Game 21, Mariners at Tigers

April 25, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 30 Comments 

King Felix vs. Jordan Zimmermann, 4:10pm

Happy Felix Day!

The M’s take on a Tigers team that’s tied for the lead in the AL Central, and – if the projections are any guide – one of their primary rivals in the hunt for a wild card. They’ll do so with Felix on the mound against Jordan Zimmermann, the former Nat who signed a $110 million deal with Detroit to replace/upgrade the hole in their rotation left by Rick Porcello.

Zimmermann was a low-key star, a pitcher with a fastball that averaged nearly 95 and who racked up at least 3 fWAR in 5 consecutive seasons, and who’d kept his ERA and FIP under 4 while averaging 200 IP for his last 4 years in Washington DC. In his first three outings for Detroit, he tossed nearly 20 innings and didn’t give up a single run. Still, there were some warning signs: Zimmermann’s fastball was down 2 ticks, averaging just 92.4 MPH. And while his walk rate was still better than average, it was higher than his own established level of performance – Zimmermann had kept his walk rate in the vicinity of 5% for years. As the summer wore on, Zimmermann started to feel pain in his neck, and he was DL’d in July after giving up 12 runs in 9+ innings. After returning, he was still not quite the same, giving up another 12 runs in just 2 1/3 IP in 2 disastrous starts. Between bouts of ineffectiveness and trying to work his way back into game shape, he failed to pitch more than 4 IP the rest of the season. The result was a poor overall season line, with K rates far below his established average, higher walk rates, higher HR rates, and lower velocity.

It wasn’t all bad, of course, as he showed flashes of his previous self, and ultimately figured out what was bothering his neck/shoulder (a pinched nerve, apparently). But three starts in to 2017, it’s not like Zimmermann’s back to being the exceptionally steady #2/#3 he was in DC. He’s still walking people, and his K rate is stuck well below average. In DC, Zimmermann’s fastball had slightly less “rise” than most, and was thrown from a 3/4 arm slot. In Detroit, he’s moved his arm slot up, albeit very slightly. This has led to more rise, as more of the spin is back spin as opposed to side spin. There are plenty of reasons why a pitcher might want that, but the results for Zimmermann are a fastball that’s easier than ever to elevate, and one that gets fewer whiffs. In general, a fastball with more vertical movement might be expected to get MORE swinging strikes, but Zimmermann’s ceteris is not very paribus: the significantly lower velocity swamps any effect of more vertical movement (and the movement/arm slot differences are pretty minor).

Zimmermann relies on his fastball quite a bit, and also throws a slider and curve. He’s been toying with a change-up for years, and seems to be throwing more of it this year, but I don’t know if that’s just a fluke or if he has more confidence in it now. He has fairly normal platoon splits – probably a bit on the small side, actually, which is somewhat surprising for a fastball/slider guy. The M’s have their first-choice line-up in there, so hopefully they can get to him early or at the very least run up his pitch count.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Motter, 3B
6: Vogelbach, 1B
7: Heredia, LF
8: Zunino, C
9: Dyson, CF

Welcome back, Jean Segura. The debate about how to get Taylor Motter ABs will pick up after Kyle Seager returns from his hip issue, but until then, hey, more Motter. Minor leaguer Jonathan Aro, whom the M’s acquired in the Miley-Carson Smith deal, was suspended 50 games for a positive drug test.

Lots going on in the minors, with more players joining affiliates who started the season in extended ST or on the DL. One such player was the unfortunate starter in Tacoma’s bullpen day in Albuquerque yesterday, Rafael Pineda. Pineda was a 30th round pick back in 2013, and first played in Pulaski, a level of pro ball the M’s did away with not long after. Pineda’s been hurt for a while, but made his first appearance since getting a handful of innings in Bakersfield last year. It didn’t go well. He gave up 5 runs in 2/3 of an inning, and that was essentially that for Tacoma in an 12-8 loss. Mike Freeman had 2 hits in his return to AAA, Tyler O’Neill hit his 3rd HR and also had 2 2Bs, and Boog Powell had 4 hits including 2 2Bs of his own. The R’s and Isotopes were scheduled to play today, but it was rained out.

A day after Andrew Moore’s first not completely successful start (the Travs lost to Cards prospect Jack Flaherty and Springfield 8-1), Max Povse had a nearly identical start in a nearly identical game (this time, the Travs lost to Tulsa 8-1). Not creepy at all! Povse gave up 4 runs to Moore’s 3, so his ERA is now 1.82, while Moore’s is *totally different* at 1.46. Chuck Taylor doubled and tripled in a losing effort. One reliever who pitched in the game for Tulsa was a familiar face – Edward Paredes, now in the Dodger org, who pitched for Tacoma and Everett 10 years ago. He was a decent prospect in the M’s system what seems like a lifetime ago. He’s been in the minors so long, he appears in our ancient “Future Forty” prospect lists (Carlos Triunfel – projected star)! Arksansas looks for revenge tonight with Dylan Unsworth on the hill.

Inland Empire scored 7 runs in the middle innings to pull away from Modesto, 9-4. Rehabbing Angel Luis Valbuena had a 2-R 2B, and Matt Thaiss added 2 2Bs for the 66ers, while Braden Bishop extended his hitting streak to 15 and Ricky Eusebio homered for the Nuts. The two clubs play again tonight; no word on the pitching match-ups.

Clinton completed the org sweep by losing 10-7 to the Beloit Snappers. A furious comeback fell a bit short, as Clinton scored 5 in the 9th, but they needed at least 8. Joe Rizzo, the M’s overslot 2nd rounder last year out of a Virginia HS went 4-5, and is now 5-8 in 2 games. This is an aggressive assignment for the teenager, but it’s a great sign that the org believes he can handle it. Nick Zammarelli, one of Everett’s best hitters last year, played his 2nd game and 1st at 1B – he’s off to a good start as well, going 3-9 with a HR in his first action of 2017. Tim Viehoff takes the mound for the Lumberkings tonight.

Off-day Stuff: Leonys, Pitcher Value, Segura’s Return

April 24, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 9 Comments 

No M’s game today, as the club travels to Detroit and a series with the Tigers, but there’s still things to talk about.

1: The biggest news of the day yesterday wasn’t the recall of Dan Vogelbach, another El Motterdor homer, or even Nelson Cruz getting his first HR of the year. Instead, it was the unexpected jettisoning of their starting CF, Leonys Martin.

Martin’s season started with a new swing, a move that only in hindsight makes it reminiscent of Dustin Ackley’s 2013 and not like Mitch Haniger’s 2016. Baseball is about adaptation, but it’s difficult to select for adaptability itself as a skill. We all know that, say, Daniel Murphy’s swing changes turned him into a completely different player, or that Haniger/Motter or doing similar things for the M’s. On the other end of the scale, we’ve got Ackley or Brendan Ryan trying something – anything – to unlock the mystery of hitting at the highest level. Some of these changes work, and some don’t, and I don’t think anyone really knows why. Being coachable doesn’t seem to be enough; Eric Wedge once blamed Ackley’s struggles on too MUCH willingness to change, and Scott Servais clearly thinks Leonys was willing and able to implement changes – but nothing worked.

And it really has been a while since Martin was a competent hitter. Since July 1 of last year, Martin’s batted 390 times. His slash line in that time frame is .220/.252/.294. It’s also been falling throughout that time period. When the Mariners acquired Jarrod Dyson, they had to see this move as a possibility; moving Dyson to CF makes better use of Dyson’s range, and both are left-handed bats. While the move to grab multiple “athletic” outfielders could be framed as a way to help the pitching staff (“three CFs out there!”), it also sets up an implicit competition, in which the M’s could move on from whoever didn’t work out.

You can see the move as a results-trump-culture statement by the front office, and that no amount of personality can make up for 4-6 months of abysmal hitting. That frame gets the coaches off the hook, though. Not only are the coaches the ones supporting and embracing the team’s loose, positive culture, they’re supposed to be the ones using it to drive development and improvement. And Martin may be their highest profile failure. When Martin looked reborn in April-May of 2016, the coaches got a fair amount of credit. It seemed to make sense – new batting coach, plus a reunion with Servais, who’d worked with him in the minors – but I think there’s probably a little too much credit given to coaches when players take off, and too little blame applied when players falter and fail.

