JA Happ vs. Sonny Gray, 1:05pm
Today’s game can’t be worse. So we’ve got that going for us.
JA Happ takes the hill after a shaky spring, but again, if he can embrace fly balls, he’ll find the AL West can be a pretty welcoming place. As I mentioned back in the early spring, it might be a good idea to shelve to the two-seamer he uses occasionally and simplify a bit to a four-seamer, curve and cutter. He’s got a change, but it hasn’t been a great pitch thus far. Might be nice as an occasional pitch to show off, but it’s probably not great as his primary weapon against right-handers.
The A’s send their ace Sonny Gray out for his second start of 2015. In the first, he carried a no-hitter into the 8th against a punchless Rangers team. He’s got an arrow-straight, almost cutter-style four-seam fastball, a sinker that he uses against right-handers, a big curve ball at around 82mph, and an occasional slider and change. With his distinctive four-seamer movement and curveball, his minimal platoon splits shouldn’t be a big surprise. Gray exploded onto the scene with 10 great starts down the stretch in 2013, with a big K rate and low HR rate leading to a FIP of 2.70. Last year, he wasn’t able to sustain that, as his K rate that fell to league average, and a K:BB ratio a touch below that. As a result, his FIP wasn’t as gaudy as it had been, but his ERA was still pretty good. In essence, he took a page from James Paxton’s playbook, managing contact and running absurdly high GB rates for a four-seam hurler to minimize HRs and BABIP. The HR rate thing isn’t just a product of O.co coliseum – in fact, he was much better on the road, and gave up twice as many HRs at home as he did on the road. The biggest worry going forward for Gray was that he seemed to tire down the stretch; his small size resulted in durability concerns that sent him tumbling down the draft board in 2011, from a guy once seen as a top 5 pick down to #18. He’s still a tough, tough match-up for the M’s, but some patience might be rewarded today – run up the pitch count, foul some pitches off, and wait for a grooved FB – despite the results, he threw quite a few mistake pitches in his first game.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Smith, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Sucre, C
On paper, this looks as unfavorable, as unwatchable, as yesterday’s game was anticipated and favorable. Last night’s game turned out to be a completely digusting mess, so hey, games rarely unfold as they’re ‘supposed’ to. At least the M’s get Seth Smith back, but his groin injury seems like it’s still a factor, as he’ll be DHing today.
Yesterday in the minors, the Rainiers countered the Chihuahuas opening day blow out by scoring 17 runs against the hapless lapdogs, knocking Aaron Northcraft out in the 2nd, and then pouring it on against ex-Rainier Steve Kohlscheen after that. Patrick Kivlehan hit his first AAA HR, but it came against the El Paso 2nd baseman, not an actual pitcher. Franklin Gutierrez continued his hot start with 2 2Bs, and Stefen Romero hit 2 2Bs as well on his way to a 4-6 night. Carlos Rivero was 4-5 with a walk, and hit a HR on opening day. Today marks the org debut for pitcher Sam Gaviglio, who the M’s acquired from St. Louis in exchange for IF Ty Kelly. Gaviglio’s from Ashland, and went to OSU, and utilizes a sinking four-seamer around 88-90 to generate ground balls. He’s also got a slider and a firm change around 84.
Tyler Pike makes his season debut for the Jackson Generals in Jacksonville. One of the minor league stars of 2013, Pike battled serious control problems throughout 2014, and his overall numbers last year were awful as a result. Pike hasn’t shown a lot of bat-missing ability, so dramatically dropping his walk rate is going to be imperative going forward. High Desert undoubtedly impacted him last year, though he fared even worse after a late-season promotion to AA. Still, he’s just 21 and still should have some of the pitchability that scouts raved about in 2013.
Dan Altavilla takes the hill for Bakersfield today. The righty was a 5th round pick out of tiny Mercyhurst college, and spent 2014 in the Everett rotation. The Bakersfield offense hasn’t found their footing yet, as they’ve scored just 3 runs in two games. Ryan Yarbrough was solid last night, giving up 2R in 4IP with 4Ks, but the offense scored just one run, and the Blaze fell to 0-2. The middle of the order, from Timmy Lopes to Tyler O’Neill to Austin Wilson hasn’t clicked yet, but they should soon. Bakersfield’s home park isn’t *quite* as hitter-friendly as High Desert’s, but it’s surprisingly close thanks to its extra cozy dimensions: The CF wall in Bakersfield is an absurd 354 feet from home plate.
