Tony Zych and the Front Door Slider

marc w · April 19, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Let’s get this out of the way early: it’s still April. Numbers are still bouncing all over the place, and a good game can totally change a player’s “season” averages, because the seasonal sample is still tiny. I get that, you get that, but we can’t just shut the blog down until the All-Star break. We can look at things, and muse on them, all while keeping in mind that they could be the product of small-sample gremlins, dumb luck, or however you personify the concept. Ok? Great, let’s talk about Tony Zych, one of the most intriguing pitchers on the M’s. As Jeff Sullivan wrote at Fangraphs, he came from nowhere to become one of the M’s secret weapons with a lively fastball and a weirdly great slurvy slider. A lot of the time, the term “slurve” is a disparaging comment on a breaking ball’s inability to be either a true curveball, with topspin and downward break, or a slider, typically thrown harder with later and less downward break. Sometimes, though, being unlike traditional or textbook examples of a pitch works really well.

To further set this up a bit, we’ve talked a lot about how the best pitches in baseballs induce a lot of swings on balls – if you get a batter to swing at a pitch outside of the strike zone, good things will generally happen. For Hisashi Iwakuma, for example, the splitter gets plenty of whiffs despite the fact he throws it below the zone all the time. And if they DO make contact, the quality of that contact is generally poor, leading to a lot of ground balls in Kuma’s case. Not everyone has a pitch that does this, and certain pitch types are better for the whole swing-at-bad-balls gameplan: change-ups and splitters work well, while, say, curves generally don’t. That doesn’t mean curves are bad, obviously, as there’s an obvious inverse strategy: get batters to *NOT* swing at strikes. Curves are the classic example – think of The Bartender practically tearing Alexei Ramirez’s knee ligaments a few years ago. That’s great, but Tony Zych doesn’t throw a curve, right?

Batters swing at pitches within the strike zone around 2/3 of the time. In 2015, the average was 66.9%, and it was 65.7% the year before. In the early going in 2016, it’s dead on 66%, so it’s pretty stable. If you sort pitchers by the zone-swing%, you get this list, and see Zych at #3, with just 41.5% of his pitches in the zone inducing swings. How’s that possible? At first, I thought it might be his fastball’s strong horizontal run – maybe batters just leave it alone thinking it’ll be a ball, or just because their gameplan is to make Zych prove his command’s good enough to get strikes with it. Lots of first-pitch fastball takes? That’s a piece of it, perhaps, but the story here is that slurvy breaking ball. The heatmap for it is pretty conventional, with a big red spot down and away to right-handers. The swing rate chart looks similar, with pitches away to righties/in on lefties generating lots of swings. The flip side of the that, and it’s easier to visualize this in this chart focusing on righties, is that righties generally aren’t offering at sliders on the inner half, or really, at anything BUT those outside sliders. This year, it’s almost comical - he’s thrown 18 sliders within the zone, but not on the outer third to righties, and they’ve offered at 3 of them.

This is the definition of a tiny sample, and he’s due some regression here, as big leaguers generally don’t take pitches, even breaking balls, middle-middle. But you can see the contours of a successful approach here, and it’s something we saw in his very first MLB at-bat, with the first slider he threw. Jeff linked to this in his post, but here, take another look. The key is that this pitch is starting right at a right hander’s hip. A slider with “normal” horizontal break might not hit the batter, but it wouldn’t get all the way back to the strike zone. Zych’s horizontal break is just over 2 standard deviations from the league mean, so it’s probably understandable that most hitters – almost all of whom haven’t faced him often – assume the pitch will stay inside.

Zych’s part of the reason why the M’s are off the charts as a *team* in zone-swing%; Felix, for all of his control problems, looks excellent so far in this metric, too. I don’t know that Zych can keep this up once hitters have seen him 3-4-5 times, but for now, it’s kind of amazing to see, and as that leaderboard shows, some of the best relief pitchers in the game make their living this way. At #2 on the list was Andrew Miller, and his teammate Dellin Betances was #5. Betances has that huge curve, so that makes sense, but Miller’s a FB/SL guy like Zych, and he led the league in fewest strikes-swung-at last year (Dellin Betances was #3, right behind the M’s Carson Smith). Miller uses his slider somewhat similarly, with lefties not swinging very much at “front door” sliders – pitches that break right over the inside corner, while hacking away futilely at low-and-away sliders. Miller’s command is such that he can throw those same pitches to *right handers* and back door them, so that’s why he’s one of the best relievers on the planet. Still, not a bad guy for Zych to emulate.

A Minor Pitching Development Note

Jay Yencich · April 18, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners, Minor Leagues

First off, I want to thank Marc for taking over the system preview for this season. I’m presently in a phase of my life that’s not particularly conducive to sitting down and writing thousands upon thousands of words of minor league preview each season. This year, in particular, the scheduling looked pretty “nope” early on, but in light of certain happenings and certain concerns the team has going forward, I wanted to bring something to everyone’s attention because I think it could be relevant for us down the line.

One of the narratives to emerge from spring training was that the Mariners, with Iwakuma’s unexpected re-signing, were so flush with pitching that they had the enviable problem of choosing between Nate Karns and James Paxton in the back-end of the rotation. The beginning of the minor league season has further impressed on us that Edwin Diaz is exceeding expectations and could be ready to challenge for a spot soon enough. While the overall depth in the system is rather thin at the high levels (though guys like Ryan Yarbrough and Adrian Sampson probably shouldn’t be overlooked), right now we’re looking outward from a position of relative security. If anything, it’s the bullpen that has given us pause, and rightfully so, with a couple of dudes approaching forty and many of the rest being known as gambles, some of which have already faltered, in the cases of forgotten men Ryan Cook and Evan Scribner.

