Chris Young vs. Jason Hammel, 1:05pm
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 45.6% Baseballprospectus.com: 40.2%
What a comeback yesterday – it looked like the M’s were on their way to a crippling series sweep when Dustin Ackley’s three-run shot off Tanner Roark turned the game around. Yesterday’s odds were in the mid-high 30% range, so you can see what a difference the M’s comeback (and the Tigers loss) made to their wild card odds. It’s still August, so there aren’t technically must-win games, but that one felt pretty big. If you mapped win probability to playoff odds, Dustin’s HR was as big a single play as we’ve seen in a while – it felt like it was up there with the 9th inning win over Uehara in Boston. Now they need to keep it up against the reeling A’s.
The A’s enter today’s game five games behind the Angels in the West – a divisional lead that looked un-losable has been lost, and the A’s have all but played their way out of the all-important division win/first-round bye. The A’s and Tigers were the most active teams on the trade market before the deadline, with Oakland grabbing Jason Samardzija and today’s starter Jason Hammel and then getting Jon Lester a month later. The Tigers picked up David Price in the Nick Franklin/Austin Jackson deal, with everyone hailing the moves as two playoff-bound teams tweaking their post-season rotations. Since the trades, though, both teams have scuffled. Samardzija’s been solid, but the A’s offense has gone AWOL. Hammel was awful in his first handful of starts for Oakland, but has bounced back recently. Price has been alternately brilliant and mediocre, with his famous nine-straight hit, 2IP/8R disaster against the Yankees his last time out. This isn’t to judge the deals in hindsight or to argue that teams shouldn’t trade for pitchers, but it’s a lesson that pitchers – even great ones – have rough patches, and when you acquire one, you just have to hope that you’ll miss that rough patch.
Jason Hammel seems to be coming out of his rough patch. He’s had three solid starts in his last four tries, with a hard-luck no-decision in Houston’s comeback win on the 26th. Hammel throws a sinker and a four-seamer around 92, with a slider, curve and change up as his secondaries. To righties, he’s primarily a fastball/slider guy, and while he’ll throw his slider to lefties as well, he mixes in the change and curve to them as well. In recent years, he’s not shown too much in the way of platoon splits; a bad 2013 is balanced with even splits this year and even reverse splits in his breakout 2012 year. Even after picking up the sinker in 2012, he’s still been something of a fly-ball pitcher, and that’s made him vulnerable to homers. It’s an interesting career arc – a fly baller in Coors Field who didn’t actually give up a ton of HRs but wasn’t consistent enough (and didn’t have enough swing-and-miss in his arsenal) to be effective, he remade himself as a ground-ball pitcher in Baltimore. He posted the best GB% in his career in 2012 while also seeing a strikeout rate spike…despite moving to the AL. Unfortunately, injuries limited his time, and they took a bite out of his 2013 as well. His velocity was down a bit in 2013, but not enough to explain the barrage of HRs he gave up, the GB% dropping by 13 percentage points, or his K rate sliding back. He’s been better in 2014, but while all of his rate stats have bounced back somewhat, they’re not close to his 2012 rates. Despite his success with the sinker and slider in 2012, he’s throwing more four-seamers again, perhaps just to keep hitters off balance, and perhaps because it’s easier on his arm.
Chris Young got some extra rest heading into this start, which is part of Lloyd McClendon’s canny usage of his rotation down the stretch. Felix and Iwakuma have received an extra day’s rest here and there, and now the veteran Young – coming off another shoulder surgery – will too. Felix and others have struggled a bit, but I don’t think it’s due to the shake-up of the every-five-days grind of the rotation. In any event, this is a huge game for the skyscraping righty. The M’s need a win with the Tigers and Royals facing lesser teams (although at least the Tigers are facing Corey Kluber today).
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Chavez, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
The rosters have expanded, so the M’s called up seven players from Tacoma. You see Smoak’s name in the line-up, and Corey Hart, Stefen Romero, Taijuan Walker and Lucas Luetge have been recalled. Two newcomers are Humberto Quintero, a back-up catcher who hit a big HR in yesterday’s game in Fresno, and Carson Smith, the relief prospect with a riding sinking fastball and a big slider. The M’s made room on the forty-man for these two first by moving Willie Bloomquist to the 60-day DL and then by placing Jesus Montero on the suspended list. This is a suspension without pay for Montero, and it opened up a spot on the roster. Erasmo Ramirez and James Paxton should be called up after the Rainiers’ season ends today.
Eno Sarris has a great article and interview with Danny Farquhar at the Fox Sports blog Just a Bit Outside. Check it out.
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Tanner Roark, 1:10pm
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 37.6% Baseballprospectus.com: 31.4%
The M’s look to avoid a sweep behind Hisashi Iwakuma, but they’re facing yet another tough righty, sinkerballer Tanner Roark. Roark was cut by his college team, played a bit of independent league ball, where he posted an ERA over *20* but got signed by the Rangers anyway. After inconsistency and a trade to the Nats organization, he ditched his four-seamer for a two-seamer and re-discovered his confidence and command. After posting decent but nothing special walk rates in the minors, he’s been a strike throwing machine in the big league (though not quite as machine-like as Iwakuma).
