Game 42, Mariners at Giants – The Weirdest Meaningful Series

marc w · September 8, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Ljay Newsome vs. Logan Webb, 6:45pm

Thanks to the utter collapse of two of the game’s best teams coming into 2020 (the Yankees and Astros) along with the continued bifurcation of the league into good and rrrreal bad (looking at you, Texas), the M’s are kind of in a playoff hunt. It’s September, there are 18 games left, and the M’s head out on the road a couple of games behind the Astros for 2nd place in the west, and a few back of the Yankees for one of the wild card spots. The Yankees AND Astros are trailing as I write this, too.

The M’s have won 6 straight and are on quite a good run, but it’s so hard to figure out how to interpret that given the M’s schedule. The M’s are coming off a sweep of the Rangers, who are by winning percentage the worst team in MLB. They started their streak against the Angels, who have more talent than the Rangers, but are mired at 17-25. They haven’t fared as well against the better teams in the league, but then again, it’s 2020: they don’t have to FACE the likes of the Twins/White Sox/Rays/Indians. This season makes no sense, so of course the M’s have a shot.

If there’s one team that can understand the weird psychological conundrum of thinking they had a good shot to pick #1 overall and then quickly shifting to daydreaming about 1st round playoff pitching match-ups, it’s the Giants. The Mariners had the 2nd worst projected record in the AL, just a game or two back of the Orioles. Meanwhile, San Francisco had the 2nd worst projection in the NL, just fractionally ahead of the Marlins. Both the Marlins and Giants enter play tonight with .500 records, plenty good enough to be in the hunt for a wildcard in the new “everyone’s invited” playoff format of 8 teams per league making the first round.

Thus, we get what seemed like a sick joke in July, and perhaps even a couple of weeks ago: a September series between the M’s and Giants with playoff implications for both teams. I’ll be honest: I’m not sure how the M’s are in this spot, and I worry that we’re overreacting to the M’s swatting away a tanking Rangers team. I worry the M’s could fade in the late-September series against Houston and Oakland. But if there’s one thing 2020 has taught us, it’s that you don’t really need to be good to be in a position like this. You just have to convert winning chances.

The Rangers don’t because they essentially don’t have any, not with a line-up that can’t hit. The Yankees have all kinds of winning chances, and seem to be inventing more baroque, bizarre ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, kind of like their cross-town rivals, the Mets (watching the two teams play was like a bizarre grand guignol version of the game, with games ending on a wild pitch, a HR, a single, and the Yanks blowing a late lead with three runs hit off of their best set-up man). The M’s, despite a patched-together bullpen, have *mostly* kept things together, save that awful 8 run final inning in the first game of a double-header in San Diego.

Their bullpen isn’t great, but it’s figuring things out, and their rotation has been good enough to keep them in games. Now, it’s been good enough against bad teams. Marco Gonzales aside, I’m less sure about the other starters. This will be an interesting test for Newsome, who may be the only starter who HASN’T had a cupcake schedule for a while. He’s only faced the Dodgers and Padres, the two teams outpacing the Giants in the NL West. But the Giants boast a very good offense; they rank 5th in baseball behind, among others, the aforementioned Dodgers and Padres. They’re led by the breakout star Mike Yastrzemski, whose 2.4 fWAR are 2nd in baseball behind Fernando Tatis, Jr. down the road in San Diego. They’re also getting a career year from Donovan Solano, the ex-Marlin, who’s pairing solid bat-to-ball skill with newfound gap power, and a huge bounce-back year from 1B Brandon Belt, who’s power stroke is back.

Like the M’s, though, their pitching is a bit hit and miss. Tonight’s starter, Logan Webb, is another guy like Kolby Allard with solid overall batting-against numbers, but a mediocre ERA thanks to trouble stranding runners and some control issues. He’s a righty (unlike Allard) with a low-3/4 arm slot, and throws a very heavy, sinking four-seamer, a sinker that he’ll mix in against righties, a change, and a curve (and a very rare slider). The change-up is the outpitch, a pitch with drop and some armside run, a pitch that makes the rest of his arsenal better. It’s also a pitch that’s most effective against lefties.

Webb’s been very tough on lefties, but with a curve that’s not great and 93 MPH fastballs that really aren’t designed to be swing-and-miss pitches, he’s a bit lost against righties. He’s managed a decent K rate against them, and he’ll definitely throw change-ups to righties, too. But it’s simply not the weapon that it is against righties. Against lefties, that change helps him post absurdly high ground ball rates. But his GB% plummets against righties – it’s still high-ish, or a bit above average, but he’s not a ground ball specialist against same-handed batters.

