’17 40-Man Preview Extravaganza

November 13, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners, Minor Leagues · 8 Comments 

Well, it’s that time of the year again. If you sense less enthusiastic intonations in my pixels this time around, you’re not wrong. As exciting… debatably exciting, as previous incarnations of the 40-man preview were, this year we find our cupboards more barren and the reasons are two-fold. One, as I’ve noted previously with some sneering, is that there has been some eagerness on our general manager’s part to send off risks for modest ceilings. Had we projected forward from the same time in 2016, then as 2017 40-man offseason additions, we likely would have been thinking about Tyler O’Neill and Zack Littell as prep draftees from ’13 and Luiz Gohara as an international signing as headliners. Heck, we could’ve even talked up the finer points of Pablo Lopez. Joke’s on us, it seems. The second reason is that our ’14 draft was not a major one for college selections (or any selections, really). The Rays will probably add Ryan Yarbrough and the Giants might add Tyler Herb, but we already have Altavilla on the roster and the rest have not much distinguished themselves. As exhaustive as I used to be in projecting guys who even had a ghost of a chance, I don’t think many losses from this group would come back to haunt us (rimshot).

I am duty-bound to report back on my findings, although I feel as if the acquisitions of Mike Marjama and David Freitas mean that we can safely overlook the coterie of catcher in the high minors, to say nothing of the fact that a lot of those fringe candidates are technically minor league free agents at the moment. The deadline we’re looking at for all additions would be Nov. 20th at 5 pm PT / 8 pm ET. Credit to Baseball America for providing that information as Major League Baseball’s own website doesn’t often bother anymore.

Omissions will include Jordan Cowan (faded after good start to end up sub-.700 in OPS), Adonis de la Cruz (reliever, walks, SSS), Anjul Hernandez (has some Ks, is youngish, great googly moogly walks and hits), and Chris Mariscal (older and exposed in double-A stint). Those I’ve mentioned in the past that haven’t really done much to make their cases since, I’ll also skip. Wow, sub-1500 words? I’m losing my edge.
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Roy Halladay, 1977-2017

November 7, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 4 Comments 

Roy Halladay faced a good M’s team three times in 2000. He tossed a total of 7 innings across 1 start and 2 relief appearances, yielding 13 hits and 7 runs. He walked 5 and struck out 2. He was 23, and would start the next season down in the Florida State League after compiling an MLB ERA over 10 in that season. Sure, the year before, he’d put it all together against Seattle, going 7 shutout innings in a duel with Jamie Moyer. But in July of 2000, it looked like that’d be a great bar story, the talented kid who’d made the show but couldn’t stick.*

Halladay wasn’t exactly a young phenom, and he’d amassed over 200 big league innings. Sure, his minor league numbers were better, but they didn’t scream can’t-miss-prospect; his BB/9 in AAA was about 3.5, while his K/9 was just over 5. He’d been a first-round pick, so it’s not like the Jays were giving up on him, but in the years since the draft, he’d showed little evidence that a breakthrough was imminent.

At the time, there were a couple of closely-related tenets of the nascent sabermetric community that pretty much everyone agreed on. The first was that minor league stats could effectively predict major league performance, indeed, they were at least as good as *MLB* stats at predicting future MLB performance (once adjusted for level/context, of course). As you can see, there was little in Halladay’s MiLB resume to suggest he could either a) miss bats at an elite level or b) develop pinpoint command. The conclusion that’s distinct, but clearly similar to this theory held that raw stuff, or talent, or ability, or skillset was essentially fixed, innate. It’s what allowed minor league stats – and stats in general – to be predictive: they were an indicator of skill. That’s not to say that all a pitcher could ever be was what he was at 19 years old, but it implied that development was about figuring out what in a pitcher’s bag of tricks was particularly good or noteworthy and honing that skill into a weapon. You couldn’t just “develop” into a hard-throwing strikeout artist – you either were or you were not. If you were throwing 89 but had good control, it would probably be best to focus on command. If you threw a sinker, you should focus on being the best ground ball pitcher you could be. Roy Halladay had so-so command and so-so stuff: his stats told us. Things were looking bleak.

You all know what happened next, and while Toronto’s coaches and player development staff get a lot of credit, the primary reason Roy Halladay not only got another big league shot but became ROY HALLADAY was that he worked incredibly hard. Sabermetric ideas worked well on the population at large, but they couldn’t identify players like Halladay who simply wouldn’t stop improving themselves. Armed with a new approach, Halladay first became an absolutely elite control pitcher and what we would now call a contact-manager (a species the nascent sabermetric community was pretty sure did not exist back when Halladay was evolving into one). Even then, when he’d become a very good MLB starter, he *kept* developing and by 2008, he was a strikeout pitcher as well, and by far the league’s best overall arm.

