Today’s Fun Fact

September 26, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 12 Comments 

The designated hitter was adopted by the American League in 1973. Since 1973, here are the ten worst team DH seasons, offensively, as measured by OPS relative to the league-average OPS. Information from Baseball-Reference; information also absolutely predictable, if you’ve watched the Mariners at all in the last nine years.

  • 2001 Angels, 46
  • 1988 Rangers, 53
  • 2014 Mariners, 54
  • 1981 Twins, 55
  • 2008 Mariners, 58
  • 2012 Mariners, 60
  • 2010 Mariners, 62
  • 1993 White Sox, 62
  • 2013 Yankees, 62
  • 2006 Mariners, 63

So we’ve got the Mariners of 2014, 2012, 2010, 2008, and 2006. If you’re into pattern recognition, that at least bodes well for next year, but it bodes poorly for the year after that, and well for the year after that, and poorly for the year after that, and well for the year after that, and poorly for the year after that, and

The Mariners just haven’t had a good consistent designated hitter since Edgar Martinez. Or, for the most part, when there have been half-decent candidates, the Mariners have put them in the outfield. It’s not just that the hitters haven’t hit well — it’s that, too often, they haven’t hit at all, and while this year there was reason to believe in Corey Hart and Kendrys Morales, the way it’s worked out has felt all too familiar, so Hart and Morales have somewhat unfairly had to deal with fan baggage that predates them. But it’s also been not unfair, because, holy shit, all these situations are like little disaster snowflakes. We hate our DHs in part because of previous DHs, but we also hate our DHs because they suck.

When I first started blogging about the Mariners, and that was well more than a decade ago, I didn’t worry too much about Edgar’s coming retirement, because I figured the easiest thing to find in baseball is a guy who can hit a little and do nothing else. The Mariners have nailed half of that.

Game 159, Mariners at Blue Jays

September 25, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 39 Comments 

Tom Wilhelmsen vs. Daniel Norris, 1:07pm

The A’s continue to slide, but it’s too late now. A fifth consecutive loss has apparently allowed the M’s to go with a bullpen day today, and with the stakes even lower for the Jays, they’ll do the same. Wilhelmsen could conceivably pitch 3-4 innings, but it sounds like the Jays will limit Daniel Norris, one of their big prospects, to 2-3.

Norris was never an afterthought – as a 2nd rounder in 2011, and the highest draft pick to actually sign with Toronto (they couldn’t get Tyler Beede under contract) – but he’s never been a top-100 prospect, and was ranked below fireballers Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and Noah Syndergaard. Sanchez battled spotty results, command issues and so-so strikeout rates, but stayed atop the Jays’ prospect lists thanks to a high-octane fastball. Syndergaard was traded to the Mets, while Stroman rocketed up the ladder and enjoyed a breakout season for Toronto this year. The point is: Norris was never the #1 pitching prospect for Toronto, but that’s not to say he was unheralded. In fact, many would probably slot him in ahead of Sanchez at this point thanks to his astonishing 2014 season. In 124 2/3 IP this year, the lefty’s struck out 163, while walking 43. He doesn’t have a 70-grade fastball, but that clearly didn’t slow him down.

Depending on who you ask, Norris’ best pitch is a big breaking curve ball (a pitch he K’d David Ortiz on in his first big league appearance), a slider, or a change-up. Fangraphs says curve, MLB goes for the change, and BP’s repeatedly called attention to his slider. The slider gives him a weapon against lefties, while he uses the change vs. righties. In his 3+ inning career thus far, he’s thrown far more change-ups than breaking balls, which may be because he’s faced a couple more RH bats. Early in his career, he had serious command problems, and he was getting hammered well into 2013 because of them. Since then, he’s been death on a stick to righties in particular, so it certainly looks like getting a feel for his change-up was the key to his success.

His fastball sits in the low 90s, with the change in the mid-80s. The change looks a bit like a splitter, with heavy, heavy sink and little armside run. His fastball’s got a lot of “rise,” and the curve ranges from the low- to mid/high-70s. If that arsenal sounds familiar, it should – that sounds a bit like Taijuan Walker. Walker’s right-handed and throws a bit harder, obviously – seeing him hit 98 yesterday was pretty cool – but he too has a big, slow curve and that new and nasty split/change. Their fastballs have very similar movement as well.

