Game 17, Mariners at Athletics

April 20, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 23 Comments 

James Paxton vs. Cesar Valdez, 7:05pm

The M’s head into Oakland for a series against the surprisingly resilient Athletics. Before the season, the A’s looked like a team that simply wasn’t built to compete in the AL. With a questionable rotation and a line-up that’d struggle to make contact, it looked like a rebuilding year in the making. It still may be one, but a hot start from LF Khris Davis and a surprisingly deep starting 5 means that the A’s are tied with Seattle, and might hang around the fringes of contention longer than we thought.

As in the Texas series, the M’s miss the A’s #1 starter, the suddenly-fascinating Kendall Graveman. Unfortunately, it’s not just a scheduling thing – the righty’s on the DL with a strained shoulder. The A’s will also be missing starting SS Marcus Semien, who fractured a bone in his wrist and is scheduled to have surgery on it. In Graveman’s place, the A’s have brought up Cesar Valdez, a Dominican starter who hasn’t pitched in the majors since *2010*. If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t heard of him, but I’m guessing Jerry Dipoto knows the guy. Valdez was signed out of the DR at a suspiciously advanced age (20); maybe he was a converted position player, I don’t know. He moved to the affiliated minors in 2006, starting off in Yakima, under the newly-installed director of player personnel and scouting, working with AJ Hinch to oversee the Snakes’ minor leagues. Valdez rose through the ranks and had a cup of coffee with the D-Backs in May/June of 2010, right before Dipoto became the interim GM. Almost immediately after replacing Dipoto, Kevin Towers traded away Valdez and he’s spent years in the Mexican League, trying to remake himself from a junkballer with so-so command to a junkballer with very good command. After a great year in Mexico in 2015, the Astros brought him back to affiliated ball and he pitched well in the PCL in 2016. They had no room, though, so he signed with Oakland as a free agent and with a brief stop-off for the DR in the World Baseball Classic, he’s been lights out in a couple of AAA starts for Nashville.

He was a sinker/slider guy way back in 2010, but seemed to feature a lot of a split-style change-up in spring training this year, and I’d imagine the M’s will see a lot of them tonight. He gets surprisingly good sink on his fastball, and always had a reputation as a ground ball guy coming through the Arizona farm system.

Given that thumbnail sketch, you can kind of see why the A’s were interested. The Astros have gone all-in on the low pitch this year, with fully 61% of their pitches thus far classed as in the bottom third of the zone or below (the usual 5-zone definition at BaseballSavant that I/others use a ton). But the A’s are remarkably close, at 59.4%, ranking 3rd in MLB in such pitches. They believe in sinkers, as they have a starter in Graveman who’s essentially abandoned all other pitches and JUST throws sinkers at the knees now. Their other starters keep the ball down in other ways: Jharel Cotton’s tumbling change-up falls through the bottom of the zone, and as a change-up, it generates plenty of out-of-zone swings. Andrew Triggs relies on a heavy sinker from a low arm-slot and has all but abandoned the top of the zone. You get the idea. If Valdez can do that through a combination of 88 MPH sinkers and 80 MPH split/changes, then he’ll fit right in.

One result of the A’s approach is intuitive, but worth pointing out: they throw a LOT of balls out of the strike zone. The A’s lead baseball in the percentage of pitches tracked by Statcast that come in out of the strike zone, with the Angels close behind. And look at the M’s! They’re dead last, and are last *by a mile*.

The M’s apparently take their zone-controlling seriously, and, perhaps problematically, quite literally. You see the same thing in the Zone% numbers at Fangraphs, with the M’s #1 and the A’s at #30. As you’d expect, the A’s staff has walked significantly more than the M’s, despite a nearly identical K rate. But it’s actually the A’s who’ve posted the superior FIP numbers on the year, thanks to the fact that the M’s have nearly doubled the A’s in HRs allowed. The A’s stay down in the zone (and below) for a reason, and they seem quite willing to trade walks for HRs. The M’s seem more willing to pitch up (though they could stand to do it more), and MUCH more likely to challenge batters, even if it means giving up some loud contact. Felix is obviously the best example, as he finally walked his first batter of the season yesterday. He’s given up 5 HRs already, tied for 2nd-most in the league. Look at the spike in his Zone%! It’s admirable to challenge hitters, and not be scared off of your own gameplan, but we may not have seen the last 440’+ HR of the season hit off our valiant King.

James Paxton’s pitched like a demigod thus far. These “trade offs” described above don’t really apply to someone pitching like Paxton, so he hasn’t made any. His control issues cleared up last year, so there’s no big shift in his Zone%, and he’s obviously not allowed a HR all year. His contact rate is in the top 10 in baseball, and it’s driven by phenomenally good marks on IN-ZONE contact. There are two things pitchers can do that are difficult, but critical: either make batters swing at balls, or make them miss on strikes. Of the two, the latter’s probably the toughest, but it’s working for Paxton thus far. Mind you, while his overall contact rate is near the likes of Chris Sale and Danny Salazar, his zone contact rate’s sandwiched between the unlikely pairing of Jason Vargas (#1!) and Ian Kennedy. Baseball is weird, and early-season leaderboards are often surreal.

By pretty much any metric you want to look at, Paxton’s been unreal. ERA? Obviously. FIP? K-BB%? Contact%? Exit velocity? Check, check, check. He hasn’t met the high expectations M’s fans had following last year – he’s blown them out of the water. The only pitchers who’ve been near his level in the early going are Chris Sale in Boston and Noah Syndergaard in New York. I’m still giddy from seeing his last start, so I’ll stop before getting too hyperbolic, but enjoy this run.

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

The Rainiers bullpen suffered an ill-timed meltdown in yesterday’s 9-4 loss in El Paso. Chris Heston was decent through 5 IP, leaving with a tie game at 3-3. Nick Hagadone, who’d K’d 10 of the 11 batters he’d faced on the year came in and gave up a run, and then Mark Lowe gave up a 5 spot, and that was essentially that. 2 hits from DJ Peterson and Dan Vogelbach knocked his first HR of the year for Tacoma. Today, Dillon Overton makes his first start for Tacoma. With Overton back in Tacoma (he was sent down when the M’s activated Tony Zych), the Rs now have 6 starting pitchers on the club – Weber, Gaviglio, Heston, de Jong, Bergman and Overton. We’ll see how they divvy up the games, but one thing was certain: someone needed to go help out in AA instead.

That person was Dylan Unsworth, who’ll start today’s game for the Arkansas Travelers against Springfield and big Cardinals prospect Austin Gomber.

Modesto lost to Stockton and A’s prospect AJ Puk 5-2. The Nuts scored two unearned runs off of Puk through 4 IP, but had only a single hit against him. The lefty has 20 Ks in 12 IP on the year, and is probably about due for a promotion to AA. Today, Reggie McClain tries to get some revenge against Stockton and Casey Meisner, who tumbled down the prospect rankings after a rough 2016. Thus far in 2017, it’s been even rougher.

Clinton beat Wisconsin 6-3 behind a solid start from Brandon Miller and 2 XBH including a HR from 1B Kristian Brito. Today, the Lumberkings kick off a series with Astros’ affiliate Quad Cities, and Tim Viehoff will take the mound for Clinton against 2016 14th rounder Carson LaRue, who’s only pitched in a handful of innings between 2016-17, but has been extremely hard to hit thus far.