Given his insane work ethic, it wouldn’t have been a shock if Halladay had been a hyper-competitive gym rat, a guy fueled by resentments real and imaginary. Instead, Halladay was the kind of guy even those who couldn’t hit him wanted to talk to. During and after his playing days, he was reaching out to younger pitchers, especially those who were struggling – often for the first time – and didn’t know why. He wanted to help, and his example must’ve been the focus of dozens or hundreds of young pitchers who got roughed up in their first taste of the bigs. That’s what made Halladay so much more than the story of an extemely talented pitcher who shook off early struggles and reached his potential. That’s pat and boring. Instead, Halladay showed that what you are now isn’t what you’d always be. Other pitchers soaked it up, either directly or, as in the case of Brandon McCarthy, by carefully and meticulously copying his every move.

After McCarthy found success by completely overhauling his repertoire, the A’s essentially codified it and institutionalized Halladay-mimicry for a while, something I’ve talked about a few times on this blog. The damage to the old idea of a fixed quantity of “stuff” went far beyond the more literal “throw cutters and sinkers.” I don’t want to oversell this; coaches and teammates have passed on new pitches for years, and things have clicked for many, even after years of fruitless struggle. But THE story of 2017 wasn’t the ball, it wasn’t stockpiling draft picks, or Statcast – it was the very Halladay-esque idea that you could go out and fundamentally change everything about a ballplayer. You could smash through the hypothetical ceiling that prospect people always talked about. Charlie freaking Morton could throw 98, because hey, why not. Chris Taylor could slug .500 in the majors, but finish a few HRs shy of Zach Cozart’s season total. Roy Halladay didn’t teach Taylor to elevate the ball, but he started something that’s still working its way through the game. By being not only relentless but open, friendly and helpful, Halladay fundamentally changed a few people’s careers, and the ripples of those changes have altered the game for the better.

Roy Halladay died today at the age of 40. He’s a few months younger than I am, and by all accounts was as dedicated to his family as I try to be. Even with a Halladay-like work ethic, I’d never be able to throw 80, let alone 90. But there’s something about his personality and the way he related to others – athletes or not – that’s inspiring. I don’t think a Chris Taylor-like transformation of my personality or abilities is in the offing, but Halladay is one of the people who makes me want to be a little bit better, and, crucially, that putting the work in to do so is worth it. I hope his example and his legacy is some comfort to his loved ones and especially his kids. RIP.

* The proper name for outings in which replacement-level pitchers toss one great start against Seattle and then fade away is a “Waechter” after former Tampa hurler Doug Waechter.

Game 160, Mariners at Angels

September 29, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

Marco Gonzales vs. Tyler Skaggs, 7:05pm

The M’s kick off the last series of the year with a match-up of Jerry Dipoto’s newly-acquired lefty Marco Gonzales and an old favorite – a lefty so enticing, Dipoto traded for him twice, as GM of two different teams.

When ex-Arizona GM Josh Byrnes was fired in July of 2010, Dipoto couldn’t afford to sit tight and wait for his tenure as interim GM to end. The D-Backs were out of it, and would finish with more than 90 losses. But they’d acquired some veterans in a push to jump-start their rebuild, a move headlined by the now-painful swap of Max Scherzer for Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy. In late July, with Dipoto now in control, they still had one big trade chip as the deadline approached: Dan Haren. Failing to capitalize could set the team back years, so Dipoto made his move. He acquired lefty command/control guy (hmm) Joe Saunders for immediate help but also got prized Angels prospect Tyler Skaggs as the PTBNL. Haren was great down the stretch in Anaheim, but couldn’t get the Halos above .500, but with a full year of Haren in 2011, the Angels won 86 in 2011. Meanwhile, Skaggs’s stuff seemed to regress upon his arrival in the D-backs org, but by that point, Dipoto wasn’t long for Arizona. He became the Angels GM in 2011, a bit more than a year after his first big trade.

