Game 98, Mariners at Blue Jays

July 24, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

Wade Miley vs. JA Happ, 10:07am

The M’s go for a road sweep of a very good team – a wild card rival – and most M’s fans will be watching something else. Griffey’s induction into the Hall of Fame kicks off a little while after this game starts.

To be honest, while I love the museum aspect of the Hall, I never really understood the intensity of the debates about it. Like any group of humans, I think the BBWAA makes some, uh, questionable decisions from time to time, and it seems self-defeating to let their judgments about, say, Edgar ruin your day. We all know what Edgar did, what he meant, just as we know Juan Gonzalez was in no sense the most valuable player in 1996.

Today, though, I think I understand. We get to celebrate someone who put the M’s on the map, who dominated the game and the culture, and who looked like the most complete CF since Mays. We all get to stop and remember how transcendent he was, and why we couldn’t take our eyes off of him.

And we can check in on this game too, I guess:

1: Aoki, LF
2: Iannetta, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Lee, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Zunino, C
8: Martin, CF
9: SardiƱas, SS

Congratulations, Junior.

Ken Griffey, Jr.

July 24, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 6 Comments 

1: You have to start with the swing. People call it fluid, and while I get that, it doesn’t go far enough. It was elemental, natural; it looked so easy that it couldn’t possibly have been the product of something so human as practice. That’s both unfair to Junior and the highest possible praise. Of course it got trademarked, of course it was copied by every kid I knew, but then, so did Harold Miner’s free-throw routine. But Griffey’s swing wasn’t a novelty any more than gravity is. It was a smooth, steady, perfect arc, no more and no less.

It looked like a refutation of every cliche about how *hard* hitting is. How can THAT be hard? There are many, many reasons why so many of the guardians of the game’s “dignity” seemed put off by Griffey (and we’ll get to more of them), but his swing was exhibit A in the prosecution’s argument that Griffey didn’t try hard enough. Griffey’s swing highlighted that he was in every sense a natural. Edgar Martinez’s swing was the product of a decade of hard work and slow, incremental improvement in everything from weight transfer to eyesight. Griffey’s swing essentially never changed, and as soon as he grew just a tiny bit from the reedy teenager he was in 1989, his in-game power was plus-plus. It was the baseball equivalent of Jordan’s jumpman pose, and every bit as electrifying and inimitable.

2: After his incredible minor league season for San Bernardino in 1988, Griffey fever built throughout the Northwest in the winter-spring of 1988-1989. A dominant spring training made it impossible for the M’s to keep him down, and thus he started the 1989 season as the starting CF – at age 19. It all worked out, but while it wasn’t strictly unprecedented, this focus on a #1 draft pick was rare. If you look over the list of 1-1 draft picks, you know what I mean. There are some good players: Jeff Burroughs won an MVP, Rick Monday was a solid player, Harold Baines, Darryl Strawberry, etc. But remember that the M’s had already had a crack at this – they took another HS OF, Al Chambers, 1-1 in 1979. They’d employed 1976 1-1 guy Floyd Bannister, and had another 1-1 guy in Mike Moore in 1981. While Moore and Bannister were contributors, they weren’t phenoms, and the less said about Chambers’ M’s career the better. The hype surrounding Griffey was both understandable and yet also somewhat risky.

Strawberry’s rise with New York helped a lot, as the young RF won the Rookie of the Year award at 21 in 1983 and became a perennial all star before injuries and drugs took their toll. But the big parallel, at least for those of us growing up in the Northwest, was Jose Canseco. Canseco was already something of a folk legend by the time he made his debut for the Tacoma Tigers in 1985, and Canseco laid waste to the minors that year, becoming a must-see guy at Cheney Stadium. In the process, he helped sweep aside the cynicism that many had about “prospects.” The term “bonus baby” wasn’t a complimentary one, and while the MLB draft had done away with the bonus system, it hadn’t produced superstars. If Strawberry started to change that, Griffey made it something baseball nerds started to focus on. A few years later, Chipper Jones would go 1-1. In 1993, the M’s struck gold again with Alex Rodriguez. The draft was no longer an opportunity to grab a high-floor college 1B at artificially-low prices – this was a chance to transform an organization, and it no longer seemed like a crapshoot.

3: I remember watching Griffey’s first MLB at-bat against Dave Stewart with my parents. I was nervous, standing up, peering in at the old TV tuned to channel 11. I went nuts as he drove the first pitch to CF for a double, and felt lucky to be an M’s fan for the first time in my life.* I also remember his home debut, but for that one, I was in my room, listening to the game on the radio. KSTW broadcast a few dozen games each year, and my recollection is that the M’s home opener wasn’t on the list. Essentially no home games were, due to blackout restrictions and the fact that the M’s only ever sold out Bat Night/Fan Appreciation night. The overwhelming majority of games were radio only, and to really have a sense of baseball’s biggest stars, you had to subscribe to ESPN (my family didn’t), or catch This Week in Baseball on the weekend. As a result, baseball was even more regional than it is now. I’d visit California and talk about Alvin Davis and Mark Langston, and most kids wouldn’t know who I was talking about, or they’d know them from seeing a baseball card or an at-bat in an All Star Game.

As a baseball-obsessed kid, I knew the AL well enough, but the National League was a foreign country. Tim Raines was great, but I couldn’t have imitated his batting stance. I knew Andre Dawson’s face, but not what he was *like* as a player (other than “good”). The lack of interleague play (or M’s world series appearances) was a huge part of that for me, but the biggest one was the paucity of televised baseball games, which is one of those things that make you realize just how different TV, media in general, and thus life in general was not that long ago.

