I should wait and post this on February 22nd, but if I keep trying to find the time to post, I’ll just miss it and go another month without providing any baseballing opinions. So: *nearly* ten years ago today, on February 22nd, 2006, the M’s made a low-key minor league signing of a guy who’d just been released by the Red Sox organization. Roberto Petagine got a sip of coffee with Boston in 2005, appearing in 18 games, but spent most of the year demolishing the International League for Pawtucket: an OBP of .452, and a SLG% of .635. Sure, he was 34, but though few knew his name, this wasn’t exactly a shock.
Between 1999 and 2004, Petagine was one of Japanese Baseball’s elite. The Venezuelan signed with Yakult, and in his first season in Japan led both the Central and Pacific leagues in HRs, OBP, SLG% and OPS. Ichiro was 25 that year, and easily led the Pacific League with an OBP of .412. Petagine’s was .469. Hideki Matsui hit 42 HRs and slugged .631, but Petagine hit 44 and slugged .677. Petagine was the only player to exceed 100 walks. You get the picture. There were some great domestic and imported players, but Petagine was, generally speaking, the most dominant offensive force for the next few years. In his first year with Yomiuri in 2003, Petagine missed 40 games (in a 140-game season), so he didn’t take the HR crown, but still posted the best OPS and OBP in the league. Petagine led with a .457 mark, while Kosuke Fukudome came in 2nd all the way back at .401. He slumped a bit – for him- the next year, losing the OBP crown to Greg LaRocca, and putting up an OPS of only .970. Still, the guy who signed a minor league deal with Boston that offseason was nearly as big a star as Matsui had been – and of course it was Petagine that Yomiuri turned to in 2003 when Matsui left to join the Yankees.
For those of us who had some cursory knowledge of the NPB then, this was no ordinary minor league signing. This was an undervalued talent, and one that could clearly help an M’s team that was coming off two straight poor offensive seasons. Even the skeptics had to acknowledge this was a high-upside, zero-downside move. Still, there were warning signs: where was Petagine going to play? The M’s 1B was a surprisingly effective Richie Sexson, coming off a 2005 that saw him hit 39 bombs and post a 144 wRC+. DH had been a problem, but the M’s appeared to have solved that by signing switch-hitter Carl Everett. Behind him was corner OF/Util lefty Matt Lawton. If he was going to play, he could spell Sexson every now and again or beat out Lawton and hit dingers.
As it happened, not even the lack of production from his would-be competitors would ensure Petagine got a real shot in the bigs. Carl Everett was horrific, Lawton was worse, and Petagine was planted firmly on the bench, used sporadically as a pinch hitter. This, combined with the M’s odd just-sort-of-hanging-around form of contention led to two of the worst trades of the Bavasi era, which is saying something. Off went teenage SS Asdrubal Cabrera for right-handed Petagine-replacing DH Eduardo Perez*, while Shin-Soo Choo followed Cabrera to Cleveland in exchange for lefty DH Ben Broussard. Petagine was finally released in late August, having had 2 plate appearances since June 29th. The M’s, you’ll be shocked to hear, did not make the playoffs. Petagine never appeared in the majors again.
After sitting out 2007, Petagine came back in 2008 at the age of 37. He started in Mexico, knocked the crap out of the ball, and then moved to the Korean league, where he posted an insanely high OBP yet again. The following year, 2009, saw Petagine put up another monster year for the LG Twins: a slash line of .332/.468/.575 and yet another OBP crown at the age of 38. The KBO was an insane offensive environment that year – as it has been most years – but Petagine still stood out. A young Jung-Ho Kang hit 23 HRs that year and posted an .857 OPS, while 26 year old 1B Dae-Ho Lee hit 28 HRs and topped .900. Petagine’s OPS was 1.043, of course. After that, Petagine played one final half-season in Japan before calling it a career. Meanwhile, Lee improved dramatically in the next few seasons, culminating in a dominant 2011 that saw him win a batting title.
Lee then moved to Japan, right in the midst of the NPB’s extraordinary shift in run environment. In Lee’s first year in Japan, 2012, the average Pacific League team scored 3.37 runs per game; in the Central League it was 3.14(!). The 2010 Mariners are the worst offensive ballclub in decades, and they scored 3.2 runs per game. The NPB in 2012 was pitcher-friendly, is what I’m getting at. Lee’s OPS was 2nd best in the Pacific League, and the 1B out-homered Wily Mo Pena. The following year, scoring was up dramatically – around 4 runs per game over both years (this was the year of Wlad Balentien’s single-season HR record, and a scandal involving a “juiced” ball), and Lee again posted excellent – though not in Petagine’s class – numbers.
But it’s hard to compare Lee and Petagine directly given this volatility in NPB’s run environment. In Petagine’s first year, NPB pitchers gave up 0.9 HRs per 9 innings, and teams scored about 4.4-4.5 runs/game. In 2012, the HR rate was just 0.5, but rebounded all the way to 0.9 again just a year later. Scoring came roaring back as well, with Central League scoring exceeding 4.2 runs/game in 2014, before collapsing again to 3.4 in 2015. Just to get confusing, Pacific League scoring *didn’t* spike in 2014, but also didn’t collapse in 2015. The M’s obviously have the tools and experience to make sense of this run environment and Dae Ho Lee’s place within it; I’m going to offer a shrug and just hope he can help.
However you control for the league, Lee seems like a solid hitter, albeit one in his decline phase, which isn’t really a shock considering his age (he’ll turn 34 this season). I think, broadly speaking, that Petagine may have been the superior hitter, but Lee has a better chance to play and contribute, considering the M’s primary 1B is a lefty with serious platoon split problems. Moreover, his competition as the right-sided platoon guy is not covered in glory: Jesus Montero’s history is, uh, checkered, and Gaby Sanchez is coming off a poor 2014 in Pittsburgh, and an equally bad 2015 in the same league Lee’s coming from. Dae-Ho Lee hit 31 HRs, and was named the Japan Series MVP. Sanchez hit .226/.328/.392 for last-place Rakuten. There’s a path to a roster spot, and a path to meaningful at-bats for Lee.
But a path isn’t the same thing as a job, and an opportunity isn’t the same thing as a fair shot. I was legitimately excited about Petagine 10 years ago, and it’s easy to laugh that off as the optimism of the stat-sheet scout. But Petagine had 32 plate appearances for the M’s in 31 games, so even the optimists can bring out the old college socialist bromide: Petagine didn’t fail, Petagine was never actually attempted!** I don’t know what to think anymore. I loved Balentien, but he got more of a shot and did less with it before going to Japan and hitting like Babe Ruth. Dae-Ho Lee was solid for many years in the NPB, but with his K% creeping up as inexorably as his age, he may not make enough contact to really help. That said, check out his Davenport translated batting line: .266/.327/.426. It’s not gaudy, but it’d help.
I have no doubt that if you’d run Petagine’s translations back in 2006, they’d have said he’d do even better (just checked, and yes, it’s true). Ultimately, Petagine never really got a shot to prove those forecasts wrong. Whether it was a long-looking swing, his age, the outlay to bring in Everett, or the then-prevalent assumption that *anyone* could roll out of bed and hit 30 HRs in Japan, Petagine never played. I like Dae-Ho Lee, and I sincerely hope John McGrath is right that we’ll look back on this move as a big one. Lee may adjust easily to the big leagues, but before he can worry about adjusting to new pitchers, parks and a new baseball, he’s going to have to win over a manager the way Petagine couldn’t.
* Perez himself was an NPB veteran, spending part of 2001 with Hanshin. Perez got in about 50 games and washed out, hitting .222 with little power.
** We sabermetric fans often wrestle with two mutually exclusive ideas, and deploy either one as needed when praising our Tampa Bay overlords. First, small samples don’t mean much. Second, smart teams move quickly to correct deficiencies, and don’t let them fester for years like Justin Smoak or Dustin Ackley. How can you “move quickly” if you don’t have a large sample size? I don’t know, ask
Billy Beane Andrew Friedman.
I don’t often post consecutively, but when I do, it concerns the minor leagues and those posts are ill-scheduled.
A few days ago, I had a luxurious fifteen minutes to myself with which to do as I would and discovered a segment of a podcast with new farm director Andy McKay. Being of significant curiosity and questionable overall mental health, I naturally leapt at the opportunity and donned a pair of bulky headphones in order to best experience it. To be frank, there aren’t often a lot of instances in which major front office types are eager to give away trade secrets, and this was no different. Much of the intrigue of listening involved trying to reconstruct what was going on in the background, as McKay either was preparing lunch or unloading a dishwasher as he fielded the interview. Details were vague and commentary on specific players, far vaguer, but I did come away with two major notes that sparked my attention.
Taking account of his prior role as a mental skills coach for the Colorado Rockies, the interviewers gravitated towards the expected question of “how do you prepare pitchers to do well in Coors Field?” This would be the kind of secret that I think anyone would be fascinated to learn regardless of their rooting inclinations, but McKay’s responses were ones of refutation, claiming that it never really came up and that it wasn’t something that they ever talked about at length. In so many words, what is known as the characteristic of the home park was blown off as if it were nothing and McKay mentioned in passing the bewildering and unusual success that some pitchers had experienced, running reverse splits in some rare instances. Otherwise, so far as he was concerned, both teams had to deal with it.
