So, with the trade of Mallex Smith, the M’s are back down to 2 or 3 CFs, with Mitch Haniger – a competent CF himself – playing RF. There’s nothing wrong with defense first OFs, and in general, I subscribe to the idea that a run saved is essentially equal to a run scored. As M’s fans, we’ve seen an object lesson that putting two all-world defenders next to each other in the OF doesn’t reduce either one’s productivity: Mike Cameron in CF and Ichiro! in RF remains the single best OF duo I’ve ever seen, and the M’s pitching staff reaped the benefit.
The idea that elite defenders don’t necessarily take plays away from nearby defenders is a longstanding one, and it’s critical to Dave Cameron’s view of the Dyson/Karns trade. Quoth my erstwhile boss, “Now, though, there’s reason to think the 2017 Mariners might have the best outfield defense in baseball, or at least be in the conversation. Dyson, of course, was part of the Royals great wall of defense, and now he’s going to be roaming the fairly vast left field in Safeco.” He points out that the Royals OF racked up 135 runs above average by UZR and 121 by DRS in the past three years, while the M’s were solidly in negative territory. It’s not as simple as flipping the latter numbers for the former, so, really: how many runs are out there for the M’s to gain?
This is, sadly, a really difficult nut to crack. There are a number of different ways to look at this, and fortunately, a number of data sources to pore over. All of them have strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately, there’s no silver bullet here; there’s no equation that’ll spit out the runs the new-look M’s OF *will* save in the future. Futures are slippery like that. But we can try and examine the various factors that influence fly balls and figure out how the 2017 M’s might differ from their OFs of the past few years.
What might influence the number of balls an OF sees? There’s the total number of balls in play their pitchers give up; of those, the percentage that are hit in the air; how hard/where they’re hit; the physical size of the OF they’re attempting to cover; and a bunch of atmospheric/weather-related factors that are sadly going to be well outside the scope of this. Just from this partial list, you can see a number of reasons why the M’s of 2017 might be in a slightly different space with regard to OF chances than the Cameron/Ichiro!/Winn group of 2002 or so. The strikeout rate league-wide continues to grow, meaning there are balls in play, and the M’s have helpfully cut down their LF area which, as we’ve already seen, has had the effect of reducing the numbers of doubles and triples that batters hit. Still, a reduction in the number of chances still leaves plenty of room for the M’s to improve, right? The M’s trailed the Royals in OF UZR last year by 55 runs.
Let’s start by looking at total OF chances, as seen on Baseball-reference.com. The 2001 M’s saw 1,228 chances, 2nd most in the league. The American league average back then was 1,125, and the AL’s K% was 16.5%. Last year, the M’s saw 1,061 chances, a bit more than the league average of 1,045 – in related news, the AL K% was up to 20.9%. Taking a 3-year rolling average, the M’s have lost over 200 chances per year from 2003 to 2016. Obviously, the rise of strikeouts is a big contributing factor, as we can see from the fact that the league average itself has dropped by 62 chances per year. But the other part of this is Safeco’s dimension. From 2003-2012, the M’s averaged 1,188 chances/year and their average rank in the AL was 4.67. Since then, the M’s averaged 1,042 chances and have never topped 1,100; their average rank in the (now larger) AL is just 11th. Again, the confounding factor here is that the M’s have been almost intentionally bad defensively since the walls were brought in, so it’s tough to pull these various threads apart. However, it’s probably not a coincidence that the number of chances drops precipitously right when the dimensions changed, and that it’s pushed Seattle from a park that saw many *more* chances than the average park to one that’s seen fewer than average.
But that’s just chances – how about a broad measure that gets at converting chances into outs, like defensive efficiency? Baseball Prospectus tracks defensive efficiency, and breaks it up between fly balls and ground balls. Here, the trend is the opposite, with teams generally getting better and better at turning fly balls into outs. In 2003 (the first year they have good data), the M’s fly ball efficiency (the percentage of fly balls they turned into outs) was .876, good for best in the AL. Last year, the M’s ranked 6th in the league…but with a .906 mark. What’s going on here? The culprit appears to be a general trend towards classifying more balls in play as line drives. “Fliners” that could be called either fly balls or line drives were once largely grouped in with fly balls, are now called line-drives. That’s going to make it really, really hard to look at these numbers over time, but we can try, and we can look at other teams within the same year. So, the percentage of balls in play has dropped by 10 percentage points over time, and as a result, those easier FBs remaining turn into outs more and more often. In fact, the M’s and Royals were nearly identical in 2016 – the Royals FB DE was .912, just one spot ahead of the M’s in the AL. Again, looking at 3 year averages, the clear trend is towards a lower percentage of fly balls, but the biggest single drop in the 3-year rolling average for Seattle is the first year that the average was made up of post-dimension change seasons. By *this* measure, which is super high-level and not attempting to account for the difficulty of chances, the M’s and Royals were more or less equals in turning FBs into outs last year. Interestingly, the M’s have been consistently *good* in this measure since 2013, despite being just atrocious by UZR/DRS. In 2014, for example, the M’s had a .919 FB DE, 3rd best in the AL. They had a -4 run UZR that year. The M’s AL rank has been fair to middling since 2013, but the M’s 2013-2016 average is .9035, percentage points better than the…Kansas City Royals, who clock in at .9028.
That’s strange, but now that we’ve got Statcast data, why not look at that? This way, we can avoid classifications (liner or fly ball or pop-up?) issues and control for things like number of chances and even the speed of the ball. The downside is that it’s only available for 2016 and 2015, and 2015 data haven’t been playing nicely this past week. We shall press on: I took a look at all balls in play fielded by an OF, and combining all fly balls, line drives and pop-ups. The Mariners dealt with 1,691 balls in play that met these criteria last year – helpfully, that’s nearly identical to the Royals’ 1,695. Across MLB, the percentage of these balls that fell in for hits (BABIP) was .432. The M’s bested that mark, posting a .418 mark, not quite as good as the Royals’ .407. Here, the Royals really are an elite club, ranking 4th in MLB. But the M’s, despite their awful UZR, come in 8th, and 4th in the AL. By SLG%, the gap is even bigger, with the M’s 9th in the league, giving up around 40 bases more than the Royals, who rank 3rd best. That’s significant, but again, it’s not gigantic. In fact, the gap in total bases is a bit less than the total gap in UZR or DRS *runs* in 2016. And again, the M’s are clearly above average compared to other MLB teams. Of course, last year was…weird. If you add in HRs and don’t focus only on balls in play, Safeco gave up a much *higher* than average SLG% on contact. But what if the combination of marine layer (however attenuated or El Nino’d it was) and smaller park will result in a *consistently* high floor for OF defense? The M’s worst defense in recent memory was clearly the 2015 group, but just looking at total chances and BA compared to the league average, they don’t seem completely terrible.
I can pull my head out of a spreadsheet every once in a while, and I actually enjoy watching a ball game. I can say that by the eye test, the 2015 M’s were terrible, and that the Royals of recent vintage look incredible; Cain/Gordon/Dyson is about as good, maybe AS good, as Cameron/Ichiro/Winn. Moreover, even if there are fewer than there used to be, there’ll still be 1,000 or so balls in play for the OFs, and the M’s should endeavor to catch them. But the more I look at it, the more I think it’s probably worth trying to quantify exactly how many balls Dyson/Martin will get to that Martin/Smith+Heredia+Gamel didn’t/couldn’t. It’s more than zero, I’ll stipulate that. But I’m also not convinced it’s a gigantic number, and given the persistently low number of chances – and the correlation between chances and UZR – that the M’s will save 40-50-60 runs with this defensive enhancement. Does that matter? I don’t know, ultimately. The M’s can still tinker with that number, as they control how FB or GB-minded their pitching staff is. With Drew Smyly in the fold, they may yield more flys than in the past, but again, they can only improve by so much: they ranked 6th in baseball last year in FB%.
