We’re nearly a month into the Arizona Fall League, the premiere offseason showcase for both top prospect and potential Rule 5 guys each year. The M’s contingent this year was a great mix of high-upside guys and close-to or even in-the-majors guys who could use some extra games. It also mixes guys with great stat lines – like Dylan Unsworth and Southern League MVP Tyler O’Neill – with players who had down years, like SS Drew Jackson and Guillermo Heredia (whose lack of polish was perfectly understandable given his aggressive promotions). Not only is the league an excellent test for prospects, as the level of competition can be fairly high (though pitching depth isn’t great), it’s also a source of important information about guys we know little about beyond scouting reports; thanks to pitch fx in two parks, we actually get data on pitchers. It’s incomplete, and the calibration on Peoria’s system has been off for years (sometimes laughably so), but even with those caveats, it’s an incredible resource.
To me, there are really 3 big stories thus far from the AFL:
1: Tyler O’Neill cannot be stopped. O’Neill was one of the big stories of LAST year’s AFL, when he showed his huge 2nd half in Bakersfield was real by hitting the ball extremely hard for Peoria for a week or two before joining Team Canada. He then dominated AA, and now gets a victory lap of sorts against a number of tough pitchers. He’s faced guys like Michael Kopech, a top prospect for the Red Sox who touches 100mph, and made hard contact (he went 1-2 off of him), and his K rate is slightly below is season line at Jackson (which was itself a new career low for O’Neill). That’s not to say he’s now a contact hitter; swing-and-miss will always be a concern. But he’s made tremendous strides, and even still, the trend line is still pointing up.
2: Something’s going on with Thyago Vieira. The Brazilian righty’s been in the system since 2011, and he’s just now reached high-A in his age-23 season. Scouting reports on him from his tenure at Everett (back in 2013) were underwhelming, and his career stats look like a really good failed-prospect bingo card. Poor control? Check. Repeating a low-minors league? Check. Gaps in the record due to injury? Check. This would’ve been a huge headscratcher of an assignment if it wasn’t for the fact that reports had him touching triple digits for Bakersfield along with huge steps forward in control. That was tantalizing, but really hard to fathom; had Vieira suddenly added the best part of 10mph to his fastball AND learned where to put it? Or was someone’s radar gun on the fritz?
Now we know: Vieira’s for real. If you go to BrooksBaseball, which has some pitch fx data for AFL guys, you’ll see Vieira’s averaging *AVERAGING* a cool 101.6mph on his fastball. MLBFarm uses the raw MLBAM data, which calculates pitch speed at 50′ from the plate, not 55′ like Brooks, so their numbers are a bit more restrained, but he’s still got the fastest average pitch in the league by quite a margin. And that league includes guys like Kopech, who’ve thrown 100 repeatedly. Vieira’s velo is not just in the league with some of the minors premiere flamethrowers, it’s putting them to shame.
Even better, his control looks more like it did in 2016 than it did, uh, every other year. It’s a tiny sample, but he’s walked 1 in 5+ innings, along with 7 Ks. As you can see from the BrooksBaseball link, his fastball doesn’t have elite movement; it’s fairly straight and flat. This is probably why he gives up more contact than anyone throwing that hard should, and it may prevent him from ever really harnessing the potential of a pitch like that. But if you’ve watched the World Series this year, you’ve seen that a 102mph fastball doesn’t need pinpoint location to be effective.
A better comp than Aroldis Chapman is a guy I mentioned in my AFL check-in last year – a Braves prospect named Mauricio Cabrera. I’d never heard of him, but he too popped up in the AFL throwing 102. A look at his stats showed no hint of anything special. It’s very similar to Vieira’s, in fact. Like Vieira, he joined affiliated ball in 2011, and moved slowly after that thanks to real problems with control/command. Over 2 stops in the minors in 2015, Cabrera had an RA/9 of 6.33, walking 35 in 48 1/3 IP, so there was no reason to assume he’d do anything in the AFL besides frustrate scouts. That seemed to sum it up, as he hit 102, and watched line drives fly past him going even faster. Cabrera was hit hard, but demonstrated such potential that the Braves gave him a roster spot. In 2016, Cabrera made the leap that Vieira’s apparently made, and jumped from AA straight to the majors, where he was a moderately successful middle-reliever. He’s still walking too many, but he contributed in the majors the year following an awful statistical year. A lot would have to go right for Vieira to do that, including getting rostered, but I’m not betting against Vieira logging some MLB innings in 2017.
3: Tyler Marlette, for years a disappointment after his selection in the 2011 draft, also looks to be turning a corner. Marlette had plus raw power out of HS, drawing raves from then-scouting director Tom McNamara, but couldn’t translate it into games. He was hitting decently, but with sub-par defense, he’d need to demonstrate more power to move up. A good showing in the Cal League in 2014 got him a call-up to AA, but 2015 turned sour for Marlette, as it did so many M’s prospects. He was assigned to the Cal League again, and scuffled, posting a sub-.300 OBP in a hitter’s haven. He repeated the Cal League yet again this year, but looked much better. Still, the M’s need to protect him or face the possibility of losing him in the Rule 5 draft.
As Bob Dutton writes in the News Tribune, Marlette’s done all he can to show he’s worth rostering. He’s hit for power, and he’s making a decent amount of contact against tough competition – better than what he saw in the Cal League. Would anyone actually take Marlette – a bat-first catcher – in the Rule 5 draft? Maybe not, but Marlette’s done enough to show he has a future in the org. Yes, yes, this is the guy that was my “player to watch” in every MiLB preview post from 2013-2015, but like O’Neill, there are encouraging signs that something clicked for Marlette this year.
