Game 81, Mariners at Angels

June 30, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Ariel Miranda vs. Parker Bridwell, 7:07pm

The Phillies series could’ve gone better. After cresting the .500 mark, the M’s now find themselves back at 39-41, falling behind not only the AL East teams, but their divisional rivals in Texas and Anaheim. That’s what makes this series so big – the M’s face a key divisional/wild card opponent, and face Parker Bridwell, Ricky Nolasco and Jesse Chavez. The M’s have a rough back of the rotation at times, but you’ve got to like your chances to win a road series when you see probables like that. Of course, the M’s have looked superior on paper plenty of times – including both Phillies games – and fallen flat. It’s not enough to be better, you’ve actually got to PLAY better, too.

So, Parker Bridwell. I’m assuming he went to the same east coast prep school as Whit Merrifield. Bridwell was drafted and, uh, “developed” by the Orioles organization, a group which has had its challenges in turning draft picks into MLB starting pitchers. While his raw stuff was fine, he got hit pretty hard everywhere he went. In an extended stint in the short season NY Penn League, he gave up more than a hit per inning, leading to an RA/9 well over 5. He pitched in A ball for parts of three seasons, and has a career ERA of 5.42 to show for it (that’s an RA/9 of an even 6.00 over 278 IP!). He got a bit better as he moved up from a runs allowed point of view, but he was also coming out of the pen a lot more, and in any case, his walk rate crept up, too. The Orioles called him up briefly in 2016, and when he started the year off poorly for AAA Norfolk, they cut him. The Angels stepped in, and when he didn’t fall on his face in Salt Lake, they called him up. Predictably, he’s put up superficially decent numbers in his 4 games (3 starts).

He’s somehow got an ERA under 3 despite allowing 5 HRs in just 21 1/3 IP; every part of that is hard to do. He throws a fairly straight four-seamer at 93 and a sinker with a bit of armside run. It’s kind of funny – if you compare the velo and movement on his fastballs to Felix Hernandez’s, they’re quite similar. Felix’s fastballs have averaged about 94 over the pitch fx era, and have similar movement. Bridwell gets to that movement in a very different way, as his release point’s much higher than Felix’s, but solid velocity, a good sinker, and a slider and cutter…. you can see why Bridwell kept getting chances (and kept moving up the chain) despite poor results.

I’ll give the Angels credit, though. They appear to have helped Bridwell throw more strikes, as his walk rate’s come way down from where it was a year ago (and all the years before it). The four-seam and slider in particular have improved, at least as far as hitting the strike zone. The slider in particular looks like an interesting pitch, but he doesn’t throw it enough to know for sure. He’s relied more on his cutter, but I can’t understand why. In his very brief MLB career, he’s given up 3 HRs on the pitch despite throwing it a grand total of 85 times. And his four-seam fastball? 4 in 112 pitches. I know, I know: these HR rates can’t last, but HR trouble has been a constant issue with him. He’s ecumenical with them, too, as lefties and righties both hit him pretty well. He’ll throw the sinker much more to lefties and stick to four-seamers with righties (this seemingly counterproductive strategy has been a hallmark of Angels’ staffs for years).

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

So how ARE the Halos ahead of the M’s, given who’s in their rotation and given that Mike Trout hasn’t played in a long while? A good defense is part of the reason; they’re much better by ERA than FIP (their pitchers have given up a ton of HRs), and defense is one reason why. But another important one is sequencing. By BaseRuns, this is a 39-44 team. That’s still better than I’d have expected, but they’ve managed to turn three losses into wins thanks to how they’ve strung their hits/outs together. They’ve “beaten” BaseRuns on both sides of the ball, but the biggest impact has come in run prevention. The biggest reason the Angels are where they are is because their bullpen is surprisingly good. They give up far fewer HRs, post a great K:BB, and have been assembled on the cheap. Ex-Rainiers closer Blake Parker leads the group in WAR, and has put up a K-BB% over 30% somehow – a tiny bit higher than it was with the Rainiers in early 2016. Another ex-Rainier, Yusmeiro Petit, has been great for 35 IP, and Portland native (and early Jerry Dipoto draft pick) Keynan Middleton has come up and thrown 100 MPH fastballs to strike out 25 in 24 IP. By WPA, the Angels bullpen has been two full wins better than the M’s, and by WAR, they’ve been four wins better. The Angels are 1.5 games better in the list that matters.

Tacoma coughed up a late lead last night, but that was just to build some drama: Tyler O’Neill hit a walk-off 2R HR in the bottom of the 9th to beat Las Vegas 7-5. Jean Machi’s scuffled of late, giving up 5 runs in his last 2 games (2 1/3 IP). Christian Bergman was great for 6+ innings for the R’s. Today, Rob Whalen takes the mound against Albuquerque at 7:05. With the M’s out of town and perfect weather, I mean, c’mon. No brainer, right?

San Antonio scored 6 in the first and just coasted to a 6-3 win over Arkansas last night. Justin deFratus settled down after that awful 1st IP and pitched into the 6th. Ian Miller had 2 hits (including a 3B) plus a walk. Brett Ash starts today’s game against the Missions. Remember, the San Antonio Missions franchise will soon move up to AAA, with the Texas League replacing them with a new team in Amarillo, while Colorado Springs drops from the AAA PCL down to the rookie-level Pioneer League.

