The M’s Versus the Projections – Oh, and uh, the White Sox

February 24, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

It’s a game! There’s baseball on today!
Mike Leake vs. Hector Santiago, 12:10pm

The M’s embark on the 2018 season sounding supremely confident. Free agent pitching? No need – there’s already plenty of talent on board, they say. Go for a big-time position player like Lorenzo Cain? Ehhh, we like to roll our own over here – we’ll just take Dee Gordon, a handful of outfield drills and we’ll the same total production for less. Meanwhile, the projection systems all have the M’s pegged for 81-83 wins, just short of playoff position…and at a time when the talent that could conceivably get them over the hump remains available. Someone’s going to look a bit silly here come September.

It’s not just the M’s, to be clear. Fangraphs thinks the Brewers lucked into a wildcard chase last year, and that when their pitchers regress, even their improved offense won’t be enough to get them to .500, let alone contention. Meanwhile, PECOTA (Baseball Prospectus’ projection engine) scoffs at the Angels busy offseason, thinking that their pitching will collapse, giving up more runs than they have since 2000-2001 *despite* picking up Shohei Ohtani and despite remaking their offense. The Angels and Brewers, perhaps unsurprisingly, have pretty big gaps between their projections; no one really knows what to make of them. Both had players who looked pretty different last year – Chase Anderson wasn’t supposed to be THAT good, while the Angels reminded Andrelton Simmons how to hit. Both have young players who can confound the projection systems’ math: what do you do with Ohtani, who not only is coming over from Japan, but barely played last year due to injury? All of this to say, there are often perfectly decent reasons to laugh in the face of your own projections, and act counter to whatever ossified sabermetric dogma would tell you to do. Are the M’s another such team?

Ehhhhh, probably not. The problem is that we simply don’t see the variance that we do in their projections. Everyone, from the betting markets to BP to Fangraphs agree on what and where the M’s are. They differ on what that means, but they don’t really differ on how good they are. The M’s are betting the crowd is just plain wrong, and that players from Ryon Healy to Andrew Moore to Mitch Haniger are much, much better than their projections. They’re also betting that the injuries that decimated the team last year either won’t happen again, or won’t impact the future performance of guys like Haniger and King Felix. Felix, in particular, seems crucial to the club, and as many have pointed out, it seems kind of unfair to put that kind of pressure on the King, who’s been both hurt and at best sporadically dominant for a few years. Instead of bringing in an arm to take the pressure off of Felix/Paxton/Leake, the M’s have to hope that his down time will result in better – and healthier – play in 2018.

Regression alone won’t cut it. It’s not just that Marco Gonzales and Andrew Moore are probably better than they appeared last year (low bar), but regression may also mean Mike Leake isn’t the efficient #2/#3 he looked like for the M’s – it was so out of character with his career norms, of *course* the projection systems aren’t buying it. And that’s really the main reason why the M’s feel confident ignoring PECOTA and Fangraphs: they believe they’re elite at coaching and teaching. This is why they angrily dismiss the consensus that their farm system is the sport’s worst. It’s why they brought in Dr. Lorena Martin to add new dimensions to their development process, and it’s why they actually give up real talent to acquire Healy, Shawn Armstrong, Nick Rumbelow and others whose projections are…uh…not encouraging. They’re betting that there’s untapped potential there that has never shown itself, and they believe they’re the org to uncover it. This approach, it must be said, hasn’t been all that successful, isolated wins like Nick Vincent aside. Confidence like this is what’s dividing the M’s fanbase, I think. To the saber-inclined, this is pure hubris- the team that’s burned its farm system to the ground now thinks they can teach up other teams’ cast-offs, their own meager talent reserves, turn Dee Gordon into a gold-glove CF, teach Ryon Healy patience, and turn Ariel Miranda back into an effective starter. To others, this is simply confidence, confidence borne of watching a development-focused plan come together, changing everything from how they train, what they eat, to how they look for and acquire talent. I so desperately want that view to be right, and I realize completely that Dipoto’s only had two years, but last year should knock some of the confidence off of anyone. Not everything that happened last year was the result of bad luck, and seeing every bad result as luck spoiling your pristine, brilliant plans is pretty much the definition of hubris.

But enough of that. Let’s watch the M’s play baseball, shall we? Today, Mike Leake takes on re-acquired White Sox SP Hector Santiago. Santiago came up with Chicago as an underpowered screwballer, but ditched the trick pitch and formulated a shockingly useful series of seasons on the south sideand then in Anaheim by pitching up in the zone, and pitching around HRs by running a low BABIP. Santiago was the personification of the M’s pitching philosophy in 2017, and like the M’s pitching philosophy in 2017, Santiago was utterly undone by the long ball. His troubles really began in 2016, when not even HR-suppressing Anaheim could bail him out. 90 MPH fastballs that once resulted in cans of corn or whiffs suddenly started turning into HRs. Whether this was due to a springier baseball or the subtly vital loss of a single MPH on his FB wasn’t clear. But nothing got better after a move to Minnesota, whose ballpark – like Detroit’s – is shockingly good at producing very good contact. For a pitcher whose MLB career rests on avoiding such contact, Minnesota proved to be a poor fit for Santiago’s skillset, such as it is now that Santiago’s on the wrong side of 30. He signed a minor league deal with the rebuilding Sox, hoping a reunion with pitching coach Don Cooper will help.

Meanwhile, Mike Leake figures to be one of the most-watched players in camp this year. As I mentioned above, his five M’s starts were his best stretch in a long, long while (I found one in 2013 that may have been better, but even that one was worse from a K:BB perspective), and it was driven by pinpoint control. Leake walked two batters in an M’s uniform, good for a BB/9 of 0.56. There’s good control, great control, and a BB/9 of 0.56. Sure, the sample was tiny, but Leake can regress from there and still be effective. It went beyond avoiding walks, though. Leake’s never been a strikeout pitcher, and after pitching in the NL central, where pitchers bat and the Milwaukee Brewers seemed intent on setting whiff records, his modest K rates seemed likely to collapse upon moving to the AL West. Instead, they improved. Maybe this was getting out of a weird situation in St. Louis, maybe this was Leake just enjoying a five game hot streak, or maybe this was that coaching stuff that the M’s are so dead set on. There wasn’t a whole lot different about his arsenal or his pitch mix (a few less cutters, maybe), but he did start using his sinker a bit differently, throwing the odd one in to righties instead of keeping it away most of the time. If he can keep his walk rate vanishingly low while keeping his GB rate up, he can be critical in anchoring the M’s suspect rotation.

1: Gordon, CF
2: Romine, SS
3: Andreoli, LF
4: Ford, DH
5: Hague, 1B
6: Motter, 3B
7: Nieuwenhuis, RF
8: Beckham, 2B
9: Marjama, C
SP: Leake

That’s…that’s a Cactus League line-up for you. I’m actually interested in seeing Pat Andreoli and his revamped swing. Ford would appear to have an easier time of sticking on the roster as a Rule 5 as the 1Bs are dropping like flies. Ryon Healy just had hand surgery for bone spurs, and now, apparently, Dan Vogelbach is in a walking boot after taking a Brett Kennedy fastball off his foot yesterday. A hand injury is holding Mitch Haniger out for a week or so, too, so that bad luck is getting an early start with the M’s.

The Siren’s Song of Competitive Balance

February 12, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 5 Comments 

This off-season’s will be remembered for years as the winter in which analysts/writers/commentators discussed labor law and bargaining at least as much as we discussed players moving teams. To some, that’s a good sign that owners have colluded to depress the free agent market. To others, it’s a sign that the Moneyballization of the fanbase has reached its apogee, or at least has crossed some critical threshold: fans now care more about being “smart” than hoping their team signs a bunch of good players. To still others, it’s a sign of an end to the recent period of closely-bunched teams and the beginning of a new era of super-teams – teams who are so far ahead of their rivals that they have no use for a so-so free agent market at all. And, for a high percentage of remaining fans, there’s a growing frustration that economics has dominated the hot stove league. For such a dry topic or set of topics, it’s actually produced some fascinating baseball writing – so much so that I hesitate to post this, but here goes anyway.

To me, this offseason’s biggest story is not that Eric Hosmer has yet to sign a $100M+ contract. It’s not even that, following several years of what looked like labor peace, we’re now clearly looking at the possibility of a strike within the next five years. The MLBPA and MLB Owners have fought their carefully-limited battles over a variety of issues, but both have couched their position in terms of preserving or enhancing “competitive balance.” A league in which the team with the most money wins every year would bore fans, so the thinking goes, and it would prevent the kind of healthy competition among teams that would drive up salaries. The league’s framed its support for luxury taxes, revenue sharing, and the various mechanisms that make up what now looks more like a soft salary cap in the same terms: this preserves balance, and ensures that even small market teams can compete on an equal footing with the Yankees of the league. This framing allows both to the claim the mantle of representing the fans’ interests.

