Yusei Kikuchi and The M’s Pitching Plan

January 4, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · 19 Comments 

I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t see the M’s as a major player to land Yusei Kikuchi. Something about the way the Shohei Ohtani saga ended combined with general Mariners-specific pessimism made me think the M’s weren’t serious players, even as rumblings through December made it sound like they were. And here we are: the M’s signed the Japanese lefty to an interesting contract for anywhere between 3/$43 million to 7/$109 million. He’s got an opt-out after three years, but the M’s can void it by essentially signing him to a pre-agreed 4-year extension. As M’s fans, we’re all hoping that’s what the M’s do. If Kikuchi hits his ceiling and stays healthy, it’d be awesome to have him stick around for his early 30s. So, the question is: how can the M’s keep him healthy and effective?

The M’s sat down with Kikuchi’s agent, Scott Boras, and appear to have a plan to limit his innings in his first year in MLB. As Greg Johns article describes, the plan would be to use him as an opener every 5 or so starts, or about once a month. So, he starts like normal for 4 starts, and then on his fifth start, he pitches only the first inning or about 30 pitches. That limits pitches, innings, and keeps him fresh for the difficult transition between Japan’s 6-man rotations/one start per week and the US’s 5-man rotations.

That barrier, the additional high-stress pitches that accumulate over a longer season with more starts, has proven a difficult one to navigate for pitchers from Japan. Shohei Ohtani’s merely the latest pitcher to undergo Tommy John after coming over, joining Yu Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma, Daisuke Matsuzaka and others. Masahiro Tanaka avoided the knife, but missed time with other arm injuries and seems to have some elbow injuries that simply haven’t necessitated surgery. Iwakuma and Kenta Maeda have had shoulder issues before coming over, and that’s factored into their usage in the US (think of Kuma’s initial usage as a reliever, and Maeda’s role as swingman this year for the Dodgers). Kikuchi’s had shoulder problems in the recent past as well, so thinking about how best to keep him healthy makes sense.

On paper, I’ve got no real complaint about the M’s plan. It’d be interesting to see how it would work, and what pitcher would pick up the innings that Kikuchi cedes as an opener – Johns’ article mentions using a youngster like Justus Sheffield the way the Rays used ex-M’s prospect Ryan Yarbrough as a somewhat gentler introduction to an MLB rotation, but they could also use them as true bullpen days once we figure out who’s actually in the M’s bullpen (Jerry Dipoto is, as always, looking for FA relievers at the moment). That said, I keep thinking that they may have missed an opportunity here.

There’s no real way to say for certain that a 6-man rotation results in higher average velocity for pitchers, but it seems clear that essentially every Japanese pitcher loses velocity when they come to the US. I say it’s impossible to pin it on the additional starts because our pool of pitchers is still too small, and then there’s the difference in the physical ball to contend with PLUS the fact that the ball itself has changed a few times *within each country* over the past 5 or so years. So this is all noisy as hell, but it’s pretty consistent. Kikuchi apparently sat 92, touching 95 in Japan, but I feel pretty comfortable taking the under on that even with the M’s innings-limit plan. Moreover, if Kikuchi loses velocity in 2019 due to the new workload or any other factor, he’ll have plenty of company. Mike Leake is coming off a year where his velocity was over a full MPH lower than the previous season. Marco Gonzales got attention for throwing harder post-TJ rehab in 2017, but those gains didn’t follow him into 2018. Felix Hernandez…you know all about Felix Hernandez’s velocity trends. The entire team has seen their velo drop, and sat comfortably at the bottom in average FB velocity last year.

With that context, if you’re trying to accomodate someone who’s used to 6-man rotations, why not – stay with me here – use a 6-man rotation? The Angels sort of tried with Ohtani, and sure, that didn’t save his elbow, but he sat at 97 MPH with his fastball. Literally every member of the M’s rotation, and every *potential* member of the M’s rotation, could stand an extra day of rest, because they could all use an extra tick on their fastball. The M’s have tried everything with Felix, from belittling him to having him do special off-season workouts to working with a peak performance trainer they hired and then got sued by. Surely, trying an extra day of rest every week is in order?

The opener strategy has the value of getting Kikuchi ready to be a “regular” member of a traditional rotation in his second year, and there’s value in trying to get additional innings out of a good pitcher. But while they don’t have a ton of depth at starter, I think they’re actually better positioned to go with a 6-man rotation than a series of bullpen days. Adding an extra pitcher would enable them to control the innings of every pitcher, which would make breaking in a Sheffield or Erik Swanson easier. Going whole hog enables them to assess the impact it has on their veterans, too. Wade LeBlanc, an ex-teammate of Kikuchi’s in Japan, is obviously familiar with the role, and I think it would help Leake, should Leake somehow make it to March on this roster. Moreover, they’re not really expected to contend in 2019, so I’d think there’d be less pressure to ride your top 2-3 pitchers down the stretch. If this year’s really about development, that make it about development, and not just Kikuchi’s adjustment to MLB.

As a FB/SL pitcher, Kikuchi needs to get every MPH he can get. Hisashi Iwakuma’s brilliant splitter reduced his dependence on velo, and Iwakuma struggled with slider consistency in the US after being known for his slider in Japan. Sliders see more of a drop-off in effectiveness as measured by average wOBA-against at lower velocities than do splitters/change-ups. Sliders lose effectiveness as they get slower, with sliders in the upper 80s having wOBA against in the mid .250s, but .300s in the high-70s. Change-ups are great at high velocities *and* very low velocities, though they’re worse in the middle ground than sliders (data from baseballsavant). Thus, in addition to limiting innings, the M’s need to keep an eye on Kikuchi’s velocity, and limiting his rest – even if they give him a short start each month – seems a less-than-idea way to do that.

This isn’t to suggest that the plan’s a dumb idea. They presumably worked it out with Kikuchi himself, and if he prefers it, well then, so do I. But the M’s need to do something pretty dramatically different to fix the hole left by James Paxton. They’ve got youth, and they’ve got depth, albeit not exactly bankable depth. Trying a 6-man rotation – really, actually committing to it – would be great to see, and it would herald a new approach to development at the big league level. I’d think it’d make them an attractive place to pitch for every subsequent pitcher that gets posted from the NPB as well. In any event, Kikuchi makes the M’s better in 2019 and beyond, and even the limited opener-based strategy will be fun to watch. But when you’re trying to catch up with the Astros/Yankees/Red Sox of the world – even if you don’t need to show it at the big league level in 2019 – you need to be open to radically transforming how you align your team. I’m still stunned that no team has given this a shot.

Mariners, Brewers Swap Extraneous OFs; Brewers a Good Team to Swap Extraneous OFs With

December 21, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

Last year, Domingo Santana was coming off a 3+ win season, punctuated by 30 HRs and a slash line of .278/.371/.505. He’d recently turned 25. Did the Brewers build around this young slugger, limited though he was due to contact and defense issues? Well, no, they went out and got Christian Yelich in trade from Miami, and watched him put together an MVP-winning season. They got Lorenzo Cain in free agency, deciding that they wanted to win right now. And win they did, even if it meant relegating Santana to the bench, the minors, and now, a year later, to a minor trade with a rebuilding club.

