Game 99, Rangers at Mariners

July 27, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

Marco Gonzales vs. Jon Gray, 12:40pm

A matinee game for get-away day today as Marco Gonzales and the M’s go for a sweep of the Rangers. Texas is an interesting team, in that after a truly awful, dispiriting rebuild year last year, they were active in free agency to get a lot better very quickly. Part of this was the realization that their once-vaunted player development group hadn’t been doing well for a long time, and the old pipeline that supplied the big league team in their heyday was no more. Prospects like Willie Calhoun, Leody Taveras, Ronald Guzman, etc., seemed to show flashes, but stumble in the big leagues. They could bump along the bottom of the AL for years, like the Baltimore Orioles, or like the Tigers have done recently, or they could bring in an influx of talent.

The opted to go and buy a credible team. The fact that it hasn’t made them an instant contender is both unsurprising and, annoyingly, a kind of evidence for some that FA spending doesn’t “work” somehow. I think this view misses just how bad the Rangers offense, for one, was in 2021. They had a wRC+ of just 84, a sub-.300 OBP as a group, and they scored the fewest runs in the AL. No, bringing in Marcus Semien and Corey Seager hasn’t made them murderer’s row, but why would anyone think it should? I think a big part of this is the awful start that Semien got off to in a Rangers uniform. He’s dragged his season line to just shy of league average, but he dug himself quite a hole in April. As we’ve seen in this series, even a relatively hot double play combination doesn’t necessarily translate into a lot of runs when the back end of the line-up is so bad, and unfortunately for Rangers fans, their line-up is incredibly top-heavy. Part of this is due to injuries, and part of it remains their struggle to get league-average play from youngsters they’ve developed. At least Taveras is turning things around?

For all of the attention paid to Semien/Seager, the Rangers also brought in two veteran starters, Martin Perez and Jon Gray. Here, the results have been remarkable. Perez went to the All Star game, and while he won’t keep up the pace he set from April-June, he’s been a great, cheap starter who makes a rotation that was the worst in baseball last year into a so-so group. Perez has been their best and most durable starter, but today’s starter, Jon Gray, has been another quality find. He pitched for years in Colorado, with a tough home park and ridiculous inconsistency relegating him to a question mark. Brilliant in 2017, so-so for two years after that, truly awful in 2020, solid in 2021. The righty out of Oklahoma always had solid FB velocity and a slider that could elicit whiffs, but it all added up to something less than the sum of some intriguing parts.

His fastball played pretty well *for Coors Field*. Batters are slugging nearly .500 off of it over the course of his career, but you have to grade on a curve with Rockies pitchers, and its low spin and vertical movement actually turned it into a ground ball pitch – a neat trick in Colorado. His best pitch, though, was his slider. Batters are slugging just over .300 on it over his career, but while he threw it a lot, he – like the rest of the Rockies staffs in this period – threw a lot of four-seamers. A lot of that has changed this season. Gray’s now approaching 40% sliders, and his four-seam usage is just a hair below 50%. The shape of his slider’s quite a bit different as well. He’s gone from throwing a firm/cutter-y slider at around 88 to a very au courant “sweeper” with lots more horizontal movement, aided by a lower velo: 85-86mph. His slider was always effective against lefties as well as righties, but it’s at another level now. Lefties had a bad average against it last year, but managed 4 HRs on sliders. This year, they’re slugging .147 against it with 0 HRs. Gray was nowhere near as cheap as Perez, but his four-year deal now looks like a bargain, and if they ever want to, I’m sure they could get something interesting in trade for him.

Yesterday’s win was another 2021-style weird one. The game had everything: Julio’s first-inning HR, a truly Griffey-style moment, a solid start from George Kirby, and then late-game heroics from Cal Raleigh and Carlos Santana. I don’t know if the M’s will make the playoffs, or how deep they’ll get if they go. But kind of like last year’s team, this one has done enough. They’re a success. They’ve gotten the region to care, they’re playing attractive baseball, and while flawed, you simply can’t turn off a game that Julio is playing in. This is something we’ve struggled with for decades: is it OK that they don’t win if you get to see absolute legends of the game in Seattle shirts? This isn’t a zero-sum game, of course, and sure, we’d all like both – to see Julio lead this team to a championship. But that’s hard, and we’ve been through some, uh, rough times in the past decade. Did Felix single-handedly save some lean years? Yes. Does that kind of get the FO off the hook for some unconscionable decisions on who to surround Felix with? Also, maybe yes? It’s hard. You want accountability and for a team to clearly want to win it all. But baseball is entertainment, and sometimes it’s enough to just go and yell like a madman at whatever Julio’s done now. A part of me doesn’t want that to be enough, but the other part of me is too busy yelling like a madman at whatever Julio’s done, and it more fun to yell than to feel aggrieved all the time.

1: Juliooooo, CF
2: Winker, LF
3: Lewis, DH
4: Santana, 1B
5: Suarez, 3B
6: Crawford, SS
7: Frazier, 2B
8: Torrens, C
9: Haggerty, RF
SP: Gonzales

Tacoma blanked El Paso 2-0 last night thanks to another 4-IP of scoreless ball from Austin Warner (he did the same in his last start, I think). Jarred Kelenic was 2-4 with a 2B.
Tulsa beat Arkansas, 2-1. Levi Stoudt went 6 IP with 5 Ks, 0 BB and 1 R.
Everett beat Vancouver by the same 2-1 score, with Prelander Berroa pitching well. Noelvi Marte went 0-4, shockingly.
Modesto beat Fresno 8-6, as SS Edwin Arroyo tripled not once but twice.
The Complex-League Arizona team is 15-20 coming into today, and some of the 2022 draft picks are starting to show up down in Peoria. They struck out 21 ACL Texas Rangers last night, slowing down the league’s best offense by far.

Game 97, Rangers at Mariners

July 25, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Chris Flexen vs. Glenn Otto, 7:10pm

Another huge home series capping off a remarkable run and another deflating sweep. It doesn’t feel great, but it’s probably not that shocking. The Astros remain the best team in the division, and while the M’s have played them tough this season (and in this series!), they’re better than the M’s. That’s never going to feel great, but 1) the M’s are still on a hot streak and now face an inferior opponent and 2) they don’t need to beat the Astros to get to the postseason.

That kind of tees up the big question about the M’s 2022 season and their rebuild, really. What’s the goal? Is squeaking in with the last wild card enough (“the streak is over!”) or is the goal to win it all? To be a top seed? These aren’t exactly mutually exclusive; the former can set the stage for further development, enabling their full flourishing into an Astros/Yankee style behemoth. But the *way* the M’s have gone about their business suggests that they’re not attempting to jump to World Series favorite very quickly. Part of the frustration so many have felt has been the result of slow-playing free agency as they assess what they’ve got bubbling up through the system. That system has produced some starting pitchers, and it’s now produced a legitimate sport-bestriding colossus in Julio. But for a long while there, it sputtered out flawed players, and for a while there, the M’s trade acquisitions seemed geared more towards wild card squeaking than dominating a division or league.