Clinton dropped their opener too, despite a solid performance from Daniel Missaki, who went 6IP, giving up 2R on 5H and striking out 5. He left with a 3-2 lead, but the bullpen coughed it up. Alex Jackson was 1-4 with a 2B, and Joe DeCarlo hit a HR for the LumberKings. Clinton’s got a double-header scheduled today, with Tyler Herb – a 29th-rounder last year with a solid K rate across three levels – and intriguing Venezuelan Osmel Morales starting.
Bummed about the Mariners losing two in a row to the Angels, after a promising opening day? That’s fine! We all are. On the other hand, at least the Mariners aren’t currently doing their damnedest to throw one of their most expensive players under the bus. Hit it, Arte Moreno.
Moreno, asked if he can say Hamilton will play another game with #Angels: “I will not say that.”
— Bill Shaikin (@BillShaikin) April 11, 2015
Moreno says Angels have separate language in Hamilton’s contract vs relapse and they may try to enforce it.
— Bill Shaikin (@BillShaikin) April 11, 2015
Kind of scummy, in that the Angels are clearly just trying to rid themselves of a problem contract, without showing any compassion for the player. They knew what they were signing, and they went ahead with it — Moreno and Josh Hamilton shook hands in the introductory press conference. I’ll say this, though: specifically because Hamilton had a known history, it would make sense for the Angels to try to include some protective language, if that’s even allowed. And then, you know, it’s their right to try to enforce it, or anything else, since contracts are contracts. Anything mutually agreed to becomes enforceable at any point. It’s just, sayyyyyy, what’s that?
Arte Moreno: Hamilton contract contains no special language protecting #Angels from relapse, aside from usual MLB drug policy language.
— Bill Shaikin (@BillShaikin) December 15, 2012
Oh, I get it, Moreno. You’re a liar! You know, like an asshole! Doesn’t mean he was lying today — could mean he was lying a few years ago. But, it doesn’t get much more black and white than this. Arte Moreno directly contradicted himself, and there’s one thing that’s changed over time — Josh Hamilton’s circumstances. At one point, he was an All-Star outfielder. At another point, he’s a massive disappointment fresh off a relapse. I wonder what might be causing Arte Moreno to treat him differently?
To be truthful, every team in baseball would probably act like this. I mean, not like this, but every team would have interest in voiding a bad contract, if at all possible. The big difference: other teams wouldn’t be doing this in the public arena. The Angels are making themselves look like total pricks, and though that does nothing to improve the Mariners’ odds of winning the 2015 World Series, it’s a kind of schadenfreude. We’re used to our organization being the one that looks stupid and tactless. Now we’re not even the second-worst offender in our own division. How does Arte Moreno sleep at night? On a comfortable bed in a large house, with impossible amounts of money to his name. But, also, he sucks.
Oh, and, before I go, Derek Holland will be out two months with a shoulder injury. On the plus side for the Rangers, Ryan Rua and Shin-Soo Choo were also removed from a game with injuries. Their injuries appear more minor. That is literally the plus side for the Rangers right now. They have injuries that could’ve been worse.
Taijuan Walker vs. Drew Pomeranz, 7:05pm
After a disappointing opening series, the M’s head to Oakland to face a team that’s probably just as disappointed in THEIR opener. The A’s split a four-game series with the Rangers, and while Texas’ line-up includes big names like Adrian Beltre, Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder, they are a *bad* ballclub. A team with a DH whose OBP over the last 2 years and 700 PAs is under .300, a team with question marks in the rotation, and punctuation marks that don’t appear to be english in the bullpen. A team that was forecasted to compete for last place *before* Yu Darvish went down with TJ surgery just took 2 of 4 in Oakland, including yesterday’s 4-HR 10-1 drubbing. My point isn’t that Oakland is suddenly, shockingly bad, just as the M’s aren’t bad because they lost 2 of 3 at home. It’s early, and weird things happen. We should just be happy they happen to other teams/fanbases as well.
Today’s game is a big one, as this is the first real test of Taijuan Walker 2.0. The re-worked mechanics, the pitch adjustments, the confidence he must’ve gained after a spring in which no one could touch him – it’s all put to the test tonight in a pitcher-friendly park. Walker’s a pretty important piece to the M’s in that he can stabilize the rotation a bit, and let depth like Roenis Elias fill other spots as needed, and because his projections were low enough that even a good year from Walker can help pick up the other players who will underperform. As we’ve seen, Walker pitches from the stretch exclusively, and features a live fastball at around 96, a slow curve in the low 70s, and a good split-change around 90. His in-between slider/cutter (slutter?) also comes in at 90, and despite the talk about a change, it looks pretty similar to the pitch he featured in his first call-up back in 2013.
