Game 152, Mariners at Pirates: Take 2

marc w · September 18, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Justin Dunn/Tommy Milone vs. Dario Agrazal, 4:05pm

Ok, so Justin Dunn’s MLB debut didn’t quite go according to plan. 2/3 of an inning, with 5 walks and 2 runs is going to make a mess of your pitching line, but it’s not a death sentence, right?

Seven pitchers have made their MLB debut and gone an inning or less, and given up 5 or more walks. Two members of this inauspicious club never got another chance, including the only guy to exceed 5 walks, Dizzy Sutherland. Sutherland, whose nickname may have made light of a very real vision/balance problem, started a September game for the Washington Senators in 1949 and walked 6, giving up 2 hits and 5 runs. Banished back to Charlotte of the old Tri-State League, he pitched a few more seasons, and then seems to have retired – he never got to play for his hometown team again (Sutherland was from DC). Frank Wurm started the second game of a doubleheader in late 1944 and made it only 1/3 of an inning, walking 5 and giving up 4 runs. Like Sutherland, he never pitched in the majors again, despite being the only member of the club to record a strikeout. Wurm pitched one game for Montreal of the old International League the following year, going 1 IP with *6* walks, and that was it for him in the IL. With MLB players flooding back from the war, Wurm’s career seems to have ended after the 1945 season (as it did for Butch Nieman, the RF for Boston who was Wurm’s strikeout victim).

Wurm wasn’t the only 5-walk debut in 1944, though. By far the most famous such debut occurred in June of that year in Cincinnati, where the Reds came up with a plan to gin up fan interest despite the fact that the majority of MLB-talents were tied up in the war effort. They signed local high-schooler Joe Nuxhall, and sent him to the big club to make his debut against the St. Louis Cardinals. Nuxhall was 15 years old, and pretty clearly overmatched. He gave up 5 walks, 2 hits, and 5 runs in 2/3 of an inning, and went down to the minors where he pitched one more inning, giving up another 5 walks and 6 runs. He stepped away from the game in 1946, but made a remarkable comeback in 1952. He was an All-Star in 1955 and 1956, retiring with over 2,300 IP. He stuck around in Cincinnati, broadcasting Reds games for over 40 years.

Al Milnar debuted as a reliever for Cleveland in 1936, and had a statistical dead ringer for Dunn’s debut. Milnar walked 5, gave up 2 runs, but didn’t allow a base hit. The local kid went back to play for what Baseball-Reference says was a minor league team in Cleveland, but I’m not sure who that would’ve been. If it was the Indians’ AA affiliate, that would’ve been in Minnesota, or it could’ve been a semi-pro league. Anyway, Milnar stayed there for a while, getting a couple of big league games in 1938, then making the team for good in 1939. He made the All-Star team in 1940, going 18-10 for the Tribe.

The final two companions to Dunn have clear ties to Seattle. First is former M’s first-baseman Mike Carp, who pitched in relief for the Red Sox in a 14-5 drubbing by the Yankees. Strangely, the long-time Tacoma Rainier’s 5-walk debut was technically the best, or perhaps least-awful. Thanks to a double-play grounder and an infield pop-fly, Carp got out of the inning with only 1 run scoring. He never pitched again, and his big league career didn’t extend past 2014. He was traded to the Rangers late in the year and cratered, and a brief stint back in the PCL in 2015 went even worse.

That leaves the single worst 5-walk debut, which occurred in 1939. The Tigers starter was coming off a brilliant 1938 PCL campaign for the Seattle Rainiers, and was seen as a key player for the Tigers ’39-40 seasons. And then he debuted on May 2nd against the Yankees. The 19 year old, whose name was Fred Hutchinson, yielded *8* runs on 5 walks and 4 hits in just 2/3 of an inning in the Yankees 22-2 win. Banished to Toledo, he had sporadic bouts of wildness, but turned things around and after a bit of action in 1940, he became a rotation fixture after World War II, tossing 1,464 IP before beginning a successful stint as a big league manager. That career was cut short by cancer, a diagnosis made by his brother Bill back in Seattle (Bill/Fred’s father had been a physician in Seattle as well), and after he died in 1964, Bill named his new medical research facility in First Hill after Fred.

Thus, even the worst debuts are not always a death knell. And unlike Dizzy and Mr. Wurm, at least Justin Dunn will get another crack at things. Let’s hope things go better today.

1: Long, LF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Lewis, RF
6: Murphy, C
7: Gordon, 2B
8: Moore, CF
9/SP: Dunn/Milone

The big, hopeful, news of the day is that the Arizona Fall League kicks off down in, uhhhh, Arizona at 6:30. This high-level winter/fall-ball routinely collects some of the biggest prospect names, and has been a proving ground for future big-leaguers for well over a decade. This was a great first test for guys like Dustin Ackley and Clint Nageotte, but also a lot of players who went on to great things, from Troy Tulowitzki, Matt Kemp, and Howie Kendrick in the early days to Mike Trout and Bryce Harper in 2011 to Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Nico Hoerner last year. The M’s group is, without a doubt, the most heralded group of prospects they’ve assigned to the AFL ever. The group is co-headlined by the M’s top prospects, Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez. Rounding out the position players are 3B Joe Rizzo and IF/UTIL Jose Caballero. It’s hard to evaluate pitching in the AFL at times, but the M’s are sending an intriguing group including hard-throwing RP Ray Kerr, sidearming multi-inning guy/potential starter Penn Murfee, lefty Aaron Fletcher (part of the Elias/Strickland deal with Washington), and strikeout maven Sam Delaplane. Murfee gets the start for the Peoria Javelinas tonight against Salt River, where he’ll be opposed by former M’s prospect Nick Neidert, now in the Marlins organization.* The Rafters have several big-time prospects, like 1B Seth Beer of the D’Backs and SS Royce Lewis of the Twins. 18 year-old uberprospect Wander Franco doesn’t seem to be in the AFL, but another Rays IF, Vidal Brujan, will be. Joey Bart, Forrest Whitley, Jo Adell, too. It’s a pretty big deal. Go Javelinas!

