Game 38, Mariners at Orioles

May 17, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 39 Comments 

Wade Miley vs. Ubaldo Jimenez, 4:05pm

It’s raining in Baltimore, but it’s supposedly supposed to dry up by game time.

Both clubs come into today’s game tied for the lead in their respective divisions, the Orioles with the Red Sox, and the M’s with the Rangers. Baltimore was supposed to have a powerful but whiff-prone offense, and they’ve delivered: they lead MLB in home runs, but while they’re above average in K%, they’re only at 13th – far below other similar teams like Tampa, Houston or Detroit. Manny Machado is proving that his break out was no fluke, and Chris Davis is off to a solid start, too. The surprise of the offense somehow isn’t CF, leadoff man and Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard, though I do wonder how often a Rule 5 pick gets to lead off for a good ballclub. Instead, it’s ex-Mariner disappointment Mark Trumbo, who shares the lead in HRs with Machado at 11, and is hitting .306/.362/.593 thus far. He’s penalized a bit for his defense, but he’s already produced 1.1 fWAR, or his season total from last year across the M’s and D-Backs.

The Oriole offense is tough because they combine a high HR/FB ratio with a whole lot of FBs. They’re #1 in baseball in HR/FB, and have the 10th-highest FB%. That’s going to be something for Wade Miley to think about tonight. A few years ago, you may have heard about this Andrew Koo article at BP noting that the Athletics had stockpiled fly-ball hitters, which, the thinking went, gave them an advantage against all of the ground-ball pitchers in the AL West at the time. On the cheap (of course), the A’s assembled a line-up that gave over 60% of its PAs to fly-ball hitters, by far the most in the majors in 2013. Those fly-ball hitters hit *best* against ground ball guys, and thus the A’s put together a solid offense by keeping an eye on a very different kind of platoon advantage.

Well, the Orioles have enjoyed some success against pitches classified as sinkers and two-seamers, as have other FB teams like the Mets and Blue Jays. Wade Miley’s been a ground ball guy for a while now, but unlike, I don’t know, Dallas Keuchel, he doesn’t *need* to be. Miley throws a rising four-seam fastball that, on its own, seems like a strong fly ball pitch. He’s also using it more this year than he has in the past; he was throwing his four-seam and sinker about equally often in his first few starts of the 2016 regular season, but he’s now throwing 2 four-seamers for every sinker. The Orioles’ linear weights against four-seamers is currently negative. This isn’t about getting Miley to go out of his comfort zone to combat an opponent’s weakness – it’s more that his recent shifts would seem to give him a better chance than might think (HR-plagued pitcher faces HR-slugging offense).

Ubaldo Jimenez is coming off a solid 2015, when a drop in his walk rate allowed him to post an above-average season after a poor 2014. Jimenez started 2015 strong, and kind of tailed off down the stretch, and unfortunately, he’s still not looking great. He’s given up a lot of the gains he made in walk rate, and his K% has dropped below 20% for the first time in years. He’s getting more ground balls thanks to using his splitter a lot more, but it hasn’t yet impacted his HR rate – when batters DO elevate the ball, they do damage. Thanks to the splitter, a curve, and an extreme over-the-top delivery, Jimenez never really had much in the way of platoon splits. But lefties are torching him this year, with a .386 average and a SLG% near .600. That’s BABIP-driven, sure, but it may be a sign that his fastball’s not able to keep them honest any more. Lefties and righties are teeing off on his fastballs, and at least *righties* can hit his splitter (lefties still struggle with it).

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Marte, SS
9: Martin, CF
SP: Miley

Tacoma enjoyed a walk-off 7-5 win over Omaha last night, scoring 4 in the 9th in the process. James Paxton started and posted a great K:BB ratio of 8:1 in 4 IP, but gave up 5 runs in a disastrous 2nd inning, giving up 4 extra-base hits in the frame. The bullpen made it hold up long enough for the Rainiers to mount a comeback. Ed Lucas homered twice (including the walk-off shot in the 9th), Luis Sardinas had 3 hits in the leadoff spot and Chris Taylor had 2 more. Oddly, Mike Zunino/Stefen Romero going a combined 0-9. The two clubs have a day game today on getaway day. Adrian Sampson’s going for Tacoma.

Mobile beat up on Jackson last night, scoring 6 in the first on their way to a comfy 10-3 win. Tyler O’Neill homered and walked for the Generals, but it wasn’t enough, as Jordan Pries (just sent down from Tacoma) gave up 9 runs in under 3 IP. Of note, Edwin Diaz pitched two innings for the first time, and was lights out: 1 hit, 0 BB, 5 Ks. Sam Gaviglio starts for the Generals in Mobile tonight.

The Stockton Ports smoked The Blaze’s Tyler Herb for 4 runs in the first and came away with an 8-4 win over Bakersfield. In Herb’s worst outing of the year, the RHP walked 6 after not walking more than 2 in any other 2016 start. Drew Jackson and Jay Baum both had 2 hits for Bakersfield. The Blaze head to High Desert tonight, with Tyler Pike on the mound-in-a-wind-tunnel in Adelanto.

Clinton was off yesterday, but kicked off a series against Quad Cities with a 6-0 win today. Zack Littell had his best outing of the year, with 7 2/3 scoreless IP and 8 Ks. Dalton Kelly singled and doubled, and Rayder Ascanio had 3 hits for the Lumberkings.

Game 37, Angels at Mariners

May 15, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 22 Comments 

King Felix vs. Hector Santiago, 1:10pm

Happy Felix Day.

I started this series mentioning that I felt bad for the Angels, and that somehow, through their cavalcade of injuries and awful luck, they seemed less detestable. Yeah, so that lasted all of 48 hours.

Today’s match-up is a repeat of the game back on April 23rd, when Hector Santiago worked his high-fastball, hard to square up magic for 6 solid innings. As I mentioned then, Santiago’s in the Marco Estrada/Wei-Yin Chen family of pitchers who throw a lot of rising four-seam fastballs, and attempt to pitch around the occasional home run that this approach produces. Like Estrada, Santiago’s ERA’s been much better than his FIP, which is sky high due to an elevated HR rate. The key to this approach is that the rising FB seems to help Santiago maintain a very low BABIP (something ignored by FIP). One reason why is a consistently high pop-up rate. Even those fly balls that find the outfield tend to have a low BABIP.

Santiago’s fastball is only 92mph, and he doesn’t throw a ton of breaking balls. Instead, his secondary offering is a big change-up, that kind of reminds me of Mike Montgomery’s. It’s a decent pitch, and it gives him something to use against right-handed hitters. That said, he’s not able to reduce or eliminate his platoon splits the way some high-rising, over-the-top FB guys can – righties have hit him much harder over his career than lefties. The change-up allows him to post essentially equal K rates to RHBs/LHBs, but righties’ HR/9 is triple that of lefties. Why? For whatever reason, Santiago has vastly different batted ball profiles depending on the handedness of the hitter. Against lefties, he’s essentially league average – a few more GBs than FBs, and an overall GB% of 44%. But against righties, he’s about as extreme a FB hitter you’ll find, with a GB% under 30% over his career. All of those fly balls mean more HRs, and that’s why you’ll see a righty-stocked line-up today. The gap in batted ball outcomes is consistent between his FB and CH, but it’s still striking: lefties have a GB% on Santiago’s four-seam of 44%. For righties, it’s 20%.

Felix’s fastball velocity seems to be trending up again, as he averaged 91 against Tampa and 90-91 against Oakland in his last two starts. That’s not to say everything’s back to normal. He’s still struggling a bit to miss bats, but the contact he allows has never been better. He’s still getting great results with his change and curve, and he’s mixing in a bit more of his four-seam fastball in recent starts. His FIP’s still ugly thanks to that weirdly high walk rate, itself a product perhaps of batters’ increased patience against him. Batters’ swing rate against Felix has dropped by 5 percentage points this year, which is odd, and bears watching. Has Felix just thrown a few more obvious balls, or is this part of a deliberate strategy, especially when Felix’s command appears to be off?

1: Aoki, LF
2: Marte, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Iannetta, C
6: Seager, 3B
7: Lee, 1B
8: Gutierrez, RF
9: O’Malley, CF
SP: El Cartelua

Welcome back, Shawn O’Malley, who’s swapped places with fellow utility man, Luis Sardinas.

Tacoma beat Omaha 3-2 thanks to a solid start from Joe Wieland and another HR from catcher Rob Brantly. Today, Cody Martin takes the mound against Omaha’s Brooks Pounders.

