Game 100, Mets at Mariners

marc w · July 22, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Jacob deGrom, 7:10pm

Ooookay, I know there was a game thread for last night’s game, and now I don’t see it. Hopefully, this one doesn’t get eaten. I’m tapping Jacob deGrom’s FIP in Morse Code here in case nothing else works….

OK, after taking care of Jon Niese last night, the M’s face a very different challenge in rookie Jake deGrom. Niese was a lefty ground-baller, exactly the kind of pitcher that usually gives the M’s fits. deGrom’s a righty with a GB rate around 40% in his brief career. Niese’s fastball has dropped to the 88-89 range, while deGrom still rushes it up around 94-95.

deGrom wasn’t a heralded pick out of Stetson, and his odds got longer still after undergoing TJ surgery the season after the draft. His stuff looked solid in 2013, with his velocity back to his pre-surgery peak, but he got knocked around a bit in AA. That said, he made great strides this year in the PCL – the velo was there, his change-up looked much better, and he even started to get ground balls. He ran a better-than-50% GB rate for the first time, and Cashman Field in Las Vegas is a good place to be a ground-ball guy. That said, he’s still something of an enigma. He’s striking out far more big league hitters than you’d expect. That GB% spike in AAA? It’s completely gone, and he’s back to being a fly-ball guy.

In the minors and (thus far) in the majors, he’s not run much of a platoon split. A curve and change-up are good ways to limit splits, and he’s comfortable throwing both to lefties. It’s just that how he GETS to those broadly-equivalent results is very different. To right-handers, he’s the extreme-GB% guy he was in the PCL. He’s at an almost 2:1 GB/FB ratio vs. righties, but against lefties, it’s just 0.76. Righties bash his sinker and change-up into the ground like they’re Derek Lowe pitches, but lefties don’t have the same issue. It’s somewhat remarkable that he doesn’t have platoon splits given how many more fly balls lefties hit. His four-seam fastball’s been effective against both, and that’s what 95mph will do for you, but it’s still a striking difference. So, despite the lack of observed splits, this isn’t a bad match-up for a lefty-dominated M’s team…even if they’re an org that’s struggled against plus-velocity and good fastballs in general.

Erasmo Ramirez returns, with Justin Smoak heading south to Tacoma. Ramirez’s control has made some strides in his recent PCL stint, though cynics would point out that his control *in the minors* has never been in question. The issue is can he avoid the mistakes that have cost him against big league teams. This is an important start for the Nicaraguan as the M’s need to decide if he’s in the mix for the #5 spot in the rotation long term, or if he’s more valuable as a change-of-scenery trade chip. That’s certainly selling low, but he could open some eyes down the stretch. Of course, given the M’s pitching depth and injury history, it’s probably much better to keep him in the fold.

1: Chavez, RF
2: Jones, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Hart, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Bloomquist, SS
8: Ackley, CF
9: Zunino, C
SP: Erasmoooo

Last night’s twitter highlight was the debate between Rob Neyer and Dave Cameron on the merits of promoting Tacoma DH Jesus Montero. As you know, Montero’s crushing PCL lefties, and Corey Hart’s not crushing much of anything. Seems easy, but as Dave points out, it’s really not. At some point, they need to figure out if Hart’s capable of helping the playoff push, but the M’s are more aware of Montero’s limitations (from my point of view, batspeed’s the big one here) than fans just checking the stats at MiLB.com. Still, it’s an interesting debate, and one Hart’s really helping to make a topical one.

And, on the off chance you missed it, here’s Ackley’s stunning, HR-robbing catch from last night’s game.

Game 98, Mariners at Angels

marc w · July 20, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Chris Young vs. Tyler Skaggs, 12:35pm

It certainly feels nice to steal a win in a pitcher’s duel once in a while. After Friday’s game, yesterday’s looked so predictable, and while they couldn’t score two runs for Felix, at least they got two in extras to defeat the Angels who squandered Garrett Richards’ gem.

Today the M’s face Tyler Skaggs, the Angels prospect shipped to Arizona where he shot up prospect rankings before command issues and a troubling velocity drop made him extremely hittable. After a rough go with Arizona and then an equally rough trip through the PCL in 2013, he moved back to Anaheim, who promptly made a mechanical tweak that returned much of the missing velocity. The other big change concerns his batted ball profile. He’s got a fastball with plenty of vertical rise, so it wasn’t a big surprise to see him post low GB% in the Arizona system and in his MLB call-ups. But he’s a fairly extreme GB guy this year despite not much change to his pitch movement or pitch mix. He throws a four- and two-seam fastball, with a change-up and curve. He’s toyed with a slider this year, but he’s still mostly a four-pitch guy. In the past, his curve occasionally got grounders, but everything else generated fly balls. This year, the sinker and change in particular have been much better at getting ground-ball contact.

All those worm burners have really helped his biggest problem – the home run ball. His HR/9 rate has fallen substantially this year (though of course his entire career suffers from small sample size problems), and he’s been much better against righties. He seems like the kind of guy who’d have platoon splits, but he’s faced so few lefties, there’s no way to really know. He’s running reverse splits this year, but he’s faced only 82 lefties this year, compared to over 300 righties. Pretty much impossible to make much out of that.

Robinson Cano’s out today with a sore hamstring. Hopefully it’s nothing, but Willie Bloomquist gets his second start at 2B.

1: Chavez, CF
2: Bloomquist, 2B
3: Seager, 3B
4: Romero, RF
5: Smoak, 1B
6: Hart, DH
7: Ackley, LF
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: Young

I think Skaggs will see more lefties today (4) than he has in any other game. Romero’s a righty, and does better against lefties, but starting him in the clean up spot seems like the triumph of hope over experience. But hey, Go M’s. Let’s get a series win.

Game 97, Mariners at Angels

marc w · July 19, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Garrett Richards, 7:05pm

Happy Felix Day!