After two disappointing season split between AAA and Arizona, Skaggs had worn out his welcome in Arizona. So when Dipoto was working on the three-team trade involving Hector Santiago and Mark Trumbo, he got the D-Backs to throw in Skaggs as well. Almost immediately, his velo improved, and Skaggs made 18 pretty good starts for the Angels in 2014. Seen as a potential #3, Skaggs then missed all of 2015 with TJ surgery, and injuries have hampered him ever since. He won’t make 100 IP this year, so 2014 remains the only year in which he had at least 100 big league innings. He still has a rising four-seamer at 92 and a big breaking curve ball he throws about 30% of the time. Unfortunately, his change never really developed, and thus he lacks a good pitch against righties – RHBs are hitting .272/.344/.452 against Skaggs this year.

Gonzales is also a lefty, and also has a fastball at around 92. Like Skaggs, Gonzales’ development is being hampered by the failure of his third pitch to develop. Like Skaggs, he throws a fastball/curve/change, but with Gonzales, the change-up’s also been light years ahead of the curve. He’s throwing more curves this year, but it’s still not fooling anyone; he has no strikeouts on the pitch, and batters are 9 for 15 when putting it in play. Like Skaggs, Dipoto’s obviously seen something in Gonzales beyond his stats or his pitch movement numbers. After taking some criticism about the O’Neill-for-Gonzales swap, Dipoto had this to say to the TNT’s Bob Dutton, “”Clearly, we like Marco Gonzales better than the mainstream media…but the mainstream media hasn’t been familiar with Marco Gonzales for a year-and-a-half. You know what happens? Sometimes pitchers have Tommy John (surgery), and sometimes they come back and they’re good.”
The M’s need him to be right.

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

Game 159, Mariners at Athletics – Final Getaway Day of 2017

September 27, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Kendall Graveman, 12:35pm

Following on from yesterday’s weird post, I want to talk briefly about the Mariners of 2006. That year, the M’s went 78-84, and signs of a rebuild following the nadir of 2004 abounded. At the same time, it’s kind of easy to spot a focus on a particular kind of pitcher that they used to bridge the gap between the 99-loss team of 2004 and the next great M’s club. The next year they won 88 games and made the in-hindsight-disastrous decision to go all in for 2008, but that’s besides the point. My point was that the M’s of 2006 were at a similar point as the 2017 group’s evolution, and apparently that stage comes with a ton of command/control pitchers. In both 2006 and 2017, the M’s traded some of their prospects for immediate help, and in neither season did that help make a material difference. In both cases, the front offices were a couple of years into their tenure, and while spotty, you could make the case that player development was improving.

Adam Jones had just gone from “I can’t believe the dumb M’s took him as SS and not as a RHP” to one of the most intriguing and valuable CF prospects in the game. Asdrubal Cabrera was 20 as well and expendable given the M’s glut of SS talent, kind of like Tyler O’Neill could go because there wasn’t a clear spot for him to play in Seattle. Ryan Feierabend was the beta version of Marco Gonzales, or maybe Bobby Livingston was? Maybe Clint Nageotte = Andrew Moore. Richie Sexson was still an effective slugger, like a younger, worse Nellie Cruz, and both clubs had great 3Bs locked up for a while. Both teams even had a frustratingly mediocre Felix Hernandez. This isn’t to say that this year’s M’s club is destined to wander the baseball wilderness for another decade, or that Marco Gonzales’ only chance at a long career will be in the KBO (though seriously, good on you, Ryan Feierabend). This isn’t to say that the M’s will rue the day they traded O’Neill the way the Choo and Cabrera deals still sting. It’s just an observation, a feeling of deja vu. The problem with 2006 was that the M’s made a bunch of decisions that ultimately crippled them, false dawn of 2007 aside. I’d argue the 2006 M’s had more talent to fritter away, and fritter it they did. The 2017 M’s won’t make the same mistakes, because they can’t. But they need to think carefully about next year, and what it’s going to take to compete with the Astros. The 2006 M’s saw a rising Angels club, a club that would beat the crap out of the M’s for the next several years, and sacrificed everything to try and keep up. The M’s need to learn the lesson of the Astros’ rise, AND the lesson of 2006 – real help needs to come from the bottom up. Thanks to the second wild card, you can buy a sort of contention. But you can’t buy (in talent or FA dollars) your way to parity with Houston/Cleveland.

1: Gamel, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Vogelbach, 1B
7: Motter, SS
8: Marjama, C
9: Hannemann
SP: Erasmooooo

Kendall Graveman came to the A’s in the Josh Donaldson deal as a low-spin, pitch-to-contact ground ball guy. Since that time, he’s added two ticks to his sinker and it’s now a HIGH spin pitch (even after accounting for the velo increase). After all of these fairly large changes, he remains pretty much *exactly* the same as he was in 2015. He showed flashes of becoming a high-K guy early in the year, but this year’s season line looks nearly identical to 2015’s. Which looks pretty much the same as 2016’s. He’s changed his pitch mix, his velocity, even how the pitches fly through the aid, but there remains an essential Kendall Graveman-ness to him that keeps him in the low-K, 50% GB, FIP and ERA in the mid-4s zone.

