Game 26, Mariners at Indians

April 30, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

Chase de Jong vs. Josh Tomlin, 10:10am

The M’s have a chance to steal a road series against one of the AL’s best teams and turn what could’ve been a disastrous road trip into a sign of hope. After losing the first three in Oakland, the M’s awoke last Sunday morning in last place and sporting the AL’s second-worst record. A win that day and then a series win in Detroit – coupled with the Astros cooling off a bit – has changed things, if only slightly. The M’s offense looks much different now, even after facing some tough pitching on the trip.

Injuries mean that their starting pitching really needs to step up, and thus in this game that probably feels a bit more pivotal than it is, the M’s give the ball to Chase de Jong, who’ll make his first big league start. The righty’s four-seam fastball is arrow-straight, and with a bit more rise than usual. His primary breaking ball is an intriguing slurvy slider, that’s thrown at 81 MPH, just 9 MPH less than his fastball, but which features almost 12-6, curve-like break. The vertical break on it would seem to pair well with his fastball, and he’s got an actual curve that’s a bit slower to further change batters’ eye level. He has a change-up with armside run, but he hasn’t used it much; we’ll see if he goes to it today when he’s facing batters a second time.

His MLB sample is tiny, but de Jong’s not going to strike a ton of batters out. His fastball command’s been so-so, and he’s yet to record a swinging strike with it (at 90 MPH and straight, it’s never going to be a swing-and-miss pitch), but he’s generated surprisingly few with his slider. He’s not doomed or anything, as he’s actually posted some decent results in Tacoma and in his four-inning long relief appearance…I’m just still trying to figure out exactly how he’s done so.

His opponent today is control expert Josh Tomlin. Armed with a fastball even slower than de Jong’s, Tomlin’s succeeded by keeping the ball low and away to righties and lefties. This has transformed him a bit from a Blake Beavan clone in his early years (2011-2012) – a guy who’d post vanishingly low K rates and BB rates, but who’d give up plenty of fly balls and home runs – to a ground ball pitcher these days.

Unlike many pitchers, Tomlin seems to change not just his pitch mix from year to year, but also the shape of each pitch. In 2014, his fastball got well over a standard deviation more than the average ‘rise.’ Last year, as if adapting to his new game plan, it has *less* vertical movement than average. He’s also gone from pitching off his fastball and using a cutter as his breaking ball to essentially using his 85 MPH cutter as his primary fastball, and mixing in sinkers and curves along with it. At the same time, he’s transformed his platoon splits. Early in his career, they were normal, or perhaps a bit exaggerated, as lefties hit him much harder than righties. For the past several *years* this pattern’s essentially reversed, and now it’s righties that have done more damage. A command-and-control righty that targets the outside of the zone may seem like an awful match-up for Taylor Motter, but the splits have me wondering. The M’s appear to be banking on this being small sample weirdness, and have their lefty-heavy line-up in there today.

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Heredia, CF
7: Vogelbach, 1B
8: Ruiz, C
9: Powell, LF
SP: “Tasty” Chase de Jong

Congratulations to Boog Powell, now up with the team and forcing the M’s bullpen back down to a more normal 7 players. Powell made his MLB debut yesterday…kind of. He was announced as a pitch hitter, which induced Terry Francona to summon Andrew Miller from the pen. That in turn resulted in Scott Servais pulling Boog back and pinch-hitting Chooch Ruiz. As Powell was announced, he wasn’t eligible to play in the game again, and had his name written in the box score…he just didn’t…you know…DO anything. Today, he’ll get that chance. As always, he has a very discriminating eye at the plate, and has drawn walks wherever he’s been (when he’s not suspended, that is). The actual hit tool is a bit more of a work in progress, as he’s hit in the mid .260’s with very little power in about 325 PCL plate appearances in 2016-17.

Plate discipine is a good thing, and swinging at balls generally leads to horrible results for the batter. But there’s selectivity and then there’s passivity, and for too long, Ben Gamel seemed like he was tipping over the line into being passive. As a guy without much demonstrated power, he was going to need to avoid Ks to make it as a corner OF, and the number of taken strikes was killing him. That looks like it’s changing over the past week, and that’s very encouraging.

On the other side, Dan Vogelbach still looks lost. He’s swinging at less than 40% of pitches he sees, which means he’s not swinging at too many balls (other than that 3rd strike against Allen yesterday). But a so-so contact rate and a low rate of swinging at *strikes* mean that he’s been behind in counts and looking out of sorts. He’s better than this, but it’s been a very rough go in the majors for him, and with both Valencia and now Motter able to play 1B, he needs to turn things around fairly quickly, or the M’s will send him back to AAA.

Tacoma jumped on Sacramento early in a 7-4 win yesterday at Cheney stadium. Tyler Smith, Mike Freeman and Dario Pizzano all homered, and Orlando Calixte homered twice for the RiverCats…wind must’ve been blowing out last night. Tyler Smith, now up in the 2nd spot in the line-up, has his OBP up to .372. Emilio Pagan had 4 Ks in 2 perfect innings, and is positioning himself to be the next guy up. He’s not on the 40 man, but if Casey Fien loses his grip on the line-up spot again, they may give his spot to Pagan, who has 18 strikeouts in 11 innings. Chris Heston starts today against one of the Giants top pitching prospects, Tyler Beede.

Arkansas was rained out yesterday. It’s a great pitching match-up as Max Povse faces off with Jack Flaherty.

Modesto lost a heartbreaker 5-3, after giving up 4 runs in the 8th to Visalia. Anthony Misiewicz pitched well, but Joe Pistorese had his first real meltdown of the year, giving up 3 of those runs in the 8th. Braden Bishop singled in the game, and has a slash line of .330/.410/.440.

Clinton, too, was rained out. Double header today in Clinton against Quad Cities.

Game 25, Mariners at Indians

April 29, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

Yovani Gallardo vs. Danny Salazar, 1:10pm

Great win yesterday with the M’s 4th/5th starter on the mound. That had to give the M’s some hope heading into this one.

Felix Hernandez was diagnosed with bursitis in his shoulder…he’s expected to be back in 3-4 weeks. That’s the time frame for Mitch Haniger’s return as well.

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Heredia, LF
8: Zunino, C
9: Dyson, CF
SP: Gallardo

Game 24, Mariners at Indians, plus Hisashi Iwakommentary

April 28, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 24 Comments 

Ariel Miranda vs. Carlos Carrasco, 4:10pm

The Mariners got a much-needed series win on the road in an at times frustrating, but ultimately very encouraging win yesterday in Detroit. Hisashi Iwakuma outdueled Justin Verlander, and while the M’s bats scuffled occasionally, they got a timely hit in the 9th to win 2-1.

So was Iwakuma’s velocity mostly back, the way it was (according to the data we have) in his previous start? Well, no, it wasn’t. Instead, Iwakuma was able to consistently avoid big innings and loud contact. Even without his “old” fastball, this was Kuma’s first start of the year without allowing a home run. Critics, and I remain terrified each time he starts, point to his sky-high FIP and abysmal K:BB ration. The M’s will no doubt point to the fact that he hasn’t allowed all that many runs to score.

Whether or not that’s sustainable, it’s worth remembering that when Kuma was at his best, he always looked average-ish by FIP. Kuma’s game is built on beating his fielding-independent measures, so maybe the fact that his FIP screams “not major league quality” isn’t the final word on the subject. Specifically, Kuma’s posted a very good strand rate over his career, and while it dipped in recent years, it’s currently right back where it was in his 2012-13 heyday. Sure, at 84 MPH, we can expect that to perhaps decline a bit, but the point is that he’s beating his FIP in the exact same way he always has.