In 1990, baseball first appeared on cable TV, with ESPN signing a $400 million deal to show 6 games a week for 4 years. A separate MLB TV contract went to CBS, who’d show the AS Game, the World Series, and a Game of the Week, also beginning in 1990. The CBS deal went for a whopping $1.8 billion, and baseball’s lucrative marriage to TV was consummated. CBS lost money on their deal, but think about what this meant for ESPN. No national network had ever shown more than a game a week, and now ESPN would show baseball all the time. To sell late night west coast games nationally, they needed stars – they needed people to know WHY they should stay up and watch a game broadcast from the Kingdome in a league or division their local club didn’t play in. In 1990, Ken Griffey Jr. hit .300/.366/.481 at a time when the league slugged .385. He was 20, and always smiling.

4: This Drew Fairservice piece from way back in 2014 gets at Griffey’s international reach – the way Griffey was every kid’s favorite player, no matter which team they cheered for. There were so many ways to demonstrate allegiance. His jersey started popping up everywhere (this would’ve been unthinkable in, say, 1985). He had a video game. Kids everywhere started wearing their hats backwards.

Buck Showalter famously spoke for a generation of baseball lifers when he grumbled, “a guy like Ken Griffey Jr., the game’s boring to him. He comes on the field, and his hat’s on backward, and his shirttail’s hanging out.” That sounds like a bizarre thing to say, but I think Showalter sensed that baseball’s culture and American culture were changing a bit. Baseball’s famously resistant to this, but it happens nonetheless, and with Griffey becoming the face of a game, Showalter and company were doomed.

Let’s be clear: people groused about the hat because it was easier than grousing about race. Griffey became the young, black face of baseball at a time right as hip hop moved from niche to mainstream tidal wave, remaking American culture as it broke. This, his own efforts with Kid Sensation not withstanding, wasn’t Griffey’s doing of course, but yet again I find it really hard to remember what it *felt* like before Griffey’s arrival.

When Junior was drafted, in the summer of 1987, the R&B charts were dominated by the last vestiges of soul, with Jody Watley, Michael Jackson, Cameo and even Aretha Franklin scoring hits. LL Cool J actually charted, but with a treacle ballad, not an actual rap song. In 1988, the stars aligned, and nearly the entire catalog of formative, genre-defining, sine-qua-non albums came out all at once - Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”, NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton”, Eric B and Rakim’s “Follow the Leader.” Hell, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s debut came out then, too, bringing a safe version of the form to millions, and Sir Mix a Lot’s debut album represented the Seattle area’s contribution. That set the stage for 1989, when rap broke through into the mainstream with Tone Loc, De La Soul, and Young MC cracking into the pop charts.

It goes without saying that this trend wasn’t universally welcomed. NWA made rap seem dangerous and violent and Public Enemy was challenging on a number of levels to people who found Michael Jackson’s “Bad” a poor influence on the youth of the country. Griffey was just a bystander, but you know that Buck Showalter’s talking about something more than Griffey’s shirttails when he’s talking about Griffey’s shirttails. Black culture had remade American culture, again, just as ESPN was redefining sports media, and just as Griffey was redefining the M’s. Griffey and the M’s then made the implicit links between the young superstar and hip hop explicit through the most successful stadium experience change since the invention of the night game: walk-up music. Griffey came to the plate to Hip Hop Hooray, as essentially everyone who grew up in the northwest within 10 years of my age knows, and the M’s became the first team to play a specific song for each player in the line-up in 1993.

5: Along with the cable boom and the rise of hip hop, Griffey was also associated with another important economic and cultural trend of the late 1980s: the baseball card boom. As this Economist article details, the slowly simmering auction market began to boil when a monthly price guide hit shelves in the mid-80s. People began buying cards in order to sell them for a profit, and card companies took notice.

Upper Deck entered the market in 1989 and tried to establish themselves as the upscale alternative to industry standards Topps, Donruss and Fleer. With color photos on both sides (unthinkable!) and prices that reflected the fact that cards weren’t purchased solely by ten year olds anymore (there’d be no bubble gum to mar the glossy sheen on Upper Deck cards), the set became an instant hit. And everyone knew the set by its most famous card, the one featuring a player who hadn’t debuted when the set hit the market.

The card combined the price-obsessed mania of the card boom with the game’s most famous prospect. If you’re going to speculate, why not go all-in and speculate on a player who hadn’t debuted? I was 12 and, like pretty much every one of my friends, saved some money and bought Upper Deck #1. I put it into a hard plastic case and kept it in a closet to prevent sunlight from damaging the hologram on it.

Instantly, the card was selling for $20-30, and prices kept going up. A friend at school got one as a gift; someone had paid $50 for it. I winced, shaking my head and wondering how an adult who could raise a child, drive a car and earn money could be so slow, so thoughtless, so idiotic as to move on The Card so late. (But what could you expect from the generation that put 1952 Mantle rookies in the spokes of their bike wheels. The mind reels). An entire swath of preteens, myself among them, were sure that we had solved the growing problem of college affordability by striking early and investing in Griffeys.

A few years later, I visited my Grandfather in Orange County, and we went to visit a cousin of his, who lived a few towns away. I wasn’t thrilled to visit a childless, middle-aged couple, but my grandfather mentioned that they collected cards, too. I remember thinking that they’d probably be the smartest members of our family.

