Game 2, Indians at Mariners

March 31, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 13 Comments 

Paxton vs. Carrasco, 1:10pm

Whatever your thoughts on giving Felix the nod to start opening day, you’ve got to love it in hindsight. Not only did the M’s beat Kluber, they’ve now got their own ace going against NOT-Kluber. Mind you, Carlos Carrasco’s coming off a 5.5 fWAR season that saw him strike out 226 in 200 innings.

Carrasco got a hard fastball that he throws from a low arm slot, and he throws both a slider and curve. He’s also got a change that he throws a lot to left-handed batters. Carrasco famously revived his career after a demotion to the bullpen a few years back, and he’s been an excellent starter since (that was back in the second half of 2014). He’s got some natural platoon splits, though they’re not extreme or anything. This would seem to be a good spot to get Dan Vogelbach some ABs, but the M’s are sticking with Ryon Healy, the guy who’s shown platoon splits quite a bit bigger than Carrasco’s in his (short) career.

This is the second of two fantastic pitching match-ups to start the season. As I mentioned yesterday, we’re seeing a lot of really well-pitched games. I mentioned the Scherzer/Bailey duel yesterday, but we got several more as Johnny Cueto took a perfect game into the 7th as the Giants got their second consecutive 1-0 win, and the second consecutive game in which a Joe Panik HR was the only run of the contest. You can’t get much more baseball-in-2018 than that. David Price and Blake Snell locked up in another 1-0 game, and the Angels beat Oakland 2-1, while the Marlins finally beat the Cubs 2-1 in 17 innings. There were a few high scoring games as well, but it’s going to be interesting to see if overall run scoring is down this year. HRs have never been more common, but while scoring’s up over the 2010-2014 offensive freeze, it’s still much lower than it was in the steroid era. It’s not just that players hit a ton of HRs back in 1997-2002, it was that they got all kinds of hits, including HRs. It’s those non-HR hits that have now turned into strikeouts, keeping overall scoring low even as HRs keep increasing. It’ll be interesting to see if teams use all of their new data and technology to start giving hitters some specific help, beyond the somewhat blunt tool of the launch angle shift.

1: Gordon, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Haniger, RF
7: Healy, 1B
8: Marjama, C
9: Ichiroooo, LF

We’ll be seeing a lot of Mike Marjama to start off the year, as Mike Zunino’s “sore side” really did turn out to be an oblique injury. The good news, if you can call it that, is that he’s only on the 10-day DL. The M’s recalled David Freitas from Tacoma, whose season is still a few days away (they start on Thursday, at home against Sacramento).

Notes on An Opening Day Classic

March 30, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 5 Comments 

The M’s beat Corey Kluber and Cleveland 2-1 behind 5 1/3 scoreless from Felix Hernandez. You may have noticed; it was a pretty cool thing. Aside from the King performing his own turn-back-the-clock night performance, particularly in the later innings after running up his pitch count a bit in the early going, the M’s bullpen came through. It wasn’t pretty, but they held the line and the M’s escaped with a victory against one of the best teams in baseball. I’ll take it.

A few things stood out from the game and opening day in general:

1: Felix’s velocity was low, but not insanely low. As Jeff Zimmermann’s article reports, Felix’s FB velocity was more or less right where it was last year, or a bit over 90. That news is whelming; it’s neither cause for alarm or a party, though it’s closer to the latter than the former. It’s still way too early to know what it means, particularly as Felix adjusts to a new, pitch-to-contact approach.

2: The other reason why it’s hard to know what to make of it: seemingly everyone at Safeco was throwing slower than they have before. Kluber’s average FB was down substantially, not that it really did him any harm. His sinker averaged less than 92 after averaging 92.5 last year. Of course, his opening day start last year featured a FB only 0.1 MPH faster than it was last night. No, the real action was in the M’s bullpen, where Juan Nicasio’s average FB last night was down nearly 4 MPH from his average last year. In his first appearance of 2017, he was at 95.3, but managed just a 91.8 average in 13 fastballs last night. Nick Vincent was down a bit, and Dan Altavilla was down a few ticks, though it’s hard to make much out of a grand total of two fastballs. The sheer numbers here suggest it’s a calibration issue, though it didn’t seem to affect Edwin Diaz. Just something to keep an eye on, particularly in Nicasio’s case – the M’s desperately need him with David Phelps out with injury.

3: There were 33 HRs hit across the league, with the White Sox/Royals game leading the way – Sox 3B Matt Davidson hit three of them himself. So far, so predictable. But my takeaway from yesterday, and today, as Max Scherzer/Homer Bailey are dueling now, is that there have been a hell of a lot of great pitching performances. Felix/Kluber were both effective, but so were a ton of others. Here’s a list of starters going at least 5 IP with 0 or 1 run allowed:
Dylan Bundy
Jake Odorizzi
Clayton Kershaw
Chris Sale
Clayton Richard
Chase Anderson
Ty Blach
Luis Severino

There are some Cy Young candidates in there to be sure, but there are also Ty Blachs and Jake Odorizzi (whose FIP was in the mid-5s last year). It may still be the year of the bullpen, as a number of these great outings were also short ones, but the rise of the strikeout and pop-up has meant that if you can avoid the HR, you can still be tremendously effective as a starter. Kluber and Kershaw lost their great games on a single mistake pitch.

4: Some of THAT success is due to the ever-decreasing rate of fastballs. Continuing a long-standing trend, fastball usage was at its lowest point since pitch tracking technology was installed. Last night, it was even lower. Felix was a great example, throwing 40 fastballs (mostly sinkers), but mixing in his change and a steady dose of curves to give him a pitch mix tilted slightly in favor of NON-fastballs. As a guy who’s seen his fastball get killed the past few years, it makes sense.

5: Back to the M’s: Edwin Diaz got the save, but as his two HBPs show, his command wasn’t quite in midseason form. To be more specific, his *fastball* command was poor, while his slider command essentially saved the day. The gameday record is incomplete, but it shows half of his fastballs went for strikes, while the sliders generally stayed within the zone, or induced swings out of it. A few of the FB strikes, particularly the first pitches to Yonder Alonso, Lonnie Chisenhall and Tyler Naquin were middle-middle. It was opening day, and he seemed to lose focus a bit after a fastball got away from him and hit Encarnacion. But it’s something to watch, given that it was a deterioration in his command that sapped some of his effectiveness in 2017.

Game 1, Indians at Mariners

March 29, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 21 Comments 

King Felix vs. Corey Kluber, 7:10pm

Happy Felix Day, and a blessed Felix Year to you and yours.

I was just re-reading last year’s opening day post, and I guess I’d forgotten just how optimistic I was/most everyone was a year ago. The Astros’ death star wasn’t yet fully-operational, and the successes of 2016 were so recent and so predictive, or so we thought. Everything feels different this year, right down to the fact that some people were actively affronted by the fact that Felix got tonight’s start over James Paxton, a pitcher who’s pretty clearly superior at this stage. I understand that Paxton is better, but I know that there hasn’t been an athlete so fiercely/bizarrely loyal to the Northwest than Felix. I know that baseball is more life-affirming when Felix is stomping around the mound, jawing with Adrian Beltre, and getting excited by a great defensive play behind him. I know that baseball’s long season feels especially laborious when Felix is either struggling or injured or both, even as I realize that watching peak Felix coincided with some depressing M’s teams.

I didn’t put it in the “the upside” post below this, maybe because I don’t want to be reminded when I go back and look and see how those predictions did. But while it’s not exactly likely, I’d give just about anything to watch Felix post a back-from-the-dead ace-style season. For a number of reasons, people point to 2018 as a critical one for the M’s: their aging core will start to break up after this year, as Nellie Cruz is a free agent, and the M’s last, best shot at contention runs into the ahead-of-schedule rebuilds from several challengers. The Astros and today’s opponents have build impressive clubs, and are still breaking in talented rookies. As a result, many people – myself among them – think that the M’s need to win the wild card to declare this season a success. They’ve leveraged their meager farm system, they went all in on Ohtani and came up short, they sat on the sidelines in the most team-friendly free agent market in memory – they’ve pretty much shown that 2018 is a make or break year, even as they’ve hesitated to hedge against the risks that fans see.