Motter with Intent

April 19, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

The other day, I wrote about Leonys Martin’s struggles, and how he’s hitting the ball hard into the ground, and softly in the air, a combination that produces…well, 2017 Leonys Martin. Anyway, Jake Mailhot at Lookout Landing wrote about Taylor Motter’s success at doing the opposite. It’s great, and you should read it. Today, he followed up with a post about Motter and his approach: Motter’s focused on pitches on the inner half, and he’s had great success in doing so. The theory is that Motter’s focused on inside pitches (particularly fastballs) and he’s aggressive with them when they show up. I wanted to piggy-back on that a bit by making a point that may be too obvious to even mention.

There are many numbers-focused baseball posts that make you see the game in a different way; that make you think about the game differently. Other research may add depth and nuance to a simple, commonly-understood phenomenon. This is a different kind of article. This is about stating the obvious, with numbers. I’m not sure that’s what you’re here to read about, and I’m not sure this is helpful to write, but…uh, here goes. Taylor Motter is having success in the majors this year because he is swinging the bat really, really hard. I know: it’s not earth shattering. But the more I look into it, the more I think what’s changed about Motter isn’t the kind of pitches he likes, improved selectivity, or anything like that. It’s about selling out contact for power, and reaping the rewards (and paying the price) for that trade.

Coming up, Motter was a player known for his speed and defensive utility, but it wasn’t until a breakout 2015 that he had much of a profile as a hitter. He wasn’t in the Rays top 20 prospects in 2015, but landed on the back end of the list in 2016 thanks to a power surge in AA/AAA. Still, the thing that drew your eye – heh – was his strike zone discipline. He drew walks and posted low strikeout totals, and coupled with some gap power, that was enough to get himself on the radar despite his advanced age (for a prospect). He was added to the 40-man before 2016 and came up to Tampa in May of that year. It…it didn’t go well. He didn’t make it to 100 plate appearances, and while he drew a fair number of walks, he simply didn’t hit enough to warrant keeping around. A .217 BABIP didn’t help, of course, but if you look at his Statcast numbers, it almost seemed earned.

He had a good swing plane, with a launch angle over 13 degrees. The problem was that there simply wasn’t anything behind it. There were 455 players in the league who hit at least 50 balls in play last year, and Motter’s exit velocity ranked 397th. If you are in a statistical tie in an offensive metric with Ketel Marte in 2016…you’re…you’re gonna want to NOT be near Ketel Marte. Using exit velocity, Statcast actually tracks a measure of batspeed – estimated swing speed. By THAT measure, Marte edges past Motter, who’s hanging out with the Billys (Burns and Hamilton).

What about inside pitches? Last year, Motter clearly liked to swing at them, as Mailhot shows in his post. The problem was that he couldn’t DO anything against them. Motter hit 13 inside fastballs, with a below-average exit velocity of 88 MPH. He put 20 inside pitches in play, of any pitch type. He went 3 for 20 on those contacts, going .167 with a slugging percentage of .250. He’s slugging .714 on such pitches this year, for the record. Motter’s the same guy against outside pitches this year, but he looks unrecognizable on inside pitches. Here’s a table of his exit velo and launch angles on inside/outside pitches in 2016 and 2017:

Inside, 2016 Inside, 2017 Outside, 2016 Outside, 2017
Exit Velocity 88.8 97.2 84.4 84.4
Launch Angle 11.4 21.9 14.8 13.7

Ok, let’s say you’re Taylor Motter, and you’ve just been promoted, and now you get to face incredible pitching for the first time (MORE incredible than the pretty-incredible you’re used to). It’s confusing – you don’t know the pitchers, the stadia are different, there are many, many cameras – and you want to focus on your own strengths. What would Motter have offered up as his biggest strength in 2016? I have no idea; I don’t know the man. But my guess is that he was trying to focus on contact and strike zone discipline. He set out to control the zone, and he did! That’s great! He was also a terrible hitter. Baseball is hard, and even when you succeed at something, it’s frequently not enough to make you useful (Blake Beavan: great control).

This year, Taylor Motter seems to have made a very different decision. Instead of trying to be a useful utility man by avoiding Ks and drawing the occasional walk, Motter is trying to hit dingers. Again, it’s kind of difficult to talk about this without spouting truisms or seeming to just state the obvious, but I think this is the result of a very conscious change, and not just “getting good pitches to hit” or whatever cliche you like. Motter isn’t just swinging at inside pitches – he’s always done that. He’s trying to obliterate them, and that seems very new. Motter’s estimated swing speed this year ranks *7th* out of 337 batters with at least 10 balls in play. He’s a touch behind Miguel Sano and Miguel Cabrera, but ahead of Nelson Cruz, Khris Davis and Giancarlo Stanton. The samples for Motter are miniscule in both years, but going from ~ the worst to ~ the best seems like the result of a fairly big change.

This change comes at a cost. Motter’s contact rate is down substantially in the early going, and it’s down on pitches within the strike zone. If you’re going to survive with so-so contact rates *within* the zone, you better hit the ball extremely hard. Motter does, so I guess it all works out. His K rate is up, as you’d expect, but to date, Motter’s been disciplined in his out-of-zone swing rate. That’s important, because as Mailhot mentions, pitchers are going to start to make adjustments, and his K rate may go up from here. That’s all speculative. ALL OF THIS is speculative. But I want to underscore just how remarkable it is; if this is at all right, it’s the product of a very gutsy decision. Motter knew his K rate could translate more or less, and I’m sure someone pointed out that the exact same approach plus a regressed BABIP would produce a decent line for a utility man. Motter took what was behind door #2 instead.

Why? Let’s heap more speculation on to the pile of speculation we’ve already made. Motter played for the Rays from mid May to the end of June in 2016. At that time, he had a teammate with a nearly identical launch angle, who was succeeding because he swung the shit out of the bat. This produced a K rate that many thought would doom him. His OBP was pretty terrible, frankly. But dingers. Man, the dingers. I’m talking about former Mariner Brad Miller, who hit 8 HRs and knocked 19 extra-base hits in May/June of 2016, on his way to a 30-HR season. Interestingly, Miller always swung hard – his breakout wasn’t the result of a wholesale change in approach. But I wonder what Motter thought as he looked at a guy with a very similar swing path – a guy who didn’t seem to mind striking out, but was going to punish the ball when he made contact.

Motter seems to have that approach now. It speaks to something that I mentioned as a side note in this post about Mike Zunino last year: intent. Motter’s a different hitter this year for a number of reasons, including all the ones Mailhot mentions and all of the ones Daniel Rathman mentioned at BP. He’s quicker to the ball thanks to lower hands at the beginning of his swing. But all of this seems to miss the forest for the trees. The massive difference in results (not just HRs, but exit velocity, swing speed, all of it) has to be the product of an intent to swing *hard*. I don’t think Motter had that last year, and I’m pretty sure he does this year. We’ll see what happens going forward, and we may see some ugly stretches of strikeouts, but that shift in mindset has been incredibly important thus far.

Game 16, Marlins at Mariners

April 19, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 12 Comments 

King Felix vs. Edinson Volquez, 12:40pm

Edinson Volquez is on the Marlins now? I know I read this article about it, and. Volquez’ admirably consistent velocity, but must’ve forgotten the specifics. I felt the same last night watching Brad Ziegler pitch. The Marlins? Really?

Sooo, the M’s came very, very close to being no-hit by Wei Yin Chen, somehow. While Yovani Gallardo wasn’t sharp, he kept the M’s close-ish and didn’t walk anyone. He gave up a lot of loud contact, and Justin Bour took him deep. Of course, the batted ball hit the furthest last night wasn’t the HR – it was a Taylor Motter fly out. The M’s hit a lot of balls well, but each found a glove until Mitch Haniger’s face-saving gapper.

