Game 147, Astros at Mariners

September 16, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 30 Comments 

King Felix vs. Collin McHugh, 7:10pm

In September of 2014, the M’s returned home following an inordinately successful road trip. Their record was 78-64 as they prepared to host the Houston Astros, and they had King Felix on the hill. Their wildcard odds at that point were right about 50%. While Felix won that one, the Astros and then the Blue Jays conspired to ruin what had been an out-of-nowhere playoff push. As late as the final week of the season, the M’s still had playoff odds of better than 1/3, but Collin McHugh and the Astros held the M’s at bay, and then a disastrous series in Toronto put an end to the M’s hopes. I recount all of this not to revel in pessimism, but to point out the almost eerie parallels between this year and 2014, and how nice it is to have another shot at this.

It’s also to point that Houston’s played a remarkably outsized role in two AL playoff races in the last three years. In 2014, the M’s lost 4 of 6 critical games to the Astros, who’d go on to finish 70-92. This year, the Astros are much better, so it’s less of a surprise that they’re 8-5 against the M’s, but it’s a key reason why the M’s trail Toronto in the Wild Card race. The Astros themselves are in 3rd in large part because of their complete inability to compete with Texas, who’s an astonishing 15-4 against them. Houston and Seattle are normal, in that they have much better records against worse-than-.500 clubs, while Texas, perhaps the oddest team in recent memory, is actually better against .500+ teams, largely because that group includes the Astros (and Mariners).

Collin McHugh came out of nowhere to post a great 2014 season, but he’s struggled to regain that form. While the Astros’ improvement helped his record, he declined quite a bit in 2015 thanks to a much higher BABIP and a decline in his K-BB%. While his K-BB% has rebounded some this year, it’s been more than offset by a spike in home runs – the problem that got him waived by New York and Colorado before his Houston renaissance. As fortunate as his 2014 was, his 2016 is Chris Snelling-level cursed. His BABIP is now a about 100 points higher than it was in 2014, and coupled with his HR trouble, he’s been a mediocre starter by fielding-dependent metrics.

For a guy who uses a roughly equal mix of fastballs, slider/cutters, and curves, he’s got surprisingly little in the way of platoon splits. In the past, his success against lefties was a key component of his value. Now, his LACK of success against *righties* is driving his slide into back-of-the-rotation status. I’ve said that many times this year (this’ll be McHugh’s 4th start of the year against Seattle) and it hasn’t mattered; McHugh is 3-0 against the M’s, who’ve managed just a .640 OPS against him. In his last start against the M’s back in July, McHugh K’d 10 in 6 IP. That’s surprising, given just how bad McHugh’s struggled against everyone else. Righties have teed off on McHugh’s underpowered four-seam fastball; they’re slugging .727 off of it. Meanwhile, lefties are feasting on his cutter, against which they’ve slugged .713.

The key to this game, though, is Felix. In 2014, Felix had a rough ending to the year, culminating in a 10-1 loss in Toronto that was essentially the M’s death knell. He recently suffered through back-to-back disaster starts, and he’s had some pretty bad Septembers in recent years. That said, I think this is the outcome every M’s fan wanted: Felix starting the first game of a crucial homestand, with the M’s riding an 8 game win streak. I don’t want to take too much comfort in these “playoff-like” substitutes that Felix has had to settle for, but it’s pretty awesome to see meaningful baseball in September again. Like Larry Stone, I have no idea how this team is in this position all of the sudden, but I’ll take it.*

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Martin, CF
8: Vogelbach, 1B
9: Marte, SS
SP: KING FELIX

The M’s get a bit of a break, as new Astros 3B Alex Bregman’s not making the trip after injuring his hamstring. After starting off his MLB career with an absymal 2-38 slump, Bregman’s hit .310/.353/.582 in 37 games. Of course, he’s not the only addition the Astros have made since the last time these two clubs met back in July. The Astros now feature Yuliesky Gurriel, the Cuban corner IF/OF, who’s off to a great start in MLB – the 32 year old has played 21 games, and he’s hitting .338/.360/.521.

The Jackson Generals won the Southern League Championship last night in Mississippi with a dominant 11-3. Jackson knocked out the opposing starter after 2/3 of an inning. Tyler O’Neill was named the series MVP after winning the season MVP. Jackson had the league’s best record as well. Really can’t see how this season could’ve gone any better except for maybe avoiding that weird late-season slide that kept them from having the best record in both halves. It’s going to be fun to see Tyler O’Neill in Seattle next year (figure he’ll get a call-up at some point).

The last club still playing is Clinton, who’ll start Kevin Gadea in Game 3 of the MWL championship series on Saturday. Great Lakes counters with Caleb Ferguson, a 38th rounder out of an Ohio HS who’s been a nice surprise for the Dodgers org this year. He began the year in Rookie Ball, but moved up to make 10 starts for Great Lakes. In 50+ innings, he’s walked just *3* and struck out 41. Over 3 levels in the low minors, Ferguson’s K:BB ratio is 63:5. Mind you, Gadea’s no slouch either. He’s at 95:14 on the year, and he misses a lot more bats than Ferguson. Gadea’s struck out 31 more batters than Ferguson in the exact same number of innings at this level.

* The Astros facing Texas for 2 series while the M’s dealt with LA and Oakland certainly helped, of course.

Game 146, Mariner at Angels

September 14, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 11 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Jhoulys Chacin, 7:05pm

The M’s have won seven in a row, and that tends to amp up your emotional response to each event, but when’s the last time an M’s game was as much fun to watch as last night’s? Every facet of the game, with the possible exception of defense (what the hell happened to you, Ketel Marte?), was clicking, and the result was not only an easy win over a rival, but a number of performances that offer a lot of hope for the future.

