A year ago, at the All-Star break, the Mariners were just two games back of the Angels, but that was deceptive, because while the Angels were supposed to be a really good team, they never really found their groove and got to the break five games under .500. This year, at the All-Star break, the Mariners are 6.5 games back of the Angels, but that’s deceptive, because the Angels have been outstanding and, if the season were to end today, the Mariners would actually be in the playoffs. I know I’ve written that before, but only in my dream journal, and seriously, take a step back. Put the day-to-day matters out of mind. The Mariners need to get better. Most teams need to get better. The Mariners, at this writing, have a 2.5-game lead on the Royals and Blue Jays, which means the Mariners are on a playoff pace. You might question whether a one-game playoff counts as the playoffs, but then it has the word “playoff” right in it.
It’s been an eventful first half. They’re always eventful first halves, unless you’re the Padres, but the Mariners’ first half had more good than bad, which is how you explain their 51-44 record. Now, baseball is a game steeped in tradition, and one of the traditions is that, before the All-Star break, teams play a lot of baseball games. Roughly half of them, give or take plenty. (The Mariners have played 59% of their games, so “first half” is a lie.) Another tradition is that every All-Star break I put together these stupid subjective report cards. They’re not important, but none of this is, so go ahead and read on, since you’re already here anyway. You came to this website because you have time you’re willing to dedicate to reading Internet baseball text. Here’s some of that.
I’ve assigned grades to every player who’s played for the Mariners in 2014. There are no formulas — the grades are just the grades that occurred to me, and if you disagree with one or two of them, express so politely or keep it to yourself. I’m not married to these grades and by the time this post is published I might even disagree with myself on a handful of guys. The position players and the pitchers will be broken up, with the pitchers presumably coming tomorrow. Sneak preview: I would marry Felix Hernandez. I would literally drop everything to marry Felix Hernandez, right now. I understand that would make his personal life a lot more complicated, but I’m willing to deal with baggage. Everybody’s got baggage. I’d be honored to carry the King’s.
On to the position-player report card. Let’s start with a bummer! We’ll follow that with a bummer. And then another bummer, and…well, shoot, 51 wins? Are you sure, 51 wins? And the season isn’t finished?
Dustin Ackley: D-
Dustin Ackley has a higher OBP than Domonic Brown, who has been a top prospect. He has a higher slugging percentage than Jackie Bradley Jr., who has been a top prospect. He has a higher wRC+ than Jean Segura, who has been a top prospect. He has the same wRC+ as B.J. Upton, who’s in the second year of a massive five-year contract. In other words, there’s still room for Dustin Ackley to be even worse. I used to compare Ackley to Jeremy Reed to be funny in a dark kind of way. Then I’d compare Ackley to Reed with nervous laughter. Nobody’s laughing anymore. Ackley’s at .242/.310/.351 for his career. Reed finished at .252/.309/.354. I’m haunted by my own stupid joke, and we’re all paying the price.
Abe Almonte: F
I felt so self-confident. I’m supposed to be a baseball expert, according to my job description. I get good feelings when my expertise is validated, because I get to not feel like a fraud. I’ve gotten good feelings from the AL Central, for example, where I’ve never considered the Royals to be the threat so many other people have. In the spring, the analytical part of my brain was telling me not to be worried about Abe Almonte. In April, the analytical part of my brain was telling me not to be worried about Abe Almonte. I publicly expressed confidence in him, believing that he’d pick it up in no time. I didn’t allow myself to believe that Almonte might not actually be good. Whoopsadoodle. I appreciate the moments of not feeling like a fraud because, most of the time, I sit back and feel like a fraud.
Willie Bloomquist: D-
Willie Bloomquist has a higher average, OBP, and slugging percentage than Dustin Ackley. In the major leagues. That would’ve made more sense to me ten years ago, when Ackley would’ve been 16. Ha-ha! Can you imagine a 16-year-old Dustin Ackley trying to hit in the major leagues? Actually, he might’ve been better than the 26-year-old Dustin Ackley. I didn’t mean to make this another paragraph complaining about Dustin Ackley, but I guess it’s better than a paragraph about Willie Bloomquist.
John Buck: D
John Buck gets a performance F, but I bumped him up on account of all his alleged leadership ability and clubhouse value. Mike Zunino says that he never stopped learning from John Buck from the moment the two first interacted, and I think at this point it’s entirely clear that John Buck did a lot to teach Mike Zunino to hit like John Buck. I’m in no position to actually evaluate Buck’s intangible value, but given that the Mariners’ record is a mystery and given that players seemed to like what Buck did, I’m perfectly happy to write some of this up to Buck magic. What, you have a better explanation, like “pitching and defense and the random nature of sporting outcomes?” Like there’s randomness in baseball. Come on.
Robinson Cano: A
A storyline for much of the first half was that Cano was hitting like prime Ichiro instead of prime Cano. Of course, prime Ichiro was super good so it wasn’t so much a complaint as an observation. And now Cano seems to be hitting for more power, and just the other day he turned on a fastball and ripped it into the right-field seats. Over the past 30 days he’s hit .349/.420/.538, and by the way he’s also been a good defender and a great leader and an awesome interview and personality. Robinson Cano is one of the best Mariners players ever, and he’s certainly the best Mariner ever who’s represented by an agent who once stabbed a man. We’ll never love Cano the way we love Felix Hernandez, but there are different kinds of love, each of them valid.
Endy Chavez: D
Following the line of thinking of a friend of mine: if you let Endy Chavez bat four times a game, you’ll probably get to say things like “it seems like he’s on base every game,” because he seems to finish every single one of his games 1-for-4 with a single. Who could say no to a long-term hitting streak and a .250/.250/.250 batting line? It’s awkward to be in the position of not liking Chavez, since I like Chavez the person, and he’s been all right lately, but this team is fighting for the playoffs and Endy Chavez keeps leading off a lot. Do you see how that’s counter-productive? Do you see how this team could improve even with an old sack like Marlon Byrd? Chavez is pleasant and little and he knows how to make things happen, but unfortunately the thing he knows how to make happen the best is outs.