The template here is pretty clear – get some righties in the line-up and look for sinking fastballs, and hit them hard.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Moore, 2B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: France, DH
6: Marmolejos, RF
7: White, 1B
8: Torrens, C
9: Long, LF
SP: Newsome

Evan White’s K rate has fallen below 40% and he’s hitting over .300 after the odd, made-up All Star break. His SLG% has dropped though, and I hope he’s not trading off power for contact, akin to what JP Crawford seems to have done. White’s always going to be an odd duck, and I’m not sure he’ll ever be a big power threat. He simply had to make more contact, and he’s doing that. But the offensive demands of the 1B position are high, and I just hope he’s able to continue to refine his approach.

Game 41, Rangers at Mariners

marc w · September 7, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Kolby Allard, 1:10pm

The M’s have won 5 in a row, and are somehow now on the fringes of a playoff spot thanks to the expanded postseason. The M’s have 20 games to play, 1/3 of the shortened season. Despite both their pitching and position players ranking in the bottom third (per Fangraphs), they’re not as painful to watch as they were early in the season.

Given the short season and extra-imbalanced schedule, it’s hard to know what to make of it. Are the M’s figuring things out, or just playing Texas/Anaheim a lot? Are their starters really developing before our eyes, or is it just a couple of games of BABIP luck? The answer is undoubtedly a mixture. The Rangers really are terrible, and I’m not quite sure where they go from here. They’re going to wait out some bad contracts, hope their pitchers develop and…I’m not exactly sure what they do on the infield. But that’s not all of it. There have been clear, unambiguous signs of development from several Mariners, from Kyle Lewis’ improved K% to Ljay Newsome’s solid initial games. But one of the more improbable, at least to me, has been Marco Gonzales’ remarkable improvement.

Marco Gonzales has been good-goodish for a few years now, but after a solid 2018, things looked worse in 2019 (despite a nice ERA). His velocity dropped, his walk rate climbed, and his strikeouts fell markedly. That lovely ERA was held down by a flurry of unearned runs and some HR/FB luck. He alternated effective months with disastrous ones, but ultimately finished the year fairly strong. Still, the trend in velo and thus strikeouts looked ominous.

If Gonzales was going to rebound and put together a great season, what do you think would change? What, exactly, would be the cause of this breakthrough? I and other M’s-writers have mused on this several times over the years, and we have been wrong every time. I certainly would’ve been wrong this year. A velocity spike, aided by the M’s “Gas Camp” perhaps? No, his velocity is even lower this year, and is among the lowest in the velo-obsessed game. How about an improvement in his change-up, once his best pitch, but an offering whose results have never quite shown up in games? No, if anything, 2020 has pretty clearly demonstrated that the cambio is in fact his worst pitch. Uh, more randomized pitch mix? No, he’s not quiet as random this year, favoring his fastball and cutter a bit more.

It’s thus hard to say exactly what he’s doing, but clearly command is at the center of it. His walk rate is nearly imperceptible, and he’s gotten increasingly good at targeting different zones with different pitches. He’s keeping his four-seam fastball and sinker down, using the former to get in on the hands of righties, and the latter to bore in towards lefties. He’s not abandoning the top of the zone entirely, though – he just uses the cutter up there. Whatever the reason, his average exit velocity has fallen, and it’s fallen for both grounders and fly balls. Batters aren’t driving the ball in the air, and it’s made his underpowered fastball one of the better pitches in the game, looking at pure results. It’s amazing.

Before the year, I worried that the Rangers might overtake the M’s in pursuit of contention if they could coax some improvement and consistency from younger starters like Kolby Allard. The 23 year old lefty has a very low BABIP, an improved K rate…it’s happening, right. No, despite luck on BABIP and HR/FB, he’s got an ERA well over 5, and he’s walking way too many. His woes look a bit like Yusei Kikuchi’s in that he pairs a very solid overall wOBA or batting average against with far too many runs allowed. The key is that he’s been great with no one on, but unable to strand any runners. That’s not a good pattern for someone who walks a lot of batters, too.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Moore, 2B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: France, DH
6: White, 1B
7: Ervin, RF
8: Torrens, C
9: Strange-Gordon, LF
SP: Gonzales

Dee Gordon now goes by Dee Strange-Gordon, as you can see from the line-up.

Happy Labor Day!

Game 39, Rangers at Mariners

marc w · September 5, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Justus Sheffield vs. Kyle Gibson, 6:10pm

After another win against the Rangers, the M’s are now 5-2 against Texas. There’s not a lot of mystery about why the Rangers are where they are: they have the worst group of position players in the game, and at least by Fangraphs’ metrics, it’s not even close. They’re the only group that’s racked up negative WAR, and they’re closing in on -3, so they’re not just fractionally into negative territory. The problems are widespread: nearly the entire starting line-up, from Shin-Soo Choo to Todd Frazier (since departed) to Rougned Odor was in negative territory. Veterans like Choo or Andrus, younger players like Willie Calhoun – it didn’t matter.