His two-seamer comes in at 92mph, and he’ll throw a curve and change to lefties, and a slider to righties. Thanks in part to his curve ball, he’s excelled against lefties. He’s still got platoon splits, but lefties haven’t done as much damage as you’d expect against an average-velo righty who throws lots of sinkers/two-seamers. Against righties, though, he’s been dominant – a K:BB ratio of about 7, and a FIP in the low 2′s. Roark is essentially the Nationals’ version of Chris Young. There’s nothing eye-popping about him, and his overall FIP is good, but nothing all that special. But he’s been phenomenal at limiting runs. He’s now pitched 220 career innings for the Nats and his ERA is just 2.49. Sure, you can expect the strand rate to come down a bit, and maybe some of his success against lefties is BABIP related, but 1: he’s been doing this for over a full year and 2: he has room to regress and still be an extremely effective pitcher. The big key for him has been command – as Dave described, he seems to be able to put his fastball exactly where he wants it to go. C’mon M’s lefties. We need this.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Denorfia, DH
7: Chavez, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
Not really sure why you’d bring in Denorfia to DH against a righty sinker/slider guy, but on the other hand, this is a good day for Miller to get a start.
Stephen Landazuri gets the start for Jackson today, his final start before heading to the Arizona Fall League. Lars Huijer starts for High Desert. No word on who the Rainiers will send up against Fresno tonight.
Roenis Elias vs. Stephen Strasburg, 7:10pm
After several years, the top two picks in the lauded 2009 draft finally meet.
Stephen Strasburg’s been healthy this year, and while he’s no longer the superhuman freak he appeared to be when he broke into the league in 2010, he’s still an elite power pitcher, with a K% of about 28% and a walk rate of only 5.5%. His fastball’s now around 95-96, and he backs it up with a curve ball and a change-up. Oddly, for someone who’s had two arm surgeries, he’s added a slider this year, though he throws it very rarely. Thanks to his top-shelf velocity and great secondary pitches, he’s never struggled against left-handers. So why isn’t he dominating?
It’s no longer that he hasn’t racked up enough innings – he’s pitched 175 IP thus far. By FIP-based WAR, he cracks the top 20 starters (at #20), behind teammate Jordan Zimmermann, Hisashi Iwakuma, Chris Archer and Dallas Keuchel. By RA9-WAR, though, he falls to 60th, on pace to put up an almost perfectly league average season. Part of the answer is a spike in his HRs allowed, and the rest is likely BABIP-related. So has he just been unlucky? It’s not easy to tell. His fastball’s a bit slower, and maybe that helps account for the fact that batters have knocked 16 HRs off of it. Because of his elite velocity, it’s not immediately clear that he’s ever really needed to command it. Looking at his heat maps, there are an awful lot of center-cut fastballs, and Strasburg hasn’t shown that he can get a lower HR/FB or BABIP on the pitch – especially in the strike zone.
This is hardly to say he’s an average pitcher overall. His change-up is a great pitch, and he can use it to righties and lefties alike. That velocity is still over a standard deviation above the average, after all, and by K%-BB% (a simple fielding-independent metric that’s surprisingly good at predicting ERA), he’s in the top 5 in baseball, just edging out King Felix. A match-up like this one is great for him as well, as his problems with HR/FB are attenuated by the park and the M’s mediocre slugging. That said, if even King Felix can falter, then Strasburg shouldn’t be immune either.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, LF
7: Taylor, SS
8: Jones, RF
SP: Roenis Elias
Wow…that’s a less than full strength line-up. Whatever…go M’s!!
The Rainiers continue their season-ending series in Fresno tonight as Taijuan Walker makes his last start. The Rainiers came back to win last night, with HRs from Justin Smoak, Leury Bonilla and Stefen Romero bailing out starter Forrest Snow who had something of a rough outing. I sat down to interview Snow in Tacoma last week; I’ll get that posted this weekend.
Lefty Tyler Olson makes his last start for AA Jackson today as well. The Spokane product’s shot through the system (he was drafted last year, and pitched for SS Everett last year) despite underwhelming raw stuff. That he’s succeeded in AA is a good sign, and he’s closing the year well. In his last four starts, he’s posted a 22:2 K:BB ratio in 24 1/3 innings.
King Felix vs. Jordan Zimmermann, 7:10pm (Fireworks following the game)
Wild Card Odds – Fangraphs.com: 46.4% Baseballprospectus.com: 42.4%
Happy Felix Day.
The M’s kick off a series against the NL East leading Nationals tonight, a contest between the teams that lead their respective leagues in ERA. The Nats actually lead baseball in FIP; the M’s would argue that FIP can never fully understand the glorious mysteries of Chris Young and Hisashi Iwakuma, while the Nats would simply point to their walk rate, by far the lowest in baseball. Beyond control, though, the story of the Nationals’ 2014 staff is that they haven’t been hurt by home runs. Unlike the Yankees, who pound the zone and sometimes pay the price for it, the Nationals get the benefits of fewer baserunners AND fewer long balls. Tonight’s starter, Jordan Zimmermann, is a microcosm of the Nationals’ staff as a whole.