But there’s an exception, I think. If Felix returns to form and pitches the M’s to meaningful baseball late in the year, and if the M’s long-dormant farm system shows signs of life, I think I’d take that. To be fair, this consolation prize feels about as far-fetched as the M’s fending off the Twins/Angels/Red Sox/whoever and winning a wild card slot, and let’s be honest: the entire idea of winning the wild card is itself a consolation prize. The M’s are not one of baseball’s elite teams, and won’t be one for a while, but they employ Felix Hernandez. On opening day *five years ago* I wondered if we/I weren’t falling into a trap that Felix was “enough” for a beaten-down fanbase who’d essentially stopped demanding contention. In the five years since, even after the addition of a second wild card, the M’s playoff drought stretches on. I want the M’s to build a perennial contender, and I’d love to see Felix start a postseason game in Seattle. But I’ve seen the M’s fail with awesome Felix, and I’ve seen the M’s fail without awesome Felix, and the former is better.

The Indians went to the World Series two years ago, and won 22 games in a row last year. With Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and the most strikeout-inducing pitching staff the game’s ever seen, they look like they’ll be contention for years. Like the Astros, their success isn’t simply the product of high draft picks going supernova, like Lindor. The Indians have done a better job of developing talent than most, and today’s starter, Corey Kluber, is a perfect example. An afterthought on draft day, and then a small part of a minor trade, Kluber never had any kind of prospect sheen. He had a solid pitch mix, with a low-90s sinker, a decent change, a very good, sweeping slider and then a harder cutter, and it got him to the big leagues in 2012. He wasn’t amazing, but he seemed like he could miss enough bats to become an innings-eater. Instead, some relatively minor changes have turned him into one of the game’s best pitchers, and one of the few pitchers able to keep his HR/9 under 1 even as baseball looks more and more like a home run derby.

He’s done it by making a series of adjustments. I’m not sure how conscious a process this is for Kluber, or if it’s just something he and his pitching coaches work through as needed; Felix famously avoided video and never seemed like a cerebral pitcher, but he did the same thing for many years as his upper-90s fastball left him. The first big move that Kluber made was to drop his arm angle a bit. This move, which happened between 2012 and 2013, saw him gain a tick on his fastball, but more importantly, it magnified the gap in horizontal movement between his sinker (his primary fastball) and his slider. His sinker still wasn’t great, but batters couldn’t quite figure out his breaking stuff. He started throwing even harder in 2014, and that’s when he really became the Cy Young hurler we know today: his slider’s break was a foot and a half different from his fastball’s, and dropped 9″ more than his sinker did. Batters slugged .123 off of that slider in 2014. By 2015, his velocity dropped back again, and thus the movement gap between FB/breaking balls wasn’t what it had been. So, he started throwing his four-seam fastball, and built that gap back up again. After throwing less than 4% 4-seamers in 2014, he was over 20% in 2015, giving him a pitch that had a gap of 12″ in vertical movement from his slider and a still-impressive 6″ from his cutter. In 2016, with his movement and velo again retreating somewhat, and Kluber’s performance fell back as well. But he was back with a vengeance in 2017, throwing a blizzard of sliders/cutters and cutting back on his fastballs.

One of the things that’s always been noteworthy about Kluber is his command of his slider and cutter. These are not chase pitches; he’s able to throw them for strikes whenever he wants. His slider, a pitch he threw more of than any other pitch last year (OK, tied with his sinker), was called a ball less than 25% of the time he threw it. It generated swings on nearly 60% of pitches, which is absolutely insane for a breaking pitch, and those swings came up empty *half* the time. Kluber won his second Cy Young thanks to the pitch that led him to record at least 8 Ks in 14 straight starts, and post a season with a K% of 34.1% with a walk rate under 5%. Kluber’s become a generational talent, seemingly out of nowhere. How much of last year’s startling level of play can he sustain? Will his velocity drop again? Will he throw his slider even more, a la Lance McCullers of Houston, or will he throw more cutters, the way he did in 2015?

Like last year, the M’s open up against one of the best teams in the game. It’s nice to see how the M’s stack up, and it’s also nice that the M’s don’t HAVE to compete with the Indians/Astros. If you want the M’s to compete toe to toe with the best in the game, you’re probably not reading this, and you gave up on this club years ago. But it’s nice to have these yardstick series early on, so we can see how the M’s new contact-oriented approach fares against the team that allows the least amount of contact. We’ll see how Felix looks against a formidable line-up, and we’ll get to see some early indications on how the M’s bullpen might be deployed.

Random predictions:
1: M’s finish 82-80. A great year from James Paxton isn’t enough.
2: HRs continue to climb, as the league sets a new all-time dinger record, along with another strikeout record.
3: At least three teams end the year in arrangements other than the typical 5-man rotation; the Angels 6-man, the Rays 4-man, and someone else tries either piggy-back starters or goes to the pen so often that the distinction between “SP” and “RP” grows kind of meaningless.
4: Teams shift less on the infield, and more in the outfield.
5: The Athletics are better than people think, as are the Braves.
6: Carlos Correa/Bryce Harper win MVPs, and, to be extra boring, Kluber/Kershaw win Cy Young. Garrett Richards/James Paxton, two oft-injured potential aces receive votes, though.

The line-up:
1: Dee Gordon, CF
2: Jean Segura, SS
3: Robinson Cano, 2B
4: Nelson Cruz, DH
5: Kyle Seager, 3B
6: Mitch Haniger, RF
7: Ryon Healy, 1B
8: Mike Zunino, C Mike Marjama, C
9: Ichiro!, LF

[EDIT: Zunino’s scratched with a sore side; please don’t be an oblique problem.]

Ichiro! Felix!

Go M’s! I’m not the most optimistic fan, but cheers to all of you who are, and a head nod and a clink of the ol’ whisky glass to my fellow pessimists. We’re all M’s fans, and that’s easiest to see on a night like this. God, I’ve missed baseball.

For further reading, check out the Times’ preview section centered on the elephant in the room: the M’s looooong playoff drought.
Mike Curto’s got you covered if you’re interested in how Tacoma’s roster’s shaking out with all of the late moves the M’s made as spring training ended – Gordon Beckham left, then came back, Jayson Werth will join them soon (and I hadn’t realized Werth’s dad played on the 1978 PCL Champion Tacoma Yankees), and Ben Gamel may be rehabbing. With the MLB schedule pushed forward, there’s now much more of a break between opening day in the majors and opening day in the minors.
Mike Marjama’s mini-documentary/video over at Uninterrupted is really worth your time. The M’s catcher opens up about his struggles with body isssues, which led to an eating disorder that could’ve killed him, and his journey back to health. Lookout Landing had a great story on it, and they’ve embedded the video. Check it out.
New M’s beat writer TJ Cotterill has a great interview with M’s skipper Scott Servais at the TNT.
Shannon Drayer has a great article on the new Felix who’ll be making his 10th opening day start tonight.

The Upside

March 29, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

The M’s are bullish on their chances this year, and while that’s sort of their job, you really can see a way for the M’s to make the playoffs this year. Yes, a lot of things would need to go right, and the injury gods would need to call on the M’s rivals a bit more as opposed to just hanging out in Seattle all summer, but there’s at least a chance. To state the obvious: they can get there by having certain players blow their projections out of the water. And hey, that happens all the time, right? Let’s take a look at where the projections could be hilariously wrong, and why we might get an out-of-nowhere 88-90 win team.

1: Marco Gonzales turns in an out-of-nowhere season and is essentially the M’s #2 starter all year

The M’s gave up their sole high-minors bat last year to acquire Marco Gonzales, and then rushed him to the majors when injuries decimated every other starter. It didn’t go well, as the Gonzaga product struggled mightily with HRs. His velocity’s up since draft day, and his control’s gotten better, but despite a great looking change-up, he’s never figured out right-handed bats. We all understand why the projection systems see a severely flawed starter, and there’s essentially nothing in his performance record to suggest a breakout is imminent. But then, you can’t blow your projections out of the water if they’re already on dry land. The entire point here is that the M’s would make changes to Gonzales’ repertoire and/or mechanics and fashion a wholly new pitcher out of his newfound velocity and solid cambio.