Jackson beat Mobile 3-2, as Brett Ash pitched into the 7th IP. Ash had blanked the Shuckers for 6, but gave up a game-tying two-run HR to Kevin Cron in the 7th (Cron’s CJ’s brother, and a guy who spurned the M’s when they drafted him out of HS). Undaunted, the Generals got a bases-loaded walk in the 8th to re-take the lead, and Emilio Pagan made it hold up. The Generals play two today, with Dylan Unsworth and Andrew Kittredge starting today.

Bakersfield took a 9-1 lead, and then held on for a 9-6 win over Stockton. Andrew Moore was sharp for 6 IP, with only a solo HR sullying his line, but Thyago Viera had a bad time in his 1+ IP, giving up 5 runs. Kyle Petty and Daniel Torres each had three hits for the Blaze.

Clinton was swept in their double header against Peoria, with Nick Wells taking the hard-luck loss in game 1′s 3-2 game, and Joey Strain absorbing a well-deserved L after giving up 5 runs in the 9th in Peoria’s 7-2 win. Art Warren starts today’s game.

Game 36, Angels at Mariners

May 14, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 10 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Jhoulys Chacin, 6:10pm

The M’s will try to get the awful taste of last night’s loss out of their mouths by beating the Angels’ newly-acquired starter, Jhoulys Chacin. Chacin made his debut for Colorado in 2009, but enjoyed his first sustained big league campaign the next year (he started 2010 in the PCL, where he started on opening night against Tacoma). He looked like a junkballer, but a *good* one. Not a command and control guy (he walked way too many for that), but someone who made up for his lack of raw stuff by throwing 4-5 different pitches, trying to induce half-swings and bad swings in the process.

Injuries and inconsistency dotted his tenure with the Rockies, but for a while there, he really was an effective pitcher. He racked up nearly 4 fWAR in 2013, and had a pair of 2+ win seasons earlier on, which isn’t too shabby for a guy walking 4 per 9 at altitude. In those “good” years, he pitched around the walks by running a very low BABIP and keeping the ball in the ballpark. Befitting his junkballing ways, he seemed to do this differently each year. In 2011, he was an extreme ground ball pitcher. He’d give up walks, but he kept the ball in the ballpark with two different fastballs, a slider, and an odd change-up (I say odd, because it rises more than his sinker, which is kind of amazing given that it’s slower).

He suffered a pectoral injury the next year, which may have had something to do with a completely different batted-ball profile. In 14 starts, his walk rate plunged nearly 18 percentage points, leading to a predictable increase in HRs-allowed. In 2013, again healthy, he enjoyed his best season thanks to a drop in walk rate. His GB% rebounded, but ended up splitting the difference between his 2011 and 2012 seasons. After injuries doomed his 2014 season, the Rockies released him, and he spent 2015 pitching for the Cleveland and Arizona systems, ultimately making a few starts for the Snakes late in the year.

At some point last year, he picked up a cutter, giving him a sixth pitch. Despite some ugly results with it in 2015, it’s become a pretty important pitch for him; he throws it more than any breaking/offspeed pitch. It’s thrown pretty hard (88mph), and has similar vertical break to his sinker. Taking his arsenal overall, Chacin’s able to get the ball to move quite a lot horizontally. The four-seam and cutter have very little, but his sinker has 8″ of armside run, while his slider and curve get 7-8″ of gloveside movement.

The slider’s his best pitch, and for a guy who’s struggled to miss bats, it’s kind of stunning to see the whiff rates he gets on it. In 2016, over half of the swings on it have come up empty, and he’s induced whiffs on over 40% of the 2,500+ he’s thrown throughout his career. Of course, sliders generally come with platoon split issues, and that’s just what we see with Chacin: in his career, his FIP is 1.2 runs better vs. RHBs than LHBs. Chacin started 2016 with the Braves, and had an up-and-down month. He was brilliant in his first start, tossing 6 shutout IP and striking out 8. In his last start, he gave up 8 runs in 4 2/3 IP, yielding *4* dingers in the process after not allowing one in his previous 4 starts. I have no idea what to expect from Chacin going forward. This is a decent move by the Angels to get a competent starter for nothing (they dealt ATL an org guy, since that’s pretty much all they’ve got), but no one thinks Chacin’s going to replace Garrett Richards’ – or even Andrew Heaney’s – production.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Clevenger, C
8: Marte, SS
9: Martin, CF
SP: Iwakuma

Wanted to mention this Prospect Insider piece yesterday, but I forgot. Jason Churchill goes over the standouts in the M’s system over the year’s first month, including Tyler O’Neill and Tyler Herb. It’s a great overview, and I essentially agree with all of it. I’ve been really bullish on Tyler Marlette for years, but that’s getting tougher and tougher to sustain. Meanwhile, Churchill tabbing O’Neill as the #1 prospect before the year is looking better and better. It’s hard to overstate how out-of-step that move was with the consensus pick of Alex Jackson, and the M’s have had such terrible luck with high-HR, high-K guys hitting AA (Johermyn Chavez, anyone?). O’Neill’s transition to AA has been remarkable, and it’s definitely been one of the young season’s highlights.

The Rainiers dropped the series finale in Fresno, 4-3 in 10 innings. Astros prospect Joe Musgrove was tough for 5 IP, and the Grizz bullpen was pretty stout the rest of the way. Donn Roach pitched well for Tacoma, yielding 2 runs in 6 IP, but Jonathan Aro gave up the tying run in the 7th, and Paul Fry gave up a walk-off fielder’s choice in the 10th. Rob Brantly homered for Tacoma. Today, it’ll be Joe Wieland opening a homestand for Tacoma as they host Omaha. Today’s game’s at 5:05. Royals prospect Hunter Dozier was recently promoted, and has hit very well this season.

Jackson blanked Birmingham 2-0, thanks to 6 shutout innings from Ryan Yarbrough. Yarbrough K’d 7 without a walk. DJ Peterson doubled in a run, which made up for Tyler O’Neill going hitless for the 2nd time in 3 games after a 14 game hitting streak. Emilio Pagan notched the save; he’s given up 8 hits and 6 walks in 16 IP with 22 Ks and only a single run allowed. Brett Ash starts tonight’s game in Mobile against ex-D’Backs prospect Charles Brewer.

Bakersfield beat Stockton 4-1, getting a solid start from Eddie Campbell who held the Ports hitless into the 6th. Chantz Mack homered, and Ivan Sanchez picked up the save. The ex-Pirates minor leaguer now has 26 Ks in 18 2/3 IP. No word yet on today’s starter.

Clinton was rained out, so they’ll play two today. Nick Wells and Lukas Schiraldi start against the Peoria Chiefs.

Game 35, Angels at Mariners

May 13, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 34 Comments 

Nate Karns vs. Nick Tropeano, 7:10pm

The first-place M’s host the reeling Angels tonight, a team facing the loss of their starting shortstop, and big off-season acquisition, Andrelton Simmons. They’ve gone from a rotation headed up by Garrett Richards to one relying on Andrew Heaney (whoopsadoodle) and whatever BABIP mojo Jered Weaver has left. All of this has led to a spate of stories about the possibility of trading the Angels superstar, Mike Trout. Will this actually happen? No. But Trout self-evidently can’t make the Angels contenders on his own, and there sure as hell aren’t any reinforcements coming from the minor leagues. His value to the Angels is high, as he’s their marketable superstar, but not as high as it would be to other teams, who could use Trout in a playoff race. It’s all very logical, and in the final analysis, it’s just for fun. But it has to feel familiar: how many years have we endured the idle speculation of national writers about the necessity of moving Felix Hernandez to a contender, or musing on the prospect package that might get the M’s attention. As an M’s fan/Felix fan, that sort of thing was excruciating, even as people would say it was for the club’s own good. This memory, and this Meg Rowley piece at BP about how the Angels struggles and what M’s fans do about them, has me in the weird position of feeling bad for the Angels. I didn’t think it was possible either.

Today’s game features an interesting pitching match-up between two somewhat similar pitchers. I wouldn’t have picked them as similar before today, but hey, that’s research for ya. What leaps out at you from Nick Tropeano’s Fangraphs page is the way that so many peripherals are essentially cranked to 11, Spinal Tap style. K/9? Over 10! BB/9? Sky-high! Home runs? It’s rainin’ dingers! This is a Rob Deer-style, er, Joey Gallo-style for you younger folks, line-up. Fully 41% of his plate appearances end in a K, a walk, or a homer. That’s odd to me, because when Tropeano first came up with Astros, he seemed like an unremarkable, pitch-to-contact 5th starter. OVer time, he’s figured out how to use his slider to miss bats, which is great, but he likes missing bats so much, he’s also missing the strike zone. Despite the great slider, he doesn’t get batters to chase all that much. It’s just that when they do, they’ve got no hope. It all adds up to a right-hander throwing 90-91, and posting an overall contact% this year of 68.8%. After his 20-K game, Max Scherzer’s contact% was 72.2%. Noah Syndergaard’s is 69.9%. Only Clayton Kershaw and Jose Fernandez have lower contact% numbers.