While it’s always tough to rely too much on spring pitch fx numbers thanks to Peoria’s odd calibration, it’s a good sign that despite using the stretch, Walker’s velocity was the same or *higher* than it was in the spring of 2013, when he still used a wind-up. It was higher in the spring than it was in his big league debut in Houston, and higher than his first September start last year. I’m tempted to say that his velocity’s improved the more time passes after his injury, but a lot of it must be conditioning and mechanics. It’ll be something to watch tonight in what I presume will be a chilly April night in Oakland. The A’s were a good team against righties last year with big lefty bats like Brandon Moss and Josh Reddick, but Moss is in Cleveland and Reddick’s injured at the moment. Ben Zobrist is a switch hitter with very even splits, but other than that, Walker will only need to really be careful with Stephen Vogt. The A’s early struggles against righties don’t mean much, but with Reddick out and Ike Davis still playing like, well, Ike Davis, this isn’t a bad match-up for Walker.
Drew Pomeranz is a lefty who, like pretty much every other member of the club, remade himself after joining the A’s. He’d been a top draft pick of the Indians, moving to Colorado in the big Ubaldo Jimenez deal, but as a rising FB/curve ball hurler, he ran into problems in Coors field. He never really developed a change-up, and thus had trouble with right-handed hitters, and because of *that* faced line-ups stacked with right-handed hitters. Upon joining the A’s, he increased the use of his sinker dramatically. It was an afterthought in Colorado, but it’s an important part of his arsenal to righties now. That’s not to say he’s shelved the four-seamer – he’ll still throw it to righties, particularly after they’ve seen the two-seamer. The rising four-seamer probably also helps disguise his curve a bit. Whatever the reason, Pomeranz was suddenly very effective against righties last year, albeit in less than 70 IP as a swingman. The A’s are betting he can keep that up, and the M’s righty line-up will be a decent first test.
Last season, fully 1/4 of Pomeranz’s 20 appearances came against Seattle, and he had 16% of his total IP against the M’s. The M’s couldn’t figure him out, as he gave up 1 run in 11 IP against them, and walked nobody, despite occasional control problems against everyone else. The M’s have obviously re-tooled their line-up, and he’ll be facing Nelson Cruz and Rickie Weeks instead of Stefen Romero, John Buck and Cole Gillespie. That said, Nelson Cruz has fared poorly against curves in his career – he should look to get Pomeranz early, when he uses his sinker. In his career, Cruz is slugging .693 off the nearly 800 lefty sinkers he’s seen.
1: Weeks, LF
2: Jackson, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Ruggiano, RF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Bloomquist, SS
The Rainiers dropped their opener in El Paso by a score of 11-4. Jordan Pries wasn’t sharp, and the relievers weren’t a whole lot better. Carlos Rivero opened the Rainiers account with a HR, but there’s not much more to say about the game. Abe Almonte went 5-5 for the home team, but Mike Curto kept things in perspective. Roenis Elias starts tonight against ex-Braves prospect Aaron Northcraft – game’s at 6:05, tune in to Curto or watch it on MiLB.tv.
Jackson shut-out Jacksonville 2-0 behind the pitching of Steven Landazuri and James Gilheeney. The game was scoreless into the 9th, but the Generals got two runs on RBIs by Gabby Guerrero and Jabari Henry. Today, Scott DeCecco starts against Jake Esch, which just sounds like a really affected way of saying jock itch.
The best prospect performance of the day belonged to Bakersfield RHP Edwin Diaz, who threw 5 scoreless innings with 8Ks against the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. The Blaze led 2-0 when Diaz left following a very minor league play – with a man on, Tyler Marlette singled, but the ball got past the OF, and after a relay throw went awry, Marlette had come all the way around to score. The Blaze bullpen couldn’t hold the lead, but given the way the lead was acquired, it’s tough to be too upset about it. Tonight, last year’s pop-up prospect Ryan Yarbrough starts against fringe Dodger prospect Zach Bird. Bird’s been very young for his leagues, and has prototypical size and athleticsm that he pairs with a FB that can touch 94-95. The potential there, but the results haven’t been as of yet, which is kind of a scary thing to think about as he makes his first foray into the California League.