Again, that’s not necessarily bad, but it means that they’re going to have to promote ending the streak endlessly, or they’re going to need to raise their sights. I hope they can acquire Juan Soto, but if not, they need to be active in free agency. The trade that brought them Winker and Suarez hasn’t quite gone to plan, but it’s worked (Suarez better than expected, Winker worse): now they need to do more of that. It’s tough, because all of that activity really could imperil the slow, measured improvement they’ve shown. In a lot of ways, it’s easier not only to build a wild card contender, but also to sell one to a public starved of any postseason games. It’s harder to actually go for it, and fans will cheer when you lose your job having gone for it and failed. But I sincerely hope they do. Series like this past weekend’s will keep coming. It’s never bad to measure yourself against a team like Houston. But I want the M’s to be the reference that the other teams in the division measure themselves against. I want the M’s to be the divisional bully for a change.

This year, the M’s are in the position they’re in because of their insane hot streak, but also because of how things are shaking out in the AL East. I’d initially thought that the non-Yankee contenders could beat themselves up, and that they’d all end up with around 85-87 wins or so, keeping the bar for the wild card much lower than last year, when two teams won at least 90 and didn’t make it. That could conceivably still come to pass, as Tampa’s now dealing with serious injury woes. But instead, we saw one of the three teams that were leading the WC chase in mid-June essentially drop out. The Boston Red Sox have a run differential of -72…in July. Giving up 28 runs in one game is part of that, but they have simply looked awful – completely unable to pitch at all, cycling through a bunch of fungible relievers. Boston is too good for this to continue, but the gap is now fairly sizable between the Sox and the Rays (4.5 games). If anything, the M’s biggest competitor may come out of the Central, where Cleveland’s a touch over .500 and the White Sox are at .500 and dangerously talented. It’s strange to see the league, or at least the Wild Card, break this kindly for the M’s, where even that rough home sweep doesn’t really dent their chances. At this point, the path is pretty clear: beat the teams you should beat, starting with Texas tonight, and don’t go on any crazy losing streaks. Vital towards *that* is health, which is why I’m not bothered that both Jesse Winker and Julio Rodriguez are out tonight. IL stints really change the outlook, so if they’re sore, give them some off days and don’t let a little thing fester. Get healthy, and then get some wins.

Robbie Ray was bad yesterday, as his four-seam – which has continued to look even better after he also started throwing a sinker – got hit a bit. I’d still say he’s not throwing enough of it, but I can’t really argue with how he’s looked since going to that sinker. Still, the novelty’s wearing off a bit, and it got hit quite hard yesterday. He showed more of the four-seamer in his last start against Texas, back before the break, but I’ll be interested to see if he does anything different in terms of his pitch mix going forward.

I’ve talked a lot about Glenn Otto in this space for some reason, and feel like I’ve kind of hit the maximum I can write about a guy who’s been pretty much replacement level.

1: Crawford, SS
2: France, 1B
3: Santana, DH
4: Suarez, 3B
5: Raleigh, C
6: Frazier, LF
7: Toro, 2B
8: Moore, CF
9: Haggerty, RF
SP: Flexen

The All-2B-OF rides again. Get well soon, Jesse and Julio!

Arkansas blanked Texas’ affiliate in Frisco last night, 3-0. This was a big pitching duel between Jack Leiter, one of the biggest pitching prospects around, and last year’s #2 overall draft pick, and Taylor Dollard, kind of an afterthought as a 5th rounder out of Cal Poly in 2020. Ah, but baseball doesn’t care so much about your draft position. Leiter, seen as one of the most MLB-ready pitchers in years coming out of Vanderbilt, is now 2-8 with a 6.24 ERA that’s not reflective of the 48 runs he’s yielded (6 unearned). He’s striking out batters, but walking too many, and has been oddly hittable. Dollard, meanwhile, is now 9-2 with an ERA of 1.54. His stuff is not Leiterian, but it’s proved very confusing to Texas league hitters. It’s been a remarkable season for Dollard, who K’d a lot in the low minors, but was bit by the HR bug in Everett. He’s been excellent in that regard in AA, and is now an actual Guy, and no longer a college-trained pitcher overwhelming kids. He’s a prospect.

Eugene continues to pound Everett pitching, so a Mitch Haniger HR couldn’t save the day for the AquaSox.

Salt Lake topped Tacoma 5-4 in 12 in a remarkable game. With 1 out in the 11th and a Bees runner on 3rd, the SL batter hit a screaming line drive to RF. Marcus Wilson made a diving catch of the liner, then popped up and threw a strike to the plate to double up the stunned runner (it wasn’t even close). One of the better plays you’ll see, considering the situation/context. Unfortunately, even though Tacoma pushed a run across in the 12th, Salt Lake scored two to win it.

San Jose easily beat Modesto 8-2. Prospects Joseph Hernandez (93 K’s in 72 1/3 IP) and Andrew Moore (56 Ks in 31 1/3 IP) were pretty good, but the Giants scored 5 in the middle innings to make it a comfortable win.

Game 95, Astros at Mariners

July 23, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Logan Gilbert vs. Justin Verlander, 1:10pm

Last night’s loss, and the fizzling out of the M’s 8th-inning rally was dispiriting, sure, but despite the way things looked for 7 IP, they had chances. As with anything in baseball, a single game doesn’t matter all that much; it’s now imperative that the M’s get *something* from this series and maintain their momentum. Beating Justin Verlander, who’s in the middle of a remarkable season, would do just that.

Verlander’s a fascinating case. He’s having one of his better years from a runs-allowed standpoint, but his K rate is lower than it’s been since 2017. It hasn’t much mattered. Part of this has been the fact that he’s been able to maintain his excellent control, one of the factors that helped him reach another level when he arrived in Houston. Part of that has been his remarkable ability to generate swings. Batters know Verlander isn’t going to walk them. He’s going to throw strikes, and thus any time they see a fastball, it might be a good idea to swing (results on in-zone fastballs are the best, from the batter’s point of view). If he gets ahead, they have to protect – with 2 strikes this year, batters are swinging at over 70% of his fastballs, and 2/3 of his sliders (his primary breakers). But wait – why are his K’s down?

Because batters are making incrementally more contact. His whiff rate on his fastball has been cut pretty much in half compared to 2019. His slider’s whiff rate is down a bit, but not as dramatically. I think this gives us a hint at why league-wide K rates are down. Even as pitchers throw fewer fastballs, batters – primed to hunt for and swing at fastballs – are better at making contact. This is an interesting cycle: pitchers can throw in-zone fastballs when the ball limits HRs, which also restricts walks. Throwing more in-zone fastballs limits Ks, as batters are more likely to end an at-bat early – by putting it in play. Thus, you’ve got Justin Verlander having a brilliant year, but fewer strikeouts. Or you could do the opposite. Batters are swinging *less* at Marco Gonzales’ four-seam, but swinging at just about every change, and more than half of his cutters. *Even though* his whiff rate is slightly higher on those pitches, it’s not high enough to get strikeouts – their in-play rates are sky high. Thus, he too is seeing his K rate drop markedly, and since the turn of July, he’s basically re-creating a 2003-2005 Ryan Franklin season, something I would’ve bet money we’d never see again.