But it’s not just that his three-true-outcome stats are cranked up. His BABIP allowed is .345! He ranks in the bottom 20% in expected linear weights given his batted ball velocity/angle – that is, even the contact he DOES allow is similarly jacked up. Strand rate? Insanely high. Fly ball rate? Top 5 in baseball, ahead of Jered Weaver, and within range of Chris Young’s. Nick Tropeano doesn’t do half-measures, apparently.

So, how many pitchers are there that, like Tropeano, have K’d over a quarter of batters they’ve faced, and walked at least another 10%? There are 9 thus far, and tonight’s match-up features two of them. Yes, Nate Karns has a *higher* K% (lower K/9, because Tropeano gives up more hits, walks, homers, everything), and a high walk rate. Whereas Tropeano’s three-true-outcome percentage was 41.2%, Karns’ is 39.7%. While Karns’ BABIP is a boringly average .295, the contact he’s allowed is among the loudest in baseball. Remember how Tropeano’s in the bottom 20% for contact quality? Karns ranks 486 out of 492 in expected linear weights per ball in play. Both Tropeano and Karns have been fly-ballers, and they’re lucky enough to play in parks that suppress fly ball damage. That said, their contact rates should account for park, so by these statcast numbers, they’re still giving up a lot of loud outs.

Looking at Jeff’s post about Drew Pomeranz made me think of Karns, too. Pomeranz is another of the 9 high-K, high-BB pitchers, and he’s off to a hot start with San Diego. He’d been a swingman for Oakland for a few years, and was then traded to SD for the about-to-be-non-tendered Yonder Alonso. This year, Pomeranz started throwing his curveball much more than he had in the past, and mixing it with high fastballs. Sound like anyone on the M’s? This year, Karns’ curve usage is up over 10 percentage points, throwing a fair number of high FBs, and reaping the benefits of both high Ks and low BABIP. Karns’ ERA is 0.70 runs better than his FIP while Pomeranz’s is 0.82 runs better. (Tropeano’s is 1.20 runs better, because of course it is).

1: Aoki, LF
2: Marte, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Smith, RF
7: Lind, 1B
8: Iannetta, C
9: Martin, CF
SP: Karns

News from the minors today includes the call-up of Gary Sanchez to the Yanks. The power-hitting Sanchez has been a big prospect for many years, and makes his debut tonight. The other call-up is former #1 overall draft pick and long-time cautionary tale, Matt Bush, who’ll join the Rangers tonight *12 years* after going #1 overall in the 2004 draft.

Adrian Sampson pitched well for Tacoma, and the Rainiers clung to a 3-2 lead before blowing it open with a 9th inning grand slam and a 9-5 win over Fresno. Chris Taylor had three hits and a walk, and Daniel Robertson had the aforementioned salami. Sampson gave up just 2 hits and 1 earned run in 8 IP. Donn Roach starts for the R’s tonight.

Jackson scored 3 in the 5th to take a 3-0 lead over Birmingham, but the Barons put up a 7 spot in the 7th to win, er, 7-3. Ryan Horstman gave up 6 runs without recording an out, which really stings the old stat sheet. Tyler O’Neill doubled for the Generals, who send Ryan Yarbrough to the hill tonight.

Sam Coonrod and the San Jose Giants confused Bakersfield en route to an easy 6-0 win. The Blaze managed three singles all night. Tyler Pike’s weird control problems had something of a relapse last night, as he walked 4 in 5 IP with just 1 K. The Blaze host Stockton tonight, who start Casey Meisner, an Oakland pitching prospect, and the main return in the Tyler Clippard deal a year ago.

Clinton downed Peoria 5-4 thanks to three hits from Dalton Kelly and a home run by Connor Hale. Art Warren starts for the Lumberkings tonight.

Miscellany: The AL West, Edwin Diaz, Minor Leagues

May 13, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

This post was supposed to be out yesterday for the off-day, but I… I didn’t finish it. Darn. Let’s talk about various things, but only briefly. Let’s not linger, for baseball is always approaching. It is relentless, and it is wonderful.

1: You know what else is wonderful? This picture:
Playoff Odds - AL West
This is Fangraphs’ Playoff Odds in the AL West from the beginning of the year until May 11th, when Jeff Sullivan used it in this post at Fangraphs. Jeff mentions that this isn’t just Fangraphs’ odds overreacting to the Astros slow start, but because visuals are nice, here’s BP’s Playoff Odds through yesterday:
BP playoff odds
In both, the M’s started out with the second-highest odds behind Houston, and in both, the M’s passed the Astros as the most likely playoff team some time in April. At the other end of the division, the A’s and Angels have quickly fallen off the pace, and especially in BP’s version, they’ve got essentially no shot now. This is pretty remarkable, given that the teams seemed bunched around .500. That said, this kind of wholesale re-shuffling of the playoff odds is only possible *because* the teams started off so close together. With the teams’ true talent near .500, the first month or so of actual games – and the M’s actual, sizable lead over Houston – is crucial. Houston was the favorite not because the systems thought they were great, but that they had a consistent yet small advantage. Even if that were true, it’s not going to be enough at this point. The M’s hot start means something.

The interesting thing, at least to me, is Texas. They’re the only team sticking around with the M’s, but Fangraphs thought they’d be awful, or whatever passes for awful in the parity-stricken AL. Thus, even now, they haven’t passed the Astros in playoff odds. In BP’s version, they started out ahead of the A’s and Angels, and thus their hot start combined with a not-abysmal estimate of true talent means their playoff odds are second-highest in the division.

That Texas is in second right now doesn’t really shock me – I thought they’d be a tough team, and thought they were being overlooked before the season. What HAS surprised me is the degree to which the division’s separated itself so distinctly so early. Some of this is due to injury: the Angels suffered some bad luck in the spring, and it’s only accelerated since the season began. They’ve now lost their ace, Garrett Richards, for the season, and must turn to Brendan Ryan at SS due to Andrelton Simmons’ injuries. Oakland, though, is harder to understand. I don’t think anyone thought their rotation was going to carry them, but the A’s are giving up 5.17 runs per game, well above even the Angels’ 4.47, and the Astros’ 4.72. Some of this is bad luck; Sonny Gray won’t have an ERA of 6 the whole year, and Jesse Hahn’s already replaced some of the stragglers. But Sean Manaea was supposed to help, and he’s allowed 16 runs in 12 2/3 IP. Kendall Graveman wasn’t supposed to be an All-Star, but his FIP’s over 6 at this point. They’re the A’s, and they play in a cavern: their run prevention will improve, and improve markedly. But I think any estimate of their true talent needs to be revised downwards a bit. Sonny Gray isn’t bad, by any stretch, but he may not be a true #1 starter. Graveman seemed like a perfectly fine #4-5, but if he’s closer to replacement level than that, then the A’s are kind of sunk.

Meanwhile, the early returns on some of the M’s big gambles look pretty promising. I don’t know that I’d even put Nate Karns in the “gamble” category, but the fact that the M’s weren’t sure he’d make the rotation 7-8 weeks ago sounds hilarious now. Steve Cishek really WAS a gamble, an ex-closer with declining velocity and someone who’d been traded off by a go-nowhere Marlins club. Dae Ho Lee, too, was no guarantee to make the roster, and has been the kind of bench bat/spot starter the M’s simply haven’t had in years, and his presence allows the M’s some flexibility in dealing with Adam Lind’s struggles. The M’s have been the beneficiaries of some good breaks, but they’ve also shown some aptitude for finding value. They’re in the best position this franchise has been in for many, many years.

2: So perhaps THAT’S why the M’s decided that now was the time to pull the plug on Edwin Diaz as a starting pitcher. As I mentioned the other day, Diaz led all of AA in K-BB%, and if his change-up wasn’t well developed, it clearly wasn’t preventing him from missing bats. Moreover, it’s not like Diaz was struggling against opposite-handed hitters. In his career, Diaz has been better against lefties than righties. Last year, over two levels, Diaz allowed a .730 OPS to righties, but just a .585 mark to lefties. His OBP-against has been better against lefties *every year*. I’m not saying that this proves he’ll always have reverse splits, but it seems to suggest that he’s learned how to use his slider against lefties effectively. The flipside is that he’s not a guy who’s succeeded by dominating righties, which means it’s harder to assume he’d instantly become a great situational reliever.