At the beginning of the year, league-wide BABIP was way down – lower than it had been in decades. That’s changed in recent weeks, and league BABIP is up around .290, just a couple of points lower than last year. The Rangers have not gotten the memo, as their team BABIP is still .257, by far the worst in the league. Optimists may point to this as a reason their offense hasn’t gotten going; they’re snakebit by BABIP luck. Their average exit velocity is middle of the pack, so there’s something to this theory, but it can’t explain all of it. They’ve hit for no power, have middling plate discipline, and this is what, the third year in four that Odor’s been nearly unplayable?

Kendall Graveman was electric out of the bullpen yesterday, averaging 97 on his sinker in a perfect inning. The M’s will have an interesting decision to make on him at year’s end. His contract’ll be up, and he may get some attention from other clubs, but his neck injury and arm issues the past few years will limit how much they bid. The M’s may want to bring him back as a bullpen arm.

Today, the M’s again face Kyle Gibson, the ex-Twins ground ball maven who’s been a regular punching bag in Texas. While the Rangers haven’t hit for power, opposing teams have done just fine against Gibson, who enters sporting a HR/9 rate of 2.13. The Rangers had done well in rehabilitating Mike Minor and especially Lance Lynn (who struggled a bit in Minnesota), but it hasn’t worked with Gibson, nor with Juan Nicasio. I think this year was always supposed to be a bridge year before their minor league pitching prospects could get their feet wet in the bigs, and ideally, swapping out vets like Minor or Lynn would help restock the farm system. I’m not sure any of that’s really going to happen now. They held on to Lance Lynn at the deadline, moved Mike Minor (whose ERA was 5.60), and made minor deals to move on from the disappointing Robinson Chirinos and Todd Frazier. That’s not exactly a big system restock, and without the minors, it’s hard to know how much progress their hurlers have made on the year.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Moore, LF
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: France, 2B
6: Marmolejos, DH
7: White, 1B
8: Ervin, RF
9: Torrens, C
SP: Sheffield

Game 38, Rangers at Mariners – Back to the Grind

marc w · September 4, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Kyle Cody, 6:10pm

The M’s series with the A’s was postponed due to a player contracting Covid-19, but will be made up with a series of double-headers soon. This is a common site now across baseball, as today’s action features what, 5 7-inning twin bills?

The M’s salvaging a split in that series in Anaheim was well-timed. Not only did they not fall behind the Angels in the standings, but it gave the pitching staff some confidence coming into this series against the lackluster Rangers. He’s someone I’ve criticized on the blog before, or at least questioned his ceiling, but Marco Gonzales has suddenly become quite good. He stopped the slide in his K%, BB% (and, uh, K/BB ratio) and has a microscopic walk rate along with the best K% he’s ever posted. He’s inducing weaker contact and thanks to that great control, the balls in play he’s allowing have predominantly come after he’s ahead in the count. This isn’t flukey BABIP luck, it’s the product of an aggressive approach, and it’s paying off.

Yusei Kikuchi remains an enigma, however. He’s allowed batters a sub-.700 OPS on the year, and thanks to a single HR-allowed, has a sparkling FIP, but his ERA remains stubbornly above 6. I’ve mentioned it a lot, but he’s really struggled with men on base, which is pretty much the only way you could turn his overall batting-against numbers into a high ERA. It’s weird – he’s corrected nearly all of the things that plagued him last year, most especially his HR problems. He’s striking out more thanks to an uptick in velocity and his new hard cutter. Walks are higher, but trading walks for dingers seems like a deal worth making. The trouble-from-the-stretch thing wasn’t really a problem last year, so I don’t *think* it’s just a case of him losing velo or effectiveness without the windup, and in any event that windup and his mechanics are pretty different from last year.

Kikuchi’s been much, much better at home this year, with a better K:BB ratio, no HRs-allowed, and all the rest. He is, of course 0-2 at home. And while he’s been knocked around on the road, he’s 1-0. Object lesson in the irrelevance of pitcher wins #4,502,341.

So, today’s opponent is Kyle Cody, a rookie righty out of the University of Kentucky (where he was a teammate of Evan White). Cody was drafted in 2016, and made it to high-A the next year before going down with TJ surgery. He missed nearly all of 2018 and missed all-all of 2019, before popping back this year at the Alternate Training Site, and now making a couple of appearances for Texas. It’s happened a lot this year, but Cody’s another player who never appeared at AA or AAA, and has now made the majors. He’s still getting stretched out and has only made 1-1+IP stints, so this is probably an “opener” situation; he’s not going to work too deep tonight.

Cody throws a mid-high-90s fastball (averaging 96), and a blizzard of sliders. He’s got a sinker and change, but essentially, he’s in there to be the 2020 version of the way the M’s used Matt Wisler last year (Wisler’s having a phenomenal year for Minnesota, by the way). That slider is a fascinating pitch, with *tons* more drop than the average slider; it functions much like a curve, with much more vertical drop than sweeping action (like Wisler’s). Batters haven’t really figured it out, though of course, he really hasn’t pitched to many thus far.

