Game 155, Mariners at Angels – Scoreboard Watching

September 25, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Tyler Anderson vs. Jaime Barria, 6:07pm

After yet another 1-run win and another great bullpen performance from Paul Sewald, the M’s gained more ground on the wild card leaders, the Red Sox. The surging Yankees are, of course, a problem, but the gap between the M’s and the top teams is going down. A late grand slam from Giancarlo Stanton today opens the door yet again – the gap’s currently only 2.5 games, and the M’s are tied with Toronto, who’s currently playing Minnesota. It’s still an incredibly tall ask, which is why even after a 6-game winning streak, the M’s odds are just 6.5%.

Yesterday’s game always felt like it’d go to the late innings, which is another way of saying that it felt like the M’s would find a way to win. Despite the bullpen giving the Angels some openings, Sewald, Steckenrider, and Sadler were up to the job. Part of that has been their willingness to simply walk Shohei Ohtani and not risk the big play.

So with the M’s still alive and with Yusei Kikuchi struggling, there’s been a lot of talk about turning Kikuchi’s next start over to SP prospect Matt Brash. Brash, my pitcher of the year in AA Arkansas, probably is the most big-league ready prospect the M’s have, and certainly the healthiest. It’s still a risk, as Brash doesn’t have the pinpoint control of someone like George Kirby, and, critically, he’d have to adjust to a brand new baseball: while AAA uses the MLB ball, AA does not. That may be one of the reasons that the M’s yesterday promoted Brash, whose season was already over, up to AAA Tacoma, who’s still playing.

So, give him some time to get familiar with the MLB ball in practice, maybe toss an inning or two in a game, and then promote him? Nothing’s that easy in baseball these days. Just this week, AAA has made *yet another adjustment* to the baseball. As Baseball America, CBS Sports and others reported, AAA will use a pre-tacked baseball for this week. This is a partial response to the mid-season ban on sticky stuff, and pitchers complaining about the slippery baseballs they could no longer tack up with sunscreen (or other stuff). It’s something the NPB has done for years in Japan, and those balls were used in this year’s Olympics, which were greeted with approval from players in the US minor leagues. It seems like a good change, but it’s still very odd to do with a week or so left in the season, and it adds yet another wrinkle to the M’s decision-making. All else equal, Brash probably gives the M’s a pretty good shot, especially at 3-4 high-energy innings. But all else is NOT equal. I still hope to see it, but I’m not convinced that we should mark 3-4 shutout innings in the scorebook at this point.

Today’s Angels starter, Jaime Barria, is a righty with a four-pitch mix – a four-seam and sinker at 93, a hard slider at 86, and a rare change at 86 as well. He had a solid first season in 2018 with a superficially lovely ERA that was buoyed by sequencing and BABIP luck. That luck went 100% the other direction the following year, when Barria was so bad, he was essentially unplayable. Like so many in 2019, HRs were the primary reason. He returned last year and put together his best campaign, albeit in a tiny sample. He’s been solid this year, but it’s been essentially midway between 2019 and 2020. His K rate is way down, and his walk rate is up, but his HRs are down, and he’s been a bit better than replacement level overall. I think Barria’s better than he’s shown this year, but that’s not really my problem. The Angels continue to struggle with run prevention not because they can’t identify promising pitchers. They’ve had quite a few come up and have some success initially, like Barria did in 2018. What they haven’t been able to do is turn that initial success into lasting production. The M’s have struggled with that at times on the position player front (Shed Long, Dylan Moore, to an extent Tom Murphy), but the Angels seem really star-crossed with young pitchers.

1: Crawford, SS
2: France, 1B
3: Seager, 3b
4: Haniger, RF
5: Kelenic, CF
6: Toro, 2B
7: Torrens, DH
8: Fraley, LF
9: Raleigh, C
SP: Anderson

Tacoma lost to Round Rock 4-3 despite another HR from Jose Marmolejos. They’re back at it now, with Round Rock up early. Recently outrighted SP Kohei Arihara is facing recently outrighted slugger Marmolejos and the R’s. C’mon Tacoma!

Game 154, Mariners at Angels

September 24, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Logan Gilbert vs. Jose Suarez, 6:35pm

There’s no wrong time to pull off a road sweep of a divisional rival, but that four-gamer in Oakland could not have come at a better time if the M’s could pick before the season started. What I find difficult about this team from an analytic standpoint (I seriously don’t know how to *learn* from what they do, or to make sense of it, really) is exactly why this team is so fun.

The M’s, like most teams, fare poorly at the plate in games they lose, and do much better in games they win. This is…obvious stuff, of course. If you hit better, you can score runs, which give you a chance to win. Okay, so, the M’s have a slash line *in victories* of .250/.330/.444, which, honestly is pretty terrible. Compared to other teams in *their* wins, it’s way, way below average (sOPS+ of 84). In losses, though, they’re hopeless: they hit .190/.266/.311. That’s an OPS well below .600. This makes sense after watching this team – they alternate a ton of comeback 5-4 wins with the odd clunker; like a 12-1 loss to Houston or something.