The numbers we have are limited, of course, and may not prove a whole lot. Brandon Maurer didn’t show much in the way of platoon splits in the minors, and then looked completely defenseless against lefties as a big league starter. If the M’s foresee those kinds of problems, the move makes some sense. Diaz’s delivery is low-3/4, releasing the ball around 5 1/2 feet above the ground, and way off towards third base. That delivery screams platoon splits, as it should give lefties a long look at the ball. That minor league lefties haven’t learned how to exploit it doesn’t necessarily mean that big leaguers won’t. The numbers don’t identify Diaz as a clear reliever candidate, but his body type and arm angle might.

That said, I’ve never really been clear on why such a move helps. Andrew Miller, Wade Davis, Zach Britton – these guys were all starters in the majors, and many other excellent relievers only moved to the pen when they’d failed as starters in the minors (or failed at hitting, in the case of Kenley Janson and Jason Motte). The M’s have a 20-day plan for Diaz that includes pitching on back-to-back days, and that’s the kind of thing that makes some sense to test months before you attempt it in the majors. But it seems like starting is a great way to build stamina, overall arm strength, and learning how read/attack hitters.

In general, I’m against letting the big club’s success drive player development goals and timelines. As pretty much the only high-ceiling pitching prospect in the M’s system, Diaz seemed too valuable for a role change in early May, particularly given how well he was pitching. I don’t think the M’s did Brandon Morrow any favors years ago by switching his role around, and I keep thinking about that experience when reading about Diaz. But while it’s only been a month and a half, the M’s player development group has earned a benefit of the doubt, at least a grudging one. Diaz has already improved his command, and it’s not insane to think he actually could help the big league club. If you change a prospect’s role because of an injury to a set-up man or two, that’s insane. If you accelerate a timeline because of an aromatic stew of injuries, a radically changed playoff picture and a big-league need, well, that’s still a bit crazy, but so is Steve Cishek: shut-down closer, so I’ma let you finish.

So what would Diaz look like as a reliever? Luckily, we got a preview during last year’s all-star break, when Diaz pitched out of the pen for the World team in the Futures Game. He gave up a dinger to Josh Bell, so the overall results weren’t great, but it afforded us a look at how his stuff plays in short stints, and how his pitches move. His velocity was excellent, sitting near 95, but touching higher. His slider looked pretty good as well, albeit without a ton of vertical break. Still, it’s his fastball that has me intrigued, and may be what got moved up the M’s timeline for him. BrooksBaseball categorizes it as a sinker, and it’s got impressive armside run (as you might expect from the whippy, low-3/4 angle) and very good sink for a pitch moving so fast.

Which relievers throw 95-97mph sinkers with 4″ of vertical movement? Well, that’s pretty much exactly what Zach Britton’s devastating sinker looks like, as Jeff Sullivan wrote about here. Now, that’s not to say Diaz has *pitched* like Britton or gotten batted ball results that look anything LIKE Britton’s. That in itself is something of a mystery to me, and something I hope this change in role might correct. I say that not because I think Diaz needs to pitch at the knees exclusively, but that his raw stuff could really play up if he tried to attack hitters the way Britton does. Obviously, it took Britton himself a long time to figure this out, and many years of getting annihilated as a starter, so I don’t think this is something that a 20-day plan can instill. But a change in approach is much easier to implement than an overhaul of mechanics or stuff.

Mechanically, Diaz and Britton are nothing alike. Britton’s much more over the top, which makes the horizontal run on his sinker *more* impressive. But given Diaz’s command, there’s no reason he couldn’t get ground balls when he needed to, and that’s something the M’s bullpen could actually use. The M’s bullpen currently ranks 5th in MLB in FB%. Cishek, Vincent, Nuno, Peralta and to a degree Benoit are all strongly fly-ball oriented, which means your GB guys are simply the ones without much of a big league track record: Mike Montgomery, Tony Zych and Mayckol Guaipe. Slotting Diaz in, particularly if he’s able to target his sinker a bit differently, could add a different dimension to the pen.

Just because Diaz throws a good sinker doesn’t mean he’s destined to become a great, Britton-esque reliever. If you just look at horizontal and vertical movement, there are other names that pop up as similar, including some whose mechanics look more like Diaz. Names like Trevor Gott, which is a name I’d not encountered before. There are no guarantees in life, but especially in pitching. That’s one of the reasons this move makes me nervous. That said, there are reasons to think this could work out.

3: #1 and #2 above are clearly linked. The M’s are doing well, they’re projected to be a contender, and that causes other things to happen, both within the organization and outside of it. How we as fans react to that depends a lot on our experience as M’s fans: where have we seen something like this before? What happened then? These are completely normal questions, almost hard-wired into the human brain, but that’s not to say they always lead to good answers. As M’s fans, we have seen a lot of bad things, and thus any precedent, anything that reminds you of something that came before is highly likely to be an unpleasant memory. How do you enjoy this ride when that keeps happening?

I saw this conversation with author David Rieff today about Rieff’s new book, “In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies,” and thought that it applied rather well to being a fan. Rieff’s thesis is that the old nostrum that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it is obviously, conclusively false from an actual, empirical basis, and not all that convincing from a theoretical point of view. His solution is, as you can see by the title, to forget.

Baseball often seems like a very applied branch of history; it can seem to outsiders like it’s all tradition and memory, with a dash of Mike Trout and Aroldis Chapman thrown in to give it an athletic veneer. I don’t totally agree with that, but there are so many things about baseball, starting with its exhaustive documentation, that set it up for historical comparisons, for finding precedents, for connecting 2016 with 1986, 1956 and 1916. I think that’s kind of nice, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t sometimes prevent you from getting swept up in something. Baseball kindly builds drama over a long season to such an extent that something like the 1995 season, or a playoff run like Kansas City’s in 2014 will absolutely overwhelm the “don’t forget about Brandon Morrow!” parts of the brain. They can shut them out entirely. But until you get there, the historical memory is going to keep pointing stuff out.

I think there’s been a lot of talk on twitter, and presumably on the radio, about how to react to this M’s team, and I’ve seen a lot of arguments that any argument from the past necessarily has no bearing on the present season. That just because Bill Bavasi was bad at his job doesn’t mean Jerry Dipoto has to be (my brain is telling me they both came from the Angels, and I’m telling myself to shut up). Or that just because Dustin Ackley flopped doesn’t mean, say, Ketel Marte has to. This is objectively true, of course, but I think what the pessimists are pointing to are patterns of behavior on the part of the org, not specific players. That is, we’ve seen overreactions to short bursts of success, and those things have hindered the club. This doesn’t mean that Jerry Dipoto’s going to trade Asdrubal Cabrera for Eduardo Perez again. It just means that we’ve been thoroughly conditioned to worry.

That’s not fun, I know. But my long tenure with this team means I am *always* waiting for the other shoe to drop, and I think that any suggestion that shoes can’t keep dropping ignores the powerful, Adidas-laden supercell that’s parked itself over Seattle for the past 10 years. If you keep getting hit in the face every time you look up, you learn to lower your gaze. That’s perfect for an analytical fan like me, as I can dive into other things and not feel crushed by a year like 2015, which felt familiar, almost routine to me, and seemed to drive other M’s fans batty. Today, though, I’m dealing with the opposite problem, and it’s something I’m trying to think through. The first rule of analytics is that you don’t dump 10 years of data because “he really looked different in May,” so I don’t think I’m capable of shutting off the “this feels familiar, and by familiar I mean dangerous” comments from my brain. I’m not sure I’m capable of the “Active forgetting” that David Rieff (and Nietzche) talk about. Maybe it’s just a matter of finding the subtle distinctions and clutching to them like they’re dispositive. Maybe Dae-Ho Lee is the gateway drug, and I just need to hear a few more Korean HR calls. As far as problems go, this is probably one of the best to have, so I’m not really complaining. But complaining, or rather suffering, is so ingrained at this point that everything feels a bit weird. I can’t imagine, but really want to try, what the playoffs would feel like now.

Game 34, Rays at Mariners

May 11, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 16 Comments 

Taijuan Walker vs. Chris Archer, 12:40pm

Early one today, as the M’s go for a sweep of Tampa Bay. The pitching match-up is a great one: Archer’s young, but unquestionably the ace of the Rays (good) staff, albeit one who finished 2015 in a bit of a slump, and is off to something of a slow start in 2016, too. Walker was the frustratingly inconsistent would-be star who got absolutely destroyed early in 2015, before starting to figure things out down the stretch. What we’ve seen from Walker thus far in 2016 has blown even our high expectations out of the water.

