Mariners Get Mike Leake + Some of Mike Leake’s Contract

August 30, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

The M’s are at the periphery of a playoff race, and faced perhaps the worst starting pitcher in the AL today. Their own starting pitcher re-took the “lead” for most HRs allowed, but thanks to the fact that they were facing a plainly not-MLB-quality opposing pitcher, they found themselves tied (despite the fact that their starter yielded *four* HRs). After yet another injury, the M’s gave the ball – in the late innings of a tie game – to Christian Bergman. The M’s need pitchers, and they pitchers capable of giving them decent innings that can give their overtaxed bullpen a break. Ideally, they’d find someone durable enough to make each start down the stretch. Today, the M’s accomplished those goals by trading for St. Louis starter Mike Leake. The cost in talent wasn’t huge; the M’s are sending glove-first SS Rayder Ascanio east. Instead, this is essentially a deal for taking on a large fraction of Mike Leake’s contract.

Mike Leake isn’t awful, and his contract wasn’t exactly a disaster. In two years for the Cardinals, Leake’s been average or above by fWAR, but a bit worse than that by RA9-based WAR. He had about $55 million left on a deal that runs through 2020, with a club option for 2021, and thus was set to earn an average of $17M plus over his next three seasons. Given the state of the game and the state of Mike Leake, that seems pretty fair, even if fans would prefer a contract of that size to go to players a bit more exciting than Leake. Leake’s struggled of late, but fundamentally, the reason the Cards sought salary relief here goes back to 2014.

In 2012, the Cards picked a high-floor pitcher in the first round of the MLB draft. Michael Wacha would make his debut in 2013, and he’s still a fixture in their rotation. The next year, the Cards took Gonzaga pitcher Marco Gonzales in the first round – another high-floor guy who pitched well for them a bit, then struggled with injuries, and then moved to Seattle in a deal you may have heard of. In 2014, though, the Cards had two first round picks and went for pitching with both of them. With the first, they took another college-trained, high-floor guy in Florida State’s Luke Weaver. With the second (technically in the competitiveness balance picks), they went with hard-throwing high schooler Jack Flaherty. Weaver’s torn through the minors striking out far more than the maximum allowable to retain “high floor” status; he made his MLB debut last year, and has been excellent in a handful of starts in the past few weeks. Weaver went 10-2 with a 2.55 ERA in AAA this year, and he’s 3-1 with 36 Ks in 29 IP for the Cardinals. There is nothing for him to do in the minors anymore. And he’s not alone. Flaherty, still just 21 years old, was 7-2 with an ERA under 2 in AA this year, so he moved up to AAA and was 7-2 with an ERA of 2.74. Some HRs pushed his FIP higher, but Flaherty’s got top-100 prospect pedigree and a plus fastball, and thus the Cards can dream on him. With the trade of Leake, the Cards have called up Flaherty to take his place in the rotation.

The Cardinals had no need to be tied to a fairly large contract for an average-ish pitcher, not with youngsters on the way up and not with Lance Lynn hitting free agency at the end of the year. The M’s, meanwhile, were perhaps the team most in need of a competent – not great, not even good, just competent – starting pitcher (with the possible exception of the Orioles, who continue to win despite a poor rotation). From a high level, the deal makes a lot of sense. Of course, even with pitching at a premium, no one would take on the entirety of Leake’s remaining contract. Instead, the Cards will send some cash with Leake, turning that $55 M in guaranteed money into something more like $36 M. Jerry Dipoto told the TNT’s Bob Dutton that they asked themselves, “If Mike Leake is a 30-year-old free agent (in the coming offseason), and we were able to achieve this deal with him, we would be comfortable signing him to that contract?” At 3 years and ~$12 M per year, they obviously thought so, and it’s hard to argue with them. This commitment is roughly the same amount they gave Hisashi Iwakuma this year, and with ‘Kuma unlikely to return, they could use a league-average pitcher to replace him. On a per-year basis, this is a bit more than they’re giving Yovani Gallardo this year, and Leake’s projected to be significantly better.

So this is a great deal, right? I completely understand it, but there’s one big warning sign here. In the past few months, Leake’s sinker – his primary fastball – has been noticeably slower. That’s coincided with a run of bad outings and a collapse of his strikeout rate. As a ground-ball guy, Leake’s never been about Ks, but as you might expect, his K rate and runs allowed are correlated. Moving to the AL would seem to push his K rate even lower; nearly 1/5th of his career strikeouts have come against opposing pitchers, and it’s more than 20% this season. As a ground ball guy, though, he may be able to keep the ball in the park, something the M’s legion of fly-ballers haven’t been able to do. If the M’s think this velo drop is just a blip, or something that could be remedied with an extra day of rest, then I get it. But if Leake’s durability is breaking down, then the M’s are on the hook for 3+ years of Leake’s decline phase.

That velo drop comes at an inopportune time, as the M’s still fancy their chances to get the 2nd wildcard. Unfortunately, Leake’s been much better in the first half over his career:

And more troubling, not all opponents are equally adept at hitting sinking fastballs – Leake’s bread and butter pitch. The best two teams in baseball at hitting sinkers/two-seamers? Houston and Texas, two teams who’ll play the M’s 13 times next month. Jeff’s recap notes that his expected wOBA has been nearly identical in 2015, 2016, and 2017 – right around .327 each year. But since July 1, it’s risen to .371, and now he won’t get to face pitchers anymore.

His change-up’s velocity is down even more than his sinker’s, and that may account for his vanishingly low K rate against lefties this year. He’s never really had big platoon splits before, so it’s hard to know what to make of that. He’s getting more sink on his pitches with the Cardinals than he did with the Reds, but that seems to be the result of a slight lowering of his release point. He throws a slider *and* a cutter, along with a curveball he uses sparingly. At just 30 years old, there’s a scenario where he ages gracefully and gives the M’s 2-3 WAR each year of the deal and helps stabilize a rotation that could desperately use it. As a pitcher, there’s also a scenario where he velo drop continues and he washes out due to injury.

Let’s be clear: the M’s have the money to take on a good chunk of Leake’s contract. I’ve said for a while that their commitment to Robinson Cano is no reason they can’t sign other players, something they’ve demonstrated by extending Jean Segura and now acquiring Leake. Because Gallardo/Iwakuma drop off the payroll next year, and because they likely won’t pay Drew Smyly either, they still have room to add, even apart from their large commitments to Cano, Felix, Seager, Cruz, and Leake. That’s good, as they’ve obviously got a number of holes to fill, but I think it’s clear that, given the state of the baseball business, the M’s are not hamstrung by these contracts. Once they got a decent chunk of money from St. Louis (and the Cards even kicked in $750,000 of international bonus pool money), the finances of the deal make sense. The key is Leake’s health and his transition to the AL. My guess is that this move doesn’t really change the math on the 2017 playoff race, and we’ll need to evaluate it after 2018.

Game 134, Mariners at Orioles

August 30, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 6 Comments 

Ariel Miranda vs. Ubaldo Jimenez, 12:05pm

It’s getaway day in Baltimore, and I think the M’s are pretty happy to put this road trip behind them. The disappointment of the Yankees series has led to two awful games in Baltimore, and now the M’s are playing to avoid a sweep in a HR-friendly park behind a HR-friendly starting pitcher. Of course, the M’s line-up has to like seeing Ubaldo Jimenez’s name, too. Ariel Miranda’s currently tied for 3rd in baseball for most HRs given up in 2017, but Jimenez, despite pitching far fewer innings, is hot on his tail. Jimenez’s HR/9 rate ranks 3rd among all pitchers who’ve thrown at least 100 IP, while Miranda’s is 9th.