Let’s back up a moment. One of the recurrent sources of frustration in writing minor league previews is that a past role tends to be a bit more indicative of a future role only in the case of position players. Generally, if anyone is going to move, either to a more or less demanding role on the field, you’re going to hear about it. Less certain is the status of pitching prospects, who could begin starting or stop without much fanfare. One could propose that it’s a side effect of the weird pitching schedules in the Cactus League and no one really noticing or caring at the time, but I bring this up to illustrate a point: The present configuration of the Jackson Generals pitching staff is not something one could have readily predicted.

Sure, the way it begins could potentially lull you into some false sense of security. You look up and see Diaz followed by Yarbrough and figure that it’s likely one of the better one-two, left-right punches you’re going to get, even if the metrics plainly favor Diaz. Thereafter is where it starts to get weird. You have right-handers Sam Gaviglio, Brett Ash, and Dylan Unsworth. If you’re unfamiliar with any or all of those names, I’m not going to fault you. College baseball fans might remember Gaviglio from his days pitching for Oregon State, but they might not remember that we acquired him from St. Louis in exchange for Ty Kelly, the positionless OBP wonder, at the end of 2014. Brett Ash, with all due respect to his friends, family, neighbors, and acquaintances, is Some Guy, a NDFA out of Kansas’ famed baseball powerhouse Washburn College who signed after the ’14 draft and didn’t make a pro start until June of last year when necessity pushed him into the rotation. Dylan Unsworth is from South Africa and his nickname is Sharky and we will love him forever, but he doesn’t possess extraordinary stuff and is a fifth starter at best, and a fringe one.

What is instead “weird” about all this is the sheer number of former starters in the Jackson bullpen. Matt Anderson, a holdover from last year, got the Tom Wilhelmsen treatment and switched to relief on making it to double-A. He remains the same “good fastball, potentially great curveball, sketchy command” guy that he has been previously.

Among the other former starters after him, you have Jordan Pries, who was the big surprise in 2014 as a former 30th round pick who was one of the Rainiers’ best starters down the stretch. The same was not true in 2015, when his ERA caught up to his existing components/stuff (90 mph-ish FB)/pitch to contact approach and he additionally missed the final month+ of the season with an elbow strain.

Or you could look at Stephen Landazuri, who was a long-time sleeper favorite of mine as a guy with a low-90s heater and a good curve. Lando hadn’t relieved in a regular season game since 2012, and while he was quite excellent starting in the Mexican Pacific League over the offseason, his command numbers for both Jackson and Tacoma last year were dire. To boot, he’s had a few recurrent injury issues: biceps strain, oblique strain, missed starts here and there. He’s now pitching out of the Jackson ‘pen as well.

Or we could go with the surprise in Dan Altavilla. Altavilla was fast-tracked up, with a half-season in Everett and a full-season last year in Bakersfield where he showed good stuff and iffy command. People had talked about the possibility of him moving to the bullpen eventually because Major League Baseball scouts have a rather Irken approach to projecting pitchers, but the left-right numbers were solid and the command improved in the second half even as the hits increased a skosh. There was nothing in particular that was projecting him to a doom-and-gloom forecast, and yet here he is now, relieving for the Generals, with the kind of stuff that showed very well as a starter between the slider and the fastball.

Stuff could happen that could push any of the above back into the rotation. “Stuff happening” is one of the inviolable laws of minor league baseball. However, in the case of these three (or four if you feel like including Anderson), the bullpen could present a good career opportunity. Pries was never going to crack in as anything other than an emergency fifth starter and could gain some velocity/Ks from working solely in relief. Landazuri’s command has yet to straighten out for long enough to get you to see him as a three or four and his injury history, while mostly unrelated to the tenderest of the shoulder bits, does not inspire confidence. Altavilla in the bullpen goes from the low-90s velocity he showed as a starter to flashing more in the high-90s as he did in more limited stints and he no longer has to worry about developing a change-up in that role. Whereas a spot in the starting five would have been harder to come by, the bullpen is far less stable moving forward.

Is this experiment likely to work out for everyone involved? Does any minor league experiment ever do that? “Here, try catching.” “Here, try throwing this weird pitch.” “Play this position that you never have before outside of pickup games maybe.” “You can’t hit, but can you throw a knuckleball?” Minor league baseball is silly. However, if it does work out for any of these guys, what you have done is increased their odds of making a big league roster, perhaps minimized the variables they previously had to contend with, and given your team a cost-controlled arm that allows you to maneuver money elsewhere in the roster building process. These aren’t exciting moves, but they look like they could be good for everyone involved. Good work, Mariners.

Late Edit: I wrote this before Landazuri and Pries had poor outings over the weekend, but consider the SSS and the unfamiliarity with the role.

Game 12 – Brooms Over the Bronx

marc w · April 17, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Masahiro Tanaka, 10:05am

The M’s go for their fourth straight win, and a possible road sweep of the Yankees today. As you’ve no doubt heard, today’s game pits two former teammates with the Rakuten Golden Eagles against each other. Tanaka and Iwakuma were friends and teammates, with Iwakuma leaving for the US a few years before Tanaka. Iwakuma won Sawamura award (NPB’s Cy Young) and was a legitimate star, but during Iwakuma’s first few years in Seattle, Tanaka became a sensation. His 2013 line looks like what he’d do against high school competition: 24-0, 1.27 ERA, while leading his team – long a mediocre side while Iwakuma/Tanaka played together – to a Japan Series win.

Iwakuma’s shoulder woes played into the bargain-basement contract he signed, but it’s still kind of amazing: Kuma’s first contract in the US was for $1m guaranteed. Tanaka signed a 7-year $155 million deal. Health is critical, and age was perhaps an even bigger factor; I don’t mean to suggest they should be valued equivalently. But the health advantage slipped a bit in Tanaka’s first US season when he was diagnosed with a partially torn UCL. He used rest/rehab to come back, opting not to go the surgical route. This is risky, but it seems to have paid off for him.