Archer was originally an Indians prospect, and while he had great stuff, his abysmal command held him back. After moving to the Cubs org, his walk rate improved a bit, but after walking 39 (and hitting 2) in his first 70 IP of AA, the Cubs moved him to Tampa in a deal for Matt Garza. Even in the Rays system, the walk rate was disconcertingly high, but Archer’s one of the rare guys whose control has continued to develop/improve at the big league level. So after solid seasons in 2013 and 2014, the Rays looked like they had a solid #2-#3 – a guy whose pure stuff limited runs and hits, but who didn’t miss enough bats to make the leap. In 2015, he greatly simplified his pitch mix. Out went the sinker that had been his primary fastball, and he replaced it with a blizzard of sliders. He had a change-up, but it was mostly a show pitch, used less than 10% of the time. He became a FB/SL guy, and it *worked*. Archer’s strikeouts spiked, and his walk rate stayed low as well. In the first half of 2015, he was one of baseball’s top starters, and that’s saying something considering the performances we saw last year. But more and more walks started creeping into the box score down the stretch, and they’re showing up in the early going this year as well.

In the first half last year, Archer’s K-Bb% was 24.2%. In the second half, that fell to 17.9%, and it’s only partially recovered to 18.8% thus far in 2016. Let’s be clear: those are still good numbers, and any team in baseball would take that from a starting pitcher. But any team in baseball would also ask why their 27-year old ace fell off from a level of performance he’d sustained for over 100 IP just last year. Everyone’s trying to figure this out, and the theories range from mechanical issues to wildness to dumb luck. I’d like to see the guy figure things out and get back to where he was a year ago, but I’d also like him to wait until after this game to do so.

Speaking of control and improved walk rates, Taijuan Walker’s on an incredible run right now. His BB/9 is under 1, and second in baseball only to Clayton Kershaw (among pitchers who’ve thrown at least 30 IP). That low walk rate means his K-BB% is 11th in the league, just ahead of Chris Sale. Encouragingly, he’s gotten much better pitching with men on – this was his achilles heel last season, when batters slashed .318/.361/.575 against him with men on. This year (and yeah, I know the sample’s tiny, let’s just move on), they’re hitting .236/.255/.321.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Marte, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Smith, RF
7: Lind, 1B
8: Iannetta, C
9: Martin, CF
SP: Walker

The big news in the minors last night wasn’t any of the games, but rather the news that the M’s have decided to move SP Edwin Diaz, currently laying waste to the AA Southern League, to the bullpen. Jerry Dipoto mentioned that his change-up wasn’t really developing, but his FB/SL combo could be deadly in short stints (and we’ve already seen Diaz’s velo shoot up out of the bullpen in the Futures Game), and could even help the big league club this year. That’s nice, and I know the M’s bullpen has been hard hit by injuries, but it’s a bit tough to understand the urgency here. Diaz is 22, and is #1 at the AA level in K-BB%. As a starter. Sure, he could help the big league club this year out of the bullpen, but so will Joaquin Benoit and Tony Zych. The M’s bullpen has been very good, and while you’d always want more talent, more shut-down pitchers to turn to, it seems odd to say that Diaz can’t be a starter long-term when he’s excelling as a starter in AA at a young age. Hmmm.

Tacoma lost a lead late, but scored a run in the 10th to hold off Fresno 7-6. Cody Martin had a quality start. The two clubs face off again today at noon – no word on the Tacoma starter.

Jackson beat Birmingham 3-2. Dylan Unsworth got hit hard, but limited the runs, and Tyler O’Neill had 3 hits to pace the Generals offense. A hot streak from DJ Peterson is helping, too. Great to see that. Today, Andrew Kittredge gets the spot start, moving in from the bullpen as the Generals suddenly have a hole in the rotation, and he’s facing top prospect Carson Fulmer of Birimingham.

San Jose beat Bakersfield 4-3, as a four-run 5th doomed Anthony Misiewicz and the Blaze.

Clinton and Wisconsin play two today, with Art Warren and Zack Littell starting the games.

Game 33, Rays at Mariners

May 10, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 30 Comments 

Wade Miley vs. Drew Smyly, 7:10pm

Sorry for the lack of posts here – just returned from vacation to watch Felix hold it together enough to pitch 7 strong against the Rays, and for Ketel Marte to have his best game as a professional. Let me bid all of you a happy belated Felix Day; I was encouraged by what I saw, though it’s still pretty clear Felix doesn’t yet have his royal command at his disposal. The two HBPs were particularly ugly, but Felix consistently missed his spots, especially with 2 strikes. That said, he was good enough to limit the Rays to 2 solo HRs, and the M”s defense ably handled the balls in play Felix allowed.

Last night felt like the first, clear, unambiguous, win for the M’s shift-happy ways. The M’s heavily shifted a number of Rays hitters, including guys pretty far from the ol’ David Ortiz/Adam Dunn template of “shiftable” hitters. Kevin Kiermaier was a great example – a guy who’s fast and doesn’t have a sky-high ground ball rate. It’s actually lower than average. Still, the combination of Kiermaier and Felix was one the M’s felt they could exploit, and they did: he grounded out in his first two trips against Felix, and hit a tailor-made DP ball the 2nd time that the M’s bungled into a FC. I’ve been thinking about the shift a lot recently, as Manny Acta’s tweeted a couple of times about how successful it’s been for the M’s. At the same time, though, analysts are starting to question why we’re not seeing more evidence of its utility now that teams are shifting 10X more than they did 5 years ago, or whatever the actual multiplier is. It’s gone from a very rare play, probably done by only a couple of teams, to a league-wide phenomenon. And yet BABIP is essentially unchanged. Teams wouldn’t DO it if it didn’t work, but, uh, how do we know it works?

Russell Carleton at BP had an interesting article a week ago arguing that it simply doesn’t work, and that a possible explanation is that pitchers pitch differently when they know their defense is shifted behind them. As a result, it’s possible that they give up, say, more home runs – they may be able to induce more GBs overall, but by sticking to smaller segments of the plate, or using specific pitches in specific locations, any “miss” may end up getting punished more severely than it would if they were pitching normally (read: more unpredictably). What we can see at a league-wide level says that BABIP is unchanged, and actually moving higher recently. If shifts don’t save enough hits to make a dent in BABIP, as this Rob Neyer tweet indicates, then…what? It seems to clearly limit singles to a certain set of players, but other than that, it all kind of washes out? I doubt that, given how enthusiastically teams have been adopting it, but I’d love to know more about how the M’s measure success. The most stunning thing I’ve learned in looking into this was that there’s no publicly available data about home runs when the defense is shifted. Fangraphs shows some stats with and without the shift, but the denominator is *balls in play*. Does K rate tank with the shift on? Do batters walk more? Fewer HRs, or nah? I have no idea. That seems like an easily addressed issue, but until then, what do these shift numbers mean?

Hey, so there’s a game today. Drew Smyly’s someone I’ve had an eye on for many years, since he was a promising hurler at AA for the Detroit Tigers org. Why did M’s fans suddenly care about Drew Smyly? Because the M’s and Tigers had just agreed on a deal that sent Doug Fister to Detroit in exchange for a package including Charlie Furbush and Caspar Wells, and a mystery prospect who’d be revealed later. Nick Castellanos was the big name, but most people assumed there was no chance he’d be thrown in. It came down to two pitchers: a reliever named Chance Ruffin, and the over-the-top starter, Drew Smyly. I have no idea if the M’s made the choice, or if Detroit decided to protect Smyly from poaching, but the M’s ended up with Ruffin, who retired a few years back, and the Tigers were able to use Smyly to land David Price.

Drew Smyly has missed a lot of time due to shoulder and other ailments, but when he’s toed the rubber for Tampa, he’s been an exceptional pitcher. As this Jeff Sullivan post details, Smyly’s racking up strikeouts at an impressive pace, especially for a guy with below-average velocity. Smyly struck out a lot of minor league hitters, but his ceiling always seemed limited both by his lack of top-shelf velocity and the fact that he didn’t have a big breaking ball. As I noted way back when he made his first start against Seattle in 2012 (holy crap I’ve been doing this a long time), he throws a cutter that features pretty much no discernable horizontal movement. Not 0″ of break, but it doesn’t look that different from his (straight) four-seam fastball. He has a slurvy curve/slider thing that likewise features basically no curving action whatsoever – his fastball gets 4+” of armside run, and his “curve” gets 2″ of armside run. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a curve that curves less, or slides less, depending on what you want to call the thing.