Hisashi Iwakuma’s subtle improvements have been impressive to watch, but Felix’s have been even more surprising. It’s not like you doubt someone with Felix’s talent, but regression’s supposed to apply to everyone. Felix has been so good for so long, that you naturally wonder when he’ll start to taper off. I don’t really wonder about that any more – I just wonder what he’s going to do next. Watching Felix every five days is an absolute joy.

Garrett Richards has gone from struggling swing man, to Mike Scioscia’s doghouse, to emergency starter to near-All Star. The final all-star slot for the AL came down to Fernando Rodney and Richards, with the former getting the nod. The Angels weren’t terribly happy; now we’ll get to see how Richards responds to that slight.

Line-up:
1: Jones, CF
2: Romero, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morrison, 1B
6: Hart, DH
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: El Cartelua

Game 96, Mariners at Angels

marc w · July 18, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Jered Weaver, 7:05pm

Ah, the All-Star Break. I know how much fans hate the interruption, the break in the routine of the 162-game schedule, but I’ve grown to really love it. Players talk about it, adoringly, as a chance to rest from the relentless grind of games, hotels and flights. It seems strange that a few days off could do so much, but then they’re the ones who don’t get a weekend for about nine months and I’m the one who just took a several-week vacation. The reasons a humble baseball blogger loves the break, then, are different. But, as is often the case, Jeff’s already pointed it out and summed it up perfectly. For me, the break is a respite from feeling like a fraud.

We look at numbers, we analyze pitch fx and we scour minor league box scores not out of some obsessive desire to know everything, but because at the macro level, they can inform us about the future. That minor league numbers, properly translated, tell us something about MLB success has been demonstrated many, many times, but that can’t doesn’t help when looking through the list of failed M’s prospects who hit in AA/AAA. It feels good to notice platoon splits in Jeff Samardzija’s batted ball profile, but you wonder about its probative value when he induces a flurry of grounders from the M’s lefty-dominated line-up. These macro- and micro-failures happen *all the damn time* and while it’s nice to understand that one game doesn’t change the pattern, or that the pattern that accurately describe the population may not work for every individual within it, they don’t always make it feel better. You know what does, though? Schadenfreude.

Jeff mentioned that the M’s still seem to be believers in Justin Smoak’s long-term potential, even though he’s no longer a long-term piece.* That MLB vets make similar errors – sometimes even bigger ones – actually does dull the pain. Along with booze-fueled All-Star Break evenings at home. The point of all this navel-gazing and self-flagellation (navel-flagellating?) is this: how bad did MLB whiff on Hisashi Iwakuma? Billy Beane is rightfully lauded for his accomplishments, but it’s not like his record’s spotless. Still, winning the rights to Iwakuma and then not getting a deal done? How about the next year when basically any team could’ve had him, but he came to Seattle at a yearly cost of $1.5m, or just about half what Willie Bloomquist will get this year, or about what John Buck and Stefen Romero cost.

It’s easy to see why, to apply the lessons we’ve learned and say confidently that you simply don’t sign a pitcher coming off of arm soreness. You can’t really *fault* MLB for it, but it’s nice that there’s egg on the faces of people much smarter about this stuff than I am. Can Iwakuma adapt to the MLB schedule and succeed? 2013 showed conclusively that he could. How will he deal with age and its attendant velocity loss? The answer this year is, “By getting better.” 2014 is shaping up as Iwakuma’s best on a rate basis; he may not hit the innings total he put up last year, but when he’s out there, he’s been astonishing. Masahiro Tanaka’s splitter got deserved praise when he was healthy, and his stuff really was a tick better than Hisashi’s, but Iwakuma is a poor man’s Tanaka only in the most literal sense – he’s paid far less.

This year, Iwakuma’s posted an almost invisible walk rate, and he’s done it by throwing more balls.** By pitch fx, he’s thrown less than 50% of his pitches in the zone, but he’s pitched from ahead in the count far more than the league average. How? Because Iwakuma’s first strike percentage is exceptional – by Fangraphs, he’s 5th in baseball in this metric. From there, his options open up. That first strike allows him to expan the hitter’s zone, which he can do both through fastball command and through his main weapon, his elite splitter. Pitching ahead means hitters are more likely to swing at balls, and his splitter means that when they do, they’re more likely to hit grounders. This gets us to another hidden reason for Iwakuma’s success – his BABIP. As you know, pitcher BABIP varies, and tends to regress to league-wide averages. There are exceptions, of course – guys like knuckleballers, and many lefthanders seem immune, for a number of reasons. Rany Jazayerli talked about one of them in this great Grantland piece on Mark Buehrle the other day. But Iwakuma shouldn’t be an exception. He’s a righty, of course, and his BABIP success isn’t the result of getting fly outs (fly balls are converted into outs more often than grounders) like Jarrod Washburn or current Mariner Chris Young. How can a righty ground baller run a career BABIP of .268 thus far? Because hitters are putting pitcher’s pitches in play. Over a third of Iwakuma’s grounders have come on balls. Batters’ BABIP when they swing at balls is awful. Iwakuma gets ahead of hitters and then gives them the choice of swinging over the splitter or tapping it gently to Kyle Seager.

Lloyd McClendon was asked on the radio (probably Matt Pitman on the pre-game show) what made Iwakuma so effective, and the first answer he gave was fastball command. At the time, I thought the answer was clearly, *clearly* his 70-grade split and not the 50-FB, but the more you look at it, the more you see what McClendon is getting at. Batters have swung at his splitter a lot, and they don’t have a lot to show for it. They don’t WANT to swing at it, but if they’re behind in the count, they kind of have to. Iwakuma’s fastball, which he throws on around 65% of first-pitches, allows the rest of his arsenal to play up. It’s not just Iwakuma. Look at this list of the pitchers with the *lowest* zone% in baseball, and while there are the occasional control-challenged projects, it’s peppered with the best pitchers in the game. There’s Felix, Sonny Gray, Tanaka, the surprising Tyson Ross. For some of them, the key is pure stuff – Ross’s slider and Yu Darvish’s…everything allow them to get outs on balls. Tanaka/Felix/Iwakuma and Dallas Keuchel, they’re relying on getting ahead first, and then allowing batters to get themselves out.***

Hisashi Iwakuma is awesome.