It’s also why they’ve been able to come to agreement so easily. In recent CBAs, players have noted that some teams were flouting the ostensible point of the June amateur draft, in which draft order is in reverse order of the previous year’s standings. The entire point of the draft is to boost competitive balance, and the whole “bad teams pick first” is just another thumb on that scale. But as many have pointed out, what it’s really done is to depress the amount of money that goes to young players. When the Detroit Tigers were able to sign a number of consensus best player available” guys whose draft stock slid based solely on their bonus demands, the MLBPA and Owners instituted bonus pools to restrict a team’s ability to Dombrowski their way around the seeding. In the last CBA, the Players and owners tweaked the system for international bonus pools – opting not for an international draft, but instead for “hard” caps on international free agent bonuses, along with further restrictions on the posting process. The CBA also included more stringent penalties for exceeding the luxury tax threshold, right when league revenues were growing thanks to MLB Advanced Media’s breakaway success and subsequent sale as well as the market for live sports in general. So, to review, owners and the MLBPA have fundamentally agreed on the need for competitive balance, and thus the recent CBAs have sought to enhance that balance by ratcheting up the penalties for any behavior that runs afoul of it.

Why would the players care? The idea has been that if you restrict spending on amateurs, and also restrict the ability of one or two teams to corner the free agent market, teams would have no choice but to spend their MLBAM profits on free agents. The MLBPA has had an interest in preventing teams from signing a top collegiate player *as a replacement for* a mid-tier free agent, so you’ve seen major league deals to draft picks (which used to be routine for the top picks) abolished. Further restrictions on international spending was supposed to do the same thing. Now imagine that you’re an owner, and thanks to the brilliant framing of “competitive balance,” you’ve got the MLBPA coming to YOU and demanding that you spend *less* on certain classes of employees. I wonder if they made even an attempt at pretending that the agreement was a difficult one to accept, and gosh-could-we-get-some-more-movement-on-pace-of-play-in-exchange hemming and hawing, or if they signed it in a nanosecond, trying to stifle a chuckle.

This structure wasn’t just a boon to owners in the short term. By changing the relative value of a “prospect” and a free agent, it set the stage for the kind of impasse we’ve seen this winter. The problem with the balloon theory – the idea that squeezing the amateur side would produce a transfer of money to MLB players – is that it made pre-arb players even more attractive to teams. With the free agent value of a win rising rapidly, and with league minimums rising with inflation, mid-tier free agents became less and less attractive. If you arbitrarily lower the cost to acquire amateur talent, this discrepancy gets magnified. If this theory were true, you’d expect to see teams spend more on player development, as the benefit of having a player “make it” and contribute what a free agent would have is even more valuable than before. That’s hard to verify empirically, but the emphasis on mental skills, “high performance” specialists and the like suggests that teams are doing some of this. Maybe they would’ve anyway – they should – but I think at least some of the trend in PD spending is a result of the increasing awareness that the draft is now a screaming bargain, and you can hire a cadre of people to get more out of the pool of players you spent less on. The MLBPA fought for competitive balance, and now they’re watching it blow up in their faces.

Who could’ve foreseen this, beyond owners? Agents, that’s who. They’re the only group who represent both MLB veterans as well as college draft picks, AAA veterans and 19 year old Dominicans in the Northwest League. Clearly, they’re self-interested, but there’s a reason that Scott Boras was sounding the alarm for years at the bonus pools, and he’s one of several agents that are taking the fight to MLB Owners, even as MLBPA head Tony Clark has sought to quash the idea of a spring training boycott. Boras correctly foresaw this problem developing, and I’d guess he’s told many of his players that their labor strategy may backfire. If more players agree with Brandon Moss that they negotiated their way into this mess, then you can see the agents’ calls for solidarity and action to be the first step in a return to a more active union leadership – one led by an agent, perhaps.

All the talk about the relative value of a draft pick versus a free agent versus an arb-eligible player would seem to make the case that fans have grown too fond of general managers, or rather, that fans now identify more with maximizing surplus value in a trade than they do the prospect of watching dingers soar through the summer evening air. I get that concern, but feel it’s a bit overblown. Fangraphs and BP are influential sites, and led many to internalize rubrics for evaluating contracts and trades that put a premium on avoiding an “overpay” or “paying for a decline.” But as big as they’ve become, they’re still niche sites, and I’ve NOT seen a groundswell of fans outright opposing their favorite teams from spending money. Maybe it’s just because I’m an M’s fan, but I’ve actually heard the opposite: that M’s ownership standing pat at a time when making modest upgrades could potentially do the most good looks foolish. Pace Rian Watt, I don’t think any fan actually wants to watch Brian Cashman on the phone more than watching an Aaron Judge moonshot. I think fans are perfectly fine with an “overpay” if it means they can beat their hated rivals, but I think fans want to see their teams build a championship-capable roster, and not just a pleasant 78-83 win quasi-contender. The problem right now is that the model for building that championship team is so limited – and it’s limited in part by the balance-obsessed CBA.

If fans aren’t opposed to spending, they ARE increasingly comfortable with a team losing for a while. The success of the Astros and Cubs in painful but ultimately successful rebuilds has taught many that a few seasons in which a team stops trying to win big league games can be a good thing. With the growing importance of TV (and MLBAM) revenue to teams, the year-to-year benefit of winning games has also diminished. Owners don’t need to win to make money, and fans are OK with some lost seasons if they build to contention. It’s all perfectly logical, especially given the focus on competitive balance. If you want to win these days, get yourself a Carlos Correa, a Kris Bryant, an Aaron Judge, and develop them along with a few complementary pieces. Then add in a trade or two or a free agent pitcher, and boom, you’re ready to go. The MLBPA hates tanking, but helped make it an attractive proposition.

All of this argues for a very, very different CBA next time (2021, I believe). The MLBPA should fight hard – as in, be willing to strike – to get a big increase in the minimum salary as well as higher arbitration awards. The bigger the discrepancy between free agent salaries and all other salaries, the fewer free agents will be seen as worth the risk. They should fight for fewer, not more, restrictions on draft or international spending. That’s a tough sell, I realize, as that means watching more money flow to non-members, but the alternative is watching owners opt for draft-and-develop over picking up MLB-ready skills in free agency. The next CBA needs to change the incentives that drive GMs and teams, and watch teams alter their strategies to react. I’m all for *multiple* paths to championship, beyond the Astros-style teardown. I’m even more in favor of the Mariners finding one and following it.*

In general, I’m sympathetic to the players. I watch the game to watch great baseball, not an efficient allocation of resources. I understand that this particular year is something of a black swan, especially given the Shohei Ohtani situation – one created almost entirely by the last CBA itself. The changes to the posting system seemed designed to keep Ohtani out of MLB for another few years, but when he decided to come anyone, he instantly became the biggest bargain in the game by an order of magnitude. Couple that with the looming FA class *next* year, and this year’s crop was probably going to struggle. Unlike Nellie Cruz, production from players over 30 has dropped in recent years as young players have been increasingly important to teams (a result of investment in PD?). But the players need to think about how to move forward, and part of that is going to mean changing the narrative around competitive balance. Make it about fighting to ensure all teams actually try: a salary floor might help, along with reduced penalties on “over” spending. Penalize teams that tank (reduced or no revenue sharing proceeds) and eliminate free agent compensation (no draft picks attached to FA signings). Push to expand rosters. As much as fans have traditionally sided with ownership in labor disputes, I’ve heard a lot more anger directed at Derek Jeter this offseason than at Hosmer or JD Martinez. Build on that.

* The pick-ups of Dee Gordon and Mike Leake may indicate a new way to navigate this. If mid-tier free agents have been the most impacted by the CBA, then you’ll see teams either not signing future contracts, or trying to get out of the ones they’d already signed. Leake came at a relatively low cost in talent AND he came with some money. Gordon cost more, but you can see why the M’s thought he might be a decent third way between handing the position to, say, Braden Bishop and pursuing Lorenzo Cain in free agency. If 10-12 teams really don’t care about winning, the M’s should be looking over their roster for just the kind of contracts that Fangraphs may dislike but that’d offer an upgrade on the M’s current rotation. To be clear, I don’t think this strategy is the only way forward, and I think it retains a bunch of the risks of regular free agent contracts and it also costs MiLB talent – something the M’s are in extremely short supply of. Longer term, the M’s absolutely need a restocked farm system to compete, and unless they want their contention window to slam shut, they’ll need a savvy FA pickup or two after this year.

On Edgar’s Near Miss

January 25, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 12 Comments 

It was always going to be close. In his 9th time on the ballot, Edgar Martinez had 77% of the ballots that had been made public, just barely ahead of the 75% needed for induction into the Hall of Fame. Once you include the ballots made public *after* MLB’s announcement, Edgar was included on about 80% of all of the public ballots. It wasn’t enough. Edgar fell 20 votes short, as he was selected on under 60% of the private ballots. He has one more shot with the Baseball Writers Association, and, if past trends hold, he’ll make it in next year.