Beyond that, though, it’s starting to look like the biggest adjustment NPB pitchers have to make to the US isn’t the hitters, or even the slightly different ball – it’s the 5-man rotation. Yu Darvish is still coming back from TJ surgery, Tanaka just barely avoided it, and Iwakuma…well, that’s not fair, as Iwakuma’s been hurt in both leagues. But with all of the money teams are now laying out for pitching, and with so many pitchers falling victim to elbow and shoulder tears, I’m kind of surprised no one’s tried NPB’s solution of longer rest. The NPB is famous for really high pitch counts, something that people worried about when Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tanaka came over. But Darvish argues that this risk is more than balanced by the benefits of increased rest. Apparently, elbow surgeries are much less frequent in NPB. At 538, Rob Arthur found a bit of an effect mathematically in a study conducted just as the Mets toyed with a 6-man rotation. In any event, with so much money in the game, I find it amazing that more teams aren’t experimenting a bit with ways to protect pitcher health. Depth may be an issue, especially with prices rising for average pitchers, but I’d imagine it still pencil out.

Tanaka’s run a much lower GB% than his old teammate despite a very similar arsenal. Part of the reason is that Tanaka used his four-seam fastball a bit more, and got more elevated contact on it. Another reason is that Iwakuma’s breaking balls – curve/slider – get a few more grounders than Tanaka’s. A big part of it is probably just approach, with Tanaka’s fastball having a lot more zip, leading to different ways to use it. That said, Tanaka’s velo seems lower this April – it was low in April of 2015, and then rose through the year, but it’s worth reiterating that we just haven’t seen the kind of velocity he showed in April of 2014 since his injury scare.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Clevenger, C
8: Martin, CF
9: Marte, SS
SP: Iwakuma

Go M’s.

Tacoma beat Albuquerque 5-3 behind Mike Zunino’s 3rd HR and another solid start from Adrian Sampson. It’ll be Donn Roach on the mound today.

Jackson raced out to a 9-1 lead and held on to beat Chattanooga 9-5, with a great start from Brett Ash (6 IP, 1 R, 1 H, 3K) and big hits from DJ Peterson and Marcus Littlewood the story. Dylan Unsworth takes the mound opposite White Sox prospect Tyler Danish as the Generals open a series against Birmingham.

Bakersfield finally realized the only sure way to beat Visalia was to shut them out, so they did. Eddie Campbell went the first 5, then Ryan Horstman added 2 IP with 4Ks. Drew Jackson had 2 hits and a double and Jay Baum had 3 hits for the Blaze. Andrew Moore takes the hill for Bakersfield today against Visalia’s Luke Irvine.

Clinton couldn’t complete the org sweep, losing 7-0 to Cedar Rapids. Another rough outing for LHP prospect Nick Wells. Art Warren starts today for Clinton.

Game 11, Mariners at Yankees

marc w · April 16, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

FELIX vs. CC Sabathia, 10:05

Happy Felix Day!

I talked about the spate of Felix’s Velocity is Falling, Doom Imminent articles this year (and every year), and why I don’t think it’s such a big deal back in early April. Again, this is not to say that velocity itself is irrelevant, just that Felix is such a unique pitcher that rules that work for pitchers as a whole often fail when applied to our great and glorious king. On the other hand, there’s CC Sabathia, whose velocity is in Jered Weaver-style free fall. Sabathia used to run it up there around 95-97, but in his first start, he averaged about 87 on his fastball, leading MLBAM to assume he was throwing nothing but change-ups. Sure, sure, Felix’s fastball is frequently mis-identified as a change too, but that’s got as much to do with Felix’s unusually hard change as his low FB velo. Sabathia’s FB and hard cutter now blend together – I think of the cutter as the remnants of an old four-seam fastball, while his sinker’s armside run differentiates it.

Late-career Sabathia’s been undone by an inability to get right-handers out, and it seems like FB velocity may be part of the reason why. His change is still a good pitch, with high whiff rates and lots of ground balls, but Sabathia’s got nothing to disguise it with. Unlike Felix’s cambio, CC’s doesn’t really have much vertical drop – the pitch works because of the speed differential to his sinker, leading to bad contact or empty swings. But with CC’s “fastball” now coming in at 87, batters can sit on the fastball and adjust to the change. And if they don’t, they may hit it hard anyway.

Plenty of pitchers lose velocity, but the suddenness of CC’s drop this year is kind of concerning. In his first game of last season, CC averaged right about 90 with his fastball and touched 91. That’s about where he was in April of 2014, too, though he could reach back and hit 92 on occasion. This year, he averaged 87.5, and his fastest pitch was only 88.8. We’ll see if that improves today, but as a pitcher who’s struggled for a few years now, he may be nearing the end.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Marte, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Gutierrez, RF
6: Iannetta, C
7: Lee, 1B
8: Martin, CF
9: Sardinas, 3B
SP: Felix Hernandez.

No Seager today, as the M’s stack the line-up with righties and give Seager a day off to clear his head – he’s in a 2-27 slump.

Albuquerque won their home opener last night 11-6, despite HRs from Mike Zunino and Stefen Romero. James Paxton got lit up, giving up 7 runs in 2 1/3 IP with 4 BBs to 2 Ks. That’s now 9 walks in 6 1/3 IP on the year. Hmmm. Adrian Sampson takes the hill today for the Rainiers, 6 days after his 1-hit in 6 scoreless IP performance against the Isotopes.

Sam Gaviglio’s second straight quality start helped Jackson beat Chattanooga 6-3. Guillermo Heredia had 2 hits and 2 sac flies, and Tim Lopes and Ian Miller each had two hits as well. Brett Ash starts for the Generals today.