Clinton was rained out yesterday, because of course they were. I lost count of their rain-outs last year, and it’s just really tough to see ANY minor league club lose two straight opening nights – it’s such an important night for revenue that teams are loathe to call a game, even in moderately heavy rain. Ah well, they’ll try and play tonight – they haven’t scheduled a double-header the way some of the other MWL clubs have. If it goes, Brazilian pitcher Daniel Missaki will take the hill against Brett Graves of the A’s org.
Now that JY has helpfully gone over the entire roster, as well as those of the other full season affiliates, let’s focus on Tacoma. The Rainiers begin their season in El Paso, taking on the mighty Chihuahuas, the San Diego club that’s starting its second season. The pitching match-up pits Seattle’s 2014 co-minor league pitcher of the year in Jordan Pries against aging two-way threat Jason Lane, who started a game against the M’s in spring training this year. As I mentioned in that game preview, Lane, now 38, spent years in pro ball as an OF, peaking in 2005, when he was a starting corner OF for the Houston Astros, hitting 26 HRs. He’s been kicking around the PCL for years now, and got called in to pitch in blowout games about once or twice a year. In 2013, the Pads decided to have him concentrate on pitching, and he ended up making 24 starts for El Paso last year (as an NL affiliate, Lane got a handful of at bats, too – and he put up an OPS over 1.000 in 69 at bats, including 3 HRs. Even at 38, I still dream of him getting at least one year as a Brooks Kieshnick-style reliever/pinch-hitter).* He even got a call-up to San Diego, throwing 10 pretty good innings, giving up only 1 run. Lane’s “fastball” averages 86-87, and while he doesn’t have the command to keep it down or on the black, he has remarkable good control for a guy who converted to pitching in his mid-30s. His best pitch is a change-up that runs 79-80, and has some armside run. Lane throws it to righties and lefties alike, and seems to be able to keep it away from RHBs.
Jordan Pries opened a lot of eyes in camp, including the pair that matter – those of Lloyd McClendon. The Rainiers rotation also includes Roenis Elias, but Pries may get a shot later in the year in case of injuries or when rosters expand. Pries relies on a sinker at 90-92, a slider and a change. His stuff looks fairly pedestrian from the stands, which is why he fell to the 30th round out of Stanford and hasn’t appeared on M’s prospect lists – it doesn’t help that he’s a bit undersized, either. But the righty took advantage of an opportunity and put together a solid PCL season in 2014, and followed it up with an even better spring. Some improvements this year could have him as a 5th-starter option down the road, particularly if he hones the sinker to be a true ground-ball weapon. The movement on the pitch looks good, but he’s never actually got many ground balls compared to his league. In a league like the PCL, grounders would be nice.
Tonight’s Rainiers line-up looks like this, and game time is 6:05pm. It’s on MiLB.tv, and 850am radio in the south sound.
1: Marte, SS
2: Jones, CF
3: Romero, RF
4: Montero, 1B
5: Gutierrez, LF
6: Hicks, C
7: Blash, DH
8: Rivero, 3B
9: O’Malley, 2B
SP: Pries (RHP)
If you’d like a run-down on the other PCL clubs, there are many words on the subject after the jump.
An evening full of typing and being sort of bummed out by a failed Mariners rally later, and I’m here with a Tacoma Rainiers preview. I feel like at this level, there’s a tendency to get more philosophical because we’re not so much trying to determine what could happen for guys as evaluating what has happened. Triple-A can be a land of players that have been around a while, for whom the results have already spoken, but I found myself unusually eager to type my way through it this time even if it’s been a slog in years past.
Three-fifths of the rotation is new to us and features some former top prospects within their respective systems and whatever Elias is outside of a ten-game winner for the ‘Ners last season. The bullpen has various names of recent and more distant familiarity and a guy who, despite being added to the 40-man, still seems to be ignored in a lot of outlets. Catching will be split between two guys with solid all-around profiles. The infield has Montero, Marte, and a supporting cast that can make a case for fringe MLB roles (I pray we give Bonilla the Jaime Bubela treatment when he finally does retire), and then the outfield has a unicorn, a broken unicorn, some role players we’re still trying to figure out, and the bizarre and talented Jabari Blash, who isn’t a unicorn but is probably some other breed of cryptid.