You may be sensing what piqued my interest here. If the org didn’t really talk about it, you might think of it as a possible bête noire, something verboten to speak of in public and only heard of in hushed tones. Or, the alternative could be to invest a great deal of attention into rendering it the subject of nightmares, only to be overcome by the toughest and manliest of pitchers. McKay flatly stated that the media had more interest in the subject than anyone else he talked to. It was no big deal to him.
The material circumstances might be different, but let’s consider the previous runs of GMs with regard to their attitudes about Safeco Field. Despite the offensive successes of the Gillick-era Mariners, there started to be real concerns thereafter with much chatter about batting eyes and the left field walls. It has been rumored that fan-favorite Adrian Beltre thereafter cautioned power hitters against signing in Seattle. As the Zduriencik regime started to settle into being definitively in the mindset of its egg-shaped namesake, the articulated goal was often to acquire players whose power was so transcendent that it could overcome any park, Safeco included. The only major success we’ve experienced on that front is Nelson Cruz, and Zduriencik is no longer the GM of any team.
It would be too much to link one thing to another, but when you look at some of the drafting tendencies we’ve had, major raw RH power has been a trademark, likely operating under the assumption that an organization ought to develop what it is unlikely to acquire via free agency. Alex Jackson. Tyler O’Neill. Mike Zunino. D.J. Peterson. Gabby Guerrero. Tyler Marlette. Corey Simpson. The list can go on, if you allow it to. And subsequently, all these players have had noted struggles in recent years, with a late-season rebound by O’Neill being a plus followed by a question mark. In many cases, the strikeouts and level of contact have been so poor as to make their major league futures suspect regardless of raw ability. To hear McKay speak of Coors Field dismissively and cite pitchers who had reverse splits makes me wonder if, in whatever way, the public talk by the Mariners figureheads about getting that bury-the-needle power in turn got into the heads of their major prospects, who tried and failed to do too much with it. This is purely inference on my part with little means to corroborate with anything tangible, but having made the connection, one does wonder.
The second part that interested me was the specific circumstances of McKay’s coaching life. He claimed that he had managed enough over his career (also citing his MBA and organizational background) to connect with players and earn their trust regardless of what role he held. Baseball, he claimed, was “100% mental,” and “the body follows the mind.” Both statements read/hear like sports platitudes for the perky young postgame interviewer. Not much to write home about, that is until the later conversation about creating a culture and being hands-on in the dugout and then some other actually interesting notes arose.
McKay’s coaching career runs like this: In the summers, he was stationed in the Northwoods League, a wood-bat circuit comparable to though without the media attention of the Cape Cod League. During the rest of the year, he was in community colleges, coaching players with the intent of preparing them for D-I transfers. In both cases, players often came in with specific needs and McKay needed to address them in limited time frames, a few months or a few years, and then send them off better to the next thing.
It would be presumptuous to say something like “he’s going to turn around the system in a heartbeat! Our savior!” and then have an assortment of cartoon hearts spraying out of my eyes. I’m not that naïve. But the idea of being able to identify needs in a short timeframe and work with directed attention on them would appear to be an asset. To boot, he brought up other issues that were points of contrast with the prior administration, not calling them out by name, but saying that a system that was all about individual development at the expense of winning could risk having players that didn’t know what to do to get the team to win once they reached the majors. It’s an easy slide from there into an armchair sports psychology that would point to, I don’t know, Ackley’s deer-in-headlights expression at times, and to claim that a focus on individual development might, at its most warped, tempt a player into thinking that the weight of the organization was on their shoulders, which simply isn’t healthy. I don’t know if I can extrapolate that either based on the information that we have, but I can say that the dismal state of the farm system with regard to winning percentage has made following it a tougher sell and I could be drawn in by promises of positive records and lesser playoff runs building up to greater ones.
Having nervously tiptoed into the waters that may serve to re-baptize me into a more ardent, born-again fandom, I would do well to bring it all back to something less superstitious and more overt in content. When asked about the state of the Mariners farm system specifically, McKay claimed that it was easier coming in because the lack of emotional ties meant you could make some stone-cold decisions if you had to, which syncs up with some of the trades that went on in the offseason. But the point at which I stopped the podcast, scrolled back, and made sure I got every word was when this quote came out:
“I believe in the players that we have and I believe that the players we have will make strides, but I like to consider myself a realist. We have real challenges in front of us. This is not a system that is thriving right now. The deficiencies are easy to identify. We’ve identified them and are willing to get to work on them.”
As the BA list implied, the Mariners are in a bad way right now with regard to depth. Many things that were expected to not suck have instead resembled shop-vacs attached to uninterrupted power supplies. We aren’t likely to be metaphorically skipping through the meadow amidst the rainbows of a joyful 2016 season, but those in power now seem to have their convictions about what was wrong in the process of how the team operated previously. They have articulated what they aim to do in response to it. Now all we need is data.
Whether it’s diminishing returns on the player development front or merely that the PhD student lifestyle clamors for the lion’s share of my attention, I’ve found myself more tuned out from the minor league goings-on in recent years than I was while blogging about it on a semi-regular basis. The initial enthusiasm of following an organization focused on developing its own players took several heavy hits during the Zduriencik era, as we found many individuals, Ackley and Zunino among them, go from “the hope for the future” to “recurrent sources of frustration.” As one might expect, being excited about player development generally and being a fan of a team that looked to be unambiguously bad at it are not compatible viewpoints, and so my attentions scurried off elsewhere.
And yet, with recent sports losses in the rearview and the promise of new organizational philosophies at play, baseball has a way of dragging me back into the discussion like the often-spurned but lovelorn devotee that I am. Friends, let us talk about baseball. Let us talk about baseball and player development in the context of the fact that Baseball America released their Top Ten Mariners Prospects today. You want that I should copy and paste so you don’t have to click? Fine.
TOP 10 PROSPECTS
1. Alex Jackson, of
2. Edwin Diaz, rhp
3. Drew Jackson, ss
4. Tyler O’Neill, of
5. Nick Neidert, rhp
6. Luiz Gohara, lhp
7. Braden Bishop, of
8. Andrew Moore, rhp
9. Boog Powell, of
10. D.J. Peterson, 1b/3b
If I might be honest while, at the same time, flippant, prospect lists have been previously released in this offseason and I have shared them with friends, captioning the links with “hey kids, wanna see a dead body?” It’s a dick move on my part (perhaps less blunt than others), so allow me to qualify that by saying that such remarks tend to reflect more on the nature of prospect lists than anything else. Young players like Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Ketel Marte have “graduated” to a big league level where it is no longer the business of prospect-watchers to think about them regularly (also Kivlehan might’ve ranked pretty high *shakes fist*). They represent some of the few successes of the past season as the recent season was, mysteriously, one in which a great deal of young players struggled.
When things like this happen en masse, concerns arise as to how systemic they are and we start to question methods and the like, methods which have been blissfully supplanted by regime change. In short, we know that the minor leaguers performed poorly, but without knowing why, we can’t answer how easily it might be fixed and don’t know what to do with the data we have. Adding to that, recency bias means we’ve been sitting with these lackluster performances since September. Dudes are probably working on things that we don’t even know about yet, but without some way of quantifying that, we are stuck with the overcast “bleh.” It’s not all storm clouds and inclement weather, as we acquired some good pieces at the trade deadline and during the recent draft. However, when you look at the system at large, the stocks of individual players, for however you regard their ceilings, are widely at lows.
What this leaves one with is what you could generally characterize as a “bad system prospect list.” It’s a who’s-who of guys with intriguing physical abilities who have yet to perform, dotted with a smattering of recent draftees who performed well in a sample size too small to make adequate sense of. Anyone who has payed attention to minor league happenings in the long term can name one or two players who had intriguing debuts in the NWL and went on to do nothing particularly special thereafter. Factors such as Drew Jackson’s pure athleticism and the alleged change he made to his contact lenses might bolster what hope you have for him being the SS of the future (or SS that gets moved to CF of the future), yet you can recognize that you need more data to go off of in order to move forward. I rather liked our ’15 draft from a depth standpoint and building up pitching reserves, but it remains to be seen how many of those HS pitchers are going to survive the transition to pro ball.
Elsewhere, as I said, it’s the guys with velocity or power, some prior tool of significance that helped to get them on the radar in the first place. Comparing this year’s list to last year’s, Alex Jackson retains top billing, but you can’t exactly say that he proved himself worthy of the distinction. Kivlehan, Gabby Guerrero, and Carson Smith are all trade casualties (Guerrero missed Arizona’s Top Ten, Kivlehan is likely for Texas’ top ten), Marte graduated, and Austin Wilson’s second half wasn’t quite enough to redeem a rather dismal first half. Diaz isn’t moving up from #6 to #2 with a bullet so much as he’s rising thanks to attrition. Peterson plummeted despite not having a great deal of competition elsewhere. Tyler O’Neill really helped himself out, but we’re also talking about a prospect who has struck out in the neighborhood of 30% of the time.