Yet again, Bakersfield lost a one-run game to Visalia, this time a 5-4 contest in 11 innings – the Rawhide scored runs in the 8th and 9th to tie it, and then walked it off two innings later. Tyler Pike had his second encouraging start, tossing 6 2/3 IP of two-run ball and walking just one. Control problems ruined his last two seasons, so to see him walk 3 in nearly 12 IP this year is great. Eddie Campbell starts today in Visalia.

Clinton scored 5 in the first on their way to an 11-5 win over Cedar Rapids. Braden Bishop had 4 hits, while Luis Liberato had a double and a triple in the lead-off spot. Kyle Wilcox had something of an ugly start for the LumberKings, giving up 5 runs on 6 walks in 4 2/3 IP, but the bullpen was great. Joey Strain K’d 2 in 2 2/3 hitless innings. He’s pitched 3 games and 5 2/3 IP on the year thus far, and no one’s reached base on him. Nick Wells attempts to put his poor debut start behind him against Cedar Rapids’ Sam Clay.

Game 10 – Mariners Invade the Bronx

marc w · April 15, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Nate Karns vs. Luis Severino, 4:10pm

The M’s escaped a winless homestand thanks to Dae Ho Lee’s heroics (and some really awful defense from the Rangers), but they still need to figure out why they can’t score. The problem’s particularly acute against starters – the M’s have scored 14 runs in 220 plate appearances against starting pitchers. In *100* fewer PAs, they’ve managed *18* runs against relievers. Given the high-octane arms stocking modern MLB bullpens, that’s kind of insane. The M’s themselves have pretty normal splits: their starters have given up more runs, and have higher opponent averages and the like, than their reliever colleagues. In part, all of these weird small-sample things are related – the M’s have struggled against starters, and because many of those starters have been lefties, they have awful platoon splits, etc. We’ll have to see what adjustments they make, and which concerns are real and which are spurious.

Tonight, they face the Yankees’ 22-year-old phenom, Luis Severino, a right-hander with a very good fastball. Severino commands it pretty well and it averages 95-96, so he can touch the high 90s on occasion. His second pitch is a hard slider at 89-90, with a bit of glove-side break and sink. Scouts have raved about his change-up, which also comes in around 90, for years, and the results on it are impressive: lots and lots of whiffs, and lots of ground-ball contact. He uses it a bit like a split (though it has different movement), as he throws it in the zone very infrequently, but it still induces plenty of swings. On the whole, Severino’s an impressive package of bat-missing and ground-balls, and he impressed in his 11-start call-up last year.

It’s early, of course, but Severino’s shown some strange platoon splits. Lefties have had a much harder time hitting him, and their wOBA against Severino is awful. Righties are kind of feast-or-famine: they’ve struck out far, far more than lefties, and essentially never walk against him. That said, their overall batting line isn’t bad. In these kind of samples, it’s easy to say that all of this is just luck, but it makes me wonder. Clearly, Severino’s command and what I’d imagine is some deception helps him against righties. It’s not so much that his slider’s a dominant weapon against them – his *fastball* is just as effective. But when he misses, righties hit the ball hard. He’s faced more lefties than righties overall, but he’s given up more hits, more XBH and 6 of his 9 HR-allowed to righties. Is this because he doesn’t throw his change-up against them? Maybe, but if the change-up was as good as we’d heard, he’d have a better K:BB ratio against *lefties*.

One thing I’ve often wondered about when looking at a pitcher’s average release point is how much it matters when a pitcher releases different pitches in different spots. That is, it seems like it’d be a pretty big ‘tell’ if a curve release point is significantly higher or lower than a fastball’s release point. But what counts as “significantly?” Hitters pick up on all sorts of things, things that often don’t seem to have any obvious relationship to pitch type. Pitchers may not even by conscious of them. So when you have something that is clearly quite obviously related to the pitch, like a release point, my assumption is that batters would be all over it. Clear, definitive proof of this is kind of hard to come by. Getting back to Severino, he seems to have three different release points for his three pitches. The gap between FB and SL isn’t huge, so I don’t know that it’d drive his results, but looking at the gap between FB and CH, it looks… I don’t know. What do YOU make of this (it’s from a start last September):
Release point I’d think that a lefty might be able to ascertain that, but we don’t have a lot of evidence that they can. How about the SL/FB groups? If you went up guessing slider, would that gap be enough to let you know a split second earlier that you were right (or wrong)?

I’d been thinking about this already, because you see the same thing in Tony Zych, and he’s only got TWO pitches. I was watching an appearance not that long ago and thought I could tell what pitch was coming based on his release. Here’s his release point map:
Zych vs Texas
That’s… those are two, distinct, non-overlapping groups. Tony Zych has been great this year, by the way, so this is absolutely not a kiss of death. I just wonder how that works for some guys, whereas others do the tiniest thing different with their glove, or position their feet, and a bench coach or player is instantly all over it. In any event, hitters have struggled against Severino’s fastball, but righties are also slugging somewhere north of .450 on it. Do righties somehow have a better view of his release point? Is this how a slider-heavy right-hander like Zych has reverse splits (tiny alert, I know)?

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Martin, CF
9: Marte, SS
SP: Karns

I was talking with a friend today about the Rainiers’ hot start – they completed a sweep of the El Paso Chihuahuas last night. They aren’t loaded with prospects or anything, and in true Dipoto fashion, the tie that binds them together is that almost all of them were absolutely god-awful somewhere in 2015. But they also have some success in the slightly more distant past, and make up an interesting group of players for the right player development staff to mold or improve. Cody Martin’s a good example – a guy who made it to the majors last year, and then got sent down, then sent to Oakland, and ultimately released by a pitching-starved club. He wasn’t perfect last night, but he looked excellent at times, much as Adrian Sampson – who got crushed in 7 starts in Tacoma last year – did over the weekend. Stefen Romero flopped in another call-up last year, and was merely adequate in AAA as a bat-first corner-OF, but he’s been great so far. Even Chris Taylor, who’d walked a bunch in the early going, but still not reminded anyone of his brilliant 2014 start, hit the ball hard last night. It’s early, and pitchers often look good at Cheney stadium on a cold, rainy April night, but there are signs of actual depth here. I’ll take it. James Paxton starts tonight in Albuquerque, as the Rainiers meet up again with Shane Carle, the righty they touched for *11 runs* in 4 IP on Sunday.