1: Crawford, SS
2: France, 1B
3: Winker, LF
4: Santana, DH
5: Suarez, 3B
6: Frazier, 2B
7: Raleigh, C
8: Moore, CF
9: Haggerty, RF
SP: Gilbert

Julio Rodriguez was a late scratch last night; he’s dealing with some wrist soreness that the M’s say he incurred on a stolen base attempt vs. Texas.

Emerson Hancock fired 5 scoreless last night in an Arkansas loss. Tacoma blanked Salt Lake 6-0 on kind of a bullpen day. Austin Warner went the first 3 with 4 Ks. San Jose slipped past Modesto 6-5 and Eugene outslugged Everett 16-9. That said, Noelvi Marte continued his white-hot streak, going 4-5 with a HR and 3 2B. In July, Marte is hitting .417/.507/.850. Yeah.

Game 94, Astros at Mariners

July 22, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Marco Gonzales vs. Jose Urquidy, 7:10pm

The season’s second half begins the way it should: a sold-out game between the best team in the AL West against the hottest team in baseball. Look, I don’t think I need to remind you how the last several “most important series in years” have gone for Seattle. The LollaBlueza series of 2007 and its many imitators have me a bit on edge. The suddenness of the M’s streak (perhaps magnified because I was out of the country for much of it) helped grab Seattle’s attention again, but I worry about it being snuffed out just as quickly. But today’s not for worrying. Today’s a celebration of a team and a superstore that barged their way into relevance and contention.

Baseball Prospectus has an article up on the surging Seattleites, as does Fangraphs. 14-game winning streaks will get you noticed, of course. They’ve been admirably eclectic in *how* they’ve won, too. They’re bashing out plenty of base hits, raising their season average to, uh, .236, the lowest among MLB contenders, but it’s of course deflated by their home park. They’re stranding runners like never before, producing a very low ERA from good-not-great peripherals. They’ve hit big HRs when they’ve needed them, and they’ve ground out close pitcher’s duels, too. *Everything* looks unsustainable in a 14-game winning streak, but there’s no real jumps-off-the-page “luck” number here. They look like a very good team that’s also gotten a few breaks, not a so-so team with a lottery ticket (that was last year’s team).

Their power output has been both welcome and somewhat surprising. Sure, adding a Carlos Santana helps with that (and adding Kyle Lewis back from rehab should continue to help), but as Joe Sheehan points out, HRs and HR/FB are down noticeably in the past few weeks. Baseball got off to a very slow start offensively, but we’ve all assumed that July/August would get us back towards normal, at least in terms of HRs. But after a jump right as the month started, HRs have dropped in the past few weeks. The league’s isolated power is .148 since 7/8. That’s better than it was in April (.137), but lower than either May (.153) or June (.167). As those numbers show, we’ve seen exactly the pattern we would expect (starting low and then rising), but it abruptly went into reverse a few weeks ago.

The ball was supposed to make HRs a bit harder to hit, but all three of the three true outcomes are down – fact explored by Jayson Stark and Eno Sarris here. Given the shifts we’ve already seen – from April to June and nearly back again – and given what some observers saw in the HR Derby, it’s time yet again for wondering if MLB has switched balls, or could switch them again. Fun stuff.

The nice part of it all is that the M’s probably benefit from conditions that keep the ball in play. Their defense is generally quite good, and the small T-Mobile outfield limits non-HR extra-base hits. Their pitching staff isn’t elite in terms of strikeouts, and can be tater-prone. The story of the M’s season in many ways is a patched-together staff (plus the defending AL Cy Young winner) doing enough to win games. The offense has the young superstar and a lot more depth than they get credit for, but the pitching staff has made this below-average scoring team a real contender. They gave up 1.4 HR/9 in May and paid the price. They’re at 0.8 HR/9 now, and while that’ll probably rise a bit, a non-juiced ball can help limit how MUCH it’ll rise.

1: Julioooo, CF
2: France, 1B
3: Winker, LF
4: Santana, DH
5: Suarez, 3B
6: Crawford, SS
7: Lewis, RF (!)
8: Raleigh, C
9: Frazier, 2B
SP: Gonzales

Justin Upton was optioned, and as an MLB vet, he has the right to refuse the option and become a free agent. And he exercised that right. Kyle Lewis’ return made him expendable; we’ll see if he catches on somewhere else.

It’s a big day in the minor league system as well. Emerson Hancock, fresh off a scoreless, strikes-out-the-side inning in the Futures game, is starting for Arkansas. Tacoma’s in Salt Lake for three, with Justus Sheffield starting tonight. Mike Curto reports that Daniel Ponce de Leon exercised an out in his contract, and he’s signed with the Nationals. They did just pick up Taylor Williams, who’d been cut by San Francisco. Williams was the M’s reliever traded for Matt Brash a few years ago. Eugene comes to Everett to take on the AquaSox. The Frogs’ Logan Rinehart starts – he’s missed a lot of time due to injury and pandemics, but he’s off to a very good start. Modesto faces off with San Jose.

Juan Soto Is Available?

July 20, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

So, I want to get to the draft and give it a bit more emphasis, but rightly or wrongly, the story in MLB right now is somehow NOT the All-Star Game, or Julioooo’s showing in the HR derby. Instead, it’s the story (likely released by the Nats ownership) that Juan Soto had rejected what was both 1) the largest total dollar contract in MLB history and 2) an AAV underpay for one of the most remarkable young hitters we’ve seen in decades. As a result of this impasse, the Nats would look to trade the 23-year-old Soto. This set off a few days of insane trade speculation; you can’t just dangle an absolute superstar at age 23, under contract through 2024, and NOT engender some trade scenarios. It’s part of the deal.

So let’s engage with that for a minute. The M’s, by virtue both of their farm system and their sudden emergence in the 2022 playoff race, make some sense here. I think people are loathe to trade too much of value if Soto can’t be extended, and I understand that to a degree. But Soto coming available right in the M’s contention window, and right at a time when they’ve fought back into playoff position, means it’s time to shift the thinking from long-term and sustainability to maximizing the team’s chances of success – not only to get to the playoffs, but to win them. Further, there’s no kind of reason the M’s COULDN’T extend Soto. You just…you just have to pay him what he wants/can command. That’s not hard, right? Easy for me to say, sure, but it’s fundamentally a less complicated matter than developing a bunch of prospects going through the ups and downs of baseball life, acclimate them to the game, hope the Astros don’t make a splash in FA, and have everything else in place to…what, win the AL West in 2026?