After getting beat badly by the M’s two Kyles, you can’t really blame the Rangers for calling up one of their own. We’ll see how effective this pretender is when facing the M’s Kyles tonight.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Moore, 2B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: France, DH
6: Marmolejos, LF
7: White, 1B
8: Torrens, C
9: Haggerty, RF
SP: Kikuchi

The M’s have been busy on the transaction wire. Their big trade with the Padres supplied tonight’s DH and C, and then the M’s traded nominal closer Taylor Williams for a PTBNL (supposedly Matt Brash, a pitcher). Because a few of the prospects the M’s got from San Diego aren’t on the roster, they’ve claimed P Walker Lockett off of waivers from the Mets, and OF Phillip Ervin off of waivers from the Reds. Ervin was a former 1st round pick who moved slowly up the Reds system thanks to excellent walk rates, but struggled with a low average and mediocre power (not a great combo in an OF). He was pretty solid in 2019 in his longest big league stint (260 PAs), but looked utterly lost this year, going 3-42 with no extra-base hits.

Lockett is another ex-Padres prospect (like Wisler!) who had a cup of coffee with San Diego before moving to the Mets. He’s been a frustratingly mediocre pitcher, without a real out-pitch, and who’s given up 11 HRs in his 45+ big league innings. Lockett’s four-seam (?) fastball is a weird one, with super low rise. It looks like a sinker, and seemed to function like one in the minors, where he’d put up above-average GB rates. That hasn’t happened in the big leagues (I refer you again to the HRs-allowed) where he’s been, if anything, a real fly ball guy. That’s not working, and I wonder if the M’s will try to get him on the Justus Sheffield program of turning a freakishly sinking four-seamer into a delightfully sinking sinker. MLB thinks it IS one, while Brooks still calls it a four-seamer. We’ll see if we can figure out what to call it once he appears with the M’s.

Ervin and possibly Lockett are out of options, and thus are with the big club. Tim Lopes, Joe Hudson and Braden Bishop have been optioned back to Tacoma, while Zac Grotz was outrighted there. With Dylan Moore back from the IL and Ty France in the fold, Shed Long will apparently struggle for playing time. The M’s may move him around the OF and he may get DH opportunities here and there. Sounds like he won’t really have much of a chance to hit his way out of his 2020 slump.

M’s and Padres Consummate 7 Player Deal

marc w · August 30, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

I think by now long-time readers know the general tone, the outlook of this particular blog. For all of the wheeling and dealing Jerry Dipoto has done, I’m skeptical that he’s a great judge of talent, and I’m skeptical he has some rare ability to get more than fair value in trade. If anything, I think I could be *too* skeptical; ask me to judge a Mariners trade in a week where both Ryan Yarbrough and Pablo Lopez have made yet another start in stellar years, and you may not get a neutral, balanced view of Dipoto’s work. But I want to bring up that context, that baggage, because Dipoto just traded Austin Nola, Austin Adams, and Dan Altavilla to San Diego, and I am ecstatic about it.

I mentioned in today’s post that the plan had clearly been to cash in on the early success of Austin Adams last year, or of Dan Altavilla’s velo uptick, but all of that seemed to have been scuppered by Adams’ injury and Altavilla’s inconsistency and lack of results. I…I guess not? The M’s packaged both – two guys who’ve combined for not quite 12 innings in 2020 with an ERA near 8 (all of that’s Dan’s, as Adams hasn’t been able to pitch yet) – with C/1B Austin Nola for a blockbuster return headlined by OF Taylor Trammell. Trammell has been a top-100-in-baseball prospect for several years, originally with Cincinnati and then with San Diego. He’s a tools scouts dream, with top-notch athleticism, speed, and has flashed remarkable bat speed and thus power at times (most notably at the Futures Game a few years ago), but who’s been slowed by AA pitching thus far. But the Padres also added 3B/2B/IF Ty France, who is hitting about as well as Austin Nola in 2020. His versatility gives the M’s some options at 2B, and at 3B should Kyle Seager get moved tomorrow, and at 26, he’s a younger utility guy than Nola or Dylan Moore.

The M’s also get catcher Luis Torrens, last seen allowing a ton of stolen bases to the M’s last week, but who raked in the PCL in 2019 and has a very promising bat for a catcher. Given Nola’s progression with the M’s, the club has to be pretty excited to get someone like Torrens to work with; Nola had been a contact-first batter without power before a brief power surge just before the M’s got him caught their eye. They improved his consistency at the plate AND his defense at catcher, and a fraction of that level of improvement would make Torrens a viable C, especially in a back-up role to Tom Murphy when Murphy returns to action.

But it gets better. The Padres threw in RP Andres Muñoz, a 21 year old with 100 MPH velocity who was pretty successful last year for San Diego, but who’s sidelined with Tommy John surgery now. Muñoz is the classic lottery ticket who could very well end up closing games thanks to his sinking, low-angled fastball and a good slider. There’s a lot of 2016-era Edwin Diaz in Muñoz, though of course we’ll have to see what he’s looking like after rehab.