Game 158, Mariners at Athletics

September 26, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

James Paxton vs. Daniel Mengden, 7:05pm

This season hasn’t gone according to plan for either club, and now the games are about seeing something from rookies and planning for the future. Given how different these clubs looked a month and a half ago, or at least, how different these clubs looked at themselves, it’s kind of stunning to see that they’re separated by a couple of games in the standings. The A’s, the team that sold off Sonny Gray, and who’d seen the rest of their good starters torpedoed by injuries, are neck and neck with the club that tentatively, sort-of went for it. As I mentioned yesterday, the A’s called up a couple dozen prospects, and the kids have been alright, producing an aggregate batting line that’s among the league leaders. Outside of Matt Chapman, they can’t really catch, but hey, if you want to put a positive spin on the A’s (at this moment) last-place campaign, you can do it.

It’s harder to do for the M’s, for reasons that have much more to do with expectations, payroll, expectations, injuries, and expectations than they do with the specific players and how they fared in 2017. More and more, I think trying to assess the team’s progress towards some ultimate goal is a bit futile, or at the very least, kind of a downer. I don’t mean to re-write Patrick Dubuque’s masterful summary of another year that felt like this one, but I do want to note that this year felt a bit like poetry. Poetry is not, pace many definitions out there, about “beauty” and it’s sure as hell not about who’s going to win the AL pennant. Merriam-Webster defines it as, “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.” Wikipedia’s definition gets at something important, too: “a form of literature that uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language—such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre—to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning.” The key is the substitution of “ostensible meaning” for “concentrated imaginative awareness” of something else, something in addition to the plain text.

In a teleological sense, this year kind of sucked. Everyone got hurt, which hobbled the M’s chances in 2017, and now everyone’s a year older, there are no prospects on the immediate horizon, and the Astros and Indians look like they may be good for a long while. Hell, even the A’s – the poor A’s – can speak of their reasons for trading Gray, and how it moves them closer to their ultimate aim. The M’s can’t really do that, and – here I’m talking to myself, mostly – there are only so many ways of saying so. What were the rhythmic qualities of this season? What was substituted for bland “our goal is to build a world championship ballclub” talk?

This season was the tension between the sharp, business-like litany of transactions, beginning before the actual games, and continuing after the games are done, and a 91 MPH fastball, with plenty of armside run, snaking across the plate and boring in on a right-handed hitter. The transaction list grows; it becomes almost a parody of itself. The pitch is always 91 MPH. The batter may be looking change-up. The game itself is no longer interested in 91 MPH fastballs, and looks quizzically at the transaction list. The pitch bends confidently.

Is that enough? I don’t know. I just know that I can *see* this season, and that it reminds me of Ryan Feierabend, and that sounds horribly dismissive, and I honestly – honestly – don’t mean it to. I don’t doubt that the M’s brass has some sort of a plan, and that the flurry of moves and the lack of concrete steps forward in talent isn’t dispositive proof that it’s flawed. I know that the Mariners gave up 36 HRs on fastballs between 90-92 MPH, but I don’t know how we’ll see Kyle Lewis next year, or what Evan White might do in the Cal League. I’m worried about the A’s, but then, the A’s looked dead in the water like 3 months ago. This season was a 91 MPH fastball, arcing back towards the middle of the plate. If you want a strikeout, that’s not the pitch you’d throw. But it could set up another pitch, and I look forward to seeing that pitch next year.

1: Gamel, LF
2: Haniger, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Alonso, 1B
6: Zunino, C
7: Valencia, RF
8: Beckham, 3B
9: Motter, SS
SP: Paxton

Dave’s post on Bruce Maxwell is a solid one mostly for the slightly off-topic but absolutely necessary entreaty to donate to Puerto Rico relief efforts. Puerto Rico needs a ton of support right now, and if you want to do it because Edwin Diaz (or Carlos Correa or Francisco Lindor or Roberto Clemente) is from there, cool. If you’re moved to help fellow Americans in need, great. If it’s a more universal desire to assist when you’re aware of suffering, do it. Just help.

Game 157, Mariners at Athletics

September 25, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

King Felix vs. Daniel Gossett, 7:05pm

Happy Felix Day.

