Game 148, White Sox at Mariners

marc w · September 13, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Dylan Covey, 7:10pm

The Mariners pitching staff boasts a team ERA of 5.17, with a FIP of 5.04. Those marks are awful, though not the worst in the majors, but due to the magic of park factors, the M’s currently rank dead last in Fangraphs’ team WAR table. Baseball Prospectus would undoubtedly rank them there too, as they’re even harsher on the M’s pitchers than ERA or FIP. The White Sox rank slightly better, but not by a ton. Their ERA is 4.97, and their FIP is 4.94. While their strikeout rate and HR/9 is slightly better than Seattle’s, they give back a lot through poor control – all of those walks make the HRs hurt more.

But what does it matter? Neither team is really trying to contend in 2019 anyway, right? Looking at the Sox today, I’m struck by the view from 2017, when their rebuild hit its peak when they traded for Eloy Jimenez. At the time, I wrote about how striking it was that the M’s seemed to put a lot of value on the second wild card, or the play-in game in general, while the White Sox (who could’ve gone into that year with Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, and Jose Quintana on absurdly cheap contracts) obviously didn’t value contending for it at all. Because they had so much quality talent to sell off, AND because of a strategic decision to focus on the top end of the international market, they amassed a formidable array of prospect talent. They got Yoan Moncada from Boston, Jimenez from the Cubs, and then they signed Luis Robert out of Cuba (Robert’s in contention for MiLB player of the year this year). They got Dylan Cease from the Cubs, they had Carlos Rodon, the third overall pick in 2014 and then Carson Fulmer, the #8 pick in 2015, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez from the Nats, and hard-throwing Dylan Covey out of the A’s organization. They had a huge collection of highly-prized prospects, most of them in the high minors. All they had to do was wait.

And wait. It’s now the tail end of the 2019 season, and nearly all of these acquisitions have arrived (not Robert, but still). Moncada’s breakout this year’s coincided with Lucas Giolito putting it all together after struggling mightily for years. It’s not that there’s no progress, no movement, in this rebuild. It’s just that it hasn’t been close to enough. They enter play today at 55-92 in the worst division in the game, getting to play both Detroit and Kansas City in divisional games. Eloy Jimenez is a league-average hitter, Tim Anderson’s had a big year, and James McCann’s having a great year at C. But the team, overall, is among the worst hitting clubs in the game. The reason is one that should be familiar to M’s fans of the past 10 years: they’re surrounding young, solid performers with a bunch of sub-replacement-level dreck. Jon Jay, Yonder Alonso, and Wellington Castillo are all solidly below replacement level, and some younger fill-ins like Daniel Palka and AJ Reed have fared even worse (in mercifully short stints).

On the pitching side, Giolito’s improvements have been counteracted by injuries and ineffectiveness from Rodon and Fulmer, regression from Lopez, and absolutely no progress whatsoever from Dylan Covey. Dylan Cease has missed bats, but walks and dingers have his ERA over 6.5. The White Sox were once lauded for their pitching coach’s ability to unlock potential from struggling starters, but in the course of this rebuild, they’re becoming known for development stalling out. This is the lesson the M’s need to learn: it’s not enough to amass a ton of great prospects, you have to coach them over that final hill. They’ve shown some signs of improving in that regard, as Justus Sheffield’s looked better recently. But the overall state of the pitching staff shows that it’s not exactly an organizational strength.

Justin Dunn’s..ahhh…lackluster debut was too short to mean much of anything, and he was obviously dealing with some nerves, leaving his front shoulder flying open and eliminating any trace of fastball command. No matter; he’ll be better next time out. But while the minor league system did absolutely exemplary work with Dunn and Logan Gilbert in particular, the M’s cannot afford a White Sox-style stall-out once these guys hit the majors. Giolito lost two years in Chicago after making his debut in Washington due to awful control. Covey’s done the same, and Cease is on track to do it this year. It’s been a huge problem for Fulmer, and, to a lesser degree, Rodon. The M’s are not the White Sox, and are by no means bound to follow in their wild footsteps. But they can’t have that happen. If there’s any good that’s come from Sheffield’s struggles with command early in the year, it’s that the M’s had a test case: can they improve a guy’s command when he’s got the yips? So far so good, I suppose. Now they need to do it with Dunn.

It’s hard to evaluate a start like Dunn’s, but I will say I liked his slider. He threw a couple of great ones, and the horizontal movement was something to see. Of course, he didn’t get as many chases as I would’ve expected, especially on an 0-2 pitch to Eugenio Suarez. It looked, at times, like the Reds saw it coming, although that may just be that they were geared up to take a pitch, given that Dunn threw so many balls. He seemed to throw a hard change at 89-90; there were only 2, and weren’t coded as such by Brooks, but I think they’re change-ups. The problem is that by movement, velo, and spin axis, they’re carbon-copies of his fastball. Felix threw his change at near-FB speeds, but it dove down and under bats. I know it’s Dunn’s third pitch, but I’d like to see more vertical movement separation.