1: Chavez, RF
2: Jones, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morrison, DH
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Zunino, C
SP: Iwakuma

* Justin Smoak’s contract’s up after this year. He has a team option for 2015 that’s pretty cheap, but you’d have to imagine that people above McClendon’s pay grade are looking at that $150,000 buy-out longingly. Smoak’s option would’ve become guaranteed if he had 525 PAs this season. That month-long rehab stint is going to make that all but impossible to hit.

** I mentioned this regarding James Paxton once, but here again we have data sources that disagree. I’m picking one that I think is the best and that happens to fit the argument I’m making. I hate it when people do this without owning up to it, so I’m owning up to it. You could argue that he’s throwing more strikes, as BIS and Statcorner thinks he is. All of these sources have their fans, and you could certainly argue for one over another, but just FYI, I’m going with pitch fx here. To make matters worse, I’ve used the BIS measure for first-strikes. I shouldn’t mix up the sources, but Fangraphs doesn’t have a pitch fx-based metric for that. Caution! Or hey, it’s a baseball post, yay!

*** Yet more full disclosure – Felix and Ross are running suprising BABIP numbers this year, and both have very high GB rates, but neither put up great BABIPs before, and it’s not like they’ve really changed their approach. Keuchel fits this theory *perfectly* but for the fact that his BABIP is completely average this year; I tend to think that’s because he’s pitching in front of an experiment, and not a real baseball team, but I may be making too much of the pitchers-limit-BABIP-by-letting-hitters-hit-out-of-zone-pitches thing.

Nine Things To Know About The Best Changeup In Baseball

Jeff Sullivan · July 18, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

I try not to ever over-link to my own material, but then I pretty much never write about the Mariners anywhere but here. If I write a post about Allen Craig’s troubles inside, I’m not going to link it on USSM. But I just put something together about King Felix and the best changeup in the world, and it’s the sort of thing I would’ve put here if I didn’t put it somewhere else, so this might be up your alley. Felix throws a whole lot of pitches, but one of them is better than the rest, and it only seems to be getting better with time. If these trends continue, by 2025 Felix will throw exclusively perfectly-located 90 mile-per-hour changeups, and batters will still be helpless because they keep thinking it’s going to be a fastball until the last instant.

It’s a good pitch, is the point, and it’s a privilege to be able to write about it. It’s a privilege to even be able to share an existence with it. I think the times I spend writing about Felix Hernandez are my times of greatest clarity. Think about Felix and everything comes to a halt.

First Half In Review: Passing Out The Grades (Pitchers)

Jeff Sullivan · July 17, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Yesterday, we took a look at players with letters after them. Today, we’ll look at other players with letters after them. One thing all these players have in common is that they’re pitchers. Another thing all these players have in common is that they’ve been Mariners pitchers. In truth, there are virtually countless things all these players have in common, but I’m not going to write out that list. I’m going to write out a different list! Here are first-half letter grades, based on, I don’t know, something, probably.

=====

Blake Beavan: D
On April 15, Blake Beavan and the Mariners lost to the Rangers 5-0. The game was over in a brisk 142 minutes, and Beavan went just four innings after starting in front of an outfield of Bloomquist/Almonte/Romero. Beavan’s velocity was curiously down and after he was removed it was revealed that he was pitching through discomfort, discomfort that would shortly thereafter send him to the disabled list. The nature of the injury remains something of a mystery, and as such, Beavan has lost the one thing he had going for him, which was dependability. Yet given what he could be depended on to provide, it’s not the worst thing in the world to have less of it.

Joe Beimel: B+
Beimel didn’t pitch in 2012, and when he pitched in 2013 he pitched in Triple-A. He’s back in the majors as a hairy 37-year-old and to this point he’s kept lefties to a batting line of .140/.180/.188. He hasn’t kept righties to the same kind of batting line, so let’s not think about that too much, but Beimel’s been successful in his primary role, and this is the kind of thing that would make for a hell of a story for an audience that doesn’t really exist. Objectively, we know that Beimel has overcome a good deal of adversity to succeed in the present league, but good luck getting many people to give a hoot about a veteran second lefty. There are just too many other things to be interested in. How much do you know about tree sap? Probably not enough! Tree sap, wow!

Roenis Elias: C+
At his best, Roenis Elias has been terrific, and overall he’s been tremendously valuable for a starting rotation that was having its depth questioned and tested. It’s looking now like Elias could be a legitimate big-league starter for years, and he’s not a guy who was on anyone’s radar even a handful of months ago. But Elias has also had his fits, in particular lately, and maybe that’s not a shock, given his quick rise and given his mounting innings. I’m simultaneously pleased by the emergence of Roenis Elias, and I’d be pleased to have him as the Mariners’ fifth or sixth starter going forward, instead of something more important than that.

Danny Farquhar: B+
A year ago, Danny Farquhar got a whiff for every four curveballs he threw. That made it one of the most unhittable pitches in baseball. This year that rate has dropped to about one out of six, possibly related to a slight velocity drop, but while Farquhar has slid some, he gave himself plenty of room to slide after posting some truly obscene numbers in 2013. Farquhar can get lefties out, he can get righties out, and he can throw enough strikes and miss enough bats. He hasn’t really been utilized as a high-leverage reliever, which he’s good enough to be, but that would be a bigger issue if the Mariners’ bullpen were giving away runs. It’s not doing that!

Charlie Furbush: B
Charlie Furbush has appeared in seven more games than Joe Beimel, and he’s thrown three fewer innings. So Furbush has been more of a specialist than Joe Beimel has been. Not very long ago people were talking about Charlie Furbush as a possible starter. Incidentally, with Chance Ruffin having up and retired, Furbush is what we have left to show for the Doug Fister trade. And you know what? Furbush has allowed just 12 runs this year, while Fister has allowed 27. That’s a difference of 15 runs in the Mariners’ favor! Who really got robbed?