Obviously, the biggest takeaway was Taijuan Walker’s comfort and effectiveness, mixing three pitches in a way we’ve simply not seen before. For all the talk of mechanical tweaks, Walker remains metronome-like in terms of the movement he gets on his pitches. Any mechanical adjustment should impact either movement or velocity, and that’s just not what we’ve seen. Here’s Walker’s vertical movement over his career:
Walker vert move You’d expect more variance from game to game just due to pitch fx calibration (which Brooks largely corrects for) or just because Walker woke up 15 minutes earlier. Walker’s done a lot of things wrong in his MLB tenure, but he does not have a problem with repeating his delivery. It may be a bad delivery or a good one, but it IS consistent.

What hasn’t been consistent is his pitch mix. In my opinion, he’s been far too fastball-reliant, making it easier for batters to focus on location. To be fair to the M’s and Walker, a lot of that reliance was a product of poor secondary pitches. Coming up through the minors, I thought his curve could become a plus pitch. Many other observers came to the opposite conclusion, and suggested he scrap it for a cutter. I’ve seen the cutter in the minors and the majors, and I’ve simply never seen an average, let alone plus, pitch. This may be my own weird issue; some scouts raved about it when he’d first developed it, and it’s possible the real issue isn’t with the cutter, but overall consistency (though again, that seems unlikely to be his issue). Worse, whenever he DID throw the curve against big league hitters, it looked noticeably worse than it did in Tacoma. I’m assuming some of this was just rust – he’d focused so much on his fastball, the new cutter/slider thing, and his splitter, that the curve was an afterthought. That feedback loop built on itself, and you had games where he’d throw it once, or as he did against the Rays this year, not throw it at all. He’s thrown it less than 10% of the time this year, about the same as he did last year.

It wasn’t a great pitch, but it at least offered a change of pace. His splitter’s been hit fairly hard, too (7 HRs off of it this year), but no one would suggest he scrap it. What we saw last night was Walker in command of both the curve and the splitter. We’ve really never seen Walker command and actually utilize three pitches in a game. There’ve been games where he’s thrown a bunch of cutters, and games where he’s thrown a few dozen splitters, but these two things didn’t really overlap. Last night’s mix of – in rough terms – 50% FB, 25% CU and 25% CH/SP worked well, and they worked because he was able to throw them for strikes. The curve ball he struck out Trout on was a great example, and a great job by both Walker and Zunino to have the confidence to throw it in that situation.

The M’s clawed to within 2.5 games of the 2nd wild card, so this win came at an opportune time, and it helped the M’s chances, etc. It also gave me much more confidence – maybe too MUCH more confidence – in 2017. It must’ve felt incredible for Walker, too – remember that when he was sent down, the M’s called him out publicly, with Servais saying he needed to work deeper into games and compete more. I have a feeling Walker reminded Servais of that when he (successfully) lobbied to go back out in the 9th and go for the complete game.

The Angels were supposed to start Tyler Skaggs today, but he was scrapped, and Jhoulys Chacin, the ~ replacement-level innings-sponge will start instead. This’ll be Chacin’s 5th appearance against the M’s this year, and while he was very effective in his first 2, he’s been destroyed in the last two, giving up 9 runs and 14 hits in 8 2/3 IP. Chacin’s been particularly bad against left-handers this year; he’s been surprisingly decent against righties. The M’s seem well-positioned to take advantage, with both Seth Smith and Nori Aoki suddenly hot.

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

Everett lost the Northwest League Championship to Eugene last night, falling 2-1 thanks to another great game from lefty Manuel Rondon. Reggie McClain was the hard-luck loser, giving up both runs in 4 2/3 IP with 6 Ks. Congrats to the Emeralds.

Jackson’s story is a bit happier, as they took a 2-0 lead in the Southern League Championship series with a, er, 2-0 win. Brett Ash started and went 7 scoreless. Ryne Harper made it hold up with 2 shutout innings for the save. The big hit was a HR by Adam Law, a 3B the M’s picked up during the year. Guys like Ryne Harper and Law have really helped, and also highlight how active the M’s have been in making minor trades..wait…really? The M’s just sent Joe Wieland to Atlanta for a PTBNL. Yesterday, they sent Wade LeBlanc to Pittsburgh. Dipoto can’t stop.

The Midwest League Championship series kicks off today, with Clinton hosting the Great Lakes Loons, a Dodgers affiliate. Luiz Gohara takes the hill for Clinton opposite Jordan Sheffield, a 2016 draftee out of Vanderbilt with some pretty good blood lines. His father is Gary Sheffield, and his little brother Justus (who signed out of HS) was part of the big Andrew Miller deal this year.

Game 145, Mariners at Angels

September 13, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 23 Comments 

Taijuan Walker vs. Alex Meyer, 7:05pm

It’s a late-season battle between two former top prospects whose stock has dropped of late!

I mentioned Alex Meyer in yesterday’s post, as he was a part of the deal that brought Ricky Nolasco to Anaheim. In addition to swapping back-of-the-rotation starters, the Twins and Angels also swapped hard-throwing enigmas who seemed destined for middle relief. Alex Meyer was a first-round pick by the Nationals who moved to the Twins in exchange for Denard Span. Meyer touched 98, and while he had control issues, he was a college arm and seemed to offer a limitless upside. In the Twins system, he posted gaudy K/9 ratios, but didn’t dominate thanks to a consistently-high BABIP and control problems. While he showed signs of improvement this year, shoulder pain’s limited him to just a handful of innings.

Despite being drafted a year later than Walker, Meyer’s 2 years older; he’ll turn 27 before next season. Physically, Meyer’s gigantic – he stands 6’9″ and at 225 pounds, is essentially what scouts have in mind when they talk about an ideal frame. Sure, sure, long limbed pitchers can have trouble repeating their delivery and all, but 6’9″ guys throwing 96 always seem to go higher in the draft than a 5’9″ guy throwing 96 “at max effort.” Meyer had a great junior season at the University of Kentucky, but struggled mightily with his control in his time there. Contrast this with Marcus Stroman, who K’d more and walked fewer and dominated at Duke and went in roughly the same draft slot a year later.