Random thoughts:

1: There’s some irony in the fact that it’s taking Edgar so long despite being eminently qualified. Part of the reason why Edgar’s in this situation at all is that he simply doesn’t have the career length some voters want – a fact created by the Mariners’ bizarre refusal to give him a real shot at their line-up until Edgar was 27.

2: The gap between public and private ballots was larger for Edgar than it is for many other potential inductees, and it fits a pattern that we’ve seen for several years – one we can see thanks to the tireless work of Ryan Thibodaux and his awesome HOF ballot tracker. This gap is higher among certain player types than it is with others. The PED guys, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, were selected on far fewer private ballots, while Omar Vizquel and Trevor Hoffman actually did *better* on the private ballots. Edgar’s not a PED guy, so why does this same pattern hold?

If there’s a comparable player on the ballot, I’d say it’s Mike Mussina, another player who was overlooked by writers at the time, and whose value outstrips his name recognition or, to put it another way, his fame. Mussina, whose fWAR/bWAR would seem to make him an easy choice, got about 70% of the public ballots released before today. He got just 54% of private ballots, and thus fell well short. If your case rests on WAR – or any other newfangled metric – you’re going to struggle with the private ballots. As campaigns for deserving players take hold, and they’ve been emboldened by the successful campaigns for Bert Blyleven and Tim Raines, voters who see this as weakening the hall have dug in their heels – and refused to make their ballots public.

In short, Edgar’s a case that highlights a fundamental disagreement among voters regarding what a HOF player is, and thus what the Hall’s supposed to be. You’ve got those for whom overall career value is key, and then you’ve got those who vote for something more like impact; on how memorable a player was. You’ve got voters who’ll never vote for a designated hitter, two generations after the AL brought the position in. And you’ve got voters who’ll reliably vote for elite closers, a similarly recent development. You’ve got small-hall people who voted against Jeff Bagwell or Larry Walker, and you’ve got people who vote for Omar, Andruw Jones (or Kirby Puckett or Jim Rice) whose overall value would seem to fall short of the voters’ own standards. At the end of the day, the group favoring Edgar and Edgar-like players is winning, and Edgar will be enshrined next year. If you can get past your anger at how Edgar’s been overlooked, it’s actually a really interesting dynamic to watch play out.

3: That dynamic doesn’t map perfectly to the age of the voters, but the Venn diagram is pretty close. The Hall’s recognized that this sort of thing might happen, hence the various Veteran’s Committees that go through and elect some other worthies that the writers may have overlooked. In general – and this is something that’s been discussed in more detail and better style by other writers – the Vets have fundamentally different standards, and thus have elected far more “marginal” cases. It’s generally fallen to the Vets to select among the specialists – glove-first guys like Bill Mazeroski or, even more controversially, High Pockets Kelly.

As the game grows more specialized, the Writers Association’s now dealing with a lot of specialists. They weighed the merits of glove-first players like Omar Vizquel and Andruw Jones this year, and they’ve now had plenty of time to weigh the merits of designated hitters in time to ignore their own misgivings and usher David Ortiz.

The growth of relief pitching means that starters are pitching fewer and fewer innings. The Writers clearly don’t mind closers, implying that specialists who come with their own theme music are A-OK, but their standards for starters may need to adjust. As their barometer adjusts for starters, it’s also clearly adjusting to account for a more holistic view of position players, too. Adrian Beltre seemed like a marginal case a few years ago, but a brilliant late-career surge along with writers’ increasing fluency in WAR frameworks and defensive metrics would seem to make him an easy selection. The voting’s getting better, and while it’ll take a long time, the massive gap between the Writers and the VC may start to close.

4: All of that said, I find myself caring less and less about the Hall. That’s not a pose as a cynical blogger, or a protest at voters who vote for two strange candidates and call it a ballot, or who return blank ballots to make a point. The larger issue is that so many people have very different ideas about what the Hall is, and my own view (Large Hall) is in the distinct minority.

It’s ludicrous that Trevor Hoffman or Omar got votes while Edgar didn’t, but I don’t really have the desire to trash their candidacies. If it was me, I’d let Omar in, actually. Sure, he’s not quite at Ozzie Smith’s level, but in part that’s due to the fact that Ozzie played at a time in which strike outs were comparatively rare, meaning he got tons and tons more chances. Omar spanned several eras of the game, and his statistics suffer for it. He predates the steroid era, but gets penalized for playing through it. Was Edgar a better, more valuable baseball player? Yeah, sure. But if we only induct the *best defensive shortstop of his generation* every few generations, then I think we’re getting a bit picky. Others disagree; it’s not enough to be a brilliant SS, you’ve got to do SOMETHING with the bat as well. I get that argument, and I recognize that it’s winning and will continue to win. I just don’t agree with it.

That’s been one of the frustrating things about Edgar’s 9-year odyssey on the ballot. Dealing with counter-arguments feels like playing whack-a-mole, and arguing that Edgar Martinez was great seems like arguing that the sky is blue. This isn’t the Hall’s fault, but this is what the Hall makes us *do* every winter. It’s…not fun. The downside here is that I’m not going to feel as joyous as others next year. I’ll be happy for Edgar, the M’s, the Hall, and baseball itself, but the disengagement I’ve felt this year will come back to bite me next year.

BA Locates Names of Ten Mariners Prospects

January 19, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners, Minor Leagues · 10 Comments 

Just before the holidays, fans of prospecting in general were gifted a tweet by Baseball America’s JJ Cooper which said what many had been thinking for a while:

Reading the back of the Mariners Top 30 for the Prospect Handbook. The back of this list is…..fascinating in a “Wow, we’re ranking this guy, and this guy and this guy and this guy.”

The Mariners have been in a precarious position for a while now, having traded off substantial amounts of lower minors prospects for near-ready depth with modest ceilings. Coupled with this, our draft strategy has been primarily to target competent and competitive replacements, and perhaps where we’ve had our greatest success is in selecting arms that we feel we can slot into bullpen work in short order. As such, the DiPoto era has almost excused itself from the trickier tasks of long-term development, as anything promising is quickly jettisoned and we’re left with an organization filled with organizational players. I said at the beginning of last draft that we were reaching a tipping point, beyond which was dangerous, in which we needed to focus on higher ceilings rather than replacement players. For a couple rounds, that was where our aims were, and then thereafter, not so much, which is part of why it’s not all that surprising to see a BA top ten list that has the first three names, the fifth and sixth, and then something of a free-for-all:

1. OF Kyle Lewis
2. 1B Evan White
3. RHP Sam Carlson
4. OF Julio Rodriguez
5. CF Braden Bishop
6. RHP Max Povse
7. RHP Matt Festa
8. RHP Art Warren
9. 3B Joe Rizzo
10. SS Juan Querecuto

Trending: DOWN Trades of eight players who ranked in the Top 30 Prospects a year ago have depleted the ranks.

I’m sparing you the next line which identifies as the non-coveted “worst farm system in baseball.”

If there’s anything promising that’s come out of listening into offseason conversations, it’s that DiPoto on the Wheelhouse podcast specifically stated that he thinks that we have finally arrived at the “tread water” point for our upper minors depth and can now comfortably focus on players that might take a little longer to bring along. He’s not wrong either in terms of how our depth is configured. Haniger, Gamel, Heredia, and Dee Gordon means that we can afford not to pressure Kyle Lewis or Braden Bishop. Ryon Healy, Vogelbach, and MAYBE Mike Ford mean that Evan White isn’t going to be counted on to be the first player of his draft class to hit the majors. For whatever else you think of Miranda, Erasmo Ramirez, and Mike Leake, they’ve at least got us fairly stable in the short term. One could also say that the fact that Jean Segura is locked into a long term contract makes it okay that we have traded away nearly every capable shortstop prospect we’ve had in recent memory.

In the longer run, sending away a lot of stuff leaves us with questions of resource allocation and whether it was worthwhile to, as some have characterized, make twenty moves only to still hover around .500. Hindsight makes such questions easier to answer, but in terms of prospecting, would you rather have Enyel de los Santos or what we got from Joaquin Benoit? Freddy Peralta or the Adam Lind experiment? Erick Mejia or Joe Wieland? Mike Montgomery and a quad-A starter or Daniels Valencia and Vogelbach? Zach Lee for Chris Taylor and the package that got us Smyly / Simmons were unexpected blow-ups, and had things worked out in the expected way, they would likely have been worthwhile. But the slow, untreated bleedout can ruin you just as easily as the bigger blow. Right now, I don’t feel confident in our ability to develop or to correctly evaluate more long-term assets.