He’ll be using a new pitch this year, a cutter that he didn’t throw at all last year as he tried to help his elbow recover following TJ surgery. He’s thrown a tight slider/cutter a bit in the past, back before his elbow injury, and while it’s not exactly a bat-missing pitch, it has its uses. Especially in this day and age, Gonzales can succeed if he gets batters – especially righties – off of his fastball. They’re slugging over .530 off of it for his career, and Gonzales’ breaking stuff hasn’t fared a whole lot better. With batters clearly now stalking fastballs, Gonzales needs something else to show them, even if the point of it is to generated contact and not whiffs. That’s essentially what we saw from Gonzales this spring, where he put up a good but not great K:BB ratio, but limited hits and HRs like never before.

How about mechanical changes? John Trupin’s article on his lowered arm slot covers that. Did that lowered arm slot help him increase his velocity, or were they both the result of some other, larger change? I don’t know and don’t much care, frankly. If Gonzales can use the new arm slot to both throw harder and get more horizontal run on his pitches (a natural side effect of a lowered release point), then he’s got a chance to pick up more ground balls as well. You saw that a bit in his GB% increasing last year from where it was in his initial call-up with St. Louis in 2014. This horizontal run is important, because it would really play well with his cutter. Throwing more over-the-top produces fastballs without much run. Cutters, by design, have essentially no run. There’s simply not as much separation there, and unless the pitch is thrown much slower (which would make it a slider, most likely), you’ve got two very similar pitches overall. But a fastball with plenty of horizontal run and then a cutter WITHOUT that run? Now you’ve got a pitch that’s going to run in on the hands of batters and produce painful/poor contact.

The M’s could get more out of him with a few more subtle adjustments. Last year, I mentioned that whatever arm slot he uses, Gonzales shows markedly different release points for his change-up and fastball. This may be a reason why he’s struggled against righties despite throwing such a visually-pleasing cambio. It’s tough, because many pitchers release a breaking ball from a slightly different spot and get away with it. But at some point, a gap like this bleeds into tipping your pitches. As mentioned above, Gonzales needs to get hitters off of his fastball, and disguising his change is a big way to do that. Could a lowered arm slot help? Maybe? He seemed to throw his fastballs a bit more over the top as compared to his change-ups last year, and it may be as simple as letting his FB release-point slide towards 1B a bit.

I’m not arguing that these changes make Gonzales an ace. They don’t need to, though. Gonzales is slotted into the M’s rotation and could add several WAR through solid (not perfect) control and some HR-avoidance. What would that look like? Look at Michael Fulmer of the Tigers. A so-so K%, a good-not-amazing walk rate, and then low HRs and a terrible BABIP. He’s produced back-to-back 3 fWAR seasons, and by ERA, he’s been even better than that. Fulmer pitches in a park that seemingly generates a ton of hard-hit balls, and yet his entire game is centered around generating poor contact…and it’s working. Fulmer throws a two fastballs, a solid change-up and a hard slider/cutter, by the way.

2: Dan Vogelbach becomes the Good And Big Boy America needs

Dan Vogelbach needed to change something. As a player with a less-than-sterling defensive reputation, he needs to hit a ton to add much value. While he’s been a much better gap-to-gap hitter than scouts would’ve imagined, that line-drive approach has limited his power, and a first baseman without power or a solid glove is a guy who’s going to struggle to make a big league roster. Famously hefty, Vogelbach has put on BP displays for years, going back to his high school days in Florida- He made the finals of the HR derby last summer at Cheney Stadium. So what’s he doing with a sub-.200 isolated power for his MiLB career, and a sub-.200 ISO in the famously-HR-friendly Pacific Coast League?

Doing his best to change his reputation as a BP-only kind of player. As he said in an interview with FG’s David Laurila, he wanted to, “Be a good hitter first, and the power would come.” After two short face-plants in Seattle, and with 17 HRs last year for Tacoma, he’s now changed his approach. It paid huge dividends for him in Peoria, as Vogelbach led all of baseball this spring, hitting for average and power, and showing no signs of trading contact for increased loft.

Let’s be clear: Vogelbach needed to make a change. His approach worked fairly well in the minors, but he didn’t have, say, Dee Gordon’s bat control. Thus, little holes could be exploited by big league arms, and while a 25-30% K rate’s tolerable for a power hitter, it’s not tolerable from a 1B without a lot of over-the-wall potential. By making this adjustment, Vogelbach’s essentially made his current projection meaningless. Any projection is going to use his actual production to forecast how he’ll hit in 2018, and thus any projection still sees him as a single-the-other-way guy – someone with a high OBP potential, but who’s killed by a low average/slg%.

But the cactus league doesn’t matter, right? Between his power spike and drawing more walks than strikeouts, Vogelbach’s done all he can to suggest he’s a new player. Those sorts of stats stabilize quickly, and as I mentioned before, Dan Rosenheck’s study showed that including such numbers from spring training improve preseason projections.

The M’s 1B position last year ranked dead last in baseball. Incorporating all of 2008-2018, the M’s 1B position ranks…dead last again. Right now, Vogelbach has Ryon Healy (a player with an even worse projection) ahead of him. Rule 5 pick Mike Ford is back with the Yankees, so you figure Vogelbach can earn some at-bats. If he can show that his power spike is real, and that he’s taken the Yonder Alonso path to big league playing time, I think fans will embrace him, and he’ll be taking most of the 1B starts by June.

Beyond becoming something much more than an internet meme, a Vogelbach breakout would be an important sign that the M’s either a) can help players make vitally important changes or b) don’t actively impede players who are making vitally important changes with outside coaches. If Vogelbach’s new swing “works” in the regular season, I’m less concerned about who gets the credit (ultimately, it should go to Vogelbach), and more more concerned with how the M’s could replicate them with other player. A number of players have shown signs, many of them fleeting, of joining the so-called fly ball revolution. But by and large, the changes in the game that have led to 2017 setting records for HRs and Ks have been a net negative. Chris Taylor broke out elsewhere. Pitchers were already starting to adjust to Yonder Alonso by the time he arrived here. And, of course, the M’s keep giving up tons of HR with their “high fastball” strategy ran headlong into new, springier baseballs. We need a loft-angle revolutionary in Seattle, and I am surprisingly emotionally invested in that revolutionary being Dan Vogelbach.

3: The HR problems that plagued the M’s pitching staff the past two years sinks the Angels and Twins

I mentioned in the Risks post that both the Angels and Twins had done much more to shore up ~.500 clubs, and thus the M’s had fallen behind their closest rivals for the 2nd wild card spot. Injuries and youth left the Twins competing with a great young offense, but just a running-on-fumes Ervin Santana and youngster Jose Berrios in their rotation. The Angels had essentially Parker Bridwell (acquired from the famously pitching-deprived Orioles for a bag of baseballs) and 4 bullpen days/week by the end of 2017. The Twins picked up Lance Lynn, and the Angels got Shohei Ohtani, and will soon see the return of an entire rotation’s worth of injured players: Garrett Richards missed nearly all of 2017, and Andrew Heaney/Nick Tropeano really did miss all of 2017. Matt Shoemaker missed the last half of the season, and ex-M’s prospect JC Ramirez ended the year on the DL too. With improvements from Berrios, a solid season from Lynn, the Twins could be even better. And the Angels – despite injuries that may have even exceeded the M’s in severity/number – put together a better pitching staff last year, and that was before Ohtani. With the M’s still tilting at the windmill of the new rabbit-ball era, the M’s are screwed, right?

Not necessarily. For years, the Angels and Twins have had the reputation of playing in HR-suppressing parks. Indeed, for many years, they’ve had sub-100 HR park factors, and thus the clubs could afford to acquire fly-ball-focused staffs and get more out of somewhat homer-prone players who limited walks. If that sounds like Jerry Dipoto’s plan, it was Dipoto who *implemented* this strategy in Anaheim, squeezing the last drops of effectiveness out of Jered Weaver’s 86 MPH fastball, or plucking Matt Shoemaker from obscurity to the rotation. One of the keys to that was that their home park would give them a big advantage, and I talked about their huge home/road splits in this post three years ago. The problem is that with the changes to the ball, they don’t have any more room for error at home; there are no safe havens in baseball anymore.

