Game 96, Mariners at Rockies – Welcome to the Show, Matt Festa + The Enigma of Jon Gray

July 14, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 18 Comments 

Wade LeBlanc vs. Jon Gray, 6:10pm

Jon Gray started for the Rockies on opening day. He made his last start for Albuquerque in the PCL. Depending on your pitching metric of choice, Gray has performed basically at replacement level, and his demotion was well-earned (an RA9 of 5.97, leading to a BBREF WAR of 0.4). Or he’s been a top-20 pitcher in the game, having already accrued 2.7 WARP, ahead of Miles Mikolas and Noah Syndergaard (DRA of 2.72). Or somewhere in between; a good pitcher undone by bad luck (FIP of 3.12, BABIP of .386). His strikeouts and walks are amazing, but it seems like every ball in play goes for a hit.

He plays in Colorado, so some of this is park related, but not all of it. Gray avoids HRs thanks to a four-seam fastball without a ton of rise. It’s not exactly a sinker, but I can imagine it feels heavier to hitters than, say, uh…Wade LeBlanc’s. Colorado’s defense has been quite good this year at turning grounders into outs – better than the league average easily – but it just hasn’t worked out for Gray. Sure, his BABIP is worse at home than on the road, but it’s still pretty bad on the road.

That brings up an odd thing that ties these two clubs – and today’s starting pitchers – together. Both are profoundly changed by their home park. The Rockies allow a BABIP of .328 at home, by far the highest in the big leagues. The M’s smaller park helps them to restrict base hits – they’ve posted a .279 BABIP at Safeco. On the road, everything flips. The M’s shoot up to .309, 5th-worst in the game, while the Rockies – finally away from their neverending outfield – plummet to .283.

No one’s been more affected than LeBlanc, who’s got a .207 BABIP at home vs. a .333 mark on the road. At home, he’s much more aggressive, with more strikeouts and also more home runs. On the road, he gives up more balls in play, and those balls in play are much more likely to find a gap. Does he give up harder-hit balls on the road? No, his average exit velocity is actually lower on the road, and it’s the lowest figure for any M’s starter. It’s just that he’s a fly ball guy, and that type of pitcher is going to do very, very well at Safeco if they can pitch around a HR or two. Gray gives up harder contact at home, but even still, he appears to be extremely unlucky.

Gray throws a four-seamer at 95-96, and his outpitch for many years has been a slider, thrown around 90. It’s been a swing-and-miss pitch, and also a grounder generator (handy at altitude), and while it’s still his best pitch of 2018, it’s lost a bit of its luster. Sure, his fastball’s getting hit fairly hard, but for whatever reason, Gray’s *always* given up a high BABIP on his fastball (and in general). This year, he’s doing it on his slider as well. Of course, this is the circular feedback loop of peripheral stats. His overall BABIP is bad, so it’s quite possible that it’ll be bad for each individual pitch he throws. There’s nothing different in the movement/speed of his pitches…they’re just going for base hits, and while it’s pretty exceptional this year, it’s always been a problem for him. So what to make of Gray? I don’t really know, I’d just settle for making him today’s losing pitcher.

The M’s optioned last night’s starter, Christian Bergman, back to AAA after the game. To fill his active roster slot, the M’s have brought up AA reliever Matt Festa, whose stats I included in yesterday’s post. He’s been solid for Arkansas, and owns an impressive 44:7 K:BB ratio in his 31 2/3 IP, but he’s also given up 37 hits. That helps explain how someone with 12.5 K/9 and 6.3 strikeouts for every walk has an ERA over 3, and an RA9 essentially at 4. Festa pitched in the AFL this past fall, showing three pitches: a four-seamer with some sink, thrown at 93-94, a slider at 88 with pretty good two-plane break, and a slurve-y curveball at 82 with more downward movement. He throws them all from a low-3/4 arm slot, so you’d think he’d have some platoon split issues; that’s been the case this year, though it’s not been a big issue for him in the past. All in all, from his heavy four-seamer to the movement on his slider, he *kind of* reminds me of Gray. Sure, one’s a reliever, and Gray both 1) throws much harder and 2) more over-the-top, so they’re not exactly identical twins or anything. But there’s also this: Festa’s allowed a BABIP north of .400 this year.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Span, LF
6: Healy, 1B
7: Gamel, CF
8: Herrmann, C
9/SP: LeBlanc

Gamel gets his second-straight start in CF, which doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence with a fly-baller like LeBlanc on the mound. Still, it’s probably a boost to the offense, as Gamel’s got strong platoon splits. Mitch Haniger’s recent knee injury probably rules him out of CF, and Denard Span had a foot problem this week as well. So, Ben Gamel flanked by two slightly hobbled corner OFs in the largest, toughest to defend OF in the game. Hmm.

Tacoma beat Fresno thanks to an IF-single turned “little-league triple” for noted speedster Dan Vogelbach. A sac fly later, the R’s had the go-ahead run in their 8-7 win. Williams Perez, the most successful of the indy-league signings the M’s made in June, starts today’s game opposite Trent Thornton of the Grizzlies.

Chase de Jong was sharp, and Chris Mariscal homered in the Travelers 7-2 win over Springfield last night. Max Povse starts for Arkansas tonight, who again face the Cardinals.

The Stockton Ports doubled up on Modesto 4-2, thanks to a good start from recently-demoted Kyle Friedrichs. Friedrichs was doing fairly well in AA, but then stumbled badly in a few starts at the end of June/early July. Nick Wells makes his 5th hi-A start for the Nuts tonight.

Clinton shut out Great Lakes 1-0 thanks to a solo HR from Ariel Sandoval and a brilliant 11 K, 1 BB performance on a bullpen day. Ryne Inman started, and then Tyler Jackson went the next 4 IP. Kyle Wilcox K’d 5 in just 2 IP before Sam Delaplane finished it off in the 9th with 2 Ks of his own. Delaplane’s 14.2 K/9 ranks second in the Midwest League.

Everett faces Salem-Keizer tonight, with Orlando Razo starting for the AquaSox. The Frogs beat S-K last night 3-1; 1B Ryan Garcia homered for Everett.

Game 95, Mariners at Rockies

July 13, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Christian Bergman vs. Antonio Senzatela, 5:40pm

The M’s close out a wildly successful first half with a three-game set in Denver. With the All-Star break looming, the M’s decided to put James Paxton on the 10-day DL, figuring he’ll only miss one start or just have it delayed slightly. If the back spasms that knocked him out of last night’s game are as minor as the M’s have intimated, then this is a great way to give him a bit of extra rest. It also allows the M’s to bring in another starter, so they’ve gone back to AAA to pick up Christian Bergman, the guy who began his MLB career as a Colorado Rockie.