Jackson raced out to an 8-2 lead last night in Chattanooga, but ended up losing 11-8 thanks to 9 straight runs in the late innings by the Lookouts. Ryan Yarbrough was solid through 5, but Steven Landazuri gave up 5 runs in 1/3 of an inning in relief. Tyler O’Neill hit his first AA homer, and DJ Peterson doubled for his first XBH of 2016. Another slow start for DJ, unfortunately. Sam Gaviglio starts tonight against Aaron Slegers of the Lookouts (a Twins affiliate, by the way).

Visalia edged Bakersfield for what feels like the 5th time already, this time 7-6 in walk-off fashion. Ex-3B prospect Ramon Morla lost it on a 1-out, walk-off double from Cody Regis. Morla blew a save against Visalia back on the 10th as well. Kyle Petty homered for the Blaze. Tyler Pike starts tonight in Visalia.

After a great first outing, Zack Littell had a forgettable start against Cedar Rapids, as the Kernels topped the L-Kings 7-3. Braden Bishop got on base twice, and threw out a runner at the plate, too. Kyle Wilcox takes the mound tonight for Clinton, opposite Sam Gibbons, a lefty out of Australia. The Twins (yes, another Twins affiliate) have scouted Australia well, with one of their better prospects, Lewis Thorpe, hailing from Oz as well – Thorpe missed all of ’15 with TJ surgery. It’s been 15-16 years since the M’s were the undisputed kings of antipodean scouting, bringing in Chris Snelling, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Travis Blackley, Craig Anderson and more.

Gmae 9, Rangers at Mariners

marc w · April 13, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. AJ Griffin, 12:40pm

Just what M’s fans are clamoring for this morning: more M’s baseball, and as soon as possible.

AJ Griffin’s the over-the-top, high-spin guy who shot through the minors in the A’s system a few years ago, right when Dan Straily was doing the same thing. Griffin actually had more big league success, posting lovely ERAs, but his peripherals were a bit underwhelming thanks to a high HR rate. Just as he was settling into his role as FIP-defying overachiever, he blew out his arm and recovery took much longer than anyone – especially the A’s – expected. After a while, the A’s simply cut him, and he caught on with the Rangers org. After nearly making the team out of spring training, he was first in line at AAA, and given the way the Rangers run through pitchers, it’s not a shock to see him up in the bigs again after a week+ of the season.

Griffin has essentially no platoon splits, and what splits he has shown have been reversed. His high-FB, slow curve arsenal is essentially the opposite of the sinker/slider routine that generates platoon splits, and his curve’s been a real asset. It’s noteworthy not just for its results, but also its speed: it averages under 70mph. Now, Griffin’s FB is a bit underpowered as well, but it’s not often you see average velocities in the 60s for non-knuckleballers.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Martin, CF
9: Marte, SS
SP: Walker

Game 8, Rangers at Mariners

marc w · April 12, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Wade Miley vs. Derek Holland, 7:10pm

Four home losses in a row, and it’s easy to feel detached, pessimistic, angry, or a mix of the three. Perhaps worse, there’s no clear, easily identifiable problem with the way the team’s been constructed, no obvious solution for people to rally around. Adam Lind looks awful (“why go after declining 1B/DH types in free agency?”), but so does Ketel Marte (“The M’s had no plan B if their beloved prospect flopped”). The line-up can’t score, but the biggest problem – even bigger than their issues with left-handed pitching – is BABIP. The bullpen doesn’t *feel* secure, but they’ve struck out 28 in 22 IP.

It’s still too early to really get a sense of the team’s flaws, or rather, which flaws to target. That’s unnerving for fans of a team that’s been out of it by mid-June rather frequently, because the AL is so tightly bunched, the M’s don’t have the luxury of taking a few months to do a proper diagnostic evaluation. If the run-scoring is all just BABIP luck, then it could turn around tonight. If the team’s made some bad bets on low-cost, over-30s complementary pieces, that’s another thing entirely. Still, it’s almost reassuring how all-over-the-map M’s fans are on twitter. I’ve seen everything fingered as the Real Problem, from two-strike approach at the plate, to Safeco Field, to the bench players. The M’s have opened with one of their most frustrating weeks in a while, and that’s saying something. But they’re clearly not as bad as they’ve looked. The question now is how much the start’s hurt them, and how quickly they can reach their potential.

Tonight, they face lefty Derek Holland. Holland’s an oft-injured hurler who never quite regained the form he showed in 2011 and 2013 as key contributor to some of the Rangers’ best teams. Yes, the injuries have had a lot to do with that, but even when he’s been healthy (and his 2015 velocity looked about the same as it always did), he’s been ineffective. Because of his approach and home park, home runs are always going to be a concern with Holland, and the M’s need to take advantage. Holland has a fastball, a change, a curveball, and a slider he’ll throw to righties as well as lefties. His velocity’s a bit better than average, but right-handed bats have done plenty of damage to each of his offerings. The slider’s his best pitch, but it may be declining – righties slugged .500 on it last year.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Sardinas, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Iannetta, C
7: Gutierrez, DH
8: Lee, 1B
9: Martin, CF
SP: Miley

So, last night was Donn Roach’s first start for Tacoma. Which Roach would we see? The lights-out, bat-missing Roach from spring training or the early-80s throwback who couldn’t miss a bat if it was laying on a chair, but succeeded by inducing grounders? In 5 2/3 solid innings against El Paso, Roach struck out… nobody. Ok, cool, glad to know that career numbers are still more predictive than spring training. Huh. The R’s won 6-3, as Roach racked up the groundouts, and the bats stayed hot against draft cautionary tale Greg Reynolds. Joe Wieland takes the mound tonight against the Chihuahuas’ Carlos Pimentel.