Modesto got a great start from Reggie McClain and a HR from Joe DeCarlo in an easy 8-1 win over Visalia. McClain went the distance, scattering 6 hits and striking out 9 against 0 walks. McClain needed that, after struggling for much of June following a brilliant April+May. The 4-5 starts surrounding his chicken-chasing championship saw his ERA rise from 2.60 at the beginning of the month to 4.00 before yesterday’s command performance. Nathan Bannister takes the hill tonight.

Clinton lost to Kane County 5-3 after allowing 4 runs in a decisive 6th inning. C Yojhan Quevedo had two hits for the L-Kings. Brandon Miller starts tonight’s game for Clinton.

Hillsboro walked off Everett last night 5-4 on a single with two outs in the 9th. After loading the bases with no outs, reliever Matt Clancy nearly wriggled out of trouble, getting a 3-2 fielders choice, and then inducing a pop-out from Arizona’s 1st round draft pick this year, Pavin Smith. Oh well. Speaking of first rounders, M’s 1st pick Evan White got his first professional hit in this game. Ryne Inman starts for the AquaSox tonight. College baseball strikeout maven JP Sears was at it again for Everett, striking out 4 in 1 1/3 hitless innings. The 11th round pick out of the Citadel now has 9 Ks in 3 1/3 IP. He’s allowed 2 batted balls in those innings, giving him an infinite GB/FB ratio and a .500 BABIP to go with his K/9 rate of 24.3. Just as a reminder, Sears K’d 142 collegians in 95 1/3 IP as a starting pitcher this year. Wow.

Game 80, Phillies at Mariners

June 28, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 10 Comments 

King Felix vs. Mark Leiter, 12:40pm

Happy Felix Day to all. Given yesterday’s post about Felix’s struggle to adjust to using the entirety of the strike zone (and not just the bottom), today’s game’s a good opportunity to see how his gameplan may be changing or adapting. I’d love to see a few less sinkers, and a more coordinated approach to using his four-seam fastball and the curve that he’s used so much this year. The change is still his best pitch, but he’s got to get to it more effectively.

It happens all the time now, but I’ll admit to being a bit stunned that today’s SP for Philly is the son of former Phillies and M’s pitcher Mark Leiter, sr. I get it – it used to make me double-take when I’d see that Mickey Brantley’s kid was in the majors. I used to be stunned that guys like Casey Candaele and Mickey Morandini looked old enough to be classic 1B coach types, which is another way of saying that I’m stunned that 1987 was 30 years ago. But we’ve got to move past that, apparently, as baseball presses on undaunted.

What can we say about the younger Leiter, beyond biographical quirks? Well, he throws about 91, and his four-seamer has very, very typical movement. His breaking balls – he throws a slider and curve – have some very good vertical drop, but his best pitch is probably his split-change. It’s got a bit less horizontal movement than his straight fastball, but has about a half a foot different vertical break. It’s clearly his strikeout pitch – he’s got 17 Ks on the year, and 15 of them have come on splitters. Given that he throws it more to lefties, and given that his fastball isn’t a swing-and-miss pitch, you might expect him to have smaller platoon splits. Kind of – his career’s only a half-year old, but at this point, he’s got huge *reverse* splits. His slider/curve aren’t big whiff pitches either, and thus he’s not able to rack up Ks against righties. The splitter means he CAN get some Ks against opposite handed hitters, and that’s led to a FIP against lefties of 2.52, backed by a 10:4 K:BB ratio, and a grotesque 6.52 FIP against righties (with 7Ks and 11 walks!).

Looking at his numbers in the minors, I’m guessing the splitter may be a more recent development or at least it got refined more recently. In the low minors, Leiter was a strong fly ball pitcher, with GB rates under 40% most of the time. Suddenly, that changed, hitting about 45% last year and then over 50% in both AAA and MLB this year. His splitter is, as you’d expect, a strong GB pitch, and while the slider doesn’t generate Ks, it too can yield grounders.

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

The story of the day is depressing, if not exactly shocking. SP Drew Smyly won’t be pitching for the M’s this year. Yesterday, we heard about a “setback” that scuppered a planned rehab start. Today we learned what that setback meant: he’s torn a ligament in his elbow, and now needs Tommy John surgery. Ouch. Get well soon, Drew.

A day after coming back from an 8-0 deficit to win 9-8, Tacoma coughed up a lead to Las Vegas. Tacoma led 5-1 and then 7-3 in the 8th, but allowed the last 5 runs of the game to lose 8-7. Casey Lawrence starts tonight’s game at Cheney Stadium.

Pablo Lopez’ 7 shutout IP in Modesto’s extra inning 2-1 win over Visalia was the pitching performance of the day, and 1B Onil Pena’s 4-5 with a HR in Everett’s 15-13 loss to Vancouver was the biggest day for an M’s affiliate batsman. Today’s SP probables include Anthony Misiewicz (Mod.), Andres Torrres (Eve.) and Danny Garcia (Cli.). Arkansas is off for the Texas League All-star break; the South beat the North (the division Arkansas is in) 10-3. CF Ian Miller led off for the North and went 1-3 with a 3B. Tyler Marlette was 0-2, Chuck Taylor hit 3rd and hit a HR in 4 trips. Peter Tago and Zac Curtis pitched a combined 2 shutout IP.

