Game 16, Mariners at Angels

April 22, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 6 Comments 

King Felix Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Nick Tropeano, 7:05pm

Citing an “illness” – quotes around the word in the original Bob Dutton story - the M’s have pulled King Felix from his start tonight, though it’s mild enough that he may start tomorrow. We’ll have to wait a day or so until he supplants Randy Johnson as the M’s all-time strikeout king.

The M’s head to Anaheim for their first regular-season look at the Angels. You know, the team that employed Scott Servais and Jerry Dipoto last season, and the team that’s fallen on hard times after being one of the division’s toughest in the first few years of Dipoto’s tenure as GM. The Angels and M’s are in some ways similarly situated: both have offenses that haven’t quite clicked yet, with the Angels’ OBP at .294 and the M’s’ at .295. Both have committed a ton of money to aging superstars in their decline phase, with the M’s payroll tied up in Felix/Cano/Cruz, while the Angels paying Albert Pujols, Jered Weaver, CJ Wilson, and Josh Hamilton. Obviously, the M’s are getting more out of their old guys right now than the Angels, but the Angels have Mike Trout which tends to even things out pretty quick. Moreover, both teams have been hamstrung by a brutal BABIP – the M’s and Angels are turning only a quarter of their balls in play into base hits; the M’s are 29th in baseball by that metric and the Angels are in 30th.

The biggest problem for the Angels right now is at once easy and difficult to discern. In the short term, the problem is that they can’t hit for power at all – their ISO is second-worst in baseball to Atlanta, and the Braves aren’t really a big-league team right now. Organizationally, from a macro point of view, the Angels biggest problem is depth. They have nothing to speak of in the minor leagues, and after swinging a trade with the Braves to bring Andrelton Simmons to the club, there’s really nothing they can do to bring in talent short of draft and develop it. That’s a good strategy, obviously, but it takes a long time. You know what else takes a long time? Waiting for their mega-contracts to start falling off. The back-loading that enabled the club to be so aggressive a few years ago is now a pretty clear problem, and it may shut them out from another non-traditional way to bring in talent: agreeing to take on “bad” contracts.

The short-term, wins-in-2016 problem is linked to the longer-term, front-office-centric problem in the person of Albert Pujols. The Angels have an aging, injured slugger who hasn’t, as of yet, done much slugging. That’s an issue, because given the state of his legs, Pujols isn’t going to be turning many balls in play into hits. To his credit, he’s not hitting many grounders, but Pujols is a microcosm of the team right now: they’re not hitting their fly balls hard enough to matter. By BBREF, the Angels have just two HRs on fly balls this *season* which is why their BABIP on fly balls is well under .100. Ok, ok, but they can adjust: the Angels lead MLB in GB%. True, but their production on grounders is nearly as bad as it is on fly balls. I don’t think Albert Pujols is sub-replacment level in true talent, so the Angels will get better. But they’ve got to show they’re more than just Mike Trout and Kole Calhoun, and this start isn’t helping. Their pitching has done a remarkable job of keeping them near .500 considering the offense is scoring fewer than 3 runs a night, but regression in the rotation might eat up some of the gains they’ll get from positive regression at the plate.

The M’s get a look at Nick Tropeano, the one-time Houston Astro who pitched fairly well down the stretch for the Angels after a shaky campaign in the PCL. The righty’s put up decent numbers in the minors (for the most part) and has a low ERA in short stints in the majors, but doesn’t do much to impress scouts. Armed with a 90-91mph fastball, a change-up about 9mph slower, and a kind of in-between curve/slider breaking ball, he doesn’t have a clear “plus” pitch. The FB has rise, but not a ton. The change-up has armside run, but not much sink and isn’t really a swing-and-miss pitch. The slider gets some whiffs, but isn’t a real putaway pitch and gets elevated pretty easily. The closest comp I’ve got is the starting-pitcher version of Mike Montgomery. Monty’s change is just flat out better, with more run and much better results, but movement-wise, they’re sort of similar.

The Angels seem to be stocking up on guys who out-pitch scouting reports. Tropeano hasn’t really been harmed by a lack of a GIF-worthy pitch; his FIP is under 3 in his first 70 IP. Similarly, Hector Santiago’s riding a 90mph elevated fastball and the occasional screwball to some early success and even Jered Weaver, he of the 80mph fastball, pitched relatively well the other night and has a Chris Young-style line of a 3.12 ERA and a 5.69 FIP. The Angels – well, Garrett Richards aside – have been about as fly-ball dominant as their offense has been ground-ball fixated, and so it’s not a huge surprise that they’ve given up 19 HRs (while their offense has all of 7). Still, the club’s getting by in part because a small fraction of their fly balls have left the park. Some of that’s related to their HR-suppressing yard, but it seems to be a belief that they can identify and/or teach whatever HR/FB magic Chris Young has, and that Jered Weaver’s been known for since he came into the league. The bullpen’s led by Huston Street, another ultra-low FB guy, and thus a low BABIP guy. Tropeano’s GB% was low to begin with, but it’s essentially non-existent thus far in 2016.

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

Sorry about the lack of a game post yesterday – I was pretty sure the game was going to get rained out, and was too busy once I find out it wasn’t. Fortunately (or unfortunately? I don’t know), the game turned out to be one of the most entertaining in a while, with Cano’s extra-innings 3-R HR capping things off.

The Rainiers were shut out by El Paso 5-0, but Chris Taylor extended his hitting streak to 11 games. The two teams finish their series – and the R’s road trip – tonight as Donn Roach faces off with Greg Reynolds.

Jackson held off Birmingham 4-3, taking a 4-1 lead in the 2nd and then holding on. Brett Ash got the win, throwing 5 IP of 1 run ball with 5 Ks, and DJ Peterson and Leon Landry doubled for the Generals offense. Dylan Unsworth starts tonight.