* Prospects, man. The M’s sent several pitching prospects (and other prospects) to Miami for both David Phelps and then Dee Gordon. Of these, Neidert seemed the most polished, while Robert Dugger was a relatively unknown pop-up prospect and Pablo Lopez didn’t have the prospect cache. Of course, now Lopez has been a relatively successful starter for a while, and Dugger’s made a few starts for the Marlins, while Neidert went sideways this year in AA/AAA.

Game 151, Mariners at Pirates

marc w · September 17, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Mitch Keller, 4:10pm

Well. The M’s head east after a successful homestand against Cincinnati and Chicago, and now face not just a bad team, but a bad team in turmoil.

This morning, fans got word that Pirates closer Felipe Vasquez had been arrested, and reports out of Florida show one of the charges is solicitation of a child. Pirates players getting ready for this game now have to answer questions about Vazquez, a player who’d been in the news just weeks ago for a fight he got into with fellow pitcher Kyle Crick. At this point, Dejan Kovacevic is reporting that Vasquez’s locker is cleared out, and as he was denied bail, he’s uhhhh not gonna be available.

It’s been an awful year for the Pirates in general, as this LL post details. They’d been contenders, but like the Royals and, uh, the Mariners, those days are now over, and they’re paying the price. While they don’t quite have the farm system the M’s do to build their hope around, they’ve got a lot of young talent who’ve debuted this year or had their first full campaigns in the majors, and at least on the position player side, it’s not bad. They’re led by SS Kevin Newman, who’s hitting .318/.364/.463 thanks to an exceedingly low K rate. They’ve also got CF Bryan Reynolds, who’s opened eyes, but isn’t playing tonight. 1B Josh Bell had a massive breakout in the first half, slugging HRs out of PNC park, but has fallen back to earth a bit in the second half, and has been shut down for the year with lingering injuries.

Their top prospect coming into the year, Mitch Keller, gets tonight’s start. Keller throws very hard, at 95-98, and has a decent slider at 89. He’s been brutally unlucky thus far, but is having real trouble with left-handed batters.

1: Long, LF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Seager, 3B
4: Lewis, RF
5: Narvaez, C
6: Nola, 1B
7: Gordon, 2B
8: Smith, CF
9/SP: Marcoooo

Game 150, White Sox at Mariners

marc w · September 15, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Justus Sheffield vs. Ivan Nova, 1:10pm

Everything just feels better after a dominant Felix performance and a walk-off HR (?) win. The Seahawks seem to move better, the September call-ups have more potential – even the rain seems fresher and more nourishing than normal rain. This is what Felix does to us, and, sure, what pro sports does to otherwise normal brains. I’m still sad it’s ending the way it is, but if I had to answer the question, “What do YOU, the fan, get out of investing time/energy/money in the hedge fund investors world of pro sports?” I would point them to Felix’s career in Seattle. In every way, this would seem to be a disastrous 15 years, and from the raw wins/losses/championships point of view, it probably was. But Felix transcends all of that; through him, all of that churn, all of that effort, had a beautiful kind of reasoning. This doesn’t really make sense, I know, and maybe it’s a fools errand to try to wring meaning out of a story that could more easily be written as a tragedy, but Felix puts a smile on your face, so whatever.

Today, Justus Sheffield tries to continue a solid little run. He’s still too hittable, and the command isn’t great, but he’s finding a way to compete and win at the big league level at a very young age, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He had good success with his fastball against Cincinnati, but it’s still concerning he’s been unable to get swings-and-misses with it, even as he crests 95 MPH on the pitch. That helped balance some slight struggles with the slider, which remains his best pitch by far. We’ll see how he uses it today against a free-swinging team; this should be a good match-up for him.

On the hill for Chicago is veteran sinkerballer Ivan Nova, who came up with the Yankees and tossed a very good 2011 season – a fact I’d forgotten, as I was caught up at the time in lamenting the suddenly clear fact that Dustin Ackley would not be saving the Seattle Mariners. After injury troubles and occasional HR issues, he was remade in Pittsburgh under the sinker-whisperer, Ray Searage. The Sox signed him, figuring their own 2010-era Guru pitching coach could help, but he’s regressed across the board. He still throws his sinker a ton, but it’s much less successful now that batters can elevate it and the ball is made of flubber. He’s given up a lot of HRs, which is one reason DRA isn’t a fan (and hated him even during his Pittsburgh run). His FIP’s over 5, so it’s not just BP’s metric that’s down on him. Of course, he’s run an ERA under that FIP for years now, though with 9 unearned runs, that may be due more to the official scorer than any contact-limiting prowess. Still, as with so many pitchers in this HR-addled era, it’s tough to get a purchase on just how valuable it is to give up more than 5 runs per 9. Park factors matter a lot, particularly in parks like Chicago’s, which are so HR-friendly. By BBREF’s RA/9-based WAR, he’s easily above average. Even with that ugly FIP, Fangraphs thinks he’s within shouting distance of a league-average season for a starting pitcher. That leaves Baseball Prospectus on its own, pointing at all of the HRs, the 204 hits in less than 173 innings, the K% under 14% and screaming that Nova’s a sub-replacement-level scrub. They gave him an astonishing -3.1 WARP on the year; for all of you who think DRA is irrationally fixated on Marco Gonzales, take heart: it hates Nova much, much more.