Meyer has a surprisingly low release point for a power-forward-shaped pitcher, so he doesn’t get a ton of vertical rise on his fastball. It’s got some horizontal movement, though, and it comes in at 96, touching 98-99. His primary breaking ball’s a curveball thrown at 85, and he’s also got a change-up. Despite the arm angle, his pitch mix looks like a fly-ball pitcher’s, and that’s what he’s been thus far in the majors (all of 9 IP!). Even in the minors, he’s been neutral- to fly-ball heavy. That plays well in Anaheim’s fly-ball suppressing park, and it *should* help with his long-standing BABIP problem. That hasn’t happened yet, as his BABIP’s been sky high thus far. That’s a problem that afflicted Taijuan Walker last year and, to a degree, James Paxton this year. I’d love to know more about how/why this can happen, and yes, I’m aware that “bad luck” is always a factor in a situation like this. But there’s no reason a guy like Meyer should give up so many hits – he *really* shouldn’t have in AA, but it’s still true in MLB.

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

Adam Lind’s injured finger gives Dan Vogelbach the opportunity to get his first MLB start. He pinch hit last night to make his MLB debut, hustled down the line to avoid a DP, but then made a really dumb out on the basepaths when he missed 2nd base trying to go 1st to 3rd.

In the minors last night, the big story was the elimination of the Bakersfield Blaze. The team that’s called Sam Lynn home for 75 years lost their Cal League series against Visalia and will be contracted. Such a sad situation. Full credit for a great broadcast in surreal circumstances to Dan Besbris and David Gascon.

Jackson won game 1 of their series against Mississippi, with Tyler O’Neill leading the charge with 2 hits including a double. Andrew Moore was solid once again, tossing 6 IP and yielding 2 runs with 2 strikeouts and 0 walks. Brett Ash starts game 2 tonight against ex-Angels prospect and Alex Meyer 2.0, Sean Newcomb.

Clinton beat Peoria with a walk-off shutout (what else), 1-0 in 11 innings. Nick Neidert was the star of the show, pitching 7 scoreless with 9 Ks against 0 walkss and giving up just 3 hits. One of those hits was a lead-off double in the 5th, and after a wild pitch, the Kernels had a man on 3rd with no outs. Rayder Ascanio then made a pair of great plays at SS, and then Neidert got out of the inning with a pop-up. Ricky Eusebio’s single in the 11th scored Logan Taylor for the walk-off win. They’ll start the MWL championship series on Wednesday against either the Great Lakes Loons or the West Michigan White Caps.

Ljay Newsome gave up 0 HRs, just as I suggested, and dominated the Eugene Emeralds in Everett’s 7-1 win. Newsome K’d 6 in 6 IP and didn’t walk anyone. Eric Filia had 3 hits and 3 RBIs. Everett faces off with the Emeralds’ top starter, Manuel Rondon. Rondon’s yet another ex-Angels farmhand, who moved to the Cubs in a minor trade and took off this season, posting 1.10 ERA in 12 starts to take the NWL pitcher of the year honors. That said, he’s 21 and in short-season ball, so he doesn’t appear on the Cubs’ top prospect lists, but the lefty can apparently touch the mid-90s, so he may jump into the top 20 in an admittedly loaded system next year.

Game 144, Mariners at Angels

September 12, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 6 Comments 

Ariel Miranda vs. Ricky Nolasco, 7:05pm

It sounded crazy – and I still think it WAS crazy, for the record – that the Angels would turn to Ricky Nolasco to help their beleaguered starting rotation limp across the finish line in 2016. The league was punishing Nolasco again, and his four-year contract was something of a joke throughout baseball, and probably a key piece of evidence when the Twins’ ownership decided to fire GM Terry Ryan. But the Angels thought he’d be enough of an upgrade over Hector Santiago that they took on some currenty-year salary to do so. And hey, it’s actually worked! For once, Nolasco’s ERA isn’t wildly out of line with his FIP, and Santiago’s been awful in the twin cities.

In the kind of trade that only sabermetric data wonks would be interested in, the Angels acquired a guy who’s always posting worse actual runs-allowed numbers than his FIP would predict. The return, Santiago, was the opposite: thanks to a consistently low BABIP, he had a string of good ERAs backed up by marginal-at-best FIPs. If this was a pure regression bet, you’d assume a team could do a sell-high, buy-low kind of a thing, but again: the two were traded for each other.* If you’re making a bet that your staff can fix some specific weakness, that’s cool, but then I’d expect to see something different in Nolasco’s numbers or approach pre- and post-trade, and I don’t; his FIP was 4.30 before the trade, and 4.32 after. He still throws the same pitches, and has a nearly-identical K:BB ratio and the same problem with HRs. It’s just that he’s stranded more runners in California than he did in Minnesota.

If the Angels have done anything, it’s a small change to his pitch mix. Nolasco appears to be throwing more sinkers now than he did with the Twins. That’s resulted in a *slightly* higher GB% with the Angels, though the difference is small enough that it could simply be noise. Theoretically, that should help Nolasco’s HR problems (and playing in Anaheim should really help them), but like a balloon that’s been squeezed on one end, the problem just pops up somewhere else. Nolasco’s throwing fewer four-seam fastballs, but batters are making more contact and hitting them harder now.

Ariel Miranda’s had a very Hector Santiago-y stint with Seattle. In six starts, his walk rate’s awful and his HR-rate is hide-your-eyes bad. But he’s allowed 15 earned runs (18 total) in 32 2/3 IP, which…I mean, that’s not exactly good, but it’s perfectly acceptable. It’d be nice to fix something, as his peripherals are bad enough that he could collapse at any moment; no one like Miranda should have a walk rate that high, for example. His fastball’s still getting destroyed, but I *still* like his splitter, even though he’s now throwing more of his change-up, a pitch that seems kind of superfluous for a guy with a good splitter. He’s not really throwing a breaking ball, which is odd, but I’d prioritize command work over refining his slider/learning a curve any day.