Last year, Ben Gamel was coming off a shockingly respectable season highlighted by a slash line of .275/.322/.413. His BABIP-fueled first half didn’t carry over into the second, but he seemed to be showing the line drive, bat-to-ball skills that made him a target of the M’s back in 2016. He was fast…ish, and had solid walk rates plus a lower than average K rate. Sure, the power was low for a corner OF, or really anybody in 2018, but if you squinted, and I get the feeling the M’s FO did this a lot when they watched him, you could sort of see 1990s M’s killer Rusty Greer. Low power, low Ks, but tons of line drives all over the park. The M’s talked up Gamel’s game in the offseason, but when the season started, a comedy of errors kept him out of the line-up. In April, it was Ichiro that took his spot in LF. With Dee Gordon in CF, he was relegated to platooning with Guillermo Heredia, and neither was doing all that well. When the season fell apart, the M’s decided to move on from the guy who epitomized their desire for a “more athletic” OF – a corner guy who didn’t hit like a corner guy, but slapped the ball around and put things in motion.

The Brewers simply don’t have room for Santana. The M’s now have plenty of room for Gamel, but they’ve realized – correctly – that their new, rebuilding club has no real *need* for a player like Gamel. I’ve been the low guy on Gamel for too long, and I will be the first to admit he’s been better than I would’ve ever guessed. But he is, in the absolute best case scenario, a complementary player – a nuisance 7th/8th hitter in a really good line-up. He will get to fill that exact role in platoon situations for a good Milwaukee club next year, and that’s great. The M’s need an underpowered 7th hitting corner OF like they need payroll excuses right now.

So having given up their vaunted athleticism, what have the M’s gotten here? Why pick up a good team’s scraps? Remember the 30 HR season thing? Seriously, it was just a couple of paragraphs up. The M’s get a high-variance hitter in Santana who’s quite capable of being a 4-5 hitter on a bad M’s team, and a guy with serious projection left. Santana is actually younger than Gamel by a few months, and while he’s coming off an abysmal year, he’s put up the better big league season in recent years. Neither of them are ever going to win a gold glove, but it’s worth mentioning that Santana’s clearly a worse defender. He’s also got a lot of swing and miss in his game, and so he represents a big change in philosophy for the M’s; it’s been a while since the M’s have gone out and targeted a hitter who’s going to strike out in 30% of his PAs. But after years of getting low-ish K guys and hoping to teach them power, it’s probably worth getting some guys with power and trying to teach them to make incremental improvements in pitch recognition.

The M’s also sent P Noah Zavolas, their 18th round pick out of Harvard last year, to Milwaukee to complete the deal. Zavolas is cool and all, but this deal doesn’t hinge on him. He wasn’t a top prospect in the M’s org, and won’t be one in Milwaukee. The odds are stacked against him becoming more than an org arm, but hey, he was decent in the NWL after pitching well in the Ivy League. How many of us can say that?

Ultimately, this is a very sound move for Seattle. They increase their volatility, getting a decent shot at a middle of the order hitter, and all it cost them was an enigmatic corner OF who’s been a platoon guy on decent M’s clubs. Could Gamel add some pop and make the M’s regret this? It’s possible, sure. If that’s ever going to happen, Milwaukee may be the place to do it; Yelich was a young corner OF who hit too many grounders to have corner OF power, and whose 2013-2015 look mighty Gamelish. He’d improved by the time of the trade, but clearly, Milwaukee tapped into power no one knew he had, and suddely Yelich was a complete player. Let’s be clear: Yelich already showed more power than Gamel can ever produce, but the Brewers have been excellent in developing hitters – so much so that their surplus of them made this deal possible. I’d love to think that the M’s are a great org for a player like Santana, but I don’t, at least, not yet. This is a great project for the new M’s hitting coaches, and a great way for them to show how their new approaches/pedagogy can work with a developing young team.

It Is Done

December 3, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 13 Comments 

The Cano deal was finalized, and in the end the M’s “only” sent $20 million to New York in addition to taking on the contracts of Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak. To wrap a bow on this increasingly desperate tear-down (it’s not a rebuild quite yet), the M’s have finalized a trade to send Jean Segura to Philadelphia in exchange for 1B Carlos Santana and SS JP Crawford. Jean Segura and Robinson Cano made up a great middle of the infield, and for a brief moment, the M’s had one of the best keystone combinations in the game. That’s completely done now, and at the moment, the M’s can look forward to Dee Gordon resuming the 2B position and hoping Crawford can hit the way he was supposed to instead of the way he has in Philadelphia.

With the Cano/Diaz deal, you could argue that by getting Kelenic and Dunn, the M’s didn’t hurt their return for Diaz by including Cano. That’s debatable, of course. I think there was no way the M’s were getting, say, 1B Peter Alonso in any deal, but the point is the M’s got a couple of solid prospects even with all of the financial gyrations involving Cano/Bruce. With this second blockbuster, though, all doubt is removed: the M’s clearly – CLEARLY – hurt their own return by adding Juan Nicasio to the deal, making it harder for the Phillies to add in another young player. The M’s apparently asked them to, the Phillies refused, so the M’s sent them James Pazos as well (?). I…I don’t know either, folks.

Patrick Dubuque’s article on the trade at BP talked about the novelty for M’s fans of watching a true salary dump player like Bruce. As it turns out, Bruce wasn’t the only such player the M’s would acquire this week – now they’ve got Carlos Santana, who was an attractive free agent only a year ago, but now a player the Phils were desperate to move on from. I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with either player, and you can make the case that Santana in particular is due for a bounce back. But if the point of this frenzy of activity is to bring in and identify the next successful M’s core, then all of this is counterproductive. In a desire to shed themselves of completely fair contracts (Segura’s was more than fair, and even Cano’s wasn’t any kind of albatross, as he’s still a very productive player), the M’s have taken on the salaries of OTHER, less productive players, and forgone the opportunity to add a prospect lottery ticket or two. The M’s aren’t saving much in the next couple of years, and they hurt their odds to be competitive in the years beyond that. I don’t get it.

Apparently, the M’s clubhouse’s decline rankled the M’s front office, and they’ve prioritized remaking the culture and chipping away at the 2019-20 budgets more than bringing in new talent. I’m not sure there’s any other way to spin this. Even if you buy the premise that the M’s couldn’t win without a massive change in that culture, that seems like a slap in the face to the coaching staff, who are theoretically tasked with building/shaping a culture, and not-at-all-theoretically need to share the blame if 2018 was more toxic than we’d heard.

JP Crawford was a first-rounder in 2013, and was a potential target for the M’s. He’s a great defender, and had very good bat-to-ball skills, but his power was, shall we say, developing. In the minors, he showed a keen batting eye and limited Ks; pair that with his defense at SS, and he became a top-20 prospect in the game. He began 2017 in a huge slump, but turned it around enough to make his MLB debut. The Phils essentially gave him the starting job this past year, but he again kicked off the year by falling apart at the plate. He went on the DL, came back, and then broke his hand, so he doesn’t have much of a big league track record.

The one thing that jumps off his stats page is that his K rate has skyrocketed in his limited MLB duty. He can still take a walk, and he still plays SS, but the whole bat-to-ball thing…it hasn’t translated. M’s fans know a bit about this phenomenon from watching the travails of Dan Vogelbach, who maintains solid K rates and hits for average in the minors, then comes north and strikes out a ton. Crawford’s just 23 and is still a premium talent, but for a big-league-ready youngster, there’s more risk here than you’d like. He’s more than capable of making adjustments, and it sounds like part of the problem with the Phillies was that people were constantly tweaking his swing. The M’s could get a very Segura-like player, or Segura-plus-OBP if everything breaks right, but given everything that’s happened over the past 72 hours, they NEED everything to break right. There’s no plan B here; the M’s don’t really have any SS prospects above the Dominican League.