The good news? Darkest before dawn? Only place to go is up? Any number of cliches and platitudes in a similar vein? Yeah, and it all feels true in this case. We still have some of the same draft people involved while most of the development pieces are new, but in a way, that seems to be saying that the drafts the Mariners had weren’t inherently bad so much as there were things that weren’t coming through in the development process. To retain McNamara, at least for the time being, demonstrates some level of confidence in what he’s done and the belief that the new team can help recover the lost value these prospects had. For all of the past year’s shortcomings, Alex Jackson and O’Neill still have elite power, Edwin Diaz still has a high-end FB/slider combo, Gohara has solid velocity for a lefty, Powell can take a pitch, and Bishop can play a mean CF. The question is where the Mariners go from there so that these fellows don’t slot themselves in as role players and little else.
The M’s had been a big-league team for a few months when it came time to make their initial pick in the amateur draft. Picking near the end of the first round, the new club selected a CF out of a California HS. There was no history to look at – the M’s front office didn’t have a “type,” and no one knew anything about the player development group. Seattle fans would learn to be skeptical in future years – years of Tito Nannies and Al Chambers and Terry Bells – but in that year of firsts, the M’s wished upon a power/speed combo at an up-the-middle position. They would be rewarded for it.
Henderson made his debut in 1981, looking overmatched in a few dozen PAs. But in 1982, he settled down and showed real promise. Flanked by an aging Al Cowens and All-Star Bruce Bochte, Henderson was part of a legitimate big-league OF. No one on the IF could hit – the highest OPS+ on the IF was Julio Cruz’s 80 (an 81 wRC+), while the *worst* OPS+ in the OF was Hendu’s 107. It was something to build on, anyway – Hendu was 22, after all.
In short order, Bochte left in free agency and the M’s began churning through LFs like Spinal Tap drummers. Henderson’s development seemed to stall, as his production dipped a bit in 1983 and then more severely in 1985. He was still a fine player, a gap-hitting CF with a perpetual smile, he seemed to thrive with other competent hitters (as in 1984, Alvin Davis’ big rookie year), but as these were the M’s of the 1980s, lineup protection was not something to count on.
As a kid, I don’t remember the ups and down of Hendu’s production as much as I remember the losing. I was a baseball optimist then (this may be hard to believe to some readers), and this was troubling. To the hardened realists of the time, though, Henderson’s volatility was an issue. The M’s would get Hendu and Davis playing well, but then Barry Bonnell got Valley Fever and that was that. Or, they had Ken Phelps, Phil Bradley and a solid year from AD and Hendu’s numbers crashed. It was maddening, but to me it was seemed like the growing pains of a future dynasty. In 1986, Henderson was having his best year. Rookie Danny Tartabull proved to be an instant success, and, with Bradley, the M’s had their OF set. Hendu/Bradley were 27, while Tartabull was 23. The M’s were hopeless, of course, finishing further back than they had in 1985, but they had one question answered. And then, in a fit of pique, they blew it all up.
The first to go was promising RF prospect Ivan Calderon, a favorite of mine not so much for his long HRs but for a charmingly stilted interview he gave with Dave Niehaus after a game winning hit or something (at that time, Calderon spoke approximately no English, and Niehaus no Spanish). A month or so later, Hendu and SS Spike Owen headed to Boston in exchange for SS Rey Quinones and pitchers Mike Trujillo and Mike Brown. Brown’s career was over 16 innings later, while Trujillo spent another 100IP or so as a swing man. Quinones seemed like an ironic divine punishment – the team that believed Henderson was wasting his talent would be shown what *true* waste looks like. In a few months, once the 95-loss campaign wound down, the M’s dealt Tartabull to Kansas City for Scott Bankhead.
As a fan in 1986, the playoffs and the World Series were incredibly exciting but abstract. I loved them, but they seemed like a different game – the M’s hadn’t come close to making them, and now seemed to be rebuilding. They’d played 10 seasons and seemed to be treading water six feet below the surface. I thought the M’s were talented, but even the players they cast off seemed to wither and die. Julio Cruz got to play in the post season for the White Sox, but he had an awful year and the Sox lost the ALCS. Henderson and Owen were at least thrust into a real playoff race, and that would have to do. I’d hoped the M’s would build a winner out of my favorite players, but if they couldn’t, I wanted them to go off and do well – to show others that yes, Mariners players weren’t historically bad, they were just star-crossed and mismatched.
Soon, he’d develop a reputation for coolness in pressure situations, but the initial returns on the big trade with Boston weren’t great. Henderson’s K rate spiked and he put up a Zunino-esque line of .197/.226/.314 in a handful of PAs. Thrust into what looked like a deciding game 3 of the ALCS thanks to an injury, Henderson’s initial contribution was to have a long fly ball pop out of his glove and go over the fence for a bizarre two-run HR. Then, and only then, would Hendu redeem himself. Down to their final strike against a tough closer, down 5-4, Henderson hit a 2R-HR that gave Boston life. After California tied the game in the bottom of the inning, Henderson ended up winning it with a sac fly in the 11th. I was dumbstruck, and I was happy. Dave Henderson was free, and now he had even more of a reason to never stop smiling for the rest of his life.
This is actually not about Hendu’s career, though. I know, I know: that was a hell of a lot of prologue for a post about something else. What I think is so interesting, and in the week or so since his passing, so sad, is that I/we never really knew Henderson while he played for Seattle. Here’s a typically great post by Ken Arneson about Hendu. Go read it – I’ll wait. Henderson arrived in Oakland in 1988, the peak of Bash Brothers mania. The A’s had assembled a terrifying offense, with game-transcending superstar Jose Canseco in RF and new star 1B Mark McGwire. They still had Carney Lansford at 3B, and they had a rotation anchored by Dave Stewart. They added to it in 1989, bringing Rickey Henderson back (far better than the Steve Henderson the M’s flanked Hendu with) and getting a career year from Bob Welch. The point is: Hendu flourished in this environment, and his constant grin won the fans over. As Arneson points out, he had TWO fan groups dedicated to him, and he’d interact with him before each game. This wasn’t Henderson growing into himself, or gaining confidence after his ’86 heroics. *Nothing about Henderson had changed*. He smiled all the time in Seattle too, and he kept doing it as a TV color analyst after retirement. All that changed was the context.
Beatwriters knew and loved Hendu. Read John McGrath’s heartfelt tribute in the News Tribune as an example. But the fans didn’t. The team seemed to be conflicted about Henderson’s constant grinning (“you can’t smile when you’re losing every day!”), and it was hard to muster much enthusiasm for any of the M’s given that they were out of the race by May-June *every year* and drew 1 million fans in a good year (the M’s were under 900,000 in total attendance for two of Hendu’s four full seasons in Seattle). No one knew what Henderson would do in a pressure situation, as the M’s hadn’t had one in their first decade of existence. But in Oakland, Henderson was beloved for being himself.
This isn’t to say Oakland’s fans were better, whatever that means, or that Seattle misunderstood Henderson (that came later). It’s just another way that losing affects us as fans. We look at players differently – we interrogate them. I can’t really blame us for doing it, either. Baseball is beautiful even when your team’s out of it. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be writing this, and I would’ve stopped following the M’s in 1986. But for whatever reason, Henderson’s death and the reactions to it have reminded me that persistent losing distorts our vision a bit.
Unfortunately for Henderson, his turn as a broadcaster did the same. Analytical blogs like this one, and analytical fans like this one, often saw ourselves as pitted in a duel with the dread forces of received baseball wisdom and mainstream media. Every cliche, every rote denunciation about a rookie having to prove something, or vague phrases like “playing the game the right way” seemed like relics of the 19th century – they were the linguistic equivalents of high collared uniforms and segregated baseball. At a distance now, this is all quite hyperbolic, but hey, ours was an insurrection, and equanimity doesn’t rally the troops like righteous indignation. Dave Henderson was the color man tasked with/selected for his ability to dispense these baseball nostrums about, I don’t know, Jeremy Reed or whoever. He started on broadcasts when the team was an offensive juggernaut, and only a few die-hard Bill James acolytes would’ve objected. By 2003, this blog was around, and the M’s were about to fall off a cliff. BY 2006, Henderson became an odd kind of focal point for the traditional versus analytical debate, and a constant irritant for readers here and elsewhere. He came back in 2011 in the wake of Niehaus’ passing and was treated to another 95-loss, go-nowhere club. Losing had, again, obscured our view of the guy.
Not to say he was Vin Scully – I don’t want to scold all of us for not appreciating his broadcasting. Rather, the broadcasting became just another annoyance in years that offered a steady stream of them. We were angry, and the team was awful, and why is he *grinning* so much? Dave was an amazing father and a very good ballplayer. He leaves a family hurting -that’s the sad part. But as two fanbases offer warm remembrances, many M’s fans remember him either as a broadcaster or a once-promising guy who found stardom later (“why do they always get better when they leave?”). Neither do the man justice.
