This One Hurts

marc w · December 7, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

It’s only in hindsight that this feels inevitable. No one can say that the Dodgers signing a free agent is shocking, or that it came out of nowhere, but I expected the M’s to resign Hisashi Iwakuma, and they did not. Ownership weighed in at the trade deadline that Iwakuma would stay, giving the M’s not only one of the most unlikely great pitchers in the game toss a no-hitter at home, but a window to work something out. Taking Iwakuma OFF the trading block certainly *seemed* to indicate a willingness to extend him another few years, and because we want to see patterns or some semblance of a plan where we want to, I kind of assumed-wished that maybe everyone had a handshake deal back in July.

Last night, we learned that the Dodgers signed Iwakuma to a three-year deal for about $45 million. For true connoisseurs of Mariners-pain, the first reaction was probably something like, “Soooo, a bit less than Carlos Silva got from Seattle?” It’s not just that the Dodgers swooped in to offer a contract, it’s that they didn’t even look tacky and nouveau-riche about it. They didn’t take a page out of the new Zack Greinke deal, the old Zack Greinke deal, the Jon Lester deal, or whatever Edwin Jackson got years ago. Instead, it felt like working up from Bronson Arroyo’s last deal. Or maybe starting with Mark Buehrle’s four-year deal and working backwards. This was a deal that literally any team in baseball could afford, so you can’t even fire off a shrug-emoji tweet about the Dodgers being the Dodgers. The Dodgers are still easy to hate, but they’re still innovating new ways to make you hate them.

Hisashi Iwakuma will be 35 next season. He throws 89, and has made it to 30 starts once in his four years in Seattle. By a certain set of numbers, the gnashing of teeth in M’s-land feels out of place. Let the Dodgers pay for his decline! Iwakuma was sweet, sweet $$/WAR gold – don’t mess that up high-AAV+advanced-age nonsense! Anyone who actually watched him for a while in Seattle knows why this hurts, and more than most, another set of numbers illuminates why. Hisashi Iwakuma took just about every piece of Defense-Independent Pitching statistics and upended them. He took a core component of sabermetric orthodoxy (especially around 2012), gave that little ‘Kuma smile, and left it looking as reductive and absurd as any of the slugging DHs he struck out swinging on a pitch in the dirt.

BABIP tends to hover around league average, or .293-.295 or so. Iwakuma’s has never been that high, and would be below .270 for his career absent a horrible stretch in 2014 (when his season BABIP was *still* below average). OK, OK, *some* pitchers have a true-talent BABIP that’s lower than league average: really high velocity is one way to do it, as is being left-handed or a knuckleballer. Iwakuma, of course, is none of these things. Iwakuma blazed his own trail to BABIP-success: forcing batters to hit “bad” pitches. In practice, this means ignoring other little tidbits of received wisdom, either old-school pitching coach stuff or further sabermetric wisdom. Iwakuma throws his four-seam fastball up in the zone, and got a lot of the plate with it. Sure, he tried to keep it away to righties - kind of – but he still threw plenty of well-below average velocity pitches straight down the middle. Against lefties, the zone he threw the MOST four-seam fastballs in his *career* was right down the middle. That’s kind of insane, and it wasn’t *always* successful – he’s given up a lot of home runs, remember. But the fastball was a means to an end, not an end in itself.

He threw so many strikes with his fastball that he made it all but impossible to NOT swing at his splitter. Batters swung at an Iwakuma splitter over 60% of the time. Remember that the swing rate in baseball – for all pitches – is in the 46-47% range. And they swung over 60% of the time despite the fact that Iwakuma threw his splitter here:
Iwakuma splitter map
They simply couldn’t hold up, and that meant Iwakuma had no need to throw strikes with it. As a result, Iwakuma got plenty of whiffs on the pitch, but either in spite or because of his lack of a top-flight fastball, even THAT isn’t why the pitch was so remarkable. It’s because when batters did put it in play, they hit it on the ground. Masahiro Tanaka or even Matt Shoemaker get more whiffs on their splitters, but no one whose thrown it a lot got a higher percentage of ground balls.

It’s that, I think, that helped him overcome another bit of received wisdom: that pitchers don’t really have a lot of control over their sequencing. Or, you can run a high strand rate by striking out everybody, but if you don’t have a superhuman fastball, there’s no way to outpitch BaseRuns. Again, though, Iwakuma has yet to record a single season with a league average LOB%. With runners on base, the league average pitcher is a bit worse than he is with the bases empty. It makes sense: 1B-2B hole’s a bit bigger. The pitcher may get more of the plate to avoid walking a runner into scoring position. Maybe it’s nerves. Iwakuma had the option, thanks to his splitter, of becoming a very different pitcher. The splitter allowed him to dial in his GB%, and that’s pretty much what we see: his GB% is lowest with no one on, and it rises with men on, and rises some more with men in scoring position. Because grounders tend to be pulled and because the M’s knew the pattern, Iwakuma’s BABIP *on grounders* was also below league average, allowing him to pitch better than you’d expect with men on base. The splitter allowed Iwakuma to post a better than average BABIP, and it allowed him to post better-than-average strand rates by throwing it more often.

So, great – man bites FIP. THIS is why he was a fan favorite? I can’t speak for other fans, but there is something about his trajectory from afterthought to unlikely ace that made his M’s tenure particularly fun. Remember that Iwakuma was never supposed to be a Mariner. In 2011, the Athletics won the right to negotiate with Iwakuma, but couldn’t get a deal done. Iwakuma returned to the Rakuten Golden Eagles…and got hurt, tossing 119 IP a year after topping 200, and so the M’s signed him to a one-year, $1.5m base salary deal in 2012. We got to see Iwakuma pitch in the spring, and he was unremarkable but fine. The M’s opened the season in Japan that year, and they played a few exhibition game against NPB teams before facing off with Oakland a few days later. Iwakuma got the chance to start one exhibition game against the Yomiuri Giants and was summarily destroyed, leaving the M’s worried about his arm.

Iwakuma opened 2012 as the long-man in the bullpen, the 7th of 7th bullpen arms. He didn’t get to pitch much, but when he did he was awful. Through July 1, 2012, Iwakuma was 1-1 with an ERA of 4.75 thanks to a terrible HR rate (1.8/9IP) and a nearly-as-bad walk rate (4.45/9IP). Batters were slugging .459 against him, and his average leverage index, measuring the importance of the situations he appeared in, was 0.48, lowest on the team. The M’s had a Rule 5 pick in the bullpen that year, Lucas Luetge, whose average LI through June was 0.83, so…yeah. So far, so Mariners: the M’s lucked out when an intriguing buy-low candidate fell into their laps, but he was broken, so nothing good came of it. But in an extremely Mariners twist, the rotation was in shambles. The M’s started the year with Hector Noesi, Kevin Millwood AND Blake Beavan in their rotation, so the bar was set fairly low for a bullpen arm to pitch their way into starting. The M’s decided that Iwakuma had “built up enough arm strength” to do that, and so, when Kevin Millwood got hurt, Iwakuma got the chance to start in early July. Expectations were, shall we say, low around much of the M’s blogosphere. After a series of mediocre-to-good-ish starts, Iwakuma faced the Toronto Blue Jays in late July at Safeco. Toronto’s first batter, Rajai Davis, worked a full count, then blasted an Iwakuma four-seamer for a home run. He settled in after that, though, and started to show signs that he wasn’t a typical 5th starter. When it was over, Iwakuma tossed 8 IP, giving up only the one run, walking three, giving up 4 hits, and striking out *13*. From 7/30 through the end of the year, Iwakuma was a revelation – a 3.6:1 K:BB ratio, a very low ERA, an OBP-against of .288.