The story of the season has been 1) the emergence, yet again, of an effective pitching staff out of what looked like Robbie Ray and a bunch of question marks and 2) the emergence, yet again, of a legitimate baseball superstar in Seattle. The pitching staff has done an admirable job of being good to good-enough in spots that looked like problems or at least question marks coming into the year: the back of the rotation, the bullpen, which Marco Gonzales are we getting? Can Chris Flexen do it again? But none of it matters if the M’s can’t score, and despite an offense that scores well by wRC+ and the like, they don’t score well in actual baseball games. Julio’s arrival has made them a legitimate contender. That is absolutely not to ignore the contributions of Ty France, Eugenio Suarez, Carlos Santana, and JP Crawford. They’re not a BAD offense, I don’t think. But they’ve been something akin to the pitching staff: a group that tries to identify and remove black holes, and build a whole lot of “good enough” hitters around the France/Julio/Suarez core. It worked even in April when Julio hadn’t yet clicked, but what we’ve seen in the past 30 days is an offense that can win games by themselves, not just late-game 4-3 scrappers. That’s fun, and it’s made the M’s a contender. But it also puts an incredible amount of pressure on 21-year-old Julio Rodriguez.

The players around him in the line-up have been incredibly streaky, from France on down. Hell, Julio’s season looks weird given his early-season struggles. But at this point, it really looks like they go as far as Julio can take them. He is the brightest young star the M’s have had in I don’t know how long; it’s either Felix in 2005, or I suppose it sort of depends on if you consider Ichiro in 2001 “young.” But a franchise that’s been so synonymous with superstar players (er, and underachieving), finally has one again. They cannot – CANNOT – waste this.

If you consider the M’s a player-development juggernaut, I’d argue that you’d be fine with the M’s offloading some prospects in exchange for Soto. You can always make more, right? At this point, it’s all but certain that a deal (or a non-Julio deal which is, rightly, a non-starter as far as the M’s are concerned) for Soto would need to include top prospect Noelvi Marte. But hey, you’re the M’s, you just saw Edwin Arroyo put up even better numbers in Modesto, AND you just drafted a young SS in the first round. There you go. Would it hurt to include George Kirby in the deal? Absolutely; this is going to hurt, by definition – a lot is going to be going the other way. But the Dodgers had to include Josiah Gray in exchange for a lot less of Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, and, importantly: they would 100% do it again if they had the chance.

If you think the M’s record with prospects is a bit more mixed – if you think about Evan White, Jarred Kelenic and Shed Long or whoever and worry – then I’d think that you’d be even more into the trade. If you believe that prospects can’t be counted on, at least in this org, then why hold onto them and let them break your heart? Why not strike now when some other org will give you Juan freaking Soto in exchange for the opportunity to be heartbroken?

The story today is that the Nats want to include Patrick Corbin in the deal to get out from under the balance of his $140 million deal – roughly $70M or so, including $35M in 2024. Here again the M’s confront a dilemma that’s not actually a dilemma. If they view the prospect price is too high, they could happily bring in Corbin. Even if he never throws a pitch for them, hey, they get to keep Soto AND Kirby (or Marte). If they see themselves as pitching whisperers, getting more out of the likes of Paul Sewald and Chris Flexen than anyone would’ve believed, then the same goes: this might NOT be dead money.

So, what are we talking about here? In that Jim Bowden article linked above, the price would be Kirby, Marte, Emerson Hancock, Harry Ford and a flyer on a younger prospect. This is, as everyone has surmised would be the case in a Soto deal, almost unprecedented in terms of a trade package. I think you can make the case that a trade for a Juan Soto-type player at age 23 NOT in a walk year (how would that even work…nevermind) is similarly unprecedented. This checks all of the boxes the Nats wanted: young, MLB-level players, plus top-tier prospects. I think it’s also the price for Soto, solo. That is, if Corbin is in the deal, one or more of Marte, Hancock, and/or Ford is coming out of it.

To me, this is a nearly unthinkable alignment. The Nats going cheap (yes I KNOW they offered him a lot of money) right as the M’s emerge *despite* a so-so offense. I’d argue there is no team that Soto changes more than the Seattle Mariners. You cannot allow him to go to an AL Wild Card team, either. The Tampa Bay Rays match up really well here, and might be 2nd to Seattle in terms of a team whose playoff outlook would change with Soto in the fold. The price is eye-wateringly high, so just buy it down and take Corbin. Some will say that this could impact a potential Julioooo extension, and while the club might claim that, it just doesn’t work. The M’s could extend Juliooo after the Soto deal is off the books. They could say the M’s would be forced to choose between the two. That’s…that’s the best “worst case scenario” I have ever heard of, and like all of these supposed dilemmas and riddles, it is *easily solvable* with US currency. The M’s fought so hard to be in a position to spend. They’re in it. Now you’ve got to do it.

This brings up the last alternative: why not wait until the end of the year, and just buy an offensive star without having to give up any prospects? This makes some sense, with Aaron Judge looking like he’ll be available. There’s only one problem: there are going to be a lot more suitors for Judge than there will be for Soto *despite the fact that Soto is better*. Teams that can’t hope to compete in the trade market can absolutely compete in free agency. We’ve seen dark horses like Minnesota and Detroit nab some big-dollar free agents, and of course teams like the New Yorks and Dodgers of the world will be interested. It’s counterintuitive, but true: it’s probably easier to get a trade done. Finally, there’s the issue of age. Aaron Judge wasn’t even in the majors yet at Soto’s current age. As a college-drafted player, he’s already 30. We are comparing Soto’s age 24-26 seasons to Judge’s age 31-3X seasons. Look, I’m not trying to denigrate Judge, and if the M’s can’t get Soto they simply MUST try and get Judge. But Judge – as great as he is – would be a consolation prize.

Game 93, Mariners at Rangers

July 17, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

Chris Flexen vs. Glenn Otto, 11:35am

The M’s go for an astonishing 14th straight win today against the Rangers. We came into the series looking at a Rangers club whose offense had seemingly turned a corner, but whose pitching wasn’t quite ready to help the club compete. As yesterday’s game showed, their pitching staff doesn’t *look* great, but they’ve done a decent job of keeping the M’s off the scoreboard. But a combination of bad relief work and a non-existant offense has meant it hasn’t really mattered; the M’s can squander runners in the early innings, keep the game close, and then find some late-game heroics to win it.

Today, they face Glenn Otto, one of the returns from NY in the Joey Gallo deal a year ago. I like Otto’s repertoire – he throws five pitches, he’s got a change that can keep lefties off-balance, and he racked up tons of K’s in the minors. Before the year started, I thought he’d be a vital part of the re-made Rangers: a good season from Otto could stabilize a rotation desperate for depth. A bad season, and the new double play combination wouldn’t score enough to make up for all the runs the Rangers would allow. Unfortunately for Texas, things are looking a lot more like the latter than the former. Otto’s walked over 13% of the batters he’s faced. He’s gotten decent whiff rates on many of his pitches, but he can’t make it matter: he can’t put hitters away, and they’re making very hard contact when they DON’T swing and miss.

The big problem this season has been his slider, which looks like a decent pitch, and has a good whiff rate, especially to lefties. But while it’s the pitch he throws the most against righties, righties are torching it. They’re elevating the pitch and hitting it hard (well, for a breaking ball). It’s strange – this was not a problem for Otto before, though he had other problems to worry about. This year, he raised his release point a bit, but he’s still got a bit of an issue in that his slider’s release point is slightly different from everything else. It’s possible that batters have learned this year; that advance scouting and video operators have picked up on it. It’s not a huge difference – I’ve talked about Marco Gonzales’ release point on his change for years, and he’s never really “fixed” it. But Otto’s going to have to do something different. His curve looks like a good pitch too – maybe just back off slider usage for a bit?