Bergman made one start for the M’s this year, and he made it a memorable one. On May 16th, he two-hit the Rangers over 7 scoreless innings, striking out 5 and walking none. It recalled his two best performances last year – a seven-inning, 0 run gem in Fenway Park, and 7 1/3 shutout innings against Oakland that saw him strike out 9 A’s. Bergman *does* this every once in a while, and it’s pretty cool to see a guy with a high-80s sinking fastball keep big leaguers off balance. The problem is that he can’t sustain it. The problem is that when he’s not shutting down a big league line-up, he’s…uh…vulnerable:

Is this just down to the subtle-but-vital differences between MLB and AAA? Can he cut a John Wasdin-style swath through the PCL, but still struggle in the bigs? Eh, no. His problem isn’t command, and, refreshingly in 2018, isn’t home run troubles. Rather, Christian Bergman gives up too many hits. In the minors, batters are hitting .296 off of him, pretty close to the .307 they’ve hit off of him in the big leagues. His HR rate is far, far higher in the big leagues, but that’s probably to be expected. While the PCL has a mostly-deserved reputation as a dinger-paradise, with plenty of parks at altitude, it sees fewer HRs per game than MLB. The real difference between the PCL and MLB isn’t dingers at all – it’s base hits.

This season, the PCL, as a whole, is batting .270. MLB is batting .247. While MLB sees a HR in 2.99% of plate appearances, the PCL’s down at 2.53%. Sure, sure, but batting average is way down in MLB. In the past 10 years, MLB’s overall batting average has generally been in the mid .250s, dropping from the low .260s in 2008-09 as strikeouts continued to rise. The PCL has only dropped *under* .270 once, and had a peak of .286 in 2011. It’s been a while, but team averages north of .300 weren’t unheard of, and Las Vegas still gets above .290 with some regularity. For a variety of reasons, the PCL just sees tons of base hits, and a lower K rate is only part of it. The K% in the PCL this year is over 21% – lower than MLB’s, but on par with MLB in 2016. MLB has, in general, better fielders, more power, and smaller ballpark dimensions, and that makes the PCL game noticeably different. It also makes you understand how a pitch-to-contact guy like Bergman can get singled to death in the PCL and come up to the bigs and alternate between great results when freakishly talented defenders and solid positioning turn balls in play into outs, and also get dingered to death when his command isn’t perfect. All to say: I think limiting hits is a really interesting metric in the minors, as a low HR rate may be easier to get through luck. The same’s true in reverse: a batter with a solid batting average may be decent, or he may be the 8th-best hitter on Las Vegas. Power production and plate discipline are probably better correlated with MLB success.

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SP: Bergman

Ljay Newsome and two relievers combined on a 3 hit shutout against Visalia. Eric Filia had two more hits for Modesto. Newsome’s been hit hard at times, but possesses an 85:8 K:BB ratio for the Nuts. Someone wants another invite to MLB spring training next year.
Tacoma beat Fresno 4-3, Clinton got demolished 10-1, Everett lost 3-1, and Arkansas edged Springfield 6-5.

Some prospect season lines of note:
Kyle Lewis: .266/.310/.441 (high A)
Evan White: .288/.348/.412 (high A/AAA)
Julio Rodriguez: .336/.424/.507 (DSL)
Josh Stowers: .255/.364/.455 (SS A)
Braden Bishop: .286/.359/.417 (AA)
Joe Rizzo: .270/.341/.359 (high A)
Art Warren: 15 2/3 IP, 10 H, 22 Ks, 14 BBs, 1.72 ERA (AA) (on DL)
Seth Elledge: 33 1/3 IP, 15 H, 46 K, 12 BBs, 0.81 ERA (high A)
Matt Festa: 31 2/3 IP, 37 H, 44 Ks, 7 BB, 3.13 ERA (AA)
Max Povse: 92 1/3 IP, 97 H, 103 Ks, 44 BBs, 5.65 ERA (AA/AAA)
Wyatt Mills: 36 1/3 IP, 27 H, 41 Ks, 8 BBs, 2.23 ERA (high A)

Game 94, Mariners at Angels

July 12, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 8 Comments 

James Paxton vs. Tyler Skaggs, 7:00pm

The rubber match of this three-game set features the best pitching match-up on paper, with the M’s ace facing the Angels’ ace…especially now that we’ve heard Garrett Richards damaged his UCL in Game 1.

Tyler Skaggs, the lefty so beloved by Jerry Dipoto who acquired him with the D-Backs and then again with the Angels, is having a Paxton-esque season. That is to say, he’s been a talented enigma, and someone I think Angels fans have always wondered what he could do with a full year. No coming back from TJ surgery, no weird dead-arm phase, no random DL stints. To be clear: he doesn’t have Paxton’s nuclear stuff, but Skaggs has been a big-time prospect for years and his injury history is nearly as long as Paxton’s. Well, I guess now we know. He’s been healthy, and he’s blowing away his previous levels of performance, with more than a strikeout per inning, low HRs-allowed, and a GB% that’s more in line with where he was pre-TJ.

He works primarily with three pitches: a fourseam fastball, a curveball, and a change-up. This year, he’s added a sinker that he reserves for right-handed bats, nearly exclusively. That’s kind of an odd choice, if you think about it: sinkers have one of the higher platoon splits of any pitch type. That is, if you cared about the numbers, you’d throw the sinker to *lefties* and give the righties a steady diet of four-seamers. The Angels are counseling the opposite, which is both weird, and entirely consistent with the way they’ve operated for years. I mentioned this with regard to Skaggs himself in 2014, and for a while, he listened – he all but stopped using his sinker at all in 2016-17, but it’s back now. Given he had a HR problem before, and fairly hefty platoon splits, maybe this makes sense? Well, not *quite*. His platoon splits this year are even wider – they’re massive. It’s just that he’s utterly dominating lefties so much, the fact that righties are faring OK is hardly a concern. This seems like an approach designed to fix one problem, and while it’s not exactly remedied that problem, the process of attempting to fix it may have fixed other, much larger, problems.

Out of curiousity, I looked at the average wOBA-against for lefty pitchers throwing sinkers to righties. As you can imagine, they fare much, much worse than when they throw sinkers to same-handed batters. But again, the change in the environment this year due to an apparently new ball becomes evident. This year, righties have produced a .357 wOBA against lefty sinkers/two-seamers. (Lefties put up a .366 wOBA against righty sinkers). Last year, though, righties put up a .371 wOBA, and .367 the year before. As in so many other cases, it’s like baseball has just re-set the clock to 2015, and we’re just moving along like 2016-2017 never happened.

So, the last time the M’s were facing the Angels, Corey Brock at the Athletic had an article about the M’s run differential and how their record didn’t match up with it. In that piece, the M’s front office said that they care about their own “Control the Zone” metric, or the differential between good and bad K/BB outcomes. I wrote about it here, and about how that metric told essentially the same story as run differential – the M’s were good by the CtZ metric, but 3rd-best in the division and a far cry from the Bostons/Houstons/New Yorks of the world. Today, there’s another article about the M’s apparent luck – this one by Tim Brown at Yahoo. Predictably, the players don’t care a whit about their pedestrian run differential, and they absolutely shouldn’t. Nick Vincent mentions one of – probably THE – big reasons: Edwin Diaz. But the whole article gave me an excuse to re-run the numbers.