Game 79, Phillies at Mariners + Update on Felix’s New Approach

June 27, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

James Paxton vs. Aaron Nola, 7:10pm

The Phillies arrive for a quick two-game series, and tonight’s game features a great pitching match-up between two immensely talented and, at times, frustrating young pitchers. James Paxton has been an enigma since before the M’s drafted him, with his velocity essentially coming and going as he moved from the University of Kentucky to indy league ball and then to the M’s minor leagues. His mechanical adjustments seemingly unlocked his potential, and he’s been one of baseball’s hardest throwing starters for about a year now. Not only that, but the increased velocity came bundled with better control somehow, and so now he’s a FIP triple threat: lots of Ks (thanks velo), not too many walks (thanks whatever magic that adjustment in Tacoma did), and few HRs (again, thanks largely to velo).

The frustrating part is pretty obvious: Paxton’s had trouble staying healthy, and it may relate to a secondary concern: Paxton’s actual runs allowed keep outpacing what his FIP would suggest. Last year, he had a FIP of about 2.80, and an ERA of around 3.80, and an RA/9 (including unearned runs) of 4.61. This year, things are better, but his FIP is still right where it was last year at 2.78, while his ERA is 3.39 and RA/9 is up at 3.69. That’s effective and valuable, as his RA/9 WAR shows (1.1 last year and 1.4 this year despite missing some starts). But we all know he’s capable of pitching like the guy his FIP says he is; we’ve seen it, often for months at a time. My guess is that a more consistently healthy Paxton is a Paxton who doesn’t have the kind of June Paxton’s having this year.

Aaron Nola is Paxton East. He certainly doesn’t throw as hard, but even in the strikeout crazed modern game, Nola’s K/9 was easily in the top 20 out of all pitchers with at least 100 IP last year. His walk rate was low, and his HR/9 was safely under 1, like Paxton’s. Nola paired his 3.08 FIP with an ERA of 4.78 somehow in 2016 (his RA/9 was 5.51). By FIP, he’s a budding star. By RA/9 WAR, he was replacement level. Ok, ok, but anyone can have a weird year with a huge divergence between FIP and ERA. What about this year? A much smaller but still plenty noticeable 3.80 and 4.32, respectively.

The good news for Nola is that Statcast thinks he’s been unlucky; he gives up weak contact, but that contact’s gone for hits a bit more than you’d expect. As you can imagine, Nola’s been worse with men on base and particularly with men in scoring position. But what’s interesting is that Nola seems to change his approach in those situations. While his GB:FB ratio is 1.39 with no one on, it shoots up to 2 with men on and 3.57 with RISP (admittedly, that latter sample’s about 50 PAs). His K rate drops, the GB rate soars…but so do HRs. Nola’s better when he’s getting strikeouts. He may be a bit more predictable when he tries to 6-4-3 his way out of trouble.

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

You may remember back in March I had a post about Felix and the new approach the team wanted him to work on. Instead of a blizzard of sinkers, four-seamers and change-ups all targeted at the knees, the M’s wanted Felix to start exploring other sections of the strike zone, even high strikes, with his fastball. I thought this was great, because the league’s batters have seen much better production on low fastballs in the past few years. It’s only recently that more HRs were hit off of LOW fastballs than high ones. Expected wOBA, SLG%, batting average…whatever you want to look at, batters are doing better on low pitches, and especially low fastballs. Felix’s entire gameplan revolved around keeping the ball down, and thus he was especially vulnerable to a league-wide trend like this. Hence the idea to change things up a bit.

So is Felix actually throwing more high FBs? And how are batters faring on them? The answer to the first question is yes. The answer to the second…:sigh:. About 1/4 of Felix’s pitches have been fastballs in the upper half of the zone or above (2.5′ or higher) – that’s 52% of his fastballs higher than the middle of the zone this year. Just 40% of his fastballs were thrown that high in 2015, and just 37% last year. So he’s clearly doing more of it. The problem is that batters are doing more damage on them. His wOBA-allowed on these pitches went from around .400 in 2015+16 to .568 this year. 4 of his 8 HRs have come on high fastballs this year. To be even more specific, his sinker’s getting lit up. I don’t really have a prescription for change here, but if he’s going to pitch up, he may want to use the four-seamer for that, and keep the sinker as a change-of-pace or a pitch to disguise his change-up. Either that or reluctantly go back to the old plan…the one that wasn’t working terribly well the past few years. Felix is better than he’s been this year; there’s more in the tank, even if he’s probably not going to be a superstar again. But he’s still got to figure out exactly what tweak’s going to allow him to confuse big league batters again.

2017 Everett Aquasox Preview(-ish)

June 26, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners, Minor Leagues · 7 Comments 

Having earlier opted not to conduct an on-time preview of the Everett Aquasox, I now turn in one for the second, rather brief homestand feeling justified. The draft happened. Four days after it concluded, some twenty-seven players were announced as signed, almost entirely from the college ranks. College players typically end up in the Northwest League. We’re through the looking glass here, people.