M’s Nearing Cano Blockbuster, Trade Alex Colome to Ease the Tension

November 30, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 16 Comments 

The M’s are about to trade 2B Robinson Cano and CL Edwin Diaz to the Mets – the actual Mets – in exchange for top prospects Jarred Kelenic, Justin Dunn, and the contracts of Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak. It’s a franchise-altering deal, one that sends off the biggest trading chip the franchise has moved in years, and one that firmly closes the door on any form of contention in the next few years. A deal this big takes time, so we’ve watched the initial speculation, counter-offers, and analysis play out publicly over several days. It’s at once fascinating and awful.

The M’s are obviously desperate to move on from Cano. The question is why: it can’t purely be a cost-saving move, as with the money they’d reportedly send to New York AND by taking on Bruce and Swarzak, they don’t really save a lot, especially in the next 2-3 years. Edwin Diaz garnered a lot of attention from other clubs – how could he not? – and the M’s still seem hell-bent on packaging him with Cano.

Now, I think Cano’s contract has always been overplayed. Yes, it’s a lot of money, and yes, it runs through his age-40 season, but what gets lost here is that Cano’s been productive in his time with Seattle. Yes, he missed 80 games last year, and that probably led to some of the urgency with which Jerry Dipoto shopped him this month, but people are referring to him as an albatross or simply as a cautionary tale about long contracts. No; Robinson Cano is *still* an excellent player, and will add value on the field wherever he plays next year. Is he worth his contract? He’s projected for 3 wins next season, and at ~8-9 per, that’s $24-27 million, or right in line with what he’ll get. The problem is that the M’s will be paying about half of that amount. At ~$12 M per year, Cano looks like a decent bargain, particularly in the early years. “What about his age 39-40 years?” you ask? Who cares? He’ll have provided plenty of surplus value once you account for the M’s kicking in all of that money. The M’s are building a contender, it’s just in New York.

That’s not to say the deal is as disastrous as it first appeared. The M’s now get two prospects that easily slide into the front end of their top 10, and Anthony Swarzak had a brilliant 2017 before an awful 2018 turned him into a salary-matching throw-in that probably undersells him a bit. I’m not sure I love this deal, especially without knowing what, say, Philadelphia would’ve traded for Diaz alone, but I’m just struck by the weirdness of it. What about Cano’s personality or what about the clubhouse’s demeanor in the 2nd half did Dipoto attribute to Cano? For a year or two, the M’s had been doing everything they could to counter the old narrative that Cano was selfish. We’ve seen him work with plenty of young hitters, going back to Justin Smoak, Ketel Marte, Jean Segura, and then youngsters this season. We watched the loose, laughter-filled competitions that Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano would organize for the M’s in the spring, and as much as anything, that camaraderie was singled out as a reason why the M’s were blowing their pythagorean record out of the water in early 2018. Not long after, the M’s are apparently deciding to pay handsomely to be rid of one of the architects of that culture. Meanwhile, the Mets, long seen as loathe to spend money following the Bernie Madoff-fueled losses their owners absorbed, will take on a long-term contract right when they’re trying to extend Cy Young winner Jacob de Grom.

Both teams can probably come out of this claiming victory. The Mets get a ton of money to go along with their new obligations, they get one of the best relievers alive (who happens to be earning next to nothing), AND they keep their top prospects in Peter Alonso and SS Andres Gimenez. The M’s can say they get future flexibility to add star-level players AND get two very good prospects for a system that needs them desperately. They recognize that what the M’s of 2019-2020 need *least* are shut-down relievers, so better to move them now.

That approach also led to today’s rather more modest deal. The M’s are sending Alex Colome to the White Sox in exchange for catcher Omar Narvaez. At first glance, this is simply great for the M’s. The M’s do not need a great set-up man or closer in Colome, and I remain somewhat skeptical that he’s great at all. He’s had a FIP in the mid 3’s 3 of the past 4 years, and he hasn’t shown a *persistent* ability to strand runners the way he did in 2016. He’s a good player, but not a transcendent one – not when the average reliever has a K% just 2 percentage points behind Colome’s 2018 mark. Narvaez is an intriguing guy. He’s 26, bats lefty, and draws a ton of walks. Coming into 2018, that was essentially the sum total of his attributes: he had zero power, and hadn’t shown consistent hitting ability in the minors beyond a good walk rate and low Ks. Worse, he didn’t have a classic catcher’s arm, a Zunino-grade cannon to control the running game – he was a bat-first catcher with half a bat. But 2018 showed a lot of promise. Narvaez hit 9 HRs, tripling the 3 he hit in 2016-17 combined. There’s a bit more whiffs now, but a high walk rate and mediocre power is pretty darn good, especially at that position.

Paxton to New York, Rebuild to “On”

November 21, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 16 Comments 

As you’ve no doubt seen by now, James Paxton’s been dealt to the Yankees for a package of three prospects, headed by SP Justus Sheffield. We can quibble with the deal – boy can we ever! – but ultimately, moving Paxton had to be done if the club didn’t see a way to meaningfully compete in 2019.

Interestingly, at least to me, is that the M’s don’t see that pathway now, even though they look, for the most part, like they did a year ago. They thought they could compete in 2018 despite a lot of people telling them they couldn’t. They went out and won 89 games, which is remarkable, but I think unsustainable. They apparently agree, meaning they learned something about contention and their hopes for it in 2019…in the midst of actually competing for a playoff spot in 2018. I’ve given this FO a lot of grief, and they’ve earned even more of it recently, but I think that’s a fairly clear-eyed realization, even if it’s a painful one.

Fundamentally, the problem is just that the Superteams in the AL got too good too quickly. The M’s can’t exactly wait for the Astros to decline through attrition and age; they’re much younger than the M’s, and so are the cores in Boston and New York. If they can’t really compete with them over the course of the next two years (Paxton had two years of control remaining), then moving Paxton for players who’ll be around longer is the necessary move, even if it makes the team worse in 2019.

So, was this the right package of players? The industry consensus seems to be “no,” as nearly everyone has argued that the return feels light for someone of Paxton’s ability. As the game gets more analytical, the trade value (or FA value) of players whose peripherals outpace their actual runs allowed grows – the best example may be the feeding frenzy going on right now for Nate Eovaldi, a player whose ERA doesn’t scream ace, but whose stuff might. Paxton’s ERA has lagged his FIP, DRA and whatever other advanced metric you want to look at since 2016, his first year of being JAMES PAXTON, ace-type starter. There are a number of reasons why that might be, from poor defense to issues with sequencing (luck), but the thought was that nearly every team could overlook a superficially high ERA this year. If so, I wonder if this really was the best package the M’s could’ve commanded.

The headliner is Justus Sheffield, a power pitcher despite a small frame, and who features a four pitch mix. While his four-seam fastball sits in the mid-90s, it’s got extremely low spin, meaning it functions more like a sinker. His spin rate ranked 8th lowest out of nearly 650 pitchers last year, sitting right around the rate of Willians Astudillo and Chris Gimenez. Gimenez is a catcher, and Willians Astudillo is a magical gnome, but neither are front-line, fastball-first starting pitchers. The closest thing to that near him is ex-Mariner Mike Montgomery, and then, further away, Sean Manaea. Manaea is actually not a bad comp: both are lefties who were big-name prospects, and both have been traded on their way up – Manaea was originally drafted by the Royals, while Sheffield was part of the Andrew Miller deal, going from Cleveland to New York a few years back. Both feature a good slider as the best pitch/outpitch, and both pitches have similar movement and are thrown from a similar release point. And, crucially, both have struggled at times with command – Manaea’s first year in the KC system, he put up a walk rate over 10%, which wasn’t great for a college-trained pitcher. Sheffield’s struggles with walks have been more consistent, and while Manaea’s control failed him a bit in 2017, he’s largely overcome the problem. Sheffield hasn’t quite figured that out yet, as his overall walk rate last year was still 10%. This (along with his 5’10” height) is why the industry isn’t as convinced Sheffield can stick as a dependable mid-rotation starter.