Ultimately, I don’t really care about apportioning blame in this situation. I just want the organization to succeed with, say, Dan Vogelbach, or Yovani Gallardo. Martin’s poor start would’ve cost him his job at some point, and if the M’s really thought they couldn’t do any more for him, then DFA’ing now may be everyone’s best interest (particularly as clubs are looking for defensive help in the OF). I hope the M’s understand what went wrong with Martin, and how they can help avoid it in the future.

Many M’s fans lament the 8-man bullpen and argue that the preference for carrying so many arms made Martin’s DFA possible. My bias is that no team needs an 8 man pen, particularly if you have long-relievers you can switch in from AAA, just the way the M’s are doing. I don’t know if this is a lack of faith in a bullpen that’s gotten off to a rocky start, or if it makes them feel more confident given their slightly banged-up rotation, but I think it’s hard to justify logically. That said, the point of a bench is to give the manager something different from his starting line-up, and I have no idea how Leonys Martin, bench bat, was supposed to work. He could be a late-inning defensive replacement! But in LF, where he hasn’t played? Or would he bump Dyson to a corner? What if Dyson’s the superior defender at this point (as I kind of think he is)? Do you bump Mitch Haniger? He’d be a good pinch runner, I suppose, but even cutting the bullpen down by 1 or 2 players doesn’t create space on the bench for THAT specialized a skill.

2: In late November, Sam Miller penned a great article about WAR using Arizona lefty Robbie Ray as an example of how different WAR frameworks saw pitcher skill. By Baseball-Reference RA/9-based WAR, Robbie Ray was a bit below average, harmed by a sky-high BABIP-allowed (which RA/9 WAR included). By Fangraphs’ FIP-based WAR, he was slightly better than average thanks to a really good K rate (which is included in FIP, unlike BABIP). By Baseball Prospectus’ DRA-based WARP, Ray was a minor star with a sub-3 ERA-equivalent. All told, the gap between the three was pretty large, at 2 runs per 9 innings, and a handful of wins above replacement (I can’t see his DRA-based WAR now; DRA was updated this spring, and his DRA changed from 2.90 to 4.33).

Today, I stumbled upon an even bigger discrepancy. A pitcher for the Cardinals in the 1960s named Ray Sadecki had a solid career, logging 2,500 IP and going 135-131 with an ERA and FIP in the high 3’s. He started at 19, though, and things were a little hit and miss early on in his career, but by and large, he settled in fairly quickly, and while he pitched in a low run-scoring era, he doesn’t seem out of the ordinary at all. In 1963, he gave up a number of unearned runs, and the combination of environment, park, and defense meant that by BBREF’s WAR, he was just slightly below replacement level. By Fangraphs’ measure, he was getting the hang of things, and his FIP was far better than his RA/9, so he accounted for a below-average-but-not-bad-at-all 1.2 WAR. By WARP, though, Sadecki was abominable. At a staggering *NINE WINS* below replacement, Sadecki’s normal looking season is by far the worst on record at Baseball Prospectus. I have no idea why; I’d love to see it apportioned out by defense, park, or what have you, but even since seeing it, I’ve been trying to envision what *NINE WINS BELOW REPLACEMENT* would even look like. Murdering a teammate on the field? Collapsed in a heap on the mound, sobbing uncontrollably, while the umpire calls automatic balls for hours on end? The closest I can get is to assume me, right now, starting 32 games in the majors. That might do it.

Not far below Sadecki on the list of worst seasons ever on this questionable but fun leaderboard sits Dave Fleming‘s 1994. Fleming was an unheralded lefty who threw in the mid-80s and who’d somehow been the M’s most valuable pitcher in 1992, when Erik Hanson had a down year and Randy Johnson was still trying to figure out how to be RANDY JOHNSON, something he’d figure out the next year. But in 1992, Fleming’s rise kind of made up for the disappointment of Hanson, who’d bounce back the next year. For a while there, despite the presence of the most electifying position player to ever wear the uniform, you could squint and make out a contending M’s team that focused on run prevention. Johnson/Hanson/Fleming would combine for nearly 14 BBREF WAR in 1993 (fWAR has it about the same). The next year, the ill-fated 1994, told a different story. By then, Jay Buhner had broked out, Edgar was Edgar, and Junior had become the greatest player in the game. They had A-Rod laying waste to the minor leagues. And what of the rotation? Hanson was traded for WITH Bret Boone and for Dan Wilson and Bobby Ayala, but Randy had made the leap and was worth 7 WAR in 1994. But beyond that…devastation. Fleming’s ERA ballooned to 6.46, and he was never the same again. Chris Bosio, who’d been very good for the M’s in 1993 suffered a down year as well. Top prospect Roger Salkeld made 13 regrettable starts that were somehow worse than Greg Hibbard’s 14. The M’s, despite a having 4 starters with SLG% over .500, saw their winning percentage tumble nearly 70 points from the false-dawn of 1993. 1995 made up for things, but 1994 was tough for baseball fans everywhere, but *especially* in Seattle.

BPro’s WARP stat declares that Fleming’s 1994 season was 5.1 wins BELOW replacement level, a figure that doesn’t seem logical, but is emotionally on the money. Even as the promised prospects began to deliver, and began to blow away the already sky-high expectations we had, the key supporting cast members were falling like flies. That’s the way it’d be in Seattle for the next few years, as the offense became a historical juggernaut, and occasionally found ways to bail out a pitching staff that was Randy Johnson, maybe one other good player, some random guy who’d get hot for a year, and then an absolute nightmare. In 1994, Bobby Ayala looked like a star. In 1995, it was Norm Charlton. In 1996…no, just checked, everyone was bad that year (RJ was hurt). In 1997, Jamie Moyer joined RJ and propelled the M’s to the playoffs. It’s in that context that Fleming’s 1994 *felt* disastrous, when a look at the stats wouldn’t make it jump out at you (there were a LOT of higher-than-6 ERAs back then). He was emblematic of the M’s inability to hold on to the key secondary pieces that could’ve made the difference for them. It’s in that spirit that I embrace the figure of 5 wins below replacement, even if I cannot really accept it.

3: Mike Freeman’s been optioned to AAA Tacoma, where he’s in tonight’s line-up against Albuquerque. That means that Jean Segura’s back from his rehab assignment in Arkansas, and the M’s will now need to get creative in order to keep the un-benchable bat of Taylor Motter in the line-up. As a righty, he could spell Dan Vogelbach at 1B against lefties, but they could also use him in LF. None of these options are ideal. The M’s don’t want to freeze out Danny Valencia entirely, I don’t think, and they also may want to see how Vogelbach responds to same-handed pitching. Guillermo Heredia’s in LF, and he’s a right-handed bat who’s come on in recent games; can’t imagine they’d love to bench him at the moment. Kyle Seager’s ailing hip will buy them some time, but they’ll either have to sit a starter once a night or under-utilize Motter as a bench bat.

I’m sure the M’s want to see what they have in Heredia, but in the short term, LF seems like the path of least resistance for Motter. Cutting loose Danny Valencia would also ease the roster crunch, but I can’t see Dipoto waiving his self-identified key free agent target from the off season so soon. Whatever they decide to do, Motter needs to stay in the line-up. Statcast has just completely re-done their data pages, filling in missing data that Trackman missed for one reason or the other. Most of these “misses” are on very weak contact like pop-ups and grounders, so some average exit velocities have come down as a result of the changes. Motter, of course, hasn’t changed. He’s still in the top 10 in MLB this year, and has yet to make any sort of “weak contact” according to Trackman. He’s elevating the ball and hitting it very, very hard. Look:
Taylor Motter, 2017
Taylor Motter

You can see a somewhat similar approach in his 2016 data, but with far, far less pop:
Taylor Motter, 2016
Taylor Motter(1)

Last year, only 8% of his balls in play were “solid contact” or better. This year, he’s already got 12 such balls in play, or 32% of his balls in play. This is why Motter has 11 extra base hits on the year and only 2 singles.

Game 20: Mariners at Athletics – Sweep-Avoidance Sunday

April 23, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 19 Comments 

Yovani Gallardo vs. Andrew Triggs, 1:05pm

Last year, the M’s hosted the A’s in their first homestand after opening the season in Texas. The A’s swept the M’s, kicking off an abysmal start at home that left fans wondering why the M’s were so much better on the road. This year, it’s just the reverse, with the M’s struggling mightily on the road, and the A’s again looking better than we thought.

