Game 106, Mariners at Indians

July 29, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 44 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Trevor Bauer, 4:05pm

The M’s trouble scoring has brought their on-again, off-again pursuit of the second wild card to a head. According to BP’s metric, their playoff odds have dropped by 25 percentage points over the past week. Speaking of playoff odds, the Indians’ are now just a bit ahead of the Mariners’ by the Fangraphs/Coolstandings metric (though not by BP’s playoff odds) thanks to a better schedule down the stretch. That the Indians are in the race isn’t a shock; they won a WC berth last year, after all. What *IS* interesting is that they’ve got the 6th-best offense in baseball despite the implosion of several players they were counting on as middle-of-the-order threats. Nick Swisher has collapsed to a 72wRC+, and as his defensive ratings have collapsed as well, he’s been one of the least valuable players in baseball. Asdrubal Cabrera didn’t bounce back from a subpar 2013, and 2B Jason Kipnis – the breakout start who posted a 128 wRC+ last year – has slumped to a 95 wRC+; he’s gone from adding over 23 batting runs in 2013 to less than two this year. The big reason for their team-wide success has been the continued effectiveness of catcher Yan Gomes as well as the incredible emergence of Michael Brantley, son of ex-M’s CF Mickey Brantley. Brantley’s WAR places him in between Paul Goldschmidt and Robinson Cano, and looking solely at batting runs, he’s firmly in the top 10 in all of baseball, ahead of luminaries like Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Bautista and Miguel Cabrera.

Cleveland’s pitching has been surprisingly good, especially considering Danny Salazar’s faceplant. The Indians’ rotation’s put up a 3.69 FIP, slightly ahead of the M’s 3.82. To be fair, they’ve actually allowed more runs than that, so on TV as opposed to spreadsheetland, you might not come away with the impression that the M’s and Indians were all that close. But the rotation that lost two of its best starters last year is keeping them in contention, and that’s at least a minor surprise. Trevor Bauer hasn’t been the biggest contributor – that’d be Corey Kluber by quite a margin – but he’s a key reason why the Indians survived the loss of Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez. Bauer is pitching like the top prospect he once was, and he’s rewarding the Indians for their patience.

Bauer was drafted #3 overall in 2011 and shot through the Arizona system. At every level, he posted eye-popping strikeout rates, but he paired them with elevated walk rates as well. When you’re striking out 30% of opposing batters, a high walk rate is tolerable, but he also had some HR trouble at times. By the time he hit AAA, the HRs became more of an issue, and his velocity was more above-average than exceptional. He threw six or seven pitches, but frequently had trouble commanding most of them. In a brief call-up with Arizona, he was a mess – the walk rate became unbearably high, he had HR problems as well, and then got into a very public tiff with his catcher, leading the team to just-as-publicly disparage him and all but hang a “for sale” sign around his neck. Cleveland picked him up in the Shin-Soo Choo deal, and he rewarded their faith by getting even worse in 2013. It was just 17 IP, but he gave up 17 free passes to just 11 strikeouts. His average fastball velocity was 92, just 43% of his pitches hit the strikezone, and essentially no one was fooled – his o-swing rate of 20% makes Chris Young look like Yu Darvish. The kid who was so analytical about his own approach was at risk of bouncing out of the league.

His career at a crossroads, Bauer overhauled his mechanics at home and locally with the help of Kyle Boddy of Driveline baseball in Puyallup. The Indians noticed, and after bringing him up in mid-May (after tearing through the IL), he’s rewarded them with 80 solidly above-average innings. The first thing you notice is that he’s halved his walk rate. After double-digit walk rates in his MLB call-ups AND at every step of the minors, Bauer’s dropped to 8% (and 7% at AAA Columbus) in 2014. Has he done so by dropping three or four of his eclectic, almost experimental, pitches? No, he’s throwing more pitches this year according to BrooksBaseball. Is he taking something off the fastball to locate it better? No, his fastball velocity is UP about 1.5mph.

To learn more about how and why Bauer was able to transform his mechanics and his results, I talked to Kyle Boddy. What does HE think about the old saw that you can essentially trade some velocity for control? “If anything, there is a weak positive correlation between the two (though obviously if you throw slower, you probably don’t want to hit the strike zone that much).” Is Bauer actually throwing more different pitches this year, or is that just the pitch-type algorithms learning more about him? “I’d say [he is throwing more pitches]. He doesn’t throw all of them every game, and he does try to change some of his pitches’ profiles as well. The slider he throws now is slightly different than the one he started throwing. As you can guess, PITCHf/x neural nets have a hell of a time classifying them, as I’m sure Pavlidis does as well.” As Kyle mentioned, Bauer’s slider has actually slowed down as his FB’s gained a step, and if anything, the slider looks much more like a curveball. His curve’s at 79mph, while the slider’s down at 81mph. However, thanks to spin deflection, their vertical movement is quite different. To have a pitch that functions more like a hard slider, Bauer throws a cutter around 87-88.