It hasn’t mattered at all. As Jeff’s article points out, the Rays got Smyly to throw his extreme-riseball four-seamer up in the zone, and batters have had trouble not only with *it*, but with everything else he throws, too. He gets whiff per swing rates of over 30% on his fastball, his cutter AND his curve. I said four years ago that he was going to need to develop a change, and while he has one, his entire career has been a rebuke to my by-the-book prediction of future problems with opposite-handed-hitters. Instead, his fastball’s turned into one of the game’s least likely weapons. It’s not just that his whiff rate is so high; the corollary’s actually more shocking to me. Batters have a hell of a time putting Smyly’s 90-91mph fastball in play. This year, batters have offered at 45% of his four-seam fastballs. They’ve taken another 38% for called strikes. When they swing, they come up empty on 32% of them. They foul off another 42%. Put it all together, and batters are putting 12% of his fastballs into play. Since the beginning of 2015, that figure is just 13%.

For some context on that, batters put 16% of Noah Syndergaard’s four-seamer in play (and over 20% on his sinker). Stephen Strasburg? About 18%. Andrew Miller? 15% last year, so hey, pretty close. The only pitcher I can find with a modicum of effort that has a lower BIP rate is Aroldis Chapman. That’s kind of insane. For starters who are in the same basic ballpark, the guy who’s the closest parallel is probably Marco Estrada, who’s at around 14% this year and was in the 16% range last season. Like Smyly, he’s got a four-seam with a ton of rise, and he’s not afraid to pitch up in the zone. While Estrada’s not getting quite as many whiffs with his heater, he’s getting even more foul balls this year, and he drew a ton of fouls last year as well.

An obvious question is: how to teams attack this? Can you pick up a high spin fastball on video and subtly adjust your swing in response? Or is adjusting your swing in response to each opposing starter a sure recipe for messed-up mechanics and a self-imposed slump? The M’s looked troubled at times by Matt Moore’s extreme *horizontal* movement – movement that seemingly allowed Moore to sneak strikes when non-Marte M’s took pitches middle-middle. Dae Ho Lee looked confused by a first-pitch center-cut fastball, and I think he did it to Kyle Seager as well. If Smyly leaves any middle-middle pitches hanging around the M’s need to attack them. They also have to be mindful of the fact that Smyly thrives by getting hitters to expand the strike zone upwards; limit the swings on pitches at eye level, fellas.

1: Marte, SS
2: Gutierrez, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Iannetta, C
6: Seager, DH
7: Lee, 1B
8: Sardinas, 3B
9: Martin, CF
SP: Miley

Tacoma’s Stefen Romero and Chris Taylor have continued their hot streaks, which makes up for Mike Zunino going a bit cold over the past couple of weeks. The M’s split a four-game series at Albuquerque and now take on Fresno tonight behind Cody Martin.

Jackson finished up their own four-gamer with Jacksonville, and they too split the series. Jacksonville won an 18-inning contest on Friday. The Generals are in Birmingham now, and have Dylan Unsworth on the hill tonight. The South African righty’s started off the season well, limiting hits allowed and posting an ERA under 1 over his first five starts.

Bakersfield suffered the ignominy of being swept in a series to Inland Empire, the Angels’ affiliate and a team that came in 7-21. Inland Empire “features” Cuban 2B Roberto Baldoquin, the player that’s been Jerry Dipoto’s biggest miss in the international market. Baldoquin signed an $8m bonus a few years back, one of the highest bonuses ever for a bonus-pool player. Playing in the Cal League last year and this year, Baldoquin has compiled a .290 slugging percentage and a .262 OBP. Bakersfield hosts San Jose tonight.

Clinton won their series with Lake County 2-1, and won the opener of their series against ex-affiliate Wisconsin yesterday. They’ll face off with the Brewers affiliate today, with Art Warren on the mound opposite Dominican teen Marcos Diplan.

Speaking of the minors, the News Tribune’s Bob Dutton linked to a Baseball America report on minor league park factors that found Cheney Stadium was the most extreme home run park in the PCL. To say this is a counterintuitive finding is quite an understatement. For years, Tacoma’s been the preeminent pitcher’s park in the hitter-friendly PCL. Last year, though, teams hit more HRs in Tacoma than in any other park in AAA, and hit 39 more at home than were hit on the road. That’s…remarkable, and so strains what we know about places like Albuquerque and Las Vegas that I wonder what they did to account for schedule and players. Statcorner’s park factors show a very distinct gap between the factors for lefties (home run heaven) and righties (average-to-a-bit-below). Interestingly, Tacoma still grades out as a pitcher’s park because run scoring – despite the maybe a fluke, maybe not dingerfest last year – is still much lower there than in other PCL parks. At this point, it’s apparent that the remodel had a much bigger impact on HR/FB than I ever would’ve thought possible. I’m still betting the under on the park factor BA reported, and by a lot, but it’s clear Tacoma’s much more like an average park (and may in fact be aiding HRs now) than it was in the good ol’ days.

Game 28, Mariners at Astros

May 5, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 80 Comments 

Wade Miley vs. Chris Devenski, 5:05pm

The M’s are in first place after a bizarre 9-8 win featuring Felix struggles, defensive miscues, and a whole lot of Dae-Ho Lee. The M’s came back against the A’s bullpen, the one I’d talked up before the series began. At least through the season’s first month, the M’s gang of retreads and never-weres > Oakland’s, and that’s saying something, considering how well Axford/Madson had pitched coming in.

The M’s now travel to Houston, the team whose lead in playoff odds has already evaporated, kind of like the Tyler-White-for-AL-ROY talk. There are a few Astros hitters who’ve gotten off to a slow start (Evan Gattis, Luis Valbuena), but the biggest reason the Astros are 10-18 (after a two-game winning streak!) has been their pitching staff. By FIP, they’re 3rd worst in the AL, ahead of only their AL West rivals in Anaheim and Arlington. By ERA, they’re the absolute worst club in the league. Their projections were a lot better, and thus their rest-of-season runs-allowed per game is still at a fairly decent 4.34, or a full 0.6 runs *per game* better than what they’ve done so far. They’re essentially the AL version of the SF Giants, a team that was projected to be solid at run prevention, but has instead hemorrhaged runs instead.

The big problem has been their rotation. As we talked about earlier, both Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh are off to slow starts, and the back of the rotation hasn’t picked up the slack. The Astros’ starters have walked far more than anyone thought (et tu, Doug Fister?), given up lots of home runs, and then, to top it off, they’ve allowed the highest BABIP of any team in MLB (they’re fractionally ahead/behind, yes, the Giants). That’s a pretty dispiriting, Hieronymous Bosch-like triptych – it covers the fielding dependent as well as the “three true outcomes,” and it’s not limited to one or two guys. All of that’s the back story for why someone named Christopher Devenski is starting this game.

I like to think of myself as following the game quite closely. I’m familiar with most teams (especially an AL West team’s) prospects, and thanks to my love of the PCL, I know something about the depth a lot of teams have waiting in the wings. So it was something of a humbling experience the other day when I saw the probables for today’s game and drew a complete blank. “Devenski.” Who the hell is Devenski? Wojciechowski, sure. Last year, their rotation depth included Vince Velasquez and Brett Oberholtzer (now pitching for 2016′s shockingly-ahead-of-schedule rebuilding club, Philadelphia), Asher Wojciechowski, Dan Straily, and Luis Cruz. Chris Devenski is a sign of just how many pitchers the Astros have lost since last summer. Not only are Velasquez and Oberholtzer in Philly, so is Mark Appel, another guy who logged a bunch of starts for the Astros’ AAA club last year. Sam Deduno left after an injury-plagued 2015. Scott Kazmir went to LA in free agency. Dan Straily saw more opportunity in Cincinnati, and is in the Reds rotation. Lance McCullers is hurt. One of the strengths of the Astros org has been their incredible depth. Well, they really need it now.

Devenski came into the year ranked around the 20-30th best prospect in the Astros system. Drafted by the White Sox, he came over to the Astros org way back in 2012, so he’s moved through the ranks in the Astros’ player development system. That’s probably a good thing, as Devenski was a 23rd round pick who struggled with the long ball and occasional control lapses in the Cal League and in AA. A low BABIP helped him post a nice ERA in AA in 2014, but he repeated the level in 2015 and made some further improvements. Of course, part of the reason his numbers looked better was that he was starting to get some relief appearances as well. Hence the projections of him as a swing-man, which is exactly the way the Astros have used him this year. He started the year in the ‘pen, then made a start 5 days ago. Given the slim pickings for starters, he’ll make another one today.