Things had been a bit quiet from Jerry Dipoto since that Micah Owings signing, but the M’s made a small flurry of moves today. First, they removed several players from the 40-man following the end of the season and thus the end of the 60-day disabled list. LH RP Charlie Furbush is the big name, though this is hardly a surprise given the state of his health. Furbush is arb-eligible, and while he wouldn’t have earned a raise, the M’s outrighted him instead of making an offer. Furbush can deny the assignment, so essentially Furbush is now a free agent. RH RP Ryan Cook and C Steve Clevenger were also activated and outrighted. Cook pitched a few innings in rehab in the minors, but was then shut down, and may have re-aggravated the lat strain that he suffered in spring training. He’s likely gone, unless he signs a new free agent/minor league deal with Seattle. Clevenger is really, really gone; I think both parties are eager to just be rid of each other at this point.
The M’s lost pitcher Adrian Sampson to the Rangers, who claimed the injured SP off of waivers. He’s still recuperating from surgery, so can’t contribute early in 2017, and may bounce around in waiver purgatory a few more times before he’s back to full fitness. The bigger news is that the M’s also made a waiver claim, snagging RHP Ryan Weber from Atlanta. Weber’s a command and control righty, whose fastball is in the 90mph range with decent sink. He posted great MiLB walk rates, which is probably what caught Dipoto’s eye, and he clearly had his fans in the game: Fangraphs’ ranked him in the Braves top 5 prospects coming into 2016, but a poor season (he gave up a lot of HRs and couldn’t miss bats with the Braves) saw him placed on waivers despite having 2 options left.
This isn’t a great comparison, but his motion (check the video in Dutton’s post) and approach remind me a bit of late-period Joel Pineiro. On the down side, as a sinkerballer with an underpowered fastball, he’s going to be vulnerable to lefties. He’s developed a cutter/slider pitch that might help him against righties, but strikeouts have never really been the focus of his game. That’s fine, but then he absolutely has to limit HRs, something he couldn’t do this year. Thanks to the lack of an outpitch (his best pitch may be his curve, but nothing he throws is a real weapon), he’s fairly consistently given up more runs than his FIP would assume, and if he can’t keep the ball in the park, that tendency is magnified. With options and a history as a starter, he could provide some much-needed SP depth in Tacoma, or he could try to make the big league ‘pen as a Sean Green-style grounder guy. That said, the M’s bullpen already looks fairly crowded, with Edwin Diaz, Steve Cishek, Nick Vincent, Evan Scribner, Dan Altavilla, Vidal Nuno, Tony Zych, a yet-to-be-identified lefty and potentially Nate Karns/Ariel Miranda already in position. That group doesn’t really have a ground ball guy, however, so he could Donn Roach his way to occasional innings if things break right.
Steve Baron, the C the M’s drafted in the first round all the way back in 2009, was also Designated for Assignment. That’s not to say that Marlette is in line for this roster spot, but it clearly helps Marlette’s chances. Baron actually had a good year at the plate for Jackson, and always drew raves for his defense and handling a staff, so he’ll clearly catch on somewhere on a minor league deal. The team still has a big decision to make at C next year, with the club having a $4m option on Chris Iannetta, who faded badly down the stretch last year, and would likely be in a back-up role again with Mike Zunino starting. They’re also shopping for a 1B, with Dae-Ho Lee a possibility to return and platoon with Dan Vogelbach, but Lee’s comments about playing time may indicate that Lee’s ready to move on. The M’s will pick up Seth Smith’s $7m option, but I think we’ve seen the last of Norichika Aoki, Drew Storen, Adam Lind. Franklin Gutierrez will be a free agent, though he’s been in this position before and keeps coming back.
As we move through the fall, we’ll soon drown in the steady drip of minor roster moves and non-roster invites. They’ll blend together, as this reliever or that, or that guy who once had a good year in 2013 (or was it 2011?) signs a deal with Seattle (or was it Oakland?), complete with opt-outs. There will be best shape of his life quotes for the papers, and we won’t even have time to mull it over before the next one pops up on Twitter.
The M’s recently signed Micah Owings. Owings last played in the majors in 2012. In April of 2013, Bradley Woodrum penned this cri de curve that someone, ANYONE, should give Owings a roster spot. He didn’t get one, and after a so-so season in the minors, it looked like he was done. He played a handful of games in the Brewers and Nats systems that year, then a year with Miami, and the trail went cold. He popped up again this year with the York Revolution, putting up a pitching line that’s both encouraging for a guy who’d been out of organized ball for a few years, and also not inspiring for a league who’s 2016 batting champ was Endy Chavez. So is this just another meaningless bullpen pile signing? No. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.
In 2005, college junior Micah Owings transferred from Georgia Tech to Tulane. In 2 years in the ACC, Owings posted back to back 9-3 seasons on the mound, and hit a total of 25 HRs while keeping his OPS over .900 in each year. At Tulane, facing slightly weaker competition, Owings simply went nuts, with a slash line of .355/.470/.719, hitting 18 bombs. He also was the 2nd starter, going 12-4, and striking out 135 hitters and walking just *25* in 129 2/3 IP. The Diamondbacks signed him in the 3rd round, just 2 picks after they took Jason Neighborgall out of the Georgia Tech program that Owings had just left.* Owings wasn’t actually Tulane’s top prospect – that’d be Friday starter and OF Brian Bogusevic, who went in the first round to the Houston Astros. Bogusevic’s stats weren’t as gaudy as Owings’ but scouts loved him, as you can see in this frozen-in-amber scouting report from MLB, which compared him to Mark Mulder.
