Game 34, Mariners at Phillies

May 10, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

Yovani Gallardo vs. Zach Eflin, 10:05am

Another day, another flurry of personnel moves for the M’s. First, the M’s confirmed that Hisashi Iwakuma would not be making his next start by placing him on the 10-day DL. The stated reason for this was NOT his knee, bruised by a comebacker in his last start. Instead, it was inflammation of the shoulder. That’s quite a bit different, and much more worrying for a team that now has 80% of its projected starting rotation on the DL. I don’t know what Kuma’s dealing with right now, and I obviously haven’t seen/wouldn’t be able to interpret whatever testing the M’s training staff has done. But can we just state the obvious here? It’s not normal for a pitcher to just lose 3-5 MPH without an underlying physical problem. Maybe that problem was deemed manageable, or maybe it was really, really hard to find. I just hope Kuma’s able to come back and hit 88 again after some rest. The news on Paxton/Felix has been much better, as they’re on schedule to return soon – perhaps on the next homestand.

To take Kuma’s place on the active roster, the M’s have brought up Sam Gaviglio from Tacoma. The righty out of Oregon State has good control; he’s walked just 3 batters this year in 5 starts. He uses a sinking fastball with lots of armside run to get ground balls. He’s not overpowering at all, with a FB in the high-80s, so he’s more in the Christian Bergman mold. He came to the org in a trade for current Philly Ty Kelly back before the 2015 season, but hasn’t cracked the 40-man roster until today. His 40-man spot was created when the M’s moved Evan Marshall to the 60-day DL. With Gaviglio up, the Mariners currently have 3 of Tacoma’s opening day starters in their rotation, and just two of their own opening day rotation (and one of those, Ariel Miranda, was just a fill-in for Drew Smyly). FOUR of Tacoma’s opening day starters have been called up. Every team stashes pitching depth on the 40-man, and recall those guys when needed. As such, it’s not a huge shock to see Chase de Jong and Chris Heston fill in for injured players. But I can’t remember the M’s reaching down past the 40-man so often, at least so early in the season. Gaviglio, like Christian Bergman, didn’t seem to have a clear path to the big leagues this year, nor did, say, Mike Freeman, who’d been DFA’d in March. It says something about the magnitude of the M’s injury woes that they’ve gotten a chance, and it also says something about how they’re bringing their actual prospects – Andrew Moore and Max Povse along.

Today’s game *will* feature Robinson Cano, who tested his injured quad in the batting cage, and then proclaimed himself ready to go. Nelson Cruz remains limited to pinch hitting duty with a tight hamstring.

Phils starter Zach Eflin is a command/control righty with impeccable command but nothing in the way of an out pitch. As such, he gets vanishingly few strikeouts, but limits his walks as well – he’s in a near dead-heat with Felix Hernandez with one of the lowest walk rates in all of baseball this year. While his ground ball rate’s a touch above average right now, he’s not a sinkerballer in the Aaron Cook mold. He throws a four-seam as well as a sinker, a slider that he throws a ton of, and then an occasional change. At 6’6″ and with a fastball averaging 93, he doesn’t SEEM like a pitcher who’d struggle to strike out 2-3 per start, but here we are. Put it all together, and I’d describe him as the Phillies’ Blake Beavan (Beavan just signed a minor league deal with the Mets, by the way).

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

More moves: the M’s re-signed ex-Phillies reliever Justin de Fratus, whom they traded for last offseason, and whom they then traded away in June. He’d shown much lower velocity in M’s camp, and was thus removed from the 40-man, but pitched a bit for Tacoma before the trade. He’d been pitching in independent ball before the M’s picked him up.

The M’s also traded for minor league pitcher Bryan Bonnell, giving up an international bonus pool slot. Bonnell had been pitching in the Florida State League in the Rays organization.

The biggest news in the M’s minors last night was the AAA debut of Andrew Moore. He went 5 2/3 IP, giving up 3 runs on 5 hits (including a HR), walking 1 and striking out 5 in the Rainiers 11-8 win over New Orleans. Kate Preusser of LL was there, and has a great overview of his game (which apparently featured one 95 MPH fastball) that you should check out. Mike Zunino homered in his return to Tacoma. They’re off today, but host Round Rock and knuckleballer Eddie Gamboa tomorrow night.

Arkansas is off today, but begin yet another series with the Springfield Cardinals tomorrow. They’ll face Cards prospect Jack Flaherty for the 3rd time in a couple of weeks.

Modesto beat Lancaster 15-13 in a classic California League special last night. The Nuts pitchers gave up 4 HRs, while the bats only hit one of their own, but 17 non-HR hits came in handy. Lancaster actually had a 6-0 lead in this one, before the Nuts scored 9 runs in the 5th-6th innings. Lukas Schiraldi had a forgettable relief appearance, walking 5 and yielding 6 runs in 1 inning. There were a lot of ugly lines, of course, like Salvador Justo’s 4 runs on 2 hits in 1/3 of an inning. Relievers inherited a total of 10 runners in the game, and 8 of them ended up scoring. The two teams play again tonight.

I mentioned Clinton’s win over Lansing yesterday, but wanted to point out that Gareth Morgan hit his 2nd HR in that contest. Morgan was a promising HS slugger out of Canada, but struggled mightily in the Arizona league, putting up eye-watering strikeout totals from 2014-2016. He got an aggressive assignment to the MWL this year, and while the strikeouts are still whatever flag is like 3 steps beyond red, he’s holding his own, more or less. Still a long way to go, of course, but signs of life in a talented prospect who’d seemed 100% busted are always welcome. Ljay Newsome starts today for Clinton.