Still, I think it’s interesting that some teams pretty consistently rank near the top in FB% allowed. Examples include the Angels and Rays, who rank #1 and #2 in FB% given up over the past 4 years combined. As a result, their OFs have made hundreds more plays than the M’s group over that time. Part of that is the like of Kevin Kiermaier patrolling the OF, but a large part of it is the sheer number of chances they’ve had. Given this imbalance, and given that this imbalance looks a whole lot like a coherent strategy, I understand the Rays’ desire to stick Mallex Smith next to Kiermaier. I understand somewhat *less* the Angels trade for Andrelton Simmons, given the paucity of chances he’ll get. Simmons is still great, no matter what uniform he’s wearing. And Jarrod Dyson’s (almost) equally incredible. But like Simmons in Anaheim, I wonder if *some* of that transcendent skill will be wasted in his new home park.
For the second time in a week, I hit publish on one trade recap and news of another trade hits twitter. If you’ll remember to, oh, a half hour ago or so, I said that the M’s simply couldn’t keep ALL of Mallex Smith, Leonys Martin and Jarrod Dyson – one or two of them had to be traded on. We didn’t need to wait long. Jerry Dipoto’s found his solid #3 starter by acquiring lefty Drew Smyly from Tampa in exchange for Smith, SP prospect Ryan Yarbrough and IF Carlos Vargas.
After a series of trades that seemed to offer questionable upside to the 2017 M’s, it’s nice to see one that I can pretty enthusiastically endorse. The M’s nearly acquired Smyly 5 years ago in the Doug Fister trade; Smyly was rumored to be the PTBNL, but the M’s instead got Chance Ruffin, who retired a while ago. Instead, Smyly came up with Detroit and then moved to Tampa in the first big David Price trade. He worked out of the bullpen in 2013, but has worked as a starter since.
Armed with a low-90s four seam fastball with incredible vertical ‘rise’ and a big curve ball, Smyly was somewhat unheralded as a prospect, but enjoyed some immediate success in Detroit thanks to consistently above-average K- and strand-rates. Upon arriving in Tampa, Smyly targeted the very top of the zone and increased both his K rate as well as his fly-ball rate. He’s the last guy you’d go to if you needed a ground ball, but his 2016 GB rate of 31% is nearly off the charts – only the drain-circling Jered Weaver posted a lower mark among qualified pitchers.
As you might expect, this has brought with it a fairly severe problem with the long ball. His HR/FB rates are just about average, but that’s still problematic if you give up fly balls like Smyly does. He pitched around it in 2015 thanks to the best K rate of his career and a great strand rate. In 2016, though, his strand rate collapsed and that turned a lot of solo HRs into big innings, and his ERA and FIP rose substantially. Of course, even last year, in a sub-par year that saw his turn in the rotation skipped to clear his head, he was worth 2 fWAR. This is a pitcher with an admirably high floor, even if Safeco goes homer-happy again.
If you’ve been a reader here for a while, you probably know that I’m a fan of Smyly’s, and I think I’ve written more about him than most non-M’s pitchers. I’m excited by his production – when healthy – in Tampa, and I think he’s still got some potential to be unlocked. I mentioned it last year, but the cutter he uses against righties was atrocious, and getting a decent third pitch to righties would help him ameliorate his platoon issues. I’m aware of his flaws, but think this is an absolute coup for the M’s, given Smyly was openly being shopped by the Rays and many, many teams wanted him.
So why did the Rays want to move him? The slide last year may have contributed, but so too does his escalating salary. Because he pitched enough innings in Detroit in 2012, Smyly was a super two player, giving him essentially an extra year of arbitration. With raises in arbitration (he prevailed in his arb case last year), he was starting to get…well, not expensive for most teams, but Rays-expensive. The club has shown a willingness to capitalize on their pitchers’ surplus value around this time, as the trade that brought Smyly to Tampa demonstrates. Chris Archer seems to be on the block, and that’s another great example. This time, though, the Rays are giving up *2* years of club control, as Smyly’s arb eligible in 2018, too. That boosted Tampa’s return in trade (though I would’ve made this trade for 1 year), but it’s obviously better for Seattle as well. I’m glad to see that the M’s were able to capitalize in this case, even if I’m not quite sure why Mallex Smith was such an important get for the club that employs Kevin Kiemaier. That’s their problem, of course.
The rest of the package going to Tampa was SP prospect Ryan Yarbrough and IF Carlos Vargas. Yarbrough was just named the Southern League’s Most Outstanding Pitcher after posting a 2.92 ERA and leading the team to a title. That said, he wasn’t seen as the kind of impact prospect that the Rays’ own Brent Honeywell or the Braves’ Sean Newcomb thanks to velocity that’s a bit below average (and which has been somewhat inconsistent across his M’s tenure). He’s got well above-average command, and walks few enough that he’s almost sure to have some sort of MLB career. Still, there are those who see him as a 5th starter at best, and thus he wasn’t included in BP’s 2017 M’s prospect list…a list that mentioned that the team was very short on starting pitching. In any event, the M’s had a very similar player in Andrew Moore, who *also* pitched well at the AA level last year and who is also seen as a back-of-the-rotation candidate. Ryan Yarbrough is not an org-level player, and has some value considering the 6 years of club control the Rays will get. But he wasn’t untouchable, and I’m frankly a bit stunned to see what he produced in trade considering what the M’s got for Luiz Gohara.
Of course, as the return for Gohara became a piece of this deal, it’s better to view them together. Gohara/Yarbrough and stuff for Drew Smyly? I’m more than OK with that.
The M’s face an uncertain future thanks to an aging core and an ace starter that looked much more common than royal in 2016. That’s led many fans to encourage the M’s to stop *tweaking* the roster and actually overhaul it by bringing in talent, even if that makes them weaker in 2018 and beyond. There are a number of ways to operationalize that sentiment – from opening their wallet for Jose Bautista to trading the farm for a top-name starter. In the past, the M’s were perhaps too fond of their own prospects, and the Zduriencik regime foundered when their hand-picked core of Ackley/Smoak and Montero fizzled out. Jerry Dipoto has now shipped out the M’s #1 and #3 prospects from 2016 this off-season – Alex Jackson earlier and Luiz Gohara today – and received a back-up OF, a LH reliever coming off TJ surgery, and two lower-level SP prospects. The M’s have been ready and willing to deal just about anyone in their system. It’s just that the market isn’t all that interested in what they’re selling.
Luiz Gohara – the recipient of the biggest signing bonus ever given to a Brazilian, and a teenage phenom touching 97 – took a long, long while to get his pro career going. After a few disastrous seasons in Everett where he walked too many and gained a reputation for an inconsistent work ethic, he took a big leap forward last year. His command improved markedly, and he finally passed the Northwest League test and he was able to sustain that success in the Midwest League. He’s been in the US affiliated system since 2013, but he’s still somehow just 20 years old. He capped this past season with a stint as a reliever in the Arizona Fall League. Facing much more advanced hitters, he still held his own, striking out 19 in 11 2/3 IP and averaging 98 MPH with his fastball. Though he’s been named as a potential piece in several trades (most prominently, the rumored deal for SS Zack Cozart), it was pretty evident that he just wasn’t a hugely valuable trade chip given his previous struggles and the sense that his future role was in the bullpen.
So, you’re the M’s, people are telling you to go for it, and you’ve got a SP prospect with elite size and velo and you go to Antiques Roadshow and it’s apparently a fairly recent copy, not an original. Meanwhile, a banged-up Ian Desmond, with dog-chewed shortstop ability, gets enough for several people to retire on. The market is strange, and fickle, and potentially Wrong, but the M’s can’t use Gohara (or Alex Jackson) to get a franchise-changing player. What do you do then? Wait it out, carry Gohara on the 40-man and try and find a SP somewhere? Or just rip the band-aid off and take what you can get if you think it makes the club better? Jerry Dipoto made his mind up, and Gohara will join Alex Jackson in the Braves system.
The return is an odd one, given what we’ve seen in the past week. The headliner coming back is CF/OF Mallex Smith, a former Padres prospect that went to Atlanta in the Justin Upton trade a few years ago. After a brilliant 2015 in the Braves’ system, he played in 72 games at the major league level in 2016, hitting .238/.316/.365 and playing a solid CF. However, he suffered a broken bone in his hand after being hit by a pitch and the Braves seemingly moved on. They acquired Ender Inciarte, then Matt Kemp, and now have IF/OF/UTIL Sean Rodriguez on hand. Smith is a much better defender than any of them, save perhaps Inciarte, but offers less at the plate. A left-handed hitter, Smith is decent against right-handers, and has a very good batting eye, but makes less contact than, say Jarrod Dyson. Little power and less contact means high risk with very little reward.