Jimenez’s career is a fascinating one, as he’s gone from ace to broken shell of his former self to respectable middle-of-the-rotation reclamation story and then back to one of the worst starting pitchers in the game. After the Lucas Sims game and Dylan Bundy’s utter dominance last night, I’m a bit gunshy about talking down an opposing starter, but…just look at Jimenez’s numbers: in 126 IP, Jimenez has an ERA of 6.57 and a FIP of 5.64. That FIP is the 2nd worst in the league, and would be second worst in each year since 2015. It would rate as the worst in 2014 or 2013. In recent years – James Shields a few years ago, or Derek Holland this year – we’ve seen pitchers give up an astonishing number of HRs, which pushes their FIP (and ERA) way up near 6. But Ubaldo combines a poor walk rate with a poor strand rate and drizzles it over his long-standing inability to keep the ball in the park. All of this means that, pace Shields or even Miranda, his FIP isn’t overstating his problems – it’s actually understating them.

The M’s playoff odds are down under 10%, and their wildcard odds now rank 8th in the AL, so I’m not sure how much to talk about must-win games, but if they want to jump back into things, they absolutely need to beat Ubaldo Jimenez today. Fangraphs’ game odds give Baltimore the edge, which is pretty remarkable, but if you can’t beat Jimenez a day after getting one-hit, maybe high-stakes baseball isn’t for you. Jimenez has been particularly hurt by lefties, despite the fact that his splitter’s a decent pitch against them. Like Miranda, the problem is that opposite-handed batters really see his fastball well. Since the start of the 2016 season, lefties are slugging .739 against his sinker, his primary fastball. Righties are slugging .465, which isn’t too bad. But all of the three true outcomes are cranked to 11 against lefties – he strikes more of them out, but also walks more, and gives dozens and dozens of dingers. Good match-up for the M’s lefties today.

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

A day off for SS Jean Segura, who’s been in a tailspin for a few months now.

Max Povse wasn’t sharp in his start last night against Salt Lake, walking 3 and K’ing 1 in 3 IP (the Rainiers are giving their starting pitchers 3-4-5 IP per game these days) in an 8-1 loss. Evan Scribner made a rehab appearance, pitching one scoreless inning. Modesto and Arkansas both notched wins behind strong starts from Tyler Jackson and Bryan Evans, respectively. We’ll give Jackson the nod for start of the day thanks to his 8 Ks in 5 IP. Tommy Romero got his 4th win in the AZL, and the 20-year old now has a K:BB ratio of 51:15 in 43 1/3 IP.

In bigger news, the M’s just acquires SP Mike Leake from St. Louis for cash, SS Rayder Ascanio, plus international bonus pool slot money. More on this soon.

Game 133, Mariners at Orioles – What Does Success Look Like?

August 29, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 5 Comments 

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Dylan Bundy, 4:05pm

Yesterday on twitter, prospect writer and friend of the blog Chris Crawford posted an intriguing poll question for M’s fans:

It’s a tough question, as everything depends on how you define a half dozen or so terms. To me, the season would be a success if the M’s identified players they want to build around or build with in ~3-4 years time. That is, who’s going to be supporting the M’s future playoff efforts once Cruz and :sniff: Felix are either gone or aren’t contributing anymore? Kyle Seager and Jean Segura will be around, so what we’re looking for are pre-FA talent that can reliably provide above-average production and thus help pry open another window of contention. Near the break, the M’s looked like they wouldn’t be a factor in the wildcard chase, as they headed into the All-Star break 4 games below .500 and in 4th place in the AL West. However, the M’s had *three* pre-arb outfielders who looked poise to contribute for years to come. Ben Gamel was hitting line drives everywhere and had accumulated 1.9 fWAR at the break. Mitch Haniger was at 1.4 despite missing time with an oblique injury; his slash line was .273/.376/.472. Guillermo Heredia’d played the least, as he yielded playing time to twice-DFA’d Leonys Martin, but he’d put up 0.5 WAR and looked like he could bring his batting line to league average, which is not bad at all for a CF acquired for peanuts.

What’s happened since then is essentially an inversion of what we saw back in mid-July. In the second half, Gamel’s been worth -0.2 fWAR, while Haniger’s somehow been worse (-0.4). Heredia keeps ticking along, adding another 0.3, but it’s a bit tougher to say that any one of them is *clearly* going to be a net positive in 3 years. Haniger’s been injured – twice – and thus I’d guess most M’s fans are still bullish on his future. Gamel’s lack of power (despite yesterday’s 3R shot to CF) may limit his future, given he’s limited to the corner OF spots. Meanwhile, the team’s lifted themselves back into contention, at least sporadically, and benefited from the general weakness of their competition. The M’s could end up with a very different, but still successful, season, though that’s looking less and less likely. But I might actually prefer the timeline in which the M’s continued to fade from contending in 2017, but saw Haniger/Gamel/Heredia become an intriguingly balanced/potent outfield.

With his HR yesterday, Adam Jones has now hit at least 25 HRs in each of the last 7 seasons. This isn’t a big shock for M’s fans who remember him hitting 25 at age 21 for Tacoma back in 2007, and no, I am NOT over it yet. I’ve talked at length about his growth from game to game and even AB to AB back then, and the way he improved his batting line – and power numbers in particular – from 2006 to 2007 exemplify that ability at a macro level. Of course, it came at a cost, as Jones’ K rate crept up a bit; not enough to be a huge red flag, and hey, his overall production and even his walk rate improved as well. But the famously K-averse Bavasi regime saw that and his 29%+ K rate in his two MLB call-ups and probably thought he’d K too much to be a regular contributor. Oops.

Instead, he pretty much immediately settled in as a high-contact hitter, with a K rate well below league average. No, his patience has never really developed, but a low-K, moderate-to-better-than-moderate power combination is a wonderful thing, especially at an up-the-middle defensive position. A lot of the credit for this goes to Jones himself, who stood out back in 2006-7 for his willingness (and aptitude) to learn. But some of it should probably go to the Orioles organization, who saw a red flag and respectfully lowered it. I was thinking about that as I perused the bonkers numbers that SS Tim Beckham’s put up in the month or so that he’s been a member of the O’s. Beckham’s average pop played up from the shortstop position, and it was an encouraging sign for a guy who put up a lot of sub-.100 ISOs in the minors. But in two nearly full years at the big league level, he was striking out in over 30% of his plate appearances. That level of Ks is tough to get around, and although he put up astonishingly high BABIPs, he was still a below-average hitter because of it. Since moving to Baltimore for a single-A right-hander, Beckham’s hitting .386/.407/.667. His K rate isn’t just below 30%, it’s below *20%* at 17.8, and he’s put up 1.8 fWAR in less than 30 games. Yes, yes, lots of players have hot streaks, but Beckham’s looked like a different player, and seems to have given himself the inside track at the starting SS job in Baltimore for the next few years.

These player development success stories on the position player side are balanced by the Orioles’ remarkable, historic, comprehensive failure to develop pitchers. It’s not about poor draft position, or a bad eye for talent. Jake Arrieta’s done fine for himself, and after washing out of the rotation, Zach Britton’s actually contributed some value to the O’s. But their record is dotted with seasons lost to injury, failures to develop, and washouts. Brian Matusz was a guy with advanced command, until he lost it all overnight. Radhames Liz could never find the strikezone. Hunter Harvey can’t stay on the mound. And today’s starter, Dylan Bundy, is a strange mix of injury woes and stunted development. It’s tough to overstate the hype around Bundy in mid-2012. After being drafted 4th overall out of high school, Bundy was pushed to full-season A ball in 2012 and made 8 starts, yielding 0 earned runs and striking out 40 and walking 2 in 30 IP. He’d continue up the ladder and actually make 2 appearances for Baltimore that year as a teenager. And then things started to go wrong. He missed 2013 with TJ surgery, and after making 9 appearances in the minors in 2014, he had a setback and missed nearly all of 2015 as well. Finally healthy, he pitched over 100 IP for Baltimore last year, and while his ERA was better than league average, a high FIP and so-so K rate suggested he wasn’t back to his old self, the guy who threw 95-97, had a great change and curve, and a slider/cutter that was his best pitch and that the O’s wouldn’t let him throw due to a perceived higher injury risk. He also bounced between the rotation and the bullpen, and averaged under 95 with his fastball.