Zimmermann pitches off of his fastball. By pitch fx, no qualified starter throws a higher percentage of four-seam fastballs (or two-seamers, for that matter) than Zimmermann – about 70%. Combining all types of FBs, a few hurlers have a higher percentage of “hard’ pitches, led by Bartolo Colon. Zimmermann’s still in the top 10, though – no matter how you slice it up, Zimmermann’s extremely fond of his four-seamer. As Zimmermann probably knows, a four-seamer has lower platoon splits than sinkers, and indeed, Zimmermann’s overall platoon splits are pretty narrow despite the fact that his primary breaking ball is a slider.
He throws a change-up, but at less than 4% of his pitches, it’s something he’ll throw very rarely, and pretty much exclusively to lefties. Righties get sliders about 1/3 of the time, meaning they see fewer fastballs than lefties, who get high heat on about 3/4 of all pitches. Zimmerman’s fastball isn’t particularly noteworthy by pitch fx – it’s pretty hard, at 94mph, but it doesn’t have noteworthy movement the way James Paxton, Garrett Richards, Jered Weaver or Clayton Kershaw’s does. Everything about it, including velocity, is within a standard deviation of the league-wide mean. So why is it effective? A lot of it has to do with Zimmermann’s command. With a walk rate of just 3.7%, Zimmermann’s clearly able to control his pitches. But it’s more than that; Zimmermann’s overall zone percentage is quite good, but it’s not eye-popping. What IS somewhat eyepopping is his chase rate, the percentage of balls out of the zone that batters swing at. Zimmermann’s opponent tonight leads all of baseball in oSW% at 36.7% (Iwakuma’s #2!), but there’s Zimmermann at #6. Think about how odd it is for a guy who throws a ton of fastballs to be well-above average in pitches chased. Felix and Iwakuma have freakish change-up/splitter pitches to get batters to chase. Clayton Kershaw is not human. Zimmermann is…curious.
Unlike many pitchers, and unlike most pitchers with good HR rates, Zimmermann loves to pitch up in the zone. He’s able to hit the spots just above the zone, which helps that oSW% and also helps generate pop-ups. It also may help disguise his slider, which is an effective pitch to righties and lefties despite not having elite break or velocity. His command may also be a big part of the reason he’s able to get so many foul balls. Fouls are generally a good thing for pitchers for pretty obvious reasons – they’re strikes that can’t hurt you. Zimmermann’s pitching ahead most of the time, and foul balls may be part of the reason why. As he gets ahead, batters swing at more close pitches, helping explain the oSW% and making his fastball play up even more. All in all, it’s a great pitching match-up tonight, and a critical game as the M’s look to shake off an ugly loss against the Rangers.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Taylor, SS
9: Chavez, RF
SP: King Felix
Speaking of the Rangers, they made a couple of roster moves today, bringing back Derek Holland (who’s missed the entire year) and calling up Ryan Rua. That brings their total number of players used to 60, a new big league record. Their 38 pitchers used ties the record of the 2008 Padres, and rosters haven’t expanded yet (hat tip: Stefan Stevenson). As we saw, the Rangers are currently DH’ing Elvis Andrus, and their line-up includes Tomas Telis, Ryan Rua and Daniel Robertson. I think even most Ranger fans wouldn’t have been able to ID those three in March. Only Rua was on their top 20 prospect list, and he was 19th.
The M’s signed Dominican SS Christopher Torres for $375,000 - a nice get for the M’s, after Torres was linked to the Yankees for most of the year. Ah, but like the Montero ice-cream sandwich issue and the fabled rescue by USC CB Josh Shaw, there’s a lot more to the story. Torres’ trainer swears he’d made a deal with the Yankees that would’ve given Torres $2.1 million, and then the Yankees took him off the showcase circuit to avoid injury. After gaining weight and losing skill, the Yankees then backed out of the deal, a charge the Yankees strenuously deny. The M’s pounced and signed him for a fraction of what it looked like he’d cost, but there are now a lot more questions about Torres and his ultimate ceiling. Read Ben Badler’s typically great post about the Torres/Yankee saga here. An interesting bit of context to this year’s international signing crop is the Yankees open intention to flout the bonus pool caps by signing many/most of the top players. Despite a bonus pool cap of a bit over $2 million, the Yankees splurged by spending $12 million on the first day of the signing period. This came as no big shock; people like Kiley McDaniel were writing about the Yankees’ plans since at least December of 2013. They’ll forfeit the ability to sign players for a couple of years, but once those penalties trigger, there’s no incentive to stop spending….unless one of the guys you’ve targeted gains weight when you tell him to stop playing and hang out at home and eat ice-cream sandwi…whoa, whoa, too soon.