What yesterday’s win reinforced to me was that this pattern of blowout losses and close-fought wins, while obvious in hindsight, is imperceptible *during* a game (unless it’s 12-0 in the 2nd inning). What I mean is, yesterday’s game had the look of one of those snooze-fest losses. Chris Bassitt was dealing, the A’s got an early lead, responded when the M’s scored a run, and…then everything changed. The M’s bullpen was completely dominant, picking up a gassed Yusei Kikuchi, and the offense become a completely different animal. Cal Raleigh – CAL RALEIGH – who came in with an OPS under .500 and who’s looked utterly lost for a long time, became a legit power threat, and Luis Torrens, who’s been cold, but nowhere near as cold as Raleigh, got the big hit to put the M’s ahead – the only time in Jake Diekman’s career he’s given up 2 HRs in a game. It looked like a blowout loss, and then, suddenly, almost violently, shifted into one of those close, comeback wins.

That earns the M’s yet another most-important-series-of-the-year, this time at an out-of-it Angels club. The story remains the same with the Halos – they simply can’t pitch, and it’s ruined another MVP season. Shohei Ohtani’s season is the kind of thing I will tell my grandkids about, a season that I’m still shocked is actually happening. And it’s all going to be for nought.

Jose Suarez has always looked intriguing to me, with a very split-like change that mimics his four-seam fastball’s horizontal movement. It’s pretty clearly his best pitch, and one he goes to almost 30% of the time. But all of that good-on-paper stuff didn’t help Suarez in 2019-2020, when he threw 83 IP of well below replacement level slop at the AL. This year, though, something appears to have clicked a bit. He’s got more velo by a tick or two, and that probably helps. But he’s also getting more ground balls, which is great, given that HRs was his biggest problem, and the biggest reason for his ugly ERAs and FIPs. He’s still not exactly stingy with long balls, but it’s well within the normal range this season. Lefties (Suarez is a southpaw) will see a lot of high-70s curves and four-seam fastballs with the occasional cambio, while righties get mostly four-seams and change-ups, with the curve sprinkled in, especially as a first-pitch strike-stealer.

1: Crawford, SS
2: France, 1B
3: Haniger, RF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Torrens, DH
6: Toro, 2B
7: Kelenic, CF
8: Murphy, C
9: Moore, LF
SP: Gilbert

Tacoma kicked off its series with Round Rock with a heartbreaking late-inning collapse. The Rainiers were up 6-0 (with much of the damage off of Rangers SP prospect Cole Winn) in the 7th, but gave up 1 in the 7th, 3 in the 8th, and 3 in the 9th to lose 7-6. Texas super-prospect Josh Jung homered, and Wyatt Mills allowed the final three runs in the walk-off win for the Express. They’re back at it today, and it’s 1-1 in the early innings. Ryan Weber’s on the mound for Tacoma.

Game 153, Mariners at Athletics

September 23, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Chris Bassit, 12:00pm

The M’s go for a rare four-game sweep *in Oakland* today, as they try to add to their dominance of the A’s this year. As of right now, the M’s have an 11-4 record against the A’s. In a very real sense, the M’s performance against the A’s and Rays (owners of the AL’s best record) is the reason why they’re in the position of still hunting a wild card here in late September. That’s an odd outcome given that those teams are built on very good pitching.

The M’s struggle against starting pitching. They have an OPS of .698 against starting pitchers, and that includes teams like the Orioles whose starters couldn’t hold down that role for any other team. Their OPS against relievers is, oddly, even worse: it’s jut .667. The thing the M’s have going for them is pressure: they do well in the clutch, and string together solid at-bats, although it seems like they’re equally adept at stringing together crushing strikeouts. However they do it, I still find it fascinating that the M’s – a well below-average hitting team – can not only fight pitching-first teams like the A’s and Rays to a draw, but consistently beat them.

There was a great conversation last night after Corey Brock mentioned that Chris Flexen is now in the top 5 in the AL in ERA. It’s true, as of this morning, he’s 4th! What’s unreal about all of this is that he’s 4th out of a total of 16 qualified starters. As the role of pitching changes, so many of the old ways we think about pitchers – and on what to expect from a starter – have had to change. This has been ably covered by Rob Mains over at BP in a series that’s worth thinking about and wrestling with.

This isn’t really changing; there are fewer than 10 qualified pitchers in AAA-West, and that’s with modified criteria. Teams will need to pay starting pitchers less going forward, and shift payroll costs to an ever-growing number of at least partially fungible relievers. In this odd transitional period, I think it has shown the value in pitchers like Flexen and his opposite number today, Chris Bassitt. Bassitt *just* dropped off of eligibility for qualified starters; he should re-join that group if he pitches a decent number of innings, but he’s making his first start after a 10-day IL stint. If/when that happens, he’ll slot in with the third-best ERA in the league.

Bassitt’s someone who I’ve long been fascinated with, as it’s difficult to see exactly *why* he’s so successful, but after a brilliant/short season in 2020, he’s backed it up with his most valuable season to date in 2021. Avoiding HRs has always been a part of his success, but he’s helped himself with his best K:BB ratio and best K% of his career this year. He’s never been overpowering, and still isn’t: he’s just has six pitches to mix around, and the way each of them moves adds up to a very harmonious arsenal. That makes a bit of sense to me, but it’s still hard to pinpoint *why.* In what way, exactly, does a cutter, change, and four-seam’s movement add up to something that you wouldn’t get just be looking at their movement in isolation? I don’t really know, but that seems like a great research project for fans but also for teams looking to help pitchers with pitch design. Even if the best, say, slider has X or Y movement properties, it may be just as good or better to consider a movement pattern that better plays off of a fastball or cutter.

