Game 49, Mariners at Giants (At Mariners?)

September 16, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

Ljay Newsome vs. Drew Smyly, 6:40pm

Soooo, we’re back, and the M’s are playing as the home team down in San Francisco against the Giants, where the air is a bit less toxic. The M’s face one-time quasi-Mariner Drew Smyly tonight. Back in 2017, Smyly drew raves for his performance in the World Baseball Classic, then sat out his first spring training start with a bit of dead arm, and then…nothing. He underwent TJ surgery, and after hitting free agency during rehab, never saw the mound in Seattle.

The trade that got Smyly to Seattle in 2017 sent fellow lefty Ryan Yarbrough to Tampa, where he’s been remarkably effective for a guy topping out around 88, and throwing little mid-80s cutter-darts around the AL east. That deal also included Mallex Smith, who had a couple of good years in Tampa before cratering back in Seattle. Interestingly, it was the second time Smyly was involved in an M’s trade, as he was part of the three-team trade that sent David Price from Tampa to Detroit in 2014. That deadline deal involved 2B Nick Franklin going from Seattle to Tampa and Detroit OF Austin Jackson coming to the M’s for a couple of lackluster half-seasons.

Smyly not only missed all of 2017, but all of 2018 as well. He had some minor league deals in that time, but just couldn’t pitch until 2019, when he popped up with the Texas Rangers. His velocity was right back to where it was pre-injury, but his control and command very much were not, and after a few months of wildness and an ERA well into the 8’s, Texas released him, whereupon the Phillies picked him up. He wasn’t great or anything, but looked much more like a decent major leaguer, with high Ks and under-control walks. He still gave up too many HRs, which kind of goes with the territory of being a high-release-point, high-rise four-seam and curve pitcher in 2019.

He’s been something of a revelation this year when he’s been able to take the ball, which, to be fair, has not been terribly often. Still, he’s got 19 Ks to 5 walks in his 12+ innings, and his velocity’s up noticeably; he now sits 94 and can get more. Smyly’s always been an interesting pitcher in that he just cannot get gloveside movement on his pitches. There are 12-6 curveballs, and then there’s Smyly’s curve, which *still* has a little bit of armside run. So too does his cutter, which comes in around 90 and gets less rise than his straight four-seam fastball.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Moore, 2B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: France, DH
6: Torrens, C
7: White, 1B
8: Lopes, LF
9: Ervin, RF
SP: Newsome

JP Crawford’s back from the bereavement list, with Donovan Walton heading back to Tacoma. Meanwhile Matt Magill’s short DL stint will get a lot longer after news came out that he had a shoulder debridement procedure by M’s surgeon Neal El Attrache.

Newsome’s low-spin stuff has been sort of remarkable. He isn’t a true junkballer, trying to entice swings on pitches diving out of the zone. He just throws 92-93 MPH heaters and 85 MPH change-ups in the zone and dares you to make him stop. He’s allowed no walks yet, and as Lucas Apostoleris wrote over at BP, that wasn’t an accident: his fastball is tied for #1 in baseball in called strike probability – essentially a better version of how often it’s thrown in the zone. Who’s he tied with? Why, Drew Smyly of the Giants.

Giants-at-Mariners Postponed, Series Rescheduled for San Francisco

September 15, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

A week ago, I was looking at the apocalyptic-looking pictures coming out of San Francisco and marveling that the M’s would be playing a game in such conditions. Life, much like smoke, comes at you fast. The Giants arrived in Seattle today, took a look around, and said, “Yeah, no way we’re playing in this.” Thus, the series will move back to San Francisco, where the air is now clearly and yet unbelievably much cleaner than it is in Seattle.

Yesterday’s double-header was the most bizarre baseball I’ve seen. It seemed almost dystopian; I’ll always remember Ramon Laureano – wearing a respirator – making a great diving catch, just like I’ll remember watching Kyle Lewis grand slam robbery (of Laureano!) through a haze as thick as decades-old memory. The M’s comeback in game 1 was legitimately thrilling. Tim Lopes playing the hero was one of those improbabilities that the game offers every so often, and it overshadowed the bullpen’s recent signs of life.

The Players Association put out a statement that they were aware of the issue (which is good, considering it was televised and all) and were working with ownership to fashion a policy similar to the NFL’s (air quality over X would be an automatic postponement, or what have you). That was never really going to happen yesterday, as the games were, themselves make-ups for when Covid-19 led the A’s to postpone several games. They couldn’t reschedule a game for historic smoke because they’d already rescheduled for a historic, global pandemic. Damned if you do, etc.

Thus, the games yesterday functioned as a dark microcosm of everything bad about the sport right now. That’s not fair to, say, Jose Marmolejos, who’s finally getting a shot after 10 years in the minors and is on an absolute tear. But seriously: the league was plainly unable to prevent players playing in unhealthy conditions, and thanks to the Covid schedule, only a minority of teams ever had the possibility of playing in…this. The A’s are playing double header after double header after a player tested positive for Covid-19, throwing a wrench into their standard bullpen rotation; lefty Jake Diekman didn’t play last night when he probably would have under more normal conditions, for example. And the Mariners, who are fighting – however improbably, however reduced due to the circumstances – for a playoff spot for the first time in nearly 20 years, won’t call up Logan Gilbert or Jarred Kelenic. These were games that should not have happened, played by teams left weaker than they could be. We all know why, and despite the fact that none of the reasons approach a reasonable standard of good-enough, we press on.