Last evening, Keith Law tweeted a rumor that launched a thousand fat jokes. Jesus Montero, one time can’t miss prospect and current whipping boy had apparently tried to enter the stands during some sort of vague altercation. Soon after, conflicting information started filtering in – no one had been ejected. Montero wasn’t in the line-up. A few hours later, we learned what had apparently happened was that Montero had some sort of verbal altercation with a scout in attendance, and had to be restrained by the team pitching coach from going after the guy. The twist in all of this was that the scout’s employer was the Seattle Mariners. That version of events is reflected in MiLB’s story about the incident, which you can read here - seriously, go read it.
At the time, this seemed to be the last act in the tragic drama of Montero’s Mariner tenure: from starting catcher and future All-Star to minor-league DH to a casualty of anger management issues in a short-season Northwest League park. Today, as we learn still more about the incident, it’s no longer clear that all of the blame lies with Montero, and what seemed like a colossal mistake by the young 1B/DH (he’s still only 24) begins to look more like the sad end of a seriously dysfunctional relationship. This is the baseball version of Rashomon; we have visions of an incident from a few vantage points, but I’m not sure we can see – or understand – the full picture.
What we think we know is that Montero was acting as the 1st base coach (this is really common in the minors; a player on his off-day generally acts as the 1B coach), and at the end of the Aqua Sox half-inning, a Mariner cross-checker (senior scout), Butch Baccala, yelled at Montero to hustle off the field. I have no idea if Montero yelled something back at that point, and a part of me hopes he did, so I can better understand/begin to rationalize the cross-checker’s escalation of the sitaution. The cross-checker then bought an ice-cream sandwich and had it delivered to Montero in the Aqua Sox dugout, at which point Montero came out of the dugout, threw the ice cream sandwich back at the cross-checker and had to be restrained from heading up to, uh, discuss the situation in more detail.
Everything here depends a bit on your prior assumptions about Montero. Given everything we heard this spring, and given the way the story trickled out of Boise last night, it was easy to jump all over him. After a suspension for PEDs, Montero ate his way out of playing shape – by his own admission, not by reading between the numbers of various weigh-ins or whatever. His hustle was constantly challenged, and when you put that together with his off-season of indulgence, you understand why the M’s might want to reinforce the message that he needs to demonstrate some effort on and off the field. His lack of effort imperiled (at best) his chances of a productive career, and you sympathize with the M’s a bit: as frustrated as fans are about The Trade and what’s happened since, think about how the front office must feel.
Some of the frustration and incredulity about Montero’s fall from grace, though, has been directed at the M’s player development group, too. Montero is responsible for his choices, and he’s responsible for showing up to camp overweight, but the organization needs to ensure that their employees are doing what they’re supposed to. How does Montero just show up to camp overweight and surprise everyone? Wasn’t he playing 1B in the Venezuelan Winter League? Maybe they’d tried the nice-guy approach and saw that it wasn’t working, so they changed tack and criticized his weight in February/March. Maybe that didn’t work either. Maybe they were working with him behind the scenes, and a scout who hadn’t been home in weeks just snapped. I just can’t imagine that this is going to have a good outcome on Montero’s effort or the perception of the M’s organization. If you’re the type who was upset about Zduriencik’s latest extension, this is just more grist for the mill, and you can see this as evidence that the M’s mismanaged Montero from January of 2012 through today.
Now, we’ve learned a lot more about the incident since Keith Law’s first tweet. We know the two people involved, but we still can’t piece it all together. As Geoff Baker’s story today makes clear, Butch Baccala disputes the standard version of events, but he’s not able to talk about while the M’s pursue an investigation. We still don’t know what really happened, but it seems harder and harder to imagine Montero in an M’s uniform again. Who’s fault that is depends a lot on what you thought about Montero and the M’s before last night.
GM Jack Zduriencik released a statement about the incident which notes that Montero’s rehab assignment is over and that he’s being called in to talk to Jack directly. Butch Baccala’s been pulled off cross-checking duty and is heading home to California indefinitely. The M’s will also be working with Montero on his “personal issues” throughout the off-season. Hat tip to Ryan Divish, who’s been all over this on Twitter. Good on both Divish and Geoff Baker, whose coverage of this strange story has been exemplary.
Erasmo Ramirez vs. Colby Lewis, 12:40pm
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 52.2% BaseballProspectus.com: 50.8%
Hey, someone on the Rangers I’ve heard of! Colby Lewis, to his great credit, has come back from serious injury and an extremely long layoff and has put up, by FIP, a fairly typical Colby Lewis year. He’s got a decent K%, a good (though less good than it once was) walk rate, and he’s actually limited HRs fairly well this year despite a very low ground ball rate. Unfortunately, it’s been far from a typical year from an ERA and runs-actually-scored point of view. From an RA/9 WAR standpoint, Lewis has been well below replacement level. From a FIP-based WAR standpoint, he’s nearly league average. Is this the result of historically bad luck – the microcosm of the entire Rangers season – or is he doing something differently?