It’s a bleak take on things, but then this is probably the thinnest, most top-heavy system I’ve seen in my sixteen+ years of following. There are positives to be taken away, such as the team continues to recruit Driveline guys as minor league free agents, has brought in Dr. Lorena Martin to help standardize conditioning practices, and has coaches that are increasingly savvy to how pitching and hitting mechanics are modeled. These are all great things to have to help you develop the talent that you have. We need more talent though. We need it badly.

Rene Rivera is an Angel

January 18, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

In 2001, the Mariners won 116 games, as you may have heard. Their future looked bright as well, as the great Sam Miller reminded us yesterday. A great roster, the 2nd best farm system in the game, and a wonderful new stadium. Their draft that year – June of 2001 – looked…odd, but a system that good could overcome a reach on Michael Garciaparra. After that pick, the M’s took a young catcher out of Puerto Rico named Rene Rivera.

That well-regarded system that Sam mentioned? None of the prospectors were talking about Rene Rivera. The M’s already *had* their catcher of the future: Ryan Christianson, whom the M’s took with the 11th overall pick in 1999. He reached AA in 2002, and he was the guy M’s fans pictured catching Ryan Anderson’s untouchable fastballs for years to come. An injury to Christianson and Rivera’s great defense allowed the Puerto Rican teen to rise quickly, and he ended up getting a cup of coffee with the M’s at age 20 in 2004, but during that lost season, the M’s traded away Freddie Garcia and, with Christianson stalled out, acquired their next catcher of the future: Miguel Olivo. Olivo was just 25 then, and had been the Sox #2 prospect before getting a solid half-season of work on the South Side in 2003. Olivo brought power while Rivera…did not.

Olivo had the starting job locked up in 2005, but found himself mired in a historic slump. At the end of May, Olivo was slashing .145/.174/.236 with 33 Ks and 4 BBs in 110 PAs, and the M’s sent him down. His wRC+ in 157 total PAs with the club that year was 12, or the worst in club history for any batter with at least 100 plate appearances. In late July, they officially gave up, swapping him for veteran Miguel Ojeda. Was this Rivera’s moment? No, unfortunately. A few weeks before trading Olivo to San Diego, the M’s made a last-minute decision to skip SS Troy Tulowitzki and instead take USC catcher Jeff Clement with the 5th overall pick in the 2005 draft. Again, the M’s had a catcher of the future, and again, it wasn’t Rene Rivera.

This story isn’t just about Rivera getting picked over, though. He didn’t get *much* of a chance, but he got one in 2006 as a back-up to Kenji Johjima, newly arrived from Japan and the M’s catcher of the present. Rivera got to bat 106 times, and slashed .152/.184/.253, good for a wRC+ of 9. Just…9. The ink wasn’t even dry on Olivo’s dubious record, and Rivera had somehow lowered the bar. This blog took note, heaping scorn on the hapless Rivera and the woeful 2001 draft that set the stage for the collapse of the M’s system (though that collapse had more to do with the curious implosion of the prospect haul the M’s got from Chicago – the one that included Olivo and Jeremy Reed). Rivera was demoted to AA for 2007 and after another bad year at the plate, he was gone.

First the Dodgers in 2008, then the Mets the following year. He moved to the Yankees after a brief stint in the independent leagues for the Camden Riversharks, and when that came to nothing, signed on with the Twins in 2011. He hit well in in AAA, and with Joe Mauer injured, the Twins had a need for back-up catchers. Their own Drew Butera was on hand, but even Butera knew he couldn’t hit. He’d put up a slash line of .211/.268/.292 *in AAA* in 2009, but that was good enough, and he’d been the bench catcher for 2010 and 2011. Rivera actually had a slugging percentage that started with a 4 in AAA in 2011, and with Butera cratering to a big league line of .167/.210/.239, the Twins gave Rivera a shot. Butera’s wRC+ that year was just 19, one of the worst marks in THAT franchise’s long history for anyone with over 100 PAs, but Rivera – who just a year ago was in the Atlantic League – would give Butera some cover. In 114 PAs, Rivera hit .144/.211/.202, good for a wRC+ of 12. It was the worst mark in franchise history since 1964.

Rene Rivera had two semi-extended chances in the big leagues, separated by 5 years. In *both* of them, he became the worst hitter either team had seen in at least 45 years. However, I came here not to bury Rivera, but to praise him. In a sense, Rivera’s timing was perfect. By hanging on as a guy with a great defensive reputation, Rivera found himself in an era in which offense cratered league wide. No, he wasn’t exactly catching up to league average, but fortunately enough, league average was charging headlong towards him. And around this time, some amateur analysts at Baseball Prospectus and elsewhere started trying to quantify some hitherto ignored components of catcher defense. Dan Turkenkopf figured the run value of changing a ball to a strike, and then Mike Fast (and then Max Marchi) calculated these cumulative run values catchers could accrue by “framing” strikes. Rene Rivera had been the embodiment not merely of replacement level, but the *dregs* of freely-available players. He was “I don’t care anymore” made flesh and draped in catchers gear. But a combination of changes in how we viewed the game and changes in Rivera himself would make him a valuable player.

He signed on with the Padres org in 2013, and ended up getting plenty of time as Yasmani Grandal’s back-up in 2014 when Nick Hundley got hurt. Rivera responded to his 3rd extended stint in the pros – over 300 PAs! – by hitting .252/.319/.432 with 11 HRs. A change in his swing led him to hit a lot more fly balls, and thus, while his HR/FB ratio was pretty much unchanged from his minor league stints, the sheer number of fly balls pushed his HR and SLG% numbers way, way up. He played for the Mets again in 2016-17, with a lower average but a decent number of dongers, and he excelled after a late-season move to the Cubs. A free agent, Rivera signed a deal with the Angels this month for $2.8 million.

Rene Rivera has gone from near-forgotten org depth to punch line for two different teams, and then, as the game changed, to a perfectly respectable veteran presence back-up catcher. I’m not an Angels fan by any stretch, but I’ve been inordinately happy for Rivera since the signing was announced. This game belongs to the sluggers now, the Aaron Judges, Mike Trouts, and, improbably, Jose Altuves. I keep thinking that Kris Bryant literally couldn’t have chosen a better year to debut than 2015, and Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmermann, Josh Donaldson, Yonder Alonso and others figured out how to adjust to the changing game and excelled. All of them have figured out how to maximize their own talent. But I keep thinking of guys like Rivera who personify the changing game in large part because their careers span multiple eras or epochs within the game. When Rivera started out, it was us statheads mocking the concept of catcher ERA or the measurable components of catcher defense. That was problematic for a no-hit catcher, but then all of us went ahead and changed: offense dropped, making glove-first Cs less of a run-sucking black hole in a line-up. The statheads reversed course, and finally figured out how to measure a lot of the things that had seemed unquantifiable. And Rivera actually improved. The game changed, how front offices view the game changed, and Rivera changed, too. In a hot stove season in which so few players are actually signing FA deals, I’m really, really glad that Rivera signed one, and that – at age 34, having spanned the Ryan Christianson era through the present, from the M’s being the best club in history through their entire playoff drought – Rivera will get a sizable raise and earn the largest salary of his career.

The Changing Battle Between Batters and Pitchers

January 9, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

This is a strange post without real conclusions that was sparked by an unrelated quote from M’s manager Scott Servais. I’ve grabbed a whole bunch of data from Statcast, Pitch Fx and Fangraphs, and it tells the story of how much – and how *fast* – the game has changed over the past 10 years, and the last 3-4 years in particular. I think that’s interesting enough for a post in this remarkably slow hot stove season; I mean, what else are we going to do?

On January 4th, David Laurila had one of his characterically-great quote round-up posts, this one focused on how teams valued speed in today’s game. It featured a quote from Servais, noting:

“Where the power is come from in the game — obviously we’re going to focus on it. You see guys… I call it ‘hunting their pitch.’ They’re shrinking the strike zone and trying to drive the ball out of the ballpark, trying to get the ball in the air more consistently. I think that’s the biggest change. Hitters are more aware, mechanically, of their swings — what they need to do to get the ball in the air. And not chasing pitches, but sitting on their pitches and trying to pull the ball in the air. The result has been more home runs.”

This quote, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is NOT about speed at all, but about home runs and what’s causing the HR spike in the game. Servais points to “hunting” pitches, and I wanted to see if this was true or not. So, how should we go about verifying this? How would “hunting pitches” and then really swinging hard at a narrower band of the strike zone (“shrinking the strike zone”) show up in pitch data? To me, I think, given the quote, that we’d see fewer swings overall and more called strikes. Do we? No, we do not.