Go M’s, or something. They’ll be the home team in San Francisco beginning tomorrow.

Games 47-48, Athletics at Mariners: Nature vs. Baseball

September 14, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Game 1: Marco Gonzales vs. Jesus Luzardo, 1:10pm 2:10pm
Game 2: Walker Lockett/Jimmy Yacabonis vs. Mike Minor

The A’s are in town to face the M’s for two at T-Mobile Park, but there were worries earlier that Seattle’s smoky air might make playing the game – let alone two of them – too dangerous. The air yesterday cancelled the M’s taxi squad practices, and it doesn’t look appreciably better now. I’m in the south sound, where it has, blessedly, begun to rain. Hopefully that system heads north, as it might knock some particulates out of the air.

So, does anyone actually want the second AL West playoff spot? The Astros are in free fall, while the M’s arrested their slide by winning the final two games of their series in Arizona. Again, we’re seeing the impact of these imbalanced schedules, as the Astros have been playing actual good teams for the past few weeks – the A’s, the Dodgers – while the M’s really haven’t in some time. Sure, the sweep in San Francisco against a mediocre Giants team wasn’t great, but it at least happened when Oakland was taking care of the reeling Astros. The M’s are now about to face quality opposition for the first time in a while, and have another shot at meaningful late-season baseball.

It kicks off in game 1 with one of the better pitching match-ups we’ve seen in a while. The revamped, improved, clear ace-of-the-staff Marco Gonzales faces the A’s rookie lefty, Jesus Luzardo. Luzardo throws a very hard sinker at 96-97 with extreme armside run, a four-seamer with plenty of run and just shy of average rise at 97, and a very good high-80s change-up. He’s got a slider/curve thingy in the lower 80s as well, and that he throws a lot of to lefties and more rarely against righties.

He’s got as good an arsenal in terms of pure stuff as any youngster in the league, with the possible exceptions of Sixto Sanchez and Dustin May, but while he’s been good, he hasn’t dominated the way, say, Sanchez has. Part of it is so me slight HR trouble, and part is some bad results with runners in scoring position. But the biggest issue is platoon splits. Despite a good change, he’s not really dominating righties the way he could. Overall, he has good control, but it’s failed him slightly against righties, and all of his HR issues -100% of them – have come to righties.

1: Moore, SS
2: France, 2B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: White, 1B
6: Torrens, C
7: Ervin, RF
8: Marmolejos, DH
9: Lopes, LF
SP: Gonzales

The M’s have been buoyed by the remarkable hot streak from Jose Marmolejos, the career MiLB guy who got a chance due to injuries, trades, and the implosion of Dan Vogelbach. He and Dylan Moore have carried an offense that’s seen Kyle Lewis endure his first real slump, and the reappearance of strikeout woes for Evan White, who has K’d 16 times in his last 40 at-bats over 11 games.

The M’s can potentially score some runs against Luzardo, but the strength of the A’s has been their untouchable bullpen, similar to recent years when guys from Blake Treinen to Liam Hendriks to Lou Trivino have put together great seasons.

The M’s recalled Tim Lopes and sent Aaron Fletcher down to Tacoma. The A’s have been busy on the transaction wire, too. The big blow was an injury that’s ended all-world 3B Matt Chapman’s season. To get some depth, they picked up ex-UW Husky Jake Lamb, whom I mentioned had been DFAd by Arizona back when the M’s opened their series against the snakes. They brought up long-time Brewers farmhand Nate Orf, but they’ll start recently-acquired Tommy LaStella at 3B in Game 1, with Tony Kemp sliding from the OF to 2B.

Game 2:

Can I just say, this is the strangest game to watch of any ball game I can remember. The OFs all masked up (thankfully) as they play through a thick wall of smoke/fog and an AQI in the 220s at game time. Yuck. As usual, the AQI is rising through the afternoon and into the evening, so that 220 a few hours ago is apparently right around 250. We’ll see if this game happens.

1: Moore, 2B
2: France, 3B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, DH
5: White, 1B
6: Lopes, RF
7: Marmolejos, LF
8: Walton, SS
9: Odom, SS
SP: Yacabonis-and-then-Lockett

What an unbelievable win in Game 1. Down 5-0, the M’s pounced when Luzardo suddenly lost effectiveness, and then took the lead when the A’s seemingly didn’t want to put in their best relievers – using Joakim Soria instead of Jake Diekman. This is what their Covid scare does – they just played a DH a few days ago, have one today, and more on the horizon. They have to think about balancing their workload and can’t look at each game in isolation.