As a big fly baller, Lewis typically ran very good BABIP numbers. In his three seasons from 2010-2012, his HIGHEST BABIP was .279. This year, it’s .365. That sounds remarkably unlucky, but it’s buttressed with a line-drive rate that’s among the highest in baseball. Even when he was good, Lewis always struggled against left-handed hitters; his wOBA-allowed to lefties ranged from .360 in 2011 before improving to .331 in 2012 and collapsing now to a .406 mark in 2014. More troubling is that he’s no longer able to get righties out. From not allowing a wOBA better than .277 from 2010-2012, righties are hitting .342 this season. While the movement and velocity on his fastball haven’t changed, the results clearly have. This started a bit in his injury-shortened 2012, when righties started to hit his four-seam fastball harder. He was able to balance that with some very good results on his breaking pitches, particularly his slider/cutter, but it hasn’t worked to the same degree in 2014. Why? Because far more balls in play are falling in for hits this year. This is where we really need scouts; the data we have are somewhat contradictory and clearly limited. He’s getting hit harder, but he’s also paying a much higher price for all kinds of contact than he’s ever paid before. Is this the beginning of the end, or is this what happens when literally everyone in the pre-season depth chart gets hurt?
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, DH
4: Morales, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Morrison, RF
8: Taylor, SS
9: Miller, 2B
SP: Erasmo Ramirez
As we speculated yesterday, Erasmo didn’t make that scheduled start in Tacoma, and thus Tacoma had a bullpen night. Andrew Carraway started and pitched five very good innings against Kris Bryant and the Iowa Cubs. I misspoke yesterday in saying it was the series finale…it’s not. Tonight’s game is, so you’ve got one more chance to see the heralded 3B in the minor leagues. Bryant struck out three times last night, against three different Rainiers hurlers. He’s a huge talent, but there are still some facets of his game that need a light finish.
The M’s announced the players they’ll send to the AFL this, er, fall. They are C John Hicks, 3B DJ Peterson, 1B/3B/)F Patrick Kivlehan, and pitchers Matt Brazis, Stephen Landazuri, and Matt Anderson.
James Paxton vs. Nick Martinez, 7:10pm
Wildcard odds – Fangraphs.com: 53.2% Baseballprospectus.com: 48.3%
Last night was another in what’s become quite a series of inexplicable collapses against bad-to-mediocre starting pitchers. It technically does happen to every team now and then, but I’m a bit nervous because the Rangers are sending yet another not so good starter to the mound tonight in Nick Martinez. If you look hard enough, you can convince yourself that Martinez is actually different in some important ways to Miles Mikolas, but that won’t make the queasy feeling go away.
Like Mikolas, Martinez is a fly-balling right-hander, who relies primarily on a four-seamer, but also throws a change, a slider and a curve. Like Mikolas, the slider’s his breaking ball against righties, while he throws the curve and change to lefties. Unlike Mikolas, Martinez has shown normal platoon splits; lefties have torched him this season. He’s not much of a strikeout guy, and hitters have tended to push him off the plate. He’s thrown fewer strikes than average, as you’d figure given his walk rate. What he does well is generate fly balls. If you’re Chris Young, inducing lots of fly balls is a great thing. If you’re just most other pitchers, it’s not immediate clear that this is cause for congratulations, and if you pitch half your games in Arlington, it’s downright worrying. Indeed, Martinez has been destroyed at home – his home ERA is 7.52, and batters are slugging .546 against him. Perhaps as a result, he’s walked more than he’s struck out in Arlington. On the road though, he’s not a lost cause. He’s still not good or anything, but he’s limited the damage. Perhaps this is why he’s made 14 road starts against just 8 at home.
So, all of those fly balls. Martinez’s fly ball rate ranks 7th in baseball among pitchers with at least 80 IP. Chris Young is way out in front at #1, of course, and there are some other pretty effective pitchers in the top 10 – from Danny Duffy of KC to Jake Odorizzi of Tampa. Martinez hasn’t quite made the transition to effective starter yet, but that’s to be expected as he spent nearly all of 2013 in the high-A Carolina League. His four-seam fastball has plenty of vertical rise, and comes in at 92 or so. I know I’ve beaten this particular drum far too often, but tonight’s match up is interesting in that both pitchers rely on very similar four-seam fastballs. Paxton’s got horizontal run of around 5″ and vertical rise of 10-11″. Martinez is essentially a mirror image – run of 5″ (the other way, of course), and rise of 10″. When batters put Paxton’s four-seamer in play, about 55% of them have been ground balls. When batters put Martinez’s in play, only 33% have been hit on the ground. That latter figure makes some intuitive sense. Paxton’s doesn’t, but when it comes down to it, I’d rather enjoy it than understand it.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Denorfia, RF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Taylor, SS
9: Sucre, C
The Rainiers and the Iowa Cubs finish off their series tonight at Cheney with an interesting match-up of pitchers who’ve bounced between AAA and the big leagues. Dan Straily starts for Iowa, while Erasmo Ramirez gets the ball for Tacoma. Both have enjoyed some limited success in the bigs, both have struggled to adjust after some rough stretches, and both have given up too many HRs. The M’s are again shifting their rotation around next week, with Felix starting the first game against Washington on Friday. That means that they’ll probably make a roster move to cover the finale of the Rangers series on Wednesday afternoon. Since Taijuan Walker pitched last night, that would make Erasmo Ramirez a pretty good candidate. Meaning, while it’d be fun to see Erasmo against the I-Cubs and Straily, I wouldn’t bet on him making this start.