Reader William Lofton mentioned on twitter that Dunn may have been thrown a bit by the 2019 baseball. Many pitchers, he noted, have said it feels slippery. We’ve heard a lot this year about how using the MLB ball in AAA distorted competition in the highest level of the minors, with a massive increase in HRs leading to a huge increase in ERA, with several teams sitting over 6 for an entire year. That in turn has led to more teams saying that they’re skipping AAA when promoting prospects, as they find AAA-in-2019 almost impossible to scout/assess. Dunn is just such a player, who debuted in MLB without ever playing in AAA. While it’s sensible to avoid putting a player in a bad environment, the ball is the same in MLB and AAA. If they’re in MLB, they’re going to have to use it. Wouldn’t you rather they have some familiarity with it in the minors before they’re asked to adjust in front of big crowds in TV cameras? Sheffield’s first starts after his call-up weren’t great, and he’s actually used the MLB ball before, both in AAA and, well, MLB. Dunn hadn’t; I’m not blaming the ball for his 5 walks, but I do wonder if it’s short-sighted to have pitching prospects skip AAA to protect their precious minor league stats.

Dylan Covey’s essentially never done anything of note in the majors, but he pitched in the game at last year’s BP event at Safeco and handcuffed the M’s. I see what the Sox saw when they got him – a big righty with a worm-burning sinker at 95+, and a host of secondaries. Sure, none of these pitches has ever evinced any sign of being a MLB-quality pitch, but damn it, they *look* good. Whatever problem Chicago has in developing pitching, Covey seems to be a perfect example. His second year was worse than his (abbreviated) first year, and this year’s been worse still. It’s the Carson Fulmer story told over many more pages; it’s got to be maddening for the Sox AND for Covey himself.

1: Long, LF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Lewis, RF
6: Narvaez, DH
7: Murphy, C
8: Gordon, 2B
9: Smith, CF
SP: Kikuchi

All hail Kyle Lewis.

Game 147, Reds at Mariners – Kyle Lewis Is Fun

marc w · September 12, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Justin Dunn/Tommy Milone vs. Tyler Mahle, 7:10pm

Kyle Lewis has hit an absolutely crucial home run in the last two games, and the M’s continue to destroy the Cincinnati Reds. I propose we move the M’s to the NL Central. It’s just much more fun to watch when the M’s have MLB debutantes who really hit the ground running. And hey, tonight we’ll try for another, as Justin Dunn makes his big league debut as the opener.

I think we’re all sick of Milone/LeBlanc appearances, which is nothing against those two crafty hurlers, but they simply don’t matter for 2021. Justin Dunn, on the other hand, really does. The M’s need new starters, especially if Marco Gonzales isn’t going to be a top of the rotation arm, as now seems pretty clear. Dunn’s got upside that Marco, and even potentially Justus Sheffield, simply doesn’t possess. I’m really curious to see how his first appearance goes, and how his great slider works against the Joey Vottos of the world.

Dunn posted the best K/9 and BB/9 numbers of his career this year, but he struggled just slightly with HRs, a consequence of a fairly extreme fly ball approach. MLB in 2019 has not been kind to such approaches, but then strikeouts cover a multitude of sins. Punchouts, Justin… Punchouts.

Righty Tyler Mahle is a bit similar, in that he’s got a great K:BB ratio, but he’s getting stung by homers, which are even more prevalent in his home park. Like a lot of young pitchers, his real problems are platoon splits. He throws a four-seam fastball, a curve, and an intriguing splitter, which should help him avoid platoon splits, but big league lefties haven’t gotten the memo, and are slugging .544 off of him this year.

1: Long, LF
2: Nola, 1B
3: Seager, 3B
4: Narvaez, C
5: Lewis, RF
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Moore, 2B
8: Walton, SS
9: Bishop, CF
SP: Dunn/Milone

Game 145, Reds at Mariners – How Do You Do, Fellow Kids

marc w · September 10, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Justus Sheffield vs. Trevor Bauer, 7:10pm

I’m really not sure if any player’s seen their stock drop quite as fast as Bauer’s has. After tossing the ball over the outfield wall when his manager tried to take him out, he was traded to Cincinnati, giving him a couple of months to rebuild value and help out the Reds pitcher reclamation project (eg. Sonny Gray). It uh…it hasn’t worked out. In seven appearances for the Reds, he’s gone 1-4 with an ERA of 8.23 and a FIP of 5.27. The gains he’s made in his strikeout rate and K:BB ratio are still there, which is why his FIP’s better than his ERA. But it’s not, you know, GOOD, because he’s giving up HRs at a remarkable rate and because he’s not stranding runners.

With another hurler you might say that he hasn’t clicked with his pitching coach, or that the team sucks at helping even acquired pitchers succeed (Baltimore’s the historic example of this). But 1) the Reds are a top-10 staff this year and 2) this is Bauer, who is self-made and has no need for plebeian pitching coaches. He’ll rapsodo himself, thank you. Obviously, he’s dealing with some bad luck, but there does seem to be a lack of adjustment to the new ball and a disturbing trend in his ability to get out lefties.

To his credit, he’s tried some stuff. He spent the offseason working on a changeup, and I thought it looked deadly in April. But it hasn’t quite been there for him consistently, and while big offseason pitch design overhauls are great, you need to have the ability to make minor tweaks mid-season. All in all, he seems to have lost many if not all of the gains he made last year, where he was a legitimate Cy Young candidate. The overall track record is much murkier, and that’s even before you get to personality/twitter stuff that will absolutely hold down his value.

