Hector Santiago and Dipoto’s Fly Ball Obsession

marc w · April 24, 2018 at 12:30 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

I heard national baseball scribe Jeff Passan on Brock and Salk this morning talking about the over-the-top anger about the M’s optioning Guillermo Heredia in order to keep Ichiro. I’m paraphrasing here, but Passan’s point was that this anger isn’t really related to the case at hand – the delta in performance over a 10-20 day period between two non-starting OFs – but had been building up for some time, and this was just an excuse to let it out.

I think this is clearly true, and while Heredia’s had a great start, he wasn’t going to play a whole lot over the next couple of series. He could add value as a defensive replacement or pinch hitter (which he showed in Arlington), but his contributions would be pretty marginal. Even if you believe Ichiro is 100% cooked as a big league player, the same is true of Ichiro’s negative contributions; he’s not going to get a chance to do serious damage. This is a pretty meaningless move in the abstraact. What it does, and what gets people fired up, is that it highlights that the M’s aren’t yet in a position to care about marginal differences. And this goes against what the M’s FO has been arguing: that the M’s are in the thick of a tough competition for a wild card spot.

Despite their good start, the M’s don’t seem to match up well with the Angels and Yankees, though of course they’ve yet to play either. The Astros just demonstrated that they’re in another class. When I first heard about the move, it seemed like either the result of a handshake agreement they’d made with Ichiro or a directive from ownership to keep a beloved player on the roster, and neither of those things was aligned with the goal of putting the best possible roster on the field. Now, though, I’m a bit more ambivalent. I’d argue, and have argued, that the M’s aren’t quite a playoff team, and the reason for THAT has essentially nothing to do with their 4th outfielder. What I want is for the M’s to make decisions about the 4th OF really, really hard. I want the M’s to be in a position where every 10th of a win might matter, and every decision – from the manager, the general manager, and ownership – feels critical. Until that happens, decisions can and probably should involve factors other than how to squeeze every last possible fractional improvement out of the 40-man roster.

So if the M’s problem isn’t with the OF, where are they falling short? Uh, no points for correct guesses here, it’s the pitching staff. M’s pitchers enter today’s game with an ERA of 5.14 and a FIP of 4.81, good for a fWAR of exactly nothing. They have put up a replacement-level month or so by fielding-independent measures, and despite a good start in BABIP, they’re now even worse than that by ERA/RA-9. The reason for *that* is another familiar one, if you’ve read this blog at all for the past few years: home runs. The M’s currently sport a HR/9 of 1.52, second-worst in the game behind the Reds who are hurtling towards a historically bad record at this point. And why is THAT? Why are the M’s so bad at HR prevention, worse than teams like the White Sox who have an abysmal pitching staff AND who play in a HR-friendly park? Hector Santiago, that’s why.

Ok, that’s a bit hyperbolic. Let’s back up. In late 2011, Jerry Dipoto took over as GM of the Angels. The club finished 2nd in the AL West, and had just seen Mike Trout’s debut. Their pitching staff was solid thanks to the combination of Dan Haren (whom Dipoto had traded to Anaheim as interim GM of Arizona) and Jered Weaver. The next year, Weaver was great, and they were supplemented with CJ Wilson and Albert Pujols, two of the biggest free agents on the market. That, and Trout’s mind-blowing rookie season, pushed their win total up to 89 – but they finished 3rd in the division and missed the playoffs, even after the deadline acquisition of Zack Greinke. Haren regressed along with the bullpen, and suddenly the Angels’ staff ranked 23rd by fWAR, or 19th by RA9-based WAR. Their line-up was now far and away the best in the game, but their pitching staff held them back. They’d committed millions in back-loaded deals to Pujols and others, and so ideally, the improvements on the mound would come cheaply.