But if that’s true, why are some of his key stats so different? One of the reasons he was so effective was his sterling control and K:BB ratio. Now, by both of those measures, he’s among baseball’s worst starters. It seems odd to hang your optimism on his strand rate’s consistency if everything else about him is different. So, I decided to see if Iwakuma was locating differently, and perhaps targeting the edges of the strike zone. At a much lower velocity, he’s going to get fewer swings and misses, but maybe if he locates well, he can induce crappy contact.

The new Statcast database has expanded their strikezone…uh, zones beyond the old 14-zone grid used in the Gameday app. The new set includes more than 20 zones, with a set that defined as a ball’s width on either side of the strikezone border. That is, pitches on the edge (and just off) of the zone. My guess was that Kuma was throwing more pitches here, and perhaps getting more balls called on them. What do the data say? Nope, that’s not it. Iwakuma’s nothing special in terms of hitting the edge of the zone, and he’s worse than average by exit velocity when batters contact such pitches. He hasn’t really been punished for it, but that’s not what’s driving his runs-allowed success.

A little while ago, I mentioned this Jeff Sullivan article about Dallas Keuchel, and how the sinkerballer who’s always targeted the low strike is now throwing pretty much nothing but low pitches. If Iwakuma’s results are the product of a strategy, it’s the Keuchel strategy. Kuma’s throwing nearly everything low, including a lot of pitches well below the edge of the zone. You can see this in his plate discipline numbers at Fangraphs. By the Pitch FX-based zone, his zone% has dropped nearly 10 percentage points from last year. It’s as if he got burned by staying too MUCH in the zone, and has taken the opposite tack this year: he’s going to try and make you elevate really low pitches, and expand the zone southward to try and get poor contact. As we’ve seen this year and last year, at his velocity and level of command, he’s not getting ground balls even with this strategy – Keuchel throwing 90 with good command can do this, while Iwakuma throwing at 84 with meh command can’t. But while this strategy has greatly increased his walk rate, his BABIP is still pretty good (another strength of Iwakuma’s since his first day in the US). Despite decent exit velocity and angles (ie., batters aren’t just topping all of these low pitched), it’s still somewhat hard to do real damage on them. The grounders that batters HAVE hit have been anemic, which has made his BABIP on grounders astoundingly good. While they’ve hit fly balls hard, the distribution is skewed by the 6 HRs he’s already allowed. He’s induced quite a few in the “donut hole” area: 90 MPH hits that are elevated are some of the easiest balls in play to turn into outs. The HRs will be a part of his game now, even more than they already were. If his command increases a bit and he can limit walks, then while I don’t think he’ll be a GOOD starter, he can be a very odd #4-#5.

Given the drop in velocity and the fact that slower pitches are more affected by gravity, it’s worth considering that this apparent change in approach isn’t a conscious strategy, but rather the result of applying physics to his OLD approach. If that were true, we’d see his zone% increase and his walks decrease as he learned to adjust for his slower fastballs. Something to look for in his next few starts. I’ve made a bunch of claims here about statcast but haven’t linked to it; I did some research yesterday, but I tried to re-run it and link it now and none of the queries run. Uhhh, trust me, or better yet, wait until his next start and hopefully I’ll have links and pictures.

Today’s game looks like a mismatch on paper, with Ariel Miranda facing off against one of the Indians’ best starters, Carlos Carrasco. Carrasco’s been using the ol’ Iwakuma method to succeed this year, with a sky-high strand rate and low BABIP. Unlike Kuma, though, neither has ever really been a strength of his. His career ERA’s over his career FIP thanks to a poor career strand rate and average BABIP, but it must be nice to see how the other half live this April. His repertoire actually looks like a super-charged version of Iwakuma’s: he has a four-seamer without a ton of rise, but which comes in at 94, a sinker with plenty of horizontal/arm-side run, and then a change with very good vertical drop. He also throws a lot of sliders, and then has a curve that’s not that great, but gives batters a different look. The gap in vertical and horizontal movement from his change to his sinker look very much like Iwakuma’s…they’re just both thrown much harder.

Another way in which Carrasco’s struggled at times is that he hasn’t been able to make that change-up solve his platoon split issues. They were always a problem for him before his mid-career renaissance in Cleveland, but after a few years in which he seemed to have “solved” them, they’re back. They’re not overwhelming or anything, but lefties have fared better, while he continues to dominate righties. This is a day for the disappointing-so-far Dan Vogelbach to make his presence felt.

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Motter, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Heredia, LF
7: Vogelbach, DH
8: Zunino, C
9: Dyson, CF
SP: Miranda

Tacoma had a rain-shortened game in Tacoma that featured the return of CF Leonys Martin. Steve Nelson and I debated the likelihood of Martin sticking in the org, and I have to tip my cap here: Steve was totally right. I’ll admit I’m still surprised, but it may be the M’s want another crack at “fixing” Martin more than they want salary relief. Anyway, Martin went 0-2 with 2 Ks and a walk, while Mike Freeman had the only 2 hits of the night for Tacoma. How’d Tacoma win 4-0 on just a pair of singles? Walks. Lots of walks. The R’s got 2 bases-loaded walks plus a bases-loaded wild pitch in the 2nd off of Ricky Romero, whose Blass disease recurred. Christian Bergman continued his run as one of the most effective starters in the PCL with 5 scoreless. Ryan Weber starts for Tacoma tonight against Michael Roth at Cheney Stadium.

Tulsa beat Arkansas 6-3 as the Drillers jumped on Lindsey Caughel for 4 runs early and held on. Ian Miller doubled and Ryan Casteel homered for the Travs, who got 2/3 of an IP from Steve Cishek. The Drillers bullpen was excellent, tossing 4 IP of scoreless baseball with 8 Ks and just 1 walk. Andrew Moore starts tonight as the Travs open a series in Springfield. Speaking of Cishek, this was his first time pitching in back to back games, generally a last test before recall. Today, though, the M’s transferred his rehab to Tacoma, suggesting he has some more work to do. We’ll see. (Hat tip: Bob Dutton of the News Tribune).

Modesto shut out Inland Empire 6-0 behind a great game from prospect Nick Neidert. The Georgian went 5 IP, giving up 2 hits and 2 walks while striking out 5. Braden Bishop and Gianfranco Wawoe both had two hits, and Donny Walton homered. Joe DeCarlo is back in the Cal League for Modesto, but that supposed position switch we heard about in the spring, where the erstwhile 3B was going to catch? Yeah, that’s not happening. He’s made a number of starts this year, but has donned the tools of ignorance in none of them -:Edit: Oops, reader Lailoken notes that De Carlo got a start behind the plate on 4/25. He’s played 5 games; 1 at C, 2 at DH, and 2 at 3B. It may not be that the pos. switch is entirely off, but it’s not really on, either. Pablo Lopez starts tonight against Visalia, the team he posted his first good start of the year against 5 days ago.