I don’t remember their names, and I don’t remember if they fed us. I just remember the two of them sitting on a couch, ignoring Wheel of Fortune, and making their way through box after box of unopened cards. I forget the set, but they were after an insert card- if you got 10 or whatever of them, you could mail them in and receive some other, presumably rarer, cards. They had dozens of envelopes full, and diligently worked to fill more. That it was joyless was besides the point – there’s money to be made, and even my friends and I treated it like work. What it was was overwhelming. I couldn’t compete with this. I had a Griffey, but these people probably had cases full of alternate Griffeys ordered from Upper Deck’s secret menu. I collected for another year or so, but had largely dropped out by the time the crash came. Too many sets, too much production and irrational exuberance all played a role, but it didn’t help that there wasn’t a repeat of Griffey mania.

6: Dave wrote about Griffey’s odd career path at Fangraphs back in January – that Griffey’s first 10 or so years is what we think about when we think of Griffey, and so it doesn’t really matter that he aged poorly. That’s true, in a way, but then, it’s always tough to measure someone against the inner-circle guys in the hall of fame – those guys are in the inner-circle specifically BECAUSE they aged well and thus accumulated a ton of career value. But Griffey’s interesting in that he was durable enough to become a clear, obvious, easy first-ballot choice after so many great players of the 1980s saw their careers nosedive.

Look at a list of Hall of Famers by position and you see a curious distribution for center fielders. If you played CF in the 1920s, you’re probably in. The Mays/Snider/Mantle grouping of superstar CFs in the 50s/60s is in, of course. And then they just sort of stop. There are a few reasons for this, but it looks pretty clear that the Hall (or rather the writers who select members) has radically changed their standards. Lloyd Waner is in, but not Alan Trammell?

It’s clearly not the only reason, but the horrific aging curves for many 80s players plays a role in the era’s representation. Dale Murphy was a two-time MVP, but after a terrific 6-year peak, he cratered, hanging around for several more years as a below-average player; he’d gone from 7-8 WAR in one season to below-average over night. Eric Davis was, in many ways, a beta version of Griffey – he hit for power, played a great CF, and had 80-grade speed to boot. But even his peak years were marred by injuries, and as they accumulated, his playing time kept dwindling. Tim Raines had a long career and completely deserves to be enshrined in the Hall, but a mid-career swoon from about 28-31 or so held down his counting stats. Edgar Martinez’s career arc looks great, but it started too late, thanks to the M’s org bizarre belief that he wouldn’t hit for enough power to play 3B. Like with Raines, Edgar’s omission is just silly and makes the Hall worse, but it’d be a moot point if he didn’t get his first significant playing time at age 27. Kirby Puckett made it to the Hall, but even his career was curtailed by an eye injury after fewer than 1800 games played, fewer than Edgar managed. Don Mattingly played about the same number of games as Puckett, but knee problems meant his peak was over at 28; he slugged .335 at age 29, and while he’d play a few more years, he’d never be a power hitter again. Darryl Stawberry accumulated 40 bWAR in his first 9 seasons, and then just 2 more in 8 seasons after turning 30. Dwight Gooden had a *12 WAR season* at the age of 20 and then settled into a decade of being merely pretty good as he battled arm issues and addiction.

Compared to Hank Aaron, Griffey’s career arc looks disappointing, but so does everyone else’s. Compared to a wide swath of the game’s biggest stars in the years surrounding his debut, it looks fine. Injuries robbed us of a few more great Griffey years, but I’m just thankful that his full-speed, walls-be-damned style in CF didn’t turn him into a west coast Eric Davis.

7: Griffey took over a team that had never had a winning season. M’s attendance was deservedly last in the AL in 1988, but Griffey’s star power bumped it by nearly 50% by 1990. He was the face of a game that was just learning how to use TV to market itself. His style and charisma lit up America’s most straight-laced sport. No matter what he was feeling inside, he exuded joy on the field; my favorite part of his famous catch in Yankee Stadium in which he robbed Jesse Barfield of a home run, was his sheer, unbridled happiness as he ran back in, past a motionless Barfield. It was as if Griffey realized only when he came down that he was physically ready to do anything – he jumped not sure if his body could actually do what his mind wanted it to, and landed knowing he could do anything.

Griffey was incredible to watch, and it is mind blowing to reflect on just how different the M’s were or baseball was or everything was in the years before he arrived. Griffey made change and growth seem cool. You’re scared about high school? What would Griffey do? Scared to talk to girls? Don’t be so dour; smile and have fun. Your growing awareness of mortality and death makes you sad? Uh…hmmm, that’s gonna..well, here, watch a Griffey dinger!

I feel so fortunate to have watched Ken Griffey Jr. play. I have and will continue to talk to my kids about it, and try to make them understand why he meant a lot to me. Ken Griffey Jr. will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this morning, and while I hope he shakes up the Hall the way he shook up baseball, I just hope I can learn the lesson Griffey’s career seems to teach us. Treasure new and unique talents instead of lamenting that they don’t fit the mold of previous ones.

* Also debuting that day was Omar Vizquel. The trade that brought a lanky left-hander named Randy Johnson came a bit less than two months later, in late May. Across town, the Sonics had an electrifying rookie of their own, a 6’10″ athletic freak seemingly forged from raw highlight film. Kemp would be joined a year later by another top draft pick, Gary Payton. It was an important time in Seattle sports, is what I’m trying to say.

Game 97, Mariners at Blue Jays

July 23, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 16 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. RA Dickey, 10:07am

James Paxton had one of those games that show off his incredible potential and the M’s bullpen made it hold up. Dan Vogelbach homered in his first AB in the M’s system, and doubled in his second. The M’s are in a tough spot in this wildcard race and as an organization in general, but that doesn’t mean everything’s hopeless.

