or so, while Davenport thought they’d be bunched between 83-87, but fundamentally, the division (and the league as a whole) was tightly bunched. This, far more than the individual team win numbers, turned out to be wrong. As I mentioned during the season, the systems essentially “got” the M’s, with Fangraphs 84-win projection two wins low, and Davenport’s 87 one win high. The “miss” was what those win totals would mean for their playoff odds. 86 wins in a league where no one won 90 would be one thing, but as it happened, 86 wins was only the 7th-best record in the league, and resulted in another year without a playoff appearance. That big clump of teams clustered around .500 is gone in 2017, with the Astros projected to win at least 90 games in nearly every system, and 97 in Clay Davenport’s. Fangraphs has 3 90 win-or-better clubs, in Houston, Boston and Cleveland. PECOTA has the same three, albeit in a different order. That also means there are more “bad” teams, with clubs like Baltimore and Kansas City tumbling below 80 wins.

Sticking with the AL West, here are how Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA, Clay Davenport’s projections and the Vegas over/under line shake out for 2017:

Mariners 83 87 89 85.5
Astros 90 94 97 87.5
Angels 84 78 80 76.5
Athletics 77 75 79 66.5
Rangers 84 84 84 86.5

(FG=Fangraphs, PEC=PECOTA, DAV=Clay Davenport and Vegas=over/under betting line)
Unlike in past years, there are some considerable disagreements concerning the order of teams. The Astros are always first, but BP and Davenport both have the M’s as the clear runner-up, while Fangraphs has them 4th, barely behind Texas and Anaheim. The betting line follows PECOTA and Davenport, perhaps weighting each team’s 2016 record a bit more heavily*. PECOTA, Davenport and the CAIRO system are all in broad agreement about the M’s offense, and while there’s a bit more disagreement, on the run-prevention unit as well. In each of these systems, the M’s produce between about 60-75 runs. Fangraphs is the most pessimistic on both sides of the ball, producing a run differential of just 21, which accounts for their low projected win total.

The degree of agreement about the offense (Fangraphs aside) is striking and admittedly exciting. The M’s look better to me vis a vis their peers as a result from having dove into this than I’d thought. Some of this is the result of improved projections for the M’s core players like Nelson Cruz (whose 3-year run is remarkable, and serves as a counterweight to the aging penalties the projections will assess him) and Kyle Seager, whose breakout year boosts his projected slugging percentage. The team’s starting pitching is more of a question mark, but PECOTA gives them a big assist from their defenders. PECOTA’s team fielding runs above average metric sees the M’s as far and away the class of MLB. They’re projected to save 46 runs above average, and no other team is even in the 30s. The M’s are *18 runs* better than the 2nd best team (the Dodgers), and 26 runs above 2nd place in the division (the Astros). That’s helpful, but even with Jarrod Dyson in the fold, I’m going to take the under on that. Still, the improved defense is one reason why the projections don’t see the back of the rotation and the 6-8th starters as a black hole – they’ll give up fewer runs than they ought to.

The M’s depth is a strength overall, I’d say, with Danny Valencia, Guillermo Heredia and team-favorite Andrew Moore all looking surprisingly solid. The same’s true of some of the rookies the M’s will depend upon if they’re going to challenge Houston, namely Mitch Haniger and Dan Vogelbach. While the playing-time projections are really hard for the rotation (Iwakuma and Paxton could throw 100IP each or 200IP each, and it wouldn’t really shock anyone), it’s encouraging that they have a bit of depth in Moore, Dillon Overton, Chris Heston and Rob Whalen. None of those guys is great, but given the M’s struggles in avoiding line-up or rotation black holes, it’s nice to have options in case Yovani Gallardo face-plants again or if Paxton’s injury problems return.

* This probably accounts for what looks like, on paper, as the biggest gap between expected team strength and the betting line. Oakland’s (admittedly early) over/under total of 66.5 is 12.5 wins below their Davenport win total and over 8 wins below their most pessimistic projection.