Another part of Bauer’s new delivery is his position on the mound. Last year, he shifted his position on the rubber depending on the handedness of the hitter. This year, he’s sticking to the first-base side of the rubber regardless of who’s at the plate. Was that a conscious decision, or just something that felt comfortable. Perhaps unsurprisingly for Bauer/Boddy, it was definitely not based on gut feel: “Yes, he did [move on the rubber in 2013], and now he does not. It was a conscious change to throw off the 1b side of the rubber only for tactical reasons. He felt his pitches profiled better off that side of the rubber, and I agreed.” Despite his success in bringing down his walk rate, he’s still giving up some home runs. As a fly-ball pitcher and someone who’s publicly questioned the mania for keeping the ball down, it’s perhaps that’s not a surprise. So I asked Boddy if there’s a balance Bauer needs to watch between throwing FBs high in the zone to get whiffs and pop-ups on the one hand and giving up extra-base hits and dingers on the other. “Actually his RAA/100 is very, very good in the top part of the zone if you look at the data. On all pitches thrown in the upper quartile of the zone, Trevor is not giving up XBH and HR and BB at a detrimental rate, and in fact balls down in the zone have a worse run value than ones up. I think a major current failing of the sabermetric community at large is to rely on relatively old DIPS theories as if they were locked in stone, while remaining ignorant of the fact that there are significant advanced in analytics caused by HITf/x and Trackman data – neither of which is public. Batted ball exit velocity and trajectory are pretty important variables that few people actually pay attention to. Trevor’s LD% is very high which is probably somewhat luck, but not entirely. His main problem is a low percentage of first pitch strikes – in fact, he is well below-average there. That has been correlated with increased bat exit speed as hitters take more confident swings and do more damage when they are ahead (obviously).”

Interesting stuff. I’ll end this with a comparison – here’s a heatmap showing where Bauer throws his four-seam fastball. It’s nearly all up; mostly up and in. Here’s Hisashi Iwakuma’s since the beginning of 2013. I’m not going to say they’re mirror images; they’re not. Iwakuma’s fastball is more centered in the zone rather than scraping the top. He’s also kept it out and over the plate as opposed to up and in. The point is that in Bauer and Iwakuma you’ve got two completely different pitchers who approach their task in very different ways, and yet both tend to ignore both sabermetric and traditional advice when it comes to their fastball. Iwakuma pounds the bottom of the zone with his sinker and (especially) his splitter. As a result, he gets tons of ground balls and because he gets ahead, his walk rate is a rounding error from zero. Bauer pitches up, and even his slider/cutter typically result in elevated contact. He’s brought his walk rate down, but it’s still not low, and as Kyle mentioned, he’s often had to pitch from behind (Statcorner’s data agrees with this). But that doesn’t mean he’s interested in throwing his four-seamer at the knees. Both Iwakuma and Bauer have moderate HR problems, and while Iwakuma’s clearly a star in spite of them, it’s possible Bauer could join him.

Bauer’s platoon splits are a bit odd, but ultimately, lefties have had a better time than righties. Thus, the M’s have a lefty-heavy line-up today:
1: Ackley, LF
2: Taylor, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Hart, RF
9: Jones, CF
SP: Iwakuma

No Miller, but Taylor certainly needs some playing time. Ackley moves up to leadoff, as Bob Dutton talked about a few days ago.

Speaking of Dutton, he mentioned today that the M’s will hold a private workout with Cuban defector Rusney Castillo on Sunday. The big OF has been working out for several teams; no word on his timing to sign a deal. The M’s *have* signed one of the top-5 International “July 2″ talents in Brayan Hernandez, a switch-hitting OF seen by some as the top Venezuelan in this year’s market.

The Rainiers face Salt Lake today, and nearly-ex-Mariner Randy Wolf, on his third team since being let go at the end of spring training. The M’s went with Chris Young instead, a move that sounded like insanity to me at the time and :phtooo:, what the :wipes face: hell? Where did all of these eggs come from?

