Game 124, Mariners at Blue Jays

August 17, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Reggie McClain/Erik Swanson vs. Trent Thornton, 12:00pm

A rebuild is a process, and not a quick one. This was never going to be a contention year, and thus the best use of it isn’t necessarily to trot out the line-up that gives you the best chance of winning any one particular game. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

All of that is true, and losing is a piece of the overall process. But something about today’s game is just galling. Both Domingo Santana and Mallex Smith are out after repeated mental errors in the field and on the bases, and general slumping. In their place, the M’s outfield consists of Keon Broxton, Tim Lopes, and Dylan Moore. A minor league free agent, a waiver claim and a freely-available MLB pick-up. Starting the game is Reggie McClain, a senior-sign 13th rounder a while ago, and someone not on the prospect radar. The one big prospect here was Swanson, who has an ERA over 7 and a FIP just behind that at 6.77.

Similar with what we saw in Tampa, the Blue Jays counter with…uh, Vlad Guerrero Jr., the biggest prospect in the game coming into the season, Bo Bichette, who, if anything, has overshadowed Vladito after his own promotion, and Cavan Biggio. They are loaded with very young position player prospects who are already in the league. Now, they have a problem, and it’s the same as the M’s: they can’t pitch. Trent Thornton, Jacob Waguespack, and Sean Reid-Foley are an interesting trio of young arms, but they haven’t exactly taken the AL by storm the way Bichette did. But with flame-throwing Nate Pearson in the high minors and their return from dumping trading Marcus Stroman, they’ve got depth to help overcome that weakness. The M’s have a wave of talent coming, but Jarred Kelenic is a mere four months younger than Vladito, and a year younger than Bichette. The M’s need to close the gap in talent quickly, and eyeballing 2021 with these two line-ups in mind is a bit concerning.

It’s not all bleak: McClain is here because he’s much, much better now than he was when he was drafted. That’s cool. Swanson has time to figure things out and be good in a year where being good means more. But despite all of the good stories on the farm, I think we need to come to terms with the magnitude of the problem here. The M’s problem in recent years was that other teams were not just better, but also younger. That’s still largely true. The M’s point to a future in which the M’s will be just as young as their rivals, but it’s still hard to see how they’re supposed to be better. Interesting, sure, contending, yes, perhaps. But even as M’s fans follow their uberprospects as they rise through the minors, their rivals have similar talents, and many of them are already contributing in the majors. That’s…that’s a problem.

1: Lopes, LF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Narvaez, C
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, 1B
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Gordon, 2B
8: Broxton, CF
9: Moore, RF
SP: McClain/Swanson

Manager Scott Servais seems to be losing patience with the struggling Yusei Kikuchi, according to this well-done piece by Ryan Divish in the Times. So much of the M’s rise to contention hinges on their ability to improve prospects, to turn non-prospects into contributors ala McClain, but also to turn solid MLB talents into All-Stars. The Kikuchi saga throws that into question. Apparently, they made a minor tweak to his mechanics and it worked well for one game, but then Kikuchi subconsciously (or not?) switched back in his start against Detroit, and he got battered around. The M’s – or Servais – weren’t pleased with it.

Enough about this. Let’s get to the good stuff. Julio Rodriguez hit a grand slam in his first Cal League game, as Modesto beat Lancaster 13-1. Justus Sheffield gave up 3 HRs in Arkansas loss in Springfield. Tacoma beat Fresno 8-1 behind a solid start from Anthony Misiewicz, and a Robert Perez 3R HR walked it off for Everett against the Tri-City Dust Devils.

Game 122, Mariners at Tigers

August 15, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Matt Wisler/Tommy Milone vs. Spencer Turnbull, 10:10am

Yesterday’s loss was a dispiriting one, as they were held in check by Edwin Jackson, someone who I thought was completely cooked when Toronto let him go a month or so ago. They couldn’t mount a challenge against Detroit’s less-than-stellar bullpen, and while Marco Gonzales battled, giving up 3 early runs on this team isn’t praiseworthy. These is why playing Detroit is tricky: win, and it’s “well, yeah, it’s just Detroit.” Lose and it’s a huge red flag.

Jay Jaffe has a good post at FG today on the Tigers run at history – the kind you really don’t want to run towards. He brought up just how poorly the Tigers drafted and developed players in the early part of this decade. It didn’t matter, because their owner was willing to pay free agents to come in and drive the team’s success, but it meant that once that core aged out or retired, there was nothing in the system to replace it. M’s fans knows the drill, having lived this in 2004 and again now. And like the M’s in 2019, things have improved on the farm, and there are some intriguing prospects coming up, including Seattle University product Tarik Skubal, who’s striking out over *2* batters per inning in his first taste of AA. Casey Mize famously tossed a 9-inning no-hitter in his first AA game, and while he’s scuffled a bit since, he’s MLB’s #2 overall prospect in the game, one slot behind Tampa’s Wander Franco. But for right now, the Tigers can’t really call in reinforcements for, say, Jeimer Candelario or John Hicks, who’s been awful against every non-Seattle team this year.

But today’s starter, Spencer Turnbull, is a rare draft-and-develop success story. Drafted in 2014, he moved up the ranks before pitching at nearly every level the Tigers had and making his MLB debut last season. He gets strikeouts with a sinking four-seam and a slider+curve, but he’s just below-average in Ks in the new K-happy game. He walks a few too many, but has limited home runs fairly effectively. Nothing jumps off the page or the screen, but he’s been a steady middle of the rotation starter for the club, and one who reminds me a little bit of Michael Fulmer, who got less Ks, but limited BABIP and baserunners on his way to about 7 fWAR over 2016-2017. Turnbull isn’t limiting BABIP, but if he can keep the ball in the yard, he can be almost as effective, as his slightly better K% gives him more of a margin for error.

In this era, the fastball – and really the four-seam fastball – has become a critical pitch. Batters essentially tune their swings to beat it, as it remains the game’s most common pitch. After destroying sinkers for a while, pitchers responded by throwing fewer of those and chasing whiffs by throwing high four-seam fastballs. But when the ball turned extra-springy in 2017, that practice wasn’t the panacea many thought. We’ve seen the same thing happen this year with high *spin* fastballs, too.