Felix Hernandez: A+
Just about perfect. I’m not being hyperbolic; I’m being sincere. Felix Hernandez is just about the perfect pitcher, in the way that Clayton Kershaw is also just about the perfect pitcher. Awesome, loyal, personable, healthy, dedicated, even improving. Felix doesn’t have a 0.00 ERA or whatever, but this is a former top prospect who has achieved his ultimate ceiling in just about every way possible. Don’t feel bad if you don’t appreciate this enough. We’re not biologically equipped to sufficiently appreciate anything this extraordinary. Our design wasn’t prepared for something like Felix to be possible.

About ten months ago, Matthew and I were camping in the North Cascades, and in the middle of the night, we were able to see the Milky Way in the finest detail the naked eye will allow. I knew, in that moment, I was staring at something I’d never be able to fully comprehend. I understood what I was seeing on the surface level, but I couldn’t wrap my head around the meaning. I just knew, standing there, that that meant everything. Every question I’d ever asked was answered in the skyscape before me, but damned if I’m not still looking for answers today. Certain things you see with your own eyes just never sink in, because they can’t. Your best hope is to retain the 5% that you can actually make sense of before the moment has passed forever.

Hisashi Iwakuma: A-
Remember when the Mariners had Cliff Lee? Who could forget when the Mariners had Cliff Lee? 2010 was a special season some of the time, and that year, Lee struck out 22% of batters while walking 2% of batters and getting 42% groundballs. Iwakuma, over his 14 starts, has struck out 22% of batters while walking 2% of batters and getting 52% groundballs. There’s only the slight hint of a penalty because Iwakuma has allowed a few extra dingers, but this guy is amazing. I think he might be the pitching staff’s version of Kyle Seager — nobody outside of Seattle really gives a crap about him, but he’s not actually that far behind the household name. We can make fun of the lows on the Mariners’ roster, but the highs are super high.

Dominic Leone: B+
We were wondering who the hotshot would be. Some people assumed it’d be Carson Smith, and others assumed it’d be Logan Bawcom, but Dominic Leone is the new, I don’t know, Carter Capps? Over his last 22 appearances he’s got seven walks and 31 strikeouts in 25.1 innings, and he hasn’t shown much of a platoon split. Leone’s versatile, with 14 appearances of more than one inning, and he isn’t a guy you don’t want to face anybody in particular, so he’s good support for a bullpen people didn’t know whether they’d be able to trust. Leone’s better than average at a variety of things, which is a good thing to be.

Lucas Luetge: D-
I thought, for a moment, that Lucas Luetge was a Rule 5 draft pick last season. Actually, he was a Rule 5 draft pick two seasons ago. Oh yeah, that’s right. That is a certain fact, about Lucas Luetge, who pitches sometimes.

Brandon Maurer: D+
The grade’s because Maurer has three times as many rotation innings as relief innings, and the rotation innings were bad. Well, some of the rotation innings were bad, while the first ones were usually okay. Between innings 1 – 3, Maurer had a 3.43 ERA. Between innings 4 – 6, Maurer had a 16.20 ERA. This might be just about the most obvious reliever conversion, and so far, so good. Out of the bullpen, Maurer’s averaged 97 miles per hour. Out of the rotation, he was more 92 – 93. In the first half, Maurer was more bad than good for the Mariners, but because of the way it ended, he projects to be damn helpful down the stretch. This could be one of those weapons that really starts getting attention and air time in October.

Yoervis Medina: B
I like to give Yoervis Medina a lot of crap, because he’s pretty wild and he takes for freakin ever to throw a pitch, but the truth is that, while he walks guys, he doesn’t really get hit much. Last year, he allowed a .307 slugging percentage. This year, he’s at .250. So, for his career, he’s at .289, making him sort of like a poor man’s Fernando Rodney. I’ll never feel comfortable when Medina’s pitching, and I’ll never forget the meatball he threw to Giancarlo Stanton in Miami, but my issue with Medina might be more about me than it is about him. It’s the same thing with milk.

Hector Noesi: F
Against the Mariners this year, Noesi has allowed zero runs in 11 innings. Against everybody else this year, Noesi has allowed 55 runs in 76.1 innings. When you were younger, you might’ve wanted a mortal enemy. It was a common trope in kid’s shows and movies, and it seemed like a certain path to adventure. Battle stations, everyone. You’ve got a mortal enemy, and yours is mine and mine is yours.

James Paxton: A-
I feel cursed by my lazy comparison of Dustin Ackley to Jeremy Reed, and I feel similarly cursed by my lazy comparison of James Paxton to Erik Bedard. Ackley isn’t a dick in the way that Reed was, but so much of the rest is coming true. Paxton isn’t a dick in the way that Bedard is, but-

A healthy James Paxton might be the playoff-race starting pitcher the Mariners currently seek. A healthy James Paxton is something I’ll believe when I see it, for weeks in a row.

Stephen Pryor: D-
If you look at the Mariners’ pitching stats on FanGraphs, you see Stephen Pryor’s name. If you split by starters and relievers, though, Pryor’s name disappears, which is curious and symbolic. Did you know that Stephen Pryor throws 92 now? In fairness, he’s still working his way back from an unusual injury, but in fairness, Franklin Gutierrez isn’t a 6’2 pathological mothership. Baseball isn’t fair, and neither is the way we consume it. For our purposes, Pryor basically is what he does, and what he does isn’t good enough at the moment.

Erasmo Ramirez: D
In Erasmo Ramirez’s fifth appearance of spring training, he spun six shutout innings against the Cubs, striking out four. Some people started to believe that Ramirez might be back on track as a quality starting pitcher, but even then, even that early, Lloyd McClendon saw what we didn’t see yet:

“They’re horse*&% pitches,” McClendon said. “Everybody was all excited about his last start, ‘oh he did such a great job.’ But he made a lot of horse&*^% pitches on 0-2.”