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Matt Shoemaker, 7:10pm
Yesterday’s game was the kind of soul-sucking mess that I’d like to just avoid talking about, but this is a baseball blog and it was baseball. Kind of. CJ Wilson’s game plan looked a bit different than last year’s. Instead of nibbling around, trying to entice a bad swing or whiff, Wilson just pumped strike after strike pretty much down the middle and dared the Mariners to hit it. They didn’t.
It’s not that every single out was on a pitch middle-middle, but you look at this graph of the location of every at-bat-ending pitch, and you don’t see a pitcher working the edges. You see a cluster of centered pitches getting beat into the ground or popped up on the IF. There may be pitchers who can survive like this, at least a while, but Wilson wasn’t one last year, and I’m not sure he’s one now. More importantly, you can’t win many ballgames if you get 90mph pitches thrown pretty much exactly where you’d like them and turn them into outs. Just ugly to watch, and I’m resentful that they turned my well-argued preview on its head – Wilson actually DID manage contact, while Paxton’s HR-avoiding mojo gave out, albeit only once.
Now the M’s get another shot at a series win behind Hisashi Iwakuma, the guy who’s posted back to back 3 fWAR seasons, and whose actual RA is even better than that. As you know, Iwakuma’s FB is just barely touching 90 at this point, and he’s vacillated between throwing mostly four-seamers (which may disguise his splitter better) and two-seamers (to help manage his HRs-allowed). He’s got a slider that he seems fond of, but which hasn’t been a great pitch, and then he has an absolute beast of a splitter. Overall, Iwakuma gets swings on 60% of his splitters, despite throwing it in the zone less frequently than his fastballs. With 1 strike, batters swing 55% of the time, and then with 2 strikes and batters protecting the zone, they swing over 70% of the time. Meanwhile, almost none of these 2-strike splitters are in the zone – batters can’t stop swinging, but they have nearly zero chance of a positive outcome. This is part of the reason why Iwakuma’s career BABIP is just .271, and why his walk rate and strand rates are also better than average. He still gives up too many HRs, especially for someone pitching in Safeco, but his approach (and command) allow him to run sparkling ERA/RAs despite the dingers. After a healthy spring, expectations are high for the 34-in-a-few-days Iwakuma. Maybe he can share something with Masahiro Tanaka about succeeding without a big fastball (please don’t actually do this – this was cliched writing, not a suggestion).
The Angels counter with one of the better out-of-nowhere stories of last year. Undrafted righty Matt Shoemaker was known in the minors mostly for his neatly-trimmed Billy Mays-style beard (his AA team had Matt Shoemaker beard giveaways once). He pitched in the PCL in pieces of four separate seasons and couldn’t figure it out in any of them. He gave up plenty of HRs, but was just incredibly easy to hit (BABIPs in the .350 range), and without plus stuff, that rendered his pretty-good control moot. Injuries gave him an opportunity, first in 2013 when he shut out the M’s over 5, and then last year where he twirled 136 innings with a 23% K rate and a walk rate of just 4.4%. Behind a meh four-seamer and a splitter, Shoemaker turned in a more-Iwakuma-than-Iwakuma season that gave the Angels staff a much-needed boost. Shoemaker relies a lot less on the ground ball, which helps explain his high road HR rate, but it also helps explain his own above-average results on balls in play and strand rate.
How “real” that was, and how much of that level of performance Shoemaker can shield from the regression gods will go a long way towards sorting out the AL West this year. I mentioned that Shoemaker wasn’t great on the road last year, but Safeco’s a good park for a fly-balling control artist. On the other hand, after a poor showing against their first lefty starter of the year, the M’s may enjoy seeing another RHP.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Weeks, DH
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
One of the most notable performances last night occurred in the Rangers 3-1 win in Oakland, where new A’s 3B Brett Lawrie went 0-4 with four K’s. *On 12 pitches*. I caught the second half of the game, and saw him strike out twice on six consecutive breaking balls. As it turned out, he saw a first pitch fastball in his first AB, and then saw eleven consecutive sliders and curves. Jeff’s article at Fangraphs notes that something similar happened to Mike Schmidt in 1983, but he got yet another AB and hit a game winning HR. Good, even GREAT hitters have terrible games every now and again, and we all remember Iwakuma striking out Albert Pujols three times in a game, the first pitcher to ever do that to the great Angels 1B. But this looked like something else – a clear and purposeful approach to dealing with the aggressive Lawrie. He took called breaking balls, swung through breaking balls in the zone and out, and continued to look frustrated and confused each time. Not sure if that was part of the plan with the hyper-intense Lawrie, or if it was just as simple as “we’re going to throw sliders until he hits one,” but it was remarkable. Seattle-product Keone Kela made his big league debut for Texas, and it says something about the status of the Rangers ballclub that they gave him the ball up 2 in the late innings. After a sharp single from Billy Butler, Kela walked Ike Davis, bringing Lawrie to the plate with no outs and the tying runs aboard. To that point, every one of Kela’s pitches had been fastballs. The Rangers left Kela in, and three pitches later, he notched his first out with a swinging K. That, much more than Lawrie’s final K against Neftali Felix, was the key at-bat of the game. A reeling rookie reliever against a guy with borderline all-star projections, and Kela came out ahead.