Game 33, Mariners at Phillies

May 9, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 11 Comments 

Ariel Miranda vs. Jerad Eickhoff, 4:05pm

The M’s head east for a quick roadtrip against two struggling teams, the Phillies and then the Blue Jays. I’ll admit to having ignored the Phillies for a few years, and what impressions seeped into my brain were that their rebuild was progressing thanks to an exciting young rotation. That rotation was the product of a nice draft (for Aaron Nola) and then two of those big, franchise-altering trades that rebuilding teams make – in this case, the trades of Cole Hamels to Texas and Ken Giles to Houston. The former brought in today’s starter, Jerad Eickhoff, along with two bigger prospects. The latter brought high-ceiling arm Vince Velasquez and a lottery ticket in Mark Appel. Both Velasquez and Nola looked amazing at times in 2016, but ended the year with so-so overall lines. Nola’s ERA lagged his FIP by well more than a run, while Velasquez’s HR problems kept him from being more than a league average starter (to be clear, both had solid seasons for young starters, but both have the talent to be much, much more than “average”).

This year, however…Nola’s ERA still trails his FIP by well more than a run, and Velasquez’s ongoing issues with the longball have his ERA near 6 and his FIP driving his WAR below zero. The Phillies pitching staff ranks 28th in baseball by WAR, thanks to the league’s highest HR rate, and a middling K:BB ratio. The rebuild continues, but the pitching part of the equation is actually lagging the position players at the moment. That’s surprising, because their position players have largely escaped mainstream attention. 3B Maikel Franco was a huge prospect, it’s true, but his OBP is under .300 at the moment, and his slash line of .217/.292/.374 is NOT what’s driving the Phillies’ offense. Instead, they’re paced by lead-off man Cesar Hernandez and CF Odubel Herrera, two of the unlikelier players to post 4-WAR seasons.

Hernandez, a 2B, came up slowly through the Phillies system as a speed/contact guy. His ISO was generally stuck below .100 through the minors, and that’s where it stayed in his first few years in Philadelphia. A good batting eye and an even better glove allowed him to add more value than you’d expect for a non-premium position defender without pop, but obviously, the ceiling was limited. He wasn’t helped by the fact that the Phillies’ coaching staff last year apparently *demanded* that he hit the ball on the ground more. In fact, he was benched by the Phils last year, with bench coach Larry Bowa (career ISO: .060, years with league average bat: 0) saying he’d be benched all season unless he hit fewer balls in the air. As Dave’s article suggests, he sort of went along, but started pulling the ball much more, bringing his ISO up slightly. This year, with new hitting coach Matt Stairs preaching the value of line drives and fly balls, he’s a new hitter, with 4 HRs already and an ISO of .163. He’s hitting the ball in the air much more (higher launch angle), hitting it harder, and pulling it. If this sounds a lot like Taylor Motter, it should. Like Motter, these changes, while beneficial overall, have taken a bite out of his K:BB ratio, contact, and walk rate. I’m sure he doesn’t much mind, and now that the Phillies don’t mind, he’s on his way to blowing past last year’s 4.4 fWAR season…he’s at 1.5 already.

Odubel Herrera was a rule 5 pick out the Rangers org before the 2015 season, and after an out-of-nowhere 4 WAR campaign that year, he backed it up with another ~4 win season last year. His glove and position drive much of that, but he hit 15 HRs last year, and thanks to a solid average, his SLG% was well into the .400s in both full seasons. His BABIP’s dropped a bit in the early going, so his slash line doesn’t look as nice now, but he’s still a remarkably valuable piece for a rebuilding team to stumble into. His defense still grades out as plus, too. That’s the other way in which the Phils position players are helping the club: the Phillies defense has been one of the best in the league. By DER, they’re great, with the OF in particular turning lots of fly balls into outs. Thus, while the Phils have a lower-than-average wOBA, OBP, wRC+ or whatever offense stat you want to use, they rank 10th in baseball in WAR.

Going back to their rotation for a moment, the Phillies have a high HR rate in part because of their approach. While not quite as extreme as the Tigers and Red Sox, the Phils have targeted the top of the zone more than most teams. Using the old Gameday zones on Statcast, the Phillies’ have the 7th-highest rate of high pitches in baseball. What does that mean for the M’s? Well, the M’s have been much better than average at such pitches, with a wOBA significantly higher than average. It’s *low* pitches that the M’s have struggled with, and as Houston throws more of those than anyone, it kind of makes sense why Houston’s locked down the M’s offense (it also skews these stats, of course).

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Valencia, 1B
6: Heredia, LF
7: Gosewisch, C
8: Dyson, CF
9/SP: Miranda

Before the game, the Mariners and Phillies made a minor trade, with Casey Fien moving over to the Phillies org in exchange for cold, hard, cash money.

Nelson Cruz gets another day off with his tight hamstring; Bob Dutton says he’s unlikely to start tomorrow, but he is available to pinch hit.

Shawn O’Malley underwent shoulder surgery today. He was already on the 60-day DL, but he really, really won’t be able to play for another 2 months at least.

Lots of moves in the minor leagues, and the biggest may be Andrew Moore’s promotion to AAA Tacoma. He’ll start tonight at Cheney Stadium against New Orleans. Someone go and give us all an in-person scouting report. Andrew Moore’s opponent tonight is ex-MLB starter Vance Worley. The R’s blanked the Baby Cakes 2-0 last night behind Ryan Weber, Dean Kiekhefer and Emilio Pagan. Weber’d now tossed 31 1/3 IP in 6 appearances including 5 starts. His ERA is 0.85. He’s walked just 4, and while he’s not a strikeout pitcher at all, his sinker is racking up ground balls at a staggering rate.