Nick Franklin: F
The Mariners didn’t manage to move Nick Franklin earlier. He started strong in Triple-A, then he didn’t hit upon being promoted to the bigs. And since returning to Triple-A at the beginning of June, he’s hit .244 with two home runs. Used to be, Franklin was confusing because he couldn’t hit in the majors, but now he’s confusing because he just can’t hit, period. It’s because of guys like Franklin that the purpose of Triple-A is becoming increasingly fuzzy. Aren’t those numbers supposed to mean something? Aren’t those numbers not supposed to mean nothing?
Cole Gillespie: D
I remember there was a time at which Cole Gillespie led the Mariners in rate hitting statistics. That time is not now, because Cole Gillespie isn’t good, and Cole Gillespie isn’t on the Mariners. What I remember most about Gillespie is when he pinch-hit and popped up in a tie game with one out and the bases loaded. It was at that point I figured his time with the Mariners was up. I was off by five or six weeks, but in the bigger picture, I wasn’t off at all. If you always consider a big-enough picture, your timing can pretty much never be off. “Sure, I was late to meet you by 15 minutes, but how much are 15 minutes, really? If you think about the raising and the grinding of the mountains-”
Corey Hart: F
When Hart was on the DL, I almost put together a post talking about how Hart was better than his numbers, and how he’d been screwed by a few well-hit balls not quite working out as they should’ve. Those are the kinds of posts you write about bad baseball players. I do think Hart is better than this, but this isn’t about true talent, and Hart’s first half was a lousy first half.
James Jones: C+
Jones is impossibly easy to like. He’s always smiling, he provides for the team a different dynamic, he arrived almost out of nowhere, and he somewhat famously went up to Lloyd McClendon just to ask how he might be able to improve. Jones is so easy to like that you might want to look past the mediocre OBP and the mediocre slugging percentage and the mediocre walk and strikeout numbers. Jones has served a valuable role in that he’s filled a position of dire need, but so much about him has been raw, and speaking objectively he probably shouldn’t be a starter. He’s a starter here, and he’s not bad, but this is part of why McClendon described the team as having a BB gun offense. James Jones just doesn’t shoot real bullets, and he probably never will.
Brad Miller: D
Brad Miller has made people feel better by posting a .755 OPS since the start of June. That’s the Brad Miller we expected. Unfortunately, the regular season didn’t begin on June 1, and the Brad Miller before that was among the very biggest disasters in the league! He’s still not really hitting lefties, to the point at which there’s a statistical justification for batting Willie Bloomquist at short with a southpaw on the mound. When it might make sense to platoon your starting shortstop with Willie Bloomquist, the situation could be better, that’s what I always say. I don’t say very much.
Jesus Montero: C
Jesus Montero batted 14 times, he didn’t walk, he swung at a higher rate of pitches out of the zone than pitches in the zone, and he mashed a dinger. So that’s what Jesus Montero was up to. Before Montero’s first half had even begun, he was publicly ripped by his own general manager. On the plus side, Montero has probably completely forgotten about that, because my guess is that he completely forgets about everything within the time it takes his brain to try to submit an experience to memory.
Logan Morrison: D+
Like Hart, my feeling is that Morrison has hit into a few too many loud outs. Even if you try to adjust for that, Morrison’s numbers still don’t come out good, but I think I’ve partially inflated this grade just because Morrison isn’t Justin Smoak. He was the Marlins’ Justin Smoak, but what was old to them still feels fresh and new to us. Morrison, in other words, is frustrating in that he isn’t better than he is, but we’re still in the process of learning that about him, which means every good point might represent a turning point. They’re always potentially developing until they’re 28-year-old busts.
Stefen Romero: F
Last season Stefen Romero batted .277/.331/.448 in Triple-A with 28 walks and 87 strikeouts. By OPS on the team, he ranked directly between Carlos Peguero and Alex Liddi. It’s not Romero’s fault he didn’t help the Mariners.
Michael Saunders: B
Saunders hit in 2012. He hit in 2013, when he wasn’t recovering from injury. He’s hit in 2014. No longer, I think, do we have to worry about whether or not Michael Saunders’ bat is for real, and we know he’s a more than capable defensive right fielder. Now what we have to wonder is whether Saunders is particularly injury-prone, since he’s now back on the DL with a Grade 2 oblique strain. Saunders has conquered his obvious problem from earlier in his career. So now he’s confronted by a problem no one would’ve ever foreseen. There are always new problems, is the point. Even when you think you have everything figured out and going your way, you’re still closer to dying than you were at the start of this sentence.
Kyle Seager: A
I think we can say that Kyle Seager is objectively, certainly underrated, based on his numbers and based on his All-Star support. He’s one of the better third basemen in baseball and he’s still considered just one of the nobodies alongside Cano and the King. Part of the issue, probably, is that he’s never been hyped, and part of that issue, probably, stems from the reality that he just looks like a guy whose middle name is Duerr, which is Kyle Seager’s middle name, which is Duerr. Seager doesn’t look like an elite-level baseball player; he looks like a happy-go-lucky cousin, who’s also a younger brother of an older cousin, who you can’t believe is old enough to have a baby and a collection of guns. Seager has the skills that Willie Bloomquist’s body was always supposed to have, and making things weirder still is that there are two more Seager brothers in the minor leagues right now, with one of them being a Dodgers top prospect. It’s a whole family of guys sent to destroy the very concept of a “baseball face”.
Justin Smoak: D-
On Opening Day, Smoak went 2-for-4 with a double, a homer, and a walk, and spirits were high. He’d been practicing a net drill with Robinson Cano on the side, and people wondered whether Smoak had finally figured everything out. It only followed all of McClendon’s early support, with his assertions that Smoak could lead the league in doubles. Since Opening Day, he’s performed like Justin Smoak. Maybe the most interesting thing about him at this point is how much support he continues to have. The Mariners have never wavered in believing in Smoak as a first baseman. McClendon continues to believe in him as a first baseman. Educated baseball people look at Justin Smoak and see a long-term productive asset. It’s enough to make you wonder whether you’re just being impatient. But Justin Smoak turns 28 in December. They’re always potentially developing until they’re 28. According to my arbitrary cutoff, Smoak, you’ve got 2.5 months to not be a pile of crap.
