Game 38, Rangers at Mariners – Back to the Grind

September 4, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Kyle Cody, 6:10pm

The M’s series with the A’s was postponed due to a player contracting Covid-19, but will be made up with a series of double-headers soon. This is a common site now across baseball, as today’s action features what, 5 7-inning twin bills?

The M’s salvaging a split in that series in Anaheim was well-timed. Not only did they not fall behind the Angels in the standings, but it gave the pitching staff some confidence coming into this series against the lackluster Rangers. He’s someone I’ve criticized on the blog before, or at least questioned his ceiling, but Marco Gonzales has suddenly become quite good. He stopped the slide in his K%, BB% (and, uh, K/BB ratio) and has a microscopic walk rate along with the best K% he’s ever posted. He’s inducing weaker contact and thanks to that great control, the balls in play he’s allowing have predominantly come after he’s ahead in the count. This isn’t flukey BABIP luck, it’s the product of an aggressive approach, and it’s paying off.

Yusei Kikuchi remains an enigma, however. He’s allowed batters a sub-.700 OPS on the year, and thanks to a single HR-allowed, has a sparkling FIP, but his ERA remains stubbornly above 6. I’ve mentioned it a lot, but he’s really struggled with men on base, which is pretty much the only way you could turn his overall batting-against numbers into a high ERA. It’s weird – he’s corrected nearly all of the things that plagued him last year, most especially his HR problems. He’s striking out more thanks to an uptick in velocity and his new hard cutter. Walks are higher, but trading walks for dingers seems like a deal worth making. The trouble-from-the-stretch thing wasn’t really a problem last year, so I don’t *think* it’s just a case of him losing velo or effectiveness without the windup, and in any event that windup and his mechanics are pretty different from last year.

Kikuchi’s been much, much better at home this year, with a better K:BB ratio, no HRs-allowed, and all the rest. He is, of course 0-2 at home. And while he’s been knocked around on the road, he’s 1-0. Object lesson in the irrelevance of pitcher wins #4,502,341.

So, today’s opponent is Kyle Cody, a rookie righty out of the University of Kentucky (where he was a teammate of Evan White). Cody was drafted in 2016, and made it to high-A the next year before going down with TJ surgery. He missed nearly all of 2018 and missed all-all of 2019, before popping back this year at the Alternate Training Site, and now making a couple of appearances for Texas. It’s happened a lot this year, but Cody’s another player who never appeared at AA or AAA, and has now made the majors. He’s still getting stretched out and has only made 1-1+IP stints, so this is probably an “opener” situation; he’s not going to work too deep tonight.

Cody throws a mid-high-90s fastball (averaging 96), and a blizzard of sliders. He’s got a sinker and change, but essentially, he’s in there to be the 2020 version of the way the M’s used Matt Wisler last year (Wisler’s having a phenomenal year for Minnesota, by the way). That slider is a fascinating pitch, with *tons* more drop than the average slider; it functions much like a curve, with much more vertical drop than sweeping action (like Wisler’s). Batters haven’t really figured it out, though of course, he really hasn’t pitched to many thus far.

After getting beat badly by the M’s two Kyles, you can’t really blame the Rangers for calling up one of their own. We’ll see how effective this pretender is when facing the M’s Kyles tonight.

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

The M’s have been busy on the transaction wire. Their big trade with the Padres supplied tonight’s DH and C, and then the M’s traded nominal closer Taylor Williams for a PTBNL (supposedly Matt Brash, a pitcher). Because a few of the prospects the M’s got from San Diego aren’t on the roster, they’ve claimed P Walker Lockett off of waivers from the Mets, and OF Phillip Ervin off of waivers from the Reds. Ervin was a former 1st round pick who moved slowly up the Reds system thanks to excellent walk rates, but struggled with a low average and mediocre power (not a great combo in an OF). He was pretty solid in 2019 in his longest big league stint (260 PAs), but looked utterly lost this year, going 3-42 with no extra-base hits.

Lockett is another ex-Padres prospect (like Wisler!) who had a cup of coffee with San Diego before moving to the Mets. He’s been a frustratingly mediocre pitcher, without a real out-pitch, and who’s given up 11 HRs in his 45+ big league innings. Lockett’s four-seam (?) fastball is a weird one, with super low rise. It looks like a sinker, and seemed to function like one in the minors, where he’d put up above-average GB rates. That hasn’t happened in the big leagues (I refer you again to the HRs-allowed) where he’s been, if anything, a real fly ball guy. That’s not working, and I wonder if the M’s will try to get him on the Justus Sheffield program of turning a freakishly sinking four-seamer into a delightfully sinking sinker. MLB thinks it IS one, while Brooks still calls it a four-seamer. We’ll see if we can figure out what to call it once he appears with the M’s.

Ervin and possibly Lockett are out of options, and thus are with the big club. Tim Lopes, Joe Hudson and Braden Bishop have been optioned back to Tacoma, while Zac Grotz was outrighted there. With Dylan Moore back from the IL and Ty France in the fold, Shed Long will apparently struggle for playing time. The M’s may move him around the OF and he may get DH opportunities here and there. Sounds like he won’t really have much of a chance to hit his way out of his 2020 slump.