Edinson Volquez still throws 93-94 somehow, and still has a good change that’s allowed him to run even-to-slightly-reversed splits over his career. He lacks great command, so patient teams can drive up his walk total/pitch count.

Felix is an anti-Volquez. Felix’s velocity has…not stayed the same, but he’s been a much more consistent performer over his (longer) MLB career. Whereas Volquez is still wild, Felix’s control got better in recent years before last year’s disappointment, and it’s been phenomenal this year, as Felix has yet to give up a walk in 2017.

1: Dyson, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Motter, SS
7: Freeman, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Martin, CF
SP: Feeeelix.

The Rainiers lost in El Paso 4-3 despite HRs from DJ Peterson and Gordon Beckham. Ex-Rainiers Carter Capps and Logan Bawcom pitched well in relief for the Chihuahuas, with Capps getting the win. Today, Chris Heston faces off with Padres pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins.

Arkansas got another me-too start from Max Povse, who went 6 strong IP giving up 1 run. Andrew Moore gave up no runs in his first 2 games, then just 1 in his 3rd game the other day. Povse, too, gave up no runs in his first 2 games, and now he’s given up 1 in his 3rd start. Great stuff! Kinda creepy! The Travelers won, and Kyle Waldrop homered and doubled. The Travelers have an off-day tomorrow.

Pablo Lopez continues to struggle in the Cal League, giving up 4 R in 4 IP. The Nuts pushed Stockton to extras, though, ultimately winning by a score of 8 to 7. Gianfranco Wawoe had the walk-off base hit. Tomorrow, Anthony Misiewicz starts opposite one of the A’s big prospects, LHP AJ Puk.

Clinton lost yesterday to Wisconsin, as detailed in yesterday’s post. Today, Brandon Miller of the Lumberkings takes on Wisconsin and Trey Supak, who’s yet to allow a run in 8 + IP, with 11 Ks and just 1 BB.

Game 15, Marlins at Mariners

April 18, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 17 Comments 

Yovani Gallardo vs. Wei-Yin Chen, 7:10pm

It was great to see the M’s honor Ichiro before yesterday’s game, and I’m glad they’re marking his return with a bobblehead giveaway that honors his time in Seattle as well as his current status as a Marlin. He’s simply one of the most interesting stars Seattle’s had the fortune to host, and baseball will be worse off when he’s gone. There will be another fireballing phenom in the mold of Noah Syndergaard, and there’ll be more Bryce Harpers, more do-it-all CFs like Trout and Griffey. I’m not confident we’ll see anything like Ichiro again, and that’s too bad. Maybe I’m wrong, and we’ll get someone who seems dropped in from another time and planet who changes how we look at the game, and how we look at the players. I hope we do.

Ariel Miranda was something, wasn’t he? The M’s ravaged rotation needed someone to step up, and Miranda did so. He’s still varying his release point like crazy, but he’s throwing a ton of strikes now. In his first 8 big league starts (7 with the M’s), Miranda posted a BB/9 of 3.78. He’s made 7 starts since, and has pitched in a few more innings than the first sample, and he’s posted a BB/9 of 2.02 in them. That’s a noticeable improvement, arbitrary endpoints or not. I mentioned his splitter when the M’s acquired him last August, and thought it looked like an intriguing pitch as opposed to the somewhat uninspiring change-up he favored at the time. Maybe the M’s agreed, because he’s changed his pitch mix and he threw twice as many splitters as regular change-ups last night.

The other noticeable thing about Miranda is that he gets all sorts of movement on his fastball. It’s not a *great* pitch or anything, but he combines vertical and horizontal movement like almost no pitcher I can think of. That made we assume that Miranda was some sort of high-spin savant, and that maybe spin rate was one of the facets of his game that attracted the Mariners when discussing the Miley trade with Baltimore. But now we don’t have to assume, and can actually measure spin directly thanks to trackman. And out of 412 pitchers to throw a fastball this season, Miranda’s spin rate ranks…381st. What?

I’ve linked to it before, but this article by physicist Alan Nathan talks about spin and the difference between gyro spin (which does NOT cause pitch movement) and transverse spin (which DOES). Clearly, nearly all of Miranda’s spin must be transverse, as something’s clearly creating break. Of course, the problem is that total spin is the combination of transverse and gyro spin, and Miranda’s stated spin rate from statcast simply isn’t big enough to generate movement like we’re seeing. Pitch fx imputes spin from its measurement of movement; it’s not measuring spin directly. THAT system assumes Miranda’s fastball averages over 3,000 RPMs, whereas statcasts’s direct measurement – including gyro spin – is *under* 2,000, and well below average. Nathan plotted pitch fx transverse spin against trackman spin and found some pitches/pitchers with higher transverse spin than total, a situation he calls a physical impossibility. The culprit may indeed be measurement error in one or both systems, but the magnitude of it here is so striking, it makes me wonder if anything else is going on.

He’s not quite in Miranda’s class in terms of movement, but a guy with above average vertical and horizontal movement is actually tonight’s opposing starter, Wei-Yin Chen. And wouldn’t you know it, Chen’s total spin is almost an exact match for Miranda’s. Chen’s sitting at #380, one spot ahead of Miranda. His fastball still has plenty of vertical rise, and gets more arm-side run than you’d expect, but he’s somehow doing so in ways that statcast can’t really detect. Chen’s rise makes him a fly ball pitcher, and with balls continuing to fly out of Safeco, that seems like a good match-up. Of course, the M’s haven’t fared well against fly ballers, per BBREF’s batting splits, but then again the sample’s so tiny, it’s probably meaningless.

Yovani Gallardo’s something of a chameleon on the mound, as he’s been an extreme fly-baller and an extreme ground-baller, seemingly at will. I’d love it if he could just decide to go back to being a high strikeout guy, but I realize that’s not going to work. Given the long-term decline in his control, too, he’s essentially got one way to survive in baseball: become a contact manager. Somehow, he seemed to manage it in Texas, posting a very low HR rate and stranding a bunch of runners. The idea that Gallardo’s results were luck and not skill-driven seemed confirmed as he collapsed last year in both command and HRs-allowed. But while his exit velocity was good in 2015* and worse-than-average last year, it’s been excellent thus far in 2017. It hasn’t really mattered, as his BABIP approaches .400, but it’s a…not-awful sign, especially when paired with his gains in pitch speed. What does all of that mean? I have no idea!

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: Gallardo

Tacoma keeps winning, because no one can hit against the R’s staff, as I mentioned yesterday. Tacoma’s team ERA of 2.25 is easily the best in the league, ahead of 2nd place…wait, what’s this? Colorado Springs? Tacoma’s performance seems a bit more sustainable than that of the Springs, as Tacoma’s got a much, much better K rate and K:BB ratio. Fresno’s team ERA is over 6 at the moment. I love early season stats. Tacoma heads to El Paso to take on the Chihuahuas. Sam Gaviglio gets the start tonight.

Max Povse and the Arkansas Travelers take on San Antonio tonight.

Modesto hosts Stockton again, as Pablo Lopez looks to get it going. He’s coming off two pretty poor 3 IP starts.

Clinton knocked around Matt Garza, scoring 5 runs on 9 hits in 5 2/3 IP against the rehabbing big-leaguer in a 5-4 victory. Today, they dropped a 9-5 decision to Wisconsin and Brewers’ prospect Marcos Diplan. Diplan was actually the big “get” for the Brewers when they traded Yovani Gallardo to Texas a few years back.

* By “good” here I mean that it was well below average on fly balls/line drives, while being normal on grounders. The next year, it was his flies/liners average that moved into below-average territory. The grounder velocity’s been pretty consistent.