Spencer Turnbull is succeeding – thus far – with a four-seam fastball, producing solid results with it against lefties and righties alike. And he’s doing it in an unusual way. Turnbull’s got a low arm slot, but even with that, his four-seam has remarkably little ride or vertical rise. It’s got more than 2 standard deviations less rise than the median four-seamer. It also has little horizontal movement. He throws a sinker that moves much more the way you’d expect from a low-ish arm slot – all arm-side run and sink. How does he throw this odd fastball? By cutting it. By spin rate, Turnbull’s four-seamer is easily above average, and far ahead of guys with a lot more movement or more whiffs. It’s now established that cutters increase total fastball spin even as they decrease the effective spin of a pitch. James Paxton did this in one of his final M’s seasons, for example. Perhaps the most famous example is Garrett Richards, the poster boy for spin rates who often had the highest spinning four-seam AND curve…when he could stay healthy. But his four-seamer wasn’t a Verlander-style pitch at all, it was a cutter, and it was weird enough that it could be pretty effective. The same’s happening for Turnbull.

He needs that, because his breaking stuff isn’t as weird, and that’s producing some major platoon splits. His slider and curve are generally good against righties (Turnbull’s a righty), but lefties appear to see them fairly well, and they’ve feasted on the curve in particular. That would lead me to think that there’s some deception in his delivery to righties that just doesn’t work against lefties, who are watching him from a slightly different vantage point. The fastball’s oddities prevent them from destroying that pitch, but if they can recognize curve early, then they can still have a fairly comfortable at-bat.

1: Smith, RF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Narvaez, C
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, 1B
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Lopes, LF
8: Broxton, CF
9: Moore, 2B
SP: Wisler, then Milone

All kinds of great pitching in the M’s system today, with first-rounder George Kirby starting for Everett and Justin Dunn for Arkansas. The bigger story is that OF Julio Rodriguez was promoted from West Virginia and is en route to southern California, where Modesto heads to Rancho Cucamonga.

Game 120, Mariners at Tigers – Historical Ineptitude

August 13, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Matthew Boyd, 4:10pm

I talked a bit about how bad the Detroit Tigers are at playing baseball back when they came to Seattle, but I must emphasize: the Detroit Tigers are truly, memorably awful. There was a lot of chatter early in the year about Baltimore, and if they’d make a run at history with Chris Davis’ mummified remains at 1B and without a half-season of Manny Machado, and indeed, they’re pretty bad, but that’s got more to do with their pitching staff than their position players. Because of the way replacement level is calculated, and given that every team has a farm system and access to the waiver wire, it’s really, really hard to trot out an entire position player group that’s at or below replacement level for a year. Think of the worst M’s teams you can think of: 2011, 2010, 2008, etc. They came close, but in general they’d do SOMETHING at a league-average-ish level. Maybe it was defense, or base running, or something to balance out atrocious hitting. The M’s fWAR, as a group, was 3.9 in 2011, their low mark by Fangraphs’ reckoning. Baseball Prospectus thinks even less of the 2010 unit, but they’re above 0 in BWARP. The only M’s team I can find to field a position player group with a negative WAR total for a season was 1983, a club with serious black holes at SS (Spike Owen/Todd Cruz), Catcher (Rick Sweet, Orlando Mercado) and RF (Al Cowens). That group wasn’t the worst hitting club in baseball – that’d be the Mets, who’d turn great in a year or two – but combined awful hitting with awful defense. Even with that, they finished at -0.2 fWAR, so just barely over (under?) the line. After that, they developed enough good ballplayers like Alvin Davis, Phil Bradley, etc. to tide them over until the Griffey/Vizquel/Buhner generation made a 0 WAR mark unthinkable. Why mention this? Well, the Tigers enter play at -1.9 fWAR, and they just traded Nick Castellanos. This could get ugly.

The early 80s weren’t exactly an era of rationality and sabermetric front offices, which may be why it became so rare around this time. In 1979, the Oakland A’s finished at an astonishing -9.7 fWAR, though this is propped up by a huge negative in defense, and it’s hard to know what to make of team defense marks in the pre-play-by-play era. Still, it took a late-period Charles Finley-owned team to do that; the 1977-79 M’s were comfortably over the line. What about the worst teams in recent memory, like the Lastros and the infamous 2003 Tigers? The 2003 Tigers team came in at -1.2, but the 2012-14 Astros never really got close. For a variety of reasons, it’s just *easier* to be awful at pitching. By BP’s DRA-based WARP, many teams finish with below-replacement-level pitching staffs each year, and they have the M’s comfortably below 0 this year. Some bad Rockies teams of recent vintage are -10 or more wins below RL, which is remarkable. Fangraphs’ FIP-based WAR makes it nearly impossible for a club to finish below 0, on the other hand. The Orioles have a real shot at it this year, but even the 2003 Tigers are over +2 by this accounting, which is equally remarkable in the opposite direction if you remember watching that club.

So while I’ve lamented that the M’s future may not be as bright as they claim it is, Detroit shows us how bad things can get. They don’t really have effective young players, as only Niko Goodrum looks league average-ish. They don’t have a great farm system either, or rather, their farm system is deep in pitching, but less so in position players. I think M’s fans underrate the young talent that we’ll see in Tampa, Anaheim, Minnesota, Cleveland, etc. in 2021, but I’m not too worried about the Tigers. As disheartening as the sweep against Tampa was, it’s nice to play Detroit again and remind ourselves – if we needed reminding – that we could have it so much worse.

Even there, though…the Tigers are awful in large part because they leveraged their future to try and win a championship. They didn’t quite make it, but in bringing in Miguel Cabrera, in assembling a rotation of peak Justin Verlander and just pre-peak Max Scherzer, they won a pennant and gave their fans a year-in, year-out contender. They ran into the Giants weird magic one year, and made playoff runs in many other years as well, and all of this came after they unexpectedly won the pennant in 2006. 2019 probably isn’t any fun for their fans, but forgive me if I’m not feeling too sorry for them. This is a trade off any M’s fan would make.

The brightest star the Tigers have now is today’s starter, Matthew Boyd. The Seattle/Mercer Island native has broken out in a big way this year, posting eye-popping strikeout totals. His defense can’t really field, and he’s shown serious home run troubles, but he’s clearly a solidly above-average starter. The Tigers thought about moving him at the deadline, but opted instead to hold on to him. We’ll see if they keep him around or move him in the off-season. He only throws about 92-93, but his four-seam fastball has proven exceedingly tough to hit. This has been a theme among M’s opponents recently, with Charlie Morton and even Ryan Yarbrough throwing tough fastballs from low 3/4 arm slots. Boyd, too, dropped his arm slot from a very traditional 3/4 to a more Morton-esque mid 5-feet release. That adds deception, probably, because Boyd’s fastball – like Ryan Yarbrough’s – looks completely boring from a movement point of view. It has plus spin, so part of it may simply be batters swinging over the top, but I’d bet deception is the key to his huge rise in strikeout rate this season.