Arkansas lost to NW Arkansas in an intra-state clash 3-2 last night. The Travelers (the good Arkansas) bullpen failed them, unfortunately, as Peter Tago gave up 2 runs in the 9th, turning a 2-1 lead into a 3-2 loss. Ian Miller and Chuck Taylor each had 2 hits in that one. They played again today, and yet again the Travs couldn’t figure out NW Arkansas pitching, falling 3-1. Lindsey Caughel was solid for 6 IP, but the bats couldn’t figure out NWArk starter Matt Tenuta, who’s been destroyed by the rest of the Texas League. Oh well.

Clinton lost to Lansing 4-3. Tim Viehoff gave up 4 runs in 4 2/3, and the offense couldn’t get to Lugnuts reliever Tayler Saucedo. Anthony Jimenez and Nick Zammarelli both doubled and singled in the game. These clubs played an early game today, and this was more of a slugfest, with the Lugnuts winning 11-6. Jimenez and Luis Liberato each had 2 hits, but Nick Wells gave up 7 runs in 5 IP, and the Lumberkings rally fell well short.

Game 32, Rangers at Mariners

May 7, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 13 Comments 

Dillon Overton vs. Andrew Cashner, 1:10pm

7-run innings are fun, and I recommend the M’s produce more of them. Further, why can’t they make the entire season out of home series vs. a banged-up Texas club?

Dillon Overton gets the start today ahead of Christian Bergman. Chase de Jong’s second start worked out ok; maybe Overton will grow into this role.

Andrew Cashner is pretty unrecognizable from his Padres days; he’s now got below average velo, and he throws a ton of sinkers. Strangely, though, it’s worked ok, at least through a handful of starts. He pitched pretty well in Safeco in Mid-April, but his start lined up with Paxton’s gem. His ERA, though, masks some ugly peripherals. He was never a strikeout guy, even when he threw 97. Now his K:BB ratio looks poor, and worse when you remember that the walks are the largest term, not the Ks. You almost fooled me, Cashner.

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

Game 30, Rangers at Mariners

May 5, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 69 Comments 

Yovani Gallardo vs. Yu Darvish, 7:10pm

The M’s welcome the last-place Rangers for a three game series beginning tonight. The M’s managed to miss ace Yu Darvish in their last series with Texas, but aren’t so lucky this time. With the Rangers scuffling thanks to another April bullpen implosion (remember Shawn Tolleson last year?) and with Darvish in the final year of his deal, Dave argues he could become the most sought-after strech run rental on the market. It’s easy to see why: he still has above average velocity and probably the deepest pitch arsenal in the game. His control, if you go by walk rate, has never been elite, but the more data we get, the more he looks like a guy with plus command.

Using Statcast’s definition of the strikezone’s edge (within a ball’s width of the zone boundary, either in or out), Darvish has thrown the 7th highest percentage of pitches on the edge of anyone in baseball. Does that matter? Yes and no. It matters because the league as a whole hits the ball softer on pitches on the edge than they do on pitches solidly within the zone; getting contact on the edge is preferable to getting contact in the zone. League wide, batters average exit velocity is 85 MPH on the edge, compared to 90.1 MPH within the zone. You get poor contact quality on balls well outside the zone too, of course, but hitting the edge gives you the best of both worlds: plenty of called strikes if batters take the pitch, and weaker contact if they don’t. Darvish ranked 37th out of 439 pitchers who threw at least 500 pitches last year, so there’s some evidence that he has a real skill at hitting the edges. On the other hand, the qualified pitcher with the highest edge percentage is Kyle Gibson of the Twins, a guy who’s been so bad this year he was sent to AAA after yesterday’s game.

That said, Darvish’s primary strength is that his stuff allows him to pitch in the zone and not pay a big penalty for it. Over the last two years combined, Darvish’s average exit velocity on pitches solidly within the zone is the 10th lowest in baseball, just ahead of Noah Syndergaard. Velocity helps (as you see from Syndergaard, Carlos Martinez, Darvish and Jon Gray ranking well), but it’s not everything, as we see last night with Alex Meyer. Darvish’s ability to keep hitters off guard results in a lower BABIP and fewer home runs than anyone should allow as a fly ball pitcher in Arlington.

Let’s look back at that table of the pitchers who’ve best targeted the edge of the zone. Just a few places behind Darvish sits Yovani Gallardo. HIS exit velocity on these pitches is lower than Darvish’s, and sure, Gallardo can’t make a living within the zone like Darvish can, but he does show that if you’re able to hit the edges, you can survive in MLB. Gallardo’s inducing a lot of grounders again (his year in Baltimore was odd for many reasons, including an abnormally low GB%), and they’re not being struck all that well. So why does he have a BABIP of .352, one of the worst in the league?* If you look at a heatmap of the contact he’s given up, it looks completely innocuous:
Gallardo contact

The problem is they’re not being turned into outs. Baseball Reference says he’s batters are hitting .310 on grounders against Gallardo thus far, or about 46% higher than average. Gallardo’s been a microcosm of the M’s pitching staff in general, which is yielding a batting average of .289 on grounders, and production 40% higher than average.

Again, I’m wondering if the M’s want to shift a bit less or perhaps shift differently, because something isn’t working, and Gallardo’s paying the price for it.

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

I mentioned it the other day, but it’s worth recognizing just how good Ben Gamel’s been, and just how unlike the Ben Gamel of 2016 he’s been. Yes, he’s still a patient hitter, bordering on TOO patient, and his swing rate’s actually gone down in the early going in 2017. But what happens when he DOES swing is totally different. Like Taylor Motter, he’s given up trying to spray the ball around the field and is now trying to pull the ball, and, well, he’s doing it. A hitter without a ton of HR power in an outfield corner is always going to be a somewhat marginal player, but if you ARE going to make it, you’ve got to hit the ball hard in the gaps. The new Ben Gamel may be capable of that. I’m stunned at this change, just like I was stunned at Motter’s. The M’s coaching staff has come in for some criticism this year given the regression or at least lack of progress from Dan Vogelbach, Leonys Martin’s collapse, Dan Altavilla and most of the bullpen’s issues and more, but Gamel is starting to look like a win for them.