1: Long, 2B
2: Nola, 1B
3: Seager, 3B
4: Lewis, RF
5: Vogelbach, DH
6: Murphy, C
7: Moore, LF
8: Walton, SS
9: Smith, CF
SP: Sheffield

Game 148, White Sox at Mariners

marc w · September 13, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Dylan Covey, 7:10pm

The Mariners pitching staff boasts a team ERA of 5.17, with a FIP of 5.04. Those marks are awful, though not the worst in the majors, but due to the magic of park factors, the M’s currently rank dead last in Fangraphs’ team WAR table. Baseball Prospectus would undoubtedly rank them there too, as they’re even harsher on the M’s pitchers than ERA or FIP. The White Sox rank slightly better, but not by a ton. Their ERA is 4.97, and their FIP is 4.94. While their strikeout rate and HR/9 is slightly better than Seattle’s, they give back a lot through poor control – all of those walks make the HRs hurt more.

But what does it matter? Neither team is really trying to contend in 2019 anyway, right? Looking at the Sox today, I’m struck by the view from 2017, when their rebuild hit its peak when they traded for Eloy Jimenez. At the time, I wrote about how striking it was that the M’s seemed to put a lot of value on the second wild card, or the play-in game in general, while the White Sox (who could’ve gone into that year with Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, and Jose Quintana on absurdly cheap contracts) obviously didn’t value contending for it at all. Because they had so much quality talent to sell off, AND because of a strategic decision to focus on the top end of the international market, they amassed a formidable array of prospect talent. They got Yoan Moncada from Boston, Jimenez from the Cubs, and then they signed Luis Robert out of Cuba (Robert’s in contention for MiLB player of the year this year). They got Dylan Cease from the Cubs, they had Carlos Rodon, the third overall pick in 2014 and then Carson Fulmer, the #8 pick in 2015, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez from the Nats, and hard-throwing Dylan Covey out of the A’s organization. They had a huge collection of highly-prized prospects, most of them in the high minors. All they had to do was wait.

And wait. It’s now the tail end of the 2019 season, and nearly all of these acquisitions have arrived (not Robert, but still). Moncada’s breakout this year’s coincided with Lucas Giolito putting it all together after struggling mightily for years. It’s not that there’s no progress, no movement, in this rebuild. It’s just that it hasn’t been close to enough. They enter play today at 55-92 in the worst division in the game, getting to play both Detroit and Kansas City in divisional games. Eloy Jimenez is a league-average hitter, Tim Anderson’s had a big year, and James McCann’s having a great year at C. But the team, overall, is among the worst hitting clubs in the game. The reason is one that should be familiar to M’s fans of the past 10 years: they’re surrounding young, solid performers with a bunch of sub-replacement-level dreck. Jon Jay, Yonder Alonso, and Wellington Castillo are all solidly below replacement level, and some younger fill-ins like Daniel Palka and AJ Reed have fared even worse (in mercifully short stints).

On the pitching side, Giolito’s improvements have been counteracted by injuries and ineffectiveness from Rodon and Fulmer, regression from Lopez, and absolutely no progress whatsoever from Dylan Covey. Dylan Cease has missed bats, but walks and dingers have his ERA over 6.5. The White Sox were once lauded for their pitching coach’s ability to unlock potential from struggling starters, but in the course of this rebuild, they’re becoming known for development stalling out. This is the lesson the M’s need to learn: it’s not enough to amass a ton of great prospects, you have to coach them over that final hill. They’ve shown some signs of improving in that regard, as Justus Sheffield’s looked better recently. But the overall state of the pitching staff shows that it’s not exactly an organizational strength.

Justin Dunn’s..ahhh…lackluster debut was too short to mean much of anything, and he was obviously dealing with some nerves, leaving his front shoulder flying open and eliminating any trace of fastball command. No matter; he’ll be better next time out. But while the minor league system did absolutely exemplary work with Dunn and Logan Gilbert in particular, the M’s cannot afford a White Sox-style stall-out once these guys hit the majors. Giolito lost two years in Chicago after making his debut in Washington due to awful control. Covey’s done the same, and Cease is on track to do it this year. It’s been a huge problem for Fulmer, and, to a lesser degree, Rodon. The M’s are not the White Sox, and are by no means bound to follow in their wild footsteps. But they can’t have that happen. If there’s any good that’s come from Sheffield’s struggles with command early in the year, it’s that the M’s had a test case: can they improve a guy’s command when he’s got the yips? So far so good, I suppose. Now they need to do it with Dunn.

It’s hard to evaluate a start like Dunn’s, but I will say I liked his slider. He threw a couple of great ones, and the horizontal movement was something to see. Of course, he didn’t get as many chases as I would’ve expected, especially on an 0-2 pitch to Eugenio Suarez. It looked, at times, like the Reds saw it coming, although that may just be that they were geared up to take a pitch, given that Dunn threw so many balls. He seemed to throw a hard change at 89-90; there were only 2, and weren’t coded as such by Brooks, but I think they’re change-ups. The problem is that by movement, velo, and spin axis, they’re carbon-copies of his fastball. Felix threw his change at near-FB speeds, but it dove down and under bats. I know it’s Dunn’s third pitch, but I’d like to see more vertical movement separation.