1: Crawford, SS
2: France, 1B
3: Seager, DH
4: Haniger, RF
5: Kelenic, CF
6: Toro, 2B
7: Fraley, LF
8: Moore, 3B
9: Raleigh, C
SP: Kikuchi

Raleigh’s frigid start and Kelenic’s hot streak has focused more of the concern for fans on the young catcher. Raleigh’s wRC+ is the 3rd lowest out of 95 rookie-eligible hitters, just ahead of ex-M’s C prospect, Alex Jackson.

Speaking of ex-M’s, Jack Mayfield had another big XBH last night for the Angels. He’s still not exactly a great hitter, but his slash line with the Halos is now .209/.274/.429. Ok, yeah, that’s not great, but what it looks like is a low BABIP power hitter’s line. Mayfield look nothing like this when he was (briefly) with the M’s this year. He hit 0 HRs for Seattle or Tacoma, and now has 10 with the Angels and 5 with Salt Lake. It’s a slash line that looks suspiciously Kyle-Seager-in-2021-like. Kyle’s better, of course, with his .216/.292/.454 line. But they’re oddly similar, right down to the atrocious BABIPs (.229 for Mayfield, .226 for Seags). Seager has a better walk rate, too, but I just never imagined that Mayfield’s value would come from power, nor that his line with the Angels would be kind of a dead ringer for Seager’s slash line in late-July. Not sure what that says about either player, or either season.

Game 152, Mariners at Athletics

September 22, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Chris Flexen vs. Cole Irwin, 6:40pm

The M’s continued their mastery over the A’s last night to pull into a tie for 2nd in the AL West, and for third in the Wild Card standings. The Rays took care of Toronto earlier, so we’ll hope for good news out of New York, and focus on the game at hand here in Oakland.

We’re just at the point in the season – and I think this is *especially* true this year, following the shortened 2020 mini-campaign – where teams are fraying at the edges. The M’s bullpen had been unreal for months, but while still great overall, has shown some signs of slipping. The A’s starting rotation essentially pitched the A’s into playoff position, but has been worse over the past 30 days. The M’s historic “clutch” performance? It’s still there, kind of, but it’s fading, if something as elusive and intangible can “fade.”

But that’s not all bad. It’s time for the M’s to become a good team without resorting to “I don’t know how, but some random player in the midst of a terrible season will hit a game winning HR tonight,” in lieu of a sustainable model. No, we’ve had enough dingers-ex-machina endings, as awesome as they’ve been (again, this has been the most *fun* season in recent memory). So it’s great to see Ty France end the season on a high note, and even better to see Jarred Kelenic put game after game together where he looks like an offensive force.

Kelenic, like Abraham Toro, who had a similar run after coming over, still has below-average exit velo, and that’s a bit of a red flag. He’s not striking out like Evan White or Taylor Trammell, but it’s elevated enough that he’s either got to learn to hit for power (something he’s showing some aptitude for at the moment), or he’s going to have to maintain a very high BABIP in a park that makes that very hard to do. Kelenic’s season-long BABIP is .211, which is just ridiculously low. It took a hot streak to get it over .200, so yeah, he’s been unlucky. But the problem is that the M’s have several hitters whose approach look similar, and who consistently run very low BABIPs: this is Kyle Seager’s big problem.

Seager has never had a full season BABIP over .300, and hasn’t been above .250 since 2018 (.251!). The reason is that, despite hitting fewer ground balls than average, teams know he’ll pull the ones he does hit. Thus, Kyle’s BABIP on grounders is below .200. Well, Kelenic’s BABIP on grounders is way, way worse than Seager’s. It’s not always going to float dangerously close to .100, but it may never be high, exactly.

And that’s why the most helpful sign from Kelenic recently has been the drop in his GB%. Kelenic’s K% is actually up in September compared to August, but his GB:FB ratio went from 1.67 in July to 1.42 in August to just 0.70 in September. Along with that shift has been a decrease in his pull rate and an ability to spray line drives from gap to gap. That’s an approach that can work. That is, in a nutshell, Ty France’s deal. France is having a great year in many ways, and his low K% is one example of why. But he had a more or less average K rate last year, and still put together a solid season at the plate: France’s approach has led to consistently high BABIPs. He’s at .330 for his career, which is pretty much exactly what he’s running now. He’s not fast, he hits more grounders than Kyle, and his pull rate has been high (2020) and medium (2021) and it hasn’t changed much. He doesn’t have incredible exit velo, either. He just consistently hits the ball on a line. That’s something Kelenic has shown flashes of, and it’s one way to turn what’s been a forgettable rookie season into a long, successful career.

A more easily obtainable outcome, and maybe something like an intermediate step for Kelenic, would be to take Chris Taylor’s approach. Taylor has a nearly identical K rate, and similar numbers in terms of exit velo and hard hit rates. Like France, he has a good idea of the strike zone, and lays off of balls (leading to a good walk rate). But Taylor essentially sells out for power. He has less true raw power than Kelenic, I’d guess, but he gets into balls and barrels them up more than France does. Thus, Taylor has a consistently high BABIP as well, even with a lower batting average due to the higher K rate. Are there some red flags there? Yeah, probably, but Taylor’s a very good player who’ll be a sought-after free agent. If Kelenic’s second act is to refine his approach and hit mistakes harder, that’d be pretty good – no need to go from 0-60 in a year.