1: Smith, CF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Santana, DH
4: Vogelbach, 1B
5: Nola, RF
6: Seager, 3B
7: Murphy, C
8: Gordon, 2B
9: Lopes, LF
SP: Kikuchi

I’ve written at length about my frustration with the M’s seeming inability to help Yusei Kikuchi, but he’s got a chance to build off of an encouraging start his last outing, and against a line-up that, as I’ve just written, is the worst he’ll face all year. Still, there was something painful about watching M’s cast-off Ryan Yarbrough dissect the M’s. A year or two after spin rate frenzy took the analytical world by storm, it’s interesting that the M’s – and other teams – are having so much trouble with so many pitchers who exhibit none of the freakish spin rates or vertical movement numbers that made, say, Gerrit Cole or Justin Verlander famous. The league average four-seamer spins at 2,286 RPMs this year. Charlie Morton and Shane Bieber are comfortably below that, and Yarbrough’s sinking fastball is under 2,000. The Astros acquired Joe Biagini from Toronto and immediately CUT his spin rate by 150 RPMs. I think too often the story of how the Astros or Rays or whoever “fixed” a pitcher centers on things like pitch mix, but that’s not really the story at all. Some teams have the ability not only to plan out changes, but work with players to put those changes into effect at remarkable speed. I don’t think the M’s are such a team. Not yet, anyway.

JP Crawford’s in quite a slump at the moment, batting .160/.260/.264 since the start of July. Much of it is BABIP driven, but his K rate’s surged in August. He’s always had the reputation of a streaky player, and I think we’re seeing that now. Over the same time period, Dan Vogelbach’s at .186/.282/.412. They’re both better than this, but I’d argue the M’s still haven’t located a star-level talent that can anchor this rebuild. We’re all super high on Jarred Kelenic, but for 2021, who’s going to be the focal point of the offense?

Game 119, Rays at Mariners

August 11, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Sam Tuivailala/Wade LeBlanc vs. Ryan Yarbrough, 1:10pm

The M’s have played two excellent games in the first contests in this series, with an excellent performance from Marco Gonzales on Friday and the offense putting a lot of pressure on Charlie Morton last night. It wasn’t enough to, you know, get a win in either game, but they’re good signs all the same. This club has gone stretches where they’re utterly blown out and playing sloppy baseball. This current stretch is an awful one from a win/loss standpoint, but at least they’re mostly competitive.

That’s cold comfort, but we have to take solace where we can find it, and just tracking Jarred Kelenic’s minor league box scores isn’t enough. That’s why it’s cool to see signs of life from Marco Gonzales. He’s been rough this year, despite a decent enough FIP. He’s been far too hittable, and missing a lot fewer bats than last year, and that’s why DRA and RA/9 are so down on his season. A big part of that was his loss of a tick or more in velocity. As a lower-velo guy, he didn’t have a big margin for error in that department, and despite mixing in cutters and sinkers and four-seamers, the lower velo made it very hard to miss bats. In April, he was succeeding by sneaking fastballs past hitters who were looking breaking ball; that is, he was successful when batters didn’t swing. On Friday, he averaged 90 MPH with his four-seam, which he used more than he has in recent games. He broke 91 a few times, which isn’t saying much, but it’s a big change from where he’s been. Was that the reason he K’d 9 in 6 1/3 against a good offense? I don’t know, but it seems like it’s got to be part of it.

The other story of that game, besides the welcome return of 90+ MPH fastballs, was Marco’s change-up. It was always a frustrating pitch; the pitch that got him drafted and shot him through the minors was never all that effective in the big leagues. It was great on Friday, and I’m not exactly sure what changed. Maybe using more four-seamers than sinkers? Something to watch as we get towards September.

Today, the M’s face one-time draft pick and prospect Ryan Yarbrough, who became a thing after a remarkable run for Everett with 53 Ks and 4 BBs in 38 2/3 IP in 2014. A lefty, Yarbrough’s sinking four-seam fastball averages just under 89, so he’s working with the velo Marco had this April/May, which is to say: not much. He has a very Marco-esque change-up, with 10″ of armside run, and a slow, slurvey slider and a harder cutter. He got off to an abysmal start this year, but since the calendar hit May, he’s been on a very solid run. The reason for his success is that he’s more than capable of holding right-handed batters in check. His change is surprisingly effective despite a fairly minimal gap in vertical movement between it and his fastball. His slider, too, shows signs of promise, but he doesn’t throw it much.

His four-seam fastball got tattooed in April, and since then, he’s done something you don’t really associate with the Rays all that much: he’s de-emphasized it, essentially replacing it with his cutter. He’s now thrown more cutters on the year than four-seamers, and while batters were slugging nearly .600 off the latter, they’re at .309 off of the former. He’ll still throw lefties plenty of four-seamers, but he’s gone almost completely to a cutter/change mix to righties. Those two pitches have the same vertical movement, but differ by about a foot in how they break horizontally. That’s produced some weak contact, and it’s helped keep the ball in play for Yarbrough; his HR/9 is under 1 this year, which is pretty hard to do. All in all, he’s having Marco Gonzales’ 2018 for the second straight campaign. Not bad for a cheap senior sign.

1: Smith, CF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Santana, DH
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, 1B
6: Murphy, C
7: Gordon, 2B
8: Lopes, LF
9: Moore, RF
SP: TuivailaLeBlanc

All eyes on Arkansas today in the minors, as Justus Sheffield looks to continue his dominant roll through the Texas League, and as Jarred Kelenic may make his AA debut. The Springfield Cardinals start Angel Rondon, a 21-year old righty who’s had a great season split between the Florida State League and Texas League.
West Virginia’s dominating Lakewood late, and Tacoma’s beating up on the New Orleans Baby Cakes. Juan Then starts for Everett a little later on.