A two-part story about a general manager. Just about a decade ago, the Diamondbacks hired Josh Byrnes to serve as the team’s GM. A little while in, Byrnes was given an almost unheard-of eight-year contract extension, that would’ve run through 2015. He was let go in the middle of 2010.
But, not to worry — Byrnes landed on his feet, getting picked up by the Padres in October 2011. That was right when Jed Hoyer went over to work with the Cubs. It was reported that Byrnes had a long-term contract and an option, lasting through 2017. A couple months ago, Byrnes was dismissed.
I bring this up because news is out that the Mariners have signed Jack Zduriencik to a multi-year extension. Or Jack Zduriencik has signed Jack Zduriencik to a multi-year extension, I don’t know how this works. But, before, the Mariners extended Zduriencik for one season. Before, the Mariners kept quiet about it, citing organizational policy, or something. This time the contract covers multiple years, and the Mariners sent out a press release, complete with a quote from Kevin Mather. So it’s an opposite situation, and, here are Mather’s words:
“Since Jack took over after the 2008 season, we have been building toward our ultimate goal, which is to win the World Series. We believe, with the efforts of Jack and his staff, we are now well-positioned as an organization to be a contender for many years to come.”
So let’s go back to Byrnes again. Some words upon his dismissal:
“The search for a new General Manager begins immediately,” Dee said. “We are looking for someone who can define, direct and lead this franchise’s baseball philosophy for years to come.” (source)
“You expect better performance. We gave baseball ops [operations] a clean slate as far as what they want and what they want to do,” Fowler said. “We’re standing here as a result of that not working.” (source)
That’s June of 2014. That’s just several weeks ago, that the Padres finally decided to make a dramatic organizational change. Here’s some stuff from April 2013:
Without being asked about Josh Byrnes, the new Padres owners are bringing up his name and saying how terrific he is.
Ron Fowler said he trusts the 42-year-old general manager will make “smart baseball decisions.”
“The more I get to know Josh Byrnes, the more I like him,” Peter Seidler said.
Byrnes has a knack for getting a baseball team’s big shots to believe in him.
The Padres loved Josh Byrnes until they didn’t love the team he’d built, and then they let Josh Byrnes go. It was the second time Byrnes had been fired in the middle of a long-term contract, the point being: any GM who gets fired gets fired in the middle of a contract. Any player who gets cut gets cut in the middle of a contract. The Mariners got rid of Chone Figgins with money left to pay out, and Figgins was due a hell of a lot more money than Jack Zduriencik is.
I don’t mean for this whole post to be about the fact that Zduriencik can still be fired, because that seems kind of cynical in what’s been something of a magical year, but it’s an important point to keep in mind. A multi-year extension isn’t a job-security guarantee. It’s a money guarantee, and a job-security suggestion. Jack Zduriencik was the Mariners’ general manager, and he is the Mariners’ general manager. He is to remain the Mariners’ general manager until their general manager is somebody else. Depending on which way their fortunes go, the Mariners could have a new GM in a year and a half, or they could keep the same guy for as long as they keep Felix.
What this is is a thank-you, an acknowledgment of how well the team has been playing. It’s a commitment to the Zduriencik way for at least a little bit longer, as the Mariners are throwing their support behind the team’s current direction. It’s a vote of confidence without the negative connotations, and, why wouldn’t one expect exactly this? The Mariners are in the race and statistically a good baseball team for the first time in more than a decade. Zduriencik’s contract was almost up and there was no clear reason to let him go. A line thrown around last winter was that Zduriencik and the rest of his front office would make moves to try to save their jobs. I don’t think that’s how they behaved, but if a good year was going to be enough to keep everyone around, well, hasn’t it been a good year, last night be damned? Hasn’t Zduriencik constructed a successful roster? Do the Mariners not somehow look like one of the best teams in baseball?
The future has been touched but not mortgaged, and the team is a legitimate World Series contender. A front office shouldn’t be judged only on its most recent results, but the Mariners were never going to make a change after a year like this, so we’ve got seemingly significant news that really isn’t that significant in truth. And while we all have our opinions of Zduriencik, and while many have lower opinions of him than we had some years back, lately he hasn’t done that many objectionable things. The Mariners of 2013 were a disaster, but perhaps the organization learned from that. I don’t know, maybe I’m reaching, but a commitment to a GM is like a commitment to a player. You’re not paying a player because of what he’s already done. You pay him because of what you think he will do. Zduriencik doesn’t always have to be the same guy with the same ideas. God knows we already saw him shift course once.