Iwakuma’s arm-strength, as measured by pure velocity, never ticked up. He threw slower in the rotation than out of the pen, because that’s what everyone does. His dominant 2013 wasn’t the result of honing his slider – a pitch he started off throwing more than his splitter in 2012 – and which was mentioned as his outpitch in 2012. Instead, it felt like Iwakuma had to go through his struggles to learn a new and better repertoire. With his normal frame and below-average velo, it felt like Iwakuma had either stumbled onto a cheat-code or, through hard work and struggle, discovered an algorithm that befuddled opposing line-ups. Here was the anti-LeBron, the antithesis of Justin Verlander or David Price. Even after the M’s gave away bear hats in his honor, you would never think of Iwakuma when people in Seattle kept talking about “Beast Mode.” It’s probably unfair to both pitchers to compare him to Jamie Moyer. Iwakuma’s stuff is much better, Moyer is a singularity, etc., but there’s something compelling about excelling in sports without pure physical gifts. *Compared to MLB pitchers in 2012-2015* Iwakuma lacks pure physical ability, but you watch him day in and day out for years, and you almost start to forget. He’s not a pure pitch to contact guy; the whiffs pile up, and he looks like a strikeout guy. But he never walks anyone and seems to be able to summon double-play balls at will.

It seemed that the only thing that kept him from dominating the way he did in 2013 was succession of small health concenrs. He caught his finger in a screen before spring training in 2014. He pulled a lat muscle last year. If you want, you can include the dead arm from early 2012. The shoulder problem that knocked him out for months back in Japan in 2011 never returned, thankfully, but the injuries kept Iwakuma from becoming a more well-known pitcher nationally. Again, he felt human-sized, unique, and ours. Scouts presumably thought he was a trick-pitch guy who’d get found out thanks to his fastball’s location and speed. Saber writers could toss off “likely ERA regression candidates” posts featuring Hisashi each year. Even M’s fans worried as he moved towards his mid-30s and it took him longer and longer to return from injuries. But he kept returning, and he kept reminding us why he was among the most fun Mariners to watch ever. Not even an interminable time between pitches could stop it – it started to feel comical, like Johnny Cueto’s weird pauses and hitches *mid*-delivery.

It’s easy to see why the new GM wouldn’t resign Iwakuma for what he got from LA: Can’t go to 3 years. Lots of alternatives out there, maybe in the trade market. Gotta think long-term. 35-year pitcher, injury history. It’s just as easy to assert that no one coming into the organization NOW and assessing Iwakuma on a page would miss what made him special. And hey,the M’s get a sandwich-round draft pick out of this (a consolation prize that feels roughly equivalent to MLB.tv televising a number of games featuring Vin Scully calling Iwakuma starts, which is to say, not too shabby). Maybe we need to see what Plan B is. Whatever the case, this one hurts.

The M’s Have Been Rather Busy of Late

marc w · December 2, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Baseball’s GMs, analysts and assorted job-seekers meet next week for the Winter Meetings in Nashville, but Jerry Dipoto decided to take care of some business before heading out to meet with his counterparts. In recent days, the M’s traded their recently acquired 1B for a backup catcher, signed a RF, signed a RP, and went dumpster-diving for a waiver-wire 1B. Coupled with the recent trades of Brad Miller and Tom Wilhelmsen, and the M’s have made substantial changes to their roster. Let’s take a look at some of the recent moves and what they say (and don’t say) about the M’s plan for 2016 and beyond.

1: Look, Mark Trumbo was not going to play here. Dipoto traded him from Anaheim as Angels GM, and he’s traded him again with Seattle. As someone who’s publicly talked about the need to both “get more athletic” and reduce strikeouts, Dipoto pretty clearly doesn’t see Mark Trumbo as his type of player. What’s changed in the two years between Trumbo trades is what the rest of the league thinks of him. After 2013, Dipoto netted pitchers Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago. Skaggs was highly-thought of, and Santiago’s been a reasonably effective back-of-the-rotation starter for four years now, turning in 300 IP with a solid RA (and a terrible FIP, though his career ERA is a full run lower than his career FIP).

This time, the return for Trumbo was…substantially less. In exchange for Trumbo + a reliever, the Baltimore Orioles will send backup catcher Steve Clevenger, a long-time minor league backstop who was drafted as a 2B and switched to catching in the low minors. Given that background, it’s probably not a shock that Clevenger’s defense is not his calling-card. In his career, he’s thrown out 11 of 80 basestealers, a success rate under 14%. Given that he’s only caught less than 700 big league innings at catcher, or less than half a year’s worth, there’s not a lot to say about his pitch framing. However, what CAN be said is that it doesn’t look disastrous; in his career, Clevenger’s saved a handful of runs through framing, most of them coming back in 2012 with the Cubs. It’s not a lot to go on, but he certainly wouldn’t be the first catcher to excel at framing while rating poorly at controlling the running game or blocking pitches.*

Offensively, Clevenger has been terrible, but he’s been terrible in very different ways than the incumbents in the C spot for the M’s. Unlike Mike Zunino, who really can spend some time in AAA now, Clevenger’s a contact hitter. In the minors, he paired a solid walk rate with well-below-average K rates, and that made up for a near total lack of power. In the big leagues, Clevenger’s patience wasn’t necessarily a virtue, as his low swing rates put him in bad counts and his lack of pop meant he saw too many strikes to walk enough to be passable. In Baltimore, though, he seems to have made an adjustment, as his swing rate climbed from below average to well-above average. Normally, this would be a bad thing, but Clevenger seems to have been convinced that the old strategy wasn’t working. His walk rate’s fallen, but so has his K rate. He doesn’t swing and miss, so taking away a bunch of called-strikes seems like it’s worth a try. As Clevenger still isn’t 30 (despite being drafted back in 2006), it’s not crazy to see him using this new approach to good effect in a park where his lack of power isn’t a huge problem. Let’s be clear: Clevenger is an out-of-options career backup who might not be able to throw out Mark Trumbo stealing, even in a pitch out. He may very well fail and become waiver-wire fodder in several months, but if he does fail, he’ll fail *differently* than his predecessors here. The fact that he bats lefty makes it easier to platoon him and put him in a good position to succeed as well.

The first reaction to this trade on the part of many M’s fans was horror that a starting 1B and a guy the M’s had given up some serious talent for months earlier was a no-hit catcher. That’s understandable, given Trumbo’s power and his status as an ex-All Star, like ex-All Star Kevin Correia or ex-All Star Roger Pavlik. Trumbo himself isn’t yet 30 either, and is in his final year of arbitration, so this isn’t a case of a player stuck with an anchor of a contract. Ultimately, Dipoto wasn’t able to convince teams that Trumbo’s solid final month meant a whole lot, and that’s understandable: Trumbo’s inconsistency is a big reason why he was in danger of getting non-tendered at today’s deadline. A player who might very well be non-tendered, and thus a free agent, is not a player who can command a lot in the trade market. That the estimate of Trumbo’s arb award was under $10m underscores his value. Trumbo at 1 year/~$9m wasn’t enough of an enticement to net Steve Clevenger straight up – the M’s actually had to sweeten the pot (they sent reliever CJ Riefenhauser to Baltimore as well). Why?

Part of it is that Trumbo’s OF defense has pretty much officially closed the door on playing anything other than 1B or DH. That severely restricts the teams who could figure out how to play him. The M’s actually DO have an opening at 1B, but Trumbo’s platoon splits make him hard to start against right-handers, and given the M’s obligations to their stars, $9m for a platoon DH/1B just doesn’t sound like a great way to spend money. But deciding that is one thing – the M’s actually needed a plan to utilize that payroll savings for something they actually needed…

2: …enter Nori Aoki, the M’s new RF. Aoki will be 34 next year, and will cost somewhere in the $3-$5m range. The deal isn’t official (Aoki still needs to pass a physical, and after suffering some bad post-concussion symptoms after being beaned by Jake Arrieta, the physical is probably pretty important), but it sounds like it’s for one year with an option for 2017. Aoki is an elite contact hitter, with K rates under 10% in every year he’s played in MLB – almost unheard of in today’s whiff-prone game. His walk rate isn’t elite, probably because he has very little power, but his pure hit tool allows him to post very good on-base-percentage numbers. With a batting average that’s bounced around between .285 and .288 (!) in his four years, his OBP has reliably settled in around .350 every year as well. Considering Mark Trumbo will make more, can’t play OF, and is projected to get on base at a .309 clip, the M’s seem to have done well here.

