Game 12, Rangers at Mariners

marc w · April 15, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Andrew Cashner, 6:10pm (Note the early start time)

Paxton’s been the brightest star in the Mariner sky this season in part because he’s shown that last year’s big velocity spike wasn’t just a temporary thing. It’s a part of his skillset, and it has all sorts of downstream effects, from a lower HR/FB rate to larger swinging strike rates, etc. Velocity is not the only thing, but it is a pretty big thing. It was Andrew Cashner’s calling card for years, and has left him tagged as an “intriguing” or “promising” SP despite years of lackluster results and despite turning 30 not long ago.

OK, by the time the Rangers acquired him, I think “formerly promising” was more often used rather than good ol’ unmodified “promising” but that, too, had to do with his raw velocity. Cashner had bicep issues which sapped some of his strength in 2016, and clearly weakened his contract leverage in the offseason. The Rangers bought low on both Cashner and Tyson Ross, and while Ross’s issues were more severe, Cashner’s flared up again in the spring. In a March 31st outing, Cashner averaged 90+ on his sinker, down a full 4 MPH from 2016, and 5-6 MPH from his heyday in San Diego. He was pushed back to the DL, and is only rejoining the team after a 5 IP start in extended spring training. I’m surprised the Rangers didn’t send him out to a minor league affiliate, as I can’t imagine whatever he faced in extended is going to be a good analog for a major league line-up, even a struggling Mariners one. Frankly though, that’s the Rangers problem, not mine.

1: Dyson, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Motter, SS
7: Valencia, 1B
8: Martin, CF
9: Zunino, C
SP: Paxton

Quick game post today as I’m up in Seattle getting ready to attend this one.

Tacoma beat El Paso 2-1 on a walk-off dropped pop fly. All wins count the same. Dylan Unsworth was solid in a short start, and Mark Lowe picked up the win in relief. Ryan Weber starts for the R’a tonight as they open a series against Albuquerque.

Tyler Herb K’d 10 Corpus Christi batters in 6 IP, but the bullpen coughed up a lead and Arkansas lost 5-4. Brett Ash starts tonight.

Modesto beat up on Lancaster 9-2. Reggie McClain wasn’t sharp, but held the Jethawks to 2 runs in 6 IP. Nathan Bannister gets the start tonight against Thomas Schlitter of Lancaster.

Clinton erased an early 3-0 deficit in Burlington, tying the game in the 8th, but a Roberto Baldoquin walk-off HR gave the Bees a 4-3 win. You may remember Baldoquin as a rare international free agent outlay for Jerry Dipoto as GM of the Angels. He’s been a tremendous disappointment, and may be part of the reason why the M’s still aren’t huge players in the July 2 market (though to be fair, they weren’t in the last years of Zduriencik’s regime).

Game 11, Rangers at Mariners

marc w · April 14, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Martin Perez, 7:10pm

Happy Felix Day. Felix’s subjects grow restless, frustrated by another poor harvest, and a steady drip of stories of defeat and mismanagement in the army’s campaign against the southern kingdoms. But the King himself remains beloved, a symbol of nobility and wisdom. Of effortless leadership and resolve. His confidence and joy lifts the spirits of his downtrodden people, but even they, the uplifted, wonder how the Kingdom got quite so lopsided. The Canadian Prince helps, it’s true, but the army’s struggles, the bumbling Council who come in and implement the King’s decrees but inevitably screw up, the alarmingly rapid development and military strength of the southern kingdoms… it’s hard to be positive these days. Being positive is part of the King’s job, and his subjects hope that this is something that comes naturally to him; a product of his personality, or at the very least extensive training from birth. Without him, the people say, we are nothing. With him, we are a contented nothing. They repeat that often, trying to make it true.

The M’s face a divisional rival who has serious bullpen issues of their own. Texas’ bullpen ERA ranks 26th in baseball, just a tiny bit ahead of the M’s in 28th. By Win Probability Added, these two clubs rank last in baseball, with the Rangers at 29th and the M’s right where it feels like they should be in 30th. Closer Sam Dyson’s suffered two gut-punch blown saves, and lost another game to boot. The M’s problems are more diffuse, but the Rangers are perhaps stranger. They’ve lost Jake Diekman for half the year as he’s had to have his colon removed. Keone Kela’s not with the team for personal/personality reasons. Matt Bush has shoulder problems, and so the club is now leaning on Tony Barnette and lefty Dario Alvarez in higher leverage situations.

The M’s will miss Yu Darvish, as the righty just K’d 10 last night in the Rangers win over Anaheim. Instead, the series will kick off with familiar lefty Martin Perez facing off with fellow Venezuelan King Felix. The next day, the Rangers will give the ball to Andrew Cashner, who’s been rebuilding strength in extended spring training, before Cole Hamels will finish off the series on Sunday. Perez, like a microcosm of the baseball world, has seen his velocity increase slowly but steadily over the past 4-5 years. When he first came up, he was at 91 or so, but now routinely sits at around 95 MPH with his fastball. He throws a change, curve, and slider, with the change his best pitch. He was a hyped prospect moving through the Rangers’ system at a young age, so many always assumed his sporadic control issues would be smoothed out with experience. That hasn’t happened, and his walk rate’s continued to climb even as he’s established himself as a big league #4 starter. He’s walked 7 in 11 1/3 IP thus far after setting a career high walk rate in 2016. He’s 5-2 with an ERA in the low 3’s against Seattle lifetime, despite a so-so K:BB ratio, and was 3-0 against them last year, including the 14-0 drubbing of Felix Hernandez the Rangers inflicted on August 31st.

The M’s could use some runs, and it would do my petty, grudge-holding heart good to see them really pound Perez. To do *that*, they’re going to need production from guys other than Mitch Haniger and Robbie Cano. Taylor Motter’s stepped in nicely for the injured Jean Segura, but the combination of Dyson, Valencia, and CF Leonys Martin really need to get going. Martin’s an interesting case study in the promise and the limits of the great new batted-ball data we’re getting from MLB. If you look at a list of Mariners ranked by 2017 exit velocity, Martin ranks 4th on the team, behind only Nelson Cruz among starters (Motter and Freeman rank 1st/2nd). Martin’s a bit ahead of Robinson Cano, and easily outpaces Mitch Haniger and Jean Segura. One way of looking at this is that Martin’s been unlucky, and that his good average EV heralds an imminent turnaround in his results. That way of looking at it would be wrong.

To highlight this, I looked at a non-random group of hitters: Mike Trout, Daniel Murphy, Kris Bryant, Taylor Motter, Mitch Haniger and Kyle Seager. At this point, Motter leads the group in exit velocity, with Murphy in 2nd. Martin and Trout are right in the middle of the pack with nearly identical 89+ MPH average exit velocities. Being close to Mike Trout is great, right? No, because these data, on their own, are essentially meaningless. Sure, if his average was 60 MPH (or 110 MPH), that’d be noteworthy, but the world is frustrating in that nothing is that easy.* *Everyone* is clustered fairly tightly together, and while Nelson Cruz hits the ball really, really hard, it’s not like the guys in the middle or even towards the back of the pack are necessarily slap hitters. Mitch Haniger’s average exit velocity is below average, but it doesn’t matter.

If we restrict those batted balls to ones hit between 20-30 degrees, nearly ideal angles for slugging, the picture looks pretty different. Now, Haniger leads the group with 5 such hits, and they’ve been hit at an average over 100 MPH. It’s probably no surprise that Haniger’s gone 4-5 with 3 HRs and a 2B on such contacts. Look at Martin, though. He’s got 4 batted balls in this group, with an average velocity of just 80 MPH.

The contrast with Bryant is instructive, and it’s one I’ve been thinking about since Jeff wrote this great piece about Justin Smoak of all people. Kris Bryant’s average launch angle is right around 20 degrees, but his average exit velocity – even for those perfectly-angled hits – is nothing special. Last year too. Part of this is the distribution of his batted balls – with an uppercut swing, he’s got several near-misses that result in lazy fly balls. But he’s not Giancarlo Stanton – he generates prodigious power not by hitting the ball 120 MPH, but by hitting a number of balls at the right angle and 107-109 MPH. This has been Mitch Haniger’s trick, too. He’s hit three HRs this year, none of which were struck as well as Taylor Motter’s double, but it didn’t matter. The combination of angle and speed is much, much more important than either on their own.