Suffice to say, things have changed a bit since the initial games and so I don’t think we can really project a record based on what’s already happened. As per usual, I’ve typed up in excess here and made reference to things, mostly literary, as it interested me to do so. The overall scope of the team is that the outfield should make people happy offensively and defensively, the backstops are as good as we’ve had in a while, the infield has three listed first basemen (one of them is even good!) and a strong performer at second, the rotation has some potential and dudes we’re trying to get a better sense of. The bullpen? Well, there are a lot of relievers too and a fair number of them could slip back into starting next season. Pitching had been a sore spot for the team in the early goings, but I expect that the new additions will help.
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Game 78, Astros at Mariners

June 25, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 9 Comments 

Ariel Miranda vs. Francis Martes, 1:10pm

The M’s won the game they were supposed to win, battering Joe Musgrove so comprehensively that the Astros demoted him to AAA. Then the Astros won the game they were supposed to win, when #2 starter and potential Cy Young candidate Lance McCullers drew M’s 5th starter Sam Gaviglio. That left today’s game, which initially looked like a tough one as suddenly effective Brad Peacock was scheduled to match up with Ariel Miranda. But Peacock’s expecting his first child any minute, and he made the appropriate/wise decision to fly back to be with his wife. Thus, the Astros turn to one of their top prospects, and a guy who cracked the top 30 prospect list in all of baseball in 2016, Francis Martes. This is a good thing for the M’s.

The Astros’ vaunted pro scouting department nabbed Martes as a throw-in in a deal involving Jarrod Cosart years ago; he’d been in rookie league for the Marlins. Almost immediately, he started carving through the minors; I remember Clinton facing him in the MWL in 2015 when his ERA was solidly below 1. He pitched in 3 levels that year, only slowing down when he hit AA. After a very good year in AA last year, he kicked off 2017 in the PCL, with everyone knowing he was the most important piece of pitching depth in the Astros system. Meanwhile, though, the PCL rudely started bashing him around. His last start in AAA came against the Tacoma Rainiers, oddly enough, and the Rainiers got to him for 6 hits and 7 runs in just 2 2/3 IP. Martes walked 4 in that game, and that’s become an increasingly big concern. In the big leagues, his walk rate’s down a bit from where it was in Fresno, but it’s still above 10%. He’s got swing and miss stuff, but he’s still got to throw strikes. By BIS or pitch fx, the percentage of his pitches that have been in the strike zone is about 7 percentage points below average. That can work if you induce a ton of out-of-zone swings, or if you have an incredible change-up that can elicit such swings. Martes’ o-swing rates are essentially dead-on average, so this approach is going to lead to plenty of free passes.

Ok, ok, so big time pitching prospect struggles a bit with command in his first MLB tour of duty. That could apply to about anyone, right? True, but the other reason this match-up looks somewhat favorable, despite Martes’ 95 MPH velocity, is that Martes’ pitches move eerily like someone the M’s just saw: Joe Musgrove. Martes and Musgrove both throw a flat four-seam fastball without a ton of vertical rise. It’s not a sinking fastball, but it’s also not a backspin-crazed riseball, either. Martes’ moves about 2″ laterally and 9″ vertically. Musgrove? 3″ and 8″, respectively. Both rely heavily on sliders, throwing them at least 30% of the time. Martes’ is a sweeping slider, moving 6″ gloveside, and dropping by 1″ more than if it was thrown without spin. Musgrove’s moves 6″ gloveside and with -1″ of vertical movement. They’re essentially identical. I know that there’s more to a pitch’s effectiveness than its movement, and it matters that all of Martes’ pitches come in 2 MPH faster. But just as there’s an advantage to a new pitcher facing a team that’s never seen him, that advantage is weakened/eliminated if you’re throwing pitches that look ~ the same as pitches the team just saw a few days ago.

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

The A’s youth movement continues, as they’ve called up a bunch of their top prospects, including Franklin Barreto, the centerpiece of the Josh Donaldson deal (lol). Barreto homered in his debut yesterday, one of three A’s to collect their first MLB HR in the same game.

Mike Zunino’s hitting 6th today, something he’s only done once previously this year. He did it a few times down the stretch last year, after his torrid streak after coming up from AAA, but he’s been stuck in 7-9th this year, and hasn’t been in 6th regularly since 2014.

In ex-M’s news, Ichiro just set a record by becoming the oldest player to start a game in CF, besting Ricky Henderson’s record. Congrats, Ichiro.

Game 77, Astros at Mariners

June 24, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 12 Comments 

Sam Gaviglio vs. Lance McCullers, 7:10pm

The M’s won the game they needed to win last night, teeing off on Joe Musgrove and giving Felix Hernandez (and Yovani Gallardo) an opportunity to get some work in in a low-stress situation. Now, things switch: on paper, this is a mismatch.