M’s and Padres Consummate 7 Player Deal

August 30, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 9 Comments 

I think by now long-time readers know the general tone, the outlook of this particular blog. For all of the wheeling and dealing Jerry Dipoto has done, I’m skeptical that he’s a great judge of talent, and I’m skeptical he has some rare ability to get more than fair value in trade. If anything, I think I could be *too* skeptical; ask me to judge a Mariners trade in a week where both Ryan Yarbrough and Pablo Lopez have made yet another start in stellar years, and you may not get a neutral, balanced view of Dipoto’s work. But I want to bring up that context, that baggage, because Dipoto just traded Austin Nola, Austin Adams, and Dan Altavilla to San Diego, and I am ecstatic about it.

I mentioned in today’s post that the plan had clearly been to cash in on the early success of Austin Adams last year, or of Dan Altavilla’s velo uptick, but all of that seemed to have been scuppered by Adams’ injury and Altavilla’s inconsistency and lack of results. I…I guess not? The M’s packaged both – two guys who’ve combined for not quite 12 innings in 2020 with an ERA near 8 (all of that’s Dan’s, as Adams hasn’t been able to pitch yet) – with C/1B Austin Nola for a blockbuster return headlined by OF Taylor Trammell. Trammell has been a top-100-in-baseball prospect for several years, originally with Cincinnati and then with San Diego. He’s a tools scouts dream, with top-notch athleticism, speed, and has flashed remarkable bat speed and thus power at times (most notably at the Futures Game a few years ago), but who’s been slowed by AA pitching thus far. But the Padres also added 3B/2B/IF Ty France, who is hitting about as well as Austin Nola in 2020. His versatility gives the M’s some options at 2B, and at 3B should Kyle Seager get moved tomorrow, and at 26, he’s a younger utility guy than Nola or Dylan Moore.

The M’s also get catcher Luis Torrens, last seen allowing a ton of stolen bases to the M’s last week, but who raked in the PCL in 2019 and has a very promising bat for a catcher. Given Nola’s progression with the M’s, the club has to be pretty excited to get someone like Torrens to work with; Nola had been a contact-first batter without power before a brief power surge just before the M’s got him caught their eye. They improved his consistency at the plate AND his defense at catcher, and a fraction of that level of improvement would make Torrens a viable C, especially in a back-up role to Tom Murphy when Murphy returns to action.

But it gets better. The Padres threw in RP Andres Muñoz, a 21 year old with 100 MPH velocity who was pretty successful last year for San Diego, but who’s sidelined with Tommy John surgery now. Muñoz is the classic lottery ticket who could very well end up closing games thanks to his sinking, low-angled fastball and a good slider. There’s a lot of 2016-era Edwin Diaz in Muñoz, though of course we’ll have to see what he’s looking like after rehab.

All of these players are a bit higher risk. France is the high-ceiling guy, but he came out of nowhere as a mid-30s-round draft pick, and hasn’t grabbed a starting job in San Diego. That said, there’s no shame in having your starting job pipped by Manny Machado. Trammell hasn’t solved AA by any stretch, but there’s a reason people believe in talent like this despite AA struggles, and that reason is Kyle Lewis. In parts of two seasons in AA, Kyle Lewis slashed .253/.335/.392, with a strikeout rate over 27%. Trammell hasn’t gotten nearly the playing time in AA, but has a slash line there of .234/.340/.349, with a K% of just under 24%. Lewis hit for more power, but Trammell flashed some in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League, which Lewis skipped to underwhelm in the Cal League. I’m not saying Trammell is destined to follow in Lewis’ footsteps, but rather that the scouts that had Kyle Lewis as a top-100 prospect for a while and who *still* have Trammell in the top 100 might be on to something, something that hasn’t yet manifested itself in a slash line.

All of this is to say that the M’s did exceedingly well in this deal. I’m flabbergasted the M’s could get so much given that the Padres were able to grab a starting catcher an hour or two earlier by trading for the Angels’ Jason Castro. I’m stunned that the M’s were able to apparently get such interest in Adams and Altavilla, despite a short track record of big-league success. I’ve beat up the org and this front office so often for trades, so I’m a little lost for words. Good…good job? That was actually quite a remarkable deal the M’s just pulled off.

Game 36, Mariners at Angels – HugWatch

August 30, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Justin Dunn vs. Griffin Canning, 1:10pm

Last night’s game was a disaster, as the Angels scored 16, the final two off of M’s DH Tim Lopes. Given that context – a bullpen unable to get off the field, a starting pitcher who walked 4 in 4 1/3 IP, etc. – it’s perhaps unsurprising that the M’s are starting back-up catcher Joe Odom today. What IS a bit surprising is that the M’s have recalled C Joe Hudson from Tacoma, optioning Braden Bishop back down. With the trade deadline set for tomorrow at 1pm, could Austin Nola be headed to a contender?

It’s possible the M’s just want to maximize their options at C, and it’s possible that with Jake Fraley up and Dylan Moore returning soon after his 10-day stint and the birth of his son (congrats), the M’s decided to get Bishop more PAs in Tacoma rather than Seattle. But as Ryan Divish and others have noted, Nola’s got a lot of value as a good, bat-first catcher making the league minimum and with plenty of club control. He’s 30, which cuts into his trade value, but he makes sense as a win now move for teams like the Rockies, D-Backs, or even potentially the Jays – teams who are good, but have black holes at C – this Jay Jaffe piece at Fangraphs discusses all of the contending teams in need of the sort of upgrade Nola would provide.