Clinton doubled up on Quad Cities 10-5, posting a 9 run 3rd inning in the process. Ljay Newsome struck out 8 in 5 innings, giving up 3 hits and 2 runs. Newsome now has a K:BB ratio of 30:1 on the year, which is unsurprisingly one of the league’s best. Two Lake County Captains hurlers, Shane Bieber and Aaron Civale, have 28:1 and 25:2 marks, but both are college draft picks and thus older than Newsome. Jon Duplantier’s 28:4 mark is great, but again, he’s a relatively high draft pick from Rice, not a 26th-rounder out of a northern state HS. Among 20-21 year olds with similar marks, I can only find Sam McWilliams of Kane County, who’s repeating the league, and Jesus Castillo of Burlington, an IFA out of Venezuela in the Angels system, who also had a month or two in the MWL last year. Their ratios are 20:1 and 22:2, respectively. Anyway, tough test tonight, as Danny Garcia leads the L-Kings against Quad Cities and Astros top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley.

Game 23, Mariners at Tigers – Thank You, Big Maple

April 27, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Justin Verlander, 10:10am

Not going to spend a long time on this one, as the tarp’s on the field and it may not happen, but the M’s go for a series win today following yesterday’s command performance by James Paxton.

Paxton tossed 103 pitches, 74 of which were fastballs. The heater averaged 97, generated 12 swinging strikes, and essentially gave the Tigers no chance. Paxton’s cutter is really rounding into shape these days. I think that pitch more than any other benefited from Paxton’s lower release point, and now its vertical movement has more separation from his fastball. His curve’s fine, but it almost feels unnecessary at this point. Paxton’s velo and command are just overwhelming teams right now.

Iwakuma’s velo and command are NOT overwhelming right now, but his uptick in his last start was a very encouraging sign. I think everyone’s going to be looking at gameday if this game ends up getting played.

Justin Verlander’s off to a poor start, walking a bunch of people and getting hit harder than he has since 2014. Let’s hope that continues today.

1: Segura, SS
2: Motter, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Gamel, RF
7: Heredia, LF
8: Ruiz, C
9: Dyson, CF
SP: Iwakuma

Game 22, Mariners at Tigers

April 26, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 15 Comments 

James Paxton vs. Daniel Norris, 4:10pm

It’s been a rough 24 hours. The M’s gave up 19 runs in Comerica as Felix and then Chris Heston and Evan Marshall imploded. The M’s then lost their best hitter thus far, Mitch Haniger, to an apparent oblique injury that he’ll fly back to Seattle tonight to have evaluated. And, worst of all, Felix Hernandez has been placed on the DL with “shoulder tightness” and “dead arm” after tossing a couple of lackluster innings. Felix is the beating heart of the team, or rather, of M’s fandom. At this point, it’s pretty obvious that there are better players on the team, however you want to measure that, and that he hasn’t been among the game’s elite pitchers for a couple of years. But M’s fans are scared right now. Felix has, almost singlehandedly, justified mental energy spent on the M’s. His personality, his approach on the mound, the way he threw himself into Seattle and this region – he was the return on our collective investment.

I have no idea what will come of the inevitable tests on his right shoulder, but I’ve found comfort in the fact that I’ve felt like this before. It was April 18th, 2007. Felix came into that season off of a disappointing 2006 in which his dominating stuff produced less-than-dominating results. HRs and high BABIP led to too many big innings, but we all knew what he was capable of. That April, he showed us. He struck out 13 in 8 utterly dominating shutout innings against Oakland on opening day, and then in what became a defining game for him, he upstaged Daisuke Matsuzaka on his home debut, one-hitting Boston in a CG masterpiece. If you were around the M’s blogosphere then, you remember the feeling. Jeff Sullivan, then at Lookout Landing, was AT that game at Fenway, and all of us were going nuts as we watched Felix ascend the throne and make his nickname (which many other fans began to use pejoratively in 2006) manifest and obvious. And then came the 18th, his next start. It was at home against the Twins, and he looked off immediately. He was getting hit, and then couldn’t find the zone. After two straight walks, the trainers came out, and his day was done after just 1/3 of an inning. Later that night and the next day, we heard why: Felix experienced pain in his right elbow, and was placed on the disabled list. I was certain the TJ surgery was being scheduled. The M’s later said he’d be reevaluated and could come off the DL in May, but it seemed too improbable, and unbelievable from a team that suffered a wave of pitching arm injuries. An entire fan base tensed up for a blow that never came. Felix wasn’t quite Felix the rest of that year, but he was healthy, and made the leap to superstardom soon enough. I’m feeling today a lot of what I felt on April 19th, 2007, and the only thing making it easier is knowing that I was completely wrong the last time I thought the worst about an injury to El Cartelua.

The M’s game in Detroit takes on a very different feel now, and there are already articles discussing a potential rebuild. As we’ve talked about, that’s simply not an option for the M’s. Their core is older and signed to long-term contracts that, while they wouldn’t scare teams off, reduce the potential return. The farm system was raided to bring in the complementary pieces on this club. There’s not much help on the farm right now, as Felix’s rotation spot will be filled for the moment by Chase de Jong. This is the greatest test of the team’s vaunted culture. If they can stay positive and competitive now, then their work on a loose, positive clubhouse enviroment will have been one of the best investments in the club in years. If not, then the old sabermetric notion that wins produce a positive culture much more than a positive culture produces wins will get more supporting evidence.

James Paxton starts today in, what, his third must-win, please-don’t-let-us-down game of the year already? The M’s have loaded a ton of expectations on Paxton’s shoulders, and now they’ll load plenty more as Paxton’s going to have to pitch like an ace all year and hope the patched-together rotation keeps the team afloat. The loss of Haniger may be just as problematic, as the team has plenty of reasonably athletic corner OFs, but none with Haniger’s demonstrated ability at the plate. In the short-medium term, Taylor Motter simply becomes an OF full time. Kyle Seager’s scheduled to be back from his hip issue tomorrow, and thus the infield’s back to full strength. Ben Gamel’s up as the team’s best RF defender now, but Motter can play LF and move Heredia either to spot-starting in CF, or to RF when the M’s face a lefty. Gamel starts today, but we’ll see what the M’s do once Motter’s pushed to the OF.

Daniel Norris is a lefty who’s taken a while to make it in the big leagues. He throws 94, and has a good slider/change-up, but HRs and command problems made his results more mediocre than his talent would indicate. He shook that off last year after spending much of the year in the minors, returning to post a well above-average K rate and K-BB% in 13 starts. Despite the lefty velocity, he doesn’t have strong platoon splits; this isn’t a game where you’d want to get righties in the line-up at all costs. His command seems a bit off again this year, as his K:BB ratio is awful thus far, and he’s throwing more balls on every pitch type. Part of this is that batters are simply swinging less; he’s never been one to get a lot of out-of-zone swings, and this year, batters’ patience has paid off.

1: Segura, SS
2: Heredia, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Motter, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Gamel, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Dyson, CF
SP: Paxton. Save us, Paxton.

The M’s predictably sent Chris Heston and Evan Marshall to AAA, and called up a new long reliever for the third time in a row. Today, it’s Dillon Overton’s turn. Joining him are Ben Gamel, and “Tasty” Chase de Jong, who’ll be slotted into Felix’s rotation spot. In a surprising move, the M’s also purchased the contract of reliever Casey Fien, whom they’d outrighted 2 weeks ago. Steve Cishek may not quite be ready, and Dan Altavilla was sent down less than 10 days ago, so they had fewer options than you’d think, but given that the move required creating a 40-man spot, they could’ve called up anyone in Tacoma. With Mark Lowe/Nick Hagadone struggling, I guess Fien sort of makes sense? I’m still a bit surprised they didn’t simply recall Altavilla. Rule 11(b)(1) prohibits a team from recalling a player within 10 days of being optioned, but there are exceptions. One of them is if another player is DL’d within that 10 day time frame. Felix’s DL trip seems like a tailor-made allowable exception to the rule. Maybe the team simply wants Altavilla to continue working with Tacoma’s coaches. It’s a mess.