The M’s CtZ number is now 87, good for 9th in baseball. That’s good, but it’s *still* 3rd in the AL West behind Houston (352) and Anaheim (125). Houston’s number is where it is because their pitching staff has the highest K% in the game while their batters the 4th-lowest. The *Angels* fare well thanks to the 3rd lowest batter K%, and middle-of-the-pack numbers everywhere else. The M’s simply weren’t built to succeed in CtZ, not with the 4th-lowest walk rate on their offense. They’re still good, mind you, with a very low pitcher walk rate and solid K% numbers. But CtZ still isn’t going to show *why* the team’s outperforming its run differential. As I mentioned a month or two ago, run differential and CtZ are highly correlated; more highly correlated than CtZ and wins. The A’s, meanwhile, look terrible by CtZ (-81), but a bit better with my even simpler HR delta. Back in the spring, I mentioned that net HRs – HRs hit minus HRs allowed – may be a better lens to look at teams in the current day and age than the other FIP components, walks and strikeouts. Indeed, the correlation between net HRs and wins is 0.80 to CtZ’s 0.70, and it’s got a better correlation to run differential. This may just be a fluke, but I think it adds some credence to the idea that even as HR rates come down, HRs are *still* absolutely critical to wins in the modern game. Controlling the zone is important, don’t get me wrong, but with K rates moving up inexorably, it’s harder and harder to string hits together to create runs. Thus, there may be diminishing returns to something like Houston’s utterly bonkers CtZ numbers; so much of that gets wasted. Either that, or they simply built their pen around the wrong closer. Heh.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Span, LF
8: Heredia, CF
9: Freitas, C
SP: BIG. MAPLE.

Congrats to David Freitas on his first MLB HR last night; he’s rewarded with a second straight start (ok, ok, Skaggs left-handedness had more to do with it than the HR, but still…good for him).

The PCL defeated the hated International League *in* IL territory, and with that job done, the Rainiers begin the second half tonight against Cy Sneed and Fresno. Johendi Jiminian takes the ball for Arkansas as they face Springfield, while Ljay Newsome starts for Modesto against Cody Stapler and Visalia. I sincerely hope the Rawhide can pull together some sort of Office Space-themed promotion for Stapler. 2017 7th rounder Max Roberts starts for Everett.

Game 93, Mariners at Angels

July 11, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Marco Gonzales vs. Jaime Barria, 7:00pm

The less said about last night’s loss, the better. Mike Leake didn’t have it, and the M’s couldn’t figure out the Angels’ pen. Everyone has an off-night.

Tonight’s game features Marco Gonzales, perhaps the story of this dream-like season for the M’s. While he seemed like a potential break-out player, his ceiling seemed limited, and the HR troubles that sunk his 2017 could be a concern going forward. But Gonzales has thrived this year, cutting his HR/9 in half and throwing more strikes, resulting in a much-improved K-BB% as well. The specific areas of improvement haven’t been the ones we/I keyed in on back in the spring: his velocity is *down* from 2017, for example, and while his cutter’s been a solid pitch, it doesn’t appear to have been the key to his success. Instead, it’s been his curve and his ability to sneak high four-seamers past hitters who are looking for something else.

Yesterday’s post centered on the ball changing and HRs falling league-wide, and how that’s helped the M’s in particular (just as the more dingerific ball hit them harder than most). Today, let’s talk about how/why pitchers are reacting to it. One of the big changes last year was the changing value of the high fastball. As hitters learned to elevate *low* fastballs, the high fastball seemed like a good pitch to employ – you get the benefit of the lower BABIP that fly balls bring, but the penalty in SLG% and HRs is low- to non-existent as hitters blast away on low pitches. That all changed last year, as hitters elevated high pitches over the fence, and so the M’s, who’d focused so much of their pitching strategy on high fastballs, were sunk. The league put up a wOBA of .308 on high fastballs in 2016 (a year with a lot of HRs, remember), but that jumped to .320 last year. In 2018? It’s back down to .308 again, as the slight mishits that flew over the fence last year stick around and find gloves again.

Have the M’s noticed? Here’s a graph charting the vertical height of Marco’s pitches:
Brooksbaseball-Chart(1)
The points are months, and you’ll notice that Marco’s highest ever average FB height have come in the last two months. He’s not throwing his fastball low anymore – now he’s got the cutter for that. The FB is now thrown up, where it pairs really well with his bigger breaking curve.

How about James Paxton? Yeah, same thing:
Paxton

With the Big Maple, you see not only a higher average FB, but a change in his slider/cutter from a pitch thrown way low – a chase pitch – to one that can occasionally sneak a called strike.

This isn’t universal or anything – Mike Leake still looks pretty much the same, which is funny given the narrow band his season stats move within – but there are enough that it starts to feel more like a pattern. To be clear: the M’s aren’t exactly doubling down on their “fly balls or bust” strategy from last year. They’re throwing fastballs up, but they’re throwing fewer four-seamers. The cutters are lower, and, in theory, can get ground balls. This strategy isn’t foolproof; they still give up HRs, and the cutters/sinkers haven’t been stellar, at least at the team level. But this strategy seems to have worked fairly well, at least for Gonzales and Paxton.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Gamel, LF
7: Healy, 1B
8: Heredia, CF
9: Freitas, C
SP: Gonzales

M’s fans have officially #sentSegura. Thanks to a great marketing campaign, Jean Segura won the final spot in the All Star game in a fan vote. He’ll join Nelson Cruz, Mitch Haniger, and Edwin Diaz in DC. The All Star game itself is on Tuesday.

The PCL All Star game is going on now in Columbus, and it’s already a slugfest – it’s 10-7 in the 6th. Arkansas are facing Springfield in the Texas League tonight. Oliver Jaskie starts for Clinton tonight, Ashton Goudeau for Modesto, and a rehabbing Rob Whalen takes the mound for Everett. Yesterday, Luis Liberato hit his 9th HR for Modesto in a 6-4 loss.

Mariners at Angels – The Ball is Different, and It’s Changing the AL West Race

July 10, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

Mike Leake vs. Garrett Richards, 7:10pm

Back in mid-April, I wrote this article on the sudden drop in HRs league-wide, and how that seemed to be the result of a new, less-springy baseball. It referenced work by Rob Arthur, who gained fame by pointing out that the baseball had changed in the *opposite* direction in 2015-2016, leading to the unprecedented dinger surge of 2016-17. Yesterday, Alex Chamberlain wrote this at Fangraphs, noting that component stats for hitting are trending up even as results go down: batters are hitting the ball harder than ever, at better angles, leading to better quality-of-contact…and they’re getting less out of those contacts than in the past. At this point, it’s essentially impossible to chalk it up to bad luck, or really good defensive positioning (shifts!) or anything but the baseball. It’s pretty clearly different than it was last year, and that’s why HR/FB ratios and isolated slugging are down throughout the league – it’s a subtle difference overall, but it’s noticeable.