Tacoma cruised past Las Vegas 8-1 last night, getting another great start from Sam Gaviglio and 3 hits (including a 2B and 3B) from Mike Freeman, who’s torching the PCL at the moment. Leonys Martin doubled twice, too. Chris Heston faces off with Tyler Pill today in Vegas.

Arkansas split their doubleheader with Tulsa, winning game 1 3-1 behind Lindsey Caughel’s best start in the org, and losing the nightcap by the same score after a so-so start from Andrew Moore. Drillers 3B Edwin Rios hit 2 HRs in game 2, but made 2 errors in game 1. Today, Max Povse tries to get back on the right track after two straight poor starts.

Modesto beat Lake Elsinore thanks to Anthony Misiewicz’s best start of the year. The righty out of Michigan State went 7 IP, allowing just one hit and one walk, and striking out 8. Joey Curletta hit a 3R HR to lead the offense. Reggie McClain starts today’s game against the Storm, opposite Padres prospect and 2016 first-rounder Eric Lauer.

Clinton lost the finale of their series with West Michigan 9-3, as an 8 run inning turned a 2-0 lead into a deficit they couldn’t recover from. Nick Wells was cruising, then suddenly wasn’t, and the bullpen tossed dry, cured wood on to the fire. Today, the Lumberkings head to South Bend to take on the Cubs, and Clinton has Ljay Newsome on the mound, looking for his 5th straight solid start, and looking to extend his unreal K:BB ratio, which currently stands at 30:1.

* Felix’s stands at .388, which is just ludicrous.

Ok, NOW Panic: James Paxton to DL with Forearm Strain

May 5, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

The season is not yet 1/5th of the way through, and though the M’s current position and slightly less-bleak playoff odds aren’t that encouraging, the M’s have had several players show signs of blowing their preseason projections out of the water. While, say, Jean Segura isn’t going to eliminate the gap between the M’s and Astros, you could kind of see a path to wildcard contention if a number of things went right: Felix/Haniger are only out 3 weeks, and come back at more or less full strength, Gamel continues to hit, Texas continues to struggle with health, etc. Today, the M’s just announced that ace lefty James Paxton will miss a “couple of starts” with a forearm strain. Now it’s really, really hard to make out a path that doesn’t end at game 162.

I mentioned yesterday that the rotation’s been fine, and that the run prevention group’s problems lie in the bullpen and defense. That’s been true, but the rotation’s overall numbers are, to date, the product of one incredible starter, a couple of guys performing heroically to get to within hailing distance of average, and then some pretty rough stuff. The Mariners rotation has been worth 2.1 fWAR to date. Of that, Paxton accounts for 1.7. Bob Dutton reports that it’s only a grade 1 strain, and that he could be back shortly after his 10-day DL stint ends. In that amount of time, there’s really not much any one pitcher can do to swing a seasonal win total all that much. Chase de Jong was awful, but it was just one game. But now Chase de Jong is stuck in the rotation for weeks, as Christian Bergman will be called up to replace Paxton. They’ve already cycled through Chris Heston, and de Jong hasn’t inspired a ton of confidence. If *either* Felix or Paxton’s return is delayed, at all, you’re talking about a significant number of innings given to pitchers who may not give the M’s much of a chance.

And worrying that the injuries to Paxton/Felix might linger isn’t some paranoid thing. Thanks to a series of high-profile cases, fans often rightly see forearm strains as a precursor to elbow ligament injuries down the road. The M’s have checked that in Paxton’s case, so I’m not suggesting that Paxton’s been misdiagnosed. Rather, I’m concerned that something in Paxton’s delivery is putting a lot of strain on his fingers and thus his forearm. Paxton’s own injury history is evidence against assuming that all will be well at the end of the DL period. His 15-day DL for a middle finger problem in 2015 turned into several months of missed time. His fingernail problems in 2015 and 2016 was corrected more quickly, but the lat strain that sidelined him in 2014 took 4 months. The M’s can’t afford to have their one clearly above-average pitcher out of action for anything close to that.

Dutton’s article says that Christian Bergman will get the chance to start in Paxton’s absence, though that move hasn’t yet been made. It’ll require a 40-man move, as Bergman isn’t on the roster at this point. In the short term, Evan Marshall and Mike Freeman are up from AAA, while Boog Powell heads back down. No word yet on who’d come off the roster to make room for Bergman; that move’s expected over the weekend. Bergman’s been one of the best starters in the PCL thus far in 2017, and has plenty of big league experience with the Rockies the past few years. That said, there’s a reason he’s with the M’s on a minor league deal. He throws in the high-80s, with a slider/cutter breaking ball and a change-up. Neither secondary pitch looks all that hot in terms of movement, so the fact that he’s had HR problems in the majors may not be solely a Coors Field artifact. His change-up WAS good enough to keep lefties off balance, even if it wasn’t a real strikeout pitch. His problem’s been that he doesn’t have anything to get *righties* out with. Righties have slugged .699 off his fastball, and nearly .500 off of his cutter. He’s thrown some change-ups to righties too, but they’ve gotten destroyed just like his fastball. He won’t be pitching in Denver, and his results in 2017 have been very encouraging, but Bergman is very much in the de Jong/Heston command/control mode, and that hasn’t worked terribly well thus far. Best of luck to him, and best of luck to Paxton in his recovery.