Jesus Sucre: C-
Sucre has played twice and he hit a single and he caught pitches. With Zunino and Sucre, the Mariners ought to be one of the very best pitch-framing teams in all of baseball. Sucre is never going to be the topic of any conversation among fans, as he’ll never be good enough to start and he’ll never play enough to attract negative attention. He’ll just do his job and ingratiate himself to managers and he’ll stick around as an unknown backup for more than a decade. It’s a hell of a non-polarizing way to make a living. Way down the road, the complete oral history of Jesus Sucre will consist of, “who was that again?” and “that guy, that was a ballplayer.”
Mike Zunino: B-
Since May started, Zunino’s hit .180 with ten walks and 75 strikeouts. He’s kind of been last year’s J.P. Arencibia, which isn’t a good offensive catcher, but then there is more to it. The season also happens to include April, and Zunino appears to be an incredible receiver and handler of the pitching staff, and not that it matters here but sometimes it is easy to forget how quickly Zunino was rushed through the system. There’s been a lot on his plate, and one of the ideas behind bringing up Sucre is now McClendon might feel more comfortable giving Zunino more time off. More time off might allow him to perform more consistently. Zunino’s offensive game is basically running into a dinger from time to time, but the power is legit, and the defense is legit, and this is still the best catcher the Mariners have had in years. He makes too many outs with the bat, but he’s also invaluable when it comes to creating them in the field. Zunino might kind of capture the 51-44 All-Star break Mariners in a nutshell.
Monday Morning Podcast!
Jeff and I review the first half, Friday’s biggest (sort of) ever King’s Court, and again talk trade stuff.
Thanks again to those that helped support the show and/or StatCorner work in general last week, and in the past, and hopefully in the future. It’s truly appreciated.
Chris Young vs. Sonny Gray, 1:10pm
Brooms out, M’s fans. After picking up wins against the A’s new acquisition and their breakout pitcher of 2014, the M’s path to a sweep goes through Sonny Gray, the ace of the staff. I know Jeff Samardzija cost them a top-20 prospect in all of baseball along with a fringe top-100 guy, but Gray seems like the clear #1 despite the fact that he hasn’t quite kept up the pace he set in his incredible 2013 call-up.
Gray pairs his 95mph cutter-like four-seamer with an effective split/change and a plus-plus curve ball. It sounds strange to say about a starter with an average fastball of 95mph, but the curve is far and away his best pitch. The pitch has astonishing two plane break, and it doesn’t rely on gravity for sink. He throws it around 81-82mph, and it breaks nearly a foot glove side relative to his FB and well more than a foot vertically relative to his rising FB. It’s a bit like Taijuan Walker’s, only thrown harder and with more bite. In his (brief) MLB career, batters have a .017 ISO on the pitch. They’re *slugging* .175. Sure, it’s his putaway pitch, and he throws it ahead in the count, but it’s a big reason why hitters have had such problems driving the ball against him.
Gray’s career batting line against is .223/.289/.312. This is why he’s had a great season despite a drop in his K% and an increase in walks. Unlike Shark, Gray’s faced more lefties than righties thus far, and unlike Shark, that’s not much of an issue for him. In his career, lefties have managed a .273 wOBA, essentially the same as righties. Not only is his curve a formidable weapon against lefties, but his change-up (which, looking at pitch fx, looks like a splitter to me) is almost as effective. Everything about Gray – from the cutter-ish FB, to the splitter, to the nuclear curve – seems designed to eliminate platoon splits, and thus far, he’s done just that.
When he’s gotten into trouble this year, control/command have been the culprit. Patience, M’s. Patience! And while the M’s don’t have a pitcher with a mid-90s FB or incredible hook, they’ve got a 7 foot tall wizard throwing an 85mph invisiball, so, you know, hit THAT, A’s.
1: Chavez, RF
2: Jones, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morrison, DH
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Zunino, C
The all-star festivities kick off today with the Futures Game at Target Field. M’s #1 prospect DJ Peterson’s starting for the US team, batting 6th and playing 1B. That’s not an acknowledgement that he’ll have to move off 3B, it’s just an acknowledgement that Kris Bryant may be the best bat in the minor leagues. Gaby Guerrero’s hitting 7th for the World Team and DH’ing.
Matt Palmer’s pitching for Tacoma today at Cheney. The Rainiers are riding a 3 game winning streak and actually passed Fresno last night to escape the division cellar. Tyler Pike’s starting for AA Jackson. Fellow Jackson prospect Victor Sanchez had one of his best games in the system yesterday, throwing 8IP and giving up 3H and 1R on 1BB and a career high 9Ks. Speaking of prospects, Taijuan Walker went 5IP for Tacoma last night, giving up 1R but getting only 1K. He told Mike Curto he didn’t have good feel on his FB.
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Jesse Chavez, 7:10pm
In 2011, it was Brandon McCarthy. In 2012, it was Tommy Milone, AJ Griffin and Bartolo Colon. Last year, it was Griffin and Dan Straily. This year’s succesful A’s starter with essentially no starting experience and/or a spotty track record is right-hander Jesse Chavez. Chavez was a 42nd round draft-and-follow pick by the Rangers back in 2002, and he spent several years as a hard-throwing reliever in the Texas system before being shipped to Pittsburgh in a trade for Kip Wells. Three more trades later, he was waived by one team and then moved for the ever popular cash considerations from Toronto to the A’s.
Chavez’s calling card was a 95mph four-seam fastball, and he’d picked up a slider and change to go with it. As this great interview he did with Eno Sarris shows, teams seemed to love his velocity, and his potential as a Rafael Soriano-ish FB/SL set-up man.* The problem was that he never really got comfortable with the slider; despite the fact he threw it when ahead in the count, *righties* hit .300 and slugged .500 on the pitch in his career. To make matters worse, his four-seamer was an equal-opportunity offender, with lefties slugging over .600 on it, and a career ISO (against all hitters) of .246. It had velocity and nothing else, and Chavez’s career looked like it was taking the Mark Lowe path.