The M’s are thus betting that they can help Sheffield iron out the kinks in his mechanics and figure out a way to get his stuff to play up a bit. I like the movement on his change, and 94 MPH velo with sink sounds great from a lefty starter, but he’s less of a finished product than you’d want from a top prospect who’s already made his MLB debut. To balance that risk, the second piece of the deal, Erik Swanson, is a bit more of a classic high-floor guy. Swanson’s got very good control, he’s essentially solved AAA, and has nowhere to play on the Yankees loaded club. His projections for 2019 are actually better than Sheffield’s, thanks to that lower walk rate. Swanson’s a fly-baller with great stats but without a big-time arsenal. At 25, he was going to need to be added to the Yanks 40-man roster, and it wasn’t clear that the team was going to do that for a prospect who’d rank in the mid-20s in that system. But he feels a critical, critical need for Seattle, who have essentially no upper-minors starting pitching that they’d actually want to use. He was immediately added to the M’s roster, and would easily be a top-10 prospect in the M’s system. All of that said, Swanson reminds me of some players the M’s have moved, in large part because they couldn’t figure out how to make their pedestrian stuff but great command arsenal work. I think Andrew Moore’s the sine qua non of this type, but I think Ryan Yarbrough fits the template as well. The M’s have to believe that something in their development system has changed, and that they can help Swanson succeed where Moore failed.

The final piece is OF Dom Thompson-Williams, a former 5-th rounder who’d struggled a bit in the low-minors despite being a college draft pick. He didn’t strike out much, but absolutely couldn’t hit for power in games. After a season and a half of pro ball, he’d amassed 6 HRs, which wouldn’t cut it for a tweener CF/corner OF guy. Then, last year, he knocked 22, slashing .290/.356/.517, and getting his career back on track. For the Yankees, he was an afterthought – a great pop-up guy, but who didn’t have a real place to play on the big club, and who languishes behind other OFs in a loaded system. The M’s get another crack at the old Mitch Haniger template, a CF/corner guy who’d struggled and then made big changes and refashioned himself. Yes, his K% soared along with his ISO, but the M’s simply don’t have any OFs in the system who’ve put up a line like that. That says more about the M’s system than it does about Thompson-Williams value, perhaps. I can see why the M’s wanted him included, and I can see why the Yankees shrugged their shoulders and agreed.

Next year, I’d imagine Sheffield starts in Tacoma both for service time manipulation and to hone his control. Swanson’s probably ticketed there, though he could potentially crack the starting rotation, particularly if Mike Leake is traded. Thompson-Williams would probably flank Kyle Lewis in Arkansas, but could see Tacoma by the end of the year.

The M’s are now much worse, on paper, for 2019. James Paxton must shave and then shove for New York, who now has a rotation that can go toe to toe with Boston’s and even Houston’s. My biggest worry here is not that the M’s got too little for Paxton. It’s that they weren’t really able to get as much value out of Paxton’s unreal talent. BABIP woes, injury problems, then dinger issues this year – Paxton was awesome here, but anyone who watched his 16-K game against Oakland or his duel with Gerrit Cole last July knows he was a hell of a lot better than the 3.77 RA/9 he had with the M’s, a mark that’s better than average by far, but less than he probably deserved. My fear is that New York *will* figure something out, the way Houston did with Cole, Boston did with Chris Sale, and the way the Yankees eventually did with Luis Severino. The Yankees play in a bandbox and have lower-than-average HR rates. If Paxton can limit HRs AND BABIP (and let’s be clear, that SHOULD happen given his stuff), he can be even better in pinstripes. I hate saying that, but it feels almost inevitable.

Lorena Martin’s Ouster and Acute Pangs of Zduriencik

November 12, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 18 Comments 

Let’s get the obligatory throat-clearing caveats out of the way: Lorena Martin and the Mariners are saying very, very different things about not only the circumstances of Martin’s departure, but about the M’s leadership’s attitudes towards players from Latin America. We don’t know what’s fact and what’s just frustration (on anyone’s part). We weren’t in the various rooms, and don’t know anything about intention. But we do know that Lorena Martin was relieved of her duties as Director of High Performance, and that she claims to have observed racist behavior from the M’s player development brain trust of Andy McKay, manager Scott Servais and GM Jerry Dipoto. Without knowing anything else, this is an unmitigated disaster.

A year ago, the M’s were confident they could end a playoff drought that had grown into a distraction in its own right. They came to that confidence not through free agent spending, or by a team whose projections showed a league-beating colossus. The projections *all* agreed that the M’s were somewhat mediocre. The M’s confidence was the result of what they thought was a superior process.
Here’s what I wrote back in Spring Training:

That’s really the main reason why the M’s feel confident ignoring PECOTA and Fangraphs: they believe they’re elite at coaching and teaching. This is why they angrily dismiss the consensus that their farm system is the sport’s worst. It’s why they brought in Dr. Lorena Martin to add new dimensions to their development process, and it’s why they actually give up real talent to acquire Healy, Shawn Armstrong, Nick Rumbelow and others whose projections are…uh…not encouraging. They’re betting that there’s untapped potential there that has never shown itself, and they believe they’re the org to uncover it. This approach, it must be said, hasn’t been all that successful, isolated wins like Nick Vincent aside. Confidence like this is what’s dividing the M’s fanbase, I think. To the saber-inclined, this is pure hubris- the team that’s burned its farm system to the ground now thinks they can teach up other teams’ cast-offs, their own meager talent reserves, turn Dee Gordon into a gold-glove CF, teach Ryon Healy patience, and turn Ariel Miranda back into an effective starter. To others, this is simply confidence, confidence borne of watching a development-focused plan come together, changing everything from how they train, what they eat, to how they look for and acquire talent.

The Mariners had scoured the world and brought in a person with an amazing resume in a variety of sports and brought her in to get more out of every player on the roster. This wasn’t about changing a workout routine, or re-thinking off-season training. The idea was not only to bring a quantitative view towards diet, exercise, skill-specific training, etc., but to meld her view of personality and mental attributes of successful players (in any sport) with the mental focus of McKay and others in player development. The idea was to integrate physical and mental training to unlock the potential in players, potential that would never show up in anything as black and white as ZiPS projections or a player’s Fangraphs page. The M’s were supposed to be able to get much more out of players than other teams had, and in doing so, sneak up on the playoffs. They knew – everybody knew – that they didn’t have the talent of many of their rivals. But they were working on making post-hoc talent evaluations meaningless.

The M’s went out and blew their projections out of the water for a while, but they couldn’t sustain those abnormal winning percentages in the second half. This was clearly intensely frustrating for all involved. Yes, Marco Gonzales was faring better than his projection, but Ryon Healy looked *exactly* like Ryon Healy, only with a slightly less explosive baseball. Dee Gordon couldn’t get out of a slump, nor could Kyle Seager. Things came to a head in a locker room fight between Gordon and Jean Segura that spilled out into the hall for the media to document. Scott Servais downplayed it, but in hindsight, it was clearly a bigger deal than they’d let on. The club’s culture had been set by Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano, and that seemed to create a positive, fun-loving environment, as these old Spring Training stories document. There’d be contests, lots of trash talk, and lots of laughter. Somewhere in the second half, amidst Cano’s suspension for PEDs and the A’s insane hot streak, that all curdled.

