Game 99, Mariners at Athletics

July 17, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Erik Swanson/Tommy Milone vs. Homer Bailey, 12:00pm

Last year around the break, the surging A’s swapped prospects to bolster their jury-rigged rotation by acquiring Mike Fiers from Detroit. Fiers was on a one year deal with the Tigers, paying him $6 million for his age-33 season. After he became a free agent this off-season, the A’s re-signed him to a two-year deal paying around $15 million. The A’s needed some stability, but they didn’t go out and get a big name or pay big dollars in free agency.

Last week, the A’s again found themselves in the playoff hunt despite a rotation with a big hole to fill following Frankie Montas PED suspension and the delayed arrival of AJ Puk and Jesus Luzardo. Fiers has been his dependable self, and Brett Anderson is somehow 2nd on the team in IP despite posting the lowest K/9 of any starter in the game…one spot ahead of Fiers. So, the A’s again went to the bargain bin, picking up the Royals Homer Bailey, who was basically free to the Royals, as the Dodgers are paying his lofty salary. Bailey was once one of the brightest stars in the prospect universe, a heralded high school arm who tantalized with his potential, but took a very long time to get comfortable at the big league level. He first did so around 2010, but it was his 2012-2014 heyday that led the Reds to give him a 6-year, $105 million deal. Almost immediately, Bailey’s health faltered, and he was hurt or abysmal or both for the Reds from 2015 to 2018. That final year was his nadir, a 1-14 campaign with a 6.09 ERA, a FIP over 5.5, and a DRA well over 7. He was projected for a sub-replacement level season by PECOTA, but he’s rebounded with his best K rate in years, and he’s avoided HRs better than he did last year, which is saying something with the new nearly-drag-free baseball. It was a very Fiers-y acquisition, and it cost the A’s a AA shortstop who’d been scuffling at the plate. This is not the A’s ace, and it’s not the kind of pick-up that’s done with an eye to a short postseason series. It’s just a modest upgrade at low to essentially no cost. The key is: can the A’s maintain whatever mechanical tweaks or pitch mix changes the Royals made to unlock any remaining ability in Bailey?

Erik Swanson returns today to be the opener for Tommy Milone. Swanson seemed like a good bet to be the 4th or 5th starter at this point, but a disastrous May and then some injury issues mean that he hasn’t been able to make the leap to dependable MLB pitcher yet. He’ll get another shot in this lost season, but it’s imperative that the M’s help him unlock his potential, kind of the way the Royals did with Bailey at a very different point in his career. The pieces are there, he’s just got to reconfigure them a bit. Milone pitched a bit in the Angels no-hit win the other day, so even though pitching with an opener has been standard practice with him, it’s an even better idea today. I’m somewhat surprised that the A’s didn’t ask about him, as he came up with the A’s initially and fits a certain pitching archetype that the A’s seem drawn to. Hell, it could happen later on this month, especially if Milone keeps up his remarkable results.

1: Smith, CF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Santana, RF
4: Narvaez, DH
5: Beckham, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Murphy, C
8: Moore, LF
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Swanson/Milone

Marco Gonzales was really, really pissed off at HP umpire Brian O’Nora’s ball 4 call in the 5th inning last night. He’s got a case, of course: the pitch looked to be a strike, and O’Nora had his bell rung after being hit on Domingo Santana’s follow-through. He’d end up relinquishing home plate duties later in the game. Marco was getting roasted a bit for this on talk radio this morning, but it seems like it’s part and parcel of his nature as an extremely competitive guy. The problem is that he seemed to let it affect him. There’s no real way to know what would’ve happened if O’Nora had made the correct call, but essentially every path would still lead to an M’s loss.

AJ Puk was sharp in his 2-IP start for Midland, helping the Rockhounds blank Arkansas, 2-0. Kyle Lewis doubled. Andrew Moore shook off being outrighted and tossed 6 great IP as the Rainiers shut out Las Vegas by the same 2-0 score. Moore was matched frame for frame by ex-M’s farmhand Paul Blackburn who went 7 scoreless, but the R’s got 2 runs off of rehabbing Oakland SP Jharel Cotton in the 8th. The story of the day in the minors is the first AA start for Logan Gilbert. He’ll lead Arkansas against Midland this evening, while Sean Nolin looks to continue his remarkable run in the PCL after coming over from Independent ball.

Game 98, Mariners at Athletics – East Bay Voodoo

July 16, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Marco Gonzales vs. Daniel Mengden, 7:05 pm

The M’s are in Oakland, wrapping up a brief road trip with a quick 2-game set against the A’s. Oakland’s up to 12 games over .500 after a somewhat slow start, and yet again, they’re doing it despite throwing out a patchwork rotation that, on paper, looks terrible. Last year, the A’s had one of the lowest K rates in baseball at 7.6/9 IP, or 20.3%. They got by thanks to a very low BABIP and low-ish HRs-allowed. A good defense helped with the former, and the subdued baseball plus a spacious home park helped with the latter. The A’s staff wasn’t exactly great, as injuries forced them to turn to cheap vets like Trever Cahill and Brett Anderson, and when their top prospects went down, they filled in with lower-tier org hands like Chris Bassitt and today’s starter, Daniel Mengden.

This year, injuries and attrition have again played havoc with the A’s: none of the pitchers who finished in the top 5 in innings pitched for the A’s are in the top 5 this year. Sean Manaea’s down, Jesus Luzardo is still stuck in the minors dealing with nagging injuries, and Trevor Cahill and Edwin Jackson – somehow two critical starters down the stretch in 2018 – are fighting for their big league careers. The A’s K/9 is 7.75/9, the lowest figure in the game. By K%, it’s 20.4%, merely 27th in MLB. Like the M’s, they are trying to get by with a staff that doesn’t miss bats. Like the M’s, they’re dealing with some injuries. Like the M’s, they play in a run-suppressing home park. The M’s have yielded 578 runs this year, while the A’s have given up just 405. The M’s give up 6 per game, while the A’s give up 4.26. Everything looks similar until you look at the high-level results, and suddenly they couldn’t be more different.

The A’s gave up fewer runs last year as well, despite the M’s higher K numbers, superior FIP, etc. The key has been BABIP, as Oakland’s foul ground and increasingly fly-ball oriented staff have played to their team’s strengths. This year, Oakland’s GB% is one of the lowest in the game, and they are #1 in infield fly balls (thanks again to their park dimensions, one would suspect). But more than that, the A’s have actually *cut* their home run rate this year despite the baseball’s changes. The M’s have been sunk by HRs, or the combination between a mediocre BABIP and HRs leading to a lot of runs scoring quickly. The A’s have been able to pitch around walks and a lack of bat-missing stuff to post a team ERA under 4. Defense is a big part of that, but I sense tricky Athletics devil magic here. I get that the left side of their IF is perhaps the best in the game defensively, but I need to understand why the A’s can avoid HRs in the year of the HR. They were better than average last year, but nothing special. Since the start of 2018, the M’s have struck out more batters, but the A’s have given up 68 fewer HRs and over *200* fewer runs, and this despite a pitching staff that projected to be noticeably worse than Seattle’s in both years. I don’t know if you find this frustrating, but I find this frustrating. If you think it’s dumb luck, then it’s merely annoying, but if you think there’s something the A’s are actively DOING to cause this, then it’s worse. I’m trying to be more positive these days, but friends, I fear they’re actually doing something.