Jay did a great job summarizing the M’s PR video on a new, org-wide emphasis on the strike zone, but I had a few additional thoughts I wanted to throw out there. Essentially, my reaction to this exceedingly well-presented organizational philosophy has three components. One: we have seen an org-wide philosophy implemented, with bells and whistles we all thought sounded revolutionary at the time, and things…did not improve. Second, the philosophy espoused does not exactly match up with many of the M’s recent acquisitions. So third, the optimistic view is that the process by which this philosophy is disseminated is at least as important – probably more – than the philosophy itself. This is a player development challenge, and as Dipoto said, development doesn’t stop once a player’s promoted to the bigs.
Back in early 2010, the Mariners hired a director of sports science and performance, a man named Dr. Marcus Elliott. Elliott had worked with elite athletes on three continents, as well as NFL and NBA teams, but the M’s were his first foray into baseball (as far as I know). Elliott told Geoff Baker that baseball was “monolithic” and resistant to change, and that his focus on “rotational mechanics” could help unlock power as well as flexibility to help avoid injury. This was an early spring puff piece about a change in training, but given the timing – right after the successful 2009 season, the M’s looking interesting – most of us were very excited. The club’s mantra at the time was that “talent wins” and they identified what they saw as a market inefficiency in turning “talent” into runs and wins on the baseball field. The story made sense, and I’m not trying to slam Dr. Elliott at all – there are still articles written about his work in the NBA, and the M’s actually HAVE suffered fewer injuries than other teams in recent years. But let’s just say that big league results from this or any other facet of the organizational focus on talent and the unlocking of talent are lacking.
Were expectations perhaps a bit high? Yeah, definitely. In less sober moments, I imagined busloads of M’s minor leaguers venturing throughout the midwest, striking fear into their opponents by hitting home runs one-handed, or rotating their necks like owls. But almost immediately, the M’s overall talent level seemed to start slipping behind their competitors. The Tacoma Rainiers won the PCL in 2010, and have been around .500 since. That’s better than what’s happened lower down, where teams like Clinton and High Desert/Bakersfield have struggled mightily while the Astros affiliates dominate virtually every league they participate in. Some teams are able to generate system-wide improvements in performance, but the M’s haven’t been one of them.
But who’s to blame for that? JY’s absolutely right that there must have been some sort of disconnect in the previous regime, and I think it was clearest in regard to power hitters. The team quickly acquired the likes of Johermyn Chavez and Mike Carp, and worked hard to develop guys like Carlos Peguero, Greg Halman, Matt Mangini, Alex Liddi, etc. In recent years, they went overslot to grab guys like Austin Wilson and Gareth Morgan in the hopes that one day they wouldn’t need to continually shop for Mike Morse/Corey Hart/Jack Cust. Scouts fed the machine lots of powerful raw material, but virtually none of that raw material made an impact in the big leagues. Statistically, that could be slightly bad luck, or it could be that there was a gap between what the development staff was tasked with and what they were *good at*. It’s not like the group had NO notable successes in the past several years (covering two different directors), but their results were bad in precisely the area that the front office seemed to prize. At the very least, it’s clear now what everyone is supposed to prioritize, and you figure the M’s will be better about ensuring new coaches have some experience in and aptitude for teaching the strike zone.
So: if the strike zone is everything, why did the M’s trade for Wade Miley (below average BB%) and Nate Karns (below average BB%) and pick up Justin De Fratus (below average BB%), Cody Martin (yep)? They traded for Steve Clevenger, whose walk rate just plummeted, too. To be sure, they added plenty of guys with very *good* plate discipline numbers, from Evan Scribner to Adam Lind to Boog Powell, but you don’t see the kind of monomania described in the video in the M’s transaction logs. Not a bad thing, perhaps, but an odd one. If the M’s are to become a team that really controls the zone, not only is the player development team going to have to do some work, but the big league coaching staff needs to help the likes of Miley and Karns improve.
This is why I mentally underlined the same quote in the video as JY – the idea that development *must* continue at the big league level. The big, if tacit, idea in the video is not that the strike zone is important, it’s that it is teachable. That goes against some traditional baseball wisdom, or at least the experience of many fans, that says that you can make a low-walk player into a better version of a low-walk player, but you’re probably not going to make them into Kevin Youkilis. Part of the utility of a common vocabulary and emphasis throughout the org is that additional work could actually happen in the majors, though obviously it’s going to take more than a list of terms to ensure that this is successful.
And that’s why Andy McKay’s role is so critical. He’s the one ultimately in charge of making this happen, perhaps more so than the people actually acquiring baseball players. Soon we’ll see if it becomes a point of emphasis for the amateur scouting department, but it’s evidently not the *sole* focus of pro scouts. The M’s – and every other team – have organizational philosophies, and other teams like consistent messaging. But teams vary widely in putting those things into practice. If you’re cynical, you’d note that the Angels’ minor league system wasn’t much better than the M’s in terms of BB%, K-BB%, or, you know, wins and losses. Optimists might retort that the entire reason for Dipoto’s departure from Anaheim was that he was not capable of or allowed to implement his vision organization-wide,* and that getting everyone on the same page might help. Ultimately, the M’s are banking on the idea that proper coaching can transform plate discipline for pitchers as well as hitters, and that it can do so relatively quickly. It’ll be interesting to see if they’re right.
As lofty a goal as it is, I don’t think it’s impossible. The Astros’ led the classification (not just the league!) in run differential at A ball, high-A, AA, AAA** and they led baseball in minor league winning percentage as a result. How? Well, they led baseball in system-wide BB% for hitters, as well as walk-strikeout ratio, HRs, and runs. Sure, they had a great system, headlined by Carlos Correa, but these sorts of uberprospects are few and far between and often (like Correa) extremely young for their league. To get *system-wide* results like these, you need a heck of a lot more than solid years from your top 5 prospects. To get results like these up and down the ladder, and with a shifting mix of players thanks to trades and promotions, you need to be doing something different. We’ll see if it continues, but 2015 in the Astros system seems like a demonstration of how successful player development can be.
* This is somewhat undercut by the fact that the farm system coordinator was trusted ally Scott Servais. Dipoto couldn’t get through to his big league manager, but he and Servais were clearly on the same page. Maybe the difficulty in connecting with managers afflicted the farm system too, or maybe they didn’t quite have the right people in place to carry off something like what they’re attempting in Seattle.
** I can’t overstate how incredible that is. Everything about amateur player acquisition is geared at fighting this – the existence of a draft, the bonus pools, restrictions on international signings, all of it. It’d be one thing if the Astros just loaded each level of older MiLB free agents, but no, the Astros’ affiliates were *younger*, on average, than their competitors. Yes, yes, years of awful results gave them some high draft picks, but Carlos Correa was 20, and played in all of 53 minor league games.
Post-Winter Meetings and pre-Spring Training represents a news lull where the only thing you might otherwise have to hope for are prospect lists and the ever-thrilling arbitration negotiations in which a player may or not be shit-talked about by his co-workers and superiors. Being a time of planning, recuperation, and internal inventories, you can occasionally get the landmark release of boilerplate organizational philosophy or possible rebranding as the most loyal of the base eagerly open the next door on their Fanfest advent calendar. As such, the Mariners announced a new campaign to Control the Zone as part of the new regime’s restructuring.
For anyone who has been interested in analytics, since, I don’t know, the last time the Mariners made the playoffs, the information wasn’t revelatory. Throw good strikes. Force other pitchers to throw good strikes. Profit, as success on both fronts would serve to maximize winning potential. I’m not going to pretend like this is anything new to any of the regular readers of this here blog, but going so far as to publically articulate a vision isn’t something that we should undersell. It’s a pretty big paradigm shift, even if the packaging is a lot of blue, quick cuts between people smiling and shaking hands as baseball stuff occurs, and run-of-the-mill uplifting, inspirational music.
Parsing it out a bit into discrete categories, you can see a contrast developing between the previous administration and the current one which bring to light. Immediately, there’s an emphasis on getting pitchers to be able to throw quality secondary offerings for strikes even when behind in the count. Having likewise articulated a concern about mental preparation and frame of mind, one might imagine that the new group might be less inclined to piss on Erasmo Ramirez merely for not being their platonic ideal of a pitcher. There are additional goodies from there, such as Servais talking about how the batting average on 2-1 is almost double what it is on 1-2, with a clever little B-R citation, but the major shots fired were in the realm of crafting an organizational identity.
Claiming, as DiPoto did, that “development should not stop once you’ve reached the major league level” is as cold and accurate a take as you’re going to get on the results achieved by the previous group, particularly with regard to hitting. Talking about how important it is to have a consistent terminology and communication flow from one level to the next, how playing one minor league affiliate should be representative of playing the whole organization, this all signals how divergent the communication must have been in the previous coaching and how players were getting mixed signals and messages, sometimes encountering something that worked well for them and sometimes not. It doesn’t completely serve to explain what was a complete institutional collapse last season, but filtering things through multiple personnel with some oversight in offensive and defensive coordinators as we are now should serve to achieve greater consistency in message.