That brings us back to Martin. He’s actually hit *4* balls at 100 MPH or more, including one that was hit with a higher exit velocity than *any ball Mitch Haniger has hit all year.* The average launch angle of Martin’s 100 MPH blasts? *Negative* 2.5. He’s hit three ground balls and a line drive. At this point, Martin can either hit the ball hard, or hit the ball in the air. He’s been totally unable to do both. This is fixable, but very troubling. Last year, Martin hit 86 balls at least 100 MPH, and started out the year hitting them in the air as well. Through May 21st 2016, Martin hit 22 such balls, and 20 of them had positive launch angles, including 7 HRs. Even through July, he looked like a new hitter – an improved angle had allowed him to display much more power. But since then, something’s changed. His ISO fell off last year, and it’s not going to change now unless his swing path improves. Hitting a bunch of hard ground balls *could* work for some players, but it won’t work with Martin’s elevated K rate. He strikes out too much to be a singles hitter, so getting back to his swing in the first half of 2016 needs to be a priority for the M’s and Edgar Martinez.

1: Heredia, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Motter, SS
7: Valencia, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Dyson, CF

I can’t tell if I’m glad or kind of annoyed that I did research on Martin only to see him benched in favor of Dyson today. Is it more relevant or less? Relevance has never been my strong suit, so I’ll just let it go. Not sure Dyson’s batted ball data are more encouraging than Martin’s in any event…

Dillon Overton’s been optioned to Tacoma to make room for the newly-rehabilitated RP Tony Zych. The bullpen could use some assistance, so between the off day, Zych, and awesome power of regression towards the mean, things are looking up!

The M’s had a banner day in the minors, with *every* affiliate winning by shutout. Ok, ok, the Rainiers played a double-header, and in the other game, they themselves were shut out, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the stars align for each team to blank their opponents.

Tacoma split a doubleheader with El Paso, with Sam Gaviglio the hard-luck loser of a 1-0 score in game 1. Gaviglio pitched all 7 IP, and retired the final 17 to face him. In the nightcap, Chris Heston tossed a CH 7-IP shutout in the R’s 5-0 win. Tyler O’Neill had 2 singles, while Dan Vogelbach went 3-4 with a 2B. Tonight, Dylan Unsworth’s on the hill opposite El Paso’s Dinelson Lamet.

Max Povse needed to keep up with teammate Andrew Moore, so he went out and blanked Corpus Christi for 5 2/3 IP in the Travelers’ 9-0 win. The 3-4-5 hitters for Arkansas went 9-14. Tyler Herb starts tonight.

Modesto blanked Lancaster 8-0 behind 5 great IP from Anthony Misiewicz and then 3 more from Matt Festa. The game was scoreless headed into the 6th, so Festa gets the win (for whatever that’s worth). The Nuts pitchers K’d 13 JetHawks to only 2 walks, while the offense drew 9 walks to just 6 Ks. Control the Zone champions of the day, right here. Reggie McClain starts tonight’s game.

Clinton dominated Burlington 9-0, scoring 7 runs in the first two innings. Brandon Miller went the first 6 IP, giving up 3 hits and a walk and striking out 5, and Ronald Dominguez closed it out with 3 uneventful IP. Luis Liberato doubled and tripled, while Dimas Ojeda went 3-5 with a double of his own. Tim Viehoff toes the rubber tonight for the L-Kings who’ve won 4 in a row after starting 0-4.

* It’s not quite so black and white, but Jarrod Dyson’s average of 76.9 MPH is troublingly low. He’s never going to hit the ball all that hard, but that’s the lowest figure in baseball for all 76 players with at least 25 (tracked) balls in play. Worse, it’s in last place by *FIVE MILES AN HOUR*. Second to last place (Billy Hamilton, if you’re wondering) is at nearly 82 MPH.

Game 10, Astros at Mariners: Check-up on Offseason Plan

marc w · April 12, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Yovani Gallardo vs. Mike Fiers, 7:10pm

There’ve been a number of games that felt pretty critical already in 2017, and that’s not a good thing. Neither is handing the ball to Yovani Gallardo in one of those “this feels important” games, but hey, stranger things have happened. Including Gallardo’s placement on this list of highest velocity gainers thus far in 2017! We’ll take our good news wherever we can find it, including in component stats that influence actual results obliquely. Yeah!

It’s early. I get that. The following examination of stats proves nothing, because it’s too early for anything to be provable. I know that, you know that, but these disclaimers still feel necessary…or maybe it’s just habit, like much of the writing on this ol’ website. We could either skip any kind of analysis until, I don’t know, late July, or we could just see what we see. I’m going to opt for the latter. OK, so to quickly summarize what I understood the M’s off-season plan to be, the M’s were going to improve – dramatically – their OF defense, and get more fly-ball pitchers to give the new defense more to do. An important byproduct of all of this was the baserunning would improve as well, as there’s a good correlation between lighting-fast OFs and lightning-fast baserunners. The cost of these moves was essentially twofold: first, it’d thin out the club’s minor league depth a bit, and second, it would come at a cost in offense.

So it’s early and all, but we can distill a few testable claims out of that and see how they’re going.
1: The M’s defense, and in particular their OF defense, will be better than last year (and waaaay better than 2015).
2: The M’s pitchers will yield more fly ball contact and less ground ball contact than last year.
3: The M’s will be much better baserunners.
4: The M’s offense will be worse than 2016.

So how’s the M’s defense been? There’s the handy “Defense” measure at Fangraphs which shows the M’s below average, and ranking 21st, but that’s a bit too vague. Let’s check defensive efficiency, or the percentage of balls in play that become outs. As I’ve mentioned, there are a couple of sources for these data – BP and Fangraphs – and both give you slightly different answers. BP breaks it down by component (infield vs. outfield), so we’ll start there. Here’s the page for Defensive Efficiency, and sort by the column labeled “DE.” You’ll find the M’s figure of .691 ranks them 22nd, and is more or less in line with the nebulous “defense” ranking at FG. Sorting by pitching BABIP at Fangraphs is supposed to be the same basic thing: in this case, you’re measuring the balls in play that fall in for hits, which is essentially 1/defensive efficiency. Using BABIP, the M’s rank…22nd, with an implied DE of .693, so everything we can see shares the same basic view of the M’s run-prevention crew: they’ve been worse than league average.

Leaguewide DE or BABIP or whatever you want to call it has moved somewhat dramatically in the early going of 2017: far more balls in play are being turned into outs. As you can see from this table, leaguewide BABIP’s been fairly stable in the mid .290s, but drops to .285 in the early going this year. That’s not just an April thing; BABIP was .298 in April last year, .291 in April of 2015, and .294 the April before that. That’s some odd context to the M’s defensive…I don’t know, slump? The league as a whole has found it much easier to convert balls in play into outs, whereas the M’s have found it much more difficult. Maybe the M’s have just given up much more well-struck contact – as a team, is their exit velocity much higher than average? Er, no, it’s below average, too.

Going back to BP, is this the result of infield sloppiness? Are the OFs to blame at all? BP’s measure of IF defensive efficiency does show that it’s been the primary culprit, as they rank 20th in IF DE. But their OF DE only ranks 16th, not at all what you’d expect. I’m not sure I would’ve expected that out of the IF either, to be frank, but that’s a concerning figure for the OF. At this point, and we’re already chopping up 1 week’s worth of BIP data into subcategories, the M’s have to hope that this is purely noise. Whether fluky pop flies (like Gattis’ “double” last night) or bad positioning, the M’s haven’t been able to convert as many fly balls into outs as their peers, and that this won’t continue. But even that implies that defense, pace the old saying, might slump. Or go through a rough patch of balls in play. Either way, you can’t count on defense suppressing BABIP all the time. You just have to hope to see evidence of it at the season level.