Tacoma’s game yesterday was postponed, and they’ve got a travel day today.

Arkansas beat Tulsa 3-2 as Dylan Unsworth K’d 8 in 6 solid innings. Unsworth seemed poised to become the first African-born player in the majors this spring, but today the Pittsburgh Pirates called up SS Gift Ngoepe, another South African. Ngoepe’s a great story, and I’m excited for him – he’s a plus glove at SS, but not much of a hitter. Unsworth can become the second if he continues to pitch well. We’ll see if he can move back up to Tacoma given all of this roster churn. Peter Tago got the save for Arkansas; the righty whom the M’s picked up on waivers this off-season has been solid thus far. Tyler Herb and Colt Hynes face off today.

Modesto lost to IE 7-2, as the 66ers broke open a close game with 4 runs in the 9th. Reggie McClain was solid again for the Nuts, and Ricky Eusebio homered again, but Braden Bishop’s hit streak was snapped with an 0-4 night. Nathan Bannister starts today against Austin Robichaux.

Beloit shut out Clinton yesterday, as Michael Murray and Dakota Chalmers gave the Lumberkings fits. Joe Rizzo continued his hot start with a 2-4 day that actually reduced his batting average to .583. They played again today, and Clinton came back from an early 4-0 deficit and tied Beloit with 2 runs in the 9th, but then watched as the Snappers walked off with a 5-4 win on a, uh, walk-off single by “Pale Imitation Of” Edwin Diaz. Rizzo was a mere 1-4 with a 2B.

Game 21, Mariners at Tigers

April 25, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 31 Comments 

King Felix vs. Jordan Zimmermann, 4:10pm

Happy Felix Day!

The M’s take on a Tigers team that’s tied for the lead in the AL Central, and – if the projections are any guide – one of their primary rivals in the hunt for a wild card. They’ll do so with Felix on the mound against Jordan Zimmermann, the former Nat who signed a $110 million deal with Detroit to replace/upgrade the hole in their rotation left by Rick Porcello.

Zimmermann was a low-key star, a pitcher with a fastball that averaged nearly 95 and who racked up at least 3 fWAR in 5 consecutive seasons, and who’d kept his ERA and FIP under 4 while averaging 200 IP for his last 4 years in Washington DC. In his first three outings for Detroit, he tossed nearly 20 innings and didn’t give up a single run. Still, there were some warning signs: Zimmermann’s fastball was down 2 ticks, averaging just 92.4 MPH. And while his walk rate was still better than average, it was higher than his own established level of performance – Zimmermann had kept his walk rate in the vicinity of 5% for years. As the summer wore on, Zimmermann started to feel pain in his neck, and he was DL’d in July after giving up 12 runs in 9+ innings. After returning, he was still not quite the same, giving up another 12 runs in just 2 1/3 IP in 2 disastrous starts. Between bouts of ineffectiveness and trying to work his way back into game shape, he failed to pitch more than 4 IP the rest of the season. The result was a poor overall season line, with K rates far below his established average, higher walk rates, higher HR rates, and lower velocity.

It wasn’t all bad, of course, as he showed flashes of his previous self, and ultimately figured out what was bothering his neck/shoulder (a pinched nerve, apparently). But three starts in to 2017, it’s not like Zimmermann’s back to being the exceptionally steady #2/#3 he was in DC. He’s still walking people, and his K rate is stuck well below average. In DC, Zimmermann’s fastball had slightly less “rise” than most, and was thrown from a 3/4 arm slot. In Detroit, he’s moved his arm slot up, albeit very slightly. This has led to more rise, as more of the spin is back spin as opposed to side spin. There are plenty of reasons why a pitcher might want that, but the results for Zimmermann are a fastball that’s easier than ever to elevate, and one that gets fewer whiffs. In general, a fastball with more vertical movement might be expected to get MORE swinging strikes, but Zimmermann’s ceteris is not very paribus: the significantly lower velocity swamps any effect of more vertical movement (and the movement/arm slot differences are pretty minor).

Zimmermann relies on his fastball quite a bit, and also throws a slider and curve. He’s been toying with a change-up for years, and seems to be throwing more of it this year, but I don’t know if that’s just a fluke or if he has more confidence in it now. He has fairly normal platoon splits – probably a bit on the small side, actually, which is somewhat surprising for a fastball/slider guy. The M’s have their first-choice line-up in there, so hopefully they can get to him early or at the very least run up his pitch count.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Motter, 3B
6: Vogelbach, 1B
7: Heredia, LF
8: Zunino, C
9: Dyson, CF
SP: FELIX!

Welcome back, Jean Segura. The debate about how to get Taylor Motter ABs will pick up after Kyle Seager returns from his hip issue, but until then, hey, more Motter. Minor leaguer Jonathan Aro, whom the M’s acquired in the Miley-Carson Smith deal, was suspended 50 games for a positive drug test.

Lots going on in the minors, with more players joining affiliates who started the season in extended ST or on the DL. One such player was the unfortunate starter in Tacoma’s bullpen day in Albuquerque yesterday, Rafael Pineda. Pineda was a 30th round pick back in 2013, and first played in Pulaski, a level of pro ball the M’s did away with not long after. Pineda’s been hurt for a while, but made his first appearance since getting a handful of innings in Bakersfield last year. It didn’t go well. He gave up 5 runs in 2/3 of an inning, and that was essentially that for Tacoma in an 12-8 loss. Mike Freeman had 2 hits in his return to AAA, Tyler O’Neill hit his 3rd HR and also had 2 2Bs, and Boog Powell had 4 hits including 2 2Bs of his own. The R’s and Isotopes were scheduled to play today, but it was rained out.

A day after Andrew Moore’s first not completely successful start (the Travs lost to Cards prospect Jack Flaherty and Springfield 8-1), Max Povse had a nearly identical start in a nearly identical game (this time, the Travs lost to Tulsa 8-1). Not creepy at all! Povse gave up 4 runs to Moore’s 3, so his ERA is now 1.82, while Moore’s is *totally different* at 1.46. Chuck Taylor doubled and tripled in a losing effort. One reliever who pitched in the game for Tulsa was a familiar face – Edward Paredes, now in the Dodger org, who pitched for Tacoma and Everett 10 years ago. He was a decent prospect in the M’s system what seems like a lifetime ago. He’s been in the minors so long, he appears in our ancient “Future Forty” prospect lists (Carlos Triunfel – projected star)! Arksansas looks for revenge tonight with Dylan Unsworth on the hill.

Inland Empire scored 7 runs in the middle innings to pull away from Modesto, 9-4. Rehabbing Angel Luis Valbuena had a 2-R 2B, and Matt Thaiss added 2 2Bs for the 66ers, while Braden Bishop extended his hitting streak to 15 and Ricky Eusebio homered for the Nuts. The two clubs play again tonight; no word on the pitching match-ups.