The M’s have downplayed how active they’re going to be in the next 24 hours, with their bullpen largely sidelined with injury or ineffective. I’m not sure they’ve been actively shopping Nola, but I’m sure they’d listen to offers. The club seems very smitten with Tom Murphy, and while he’s missed all of 2020 with an injury, I could see them believing they can limp through 2020, then allow Cal Raleigh to apprentice for Murphy in 2021.

We still don’t know what the return is for the biggest move they’ve made: sending Taijuan Walker to Toronto. Walker tossed six scoreless in his first start for the Jays, and Ljay Newsome staked his claim to that rotation spot, and is penciled in to start in the M’s next series, against Oakland.

About that next series… an A’s player tested positive for Covid yesterday, necessitating a quarantine in Houston. The A’s won’t play today, and that next series is in serious jeopardy. That may necessitate some double headers for the M’s, whose six-man rotation may make them a bit more prepared for them than other clubs.

Justus Sheffield’s run of success came to a screeching halt last night, as he struggled with control and command all night. Batters swung at just *7* of Sheff’s 39 fastballs on the night, missing none of them (he had no whiffs on his change, either). As good as the slider is, he’s still *got* to have command of his fastball to be effective. The same could be said of Dunn, albeit reversed. He’s slowly improving his zone rate with his fastball, which is leading to more contact on it. That sounds bad, but it isn’t – batters haven’t fared well on his fastball, as it seems like they’re keyed in on his slider, which they’ve destroyed. I think stories about unsuccessful pitchers tipping pitches are overblown, but the Angels believe several of their starters may have been tipping, and I kind of wonder about Dunn.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haggerty, 3B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, DH
5: Marmolejos, LF
6: White, 1B
7: Fraley, RF
8: Gordon, 2B
9: Odom, C
SP: Dunn

The Rangers are apparently listening to offers not just for Lance Lynn, who’s long seemed like one of the win-now prizes of the deadline, but also for three-true-outcome OF Joey Gallo. That would be a very interesting move, pushing out their window of contention (depending on the return, of course) past 2022. The Rockies gave up two decent prospects for the Orioles Mychal Givens, which highlights why the M’s are frustrated that Austin Adams, Matt Magill, and others have been hurt. There’s always a market for a solid set-up man at this point in the year, and the M’s wanted to be in a position to sell one or two.

Interestingly, the White Sox are rumored to be in talks with Cleveland to acquire talented-but-quarantine-defying SP Mike Clevinger from Cleveland. Would Cleveland really deal Clevinger to one of their most important playoff rivals (in-division, of course) in 2020? There are also rumors that the Tribe might consider moving SS Francisco Lindor, though perhaps not right now. Could the M’s move in for him, as this Mike Salk tweet asks? I’d love a big-time move like that, though of course I wonder what it’d cost. But I’m not convinced that JP Crawford would really work at 2B for a win-now club. He could, and his hot streak is showing that he’s better than the player he looked like for much of August, but he’s remarkably streaky, and needs to show that he can slug above .400 for long stretches of time.

Game 35, Mariners at Angels

August 29, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

Justus Sheffield vs. Dylan Bundy, 6:40pm

Nick Margevicius was solid once again, but the M’s couldn’t solve Andrew Heaney last night. Now, they’ll have to try to get to the Angels best starter this year, Dylan Bundy. Bundy tied the M’s in knots earlier on, but the team had begun to look a bit better – especially Evan White, who was coming out of his awful slump. But White is still sidelined with his shoulder injury, though an MRI showed nothing out of the ordinary, and White is apparently available tonight as a defensive replacement.

Like Heaney, Bundy hasn’t been on his best form his last few starts. He suffered from some bad sequencing and bad defense in his last start against Oakland, but it’s also possible that seeing Oakland for a third time in less than a month was to blame. That’s of interest to M’s fans, as this’ll be his third start against Seattle in less than a month, too. His one truly off start of the year was the one before that, against the Giants. He walked four in four IP; he has four *other* walks in the rest of his season.

One of the defining images of the year was watching Bundy strike out White on three 90 mph fastballs in the middle of the zone back in early August. But Bundy’s success hasn’t been based on his fastball, though. Batters are slugging .700+ off of it. As I mentioned earlier, he’s become much more of a junkballer, and batters have not figured out his slider (to righties) or change (to lefties) much at all, despite seeing so many of them. But that’s the sort of thing that teams *may* get better at simply by seeing him again so often. We’ll see if the M’s have better swings on his off-speed and breaking stuff, or if they try to get him into predictable counts and look fastball.

Justus Sheffield is on a roll, and I thought his emergence would be the feather in the M’s pitching coaching staff’s hat…but then Ljay Newsome appeared. No, seriously, Sheffield is the key guy they need in 2021. If they needed to shop for a starter in free agency *and* hope that Gilbert/Hancock are good to go from day 1, that’d be a tall order. If they have the best versions of Sheff and Marco Gonzales, it gets a lot easier to see. Of course, none of that matters unless the offense gets more consistent too, but that’s a separate issue. But Sheffield’s success looks a little bit like Bundy’s: he throws so many breaking balls, you hope it can still be effective against teams that have seen him often. The Angels have seen him once before, back in late July, so I don’t think he’s overexposed, but it’ll be interesting to see if Trout and company are looking slider.