After the wave of protests occurring during the anthem at NFL contests, the scene shifts to baseball, where A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell is perhaps the first MLB player to lodge a similar protest. Maxwell, whose father was black and who grew up in Alabama, talked about the motivation for taking a knee with Yahoo’s Jeff Passan in a must-read piece today. The A’s don’t draw many fans, and there’s more NFL tonight, so it’s getting kind of lost, but Maxwell’s been remarkably candid and thoughtful about his reasons for it and touching base with everyone from teammates to ownership. He’s now also receiving tons of ugly abuse and threats and social media, because that’s essentially who we are now.

It snuck up on me, but the A’s second half surge has pushed their offense above the M’s and above the league average for the year. Down the stretch, the A’s – THE A’S – have been one of baseball’s best offenses, hitting the 3rd most HRs and nearly getting to a 10% walk rate. Their wRC+ is tied with the Cubs for best in MLB in the second half. It looks like I’m going to need to eat some more crow for, er, crowing about how the M’s were in a much better position for the medium term than their poor brethren to the south. The A’s had a bunch of corner IF prospects who hit but no one believed in, and then some middle IF prospects who people liked but who put up so-so results. Their pitchers put up great numbers in the minors, but turned to pumpkins in the majors, leading to the club cycling through them at a rapid rate. Let’s remember, it was their young staff that was supposed to carry them this year, and their young staff collapsed. 2016’s Dillon Overton or Daniel Mengden haven’t played much of a role, with Overton jettisoned to Seattle in the offseason. This year was supposed to be about Jharel Cotton, Andrew Triggs and Kendall Graveman, but injuries have prevented the latter two from performing for much of the year, while Cotton’s been worse than his most pessimistic projection.

And it hasn’t mattered, damn it. The A’s called up Matts Chapman and Olson, traded for Boog Powell, and got contributions from Ryon Healy and Chad Pinder and now they’re more than a competent hitting group. Chapman’s been brilliant with the glove, and Olson’s power has definitely translated. A year ago, it looked like the A’s mass of mid-level prospects may not pan out, and that crown jewel Franklin Barreto might not hit. This year, well, uh…Barreto hasn’t hit, but the A’s seem to have a decent group to build around.

In the first half of the year, the A’s seemed stuck while the M’s – irrespective of their 2017 record – had found three competent OFs. A few months later, and that’s been flipped; the A’s have a new cost-controlled IF while the M’s have Mitch Haniger and a shopping list.

Of course, as rapidly as that picture changed, it could change again. The Reds, as Jeff noted at Fangraphs, lead the league (by a mile) in the number of starts pitched by rookies. So far so good for a rebuilding club. The problem is that they led last year too. And the year before that. That starts to look less like a rebuild and more like meaningless churn. The M’s didn’t match the Reds because their depth guys had some MLB experience: Heston, Bergman, etc. had big league experience, while Andrew Moore came up later. It’s critical that the M’s figure out who’s part of the long term plan and who’s depth.

1: Gamel, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Alonso, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Motter, SS
9: Hanneman
SP: El Rey

Game 156, Indians at Mariners

September 24, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Mike Leake vs. Corey Kluber, 1:10pm

It’s a Sunday in September, so a game like this between an already-qualified Cleveland team and the out-of-it M’s would always get eclipsed by the NFL in general and Hawks fever more specifically. But the past 24 hours have ensured this game will have even less of an impact on the consciousness of the US sports fan. And that’s as it should be. The President’s bizarrely decided to go to war against the NFL and much of the NBA, giving the protests sparked by Colin Kaepernick and, more recently, Michael Bennett, not only more visibility, but more urgency. Baseball’s belatedly getting in on the act, with A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell taking a knee during the anthem; the M’s will get to see that soon, as they head to Oakland after today’s game.