EDIT TO ADD ANOTHER ROSTER MOVE:
Mike Zunino’s on again, off again MLB career is now switched back off, and his hitting woes are now up to Tacoma’s coaching staff to fix. He’s been optioned, while Tuffy Gosewisch is up with the big club. It’s worth remembering that Zunino’s “transformation” occurred in Tacoma last year, and the longer he was away from the fabulous City of Destiny, the worse he hit. That said, this is a big blow to the M’s, as Zunino not only failed to capitalize on a season that looked fairly promising, but regressed into his 2015 form. Not sure I’ve seen a career arc like his in a while, though of course you can insert your failed busted prospect here. He’s looked competent at times, though never for all that long. Still, those months of decent power production show how he COULD add value, if he’s ever able to fix his pitch recognition and swing-and-miss issues (the two are related, of course).

Game 29, Angels at Mariners – Bullpen Woes Continue

May 4, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 16 Comments 

Ariel Miranda vs. Alex Meyer, 7:10pm

I suppose if we’re going to endure another gut-punch of a game, another late-inning collapse, the least the M’s could do is pull it out and get a win. Their big 4-run inning to take the second game of the series was great, but about all of these gut-punches… could we have fewer of those?

The M’s front office has spent more effort on remaking their bullpen over the past two seasons, and at this rate, a list of transactions for 2017 will approach David Foster Wallace lengths based almost solely on bullpen moves. Overton/Heston/de Jong kept rotating between Seattle and Tacoma, Casey Fien was in, then out, then back in, then back out, and now Jean Machi and Emilio Pagan have joined the team. It’s been a hell of a month.

One of the things that an 8-man bullpen should do is give a manager the flexibility to use the platoon advantage (or play match ups) frequently. You don’t have to worry about burning Marc Rzepczynski early in the game in a critical situation, as you go to LOOGY #2 or #3. The M’s have had the potential to do this, and reap the benefits of a sustained platoon advantage, but it hasn’t quite worked out. Even with Scrabble and James Pazos holding lefties in check, the team as a whole has struggled against them. We’ve seen what Kole Calhoun’s done to Edwin Diaz the past two nights, and it’s been something that the back of the bullpen (Fien, Evan Marshall, etc.) has struggled with in the opening month.

Fundamentally, the M’s haven’t been benefiting from their investment in roster spots in the pen. By win probability added, a context-driven stat measuring how each player improves a team’s chance to win or lose, the M’s bullpen has been second-worst in MLB, just ahead of Texas. Given Sam Dyson’s array of meltdowns, that might seem surprising, but then after the past two nights, it seems almost too obvious to mention. The M’s rank 10th in bullpen innings pitched, but dead last in ERA, 26th in FIP, and 29th in strand rate. As their FIP seems to indicate, they’re better than their results thus far. Unfortunately, they’re probably not great, and they kind of need to be if the M’s want to make a run at this, especially given the starting rotation’s problems.

That’s the frustrating part: for all of the challenges the rotation’s had, they’ve kept the M’s in games. Gallardo and de Jong have had some awful games, and Iwakuma couldn’t get past the 3rd inning once, etc., but the rotation’s 13th in the league in ERA and 14th by FIP. They’re not world beaters or anything, but they’re (barely) in the top half of baseball, and that’s with Felix missing a start, with Yovani Gallardo figuring things out on the fly, with Iwakuma throwing batting-practice-speed fastballs, and Drew Smyly on the 60-day DL. Why have the less-than-ideal stopgaps kind of worked in the rotation, whereas they’ve nearly all backfired in the pen? I hope the M’s can figure that one out, and quickly.

The M’s face tall righty Alex Meyer tonight, a fireballing disappointment who came over in the Nolasco/Santiago trade I talked about the other day. A former first-round pick of the Nats, he moved to Minnesota straight up in a deal for starting CF Denard Span. At 6’9″ and armed with a fastball averaging 96-97, he was a consensus top-100 prospect, the kind of guy who could get traded for a big league regular with some club control left. But while he wasn’t bad in the minors, he also never quite lived up to his ace potential. His strikeout rates were fine, but he just seemed to give up too many runs. Cups of coffee with Minnesota and, last year, Anaheim showed he wasn’t quite ready, and he got knocked around in 4 starts in the PCL this season.

Velocity is good for pitchers. Meyer is better than he otherwise would be if he “only” threw 92-93, but Meyer is perhaps the best example of a guy struggling despite high-octane stuff. His curve doesn’t get as much break as most other pitchers’ do, but that’s directly related to its speed. At over 85 MPH, it’s well over 2 standard deviations faster than the average big league hook. By velo alone, it starts to look kind of slider-y, and this high-power slurve has been very, very tough for big league batters to square up. Meyer’s struggles are directly related to his fastball, the one that’s averaged 96+. Over his short MLB career, batters have slugged *.769* on Meyer’s four-seamer. They’ve slugged under .300 on his curve (and change, his third pitch). Part of this may be due to his delivery; lefties have torched him, implying at least that they can pick up the ball quickly against him. Meyer uses his height to generate a downward plane, targeting the bottom of the zone, particularly to lefties. His swerving, sinking four-seam seems tailor made for this, but then, lefties have hurt him on low fastballs. I know you don’t want to give up on your own game plan based on a handful of innings, but you probably don’t want to be so wedded to a plan that you ignore all of the evidence suggesting it’s not working.

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: Miranda

Mike Trout gets the day off for Anaheim…take advantage, M’s.

I talked about Tacoma’s dramatic comeback win in Vegas yesterday, but they’ll go for their 7th win in 8 games tonight behind Sam Gaviglio. Casey Fien cleared waivers and joined the team.

