Game 134, Mariners at Athletics: A Season in the Balance

marc w · August 30, 2018 at 5:25 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Wade LeBlanc vs. Frankie Montas, 7:10pm

The Mariners playoff odds sit at about 9% or 5%, depending on which site you read. To many fans, even those long odds seem optimistic. The team, obviously, sees things a bit differently. They trail the A’s by 5.5 games, but have 7 games remaining with them: win them all, and jump ahead. Sure, that’s a tall order, but it’s something the M’s control. That’s true, but it does mean needing big performances from the likes of Wade LeBlanc and a hopefully-healed Marco Gonzales later on. It’s too late to hope that James Paxton or Jean Segura get hot – the M’s need *everyone* to come up big in these games. God speed, Wade.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened here, how the M’s lost a massive lead and how the A’s went from afterthought to juggernaut. The focus since January has been on the M’s suspect pitching staff, and the gap between Jerry Dipoto’s assessment of his rotation and the projection systems’. As much as we all re-litigate their offseason decisions, and as much as we’d all love to have more starting depth, we now have enough evidence to say this: Jerry Dipoto was more right than wrong. I went back and looked at my 2018 “risks” post and it led off with the pitching staff, and my cotention that the M’s would be very, very hard pressed to limit total runs allowed to around 700, a figure which might, with a good year from the bats, be enough. Well, we’re under 30 games remaining, and the M’s are on pace to allow just above 700. It hasn’t been perfect, there have been bumps in the road, but…they’ve more or less done their job.

They did it in ways none of us imagined: they were supposed to give tons of innings to their deep bullpen, but Juan Nicasio’s struggles put an end to that. Their rotation – the one weakness pretty much everyone NOT on the M’s payroll identified – has pitched more innings at a higher level than people like me expected. So, credit where it’s due: Dipoto thought he had done enough with the rotation, and thus far, the rotation hasn’t sunk the season. In fact, they’re a key reason why the M’s are within striking distance of the playoffs in an insanely competitive AL.

The problem, and the reason the A’s overtook them, is the position players. The M’s wanted to build an offense based on stringing hits together, a balls-in-play, don’t-wait-for-the-HR type offense that would play to their team speed and athleticism. That’s just really, really hard to do in an era in which relievers as a whole strike out a batter an inning, and as the growth of pitching staffs allow for better match-ups for pitchers. As great as their record in close games, the M’s bats have gone cold in the 9th inning, where they’ve hit a collective .205/.273/.332 for the year. The M’s consciously gave up some power potential and a LOT of OBP to get a lot more singles and batting average. The results have not been pretty. Their OBP is terrible, and their ISO is below average. While they HAVE hit more singles, it hasn’t mattered, as down years from some starters (coughSeagercough) have eaten into those gains.

Meanwhile, the A’s have continued to hit for power, and it’s allowed them to pick up for a rotation that took a while to find its feet. Neither team runs all that well, a fact that’s more surprising in the M’s case than the A’s, so that’s not really separating the two clubs. Still, there’s another key difference that’s helped the A’s position players bail out a rotation held together with twine and chicken wire: defense. The A’s lead the league in team defensive efficiency. Their starters have allowed an absurd .273 BABIP on the year, a figure that no one approached last season. The A’s home park gives them a thumb on the scale, and so their BABIP last year, when they were universally seen as a mediocre-to-bad defensive team, was .294. By UZR, they’ve gone from a league-worst -35 runs last year to #1 in the league at +29 runs this year. BP’s park adjusted defensive efficiency puts them at #1 too, so this isn’t just about UZR. Meanwhile, the M’s have imploded. They ranked in the top-10 by UZR last year (+10 runs), but have fallen to 21st at -11 runs this year. That gap of about 40 runs or ~ 4 wins is a big chunk of the A’s lead on the M’s, and it’s a huge reason why the A’s have been able to continue their run despite losing their entire opening day rotation to injury.

Today’s starter, Frankie Montas, came to the A’s from the Dodgers as part of the Josh Reddick/Rich Hill set of deals. He’d been a big prospect with the White Sox before then, a very hard throwing starter with a solid breaking ball. He sat at 97 or so in his first cup of coffee with the White Sox, and then averaged about 100 in the AFL in 2016. With the A’s, he’s gradually shifted from a four-seam fastball to a sinker (so far, so A’s), and that, compared with his change in role (starter, no messing about with the bullpen) has dropped his average fastball to Paxton-ish levels. He’s got a solid slider, but doesn’t seem to have a lot of faith in his change, so he’s essentially a two-pitch pitcher at the moment. That’s limited his ability to miss bats, so despite all of the velo, he’s got below-average K rates at the moment. That lack of a third pitch has hurt his ability to get lefties out, too; his platoon splits are a serious worry. Despite all of that, and despite a bad BABIP (even on the A’s!), he’s been fairly effective at the big league level this year. It makes no sense, but there it is. Montas has limited home runs, especially to righties, and that’s made the difference. There’s no real secret here, no reason *why* – they just haven’t happened. All of that’s to say that this is a winnable game despite his under-4 FIP and prospect pedigree. After seeing the debacle in San Diego, the M’s offense – and especially lefties like Kyle Seager and Dee Gordon – has no more excuses. Don’t give up ABs, get into good counts and drive the ball.

Isn’t the A’s line-up full of RH power a tough challenge for a lefty like LeBlanc? Sure, I suppose. But for whatever reason, righties like Khris Davis and Matt Chapman have fared better vs. RHPs this year, and Wade’s best pitch – his change- is a great equalizer. It’s just tough knowing that he may need to be near-perfect on the night. The offense needs to score often and early to take some pressure off of LeBlanc and the pitching staff.

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

The initial rosters for the Arizona Fall League were released today. The M’s are still affiliated with the Peoria Javelinas, who’ll be managed by Daren Brown, one-time Rainiers (and M’s interim manager!) and current AA skipper. The pitching coach will be former Mariner Rule 5 pick Kanekoa Texeira. The M’s are sending SP Anthony Misiewicz, RPs David McKay, Matt Walker and Wyatt Mills, OF Ian Miller, IF Chris Mariscal, and 1B Evan White. White’s clearly the big name of the group, and it’ll be great to see how his swing changes look against better pitching. Wyatt Mills has been great since the M’s drafted him, and his funky arm angle and arsenal could see him move quickly, though I think many may see him as a righty specialist. I think he has the potential for more, but his awful first go-round in AA is a concern. The sleeper here is probably McKay, who quietly put up a great year in AA after a late-spring trade from the Royals organization. A good year could’ve seen Miller get a look in Seattle, but it was not a good year, and thus he was skipped over by the likes of John Andreoli and now Andrew Aplin for CF innings in Tacoma and positioning to help the big club. He and Mariscal are probably auditioning for roles in other organizations.


4 Responses to “Game 134, Mariners at Athletics: A Season in the Balance”

  1. marc w on August 30th, 2018 7:29 pm

    They listened! Thank you, offense!

  2. mksh21 on August 30th, 2018 7:29 pm

    The pattern seems to be we are going to score 6 o 7 runs here in the first then not hit rest of game and slowly watch it evaporate..

  3. mrakbaseball on August 30th, 2018 8:11 pm

    The Mariners descent into obvious mediocrity the past several months has made me very apathetic despite the early lead vs the A’s right now. Too little, too late.

  4. LongDistance on August 31st, 2018 3:01 am

    Silver Lining Department: On a brighter note, unless something changes the Mariners will have managed to have created one of the largest fan bases in all of the MLB this year, in the combination of M’s and A’s fans.

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