Back in mid-April, I wondered what that would mean for the M’s chances: their pitchers were still giving up far too many dingers, but their batters were hitting just as many, and keeping the club afloat. Since that time, things have changed dramatically: the M’s pitchers essentially stopped giving up HRs, which bailed out a relative dinger-dearth from the offense. Meanwhile, the Angels have been hit about as hard by the injury bug as the M’s were last year, and it’s resulted in a staff so bad that their HR/FB is actually *up* relative to 2017. The Athletics looked to be in full-on rebuild after trading Sonny Gray last year and relying on a mix of cheap vets (Edwin Jackson!) and untested youngsters (Paul Blackburn). But the new ball has made them…well, not great or anything, but a perfectly average staff. The A’s shouldn’t be in the playoff race, not with a line-up that’s the most dependent on HRs for run scoring, not with Edwin Jackson, Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill pretending it’s 2010.

But changing the penalty for giving up decent contact means different things in different places. One of the most stunning effects of the new ball – at least to me – was that it seemed to swamp traditional park effects. Safeco Field was *always* a pitcher’s park in large part because it suppressed HRs. Then, suddenly, in 2016, it didn’t, and I was completely dumbfounded. Now we know what was causing all of that. Back in April of this year, I wrote about the huge difference that had opened up between Statcast’s expected wOBA, or xwOBA, and actual results, measured by wOBA itself. That is, Statcast calculated the average results of batted balls with a given exit velocity and angle. This worked pretty well, and in general, there was no or very little difference league wide between xwOBA and wOBA…as there shouldn’t be. Well, several months later, that gap remains, and it’s absolutely massive. All of the data that went into calculating xwOBA was based on 2015-17 results/batted balls, and now that the ball has changed, it’s assuming that we’re still in an offensive explosion. As Alex Chamberlain’s piece lays out, batters are hitting the ball even harder, and higher, than they did in 2017, so xwOBA believes we’re in an offensive environment that’s incredibly tilted towards batters. But we’re not. And the effects of that mismatch between expected and real outcomes is felt most keenly in certain parks…like the ol’ marine-layered parks of the AL West’s coast: Oakland, Anaheim, and Seattle.

By venue, no park has seen a bigger mismatch than Oakland, where the gap is nearly *60 points* of wOBA. Seattle’s got the 7th-highest gap, and Anaheim’s not far behind at #9. Sorting by team and not by park gives a slightly different view, but they’re correlated (er, as they should be). Oakland’s #3, Seattle’s #5, while the Angels fade a bit towards the middle of the pack. But look at those xwOBA figures! Seattle pitchers have, apparently, given up more threatening contact than Miami’s, or Cincinnati’s staff. Oakland’s been slightly *better* in fact, but they’re still in the Baltimore range rather than Boston or Houston. If expected contact lined up with actual results – *the way it did, nearly perfectly, the past two seasons* – the Mariners would likely be struggling mightily.

Or at least, that’s one way of looking at it. The other way is to say that the M’s anticipated this, and changed their approach a bit in April. The M’s K/9 and BB/9 this year look remarkably similar to their 2016 rates, and their BABIP is exactly the same. The only difference is HRs, where a drop in HR/FB has pushed their FIP lower by almost half a run. Remember back in 2016, when the M’s clearly thought the park would bail them out, so they pounded the zone at home and had higher FB rates, higher strike rates and lower walk rates? They’re doing all of that again, but the change in HRs has totally shifted their results. Sure, you’ll get guys like Wade LeBlanc who may take it a bit far, and thus have far more HRs-allowed at Safeco, but then you have the opposite effect with Marco Gonzales. The M’s were *always* set up to profit from non-insane levels of HRs. That way, they could take advantage of Safeco’s low BABIP and run a competitive rotation out without breaking the bank. Oakland wasn’t necessarily set up that way, but they too needed something to change in order to compete in 2018. They got it, and now they’re competing. Poor Anaheim’s seen injuries decimate their roster, and they’ve thrown pitches so bad that even the new ball hasn’t been able to completely eliminate the odors. The Yankees don’t care about the ball – they replaced Jacoby Ellsbury with Giancarlo Stanton; they’ll hit some dingers. The Astros don’t care too much, because even as the ball brings Jose Altuve back to earth, it’s turned Gerrit Cole into an absolute beast. All in all, the new ball has helped turn the AL West into a remarkably deep division.

Tonight’s game features two hurlers who’ve benefited from the new ball, but in different ways. Richards has amazing stuff, thanks to elite spin rates, but so-so or worse command. His walk rate’s up, and he’s even giving up too many HRs despite pitching in parks that suppress them. Richards has given up some hard contact, but hasn’t paid as much of a penalty for it, and thanks to his swing-and-miss stuff, he’s limiting the number of balls in play. Mike Leake has one of the highest gaps between xwOBA and wOBA in the game – he ranks 144th out of 156 pitchers with at least 150 balls in play this year. But look at who he’s hanging out with! Gerrit Cole is at 142nd, Luis Severino is at 148, and Sean Manaea’s at 153. Like a lot of sinkerballers, Leake gets plenty of weak ground balls – but if the batter adjusts his swing plane, the fly balls he DOES give up get hit really hard. Thus, Leake’s given up lots of very hard hit fly balls. That would…that wouldn’t play in 2017, but in 2018, it’s not some disqualifying flaw. Incidentally, Garrett Richards has the same issue; his GB rate is 50%, but he’s giving up some of the hardest-hit fly balls in the league.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Span, LF
7: Healy, 1B
8: Herrmann, C
9: Heredia, CF
SP: Leake

Another interesting sign of the new/old ball and how it plays differently in different parks. If we exclude “barrels” or ideal contact, and look just at “solid contact,” you can see how things have changed in the marine layer parks. In 2016, Safeco saw 22 HRs off of non-ideal contact, and Oakland just 13. The next year, the peak of DingerMania, Safeco was up to 31, and Oakland saw 23. (Cincinnati led the league both years at 47 and 49, respectively). This year, with over half the year in the books, Seattle’s seen just 9, while Oakland’s at 7.

Felix Hernandez has been placed on the 10-day DL with back tightness. Not a great sign, of course, but this seems like the kind of thing the new, shorter, DL was designed to address. Let’s get Felix healthy – completely – before we need him for the stretch run. Nick Rumbelow’s up to take his place on the active roster. Also, Gordon Beckham’s swapping places with John Andreoli.

One easy way to extend the M’s competitive window is to extend Nelson Cruz, who becomes a free agent at the end of the year. Today, Larry Stone wrote about why the M’s should do so in his column at the Seattle Times, and Brendan Gawlowski did the same over at the Athletic ($).