Arkansas’ game against Tulsa was rained out last night, so they’ll try to get in two today. Lindsey Caughel starts game 1, while Andrew Moore takes the mound in the nightcap.

As mentioned yesterday, Pablo Lopez and the Modesto Nuts edged the San Jose Giants 4-3 yesterday afternoon. Today, the Nuts welcome the Lake Elsinore Storm, as Anthony Misiewicz starts for Modesto.

Clinton lost to West Michigan yesterday 3-2, and the two teams are back at it this afternoon with Nick Wells on the hill for the Lumberkings.

Game 28, Angels at Mariners

May 3, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 25 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Ricky Nolasco, 7:10pm

Last night’s loss was tough to take. Edwin Diaz seems so, I don’t know, HUMAN all of the sudden. His strikeout rate’s good, the velo seems to be there, but the sense of inevitable dominance certainly isn’t. Small sample, I know, but I’m not talking about Diaz’s talent, I’m talking about what it feels like when Diaz enters a game now, and how different that feeling is than 8 months ago. Everything about him seems like it’s on fast-forward, from his meteoric rise after transitioning to the pen to spending all of 3-4 months as one of the most dominant relievers in the game, and then this (perhaps inevitable) fall. He’s young, he’s still got great stuff – he can come out of this and reclaim his spot among the elite closers, but man, the M’s track record of helping pitchers successfully pull out of tailspins isn’t great. They’ve sent Dan Altavilla back to Tacoma, and Cishek’s hanging out there for a while as they work on his mechanics. Sending their closer down would seem like a vote of no confidence in the big league coaching staff as well as a white flag on the season, so I don’t think anything like that’s close. But games like last night’s put you in a pessimistic mood.

If that wasn’t cheery enough, James Paxton lost the strikezone, and while he kept the club in the game, it ultimately wasn’t enough. It certainly feels like the M’s need to win his starts, given the uncertainty in the rotation behind him. That’s a nearly impossible burden to put on a guy, even one as talented and locked in as Paxton’s been this year. But while Matt Shoemaker isn’t chopped liver, the offense needs to be a bit less streaky – a bit more consistent from game to game. They had plenty of chances to do more damage against both Shoemaker and the Angels pen, but couldn’t quite do it. The 9th inning comeback was great, but why’d you NEED a 9th inning comeback?

Hisashi Iwakuma starts tonight, and tries to extend his little run of solid pitching despite down velocity. He was great in Detroit, hitting his spots and avoiding the heart of the zone, but he hasn’t been able to do that consistently this year. Getting the ball down is key for Iwakuma these days, as batters are turning more of his missed fastballs into home runs. Balls that fall below the zone can’t really hurt, and if they’re splitters, they may even induce an ill-advised swing. Balls that fall in the middle or top of the zone (at 83 MPH) become souvenirs.

That’s why Iwakuma’s been so focused on the low pitch, as we’ve talked about. I’ve re-checked the numbers, and among all pitchers who’ve thrown at least 150 pitches this year, Hisashi Iwakuma’s rate of pitches at the lower edge of the strikezone and below ranks 17th out of 330 pitchers. Nearly 46% of his pitches aren’t just lower than the midpoint, but *extremely* low. Among starting pitchers, that percentage ranks 7th in baseball; Dallas Keuchel is famously #1 by a mile among SPs, with Mike Leake, Wade Miley and Zach Greinke a ways back. A few of these guys – Keuchel, Andrew Triggs, Leake – use this strategy to induce a lot of ground balls. But others, like Greinke, Miley and Iwakuma, aren’t putting up insane GB rates. Greinke and Iwakuma aren’t even above average.

That might be a good thing. If you remember, I talked about the VERY early team defense numbers a few weeks back, and how the M’s outfield defense didn’t look as amazing as promised. But that was only after 9 games – far too early to tell much, right? Well, it’s been a bit longer, and the overall numbers still look similar. The M’s team defensive efficiency – the percentage of balls in play they turn into outs – is still stuck just below .700, among the worst in the league. At that point, the M’s defensive efficiency just on fly balls ranked 16th. Now, with a few more weeks of play, and with Jarrod Dyson in CF, they rank…15th. There are really two main takeaways you get from comparing the numbers after 10 games to the numbers after 27 – first, the M’s pitchers aren’t quite as ground-ball heavy as they were in the early going and second, the M’s have been awful on ground balls.

The M’s defensive efficiency on ground balls now stands at .710, by a wide margin the worst in baseball. Baseball Prospectus’ data on DER by batted ball type seems to go back to 2003. In that time, no team has *ever* posted a DER on ground balls as low as the M’s current .710. For years and years, the *lowest* DER on grounders would be in the .740s. This is…this is bad, people. The 1B position has been suspect at times, but probably doesn’t get enough chances to make an impact like this. Taylor Motter probably isn’t a true SS, and had to fill in for Jean Segura, and that’d make a dent in the team’s DER. But the magnitude here, especially with some solid defenders racking up innings, suggests something more systemic. The M’s shift all the time now, and while Manny Acta proudly mentioned the number of plays saved thanks to the shift last year, I’m seeing less of it this year. A lot of this may be luck, but I’m wondering if the M’s are either shifting too much, or shifting incorrectly. There’s no reason for *this* group of players to put up historically bad defensive efficiency numbers, but as long as they are, I guess I’m glad Hisashi Iwakuma’s not a ground ball pitcher anymore.