Aoki’s defense is something of a divisive topic. We’ve seen him take…non-traditional routes to balls in the OF, and while he’s speedy, he doesn’t have, say, Ichiro’s instincts and first step. All of that said, UZR’s seen him as a solid defender in each of the past three years. DRS doesn’t agree, however, as it sees a steep drop off from 2013 to 2014 and 2015, with a solid arm making up for very poor range. The M’s cannot expect to have a gold glover in RF if that’s where Aoki starts, but even if you take the DRS trend line an extend it down (due to age-related decline), Aoki will be worlds better defensively than last year’s combo of Nelson Cruz and Mark Trumbo.

3: With the other chunk of savings from the Trumbo trade, the M’s acquired reliever Justin de Fratus from Philadelphia. De Fratus was awful last year, posting a 5.51 ERA and a still-bad 4.28 FIP for the rebuilding Phillies, but in 2014, he was effective in 50+ games, with a 4.08 K:BB ratio and a sparkly ERA to match. De Fratus isn’t overpowering, with a fastball in the 92-94 range and a solid slider at 82, but he’s not a ROOGY: he’s been better against *lefties* in his career, and when he’s been bad, right-handers have been his undoing. Why? De Fratus has a change up that he’ll throw lefties, but lefties have been flummoxed by his slider to a surprising degree. They’ve slugged .237 on it in De Fratus (admittedly short) career, while righties are slugging .346.

De Fratus throws a four-seamer and a sinker, and he’s shifted which one he favors a few times. In 2014, he was a sinker/slider guy. Last year, he threw a lot more four-seamers and cut his rate of sinkers by two thirds. I’m not saying that this alone is the reason he struggled, but righties have always hit his four-seamer fairly well. More than a change in his pitch mix, the M’s might want to look at his delivery; De Fratus is far, far more hittable than he should be, and there may be something he could do to get a bit more deception. The M’s DFA’d Edgar Olmos today, so there’s a bit of room in the bullpen, and De Fratus is a good low-risk bet: his one-year deal will set the M’s back all of $750,000.

4: Among the minor moves of the day, the M’s lost prospect Pat Kivlehan to Texas, as he was the PTBNL in the Leonys Martin/Tom Wilhelmsen deal. Also leaving the org is catcher John Hicks, who was signed by Minnesota. Hicks had been DFA’d in November when the M’s signed Chris Iannetta. With a spot on the 40-man open (after Olmos was DFA’d), the M’s signed minor league 1B Andy Wilkins as well. Wilkins got a cup of coffee with the White Sox, the club that drafted him in 2010, but bounced between the Jays and Dodger orgs last year. Wilkins doesn’t strike out a ton, but doesn’t have enough power to play 1B. In the PCL last year, Wilkins slugged .479 for Oklahoma City. He was great in the International League in 2014, but last year’s regression made that look more like an outlier than a sign of development and growth. Wilkins hits lefty, which is nice considering the only other 1B on the 40-man is righty Jesus Montero. Wilkins is not a solution to 1B, and has less of a chance than Montero, which is saying something. But the M’s are clearly weak at the position, so if you’re going to pick through freely-available players, you may as well prioritize 1Bs.

None of these moves radically remake the team, but Dipoto’s style is pretty apparent. In Aoki and Clevenger, the M’s are showing a clear preference for contact skills, and the pick-ups of De Fratus and Martin highlight that Dipoto prefers to buy low with guys with poor recent stats. But beyond that stylistic change, one thing’s pretty apparent: the M’s are categorically not rebuilding. This was never really in doubt, not with Robbie Cano and Felix around, and not with Nelson Cruz coming off the year he had. But the M’s have NOT shown a preference for getting younger, even in these minor moves. Aoki will be 34, Clevenger 30. Leonys Martin is older than Brad Miller and Logan Morrison, who’s more or less the same age as Andy Wilkins. This isn’t good or bad on its own – the M’s seem to want a specific set of skills rather than a specific development path, and that’s fine. Given the age of Cano/Cruz/Felix, this is understandable, even laudable. It does, however, put a premium on fixing the remaining roster holes.

And that’s going to be tough unless the M’s allow the payroll to rise, probably above last year’s $120-123m mark. The M’s haven’t done what we all sort of expected and signed Hisashi Iwakuma, but he’ll cost more than the $7m he made last season. Given the contracts pitchers are getting this off-season – JA Happ’s $12m per year to David Price’s $31m per, it’s easy to see Iwakuma doubling or tripling his annual salary. The M’s have already committed $94-97m to just 9 players (depending on what Aoki gets), and they’ve extended contracts to their arb-eligible players, too. They don’t have a whole lot of room to go shopping, but they’re not sold on just turning the 1B job over to Montero or counting on full years from James Paxton/Nate Karns/Vidal Nuno in the rotation. The M’s have clearly been willing to part with Paxton, and that might help shore up 1B, but then it’s even more critical that the M’s reduce the uncertainty in the rotation.

* Intuitively, this is odd, but when you think about it more, it makes sense. Your body position to frame a low strike is probably different than your body position would be if you wanted to ensure there was no way the ball would get past you. Jose Molina, the godfather of pitch framing, had poor rates of passed balls/wild pitches. Wellington Castillo was not letting the ball by, but he was an awful, awful pitch framer. This isn’t a hard and fast rule or anything; Jonathan Lucroy was great at both, as is Yadier Molina. And some of this may just be selection; Sal Perez doesn’t need to impress teams with his framing – they’re still agog at his 80-grade arm. Francisco Cervelli can’t do that, so he adds value through framing.

Chris Iannetta Signs with M’s for One Year, $4.25 Million

marc w · November 23, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

The M’s made one of the easiest upgrades of the off-season today, signing catcher Chris Iannetta to a one-year deal for $4.25 million; the deal also includes an option for 2017. Iannetta comes via Anaheim, where he was acquired by Jerry Dipoto from Colorado in a 2011 deal for one-time Angels prospect and starter Tyler Chatwood. Dipoto can’t quit Iannetta, but his obsession came cheap, and the backstop represents a clear, clear upgrade over a position whose production Ryan Divish astutely labeled NSFW.

The M’s made it clear: Iannetta isn’t a mentor or back-up to Mike Zunino, he’s the primary catcher heading into the spring. While Iannetta put up a slash line of .188/.293/.335, Dipoto referenced Iannetta’s abysmal BABIP (.225) and track record as proof that his 2015 wasn’t age-related decline, but garden-variety bad luck. Priced at well under 1 win on the open market, it almost doesn’t matter: Iannetta’s signing makes financial sense for the Mariners no matter what you project his bat for in 2016. His patient approach means he can stay in the line-up even when his BABIP tanks or his K rate edges up, as it did in 2015.

There are two trends that jump off his fangraphs page and complicate the idea of a clear “buy low” free agency bargain. First, his ISO has settled in at around .140-.150, lower than it was in his 20s, and definitely lower than it was in his 20s-in-Colorado. That’s not an indictment or anything, and again, his patience means it’s not as big of a deal, even though he’s likely to post a low average. He can be incredibly productive at that level of power, as he was as recently as 2014. The second trend is a decline in his contact rate. His walks have always been the product of a discerning eye, and not the result of great bat control to spoil pitcher’s pitches. Unlike Zunino, Iannetta simply doesn’t swing at balls, with an O-Swing rate under 20% in 2014 and 2015 against a league average over 30% in both seasons. Despite that, he’s making less and less contact when he *does* swing, with last year’s 71.2% a career low (except for a cup of coffee in 2007).

Again: these trends, paired with his age (he’ll be 33 next year), are warning signs, but they in no way make this deal “bad” or concerning or whatever. A one-year, $4.25m deal for anything north of a batboy makes financial sense in this day and age, and given the M’s needs at the position, this has the potential to be one of the best bargains of the off-season – his projected WAR a bit north of 2 should be worth somewhere around $15-18m, or 4X what he actually signed for.

His offense is what it is, but this signing is even more interesting on the defensive side of the ledger. Check the catcher framing leaderboard on Statcorner, and Iannetta rates as one of the elite pitch framers in baseball, a bit ahead of Zunino. By Baseball-Prospectus’ framing metric, the story’s identical: BP has his saving 14.6 runs to Statcorner’s 14.4. But wait, you say, why wouldn’t the market value this skill? Why doesn’t he command more money, even despite the lousy batting average in 2015? In part, it’s because in every year up to 2015, Iannetta wasn’t a great framer at all – he was lousy.