While batters aren’t exactly blown away by Sheffield’s sinker, he’s given up just one XBH, a double, on it this year. Sheff’s given up just two doubles and NO HRs yet.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haggerty, LF
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, C
6: Marmolejos, 1B
7: Lopes, DH
8: Long, 2B
9: Fraley, RF
SP: Sheffield

The Angels traded Tommy LaStella to Oakland yesterday for perennial prospect Franklin Barreto. Barreto was the centerpiece of the Josh Donaldson trade years ago. Barreto never blossomed for Oakland, and Kendall Graveman was hurt, and now pitches in the M’s org. Man, that deal looked bad immediately, but after years of careful consideration and nuance, it’s still awful.

Game 34, Mariners at Angels

August 28, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Nick Margevicius vs. Andrew Heaney, 6:40pm

After two fairly encouraging games in San Diego, the M’s head up the road to Anaheim to take on the Angels. The M’s have been getting very good starting pitching during their hot streak, which is more meaningful to their rebuild than their bullpen. Nick Margevicius has been a very effective depth guy who filled in when the club had some injuries, and who’s given them three good starts.

Margevicius has simplified things a bit this year. He’s throwing more of his somewhat underpowered fastball and *not* throwing his breaking stuff as much. That may be wise, as he’s having a heck of a time getting strikes with his slider – it’s been a called ball over 1/2 the time he’s thrown it – that’s not good at all. It hasn’t hurt him, though, because his fastball’s been working. I’m not sure if his delivery hides it or if he’s just maximizing his sequencing of it, but nearly all of his strikeouts have come on 89-90 MPH fastballs.

When last we saw Andrew Heaney, he was coming into the game on a hot streak. His sinker had become a good strikeout pitch, and the HR problems that bedeviled him last year weren’t returning. Since then, he’s had a rough go of things in 3 starts. He’s *still* not giving up HRs, and his strikeout rate’s still pretty good, but he’s been bad with men on base. Thus, his ERA is far higher than his (good) FIP – sort of like Yusei Kikuchi.

Evan White hurt his shoulder in Game 1 yesterday, and is out of the line-up today. I know reporters are getting an update on his condition today; we’ll see what they say. Jose Marmolejos hit two HRs including a grand slam filling in for White, so hopefully he can keep it going.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haggerty, DH
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, C
6: Marmolejos, 1B
7: Lopes, LF
8: Long, 2B
9: Bishop, RF
SP: Margevicius

It’s Jackie Robinson Day in MLB. Read this piece by Shakeia Taylor over at BP. I know the M’s will discuss Robinson’s legacy in the broadcast, and tweeted this video about him, but I think it’s worth reading Taylor’s letter to Jackie before getting to all of the self-congratulatory stuff about Robinson’s struggles.

Games 32-33, Mariners at Padres – Double Header

August 27, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

Ljay Newsome vs. Dinelson Lamet, 12:10pm
Yusei Kikuchi vs. Garrett Richards, 3:10pm

The M’s are making up yesterday’s game with a hastily-arranged double header today. The pitching match up has changed, because the Mariners made a trade during/after yesterday’s drama, sending Taijuan Walker (who was scheduled to start last night) to Toronto for a player to be named later. Jerry Dipoto apparently said on the radio this morning that the return would be a player, and not another cash considerations deal, which was the return for Dan Vogelbach (who may be activated by the Jays today).

John Trupin speculates about the possible return in this post at Lookout Landing, noting that the Jays top 30 prospect list is jam packed with young shortstops. The M’s don’t have many pure SS in the system; there’s Noelvi Marte and something of a gap behind him. Thus, taking one of the Jays many SS off of their hands might make some sense. It wouldn’t be one of their absolute top prospects, but a guy like Otto Lopez would be nice. Another possibility, perhaps, could be the recently-DFA’d Anthony Alford, a toolsy OF who played college football at Ole Miss before joining the Jays org. He’s been good at times in the minors, but his development stalled out, and without many routes to playing time (and without any minor league options left), the Jays moved on. He’s not on the Jays 60-man pool, but I’m not sure why they couldn’t simply announce the deal if it was Alford, but it’s always possible that there are some weird, made-up-on-the-fly rules governing this in 2020. The M’s have a need at OF with Mallex Smith struggling mightily, and using Tim Lopes/Dylan Moore in OF corners out of position. Jake Fraley, Sam Haggerty, and Braden Bishop need PAs, but depth would be nice, even if it’s depth that they couldn’t stash in Tacoma.

Ljay Newsome gets his first big league start a few days after his encouraging MLB debut. The righty throws an interesting FB from a very low arm slot. It’s got average to a bit below ride thanks to solidly below average spin, and I wonder if he’d benefit from embracing the sinker the way Justus Sheffield has. Like Sheff, he throws his slurve/curve a ton – more than his FB in his one appearance. That pitch, even more than his FB, stands out for freakishly low spin, though I’m not convinced that this is a big red flag. We should see a bit more of his change, which I like the best of his three offerings. It’s got splitter-style vertical drop compared to his FB, and it could help him with the lefties in San Diego’s line-up.