I think it’s likely that both sides in this dispute would pinpoint the few weeks around this event as the reason we are where we are. For Martin, the M’s leadership – who’d already been oddly public about their expectations for Felix and their anger at his falling short of them – saw the clubhouse leaders as the primary culprits for the lack of cohesion, and that frustration took on racial overtones. Perhaps the M’s saw this as the final evidence that Martin’s methods simply wouldn’t work: she couldn’t force recalcitrant players to actually change their ways, and thus was a barnacle on the hull of the good ship Mariner. Performance wasn’t changing, and either players weren’t improving after implementing her suggestions or weren’t going to her at all.

One of these explanations is considerably worse. If the M’s management has ever displayed a hint of the behavior Martin alleges, then none of them should work in baseball again. It’s so shocking, so ugly, but it doesn’t require some imaginative leap, either. What WAS the Felix Hernandez situation about, really? And what has the FO done to really earn the benefit of the doubt? Doesn’t all of this just feel like the Jack Zduriencik situation? It was Zduriencik who hired a non-traditional high performance specialist from another sport. Just like the recent story about instructs without baseballs, there was this old story about the M’s conditioning program without weights. That revolutionary path to building a better system quickly foundered, and the M’s parted ways. Shortly thereafter, the M’s fired plenty of FO members, from the director of pro scouting to the director of analytics, and more. Just as now, people you’d have expected to be circumspect named names and absolutely blasted the GM and the culture of the team.

It’s easy to say that the ills of one FO don’t have any bearing on a new FO. That’s true to a point. But it’s pretty clear that you can’t hire someone to revamp a process without *everyone* being on board with it. My hunch is that plenty of people in the org weren’t enamored with Martin and her newfangled ways, informed by a bunch of other sports. My hunch is that players were somewhat resistant to her, and that coaches were reluctant to insist that players follow her methods. When the M’s season fell apart, people within the org blamed their high-profile leaders like Cano, while giving other struggling players a pass, whether due to injury, displaying classic signs of effort (#eyewash), or because those players reminded the M’s leadership of themselves. The M’s management may be racist, or they may simply be frustrated by a painful season. What they aren’t is building any kind of new model of player development. The dream of being better than the stats, better than the farm system rankings, better than their competition – all of that is dead right now. They can work on a new model tomorrow, but they’ll do so amidst the fallout of this failure. They’ll get to work needing to hire for a position that just blew up due to inability to work with *current* management. They’ll need to convince Dominican players to sign with them. They’ll need to get qualified women in a variety of positions to stay or come on board in the wake of the Kevin Mather scandal and now this. I’d say “good luck,” but I’m not sure I mean it.

’18 40-Man Preview Extravaganza

November 12, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Is anything better than last year? Is something better than nothing? Such philosophical questions as into the nature of being and non-being have plagued man since started thinking too much. Me, I just write the minor league baseball material.

Last November, I wrote 1500+ words and the Mariners added no prospects to the 40-man. “How dare you say our system ranked last in baseball!” said the Mariners. “None of these guys are worth using space over lol,” also said the Mariners. We utilized the Rule 5 Draft to select and then reject first baseman Mike Ford, who went on to have a “meh” season for the Yankees triple-A affiliate, restocked on minor league catchers—a far more efficient tactic than converting every infielder who wasn’t quite twitchy enough, and lost a talented but often injured left-hander who went on to pitch more in one season in the D’Backs season than he had in the two previous years combined, though it only got him to 76.1 innings total.

Now we have the same batch of dudes if they’re still around! We also have prep and international signings to consider from back in 2014 as well as college picks from 2015, the exciting last draft of the Zduriencik era. In some other weird alternate universe, we’d be talking about adding Alex Jackson to the 40-man, gosh, remember him? A lot of people remembered him all-too-much after he had an .808 OPS between advanced- and double-A last season for the Braves. I didn’t hear a peep about him this year and oh look, .647 OPS at double- and triple-A, whoops. Considering the college picks of 2015 is less depressing although that finds us in a familiar position of “we would more strongly consider adding him were he still a member of the organization.” Fingers crossed that this won’t remain the case as we get to next year and the first draft under DiPoto. Of course, these are the Mariners, and for all we know we’ll have a different GM next year who has limited appreciation for the previous paradigm etc etc. NOTE: I am not speculating, I merely default to gallows humor as a large-scale coping mechanism.

It was a bad year for recent Aquasox as Michael Suarez and Andres Torres were both injured and neither Ronaldo Rosario nor Joseph Rosa could figure out how to hit. I’m also going to discount Chuck Taylor who, like Curletta, needed to be re-signed but was without being added to the 40-man. Other omissions included: Bryan Bonnell (not a good relief profile), Adonis de la Cruz (K numbers fascinate, but is without buzz), Marvin Gorgas (bad command), Spencer Herrmann (weak double-A debut), Ryne Inman (remains a bit wild), Anthony Jimenez (hit worse in a more favorable league), and Matt Walker (needs to “prove it” as a deception guy). I also found out while writing this that there are three guys named “Logan Taylor” in the minor leagues. White people, amirite? Darin Gillies and Anthony Misiewicz were considerations, but they’re less likely as major contributors and I ought to cut myself some slack more.

Read more

The First Big Trade and the M’s Approach to 2019

November 9, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Sorry for the delay in writing this one up, but I ended up writing about this for Baseball Prospectus. Uh, yeah, so I’m going to be contributing over there now. It’s a big honor, as I’ve read BP for *almost* as long as I read this blog, and of course, it was through USSMariner that I found BP in the first place.

The upshot is that the M’s are essentially paying Tampa as a professional development contractor. The M’s have tried desperately to find a CF, and they’ve failed. Guillermo Heredia – also included in the trade – never developed despite the ability to work a walk and defense that looked good at times. Leonys Martin seemed to get into a slump midway through 2016 and just was never able to get out of it. Uh, until this year, in Detroit. Dee Gordon…the less said, the better.

Mallex Smith looked to be very Guillermo Heredia-like when the M’s sent him to Tampa as part of the ill-fated Drew Smyly acquisition. But as is the Rays’ wont, they were able to improve him and create a more-than-playable CF. Unsurprisingly for a guy with his speed, Smith hits the ball at a lower trajectory and hits plenty of ground balls. It may help his BABIP a bit to run out GBs in the SS/3B hole, so it’s not like the Rays wanted to get him to hit a lot of fly balls; as one of the weaker fly ball hitters in the game, that’d be a recipe for disaster. The problem was the nature of those low-to-negative angled hits. In 2016, the average Mallex ground ball came off the bat at 73.8 MPH (per Statcast). That was good for 466th out of 471 players with at least 50 balls in play, beating out the likes of Johnny Cueto and Max Scherzer. In 2017, he somehow dropped even more, all the way to an average of 72.3 MPH. That left him at 462 out of 466 players, but hey, in your FACE, RA Dickey. But last year, he was up to 80.3 MPH, which, while not good, at least ensured he was in the range of position players and not pitchers. Not only that, but Smith cut his K rate as well, meaning those grounders weren’t just hit harder, but they were coming at the expense of strikeouts. At all added up to a wRC+ pf 117 and a 3+ win season.