Corey Kluber’s quietly posting one of the more remarkable seasons in recent baseball history. He comes into play today with a K-BB% of nearly 30%, a mark not even Clayton Kershaw’s reached. If the season ended today, he’d have a better K-BB% than Curt Schilling’s 2002, and the highest mark since Randy Johnson’s unearthly 2001 season. Perhaps surprisingly, he’s doing it without the kind of ridiculous raw stuff that powered Randy Johnson’s dominance. Kluber throws a four-seam and sinker, both around 93. By movement, the pitches are unremarkable, generating less horizontal AND vertical movement than average. By spin rate, Kluber’s sinker (his primary fastball) gets above average spin, but ranks behind guys like Andrew Triggs and Kendall Graveman. Of course, that’s not the pitch that makes him an ace. Kluber’s best pitch – by far – is his slurvy slider, a pitch that sweeps across the zone like Carson Smith’s. Like his fastball, the pitch doesn’t look THAT interesting by the raw numbers – its spin rate is nothing special, and it doesn’t have the kind of gap in vertical movement between his fastball that might make it a whiff-inducing pitch. However he does it, it’s one of the most remarkable pitches in the game. As I’ve talked about at length, the pitch types that get the most swings are fastballs and change-ups. Batters gear up to attack fastballs, and they swing at cambios because they are designed to look like fastballs. Breaking pitches get a lot of chase swings, but hitters that identify them often don’t swing; pitchers take advantage of this by dropping a curve into the zone for called strikes. Kluber throws his breaking ball out of the zone most of the time, but still manages to induce a swing on 60% of them.

Only Noah Syndergaard comes close, and his “slider” is really more of a cutter, without as much sweeping horizontal movement as Kluber’s. However he does it, Kluber’s slider is probably the best single pitch in the game right now, as Jeff argued earlier this month. Righties are slugging .092 on the thing this year, while lefties are at .176. Again, there’s no reason why a sinker/slider guy (which is reductionist, but hey, he throws a ton of both) should lay waste to lefties like this, but here we are. I have no idea what the Indians saw in Kluber when he was a middling starter in the Padres system, but he’s become something unique and remarkable. May the M’s one day pull off a similar trick.

1: Gamel, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Alonso, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Heredia, CF
9: Motter, SS
SP: Leake

Jean Segura sprained the middle finger on his right hand on that bizarre play last night in which Ariel Miranda tried to throw out a runner at 2B on a comebacker. It doesn’t sound serious, which is good, but it was one of the most unlucky/flukey injuries to a Mariner since Franklin Gutierrez was concussed on a pickoff attempt.

Game 154, Indians at Mariners

September 22, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 4 Comments 

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Trevor Bauer, 7:10pm

Another outing from James Paxton, and another set of questions raised. It’s easy to say in the midst of a six-game losing streak, but this is not the way the M’s wanted to end the season. Their home slate ends with a three-game set against the white-hot Cleveland Indians, beginning tonight. It’s still been a fun season, as long as you didn’t pin your hopes on the expectations of a playoff run. The M’s are starting to show hints of who they’ll be when their big stars move on; not enough of them, sadly, but we’ve learned a thing or two about what may drive the M’s of 2020 and beyond.

That’s nice and all, but M’s fans can’t shake the feeling that things happen faster for other clubs. The Indians and Mariners were both terrible in 2010. But since 2013, the Indians have been above .500 every year, won 90 games three times, and won an AL pennant. This is NOT the story of a complete tear-down and then a savvy rebuild – they were a good team in 2013, but were led by Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez (?) and their youthful 5-win 2B, Jason Kipnis. Corey Kluber is essentially the only holdover to that club; Kipnis is still technically there, but he’s been absolutely awful and is now filling in at CF given a rash of injuries the Tribe’s suffered. They drafted Francisco Lindor, which is a big, big deal, but that’s only part of their successful rebuild-on-the-fly strategy. Turning Jose Ramirez from journeyman utility guy into one of the league’s best players doesn’t hurt.* The club’s posting the 2nd-lowest strikeout rate for batters behind the Astros, but the real driver of the Indians’ transformation has been their pitching staff’s development into the most whiff-tastic grouping the game’s seen.

They’re not perfect, but Cleveland’s K/9 and K% look like they’ll be MLB records, which is pretty remarkable for an AL team, and Jeff Sullivan said they may have the best rotation ever. The names have changed in Cleveland, but this has been a consistent strength of theirs going back to 2013-14, and it’s driving their best-in-baseball FIP and ERA. Having Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco atop the rotation doesn’t hurt, nor does a bullpen featuring Andrew Miller. But that’s just it: ANYONE could’ve had those guys at one time or another. Mike Clevinger was acquired for the immortal Vinny Pestano, Kluber in a 3-way deal involving Ryan Ludwick and Jake Westbrook, and Carrasco, while part of a Cliff Lee deal, had been relegated to the bullpen and seemed like a classic busted prospect. This team’s done an absolutely amazing job with a varied cast of pitchers, and while the M’s have talked a lot about controlling the zone, the Indians have absolutely dominated it.