BP’s DE page also shows the distribution of balls in play. It shows Seattle with a GB% of 47.1%, or 10th highest in baseball. Last year, they were way down at 44.62%, or 22nd. This is just balls in play, so it avoids the shockingly high number of fly balls that have flown over the fence. Fangraphs’ shows the M’s with the 26th-highest FB% overall, and the 11th highest GB%. It’s not quite AS bad, but the M’s have absolutely NOT tilted their balls-in-play profile towards fly ball contact. Obviously, a big factor here is the health of Drew Smyly. As the most fly-ball-centric pitcher on the team, these numbers would look different if he was around, but the bullpen’s been the source of most of the ground balls. James Pazos got GB’d to death last night, as did Edwin Diaz a bit in the Unmentionable Game. This’ll be interesting to watch over the course of the season and see if this, too, is just a tiny sample blip, and not related to true talent. One would think that a team built around elevated contact would have a high launch angle, but statcast reports that the M’s average launch angle-allowed ranks *28th*, which of course fits with the batted ball numbers: the M’s have given up more GBs, rather than less.

The M’s are in fact better baserunners, woohoo!

Finally, let’s check if the offense has produced at a lower level than in 2016… ha ha ha!

Tying all of the above with what we talked about yesterday, I wondered if leaguewide BABIP had dropped BECAUSE of the increased offspeed/breaking ball usage. Remember that we found that pitchers now throw fewer FBs than they did 5 years ago, and that the percentage of FBs thrown has dropped incrementally every year. Whether this is because teams see throwing 96 MPH fastballs as every bit as risky as curve balls, or if it’s because breaking balls produce better results, I don’t know, but it certainly seems to be true. So are teams putting more of those bendy pitches in play? Is that why BABIP is down this year?

I fired up BaseballSavant and I looked at batting average (on contact, or BACON, rather than just balls in play, or BABIP) in 2015, 2016 and 2017. I looked at four-seam, two-seam and sinkers as my “fastball” category and most everything else as my bendy/slow category. You can include cut fastballs and even splitters in fastballs (that’s the default at Brooks and BaseballSavant), but in my mind a splitter is clearly a change-up; it’s a way of producing a change in spin/speed, so grouping it with fastballs doesn’t make sense to me. Cutters are admittedly more of a borderline, as some people use cutters as their fastball (Kenley Jansen) whereas others use them as sliders. I opted for lumping them in with sliders, but you should try this with a different grouping of pitches and see if it makes a difference. Anyway, a table!

2015 2016 2017
Fast 0.337 0.343 0.328
Not Fast 0.317 0.322 0.307

So the not-fast pitches produce an eerily consistent gap in BACON- balls in play on non-fastballs are more likely to be outs. That’s fairly intuitive, I think, but we haven’t really tested the claim: are a higher percentage of batted balls coming off of non-fastballs? Let’s look at the percentage of balls in play on NON-FASTBALLS, and also the percentage of those balls that go for hits (and home runs):

% of batted balls % of hits
2015 41.27% 39.74%
2016 41.97% 40.41%
2017 41.33% 39.71%

Hmmm. There doesn’t appear to be anything there. The percentage of batted balls is oddly similar, and 2015 and 2017 look about identical in percentage that went for hits. I expected movement – some kind of trend – in these data, given what we’ve seen in fastball usage. But it’s not there. I did notice that the average exit velocity of all batted balls was down this year, which gets back to why league BABIP is lower as well. I checked this year’s average against the *April* averages in 2015 and 2016, and it’s down slightly this year on both FBs and non-FBs alike. Not sure what to make of that, but the more you look at it, the more 2016 looks like the outlier, not 2017.

I checked one final thing: the percentage of balls in play that came on pitches in and outside of the strikezone. Maybe the flurry of breaking balls caused batters to expand their zone, and maybe they were contacting more fastballs out of the zone. Here’s a table of the percentage of all batted balls coming on pitches outside of the strikezone, as measured by statcast:

Percentage of Batted Balls
2015 40.72%
2016 40.34%
2017 39.23%

Nope, batters are actually putting slightly fewer balls in play on, uh, balls. But the batting average on contact is down noticeably on BOTH in and out-of-zone pitches this year. Pitchers have induced more weak swings on essentially all of their pitches, and it’s caused leaguewide defensive efficiency to increase even comparing April-to-Aprils-past. That’s really interesting, and it makes the M’s slow defensive start even harder to take/understand.

OK, there’s an actual M’s game tonight. Danny Valencia gets a night off after a rough go last night.

1: Dyson, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Motter, SS
7: Zunino, C
8: Freeman, 1B
9: Martin, CF
SP: Gallardo

The Rainiers won their home opener with an easy 7-2 win over El Paso. Christian Bergman was sharp, with 5 scoreless and 7 Ks, and Tyler O’Neill hit his 2nd HR and added a double. Today, Sam Gaviglio faces off with ex-Dodger Mike Magill, who the Chihuahuas have converted back to the rotation. He was a Dodger SP prospect, then suffered a multi-year battle with wildness (in 32 big league innings, he walked 33), but looked OK in his season debut.

Arkansas…ahhh, Arkansas. The Travelers were swept in a painful double header yesterday, as San Antonio jumped on Lindsey Caughel in game one, but looked to have the nightcap in hand after another brilliant performance from Andrew Moore. Moore went 6 scoreless, scattering two hits, before turning it over to closer Thyago Vieira for the 7th (double headers in the minors are 2 7 IP games) with a 2-0 lead. Vieira…struggled, and by the time the inning was over, it was 6-2 Missions. Yikes. Max Povse tonight, though.

Modesto blanked Stockton 6-0 after an even more impressive performance from Nick Neidert. Neidert retired the first 17 hitters he faced, losing his perfect game with 2 outs in the 6th. He finished with 6 IP, just the one hit, and 8 strikeouts. Wow.

Clinton beat Beloit behind 5 strong IP from Ljay Newsome (7 Ks, 1 R allowed) and 3-4 nights from Luis Rengifo and Bryson Brigman. Danny Garcia starts today against Dakota Chalmers of the Snappers.

Casey Fien Outrighted, Evan Marshall Joins M’s

marc w · April 12, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

The idea that Casey Fien was on a short leash percolated through twitter and the blogosphere in recent days, and while the bullpen as a whole has been pretty rough, Fien seemed like a marginal guy. He doesn’t have the youth or fastball of a Dan Altavilla or even James Pazos, he doesn’t have the platoon splits of a Marc Rzepczynski, and he doesn’t have a good season with the club the way Nick Vincent does. With Tony Zych’s return imminent, the M’s were already thinking about which of their bullpen arms to move, and Fien’s so-so outing yesterday just moved the timeline up.

For the time being, Fien’s gone, and his place will be taken by the recently-acquired Evan Marshall. As I mentioned when the M’s picked him up (off waivers), he’s got a good FB that sits in the mid-90s, and a good slider with plenty of drop. That all sounds like a prototypical set-up man, but after a great first season with the D-Backs in 2014, the results just haven’t been there for him. He started 2017 with the Rainiers, and pitched quite well in his only appearance – facing 3 Sacramento RiverCats and striking out 2 and giving up a single. In both the majors and minors, he’s posted surprisingly low strikeout totals for a relief pitcher in these three-true-outcome-loving times, so if the M’s can help him unlock additional whiffs, that’d be nice. His change-up looks poor, so that’s an obvious place to try for improvement, but then, a guy with a 95 MPH fastball and a great slider doesn’t NEED a change-up in one-inning stints.

Marshall’s exit from Tacoma also helps another roster crunch issue: Boog Powell comes off of the restricted list today. His suspension for a second positive PED test wiped out most of his 2016 and it carried over into 2017. He’s back now, apparently joining Fien, who’s booted off of the 40-man. BBREF shows Fien’s got more than three years of MLB service, meaning that he could try his hand at free agency instead of accepting this outright assignment to AAA. However, doing so would forfeit his guaranteed money, which is $1.1 million. After his initial week, I doubt he’d make more on the open market, so his decision NOT to leave makes plenty of sense.

Game 9, Astros at Mariners

marc w · April 11, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Ariel Miranda vs. Joe Musgrove, 7:10pm

Anyone want to debate the following?