Just like last year, there’s no real meaning to the M’s lopsided home/road splits, and just like last year, a solid start doesn’t necessarily mean that the A’s are going to be darkhorse contenders. Both teams’ records at this point have a lot of noise and a bit of signal buried in it. The M’s don’t have some weird psychological break about playing on the road, just like they didn’t have psychological issues that prevented them from winning in Seattle in April of 2016. That doesn’t mean that everything’s fine, and the M’s slow start is irrelevant, and it ALSO doesn’t mean that the A’s really are terrible – it means that we need to look for factors outside of the team’s record in their first 19 games.

I mentioned it before the series started, but the A’s have a chance at building a remarkably solid rotation on the cheap. Getting Sonny Gray back and healthy is going to be important to reaching that goal, but the A’s group of unheralded young starters may be better going forward than former first-rounder Gray. The perfect example of this is today’s starter, Andrew Triggs. As Jeff Sullivan detailed last year at Fangraphs, Triggs was a career reliever, with prototypical reliever-only mechanics. His release point looks a bit like Steve Cishek’s or Carson Smith’s, but it’s pushed even more towards the third base line. The best match in terms of release point may be yet another ex-Mariner, Carter Capps’, but without the weird crow-hop delivery and definitely without the 99 MPH velocity. So he seemed destined to fill a Sean Green role of a righty-specialist, or maybe a ground ball guy, but he showed very good K:BB ratios in the minors.

You’d think that a team would see that and fast-track him to the majors, but Triggs has faced skepticism at every turn. Despite putting up some good numbers, the Royals sold him to Baltimore, not even getting a PTBNL in return. He made the Orioles 40-man roster, but didn’t make it out of AA – a AA season in which he laid waste to the eastern league, with an ERA of just about 1 and 10 K’s per 9. Again, though, he was released when the Orioles needed a spot on their 40-man, and the A’s picked him up. The A’s gave him a shot in their bullpen, and while he didn’t exactly set the world on fire, he’s been unbelievable since a short-handed A’s team decided to move him to the rotation.

Given his release point and his Carson Smith-style slider, you’d expect he’d run huge platoon splits like Justin Masterson. So far, that hasn’t happened, and even in the minors, his splits looked pretty even. There are two main reasons why. First, he’s developed a good change-up that breaks away from lefties. Second, that insane release point’s created by stepping across his body with his right leg. This produces some deception to hitters, but lefties in particular seem to struggle picking up the ball as it’s hidden behind Triggs’ (hefty) frame. He’s posted exactly even splits thus far in his career, and while you might expect that lefties have an advantage that’ll grow as he pitches longer, he doesn’t seem to be the kind of guy you want to pack as many lefties as possible into the line-up.

This year, he hasn’t been striking people out, but it hasn’t mattered. He’s kept his sinking fastball away from both lefties and righties, and racked up ground balls. No, he probably won’t continue to post a sub-.200 BABIP to say nothing of a 0.00 ERA, but he’ll continue pitching like an underpowered Zach Britton until batters learn to elevate the ball against him. The M’s have really struggled against guys like this; Triggs throws 71% of his pitches to the bottom of the zone or below, which is pretty near 2017-Dallas Keuchel, and we saw how that worked out for the M’s. They’ve struggled against GB pitchers, which I don’t think Dipoto and company foresaw. With plenty of fly ball hitters, this was supposed to be a team strength. Why it hasn’t worked out that way is a mystery, at least to me, but I’m hoping Edgar Martinez is working with them on it.

1: Dyson, CF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Vogelbach, 1B
6: Motter, SS
7: Heredia, LF
8: Freeman, 3B
9: Zunino, C
SP: Gallardo

Yep, that’s Dan Vogelbach in the line-up at 1B, replacing Danny Valencia. The corresponding move was somewhat unexpected/dramatic: the M’s have DFA‘d erstwhile starting CF Leonys Martin. The M’s also swapped out de facto long-relievers, calling up Chris Heston and sending Chase de Jong back to Tacoma. There’s something admirable about decisive moves like this, and not letting a black hole in the line-up tank the overall offense. Leonys Martin has looked lost for a while now, and the M’s now have plenty of CF depth. The move at 1B also reflects the M’s 1B depth, but it essentially reverses the equally bold, decisive, win-in-2017 move that they made about one month ago – the move that sent Vogelbach to AAA and gave Valencia the 1B job on his own, instead of in the expected platoon. Either Tacoma’s coaches very, very quickly sorted something out with Vogelbach, or the M’s are essentially admitting that their last move backfired.

Tacoma won again, taking the first game in Albuquerque 5-3. The R’s scored 4 in the first and coasted to the win behind another good start from Christian Bergman. Sam Gaviglio starts today opposite Zach Jemiola.

Arkansas’ had a strange game, but it ended well. They took a 4-0 lead, then allowed Springfield to tie it up, and then scored 2 late runs for a 6-4 win. Thyago Vieira got the win in relief with one of his best performances of the year. Jean Segura singled in 3 at bats. It’s a prospect showdown today, as Andrew Moore and Arkansas face off with Cards prospect Jack Flaherty.

Modesto scored 4 runs in three separate innings in their 12-4 domination of Visalia. Nick Neidert was, by his standards, only so so, but the Nuts’ bullpen was solid, with Kody Kerski striking out 5 in 2 shutout innings, and Joe Pistorese K’ing 3 in 2 perfect IP of his own. Today, it’ll be a battle of starters who would love to just hit reset on the year. Pablo Lopez takes the ball for Modesto, with Justin Donatella pitching for Visalia. Both starters’ ERA are over 10.

Clinton beat Quad Citied 6-1 behind another solid start from Ljay Newsome. He struck out 4 in 6 IP, and walked his FIRST batter of the year. His K:BB ratio is now definable, and is 22:1 in 21 IP. His ERA is still kind of ugly thanks to his first start of the year, but yesterday was his third straight solid outing. Danny Garcia and Jorge Alcala face off today in Quad Cities.

Game 19, Mariners at Athletics

April 22, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 20 Comments 

Ariel Miranda vs. Jharel Cotton, 1:05pm

The M’s are now 1-8 on the road, and in serious danger of a sweep in their current series in Oakland. After James Paxton’s unexpectedly poor start, the M’s got a remarkably encouraging game from Hisashi Iwakuma, but it still wasn’t enough. Now, they’ll face intriguing young change-up maven Jharel Cotton, and have to hope that their struggling bats can get their timing back against a pitcher adept at messing with it.

Last season, Cotton made 5 very encouraging starts for the go-nowhere A’s. He flew through the Dodger system, and continued after a trade brought him north to Oakland. His K rate wasn’t otherworldly, but he limited walks and thanks to a slow, screwball like change-up, got a lot of weak contact on pitches out of the strikezone. He seemed poise to build on that debut in 2017, but instead, the A’s seem to be pushing him to throw less of his fantastic change and more sinkers/cutters. A’s gonna A.

Throwing from a fairly high arm slot, Cotton’s four-seam had solid rise, and averaged about 93 MPH. It seemed to be a good pairing for his splitter-style change that came in at 77 or so. But as they’ve done with so many pitchers, the A’s seem to have called for a big change in pitch mix. He’s throwing more of what BrooksBaseball calls a sinker this year, and while it has surprisingly similar movement to his four-seam, it gets less rise (as you’d expect), meaning it’s more similar to the change. And as for the change, it’s now a clear 3rd or 4th pitch, and in its place is the typically-Oakland cutter. Cotton’s is 89 MPH, and has different vertical break from his four-seam, but can almost function like a hard change. It looked like a good pitch last year, and I’m not suggesting it’s bad, but it just seems like an odd choice to use in the place of Cotton’s best pitch.

Maybe it’s all the changes to his mix, or maybe it’s just small sample nothingness, but Cotton’s getting fewer swings out of the zone (compare this view of 2016 to this one from 2017), so he’s got essentially no chance to repeat his BABIP success of 2016. That’s meant he’s walked a lot more batters than he did last year; if the M’s can be patient, they may draw some walks.