The Twins should know this, as their park has had positive park factors for overall runs for a few years now. While it started off as HR-suppressing, it pretty clearly can’t help in that regard anymore. More interesting is the phenomenon I talked about last year, where even if Statcast says that a drive hit at speed X and angle Y is less likely to be a HR at Target Field, that ignores the frequency at which balls are barreled at Target Field. Two AL Central parks with the reputation/some data for being “pitcher friendly” are no longer playing like it because, for whatever reason, batters see the ball really well there (it helps, of course, that the Twins/Tigers ran out batter-friendly pitching staffs). Detroit’s seen the highest percentage of pitches hit for “barrels” (ideal contact) of any park in the game in the Statcast era, ahead of well-known launch pads like Arizona. The Twins’ Target Field ranks 6th, in the midst of the rest of the AL West: Anaheim, Oakland, Seattle and Texas. When batters are squaring up the new baseballs this often, whether a fly ball would’ve gone 5 feet farther or shorter in this or that park becomes irrelevant.

Last year, the M’s HR/9 was 1.48, an eye-wateringly high figure that ranked 4th in baseball behind the not-really-MLB Reds/White Sox, and the Orioles. But the Twins and Angels were right behind at 1.40 (the Padres, another team formerly thought to play in a park impossible to hit dingers in, were in between them at 1.42). What this shows, I think, is that, like the M’s, the Twins and Angels haven’t quite grasped the magnitude of the league-wide changes and their strategy isn’t reflective of baseball’s new reality. Matt Shoemaker just gave up 6 dingers in under 18 innings this spring, while Shohei Ohtani gave up 3 in 2 2/3 IP (you may have heard about it). The M’s/Twins/Angels were clumped together near the bottom of MLB in ground ball rate last year, with the Twins at 25th, the Angels at 27th and the M’s in 28th position.

But what about the new guys? Won’t Lance Lynn stabilize the Twins’ rotation? Lance Lynn made a career – and a FIP – for himself in St. Louis by keeping the ball in the park. Until last year, his *highest* HR/9 was 0.82 back in 2012. He missed the first full year of the HR explosion due to injury, but hey, he had a solid half-decade that *proved* he could avoid dingers, right? Wrong. His HR/9 shot up to 1.30 last year, pitching in a pitcher’s park, in a pitcher’s league. Take the most fastball-dependent guy and put him in a league that’s learned to wait for fastballs and swing like hell at them, in a park that generates really good contact…what could go wrong? Ask Jordan Zimmermann, another NL vet who moved to the AL Central after years of success. Almost immediately, he fell apart, brought low by a barrage of HRs and a drop in K%. Could Lynn put up a Zimmermann-in-2017 style season? It’s definitely possible. Phil Hughes has been the Twins most dinger-prone starter, and while his approach is a bit different than Lynn’s, it shows what can happen when a “challenge hitters with fastballs” mindset meets baseball in 2017-18.

Now, not even Anaheim is safe from the HR explosion. The Angels are making some adjustments, with Ricky Nolasco departing for one or more of the newly-recovered Angels (Richards/Heaney). They figure to induce more grounders, at least if Richards/Ramirez stay healthy. But given their injury history, it’s unlikely that the rotation they start with will make it to May, let alone September. Guys like Heaney and Tropeano haven’t pitched in a while, and may get ambushed the way Lynn was last year. More generally, we’re talking about comparatively rare events, and what matters is hitting more dingers than you give up. Even if the Angels “should” give up fewer, they could see a number of wins flipped to losses if their luck changes a bit. So could the M’s, of course, but the point is that the same risks that the M’s are dealing with apply in equal (or nearly equal) measure to their biggest wild card rivals. Here’s hoping luck’s a bit more favorable to the M’s in 2018.

The Risks

March 28, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 6 Comments 

Another season is upon us, and I’m trying to take some joy in the fact that the M’s don’t have inflated expectations placed on them this season. That’s good and bad, of course, but the last several times people have expected big things from the M’s, they’ve delivered disappointment. Even just to change things up, I like the idea of the M’s as darkhorses more than what we saw last year, or 2015, or 2010, or 2008, etc. But just because their failure won’t be as spectacular now that no one sees them as having an inside track to a wild card berth doesn’t mean they can’t fail. A season like this is ripe for failures of a different, more insidious, kind. As I’ve done the past few years, let’s explore some of the things keeping me awake at night.

1: The pitching staff continues to hemorrhage dingers and sinks the team

No mystery here. This is not a bold call; it’s the response of pretty much every fan from talk radio to Fangraphs-addled statheads to everyone in between. The M’s used 40 pitchers last year to deal with a plague of injuries AND to paper over their utter lack of high-minors depth behind Max Povse and Andrew Moore, both of whom stumbled hard in 2017. After an offseason that saw them chase exactly no starting pitchers, the same situation’s essentially in place: the M’s have a so-so starting five, anchored by James Paxton, and then a number of question marks after that. If anyone stumbles, they’re back to Povse/Moore, or they can run 2016’s back-up plan and pluck Wade LeBlanc from the bullpen. It didn’t work last year (when the M’s ranked 23rd in fWAR), and it didn’t work in 2016 (when they ranked 18th).

The problem is not just that they’re not set up well to withstand injuries. Almost no team is. At issue is where they realistically need to be. Having a dead-on average pitching staff is a very reachable goal, it’s just not a goal that will translate into a playoff run. The stratification of the league combined with an aging offensive core means that the team really needs the pitchers to carry some weight in producing a sharply positive run differential. The M’s offense isn’t going to be one of the league’s elite groups, though they have a shot at being a bit above average. If that’s the case, then the pitchers need to keep runs allowed right around 700 for the year. In an environment where HRs are this prevalent, do you have a lot of confidence that they can accomplish this?

The M’s solution to a lack of SP depth is to focus on RP depth instead. By shifting innings from starters to relievers, you gain several advantages: you don’t pay the times-through-the-order penalty as much, you can benefit from platoon advantages more, and there’s the all-important fact that relievers give up fewer HRs (probably due to the first two points). That’s the theory behind spending most of their off-season war chest on Juan Nicasio, a reliever who could theoretically go multiple innings, and the theory that argues for an 8-man pen. The problem is that even with Nicasio and closer Edwin Diaz, the M’s bullpen doesn’t really look like a force. The injury to David Phelps clearly hurt, and that was just atrocious luck, but they now need big seasons from guys like James Pazos, who faded down the stretch in 2017, and Nick Vincent, who pulled off the Chris Young trick of giving up a million fly balls but very few HRs. Nicasio himself is coming off a brilliant season, but it comes after two mediocre-for-a-FA-reliever ones in 2015-16.

The M’s other solution is to point to a move they made last year: the acquisition of Mike Leake. Getting Leake in August from St. Louis obviated the need to make a splash for a FA starter, the thinking goes. He also may help limit HRs thanks to his sinker and ground ball profile. His durability is a huge asset, but he’s been so consistent that it’s hard to see how he’d break out now that he’s on the wrong side of 30, his 5-game stint with Seattle last year notwithstanding. Leake should help stabilize the rotation, but again, the rotation simply can’t hang around league average.

The club’s focus on outfield athleticism comes at a bit of a cost on offense (we’ll get to that). It’s all part of the plan I talked about a lot last year, in which the M’s benefit from a very low BABIP as their pitchers court fly balls that their speedy OF track down. If that’s going to work, the pitchers must do *something* different in order to prevent a repeat of 2017, a season that saw them yield 237 HRs. Safeco is no longer a HR-suppressing, pitcher-friendly place. The ball itself has changed to favor dingers. These were unforeseen factors when Jerry Dipoto was hired, but everyone knows them now. The M’s need to adjust, and that adjustment needs to come on the pitching side of the ledger. Are you confident they can make it?

2: The outfield doesn’t hit enough to lift the offense

In 2017, the Mariners outfield put up a collective 92 wRC+. They ranked dead last in baseball in home runs…in the year of the home run. Thanks to their glove work, they graded out a tiny bit below average overall, but the trade-off I mentioned above clearly came at the cost of offense. That’s what happens when you get Jarrod Dyson, and when Mitch Haniger misses time due to injury. The M’s OF is projected to be better than that this year, but they’re clearly built along the same lines.