Opposing him is Dinelson Lamet, a flame-throwing righty who’s back from a series of injuries and having by far his best season. His fastball is thrown from a higher arm slot but has similar movement to Newsome’s. It’s thrown at 98, not 92, however. His primary pitch, thrown over 50% of the time, is a brutal high-80s slider. It’s helped push Lamet’s strikeout percentage over 34%, and importantly, he’s been able to limit walks – control had always been a problem for him in previous seasons.

I’ll write up the nightcap’s match up in a little while. Former Angel Garrett Richards starts for San Diego opposite Yusei Kikuchi.

Game 1:
1: Crawford, SS
2: Haggerty, LF
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, DH
6: White, 1B
7: Fraley, RF
8: Long, 2B
9: Odom, C
SP: Newsome

Well, Ljay Newsome acquitted himself quite well in Game 1, going 4 IP with 5 Ks and no walks, and only one real mistake, a fastball hit out by Manny Machado. Dinelson Lamet wasn’t sharp, but relied on his stuff to get through. Jose Marmolejos, who’d been called up as the “29th man” for the double-header was forced into action after Evan White hurt his shoulder broke a scoreless tie with a 2-run HR.

Newsome sat 91-92 with his FB, but hit 94 at times, striking out Tatis,Jr. on one of those amped-up fastballs in the first. He’s been remarkably hard to hit in his two appearances, which is interesting; batters are clearly not seeing the ball out of his hand. He did use his change-up more, but it wasn’t all that sharp. His curve/slurve, on the other hand, was, getting some weak contact and a couple of called strikes.

The bullpen blew it for him, as Fernando Tatis, Jr. shook off his Ks against Newsome to drive a Matt Magill pitch out, and then Trent Grisham went back to back, tying the game at 3. Of course, team wins aren’t that important, and you can make a case that they’re counterproductive, but I still like seeing a decent-if-flawed-and-inexperienced team rather than an out and out bad one. But hey, that’s been the nice thing about this winning streak. If you squint, you could really see how this group could come together, get to .500-ish next year and then add in free agency to make a run in 2022. I haven’t been able to visualize that in many years. As if to underscore that point, the M’s shook off the blown save and scored four in the 7th to take the lead before a rather disastrous bottom of the inning. All in all, that’s just about the ideal result.

In the nightcap, the M’s face the original spin-rate king, Garrett Richards. Richards’ cut fastball, slider, and curve were always the top of the MLB class in spin rate, and at times, he’s used them to be an effective starter. But he simply couldn’t stay healthy; the last time he made 20 starts was 2015. He made 18 in 2018, but only six in 2016 and 2017. This’ll be his seventh start of the year, which makes this a comparatively healthy campaign. And a good one – he’s got his ERA/FIP under 4 thus far, and hasn’t been as troubled by HRs as he was in those short 2018-19 years. His K rate is down, but he’s looking a bit more like the guy he was for the Angels years ago.

He’s still predominantly a three-pitch guy: four-seam/cut fastball at 95, a hard slider at 89, and a rare curve. He’s mixing in more of a sinker these days as well.

Game 2:
1: Crawford, SS
2: Haggerty, LF
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, C
6: Marmolejos, 1B
7: Lopes, RF
8: Long, DH
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Kikuchi

The M’s broadcaster Dave Sims moderated a great discussion called Black Voices in Baseball with several of the M’s Black players back in June. In the wake of last night’s strike, they recorded another raw discussion along with the Brewers’ Devin Williams. It’s put out by MLB Network Radio, and it’s on YouTube here. You should listen.

No Game 32, Mariners vs. Pretending Things are Normal

August 26, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 8 Comments 

I knew that this strange, seemingly slapdash season was a risk. I knew it could potentially put players at risk, and I knew it was harder to really get excited about a 60-game season with all sorts of rule changes thrown in at the last minute. But since it started, I’ve been kind of surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed it. I love baseball, so it’s not *that* shocking, but I actually don’t like missing any of these games, which is not something I said about the 2019 season, as long and unsullied by rule changes and Jays-in-Buffalo as it was.

Baseball’s attachment to tradition isn’t just about records or numbers or even about memories of childhood and intergenerational conversations. It’s the way it seems to exist out of time – that people can turn on or go to a game to get away from everything else that demands that you pay attention to the present. It’s an escape, and it’s an effective one because it’s designed to be familiar, and look more or less the same as it did when you were a kid (this is especially true this year, with the spate of throwback powder blue uniforms, dating back to…my childhood), with the promise that it’ll look more or less the same when your own kids are grown. I have *needed* that this year more than any other. I have desperately needed to shut off the news, to put the paper down, and just get away from 2020, at least as much as you can under Covid-19 threat. Today, sports stars have decided that the most powerful thing that they can do is to shut that escape valve, to say, at least for right now, you’ve got to pay attention to the news, and you have to act. They are 100% right to do so.

The Milwaukee Bucks kicked it off when they decided to essentially go on strike and potentially forfeit a playoff game after the shooting of Jacob Blake and then the killing of two protestors last night. It was in their back yard, and they decided that playing would allow too many people to tune out Kenosha and instead watch a majority of black players play a game from the relative safety of the Orlando bubble. The rest of the league followed suit. Then, the Milwaukee Brewers decided to do the same thing, and not play tonight’s scheduled contest with the Reds. Once that happened, and probably a bit before then, the M’s decision not to play tonight in San Diego seemed like a fait accompli. The M’s Black players have tried to keep the focus on issues of social justice, and this is probably the best way they could turn their activism into something concrete.