Podcast: Transactions Made and not yet Made

July 27, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 33 Comments 

Sunday Evening Podcast!

Jeff and I got this recorded a little early and why make you wait? Trades, Promotions, and the Wild Card are discussed this week.

Podcast with Jeff and Matthew: Direct link! || iTunes link! || RSS/XML link!

Thanks again to those that helped support the show and/or StatCorner work in general last week, and in the past, and hopefully in the future. It’s truly appreciated.

Game 105, Orioles at Mariners

July 27, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 77 Comments 

Roenis Elias vs. Miguel Gonzalez, 1:10pm

There’s a balance in writing these game preview posts between highlighting what makes individual pitchers distinct and/or unusual, and re-affirming and pointing out the ubiquity and importance of regression. What often pops out on a pitcher’s fangraphs page or in their pitch fx data *looks* bizarre, but over time, regression tends to smooth out these small-sample differences. We can talk about those differences and the likelihood that they’re “real” versus an interesting but ultimately meaningless expression of randomness; when you look at so many data points, it’s easy to find *something* that looks counter-intuitive and cool. It’s a balance between interesting stories of pitchers and individual skills that break off from sabermetric orthodoxy and the importance of reminding people why that orthodoxy developed and why it’s useful.

That’s why pitchers like Chris Young and today’s O’s starter Miguel Gonzalez are so fun. On the surface, they make no sense. Their raw stuff isn’t good enough to get strikeouts. They don’t get ground balls, and as a result, give up their fair share of HRs. Their control is average, maybe a touch better, but it’s nowhere near Iwakuma-class. Their entire career has been based on eliciting a certain kind of fly-ball contact from batters. This is the kind of thing that looks like a fluke, and at least in Gonzalez’s case, it technically could be. But while it’s important to remember that FIP predicts next year’s ERA better than ERA, it’s also important to try to learn why certain pitchers consistently post ERAs below their FIP.

If you look at the list of pitchers whose ERA is significantly better than their FIP, you’ll find Chris Young at the top, but Gonzalez ranks 5th. He wasn’t in the top 10 the year before, but the gap was still significant. Go back to 2012, and there’s Gonzalez again, at #3. So he’s demonstrated this, uh, “skill” or pattern in each of his three MLB seasons. Like Chris Young, he’s a fly baller, and thus, like Young, one reason for his ability to post great strand rates and low BABIP numbers is his ability get pop-ups. Gonzalez leads baseball (min. 80 IP) in pop-up rate this season; Young’s in 3rd.

Young’s incredibly, almost impossibly, low ground ball rate means that, to be effective, he has to limit his HR/FB ratio. Gonzalez hasn’t shown much of an ability to do this, as his HR/FB has risen in each of the past two years, and is now above the MLB average. Thus, while both give up HRs, Gonzalez’s HR rate is now edging into dangerous territory. And while his BABIP allowed was just .260 in his first two seasons, it’s creeping towards the average now at .291. An increase in HRs and an increase in BABIP should spell the end of Gonzalez’s run as an OK back of the rotation starter, but while it’s higher than it’s been, his RA9 is still near 4, meaning he’s got an RA9 WAR of 1.2, putting him on pace for a season right around 2 again. That’s not amazing, and obviously it pales in comparison to Chris Young’s RA9 wizardry this season, but it’s pretty good for a 4th starter in the AL East.

Part of what makes Young so crazy is his LACK of a repertoire. He throws 86mph straightballs and batters hit them 300 feet, just not 350 feet. Gonzalez is more of the classic junkballer, and he’s made adjustments this season. He throws a four-seam fastball at 92, a sinker around 91, a change/splitter, a slider and a curve. In his first few seasons, the slider was his primary breaking ball, but he’s throwing more curves this year. Thanks in large part to his underwhelming slider, Gonzalez has actually had a much tougher time with righties than lefties. This isn’t a BABIP thing; his career FIP is over one full run worse against same-handed hitters. Not only has his K rate been better against lefties, but righties have hit for far more power. He’s faced a few more lefties than righties in his career, but righties have hit 34 HRs to lefties’ 20. The slider wasn’t generating whiffs, and it was generating hard-hit contact – he’s given up more XBHs to righties on the pitch than strikeouts.