So, Hisashi Iwakuma. When I heard Chase de Jong was coming up, my first thought was that Iwakuma was heading to the DL. Instead, he uncorked a couple of 90 MPH fastballs last night, something I would’ve bet plenty of money he was no longer capable of doing. In terms of velocity and stuff, he looked more like the Iwakuma of old…or at least, the Iwakuma of 2015-16. His command still isn’t right, and he really struggled to throw his fastballs for strikes. He’s throwing way more sliders, and it looks like he might have more control of that pitch than his fastballs, but whatever the issue, he can’t continue to give up so many free passes. He’s walked 10 and hit a batter this year, and struck out just 9. His FIP is nearly 7 and a half, so it’s to Iwakuma’s credit that he’s been as effective as he has, and hopefully he can build off of this game and move forward.

1: Dyson, CF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Motter, SS
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Heredia, LF
8: Freeman, 3B
9: Zunino, C
SP: Miranda

Mike Freeman gives Kyle Seager a day off today, and Jarros Dyson stays in CF, extending Leonys Martin’s break.

Tacoma got another comeback win in El Paso, thanks to another grand slam. Dan Vogelbach hit one on Thursday, and yesterday it was Zach Shank’s turn. That punctuated a 5-run 4th, and turned a 4-2 deficit into a 7-4 lead they’d never give up – the final score was 11-8, as both bullpens had some issues in the 8th/9th. Shank only batted because Gordon Beckham was hit on the arm by a pitch, but he homered and walked twice. DJ Peterson also homered and Boog Powell walked three times. Steve Cishek got the start and worked 2/3 of an IP before hitting his pitch count. He walked 2 and give up a hit before yielding to Brett Ash who was called up from AA. Today, Christian Bergman gets the start today.

Arkansas beat Springfield 5-3, as 4 Travelers notched 2 hits each. Jean Segura wasn’t among them, as he went 0-3 with a walk out of the lead-off spot (and DH’ing). The Travs got to Dakota Hudson, scoring all 5 runs off the first-round pick in the first 5 innings. Ryan Horstman got the win in relief, pitching the 5th and 6th IP, giving up 1 run, but striking out 5. Today, it’ll be Lindsey Caughel against Matt Pearce of the Cardinals.

Modesto and Visalia were locked in a pitcher’s duel last night, until the Nuts tired of that and scored 7 runs in the 6th. Nathan Bannister was the pitcher who benefited from this bounty, getting his first pro win. He went 5 IP with 7 Ks and no walks. Joey Curletta had 3 XBH, and Gianfranco Wawoe and Eric Filia both added three hits of their own. Nick Neidert starts today against Trevor Simms, who used to kick off for the Tulane football team.

Clinton lost 3-1 to Quad Cities, as Nick Wells gave up 2 HRs in 5 solid innings. The offense obviously never got much going, striking out 10 times and drawing just a single walk. Ljay Newsome starts today against someone with the striking name of Enoli Paredes.

Game 18, Mariners at Athletics

April 21, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 25 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Sean Manaea, 7:05pm

Hmmm. This series takes on a different look now that the M’s dropped game 1 – the one pitching match-up that looked completely lopsided in the M’s favor. Now it gets a bit trickier, as the M’s face a decent young pitcher and have to hope that Iwakuma brings the best command of his life to the hill to work around his vanishing fastball.

Sean Manaea’s had a fascinating start to 2017. He currently leads the major leagues in contact rate, with batters making any kind of contact on just less than 66% of his pitches. He still throws a swerving four-seam fastball that acts like a sinker, and has a good slider that’s essentially all gyro spin: it generates ~ zero movement. Both his horizontal and vertical movement are within a fraction of an inch of a ball thrown without any spin at all. The lefty is very tough on LHBs, given the above, so he sees line-ups that are tilted towards righties, and that’s why the development of his change-up has been so important. He didn’t really need it as a small college pitcher (Indiana State), but it’s been the focus of his development both in the Royals system and then with the A’s (he was traded for Ben Zobrist a while ago). His change kind of reminds me of Cesar Valdez’s last night, with its splitter-style movement, but it’s thrown harder. It’s produced remarkably good results for him, though he sometimes struggles to command his non-fastballs.

That’s been a concern since his MiLB days. Manaea’s walk rate this year is over 12%, and while it was good last year, it’s been inconsistent throughout his career. Inconsistency in general has been a problem, really. After dazzling in the Cape Cod league heading into his junior season, he seemed destined to be the #1 overall pick, but lower velocity, lost slider command and some nagging injuries pushed him down to #34. He struggled mightily out of the gate in 2016, and has reprised that in 2017, giving up 12 runs despite giving up only 8 hits in 71 batters faced. Odder still has been his variable ground ball rate; he’s been a ground ball guy at times in the minors, and average-to-fly-ball leaning at others. After a 44% GB rate last year, he’s kicked off 2017 by increasing that nearly 20 percentage points. Yes, it’s definitely early, but I wonder if this is the product of an organizational emphasis on the low pitch – something we talked about in yesterday’s post.

Speaking of odd results and the potential influence of org philosophies, we need to talk about Dan Altavilla. The righty was again something of a mess yesterday, giving up 3 runs on 2 walks and a 3-run HR. After starting off the year remarkably well, and getting plaudits for his new, high-octane slider, he’s fallen back significantly. To me, one key problem is that he looks like a different pitcher with men on base. Thus far in his brief MLB career, he’s got a 13:2 K:BB ratio with no one on – that works out to a K rate of 28%, and a K-BB% of over 20% (yes, yes, I know the samples are too small). With men on, that plummets to a 7:5 ratio, or a 17% K rate and a K-BB% in the neighborhood of 5%. This was something of an issue last year in AA, too, where he had a 40:13 K:BB ratio in just 29 IP with the bases empty, but just 25:9 with men on, and like in the majors, his K rate dropped while his walk rate crept up. In general, EVERYone has fewer Ks and more BBs as they start to nibble a bit with runners on, but Altavilla seems like an exceptional case, like he can’t quite find his release point when he’s distracted by runners.

I mentioned this on twitter, and LookoutLanding’s Kate Preusser mentioned that the problem she sees is that his slider command’s completely out of whack. While batters aren’t *hitting* his slider, his lack of command means they can effectively ignore it, and wait for fastballs once they’re safely ahead in the count. That sounded interesting, and looking into it, there’s definitely some evidence of it. The percentage of sliders he threw for a ball last year was under 30%, but it’s spiked to over 45% in the early going in 2017. To righties, he likes to keep it low, and that reminds me a bit of what the M’s told Felix this off-season: batters recognize a pitch and just wait for it to fall below the strike zone. The walk to Ryon Healy right before the Plouffe home run was a great example – it wasn’t a bad pitch at all, and wasn’t *that* far out of the zone. If Altavilla’s pitching well, he might get a chase on that pitch, but Healy was unmoved, and didn’t look like he contemplated a swing, even with 2 strikes.

It’s possible that both of these explanations work together, and that his command *really* worsens with men on. Whatever the cause, the M’s need to get him straightened out soon. After a good spring and a dominant performance in his first game, Altavilla looked set to take on higher leverage innings. His competition kept dropping off, as Casey Fien was soon outrighted, Evan Scribner’s looked a bit off, and Nick Vincent’s velo was a bit off in the early going. With Vincent emerging, the M’s may not need as many high-leverage IP from Altavilla, though last night’s meltdown wasn’t super high. Altavilla simply needs to get comfortable again, and work on his location. It’s way too early, but I do wonder if he’s trying to adapt to the new fly-ball doctrine the M’s have talked about, and if that’s gotten him out of his comfort zone. His pitch location maps don’t look that different, though there are a few pitches up and out of the zone. That could simply be a manifestation of his command problems (they’re fastballs, though, not sliders), or it could be he’s struggling to implement a game plan that’s somewhat new to him. *Update* He’ll get to work on re-locating his command in Tacoma, as he was just optioned to AAA.

1: Heredia, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Motter, SS
7: Valencia, 1B
8: Ruiz, C
9: Dyson, CF
SP: Iwakuma

Ryan Divish reports that Chase de Jong’s on his way to join the team in Oakland. It was his scheduled start day in Tacoma, so he’d be ready to pitch whenever the M’s need him. We’ll see what the roster move is; kind of wondering if they’re going to sit Iwakuma for a while. *Update* Ok, now we know: Altavilla’s the one going down.