Many on social media are excoriating teams, saying that this strike isn’t concrete action at all, and won’t help Blake walk again. But it’s much more than a statement or kneeling before the anthem. They, like the NBA and WNBA, wanted to believe that these things – BLM patches on the uniform, or BLM written in the dirt of the pitcher’s mound, or pre-game ceremonies – might help inform people on the fence, might help make a case to the millions of fans tuning in. And they now don’t believe that these things are enough, because they pretty self-evidently aren’t. At that point, they can either produce counter-programming to the news from Kenosha, from Minneapolis, from all over the country, or they could withhold it.

Here’s Dee Gordon on twitter just a little while ago:

Instead of watching us, we hope people will focus on the things more important than sports that are happening.

I have had my problems with the M’s as an organization, and have been somewhat skeptical about their step-back rebuild. But I am incredibly proud to be an M’s fan today. Proud of you Taijuan, JP, Dee, Shed, Kyle, Justus, Justin, Aaron, Tim, and every player on the team that stood with them. Go Mariners.

Game 31, Mariners at Padres

August 25, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Marco Gonzales vs. Chris Paddack, 6:10pm

Oops, little late here. The M’s open the second half in San Diego, facing one of the more electrifying new pitchers of 2019. Chris Paddack was nearly unhittable in the minors, putting up video game numbers across several levels thanks to a mid-90s fastball and a dominant change-up. He had issues with HRs, as he gets backspin on everything, but balanced it with very low walk rates and elite BABIP. This year, he’s had almost the exact same season, but with every trait turned up to eleven. The BABIP remains absurdly low. Walks? 6 in nearly 32 innings. Ahh, but the home runs…those are cranked up, too.

Paddack’s fastball was a real weapon last year, with a BABIP under .250 and plenty of swings and misses from batters looking for his change. He’s throwing it even harder this year, at 95, but it’s a very different pitch. Maybe to try and avoid the HR issues he had, he’s cut the vertical movement on it. He still throws it up in the zone to disguise his change, but he took something that was working, more or less, and made it worse. Batters are teeing off on his fastball, even as his change remains effective. I don’t get it. Maybe our former leader, Dave Cameron, is hard at work figuring this out.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haggerty, LF
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, C
6: White, 1B
7: Fraley, RF
8: Lopes, DH
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Marco Gonzales

The M’s at the Half-Way Point: Grading the Rebuild

August 24, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 10 Comments 

The M’s are half-way through this bizarre season. They’re nowhere near contention, but then that was never the goal. The goal is to start to see the outlines of what a contending team might look like. While the team keeps kicking out the date at which they’re supposed to be in the running, or at least not out-and-out bad. The key this season was to identify a number of players who could be regulars on a not-awful version of the M’s. You’ll recognize this as the goal of the last few M’s campaigns as well. But now that the full-on rebuild’s in swing, the M’s *must* identify some key players who’ll lead them to contention. It’s not enough to be young. It’s time to be young and at least intermittently good.

I think one of the frustrating things about the past few years is that any definitive evaluation of the rebuild had to wait. Sure, Marco Gonzales was doing fine, but the peripherals were concerning. JP Crawford had a great first half, and a lousy second half, and that went triple for Dan Vogelbach. Shed Long was alright. There were flashes of promise, and if you squinted, you could see progress. But the overall numbers were concerning. I think so many fans, myself included, want clear, unambiguous signs that the player development group has unlocked potential in the M’s young hopefuls, and that we could say that the first phase of the rebuild was done. But baseball’s rarely that clear, or rather, *Mariners* baseball is rarely that clear.

Justus Sheffield has pretty clearly taken a step forward with his new sinker/slider approach, and despite my worries about velocity, Marco Gonzales is on the best run of his career. These were two keys to the upside pieces I wrote in 2019 and 2020, and while it took some time, we may be getting ready to check these off the to-do list. But at the same time, several other key young players have struggled. We’ve gone over Evan White’s unpleasant introduction to the major leagues quite a bit, but at 100 plate appearances, he’s still got a K% over 40%, and has a wRC+ of 52. Better than where it was, but…really not good. He’s made 17 starts in August, and notched at least one K in 16 of them. Shed Long’s wRC+ is even lower, at 39, and the surprising pop he showed last year hasn’t re-appeared. That’s the story of JP Crawford’s 2020, too. Despite improvements in his K:BB ratio and rates overall, he’s hitting for no power whatsoever, leaving him with a slugging percentage below .300. He’s essentially matching his production from the second half of last year, an injury-marred period in which he looked like a shadow of the player who’d been so good in the spring.

Mallex Smith appears like he may follow Vogelbach out of town. He’s already been demoted, and looked lost on his way to a wRC+ of…uh…-5. He’d already lost his CF job, and his bat doesn’t come close to playing in a corner, so he may moved for perennially useful cash considerations soon. Dee Gordon’s contract may be a sticking point, but he too has lost even the utility role he had, now that the M’s suddenly have utility players all over the clubhouse. Gordon’s looked miserable, which is tough to watch for a guy with his personality and appeal. It’s simply not working, and at his age, he’s not a part of this rebuild anyway.