All of that makes him sound like a generic AAAA (or maybe AAA) retread, but the more I look at what he does, the more intriguing Devenski gets. For one, the reports of his meh fastball don’t match up with what he’s actually throwing now. His four-seamer averages 93-94, and he can touch 95 on occasion. Moreover, it’s got extreme vertical rise; it’s almost Chris Young-ish, albeit 9 mph faster. His best pitch coming up was always his change, and just looking at the movement on it, I can see why. Like his fastball, its armside run isn’t much to write home about, but the thing has devilish drop. By pitch fx, it looks like a (good) split-finger, albeit thrown more slowly (it’s averaging 82). He’s got a big, slow curve that’s been his primary breaking ball and also a rarely-used slider he’s saved for right-handed batters exclusively. He hasn’t thrown either breaker all that much, but again, just looking at movement, there’s a lot to like here. In particular, the gap between the huge vertical rise on his fastball and the drop on his change and, to a lesser extent, curve/slider seem like they could be an effective, confusing combination for batters. An over-the-top pitcher can get lots of vertical rise on their FB, but some of that backspin bleeds into their other stuff, too. James Paxton’s change doesn’t have a ton of drop, and neither does, say, Mike Montgomery’s. Clayton Kershaw and Chris Young both have *change-ups* with over 10″ of vertical rise, and are thus the best examples of this principle. Lance McCuller’s hard change, like Felix Hernandez’s, has similar vertical movement to Devenski’s, but it’s paired with a sinking, low-rise four-seam. Most pitchers have to choose between lower spin, sinking stuff, or high-spin, rising stuff. Devenski doesn’t, and while he may not know how to exploit that yet (and neither do I, to be clear), it’s nice to have.

As you might expect, that rising fastball and the HR problems he had in the minors are linked: Devenski’s never going to be a ground ball guy (though the change might be a GB pitch). He’s improved his control, and may be a decent 5th starter right now. Of course, the issue is going to be: can he miss enough bats to make up for the occasional dinger? So far, he has; his K rate isn’t ideal, but he’s been very lucky on his fly balls. The M’s are on an absolute long ball tear, though, so this’ll be a much tougher test for Devenski.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Marte, SS
9: Martin, CF
SP: Miley

Dae Ho Lee’s big day might get him some more playing time. As many people pointed out, Lee’s two dingers came against *righties* – the guys Adam Lind was supposed to face. Devenski’s lack of platoon splits means the M’s shouldn’t be so doctrinaire about platoons, and Lee doesn’t seem to have any particular problems with righties. It all makes sense, but hey, welcome back to the line up, Adam Lind.

Tacoma beat Salt Lake 3-1 for the second straight day. This time, it was Joe Wieland’s turn to shut down the bees like a little-understood combination of fungus and mite parasitism. Wieland went 5 2/3, giving up just a solo HR. Boog Powell HR’d and doubled, and Chris Taylor doubled as well. Cody Martin starts today’s game against Salt Lake.

Jackson’s Brett Ash dominated Jacksonville’s Jake Esch in the Generals’ 11-6 win. Ash gave up an unearned run in 6 IP, and then the bullpen survived a shaky 8th and 9th to hold on. Tyler O’Neill and Zach Shank both had 3 hits for Jackson, and Steve Baron tripled (!). Dylan Unsworth gets the start tonight.

Bakersfield lost a wild one to Rancho Cucamonga, 12-10. The Blaze had a 6-0 lead after 2 innings, and an 8-6 lead after 6, but the Quakes scored 6 in the 7th to pull ahead. Osmer Morales gave up 5 runs without recording an out to take a particularly ugly loss. Jay Baum had three singles for Bakersfield, and Chantz Mack’s double was their only XBH. Tyler Herb starts tonight’s game. Herb was a 29th round pick out of Coastal Carolina, and the righty struggled along with everyone else last year in Clinton. But he’s breaking out thus far in the Cal league: in 24 IP, he’s given up just 14 hits and 7 walks while striking out 33. He gave up 174 hits in less than 140 IP last year in a much more pitching-friendly environment. The sky-high K rate is new, and also nice to see.

Clinton beat Fort Wayne 5-4 despite Art Warren’s first mediocre start. Warren gave up 4 runs in 4 IP, but the bullpen held the line, striking out 6 in 5 scoreless innings and yielding just 1 hit. Zack Littell starts tonight as the L-Kings open a series with Lake County. The Captains have been excellent thus far, compiling an 18-9 record. An Indians affiliate, Lake County’s bullpen includes Tacoma native Christian Meister, a one-time Green River CC product who the Indians drafted in the 23rd round last year not out of college, but after showcases at Driveline Baseball’s training facility. It’s an odd route to pro ball, but one which might become more common in the future.

Game 27, Mariners at Athletics

May 4, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 18 Comments 

King Felix vs. Sean Manaea, 12:35pm

Happy Felix Day! This Felix Day really feels like a joyous occasion, and not just a psychic band-aid applied to a decade’s worth of pain and frustration. Enjoy this.

Today’s match-up is one of the better ones of the young season. You’ve got His Royal Highness, nonchalantly stifling batters while writers still pen their obituaries for him because of this or that component-of-a-peripheral. And then you’ve got a really interesting prospect making his second start. As M’s fans, I think there’s a natural curiosity about the big prospects on rival clubs; we could be seeing this guy a lot over the next decade…how should we feel about that? It’s nice to do some oppo research while also basking in Felix’s light.

Manaea came out of nowhere (ok, it was actually Indiana State) in 2012 by putting up one of the most dominating Cape Cod League performances of all time. You sometimes wonder how much the wood bat leagues matter, and then you see a case like Manaea’s and it makes sense. After a good-not-great season in the Missouri Valley conference, Manaea struck out 85 and walked 7 in 51 2/3 IP and became the prohibitive favorite to go first overall in the next MLB draft. Instead, a slight injury and inconsistency marred his junior season; he still had excellent results, but his overall stuff just didn’t look like it did for Hyannis. Worse, there was some talk that he had shoulder discomfort in addition to a hip injury. Some teams still thought of him as a first-round talent, while other teams wouldn’t bite in the 3rd-4th round due to the risk. Even the teams that saw him as a potential value were scared off as much by his agent, Scott Boras, as his injuries. Manaea went from being the most famous Cape Cod pop-up prospect ever to being a case study in how teams value risk in the context of the brand new draft bonus pools.* Kansas City played a risky but ultimately successful play to get Manaea in the supplemental round by “reaching” for Hunter Dozier, a SS, at pick #8. They were able to sign Dozier to an underslot deal and give the proceeds to Manaea.

Unfortunately for the Royals, the inconsistency that marred his junior year for the ISU Sycamores followed him to pro baseball. He still missed tons of bats, but scouts were divided on everything from his future ceiling to his present velocity. Some reported 89-92, and others would say he was sitting 94-95. That’s a pretty big difference, and it seems like he’d alternate starts with great stuff with back-of-the-rotation offerings. He walked 4 in 4 starts in High-A in 2015, then walked 6 in just 7 IP in his first taste of AA. The Royals shipped him to Oakland in the Ben Zobrist deal – a clear case of a “both sides win” trade. The Athletics got the pitching depth they sorely needed (Sonny Gray’s the only drafted-by-Oakland starter to pitch for the A’s since 2013), the Royals got a piece of their Series-winning club. In 2016, Manaea’s stuff seemed to be playing up, and with injuries to Henderson Alvarez and the ineffectiveness of Eric Surkamp, the A’s called him up.

He’s got a low 3/4 delivery, and the lefty’s release point is shifted far towards 1st base. It’s not quite Chris Sale, but there are some similarities there. His fastball averaged 93-94 in his first MLB game, and it’s even closer to Sale in terms of movement than mechanics. His four-seam fastball gets 10-11″ of armside run – that’s Carson Smith’s-sinker, or late-period Randy Johnson level movement. Of course, armside run alone isn’t a predictor of success: I love this BP Pitch Fx leaderboard, because in between Sale and RJ sits ex-Tacoma Rainier standout and big-league…uh, NOT stand-out, Bobby Livingston. What made scouts drool on the Cape in 2012 though was Manaea’s slider. It’s thrown slower than you’d think – it’s more slurvy – and has good downward movement as a result. It may be a good pitch, but it’s just not in the same class as Chris Sale’s or even Carson Smith’s, as both pitches get much more horizontal break due to higher spin. Mark Rzepczynski’s slider’s kind of similar, actually.

Given the arm angle and his repertoire, I’d assume the M’s load up with right-handed bats today. Manaea’s splits haven’t been too prominent in the minors, but he’s probably not a really comfortable AB for many lefties. Given Seager’s success against Rzepczynski last night, though, I bet he’s not too worried about it.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Marte, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Gutierrez, RF
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Lee, 1B
9: Martin, CF

Donn Roach turned in his best performance since spring training, pitching the Rainiers to a 3-1 win over Salt Lake. Roach went 6 IP, giving up a run on 6 hits and no walks. David Rollins K’d 2 in an inning in relief, and he’s up to 12 2/3 IP on the year without a walk. Chris Taylor and Mike Zunino were both held hitless; the Bees will presumably pay for this today. The recently-outrighted Joe Wieland starts for Tacoma tonight.