This year, pitching exclusively from the rotation, his velocity’s down 2.5 MPH to 92+, and as a result, his K rate’s down again. It’s essentially tied with Ariel Miranda’s, which is ironic given that the pitching-starved O’s pretty much gave Miranda away to the M’s, the same way they gave away Arrieta, Matusz, and Parker Bridwell. Having already BEEN injured several times, it seems Bundy’s worn down the O’s player development group’s objections, and he’s now throwing his slider. Compared to last year, Bundy’s throwing fewer four-seamers, a few more sinkers, and a bunch of sliders – again, he threw precisely none of them last year. It’s a good pitch, like his change: it gets whiffs, it gives him a weapon against righties, and it helps boost his K rate now that his fastball’s not fooling anyone. HRs are still an issue, though, and they blunt his platoon advantage over righties. In his career, lefties strike out a lot less and walk more; that’s to be expected. But righties have hit for a bit more power… not enough to reverse his platoon splits, but enough that he’s not able to dominate them the way everyone expected back in 2012. It’s impossible to know what Bundy would’ve become in another org. His high school rival and fellow 1st-rounder that year Archie Bradley’s had his own developmental hiccups in a different org. But watching the O’s flail with pitchers for a decade has been compelling as an accident on the side of the highway. The M’s PD work over that time span is worthy of jeers too, and I’ve done my fair share of jeering. But maaaaan, the Orioles have struggled. The end result? This year’s birds rank 27th in MLB in pitching WAR, and their rotation sports a collective ERA of 5.55, worst in the AL by a mile.*

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

Max Povse starts for Tacoma at Cheney Stadium tonight. Go see the big fellow take on Salt Lake. Brian MacAfee (Everett), Tyler Jackson (Modesto) and Bryan Evans (Arkansas) are your other pitching probables in the system. The full season clubs lost their games last night, as did the AZL M’s, but Everett won 5-4 on their first walk-off of the year.

* Their FIP looks very similar to Seattle’s rotation total, and it’s easy to see why: their HR/9 are identical at 1.70, and while the O’s hurlers strike out a few more, they walk more, too. The one saving grace for the M’s is defense: the M’s can turn balls in play into outs (offer not valid in New York, apparently), while the O’s struggle. This was forecasted rather easily, as the O’s have had to play Mark Trumbo in the field a bunch, and got yet another 1B/DH/OF in Trey Mancini, another young hitter who’s developed nicely, but another guy without a real position with Chris Davis at 1B.

2017 Arizona Fall League Rosters Announced

August 29, 2017 · Filed Under Minor Leagues · Comment 

It says something, either about my habits, or attitudes towards the present season, or suspect mental state that I would have already narrowed down probable dates for Arizona Fall League rosters to be released to this Wednesday. And hey, what do you know? Headlined by first-round pick of yesteryear, center fielder Kyle Lewis, the Mariners will be sending eight players to fall ball. Joining Lewis will be RHPs Matthew Festa, Darin Gillies, Max Povse, and Art Warren, catcher Joe DeCarlo, utility man Eric Filia, and center fielder Braden Bishop. You may notice here that the AFL roster selection rules seem to have changed because that’s a lot of Cal League representation, if not currently, then earlier in the year. They’ll also have Yoel Monzon as a pitching coach on the staff, presently the pitching coach for the Peoria Mariners. Heck, he may not even bother with cleaning out his locker.

Lewis is probably where most people would start out, and rightly so. The 22-year-old probably still holds onto his spot as the system’s top prospect on athletic potential alone, but if you know the name, then it’s likely you also have a grasp on the history: A collision at the plate due to the catcher blocking the lane– the same type of collision now banned in the majors– resulted in him blowing out his ACL as well as his medial and lateral meniscus. For a guy who was hoped to be a centerfielder, that’s a big blow. Lewis didn’t get game action until June and then almost immediately banged up his knee again trying to play all-out defense on a play, and then disappeared for a couple of weeks. For much of the season, he’s been locked into the DH position to curb any Chris Snelling-like tendencies to hurt himself doing too much, but between the injuries and limited on-field performances, we’re only just now hitting a sample size in Modesto equal to what he had in Everett. August has been a lackluster month for him in the box as well, with an OPS in the mid-.600s, even as he is finally getting an opportunity to run around and play in the outfield. There are really two cases to be made here, the one that hopes that Lewis stands a better chance of getting back on track with rest and time, and the other that wants to see sustained offensive development. That being said, I’m not too surprised to see him here.

The second-greatest prospect of intrigue would probably be Braden Bishop. The one thing about having Bishop and Lewis on the same roster is that if they end up in the same outfield, whatever pressures are on Lewis to defend are scaled back dramatically. Based on .gifs and minor league video I’ve seen, Braden Bishop has a tendency to play defense as if he’s the only outfielder on staff and will routinely come out of nowhere to make plays. People have talked about him as a potential Gold Glove out there, perhaps in the Kevin Pillar mold, but for much of the season what we’ve talked about is Bishop’s offense. In college, he was a slap hitter, and a slap hitter he remained starting out. This past year, he trained in the offseason with fellow former Husky Jake Lamb and appears to have gotten stronger and is coming at the plate with a different setup. Baseball Census has an excellent side-by-side comparison of his two seasons in the Cal League and it’s my opinion that Bishop has probably done more to solidify his prospect status this year than anyone else in the system. The beauty of his skill set is that he can add a lot of value with the glove alone, but any increase however incremental in his hitting abilities means more stretch-doubles and runs scored. I could see him contributing, maybe not next year, but 2019 seems like a reasonable estimate.

Between Bishop and Lewis, those are two prospects that you’re potentially going to have in the top five, locked for the top ten minimum. Where Povse slots may depend on your opinion of him and how he’s used, but he may be a top ten as well by some reckoning and will retain rookie status headed into 2018. One of the stories of earlier in the summer was that Jerry DiPoto had the clever idea that the Mariners bullpen needed a Chris Devenski, a guy who could do short to medium relief and fill in innings with strikeout potential. Povse was initially tabbed as that guy and fast-tracked into debuting in late-June. Of course, since then, the Mariners have seen the emergence of another pitcher who can fill a similar role in Emilio Pagan, who has not started games in the minor leagues at all. Taking the pressure off Povse to be that guy may be good, as he’s the 6’8″, long-limbed Tall Wall who has had some difficulty getting his mechanics in order. As a reliever, the need for extra pitches would be minimized, but the boom-and-bust of “some days he has it and some days he doesn’t” is magnified, and moreover the team needs starting pitching in a bad way at the moment. For Tacoma, Povse has made three of his last four appearances as a starter and the most recent two embody that intriguing potential of his and the accompanying risk. One outing was four and two-thirds frames of no-hit ball with a 7/1 K/BB, the next, four frames with two runs allowed on three hits, a hit batter, two walks, and four strikeouts. It’ll be hard not to take what role he’s used in the AFL as indicative of Something, but give precedence to what’s said about him.

After Povse, who has already pitched in the majors, Festa might be the next closest. Festa was the smaller of our D-II selections in the first ten rounds of last year, but the stuff is very much real and he tops out at 96 mph. The repertoire is also deep enough to handle multiple innings, but then this is one of multiple notes about him that really make you stop and look at his statline and think, “wait, what?” The 24-year-old has kind of been a sleeper due to age and expectations, but he’s thrown 66.2 innings in thirty-nine appearances and over that span has a 96/19 K/BB. No, those aren’t typos, that’s nearly a K and a half every inning and a walk maybe every three or more. Given all the other happenings in system, the Mariners have demonstrated remarkable restraint in not pushing him to double-A. Still, he’s one guy that I wouldn’t be surprised to see next season, even if ideally, we won’t have to make as many calls out that direction as we have this year.

Speaking of interesting statlines and modest draft profiles, we also have another recent (current, actually) Modesto Nut on the roster in Eric Filia. You may know the story here, but to refresh, he had taken some time away from school and came back to UCLA looking like a bonafide prospect. The slugging this year has been lower than where he was in Everett, but he remains very difficult to strike out and has only done so about every eleven ABs this season. This leaves him as the rare bird with a lop-sided K/BB at 42/63. While some players with elite plate discipline end up going on to develop power later in their careers, such has not yet been the case for Filia, who has fewer dingers in the Cal League than he did in the NWL and in far more plate appearances. Putting aside the offensive profile aspects, the eye-catcher here is his listing as an infielder. Filia has played the outfield corners in the past, but has been increasingly seeing time at first. While he does swing lefty, the fact that he throws right-handed opens up more options for him on the field as a utility player. If Filia manages to show as much defensive versatility as say, a Danny Valencia, or worst-case, first and the corners, that still opens up more options for him where the bat can continue to do what it does well, namely slap the ball around. He’s another guy who has a fun little Baseball Census profile, so give that a look as well.