Jackson was rained out yesterday, but kicks off a series with Chattanooga today behind South African starter Dylan Unsworth.

Bakersfield mounted a late comeback against Modesto, eventually winning the contest 8-7 in 11. The Blaze fell behind early, as starter Eddie Campbell couldn’t locate the zone, walking six with no K’s in 3+. Meanwhile, Modesto starter Ryan Castellani held the Blaze in check, but the Blaze found lots of suitable kindling in the Nuts’ bullpen. Drew Jackson had 2 hits and his first stolen base of the year, and Ryan Horstman was the best reliever on the day, with two absolutely perfect innings – he faced 6 hitters and K’d them all.

Clinton lost to Beloit 10-6, as Nick Wells had a forgettable start to his 2016, giving up 7 runs in 3 1/3 IP. Luis Liberato had 3 hits, Ricky Eusebio added 2 including a HR, and catcher James Alfonso had two doubles. Art Warren starts for Clinton tonight against A’s prospect Dustin Driver. In researching the draft in 2013, Driver turned up as one of the better prospects from the state of Washington. The big righty out of a Wenatchee HS fell to the 3rd round due to signability concerns (I think he’d committed to UCLA), but the A’s gave him an over-slot bonus and sent him to the short-season NYPL. Driver, who apparently touched the high-90s at times, pitched all of 11 1/3 IP before being shut down with a back injury. Not sure if anyone knew how serious it was at the time, but Driver missed all of 2014, and came back late in 2015, and looked predictably rusty. He’s still young, but that’s a lot of development time to miss.

Game 7, Nomar MazaRangers at Mariners

marc w · April 11, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Colby Lewis, 7:10pm

What a difference three games makes. The M’s capped a painful three game sweep at the hands of Oakland with the most painful game of all, an extra-innings one-run loss in a game Felix tossed seven scoreless with 10 Ks. It’s not that any one game means a whole lot in the standings, it’s just the kind of game that gives this scarred fanbase some flashbacks to the Bad Times of 2010-12.

The M’s offense, riding high after the opening series, was wholly ineffective against the A’s. The M’s batting average on balls in play tanked, in part because the A’s seemed to shift a bit better than the M’s. To be clear: the M’s defense has looked atrocious, but they’ve done a decent job of turning balls in play into outs. But the A’s were able to beat the shift several times, from Jed Lowrie’s two opposite field grounders to Yonder Alonso’s bunt in yesterday’s game. Meanwhile, the M’s offense has been really hurt by the shift. The M’s are hitting .184 into the shift, in part because they’ve got the second-highest GB% when the shift is on. The highest, Kansas City, has an even *lower* average in the shift. Teams know which M’s to shift, and to date, those M’s hitters have hit accordingly. The other big problem with the offense was their putrid performance with men on base. In both cases, though, a freakishly low BABIP is part of the problem. The shift thing is concerning, because it hints at a *reason* the M’s BABIP might be low, but the M’s have had their share of bad luck thus far as well.

Today, they take on Texas, whom they obviously enjoyed hitting against in the opening series of the season. Colby Lewis starts, and just like last time, that makes for a solid match-up for the M’s. The big story of the game isn’t the M’s sweep or Lewis, or ‘Kuma, but rather the Rangers newest call-up, catcher Brett Nicholas. The 27-year old backstop was drafted back in 2010, and slowly worked… Ok, in actuality, the big story is the Rangers promotion of one of the top position-player prospects in the game, Nomar Mazara. Mazara’s first game was yesterday in Anaheim – the Rangers hit him second in the line-up. I can’t think of the last time a 20-year old call-up hit 2nd in the line-up. In Mike Trout’s debut (against the M’s), he batted 9th. Carlos Correa hit 6th, as did Miguel Sano. Kris Bryant batted 4th in his first game, but he was 23. Mazara’s approach and ability to drive a variety of pitches has had scouts drooling for years, ever since he signed the highest international signing bonus ever in 2011, right before the new bonus cap system went into place. After a couple of slow years (and aggressive assignments), he began settling in and putting up solid, but not eye-popping numbers. Still, scouts have given Mazara’s bat and overall talent for hitting grades that are absolutely in that Correa/Sano class. In his debut yesterday, he had hits in his first three PAs, with the third a home run off of Jered Weaver. Rangers fans probably expected to see Mazara at some point this year, but his early arrival and dominant debut were unexpected bonuses, and take the sting out of losing Shin-Soo Choo to a hamstring injury.

As I talked about in the minor league preview, Texas’ AAA affiliate in Round Rock was a loaded group, and they’ve still got Joey Gallo waiting another call-up. They may add to it by promoting CF Lewis Brinson, a guy I’d have right about equal with Mazara in terms of overall value (Brinson’s a CF, which helps balance out Mazara’s more advanced bat). Gallo is somehow still only 22, and Jurickson Profar is at Round Rock as well, trying to show he can stay healthy and contribute.