Justus Sheffield’s heading in the opposite direction a bit, with solid results in his last few outings taking the sting out of what had been about a year of downward trends in his results and prospect sheen. Like anyone, though, it’s about consolidating those gains and displaying them consistently that matters. Taken as a whole, I don’t think his 2019 has fully demonstrated that he can be a rotation cog in 2020, but a hell of a good September probably would.

And of course, Sheffield’s joined now by a bunch of other prospects that the M’s have brought up after the minor league season concluded. Today, the M’s called up a number of players who’d been at AA Arkansas, including Kyle Lewis, SP Justin Dunn, RP Art Warren and IF/UTIL Donnie Walton. Lewis, the M’s #1 draft pick a few weeks back, gets the start tonight in RF.

It’s too short of a stint to meaningfully change our view of these prospects, but I’d love it if a couple of the hitters showed some real improvement in what had been a weakness – maybe Lewis’ K rate or Walton’s ISO. The M’s are closer than ever to having their actual 2021 team assembled and playing together than ever. Some of the players tonight really need to be in that group, and the M’s need to identify them and keep them on a path that leads to MLB success. Tonight’s pretty exciting, or about as exciting as a late season game featuring a go-nowhere team that’s had almost no success in the second half goes. Sadly, I’m going to miss it, as I’m away and visiting another go-nowhere team that’s had almost no success in the second half.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Nola, 1B
3: Seager, 3B
4: Murphy, C
5: Vogelbach, DH
6: Lewis, RF
7: Lopes, LF
8: Smith, CF
9: Moore, SS
SP: Sheffield

Game 142, Mariners at Astros

marc w · September 6, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Reggie McClain/Tommy Milone vs. Framber Valdez, 5:10pm

Since 2015, fastball usage throughout MLB has been on a steady decline. From about 62.4% in 2015, fastballs of all types have fallen to 58.4% this year. Pitchers throwing more breaking balls, and teams giving more innings to breaking-ball crazed relievers – this is a long-term trend we’ve talked about here for a few years now. But this trend only really impacts one kind of fastball. Four-seamers haven’t gone away; quite the opposite, they’re up slightly compared to recent years. Essentially the entire trend is the result of pitchers throwing fewer sinkers. Gerald Schifman talked about this at BP earlier in the year, but it’s stark to see the data on BaseballSavant, too.

You all know the story: sinkers were great for a while, as they targeted the areas where the strikezone was expanding, helping suppress offense from 2010-2014. The new strikes and the long-term correlation between pitch height and batted ball (lower pitches were more likely to be grounders) meant that sinkers were ideal tools to help pitchers avoid home runs. Then, somewhere along the way, batters changed how they attacked these pitches, and given that sinkers generated whiffs less often than their four-seam cousins, the cost/benefit changed. I wrote about this before 2017, but 2017 and its juiced baseball even the playing field a bit: for a year, batters did even better against high fastballs (and four-seamers are more likely to be thrown higher).

It’s a balance: batters elevate the ball when they make contact on four-seamers, especially high ones, but they’re much more likely to miss. For several years, those whiffs held down the wOBA-against on four-seamers, even as batters turned more fly balls into home runs. Sinkers went for dingers too, but there weren’t many K’s to balance them out. But this year, with run values up on all kinds of fastballs, we’re seeing something that looks a bit irrational. At this point, the wOBA for four-seamers is essentially identical to the wOBA on sinkers. In previous years, the league-wide preference for four-seamers made some sense. Now, I’m not so sure.

You know who else isn’t sure? The Astros. Sure, sure, they got high-spin four-seam mavens Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole anchoring their rotation, and yes, they turned Cole into COLE! by getting him to stop throwing low sinkers and throw four-seamers up in the zone. Yes, but they also picked up Wade Miley, who, if you ignore yesterday, has been decent for them thanks to a sinker/cutter combination. They had Dallas Keuchel as their ace for a while before this year, and now they’ve got rookie Framber Valdez. Valdez throws pretty hard, and technically has a four-seamer, but the Astros are just fine if Valdez continues to use his weird sinker as his primary heater. He’s producing very high ground ball rates which is handy given the number of batters he walks. Those walks are killing his value right now, but he could be intriguing down the road. While his sinker has average to a bit below average spin, he’s got one of the highest spin-rate curveballs in the game, up ahead of Verlander/Cole/Morton/Glasnow/Rich Hill and those guys.It’s been a devastating out-pitch for him, but his control doesn’t allow him to get into out-pitch situations too often. That’ll be important for the M’s tonight.

You know who else isn’t sure? The Mariners. Today’s opener, Reggie McClain, is a sinker-dominant reliever, and his sinker is actually pretty similar to Valdez’s. Reggie’s is thrown at 94, so it’s faster than Framber’s (92-93), and it has more armside run. Their spin rates are 2171 for Valdez and 2169 for McClain, and they’ve got very similar arm slots. All in all, you won’t see too many more similar pitches. McClain’s slider has a lot of gyrospin so it doesn’t feature a ton of movement, and that’s why his strikeout numbers haven’t been that great this year in AAA/MLB, but he’s another guy that can get ground balls and thus hopefully avoid the dinger plague. New reliever Taylor Guilbeau has a hard sinker as well. What about Mike Leake? Yes, he’d been a sinkerballer, but had to stop throwing it as much, as it’s been one of the league’s worst pitches. But the org clearly isn’t going to ignore guys who can reliably get ground balls, not when you keep facing this damnable Astros offense 19 times a year.

