Game 57, Mariners at Athletics

September 25, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 6 Comments 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Chris Bassett, 6:40pm

The M’s season ends in Oakland, who just clinched the division. Tonight, we get a match up that kind of typifies the strange ease with which the A’s have outpaced the M’s in recent years. Chris Bassitt has pitched exactly 200IP if you combine this year and last year. In that time, he’s gone 17-7 with an ERA in the low/mid 3’s. Yusei Kikuchi has pitched 202 innings over the same two seasons, but has fared a bit worse: he’s 8-15 with a 5.55 ERA.

Yes, sure, Bassitt’s FIP is higher than his ERA, while the opposite is true for Kikuchi. And Kikuchi’s been better in 2020, with a velo spike leading to much better results in terms of K:BB and home runs allowed. But as encouraging as all of that is, Chris Bassitt, just a guy, ex-White Sox farmhand, trade throw-in, has helped the A’s win a lot more games than Kikuchi, free agent steal, WBC stalwart.

Look at the pitch stats, and there are no grand revelations to be had. Kikuchi throws harder, and his new cutter is pretty clearly better than anything Bassitt throws. Bassitt relies on mixing a four-seam, sinker, and cutter with well-timed curves and change-ups. Kikuchi’s cutter is a ground ball machine, giving Kikuchi the edge in ground ball rate. Bassitt’s ultra slow curve poached some called strikes, but batters don’t offer at it enough to be a real strikeout pitch.

I don’t want to talk down Bassitt even as I praise him. He throws 94; it’s not like he’s just a junkballer. But his fastball(s) don’t have any kind of distinguishing movement. This was supposedly one of the problems with Kikuchi’s fastball. There’s no obvious tell, it’s just that the A’s guy keeps coming out on top.

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

Game 55, Astros at Mariners

September 22, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Ljay Newsome vs. Framber Valdez, 6:10pm

After an absolute gem from Marco Gonzales, the M’s beat the Astros to pull back to three-or-really-four games behind Houston. The Blue Jays won, so reaching the wild card is probably out of the running, but for now, the AL is providing us something of a race for the 2nd spot in the West. Whether that’s a good thing or not is, perhaps, up for debate. MLB will apparently try to convince the players to keep this playoff system next year and down the road, under the theory that more playoff spots will attract a new generation of fans and provide more revenue to more teams/cities.

I’m not convinced about that. We’re in this situation because expanding the playoffs *this* much allows for a couple of pretty flawed teams to make the postseason. This happens in other sports, but none of them have baseball’s long regular season, which allows good teams to overcome variance/luck and show that they’re better than their rivals. Playoffs don’t do this, and that’s sort of a bug and a feature at the same time.

Personally, I liked the old system, but this isn’t just random old-person-yelling-at-cloud stuff. I was skeptical about the second wild card and the new one-game playoff for the two WC teams. Traditionalists were aghast at picking a winner without even a short playoff series. But it’s done what it was designed to do, which was to simultaneously expand the playoffs while also providing a powerful incentive to win the division. In this new system, there is zero benefit to winning a division. The A’s won the west last night, but it doesn’t matter. They’ll be treated just the same as the Astros whom they easily outpaced during the season. In many divisions, there are two teams that are head and shoulders above the other three. Why would either of those two frontrunners spend any money under this new system? Why would youngsters flock to a sport with this format – a long tournament appended uneasily on a bloated, over-long, questionably-meaningful regular season?

If there’s a benefit this year (when fans can’t reciprocate the excitement of a playoff push by actually, you know, attending games), it has to be to the players, who now have experience in sort-of-meaningful games. Of course, you can now argue that for more than half the league. But hey, I’m damned impressed by what Marco Gonzales has shown this year, and last night, and Justus Sheffield has gotten stronger as the year’s moved on as well.

But beyond that, beyond the probably-illusory gains that they’ve made in this odd “race,” there’s something big that they can take from this series. The Astros are still going to win more than they lose against Seattle, but this is now a much fairer fight. The M’s do not appear intimidated by the Astros, and they should no. Perhaps the most important thing to come to light this season wasn’t Kyle Lewis’ ability or Justus Sheffield’s vastly improved game. It may have been seeing that the Astros have come back to the pack, and are now just a good-but-flawed team. The M’s are slowly improving, but as I’ve said too many times on this blog, that’s not enough. They need to get better *than their rivals.* The zero-sum nature of this competition can be maddening, but it’s just a fact. If the M’s get better and the Astros get better, the M’s are screwed. Thankfully, the Astros came crashing back to earth this season, and they have some hard decisions on the horizon.

