Jerry Dipoto had a problem in Anaheim, and his selection of trusted advisor Scott Servais as the M’s field manager illustrates an interesting solution of it. As Jonah Keri and others have ably documented, Dipoto’s baseball operations team could come up with all manner of potentially useful information to help the Angels win games, but they could not get Mike Scioscia to use it. The result was a ton of wasted effort and increasingly adversarial relations within the team. The brains trust could not test their own theories and implement their own strategies, because they were overruled by the manager.
With the hiring of Scott Servais as M’s manager, Dipoto has opted to improve the coordination between his brains trust and field staff by placing a member of the brains trust in uniform as manager. There’s a lot of talk about the trend in the majors of hiring ex-players without a lot of managerial experience as big league managers: Mike Matheny, Brad Ausmus, Robin Ventura and Kevin Cash are recent examples. Does this suggest that front offices may actively avoid people who’ve managed for years, either in the big leagues or the minors? In the M’s case, I think the answer is obviously yes, and it’s at least a possibility in the other cases. Both Dipoto and Servais have talked about strikeouts and the strikezone as keys to the M’s improvement. This idea won’t just inform scouting and player development, though – it pretty clearly has an impact on line-up construction. It’s possible that very experienced managers may agree on how best to deploy the batters at their disposal, but I bet Dipoto saw that Mariner leadoff hitters had a lower OBP than the 2nd-through-6th hitters and decided not to take a chance.*
So that all makes sense, and we won’t see a repeat of the ugly war of words between the outgoing Eric Wedge and Jack Zduriencik. Winning will paper over any disagreements, and losing will bring all manner of disputes to the surface, as we saw with Angels. But Servais’ job *cannot* be a uniformed mouthpiece. Larry Stone’s column notes that Servais himself is aware of this, and will focus on gaining the players’ trust and focusing on helping young players improve. In this respect, he seems more similar to AJ Hinch, another ex-player development guy who became a big league manager without much experience. Beyond the players, though, Servais needs to use his relationship with Dipoto to provide honest and if necessary, critical feedback about what he’s seeing. I’ve been pleased with the hiring of Dipoto, and I can’t find fault in the hires of Servais and player development chief Andy McKay, with the caveat that it’s really, really hard for any non-front office employee to have anything meaningful to say about the latter two. But now that Dipoto has a front office he trusts, how does he avoid the trap of groupthink and conformity? Hiring people with really strong beliefs about player development helps in this case, but to what extent do they overlap?
I’m not suggesting that it’d be better to have someone in the organization actively working against the processes McKay and then Servais are trying to implement. What I’d like to know more about is how those processes are evaluated, by whom, and what happens as a result. That’s a much broader issue than the new M’s manager, I realize. And there’s a lot to be said for an org that has broad buy-in as opposed to mutual distrust. Servais familiarity with statistical information in Anaheim is a plus, and I feel pretty confident saying the M’s in-game strategy won’t be worse than it was under Wedge and Lloyd McClendon. But ideally, the manager can all manner of qualitative filters about the data the team’s quant team collects, and a great org figures out how to wring some information out of it. Here’s hoping Servais can help with that, and that Dipoto asks as many questions of Servais as he gives directives and reports.
* Mariner hitters in the 2 spot had the second lowest OBP in that group, tied with the 6th hitters. The 7th-through-9th hitters were worse, obviously, thanks in part to Zunino’s awful year.
So the M’s are officially building their reliever pile before the 2015 season is officially over. Yesterday, they acquired RHP Cody Martin – an ex-Gonzaga Bulldog – off of waivers and added him to the 40-man, bumping Logan Kensing. Martin made his MLB debut for the Atlanta Braves in 2015, then moved to Oakland in a deal for international bonus pool slots. That’s…that’s not a great track record, and your feelings about the move won’t improve much if you look at his big league stats. Martin had the reputation of a potential high-K reliever with GB tendencies despite so-so raw stuff. While Martin may have K’d a few more than you’d expect for a guy throwing 90-91, his HR rate made it irrelevant. And while we shouldn’t expect Martin to continue giving up 2.35 HRs per 9 innings pitched, his ultra-low GB% makes you think HRs will always be part of the picture with him.
Looking into his season, though, and there are some limited reasons for optimism. He was intriguing in April, before scuffling in May and then turning in several nightmarish performances for Oakland. It’s far too simplistic to say that Oakland broke Cody Martin – he’d been sent down by Atlanta before he got to Oakland – but Oakland certainly didn’t do him any favors. With Atlanta, Martin threw a high fastball at about 91mph, and paired it with a slider at 83 and a slow curve at 73-74. This is not a remarkable arsenal, but Martin had some success with it at times, despite his lack of velo and sporadic lack of confidence in his breakers (he threw 25 FBs in 28 pitches in one outing). His FB movement wouldn’t seem to lend itself to Chris Young-style top-of-the-zone targeting, as it’s got essentially “normal” rise as opposed to elite vertical movement. With good enough command, it’s not the worst approach – Alex Wood throws 89-91 and starts, after all, and while Martin’s delivery isn’t as…unusual as Wood’s, the hitch in it might make him slightly more difficult to time.