Game 118, Rays at Mariners – Late Bloomers and Phenoms

August 10, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Matt Wisler/Tommy Milone vs. Charlie Morton, 7:10pm

The subject of favorite pitchers came up recently on baseball twitter, and with Felix ineffective and rehabbing, it was a harder question for me than usual. There are so many great young pitchers who combine high-octane fastballs and great breaking balls – I’m thinking of Walker Buehler here, but there are several. I’m fascinated by Cleveland’s ability to keep maximizing the effectiveness of guys like Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and now Shane Bieber and Mike Clevenger, two players whose raw stuff is impressive, but not like Buehler’s, but who seemingly control every plate appearance they’re involved with. There are the vets like Justin Verlander or Zack Greinke. Clayton Kershaw, or Max Scherzer. We’re surrounded by great candidates, but one is pretty clearly my go-to answer to this question: Charlie Morton.

Baseball is often an inscrutable thing, with can’t miss prospects…missing, and journeymen turning in remarkable years, and then fading back into the background. But while a career arc like Morton’s isn’t completely unparalleled, I’m just not sure we’ve ever seen something quite like it. At age 30, he had a solid year for a go-nowhere Pirates squad, but fell on his face the next year. He was durable, but mediocre. There’s a place in baseball for guys like that, as we know well: this was the Mike Leake template. He wasn’t going to embarrass a team, but he’d never to an All-Star game or gotten Cy Young votes, and the thought that he would was kind of absurd, like Dylan Moore or Ben Gamel getting MVP votes. At age 32, he moved to the Phillies and looked tantalizingly different, with better velocity and a sudden ability to miss bats – one he hadn’t shown in nearly a decade in Pittsburgh. But just as soon as he showed it, he was hurt, and missed 80% of his age-32 year. A free agent, he signed a deal with Houston, and almost instantly became a force.

He made his first All-Star team last year, at age 34, when he went 15-3 with a 3.13 ERA and a strikeout rate of 29%. His sinker, his primary pitch his entire career, got significantly faster, and sat at 95-97. Last year and then especially this year, he’s become much more reliant on a four-seam fastball with more run/less ride than many, but which has noticeably different movement than his running sinker. Still, the reason he’s become a dominant pitcher in his mid-late 30s is a freakishly effective curve ball. It’s got freakish break, moving almost 11″ gloveside, which is impressive when you consider his sinker has 10-11″ of break *armside*. It’s hard, and clearly a curve, but it often looks like a Jeff Nelson-style frisbee slider. By raw pitch fx numbers, nothing he does looks extraordinary, especially now that his four-seam is his primary fastball. It’s just that everything he does ties hitters in knots. His four-seam has ridiculous swing-and-miss rates, and the slurvey-curve ball… well, batters have over 100 strikeouts on it thus far in 2019, and are *slugging* .187 against it.

He’s 35, and never had a Cy Young vote, but he’s going to get some this year. This is remarkably rare not just because pitchers flame out all the time, but mediocre pitchers don’t get the opportunity to pitch at age 35. Who else has had this kind of career? Since we’re M’s fans, you’re probably already thinking it: Jamie Moyer got his first Cy Young vote in 1999 at the age of 36. He, too, had been a durable non-entity until he came to Seattle in 1997, at age 34. Almost immediately, he was an impact pitcher, and he remained one for years, finally making an All-Star team and winning Cy votes in 2003, at the age of 40. I don’t think Morton WANTS to hang around that long – he teased retiring instead of signing the 2-year deal that brought him to Tampa – but the only pitching career that got such a late start lasted amazingly long. Morton’s newfound velo and swing-and-miss game looks completely different from Moyer’s weak contact and change-ups gameplan, of course, but it’s nice to know you can break out in your 30s and have time to carve out quite a career.

Who broke out at a late age but with young-player skills? He’s not a pitcher, but the one guy I can think of also plied his trade here: it’s Nelson Cruz, who seemed like a AAAA slugger in his mid-20s, then got his first MVP votes for Baltimore at age 33. After that year, he signed a four-year deal with Seattle, a deal analysts like…uh…me reviled. He responded by becoming a more complete hitter and reaching new heights in both power and durability. His 2015 season was one of the better batting lines we’ve seen here since Edgar and A-Rod, and it was driven by power and average. He’s been dinged up this year, but at age *38*, he’s having a dominant season (on a rate basis) for Minnesota.

For Morton, it seems like some of the credit has to go to the teams that acquired and molded him. Houston, sure, but also Philly, who first unlocked something, and now Tampa, who’s changed his approach, but is benefiting from his best year yet. Morton’s K rate is above 30% now, and his walk rate is down from his two years in Houston. Even his home run rate has dropped despite throwing more four-seamers. He was dominant early last year, but faded a bit down the stretch. That hasn’t happened in 2019, at least not yet. By fWAR, bWAR, and BP’s WARP, he’s having the best season of his career, already surpassing 2018’s total despite the fact we’ve got 6 weeks to go. I should hate this: Morton played for the divisional bully, and now for the team that’s a year-in, year-out wild card contender. It helps, of course, that he’s only got an option for the all-important 2021 season, but I just can’t hate on a guy who’s blossomed like this so late in his career. Watching him pitch is electric, and that may still be true even as he goes against the M’s tonight.

Of course, he hasn’t always been that tough against the M’s. He tossed 7 shutout at them in April of 2018, but he saw them a bunch in his late-season fade, and in late August last year, the M’s knocked him around for 6 runs in 5 innings.

1: Smith, RF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Narvaez, C
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Nola, 1B
7: Gordon, 2B
8: Lopes, LF
9: Broxton, CF
SP: Wisler/Milone

Dee Gordon’s been activated, with Ryan Court taking his first-MLB HR ball back to Tacoma.
Fan favorite Ian Miller, the long-time CF sort-of-prospect who’d been drafted under Jack Zduriencik, was sold last night to Minnesota (excuse me, :traded for cash considerations”). He figures to get a call-up when rosters expand, and may have value on the basepaths and defensively for the Twins. C Jose Lobaton was also traded for cash to the Dodgers, and as Tacoma’s playing the Dodgers AAA affiliate in Oklahoma City, Lobaton simply walked into the other clubhouse. We’ll see if he achieves new levels of performance the way Kris Negron did.
On the plus side for player development, the M’s top prospect Jarred Kelenic has been promoted to AA Arkansas.

Justin Dunn went 5, giving up 2 runs, and striking out 8 today in Arkansas’ game against Springfield. Tacoma’s in New Orleans where new CF Aaron Knapp (the guy who’ll be replacing Miller) is 1-2 with an RBI thus far; it’s a 3-3 game. Knapp was released by the Marlins org last year, and wasn’t hitting well at all in AA. West Virginia got blanked by Lakewood 7-0, and Modeston leads San Jose 5-3. Jake Schiener’s homered for the Nuts, his second in as many days.