Tom Wilhelmsen seems to have the stuff to start, and he has basically no platoon splits. He hasn’t been great as a starter in the high-minors, and he wasn’t sharp in a spot-start this year. There’s no clear reason for it, so it’s easy to chalk it up to sample size, but if the M’s want to get a look at Wilhelmsen in the rotation, they need to do more than give him spot starts on bullpen days. After another great year in the ‘pen, I’m fine if they want to leave him alone and hope he can remain an effective set-up man, but I understand the temptation to squeeze more value out of him.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Taylor, SS
3: Cano, DH
4: Morales, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, LF
7: Saunders, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, 2B
SP: Wilhelmsen

Interesting line-up today.

M’s are three behind Oakland for the 2nd wild card with four games to play. Oakland’s in Texas to take on the Rangers (Jason Hammel vs. Colby Lewis), while the Royals are in Chicago facing the White Sox (James Shields vs. Jose Quintana).

Mariners’d

September 25, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 14 Comments 

Looking back, the correct answer was “utterly collapse!” That’s “utterly collapse!”, selected by 2.6% of you. Good job, one out of 38 individuals. You are fortune tellers. You are fortune tellers who root for the Mariners anyway, which hints at some kind of severe psychological trauma at an earlier age. Imagine liking this team when you already know what’s going to happen.

I guess a lot of us probably feel like we knew that was going to happen, after the fact. Oh, we got caught up, how we got caught up, but now that the Mariners have plummeted not just into the ground but beyond it, it makes all the sense in the world. It feels like the thing that was going to happen all along, because we’re messed up, because they’ve messed us up, and we don’t know how to trust.

The feeling’s by no means unique to us. Fans of chronic losers all feel the same, no matter how much they want to believe that they’re special. This is how Pirates fans felt, before the team got back to the playoffs. This is how Royals fans felt, before the team got back to the playoffs, where it is presumably headed now. When you go through a break-up, you feel like your circumstances are unusually dark. The most specific details are always a little bit different, but billions of people have been through break-ups, and your situation is uninteresting to everyone who isn’t you. We don’t have it the worst. We just have it bad, like others have it bad. No need to be, I don’t know, egocentric about it, although then I suppose it’s at least an identity.

Still, something about this feels very Mariners. Which is odd, because this Mariners team has come unnervingly, uncommonly close to making the playoffs, which is a distinctly non-Mariners thing to do. Most generally it’s just about building our hopes up before tearing them down, and maybe the scary thing is that the Mariners don’t just capture one particular flavor of disappointment — all forms of disappointment feel kind of Mariners-y, as through the years they’ve let us down in every way possible. The one thing that’s almost unique to us is that at no point have the Mariners made it to the World Series. Neither have the Nationals/Expos, but there aren’t actually Nationals fans.

I’m pretty confident in identifying the Mariners’ biggest hits from the past couple weeks. The hits that just stirred something within. There was Robinson Cano’s dinger during the home series against Oakland, and there was Logan Morrison’s ninth-inning shot in Anaheim. The former was a game-tying solo shot in a contest the Mariners lost, and maybe we should’ve noted upon Morrison’s homer that the Mariners had so much trouble doing away with a Triple-A opponent even though they had Felix on the mound. It took until the last inning for the playoff-hopeful Mariners to separate themselves from many of the Salt Lake Bees, and the Bees finished 60-84.

Things were good, then they were a little rough, then they slid into disaster. On the radio the other day, after one of the Mariners’ recent embarrassing losses, Mike Blowers said he was just searching for a reason. This was after Felix got clobbered, and the M’s scored twice. This was the day after James Paxton’s ERA went up a full run, and a day before the M’s got shutout and lost because Munenori Kawasaki walked and Ryan Goins spotted a gork. Blowers settled on the pressure of the playoff race. The Mariners hadn’t been in this position, but Blowers admitted he might be reaching.

You can go with that theory if you want. It can’t be disproved. It’s also appealing in its simplicity: the Mariners simply wilted under pressure. What could one reasonably expect? The stakes were the highest they’ve been in more than a decade for this team. But then, you know, Austin Jackson’s been here before. He’s been one of the Mariners’ worst players in September. Kendrys Morales has been here before. He’s been one of the Mariners’ worst players in September. Felix was bad the other day, but he had just recently been awesome against Oakland in a playoff atmosphere at home, so it’s not like one should think nerves got the best of him. Given what we know about professional athletes, it doesn’t actually hold up to reason well to accuse them of choking.