All of that brings us to where Martin ended up the year – getting absolutely destroyed by AL teams as a member of the Oakland A’s. With Atlanta, Martin’s K% was 26%, well above average. With the A’s it plummeted to just 6%. Worse, he wasn’t averaging 91 anymore, but often averaged 89 on his fastball. So did the M’s just pick up damaged goods? I mean, he’s a pitcher, so the answer is always “maybe” but the real story is that the A’s apparently overhauled his repertoire, and it backfired. Instead of having Martin throw more curves with his high four-seamer, the A’s tried to make him the latest in their Brandon McCarthy-styled cutter/sinker guys. It worked with McCarthy, it worked with Jesse Chavez, it sort of worked – periodically – with Drew Pomeranz. It’s not a crazy idea, but Martin really, really didn’t take to it. His cutter averaged about 86-87, or about what Tommy Milone’s does. Whether because he was focused on his cutter or because pitch fx was confusing some FBs and cutters, Martin’s four-seam velo dropped, and his curve – which had the makings of a swing-and-miss pitch in Atlanta – was hit hard. He gave up three HRs in 3 IP to Chicago on a cutter and two sliders. The cutter came in at 88, while the sliders were 85-86, much faster than the ones he threw in Atlanta. There’s no separation between the fastball/cutter/slider, and all of them got punished as a result.
If I’m with Seattle, I tell Martin to forget everything he learned in Oakland. The cutter? Gone. If he wants to throw his true slider again, that’s fine, but make it as un-cutterish as he can get it, and then work on curveball command. The high fastball approach will play in Seattle better than it did in Atlanta, and at least he’s got a chance at some strikeouts. Interestingly, in both Atlanta and Oakland, Martin fared a bit better against lefties than righties. The same was true in AAA Nashville. That may be a delivery issue, where he’s a bit more deceptive to lefties, and it may be the result – at least in Atlanta – of not throwing his breaking stuff enough to same-handed hitters. In any event, it’s a concerning stat that we can’t blame on Oakland.
So: Martin has some distressing recent numbers, but there are some positive signs, too. He’ll also have some time to develop, as he should have options left – he wasn’t protected by the Braves in last year’s Rule 5 draft, and was only added to the 40-man when he made the club out of spring training. If he doesn’t make the M’s, we might see him in Tacoma in 2016.
1: While it’s still an
unconfirmed report from an anonymous source, it’s on the M’s website, so it’s probably good: the Mariners have named Andy McKay as their new director of player personnel. [EDIT] It’s confirmed now. With Chris Gwynn gone, the M’s turned to long-time coach and sports psychologist/”peak performance director” for the Colorado Rockies. There’s no template for being a good player development guru, no checklist of lower-level jobs to move through, but McKay’s background does strike me as somewhat unusual, though it’s possible he could slot under an Assistant GM who would focus on player development (more on that below). I’m inclined to agree with Bob Dutton of the News Tribune who says that his hiring, “suggests Dipoto believes a better mental approach can help unlock the potential of several prospects, such as former first-round picks Alex Jackson and D.J. Peterson, who each had disappointing seasons.” Zduriencik was fond of saying that “talent wins” and the like, but the M’s seem minor league system seemed like a multi-year, multi-million dollar effort at disproving that simple notion.
DJ Peterson and Alex Jackson were both rated as among the best pure hitters in their draft class, and both proceeded to…not hit. Mike Zunino’s downward trajectory is perhaps the sine qua non of M’s player development failings, and the McKay hiring might hint at a change in approach. You’ll remember that Zunino was sent to extended spring training to work on hitting mechanics with Cory Snyder, erstwhile batting coach of the Tacoma Rainiers. However, the M’s terminated Snyder a week or so ago, which would seem to leave the swing doctoring in limbo. The M’s will hire some coaches soon, of course, and they may just get Edgar Martinez more involved in that particular project, but McKay would clearly bring something different to the table.
2: All the speculation before today’s move had been that Scott Servais, who helmed the Angels player development under Jerry Dipoto, would head north to rejoin his ex-boss and do the same job for Seattle. While he clearly won’t be taking the same job it sounds like he still could head to Seattle to become an Assistant GM. In Anaheim, Servais was classed as an assistant GM/Player Development, thus overseeing their “Director of Player Personnel,” Bobby Scales. The same situation could apply in Seattle if/when Servais is hired, and we’ll continue to wonder who’s responsible for what. Beyond player development, htough, Zduriencik’s special assistants Joe McIlvaine, Pete Vuckovich and Ted Simmons weren’t retained (the latter’s moved to a new position with Atlanta), so there are openings for brain trust members and right hand men. Given that, speculation about Servais will continue for a little while longer.