Darren Gossler mused on Twitter this morning that the most important/most unlikely factor in the M’s 13-game win streak and general turnaround has been Cal Raleigh. Julio achieving escape velocity always seemed like it was coming. The relief pitching sorting things out is also a fairly common pattern, and one we saw last season: once the team figures out who’s pretty good and who’s not, they…stop playing the bad players. It’s not rocket science. But Cal Raleigh seemed like a poor man’s Mike Zunino: eye-wateringly high K rate, very low average, but hopefully enough HRs to make it all playable. In mid-May, Raleigh bottomed out at .065/.194/.161. Since then, though, he’s at .233/.306/.516. Since June 21st, he’s at .250/.341/.528. I did not see this coming. A team where Cal Raleigh is absolutely an offensive force changes the M’s outlook considerably.

One thing Raleigh’s done since coming into MLB is strike out. But another thing is hit doubles – this is something that many M’s hitters, including many *good* M’s hitters, have not been able to do. Raleigh’s 2021 wasn’t great overall, but he hit 12 doubles that year. Kyle Lewis has 12 doubles in his *career.* Tom Murphy hit 12 in his great half-year in 2019, but they kind of dried up after that. Abraham Toro has struggled in so many respects, but the lack of doubles is a big part of that, and Adam Frazier’s lack of doubles is a part of his statistical drop from his 2019-2021 peak. If Raleigh’s able to keep this up, it gives him a much more consistent path to, not a GOOD average, but a playable one, and a decent way to keep his slugging up (again, this issue has really sapped Kyle Lewis’ overall production – doubles are important). Forget a poor man’s Mike Zunino. Cal Raleigh is looking more like the absolute best version of Zunino we ever saw, and only saw fleetingly.

1: Julioooo, CF
2: France, 1B
3: Winker, LF
4: Santana, DH
5: Suarez, 3B
6: Crawford, SS
7: Raleigh, C
8: Frazier, 2B
9: Haggerty, RF
SP: Flexen

The Annual Draft Preview Post: Q and A with Draft/Prospect Expert, Chris Crawford

July 16, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

The M’s just finished up their 13th consecutive win. Emerson Hancock is in the Futures Game (going on now, on PeacockTV). The M’s farm system looks better than we’d thought thanks to the emergence of Edwin Arroyo and the return to form of Noelvi Marte. And now comes word that Juan Soto might be available in trade. It’s a hopeful time for us M’s fans, and the amateur draft is a hopeful event. As we’ve done each year since 2012, I’ve asked Chris Crawford to set the stage a bit: what’s the draft class like, who might the M’s target, and how the draft has changed/evolved in recent collective bargaining agreements between the league and the players union.

Chris Crawford is a staff writer with NBC Sports EDGE, and has been making some great podcasts for them at Circling the Bases. If you want to dive even deeper into this draft, check out his podcast with ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel. Local sports radio listeners get to hear him talk about the Mariners with fellow friend-of-the-blog Nathan Bishop on KJR FM’s “Mollywhop Monday” segment, which is on 93.3 each Monday afternoon during Ian Furness/Kevin Shockey’s show.

Let’s go:

1: We start off the same way each time: what do you make of this draft class as a whole? Deep? Shallow? Lopsided?

It’s a weird class. There’s some incredibly high upside players in this class, both as pitchers and hitters. In terms of ceiling I think this class competes with a bunch of em. It’s also one of the lowest floor drafts I can remember for reasons we’ll get into. Every draft has a few players that have “safe” consideration, but it’s much more about upside in 2022. Kinda weird.

2: Who are some players the M’s may target at #21? And how about pick #58? Who would you take at 21?

They’re kind of interesting because of how this draft class shapes up. I have mostly heard college bats, but I mostly heard college bats when they took Harry Ford. The name most commonly attached was Zach Neto — a shortstop out of Campbell — but it looks like he’s going to go several picks ahead of that. Dylan Beavers of Cal is a name that makes a lot of sense as a power-hitting college bat, and collegiate outfielders like Drew Gilbert and Jordan Beck of Tennessee also will be in consideration if they’re there. If someone like Cole Young falls that could be the pick, and that’s who I would take.

58 is a little tougher, of course. I would imagine they address pitching if they go with a bat at 21. Someone like Trystan Vrieling of Gonzaga could make sense, or an arm like Jake Bennett out of Oklahoma. They could also target a prep arm like Cole Phillips or a local kid like Jackson Cox out of Toutle Lake.

3: This is kind of big/open ended, but how, in your view, has the pandemic impacted this class? Disparate impact on HS or college players?

I think we’re years away from finding out how much impact there was, but in the short-term, I think it’s definitely played a factor. I kinda wonder if one of the reasons why there’s more talk about the prep bats is that there’s been less of a chance to nitpick those players. Same kinda true of the college players — keep in mind these guys have been scouted for years — but there was so little prep baseball for a couple years.

4: This year, a potential #1 overall pick and one of the best prep arms in the class went down with an injury. At the same time, we saw some talents sitting out the year, figuring the risk wasn’t worth it. Is this something we’ll see more of? Should we? With the rise of measurables, Trackman, etc., what is the value of a prep season for a high round kid?

I think you’re going to see more of it. Now, I do think that it’s not going to be the norm, because scouts really do want to see how players make adjustments and what not. But if a player has “established” themselves in a certain area of the draft? It’s justifiable for that player to not take the risk of injury. It’ll be interesting to see where some of those players go next week.

5: Similarly, we’ve seen The development and growth in the MLB draft showcase thing. Who benefits most from this? What’s your view on its utility for teams and players? Is there a way you can think of that would make it better?

I think the teams, especially because of the pandemic. It’s a chance to get another look at players they didn’t see as often as they would have liked, a chance to see how players react to different situations, etc. I don’t think it’s a world changer, but it’s great for the middle-to-late rounds.

6: There’s been so much tinkering with the draft, and with the minors that take in draft picks. With fewer teams, do teams draft differently at all?

There’s no question. Again, however, we’re not going to know the true impact for a couple of years. For one thing, most teams use the late rounds to fill organizational need. There’s half as many rounds now, so that’s more difficult to do. Teams are still going to sign a lot of those guys as UDFAs, but there’s no doubt that having only 20 rounds impacts things.

7: Jeff Passan had an article about the decline of the starting pitcher (or the SP’s workload) last week, and it’s clearly a topic of interest. MLB has been limiting pitcher roster spots this year. And yet, college pitchers continue to log pitch counts we don’t see anymore in affiliated ball. At the same time, there’s not a lot of evidence that lower pitch counts reduce injuries; they enable max effort pitching, countering any workload-related benefits. So: is college pitching not training pitchers for the job they’ll get drafted into? Or is college pitching a gauntlet that players walk to demonstrate an ability to log innings? Do we fret too much about pitch counts in college? Or is college baseball a fundamentally different animal at this point?