Blowers was searching for a reason. I can tell you my reason. I don’t think it was pressure. I think the Mariners were aware of the pressure, but I don’t think it caused them to collapse. This wasn’t regression to the mean. Regression doesn’t work like this. It’s not that the Mariners weren’t actually good. The Mariners were good. This Mariners team was plenty good enough to make the playoffs. Have you seen the Royals’ roster? We’re just the victims of bad timing. Unfortunate, unbearable, unpredictable randomness. I can see why the team is 83-75. But the team was at one point 79-64. The latter team shouldn’t turn into the former team, but for an awful spate of misfortune.

It’s the same kind of randomness that’s had Morales and Jackson suck so bad since coming over. Both those moves were totally justifiable. Good, even, maybe. They’ve sucked. What’re you gonna do? Over his last five starts, Hisashi Iwakuma has an ERA over 8. He’s thrown an above-average rate of strikes, and he’s gotten plenty of whiffs. His BABIP’s been almost .400. The whole pitching staff was always overachieving a little, but lately it’s been the worst staff in the American League, and oh by the way, it’s gotten less attention, but the offense has also lately been one of the worst offenses in the American League, performing worse than it already was. Almost everything’s gone wrong, and it feels like that much shouldn’t go wrong without a better explanation, but randomness is the best explanation, like it almost always is.

Sure, some of the Mariners have to be fatigued, but every team deals with fatigue by the end. Sure, the Mariners aren’t as talented as the A’s and the Angels, but that’s not enough to explain the team-wide breakdown. You want so badly for there to be a better reason, because if there’s a better reason, it can be fixed. Randomness can’t be fixed. Randomness can strike at any moment. Randomness is a big part of why the A’s have struggled so bad since acquiring one of the best pitchers in baseball. Randomness is a big part of why the Angels have soared so high since losing one of the best pitchers in baseball. Randomness is a big part of why the Mariners have gone from in the race to out of it in a matter of days. It can be the coldest thing, but life’s cold sometimes, and you don’t grow by trying to deny it. You accept that you should never get too wedded to your plans.

The first misfortune is what’s happened to the Mariners. The second misfortune is the blend of the timing with the human impulse to try to find a pattern. We don’t actually like to think about randomness, because it gives us way too much perspective, so what’s going to happen is we’ll emerge from this with our skepticism more firmly cemented. At some level our brains will settle on the explanation that this all happened because Mariners, and that’ll make it only harder for us to trust. We’ll require even more reasons to believe in the team, and we’ll try to protect ourselves, and it’ll be that much more difficult for fans down the road to allow themselves to get carried away. You’re born with the capacity to love 100%. Life is just a series of events that chip away at the ceiling. It’s possible to restore what’s been lost, but it takes time and effort and luck in the other direction. We can’t help that we’re damaged people.

The odds of a pretty good baseball team losing 11 of 15 games are about 4%. The odds this year of Chris Young giving up a home run in a given plate appearance were about 4%. With Young, we know that sometimes the homers just happen, and maybe it was a mistake, and you move on. The Mariners are Chris Young giving up a home run. It’s just that this was a pretty important and hurtful home run. Was Young rattled by the pressure of the situation? Probably not, no. But the next time, you’re not going to trust Young to get that out. For what reason would you?

Game 158, Mariners at Blue Jays

September 24, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 60 Comments 

Taijuan Walker vs. Mark Buehrle, 4:07pm
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: nope Baseballprospectus.com: noooope

Maybe it’s fair – the M’s sweep of the Jays in early August dealt Toronto a significant blow, and it was one they ultimately never recovered from. The Jays arrived sometime after midnight on August 11th, sitting 2nd in the East and in the WC hunt. They had playoff odds of 31.5%, about evenly split between the Wild Card and the Divisional crown. They limped out of Seattle that Wednesday with playoff odds of 14.2%. They weren’t out of it, exactly, but they ultimately never hit 14% again. This week, the Jays have returned the favor, essentially eliminating the M’s from the playoffs. They haven’t been mathematically eliminated yet, but they could be today. Damn it.