1: Moore, SS
2: Smith, RF
3: Nola, C
4: Seager, 3B
5: Murphy, DH
6: Vogelbach, 1B
7: Lopes, LF
8: Long, 2B
9: Bishop, CF
SP: McClain/Milone

Game 141, Mariners at Astros – Staring Into the Void

marc w · September 5, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Wade Miley, 5:10pm

How did you like the Texas League playoff game? Made for a nice change from line-ups like, uh, the one the M’s are rolling out tonight, but of course even the AA game was a pitchers duel. The Travs pulled out a win late against Tulsa’s bullpen, and we all got to see how Jarred Kelenic works an at-bat. Root’s replayed it a few times, including this afternoon.

This is not a shock, given how good Houston is, but the M’s are 1-12 against the divisional bullies this season. They’ve lost at home, they’ve lost in Texas. They’ve lost extra-inning games and blowouts, and seven in a row to Houston overall. We kind of expect Gerrit Cole or Justin Verlander to dominate, but it just doesn’t seem to matter who they throw out there. I’ve mentioned it before, but there’s something especially exasperating about facing Wade Miley with the Astros. We saw this guy in Seattle, and we saw him after that in Baltimore. That should’ve been it; he had pitched his way out of the league. He was an ex-promising pitcher, soon to be an ex-pitcher entirely. And then he was back, pitching well for a playoff team and logging actual playoff innings in 2018. Now he’s pitching to an ERA in the low 3s despite mediocre K:BB ratios in the year of the home run. Do you remember how many HRs he allowed in Seattle and Baltimore?

How much of this is really due to him, though? Not all of it, not with a super-low BABIP that must have something to do with the great defense behind him. The Crawford Boxes look remarkably close to home plate, but Houston’s somehow a neutral-to-pitcher friendly park, even in this, the year of the juiced ball. But then again, there’s Wade Miley with really good exit velocities-against, including one of the lowest fly ball/line drive exit velocities of any starter. There’s Miley with that low BABIP for the second year in a row, despite playing on a different team in a different league. Both Miley and Gonzales have given up plenty of unearned runs, but they pull Miley’s RA/9 up from ‘amazing’ to merely ‘good.’ Marco’s RA/9 is again over 5, which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising for a player in the bottom half of qualified starters in terms of the hard-hit contact he allows. He challenges batters, and that’s tough to do in 2019. He has absolutely been harmed by the likes of Domingo Santana and Tim Beckham, and it makes it so hard to make heads or tails out of his season, and how we should see him for 2020 and 2021.

I guess I’m feeling a lot of that confusion about the M’s as a whole right now. It’s great to see Jake Fraley and Braden Bishop up with the team, and I know their cold starts don’t mean a whole lot, but given how challenging it is to make sense of AAA stat lines (thanks to the same juiced ball problem), I’d appreciate them demonstrating some aptitude against MLB pitching, just to settle my nerves. John Trupin’s got a great post at LL using a few different all-in-one batting stats to gauge how well hitters like Kelenic and Fraley did this year, and that helps. But with Crawford out following a really up-and-down second half, and with Fraley slumping…I guess I thought we’d know more about how 2020 would look for M’s fans at this point. Kelenic and Julio Rodgriguez blew expectations out of the water, and really are two of the best prospects in the game. John Sickels top 100 list currently has them at 14th and 18th, respectively. For the first time in a while, the M’s can envision a homegrown core. But it’s still a little ways away, and it would help a lot to figure out who’s going to be flanking that core, and who’ll be holding down the fort until the cavalry arrive. That’s why Crawford, Fraley, Justus Sheffield, Mitch Haniger, and Marco are so important, and why it’s so frustrating that we haven’t really seen them all healthy and performing at the same time.

1: Moore, SS
2: Gordon, 2B
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Murphy, C
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Lopes, LF
8: Fraley, RF
9: Bishop, CF
SP: Gonzales

Wade freaking Miley, I mean really.

Texas League Playoffs: Arkansas vs. Tulsa

marc w · September 4, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Ricardo Sanchez vs. Josiah Gray, 5:10pm – ROOT Sports, MiLB.tv, and streaming audio online.

With the M’s traveling, Root Sports will instead broadcast the M’s AA Texas League affiliate in Little Rock, Arkansas, who take on Dodgers affiliate Tulsa in the first round of the playoffs. Calling the game will be Brad Adam and M’s GM, Jerry Dipoto. The big league season hasn’t quite gone according to plan, but Dipoto gets an extended opportunity to sell the fan base on his rebuild by calling a game involving several of the M’s top prospects. The group is led, of course, by OF Jarred Kelenic, the newly-20 year old, who’s had a remarkable season across three levels. SP Justin Dunn won’t get this game, but was on local sports radio in Seattle around noon as part of the effort to drum up interest in a far-away minor league game.