What we DO see is that total pitches are up notably, by over 10,000 compared to 10 years ago, and by *22,000* compared to 2015. The problem is that these “extra” pitches aren’t a bunch of called pitches – they’re increased swings. Batters are swinging the bat more frequently these days, rising from about 45% of all pitches in 2008-2010 to about 47% from 2015-2017. With increased HRs and a rising league-wide on-base percentage, the league is seeing both more plate appearances than we did during the little batting ice age of 2010-2014, but also a steady, unbroken increase in pitches per plate appearance. Even though there were more plate appearances in 2008 compared to 2017, 2017 saw more pitches as pitches per plate appearance grew dramatically between 2014-2017. Again, batters offer at more of these pitches, as both foul balls and whiffs are up, while called strikes are down. Called balls dropped around 2009 and stayed low through 2015, and then recovered slightly in 2016-17; this is consistent with everything we’ve heard about the growth of the strike zone over this time period.

All of these swings haven’t related in more balls in play, of course. Strikeout rate has risen in each year between 2008-2017, and the league’s HR rate has followed suit. Walk rate declined markedly at the start of the 2010, and while its grown in each of the last three years, it’s still below 2008-2009 levels. While the trend isn’t quite as clear, fastball usage league-wide is lower than it was in previous years, dropping in each of the last four years, and dropping three entire percentage points from 2009-2017. This would seem to play a role in the increase in whiffs and perhaps foul balls.

The story here, such as it is, has much less to do with Servais’ conjecture and much more to do with league-wide trends that would seem to require more pitchers (to throw more pitches) and that recognize that batters are swinging more. The M’s have endeavored to control the zone in recent years, not so much by increasing whiff rates/K rates (though they’ve done that), but by limiting bases on balls. The M’s walk rate lags the league average, while their K rate is more-or-less at parity with the league. The M’s began the 2008-2017 with a remarkably bad pitching staff, leading to bloated walk rates. Jack Z’s new-look M’s quickly took care of that, but they did so by dropping K rates as well. It’s stabilized more recently, but the M’s again fell behind the league average K rate for the first time in quite a while in 2017. Still, what we’ve seen, especially over the past 5 years (the years of Safeco’s new dimensions) is that walk rates have been consistently low, while K rates have been more or less average. It’s been easier to get to an average or better K-BB% or K/BB ratio or whatever than it has been for many teams, and this despite the M’s not spending a ton of money on big-name free agent pitchers (though of course this time period covers peak Felix). What HASN’T been so easy is keeping the ball in the ballpark.

The jump in HRs league-wide is both striking and much-discussed; I don’t think it’s a shock to anyone at this point. But what’s interesting to me at least is just how much quicker things have jumped for the M’s. The M’s allowed over 200 HRs in a season a couple of times before 2016 – once in the old Kingdome, and once in 2004 with a truly, memorably bad pitching staff. To do so in two straight years is remarkable, especially given where the club was in 2013-2014. If the M’s gave up HRs at their own 2014 HR% rate, they’d have given up 141, or nearly *100 fewer* than 237 they actually gave up. Even using the league-wide rate for 2017 – the year of the HR, remember – would produce 202 HRs when applied to the M’s actual number of batters faced, or 15% less than they actually yielded.

If you’ve followed this site for a while, you know that this is something of a theme. The question for the M’s is what to do about it. There are a lot fewer HRs than there are walks and strikeouts, and like so much, HR rate is volatile when you restrict it to one team and one year. HR rate results from a variety of factors, from pitcher quality to opponent quality to ballpark mix and even the atmospheric conditions in games…all mixed in with a big random component for chance/variance that isn’t strictly limited to one of the aforementioned factors. I understand why a team might bet on some regression in HR rate, especially when it’s outpacing league-wide HR% growth by so much. But at this point, I’d suggest weighting this factor more heavily than the M’s may have previously. Hell, maybe they do, and they just got bit by a combination of injuries, a new, springier ball and climate change. Maybe it was dumb (bad) luck.

The desire to shift more innings to relievers may be part of the team’s means of addressing this alarming spike. Relievers tend to allow fewer HRs/FB than starters, and thus whereas teams didn’t need a whole slew of set-up men, it might make sense for the M’s to employ as many as possible.

Moreover, they may want to explore just how much of the HR explosion, or more accurately, the batters’ swing changes to generate elevated contact, are related to changes in how batters react to fastballs. I touched on this in May, but looking at the data over 10 years versus 2 months is instructive. The share of HRs that have come on FBs has bounced around over this time period, from 59.2% in 2008 to 58.5% in 2017. It hasn’t dropped significantly; though it’s down from its peak in 2009 and down a bit from the average, it’s still close to 59% overall. What *has* changed is the share of *fastballs* that become HRs. In 2008, 0.71% of FBs went over the fence. After a brief increase for 2009, this ratio dropped noticeably from 2010-2014, before rising back to 0.74% in 2015. Since then, though, it’s jumped again, to 0.82% in 2016 and then 0.89% in 2017. For the Mariners, though, the picture is even *more* dramatic. After starting at the league average of 0.71% in 2008, the M’s have steadily seen more fastballs become dingers than the league average. In the HR-era, though, they’ve been even more dinger-prone, rising to 1.04% of all fastballs in 2017. The M’s have *consistently* given up more HRs per fastball than the league, and if anything, the gap is growing.

Again, this may simply be the result of injuries dramatically reducing their own fastball quality last year. But the M’s have been pretty consistent in terms of the HRs they’ve allowed on FBs: they’ve ranked in the top 10 in baseball 5 of the past 6 years, and ranked 4th last season. The M’s have talked about how they evaluate a pitcher’s fastball, and the multitude of individual metrics that make up an overall fastball grade. It’s possible that giving up a few more HRs is the price they need to pay to have solid K/BB numbers without breaking the bank for name-brand, free-agent hurlers. But this seems like it bears watching. Much of the overall data fits the narrative we’ve already created: batters are swinging at more pitches now, reacting to the growth of the strike zone. The time lag means swings are up even after the growth in the zone stopped. HRs are up due to the ball, and the growth in OBP means more plate appearances and thus more HRs even as fastball usage declined. What I can’t yet fit into some narrative or just-so story is why the M’s have been quite so homer-prone, or why their fastballs are smacked around the way they are. To compete in 2018 and beyond, the M’s need this to change. That’s not news, that’s not a meaningful conclusion. The M’s offense does not appear to be much better in terms of OBP than last year’s model, so to the extent their runs-allowed/runs-scored improves, it sort of stands to reason that the improvement will come from the pitchers. Health will play a role, of course, but figuring out this HR problem would make that job much, much easier.

What’s Past is Prologue…Maybe

December 22, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

In one of the least heralded of his latest flurry of transactions, the M’s picked up right-handed reliever Shawn Armstrong from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for some of the international bonus pool spending authority they’d accumulated to try and sign Shohei Otani. Armstrong has never started, and though he bounced around the fringes of the Indians’ top 20 list, the sense that he was destined for middle relief limited his appeal as a real prospect. He’s now out of options, a fact that may see him signed/released by several teams in the next few months.

Armstrong’s thrown 43+ innings in three separate stints with the Tribe, accumulating zero runs above replacement. Do projection systems see untapped potential here? Er, no, they see a guy who’s been replacement-level and project him as…replacement level. There’s nothing really shocking here, despite some gaudy AAA strikeout rates. Those haven’t quite translated to the big leagues, and his walk rates are scary, and, perhaps most importantly, big league relievers – as a group – are really, really good now. You don’t look at Armstrong’s Fangraphs page and see someone likely to help immediately. And since he’s out of options, you *also* don’t see a project who might work something out in Tacoma.

This blog, at its core, has been organized around the idea that the right statistics give us some insight into a pitcher’s talent, and that a pitcher’s results are, given a decent sample, related to that talent. Variance/luck/etc. will result in some mismatches between talent and results, and again, that’s where the stats can be valuable – they can aid in identifying undervalued players. In the main, on average, this theory works pretty well. A great pitcher whose results are sullied by a freakishly high BABIP will likely post better results down the road. Individual players can change, and the very phrase “true talent” almost implies something immutable or fixed, something that’s not true at all. But every game post, I’m looking at, say, pitch fx data or FIP or something other than a guy’s W/L record, or how’s he’s fared against AL West teams on Tuesday nights, because those numbers give us some sense of what we’re going to see. If you look at Shawn Armstrong’s numbers, you’re not encouraged. If past is prologue, then Armstrong will cycle through a bunch of teams as he’s waived, and will eventually sign a minor league deal with an opt-out.