Taijuan Walker’s coming off an encouraging start against Houston; it marked the first time this season he had more strikeouts than innings pitched. He’s dealt with that command lapse, and he’s continued to keep the ball in the park.* Walker’s fastball comes in at 95, and has similar movement to James Paxton’s, with just a tiny bit less armside run and rise. Intriguingly, at least to nerds like me, is that he’s getting similar balls-in-play results. Not identical, because I don’t think I’ve seen anything like Paxton’s BIP ratios, but similar – Walker throws a “rising” fastball but gets more grounders than the average. Because it’s not extreme, and because he doesn’t pair it with another outlier pitch like Paxton’s curve, Walker’s overall GB% is just a bit over average, at 47%. But just looking at the arsenal, you’d assume something significantly lower. Like Paxton, it’s not like he’s pounding the knees with it; he’s throwing it up in the zone, especially up and away to lefties. And because of *that*, Walker’s able to get a lot of infield pop-ups – his 15.8% rate leads the team, and while the sample is miniscule, he was over 11% in another small sample last year. A rising FB, thrown up and away really OUGHT to get a fair share of pop-ups, after all.

His opponent today is the nearly perfectly-opposite Mark Buehrle. Buehrle’s a veteran with an extremely low walk rate and an extraordinarily slow fastball. The lefty now averages 83-84mph, or about what you might see in a local high school game. His swinging strike rate was never all that high, and his contact rate has crept up recently as well. That said, he’s having one of his better years thanks to a big shift in approach – something Jeff found in a Fangraphs article back in May. Seriously, go read that. Have the trends that Jeff found – Buerhle getting an absurd amount of called strike-threes, and throwing inside sinkers to righties – continued, or were they just a weird one-month blip? Uh, the former. After throwing very few 2-strike sinkers to righties from 2007-2013 (under 10% each year), he’s throwing sinkers in about 40% of his 2-strike counts this year. And that’s led to a huge increase in the percentage of backwards Ks . His previous career high in the percentage of strikeouts that came looking was 39%, back in 2004. This year, it’s 54%. Over his career, Buehrle has no discernible platoon splits. It’s not like this change in approach has changed his fortunes against right-handed bats or anything, but it’s an insight into Buehrle’s ability to adapt, change and hang around in a league that has generally not found guys throwing 83 to be viable. Command is huge.

Here’s today’s line-up:
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, RF
7: Hart, DH
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Tai Walker

Eno Sarris’ interview with Brandon Moss is well worth your time.

And Jeff just wrote about another pitcher who gets even more backwards Ks than 2014-Mark Buehrle: Vance Worley of Pittsburgh.

Here’s Russell “Pizza Cutter” Carleton at BP talking about how much clarity that new “StatCast” system can bring to defensive metrics, and how much we’ll probably never know.

* – Yes, yes, I’m aware that I talked about Paxton’s low BABIP and he got BABIP’d to death, then talked about the crappy line-up yesterday and watched that crappy line-up knock Felix around.

Game 157, Mariners at Blue Jays

September 23, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 85 Comments 

King Felix vs. RA Dickey, 4:07pm
Wildcard…:sigh:….odds – Fangraphs.com: 8.0% Baseballprospectus.com: 7.6%

Happy Felix Day. The M’s fanbase could use a bit of happiness today after yesterday’s debacle. Paxton had been so sharp, and he picked an unfortunate time to turn in a disaster start. The day I write about his ultra-low BABIP, he goes and gets BABIP’d to death and the M’s playoff hopes now dangle by a thread. C’mon Felix. You got this.

Beyond the fact that the M’s have King Felix, the favorite for the AL Cy Young award on the hill today, check out the Blue Jays line-up. Munenori Kawasaki is starting at 3B, and batting *fifth*. Dalton Pompey, until recently a solid player in the Florida State League, starts in LF. In CF is Anthony Gose, he of the 74 career wRC+ in about a full season’s worth of disappointing play. Ryan Goins! Josh Thole!

RA Dickey’s 2014 has gone a bit better than his 2013 thanks to some regression in his HR rate. In 200 IP this year, he’s allowed 1.11 HR/9, or dead on his career average. His K rate’s essentially unchanged, his BB rate’s actually a touch worse, and his BABIP’s still reliably low. It’s just that fewer balls have left the field of play. This in itself is somewhat odd – in his peak seasons with the Mets, Dickey was something of a ground-baller. Not an extreme one, but he topped 50% grounders one season, and was around it for all three. Last year, he was just above 40%, and is at 42% this year. That, plus the whole designated hitter thing, and a dash of park effects, explain why he’s now giving up more HRs than he did in New York. That said, Dickey’s move to Toronto worked out pretty well for all involved. It’s really strange to say about a defending Cy Young award winner, but Dickey wasn’t paid to be the ace of the Blue Jays staff – he was paid to be a league-average starter, and that’s actually what he’s been. I think the Blue Jays certainly hoped he’d be better than that, but they didn’t pay through the nose for a high-ceiling star. They paid for a guy with a really strange career who was in his late 30s.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Saunders, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: KING FELIX