Since Root stopped showing PCL broadcasts of the Portland Beavers (because the Beavers moved), it’s been hard to see minor league games on regular ol’ TV. MiLB.tv is still a niche product, with spotty coverage in the low minors and some camera work that may, uh, challenge viewers used to big league HD broadcasts. That’s somewhat surprising, given the growth in interest in prospects in general. A CBS-branded cable channel tried minor league game of the week broadcasts, rotating around to wherever some big prospects were playing, but that didn’t last. All of that to say, even if the M’s didn’t desperately want attention on Kelenic, Evan White, and company, I’d love to see someone try and broadcast more games like this when the schedule allows. I have MiLB.tv, but I’d much rather watch a real broadcast. And with an intriguing team like the Arkansas Travelers, you have the opportunity to showcase some future big leaguers.

Part of the trick is that you want to know who’ll be on the team, and in the minors, that’s often hard to do. The Travs big pitching and position player starts, Logan Gilbert and Kelenic, weren’t on the team two months ago. Justin Dunn was, but it wasn’t his turn in the rotation. Still, once Kelenic and C Cal Raleigh were promoted, a broadcast like this started to feel like quite an opportunity. Apparently the brain child of M’s marketing VP Kevin Martinez, this should be a fun broadcast.

Since it’s a playoff game, the competition’s pretty good, too. The Dodgers have been unreal at player development in recent years, and they’ll showcase that in this game. Just like the Travs, some of the big stars for the Drillers have only been in AA a short while. Today’s starter, 21-year old Josiah Gray, was acquired in December’s big Yasiel Puig deal, and has played in three levels this season, just like Kelenic. A right-hander, Gray was drafted by Cincinnati in the competitive bonus round in 2018, and has flown up the chain thanks to a fastball that touches the high 90s. He was a Division II college player, but opened a lot of eyes in the Cape Cod League in 2017. He’s got a slider/change-up as secondaries, and struck out 147 in 130 IP, just shy of 40 of those coming in AA. Another player in that same trade was SS Jeter Downs, also 21, and also a competitive balance round pick by the Reds, this time in 2017. Downs spent most of the year in high-A Rancho Cucamonga, where he hit 19 HRs and slashed .269/.354/.507. He’s always had plenty of loft in his swing, but has tapped into his power much more this year. He’s played just 12 games in Tulsa, but has 5 HRs in that span with a GB% under 20%. Wow. (He’s not the most heralded Tulsa SS of 2019, though. That’d be Gavin Lux, who started in AA, then went on to essentially break the PCL (.392/.478/.719) and force his way to Los Angeles.) Other tough ABs for the Drillers include C Conner Wong, who, like Downs, has 24 HRs across 2 levels, and Cuban 2B Omar Estevez.

Arkansas SP Ricardo Sanchez, 22, was DFA’d by Atlanta in the offseason, then traded to the M’s for well-traveled UTIL Cash Considerations. Sanchez is on the M’s 40-man, and spent the entire season in Arkanasas. He had a brilliant April, but has been a little shakier since then, finishing with an ERA of 4.44 in 146 IP. As you may know, Arkansas is a somewhat extreme pitcher’s park, so it may be harder for the sluggers to actually hit it out of Dickey-Stephens park.

1: Donnie Walton, SS
2: Jarred Kelenic, CF
3: Evan White, 1B
4: Cal Raleigh, C
5: Kyle Lewis, LF
6: Jordan Cowan, 2B
7: Dom Thompson-Williams, DH
8: Mike Ahmed, 3B
9: Luis Liberato, RF
SP: Ricardo Sanchez, LHP

Game 140, Mariners at Cubs

marc w · September 3, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Jon Lester, 5:05pm

Happy Felix Day to you all. Are Felix days weird to any of you? In that they involve our beloved King essentially auditioning to pitch somewhere else next year? Yeah? Me too. I

It’s a big pitching match-up for the Northwest, as the region’s most beloved hurler goes up against a native son. Felix is a changed pitcher this year; he’s gone away from his change-up in favor of his curveball, which he’s throwing more now than he ever has. The change had been his signature pitch for his entire career, and certainly since 2007. It’s produced the best results, but while it’s not exactly getting rocked, the curve has been gaining vis a vis the change, and with his sinker now a legitimate problem, it’s probably good to have a pitch that doesn’t mimic the sinker in movement and velocity. It’s worth remembering that as Felix’s fastball velocity has declined over the years, the change either stayed put or got even faster for a while. In 2007, he threw 98 with the fastball, and 88 with his change – a fairly normal gap between the two. But within a few years, he was sitting 95, and then 94 and 93 with the heater. But over those years, roughly 2009-2012, his change got slightly faster, until it sat at 90. This version of Felix was the best we saw, and he dominated by ignoring every bit of research about how you’re *supposed* to throw a change. He blazed his own path, and then saw guys like Zack Greinke follow. But in recent years, as his fastball sits at or below 90, he’s finally started to open up more of a gap in velocity; his change is now about 4.5 MPH slower than his sinker, down from about 3 MPH slower in 2016, and more akin to the separation he had way back in 2009, when he was still throwing 94-95.