Reader William Lofton mentioned on twitter that Dunn may have been thrown a bit by the 2019 baseball. Many pitchers, he noted, have said it feels slippery. We’ve heard a lot this year about how using the MLB ball in AAA distorted competition in the highest level of the minors, with a massive increase in HRs leading to a huge increase in ERA, with several teams sitting over 6 for an entire year. That in turn has led to more teams saying that they’re skipping AAA when promoting prospects, as they find AAA-in-2019 almost impossible to scout/assess. Dunn is just such a player, who debuted in MLB without ever playing in AAA. While it’s sensible to avoid putting a player in a bad environment, the ball is the same in MLB and AAA. If they’re in MLB, they’re going to have to use it. Wouldn’t you rather they have some familiarity with it in the minors before they’re asked to adjust in front of big crowds in TV cameras? Sheffield’s first starts after his call-up weren’t great, and he’s actually used the MLB ball before, both in AAA and, well, MLB. Dunn hadn’t; I’m not blaming the ball for his 5 walks, but I do wonder if it’s short-sighted to have pitching prospects skip AAA to protect their precious minor league stats.

Dylan Covey’s essentially never done anything of note in the majors, but he pitched in the game at last year’s BP event at Safeco and handcuffed the M’s. I see what the Sox saw when they got him – a big righty with a worm-burning sinker at 95+, and a host of secondaries. Sure, none of these pitches has ever evinced any sign of being a MLB-quality pitch, but damn it, they *look* good. Whatever problem Chicago has in developing pitching, Covey seems to be a perfect example. His second year was worse than his (abbreviated) first year, and this year’s been worse still. It’s the Carson Fulmer story told over many more pages; it’s got to be maddening for the Sox AND for Covey himself.

1: Long, LF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Lewis, RF
6: Narvaez, DH
7: Murphy, C
8: Gordon, 2B
9: Smith, CF
SP: Kikuchi

All hail Kyle Lewis.

Game 147, Reds at Mariners – Kyle Lewis Is Fun

marc w · September 12, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Justin Dunn/Tommy Milone vs. Tyler Mahle, 7:10pm

Kyle Lewis has hit an absolutely crucial home run in the last two games, and the M’s continue to destroy the Cincinnati Reds. I propose we move the M’s to the NL Central. It’s just much more fun to watch when the M’s have MLB debutantes who really hit the ground running. And hey, tonight we’ll try for another, as Justin Dunn makes his big league debut as the opener.

I think we’re all sick of Milone/LeBlanc appearances, which is nothing against those two crafty hurlers, but they simply don’t matter for 2021. Justin Dunn, on the other hand, really does. The M’s need new starters, especially if Marco Gonzales isn’t going to be a top of the rotation arm, as now seems pretty clear. Dunn’s got upside that Marco, and even potentially Justus Sheffield, simply doesn’t possess. I’m really curious to see how his first appearance goes, and how his great slider works against the Joey Vottos of the world.

Dunn posted the best K/9 and BB/9 numbers of his career this year, but he struggled just slightly with HRs, a consequence of a fairly extreme fly ball approach. MLB in 2019 has not been kind to such approaches, but then strikeouts cover a multitude of sins. Punchouts, Justin… Punchouts.

Righty Tyler Mahle is a bit similar, in that he’s got a great K:BB ratio, but he’s getting stung by homers, which are even more prevalent in his home park. Like a lot of young pitchers, his real problems are platoon splits. He throws a four-seam fastball, a curve, and an intriguing splitter, which should help him avoid platoon splits, but big league lefties haven’t gotten the memo, and are slugging .544 off of him this year.

1: Long, LF
2: Nola, 1B
3: Seager, 3B
4: Narvaez, C
5: Lewis, RF
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Moore, 2B
8: Walton, SS
9: Bishop, CF
SP: Dunn/Milone

Game 145, Reds at Mariners – How Do You Do, Fellow Kids

marc w · September 10, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Justus Sheffield vs. Trevor Bauer, 7:10pm

I’m really not sure if any player’s seen their stock drop quite as fast as Bauer’s has. After tossing the ball over the outfield wall when his manager tried to take him out, he was traded to Cincinnati, giving him a couple of months to rebuild value and help out the Reds pitcher reclamation project (eg. Sonny Gray). It uh…it hasn’t worked out. In seven appearances for the Reds, he’s gone 1-4 with an ERA of 8.23 and a FIP of 5.27. The gains he’s made in his strikeout rate and K:BB ratio are still there, which is why his FIP’s better than his ERA. But it’s not, you know, GOOD, because he’s giving up HRs at a remarkable rate and because he’s not stranding runners.

With another hurler you might say that he hasn’t clicked with his pitching coach, or that the team sucks at helping even acquired pitchers succeed (Baltimore’s the historic example of this). But 1) the Reds are a top-10 staff this year and 2) this is Bauer, who is self-made and has no need for plebeian pitching coaches. He’ll rapsodo himself, thank you. Obviously, he’s dealing with some bad luck, but there does seem to be a lack of adjustment to the new ball and a disturbing trend in his ability to get out lefties.