What a game for Tim Lopes, who’d been demoted earlier and mired in a bad slump, but three doubles in three at-bats did wonders for the M’s chances of winning as well as his own confidence. Not bad for the 29th man. Evan White, on the other hand…yeeesh. And that was easily Marco Gonzales’ worst game of the year, giving up two dingers, plunking two, and walking another. Just no command at all, but credit the team for coming back.

All of that said, for all the legitimate kudos the M’s deserve for the rally – I can’t quite believe this game happened. Luzardo’s already complained, somewhat obliquely, about it. I have no idea if it affected Marco Gonzales, but, uh…how could it not?

The M’s trot out the B-team line-up for game 2, including what looks to be a bullpen day on the mound. I don’t fault them for giving some guys a day off in this frankly dangerous air, but man, if the team wanted to win, they could start bringing up good players. (I know they won’t, and I know why, but…whatever).

Game 45, Mariners at Diamondbacks

September 12, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Justus Sheffield vs. Zac Gallen, 5:10pm

Last night’s loss seems to have officially ended the bizarre, week-long run of the M’s being back door playoff contenders. In a way, this is better. With everything going on, it’d be a shame to then be emotionally crushed by a late-season loss to the A’s or Astros. The M’s really aren’t very good, and no one claimed they would be a month or two ago. We’ve all just taken a random, sometimes fun, sometimes less so detour to end up back in the same spot. Just enjoy baseball as a diversion from everything else.

In addition to the M’s putting JP Crawford on the bereavement list, the M’s made a small roster move in IL’ing 2B Shed Long with a hairline fracture in his shin. It may or may not explain Long’s prolonged slump, but it’s clearly better to let Long heal and come back looking more like the guy we saw in 2019.

In addition, the M’s officially outrighted Mallex Smith to Tacoma, essentially ending his tenure w/Seattle by removing him from the 40-man roster. This one stings a bit. Smith was coming off of a 3.5 WAR season in 2018, with a 118 wRC+ and 40 steals. He was young, seemingly on the upswing, and capable of holding down CF for a long while. Instead, he utterly collapsed, hitting just .220/.290/.323 over parts of two seasons, and suffering defensive lapses as well. His strikeout rate climbed, which was the death knell for a player who didn’t hit the ball hard. The speedy-of-goes-to-Seattle-and-craters was a staple feature of M’s baseball in the 1990s, but I thought we were past these hackneyed, overplayed storylines (though Leonys Martin was kind of a throwback to the Brian L Hunters of old). I found/find Smith’s collapse really odd, both in its severity and how immediate it was. I would love to know what Tampa had him do vs. what M’s coaches told him to do, but it’s probably a mixture of BABIP regression and a decline in his batting eye.

The M’s lost a one-run game after Yusei Kikuchi struggled early, and the bullpen kept the M’s in the game long enough to mount a comeback. But even the improvement in the bullpen, who rarely look like the absolute worst group in the game anymore, seems to come too late. Now, it’s the offense’s turn to struggle, as they’re hitting for a 96 wRC+ in the past two weeks. Worse, they’ve hit fewer HRs in that span than any other club.

When the M’s are going well, it’s largely thanks to the Kyles. Lewis leads the team in dingers at 9, and Seager chipping in with an excellent K:BB ratio and .200+ ISO of his own. Dylan Moore’s been fantastic all year, and having his bat in the line-up is keeping the M’s in games, but Lewis’ recent slump has coincided with the M’s losing streak. Lewis is an odd duck, in that he’s not at all the player I think we thought we were getting after his eye-opening cup of coffee a year ago. Whereas 2019 Lewis had an abysmal K:BB ratio, this new one is drawing a ton of walks and has cut his K% noticeably. But while the 2019 Lewis had a huge ISO thanks to 6 HRs in short succession, the 2020 Lewis isn’t slugging as much as I would’ve thought, or at least, he’s not slugging like he was a month ago.

Maybe that’s too much to ask – please, Kyle Lewis, come in for your rookie season during Covid-19 disruptions and put up a .300/.400/.550 for us. But despite an average nearly right at .300, Lewis is slugging in the .480s. The reason is that he has just *2* doubles on the year. Look, given the choice between doubles and dingers, I take the latter every time. This is not exactly a complaint. But it’s odd that given how complete of a hitter he’s looked, and despite good speed, he’s not pulling liners or putting the occasional ball in the gap. All told, only 23% of his hits have gone for extra bases, and while the vast majority of *those* have left the yard, that’s a surprisingly low ratio. I’m happy for the singles he’s hit. But I’m stunned that – despite a home park that suppresses doubles – he hasn’t muscled a few more gappers. Going forward, that would do a lot for his overall value.

1: Moore, 2B
2: France, DH
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Marmolejos, LF
6: White, 1B
7: Torrens, C
8: Walton, SS
9: Ervin, RF
SP: Sheffield

Game 44, Mariners at Diamondbacks

September 11, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Caleb Smith, 6:40pm

I am a product of my Pacific Northwest upbringing. There’s no getting around it. One thing that this produces is a distaste for or outright inability to function in extreme temperatures. For this reason, the thought of going to Phoenix around this time of year makes me uncomfortable. Yes, there’s AC everywhere, I know. But it doesn’t take away the dread of trying to do physical activities in that kind of heat. With this as the backdrop: I wish I was in Phoenix now.