Lawrie’s going to come out of this at some point – he’s a good player, and “just throw sliders” seems a little light to be a game plan (although Lawrie will have to prove that). But the comparison I thought of last night wasn’t Mike Schmidt, it was Brett Wallace in 2013. Wallace was a 1st round draft pick who sailed through the minors in a few different organizations, including Toronto and Oakland, like Lawrie. He’d had so-so stints in the majors before that, but came into 2013 as the Astros 1B by default. He’d had some K problems in his cups of coffee, but it seemed to be getting better, and his minor league K rates were under 20%, albeit barely. Then April 2013 happened. The ‘stros started against Texas, then played Oakland and then Seattle. After his sixth game, against the M’s in Seattle, Wallace was 1 for 21 in 22 plate appearances…with 17 strikeouts. That game against the M’s was a particular low point – it was his first golden sombrero, and it came in a game in which his teammates couldn’t stop hitting. That game was Brandon Maurer’s home debut, and he went 2/3 of an inning, giving up six first-inning runs. He did, however, strike out Brett Wallace swinging. Maurer gave way to Kameron Loe, so you basically know how that went. Loe gave up another 5 runs on three HRs in just 2 IP, but he, too, struck out Brett Wallace swinging. Charlie Furbush relieved Loe, and he struck out Brett Wallace swinging in the fourth, then struck him out swinging in the fifth on his way to a comparatively tidy 2IP with only 1 run allowed. It was just the 5th inning, and the Astros were up 13-0, and Brett Wallace had four swinging strikeouts. The Astros mercifully replaced Wallace with Brandon Barnes, who promptly doubled and came around to score on a Marwin Gonzalez single. This isn’t a fun game to remember, but I hadn’t seen someone look as lost as Lawrie did since April of 2013. Wallace went 0-4 in his next game (but without any Ks!) and was sent down to the minors for a few months. He hasn’t played a big league game since that 2013 season.
We have made it to double-A and I have been typing for hours. Literally hours. But I don’t mind it so much because the Jackson Generals have been a good affiliate for us, very active in hyping up their various alums, and this year, look to have a very talented team. Their outfield is the second-most interesting to me, but it’s close, and their infield is likely the best and most balanced. I like a lot of what I conceive to be their rotation as well, though I would clarify that there are a lot of pitchers on the DL for them right now and on pure prospect watching, Bakersfield is easily better. Jackson just gives us an opportunity to see who we might add to future depth discussions. As for the roster’s liabilities, the bullpen is nothing special and the catchers are defensively-oriented, but otherwise this looks like a really solid group that could do some playoff damage down the line, provided the team stays intact. No promises.
Diversions? Some sour grapes of an international flavor, our last remaining South African player and references to the United Nations, my most frequently used Aqua Teen Hunger Force quote, left-handers who can’t get left-handers out, the elixir of life (in passing), big bats with position questions, utility player heartthrobs, BABIP vagaries, player reevaluations, and a section in which I copy and paste a player’s injury history. I still have no idea who pitches where in the rotation.
Tacoma will be up tomorrow. I don’t know when, but probably before they start play.
This marks the first year since 2007 that the Mariners have had an affiliation outside of High Desert. Okay, let’s think about that for a moment. Eight years we were there. Whaaat. But shifting up north to Bakersfield leads me to think of things in new and unfamiliar ways. Park factors, for one. I don’t have any handy at the moment (sorry), but I remember from experience that the offensive environment is slightly inflated and that the quality of the infield is notoriously poor. It’s something that we may not have to consider for very long as there have been discussions of moving the team to Salinas, roughly 200 miles to the northwest, and the Mariners likely bought in early with that in mind. A new park there may figure to be pitcher-friendly.