But Armstrong looks…familiar. Here’s a table featuring one of the ol’ stand-by blogging devices – my apologies, it’s December and I’m not feeling creative at all:

FB Spin FB Vert. Movement FB Horiz. Movement Cutter Spin Cutter Vert. Movement Cutter Horiz. Movement
Player A 2396 9.28 -3.71 2483 5.78 1.37
Player B 2363 9.3 -2.82 2486 4.83 1.21

Player A throws a four-seam fastball with 2396 RPM spin, while Player B’s at 2363. For context, the league average value last season was 2255; 632 players threw at least 25 four-seamers (including Chris Gimenez? Really?), and so both A and B are solidly in the top 3rd in spin rate. Movement-wise, the pitches are even more freakishly similar – just 2 hundreths of an inch difference in vertical rise, and less than an inch in horizontal break (there’s very little of it from either hurler). They both throw cutter/slider things, and both are thrown hard (meaning thrown at a velocity close to their fastball), and with a bit of cut and sink. These cutters have high spin rates as well; the league average is 2344, and A and B are next to each other on the spin rate leaderboards (in the top 1/4th). High spin fastball and high spin cutter – if you thought “Nick Vincent” congratulations, he’s Player A. B is Armstrong. Remember that Vincent was signed when HE was out of options and could’ve been waived by the Padres. Vincent had had much more big league success, but was essentially freely-available back before the 2016 season.

Vincent never threw as hard as Armstrong, but – and I’d actually forgotten this – used his cutter and fastballs to dominate righties. Lefties ate him alive, but he really controlled righties, which is something I wrote about when the M’s picked him up. With the M’s, Vincent’s shown essentially no platoon splits, and has handled lefties remarkably well. Vincent and the M’s took something that was a part of his statistical record and changed it. It’s still too early to say definitively whether this is variation or if his “true talent” changed, but the M’s got two solid years out of Vincent – two years in which he’s been dominant against lefties, a fact that’s enabled him to pitch in higher leverage situations and to face more batters than anyone relying on his fangraphs page would’ve expected. I’ve beaten the M’s up these past two years for their mediocre record in player development and their inability to keep players around long enough to try, but Vincent’s a – maybe THE – example of a clear-cut developmental success.

One of the keys has been how Vincent attacks lefties, something Jerry Dipoto talked about with regard to Juan Nicasio in the last Wheelhouse podcast. Here’s where Vincent spotted his fastball against lefties with the Padres:
Vincent FB usage to lefties 12-15
This usage reflects a pretty common idea: righties should keep fastballs away from lefties – or righties, for that matter. It’s harder to pull them, after all, and thus harder to drive. Vincent threw his fastballs up and middle-away to righties, and away to lefties. It worked against righties, and didn’t work at all against lefties. What’s he done with the Mariners?

Vincent FB usage to lefties 16-17

There’s no longer a clear difference in how he attacks lefties and righties: both get elevated four-seam fastballs, and lefties are now more likely to see an *inside* fastball than an away version. To understand why the M’s might prefer this approach, we’ll go back to the Wheelhouse podcast and Jerry’s discussion of “effective velocity” in episode 2. Here, they’re not referring to the effective velocity measurement in statcast, which accounts for a pitcher’s stride toward the plate. Instead, he’s referring to Perry Husband’s concept. A hitter needs less time to get his bat to an away fastball than he does to an inside fastball. A down and away fastball isn’t worthless, but because a batter can react later to it, it makes the pitch seem slower – a batter needs less time to put that pitch in play than a fastball with the exact same velocity thrown inside. Vincent stopped turning his 89-MPH heater into an effectively-86-MPH heater, and became an all-around reliever.

You probably know where this is going. Here’s Shawn Armstrong’s fastball usage to lefties:
Armstrong FB usage to lefties

Armstrong hasn’t had the same trouble with lefties in the bigs, but then, he’s not exactly maximizing his effective velocity to righties, either. And it’s righties who’ve absolutely killed his fastball. Armstrong is very, very similar in many ways to Vincent, and Vincent has completely changed his approach since he got here, making him a much more effective pitcher overall. It’s possible Armstrong could break free of his statistically-inferred true talent, too, and by following the same general change in approach.

The more I’ve written on this statistically-obsessed blog, the more I’ve come to the idea that it’s these critical shifts in “true talent” are what drive team success. Critics sneer that sabermetrics turns real flesh-and-blood players into trend lines and probability stats, and while that’s grossly oversimplified, there’s…there’s something there. What’s the alternative, shout aggrieved saber-wonks? Rely on how a player looks in uniform? Go by draft order? I’m going to stick to the stats, personally, but I’ll say this: the most important thing the M’s need to do is to have a few of their players make their past statistics utterly irrelevant. Jean Segura did this with Arizona, of course, and Nelson Cruz didn’t become a different player, but became a vastly *better* version of himself in his mid-30s. On paper, this M’s team lacks the talent to compete with either the Astros or Angels. It doesn’t sound like the M’s are going to materially change their talent level between now and April. Ergo, the M’s need to fundamentally change the talent of the guys they already have.

Heading into 2014, Jose Altuve had played 2.5 seasons of perfectly fine baseball. If he was remarkable, it was due to his comically small stature, and the fact that he’d come from nowhere to become a starting player on a team that pretty clearly valued him for his minimal paycheck. In 2014, Altuve had his best season, one that seemed like the logical peak for someone with his (powerless) skillset. A nice BABIP pushed his average way up, and thus Altuve was valuable. Since *then*, however, Altuve’s become something unrecognizable, and something much, much more dangerous. After racking up 21 HRs in his first 3.5 MLB seasons, he’s hit 24 in EACH of the past two. Jose Altuve just slugged .547 on his way to a well-deserved MVP award. Carlos Correa is amazing. #1 draft picks are great, and offer unbelievable talent. Altuve was an afterthought, and then a stopgap, and then a force. No one looking at either Jose Altuve or Jose Altuve’s stats would’ve projected this, but there it is.

You may have seen the photo of Tim Lincecum training about 50 miles north of here at Driveline that’s flown around Baseball Twitter. The great Patrick Dubuque wrote about it at BP here, and he’s right – Lincecum doesn’t *need* to do anything more. His career – his meteoric rise to the top of baseball – was enough, and he has nothing left to prove. We all saw Lincecum’s last appearance in the bigs, pitching for the Angels, in what’s sure to be a tough pub quiz question 10 years hence. He pitched 3+ IP against Seattle, giving up 6 runs on 9 hits, and with an ERA standing at over 9, the Angels released him after that day in August of 2016. The statistical record looks pretty damning: declining velo leading to worse and worse results, and there you go – an early peak, an early fall, and hey, pitchers, amirite? As we’ve seen so often, though, players have much, much more control over their true talent than people like me ever imagined. Does this mean Lincecum’s back? Is Shawn Armstrong the next Nick Vincent? Will Ben Gamel hit 30 HRs? I don’t know, I don’t know, and I doubt it. But if I could make the M’s better than their rivals at any aspect of running a team, it’d be this ability to make a player unrecognizable – to blow the trend and the carefully-constructed scouting report out of the water. The Astros did this with a number of players, and that ultimately meant more to their World Series win than drafting Carlos Correa (though for the record, I’d like the M’s to draft the next Carlos Correa). The M’s trail the Astros in talent, and they need an out-of-nowhere leap in ability from a few of their players. That’d make a fine Christmas gift.

Still More Winter Transactions: Welcome Juan Nicasio and Mike Ford

December 15, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

I don’t think the pixels were dry on my last transactions recap when the M’s made a few more moves, signing RP Juan Nicasio to a two-year, $17 M contract and selecting ex-Yankee farmhand 1B Mike Ford in the Rule 5 draft. Fittingly, the two moves are linked thematically/roster-needs-wise to another of GM Jerry Dipoto’s moves in the offseason: the trade of Emilio Pagan for 1B Ryon Healy. Let’s talk about who the M’s got and why.

Nicasio was an injury-plagued starter in Colorado who pitched in perhaps the worst possible environment for a pitcher with nothing to throw to left-handed batters. He threw a lot of four-seam fastballs with plus velocity and not much else, and he threw a tight slider that occasionally confused righties. He tried to keep lefties off balance with a change up, but batters hit .429 over the course of two half-seasons in 2011-12. Over the course of his long career, batters still have a combined .719 slugging percentage off of Nicasio’s cambio. Moving to the bullpen took some of the pressure off of his change, not least because he could now sit at 95 with his fastball. His slider usage is up over 25%, too, and he’s finally found the confidence to throw it to lefties instead of his sub-par change. All of that pushed his strikeout rate higher, and some work with Ray Searage in Pittsburgh may have helped him keep his walk rate down.

More importantly, as Kate Preusser’s exultant post at LL reminds us, Nicasio’s history as a starter and his usage in LA and Pittsburgh shows that he’s quite capable of pitching multiple innings. This is, then, not simply a standard set-up guy who’ll pitch the 7th or 8th. What he does is replace the remarkably useful Emilio Pagan, who averaged about 1.5 innings per appearance last year. With question marks in the back of the rotation, and with the M’s looking to give more innings to the bullpen in 2018, this ability is crucial, and it’s why LL is so high on Nicasio. Plus, Nicasio’s shift to FB/SL against lefties has transformed him from a guy with awful platoon splits to a guy who ran reverse splits last year.