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

I’ve now written about Ricky F#$^ing Nolasco three times this year, after writing about him in 2014, etc. I like what I do enough to keep doing it, but there are times when I look at the sheer volume of words I’ve expended on Nolasco or Brett Oberholtzer or whoever and I get a lump in my throat.

Then I read something like this phenomenal write-up on Bakersfield and their staff pulling together to run a Cal League franchise on a shoestring, and now playing each game like it may be their last…*ever* and I vow not to feel sorry for myself for voluntarily writing about Ricky Nolasco. Seriously, go read that article by Bobby DeMuro and tell me you don’t feel for Dan Besbris and the rest of the Blaze staff, players and fans. The parallels to Tacoma are somewhat eerie, from that look people (used to?) give you when they heard where you were from to the fact that the Rainiers had been saddled with a historic-but-problematic park and were thus kind of a money pit. Tacoma really could’ve gone the way of Bakersfield, but didn’t, as the City ended up helping out with a stadium remodel. Obviously, that didn’t happen in Bakersfield. Bako is down 0-2 in their best of 5 against Visalia. They’ll start Osmer Morales at Sam Lynn field and try to forestall contraction for another day.

Since last we spoke (sorry, another camping trip), the Rainiers were eliminated by the yapping Chihuahuas of El Paso. The other affiliates are still alive, with Bakersfield facing elimination and Clinton now in a decisive game 3 in their series against Peoria. The Lumberkings Kevin Gadea struck out 11 in 6 shutout IP last night in a dominating Clinton win to force the 3rd and final game that’ll decide which team will play for the MWL championship. Clinton sends ace Nick Neidert to the hill tonight opposite 19th round draft pick and Harvard man Sean Poppen. Go L-Kings.

Jackson kicks off their 2nd round match-up with the Mississippi Braves tonight. Andrew Moore, who dazzled in game 1 of the opening series against Montgomery, gets the start for the Generals. The M-Braves counter with Michael Mader, a former Marlins prospect who came to the Braves system in a deal for reliever Hunter Cervenka as the Braves have loaded up on young, MiLB talent. He’s been very tough since moving over to the Braves, and the Generals haven’t seen him before. The big pitching prospect for Mississippi is former Angels #1 prospect, Sean Newcomb, who shook off an awful start to 2016 to finish strong. The club also includes dimunitive catcher/contact wizard Willians Astudillo, speedy CF Mallex Smith, and hyped middle IF prospect Ozzie Albies.

Everett’s in the second and final round of the NWL playoffs against Eugene, who are up 1 game to 0 thus far. Tonight, the AquaSox send Ljay Newsome to the hill against Tyson Miller down in Eugene. Miller was a 4th rounder this year out of a small school in California and gets rave reviews for his competitiveness, but hasn’t missed many bats in pro ball thus far. Newsome was drafted out of a Maryland HS last year, and definitely features more present stuff, but has been victimized by HR problems. If he can keep the ball in the yard, he’s got a good chance; he blanked the Emeralds over 4 IP back in late August.

* Technically, the prospects in the deal – one on each side – complicate things, as the Angels got the guy with the higher upside/bigger name. Not sure it really changes the picture, especially when you add in the salary differences.

Game 141, Mariners at Athletics

September 9, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 8 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Daniel Mengden, 7:05pm

Is it better to finish a bit above .500, on the edge of contention, where a late-august swoon rips your heart out, or is it better to fall out of it early, try a bunch of new players and see if you can discern the first stirrings of a new, competitive core? You can say that there’s merit in the Astros’ recent rebuild or even the Phillies’ nearly instantaneous move from “too old” to “stocked with fascinating young players, but still not ready to compete,” but the case of the Athletics is somewhat different. With the A’s, you’re never sure it’s going to end, and while they were more than competitive just a couple of years ago, the trade of Josh Donaldson highlighted that developing elite young talent is kind of a double-edged sword. Hooray for watching that player come up to the majors and succeed! Boo, because he’s going to need to be traded as soon as that success is sustained. I don’t think the M’s or their front office wants the M’s to be a .500-ish team for several years, but that almost seems like the goal in Oakland. The M’s are going to be an old, old team next year, and that’s not ideal in terms of trying to contend in 2018-19, but the M’s signed Kyle Seager to an extension, and locked up Felix, Cano and Cruz. I know I pick on the A’s too much, especially as a sabermetrically-inclined guy, but it really has to be hard to be a fan in years like this one.

2015 was a pivotal year, as they dealt Donaldson away, and then moved decisively once they fell off the pace in the AL, acquiring Daniel Mengden from the Astros in a mid-year trade for Scott Kazmir last year. Mengden’s not overpowering, though his fastball will touch 95, but he has four pitches (five if you include a sinker) that he’ll throw pretty regularly. That diverse repertoire pairs with a…throwback delivery that may add a bit of deception. He was untouchable in the minors this year, but it’s been a very different story since joining the A’s. It’s not platoon splits, it’s just that *everything’s* gotten worse. His walk rate’s soared, nearly doubling from where he was in AAA. He’s giving up more HRs, and that may be a long-term issue, given that he throws over-the-top and is running a ground ball rate below 40%. His BABIP’s too high, and his strand rate’s absurdly low. This mixture of bad peripherals AND bad luck account for his diabolical ERA of 6.66 headed into tonight’s game.