The air quality in my little pocket of the South Sound wasn’t *too* bad until yesterday and today. It’s…it’s real bad now, and it’s *still* somehow better than many places. And of course, this is nothing compared to the thousands and thousands of people dealing with evacuation orders or watching fires march closer. This is a grim time in what’s been a grim, grim year. Go Mariners?

The D-Backs, a team I thought would easily grab a wild card in the expanded playoff format, have been brutally bad this year, thanks to an anemic offense that’s utterly collapsed after last year. Despite a good offensive environment, they’re hitting for no power. Ketel Marte’s ISO last year (when he hit 32 bombs) was .264. It’s now .117, and he’s stuck on just 2 dingers. Former emerging star (and former UW Husky) Jake Lamb was just DFA’d. As a team, the D-Backs have an OBP of .303.

With the club out of contention, they traded off their one position player who was having a decent year – OF Starling Marte to the Marlins (the Marlins buying at the deadline from Arizona; if you predicted THAT, I’d like to subscribe to your newsletter). In return they got today’s starter, Caleb Smith. Smith made it one game in 2020 before contracting Covid-19 along with what seemed like 2/3 of the Marlins roster. He hasn’t pitched since, as he’d been trying to get back into game shape at the Marlins (and the D-Backs) alternate training site. I’m not sure what to expect, or how long they’ll let him go tonight.

Originally a Yankee farmhand, he had a very good first year in Miami in 2018, striking out 88 in 77 1/3 IP. He pitched off of a 92 MPH fastball that had more armside run than you’d expect, given Smith’s normal 3/4 delivery. It paired well with a change with even more armside run, and an interesting gyro-spin slider with above-average drop. Last year, Smith was one of the pitchers most harmed by MLB using a dragless, seemingly-rubber baseball, and that funky fastball was suddenly easier to lift. Batters still struggled, and didn’t hit for average against it, but he gave up 20 HRs on the heater, pushing his overall HR rate to nearly 2 per 9 IP.

With the baseball a little bit more normal, he’d be a good regression bet, but obviously the ‘rona had other plans. His walk rate was never great, but he gave up 6 free passes in 3 IP back in July, so that’s another thing to keep an eye on. The M’s have a number of patient hitters, and they should force Smith back into the zone.

If there’s one pitcher *more* harmed by the weird baseball in 2019, it’s Yusei Kikuchi. The new ball, more velocity, and a transformative cutter have all but eliminated Kikuchi’s serious HR problem. He’s got other problems, of course, but I’m surprised at myself for thinking that Kikuchi in Arizona is a pretty good match-up. That would, uh, not have been the case last year.

Kikuchi’s cutter isn’t just a putaway pitch (though most of his K’s have come on cutters). Instead, it’s a sneaky-effective ground ball machine. His overall ground ball rate has spiked this season, and the cutter’s the reason why. He’s actually getting *fewer* ground balls on his fastball, but then, he’s yielding fewer balls in play of any kind with it.

One interesting thing I’ve seen is that Kikuchi’s throwing his fastball lower than he did last year, and he’s trying to keep it away from right-handers – the batters that hit 28 HRs off of him last year. The lack of grounders is interesting, but the real change is his move from slider to cutter. The average launch angle – the angle the ball takes off of the bat – on his slower slider last year was 10. This year: -3. Despite the fact that they’re hitting it harder, they can’t really do damage, as they keep hitting the ball on the ground. I assume Kikuchi can figure out whatever’s troubling him with men on base, but I like his new approach overall.

1: Moore, LF
2: France, 2B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: White, 1B
6: Torrens, C
7: Marmolejos, DH
8: Ervin, RF
9: Gordon, SS
SP: Kikuchi

JP Crawford will miss the next few games on the bereavement list. Donovan Walton is up with the club to give them more SS depth until Crawford returns.

Game 43, Mariners at Giants – Smokescreen

September 9, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Nick Margevicius vs. Tyler Anderson, 6:45pm
oracle park
This is what Oracle Park looked like a few hours ago, as dense smoke choked out the sun. Wildfires are burning up and down the coast. Over 300,000 acres in Washington burned in 24 hours earlier this week, and more than 2.5 million acres have burned in California. We still don’t know how many people have lost their lives, but we know a one year old boy died in Eastern Washington. The pandemic continues its toll, too. The M’s are going to try to perhaps play San Francisco with…all of this as the backdrop.

Houston, scheduled to play across the bridge in Oakland, was mulling not playing or at least demanding to know how
safe it was. I wouldn’t be shocked if both games are postponed, but for now, the M’s are set to play at 6:45.