Side work with his cutter and a move to the Oakland organization changed all of that. The A’s got him to throw a sinker, a pitch he apparently used in the amateur ranks before MLB orgs told him to forget it. He also went to a curve ball, *another* pitch he’d thrown before pro pitching coaches swapped it out for a slider. As a cutter/sinker/curve-balling reliever, he had a modicum of success last year, though a poor strand rate made his ERA a bit uglier than you’d like your set-up man to sport. Though he’d transitioned to starting briefly in the Toronto system, I think plenty of people - even A’s fans – were dubious this spring when the A’s handed him a rotation spot. He’s rewarded them with over 100 innings of above-average performance, and he’s become the latest example of the A’s seemingly inexhaustible pitching depth.
Chavez’s cutter’s effective against righties, while his sinker/change have been solid against lefties. He’s still got platoon splits, but they’re nothing much to write about. Despite the sinker, he’s still average-to-below-average at getting grounders – the cutter’s more of a fly ball pitch. He was excellent against the M’s in early April, but struggled against them in May; we’ll see if that familiarity helps the M’s line-up today.
1: Chavez, RF
2: Jones, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morrison, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Hart, DH
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Hisashi Iwakuma
It’s Iwakuma’s bobble-head night tonight, for those that love…uh, that sort of thing.
I’ll admit I haven’t thought about Jean Segura since his incredibly hot start to 2013, but I’m thinking of him and his family today.
In the minors, Victor Sanchez starts for AA Jackson, Lars Huijer for High Desert and Lukas Schiraldi for Everett. Not sure who Tacoma’s using tonight against Fresno. Despite that, today’s a good day to head to Cheney Stadium – it’s “Pink in the Park“, a fundraiser for breast cancer screening for low-income women in the South Sound.
* Ironically, he was actually traded for Soriano in one of his many transactions.
Felix Hernandez vs. Jeff Samardzija, 7:10pm
While some have complained that the M’s haven’t responded to the A’s massive, season-defining trade to pick up Jeff Samardzija with a move of their own, the truth is that they made a tiny move to give Tom Wilhelmsen a spot start and to give Felix (and us) tonight’s game. The M’s are contending for the post-season, but they’re pointedly not contending with the Oakland Athletics. The A’s only competition for the division title, and their only competition as the best team in the American League, is the LA Angels. That’s not to diminish this series and this game in any way – this is a great measuring stick for both teams. The M’s want to demonstrate that they can hang with the best teams in the league, a desire they probably feel more keenly now after being shut down by the likes of Kyle Gibson and Yohan Pino. But the A’s need to demonstrate that the lack of front-line starting pitching that helped cut short their playoff runs the past two years is a problem they’ve solved once and for all. That even if a Felix, or a Scherzer or Verlander throws a gem, they can scratch out a win thanks to Sonny Gray or tonight’s starter, Jeff Samardzija.
It’s kind of amazing to reflect on Samardzija’s journey from bust to just-about-David-Price’s-equal in trade value. The ex-football player’s straight fastball and the glacial pace of his breaking ball development left him a hittable pitcher in the low-minors. A guy who’d signed a near-record bonus who put up a lower K/9 than Kevin Correia’s this year…in the high-A Florida State League, a league as pitcher friendly as the California League isn’t. Inconclusive big-league trials in 2008, 2009 and 2010 (you can’t say the Cubs didn’t try), the Cubs moved him to the bullpen for 2011 and watched as he blossomed into an intriguing set-up man. That’s not what you spend millions buying someone away from the NFL for, but it’s also not the nothing I think we all assumed they’d wring out of that deal. The Cubs gave him one more shot to start in 2012, and the results have been better than the Cubs’ could’ve hoped for.
That’s not to say they’ve been unambiguously great, though. He followed up his breakthrough 2012 season with a 2013 that showed flashes of brilliance, but a heck of a lot more runs allowed than you’d want from an ace or even a #2. By FIP, he was worth 2.8 WAR, which is solid, but nothing special. By RA-9 WAR, he was below average; a 4.34 ERA in today’s National League just isn’t all that special. This year, though, he’s taken another clear step forward – he’s halved his HR/9 rate thanks in part to a career-best GB%. He’s cut down on walks, which had been a struggle for him since his days in the minors. He’s not throwing a new pitch, but much-improved command of his two-seam/sinker seems to be key for him. He’d thrown balls with about 36.5% of his sinkers in both 2012 and 2013, but he’s trimmed that to 30% in 2014. It’s not exactly a weapon against lefties, but the command has helped him keep lefties in the ballpark. Now, somewhat shockingly, his ERA’s lower than his FIP and he’s the centerpiece of the biggest in-season trade in years. The A’s are all-in for 2014, and they obviously see Samardzija as an important step in building a team capable of winning short playoff series.
All of that said, there are warning signs here. Tony Blengino’s analysis shows that Shark’s K rate and the slightly below-average authority hitters impart to their balls-in-play against him make him a solid #2. That may be, but remember that he racked up that quality-of-contact in the National League. How to measure league quality is still somewhat tough, as league-wide factors can often get swamped by the particulars of specific players and specific contexts (ie. pitching in the Oakland Coliseum). But one striking difference between the leagues, and between the AL West and NL Central in particular, concerns the platoon advantage. Dave mentioned this a while ago and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since: hurlers in the NL Central have seen line-ups that are more righty-dominant, and thus pitchers like Samardzija have enjoyed the platoon advantage in a majority of their plate appearances. For some pitchers, that wouldn’t matter so much, but Samardzija’s splits are pretty prominent. This year, lefties are putting up a .316 wOBA against him, compared to just .271 for righties. That .045 gap is right in line with his career splits, and his splits since moving to the rotation in 2012. They’re not gigantic, but its his performance against right-handed bats that make him stand out. Against lefties, he’s been roughly league-average, perhaps a touch worse.