*Update 2* Chooch Ruiz has been added to the lineup in place of Mike Zunino. Doesn’t sound like anything’s wrong w/Mike, just a late call to give Ruiz the start.

Tacoma had a great comeback last night, and beat El Paso 6-5 in extras. The R’s fell behind 5-0 as Dillon Overton struggled, and the R’s could not figure out Pads prospect Dinelson Lamet (who K’d 13 in just 5 1/3), but the M’s got a run in the 6th, and then tied it up in the 7th on a grand slam by 1B Dan Vogelbach. It went to the 10th, where a Tuffy Gosewisch double brought in Boog Powell. Today, it was supposed to be Chase de Jong on the mound for Tacoma against Bryan Rodriguez, but that’s obviously not going to happen. We’ll see if someone’s up from Arkansas to make this one, or if they’ll go with a bullpen day – tougher to do that after an extra-inning game, of course. They could also push Christian Bergman’s day up, but that seems riskier. Steve Cishek will pitch an inning tonight for them, that much is certain.

Dylan Unsworth’s return to AA wasn’t all that bad, but Austin Gomber held the Travelers in check, and Springfield emerged with a 6-3 win. Unsworth gave up 3 R in 5 IP, while Thyago Vieira gave up another 2 on 2 walks and a hit. Ian Miller had 2 hits and 2 stolen bases. Today, Arkansas takes on Dakota Hudson, the Cardinals first-round pick last year out of Mississippi State. The Travs counter with Tyler Herb, who *just* missed pitching on 4/20.

Reggie McClain and Modesto edged out Stockton 3-2 last night. McClain gave up 2 runs in 5 2/3 IP, and the bullpen made it hold up, despite team totals of just 4 Ks and 4 BBs on the night. Braden Bishop led the offense with 3 hits (incl. 2 2Bs) from the lead-off spot. Today, Nathan Bannister leads the Nuts in to Visalia and a series against the Arizona affiliate.

Clinton fell behind early and couldn’t ever get back into it in an 8-2 loss to Quad Cities. Nick Wells takes the hill tonight opposite Brett Adcock, a 4th rounder out of Michigan last year. He’s made 2 MWL starts, and K’d *16* in 9 innings.

Game 17, Mariners at Athletics

April 20, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 23 Comments 

James Paxton vs. Cesar Valdez, 7:05pm

The M’s head into Oakland for a series against the surprisingly resilient Athletics. Before the season, the A’s looked like a team that simply wasn’t built to compete in the AL. With a questionable rotation and a line-up that’d struggle to make contact, it looked like a rebuilding year in the making. It still may be one, but a hot start from LF Khris Davis and a surprisingly deep starting 5 means that the A’s are tied with Seattle, and might hang around the fringes of contention longer than we thought.

As in the Texas series, the M’s miss the A’s #1 starter, the suddenly-fascinating Kendall Graveman. Unfortunately, it’s not just a scheduling thing – the righty’s on the DL with a strained shoulder. The A’s will also be missing starting SS Marcus Semien, who fractured a bone in his wrist and is scheduled to have surgery on it. In Graveman’s place, the A’s have brought up Cesar Valdez, a Dominican starter who hasn’t pitched in the majors since *2010*. If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t heard of him, but I’m guessing Jerry Dipoto knows the guy. Valdez was signed out of the DR at a suspiciously advanced age (20); maybe he was a converted position player, I don’t know. He moved to the affiliated minors in 2006, starting off in Yakima, under the newly-installed director of player personnel and scouting, working with AJ Hinch to oversee the Snakes’ minor leagues. Valdez rose through the ranks and had a cup of coffee with the D-Backs in May/June of 2010, right before Dipoto became the interim GM. Almost immediately after replacing Dipoto, Kevin Towers traded away Valdez and he’s spent years in the Mexican League, trying to remake himself from a junkballer with so-so command to a junkballer with very good command. After a great year in Mexico in 2015, the Astros brought him back to affiliated ball and he pitched well in the PCL in 2016. They had no room, though, so he signed with Oakland as a free agent and with a brief stop-off for the DR in the World Baseball Classic, he’s been lights out in a couple of AAA starts for Nashville.

He was a sinker/slider guy way back in 2010, but seemed to feature a lot of a split-style change-up in spring training this year, and I’d imagine the M’s will see a lot of them tonight. He gets surprisingly good sink on his fastball, and always had a reputation as a ground ball guy coming through the Arizona farm system.

Given that thumbnail sketch, you can kind of see why the A’s were interested. The Astros have gone all-in on the low pitch this year, with fully 61% of their pitches thus far classed as in the bottom third of the zone or below (the usual 5-zone definition at BaseballSavant that I/others use a ton). But the A’s are remarkably close, at 59.4%, ranking 3rd in MLB in such pitches. They believe in sinkers, as they have a starter in Graveman who’s essentially abandoned all other pitches and JUST throws sinkers at the knees now. Their other starters keep the ball down in other ways: Jharel Cotton’s tumbling change-up falls through the bottom of the zone, and as a change-up, it generates plenty of out-of-zone swings. Andrew Triggs relies on a heavy sinker from a low arm-slot and has all but abandoned the top of the zone. You get the idea. If Valdez can do that through a combination of 88 MPH sinkers and 80 MPH split/changes, then he’ll fit right in.

One result of the A’s approach is intuitive, but worth pointing out: they throw a LOT of balls out of the strike zone. The A’s lead baseball in the percentage of pitches tracked by Statcast that come in out of the strike zone, with the Angels close behind. And look at the M’s! They’re dead last, and are last *by a mile*.

The M’s apparently take their zone-controlling seriously, and, perhaps problematically, quite literally. You see the same thing in the Zone% numbers at Fangraphs, with the M’s #1 and the A’s at #30. As you’d expect, the A’s staff has walked significantly more than the M’s, despite a nearly identical K rate. But it’s actually the A’s who’ve posted the superior FIP numbers on the year, thanks to the fact that the M’s have nearly doubled the A’s in HRs allowed. The A’s stay down in the zone (and below) for a reason, and they seem quite willing to trade walks for HRs. The M’s seem more willing to pitch up (though they could stand to do it more), and MUCH more likely to challenge batters, even if it means giving up some loud contact. Felix is obviously the best example, as he finally walked his first batter of the season yesterday. He’s given up 5 HRs already, tied for 2nd-most in the league. Look at the spike in his Zone%! It’s admirable to challenge hitters, and not be scared off of your own gameplan, but we may not have seen the last 440’+ HR of the season hit off our valiant King.

James Paxton’s pitched like a demigod thus far. These “trade offs” described above don’t really apply to someone pitching like Paxton, so he hasn’t made any. His control issues cleared up last year, so there’s no big shift in his Zone%, and he’s obviously not allowed a HR all year. His contact rate is in the top 10 in baseball, and it’s driven by phenomenally good marks on IN-ZONE contact. There are two things pitchers can do that are difficult, but critical: either make batters swing at balls, or make them miss on strikes. Of the two, the latter’s probably the toughest, but it’s working for Paxton thus far. Mind you, while his overall contact rate is near the likes of Chris Sale and Danny Salazar, his zone contact rate’s sandwiched between the unlikely pairing of Jason Vargas (#1!) and Ian Kennedy. Baseball is weird, and early-season leaderboards are often surreal.

By pretty much any metric you want to look at, Paxton’s been unreal. ERA? Obviously. FIP? K-BB%? Contact%? Exit velocity? Check, check, check. He hasn’t met the high expectations M’s fans had following last year – he’s blown them out of the water. The only pitchers who’ve been near his level in the early going are Chris Sale in Boston and Noah Syndergaard in New York. I’m still giddy from seeing his last start, so I’ll stop before getting too hyperbolic, but enjoy this run.