Game 156, Mariners at Blue Jays

September 22, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 32 Comments 

James Paxton vs. JA Happ, 4:07pm
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 17.3% Baseballprospectus.com: 20.7%

Ouch. *Ouch*. The M’s playoff odds were cut in half yesterday, when another poor start from Hisashi Iwakuma coincided with the A’s finally winning a game and the Royals holding off the Tigers. This syzygy of woe has the M’s in dangerous territory with only a week to go. As if things couldn’t get worse, a new team has entered the periphery of the chase: the red-hot Cleveland Indians. While the Yankees and the Jays graciously dropped out of the race around a month ago, the Indians have been buoyed by an incredible run by their starters, including Corey Kluber, coming off his second consecutive game of 14Ks, and Carlos Carrasco who has laid waste to the AL since moving back into the rotation a few months back. Given that the Tribe is playing the Royals the next three days, and given the short amount of time, they’re probably not going to pass the Royals, M’s and A’s for a Wild Card spot. But it shows that even if the Royals, say, completely collapse, the M’s wouldn’t necessarily be the beneficiary.*

Thus, the M’s find themselves in a must-win game, on the road, with rookie starter. All of that said, I think most M’s fans are pretty happy that Paxton’s taking the ball today. The Canadian lefty’s been excellent – when healthy – all year, and is coming off of five consecutive quality starts. As I mentioned last time, his unique fastball has been the key to his success – both in generating ground balls and in disguising/setting up his curve ball. There’s basically no way a four-seam fastball should do what Paxton’s is doing, but when the team absolutely has to have a win, I don’t much care. I just care that he gets 12 ground outs and a handful of Ks and the M’s walk out of Rogers Centre victorious.

Opposing him is JA Happ. The last time the M’s faced him, we talked about his resurgence with the Jays, and how he’d suddenly started throwing harder this year. He also came into that game on a hot streak, striking out 12 Orioles in his previous start, and on a K:BB tear that the heretofore command-impaired Happ wouldn’t have dreamed of in previous years. That all ended in Safeco, as the M’s knocked him around a bit, and Happ hasn’t been able to regain the form he showed in July and early August. That said, he’s been a half-decent middle of the rotation guy for the Jays this year, and he’s been OK each year since 2012. Sure, his RA/9 hasn’t always reflected that thanks to HR problems and problems stranding runners, but his FIP has hinted that he’s had the ability to be a run-of-the-mill #4 starter.

Happ’s bread and butter is a 93-mph fastball. He throws four- and two-seam varieties, and those two combine for about 70% of his total pitches. His primary breaking ball is a curve that he’s started throwing at the expense of his slider/cutter, especially against righties. He’s also got a change-up that he’ll throw to righties, but as you can tell from his fastball usage, it’s not a great one. It generates fewer whiffs and grounders than a league-average change, and as someone who faces overwhelmingly right-handed line-ups, you understand why he’s now throwing more curves instead. In his career he’s got normal platoon splits, but they’ve gone backwards in 2014 (and 2013 too, actually). It’s probably just noise, especially when you see just how few lefties he’s faced; this year, only about 20% of the opposing hitters have batted lefty against him.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Denorfia, RF
8: Taylor, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: James Paxton

That fastball, man. Paxton’s velocity, movement and deception team up to wreak havoc with hitters’ timing, and the result is a low BABIP. Paxton was the beneficiary of an absurd .203 BABIP in his call-up in 2013, and saber-fans noted that it’d regress. It has, actually. To .254. Normally, this is something that would be concerning – he still hasn’t pitched a full MLB season, and there’s no way to say that his true-talent is anywhere close to that .254 figure (to say nothing of .203). But Paxton’s pretty much sui generis; I have no idea what mean I should regress Paxton towards, given that I really can’t think of many pitchers like him. The Paxton we’ve gotten is so, so different – and so much better – than the Paxton many of us were following on his way up the chain. In the minors, Paxton had velo and that great curve, and thus got a good number of strikeouts. Unfortunately, the raw results were generally worse than you’d expect because his minor league BABIPs were uniformly terrible. The projection systems like ZiPS and Steamer that use minor league data can’t figure him out, because in the minors he walked tons and was incredibly hittable for a guy with a 95mph fastball. I figured he’d eventually improve his control, and that his curve would help him miss big-league bats, but his fastball command has changed to such a degree that he’s unrecognizable from the James Paxton that toiled in the M’s affiliates. I should point out that even this year, in his 10 rehab innings in Tacoma, Paxton gave up a .393 BABIP. The PCL is a hell of a drug.