Mengden’s still young and anyone who can come close to commanding four pitches this early has a real shot. But he’s another example of how tricky the A’s rebuild is. Sean Manaea was their top pitching prospect coming into the year, and while he’s recovered from a ghastly start, he’s only shown flashes of being more than a #3. Mengden’s adjusting to the big leagues slowly, and Andrew Triggs hurt his back. Sonny Gray’s been one of the biggest disappointments in the league, which increases the chances that he’ll stay in Oakland, but decreases the chances that A’s fans will be stoked about that in 2018. Zach Neal and Kendall Graveman have pitched pretty well, but can’t strike anyone out, Jharel Cotton CAN, but he’s only pitched one big league game thus far, etc. Having this many young starters is great, though of course it means something’s gone wrong. But the A’s haven’t seen the kind of instant star they had with Gray. Maybe with time to develop they’ll put together a great, cheap core. Or maybe they’ve got a whole lot of perfectly serviceable players but don’t yet have the pieces they need to challenge Texas and Houston, no matter how much development time you give them.

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

Another solid night in the minors, as Bakersfield won to give Sam Lynn another home game before the whole team’s contracted out of the Cal League. Jen Mac Ramos had a great article on the ballpark and club as they face the inevitable end of their team today at the Hardball Times. The Blaze dominated from start to finish last night, beating San Jose 7-1 to equalize the series at 1 apiece. It’s a best of 3. Zack Littell struck out 11 in 7 1/3 dominant innings. Tyler Pike starts the deciding game tonight in Bakersfield opposite Jake McCasland who was called up for this start – he hasn’t played for San Jose yet, spending his 2016 repeating the Sallie League in Augusta.

Tacoma lost by that same 7-1 score, so their series with El Paso’s also tied 1-1. Wade LeBlanc’s on the hill for the Rainiers today against Bryan Rodriguez who gave up 108 hits in 86+ innings while striking out 51 AAA hitters this year. Go Rainiers.

Montgomery simply can’t hit Jackson pitching. A day after Andrew Moore twirled a 9IP, 1H, 0R game at them, Brett Ash and the Generals bullpen limited the biscuits to 1 run in Jackson’s 2-1 win. Brent Honeywell was as advertised, giving up 2 runs on HRs by Tylers Marlette and O’Neill, but that was it: his final line was 7 IP, 4H, 2R, 1BB, 7Ks. Jackson goes for the sweep tonight in Montgomery behind Paul Blackburn, the pitcher the M’s got in the Vogelbach/Montgomery trade.

Clinton beat Peoria 4-3 to win the best-of-3 series in the first round of the MWL playoffs. Luiz Gohara was unhittable through 5, and though he gave up 3 runs in the 7th, the bullpen made it hold up. Luis Liberato led the offense with 3 hits, and was a defensive star, too: The game ended on a play at the plate, as Liberato threw out Matt Davis at home after Magneuris Sierra singled. Phew. They’re off today, but face Cedar Rapids tomorrow with Pablo Lopez on the hill.

Everett beat Spokane in Game 1 of their series, as the Sox to an early 5-1 lead and held on for an 8-5 win. Everett plays game 2 of the series tonight in a pretty special location: Safeco Field. Just like the Rainiers’ 2010 playoff run had to be moved to Safeco Field as Cheney Stadium was being renovated, Everett will get a playoff start in Seattle tonight as their home field hasn’t quite drained from the rains that scuppered the Wednesday start. Tickets are $12, and they’re only opening 100 level seats.

Game 140, Rangers at Mariners

September 8, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 10 Comments 

Taijuan Walker vs. Derek Holland, 7:10pm

This has got to be the most pressure Taijuan Walker’s felt in some time. You haven’t tossed a quality start since late June, and you’ve worked through injury and been sent to the minors as punishment by a manager who openly questions your attitude. In your last outing, you failed to get out of the first inning, so now you get to go out in front of your suspicious manager and pitch to the division-leading Rangers. Fun stuff.

Apparently, the M’s have made a minor adjustment to Walker’s motion and mechanics, as this post from Jason Churchill details. It may be too little, too late to save this season, but if Walker can get comfortable with these adjustments, it obviously sets him up to have a bounce-back 2017. Walker’s the kind of guy who’s made for instructs, where he could work with coaches on a back field in Peoria for hours, but the M’s are scaling back there, so he’ll either work solely on the side or maybe see action with a Caribbean winter league team. Overworking him is a concern, but it’d be nice to know his body’s comfortable with the mechanical tweaks by the time he gets to spring training.

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

The Rainiers won the opener of their playoff series in El Paso 6-5. Mike Curto called it the most tense game he’s called in years. Rob Brantly and Tyler Smith each had 4 hits in the game. Cody Martin starts game 2 for Tacoma.

Jackson topped Montgomery 3-0 in a great pitcher’s duel that went to extras scoreless. Tyler O’Neill won it with a walk-off 3R HR in the 10th, but the star of the game was SP Andrew Moore who tossed 9 scoreless innings, giving up just 1 hit. Brett Ash faces off with big-time Rays prospect Brent Honeywell tonight.

San Jose beat Bakersfield 5-3 just to spite me for saying they weren’t very good in the series preview. Sorry, Blaze. Top starter Zack Littell takes the hill in game 2.

Clinton blanked Peoria 4-0 behind a great start from Nick Neidert. It doesn’t get easier for Peoria: they face Luiz Gohara who already has 8 K’s through 5 scoreless.

Everett and Spokane were rained out yesterday, but Brandon Miller is ready to start game 1 tonight.

Minor League Playoff Preview

September 7, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

FIVE (5) of the M’s minor league affiliates kick off playoff series tonight, which is remarkable enough without even mentioning that their Arizona League team’s already wrapped up a championship and the Dominican League team just lost in their league’s semifinals a few days ago. You can find some great previews from outlets like MiLB.com, whose Southern League preview is excellent, and from the local papers, like Todd Milles’ Tacoma Rainiers-centric preview in the TNT or from the broadcasters, like this great post from the Rainiers’ RG, Mike Curto. What follows here is somewhat duplicative, but I thought I’d pick out some things to watch for (the games should be on MiLB.tv if you’ve got it) and describe how each high team and their big league club approaches the playoffs in the minors.