Felix’s fastballs are getting pounded, as he’s given up 10 HRs on them (four-seam and sinker) this year in just 216 plate appearances. He tries to limit fastballs to lefties, as he’ll mix change-ups and curves, but even when they’re comparatively rare, they get blasted. He’s given up 5 HRs on fastballs to lefties in just over 111 *pitches*. Forget training, forget working hard on video study – what Felix needs is a redesigned fastball. He’s needed it now for many years, and I understand he’s been resistant to the M’s entreaties to change things. But I still think someone might get a serviceable starter next year if they can convince him to change that fastball’s shape by changing his armslot or its movement. This is no longer rocket science. He could try the Rangers approach and move on the rubber. He could try the Astros approach and develop a cutter instead. I don’t know what’s the best path forward, but for whatever reason, he never found that path here. Damn it.

I’d take another opportunity to blast the M’s for failing to find that path, but it’s hard to do so a day after Justus Sheffield’s best outing as a major leaguer. He looked like a different pitcher from the guy we saw facing the Blue Jays earlier this month. Since that game, the M’s have clearly decided to alter his pitch mix to be much less fastball-dominant. I think that makes a lot of sense given the…limitations of his fastball, but as we just talked about with Felix, adjusting the mix isn’t enough. Sheffield’s greatly improved his command/control of the pitch in recent weeks. Batters swung at 37% of his fastballs in his first two appearances this year. In the last two, that’s up to around 43%. The reason is that he’s cut his called-ball rate on the pitch by 10 percentage points. That means he’s able to get to his slider in good counts, and when he’s done that, batters haven’t fared well at all. His whiff rate on the pitch is trending way up, and batters are finding it difficult to put the slider in play at all. Before the Yankee game, I said the M’s needed to help him make adjustments, and to be frank, I didn’t think they could. Credit where it’s due: they absolutely have, and it’s turned Sheffield into an MLB-ready starter, something he pretty clearly wasn’t even 2-3 weeks ago.

Jon Lester is, like many pitchers, posting a career-high in HR/9. Righties in particular are doing some damage off of him, but he’s still an effective starter over all. Lester throws almost exactly as hard as Felix does, but has aged gracefully thanks to an interesting mix of three fastballs – a four-seamer, a sinker, and a cutter. He’s always thrown all three, but the balance was once tilted strongly in favor of the four-seam, which paired well with his curve. Now, though, he’s begun using the cutter most of all, and he’s throwing more curves and change-ups, essentially embracing his inner junkballer. Lester, like any lefty who’s stuck around as long as he has, minimizes his platoon splits, presumably through some deception. He’s not having as much success this year with his four-seam and sinker, but he makes up for it with his secondary offerings. This would be a good case study to look into for whichever team signs Felix in the off-season.

1: Smith, RF
2: Moore, SS
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Murphy, C
6: Court, LF
7: Gordon, 2B
8: Bishop, CF
9/SP: FELIX.

That line-up is not going to strike terror in the hearts of opposing pitchers, but hey, it’s September. The M’s recalled IF Shed Long and RP Zac Grotz today; no word on more call-ups following the end of the minor league season.

On that note, yesterday was the official end of the regular season across the minors.
The Rainiers lost to Las Vegas 3-2 despite a HR from Jaycob Brugman. Andrew Moore took the loss despite 5 2/3 IP in a tough place to pitch. Nabil Crismatt pitched 2 scoreless in relief with 6 Ks, which is pretty good. The Rainiers finished up the season at 61-78 and last in their division, but #1 in my heart. They had 41 players come up to the plate, including David Freitas who went on to win the PCL Batting title with San Antonio after just 6 PAs in Tacoma. They used 50 pitchers.
Arkansas is, of course, not done, as we’ll all get to see them in the Texas League playoffs this week, as it’ll be broadcast on Root Sports. They dropped their final game to the Amarillo Sod Poodles 6-5. Cal Raleigh hit his 7th HR with the team, and Jarred Kelenic hit his 6th, giving him 23 across three levels, and capping off a remarkable first full season as a professional. The Travelers finished 81-57, and they’ll take on the Tulsa Drillers beginning tomorrow evening. Ljay Newsome took the loss, but he raised his season strikeout total to 169 in 155 innings, while walking just 17. I talked before the season started that the M’s needed some org guys to develop into prospects, and we’ve seen it happen with guys like Reggie McClain. But Newsome’s transformation stands out, as he addressed his biggest weakness (missing bats) without sacrificing his best skill (avoiding walks). Great season.
Modesto lost to Visalia to finish up the year at 65-75. Their pitching staff set a new Cal League record for strikeouts, only to see Rancho Cucamonga beat it. They upped their strikeouts by 285 over last season, and, not coincidentally, dropped their runs-allowed by over 90. They were better at the plate, too, though that was a low bar, as the 2018 team posted a sub-.700 OPS. They hit for solid power, thanks largely to Cal Raleigh, but had the lowest OBP in the Cal League. A little more time for Julio Rodriguez would’ve likely changed that.
West Virginia blanked Greensboro 2-0 to finish at 69-70. It’s amazing to think the club opened the season with Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez, and Logan Gilbert on the roster. Juan Then got his first win at the A ball level, and the teenager ends his season with an ERA just under 3 across a couple of levels. The Power struggled on the mound, giving up the most HRs in the Sally League and the second-most runs. They weren’t great shakes at the plate, either, but it’s a pitcher-friendly league altogether, and the team had wave after wave of players promoted and demoted through their clubhouse.
Everett beat Vancouver 3-1 to finish 37-39. As you’d expect from their record, they were middle-of-the-pack in team batting, though their offense did finish with the second-highest OBP. The pitching staff was a bit shakier, tying for the highest team ERA and giving up more HRs as a team than any other club…by a mile. They were 23 HRs ahead of second-place Vancouver, who only allowed 42 on the year.