Paxton’s start yesterday was masterful, a complete masterclass in using velocity and location. It needed no context; it sits on its own as a brilliant performance. But add that context back in – the home opener for a team whose season-opening road trip went about as bad as possible – and it gets even better. One of the many things that made Felix this club’s undeniable ace was the number of losing streaks he essentially stopped single-handedly. Little 4-5 game skids that would just stop because Felix wasn’t having it anymore, and so he’d just dominate some poor team and win despite a lackluster performance by the offense. There are countless examples, but here’s one to give you an idea. In addition to signaling a potential step forward in his command and growth as a pitcher, yesterday’s game fits nicely alongside some of Felix’s “stopper” games. It’s just a shame that following this team for years gives you so many such memories (“Remember, after that 6 game losing streak, where Felix/Paxton…” “Wait, wait, which 6 game losing streak? The one in 2015, or 2014, or 2013, or 2012, etc.”).*

Tonight’s game is a rematch of the lone game the M’s won down in Houston. Even in that game, Joe Musgrove kept the M’s off balance, though his command wasn’t great. Musgrove now seems to be embracing the Lance McCullers school of pitch mixing – he’s essentially pitching off of his breaking ball, a good slider. In that 5 IP start against Seattle, he threw 41 fastballs (four-seamers+sinkers) and 41 breaking balls (sliders+curves) and the slider was the pitch he used most. He’ll throw it to lefties and righties, and in just about any count. It elicits a swing even more than his fastball, which is pretty rare for a non-change-up. If he’s had a problem in his brief MLB career, it’s the long ball. Part of that may be his home park, but a part of it seems to be fastball command that’s still a work in progress; you can kind of of understand why he’d start throwing sliders all the time given his specific weaknesses. In time, he could be a very serviceable back of the rotation arm or even a solid #3, and as Dave Cameron pointed out this morning, the back of the Astros rotation – now that we know Charlie Morton wasn’t just a 17 inning mirage last year – looks pretty good.**

We’ve seen a lot of the Astros already, so it probably won’t come as a shock to you that the Astros lead the majors in the percentage of breaking balls they throw. Counting just curves/sliders, they rank #1, just ahead of the Mariners. If you expand the definition to include cutters, they’re #2, just behind Madison Bumgarner and the Giants. And if you expand it further to capture change-ups and splitters, they dominate the field, throwing nearly half of their pitches slower/bendier. The gap between #1 and #2 (the Rays) is equivalent to the gap between #2 and #14. It’s early yet, but check out this table from fangraphs showing pitch mix on the year. It’s subtle, but fastball usage is down over the entirety of the pitch fx era – from nearly 61% in 2008 down to just 56% now. Houston’s unusually limited use of the fastball may be enough to explain a good chunk of the drop between 2016-2017, though obviously the trend predates Houston’s current breaking-ball-mania.

1: Dyson, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Ruiz, C
9: Motter, SS
SP: Miranda

Jean Segura heads to the 10-day DL with a hamstring injury, and the M’s don’t want to have Chooch Ruiz as the emergency IF, so they’ve made a roster move. Up from Tacoma comes Mike Freeman, who played a bit for them last year. Freeman needed a 40-man spot, so the M’s have DFA’d left-handed reliever Paul Fry. Motter is the SS, with Freeman stepping into Motter’s utility role. Get well soon, Jean.

Evan Scribner tossed an uneventful 9th, and at least according to the adjusted pitch fx/statcast numbers, seemed to have his spin back. But hold on; that spin rate data produced insane movement numbers for Paxton, numbers that are simply not believable. I’m prepared to believe just about anything regarding James Paxton (bitten by radioactive wolf; has cybernetic implants; secretly holds the power in Canadian government through a lifelike robot he built himself and which he dubbed “Pierre Trudeau” to win the backing of French-speaking Canadians), but there’s no way he was averaging nearly 16″ of rise. We’ll just come back to movement numbers after the system gets recalibrated.

Tacoma splits a double-header in Sacramento. Tacoma took the opener thanks to a great pitching performance from Chase de Jong and two late runs from the offense. Ex-Blue Jay Ricky Romero made his first MiLB appearance in a year and blanked Tacoma for 4 IP in the RiverCats 4-0 win in the nightcap. Ryan Weber blanked Sacto through 3 IP, but the RiverCats scored 4 of of lefty Paul Fry who picked a rotten day for a poor outing. Tacoma’s home opener is tonight, as the Rainiers host El Paso at 7:05. Christian Bergman makes the start for Tacoma against Walker Lockett of the Chihuahuas. Seriously, if you’re not going to the M’s game, or if you’re anywhere near the South Sound, make plans to head up to Tacoma for a game this homestand.

Arkansas got rained out, so they’re playing two today. San Antonio got to Lindsey Caughel early to take the opener 5-1, while Andrew Moore makes his second start of the year in Game 2.

Modesto lost to Stockton 8-3, as Stockton scored 6 runs on 3 HRs against Nathan Bannister. Nick Neidert starts a day game for the Nuts today against A’s prospect Casey Meisner (who came to the Org in a trade for RP Tyler Clippard) of Stockton.

Clinton won their first game of the year against A’s affiliate Beloit 4-2. It was looking bleak, but the L-Kings got 3 runs in the 8th to win it and salvage a great pitching performance from Nick Wells, who went 5 2/3 IP with 9 Ks and 0 BBs, giving up just 1 run. Ljay Newsome makes his 2nd start today against another A’s prospect, ex-Texas Tech pitcher Ty Damron.

* The last time the M’s had a season without at least a 6-game losing streak was also the last time they made the playoffs: 2001.

** His specific quote was that they weren’t the best #3-5 in the game, but were roughly league average, and that Collin McHugh would be better than that if he returns. To me, Morton+Musgrove+just about anyone have much more than “league average” upside, and while they don’t have the track record of, say, the Dodgers/Indians back-of-the-rotation, they’re not far off. They’re not in the Nats (and Cubs/Mets, too) range, but that’s as fearsome a bottom-of-the-rotation as you’re likely to find in the American League.

Game 8, HOME OPENER: Astros at Mariners

marc w · April 10, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Charlie Morton, 2:10pm

Early start today for the M’s home opener. After yesterday’s soul-destroying collapse in Anaheim, the M’s desperately need a win. Home field advantage and the team’s de facto ace on the mound would seem to put them in great position, but no position’s better than a six-run lead in the 9th, and we saw how that went.

This team is better than their record. They won’t continue to get zero or less than zero production out of Nelson Cruz or Kyle Seager. But it’s not enough to BE good – you have to PLAY good, too. Robinson Cano showed some signs of breaking out, and it’s just a matter of time for Cruz, but now that the M’s have whittled their margin of error down, they have to ensure that the supporting cast is ready to provide actual support. Leonys Martin has two singles in 25 trips to the plate, and his K rate continues to rise. Last year’s career high K rate was acceptable thanks to a similar increase in his power production. It’s very early, but Martin’s put up some of the worst at-bats on the club (and that’s a high bar), and that’s turning the bottom of the order into a black hole. It’s a fine line between “reactionary moves” and “swiftly addressing problems,” and the difference seems to depend on whether they work or not, but the M’s can’t afford to have the bottom of the line-up neutralize the top.

The other key area the M’s need to address is the bullpen. Edwin Diaz blew the save yesterday, and while his command’s been terrible, he’s going to figure it out. He’s still the best reliever the M’s have, and I’m reasonably confident he’ll figure it out. Altavilla’s been great as well. But after that, things get a little dicey. I mentioned it on twitter, but Evan Scribner looks like a completely different pitcher than the guy we saw last year or in his last year with the A’s. Scribner averaged 92 MPH on his fastball in 2015, and just shy of 91 in his abbreviated 2016. He looked normal in the spring, touching 92 and sitting at 91 in Peoria, but since the regular season began, he’s down 2 ticks to 89 MPH. Worse, the movement on his fastball’s gone. Scribner’s posted high K rates despite an average-to-below fastball speed in part thanks to well-above-average vertical “rise.” It was about 1.3 standard deviations better than average in 2015, and nearly 1.7 better in 2016, approaching 12″ of vertical movement. This year, his four seamer is *below* league average in vertical rise. Watching his ill-fated appearance in Anaheim, I wonder if he was missing his spots and leaving balls in the zone because he was anticipating movement that didn’t come. By statcast, his total spin rate is down by 150 RPM or so. His curve still seems OK – it’s actually a dead ringer for Houston starter Charlie Morton’s in terms of spin rate and movement (though Morton’s is 8 MPH faster). But if he can’t get to it thanks to a hittable fastball, that’s a problem. With 10 batters faced, it’s tempting to chalk it up to BABIP bad luck, but when his fastball looks *this* different, it’s a big red flag.