Nicasio’s K rate dropped a bit last year as batters put his fastball in play more often; their whiff rate was constant, but they hit more of them in fair territory in 2017. Moreover, his K rate against righties has fallen off, from over 10 per 9 in 2016 to under 7 per 9 last year. It’s been steady versus lefties, but small samples and exceedingly volatile HR rates make it hard to know what to expect next year. He was worth 1.4 fWAR in each of the past two seasons, but that masked volatility in runs-allowed, thanks to those crazy HR rates and some issues with stranding runners. To take these in reverse order, Nicasio’s never shown much of an abiltity to strand runners. He was above average last year, but that was the first time in his career you could say that. Yes, it’s not a terribly reliable stat, but Nicasio’s career rate of 70% is straight-up bad, and his since-becoming-a-good-reliever rate is…normal-ish. Great relievers show a consistent ability to strand runners, with your Kenley Jansens and Craig Kimbrel’s averaging 85% or so and getting above 90% with some regularity. Those guys cost an arm and a leg. But even lower-tier guys from Mychal Givens to Addison Reed to Zach Duke to Will Harris can stay in the 80s. Nicasio’s never done that. That’s why his ERA/RA9 has been higher than his FIP in two of the last three years. The M’s need the 2017 version of Nicasio, not the fluke-FIP 2015 version or the 2016 HR-troubled version.

The Yankees, armed with one of the deepest farm systems around, always knew they’d get poached in the Rule 5 draft. It’s why they made so many trades in the run-up to the draft to clear off 40-man spots, like the one they’d just given to Nick Rumbelow. Even with their efforts in November/December, they still lost *4* players in yesterday’s Rule 5 draft, the most of any franchise. With the 11th pick, the M’s selected 1B Mike Ford, a lefty-hitting/righty-throwing guy who’d put up solid numbers in the high minors last year. Similar to fellow new-Mariner Matt Hague, Ford is a control-the-zone star, posting great walk rates but little of the power you associate with the position. He’s projected for an ISO in the mid-150s, and a league average slash line of .241/.334/.398 that looks like a dead ringer for fellow LHB/RH throwing 1B Dan Vogelbach (whose projection is slightly worse at .242/.331/.393). Hague is a righty, and while he doesn’t have a projection at this point, it’d look pretty much the same. All of these guys post very good MiLB walk rates and surprisingly low K rates. Hague had the lowest AAA K% in 2017, while Ford’s done it more consistently. Vogelbach’s 6 months younger than Ford, while Hague’s much older at 32.

The M’s have essentially set up a competition at 1B featuring two righties in Healy/Hague and two lefties in Ford/Vogelbach. Ford goes back to the Yankees if he doesn’t make the club (or come down with a mysterious injury allowing the M’s to DL him), and Hague’s a minor league free agent. But three of these guys have similar skill sets: the precise opposite of Healy’s. I think Dipoto would love to have a bench bat who could spell Healy AND provide a lot more plate discipline than Healy’s going to give you, and thus it’d be nice if this pseudo-platoon guy batted lefty. This competition may be Vogelbach’s last shot to prove that he can contribute to this team, and I could see him moved in the spring if Ford grabs the job. Of course, it’s awfully hard to carry a 1B-only bench bat when you have an 8 man bullpen, as the M’s apparently will. Tying up two roster spots in marginal 1Bs may squeeze more production out of the line-up spot (and it won’t cost the M’s much), but it really makes the 25-man roster a bit more limited.

This gets to the issue with the Healy deal. Not only did the M’s lose a multi-inning RP making league minimum in Emilio Pagan, but the cheap 1B starter they acquired has tons of red flags. In a full year last year, Healy was worth 0.2 fWAR thanks to a very low OBP. His projection for 2018 is 0.2 again. The M’s can’t compete with a below-average-hitting 1B, and that’s essentially where they are. TO blow those projections out of the water, they can either show a hell of a lot more player development chops *at the big league level* than they’ve shown heretofore, or they can supplement Healy’s pop with a healthy dose of a high-OBP platoon partner. No team wants to count on production from a Rule 5 guy; that’s a recipe for disappointment. But if it all goes right, Ford could potentially be a contributor. Is that enough? We’ll see.

The Most Important Mariner

December 15, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 5 Comments 

Not content with explaining his process to podcast listeners, Jerry Dipoto made his case that he and his underlings are doing a fantastic job to Larry Stone and the Seattle Times today. Couple a disastrous (and old) 40-man roster, a foundering farm system and an aging core, and Dipoto would argue that the team was worse than the 76-86 record that got Jack Zduriencik fired. The injury wave that broke over the M’s last year hid the progress his re-tooled roster made. Thus, argues Jerry, the team has actually rebuild on the fly, and is preparing to contend.

The M’s lack of activity in free agency is a feature, not a bug. “If you build your club in free agency, you are going down a very long and dark hallway,” he said to Stone. This is an important philosophical point, and one fans often conflate with penny-pinching owners; Dipoto legitimately doesn’t believe in signing huge contracts that have the potential to limit flexibility for years. That’s perfectly understandable, but it means that the M’s need to get star players through other means. The M’s have not been terribly aggressive in international free agency (Ohtani aside), and they’ve resisted trading for prospects, opting instead to trade their own prospects for immediate help like David Phelps. Clearly, the M’s have been very active in the trade market, using it to rebuild their bullpen and their outfield. The result has been a much more well-rounded roster, with the M’s getting production from complementary players in a way they never did under Zduriencik.

The problem is that their core isn’t as productive as it once was. With Felix’s fall from grace, and Robinson Cano’s production becoming a bit more volatile, the M’s problem *now* is that they don’t really have a superstar player. Nelson Cruz, the Nelson Cruz who’ll turn 38 next season, posted the team’s highest position-player fWAR/bWAR in 2017 at around 4. For a DH, that’s spectacular, but if the M’s can’t count on 4-6 from Cano and Felix, they need someone else to step up. The M’s hoped Jean Segura would be that player, as he was coming off a 5 win season in Arizona. Injuries and a lack of power pushed his production around 3, and while his projections look laughably low, it’s perfectly reasonable to think Segura may have peaked in 2016. Dee Gordon’s come close to 5 wins before, but given a position change and a park that severely impacts doubles and triples, it’s going to be tougher for him to get there in Seattle. The M’s need a star-level player and they’re not getting one in free agency, and the minors aren’t going to supply one anytime soon. If the M’s are going to get a star-level player, if they’re going to pack serious production into one roster spot, they need a huge improvement from someone currently on the roster. If the M’s are going to make a playoff run, they’re going to need a big year from Mitch Haniger.

Haniger always seemed like a very intriguing piece of the Segura/Tai Walker trade, and even after fighting through injuries, he posted a .282/.352/.491 line, good for a 129 wRC+. That’s not intriguing, that’s not “a nice second piece,” that’s really good, and there’s reason to believe his trajectory is still headed up. Thanks to a so-so cup of coffee with Arizona and his age, Haniger’s Steamer projections aren’t that great; he’s projected for a 105 wRC+, 4th on the club behind three “core” members of the franchise. If Haniger’s able to maintain his power production and play a few more games, he’s the one non-Cano/Seager/Cruz Mariner capable of producing a 5-6 WAR season.

Wait, wait, what about Segura? Segura could conceivably get there, especially once you factor in his position. To get back to the lofty heights of his 2016 season would require much more gap and HR power than he showed last year. While I’ve been banging on about Safeco no longer being a HR-suppressing park, it’s clearly a different – and tougher – park to play in than Chase Field in Arizona. That park seems to produce an inordinate amount of well-struck contact (whether this is atmospheric, or something to do with the batters’ view, I don’t know), and it’s also got plenty of room for well struck balls to rattle around in. Safeco’s dimensions help with HRs, but make it very hard to get doubles and triples. Add it up, and Segura’s extra-base hit rate went from 9.8% of plate appearances in 2016 to 7.6% in 2017. That’s perfectly fine from your SS! With a couple more HRs or a better BABIP, Segura could easily crest 3.5 WAR, and that would help a top of the line-up that may need help to maintain the solid OBPs they posted last year. I’m glad the M’s extended Segura, but the younger/more complete hitter in Haniger’s the guy they need to make the leap to great player.

What about Paxton? He could easily get to 5 WAR (he was at 4.6 fWAR last year), but it’s going to take something he’s not been able to do in any season, and that’s to stay healthy consistently. Paxton is the team’s best player on a rate basis, but his injury history is impossible to ignore, and he’ll play next season at 29. The M’s need a star player not for a year or two, but for several years: they need a new core to build around. Paxton’s incredible, but tougher to plan around; much of that is simply due to his position, of course. But for all of Dipoto’s moves, the M’s still haven’t solved the question of who the team’s going to build around once Cruz walks at the end of 2018 and Cano/Seager are no longer in their peak seasons. Dipoto’s all but said he doesn’t want to replace these cornerstones through free agency, and Kyle Lewis aside (whose knee injury has proven much more severe than we first thought), there’s really no one in the system capable of becoming such a player. As such, the team desperately needs Mitch Haniger to develop into a star-level player and not just a promising, late-blooming corner OF. Paxton’s incredible, and Segura’s a critical top-of-the-line-up hitter, but Mitch Haniger’s the most important Mariner for 2018 and beyond.