Warren has served as an off-and-on closer for Nuts and also boasts about a K per inning in his pitching lines. Yet, the advanced metrics don’t like him all that much. Statcorner has him in the red with a nBB% of 11 and a K% of 24, and that helps to explain some of it, as does the fact that Warren gives up hits a bit more readily. I know I’ve been plugging them a bit in this post, but I think it’s deserved because I wouldn’t really know much about Warren had I not read yet another Baseball Census profile on him. The story is fairly similar to any other you’d expect to find in spring training: A changed diet, a changed workout regiment, BSohL. These would be platitudes without the results, which Warren has, having gone from a high-80s starter to a low-to-mid-90s reliever. Like Festa, the arsenal is deeper than average as well. I’m wanting to see better command before I’m totally comfortable with him as a potential contributor.

For DeCarlo… well, one more Modesto Nut, one more guy you can find info on online? DeCarlo’s was one of the Mariners-like picks that I had grown accustomed to in that he was a second selection as a big-bodied prep infielder who played short in the past but hey so did Jim Thome when he was in high school. In DeCarlo’s case, he’s been following the same track as fellow farmhand Marcus Littlewood, another kid drafted at short who had good instincts and not-great wheels until the organization decided to try him out as a backstop. And why convert one shortstop to the Tools of Ignorance when you could convert TWO? Part of this is representative of a dearth in organization depth spurring the move. DeCarlo doesn’t look great out there yet. In forty-six defensive games, eighteen passed balls and a 26% CS rate. Yet he’s also doing an entirely new thing and his offense, while suffering, has not cratered, with a loss in average almost entirely accounting for the drops in OBP, SLG, and OPS. What’s been good about DeCarlo as a minor leaguer is that, while he doesn’t have the tools to hit for high-average, he absolutely can take walks and hit for power now and then. The secondary averages, as such, have been solid despite a high-K rate. More reps can only help him, yet I don’t find myself thinking that he’s a risk to be Rule 5’d just yet because of the SSS and lack of time in the high minors. We’ll muse on that next year, depending on how he takes.

Our last but not least is Darin Gillies, which is one R and two Ls for your reference there. Gillies is not much written about, being the guy in the tenth round of 2015 whom they threw $10k at in the hopes of saving top ten pool money elsewhere. That being said, you wouldn’t expect him to be in double-A and holding his own, and yet he is. Gillies has been on an aggressive track, but it’s double-A that has presented something of a challenge for him. Whereas last year, he had a .186 combined average and a 75/18 K/BB through 66.2 innings, he’s now at a .229 average against and a 44/24 K/BB in 56.2 innings in double-A. That’s not as impressive, but again, our data is limited. We know he was at ASU and in and out of the bullpen for his four years there. We know that he threw 90 mph or so in HS. If nothing else, the AFL selects for the willing, but Gillies may be a guy that we soon have more data on, and more data is always welcome.

The season will commence on October 10th, as the Javelinas play a day game against the Desert Dogs.

Game 132, Mariners at Orioles – Are You Not Entertained?

August 28, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

Marco Gonzales vs. Chris Tillman, 4:05pm

Tonight’s game is a microcosm of baseball in the era of the 2nd wildcard. Two teams separated by a half-game and within 2 games of playoff position start pitchers coming in with ERAs in the 7’s, with FIPs to match. They’re starting because there aren’t better alternatives. Fans can scoreboard watch because there are a lot of wild card rivals to keep tabs on AND because it might honestly be more fun than keeping an eye on this particular score. The ugliness of the loss yesterday in the Bronx seems to have occasioned a lot of talk on twitter about the state of the M’s and their window to contend. Conceivably, the M’s could maintain this form of contention for years. The problem is, so can everyone: there are exactly 4 teams in the AL who AREN’T within 3 games of the playoffs right now. I asked this question in a convoluted way when the M’s last went in to Chicago, but I’ll be more direct today: is this enough? Are you happy with this? The M’s have very clearly NOT done an Astros/Cubs/White Sox/Braves/Padres tear-down, and thus they remain a very talented, somewhat enigmatic and graying team that gets to play for the 2nd wild card. A lot of the enjoyment of this season has hinged on that, and AL parity has spread this enjoyment to most fans of AL teams. But is that enough for you, as a fan?

There’s no right or wrong answer, and it’s entirely possible that the rebuild option was never on the table, either as the result of ownership diktat, or the realities of how the market would value much of what the M’s could’ve conceivably sold. Most long-term extensions close the door on getting back a ton in talent, and in any event, the M’s seem to like proven talent more than prospect lottery tickets. This – these sets of preferences and habits – has consequences, and we’ve seen it this year in the caliber of player that the M’s are capable of acquiring at the deadline or in the off-season. They simply can’t GET the Jose Quintanas and Sonny Grays, so Gonzales and Christian Bergman (just added back to the 40-man and called up to Seattle today) will have to do. Personally, I think those that think the M’s should’ve torn it down a bit more emphatically should be clear about what they’d hypothetically get in return. Trading Felix and Cano would be all but impossible. Nelson Cruz’s trade value would be hurt a bit by his age, lack of position (NL teams may be out) and the collapse of the market for bat-first guys, from Mark Trumbo to JD Martinez. The most intriguing option, and one talked about by Nathan Bishop, would’ve been trading Edwin Diaz this past offseason. The problem there was that his lack of track record may have hurt the return as much as his long period of pre-arb salary would’ve helped it. Huge, MiLB system-changing returns for relievers have come for guys with a bit more of a track record: Ken Giles, Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Miller (the 2nd time), Aroldis Chapman. It also forecloses one way to squeeze more out of the rest of your talent, the way the Royals and Pirates did with their excellent bullpens.

That’s not to say that approach would’ve been wrong, just that it’s not completely up to the M’s whether to tear-it-down or incrementally add. Their rebuild options were very narrow and limited, perhaps at least as much as their options to add using a farm system that, outside of Tyler O’Neill, consisted of a lot of low-minors guys and a rehabbing Kyle Lewis. More than that, I’d love to see some signs that the M’s player development team helping a bunch of players take serious leaps forward. If the M’s are going to prioritize low-velo, command and control types, how many can avoid HRs and walks at the same time? If the M’s are going to rethink how they teach hitting, which players are utilizing the new pedagogy to destroy MiLB pitching? Catching up with the Astros seems far-fetched now, but it won’t happen through incremental adds like David Phelps. It wouldn’t have happened by selling off their sellable players, either, though. It won’t happen until the PD group gets within range of Houston’s. I’m not sure how to make that happen, but I hope someone knows, and is working on it.

Last year, when the M’s minor league system dominated the competition, it looked like that gap may be narrowing. In the first half of the season, when the M’s young OF ranked in the top 10 best in the league. Things look different now that the M’s OF ranks 29th in batting runs in the 2nd half. Like with the pitching staff, injuries have taken their toll, and as with everything, we’re all probably overreacting to the latest data. The M’s OFs haven’t completely forgotten how to hit, but I bring it up to say that the development of a young OF would go a long way to dispelling the doom and gloom about the M’s 2018 and beyond. Irrespective of what happens in the 2017 playoff chase, the M’s absolutely need to develop some cost-controlled player who can help the club after Nelson Cruz leaves. We thought we knew the identity of a few of them, and maybe they’re one hot streak from recovering their April-June form. Let’s hope so. Or maybe Marco Gonzales will go on a serious run starting tonight?

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

Let’s catch the ball today guys, whadda ya say?