There is probably no roster spot in which the club and projections differ more on than Ben Gamel’s. The Mariners clearly, clearly believe in the LF, and he rewarded that belief in the first half of last season, with his BABIP-enabled run. He fell off – hard – last year, and he’s now dinged up a bit to start 2018. The projection systems see a low-power, low-OBP corner OF, one who was a slightly-below average hitter even with a .340 BABIP and scoff. The M’s see a positive step, and a hitter who’s poised to break out. A repeat of last season would stabilize a position currently forecast as the game’s 28th-best, but the fact that we’re starting with Gamel nursing an oblique injury and thus counting on Ichiro! to get the M’s through April is not encouraging.

As with the pitching staff, the depth in the OF isn’t exactly encouraging. Guillermo Heredia may be better than he showed last year when he was fighting through injuries, but his overall season line was abysmal last year. The M’s continued their stars-of-2009 approach by signing Jayson Werth yesterday, but as a near-40 year old who missed all of spring training, he won’t be ready for a while and will start in Tacoma. While they picked up guys like Andrew Aplin, Cam Perkins and John Andreoli, when they saw they might actually need to play one of them, they instantly opted for Ichiro (and Werth) instead.

Mitch Haniger could become a star if he stays healthy. The problem is that this essentially MUST happen in order for this group to hit enough to provide a serious boost to the offense. Their top 5 hitters last year all played on the IF/DH, and they scored 750 runs thanks to big seasons from those guys. The OF needs to contribute more to help out a pitching staff that’s going to need to high-wire their way to ~700 runs allowed. Getting to 800 runs allowed in a year in which Nelson Cruz will turn 38, Robbie Cano is 35, Dee Gordon and Kyle Seager are 30 means that someone else is going to have to contribute with a huge season. Haniger’s the most likely suspect, and he could’ve had a big year if his 2017 wasn’t impacted by injuries. The problem is that his 2018 spring was also derailed by injuries, and thus he missed most of the Cactus League. Any time spent getting his timing back hurts the magnitude of his contributions. He is, therefore, a microcosm of the M’s OF: if he’s hurt, things get very bad very fast.

3: The competition got a lot better

The Astros have separated themselves from the pack, and the Indians and Yankees are in very good positions as well. The M’s are realistically fighting for a wild card with the likes of the Red Sox, Twins, Angels (and the rest of the AL West), and perhaps a surprise team or two. The Twins came from nowhere last year, and the Blue Jays could conceivably make some noise in the AL East. This is both a more realistic competition for the M’s and a crowded one. The Red Sox’ staff separates them a bit from the rest of this group, but there are still an awful lot of flawed-but-good teams hanging around the second wild card position.

Those teams have been busy. The Angels not only got Shohei Otani, but remade their infield by snagging Ian Kinsler and 2017 breakout star Zack Cozart. Thanks to a rotation that’s banged up and not terribly good, they’re not likely to run off and challenge the Astros, but the moves they’ve made and the projected return to health of Garrett Richards and Andrew Heaney mean they’re a formidable challenger for the M’s. The Twins’s starting rotation is about as questionable as the M’s, but they took a big step to shore it up when they signed Lance Lynn to a one-year deal. With Phil Hughes and Ervin Santana dealing with injuries, the club needs a big year from Jose Berrios, but that doesn’t seem like it’s asking for the impossible from the soon-to-be-24 year old. The Blue Jays helped their rotation by signing Jaime Garcia, and might sneak into contention this year behind a decent staff and an offense that will soon see the arrival of Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, both of whom figure to start out in the high minors.

The M’s were content to get Juan Nicasio and hope the rest of the staff avoided injuries, a hope that’s already been dashed by the diagnosis on David Phelps. To make matters worse, they’re facing the toughest schedule out of any of these contending teams. Playing the Astros 19 times hurts, but it points to the fact that the AL West has improved as a unit. While Texas’ schedule is even worse than Seattle’s, the projections have them neck and neck with Seattle to start, and a big season from Willie Calhoun and more-of-the-same from the ageless Adrian Beltre, and the M’s imbalanced schedule goes from bad to worse. Then there are the Athletics, a team without much in the way of pitching, but who built a powerful offense in the second half of 2017. Realistically, the M’s need to get a bunch of wins off of teams in their division, and if the Athletics hitters take advantage of the M’s pitchers’ fly-balling ways, the A’s may scuttle the M’s hopes.

Think of it this way: which AL West team’s outlook over the next 3-5 years would you swap with the M’s? Isn’t the answer pretty much all of them? I would never want to be a fan of the Athletics, but they look intriguing right now, albeit a bit imbalanced. The Rangers don’t look great and their best prospects are waaaay down in the low minors, but the same’s true of the M’s. The Angels have Trout and an absurdly-cheap wildcard in Ohtani. The Astros are the best team in baseball, just added Gerrit Cole, and still have Forrest Whitley, Kyle Tucker, etc. The M’s are in quite a predicament here, and while it’s not entirely of their own making, getting out of it is going to take years of very challenging work.

Nearly Opening Day Round-Up

March 27, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

One of the positive things about the most recent CBA was the change to baseball’s calendar, sprinkling in more off-days throughout the season. This is great for players trying to maintain focus and health through the long season, and it’s great for bloggers like me. The one thing it necessitates, though, is an early opening day. I don’t really mind that, and I’m looking forward to opening day despite the fact that my expectations for a really successful season are vanishingly low. I’m just excited to talk about something other than this odd, painful off-season.

But until Thursday, I need to address the flurry of minor moves the M’s made to prepare for opening day. We’ll also talk about some of the recent projection updates as well as a wrap-up on the provisions in the omnibus spending bill impacting minor league pay.

1: The injury to David Phelps – and some open 40-man spots – led to a series of moves as the M’s tried to rebuild their bullpen depth. That’s an understandable desire, especially if they need to get 600 innings or more from the bullpen. Given their starting pitching depth AND the health of the guys they’re counting on to provide it (Felix, Marco Gonzales, maybe Hisashi Iwakuma, etc.), they need to get a lot more innings from relievers, and to avoid wearing any one of them down, they need to spread that workload as broadly as reasonably possible. Thus, welcome Dario Alvarez, the fastball/slider specialist recently with the Rangers, who was claimed off of waivers, and Erikc Goeddel, a former Met who signed a MiLB deal with the M’s last week. Alvarez has shown ridiculous K% numbers in the minors and majors, but struggled mightily with his command and with occasional HR trouble. Gopher balls also doomed Goeddel, whose K% shot up last year, but since it was accompanied by an increase in HR/9, he wasn’t able to profit from his ability to miss bats. The M’s then traded for MiLB SP depth by getting Ashton Goudeau and Matt Tenuta from the Royals system.

Alvarez’s slider is a legitimate outpitch, and he should tear up the PCL until he’s needed, but my pick for the best single pitch of this batch of new org depth is Goeddel’s splitter. The pitch plays very well with Goeddel’s fastball, and, like a good splitters should, generates a ton of swings, even if it’s thrown out of the zone. Batters have hit .152 off of the pitch (with a .256 SLG%) on the 501 of them Goeddel’s thrown in his big league career. Like many pitchers, Goeddel started to struggle when batters decided to look for fastballs and just hit those. In the last two seasons combined, batters have hit 9 HRs and are slugging .621 off of Goeddel’s FB. Lance Painter now gets to work on how to improve both Goeddel’s and Alvarez’s fastballs while preserving their outpitches.

The M’s minor league strength, and that is such a low bar that I know many of you are snickering just reading that phrase, is its relief pitching. That’s not a surprise; it’s is the easiest form of minor league depth to acquire in the draft – draft a decent starter out of college, make them a reliever, and figure out which ones gain the most velocity. Guys like Art Warren opened a lot of eyes over the last year (along with Matt Festa and Seth Elledge), so unlike essentially any other position, the M’s have actual home-grown talent that they can turn to for depth. But the moves to acquire Alvarez/Goeddel show that the depth they’ve developed isn’t quite enough. I suppose you have to applaud them for seeing a problem and addressing it, but we’re looking at another year where the minors are absolutely filled with depth acquired from waiver claims (Goeddel/Alvarez), minor trades (Goudeau/Tenuta) and minor league free agents. I’ve said all off season that the M’s are clearly banking on their ability to teach players to make big leaps in their ability levels, leaps that no projection could ever foresee. It’s odd to make that kind of a bet and have to fill the upper minors with late-March acquisitions. If your development is so good, wouldn’t you want to maximize the time they had to work with players? If the cupboard’s bare enough that you’re scrambling through the pile of released/waived guys, are you sure you couldn’t find another free agent or two that could help?