One should bear in mind that change rarely comes to industries that believe that they are doing just fine on their own. Rather, it’s entirely logical to infer that the old boys network of baseball past had functioned okay while it was ubiquitous, providing little incentive to shake things up. This type of thinking never permeated the sport because there was never a need for it as long as everyone was exercising the same biases and mistakes in thinking. Changes have been occurring throughout baseball for the last decade plus. In this instance, we just get to belatedly participate in it, as opposed to self-destructively fantasizing about whether or not it would actually be worse to have Amaro as our GM as we have been. If you want some added schadenfreude, you might also consider what DiPoto is executing now as an indictment of the kind of thinking that has been guiding the Angels organization in recent years.
The reflexive response to this sort of material would be to respond to the array of clichés offered with one more: Talk is cheap. Yet, if the talk is at least attempting to guide the team into a more progressive direction, we can hope that it will eventually find its way to a proper execution. I’m still more than a little irked about trading Patrick Kivlehan to the Rangers as a PTBNL, having long anticipated crafting a sign that read “KIVVLES AND HITS” and staking out some place in the bleachers. But for all the wheeling and dealing that was done over the offseason, we’ve retained a lot of the major prospects like Alex Jackson and D.J. Peterson and Tyler O’Neill, all of whom could benefit from some on-base related instruction. Relatively little of what was dealt was near-term in contribution, or major in its prospect status. A more coherent system of instruction could go a long way in reclaiming some of the earlier value that some of these pieces formerly had. We’re in it for a bit of a haul and we’re not going to rebuild the minor league depth overnight, but we at least know that we’re now moving in a direction that cannot be simplified into “Dingers are The Truth. Hit Dingers. Never give them up. Zduriencik 2014″.
I suppose it’s a good reminder: most deals are contingent on a physical. We all expect that to be a formality, but they’re not, and when you’re talking about an older pitcher with a fairly extensive injury history, it’s even less of one. Yesterday, word came down that Hisashi Iwakuma, who’d just agreed to a three-year deal with the Dodgers, had failed his physical. Evidently, it didn’t take Iwakuma and the M’s long to come to an alternative arrangement, as Jerry Dipoto sprung this surprise at the M’s holiday party:
— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) December 18, 2015
A few weeks after M’s fans were learning to accept a Kuma-less rotation, he was back – this time on a one year deal with two vesting options. That is, Iwakuma’s minimum guaranteed money drops from the $45m the Dodgers offered (and then rescinded after seeing some X-rays), to $12m for 2016. However, the total dollar value could exceed $45m if Kuma’s healthy. This is about as close to a win-win as you could imagine – the M’s were wary of committing tens of millions if Iwakuma suddenly imploded, and now they don’t have to. On the other hand, the story isn’t just that Iwakuma stood to make $45m, and now can’t. There’s no doubt that Iwakuma and his agent would prefer the Dodger contract, but whatever medical issues spooked the Dodgers are presumably real and have an impact on his market value, or at least on the share of the risk teams are willing to shoulder. Still, he can get to that total compensation level if he’s healthy, which would be great for him and a bargain for the M’s.
A few thoughts:
1: The low initial outlay – the $12m guarantee- probably made this possible, but here’s to ownership for stepping up and actually making room in the budget when a ridiculous bargain fell into their laps. It’s easy to say, “of COURSE they expanded their budget – they already said they would pay MORE in 2016 before Kuma agreed with LA.” But of course, the M’s have made other decisions since then, and you can imagine a scenario where owners aren’t willing to exceed a budget cap they helped set. You and I might agree that such a hard-and-fast rule is foolish, and needlessly restrictive, but I bet there are some teams that wouldn’t or couldn’t.
2: Ah, but what about the MRI that enabled this? Isn’t it scary? A team had a deal sewn up, took a look at some medical records, tried to renegotiate the deal for what must’ve been 15-30 solid minutes, and then walked away. What was on the MRI? A stapler, a couple of ball bearings and a small WD-40 reservoir? Look: I take it for granted that Iwakuma’s shoulder looks awful the closer doctors look at it. Not just, “there’s fraying here and here,” but, “I assume this X-ray belongs to an 80-year old with serious mobility issues.” There has to be something there that caused Iwakuma to miss time in Japan, and it has to be something so bad that the OAKLAND A’S walked away from the opportunity to negotiate a below-market deal with him in 2011. The M’s signed him in January 2012 because he cost the princely sum of $1.5m. The risk had to be so minimal that arm-spiders or the complete absence of a labrum no longer fazed them.
The risk THIS time is of course much higher, but the M’s are operating with a hell of a lot more information. They have the benefit of comparing medical records from 2012 to those from each year, and yes, while Iwakuma’s given them a REASON to keep assessing his arm’s overall health, his shoulder and arm have generally held up. The M’s know much more than the A’s in 2011 or the Dodgers in 2015 how Iwakuma’s shoulder’s changed over time, and they’ve seen what his arm is capable of, irrespective of how it looks in x-rays. That’s a big, and very real, advantage. Also: it will never not be funny that the Athletics couldn’t sign him and the M’s got him for $1.5m. Never. After all of the health problems this organization’s pitchers suffered, we get to have one, small thing we can blow out of proportion and laugh about.
3: This would seem to put the M’s out on the remaining free agent pitchers, from Scott Kazmir to another big Japanese star, Kenta Maeda. We haven’t talked as much about Maeda, who likely was never in the M’s plans – not only would the posting fee cost money the M’s say they don’t want to spend (yes, yes, “separate budgets” or whatever, but that’s never made a ton of sense), but the M’s and Dipoto have shied away from the international market in recent years. The M’s don’t appear to have been in on Masahiro Tanaka, and didn’t make a big push for some of the recent Cuban signings. The Angels under Dipoto were much the same – after years as big players in the DR, they backed away from the international market around the same time the M’s did, amid scandals and recriminations (just like the M’s). Dipoto made one fairly large Cuban signing, but Roberto Baldoquin had an absolutely awful year in the Cal League, which isn’t the kind of experience that leads you to do a big re-think on the value of the international free agent market.
Maeda, 27, has been posted by his club, the Hiroshima Carp. Any MLB club that wants to negotiate with Maeda must agree to a $20m posting fee – multiple teams will qualify, and then one will ultimately sign a deal and thus pay the posting fee to the Carp. In recent years, Maeda’s put up a lovely ERA, but he’s clearly a few steps behind the dominant stars Yu Darvish and Tanaka. His ERA was better than Kuma’s, but then Kuma’s last few years in Japan were marred by injury, and you get into the changing baseball itself around that time – scoring in Japan varied wildly in those years.* Maeda’s fastball’s a tick above Kuma’s at 90-91, and he’s got a sweeping slider at 80-81, and a slow curve at 70-71. Kuma has those three pitches, but if that was all he had, he’d never have made the M’s roster. Kuma’s splitter is a legitimate plus pitch in the big leagues, and it’s the key to his success. Maeda doesn’t throw one, but he does have a change-up with good, almost splitter-like drop. Indeed, by pitch fx, Maeda’s change and Kuma’s split are fairly close in release point and movement. That’s a good sign for Maeda, but my guess is that he won’t make the kind of splash Iwakuma has.
For one, his change is delivered slower, and that’s an issue. As Harry Pavlidis found, the closer in speed a change is to the fastball, the more grounders it gets. That’s part of what makes Kuma so special, as I talked about before. The pitch is tough to lay off of, and produces bad results when hitters swing. Maeda has thrown his change less, and it’s slower. That’s not the kiss of death or anything, and the movement similarities to Kuma’s split are really encouraging, but not only will Maeda need to adjust to the new league and new usage pattern (every 5 days instead of every week), he may need to tweak his change and slider. Maybe he can! But at this point, the aging Kuma with his scary medical history feels like not only a cheaper option, but one with equivalent risk AND a higher potential reward.
4: A lot of the (happy) discussion about this surprising deal has turned on the M’s newfound rotation depth. They’ve got Felix/Kuma/Miley/Walker locked in as 1-4 starters, and then Nate Karns, James Paxton, Mike Montgomery would fight for the 5th spot (and Vidal Nuno and Anthony Bass have big league starting experience, too). That’s important, no doubt, but it also doesn’t change things TOO much. This doesn’t mean you try harder to move James Paxton, as there are questions in the rotation that depth is going to be critical. But it makes Mike Montgomery something of the odd man out: before, you might stash him in the bullpen. After the Cishek deal and with another bullpen spot likely going to the loser of the Karns/Paxton 5th-starter competition, Montgomery gets harder and harder to keep on the 25 man roster. As he’s out of options, they can’t send him down, and his utility as a LOOGY is minimal, considering he’s got strong reverse platoon splits thanks to his big change-up. Let’s be clear: the decision to pick up Kuma is a great one, and if it “costs” them Montgomery, so be it. But it’s odd the way the M’s staff looks now that Montgomery may be in exactly the position Erasmo Ramirez was last spring: pitching for a job somewhere else.