While Owings torched the Cal league with 30 Ks in 22 IP after signing, and backed it up in AA the following year, Bogusevic struggled to miss bats in the Houston system. Owings slowed down a bit in AAA, as his K rate started to settle in at around 7 per 9. He was a decent starter in some tough run environments, and while he didn’t have top-end velocity, a great breaking ball, or the the ability to throw left-handed, he was passable. From 2007-2009, Owings pitched more than 100 innings every year, with a couple of decent seasons for the D-Backs before velocity trouble and injuries sapped his effectiveness for Cincinnati. After transitioning to the bullpen, he had another solid year for Arizona, who re-acquired him in 2011, and then an injury plagued cup of coffee with San Diego in 2012.
But if you know anything about Owings, it’s that he’s much more interesting than a garden-variety failed starter. Owings could always hit. Not “for a pitcher” hit, but HIT hit. In a roughly half-season’s worth of ABs, Owings career line looks like something befitting his college statline: .283/.310/.502. The run environment was different than, so that’s “only” a 104 wRC+, but don’t miss that there are three digits in that figure. He was a (slightly) better than *league average* hitter. Many teams, including the Nats, who signed him as an OF, wanted to make more use of his bat, but they struggled to figure out how. The Nats had something of an excuse: they had a kid named Harper in RF and had given plenty of money to Jayson Werth, so they were full. The Pads can claim injury impaired their ability to innovate, sure, but why didn’t the Marlins in 2014? Hell, why didn’t York last year?
At some level, this isn’t hard: if a guy’s shown aptitude At the plate and bounced along as a so-so reliever, you should figure out how to maximize his utility. Owings’ career started just a couple of years after the last OF/RP hybrid player fizzled out. That was Brooks Kieschnick, a slugging left-handed OF who moonlighted as a right-handed set-up guy for the Brewers. While he had power, it wasn’t at Owings’ level, and his overall bat-to-ball ability wasn’t quite at Owings’ level. He was a decent enough hitter though, albeit not great for a corner OF bench bat. On the mound, he gave up lots of contact, and wouldn’t have survived as a starter, but at least had solid control. After two years, though, the Brewers had seen enough, and surprisingly (at least to me), Kieschnick never caught on anywhere else.
That’s surprising, as there were several high-profile pitcher-to-position player (or vice versa) moves around this time. Owings’ college teammate, first-round-pick Brian Bogusevic, finally abandoned pitching and somehow made the majors as a light-hitting corner OF, garnering 800 plate appearances, largely with the truly awful Astros teams of a few years ago. Bogusevic had a partial Kieschnick in 2012, when he pitched an inning for the Phillies in addition to coming off the bench as an OF, but that was more of a common “throw someone out there who used to pitch and save the bullpen” cases. Adam Loewen made the majors as a starting pitcher in 2006, but injuries made him turn to hitting full time in 2010. He made the majors as an OF the next year for Toronto, and then moved *back* to the mound for the Phillies in 2015; he too had a partial Kieschnick, tossing 19 1/3 IP and batting three times for Philadelphia that year. He had a cup of coffee with Arizona last year, so he’s yet another candidate for hybrid player if anyone’s interested.
To me, it’s pretty remarkable that no one’s really tried to utilize an Owings or Loewen as a true hybrid player. “They’re not good enough at any one skill,” you say, convincingly. That’s a good point, and it’s clearly what doomed Kieschnick, as he couldn’t miss bats right around the time MLB bullpens turned into nuclear-powered strikeout factories. Owings isn’t going to give you that, even if his velocity’s back. His fastball’s most salient feature is that it’s arrow-straight – almost cutter-like. It also has below-average “rise”. Arrow straight, slow, and neither-rising-nor-sinking isn’t how you want a pitcher’s FB described, but here we are. He’s got a slider and change, but both have far-below-average whiff rates. Still: have you seen what clubs carry in their pen? Would he be worse than, I don’t know, JC Ramirez? Maybe, maybe not. And the upside here seems pretty clear: you get the benefit of a bench bat without the defensive issues. Throughout baseball, teams have gone from 11 to 12 to now 13-man pitching staffs, cutting corners on their bench. Given the need for a back-up C and someone who can credibly play SS, teams often have just 1 or 2 options, generally the off-side of a platoon. Having a decent hitter you could deploy AND give your pen a rest or face one or two same-handed hitters…that seems like an exceptionally helpful thing. It scratches the modern itch of ensuring your pen is full of options, while going old-school on the bench. You could start a guy in the OF, bring him in to pitch, then move him back. Or bring him in to face a righty, put him in LF for lefty, then bring him back to the mound. It’s weird and fun, and the batting line, even if it is older now than Mike Trout’s career, is tantalizing enough to make you think you’re not getting a replacement-level bench bat, but an actual bat. The problem isn’t that he isn’t good enough at either skill – the problem is that he’s only *actually* valuable if he’s used as a hybrid…the one thing teams don’t seem willing to do.
And that probably includes the Mariners. He’s listed as a RHP, and again, he never came to bat for York last year. It really seems like he’s given up hitting. That’s a shame, because the odds on his arm carrying him are long. I’m all for giving him a shot, as he’s been a favorite of mine for years. I just wish he got the opportunity to Kieshnick full time, and truth be told, I wish he got it about 5 years ago. That’s a bit of a downer, so let’s end on a positive. With Arizona, he threw from a normal 3/4 delivery, with that arrow-straight fastball. His lack of backspin on the fastball is what prevented him from generating a lot of “rise” on the pitch; it had the vertical movement of a sinker with none of the horizontal run, and thus, despite a lack of rise, batters elevated it easily. His arm angle dropped very slightly in later years, perhaps due to the injuries he struggled with, but his fastball movement never really changed much. Every once in a while, though, he seemed to toy with a sinker. Brooks doesn’t show one in his stats, but if you pore through game logs, you’ll see a group of “four seamers” that had some horizontal movement. A two-seam grip and low spin seems like a good start to throwing a proper sinker, if only he’d drop his arm angle *on purpose.* This would help him generate more horizontal movement by adding side spin to the ball. Ok – go look at that Lookout Landing article again, and notice the picture at the bottom of it. That looks just about right- a low 3/4 delivery. It’s not much to go on, and you can find similar shots from his MLB days. But it seems like the mechanical tweak would be so small that it could work. A groundballing ROOGY can work, sort of. A flyballing, rusty reliever in what’s suddenly a HR-prone ballpark sounds like a tougher sell.