That last point’s kind of a big one, as in some sense the minor league playoffs interact with and interfere with another big goal, at least for the upper-level teams. In the past week, we’ve seen Nashville (another club in the PCL postseason) lose a decent chunk of its starting rotation, as the A’s have promoted Daniel Mengdon, Raul Alcantara (who made his big league debut a few days ago), and Jharel Cotton, who’ll make his big league debut tonight. The A’s are trying to figure out who will be competing for rotation spots next year, and have decided that getting them big league experience is more important than trying to win a minor league title. Of course, this problem (or balancing act) is more acute for those teams that have a lot of 40-man roster players, especially 40-man prospects. The M’s have a smattering of 40-man guys, from Cody Martin to Zach Lee to Dan Vogelbach, but have opted to keep them in Tacoma. By outrighting a number of others – Wade LeBlanc, Joe Wieland, Jarrett Grube – they took care of a good chunk of this “problem” weeks in advance.

With that, let’s take a quick look at the four highest-level series:
AAA Pacific Coast League
Teams: Tacoma vs. El Paso Chihuahuas (SD)
Best of 5 games
Tonight’s starters: Jarrett Grube (TAC) vs. Frank Garces (ELP)
Prospects: Dan Vogelbach (TAC), Manuel Margot, Hunter Renfroe, Carlos Asuaje (ELP)

This series had to happen. Way back in April, former Rainier Chris Taylor’s throw to first ended up plunking Chihuahuas’ mascot ‘Chico’. The feud escalated with twitter hijinx, Taylor ripping up a sign Chico held out, etc., and from there, the Rainiers found a rival in the two-year-old Padres affiliate. The pitching staff for both teams leans more towards org depth, as we see in tonight’s game, as minor league vet Jarrett Grube faces off with lefty Frank Garces, who spent some time in the Padres’ pen this year. Grube made the MLB bullpen for a few days before being outrighted back to Tacoma, while Garces was mediocre as a LOOGY and spot starter for San Diego. Garces throws in the high-80s and has a change and slider, but his big league role is limited: he’ll be a LOOGY or middle reliever, nothing more. Even in the minors, he’s struggled mightily against right-handers.

The Chihuahuas have a number of good position player prospects, as you’d expect from a team that’s made so many rebuilding-type trades over the past 12 months. The key ‘gets’ in the Craig Kimbrel, Carlos Asuaje and Manny Margot, are both playing in the series, but the Chihuahua’s biggest bat this year has been 2013 1st rounder Hunter Renfroe, who slugged 30 HRs. The Rainiers won the season series, for what that’s worth; the Rainiers dominated in April when the club had the aforementioned Taylor, Mike Zunino at catcher and James Paxton in the rotation. This series comes down to whether Tacoma’s experienced staff can handle El Paso’s pure talent/prospect advantage on the offensive side. One final note: Patrick Kivlehan spent much of the year in Tacoma, but is now a member of the Chihuahuas. Better not give them any inside intel.

Gametime tonight’s 5:30, and for the locals, the series shifts to Tacoma on Friday. Tickets are available here.

AA Southern League
Teams: Jackson vs. Montgomery Biscuits (TB)
Best of 5 games
Tonight’s starters: Andrew Moore (JAC) vs. Chih-Wei Hu (MON)
Prospects: Tyler O’Neill (JAC), Willy Adames, Jake Bauers, Brent Honeywell (MON)

Jackson absolutely dominated this series, winning 16 of 20 games against the Biscuits, on their way to the league’s best overall record. But the past few weeks belonged to Montgomery, as the Biscuits ended the year hot, while Jackson limped to the finish line with a 2-11 run in the last 13 games. In this series, both teams have excellent pitching, with the Generals employing the SL’s pitcher of the year in recently-returned-from-injury Ryan Yarbrough, while the Biscuits have the biggest pitching prospect in screwballer Brent Honeywell. Taylor Guerrieri and tonight’s starter, Chih-Wei Hu, give the Biscuits a potent 1-2-3 in the rotation.

Hu joined the Rays org from Minnesota, in a trade for RP Kevin Jepsen. Hu led the league in ERA, but isn’t an overpowering guy, but he throws 4 pitches and has solid command. That sounds a lot like Andrew Moore, another guy with solid low-minors results, but who doesn’t light up the radar gun or make scouts drool. For the position players, the Generals are paced by league MVP, Tyler O’Neill. The Canadian had a jaw-dropping year despite a late slump, and he’s clearly the guy Montgomery will be careful with. The Biscuits counter with SS Willy Adames, 3B Patrick Leonard (a part of the old Wil Myers/James Shields trade) and Jake Bauers, a corner IF/OF guy with a great batting eye.

Gametime: 4:05 Pacific

A+ California League
Teams: Bakersfield vs. San Jose (SF)
Best of 5 games
Tonight’s starters: Osmer Morales (BAK) vs. Jordan Johnson (SJ)
Prospects: Zack Littell (BAK), Thyago Vieira (BAK), Drew Jackson, (BAK) n/a (SJ)

Soooo, San Jose. They finished the year with a losing record, but snuck into the playoffs with a wildcard. Their best players and prospects – including 1B Chris Shaw and P Andrew Suarez – ended the year in AA, leaving a staff that looks…not good. I know I’ve probably doomed the Blaze, but on paper, Bakersfield’s just better. I’m not even sure who to highlight here. Jason Forjet? Jordan Johnson? Pick one. The prospects have all long since moved on.

Bakersfield started well, and then got an influx of talent from the dominant Clinton Lumberkings, including SP Zack Littell, who dominated in his time in the California League. Drew Jackson didn’t have a big year, but he’s still a great defensive SS with good bat-to-ball skills, and the guy who led the NWL in batting a year ago. Of note, reliever/closer Thyago Vieira has apparently added some serious gas to his fastball, as he was recently seen touching 100mph. Minor league vet Kyle Petty’s a solid, if streaky, bat at 1B and 2B Gianfranco Wawoe’s had a solid bounce-back year after a mediocre one in Clinton last year.