1: Crawford, SS
2: France, 1B
3: Haniger, RF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Torrens, DH
6: Toro, 2B
7: Kelenic, CF
8: Murphy, C
9: Moore, LF
SP: Flexen

Tacoma lost 8-4 loss to El Paso. Tyler Herb took the loss in his first start up from Arkansas. The R’s start a series at Round Rock on Thursday.

Game 150, Mariners at Athletics

September 20, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners · 4 Comments 

Tyler Anderson vs. Sean Manaea, 6:40pm

Thanks in large part to Jarred Kelenic’s dominant performance in KC, the M’s still have a chance to play meaningful games here in Mid-September. Because they face the A’s, now two games ahead of them, and because the Rays and Jays are playing each other…well, the odds are overwhelmingly against. But it’s fun to look at different scenarios and find *some* path to a wildcard, however remote.

It’s also better to watch these games now that they’re winning them according to the pre-season plan: with good starting pitching and their prospects producing and flashing potential.

In September, Kelenic looks like a completely different player. It’s true that Evan White ended 2020 on a high note in terms of OPS, but his K rate was still alarming; even the hot streak contained a red flag. That’s why it’s great to see Kelenic producing without the contact issues he had in July/August. He’s hitting the ball extremely hard and making contact, a pretty cool combination. Hopefully Cal Raleigh can get it going soon.

With most of the minor league season ending yesterday, I thought we’d take a look at some of the system’s standout performances. Tacoma ends their regular season tonight, but as their late season onslaught resulted in them having the best record in AAA-W, they’ll be in the playoffs starting later this week.

No other teams made it, though Everett’s hot start gave them the best run differential in their league (the M’s stole all of Everett’s run differential luck, I guess), and Modesto had a very good record.

Low-A Modesto:
Position Player of the Year: Noelvi Marte, duh.

The M’s new #2 prospect lived up to high expectations and hit for serious power as a teenager in the full season league. He really went toe to toe with Marco Luciano of the Giants, a top-10-in-baseball type of prospect, and fully earned a promotion to Everett. 17 HRs by a teenager in 99 full-season games is impressive, no matter the league context. Sure, he’s got some whiffs, and there’s talk he may move off SS, but all of those issues are ameliorated by power. He showed that and the ability to not just hang around but succeed in full season ball.

Pitcher of the Year: Sam Carlson
The team’s leader in IP isn’t going to wow anyone with his raw stats, but some times it’s enough to come back and demonstrate health as much as any other tool. I think a lot of us were starting to wonder if he’d ever get to triple digits in innings pitched. He has now, and has a year to build on for next year – a make-or-break campaign.

Pop-up of the Year: CF Corey Rosier, a 2021 pick out of UNC-Greensboro hit .390/.461/.585 in 118 ABs.

High-A Everett:
Position Player of the Year: I mean, it’s Julio Rodriguez, but we’ll save him for AA and go with Cade Marlowe. The center fielder out of West Georgia put up a .911 OPS in high-A, and hit a total of 26 HRs and a system-best 108 RBIs in just 105 games. Yes, it helps having Julio on base in front of you, but this was an eye-opening season in terms of run production. He even stole 23 bags. There are serious swing-and-miss issues, but when you hit 60 XBH and drive in over 100, I’ll let it slide.

Pitcher of the Year: George Kirby
He only made 9 starts at the level, but he made them count, and edges out Levi Stoudt. Before the year, this was seen as an absolutely loaded rotation, and that was more or less borne out by their actual results, but we still had some surprises. Juan Then struggled, while Matt Brash dominated. And in the middle of it all was George Kirby, refining that great control and missing bats. He didn’t have the raw whiffs of Brash, but he only walked 8 at Everett and gave up a single dinger across both of his MiLB stops. He was expected to be too good for this level, and that’s exactly what he was.

Pop-up of the Year: Ben Onyshko
Onyshko’s a reliever from Alberta, and like fellow eastern-European-named Albertan Adam Macko, Onyshko misses bats. His numbers at Everett aren’t great overall, but anyone with a season line of 75 Ks in 46 2/3 IP between high-A and AAA gets some attention. His walk rate wasn’t great, but also not terrible. Instead, he was undone by sequencing and dingers, though again, three of those came in the video-game-baseball of AAA-West.

AA Arkansas:

Position Player of the Year: Julio Rodriguez
Again with the easy answers. Julio got off to a great start in Everett, and then headed off to the Olympics to play for the Dominican Republic. Upon his return, his forced his way to AA and just like Brash, he kicked it into another gear. Still just 20, Rodriguez hit .362/.461/.546 in AA in 174 ABs, and stole 21 bags on the year between High-A and AA. This is the M’s #1 prospect, and one of the absolute elite in the game, and he had a season to remember. Whatever goals, whatever numbers you would’ve wanted him to hit, he flew past them. He even cut his K% moving up to AA. I dunno, man. He looks like the real deal.

Pitcher of the Year: Matt Brash
The least heralded of Everett’s opening day rotation, Brash forced his way to Arkansas by running right with Kirby in his dominance of high-A hitters. But what happened after his promotion makes this the easiest call of the entire series. Brash got *better*, striking out 80 in 55 utterly dominant AA innings, yielding just 32 hits. It was all highlighted by his 6 no-hit innings in a combined no-no and a string where he had double-digit Ks in three straight games. The highlights looked fake – a slider bending comically, a bit like Tanner Houck’s. A two-seamer swerving violently arm-side. It was all enough for Jerry Dipoto to publicly mull promoting him to the M’s bullpen in September. As it is, he’s re-ordering the M’s pitching-rich top prospect lists and looks set to debut in the majors next year after some seasoning in Tacoma.