That’s all quite depressing, but it’s balanced by the one thing I never thought the M’s could do. For years, I’ve been saying that to really ensure that a rebuild was possible, they needed to identify an actual star-level player. Not a 3-5 win guy who would represent the team well at the All Star game, but an actual star – someone capable of winning MVP votes. They really haven’t had that since Felix was last great, and just given the nature of the players they were bringing up, it seemed like they might have to continue selling fans on the promise of Julio Rodriguez/Jarred Kelenic. Enter Kyle Lewis. His initial call-up was breathtaking, with a somewhat unexpected power surge, but the K rate was a concern. It’s just 30 games, but I seriously don’t think they could’ve gone any better for Lewis. Not only is he showing more bat-to-ball contact skills, he’s drawing way more walks. Not only has that in-game power still a part of his game, but he’s playing a decent center field. Yes, the BABIP will come down, and yes, pitchers will adjust, and he doesn’t have to face the formidable rotations of Cleveland or Chicago or Cincinnati, but this is a package that is capable of getting to 7-8 WAR in good years. This is the elite-level talent that the M’s have been looking for.

One of the other keys to the season is getting more intel on how the competition stacks up. This, too, has been something of a mixed bag, but in general I think things look a bit less bleak than they did a few months or a year ago. The Astros, beset by injuries and regression, are not quite the juggernaut they’ve been. There are still excellent players there, but they can’t just plug in another young player and have an instant boost the way they did with Carlos Correa years ago or Yordan Alvarez and Jose Urquidy in 2019. They’ve still got some interesting young arms coming up, including a few who handcuffed the M’s on the recent road trip, but they no longer look their player development overall is in a completely different league. They have Bregman locked up for years and are quite a bit better in terms of talent than the M’s right now, but they could lose additional players in the coming years as their contracts expire.

The Angels got one of the biggest prizes in free agency in Anthony Rendon, and have Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani for the foreseeable future, giving them the best group of core players in the division. Yes, they’re older than the M’s, Astros, and Athletics best players, but by a surprisingly small margin. But as we’ve seen so often in Anaheim, it hasn’t translated into success quite yet. Jo Adell has fewer at-bats, but may catch up to Evan White in strikeouts in the second half. Justin Upton looks done, and Pujols has been for quite some time. Not even the emergence of David Fletcher has been enough. The problem remains – as it has for several years – in their pitching staff, and in particular, the rotation. The Angels got the free agent bargain of the winter in Dylan Bundy, who’s been shockingly good, but even that just highlights how bad his compatriots have been. Angels starters have gone 4-15 with an ERA of 5.84 *despite the fact* that Bundy is 3-2 with an ERA of 2.58.
Julio Teheran has shown that the Angels don’t have magical powers to fix one-time prospects, as he’s sporting an ERA over 12. Shohei Ohtani can’t pitch again this season, and may never pitch again in the bigs. The Angels always feel a small step from contention, but haven’t been able to make that small step, and could miss their window if Griffin Canning, Jose Suarez, and the other pitchers don’t step it up. Bundy may not be in LA for long, after all.

The A’s are as-advertised. Matt Chapman, Ramon Laureano, and Matt Olson are a formidable middle-of-the-order, and all three play great defense. They’ve gotten big years from Mark Canha and Robbie Grossman, and they remain an annoyingly good team, with a core not too much older than Seattle’s. They’ve been hit hard by injuries in their rotation over the past few years, but are seeing a healthy Jesus Luzardo stake a claim to a rotation spot, and Chris Bassitt show that last year’s breakout was for real. They’re not perfect or anything; Mike Fiers is regressing and Sean Manaea’s velocity is all over the map, dipping well into the mid-high 80s at times. There’s clearly less talent in the pipeline for Oakland than for Seattle, but there’s much less need for it, too. This team will be battling the M’s for contention whenever the M’s see fit to compete.

Texas looks lost. I’m not trying to take anything away from the M’s sweep of the Rangers that marked the high point of the first half, but the Rangers look completely sunk – they don’t look ready to play in many games, and several veteran players they’ve depended on look like they’d rather be anywhere else. Rougned Odor has seemed on the edge of playing himself out of the team and maybe the league these past few seasons, but he’s removing any doubt this year – he’s been perhaps the worst player in baseball in 2020. The Rangers no-glove, all-bat prospect, Willie Calhoun, has been awful as well, even worse than his collapse in 2018. Elvis Andrus fell off a cliff in 2019, and has now discovered a new, deeper cliff to plunge from. Lance Lynn remains good, but Mike Minor’s brilliant 2019 looks like a bizarre outlier, and their youngsters haven’t been able to step up and solidify the rotation. I’m seriously not sure where they go from here; Nick Solak’s good, and one of their top prospects, CF Leody Taveras, debuted tonight. But like the M’s, they had a lot of young pitching prospects, but unlike the M’s, they couldn’t stash them on the 60-man player pool. It was supposed to be a crucial year of development for the likes of Hans Crouse, Yerry Rodriguez, and Cole Winn, and it’s not going to happen. The team looks considerably worse than they have in recent years, and would’ve loved to sell high on the likes of Minor, Lynn, and Kyle Gibson, but may be forced to just wait.