All of these players are a bit higher risk. France is the high-ceiling guy, but he came out of nowhere as a mid-30s-round draft pick, and hasn’t grabbed a starting job in San Diego. That said, there’s no shame in having your starting job pipped by Manny Machado. Trammell hasn’t solved AA by any stretch, but there’s a reason people believe in talent like this despite AA struggles, and that reason is Kyle Lewis. In parts of two seasons in AA, Kyle Lewis slashed .253/.335/.392, with a strikeout rate over 27%. Trammell hasn’t gotten nearly the playing time in AA, but has a slash line there of .234/.340/.349, with a K% of just under 24%. Lewis hit for more power, but Trammell flashed some in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League, which Lewis skipped to underwhelm in the Cal League. I’m not saying Trammell is destined to follow in Lewis’ footsteps, but rather that the scouts that had Kyle Lewis as a top-100 prospect for a while and who *still* have Trammell in the top 100 might be on to something, something that hasn’t yet manifested itself in a slash line.

All of this is to say that the M’s did exceedingly well in this deal. I’m flabbergasted the M’s could get so much given that the Padres were able to grab a starting catcher an hour or two earlier by trading for the Angels’ Jason Castro. I’m stunned that the M’s were able to apparently get such interest in Adams and Altavilla, despite a short track record of big-league success. I’ve beat up the org and this front office so often for trades, so I’m a little lost for words. Good…good job? That was actually quite a remarkable deal the M’s just pulled off.

Game 36, Mariners at Angels – HugWatch

marc w · August 30, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Justin Dunn vs. Griffin Canning, 1:10pm

Last night’s game was a disaster, as the Angels scored 16, the final two off of M’s DH Tim Lopes. Given that context – a bullpen unable to get off the field, a starting pitcher who walked 4 in 4 1/3 IP, etc. – it’s perhaps unsurprising that the M’s are starting back-up catcher Joe Odom today. What IS a bit surprising is that the M’s have recalled C Joe Hudson from Tacoma, optioning Braden Bishop back down. With the trade deadline set for tomorrow at 1pm, could Austin Nola be headed to a contender?

It’s possible the M’s just want to maximize their options at C, and it’s possible that with Jake Fraley up and Dylan Moore returning soon after his 10-day stint and the birth of his son (congrats), the M’s decided to get Bishop more PAs in Tacoma rather than Seattle. But as Ryan Divish and others have noted, Nola’s got a lot of value as a good, bat-first catcher making the league minimum and with plenty of club control. He’s 30, which cuts into his trade value, but he makes sense as a win now move for teams like the Rockies, D-Backs, or even potentially the Jays – teams who are good, but have black holes at C – this Jay Jaffe piece at Fangraphs discusses all of the contending teams in need of the sort of upgrade Nola would provide.

The M’s have downplayed how active they’re going to be in the next 24 hours, with their bullpen largely sidelined with injury or ineffective. I’m not sure they’ve been actively shopping Nola, but I’m sure they’d listen to offers. The club seems very smitten with Tom Murphy, and while he’s missed all of 2020 with an injury, I could see them believing they can limp through 2020, then allow Cal Raleigh to apprentice for Murphy in 2021.

We still don’t know what the return is for the biggest move they’ve made: sending Taijuan Walker to Toronto. Walker tossed six scoreless in his first start for the Jays, and Ljay Newsome staked his claim to that rotation spot, and is penciled in to start in the M’s next series, against Oakland.

About that next series… an A’s player tested positive for Covid yesterday, necessitating a quarantine in Houston. The A’s won’t play today, and that next series is in serious jeopardy. That may necessitate some double headers for the M’s, whose six-man rotation may make them a bit more prepared for them than other clubs.

Justus Sheffield’s run of success came to a screeching halt last night, as he struggled with control and command all night. Batters swung at just *7* of Sheff’s 39 fastballs on the night, missing none of them (he had no whiffs on his change, either). As good as the slider is, he’s still *got* to have command of his fastball to be effective. The same could be said of Dunn, albeit reversed. He’s slowly improving his zone rate with his fastball, which is leading to more contact on it. That sounds bad, but it isn’t – batters haven’t fared well on his fastball, as it seems like they’re keyed in on his slider, which they’ve destroyed. I think stories about unsuccessful pitchers tipping pitches are overblown, but the Angels believe several of their starters may have been tipping, and I kind of wonder about Dunn.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haggerty, 3B
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, DH
5: Marmolejos, LF
6: White, 1B
7: Fraley, RF
8: Gordon, 2B
9: Odom, C
SP: Dunn

The Rangers are apparently listening to offers not just for Lance Lynn, who’s long seemed like one of the win-now prizes of the deadline, but also for three-true-outcome OF Joey Gallo. That would be a very interesting move, pushing out their window of contention (depending on the return, of course) past 2022. The Rockies gave up two decent prospects for the Orioles Mychal Givens, which highlights why the M’s are frustrated that Austin Adams, Matt Magill, and others have been hurt. There’s always a market for a solid set-up man at this point in the year, and the M’s wanted to be in a position to sell one or two.