Knuckleball breakfast today. I swear every time I’m hung over the M’s play an east coast early game.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Iannetta, C
9: O’Malley, SS

Game 96, Mariners at Blue Jays

July 22, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

James Paxton vs. Marco Estrada, 4:07pm

After winning a series against the suddenly-open-to-selling White Sox, the M’s head to Toronto to face a team whose wild card chances are a bit better, the 54-42 Jays. If the M’s have a move in them, now’s perhaps their last decent shot.

They’re not quite the offensive juggernaut they were last year, but Toronto still boasts an impressive offense. Josh Donaldson has improbably improved upon his MVP season last year, and while Jose Bautista’s fallen off, his production has been offset by growth from ex-M’s Michael Saunders and Ezequiel Carrera. What’s striking about their offense, though, is just how *similar* it is to the M’s. The M’s slash line of .260/.328/.439 looks an awful lot like the Jays’ .253/.334/.439. The Jays have blasted 137 HR, the M’s, 138. The Jays have stolen 31 bags to Seattle’s 26, ranking 25th and 27th in MLB, respectively. The value that both teams get from their powerful offenses are tempered by struggles in on the base paths. The M’s are 29th in baserunning runs, while the Jays are 24th. The one area where the Jays shine, though, is defense, as their position players have added significant runs above a league average club while the M’s have lost about 30 runs more than average thanks to poor defending.

Pitching for Toronto is unlikely All Star Marco Estrada, the exteme over-the-top, rising fastball maestro who shook off home run trouble in Milwaukee to become a BABIP ace. A right-hander with an 89mph fastball, Estrada seems like an unlikely candidate for stardom, but he’s honed his four-seamer into a bizarre outpitch. Over the pitch fx era, Estrada ranks 5th in vertical four-seam rise at 12″ or so, a bit behind Chris Young. With Toronto, Estrada’s made a couple of very minor moves that seem to have paid off. First, he ditched the sinker he threw occasionally with Milwaukee – while the pitch got more GBs, it wasn’t effective – batters destroyed it, while they were more feast or famine on his four-seam (poor batting average, but a fair number of HRs). Second, he was able to adjust the angle on the four-seam to squeeze out a bit more vertical rise (and a bit less horizontal movement). Focusing just on 2016, Estrada’s now #1 in vertical movement, surpassing Young, Clayton Kershaw and Drew Smyly. He’ll still give up HRs on the pitch, but his BABIP on four-seamers continues to drop, and while batters hit ~ .240-.250 on it in Milwaukee, they’ve hit .195 and .184 in Toronto. Think about that: this is his four-seam fastball, a slower than average, extremely straight offering that he, like basically every other pitcher, throws MORE often with the batter ahead in the count and LESS often when he’s got 2 strikes.

He complements the pitch with a good change-up that’s his strike-out pitch and a cutter and curve he’ll use to change eye level and/or get a ground ball. He’s closing in on 300 IP with the Jays, and he’s been oddly consistent for a guy who struggled in that department before. After a 3.13 ERA last year, he’s at 2.93 this year, good for 7.7 RA9-based WAR. By FIP, his so-so walk rate and continued long ball issues push his value down to 3.6 WAR, but Estrada’s insanely low BABIP doesn’t look like a fluke. Estrada is a challenge to DIPS theory, which, in simple terms, argues that pitchers don’t have much control over balls in play. In over 800 career innings, Estrada’s BABIP is just .253, and it’s been lower still in Toronto. On the plus side for Seattle, Estrada’s just back from a back injury, as he’s being activated from the DL to make this start.

Speaking of BABIP, another hit to DIPS came today, as Jonathan Judge and BaseballProspectus refined their new pitching stat by explicitly INcluding balls in play; they found it actually helped their new version of DRA or deserved run average.*

Today’s line-up:
SP: Paxton

The M’s recalled Luis Sardinas to take Mike Montgomery’s spot on the 25-man roster, but they’ll make another move today, as Ketel Marte’s been placed on the DL with mononucleosis. He’d been sick for a few days, and not responding well…now they know why. Not sure who’ll come up, but Dutton speculates it’ll be David Rollins, a lefty who seems a good fit with the M’s losing a lefty reliever in trade.

Bad news from the minors, as #1 draft pick Kyle Lewis will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL, an injury he suffered Wednesday in a collision at the plate. And in what seems more like acknowleging reality than breaking news, the M’s announced Danny Hultzen’s shoulder hasn’t responded well to rest and that he’s likely looking at other “career opportunities.”

Tacoma lost a late lead, as Blake Parker blew his first save of the season in OKC’s 6-4 win at Cheney. Parker came in with a 4-3 lead, gave up two hits, and then a 3R HR to Okoyea Dickson (he had Dickson 0-2, before Dickson worked the count full and then hit a good curve out). Ah well. Joe Wieland starts tonight against Salt Lake’s Nate Jones.

Tyler Herb’s control wasn’t great, but everything else about his night was OK, as Herb and the Generals blanked Chattanooga 6-0. Herb went 6 IP, and then Forrest Snow worked 2 perfect IP with 3 Ks, and Dan Altavila closed it out with 2 Ks of his own. Kyle Petty tripled. Andrew Moore takes the hill tonight against the Lookouts’ Omar Bencomo.

Osmer Morales had a rare complete game L in Bakersfield’s 3-0 loss to Modesto. The Blaze K’d 11 times against three Nuts pitchers. Increasingly interesting prospect Zack Littell starts for Bakersfield tonight.