As an aside, Gonzalez looks like a pitcher who’d benefit by changing his fastball approach. Righties have teed off on his four-seam fastball, which he throws them about 4X more than his sinker. They’ve got 20 HRs on the pitch, good for a .527 SLG%. They haven’t seen as many sinkers, but their results have been pretty poor. They may make adjustments if he threw it more, but we know that sinkers/two-seamers have much larger platoon splits than the comparatively straight four-seamer. Thus, it’s probably not a shock that lefties have feasted on the sinker and battled his four-seamer to a draw. The K rate’s better, the BABIP’s better, and his sinker’s hasn’t actually generated many GBs to lefties (while it’s actually effective as a GB pitch to righties). The results we can look at make this look like an easy call, and while it’s undoubtedly not that simple, I’m genuinely curious what would happen. The counter, of course, is that he made need more four-seamers to disguise his curve ball a bit more. But even there, he’s throwing his curve ball more often to lefties, as he still like to throw the slider to righties. Using more four-seamers to lefties might actually improve his curve.

In any event, this is the kind of game where stacking the line-up with left-handers could be counter-productive. Lefties have hit him well, so it’s not like a by-the-book line-up would be disastrous.

1: Jones, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Hart, RF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Elias

Nicely done, Mr. McClendon. The line-up’s lefty-dominated at the top, then more balanced at the bottom, and Gonzalez is a good match-up for Hart and Zunino specifically. Sure, sure, the OF defense figures to be worse, and that’s an issue with Elias out there, but even after yesterday’s win, I think M’s fans will trade some defense/BABIP for the chance at some more runs. For that trade to work, of course, Corey Hart needs to stop being useless, so, uh, any time you’re ready, Corey.

No word on today’s starter in Tacoma, but as Mike Curto notes, this is a crucial stretch if Tacoma’s wants to remain on the outskirts of the playoff race. The Rainiers have called up OF Julio Morban from AA Jackson, but they’ve lost their most consistent pitcher, Matt Palmer, to the DL. RP/CL Logan Bawcom’s also back, and SS Gabriel Noriega joins Palmer on the DL. Morban had a great spring training in 2013, but his career’s been sidetracked by injuries. Perhaps not surprisingly, he’s missed most of 2014 due to…sigh…injury, and while he’s got talent, the lack of consistent at-bats has really stunted his progress.

Game 104, Orioles at Mariners

July 26, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 62 Comments 

Chris Young vs. Bud Norris, 1:10pm

Well that was frustrating. The M’s made Kevin Gausman look incredible, and they couldn’t convert several chances to knock a run in, forcing the game to extra innings. Kendrys Morales had the M’s sole RBI, but a late game K against lefty Brian Matusz left a sour taste; he’s still looking a bit rusty, and it’s basically August.

Today’s match up features Bud Norris, the Astros big trade chip last year. With Houston, he posted above-average strikeout numbers, but his overall RA9 was never all that impressive. Some of this came from the fact that he was pitching in front of a glorified AAA team for the past several years, and some of it comes from his park-driven home run problems. But as a guy with solid fastball velocity and a good slider, he was always going to be an intriguing buy for some team. In the end, the Orioles got him for LJ Hoes and Josh Hader, though the trade will probably be remembered as one of the first baseball deals involving draft picks. The Astros picked up the Orioles #3 pick in the competitive balance lottery (Houston selected UVA OF Derek Fisher), and traded international draft pool allocation money to even things out a bit.

With the Orioles, Norris is suddenly throwing much harder; his four-seam velocity is up to 94.5, two full MPH over where he was in 2012. But this hasn’t actually helped his K rate, which has tumbled this year to 17.3% – it was 22.5% in 2012. The culprit is Norris’ slider, which he throws a lot. To righties, he throws nearly 40% sliders, mixing in a very rare change. He’ll throw the change-up more often to lefties, as you’d imagine, but he still throws the slider over 20% of his pitches – pitch-type platoon splits be damned. Overall, Norris has struggled against lefties – the wOBA gap is pretty severe, and the FIP splits are perhaps even larger, at over one full run per 9IP. This year, though, he’s not shown any. That may be a blip, but it’s a big reason his ERA/RA9 is suddenly average-to-good, while his strikeout rate and HR rate push his FIP over 4.5. There’s a lot of BABIP in his solid results, but it really does look like the Orioles have changed his approach. He’s pitching to contact more, which has helped push his walk rate down along with the K’s. The FIP suggests it might not be worth it, but for now, the Orioles have to be happy with the deal. It’s not exactly the Astros dumping JD Martinez for nothing, but it’s perhaps another example that the Astros vaunted process has its flaws.