Nick Vincent’s velocity’s down as well, though the difference isn’t as stark. Thanks to command and some deception, Vincent’s produced strikeouts and a surprisingly low contact rate despite below-average velocity. His cutter (86-87 MPH) is his primary pitch, and it can make his mediocre fastball play up when he mixes it in. The problem is that the movement on his cutter’s down thus far, and thus nothing’s fooling anyone. His contact rate was 2 percentage points lower than the league average last year. It’s absurdly early, but it’s about 13 percentage points *higher* this year. These are not dispositive numbers; we have proved nothing, and as the saying goes, a good scout beats stats in tiny samples. But using a scouting eye makes it worse: Vincent’s looked hittable, and Scribner looked abysmal vs. the Angels. The M’s need to double check if anything’s wrong, and think carefully about their contingency plans. Altavilla seems to have already supplanted Scribner as the set-up guy who comes in for high-leverage situations, but the M’s need to figure out if James Pazos can do more.

This is all fairly bleak stuff for a home opener, so let’s just note that James Paxton looked every bit as good as we hoped in his first start. The velocity was there, he avoided hard contact (something that plagued him last year), and his curveball continues to improve. Paxton was everything M’s fans could’ve hoped for, and his match-up with fellow out-of-nowhere-velocity-gainer Charlie Morton was the best of the year so far. Morton’s got a ridiculously high-spin curve and now sits in the mid-90s, and seems to be worth more than the back-of-the-rotation contract he signed with Houston. I’d love the M’s to face someone worse in this spot, but to get their confidence back, the M’s need to go out and push around the Astros. Beating up on a 95 MPH fastball is just what Nelson Cruz needs right now, and while M’s fans are hoping the Astros don’t hit another dozen cheap HRs the way they did in Houston, I still think Safeco will be pretty HR-friendly this year. So hit it in the air against the ground-balling Morton and see what happens. Last year, the M’s started 2-6 thanks to an awful first homestand that saw them swept by the cellar-dwelling A’s. The club dusted themselves off, and quickly got back into contention. The M’s have already had their April swoon, so let’s hope this is the start of a big push. The Astros are coming off a series loss to Kansas City, so they look a bit less like the West’s juggernaut team than they did a few days ago. Go M’s.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Dyson, LF
SP: Paxton

Duty requires me to point out that no team in baseball’s done more damage to their playoff odds than the M’s. Is it silly to look at this in early April? Maybe. Are the odds still nearly entirely dependent on preseason projections? Nearly, yes. But in Baseball Prospectus’ odds, the M’s odds of getting to the playoffs have dropped by about 15%. That’s by far the largest drop, and it dwarfs the largest increase in odds – the Diamondbacks, at just under 12%. Fangraphs shows much less movement in part because they weren’t as high on the M’s to begin with. BP had their initial odds much higher, hence there was more room to drop.

Tacoma lost to Sacramento 5-1 as Tyler Beede outdueled Dylan Unsworth. Unsworth gave up 2 runs in 5 2/3 IP, with 2 Ks and, as you’d expect, no walks. The game was 2-1 very late, but rehabbing Tony Zych gave up 3 runs in the 8th on a Kyle Blanks 3R HR. Zych’s return to Seattle – which could come quite soon – likely means a reliever gets optioned or DFAd. Chase de Jong starts to Tacoma today in Game 1 of a twin bill, opposite ex-Toronto Blue Jays ace Ricky Romero, who’s trying to make it back in the Giants’ org. Game 2 will feature Ryan Weber for the Rainiers against Joan Gregorio, who’s racked up plenty of strikeouts in AA and AAA, but whose fly-balling approach has led to HRs and runs-allowed in the HR-crazed PCL.

Arkansas beat San Antonio 8-2 thanks to two great pitching performances from Kyle Hunter and Brett Ash. Hunter gave up a 2R shot in the first, but kept the Mission off the board after that in his 4 IP of work. Then pitch-to-contact righty Ash took over and blanked the Missions over the final 5 for the win. Jay Baum and Tyler Marlette both had 2 hits including a double, and the pair are a combined 15 for 31 on the year. Ex-Dodger farmhand Lindsey Caughel makes his M’s-system debut today. The righty pitched well in the Dodgers system before a labrum injury (fraying, not a tear) nuked half of his 2015 season. He returned in 2016 and pitched in spring training with the Dodgers, only to be released. He signed on with an Indy league team, pitched well, and was signed by the Mariners this winter. This post makes it seem like the M’s see him as more than MiLB roster depth, which is what you’d expect for an Indy league vet with shoulder problems on his resume. Good luck to Mr. Caughel, and I hope he dominates AA.

Modesto beat Lake Elsinore 6-2, with Reggie McClain looking sharp in his Cal League debut. The righty out of Missouri tossed 6 2/3 IP, giving up 1 run on 5 hits and 2 walks (he gave up only 5 all year last year) with 6 Ks. Art Warren got the save, going the final 2 1/3 without giving up a run (or getting a strikeout, actually). He worked out of the rotation last year, so not sure if this was a piggy-back start thing (like the Arkansas game) or if they’re moving Warren to the ‘pen. Today, Nathan Bannister makes his M’s system debut. Bannister pitched at the University of Arizona, putting up gaudy numbers in his senior year but falling to the 28th round thanks to a lack of velocity that only got to the high-80s late in his college career. Then, he was injured in a College World Series game, and wasn’t able to pitch at all last year; the M’s put him on the 60-day DL after the draft. It says something about how the M’s see him that he’ll skip rookie league/short season and the Midwest League entirely and join the High-A Nuts for his pro debut.

Clinton…alas, poor Clinton. They lost again 4-2, as Kane County completed a four-game sweep. Tim Viehoff yielded just a single hit in 5 shutout innings, but the Cougars tied the game at 2 off of RP Ronald Dominguez. It went into the 11th, when the Cougars scored a pair off of Michael Koval. SS Rayder Ascanio was 4-4 with a BB in a losing effort. Nick Wells leads the L-Kings to face Beloit and their alliteratively-named starter Boomer Biegalski, who sounds like a bully in a 1950s kids book.

Game 7, Mariners at Angels + Other Things to Worry About

marc w · April 9, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Matt Shoemaker, 12:37pm

Our first day game of the year features an M’s team in near panic mode, having dropped the first two games against the soft underbelly of the Angels rotation. Today, they’ll get the best (healthy) pitcher the Angels have, in Matt Shoemaker. The M’s have fared well against the righty, but most of the damage against him has come in Safeco. Like many Angels pitchers, Shoemaker’s a different animal at home, with a better K:BB ratio and much lower HR rates; as HR rates are his biggest flaw, that’s a pretty important difference. And if you remember, Jeff Sullivan and others have pointed out that the Angels have been especially tough in *day* games in Anaheim. This isn’t a great match-up on paper, but then again, the M’s have struggled in what seem like tailor-made match-ups, so hey, let’s try something different.

I’ve mentioned it before, but Shoemaker really seems like an American version of Iwakuma. Neither has an overpowering fastball (though at this point, Shoemaker’s got 5-6 MPH on Iwakuma), and both feature an excellent split-finger/change. Both have excellent control, and both are susceptible to home runs. The splitter is such a great pitch because it essentially neutralizes platoon splits; it’s an equal-opportunity weapon. Shoemaker’s career splits are slightly reversed, with a FIP about a tenth of a point better against lefties. Iwakuma’s splits are reversed, and the gap’s slightly wider.