The AL will not afford him the luxury of facing a few more righties than lefties (Samardzija had the platoon advantage in 53% in 2013, and 55% this year) – ask Felix, who’s faced a right-hander in just less than 42% of his PAs this year. And it’s not just a case of BABIP or a HR or two creeping over the fence that produce Samardzija’s platoon splits. He’s a different pitcher depending on who’s in the batters box. His walk rate against lefties is a bit better than his 2012-13 average, but not much. His GB% against lefties hasn’t moved either. It’s 43.8% in 2014, a touch better than 2013′s 43.3%, but worse than 2012′s 45.5%. The big increase in his GB% overall has come exclusively against righties, and perhaps not coincidentally, Samardzija saw a greater percentage of righties in 2013 and then again in 2014. Put all of it together, and I wonder if the quality-of-contact numbers Blengino posted are at least partially the product of the platoon advantage. None of this is to suggest that Samardzija’s bad, or that he’ll struggle in the AL. A guy who holds lefties to league average moving to a spacious ballpark with excellent defenders behind him is probably going to pitch well. But it’s also not clear that he’s worth the high price the A’s paid. I admire Beane’s guts in pulling the trigger and attempting to build a dominant team for 2014, but Samardzija may have been lucky in the first half of 2014; the A’s need to hope he’ll be lucky in the playoffs, too.
Here’s tonight’s line-up. The AL West likes to throw a lot of lefties at you, Shark.
1: Chavez, RF
2: Jones, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morrison, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Zunino, C
SP: King Felix
Eight lefties. As you can see, Justin Smoak’s been brought up from Tacoma with Michael Saunders DL’d after suffering a strained oblique. The choice of Smoak over, say, Montero was probably an easy one for a team that values match-up data as much as this one: Smoak homered off of Samardzija the last time he pitched against Seattle, back in 2013.
Erasmo Ramirez, Stephen Landazuri, Dylan Unsworth, Seon Gi Kim and Noel de la Cruz start tonight for the M’s affiliates. Thanks to last night’s win, only Pulaski has a winning record among the M’s seven US-based affiliates (though the DSL and VSL teams have losing records too). The minor league teams have been pretty solid most years under GMZ; not sure if this is a deliberate shift in promotion/placement process for players – that is, if they’re challenging young players a bit more – or if it’s just one of those random things that happens now and again.
Tom Wilhelmsen vs. Yohan Pino, 7:10pm
Depending on your point of view, this is either an interesting test of two teams pitching depth and the utility of team-wide splits, or perhaps the least major league-y MLB game of the season. Wilhelmsen and righty Yohan Pino were born ten days apart back in 1983, and have all of four major league starts between them. The former had famously retired from baseball for the life of a wanderer, bartender and itinerant dancer before breaking back into baseball thanks to elite arm strength and a plus curve ball. Pino came up in the Twins system, and had a couple of great statistical seasons as a reliever before being the PTBNL in the deal that brought Carl Pavano to the Twin Cities. Since then, he’s kicked around a number of organizations as a swing man, signing minor league free agent deals with Toronto, Cincinnati and finally Minnesota. Pino pitches around an 88-89mph fastball by throwing a lot of sliders, though he’s got a change-up he’ll throw to lefties and also the occasional curve.
Pino’s clearly not overpowering, and thankfully, he’s not even a ground baller. With last night’s loss, the M’s OPS against GB pitchers (the top 3rd in GB:FB ratio, as measured by bbref) this year is a woeful .572. The M’s are *slugging* .286 against them, and you might think that figure was a bit high after watching Kevin Correia and Kyle Gibson pitch against the M’s. Toss in the fact that Pino should have normal platoon splits thanks to the fact his best pitch is a slider, and you’ve got to like the match-up for the M’s and their lefty-heavy line-up. But while it looks good on paper, the M’s have underwhelmed in games started by unfamiliar pitchers – Colin McHugh’s debut is the best example, but Robbie Ross’ start in April, Drew Pomeranz’s start for the A’s in May, Jake Odorizzi about a week later. This isn’t scientific, and I may just be noticing it more. And hey, Kyle Gibson got knocked around by the M’s last season before dominating them this season. But the M’s are not an offensive juggernaut in Safeco, and they don’t yet know Pino’s approach. It may take them a while to solve whatever mystery there is a straight 89mph four-seam fastball. Hopefully not too long, though.
Wilhelmsen’s size, durability and pitch mix make him a natural candidate to start. After breaking camp with the M’s in 2011, he was sent down in May and resumed work as a starter for AA Jackson. As Wilhelmsen’s acknowledged, the results weren’t there, and when he returned to the big club in August, it was as a reliever. After what looked like a breakout in 2012, he started 2013 as the team’s closer, only to lose his hold on that role and then on his 25-man spot in August. Interestingly, the team had him start when he first joined the Rainiers. In his first start,* he went two innings, giving up three runs including two dingers to an Iowa Cubs line-up that…well, it’s no 2014 Iowa Cubs line-up. He then had a brilliant relief outing behind Taijuan Walker, and then made his second start at Round Rock. This time, he didn’t quite make it two innings, yielding three runs on two hits and three walks against no K’s. The M’s pulled the plug on the Wilhelmsen-as-starter experiment then, and while it didn’t solve everything – he was still hittable and had a poor RA – his K:BB ratio got a bit better. Wilhelmsen-as-starter *should* work. There’s not really a physical reason why it wouldn’t. But while the sample size is tiny, it’s also uniformly bad, at least in the upper minors. That’s not to say Wilhelmsen’s a lock to get knocked around; he wasn’t great as a *reliever* in Tacoma last year, and that hasn’t stopped him from posting a great season thus far in the American League. It’s just an odd record that’s so easy to fill in with conjecture (“He’s not mentally tough enough/he lacks confidence!”), but we’re better off avoiding that and hoping tonight’s spot start goes well.
1: Chavez, LF
2: Jones, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Hart, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Saunders, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Bloomquist, SS
SP: Tom Wilhelmsen
The M’s bolstered their bullpen yet again today by swapping out Stephen Pryor for lefty Lucas Luetge. It’s tough to blame Pryor for a rough outing, considering it was his first big league game in over a year, and of course he wasn’t helped by the two-run error on 1B Logan Morrison, but his FB averaged 92 and he didn’t have pinpoint command.