This has all been depressing, and 5 errors in one inning in a crucial game will do that to a fan, so let’s add some *further* bad news. The Rainiers kick off a four-game set tonight at Cheney. These are the final 4 games of the home schedule for 2017. The summer of 2017, like our lives, is almost over. The only solution to ennui and paralyzed fear is to head to Cheney Stadium and check it out.

Aaron West, Steven Ridings, and Randy Bell are the probables lower in the system while Tacoma turns to good ol’ TBA as they take on Dustin Ackley, Ramon Flores and the rest of the Salt Lake Bees.

As mentioned above, Christian Bergman’s been added to the M’s roster, while Leonys Martin made it through waivers and is back with Tacoma. Dan Altavilla heads back to Tacoma to make room on the 25-man for Bergman. Jeanmar Gomez opted out of his MiLB contract in Tacoma.

Game 129, Mariners at Yankees – Late Career Surges

August 25, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 8 Comments 

Ariel Miranda vs. CC Sabathia, 4:05pm

Ariel Miranda in a bandbox stadium against a HR-hitting line-up. What could go wrong?

Today’s game is an interesting one to me, and not just because the M’s are right in the thick of the wildcard chase. I’m interested in the pitching match-up and checking in on CC Sabathia’s fascinating late-career reboot and resurgence. Sabathia looked done – like, Pujols-level done – a few years ago. After a solid 2012, he stumbled badly in 2013, with an ERA in the high-4s. He turned 33 that year, but any hope for a rebound in 2014 was dashed when he missed time with injury and spent his few healthy innings giving up HRs at an alarming rate. He was healthier in 2015, but he still wasn’t effective. He was paid $25 M per year as well. This looked like a classic cautionary tale about giving long contracts to pitchers. His velo was down, he was in his late 30s, and pitched in a park that turned decently-hit fly balls into dingers. It didn’t make sense for the retooling Yankees to keep an aging, ineffective pitcher who gave up tons of hard contact in perhaps the worst park in baseball to give up hard contact. And then something strange happened: Sabathia reinvented himself on the fly, and while he hasn’t turned back the clock to 2007, he’s once again adding value to the team.

There are two things going on with Sabathia. One is more of a personal shift in approach – a shift with an easily-identifiable pedigree. The other is team-specific, and something we’ve talked a bit about this season. So let’s separate these shifts out and tackle them one by one. In 2012-2013, from his final really good year to his first awful one, Sabathia relied primarily on a four-seam fastball. Over the next few years, perhaps to try and alleviate his HR problems, he started throwing his sinker more often, but he continued to use his four-seamer as well. Using more of the sinker didn’t solve the dinger issue at all, as it seemed even easier for batters to elevate the sinker than his four-seam. With his velo dropping from ~94 to ~90-91, and with the entire *league* now geared up to drive low fastballs, this seemed like a sure sign that the end was nigh. Seemingly out of nowhere, Sabathia showed up in 2016 with a completely different pitch mix. The four-seam was essentially retired. In its place was a new pitch, one he’d thrown a couple of times in previous years, but now his primary fastball and bearing a new and different shape: a cutter, thrown at essentially the same speed as his sinker. He’d always had a slider, and it’s been his best pitch against lefties for a decade. He’s always shown big platoon splits, and a breaking ball like his slurvy slider is a big reason why. His problem was that he couldn’t keep righties honest when they could look fastball and swing like hell at them. The cutter itself wasn’t all that remarkable – it was a straight fastball with essentially the same vertical movement as his sinker. The key was 1) it had 8″ less horizontal movement and 2) he threw both of them to righties. Righties now saw a bunch of 90 MPH pitches, but it was harder to get the barrel of the bat on either of them.

This approach, especially at this velocity, isn’t geared towards strikeouts, and indeed, Sabathia’s K rate suffered. The existence of the cutter didn’t suddenly turn his sinker into a decent pitch; righties still hit the sinker pretty well. But this approach allowed him to fight righties to a draw, and the cutter helped keep his HR-rate playable. In short, Sabathia became, in Tony Blengino’s words, the best contact manager in the AL. The sinker got some ground balls, and the cutter induced weak, jam-shot pops and flies on batters who were expecting a half a foot more armside run. That’s great, but many great contact manager types have struggled to maintain their mastery. Marco Estrada was great until this season, and Masahiro Tanaka’s seen his contact management all but disappear in a hail of long balls this season. But while Sabathia isn’t quite matching what he did in 2016, he’s still sporting a low BABIP and is having another surprisingly effective year.

The whole ditch-the-four-seam-use-a-cutter-and-sinker-instead plan is a familiar one to M’s fans. We’ve seen quite a few proponents come through Oakland in the past several years. Most famously, Brandon McCarthy used this approach to reinvent himself after a few seasons of getting knocked around in Texas. With the A’s in 2011, McCarthy went from afterthought to near ace on the out-of-nowhere contenders. In 2011-2012, McCarthy threw a sinker or cutter nearly *80%* of the time, and while his K rates weren’t great, a very low walk rate and decent HR rates made him a valuable starter. He was also an imitated one: Jesse Chavez, to take one example, used the exact same approach with the A’s, completely overhauling his pitch mix and becoming a decent swingman/starter for a few years. McCarthy himself attributed the shift to Roy Halladay, who threw around 70% cutters/sinkers during his time as one of the game’s premier starters, and another guy who needed to overcome a less-than-ideal first go-round in MLB.

The second big trend with CC is something we’ve seen from essentially ALL Yankees pitchers these days: they’re throwing a ton of breaking balls. McCarthy threw 80% cutters/sinkers, and Halladay threw about 70%. Sabathia himself threw some type of fastball on around 60% of his pitches a few years ago. That’s down to about 50% now, with that 10% shifted over to his slider. His slider is now the pitch he throws the most, and he’ll get up to about 50% sliders vs. lefties. As a team, the Yankees are dead last in FB usage by a wide margin; the Astros are in 2nd place about 4 percentage points back. By pitch info’s stats, they rank dead last in sinkers and 3rd lowest in four-seam usage. On the other side of that coin, they rank #1 in slider use, and 8th in change-ups. But if you add splitters to change-ups (as a splitter is a type of change), they throw the most such pitches in the game. Reliever Dellin Betances throws 98, but throws a curveball 55% of the time. Their best overall pitcher, Luis Severino, throws 97 as a starter, but still throws nearly 50% sliders+change-ups. Leaguewide, batters do much more damage on fastballs, so you understand the theory behind this: throw more of the pitches that don’t turn into homers and fewer of the ones that do. Like the Astros, the Yankees have a huge differential in the number of HRs their batters have hit and the number their pitchers have yielded. Their batters get to take advantage of a friendly park, while their pitchers haven’t given up anywhere near as many dingers as, say, the M’s. The Yankees defense has been surprisingly stout as well, so their BABIP pushes the Yankees ahead of the Astros in terms of runs allowed an ERA.

The M’s have been a good hitting club against fastballs this year, but have struggled against breaking balls, sliders in particular. If they get into fastball counts, they can do some damage, particularly in a park like new Yankee stadium. Nelson Cruz needs a big game here, and it’s great they can get him back in the line-up now that the DH is back. This is also a perfect time to give Robinson Cano an extra day off and avoid him aggravating his hamstring. The M’s have said they don’t anticipate DL’ing him, which is good to hear; if he does need to go to the DL, the M’s have Gordon Beckham with them in New York, ready to be activated.

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

After yesterday’s huge brawl between the Tigers and Yankees, MLB has issued suspensions to several Yankees players, including both of their primary catchers (Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine). Sanchez, who sucker punched some Tiger in the melee, gets 4 games, while Romine – who was the recipient of the first shove from Miggy Cabrera – gets 2 games. Both will appeal, I’m sure, so Sanchez is batting 3rd tonight.

The teams are wearing special jerseys for “Players Weekend” complete with nicknames on the back. Kyle Seager’s jersey now reads “Corey’s Brother” while Motter is “La Pesadilla” (The nightmare). Cruz is Boomstick, Jean Segura is “El Mambo” and Heredia’s “El Conde” (The Count).