To his credit, he’s tried some stuff. He spent the offseason working on a changeup, and I thought it looked deadly in April. But it hasn’t quite been there for him consistently, and while big offseason pitch design overhauls are great, you need to have the ability to make minor tweaks mid-season. All in all, he seems to have lost many if not all of the gains he made last year, where he was a legitimate Cy Young candidate. The overall track record is much murkier, and that’s even before you get to personality/twitter stuff that will absolutely hold down his value.

Justus Sheffield’s heading in the opposite direction a bit, with solid results in his last few outings taking the sting out of what had been about a year of downward trends in his results and prospect sheen. Like anyone, though, it’s about consolidating those gains and displaying them consistently that matters. Taken as a whole, I don’t think his 2019 has fully demonstrated that he can be a rotation cog in 2020, but a hell of a good September probably would.

And of course, Sheffield’s joined now by a bunch of other prospects that the M’s have brought up after the minor league season concluded. Today, the M’s called up a number of players who’d been at AA Arkansas, including Kyle Lewis, SP Justin Dunn, RP Art Warren and IF/UTIL Donnie Walton. Lewis, the M’s #1 draft pick a few weeks back, gets the start tonight in RF.

It’s too short of a stint to meaningfully change our view of these prospects, but I’d love it if a couple of the hitters showed some real improvement in what had been a weakness – maybe Lewis’ K rate or Walton’s ISO. The M’s are closer than ever to having their actual 2021 team assembled and playing together than ever. Some of the players tonight really need to be in that group, and the M’s need to identify them and keep them on a path that leads to MLB success. Tonight’s pretty exciting, or about as exciting as a late season game featuring a go-nowhere team that’s had almost no success in the second half goes. Sadly, I’m going to miss it, as I’m away and visiting another go-nowhere team that’s had almost no success in the second half.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Nola, 1B
3: Seager, 3B
4: Murphy, C
5: Vogelbach, DH
6: Lewis, RF
7: Lopes, LF
8: Smith, CF
9: Moore, SS
SP: Sheffield

Game 142, Mariners at Astros

marc w · September 6, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Reggie McClain/Tommy Milone vs. Framber Valdez, 5:10pm

Since 2015, fastball usage throughout MLB has been on a steady decline. From about 62.4% in 2015, fastballs of all types have fallen to 58.4% this year. Pitchers throwing more breaking balls, and teams giving more innings to breaking-ball crazed relievers – this is a long-term trend we’ve talked about here for a few years now. But this trend only really impacts one kind of fastball. Four-seamers haven’t gone away; quite the opposite, they’re up slightly compared to recent years. Essentially the entire trend is the result of pitchers throwing fewer sinkers. Gerald Schifman talked about this at BP earlier in the year, but it’s stark to see the data on BaseballSavant, too.

You all know the story: sinkers were great for a while, as they targeted the areas where the strikezone was expanding, helping suppress offense from 2010-2014. The new strikes and the long-term correlation between pitch height and batted ball (lower pitches were more likely to be grounders) meant that sinkers were ideal tools to help pitchers avoid home runs. Then, somewhere along the way, batters changed how they attacked these pitches, and given that sinkers generated whiffs less often than their four-seam cousins, the cost/benefit changed. I wrote about this before 2017, but 2017 and its juiced baseball even the playing field a bit: for a year, batters did even better against high fastballs (and four-seamers are more likely to be thrown higher).

It’s a balance: batters elevate the ball when they make contact on four-seamers, especially high ones, but they’re much more likely to miss. For several years, those whiffs held down the wOBA-against on four-seamers, even as batters turned more fly balls into home runs. Sinkers went for dingers too, but there weren’t many K’s to balance them out. But this year, with run values up on all kinds of fastballs, we’re seeing something that looks a bit irrational. At this point, the wOBA for four-seamers is essentially identical to the wOBA on sinkers. In previous years, the league-wide preference for four-seamers made some sense. Now, I’m not so sure.

You know who else isn’t sure? The Astros. Sure, sure, they got high-spin four-seam mavens Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole anchoring their rotation, and yes, they turned Cole into COLE! by getting him to stop throwing low sinkers and throw four-seamers up in the zone. Yes, but they also picked up Wade Miley, who, if you ignore yesterday, has been decent for them thanks to a sinker/cutter combination. They had Dallas Keuchel as their ace for a while before this year, and now they’ve got rookie Framber Valdez. Valdez throws pretty hard, and technically has a four-seamer, but the Astros are just fine if Valdez continues to use his weird sinker as his primary heater. He’s producing very high ground ball rates which is handy given the number of batters he walks. Those walks are killing his value right now, but he could be intriguing down the road. While his sinker has average to a bit below average spin, he’s got one of the highest spin-rate curveballs in the game, up ahead of Verlander/Cole/Morton/Glasnow/Rich Hill and those guys.It’s been a devastating out-pitch for him, but his control doesn’t allow him to get into out-pitch situations too often. That’ll be important for the M’s tonight.