Game 117, Rays at Mariners – The 2021 Competition Takes Shape

August 9, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Marco Gonzales vs. Jalen Beeks, 7:10pm

As I’ve written here before, even in 2021, the Astros figure to be an excellent team. On paper, and two years before it matters, they’re still better than the M’s even if you assume a number of their prospects come up and contribute. You really can envision a roster that’s built around pre-arb prospects that’s not…awful, and that could be interesting if players continue to develop AND if supplemented with some savvy free agency spending. However, with Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, and Yordan Alvarez figuring to be in or near their prime, and with a rotation of Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander, Lance McCullers, Josh James, etc., the M’s would still face an uphill battle.

Even the M’s seem to acknowledge this, with the talk of closing the gap and building a team that can start to compete as opposed to building a division-leading behemoth. If 2021 is still the goal, contention may be easier through the wild card. And if *that’s* the case, then this series is a great way to size up a likely 2021 wild card contender, the Tampa Bay Rays.

John Trupin’s done a service by sketching out what the M’s would like in 2021 both with and without free agent help. The M’s can reasonably expect league average or better production in 2021 from DH (Vogie), RF (Haniger), SS (Crawford). It’s no sure thing, but it’s not exactly a stretch to imagine league average or better production from SP 1 and 2 (Gonzales/Kikuchi), 2B/3B Shed Long, and C (Narvaez/Murphy). If development continues, you could make a case for the starting pitching prospects of your choice, or argue that Evan White and Jake Fraley will have figured things out, and that Mallex Smith forgets all about 2019 and gets back to his 2018 form. Logan Gilbert’s rise this year helps fans imagine a rotation that could be a lot better than this year’s, and you could have some depth if Kyle Lewis and company continue to improve. This doesn’t really anticipate serious contributions from Jarred Kelenic, as he’s still in high-A, but it’s nice that this group could get reinforcements in future years, because they desperately need them.

The Rays could trot out a line-up that looks not too different from the one we’ll see tonight. Austin Meadows will be 26 in 2021, and is already an above-average regular. Tommy Pham would be in his last year with the Rays, and a grizzled vet of 31. Brandon Lowe’s extension will pay him all of $4 million for his age-27 season, and he’s an above-average regular now, too. Kevin Kiermaier would be in the last year of his extension, and Yandy Diaz would be 30. Nate Lowe would be 26, and could conceivably play 1B or DH, depending on if the club kept Ji-Man Choi. But it’s the rotation that really separates the Rays, as Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Yonny Chirinos, Ryan Yarbrough, Jalen Beeks are all still around. For depth, there’s former top prospects Brent Honeywell and Jose de Leon, both coming off TJ surgery. There are SP prospects rising through the minors as well, in Shanes McClanahan and Baz.

They have issues, to be clear. Charlie Morton would likely be gone, and the Rays have demonstrated both that they’re not big on bringing in high-cost free agents and that they’re willing to dump controlled players who get slightly less exploited cheap through arbitration. What looks like a huge advantage in pitching depth now could look quite different in a year and a half, as the Rays own experience with pitching injuries demonstrate. But the M’s are targeting 2021 with a rotation that, for now, includes Marco Gonzales whose stuff declined since 2018 and Yusei Kikuchi who’s had a rough introduction to MLB. The Rays have the defending Cy Young winner, a potential ace in Glasnow, and all kinds of league-averagey goodness, plus two-way star Brendan McKay.

The M’s stepped back and decided to play for 2021, but the most concerning statistic is that the M’s contributions from pre-arb players actually went down compared to 2018. Haniger’s injury has a lot to do with that, and the big blow was trading Edwin Diaz. But the whole point was to turn the club over to their pre-arb success stories, and aside from Vogie and JP Crawford, that hasn’t gone so well. Sure, sure, another big reason why the total has dropped is the staggering amount of negative WAR provided by the revolving door bullpen and the back of the rotation. But that’s the point: at the beginning of the year, we talked about if the M’s would manipulate Justus Sheffield’s service time. That turned out to be the least of our worries.

There would seem to be a gap between these teams, both currently (where the Rays are about 18 games up on Seattle) and in 2021. You can envision a scenario in which the M’s close or even eliminate that gap, but it’ll take some doing. A huge leap forward by a player or two, and maybe a big splash on a TOR starter would help, but Tampa’s depth gives them such an enviable cushion. If they’re so stacked, why are THEY worrying about the wild card in 2021? That’s a good question, but the real issue is that the financial heavyweight in the league, the Yankees, has the following *pre-arb* players: Aaron Judge, Domingo German, Gary Sanchez, Mike Tauchman, Gio Urshela, and Gleyber Torres. Add in cheap extensions for Aaron Hicks and Luis Severino, the contract for Giancarlo Stanton, and they look intriguing before we wonder who they’ll add in FA. Their pitching looks thin for 2021, but they’re the Yankees: It won’t be thin in 2021.

This is a problem, and it’s why the M’s need to ensure they’ve got contributors up and down the line-up. Is Shed Long better able to contribute at 2B or 3B? Can Jake Fraley handle CF? Can Justin Dunn be league average or better in 2021? Right now, the M’s could be decent, but the Davenport Translations for a number of their prospects aren’t super encouraging. That’s OK – we don’t care what they’d look like in the majors *now*, but even the forecasts for 2021 need help. Evan White, Kyle Lewis, and company don’t have league-average batting lines in 2021, per Davenport. Again, I don’t want to imbue very early projections with more authority than they deserve, but even if the M’s go the Lake Wobegone route to contention and get slightly better than average production everywhere, a bunch of players are going to need to make huge strides.

Jalen Beeks may come in after opener Andrew Kittredge, the former UW and M’s farmhand who was moved in one of the many SEA/TBA trades. Beeks has a great change-up which helps him overcome an average fastball. Last year, the lefty struggled against righties, but he’s improved markedly in that arena – so much so that he’s running reverse splits on the year.

1: Smith, CF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Santana, DH
4: Vogelbach, 1B
5: Murphy, C
6: Seager, 3B
7: Nola, 2B
8: Lopes, LF
9: Court, RF
SP: Marcooooo

I’m not sure Ryan Court’s ever played RF professionally, having mostly been a 1B/3B, but he has played some LF, mostly in the Boston org.