Game 128, Mariners at Braves – Fly Ball Revolution Faces Setbacks

August 23, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

Erasmo Ramirez vs. RA Dickey, 4:35pm

The M’s just got shut out in an important game against one of the worst pitching clubs in baseball. If they got something of a free win the night before when they kicked the ball around the diamond but still came away with a one-run win, they’ve given it away. This has been the frustrating thing about the team, as they look great for a spell and then just lose it for a day or a week. They’ve been hanging around .500 for a long, long time, and despite the fact that no one’s really running away with the second wild card, you get the sense that they can’t wait around for the wild card to fall to them by default: they need a 7-3, 8-2 stretch for a change.

As we’ve talked about a lot, the pitching staff’s woes mean that they’re going to need to hit. The M’s offense was very good in the first half, grading out as solidly above average. No, they weren’t mashing like the Astros/Dodgers, and they didn’t control the zone quite as much as Dipoto and Company would like, but they were buoyed by some great performances by young hitters like Ben Gamel, Guillermo Heredia, and Mitch Haniger. In the second half, they’ve seen Nelson Cruz come alive, and that’s helped push their ISO and power numbers above their first-half rates. The problem is that everything else has gotten worse, as the team’s walk rate’s down and those young outfielders are now actively hurting the cause. The M’s runs per game average of 4.66/game ranks 17th now. It’s always going to be a tall order to make the playoffs when your rotation includes guys that you’ve acquired from the minor league systems of other clubs, but this team simply can’t overcome the challenges they face with a below average offense.

So what happened here? I talked a lot about how Ben Gamel and Taylor Motter had improved their approach back in in April and May, and while I didn’t talk as much about Mitch Haniger, he was a standout performer in the early going. As far as guys with new/improved approaches at the plate, Yonder Alonso was one of the most talked about in baseball, and now HE plays for the M’s. Are these fly ball revolutionaries maintaining their higher launch angles? Again, there’s a lot of variance between players, but in general, pitchers have adjusted how they attack these guys, and the hitters haven’t yet made counter-adjustments.

Ben Gamel’s launch angle in 2016 was under 4 degrees, and upped that to nearly the league average in the early going. This generated a flurry of line drives that propelled his BABIP into the thermosphere for a while. After running GB/FB ratios of 1.2-1.4 consistently, he opened 2017 by halving that to 0.6-0.7 for a while. This wasn’t necessarily because he was hitting fly balls – that was Yonder Alonso’s adjustment. Instead, he was hitting everything on a line. Hitting line drives is great, and it made him insanely productive for a few months, but even then, there was something of a problem: he was hitting all of those line drives against fastballs, but he struggled against non-fastballs. Since then, a couple of things have happened. First, his production on *fastballs* fell, and second, he started putting more breaking balls into play.

Alonso was always a frighteningly under-powered 1B, and he cratered last year in Oakland, grading out as a below-average player. Instead of non-tendering him, the A’s were encouraged by reports of a swing change and saw their patience pay off as Alonso started the season on fire. The swing change basically doubled his average launch angle, and he was able to hit far more HRs than anyone would’ve thought in the early going. Since then, though, he’s had a rougher go of it. Like Gamel, he’d essentially halved his GB/FB ratio for a while, but it’s been creeping back up as he hits more and more ground balls. Like Gamel, his production on fastballs is down after a hot start as well.

There are a couple of possibilities here. One is the nihilistic view, which says that all of these statcast measures are essentially noise, and that hitters have less control over things like launch angle than we’ve thought. Yes, some hitters are capable of making lasting changes that benefit their production, but that fact isn’t related to launch angle, per se – rather, launch angle is the byproduct of other changes in things like pitch recognition, and so we’re focused on the wrong thing just because we now have more data on it. The slightly less nihilistic view is that launch angles are very much controllable by hitters, and that operationalizing this – putting something like “change your swing plane” into effect on a real-life baseball diamond – is probably at least partially related to the pitch type you’re trying to hit. That is, Yonder Alonso or Ben Gamel’s changes in swing plane as measured by launch angle came about because they were prepared to make a particular swing at a particular pitch (a fastball) in a particular location. Instead of trying to do X when you see a fastball in this zone, do Y instead. Both of them are very selective hitters and were presumably ready to pounce when a pitch meeting their favored attributes came along.

But you can’t simply wait for those pitches. Pitchers will try to avoid throwing the kinds of pitches that you’ve demonstrated mastery of, and with due respect to Alonso, I’m not sure it’s a timing issue, or if it is, the pitchers have some control over a batter’s timing. Through July 1st, Ben Gamel put 87 fastballs into play (including HRs, hits, outs), and Alonso put 91 into play. They put just 76 and 75 non-fastballs in play, respectively. Thus, their ratio of fastballs to non in play were 1.14:1 and 1.21:1, and for guys who demolished fastballs, that worked well. Since July 1, Gamel’s put 56 fastballs in play and Alonso’s chipped in with 52 – but their ratios have tanked. Gamel’s hit 73 non-fastballs while Alonso’s at 51. So Alonso’s 1.2 is now an even 1, while Gamel’s 1.14 is down to 0.77. It’s not that they’re missing fastballs, and it’s not even that they’re swinging through tough sliders or something – Gamel’s K rate is down in the 2nd half. But they’re not hitting their favored pitch types, and pitchers have noticed. Gamel’s average launch angle since July 1 is below 7 degrees, and it’s just 3 degrees on fastballs. He’s regressed into pretty much the exact same hitter he was in the minors and the guy we saw last year. Alonso’s launch angle is still fairly high, but along with some expected regression in his HR/FB ratio, he’s clearly mishitting pitches because pitchers are pitching him differently. He made a huge adjustment this offseason; now he’s going to have to make another one. If pitchers are keeping the ball away a bit more, especially low and away, it might take a different kind of swing adjustment than the one he used to obliterate fastballs over the middle or up. Gamel needs more help, and this will be a big test of Edgar Martinez’s teaching skills. Old habits are tough to break, but in this case, they really need breaking.

RA Dickey, the nearly 43-year old ex-Mariner knuckleballer is still hanging on thanks to a perpetually low BABIP-allowed. His HR rate fairly high, but it’s nothing too problematic; he should be used to it, anyway, as his HR/9 was in the 1.4 range a few times when he played for Toronto. As you might expect, he’s shown no real persistent platoon splits. Knuckeballers are weird.

1: Segura, SS
2: Alonso, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Valencia, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Haniger, LF
7: Zunino, C
8: Heredia, CF
9/SP: Erasmoooo Ramirez

The development of Danny Valencia as a corner OF is still in its early stages, but it seems to have enabled the M’s to make a surprising move. David Phelps is healthy and was activated from the 10-day DL today. To make room on the active roster, the M’s have once again DFA’d OF Leonys Martin. Martin hit for a bit of power since rejoining the M’s, but his overall line wasn’t pretty, so the M’s may think they can once again slip him through waivers and stash him in Tacoma. The move leaves the M’s with three healthy OFs in Heredia, Gamel, and Haniger, but Jarrod Dyson should be back soon. With Valencia stepping in at RF, the M’s obviously think they have enough on hand to survive without Martin until Dyson heals, and they may think they can bring up a youngster from AAA if they need a late-inning defensive replacement or a pinch runner. I get not wanting to lose Martin for nothing, but given his prolonged offensive struggles and the fact that his best asset – OF defense- is at least somewhat redundant on this team, I’ll defer to the M’s on this one. If they’d optioned Taylor Motter, they wouldn’t really be able to give the infielders an off day, and he’d have to stay in the minors for 10 days. They could option a relief pitcher, but the current plan seems to be to limit starters to 4+ innings, and in THAT context, going with an 8-man pen seems understandable. I was a bit surprised Martin slid through waivers before, and the M’s may be in a position to know with some certainty that he could do so again. Whoever’s in the OF going forward, the M’s need offense.

Probables in the minors tonight include Everett’s own Aaron West, whom the M’s picked up from Houston on July 30th. He’ll start for Arkansas, and he’s pretty familiar with the Texas League, having pitched for Corpus Christi in parts of 2014, 2015 and 2016. Modesto turns to Tyler Jackson, whom the M’s signed as an undrafted free agent this year out of Clemson. Steven Ridings starts for Clinton while Randy Bell pitches for Everett.