The projections at Fangraphs love the M’s rotation: the positional depth charts show the M’s rotation tied for 3rd best in the AL, behind Cleveland and New York’s (and tied with Boston’s). That’s critical, because the M’s still have some holes. Their position players may beat their WAR projections (looking at you, Nelson Cruz), but they’re still a ways back of their rivals: their group ranks 13th in baseball in 6th in the AL, and rank behind Houston and Anaheim in the AL West. The bullpen is projected to be the real problem, tied with Detroit’s as the AL’s worst unit at 1.8 WAR. Obviously, Dipoto’s “buy low” approach disagrees with the projections’ methodology, but I think most M’s fans are a bit nervous of the new, Carson Smith-less bullpen. That’s why it’s so critical that the M’s starters perform. Not only does the rotation become a strength that counters other clubs’ positional advantages, but a great rotation can consume more innings, leaving less for the marginal arms in the pen. The fewer 5th and 6th innings the M’s pen needs to work, the better, and with adequate depth, it’s easier to enable that to happen, even with guys like Paxton and Karns who don’t have 200 IP seasons in their history.
* In 2010, Central League teams scored 4.3 runs per game. That collapsed to 3.15 a year later. It was 4.2 in 2014, but 3.4 in 2015. The scoring was in part due to a change in the baseball itself, and the circumstances surrounding the “juiced ball”‘s release cost the commissioner his job.
Righty reliever Darren O’Day recently inked a four-year deal to remain with Baltimore which will earn him $31 million over four years. O’Day throws side-arm and often struggles to push his fastball past 86, but he’s undeniably one of the toughest relievers to hit in MLB right now. O’Day combines high strikeout rates with moderate walks, but as you’d expect from a soft-tossing righty, his success depends in part on his ability to generate weak contact. O’Day isn’t a ground-ball pitcher, but his funky arm angle and ability to back-door his slider to left-handed bats not only allows him to produce fly balls without too many HRs, it allows him to avoid the platoon splits that you’d figure given his pitches and how he throws them. Even a few years ago, giving a 4-year deal to anyone but an absolute no-doubt, lock-down closer would’ve been frowned upon (“they’re too volatile!” “You can just grow your own!”), and after Rafael Soriano and, to a lesser extent, Jonathan Papelbon’s deals went south, you’d be forgiven if you thought we wouldn’t see more such deals for anyone below the Chapman/Kimbrel/Jansen class, or lower AAV deals buying out free agency years for the likes of Ken Giles and Dellin Betances.
Obviously, the deal O’Day just signed – and the supportive reaction it’s received – is in part a sign of baseball’s financial health and the recognition not only that a shut-down bullpen can be critical to team success, but that some relievers really do seem to have the ability to “beat” their fielding-independent stats. That is, O’Day’s appearances come in highly leveraged situations, and he seems to have the ability to strand runners both due to his K rate and the whole infield-pops and opposite-field-texas-leaguers thing. Some may still quibble with this; giving $31m to a 33 year old seems risky, and if all relievers are volatile, the ones in their mid-30s who throw 85-88 might seem to be especially prone to it. Still, there’s no question that the market is more and more comfortable giving longer contracts to relievers. Relievers are getting more guaranteed money, over longer contracts – call it the Royals effect, after Kansas City’s bullpen-fueled run to consecutive AL Pennants and a WS Title, or chalk it up to the rising tide of MLBAM revenues or whatever, but it’s real, and it’s going to continue.
Carson Smith, as I’m sure you’ll recall, was the centerpiece in a trade for a young, cost-controlled *starting* pitcher this offseason, but you can *still* make the case he was undervalued. Smith’s 2.1 fWAR ranked 5th in baseball in 2015, the product of a great K rate and another kind of contact management: a freakish GB rate. His platoon splits, like O’Day’s, should be a problem despite the fact he throws 93, not 86: he’s a sinker/slider guy, two pitches that are generally the worst offenders in platoon split problems. Smith doesn’t backdoor his slider to lefties, he throws it in the same spot he throws it to righties, but the break and his deceptive delivery mean lefties just roll it over. Sure, sure, righties roll it over too, but lefties do so even more, and the *idea* of it – of defending against a weird slider you’re having trouble picking up out of Smith’s hand – makes his sinker more effective. Smith does it in a very different way to O’Day, but Smith too is able to pitch effectively against lefties: no lefty has homered off of Smith yet.
The Astros recently completed a trade with Philadelphia that sent young fireballing reliever Ken Giles to Houston. The Astros gave up young, hard throwing SP Vincent Velasquez (who K’d 25% of the batters he faced in the majors, and *35%* in AA last year), recently-drafted control artist Thomas Eshelman, and fly-balling back-of-the-rotation workhorse Brett Oberholtzer. Late last week, we learned that Philadelphia would *also* receive former #1 overall draft pick Mark Appel from Houston. The Phillies got quite a haul for Ken Giles, is what I’m saying. I think Wade Miley is a perfectly good #3-#4, and given his contract, that’s not a bad return, but the Giles package is categorically different. I think it’s possible that Giles may have drawn more interest from teams given his velocity, but again: Smith’s K rate was *better* despite pitching in the AL. You can hate fWAR for relievers all you want – Smith’s *FDP-WAR* was great too. Better than noted contact-manager Joaquin Benoit’s the last two years, better than Giles’, and on par with Andrew Miller’s – the guy who signed a 4-year, $36m deal last year. Smith is clearly in that Miller/O’Day class, but he makes the league minimum and, whether he wants to be or not, under the control of the Red Sox for 4+ years.
Ok, that’s a long-winded introduction to a post that’s supposed to be about Steve Cishek. The point here should be clear, but I’ll spell it out: how you feel about the M’s signing ex-Marlins closer Steve Cishek to a 2-year, $10m deal probably has a lot to do with your frame of reference for the move. On the one hand, Cishek looks an awfully lot like Darren O’Day, from the funky side-winding delivery to the domination of left-handed bats to the elevated strikeout rate. And hey, due to what may have been due to BABIP-luck and a weird but ultimately meaningless tired arm early in the year, he’ll have to take a *fraction* of what O’Day’s getting from the Orioles. The M’s bought low, and get a high-quality reliever’s bounce-back years for very little. From the other point of view, O’Day deal is completely irrelevant. The M’s needed a reliever to replace Carson Smith, and they got one, only older and with some serious red flags (Cishek’s velocity dropped by between 1-2 MPH last year), and signed him to a contract that’ll pay him roughly *10 times* what Smith would earn.
Advocates for seeing this as a great buy-low move might point out that given reliever volatility, shopping for relievers coming off of down years should be a clear arbitrage opportunity, and a way to add impact talent to the 2016 roster instead of waiting around for the overhauled system to produce another pre-arb-but-great reliever. The Smith fans would say that you can’t argue that reliever salaries are skyrocketing, or that relievers are increasingly seen as critical to team success, to justify the Cishek signing *AND* accepting “just” Miley and Aro in the Smith deal. The M’s would say that they used Smith to get something the team needed – starting pitching that would help the club in 2016 – and then replaced the bullpen hole by dumpster diving for an undervaled Cishek. Others counter that you can’t get a ton of credit for filling a hole that you’d just made after not accurately assessing how the league currently values relief pitchers.
That’s a lot of hypothetical arguing, and as is my wont, I’m not really interested in weighing in on one side or the other. If you read this blog at all over the past few years, you know I’m perhaps irrationally exuberant about Carson Smith, so I’ll say it was not a great imaginative leap for me to write from that side. But there’s definitely a case to be made that given salary inflation in general, a cheap starter and a cheap-but-great bullpen arm is worth more than a really cheap Carson Smith, some implied cash savings, and shopping for starters on the open market.*
Thus far, we’ve talked a lot about value and markets and not much about Steve Cishek, new Seattle Mariner. Let’s rectify that. Cishek has a very low arm angle, like O’Day’s, and has a similar pitch-mix: he throws 50-55% fastballs (overwhelmingly sinkers) and 45-50% sliders, with a handful of change-ups (a splitter, in Cishek’s case) mixed in. Like O’Day, Cishek throws his slider to lefties a lot, and like O’Day, he likes to keep his slider *away* from lefties. This has a couple of ramifications. For one, it allows him to grab some strikes-looking, and for another, it gets lefties to hit soft fly balls. Why? Because fly balls are more likely than GBs to be hit to the opposite field. The development of this backdoor slider resulted in both better K rates AND better results overall against lefties. Combined with a slight change in his approach with his fastball, and Cishek’s GB rate plunged in 2014 while his K rate rose.