* Neighborgall is another fascinating story that any stathead of a certain age will remember. He threw blazingly fast but couldn’t quite figure out where it was going. Signed as a “project”, his control problem went from bad to worse in pro ball, leading to one of the most baffling statlines you’ll ever see. In 42 career innings, Neighborgall walked…128 batters. In his final stop, and he posted the heartbreaking line of 1 3 12 12 0 12 2. Yes – he pitched one inning, yielding 3 hits and 12 runs on, uh, just checking this one more time…ok, *12 walks* and 2 Ks. This led pre-politics Nate Silver to pen a post about how this low-minors fireballer had essentially broken his PECOTA forecasting system.
The pain of the M’s season-ending loss to Oakland is still fresh; it’s been less than a week before that crazy game officially eliminated the M’s from the wild card chase. In a season in which their late-season push came up *just* short, you can’t help but wonder if this or that game, or this or that at-bat could’ve swung something. These are all counterfactuals, and so by definition there’s nothing to really learn here. That said, as the Chicago Cubs play their first playoff game tonight, I find myself thinking about an important piece of their (juggernaut) club, a piece they picked up from Seattle in late July: lefty Mike Montgomery.
Montgomery opened some eyes with the Cubs, pitching well in relief and as a spot starter (he made 5 starts for the Cubs in August/September) and stabilizing a bullpen that’s now one of the league’s best. Corinne Landrey’s article at Fangraphs goes over what he’s doing differently (throwing a ton of curves) and what he’s maintained (high velocity) since the trade, and given the plaudits Monty’s racked up and some of the crushing bullpen collapses the M’s suffered after the trade, well…would the M’s have won a wild card berth if they’d kept him?
Obviously, it’s impossible to know, but if you think he was the missing piece, I’d think you’d need to show a clear pattern in the 2nd half losses: 1) that the M’s bullpen had fewer/worse left-handed options, and thus lacked the platoon advantage more often; 2) that this led to lefties enjoying more success against the M’s pen, and 3) the way Montgomery was typically used would’ve made a difference. The third is important, because we don’t just want to take the M’s worst 2nd half reliever and swap him out for Montgomery. We can’t just plop this hypothetical Monty in any situation that went poorly and say the M’s would’ve won the game. I’m going to be up front here, the data for this is a little spotty. I can’t get platoon splits vs. relievers for a certain date range. I’m using first half/second half splits because they’re easy to get, but you and I will make a mental note that Monty was traded before the AS break. We’re going to have to do the best we can with limited data. Ok? Ok.
Let’s start with a bit of context. The M’s bullpen in the first half of 2016 was a very high-K, high-HR club, and the plusses and minuses even out and produce the 14th-most valuable bullpen by fWAR. Their ERA was 3.44 and their FIP was 3.97; the ERA was aided by an impressive .278 BABIP-against. The club’s most-utilized reliever in the first half? Mike Montgomery, with just over 50 innings, over 10IP more than 2nd place Steve Cishek. In the second half, the bullpen’s K rate came down substantially, but this was balanced by an improved walk rate and a slight improvement in HR rate. All of this and a good-but-not-great BABIP pushed their ERA up to 3.68, and sent their FIP soaring from 3.97 to 3.98. All told, they were, again, the 14th most valuable unit. Nothing changed.
That’s not true, of course. They were led by Edwin Diaz, who logged the most innings in the second half, again with a 10IP margin over 2nd place Cishek/Nick Vincent. Diaz’s emergence was a critical factor in the M’s push; he finished with a FIP *under 2* and struck out nearly everyone. With Evan Scribner’s return and Steve Cishek’s improvement, it’s kind of amazing that the bullpen didn’t really change; the M’s added the best reliever they’ve had in years and yet the bullpen’s overall numbers were unchanged. It’d seem that regression came for some of the lesser lights of the ‘pen.
In the first half of the season, the M’s bullpen logged a total of 280 1/3 IP. Of these, left-handers pitched 86 1/3, or 31%. In the second half, the Monty-less bullpen tossed another 242 IP, but lefties pitched just 44, or 18%. The M’s pen was clearly less left-handed, and the lefties that filled in (Nuno, David Rollins, and sometimes-lefty Pat Venditte) weren’t exactly world-beaters. It’s not clear that these guys pitched the innings Monty used to get, though. Despite his success, Montgomery wasn’t given particularly high-leverage innings in the first half; his leverage index was a bit under 1. That would’ve probably gone up, but not as high as Edwin Diaz’s. By WPA, the guys who “got” Monty’s innings were Arquimedes Caminero, Drew Storen and Nick Vincent, with Vidal Nuno thrown in as well as the team’s primary lefty. Caminero, Vincent and Nuno combined to put up a -1.24 Win Probability Added, with Vincent and Nuno finishing 2nd-to-last and last on the club in reliever WPA. This is circumstantial evidence, but you could make a case that Montgomery would’ve led to the M’s using less of their most unhelpful relievers, but the picture’s still mixed: Storen was oddly effective, putting up a plus-1 WPA all by himself.