Game 14, Marlins at Mariners

April 17, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 17 Comments 

Ariel Miranda vs. Tom Koehler, 7:10pm

Ah, the fish against the fishermen. This sounds like a promising match-up.

Sorry for the lack of a game post yesterday, but hey, the M’s apparently didn’t need it, wrapping up a timely sweep of the reeling Rangers. By BP’s playoff odds (I know, I know), the M’s gained 6.5% in the past week, though a portion of that was the Angels’ slump as well.

On the plus side, the offense looks much better, and Mitch Haniger looks very, very impressive. Taylor Motter’s been more than just a stop-gap at SS, and thus the M’s line-up looks potent. On the down side, Hisashi Iwakuma averaged 84 MPH on his fastball yesterday, and was (justly) pulled a bit over 50 pitches in. He’s made 3 starts and tossed 15 innings, and has just 6 Ks. Worse, he’s got 6 walks and a hit batsmen, so his signature skill – control – appears to be on the wane. He hasn’t been a disaster this year, yesterday aside, but I am extremely concerned every time he starts. Aaron Goldsmith mentioned on the broadcast yesterday that Iwakuma’s fastball velocity is 2nd slowest thus far in 2017, ahead of only RA Dickey’s – a knuckleballer. I double checked, because there are TWO knuckeballers in the league, but it’s true: Steven Wright’s fastball easily outpaces Kuma’s.

James Paxton was electric on Saturday night, and Jeff Sullivan has a great write-up on how he’s doing it over at Fangraphs. Jeff mentions the way Paxton’s been able to use the high fastball to get swinging strikes as well as weak contact, and has a GIF of Paxton getting Elvis Andrus to pop out on the IF, but I wanted to see if Paxton really is using his fastball differently. The 2017 sample is tiny, but let’s take a look at where he throws his four-seam fastball, focusing on RH bats only – many pitchers target different spots depending on the batter’s handedness, and that’s not what we’re looking for here. Here’s Paxton in 2017:

Random red splotches

Paxton 4-seamers to RHBs, 2017

This looks…pretty random. There are high fastballs, but some low-and-in ones too. You can say he targets the inside half of the plate more than the outside half, but it’s not extreme; there’s no clear, obvious zone he’s attacking.

The assumption Jeff makes, and it’s the same one I’m making, is that this is new. This is cheating a bit since it goes all the way back to 2014, but this looks nearly identical to the 2015 heat map. We’re measuring the same thing here, fastballs to right-handed batters, but in the year 2014. See if you can spot a clear, identifiable pattern:
Paxton 14 v rhb plot_profile.php

Kind of likes the low-and-in pitch, huh? This is why Paxton ran a very high GB% despite all of that vertical rise on his fastball thanks to his over-the-top delivery, and you can understand why pitching coaches and others would preach this. Keep the ball down, they can’t hurt you. They’re more likely to hit grounders. Get in, and they can’t extend their arms, etc. All of that may be true, but it comes at a cost. In 2014, he used his fastball against righties *70%* of the time. Right-handed batters who had any kind of scouting report not only knew what pitch was likely to be on its way (84% of first pitches and 84% of pitches when he was behind in the count were fastballs), they knew the quadrant of the zone he was targeting. So much research these days has gone into how to keep batters guessing, and how to ensure that pitch mix isn’t predictable. So much of Paxton’s coaching at the time seems to have been focused on making him as predictable as humanly possible without having him literally tell the batter what was coming and where.

Paxton’s command is much better now, and most explanations of why rely on the exceedingly unsatisfying change in arm slot.* He can target the top of the zone as well as the bottom, and work in and out on hitters, which has obviously made him much harder to hit. I just wonder if part of this improvement is the removal of this limitation on his fastball, the elimination of previous well-intentioned coaching. How much of good coaching is precisely this kind of thing?

Today’s opponent, Tom Koehler is a perfectly normal back of the rotation arm, a righty throwing 92-93 with a good slider and a fastball with lots of vertical rise. In 2014, he had a good season with the Marlins, but it’s been downhill a bit since then. Back in 2014, he threw his four-seam fastball about 1/2 the time, and mixed in a sinker as well, and used his curve a bit more than his slider. Since then, Koehler’s steadily increased the usage of his slider and dialed back on both the curve and fastball, leading to his 2017 pitch mix, which is over 1/4 sliders and more than 1/3 against righties. That usage hasn’t made his slider easier to hit – it’s getting better results than ever. Meanwhile, though, his fastball is getting pounded, with batters increasing their production on it every year.

But he recognizes this, and thus throws more of the pitch that’s good and less of the pitch that’s bad, so it all works out, right? In Koehler’s case, no, it doesn’t work out. Since the start of 2016, batters are slugging .592 on his fastballs (four-seam and sinkers), and while they’re only slugging .254 on his slider, the 20 HRs and tons of XBHs off his fastball show that a good slider isn’t enough (at least in Koehler’s case). Given these numbers, you might expect that Koehler’s really struggled against lefties, but that doesn’t seem to be it either. His platoon splits are silly this year, but in 2016 they were pretty even; Koehler gives up HRs on his fastball, and he’ll give them up to righties and lefties alike.

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

Tacoma capped off a sweep of Alburquerque today with a 4-3 win in Tacoma. After falling behind 3-1, the R’s got HRs from DJ Peterson and Ben Gamel to take the lead, and got solid relief pitching to hold onto it. Christian Bergman got the win, and Jean Machi notched his 3rd save. Yesterday, the R’s beat the Isotopes 3-1 behind a solid start from Chase De Jong, and that followed a 2-0 shutout win thanks to Ryan Weber on Saturday. All told, the Rainiers have pitched 50 innings in their last 6 games, spanning the last 5 days. In that time, they’ve given up 6 runs, good for an RA/9 of 1.08. That’s good.

Speaking of good run prevention, Andrew Moore was back at it today, tossing 7 IP of 1-run ball at San Antonio. That *raised* his ERA on the year to 0.47. He was technically a reliever on the day, as Steve Cishek started and pitched an uneventful 1st, facing 3 batters and retiring them on a groundout and two flyouts. Thyago Vieira got the save today, with 2 Ks and no walks. Good to see that. Lindsey Caughel had a solid start yesterday in the Travelers’ 4-1 win over the Missions, scattering 4 hits in 6 shutout IP.

Modesto was off yesterday, but gear up for a series with Stockton tonight with Nick Neidert on the mound. He dominated the Ports in his last start back on April 11th; we’ll see if he can do it again in front of a home crowd in Modesto tonight.

Clinton was also off yesterday, and begin a series against former affiliate Wisconsin tonight. Ljay Newsome looks to build on his solid 2nd start, and he’ll be opposed by long time major leaguer Matt Garza, who’s on a rehab assignment.

In good baseballing reads elsewhere, Joe Sheehan wrote a thought-provoking article at Fangraphs last week arguing that pace-of-play and the growth in three true outcomes plate appearances are linked – you can’t *just* “fix” one of them.

And here’s Jeff Passan, noting that HRs are still trending upward. It’s a great piece, if slightly frustrating, as I was planning on making that point in this post. Ah well. Here’s a table!

Home Runs per 9 Innings – April Only  
   
2017 1.13
2016 1.06
2015 0.91
2014 0.89
2013 1.02
2012 0.95

We’re just comparing April-to-April here, so while the overall rate last year was slightly higher than 1.13 HR/9, it was lower than that in April. If HRs rise with the temperatures, we’ll blow past 2016’s rate. The more I see, the more I think that Safeco just isn’t the HR-suppressing beast it once was, and I’m still not entirely sure why.