Clinton completed the org sweep by losing 10-7 to the Beloit Snappers. A furious comeback fell a bit short, as Clinton scored 5 in the 9th, but they needed at least 8. Joe Rizzo, the M’s overslot 2nd rounder last year out of a Virginia HS went 4-5, and is now 5-8 in 2 games. This is an aggressive assignment for the teenager, but it’s a great sign that the org believes he can handle it. Nick Zammarelli, one of Everett’s best hitters last year, played his 2nd game and 1st at 1B – he’s off to a good start as well, going 3-9 with a HR in his first action of 2017. Tim Viehoff takes the mound for the Lumberkings tonight.

Off-day Stuff: Leonys, Pitcher Value, Segura’s Return

April 24, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 11 Comments 

No M’s game today, as the club travels to Detroit and a series with the Tigers, but there’s still things to talk about.

1: The biggest news of the day yesterday wasn’t the recall of Dan Vogelbach, another El Motterdor homer, or even Nelson Cruz getting his first HR of the year. Instead, it was the unexpected jettisoning of their starting CF, Leonys Martin.

Martin’s season started with a new swing, a move that only in hindsight makes it reminiscent of Dustin Ackley’s 2013 and not like Mitch Haniger’s 2016. Baseball is about adaptation, but it’s difficult to select for adaptability itself as a skill. We all know that, say, Daniel Murphy’s swing changes turned him into a completely different player, or that Haniger/Motter or doing similar things for the M’s. On the other end of the scale, we’ve got Ackley or Brendan Ryan trying something – anything – to unlock the mystery of hitting at the highest level. Some of these changes work, and some don’t, and I don’t think anyone really knows why. Being coachable doesn’t seem to be enough; Eric Wedge once blamed Ackley’s struggles on too MUCH willingness to change, and Scott Servais clearly thinks Leonys was willing and able to implement changes – but nothing worked.

And it really has been a while since Martin was a competent hitter. Since July 1 of last year, Martin’s batted 390 times. His slash line in that time frame is .220/.252/.294. It’s also been falling throughout that time period. When the Mariners acquired Jarrod Dyson, they had to see this move as a possibility; moving Dyson to CF makes better use of Dyson’s range, and both are left-handed bats. While the move to grab multiple “athletic” outfielders could be framed as a way to help the pitching staff (“three CFs out there!”), it also sets up an implicit competition, in which the M’s could move on from whoever didn’t work out.

You can see the move as a results-trump-culture statement by the front office, and that no amount of personality can make up for 4-6 months of abysmal hitting. That frame gets the coaches off the hook, though. Not only are the coaches the ones supporting and embracing the team’s loose, positive culture, they’re supposed to be the ones using it to drive development and improvement. And Martin may be their highest profile failure. When Martin looked reborn in April-May of 2016, the coaches got a fair amount of credit. It seemed to make sense – new batting coach, plus a reunion with Servais, who’d worked with him in the minors – but I think there’s probably a little too much credit given to coaches when players take off, and too little blame applied when players falter and fail.

Ultimately, I don’t really care about apportioning blame in this situation. I just want the organization to succeed with, say, Dan Vogelbach, or Yovani Gallardo. Martin’s poor start would’ve cost him his job at some point, and if the M’s really thought they couldn’t do any more for him, then DFA’ing now may be everyone’s best interest (particularly as clubs are looking for defensive help in the OF). I hope the M’s understand what went wrong with Martin, and how they can help avoid it in the future.

Many M’s fans lament the 8-man bullpen and argue that the preference for carrying so many arms made Martin’s DFA possible. My bias is that no team needs an 8 man pen, particularly if you have long-relievers you can switch in from AAA, just the way the M’s are doing. I don’t know if this is a lack of faith in a bullpen that’s gotten off to a rocky start, or if it makes them feel more confident given their slightly banged-up rotation, but I think it’s hard to justify logically. That said, the point of a bench is to give the manager something different from his starting line-up, and I have no idea how Leonys Martin, bench bat, was supposed to work. He could be a late-inning defensive replacement! But in LF, where he hasn’t played? Or would he bump Dyson to a corner? What if Dyson’s the superior defender at this point (as I kind of think he is)? Do you bump Mitch Haniger? He’d be a good pinch runner, I suppose, but even cutting the bullpen down by 1 or 2 players doesn’t create space on the bench for THAT specialized a skill.

2: In late November, Sam Miller penned a great article about WAR using Arizona lefty Robbie Ray as an example of how different WAR frameworks saw pitcher skill. By Baseball-Reference RA/9-based WAR, Robbie Ray was a bit below average, harmed by a sky-high BABIP-allowed (which RA/9 WAR included). By Fangraphs’ FIP-based WAR, he was slightly better than average thanks to a really good K rate (which is included in FIP, unlike BABIP). By Baseball Prospectus’ DRA-based WARP, Ray was a minor star with a sub-3 ERA-equivalent. All told, the gap between the three was pretty large, at 2 runs per 9 innings, and a handful of wins above replacement (I can’t see his DRA-based WAR now; DRA was updated this spring, and his DRA changed from 2.90 to 4.33).

Today, I stumbled upon an even bigger discrepancy. A pitcher for the Cardinals in the 1960s named Ray Sadecki had a solid career, logging 2,500 IP and going 135-131 with an ERA and FIP in the high 3’s. He started at 19, though, and things were a little hit and miss early on in his career, but by and large, he settled in fairly quickly, and while he pitched in a low run-scoring era, he doesn’t seem out of the ordinary at all. In 1963, he gave up a number of unearned runs, and the combination of environment, park, and defense meant that by BBREF’s WAR, he was just slightly below replacement level. By Fangraphs’ measure, he was getting the hang of things, and his FIP was far better than his RA/9, so he accounted for a below-average-but-not-bad-at-all 1.2 WAR. By WARP, though, Sadecki was abominable. At a staggering *NINE WINS* below replacement, Sadecki’s normal looking season is by far the worst on record at Baseball Prospectus. I have no idea why; I’d love to see it apportioned out by defense, park, or what have you, but even since seeing it, I’ve been trying to envision what *NINE WINS BELOW REPLACEMENT* would even look like. Murdering a teammate on the field? Collapsed in a heap on the mound, sobbing uncontrollably, while the umpire calls automatic balls for hours on end? The closest I can get is to assume me, right now, starting 32 games in the majors. That might do it.

Not far below Sadecki on the list of worst seasons ever on this questionable but fun leaderboard sits Dave Fleming‘s 1994. Fleming was an unheralded lefty who threw in the mid-80s and who’d somehow been the M’s most valuable pitcher in 1992, when Erik Hanson had a down year and Randy Johnson was still trying to figure out how to be RANDY JOHNSON, something he’d figure out the next year. But in 1992, Fleming’s rise kind of made up for the disappointment of Hanson, who’d bounce back the next year. For a while there, despite the presence of the most electifying position player to ever wear the uniform, you could squint and make out a contending M’s team that focused on run prevention. Johnson/Hanson/Fleming would combine for nearly 14 BBREF WAR in 1993 (fWAR has it about the same). The next year, the ill-fated 1994, told a different story. By then, Jay Buhner had broked out, Edgar was Edgar, and Junior had become the greatest player in the game. They had A-Rod laying waste to the minor leagues. And what of the rotation? Hanson was traded for WITH Bret Boone and for Dan Wilson and Bobby Ayala, but Randy had made the leap and was worth 7 WAR in 1994. But beyond that…devastation. Fleming’s ERA ballooned to 6.46, and he was never the same again. Chris Bosio, who’d been very good for the M’s in 1993 suffered a down year as well. Top prospect Roger Salkeld made 13 regrettable starts that were somehow worse than Greg Hibbard’s 14. The M’s, despite a having 4 starters with SLG% over .500, saw their winning percentage tumble nearly 70 points from the false-dawn of 1993. 1995 made up for things, but 1994 was tough for baseball fans everywhere, but *especially* in Seattle.