Ramirez made the team because the team was desperate, not because the manager had his back, and I don’t think McClendon’s ever been impressed. And, for the most part, we haven’t been impressed, either, because Ramirez has been dreadful. In June, Ramirez put together three consecutive zero-run starts. He had 11 walks and 12 strikeouts. The thing about Hector Noesi is that he’s gone and moved on. The other thing about Hector Noesi is that he isn’t exactly one of a kind.

Fernando Rodney: A
It takes a while to shake a first impression. And, sometimes, the first impression is the right impression, so there’s nothing to be shaken. We were wary about Fernando Rodney at first, and in his first 7.1 innings he walked six guys. He was surviving by the skin of his teeth, and from there, memes were born. Fernando Rodney was henceforth understood to be an experience. Well as it happens, since April 27, Rodney has six walks and 32 strikeouts, with a .484 opponents OPS. Over that stretch, two of every three pitches have been strikes. Overall, including the first impression, Rodney has the same strike rate as Dan Haren, James Shields, and Cole Hamels. He has the same strike rate as Dominic Leone. We know Rodney doesn’t have good command. He just doesn’t. He doesn’t place the baseball. But he doesn’t need to. He throws super hard and his changeup is super good. Fernando Rodney, almost all of the time, is in control, even when he isn’t. He’s not the most comfortable closer in Mariners history, but he’s among the most effective.

Taijuan Walker: D
Before the year, the consensus idea was that, if the Mariners were to contend for the playoffs, it’d be because they were getting big positive contributions from their considerable assortment of talented youth. Right now the Mariners are in a playoff position. Walker, Paxton, Ramirez, Ackley, Miller, Franklin, Smoak, and Romero have a combined WAR of -0.3. Obviously that isn’t all the youth, but, haha, whoops. It’s funny, some of the things that haven’t gone right.

Tom Wilhelmsen: B
In a way, Yoervis Medina is a poor man’s Fernando Rodney, and in a way, Tom Wilhelmsen is Yoervis Medina. He never really feels that comfortable, but he seldom gets hit, so the walks aren’t as dangerous as they appear. Remember a short while ago when John Buck got dropped and word emerged that some of the pitchers were frustrated by throwing to him? With Buck, Wilhelmsen had 13 walks and 11 strikeouts. With Mike Zunino, he has 12 and 32. I don’t know what that means, but I feel like Tom Wilhelmsen probably had opinions about John Buck as a catcher.

Chris Young: A-
We kept waiting for Chris Young’s ERA to regress more toward his peripherals, but instead his peripherals are regressing more toward his ERA. Over his last six starts, Young’s got six walks and 28 strikeouts, with a .220 OBP allowed. He’s still a guy who’s presumably over-achieving, but he’s always been able to allow fewer runs than you’d expect based on his style, and the longer this goes, the more willing you are to believe that his surgery really did relieve all of the arm problems he’d been experiencing for years. Chris Young is the biggest 2014 Mariners miracle, and to get here the team had to go through Scott Baker and Randy Wolf first. Remember how close we came to having Randy Wolf instead. People were upset by the way Wolf was treated by the front office. If Randy Wolf had signed the thing most players in his position usually sign, the Mariners wouldn’t have these 111.1 innings of a 3.15 ERA. And then where would they be?

First Half In Review: Passing Out The Grades (Position Players)

Jeff Sullivan · July 16, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

A year ago, at the All-Star break, the Mariners were just two games back of the Angels, but that was deceptive, because while the Angels were supposed to be a really good team, they never really found their groove and got to the break five games under .500. This year, at the All-Star break, the Mariners are 6.5 games back of the Angels, but that’s deceptive, because the Angels have been outstanding and, if the season were to end today, the Mariners would actually be in the playoffs. I know I’ve written that before, but only in my dream journal, and seriously, take a step back. Put the day-to-day matters out of mind. The Mariners need to get better. Most teams need to get better. The Mariners, at this writing, have a 2.5-game lead on the Royals and Blue Jays, which means the Mariners are on a playoff pace. You might question whether a one-game playoff counts as the playoffs, but then it has the word “playoff” right in it.

It’s been an eventful first half. They’re always eventful first halves, unless you’re the Padres, but the Mariners’ first half had more good than bad, which is how you explain their 51-44 record. Now, baseball is a game steeped in tradition, and one of the traditions is that, before the All-Star break, teams play a lot of baseball games. Roughly half of them, give or take plenty. (The Mariners have played 59% of their games, so “first half” is a lie.) Another tradition is that every All-Star break I put together these stupid subjective report cards. They’re not important, but none of this is, so go ahead and read on, since you’re already here anyway. You came to this website because you have time you’re willing to dedicate to reading Internet baseball text. Here’s some of that.

I’ve assigned grades to every player who’s played for the Mariners in 2014. There are no formulas — the grades are just the grades that occurred to me, and if you disagree with one or two of them, express so politely or keep it to yourself. I’m not married to these grades and by the time this post is published I might even disagree with myself on a handful of guys. The position players and the pitchers will be broken up, with the pitchers presumably coming tomorrow. Sneak preview: I would marry Felix Hernandez. I would literally drop everything to marry Felix Hernandez, right now. I understand that would make his personal life a lot more complicated, but I’m willing to deal with baggage. Everybody’s got baggage. I’d be honored to carry the King’s.

On to the position-player report card. Let’s start with a bummer! We’ll follow that with a bummer. And then another bummer, and…well, shoot, 51 wins? Are you sure, 51 wins? And the season isn’t finished?

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Dustin Ackley: D-
Dustin Ackley has a higher OBP than Domonic Brown, who has been a top prospect. He has a higher slugging percentage than Jackie Bradley Jr., who has been a top prospect. He has a higher wRC+ than Jean Segura, who has been a top prospect. He has the same wRC+ as B.J. Upton, who’s in the second year of a massive five-year contract. In other words, there’s still room for Dustin Ackley to be even worse. I used to compare Ackley to Jeremy Reed to be funny in a dark kind of way. Then I’d compare Ackley to Reed with nervous laughter. Nobody’s laughing anymore. Ackley’s at .242/.310/.351 for his career. Reed finished at .252/.309/.354. I’m haunted by my own stupid joke, and we’re all paying the price.