Things changed, though, when the Rays acquired Tommy Pham from St. Louis. With a full OF, and an OF that promised more power than Smith could provide, the Rays had a 3-win, club-controlled asset that they didn’t desperately need, and like anything they don’t desperately need, they shopped him immediately. The M’s get a massive, massive upgrade in CF, and they can finally bring Dee Gordon back to 2B. This does a couple of things. Not only does it improve the M’s defense, but it may help them dominate the market around the trade deadline. Dee Gordon is untradeable now, after an abysmal offensive season and the whole let’s-just-forget-it-ever-happened CF experiment. A solid 1st half back at his old position could help the M’s find a buyer, and a great 1/2 year from Smith could make him a guy who commands a premium. He’s still a pre-arb guy; he’ll have his first arb season in 2020. If the M’s aren’t bad in 2019, they keep him and let him be a cheap, useful piece to build around. If they’re horrible, they’d go into the deadline with players to sell that other teams might actually *want* for a change.

So much of what happens next depends on the market for James Paxton. There’s been a lot of talk in recent days about the M’s willingness to move him, with Ken Rosenthal talking about the Yankees interest today. The M’s don’t have to move him, and frankly *should* be listening to offers on their ace, but it’s nice that they don’t need to move him unless they’re blown away by an offer. If he stays, the M’s could again be semi-competitive. If the M’s drop out of contention, I think another healthy 1/2 year might make him a great win-now pick-up. But if someone offers two-three top 100 prospects, then I think the M’s take the deal now.

Mike Zunino’s volatility made it harder to assume he’d be decent trade bait. His value would’ve been fairly high at this time last year, but it had tanked by the time July of 2018 rolled around. The M’s clearly didn’t know how to bring him out of the slumps he was so often mired in, and decided to sell now when he had both a sterling defensive reputation and memories of his 2017 were fresh. It’s got to be a humbling situation; the M’s have been trying to develop a catcher since Dan Wilson (who was mostly developed in Cincinnati), and they finally did it, but it didn’t stick, and then they had to use that partial success to cover over their other glaring developmental failure: CF.

It’s a post of mine, so you know PD is going to come in for criticism, but putting that aside, this has the potential to make the M’s better in 2019. Yes, a great Zunino would’ve been the easiest path to improvement, but that was far from a sure thing. An easier improvement would be getting more than replacement-level production from your starting CF. The options in free agency at C aren’t great, but then, they don’t need to be. They need to replace Zunino’s overall performance, which, to be fair, was buoyed by his amazing defense. But his .259 OBP and .289 projected OBP aren’t exactly high bars to clear. AJ Ellis comes to mind as a cheap one-year stop-gap who has some of Zunino’s strengths in game-calling/managing a staff, while also offering a solid eye at the plate. No 450′ HRs, though, and his framing grades poorly on BP’s metric. Stephen Vogt lives locally, and had solid framing numbers the last time he was healthy; that “healthy” part means he’d come cheap, but it’d be tough to count on 120 games from him. Anyway, there are options for even a team that’s going to claim budget constraints.

Other notes/transactions:

1: Mallex Smith brings a ton of value on the basepaths, and that’s an area that the M’s have struggled with for years. Last year’s team should’ve bucked that trend, and maybe it would have if Dee Gordon had gotten on base more, but the M’s graded poorly in FG’s baserunning metric, which measures SBs/CSs, but also things like scoring from 1st on a 2B, going from 1st-3rd, etc. The problem is that the M’s have been bad every year, and while they’re better than they were in, say, 2015, they’re still grading poorly even after spending on speedy guys like Gordon. Some of this comes from signing Nellie Cruz and watching Kyle Seager’s speed slip away, but my guess is that the same factors that make it really hard to hit 2B and 3B in Safeco make it exceedingly hard to take extra bases on the basepaths. The OF is simply too small, meaning it’s harder to be certain a ball will find a gap, and it’s correspondingly easier for an OF to get a ball off the wall back to the IF quickly. It didn’t seem to bother Jarrod Dyson too much, but Gordon’s speed number sank along with…all of his other numbers last year. Here’s hoping Mallex is able to keep his amazing SB% and still go 1st-3rd on singles.

2: The M’s signed utility IF Dylan Moore out of the Brewers org. He’s hit well in recent years, but is 26 and AA/AAA, and is just now back on the map after a terrible stint in the Braves org after a trade from the Rangers for international bonus pool money. He put up gaudy numbers in High A in both High A leagues, but those were partially a product of great hitting environments (High Desert!). He collapsed for the Braves AA affiliate, slugging .292, and thus got released. He signed a minor league deal with the Brewers and blew away AA, eventually spending most of the year in AAA. He hit incredibly well, but then there’s that whole environment thing: he played in Colorado Springs. Still, as a young-ish guy with a promising bat, but perhaps not quite as promising as the stats show, he’s got enviable positional flexibility. In 2018 alone, he played SS, CF, 2B, 3B, 1B, and LF. He’s played all 3 OF spots in the past, and seems to know how to handle the middle infield without anyone losing their job over it. This could be your new Andrew Romine, or at least a more interesting AAA IF than the Rainiers have had in a while.

3: Speaking of the Rainiers, they’ve resigned reliever Ryan Garton, who’d been outrighted last year and played sporadically in Tacoma in 2018 while navigating a series of injuries. You may remember him coming over from, you guessed it, the Rays in the minor trade that netted the M’s Mike Marjama. That trade sent IF Luis Rengifo to Tampa, but they quickly moved him to Anaheim, whereupon he had a huge breakout, and now finds himself in the Angels’ top 10 prospect list, and a guy who will probably get some big league time next season.

The Rebuild is On?

November 6, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 9 Comments 

The Hot Stove League’s season is still young, but the M’s are all over the news. Importantly, we’ve seen the M’s signal their willingness to move key members of the 2018 roster if a deal can be made. Perhaps even more importantly, they’ve revamped their coaching staff, indicating that they need a new approach to player development *at the major league level.*

Discussions of the M’s predicament are thick on the digital ground in the M’s blogosphere and nationally. The M’s remain mired far, far behind the likes of Houston and Boston, and now must contend with an up-and-coming A’s club as well as an Angels squad that still has 2-3 of the best players in the world, depending on your definitions. The M’s have the highest payroll obligations for 2019 *and* the worst farm system in the AL West, and they’re coming off of a year in which they finished 3rd in the division.

The M’s have a decision to make this offseason, but it’s set up with a series of smaller decisions. The former dominated the news cycle today, as news broke nationally that the M’s are taking offers on just about everyone and exploring a full-on rebuild. The M’s ability to pull off what, say, the White Sox did a few years ago or the Cubs before that is limited because of the fact that so much of their payroll is tied up not in young, exciting players like literally Chris Sale or, say, Jeff Samardzija. They’re tied up in Felix Hernandez and a weird version of Kyle Seager who just finished a full season with an OBP of .273. But that’s where the smaller decisions come in: the M’s made a very non-traditional hire at Pitching Coach by picking up the St. Louis Cardinals’ erstwhile Director of Pitching Analytics, Paul Davis. They’re looking for a new hitting coach, too, with Edgar Martinez stepping back from that role to more of an advisor position.That’s important because a lot of *why* the M’s are paying untradeable players is that they simply weren’t able to coach those players to higher levels of performance. Whether they do a tear-down now, or wait until the trade deadline, the M’s need to have coaches in place who are all about getting players to a fundamentally different level of performance. Population-level data was really revolutionary in the Moneyball era, but it’s all but meaningless now in an environment where all clubs have it, and any fan can access it. Successful teams are upending those general rules, and terrifyingly for the M’s, it doesn’t look like luck. There’s a reason Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton got better in Houston, and there’s a reason players as disparate as Aaron Judge and CC Sabathia contributed more than anyone would’ve imagined in New York the past two years. Unless and until that changes, not even a free agent spending spree would fundamentally alter the M’s trajectory.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that the M’s could forego a rebuild by committing to be major players in free agency. With impact classes both now and next year, and with the M’s cash crunch easing after 2019 AND with the luxury tax level rising, there are no baseball reasons to worry about investing in some of the bigger names on offer this year. Ownership may not want to, and I know exceeding the luxury tax threshold in 2019 may be unpalatable, but it’s not some major impediment: the penalties really ramp up for exceeding the soft cap three years in a row, and the M’s don’t need to do that. Moreover, coaching changes can help the M’s become the team that helps free agents unlock hidden potential instead of remaining a team trying to compete against newly-Astrofied competition.