Daniel Mengden is org depth who has found himself logging serious innings for a contending A’s team these past few years. He’s got a couple of fastballs at 92 and a big looping curve in the low 70s, but he doesn’t miss a ton of bats but is fairly reliable and a decent fifth starter. He gets around his lack of scout-tantalizing stuff by mixing his pitches: he throws six separate pitches at least 10% of the time: a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a cutter, a slider, a change-up, and that big curve. He’s struggled against lefties this year, but his splits are normal over his brief career. He’s not must-see TV or a breakout candidate, but there’s an awful lot of value – as the A’s are seeing – in a guy like this who can be pressed into duty and keep his team in the game.

Marco Gonzales had something of a breakout last year, but is fundamentally more Mengden-like than we’d like to admit. There’s not too much bat-missing going on, but Marco limits walks a bit better. In his career, Marco’s given up 4.79 runs per 9, while Mengden’s at 4.95, propped up by a brutal first call-up. Marco’s the better pitcher, but one of these guys is a classic #5 who started the year in the minors and one is the centerpiece of his team’s pitching staff, and a guy the team was absurdly high on. Of course, Marco’s coming off a great run of starts since the calendar turned to June, so he could put some further distance between himself and Mengden, the poor man’s Marco, by utilizing Oakland’s run-suppressing park to his own needs tonight. Watching JP Crawford develop is still the best reason to tune in to these M’s games, but a close second may be watching Marco Gonzales re-adjust to a league that looked to have booked him a bit earlier this year. His velo’s trending up, though it’s still lower than I’d like it and lower than last year, but he’s demonstrating some HR-avoidance of his own.

1: Smtih, CF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Santana, RF
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: Narvaez, C
6: Seager, 3B
7: Nola, 1B
8: Negron, LF
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Gonzales

The M’s have made a number of moves in recent days. The big news for followers of the minor leagues is that the high-performing trio of SP Ljay Newsome, C Cal Raleigh, and SP Logan Gilbert have all earned promotions out of high-A and up to AA Arkansas. Arkansas is now loaded for bear, with Kyle Lewis, Evan White, Raleigh, Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Logan Gilbert and Newsome all on the roster with the club’s best bullpen arms as well.

The M’s have DFA’d LF Mac Williamson and brought back UTIL Kris Negron, who’s been a consistent performer for Tacoma. The M’s outrighted Andrew Moore back to Tacoma as well, so they may be preparing for further moves; they still have an open spot on their 40-man roster. Also returning is RP Sam Tuivailala, who the team acquired last year, but who quickly went down with a torn achilles.

With Parker Markel and David McKay optioned back to Tacoma, the M’s had one more spot on their active roster, and they’ve brought back SP Erik Swanson. Swanson had some injury issues in Tacoma and wasn’t terribly consisent, so I’m not sure if they’ll use him as a long man out of the bullpen, pair him with either Tommy Milone, who was inexplicably used for a bit in the Angels’ 13-0 no-hit win the other day, or Yusei Kikuchi, who’s innings are being managed by the org. As I wrote recently, the M’s pitching woes have extended to their near-majors prospects in Sheffield and Swanson, and while Sheffield’s working things out in AA, Swanson may need to do so in the bigs.

Austin Shenton homered in his first Sally League game as West Virginia shut out Columbia 5-0. Clay Chandler twirled 7 great IP. Spokane beat Everett 5-4, just as Las Vegas beat Tacoma 5-4 and even the AZL White Sox beat the AZL M’s 5-4. Inland Empire beat Modesto 10-6 in 15 innings, which doesn’t feel any better. Penn Murfee’s having a great under the radar season, popping up in multi-inning relief stints in Tacoma and Arkansas and settling in as a swing man and starter for Modesto. He tossed 6 IP in last night’s game, with just 2 unearned runs against. His ERA’s under 2 for the Nuts, and overall, he’s struck out 100 in 79 2/3 IP. Not bad for the 33rd rounder out of Santa Clara. \

Arkansas is back in action tonight facing the A’s top pitching prospect, AJ Puk, who’s back from TJ surgery. He’ll probably only pitch 2 IP. Tacoma blanked Las Vegas today 2-0.

Game 96, Mariners at Angels

July 13, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Wade LeBlanc vs. Matt Harvey, 6:07pm

There’s not much to say after a game as emotional as last night’s was for the Angels. On the day Tyler Skaggs’ mom threw out the first pitch, and every Angles player wore Skaggs’ #45 jerseys, the Angels no-hit the M’s. I believe that’s the first combined no-hitter featuring an opener, and it reminded me a bit of an inverted form of the Angels FIRST combined no-hitter, when Mark Langston and Mike Witt beat the M’s in April of 1990.

Felix Pena’s long-standing issues with lefties didn’t materialize, largely because the M’s lefties are slumping right now. Matt Harvey has similar issues, and his breaking stuff is awful right now, but it remains to be seen if any of that matters. Wade LeBlanc will go sans opener today, so we’ll see if he’s any better than Mike Leake’s ill-timed disaster start yesterday.

Ill-timed in the sense that the market’s heating up ahead of the trade deadline. Baltimore flipped SP Andrew Cashner to Boston today, and the Rangers picked up a good 2B prospect from Tampa in exchange for a near-ready relief arm, which seems wise, as their pen blew a lead in a loss to the Orioles this morning. Nick Solak, the 2B with a very good hit tool, was apparently offered to Seattle in exchange for Edwin Encarnacion, but the deal foundered when the M’s wouldn’t eat more of his contract, according to Yahoo’s RJ Anderson in a tweet that looks pretty bad for *both* parties.

1: Smith, CF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Santana, RF
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: Narvaez, C
6: Seager, 3B
7: Beckham, 1B
8: Moore, LF
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: LeBlanc

Game 95, Mariners at Angels

July 12, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Mike Leake vs. Taylor Cole/Felix Pena, 7:07pm

The M’s open the second half against an Angels club stuck in the doldrums of mediocrity despite the presence of the game’s most transcendent talent. And that should probably be talents, plural, given the way Shohei Ohtani is going about his TJ surgery rehab by beating up on AL pitching. Ohtani’s now 585 PAs into his MLB career, roughly one full season. His slash line in that time is .292/.358/.567. While healthy, he was pushing 11 K/9 as a starter. And in that time, a time in which Mike Trout was worth nearly 16 fWAR and 14 bWARP, the Angels are now a cumulative 3 games below .500.

Baseball is fascinating that way. The A’s have certainly benefitted from the simultaneous emergence of Matts Olson and Chapman, but they’ve somehow figured out a way to get to an astonishing 41 games over .500 since the beginning of April without any consistent pitching (or pitchers). The Angels are a team built on superstars, with the team just needing to assemble some decency around them. The A’s are nothing but decent, somewhat fungible players (the star power they did have has mostly succumbed to pitching injury)…and it’s worked. That’s both unkind to Chapman and Olson AND reductive (you’re welcome, readers!), but it highlights that despite being drafted around the similar spot as Trout, Chapman never broke into the national conversation. He never seriously challenged for the team’s top prospect role,* and Olson was considerably behind *that*. Everyone on the A’s has seemingly overachieved. The Angels continue to get more than anyone believed possible from both Trout and Ohtani, and it’s not been anywhere close to enough.

A similar thing happens on the micro level with pitchers. There are plenty of ways to approach pitching, and many different archetypes. You’ve got the big flamethrowing strikeout artists, but below that, the mere mortals have to figure out how to navigate amazingly tough MLB line-ups while throwing drag-less, seemingly rubber baseballs. There are some pretty clear guidelines about how pitches move and the impacts of release points on them – things that edge closer to physics and aerodynamics. But then there’s everything from deception to pitch mix to tunneling. The raw movement numbers can highlight what a pitcher might do well, but they don’t (on their own) describe how hard it is to hit the pitch.