This is essentially Darren O’Day’s approach. Despite the low arm-angle and the flurry of sinkers, O’Day is a *flyball* pitcher. Like Cishek, lefties hit fewer grounders against him than righties, but neither hits that many. O’Day shows the sinker early, then gets whiffs with his (slow) four-seamer by throwing it later in the count after batters, especially lefties, have seen his slider and sinker. Cishek *used* to do this, but hasn’t thrown his four-seamer much at all in recent years. Brooks has his throwing zero in 2015, but that’s likely a classification error – but that only highlights that Cishek wasn’t able to make his pitches distinct last year. O’Day’s command allows him to post walk rates that are much better than league average, but even so, he’s careful with lefties – he doesn’t pound the zone against them as much as he invites them to swing at pitcher’s pitches, only some of which are strikes. That was Cishek’s plan in 2014, but it fell apart in 2015. Last year, he walked/plunked 18 lefties, while striking out…18. Coupled with the somewhat alarming velocity loss, there are very good reasons why Cishek was first traded for a minor prospect midway through the year and then available cheaply in December.
Still, Cishek had a four-year track record in Florida that compares well with plenty of good relievers. The year after that run wasn’t great, but even with the lower velo and control problems, Cishek missed some bats and kept the ball in the park. After moving to St. Louis, the BABIP pendulum swung all the way back. While BABIP luck isn’t how you make your case for a new signing, it at least suggests that his ability to avoid barrels wasn’t entirely lost. It’s not so much that his BABIP was low in St. Louis as that the absurdly high rates in Miami weren’t indicative of his true talent.
Another player who has a similar approach and is even signed to a similar deal is the Astros’ Pat Neshek. Neshek has a funky arm angle, but, like Carson Smith, ends up delivering the ball higher than O’Day/Cishek. Neshek is something of an extreme fly-ball guy, and again, lefties hit more flies than righties do thanks in part to his delivery hiding the ball. He throws 90-91, or in between O’Day and Cishek, and his command is probably the best of the three. Late last year, Neshek started losing some velocity and he ended up scuffling badly down the stretch, though of course his Astros teammates were all playing poorly. Still, Neshek’s an example of someone with the same basic repertoire who’s able to succeed (mostly) at 90-91.
If he isn’t hurt, Cishek should add some value to the M’s pen, though exactly how much is hard to say. Steamer isn’t bullish, with a FIP/ERA in the David Rollins range. If he’s all the way back to his 2013-14 peak, he could add 1.5-2 FDP-WAR over the course of the deal. At this point, the M’s are handing him the closer’s job, so if he *is* effective, the innings he pitches figure to be pretty important ones.
* Yes, I realize the omission here is any discussion of Roenis Elias. If you think he’s got some value (and some of the projection systems do), then the M’s POV is harder to understand. If you don’t, and there are likewise many who’d agree with you, he’s simply not good enough to change the shopping list very much.
** This is just a random aside, and I thank you for reading all of this just to get some random thoughts that don’t quite fit the rest of the post, but here goes: the wisdom of the “buy low” FA signing seems well-studied and supported and all of that, but how often do RELIEVERS lose it for a year or two and then bounce back? I mean, we say relievers are volatile, but are we really saying that a successful reliever has only one way to go? Look at a list of great relievers from 2012-2014, and sure, many of them fared poorly in 2015, though injuries had a lot to do with that. Who are the guys who were great, then struggled, then turned good again? I hate to bring it up, but does Fernando Rodney count? I think Joaquin Benoit probably does, as does Joe Nathan. Mark Melancon’s 2011-2012-2013 looks purely, violently volatile, but while Glen Perkins’ 2015 was better than his 2014, but it wasn’t anything like his 2012-13. Anyone know of any studies on this?
Seriously can’t keep up with Jerry Dipoto this month, so I took a couple of days off of kvetching about minor M’s roster moves. Back at it, then. The biggest move of the past few days is the acquisition of 1B Adam Lind in a trade with Milwaukee. The M’s add a righty-killing bat at the very reasonable cost of three A-ball and below pitchers. Yesterday, the M’s lost OF Jabari Blash in the Rule 5 draft, with the A’s taking the slugging righty and then shipping him to San Diego. Here’s a not-so-brief run-down on these moves:
1: Adam Lind is a career .274/.332/.466 hitter in over 4,000 plate appearances for Toronto and Milwaukee. Sure, he’s a 1B/DH, but that’s not bad – it adds up to a 112 wRC+, solidly above average. Why was he acquired for a package of pitchers *headlined* by a a small righty who’s tossed 6 games above rookie league ball and then had Tommy John surgery? Chances are, if you know anything at all about Lind, you know he’s got some of the widest, most persistent platoon splits of any player in baseball. In a great post about the Lind and Scribner pick-ups at Fangraphs, Jeff Sullivan finds that Lind’s platoon splits are the largest in the game since 2002, easily eclipsing Seth Smith’s, Shin-Soo Choo’s, and Garrett Jones’.
You’ve got to keep that in mind, but the M’s seem aware, as Scott Servais has talked about the need for a platoon partner. RHB Jesus Montero would seem the likely candidate for the job, but the M’s could make another minor deal for a righty-hitting 1B, or they could move Nelson Cruz to 1B if a righty-hitting OF becomes available. I don’t mind platoons; I think getting the platoon advantage is a small, easy way of putting your team in the best position to succeed. There are obvious downsides, from squeezing the roster to a potential lack of flexibility and effectiveness in critical late-game situations. That said, I think platoons can help overall production and allow for an effective bench with hitters beyond the standard backup C and random UTIL/pinch runner.
However, with this move in particular, there’s another factor to keep in mind. Even at 32 (Lind will turn 33 in July), Lind destroys righties, but how much he plays – how many plate appearances he gets – is often a function of how many left-handed pitchers he faces. When he came up, the Blue Jays played Lind every day, and he typically saw around 72-75% right-handed pitchers, give or take. As the magnitude of his platoon issue became apparent, the Blue Jays got more intentional about how to deploy him, and that percentage rose above 80%, approaching 90% in 2014. That and recurring back problems limited him in many seasons with the Jays: he got just 318 PAs in 2014 and 353 in 2012. Last year, with the Brewers, Lind played a full season and *still* managed to face righties in 80.4% of his PAs. The question is: will that sort of usage be possible in Seattle?
Here is an admittedly rough look at platoon splits by league/division. In the table, you’ll see the total number of PAs vs. LHP by division for 2014 and 2015. To do this properly, you’d probably use a percentage of total PAs or something, but I haven’t done that – this is just adding up the raw PAs by year and team (and then rolling it up to the division level):
|PA vs. LHP, 2014||PA vs. LHP, 2015|
In 2014, no team faced a left-handed pitcher more than the Seattle Mariners. In 2015, the Rangers led baseball, and the M’s were 5th, one spot below the Astros. In 2015, the Brewers ranked 21st in PAs vs. lefties, with the Cubs and Pirates down at 25-26. In 2014, the Brewers ranked 26th with Pirates last in baseball. This is something I’ve found fascinating since reading this article back before the 2014 season: the NL Central just doesn’t really have many lefties, and may not focus as much as others on bullpen match-ups. They’re not alone, as the NL East shows similar tendencies. The other thing that jumps off the page is just how many more PAs vs. lefties you see in the AL. Apparently, one way for pitchers to deal with the DH is to specialize, but the effect (the AL West faced lefties 30% more than the NL central last year, and 23% the year before!) is so big, it can’t be all about interminable LOOGY/ROOGY appearances.
Look at the likely starters in the AL West next year. The Angels may have 3 lefty starters (CJ Wilson, Hector Santiago, Andrew Heaney), and the Rangers could have 3 as well (Derek Holland, Cole Hamels, Martin Perez). The A’s have 2 in Sean Nolin and Rich Hill, and while Houston has only 1, he’s pretty good and faces a lot of hitters (Dallas Keuchel). Whoever Lind’s caddy is will get plenty of action, and that means Lind won’t see as much action in 2016 even if he’s 100% healthy all year. This is a factor, but let’s be clear: Lind’s price was very low – both in terms of salary and the talent needed to acquire him. Lind’s platoon splits make him affordable, and even if the M’s may not be able to squeeze as much value out of him as the Brewers did, there’s still a valuable skill-set in there.
For their part, the Brewers are doing the same sort of thing. In Daniel Missaki, Carlos Herrera and Freddy Peralta, the Brewers picked up three righties with very good K:BB ratios whose physical size make them unlikely candidates for top prospect lists. Missaki, whom the M’s signed out of Brazil, tossed 7 IP of a combined no-hitter for Clinton (maybe the only good thing that happened to that team in 2015), but then tore his UCL soon thereafter. Missaki has a career K:BB ratio of 111:26, and was even better in his abbreviated 2015 (34:5), but is listed at 6′, 170, and if you could discount questions about his durability based solely on his size, his TJ surgery will be harder to explain away. Freddy Peralta repeated the Arizona league this year, putting up a 67:8 K:BB ratio, but he’s actually smaller than Missaki, listed at 5’11″ 175. Herrera was in the Dominican League where he posted a 73:15 K:BB ratio, and is listed as 6’2″ (a comparative giant!) and 150lbs. These are three lottery tickets, and they all have the same statistical/physical profile.