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

Game 76, Astros at Mariners

June 23, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

King Felix vs. Joe Musgrove, 7:10pm

A very, very happy Felix Day to you and yours. This is as excited as I’ve seen Mariners fans in some time; you’ve got the return of Felix Hernandez to the line-up (and coming off two very encouraging rehab starts) coinciding with a 5 game win streak and the M’s getting above .500 for the first time. This fortuitous alignment also occurs on a gorgeous summer evening, with temperatures expected to hit the low 80s a few hours before first pitch. This is a good day, people.

That confidence that the M’s (and their fans) are feeling may be helpful as they welcome baseball’s best team, the Houston Astros, to Safeco. The Astros are one of four pitching staffs bunched together in FIP and thus fWAR, and they’ve got the highest K rate of any of them. Not only does Dallas Keuchel appear to be fully back from his down year in 2016, but they’ve developed an amazing bullpen full of swing-and-miss pitchers who can pitch multiple innings, headlined by the bizarre and wonderful Chris Devenski. We’ll miss Keuchel in this series (thankfully), but may get to see their latest transformed hurler, Brad Peacock. With Peacock fitting in for an injured Charlie Morton, the Astros continue to pair a K-heavy bullpen with a K-heavy rotation. They are, frustratingly, an equally potent offense, with the highest ISO in the game, and one of the best batting lines. If they have a weakness, it’s their fielding, which pushes their position player fWAR below the Yankees, but the pitchers minimize the impact of team defense by striking everyone out. Just as their pitching staff gets contributions from guys like Peacock who’d pretty clearly demonstrated their own replacement-level abilities, their long-standing problem finding a 1B has been solved by turning Marwin Gonzalez, a light-hitting SS/UTIL, into a mashing 1B. Gonzalez, who had an ISO of around .100 in his first 750 PAs and who posted an 87 wRC+ last year, is now slashing .312/.400/.590. Great.

If their rotation has a weak spot, it’s Joe Musgrove. Musgrove came up through the Jays and then Astros systems as a strike throwing machine, allowing absurdly low walk totals that made up for so-so K rates and pure stuff. He’s got a four-seam fastball at 92-93, a weird one-seam sinker at 91, and a slider he’s relying on heavily these days. Despite a very over-the-top delivery and high spin rates, he doesn’t get much vertical rise on his pitches. His best trait is his control; he routinely ran walk rates in the 3% range in the minors, but while still better than league average, they’re creeping up of late: it’s 7.4% at the moment. His K%’s fallen below 20%, and combined with normal HR rates for a guy with grounder rates in the low 40s, it’s not a shock to see his FIP up at 4.74. His ERA’s even worse, as he’s allowed a .316 BABIP – it’s tempting to lay the blame for that on Houston’s subpar defense, but he’s a guy without an out pitch, and thus needs to share some of the blame. Not all of it, though; by xwOBA, he’s been very unlucky. One final odd tidbit: he’s shown reverse splits in his career, with righties racking up XBHs against him. It’s not just BABIP, at least not at this point, and it probably shouldn’t sway the M’s line-up decisions, but this is not a game where I worry about Cruz/Valencia.

Felix’s last two starts in AAA covered 11 IP. In those innings, he allowed 1 R on just 5 hits, with 1 walk allowed against 13 K’s. It was vintage Felix, and while I think everyone’s coming to terms with the fact that Felix isn’t royalty on the field anymore, and may not be again, I was going to lose my $^&% if Felix kind of faded away after this year and 2016. I don’t need him to carry the team on his back anymore. I just need to see flashes of the guy we all went crazy for. This M’s resurgence is compellingly watchable, thanks to a batting order that has several ways to beat you. Add that to Felix’s own charisma, talent and drive, and you have the makings of a really, really fun summer, whatever ends up happening with the playoff chase.

Speaking of the chase, it’s nice that the M’s have again leapfrogged Texas and Anaheim and are set up to play meaningful games again. My only concern is that those three AL West clubs are still essentially tied. The M’s have been great, and the Angels haven’t had Mike Trout…what are they still doing here? Texas lost to Christian Bergman the other day, and their pitching staff’s about as bad as the Felix-/Paxton-/Smyly-less Mariners’. That’s why this series is so big. All three of these teams are playing top-shelf opposition. Texas is in the Bronx, Anaheim’s in Boston, while the M’s host Houston. This might be a good opportunity to actually carve out a bit of space, if the M’s can find a way to beat these Astros.

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

Tacoma lost a walk-off in Reno last night despite HRs from Boog Powell and Leonys Martin. Jean Machi had a rare off-night to take the loss, which came on a rare walk-off missed catch error by Martin. Casey Lawrences matches up with ex-Mariner Aaron Laffey tonight in Reno.

Springfield beat Arkansas 4-2 behind a great game from 2016 1st rounder and good sinkerballer Dakota Hudson. Not sure who’s starting tonight.

Modesto got smashed 11-1 in Stockton, as Pablo Lopez and Lukas Schiraldi had outings to forget. Braden Bishop doubled and singled, though. There’s that. Anthony Misiewicz starts tonight’s game.

Clinton scored 4 in the 4th, highlighted by a Luis Rengifo HR, to beat Clinton 6-2. Ronald Dominguez K’d 4 in 2 scoreless IP. Ljay Newsome takes the hill tonight.