The fear I’ve had is that another wave of talent in Houston, Oakland, Anaheim, or all three would make Seattle’s job much, much tougher. By and large, that hasn’t happened, and while it still could, the gap between the M’s and their rivals doesn’t look certain to grow over the next few years. That’s an opportunity the M’s absolutely need to grab, and it makes watching Crawford or White struggle that much harder. The M’s don’t have unlimited time here, and they need to know who they can count on. They now have their CF of the future, and at least a couple of rotation slots seem in decent hands before the next wave of M’s SP prospects arrives. Yusei Kikuchi still receives an incomplete grade, as his stuff has ticked up, but he’s still incapable of pitching out of trouble. It’d be nice to know that Mitch Haniger will be back in some kind of reasonable shape in 2021 to check off another line-up box. But the infield is still something of a question mark, particularly if the M’s move the resurgent Kyle Seager. Justin Dunn still seems like a bullpen arm, despite his first unalloyed great game yesterday. The bullpen looks bad, but it almost seemed designed to fail.

The grade will improve if Shed Long and/or JP Crawford pull out of their tailspin and finish the year with overall production close to league average. That’s hard to do in 30 games given the hole they’ve dug for themselves, but they’re remarkably streaky hitters and a hot streak would soothe my pessimistic mind. The grade will improve if Marco Gonzales stays hot, and doesn’t repeat his Jekyll and Hyde 2019, and if Justus Sheffield finishes the year with an ERA/FIP/DRA under 4. It’ll improve if Evan White’s second-half K rate is under 30%, and his production is league-averageish. And it’ll improve if the M’s receive meaningful talent in deadline deals, probably involving Tai Walker and, less likely, Seager. Overall, I’d give them a C+/B-, but so much of that’s due to Lewis. What do you think? Am I overreacting to small samples on White/Long/Crawford? Too optimistic on Lewis and the rest of the AL West? When do you think this team can compete?

Game 29, Rangers at Mariners

August 22, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 9 Comments 

Justus Sheffield vs. Jordan Lyles, 6:10pm

It’s hard to remember, but back before the 2011 season, the Astros were both 1) in the National League and 2) the laughingstock of the prospect/player development world. Their top prospect heading into the campaign wasn’t Dallas Keuchel (14th on some lists) or Jose Altuve (11th). It was Jordan Lyles, who’d done fairly well in AA as a teenager in 2010. The problem was that he was more of a command/control guy as opposed to a real power pitcher, and could have trouble missing big league bats.

That proved prescient, as he debuted in 2011 but couldn’t…miss a ton of bats, and thus wasn’t able to turn his legitimately good control into good overall results. It didn’t help that his team was awful, and about to get a lot worse. In three seasons from 2011-2013, Lyles couldn’t push his ERA under 5 despite a decent-ish FIP for a back-end starter. Like Kolby Allard last night – a guy with a remarkably similar profile, but for his handedness – Lyles struggled with men on base, and thus with a poor strand rate. He also struggled with HRs, which was somewhat notable given the time period – there were far fewer of them then than there are in recent years.

Thus, it didn’t look good for his career that he moved from Houston to Colorado. However, Lyles put together a very good first year with the Rockies in 2014. Shockingly, his HRs-allowed fell despite moving up to altitude, but there were some concerning signs: his walk rate started to climb. That problem only got worse the next two years, and by 2016, he was a bullpen arm/swingman. Since then, he’s been a consistent presence on the trade wire – he’s played for two teams in each season since 2017. Lyles has a four-seam fastball at 92, a hard change in the high 80s, a slider, and a curve – his best secondary. He’s traditionally had some sizable platoon splits, with a much worse K:BB ratio against lefties.

Justus Sheffield has had similar issues stranding runners, but has enjoyed a pretty good year despite some BABIP trouble. That’s a rare thing on this staff, as M’s pitchers/defense are not allowing many balls in play to fall in. It hasn’t exactly mattered. Still, it’s nice to see that Sheffield’s solid run hasn’t just been BABIP luck. The fact that he hasn’t yielded a dinger yet may be lucky, sure, but he’s done pretty well overall. He’s missing bats when needed, and his walk rate has come down nicely. Now, it’s just about consistency. Sheffield’s got to show that this is who he is now: a guy the M’s can count on for 2021.

It is interesting that unlike a number of M’s minor leaguers, Sheffield’s velo seems to be going the wrong way. He averaged a bit over 93 last year, and is just under 92 now. Maybe that’s just the result of the weird, shortened, two-part spring training – a factor James Paxton blamed for the injury that sent him to the Yankees IL. So far, it hasn’t really hurt him. It’s a different sort of pitch now, but his whiff rate on it hasn’t really changed (it’s still not *good*, mind you), and that sinker seems to be playing well with his slider.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haggerty, LF
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, C
6: White, 1B
7: Fraley, RF
8: Lopes, DH
9: Long, 2B
SP: Sheffield

Yes, Jake Fraley’s back. The CF/OF the M’s picked up from Tampa made his debut last year, and while it didn’t exactly go well, he’s got more upside than guys like Bishop, who’s spot he’s essentially taking tonight. The spot he’s taking on the active roster is Dylan Moore’s. Moore will head to the IL with a sprained wrist.

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