The Giants came back after knocking Ljay Newsome out early on a line drive that struck the young hurler in the wrist (sounds like he’ll be OK), and the M’s bullpen couldn’t hold a 5-1 lead. After pitching a lot of innings, the M’s predictably made a roster move, optioning Brady Lail to Tacoma and bringing up ex-Orioles pitcher, Jimmy Yacabonis. A righty, Yacabonis has a low 3/4 delivery, and gets a lot of sidespin on the ball, producing loads of armside run. For a four-seamer, it’s a fairly unique pitch, with tons more run and much less rise than average. It’s thrown around 94, and seems like an interesting pitch, but it’s just not one he’s been able to command. Yacabonis has walked 5 batters per 9 innings over his 100+ IP career.

He’s also got a slider and change-up, and while they’re fine, they weren’t enough for him to keep hold of a rotation spot in Baltimore – against some, uh, uninspiring competition. Still, we’ll see if the M’s were able to release his inner zone-controller, and it’s possible he won’t pitch all that much if Margevicius gives the club some innings.

Tyler Anderson is a lefty who pitched for Colorado for four seasons before moving to the Bay Area this year. He came up with the Rockies in 2016, and had some immediate success thanks to good control and a sneaky/weird 92 MPH fastball that, despite some rise, induced a lot of ground balls. Indeed, Anderson was the archetype Rockies pitcher of that era: lots of four-seamers, lots of grounders. The next year, pitching around some injuries, Anderson’s FB got hit in the air a bit more, giving him a high HR rate (it was 2017; that was happening a lot) which wasn’t a good trend to go with an increased walk rate.

Unfortunately for Anderson, 2018 saw more of the same. A higher walk rate *and* a fastball that was now a fly ball pitch, leading to tons of HRs. He missed most of 2019, but posted a freakishly high walk rate and an ERA near 12 in 20 innings. With the Giants, the trajectory has continued: he’s now an extreme fly ball pitcher, with the same fastball that got grounders in 2016 now producing them on just 12% of balls in play. It’s also down to 90 MPH. He throws a change, which, to his credit, has gotten a bit more effective over time and a cutter. Those secondaries are good choices to reduce platoon splits, and Anderson does have essentially even splits over his career. It’s just that both sides have hit him fairly well. This is an opportunity, and the M’s have to take advantage if they fancy themselves a playoff team.

Speaking of which: if the M’s actually wanted to push for the playoffs, they’d call up some of their highly prized prospects. There was a discussion on that topic at Lookout Landing today, and I find the reluctance to give up a year of control or what not to be self-defeating. The M’s non-Kyle Lewis OFs have not covered themselves in glory, and if winning was really the goal, they’d probably look to change that by bringing in more talented players. Whom they have in Tacoma. The same could be said about Logan Gilbert, who’s passed over by Newsome or Margevicius (who’ve both been good; this is not a shot at them) not because they’re better or met X,Y, or Z milestone at the Alternative Site, but because the club doesn’t care about their contract status in 2026 and very much does care about Gilbert’s.

Keeping an eye on such things is a part of their job, and they’re right to weigh it as a consideration. But when it becomes a driving, overriding factor, something may have gone wrong. The team with the longest playoff drought in US sports should probably think about…ending the playoff drought, and if 2023 or so really is the year, they’d still have every player we’ve talked about under team control.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Moore, LF
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: France, 2B
6: White, 1B
7: Torrens, C
8: Marmolejos, DH
9: Ervin, RF
SP: Margevicius

Photo credit: NBCSports Bay Area.

Game 42, Mariners at Giants – The Weirdest Meaningful Series

September 8, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 11 Comments 

Ljay Newsome vs. Logan Webb, 6:45pm

Thanks to the utter collapse of two of the game’s best teams coming into 2020 (the Yankees and Astros) along with the continued bifurcation of the league into good and rrrreal bad (looking at you, Texas), the M’s are kind of in a playoff hunt. It’s September, there are 18 games left, and the M’s head out on the road a couple of games behind the Astros for 2nd place in the west, and a few back of the Yankees for one of the wild card spots. The Yankees AND Astros are trailing as I write this, too.

The M’s have won 6 straight and are on quite a good run, but it’s so hard to figure out how to interpret that given the M’s schedule. The M’s are coming off a sweep of the Rangers, who are by winning percentage the worst team in MLB. They started their streak against the Angels, who have more talent than the Rangers, but are mired at 17-25. They haven’t fared as well against the better teams in the league, but then again, it’s 2020: they don’t have to FACE the likes of the Twins/White Sox/Rays/Indians. This season makes no sense, so of course the M’s have a shot.

If there’s one team that can understand the weird psychological conundrum of thinking they had a good shot to pick #1 overall and then quickly shifting to daydreaming about 1st round playoff pitching match-ups, it’s the Giants. The Mariners had the 2nd worst projected record in the AL, just a game or two back of the Orioles. Meanwhile, San Francisco had the 2nd worst projection in the NL, just fractionally ahead of the Marlins. Both the Marlins and Giants enter play tonight with .500 records, plenty good enough to be in the hunt for a wildcard in the new “everyone’s invited” playoff format of 8 teams per league making the first round.