This is a tough one. I think we’re starting to see a slight change in that because we’re starting to see more MLB coaches move over to college rather than vice versa. But the fact of the matter is that college coaches are not paid to get players drafted, they are paid to win college baseball games. While we know lower pitch counts don’t equal no injuries, we have seen that throwing a bunch of them doesn’t help. The reason college pitchers get drafted higher is because there’s less volatility and MLB owners don’t want to spend a bunch of money on prep players that offer no guarantees. I don’t think we can ever fret too much about pitch counts because we’re talking about quality of life, not just MLB success. But it’s all very tricky.

8: Maybe (?) related to that: this draft seems light on pitching. Is that accurate? If so, why is that?

It’s the worst college pitching class I’ve ever seen and it’s not close. It sucks. Some of it is injury related, some of it is that these guys just aren’t very good. It’s bad. It’s a bad college pitching class.

Now, that being said, the prep arms? Pretty good. There’s a ton of high-upside arms, and that’s not even including Dylan Lesko who is one of the most talented high school arms I’ve seen. But again, high school arms offer massive risk. So the answer is yes, but it’s mainly just because the college pitching absolutely sucks.

9: Let’s talk about the independent leagues. We’ve seen them act as a kind of back-up plan for college-aged players who, for whatever reason, can’t play in college anymore. James Paxton comes to mind, and we see it this year with Kumar Rocker. But can they become what the European/Australian leagues have become for the NBA? A pro option *in lieu* of college, as opposed to an option once something goes weird after you’ve already been in college?

I think that could be what happens in the future, anyway. I think the difference between baseball and basketball in this situation is community college. There are some really good programs that players can either enroll in or transfer to with good coaching. The collegiate basketball JC program isn’t atrocious but it’s not really an option for NBA Draft picks. But the fact you can go to a JC and then be eligible for the draft the next year is big.

10: The M’s have had some success in developing pitchers. Their record with batters is more of a mixed bag. I know the traditional thinking is that you have to take the best player available, but at this point you could argue that a random pitcher has a better chance of working out than the median batting prospect. Do you…ignore that? If you do, is it because that assumption isn’t actually true, or because that median hitter has a better chance of working out, irrespective of development staff/coaches/track record of the org?

The Mariners deserve a ton of credit for their development of guys like Gilbert and Kirby and so on and so forth. But I think it’s worth pointing out that in their class, these guys were considered some of the “safer” prospects, so, it’s not a surprise that they’ve reached the bigs and had success? But where they deserve credit is for tapping into their ceiling. I don’t think you can ignore that, but at the same time, you gotta start adding upside guys with the bats to the system. Have to mix and match.

11: You were very high on Seattle prep OF Corbin Carroll a few years back, and he’s rewarded that confidence by becoming one of the best prospects in the game. Any Pacific Northwest amateurs in that tier? Ok, ok, any a few tiers below, but still great draft prospects?

There’s two guys who have a chance to go pretty high from Washington, both prep arms. There’s a bit of a debate who’s better between the aforementioned Cox and J.R. Ritchie, a right-hander from good ole Bainbridge Island. Both are guys that have high ceilings, but both could end up going the college route because of bonus demands. Oregon State has one of the more intriguing college arms in Cooper Hjerpe, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was a potential target for Seattle as one of the safer arms because of his command. Josh Kasevich also could be a target in the second round as a bat from Oregon (go Huskies) who is a plus defender and offers some offensive upside. Pretty solid year in the PNW.

12: Any early thoughts on the potential rule changes coming to MLB (further pitcher limits, ban on shifts, pitch clock) and how/if they shift draft strategy? Are there pitchers who might be better in a pitch clock environment than others?

The ban on shifts is going to have to play a part. The fact of the matter is that defense up the middle just got more valuable. You will see less offensive-minded second baseman I believe. The pitcher limits I don’t think really changes anything right away, but defense is going to matter more.

13: Due to a number of reasons (high bonus demands/strong commits, pitchers opting out of their HS senior season, injuries, etc.), we could see a bunch of talented players drop in the draft and quite likely head to college. So, the perennial question is, will we see a team ignore the penalties and try to sign a ton of these guys? Blowing past the bonus pools used to be a thing in international signings, until MLB banned it. The penalties are high enough in the Rule 4 draft that no one’s blown past them. Is this the year we see someone do it? Or is this year’s potential reward not high enough to justify the very real sanctions?

I don’t think so. Especially with a really strong 2023 draft class (on paper), anyway. Someone will do it someday, and maybe next year because of the upside in the class that’s what happens. But the penalties are just too stiff right now.

Thanks once again to Chris Crawford, whom you can follow on twitter here, or catch the next Mollywhop Monday on KJR.

Game 90, Mariners at Rangers

July 14, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Marco Gonzales vs. Martin Perez, 5:05pm

The M’s got out of Washington, DC late, and only arrived in Arlington this morning at 3am. They had a doubleheader *and* a bullpen day yesterday, meaning their relievers could use some rest. This is a day when Marco’s got to be on it, but it’s also the kind of spot that I think he relishes being in. The Rangers offense looks a bit better than their overall season numbers would suggest, in part because Marcus Semien shook off his April/May slump, and because prized prospect Leody Taveras has finally started hitting at the big league level, slashing .329/.351/.500 in his first 26 games this year, shaking off an awful year last year and a sub-par 2020.

On the hill is the Rangers’ all-star SP, Martin Perez. I mentioned him earlier in the year, but it really is remarkable to see Perez – someone so consistently mediocre – have this kind of success. He absolutely deserves his selection even though he’s not missing bats: he’s been consistently excellent at generating weak contact with his cutter and change. There’s no big pitch design story here; no overhauling of a flawed repertoire, no “found 4 extra MPH after training really hard.” I think his command improved a little bit, and, critically, he’s stopped throwing his worst pitch. In his long career, batters are slugging over .500 off of his four-seam fastball, and over .620 from 2018-2021. It wasn’t his primary pitch, but he threw it enough that these bad results could really spoil an outing. So, he’s…not throwing it much anymore. That’s it, that’s the story.

Of course, there’s still the question of why the cutter that was so bad last year (a run value of 10) is good this year (a run value of -11). The “consistently avoids barrels” thing is awesome, but this is *Martin Perez,* a guy with a very long track record of…NOT avoiding barrels. And as the season’s gone on, the remarkable run he had this April and especially in May looks to have come to an end. He gave up 6 earned in his last outing, and he’s yielded 4 HRs in his last two starts. This is the guy who didn’t give up a HR at all until Eugenio Suarez got him in *June.*

Marco Gonzales remains oddly consistent for a guy whose peripherals bounce all over the place. He settled in for a while as a guy with below average Ks and walks, then saw his K rate jump up a bit while he became an elite control guy in 2020. But in 2021, everything regressed – very low Ks, so-so walk rate, and a sky-high HR rate – itself a product of a vanishing ability to get ground balls. But through all of it, the ERA and overall effectiveness remained oddly static, or close to it. You don’t really know *how* it’s going to happen, or how he’ll get there, but at this point you kind of have to expect an ERA between 3-4, even if it often doesn’t look possible. That’s definitely the case now, where it seems someone told him strikeouts are illegal, and his walk rate is as high as it’s ever been in his career. He’s getting grounders again, but still too many HRs – I just don’t get it. But I’ll take it!