Everett beat Vancouver 5-1 as Brayan Hernandez’s bat awakened, hitting his 1st HR, and reaching base 3 times. SP Jose Santiago kept the Canadians off the board for 4 1/3, but walked 5. Andres Torres starts for the AquaSox tonight.

Game 75, Tigers at Mariners, the Psychological Barrier of .500

June 22, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 13 Comments 

Andrew Moore vs. Daniel Norris, 7:10pm

The M’s have had three chances to get above .500 this year, and each time they’ve failed, losing a few more and generally looking for all the world like a team who’s season is over. But to their credit, they’re back with another shot at it today, and as luck would have it, today’s their big pitching prospect’s MLB debut. This could go wrong, although I think the number of M’s fans who, given the stakes, are clamoring to give the ball to Yovani Gallardo or Rob Whalen are limited to direct family members of Yovani Gallardo or Rob Whalen. It could also signal that the M’s are going to go about the rest of the season a bit differently, and, pace the talk of a month ago, could even be buyers at the deadline.

Ex-Lookout Landing editor Nathan Bishop penned this great essay last night about the M’s fortune to find themselves, almost by accident, in a playoff race. As Bishop mentions, the key to this turnaround – beyond the M’s offense – has been the general mediocrity of the AL wild card hopefuls. For whatever reason, it’s generally taken 88-89 wins to grab the second wild card. That may not be necessary this year, as the group of teams below the Yankees/Red Sox pairing is all bunched up around .500. The Tigers have utterly collapsed, and look out of it. Minnesota can’t pitch, and while there’s some pot/kettle stuff going on when an M’s fan lays that charge…I mean, seriously, those guys can’t pitch. With the M’s offense clicking, you kind of have to like their chances against the likes of Tampa, Minnesota and Toronto. To be fair, just as the M’s weren’t as bad as they looked a month ago, they’re not going to score 7 runs a night from here on out.

That’s why tonight’s start is so important. We think, or at least hope, that Andrew Moore’s fundamentally different from Christian Bergman and Rob Whalen, but at just 23 years old, it’s not immediately clear that he is. He’s got better command and gets rave reviews for his competitiveness and guile, but this is a huge spot to land in for your MLB debut. This isn’t pressure you’d put on most rookies, so it just reinforces the fact that the M’s have all but said, “This is no ordinary prospect,” for the past two years. He’s not an ace, he’s not a fireballer, but the team believes in his ability to adjust and get people out. I hope they’re right.

Moore faces Daniel Norris, another 2nd round pick, but one who’s taken a very different path. Norris was drafted at #72 overall in 2011. Moore was drafted #74 overall in 2015. Norris was drafted out of high school, where his solid FB velocity, breaking ball, and change made him a very hot commodity. By 2014, he was a big-time prospect in the Jays org, and reached #18 overall coming into 2015. Andrew Moore wasn’t a big time recruit out of HS as he was less than 6′ tall and didn’t throw terribly hard; no big shock that he wasn’t selected in the draft back then. He went to Oregon State, coming out of the gate strong with a 14-2 season with an ERA under 2. After two more solid years, the M’s grabbed him in the 2nd round in what was widely seen as a bit of a reach. He’s gained velocity as a pro, and sat at 92 this spring. His trademark command has followed him up the ladder, and thus he’s forecast to have a below average walk rate. As I mentioned yesterday, that’ll be important if he continues to give up so many fly balls and home runs. I’d like to think that, thanks to that command, he may be the kind of guy – like Hisashi Iwakuma was – who consistently “beats” his FIP. How much that matters depends on that HR rate, which is essentially impossible to predict. Keep it in the park, Andrew, and you’ll be fine.

As I hinted at in yesterday’s oh-so-prophetic post (I thought Verlander was going to throw a perfecto just to spite me), Norris has regressed a bit after what looked like a breakout 2016. His walk rate’s way up, and while he’s not giving up too many HRs, his BABIP’s been quite high in recent years. He’s throwing fewer strikes with all of his pitches, and his four-seam fastball’s getting hit more than it ever has. Not sure what the reason is. His change-up and curve look like interesting pitches, and both are showing more vertical drop; the change in particular looks more intriguing from a movement point of view this year. The problem is that they’re dropping out of the zone, and batters aren’t chasing them. The change in particular is notable for just how often batters have taken it. A good change-up generally gets more swings than any pitch type, often including fastballs. Erasmo Ramirez is getting swings on 65% of his cambios. I’ve mentioned this in the past with regard to Iwakuma, who gets a ton of swings on his splitter (a subspecies of change-up) despite throwing it out of the zone. This year, Norris has the second-worst swing rate of anyone who’s thrown at least 100 change-ups. Ouch.

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

Great performances in the M’s minors last night include Lindsey Caughel’s 6 scoreless innings in Arkansas’ 1-0 win over NWA and Greifer Andrade’s 2 hits in Everett’s loss in Vancouver. Modesto and Clinton are back at it tonight after enjoying their league all-star breaks.