It wouldn’t be right to talk about this game and not mention what happened the last time we saw Shoemaker. A 105-MPH line drive off the bat of Kyle Seager slammed into Shoemaker’s head, ending his season and fracturing his skull. After emergency surgery in Seattle, he’s had to go through rehab and get comfortable on the mound again…all while learning to be a parent (his wife was 7 months pregnant at the time of the injury). This OC Register report mentions that he’s become good friends with Seager as a result of the injury, which is nice, but I can’t imagine how tenuous everything must have felt for Shoemaker. As a non-prospect, Shoemaker didn’t have a signing bonus that helped him pay the bills during his years of minor league bus rides, and despite nearly 3 solid years in a big league rotation, his largest salary had been $530,000. Living in Michigan, that’d be life-changing money, but if he wasn’t able to come back and get to his comparatively-generously-paid Arb years, he’d have spent nearly a decade of his life fighting to get where he was only to have it snatched away just as it was getting lucrative. He turned 30 years old during his post-surgery rehab. I don’t much care for the Angels, and I hope the M’s hit several HRs off of Shoemaker today, but I’m really glad to see him out there, and wish him the best this season. Except against the M’s. (I also can’t imagine what’ll be going through Seager’s mind today).

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Ruiz, C
9: Motter, LF
SP: Iwakuma

Tacoma dropped their first official game of the year 6-5 to Sacramento after a 3-run rally by the Rivercats erased a 5-3 Tacoma advantage. Tyler O’Neill hit his first AAA HR, a long 3R blast to left-center that gave Tacoma the lead. But in that fateful 8th inning rally by the RiverCats, O’Neill made two fielding errors that proved critical to Sacto’s comeback. Dylan Unsworth makes his first AAA appearance today against the Giants’ top prospect, Tyler Beede.

Arkanasas was stymied by Houston prospect Dean Deetz, and Corpus Christi smoked Traveler’s starter Tyler Herb for 4 runs in 4 2/3 IP. Kyle Hunter starts today for Arkansas against ex-affiliate San Antonio and lower-tier Padres prospect (they’ve got a LOT of pitching prospects, so it’s no slam on the guy) Brett Kennedy.

Modesto got walked off by Lake Elsinore last night, giving up 4 runs in the 9th for a 10-9 loss. Joey Curletta and Logan Taylor homered for the Nuts, but control problems and timely hits by the Storm meant it wasn’t enough. Control artist Reggie McClain starts today in his first High-A appearance.

Clinton was shut out again by Kane County, pushing their scoreless innings streak to 22. They’ve still scored in only one inning on the year. They’ll play the wrap-up game of the series today with Tim Viehoff on the hill for the Lumberkings. The lefty struck out 55 in 39 IP for Everett last season.

Game 6, Mariners at Angels

marc w · April 8, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Felix Hernandez vs. Ricky Nolasco, 7:07pm

Happy Felix day. The M’s are 1-4, and have now struggled against Cy Young winners/candidates but the Jesse Chavez’s of the world. It’s too early for panic, but it’s not too early to be a bit concerned. Tonight’s game is the first time they’ve been favored in those Fangraphs odds, and it’s by the slimmest of margins: 50.1% to 49.9% for Anaheim. I think all of us – even Angels fans – would agree that the real odds are a bit better than that. Felix is healthy, and pitched reasonably well in his debut. Ricky Nolasco is a poor starter, and thanks to his fly-balling ways, just what the M’s offense needs.

But that’s the problem with should-win games: a win tonight isn’t going to dramatically alter our perception of the season’s first week, whereas a loss would feel dreadful. The M’s need a string of wins, especially when playing an Anaheim team that’s *already* lost their ace, Garrett Richards, to injury. A series loss here doesn’t change the M’s season expectations, but it would feel like both a lost opportunity and a really bad omen.

Nolasco throws a four-seam and sinker at 91, a slow curve in the mid 70s, and his primary breaking ball, a slider. He’ll mix in a split/change on occasion, but by and large he’s a sinker/slider pitcher. While he’s got the career platoon splits you’d expect, his problems in recent years have actually come from right-handers. He’d been a strikeout pitcher early in his career, but has settled in as a back-of-the-rotation option for several years, many with Minnesota. When the Angels acquired him (for Hector Santiago), it seemed odd – both were 5th starters who got lots of fly balls, and Nolasco was on a much bigger contract. At his age, he didn’t really seem better than Santiago. Of course, he was probably the Angels best pitcher down the stretch, putting in 9 solid starts with an ERA in the low 3s after posting an ERA well in the 5s in the Twin Cities. Did anything change, beyond the fact his BABIP dropped by 60-70 points?

He altered his pitch mix fairly dramatically, using his sinker much more often and thus *increasing* his GB rate (albeit slightly). That was interesting in itself, because the Angels have, for years, been famous for encouraging fly balls in their spacious, fly-ball-suppressing park. From 2011-2015 (when Jerry Dipoto was the GM), the Angels staff induced more fly balls than any team in baseball. That continued last year, when they posted the lowest GB rate and were essentially tied with Tampa for highest fly ball rate. With guys like Jered Weaver and Santiago on the team, it made sense. The acquisition of Nolasco made sense from the standard Angels-gonna-Angel point of view, but the new front office may not be as fly-ball-fixated as Dipoto (who’s now brought the same approach to Seattle). Nolasco’s HR/FB dropped slightly, as you’d expect when moving to Anaheim, and with fewer fly balls allowed, his HRs (and runs) fell. I can imagine any pitcher who sees Andrelton Simmons behind him might try for a few more grounders, too.

Whatever his approach, the M’s have generally hit Nolasco pretty well. Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Danny Valencia all have multiple HRs against him. If the M’s can’t score tonight…

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Dyson, LF
SP: El Cartelua

Tacoma played a few innings, but the rains returned, and they’ll pick up the suspended game on another trip. They’ll try to play a full game in Sacramento tonight with Chris Heston on the mound against Clayton Blackburn.

Arkansas got their first win as an M’s affiliate behind a great pitching performance from Max Povse. Povse tossed 7 scoreless with 5 Ks, 2 hits and just 1 BB. Thyago Vieira closed it out in the 9th, too – he K’d 2 and walked none, which is a good sign after his spring wildness. They’ll play Corpus Christi again today with Tyler Herb on the mound. Dean Deetz, an Astros prospect, gets the start for CC and he’s been tough: 8 Ks and 2 BBs through 5 IP at this point.

Lake Elsinore shattered the Modesto Nuts 8-2, as the Storm tossed Modesto starter Pablo Lopez after 3. LE knocked 12 hits and scored 8 runs off of him, which was all top prospect Cal Quantrill needed. He K’d 7 nuts in 5 innings. Tonight, Anthony Misiewicz takes the hill for Modesto.

Clinton was blanked 3-0 by Kane County. Jon Duplantier allowed only a single in 5 shutout IP (with 8 Ks), and 3 relievers closed it out. L-Kings starter Danny Garcia was solid through 5, but obviously got no support. Offense struggles aren’t limited to the parent club: Clinton has scored in only one single inning they’ve played thus far. They scored all three runs in a single inning in their opening night loss, then got shut out last night, and have been shut out through 5 today. Yeesh. Brandon Miller’s on the mound for them today.

Game 5, Mariners at Angels

marc w · April 7, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Yovani Gallardo vs. Jesse Chavez, 7:07pm

I’m guessing that both the M’s and Angels come into this three game set in a foul mood. The M’s finally won a game, but it took a 9th inning rally against a great closer to do it; their line-up did not inspire a lot of confidence against the Astros surprisingly stout pitching. The Angels come in at 2-2, but can’t be happy with that. They performed the almost cliched trick of victimizing the Athletics’ bullpen back in the 2nd game, then lost Garrett Richards to injury in the 3rd – a scene that’s nearly as familiar as an Oakland reliever meltdown. Then, they were held in check by Andrew Triggs and the A’s yesterday. Both teams are staring up at an Astros club that’s at least as good as advertised.