Speaking of the PCL, the league’s going to look a bit different next year thanks to a raft of affiliation changes. Some long-standing agreements are no more – the A’s have left Sacramento to the Giants, and instead entered into an agreement with Nashville. That meant the Brewers needed a new affiliate, and they picked up Colorado Springs, ending the Rockies 21-year agreement with the Sky Sox. Mike Curto has you covered on who’s going where. Thankfully, the M’s aren’t one of the teams moving affiliations; the Rainiers/M’s partnership’s been a good one since 1995.

One M’s affiliate will be changing, though: the M’s agreement with High-A High Desert is no more. The M’s will move to a slightly less insane offensive environment in 2015 when they start playing in Bakersfield, which had been the Reds affiliate. The M’s had been in High Desert for the past eight seasons after their previous affiliate, Inland Empire, signed a deal with the LA Dodgers (they’re now affiliated with the Angels). Again, Curto’s got some information on a (possible) new home park for the Bakersfield team and why home games often start 15-minutes late at the current park.

* As an aside, I think this season has gone a long ways towards making me feel better about the introduction of the second wild card. I’m still squeamish about anything that appears to diminish baseball’s regular season, but the introduction of the play-in game arguably restores the importance of winning a division, while the 2nd wild card race has captivated baseball fans for months even when the first wild card seemed locked-up, first by the Angels, then the A’s (lolololol).

Game 155, Mariners at Astros

September 21, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 59 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Collin McHugh, 11:10am
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 37.4% Baseballprospectus.com: 42.2%

It’s weird – with the A’s and Royals losing, yesterday’s blowout lost was nowhere near as costly as it could’ve been. On the other hand, the M’s had everything to play for – a chance to tie for the FIRST wildcard – and got blown out by a bad team. This is the perfect test of where a person lies on the optimism-pessimism spectrum.

Yesterday, I mentioned that it took a while for people to warm up to the concept that Dallas Keuchel was actually good. Not “a useful 5th starter” or “solid depth” if he got his HR problem under control, but actually good. That same process played out this season with his teammate, Collin McHugh. McHugh entered the season with a career record of 0-8 and an ERA of about 9. He was a righty with a fairly generic arsenal – a four- and two-seam fastball around 91, a slider, a change and a curve. The curve was actually a decent pitch, but he couldn’t get to it because his fastball was just freakishly hittable. Everything was a small sample of course, but lefties in particular couldn’t help but hit him hard. Coming into 2014, he’d only faced about 100 lefties in total, but their wOBA against him was nearly .500. They had 34 hits and six walks in just 94 plate appearances with a remarkable 17 extra base hits.

When the Astros called him up to make what we all assumed was a spot start in Seattle in April, I’d never heard of him and assumed he’d be sent back down to AAA immediately after the game. He’d been knocked around in AAA, after all, and again, 0-8, 8.94 ERA. Instead, McHugh pitched a gem, with 12 Ks and no walks in 6 2/3 shutout innings. Suddenly, the guy without an out pitch, the guy who couldn’t get lefties out, was an effective big league starter. As I’ve talked about a few times, the Astros made a few adjustments to his delivery and arsenal, getting him to concentrate on his four-seam, slider and curve, and changing where in the zone he throws them. The change in usage wasn’t all that big – he’d always thrown more four-seamers than sinkers. He moved over on the rubber a bit compared to 2013, but it’s quite close to where he was in 2012. His breaking balls have less vertical break than they did, but that’s just because he’s throwing everything a bit faster in 2014. If there’s a change here, it’s in where he’s putting them. He’s been able to keep his fastball away from lefties, and keep his curve down. He’ll sneak called strikes with his slider, which…I mean, it takes guts for a guy who’d been torched by lefties to throw sliders middle-middle to them, but whatever the cause, McHugh’s been excellent against everyone this year. In 143 innings, he’s at 3.3fWAR, with a FIP barely over 3, and an ERA under that.