Interestingly, the White Sox are rumored to be in talks with Cleveland to acquire talented-but-quarantine-defying SP Mike Clevinger from Cleveland. Would Cleveland really deal Clevinger to one of their most important playoff rivals (in-division, of course) in 2020? There are also rumors that the Tribe might consider moving SS Francisco Lindor, though perhaps not right now. Could the M’s move in for him, as this Mike Salk tweet asks? I’d love a big-time move like that, though of course I wonder what it’d cost. But I’m not convinced that JP Crawford would really work at 2B for a win-now club. He could, and his hot streak is showing that he’s better than the player he looked like for much of August, but he’s remarkably streaky, and needs to show that he can slug above .400 for long stretches of time.

Game 35, Mariners at Angels

marc w · August 29, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Justus Sheffield vs. Dylan Bundy, 6:40pm

Nick Margevicius was solid once again, but the M’s couldn’t solve Andrew Heaney last night. Now, they’ll have to try to get to the Angels best starter this year, Dylan Bundy. Bundy tied the M’s in knots earlier on, but the team had begun to look a bit better – especially Evan White, who was coming out of his awful slump. But White is still sidelined with his shoulder injury, though an MRI showed nothing out of the ordinary, and White is apparently available tonight as a defensive replacement.

Like Heaney, Bundy hasn’t been on his best form his last few starts. He suffered from some bad sequencing and bad defense in his last start against Oakland, but it’s also possible that seeing Oakland for a third time in less than a month was to blame. That’s of interest to M’s fans, as this’ll be his third start against Seattle in less than a month, too. His one truly off start of the year was the one before that, against the Giants. He walked four in four IP; he has four *other* walks in the rest of his season.

One of the defining images of the year was watching Bundy strike out White on three 90 mph fastballs in the middle of the zone back in early August. But Bundy’s success hasn’t been based on his fastball, though. Batters are slugging .700+ off of it. As I mentioned earlier, he’s become much more of a junkballer, and batters have not figured out his slider (to righties) or change (to lefties) much at all, despite seeing so many of them. But that’s the sort of thing that teams *may* get better at simply by seeing him again so often. We’ll see if the M’s have better swings on his off-speed and breaking stuff, or if they try to get him into predictable counts and look fastball.

Justus Sheffield is on a roll, and I thought his emergence would be the feather in the M’s pitching coaching staff’s hat…but then Ljay Newsome appeared. No, seriously, Sheffield is the key guy they need in 2021. If they needed to shop for a starter in free agency *and* hope that Gilbert/Hancock are good to go from day 1, that’d be a tall order. If they have the best versions of Sheff and Marco Gonzales, it gets a lot easier to see. Of course, none of that matters unless the offense gets more consistent too, but that’s a separate issue. But Sheffield’s success looks a little bit like Bundy’s: he throws so many breaking balls, you hope it can still be effective against teams that have seen him often. The Angels have seen him once before, back in late July, so I don’t think he’s overexposed, but it’ll be interesting to see if Trout and company are looking slider.

While batters aren’t exactly blown away by Sheffield’s sinker, he’s given up just one XBH, a double, on it this year. Sheff’s given up just two doubles and NO HRs yet.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haggerty, LF
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, C
6: Marmolejos, 1B
7: Lopes, DH
8: Long, 2B
9: Fraley, RF
SP: Sheffield

The Angels traded Tommy LaStella to Oakland yesterday for perennial prospect Franklin Barreto. Barreto was the centerpiece of the Josh Donaldson trade years ago. Barreto never blossomed for Oakland, and Kendall Graveman was hurt, and now pitches in the M’s org. Man, that deal looked bad immediately, but after years of careful consideration and nuance, it’s still awful.

Game 34, Mariners at Angels

marc w · August 28, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Nick Margevicius vs. Andrew Heaney, 6:40pm

After two fairly encouraging games in San Diego, the M’s head up the road to Anaheim to take on the Angels. The M’s have been getting very good starting pitching during their hot streak, which is more meaningful to their rebuild than their bullpen. Nick Margevicius has been a very effective depth guy who filled in when the club had some injuries, and who’s given them three good starts.

Margevicius has simplified things a bit this year. He’s throwing more of his somewhat underpowered fastball and *not* throwing his breaking stuff as much. That may be wise, as he’s having a heck of a time getting strikes with his slider – it’s been a called ball over 1/2 the time he’s thrown it – that’s not good at all. It hasn’t hurt him, though, because his fastball’s been working. I’m not sure if his delivery hides it or if he’s just maximizing his sequencing of it, but nearly all of his strikeouts have come on 89-90 MPH fastballs.

When last we saw Andrew Heaney, he was coming into the game on a hot streak. His sinker had become a good strikeout pitch, and the HR problems that bedeviled him last year weren’t returning. Since then, he’s had a rough go of things in 3 starts. He’s *still* not giving up HRs, and his strikeout rate’s still pretty good, but he’s been bad with men on base. Thus, his ERA is far higher than his (good) FIP – sort of like Yusei Kikuchi.