It’s good to see Kurt Suzuki in the line-up for Twins, because the alternative would’ve meant pairing Pino with Eric Fryer. Pino and whatever you get out of Fryer just sounds like a very Minnesota thing to do, somehow. If you’re serious about pairings, of course, you move Pino to Anaheim where he could team up with Grilli and Trout, or perhaps the Marlins and Jeff Baker, but…OK, I’m done. Sorry.
Minor leaguers starting for M’s affiliates include Jimmy Gilheeney, Tyler Olson, Scott DeCecco, Blake Holovach and Jefferson Medina.
* The pitcher who relieved Wilhelmsen in that game was James Paxton, who also got knocked around. Paxton was about two weeks from turning into JAMES F@#%ING PAXTON, but was still frustratingly inconsistent and hittable. Wilhelmsen got hit pretty hard himself in AAA only to return to the big leagues again and pitch effectively. You can’t point to coaching as the decisive factor, but in a roughly two week period, the Tacoma Rainiers turned TWO strong-armed-but-frustrating hurlers into effective big leaguers. Again, there are a number of factors that go into some lesson “clicking” for a pitcher, and it may have had nothing to do with any instruction they got, but I am really, really curious what advice the two got last August.
Roenis Elias vs. Kyle Gibson, 7:10pm
Sinkerballer Kyle Gibson faced the M’s back in mid-May. He’d posted a decent ERA, but an awful K:BB ratio of 17:18, and while he’d put together some gorgeous starts (and he had another that night, holding the M’s to 1 run over 7 innings), he’d also had some implosions. Since that time, he’s straightened out the K:BB ration (it’s 33:10 since that pre-game post), but he’s still been incredibly inconsistent. He strung together three straight starts without allowing a run, going seven innings in each one, and then followed it up with a 2-inning disaster start in which he yielded seven runs. I’m not at all clear on which Kyle Gibson’s going to show up – the guy who pitched a great game back in May, or the guy who gave up six runs in two innings five days ago.
Anyone can get shelled, of course, but to me it’s interesting to look at just how good Gibson can be when he’s on. He throws a 92mph sinker, an occasional four-seamer, a change-up and a slider (he’s also got a curve he throws sparingly). The change-up’s actually quite a good pitch, and the slider has the makings of a plus offering, but he’s left quite a few of them up in the zone and paid the price for it. Still, his K/9 is the second-lowest in baseball, behind only his teammate, Kevin Correia. Gibson compensates by generating a lot of ground balls, which isn’t a bad plan, and he backs it up with an above-average pop-up rate. His change-up’s a ground-ball machine, but his slider gets plenty of infield-flies. This has helped him post a surprisingly low BABIP, which is then undone by a poor strand rate.
Minimizing hard-hit contact is huge for a pitcher, and as Tony Blengino’s demonstrated, it’s helped Clayton Kershaw become the unhittable monster he’s become, and it’s a big reason for Felix’s brilliant 2014 campaign. So far this year, Gibson’s results show very few hard-hit balls – low HR rate, extremely low LD%. But when you’re working down around the very bottom of the K% leaderboard, you start to see the limitations of contact management. Few walks and plenty of pop flies mean Gibson has to deal with fewer baserunners, but his lack of a put-away pitch means opponents get more rolls of the BABIP die. Again, it hasn’t mattered on many occasions, including the last time he faced Seattle, but it’s limiting his ceiling. The other limitation remains his platoon splits. Overall, lefties have hit a bit better against him, which is pretty normal. But the components are fairly odd: he’s not striking *any* lefties out, but they’re popping the ball up like crazy, and have trouble driving the ball. Thanks to his slider, he can actually strike out a righty or two, and they’re putting the ball on the ground at very high rates, but a few mistakes mean that he’s given up five of his six HRs to them this year, and nine of 13 in his career. It all means that he shows strong “normal” splits by wOBA, strong reverse splits by FIP, and average splits by xFIP.
1: Chavez, LF
2: Jones, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morrison, 1B
6: Hart, DH
7: Saunders, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
The big roster move of the day was the M’s sending Taijuan Walker down to AAA to bring in RP Stephen Pryor. As you know, tomorrow’s game was Felix’s scheduled start, but the M’s have pulled him back to Friday and a showdown with new Oaklander Jeff Samardzija. Lloyd McClendon told Jayson Jenksthe move was all about making sure Walker continued to throw; with the reshuffled rotation vs. the A’s, Walker wouldn’t pitch until after the break. This way, he’ll get two starts and then face the Mets after the break. Bringing in a reliever helps the pen that may be shorthanded, as the guy filling in tomorrow isn’t Erasmo Ramirez or Brandon Maurer – it’s Tom Wilhelmsen. As noted in that Times blog post, Wilhelmsen struggled mightily as a starter in AA Jackson. He moved directly from the Generals’ rotation to the Mariners’ bullpen in 2011, but he’s an intriguing starter candidate. He was excellent in that role in the low minors, and his arsenal and size could work in the rotation. But consistency and repeating his delivery have been issues in the past, so it’s hard to guess how he’ll do. Stephen Pryor missed essentially all of last year with what seemed like a minor muscle pull in his back. Eventually diagnosed as a torn lat, the M’s understand Pryor’s velocity still isn’t back to what it was when he first came up in 2012.
Andrew Carraway starts tonight for Tacoma, with David Holman going for High Desert and Carlos Missell for Clinton. Further down, Pat Peterson takes the ball for Pulaski and Dan Altavilla starts for Everett.
Chris Young vs. Phil Hughes, 7:10pm
Ah, Phil Hughes. Jeff discussed Phil Hughes relentless tinkering and adjustments back in May at Fangraphs, and that’s the best piece to read to get a sense of Hughes. We’ve seen him many times through the years, but that matters less with a guy like this – you really need to know what he’s doing *now.* As you probably know, he vacillated between throwing tons of sliders and throwing none of them; he’s in a slider-free phase this year, which means he’s essentially a fastball/cutter/curve guy. The simplified approach seems to have paid some dividends in terms of his control, as Hughes has just 10 unintentional walks in 109+ innings on the year. His K rate’s a career high as well (excepting his time as a reliever, of course), and even his old nemesis, the home run ball, has mostly stayed away after he moved from new Yankee Stadium to Target field.