Thus, we get what seemed like a sick joke in July, and perhaps even a couple of weeks ago: a September series between the M’s and Giants with playoff implications for both teams. I’ll be honest: I’m not sure how the M’s are in this spot, and I worry that we’re overreacting to the M’s swatting away a tanking Rangers team. I worry the M’s could fade in the late-September series against Houston and Oakland. But if there’s one thing 2020 has taught us, it’s that you don’t really need to be good to be in a position like this. You just have to convert winning chances.

The Rangers don’t because they essentially don’t have any, not with a line-up that can’t hit. The Yankees have all kinds of winning chances, and seem to be inventing more baroque, bizarre ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, kind of like their cross-town rivals, the Mets (watching the two teams play was like a bizarre grand guignol version of the game, with games ending on a wild pitch, a HR, a single, and the Yanks blowing a late lead with three runs hit off of their best set-up man). The M’s, despite a patched-together bullpen, have *mostly* kept things together, save that awful 8 run final inning in the first game of a double-header in San Diego.

Their bullpen isn’t great, but it’s figuring things out, and their rotation has been good enough to keep them in games. Now, it’s been good enough against bad teams. Marco Gonzales aside, I’m less sure about the other starters. This will be an interesting test for Newsome, who may be the only starter who HASN’T had a cupcake schedule for a while. He’s only faced the Dodgers and Padres, the two teams outpacing the Giants in the NL West. But the Giants boast a very good offense; they rank 5th in baseball behind, among others, the aforementioned Dodgers and Padres. They’re led by the breakout star Mike Yastrzemski, whose 2.4 fWAR are 2nd in baseball behind Fernando Tatis, Jr. down the road in San Diego. They’re also getting a career year from Donovan Solano, the ex-Marlin, who’s pairing solid bat-to-ball skill with newfound gap power, and a huge bounce-back year from 1B Brandon Belt, who’s power stroke is back.

Like the M’s, though, their pitching is a bit hit and miss. Tonight’s starter, Logan Webb, is another guy like Kolby Allard with solid overall batting-against numbers, but a mediocre ERA thanks to trouble stranding runners and some control issues. He’s a righty (unlike Allard) with a low-3/4 arm slot, and throws a very heavy, sinking four-seamer, a sinker that he’ll mix in against righties, a change, and a curve (and a very rare slider). The change-up is the outpitch, a pitch with drop and some armside run, a pitch that makes the rest of his arsenal better. It’s also a pitch that’s most effective against lefties.

Webb’s been very tough on lefties, but with a curve that’s not great and 93 MPH fastballs that really aren’t designed to be swing-and-miss pitches, he’s a bit lost against righties. He’s managed a decent K rate against them, and he’ll definitely throw change-ups to righties, too. But it’s simply not the weapon that it is against righties. Against lefties, that change helps him post absurdly high ground ball rates. But his GB% plummets against righties – it’s still high-ish, or a bit above average, but he’s not a ground ball specialist against same-handed batters.

The template here is pretty clear – get some righties in the line-up and look for sinking fastballs, and hit them hard.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Moore, 2B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: France, DH
6: Marmolejos, RF
7: White, 1B
8: Torrens, C
9: Long, LF
SP: Newsome

Evan White’s K rate has fallen below 40% and he’s hitting over .300 after the odd, made-up All Star break. His SLG% has dropped though, and I hope he’s not trading off power for contact, akin to what JP Crawford seems to have done. White’s always going to be an odd duck, and I’m not sure he’ll ever be a big power threat. He simply had to make more contact, and he’s doing that. But the offensive demands of the 1B position are high, and I just hope he’s able to continue to refine his approach.

Game 41, Rangers at Mariners

September 7, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Marco Gonzales vs. Kolby Allard, 1:10pm

The M’s have won 5 in a row, and are somehow now on the fringes of a playoff spot thanks to the expanded postseason. The M’s have 20 games to play, 1/3 of the shortened season. Despite both their pitching and position players ranking in the bottom third (per Fangraphs), they’re not as painful to watch as they were early in the season.

Given the short season and extra-imbalanced schedule, it’s hard to know what to make of it. Are the M’s figuring things out, or just playing Texas/Anaheim a lot? Are their starters really developing before our eyes, or is it just a couple of games of BABIP luck? The answer is undoubtedly a mixture. The Rangers really are terrible, and I’m not quite sure where they go from here. They’re going to wait out some bad contracts, hope their pitchers develop and…I’m not exactly sure what they do on the infield. But that’s not all of it. There have been clear, unambiguous signs of development from several Mariners, from Kyle Lewis’ improved K% to Ljay Newsome’s solid initial games. But one of the more improbable, at least to me, has been Marco Gonzales’ remarkable improvement.

Marco Gonzales has been good-goodish for a few years now, but after a solid 2018, things looked worse in 2019 (despite a nice ERA). His velocity dropped, his walk rate climbed, and his strikeouts fell markedly. That lovely ERA was held down by a flurry of unearned runs and some HR/FB luck. He alternated effective months with disastrous ones, but ultimately finished the year fairly strong. Still, the trend in velo and thus strikeouts looked ominous.