Jackson kicks off their against JacksonVILLE today. The teams have agreed to extend the confusion around their names to the starting pitchers. Jake Esch starts for Jacksonville while Brett Ash starts for Jackson.

Bakersfield’s Andrew Moore worked past some early struggles and turned in a gem, going 7 IP, giving up 2 runs on 5 H and no walks while striking out *9*. Aaaand then the bullpen blew the 6-2 lead. Rancho scored 2 in the 8th off of Kody Kerski, then 3 in the 9th to walk it off against Kyle Schepel. Oh well. Anthony Misiewicz starts tonight.

Fort Wayne beat Clinton 4-2 despite giving the L-Kings 7 walks. The delightfully named Art Warren (I picture a really disorganized art supply store with lots of narrow passageways crammed with paints and charcoal pencils) starts for Clinton tonight. Warren’s been the L-Kings best starter, giving up just 2 earned runs over the course of his 4 starts and 23 1/3 innings. Warren was a 23rd round pick out of Ashland University in Ohio.

The M’s made a roster move yesterday, sending Tony Zych to the DL with rotator cuff tendinitis, which, while nothing’s ever certain, sounds pretty ominous. They called up ex-Ranger/Oriole righty Steve Johnson, who gave up Khris Davis’ HR in last night’s win. Johnson’s got a fairly straight, rising FB at 90mph, but as this piece in the Seattle Times mentions, it’s got some deceptiveness to it.

* This is why the 2013 Draft Preview spent more time talking about Manaea than the guys the M’s might actually draft. Still like going back to these previews; Chris Crawford’s stuff holds up pretty well, and you can’t say that about every “draft expert.” Chris is now the prospect guy at Baseball Prospectus, and has a new draft book out through BP.

Game 26, Mariners at Athletics

May 3, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 26 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Sonny Gray, 7:05pm

Before we get to today’s game, I’ve got a random observation about the still-young 2016 season. For the past 5 seasons or so, the rate at which batters make contact when they swing has been trending down. Contact % dipped under 80% first in 2012, and it’s lived in the 70s ever since. The explanations for that were many: teams signing players with contact issues if they could do damage on the pitches they DID hit. The ever-expanding strike zone. Finally, a nice, clean link: batters rate of swings at pitches outside the strike zone kept rising. The first year overall contact fell below 80% was the first year o-swing% topped 29%. From there, it just picked up speed: 29.3% in 2012, 30.1% in 2014, and 30.9% last year. This correlation between “bad” swings and whiffs was clearly correlated statistically and logically. It’s early, but 2016 is breaking the link between them.

I’ve talked about o-swing% rates several times already in these posts, and many of them show a dip in 2016. Well, that dip shows up for the league as a whole. We seemed destined to fly past the 31% mark in o-swing%, but instead, the league currently sits at 29.3%, right back where we were in 2012. Contact rate apparently hasn’t received the memo, as its free fall continues: after falling to 78.8% last year, it’s fallen nearly a full percentage point to 77.9%. What’s going on? If “bad” swings aren’t the cause of it, it stands to reason that “good” swings have been remarkably whiff-prone this year. That’s what Fangraphs’ pitch fx data show, as it happens. For the entire pitch fx era, the rate of contact for swings *at strikes* has been remarkably consistent. It bounces up and down in a very, very narrow range between 87% and 88%. In every year since pitch fx debuted in 2007. So, this year, zone-contact% stands at 85.8%, well over a full percentage point drop from 2015. What does this mean? I don’t know. A hunch is that teams and coaches are better at teaching discipline now; that instruction is undergoing something of revolution. I think that’s clearly a factor in the velocity gains pitchers are making, and we may be seeing some signs of a response from hitters.

It’s not a complete response, obviously, not with contact rates on strikes and overall still falling. But between the fact that MLB’s newest crop of youngsters is producing so well so young and a rebound in baseball’s walk rate (which had been dropping for a few years) and ISO, maybe we’re seeing the first fruits of better hitting instruction. It may be a shift in the kinds of players teams are drafting, signing and developing – a move towards Kris Bryant types who strike out but also know the strike zone. It may be an artifact of the velocity arms race, where pitchers don’t *need* to get batters to swing at low-and-away sliders when they can throw it past (some) hitters. Or it could be an April thing. O-swing rates were lower by a bit in April the past few years, but this zone-contact thing is new. We’ll see, I guess.

The M’s take on the A’s confusing ace, Sonny Gray. Gray was brilliant last year by ERA and fielding-dependent metrics, but seemed to be the product of insanely good luck by both FIP and batted ball/statcast-y measures. Tony Blengino and Eno Sarris both noted that Gray’s runs-allowed success has been fueled largely by his consistently low BABIP. This balls-in-play success didn’t seem to be backed up by some skill in inducing weaker contact, the way Dallas Keuchel’s and Jake Arrieta’s is. He gets plenty of ground balls, and many of them are pulled, but they’re not hit all that soft. Despite an infield with some defensive question marks, Gray’s success on ground balls continues: his BABIP-allowed on ground balls over his career is .202, and in 2016 – a year in which his GB% stands at a career high – it’s .208. That’s far better than the A’s as a team, which allow a .249 BABIP on grounders.

The M’s need to elevate the ball, as Gray’s been vulnerable when batters hit the ball in the air. Gray’s been great at inducing grounders, but the non-grounders have been hit remarkably hard. He’s also walking more batters. To tie it back to the opening, Gray’s not inducing as many out-of-zone swings in 2016, a fact which is probably related to the fact he’s throwing more fastballs this year than in the past. But when batters don’t chase, Gray’s command hasn’t been good enough to work his way back in the count. His walk rate in 2016 is 12.2%, up from 7.1% last year, and blowing away his previous high of 8.2% in 2014.

Hisashi Iwakuma’s O-swing% is still sky high, but it too has come down along with (seemingly) everyone else’s. That probably helps explain his uptick in walks and drop in Ks, but I don’t think it fully explains his .330 BABIP. For a guy who’s made a living running low BABIPs (just like Gray!), his bad luck in 2016 really sticks out. His split’s still working pretty well, so I don’t think that’s the issue. Instead, it seems that batters are swinging at his slider *more* and having the kind of success they’ve had from time to time throughout Kuma’s career. It’s a problem Kuma’s well aware of and one he’s been working on for years. That he hasn’t quite fixed it yet is both understandable and a bit concerning, but in general, I’m not too bothered when a pitcher’s 3rd or 4th pitch isn’t doing too well. If batters adjusted to his splitter, that’d be career threatening. If they’ve got a BABIP of .467 on his slider is a mixture of bad command, bad movement, and a whole lot of bad luck.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lind, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Marte, SS
8: Clevenger, C
9: Martin, CF
SP: Hisashi Iwakuma

Adrian Sampson tossed 7 brilliant innings as the Rainiers downed Salt Lake 6-1. Chris Taylor and Ed Lucas homered for Tacoma. Taylor’s season line is up to .333/.412/.556, and he’s reached base in 22 of his 23 games this year. Mike Zunino went 0-4, but his season line is even better: .378/.416/.756. The back end of the Tacoma rotation has been brutal thus far, which is why Tacoma is “only” 13-11 despite Zunino/Taylor/Stefen Romero’s hot starts. Donn Roach looks to change that tonight.

Jackson got rained out yesterday, and they’re traveling today.

Bakersfield’s late comeback fell just short, and they lost to Rancho Cucamonga 4-3. Eddie Campbell didn’t have it, walking 7 and giving up 4 runs in 3 1/3 IP, but the bullpen kept the Blaze in it while the hitters tried to figure out Josh Sborz. The Blaze scored a run in the sixth, seventh and eighth, but couldn’t complete the comeback in the ninth. Andrew Moore starts for Bakersfield tonight.

Clinton got a great start from Nick Wells, the lefty prospect who’d struggled mightily in April, but lost a heartbreaker 3-2. Wells went 6, giving up 1 R on 5 H and 2 BBs, and Darin Gillies followed with 2 scoreless innings in relief. Gillies came back out for the 9th, attempting a 3-IP save, but gave up a 2-run HR to Brad Zunica, and that was the difference in the game. Of note: the Lumberkings scored their two runs off of reliever Enyel De Los Santos, a righty you may remember as a member of the Everett AquaSox and the return for Joaquin Benoit this offseason. Lukas Schiraldi faces Fort Wayne today in an early getaway day game.

« Previous PageNext Page »