The Tribe’s been careful not to pigeonhole their hurlers; there’s no one ‘Cleveland Way.’ Tonight’s starter, Trevor Bauer, certainly appreciates that, and he’s clearly in a better situation for him – and his own unorthodox, highly-analytical approach – than he was in Arizona. It seems like no team could extract more value from Bauer than the Tribe, and despite years and years of tinkering, and clear and manifest improvements in some areas, he remains…Trevor Bauer. His FIP has gone from 4.01 in 2014 to 4.33 the next year, down to 3.99 and 3.96 this year. His ERAs/runs allowed have remained stubbornly higher each year. The causes vary, but the results remain strangely underwhelming: he had a high BABIP in 2014, then too high a walk rate, then lower Ks, and now HRs AND BABIP problems. For a guy who is perhaps singularly unafraid of changing everything from repertoire to approach, it’s kind of remarkable to see these consistent issues, even if the specific causes vary.

This year, he’s having his best year by K% – and it’s not even close. He’s seemingly reached the potential he flashed at UCLA and in the minors, and the problems he had putting away righties seem to have been solved. But it’s like playing whack-a-mole: now lefties are driving the ball off of him even as his K-BB% to righties soars over 20%. For the second straigh year, he’s been among MLB leaders in the percentage of balls in play hit at least 95 MPH. To his credit, these aren’t going for “barrels” – they’re not 95+ with ideal launch angles. But that’s still a ton of hard contact, and even if a low percentage of them have been hit for HRs, the sheer volume explains why he’s suddenly got a HR problem. A big part of his K% spike has been the fact that he’s largely shelved the sinker he used extensively last year, especially to lefties. He’s also throwing a lot fewer cutters, especially to righties, preferring instead to go with four-seam fastballs (at 94) and his big breaking curve.

Since 2014 or so, he’s also shifted his release point, dropping down a tad and sacrificing some vertical rise for more run. Even within a season, he’s tinkering; Travis Sawchick noted he started throwing his curveball up in the zone in the second half which may be part of the reason for the dramatically improved results he’s had. Still, with so much change going on, it’s tough to know what to keep and what to ditch. I’m sure he could’ve given you a reason for going to a sinker in 2016, just as he could give you one for abandoning it now. For someone so interested in measurement and data, I’d think he’d want to test variables one at a time, but that probably doesn’t fit with what seems like a restless personality. In any case, he’s been especially tough on righties, while lefties have accounted for a majority of his HRs-allowed, and this may be a decent match-up for Yonder Alonso and Robbie Cano.

Francisco Lindor was picked 8th overall in 2011, 6 spots after Danny Hultzen. He’s a great SS and is sitting on 32 HRs this year, which will likely be his 2nd consecutive 6-fWAR season. Yyyyup.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Alonso, 1B
7: Gamel, LF
8: Ruiz, C
9: Heredia, CF
SP: Erasmoooo

* Turning utility guys into stars is the new market inefficiency. The Dodgers did it with Chris Taylor, the Astros with Marwin Gonzalez (and Jake Marisnick), the Indians with Ramirez, and the Nats have benefitted from Daniel Murphy’s transformation, even if it started while he was still in New York.

Game 153: Rangers at Mariners – 10 More To Go

September 21, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 5 Comments 

James Paxton vs. Cole Hamels, 7:10pm

Felix clearly didn’t have it yesterday, and despite a few good innings, unraveled in the 4th. Despite all of that, it’s nice to see his velocity is right back where it was at the beginning of the year, right around 91. He’s de-emphasized his four-seam fastball, a pitch he was relying on more than he had in years just before he hit the DL, so that’ll be something to watch in his next start. Despite the short outing and mediocre results, there were some things to like in Felix’s performance, and I’d say that fans are more nervous right now about Paxton and how HIS first appearance of his return to the line-up looked.

That says a lot about Paxton’s importance to the team vis a vis Felix, and the way our expectations for both have changed. Paxton may get a pass for his 1+ IP start 5 days ago, but he’s simply got to show something quite different tonight. Paxton seems really susceptible to mechanical problems, which is odd to me given how simple his mechanics look to the naked (and untrained) eye. Yes, he’s changed them markedly a few times, but he’s capable of repeating them well. And then he’ll come out and have something consistently “off” and he looks unrecognizable: velocity tanks, command goes south, etc. He’s very good about identifying and correcting them, but it seems like this happens frequently with him.