Dipoto has stressed often that he wanted to make the M’s more athletic, and this latest trade accomplishes that. But just as with Dyson, it’s really hard to see how the specific pieces the M’s picked up fit together, however athletic they are. The M’s now have *three* left handed hitting/righty throwing CFs in Smith, Dyson and Leonys Martin. As I mentioned the other day, it’s already difficult for the M’s to best use Dyson and Martin, which makes how to deploy Smith even more of a challenge. Smith’s ZiPS projection shows a 78 OPS+ batting line, a bit worse than Dyson’s 84, and Dyson’s elite glove might already need to waste its time in an outfield corner. To get full value from an all-glove, not-much-stick outfielder, you need to play them in CF, and the M’s can’t use three lefty CFs, with CFs Guillermo Heredia and Mitch Haniger flanking them. This trade only makes sense if one or more of the M’s CF bounty goes away in yet another trade. I’ve said before that Jerry Dipoto tends to identify a player type and then buy in bulk. That’s probably appropriate/smart when sorting through middle relievers, but when you’re trading fairly interesting pieces for identical – and flawed – CFs, it looks less like strategy and more like OCD.
The second piece is right-handed reliever Shae Simmons, an undersized righty reliever who missed all of 2015 and most of 2016 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. That’s…that’s not encouraging, but I’ll say that I was intrigued by Simmons’ potential since seeing him against the Mariners back in 2014. He throws hard from a lower arm slot and has some gyrospin on his four-seam fastball, which has made it a great ground ball pitch. His slider has extreme sink as well, and gets plenty of swinging strikes. He hasn’t thrown very much of his change-up, but I love the look of it; its serious sink means it could function more like a splitter and work against same-handed hitters (he hasn’t used it that way in his handful of big league innings).
While he’s struck out plenty of righties – and with that solid slider, that doesn’t seem like a fluke – he’s had tremendous success against lefties. Again, tiny sample, and LHB’s BABIP is under .150, so it sure *looks* like good luck, but there’s something more interesting in his splits: lefties just can’t hit the ball in the air off of him. That held true in A ball and in AA, and his stuff seems likely to get GBs in the future.
I’m glad the M’s got Simmons, who’s probably undervalued after pitching all of 6+ big league innings in the past 2 years, but that doesn’t make this deal any easier to understand. The M’s themselves say that they need a SP and a LH reliever. Others would argue that they need to upgrade their offense. Over the past week, the M’s have almost certainly traded some amount of offense for improved OF defense – and it’s cost them the club’s best pitching prospect and a SP with a modicum of upside in Nate Karns. I appreciate the willingness to push their chips in and attempt to improve the 2017 club, but the execution of that improvement looks bizarre at this point.
After creating an opening for a platoon OF, the M’s filled that position quickly by trading for ex-Royals CF Jarrod Dyson. Dyson’s been one of the league’s best defenders, but he’s not much of a hitter, as he’s got both very little power and serious platoon problems that have limited him to part-time duty in KC. The cost: Nate Karns, one of the few SP options in Seattle that had some upside potential. After an inconsistent season and injury woes (he was on the 60-day DL last year), I can understand the M’s desire to move on, but this feels like selling very low.
Dyson is coming off a 3-fWAR season according to Fangraphs, but he’s also 32. As a result, Karns is projected to be more valuable in 2017, despite the injury concerns. More problematic is how to deploy Dyson in a line-up that already has a solid defender in CF, Leonys Martin. A platoon perhaps? Well, Dyson and Martin are both left-handed bats (who both throw righty, oddly), so that may not work. Putting Dyson (or Martin) in a corner saps their value. With an OF now of Guillermo Heredia, Mitch Haniger, Martin, and now Dyson, the M’s have four potential CFs. Despite getting more athletic in 2016, the M’s were still a disastrous defensive OF unit – 27.9 runs worse than average by UZR and 22 runs worse than average by DRS. Getting up to average or better is a great, mostly hidden way to add some production, but again, all of the players who put up league average or better seasons last year are now gone. It’s not as useful to gain 25 runs on defense if you just give it away again at the plate.
Dyson also adds value on the basepaths, another area the M’s struggled with last year. He’s become a better and better hitter too, in large part by making more contact – his 11% K rate last year ranked 27th out of 353 players with at least 200 PAs in 2016. His speed helps him post consistently decent BABIPs despite not hitting the ball all that hard. All told, he made himself something like an average offensive player, which, combined with his defense, is pretty useful – especially given the relative pittance he earns in salary.
Still, he’s 32, and will turn 33 before the 2017’s over. It’s hard to assume that his batting trend line keeps climbing, especially at an age when injuries become a bit more common; he missed 6 weeks with an oblique strain last year. More troubling is his batted ball authority. In 2015, Dyson’s average exit velocity was 3rd lowest in MLB according to Statcast. In 2016, it was just slightly better, but still ranking him hear the bottom with Ichiro, Billy Hamilton and a bunch of guys who’ve sinced been DFA’d (Max Muncy, JB Shuck). Statcast is still so new, it’s hard to know what to make of the new metrics, and despite its simplicity, *average* exit velocity won’t tell the whole story with some hitters. But it’s a pretty clean measure, and troublingly, it may actually OVERstate Dyson’s authority. Quite a few balls aren’t actually tracked by Statcast; those that are hit extremely softly or popped up are often missed by the system. That wouldn’t be a problem if Dyson just hit a ton of grounders, but he now hits more infield fly balls than average. Jeff Zimmermann adds average exit velocities for the batted-ball types that Statcast misses, and comes up with “corrected” exit velocities. That pushes Dyson’s average down, and it shows that the slight improvement in authority from 2015 to 2016 may be an illusion – all of those pop-ups mean that Dyson’s EV may have actually declined.
There’s a way to deploy Dyson optimally – a way to extract the maximum value from his exceptional speed and glove, while minimizing his exposure to left-handed pitchers. I’m just not sure that the M’s are well-positioned to do so. He can’t easily platoon with either Martin or Ben Gamel, and while Mitch Haniger hit lefties much better in the minors, it seems a waste to take at-bats from him in 2017. That leaves Guillermo Heredia, who saw most of his big league time in LF. Getting Jarrod Dyson to be a platoon LF seems sub-optimal to me.
This is a lot of negativity around a trade involving a 3 win player who’ll make $2.5M next year. There’s some actual upside in Dyson; the man’s proven that he can add better-than-league-average-production in part time duty, which is no small thing. But for a number of reasons, I was pretty high on Nate Karns – who, let’s remember, is still a pre-arb player. That said, Karns didn’t pitch all that well, and suffered a serious injury – his 2nd in a short MLB career. Whatever it was that caused the M’s coaching staff to sour on the guy (remember, he was demoted to the bullpen and just not used for a while) may have been a factor here, and maybe the M’s know some things that would change my view of this move. I know the M’s were thin at BOTH OF and SP, but this pair of trades doesn’t add a lot of value to the rotation while replacing their most consistent OF bat with a glove-first player without a glove-first place to play. Jerry Dipoto’s apparently told Bob Dutton that this is essentially it as far as position player additions go, so, uh, save us, Mitch Haniger. By Steamer projections, the M’s have just lost a win going from Karns+Seth Smith to Gallardo+Dyson. By ZiPS, it’s not quite as bad, but it’s still hard to see exactly how the M’s are better as a result of the two trades they made today.
As we talked about last time, the M’s looked to be a team with an exceptionally wide range of possible outcomes in 2017. Many of the players they’re counting on are old, volatile, or untested. There are a couple of ways to deal with this: the club could either leverage their prospects and even young talent (read: Edwin Diaz) to bring in a stabilizing force to the rotation/line-up and close the gap with the Astros, OR they could say “screw it” and get even more volatile.