Game 139, Mariners at Cubs

marc w · September 2, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Justus Sheffield vs. Kyle Hendricks, 11:20am

Happy Labor Day to all of you.

The M’s head to Chicago for a series that still means something to the Cubs. The M’s split 4 in Texas where both teams were just trying to see some of their September call-ups and avoid injuries. Unfortunately, the M’s didn’t quite manage that, as SS JP Crawford injured his right hamstring on Thursday and/or Friday, and he’s been sent back to Seattle for further tests, which is never a good thing. You have to assume that Crawford’s 2019 is now over. Getting Braden Bishop back from that lacerated spleen was good to see, and the ex-Husky drew a bases-loaded walk in yesterday’s easy win, but Crawford’s growth is exponentially more important to the M’s in 2020 – 2021. Please get healthy JP, and please, M’s – just rest him up. We’ll be fine if he doesn’t come off the IL as soon as the 10-day period is over.

So, Justus Sheffield’s back for his first start since that intriguing/frustrating/encouraging outing against the Yankees. For the first time in his very brief MLB tenure, he looked like a pitcher who could be an effective starting pitcher. He used his slider to get whiffs against right-handed batters, while sneaking strikes looking with his fastball. This Cubs line-up is much less righty-dominant than the Yanks’ was, with Jason Heyward, Anthony Rizzo, and Kyle Schwarber all hitting lefty. But it’s a line-up with a lot of power, and so it’s imperative that Sheffield avoid spots with the fastball that batters can elevate and drive. The HR that Mike Ford hit off of him in Seattle wasn’t in a terrible location, but he muscled it out of the yard. If there’s any saving grace, it’s that that ball probably would be an out in deep right in Chicago.

Kyle Hendricks is a remarkable soft-tossing righty who’s thrived in the age of the juiced ball. He generally uses just a sinker, a four-seam fastball and a change-up, none of which regularly exceed 88-89. While he’s given up a few HRs, he limits walks, and then a combination of a great defense and weak contact help him limit base hits. It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t *look* sustainable, but he’s been doing it his entire career, and is closing in on 1000 innings pitched.

1: Smith, RF
2: Fraley, CF
3: Seager, 3B
4: Murphy, C
5: Vogelbach, 1B
6: Moore, SS
7: Gordon, 2B
8: Bishop, LF
9/SP: Sheffield

I’d say playing Bishop in LF is a good way to reduce any value he could add to the club, but that’s a quibble. Frankly, Fraley needs these ABs and looks in CF more right now. The M’s need to figure out who their starting CF will be next year, and Bishop may be a 4th OF. The bigger question is what to do with Mallex Smith, but they’ve seen plenty of Smith, and precious little of Fraley, so c’mon Jake, show us something.

Game 136, Mariners at Rangers – Soft-Tossing Lefties and the Statistics that Love Them

marc w · August 30, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Kolby Allard, 5:10pm

After Felix’s solid if unspectacular start yesterday produced a decent road win, the M’s look to continue their run with another win in Texas today. Today, the M’s turn to their opening day starter, Marco Gonzales. After his last start, I wrote about how difficult it’s been to describe his season, as the advanced metrics are all over the map in terms of his value. Just yesterday, Craig Edwards wrote about Marco in a post crowning him the King of Soft-Tossing Lefties. Fangraphs’ version of WAR rates Marco very highly, as it omits the one big problem Marco’s had: he’s given up a ton of base hits.

Marco’s made 28 starts, and you can neatly divide his season into two halves. In the first, he allowed 89 hits and 54 runs in 77 1/3 IP, with 9 HRs allowed. He was fairly stingy (especially for 2019) with the long ball, but batters hit the ball hard and thus he always had men on base. Even with a fairly low walk rate, his walks+hits per inning pitched was 1.435. In the second half, he’s allowed 88 hits in 86 2/3 IP, with 8 HRs allowed and a WHIP of 1.246. A lot of this is BABIP related, and the replacement of Tim Beckham with JP Crawford at short, but it’s interesting that even in the “good” half, he’s allowed more hits than innings pitched. For decades, that would be normal, it wouldn’t merit a mention. But we’re now at a point where the entire league allows fewer hits than IP, and racks up more strikeouts than hits. Marco’s a throwback, and does neither. That doesn’t make him bad, I don’t think, but I fear it’s going to make him really streaky, a fact that seems like a fairly obvious thing to point out after his crazy year (April was awesome! May was awful!).

Is this what soft-tossing lefties do? Essentially create a bend but don’t break defense by allowing baserunners, but don’t let them score? Even on that scale, Marco’s strand rate is sub-par, because he can’t rely on strikeouts to help him out of tough spots. But more broadly than that, even soft-tossing lefties don’t have to pitch to contact. When he was at his peak in 2015, Dallas Keuchel had an above-average K rate, and had more IP than hits-allowed. He did that several times, before reverting to a more Marco-like approach in 2018 and now in 2019. There’s no doubt that Gonzales’ defense hasn’t done him many favors this year, but it’s also clear that Ryan Yarbrough’s remarkable 2019 isn’t due solely to his defense in Tampa. Some soft-tossers figure out how to reliably generate weaker contact or to miss bats (or both). Marco hasn’t quite done that yet, but he certainly could.