It’s all added up to a sparkling FIP of 2.79, and the best seasonal fWAR of his career even though we’re not at the break yet. As nice as it is for Hughes’ ERA to start with a 3 and not a 5, it’s still something of a disappointment given his fielding-independent stats. For years, Hughes matched or even outpitched his FIP, as HRs sent that measure ever higher. This year, it’s beautiful, but he’s been undone by BABIP and strand rate. He can certainly hope for that BABIP to come down over time, though the Twins defense isn’t going to make that automatic. But strand rate’s been an issue for Hughes for years now – his 69% mark this year is a tiny bit under his career average of 70.6% (a mark that is itself inflated by his year as a reliever). There’s no obvious culprit for that. Unlike his teammates, Hughes can actually get a strikeout every now and again. In the BBREF splits, he’s been decent with two outs (and hurt by BABIP in those situations). You’d point to it as an obvious regression candidate, but again: he’s thrown nearly 900 big-league innings at this point.
Hughes has shown nearly no platoon splits over the course of his career, but he’s running BABIP-driven reverse splits this season.
1: Saunders, RF
2: Jones, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morrison, 1B
6: Hart, DH
7: Ackley, LF
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: Chris Young
Jordan Pries, Cam Hobson and Brett Shankin are among the minor leaguers getting starts tonight, but with apologies to Pries, all eyes are going to be on Everett, where Luiz Gohara will try to shake off Brazil’s disastrous World Cup performance and get a win for the Aqua Sox. The big lefty made one start earlier this month in Hillsboro, and it went very poorly, but he’s as talented an arm as the M’s system has, and he’ll be making his first start at home. Go check him out.
(Note that Marc is working on a simultaneous post on the subject. I think there’s value in having a couple of perspectives, even if they end up being pretty similar. This way we improve the odds of covering all of our bases!)
The Mariners designated John Buck for assignment on his 34th birthday. I haven’t gotten to my own 34th birthday yet, but if there’s consolation here, it’s probably that, by your 34th birthday, you don’t really care about your birthday anymore. The occasion is one reminder that John Buck is getting older. Getting designated for assignment is another reminder that John Buck is getting older. Might as well pile it on. Buck was once a key part of the deal that sent the incredible Carlos Beltran from Kansas City to Houston. He was 23, and that was more than a decade ago.
Though, at this writing, it hasn’t been formally announced that Jesus Sucre is being called up, that looks to be a foregone conclusion. Lloyd McClendon referred to a catcher in Triple-A who’s recently turned the corner, and it ain’t Humberto Quintero. What the Mariners have done is decide to swap backup catchers behind a starter who usually starts, but the process here is more interesting than the move itself, and that’s because Buck and Sucre have very different strengths and weaknesses. Aside from the getting-on-base part. Neither one of them gets on base.
Matthew and I analyzed this immediately in the podcast, but I felt like it also deserves to go in writing. Buck isn’t getting dropped because he’s slugging .286. I mean, it’s not good that he’s slugging .286, but that’s over double-digit at-bats, and it’s not like Buck has lost all of his power. He is what the Mariners thought they were getting. This is about Buck’s defense, and perhaps even more about Sucre’s defense. According to people like Ryan Divish and Shannon Drayer, some of the clubhouse is upset that Buck is gone, but Divish also noted that pitchers have grumbled about Buck’s defense over the course of the first three months.
Buck seems to be a perfectly adequate pitch-blocker, and though he doesn’t have an awesome arm, it’s not like the Mariners have been shredded by the stolen base. It’s possible that Buck and the Mariners’ pitchers haven’t often been able to get on the same page. It’s probable that the pitchers have noticed Buck’s mediocre receiving. Buck has long graded as one of the worst pitch-framers in the majors, and this season’s been no different. Even worse, for him, Buck hasn’t been compared to an average framer; he’s been compared to Mike Zunino, who in a sense has spoiled the arms. They’ve come to expect to be received in a particular way, and Buck’s been poor. Apparently it didn’t take very long for pitchers to notice this. It’s a skill you can evaluate in as little as an inning or two.
Who is Jesus Sucre? This is Jesus Sucre. In no time at all, a year ago, Sucre demonstrated that he’s a terrific pitch-receiver. It felt downright magical to have him catching Mariner pitches, because before him it had been so long since the Mariners had a player of his type. A decade ago or whenever, we made fun of Rene Rivera for being a defensive specialist, but now it turns out Rivera is pretty valuable specifically because of that defense. Sucre is a defensive specialist. At the plate, he puts the bat on the ball and he could conceivably be worse, but Sucre is a guy who could make millions because he handles a pitching staff. To my knowledge he doesn’t have issues blocking, and he’s equipped with a hell of a throwing arm, but mostly, Sucre calls a game and catches a game. Buck’s skill is providing a big home-run boost every so often. Sucre’s skill is about fractional boosts, over and over and over again. You notice Buck’s thing more than you notice Sucre’s thing, but, quietly, Sucre succeeds, helping through strike accumulation and run prevention.
Now, because we’re talking about backup catchers, this isn’t a huge, season-changing decision. As a catcher, John Buck started 19 of 89 games. This is a minor role, and over such a limited down-the-stretch sample, you can debate whether or not, on paper, this is a good call. Buck’s a better hitter than Sucre is. That much is almost certain. How much more valuable is Sucre’s defense? How much more valuable is it, really, over three months or so? If I were to work out all the analysis, we’re probably talking about a difference in some direction of a few runs. This is almost like swapping one reliever for another.
But that’s why this is so interesting. It’s a move that, on paper, makes a small difference. Mariners people keep referring to it as a baseball decision, and it’s evident that Buck was very well-liked in many corners of the locker room. Zunino referred to him as the glue. If you figure that Buck and Sucre are just about a toss-up, the Mariners have chosen the guy with analytical support, and they’ve actively hurt their own clubhouse. You might consider this evidence that the Mariners want to maximize talent instead of maximize chemistry. You might consider this evidence that the Mariners didn’t place a high value on John Buck’s chemistry-building skills.