Let’s use a couple of timely examples. Today’s opener for the Angels, Taylor Cole, throws a remarkably standard four-seam fastball. He throws it from a standard height, and while it’s got a touch more armside run than average, it’s essentially at average rise. He’s also got a change and slider. Looking just at the movement on his fastball (his most frequent pitch), you’d probably guess he’d be neutral-to-more-fly-ball oriented. This would be wrong. Batters indeed hit that fastball in the air, but for whatever reason, they’re putting his secondaries in play *more*. And those pitches get hit on the ground, which means the guy with a fly-ball fastball has 50% GB rates. That’s cool and all, but it’s not quite helping him to actually succeed. He’s not stranding runners, and he’s walking too many, and the M’s should try to get to him, but it’s an odd but potentially interesting approach Cole’s taking. I could see him trading strikeouts for more contact if batters suddenly start hitting his FB for HRs, which hasn’t happened yet this year.

The Angels primary pitcher, Felix Pena, has more of a rising FB, but struggled with both control and HRs as a flyballing member of the Cubs bullpen. Upon his arrival, the Angels got him to throw a sinker, and that’s been his primary fastball in SoCal. It’s got very different movement from his four-seamer, which he’ll mix in occasionally. He also has a good slider and a so-so change. He has all the makings of a decent starter, and he’s been OK with the Angels – racking up solid strikeout numbers in last year’s 1.4 fWAR campaign. But that sinker never materially changed his GB%, and he’s now paying the price in terms of HRs. Specifically, he’s been death to righties thanks to that slider, but he’s been destroyed by lefties thanks to an ineffective change and heater. Pena’s trying a fundamentally standard approach here, but maybe it’s time to get weird.

One thing that jumps out about his change-up is just how similar it is to his sinker. The cambio had solid velo and movement separation from his four-seam, but once he moved to a sinker, he ran the risk of mushing the two pitches together. That’s essentially what’s happened: the velo gap is 7+ MPH, but the vertical gap is less than 1″. It’s simply a slow sinker. As M’s fans, we’ve seen this movie before. In 2012, young righty Erasmo Ramirez came up and befuddled the league with a darting change-up that racked up whiffs on nearly half of the swings against it. His primary FB was a sinking four-seamer, and he also threw a sinker, with something like 3″ more “rise” than the all-important change. That shrunk to less than 2″ the next year, and coupled with increased sinker usage and a persistently subpar slider, he found himself on the outs and traded to Tampa. Tampa didn’t exactly solve that particular issue, but he was successful there. He was back in Seattle last year, where the gap in vertical movement was less than 1″, and he had all but shelved his four-seam fastball. The results were….not good. It’s not enough to have the rudiments of a deep repertoire, you’ve got to use them in a way that maximizes their value, just like a team needs more than a superstar player – they need to put that superstar in a position to do meaningful damage.

1: Smith, CF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Santana, RF
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: Narvaez, DH
6: Seager, 3B
7: Murphy, C
8: Williamson, LF
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Leake

* In this respect, Chapman’s emergence reminds me a lot of Kyle Seager’s. Dustin Ackley played the role that Franklin Barreto plays for the A’s, the presumptive uberprospect who overshadows the quiet defensive wizard who racks up actual big league production.

The Mariners at the Break

July 12, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

The M’s are now halfway through the first season of a multi-year process, and it seems like a good time to taste for sweet/savory balance and check the spice levels. This is much easier when it’s not actually MY work; I’m just one of those stern cooking instructors who scowls at someones buerre blanc or whatever. Worse than that, I don’t really know how to, uh, cook a playoff baseball team (I guess this is where the metaphor dies). We can’t know at this point how they’ll look in 2-3-4 years time, and thus we can’t really judge the process until then. But this team set out to craft a world class step-back, and it’s abundantly clear that’s no longer what they’re cooking up. At the same time, there’s enough going on in the lower levels of the minors that contention – albeit on a later timeline – isn’t out of the question.

1: Is it a step-back?

No, it’s not. Do you know how I know? It’s because of all of the losing. No one said they’d compete for the playoffs, but with the vets they acquired as salary dumps, the club was going to have a decent offense. All they needed was a pitching staff that was not awful, and they’d be respectable, or a bit below .500. Their offense has indeed been solid, but they simply haven’t figured out how to pitch.

The idea of Marco Gonzales as a #1 starter was always somewhat far-fetched, but the real issue has been Yusei Kikuchi’s inability to string quality starts together. On a rotation with soft-tossers and pitch-to-contact guys, Kikuchi stands out for his legitimate velocity and undeniable talent. But none of that’s translating into a middle-of-the-rotation guy, and that’s something of a pre-requisite for contention. The M’s didn’t get him expecting an ace, but he was their one big FA signing, the one guy who’d be around both now and in the all-important 2021. He’s got time to acclimate to pitching every 5th day (with some starts skipped or shortened!), but I don’t think anyone expected an RA/9 and FIP over 5.

2: How does the close-to-the-minors talent look?

As concerning as Kikuchi’s scuffles, the two big pitching prospects acquired in the James Paxton trade immediately fell on their face. Erstwhile #1 prospect Justus Sheffield had an awful start in Tacoma, and was demoted to AA Arkansas (where, to his credit, he’s been very good). Erik Swanson was immediately called up to Seattle, but got battered and returned to Tacoma, whereupon his command went south. Both seemed ready to join the rotation, but struggled so much that they seemed to lose confidence.

This is important, because the M’s remade their coaching staff to coincide with this influx of talent. That doesn’t seem to have worked, as every single indicator shows the M’s as one of the 2-3 worst pitching staffs in the game. As John Trupin at LL mentioned, they have the worst fastball results, and poor breaking ball/offspeed results. They have little velocity and can’t miss bats. They give up a ton of home runs and hard-hit balls. They somehow lead the league in doubles allowed despite pitching in a home ballpark that’s extremely hard to hit doubles in. Their FIP and ERA is over 5, and by runs-allowed per game, they’re slumming it with the Orioles.

It’s easy to say that they intentionally didn’t invest in pitching and knew this was a lost campaign, but as mentioned above, they DID invest in Kikuchi, and they hyped Marco Gonzales. The issues seem pervasive, as both the rotation and bullpen have similar lines, and both have similar struggles with strikeouts and homers. To put it mildly, this wasn’t in the plan. I was actually somewhat optimistic on this score, as I worried that departed pitching coach Mel Stottlemeyer Jr. wasn’t getting the most out of his charges. But he decamped to Miami, a team with even *less* invested in the pitching staff, and they’re exceeding expectations while the M’s seem to be getting some regression from Gonzales, Wade Le Blanc and others.

But just as their pitching woes would seem to doom any hope of contention, their near-majors position players have, if anything, exceeded expectations. Jake Fraley dominated in AA, and his more than holding his own in AAA, seemingly ready to try his hand in Seattle whenever they need him. Shed Long had a rough time in the majors, but demonstrated a keen batting eye, and has played well in his first go-round in AAA. JP Crawford shook off a rough first week or two and played his way on to the M’s, where he’s looked good.

That said, Evan White seems to have regressed again, despite some recent success. [EDIT: This was too harsh. His brutal April is holding down his seasonal line, but White’s taken most of his 2018 gains into AA this year. I think it’s increasingly likely that he’s not a star-level player, but I think any of us would take that, especially after his 2018 first half.] Kyle Lewis is in AA and kind of holding serve, but he’s obviously been passed by Fraley, and his strikeout rate is nearing 30%. So is Dom Thompson-Williams, and after a solid start, he’s been a bit quiet. He’s hit 2 HRs since late May, and doesn’t have the patience that Lewis has exhibited, though he’s hit for a bit more power. We expected some strong performers to push their way to a midseason promotion to AAA, but I don’t think we would’ve predicted who it’d be.