Ben Gamel and One More Adjustment

June 22, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 4 Comments 

Ben Gamel extended his hitting streak to 13 last night in the M’s incredible comeback win, and Gamel’s hot streak has propelled the M’s back to .500. By park adjusted runs created (an all-in-one batting stat), Gamel ranks 21st in MLB thus far, somewhere north of 40% better than average. Focusing just on batting (and not position and defense), he’s been better than Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Nelson Cruz, Eric Thames and Corey Seager. To say this came out of nowhere is something of an understatement: his combination of essentially zero power and above average strikeouts seemed like the worst possible combination, and his approach didn’t seem conducive to productivity. He was a corner OF who hit a ton of ground balls and looked like he’d K from 20-26% of the time. The Ben Gamel we’ve seen this year has some surface similarities – he’s still a bit underpowered for a corner OF, and his K% is right at 25% – but is now spraying line drives everywhere.

His increase in average launch angle is a big part of the reason he’s been one of the most productive hitters in the game, and it’s driven a line drive rate that’s 3rd best in the game. Those things alone are not going to keep his BABIP sitting at a cool .471: nothing will. But that’s not really under Gamel’s control right now; regression may come, but Gamel’s approach can keep the mean his BABIP regresses towards a bit north of the league average. But I’m not here to talk about BABIP. If he wants to avoid Taylor Motter’s fate as a guy who has an incredible hot streak and then falls back to the pack (and, in Motter’s case, behind it), there’s one more adjustment he needs to make.

Right now, Ben Gamel’s been one of game’s best hitters on fastballs. Pitch type linear weights (run values) aren’t ideal, but they can give you an idea of what pitches a batter’s hitting well and what types they’re struggling with. At the moment, Gamel’s racked up 16.7 runs above average on fastballs this year, ranking 6th in the league. That puts him slightly ahead of Miguel Sano, Aaron Judge and Justin Smoak (?), and just behind Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt and Bryce Harper. Remember, this is a counting stat, and Gamel’s had fewer PAs than any of those guys. He’s feasting on fastballs of all types, and while he’s not hitting a ton of extra base hits (though he’s hitting some), he’s not missing them, and he’s not swinging at balls. That’s a great combination.

Statcast’s view of the situation is similar. Focusing only on balls in play, Gamel’s wOBA on fastballs ranks 7th out of *417* hitters who’ve hit at least 25 fastballs. Isn’t this just confirming what we already knew, though? His BABIP’s at .471, so looking at Statcast wOBA is basically just sciencing up that BABIP. By *expected* wOBA, Gamel doesn’t look quite so extraordinary, and even drops out of the top decile. But a .418 xwOBA on fastballs ranks ahead of Mike Trout and Nelson Cruz, two guys who’ve done some damage on fastballs in recent years. Unlike Motter, there’s no one certain zone where Gamel does his damage, and that’s because he’s using the whole field. Motter sells out to pull inside fastballs, but Gamel goes with the pitch and hits line drives up the middle or wherever he can.

However, pitchers have been known to get a little tricky and throw things *other* than fastballs. When they’ve done so, Gamel’s…Gamel doesn’t like it when they do that. His xwOBA on something other than a fastball ranks 440th out of 506 batters. Instead of beating out Mike Trout or Nellie Cruz, he ranks just ahead of Robbie Ray, Matt Harvey and Ty Blach. Those are pitchers. If we go with actual, not estimated, production and let his good luck work for him, he pulls ahead of the pitchers, but still has a wOBA safely under .200. If we go back to pitch type run values, we see his production on sliders is like the inverse of his fastball production: he ranks 6th *worst* in baseball on sliders, and the same asterisk still applies: he ranks 6th worst in a counting stat despite racking up far fewer plate appearances than many players who began the year in the majors.

Have pitchers noticed? Eh, not really…not yet, anyway. He’s seen about 58% fastballs, which ranks him in the top quarter or so of all batters who’ve had 200 plate appearances. Many of the other guys who kill FBs see far, far less. Miguel Sano is last at just over 40%, and the new and improved Yonder Alonso’s near by. Alonso’s an interesting case, as he’s seen his FB% drop nearly 10 percentage points this year, after demonstrating that he was now capable of crushing them. Pitchers can drop their FB usage to average and that’d still make quite a dent in Gamel’s production…unless he makes an adjustment. Alonso – and Gamel himself – made an adjustment that allowed them to do much more damage on fastballs. Now, Gamel needs to do something similar on bendy stuff.

It’s not impossible, and it’s not unprecedented. Aaron Judge was lost on curveballs last year, and now has one of the highest wOBAs on non-fastballs in the league. Freddie Freeman’s much better now against sliders. It happens. But it’s a bit tougher considering Gamel isn’t a power hitter. Freeman/Judge hit fly balls over the fence, and Gamel’s problem on bendy stuff has been that he hits fly balls *short* of the fence. He can’t raise his launch angle on these pitches – it’s already far higher than it is against fastballs, and indeed, that’s precisely the problem. Gamel hits a lot of fly balls to left and center on breaking balls, and he simply doesn’t hit them hard enough to do damage. Nearly all of these balls in play looks like an easy out, which is why his xwOBA is so bad. He doesn’t need a .400 wOBA on breaking balls; he just needs to fight them to a draw.