Pop-up of the Year:
Ray Kerr, an undrafted free agent signing by the M’s back in 2017 out of a California JuCo hit 100 MPH and blew away AA as a great closer prospect. Between AA and AAA, he struck out 55 batters in 35 2/3 IP, yielding just 21 hits. He’s been in the system for years, and was Modesto’s closer for part of 2019, so this may be stretching the definition of a pop-up guy, but while we’d heard rumors of added velo, this was the first time we’d seen the lefty simply blow away opposing batters, and he did it in the high minors.

AAA Tacoma
Position Player of the Year: Jose Marmolejos
He was DFA’d twice, and didn’t do that well in Seattle, but what do you want me to say about a guy who hit .360/.452/.700 in AAA? The team caught fire after a so-so start, and Marmolejos was in the middle of most of that, with 72 games played as of now (he’s back with them). 91 hits and 177 total bases in 72 games… the mind reels. He’s not a real prospect at this point, but then, Tacoma’s roster’s is full of these guys. Marmo was just the absolute best of them. I’m tempted to give the nod to Taylor Trammell, but it wouldn’t be right. This was Marmo’s masterpiece.

Pitcher of the Year: Darren McCaughan
Tacoma used over 50 pitchers this year. They had entire waves of newcomers signed and veterans released. They had a shuttle between low-A Modesto and Tacoma. There was zero continuity, but a few guys stood up and ate innings in the worst possible pitching environment: the 2021 AAA-West. Darren McCaughan started in AA, but ended up with the most IP on Tacoma, and pitched as well as anyone could expect, going 5-4 with a 4.47 ERA. Only two Tacoma pitchers even qualified for the ERA title. McCaughan obviously pitched well enough to get a big league promotion, and while that went poorly, he’s done everything the org has asked. He doesn’t miss too many bats, and the ball is flying out of high-elevation parks, but he limits walks. It doesn’t sound like I’m selling the guy, but in this environment, all of that is incredibly valuable, and it added up to the regular season championship for Tacoma.

Pop-up of the Year: Kevin Padlo
Padlo was downright bad for the Rays org this year, but since coming to Tacoma, all he’s done is hit .355/.467/.694 in 62 ABs. It’s a tiny sample, but again, the Rainiers were basically an evolving mass of waiver claims throughout the year. This one was positively Marmolejan for a month, and gets the nod. He’s still just 24, too.

OK, back to tonight’s M’s game:
1: Crawford, SS
2: France, 1B
3: Haniger, RF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Torrens, DH
6: Toro, 2B
7: Kelenic, CF
8: Murphy, C
9: Moore, LF
SP: Anderson

Probably Seattle’s best line-up, and I like France and Haniger switching 2nd/3rd. Swap Toro and Torrens, and it’s exactly how I’d draw it up.
Go M’s. At present, the Yankees and Rays are winning, with Toronto behind Tampa.

Game 145, Mariners at Royals

September 17, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners · 9 Comments 

Chris Flexen vs. Jon Heasley, 5:10pm

Jon Heasley? Who the heck is that? Heasley was plucked from AA to make his MLB debut tonight. The probable had been Brady Singer, one of the Royals many young pitchers, and KC’s first round pick in 2018. Heasley was drafted in that same draft, but a few hundred picks later in the 13th round. That 2018 draft was a pitching-heavy one, and it’s been pretty successful just a few years later. In fact, as Rany Jazayerli notes, Heasley will be the *5th* member of the Royals 2018 class to make a start for Kansas City thus far, a new MLB record.

What’s the best class in Mariners history? I mean, the easy answer is that it’s A-Rod and/or Ken Griffey Jr., and you don’t particularly care who else they drafted.* I mean, that’s true, right? It means a lot more to get a singular, game-changing talent who stars for your team than the *likely* contributions of Jon Heasley and Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic, etc. Still, this is a very good sign for their player development, an area in which that org repeatedly and ruthlessly shot themselves in the foot for the best part of a decade from 2000-2010.

The M’s playoff odds are….low, at this point. The A’s win puts them ahead of the M’s at the moment, and pushes the M’s fangraphs odds below 1%. That hasn’t stopped the M’s from playing incredibly hard, and with a series against a weaker opponent, the M’s can jump back into this race. The problem is that they have to hope a whole bunch of other things happen, and that’s getting increasingly unlikely.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: France, 1B
5: Toro, 2B
6: Kelenic, CF
7: Torrens, DH
8: Fraley, LF
9: Raleigh, C
SP: Flexen

The playoff odds are better for Tacoma, who can clinch a spot *tonight* if Sugarland and Reno both lose and Tacoma wins.

* If you care about quantity over transcendent quality, it’s probably 2009, with Ackley and, more importanly, Kyle Seager. Taijuan Walker and James Paxton was a pretty good two-fer the next year, but we’re a long ways from either 5 MLB starting pitchers or the kind of value that A-Rod put up at his peak.