Clinton’s 3 errors hurt their cause in a 7-5 loss to Lansing. Luiz Gohara starts for the L-Kings tonight, and tries to sustain the momentum he’s had this season.

Everett lost to Salem-Keizer 12-5, and, perhaps more worryingly, lost starter Ljay Newsome to a leg injury in the 1st. It doesn’t sound serious, but Joselito Cano replaced him in the 2nd, and instantly gave up 5 runs and that was essentially that.

* Interestingly, at least to me, DRA still doesn’t buy Estrada; his DRA looks pretty much like his FIP, not like his ERA.

Mariners Send Mike Montgomery to Cubs for 1B/DH Dan Vogelbach

July 20, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 9 Comments 

With the trade deadline approaching, the M’s made an intriguing trade today, sending left-handed pitcher Mike Montgomery to the Cubs in exchange for 1B/DH Dan Vogelbach. The clubs also exchanged high-minors starting pitching depth, with Jordan Pries moving to the Cubs and Paul Blackburn joining the M’s org. SP depth is nice and all, but the deal really centers on Montgomery and Vogelbach.

Vogelbach was drafted in the 2nd round out of a Florida high school, and the Cubs bought him out of a commitment to LSU. While Vogelbach could hit, the pick was somewhat controversial – at the time, Vogelbach was generously listed at 5’11″ 280 lbs. A HS player who looked like this in his showcase events is not…it’s not what scouts are used to seeing, or what they LIKE to see. Almost immediately, though, Vogelbach started to slim down, and he’s now listed at 6’0″, 250 – he’s not svelte, but that’s playable.

Despite a huge half-season for Boise in the Pioneer league in 2012, many were still unsold on his overall ceiling – 1B prospects need to hit a ton, and it wasn’t clear how he’d do against advanced pitching with power that isn’t off-the-charts good. Indeed, Vogelbach’s numbers slipped a bit in the Midwest League and Florida State Leagues (two of the tougher leagues for hitters in the minors), but he’s made some key adjustments as he’s risen through the system. He’s having his best season since that 2012 rookie-league breakout this year for Iowa in the PCL, and he’s demonstrated that he doesn’t need 35 HR power to be successful. Vogelbach is a much more complete hitter, with a good sense of the strike zone and the ability to drive the ball against righties and lefties – platoon issues dogged him in the low minors, but he’s slugging .506 against them this year in AAA.

That’s all well and good, but he still doesn’t get great reviews on his defense, which has led people to assume he’d get traded to an AL team for years. The M’s don’t have a DH opening at the moment, but they could rotate him in there as soon as next year, and they could platoon him with the similarly proportioned Dae-ho Lee at 1B. There’s a reason 1B prospects don’t have a ton of value, and there are even more reasons why Vogelbach is often underrated even within the ranks of 1B/DHs, but he’s hitting well enough that he might be a good fit for the organization.

It’ll be interesting to see Mike Montgomery’s role in Chicago. For this year, he’ll bail out a scuffling Cubs bullpen, but with several years of club control left, they may try him in the rotation down the line. The Cubs were reportedly in on Drew Pomeranz, who they planned to trade on for a young starter. That deal obviously fell through, but Montgomery could give them a cost-controlled starter, which might be nice as their payroll swells. That said, their rotation’s already pretty full, as Dave Cameron mentioned today. Jason Hammel’s got a club option for 2017, but I don’t really know why the Cubs would decline it the way he’s pitching. Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester aren’t going anywhere, and Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey have been great, too. All four of them are under contract for 2017. Thus, if Monty pitches well down the stretch, they could trade him again in the offseason if someone wants to make him a starter.

Losing a cheap, cost-controlled player like Montgomery hurts, especially for an old team like Seattle. But there’s something to be said for selling high on relievers in July, when prices are high. Vogelbach is a pretty good get, and while he’s got the ceiling of a 5th starter, Paul Blackburn’s would seem to have more of a future than Jordan Pries. Dipoto’s done pretty well here, as he’s shored up a weakness in the M’s system while leaving the bullpen mostly whole (especially if Charlie Furbush can make it back soon). It’s not a *big* move – I don’t want to oversell it – but it seems fair for both sides, and it opens up a huge opportunity for Vogelbach, who was blocked by Anthony Rizzo and National League rules before. Welcome to the M’s, Dan. Keep hitting, please.

Game 95, White Sox at Mariners

July 20, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 9 Comments 

King Felix vs. Miguel Gonzalez, 12:40pm

Happy Felix Day! It’s been a while, and it’s been a brutal interregnum for the M’s. On the day Felix last pitched, the M’s were in first place in the division by 1.5 games, and their playoff odds stood at about 74%. Since then, the M’s have gone 19-28 and their playoff odds have dwindled to just under 15%. We’ve missed you, Felix.

Of course, the reasons for the M’s swoon go beyond Felix, and his return won’t automatically make the club a contender again. But it helps, and it’s an important left for a club that sorely needs one. Felix looked great in Tacoma the other day, so he shouldn’t be *too* rusty.