Sam Gaviglio’s 5 IP, 1 ER performance with no walks and 6 Ks edges Ljay Newsome for pitching line of the day for yesterday, while Joey Wong’s 2-3 with a HR in his very first game for Tacoma takes the nod for batting lines.

Game 127, Mariners at Braves

August 22, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

Marco Gonzales vs. Lucas Sims, 4:35pm

I mentioned Lucas Sims briefly in yesterday’s game post as another example of an advanced pitching prospect (a top-50-in-baseball type) who’s had an extremely rough transition to the big leagues. Perhaps a better way of framing this would be to say that Sims is a mirror image of Marco Gonzales.

Sims has a four-seam fastball and a sinker that he throws from a release point just shy of 6′ – he’s a classic 3/4 to low-3/4 pitcher. He complements the FB (he averages 91-92) with a slider at 86, and then a curve that features more horizontal than vertical movement. He’s also got a change-up at 84 that shows some moderately interesting vertical movement, especially compared to his four-seam fastball. He’s got a pretty deep arsenal, and he’s improved his control of all of them as he’s moved up the ladder in the Braves system. Overall, he was a big strikeout pitcher in the minors despite the lack of premium velo or a real wipeout pitch; like a number of pitchers, variety enabled him to rack up strikeouts in the minors, but it’s not happening thus far in the NL. Through 4 starts – a minuscule sample, I know – his K rate stands at an Andrew Moore-esque 10.9%. His walk rate’s been solid, but he’s also giving up HRs. No Ks, plenty of HRs is a really, really bad sign.

Marco Gonzales has a four-seam fastball and a sinker that he throws from a release point just shy of 6′ too…it just happens to come from the left side. Gonzales’ velo is now 91-92 as well, so they are almost identical in that regard. Their sinkers have a similar shape as well, though Sims’ four-seam is much straighter. Marco’s change has more horizontal movement, while Sims’ has more separation in vertical movement, but both pitches were seen as potential plus offerings when they were minor leaguers. Both of them had K rates at or above 20% in the minors, with Sims’ a bit higher, but both are fly-ball pitchers, and thus both have had some HR difficulty at times.

Sims’ is still in the top 10 for most HRs-allowed in the International League this year, despite having thrown just 100 IP. Marco Gonzales has a career HR/9 in AAA of 1.06, while Sims is way up at 1.69. Sims wasn’t really able to pitch around that, so his AAA stats aren’t exactly great. Gonzales’ has allowed a lower BABIP, so his numbers aren’t bad in the upper minors, but the more I see of this type, the more I think that an elevated HR rate in the upper minors is a serious, serious issue. A HR rate of 1.06 in the big leagues is fine; that’s more than playable. But given the uptick in HRs at the big league level, you need to be sure that a pitcher isn’t going to see that climb up near 2, which is a hell of a lot less playable. We’ve gotten used to this with K%, and needing to see prospects get their K rates down pretty far, so that when they increase in the big leagues – and in general, they will – it increases to a tolerable level.

Gonzales has had injury issues, and he could really use a better curve to give hitters something else to look for. I’d also love to see him get more separation between his change and four-seam, kind of like Sims has. Sims, though, I’m not really sure about. Coming up, scouts seemed to love his curve and change, but by pitch fx, I’m not really seeing what’s so special about either. Same with his fastball, frankly. He’s only 23, so he has even more development time to go, and he could turn into a pretty good starter at any point. But to do so, he’s going to have to make a huge leap forward in his command, or he’s going to have to find a bit more raw stuff – more velo, more bite on the curve, more something. It’s interesting, too, that he doesn’t throw his curve that much. He throws his slider twice as much, despite that pitch not rating a mention in this old BP scouting report.

1: Segura, SS
2: Alonso, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Haniger, CF
7: Gamel, LF
8: Zunino, C
9/SP: Marco Gonzales

Tacoma used a 7-run second inning to blow past El Paso en route to a 9-6 win. Jonathan Aro, who’s still hanging around as one of the very few Rainiers who played on last year’s club, got his 6th win in relief. Everett got all the runs they needed in the 7th, scoring 4 times to beat Vancouver 4-2. Anjul Hernandez tossed 5 shutout IP in that one.

Today’s probables include Sam Gaviglio, with Chase de Jong starting in Arkansas, Ljay Newsome, and Oliver Jaskie.

Game 126, Mariners at Braves

August 21, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 5 Comments 

Andrew Albers vs. Mike Foltynewicz, 4:35pm

After a successful series in Florida, the M’s could really use a sweep against the rebuilding Braves in Atlanta. The M’s trot out a cobbled-together collection of starting pitchers, as Andrew Albers, Marco Gonzales and Erasmo Ramirez were all acquired near the trade deadline. But Atlanta’s pitching has been dreadful all year, and we’re at the point where I’m actually a bit disappointed that the M’s won’t face Julio Teheran, the nominal ace of this disappointing staff.

The Braves are at an interesting point in their rebuild. A few years ago, they finished 79-83, 2nd in the NL East. With the 2nd wildcard coming in and with a solid young core of players like Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Teheran, Alex Wood, Evan Gattis, Andrelton Simmons and Justin Upton, they appeared ready to contend for several years. Management obviously disagreed, as they undertook one of the most aggressive demolitions of a decent team in recent memory, selling off Gattis, Simmons, Heyward, Wood and Upton in a series of trades. Those moves overhauled their farm system, turning a below-average group to the #1 ranked (by some people) in 2016 and again in 2017. Even after that first wave of deals, they’ve continued to acquire prospects, and currently have a handful of players ranked in baseball’s top 50 prospects. It’s been a painful year or two, but things are looking up as the Braves get used to a brand new stadium, right?

I’m not so sure. The Braves aggressive move to spurn the prospect of “contending” while hanging around .500 seems to have inspired the White Sox and Padres to do the same, and the Sox are the one group that can challenge the Braves for sheer depth of minor league talent. But it’s now 2017, and the Braves really should be further along than they are. That first wave of trades included the Evan Gattis deal with Houston that netted the Braves today’s starter, Mike Foltynewicz. Folty’s blessed with an arm that routinely touched 100 MPH even as a starter when he was coming up in the ‘Stros system, and he averaged 98+ in his first stint in the majors. He’s down to 95 now, which is still well above average and nothing to sneeze at. He’s been one of the Braves best pitchers, too, and while his walk rate (always a concern) is up from 2016, it’s still playable. The problem is that the total package is a bit…underwhelming. He’s now thrown 350+ innings at the big league level, and is settling in at “below average player” kind of levels. He’s not a replacement-level arm, but for a guy with ace potential, you’d like to see a FIP/ERA below the high-4s. At nearly 26, he may still have some development left, but he’s well beyond prospect stages. The problem isn’t that Folty’s been a bust – he absolutely hasn’t. It’s that he’s the high water mark at this point.

Here’s a look at the Braves top 10 prospects from 2016, about 18 months ago. 6 have already made the majors (that’s awesome!), and they’ve contributed -0.1 WAR for the Braves this year (not so awesome). That’s unfair, you say – these are youngsters rushed to the bigs because the big league club is terrible. That’s understandable, and it certainly ameliorates the problem. But the Braves made Dansby Swanson a starter at the beginning of the year, and he needed to be sent back to the minors in July. Ozzie Albies was a little better, but as someone without a ton of power and who may need to move off SS to accomodate Swanson, his ceiling’s limited – and he’s a ways off from reaching it. Sean Newcomb, the big return for Andrelton Simmons, started the season extremely well with quality starts in his first 4 games, but his old control problems clearly haven’t been fixed, and he’s sporting a FIP of 4.80. He’s also 24, just a few months younger than Matt Wisler, whose career ERA is now over 5. Aaron Blair and Max Fried have been hammered in the minors this year and in brief big league trials. Lucas Sims, who’ll start in this series, has seen his MiLB K% drop by more than 50% while he’s maintained the sky-high HR rates he showed in AAA.

