Game 148, White Sox at Mariners

marc w · September 13, 2019 at 5:15 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Dylan Covey, 7:10pm

The Mariners pitching staff boasts a team ERA of 5.17, with a FIP of 5.04. Those marks are awful, though not the worst in the majors, but due to the magic of park factors, the M’s currently rank dead last in Fangraphs’ team WAR table. Baseball Prospectus would undoubtedly rank them there too, as they’re even harsher on the M’s pitchers than ERA or FIP. The White Sox rank slightly better, but not by a ton. Their ERA is 4.97, and their FIP is 4.94. While their strikeout rate and HR/9 is slightly better than Seattle’s, they give back a lot through poor control – all of those walks make the HRs hurt more.

But what does it matter? Neither team is really trying to contend in 2019 anyway, right? Looking at the Sox today, I’m struck by the view from 2017, when their rebuild hit its peak when they traded for Eloy Jimenez. At the time, I wrote about how striking it was that the M’s seemed to put a lot of value on the second wild card, or the play-in game in general, while the White Sox (who could’ve gone into that year with Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, and Jose Quintana on absurdly cheap contracts) obviously didn’t value contending for it at all. Because they had so much quality talent to sell off, AND because of a strategic decision to focus on the top end of the international market, they amassed a formidable array of prospect talent. They got Yoan Moncada from Boston, Jimenez from the Cubs, and then they signed Luis Robert out of Cuba (Robert’s in contention for MiLB player of the year this year). They got Dylan Cease from the Cubs, they had Carlos Rodon, the third overall pick in 2014 and then Carson Fulmer, the #8 pick in 2015, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez from the Nats, and hard-throwing Dylan Covey out of the A’s organization. They had a huge collection of highly-prized prospects, most of them in the high minors. All they had to do was wait.

And wait. It’s now the tail end of the 2019 season, and nearly all of these acquisitions have arrived (not Robert, but still). Moncada’s breakout this year’s coincided with Lucas Giolito putting it all together after struggling mightily for years. It’s not that there’s no progress, no movement, in this rebuild. It’s just that it hasn’t been close to enough. They enter play today at 55-92 in the worst division in the game, getting to play both Detroit and Kansas City in divisional games. Eloy Jimenez is a league-average hitter, Tim Anderson’s had a big year, and James McCann’s having a great year at C. But the team, overall, is among the worst hitting clubs in the game. The reason is one that should be familiar to M’s fans of the past 10 years: they’re surrounding young, solid performers with a bunch of sub-replacement-level dreck. Jon Jay, Yonder Alonso, and Wellington Castillo are all solidly below replacement level, and some younger fill-ins like Daniel Palka and AJ Reed have fared even worse (in mercifully short stints).

On the pitching side, Giolito’s improvements have been counteracted by injuries and ineffectiveness from Rodon and Fulmer, regression from Lopez, and absolutely no progress whatsoever from Dylan Covey. Dylan Cease has missed bats, but walks and dingers have his ERA over 6.5. The White Sox were once lauded for their pitching coach’s ability to unlock potential from struggling starters, but in the course of this rebuild, they’re becoming known for development stalling out. This is the lesson the M’s need to learn: it’s not enough to amass a ton of great prospects, you have to coach them over that final hill. They’ve shown some signs of improving in that regard, as Justus Sheffield’s looked better recently. But the overall state of the pitching staff shows that it’s not exactly an organizational strength.

Justin Dunn’s..ahhh…lackluster debut was too short to mean much of anything, and he was obviously dealing with some nerves, leaving his front shoulder flying open and eliminating any trace of fastball command. No matter; he’ll be better next time out. But while the minor league system did absolutely exemplary work with Dunn and Logan Gilbert in particular, the M’s cannot afford a White Sox-style stall-out once these guys hit the majors. Giolito lost two years in Chicago after making his debut in Washington due to awful control. Covey’s done the same, and Cease is on track to do it this year. It’s been a huge problem for Fulmer, and, to a lesser degree, Rodon. The M’s are not the White Sox, and are by no means bound to follow in their wild footsteps. But they can’t have that happen. If there’s any good that’s come from Sheffield’s struggles with command early in the year, it’s that the M’s had a test case: can they improve a guy’s command when he’s got the yips? So far so good, I suppose. Now they need to do it with Dunn.

It’s hard to evaluate a start like Dunn’s, but I will say I liked his slider. He threw a couple of great ones, and the horizontal movement was something to see. Of course, he didn’t get as many chases as I would’ve expected, especially on an 0-2 pitch to Eugenio Suarez. It looked, at times, like the Reds saw it coming, although that may just be that they were geared up to take a pitch, given that Dunn threw so many balls. He seemed to throw a hard change at 89-90; there were only 2, and weren’t coded as such by Brooks, but I think they’re change-ups. The problem is that by movement, velo, and spin axis, they’re carbon-copies of his fastball. Felix threw his change at near-FB speeds, but it dove down and under bats. I know it’s Dunn’s third pitch, but I’d like to see more vertical movement separation.

Reader William Lofton mentioned on twitter that Dunn may have been thrown a bit by the 2019 baseball. Many pitchers, he noted, have said it feels slippery. We’ve heard a lot this year about how using the MLB ball in AAA distorted competition in the highest level of the minors, with a massive increase in HRs leading to a huge increase in ERA, with several teams sitting over 6 for an entire year. That in turn has led to more teams saying that they’re skipping AAA when promoting prospects, as they find AAA-in-2019 almost impossible to scout/assess. Dunn is just such a player, who debuted in MLB without ever playing in AAA. While it’s sensible to avoid putting a player in a bad environment, the ball is the same in MLB and AAA. If they’re in MLB, they’re going to have to use it. Wouldn’t you rather they have some familiarity with it in the minors before they’re asked to adjust in front of big crowds in TV cameras? Sheffield’s first starts after his call-up weren’t great, and he’s actually used the MLB ball before, both in AAA and, well, MLB. Dunn hadn’t; I’m not blaming the ball for his 5 walks, but I do wonder if it’s short-sighted to have pitching prospects skip AAA to protect their precious minor league stats.

Dylan Covey’s essentially never done anything of note in the majors, but he pitched in the game at last year’s BP event at Safeco and handcuffed the M’s. I see what the Sox saw when they got him – a big righty with a worm-burning sinker at 95+, and a host of secondaries. Sure, none of these pitches has ever evinced any sign of being a MLB-quality pitch, but damn it, they *look* good. Whatever problem Chicago has in developing pitching, Covey seems to be a perfect example. His second year was worse than his (abbreviated) first year, and this year’s been worse still. It’s the Carson Fulmer story told over many more pages; it’s got to be maddening for the Sox AND for Covey himself.

1: Long, LF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Lewis, RF
6: Narvaez, DH
7: Murphy, C
8: Gordon, 2B
9: Smith, CF
SP: Kikuchi

All hail Kyle Lewis.


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