2: The M’s path to contention is pretty clear: they’re in the small group of clubs positioned to fight for the second wildcard. The Astros are several cuts above, and it’s hard to imagine a perfect storm that would produce an M’s divisional championship. Thankfully, the M’s don’t NEED to be better than the Astros for 162 games to make the playoffs. They’re not going to be better than the 2nd place team in the AL East, most likely, as you’d have to figure that the reloaded Yankees and the still-the-same, still-good Red Sox can both earn playoff spots. Realistically, the M’s are competing with other teams in the West, namely the Angels, and the 2nd place team in the Central, most likely the Twins. There’s one spot available, and given the way the divisions shake out, the M’s strength of schedule looks to be a serious, serious headwind.

Fangraphs’s playoff odds takes schedule into account, and thus the same projections produce two fewer wins for the M’s. Oh, and 1.5 MORE for the Twinkies. It’s a situation where every game may matter quite a bit, and the division-weighted schedule means Seattle play a slate of games against better opponents than teams in the AL Central. There’s nothing to be done, here, but it makes it more frustrating that the Twins made a series of moves aimed at improving their club in the off-season, building on what was presumably a surprise contending year last year. The M’s…did not, really, though you can see what it’d look like if things worked out.

3: A big part of THAT is their bet on Dee Gordon, elite CF. This great Wall St. Journal article notes the M’s use of Statcast data to measure certain skills that they believe translate well to CF – his reaction on pop-ups, his sprint speed, etc. If Dee Gordon adds value on defense, he can be a very valuable addition. He’s a better hitter than Jarrod Dyson, and if they’re not giving away runs in the field, those batting runs can really add up, especially considering he’ll play more than Dyson did.

The only problem is the set-up for this story of ingenuity and creativity: the idea that the M’s couldn’t find a great CF in free agency. The M’s kicked off this grand experiment – and after seeing him in the Cactus League, I think it’ll work – only because they completely misread the market. They dangled a multi-year offer to Jon Jay, only to watch Jay sign a bargain 1-year deal in KC. They then watched #1 CF Lorenzo Cain sign a 5-year, $80M deal for an AAV of $16M. Gordon’s got 3 years with an AAV of $12.3, not including a team option, on his deal. Gordon’s less of a commitment in dollars and years, but the idea that the M’s simply couldn’t get close to Cain seemed sound in November, but proved to be incorrect.

To be clear, Gordon is no slouch, and the team might actually like Gordon’s superior value on the basepaths as part of a more Royals-of-2015 style offense (an offense that, ironically, included Cain). The M’s were below average last year in walk rate, and by bringing in Gordon and Ryon Healy, they’re only going to drop further this year. With Gordon’s bat-to-ball skills, they’ll probably also drop in team K%. If the M’s are going to produce a well-above average offense, they’re going to need a high batting average. Guys like Gordon are absolutely critical to that strategy, and Gordon’s speed is going to need to counteract some of the BABIP-suppressing effects of Safeco Field, with park factors that limit hits (especially 2B/3B) and walks, and boost Ks. The M’s OF – with Gordon, Gamel, Heredia, Haniger (and Ichiro!) – is not going to be a huge source of HRs, and (Haniger aside) won’t be pulling up the team OBP unless they do so through a high average.

As it happened, the M’s had more options than they would’ve thought. They’ve now got Dee Gordon, and that could really help if Gordon adds value in the field and hits at least .310 or so, even if it’s an empty .310. I know you didn’t come here to read about batting average, but in this case, that’s how the M’s offense can bail out a shaky pitching staff. The M’s hit .259 the past two years, after several years below .250. With scoring where it is, and HRs set to rise yet again, the M’s are going to need their creativity to pay off in BABIP and old fashioned batting average.

4: Whatever happens this year, the M’s – the business/corporation/anti-trust-exempted entity – will be fine. Owners receive a windfall in their share of the sale proceeds of BAMTech to Disney – the streaming video monster that was once known as MLB Advanced Media. Moreover, team valuations continue to grow at an insane rate, as even struggling teams see revenue and sale prices rise. Ex-Commissioner Peter Ueberroth famously chided owners for choosing to try to win at the expense of the bottom line, but the nice thing about where baseball finds itself is that you don’t have to try to do *anything* and you’ll probably make money. Revenue’s rising faster than salary inflation, and the recent CBAs have focused on *limiting* expenses on amateur talent, so this is the system the two sides have agreed on. It’s not bad for *major league* players, but it’s an amazing deal for owners.

That’s the context into which word came out that baseball’s lobbyist had included a provision in the recent omnibus spending bill to clarify that minor league players are not subject to federal minimum wage laws. Some headlines on this have been a bit hard to parse, but to be clear: minor leaguers weren’t covered by minimum wage/overtime rules already, though they had a lawsuit wending its way through the court arguing that they SHOULD be covered by minimum wage/Fair Labor Standards Act. By getting this provision included, baseball hopes to preempt the lawsuit, arguing that the law now unambiguously states that players are NOT subject to the FLSA.

I know minor league teams often run a tight operation, and that dollars need to stretch pretty far, but not only do major league teams pay minor league player salaries, the idea that MiLB players get no pay during spring training and poverty wages during the long season is completely absurd. There is no reason – none – that MLB teams can’t invest in the players they’re counting on as organizational depth or potential MLB contributors. With bonuses limited, and penalty fees racking up when teams exceed the international bonus pool caps, the teams are already paying millions into a black box that’s supposed to help players (but which no one seems to know what to do with). It seems that any team that wanted a competitive advantage could simply pay minor leaguers a half-decent salary and reap the rewards of players who can afford to eat meals or not take extra jobs just to make ends meet. Would that turn every 33rd rounder into a Real Prospect? No, but if it did it for even one of them, it’d pay for itself for years.

The fact that this happened in the very year in which teams receive tens of millions in completely free, revenue-sharing-exempt money is galling. This is a bad look for MLB. I keep thinking the players would have a better collusion case on the fact that minor leaguers work for free *in every camp* than they would questioning why, say, Mike Moustakas’ market didn’t develop. The problem here is that minor league players aren’t at the table, and so it’s not clear what would happen if a club suddenly decided to give them a decent wage. We see a similar dynamic at play when we hear Alex Anthopoulos’ ridiculous reasoning for why Ronald Acuna won’t be starting the season in Atlanta. Everyone knows it’s a lie, and even fans understand/support the reasoning – they want an extra year of Acuna’s cost-controlled services in the future, when the Braves might actually be good. The players association has made some grumbling about this, especially when the same thing happened with Kris Bryant a few years ago, but fundamentally, what would a “fix” look like for these two bargaining partners? Remember that Acuna – right now a non-member – would take the position of a member. Would the agreement be to *extend* the time a team would have to blatantly lie to fans and everyone why a prospect was sent down? Would that be better?

The relationship between players and owners may be broken. The relationship between minor leaguers and everyone has been broken for years. I’m not sure how to resolve this situation, and I wish I had more confidence that we’d see a good resolution when the next agreement gets signed.

Cactuses, as far as the eye can see: Mariners at Rangers

March 16, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 6 Comments 

Mike Leake vs. Matt Moore, 1:05pm

Take a look at the post below, and then check out today’s line-up. The M’s face the always-interesting Rangers today, who are looking to bounce back from a poor 2017 that saw them tied with the M’s. Looking through the lens of the net stats (or toys, more appropriately), the Rangers were one of the league’s worst clubs at net KW – thanks a lot, Joey Gallo – but fared better thanks to a positive net HR mark – thank you, Joey Gallo! Their line-up was beset by collapses from Rougned Odor and a stalled year of development from Nomar Mazara, but the big focus – as seen in a net KW mark of – 401 – is improving their pitching.