Development isn’t a straight line path, and these guys are generally young (and talented) enough that they can figure it out. But if they’re honest, I’m sure the Braves would say that they expected a lot more from the first wave of talent, much of it college-trained and close to the majors, and acquired up to 2+ years ago. Yes, they’ve got another wave in AA headlined by teenage pitchers Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka, but those guys were supposed to be complementary pieces to a core that was supposed to be establishing itself about now. I’m not about to say that there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect, or that the tear-it-down-and-rebuild strategy is doomed; the Astros and Cubs show that it can work if done well. Rather, the Braves are starting to look like a club that’s great at accumulating talent but poor at developing it. This was a serious problem for the M’s (who weren’t even all that great at accumulating talent), and it’s been an issue with a club like San Diego, too. We’ll have to wait and see with the White Sox, too, but it’s always a good reminder that getting a top flight minor league system does not imply an impending MLB juggernaut. The Braves free agent moves haven’t really helped, and if anything look like the kind of easily-undoable moves designed to get around accusations of profit-taking. But they’re also not the point; yes, Bartolo Colon was bad, and no, I’m not really sure why the Braves employ Nick Markakis and Matt Kemp, but those guys aren’t responsible for the Braves predicament. The Braves haven’t been beaten up too much for their poor record, especially as they’re a lot more successful than the 90+ loss clubs of the past two years. But this club shouldn’t be 12 games under at this point in their development, and it’s not impatience to suggest that.

Folty throws a four-seam fastball and a hard slider with a slurvy curveball and a rare change-up. He’ll mix in quite a few sinkers, but he’s not a ground ball pitcher; he’s bounced around 40% GBs for a few years. All of those fly balls have made him somewhat homer-prone, though his pure velocity helps him somewhat there. SunTrust park seems to suppress HRs a bit, but it doesn’t seem extreme. All in all, his stuff looks like a souped-up version of Lucas Sims, whom the M’s will see in a few days, and a bit like the Rays’ Austin Pruitt. Folty, like Aaron Blair, Lucas Sims and Matt Wisler, has the pedigree of a prospect once ranked in MLB’s top 50. Pruitt and fellow ray Jacob Faria were never ranked anywhere close to that, but have outperformed the Braves contingent at this (early) stage.

1: Segura, SS
2: Alonso, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Haniger, RF
6: Gamel, LF
7: Zunino, C
8: Martin, CF
9: Albers, SP

Albers of course was in the Braves org until a few weeks ago. At 31, he wasn’t in the Braves youth-focused plans, but was having a great year in AAA. Since he was last in MLB (with Minnesota), he’s changed in a few important ways. First, he’s now throwing a sinker. In his prior stints, he had a four-seam fastball with some armside run, but he’s now throwing two very distinct fastballs instead of a single one that sort of blended elements of both. Second, he threw his slider a ton the other day – about 1/3 of his pitches. It’s not a great pitch in terms of movement and velo, but it’s worked fairly well, and I wouldn’t mind seeing him continue to rely on it. Third/finally, he’s throwing a tick or so faster than he used to as a starter. He’d average 90 as a one-inning reliever, but only 87-88 as a starter. He averaged 89 with his four seam and 88 with the sinker the other day. Both are still below average, but I’ll take 89 over 87 any day.

Hope everyone got to see the eclipse today and I hope your eyes are still functioning. It was pretty fun, I’ll admit, though I would’ve loved to be in the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes stadium to see the big eclipse in the park promotion. I’m glad the clouds stayed away from pretty much the entirety of the northwest; suck it, Carbondale, IL.

Clinton played a day game in Peoria today, another park that had an eclipse promotion. But their big eclipse glasses promotion fell through when suppliers couldn’t deliver any glasses, and then Clinton went and beat the Chiefs 7-6.

Tyler Cloyds faces off with Kyle Lloyd tonight at Cheney Stadium. Modesto and Arkansas are off tonight, but Anjul Hernandez takes the mound for Everett, and Clinton’s already won.

El Paso beat the Rainiers 5-1 last night, spoiling a solid 4 IP start from Andrew Moore who K’d 6 and yielded 1 hit and no runs.

Lindsey Caughel got roughed up and the Travelers couldn’t figure out A’s prospect AJ Puk in a 9-1 loss to Midland yesterday. The Travs are off today.

Modesto’s Reggie McClain got much the same treatment vs. Stockton on the way to a 15-3 loss. Clinton got blanked 2-0 by Peoria, and Everett lost to Vancouver 5-3, so it was a clean sweep of M’s affiliates yesterday.

Game 124, Mariners at Rays – Struggling Pitcher vs. Struggling Line-up

August 19, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 4 Comments 

Ariel Miranda vs. Jake Odorizzi, 3:10pm

The M’s win last night pushed them closer to the 2nd wildcard, and continued a dreadful string for the Rays, who seemed to have the inside track at the wildcard a few weeks back. There’s really no mystery as to what’s gone wrong: the Rays have simply stopped hitting. In the 2nd half of the year, the Rays wRC+ is just 73, far and away the worst in MLB. Their team OBP in just .290 over that stretch, and the team that hit the 3rd-most dingers in the AL in the first half have the fewest in the second. Their big deadline acquisition, Lucas Duda, has been fine. The problem’s widespread among the rest of the Rays’ line-up. Brad Miller’s in a deep freeze, as was Tim Beckham, who seemed to snap out of it upon being shipped to Baltimore. Corey Dickerson, Adeiny Hechevarria, Logan Morrison, Mallex Smith – there are very few signs of life from 1-9. As a group, they’re better than their current form, as their first half form illustrates. But it’s got to be frustrating that the Rays positioned themselves really well to make a run and then fall into a team-wide slump like this one.

The M’s offense hasn’t been great themselves; Nelson Cruz’s hot streak has coincided some poor stretches for others, and thus the M’s offense is slightly below average in the 2nd half. The M’s pitching hasn’t been all that great either, thanks to their long-standing dinger issues, but they’ve been much better in pure strikeout and walk terms. It’s funny – the M’s and Rays pitchers have looked eerily similar since the trade deadline, with solid K rates and low walk rates. Both have had HR troubles, with the M’s predictably giving up more, and both have been GOOD at turning balls in play into outs (and thus both have ERAs below their FIPs). But the Rays offense has absolutely killed them while the M’s have been blessed by the sequencing fairy and have been a solid team despite a slightly worse than average offense AND slightly worse than average pitching.

Speaking of slumps, Ariel Miranda knows the feeling well. After being one of the M’s most unlikely heroes through June, he’s faltered badly since then. His last win and last quality start came on June 30th, and his RA/9 is 7.71 since then. The big problem, as we’ve talked about ad nauseum, has been the longball, as Miranda’s yielded the 2nd-most in baseball. As Bob Dutton’s preview notes, Jake Odorizzi’s been just as bad, as his HR/9 is actually the worst in the league (he just hasn’t pitched as many innings as Miranda). For the longest time, Odorizzi’s secret weapon has been his reverse platoon splits. Thanks to a great splitter – a pitch he throws about twice as often to lefties – he’s kept the ball in the ballpark and generally stymied left-handers. Righties have always been tougher for the right-handed Odorizzi, as his cutter’s not been great, and he doesn’t seem to trust his slider too much. He throws his splitter to righties as well, but it’s not quite as effective, and the bigger issue is that righties tee off on his fastball. Add it up, and his FIP is 1.5 runs higher against righties over his career. Those reverse splits are still there in 2017, but the ball’s just flown off of everyone’s bat, and thus he’s now giving up plenty of dingers to lefties…it’s just that righties are hitting even more.

This would be an interesting test of the M’s line-up construction, but as has happened far too often, injuries have made that impossible. Mitch Haniger’s back with the club after missing time after taking a Jacob DeGrom fastball in the face, but the M’s have lost CF Jarrod Dyson to a groin injury. The M’s also recalled Casey Lawrence, sending Sam Gaviglio back to Tacoma.

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

Alonso 2nd against Odorizzi? At least Dyson’s injury forces Heredia in there, and Haniger’s return helps the right-handedness of the line-up as well. Good match-up for Nellie Cruz who’s never homered off of Odorizzi. Let’s see if that changes today.

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