This is kind of a mixed bag. I think the contention plan in 2021 really rested on Lewis/White making the leap and getting a look this September, which doesn’t look too likely right now. And yes, if Fraley’s everything we hoped Lewis would be, that’s cool, and takes the pressure of Lewis. But they need a bit more out of their homegrown prospects, if only because that raises the ceiling for future prospects/draft picks. Not only that, but Mitch Haniger’s injury and some first-half issues have demonstrated that the M’s really need OF depth, something they haven’t had in years, as evidenced by half-hearted moves of Brad Miller to RF up to Dylan Moore manning LF in recent weeks. Fraley’s cool, but they may need more than one young OF.

3: How about the younger prospects from recent drafts and the Mets trade?

Hooo boy. I’ve been hard on the M’s, and they seem to make it easy for me to indulge my pessimism. But gadzooks, the M’s seem to have homered in acquiring Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn. In addition, their 2018 first-rounder, Logan Gilbert, shook off mono and has utterly laid waste to the low minors in his first pro season.

The M’s hyped up Dominican prospect Julio Rodriguez, and the 6’4″ outfielder skipped short-season ball and headed for the Sally League instead, a testament to the M’s view of his maturity as much as his batspeed. Rodriguez has repaid that faith by rocketing up the rankings, landing on Baseball Prospectus’ midseason top 50 prospects along with Kelenic and Gilbert. There was so little to go on with Rodriguez that his season really could’ve gone in any direction. It could’ve taken him more time to adjust to full-season velocity with his long-levered swing. He could’ve struggled to adjust to life in a new country, or hunted HRs at the expense of Ks or K:BB ratio. But he’s been as advertised, and the M’s development staff deserves a lot of credit for that.

Still, the biggest prize seems to be Kelenic, who hit his way out of the Sally League and is now in the Cal League with Modesto. The gap power he exhibited with the Mets org is quickly becoming HR power, and he seemed to overwhelm single-A. He’s had some ups and downs in Modesto, but is clearly, clearly one of the biggest prospects in the game, and it’s been a while since we could say that about anyone in this org. This was one of the key indicators in my “upside” post, and this one gets a clear and unambiguous check next to it.

Beyond the hyped big three (all of whom have skipped past Justus Sheffield if you re-ranked the M’s prospects today), there’s additional depth in the lower minors. C Cal Raleigh had a poor start at the plate which obscures just how hot he’s been for the past month. Raleigh now has 20 HRs on the year, but was stuck on 7 less than a month ago. The M’s are seemingly set at C for a bit with Omar Narvaez’s emergence, but it’s tough to overstate just how valuable it’d be to have Cal Raleigh turn into a legitimate top-tier catcher prospect. Whatever they’re teaching the position players about hitting, it seems to be working.

4: Who’s the big 6-7 win player that the M’s can build around for 2021?

I don’t know. The M’s went 1.5 out of 3 on my optimistic scenarios, which isn’t terrible. But the all-important question of who’s going to *anchor* the M’s contention, who’s the shoo-in All-Star or down-ballot MVP candidate… that remains unresolved. The M’s thought it’d be Mitch Haniger and Marco Gonzales, and that belief’s taken a beating this year. Haniger’s plate discipline went south, and while he’s been a streaky hitter, there were legitimate questions about his ability to jump to a new level of production, and his poor start doesn’t help. Gonzales has been somewhat better of late, but overall has been even worse than Haniger. By BP’s DRA measure, Gonzales has been below replacement. His FIP and ERA are decent, but given his unearned runs and declining velo, I’m not heartened by those metrics. He’s been solid and then a mess, and the problem is I still have no idea WHY he was solid, and can see all too easily why he struggled.

Gonzales’ velocity spiked in his return from TJ, first in the Cards system, then in Tacoma, and after his call-up in 2017. It’s been nearly straight down since then. His reworked curve and the introduction of a cutter took the pressure off of his fastball, and that seemed to continue this April, even as his velocity dropped below 89. But batters learned to hit his cutter too, and his signature change is still a work in progress. The pessimistic post gets the check mark here.

He had a very solid year in 2018, so it’s not hard to imagine how he could get back to productivity. But for an org that’s had some success improving the velocity of their prospects, the decline in SP velocity, seemingly across the board, is a real concern. Gonzales needs to sit 90+, and ideally 91-92. He befuddled batters with an array of non-fastballs, but I worry that scouting reports are getting used to him and his approach. I think he can make some adjustments, but I just don’t see those adjustments getting him to 6-7 WAR – they’ll bring him back to a decent #3. The M’s will need to find their superstar somewhere else.

In that optimistic post I mentioned that the team would look very different if JP Crawford was a solid Jean Segura-level performer. He’s shown that he can do that, with a patient approach that’s lifted his batting line up by wRC+. But he’s been streaky, and BP’s DRC isn’t buying his walk-heavy approach at all. I tend to come down in between wRC+ and DRC, but that’s fine: that’s exactly what I was hoping for. I don’t think Crawford’s the star in the making he looked like a few weeks back, and I don’t think he’s a below-average hitter in his peak, either. I think he’s a bit above average, with a bit above average D, or defense that’s close to the median. That’s not Bregman/Story/Correa/Lindor, but that’s a hugely-important piece to build around. The M’s aren’t close to identifying a superstar for 2021, but I wanted to see that Crawford could be an important contributor, an All-Star at his peak, and he’s doing just that. There’s enough ambiguity in his advanced metrics that he bears special attention in the second half, but you can’t complain about his first half in Mariner blue.

5: How the rest of the division shaping up?

This is a fascinating one. At present, the Astros are simply playing a different game, but we already knew that. The M’s aren’t ready to challenge them, and won’t be for a while. But my worst fears were that the Astros player development advantages would push the gap further away, making 2021 look like a total pipe dream. 2021 may be a pipe dream, but it’s not because of the Astros’ player developement.

Coming into the year, the M’s and Astros had some solid near-majors prospects, with Sheffield and Swanson for the M’s and Josh James, Forest Whitley and JP Bukauskas for the Astros. Sheffield scuffled and has been demoted, as mentioned above. James, a prospect I have absolutely dreaded watching against the M’s, seemingly had a rotation spot in hand. But a spring injury set him back, and he’s been a frustrating middle-relief arm for Houston fans. He still has good velo and a strong K rate, but not much else has gone right for him.

A mediocre MLB season’s more than JB Bukauskas has managed, though. The UNC product went on the DL in early May, and has had poor results in AA. Forest Whitley’s coming off a drug suspension (non PED) in 2018, and has never looked the same as he did in the low minors. He’s been among the game’s top pitching prospects for a while now, but simply hasn’t pitched like it since 2017. Bukauskas’ ERA starts with a 6 right now, but Whitley’s was over 12 before he was shut down with shoulder issues. He’s back in their complex league in Florida at the moment. The Astros are so, so good that this hasn’t really slowed them down, but I worried that player development was going to give the Astros an entire staff made up of freakish 98-100 MPH aces who’d cut through the division and the game. I’m pleasantly surprised – in a way – that they’re instead making do with a revamped Wade Miley behind the 98 MPH of Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander.
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The A’s were hit hard by injuries, losing top pitching prospects AJ Puk and Jesus Lizardo, so their near-majors depth took a huge hit before 2019 began. This has left their rotation in a seemingly similar position to the M’s, in that it’s lacking bat-missing stuff. But the A’s are making it work, similar to what they did in 2018. On paper, you might even prefer the M’s starters over the likes of Daniel Mengden and Chris Bassitt, especially after breakout star Frankie Montas went down with an 80-game PED suspension. But the A’s have kept the ball in the park while the M’s haven’t, and thus the A’s get to live the M’s upside dreams, just like last season.