1: Jones, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Hart, RF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Miller, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Young

Go M’s.

Game 103, Orioles at Mariners

July 25, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 118 Comments 

King Felix vs. Kevin Gausman, 7:10pm

This is as high-profile a pitching match-up you’ll see in a game involving Baltimore. Kevin Gausman went #4 overall in the 2012 draft and his fastball averages over 96mph. He pairs it with the au currant splitter and the occasional slider, and despite less-than-stellar minor league numbers, he shot through the system, reaching the big leagues a bit under one year after being drafted.

That said, he’s not in that Sonny Gray/Jose Fernandez category of young pitchers who’ve made an immediate big league impact. He’s thrown 90 innings thus far in his career, and while the FIP’s pretty good, he’s been a bit over replacement level by RA9. Gausman just allows more runs than anyone with a 96mph fastball and a working splitter should. To break his career down into even less statistically significant chunks, he was burned by the long ball in 2013, but changed his approach and hasn’t had much of a problem this year. However, his command’s taken a step back in 2014, and coupled with a high BABIP, even the lack of HRs can’t push his RA9/ERA under 4.

The big problem looks like his strand rate, which cracked 70% this year, but remains mediocre. In this respect, he reminds me of Brandon Morrow, who struggled with runners on after moving to the rotation, and thus disappointed relative to his FIP (and his velocity). Of course, that problem abruptly went away in 2012, when Morrow flashed elite-level talent before falling victim to injury. Like Morrow, Gausman doesn’t have big platoon splits if you just look at his raw results. That’s pretty much what you’d expect, given that Gausman’s got a splitter to keep lefties at bay. But those narrow splits are partially the product of some weird BABIP issues against righties. Like some other pitchers we’ve looked at recently, Gausman’s a very different pitcher against lefties. Against righties, he walks few and gets an above-average number of grounders. Against lefties, he’s a bit more wild, and gives up Phil Hughes-like fly ball rates. Lefties elevate the ball, and thus, lefties have hit HRs against him.

And, as it happens, the M’s have a new lefty in their line-up to try to take advantage of that fact. Welcome back, Kendrys Morales. The M’s acquired the DH from Minnesota in exchange for reliever Stephen Pryor, who simply never looked the same after his torn lat muscle last April. Minnesota wasn’t going to get much for Morales, as he’s hitting just .234/.259/.325 thus far in the Twin Cities, good for a 57 wRC+. What they got was some salary relief and the ability to take a look at younger players in what’s become a lost season.

Morales isn’t *this* bad, as we all know. His rest-of-season ZiPS projection at Fangraphs is much better – a 105 wRC+. which is a far sight better than what the M’s have received from the DH spot, and a bit better than the 98 that ZiPS sees Corey Hart regressing towards. Kendrys is just 31, about a full year younger than Hart; neither of them are really at the age when skills just fall apart. Of course, plenty of hitters *have* actually lost it around 31, and the fact that Kendrys Morales’ top bbref comparison is Erubiel Durazo is not pleasant. Predictably, acquiring Morales pushes Montero back to AAA Tacoma.

It’s been a very interesting 24-48 hours in Mariner-land.

1: Chavez, RF
2: Jones, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Ackley, LF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: King Felix

The M’s talked about platooning Morrison and Hart at 1B, and with a righty on the hill, the M’s now get eight lefties into the line-up without doing weird stuff like playing Endy Chavez at DH. Endy Chavez is still leading off, so it’s not sunshine, rainbows and lollipops here.

The combination of Miller and Taylor allow the M’s to mix and match a bit more, and play the platoon advantage more than they did previously, but as with previous M’s teams, the problem isn’t that they’ve got tons of hitters facing same-handed pitching, the problem is that their hitters haven’t been good. This was always the issue with Justin Smoak, who obviously had the platoon advantage every PA, but couldn’t exactly turn that into a REAL advantage. The two best hitters on the M’s are lefties, and they’ll struggle – at least at the margins – against lefties until Zunino becomes a more complete hitter, until Kendrys Morales starts hitting like it was 2009, or Corey Hart wakes up.

King Felix is awesome.

Matt Palmer starts tonight for the surging Rainiers as they welcome the Sacramento Rivercats. If you can’t go see Felix, maybe see Matt Palmer the red hot Rainiers. Tyler Pike takes the mound for Jackson, Lars Huijer for High Desert, and Everett’s got a doubleheader featuring Dan Altavila in game one and big-time prospect Luiz Gohara in game two.