Is it possible that his framing “skill” is the product of luck? That the luck gods gaveth on defense and tooketh away from his BABIP last year? Well, as Eno Sarris described back in April, this seems to be the result of some serious, intentional work on Iannetta’s part. Iannetta mentions working with ex-teammate and current Astro Hank Conger on his body positioning and focusing on improving this skill. He seems to have been inordinately successful, so we can hope that all he needs to do is keep it up. The sabermetric nerd in me says “regress, regress, regress,” and that an outlier like his 2015 is not the final word on his defensive ability. But sabermetrics is still somewhat divided over framing in general, and the fact that the emphasis on it is so new means that it’s at the very least plausible that Iannetta hadn’t ever worked on it, and that his 2015 represents something much closer to his new true-talent level than you’d gather by compiling a career average. He didn’t know what to do, now he does, so we’re good here. It’s simplistic and I *want* it to be true, which makes me kind of suspicious (I’ve been an M’s fan too long).

If Iannetta’s defense is anywhere on the positive side of the ledger, and if his BABIP bounces back before his contact rate drops into the ZuninoZone, this is easily one of the best signings of the offseason – for the M’s, or anyone else. The market at catcher is an odd one, with a number of players coming off of injury – Matt Wieters, Alex Avila, etc., and a number of somewhat similar players like Iannetta, Soto and Navarro. Iannetta’s played in the toughest hitting park of that troika, and is easily the best framer, even if you regress his 2015 pretty heavily. The downside risk is pretty minimal, considering the money. If Iannetta’s BABIP stays low and he’s a .200 hitter, he’d likely *still* be more productive than Zunino, and Iannetta’s presence means the M’s can be strategic – finally – about Zunino’s developmental path. Nice work, Mr. Dipoto.

The M’s 40-man Roster Set After Another Trade and a DFA

marc w · November 20, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

1: Last night, the M’s shipped recently-acquired and even more recently-injured OF prospect Ramon Flores, in part, it seems, because the player they got in return (Luis Sardinas) had another option year while Flores did not. As Flores is still recovering from an on-field compound fracture, you understand the it’s-just-business aspect of it, but it’s tough to see these two as equivalents. Given the M’s struggles in the OF last year, and given that they’ve shipped out their two primary CFs from 2015 and wisely moved Mark Trumbo out of the outfield, it seems odd to give up what OF depth they have for a glove-first SS. I say “glove-first” because that’s just nicer than saying no-bat, but seriously, look on Sardinas’ fangraphs page and despair. Yes, he’s controlled the bat decently in AAA, but that’s already factored in to the projection of a .246/.281/.319 slash line.

Look, not every trade is a blockbuster, and not every *minor* trade needs to have a clear and local winner. Given the day – the 40-man roster deadline- it’s even more understandable. Teams are swapping out optionless-but-talented players for lottery tickets all day today, so this is understandable. But you can’t help trace the precedents here and argue that the *primary* return for Dustin Ackley, #2 overall pick, college hitter of the decade and dude who hit 9 XBHs in 57 plate appearances for New York, was traded away due to the minutiae of the uniform player contract and the 40-man roster deadline. Dustin Ackley was never going to return a premium player, but Flores hit everything he saw until he saw his fibula poking out of his sock, and you expect to get more wish-casting enjoyment out of a lottery ticket than the M’s did.

2: The other depressing move necessitated by the deadline was Danny Hultzen’s removal from the 40-man. Another #2 overall pick, Hultzen’s battled shoulder problems for the last three years. He was reportedly solid in the spring, but managed just 8 innings for AA Jackson this year before soreness set in and ended his season. As we learned from AGM Jeff Kington in Greg Johns’ MLB.com story on the move, he’s still not throwing yet, after last pitching in mid-May.

While I’m not big fans of their work, this isn’t a time to blame the M’s player development. Hultzen’s shoulder gave out after very responsible innings limits and no real injury history. Yes, the M’s belatedly tweaked his delivery to avoid the across-the-body motion that provided some deception, but it’s not at all clear if that had anything to do with his injury. This may be nothing more than horrific luck for a young lefty who seems like a dedicated pitcher. He just physically can’t pitch. The M’s needed to make this move due to the moves they’ve made this offseason, but it’s difficult to avoid reading more into it – this, paired with the Miller trade (and the fact that Ackley was already gone), really feels like turning the page on the Zduriencik era. That specific reason is the only aspect of the move that doesn’t feel depressing, or perhaps depressing-yet-necessary.

3: It’s necessary because the M’s had to add new OF Boog Powell and utility man/strong safety Patrick Kivlehan. Kivlehan had a disappointing 2015, putting up a 100 wRC+ for Tacoma. He’s got some pop – he hit 22 HRs this year – but it can play down a bit due to a mediocre hit tool. Given his defensive flexibility and the M’s needs in the OF corners, this was a good call. His lack of experience in college and the fact that he worked hard at making more contact are good signs that he could have a bit more development in him. For next year, he’s a great test case for the new development regime. Boog Powell came over in the Brad Miller deal, and adds plate discipline to the M’s OF mix. If they need a 4th-OF next year, you have to figure Powell’s the guy, especially with Flores now out of the picture. His lack of power limits him, and big league pitchers may not walk him until he shows he can actually hurt them. He’s projected for a .262/.324/.368 line which I’d take in a heartbeat.

The downside – and I realize this post has already wallowed in downside enough – is that 40-man roster day means you can’t help but make comparisons to the unfortunates who’ve been DFA’d today. Need a plus-glove CF who can take a walk but has easily sub-Ketel Marte power? Well, Craig Gentry is available. You know who’s projected to post a very similar line to Powell’s? Daniel Nava! Freely available! Need a lefty-masher? Try Wilin Rosario, who is less than a year older than Kivlehan. These aren’t great comps, of course. Nava’s a decade older than Powell, and Gentry is also much, much older than Leonys Martin (more on him later), but it’s almost impossible to stop seeing similar skillsets on the major league scrap heap. It’s the nature of this time of year. AJ Griffin, one time A’s pop-up prospect and successful rotation member has had almost as many injury issues as Hultzen, and he’ll join Hultzen in limbo after being bumped off the roster by Rich Hill. Teams everywhere love to talk about veteran grit or veteran calm or veteran intelligence, and you can see in free agent salaries that they’re quite willing to pay for it. But for one day in November, it becomes an anchor, a tumor that teams excise.

4: Sooo, the M’s have a new CF, as Leonys Martin heads to Seattle in exchange for the Bartender. I like the approach here of buying low, and making the team more athletic and effective defensively. Martin had an absolutely awful 2015, posting a wRC+ of 50 and ceding his position to a Rule 5 pick. His average batted ball velocity was no great shakes, but it was better than Ketel Marte’s, Elvis Andrus’, Cole Kalhoun’s and Joe Panik’s. That said, there are still some warning signs in his stats.

For one, Martin has been an extreme platoon hitter, with a career wRC+ of 53 against southpaws. This isn’t just BABIP: his K:BB ratio tanks against lefties, and his already marginal power drops to pitcher levels. Yes, you should regress these observed splits, but we’re starting from a very, very low point. Worse, his terrible 2015 coincided with a career high in PAs against lefties. After seeing southpaws in just 28% and 25% of his PAs in 2013 and 2014, respectively, that percentage shot up to 36% last year and everything went to pot. Martin probably needs a right-handed platoon partner.

As Nathan Bishop and others have said, your feelings about Martin may hinge on how much you think a series of hand/wrist injuries hurt his production in 2015. Martin missed time early in the year after hurting his hand on a swing, and then hurt his wrist in the field a bit later. Worse, he suffered a broken hamate bone in his hand while down in AAA, which required surgery and ended his season in August. So really, this hinges on what you think about hamate problems. As always, we M’s fans tend towards the pessimistic, and remember, say, Chris Snelling’s hamate and how he didn’t look the same following it, or the fact that Mike Zunino injured his in 2013 and has looked…nevermind. Luckily, this article at The Hardball Times is a bit more confidence-inspiring. Several young players broke their hamate bones, and it had no effect on their production or power whatsoever. Michael Brantley broke his when he was still a tweener/4th-OF candidate and then became a potential MVP for a Troutless parallel universe. Dustin Pedroia injured his as a promising young player, and then became an MVP winner afterwards. There really is no clear-cut evidence that it saps power or anything else, though the case of Nick Markakis, who injured his in his late 20s (Martin will be 28 for opening day), is a cautionary tale – Markakis’ power dropped precipitously immediately after the injury and hasn’t returned.