By trading Seth Smith for Yovani Gallardo, they have clearly, unambiguously, opted for the latter strategy. As mentioned here, and by many other people, there’s no mystery about the weak spot in the M’s line-up: it’s the outfield. Leonys Martin slumped the entire 2nd half of 2016, and he’s flanked by untested prospects like Guillermo Heredia, Ben Gamel and Mitch Haniger. Prior to today, the M’s had all of ONE player playing primarily OF who projected to be a league-average hitter. Now, they have none. Now, to Jerry Dipoto, that may not matter, as the projection systems are going to be low on the M’s young corner OF given that all of them hit poorly in short stints last year. Given the paucity of big league PAs for Gamel/Heredia/Haniger, that just means that the systems throw up their hands, regress them a bit towards league average (and towards their minor league equivalencies) and call it good. The M’s front office very clearly believes in guys like Gamel and Vogelbach, and they’ve done all they can to essentially clear the decks for them. The M’s have steadily removed the contingency plans; at the very least, the kids are going to have to hit opposite-handed pitchers, and hit them hard.
The M’s are banking on their ability to develop and teach young players, and after last year, that may not be a bad bet. Of course, it’s one thing to do focus on instruction in the minors, and another to bank your playoff hopes on it, especially considering that this may be the last realistic shot in a while. The M’s front office is callings its shot with Gamel/Haniger, and now that Seth Smith will suit up in Baltimore, they better be right.
In general, the quid pro quo with a move like this is that you get some upside with your volatility. Sure, Jean Segura’s really hard to figure – he’s gone from Ketel Marte-in-2016 bad to a 5 WAR season – but the upside potential is crystal clear. The M’s *could* have a perennial all-star. The disappointing thing about this move is that there’s none of that. It increases volatility only by *removing* a fairly consistent performer from the OF options; it hasn’t added upside, because Haniger/Gamel were already here before this move was made. Doesn’t Gallardo add upside? Err, not really, no. I’ve talked a lot about Yovani Gallardo, especially in 2015, when he moved from the Brewers to Texas and helped anchor a depleted rotation.
He came up in 2007 after tearing up the PCL (at the same time Tim Lincecum was doing the same), and made some All-Star teams in Milwaukee with a straight, rising four-seam fastball and a big curve ball. Over time, he’s added a sinker to his repertoire, and relied more on a slider than his curve. With a rising fastball and curve, you’d expect him to run GB rates in the 30-40% range, right along with, say, Chris Tillman. But over time, Gallardo gradually evolved into a ground ball pitcher. Sure, the sinker helped, but even now, he throws it less than his four-seam. Instead, he learned to get more and more grounders from his breaking balls. His slider’s not much to write home about as far as swinging strikes go, but it’s occasionally good for a grounder. His curve’s been more consistently a ground ball pitch, which could prove useful if Safeco Field’s as HR-happy as it was last year.
Gallardo was successful in Texas in 2015 in part because of his GB rate and in part due to a high strand rate. That latter bit screams fluke, but Gallardo’s been consistently good at stranding runners, and that’s the main reason he pitched a bit better than his FIP both in Texas and in his last year with the Brewers. Unfortunately, nothing worked for him in Baltimore. He was injured part of the year, and his FB velocity was down to 87 in the early going last year. His GB percentage plummeted, and batters weren’t just hitting more fly balls – they were hitting them harder. Gallardo has been pretty good at yielding average- to a bit below-average contact on ground balls, but his *fly* ball contact authority went up last year. Perhaps unsurprisingly given all of that, his strand rate collapsed as well, leading to an ERA that was not only well over 5, but well over his (bad) FIP, too.
His K rate had been declining for years, but he was able to find a modicum of success in Texas despite of that, and despite a mediocre K:BB ratio, because he managed contact. Last year, he couldn’t. The pitches he’d traditionally used to get grounders produced fly balls instead, and injuries hounded him, too. To be fair, he looked better down the stretch, as his FB velocity was averaging 91 again by September. But the M’s have acquired a pitch-to-contact righty who spent time on the DL last year for shoulder pain, and who’s coming off his worst year. That shoulder injury wasn’t a fluke, either: the Orioles medical staff found an issue with his shoulder when they gave Gallardo his physical. That caused the Orioles to re-work the contract he’d agreed to – it went from 3/$35M guaranteed to 2/$22 with a team option.
In other words, there’s very little upside in Gallardo. Best case scenario, the M’s think Gallardo’s slide in GB% was due to pitch mix and approach, not a lack of command due to chronic shoulder pain. But even if that’s true, they get something a bit more like they thought they had in Wade Miley – a roughly average guy who, if everything goes right, out-pitches his peripherals a bit. It’s very, very easy to imagine other, darker outcomes for this move: Gallardo’s injury woes are worse in 2017, and the M’s spend $13M ($11M in salary and a $2M buyout for his ’18 season) to rehab the guy. If he’s healthy, but his batted ball contact profile doesn’t change, he could work out about as well as Miley did in Seattle. After his 2016, I’m absolutely shocked it took Seth Smith to get him; I’d have thought Baltimore would be fine to get out of his contract. There are very good reasons why this deal’s getting savaged on twitter and the interwebs.
If the M’s had a better track record of helping veteran pitchers, I’d understand it a bit more. But Nathan Karns, who came over with plenty of upside and youth, was mishandled and has now been traded. Wade Miley…yeah, let’s not even rehash that. The big success story of 2016 was James Paxton, but he seemed to take off in Tacoma, and all of the stories about his mechanical changes give the credit to AAA pitching coach Lance Painter. If Gallardo skates out of trouble and pulls a 2015-Texas, better-than-the-sum-of-his-parts season out of nowhere, that’ll help the team tremendously. But I’m just stunned that this ticket for the world’s most boring lottery (please, please give me a season like Jason Vargas’ 2011 or something…daddy needs a new pair of shoelaces!) cost a starting outfielder.
The M’s won 86 games last year, and are once again forecast to be in the running for one of the AL Wild Card spots. They are also one of the AL’s older teams, and several players are now at an age when age-related decline comes quickly and decisively. This is the premise of this Thomas Jenkins piece at BTBS the other day, and it’s the focus of this great David Skiba post at LL a few weeks ago. It’s also something I wrote about in July. The ramifications are pretty big, I’d say – the M’s don’t have the farm system to make high-impact upgrades; they haven’t been players in the Chris Sale/Jose Quintana sweepstakes, and thus they struggle to close a deal at the trade deadline if they’re in contention. I like Tyler O’Neill, but the M’s don’t have a Lindor/Correa/Bryant/Betts-type about to hit the big leagues. They are within striking distance in 2017, but the downside risk is pretty huge.
This gets at an interesting divide that’s opened up about the M’s throughout the blogosphere and on twitter; two opposing camps who each point to a set of facts, make some logical arguments, and come to very different conclusions. The M’s are a good team that is projected to compete for the playoffs, and the M’s seem like they’ve fallen a step behind some of their rivals, and if the season started today, appear a player or two short in what may be their best shot at contention in a while. The key to this seeming discrepancy is the fact that their core, now supplemented with SS Jean Segura, is among the most volatile in baseball – something we see when we look at their projections for 2017.
About a month ago, there was an interesting conversation on twitter between several current/former LL folks about the Steamer projections for the M’s core of Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Jean Segura. Logan Davis noted that the projections for this quartet shaved a grand total of about 11 WAR from their 2016 production; that is, their forecasted production was much, much lower than their recent history – a fact that narrowed or even eliminated the gap between the M’s and Angels, for example, and made the M’s look much worse than the Astros. That led to some follow ups about how often that happens. This seemingly simple question is really two separate ones: how often does a team lose 10 WAR from its star players (answer: all the time) and how often is a group of star-level players *forecasted* to lose 10 WAR between them (answer: not often)? The reason for this little historical diversion is two-fold. First, lol 2015 Nationals, but second, and more importantly, it highlights WHY many fans are so nervous about 2017, and why people are increasingly frustrated by a team that’s still projected to contend.