You know who else isn’t sure? The Mariners. Today’s opener, Reggie McClain, is a sinker-dominant reliever, and his sinker is actually pretty similar to Valdez’s. Reggie’s is thrown at 94, so it’s faster than Framber’s (92-93), and it has more armside run. Their spin rates are 2171 for Valdez and 2169 for McClain, and they’ve got very similar arm slots. All in all, you won’t see too many more similar pitches. McClain’s slider has a lot of gyrospin so it doesn’t feature a ton of movement, and that’s why his strikeout numbers haven’t been that great this year in AAA/MLB, but he’s another guy that can get ground balls and thus hopefully avoid the dinger plague. New reliever Taylor Guilbeau has a hard sinker as well. What about Mike Leake? Yes, he’d been a sinkerballer, but had to stop throwing it as much, as it’s been one of the league’s worst pitches. But the org clearly isn’t going to ignore guys who can reliably get ground balls, not when you keep facing this damnable Astros offense 19 times a year.

1: Moore, SS
2: Smith, RF
3: Nola, C
4: Seager, 3B
5: Murphy, DH
6: Vogelbach, 1B
7: Lopes, LF
8: Long, 2B
9: Bishop, CF
SP: McClain/Milone

Game 141, Mariners at Astros – Staring Into the Void

marc w · September 5, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Wade Miley, 5:10pm

How did you like the Texas League playoff game? Made for a nice change from line-ups like, uh, the one the M’s are rolling out tonight, but of course even the AA game was a pitchers duel. The Travs pulled out a win late against Tulsa’s bullpen, and we all got to see how Jarred Kelenic works an at-bat. Root’s replayed it a few times, including this afternoon.

This is not a shock, given how good Houston is, but the M’s are 1-12 against the divisional bullies this season. They’ve lost at home, they’ve lost in Texas. They’ve lost extra-inning games and blowouts, and seven in a row to Houston overall. We kind of expect Gerrit Cole or Justin Verlander to dominate, but it just doesn’t seem to matter who they throw out there. I’ve mentioned it before, but there’s something especially exasperating about facing Wade Miley with the Astros. We saw this guy in Seattle, and we saw him after that in Baltimore. That should’ve been it; he had pitched his way out of the league. He was an ex-promising pitcher, soon to be an ex-pitcher entirely. And then he was back, pitching well for a playoff team and logging actual playoff innings in 2018. Now he’s pitching to an ERA in the low 3s despite mediocre K:BB ratios in the year of the home run. Do you remember how many HRs he allowed in Seattle and Baltimore?

How much of this is really due to him, though? Not all of it, not with a super-low BABIP that must have something to do with the great defense behind him. The Crawford Boxes look remarkably close to home plate, but Houston’s somehow a neutral-to-pitcher friendly park, even in this, the year of the juiced ball. But then again, there’s Wade Miley with really good exit velocities-against, including one of the lowest fly ball/line drive exit velocities of any starter. There’s Miley with that low BABIP for the second year in a row, despite playing on a different team in a different league. Both Miley and Gonzales have given up plenty of unearned runs, but they pull Miley’s RA/9 up from ‘amazing’ to merely ‘good.’ Marco’s RA/9 is again over 5, which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising for a player in the bottom half of qualified starters in terms of the hard-hit contact he allows. He challenges batters, and that’s tough to do in 2019. He has absolutely been harmed by the likes of Domingo Santana and Tim Beckham, and it makes it so hard to make heads or tails out of his season, and how we should see him for 2020 and 2021.

I guess I’m feeling a lot of that confusion about the M’s as a whole right now. It’s great to see Jake Fraley and Braden Bishop up with the team, and I know their cold starts don’t mean a whole lot, but given how challenging it is to make sense of AAA stat lines (thanks to the same juiced ball problem), I’d appreciate them demonstrating some aptitude against MLB pitching, just to settle my nerves. John Trupin’s got a great post at LL using a few different all-in-one batting stats to gauge how well hitters like Kelenic and Fraley did this year, and that helps. But with Crawford out following a really up-and-down second half, and with Fraley slumping…I guess I thought we’d know more about how 2020 would look for M’s fans at this point. Kelenic and Julio Rodgriguez blew expectations out of the water, and really are two of the best prospects in the game. John Sickels top 100 list currently has them at 14th and 18th, respectively. For the first time in a while, the M’s can envision a homegrown core. But it’s still a little ways away, and it would help a lot to figure out who’s going to be flanking that core, and who’ll be holding down the fort until the cavalry arrive. That’s why Crawford, Fraley, Justus Sheffield, Mitch Haniger, and Marco are so important, and why it’s so frustrating that we haven’t really seen them all healthy and performing at the same time.

1: Moore, SS
2: Gordon, 2B
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Murphy, C
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Lopes, LF
8: Fraley, RF
9: Bishop, CF
SP: Gonzales

Wade freaking Miley, I mean really.

Texas League Playoffs: Arkansas vs. Tulsa

marc w · September 4, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Ricardo Sanchez vs. Josiah Gray, 5:10pm – ROOT Sports, MiLB.tv, and streaming audio online.

With the M’s traveling, Root Sports will instead broadcast the M’s AA Texas League affiliate in Little Rock, Arkansas, who take on Dodgers affiliate Tulsa in the first round of the playoffs. Calling the game will be Brad Adam and M’s GM, Jerry Dipoto. The big league season hasn’t quite gone according to plan, but Dipoto gets an extended opportunity to sell the fan base on his rebuild by calling a game involving several of the M’s top prospects. The group is led, of course, by OF Jarred Kelenic, the newly-20 year old, who’s had a remarkable season across three levels. SP Justin Dunn won’t get this game, but was on local sports radio in Seattle around noon as part of the effort to drum up interest in a far-away minor league game.