I lambasted the odd trade last year that sent Hector Santiago to Minnesota in exchange for Ricky Nolasco and Ricky Nolasco’s big contract, but wouldn’t you know it, it hasn’t been a disaster for Anaheim. Nolasco, coming off a year and a half of replacement-level pitching in the Twin Cities, ended 2016 with 21 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run. He tossed a CG shutout earlier in his Angels’ tenure. This year, he hasn’t been great thanks to a persistently high HR rate, but…I wanted a disaster, not quiet mediocrity and admirable consistency. This year, even Santiago’s getting into the act, running a very nice ERA and FIP in a handful of starts. People always talk about win-win trades, but they’re hard to find in the wild. This boring swap of back-end starters may be an example.

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: Iwakuma

Remember when Taylor Motter’s bat was unbenchable, and how he’d get starts in the OF and 1B? That was *so* April. We’re moving on, people.

Tacoma beat Las Vegas 5-3 last night at Cashman Field, and thought it was so enjoyable, they’ve done it again today. Yesterday’s win featured more solid pitching from Christian Bergman, who’d been in Seattle by now if he had, I don’t know, Dillon Overton’s 40-man spot. They also got HRs from Dario Pizzano and Zach Shank. Today, they got a decent start from Ryan Weber, and a HR from DJ Peterson. They needed 11 innings to get to their 5-3 result, but that just let the bullpen show off – they pitched 5 scoreless and racked up 5 Ks against no walks.

Tulsa and Arkansas were rained out today.

Modesto beat San Jose 4-3 behind Pablo Lopez and a shutdown save from Lukas Schiraldi. Braden Bishop had a hit and a walk. Last night, the Giants used a 6-run inning to pull away from the Nuts and win 11-7. Kody Kerski gave up 8 runs in 1 IP, and Bishop doubled and singled.

Clinton held on to that 5-0 lead I mentioned yesterday, albeit barely. They ended up with a 5-4 win over Lake County. Today, they lost another close one to tastefully-named Eudis Idrogo 3-2. Idrogo, a Venezuelan lefty, spent 3 years pitching in the VSL for the Tigers affiliate, and in each year, he allowed 12 walks. His innings totals varied, as did his other results, but in each campaign: 12 free passes. He made his way to the US affiliates in 2015, splitting time between the NY-Penn league and the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. Combined, he threw 54 1/3 IP that year, with, yes, 12 walks. Last year, Eudis Idrogo showed that he’s his own man; good luck trying to figure out what Idrogo’s gonna do. You don’t OWN Idrogo. (He gave up 14 walks). Ronald Dominguez tossed 4 IP of scoreless relief in today’s game.

Game 27, Angels at Mariners – More Roster Churn, and Gamel’s Gains

May 2, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 25 Comments 

James Paxton vs. Matt Shoemaker, 7:10pm

The M’s return home after a frustrating road trip that saw them on the precipice of winning a second straight road series, before falling in ugly fashion to the Indians. That game seems to have occasioned another series of roster moves, with the M’s returning to the 8-man bullpen that fans so loathed. The first move, and it’s not exactly a shock, is Dan Vogelbach heading back to Tacoma. Another 25- and 40-man spot was created when Casey Fien was once again knocked off the roster, this time through being designated for assignment. The M’s created one final roster spot by moving UTIL Shawn O’Malley from the 10- to the 60-day DL. So who are the beneficiaries of the new 40-man spots? Two Tacoma relievers, MLB vet Jean Machi and prospect Emilio Pagan.

Machi, 35, has thrown nearly 200 big league innings, and while he’s not a huge strikeout guy, he uses a sinking fastball to generate a lot of ground balls. While he throws a slider, his big putaway pitch is a splitter with good vertical movement, and that’s helped him produce reverse platoon splits over his career. Clearly, Machi’s not a righty-specialist, but could be used to get a lefty if they’re in a tough spot before they want to use Marc Rzepczynski, and he could be called upon in a double play situation. Emilio Pagan was a 10th-round pick back in 2013 out of a tiny college in the south, and has made steady progress since. He’s about to turn 26, so he’s not exactly a young phenom, but he’s posted gaudy strikeout totals at each stop, so neither is he just a AAAA veteran who’s posted a nice line in a couple week stint. He saw action in the World Baseball Classic, setting up for Edwin Diaz for Puerto Rico, a job he could one day reprise in the big leagues. His fastball comes in around 95 and has good vertical rise. His change-up has nowhere near the drop that Machi’s does, but, helpfully, his slider does. Machi’s FB’s nearly as fast as Pagan’s, but its totally different movement produces a totally different batted ball profile. Pagan’s an extreme fly ball pitcher, and whereas Machi’s got reverse splits, Pagan’s fastball/slider mix makes him very tough on righties, but somewhat vulnerable to lefties.

That last spot on the roster seems set for Steve Cishek, but not quite yet. The righty pitched a bullpen session in front of Mel Stottlemyre, Jr. today, according to Ryan Divish, as the M’s try to spot the mechanical problems that have produced 5 hits and 3 walks in just 4 IP between AA Arkansas and AAA Tacoma.