On the plus side, he seems to have right-handers pretty much figured out. Earlier in his career, he exhibited pretty normal platoon splits, especially in terms of K-BB% or just K%: he struck out lefties, and, when effective, managed contact against righties. Now, he’s simply blowing them out of the water, with a K% near 30% vs. RHBs, higher than his K% against lefties. An over-the-top motion was often seen as a way to counteract platoon splits, as the fastball’s movement (straight) didn’t tail on to the sweet spot the way a “normal” 3/4 delivery pitcher’s would. But as we’ve seen with Chris Sale and others, there’s often an advantage in deception when the ball isn’t released directly overhead. Paxton seems really hard for righties to pick up – at least when he’s “on.” Let’s hope he is in his final couple of starts this year.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Heredia, CF
9: Gamel, LF
SP: Paxton

Game 152: Rangers at Mariners

September 20, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 4 Comments 

King Felix vs. Andrew Cashner, 7:10pm

Happy Felix Day. Let’s hope the festivities last a bit longer than last time, when the M’s limited Felix to 3+ solid innings as El Rey worked on rebuilding his stamina after missing so much time.

I spoke a bit about CF Guillermo Heredia in yesterday’s post. He’s perfectly good against lefties, but struggles against righties thus far in his MLB career. He’s a good but not great defender, but clearly has some modicum of value in the game. His opposite number in today’s game, Delino DeShields, is a good comparison, and maybe a version of what a “good” Heredia season would look like. He’s also a former Rule 5 guy. DeShields had some prospect sheen at one point, the result of a famous father and 83 stolen bases at one stop in the minors. His bat was streaky, and I think many assumed he’d never hit. After a down year, the Rangers plucked him from the Astros system (I really want to know what ratio of current MLB’ers spent some time in the Astros system) and he had a decent year for them. Nothing special, as DeShields’ lack of power makes it hard to put up huge offensive numbers – just like Heredia. Their peak simply can’t be that high, but their speed and defensive position raise their floor at the same time. DeShields was abysmal last year, providing the worst case scenario view for Heredia, but he’s bounced back this year, and has put up 2.5 fWAR thus far, solidly better than MLB average. He’s done it with a Gamel-esque combination of moderately high strikeouts and very little power, which is a bad start, admittedly, but he then adds a good walk rate and makes up nearly a win with his speed and baserunning ability. If Heredia really wants to ensure himself a spot on someone’s roster for 5-6 years, that’s where he needs to improve. His speed/baserunning runs above average stand at -1.6.

Beyond that, DeShields’ success shows that there are a variety of ways to add value when you can play a big-league-caliber CF, which is why he got opportunities even after scouts worried he’d never hit. The “no bat” thing got him left unprotected in Rule 5, while the “can catch/run” thing got him a big league chance. What’s fascinating is that *in that same Rule 5 draft* the Rangers lost a CF who’d also go on to post above-average seasons by fWAR. They acquired DeShields with the 3rd pick, and then lost Odubel Herrera to the Phillies at #8. Herrera went on to post a 4 win season the next year with a rebuilding Phillies club, and did it in a similar way to DeShields: Herrera struck out about 1/4 of the time, and while he had fractionally more power, it’s not enough to separate him from the Heredias and DeShields of the world. He didn’t have quite the same baserunning ability as DeShields, but a bit more pop and an even better defensive rating led to a surprisingly valuable season.

So, what’s the point? I have good news and bad news for Mr. Heredia. The good news is that it’s possible to turn in a very useful season with his profile. It doesn’t work at all in a corner, which is why I’ve been lukewarm on Gamel, but it absolutely can in CF. There are things Heredia needs to work on for it to actually happen, but they’re not things like “now be able to hit 25 HRs” or “cut your K% in half.” The bad news is: so can a hell of a lot people. Two CFs in a single Rule 5 draft have already reached what, the 90th percentile outcome for Heredia? An even better sometimes-CF used to play SS for the M’s before getting frozen out and dumped to the Dodgers in a change of scenery deal. The M’s have some speed/defense guys with bats that project…questionably in the majors. Heredia needs to hold them off and hope the M’s don’t look to the open market for an upgrade at the position the way they did last year.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Alonso, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Gamel, LF
9: Heredia, CF
SP: El Cartelua

Speaking of Rule 5 guys, the Astros UTIL guy Marwin Gonzalez is another Rule 5 guy turned above-average regular. The sometimes-3B entered play yesterday tied with Kyle freaking Seager in fWAR, and came out of it with a slight lead. Guess they should call him Morewins Gonzalez, amiright?

This is Marc, and I’d like to say the above note was written by a member of my staff, not me personally. We’ll find the culprit and deal with him/her severely.

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