Framber Valdez may be what passes for a good story on the Astros this year. He’s missing bats, has a sky-high ground ball rate, and he took a massive leap forward in his control. He’s even avoiding home runs. What he hasn’t done is strand runners or produce consistent results. Some of this is not his fault; he’s been unlucky with BABIP at times. He’s also faded a bit after a very strong start, so we’ll see what he’s like tonight. When he’s on, he features a very tough three-pitch mix of a sinker, a hard change-up, and a great curve with two-plane break.

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

Dylan Moore’s on the IL for the concussion protocol after taking yet another fastball off of his head late last night. He stayed in the game, just as he did a week or so ago, but his season’s now over after the 7-day IL stint. He’s obviously been one of the bright lights in the line-up, and seems like he’s made a case for regular duty even when players like Shed Long and Mitch Haniger return. Jake Fraley’s up from Tacoma to fill his spot, and he’ll start tonight in LF.

Game 54, Astros at Mariners

September 21, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Marco Gonzales vs. Lance McCullers, Jr. 6:10pm

The final homestand can now actually take place at home, as the M’s welcome the Astros. A few days ago, the M’s and Astros were dueling for the automatic playoff birth that now comes from finishing 2nd in the division, but an ill-timed couple of losses has (mostly) closed the door on that form of excitement. In lieu of the increasingly-desperate paths to the 8th playoff spot, we can close this year the way we began it: by focusing on the M’s rebuild, and what we can learn from watching the youngsters close out this bizarre campaign.

One of the stories of July was the freakishly low BABIP (batting average on balls in play) early in 2020. Despite all the shifting that teams do, despite increases in velocity (and Ks), and despite changes in the actual baseball, BABIP was remarkably sticky, wavering around in the .293-.297 range for many, many years. Early this year, it was hanging around .270, an absurd decline, particularly given that BABIP generally peaks in July/August with warmer weather (and it’s lowest in April). Well, so much for that. It’s now .291 – low, but not insanely so. But what we see thanks to the abbreviated schedule is that the range for players and teams is still really wide; it averages out, but there are still teams that are stuck on one side or the other of that distribution. There’s simply more variance, given that they’re only playing a couple of months of games.

So, there are usually a team or two with a BABIP just under .280. Sometimes, there are none. This year, as of today, there are 10. They range from the incredible (the Dodgers) to the abysmal (the Rangers), and the poor Reds are hanging in a playoff run despite a BABIP (as a team!) of .244. So what does this all have to do with the Mariners, you ask? Well, the M’s themselves are at .278, and it’s making it harder to really evaluate certain players. Kyle Seager’s season is really, really strange, capped off by a low BABIP and a slump-driven collapse in his batting average. But the issue is perhaps more important with JP Crawford, whose poor BABIP has led to an average of .223, with a slugging percentage of just .313. It’d be easy to write off the .266 BABIP as bad luck, but this is now year 2 of the same thing. He hit .226 last year, in part due to a .275 BABIP. Crawford is not a liability on this club, but despite the walk rate, his projections look totally different if he’s simply not going to hit more singles (or extra-base hits! We like those too!).

Kyle Lewis and Dylan Moore are inverses of Crawford: slugging, middle-of-the-order hitters with sky-high BABIPs producing nice, well-rounded batting lines. In Moore’s case, that BABIP is still propped up by a torrid start to the season. He’s been in a minor slump in the second half, with a much lower BABIP holding him down. To be clear: he hasn’t exactly struggled, even in the second half. The key is to figure out what his overall ceiling may be, as that might drive how he’s used in 2021. Even a low-ish average, high-K approach can work for Moore, as long as he’s able to hit for this much power.

Lewis’ season looks a bit like Moore’s, only cranked up to 11. Lewis ran a BABIP of .444 in the first half, and that’s plummeted down to .205 in the second half. Lewis really is in a prolonged slump, with his OPS in the second half now under .600. But that’s small sample luck, even if his first half really was too good to be true. But as a guy with some swing and miss in his game, I’d love to see Lewis finish the year strong. Lewis has done more than enough to show that he’s a guy who can be part of a good team going forward, and he’s the first of their young prospects to really break out. But I’d love to see him look a bit more complete at the plate. He’s more than capable, I think, but again, it’s harder to get a read on these guys with BABIP yanking their production all over the place.