The A’s have quietly been building a PD machine, too, and while it’s not as deathstar-like as Houston’s, they’re turning out some quality position players. The trade of Jeff Samardzija reinvigorated their line-up, and then coaching turned Marcus Semien into a true asset at SS, and it gives them a left side of the IF that’s almost as good as Houston’s – and better in season’s like this one and last year when Carlos Correa misses time. All the same, they’ve got to figure out how to keep their pitchers healthy. Despite making Plan C, D, and E work in 2018 and 2019, they need some consistent starts out of Sean Manaea, Kendall Graveman, Jharel Cotton, AJ Puk, Jesus Lizardo, Andrew Triggs, etc. Sometimes PD success is turning premium prospects into superstars, the way Houston did with, say, Alex Bregman. But the A’s getting non-awful production out of their staff when something like 8 out of their top 12 or so pitchers have missed significant time is pretty amazing.

The Angels’ staff has taken an absolute pounding, as their ballpark’s renowned HR-suppression seems to have collapsed, just as T-Mobile park’s did in recent years. They’re still a solid club thanks to Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, who’s proving last year’s batting line wasn’t a fluke. But Jo Adell bounced back from a so-so statistical line in 2018 to push for the #1 overall prospect spot, and the team has pushed SP prospect Griffin Canning to the majors. They’re still not quite ready to contend, and some regression from Andrelton Simmons has kept them near .500, but they could be good by 2021.

Overall, this is still a mixed signal. The M’s lower-minors PD success coupled with the Astros high-minors pitching issues means that the gap between the two teams’ 2021 projections isn’t radically different now than before. But it’s time for the M’s to close the gap, and not celebrate that the gap isn’t still widening. The Astros have a ton of players who seem like they’ll be peaking around 2021-22. The M’s don’t know WHO might be a superstar in 2021, and banking on any of the Cal League prospects seems a bit of a stretch. Gilbert’s the closest of the bunch, but asking him to anchor the rotation in 2021 is a bit of a stretch.

The M’s are still in the position where they’ll need some savvy FA pick-ups to help out their pitching staff, and they may be competing with quite a few teams to get them. If Houston’s still the odds-on favorite for 2021, then the M’s need to worry about the developments in Tampa and Minnesota, too. Beyond the division, other clubs are already contending with young players, and that makes the M’s job harder, especially in the years they need to wait until Kelenic’s ready to lead the line-up.

Overall, the implosion of the pitching staff has made 2021 a pretty unrealistic goal. This was the key to their step-back approach, and it’s blown up. Instead, the M’s are in a traditional rebuild, albeit one that may be a bit further along than many. Daniel Vogelbach’s emergence and JP Crawford’s patience has made the top of the order almost tolerable, especially when Dee Gordon or Mallex Smith don’t lead off. There are several complementary pieces here that could make 2021’s line-up very long and challenging to get through. But they still need a superstar or two, and I’m not sure the first half of 2019 has helped them identify who that might be.

Game 92, Athletics at Mariners

July 5, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Brett Anderson, 7:10pm

The Mariners begin a series with the A’s tonight at T-Mobile, facing Brett Anderson, the oft-injured lefty who came up with Oakland back in 2009. I was wondering about which opposing pitchers I’ve written about most since starting here in the 2010 season, and Anderson would be in the running if he could stay healthy. His 96 1/3 IP this year already give him his fourth-highest season total out of 11 potential MLB seasons. He’s never been a big strikeout guy (he relies more on grounders), but he’s taking that to a new extreme this season, ranking last in K/9 and K% by a mile. In K%, the gap between Anderson and 2nd place Ivan Nova is the same as the gap between Nova and #15 Rick Porcello.

Anderson’s a lefty, and like any lefty starter, that’s meant that he’s had to learn to deal with opposite-handed batters from an early age. We often talk about the little advantages lefties have in this game, and the way a LOOGY can craft a weird/lucrative career out of doing one little thing pretty well, a baseball version of a long-snapper or punter. But the flip side is that lefty starters will face line-ups that give put them at a platoon disadvantage 3/4 of the time, day in and day out. That’s a pretty big thing to overcome, but essentially all of them figure it out. Anderson came up throwing four-seamers and a lot of sliders, and gradually increased his sinker usage for many years. That wouldn’t seem like a way to neutralize righties, but solid command and sink on his pitches gave him a way to succeed.

Interestingly, he never missed the bats of the few lefties who’d face him. Like a few starters we’ve talked about over the years, Anderson’s a guy who has pronounced batted-ball splits. That is, he’s always posted obscene GB% *against lefties* – it’s nearly 66% for his career. He’s still a GB guy against righties, albeit not quite as pronounced. But then, he’s always had better K rates against righties. That’s still technically true this year, when he’s barely striking out anyone.

He throws a cutter now, a new pitch he developed in May, and which has some solid separation in movement both from his four-seam and especially his sinker, but also from the slider that’s still his putaway pitch (if someone with a K/9 under 5 can be said to HAVE a putaway pitch). It’s helped him bolster his repertoire as a junkballer, and someone without easy-to-guess pitch sequences. He’s still a sinkerballer, but he throws 5 pitches around 10% of the time or more, which makes it harder to just sit on the sinker.

The M’s DFA’d Mike Wright for the second time this year to make room for Matt Wisler, who’s reported to the team after the minor trade with San Diego. Wisler could fill Wright’s long-relief role, or they could work on his mechanics and try to fashion another middle-inning reliever. We’ll see how they use him and how his mechanics look different – if at all – from his San Diego stint.

1: Smith, CF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Santana, RF
4: Vogelbach, 1B
5: Beckham, DH
6: Murphy, C
7: Seager, 3B
8: Williamson, LF
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Kikuchi

The stateside M’s affiliates went 4-2 on Independence Day, with Modesto and Arkansas winning by shutout. Justus Sheffield went 7 brilliant innings against the Springfield Cardinals, giving up 0 runs on just 2 hits, 1 walk, and 5 Ks. Logan Gilbert pitched 5 shutout in the Nuts 9-0 win over Stockton, giving up 4 hits, 1 walk, and 7 strikeouts. Joe Rizzo and Jake Scheiner both had two HRs in the game, and Cal Raleigh hit one.

West Virgina beat Lexington 12-7 in 13 innings, in a game that went to extras 4-4. Fun times with the minor league extra-inning rules. Each team scored one in the 10th and 11th, but none in the 12th, and then West Virginia decided to start their July 4th festivities and scored 6 in the 13th, headlined by Ryan Ramiz’s grand slam.

Tacoma got blanked by Fresno and tough righty Kyle McGowin, 3-0. McGowin went 7 IP, and scattered 5 hits. Andrew Moore was solid, pitching 6 IP with 2 R, and 3 walks and Ks.

Everett beat Boise 13-4, with Juan Mercedes pitching well for 6 IP, and IF Austin Shenton getting a single, double, and triple for the Frogs. Shenton’s hitting well enough that he may end the season in the Sally League. We’ll see.

Game 91, Cardinals at Mariners – Happy Independence Day

July 4, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Matt Carasiti/Tommy Milone vs. Michael Wacha, 1:10pm

Sorry for the late post; time got away from me this morning. The M’s look for a series win against the Cardinals today with new RP Matt Carasiti opening for Tommy Milone, perhaps the M’s most consistent starting pitcher this year. Last night’s sterling start by Mike Leake was spoiled by an ugly ninth-inning bullpen meltdown, but no single loss – however painful – can really get you down in a season like this.