It stings to lose Tom Wilhelmsen, though if I’m honest that’s largely due to the improbable back-story and his gif-able personality. He was a solid reliever with good stuff that often played down for some reason. While he had the all-important closer tag and was headed for larger arbitration paydays, and while he always felt like a good 7th-inning guy as opposed to a dominant closer, it feels weird to trade someone with his raw stuff for a glove-first CF coming off the kind of year that Martin just put up. Wilhelmsen now finds himself in a ‘pen that could be one of the AL’s best, though his chances to close again just dropped dramatically with Tolleson, Dyson, Diekman and Kela ahead of him.

Andy Van Slyke and Baseball Reference

marc w · November 20, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

This is neither especially timely nor enriching, so I’ll be brief. The M’s 2015 coaching staff has had a rough go over the past few months, and while they were highly paid, visible and generally successful people, it can’t be any fun to be nominally in leadership in a bad organization. None of them, and all of them together, aren’t 100% responsible for the M’s lackluster 2015, but they have titles like “batting coach” on a team that failed to hit, or “outfield coach” for a team spectacularly ill-equipped to catch flying baseballs. It’s a tough gig, and I bet say, Howard Johnson, can spin an angry yarn about Mike Zunino to his friends while nibbling on the last hot wing.

So I understand that Andy Van Slyke must be frustrated, and thus it can’t be a complete and total shock that he professed his frustrations when asked by a sports radio host. But his quick hit turned into more than that: it was so public and so ill-considered that it almost felt like a confession, except for the part where nothing was his fault and Robbie Cano’s to blame for everything.

There are times ex-employees are so angry about how a firing turned out that they value getting their side out more than they value the boost that discretion might get them when applying to new jobs. Tony Blengino comes to mind here, who was very public about what he saw as mismanagement in the M’s FO, and has been writing for Fangraphs/ESPN since. Again, though, Van Slyke’s comments aren’t anything similar. They must be doing tremendous damage on the job market; beyond placing blame for the entire M’s offense on a bad stretch by an ailing 2B, he implied he had inside knowledge of the Dodgers clubhouse (his son is a Dodger) and that Clayton Kershaw wanted Yasiel Puig traded. This doesn’t *help* anything – this doesn’t correct public perceptions, and it doesn’t get his skills as a coach off the hook. They’re sizzling hot takes that have escaped the gravity of the Mariners, of coaching, of baseball.

The specific claims are ludicrous, as sizzling hot takes pretty much *have* to be. Van Slyke says that Cano was the worst #3 hitter he’s ever seen in his lifetime in baseball as a player and coach. It takes like 3 minutes to find this team, the 1994 Pittsburgh Pirates, whose 3 hitters combined for a .699 OPS and an OPS+ relative to league average of 63. That compares…poorly to Cano’s .779 OPS, the .796 OPS the M’s got from the 3 hole or the 95 OPS+ relative to the league. The Pirates just clearly, clearly had a worse #3 hitter in 1994, when that 3 hitter was, of course, Andy Van Slyke.

But hot takes can’t be measured by their accuracy. They should be measured by their reach, and in that sense, Van Slyke hit a long home run. We’re talking about Andy Van Slyke not as a great CF for St Louis and Pittsburgh, but as a failed coach on a team that was bad enough to get errybody involved with creating and coaching it fired. Van Slyke got his name out there, and the way he kept going, it clearly felt pretty good. Maybe we shouldn’t think about how this might affect his job market in MLB. Maybe this was an interview for a new career dispensing salty opinions and hyperbolic takes to people who can’t get enough. Best of luck, Andy.

Mariners and Brewers Swap Bench Depth, Finalize 40-Man

Jay Yencich · November 20, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Three posts in a row by me? Madness. So, the Mariners have announced a trade of OF Ramon Flores to the Brewers in exchange for IF Luis Sardinas, thus exchanging two players that you have likely never heard of.

Flores is a guy whom you probably wouldn’t be as aware of had you tuned out mid-season. For those of you just joining us, welcome! We have a new GM who does not espouse a depressing baseball philosophy! Flores was acquired with right-hander Jose Ramirez as part of the Dustin Ackley trade that sent the former first-rounder to the Yankees. Also, Dustin Ackley is gone. Ramon Flores has a similar offensive profile to that of recently-added outfielder Boog Powell with some added power, except that Flores has the unflattering profile of being a tweener, neither providing enough offense for the corner nor possessing good enough wheels to justify playing him in center on a routine basis. Being that he was out of options, I had tentatively penciled him in to be the team’s back-up outfielder, but given that he broke his ankle at the end of the season, he was neither expected to be ready in time for spring training nor capable of playing to the best of his abilities once he got there. It’s not a ligament injury, obviously, but ankle is still part of the larger leg thing and for a guy who had range questions in the first place, well…

Sardinas is formerly of the Rangers system, where you can make further connections to our existing staff, Bogar, etc. He was signed in 2009 for seven figures and was regarded as one of the top defensive shortstops on the market at the time, which has held and made him a component in the Gallardo trade. His promotion scheme over the years has been Zduriencik-like insofar as he’s been at least two years younger than league-average everywhere he’s played so far and reached triple-A around the time he reached legal drinking age. He’s proven himself over the years to be a guy with a choppy swing who doesn’t tend to hit for more than doubles power. More positively, he’s also a switch-hitter and plays a plus defensive shortstop with good wheels to boot.

This will likely read as a move for bench depth, but we ought to bear in mind that Sardinas is still just 22, turning 23 in late April. To consider his offensive development as fully realized under the circumstances would be presumptuous. Hence, I look at him as a guy who could, if it comes to it, push for competition with Marte as to who starts at the major league level. Sardinas has an option year left and Marte has a few, so it certainly seems possible that he could be an okay piece to have around. Those of us who came of baseball-watching age in the late-90s/early-00s offensive boom among shortstops may be a little more lukewarm on the whole thing, but offense is down league-wide and so the projected production out of Sardinas isn’t terrible, as such.

While I was typing this up, the Mariners also finalized their 40-man roster, and I’m not so ambitious as to make two posts out of it considering the news is somewhat minor. OF Boog Powell and IF/OF Patrick Kivlehan, the two “locks” I identified earlier, were the two players that were added to the 40-man. To clear an additional roster spot, the Mariners designated former first-round pick LHP Danny Hultzen for assignment. Hultzen was a fairly obvious target for designation because he’s out of option years despite having pitched all of eight innings in the last two years of regular season, affiliated ball. The shoulder has proven to be a continuing issue for him, preventing him from having made his major league debut despite being drafted in 2011 and being thought of as near-major league ready then. Let us now fondly remember the meltdown that ensued after I drafted several possible write-ups on who the #2 pick would be, none of which were Hultzen. As major league baseball still had the ability to sign drafted players to major league contracts then, he thus burns through all his options without debuting. The good news is that that’s over with. The other maybe good news is that he could be safely outrighted provide nobody wants an almost-26 left-hander with a balky shoulder. Pause for laughter.

Mariners, Rangers Reconfigure Outfield and Bullpen Piles

Jay Yencich · November 17, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

I have a rather uncanny knack for having my regularly-scheduled, irregularly-posted contributions here usurped by major deals or trades that have come to fruition without our prior awareness. Thus, it came to pass that Monday, the Mariners traded with Texas to acquire outfielder Leonys Martin and right-hander Anthony Bass while sending way once-closer Tom Wilhelmsen, stolen base prodigy James Jones, and a PTBNL who I can only assume is a man between the ages of eighteen and forty who has two thumbs and likes baseball a lot. You, friend, may be the player to be named later!