Intriguingly, Jeff Kingston, Zduriencik’s hand-picked AGM, will stay on under Dipoto. There’s no law against having multiple AGMs, as Dipoto knows well from his time in Boston, but it’s also a sign that Dipoto didn’t view the entire front office as dysfunctional. That view is reinforced by his decision to stick with both the pro and amateur scouting directors, Tom Allison and Tom McNamara.* Scouting directors aren’t exactly like field managers where you automatically assume a new GM will want his own person in the role, but it’s not that far off. A new GM often has a very different idea about which type of players to draft and how to balance risk and reward, and if he’s replacing a fired GM (as opposed to inheriting the role from a retiring executive), you figure they have free reign to make all manner of changes. But there’s a precedent here: when Dipoto took over in Anaheim, he kept amateur scouting head Ric Wilson, despite the fact that Dipoto is often seen as having a diametrically opposed view of the draft as his predecessor, Tony Reagins. Of course, Wilson hadn’t been in the job long when Dipoto came in, and Reagins firing of longtime scouting director Eddie Bane (the guy who drafted Mike Trout), make it clear that Reagins and Dipoto’s draft philosophies may not have been so different after all.
Still, it’s interesting given that the M’s have gone after a few more high school kids than Anaheim. Only 1 of the Angels’ first ten selections in 2012 and 2015 came out of a HS, while the Angels took preps with 2 of their top 10 picks in 2013 and 2014. The M’s took 5 of 10 from HS in 2012, and 3 of 10 this year. This is a pretty big vote of confidence in McNamara.
3: Another Zduriencik hire who’ll be staying on is international operations manager Tim Kissner. That may make sense, given neither the M’s nor Dipoto’s Angels have been especially active in the international market in recent years. In 2009, the Angels fired their international supervisor, Clay Daniel, after he became a suspect in a bonus kickback scheme that drew the interest of the FBI. The M’s know about the, uh, vagaries of the international market as well, having been burned by false ages bonus skimming and, worse, sex abuse.
The Angels had the smallest bonus pool this year, so perhaps it’s understandable that they’d soft pedal international scouting, particularly when several clubs seemingly take turns to blow past MLB’s bonus pool caps. Last year, it was the Yankees turn. This year, especially after signing Cuban OF Eddie Julio Martinez, it’s the Cubs. Neither the M’s nor the Angels were absent from the international market – the M’s have made several sub-$1m signings in recent years, and the Angels made a minor splash by taking Cuban IF Roberto Baldoquin last year. But neither team was in the running for the top free agents of recent years, from Masahiro Tanaka to Yoan Moncada to Yasiel Puig to Hector Olivera. The similarity in approach may be why Kissner will stay on under Dipoto.
4: Still no word on the new manager, though the M’s have apparently interviewed five candidates: presumptive choice Tim Bogar, Jason Varitek, Alex Cora, Phil Nevin and Charlie Montoyo. Nevin and Montoyo managed in AAA recently; Nevin led the Reno Aces last year, while Charlie Montoyo managed the Durham Bulls (quite successfully) for 8 years. As we’ve seen with Matt Williams, it’s almost impossible to tell from the outside what makes a good manager. We can evaluate bullpen management or bunting trends, but that’s about it. I don’t have much to go on with these guys – I like Montoyo’s minor league record, and Bogar seemed well-liked in both Texas and Anaheim, but as fans, it’s hard to know how you’d even begin to rank these guys.
* – Ryan Divish’s story yesterday clarifies this, and shows there’s a bit more of a shake-up on the scouting side than I’d previously thought. Tom Allison, the director of pro scouting, will be promoted to the head of scouting in general – amateur, pro, and international. So, Tim Kissner and Tom McNamara retain their respective duties, but they now report to Allison. Backfilling Allison’s *old* gig as head of pro scouting will be Lee McPhail IV. McPhail’s worked for the Orioles, Twins, Rangers, Nats/Expos, Indians and M’s over a long career, including a scouting director stint in Cleveland (where he drafted CC Sabathia).
Technically, today’s move to part ways with manager Lloyd McClendon has to be the least-shocking decision new GM Jerry Dipoto will face, but it had some competition: the M’s are also in the market for a new player development coordinator following Chris Gwynn’s resignation. Given the cirumstances of his departure from Anaheim, that Dipoto would want to *pick his own manager* seemed like a foregone conclusion, and may have been a condition of his accepting the job in Seattle. That, of course, tends to make the Dipoto/McClendon “meetings” of the past week or so look like an odd form of theater than a real job interview. Dipoto said today that McClendon didn’t share his philosophy, which seemed fairly obvious, but perhaps it’s nice to at least pretend there was some sort of appeals process before Dipoto went and hired someone he knew and trusted.