A year after the Cardinals drafted high-floor, change-up and pitchability lefty Marco Gonzales in the first round, they picked Texas A&M righty pitchability guy Michael Wacha late in the first round. After dominating in a few starts that year (2012), he started 2013 in AAA, and looked just as dominant. About a year after the draft, Wacha was starting in the majors, and ended up pitching in the postseason in 2013. The following year, Marco Gonzales debuted, and he, too, pitched in the postseason in 2014. This was the heyday of the Cardinals player development system, when they either took guys that many expected to struggle or at least take a long time to develop and flew them up the chain and had them helping at the big-league level quicker than anyone thought possible (Wacha), or they got contributions from long-time org depth guys (Tommy Pham).

One thing they couldn’t control (no one else has, either) was health. Gonzales missed time with TJ surgery, and Wacha missed chunks of 2014 and 2016. But when healthy, he was a sneakily effective pitcher thanks to elite vertical movement on a 94 MPH four-seam fastball and a change that that some sink to it. Nothing really moved all that much horizontally, but it didn’t matter as long as he commanded his pitches. Over time, age and wear and tear seem to have sapped some of his spin, and thus Wacha’s fastball no longer has notable vertical movement. This year, with his vertical movement creeping towards average, and with the baseball creeping towards absurdly drag-resistant, Wacha’s in the midst of his worst campaign. Batters are slugging nearly .600 on his fastball, and the cutter he developed to get people off of the four-seam hasn’t been effective either. This is a real test for the Cards, as a wild card could’ve been in play this year. But without their renowned development and coaching, they’re just bouncing along at .500. That’s not what you want after acquiring Paul Goldschmidt in the off-season.

Tommy Milone’s approach is oddly similar to Wacha’s, in that he throws a rising four-seamer and a change-up most often, and there’s a similar gap in vertical movement between the two pitches for Milone and Wacha. Like Wacha, Milone’s lost vertical rise and velocity on his tepid heater, but unlike Wacha, it’s not hurting him. Some of this is clearly BABIP, as Milone’s .225 is low even for a guy like him who’s entire game is based on limiting BABIP. But that doesn’t explain the strikeouts. For that, we need to look to his third pitch, his recently-developed slider. He didn’t have that pitch coming up with Oakland, and while he never had reverse splits, he wasn’t putting lefties away. The slider, which he’s throwing a lot of to lefties, gives him a bat-missing pitch, and he’s never struck out so many same-handed batters. The opener strategy may allow him to see a few more same-handed batters, too.

1: Smith, CF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Santana, RF
4: Vogelbach, 1B
5: Narvaez, C
6: Beckham, 3B
7: Nola, C
8: Moore, LF
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Carasiti/Milone

Welcome Matt Wisler. The M’s picked up the former top prospect in the Pads and Braves system for cash considerations in a minor deal with San Diego today. Wisler was ranked around the #50 prospect in all of baseball in 2015, and was part of the big haul Atlanta got when they traded Craig Kimbrel to the Padres. He’d been excellent in the low-minors as a starter but seemed to hit a wall in AAA. The Braves were rebuilding, so they gave him a full season in the rotation in 2016, but he struggled there, too. After a poor showing as a reliever in 2017, they moved him to Cincinnati, and he’s been a waiver wire guy since. Wisler has a four-seam fastball in the 93-94 range, but especially this year, he’s tried to reinvent himself as a latter-day Luke Gregerson, throwing his slider over *70%* of the time. It…hasn’t really worked all that well, but hey, it’s something new. That slider’s always had some sink, but it had more horizontal movement when he was a starter, thanks to a lower release point. He raised that release point in San Diego, and the slider had more gyro spin, with less gloveside run. We’ll see if the M’s tweak his mechanics, or see if they want to tap into his previous starting experience and make him a long reliever.

Game 90, Cardinals at Mariners

July 3, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Mike Leake vs. Adam Wainwright, 7:10pm

A battle of two ex-teammates, and two archetypal pitchers of a bygone era. When the ball or a new PED testing regime, or [insert conspiracy theory here] changed around 2009-2010, batting tanked, as strikeouts continued their inexorable rise, but slugging and home runs declined. As a result, league-wide ERAs dropped, runs-per-game dropped, and the game entered a five year period I call the little batting ice age. Baseball analytics had taken hold throughout the game, and brought news of the ever-expanding strike zone. The strikezone’s growth didn’t extend in all areas equally, though – it grew most notably down, around the knees and shins of opposing batters. This was one of the reasons for the growth in strikeouts, and it was key to understanding how catcher framing might work and the effects it could have. And importantly, it reinforced a pre-existing belief among sabermetric-inclined folks who read fangraphs or Baseball Prospects or, uh, this place, that ground ball pitchers were worth their weight in gold.

Batters did less damage on low pitches, as ground ball rates were tied neatly to pitch height. Targeting this area thus avoided home runs, AND it was a way to get strikeouts. The classic Ks-and-grounders pitcher of the era was of course King Felix, but Adam Wainwright wasn’t too far behind. He had a breakout year in 2009, and then had a brilliant run from 2010-2014, racking up 24.5 WARP in that time period, or 20 fWAR…despite missing the 2011 season due to injury. Add his 7-win 2009 season, and you had a hall of fame-caliber run, not far from Felix’s magical 32 bWARP run, and just a bit lower than Clayton Kershaw’s nearly 35 bWARP. Wainwright’s signature curve utterly dominated, and he used his sinking four-seamer and sinking, uh, sinker to get grounders and avoid HRs. What could you do against that?

Mike Leake came up in 2010, so his early career spanned this time period. Due to a lack of velocity and swing-and-miss secondaries, he didn’t strike out too many, but he seemed like a classic example of why you’d want a guy who could reliably get grounders. He wasn’t flashy or anything, but he was durable and the grounders helped him eliminate runners through double plays and keep his HRs-allowed in the tolerable range, even if he was never as good at avoiding them as Waino or King Felix. He wasn’t challenging those guys in terms of value, but he had a 4-win season in 2014.

After that wonderful time for pitchers, the game changed. Or rather, the ball changed, beginning half-way through the 2015 season. Suddenly, fly balls that died short of the warning track became HRs. Worse still, batters gradually adjusted to lower pitches, and they’ve done more damage against sinkers in particular. Low pitches no longer produced only ground balls – they produced HRs, too, as batters adjusted their swing path to elevate the ball, and hit pitches out in front of the plate to maximize batspeed and generate pull power. Wainwright missed the early part of this transition due to injury, and in his 30s and with several injuries in his rear-view, it’s hard to separate age-related decline from new-paradigm-related decline. But he’s never been the same. His HR/9 rates from 2012-2019 go like this: 0.678, 0.56, 0.40, [hurt], 1.00, 1.02, 1.12, 1.20. His walk rates have risen and his K numbers are no longer all that special. In that context, it’s kind of remarkable that he’s still a perfectly cromulent back-of-the-rotation starter. The curve is still amazing, with tons of two-plane break, but it’s not enough to make him an ace anymore.