Bakersfield beat Lake Elsinore 7-4, with Eddie Campbell striking out 8 in 6 solid innings. Of note, the starting pitcher for the Storm was ex-Rockies lefty Christian Friedrich. Friedrich impressed me back in 2012 on his way up to the majors, and had some initial success before getting rocked along with every other Rockies hurler in 2012-2013. Some of those struggles may have been related to a back injury he suffered – a fracture of his spine. After rehabbing that, he suffered a hamstring injury, which ended his 2nd year prematurely. He made it back to Denver in 2014 and pitched out of the bullpen for Colorado last season, though not terribly well. He was DFA’d after the Corey Dickerson/Jake McGee trade, and so the Angels made a waiver claim on him and brought him in to camp. After his physical, they reversed the waiver claim, sending him back to Colorado, who immediately released him. Apparently, he ended up with the Padres, as Lake Elsinore’s a Pads affiliate. Hope he’s healthy and can make it back – he’s still only 28. Andrew Moore starts for Bakersfield tonight.

Clinton and Cedar Rapids got rained out yesterday. Nick Wells is scheduled to make his 3rd start of the year tonight.

Game 14, Mariners at Indians

April 20, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 11 Comments 

Taijuan Walker vs. Danny Salazar, 3:10pm (what’s with these weird start times?)

Today’s game pits two great young right handed power pitchers against each other. Danny Salazar kicked around the minors for years as a low-to-moderate K command type, and then flipped an extremely useful switch and started striking out well over a batter an inning. Happily for Salazar, this newfound ability didn’t come at the expense of his control, which is still pretty good. After a dazzling major league call-up in 2013, he regressed badly in his first full season, with an extremely high BABIP probably playing a role.

In fact, his FIP has been pretty stable, moving between around 3.2 to 3.6, but even that seems high given Salazar’s pure stuff. An electric fastball at 96, a curve with huge break, a slider, and then a splitter which he can use to get lefties and get ground balls. If that repertoire sounds familiar, it should: that sounds a lot like Walker’s. Walker’s curve is a lot slower, and his split moves a bit differently, but these pitchers have a similar gameplan and use similar tools to implement it.

Both of them debuted in 2013, and since then they’ve kind of moved in opposite directions in terms of their release point. Walker came up with a fastball with great vertical rise, but he’s getting less backspin on the ball this season, and it’s firmly in the normal range – a slightly lower release point may help with this, too. Salazar, meanwhile, has gotten more on top of the ball, and so his four-seam fastball has more rise now than at any point in his (short) career. For Walker, this has meant a lot more ground balls. Less rise, less elevated contact. Salazar’s FB now generates fewer GBs, but he’s able to compensate with his split. As his command of the pitch has improved, its gotten more grounders while maintaining and even increasing its whiff rate – it’s a hell of a pitch.

Walker’s looks great at times, but he’s using it – and his fastball – less in the early going. This year, he’s using his breaking balls a lot more; the M’s field staff last year pretty clearly didn’t think much of his curve, but he’s throwing it a bit more now, and his work-in-progress cutter is getting more of a workout as well. This spring he claimed to be working on a true slider, but we still haven’t seen it. No matter what he calls it, his hard (90mph) cutter can be effective if he can command it, and more repetitions might help with that. At times last year, Walker was pretty clearly operating with two pitches: a four-seamer and a split, and batters, especially righties, seemed too comfortable against 96mph fastballs when they knew they didn’t have to look for a breaking ball. Walker’s been solid in the early going, but like Salazar, hasn’t quite broken out like many of us expect. If he can maintain this new level of ground ball contact, or if he can really start to dominate righties the way he *should be* capable of, he’ll make that leap.

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

Seth Smith’s gimpy legs have healed to the point where he’s able to play in the OF, allowing Cruz to move back to DH. Taijuan Walker must be happy about that.

Tacoma played an early one today, beating El Paso 3-1 to move to 10-3. The big story was James Paxton getting things back on track, going 6 shutout innings and striking out 3 *without a walk*. Nice to see. Chris Taylor continued his rampage with two doubles, but Mike Zunino went 0-4. Last night, the Rainiers kicked the Chihuahuas 11-7, behind two hits from Taylor and Zunino and a HR from Mike Baxter. Cody Martin wasn’t great, but it was a hitters’ night, as the Rainiers dropped 11 runs on Jeremy Guthrie.

Jackson had an early one as well, and they too came away with a win, beating Birmingham 4-3. UW product Andrew Kittredge got the win with three scoreless innings in relief, and DJ Peterson continued his hot streak with two more hits including a double. Last night, the Generals beat the Barons 5-4, despite quiet nights from middle of the order guys Peterson and Tyler O’Neill. Kraig Sitton got the win in relief.

Bakersfield beat Modesto 6-2 behind Tyler Herb, who K’d 10 in 5 2/3 IP. Drew Jackson had 2 hits for the Blaze, which is great, as his grounder-heavy offense hasn’t played as well in the Cal League as it did in Everett last year. Oddly, he was caught stealing for the 3rd time, meaning he’s just 2-5 on steal attempts after going 47-51 last year. Tonight, Tyler Pike starts opposite Modesto’s Sam Howard, a left-handed prospect in the Rockies’ org.

Clinton completed the org sweep last night with a big comeback against Peoria. Joey Strain of the Lumberkings had a rough 8th inning, letting an inherited runner score and then coughing up 3 more runs of his own, breaking a 3-3 tie. Undaunted, Clinton scored 4 in the 9th to tie, and then another 3 in the 10th to win it. 38th round pick Dalton Kelly had 5 hits in the game, and 2B Chris Mariscal had 3. In today’s getaway game, Clinton beat Peoria 6-4. Starter Kyle Wilcox’s control battles were still an issue, but the Lumberkings bailed him out with 10 hits including 5 doubles.

Game 13, Mariners at Indians

April 19, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 8 Comments 

Wade Miley vs. Carlos Carrasco, 3:10pm

The M’s head to Cleveland to face one of the better teams, on paper, in the AL. Projection systems swooned over the Tribe, and their formidable starting rotation, but the actual season’s been a mixed bag thus far. Their actual runs allowed has come in far above predicted levels, which seems to happen about as often as the Royals beat their preseason projections (note: the Royals are once again beating their preseason projections). On paper, it’s pretty weird: the Indians staff, led by Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, light up the radar guns, strike out a ton of batters and walk comparatively few. That’s a recipe for gaudy fielding-independent stats, and that’s just what Cleveland has. But as we talked about last year, the Indians hurlers have long given up a few more runs than those FIP stats would predict.