At this point, most of the speculation falls on Tim Bogar, the Rangers’ interim manager in 2014 and a finalist for both the Rangers job (he lost out to Jeff Bannister) and Tampa (where he lost to fellow Rangers-finalist, Kevin Cash). After failing to land either job, Dipoto hired him as an assistant GM. Dipoto mentioned that he’s got a short-list of managerial candidates, but I’d imagine that other candidates might have to really impress for him to pass over the known quantity in Bogar. Of course, that was the operating assumption in Texas, but Jeff Bannister flew over the bar and has the Rangers very close to the ALCS.
I understand that McClendon wasn’t a fantastic tactical manager, and that his chances of staying in under Dipoto were essentially zero, but we need to remember that judging managers is a difficult endeavor – witness Matt Williams’ fall from grace as the first defending “manager of the year” to get canned the year following. McClendon’s 2014 squad seemed to come out of nowhere, but they were 4 games below their pythagorean record. This year’s club finished two games *ahead* of their pythag, which I think underscores how limited a tool it is to understand managers. Ultimately, I think the problem was just how few players seemed to really step forward and make the leap under his tutelage. That sounds damning and all, and I don’t really mean it to. It’s the job of the GM to get players who will develop with proper instruction or who are good enough not to need further development. There is a hell of a lot of blame to go around for Dustin Ackley’s Mariners tenure, and I think McClendon should be allocated less than 1/1000th of it. But all the same, seeing Ackley slug .654 with New York was a good (if statistically unfair) reminder that Seattle wasn’t getting him to tap into his potential. The same could be said for Chris Taylor, the Ketel Marte of 2014, or, obviously, of Mike Zunino. I think the bulk of the blame there goes to the GM and the Player Development head, but you’d like your major league field staff to have some influence, too.
Pretty much every club in the playoffs had someone who’d struggled mightily *in the majors* take a large step forward this year. The Rangers got command-challenged Jake Diekman, who was walking 6 per 9 and had an ERA of 5.85 on the worst team in baseball, and after some Mike Madduxing, he’s pitching in high-leverage situations in the playoffs. Rougned Odor’s 2nd half looks nothing like his first – after a year and a half of playing like a perfectly fine (and very young) contact-and-defense 2B, Odor is showing some remarkable power. That would’ve been nice. JA Happ left the M’s and turned into a death-dealing strikeout pitcher after a mechanical tweak from Ray Searage. Delino DeShields was a Rule 5 pick this year, and is batting leadoff in the playoffs. Collin McHugh, Dallas Keuchel, etc. The M’s didn’t have that, as nice as Nelson Cruz’s non-decline was.
And again, more of the blame for that might properly go to Gwynn, who was responsible for a minor league system that utterly collapsed this year. Clinton was one of the worst teams in recent MiLB history, and Jackson and Tacoma were both developmental black holes for pitchers. Tacoma, who play in the closest thing the PCL has to a pitcher’s park, actually led the PCL in HRs-allowed, and watched guys like Jordan Pries take a step back after solid 2014 campaigns. Jackson had by far the worst ERA in the Southern League, and while their FIP was slightly better, they couldn’t keep their team in games. Edwin Diaz’s introduction to AA wasn’t great, but he fared better in 2015 than Alex Jackson and DJ Peterson. While the M’s Jackson and LHP Luiz Gohara remain on the NWL’s all-prospect team, they are there despite their 2015 seasons, not because of them. Everyone agrees that the M’s have some high-ceiling talent in the org, and everyone agrees they underperformed. Moving on from Gwynn was inevitable.
Again, there’s an obvious candidate waiting in the wings, Dipoto’s Player Development guy in Anaheim, Scott Servais. Servais worked in Texas for many years, where he helped develop some of the players who led the Rangers to the pennant a few years back. That said, his tenure with the Angels wasn’t as rosy, as prospects from Kaleb Cowart to Hunter Green to Taylor Featherston to Alex Yarbrough have fallen a bit short of expectations (or, in Green’s case, struggled to stay healthy). That may not be Servais’ fault, but it’s a cautionary note after the success he had with Texas. As hard as it is to gauge a manager’s success, it’s nearly as hard in player development. The responsibility is shared between a small army of minor league coaches and instructors, and physical and mental trainers probably play a huge role as well. But you look at Houston and St. Louis and you know that it isn’t just a crapshoot. The M’s have *needed* a young core to develop and they’ve cycled through a few of them without much success. Every year, it looks like they have a bit of depth in the minors, and every year, that talent seems to take a step back just when the M’s need it. I have no idea how much responsibility Chris Gwynn owns for that, but I’m glad we can blame someone else next year.