Game 116, Padres at Mariners

August 7, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Joey Lucchesi, 3:40pm

About a year ago, I had the opportunity to write about lefty Joey Lucchesi, then 3/4 through his rookie season for the Friars. He started very well, but faded as platoon splits started to catch up with him. In the end, he gave up 22 HRs on the year, and *21* of them were against righties. As I wrote, his signature pitch, a funky “change-up” didn’t really work against righties because it wasn’t a change-up at all: it was just a regular slider gussied up with a new name. But the name didn’t make it harder to hit: while righties generally struggle a bit against a change from a lefty, they would be expected to fare well against a slider from a lefty. So, odd start aside, things looked pretty normal – righties do well, lefties not so much, and with 90-91 MPH velo, Lucchesi had 5th starter written all over him.

So, how’s it going a year on? He’s, uh, got reverse platoon splits. No, no, this probably isn’t his true talent splits, but the whole narrative that righties had him booked looks a bit incomplete. Righties whiff on over 40% of their swings against Lucchesi’s…uh..breaking pitch. They still do okay against his sinker, but even there, it’s remarkable to allow a .422 SLG% against it to opposite-handed hitters in the year of the home run. Joey Lucchesi figured some things out.

He’s still got a deceptive delivery, and a bit more run than perhaps batters would expect given his arm angle. But there’s nothing crazy here, except of course the label he attaches to his “change-up.” It just seems to work. Again, and I apologize for harping on this so much, this should be Yusei Kikuchi’s *floor*. Kikuchi’s got a deceptive delivery too and hides the ball well behind his torso. He has significantly more velocity than Lucchesi, and has a harder breaking ball. Neither one spins their breaking ball all that well; Kikuchi’s slider spins more than Lucchesi’s, but Lucchesi’s is slower, so for velo-adjusted spin, they’re quite close, with Lucchesi ahead a bit. But the point is: there’s nothing Lucchesi has that separates him clearly from Kikuchi. If anything, Kikuchi is clearly the superior talent. But look at results, and you get a very different picture.

The M’s believe they’ve found something with Kikuchi, and I hope they’re right. I still suspect that he may be tipping his pitches, as there’s absolutely no way a pitcher should be getting demolished on breaking balls the way Kikuchi has been. For Kikuchi’s sake, I hope today’s the start of a new, more deceptive, more effective run that’ll continue throughout the year and into 2020.

1: Smith, RF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Santana, DH
4: Vogelbach, 1B
5: Murphy, C
6: Seager, 3B
7: Nola, 2B
8: Lopes, LF
9: Broxton, CF
SP: Kikuchi

The M’s lost RP David McKay to Detroit on waivers. Kind of an interesting move to waive him, and it forfeits one of the better development stories the M’s had. McKay was acquired from Kansas City for a dollar, and shot through the system until stumbling a bit in AAA and then MLB this year. Oh well; his control issues and extreme fly-ball nature don’t mix well with the current game, but he missed bats.

Ryon Healy underwent surgery on his right hip yesterday, ending his season officially (it’d been pretty clear before that, though). Hope he recovers and is able to play, though spinal stenosis is no joke.

The M’s have plenty of open slots on the 40-man, which should indicate that they’re gearing up to add players who are not currently on it come September. Justin Dunn will hopefully be one of them, but we should see Jake Fraley assuming he heals from a quad injury.

Tacoma’s heading to Oklahoma City to face the Dodgers new uber-prospect, SS Gavin Lux, who’s annihilating PCL pitching as Mike Curto details. Nabil Crismatt will get the unenviable task of trying to slow him down.

Justus Sheffield was on again as Arkansas easily beat NW Arkansas 6-1. Sheff went 6 scoreless with 6 Ks and *no walks*. Kyle Lewis doubled. Today, Ljay Newsome starts for the Travs, trying to extend a run of solid starts to begin his high-minors career. Of note though, the strikeout stuff that got him promoted hasn’t quite made it to Arkansas – he’s got just 6 Ks in over 15 innings in AA after racking up 124 in 100+ IP for Modesto.

Speaking of Modesto, they lost to Inland Empire 6-2 as Clay Chandler continues to struggle to adjust to the offense-friendly Cal League. The two teams will face each other again tonight.

West Virginia lost to Rome, 8-6 despite Onil Pena’s 15th HR. West Virginia’s got today off.

Everett was off for the Short-Season All Star Game pitting the Northwest League against the Pioneer League. Despite the NWL being a higher classification, the Pioneer League won 11-7. Everett’s Patrick Frick went 2-5 with a double, but Damon Casetta-Stubbs took the loss after giving up 5 runs in his one inning of work.

Game 115, Padres at Mariners – Another Path Forward?

August 6, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

Matt Wisler/Wade Le Blanc vs. Dinelson Lamet, 7:10pm

A pair of former Padres face the Padres tonight as the M’s return home from absolute destruction at the hands of the Houston Astros. We’ve been talking about it for years now, but the Astros have essentially separated themselves from the rest of the division and league, and what’s worse, they keep restocking their talent. Sure, they gave up prospects to acquire Aaron Sanchez and Zack Greinke. Sure, they may or may not re-sign Gerrit Cole. But with the emergence of Yordan Alvarez (whose reign of terror is unlike any I’ve seen from a young rookie since, what, Pujols?), they now have a core of three homegrown potential superstars who will be in their mid-late 20s right in the M’s self-identified contention window. This is what has me almost continuously pessimistic.

I caught the latest episode of M’s podcast The Wheelhouse today; this episode was hosted by the great Colin O’Keefe. Almost immediately, Colin asked Jerry Dipoto how to emulate the Astros? How do *we* get a club that’s essentially the divisional favorite year in and year out? Dipoto’s answer was that they planned to build through young players, and that they’d start to chip away at the Astros’ advantage as soon as next year. Candidly, he said they simply weren’t as talented, which is both painfully obvious to observers, and also kind of refreshing to hear from the GM.

Given the emergence of Alvarez, though, the M’s could just as easily see the Astros *widen* the gap next year. I wrote back in March that the M’s needed to identify who their stars were going to be, and to start, they needed to find one player who could put up a 6-8 WAR season. The Astros have several such players, and the A’s have a couple, and the Angels have one who does this in his sleep. The M’s needed to find just one player, and then build around that. Ideally, though I didn’t stress this enough in that piece, that this player should do so convincingly. Jarred Kelenic’s had a great season – one that gives M’s fans hope about a 6-8 WAR ceiling or even consistent 6-8 WAR seasons, but as a 20 year old who’s struggling a bit right now, I don’t know that we can just plug him in for MVP votes in 2020-2021. It could happen! That would be very helpful, but counting on it is madness. Daniel Vogelbach started off so strong that he looked like he would scoff in the face of positional adjustments and slug his way to it. But as the year’s gone on, I fear he may be capped around 3-4 in a good year. The walk rate boosts his floor, but I don’t think he can be a superstar with his current tool set. Mitch Haniger *could*, but after a lost season and some regression, it seems tough to imagine he’ll just put it all together at age 30 (he’ll be 30 in 2021). Marco Gonzales has backed up in just about every conceivable measure, and just didn’t quite have the skillset to get to 6-8 WAR anyway. Judging from the condition I set out, this season’s been a failure.