Here’s tonight’s line-up:
1: Aoki, LF
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lind, 1B
6: Smith, RF
7: Iannetta, C
8: Marte, SS
9: Martin, CF
SP: Iwakuma

I don’t really want to, but I suppose I should address this stupid click-baity fan loyalty ranking thing. Nathan at LL already remarked that it’s irrelevant, but I just wanted to point out that this kind of thing is designed to be controversial and generate click-throughs and pageviews. How? By imbuing a series of survey results with a big, overarching, vaguely moralistic heading. The marketing group (there’s your first hint, people) responsible for measuring “Loyalty” asked some fans about how entertaining they are (?), how “authentic” they are as a team (??), and some other dubious “metrics” and summarize the whole thing as “loyalty.” They do so annually, which leads to the insanity/inanity of seeing certain fanbases jump up* (or tumble down) in the rankings on a year-to-year basis. The genius here is the headline, and the vague whiff of “science” to it. There are like, metrics and stuff, and sub-categories, and people from the marketing group that would be happy to talk to your reporters. As a culture, we can’t stop consuming this stuff, even as the social sciences undergo a reproducibility crisis, and even as people demonstrate exactly how to turn nothing into viral stories. No, the M’s are not a disloyal fanbase. Safeco wouldn’t have been packed with yellow-shirted crazies yesterday if that were true. No one would be reading this if that was true (uhhh, never mind, let’s go back to the Felix thing).

In much happier news, I got to see the Rainiers nuke the Albuquerque Isotopes yesterday, 13-1. The game wasn’t as close as the score indicates, actually. Stefen Romero launched a long, long HR, Boog Powell had hits and scored runs in each of the first two innings, and Chris Taylor was on base four times. You get the picture. Lost in all of the run-scoring was a great outing by Adrian Sampson, who went 6 scoreless innings, yielding just one hit. He sat 90-91 for the most part, touched 92 frequently, and showed a change and workable slider/breaking ball. Donn Roach makes his first start today as the R’s open a series with El Paso. The Chihuahuas have an interesting team – a pitching staff anchored by veteran Jeremy Guthrie, an IF made up of several ex-prospects like one-time Ranger prospect Mike Olt, ex-Giants prospect Nick Noonan, and ex-Dodger prospect James Loney. Then, they have actual prospects in the OF, led by top-100 guys Manual Margot and Hunter Renfroe. LF Alex Dickerson is something of a prospect himself, and made his big league debut last season.

Jackson finally lost to Mongtomery, 9-2. Brett Ash and reliever Ryne Harper struggled, and the offense didn’t score until the 8th inning. Guillermo Heredia had three hits, and Tyler O’Neill had two. The Generals were rained out today.

Bakersfield dropped another close one, losing 3-1 to Visalia in extra innings. The Rawhide tied the game at 1 in the 9th, then scored 2 in the 10th to win. Tyler Pike pitched very well, which is incredibly encouraging, given his struggles over the past two years. 1B Kyle Petty had three singles for the Blaze. Left-hander Eddie Campbell takes the mound for Bakersfield tonight.

Clinton beat Kane County 4-3, with a 2-run rally in the 7th capped by another Ricky Eusebio hit. Eusebio is now 6-13 on the year. The relievers for the L-Kings were great, especially Joey Strain, who went two perfect innings to close it out. Prospect Nick Wells starts for Clinton today; the lanky lefty was part of the return for Mark Lowe last year.

* This year, Pittsburgh jumped up 10 spots in loyalty. Loyalty is essentially *defined* by the persistence or durability of a connection or affiliation, but Pittsburgh’s loyalty jumped 10 spots in a year. That’s an awesome loyalty measure you’ve got there. The Cubs, who sell out every game, are 16th. It is nonsense on stilts, and I don’t want to talk about it anymore.

Game 6, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · April 10, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Chris Bassitt, 1:10pm

Happy Felix Day. May the King lead us out of rather ugly two-game skid and back to the happier times of dingers and doubles, and annihilating opposing relievers.

The King faces off against Chris Bassitt today, an A’s right-hander acquired in the Jeff Samardzija trade. Bassitt seemed like a classic Oakland target – a big-league ready starter without much in the way of pure stuff, but solid command of four pitches. For the team that got Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin for Josh Donaldson, this seemed pretty normal/predictable, if a bit underwhelming considering what they were giving up. Bassitt’s been surprising, though – his velocity last year kept climbing, going from 92 with the White Sox to averaging 94 in Oakland. That, combined with very low HR-allowed marks allowed him to post a string of quality starts after getting a July promotion from AAA. To be clear: with a K rate solidly below average and a few too many walks, it’s not like Bassitt turned into a #2 starter or anything, but the improvements he’s made to date allow A’s fans to think the missed bats could come soon enough.

In his first start this year, the velocity was 95, suggesting he could average even higher by June/July. Again, though, he’s not yet a strikeout pitcher. As many have observed, including in the preview of the last time he faced off with El Cartelua, he doesn’t have much of a weapon against lefties. He’s been primarily a sinker/slider pitcher, and like most sinker/slider guys, he had big platoon splits in the minors and in his cup of coffee in Chicago. In recent games, he’s shifted to his slow curve a bit more. He’ll still throw his hard slider (85+ mph) to lefties, but he’s going with the curve as his putaway pitch. That sounds bad for an M’s offense that looked absolutely lost against Rich Hill’s curve (which he threw an astounding 54 times), but Bassitt’s a righty, and that should make a difference.

The real reason Bassitt’s put up very nice FIP (and ERA) marks in 2014-15 isn’t because he’s putting batters away, and it’s not due to great control. He’s been remarkably good at keeping the ball in the park. Oakland’s park probably has something to do with that, and there’s no way we can ascribe some kind of skill to him given the short track record, but I’m hoping the M’s can drive a pitch or two today. Bassitt gave up one HR in his 5 1/3 IP start against the White Sox last week, so hopefully the regression in HR/FB is already underway.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Lind, 1B
6: Smith, DH
7: Marte, SS
8: Clevenger, C
9: Martin, CF
SP: KING FELIX

EIGHT lefties in the line-up today, plus Nelson Cruz.