Vidal Nuno vs. Chris Bassitt, 12:10pm
Every game starts at the odd time of 12:10 today, as the AL West remains undecided. Texas is a game up on Houston, and two up on LA with one to play. Meanwhile, the M’s and A’s just need to put 2015 behind them. The M’s and A’s took very different routes to this shitty place; the A’s completely rebuilt their team with a number of high-profile trades, while the M’s made a big free agency splash and then hoped development would take care of the complimentary pieces on their roster. The pitchers on both clubs disappointed, turning in mediocre runs-allowed numbers despite playing in pitcher’s park and both teams had awful bullpens. But the A’s remain a team that can turn on a dime – they traded for Ben Zobrist, then traded him away a few months later. They traded for Jeff Samardzija, then trade him away. The M’s, to a remarkable degree, gave their homegrown players a lot of time, and when they struggled, there simply wasn’t a plan B.
At least more than just another lost season’s ended. At least we can start thinking about how things might change. After a much-needed change at GM, it’s not clear what kind of offseason the M’s might have – and, at least today, I’m looking forward to being surprised.
1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Gutierrez, DH
4: Cano, 2B
5: Trumbo, RF
6: Smith, LF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Sucre, C
9: Miller, CF
Roenis Elias vs. Sean Nolin, 6:10pm
The A’s Sean Nolin is something like Mike Fiers, who the M’s saw recently. His fastball is only 89-90 or so, but it’s arrow-straight with a lot of vertical rise. Like Fiers, he tore through the minors, posting gaudy strikeout numbers at pretty much every level. That’s how you get stories like this written about you. Unlike Fiers, though, Nolin hasn’t been able to make a slow rise-ball into a strikeout pitch in the big leagues. With a nearly even K:BB ratio and predictable HR rates, Nolin’s really scuffled since coming over as part of the big Josh Donaldson deal. His slider may be his best pitch, but without plus break, that isn’t saying much right now. He’s also got a curve and a change. Nolin made his A’s debut against the M’s back in early September, and will make his 6th start today – he had a couple of good, if short, outings early on, but is coming off two poor starts.
Roenis Elias has had a remarkably similar season to his rookie year of 2014. By K%, BB% and even ERA, it looks like a shot-for-shot remake. His HR rate is slightly higher, and thus his FIP isn’t what it was last year, but he looks like the same guy who surprised the league last year. That’s not to say he succeeds through deception and unpredictability, though. At the end of last year, Jeff Zimmermann wrote about Elias’ predictability. When he was ahead in the count to lefties, he threw a ton of curveballs. Setting aside his two different release points for RHBs and LHBs, he seems to have very different release points for his fastball and breaking ball. Batters would seem to have less trouble reading a pitch from Elias than just about any other pitcher in baseball, unless Fernando Rodney is tipping his pitches again. So is that something he fixed in 2015? No, it’s not. Last year, he threw curves 68% of the time he had two strikes vs. lefties. This year? 63%.
And yet, lefties can’t hit it. They’re hitting .116 on the pitch this year, and .117 in Elias’ two-year career. The release point may help, but I think Elias is more deceptive than I’ve given him credit for. The problem is that *righties* get a much better look at it, and while the pattern isn’t as extreme as it is to lefties, they seem to have noticed that Elias throws a lot more curves when he’s ahead. That’s led to one of the stranger splits I can think of. Batters have hit 6 HRs when *behind* in the count against Elias, while only 5 HRs when ahead in the count. Compared to the rest of the league, Elias is really, really good this year when he’s behind in the count (sOPS+ of 76), great in even counts (sOPS+ of 66), and awful when he’s ahead (sOPS+ of 154). Platoon splits are, with few exceptions, a fact of life in baseball, but this seems like a correctable flaw for Elias.
1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, DH
4: Cano, 2B
5: Gutierrez, LF
6: Trumbo, RF
7: Montero, 1B
8: Miller, SS
9: Sucre, C
That abdominal issue that sidelined Robbie Cano for a few games a while ago? Turns out it’s a sports hernia, and Cano’s scheduled a surgical repair for it in about 10 days. Doesn’t sound like it will impact his off-season or spring training timelines at all.
Bob Dutton’s not about Cano also included the list of minor league awards for the M’s system. Co-players of the year were Jesus Montero and Tyler O’Neill, while Edwin Diaz won starting pitcher of the year and left-hander Paul Fry won reliever of the year. None of those should surprise those of you who followed the recaps this year. Fry’s numbers were remarkable: a 113:24 K:BB ratio in 80 innings over two levels with zero home runs allowed. Diaz dominated the Cal League, but had some trouble in AA. He’s still the toolsiest pitching prospect the M’s have, touching the high 90s with his fastball. O’Neill and “Heart and Soul” award winner Jabari Blash tied for the system lead in HRs with 32. While they’ve got strikeout issues, both looked better in the season’s second half.