I’m perhaps reading too much into the public statements, but it’s somewhat interesting to me that the M’s seem to be making Marco Gonzales all but untouchable, even as James Paxton becomes trade bait. A part of that may just be a testament to how much “club control” uh, controls discussions of player value, and it may be that the team doesn’t see their window of contention overlapping with Paxton’s remaining contract. But Gonzales (and Paxton!) are a good reminder of another way the club can start to chip away at the gap in current/projected talent: defense. M’s fans point to Gonzales finishing in the top 20 in Fangraphs’ WAR measure, and it’s true, there he is at #20! A low walk rate, moderate dingers keep his FIP low. But using Fangraphs’ own RA-9 based WAR, he drops to 39th. BBREF’s different version of RA-9 WAR slots him behind Wade LeBlanc, for example. Now, sure, a high BABIP pushed his ERA higher than his FIP, and that’ll regress, right? Well, we’ve been saying that about James Paxton now since this point in 2016, and it simply hasn’t. Paxton’s wOBA-allowed with men on base has remained stubbornly higher than his overall mark, and Gonzales’ is following the same path. Both of them have posted high BABIPs now for multiple years in a row, and it’s possible that neither is all that great at contact management. Again, that could be related to coaching to some extent, but some of it is clearly defense. The M’s have tried to build a great team defense, and it hasn’t quite worked out, just as the A’s own attempts to turn around an awful run-prevention group succeeded beyond anyone’s imagining this year. Other teams can do this. If Marco Gonzales is going to be a centerpiece of the next good M’s team and not just a perfectly cromulent, cheap #3-4 starter, then they need him to give up the runs FIP says he should, not the runs the scoreboard said last year.

Corey Brock’s got an interesting piece at the Athletic today about the M’s High Performance Camp in Peoria today. Instead of working on skills, the camp seems to be about building strength, diet/exercise habits, and about assessing their mental state after a grueling season of bus rides and fast food. There are no baseballs, but lots of wearable tech, cooking lessons and discussions. It’s a great idea, particularly given the brutal nature of the minor league season. But I also don’t think the M’s will get as much of a benefit from it unless the entire team – meaning coaches at every level – are on board. If the M’s want more players to cook and not eat out all the time, then they need a way to make that practical in Clinton, Iowa and Charleston, West Virginia, and Modesto, California. The M’s wanted a change in their primary big league coaches. More important than any one coach below them, though, they need every coach to be speaking the same language. I’m not sure that happened last year, impacting how well players developed and how they transitioned between minor league levels and between the minors and majors. Several of those coaching spots will turn over, as the M’s already know several minor league coaches won’t be back. That’s an opportunity to do things differently, of course, but it’s something they absolutely have to get right if they want to restock the team with prospects due to, say, and Edwin Diaz trade.

The White Sox embarked on a full-on rebuild in late-2016/early-2017 by shipping off Chris Sale, signed to an absurdly cheap extension, and Adam Eaton. Later in 2017, they offloaded another cheap/good starter, Jose Quintana, as well. With an excellent coaching staff led by Don Cooper, the Sox bet on themselves in opting for high-ceiling talent in return for Sale/Eaton/Quintana instead of league-average, high-floor closer-to-guarantees. It was an interesting approach, with super high-risk guys like Michael Kopech, Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and more coming to the Sox. If they were able to coach these guys to their potential, they’d pair with Carlos Rodon and high draft picks and build a team that could compete with the Cubs/Red Sox. It’s still early…kind of…but they haven’t gotten all they would’ve liked. Giolito’s been roughly replacement level in 200+ innings, Carson Fulmer’s been worth less than that, and Kopech needed Tommy John not long after debuting this year. Moncada’s improving, but led the league in Ks this year with a SLG% of exactly .400. He’s only 23, things can and will get better, but they gave up several absolute market-defining players and are still in wait and see mode, with two awful seasons in the books and more to come, it looks like. This is a collective failure – albeit one that they still have time to correct. The M’s won’t be trading anyone like Sale (though Diaz may come close), but whoever they get, they absolutely need to have a higher batting average on the players they get than Chicago’s had to date.

The M’s got here because they bet on their ability to develop players at the big league level and lost that bet. They’ve bet on their ability to build around a core of players locked up with long-term contracts, and while they’ve done OK at finding players to slot in around them, the core’s production has dropped alarmingly. They seem to recognize the danger here, and the changes in staffing and development processes are an attempt to address the risk. But this absolutely needs to be straightened out in advance, and thankfully, addressing the gap in player development (or the consistency of message in player development?) can help whatever path forward the M’s choose.

2018: The Year of Standing Still

October 10, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 19 Comments 

I’d like to believe that there’s no way to call an 89 win season a failure. It’s hard to look past all of that winning and perceive a wave of pain and indifference (paindifference? Apainthy?) looming ahead. It’s also not much fun to read, and I can assure you, not much fun to write. It’s been a strange year, and it’s manifested itself lately in an aversion to writing this post down. That’s odd; in general, I don’t mind criticizing the team’s direction. It’s just that we’ve gone a year and I don’t feel like I’ve learned anything about what the M’s are good at, or how they might want to move forward. I thought this year would reveal something, for good or ill, about the M’s approach, about their player development, about their pathway to challenging the AL’s premier teams. I was wrong.

It’s obvious to all involved, not least Jerry Dipoto and the front office, that they’re in a serious bind. In the weeks since the season ended, Dipoto’s given admirably frank assessments of the painful second-half slide the M’s experienced and the fact that they may have to forge ahead against a rebuilt Oakland side without the services of Nelson Cruz. The Astros saw injury-plagued and/or just plain down years from essentially their entire core: George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Jose Altuve. They won 103 games. The Red Sox won 108, as Mookie Betts put together an inner-circle HOF-type season, Chris Sale kept on getting better, and Xander Bogaerts tapped into his power. Worst of all, the Athletics offense carried a weak and then historically injury-ravaged rotation into the playoffs with 97 wins. The M’s remained in the playoff hunt despite scoring 100 runs fewer than the Astros, about 140 less than the A’s, and a staggering 200 fewer than the Red Sox. They allowed more than each team, too. The Mariners were a balanced team, without too many black holes, and with a pitching staff that did remarkably well considering the circumstances, but even if they can maintain this level of balance, the super teams are balanced, too, and balanced at a much, much higher level.