So, first, let’s take a look at teams that have lost 10 WAR between four players – four stars or regulars whose collective production drops by 10 full wins from one year to the next. My first thought was to look for good aging teams, and yes, that produced a ton of teams that have done this. 2009 Phillies? Of course. 2004 Mariners! Oooohhh yeah. You can find teams that meet this criteria by looking at teams that seemingly overachieved, like the 2005 Chicago White Sox, or, with a bit less emphasis on “achievement,” the 2007 Mariners. You can find teams who’ve lost 10 WAR between 4 players all over the place, because it’s remarkably common; baseball is unpredictable, etc. etc. But a few teams cry out for more explanation. I mentioned the White Sox, who lost a bunch of WAR the year after their improbable World Series win in 2005, but they hilariously (depending on your feelings for them) did it again the next year, with a different group of players. That is, they lost a bunch of production from 2005 to 2006 (Buehrle had a down year, and Scott Podsednik came back to earth, and Neal Cotts utterly collapsed, only to turn up years and years later with the Rangers), but then an entirely different group of stars face-planted from 2006 to 2007 (Jermaine Dye went from all-star to sub-replacement level, and Joe Crede completely collapsed at age 28. Still, though, the most unreal core-collapse in recent memory belongs to the 2014-15 Washington Nationals. In 2014, the Nats had four position players worth at least 4 WAR. A year later, that group shed a grand total of nearly 16 WAR, with their top 2 most productive players in 2014, Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth, losing 11 WAR between them. By RA9-based WAR, their pitching staff was similarly hobbled, with Tanner Roark and Doug Fister losing another 8.5 WAR that year. No team could survive an implosion like this, and the Nats were no exception, despite the fact that Bryce Harper went from 1.4 WAR in 2014 all the way up to 9.5 in 2015. Their manager was fired, and their overpriced, deadline-deal closer tried to choke out the NL MVP in the midst of one of the best offensive seasons in recent memory. Someone should write a book about that team.
So teams lose production all the time – but do teams lose that many wins in projections? Almost never. Here, we need to find not only teams that overachieved, but players with really odd career trajectories – either guys who were too new for projections to get a handle on their true talent, guys at the end of their careers who fight off aging much better than did their historical comparison players, or guys with really odd career arcs. The M’s now have two aging stars in Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano whose comps started to turn bad at around this age. Nelson Cruz’s top 3 comps through age 35 (and Cruz played half of 2016 at age 36, thanks to his July 1st birthday) were all essentially done at 36. Cano is just 34, but it’s not surprising that the projection systems don’t know what to make of him thanks to what we can only hope was an injury-plagued anomaly in 2015. His comps aren’t all that encouraging either, even including the hall of famers – Ryne Sandberg posted his last greater-than-average OPS+ batting line at age 33, and Bobby Doerr retired after his age 33 season. Vern Stephens was essentially cooked at 35, Scott Rolen by 36. There are some much more encouraging decline phases, from George Brett’s and Adrian Beltre’s, so it’s not all bad news, but you can see why any projection system that takes age into account is going to be somewhat suspect of Cano and Cruz.
And that brings us to Jean Segura, a guy who was a league average batter at age 23 before spending two full, injury-free seasons hitting like Luis Sardinas before busting out as a 5-win shortstop last year. Even giving more weight to 2016, any offensive projection (one using math, that is; you could argue that his work with hitting guru Bob Tewksbary overrides whatever the numbers say) is going to take him down several pegs. Pairing him with Cruz, owner of one of the strangest career arcs in a generation, and you have a perfect storm. The error bars around any projections for Cruz or Segura have to be really, really wide. If his 2016 was a career year – if he retains any trace of the Jean Segura that put up an OBP in the mid .280s *in Arizona* over the course of 1,100+ PAs – then the M’s need serious help somewhere to really make a run at things.
On the plus side, you know who else has a core group of stars who’re forecasted to give back a ton of value vis a vis 2016? The Cubs. Kris Bryant was worth 8.4 fWAR last year and is still improving, but comps for guys that good that young aren’t common, so he’ll get compared to regular old stars instead: his Steamer projection is 5.7 wins. Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester, at least by RA9 WAR, should lose a ton of value, too, and Dexter Fowler (probably not a Cub in 2017, but whatever) had his best hitting AND fielding year last year, and thus is projected to lose over 1/2 of his value next year. A lot went right for the Cubs, and they have hard-to-figure players, making their projections look much less rosy than a typical Cubs fan might think. And yet the Cubs are still one of the very best teams in the league. Saying the M’s projections look like the Cubs is forced at best and dishonest at worst, so I’ll just say that the M’s and Cubs projections have at least one similarity.
All of this just brings us back where we started, though. We’ve illustrated why the projections are going to struggle, and thus the reasons why the M’s look remarkably volatile going into 2017. But volatility works both ways – every projection has them behind the Astros, but given the projections don’t know what to do with Cruz/Segura/Cano…how would they know? It’s always a fool’s errand to pencil in last year’s production from the best guys and then add in some (positive) regression for the guys who struggled and call it a contending ball club, but the M’s have reason to think that their stars will be better than many think in 2017. At the same time, the M’s could very easily collapse if the end comes early and ignominiously for Nelson Cruz and if Segura turns back into Zack Cozart, but without the glove. All I can say is that I really hope that the *potential* for the M’s to beat their projections by a lot isn’t a factor that’s led them to be so tentative this past month. I’d hate to think the M’s are confident that the team as currently constructed can compete for the AL West, thus kneecapping any sense of urgency to get another starter. They may not have ever been involved with Edwin Encarnacion (who apparently didn’t want to play on the west coast), and they may not convince Jose Bautista to join the over-30 squad in Seattle, but they need to get creative – and soon – to improve their run prevention. There’s not a lot of help on the farm, at least for 2017, and the club lacks pitching depth. That’s critical, because again, once Cruz and Iwakuma go, thus club starts to look pretty mediocre pretty fast.
1: MLB held the Rule 5 draft today at the winter meetings in Washington, DC, and with the M’s roster full, they weren’t able to make any selections in the big league phase. They were *involved,* however. Tampa took SP Kevin Gadea from the M’s with the 4th overall pick, and this one hurts…at least, as much as (potentially) losing a 22-year old who only made it to A-ball half-way through 2016 can hurt.
Gadea signed for just $42,000 out of Nicaragua in 2013 at the comparatively old age of 18. He’d been eligible for the July 2nd signing period before, but had languished as a light-hitting 3B before an M’s scout suggested he try pitching. That late start on the mound explains his relatively slow progression: he pitched in the Venezuelan league after signing in 2013, then moved up to the Arizona League in 2014, but struggled with his command, and ended up moving *back* to the Dominican League in 2015 (after the M’s shuttered their VSL operations). Something clearly clicked for him in 2015, as he looked like a different pitcher in 2016. Starting off again in the AZL, he walked 3 in 18 1/3 IP, and then moved up to join Clinton in the Midwest League. The Lumberkings eased him in, giving him some shorter outings in the early going, but he took off and was the ace of the Clinton staff by the end of the year. Luiz Gohara was great, and is the bigger prospect name, but Gadea posted better numbers: Gohara struck out 60 and walked 20 in 54 1/3 IP, while Gadea struck out *72* and walked just 11 in 50 1/3 IP. Gadea closed out the year on a phenomenal run – in his last 5 starts, Gadea struck out 48 while walking just 5 in 31 innings.
Yes, he *just* made it to the Midwest league and he’s 22, but that kind of command is pretty special in an ex-position player – and the M’s should know, given their 3B-to-RP conversions (eg. Ramon Morla). Gohara wasn’t available in the Rule 5 draft, but even if he was, I think you can make the case that Gadea would be as likely or perhaps even more likely to stick with a team. The Rays can stash Gadea in their bullpen for 2017, and then either try to start him again in 2018 or, if he does passably, develop him as an intriguing set-up man. For me, Gadea was easily a top-20 M’s prospect, with a possibility to start 2017 in the top 10. Damn it.
The M’s made some moves in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft as well, picking up crafty lefty reliever Paul Paez from the Mets and OF Chuck Taylor from the D-Backs, while losing overslot tools prospect Austin Wilson to the Cardinals. Paez has a FB in the 87mph range, and thus hasn’t been a big strikeout guy (though his K rate went up in his first taste of AA last year). He doesn’t seem to be a Rzepczynski clone – he’s a flyball pitcher, which is somewhat remarkable given his lack of HRs-allowed. That and his control are probably his most notable skills, and he figures to add some depth to Tacoma’s bullpen next year. The warning sign is that, despite some Ks, he got lit up in the AA Eastern League, giving up 4 HRs (doubling his career total) and 29 hits in less than 20 IP.