If there was any doubt about the importance of improving the staff, it was erased in 2013, as the pitchers regressed further and even the line-up took a step back. Still, 2013 was another step in Dipoto’s long game. In 2011, the Angels ranked 9th in team ground ball rate. In 2012, Dipoto’s first year at the helm, they fell to 20th. In 2013, they dipped further to 27th. And then, in that off-season, the Angels went all-in on their plan, swapping free-swinging 1B Mark Trumbo for Tyler Skaggs and today’s starter, Hector Santiago.

Santiago had been a decent starter for the White Sox, putting up OK runs-allowed numbers that FIP never bought into. As an extreme fly-ball guy, Santiago gave up too many HRs for FIP’s liking, even if his overall ERA was consistently under 4. If that sounds familiar, this was essentially Jered Weaver’s MO, though of course Weaver was a bit better at it. Santiago was no Weaver, but then, he was cheap and undervalued. In 2014, with Santiago in the fold, the Angels GB% fell yet again, and with it went the club’s BABIP-allowed. Led by young phenom Garrett Richards and bearded-opposite-of-phenom Matt Shoemaker, the Angels missed plenty of bats to go along with their low BABIP, and lo and behold, Jerry Dipoto had constructed a good pitching staff with guys like Santiago and Shoemaker, while CJ Wilson -expensive GB% pitcher- struggled. The club won 98 games, most in the majors, and finally had a complete team to build around Mike Trout. In 2015, the Angels had the lowest GB% in the game.

I get why Dipoto loves this plan. Hell, it *worked* once, and that’s a pretty good sign. The only problem is that 2014 is gone, and the game looks vastly different now. In 2014, one AL team hit a *total* of 95 HRs. They won the pennant. Only one team in the game hit over 200. Last year, 17 teams hit 200 dingers, including the M’s. The team with the fewest HRs in the league wasn’t a pennant-contender, but one of the worst teams in the league. The two teams with the lowest GB% rates, the Mariners and Tigers, weren’t benefitting from undervalued arms, they were hemorrhaging runs all year (injuries and the end of a competitive window played a role, too). The Angels were still among the league leaders in fly balls, and they too were paying a high price in terms of HRs-allowed; their BABIP was better than average, but it didn’t matter any more.

I get the sense that Jerry’s never quite gotten over the euphoria of 2014, of Hector Santiago and FIP-defying ERAs. Of Matt Shoemaker being a better value (and just a better pitcher) than CJ Wilson. I can’t imagine how it feels when a long process starts to bear spectacular fruit; the Angels player development staff must’ve been high-fiving each other non stop as Trout laid waste to the game, and then Dipoto cracked the code on pitching. It seemed so sustainable. It wasn’t, and unless something pretty radical changes, the M’s can’t Hector Santiago their way to success. Hell, Santiago himself has become a journeyman, and is making his first start of the year after being relegated to the Sox (bad) bullpen. I lament this state of affairs, but I’m sympathetic, too. I don’t think Dipoto was stupid to follow the same path back in 2016. I’m getting worried that the M’s aren’t making more adjustments, though.

Today, the M’s face Hector Santiago and the White Sox at 2:10pm. Here’s their line-up:
1: Gordon, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Haniger, RF
7: Gamel, LF
8: Zunino, C
9: Vogelbach, 1B
SP: Gonzales

Sounds like Kyle Lewis is in extended spring training , and may get to a full-season MiLB club next month.
Speaking of extended, Eric Longenhagen reported that the M’s have been pissing off other clubs by running out of pitchers in the not-really-reported on/not official extended spring training “league” and having to stop games before they’ve concluded.
One person who’s graduated from extended to a full-season roster? Jayson Werth, who’s just been added to the Rainiers roster along with Roenis Elias. Matt Hague and Josh Smith have been released.


One Response to “Hector Santiago and Dipoto’s Fly Ball Obsession”

  1. Longgeorge1 on April 24th, 2018 3:43 pm

    Heredia not going to play much? Since when have starters been going 9 innings? This team is a 3rd place team in our division. It is going nowhere this year. We need to be getting young and gaining experience rather than holding on to an aging player. A HOF oldie but still old.

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