Richards gets an MRI today, so we’ll see if the Angels week gets any worse. As it is, they’re going with reliever-turned-starter-then-back-to-relieving-and-whoopsadoodle-let’s-try-starting-again right-hander Jesse Chavez. The M’s saw him a lot when he was with the A’s, but it’s possible he’ll be using a different approach now. The A’s in the early part of this decade had some success teaching pitchers a cutter or, even better, a cutter and sinker, and giving them a very different arsenal. Brandon McCarthy was perhaps the most famous of these reclamation projects, but Chavez was another. He’d been a surprisingly ineffective reliever for several teams, but became a reliable #3-4 starter 7 years into his big league career in 2014. He maintained that effectiveness in 2015, putting in two full seasons with sub-4 FIPs and nearly 4 total WAR. Then, the A’s flipped him for reliever Liam Hendriks, and the Jays moved him back to the bullpen, where a bout of HR trouble nuked his effectiveness. This year, the Angels moved him back to the rotation, and as a guy capable of getting lots of fly ball contact, you can see why: he’ll play more than half of his games in parks that suppress fly ball contact.

In Oakland, the cutter seemed to be the solution to his persistent platoon splits. We’ve mentioned the spectrum of cutters, with some with slower speeds and lots of break being rebranded sliders, and others, like Kenley Jansen’s or Jesse Chavez’s acting like straight fastballs. Chavez pitched off of his cutter in Oakland – it was his primary fastball, and had nearly the same speed and almost the same movement as his four-seam. It had a bit less vertical rise, but like the four-seam, it’s been easy for batters to elevate. He even uses it the same way as his primary fastball: he keeps it away to RHBs and LHBs alike, and stays around the zone instead of elevating it or burying it low. It’s been a reliable pitch for Chavez, which is why it’s noteworthy that he spent this spring using it much LESS than he has before. Who knows what to make of two spring training starts, but he looked a lot more conventional, pitching off of a four-seam and sinker and mixing in the cutter instead of using the cutter as his primary pitch. Maybe he was working on things. Maybe he thought it was time to try something new, particularly after getting hit hard as a reliever in 2016. In his tiny-sample 2017, he all but abandoned the cutter to lefties, using much more of his change-up. That pitch has always been his weakest behind his fastballs and curve, so it’ll be interesting tonight to see if he’s got more confidence in it, or if his different approach this spring was just tinkering. I can imagine that Chavez using more four-seamers, particularly up in the zone, might change his batted-ball profile a bit (though the cutter was never a ground ball pitch), and it may give hitters who’ve seen him before (like most of the M’s) a new wrinkle.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Dyson, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Heredia, LF
SP: Gallardo

Please don’t be terrible, Yovani. Guillermo Heredia makes his first start, and Jarrod Dyson moves over to CF to give the struggling Leonys Martin a break.

The R’s were rained out. Check out the PCL preview below! Tony Zych will get an inning to start the game tonight, and then it’ll be the opening day starters: Sam Gaviglio for Tacoma and Chris Stratton for Sacramento.

The Arkansas Travelers got a brilliant pitching performance from Andrew Moore, but couldn’t hold onto the lead as Corpus Christi edged them 2-1. Moore went 6 scoreless giving up just 1 hit and striking out 7. Blake Perry struggled in the 8th and Zac Curtis allowed two inherited runs to score, and that was that. Ian Miller had two hits including a triple. Tonight, it’s Max Povse on the mound against Kent Emmanuel, which sounds like the name of a parochial school.

Modesto was so excited to become an M’s affiliate that they didn’t want their first game in the system to end. They played 14 innings, ultimately winning a 3-2 decision over Lake Elsinore. The top of the line-up scuffled, with Braden Bishop and Eric Filia going a combined 0-11 with 5 Ks, but the bottom of the line-up bailed them out. Ricky Eusebio (batting 9th) and Gianfranco Wawoe (7th) both homered. Nick Neidert went 4 2/3, giving up 2 runs. The pitching performance of the night might have been 2B Jordan Cowan’s. Cowan, who hails from Covington, pitched two perfect innings in the 13-14th for the win. Pablo Lopez makes his first start tonight.

Clinton got roughed up by Kane County, 13-3. A 7-run first set the tone, as the Cougars battered Ljay Newsome. Newsome hung in and ended up pitching 4 innings with 5 Ks and 0 walks, but the LumberKings bats were quiet. Luis Liberato hit a three-run HR to get Clinton on the board, but then Kane County pulled away late off of Matt Clancy and Michael Koval. Danny Garcia, a lefty the M’s got in the 15th round last year out of Miami, starts tonight against mid-tier Diamondbacks prospect Jon Duplantier, a 3rd round pick out of Rice.

Rainiers Opening Night (For Real, This Time) and PCL Preview

marc w · April 7, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

I’ve run through the affiliated full-season teams, but as always, it’s worth spending some time on my beloved Tacoma Rainiers. This is the club that M’s fans in the northwest can easily check out, and for the first time in a while, it’s got the most interesting roster, especially for position players.

The club’s starting out on the road, and I’m kind of thankful they were rained out yesterday so that this post is accidentally timely and not just an afterthought. The point herein is to go over the R’s roster in a bit more depth, and then to talk about the opponents who’ll come into Tacoma and what big prospects they may be featuring. It’s all a bit speculative, a fact that was brought home to me when reading last year’s version. Not only are we focused on the big prospects coming out of 2016, but we’re trying to figure out when they’re going to be in AAA. For the top players, they better be blocked at the big league level, or they won’t stick around past May. AA players start moving up around then, and injuries/trades/etc. mean AAA rosters are constantly shifting. Still, we can do what we can to identify any potential must-see games.

The Rainiers rotation, as I mentioned yesterday, contains four players who’ve moved to the M’s system fairly recently in Sam Gaviglio (late 2014), Chris Heston, Christian Bergman (late 2016) and Chase de Jong (2017), all along side M’s prospect and the pride of Durban, South Africa, Dylan Unsworth. The group as a whole lacks elite or even average velocity, but have solid command and mix their pitches well. Of the group, de Jong may have the liveliest fastball, and it may not average 91 MPH (he touched 91 in his ill-fated MLB debut the other night) – Bergman and Heston are right around 90, while Gaviglio and Unsworth come in lower than that. Of note: Unsworth’s velo seemed to be a bit on the low side this spring, but it clearly didn’t affect his results. Tonight’s starter is rehabbing reliever Tony Zych, who figures to get an inning or two before giving way to Gaviglio.

The bullpen features MLB vets Nick Hagadone, Jean Machi, Mark Lowe and Ryan Weber, but M’s prospects Paul Fry and Emilio Pagan are the guys to watch. Fry’s a lefty the M’s drafted out of a Michigan JC, and while he wasn’t quite able to match his jaw-dropping 2015 stats last year, his 2nd half showed why he’s moved up the M’s affiliates so quickly. Pagan pitched for tiny Belmont Abbey in college, and has also flown through the system thanks to a 95 MPH fastball and a good slider. He pitched for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic (Gaviglio pitched for Italy, too) and seems like he could slot into the back of a big league bullpen soon. Fry lacks the top-end velo of Pagan, but with his arm angle and slider seems like he could get big league lefties out right now. Both Pagan/Fry could use some work on their change-ups.

Catching this group will be long-time M’s farmhand Steve Baron, who was drafted way back in 2009, when Jack Zduriencik was still seen as a heroic figure. Baron’s off the 40-man now, but still has a great reputation as a defensive catcher. His bat’s come around a bit in recent years, as he’s put up better than .700 OPS marks in both the PCL (2015) and SL (2016). That’s not a terribly high bar or anything, but Baron’s early years were ugly. PCL veteran Tuffy Gosewisch joins Baron this year. The 33-year old has played at the AAA level for the D-Backs, Blue Jays, and Phillies organizations, and he’s seen a fair bit of MLB action in Arizona. He’d been seen as a defensive catcher early in his career, and had the putrid batting lines to match, but like so many players, turned into an offensive force after moving to Reno. It’ll be interesting to see how he fares in a more neutral environment in Tacoma.

The infield features SS Tyler Smith, 3B Zach Shank, ex-White Sox starter Gordon Beckham, 2016 holdover and occasional Mariner utility guy Mike Freeman and the 1B/DH pair of Dan Vogelbach and DJ Peterson. As mentioned yesterday, this is a pivotal year for both. Peterson’s missed time with injuries and looked dominant at times and then mediocre for months. Vogelbach’s been more consistent, but defensive issues and a horrific spring slump have him back in the PCL trying to make the leap to big league regular. For years, the M’s had players who struggled with this exact move: Mike Carp, Mike Wilson, Jeff Clement, Dustin Ackley, Nick Franklin, etc. That’s why it was so heartening to see Mike Zunino’s progress last year; the club was going to leave him in AAA for the entire year, but his production forced their hand, and while he wasn’t great for Seattle, he was far more productive than he’d ever been. If one or both of Peterson/Vogelbach can make that kind of improvement, it really changes how we’d see the M’s offensive depth.