Things I’ve Been ___ On

July 25, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners, Minor Leagues · 7 Comments 

[Author's note: I always think of more things to mention and this got out of hand pretty quickly. The final word tally is over 6500, but it all breaks down into discrete sections of 250-500 words, which are manageable. You will manage.]

One of the things I rarely see addressed is when people of repute in some field admit their own flaws and indiscretions in analysis. It’s as if the only real way to continue building our own ostensible authority is to focus on our own successes and elide anything that doesn’t cohere with that vision. For the people doing the baseball journalism or looking towards front office work as a career— perhaps for any other industry— I suppose credibility and the insistence of it are necessary. But as something of a removed observer on the subject of baseball, who prefers to do it out of interest rather than think of it as a vocation, I’m blessed with the ability to talk about happenings without stressing too much about credibility. If I’m right or wrong, since the subject is relegated to a hobby, I don’t think of it as reflecting poorly on who I am.

People wanted a mid-season review. People often want prospect lists too, but those suck because they presume steady and identifiable stratifications of talent, parity amongst teams, and comparable risk/reward factors. Even outside of prospecting, the utilities I would find for listing would comprise a small list in and of itself. So I’m more content to do a review, but with a twist: I’m not going to talk about what has happened and presume objectivity. Instead, I’m going to address, as best I am able, the areas in which I made private or public predictions as to player development and talk about where I’ve been right to this point, where wrong, and where I can give myself an incomplete grade. In some cases, I won’t talk about what interests you specifically and there isn’t a single thing about unexpected breakouts, but this is my experiment.

I know that people rely on me for some of these perspectives because I’ve been starting at this stuff for an inordinate length of time, but my judgment is by no means perfect and I have my own biases and instances where I’ve shot from the hip. I want people to recognize that when I’m saying these things, I’m giving my own perspective based on what data I have and how I do my own calculus with it. I can be wrong. I can hit on some things out of acuity and others out of happenstance, and miss out because of bad process and bad luck. I can also hope that people try to come at these quandaries with the same rigor I try to [now and then], but for now I’ll just share what I’ve found.
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Game 102, Orioles at Mariners

July 24, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 48 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Wei-Yin Chen, 7:10pm

Iwakuma’s a soft-tossing righty who’s whittled his walk rate down each year, and has fashioned himself into an elite MLB starter. Chen’s a soft-tossing lefty who’s *also* cut his walk rate each year, but his progress has stalled, as he’s been unable to crack the 4.0 mark either in ERA or FIP (though he came really close in 2013).

Both have slightly inflated HR totals. Chen’s come because he’s a fairly extreme fly-baller. Iwakuma’s a ground-ball guy who occasionally pitches up in the zone and because he’s got an 89mph fastball. Iwakuma’s superior command and a true wipe-out pitch in his splitter separate him from just about everyone, of course, but the contrast with Chen’s kind of interesting.

I just wrote about the new M’s, so, uh, scroll down.

Line-up:
1: Jones, CF
2: Romero, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Hart, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Montero, DH
7: Ackley, LF
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Iwakuma

This is about as right-handed as the M’s can get – if lefties are going to beat them for the second straight year, the M’s aren’t going to leave any right-handed bats in AAA untested.

Chris Taylor, Jesus Montero to the M’s

July 24, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 6 Comments 

Bob Dutton of the News Tribune reported this afternoon that the roster spot the M’s had opened up by optioning Taijuan Walker back to Tacoma will be filled by SS Chris Taylor. There’d been plenty of speculation about the job, especially after the M’s hinted that they’d go with a bat, that Jesus Montero’s hot streak might have won him another job, or that Justin Smoak’s stint in purgatory was over. They skipped over Nick Franklin as well, apparently deciding to look for flaws in a player who hasn’t seen the majors before as opposed to the known issues Smoak/Franklin present. As it turned out, the M’s didn’t have one spot, they had two. With Willie Bloomquist heading to the DL, the M’s added Montero as well.

If you need a refresher on Taylor, he was the M’s fifth-round pick in 2012 out of (where else) UVA, where he played with Danny Hultzen, John Hicks and something like 10% of the M’s minor league system. He hit .284/.383/.445 in his junior year, which is the statistical line of a 10th-round senior-sign, but Taylor’s reputation with the glove was sterling. As a glove-first college SS, I guessed the M’s were trying to save some bonus pool money – 2012 was the first year with pools, remember – but instead, the M’s signed him to an OVERslot bonus of $500,000. That seemed odd, but the M’s saw an offensive threat lurking under some bad habits and mechanics. He was assigned to Everett, and promptly put up a .900 OPS in 150-odd plate appearances. Better than the college numbers, but it was a short-season league.