Now, the Indians long suffered with a horrendous team defense – they were essentially then anti-Royals there for a while – but with the promotion of Francisco Lindor, and swapping Lonnie Chisenhall out of third and into RF and then signing Juan Uribe, that shouldn’t be a glaring weakness anymore. But last year, today’s starter Carlos Carrasco put up an ERA about 8 tenths of a run higher than his FIP, and that was with half a year of Chisenhall-in-RF and Lindor at SS. Why? Part of the reason might be the fact that Carrasco’s built to induce whiffs, and if batters make contact with his pitches, they generally do pretty well with them.

This article at Pinstripe Alley mentions some of the numbers on Carrasco and speculates why it is that his results on contact are so much worse than Jacob DeGrom, a pitcher whose fastball is a statistical doppelganger for Carrasco’s. Carrasco’s short stature and lower release point mean that his stride’s not that long, giving batters more time to react to his pitches – his “apparent velocity” as measured by statcast is lower than his actual velocity, reflecting this extra time batters have to decide whether or not to swing.

That’s not to say he’s a comfortable at-bat for hitters. He’s got well-above average velocity, two devilish breaking balls that generate whiffs on about half of the swings against them, and a real weapon in his splitter-like change-up. It’s that last pitch that makes him a threat to lefties as well as righties, and it helps him generate well above average ground ball rates as well. That combination of strikeouts, low home runs (thanks to the grounders) and low walks is tough to beat, so the only issue with him has been a slightly elevated BABIP. If you ignore balls in play, Carrasco’s clearly an elite pitcher. Hell, even Tony Blengino’s contact management view had him the 2nd best starter in the AL Central last year to Chris Sale. But that’s *despite* of his contact management, not really because of it. He gives up relatively few flies and line drives, but the ones he gives up are hit harder than average. Last year, his non-grounder contact came off the bat faster than average, and his overall exit speed rates are above average again in the early going this year.

Despite the results, you know whose average exit velocity is much *lower* than the league average thus far? Wade Miley’s.

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

Tacoma lost to Albuquerque last night 11-6, despite TWO MORE HRs from Mike Zunino, who’s absolutely crushing the ball right now. He’s homered in 5 straight games, with 6 total HRs to 3 Ks in that span. As you might imagine, that’s resulted in lots of calls to promote him, but I’m with Brendan Gawlowski that the entire point of 2016 is to avoid reacting to short swings in performance, whether good or bad. Way back in his first taste of the PCL, Zunino mashed in road parks, but showed some holes, especially at home. Let’s let him get several months of work in and then reevaluate. The worst thing the M’s could do would be to call him up and have him caddy for Chris Iannetta 5 days a week. The other white-hot player on the club, Chris Taylor, hit his first HR as well, and also added a double. After looking a bit passive in the first series, he’s hit 7 extra-base hits in his last 7 games, hitting safely in all of them, and striking out just 5 times. He’s been walking less, but it’s good to see him actually drive the ball instead of fight pitches off and try to work the count. Cody Martin takes the mound today against Jeremy Guthrie, in the rematch of a game back in Cheney 5 days ago.

Jackson beat Birmingham 9-3, as DJ Peterson had his best game of the year, going 3-4 with his first HR. Tyler O’Neill added his second dinger, and Edwin Diaz was sharp over 5 IP, yielding 2 hits and striking out 8. Diaz now has 24 strikeouts to just 2 walks in 16 IP. A great, great start for the lanky Puerto Rican. Ryan Yarbrough starts today. Speaking of O’Neill, he had a great 2nd half in the Cal League last year, but as a guy with some swing-and-miss in his game, I worried a bit about how he’d adjust to the high minors and the advanced pitching of AA. No need. O’Neill’s still struck out 12 times in 10 games, but he’s done plenty of damage, and that’s against a very good slate of experienced starters, particularly in the first series of the year. He’s got a slash line of .317/.364/.537, and while it’s perhaps too early to put much stock in that, he’s showing he’s more advanced than the K rate would indicate.

Bakersfield lost a tough one in *15 innings* to Modesto, 3-2. The Blaze scored a run in the first, and then went quiet for hours, but things looked good in the 14th when Tyler Marlette crushed a Craig Schlitter pitch to left for a HR. Isaac Sanchez couldn’t hold it, giving up the tying run and sending the game to the 15th. Despite getting Drew Jackson on base, the Blaze couldn’t ignite a rally, and the Nuts ended up scoring another run off of Sanchez in the bottom of the inning to win it. Anthony Misiewicz was solid for 6 IP and Ramon Morla had one of his better outings as a pitcher, K’ing 3 in 2 scoreless innings. Tyler Herb takes the hill for Bakersfield today.

Clinton got lit up by Peoria, 11-3. It was a tight game going into the 6th, but the L-Kings bullpen struggled, with Nick Kiel ineffective in relief of starter Lucas Schiraldi and then Spencer Herrman’s first outing of the year resulting in another 4 runs in 1 2/3 IP. They’re back at it tonight behind Zack Littell.

Tony Zych and the Front Door Slider

April 19, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Let’s get this out of the way early: it’s still April. Numbers are still bouncing all over the place, and a good game can totally change a player’s “season” averages, because the seasonal sample is still tiny. I get that, you get that, but we can’t just shut the blog down until the All-Star break. We can look at things, and muse on them, all while keeping in mind that they could be the product of small-sample gremlins, dumb luck, or however you personify the concept. Ok? Great, let’s talk about Tony Zych, one of the most intriguing pitchers on the M’s. As Jeff Sullivan wrote at Fangraphs, he came from nowhere to become one of the M’s secret weapons with a lively fastball and a weirdly great slurvy slider. A lot of the time, the term “slurve” is a disparaging comment on a breaking ball’s inability to be either a true curveball, with topspin and downward break, or a slider, typically thrown harder with later and less downward break. Sometimes, though, being unlike traditional or textbook examples of a pitch works really well.