That’s…surprising to me, and though I’m biased by my own perceptions of the front office, I didn’t think the Mariners would willingly do something like this in a competitive season. People speak too highly of strong cohesiveness, and baseball people live in fear of clubhouse disruptions. So this is something of a gamble, given the way the roster apparently responded last night, but the Mariners’ decision-makers believe the team will get over it and move forward with a stronger defensive unit. I suppose it’s worth noting that, for however strong Buck allowed the family to become, there were pitchers who didn’t love pitching to him. So he wasn’t exactly revered all-around.
Someone said on Twitter that the Mariners’ clubhouse felt like a clubhouse that had just been through a 12-inning loss. When the Mariners lost in 12 innings on April 3, they won the next game. When they lost in 11 innings on May 2, they won the next five games. The Mariners responded to an eight-game losing streak by winning 10 of their next 12 games. The team’s bounced back from pain before. Some of that, apparently, might’ve been due to Buck’s leadership, but it makes you wonder about something related to chemistry-building.
Let’s just say that Buck had a positive overall impact on the Mariners. Let’s say that he was a strong leader, and let’s say that he helped unite the active roster. Let’s say Buck played an important role in the roster really starting to feel like a team. Basically, let’s say that Buck was as awesome for the chemistry as it’s been alleged. Why should that all now fall apart? Are we to believe that John Buck was the keystone? If everything relied on John Buck, was the clubhouse all that strong, really?
If Buck was an awesome leader, and if Buck really helped bring all the Mariners together, why should we believe those lessons would now be forgotten? If there exist bonds that only exist because of John Buck, well, those bonds exist now, so there’d be nothing left for Buck to do. Maybe Buck had contributed almost all that he could, chemistry-wise. It’s been said that Buck helped this team develop confidence early on that it could really be a contender. Well, it’s a real contender, this team. All the players know it now. So maybe Buck did exactly what he was supposed to do, and he just did it in three or four months. Maybe Buck’s projected chemistry production the rest of the way was low, despite a big first half.
In short, I’m not convinced this’ll actually be that bad for the chemistry. Not that any of us can actually analyze the chemistry, but the Mariners clearly don’t think Buck was going to play a pivotal role down the stretch, and they’ve promoted a better defender. It’s kind of a bold move in that sense, but McClendon and Zduriencik are banking on the team being stronger than a veteran backup catcher, and now the team’s real strength has been bolstered, that being the run prevention. No one would disagree that Jesus Sucre is the superior defender. He’s quieter, at the plate and in terms of his personality, but he sure can catch pitches. He sure will make pitchers feel more content when they’re pitching.
And hell, who knows, maybe that’s better for chemistry. If pitchers are now comfortable 100% of the time, how would that not work to the team’s benefit? Maybe Buck and Sucre are good for chemistry in different ways. Maybe Buck’s strength was the kind of stuff he did in the first half, and now Sucre is more of a chemistry specialist. Maybe Buck helped the team feel like a good team. Now that the team is a good team, Sucre can go in and help the pitchers forget that they’re not pitching to Mike Zunino, when he’s resting on the bench.
I’m not sure this is a good move or a bad move. I lean toward the former, but more than that, this is an interesting move, despite it being a move involving a pair of backup catchers. It’s a move that makes you think about a lot of things, and it’s a move that’s a hell of a lot more complicated than it might seem like at first glance. In the middle of a surprising season, the Mariners have made a small roster tweak that’s been unpopular within a strong and tight clubhouse. The Mariners knew damn well what John Buck had meant. They promoted the defensive specialist anyway, defending the call as a baseball decision. Down the stretch, Jesus Sucre’s unlikely to play all that much baseball.
Fernando Rodney’s imaginary arrow had barely cleared the foul line when Ryan Divish gave us the news that changed the tenor of the evening. John Buck, seen joking with teammates a few minutes earlier, was dumped by the M’s – DFA’d, after hitting an anemic .226/.293/.286 in just shy of 100 plate appearances. Buck’s never hit for average, but figured to have a bit of power after averaging about 16 HRs over his past four seasons. A back-up catcher who didn’t make the most of his limited PAs is always at risk – ask Kelly Shoppach – but the collapse of Buck’s ISO wasn’t what the M’s pointed to in the aftermath of the move. Instead, the M’s pointed to complaints about Buck’s blocking and receiving.
The fact that Buck’s defense received poor grades from M’s pitchers, defensive stats and the eye test really shouldn’t be that shocking. As I mentioned back in the spring, Buck was the worst framer in baseball in 2010, and was 3rd from the bottom last season. What would be more interesting, if also worrying, is if they picked him up for his defense and then found it lacking in his 20-some games behind the plate. That’s not the only explanation, of course, but this is becoming something of an annual tradition. Kelly Shoppach only got until June last season, and Jesus Montero started the long walk from C to 1B last year as well. The M’s – at least under Zduriencik- haven’t found a back-up catcher they truly felt comfortable with. It’s an interesting, if not all that important on the field, problem to have.
It’s possible that Buck’s defensive shortcomings were just the final straw; that the move wouldn’t have been made absent a sub-.600 OPS. It’s also possible that the M’s *real* issue is that Buck simply wasn’t suited to this back-up role, and that it affected his offense and defense much more than they assumed. Remember, Buck got at least 100 games in each of the past four years, and eight of the past nine. From an on-the-field standpoint, the M’s may have improved. Jesus Sucre appears to be both a good framer and someone who can control the running game. He’s also hit surprisingly well this year in AAA, though his rest-of-season projection is still slightly below Buck’s. It’s close enough, however, that Sucre’s defensive advantage may make him the better player overall. Unless you put a lot of weight on Buck’s contribution to clubhouse camaraderie, it’s unlikely that the move will hurt the M’s playoff chances. But like a true baseball nerd, I’m always trying to glean the principles that underlie roster changes like this, and I have to say I’m nowhere closer to discerning them than I was in March.
Welcome, Jesus Sucre. Best of luck wherever you turn up, John Buck.