BPro’s WARP stat declares that Fleming’s 1994 season was 5.1 wins BELOW replacement level, a figure that doesn’t seem logical, but is emotionally on the money. Even as the promised prospects began to deliver, and began to blow away the already sky-high expectations we had, the key supporting cast members were falling like flies. That’s the way it’d be in Seattle for the next few years, as the offense became a historical juggernaut, and occasionally found ways to bail out a pitching staff that was Randy Johnson, maybe one other good player, some random guy who’d get hot for a year, and then an absolute nightmare. In 1994, Bobby Ayala looked like a star. In 1995, it was Norm Charlton. In 1996…no, just checked, everyone was bad that year (RJ was hurt). In 1997, Jamie Moyer joined RJ and propelled the M’s to the playoffs. It’s in that context that Fleming’s 1994 *felt* disastrous, when a look at the stats wouldn’t make it jump out at you (there were a LOT of higher-than-6 ERAs back then). He was emblematic of the M’s inability to hold on to the key secondary pieces that could’ve made the difference for them. It’s in that spirit that I embrace the figure of 5 wins below replacement, even if I cannot really accept it.

3: Mike Freeman’s been optioned to AAA Tacoma, where he’s in tonight’s line-up against Albuquerque. That means that Jean Segura’s back from his rehab assignment in Arkansas, and the M’s will now need to get creative in order to keep the un-benchable bat of Taylor Motter in the line-up. As a righty, he could spell Dan Vogelbach at 1B against lefties, but they could also use him in LF. None of these options are ideal. The M’s don’t want to freeze out Danny Valencia entirely, I don’t think, and they also may want to see how Vogelbach responds to same-handed pitching. Guillermo Heredia’s in LF, and he’s a right-handed bat who’s come on in recent games; can’t imagine they’d love to bench him at the moment. Kyle Seager’s ailing hip will buy them some time, but they’ll either have to sit a starter once a night or under-utilize Motter as a bench bat.

I’m sure the M’s want to see what they have in Heredia, but in the short term, LF seems like the path of least resistance for Motter. Cutting loose Danny Valencia would also ease the roster crunch, but I can’t see Dipoto waiving his self-identified key free agent target from the off season so soon. Whatever they decide to do, Motter needs to stay in the line-up. Statcast has just completely re-done their data pages, filling in missing data that Trackman missed for one reason or the other. Most of these “misses” are on very weak contact like pop-ups and grounders, so some average exit velocities have come down as a result of the changes. Motter, of course, hasn’t changed. He’s still in the top 10 in MLB this year, and has yet to make any sort of “weak contact” according to Trackman. He’s elevating the ball and hitting it very, very hard. Look:
Taylor Motter, 2017
Taylor Motter

You can see a somewhat similar approach in his 2016 data, but with far, far less pop:
Taylor Motter, 2016
Taylor Motter(1)

Last year, only 8% of his balls in play were “solid contact” or better. This year, he’s already got 12 such balls in play, or 32% of his balls in play. This is why Motter has 11 extra base hits on the year and only 2 singles.

Game 20: Mariners at Athletics – Sweep-Avoidance Sunday

April 23, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 19 Comments 

Yovani Gallardo vs. Andrew Triggs, 1:05pm

Last year, the M’s hosted the A’s in their first homestand after opening the season in Texas. The A’s swept the M’s, kicking off an abysmal start at home that left fans wondering why the M’s were so much better on the road. This year, it’s just the reverse, with the M’s struggling mightily on the road, and the A’s again looking better than we thought.

Just like last year, there’s no real meaning to the M’s lopsided home/road splits, and just like last year, a solid start doesn’t necessarily mean that the A’s are going to be darkhorse contenders. Both teams’ records at this point have a lot of noise and a bit of signal buried in it. The M’s don’t have some weird psychological break about playing on the road, just like they didn’t have psychological issues that prevented them from winning in Seattle in April of 2016. That doesn’t mean that everything’s fine, and the M’s slow start is irrelevant, and it ALSO doesn’t mean that the A’s really are terrible – it means that we need to look for factors outside of the team’s record in their first 19 games.

I mentioned it before the series started, but the A’s have a chance at building a remarkably solid rotation on the cheap. Getting Sonny Gray back and healthy is going to be important to reaching that goal, but the A’s group of unheralded young starters may be better going forward than former first-rounder Gray. The perfect example of this is today’s starter, Andrew Triggs. As Jeff Sullivan detailed last year at Fangraphs, Triggs was a career reliever, with prototypical reliever-only mechanics. His release point looks a bit like Steve Cishek’s or Carson Smith’s, but it’s pushed even more towards the third base line. The best match in terms of release point may be yet another ex-Mariner, Carter Capps’, but without the weird crow-hop delivery and definitely without the 99 MPH velocity. So he seemed destined to fill a Sean Green role of a righty-specialist, or maybe a ground ball guy, but he showed very good K:BB ratios in the minors.

You’d think that a team would see that and fast-track him to the majors, but Triggs has faced skepticism at every turn. Despite putting up some good numbers, the Royals sold him to Baltimore, not even getting a PTBNL in return. He made the Orioles 40-man roster, but didn’t make it out of AA – a AA season in which he laid waste to the eastern league, with an ERA of just about 1 and 10 K’s per 9. Again, though, he was released when the Orioles needed a spot on their 40-man, and the A’s picked him up. The A’s gave him a shot in their bullpen, and while he didn’t exactly set the world on fire, he’s been unbelievable since a short-handed A’s team decided to move him to the rotation.

Given his release point and his Carson Smith-style slider, you’d expect he’d run huge platoon splits like Justin Masterson. So far, that hasn’t happened, and even in the minors, his splits looked pretty even. There are two main reasons why. First, he’s developed a good change-up that breaks away from lefties. Second, that insane release point’s created by stepping across his body with his right leg. This produces some deception to hitters, but lefties in particular seem to struggle picking up the ball as it’s hidden behind Triggs’ (hefty) frame. He’s posted exactly even splits thus far in his career, and while you might expect that lefties have an advantage that’ll grow as he pitches longer, he doesn’t seem to be the kind of guy you want to pack as many lefties as possible into the line-up.

This year, he hasn’t been striking people out, but it hasn’t mattered. He’s kept his sinking fastball away from both lefties and righties, and racked up ground balls. No, he probably won’t continue to post a sub-.200 BABIP to say nothing of a 0.00 ERA, but he’ll continue pitching like an underpowered Zach Britton until batters learn to elevate the ball against him. The M’s have really struggled against guys like this; Triggs throws 71% of his pitches to the bottom of the zone or below, which is pretty near 2017-Dallas Keuchel, and we saw how that worked out for the M’s. They’ve struggled against GB pitchers, which I don’t think Dipoto and company foresaw. With plenty of fly ball hitters, this was supposed to be a team strength. Why it hasn’t worked out that way is a mystery, at least to me, but I’m hoping Edgar Martinez is working with them on it.