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Aaron Brooks, 7:10pm
In the last series, we got to see the Astros, a team that’s notoriously collapsed in September, coughing up a division that they seemingly had well in hand by mid-August. Wouldn’t that sting? Glad we side-stepped THAT unpleasantness, eh? In the spirit of finding common ground through schadenfreude, the M’s now face the Oakland A’s, a team whose collapse in the 2nd half has been breathtakingly thorough. In the 2nd half, the A’s have the 2nd-worst team ERA in baseball (behind Colorado), and their offense has gone from top-third in baseball in the first half to bottom-third now. It’s all produced an ugly 25-43 record and performances like the other night’s when Nick Tropeano (!) struck out 13 sleepwalking A’s. They’ve been bad, their in-game performances look as inspired as a Marshawn Lynch press conference, and the big trade that was going to spur them to sustained greatness produced a likely MVP…for Toronto. Compared to that, the M’s have been, what, disappointing? They were too consistently mediocre versus horrifically unlucky, beset by bullpen collapses, and then, through a combination of sell-off trades and disinterest, unwatchably bad. Ha.
Uh, so, Aaron Brooks. Saw him a little while back. Still bad? Check.
1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, DH
4: Cano, 2B
5: Trumbo, RF
6: Smith, LF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Miller, CF
9: Sucre, C
Tony Zych vs. Scott Kazmir, 7:10pm
Imagine you’re an Astros fan. You’ve been through years of one of the most comprehensive, painful, soul-crushing rebuilds on record. Cable carriage-fee wrangling left most of Houston unable to watch the club on TV, and the owner who’s overseen all of this has a…uh, controversial past. Thanks to savvy drafting and a player development group that seems several standard deviations from average, and boom, the club contends in 2015 at least a year ahead of schedule. Not content to hope that they’re good enough as-is, the club then goes out and picks up Scott Kazmir, Mike Fiers and Carlos Gomez at the deadline. And then it all goes to hell, and the Angels – the ANGELS – get off the mat and start winning a bunch of one-run games. It’s ok, says this long-suffering Houston fan, we can just beat up on a Mariner team that seems to have divested itself of starting pitching. Just beat Vidal Nuno on short rest and
Mayckol Guaipe Tony Zych, and everything’ll work out. To quote an old phrase well-beloved by veteran M’s watchers, “There is no floor.”
Mayckol Guaipe was listed as the starter tonight at Fangraphs, as he initially came up as a starter in rookie ball. Following a third-straight disaster start in April of 2013, he gave it up and hasn’t been back since. Now, the M’s tweet that it’ll be Tony Zych, who closed in his junior year at Louisville and has been a reliever since then. His last appearance as a starter came in 2010, when he was a college sophomore. I find this so amazing, I have to repeat it: Tony Zych is making his first start as a pro of any kind. Joe Beimel? Ex-starter. Logan Kensing? Definitely. Danny Farquhar’s the closest you can get, as he hadn’t made any starts until one this year in Tacoma, but he was a college starter. The same’s true of Carson Smith, who started at Texas State before moving to the ‘pen in the pros.
Tony Zych is perhaps the least-likely starter given his pro experience and two-pitch repertoire, but hey, maybe the M’s can innovate here. As the wildcard game often means pitching your ace *before* you get to the “real” playoffs, there’s a potential for a club to essentially play match-ups the entire game with their relievers. That is, start a lefty-reliever, get the other club to stack righties in their line-up, then bring in a ROOGY in the 2nd or 3rd. Switch again a few innings later, etc. In this game, the Astros may have no choice but to start a righty-hitting line-up, leaving them somewhat vulnerable if the M’s then put in Joe Beimel….or Rob Rasmussen. Hmm. Okay, let me amend this theory by saying that IN THEORY a team with expanded rosters would have a plethora of left-handed relievers that could replace Zych. But because Nuno just pitched, Furbush is hurt, Olson’s in extended, and Rasmussen and Rollins have been shaky, the Astros may have a bit less to worry about.
And to be fair: Zych’s been remarkably effective. It’s not just that his fastball’s tough to square up, but his slider breaks so much that it may be tough to read for guys who aren’t familiar with him. And at this point in his career, NO ONE’s familiar with him. Without a ton of drop, it’s going to be hard to keep those minimal splits forever, but hey, he’s developing a change-up, and Chaz Roe’s shown that as long as you don’t get blown out of the building by lefties, there’s a way to stick around with a solid FB and a swerving slider.
The other big news item out of M’s-ville is related to the scramble for a starter here: Felix Hernandez won’t pitch again this year. That’s probably for the best, but given the state of the M’s rotation, I can imagine Lloyd McClendon lobbying for one final start, even if it was only 5 IP or so.