At one point, it looked like Marco Gonzales’ pathway out of soft-tossing purgatory was just to start throwing harder. When he was acquired, he really did have noticeably higher velocity than he’d shown with the Cardinals. He averaged over 92 MPH in 2017, for example, and so we thought he might matriculate at hard-throwing lefty graduate school. But he’s given all of those gains away, one of those weird things that happen to pitchers from time to time.

Today’s opponent, Kolby Allard, knows all about that. A first-rounder for the Braves out of a Southern California HS, Allard showed solid velocity in the 92-93 range, and paired with great command, he seemed like a good bet to rise through the system quickly. He *did* rise quickly, but at some point, that plus velocity got left behind. When he made his MLB debut with Atlanta he averaged just under 90 MPH with his four-seam fastball, and got annihilated. He didn’t show a ton of life on the pitch in the minors this year, and thus he was a great change-of-scenery pick-up by the Rangers at the break. At the time, I wondered if Texas was the right organization to unlock Allard’s potential given their struggles with once-heralded prospects like Ariel Jurado and Yohander Mendez. It’s very early yet, and despite a great FIP, he’s still nothing special given his actual runs-allowed. Buuuut, there are signs he’s doing things differently. First, he’s taking the Marco-in-2017 approach of throwing a lot harder. He’s added a full 2+ MPH to his four-seamer, and is up over 92 on average. Second, he’s done the same thing Lance Lynn did upon moving to Texas, and that’s to shift his position on the rubber, moving out towards the edge a bit more. He’s got 23 Ks in his first 21 1/3 in Arlington, which, despite the tiny sample, is a lot more than the projection systems or my personal opinion would’ve predicted. Like Marco, Allard also throws a change-up and curve, though he lacks Marco’s cut fastball. [Edit: Uhhh, he totally has a cut fastball. He didn’t in Atlanta, but picked one up somewhere this year, whether in AAA in the Braves org or in the Rangers org.]

1: Smith, RF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Murphy, C
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Lopes, LF
8: Fraley, CF
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Gonzales

Game 135, Mariners at Rangers

marc w · August 29, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Lance Lynn, 5:10pm

Happy Felix Day!

This is the first one that’s felt sort of happy as opposed to elegiac or funereal, so that’s pretty cool. Imagine last year at this time if someone said that in late August of 2019, Felix will face off against Lance Lynn and both teams would be well out of the race. I can imagine the game seeming like the biggest waste of time, or a potential slugfest. It still may BE a slugfest, but after Felix’s solid performance against Toronto and Lance Lynn’s out of nowhere career year, this game turned out to be pretty interesting.

Lance Lynn signed a fairly cheap 3-year deal with arriving-earlier-than-expected Minnesota Twins before the 2018 season. Jake Odorizzi did the same, and it seemed like the Twins wanted some veteran leaders around their very young position player core. It didn’t go well. Odorizzi scuffled, and Lynn had his worst year ever. He’d never posted an ERA over 4 in his tenure with St. Louis, but in 100+ IP for Minnesota, his ERA was over 5, and his FIP was in the high 4s. A late season trade to Texas saw him improve, especially with bases on balls. He’d never been a control pitcher, but he couldn’t find the plate in the twin cities, but immediately could upon leaving. That’s carried over to 2019, where he’s setting a career high in strikeout rate and a career low in walk rate. With the exception of 2017, Lynn had always been rather stingy with home runs, and even THAT’s continued here in the year of the home run. It’s all made for a very unlikely 6-7 WAR season at age 32.

Felix is just a tad older at 33, and while I don’t think a 6-7 WAR season is in his future, it just goes to show that trends aren’t destiny. A year ago, it looked like Lynn was going to pitch himself out of the game in 2019. Now, he’s leading MLB in fWAR. So much of pitching is coaching and altering a game plan. Felix may have been resistant to that in the past, but a part of it may just be due to the deterioration of his relationship with the M’s. He’ll sign some small FA deal or maybe even a minor league deal, which would be quite a blow to his ego. But I would not be too surprised to see Felix have a perfectly decent season again somewhere. A lot’s made out of his declining velocity, but Lynn’s declined for a long time before making a U turn recently. What he needs is a bit more deception.

The one big thing the Rangers did immediately upon acquiring Lynn was to change his position on the rubber. He’d been releasing the ball around 2.5′ towards the 3B bag, and the Rangers immediately had him shift that to 3.5′. I’m not sure why that would have such a big impact, but it seems to be associated with a huge change in his results and peripherals.

Lance Lynn's Horizontal Release pt.

Spot the point at which Lynn was traded!

1: Smith, RF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Narvaez, C
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Fraley, CF
8: Moore, LF
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: El Cartelua

Julio Rodriguez cannot be stopped. He went 5-5 last night for Modesto, bringing his high-A line to a robust .587/.620/.891 in 50 PAs. He remains 18.

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