Since I don’t have platoon splits that’d shed some light on if lefties suddenly started destroying the M’s pen, we’re going to have to do this the old-fashioned way. Let’s take a look at the M’s second half bullpen losses and see where we think Monty may have been used. Of course, these situations may have been different if Monty had been there, and the M’s may have suffered different bullpen losses if they hadn’t made the trade, but this is what we can do without time machines and alternate universes. If you’d like to dive into some very masochistic qualitative data, follow on:
King Felix vs. Sean Manaea, 12:10pm
It’s both a blessing and a curse that things change quickly in baseball. 2 years ago, the M’s headed into their final game knowing they wouldn’t be going to the playoffs, but thinking they could in 2015; I wrote back then that they’d narrowed the gap between themselves and the Angels (lol). 2 years ago, Felix pitched a brilliant game, a fitting coda in his brilliant season, one that came very close to earning him a 2nd Cy Young. It’s 2016, the M’s came up just short, but Felix is both despondent and vulnerable now. We’re all just waiting to see what happens next. It’s always been a possibility, but the odds that the M’s won’t make the playoffs in Felix’s M’s career are getting larger. That hurts.
To put my cards on the table, last night’s agonizing loss isn’t close to the most painful I’ve experienced. It stung, no doubt, because it always felt winnable, right up to Seager’s fly out (“they’re pitching to him? Ha!”). But coming so close in an irrationally fun, against-all-odds late season push trumps blowing a solid lead late (2014 sucked) any day. It beats David Justice, it beats Alfonso Soriano, Paul $&@!ing Assenmacher. I can’t, in a very literal sense, hurt as bad as I did back then. But there’s something about seeing Felix so heartbroken last night that makes me forget that I’d written off this season plenty of times before last night. I thought this was all fun, playing on house money, and then I see Felix and I’m reminded that the players aren’t going to say, “Well we certainly beat the odds for several weeks!”
Do you want a silver lining? Here you go: I always wondered how to weight the various components of a GM’s job: the amateur draft, trades, free agent pick-ups, and player development. I thought the M’s failures in player development played an outsized role in their struggles, and this year would seem to support that. The M’s minor league success wasn’t just great for the affiliates, it gave the M’s Edwin Diaz, without whom the M’s wouldn’t be in a position to curse Edwin Diaz for last night’s loss. Remember that Paxton and Zunino started this year in AAA. The strides they made in PD covered so many flaws elsewhere and give me a lot of hope going forward. I still don’t know how to rank PD in a team’s skill set, but it absolutely has to be near the top.
Why am I so confident about that? Because *so* much of the other stuff went against the M’s, and decisively so. The M’s traded the MLB leader in home runs for a back-up catcher who made a name for himself for all the wrong reasons. The M’s traded Brad Miller for a pitcher they demoted, then 60-day DL’d, while Miller hit 30+ bombs. Joaquin Benoit was so-so, then traded on, while the big free agent moves were a mixed bag as well. None of them really sucked, but Scribner was hurt, Lee lost confidence, and Cishek struggled in high-leverage situations.
Let’s be clear: this is all results-based, and the M’s had their reasons, some of them good, for making each move. The point isn’t to assess Dipoto’s trade acumen, but to say that in 2016, a whole lot of breaks went against the M’s and *still* they played a meaningful game 161. It also gives me some confidence when I say that a great player development group covers over a multitude of trade and/or free agent sins.
Thanks so much to all of you who’ve read this stuff. It’s a strange compulsion, and compulsion’s the only word for something so irrational, impecunious, and pointless as talking about not-quite-every Mariner game. But many of you stop by, and it makes all of this worth while. I’ve never met the vast majority of you, so I can’t even chalk it up to my winning personality. Seasons like 2015 make me want to quit, or at least, the only motivation to stay is to write some cutting remark on the front office’s tombstone. This feels different, and less schadenfreude-riffic.
It also feels familiar, and ‘familiar’ is always bad when you’re an M’s fan. I, like many others, felt encouraged by 2014 and where the AL West teams stood after it. 2015 was a long, drawn-out torture for prideful, hopeful M’s fans, and highlighted just how quickly Houston moved from laughing-stock to long-term contender. The point is: the M’s must build on this season, or the repercussions will be long-lasting. Nelson Cruz is aging, and has 2 years left on his contract. Hisashi Iwakuma has one guaranteed year. They don’t really have a 1B. There are holes, and a combination of free agents and the fruits of their player development tree will need to fill them. Given my experience, I find my own optimism/confidence distasteful, but there it is: 2016 can turn the most pessimistic among us back into fanboys/fangirls, and I’ll always be grateful to 2016 for that.
1: Heredia, CF
2: O’Malley, SS
3: Cano, DH
4: Gutierrez, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lee, 1B
7: Gamel, LF
8: Iannetta, C
9: Freeman, 2B
SP: King Felix Hernandez
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Jharel Cotton, 6:10pm
It’s the second to last game of the year, and the M’s are still alive. That’s not bad. Hell, even a week ago, I wouldn’t have thought it possible. The M’s are favorites again with a reliable vet on the hill facing an A’s line-up that’s last in all of baseball in WAR thanks to poor performance in essentially every aspect of the game, from defense to baserunning to batting.
That said, this feels like a trap game. They’re facing a rookie pitcher who’s K rate doesn’t wow you, but who has a legitimate plus pitch in his change. You may have seen his name pop up in minor league game wraps here and there, but he was a Dodger draft pick, a kid out of the Virgin Islands who attended a US college, but never attracted a lot of attention. Even despite notching solid strikeout rates in the minors, he moved slowly through the Dodger system. That started to change in 2015, when he got off to a fast start repeating the Cal League and ended the year in the AAA bullpen. He took another big step forward this year, and was thus one of the big prospects the A’s got from LA when they traded Rich Hill and Josh Reddick.