Since Root stopped showing PCL broadcasts of the Portland Beavers (because the Beavers moved), it’s been hard to see minor league games on regular ol’ TV. MiLB.tv is still a niche product, with spotty coverage in the low minors and some camera work that may, uh, challenge viewers used to big league HD broadcasts. That’s somewhat surprising, given the growth in interest in prospects in general. A CBS-branded cable channel tried minor league game of the week broadcasts, rotating around to wherever some big prospects were playing, but that didn’t last. All of that to say, even if the M’s didn’t desperately want attention on Kelenic, Evan White, and company, I’d love to see someone try and broadcast more games like this when the schedule allows. I have MiLB.tv, but I’d much rather watch a real broadcast. And with an intriguing team like the Arkansas Travelers, you have the opportunity to showcase some future big leaguers.

Part of the trick is that you want to know who’ll be on the team, and in the minors, that’s often hard to do. The Travs big pitching and position player starts, Logan Gilbert and Kelenic, weren’t on the team two months ago. Justin Dunn was, but it wasn’t his turn in the rotation. Still, once Kelenic and C Cal Raleigh were promoted, a broadcast like this started to feel like quite an opportunity. Apparently the brain child of M’s marketing VP Kevin Martinez, this should be a fun broadcast.

Since it’s a playoff game, the competition’s pretty good, too. The Dodgers have been unreal at player development in recent years, and they’ll showcase that in this game. Just like the Travs, some of the big stars for the Drillers have only been in AA a short while. Today’s starter, 21-year old Josiah Gray, was acquired in December’s big Yasiel Puig deal, and has played in three levels this season, just like Kelenic. A right-hander, Gray was drafted by Cincinnati in the competitive bonus round in 2018, and has flown up the chain thanks to a fastball that touches the high 90s. He was a Division II college player, but opened a lot of eyes in the Cape Cod League in 2017. He’s got a slider/change-up as secondaries, and struck out 147 in 130 IP, just shy of 40 of those coming in AA. Another player in that same trade was SS Jeter Downs, also 21, and also a competitive balance round pick by the Reds, this time in 2017. Downs spent most of the year in high-A Rancho Cucamonga, where he hit 19 HRs and slashed .269/.354/.507. He’s always had plenty of loft in his swing, but has tapped into his power much more this year. He’s played just 12 games in Tulsa, but has 5 HRs in that span with a GB% under 20%. Wow. (He’s not the most heralded Tulsa SS of 2019, though. That’d be Gavin Lux, who started in AA, then went on to essentially break the PCL (.392/.478/.719) and force his way to Los Angeles.) Other tough ABs for the Drillers include C Conner Wong, who, like Downs, has 24 HRs across 2 levels, and Cuban 2B Omar Estevez.

Arkansas SP Ricardo Sanchez, 22, was DFA’d by Atlanta in the offseason, then traded to the M’s for well-traveled UTIL Cash Considerations. Sanchez is on the M’s 40-man, and spent the entire season in Arkanasas. He had a brilliant April, but has been a little shakier since then, finishing with an ERA of 4.44 in 146 IP. As you may know, Arkansas is a somewhat extreme pitcher’s park, so it may be harder for the sluggers to actually hit it out of Dickey-Stephens park.

1: Donnie Walton, SS
2: Jarred Kelenic, CF
3: Evan White, 1B
4: Cal Raleigh, C
5: Kyle Lewis, LF
6: Jordan Cowan, 2B
7: Dom Thompson-Williams, DH
8: Mike Ahmed, 3B
9: Luis Liberato, RF
SP: Ricardo Sanchez, LHP

Game 140, Mariners at Cubs

marc w · September 3, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Jon Lester, 5:05pm

Happy Felix Day to you all. Are Felix days weird to any of you? In that they involve our beloved King essentially auditioning to pitch somewhere else next year? Yeah? Me too. I

It’s a big pitching match-up for the Northwest, as the region’s most beloved hurler goes up against a native son. Felix is a changed pitcher this year; he’s gone away from his change-up in favor of his curveball, which he’s throwing more now than he ever has. The change had been his signature pitch for his entire career, and certainly since 2007. It’s produced the best results, but while it’s not exactly getting rocked, the curve has been gaining vis a vis the change, and with his sinker now a legitimate problem, it’s probably good to have a pitch that doesn’t mimic the sinker in movement and velocity. It’s worth remembering that as Felix’s fastball velocity has declined over the years, the change either stayed put or got even faster for a while. In 2007, he threw 98 with the fastball, and 88 with his change – a fairly normal gap between the two. But within a few years, he was sitting 95, and then 94 and 93 with the heater. But over those years, roughly 2009-2012, his change got slightly faster, until it sat at 90. This version of Felix was the best we saw, and he dominated by ignoring every bit of research about how you’re *supposed* to throw a change. He blazed his own path, and then saw guys like Zack Greinke follow. But in recent years, as his fastball sits at or below 90, he’s finally started to open up more of a gap in velocity; his change is now about 4.5 MPH slower than his sinker, down from about 3 MPH slower in 2016, and more akin to the separation he had way back in 2009, when he was still throwing 94-95.

Felix’s fastballs are getting pounded, as he’s given up 10 HRs on them (four-seam and sinker) this year in just 216 plate appearances. He tries to limit fastballs to lefties, as he’ll mix change-ups and curves, but even when they’re comparatively rare, they get blasted. He’s given up 5 HRs on fastballs to lefties in just over 111 *pitches*. Forget training, forget working hard on video study – what Felix needs is a redesigned fastball. He’s needed it now for many years, and I understand he’s been resistant to the M’s entreaties to change things. But I still think someone might get a serviceable starter next year if they can convince him to change that fastball’s shape by changing his armslot or its movement. This is no longer rocket science. He could try the Rangers approach and move on the rubber. He could try the Astros approach and develop a cutter instead. I don’t know what’s the best path forward, but for whatever reason, he never found that path here. Damn it.