1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, DH
4: Cano, 2B
5: Gutierrez, LF
6: Trumbo, RF
7: Montero, 1B
8: O’Malley, CF
9: Sucre, C
With the M’s win last night, the Astros fell behind the Angels by a half game. It was the first time they’d been out of a playoff position since mid-April.
Vidal Nuno vs. Mike Fiers, 7:10pm
It’s not just a Vidal Nuno start, it’s a Nuno start *on short rest.* With James Paxton hurt, Taijuan Walker shut down and the M’s lack of upper-minors pitching depth (it’s telling that the M’s have as many eligible, healthy catchers SPs on their 40-man roster as they have catchers), Lloyd McClendon turned to Nuno to make the spot start tonight, the managing equivalent of a shrug emoji. McClendon’s fighting for his job, meeting with new GM Jerry Dipoto, and also starting Vidal Nuno on short rest because it probably *is* the best option. Managing his own exasperation has got to be part of the game plan as he discusses his vision of the 2016 M’s with Dipoto, but as much as Lloyd has some things to answer for, overall roster depth isn’t on him.
That all sounds like a reason to avoid this contest and do something productive with your life, but this is one of those pitching match-ups I find irrationally interesting. Both of today’s starters were draft day afterthoughts, with Fiers picked after the 20th round, and Nuno waiting until the 48th round to hear his name. And you can see why: neither guy averages 90mph on his fastball, and both love pitching up in the zone despite that lack of velo. As a result, both generate a lot of fly balls, and the difference between a 200′ fly ball and a 425′ one is minuscule. To be successful, they have to be extremely precise. This sounds Moyer-ish; Chris Young with less magic or Beavan with a more command. But they *aren’t* pitch-to-contact, soft-tossing control artists – they’re strikeout pitchers.
Batters have come up empty on 25% of their swings against Vidal Nuno’s four-seam fastball. Not only is that the highest rate of any M’s starter, that would put him in the top 10 of all starting pitchers this season with at least 200 fastballs-thrown. That puts him ahead of Clayton Kershaw, Jose Fernandez, Corey Kluber and Chris Archer. It does not make his fastball a *good pitch* but it does help him maintain a strikeout rate above the league average despite being a lefty throwing 88mph. Fiers gets whiffs on 19% of his four-seamers, which, thanks to his over-the-top delivery generate an absurd amount of rise. But Fiers has learned to do something that Nuno, to date, has not: get opposite-handed hitters out.
Nuno was relieving in Arizona for a reason: righties dominate him, while lefties struggle. In his career, Nuno has a 2.33 FIP vs. lefties and a 5.25 FIP vs. righties. For Fiers, those marks are 3.66 and 4.41, respectively. Both have a shot at “beating” their FIP thanks to a lot of pop-ups and easy fly balls pushing down their BABIP (Nuno’s is .279, Fiers’ is .285), but Nuno simply has to get better against righties, or he can’t be a starter. Fiers’ weapon that’s actually helped him post reverse splits (he’s a righty, remember) isn’t a change-up – it’s a slow curve. Coming in at 73mph, Fiers’ curve has an insane amount of drop; I’m guessing the same over-the-top delivery that produces a backspinning fastball channels the spin on his curve such that it drops nearly straight down. As a result, no curve in baseball has as much drop as Fiers – he comes in just ahead of Chris Tillman, a guy with very similar mechanics. While righties struggle with Fiers’ curve, lefties seem unable to pick it up at all – they’re slugging .291 on it in Fiers’ career. Nuno’s change isn’t anywhere close to that effective. Nuno’s got a curve too, but he doesn’t throw it much – especially to righties. His best pitch is probably his slider, but it’s much less effective against righties, and it doesn’t matter as long as righties are slugging .651 on his four-seam fastball.
Nuno gets strikeouts, but when batters hit the ball, they hit it extremely hard. Fiers struggles with that a bit (he’s given up 17 HRs on his fastball alone this year), but a slow breaking ball and command allow him to survive. That either of these pitchers is in the majors at all seems sort of bizarre – that they’re high-K guys is even more confusing. But Fiers’ curve is, in internet-speak, the one weird trick to become a viable target from a playoff team. Even if Nuno can’t come up with a trick of his own to start battling righties, he’s shown enough that he should carve out a niche as a good LOOGY, and there’s something admirable about watching him throw elevated fastballs past hitters. But this match-up illustrates just how fine the margins are when you throw 88.