He’s an undersized righty at 5’11”, and has just average velocity on his fastball at 92 mph or so. His big weapon has been his change, which depends entirely on his arm action. At 77mph, it often looks like a curve when he throws it (it’s slower than his actual curveball somehow), but batters can’t pick it up. Movement wise, it’s more akin to a splitter, though it’s got a bit less vertical movement than you’d imagine given its slow velocity. Cotton really sells it well, and while he’s only thrown it 93 times, batters have managed just a single, er, single off of it. Lefties are hitting a combined 1 for 32 off of Cotton, while righties have 13 hits including 3 HRs. He’s got a cutter he’ll throw to righties, and a curveball that’s his 4th pitch. Pretty early to tell on either, though his cutter’s had solid results thus far in terms of whiffs. This is a day to chuck the standard vs-RHP line-up out the window. Of course, I noted that Alcantara’d been better v. LHBs, and Cano and company ripped him up, so hey, maybe do some damage early and see about the dregs of the Oakland bullpen.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Marte, SS
But…but that’s just the standard vs-RHP line-up.
Taijuan Walker vs. Raul Alcantara, 7:10pm
Thanks to a Mike Zunino HR and Edwin Diaz regaining some semblance of command at the last minute, the M’s remain alive in the wild card race. Tonight, they’ll try to focus on the A’s and rookie Raul Alcantara and not so much on the games back east, though that’ll probably be difficult. With Jesus Montero again nabbed for a banned stimulant and his pro career now in hanging in the balance, this’d be a good time for Michael Pineda to do something nice for the Mariners franchise.
Alcantara’s intriguing for me in two very different ways. First, he’s got impeccable fastball command. He displayed very low walk rates all through the minors, and he’s sitting on a 3% BB rate in his first cup of coffee with Oakland. He can target different areas of the zone and uses an occasional sinker to supplement his four-seam. It looks like he can get batters to expand the zone a bit with it, and at least initially, he’s avoided a lot of hard contact – it helps that he’s averaging 94mph with both fastballs.
The second reason is much, much worse for Mr. Alcantara, and better for M’s fans clinging to hope: I’ve never seen someone so incapable of spinning a breaking ball. Ok, ok, he gets a decent amount of horizontal movement on his cutter-y slider, but it gets much less vertical drop than average, and that’s still a far sight better than his low-80s curve, which looks more like a true slider. He’s thrown a total of 50 of these breaking balls, so this truly is a miniscule sample, but batters have swung and missed at these things a grand total of two times. His whiff/swing rate is far better with his fastballs, and thus, when he’s gotten strikeouts, it’s because of the fastball: he has 10 Ks on four-seams/sinkers, and just 1 on breaking balls. He’s given up 2 HRs and 2 doubles on breaking balls, meaning he’s given up an equal amount of HRs and whiffs, or 4 times as many extra base hits as strikeouts. That’s…those are not the ratios you want. To get a better sense of what it looks like in action, click here.
Lucky for him, his second-best offering is a change, a pitch which benefits by not being quite as terrible as his slider. It doesn’t get much vertical movement, but it’s 8 or so MPH slower than his fastball. It’s a fly ball pitch, and it helps explain Alcantara’s very low GB% despite a sinking four-seamer and an actual sinker. It also helps explain why Alcantara’s run extreme reverse splits thus far. Lefties may have a hard time picking the ball up from him, but righties have destroyed him: they’re hitting a combined .342/.400/.707 off of him. That screams small sample oddity, but he had the same trouble in AA this year. Righties hit 10 HRs off of him in the Texas league, while lefties managed just 1. Across 3 levels this year, RHBs have 15 HRs while lefties are at 2.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Marte, SS
The A’s oft-injured Jed Lowrie’s scheduled for another surgery soon, this one for a deviated septum. I though that sounded like the most heavy metal injury ever (didn’t Deviated Septum open for Yautja at the MigrationFest afterparty?), displacing thoracic outlet surgery and plantar fasciitis. I then spent far too long making this handy table:
|Name||Baseball Injury?||Metal Band?|
|Hammers of Misfortune||X|
In more newsworthy information, the M’s announced their minor league awards for 2016 (hat tip to Ryan Divish). No points for guessing who the position player of the year is; when you win league MVP, lead your team to a title, and win title series MVP…you’re probably on the short list for something like this:
Ken Griffey Jr. Minor League Hitter of the Year: Tyler O’Neill
Jamie Moyer Minor League Pitcher of the Year: Andrew Moore, who also had one of the minors’ best games of the year as ranked by Game Score (courtesy of BA).
Edgar Martinez PTPA award: Dalton Kelly (1B, Clinton Lumberkings)
Alvin Davis “Mr. Mariner” Award: Zach Shank (IF, Tacoma/Jackson)
Dan Wilson MiLB Community Service Award: David Rollins
Dave Henderson MiLB Staff Member of the Year: Mitch Canham, manager for Clinton
Ariel Miranda vs. Kendall Graveman, 7:10pm
Baltimore’s late comeback spoiled a perfectly good opportunity to gain some ground. The Tigers earned a rain-shortened win last night, but their game against Cleveland today was rained out, which introduces an odd possibility: if the Tigers are within a half game of the wildcard at season’s end, they’ll need to make that game up. The Indians, who’ve already won the Central, will need to fly to Detroit and play a game that means nothing to them, except as an annoyance. Instead of a day of rest, they’ll have to go to Detroit. The M’s (or Baltimore’s) fate could be decided by this exceedingly odd high-stakes exhibition game, a play-in game for the play-in game.