Leake actually had a better adjustment period, likely because he’s much younger. He was fine in 2016-17, maintaining a very high GB rate and avoiding walks like the plague. He was still no one’s idea of an ace, but he was just as effective as he had been during the little batting ice age. The problem was that his margin was so thin – he had to be perfect, given that he’d allowed HRs even when HRs were hard to find. A decline in walk rate, or strand rate, or HR/FB might make him unplayable. It threatened him at times last year, when the HRs piled up and all of the balls in play would result in BABIP-related disaster starts. But to his credit, he turned in a fine year, another remarkably consistent one for a remarkably consistent hurler. This year, though, more cracks are showing. His HR rate has spiked to 1.93 per 9, and his sinker, his bread and butter pitch since college, is now a liability. That’s what makes what he’s doing so remarkable. He’s not exactly succeeding, but FIP and DRA see a clear failure, a replacement-level pitcher. And every once in a while, he’ll oblige with a replacement-level start. But despite a pitch-to-contact approach and a horrible defense, he’s sort of making due. I’m not sure how, though his good slider’s a big part of the reason. But we’re watching a pitcher in the late stages of his career reinvent himself almost on a game-by-game basis, and it’s kind of fascinating to watch. It’s suspenseful, sure, but it’s captivating in its own way. Leake won’t be here long, just as Wainwright may be done after his 1-year, $2M contract expires. But for now, it’ll be fun to watch these two old guys, two throwbacks to the heady days of 2014, face off in a Safeco Field that’s suddenly something of a homer-haven.

1: Smith, CF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Santana, RF
4: Vogelbach, 1B
5: Narvaez, DH
6: Seager, 3B
7: Murphy, C
8: Moore, LF
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Leake

Jarred Kelenic broke out of a little slump by going 3-3 with a HR, 2B, and a walk in Modesto’s 7-0 win against San Jose. His line for the Nuts isn’t all that great, but that’s just small-sample nothingness. I’d love to see his K:BB ratio look a bit better, or at least the way it did in the Sally League, but that’s quibbling. Kelenic is great. Starter Ian McKinney went 7 shutout, giving up 3 H, 1 BB, and striking out 13. Nice. Ljay Newome starts for Modesto today, as they again host the San Jose Giants.

The Rainiers dropped a double-header to Salt Lake, 9-1 and then 7-6. Jake Fraley hit his 2nd AAA homer in the night cap, and he’s now at .313/.365/.616 in AAA in 11 games. Tonight’s the big July 3rd game in Tacoma, probably the biggest game on the calendar every year. I remember watching the fireworks show from my roof as a kid, and I’ve been to a few of these as an adult. Have fun if you’re headed to Cheney tonight; Jon Niese starts for the Rs

Arkansas is at Northwest Arkansas for another game, after last night’s 13-inning loss. Kelvin Nunez and Everett host Boise.

A name from the AZL to keep an eye on is 19-year old Taiwanese lefty Danny Chang, who’s now struck out 21 against 3 walks in his first 12 professional innings.

Game 89, Cardinals at Mariners

July 2, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Matt Carasiti/Wade LeBlanc vs. Jack Flaherty, 7:10pm

Hello – sorry for the delay in coverage, but I took what I personally think was a well-earned vacation to Hawaii. I’d say I apologize for the lack of content, but my heart wouldn’t be in it. It was great to recharge with the family and do something other than chronicle the struggles of my beloved Mariners, but as so often this year, the team played decently in my absence. They’ve gone 6-6 in their past 12 games, which counts as “pretty good” for this group. They backed up a 3-of-4 series win over Baltimore (yes, yes, low bar, I know) with a win in Milwaukee, which counts as solid opposition. Then, of course, they got swept by Houston, but there’s no real shame in that, and they played Houston fairly tough. The M’s had that ugly stretch where it seemed like they were giving up 10 runs per game and each loss felt like a laugher. They’re not doing that over the course of the past few weeks, and I guess that counts as progress.

The pitching staff has settled in somewhat after a disastrous May. Their overall line for the month of June isn’t worth getting excited about (team ERA/FIP over 5), but they looked better recently, and that’s borne out by their numbers. Finding hope in small sample variance from “avert your eyes” to “not the worst thing I’ve seen” isn’t great, but I’ve been desperate to see some evidence that the M’s can coach their pitchers to just mediocre performance, and that’s happened recently. Yusei Kikuchi looked as good as he’s looked in a while in his last start in Houston, and while the numbers don’t fully show it, he deserved a lot better out of that performance. Marco Gonzales’ velocity free fall has stopped, and he’s been trending up recently, though I’d still like to see him sit at 90 MPH. But it’s been the newcomer Tommy Milone who’s really been fascinatingly good, riding a career high K-rate with ultra-low groundball rates to post a very effective month. I hope he can keep it up, and I hope the M’s have helped him unlock something.

The bats, meanwhile, continue to be amazingly solid. He’s been hot recently and getting a lot of press, but JP Crawford has blown his projections out of the water, and he’s demonstrating that he can be much more than the average-bat+good-glove guy I thought he’d be at his peak. He still doesn’t have elite bat-to-ball skills, but if he keeps posting an ISO near .200, it doesn’t matter. This is remarkable, and I hope he can keep it up – he’s been a notoriously streaky player (a problem exacerbated or even caused by his injury woes). Dan Vogelbach will represent the M’s at the All-Star Game, and like the pitchers, he’s bounced back from a tough May to show that he can make adjustments as the league adjusts to him. The high average he showed in April is probably not going to be a feature of his game, but it doesn’t matter if he can combine patience and power like he has. The M’s needed a few players to take the leap, and make their old scouting reports irrelevant, and in Crawford and Vogelbach, they have two such players. I’m not convinced that’s anywhere close to enough for the M’s to really compete, but it’s a start. I think it helps the M’s avoid the worst-case-scenario outcome of really struggling in 2020-2021, but they’ve got a lot of ground to make up, and they need a superstar or two sprinkled about their roster. As eye-opening as these two have been, I’m not sure they’re there yet. Crawford is obviously closest to that mark, so it’ll be fun to watch him the rest of the year, but as amazing as another 3-4 WAR player would be, the M’s need a 6-7 *somewhere*. Deliver us from mediocrity, Jarred Kelenic.

Today, the M’s host St. Louis and their young potential ace, Jack Flaherty. Flaherty was famously a part of the most heralded high school pitching rotation ever, with Lucas Giolito and Max Fried, at Harvard Westlake in California. St. Louis drafted him at the end of the 1st round in 2014, and he made his big-league debut in September of 2017. He had good but not great K rates in the minors, but he broke out in his first full big league season last year, striking out nearly 30% of opposing batters, or 10.85/9 IP. A high walk rate and some mild dinger trouble kept him from the truly elite starters in the NL, but he was 22 last year. This, his age 23 season, has seen him regress somewhat severely. He’s walked fewer, but he’s missed fewer bats as well. His GB rate has fallen, but that’s pushed his HR rate into the stratosphere. As a result, FIP hates his campaign, while other measures, like BP’s DRA, is still broadly optimistic (but still sees his 2019 as worse than his 2018). He uses a straight, almost cutter-ish four-seam fastball at 94, a rare sinker, and a slider and curve. He has a change, but hardly ever uses it. His slider is his out-pitch, as it induces swings and plenty of whiffs. But it’s an unusual pitch in that batters can elevate it if they’re able to make contact. Thus, even in his excellent 2018 campaign, batters struggled against it…but hit 8 sliders for home runs. This year, it’s much the same – they’ve struck out against it a ton, but they’re slugging well over .500 against it with 6 HRs thus far. His four-seamer is similar: it’s an excellent pitch, it misses bats, but if batters put a good swing on it, they can drive the ball out.

Ex-M’s prospect Tyler O’Neill was just recalled to the Cards, and is batting 5th tonight. The kid from southern British Columbia should have plenty of family/friends at the game, but he’s having a rough 2019 after a promising debut in 2018. As always, contact is the big issue with O’Neill.

1: Smith, CF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Santana, RF
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: Narvaez, C
6: Seager, 3B
7: Nola, 1B
8: Williamson, LF
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Carasiti, LeBlanc

The biggest story in baseball the past week was the tragic and as-yet unexplained death of 27-year old Angels pitcher, Tyler Skaggs. The game’s lost too many young talents to accidents and natural causes recently, and my heart goes out to Angels fans and of course Skaggs’ family, including his wife of about 1 year, Carli. The Angels postponed last night’s game, as did their AAA affiliate, Salt Lake, who was in Tacoma to play the Rainiers.