In the larger scheme, I wonder about other things. While we are nominally leaving the Desert, these have been a hard few years for the state of California and the dry conditions are only spreading. This leaves the team name, Blaze, a little uncomfortable at times. Will it be long before, over concerns of water usage, baseball stadiums in the league switch over to field turf or some equivalent? I say this as someone long suspicious of lawns and their use of resources purely for aesthetic purposes. Long-term droughts and baseball. Someone think of this as a potential thesis topic. Theses have been written about chairs, this is hardly worse.
So, the Blaze. Actually, the whole rotation has something going for each member and the back end of the bullpen looks to be pretty special, I just worry about the guys in between. Catching will present some interesting choices as to who to play and when, as both guys need their defensive time but could pass as DHs, particularly with an emergency catcher already on the roster. The infield is in one of those, “the less said, the better” realms, but the outfield doesn’t have any real liabilities and for prospect watching, is probably the best group we’ll be running out at any level this season. I could be into it. I could see myself listening to Bakersfield broadcasts during the year.
Over the course of this preview, I also manage to keep on subject pretty often. Nevertheless, one of the rotation members is still sort of an enigma, there’s an important hyphenated reliever, in lieu of writing about one pitcher I instead flipped out and went off on a few vaguely connected tangents, mentioned one of the maybe two stock car drivers whose names I know, failed to comprehend an infielder’s transition to High Desert but did get to type “Panamanian” again, talked about favorite injured prospects, favorite gritty types, favorite inside jokes, and a guy whose slugging with High Desert at home was equal to his road OPS who also happens to be named after a famous actor with a famous mustache.
James Paxton vs. CJ Wilson, 7:10pm
The M’s needed opening day, and they came out with a win against an opposing starter who really did, in Jeff’s memorable phrase, look like “a righty Barry Zito with the flu.” But if beating Jered Weaver behind King Felix *in Seattle* seems like a game you really ought to win, so too does this contest. As we discussed, Wilson’s fallen off in recent years too, and he started lower, too. Wilson’s career K% is inflated a bit by his years as a reliever for Texas. As a starter, it’s fluctuated a bit, from 22.5% in his one truly excellent year in Arlington in 2011 down to 19.8% last year. There’s been more movement in his walk rate, which was only 8% in 2011, but was up over 11% in 2014. Wilson’s a lefty with an assortment of pitches who is no longer a big strikeout guy, and deals with serious control issues. What he’s done fairly effectively up until 2013 or so was control the contact he gave up.
That’s tough to do, particularly if you start your career in Texas, but Wilson was up to the challenge. He throws six different pitches routinely, allowing him to utilize four pitches against righties, and a slightly different four pitch mix to lefties. Looking at his walk rates, you might expect pitching coaches to tell him to simplify his arsenal and throw strikes instead of throwing the kitchen sink, but Wilson’s pitched around high walk totals his whole career. What he HAS done is limit his BABIP (something some lefties have been better than average at, for whatever reason) and limit his HRs allowed. Last year, though, his BABIP hit .306, its highest level ever, and just above his previous career high of .300 from 2013. Combining that with his career high walk rate, and it’s a wonder that his FIP was “only” 4.31. Last year, he was above replacement (well, the way Fangraphs calculates it) because he kept his HR rate under 1.00/9IP. It wasn’t exactly LOW, and at 0.87, it was the highest it had been since 2008, and the highest level ever as a starter, but it was better than average. The problem is that it was only low at home. On the road, Wilson was a total disaster.
So why can’t the M’s figure him out? If he’s so bad, why has he limited the M’s to a career .669 OPS *in Seattle* and and a .593 OPS last year despite his abysmal overall road stats? A big part of the reason is that he’s left-handed. As he’s aged, Wilson’s platoon splits have widened, and I’d assume part of the reason his walk rate is up is that he’s consciously or sub-consciously pitching around essentially every tough righty. Moreover, the M’s lefty-heavy line-up struggled against left-handed starters, putting up an OPS+ of 80 relative to the league (against righties, they were at 100) – that was actually worse than they struggled in 2013, when their OPS+ against lefty starters was 85 relative to average. The M’s have had serious platoon issues for a few years, and that’s one of the big reasons Nelson Cruz is here. Tonight’s the first test of that – can the M’s knock Wilson around the way everyone else has in recent years?