1: Dyson, CF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Vogelbach, 1B
6: Motter, SS
7: Heredia, LF
8: Freeman, 3B
9: Zunino, C
SP: Gallardo

Yep, that’s Dan Vogelbach in the line-up at 1B, replacing Danny Valencia. The corresponding move was somewhat unexpected/dramatic: the M’s have DFA‘d erstwhile starting CF Leonys Martin. The M’s also swapped out de facto long-relievers, calling up Chris Heston and sending Chase de Jong back to Tacoma. There’s something admirable about decisive moves like this, and not letting a black hole in the line-up tank the overall offense. Leonys Martin has looked lost for a while now, and the M’s now have plenty of CF depth. The move at 1B also reflects the M’s 1B depth, but it essentially reverses the equally bold, decisive, win-in-2017 move that they made about one month ago – the move that sent Vogelbach to AAA and gave Valencia the 1B job on his own, instead of in the expected platoon. Either Tacoma’s coaches very, very quickly sorted something out with Vogelbach, or the M’s are essentially admitting that their last move backfired.

Tacoma won again, taking the first game in Albuquerque 5-3. The R’s scored 4 in the first and coasted to the win behind another good start from Christian Bergman. Sam Gaviglio starts today opposite Zach Jemiola.

Arkansas’ had a strange game, but it ended well. They took a 4-0 lead, then allowed Springfield to tie it up, and then scored 2 late runs for a 6-4 win. Thyago Vieira got the win in relief with one of his best performances of the year. Jean Segura singled in 3 at bats. It’s a prospect showdown today, as Andrew Moore and Arkansas face off with Cards prospect Jack Flaherty.

Modesto scored 4 runs in three separate innings in their 12-4 domination of Visalia. Nick Neidert was, by his standards, only so so, but the Nuts’ bullpen was solid, with Kody Kerski striking out 5 in 2 shutout innings, and Joe Pistorese K’ing 3 in 2 perfect IP of his own. Today, it’ll be a battle of starters who would love to just hit reset on the year. Pablo Lopez takes the ball for Modesto, with Justin Donatella pitching for Visalia. Both starters’ ERA are over 10.

Clinton beat Quad Citied 6-1 behind another solid start from Ljay Newsome. He struck out 4 in 6 IP, and walked his FIRST batter of the year. His K:BB ratio is now definable, and is 22:1 in 21 IP. His ERA is still kind of ugly thanks to his first start of the year, but yesterday was his third straight solid outing. Danny Garcia and Jorge Alcala face off today in Quad Cities.

Game 19, Mariners at Athletics

April 22, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 20 Comments 

Ariel Miranda vs. Jharel Cotton, 1:05pm

The M’s are now 1-8 on the road, and in serious danger of a sweep in their current series in Oakland. After James Paxton’s unexpectedly poor start, the M’s got a remarkably encouraging game from Hisashi Iwakuma, but it still wasn’t enough. Now, they’ll face intriguing young change-up maven Jharel Cotton, and have to hope that their struggling bats can get their timing back against a pitcher adept at messing with it.

Last season, Cotton made 5 very encouraging starts for the go-nowhere A’s. He flew through the Dodger system, and continued after a trade brought him north to Oakland. His K rate wasn’t otherworldly, but he limited walks and thanks to a slow, screwball like change-up, got a lot of weak contact on pitches out of the strikezone. He seemed poise to build on that debut in 2017, but instead, the A’s seem to be pushing him to throw less of his fantastic change and more sinkers/cutters. A’s gonna A.

Throwing from a fairly high arm slot, Cotton’s four-seam had solid rise, and averaged about 93 MPH. It seemed to be a good pairing for his splitter-style change that came in at 77 or so. But as they’ve done with so many pitchers, the A’s seem to have called for a big change in pitch mix. He’s throwing more of what BrooksBaseball calls a sinker this year, and while it has surprisingly similar movement to his four-seam, it gets less rise (as you’d expect), meaning it’s more similar to the change. And as for the change, it’s now a clear 3rd or 4th pitch, and in its place is the typically-Oakland cutter. Cotton’s is 89 MPH, and has different vertical break from his four-seam, but can almost function like a hard change. It looked like a good pitch last year, and I’m not suggesting it’s bad, but it just seems like an odd choice to use in the place of Cotton’s best pitch.

Maybe it’s all the changes to his mix, or maybe it’s just small sample nothingness, but Cotton’s getting fewer swings out of the zone (compare this view of 2016 to this one from 2017), so he’s got essentially no chance to repeat his BABIP success of 2016. That’s meant he’s walked a lot more batters than he did last year; if the M’s can be patient, they may draw some walks.

So, Hisashi Iwakuma. When I heard Chase de Jong was coming up, my first thought was that Iwakuma was heading to the DL. Instead, he uncorked a couple of 90 MPH fastballs last night, something I would’ve bet plenty of money he was no longer capable of doing. In terms of velocity and stuff, he looked more like the Iwakuma of old…or at least, the Iwakuma of 2015-16. His command still isn’t right, and he really struggled to throw his fastballs for strikes. He’s throwing way more sliders, and it looks like he might have more control of that pitch than his fastballs, but whatever the issue, he can’t continue to give up so many free passes. He’s walked 10 and hit a batter this year, and struck out just 9. His FIP is nearly 7 and a half, so it’s to Iwakuma’s credit that he’s been as effective as he has, and hopefully he can build off of this game and move forward.

1: Dyson, CF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Motter, SS
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Heredia, LF
8: Freeman, 3B
9: Zunino, C
SP: Miranda

Mike Freeman gives Kyle Seager a day off today, and Jarros Dyson stays in CF, extending Leonys Martin’s break.

Tacoma got another comeback win in El Paso, thanks to another grand slam. Dan Vogelbach hit one on Thursday, and yesterday it was Zach Shank’s turn. That punctuated a 5-run 4th, and turned a 4-2 deficit into a 7-4 lead they’d never give up – the final score was 11-8, as both bullpens had some issues in the 8th/9th. Shank only batted because Gordon Beckham was hit on the arm by a pitch, but he homered and walked twice. DJ Peterson also homered and Boog Powell walked three times. Steve Cishek got the start and worked 2/3 of an IP before hitting his pitch count. He walked 2 and give up a hit before yielding to Brett Ash who was called up from AA. Today, Christian Bergman gets the start today.

Arkansas beat Springfield 5-3, as 4 Travelers notched 2 hits each. Jean Segura wasn’t among them, as he went 0-3 with a walk out of the lead-off spot (and DH’ing). The Travs got to Dakota Hudson, scoring all 5 runs off the first-round pick in the first 5 innings. Ryan Horstman got the win in relief, pitching the 5th and 6th IP, giving up 1 run, but striking out 5. Today, it’ll be Lindsey Caughel against Matt Pearce of the Cardinals.

Modesto and Visalia were locked in a pitcher’s duel last night, until the Nuts tired of that and scored 7 runs in the 6th. Nathan Bannister was the pitcher who benefited from this bounty, getting his first pro win. He went 5 IP with 7 Ks and no walks. Joey Curletta had 3 XBH, and Gianfranco Wawoe and Eric Filia both added three hits of their own. Nick Neidert starts today against Trevor Simms, who used to kick off for the Tulane football team.

Clinton lost 3-1 to Quad Cities, as Nick Wells gave up 2 HRs in 5 solid innings. The offense obviously never got much going, striking out 10 times and drawing just a single walk. Ljay Newsome starts today against someone with the striking name of Enoli Paredes.

Game 18, Mariners at Athletics

April 21, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 25 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Sean Manaea, 7:05pm

Hmmm. This series takes on a different look now that the M’s dropped game 1 – the one pitching match-up that looked completely lopsided in the M’s favor. Now it gets a bit trickier, as the M’s face a decent young pitcher and have to hope that Iwakuma brings the best command of his life to the hill to work around his vanishing fastball.