With Yu Darvish gone and the farm system going through a bit of a down phase, the Rangers got creative and brought in former Rays and Giants disappointment Matt Moore. It wasn’t that long ago that Moore was the #1 pitching prospect in the game, having led the minors in K’s in 2011 and waltzed into important innings for the contending Rays that year and then signed him to a 5-year extension. After a solid 2012, I think people expected a leap to becoming a top-of-the-rotation starter, but his 2013 was essentially a repeat of his 2012: solid strikeout numbers, but far too many walks. He missed nearly all of 2014 and much of 2015 after TJ surgery, and simply hasn’t been the same since. He’s not missing as many bats, and like everyone else in the game, he’s giving up more HRs than he used to. The Giants traded for him in 2016, and then he suffered his worst season as a pro in San Francisco last year, putting up an ERA of 5.52.

At this stage, he’s a fly ball pitcher, with a GB% in the high 30s. He came up with a fastball averaging 95-96, but he’s more like 92 in recent years. It’s got tremendous armside run, and it pairs well with a big breaking curveball – the outpitch that fueled his prospect hype in 2011. Even last year, his curveball still proved very difficult to square up, and it’s produced great results throughout Moore’s career. The problem’s been a decline in the effectiveness of his fastball; it gets fewer whiffs and yields more extra-base hits now than it did pre-injury.

All told, this was an interesting buy-low move by the Rangers, who are evidently hoping that their coaches can wring more out of the disappointing, but still freakishly talented Moore (and Tim Lincecum too, for that matter).


1: Gordon, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Heredia, LF
4: Zunino, C
5: Vogelbach, 1B
6: Marjama, DH
7: Nieuwenhuis, RF
8: Beckham, 3B
9: Muno, 2B
SP: Leake

The story of last night’s win wasn’t Taylor Motter’s grand salami, but Edwin Diaz’s immaculate inning. Diaz struck out the side *on nine pitches* in his single inning of work. Masterful.

The M’s recently signed 20-year large Brazilian son Igor Januario, a pitcher. The Rays had an Igor Januario in their system years ago, and THAT Januario has played for Brazil in international tournaments – as a hulking 1B (FG listed him at 6’6″, 240lbs). THIS Januario is a bit younger, but still huge at 6’7″ 240lbs. He’ll hopefully follow in the footsteps of Luiz Gohara, the zip-code-sized hurler who made the majors last year with Atlanta.

The State of the M’s Thus Far: Examining the Team through Questionably-Useful Lenses

March 16, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

I’m sorry for the lack of posts recently, but I’ve been completely slammed at work, and something had to give. That something has been posts admiring Dan Vogelbach’s hot spring, or Taylor Motter coming on strong or what have you. That said, I’ve tried to have a check-in post most springs that tries to wring some sort of information out of spring training statistics. This is dangerous territory, for a variety of reasons, but I figure if we caveat the whole thing and keep the focus at the team level, maybe we’ll find something.

Last year, I wrote about the M’s remarkable success at turning their own mantra into on-field results: the team preached controlling the zone, and then their pitchers AND hitters went out and did exactly that, posting solid ratios on both sides of the ball. Did that carry through to the regular season? Noooooo (damn you, tempting Arizona mirages). But even that was understandable, perhaps, given the M’s injuries and the transactions that some of them necessitated. Moreover, and I know this is familiar to anyone who’s read this site, the story of the M’s disappointing 2017 wasn’t just their zone ratios (K:BB, K-BB%, etc.), it was the fact that, for a second straight year, home runs stole the show. The problem with the M’s jury-rigged back-of-the-rotation wasn’t that they didn’t miss enough bats (though they didn’t miss enough bats), it was that they gave up so many HRs that K:BB ratio didn’t matter nearly as much.

I looked at each team’s zone stats in 2017 and then I added their net home runs – this is just home runs hit minus home runs allowed. Those of you who are yelling, “That’s essentially just re-stating FIP” aren’t wrong: walks, strikeouts and dingers are, of course, the three inputs in FIP, and thus it should come as no surprise that my “net KW” or net strikeouts and net walks (strikeouts earned by pitchers minus strikeouts taken by batters, plus walks earned by batters minus walks given by pitchers) and net HRs correlates really well with fangraphs pitching WAR which is, of course, FIP based. But you look at the standings last year, and it just sort of jumps off the page: the most surprising teams dominated in net HRs. The two best marks were earned by the Yankees and Diamondbacks, and the Brewers weren’t far behind. The league’s two worst clubs by net HRs were two of the worst teams in the game: the San Francisco Giants and Chicago White Sox. The best clubs in the game, the Astros, Dodgers and especially the Indians, were elite in BOTH net HRs and net KW, while clubs like the Nationals and Cubs looked solid, if a clear step behind the Astros/Dodgers/Indians. It’s not foolproof or anything – the Red Sox didn’t hit many HRs at all, and thus ended up with a sharply negative net HR mark, but they made up for it with an elite net KW mark. The A’s had a positive net HR mark, but gave it all away on the net KW side of the ledger. Of the two “stats”, net HRs correlated slightly better with wins, and both correlated slightly more than offensive WAR as measured by FG.

This is a single year of data – the year of the HR – so I’m not claiming these measures are anything more than an interesting diversion, but it highlights the importance of HRs in today’s game. The M’s had a net HR mark of -37, and that, more than anything, crushed their playoff hopes. All of that to say that the focus going forward needs to be on avoiding HRs. I think the M’s went for elevated fastballs and fly ball contact last year on the solid premise that the HR explosion was occurring on low pitches, and thus they could achieve better results on both HRs-allowed AND BABIP by generating whiffs and fly outs. They batted .500 on those premises. The problem was that the HR explosion proved a bit more ecumenical than previously thought, and a primary driver for THAT sure looks like the ball itself.

The M’s remarkably hands-off approach to roster building this off-season may be many things, from the product of ownership closing their wallet, to misreading the market to an honest, earnestly-held belief that the team literally has too many starters to go off in search of new ones in free agency. But what it clearly results in is elevating the importance of player development. The M’s now have to coach their way past their projections and the previously-measured abilities of their players. And because HRs are so, so prevalent now, and because the M’s pitchers now give them up at the same rate as Colorado pitchers did in 1999-2000, the *focus* of that teaching/coaching effort seems pretty clear.

So how are the M’s doing thus far down in Peoria? Uh, they’ve given up 31 HRs and hit 20. Look, spring training isn’t over, and the whole enterprise is beset by problems in trying to extract signal from noise. As Dan Rosenheck’s Economist piece back in 2015 details, it’s split between two fundamentally different run environments, it’s got a host of weird park effects, there’s the ultra-wide range of talent on the field – much wider than in MLB games. It all makes things hard (but not impossible) for those looking to find something meaningful in the practice games. That’s where net HRs or KW can be helpful: they’re intrateam measures first, so you don’t have to worry as much about the fact that HRs are much, much more common in Arizona than Florida. Like last spring, the Indians pitchers look particularly HR-prone, but then, their batters have clubbed more than any other team: this looks more like a park effect than a particular area of concern for a pitching staff that utterly dominated in these net stats in 2017. The M’s though… hey, it’s still early. But the M’s are getting dominated in these metrics by the Padres, a team who shares a home park with them, and whose rotation looks even more questionable than the M’s.

The M’s zone stats have also dropped off markedly this spring. Maybe it’s not as much of a point of emphasis, or maybe it’s the product of shifting ABs both to minor leaguers and the position battles that matter: utility infielder and back-up catcher, neither role of which is traditionally the source of gaudy offensive stats. But part of the reason for highlighting their success last year was that it lent credence to the idea that they could *teach* these skills. If that lesson is a fleeting one – and we don’t know that it is yet – then that’s a problem. If it’s less of a point of emphasis, especially for pitchers, that’s fine by me, but there are several approaches that could benefit BOTH K:BB ratio and HRs-allowed. I’d love to see more evidence that they’re implementing one.