A Midwest League
Teams: Clinton vs. Peoria (STL)
Best of 5 games
Tonight’s starters: Nick Neidert (CLI) vs. Jake Woodford (PEO)
Prospects: Alex Jackson (CLI), Magneuris Sierra (PEO), Woodford (PEO)

Clinton had the biggest turnaround of any minor league team this year, adding nearly 40 games to their 2015 win total. The pitching staff led the charge, as the Lumberkings tossed *19* shutouts on the year to pace the MWL. That said, like any minor league team, they’ve seen a lot of turnover, so guys like Zack Littell and Art Warren aren’t around anymore. They haven’t missed much, though, as tonight’s starter Nick Neidert, the M’s first selection in the 2015 draft, has filled the breach well. A few picks before Neidert, the Cardinals took Jake Woodford, and he’s pitched well too, currently ranking as the Cards #13 prospect.

The big position player prospects in this series are a couple of outfielders: underachieving but incredibly talented Alex Jackson, who put together a decent campaign but still struggles to make contact at times, and Magneuris Sierra, a toolshed CF prospect for the Peoria Chiefs. Jackson and Sierra are both just 20, are both top 10 prospects, but have very different games. Jackson’s power is now his best tool, while Sierra’s more of a speedster with gap power. Sierra’s average was over .300, but without a lot of pop, his OPS ends up pretty similar to Jackson’s low-AVE., high SLG. approach.

Both teams excelled in the season’s first half, with Peoria winning the division by a nose over Clinton. But Clinton took off in the 2nd half while Peoria faded a bit, hurt by promotions to top players like 2B Dylan Tice.

Game 138, Rangers at Mariners

September 6, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 5 Comments 

James Paxton vs. Martin Perez, 7:10pm

So the M’s got to knock around Cole Hamels *and* make one of the Rangers’ top prospect’s MLB debut a low-key nightmare. Not bad. It just came at the expense of another awful King Felix start.

I mentioned it just a few days ago, and I don’t want this blog to be me just lamenting the sheer volume of mediocre baseball we’re all subjected to, but: this is kind of a forgettable day as far as the M’s go. They’re playing out the string against a good Rangers club, but we don’t get to watch an interesting opposing starter – it’s just Martin Perez, whom we’ve seen plenty of times, and who, somewhat improbably, has a K-BB% of under 3. That’s…that’s whatever’s below replacement league. I’m not saying Perez himself is a AA starter, but for years, people thought he’d hone his stuff and the strikeouts would come. Instead, he’s hemorrhaging whiffs, AND walking more batters as well. It hasn’t hurt his overall results, because hey, it’s the 2016 Rangers, where peripherals don’t matter.

The point is, the minor league playoffs start tomorrow, and that’s fun. It doesn’t make up for the M’s late August collapse, but it’s something to follow, and given the players involved, you can start to see the outlines of another decent M’s team. Yesterday was Felix Day, tomorrow the Rainiers, Generals, Blaze, Lumberkings, and Aquasox all take the field in the postseason. The main interest in tonight’s game is the structural integrity of James Paxton’s finger.

I thought this was the most interesting stat about Martin Perez, and it’s kind of a microcosm of the Rangers and M’s this year. Perez is running a GB% this year of 52.9%, and he’s pitched about 170 IP. Felix has tossed 127 IP with a GB% of 52.4%. Martin Perez has watched his teammates turn *35* double plays behind him. Felix has seen just 12 turned by the M’s defense. So Felix has played a bit less, so let’s make things interesting. Felix had 30 DPs turned behind him in all of 2015. And 2014. Combined.

Yes, yes- Felix has comparatively fewer in part because he’s capable of generating strikeouts, something Perez (perhaps smartly?) doesn’t deign to do anymore. But it’s the perfect encapsulation of the Rangers’ “clutch” season. James Paxton, Tai Walker, Felix Hernandez and Nate Karns have combined to get 36 DPs turned behind them, and Martin Perez is at 35 by himself. This isn’t Elvis Andrus having an insane season; no one else on the Rangers has 20. It’s just one of those weird things that’s gone Texas’ way this year.

1: Heredia, LF
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lee, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: O’Malley, SS
SP: James Paxton

No minor league games today; we’ll preview the playoff series tomorrow. For now, check out Todd Milles’ series preview and look at the work first-year hitting coach Scott Brosius has done with the R’s bats in this News Tribune story.

Game 137, Rangers at Mariners

September 5, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 14 Comments 

King Felix vs. Cole Hamels, 1:10pm

Happy Felix Day to you, as well as a very happy Labor Day. It’s nice to have a day off to really enjoy a Felix start properly – with mid-afternoon beers and grilled meats. Of course, the last few Felix Days haven’t felt too celebratory. We’ve seen Felix scuffle before, and we’ve seen him make minor tweaks and resume his reign, but it’s pretty obvious that the bad patches are getting closer and closer together. The M’s aren’t going to the playoffs this year, so what I’d like to see is clear, unambiguous improvement from their ace. Felix is still just 30, and while there are a lot of miles on his right arm, he’s still King Felix, and if the M’s have any chance at contention next year, they’ll need a big year from him. Even if the M’s take a different tack and see what they could get for Nelson Cruz, we’ll still need a full year from Hernandez both as a mentor to younger starters and as someone capable of leading the staff if everything breaks right and the M’s make an improbable run at the wild card next year.

Cole Hamels is having an excellent year despite a walk-driven spike in his fielding-independent stats. A career-worst 9% walk rate seems like a bad omen, especially while pitching half your games in Arlington, but Hamels has pitched around it thus far. It’s hard to know how much of his insanely high strand rate is luck and how much is the Rangers’ defense, but whatever it is, Hamels has been tough to score on this season. Like his teammates, Hamels has been unusually good in high-leverage situations, with 30% of the balls in play against him in crunch time classified as softly hit, compared with just 18% in low-leverage situations. While he’ll pitch around tough hitters in high-stakes plate appearances (fewer Ks, more walks), his BABIP plummets. This is either more of that weird Rangers devil magic that produces actual win totals 10+ games above their pythagorean or base runs total, or it’s luck plus planning.