Evan White hurt his shoulder in Game 1 yesterday, and is out of the line-up today. I know reporters are getting an update on his condition today; we’ll see what they say. Jose Marmolejos hit two HRs including a grand slam filling in for White, so hopefully he can keep it going.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haggerty, DH
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, C
6: Marmolejos, 1B
7: Lopes, LF
8: Long, 2B
9: Bishop, RF
SP: Margevicius

It’s Jackie Robinson Day in MLB. Read this piece by Shakeia Taylor over at BP. I know the M’s will discuss Robinson’s legacy in the broadcast, and tweeted this video about him, but I think it’s worth reading Taylor’s letter to Jackie before getting to all of the self-congratulatory stuff about Robinson’s struggles.

Games 32-33, Mariners at Padres – Double Header

marc w · August 27, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Ljay Newsome vs. Dinelson Lamet, 12:10pm
Yusei Kikuchi vs. Garrett Richards, 3:10pm

The M’s are making up yesterday’s game with a hastily-arranged double header today. The pitching match up has changed, because the Mariners made a trade during/after yesterday’s drama, sending Taijuan Walker (who was scheduled to start last night) to Toronto for a player to be named later. Jerry Dipoto apparently said on the radio this morning that the return would be a player, and not another cash considerations deal, which was the return for Dan Vogelbach (who may be activated by the Jays today).

John Trupin speculates about the possible return in this post at Lookout Landing, noting that the Jays top 30 prospect list is jam packed with young shortstops. The M’s don’t have many pure SS in the system; there’s Noelvi Marte and something of a gap behind him. Thus, taking one of the Jays many SS off of their hands might make some sense. It wouldn’t be one of their absolute top prospects, but a guy like Otto Lopez would be nice. Another possibility, perhaps, could be the recently-DFA’d Anthony Alford, a toolsy OF who played college football at Ole Miss before joining the Jays org. He’s been good at times in the minors, but his development stalled out, and without many routes to playing time (and without any minor league options left), the Jays moved on. He’s not on the Jays 60-man pool, but I’m not sure why they couldn’t simply announce the deal if it was Alford, but it’s always possible that there are some weird, made-up-on-the-fly rules governing this in 2020. The M’s have a need at OF with Mallex Smith struggling mightily, and using Tim Lopes/Dylan Moore in OF corners out of position. Jake Fraley, Sam Haggerty, and Braden Bishop need PAs, but depth would be nice, even if it’s depth that they couldn’t stash in Tacoma.

Ljay Newsome gets his first big league start a few days after his encouraging MLB debut. The righty throws an interesting FB from a very low arm slot. It’s got average to a bit below ride thanks to solidly below average spin, and I wonder if he’d benefit from embracing the sinker the way Justus Sheffield has. Like Sheff, he throws his slurve/curve a ton – more than his FB in his one appearance. That pitch, even more than his FB, stands out for freakishly low spin, though I’m not convinced that this is a big red flag. We should see a bit more of his change, which I like the best of his three offerings. It’s got splitter-style vertical drop compared to his FB, and it could help him with the lefties in San Diego’s line-up.

Opposing him is Dinelson Lamet, a flame-throwing righty who’s back from a series of injuries and having by far his best season. His fastball is thrown from a higher arm slot but has similar movement to Newsome’s. It’s thrown at 98, not 92, however. His primary pitch, thrown over 50% of the time, is a brutal high-80s slider. It’s helped push Lamet’s strikeout percentage over 34%, and importantly, he’s been able to limit walks – control had always been a problem for him in previous seasons.

I’ll write up the nightcap’s match up in a little while. Former Angel Garrett Richards starts for San Diego opposite Yusei Kikuchi.

Game 1:
1: Crawford, SS
2: Haggerty, LF
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, DH
6: White, 1B
7: Fraley, RF
8: Long, 2B
9: Odom, C
SP: Newsome

Well, Ljay Newsome acquitted himself quite well in Game 1, going 4 IP with 5 Ks and no walks, and only one real mistake, a fastball hit out by Manny Machado. Dinelson Lamet wasn’t sharp, but relied on his stuff to get through. Jose Marmolejos, who’d been called up as the “29th man” for the double-header was forced into action after Evan White hurt his shoulder broke a scoreless tie with a 2-run HR.

Newsome sat 91-92 with his FB, but hit 94 at times, striking out Tatis,Jr. on one of those amped-up fastballs in the first. He’s been remarkably hard to hit in his two appearances, which is interesting; batters are clearly not seeing the ball out of his hand. He did use his change-up more, but it wasn’t all that sharp. His curve/slurve, on the other hand, was, getting some weak contact and a couple of called strikes.