Abe Almonte: F
I felt so self-confident. I’m supposed to be a baseball expert, according to my job description. I get good feelings when my expertise is validated, because I get to not feel like a fraud. I’ve gotten good feelings from the AL Central, for example, where I’ve never considered the Royals to be the threat so many other people have. In the spring, the analytical part of my brain was telling me not to be worried about Abe Almonte. In April, the analytical part of my brain was telling me not to be worried about Abe Almonte. I publicly expressed confidence in him, believing that he’d pick it up in no time. I didn’t allow myself to believe that Almonte might not actually be good. Whoopsadoodle. I appreciate the moments of not feeling like a fraud because, most of the time, I sit back and feel like a fraud.

Willie Bloomquist: D-
Willie Bloomquist has a higher average, OBP, and slugging percentage than Dustin Ackley. In the major leagues. That would’ve made more sense to me ten years ago, when Ackley would’ve been 16. Ha-ha! Can you imagine a 16-year-old Dustin Ackley trying to hit in the major leagues? Actually, he might’ve been better than the 26-year-old Dustin Ackley. I didn’t mean to make this another paragraph complaining about Dustin Ackley, but I guess it’s better than a paragraph about Willie Bloomquist.

John Buck: D
John Buck gets a performance F, but I bumped him up on account of all his alleged leadership ability and clubhouse value. Mike Zunino says that he never stopped learning from John Buck from the moment the two first interacted, and I think at this point it’s entirely clear that John Buck did a lot to teach Mike Zunino to hit like John Buck. I’m in no position to actually evaluate Buck’s intangible value, but given that the Mariners’ record is a mystery and given that players seemed to like what Buck did, I’m perfectly happy to write some of this up to Buck magic. What, you have a better explanation, like “pitching and defense and the random nature of sporting outcomes?” Like there’s randomness in baseball. Come on.

Robinson Cano: A
A storyline for much of the first half was that Cano was hitting like prime Ichiro instead of prime Cano. Of course, prime Ichiro was super good so it wasn’t so much a complaint as an observation. And now Cano seems to be hitting for more power, and just the other day he turned on a fastball and ripped it into the right-field seats. Over the past 30 days he’s hit .349/.420/.538, and by the way he’s also been a good defender and a great leader and an awesome interview and personality. Robinson Cano is one of the best Mariners players ever, and he’s certainly the best Mariner ever who’s represented by an agent who once stabbed a man. We’ll never love Cano the way we love Felix Hernandez, but there are different kinds of love, each of them valid.

Endy Chavez: D
Following the line of thinking of a friend of mine: if you let Endy Chavez bat four times a game, you’ll probably get to say things like “it seems like he’s on base every game,” because he seems to finish every single one of his games 1-for-4 with a single. Who could say no to a long-term hitting streak and a .250/.250/.250 batting line? It’s awkward to be in the position of not liking Chavez, since I like Chavez the person, and he’s been all right lately, but this team is fighting for the playoffs and Endy Chavez keeps leading off a lot. Do you see how that’s counter-productive? Do you see how this team could improve even with an old sack like Marlon Byrd? Chavez is pleasant and little and he knows how to make things happen, but unfortunately the thing he knows how to make happen the best is outs.

Nick Franklin: F
The Mariners didn’t manage to move Nick Franklin earlier. He started strong in Triple-A, then he didn’t hit upon being promoted to the bigs. And since returning to Triple-A at the beginning of June, he’s hit .244 with two home runs. Used to be, Franklin was confusing because he couldn’t hit in the majors, but now he’s confusing because he just can’t hit, period. It’s because of guys like Franklin that the purpose of Triple-A is becoming increasingly fuzzy. Aren’t those numbers supposed to mean something? Aren’t those numbers not supposed to mean nothing?

Cole Gillespie: D
I remember there was a time at which Cole Gillespie led the Mariners in rate hitting statistics. That time is not now, because Cole Gillespie isn’t good, and Cole Gillespie isn’t on the Mariners. What I remember most about Gillespie is when he pinch-hit and popped up in a tie game with one out and the bases loaded. It was at that point I figured his time with the Mariners was up. I was off by five or six weeks, but in the bigger picture, I wasn’t off at all. If you always consider a big-enough picture, your timing can pretty much never be off. “Sure,  I was late to meet you by 15 minutes, but how much are 15 minutes, really? If you think about the raising and the grinding of the mountains-”

Corey Hart: F
When Hart was on the DL, I almost put together a post talking about how Hart was better than his numbers, and how he’d been screwed by a few well-hit balls not quite working out as they should’ve. Those are the kinds of posts you write about bad baseball players. I do think Hart is better than this, but this isn’t about true talent, and Hart’s first half was a lousy first half.

James Jones: C+
Jones is impossibly easy to like. He’s always smiling, he provides for the team a different dynamic, he arrived almost out of nowhere, and he somewhat famously went up to Lloyd McClendon just to ask how he might be able to improve. Jones is so easy to like that you might want to look past the mediocre OBP and the mediocre slugging percentage and the mediocre walk and strikeout numbers. Jones has served a valuable role in that he’s filled a position of dire need, but so much about him has been raw, and speaking objectively he probably shouldn’t be a starter. He’s a starter here, and he’s not bad, but this is part of why McClendon described the team as having a BB gun offense. James Jones just doesn’t shoot real bullets, and he probably never will.