Mid-December Back-of-the-Roster Moves

December 13, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 6 Comments 

It’s the middle of December, the Winter Meetings are in full swing, and Shohei Otani – and his slightly dinged-up elbow ligaments – is officially an Angel. What’s a GM to do? Well, depends on the GM, of course, but if there’s one thing we know about Jerry Dipoto, it’s that he believes it’s *always* a good time to work on roster spots 35-40.

In the past few days, the M’s have added several players through MiLB free agency, waiver claims and, of course, trade. It’s somewhat likely that none of them will play an inning for the Seattle Mariners, but you never know, and in the absence of larger moves to talk about, there’s no harm in recapping the newest members of the M’s organization

1: Perhaps the most interesting, at least to me, is ex-Cubs farmhand John Andreoli. Andreoli’s a stocky CF with serious in-game speed; he stole 55 bags in the Florida State League years ago, and while he’ll play next year at 28, he’s still a plus runner. A college teammate of Astros’ CF George Springer, Andreoli’s game was based on slapping at the ball and utilizing his speed. In his draft year at UConn, Andreoli had an ISO of just .031; that’s a grand total of 7 extra-base hits (and zero HRs) in 254 at-bats.

That basic MO carried over into the pro ranks, where he knocked 5 HRs in his first 1,000 or so pro plate appearances, where he supplemented his so-so contact skills with an improved walk rate. Without any power, that was about the best he could hope for – a high OBP, solid defense and baserunning path to 5th OF or pinch runner at the big league level. Somewhere around 2014, though, Andreoli made some pretty big changes to his swing. His ground ball rate dropped, and his fly ball rate surged by about 6 percentage points. This shift in approach had some consequences, and all of them were negative: without power to turn those fly balls into HRs, his BABIP tumbled, and so did his slash line. 2014 was the worst year of Andreoli’s career. Perhaps shockingly, he was undeterred.

Andreoli came back in 2015 and pushed his GB% below 40%, and had the first inklings of in-game power. He knocked 5 HRs that year, which isn’t any good in the PCL, but was as many as he’d had in his entire pro AND collegiate career combined. A high BABIP helped keep his batting average acceptable, and thus he was a fairly productive player, albeit with some warning signs. Andreoli went all-in at this point, and while his average dipped in 2016 thanks to a climbing K rate, he was still a productive player. His speed helped his BABIP, and he swiped 40+ bases to go with an unthinkable-for-Andreoli 12 HRs. He’s no one’s idea of a power hitter, but again, this is quite remarkable considering his own baseline. In 2017, Andreoli carried these swing changes to or nearly to their logical limit. His GB% tanked to below 29%, sending his fly ball rate above 50%. Andreoli’s batted ball profile looks like Trevor Story’s, or a slightly more restrained version of fly ball maven Ryan Schimpf.

Schimpf, despite his tiny size, always showed power through the minors thanks to his approach, and it helped him post a very good season with the Padres in 2016. But his low average (and thus OBP) led the Pads to demote him in 2017, and he’s just moved to the Rays. Schimpf is famous for this approach, but it’s not clear it’s worked for him. Andreoli may be similar – with a K% over 27% in AAA and 14 HRs in a hitting-friendly league, Andreoli and his new approach seems like he’d struggle in the majors. Andreoli’s production surged vs. lefties (Andreoli’s a righty) last year for the first time, and if THAT kept up, you’d at least have a bench-bat/platoon role for him. We’ll see. But it’s an absolutely fascinating transformation, and if he can pair it with improved discipline, you could have something. Even in the meantime, he figures to push Andrew Aplin for Tacoma’s starting CF job, and it may be fun to watch him in the PCL. As a minor league free agent, Andreoli is NOT currently on the M’s 40-man.

2: A more traditional Dipoto-style OF, the M’s grabbed Cam Perkins from the Phillies this past Monday. Perkins came up a corner IF, then moved to the OF corners, but has recently seen some time in center field as well, so you’d figure him as a Ben Gamel-style OF. His strengths/weaknesses look similar to Gamel’s as well. Perkins has generally run good contact rates, and while he doesn’t walk a whole lot, putting the ball in play is a decent way to end up with a good average/OBP (especially in the minors). A righty, Perkins’ limited power means he’s got the same issues as Gamel: not quite enough power for an OF corner, and not quite enough speed/D to play CF. Perkins cup of coffee in Philadelphia this year went about as well as Gamel’s did in Seattle in 2016.

Perkins’ walk rate and power both improved markedly this year, so maybe the M’s think they can coax a bit more out of the 27 year old. A pull-happy hitter with a penchant for infield pop-ups, he reminds me a bit of Taylor Motter, especially when Motter was in the minors, though Motter was better at the plate and offered more defensive flexibility. Still, Perkins is a perfectly cromulent AAA OF, and will help Tacoma in 2017 (if he sticks around). Perkins was on Philadelphia’s 40-man, and as a waiver claim, he’s on the M’s 40-man roster now as well.

3: One question fans have had since the M’s lost out on Shohei Otani was: what are the M’s going to do with their newly-acquired international bonus pool funds? There are a few high profile FAs still around, though teams like the Rangers – who have plenty of $$$ and more of a history in the international market – may be tough competition. Well, today we got a partial answer: they’ll trade it. The M’s took my concept of roster churn somewhat literally and RE-acquired lefty Anthony Misiewicz from Tampa in exchange for a few hundred thousand in…what, it’s not actual money – we’ll call it spending authority. The M’s got Misiewicz back after a few months in the Rays org is exchange for Tampa being allowed to spend more of its own money on international players.

The Rays needed to, because they had a deal worked out with highly regarded prospect Jelfre Marte for more money than the Rays were legally allowed to spend. Marte signed a $3 million + deal with Minnesota this summer, but it was voided shortly thereafter when the Twins detected some sort of vision problem in Marte. The Rays will sign him for $800,000. Somewhat different circumstances, but it reminds me of Christopher Torres having a handshake deal with the Yankees for millions, and, when the Yankees backed out of it, the M’s swooped in and signed him for a fraction of that amount. Anyway, Misiewicz was a late round draft pick out of Michigan State who’s risen to AA thanks to solid control. After an up and down start in the Cal League, Misiewicz had a few great starts for Arkansas, then hit a rough patch, but was solid for the Rays’ southern league affiliate, Montgomery. Misiewicz was drafted in 2015, so is under M’s club control and is not on the 40-man.

I know some wanted the M’s to scoop up more of the ex-Braves prospects that hit the market again after MLB voided their contracts, and Cuban OF Julio Pablo Martinez, so this kind of move may be a bit of a downer. On the plus side, the M’s still have plenty more, and should be able to make very competitive offers to Martinez or whoever else is still available. Marte’s deal with Tampa shows that we’re getting towards the end of the 2017-18 signing period, though – guys who’ve had deals voided due to issues in their physicals, or, in the case of the Braves, by MLB. The best of the Braves haul have already re-signed elsewhere, so while the cupboard isn’t exactly bare, it’s trending that way.

4: Drew Smyly signed a 2-year deal with the Cubs for $10 million ($3m this year, when he’ll mostly be rehabbing from TJ surgery, and $7m the next), with incentives pushing the max value to near $17m. The M’s apparently offered him a 2-year deal, but he’ll head to Chicago.

5: The best name of the newly-acquired M’s goes to RHP Johendi Jiminian, late of the Colorado Rockies org. Jiminian had a forgettable 2017 in AA and AAA, but has a decent fastball and a good change-up.

6: 1B Matt Hague comes to the M’s from the Minnesota Twins system, where he played at the AAA level in 2017. Hague’s from Bellevue originally, so seemed pretty excited about coming to the M’s. Hague’s an extreme contact hitter, with very low strikeout rates and very good walk rates; he’d be the Control the Zone champion of this round of roster moves. He’s had short stints in the big leagues with Pittsburgh and Toronto, but is on a minor league deal with Seattle. The trade off to the elite contact skills is a relative dearth of power, which is an issue for a 1B. His minor league career ISO is just .132, but he also has a career .375 OBP.

7: Returning to the M’s minor league system (non-40-man) are Casey Lawrence, the pitcher the M’s acquired from Toronto and who made several appearances for Seattle, and 2B/IF Gordon Beckham, the one-time White Sox phenom who parlayed a decent season in Tacoma into a September call-up with the M’s. Both players were on the 40-man at some point last year, but both are non-roster players now.

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