I know, this past trade deadline, there was stuff written up about how Zduriencik is really hard to deal with. Those lines have been floating around for years, and they’re not the stuff of fiction. Certain people really don’t like trying to engage Zduriencik in a negotiation, but then, look at what just happened. Zduriencik added Kendrys Morales, he added Chris Denorfia, and he added Austin Jackson. He was far from inactive, and if his personality worked to his detriment, I’d need to see the evidence. He does annoying things, but they might not have an effect on the roster he builds. I don’t like when I have to call my bank, but sometimes I need to call my bank.
My outlook is hopelessly biased by what’s been happening the last five months. With just a little worse luck, the Mariners could be 59-71 instead of 71-59, and Zduriencik could be the exact same guy, and I’d be fine with seeing him leave. I think that mostly captures where I am. I’m pretty much certain he’s not the best GM in the sport. I’m pretty much certain he’s not even in the top half. But now it’s hard to see him as a catastrophe, especially if he’s learned from past lessons, so, what guarantee is there that the next front office would be markedly superior? At the recent Saber Seminar, one of the speakers — I don’t remember who — remarked that it’s harder to build a great team now than it was, because the gaps between organizational intelligence have been reduced. Most teams know, now, a good deal and a bad deal. The inefficiencies are fewer and farther between. How much worse is the Zduriencik front office than another, really? What is the Mariners’ disadvantage? Do they even have a meaningful disadvantage? How much of what we think of as general managing is coaching and player development?
I like this team that Zduriencik has built, and it seems capable of winning now and also in 2015. So it makes sense to me to let Zduriencik at least see that window through. I’m not so much in love with the Zduriencik front office, but I can’t rip on it today, not after it’s finally managed to put a winner together. If things go south again, Zduriencik could be made to pay the price. He doesn’t truly have that much security. He’s just the guy the team likes the most now, and, who could forget the image of Chone Figgins smiling in his introductory press conference? When things change, things can change.
If you’re upset by this news, you’re asking that the Mariners make their decision based on the process, instead of the results. Not only would it be unrealistic to expect any organization to let Zduriencik go after a season like this — the results might’ve come out of the process. How much can we say about the process? How much does the process have in common with last year’s process? How much does a GM even have to do with the wins and losses of the team on the field? Situations can look different when Dustin Ackley doesn’t suck. My gut tells me one day we might reflect on this afternoon with a certain degree of sorrow, but you know what they say about predicting baseball. All this is is another step of the ride.
Roenis Elias vs. Miles Mikolas, 7:10pm
Wildcard odds: Fangraphs.com: 55.0% Baseballprospectus.com: 55.6%
I’ve made no secret of my respect and grudging admiration for the way the great Rangers teams of recent years were constructed. There was no was to sum up what they did in a 10-second elevator pitch. There were no good guys and bad guys, no “one weird trick”-style overly-simplifications. They just did a lot of things well – from drafting to player development to negotiating their TV deal to pitcher rehab. They didn’t stock up on high draft picks, they just wrung value out of the guys they drafted. To patch holes, GM Jon Daniels made a series of trades that all seemed to work out – without seeming to imperil the long-term viability of the team. They didn’t overpay for Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton or Prince Fielder (foreshadowing!) – they wrapped up Yu Darvish for a comparative pittance, and let others pay for the decline phase of ex-Ranger stars. Whatever you call their approach, or to get management-consulty for a moment, their system – it made them seem, at least to a beaten-down, cynical M’s fan, unbeatable.
It’s late August, and the Rangers have the worst record in major league baseball. Their 50 wins are fewer than the Colorado Rockies have – the Rockies that have very publicly imploded this year. Worse, they now trail their in-state and in-division rivals the Houston Astros by four games. The *Astros*. The team that has famously not tried to win at the big league level, and whose recent seasons remind me of famously awful albums recorded by artists trying to escape a bad record deal. The Rangers season isn’t just a failure, it’s a legendary, colossal failure. As I mentioned a bit before, Sam Miller wrote about this recently at BP, and about how shocking it is that a team that had won 90 games a few years AND had a top-5 farm team three years ago is on its way to losing 90 or 100 games this year. It rarely happens, and it’s easy to see why – to be both good now *and* seemingly stocked for the future takes competence, and while anyone can suffer from bad luck, the competent have contingency plans. A top-5 farm system is its own contingency plan, after all. Anyway, a collapse this total and this sudden makes you question the qualities that made them seem impervious to collapse.