Game 89, Rockies at Mariners – M’s Extend Jerry Dipoto

July 6, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 29 Comments 

King Felix vs. German Marquez, 7:10pm

Happy Felix Day to you and yours. It’s been an especially happy Felix day for one Gerard Peter Dipoto, who signed a multi-year extension. His contract was up at the end of the 2018 season, and while he wasn’t exactly on the hot seat with the team sitting at 24 games over .500, this gives him some security.

It felt a bit like a formality not only due to the M’s performance this year, but because he just inked Wade LeBlanc to an extension. If you’re comfortable with a GM making multi-year commitments to players, you’re probably comfortable with that GM’s vision for the next few years, even if those commitments are small (like LeBlanc’s bargain deal). This news is not a big surprise to anyone, but a few of you may have navigated over here to hear what I, one of Dipoto’s more annoying critics, think of it. Here you go: I like it.

The organization the M’s have in place right now was created in ways I vaguely dislike, in contexts I don’t really know/understand, with input I can only guess at. All of that said, the M’s certainly look weaker in certain aspects than many of the superclubs in the AL right now, particularly the AL West heavyweights in Houston. What I think many of us want is this sense that *our* GM is simply better at identifying talent than his peers, and uses that asymmetry to create a juggernaut. That’s a cult-of-the-GM simplification, but it’s got some explanatory power. The Astros have used the game’s best player development AND excellent pro scouting to great effect, turning complete non-prospects like Jose Altuve and Marwin Gonzalez into all-star talents AND getting more out of established stars like Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. Their PD leaves a minor league system where high draft picks and the latest unheralded stars (Josh James?) provide depth for the big league club and desirable prospects for trades. The Cubs traded off anything of value a few years ago and rebuilt their own system, and then used a series of remarkable trades (and the draft of Kris Bryant, of course) to create a dominant 2016 club and a contender for years to come. They identified future contributors like Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Hendricks, and Jake Arrieta, and got more out of them than anyone else thought possible. The process was painful at times, but it’s helped create a perennial contender as well as a Series winner.

The M’s don’t look like either of those clubs, as close as they are in the standings to both. The M’s have made a flurry of moves, and the results are fairly normally distributed at best. The franchise-altering trade for Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger is clearly, clearly in the win column, but there are a hell of a lot of misses, too. In the past, I’ve harped on their pitching acquisitions, but I’ve mocked the Healy trade, the Dee Gordon experiment, and many others. Now, if they worked out – if they were precisely the sort of raw material the M’s player development coaches excelled in forging into weapons of baseballing war (WAR?) – then that’d be one thing. But for every Mitch Haniger, there’s Healy and his .279 OBP. There’s Seth Smith for Yovani Gallardo, or Chris Taylor for Zach Lee, or the Adam Lind deal. There are clear, important adds, and the Marco Gonzales deal seems to be turning into one, but they don’t seem to be the product of a preternatural gift for talent evaluation. If you trade for a million guys, *some* of them are bound to be remarkably good.

So, is the argument that he’s not infallible, like Theo Epstein in the fever-dreams of daily fantasy sports bros? No, it’s that the relentless churn impacts the ability of the team to develop the way “good” orgs seem to develop players. Last year, the Tacoma Rainiers famously used 56 pitchers. Series to series, it was somewhat hard to predict who would be on the roster. Now, injuries both in AAA and in Seattle played a huge role in that, so what would happen this year, now that the injury plague has moved on? Well, it’s early July, and the Rainiers have already used 36 pitchers. The Rainiers operate a little like an independent league team, and I don’t say that just because half of their starting rotation came from an independent league a month ago. This is the byproduct of the kind of trades the M’s make – the draft picks are moved, leaving organizational needs that have to be filled via the waiver wire or calls to the Atlantic League. That’s not awful, and the team’s pretty solid because of it…but it’s essentially impossible to say that any development is occurring. Homegrown sorta-prospect Ian Miller has been shunted off to the OF corners for waiver claims like John Andreoli and Andrew Aplin.

Sooooo, you hate the extension then? No. There are two main reasons. First, extending Dipoto is necessary to give not just the FO but the coaching staffs at every level a modicum of security and, crucially, a vote of confidence. GM’s don’t work well if they think the next move they make has to turn out well *right now*. Coaches need to know that their superiors understand that player development takes time, and that mechanical changes may include periods of poor performance when the body reverts to old habits or struggles with changes. Second, and even more important, I started to recognize that there are other ways to build a winning club. My vision of Dipoto’s “throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks” approach is reductive and skewed, sure, but making trades is one aspect of the GM’s job. Another big one, if really hard to measure, is setting a tone, and allowing a culture to develop around the team.

The GM can do that in many ways, from insulating players/managers from ownership, to selling ownership on his/his manager’s direction, to selling free agents to become culture-setters or bask in the warm glow of that culture’s success. For the last two years at least, the M’s clubhouse seems to be unusually together/optimistic, and that includes one year of bitter disappointment in the standings. I have no idea how to measure this, or how to apportion the credit for its creation between Dipoto, Scott Servais, and clubhouse leaders like Robinson Canó or Nelson Cruz. But I DO know that Dipoto didn’t thwart it, and didn’t try to rein the team’s free-wheeling, idiosyncratic, often goofy, identity back in, either in the name of focus or of “respecting the game.” No, allowing long haired outfielders doesn’t make Jerry Dipoto a good GM, but building a clubhouse that players seem to actively like being a part of is an essential part of the job, albeit one that we can’t rank on Fangraphs. It’s a task that allows individuality while respecting the need for preparation and development, which I think previous M’s teams have lacked.

There’s another reason, too. If you’ve been around here for years, you know that my grudging admiration for what the Astros have accomplished echoes my earlier admiration for Jon Daniels and the Rangers, who built an AL West power 10-12 years earlier. That team was different, as it was buoyed up by a remarkable string of international free agent signings, thanks to AJ Preller. Still, it wasn’t like those teams were a collection of international, home-grown players. Instead, they, more than most teams, were the product of an almost obsessive-compulsive number of trades, both minor and major. Not all of them worked out. The Rangers were the source of a few of the Cubs’ 2016 stars, include Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr., and Daniels left a trail of lopsided trading L’s, like dealing Chris Davis for a little-used Koji Uehara, right before Uehara became a star with Boston. It didn’t hurt them too much, because they’d just develop other players and do the same thing again.

I realize the M’s don’t have the Rangers’ player development group of 2009-2011 – though Scott Servais was pretty important in that unit – and they certainly aren’t as active internationally as the old pre-bonus-pool Rangers were. There’s an argument that Jon Daniels *without* those advantages will give you the Rangers of 2018, not the Rangers of 2011, and I suppose we’ll wait and see. But the point is that you don’t have to win every trade. A poker player or any other gambler knows that you can exploit even a small advantage if you keep at it (and if your bankroll can survive some losses). Dipoto seems to believe that you can jump-start development if you find a player who clicks with what your coaches are trying to do. James Pazos may be such a player, just as Chris Taylor was in Los Angeles. Not all of them will work out, and that’s fine so long as you keep acquiring new ones.