1: Juliooo, CF
2: France, DH
3: Santana, 1B
4: Suarez, 3B
5: Winker, LF
6: Raleigh, C
7: Moore, SS
8: Toro, 2B
9: Haggerty, RF
SP: Gonzales

MLB released their first ever bat-speed measurements, as two parks (the Astros’ and Dodgers’) have installed a set of high-speed cameras capable of measuring the bat’s rotational speed. This Mike Petriello article goes through it all, from the intricacies of *where on the bat you measure* to a leaderboard of fastest swings. They haven’t tracked every player, and they don’t have many swings from non-Astro/Dodger players, but as of right now, the hitter with the fastest average swing? He’s hitting lead-off for the Mariners tonight.

It’s kind of fun to start scoreboard watching. The Jays host the Royals in Toronto, a fact that led the Royals to place *10* players on the restricted list for not having their covid jabs. They’re bringing up *10* players for the minors, including top prospect Nick Pratto. The Red Sox and Rays will beat each other up for a bit, which sounds awesome to me. The Guardians and White Sox are at the periphery of the race (as are, shockingly, the Orioles); more on them if one of them gets above .500 for a spell.

Game 89: Mariners at Nationals – Let’s Make it Ten

July 13, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

Erik Swanson vs. Erick Fedde, 3:05pm

The second game of the hastily-arranged twin bill sees the M’s going with a bullpen game against the Nats and their 2014 1st rounder, Erick Fedde. Fedde was having a great junior season at UNLV in 2014, and was a top-10 pick based on his FB/SL combo, but he fell to the Nats at 18 because he needed TJ surgery. Would he bounce back? Would the stuff that made him a first-round lock still be there? Any command issues? The answer, as is so often the case in baseball, is a sort of murky “kind of?”

I don’t want to bury the lede here: Fedde is not good. His ERA’s over 5 this year, and for his career, and it’s right in line with his FIP. He’s struggled to miss bats, gives up too many HRs, and often walks too many. That’s not a great combo. He throws a sinker at 91-93 – one that he’s been tweaking over time, and that is sinking and moving less than ever in 2022. That’s not necessarily bad; his results on the pitch are actually better than last year. But it’s also not great, as it’s resulting in a much lower ground ball rate. To lefties, he relies primarily on an upper-80s cutter, and *that* has been his real problem this year. It was great when he debuted it several years ago, but it’s gotten a bit worse each successive season, and at this point, I think I’d go back to a four-seamer or something. His breaking ball is a slurve (MLB calls it a curve, Pitch Info a slider) in the high-70s, and MLB hitters have found it to their liking in 2022. This is not a great profile, I know.

The Nats have had a hell of a time developing pitchers, so they have to shoulder some of the blame here. And to be fair, Fedde will uncork a gem every once in a while – he’s had two game scores over 70 thus far, on two scoreless 6IP performances…one against the Dodgers. But they’re mixed in with some truly dismal outings, capped by his last game: 3 IP, 8 R, 3 HRs, 3 BB, 1 K against an Atlanta team that was just shut down by the Mets. His K-BB% has dropped each month. I’m not saying this is a must-win game, but you have to like the M’s chances, *even though* it’s a bullpen game.

The downside here is that the M’s used Murfee/Sewald/Munoz in the opening game. Munoz threw only 13 pitches, but it’s gotta be hard to warm up, pitch an inning-plus, then come back hours later, warm up, and pitch more. Sewald threw just 4 pitches, so hopefully he’s good to go if need be.

The plus side is that Julio Rodriguez is back after serving his one-game suspension in the morning. The M’s were looking good before the big fight that saw Julio, Winker, and JP Crawford suspended, but they’ve been nearly untouchable after it: they’re 12-2 since then. Julio’s in the news nationally as well, as he was just announced as a Home Run Derby participant at this year’s All-Star Game.

Baseball Prospectus just released their updated top 50 prospects today. Cracking the list is low-A SS Edwin Arroyo, the biggest riser in Seattle’s system. Noelvi Marte dropped a bit, but still shows up in the 20s. Marte got off to a slow start, but has been red hot over the past month. Arroyo is slashing .319/.392/.521 as an 18-year old shortstop for Modesto. He was signed as more of a glove-first guy, but his bat has blown away evaluators as well as most Cal League pitchers.

1: Juliooooo, CF
2: Winker, LF
3: Crawford, SS
4: Santana, 1B
5: Suarez, 3B
6: Frazier, 2B
7: Upton, DH
8: Torrens, C
9: Haggerty, RF
SP: Swanson and co.

Cal Raleigh’s 12th HR leaves him with a bizarre line. He’s got just 13 singles on the year, but 12 HRs and 10 2Bs (11, if you count his triple). There have been a handful of guys to post more HRs than singles, from the classic steroid era seasons of Bonds (’21) and McGwire (’98 and ’99). And we’ve seen it more recently from all-or-nothing sluggers like Joey Gallo and the inimitable Ryan Schimpf (’17). But by and large, they did it by having their hard-hit balls go over the fence. They didn’t have equal parts singles, doubles and HRs. Raleigh’s OBP stands at .269, but he’s been so fascinating to watch. I almost hope he *doesn’t* hit more singles. He’s already got one of the weirder statistical lines going; let’s get it really weird.

The Seattle Mariners: What in Tarnation?

July 12, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

I left for a vacation in late June, and after a few weeks away and a few days to recover from jet lag, I now have the delightful task of trying to figure out why the M’s have become a juggernaut. When I left, Fangraphs had their playoff odds pegged at around 5-6%. Today, they’re at about 45%. A lot of stuff has gone down, but “losing games” wasn’t part of that. What…what happened here?

1: Is it the offense or the pitching/defense?

I think the big narrative at the beginning of the year was wondering if the M’s had improved the team enough to counterbalance the very likely regression in their luck. As one of the luckiest teams in recent baseball history, that was a tough ask. In May and into June, we got to witness an improved team battle not only a lack of depth, but actively *bad* luck; their BaseRuns winning percentage was *higher* than their actual one, in a darkly ironic twist.

If you asked Fangraphs, it would lay a lot of the blame for the poor start at the feet of the pitching staff. While their ERA was superficially good, their peripherals stank, and the bullpen was fast and loose with late-game leads at times. It all added up to a bottom-third staff, countering the contributions of what they saw as a top-third offense. Sure, the offense hadn’t done a whole lot of, you know, run scoring, but they played in a tough environment, and made solid contact and had sneaky power. Other sites, like BBREF, disagreed, saying that for all of their flaws, the pitching staff was keeping opponents off the scoreboard, and if they got a bit more run support, they’d be a decent group.

At this point, I think supporters of both viewpoints would claim victory. Since mid-June, the Seattle pitching staff has been amongst the league’s absolute best. In the past 14 days, they’re 11-1 with an ERA of just 2.21, and while their FIP is worse, it’s still quite good. The key has been maintaining a decent K rate while refusing to give up walks. Sure, sure, the strand rate’s ridiculously high, which is part of the reason FIP isn’t quite buying in all the way, but even FIP has them as the second most valuable unit in that time frame.