But maybe I was going about this the wrong way. Another thing I wrote about in that same piece was the importance of getting better-than-league-average performance from JP Crawford. Forget a 6-8 WAR ceiling. Just give me solid defense at SS and a Segura-esque 110 wRC+ or DRC+. Above-average bat and glove is a great player, even if it’s not quite Correa/Bregman good. In THIS case, the M’s and Crawford clearly, inarguably hit the mark. I worry about Crawford’s streakiness at the plate and about the raw hitting ability, but his walk rate ameliorates those worries. I don’t think he’s Xander Bogaerts, but he doesn’t need to be. He could settle in and become a 3-5 WAR SS for years and years, and that’s a player a team can win with. But doesn’t a winning team need more?

In general, yes. The great teams we see today in Houston and Los Angeles, or like the Cubs, Yankees and Red Sox, have big-time stars and have filled in around them admirably. The Cubs had Kris Bryant, the Sox had Mookie Betts, the Yankees had Aaron Judge, the Indians had Jose Ramirez or Corey Kluber or Francisco Lindor. Those great players take the pressure off of a GM, because you don’t need big-time production from the rest of the line-up or rotation. You can get more limited players who still add value. Your young players can develop in an environment where they don’t have to carry a line-up/staff, and free agents can fill in known needs in the bullpen or defense, etc. Stars allow you to overcome down years or injuries from contributing players (though of course their presence increases risk, as if THEY go down, you could be screwed). But of course, this isn’t the only way to win. It’s just a really common one.

A good team needs 45 WAR or more to really contend. By Baseball Reference and Fangraphs, that’d put you at about 92-93 wins; by Baseball Prospectus’ WARP measure, you’d be in the mid 90s. The best teams in recent memories got 30 or so from position players and another 20-25 from pitchers, but of course you can mix and match based on the talent you have. Pitching and defense win championships except when offense slugs its way to the crown. Anyway, what would a team without any big stars look like? Can the math work out to get you to 45-50 WAR without any one player amassing 6-8? Sure. If you’d like to see how this could work operationally, look at the Minnesota Twins.

Depending on the WAR framework you use, they may have an outlier. Baseball Prospectus sees Jorge Polanco as a *bit* to good for this analogy to really work though he’s in the 4s currently. Fangraphs sees SP Jose Berrios as the guy who doesn’t belong, while BP thinks he and the rest of the Twins pitchers have been decidedly unimpressive. But the Twins are still 4 games up in the Central, and for our purposes, you could knock a win or two off and still have a good, young, contending team. The Twins have an OF of Max Kepler, Byron Buxton, and Eddie Rosario. Buxton has star-level tools, but hasn’t yet put up a superstar season. He might have this year, but he’s been hurting. Kepler seemed stuck in the Nomar Mazara loop of eschewing development and putting up the same season year after year, but he’s already hit 30 tanks this year and has become a very solid player. The hit tool, position, and walk rate prevent him from Mookie Bettsing things, so he’s perfect: a 3-5 win RF. Eddie Rosario’s aversion to plate discipline keeps him at 2-4 WAR even with a legitimately good hit tool. Check, check, and check in the OF. SS Polanco’s having a breakout season, so may be on his way to a 5-7 win year, but knock some off of his SLG% or batting average, and I think JP Crawford could replicate it at his peak. If Crawford clicks and gets you 4-5 wins, then perfect, the M’s have their Polanco-equivalent…almost. Shed Long seems like a decent pick to be league average, as he was nearly league average at the plate in his first taste of MLB. The glove isn’t ideal, but give him a year plus of seasoning and a 2-3 win season is quite reasonable. The Twins catcher production is another spot that threatens to be TOO good for this analogy to work, but then, that’s been the M’s strength as well. A bit of defensive improvement and Omar Narvaez can get to 3-4 WAR on his own; pair him with anything but a black hole, and the position can get you 4-5 fairly easily.

Now, I’m not quite sure what to do about 3B. The Twins have Miguel Sano, who’s reclaimed some of his prospect luster, but the M’s are quietly sending off Kyle Seager and don’t really have a 3B ready to go in the minors. I’ll waive my magic free agent wand and assume they can find one. CF’s a bit rough, too, with Mallex Smith’s faceplant this year. He’s young so it’s not hopeless, and the positional value makes a 2 WAR season a fairly low bar, but he’s not come close this year. That said, a bounce-back (he’s already HAD a 3 WAR season) or the emergence of Jake Fraley could take care of this. Nelson Cruz is a high bar for anyone, as he’s already at 3 WAR despite missing time. But Vogelbach can get to 3 WAR this year, so that already fits the bill, and he could do more by 2021.

It’s obviously tougher when we look at pitching. But instead of pretending Marco Gonzales is an ace, the M’s just need to find more league-average arms to have a contender. The Twins rotation is anchored by Berrios, but they’ve got Kyle Gibson, Martin Perez, and Jake Odorizzi contributing well, too. BP’s down on the group, but they’re all around league average by Fangraphs. Marco’s had one better-than-average campaign and could get back there with some tweaks, I think. From here, we get more speculative. Erik Swanson and Justus Sheffield – the two high-minors prospects with rotation pedigrees – have been awful this year, but a league average year is a hell of a lot more attainable than the #2 starter tag that I think many attached to Sheffield (the M’s #1 prospect heading into 2019). Swanson, too, has some tools along with his gopheritis. You can’t count on it, but the pair could conceivably figure things out by 2021. Justin Dunn could be a 4th average starter, I suppose, leaving one spot for a free agent or pop-up prospect. The M’s would need 6 or so WAR from their bullpen, which is tougher without a dominant star-level closer like 2018 Edwin Diaz, but again, the Twins and Taylor Rogers are showing that it can be done (by M’s cast-offs like Ryne Harper!).