The churn does indeed prevent the M’s from building the kind of system that could compete for Manny Machado this year or whoever your favored trade target might be. But even there, Dipoto’s figured out a short- to medium-turn workaround: the trade for contract relief. Mike Leake hasn’t turned into a solid #2, and his 2018 numbers are actually worse than his career averages. But on a team like this one, a solid, dependable #4 was critical. The M’s acquired him not so much for talent as for salary relief – the Cardinals had a ton of young pitchers on the way up and didn’t need Leake’s expense. The M’s acquired Leake – and cash – despite not having a lauded system. I’d argue the same is at least partially true of the Dee Gordon deal, and while Gordon’s OBP isn’t what you want from your leadoff hitter, he’s been a clubhouse leader since arriving. The M’s were able to acquire MLB vets despite not having MLB-ready talent in return (that’s more true of the Leake deal than the Gordon one) because they’ve been able to find room in the budget for it. And there’s room in the budget for it in part because so much of the rest of the team’s been built cheaply – Healy, Zunino, Edwin Diaz, and Mitch Haniger are all making ~ league minimum.

There’s work to do here. However close the M’s are right now, the Astros and Yankees seem to be fundamentally different, and the M’s will need a real farm system soon. But I’m fine with the club giving Dipoto the freedom to work on that now.

Today, the M’s face the club Dipoto pitched for in his playing days, the Colorado Rockies. Colorado’s offense has been poor this year, while their bullpen’s gone from an intriguing strategic gambit to a terrible waste of tons and tons of money. All of that’s spoiled a solid performance from their unherladed starters, especially the group behind Jon Gray, who was just demoted due to ineffectiveness. By fWAR, they’re neck and neck with the Mariners. Last year, the group led all of baseball in four-seam fastball usage, a bold move in the year of the home run at altitude. But it worked, as the group worked around a few too many walks and produced an abnormally high ground ball rate. They’re not as extreme this year, which is kind of funny – they’re throwing more sinking pitches now, but it’s resulted in fewer grounders.

Today’s starter, German Marquez, is belatedly following the league-wide trend towards fewer fastballs. Last year, he threw a four-seamer or sinker 65% of the time. This year, it’s down to 57%. Those FBs are now sliders, which is an interesting move in and of itself. Last year, he was primarily a FB/Curve pitcher, but he had a hell of a time getting righties out – which is strange because Marquez is a righty himself. He saw roughly similar amounts of rightes and lefties, but gave up 3X more HRs to righties. Hence, he’s now throwing far more sliders to them than ever before. As a pitch with high platoon splits, you understand the thinking. And lo and behold, it’s working. He’s fared far better against RHB this year. Only…now lefties are hitting him hard all of the sudden.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Span, LF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Gamel, RF
8: Herrmann, C
9: Heredia, CF
SP: FELIX

A third straight start for Chris Herrmann, as Mike Zunino’s on the 10-day DL with an ankle bruise – one that may keep him out 2-3 weeks. Further complicating things is the fact that Mitch Haniger’s also out with a sore right knee, albeit one that doesn’t seem to be DL-able. John Andreoli would figure to be the call-up if the M’s need OF depth; they’ve already recalled David Freitas at C.

Kyle Lewis will represent the M’s at the Futures Game during the All Star Break. It’s been an up-and-down year for Lewis, who spent the first month or so getting his surgically-repaired knee ready. Nice to see him healthy for a prolonged period of time.

Logan Gilbert, the M’s first-round draft pick, hasn’t played yet in the M’s system, and now we know why: he’s got mononucleosis, and has for some time. Get well soon, Logan!

Game 87, Angels at Mariners

July 4, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 5 Comments 

Mike Leake vs. Garrett Richards, 1:10pm

The moribund Angels desperately need a win or two in this series, but it’s looking harder and harder to see them as a real challenger at this point. They could win today, and they’d still be the Angels, their season still sunk by injuries.

Garrett Richards remains one of the game’s enigmas. A Statcast darling with freakishly spin rates, and the velocity and stuff to turn that raw material into plenty of strikeouts. And while his long and varied injury history gets a lot of the blame for why he’s never quite blossomed into a Cy Young candidate*, another key reason is that he’s not really developing in any real sense. Injuries probably have a lot to do with that, I know. But he came up as a guy with great stuff and disappointing results: too many walks, troubles stranding runners, etc. Now, after over 700 big league innings, he’s…still that guy. He’s getting more strikeouts now than when he came up, but then, so is the entire game of baseball. That 10-11% walk rate in his initial call-ups was a bit of a concern, but now, with several years under his belt, his walk rate is…11%. The huge sink on his breaking balls and cutter/fastball produced growing GB%, peaking around 58% a few years ago. But now, it’s back to 50% – very good, but not a true stand-out several-standard-deviations-from-the-mean skill. His career strand rate is just over 70%, and it’s 67% this year.

There are probably attributes that make it hard to really coach/develop someone like this. You don’t want to change the mechanical processes that generate his freakish spin rates in a misguided effort to bring down his walk rate. You have to take his injury history into account, but you probably don’t want to radically change his approach. After all, he’s got a career ERA and FIP below 4. You’d take that, right? It’s just that Richards’ talent is such that being a perfectly fine when healthy #3 feels like a terrible outcome. Richards’ curve is one of the better pitches I’ve seen, and no one’s ever homered off of it. His career SLG%-against on the thing is .153, and he’s never thrown it much. Its usage rate is above 10% for the very first time this year, and by a fraction of a percent. Look, his slider is really, really good too, but his curve seems like a cheat code, and he just doesn’t throw it, largely because he’s always struggles to keep it in the zone.

So: you’re a pitching coach and you’ve got Garrett Richards. I keep thinking there are plenty of things to try, and ways to make that curve much more of a dependable weapon. To date, they’ve failed to do so. The Angels have struggled with health, and they’ve struggled with dingers, and while they’ve had some big successes (Skaggs this year, Shoemaker in the past), I’m starting to wonder how much of that is player development more generally, and how much is really attributable to MLB coaching. Shoemaker can’t stay healthy, nor can some of their other big development/coaching successes like JC Ramirez (or Richards), but they’ve struggled to get more out of vets from Ricky Nolasco to Jesse Chavez, and now Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano seem to be kind of stuck in neutral. The Angels are still set up well for the future; Mike Trout is still somehow just 26, Ohtani’s 23, and Andrelton Simmons is 28. But something’s going to need to change -pretty dramatically- for them to reach their potential.

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the key reasons for the M’s success this year seems to be the success of that big league coaching staff, with Marco Gonzales and Mike Leake improving not only over prior years, but improving over their own April-of-2018 levels. Felix is showing signs of life, and of course there’s Wade LeBlanc. No, not everything is perfect – if it was, the M’s wouldn’t need to scoff at run differentials. But Mel Stottlemeyer Jr seems to have gone from embattled to low-key cog in their best season in over a decade. I’ll take it.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Gamel, LF
8: Herrmann, C
9: Heredia, CF
SP: Leake

Happy Independence Day!