I’d take another opportunity to blast the M’s for failing to find that path, but it’s hard to do so a day after Justus Sheffield’s best outing as a major leaguer. He looked like a different pitcher from the guy we saw facing the Blue Jays earlier this month. Since that game, the M’s have clearly decided to alter his pitch mix to be much less fastball-dominant. I think that makes a lot of sense given the…limitations of his fastball, but as we just talked about with Felix, adjusting the mix isn’t enough. Sheffield’s greatly improved his command/control of the pitch in recent weeks. Batters swung at 37% of his fastballs in his first two appearances this year. In the last two, that’s up to around 43%. The reason is that he’s cut his called-ball rate on the pitch by 10 percentage points. That means he’s able to get to his slider in good counts, and when he’s done that, batters haven’t fared well at all. His whiff rate on the pitch is trending way up, and batters are finding it difficult to put the slider in play at all. Before the Yankee game, I said the M’s needed to help him make adjustments, and to be frank, I didn’t think they could. Credit where it’s due: they absolutely have, and it’s turned Sheffield into an MLB-ready starter, something he pretty clearly wasn’t even 2-3 weeks ago.

Jon Lester is, like many pitchers, posting a career-high in HR/9. Righties in particular are doing some damage off of him, but he’s still an effective starter over all. Lester throws almost exactly as hard as Felix does, but has aged gracefully thanks to an interesting mix of three fastballs – a four-seamer, a sinker, and a cutter. He’s always thrown all three, but the balance was once tilted strongly in favor of the four-seam, which paired well with his curve. Now, though, he’s begun using the cutter most of all, and he’s throwing more curves and change-ups, essentially embracing his inner junkballer. Lester, like any lefty who’s stuck around as long as he has, minimizes his platoon splits, presumably through some deception. He’s not having as much success this year with his four-seam and sinker, but he makes up for it with his secondary offerings. This would be a good case study to look into for whichever team signs Felix in the off-season.

1: Smith, RF
2: Moore, SS
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Murphy, C
6: Court, LF
7: Gordon, 2B
8: Bishop, CF
9/SP: FELIX.

That line-up is not going to strike terror in the hearts of opposing pitchers, but hey, it’s September. The M’s recalled IF Shed Long and RP Zac Grotz today; no word on more call-ups following the end of the minor league season.

On that note, yesterday was the official end of the regular season across the minors.
The Rainiers lost to Las Vegas 3-2 despite a HR from Jaycob Brugman. Andrew Moore took the loss despite 5 2/3 IP in a tough place to pitch. Nabil Crismatt pitched 2 scoreless in relief with 6 Ks, which is pretty good. The Rainiers finished up the season at 61-78 and last in their division, but #1 in my heart. They had 41 players come up to the plate, including David Freitas who went on to win the PCL Batting title with San Antonio after just 6 PAs in Tacoma. They used 50 pitchers.
Arkansas is, of course, not done, as we’ll all get to see them in the Texas League playoffs this week, as it’ll be broadcast on Root Sports. They dropped their final game to the Amarillo Sod Poodles 6-5. Cal Raleigh hit his 7th HR with the team, and Jarred Kelenic hit his 6th, giving him 23 across three levels, and capping off a remarkable first full season as a professional. The Travelers finished 81-57, and they’ll take on the Tulsa Drillers beginning tomorrow evening. Ljay Newsome took the loss, but he raised his season strikeout total to 169 in 155 innings, while walking just 17. I talked before the season started that the M’s needed some org guys to develop into prospects, and we’ve seen it happen with guys like Reggie McClain. But Newsome’s transformation stands out, as he addressed his biggest weakness (missing bats) without sacrificing his best skill (avoiding walks). Great season.
Modesto lost to Visalia to finish up the year at 65-75. Their pitching staff set a new Cal League record for strikeouts, only to see Rancho Cucamonga beat it. They upped their strikeouts by 285 over last season, and, not coincidentally, dropped their runs-allowed by over 90. They were better at the plate, too, though that was a low bar, as the 2018 team posted a sub-.700 OPS. They hit for solid power, thanks largely to Cal Raleigh, but had the lowest OBP in the Cal League. A little more time for Julio Rodriguez would’ve likely changed that.
West Virginia blanked Greensboro 2-0 to finish at 69-70. It’s amazing to think the club opened the season with Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez, and Logan Gilbert on the roster. Juan Then got his first win at the A ball level, and the teenager ends his season with an ERA just under 3 across a couple of levels. The Power struggled on the mound, giving up the most HRs in the Sally League and the second-most runs. They weren’t great shakes at the plate, either, but it’s a pitcher-friendly league altogether, and the team had wave after wave of players promoted and demoted through their clubhouse.
Everett beat Vancouver 3-1 to finish 37-39. As you’d expect from their record, they were middle-of-the-pack in team batting, though their offense did finish with the second-highest OBP. The pitching staff was a bit shakier, tying for the highest team ERA and giving up more HRs as a team than any other club…by a mile. They were 23 HRs ahead of second-place Vancouver, who only allowed 42 on the year.

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