1: Dyson, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Motter, SS
7: Valencia, 1B
8: Martin, CF
9: Zunino, C

The Rainiers bullpen suffered an ill-timed meltdown in yesterday’s 9-4 loss in El Paso. Chris Heston was decent through 5 IP, leaving with a tie game at 3-3. Nick Hagadone, who’d K’d 10 of the 11 batters he’d faced on the year came in and gave up a run, and then Mark Lowe gave up a 5 spot, and that was essentially that. 2 hits from DJ Peterson and Dan Vogelbach knocked his first HR of the year for Tacoma. Today, Dillon Overton makes his first start for Tacoma. With Overton back in Tacoma (he was sent down when the M’s activated Tony Zych), the Rs now have 6 starting pitchers on the club – Weber, Gaviglio, Heston, de Jong, Bergman and Overton. We’ll see how they divvy up the games, but one thing was certain: someone needed to go help out in AA instead.

That person was Dylan Unsworth, who’ll start today’s game for the Arkansas Travelers against Springfield and big Cardinals prospect Austin Gomber.

Modesto lost to Stockton and A’s prospect AJ Puk 5-2. The Nuts scored two unearned runs off of Puk through 4 IP, but had only a single hit against him. The lefty has 20 Ks in 12 IP on the year, and is probably about due for a promotion to AA. Today, Reggie McClain tries to get some revenge against Stockton and Casey Meisner, who tumbled down the prospect rankings after a rough 2016. Thus far in 2017, it’s been even rougher.

Clinton beat Wisconsin 6-3 behind a solid start from Brandon Miller and 2 XBH including a HR from 1B Kristian Brito. Today, the Lumberkings kick off a series with Astros’ affiliate Quad Cities, and Tim Viehoff will take the mound for Clinton against 2016 14th rounder Carson LaRue, who’s only pitched in a handful of innings between 2016-17, but has been extremely hard to hit thus far.

Motter with Intent

April 19, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

The other day, I wrote about Leonys Martin’s struggles, and how he’s hitting the ball hard into the ground, and softly in the air, a combination that produces…well, 2017 Leonys Martin. Anyway, Jake Mailhot at Lookout Landing wrote about Taylor Motter’s success at doing the opposite. It’s great, and you should read it. Today, he followed up with a post about Motter and his approach: Motter’s focused on pitches on the inner half, and he’s had great success in doing so. The theory is that Motter’s focused on inside pitches (particularly fastballs) and he’s aggressive with them when they show up. I wanted to piggy-back on that a bit by making a point that may be too obvious to even mention.

There are many numbers-focused baseball posts that make you see the game in a different way; that make you think about the game differently. Other research may add depth and nuance to a simple, commonly-understood phenomenon. This is a different kind of article. This is about stating the obvious, with numbers. I’m not sure that’s what you’re here to read about, and I’m not sure this is helpful to write, but…uh, here goes. Taylor Motter is having success in the majors this year because he is swinging the bat really, really hard. I know: it’s not earth shattering. But the more I look into it, the more I think what’s changed about Motter isn’t the kind of pitches he likes, improved selectivity, or anything like that. It’s about selling out contact for power, and reaping the rewards (and paying the price) for that trade.

Coming up, Motter was a player known for his speed and defensive utility, but it wasn’t until a breakout 2015 that he had much of a profile as a hitter. He wasn’t in the Rays top 20 prospects in 2015, but landed on the back end of the list in 2016 thanks to a power surge in AA/AAA. Still, the thing that drew your eye – heh – was his strike zone discipline. He drew walks and posted low strikeout totals, and coupled with some gap power, that was enough to get himself on the radar despite his advanced age (for a prospect). He was added to the 40-man before 2016 and came up to Tampa in May of that year. It…it didn’t go well. He didn’t make it to 100 plate appearances, and while he drew a fair number of walks, he simply didn’t hit enough to warrant keeping around. A .217 BABIP didn’t help, of course, but if you look at his Statcast numbers, it almost seemed earned.

He had a good swing plane, with a launch angle over 13 degrees. The problem was that there simply wasn’t anything behind it. There were 455 players in the league who hit at least 50 balls in play last year, and Motter’s exit velocity ranked 397th. If you are in a statistical tie in an offensive metric with Ketel Marte in 2016…you’re…you’re gonna want to NOT be near Ketel Marte. Using exit velocity, Statcast actually tracks a measure of batspeed – estimated swing speed. By THAT measure, Marte edges past Motter, who’s hanging out with the Billys (Burns and Hamilton).

What about inside pitches? Last year, Motter clearly liked to swing at them, as Mailhot shows in his post. The problem was that he couldn’t DO anything against them. Motter hit 13 inside fastballs, with a below-average exit velocity of 88 MPH. He put 20 inside pitches in play, of any pitch type. He went 3 for 20 on those contacts, going .167 with a slugging percentage of .250. He’s slugging .714 on such pitches this year, for the record. Motter’s the same guy against outside pitches this year, but he looks unrecognizable on inside pitches. Here’s a table of his exit velo and launch angles on inside/outside pitches in 2016 and 2017:

Inside, 2016 Inside, 2017 Outside, 2016 Outside, 2017
Exit Velocity 88.8 97.2 84.4 84.4
Launch Angle 11.4 21.9 14.8 13.7

Ok, let’s say you’re Taylor Motter, and you’ve just been promoted, and now you get to face incredible pitching for the first time (MORE incredible than the pretty-incredible you’re used to). It’s confusing – you don’t know the pitchers, the stadia are different, there are many, many cameras – and you want to focus on your own strengths. What would Motter have offered up as his biggest strength in 2016? I have no idea; I don’t know the man. But my guess is that he was trying to focus on contact and strike zone discipline. He set out to control the zone, and he did! That’s great! He was also a terrible hitter. Baseball is hard, and even when you succeed at something, it’s frequently not enough to make you useful (Blake Beavan: great control).

This year, Taylor Motter seems to have made a very different decision. Instead of trying to be a useful utility man by avoiding Ks and drawing the occasional walk, Motter is trying to hit dingers. Again, it’s kind of difficult to talk about this without spouting truisms or seeming to just state the obvious, but I think this is the result of a very conscious change, and not just “getting good pitches to hit” or whatever cliche you like. Motter isn’t just swinging at inside pitches – he’s always done that. He’s trying to obliterate them, and that seems very new. Motter’s estimated swing speed this year ranks *7th* out of 337 batters with at least 10 balls in play. He’s a touch behind Miguel Sano and Miguel Cabrera, but ahead of Nelson Cruz, Khris Davis and Giancarlo Stanton. The samples for Motter are miniscule in both years, but going from ~ the worst to ~ the best seems like the result of a fairly big change.

This change comes at a cost. Motter’s contact rate is down substantially in the early going, and it’s down on pitches within the strike zone. If you’re going to survive with so-so contact rates *within* the zone, you better hit the ball extremely hard. Motter does, so I guess it all works out. His K rate is up, as you’d expect, but to date, Motter’s been disciplined in his out-of-zone swing rate. That’s important, because as Mailhot mentions, pitchers are going to start to make adjustments, and his K rate may go up from here. That’s all speculative. ALL OF THIS is speculative. But I want to underscore just how remarkable it is; if this is at all right, it’s the product of a very gutsy decision. Motter knew his K rate could translate more or less, and I’m sure someone pointed out that the exact same approach plus a regressed BABIP would produce a decent line for a utility man. Motter took what was behind door #2 instead.

Why? Let’s heap more speculation on to the pile of speculation we’ve already made. Motter played for the Rays from mid May to the end of June in 2016. At that time, he had a teammate with a nearly identical launch angle, who was succeeding because he swung the shit out of the bat. This produced a K rate that many thought would doom him. His OBP was pretty terrible, frankly. But dingers. Man, the dingers. I’m talking about former Mariner Brad Miller, who hit 8 HRs and knocked 19 extra-base hits in May/June of 2016, on his way to a 30-HR season. Interestingly, Miller always swung hard – his breakout wasn’t the result of a wholesale change in approach. But I wonder what Motter thought as he looked at a guy with a very similar swing path – a guy who didn’t seem to mind striking out, but was going to punish the ball when he made contact.

Motter seems to have that approach now. It speaks to something that I mentioned as a side note in this post about Mike Zunino last year: intent. Motter’s a different hitter this year for a number of reasons, including all the ones Mailhot mentions and all of the ones Daniel Rathman mentioned at BP. He’s quicker to the ball thanks to lower hands at the beginning of his swing. But all of this seems to miss the forest for the trees. The massive difference in results (not just HRs, but exit velocity, swing speed, all of it) has to be the product of an intent to swing *hard*. I don’t think Motter had that last year, and I’m pretty sure he does this year. We’ll see what happens going forward, and we may see some ugly stretches of strikeouts, but that shift in mindset has been incredibly important thus far.