Chuck Taylor was a high-round draft pick of the Diamondbacks, and showed some solid tools, but has essentially zero power. That put a lot of pressure on his bat-to-ball skills, and ultimately, he just wasn’t able to hit enough to stick with the snakes. There’s potential in there somewhere, as Kiley McDaniel noted a few years ago, but Taylor’s collapsed since that note was written. Of course, one could say the same about Austin Wilson, the ex-Stanford corner OF whom scouts had been following for years. Like Taylor, Wilson could work a walk, but never hit for enough average or power to move up. Both players undoubtedly have some untapped ability in there somewhere, and so I kind of like viewing this as a kind of change-of-scenery trade. The Cards player development staff have been tremendous, and who knows, maybe they can make some adjustments, but there’s no sense lamenting losing Wilson, who K’d at a staggering 36% clip last year in the Cal League. Taylor makes much more contact, but it hasn’t helped him any, which implies a hell of a lot of slow ground balls. He’ll be an M’s project now, and figures to play in AA Arkansas or maybe A+ Modesto.
2: The M’s bolstered their starting pitching depth by picking up RHP Chris Heston from the Giants for a player to be named later. Heston famously tossed a no-hitter against the Mets in 2015 as a rookie starter. He pitched nearly 180 IP and made 31 starts for SF that year, with a perfectly acceptable 4.02 FIP, 3.95 ERA. He’s not overpowering, with sinker in the 90mph range and a big breaking slurvy slider, a curve and a change-up, and unfortunately, he’s not a great control guy, either. Thanks to his low-rise sinker and change, he’s a decent GB arm, but his real carrying card is his ability to shut down righties. The sinker/slider combo is highly correlated with platoon splits, and Heston’s pitches move quite a bit, thanks to a lower release point that is itself correlated with difficulties with opposite-handed hitters. Indeed, lefties torched him in 2015, hitting .270/.356/.462, which is pretty bad for an NL starter pitching half his games in San Francisco. Of course, the flip side is that he dominated righties, with a 3.3 K:BB ratio, very few HRs and a FIP under 3.
He missed nearly all of 2016 with an oblique injury; he logged just 4 IP for SF, and looked like a different pitcher, often struggling to hit 87. This is a solid bounce-back move, and is pretty much risk free, though we’ll have to see who the PTBNL is, of course. To make room on the 40-man, the M’s DFA’d Richie Shaffer, the promising-but-struggling IF they acquired from the Rays earlier this offseason.
3: The M’s have been quite open about their desire to acquire another solid MLB starter to make up for the loss of Taijuan Walker in the Jean Segura trade. Heston helps with depth, but is clearly not someone the M’s can just pencil into the big league rotation; the odds are good he doesn’t make the M’s roster and heads out in search of another opportunity. Thus, if the M’s want to acquire some rotation upside, they may look to the free agents still available. In general, that’s something of a scary thought, given the overall quality of the FA pitchers this year. The best of them have already signed anyway, now that Rich Hill inked a deal with the Dodgers. At this point, anyone on the market comes with a host of red flags, but that may actually make them MORE enticing to Jerry Dipoto, who’s been very active in baseball’s bargain bin the past year.
Isabelle Minasian has a great article on perhaps the most intriguing of the broken toys on the market, ex-Padres RHP Tyson Ross. Ross, an Oakland native, came up with the Athletics in 2010, and was then shipped to San Diego in the immortal Andy Parino deal of 2012. The Padres got him to use his tight-spinning slider more, and he turned into an incredibly valuable starter, racking up 9.5 fWAR in the 3 years from 2013-2015. He’s always been somewhat injury prone, and ended up losing his 2016 with his most severe injury yet: a shoulder problem that was eventually diagnosed as Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.
Ross had thoracic outlet surgery on his right shoulder this past October, which means it’s likely he won’t be ready for spring training, but the recovery time from TOS is much, much less than it is from Tommy John or more serious shoulder procedures. In a perfect world, he could pitch most of the year and bounce all the way back to his pre-injury self. Years ago, thoracic outlet syndrome was an extremely rare/rarely-diagnosed issue that would show up as numbness in the arm or fingers. It’s caused by nerves getting pinched or compressed by the upper ribs and arm, and doctors found that an easy fix to give the nerve bundle more room was just to remove a rib (presumably the 1st rib, just under the clavicle). I’ve joked for years on this blog that it could’ve been named the Texas Rangers surgery, as the Rangers seemed to be the first to diagnose it in ballplayers – Kenny Rogers and Hank Blalock were among the first to have it done around 10 years ago. And once they started looking for it, they found it everywhere. John Rheinecker, Matt Harrison, etc. Soon, other teams cottoned on, and it’s now somewhat common. The M’s picked up Chris Young after he had it, and signed Jeremy Bonderman after he restarted his career following the procedure.
That said, just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s safe and routine. Just as Tommy John surgery isn’t foolproof, TOS isn’t minor surgery. Shaun Marcum never really recovered following his, and the Padres – a team with essentially no rotation – were scared enough to non-tender Ross despite positive reports from Ross’ surgeon. His Steamer projection has him as a better-than-league average starter in just shy of 150 IP, which seems high, but attainable. He’s apparently looking for a one-year deal in the range of $9m-$11m, which is probably a bit more than he’d have gotten in arbitration. That’s a lot of money for a guy who just got stitches in his shoulder removed, but it’s also a one-year commitment to an All-Star caliber pitcher.
From there, the risks just get riskier. Lefty Brett Anderson is someone I wouldn’t mind the M’s making a play for. He missed nearly all of 2016 after accepting the Dodgers qualifying offer for him, so he figures to make considerably less. His injury history spans several leather-bound volumes, and he’s made 30 starts just twice in his 8-year MLB career. Still, he was decent as recently as 2015, and helps balance an M’s rotation that’s grown increasingly right-handed. You can’t count on him the whole year, but that might allow the M’s to get a longer look at Ariel Miranda. Safeco is no longer a great place to pitch for lefties, but there are worse places to go if you’re looking for a one-year pillow contract.
Derek Holland’s available after the Rangers declined their option on him. Another lefty, and another guy with an extensive injury history (he needed knee surgery after being undercut by his dog, once, and has had severe, lingering shoulder problems), Holland pitched over 100 (so-so) innings last year, and may command a bit more money solely because he was able to take the ball in 2016. That said, he hasn’t really been good since 2013, and has had serious HR issues for much of his career. If you’re willing to accept some risk and the need for more than a one-year commitment, it might be better to look at Jason Hammel, who also had his team option declined. Hammel struggled at the end of the year, and has had some injury issues of his own in recent years, but his topped 150 IP in each of the last three years. This is what passes for an interesting option in this horrific FA market, but it’s possible that teams stay away and the price on all of these guys – and Doug Fister – drops, but the M’s might want to go with a short FA commitment instead of trading more of their prospects away.
Not that long ago, I had a post about some early contenders for the bullpen pile after the M’s acquired Dean Kiekhefer in a waiver claim. With his low 3/4 delivery and the resultant horizontal movement, he looked a bit like fellow new-Mariner, Ryan Weber. Two things are clear at this point, some 13-14 months into the Jerry Dipoto tenure: first, the man cannot stop acquiring relievers, and second, when he does, he seems to like to acquire two or three guys with the same approach/skills.
I thought back to that “buy in bulk” strategy when looking into new Mariner Casey Fien. John Trupin has a handy overview of Fien over at Lookout Landing. The short version is that he was once a perfectly, er, fine member of the Twins bullpen, who was absolutely destroyed by the home run ball last year. His career walk rate is under 5% too, so at first glance, this looked a bit like acquiring another Evan Scribner. Solid K-BB%, horrific HR/9 buy-low guys who can appear to improve a ton thanks to some regression in their HR/FB rates. Scribner gave up an astonishing 14 HRs in 60 IP for Oakland in 2015, which is why he was available for a low-level prospect despite posting one of the best K-BB% marks in all of baseball. Well, Fien gave up 13 HRs last year in just 39 1/3 IP, good for a vertiginous HR/9 of 2.97. That’ll get you waived, and indeed, Minnesota waived him last year. He caught on with the Dodgers, but didn’t fare any better, so he’ll cost the M’s $1.1 million if he sticks on the MLB roster.