I mentioned it in the last post, but Vogelbach’s passivity at the plate was crippling his at-bats, and I’m hoping he can work on that in Tacoma. While we used to think of plate discipline and aggressiveness as being innate, we’ve learned over the past few years just how much hitters can change. Vogelbach was utterly unprepared to be a big league 1B this month, but he could be down the road. Ben Gamel had the exact same problem, and frankly, I thought his chances of making it in the big leagues were…uh, slimmer than Vogelbach’s. As a corner OF, Gamel needs to either hit for a very high average or hit for enough power to justify his position in the line-up. Last year, we saw a guy who was overly selective, working himself into pitcher’s counts, and swinging only reluctantly at strikes. When he did so, he didn’t strike them with enough authority to do worth while. More simply, his K rate was way too high to support a low ISO. This was Leonys Martin’s issue recently, and one of the things that crippled Ketel Marte’s M’s tenure. Every batter brings strengths and weaknesses in a few critical skills: contact, power, and batting eye. Jeff wrote about “the Gallo threshold” the other day at Fangraphs, which is a great way to envision one pole. Joey Gallo makes less contact than just about any player in the game, and like Chris Davis, doesn’t play enough a tough defensive position. He DOES hit for more raw power than just about anyone alive, so he’s just got to make enough contact for his power to carry his value. We saw this recently with George Springer; many teams were scared off after he posted high K rates in college and then again in the minors. When he hit the ball, it went a long ways, and unlike Gallo, he could theoretically play CF. But even so, he needed to make enough contact to make his power playable. Over time, he did. Ichiro’s perhaps the best example of the opposite pole – players who don’t hit for power and don’t draw a ton of walks, so need to make contact to add any value. Dee Gordon’s another. Gamel seemed on the verge of slipping through the gap: not enough power AND not enough contact (not because of whiffs, like Gallo, but because he stubbornly stared at called strikes). Like so many other players, Gamel seems to be changing that.

Last year, Gamel’s average launch angle was just 3.7 degrees, and came off the bat under 86 MPH (the sample is ridiculously small, I know). This year, those figures are 13.8 degrees and 91 MPH, respectively. Are players capable of increasing their angle by 10 degrees? All while increasing exit velocity? Sure – his teammates did it. In 2015, Jean Segura had an average launch angle of 3.9 degrees with an average of 86 MPH off the bat. The very next year,he was at 7 degrees, and this year it’s at 10.5. Robinson Cano was at 5.5 in 2015, and then about 11 in 2016. And while it wasn’t as dramatic, Ryan Zimmerman’s launch angle change has transformed his production this year. After talking with Daniel Murphy, the Nats slugger has 11 HRs thus far after increasing his launch angle.

James Paxton starts for the M’s tonight as he tries to continue the most dominant run of his career, and one of the most impressive months a Mariner’s produced in a while. I’d mentioned earlier that Hisashi Iwakuma was throwing more balls this year as hitters were destroying the ball when he threw it in the zone. Responding to that, Iwakuma’s throwing fewer and fewer strikes. In recent games, he’s actually become much better at locating around the edges, which is why his walks are starting to come down, but he’s still got to avoid the heart of the zone, because he’s getting killed there. And as you’d imagined, Chase de Jong’s getting hit even harder. The point of this elaborate set-up? James Paxton doesn’t need to nibble. When Paxton throws a pitch in the zone, not even the edge of the zone, but the middle of it, batters are slugging .241 off of him. No starter’s lower thus far this year.

I’d be happier if this seemed like a more stable skill; if you remember, Paxton gave up tons of loud contact, and batters slugged .510 on these pitches in 2016. Still, this seems an indicator not only of his good fortune, but his improved command. With a better cutter and better location, batters can’t load up and target pitches within the zone. Kind of like the Gallo threshold, power pitchers give themselves some wiggle room through high velocity (producing weaker, more defensive swings) and great stuff (producing swings and misses and pitcher’s counts). Paxton doesn’t NEED to hit the edges as much as Iwakuma. If he can keep batters on the defensive, they’ll need to cut down their swings and just try to stay alive. The Angels come in with the lowest isolated slugging in the AL West, and they rank 28th in MLB (ahead of only the Red Sox – huh? – in the AL), so this seems like a good match-up for Big Maple.

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: PAXTON.

The Rainiers looked like they’d kept their winning streak alive and completed a 5-game sweep with a comeback win over Sacramento, but they showed that they’re not the only team with bullpen issues in the Northwest. Down 2-1 in the 8th, they loaded the bases with no outs against Giants prospect Tyler Beede. But Beede induced 2 infield pop-ups and looked on the verge of wriggling off the hook, until Zach Shank singled in 2, and then came in on another 2-run single. That 4-run inning gave them a 5-2 lead headed to the 9th. But Mark Lowe gave up 4 hits and a walk, leaving Nick Hagadone to come in with the bases loaded and a tie game. Hagadone let one run score, and that gave the RiverCats a 6-5 win. Yuck. Lowe’s given up 18 hits and 14 runs in just 8 1/3 IP. Rob Whalen started, pitching 4 2/3 scoreless with 4 Ks and 1 BB. Tacoma’s Christian Bergman leads the R’s into Las Vegas tonight.

Arkansas scored 5 runs in the 7th to come from behind and beat Springfield 8-7. Dylan Unsworth was so-so, giving up 4 runs in 4 2/3 IP, but got some offense from Marcus Littlewood and Ryan Casteel, and then Zac Curtis tossed 1 1/3 perfect IP to save it. Tyler Herb starts tonight for the Travs.

Modesto had THEIR big inning in the first, scoring 5 to take over the game against San Jose and cruising to a 7-3 win. Braden Bishop and Jordan Cowan each had 2 hits, and Gianfranco Wawoe doubled in 2. Joe De Carlo started at catcher again, by the way. SP Nathan Bannister now has given up just 3 walks in 5 starts, but he’s also given up 35 hits in 25 2/3 IP, including 6 HRs. Nick Neidert tonight!

Clinton starts a series against West Michigan today, and Tigers prospect Kyle Funkhouser. Funkhouser pitched collegiately at Louisville, and seemed like a candidate to go in the high first round after his sophomore year, but after a down year as a junior, he decided to return for his senior year. His walk rate crept up again, and that pushed him down to the 4th round. He’s been solid as a pro, but not as dominant as you’d think for a college senior draft pick who’s striking out tons of young hitters. And, wouldn’t you know it, the LumberKings just knocked him out of this one in the 3rd, after getting 6 hits and 3 walks in just 2 2/3 IP. It’s 5-0 L-Kings at this point.

« Previous Page