The M’s pushed him to High Desert the next year, then Jackson towards the end of 2013. He began 2014 in Tacoma, despite the presence of Nick Franklin, who’d ostensibly been in contention for the starting SS gig in Seattle. With Brad Miller, their original pop-up SS prospect, Franklin and now Taylor, the M’s were suddenly rife with middle infield prospects. Let’s hear it for the M’s player development team who got far more out of Taylor (glove-only guy), Miller (messed-up swing, can’t hit advanced pitching) and Franklin (gym-rat but lacks tools; no pop) than any neutral observer thought was possible. And yet, the reason the M’s are turning to Taylor now is that Miller and Franklin have, to varying degrees, been exposed a bit in the majors. Add Dustin Ackley to the list, and it gets scarier still. The M’s are apparently incredible at developing AAA middle infielders. How can that have so little bearing on big league success?

Obviously, the fact that two or three other successful prospects at AAA have struggled in the bigs doesn’t mean Taylor’s doomed. He’s unique, and in some ways, well-suited for the M’s right now. Unlike Jesus Montero, he’s done most of his damage against righties. While we can’t project him to run reverse-splits, he’s not going to be lost against righties. But he *is* right-handed, and if they wanted to platoon him a bit or pinch hit for Miller, that would actually make some sense. The fact that they now have a back-up (or a starter, frankly) for Miller means Willie Bloomquist can move back to filling in for everyone else, and it gives the M’s bench a bit of depth. Montero makes sense too, albeit in a limited role, but his speed and lack of a position limit his usefulness to this team. Until they’re ready to pull the plug on Corey Hart, Montero can’t add much unless he’s suddenly figured something out *this* trip to Tacoma.

Defensively, Taylor’s range looks to me about equivalent, maybe a tad better, to Miller’s (and superior to Franklin’s). Taylor’s hands and accurate arm have helped him make far fewer errors in the minors, though Miller’s arm strength on plays in the SS/3B hole may have the edge on Taylor’s. Offensively, Taylor lacks Miller/Franklin’s raw power. His batspeed’s a step behind Miller’s, and his swing’s more level than Miller’s, but that doesn’t mean he’s a contact hitter. Through the system, Miller struck out less. Taylor makes up for that in two ways. First, he’s got a good eye, and his walk rate’s been steady – and good. Second, Taylor’s speed is a legitimate plus tool. It’s why his range plays up a bit, and his baserunning has been best-in-the-system good. He’s stolen 69 bases in his 2+ years in the system, and he’s stolen them at an 86% success rate. That’s propped up by his incredible 2013, when he stole 38 bases and was caught only five times, but this is a weapon Taylor has that none of his predecessors have had.

Of course, they were all (even Franklin) seen as better bats. Taylor’s lack of HR-power will limit how effective he can be, but a SS who can run and take a walk could be pretty good. He’s struggled at times this year, and his numbers are held aloft by an incredible hot streak from mid-April to mid-May. But he’s not useless at the plate. Of interest to me, he’s shown the ability to battle against top-shelf velocity, putting up some good at-bats against Noah Syndergaard, probably the PCL’s top power arm this season. He recognizes breaking balls fairly well, but the thing I’ve been most impressed with is his ability to pull his hands in and catch up to inside fastballs. This isn’t to say he’s a 60-grade bat or anything. The M’s are just trying things out, and may ultimately be showcasing him for other teams. But the whole package is a bit better than the sum of its parts, which is something that stood out about Kyle Seager when he was coming up too.

Since his demotion, Montero’s been on fire in the PCL, and he’s put up a 1.271 OPS for the month of July. As Dave mentioned the other day in that debate with Rob Neyer, there are caveats. In addition to his large platoon splits (he’s annihilating PCL lefties, while he’s just been OK-to-pretty-good against righties), he’s posting very large home/road splits. If you know anything about the PCL, you know why that’s a red flag. Outside of Tacoma, which, for the PCL, plays as a pitcher’s park, the other teams in the Pacific Division are generally all extreme hitters’ parks. Colorado Springs is Coors field, if Coors was 1,000 feet *higher* in elevation. Albuquerque may be an even better place to hit, especially after Colorado Springs humidor’d up. Reno and Las Vegas too. So to see Montero’s home OPS at just .767 is a bit concerning. The other issue that hasn’t been mentioned as much concerns Montero’s batspeed. After Syndergaard threw six consecutive fastballs down the middle and got two strikeouts on Montero in May, I started looking at the pitchers Montero’s homered off of. It’s a diverse group, and, thanks to a desert windstorm, Syndergaard’s one of them, but lefty command/control guys are over-represented. Looking back at his MLB stats, Montero’s performance on velocity better than 93 or so looked to taper off after 2012, though of course the n is so small, it’s impossible to make any definitive statements. Thankfully, if you’re still the sort who’s hopeful about Montero, he’s made a mechanical change of his own.