Is this likely? Err, not really. You really need to essentially shoot the moon here. 16-18 WAR from the staff means the M’s need to get 3+ WAR from every field position to get to 45 WAR(P). And even that figures to be behind the Astros, who could conceivably replace Gerrit Cole with a potted plant and be the divisional favorite in 2021. But while 2019 has failed to see the M’s develop a superstar, effectively closing the door on the way *I* thought they wanted to compete in 2021, Crawford and Narvaez point to another route to relevancy. It’s incredibly hard and may not be enough, but at least this door’s still open. From this vantage point, the not-awful debuts of Long and Austin Nola along with the big step forward by Vogelbach look more interesting. I’m not sure they can get there on the pitching side, but it beats pretending that Sheffield or Gonzales is going to be an MLB #2 anytime soon.

The Padres are in town advertising the classic Astros-style team build. Shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. has blown away even the most optimistic, fever-dreamy expectations fans put on him and may be a perennial All-Star. With Chris Paddack, Manny Machado, and a solid bullpen, they’ve got some star power to go with a formidable minor league system. They drop off pretty quickly, but the ceiling remains high. Cal Quantrill’s adjusted to MLB much better than I’d have guessed, and with Eric Lauer and Joey Lucchesi, they have a solid 1-4 in the rotation. #5 has been a bit more volatile, with Nick Margevicius and Matt Strahm struggling. As a result, the Pads have turned back to Dinelson Lamet, a starter in 2017 who went down with TJ surgery and lost all of 2018 and much of 2019 with rehab. In 2017, he averaged 95 on his rising four-seam fastball, and threw a ton of 86 mph sliders that utterly confused hitters. He wasn’t dominant – despite the dominant breaking ball – due to fastball command and control; he paired too many home runs and too many walks. But he wasn’t bad, and could easily get back to league average or better if he stays healthy.

Besides health, he’s going to have to figure out what to do about lefties, who’ve killed him in 2017 and in his 2019 return. His fastball’s still at 95-96, but it’s more cutter-like with less horizontal and vertical movement. It’s been hit hard in his small-sample 2019, but the slider’s still effective. Tough match-up for the righties today, so the M’s need Vogelbach and Seager to have a nice night.

1: Smith, RF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Santana, DH
4: Vogelbach, 1B
5: Narvaez, C
6: Seager, 3B
7: Nola, 2B
8: Moore, LF
9: Broxton, CF
SP: Wisler/Le Blanc

Tim Beckham’s been suspended 80 games for a positive PED test (it was stanozolol). That’ll end his M’s career, and really hurts his market as he hits free agency with some remaining suspension to serve.

I got to see the Rainiers yesterday on a beautiful Monday morning, but they were dismantled 10-1 by the Iowa Cubs. Newcomer Bryan Ellington was intriguing, hitting 98 multiple times in the 8th inning. The PCL’s off today.
West Virginia sacked Rome 5-2, vandalizing the Braves’ pitching staff for 13 hits. Justin Dunn got the win, but gave up 4 runs on 2 dingers in 5 1/3, as Arkansas beat back the separatists of Northwest Arkansas, 6-4.
Justus Sheffield starts for Arkansas against NW Arkansas’ Dan Tillo, an old-school sinkerballer, in the system’s key game today.

Game 114, Mariners at Astros

August 4, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Sam Tuivailala vs. Justin Verlander, 11:10am

There was once value in watching the M’s line up against the Astros, but I can’t see it anymore. A day after a no-hitter started by Aaron Sanchez, 1-10 with an ERA over 7 coming into last night’s game, and the M’s will try to salvage a game against Justin Verlander. The whole thing now feels as rote and hopeless as the obligatory moment of silence that begins today’s contest.

1: Smith, CF
2: Narvaez, C
3: Santana, DH
4: Vogelbach, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Beckham, LF
7: Crawford, SS
8: Nola, 2B
9: Moore, RF
SP: Tuivailala

Game 112, Mariners at Astros – Great, THESE Guys Again

August 2, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Wade Miley, 5:10pm

I don’t think there’s a better summary of the MLB season for Seattle than this pair of starters. Jerry Dipoto traded for Miley upon taking the reins in late 2015, but that did not turn out well, as Miley’s HR troubles sunk his effectiveness. After another disastrous year in Baltimore, he remade himself for a half a season in Milwaukee, and has been quietly remarkable for Houston, a team that often seems to do these transformations in their sleep.

Meanwhile, Yusei Kikuchi looked like a sneaky-great pick-up. He had solid velocity, an odd, halting delivery that ought to mess with batters’ timing, and a great curveball. The Astros watched Charlie Morton leave and replaced him with Wade Miley? In comparison, the M’s decision to acquire Kikuchi seemed aggressive, especially as the club shed salary the rest of the offseason. Kikuchi has, sadly, not been the kind of player the M’s thought they were getting. I’m sure that player is inside him somewhere, and I’m not sure where the blame lies for this bargain-basement version we’ve watched compile a 5.61 FIP, a 5.21 ERA, and a 6.87 DRA :shudders:. The HR ball has bitten Kikuchi, just as it used to trouble Miley. But it’s more than that: Kikuchi isn’t missing the bats he should, and his walk rate’s a bit high, a real liability in this high-HR game. That curve that we first saw befuddle Joey Votto back in the spring is now a liability: batters are hitting .327 with a .673 SLG% off of it. His four-seam fastball has been an enjoyable experience for batters as well; they’re slugging over .600 off of his primary pitch.

Miley had problems with his four-seam and sinker at times, and thus the key to his resurrection as a MLB starter was to essentially relegate them to fill-in duty and turn his seldom-used cutter into his primary fastball. Hey, it worked for Brandon McCarthy for a while, and it really worked for Roy Halladay. Now, he uses his four-seamer almost as a put-away pitch, trying to sneak it OVER barrels that get used to his straight, sinking cutter. I don’t know how Kikuchi and the M’s plan to adjust things, but it’s worth looking into emulating. The one pitch that’s worked well for Kikuchi is his slider, so he can spin the ball a bit. Maybe a cutter might get batters off the four-seam, or maybe he can just re-work his curve. In any event, he’s got to do something.

1: Smith, RF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Nola, 2B
4: Santana, DH
5: Vogelbach, 1B
6: Beckham, LF
7: Seager, 3B
8: Murphy, C
9: Broxton, CF
SP: Kikuchi

Austin Nola, #3 hitter. Wow. Seriously, it’s been great watching the kind of success the long-time MiLB vet has had both in Tacoma and now Seattle.

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