Miguel Gonzalez, the long time Baltimore Oriole who signed with Chicago this year after being released by the O’s in spring training, starts for the White Sox. As you may remember, he’s a righty with underwhelming stuff who’s tended to beat his mediocre FIP through lower BABIPs and a flurry of fly balls and pop-ups. Unsurprisingly, he’s had home run issues in the past, but they weren’t enough to derail him. Moving to a very homer-friendly park seems to have caused a change in his repertoire. He’s using less of his high-rising four-seam fastball and using a cutter much more often. He had the cutter before, but threw only a handful of them with Baltimore. This year, he’s throwing it about 20% of the time. His splitter is a decent swing-and-miss pitch, though it gets less whiffs than the average split. This new pitch mix gives him options to throw lefties and righties alike, and fewer four-seamers has meant fewer fly balls and fewer home runs. Unfortunately, the change in approach may be contributing to the fact that he’s no longer a FIP-beating BABIP wizard. His ERA’s now well above his (better than career average) FIP, and with his walk rate at a career high 8.7%, there are some worrying signs for the 32 year old. Still, Gonzalez has underwhelmed his way to 1.2 fWAR or 0.9 RA9-WAR thus far, and that’s not too bad for a guy whom the O’s found on the scrap heap this April.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: O’Malley, SS
SP: El Cartelua

Lots of changes. In addition to Felix, Norichika Aoki and Mike Zunino are back, with David Rollins, Daniel Robertson and Jesus Sucre optioned to make room.

Game 94, White Sox at Mariners

July 19, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 10 Comments 

Wade Miley vs. Jose Quintana, 7:10pm

Last night’s game may or may not have implications for the playoff race, but after one of the most unlikely comebacks the M’s have had in years, the explosion of joy and bewilderment showed that not everything needs some larger context. We’re M’s fans, so we know this well: we watch Felix, and as much as it’d be nice to watch him in a World Series, we can still take some pleasure in watching him carve up some random line-up in a meaningless-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things August game. Adam Lind has been pretty darn awful this year, but I will remember that home run, and the jump shot of his batting helmet, for many, many years.

Today the M’s get the White Sox *other* ace, lefty Jose Quintana. After signing with Chicago as a minor league free agent after being released by the Yankees, Quintana found his way to the big leagues and turned in a respectable but still marginal year in 2012. He didn’t miss bats, and his control was only so so, he wasn’t a ground ball guy… he didn’t allow many runs, but the whole thing looked very Blake Beavany. But whereas Beavan couldn’t adjust, Quintana grew in his role, honing his curve into a real weapon, and slowly but steadily gaining some fastball velocity. In 2014-15, Quintana accumulated about 10 fWAR, and he’s pitched at least 200 IP in his last 3 seasons. His raw stuff isn’t anything like Chris Sale’s, and he’s never going to be dominant in a Kershaw/Arrieta sense, but Quintana’s been incredibly valuable to the Sox, and he’s in the midst of another fine season.

While his curve is his out-pitch, and his one real swing-and-miss offering, he’s surprisingly effective with his 92-93mph fastball. Quintana’s command is such that his four-seamer ties batters in knots – batters are slugging .406 off of it lifetime, and just .352 this year, which is remarkable given that he throws it more often when behind in the count. He’s got a traditional 3/4 motion, and he’s got correspondingly traditional platoon splits, hence the repeat of this righty-heavy line-up.

After Mike Montgomery’s spotty but solid game, with Felix returning tomorrow, and with the M’s looking at some off-days soon, Wade Miley may be pitching for his spot in the rotation according to the TNT’s Bob Dutton. Wade LeBlanc had another quality start last night, so the pressure’s on Miley tonight.

1: O’Malley, SS
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lee, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Martin, CF
9: Robertson, LF
SP: Miley

The big story out of the minors today is that the M’s #1 draft pick Kyle Lewis came out of today’s game after injuring his knee in a collision at home plate. It happened in the 7th inning of today’s game against Tri City in Everett, and Jose Leal replaced Lewis in the OF for the 8th. No word yet on its severity.

Jordan Pries starts today for Tacoma against an old teammate, OKC’s Logan Bawcom. Bawcom came to the M’s org in the trade that sent Brandon League to Los Angeles. Bawcom pitched in the M’s org for a few years, but got DFA’d when the M’s signed Justin Ruggiano in 2014. He re-signed with Seattle last year, but joined the Dodgers org as a minor league free agent this year. Tacoma beat OKC 5-4 in 12 innings last night, walking off the Dodgers on a DJ Peterson single. The R’s fell behind 4-3 in the top of the inning, but scored 2 in their half of the frame to win again – they’re now 54-40.

Sean Newcomb shut down the Jackson Generals in a 5-0 win for Mississippi. Last year’s #1 overall pick Dansby Swanson homered off of Ryan Yarbrough.

Speaking of shutouts, Visalia blanked Bakersfield 2-0. Both Bakersfield and Jackson are off today.

Game 93, White Sox at Mariners

July 18, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 17 Comments 

Wade Le Blanc vs. Chris Sale, 7:10pm

If you looked at nothing but each starting pitcher’s preseason projections, this would look like a complete mismatch, as Chris Sale’s projections reflected the fact that Sale’s a legitimate ace, while Wade Le Blanc’s were probably something like “Korean league, maybe?” Thankfully, that’s NOT all we have to go on. The M’s are playing at home, the Sox’s line-up has been poor recently, and even Sale’s coming off a streak of surprising vulnerability. In his last outing, Sale gave up 3 HRs to the notoriously powerless Braves, capping off a streak of 3 starts and 20 IP which has seen the gaunt lefty yield 6 dingers and 15 runs. After opening the year with quality starts in 8 of his first 9 games, he’s just 3 for his last 6.