That’s not to say that the competition has ten times better talent. Ok, you actually CAN say that about the Astros and Red Sox. But teams like the A’s and Brewers don’t boast world-beating pitching staffs, and I think there are probably half a dozen A’s front office employees who couldn’t name all of the pitchers they ended the season with. Despite no real stars, and despite needing to utilize more than 5-7 starters, both teams allowed fewer runs than the M’s. As I said last off-season, great teams now do NOT use analytics to identify star-level players. EVERY team uses analytics, and there’s no hiding someone with a great record of performance. Everyone knows about them. The problem is that Wade Miley just pitched a playoff series-clinching game. Wade Miley is not a more talented pitcher than recent M’s teams have had, because recent M’s teams have had the actual Wade Miley. Wade Miley pitched much, much better this year than he did in Seattle, and while all of this is small-sample stuff, it seems pretty clear that certain teams are doing player development and big league coaching radically better than Seattle.

Christian Yelich slashed .298/.376/.483 in a cavernous pitcher’s park in 2016. It gave him an fWAR over 5, and at 24, it made him an interesting sort of star. He hit the ball on the ground too much to hope for much power, but 21 HRs for a 24-year old OF wasn’t bad in that context, and he had remarkably consistent BB:K ratios. He was forecasted to slug about .480 again in Milwaukee this year, with an .843 OPS (by ZiPS, at least), a mark quite close to Mitch Haniger’s .859 this season. Mitch hit for a bit more power than Yelich’s projection, but Yelich was supposed to take a few more walks. You know what happened: Yelich dropped a .326/.402/.598 season on baseball, making him the MVP favorite. Even as baseball seems to trade HRs for ever more strikeouts, many players are increasing their power while making MORE contact. Alex Bregman did it for Houston a little while after George Springer did it. Betts hit for a ton more power while striking out a teensy bit more, sort of the way Altuve did a few years ago. Aaron Judge was never supposed to be…this. Chris Sale and Gerrit Cole were very good starting pitchers, who’d settled in after several years of MLB play, and then suddenly after getting traded, they became nearly untouchable. Even Trevor Bauer, who’d been talking about this sort of lift-off for years without actually *doing* it, finally went and did it. The M’s had very good seasons from Marco Gonzales and Mitch Haniger that very clearly “beat” their respective projections, but are not in the same league as any of the others referenced above. Do you think that was bad luck? Was it GOOD luck, but just not as much as these other teams enjoyed? Will Fortune find some random M’s under-appreciated prospect and see him add 6-7-8 MPH on his fastball the way Josh James did this year for…damn it…Houston? I don’t know, and nobody knows, but I know that I doubt it. Mitch Haniger was a revelation this year, but he followed up a 2017 slash line of .282/.352/.491 with a full year of .285/.366/.493. I like the second one better! It’s great! It’s progress! It’s not transformative.

The M’s seem to have a great analytics group, and they’ve built a development staff who’s receptive to input from that great analytics group. They have coaches who seem interested in getting good ideas out of the spreadsheet and on to the field. It just doesn’t seem to be…happening the way I hoped it would. The M’s deserve a lot of credit for helping vets like Robinson Cano and Nellie Cruz *maintain* all-star level performance when age should be stripping it away, and they deserve credit for helping Gonzales and Haniger improve (though they’re both essentially at an age where performance peaks anyway). It’s not perfect: Kyle Seager’s slumped and Felix…I don’t want to talk about it. But my criticisms shouldn’t be taken as a blanket condemnation of the M’s front office. They’re fine, but despite having money, despite having a deep bench of former Baseball Prospectus writers and the like, something’s getting lost in translation somewhere.

You know the times-through-the-order penalty: that as pitcher face batters multiple times in a start, they fare a bit worse each time. Maybe it’s fatigue, maybe it’s that batters can time their pitches/know their repertoire once they’ve seen it again, but this is a sabermetric idea that’s essentially common knowledge at this point. Anyway, the league put up a .315 wOBA overall on the year, but that rises to .321 after seeing the pitcher at least once before their current at-bat. If they’ve seen the pitcher twice already, it inches up to .322. This is completely normal. The M’s .313 overall, and if they’d seen the pitcher before, that moved up to… .312. If they’d seen him twice or more? .309. The M’s have a completely normal times-through-the-order penalty, it’s just that they’ve started assessing it on their own batters.

The M’s line-up was supposed to be a strength, although it was never really clear just why. The M’s clearly punted on OBP, opting to put a ton of balls in play in a home park that suppresses BABIP. Worse, those swing-early-and-often hitters seem to have had some exploitable holes, and the more pitchers saw them, the more they went ahead and exploited them. Mike Zunino and Kyle Seager had uppercut swings, seemingly designed to attack sinkers and low fastballs. Soooo pitchers pitched them up, and on fastballs more than 6″ above the center of the strikezone, Seager put up a .233 wOBA and Zunino a .174. It’s small sample stuff, of course. Maybe everything will be fine next year. I wouldn’t stake my job on it, though. The M’s need to frankly assess their players strengths and weaknesses AND the strengths and weaknesses of their coaches and they *process* of delivering actionable information to those coaches and players.

I wanted to see the M’s make the playoffs this year, or at least see a resurgent Felix Hernandez give some hope – and entertainment – to a few years that look a bit bleak on paper. The M’s opponents are better, while the M’s may be getting worse. They can rebuild after a fashion, but with well over $100 M tied up in untradeable veteran contracts, it’ll be an odd sort of rebuild. To move forward, the M’s will need to sell off the most valuable players they employ – the kind of players they’d love to build around if they have a reasonable pathway to contention in the next 3-4 years. It sounds like they’re already seriously considering how likely that really is, and they’re probably looking at all manner of painful scenarios. If the team had fallen on its face this year, we’d likely already have seen a clear directional shift, with either Diaz or Paxton, or both, already traded. As it happened, they all stuck around and made a valiant run at the playoffs, which just delays the decision. The M’s can absolutely re-sign Nellie Cruz and hope to get to 86-89 wins (though matching this year’s win total will require more than just more Nellie), but they have to think about what 86-89 wins will get them.

I still don’t really know what the M’s bankable skills are, as an organization (OK, it’s marketing/communications/social and media relations). I can’t quite tell if getting 2-4 top-100 prospects would be playing to strengths or just wishcasting. I can’t quite tell if Trader Jerry will come up with a Walker-for-Hanigura blockbuster or a Peralta-for-Adam Lind, Enyel de los Santos-for-Joaquin Benoit, Chris Taylor-for-Zach Lee stinker. I can’t tell if Safeco’s back to being a serious, serious pitcher’s park again (look at these actual/expected wOBA numbers), or if MLB will quit messing around with the baseball. All of this impacts how the M’s approach this off-season. But I find myself frustrated at being in the same position as last year – they’re no better than they were relative to their peers, and obviously coming off an 89-win season with a negative run and HR differential, they’re quite likely worse. I’m frustrated that I still don’t see some positive signs from a barren farm system – a wave of players becoming unrecognizable versions of themselves all at once. The mitigating circumstances are everywhere: how COULD the farm system do much when everyone’s been traded (or hurt)? How could the M’s know that the ball would sink their 2016 season, or that injuries might sink their 2017? Those caveats make it hard to give in to cynicism and say “fire the lot” and start over. Optimism generally finds it hard to take root in these arid soils, so that’s not really an option either. Yes, it was great to see them succeed for much of the first half, and yes, it was awesome to see Edwin Diaz put up an all-time relief season. On day 1, I said the M’s needed to win that 2nd wildcard *or* see a great lion-in-winter season from Felix. They got neither, AND I feel like I haven’t learned anything about the game or the team I love. I have no idea what they plan to do next, nor any real rational basis for criticizing or supporting their decision. That rational basis needs to be grounded in some plan to leverage the org’s strengths, and I’m still no clearer on what those are.

Next Page »