The OF’s headlined by top prospect Tyler O’Neill, with Ben Gamel taking second billing. Gamel seemed like an intriguing pick-up from the Yankees org last year, but he’s looking to prove he’s more than a tweener/4th OF. He’s never hit for a ton of power, and doesn’t have the best batting eye either – he can make it as a pure average hitter with enough doubles power to play in an OF corner, or he’ll have to improve one of those two deficiencies. I’m sure that’s what he’ll be working on for Tacoma. Also on the team are Dario Pizzano, another long-tenured M’s farmhand out of the baseball mecca that is Columbia University, and PCL vet and former 1st round draft pick James Ramsey, who’s played in AAA in the Cards, Indians, and Dodgers orgs.

The Rainiers home opener is next Tuesday, the 11th of April against rival El Paso. Last year’s feuds with El Paso began when SS Chris Taylor plunked the Chihuahuas mascot with a ball and ended with El Paso eliminating Tacoma in the PCL playoffs. The Chihuahuas graduated their two top prospects from last year’s team (Hunter Renfroe/Manny Margot), but feature a solid pitching prospect in Tyrell Jenkins who saw plenty of action with the essentially-AAA Atlanta Braves last year, and Dinelson Lamet, the Pads #8 prospect, a righty who played at three levels in the system last year and features a fastball that can touch the mid-upper 90s. 2B Carlos Asuaje is their best position-player prospect. They certainly won’t be in Tacoma in April, but the Chihuahuas come back to town in August, when we could see Cal Quantrill and, dare to dream, top prospect Anderson Espinoza. Both will begin in High A Lake Elsinore, but Quantrill’s a polished college pitcher and could move quickly. Espinoza’s one of the most talented pitchers in all of baseball, but is just 19 years old.

The Albuquerque Isotopes, a Rockies affiliate, come in immediately after El Paso. They again feature pitching prospect Jeff Hoffman (#2 in COL system) and stout lefty Harrison Musgrave. OF Raimel Tapia has been a toolsy prospect for a while (and he’s still just 23), and is coming off a dominant year that earned him a cup of coffee with the Rockies. When they come back in July, they could have pitchers Antonio Senzatela and Yency Almonte.

Giants’ affiliate Sacramento rounds out the Rainiers’ April home schedule. The Giants’ #1 prospect, RHP Tyler Beede, headlines the RiverCats roster, and he’s joined by former KBO star Jae-Gyun Hwang, a 3B, who nearly made the Giants roster. #2 Giants prospect, SS Christian Arroyo, will also start for the RiverCats. Sacramento has an inordinate number of mid-tier Giants prospects, from Albert Suarez, Austin Slate, and Steven Okert, but the Giants’ system isn’t terribly strong.

The newly-rechristened New Orleans Babycakes will come to Tacoma in early May. The Marlins farm club features a couple of mid-tier prospects in big RH pitcher Drew Steckenrider and IF JT Riddle, but the club’s filled with long-time minor league vets like Stephen Fife, Clayton Mortensen, Moises Sierra and Steve Lombardozzi.

Rangers’ affiliate the Round Rock Express make their first visit in May as well. Top prospect Yohander Mendez, a pitcher, flew up the system last year and played with both Round Rock and the Rangers, but he’s been assigned to AA to begin the year. A couple of great starts could get him to Round Rock in time for this trip, but other than that, this club is full of guys with big league experience. One of the more surprising assignments is Keone Kela, who was great out of the pen (when healthy) for the Rangers last year. The Seattle native’s been assigned to Round Rock for personal reasons after bad behavior this spring. This report has several (unnamed) teammates grousing about Kela, and calling him a clubhouse cancer. Yeesh. The team features several ex-prospects like Travis Snyder (another northwest native), Allen Webster and Tanner Scheppers (who’s on a rehab assignment). 1B Ronald Guzman, signed at the same time as Rangers OF Nomar Mazara, is the biggest true prospect to start the year with the Express.

The Fresno Grizzlies, the Astros AAA club, round out the May schedule, hitting Tacoma for a four-game set from the 23rd to the 26th. Houston’s been an absolutely loaded system, and the 2017 Grizzlies reflect that. #1 prospect Francis Martes, a RHP, will start with Fresno, as will 1B AJ Reed, who’s looking to put 2016 behind him. The OF features Andrew Aplin, Preston Tucker and Teoscar Hernandez. Closing for the club is the rare 30-year-old prospect, James Hoyt, who’s been shockingly good after moving to the Astros system. He K’d 93 in 55 IP for the Grizz last year, against just 19 walks. That got him a cup of coffee in Houston where his rising fastball got plenty of whiffs, but a few too many HRs as well.

The Reno Aces come to town June 5th, and the D-Backs affiliate feature the Snakes top pitching prospect in lefty Anthony Banda. They’ve got another couple of prospects on the staff in righties Jimmy Sherfy, Braden Shipley, and ZAck Godley – the latter two spent most of 2016 with Arizona. The best position player prospects are both ex-Mariner prospects: shortstops Ketel Marte (acquired in the Walker-for-Segura swap) and Jack Reinheimer (acquired in the Mark Trumbo for Wellington Castillo deal). Former Twins/Rays power hitting OF Oswaldo Arcia will start for Reno and probably put up some eye-popping stats in Reno’s home park.

Las Vegas follows Reno in that early-June homestand. The Mets team was a prospect hound’s dream a few years back with Noah Syndergaard and Jacob de Grom, but was filled with AAA vets last year. This is more like it: the Mets top 3 overall prospects will start for Vegas: SS Amed Rosario, SS Gavin Cecchini and 1B Dom Smith. The pitching staff’s a bit thinner, however.

Salt Lake makes their first visit beginning on Sat. the 17th of June. As an Angels affiliate, it’s a prospect desert, but 6’9″ pitcher Alex Meyer’s worth a look. He came over from the Twins system in the Hector Santiago deal last year. Kaleb Cowart starts at 3B for what seems like the 5th straight year, but the most familiar name to M’s fans is 2B Dustin Ackley. LHP Manny Banuelos, a former Braves farmhand, is interesting, and the club could eventually feature some of the Angels top prospects like 1B Matt Thaiss.

Vegas and Albuquerque make return trips to close out June/open July, and then Fresno and Sacramento return later in the month. Tacoma’s home most of August, and welcome the Memphis Redbirds beginning on Thursday the 3rd. The Cards club features top position player prospect OF Harrison Bader, along with catcher Carson Kelley and ex-Gonzaga starter and first-rounder Marco Gonzalez, who’s nursing an injury at the moment. By this point, they could be joined by the two AA players I mentioned yesterday: pitchers Jack Flaherty and Sandy Alcantara. CF Tommy Pham makes an appearance with the Redbirds for the fifth consecutive season.

A’s affiliate Nashville follows Memphis, and they’ve got several of the A’s best prospects, including #1 prospect Franklin Barreto. The SS was the primary “get” in the deal that sent Josh Donaldson to Toronto. The Sounds also have 3B Matt Chapman (#4 prospect) and 1B Matt Olson (#15). By this time in the year, they could be reinforced with AA players like RHP Grant Holmes (#3), SS Richie Martin (#6), and 2B Max Schrock (#20). The diminutive Schrock was actually born in Tacoma, and has hit repeatedly since being drafted in 2015. His height and position keep him well down top prospect rankings, but he essentially never strikes out and has hit for average everywhere he’s been.

El Paso and Salt Lake close out the 2017 home schedule, with the final home series taking place from August 28th-31st. Get out and see some games this year; it’s a better year for prospects than last year, and while there’s no Kris Bryant to get on the calendar early, with promotions and the like, the above guide could be obsolete fairly quickly. I’ll try and mention if someone particularly noteworthy is coming through town in the minor league game previews.

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