To further set this up a bit, we’ve talked a lot about how the best pitches in baseballs induce a lot of swings on balls – if you get a batter to swing at a pitch outside of the strike zone, good things will generally happen. For Hisashi Iwakuma, for example, the splitter gets plenty of whiffs despite the fact he throws it below the zone all the time. And if they DO make contact, the quality of that contact is generally poor, leading to a lot of ground balls in Kuma’s case. Not everyone has a pitch that does this, and certain pitch types are better for the whole swing-at-bad-balls gameplan: change-ups and splitters work well, while, say, curves generally don’t. That doesn’t mean curves are bad, obviously, as there’s an obvious inverse strategy: get batters to *NOT* swing at strikes. Curves are the classic example – think of The Bartender practically tearing Alexei Ramirez’s knee ligaments a few years ago. That’s great, but Tony Zych doesn’t throw a curve, right?

Batters swing at pitches within the strike zone around 2/3 of the time. In 2015, the average was 66.9%, and it was 65.7% the year before. In the early going in 2016, it’s dead on 66%, so it’s pretty stable. If you sort pitchers by the zone-swing%, you get this list, and see Zych at #3, with just 41.5% of his pitches in the zone inducing swings. How’s that possible? At first, I thought it might be his fastball’s strong horizontal run – maybe batters just leave it alone thinking it’ll be a ball, or just because their gameplan is to make Zych prove his command’s good enough to get strikes with it. Lots of first-pitch fastball takes? That’s a piece of it, perhaps, but the story here is that slurvy breaking ball. The heatmap for it is pretty conventional, with a big red spot down and away to right-handers. The swing rate chart looks similar, with pitches away to righties/in on lefties generating lots of swings. The flip side of the that, and it’s easier to visualize this in this chart focusing on righties, is that righties generally aren’t offering at sliders on the inner half, or really, at anything BUT those outside sliders. This year, it’s almost comical - he’s thrown 18 sliders within the zone, but not on the outer third to righties, and they’ve offered at 3 of them.

This is the definition of a tiny sample, and he’s due some regression here, as big leaguers generally don’t take pitches, even breaking balls, middle-middle. But you can see the contours of a successful approach here, and it’s something we saw in his very first MLB at-bat, with the first slider he threw. Jeff linked to this in his post, but here, take another look. The key is that this pitch is starting right at a right hander’s hip. A slider with “normal” horizontal break might not hit the batter, but it wouldn’t get all the way back to the strike zone. Zych’s horizontal break is just over 2 standard deviations from the league mean, so it’s probably understandable that most hitters – almost all of whom haven’t faced him often – assume the pitch will stay inside.

Zych’s part of the reason why the M’s are off the charts as a *team* in zone-swing%; Felix, for all of his control problems, looks excellent so far in this metric, too. I don’t know that Zych can keep this up once hitters have seen him 3-4-5 times, but for now, it’s kind of amazing to see, and as that leaderboard shows, some of the best relief pitchers in the game make their living this way. At #2 on the list was Andrew Miller, and his teammate Dellin Betances was #5. Betances has that huge curve, so that makes sense, but Miller’s a FB/SL guy like Zych, and he led the league in fewest strikes-swung-at last year (Dellin Betances was #3, right behind the M’s Carson Smith). Miller uses his slider somewhat similarly, with lefties not swinging very much at “front door” sliders – pitches that break right over the inside corner, while hacking away futilely at low-and-away sliders. Miller’s command is such that he can throw those same pitches to *right handers* and back door them, so that’s why he’s one of the best relievers on the planet. Still, not a bad guy for Zych to emulate.

A Minor Pitching Development Note

April 18, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners, Minor Leagues · 7 Comments 

First off, I want to thank Marc for taking over the system preview for this season. I’m presently in a phase of my life that’s not particularly conducive to sitting down and writing thousands upon thousands of words of minor league preview each season. This year, in particular, the scheduling looked pretty “nope” early on, but in light of certain happenings and certain concerns the team has going forward, I wanted to bring something to everyone’s attention because I think it could be relevant for us down the line.

One of the narratives to emerge from spring training was that the Mariners, with Iwakuma’s unexpected re-signing, were so flush with pitching that they had the enviable problem of choosing between Nate Karns and James Paxton in the back-end of the rotation. The beginning of the minor league season has further impressed on us that Edwin Diaz is exceeding expectations and could be ready to challenge for a spot soon enough. While the overall depth in the system is rather thin at the high levels (though guys like Ryan Yarbrough and Adrian Sampson probably shouldn’t be overlooked), right now we’re looking outward from a position of relative security. If anything, it’s the bullpen that has given us pause, and rightfully so, with a couple of dudes approaching forty and many of the rest being known as gambles, some of which have already faltered, in the cases of forgotten men Ryan Cook and Evan Scribner.

Let’s back up a moment. One of the recurrent sources of frustration in writing minor league previews is that a past role tends to be a bit more indicative of a future role only in the case of position players. Generally, if anyone is going to move, either to a more or less demanding role on the field, you’re going to hear about it. Less certain is the status of pitching prospects, who could begin starting or stop without much fanfare. One could propose that it’s a side effect of the weird pitching schedules in the Cactus League and no one really noticing or caring at the time, but I bring this up to illustrate a point: The present configuration of the Jackson Generals pitching staff is not something one could have readily predicted.