Ryan Divish tweeted last night that the early MLBAM gameday total showed Hill had thrown 52 curves. This morning, BrooksBaseball had revised that upwards to 54. My first thought was: that has to be at or near a record, but it’s not. Last September, Lance McCullers of the Astros threw 54 against the Angels, and then 54 against the Royals in October. Jose Quintana of the White Sox threw an astounding 59 in September, also against KC. AJ Burnett got to 57 in a 2013 game, too. It’s still incredibly rare, but it’s not quite AS rare as I’d thought.

The Rainiers dropped their first game of the year yesterday, 2-0, to Albuquerque. Jeff Hoffman was solid, tossing 6 scoreless frames with 3 walks and 6 Ks, and the Isotopes bullpen made it hold up. James Paxton struggled with his mechanics a bit, according to BP’s Brendan Gawlowski, and sat 91-93. That’s pretty much on par with what we saw in the Spring – and perhaps a bit better – but still noticeably down from where he was in April a year ago, and in 2014. Not sure what it means. Paxton didn’t get hit hard – he gave up 2 hits in 4 IP – but he walked 5 against 3 K’s. Lefty Paul Fry made his AAA debut and K’d 3 of the 4 hitters he faced, tossing a perfect 1 1/3 IP. Today, the Rainiers finish up their opening series against the Isotopes, and the R’s send Adrian Sampson to the hill. He’ll face off with Albuquerque’s Shane Carle.

Jackson beat Montgomery 3-1, taking the first three games of the season against a very, very good Biscuits starting rotation. The Generals have now beaten Jacob Faria (the Ray’s #6 prospect) in game 1, Taylor Guerrieri (the Rays #3 prospect) in game 2, and Ryne Stanek, the one-time M’s draftee, then a candidate to be the #1 overall prospect out of Arkansas several years ago, and now the Rays #16 prospect last night. Sam Gaviglio got the win for Jackson, tossing 5 solid innings, and then the Generals got good relief performances by Steven Landazuri and Dan Altavilla, who struck out 3 in 2 IP for the save. Guillermo Heredia and Tyler O’Neill led the offense with two hits each. Brett Ash takes the hill for Jackson today.

Bakersfield was rained out for the first time since 2012 last night. Tyler Pike makes the start for the Blaze today.

Kane County beat Clinton 5-4, despite three hits from Ricky Eusebio. Zack Littell went 5 shutout innings for the L-Kings, striking out 8, but the bullpen kind of imploded behind him. Kyle Wilcox makes his 2016 debut on the mound today.

Game 5, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · April 9, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Nate Karns vs. Rich Hill, 6:10 – note the odd start time

Nate Karns makes his M’s debut opposite one of the unlikeliest opening day starters in years, the A’s Rich Hill. Hill’s 36, and was a big prospect for the Cubs back in 2004-5, back when Felix was tearing up the minors in the M’s system. A lefty with a great curve, he induced a flurry of strikeouts, but he was never all that great at throwing strikes. After a very good year in the Cubs rotation back in 2007, keeping his walk rate in check, but even then, he was prone to odd control lapses. When they got more frequent the next season, he was sent back to the minors, first to AAA and then all the way to extended spring training.

As a control-plagued, out-of-options pitcher, Hill hung around by moving from org to org – first Baltimore, then Boston, then Cleveland, and filling in wherever he could. The A’s are his *sixth* organization since 2013 (Cleveland, Boston, Anaheim, Washington, New York, Oakland). That he’s found his way to Oakland seems inevitable – this has been Oakland’s recipe for assembling a pitching staff for years. That he got there after signing a $6m free agent contract is the odd part.

Last year, Hill started in the Nats org, pitched poorly in AAA and opted out of his contract. He went back to the Red Sox, who moved him from the pen to the rotation. Hill’s walk rate fell, and the Sox decided to call him up. After four of the best starts of his life, Hill was a hot commodity again for the first time since the Bush administration. Hill was incredible, fanning 36 and walking only 5 in 29 innings. The raw results, the FIP numbers, the curve ball – they all shouted legitimate talent, but it was *29 innings* by a 35 year old journeyman with TJ surgery in his history. That obviously capped what he’d make on the open market, and the A’s decided they could absorb the risk.

It’s a cooler day in Seattle, and the humidity’s supposed to rise in the late evening – hopefully that keeps the ball from flying, allowing Karns to pitch up with confidence. Hill’s occasionally had HR problems as well, but the M’s need to focus on working the count to see if Hill’s incredible control in Boston was another temporary thing.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Marte, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Iannetta, C
7: Gutierrez, RF
8: Lee, 1B
9: Martin, CF
SP: Karns

The Rainiers won their 2nd straight behind a good start from Gonzaga product Cody Martin and more great relief from David Rollins and Blake Parker. Ed Lucas, Mike Zunino and Efren Navarro each had two hits, leading to a 5-2 win. The R’s staff K’d 10 Isotopes without allowing a walk. Today’s game is the big pitching match-up of the early season, as James Paxton faces off with Jeff Hoffman of Albuquerque.

Jackson pulled away from Montgomery 9-2. Ryan Yarbrough gave up 2 runs in 5 1/3, matching Rays prospect Taylor Guerrieri, who gave up 2 in 5IP. Jordan Pries shut the Biscuits down the rest of the way, tossing 3 2/3 of no-hit, no-walk, no-run ball with 5 Ks, while the Biscuits bullpen imploded. The big hit was a grand slam from CF Guillermo Heredia in the 7th. Today, Sam Gaviglio starts for the Generals – he spent last year in Tacoma’s rotation.

Visalia beat Bakersfield in another pitching duel, this time 3-2. Austin Wilson doubled for the Blaze. Anthony Misiewicz gave up all three runs in 5 IP – only two of them were earned, as Bakersfield made a couple of errors. Tyler Herb makes his high-A debut for Bakersfield today.

Clinton’s game in Kane County was rained out. Zack Littell starts today.

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