Game 16, Marlins at Mariners

April 19, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 12 Comments 

King Felix vs. Edinson Volquez, 12:40pm

Edinson Volquez is on the Marlins now? I know I read this article about it, and. Volquez’ admirably consistent velocity, but must’ve forgotten the specifics. I felt the same last night watching Brad Ziegler pitch. The Marlins? Really?

Sooo, the M’s came very, very close to being no-hit by Wei Yin Chen, somehow. While Yovani Gallardo wasn’t sharp, he kept the M’s close-ish and didn’t walk anyone. He gave up a lot of loud contact, and Justin Bour took him deep. Of course, the batted ball hit the furthest last night wasn’t the HR – it was a Taylor Motter fly out. The M’s hit a lot of balls well, but each found a glove until Mitch Haniger’s face-saving gapper.

Edinson Volquez still throws 93-94 somehow, and still has a good change that’s allowed him to run even-to-slightly-reversed splits over his career. He lacks great command, so patient teams can drive up his walk total/pitch count.

Felix is an anti-Volquez. Felix’s velocity has…not stayed the same, but he’s been a much more consistent performer over his (longer) MLB career. Whereas Volquez is still wild, Felix’s control got better in recent years before last year’s disappointment, and it’s been phenomenal this year, as Felix has yet to give up a walk in 2017.

1: Dyson, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Motter, SS
7: Freeman, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Martin, CF
SP: Feeeelix.

The Rainiers lost in El Paso 4-3 despite HRs from DJ Peterson and Gordon Beckham. Ex-Rainiers Carter Capps and Logan Bawcom pitched well in relief for the Chihuahuas, with Capps getting the win. Today, Chris Heston faces off with Padres pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins.

Arkansas got another me-too start from Max Povse, who went 6 strong IP giving up 1 run. Andrew Moore gave up no runs in his first 2 games, then just 1 in his 3rd game the other day. Povse, too, gave up no runs in his first 2 games, and now he’s given up 1 in his 3rd start. Great stuff! Kinda creepy! The Travelers won, and Kyle Waldrop homered and doubled. The Travelers have an off-day tomorrow.

Pablo Lopez continues to struggle in the Cal League, giving up 4 R in 4 IP. The Nuts pushed Stockton to extras, though, ultimately winning by a score of 8 to 7. Gianfranco Wawoe had the walk-off base hit. Tomorrow, Anthony Misiewicz starts opposite one of the A’s big prospects, LHP AJ Puk.

Clinton lost yesterday to Wisconsin, as detailed in yesterday’s post. Today, Brandon Miller of the Lumberkings takes on Wisconsin and Trey Supak, who’s yet to allow a run in 8 + IP, with 11 Ks and just 1 BB.

Game 15, Marlins at Mariners

April 18, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 17 Comments 

Yovani Gallardo vs. Wei-Yin Chen, 7:10pm

It was great to see the M’s honor Ichiro before yesterday’s game, and I’m glad they’re marking his return with a bobblehead giveaway that honors his time in Seattle as well as his current status as a Marlin. He’s simply one of the most interesting stars Seattle’s had the fortune to host, and baseball will be worse off when he’s gone. There will be another fireballing phenom in the mold of Noah Syndergaard, and there’ll be more Bryce Harpers, more do-it-all CFs like Trout and Griffey. I’m not confident we’ll see anything like Ichiro again, and that’s too bad. Maybe I’m wrong, and we’ll get someone who seems dropped in from another time and planet who changes how we look at the game, and how we look at the players. I hope we do.

Ariel Miranda was something, wasn’t he? The M’s ravaged rotation needed someone to step up, and Miranda did so. He’s still varying his release point like crazy, but he’s throwing a ton of strikes now. In his first 8 big league starts (7 with the M’s), Miranda posted a BB/9 of 3.78. He’s made 7 starts since, and has pitched in a few more innings than the first sample, and he’s posted a BB/9 of 2.02 in them. That’s a noticeable improvement, arbitrary endpoints or not. I mentioned his splitter when the M’s acquired him last August, and thought it looked like an intriguing pitch as opposed to the somewhat uninspiring change-up he favored at the time. Maybe the M’s agreed, because he’s changed his pitch mix and he threw twice as many splitters as regular change-ups last night.

The other noticeable thing about Miranda is that he gets all sorts of movement on his fastball. It’s not a *great* pitch or anything, but he combines vertical and horizontal movement like almost no pitcher I can think of. That made we assume that Miranda was some sort of high-spin savant, and that maybe spin rate was one of the facets of his game that attracted the Mariners when discussing the Miley trade with Baltimore. But now we don’t have to assume, and can actually measure spin directly thanks to trackman. And out of 412 pitchers to throw a fastball this season, Miranda’s spin rate ranks…381st. What?

I’ve linked to it before, but this article by physicist Alan Nathan talks about spin and the difference between gyro spin (which does NOT cause pitch movement) and transverse spin (which DOES). Clearly, nearly all of Miranda’s spin must be transverse, as something’s clearly creating break. Of course, the problem is that total spin is the combination of transverse and gyro spin, and Miranda’s stated spin rate from statcast simply isn’t big enough to generate movement like we’re seeing. Pitch fx imputes spin from its measurement of movement; it’s not measuring spin directly. THAT system assumes Miranda’s fastball averages over 3,000 RPMs, whereas statcasts’s direct measurement – including gyro spin – is *under* 2,000, and well below average. Nathan plotted pitch fx transverse spin against trackman spin and found some pitches/pitchers with higher transverse spin than total, a situation he calls a physical impossibility. The culprit may indeed be measurement error in one or both systems, but the magnitude of it here is so striking, it makes me wonder if anything else is going on.

He’s not quite in Miranda’s class in terms of movement, but a guy with above average vertical and horizontal movement is actually tonight’s opposing starter, Wei-Yin Chen. And wouldn’t you know it, Chen’s total spin is almost an exact match for Miranda’s. Chen’s sitting at #380, one spot ahead of Miranda. His fastball still has plenty of vertical rise, and gets more arm-side run than you’d expect, but he’s somehow doing so in ways that statcast can’t really detect. Chen’s rise makes him a fly ball pitcher, and with balls continuing to fly out of Safeco, that seems like a good match-up. Of course, the M’s haven’t fared well against fly ballers, per BBREF’s batting splits, but then again the sample’s so tiny, it’s probably meaningless.

Yovani Gallardo’s something of a chameleon on the mound, as he’s been an extreme fly-baller and an extreme ground-baller, seemingly at will. I’d love it if he could just decide to go back to being a high strikeout guy, but I realize that’s not going to work. Given the long-term decline in his control, too, he’s essentially got one way to survive in baseball: become a contact manager. Somehow, he seemed to manage it in Texas, posting a very low HR rate and stranding a bunch of runners. The idea that Gallardo’s results were luck and not skill-driven seemed confirmed as he collapsed last year in both command and HRs-allowed. But while his exit velocity was good in 2015* and worse-than-average last year, it’s been excellent thus far in 2017. It hasn’t really mattered, as his BABIP approaches .400, but it’s a…not-awful sign, especially when paired with his gains in pitch speed. What does all of that mean? I have no idea!

1: Heredia, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Motter, SS
7: Valencia, 1B
8: Ruiz, C
9: Dyson, CF
SP: Gallardo

Tacoma keeps winning, because no one can hit against the R’s staff, as I mentioned yesterday. Tacoma’s team ERA of 2.25 is easily the best in the league, ahead of 2nd place…wait, what’s this? Colorado Springs? Tacoma’s performance seems a bit more sustainable than that of the Springs, as Tacoma’s got a much, much better K rate and K:BB ratio. Fresno’s team ERA is over 6 at the moment. I love early season stats. Tacoma heads to El Paso to take on the Chihuahuas. Sam Gaviglio gets the start tonight.

Max Povse and the Arkansas Travelers take on San Antonio tonight.

Modesto hosts Stockton again, as Pablo Lopez looks to get it going. He’s coming off two pretty poor 3 IP starts.