The more you look at how he pitches, though, the less like Scribner he looks. Scribner has a fairly high-spin fastball, at 2,286 RPMs and a 91mph velocity. Fien actually blows Scribner out of the water in this measure, with a high-spin, 2,501 RPM fastball at 93.9mph. To borrow a concept from Kyle Boddy, who likes to use the ratio of RPM to MPH, Fien still gets more spin per MPH than Scribner, and more still than the MLB league average ratio for four-seam fastballs.* Looking at each pitcher’s curve, the picture’s reversed. Scribner has elite curveball spin (well over 2,800 RPM, compared to a league avrerage of 2,471), which I’m sure was something that attracted the attention of the M’s analytical staff. Fien’s comes in at 2,620, so higher than league average, but far short of Scribner’s. But look at pitch movement, and they look completely different: Evan Scribner’s fastball has a lot of effective spin, meaning the spin is producing movement (in this case, rise). Fien’s four-seam rises a tiny bit more than average, but it’s nothing to write home about. Fien’s second pitch, a pitch he goes to about *40% of the time* is his cutter, which again has remarkably high spin rates (2,500+ RPMs) and not much in the way of actual movement. Does this sound familiar?
This high-spin, meh-movement repertoire was something I spent far too long discussing in the context of Rob Whalen, another new Mariner. Fien’s cutter looks a bit like Whalen’s odd fastball. Both come in around 90mph, have ~0 horizontal movement, and less-than-normal-fastball amounts of vertical rise. As cutters produce, *on average*, worse contact, a team might want to look at high-spin pitchers who, for whatever reason, don’t get much transverse (movement-causing) spin on the ball. That’s the theory, anyway. On the field, Fien’s cutter got obliterated last year, with batters slugging .649 on it. Even looking at his career as a whole, they’re slugging .452, which is pretty high for a reliever who’s spent his career in the low-scoring 2010’s. That said, it may help disguise his flat four-seamer, which has been pretty effective for him, 2016 aside. If the M’s think he was tipping his pitches or have some other tweak in mind, he’d be a perfectly serviceable middle-relief guy, though it’s worth noting that the M’s bullpen’s already pretty full. In any event, while Fien is definitely not a clone of Rob Whalen, there are some surface similarities that make me wonder if they’re traits that the M’s are actively searching for.
I’d love to know more about how teams value gyro spin, and why it might be useful. In the public analytical space, we tend to focus on movement, and for some very good reasons: high-spin, high-movement curves really do seem to be “better.” But I’m not at all convinced that gyro spin is bad in a *slider.* A high-spin, low movement fastball might also provide some sort of advantage, either by producing weaker contact or by confusing hitters whose swing paths essentially build in the horizontal movement that nearly all fastballs have. Spin efficiency, the ratio of transverse to total spin, is useful in some contexts, but less so in others. Why is that, and how might a pitcher’s arsenal – or pitch sequencing – take advantage of it?
* Boddy calls this ratio “Bauer Units.” The league average for four-seamers was 24.3 last year. Scribner’s fastball ranked at 25.3, while Fien was up at 26.6. Using his league indexed BU+ measure, Fien comes in at 109.
You’ve got to hand it Jerry Dipoto: there’s no subterfuge, no hiding his wish-list. He’s told everyone who’ll listen for months that a high priority of the team was signing a veteran left-hander to round out the team’s bullpen, so we can’t be shocked that he’s signed Marc Rzepczynski to a two-year deal.
I think we *can* be a little surprised that he’s guaranteed the player nicknamed Scrabble 2 years and $11 million, slightly more than the 2-year, $10 million deal he gave Steve Cishek, and the second largest contract he’s given out in his tenure as GM. He signed last year’s starting catcher for 1 guaranteed year, and he’ll pay Chooch Ruiz $5m to back up Mike Zunino this year. Obviously the biggest deal was Hisashi Iwakuma’s extension, but even in that 3-year deal, only the first year was guaranteed. Iwakuma hit the IP threshold to give him a second year, and could earn that third year if he stays healthy, but Dipoto’s been somewhat reluctant to dive into the free agent market, unless he’s shopping for relievers. And he’s seemingly always shopping for relievers.
Marc Rzepczynski’s legitimately great at two things: absolutely neutralizing left-handed power and getting ground balls. Since 2010, Rzepczynski’s .293 SLG% allowed to lefties ranks 9th out of 265 pitchers, just behind Clayton Kershaw, but a bit above Brett Cecil, who just signed a 4-year deal with St. Louis. Those are legitimate strengths, and Rzepczynski’s consistency is a key reason he’s been traded mid-season *four times* already. A contending team that believes they’ll face some critical, high-leverage situations involving a tough left-handed hitter could do worse than picking up Marc Rzepczynski. It’s just that the going rate for Rzepczynski hasn’t been all that high- Cleveland got him for a non-prospect from Toronto. Oakland got him as a smaller part of the Yonder Alonso deal, and then swapped him for a lower-ranked (but intriguing!) prospect from Washington.
So, should M’s fans banish any doubts from their mind and cheer this solid investment in a low-risk bullpen arm, the baseballing equivalent of investing in treasury bonds? Here’s another leaderboard, looking at how pitchers have fared against RIGHT handed batters since 2010, with a minimum of 150 IP. Marc Rzepczynski’s OBP-against is the highest, out of 372 qualified pitchers, at .391. Yes, yes, regress those results, and you need 2,000 PAs of average splits, etc. But the problem is, Rzepczynski’s splits are just getting worse, not better, with time. Scrabble hasn’t allowed righties to post an OBP below .400 since *2012.* “Usage will take care of this,” you say. The problem is that it’s really, really hard to ensure any pitcher will see a steady diet of same-handed hitters. Last year, Scrabble faced 102 RHBs and 113 LHBs. For his career, he’s faced 960 righties and 768 lefties. Even with benches constricted by the growth of the modern bullpen, teams can, and do, pinch hit when they see splits like Scrabble’s. It’s likely that his high walk rate is his adaptation to life as a pitcher whom righties see really well, and that’s further solidified his role as a true LOOGY (Lefty One-Out-GuY). He’s made over 70 appearances in each of the last 3 years, but hasn’t tossed 50 IP in any of them.
The M’s aren’t going to get a lot of total innings from their $11 million man, so they need to make sure those innings count. For whatever reason, that hasn’t usually been the case for Scrabble. For obvious reasons, Rzepczynski isn’t a threat to close, and closers typically post the highest leverage index for players, meaning that they enter the game with the highest stakes: the situations featuring the biggest possible swing in win expectancy. Closers might get near a gmLI of 2, with elite set-up men/firemen coming in around 1.5. Scrabble was at 1.13 last year, and 1.18 for his career, meaning he was used in equivalent situations as Drew Storen, and a bit less critical than Tom Wilhelmsen. The M’s bullpen *averaged* a gmLI of 1.16 last year, with Cishek and Diaz leading the group. If this move is going to pay off, the M’s need to get Scrabble in at crucial times.
At one point, the M’s seemed to be after a high-octane, flame-throwing lefty, and Rzepczynski isn’t that. He now throws about 91, with a big slider as his primary weapon. Rzepczynski’s consistent dominance of lefties mean he can be used in late-inning, pressure-packed situations, but he’s not an Andrew Miller type. Dipoto has, in fact, already made a move for a lefty reliever with premium velocity and high upside in his trade for James Pazos. Signing Rzepczynski makes that move a bit harder to figure out; the M’s now have fewer situations in which they can use Pazos, and while letting him pitch low-leverage innings seems like a good way to ease him in to the majors, it means the M’s may now struggle to find enough IP for two pieces they spent a decent amount of capital on.
Of course, this worry about cost and IP may be yet another understandable miscalculation of the baseball market. $11M for 2 years of *anything* in baseball isn’t much anymore, and again, with proper usage, it could become money well spent. It’s just surprising given Dipoto’s reticence to dive into the market elsewhere. Take Steve Pearce, the lefty-mashing RH bat that just signed for Toronto for just a touch more than Scrabble will get. Both players have limitations and both are seen more as platoon players. To me, Pearce makes a heck of a lot more sense, especially given the fact that the M’s already *have* a high-octane, lefty-destroying bullpen arm in Edwin Diaz. This isn’t to say Scrabble doesn’t have value – he does – but it just underscores the importance Dipoto and the M’s place on the bullpen. A year ago, the M’s seemed to be the one team avoiding the mad rush to spend money on super ‘pens, like the one the Yankees constructed. The M’s stayed out of that, and focused on role on certain types: guys who’d been stung by high HR rates, but walked no one. It’s not that they didn’t *spend* on the bullpen, they just looked for different (and cheaper) skillsets than the Yanks and Red Sox sought. They seem to be taking the same approach this year – leaving Aroldis Chapman to someone else, and instead building a pen around some key roles, roles that don’t require 103mph fastballs. That’s sensible enough, but you wonder if the somewhat unorthodox approach isn’t as blind to a pitcher’s market value as a spend-at-all-cost alternative would be.