Brad Miller: D
Brad Miller has made people feel better by posting a .755 OPS since the start of June. That’s the Brad Miller we expected. Unfortunately, the regular season didn’t begin on June 1, and the Brad Miller before that was among the very biggest disasters in the league! He’s still not really hitting lefties, to the point at which there’s a statistical justification for batting Willie Bloomquist at short with a southpaw on the mound. When it might make sense to platoon your starting shortstop with Willie Bloomquist, the situation could be better, that’s what I always say. I don’t say very much.

Jesus Montero: C
Jesus Montero batted 14 times, he didn’t walk, he swung at a higher rate of pitches out of the zone than pitches in the zone, and he mashed a dinger. So that’s what Jesus Montero was up to. Before Montero’s first half had even begun, he was publicly ripped by his own general manager. On the plus side, Montero has probably completely forgotten about that, because my guess is that he completely forgets about everything within the time it takes his brain to try to submit an experience to memory.

Logan Morrison: D+
Like Hart, my feeling is that Morrison has hit into a few too many loud outs. Even if you try to adjust for that, Morrison’s numbers still don’t come out good, but I think I’ve partially inflated this grade just because Morrison isn’t Justin Smoak. He was the Marlins’ Justin Smoak, but what was old to them still feels fresh and new to us. Morrison, in other words, is frustrating in that he isn’t better than he is, but we’re still in the process of learning that about him, which means every good point might represent a turning point. They’re always potentially developing until they’re 28-year-old busts.

Stefen Romero: F
Last season Stefen Romero batted .277/.331/.448 in Triple-A with 28 walks and 87 strikeouts. By OPS on the team, he ranked directly between Carlos Peguero and Alex Liddi. It’s not Romero’s fault he didn’t help the Mariners.

Michael Saunders: B
Saunders hit in 2012. He hit in 2013, when he wasn’t recovering from injury. He’s hit in 2014. No longer, I think, do we have to worry about whether or not Michael Saunders’ bat is for real, and we know he’s a more than capable defensive right fielder. Now what we have to wonder is whether Saunders is particularly injury-prone, since he’s now back on the DL with a Grade 2 oblique strain. Saunders has conquered his obvious problem from earlier in his career. So now he’s confronted by a problem no one would’ve ever foreseen. There are always new problems, is the point. Even when you think you have everything figured out and going your way, you’re still closer to dying than you were at the start of this sentence.

Kyle Seager: A
I think we can say that Kyle Seager is objectively, certainly underrated, based on his numbers and based on his All-Star support. He’s one of the better third basemen in baseball and he’s still considered just one of the nobodies alongside Cano and the King. Part of the issue, probably, is that he’s never been hyped, and part of that issue, probably, stems from the reality that he just looks like a guy whose middle name is Duerr, which is Kyle Seager’s middle name, which is Duerr. Seager doesn’t look like an elite-level baseball player; he looks like a happy-go-lucky cousin, who’s also a younger brother of an older cousin, who you can’t believe is old enough to have a baby and a collection of guns. Seager has the skills that Willie Bloomquist’s body was always supposed to have, and making things weirder still is that there are two more Seager brothers in the minor leagues right now, with one of them being a Dodgers top prospect. It’s a whole family of guys sent to destroy the very concept of a “baseball face”.

Justin Smoak: D-
On Opening Day, Smoak went 2-for-4 with a double, a homer, and a walk, and spirits were high. He’d been practicing a net drill with Robinson Cano on the side, and people wondered whether Smoak had finally figured everything out. It only followed all of McClendon’s early support, with his assertions that Smoak could lead the league in doubles. Since Opening Day, he’s performed like Justin Smoak. Maybe the most interesting thing about him at this point is how much support he continues to have. The Mariners have never wavered in believing in Smoak as a first baseman. McClendon continues to believe in him as a first baseman. Educated baseball people look at Justin Smoak and see a long-term productive asset. It’s enough to make you wonder whether you’re just being impatient. But Justin Smoak turns 28 in December. They’re always potentially developing until they’re 28. According to my arbitrary cutoff, Smoak, you’ve got 2.5 months to not be a pile of crap.

Jesus Sucre: C-
Sucre has played twice and he hit a single and he caught pitches. With Zunino and Sucre, the Mariners ought to be one of the very best pitch-framing teams in all of baseball. Sucre is never going to be the topic of any conversation among fans, as he’ll never be good enough to start and he’ll never play enough to attract negative attention. He’ll just do his job and ingratiate himself to managers and he’ll stick around as an unknown backup for more than a decade. It’s a hell of a non-polarizing way to make a living. Way down the road, the complete oral history of Jesus Sucre will consist of, “who was that again?” and “that guy, that was a ballplayer.”

Mike Zunino: B-
Since May started, Zunino’s hit .180 with ten walks and 75 strikeouts. He’s kind of been last year’s J.P. Arencibia, which isn’t a good offensive catcher, but then there is more to it. The season also happens to include April, and Zunino appears to be an incredible receiver and handler of the pitching staff, and not that it matters here but sometimes it is easy to forget how quickly Zunino was rushed through the system. There’s been a lot on his plate, and one of the ideas behind bringing up Sucre is now McClendon might feel more comfortable giving Zunino more time off. More time off might allow him to perform more consistently. Zunino’s offensive game is basically running into a dinger from time to time, but the power is legit, and the defense is legit, and this is still the best catcher the Mariners have had in years. He makes too many outs with the bat, but he’s also invaluable when it comes to creating them in the field. Zunino might kind of capture the 51-44 All-Star break Mariners in a nutshell.

Podcast: Best Half Ever

Matthew Carruth · July 14, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Monday Morning Podcast!

Jeff and I review the first half, Friday’s biggest (sort of) ever King’s Court, and again talk trade stuff.

Podcast with Jeff and Matthew: Direct link! || iTunes link! || RSS/XML link!

Thanks again to those that helped support the show and/or StatCorner work in general last week, and in the past, and hopefully in the future. It’s truly appreciated.