* Nearly every pitcher drops his arm slot when he’s tired. This does not make them 1) throw 5 MPH faster or 2) stop throwing balls.

Game 12, Rangers at Mariners

April 15, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 44 Comments 

James Paxton vs. Andrew Cashner, 6:10pm (Note the early start time)

Paxton’s been the brightest star in the Mariner sky this season in part because he’s shown that last year’s big velocity spike wasn’t just a temporary thing. It’s a part of his skillset, and it has all sorts of downstream effects, from a lower HR/FB rate to larger swinging strike rates, etc. Velocity is not the only thing, but it is a pretty big thing. It was Andrew Cashner’s calling card for years, and has left him tagged as an “intriguing” or “promising” SP despite years of lackluster results and despite turning 30 not long ago.

OK, by the time the Rangers acquired him, I think “formerly promising” was more often used rather than good ol’ unmodified “promising” but that, too, had to do with his raw velocity. Cashner had bicep issues which sapped some of his strength in 2016, and clearly weakened his contract leverage in the offseason. The Rangers bought low on both Cashner and Tyson Ross, and while Ross’s issues were more severe, Cashner’s flared up again in the spring. In a March 31st outing, Cashner averaged 90+ on his sinker, down a full 4 MPH from 2016, and 5-6 MPH from his heyday in San Diego. He was pushed back to the DL, and is only rejoining the team after a 5 IP start in extended spring training. I’m surprised the Rangers didn’t send him out to a minor league affiliate, as I can’t imagine whatever he faced in extended is going to be a good analog for a major league line-up, even a struggling Mariners one. Frankly though, that’s the Rangers problem, not mine.

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

Quick game post today as I’m up in Seattle getting ready to attend this one.

Tacoma beat El Paso 2-1 on a walk-off dropped pop fly. All wins count the same. Dylan Unsworth was solid in a short start, and Mark Lowe picked up the win in relief. Ryan Weber starts for the R’a tonight as they open a series against Albuquerque.

Tyler Herb K’d 10 Corpus Christi batters in 6 IP, but the bullpen coughed up a lead and Arkansas lost 5-4. Brett Ash starts tonight.

Modesto beat up on Lancaster 9-2. Reggie McClain wasn’t sharp, but held the Jethawks to 2 runs in 6 IP. Nathan Bannister gets the start tonight against Thomas Schlitter of Lancaster.

Clinton erased an early 3-0 deficit in Burlington, tying the game in the 8th, but a Roberto Baldoquin walk-off HR gave the Bees a 4-3 win. You may remember Baldoquin as a rare international free agent outlay for Jerry Dipoto as GM of the Angels. He’s been a tremendous disappointment, and may be part of the reason why the M’s still aren’t huge players in the July 2 market (though to be fair, they weren’t in the last years of Zduriencik’s regime).

Game 11, Rangers at Mariners

April 14, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 25 Comments 

King Felix vs. Martin Perez, 7:10pm

Happy Felix Day. Felix’s subjects grow restless, frustrated by another poor harvest, and a steady drip of stories of defeat and mismanagement in the army’s campaign against the southern kingdoms. But the King himself remains beloved, a symbol of nobility and wisdom. Of effortless leadership and resolve. His confidence and joy lifts the spirits of his downtrodden people, but even they, the uplifted, wonder how the Kingdom got quite so lopsided. The Canadian Prince helps, it’s true, but the army’s struggles, the bumbling Council who come in and implement the King’s decrees but inevitably screw up, the alarmingly rapid development and military strength of the southern kingdoms… it’s hard to be positive these days. Being positive is part of the King’s job, and his subjects hope that this is something that comes naturally to him; a product of his personality, or at the very least extensive training from birth. Without him, the people say, we are nothing. With him, we are a contented nothing. They repeat that often, trying to make it true.

The M’s face a divisional rival who has serious bullpen issues of their own. Texas’ bullpen ERA ranks 26th in baseball, just a tiny bit ahead of the M’s in 28th. By Win Probability Added, these two clubs rank last in baseball, with the Rangers at 29th and the M’s right where it feels like they should be in 30th. Closer Sam Dyson’s suffered two gut-punch blown saves, and lost another game to boot. The M’s problems are more diffuse, but the Rangers are perhaps stranger. They’ve lost Jake Diekman for half the year as he’s had to have his colon removed. Keone Kela’s not with the team for personal/personality reasons. Matt Bush has shoulder problems, and so the club is now leaning on Tony Barnette and lefty Dario Alvarez in higher leverage situations.

The M’s will miss Yu Darvish, as the righty just K’d 10 last night in the Rangers win over Anaheim. Instead, the series will kick off with familiar lefty Martin Perez facing off with fellow Venezuelan King Felix. The next day, the Rangers will give the ball to Andrew Cashner, who’s been rebuilding strength in extended spring training, before Cole Hamels will finish off the series on Sunday. Perez, like a microcosm of the baseball world, has seen his velocity increase slowly but steadily over the past 4-5 years. When he first came up, he was at 91 or so, but now routinely sits at around 95 MPH with his fastball. He throws a change, curve, and slider, with the change his best pitch. He was a hyped prospect moving through the Rangers’ system at a young age, so many always assumed his sporadic control issues would be smoothed out with experience. That hasn’t happened, and his walk rate’s continued to climb even as he’s established himself as a big league #4 starter. He’s walked 7 in 11 1/3 IP thus far after setting a career high walk rate in 2016. He’s 5-2 with an ERA in the low 3’s against Seattle lifetime, despite a so-so K:BB ratio, and was 3-0 against them last year, including the 14-0 drubbing of Felix Hernandez the Rangers inflicted on August 31st.

The M’s could use some runs, and it would do my petty, grudge-holding heart good to see them really pound Perez. To do *that*, they’re going to need production from guys other than Mitch Haniger and Robbie Cano. Taylor Motter’s stepped in nicely for the injured Jean Segura, but the combination of Dyson, Valencia, and CF Leonys Martin really need to get going. Martin’s an interesting case study in the promise and the limits of the great new batted-ball data we’re getting from MLB. If you look at a list of Mariners ranked by 2017 exit velocity, Martin ranks 4th on the team, behind only Nelson Cruz among starters (Motter and Freeman rank 1st/2nd). Martin’s a bit ahead of Robinson Cano, and easily outpaces Mitch Haniger and Jean Segura. One way of looking at this is that Martin’s been unlucky, and that his good average EV heralds an imminent turnaround in his results. That way of looking at it would be wrong.

To highlight this, I looked at a non-random group of hitters: Mike Trout, Daniel Murphy, Kris Bryant, Taylor Motter, Mitch Haniger and Kyle Seager. At this point, Motter leads the group in exit velocity, with Murphy in 2nd. Martin and Trout are right in the middle of the pack with nearly identical 89+ MPH average exit velocities. Being close to Mike Trout is great, right? No, because these data, on their own, are essentially meaningless. Sure, if his average was 60 MPH (or 110 MPH), that’d be noteworthy, but the world is frustrating in that nothing is that easy.* *Everyone* is clustered fairly tightly together, and while Nelson Cruz hits the ball really, really hard, it’s not like the guys in the middle or even towards the back of the pack are necessarily slap hitters. Mitch Haniger’s average exit velocity is below average, but it doesn’t matter.

If we restrict those batted balls to ones hit between 20-30 degrees, nearly ideal angles for slugging, the picture looks pretty different. Now, Haniger leads the group with 5 such hits, and they’ve been hit at an average over 100 MPH. It’s probably no surprise that Haniger’s gone 4-5 with 3 HRs and a 2B on such contacts. Look at Martin, though. He’s got 4 batted balls in this group, with an average velocity of just 80 MPH.