One example of the M’s poor base-running is that the M’s have hit into 23 more double plays than the Rangers despite having an essentially even on base percentage. The M’s are 5th in MLB with 121, while the Rangers are down in 23rd with only 98. That’s all factored in to base runs and stuff, but part of being “clutch” is giving yourself a CHANCE by avoiding silly or costly mistakes.

1: Heredia, LF
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lee, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Sucre, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: El Cartelua

Like everyone who saw yesterday’s game, I’m keeping Matt Shoemaker in my thoughts today. After taking a Kyle Seager liner off his head, Shoemaker suffered a skull fracture and needed an emergency surgery last night when doctors discovered more bleeding between his brain and skull. The LA Times Pedro Moura reports he’s awake and speaking now, but he’s not out of the woods. The whole thing reminds me a bit of Brandon McCarthy’s injury several years ago – and after a long time, McCarthy returned pitching as well as ever. Hope Shoemaker can do the same.

The minor league season wraps up today, and the Rainiers are at home taking on Reno. With a big crowd, they can set their all-time attendance record. Mike Curto also notes that the club’s been really tough at home: they’re 45-26 at Cheney on the year. With Ryan Strausborger out, the Rainiers grabbed Eric Filia from Everett. Lots of moving around as the M’s affiliates prepare for the postseason.

Newcomer (and extravagantly bearded) Bryan Evans starts for Jackson, while Joe Wieland takes the hill in Tacoma.

Game 136, Angels at Mariners

September 4, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 9 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Matt Shoemaker, 1:10pm

The M’s allowed 5 HRs last night, and saw Taijuan Walker’s worst year as a pro reach what we all hope is the nadir, as the young righty gave up back-to-back-to-back HRs and couldn’t get out of the first inning against the Angels. I and others have said that Walker’s development would be critical to the M’s chances at contention; if Walker became a great #2 starter, the M’s would look a lot different than if he was still figuring things out as an inconsistent #4-#5 guy with loads of unrealized potential. Unfortunately for the M’s, Walker hit a wall right when the M’s needed to make a move, and while I don’t necessarily agree with their methods, I can forgive the M’s and Scott Servais’ frustration with Walker in July and August. I can see the M’s player development staff wanting to try and do a complete rebuild in 2017, the way they did with both Mike Zunino and James Paxton this year. No one expected Paxton to start the year in Tacoma, but it turned out well. Ok, EVERYONE thought Zunino should start the year in Tacoma, but I think that worked out much faster than we all anticipated. Trying something like that with Walker seems attractive, especially if they can work on that whole “throw 100mph with command” projects like they did with Paxton. That’s why it was odd that the M’s decided to burn an option year and make a point of sending Walker down for all of 2 weeks in early-mid August. I don’t think that alone constricts their ability to develop Walker, but it was an odd move that doesn’t look any better in retrospect.

Today we get another installation in the always fun “Iwakuma versus American Iwakuma-ish Pitcher” series. We’ve seen this match-up several times before, of course, the last a few weeks ago on August 18th. Shoemaker got the best of the M’s in that one, yielding just 2 solo HRs in the Angels’ 6-4 win. The righty’s season’s been a successful one, as he shook off a poor 2015 to post his highest career fWAR, and his best rate stats since his breakout 2014. One reason why is that he’s essentially doubled down on his splitter. In 2015, he threw it about 21% of the time, and while it was still his big whiff pitch, and something he’d use with 2 strikes, he also gave up 9 dingers off of it. This year, he’s throwing it 37% of the time, and his results are even better: batters are slugging .282 off of it, a year after slugging over .400.

That all sounds positive, and it is, but kind of like with Mike Zunino, the deeper you go, the less you see. In 2015, batters swung at the splitter more than in 2016, and they put it on the ground at about the same rate. Their whiff rate (whiffs per swing) is up slightly in 2016, but not by much, and while Shoemaker’s o-swing rate overall is much better this year, it’s hard to see whether that’s due to throwing more splitters or something else (he’s throwing more sinkers and sliders this year too). With Shoemaker and to a lesser extent Iwakuma, so much depends on how many well-struck fly balls leave the park, and how many settle into an outfielder’s glove. In Shoemaker’s brilliant 2014, batters had a terrible HR/FB ratio against his splitter, and Shoemaker’s overall numbers were good. They had a great HR/FB ratio in 2015, and Shoemaker looked terrible. In 2016, it’s a repeat of 2014. This isn’t to suggest pitchers themselves aren’t *doing* anything to “deserve” their numbers; Shoemaker’s true talent level has probably ebbed and flowed since he came into the league. But it’s hard to know how all of the relevant factors interact. Is Shoemaker’s increased use of the splitter somehow driving a change in HR/FB? Were batters stalking the splitter in 2015 because he’d fall into familiar pitch sequences? Who knows. Let’s just hope that whatever devil magic has turned Safeco Field into Coors Field by the sea is still operating today, and that the M’s can stop worrying about where their playoff run went and just focus on knocking Shoemaker out of the game.

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

Chris Iannetta’s 2017 option vests if he makes 100 starts this year. This’ll be #82, and it’s looking pretty doubtful he’ll get another 18.

Drew Storen’s back in the Seattle clubhouse and will be activated off of the DL today. The M’s also added David Rollins and back-up catcher Jesus Sucre from Tacoma. Tacoma’s got a playoff run to work on, and so they’ve added Mayckol Guaipe from his rehab assignment in Peoria. Guaipe was part of the AZL M’s championship run, along with fellow 2016 Mariner Steve Clevenger.

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