Sean Manaea’s had a fascinating start to 2017. He currently leads the major leagues in contact rate, with batters making any kind of contact on just less than 66% of his pitches. He still throws a swerving four-seam fastball that acts like a sinker, and has a good slider that’s essentially all gyro spin: it generates ~ zero movement. Both his horizontal and vertical movement are within a fraction of an inch of a ball thrown without any spin at all. The lefty is very tough on LHBs, given the above, so he sees line-ups that are tilted towards righties, and that’s why the development of his change-up has been so important. He didn’t really need it as a small college pitcher (Indiana State), but it’s been the focus of his development both in the Royals system and then with the A’s (he was traded for Ben Zobrist a while ago). His change kind of reminds me of Cesar Valdez’s last night, with its splitter-style movement, but it’s thrown harder. It’s produced remarkably good results for him, though he sometimes struggles to command his non-fastballs.

That’s been a concern since his MiLB days. Manaea’s walk rate this year is over 12%, and while it was good last year, it’s been inconsistent throughout his career. Inconsistency in general has been a problem, really. After dazzling in the Cape Cod league heading into his junior season, he seemed destined to be the #1 overall pick, but lower velocity, lost slider command and some nagging injuries pushed him down to #34. He struggled mightily out of the gate in 2016, and has reprised that in 2017, giving up 12 runs despite giving up only 8 hits in 71 batters faced. Odder still has been his variable ground ball rate; he’s been a ground ball guy at times in the minors, and average-to-fly-ball leaning at others. After a 44% GB rate last year, he’s kicked off 2017 by increasing that nearly 20 percentage points. Yes, it’s definitely early, but I wonder if this is the product of an organizational emphasis on the low pitch – something we talked about in yesterday’s post.

Speaking of odd results and the potential influence of org philosophies, we need to talk about Dan Altavilla. The righty was again something of a mess yesterday, giving up 3 runs on 2 walks and a 3-run HR. After starting off the year remarkably well, and getting plaudits for his new, high-octane slider, he’s fallen back significantly. To me, one key problem is that he looks like a different pitcher with men on base. Thus far in his brief MLB career, he’s got a 13:2 K:BB ratio with no one on – that works out to a K rate of 28%, and a K-BB% of over 20% (yes, yes, I know the samples are too small). With men on, that plummets to a 7:5 ratio, or a 17% K rate and a K-BB% in the neighborhood of 5%. This was something of an issue last year in AA, too, where he had a 40:13 K:BB ratio in just 29 IP with the bases empty, but just 25:9 with men on, and like in the majors, his K rate dropped while his walk rate crept up. In general, EVERYone has fewer Ks and more BBs as they start to nibble a bit with runners on, but Altavilla seems like an exceptional case, like he can’t quite find his release point when he’s distracted by runners.

I mentioned this on twitter, and LookoutLanding’s Kate Preusser mentioned that the problem she sees is that his slider command’s completely out of whack. While batters aren’t *hitting* his slider, his lack of command means they can effectively ignore it, and wait for fastballs once they’re safely ahead in the count. That sounded interesting, and looking into it, there’s definitely some evidence of it. The percentage of sliders he threw for a ball last year was under 30%, but it’s spiked to over 45% in the early going in 2017. To righties, he likes to keep it low, and that reminds me a bit of what the M’s told Felix this off-season: batters recognize a pitch and just wait for it to fall below the strike zone. The walk to Ryon Healy right before the Plouffe home run was a great example – it wasn’t a bad pitch at all, and wasn’t *that* far out of the zone. If Altavilla’s pitching well, he might get a chase on that pitch, but Healy was unmoved, and didn’t look like he contemplated a swing, even with 2 strikes.

It’s possible that both of these explanations work together, and that his command *really* worsens with men on. Whatever the cause, the M’s need to get him straightened out soon. After a good spring and a dominant performance in his first game, Altavilla looked set to take on higher leverage innings. His competition kept dropping off, as Casey Fien was soon outrighted, Evan Scribner’s looked a bit off, and Nick Vincent’s velo was a bit off in the early going. With Vincent emerging, the M’s may not need as many high-leverage IP from Altavilla, though last night’s meltdown wasn’t super high. Altavilla simply needs to get comfortable again, and work on his location. It’s way too early, but I do wonder if he’s trying to adapt to the new fly-ball doctrine the M’s have talked about, and if that’s gotten him out of his comfort zone. His pitch location maps don’t look that different, though there are a few pitches up and out of the zone. That could simply be a manifestation of his command problems (they’re fastballs, though, not sliders), or it could be he’s struggling to implement a game plan that’s somewhat new to him. *Update* He’ll get to work on re-locating his command in Tacoma, as he was just optioned to AAA.

1: Heredia, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Motter, SS
7: Valencia, 1B
8: Ruiz, C
9: Dyson, CF
SP: Iwakuma

Ryan Divish reports that Chase de Jong’s on his way to join the team in Oakland. It was his scheduled start day in Tacoma, so he’d be ready to pitch whenever the M’s need him. We’ll see what the roster move is; kind of wondering if they’re going to sit Iwakuma for a while. *Update* Ok, now we know: Altavilla’s the one going down.

*Update 2* Chooch Ruiz has been added to the lineup in place of Mike Zunino. Doesn’t sound like anything’s wrong w/Mike, just a late call to give Ruiz the start.

Tacoma had a great comeback last night, and beat El Paso 6-5 in extras. The R’s fell behind 5-0 as Dillon Overton struggled, and the R’s could not figure out Pads prospect Dinelson Lamet (who K’d 13 in just 5 1/3), but the M’s got a run in the 6th, and then tied it up in the 7th on a grand slam by 1B Dan Vogelbach. It went to the 10th, where a Tuffy Gosewisch double brought in Boog Powell. Today, it was supposed to be Chase de Jong on the mound for Tacoma against Bryan Rodriguez, but that’s obviously not going to happen. We’ll see if someone’s up from Arkansas to make this one, or if they’ll go with a bullpen day – tougher to do that after an extra-inning game, of course. They could also push Christian Bergman’s day up, but that seems riskier. Steve Cishek will pitch an inning tonight for them, that much is certain.

Dylan Unsworth’s return to AA wasn’t all that bad, but Austin Gomber held the Travelers in check, and Springfield emerged with a 6-3 win. Unsworth gave up 3 R in 5 IP, while Thyago Vieira gave up another 2 on 2 walks and a hit. Ian Miller had 2 hits and 2 stolen bases. Today, Arkansas takes on Dakota Hudson, the Cardinals first-round pick last year out of Mississippi State. The Travs counter with Tyler Herb, who *just* missed pitching on 4/20.

Reggie McClain and Modesto edged out Stockton 3-2 last night. McClain gave up 2 runs in 5 2/3 IP, and the bullpen made it hold up, despite team totals of just 4 Ks and 4 BBs on the night. Braden Bishop led the offense with 3 hits (incl. 2 2Bs) from the lead-off spot. Today, Nathan Bannister leads the Nuts in to Visalia and a series against the Arizona affiliate.

Clinton fell behind early and couldn’t ever get back into it in an 8-2 loss to Quad Cities. Nick Wells takes the hill tonight opposite Brett Adcock, a 4th rounder out of Michigan last year. He’s made 2 MWL starts, and K’d *16* in 9 innings.

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