Game 146, Red Sox at Mariners

September 15, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners · 4 Comments 

Marco Gonzales vs. Tanner Houck, 1:10pm

Another day, another critical game in the M’s wild card pursuit. The matinee features the M’s opening day starter, who’s been sharp in the second half, but is coming off of a couple of mediocre starts against the toothless Diamondbacks. His re-emergence has been huge for the M’s, who have desperately needed the good version of Marco all year. His FIP is now nearly 1.4 runs above his ERA, so he’s still yielding too many walks and HRs, but it’s impressive that he’s managed to get his ERA back down to where it always seems to be – right around 4. That’s not an ace, but any semblance of dependability is very worthwhile right now.

Opposing him is Tanner Houck, a right-handed Chris Sale clone whom the Sox drafted in the first round in 2017. He struck out a few, but wildness and BABIP issues meant that his raw numbers never looked all that great in the minors. Happily for the Red Sox, he’s been much, much better in MLB, striking out a ton (29% K rate between 2020 and 2021) and getting his walks under control. He’s got Sale’s low 3/4 delivery, and thus gets the same kind of sink on his fastballs (he throws both a four-seam and sinker). He also throws a slider and splitter that’s helped him keep left handed bats honest.

He doesn’t have huge platoon splits, but clearly lefties have an advantage over righties, who are really struggling against him (despite a high BABIP). We’ve seen that the Red Sox defense is rough around the edges, so with Houck’s BABIP history and the general immovable-slugger vibe of Schwarber + Renfroe, the M’s need to put the ball in play and see what happens. The other plus is that Houck’s still not working deep into games as the Red Sox manage his innings. He’s gone 5 innings three times this year, and has lots of 3+ and 4+ IP mini-starts, so hey, even if he’s nails today, the M’s can wait it out and try their luck with the Sox bullpen.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: France, 1B
5: Toro, 2B
6: Fraley, LF
7: Torrens, DH
8: Kelenic, CF
9: Murphy, C
SP: Gonzales

Game 145, Red Sox at Mariners – Baseball as Comedy

September 14, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Tyler Anderson vs. Nathan Eovaldi, 7:10pm

The Mariners have a team OBP of .301, and thus have a real chance to have a sub-.300 OBP and be in the thick of a playoff chase. This is the fundemantal incongruity that we’ve all been dealing with for the past 5 months. We can worry about the future, we can lament the loss of a key free agent pick-up on the M’s playoff odds, we can wonder what to make of Jarred Kelenic’s struggles, or we can laugh and clap. It’s time to laugh and clap. The M’s are not a great baseball team. They don’t really look like a *good* baseball team most of the time, and that’s the reason why they’re in historical territory for wins above their expected (ie. pythagorean or BaseRuns) winning percentage. Why is this so compelling?

Aristotle defined comedy “as an imitation of men worse than the average,” and if that isn’t nearly too on-the-nose to abandon this entire analogy, I don’t know what is. Last night’s game was tied in the late innings, and the first two M’s batters made outs. Up to the plate strode Jake Bauers, decidedly worse than the average hitter or MLB-caliber ball player. He slapped an easy grounder to first, but Kyle Schwarber booted it, and the inning rolled along. Not long after, Mitch Haniger hit a 3R-HR that won the game. The M’s beat their wild card rival, and moved to 12 games over .500, and a big part of that hinged on *Jake Bauers* who has a career 81 wRC+ and a 64 this year, rolled over a grounder, and it worked. For some of last night, the M’s had a line-up without a single .800 OPS hitter, until Mitch Haniger’s 4-4 night pushed him over. The M’s may end the year with a sub-.300 OBP. The story – THE story – of 2021 is Jake Bauers hitting an easy ground ball to 1B over and over and somehow reaching base.

This is, I think objectively, hilarious. What we’re seeing here is subversion: we see the set-up, we see some initial results that illustrate important things about that set-up, and then something random happens and the M’s win. Sports, with their combination of true talent levels and just the right amount of variance, kick off so many pat narratives because both components: evaluating true talent and randomness provided by variance – lend themselves to them. Think of all of the easy stories we had going into this year. They started before the year with the evil and miserly team President bragging of service time manipulation. You had the story of the next wave of talent trying to break through. You had the Wisconsin WonderBoy calling out the Org and the destroying AAA for a week or two. You had Jerry Dipoto’s vaunted rotation and his repeated predictions of a big “step forward.”

So much of those easy (but potentially compelling!) stories have just blown up. None of it’s gone according to those scripts. FINALLY freed from service time manipulation, Jarred Kelenic didn’t carry the M’s – he’s been terrible. The M’s young rotation didn’t rise to the occasion, they showed themselves as, uh, “men worse than the average.” So is the easy narrative that Dipoto’s bluster and spin failed and he was taught some sort of lesson? No! The team is 12 games over .500 and he got a promotion and contract extension! Why? Because Jake Bauers keeps hitting ground balls that get booted.

This sounds like an easy farce, something that almost mocks sports. By essentially eliminating the true talent part and running a season on 100% variance, they’re replacing the outsized efforts and talents of the Blue Jays or Yankees and their stacked rosters with the fart jokes that are Jake Bauers ground balls and that week where Luis Torrens only hit clutch homers. This seems like 5 months of a Mr. Bean video or a direct-to-video “American Pie” sequel.