This is verging on talking-about-run-differential territory, but I wanted to point out Jeff Sullivan’s great article on negative WAR. As you know, the M’s have often had great performances by their star players rendered irrelevant by awful, awful performances from guys the M’s simply couldn’t stop playing. The M’s gave 280 PAs to a below-replacement-level Taylor Motter last year, and 500 to Danny Valencia. Think of Adam Lind and Ketel Marte in 2016, Zunino and Dustin Ackley in 2015, Kendrys Morales/Stefen Romero/Corey Hart in 2014. Sometimes, the M’s simply had no other options – they *wanted* to bench Valencia, but Vogelbach was somehow worse. Other times, they kept cycling through people who put up curiously similar (awful) lines. The point is that the M’s in 2018 are, finally, not giving lots of playing time to sub-replacement-level players. Their positive WAR is more or less identical to their overall WAR, and it’s only little blips like a few innings of Erasmo Ramirez that make up the delta.

Still, there’s a chance that the M’s will coast into the postseason with a number of negative WAR players. Guillermo Heredia is at 0.0 right now, and Denard Span is at 0.1. Ryon Healy’s already at -0.2. It’s not likely, but the M’s could end the year with negative WAR from 2-3 *positions* and still get to 100 actual, real world wins. The more you try to explain the M’s, the more you really fall back on things like chemistry, which is weird for a blog like this, but kind of freeing, as well. The M’s are better than the sum of their parts, and I think that helps explain why the region’s fallen so hard for this group in 2018.

* Yes, I know I predicted he’d get Cy votes this year. I predicted a lot of dumb stuff this year.

Game 86, Angels at Mariners – Last, Best Hope for Anaheim

July 3, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

Wade LeBlanc vs. Andrew Heaney, 7:10pm

The Angels get Shohei Ohtani back tonight, but they’re in free-fall since he went down with an arm injury, and find themselves 11 games behind the M’s in the wildcard race. He’s not ready to pitch yet, but the Angels will take his bat; their offense has dropped off markedly since he went down. At the end of this series, the Angels could be just about out of it, which is striking to say in the earliest days of July, but, seriously, look at the wildcard playoff odds chart:
WC Odds chart

The Angels hit just shy of 50% in late May, but they’ve fallen to under *3%* today. By the weekend, they could be near zero. At this point, the A’s are clearly the M’s biggest rival for a playoff spot, which is quite amazing given the Angels’ start. Now, the M’s need to try and keep the Angels from crawling off the deck and jumping back into the race. Tonight, they hand the ball to Wade LeBlanc, a name not exactly associated with the killer instinct required for this particular job. No matter.

Angels starter Andrew Heaney looked like Anaheim’s version of Marco Gonzales when we last saw him. He’d been injured – including a TJ surgery – and had finally come back with his command at full-strength. After a rough start or two in April, he settled in and seemed to be turning a corner, even tossing a complete game 1-hitter against Kansas City (though *everyone* seems to be doing that these days). But he got knocked out before making it out of the 4th IP, and now he’s coming off another clunker against Boston. This is a pitcher the M’s have hit well, and a team they’ve dominated. The only thing standing in their way is an Angels line-up that’s slumping. LeBlanc’s coming off two less-than-stellar outings of his own, so it’ll be interesting to see if he’s worked on anything with Mel Stottlemeyer Jr. recently. [Edit] I guess he HAS worked on something. The M’s just announced that they’ve extended LeBlanc through 2019, with options for 2020-2022.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Span, LF
8: Zunino, C
9: Heredia, CF
SP: LeBlanc

As mentioned in yesterday’s post about the J2 period and the M’s inking SS Noelvi Marte to a $1.55 M deal, the M’s would be signing other prospects a bit less heralded as well. Today, Ryan Divish passes on the names of eight of them. I’m not going to pretend to know anything about them, but I will note that one of them is named Asdrubal Bueno, and I’m thrilled to have another Asdrubal in the org. Years ago, I was fond of the incongruity of seeing a few prospects – including a precocious SS for the M’s – named after a Carthaginian general NOT named Hannibal. I have no idea how this interest in North African history alighted on parents in Venezuela, but I approve. Hopefully, Asdrubal Bueno will get to play with M’s DSL-affiliate 2B Osiris Castillo and then they’ll have ancient North Africa locked down.*

Speaking of prospects, M’s 2nd-rounder in 2017 Sam Carlson had Tommy John surgery a few days ago. Seems like it went well, and honestly, it’s seemed like this announcement was coming for a while. He pitched 2 innings in the AZL last year, and was then shut down. When he didn’t appear on Everett’s roster, this seemed like a foregone conclusion. Ah well. Get well soon, Sam!

It’s International Signing Day

July 2, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

It’s July 2nd, the beginning of the big international free agent signing period, wherein fans dream of the next Vlad Guerrero Jr., Ronald Acuña, or Juan Soto, and try not to think too hard about the bizarre and often lawless process that leads up to their signing. It’s a day that changes lives and brings in some of the biggest talents in the game, but because teams are dealing with 16-17 year olds, that talent is even harder to project that in the June amateur draft.

It’s been quite a while, but at one point, international free agent signings were the lifeblood of the Mariners player development system. With Bob Engle at the helm of their international group, the M’s signed Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, Rafael Soriano, and some chunky kid out of Venezuela named Felix Hernandez. There were role players, too, and organizational depth. They were active in Australia (Ryan Rowland-Smith and Travis Blackley), East Asia, and especially Venezuela, and in the old pre-bonus pool world, they were always big players for top international talent.

And then, seemingly without warning, it all started to dry up. Not that the M’s stopped signing big-ticket players – they didn’t. It’s just that they stopped making an impact in the minors, let alone on the big club. After whiffing on the likes of Esteilon/Martin Peguero and Guillermo Pimentel, Bob Engle was shown the door. I think the perception’s been that they pulled way back in international signings, but that’s not really true: they’ve signed at least one of the top 20 guys most years since Engle left in 2012, including Hersin Martinez, Luiz Gohara, Carlos Vargas, Brayan Hernandez, Juan Querecuto, and continuing with top-10 guy Julio Rodriguez last year. They’re by no means as active as the Yankees or Astros, and haven’t attempted a big blow-past-the-budget-in-one-year move the way New York and Atlanta have done, signing a team’s worth of prospects all at once. While they haven’t seriously pursued the top echelon players like Guerrero Jr., Kevin Maitan, Luis Robert, but they’ve continued to make $1 M+ signings most years.