Sure, the way it begins could potentially lull you into some false sense of security. You look up and see Diaz followed by Yarbrough and figure that it’s likely one of the better one-two, left-right punches you’re going to get, even if the metrics plainly favor Diaz. Thereafter is where it starts to get weird. You have right-handers Sam Gaviglio, Brett Ash, and Dylan Unsworth. If you’re unfamiliar with any or all of those names, I’m not going to fault you. College baseball fans might remember Gaviglio from his days pitching for Oregon State, but they might not remember that we acquired him from St. Louis in exchange for Ty Kelly, the positionless OBP wonder, at the end of 2014. Brett Ash, with all due respect to his friends, family, neighbors, and acquaintances, is Some Guy, a NDFA out of Kansas’ famed baseball powerhouse Washburn College who signed after the ’14 draft and didn’t make a pro start until June of last year when necessity pushed him into the rotation. Dylan Unsworth is from South Africa and his nickname is Sharky and we will love him forever, but he doesn’t possess extraordinary stuff and is a fifth starter at best, and a fringe one.

What is instead “weird” about all this is the sheer number of former starters in the Jackson bullpen. Matt Anderson, a holdover from last year, got the Tom Wilhelmsen treatment and switched to relief on making it to double-A. He remains the same “good fastball, potentially great curveball, sketchy command” guy that he has been previously.

Among the other former starters after him, you have Jordan Pries, who was the big surprise in 2014 as a former 30th round pick who was one of the Rainiers’ best starters down the stretch. The same was not true in 2015, when his ERA caught up to his existing components/stuff (90 mph-ish FB)/pitch to contact approach and he additionally missed the final month+ of the season with an elbow strain.

Or you could look at Stephen Landazuri, who was a long-time sleeper favorite of mine as a guy with a low-90s heater and a good curve. Lando hadn’t relieved in a regular season game since 2012, and while he was quite excellent starting in the Mexican Pacific League over the offseason, his command numbers for both Jackson and Tacoma last year were dire. To boot, he’s had a few recurrent injury issues: biceps strain, oblique strain, missed starts here and there. He’s now pitching out of the Jackson ‘pen as well.

Or we could go with the surprise in Dan Altavilla. Altavilla was fast-tracked up, with a half-season in Everett and a full-season last year in Bakersfield where he showed good stuff and iffy command. People had talked about the possibility of him moving to the bullpen eventually because Major League Baseball scouts have a rather Irken approach to projecting pitchers, but the left-right numbers were solid and the command improved in the second half even as the hits increased a skosh. There was nothing in particular that was projecting him to a doom-and-gloom forecast, and yet here he is now, relieving for the Generals, with the kind of stuff that showed very well as a starter between the slider and the fastball.

Stuff could happen that could push any of the above back into the rotation. “Stuff happening” is one of the inviolable laws of minor league baseball. However, in the case of these three (or four if you feel like including Anderson), the bullpen could present a good career opportunity. Pries was never going to crack in as anything other than an emergency fifth starter and could gain some velocity/Ks from working solely in relief. Landazuri’s command has yet to straighten out for long enough to get you to see him as a three or four and his injury history, while mostly unrelated to the tenderest of the shoulder bits, does not inspire confidence. Altavilla in the bullpen goes from the low-90s velocity he showed as a starter to flashing more in the high-90s as he did in more limited stints and he no longer has to worry about developing a change-up in that role. Whereas a spot in the starting five would have been harder to come by, the bullpen is far less stable moving forward.

Is this experiment likely to work out for everyone involved? Does any minor league experiment ever do that? “Here, try catching.” “Here, try throwing this weird pitch.” “Play this position that you never have before outside of pickup games maybe.” “You can’t hit, but can you throw a knuckleball?” Minor league baseball is silly. However, if it does work out for any of these guys, what you have done is increased their odds of making a big league roster, perhaps minimized the variables they previously had to contend with, and given your team a cost-controlled arm that allows you to maneuver money elsewhere in the roster building process. These aren’t exciting moves, but they look like they could be good for everyone involved. Good work, Mariners.

Late Edit: I wrote this before Landazuri and Pries had poor outings over the weekend, but consider the SSS and the unfamiliarity with the role.

Game 12 – Brooms Over the Bronx

April 17, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Masahiro Tanaka, 10:05am

The M’s go for their fourth straight win, and a possible road sweep of the Yankees today. As you’ve no doubt heard, today’s game pits two former teammates with the Rakuten Golden Eagles against each other. Tanaka and Iwakuma were friends and teammates, with Iwakuma leaving for the US a few years before Tanaka. Iwakuma won Sawamura award (NPB’s Cy Young) and was a legitimate star, but during Iwakuma’s first few years in Seattle, Tanaka became a sensation. His 2013 line looks like what he’d do against high school competition: 24-0, 1.27 ERA, while leading his team – long a mediocre side while Iwakuma/Tanaka played together – to a Japan Series win.

Iwakuma’s shoulder woes played into the bargain-basement contract he signed, but it’s still kind of amazing: Kuma’s first contract in the US was for $1m guaranteed. Tanaka signed a 7-year $155 million deal. Health is critical, and age was perhaps an even bigger factor; I don’t mean to suggest they should be valued equivalently. But the health advantage slipped a bit in Tanaka’s first US season when he was diagnosed with a partially torn UCL. He used rest/rehab to come back, opting not to go the surgical route. This is risky, but it seems to have paid off for him.

Beyond that, though, it’s starting to look like the biggest adjustment NPB pitchers have to make to the US isn’t the hitters, or even the slightly different ball – it’s the 5-man rotation. Yu Darvish is still coming back from TJ surgery, Tanaka just barely avoided it, and Iwakuma…well, that’s not fair, as Iwakuma’s been hurt in both leagues. But with all of the money teams are now laying out for pitching, and with so many pitchers falling victim to elbow and shoulder tears, I’m kind of surprised no one’s tried NPB’s solution of longer rest. The NPB is famous for really high pitch counts, something that people worried about when Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tanaka came over. But Darvish argues that this risk is more than balanced by the benefits of increased rest. Apparently, elbow surgeries are much less frequent in NPB. At 538, Rob Arthur found a bit of an effect mathematically in a study conducted just as the Mets toyed with a 6-man rotation. In any event, with so much money in the game, I find it amazing that more teams aren’t experimenting a bit with ways to protect pitcher health. Depth may be an issue, especially with prices rising for average pitchers, but I’d imagine it still pencil out.