The contrast with Bryant is instructive, and it’s one I’ve been thinking about since Jeff wrote this great piece about Justin Smoak of all people. Kris Bryant’s average launch angle is right around 20 degrees, but his average exit velocity – even for those perfectly-angled hits – is nothing special. Last year too. Part of this is the distribution of his batted balls – with an uppercut swing, he’s got several near-misses that result in lazy fly balls. But he’s not Giancarlo Stanton – he generates prodigious power not by hitting the ball 120 MPH, but by hitting a number of balls at the right angle and 107-109 MPH. This has been Mitch Haniger’s trick, too. He’s hit three HRs this year, none of which were struck as well as Taylor Motter’s double, but it didn’t matter. The combination of angle and speed is much, much more important than either on their own.

That brings us back to Martin. He’s actually hit *4* balls at 100 MPH or more, including one that was hit with a higher exit velocity than *any ball Mitch Haniger has hit all year.* The average launch angle of Martin’s 100 MPH blasts? *Negative* 2.5. He’s hit three ground balls and a line drive. At this point, Martin can either hit the ball hard, or hit the ball in the air. He’s been totally unable to do both. This is fixable, but very troubling. Last year, Martin hit 86 balls at least 100 MPH, and started out the year hitting them in the air as well. Through May 21st 2016, Martin hit 22 such balls, and 20 of them had positive launch angles, including 7 HRs. Even through July, he looked like a new hitter – an improved angle had allowed him to display much more power. But since then, something’s changed. His ISO fell off last year, and it’s not going to change now unless his swing path improves. Hitting a bunch of hard ground balls *could* work for some players, but it won’t work with Martin’s elevated K rate. He strikes out too much to be a singles hitter, so getting back to his swing in the first half of 2016 needs to be a priority for the M’s and Edgar Martinez.

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

I can’t tell if I’m glad or kind of annoyed that I did research on Martin only to see him benched in favor of Dyson today. Is it more relevant or less? Relevance has never been my strong suit, so I’ll just let it go. Not sure Dyson’s batted ball data are more encouraging than Martin’s in any event…

Dillon Overton’s been optioned to Tacoma to make room for the newly-rehabilitated RP Tony Zych. The bullpen could use some assistance, so between the off day, Zych, and awesome power of regression towards the mean, things are looking up!

The M’s had a banner day in the minors, with *every* affiliate winning by shutout. Ok, ok, the Rainiers played a double-header, and in the other game, they themselves were shut out, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the stars align for each team to blank their opponents.

Tacoma split a doubleheader with El Paso, with Sam Gaviglio the hard-luck loser of a 1-0 score in game 1. Gaviglio pitched all 7 IP, and retired the final 17 to face him. In the nightcap, Chris Heston tossed a CH 7-IP shutout in the R’s 5-0 win. Tyler O’Neill had 2 singles, while Dan Vogelbach went 3-4 with a 2B. Tonight, Dylan Unsworth’s on the hill opposite El Paso’s Dinelson Lamet.

Max Povse needed to keep up with teammate Andrew Moore, so he went out and blanked Corpus Christi for 5 2/3 IP in the Travelers’ 9-0 win. The 3-4-5 hitters for Arkansas went 9-14. Tyler Herb starts tonight.

Modesto blanked Lancaster 8-0 behind 5 great IP from Anthony Misiewicz and then 3 more from Matt Festa. The game was scoreless headed into the 6th, so Festa gets the win (for whatever that’s worth). The Nuts pitchers K’d 13 JetHawks to only 2 walks, while the offense drew 9 walks to just 6 Ks. Control the Zone champions of the day, right here. Reggie McClain starts tonight’s game.

Clinton dominated Burlington 9-0, scoring 7 runs in the first two innings. Brandon Miller went the first 6 IP, giving up 3 hits and a walk and striking out 5, and Ronald Dominguez closed it out with 3 uneventful IP. Luis Liberato doubled and tripled, while Dimas Ojeda went 3-5 with a double of his own. Tim Viehoff toes the rubber tonight for the L-Kings who’ve won 4 in a row after starting 0-4.

* It’s not quite so black and white, but Jarrod Dyson’s average of 76.9 MPH is troublingly low. He’s never going to hit the ball all that hard, but that’s the lowest figure in baseball for all 76 players with at least 25 (tracked) balls in play. Worse, it’s in last place by *FIVE MILES AN HOUR*. Second to last place (Billy Hamilton, if you’re wondering) is at nearly 82 MPH.

Game 10, Astros at Mariners: Check-up on Offseason Plan

April 12, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 50 Comments 

Yovani Gallardo vs. Mike Fiers, 7:10pm

There’ve been a number of games that felt pretty critical already in 2017, and that’s not a good thing. Neither is handing the ball to Yovani Gallardo in one of those “this feels important” games, but hey, stranger things have happened. Including Gallardo’s placement on this list of highest velocity gainers thus far in 2017! We’ll take our good news wherever we can find it, including in component stats that influence actual results obliquely. Yeah!

It’s early. I get that. The following examination of stats proves nothing, because it’s too early for anything to be provable. I know that, you know that, but these disclaimers still feel necessary…or maybe it’s just habit, like much of the writing on this ol’ website. We could either skip any kind of analysis until, I don’t know, late July, or we could just see what we see. I’m going to opt for the latter. OK, so to quickly summarize what I understood the M’s off-season plan to be, the M’s were going to improve – dramatically – their OF defense, and get more fly-ball pitchers to give the new defense more to do. An important byproduct of all of this was the baserunning would improve as well, as there’s a good correlation between lighting-fast OFs and lightning-fast baserunners. The cost of these moves was essentially twofold: first, it’d thin out the club’s minor league depth a bit, and second, it would come at a cost in offense.

So it’s early and all, but we can distill a few testable claims out of that and see how they’re going.
1: The M’s defense, and in particular their OF defense, will be better than last year (and waaaay better than 2015).
2: The M’s pitchers will yield more fly ball contact and less ground ball contact than last year.
3: The M’s will be much better baserunners.
4: The M’s offense will be worse than 2016.

So how’s the M’s defense been? There’s the handy “Defense” measure at Fangraphs which shows the M’s below average, and ranking 21st, but that’s a bit too vague. Let’s check defensive efficiency, or the percentage of balls in play that become outs. As I’ve mentioned, there are a couple of sources for these data – BP and Fangraphs – and both give you slightly different answers. BP breaks it down by component (infield vs. outfield), so we’ll start there. Here’s the page for Defensive Efficiency, and sort by the column labeled “DE.” You’ll find the M’s figure of .691 ranks them 22nd, and is more or less in line with the nebulous “defense” ranking at FG. Sorting by pitching BABIP at Fangraphs is supposed to be the same basic thing: in this case, you’re measuring the balls in play that fall in for hits, which is essentially 1/defensive efficiency. Using BABIP, the M’s rank…22nd, with an implied DE of .693, so everything we can see shares the same basic view of the M’s run-prevention crew: they’ve been worse than league average.

Leaguewide DE or BABIP or whatever you want to call it has moved somewhat dramatically in the early going of 2017: far more balls in play are being turned into outs. As you can see from this table, leaguewide BABIP’s been fairly stable in the mid .290s, but drops to .285 in the early going this year. That’s not just an April thing; BABIP was .298 in April last year, .291 in April of 2015, and .294 the April before that. That’s some odd context to the M’s defensive…I don’t know, slump? The league as a whole has found it much easier to convert balls in play into outs, whereas the M’s have found it much more difficult. Maybe the M’s have just given up much more well-struck contact – as a team, is their exit velocity much higher than average? Er, no, it’s below average, too.