The bullpen blew it for him, as Fernando Tatis, Jr. shook off his Ks against Newsome to drive a Matt Magill pitch out, and then Trent Grisham went back to back, tying the game at 3. Of course, team wins aren’t that important, and you can make a case that they’re counterproductive, but I still like seeing a decent-if-flawed-and-inexperienced team rather than an out and out bad one. But hey, that’s been the nice thing about this winning streak. If you squint, you could really see how this group could come together, get to .500-ish next year and then add in free agency to make a run in 2022. I haven’t been able to visualize that in many years. As if to underscore that point, the M’s shook off the blown save and scored four in the 7th to take the lead before a rather disastrous bottom of the inning. All in all, that’s just about the ideal result.

In the nightcap, the M’s face the original spin-rate king, Garrett Richards. Richards’ cut fastball, slider, and curve were always the top of the MLB class in spin rate, and at times, he’s used them to be an effective starter. But he simply couldn’t stay healthy; the last time he made 20 starts was 2015. He made 18 in 2018, but only six in 2016 and 2017. This’ll be his seventh start of the year, which makes this a comparatively healthy campaign. And a good one – he’s got his ERA/FIP under 4 thus far, and hasn’t been as troubled by HRs as he was in those short 2018-19 years. His K rate is down, but he’s looking a bit more like the guy he was for the Angels years ago.

He’s still predominantly a three-pitch guy: four-seam/cut fastball at 95, a hard slider at 89, and a rare curve. He’s mixing in more of a sinker these days as well.

Game 2:
1: Crawford, SS
2: Haggerty, LF
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, C
6: Marmolejos, 1B
7: Lopes, RF
8: Long, DH
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Kikuchi

The M’s broadcaster Dave Sims moderated a great discussion called Black Voices in Baseball with several of the M’s Black players back in June. In the wake of last night’s strike, they recorded another raw discussion along with the Brewers’ Devin Williams. It’s put out by MLB Network Radio, and it’s on YouTube here. You should listen.

No Game 32, Mariners vs. Pretending Things are Normal

marc w · August 26, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

I knew that this strange, seemingly slapdash season was a risk. I knew it could potentially put players at risk, and I knew it was harder to really get excited about a 60-game season with all sorts of rule changes thrown in at the last minute. But since it started, I’ve been kind of surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed it. I love baseball, so it’s not *that* shocking, but I actually don’t like missing any of these games, which is not something I said about the 2019 season, as long and unsullied by rule changes and Jays-in-Buffalo as it was.

Baseball’s attachment to tradition isn’t just about records or numbers or even about memories of childhood and intergenerational conversations. It’s the way it seems to exist out of time – that people can turn on or go to a game to get away from everything else that demands that you pay attention to the present. It’s an escape, and it’s an effective one because it’s designed to be familiar, and look more or less the same as it did when you were a kid (this is especially true this year, with the spate of throwback powder blue uniforms, dating back to…my childhood), with the promise that it’ll look more or less the same when your own kids are grown. I have *needed* that this year more than any other. I have desperately needed to shut off the news, to put the paper down, and just get away from 2020, at least as much as you can under Covid-19 threat. Today, sports stars have decided that the most powerful thing that they can do is to shut that escape valve, to say, at least for right now, you’ve got to pay attention to the news, and you have to act. They are 100% right to do so.

The Milwaukee Bucks kicked it off when they decided to essentially go on strike and potentially forfeit a playoff game after the shooting of Jacob Blake and then the killing of two protestors last night. It was in their back yard, and they decided that playing would allow too many people to tune out Kenosha and instead watch a majority of black players play a game from the relative safety of the Orlando bubble. The rest of the league followed suit. Then, the Milwaukee Brewers decided to do the same thing, and not play tonight’s scheduled contest with the Reds. Once that happened, and probably a bit before then, the M’s decision not to play tonight in San Diego seemed like a fait accompli. The M’s Black players have tried to keep the focus on issues of social justice, and this is probably the best way they could turn their activism into something concrete.

Many on social media are excoriating teams, saying that this strike isn’t concrete action at all, and won’t help Blake walk again. But it’s much more than a statement or kneeling before the anthem. They, like the NBA and WNBA, wanted to believe that these things – BLM patches on the uniform, or BLM written in the dirt of the pitcher’s mound, or pre-game ceremonies – might help inform people on the fence, might help make a case to the millions of fans tuning in. And they now don’t believe that these things are enough, because they pretty self-evidently aren’t. At that point, they can either produce counter-programming to the news from Kenosha, from Minneapolis, from all over the country, or they could withhold it.

Here’s Dee Gordon on twitter just a little while ago:

Instead of watching us, we hope people will focus on the things more important than sports that are happening.

I have had my problems with the M’s as an organization, and have been somewhat skeptical about their step-back rebuild. But I am incredibly proud to be an M’s fan today. Proud of you Taijuan, JP, Dee, Shed, Kyle, Justus, Justin, Aaron, Tim, and every player on the team that stood with them. Go Mariners.

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