Tanaka’s run a much lower GB% than his old teammate despite a very similar arsenal. Part of the reason is that Tanaka used his four-seam fastball a bit more, and got more elevated contact on it. Another reason is that Iwakuma’s breaking balls – curve/slider – get a few more grounders than Tanaka’s. A big part of it is probably just approach, with Tanaka’s fastball having a lot more zip, leading to different ways to use it. That said, Tanaka’s velo seems lower this April – it was low in April of 2015, and then rose through the year, but it’s worth reiterating that we just haven’t seen the kind of velocity he showed in April of 2014 since his injury scare.

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

Go M’s.

Tacoma beat Albuquerque 5-3 behind Mike Zunino’s 3rd HR and another solid start from Adrian Sampson. It’ll be Donn Roach on the mound today.

Jackson raced out to a 9-1 lead and held on to beat Chattanooga 9-5, with a great start from Brett Ash (6 IP, 1 R, 1 H, 3K) and big hits from DJ Peterson and Marcus Littlewood the story. Dylan Unsworth takes the mound opposite White Sox prospect Tyler Danish as the Generals open a series against Birmingham.

Bakersfield finally realized the only sure way to beat Visalia was to shut them out, so they did. Eddie Campbell went the first 5, then Ryan Horstman added 2 IP with 4Ks. Drew Jackson had 2 hits and a double and Jay Baum had 3 hits for the Blaze. Andrew Moore takes the hill for Bakersfield today against Visalia’s Luke Irvine.

Clinton couldn’t complete the org sweep, losing 7-0 to Cedar Rapids. Another rough outing for LHP prospect Nick Wells. Art Warren starts today for Clinton.

Game 11, Mariners at Yankees

April 16, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 9 Comments 

FELIX vs. CC Sabathia, 10:05

Happy Felix Day!

I talked about the spate of Felix’s Velocity is Falling, Doom Imminent articles this year (and every year), and why I don’t think it’s such a big deal back in early April. Again, this is not to say that velocity itself is irrelevant, just that Felix is such a unique pitcher that rules that work for pitchers as a whole often fail when applied to our great and glorious king. On the other hand, there’s CC Sabathia, whose velocity is in Jered Weaver-style free fall. Sabathia used to run it up there around 95-97, but in his first start, he averaged about 87 on his fastball, leading MLBAM to assume he was throwing nothing but change-ups. Sure, sure, Felix’s fastball is frequently mis-identified as a change too, but that’s got as much to do with Felix’s unusually hard change as his low FB velo. Sabathia’s FB and hard cutter now blend together – I think of the cutter as the remnants of an old four-seam fastball, while his sinker’s armside run differentiates it.

Late-career Sabathia’s been undone by an inability to get right-handers out, and it seems like FB velocity may be part of the reason why. His change is still a good pitch, with high whiff rates and lots of ground balls, but Sabathia’s got nothing to disguise it with. Unlike Felix’s cambio, CC’s doesn’t really have much vertical drop – the pitch works because of the speed differential to his sinker, leading to bad contact or empty swings. But with CC’s “fastball” now coming in at 87, batters can sit on the fastball and adjust to the change. And if they don’t, they may hit it hard anyway.

Plenty of pitchers lose velocity, but the suddenness of CC’s drop this year is kind of concerning. In his first game of last season, CC averaged right about 90 with his fastball and touched 91. That’s about where he was in April of 2014, too, though he could reach back and hit 92 on occasion. This year, he averaged 87.5, and his fastest pitch was only 88.8. We’ll see if that improves today, but as a pitcher who’s struggled for a few years now, he may be nearing the end.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Marte, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Gutierrez, RF
6: Iannetta, C
7: Lee, 1B
8: Martin, CF
9: Sardinas, 3B
SP: Felix Hernandez.

No Seager today, as the M’s stack the line-up with righties and give Seager a day off to clear his head – he’s in a 2-27 slump.

Albuquerque won their home opener last night 11-6, despite HRs from Mike Zunino and Stefen Romero. James Paxton got lit up, giving up 7 runs in 2 1/3 IP with 4 BBs to 2 Ks. That’s now 9 walks in 6 1/3 IP on the year. Hmmm. Adrian Sampson takes the hill today for the Rainiers, 6 days after his 1-hit in 6 scoreless IP performance against the Isotopes.

Sam Gaviglio’s second straight quality start helped Jackson beat Chattanooga 6-3. Guillermo Heredia had 2 hits and 2 sac flies, and Tim Lopes and Ian Miller each had two hits as well. Brett Ash starts for the Generals today.

Yet again, Bakersfield lost a one-run game to Visalia, this time a 5-4 contest in 11 innings – the Rawhide scored runs in the 8th and 9th to tie it, and then walked it off two innings later. Tyler Pike had his second encouraging start, tossing 6 2/3 IP of two-run ball and walking just one. Control problems ruined his last two seasons, so to see him walk 3 in nearly 12 IP this year is great. Eddie Campbell starts today in Visalia.

Clinton scored 5 in the first on their way to an 11-5 win over Cedar Rapids. Braden Bishop had 4 hits, while Luis Liberato had a double and a triple in the lead-off spot. Kyle Wilcox had something of an ugly start for the LumberKings, giving up 5 runs on 6 walks in 4 2/3 IP, but the bullpen was great. Joey Strain K’d 2 in 2 2/3 hitless innings. He’s pitched 3 games and 5 2/3 IP on the year thus far, and no one’s reached base on him. Nick Wells attempts to put his poor debut start behind him against Cedar Rapids’ Sam Clay.

Game 10 – Mariners Invade the Bronx

April 15, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

Nate Karns vs. Luis Severino, 4:10pm

The M’s escaped a winless homestand thanks to Dae Ho Lee’s heroics (and some really awful defense from the Rangers), but they still need to figure out why they can’t score. The problem’s particularly acute against starters – the M’s have scored 14 runs in 220 plate appearances against starting pitchers. In *100* fewer PAs, they’ve managed *18* runs against relievers. Given the high-octane arms stocking modern MLB bullpens, that’s kind of insane. The M’s themselves have pretty normal splits: their starters have given up more runs, and have higher opponent averages and the like, than their reliever colleagues. In part, all of these weird small-sample things are related – the M’s have struggled against starters, and because many of those starters have been lefties, they have awful platoon splits, etc. We’ll have to see what adjustments they make, and which concerns are real and which are spurious.