But it’s not. The subversion goes beyond that. In the Rob Arthur BP piece I linked above, he notes that this kind of divergence between expected and actual record is increasing in recent years. Thus, this surrealist comedy involving whole swaths of a line-up below the Mendoza line could actually teach us something. Is it the shift in total innings towards (more volatile) relief pitchers that keeps allowing the M’s to Jake Bauers their way to “underserved” wins? Is it the over-the-top run suppression going on at T-Mobile (the inability of the M’s to hit at home is like a bit the M’s keep going back to, or a leitmotif if you’re a fancy intellectual) that keep more games (that would’ve been out of reach had true talent been allowed to express itself) within striking/variance distance? Is this knowable/resolvable?

I’m not really sure, but I *am* enjoying the fact that essentially everyone’s priors, everyone’s expected stories of this season have been dashed. I didn’t think the M’s would be good, but here they are in a wild card chase – and not one borne of a season in which 83 wins would get you to the playoffs. The optimists expected Kelenic/Raleigh/Sheffield to step up and dominate. Dipoto and Servais thought the rotation would keep them in a lot of ballgames and give their offense a chance. Everyone thought that talent would win out, but we all disagreed on where we might find it. Instead, this season has essentially shown us what success looks like in its absence, a kind of success in negative space or those double images of a rabbit and a duck. None of this is very predictive, and it may not last until the end of the season, let alone the next one. But I think that just heightens the comedy and entertainment value of this season. This is pure, absurdist genius, and the fact that it has no real author makes it one of the most compelling things I can recall. The M’s history has had so much tragedy and so much losing. I never really imagined they could weave that right into a successful season, but here we are. I’m laughing just thinking about it.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: France, 1B
5: Toro, 2B
6: Kelenic, CF
7: Fraley, LF
8: Bauers, DH
9: Raleigh, C
SP: Anderson

Bauers DHing. Perfect.

Yes, Jake Fraley’s back from his rehab stint. Sadly, his return necessitated the DFA’ing of Jose Marmolejos.

Tacoma’s back in action against Sacramento to close out their series.
Arkansas faces Wichita tonight and former Jays/Mets prospect and current Twins prospect, Simeon Woods-Richardson.
Everett’s Taylor Dollard is on the hill vs. Spokane.
Modesto finally gets back to action after their Covid outbreak, and they’ll face Stockton.

Game 143, Red Sox at Mariners

September 13, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Logan Gilbert vs. Eduardo Rodriguez, 7:10pm

Sorry for the outage; I’ve been camping and out of cell phone range, so it was something of a rude surprise to find that the M’s had dropped their series against Arizona. While the M’s weren’t shut out or anything, they again struggled to score and struggled to put a weaker team away as a result. If the M’s come up short this year, their inability to hit at home will be a big reason why.

We know who the M’s are at this point, for better or worse. They don’t score many runs (they average 4.25 per game, 23rd in MLB) and they’re merely middle-of-the-pack at preventing runs (4.65 per game, 16th in MLB). Digging deeper, the M’s offense gets so few hits, you’d *expect* them to score even fewer runs – BaseRuns puts the figure at 4.16 per game. Thus, combining their expected runs and runs allowed, the M’s are an astonishing 13 games ahead of the pace BaseRuns would expect. Some of that is their incredible bullpen, but a big chunk is their success in clutch situations, a factor we’ve mentioned essentially since the season’s first week. That luck still hasn’t run out.

But the run environment of T-Mobile can give and it can take. By suppressing scoring overall, it helps the M’s overcome a lack of talent on the pitching side, as well as a so-so defense. It can keep games close enough for the M’s clutch weirdness to show up, and thus we see the M’s doing so well in one-run games (yesterday’s excepted). It’s been enough to give the M’s a 10-games-over-.500 record at home at 41-31 *despite* scoring only 4.14 runs per game there. And it’s that low run environment that means some of those late-inning rallies are going to fall short.

It’s already incredibly difficult to evaluate what this season means. The M’s have four position players who’ll grade out at or above league average: Ty France, Mitch Haniger, JP Crawford, and Kyle Seager. Seager is likely gone after this year, and Haniger’s year has been hurt by some inconsistency, leaving him with a slash line that looks more like 2019’s down year and less like 2018’s awesome one. JP Crawford’s overall value is buoyed by his position, defense, and park – and you could say the same about Kyle Seager. Seager’s overall production is great despite a brutal OBP because he’s hit for so much power. Even in a career year for dingers, Seager’s production is only in the neighborhood of average because his BABIP and average are so low.

The M’s were never going to keep him around, and at this point, they probably shouldn’t: let Kyle choose his own adventure. Don’t tether him to a rebuild, and let him hit somewhere other than Seattle. At home, Kyle Seager has a sub-.600 OPS. Wanting him to return for next year is, frankly, cruel to Kyle.

All of this means that the one thing that this year was supposed to deliver – vital information on the M’s next core group of players – hasn’t really happened. The guys who were supposed to be pretty good were merely pretty good. The prospects… oh man, the prospects… have been atrocious. But again: how much can we separate out the T-Mobile effect, which is bound to be worse for players exactly like Kyle: fly ball hitters who derive much of their value from dingers. The version of Taylor Trammell we saw this year fits that description, and it’s a particularly apt summation of Cal Raleigh (poor Cal is hitting even worse on the road, though). Strangest, given his scouting report, is that it has applied to Jarred Kelenic. As in yesterday’s game, he’s shown pop at times, and perhaps more than some scouts thought he’d show – at least this yearly in is career. But what’s missing is the gap hitting, bat-to-ball skills that he’d shown in the minors. Kelenic has a .525 OPS at home. Sure, it’s bad on the road, too, but I still wonder how much of these struggles we’ve seen from the youngsters is due to an inability to get comfortable at home.