1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, DH
4: Cano, 2B
5: Smith, LF
6: Trumbo, RF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Jones, CF
9: Hicks, C
It was good to hear Dipoto mention depth in his press conference, though of course it’s fairly obvious. The M’s system’s prediliction for high-K tools-projects also got a mention, when Dipoto said he was taken aback by the strikeout numbers in the M’s minor league system. This in part reflects one of the key differences between the Zduriencik regime’s draft strategy and that of Dipoto: the M’s tended to value high ceiling guys, while the Angels under Dipoto went for higher floors. Part of this was the result of losing a number of first round picks due to free agent signings – really high ceiling guys don’t stick around long – but part of it seems to be preference. The M’s have gone after younger power bats from Gareth Morgan, Corey Simpson and Tyler O’Neill to college guys with power potential like Mike Zunino or Austin Wilson. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, necessarily. The Rangers have, if anything, actively sought out raw, toolsy guys with K issues, but they’ve often made it work (Lewis Brinson and Joey Gallo have been great in the minors). The problem’s been that the M’s were awful at developing precisely the kind of player their amateur scouts loved. To be fair though, the Angels struggled to develop their own “type” – Cuban IF Roberto Baldoquin alternated between hurt and terrible in the Cal League this year, while Alex Yarbrough mixed Ks with a lack of power in the PCL. Let’s end on yet another caveat: if Dipoto’s drafts had a “type” it wasn’t low-K hitters, it was pitchers. Dipoto didn’t pick a bat until his 8th selection in 2013, and not until his 6th pick in 2014. There’s a reason their top prospect lists are so weighted towards pitchers.
Roenis Elias vs. Lance McCullers, 7:10pm
The M’s have a new GM, and we’ll see where Jerry Dipoto steers the good ship Mariner in the coming months and years, but for now, the M’s play out the string against an Astros club that’s desperately trying to hold off the Angels. Roenis Elias has all but replicated the out-of-nowhere season he had in 2014, despite his poor showing in the minors in between. Meanwhile, Lance McCullers stabilized the back of the Astros rotation and was a big part of their run in May/June. But like the rest of his team, McCullers has fallen back to earth a bit in the second half. To be clear: we’re talking about a guy who pitched, and not exactly well, in high-A in 2014, so the fact that he’s no longer dominating big league hitters falls in the “good problems to have” category. But here we are: there’s less than a week to go, the Astros have a half-game lead, and they desperately need their 21-year old rookie to get back on track.
One of the striking things about McCullers is his platoon splits. It’s not just that they’re reversed, and he’s pitching better against lefties, it’s that they’re massive and persist in basically any component you want to look at. His FIP against righties isn’t just higher – it’s *1.7 runs* higher. His K/9 isn’t just higher against lefties, it’s 2.6 higher. Against righties, McCullers is a perfectly good, young middle of the rotation guy. Against lefties, he’s a dominant force. This seems odd. But the pattern’s repeated at essentially every stop in the minors – this really doesn’t seem like a sample-size oddity. Even looking by pitch, you see it: lefties are mystified by his hard curve ball, while righties are slightly confused.
How’s this possible? My guess is that it’s the product of McCullers’ “crossfire” delivery – his tendency to hide the ball with his body by stepping a bit towards 3B. We often associate this with sidearmers and relief specialists, but there are several pitchers who employ this technique and, for whatever reason, end up messing with opposite-handed-hitters’ view of the ball during delivery. One of the only pitchers with a K/9 against lefties that’s higher than McCullers is another crossfiring right-hander: Jake Arrieta. This NY Times piece mentions that Baltimore tried to change Arrieta’s delivery to save strain on his shoulder, but the Cubs essentially told him to throw however he wanted, and he reverted back to his pre-draft delivery. With the Cubs, Arrieta’s been great against everyone, but look what he’s doing to lefties on the year. The same pattern held last year as well.
So why would Baltimore teach an effective delivery out of Arrieta? M’s fans are probably already wincing, but this across-the-body delivery was the hallmark of Danny Hultzen. While Hultzen’s splits weren’t as bizarrely reversed as Arrieta’s or McCullers, that delivery was a big reason Hultzen was able to throw 89-91mph fastballs past right-handed hitters in the high minors. You’d see it with his breaking ball, with righties putting up some truly ugly swings on sliders – a pitch that’s supposed to have big (normal) platoon splits. Deception overcame that, just as it overcame average velocity. One of the big issues teams have with this delivery is that it often leads to control problems. That happened to Hultzen, but he was able to work through it, just as he did at UVA. The other problem is worse: shoulder injuries. Hultzen couldn’t dodge that one, and while it’s essentially impossible to pin an injury on mechanics (esp. ones the pitcher had for years in college), it makes you think slightly differently about Baltimore’s dilemma with Arrieta. Hultzen went to extended spring training with the intent of straightening out his delivery, but weakness in his shoulder made it a second straight lost season.
1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, DH
4: Cano, 2B
5: Trumbo, RF
6: Smith, LF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Miller, CF
9: Sucre, S
6 lefties in the line-up tonight. McCullers has to be happy about that.