Tonight, they face the Yankees’ 22-year-old phenom, Luis Severino, a right-hander with a very good fastball. Severino commands it pretty well and it averages 95-96, so he can touch the high 90s on occasion. His second pitch is a hard slider at 89-90, with a bit of glove-side break and sink. Scouts have raved about his change-up, which also comes in around 90, for years, and the results on it are impressive: lots and lots of whiffs, and lots of ground-ball contact. He uses it a bit like a split (though it has different movement), as he throws it in the zone very infrequently, but it still induces plenty of swings. On the whole, Severino’s an impressive package of bat-missing and ground-balls, and he impressed in his 11-start call-up last year.

It’s early, of course, but Severino’s shown some strange platoon splits. Lefties have had a much harder time hitting him, and their wOBA against Severino is awful. Righties are kind of feast-or-famine: they’ve struck out far, far more than lefties, and essentially never walk against him. That said, their overall batting line isn’t bad. In these kind of samples, it’s easy to say that all of this is just luck, but it makes me wonder. Clearly, Severino’s command and what I’d imagine is some deception helps him against righties. It’s not so much that his slider’s a dominant weapon against them – his *fastball* is just as effective. But when he misses, righties hit the ball hard. He’s faced more lefties than righties overall, but he’s given up more hits, more XBH and 6 of his 9 HR-allowed to righties. Is this because he doesn’t throw his change-up against them? Maybe, but if the change-up was as good as we’d heard, he’d have a better K:BB ratio against *lefties*.

One thing I’ve often wondered about when looking at a pitcher’s average release point is how much it matters when a pitcher releases different pitches in different spots. That is, it seems like it’d be a pretty big ‘tell’ if a curve release point is significantly higher or lower than a fastball’s release point. But what counts as “significantly?” Hitters pick up on all sorts of things, things that often don’t seem to have any obvious relationship to pitch type. Pitchers may not even by conscious of them. So when you have something that is clearly quite obviously related to the pitch, like a release point, my assumption is that batters would be all over it. Clear, definitive proof of this is kind of hard to come by. Getting back to Severino, he seems to have three different release points for his three pitches. The gap between FB and SL isn’t huge, so I don’t know that it’d drive his results, but looking at the gap between FB and CH, it looks… I don’t know. What do YOU make of this (it’s from a start last September):
Release point I’d think that a lefty might be able to ascertain that, but we don’t have a lot of evidence that they can. How about the SL/FB groups? If you went up guessing slider, would that gap be enough to let you know a split second earlier that you were right (or wrong)?

I’d been thinking about this already, because you see the same thing in Tony Zych, and he’s only got TWO pitches. I was watching an appearance not that long ago and thought I could tell what pitch was coming based on his release. Here’s his release point map:
Zych vs Texas
That’s… those are two, distinct, non-overlapping groups. Tony Zych has been great this year, by the way, so this is absolutely not a kiss of death. I just wonder how that works for some guys, whereas others do the tiniest thing different with their glove, or position their feet, and a bench coach or player is instantly all over it. In any event, hitters have struggled against Severino’s fastball, but righties are also slugging somewhere north of .450 on it. Do righties somehow have a better view of his release point? Is this how a slider-heavy right-hander like Zych has reverse splits (tiny alert, I know)?

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

I was talking with a friend today about the Rainiers’ hot start – they completed a sweep of the El Paso Chihuahuas last night. They aren’t loaded with prospects or anything, and in true Dipoto fashion, the tie that binds them together is that almost all of them were absolutely god-awful somewhere in 2015. But they also have some success in the slightly more distant past, and make up an interesting group of players for the right player development staff to mold or improve. Cody Martin’s a good example – a guy who made it to the majors last year, and then got sent down, then sent to Oakland, and ultimately released by a pitching-starved club. He wasn’t perfect last night, but he looked excellent at times, much as Adrian Sampson – who got crushed in 7 starts in Tacoma last year – did over the weekend. Stefen Romero flopped in another call-up last year, and was merely adequate in AAA as a bat-first corner-OF, but he’s been great so far. Even Chris Taylor, who’d walked a bunch in the early going, but still not reminded anyone of his brilliant 2014 start, hit the ball hard last night. It’s early, and pitchers often look good at Cheney stadium on a cold, rainy April night, but there are signs of actual depth here. I’ll take it. James Paxton starts tonight in Albuquerque, as the Rainiers meet up again with Shane Carle, the righty they touched for *11 runs* in 4 IP on Sunday.

Jackson raced out to an 8-2 lead last night in Chattanooga, but ended up losing 11-8 thanks to 9 straight runs in the late innings by the Lookouts. Ryan Yarbrough was solid through 5, but Steven Landazuri gave up 5 runs in 1/3 of an inning in relief. Tyler O’Neill hit his first AA homer, and DJ Peterson doubled for his first XBH of 2016. Another slow start for DJ, unfortunately. Sam Gaviglio starts tonight against Aaron Slegers of the Lookouts (a Twins affiliate, by the way).

Visalia edged Bakersfield for what feels like the 5th time already, this time 7-6 in walk-off fashion. Ex-3B prospect Ramon Morla lost it on a 1-out, walk-off double from Cody Regis. Morla blew a save against Visalia back on the 10th as well. Kyle Petty homered for the Blaze. Tyler Pike starts tonight in Visalia.

After a great first outing, Zack Littell had a forgettable start against Cedar Rapids, as the Kernels topped the L-Kings 7-3. Braden Bishop got on base twice, and threw out a runner at the plate, too. Kyle Wilcox takes the mound tonight for Clinton, opposite Sam Gibbons, a lefty out of Australia. The Twins (yes, another Twins affiliate) have scouted Australia well, with one of their better prospects, Lewis Thorpe, hailing from Oz as well – Thorpe missed all of ’15 with TJ surgery. It’s been 15-16 years since the M’s were the undisputed kings of antipodean scouting, bringing in Chris Snelling, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Travis Blackley, Craig Anderson and more.