They’re a very different team with a very different narrative this season, but it all kind of reminds me of the Mets. The Mets score even fewer runs than the M’s, but give up just as few. They’re trapped in 2014 a bit, the peak season for pitchers in the past few decades. It hasn’t worked out for them, exactly (though they were leading a bad NL east for much of the summer), but they feel like they’re more or less as expected: a team whose pitching would carry them. They’re also a team who’s succeeded at home despite a more or less total inability to score runs there. The Mets are scoring just 3.7 runs per game in Queens (!), but are giving up a Dead-Ball-Era-style 3.37. Despite losing Jacob de Grom, they’ve managed to emulate 1968 baseball here in 2021.

But again, how much of this is dominant pitchers, and how much of it is the actual park? Sure, Francisco Lindor had himself a night last night, but he’s clearly underperformed this year, and a big part of that is a .238 home BABIP. Kelenic, incidentally, would kill for a home BABIP that high; his sits at .169. I’m just not sure that these things are purely bad luck. Citi Field and T-Mobile were notoriously difficult to homer in, and so both adjusted their outfield wall dimensions several years ago. More recently, both parks introduced humidors like the big hitters’ parks in Arizona and Colorado. These changes – reduced OF area making XBH harder to come by, humidors reducing fly ball distance – combine with the various changes to the baseball’s drag, and produce… we don’t really know. The fact that we still don’t know is frustrating, and it makes Jerry Dipoto’s job – already tough – that much harder. He’s going to have to untangle which guys are struggling due to factors outside of their control, and which guys are struggling due to deeper issues within themselves and their skillsets.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: France, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Toro, 2B
6: Torrens, DH
7: Murphy, C
8: Kelenic, CF
9: Moore, LF
SP: Gilbert

Tacoma won the first game of a doubleheader today in Tacoma, beating Sacramento 8-4. They’re tied late in the game in the nightcap. Jake Fraley homered in his rehab assignment in Game 1, and Taylor Trammell is 2-2 with 2 BBs in Game 2.

Modesto’s still sidelined with that Covid outbreak, and it was a rough weekend for Arkansas, who got blasted by Springfield on Saturday and Sunday.

Game 131, Diamondbacks at Mariners

September 10, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners · 4 Comments 

Marco Gonzales vs. Madison Bumgarner, 7:10pm

For what feels like the 40th time this season, the M’s faced what felt like a must-win game, and despite an early lead, you could feel it slipping away. The Astros came back to tie, then take the lead, and extend the lead. The best part of the Astros bullpen awaited. And then, just as they’ve done so many times, the M’s found a way to win. It’s got to be frustrating for the Astros, who’ve outscored the M’s by a mile, but have a tendency to trade 11-2 wins with close losses. All of that means that the M’s are still neck and neck with the A’s, and behind the Blue Jays, who, frankly, have to lose some time.

As a reward, the M’s get to face the D-backs team that they just swept in Phoenix. Toronto unfortunately has a series in Baltimore, but then, the Orioles just snapped the Yankees long winning streak (that feels like it was 3 months ago), so who knows. Oakland continues to grapple with the White Sox, while Houston faces the Angels. The Red Sox are still dealing with a Covid outbreak that’s now sidelined Chris Sale, who’d just returned from the IL.

The M’s hottest hitter at the moment is JP Crawford, fresh off a HR in his last game. He remains a fascinatingly streaky player, who was incandescent in June, then atrocious for all of July and much of August, before jumping back to locked in for September. Every time I think we’ve seen enough to essentially say that the M’s need a replacement to really be a consistent contender, he teases this kind of hitting ability. And then once we’re all comfortable with him holding down the starting SS job for the next 4-5 years, he’ll go O-for-a-month. Strange.

But not as strange as the sudden end of Luis Torrens’ catching career. The guy had a brutal defensive start to the year, and I’d thought that part of the reason they sent him to Tacoma was to work on his defense away from the cameras. Instead, he’s come back and never caught an inning. The M’s raved about his ability to pick up the staff when they brought him over from San Diego, and while he’s never been good at controlling the running game, that tends to be overrated. They haven’t mentioned anything about it, but he just DHs pretty much all the time now, after a brief spell at 1B.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: France, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Toro, 2B
6: Torrens, DH
7: Murphy, C
8: Kelenic, CF
9: Moore
SP: Gonzales

The Rainiers are now 3 games up in the AAA-W-W thanks to a 5 game winning streak. They’re at home facing Sacramento tonight after beating them 10-4 last night.

Arkansas’ Matt Brash (who Jerry Dipoto toyed with the idea of bringing up to the big league bullpen in a radio hit last week) was back in action, and helped the Travs beat Springfield. It was a quiet night for Brash, who went 5 1/3 giving up 3 R on 3 H, 3 BB with 5 Ks. Brandon Williamson starts tonight’s contest.

Eugene got the better of Everett, 4-1. Kai-Wei Teng of the Emeralds went 6 IP with 1 R and *13 strikeouts* – the Frogs K’d 16 times overall. Ouch.

Modesto’s game was canceled due to a Covid outbreak on the Nuts, and today the M’s have said that they’re suspending the entire series to do contract tracing and halt the spread. I’m kind of stunned this hasn’t happened already this year, but it’s too bad that this happened so late in the year.

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