Interestingly, James Paxton reminds me a little bit Wilson. He’s tall, throws harder, and is Canadian and not prototypically Southern Californian, but both are lefties that rely less on strikeouts than managing contact. Paxton’s K rate in his abbreviated 2014 was a touch below Wilson’s, though of course Paxton’s walk rate was, while high, below Wilson’s level as well. When Paxton’s on, he’s running low BABIPs, the way CJ Wilson did back from 2010-2012. As Paxton throws much harder, in a good defensive park and behind a solid defensive club, his BABIP has been extremely low as opposed to just “better than average.” And thanks to a combination of high GB rates, velocity and Safeco, Paxton’s HR rate is also remarkably low, leading to a FIP that isn’t as high as you’d expect given the walks. The question is how well Paxton can keep this up. We’ve seen velocity fluctuations from him before, but we haven’t seen the command lapses that plagued him in the minor leagues. As we talked about, he’s an extremely hard guy to project since the things that make him so exceptional are the things that sabermetric orthodoxy would tell you aren’t as “true” as things like strikeouts. Still, velocity is about as true as it gets, and as long as Paxton’s four seamer continues to generate ground balls the way it has in his brief big league career, he can be an effective starter. Because Paxton’s throwing motion is so vertical, so over-the-top, he should also fare much better against righties than, say, CJ Wilson. That’s been true thus far, and if it continues, he’ll be a borderline all-star many times.
1: Weeks, DH
2: Jackson, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Ruggiano, LF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
A revamped line-up tonight, with five righties. Ideally, you’ve have another RHB or two, but it’s not too bad.
Jeff mentioned it in his post, but the Rangers nearly got no-hit by Sonny Gray in the opener yesterday in Oakland. Gray’s a great young starter, but to me, didn’t even look like he had his best stuff. Yovani Gallardo looked mediocre, and the Rangers line-up looked punchless. I think Prince Fielder will have a decent bounce-back, but his days as a preeminent power hitter are probably over.
One of the better pitching match-ups yesterday was the Astros/Indians game featuring Dallas Keuchel and last year’s CY Young winner Corey Kluber. Imagine what you’d think one year ago today if you were told that Keuchel/Kluber was an anticipated pitching match-up, and that Kluber and Carlos Carrasco just signed long extensions.
Speaking of extensions, the Red Sox inked Rick Porcello to a four-year, $82.5m deal running from 2016-2019. Porcello is very young (still), and has been remarkably steady in recent years, but hoooooly crap that’s big-time money for a guy with a career ERA and FIP over 4. Part of this is age, and a big part is just the inexorable inflation as cable tv money works its way through the arteries of baseball, but I also wonder if teams aren’t putting more of a premium on durability with the rash of TJ surgeries throughout baseball. Of course, this would mean reliably identifying traits that are linked to durability with enough confidence that would lead to contracts like this.
The M’s affiliates have all set (or just about set) their opening day line-ups. The full-season affiliates start their seasons this Thursday, April 8th. AA Jackson gets DJ Peterson and Gabby Guerrero to start the year, while class A Clinton will see Alex Jackson and Brazilian RHP Daniel Missaki. Patrick Kivlehan starts at AAA Tacoma, and High-A Bakersfield, the M’s new Cal League affiliate, gets the pitching prospects Edwin Diaz and Ryan Yarbrough.
Did you miss reading thousands of words on things of interest to a narrow subset of the human population? Well good news! Though my prose writing/analytic tendencies are largely occupied with other stuff these days (there’s also going to be a book review on Poetry Northwest’s site sometime soon), I still geek out enough about baseball and prospect happenings that some weird glitch in my brain triggers and I think, “sure, it sounds like a swell idea to write exhaustively on a subject with an inherently high attrition rate! Wheeeee!”
The overhead perspective on this year’s Lumberkings team is that there are some intriguing arms in the rotation who have had a limited or uneven track records so far, the bullpen features a few guys who might be fast-tracked later, the team’s primary catcher won’t be a hitting liability, the infield features a sleeper at the hot corner and a few Latin hitters of some potential, and then the outfield has The Second Coming and some other dudes who I guess are all right by mortal standards.
I’m typing frantically to get some of the other previews in order later (work schedule is not especially friendly at the moment), but in the meantime, the diversions shall take us through talk of baseball’s spread through particular portions of Latin America, twins, names and how one might speculatively pronounce them, bloodlines, teammates, associations one might make based off of initials and positions, a guy who could be on the C/OF track who isn’t an elite prospect, and players whose OBP exceeds their SLG. This somehow ended up more on-track than past entries, despite still not being edited under my usually rather attentive standards. Well, let’s get to it then.