Gmae 9, Rangers at Mariners

April 13, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 19 Comments 

Taijuan Walker vs. AJ Griffin, 12:40pm

Just what M’s fans are clamoring for this morning: more M’s baseball, and as soon as possible.

AJ Griffin’s the over-the-top, high-spin guy who shot through the minors in the A’s system a few years ago, right when Dan Straily was doing the same thing. Griffin actually had more big league success, posting lovely ERAs, but his peripherals were a bit underwhelming thanks to a high HR rate. Just as he was settling into his role as FIP-defying overachiever, he blew out his arm and recovery took much longer than anyone – especially the A’s – expected. After a while, the A’s simply cut him, and he caught on with the Rangers org. After nearly making the team out of spring training, he was first in line at AAA, and given the way the Rangers run through pitchers, it’s not a shock to see him up in the bigs again after a week+ of the season.

Griffin has essentially no platoon splits, and what splits he has shown have been reversed. His high-FB, slow curve arsenal is essentially the opposite of the sinker/slider routine that generates platoon splits, and his curve’s been a real asset. It’s noteworthy not just for its results, but also its speed: it averages under 70mph. Now, Griffin’s FB is a bit underpowered as well, but it’s not often you see average velocities in the 60s for non-knuckleballers.

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

Game 8, Rangers at Mariners

April 12, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 22 Comments 

Wade Miley vs. Derek Holland, 7:10pm

Four home losses in a row, and it’s easy to feel detached, pessimistic, angry, or a mix of the three. Perhaps worse, there’s no clear, easily identifiable problem with the way the team’s been constructed, no obvious solution for people to rally around. Adam Lind looks awful (“why go after declining 1B/DH types in free agency?”), but so does Ketel Marte (“The M’s had no plan B if their beloved prospect flopped”). The line-up can’t score, but the biggest problem – even bigger than their issues with left-handed pitching – is BABIP. The bullpen doesn’t *feel* secure, but they’ve struck out 28 in 22 IP.

It’s still too early to really get a sense of the team’s flaws, or rather, which flaws to target. That’s unnerving for fans of a team that’s been out of it by mid-June rather frequently, because the AL is so tightly bunched, the M’s don’t have the luxury of taking a few months to do a proper diagnostic evaluation. If the run-scoring is all just BABIP luck, then it could turn around tonight. If the team’s made some bad bets on low-cost, over-30s complementary pieces, that’s another thing entirely. Still, it’s almost reassuring how all-over-the-map M’s fans are on twitter. I’ve seen everything fingered as the Real Problem, from two-strike approach at the plate, to Safeco Field, to the bench players. The M’s have opened with one of their most frustrating weeks in a while, and that’s saying something. But they’re clearly not as bad as they’ve looked. The question now is how much the start’s hurt them, and how quickly they can reach their potential.

Tonight, they face lefty Derek Holland. Holland’s an oft-injured hurler who never quite regained the form he showed in 2011 and 2013 as key contributor to some of the Rangers’ best teams. Yes, the injuries have had a lot to do with that, but even when he’s been healthy (and his 2015 velocity looked about the same as it always did), he’s been ineffective. Because of his approach and home park, home runs are always going to be a concern with Holland, and the M’s need to take advantage. Holland has a fastball, a change, a curveball, and a slider he’ll throw to righties as well as lefties. His velocity’s a bit better than average, but right-handed bats have done plenty of damage to each of his offerings. The slider’s his best pitch, but it may be declining – righties slugged .500 on it last year.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Sardinas, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Iannetta, C
7: Gutierrez, DH
8: Lee, 1B
9: Martin, CF
SP: Miley

So, last night was Donn Roach’s first start for Tacoma. Which Roach would we see? The lights-out, bat-missing Roach from spring training or the early-80s throwback who couldn’t miss a bat if it was laying on a chair, but succeeded by inducing grounders? In 5 2/3 solid innings against El Paso, Roach struck out… nobody. Ok, cool, glad to know that career numbers are still more predictive than spring training. Huh. The R’s won 6-3, as Roach racked up the groundouts, and the bats stayed hot against draft cautionary tale Greg Reynolds. Joe Wieland takes the mound tonight against the Chihuahuas’ Carlos Pimentel.

Jackson was rained out yesterday, but kicks off a series with Chattanooga today behind South African starter Dylan Unsworth.

Bakersfield mounted a late comeback against Modesto, eventually winning the contest 8-7 in 11. The Blaze fell behind early, as starter Eddie Campbell couldn’t locate the zone, walking six with no K’s in 3+. Meanwhile, Modesto starter Ryan Castellani held the Blaze in check, but the Blaze found lots of suitable kindling in the Nuts’ bullpen. Drew Jackson had 2 hits and his first stolen base of the year, and Ryan Horstman was the best reliever on the day, with two absolutely perfect innings – he faced 6 hitters and K’d them all.

Clinton lost to Beloit 10-6, as Nick Wells had a forgettable start to his 2016, giving up 7 runs in 3 1/3 IP. Luis Liberato had 3 hits, Ricky Eusebio added 2 including a HR, and catcher James Alfonso had two doubles. Art Warren starts for Clinton tonight against A’s prospect Dustin Driver. In researching the draft in 2013, Driver turned up as one of the better prospects from the state of Washington. The big righty out of a Wenatchee HS fell to the 3rd round due to signability concerns (I think he’d committed to UCLA), but the A’s gave him an over-slot bonus and sent him to the short-season NYPL. Driver, who apparently touched the high-90s at times, pitched all of 11 1/3 IP before being shut down with a back injury. Not sure if anyone knew how serious it was at the time, but Driver missed all of 2014, and came back late in 2015, and looked predictably rusty. He’s still young, but that’s a lot of development time to miss.

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