Today, the M’s entrust their playoff hopes to Ariel Miranda. The lefty had his best outing recently against Houston, but wasn’t too sharp in Minnesota. He’s been homer-prone of late, with 4 given up in his last 11 innings and 9 in his last 7 starts. That’s tanked his fielding independent stats, but given his walk rate and middling bat-missing skills, Miranda’s never going to be a FIP superstar. If he’s going to make it as a starter, he’s going to have to use his weird arm angles and movement to get soft contact. Thus far, he’s done enough (a .221 BABIP) to resemble a decent 5th starter, but it’s a tough act to maintain. The bit of statcast data on him don’t offer a clear picture, either. His average exit velocity isn’t special, and it’s the product of really high velo on fly balls/line drives (that’d be the HR problem) and very *low* velo on grounders. I love his splitter and would love to think this is skill and not luck, but whatever the case, Miranda doesn’t give up enough grounders for it to matter a whole lot. Still, there’s enough here (he throws two different change-ups!) that you can squint and hope for some development that makes him a valuable back-of-the-rotation guy.
Kendall Graveman seemed like he had an even lower ceiling than Miranda, an unexceptional sinkerballer with HR issues of his own, and that’s without even getting into the fact that he must remind A’s fans of the worst trade in recent franchise history. Yet he’s now mostly through his second straight year of giving up a lot fewer runs than you’d think by watching (or, again, from his FIP). Unlike with Miranda, there’s been no BABIP luck/wizardry, and he doesn’t seem all that adept at pitching with men on. Somehow, he’s just made his sinker/cutter arsenal work, and fired just shy of 300 perfectly adequate innings for the A’s. One thing that may have helped him this year is that he’s added about 2mph to his fastball. It’s still not a swing-and-miss pitch, but it may help him get grounders and, even better, weak grounders. His exit velocity profile looks just about identical to Miranda’s in 2016, but with a key difference: Graveman’s a ground ball pitcher, so he’s got below average exit speeds on the type of contact he gives up the most.
The M’s as a team fare a bit worse against groundballers like Graveman. I say “like Graveman” because Graveman himself doesn’t seem to benefit. He’s given up 36 hits in 21 2/3 IP against the M’s. He’s got normal platoon splits, so this’d be a great day for another Cano HR or more of this strange, late-season surge from Nori Aoki. Aoki’d been remarkably, freakishly consistent in recent years, which made his collapse in the first half more surprising. With this extended hot streak, he’s actually pulled his season line up to the point where it looks like a normal Nori Aoki season, maybe with a touch of age-related decline. Like so many things (among them: the M’s entrusting their playoff hopes to Ariel Miranda), if you’d told me that in June, I would’ve thought you were crazy.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Marte, SS
King Felix vs. Mike Fiers, 5:10pm
Happy Felix Day. Yes, Felix wasn’t at his best the last time he had a must-win game against these Astros, but hey, he bounced back in his next start. The M’s finally won a game started by Collin McHugh last night – now they need their ace to show he’s ready to dominate this Houston club.
I really thought they’d blown it. The M’s odds of winning were well over 90% in the top of the 9th, but after Edwin Diaz stumbled, the *Astros* odds surged to over 80%. Just look at the win probability chart:
Even after Cano’s HR, when the Astros got two on in the bottom of the inning, I thought it’d happen again. This is what being a fan for a long time does to you; even in your moments of triumph, you’re looking around, waiting to see how it’s going to be taken away from you, waiting to see who’s going to ruin it. The M’s have done what they absolutely needed to do these past two games, and while the last homestand pushed them to the brink, the M’s got some help in recent days from the Indians and Yankees. They’re somehow not out of it yet. And that’s why something like tonight’s Indians line-up in Detroit hurts more than it should. The Indians clinched the central the other day, so their line-up today (as pointed out by Bob Dutton) looks like a split-squad game in the first week of March. Someone named Michael Martinez is starting and batting 2nd; he’s had 570+ PAs, and has a career wRC+ of 36. Jesus Aguilar is the 1st baseman, and good old Abe Almonte is hitting 3rd and starting in an OF corner. Another former Mariner, one-time #1 prospect Adam Moore, starts at catcher. This is entirely appropriate for a team that’s already won the league, but it can’t help but feel like trolling.
Realistically, the M’s need to go about 5-1 to have a chance. That’d put them at 88 wins, right where Baltimore would end up if they go 3-3. They’ve got the Jays to deal with now (who are definitely not at the let’s-just-start-some-prospects stage) and then finish with New York. Detroit finishes with the Braves, so they have a shot at matching a 4-2, 5-1 run by the M’s, but it’d be tough. A tie would be fascinating, of course, and while I’m not sure it’d play to the M’s strengths, I think it’d be very rough on Baltimore, a team that might need to give critical, one-game-playoff-type innings to Wade Miley.*
Mike Fiers just shut the M’s down in Seattle 10 days ago. The underpowered righty has a 90mph fastball with tons of rise that he pairs with one of the biggest breaking curve balls in the game. The two pitches differ in vertical movement by about 2 *feet*. His curve’s been tough to hit in recent games, which is good for Fiers, because he’s struggled a bit with his fastball. Not against the M’s, of course, but Fiers can be homer-prone. He’s also got a decent change-up, and his arsenal’s been quite good against left-handed bats- Fiers has reverse splits this year and for his career. In about 570 career IP, lefties have a .302 wOBA against Fiers while righties are up at .323.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Sucre, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: El Cartelua
Every year, someone comes up and posts a bonkers slash line in a handful of plate appearances and either makes fans irrationally hopeful about his subsequent season, or causes fans (and teams!) to think that a veteran made some critical adjustment. Think Bloomquist’s M’s debut, or Abe Almonte’s last month in 2013 – for a slightly less cynical take, there was Jose Bautista’s final month of 2009, when he went from journeyman to JOSE BAUTISTA and hasn’t stopped all-caps’ing since. I don’t think anyone’s going to suggest that Jesus Sucre get the bulk of the playing time next year, but Sucre is, against all odds, hitting .500/.560/.727. No, it doesn’t mean anything, but Sweet Jesus has a quarter of his career XBH in his last 2 games. Yes, it’s a miniscule sample, but it’s also *Jesus Sucre*. The guy’s had plenty of small samples and his best SLG% in the majors was the .246 mark he managed in 2014. This is that rare and wonderful intersection of baffling and fun.