Going back to BP, is this the result of infield sloppiness? Are the OFs to blame at all? BP’s measure of IF defensive efficiency does show that it’s been the primary culprit, as they rank 20th in IF DE. But their OF DE only ranks 16th, not at all what you’d expect. I’m not sure I would’ve expected that out of the IF either, to be frank, but that’s a concerning figure for the OF. At this point, and we’re already chopping up 1 week’s worth of BIP data into subcategories, the M’s have to hope that this is purely noise. Whether fluky pop flies (like Gattis’ “double” last night) or bad positioning, the M’s haven’t been able to convert as many fly balls into outs as their peers, and that this won’t continue. But even that implies that defense, pace the old saying, might slump. Or go through a rough patch of balls in play. Either way, you can’t count on defense suppressing BABIP all the time. You just have to hope to see evidence of it at the season level.

BP’s DE page also shows the distribution of balls in play. It shows Seattle with a GB% of 47.1%, or 10th highest in baseball. Last year, they were way down at 44.62%, or 22nd. This is just balls in play, so it avoids the shockingly high number of fly balls that have flown over the fence. Fangraphs’ shows the M’s with the 26th-highest FB% overall, and the 11th highest GB%. It’s not quite AS bad, but the M’s have absolutely NOT tilted their balls-in-play profile towards fly ball contact. Obviously, a big factor here is the health of Drew Smyly. As the most fly-ball-centric pitcher on the team, these numbers would look different if he was around, but the bullpen’s been the source of most of the ground balls. James Pazos got GB’d to death last night, as did Edwin Diaz a bit in the Unmentionable Game. This’ll be interesting to watch over the course of the season and see if this, too, is just a tiny sample blip, and not related to true talent. One would think that a team built around elevated contact would have a high launch angle, but statcast reports that the M’s average launch angle-allowed ranks *28th*, which of course fits with the batted ball numbers: the M’s have given up more GBs, rather than less.

The M’s are in fact better baserunners, woohoo!

Finally, let’s check if the offense has produced at a lower level than in 2016… ha ha ha!

Tying all of the above with what we talked about yesterday, I wondered if leaguewide BABIP had dropped BECAUSE of the increased offspeed/breaking ball usage. Remember that we found that pitchers now throw fewer FBs than they did 5 years ago, and that the percentage of FBs thrown has dropped incrementally every year. Whether this is because teams see throwing 96 MPH fastballs as every bit as risky as curve balls, or if it’s because breaking balls produce better results, I don’t know, but it certainly seems to be true. So are teams putting more of those bendy pitches in play? Is that why BABIP is down this year?

I fired up BaseballSavant and I looked at batting average (on contact, or BACON, rather than just balls in play, or BABIP) in 2015, 2016 and 2017. I looked at four-seam, two-seam and sinkers as my “fastball” category and most everything else as my bendy/slow category. You can include cut fastballs and even splitters in fastballs (that’s the default at Brooks and BaseballSavant), but in my mind a splitter is clearly a change-up; it’s a way of producing a change in spin/speed, so grouping it with fastballs doesn’t make sense to me. Cutters are admittedly more of a borderline, as some people use cutters as their fastball (Kenley Jansen) whereas others use them as sliders. I opted for lumping them in with sliders, but you should try this with a different grouping of pitches and see if it makes a difference. Anyway, a table!

2015 2016 2017
Fast 0.337 0.343 0.328
Not Fast 0.317 0.322 0.307

So the not-fast pitches produce an eerily consistent gap in BACON- balls in play on non-fastballs are more likely to be outs. That’s fairly intuitive, I think, but we haven’t really tested the claim: are a higher percentage of batted balls coming off of non-fastballs? Let’s look at the percentage of balls in play on NON-FASTBALLS, and also the percentage of those balls that go for hits (and home runs):

% of batted balls % of hits
2015 41.27% 39.74%
2016 41.97% 40.41%
2017 41.33% 39.71%

Hmmm. There doesn’t appear to be anything there. The percentage of batted balls is oddly similar, and 2015 and 2017 look about identical in percentage that went for hits. I expected movement – some kind of trend – in these data, given what we’ve seen in fastball usage. But it’s not there. I did notice that the average exit velocity of all batted balls was down this year, which gets back to why league BABIP is lower as well. I checked this year’s average against the *April* averages in 2015 and 2016, and it’s down slightly this year on both FBs and non-FBs alike. Not sure what to make of that, but the more you look at it, the more 2016 looks like the outlier, not 2017.

I checked one final thing: the percentage of balls in play that came on pitches in and outside of the strikezone. Maybe the flurry of breaking balls caused batters to expand their zone, and maybe they were contacting more fastballs out of the zone. Here’s a table of the percentage of all batted balls coming on pitches outside of the strikezone, as measured by statcast:

Percentage of Batted Balls
2015 40.72%
2016 40.34%
2017 39.23%

Nope, batters are actually putting slightly fewer balls in play on, uh, balls. But the batting average on contact is down noticeably on BOTH in and out-of-zone pitches this year. Pitchers have induced more weak swings on essentially all of their pitches, and it’s caused leaguewide defensive efficiency to increase even comparing April-to-Aprils-past. That’s really interesting, and it makes the M’s slow defensive start even harder to take/understand.

OK, there’s an actual M’s game tonight. Danny Valencia gets a night off after a rough go last night.

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

The Rainiers won their home opener with an easy 7-2 win over El Paso. Christian Bergman was sharp, with 5 scoreless and 7 Ks, and Tyler O’Neill hit his 2nd HR and added a double. Today, Sam Gaviglio faces off with ex-Dodger Mike Magill, who the Chihuahuas have converted back to the rotation. He was a Dodger SP prospect, then suffered a multi-year battle with wildness (in 32 big league innings, he walked 33), but looked OK in his season debut.

Arkansas…ahhh, Arkansas. The Travelers were swept in a painful double header yesterday, as San Antonio jumped on Lindsey Caughel in game one, but looked to have the nightcap in hand after another brilliant performance from Andrew Moore. Moore went 6 scoreless, scattering two hits, before turning it over to closer Thyago Vieira for the 7th (double headers in the minors are 2 7 IP games) with a 2-0 lead. Vieira…struggled, and by the time the inning was over, it was 6-2 Missions. Yikes. Max Povse tonight, though.

Modesto blanked Stockton 6-0 after an even more impressive performance from Nick Neidert. Neidert retired the first 17 hitters he faced, losing his perfect game with 2 outs in the 6th. He finished with 6 IP, just the one hit, and 8 strikeouts. Wow.

Clinton beat Beloit behind 5 strong IP from Ljay Newsome (7 Ks, 1 R allowed) and 3-4 nights from Luis Rengifo and Bryson Brigman. Danny Garcia starts today against Dakota Chalmers of the Snappers.

Casey Fien Outrighted, Evan Marshall Joins M’s

April 12, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

The idea that Casey Fien was on a short leash percolated through twitter and the blogosphere in recent days, and while the bullpen as a whole has been pretty rough, Fien seemed like a marginal guy. He doesn’t have the youth or fastball of a Dan Altavilla or even James Pazos, he doesn’t have the platoon splits of a Marc Rzepczynski, and he doesn’t have a good season with the club the way Nick Vincent does. With Tony Zych’s return imminent, the M’s were already thinking about which of their bullpen arms to move, and Fien’s so-so outing yesterday just moved the timeline up.