Over the week in which DiPoto has been in charge, we’ve seen moves made in an attempt to remake the team in his own image and philosophies. Whether or not this is a side effect of going mad with power after being released from the perpetual tutelage of one Mike Scoscia, the general idea has been an emphasis on playing more to the uniqueness of Safeco by emphasizing flyball pitching, plus defense, and on-base percentage to compensate where power may be less viable (rather unlike the previous attempts to get bury-the-needle levels of power that would overcome whatever circumstances). Martin helps to tick off the second category and, despite OPS generally below .700 for his career, he’s nonetheless been a positive WAR contributor by virtue of his excellent defensive skills.

One of the remarks made in the presser and by sports pundits afterward is that, while Martin had a down year last season, expecting him to bounce back isn’t outside reason. The offensive skillset the Cuban employs is primarily based on speed and contact and more rarely getting one into the gaps. Since his BABIP last year was below .300, uncharacteristic of his profile, one could be convinced that some positive regression is in order. Cruz and Bogar, who have both been around Martin, have vouched for his abilities, and familiarity with him in his better years makes rebound probable. Since very little of his game was about power, he likely won’t suffer much in Safeco. As for his position in the batting order, I would guess that with the discussion of OBP, we’re likely still looking tentatively at Marte leading off and Martin will serve to lengthen the lineup down at around 8 or 9.

The trade makes sense to me in the same way that the Austin Jackson trade made sense. From a player development and acquisition standpoint, the Mariners have long neglected their outfield depth, necessitating deals for such trivia question answers as Eric Thames and Trayvon Robinson and mercenary lummoxes-for-hire like Mike Morse. Even as outfielders started to be prioritized again, few have been viable everyday centerfield candidates and Braden Bishop, who would appear to be the best bet internally, is at least three years off. Martin helps us bridge the gap and provides a plus defender so that we aren’t shifting the burden directly on Boog Powell and an out-of-options Ramon Flores, whom I would tentatively pencil in as the back-up outfielder at this point.

Anthony Bass’ role might be defined less concretely as a member of the pile of limited material definition. One presumes that someone in the organization is familiar with him insofar as we’re again trading for a former Padres. Bass was a starter in the minors up through 2013 and in the majors has been a reliever with a three-pitch arsenal of fastball, slider, and change with velocity sitting in the low 90s. He’s a pitch-to-contact groundballer who probably walks a higher percentage than you might be comfortable with given the lower strikeouts. In the grander scheme of things, Benoit likely fills the higher-leverage roles that Wilhelmsen had and Bass will sop up innings in lower-leverage situations.

Within the larger organizational scheme, Bass helps the bullpen now while being a potential piece going forward. As noted in the 40-man preview, what with the perpetual trading away of relief resources, the Mariners are a bit thin on bullpen contributors in the near term. Farquhar and Leone are gone. Carson Smith is still here and a bit erratic. Guaipe hasn’t looked like an asset. Zych could be. And then there are guys like Jose Ramirez and Cody Martin… The situation isn’t great. Bass as a tertiary piece is useful, but he could end up being secondary or primary depending on how things shake out. In the interim, I would imagine that DiPoto is still looking to shore up the bullpen before February.

In trading Wilhelmsen, the Mariners lose one of their better arms from the bullpen and their best dancer (as far as I know). Tall Tom from Tucson had a rebound year for the Mariners in which he eventually helped solidify the back end of the bullpen while Fernando Rodney’s arrows went errant and struck hapless passers-by. He had the look of the Tom Wilhelmsen that had been so fun to watch in 2012, but as we’ve repeatedly noticed and hopefully learned, bullpen commodities can be volatile and a frequent reminder of the vagaries of chance and fate we are often oblivious to. For the Rangers, Wilhelmsen is the centerpiece, but they aren’t exactly buying low as the second-half of 2015 did a lot to repair his reputation. The roles Wilhelmsen played for the Mariners bullpen can be delegated to Benoit and others, but having that level of versatility in a single pitcher is a boon to any bullpen.

Of James Jones, there may be less to say other than Chris Gwynn is still somewhere, smiling about his reaching the majors as a position player and not a pitcher. The reality is that Jones’ elite speed and arm strength have not translated to good defensive play. In the minors, he played almost exclusively right field. For whatever stock you put into defensive metrics, the ones Jones has supplied to Fangraphs have stink lines rising up from them. If Rangers fans are interested, I can note that after having perennial issues with strikeouts, Jones ran close to an even K/BB in the minors this year. Whether he has the requisite power to keep pitchers honest is another matter, but there is at least a reason to think that his offense may eventually not be abysmal, as you wait for the defensive improvements that may or may not come.

This is another one of those trades that made sense for both parties involved. The Mariners improved their outfield depth significantly while losing some bullpen depth, the Rangers did the opposite, but one could argue that with the acquisition of Benoit, and even considering the loss of Farquhar, the Mariners had ability to maneuver in the bullpen whereas plus gloves in centerfield were probably going to be harder to come by. About as much as I have for summary is that DiPoto has wasted little time in restructuring the team. While I haven’t been elated by any of the moves, they’ve seemed like potential net positives in each case. We absolutely needed a centerfielder for at least the next three years, probably more than we needed a reliable arm in the bullpen, so I think that the early opinion favors Mariners on this one. Getcher warmed-over, next-day’s-breakfast takes, right here.

’15 40-Man Preview Extravaganza

Jay Yencich · November 16, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners, Minor Leagues

What? I still exist.

This round of 40-man roster addition action is newly vexed by the consideration that the Mariners are under new general management. Certain core pieces remain, such as Tom McNamara, who served as architect for many of the drafts in consideration, but DiPoto and possibly even down to Scott Servais may have different opinions on what players are worth protecting than we’ve been accustomed to seeing. Ostensibly, with so much ink devoted to a broader notion of athleticism as a necessity in Safeco Field (one wonders how much Zduriencik was still planning around Miller Park), you might expect there to be a greater emphasis to protect those that are closer to that model. However, there has doubly been the player development concern of having so many high draft picks go on to achieve so little. The new player development director in Andy McKay has made compelling remarks in favor of the idea that while there are the rare exceptions who arrive on ability alone, the game could be as much as 90% mental and preparative. I don’t know how instructive the decisions to be made about the 40-man roster will be, seeing as how we might see the draft philosophy change in the coming seasons, but if nothing else, we might be able to step away from it and assess by the results which players are seen as part of the plan and which aren’t.

The familiar song-and-dance of it is that what we’ll be looking at here are college picks from the ’12 draft and high school and early international signings from around the summer of 2011. This means in some wacky parallel universe where different choices are made, the Mariners may be protecting Mike Zunino for the first time although I prefer the parallel universe in which we draft and somehow properly develop Carlos Correa. As usual, there’s also some level of ambiguity built-in to where it’s hard to tell which international signings had contracts for what year, so this is in some cases the best estimate on the information I have, although I can’t say that there’s much depth this season. Rosters will have to be finalized by November 20th, so, golly, you’ll have a few whole days to mull over what you would do with this immense responsibility that you have no say in.

I’m ordering this roughly through a sense of likelihood and am forgoing the exhaustive listing of who is and isn’t eligible because I’m short of time and it doesn’t seem to be worth it this year.

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Checking In on the Arizona Fall League

marc w · November 14, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

As you probably know, MLB runs a domestic “winter” league for minor league prospects and potential Rule 5 guys in October/November of each year. The league consists of six teams, with each team comprised of 5-6 MLB teams’ prospects. The league generally draws some of the bigger names in the prospect world, particularly position players, and it’s been wildly successful as a developmental project; *42* members of this year’s MLB All-Star teams once played in the AFL. Trout, Harper, Arrieta, Donaldson, Bryant all had stints in the AFL, and Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor, Addison Russell played there last year. While the level of competition is a bit hit and miss (you could face an elite pitching prospects or a selection of minor-league relievers playing for a 40-man spot somewhere), it’s a good proving ground, especially for guys who’ve mostly faced low-minors competition.