If Gonzales was going to rebound and put together a great season, what do you think would change? What, exactly, would be the cause of this breakthrough? I and other M’s-writers have mused on this several times over the years, and we have been wrong every time. I certainly would’ve been wrong this year. A velocity spike, aided by the M’s “Gas Camp” perhaps? No, his velocity is even lower this year, and is among the lowest in the velo-obsessed game. How about an improvement in his change-up, once his best pitch, but an offering whose results have never quite shown up in games? No, if anything, 2020 has pretty clearly demonstrated that the cambio is in fact his worst pitch. Uh, more randomized pitch mix? No, he’s not quiet as random this year, favoring his fastball and cutter a bit more.

It’s thus hard to say exactly what he’s doing, but clearly command is at the center of it. His walk rate is nearly imperceptible, and he’s gotten increasingly good at targeting different zones with different pitches. He’s keeping his four-seam fastball and sinker down, using the former to get in on the hands of righties, and the latter to bore in towards lefties. He’s not abandoning the top of the zone entirely, though – he just uses the cutter up there. Whatever the reason, his average exit velocity has fallen, and it’s fallen for both grounders and fly balls. Batters aren’t driving the ball in the air, and it’s made his underpowered fastball one of the better pitches in the game, looking at pure results. It’s amazing.

Before the year, I worried that the Rangers might overtake the M’s in pursuit of contention if they could coax some improvement and consistency from younger starters like Kolby Allard. The 23 year old lefty has a very low BABIP, an improved K rate…it’s happening, right. No, despite luck on BABIP and HR/FB, he’s got an ERA well over 5, and he’s walking way too many. His woes look a bit like Yusei Kikuchi’s in that he pairs a very solid overall wOBA or batting average against with far too many runs allowed. The key is that he’s been great with no one on, but unable to strand any runners. That’s not a good pattern for someone who walks a lot of batters, too.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Moore, 2B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: France, DH
6: White, 1B
7: Ervin, RF
8: Torrens, C
9: Strange-Gordon, LF
SP: Gonzales

Dee Gordon now goes by Dee Strange-Gordon, as you can see from the line-up.

Happy Labor Day!

Game 39, Rangers at Mariners

September 5, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Justus Sheffield vs. Kyle Gibson, 6:10pm

After another win against the Rangers, the M’s are now 5-2 against Texas. There’s not a lot of mystery about why the Rangers are where they are: they have the worst group of position players in the game, and at least by Fangraphs’ metrics, it’s not even close. They’re the only group that’s racked up negative WAR, and they’re closing in on -3, so they’re not just fractionally into negative territory. The problems are widespread: nearly the entire starting line-up, from Shin-Soo Choo to Todd Frazier (since departed) to Rougned Odor was in negative territory. Veterans like Choo or Andrus, younger players like Willie Calhoun – it didn’t matter.

At the beginning of the year, league-wide BABIP was way down – lower than it had been in decades. That’s changed in recent weeks, and league BABIP is up around .290, just a couple of points lower than last year. The Rangers have not gotten the memo, as their team BABIP is still .257, by far the worst in the league. Optimists may point to this as a reason their offense hasn’t gotten going; they’re snakebit by BABIP luck. Their average exit velocity is middle of the pack, so there’s something to this theory, but it can’t explain all of it. They’ve hit for no power, have middling plate discipline, and this is what, the third year in four that Odor’s been nearly unplayable?

Kendall Graveman was electric out of the bullpen yesterday, averaging 97 on his sinker in a perfect inning. The M’s will have an interesting decision to make on him at year’s end. His contract’ll be up, and he may get some attention from other clubs, but his neck injury and arm issues the past few years will limit how much they bid. The M’s may want to bring him back as a bullpen arm.

Today, the M’s again face Kyle Gibson, the ex-Twins ground ball maven who’s been a regular punching bag in Texas. While the Rangers haven’t hit for power, opposing teams have done just fine against Gibson, who enters sporting a HR/9 rate of 2.13. The Rangers had done well in rehabilitating Mike Minor and especially Lance Lynn (who struggled a bit in Minnesota), but it hasn’t worked with Gibson, nor with Juan Nicasio. I think this year was always supposed to be a bridge year before their minor league pitching prospects could get their feet wet in the bigs, and ideally, swapping out vets like Minor or Lynn would help restock the farm system. I’m not sure any of that’s really going to happen now. They held on to Lance Lynn at the deadline, moved Mike Minor (whose ERA was 5.60), and made minor deals to move on from the disappointing Robinson Chirinos and Todd Frazier. That’s not exactly a big system restock, and without the minors, it’s hard to know how much progress their hurlers have made on the year.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Moore, LF
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: France, 2B
6: Marmolejos, DH
7: White, 1B
8: Ervin, RF
9: Torrens, C
SP: Sheffield

Game 38, Rangers at Mariners – Back to the Grind

September 4, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Kyle Cody, 6:10pm

The M’s series with the A’s was postponed due to a player contracting Covid-19, but will be made up with a series of double-headers soon. This is a common site now across baseball, as today’s action features what, 5 7-inning twin bills?