As Ryan Divish reported the other night, Montero’s stance is quite different - it’s more open and much more upright. This tweak – something he worked on with Tacoma hitting coach Cory Snyder – may mean nothing. It may hamper his ability to reach outside pitches, or it may make it harder to react to breaking balls. On the other hand, Montero would probably trade some contact for power. As it’s now clear that he’s not fated to add defensive value at the big league level, his hitting needs to take several steps forward. The power he was rumored to have never really made it to the majors, and even his minor league slugging percentages are more great-for-a-catcher than great. If the new swing allows him to do more damage on the pitches he catches up to, that’s probably a trade he needs to make.

Welcome, Chris Taylor. Perfunctory head-nod, Jesus Montero.
taylor-pop-up

Game 101, Mets at Mariners

July 23, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 90 Comments 

Taijuan Walker vs. Bartolo Colon, 12:40pm

Taijuan Walker moves up to make this start after Erasmo Ramirez was rewarded for his sterling performance last night with a bus ticket back to Tacoma. It sounds crueler than it is, but here’s to Erasmo for stepping up when he (and the bullpen) needed him.

Bartolo Colon’s late-career, and really, it’s more like post-career, resurgence is still jaw-dropping to me. No longer the pudgy fireballer who won an undeserving Cy Young, he’s now a middle-of-the-rotation workhorse and, of course, the face that launched a thousand gifs. We’ve talked about it plenty here thanks to his time with the Oakland A’s, but the Bartolo Colon of this decade pounds the zone with fastballs. That’s almost all you need to know – he doesn’t establish the fastball, the fastball’s essentially all he has. Combining his 91-92mph four-seamer and 88-90mph sinker, he throws over 80% fastballs, the most in baseball. You’d think that as his velocity declines and the word gets out after several years of this that he’d suffer for it. And sure, his ERA is uglier now than it was when he pitched in Oakland. But Oakland’s the perfect stadium for a flyballer who challenges hitters, and he’s been unlucky thus far with the Mets. Sure, his HR/FB ratio’s crept up thanks to his new park (and not getting to visit Safeco so often), but his strand rate’s down dramatically, despite no real change to his BABIP. He’s posted FIPs in the 3′s each year since 2010, and that’s where he’s at in 2014.

Tai Walker returns from the minors as promised. The team sent him down not because of injury or ineffectiveness, but because they wanted him to continue to get some starts – something he may not have been able to do with the All-Star break breaking up the big league schedule. He’s been predictably wild in his two starts this year, walking five in his last start on July 6th. He was slightly better, but not great in his two starts in AAA after that, walking a combined four (with one HBP), and striking out just two in 10 innings pitched. Still, he’s on long rest and should be sharper today (knocks on wood).

1: Chavez, RF
2: Jones, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Hart, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Walker

James Paxton made a rehab start for Tacoma in last night’s DH against Las Vegas. He gave up three runs on two HRs in the first inning, but settled down after that, going 3IP yielding 3R on 3H (2HRs), walking 1 and K’ing 4. He was opposed by fellow injured-phenom Noah Syndergaard, who was brilliant, throwing 6 1/3 shutout against the Rainiers. The R’s won the second game, though, with a great pitching performance by one-time (and future?) prospect Forrest Snow, who’s been lights out in limited duty after his suspension. Andrew Carraway starts today for the Rainiers, and Stephen Landazuri takes the hill for AA Jackson.

Podcast: 60 Games Remain

July 23, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Wednesday Morning Podcast!

Jeff and I postponed the usual Monday morning recording due to scheduling and the fact that the Mariners had most of the previous week off.

Podcast with Jeff and Matthew: Direct link! || iTunes link! || RSS/XML link!

Thanks again to those that helped support the show and/or StatCorner work in general last week, and in the past, and hopefully in the future. It’s truly appreciated.

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