The M’s sent DJ Peterson to Peoria for the second straight year, and they’ve got James Paxton heading back to the AFL after suiting up for Peoria back in 2012. In addition, SS Tyler Smith, OFs Tyler O’Neill and Dario Pizzano and LH relievers Paul Fry, Ryan Horstman and David Rollins are all making their AFL debuts. There’s not a ton you can learn from 20-30 games worth of stats, but thanks to the pitch fx systems in Peoria and Surprise, fans can get actual data on some of these guys, though we’ll talk about the quality of it in a minute. And MLB Network’s showing a bit more of the league, including the “Fall Stars” game a week or so back (they’re actually televising a few games as I write this), which both makes sense for the league and is a sign of the growth in general fan interest in prospects overall.

So, have we learned anything new? Not much, but here are some observations:

1: Back when the M’s group was announced, the guy I was most interested in seeing was Paul Fry. The unheralded lefty out of a Michigan community college racked up 113 Ks in just 80 IP over two levels in 2015, finishing strong in AA, and continuing a string of posting lower RA9 and ERAs at every level of the minors. As a 17th rounder, and someone who posted pretty poor numbers in rookie ball after the draft, there’s not a whole lot of scouting information about him. Was he suddenly throwing much harder and blowing people away? Or was he a junkballer, fooling bad hitters with a change-up or a funky delivery?

Fry throws from a low arm angle and sits about 88-89mph with his fastball. His best pitch is a slider with lots of horizontal break. The picture I get is sort of a crafty-lefty version of Carson Smith, which is to say, every situational lefty ever. There’s limited value there, but hey, Jesse Orosco and a host of others rode this skillset to long careers. I’ll admit, I’d prefer the high-octane route to producing a K rate like Fry’s, but at the very least, his regular-season splits were encouraging. He didn’t *pitch* like a LOOGY, at least in the minors.

Given that velocity, it seems we settled the question of fire- vs. junkballer. Worse, through his first 8 appearances, he looked like a *bad* junkballer, yielding 17 hits in just 7 IP, giving up 8 runs and posting a 4:4 K:BB ratio. Where was the guy who struck out 113 and gave up just 22 unintentional walks this year? Today, we caught a glimpse of him. In 2 scoreless innings, Fry gave up 1 hit, no walks, and struck out *5*, freezing Glendale hitters with his fastball and getting a few to swing over sliders. No, he wasn’t suddenly throwing 94, but at least he was missing bats the way he did during the season. If I wrote this post yesterday, this would’ve been a lot more pessimistic. No, one really good game doesn’t radically alter his outlook, but I was starting to worry – a bit – that his 2015 had been something of a fluke. That’s different than saying his 2015 is his true talent level, and he’ll lay waste to the PCL next, but he’s a lefty capable of missing bats.

2: Sooooo, DJ Peterson. Last year at this time, scouts and others easily looked past his .190/.290/.288 batting line and saw a clear plus hitter. In the regular season, Peterson hit .223/.290/.346 for AA Jackson (and worse than that in a brief call up to AAA Tacoma). Thus far in Arizona, Peterson is hitting .220/.343/.407 with 3 HRs; it’s a clear improvement on both last year’s AFL line and his regular season stats, and yet, this is now a pretty long stretch of mediocre hitting from the 1B ranked as the best pure hitter in the 2013 draft.

No one’s overreacting to anything, at least not yet, but I think many M’s fans wanted to see that his 2015 was the product of a hidden injury, feeling tired or literally any mitigating circumstance you can think of. He’ll still show some signs, as in his 2 HR game back in October, but it’s hard to escape the idea that his present hit tool and possible ceiling aren’t quite as high as we once thought. One plus from this repeat of the AFL is that he can work with a new hitting coach, and he’ll get to work with new Rainiers hitting coach Scott Brosius in the spring – he seems like of 2015.

3: Tyler O’Neill was probably the most interesting position player assigned to Peoria. The Canadian posted a great 2015, building on a decent showing in the Midwest League in 2014 by hitting 32 HRs in Bakersfield AND leading Canada to the gold in the Pan-Am games. He’s the classic Zduriencik hitter – a righty with plus power that’s held back a bit by contact issues. He’s yet to post a K rate under 30% at any stop, though at least it’s not rising as he ascends through the minors. Moreover, he was much, much better in the 2nd half, moving from an all-or-nothing HRs-and-whiffs slugger to an actual hitter, posting an OPS about .250 higher in the second half than the first.

Still, that’s the Cal League. O’Neill had something to prove against more advanced pitching in the AFL, and to date, he’s done so. He only managed 30 plate appearances before jetting off to another international tournament (the Premier 12), and he’s finished with 11 Ks and hasn’t walked yet, but O’Neill still made loud contact much more often than he did in June of this year, let alone 2014. His batting line is gaudy, and he’s keeping it up with Canada – he hit a HR last night against team Italy. The sample’s really, really small, but O’Neill did all you could ask to reassure M’s fans that he’s turned some kind of corner.

4: Ryan Horstman has had a very strange season. For the second straight year, the rare freshman-eligible draft pick out of St. Johns pitched only a handful of innings – 13 2/3 over 3 levels. That brings his *career* total to 22+ since 2013. He’s had trouble staying on the field, I mean. Still, while he was ON the field, things looked OK. Horstman didn’t give up a run this year, scattering 4 hits and 7 free passes thanks in large part to 20 strikeouts. He looks to be a real fly-ball pitcher, which can help with BABIP issues, but often leads to HRs. Obviously, Horstman’s avoided the long ball thus far. The Chris Young plan may work well in the Midwest League in April, but often fares poorly in Arizona*.

Whatever Horstman’s secret is, he brought it with him to Peoria. In 8 1/3 IP, Horstman’s given up 5 hits and 5 walks and struck out just 4, but he’s yet to give up a run. That’s a scoreless streak of about 30 IP over 8 months or so, and includes rookie ball and lo-A. This, by itself, doesn’t make Horstman a “prospect” in the traditional sense, but it does show he’s capable of doing things that can make him tough to hit. While he throws a bit harder than Fry, he’s not a fireballer either, averaging about 91mph with Paxton-like movement: lots of vertical rise. The command hasn’t been there, he sits in the low 90s, he’s missing fewer bats and he’s practically allergic to ground balls – all that isn’t encouraging, but if you squint you understand what would make the M’s assign a guy with 8 IP above the complex leagues to the Arizona Fall League.

5: There are bigger prospects in the league, from St. Louis’ top hurler Alex Reyes (sent home after being suspended for a positive marijuana test) to Philadelphia SS JP Crawford (sent home with an injury), but one of the things I was looking forward to was seeing how a guy with quite possibly the *second* fastest fastball on earth fared. Indeed, looking at pitch fx, I’m even more confident that we’ve identified the guy who sits behind Aroldis Chapman in the velo rankings. Only, it’s not the guy I thought it would be. San Francisco’s Ray Black has battled injuries for years, and thus was in the Cal League at the relatively advanced age of 24 this year. He came back to pitch only 25 IP, but struck out an insane 51 on the year.

If you look at the AFL velocity leaderboard, you’ll see Black’s name at the top. So who’s this other guy? Meet Braves RP Mauricio Cabrera. Cabrera caught my eye after a Baseball America scouting note reported he’d been hitting 102 multiple times in October. Since then, I’ve been checking his appearances, and the guy practically lives at 101. This isn’t just Pitch FX – as the BA article shows, scouts (and the TV gun on MLB Network) have had him throw multiple pitches at 103. Push the pitch fx reading from 50′ to 55′ (as Brooks Baseball does), give him an MLB call-up to get the adrenaline pumping, and you’ve got the best chance I can think of to at least challenge Chapman’s record 105mph pitch.

Now, it’s worth noting that all of this velocity hasn’t made Cabrera…you know, *good*. Somewhat like other minor league vets with the ability to throw hard but not well (where are you now, Phillippe Valiquette), Cabrera’s command is bad, and he’s getting hit harder than anyone throwing 102 should be. It’s odd – it’s not like he doesn’t throw a change-up. He does, and it’s the reason he’s NOT at the top of the AFL velo leaderboard: Pitch FX assumes all of those 89-92mph pitches are fastballs, when they’re actually cambios. He’s got a slider, too, and thus should be fine against RHB/LHBs alike – you can see why he was a starter before 2015. He’s now been in the US affiliated-minors for four seasons and has just 17 innings above A ball AND has yet to post a decent year statistically, but you can understand why he’ll continue to get chances. Hell, if he’s left unprotected, I’d be fine seeing the M’s Rule 5 him.