The July 2nd signing period opened today, uh, obviously, for international prospects. The most heralded of the bunch, OF Jasson Dominguez of the Dominican Republic, signed with the Yankees. The A’s made a big play to nab #2 ranked player Robert Puason, who’s been followed semi-obsessively for a few years. He’s a SS, also from the DR. The M’s have nearly $5.4 million in their bonus pool to spend, but didn’t sign any of the top-30 ranked players according to MLB Pipeline…at least not yet (a few are still available, or haven’t had their signing announced). They’ve made moves, though, including signing OF George Feliz for $900,000 and SS Luis Suisbel and Andres Mesa.

Game 80, Orioles at Mariners – Counterfactuals

June 21, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

Mike Leake vs. Paul Fry/Sean Gilmartin, 7:10pm

A few days ago, some folks were musing on what the Mariners would look like if they somehow missed out on Felix. Take away one of the only redeeming qualities of some painful M’s teams, and what do you have? Is it even really baseball at that point? Living through 2010-2014 was tough, but at least Felix was a light in the darkness. We also fell hard for some prospects who didn’t quite pan out, so presumably in addition to the near-term hopelessness, we’d have had our medium-to-long-term hopes dashed repeatedly enough to be as cynical as…well, as cynical as I am now.

But wait, said PNW Vagabond: maybe the team would’ve been better. Heresy! I thought, but then he pointed out that without Felix in 2006, the M’s may not have felt close enough to the division lead to perform their two-step, self-inflicted disaster of trading Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera for nothing much. And without that, they probably don’t pull the trigger on the Bedard deal a year later. What would the team look like in 2010 if none of that had happened? You can quibble with any individual element (at the time of the trades in 2006, Felix was 9-9 with and an ERA of 4.60; it was just starting to come down after a brutal April and May), and you can quibble with the entire counterfactual process, and what possible value it has. I get it: there’s not really a point to imagining an M’s team without Felix, because thankfully, we got Felix. But it’s interesting to think about what decisions would’ve changed and why.

Today’s game against the Orioles is meaningless in isolation, so weird flights of fancy are all we can really do while checking Jarred Kelenic box scores. And thankfully, today’s pitching match-up gives us a chance to counterfactual one of the most minor trades of the Jerry Dipoto era: the trade that sent today’s starter/opener Paul Fry to Baltimore. In 2015, Fry – a late draft steal by the M’s out of a Michigan JC – struck out 113 in 80 relief innings across high-A and AA. He hit the AFL and struggled mightily with his control – a problem that persisted the next year in Tacoma, and then again in early 2017. In April of that year, the M’s flipped him to Baltimore for an international bonus pool slot. Baltimore hardly ever utilized their pool, and thus had a cottage industry of selling it off in exchange for so-so prospects. Just days before acquiring Fry, they got former Milwaukee SP prospect Damien Magnifico, another veteran of the 2015 Arizona Fall League with Fry. Magnifico was more of a known commodity, and thus the “slot value” that Milwaukee picked up was over $800,000. Fry, as a not-particularly-hard-throwing reliever, went for a later slot valued under $150,000. But still: the Orioles had a plan, the M’s valued that pool value, and a deal was struck.

At the time, I was pretty unimpressed. I know some of the prospect shine was off of Fry by 2017, but he seemed like a perfectly decent lefty reliever, one with a really good slider that – at least in the minors – was effective against lefties AND righties. Plus, he had an intriguing sinker that would make him into a big-time ground ball pitcher. Dipoto had picked up James Pazos, though, and there was Marc Rzepczynski on a two-year deal. Would Fry even get a shot? Moreover, what we didn’t know at the time was what the M’s would do in that year’s J2 signing period. Presumably, they had worked out deals with a bunch of prospects, and maybe they needed the flexibility to work something out with a kid they were really high on.

There’s definitely no one-to-one accounting for where this particular slot went in the M’s J2 spending spree, but we do know this: the M’s signed a kid who’s now one of their very best prospects, and one of the best players in the Sally League: Julio Rodriguez. Does that change our appraisal of the Fry trade? On the one hand, the M’s already had nearly $5 million to spend, and gave Rodriguez less than $2M. They signed Juan Querecuto and several other players on July 2nd itself, and still didn’t spend their pool. I presume they signed some players a bit later, so maybe it helped sign one of them. But who knows, maybe it helped them as they negotiated with not one but two of the top-30 international prospects. Or maybe it never got spent at all. It’s really hard to say. All I know is that in the most tenuous, perhaps dubious way, I kind of connect Julio Rodriguez, teenage phenom, and Paul Fry, lefty reliever on one of the worst teams in recent memory, and one-time M’s relief prospect. Would the M’s still have Julio without this trade? I think the odds are overwhelmingly high, but I wasn’t in the room, so I can’t say for sure.

The primary pitcher for the O’s is Sean Gilmartin, the one-time 10th overall pick by the Braves out of Florida State. This was a classic high-ceiling pick, as Gilmartin didn’t throw hard, but mixed his pitches and just looked like someone who’d be a solid, unremarkable 4th starter for a decade. He stalled out in the Atlanta system, but got a chance out of the Mets bullpen after he was popped in the Rule 5 draft. He was very effective in 2015, but then when the M’s wanted to move him back to the rotation, the wheels sort of fell off. He’s been a well-traveled guy since, without finding a lot of success. He was decent in AAA this year, so the O’s will call him up and see what he looks like in a longer stint. Gilmartin throws 88-89, and uses a change and slider (both in the high-70s) quite frequently. There’s nothing much in his movement profile that looks all that amazing, but that’s what you’d expect from looking at his stats.

Fry, for his part, sits in the low-90s with a sinking four-seamer that’s arrow-straight but with less rise than most. His best pitch is his slider, a fairly hard pitch at 84 MPH that gets tremendous sink and gloveside movement. Despite the low arm-slot and the repertoire that screams LOOGY, he didn’t exhibit big platoon splits last year (he’s doing so this year, though). The slider’s generally been an equal-opportunity pitch, and he’s struggled to miss bats more against lefties; this makes me think he’s got a deceptive delivery. But then, you can have deception and not take full advantage if your pure stuff isn’t good enough. I think Fry can be a perfectly cromulent bullpen piece, but I don’t think he’ll be much more than that.

1: Smith, CF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Santana, RF
4: Vogelbach, 1B
5: Murphy, C
6: Narvaez, DH
7: Seager, 3B
8: Moore, 2B
9: Williamson, LF
SP: Leake

“Openers” certainly haven’t worked for the M’s, with Tayler Scott having a rough go yesterday. The M’s openers now have a collective ERA of 19.50, which isn’t great (thanks to Ryan Divish for the stat), but it’s not that the strategy itself is bad – it may just be the M’s personnel/implementation. That said, I’m always kind of confused when a team chooses to go lefty/lefty or righty/righty with their opener and primary pitcher. That’s exactly what the O’s are doing here, with two soft-tossing lefties. The M’s used hard-throwing righty Tayler Scott to open for classic lefty junkballer Wade LeBlanc, and while Scott scuffled, LeBlanc was great. The whole strategy seemed to start when the Rays used Sergio Romo – a righty specialist – to start games against the Angels to get the first PA against Mike Trout and maybe Andrelton Simmons out of the way before a lefty like Ryan Yarbrough pitched the next 5-6 IP. I’m not sure what the O’s are doing here.

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