The “the pitching was never the problem” group nods knowingly, while the “the pitchers have finally stopped dicking around and started pitching well” people think they’ve figured it all out. What’s been fascinating is that the hitters have been remarkably consistent. FG has them as the 10th best group of position players for the whole season, but they’ve actually been slightly lower than that in the past 14 days. They’re hitting a bit better than they did in April/May, but then, so is everyone else. What *has* changed is their luck. After getting killed by the luck gods early on, they’re getting the best of both worlds now. Not only are they an improved team, but they’re a *lucky* improved team: their clutch score is 4th-highest in the past two weeks, even as their score for the entire season ranks 21st, and is firmly in negative territory.

2: So, WHY did the pitching staff improve? Is it just luck?

Eh, it’s hard to say, but there are some key reasons to think it might not be. First and perhaps most famously, Robbie Ray is back. He was clearly not the Cy Young version of himself in the early going, but he was also getting destroyed by sequencing. His mid-game adoption of a sinker has transformed him. It may not have mattered what pitch he started throwing – he needed a third look. Since the change, his sinker’s been good, but the difference is best seen in the results of his other offerings. His four-seamer’s no longer being hit hard, and his slider’s turned into a true out-pitch now that batters can’t simply sit on it.

Success with the slider’s one of the stories of this run, actually. And it’s not just Ray. Over the course of the season, Pitch Info’s pitch-type linear weights has the M’s as the best staff in the game for sliders. This is all the more remarkable due to the fact that some of their starters – Logan Gilbert and George Kirby in particular – haven’t fared well at all with their breaking pitches. To be clear, it hasn’t hurt them much: their fastballs more than outweigh that. But the fascinating thing has been watching how some of those sliders keep improving. With Ray, we’ve talked about the importance of the new pitch. How important has that been? Well, 5.2 of the 5.8 runs above average he’s notched with his slider have been racked up in the past two weeks.

Another pitcher’s made a very noticeable change to his slider and is also reaping the rewards: Andrés Muñoz. For the first part of the season, his slider averaged 86 mph, with 3.5″ of horizontal break. More importantly, it was released slightly lower than his high-octane fastball. Since mid-June, though, his slider’s release part has crept up towards his fastball’s. It’s also now thrown at 90 mph. He’s sacrificed horizontal sweep – he’s chosen to zig a bit as baseball zags towards “sweepers,” but it’s working for him. And why wouldn’t it? Breaking ball velocity correlates very well with results. Through mid-June, he’d given up 7 hits including 2 HRs and notched 21 Ks with his 230 sliders. That’s pretty good! Since then, he’s yielded just 3 singles and K’d 20 batters on 122 sliders. That’s much, much better.

Paul Sewald’s slider is visually gorgeous, but both last year and in much of this campaign, his fastball’s been the better pitch. Early this year, his slider came in at 82, with 7″ of sweep (per BrooksBaseball). Since then, he’s throwing it a tad harder, resulting in less vertical and horizontal movement. Since mid-June, no one’s gotten a hit off of it. I don’t think these changes are large enough to be the sole reason for the pitch’s improvement, but I do think a slightly different look from guys like Sewald/Muñoz who throw their sliders *so* much can make a difference.

The emergence or rather improvement from Muñoz has turned a solid bullpen into a great one. Penn Murfee and Diego Castillo already had their sliders pretty well dialed in. Castillo’s improvement had more to do with better results on his sinker than any mechanical changes to his breaking ball. But Muñoz has allowed the M’s to part ways with Sergio Romo and Drew Steckenrider and solidify the roles in front of Sewald. They’re reducing the volatility and variance in a notoriously volatile part of the club.

3: Yeah, OK, but is it going to matter?

Who knows? What I do know is that the *way* they’ve won these games – hard-fought, taut games punctuated with late-game heroics – is objectively awesome. I definitely wish the M’s hadn’t dug themselves such a big hole, but this is as compelling a team as we’ve seen in a while. Last year’s team was incredibly fun, but fun like a CGI-filled popcorn movie. It wasn’t, you know, art, but it was cool to watch. The improvement in the line-up and the solidification of the staff makes this a bit more interesting, even as they may struggle to win 90 games.

But more important to the rest of the schedule is how the AL is shaking out. I mentioned a month or so ago that I thought that you might not *need* to win 90 to get a wildcard this year, unlike in 2021. The reason is that essentially all of the wild card contenders (outside of the M’s and some darkhorses like Cleveland) are in the same division. A division with a historic Leviathan in it. The AL East could go a number of different ways, but if the non-Yankees start beating each other up, that critical number of wins to get a wildcard keeps dropping. Well, since then, the AL East has…beat itself up.

There are a number of keys here, from Tampa losing Wander Franco for much of the spring (and now the rest of the summer) to the White Sox’s collapse to Toronto’s pitching woes to the unlikely emergence of a decent Orioles club. But it all gets to the same place: it’s much less likely now that you’ll have *four* teams in the AL East with 90-92 wins. It could happen, and Fangraphs’ still likes the playoff odds of the Rays/Red Sox/Jays better than Seattle’s. But critically, it has the Rays winning 85 games, while the M’s are at 83. This is well within the margin of error. And at this point, the strength of schedule difference between, say, Tampa and Seattle looms pretty large. A Wander-less Rays team facing the Yanks a bunch more times vs. the M’s taking on Texas and an Angels team that could maybe even trade off Ohtani? Yes, that seems aligned with my interests.

4: How do they get better?

In perhaps the biggest change from a month ago, the trade deadline is now Important. Whereas it was shaping up to be a complex-league flyer in exchange for Adam Frazier, the M’s are clearly buyers, and have to be willing to deal off some of their minor league depth. The pick-up of Carlos Santana’s already paid enormous dividends, and I know things get weird now if the M’s want to play France/Santana/Haniger once Mitch is activated, but we’ll take line-up crunches. The line-up still has black holes, and the M’s should endeavor to fill them.

The Royals acquired some prospect depth for a draft pick, and while it wouldn’t get them enough, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them sweeten a package in the next week with their first-round selection in Sunday’s draft. They have to be willing to let some of their more heralded prospects go and/or take on significant salary, but I’m not sure how they face the clubhouse without doing it. They’ve crept back into what was looking like a lost season, and they’re a far sight better than last year’s club. The league’s fallen back as well, and a few of the teams that looked like serious challengers – the Angels and White Sox – have essentially dithered away half a season. If you can’t make serious moves now, when can you make them?

Andrew Benintendi could be an interesting pick-up if the M’s had confidence Ty France could return to 2B. There are a lot more pitchers on the block this year, so if the M’s wanted to bolster the rotation they could target Luis Castillo or help the bullpen through Matt Moore or Michael Fulmer. The latter two wouldn’t cost much in prospects, but also have less scope to really change the outlook for the M’s. I’d like Moore’s left-handedness in a pen dominated by righties, though.

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