* Like the rest of baseball, offense has really fallen in the AFL in recent years. From what I can see, the league offense drop lagged the big leagues by a couple of years. Whereas *teams* often posted OPS’s over .900 from 2000-2011, they fell markedly in 2012, and now look more like a “regular” minor league. Whether that’s due to weather, or teams deciding to send better pitching prospects isn’t clear, but it’s stayed lower in each year since 2012.

M’s Trade for Joaquin Benoit; Angels Lock Up a SS

marc w · November 12, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

The M’s added 38 year old reliever Joaquin Benoit in a trade with San Diego. Heading south are RHP prospect Enyel de los Santos and IF Nelson Ward. Jeff Sullivan has a great post on the veteran Benoit at Fangraphs, noting that Benoit seems to have the ability to induce weak contact and thus post consistently low BABIPs. It’s an important part of his skillset, and one that hasn’t shown any signs of age-related decline. Benoit’s velocity’s been remarkably stable as well, but his BABIP has been remarkable ever since 2010, and his solitary season with Tampa.

Tampa, as you may recall, has made a habit of picking up talented-but-struggling closers, making minor adjustments, and letting them walk after big years. Hell, Benoit wasn’t even the only example on the Rays in 2010 – they also had Rafael Soriano that year, who put up a career best BABIP and ERA and turned it into a huge payday with the Yankees the following year. Fernando Rodney was DFA’d by Anaheim in 2011, then turned up at the repair shop in the Trop and turned in a walk rate that’s almost 1/2 of his next-lowest campaign AND a career low BABIP. He couldn’t sustain it the following year, but he was still a very good reliever, and his two-year stint got him a good contract offer from Seattle in 2014. Grant Balfour was a minor-league journeyman before washing ashore in Tampa in 2008.

Despite the similarity, Benoit seems to have learned something that stuck, while the rest turned in volatile performances like normal relievers. Rafael Soriano become a walking cautionary tale. Fernando Rodney had a great year in Seattle, before imploding in 2015. Balfour enjoyed success in Oakland before melting down in a return to the Rays. The key to Benoit’s success at limiting hits is in his command of up-and-away pitches. Benoit uses his 95mph fastball to induce whiffs by keeping it up or even out of the strike zone, and he’s able to keep it away from righties and lefties alike.

As a result, his results aren’t bad, even if batters make contact. In his *career*, which stretches over 4,000+ plate appearances, Benoit’s given up a BABIP of .203 on grounders and .078 on fly balls. His tOPS+ (OPS relative to all other pitchers) is 27 for the former and 80 for the latter. All the elevated fastballs have traditionally meant a fly-ball heavy batted ball profile, though this was less true last year in San Diego. He posted a career high GB% last year, and that was driven in large part by a carer high GB rate on his fastball. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course; remember, he’s been even better at managing GB contact than flies over his career. Still, any time a successful reliever’s peripherals start changing – for any reason, and in any direction – you wonder. Relievers are strange beasts. Here’s hoping Benoit stays strange for another year or two.

The cost was two low-minors semi-prospects. Enyel de los Santos, a lanky 6’3″ righty is the prize. He pitched well in rookie-level Arizona and moved up to Everett this season, pitching pretty well over 8 starts, striking out 42 in 37 2/3 innings. Jason Churchill reported a 89-92mph fastball, a slow curve and a change-up after seeing him in July (and coming away impressed). Statistically, he’s somewhat similar to recent Evertt hurlers like Seon-Gi Kim, Jose Valdivia or Stephen Landazuri and a clear notch behind the likes of Jose Campos or Victor Sanchez. Nelson Ward was a 12th round pick in 2014 out of the University of Georgia, and after a slow start to his pro career, showed decent pop and a good eye from the left side…for a 2B in the Cal League. Splitting time between Clinton and Bakersfield, Ward hit 39 extra-base hits, including 9 HRs. It’s a perfectly decent line, though at 23, time’s getting short. He also struck out in nearly 1/4 of his plate appearances. The odds are low, but to his credit, he was the only thing approaching a decent hitter on the Clinton roster for large swaths of 2015.

This deal got lost in the national shuffle, though, when the Angels and Braves stole the headlines by swapping shortstops. Erick Aybar’s been a solid but inconsistent shortstop for years, showing a plus glove and solid contact skills. The rest of the offensive profile, though, has been in flux. In 2011 and 2012, Aybar had enough power to be a plus hitter overall, posting 16 batting runs to go along with his great defense. Since then, though, his power – even gap power – has all but disappeared. His ISO by year has gone from .142 in 2011 to .126 in 2012 and dropped in every year since, down to .069 last year. At that level, a hitter who doesn’t walk (and Aybar does *not* walk) needs to post really high averages to get by, and Aybar’s has been merely good, not great. That resulted in a wRC+ of just 80. With one year left on his deal, the Angels needed to upgrade SS soon. Luckily for them, the Braves were shopping all-world defender Andrelton Simmons.

Simmons’ ISO was in an Aybar-like free fall, too, dropping from .149 to .073 from 2013-2015, and while he strikes out less often than Aybar and walks a bit more, he’s been a decidedly below-average hitter for the past two seasons. The Braves evidently thought he wouldn’t improve and made their intent to shop him quite public. This is somewhat remarkable, given the Braves locked him up through 2020 in 2014, paying $58m over 7 years. Given the ramp-ups, he’ll make only $6m next year, but the Angels are on the hook for $53m in total. The Braves are in full-on rebuild mode, but they’re somewhat unique in that they’ve sold low on young players like Simmons and Jason Heyward. Clearly, they’ve been able to restock their club and farm systems with these trades, but it’s still odd to see a team so eager to trade off players as talented as Simmons and doing so when poor seasons have driven down their value. And despite his age,

The big return for Atlanta isn’t Aybar, though, it’s Anaheim’s top two pitching prospects, Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis. Newcomb was GM Jerry Dipoto’s first-round pick in 2014, and shot up the ladder in 2015. As LA Times beatwriter Mike DiGiovanna tweeted, the Angels got plenty of offers for Newcomb at the deadline last year, but Dipoto turned them all down:

Just as we’ve seen in Seattle, a new GM often has a much different view of his new MiLB assets than his predecessor.

That said, just as I’m a bit surprised at the Braves willingness to part with Simmons (even if you’re down on advanced defensive metrics, you KNOW he’s adding value defensively), it’s somewhat surprising to see the Angels decide to flip Newcomb. Pitching at 3 levels this year, Newcomb struck out more than a batter an inning and posted great runs-allowed totals. He’s physically huge, and possesses a plus fastball and a good slider, and the results have been there. Command, however, is still a work in progress. The Angels – and most prospect watchers – weren’t too concerned, given Newcomb’s northeast background and limited experience on the mound. New GM Billy Eppler may see this as a way to sell high on a strong-armed question mark. Ellis has his own issues. With fewer Ks, command problems of his own, and odd HR struggles, Ellis will be something of a project. That’s OK, as a terrible junior year meant he fell to the Angels in the 3rd round, and they were able to make some adjustments that made him a legitimate prospect – I don’t want to overstate his “problems” based on a so-so 1/2 season in AA.

So, the AL West added the best defensive shortstop since Omar Vizquel, but the Angels top 30 prospect list might actually include peanut vendors or like-new iPhone chargers. The Braves now have very little payroll committed as the prepare to move into a new suburban ballpark. They’ve acquired a plethora of pitching prospects, but they are still absolutely terrible. With payroll flexibility and lots of pre-arb assets, they could make a move in free agency, but may wait a few years to do so. In the meantime, being a Braves fan seems to be a pretty dour experience, and I realize this is a bit of a pot/kettle thing to say, given my baseballing proclivities. The thing that’s striking isn’t how each team view defensive metrics or minor league pitchers’ value or any of that – it’s just a reminder that reasonable people can disagree substantially on how to value players. There really *IS* a kind of tunnel vision or preference for one’s own prospects, and that’s something a healthy org needs to work against. Remember that Jack Zduriencik shipped out the M’s previous top prospect, Jeff Clement, for a package of Ian Snell and Jack Wilson…and “won” the trade.

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