2: Jabari Blash was one of the most entertaining members of the workmanlike 2015 Tacoma Rainiers. The giant 6’5″, 220lb LF/RF knocked 32 HRs between AA and AAA, hitting one of the longer HRs I saw in 2015, and slugging .640 for Tacoma in 228 PAs. PCL or no, that’s going to attract attention. If we think we know what Jerry Dipoto likes in relief pitchers, and if we think we know what the Brewers see as undervalued assets in the low-minors, we also know what the new M’s front office sees as big red flags. Jabari Blash has contact problems, and there may not be a more damning statistic than that, at least as far as the M’s GM is concerned. Blash’s K rate last year was 25.8%, and 27.6% in AAA. That was actually an improvement on his 30%+ mark in almost 200 PAs for Tacoma in 2014, when his season was cut short for a PED suspension.
It’s somewhat telling that Blash couldn’t quite crack the big league roster despite having the RH-power that Jack Zduriencik craved, and despite a very good minor league walk rate. By some statistical models, Blash was an intriguing, if old-for-his-level prospect. Tweaking the assumptions slightly produces a much less auspicious set of comparisons. Ex-Fangraphs scouting guy/current Atlanta Braves scouting guy Kiley McDaniel wasn’t high on Blash heading into 2015, but it’s worth noting that he showed some real improvements throughout the year, hence the insane slash line in Tacoma. That said, I have my doubts, given how high his hands were before his swing and how far his (really long) arms had to move to get the bat into the zone. Like, say, Carlos Peguero, Blash has good batspeed, but it takes a long time for the bat to get to that top speed. As I said last September, this is the kind of guy some team will stash on their bench, using him sparingly as a bench bat and really working with him on his hitting. I was kind of interested to see what Edgar Martinez would do with him, but he’s
Mark Kotsay’s uh, Alan Zinter’s project in San Diego for now. Defensively, he has a plus arm, but wasn’t a great route-runner.
Okay, no discussion of Blash is complete without mention of his glorious name. Jabari Blash and Jabari Henry are the only two Jabaris I can find in pro baseball history, which makes the fact that they were in the same organization – *and in the same OF for part of 2015* – all the more remarkable. It’s easy to forget that, coming into 2015, it was Jabari HENRY that everyone was interested in. Henry hit 30 bombs in the Cal League in 2014, while Blash whiffed 30% and then got suspended in AAA. Henry hit .170/.284/.347 for Jackson, so to say that Blash is the Jabari of choice these days is quite an understatement. That said, it’s nice to have a spare Jabari with Blash off to San Diego. Henry is much smaller than Blash, but both are RHB OFs with some power and a lot of patience at the plate.
As nice as it is to have two Jabaris on one team, the M’s weren’t the first club to consider the possibility that Jabaris were a potential market inefficiency. In 2009, the Texas Rangers drafted Blash in the 9th round (#274) and then drafted Henry in the 39th round out of HS (#1174 overall). Neither player signed, leaving Blash on the board for the M’s to draft in 2010, and allowing Henry to play 3 years of college ball before drafting him in 2012. Take THAT, Rangers. Interestingly (maybe? not really?), the Rangers not only failed to sign a single Jabari, but they couldn’t ink their first-rounder, Texas HS hurler Matt Purke. Purke went to TCU before blowing out his arm and slipping to the 3rd round in 2011.
In my last post, I mentioned that recently-acquired bullpen arm Jonathan Aro looks a lot like Evan Scribner, then of the A’s, in terms of movement and approach. Pretty clearly, Jerry Dipoto doesn’t mind a pitcher who pitches up in the zone and gives up a lot of elevated contact, even if that’s caused HR issues in the past. Not content with grabbing a guy who could, if things break right, become a Scribner-like arm, Dipoto has gone and traded for the genuine article.
The price is reliever Trey Cochran-Gill, a right-hander with a good sinker/slider. Cochran-Gill was a 17th rounder out of Auburn, but thanks to a great, if abbreviated, 2014, found his way to #20 on the pre-season M’s top 30 prospect list put together by MLB.com. He pitched fairly well in the Spring for the M’s, and then started off the season with great numbers for Bakersfield. He then settled in at AA Jackson, and his control left him – he ended up with more walks than Ks in the Southern League, and was remarkably hittable.
Evan Scribner is coming off two sub-replacement level campaigns for Oakland. On the face of it, this looks like a minor swap: a struggling minor league sinkerballer for an out-of-options big leaguer with serious home run issues. But as we talked about yesterday, Scribner does have a remarkable K:BB ratio and a track record of missing bats at the highest level. HR rate is much, much more volatile than strikeout rate or walk rate, so simple regression to the mean *might* take care of some of the problem.
On twitter, many people pointed out that a fly-ball guy with a HR pitcher should do fine in Safeco field, thanks to its HR-killing mariner layer. The problem with this is that, by essentially any measure, Oakland is now a more *difficult* park to homer in than Safeco. Fangraphs’ park factors (for 2014, admittedly) show Oakland’s HR factor as 92, while Safeco’s is 98. By Statcorner, Oakland’s LHB/RHB HR factors are 81 and 80, respectively, while Seattle’s are 104 and 92. Just counting up the long balls shows that Oakland pitchers gave up 79 dingers at home, compared to 93 on the road. The M’s gave up 90 at home and 91 on the road.* As if to prove the point, Scribner threw 4 1/3 IP in Safeco last year, giving up 7 runs on two HRs (let this Gutierrez bomb to CF just wash over you).
So while the park helps in a general and limited sense, Safeco and the M’s outfield defense aren’t going to solve this on their own. I’d love to think the M’s have figured something out either in Scribner’s delivery or approach that can limit elevated contact. Scribner has struggled most against righties, which may make sense given the shape of his fastball and the fact that his primary breaking ball is a big overhand curve ball - both pitches tend to have small platoon splits. So: could a bit of deception in his delivery help? Maybe. Scribner’s also given up several home runs on outside pitches. These should be harder for batters to drive, but they’re obviously not having much trouble doing so; Scribner might do better keeping his fastball low on the outside corner, and elevate it when pitching inside. Of Scribner’s 24 HRs, *11* have come in 0-1 or 1-2 counts, which could indicate some predictable pitch sequencing.
Beyond the specific players involved, the trade for Scribner (and grabbing Aro in the Miley deal) seems to indicate a preference not just for fly-ball relievers, but for generalists. Scribner has essentially no platoon splits, and Justin De Fratus has reverse splits for his career. They’re replacing the sidewinding Carson Smith who, with his arsenal and arm angle *really should* have platoon splits, but didn’t. Gone is Tom Wilhelmsen, who struggled mightily against lefties last year, and has “normal” platoon splits for his career. And, when Dipoto wanted Scribner, he used another sinkerballer with a low arm-angle in Trey Cochran-Gill who could not get AA lefties out (K:BB ratio of 13:20). There’s an interesting argument embedded here that baseball’s hyper-specialization has gone too far, and that a team with Scribners may be harder to pinch-hit against. Taking it further, you could envision a team with generalists running a 6-man pen, handing the bats another position to use against the opponents’ LOOGYs and ROOGYs. At the same time, I think the advantage of a Carson Smith (or someone worse, say, Roy Corcoran or Sean Green) wasn’t just the platoon advantage – it was that they could generate a specific type of contact. We haven’t seen the final, opening-day M’s bullpen, but I hope that’s still a consideration.
Last season, the A’s bullpen had the 2nd slowest average fastball in the game, just ahead of Houston. Their bullpen imploded, and while it’s absolutely not the case that you can’t succeed without velo (look at Houston or San Francisco), Billy Beane and co. have remade their bullpen this off-season and clearly prioritized velocity. Gone is Scribner with his below-average (92mph) FB, and in is Ryan Madson and his 95mph heater. As August Fagerstrom wrote at Fangraphs, they’ve ditched many of their worst performers from last year, many of whom were comparative soft-tossers: Edward Mujica, Eric O’Flaherty, Dan Otero.
The M’s, who ranked in the middle of the pack last year, are again moving in the opposite direction. The A’s swapped out Scribner’s 92 for Madson’s 95, while the M’s shipped out Wilhelmsen’s 95 for Scribner’s 92. Justin De Fratus is around 92 as well, Bass and Aro are around 93-94, while Cody Martin’s more like 89-90. The M’s hardest thrower is now Tony Zych, the guy acquired for cash considerations last spring. Again, that’s not necessarily bad, but it DOES look different. Some of the big off-season stories involve teams trying to create something akin to Kansas City’s death-dealing bullpen – Boston’s traded for Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith and have, on paper at least, a shut-down pen. Oakland’s is at least no longer a clear weakness. The Dodgers looked to be acquiring Aroldis Chapman *despite already having a dominant closer*, before Chapman’s ugly, ugly domestic violence arrest put his future in question. Even with the pick-up of trusted-closer ™ Joaquin Benoit, the M’s are moving in a different direction. Bucking the consensus is a great way to innovate or reap big returns, and it’s also a way to fail. Here’s hoping the M’s – and their pitching coaches – can help the M’s build an effective ‘pen out of not just undervalued but unwanted parts.
* To be clear: Safeco is still a pitcher’s park, though less so than before the remodel. It’s just that Safeco aids pitchers by suppressing hits – it’s really hard to hit doubles there, for example, which may have something to do with its small total outfield area.