* This is similar to Baltimore in 2012, which rallied to win a wild card and had to turn to Joe Saunders in a one-game, do-or-die contest in Arlington. Saunders won that game, and earned himself a contract from the M’s in the off-season. That went somewhat less well than the WC game.
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Collin McHugh, 5:10pm
The M’s enter the final week of 2016 with a shot at the playoffs. That’s an unalloyed good thing, but to win they need to be nearly flawless AND get a lot of help. They’re long shots, and to give themselves any chance at all, they’re going to need to figure out Collin McHugh. The righty’s made 4 starts against Seattle, and won all 4, yielding 16 hits and 8 walks in 25 IP, with 24Ks; he’s given up a grand total of 3 runs to them. The M’s are hitting just .186/.263/.279 against him, while the rest of the league is hitting .306/.346/.457. The M’s inability to hit one of the league’s more hittable pitchers has been both bizarre and, as we’ve seen down the stretch, incredibly important.
In recent games, McHugh’s been much tougher, with three straight solid outings against the M’s, Cubs and A’s. He’s only really had one clunker in the past month – a forgettable start against Texas immediately on September 4th. In the past month or so, he’s been using his four-seam fastball a bit more, but it’s been pretty subtle. He used it even more against the M’s, and that’s something to look for tonight – the degree to which he goes after the M’s with elevated fastballs. He’d all but scrapped his change-up, but brought it out of storage against Mariners like Robbie Cano back in Seattle; we’ll see if he does that again, or just sticks with his curve and cutter. The curve in particular’s been good of late, and he’s using it a bit more too. Throughout the year, he’s had decent results with both of his breaking balls, but he’s also allowed a lot of HRs – like so many pitchers this year, his mistakes have been punished much more severely than in the past.
I’ve always thought of Houston as a launching pad, particularly with the short porch in LF. It’s obviously cavernous to center, but it’s a park that can reward contact that isn’t quite perfect, particularly down the lines. Of the 161 HRs hit there, 54 haven’t been ‘barreled’, the 2nd highest percentage in the league. But it’s also giving up fewer HRs on contact that IS perfectly struck. In this sense, Houston’s like the anti-Safeco: Safeco was always a smothering pitcher’s park especially for fly balls, but it’s now seeing a flurry of HRs. Houston always allowed HRs, but it’s now playing like a solid pitcher’s park overall. Baseball-Reference’s park factor for it this year is a stingy 94. While Statcast still shows that it inflates HRs, it also reduces run scoring. Both Astros hitters and pitchers have large splits; the pitchers’ OPS against is *127 points worse* on the road, and their ERA is a full 1.50 runs better at home, while the batters have an OPS that’s 46 points better away from Houston.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Marte, SS
So many great articles and tidbits in the outpouring of grief following Jose Fernandez’s death yesterday. Dave Cameron’s article at Fangraphs was great and includes some amazing links. Here’s one of them:
For scoreboard watchers, the Blue Jays host the Yankees, with JA Happ facing off with Luis Severino. The Yankees clean-up hitter is the actual Billy Butler.
Cleveland heads to Detroit, where the match-up’s a bit better for M’s fans: Corey Kluber takes the hill opposite Buck Farmer.
Taijuan Walker vs. Hector Santiago, 11:05am
Baseball lost one of its brightest stars today. Jose Fernandez was 24 years old. If anyone would encourage baseball to keep playing and find joy in every aspect of the game – from playoff chases to random moments of brilliance from Mike Freeman to Nelson Cruz – it’d be Jose. I know this, but I can’t do it just yet.
Fernandez was a test. Was his ever-present smile a bug or a feature? When he laughed while dominating a line-up or hitting a home run about his own joy, or was it mean-spirited and against several unwritten rules? Was his personality a much-needed boost to the game, or an unwelcome, invasive import from a different (and tacitly or not-so-tacitly irreconcilable) baseball culture? Unlike so many things in the game, there really was a right and a wrong answer to this.
Fernandez was about to become a father, and should’ve given Clayton Kershaw a run for NL Cy Young for years. I’m sad I didn’t see him enough. I’m sad baseball can’t build off a guy like that. I’m sad for players around the league, many of whom are clearly taking this pretty hard. I’m sad for Marlins fans, who’ve lost the face of their franchise. Most of all, I’m sad for his family, who’ve been through so much, and now have to go through the unimaginable.
The M’s are 2.5 games out of the wildcard. Dylan Bundy faces off with Braden Shipley in Baltimore, Edinson Volquez starts opposite Detroit’s Matt Boyd (a Seattle native), Michael Pineda and Marco Estrada start for the Yanks and Jays, respectively, and someone named Daniel Wright leads the Angels against Joe Musgrove and the Astros.
1: Heredia, LF
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lee, 1B
7: Martin, CF
9: O’Malley, SS