Clinton knocked around Matt Garza, scoring 5 runs on 9 hits in 5 2/3 IP against the rehabbing big-leaguer in a 5-4 victory. Today, they dropped a 9-5 decision to Wisconsin and Brewers’ prospect Marcos Diplan. Diplan was actually the big “get” for the Brewers when they traded Yovani Gallardo to Texas a few years back.

* By “good” here I mean that it was well below average on fly balls/line drives, while being normal on grounders. The next year, it was his flies/liners average that moved into below-average territory. The grounder velocity’s been pretty consistent.

Game 14, Marlins at Mariners

April 17, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 17 Comments 

Ariel Miranda vs. Tom Koehler, 7:10pm

Ah, the fish against the fishermen. This sounds like a promising match-up.

Sorry for the lack of a game post yesterday, but hey, the M’s apparently didn’t need it, wrapping up a timely sweep of the reeling Rangers. By BP’s playoff odds (I know, I know), the M’s gained 6.5% in the past week, though a portion of that was the Angels’ slump as well.

On the plus side, the offense looks much better, and Mitch Haniger looks very, very impressive. Taylor Motter’s been more than just a stop-gap at SS, and thus the M’s line-up looks potent. On the down side, Hisashi Iwakuma averaged 84 MPH on his fastball yesterday, and was (justly) pulled a bit over 50 pitches in. He’s made 3 starts and tossed 15 innings, and has just 6 Ks. Worse, he’s got 6 walks and a hit batsmen, so his signature skill – control – appears to be on the wane. He hasn’t been a disaster this year, yesterday aside, but I am extremely concerned every time he starts. Aaron Goldsmith mentioned on the broadcast yesterday that Iwakuma’s fastball velocity is 2nd slowest thus far in 2017, ahead of only RA Dickey’s – a knuckleballer. I double checked, because there are TWO knuckeballers in the league, but it’s true: Steven Wright’s fastball easily outpaces Kuma’s.

James Paxton was electric on Saturday night, and Jeff Sullivan has a great write-up on how he’s doing it over at Fangraphs. Jeff mentions the way Paxton’s been able to use the high fastball to get swinging strikes as well as weak contact, and has a GIF of Paxton getting Elvis Andrus to pop out on the IF, but I wanted to see if Paxton really is using his fastball differently. The 2017 sample is tiny, but let’s take a look at where he throws his four-seam fastball, focusing on RH bats only – many pitchers target different spots depending on the batter’s handedness, and that’s not what we’re looking for here. Here’s Paxton in 2017:

Random red splotches

Paxton 4-seamers to RHBs, 2017

This looks…pretty random. There are high fastballs, but some low-and-in ones too. You can say he targets the inside half of the plate more than the outside half, but it’s not extreme; there’s no clear, obvious zone he’s attacking.

The assumption Jeff makes, and it’s the same one I’m making, is that this is new. This is cheating a bit since it goes all the way back to 2014, but this looks nearly identical to the 2015 heat map. We’re measuring the same thing here, fastballs to right-handed batters, but in the year 2014. See if you can spot a clear, identifiable pattern:
Paxton 14 v rhb plot_profile.php

Kind of likes the low-and-in pitch, huh? This is why Paxton ran a very high GB% despite all of that vertical rise on his fastball thanks to his over-the-top delivery, and you can understand why pitching coaches and others would preach this. Keep the ball down, they can’t hurt you. They’re more likely to hit grounders. Get in, and they can’t extend their arms, etc. All of that may be true, but it comes at a cost. In 2014, he used his fastball against righties *70%* of the time. Right-handed batters who had any kind of scouting report not only knew what pitch was likely to be on its way (84% of first pitches and 84% of pitches when he was behind in the count were fastballs), they knew the quadrant of the zone he was targeting. So much research these days has gone into how to keep batters guessing, and how to ensure that pitch mix isn’t predictable. So much of Paxton’s coaching at the time seems to have been focused on making him as predictable as humanly possible without having him literally tell the batter what was coming and where.

Paxton’s command is much better now, and most explanations of why rely on the exceedingly unsatisfying change in arm slot.* He can target the top of the zone as well as the bottom, and work in and out on hitters, which has obviously made him much harder to hit. I just wonder if part of this improvement is the removal of this limitation on his fastball, the elimination of previous well-intentioned coaching. How much of good coaching is precisely this kind of thing?

Today’s opponent, Tom Koehler is a perfectly normal back of the rotation arm, a righty throwing 92-93 with a good slider and a fastball with lots of vertical rise. In 2014, he had a good season with the Marlins, but it’s been downhill a bit since then. Back in 2014, he threw his four-seam fastball about 1/2 the time, and mixed in a sinker as well, and used his curve a bit more than his slider. Since then, Koehler’s steadily increased the usage of his slider and dialed back on both the curve and fastball, leading to his 2017 pitch mix, which is over 1/4 sliders and more than 1/3 against righties. That usage hasn’t made his slider easier to hit – it’s getting better results than ever. Meanwhile, though, his fastball is getting pounded, with batters increasing their production on it every year.

But he recognizes this, and thus throws more of the pitch that’s good and less of the pitch that’s bad, so it all works out, right? In Koehler’s case, no, it doesn’t work out. Since the start of 2016, batters are slugging .592 on his fastballs (four-seam and sinkers), and while they’re only slugging .254 on his slider, the 20 HRs and tons of XBHs off his fastball show that a good slider isn’t enough (at least in Koehler’s case). Given these numbers, you might expect that Koehler’s really struggled against lefties, but that doesn’t seem to be it either. His platoon splits are silly this year, but in 2016 they were pretty even; Koehler gives up HRs on his fastball, and he’ll give them up to righties and lefties alike.

1: Dyson, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Motter, SS
7: Valencia, 1B
8: Martin, CF
9: Zunino, C
SP: Miranda

Tacoma capped off a sweep of Alburquerque today with a 4-3 win in Tacoma. After falling behind 3-1, the R’s got HRs from DJ Peterson and Ben Gamel to take the lead, and got solid relief pitching to hold onto it. Christian Bergman got the win, and Jean Machi notched his 3rd save. Yesterday, the R’s beat the Isotopes 3-1 behind a solid start from Chase De Jong, and that followed a 2-0 shutout win thanks to Ryan Weber on Saturday. All told, the Rainiers have pitched 50 innings in their last 6 games, spanning the last 5 days. In that time, they’ve given up 6 runs, good for an RA/9 of 1.08. That’s good.

Speaking of good run prevention, Andrew Moore was back at it today, tossing 7 IP of 1-run ball at San Antonio. That *raised* his ERA on the year to 0.47. He was technically a reliever on the day, as Steve Cishek started and pitched an uneventful 1st, facing 3 batters and retiring them on a groundout and two flyouts. Thyago Vieira got the save today, with 2 Ks and no walks. Good to see that. Lindsey Caughel had a solid start yesterday in the Travelers’ 4-1 win over the Missions, scattering 4 hits in 6 shutout IP.

Modesto was off yesterday, but gear up for a series with Stockton tonight with Nick Neidert on the mound. He dominated the Ports in his last start back on April 11th; we’ll see if he can do it again in front of a home crowd in Modesto tonight.

Clinton was also off yesterday, and begin a series against former affiliate Wisconsin tonight. Ljay Newsome looks to build on his solid 2nd start, and he’ll be opposed by long time major leaguer Matt Garza, who’s on a rehab assignment.

In good baseballing reads elsewhere, Joe Sheehan wrote a thought-provoking article at Fangraphs last week arguing that pace-of-play and the growth in three true outcomes plate appearances are linked – you can’t *just* “fix” one of them.

And here’s Jeff Passan, noting that HRs are still trending upward. It’s a great piece, if slightly frustrating, as I was planning on making that point in this post. Ah well. Here’s a table!

Home Runs per 9 Innings – April Only  
2017 1.13
2016 1.06
2015 0.91
2014 0.89
2013 1.02
2012 0.95

We’re just comparing April-to-April here, so while the overall rate last year was slightly higher than 1.13 HR/9, it was lower than that in April. If HRs rise with the temperatures, we’ll blow past 2016’s rate. The more I see, the more I think that Safeco just isn’t the HR-suppressing beast it once was, and I’m still not entirely sure why.

* Nearly every pitcher drops his arm slot when he’s tired. This does not make them 1) throw 5 MPH faster or 2) stop throwing balls.

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