Rob Whalen is one of two starting pitcher prospects the M’s picked up from Atlanta in exchange for Alex Jackson, and given his size, stuff, and results in his first big league trial with the Braves, I kind of skipped over him in my write-up of the trade to get to Max Povse. Povse is 6’8″, and while his fastball velo has been all over the map, it’s at least touched the mid-90s, something Whalen is probably not going to do. That said, I think I may have skipped over Whalen a bit too quickly.
Whalen’s minor league track record is more encouraging, in that he’s consistently posted great runs-allowed numbers despite a good-but-not-great FIP thanks to low BABIPs. It’s generally a fool’s errand to count on something like that long term, and even though he had a low BABIP with the Braves, it didn’t prevent him from getting knocked around. The story’s somewhat similar for the guy I saw/still see as his best comparison, albeit purely from a pitch fx/pitch movement standpoint: former Dodger Stephen Fife. But when I mentioned Whalen’s 90mph fastball, I mentioned another, better, comp: “Purely on movement, his four seam looks like Garrett Richards’, though of course Richards adds about 7-8 MPH to the mix.” How does this change how we might see Whalen, particularly given the huge gap in velocity between the two odd fastballs?
Back in 2015, I geeked out about Garrett Richards’ spin in this game post before he faced off against Felix and the M’s. As Alan Nathan’s baseball physics lessons teach us, there are two kinds of spin a pitcher can impart to the ball. One, the one we generally care about, is transverse spin, which is what causes the pitch to move. A fourseam fastball from Chris Young or Yu Darvish has a ton of backspin, meaning that the ball is spinning around an axis perpendicular to the direction the pitch is going. In this case, that spin causes turbulence behind the ball, and the magnus force pushes the fastball up (Ok, technically, it just resists gravity more than a non-spinning pitch would). This backspin produces the big “rise” or vertical movement you see from pitchers, and these rising FBs generally induce more swinging strikes. The other type of spin, gyro spin, is on an axis parallel to the direction of travel: this is akin to a spiral in football. The quarterback isn’t throwing a spiral to cause the ball to move – he’s throwing a spiral so that it DOES NOT deviate from its course. Gyro spin in a baseball produces *no movement* compared to a ball thrown without spin.
If you measure a pitch’s spin based on that pitch’s movement – and that’s exactly how pitch FX does it (it imputes spin from trajectory, so it’s *only* picking up transverse spin) – then you’ll find that fastballs move like crazy, while some breaking balls, particularly sliders, don’t “move” at all. Trackman’s cameras can actually measure spin directly instead of deriving it from other data, so it’s an entirely different measure, one that includes *both* transverse and gyro spin. In general, as Alan Nathan found, fastballs have a higher proportion of transverse spin (again, think of a rising fastball), and thus the measures of spin on fastballs in pitch fx and trackman are closer than they are for sliders and curves.
But not for Garrett Richards. Pull up a pitch fx view of his fastball, like this one, and you’ll see a pitcher with a *low* spin fastball – well under 2,000 RPM – but a higher (2100) rate on his curve. Ask Trackman/Statcast, and the picture’s very, very different: Garrett Richards is the high-spin poster boy. His four-seam fastball, the one pitch fx shows as spinning very little, is a wonder in Statcast, spinning 2,500 times per minute. That’s a huge, huge discrepancy, and the only explanation is that there’s a lot – an absolute ton – of gyro spin on his fastball.
Eric Longenhagen’s scouting report on Whalen is a lot like mine – 90mph, scuffled with Atlanta, may be a reliever or swingman. But buried at the end was a note about Whalen’s exceptional spin rates, measured at 2,400RPMs. I pulled up Baseballsavant, and it’s true: Whalen’s FB spins like crazy, it just isn’t generating any movement, just like Richards’. But why would you *want* that? If high transverse spin creates movement (and whiffs), then isn’t that better than this useless gyro stuff? Maybe not.
Years ago, Max Marchi set out to categorize pitches and how batters reacted to them with pitch FX. Instead of using the standard pitch types, or what MLBAM classified them as (or even what the pitchers *themselves* called them), he made his own categories based on how they moved. In the end, he came up with *17* categories, separating “jumping” fastballs (think Chris Young) from “riding” fastballs (think Sean Manaea now, or old school Randy Johnson). This debate about where the boundary between a slider and a cutter or a fastball and a cutter is keeps popping up, and it’s something I’ve mentioned here before. Anyway, if you click the link to Max’s work, his “cutter” bin had an average horizontal movement of -0.4″ with vertical movement of 6.6″. Garrett Richards’ “four seam” last year had average horizontal movement of -0.4″ with vertical movement of 6.9″. Rob Whalen’s “four seam” last year averaged -0.2″ and 6.5″, respectively. There are two things I take from this: first, Whalen and Richards’ four-seamers are actually cutters, and second, a handy definition for *this sort of cutter* (not those way over on the slider end) is a fastball thrown with gyro spin. They spin like mad, but don’t move like mad.
Ok, ok, so again, why does that matter? Why should we care more if we call them cutters versus four-seamers versus shplankoids? Because batters have a bit more trouble with cutters – their movement may be part of the reason why. Firing up statcast, we see that the average exit velocity – how hard the average ball was hit – on a four-seam fastball in 2016 was 90.5 MPH. For sinkers, it’s exactly the same, 90.5 MPH. For cutters, the average exit velocity was just 87.5 MPH. This difference of ~ 3.333% doesn’t sound like much, but it is. If we look at the average slg% on contact for balls hit at at least 90 MPH, we see a Godzilla-like SLGCON% of .874. But for balls hit below 88 MPH, it plummets down to just .255. That’s…that’s a big difference.
There are caveats galore here. That SLGCON analysis is focused on balls in play, and thus misses the big advantage of the high transverse spin FB: all of the whiffs. It’s also using MLBAM’s definition of cutter, so it might be pulling in more slider-y pitches, perhaps thrown in slider counts like 0-2, 1-2, when SLGCON plummets for everyone, no matter what pitch is thrown. And then there’s the obvious point that averages don’t really help individual pitchers. Jarred Cosart throws a Richardsian 94-95mph cutter 70% of the time, and he got destroyed last year. Stephen Fife couldn’t hack it either. Throwing a weird FB is not a panacea.
It might, however, be a strategic move. Back in 2014, when he was still in the Mets org, Whalen pitched in the Arizona Fall League. Maybe due to pitching at the end of a long season, or maybe due to small sample weirdness, he got hit pretty hard in the desert. Looking at his meager pitch FX numbers from back in 2014, though, Whalen looks completely different. His four-seam was more of a traditional, rising, back-spinning offering. He didn’t yet have a slider, just a slurvy breaking ball that showed *less* spin than average. Everything about Whalen’s movement was just…average (or worse). What he’s done since then is split the meh slurve into an actual slider and a high-spin curve that comes in slower. Gone is the completely normal (but slow) four-seamer, replaced by his cuttery thing. Whalen dominated in the minors despite good-not-great K rates and K-BB% with his new approach. It carried over into the bigs, but was undone by a bout of wildness. This was always Fife’s downfall, and it’s destroyed Cosart, too – Cosart’s career K-BB% is around 3%. Whalen still needs to limit his walks, but the great thing about the cutter-FB hybrid thing is that he doesn’t NEED to post big K rates. Even getting hit fairly hard, and with a HR/9 mark of nearly 1.5 last year, Whalen’s average exit velocity was just 88 MPH, well below average. On grounders, it was under 84 MPH, which is great; too bad he was more of a FB pitcher, but still, it’s encouraging. You can begin to see how Whalen can succeed despite his underpowered arm, and despite the cautionary tales of Fife and Cosart. He may not need Richards’ velocity (Collin McHugh is a 90-91 MPH example), and he may not need a lot of Ks. If he can use his gyro-spinning FB to limit contact authority, he may be better than I initially gave him credit for.