He’s still *Chris Sale* so this is a tall order for the M’s line-up, but it must be said that the early returns for Chris Sale, pitch to contact guy, are not great. His FIP’s exactly one full run higher than it was last year, and while he IS working slightly deeper into games than he did last year, we can’t definitively say it’s due to his new approach. All we can say is that he’s gotten worse in every measure of bat-missing. Fewer Ks, higher contact rate, etc. Last season, he combined an amazing K rate with low HRs, but suffered a bit from BABIP bad luck, the product of an abysmal Chicago defense. The White Sox defense is a lot better now, and Sale’s BABIP has swung all the way around to “lucky” but the combination of lower strikeouts and HR problems is a bit concerning for fans of the club.

Chicago raced out to an early lead in the AL Central, holding it through April and most of May. Even into June, before the Indians woke up and starting playing up to their potential, the White Sox were clearly in the thick of the wild card race. A poor finish to May continued into June, and by the time the calendars hit July, both the M’s and Sox’s playoff odds were on fumes. At this point, the Sox have less than a 5% chance, according to Fangraphs odds, with the M’s a bit better at 12%. Beating up on the Sox won’t do too much for the M’s, but if they *are* to get back in the race, they need to start picking off some of the competition. The White Sox are the most elderly wildebeest, the gimpiest gazelle in the herd, with the possible exception of the Yankees, who may soon sell off their vaunted bullpen. Getting some separation from the not-really-up-to-it fringe of the wild card race may not do anything, but it’d certainly feel nice. Even with two wild cards, enjoying a season like this means defining joy down to attainable, low-calorie, bite-size pieces.

That said, the M’s will need to do more than beat up on the non-Sale members of the White Sox rotation if they’re going to erase the stench of yesterday’s game. Equal parts frustrating, dull, and sloppy, it had the feeling of a total mismatch, even though the M’s kept threatening to score on a faltering Collin McHugh early. They didn’t, and then they played like it wouldn’t have mattered if they HAD scored early. Let’s just move on from that, shall we? Today, Wade LeBlanc gets to face a line-up stacked with right-handed hitters. After leadoff man Adam Eaton, it’s righties all the way to CF JB Shuck. As a change-up heavy lefty, LeBlanc’s got strong reverse splits, so this helps the M’s.

1: Robertson, LF
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lee, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Martin, CF
9: O’Malley, SS
SP: LeBlanc

Lots of righties for the M’s against Sale, who’s good against RHBs, but downright unfair against lefties.

The M’s minor league affiliates feature Zach Lee starting for Tacoma against his old club, the OKC Dodgers. The Dodgers start sinkerballer Todd Oaks; gametime’s 7:05 in Tacoma. The big prospect of the day isn’t an M’s farmhand, but Mississippi Braves SP Sean Newcomb, the primary return in the Andrelton Simmons trade this off-season. He’ll go up against Sam Gaviglio and the Jackson Generals tonight. Dominican righty Pedro Vasquez just moved up from the complex league to Clinton, and he pitched well in today’s early game. Jake Brentz and Eddie Campbell round out the day’s probables for Everett and Bakersfield, respectively.

Last night’s performance of the day belonged to Everett starter Reggie McClain, who faced 13 Hillsboro Hops in 4 IP and struck out *10* of them. That pushed his season K:BB up to 25:0. Speaking of gaudy K:BB ratios, ex-WSU couger Joe Pistorese’s pitching with Clinton after a long suspension, and he’s maintaining the excellent control that he displayed for Everett last year. He got the win in yesterday’s game, and he’s now got 15 strikeouts to 1 walk in 12 1/3 IP for the Lumberkings. Tacoma completed a four-game sweep of Colorado Springs, as DJ Peterson homered once and Patrick Kivlehan homered twice. Joe Wieland had a quality start and Blake Parker earned his 15th save. He’s now got 46 Ks to 7 walks in 33 1/3 excellent innings, and has been, if anything, even better than erstwhile closer Casey Coleman, who caught on with the Durham Bulls.

Game 92, Astros at Mariners

July 17, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 21 Comments 

Mike Montgomery vs. Collin McHugh, 1:10pm

After a great spot start in Kansas City, Mike Montgomery’s earned the start today against Houston. Montgomery’s become a key member of the M’s pitching staff this year despite nearly getting waived in the spring. Two developments have helped him go from marginal big leaguer to shut-down reliever: increased velocity and trust in his suddenly dominant curveball. Some of the velo bump’s the result of his role change, but not all of it – instead of a 1-2 mph increase, Montgomery gained 4-5 and he’s sat at 95 with his four-seam fastball the whole year. Even better, he maintained nearly all of that velocity in his last start in Kansas City. He averaged 94 and touched 96 on July 10th, *averaging* more than his top fastball in 2015.

But velocity, as helpful as it is, can’t fully explain Montgomery’s results – just ask James Paxton. Last year, Montgomery’s change helped him keep righties off balance, but lefties ate him alive. His curveball was a good third pitch, but his cutter wasn’t working. This year, his slightly reworked curve is now his second pitch, with the changeup a third offering to righties. With Montgomery’s improved arm speed, the curve’s spinning more and thus has more movement. While his curve was already a solid ground ball pitch, the new and improved hook now generates a ton of whiffs to go with those grounders. In the game in Kansas City, it had 2400-2500 RPMs, above the league average, and it’s now a true weapon against lefties and righties alike. Lefties are slugging .231 against Montgomery this year (they slugged .461 in 2015), and righties aren’t faring much better (.319).