The M’s salvaging a split in that series in Anaheim was well-timed. Not only did they not fall behind the Angels in the standings, but it gave the pitching staff some confidence coming into this series against the lackluster Rangers. He’s someone I’ve criticized on the blog before, or at least questioned his ceiling, but Marco Gonzales has suddenly become quite good. He stopped the slide in his K%, BB% (and, uh, K/BB ratio) and has a microscopic walk rate along with the best K% he’s ever posted. He’s inducing weaker contact and thanks to that great control, the balls in play he’s allowing have predominantly come after he’s ahead in the count. This isn’t flukey BABIP luck, it’s the product of an aggressive approach, and it’s paying off.

Yusei Kikuchi remains an enigma, however. He’s allowed batters a sub-.700 OPS on the year, and thanks to a single HR-allowed, has a sparkling FIP, but his ERA remains stubbornly above 6. I’ve mentioned it a lot, but he’s really struggled with men on base, which is pretty much the only way you could turn his overall batting-against numbers into a high ERA. It’s weird – he’s corrected nearly all of the things that plagued him last year, most especially his HR problems. He’s striking out more thanks to an uptick in velocity and his new hard cutter. Walks are higher, but trading walks for dingers seems like a deal worth making. The trouble-from-the-stretch thing wasn’t really a problem last year, so I don’t *think* it’s just a case of him losing velo or effectiveness without the windup, and in any event that windup and his mechanics are pretty different from last year.

Kikuchi’s been much, much better at home this year, with a better K:BB ratio, no HRs-allowed, and all the rest. He is, of course 0-2 at home. And while he’s been knocked around on the road, he’s 1-0. Object lesson in the irrelevance of pitcher wins #4,502,341.

So, today’s opponent is Kyle Cody, a rookie righty out of the University of Kentucky (where he was a teammate of Evan White). Cody was drafted in 2016, and made it to high-A the next year before going down with TJ surgery. He missed nearly all of 2018 and missed all-all of 2019, before popping back this year at the Alternate Training Site, and now making a couple of appearances for Texas. It’s happened a lot this year, but Cody’s another player who never appeared at AA or AAA, and has now made the majors. He’s still getting stretched out and has only made 1-1+IP stints, so this is probably an “opener” situation; he’s not going to work too deep tonight.

Cody throws a mid-high-90s fastball (averaging 96), and a blizzard of sliders. He’s got a sinker and change, but essentially, he’s in there to be the 2020 version of the way the M’s used Matt Wisler last year (Wisler’s having a phenomenal year for Minnesota, by the way). That slider is a fascinating pitch, with *tons* more drop than the average slider; it functions much like a curve, with much more vertical drop than sweeping action (like Wisler’s). Batters haven’t really figured it out, though of course, he really hasn’t pitched to many thus far.

After getting beat badly by the M’s two Kyles, you can’t really blame the Rangers for calling up one of their own. We’ll see how effective this pretender is when facing the M’s Kyles tonight.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Moore, 2B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: France, DH
6: Marmolejos, LF
7: White, 1B
8: Torrens, C
9: Haggerty, RF
SP: Kikuchi

The M’s have been busy on the transaction wire. Their big trade with the Padres supplied tonight’s DH and C, and then the M’s traded nominal closer Taylor Williams for a PTBNL (supposedly Matt Brash, a pitcher). Because a few of the prospects the M’s got from San Diego aren’t on the roster, they’ve claimed P Walker Lockett off of waivers from the Mets, and OF Phillip Ervin off of waivers from the Reds. Ervin was a former 1st round pick who moved slowly up the Reds system thanks to excellent walk rates, but struggled with a low average and mediocre power (not a great combo in an OF). He was pretty solid in 2019 in his longest big league stint (260 PAs), but looked utterly lost this year, going 3-42 with no extra-base hits.

Lockett is another ex-Padres prospect (like Wisler!) who had a cup of coffee with San Diego before moving to the Mets. He’s been a frustratingly mediocre pitcher, without a real out-pitch, and who’s given up 11 HRs in his 45+ big league innings. Lockett’s four-seam (?) fastball is a weird one, with super low rise. It looks like a sinker, and seemed to function like one in the minors, where he’d put up above-average GB rates. That hasn’t happened in the big leagues (I refer you again to the HRs-allowed) where he’s been, if anything, a real fly ball guy. That’s not working, and I wonder if the M’s will try to get him on the Justus Sheffield program of turning a freakishly sinking four-seamer into a delightfully sinking sinker. MLB thinks it IS one, while Brooks still calls it a four-seamer. We’ll see if we can figure out what to call it once he appears with the M’s.

Ervin and possibly Lockett are out of options, and thus are with the big club. Tim Lopes, Joe Hudson and Braden Bishop have been optioned back to Tacoma, while Zac Grotz was outrighted there. With Dylan Moore back from the IL and Ty France in the fold, Shed Long will apparently struggle for playing time. The M’s may move him around the OF and he may get DH opportunities here and there. Sounds like he won’t really have much of a chance to hit his way out of his 2020 slump.

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