To give Daniels and co. credit, injuries have played an inordinate role in Texas’ 2014 struggles. Every team deals with injuries, but the Rangers are off the charts. Adrian Beltre and Darvish started the year on the DL, and it didn’t take long for Prince Fielder to go down with season-ending surgery. Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Martin Perez all suffered serious injuries, and that’s just looking at the pitchers. Jurickson Profar went down with an injury in the spring, and his somewhat-rushed replacement, Rougned Odor, suffered a shoulder injury that’s limited his impact. 1B Mitch Moreland wasn’t terribly good, but he was better than turning 1B over to JP Arencibia or the ghost of Carlos Pena. Even the best-run franchise couldn’t compete or even make a run at .500 with this kind of injury report. Still, what about that top-5 farm system? Where were the great late-round draft picks who could pick up the slack, from CJ Edwards to Cody Buckel to Neil Ramirez? The player development machine that once looked magical now looks…well, it looks like everyone else’s. I’m not going to beat up the Rangers FO because some prospects don’t pan out – MOST prospects don’t pan out. But their depth seemed inexhaustable. Who the hell is Nick Tepesch and why could he give them so-so production from the #5 slot? Tanner Scheppers was always hurt until, suddenly, he was the unhittable righty in the ’13 bullpen.
More strikingly, the team that had studiously avoided the big high-profile whiff in free agency or in trade made a series of them. The Shin-Soo Choo deal looked like an overpay, but we’re still at the point where *everything* can look like an overpay as the value of a win in free agency keeps rising along with MLB’s revenues. OK, so you paid a lot for a very good player. Instead, Choo’s been replacement level – undone by a shocking lack of power and abysmal defense. Worse, the team decided to eat Prince Fielder’s contract in the Ian Kinsler swap – a move that pretty much every saber-inclined observer panned, and which went from bad to worse when Fielder needed neck surgery early in the season.
They’ve gone from a team that seemed to magnify each other’s strengths (great defense making the pitchers look even better) to a team that seems like a hodge-podge of parts that don’t form a cohesive team. The Rangers are last in the AL in both FIP and ERA. The Rangers have the lowest GB% AND they have an atrocious outfield defense that now makes their pitchers look WORSE than they are. Miles Mikolas, tonight’s starter, has poor control, so he’s responsible for a lot of his own 55% (!) strand rate, but the fact that he’s a fly-baller with Alex Rios and Shin-Soo Choo behind him doesn’t help. Mikolas, a RHP they acquired after he was DFA’d by San Diego, traded to Pittsburgh and then shipped to Texas for a 1B prospect, throws about 93-94 and has a four- and two-seam fastball, a change-up, a slider and an interesting looking curve ball, was a reliever his entire career until this season. After never being able to harness a fastball that occasionally touched the high-90s, he was starting in the PCL and averaging less than one walk per 9IP. The so-so control to sudden, overnight 0-walk precision made me think of Doug Fister’s incredible 2009 season, but that’s probably the last time Mikolas will be mentioned in conjunction with Fister. Mikolas has been destroyed thus far in the big leagues – his ERA and FIP are both awful, and he’s given up a few HRs as well.
He’s posted strong reverse platoon splits in his brief MLB career (he had some time in the San Diego bullpen too, mostly in 2012). Much of this is undoubtedly random luck, and you’d think they’d straighten out over time. But some of it is that curve ball, a slow yakker with a lot of vertical break. RHBs and LHBs both have trouble elevating it, and he’s been able to keep the ball in the ballpark. The problem is that he can’t spot it. He throws it for a ball over half the time, so he’s not getting called strikes. Still, there’s something to work with. His fastballs have been problematic, and his slider’s not enough of a swing-and-miss pitch yet. This lack of command means he doesn’t resemble a guy who never walked anyone in the minors this year, and it makes it seem less likely that he’s been the victim of bad OF defense and more like an accomplice. He’s not giving up base hits on fly balls – he’s giving up home runs. His line drive BABIP looks pretty normal, too – the problem is that there are just too many of them.
This is a good match-up, basically.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Chavez, RF
9: Taylor, SS
I keep wondering what it is about the Rangers collapse I find so startling. Is it unsettling to think that it’s just not possible to prevent every outcome – that no one can think their way out of a systemic failure? I’m a bit surprised I don’t feel more schadenfreude about the whole thing, particularly after the M’s post-2009 collapse (“#6 org lololol!”). I know how I’ve felt the past few years when the Rangers would come to town in August, tuning up for the post season, and facing a Mariner team stuck in “rebuild,” showing some promise but ultimately going nowhere. I like this feeling much, much better. I like poking through someone else’s wreckage.
The Rainiers beat the Iowa Cubs in 14 innings last night, coming from behind in the 14th to do it. Kris Bryant homered for the I-Cubs because of course he did, but the R’s got a HR from Corey Hart and another from Ji-Man Choi. Taijuan Walker pitches tonight, so go go go go. 7:05 first pitch in Tacoma.
Before this even got posted, I’ve had to update it with more Rangers injury news. According to Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News, Shin-Soo Choo will miss the rest of the season to have surgery to remove bone spurs. And if that wasn’t enough, Daniels all but stated that Yu Darvish won’t pitch again this season after hitting the DL two weeks ago with elbow inflammation.
Monday Morning Podcast! Going back to our roots with this one.
Except it continues to be about the Mariners and the playoffs and both things happening in conjunction. That is not like our roots; well, not our podcasting roots.
Thanks again to those that helped support the show and/or StatCorner in general last week, and in the past, and hopefully in the future. It’s truly appreciated.