But while they’ve still signed guys, they haven’t had a big-time signing make the high minors. To be fair, a lot of this is due to the fact that Jerry Dipoto’s aggressively shopped the international signings when making minor trades. Adam Lind came to Seattle in exchange for three international pitchers, while Vargas went to the Rays in the Drew Smyly deal. Hernandez and Pablo Lopez* went to Miami for David Phelps. The real development problems predate Dipoto, but as with other players, I’m curious to see if the new development team might get more out of these players if any of them stick around long enough to tell.

In Anaheim, Jerry Dipoto and crew were bit players on the international market. They were one of the clubs that spent the least, and when you’re getting *outspent* by the Oakland A’s, it’s pretty clear that it’s not an area of focus. Like with the M’s, that shift was a 180 degree turn from prior front offices, where the Angels were consistently turning up talent like Erick Aybar, Ervin Santana, and a young SS named Jean Segura. But their international director was being investigated by the FBI (again, don’t look too closely at the J2 world) and was then fired by Dipoto’s predecessor, and Jerry used talent like Segura to bolster the big league roster, as in his trade for Zack Greinke.

That changed a bit in 2014-15 when, instead of throwing money at a 16-year old in the DR, Dipoto and the Angels spent $8 M to sign Cuban IF Roberto Baldoquin, thinking the soon-to-be-21 year old would move quickly. They started him in High A and watched as he struggled to a miserable, powerless line in 2015, and while he’s been better this year, the signing’s still a sore point with Angels fans.

That high profile miss hasn’t led Dipoto to pull out of the international market as GM in Seattle. In fact, the M’s have been more active this past year, signing an Aussie pitcher for the first time in years, and a Taiwanese lefty last year – spending a portion of the bonus pool surplus they’d built up.** Today, they’ve signed another top-10 talent, Dominican SS Noelvi Marte, for $1.55 M. Marte sounds like a bat-first/power-hitting infielder who many think may move to 3B, but whose bat profiles there quite well. Like last year’s top prize, Julio Rodriguez (one of the M’s top 5 prospects), if he sticks around, he could be an impact player one day. But to do that, the M’s player development group is going to need to show what they can do. This is insanely difficult; you’re taking teenagers and somewhat quickly throwing them into a completely different culture, with different foods, a different language, and different training methods.

It’s still early to tell how much Dipoto’s drafts will transform the talent pipeline, but it’s a good sign that the M’s are still active internationally. We still don’t really know if the problems that may have contributed to the struggles of guys like Pimentel and Peguero have been fixed, but I’m still glad that the M’s are bringing in more talent to a system that could use some. While the biggest names in the 2018-19 signing period will come off the board soon, the M’s will presumably continue to find additional players throughout the year (as they did last month).

To get a look at video of Marte and to get a bit of a scouting report, check out this post at LL. To follow the signings, Baseball America and MLB.com both have trackers. The latter’s free. Cuban OF Victor Victor Mesa is generally seen as the prize of the year, not only because of his prodigious talent, but because he’s 21, and much more of a known commodity. No word where he’ll sign at this point.

* Lopez always seemed like a great kid, and an easy guy to root for, so congrats to him for getting a win in his big league debut the other day.
** They used some of it to acquire PCL All Star Shawn Armstrong in a deal with Cleveland, too. Bonus pool slots – like competitive balance picks – are tradeable commodities.

Game 85, Royals at Mariners

July 1, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 5 Comments 

James Paxton vs. Brad Keller, 1:10pm

Happy Maple Day.

It’s a strange thing to think about now, with the M’s 22 over .500 and seemingly coasting to a wild card spot, but I’ve been thinking about the 2010 M’s a bit recently. These musings haven’t been occasioned by the M’s themselves, of course. This current iteration is almost a polar opposite. Instead, it’s been watching the dregs of the league in back-to-back series – the Orioles and now the Royals – that bring you back to that utterly hopeless frame of mind.

The M’s haven’t blown their downtrodden opponents out. They’ve been fairly closely-fought games by and large. The problem is that the outcome’s felt preordained, just a matter of filling in the details. And the reason for *that* is simply that these teams don’t have a full complement of major league players. They can hang around if things go right, as we saw with Mike Moustakas’ 3-run shot in the first. But pretty quickly, starter Jason Hammel found himself on the ropes, which led Mike Salk to ask a fundamental question:

I mean, yes. The answer is obviously yes. But put yourself in the manager’s shoes. You can leave in your bad but regular bad starting pitcher, or you can turn to Burch Smith or Brian Flynn or someone *even worse*. Brandon Maurer has been utterly lost this season, but he might be a better option than whoever the Royals long man is. Take the worst bullpen in MLB, and then find the worst single member of it. Does that change how quick your hook might be with your scuffling starter?

The 2010 M’s real problem wasn’t their bullpen or their pitching in general, but it brought up those same awful choices. Love to pinch hit for Rob Johnson here…except that Adam Moore’s technically been worse. Jack or Josh Wilson in this late-game spot with two on? I dunno, pinch hit a plainly not-ready-for-this Matt Tuiasosopo? Call up Chris Woodward? IS there a procedure to just concede an inning? Asking for a friend.

At the time, it felt hopeless, but the process of following them every day gave us a unique insight into their historic ineptitude. Would it be plainly visible to opposing fans? Sure, the stats were available, and you could see some terrible batting averages and OBPs, but could they SEE it; could they understand what they were looking at over the course of a three game series? After watching Baltimore and now Kansas City, I think I have my answer.

Today, the Royals start Rule 5 pick Brad Keller, just to heighten the 2010 M’s feel of it all. Kanekoa Texeira, oops, I mean Keller, has done fairly well by throwing a mix of fastballs – both a straight, cutter-like four-seamer and a sinker. Combining the two, he’s throwing 65-75% fastballs on the year. He’s got above-average velocity on them, sitting in the mid-90s, but given the nature of the pitches, he’s not going to rack up strikeouts. In the early part of the year, he threw strikes and balanced a lack of K’s with a lack of walks. Over time, that control’s waned a bit, but he’s been OK thanks to a lack of HRs. He’s posting a 60% GB rate, but that’s not due purely to his sinker – he throws the 4-seamer more often, but while the GB rate’s a bit higher on the sinker, they’re both remarkably similar.

The M’s haven’t fared quite as well against ground ballers this year, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Game after game sees a player who’s been completely cold have a huge game or at least a huge at-bat to lift the club. Last night it was Ryon Healy, who’d been *terrible* for the past few weeks. Dee Gordon hadn’t been great, but helped the M’s get a win in Baltimore, and even Austin Romine – LITERALLY Austin Romine – has shown signs of life when he filled in for Jean Segura. As I said, it’s essentially as far from the experience of watching the 2010 M’s as possible.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Gamel, LF
8: Zunino, C
9: Heredia, CF
SP: PAXTON wooooo

Williams Perez gets the start for Tacoma tonight as they host Reno. Chase de Jong is pitching for Arkansas against San Antonio, and Ljay Newsome takes the hill for Modesto. Clinton got rained out, and Everett’s playing a double-header tonight in Eugene after they couldn’t use the park in Eugene last night due to a Grateful Dead concert.

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