Cactus League – The Avant-Garde Rockies at Mariners

March 6, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Mike Leake vs. German Marquez, 5:40pm

Another night game in the Cactus League as the M’s host Colorado tonight in Peoria. Mike Leake looks to build what’s been an absolutely brilliant start, and faces off with hard-throwing righty German Marquez. Marquez throws a four-seam fastball at about 96 MPH, pairing it with a hard curve, an occasional change, and a rarely-used, but effective-in-spots sinker. Marquez added plenty of velo in 2017, and was a generally effective/league-average-or-better starter for the Rockies, so he’s worth talking about in his own right, but I want to talk about the system that gave us German Marquez. The Rockies are doing something, and Marquez is just one example.

I mentioned this last year when the M’s and Rockies squared off in interleague play, but the Rockies have overhauled their approach to pitching. Playing at altitude requires you to think very carefully about your approach, or else you end up with the Rockies pitching staffs of the pre-humidor era, the nadir of which intersected with the steroid era. Over 1999-2000, the Rockies hurlers allowed 458 home runs, and put up a collective ERA of 5.66 with a FIP of 5.32. *After* the humidor, the Rockies have been, I think, underappreciated for their HR-suppressing ability. The Mariners have given up more HRs than the Rockies in most years since 2004, and that’s continued into this most recent HR explosion. Other teams looking to reduce HRs have attempted to minimize the pitches that go for homers most often: four-seam fastballs. The Astros throw a ton of pitches low in the zone, and feature a steady diet of non-fastballs. Same with the Yankees, who threw shockingly few fastballs in 2017, a strategy which led them to give up about 50 fewer HRs than their batters’ knocked. The Rockies know that ground balls are the surest way to avoid HRs, but they’ve taken a completely different approach to producing them: they throw a blizzard of…four-seam fastballs.

The Rockies led baseball last year in ground ball rate. They also led baseball in the percentage of four-seamers thrown, and by quite a ways. This strategy’s been kicking around Colorado for a while, as they led baseball in four-seamers from 2010-2015 (the little HR ice age), too. But they’d never come close to their percentage last year, and had a four-seam percentage 10 percentage points lower as recently as 2015.

To be clear, the Rockies are not the only team that’s tried a steady diet of four-seamers. The Rays were the prime example of this approach in recent years, as they had pitchers with high spin rates (and lots of vertical rise) trying to generate fly balls in a HR-suppressing ballpark with an OF patrolled by Kevin Kiermaier. The approach made their breaking balls/splitters more effective, and played to the strength of their defense. The Rockies are the first to use this approach to get *ground balls* – and they’ve been shockingly good at it. It hasn’t made them a great overall staff, and they’ve given up some HRs and plenty of extra-base hits, but so much of that comes from their spacious park. They’ve turned middle-to-back-of-the-rotation pitching prospects like Marquez, Antonio Senzatela and Kyle Freeland into…middle-to-back-of-the-rotation major league pitchers. And not just “eh, that’ll play in Colorado, I guess,” but legitimate league-average production. I would really like to know how.

The Mariners have talked a lot about fastballs this off-season. It’s been a subject on the Wheelhouse Podcast several times, and so we now scrutinize each new addition’s fastball metrics, from spin to movement to approach. Given the run environment, or more specifically, the home run environment the game operates in, each team *should* spend time thinking about how to use each pitcher’s arsenal to limit hard-hit, pulled contact. The M’s clearly do. But here’s the problem:

HRs Allowed
M’s, 2016-17 450
Rockies, 1999-00 458

The M’s pitchers have yielded essentially exactly the same number of HRs as the abysmal Rockies’ staffs of 1999-2000. Whatever the M’s have done, it hasn’t worked. Yes, yes, injuries. And what about the new ball? The Reds gave up way more! That’s all very true. But if you’re in the same neighborhood in HRs-allowed as pre-humidor Colorado…yeesh.

I guess I hadn’t realized just what a difference it’s made, as the Rockies haven’t had a season with over 200 HRs allowed since 2002 (they gave up exactly 200 in 2004). The M’s have gone above 200 a few times, including 2004 and then blowing past it these past two seasons. Part of this is the fact that the dimension changes in Safeco have made for a very different environment, but part of it seems to be that the M’s approach is either not quite working, or is not well-suited to Safeco. Not sure which at this point, but the M’s really may want to look at what Colorado’s doing. An M’s staff with Colorado’s HR rates would be a formidable one.

No word on who’s coming off the 40-man to make room for Ichiro!. Ryan Divish reports that it’ll be a reliever. Armstrong/Morin/Moll/Bradford have to be nervous.
1: Gordon, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Ford, 1B
8: Perkins, RF
9: Andreoli, LF
SP: Leake

Ichiro Returns

March 5, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 16 Comments 

The news on Ben Gamel wasn’t good – his oblique issue that kept him out of the game a few days back would sideline him for 4 weeks or more. Even a grade 1 strain, the mildest form of the injury, averages 27 days or so for position players to return from. The M’s now know they’ll be without a player they’d penciled into their starting line-up. Meanwhile, Mitch Haniger’s hand problems have prevented him from practicing, let alone participating in Cactus League games. The M’s clearly saw their young OF as a potential strength coming into 2018, particularly with Dee Gordon adapting well to CF. But as of this morning, it had become a glaring need.

Ichiro Suzuki is now a part-time player, and at 44, it looked like his MLB career was over. The rebuilding Marlins jettisoned the three players ahead of him on the OF depth charts, but they didn’t want him back. I’m not sure what I would’ve expected from the tail end of Ichiro’s completely unique career, but I have to admit, I didn’t really see this coming. As someone so particular about every aspect of his practice to his pre-pitch routine, I would’ve imagined that a year like 2015 would’ve absolutely destroyed him. He hit .229/.282/.279 in over 400 PAs, playing for a go-nowhere club in Miami. Perhaps wanting to show that not even age could destroy his finely-wrought skill, he rebounded to hit .291/.354/.376 the next year. There – he’d proven his point. But he was back again in 2017, slumping to a mid-70s wRC+ and getting far fewer PAs. He still wasn’t done. He wanted a big league deal, and now he’ll get one: Ichiro signed a 1-year contract with the M’s today.

I’ll be clear: I think Ichiro is one of the coolest players I’ve ever seen, and cheering for him for a decade – though the absolute peaks of the franchise’s existence as well as the nadir – has been a privilege. I’m going to enjoy watching him for the M’s again, if only because he’s now doubly unique/inscrutable: he’s *Ichiro* and he’s *44 years old*. More than at any time in his career, he’ll be flanked by similar players – players trying to survive the home run boom through contact ability and defense. Thankfully, no one’s looking at him to carry the team, or even be a full-time player. That said, that Ichiro kind of makes sense here is something of a bad sign.

Ben Gamel’s ZiPS projection has a slash line of .250/.303/.384, not all that different from Ichiro’s .264/.323/.344, or from Guillermo Heredia’s .242/.323/.324. All are fractionally better than the projections of the other OFs in camp/on the 40-man, like Cam Perkins or John Andreoli. Even those who demand the M’s sign a free agent on the right side of 40 have to admit, the pickings have grown slim: CF John Jay would cost quite a bit more, and his own projections are only slightly better. No one should pay money to play Jon Jay in an OF corner. You could get Melky Cabrera, who’d be better at the plate, but with defensive metrics showing he’s been at least a full win below average every year since 2013, it would clearly go against one of Jerry Dipoto’s roster-building strategies. The best bet may be Seth Smith, but as a platoon player with defensive shortcomings, I can’t see Dipoto wanting to bring him back. Ichiro’s a glove-first guy who makes a lot of contact, so Dipoto was probably predisposed to at least kick the tires, even before you get to the whole franchise-icon thing.

So those fans who are stoked to have Ichiro back around are right to be excited: it’s ICHIRO. And those fans who see this as a move that doesn’t move the needle at all are right too. The M’s don’t look like they’ve done enough to capitalize on their decent position on the win curve, and seem to have been passed by teams from Anaheim to Minnesota, and they’ve acquired some outfielders, like Perkins, who they clearly don’t trust with even part-time fill-in duty (Perkins is older than Heredia, Haniger and Gamel, by the way). But how we, as fans, deal with this situation is up to us. I’ve seen Ichiro on good M’s teams, awful M’s teams, and middle-of-the-pack M’s teams. Ichiro made things a bit better in each situation, and watching Ichiro do Ichiro things on a frustrating M’s team is something I’ve done a hell of a lot of. I’m in for another round of it.

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