Game 95, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · July 13, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Chris Young vs. Sonny Gray, 1:10pm

Brooms out, M’s fans. After picking up wins against the A’s new acquisition and their breakout pitcher of 2014, the M’s path to a sweep goes through Sonny Gray, the ace of the staff. I know Jeff Samardzija cost them a top-20 prospect in all of baseball along with a fringe top-100 guy, but Gray seems like the clear #1 despite the fact that he hasn’t quite kept up the pace he set in his incredible 2013 call-up.

Gray pairs his 95mph cutter-like four-seamer with an effective split/change and a plus-plus curve ball. It sounds strange to say about a starter with an average fastball of 95mph, but the curve is far and away his best pitch. The pitch has astonishing two plane break, and it doesn’t rely on gravity for sink. He throws it around 81-82mph, and it breaks nearly a foot glove side relative to his FB and well more than a foot vertically relative to his rising FB. It’s a bit like Taijuan Walker’s, only thrown harder and with more bite. In his (brief) MLB career, batters have a .017 ISO on the pitch. They’re *slugging* .175. Sure, it’s his putaway pitch, and he throws it ahead in the count, but it’s a big reason why hitters have had such problems driving the ball against him.

Gray’s career batting line against is .223/.289/.312. This is why he’s had a great season despite a drop in his K% and an increase in walks. Unlike Shark, Gray’s faced more lefties than righties thus far, and unlike Shark, that’s not much of an issue for him. In his career, lefties have managed a .273 wOBA, essentially the same as righties. Not only is his curve a formidable weapon against lefties, but his change-up (which, looking at pitch fx, looks like a splitter to me) is almost as effective. Everything about Gray – from the cutter-ish FB, to the splitter, to the nuclear curve – seems designed to eliminate platoon splits, and thus far, he’s done just that.

When he’s gotten into trouble this year, control/command have been the culprit. Patience, M’s. Patience! And while the M’s don’t have a pitcher with a mid-90s FB or incredible hook, they’ve got a 7 foot tall wizard throwing an 85mph invisiball, so, you know, hit THAT, A’s.

1: Chavez, RF
2: Jones, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morrison, DH
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Zunino, C
SP: Young

The all-star festivities kick off today with the Futures Game at Target Field. M’s #1 prospect DJ Peterson’s starting for the US team, batting 6th and playing 1B. That’s not an acknowledgement that he’ll have to move off 3B, it’s just an acknowledgement that Kris Bryant may be the best bat in the minor leagues. Gaby Guerrero’s hitting 7th for the World Team and DH’ing.

Matt Palmer’s pitching for Tacoma today at Cheney. The Rainiers are riding a 3 game winning streak and actually passed Fresno last night to escape the division cellar. Tyler Pike’s starting for AA Jackson. Fellow Jackson prospect Victor Sanchez had one of his best games in the system yesterday, throwing 8IP and giving up 3H and 1R on 1BB and a career high 9Ks. Speaking of prospects, Taijuan Walker went 5IP for Tacoma last night, giving up 1R but getting only 1K. He told Mike Curto he didn’t have good feel on his FB.

Game 94, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · July 12, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Jesse Chavez, 7:10pm

In 2011, it was Brandon McCarthy. In 2012, it was Tommy Milone, AJ Griffin and Bartolo Colon. Last year, it was Griffin and Dan Straily. This year’s succesful A’s starter with essentially no starting experience and/or a spotty track record is right-hander Jesse Chavez. Chavez was a 42nd round draft-and-follow pick by the Rangers back in 2002, and he spent several years as a hard-throwing reliever in the Texas system before being shipped to Pittsburgh in a trade for Kip Wells. Three more trades later, he was waived by one team and then moved for the ever popular cash considerations from Toronto to the A’s.

Chavez’s calling card was a 95mph four-seam fastball, and he’d picked up a slider and change to go with it. As this great interview he did with Eno Sarris shows, teams seemed to love his velocity, and his potential as a Rafael Soriano-ish FB/SL set-up man.* The problem was that he never really got comfortable with the slider; despite the fact he threw it when ahead in the count, *righties* hit .300 and slugged .500 on the pitch in his career. To make matters worse, his four-seamer was an equal-opportunity offender, with lefties slugging over .600 on it, and a career ISO (against all hitters) of .246. It had velocity and nothing else, and Chavez’s career looked like it was taking the Mark Lowe path.

Side work with his cutter and a move to the Oakland organization changed all of that. The A’s got him to throw a sinker, a pitch he apparently used in the amateur ranks before MLB orgs told him to forget it. He also went to a curve ball, *another* pitch he’d thrown before pro pitching coaches swapped it out for a slider. As a cutter/sinker/curve-balling reliever, he had a modicum of success last year, though a poor strand rate made his ERA a bit uglier than you’d like your set-up man to sport. Though he’d transitioned to starting briefly in the Toronto system, I think plenty of people - even A’s fans – were dubious this spring when the A’s handed him a rotation spot. He’s rewarded them with over 100 innings of above-average performance, and he’s become the latest example of the A’s seemingly inexhaustible pitching depth.

Chavez’s cutter’s effective against righties, while his sinker/change have been solid against lefties. He’s still got platoon splits, but they’re nothing much to write about. Despite the sinker, he’s still average-to-below-average at getting grounders – the cutter’s more of a fly ball pitch. He was excellent against the M’s in early April, but struggled against them in May; we’ll see if that familiarity helps the M’s line-up today.

1: Chavez, RF
2: Jones, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morrison, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Hart, DH
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Hisashi Iwakuma

It’s Iwakuma’s bobble-head night tonight, for those that love…uh, that sort of thing.

I’ll admit I haven’t thought about Jean Segura since his incredibly hot start to 2013, but I’m thinking of him and his family today.

In the minors, Victor Sanchez starts for AA Jackson, Lars Huijer for High Desert and Lukas Schiraldi for Everett. Not sure who Tacoma’s using tonight against Fresno. Despite that, today’s a good day to head to Cheney Stadium – it’s “Pink in the Park“, a fundraiser for breast cancer screening for low-income women in the South Sound.

* Ironically, he was actually traded for Soriano in one of his many transactions.

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