I wondered if he was getting by on novelty, and about a month after coming up, McHugh had a rough patch – including a loss to the M’s. But looking at his splits, he’s only gotten better in the 2nd half. He’s not getting as many K’s (and that first-half number was likely inflated by that one spectacular 12K game against the M’s), but he’s stopped walking anyone, and he’s limiting HRs as well. This new and improved version may not be his true-talent level going forward (the 8+ K:BB ratio is peak-period Cliff Lee), but the body of work is remarkable. I have no idea how the Astros turned a career minor-leaguer, and a guy who’d been cut by two separate orgs last year into a great pitcher. I really hope the M’s know.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morales, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Saunders, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: Iwakuma

The BP podcast with Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller had a guest for episode 538 – ex BP guy turned political forecaster Nate Silver. Interesting listen.

The Royals/Tigers match-up features Jeremy Guthrie facing off against Rick Porcello. The A’s host Philadelphia, where Scott Kazmir will try and get a win for Oakland against AJ Burnett and the Phillies.

Game 154, Mariners at Astros

September 20, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 72 Comments 

Chris Young vs. Dallas Keuchel, 4:10pm
Wildcard Odds- Fangraphs.com: 41.7% Baseballprospectus.com: 48.3%

I swear it was just a few days ago that the M’s wildcard odds dipped under 20%. With each game’s impact so large, and with the AL Central leaders facing each other, we’re going to have to get used to these massive swings in playoff odds. This is pretty cool.

As strange as it is to see a seven-foot righty soft-tosser succeeding by allowing a blizzard of fly balls, it’s taken the AL a while to get used to the idea that Dallas Keuchel‘s actually quite a good pitcher. Lloyd McClendon memorably dismissed Keuchel as “average” and putting the blame on his hitters after Keuchel stymied the M’s in Seattle in early May. But at that point, Keuchel was one of the AL Leaders in FIP/fWAR, thanks to a career low walk rate and an insane GB%. Keuchel throws 88-89, and came into 2014 with an ERA well over 5 over parts of two seasons, so it’s not like McClendon was really going out on a limb, but the fact that the story got so much attention shows just how sharp Keuchel’s first few months were. Instead of a great GB% of 53-55%, he was in the 60s. This helped him address his biggest weakness – the long ball. In his 239 career innings before 2014, he’d given up 34 HRs, easily over 1 per 9IP. This year, in 192 IP, he’s given up just 11, or about 0.5 / 9IP.

While his walk rate’s also better, it’s that HR rate that’s driving his vastly-improved FIP. Sure, it’s hard to give up HRs when no one’s able to hit a fly ball at all, let alone a deep one, but HR/FB rates are variable, and just as his career HR/FB looked extremely unlucky, is it possible he’s just gotten lucky in 2014? Anything’s possible, but his HR/FB looks a lot more like “normal” than “freakish” – for that, you just have to look at Chris Young’s numbers. But it’s not just that he’s giving up fewer flies, he’s changed his approach. He dropped his lousy curve for a slider, and for whatever reason, that pitch has been effective against right-handed hitters; a lefty sinker/slider guy sounds like someone who righties should dominate, but they haven’t managed it this season. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t have platoon splits – he does. They’re pretty sizable, really, because he’s not able to miss very many right-handed bats. That’s fine if you can get 62% grounders against them, as Keuchel can. Lefties have had almost no chance against him, as they combine an even higher GB% with a K:BB ratio of 5, so the M’s are going to get as many RHBs as they can in the line-up. I know I’ve said it a million times, but the M’s have struggled this year against extreme GB guys like Keuchel – they’ve got a .604 OPS against them, and are slugging about .300. Some teams, most notably the A’s, have tried to counteract sinkerballers by stocking up on fly-ball hitters. The Angels just have Mike Trout, a guy with preternatural ability to drive low and low-and-in pitches. The M’s don’t really have that, but if it’s any consolation, they’re in a better position to get to Keuchel now than before their deadline deals. Now if only they could get Austin Jackson to hit like himself and not like Abe Almonte.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Denorfia, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, LF
7: Hart, DH
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
SP: The Magical Giant

Game 153, Mariners at Astros

September 19, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 82 Comments 

Taijuan Walker vs. Brad Peacock, 5:10pm
Wildcard odds – Fangraphs.com: 34.2% Baseballprospectus.com: 33.7%

The development of Taijuan Walker’s split-change has certainly helped him boost his GB%, but it hasn’t turned him into an ace just yet. He’s struggled at times this year with wildness, with HRs, and, of course, with injury. But I think Paxton’s emergence (and all the time Walker missed, of course) have led people to overlook the top prospect. I’m not saying Walker’s going to be as good as Paxton’s been, but we haven’t seen what Walker can be just yet. His cutter’s intriguing at times, but his command of it hasn’t quite been there thus far, though his control woes of July seem to have subsided.