Collin McHugh knows all about spin rates – his high spin curve was one of the reasons the Astros plucked him off the waiver wire a few years ago. While Montgomery’s curve is more 12-6 (or 11-5), and features more vertical drop, McHugh’s hook has a lot more horizontal movement. In his first season with the Astros, it was easily his best pitch, and it helped McHugh post gaudy strikeout totals and get a ground ball if he needed one. But over time, hitters seem to be adjusting. His ground ball rate on his curve’s dropped each year since, and thus batters are doing more damage when they make contact with it. It’s still a good pitch, to be clear, but after giving up just 4 extra base hits on his 577 curves in 2014 (0.69%), he’s given up 13 in 501 (2.59%) this year. That’s a big reason why McHugh’s HR/9 has moved up from 0.76 in 2014 to 0.84 last year and 1.15 this season.

It seems clear that McHugh isn’t the potential #2 he looked like in 2014, but he’s been hit harder than his FIP might indicate. A .346 BABIP screams bad luck, especially when its paired with one of the league’s lowest average exit velocities. But part of it may be some increasing problems against left-handed hitters, something that never bothered him in the past few seasons. Again, it’s possible this is dumb luck, but I’d bet the Astros’ coaches and their analytics team is exploring other possibilities. McHugh’s been tough on the M’s, so maybe it won’t matter.

1: Smith, LF
2: Martin, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lee, 1B
7: Lind, DH
8: Sucre, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: Montgomery

Lee’s solid against righties and lefties alike, so I understand the temptation to get both Lee and Lind in the line-up, but that forces Nelson Cruz – gimpy foot and all – into RF, and that seems sub-optimal. They’ve been doing this a lot, and maybe they figure it’s the only way to get him out of his slump, but sticking Cruz in right so you can DH a guy with a .258 OBP….hmmmm.

After a night off, both Ketel Marte and Nelson Cruz are back in the line-up. After his second slide-related injury (Marte sprained his ankle on Friday), the M’s are going to do some remedial sliding instruction for their young shortstop.

DJ Peterson hit his 4th HR for Tacoma as the R’s beat Colorado Springs 7-2 last night. Jarrett Grube was solid for 5, and the bullpen – now featuring newcomers Kevin Munson and Guido Knudson – blanked the SkySox the rest of the way. Joe Weiland starts for Tacoma today.

Mississippi edged Jackson 5-4, as the Generals gave up a couple of unearned run and paid the price for it. Forrest Snow K’d 4 in 2 IP of relief. Andrew Moore takes the mound for the Generals today.

Bakersfield blanked Visalia 4-0 as Zack Littell continues to impress in the Cal League. The 20 year old right-hander struck out 7 in 6 shutout IP, and has given up just 3 runs total and 2 walks in 18 innings with the Blaze. SS Drew Jackson continues to rake in recent weeks; a few days after a walk-off grand slam, Jackson had 3 hits last night. Tyler Pike starts today’s game against the Rawhide and German righty Markus Solbach.

Clinton beat West Michigan 4-3 in 11. Dalton Kelly’s 3R-HR was the big blow, but Rayder Ascanio’s walked it off with a single in the 11th. Joey Strain starts for the Lumberkings today in what’s looking like a bullpen day.

Ljay Newsome was solid for 5+ for Everett, but it wasn’t enough, as Hillsboro scored 2 late runs to win it 3-2. Newsome now has 28 Ks to just 5 walks in his 29 innings for the AquaSox. Reggie McClain starts for Everett. The great control he showed at Missouri’s been evident in the NWL; he’s K’d 15 and has yet to walk anyone as a pro.

Brayan Hernandez, the heralded Dominican OF that was tearing up the DSL has been promoted to the M’s rookie league team in the Arizona League. He had a single in 5 at-bats for Peoria in his debut yesterady.

Game 91, Astros at Mariners

July 16, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 12 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Lance McCullers, 1:10pm

After losing to Doug Fister and the Astros last night, it’s not going to get any easier today, as the M’s face hard throwing Lance McCullers. The young righty uses a hard, sinking four seam fastball averaging 95 mph around 40% of the time, but his primary pitch is an extremely hard curveball that gets some serious movement and is thrown at 85. He throws that hook almost half the time, mixing in a rare change and cutter.

Coming up through the minors, McCullers struggled with walks, a problem he seemed to largely correct last year. This year, though, the problem’s back; his walk rate’s over 13%. It hasn’t mattered, somehow. McCullers’ ground ball rate and hard breaking curve have helped him limit HRs, and they’re also pushing his K rate up near 29-30%.

1: Robertson, LF
2: Martin, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Lee, 1B
6: Lind, DH
7: Gutierrez, RF
8: Sucre, C
9: O’Malley, SS
SP: Iwakuma

That line-up is…something.

Chris Taylor had a career day for the Dodgers last night, finishing a single short of the cycle and launching a long grand slam for his first HR. The HR in particular looked like a swing he just wasn’t capable of when he was here. I still wonder what the M’s tried to do with Taylor, especially in 2015, where the M’s seemed to focus on hitting to the opposite field and working counts.

The biggest story of the night came in Tacoma, where Felix Hernandez tossed 5 2/3 brilliant innings against Colorado Springs. Felix gave up 1 run on a solo HR, and he struck out 7 while walking only 1. DJ Peterson had 2 hits, and Tyler Smith homered. Jarrett Grube starts for the R’s tonight.

Luiz Gohara struck out 9 in 6 solid innings for Clinton, giving up 2 R in the L-Kings 4-2 win. Perhaps no prospect in the M’s system has seen his results improve as much as Gohara – not DJ, not Alex Jackson, not Tyler Herb. Great to see the Brazilian go from talented enigma to low-minors force.

Speaking of Herb, he’s in AA now, and he’s starting for Jackson today.

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