On a different subject entirely, here’s one of the many, many bets you could’ve won with me before the season began: Marco Gonzales currently has a higher strikeout rate than his opponent tonight, Lance McCullers. It’s not just that Gonzales’ walk rate is under *3%* or that he’s still oddly hard to hit. He’s missing bats like he’s…uh, like he was the Lance McCullers of a few years ago. But with legitimate control/command! Kyle Lewis gets the credit – deservedly – for being a bright spark on this team, but I continue to be flabbergasted by Gonzales’ remarkable improvement this season.

For a while, Gonzales was someone whom FIP probably overrated. His walks were low, and the HRs were normal-ish, and FIP couldn’t tell when Gonzales had trouble stranding runners. With a low K rate, that was always a risk with him, and so his actual runs-allowed came in higher than his FIP. This was notable in 2018, and hidden in 2019 thanks to the flurry of unearned runs he allowed. But in 2020, I think FIP, if anything, is underselling the transformation thanks to a small uptick in his HR rate.

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

Game 51, Padres at Mariners (at Padres) – The Home Stretch

September 18, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Chris Paddack, 6:40pm

There are ten games left. The M’s are *effectively* four games out. The on-again, off-again playoff chase seems pretty well locked in the “off” position, but these games are not without their appeal. Today’s pitching match-up is an intriguing one between two pitchers who’ve disappointed for different reasons.

Yusei Kikuchi is, by FIP, a remarkable success story; a guy who made a massive leap from a flop of a debut season, and one of the team leaders in fWAR. By ERA, it’s another frustrating campaign despite a big uptick in velocity and strikeouts. Paddack was a much-heralded rookie last year and rode a funky change-up and pinpoint control to a solid season. He missed bats, didn’t walk anyone, and was able to pitch around some dinger issues by limiting hits on balls in play. Was that *him* limiting hits, though, or just some BABIP fluctuation?

By MLB’s xBA and xWOBACON, stats based on how hard and at what angle batters put Paddack’s pitches in play, he was great -a lowish exit velocity led to a low “expected” batting average. If batters were able to figure him out, they could do damage, as seen from the high HR rate, but lots of Ks and pop-ups or weak contact is a great combination. This year, though, that’s all changed. His xBA is now approaching .300, thanks to nearly half of the contact coming off the bat at over 95 MPH. His HR rate has gone up even higher, which is countering a drop in his already-negligible walk rate.

The culprit here is the fastball, as batters hit .205 with a sub-.400 SLG% on his heater last year. This year? Uh, they’re slugging over *.700.* It’s not any slower. It *is* different, though. It’s getting less vertical movement, the result of a decent-size drop in spin, and a small decline in spin efficiency. He’s also getting fewer first-pitch strikes, which may lead to more fastball counts. Either way, it’s something of a perfect storm. Paddack will need to make some changes, but he can also hope that the pendulum swings back the other way, and that some of his awful fastball results are the inverse of the good luck he had in 2019. I think we can all say 2020 has been an unlucky year.

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

The M’s had to move White down in the line-up. Not that batting order is a huge deal, especially in the bottom half, but he’s hitting .167/.273/.188 slide in his last 55 PAs, and is 1 for his last 23 with 11Ks in his last 7 games. It’s rough out there.

The M’s have reiterated that they were never going to call up Jarred Kelenic or Logan Gilbert this year, opting to stick with their plan to wait until they’re able to see them in game action, meaning some time after some time in the minors next year. I get it, and wouldn’t expect anything else, and I’m thankful to Shannon Drayer for summarizing and embedding the interview (linked above). I just think that it’s completely transparent *why* they never considered bringing them up, and all of the faux reasoning that we insist GMs offer us is a weird ritual. You know, I know, Kelenic and Dipoto know why they’re not bringing them up. I can also understand that chasing this weird 8th playoff spot may not seem like a sufficient reward to mess up their sweet, sweet team control status. But it’s just kind of odd that we have to go through this theater about game action or staying the course or what have you. You know where’s the *only* place that has actual game action right now? Seattle/MLB.

Game 49, Mariners at Giants (At Mariners?)

September 16, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 4 Comments 

Ljay Newsome vs. Drew Smyly, 6:40pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 15, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 14, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game 2:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game 45, Mariners at Diamondbacks

September 12, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Justus Sheffield vs. Zac Gallen, 5:10pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game 44, Mariners at Diamondbacks

September 11, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Caleb Smith, 6:40pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game 43, Mariners at Giants – Smokescreen

September 9, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: NBCSports Bay Area.

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