The M’s Versus the Projections – Oh, and uh, the White Sox

marc w · February 24, 2018 at 11:17 am · Filed Under Mariners 

It’s a game! There’s baseball on today!
Mike Leake vs. Hector Santiago, 12:10pm

The M’s embark on the 2018 season sounding supremely confident. Free agent pitching? No need – there’s already plenty of talent on board, they say. Go for a big-time position player like Lorenzo Cain? Ehhh, we like to roll our own over here – we’ll just take Dee Gordon, a handful of outfield drills and we’ll the same total production for less. Meanwhile, the projection systems all have the M’s pegged for 81-83 wins, just short of playoff position…and at a time when the talent that could conceivably get them over the hump remains available. Someone’s going to look a bit silly here come September.

It’s not just the M’s, to be clear. Fangraphs thinks the Brewers lucked into a wildcard chase last year, and that when their pitchers regress, even their improved offense won’t be enough to get them to .500, let alone contention. Meanwhile, PECOTA (Baseball Prospectus’ projection engine) scoffs at the Angels busy offseason, thinking that their pitching will collapse, giving up more runs than they have since 2000-2001 *despite* picking up Shohei Ohtani and despite remaking their offense. The Angels and Brewers, perhaps unsurprisingly, have pretty big gaps between their projections; no one really knows what to make of them. Both had players who looked pretty different last year – Chase Anderson wasn’t supposed to be THAT good, while the Angels reminded Andrelton Simmons how to hit. Both have young players who can confound the projection systems’ math: what do you do with Ohtani, who not only is coming over from Japan, but barely played last year due to injury? All of this to say, there are often perfectly decent reasons to laugh in the face of your own projections, and act counter to whatever ossified sabermetric dogma would tell you to do. Are the M’s another such team?

Ehhhhh, probably not. The problem is that we simply don’t see the variance that we do in their projections. Everyone, from the betting markets to BP to Fangraphs agree on what and where the M’s are. They differ on what that means, but they don’t really differ on how good they are. The M’s are betting the crowd is just plain wrong, and that players from Ryon Healy to Andrew Moore to Mitch Haniger are much, much better than their projections. They’re also betting that the injuries that decimated the team last year either won’t happen again, or won’t impact the future performance of guys like Haniger and King Felix. Felix, in particular, seems crucial to the club, and as many have pointed out, it seems kind of unfair to put that kind of pressure on the King, who’s been both hurt and at best sporadically dominant for a few years. Instead of bringing in an arm to take the pressure off of Felix/Paxton/Leake, the M’s have to hope that his down time will result in better – and healthier – play in 2018.

Regression alone won’t cut it. It’s not just that Marco Gonzales and Andrew Moore are probably better than they appeared last year (low bar), but regression may also mean Mike Leake isn’t the efficient #2/#3 he looked like for the M’s – it was so out of character with his career norms, of *course* the projection systems aren’t buying it. And that’s really the main reason why the M’s feel confident ignoring PECOTA and Fangraphs: they believe they’re elite at coaching and teaching. This is why they angrily dismiss the consensus that their farm system is the sport’s worst. It’s why they brought in Dr. Lorena Martin to add new dimensions to their development process, and it’s why they actually give up real talent to acquire Healy, Shawn Armstrong, Nick Rumbelow and others whose projections are…uh…not encouraging. They’re betting that there’s untapped potential there that has never shown itself, and they believe they’re the org to uncover it. This approach, it must be said, hasn’t been all that successful, isolated wins like Nick Vincent aside. Confidence like this is what’s dividing the M’s fanbase, I think. To the saber-inclined, this is pure hubris- the team that’s burned its farm system to the ground now thinks they can teach up other teams’ cast-offs, their own meager talent reserves, turn Dee Gordon into a gold-glove CF, teach Ryon Healy patience, and turn Ariel Miranda back into an effective starter. To others, this is simply confidence, confidence borne of watching a development-focused plan come together, changing everything from how they train, what they eat, to how they look for and acquire talent. I so desperately want that view to be right, and I realize completely that Dipoto’s only had two years, but last year should knock some of the confidence off of anyone. Not everything that happened last year was the result of bad luck, and seeing every bad result as luck spoiling your pristine, brilliant plans is pretty much the definition of hubris.

But enough of that. Let’s watch the M’s play baseball, shall we? Today, Mike Leake takes on re-acquired White Sox SP Hector Santiago. Santiago came up with Chicago as an underpowered screwballer, but ditched the trick pitch and formulated a shockingly useful series of seasons on the south sideand then in Anaheim by pitching up in the zone, and pitching around HRs by running a low BABIP. Santiago was the personification of the M’s pitching philosophy in 2017, and like the M’s pitching philosophy in 2017, Santiago was utterly undone by the long ball. His troubles really began in 2016, when not even HR-suppressing Anaheim could bail him out. 90 MPH fastballs that once resulted in cans of corn or whiffs suddenly started turning into HRs. Whether this was due to a springier baseball or the subtly vital loss of a single MPH on his FB wasn’t clear. But nothing got better after a move to Minnesota, whose ballpark – like Detroit’s – is shockingly good at producing very good contact. For a pitcher whose MLB career rests on avoiding such contact, Minnesota proved to be a poor fit for Santiago’s skillset, such as it is now that Santiago’s on the wrong side of 30. He signed a minor league deal with the rebuilding Sox, hoping a reunion with pitching coach Don Cooper will help.

Meanwhile, Mike Leake figures to be one of the most-watched players in camp this year. As I mentioned above, his five M’s starts were his best stretch in a long, long while (I found one in 2013 that may have been better, but even that one was worse from a K:BB perspective), and it was driven by pinpoint control. Leake walked two batters in an M’s uniform, good for a BB/9 of 0.56. There’s good control, great control, and a BB/9 of 0.56. Sure, the sample was tiny, but Leake can regress from there and still be effective. It went beyond avoiding walks, though. Leake’s never been a strikeout pitcher, and after pitching in the NL central, where pitchers bat and the Milwaukee Brewers seemed intent on setting whiff records, his modest K rates seemed likely to collapse upon moving to the AL West. Instead, they improved. Maybe this was getting out of a weird situation in St. Louis, maybe this was Leake just enjoying a five game hot streak, or maybe this was that coaching stuff that the M’s are so dead set on. There wasn’t a whole lot different about his arsenal or his pitch mix (a few less cutters, maybe), but he did start using his sinker a bit differently, throwing the odd one in to righties instead of keeping it away most of the time. If he can keep his walk rate vanishingly low while keeping his GB rate up, he can be critical in anchoring the M’s suspect rotation.

1: Gordon, CF
2: Romine, SS
3: Andreoli, LF
4: Ford, DH
5: Hague, 1B
6: Motter, 3B
7: Nieuwenhuis, RF
8: Beckham, 2B
9: Marjama, C
SP: Leake

That’s…that’s a Cactus League line-up for you. I’m actually interested in seeing Pat Andreoli and his revamped swing. Ford would appear to have an easier time of sticking on the roster as a Rule 5 as the 1Bs are dropping like flies. Ryon Healy just had hand surgery for bone spurs, and now, apparently, Dan Vogelbach is in a walking boot after taking a Brett Kennedy fastball off his foot yesterday. A hand injury is holding Mitch Haniger out for a week or so, too, so that bad luck is getting an early start with the M’s.


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