And that’s why he should look to another guy who’s already set his scouting report on fire this year, ex-Mariner Chris Taylor. Taylor’s the only other guy on a list of the best hitters in the league by wOBA/wRC+ or what have you who kind of sort of looks like Gamel. Taylor’s ISO’s a little higher at .214 (and yes, I laugh ruefully every time I write Taylor’s stats), but they have similar K rates without the insane ISOs of Judge, Sano, Freeman, etc. The guys with similar ISOs (Buster Posey, Daniel Murphy, Justin Turner), generally strike out a lot less. Anyway, Taylor’s wOBA on bendy stuff is a perfectly decent .325, and while he hasn’t been as good on fastballs, he’s not *that* far behind Gamel. More importantly, Taylor’s xwOBA on fastballs hasn’t really changed; it was .350+ in 2015+16, and it’s .350+ now. The difference is that he raised his xwOBA on non-fastballs by nearly 100 points. That’s come with a few more Ks, and now Chris Taylor’s a high-K, decently powered CF and baseball is strange and beautiful, so it’s possible further adjustments may see Gamel’s K rate rise. But that’s not a hard and fast rule; indeed, improving his (already good) plate discipline – like Taylor did – may help him lay off low breaking balls. But at the very least, I’m glad to see that hitters can make these adjustments and make them quickly.

None of this is to pour cold water on Ben Gamel’s incredible run, or to say he’s just been lucky. A line drive rate near 30% is amazing, and he’s clearly stinging the ball. I just hope the M’s are working on setting the foundation for him to improve. His BABIP will regress, we know that. Now let’s see if he can make another big set of adjustments and become an above-average hitter for years to come.

Game 74, Tigers at Mariners

June 21, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 11 Comments 

James Paxton vs. Justin Verlander, 7:10pm

Now that’s a pitching match-up. Not an 88 MPH fastball in sight. This would be among the more anticipated match-ups of the year, but – there’s always a ‘but’ with this team – the recent context makes this more complicated. Instead of tuning in and getting swept up in a game featuring two pitchers operating at the very edge of human capability, we’ll tune in and scrutinize everything (“Why did he just shake his arm there?”).

James Paxton’s velo was down in his past three starts, though one was in Texas, home of the especially, uh, modest velo readings. More than that, though, he’s just seemed out of sorts – he’s given up 9 walks in those starts (covering less than 13 IP) after walking 6 in April (covering 39+ IP). He’s simply not missing bats like he once did, as batters are hitting .351 off of him in June after hitting below the Mendoza line in April+May. Paxton says the issues are purely mechanical, and that he has an idea about what to do to correct them. I sincerely hope he’s right.

Meanwhile, Verlander’s been just as bad: his walk rate’s 11.6% right now, far, far worse than it’s ever been. His K% dropped by over 7 percentage points compared to last year, too; he’s given back a huge chunk of the gains he made last year. By ERA and FIP, he’s been a mediocre, below-average pitcher just a year after an unexpected 5-6 WAR season. Oddly for someone on the Tigers, HRs haven’t been a huge problem. He’s given up 10 this year, which is higher than his career average HR/9 would predict, but it’s completely in line with recent years and his fly balling ways. Instead, Verlander’s very low BABIP in 2015-16 has reverted to average, and, combined with the decline in his K and BB numbers, made him much easier to score on. That *could* be bad luck, but his balls in play have been hit much harder, with his average exit velocity up 2.5 MPH from 2015 to 2017. That in turn has pushed his expected wOBA from .263 in 2015 to .277 in 2016 and now .350 this year.

As with Jordan Zimmermann, much of the blame for that can be directed at Verlander’s fastball. Verlander actually halted and then reversed years of velo decline, and his average heater this year is faster than it was in any year since 2011. He’s not throwing it differently, either. He’s been one of the most vocal pitchers about the value of throwing his fastball up in the zone, so he’s continuing to do that. It’s just that batters are now hitting those high fastballs harder than ever. Looking at fastballs near the top of the zone and above, batters average exit velocity is up by about 6 MPH since 2015, from just over 85 MPH to nearly 92.

Worse, his breaking pitches haven’t been able to bail him out. As great as he was with his fastballs, batters struggled even more against his curve/slider (this makes sense, given he’s more likely to throw them when ahead in the count). But now, batters have a wOBA of .325 against his non-fastballs, compared to a league average of .282. Verlander isn’t alone in this (he’s flanked by guys like Jake Arrieta, Kenta Maeda, and Jacob de Grom), but this seeming diminution of his entire repertoire is concerning, and as the Tigers plummet in the AL Central race, it should be the focus of their pitching coach’s work. Why have Zimmermann, Verlander, Matt Boyd, and Anibal Sanchez all collapsed this year?

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

The PCL will look a bit different next year, as Colorado Springs will drop down to the short season Pioneer League. Meanwhile, ex-M’s Texas League affiliate San Antonio will step up to the PCL. To balance that league, Amarillo will join, keeping the league at 8 teams. (hat tip: Mike Curto)

Two games in the minors today, with Lindsey Caughel starting for Arkansas and Michael Suarez, who turned in the best performance that the AquaSox have seen thus far, making his 2nd start of the year in Vancouver.

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