For the time being, Fien’s gone, and his place will be taken by the recently-acquired Evan Marshall. As I mentioned when the M’s picked him up (off waivers), he’s got a good FB that sits in the mid-90s, and a good slider with plenty of drop. That all sounds like a prototypical set-up man, but after a great first season with the D-Backs in 2014, the results just haven’t been there for him. He started 2017 with the Rainiers, and pitched quite well in his only appearance – facing 3 Sacramento RiverCats and striking out 2 and giving up a single. In both the majors and minors, he’s posted surprisingly low strikeout totals for a relief pitcher in these three-true-outcome-loving times, so if the M’s can help him unlock additional whiffs, that’d be nice. His change-up looks poor, so that’s an obvious place to try for improvement, but then, a guy with a 95 MPH fastball and a great slider doesn’t NEED a change-up in one-inning stints.

Marshall’s exit from Tacoma also helps another roster crunch issue: Boog Powell comes off of the restricted list today. His suspension for a second positive PED test wiped out most of his 2016 and it carried over into 2017. He’s back now, apparently joining Fien, who’s booted off of the 40-man. BBREF shows Fien’s got more than three years of MLB service, meaning that he could try his hand at free agency instead of accepting this outright assignment to AAA. However, doing so would forfeit his guaranteed money, which is $1.1 million. After his initial week, I doubt he’d make more on the open market, so his decision NOT to leave makes plenty of sense.

Game 9, Astros at Mariners

April 11, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 21 Comments 

Ariel Miranda vs. Joe Musgrove, 7:10pm

Anyone want to debate the following?

Paxton’s start yesterday was masterful, a complete masterclass in using velocity and location. It needed no context; it sits on its own as a brilliant performance. But add that context back in – the home opener for a team whose season-opening road trip went about as bad as possible – and it gets even better. One of the many things that made Felix this club’s undeniable ace was the number of losing streaks he essentially stopped single-handedly. Little 4-5 game skids that would just stop because Felix wasn’t having it anymore, and so he’d just dominate some poor team and win despite a lackluster performance by the offense. There are countless examples, but here’s one to give you an idea. In addition to signaling a potential step forward in his command and growth as a pitcher, yesterday’s game fits nicely alongside some of Felix’s “stopper” games. It’s just a shame that following this team for years gives you so many such memories (“Remember, after that 6 game losing streak, where Felix/Paxton…” “Wait, wait, which 6 game losing streak? The one in 2015, or 2014, or 2013, or 2012, etc.”).*

Tonight’s game is a rematch of the lone game the M’s won down in Houston. Even in that game, Joe Musgrove kept the M’s off balance, though his command wasn’t great. Musgrove now seems to be embracing the Lance McCullers school of pitch mixing – he’s essentially pitching off of his breaking ball, a good slider. In that 5 IP start against Seattle, he threw 41 fastballs (four-seamers+sinkers) and 41 breaking balls (sliders+curves) and the slider was the pitch he used most. He’ll throw it to lefties and righties, and in just about any count. It elicits a swing even more than his fastball, which is pretty rare for a non-change-up. If he’s had a problem in his brief MLB career, it’s the long ball. Part of that may be his home park, but a part of it seems to be fastball command that’s still a work in progress; you can kind of of understand why he’d start throwing sliders all the time given his specific weaknesses. In time, he could be a very serviceable back of the rotation arm or even a solid #3, and as Dave Cameron pointed out this morning, the back of the Astros rotation – now that we know Charlie Morton wasn’t just a 17 inning mirage last year – looks pretty good.**

We’ve seen a lot of the Astros already, so it probably won’t come as a shock to you that the Astros lead the majors in the percentage of breaking balls they throw. Counting just curves/sliders, they rank #1, just ahead of the Mariners. If you expand the definition to include cutters, they’re #2, just behind Madison Bumgarner and the Giants. And if you expand it further to capture change-ups and splitters, they dominate the field, throwing nearly half of their pitches slower/bendier. The gap between #1 and #2 (the Rays) is equivalent to the gap between #2 and #14. It’s early yet, but check out this table from fangraphs showing pitch mix on the year. It’s subtle, but fastball usage is down over the entirety of the pitch fx era – from nearly 61% in 2008 down to just 56% now. Houston’s unusually limited use of the fastball may be enough to explain a good chunk of the drop between 2016-2017, though obviously the trend predates Houston’s current breaking-ball-mania.

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

Jean Segura heads to the 10-day DL with a hamstring injury, and the M’s don’t want to have Chooch Ruiz as the emergency IF, so they’ve made a roster move. Up from Tacoma comes Mike Freeman, who played a bit for them last year. Freeman needed a 40-man spot, so the M’s have DFA’d left-handed reliever Paul Fry. Motter is the SS, with Freeman stepping into Motter’s utility role. Get well soon, Jean.

Evan Scribner tossed an uneventful 9th, and at least according to the adjusted pitch fx/statcast numbers, seemed to have his spin back. But hold on; that spin rate data produced insane movement numbers for Paxton, numbers that are simply not believable. I’m prepared to believe just about anything regarding James Paxton (bitten by radioactive wolf; has cybernetic implants; secretly holds the power in Canadian government through a lifelike robot he built himself and which he dubbed “Pierre Trudeau” to win the backing of French-speaking Canadians), but there’s no way he was averaging nearly 16″ of rise. We’ll just come back to movement numbers after the system gets recalibrated.

Tacoma splits a double-header in Sacramento. Tacoma took the opener thanks to a great pitching performance from Chase de Jong and two late runs from the offense. Ex-Blue Jay Ricky Romero made his first MiLB appearance in a year and blanked Tacoma for 4 IP in the RiverCats 4-0 win in the nightcap. Ryan Weber blanked Sacto through 3 IP, but the RiverCats scored 4 of of lefty Paul Fry who picked a rotten day for a poor outing. Tacoma’s home opener is tonight, as the Rainiers host El Paso at 7:05. Christian Bergman makes the start for Tacoma against Walker Lockett of the Chihuahuas. Seriously, if you’re not going to the M’s game, or if you’re anywhere near the South Sound, make plans to head up to Tacoma for a game this homestand.

Arkansas got rained out, so they’re playing two today. San Antonio got to Lindsey Caughel early to take the opener 5-1, while Andrew Moore makes his second start of the year in Game 2.

Modesto lost to Stockton 8-3, as Stockton scored 6 runs on 3 HRs against Nathan Bannister. Nick Neidert starts a day game for the Nuts today against A’s prospect Casey Meisner (who came to the Org in a trade for RP Tyler Clippard) of Stockton.

Clinton won their first game of the year against A’s affiliate Beloit 4-2. It was looking bleak, but the L-Kings got 3 runs in the 8th to win it and salvage a great pitching performance from Nick Wells, who went 5 2/3 IP with 9 Ks and 0 BBs, giving up just 1 run. Ljay Newsome makes his 2nd start today against another A’s prospect, ex-Texas Tech pitcher Ty Damron.

* The last time the M’s had a season without at least a 6-game losing streak was also the last time they made the playoffs: 2001.

** His specific quote was that they weren’t the best #3-5 in the game, but were roughly league average, and that Collin McHugh would be better than that if he returns. To me, Morton+Musgrove+just about anyone have much more than “league average” upside, and while they don’t have the track record of, say, the Dodgers/Indians back-of-the-rotation, they’re not far off. They’re not in the Nats (and Cubs/Mets, too) range, but that’s as fearsome a bottom-of-the-rotation as you’re likely to find in the American League.

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