Brad Peacock…everything I said about him a few weeks ago remains true.

Line-up:

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morales, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Saunders, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: Taijuan Walker

Game 152, Mariners at Angels

September 18, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 92 Comments 

King Felix vs. Wade LeBlanc, 7:05pm
Wildcard odds- Fangraphs.com: 24.4% Baseballprospectus.com: 22.9%

Happy Felix Day.

The playoff odds look bleak, as does the gap in the schedule between the M’s and Royals, but if you want to hang on to hope, forget the Mariners – just watch the A’s for a while. Tony Blengino had a fascinating post up at Fangraphs today on the A’s collapse, focusing on the disappearance of first-half stars Brandon Moss and Derek Norris, but they are fun to watch in a cringe-comedy sort of way. Yesterday, it was closer Sean Doolittle imploding against whoever those people are in Texas Rangers uniforms. Today, it was their (good) starting pitcher uncorking another sub-par start against the murderer’s row of Jake Smolinsky, Tomas Telis, and Ryan Rua. The M’s have been running in place right when they needed to be sprinting. This has very likely cost them the ability to chase down whoever finished 2nd in the AL Central. However, running in place is a hell of a lot better than what the A’s are currently undertaking.

Fortune’s bestowed a second gift to the M’s today, too. Jered Weaver’s been scratched and replaced by Wade LeBlanc. This was Weaver’s spot, and it shaped up as a classic pitcher’s duel: a repeat of opening night right when the M’s need a win the most. That’s dramatic and all, but I think we’d all take an easier path to contention as opposed to a “dramatic” one. We’ll get drama in the playoffs, should they get that far. Before that, though, give us your LeBlancs, your Tropeanos, yearning for a big-league paycheck. Yes, yes, the Tropeano thing didn’t work so well, but LeBlanc’s a guy that most of the M’s have faced.*

He’s a classic soft-tossing lefty, a guy with an 87mph fastball, a pretty good change and a not-so-hot cutter. He came up with the Padres in 2008, and faced the M’s here and there for years as a spot-starter/swing-man for our hated interleague rivals. He shuttled between San Diego and AAA for a few years, logging a decent record as a back-end starter in spacious parks, but not really grabbing a permanent job. In 2012, he was traded to Miami, and absent a familiar (if less-than-full-time) role with the team that drafted him, he’s really bounced around since then. The Marlins waived him in 2013, and he headed to Houston. Then he signed with Anaheim, who waived him, and he signed with the Yankees. After a single inning in the Bronx, the Angels re-acquired him on waivers, hence his appearance today. Many, many pitchers are in the position of not knowing who they’ll report to spring training with the following year. In the past two years, LeBlanc really has had no idea which uniform he’d be putting on a week or a month in the future.

The problem is that LeBlanc’s a fairly extreme fly-ball guy with so-so stuff. He’s tried to make that approach work in PETCO PARK and had trouble. Anaheim is a sneaky-tough park to homer in, but LeBlanc’s stuff eases the hitter’s burden a bit. To make matters worse, his control isn’t great. A walk rate over 8% seems like it’s far too high for a guy who doesn’t rack up strikeouts and has a gopher-ball problem. Really, there are only two reasons LeBlanc’s still a major leaguer. 1) He’s left-handed. 2) The change-up really is pretty good. In his career, he’s generated whiffs on about 35% of the swings at his cambio, and when batters put it in play, they’re more likely to hit it on the ground. He’ll still hang a few of them – he’s given 13 HRs on it overall – but it’s been effective overall. It’s also why he’s posted reverse-splits in his career, with righties posting a much lower wOBA and FIP against him than lefties. *LEFTIES* are hitting a combined .315/.372/.540 off of him, or a bit better than Miguel Cabrera’s 2014 line.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Denorfia, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
SP: FELIX

* Actually, as a guy who spent most of his time in the NL, and as a swing man, he’s missed more of these guys than you’d think. He’s faced Morales and Seager once, Taylor/Zunino/Jackson/Cano/Ackley zero. Denorfia and Morrison have seen him a few times, but that’s about it. That really surprises me, but there you are. LeBlanc has been around a while, and been in many places, but he has not actually pitched that many innings. He topped 100 back in 2009, when Seager/Ackley/Taylor/Zunino were in college.

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