Game 36, Red Sox at Mariners

marc w · May 16, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Rick Porcello, 6:10pm

The Red Sox made a very expensive bet that Rick Porcello’s somewhat underwhelming tenure in Detroit was the result of growing pains and a focus on pitching to contact. Porcello was a prep phenom who dropped to the Tigers in the 2007 draft. He flew threw the minors thanks to a hard sinker and joined the Detroit rotation in 2009. Those who scouted him in the draft were always a bit confused that Porcello missed so few bats. Porcello’s always had a strong GB rate, but thanks either to some ill-timed pitches, bad sequencing luck, or a bad Tigers defense, his actual runs allowed always came in higher than his FIP suggested. At only 26, Porcello’s one of the youngest hurlers to, er, almost hit free agency in a while. All of these factors – the rumored great breaking ball that the Tigers wouldn’t let him throw, the FIP, and his youth combined to score Porcello an extension from 2016-19 that’ll pay him over $20m per year.

Thus far, like pretty much everything about the Red Sox, things haven’t quite gone as planned. Porcello is pitching differently, and he’s using a four seam fastball more than he ever has, and his K rate’s up a bit, but we’ve seen this from Porcello before. He’s tweaked his underwhelming slider into a hard cutter, but it hasn’t made it any more effective. His K:BB ratio’s up, but so is his HR rate. Thus far, it’s added up to a really familiar 4.50 ERA and a low-4′s FIP.

Here’s today’s line-up for the Seattle Steelheads, as the M’s pay tribute to the Negro League history of the northwest.

1: Smith, LF
2: Miller, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Ackley, CF
8: Taylor, SS
9: Sucre, C

Game 35, Red Sox at Mariners

marc w · May 15, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

JA Happ vs. Clay Buchholz, 7:10pm

So the M’s had some ugly LF miscues and they had nothing to do with Miller! Let’s keep in mind that Miller isn’t the only guy getting used to the position. Rickie Weeks has Miller beat by all of about 3 months. Meanwhile, the M’s couldn’t figure out Joe Kelly, who wriggled free time and again. I know the M’s issues with RISP have been ugly, but I thought Kelly made some impressive pitches when he needed to. The M’s have fared much better against ground-ball pitchers this year than they have in the recent past, but I get the sense that the M’s are still struggling with plus velocity – we’ll have to check that out. The M’s have struggled against fastballs for years, and that’s still true this year, despite their improved overall batting line.

The M’s have had frustrating talents over the years. Jose Cruz Jr. Justin Smoak. Hell, Dustin Ackley. You can add any number of your own from whatever era M’s clubs you cheered for: Carlos Guillen, maybe. Depending on your definition, you could argue for Dave Henderson. For the M’s, much of this disappointment has been a failure of observable talent to translate into consistent production. We’d get solid months from Ackley or Smoak, but we didn’t get sustained growth. It’s been one of the most frustrating aspects of the team the past few years, and it’s a big reason why they’ve struggled – if that core group of Ackley/Smoak/Montero actually developed, the M’s would be in a very different place. Today’s opposing starter, though, illustrates a different path to gut-churning frustration.

Clay Buchholz burst onto the scene in 2007, throwing a no-hitter in one of his first big league starts and giving the World Series champs one of the most valuable commodities in baseball heading into 2008. And in 2008, Buchholz had an RA/9 over 7 thanks to HR problems and an absurdly low strand rate. He was slightly better in 2009, because how could he not be, but his walk rate kept climbing and he was missing far fewer bats. He looked like your average prospect bust, an east coast Roger Salkeld or something, and then, suddenly, he was effective again. His K% wasn’t a whole lot better, but his HR/FB dropped and that led to a big improvement in his FIP. Even better, his strand rate got better, and his ERA was a gaudy 2.33. The strand rate stuck around in his injury plagued 2011, but his HR luck didn’t, so he was only good as opposed to great, but nothing worked in 2012. HRs and sequencing pushed his FIP back up over 4.6, and I think expectations must’ve been pretty low in 2013. Despite further injury problems, Buchholz tossed 108 innings and put up an ERA of 1.74. Was it lucky? Of course, but at least he was missing some bats again to go along with an insanely high strand rate and equally crazy HR/FB rate. Just as Sox fans must’ve thought the prospect had regained the promise of 2007, he collapsed again in 2014, as a bad strand rate again pushed his ERA over 5.

Maybe the moral of this story is that ERA is too volatile, and that strand rate luck can make a guy look like the second coming of Pedro Martinez one year and a AA org guy the next. That’s very clearly a part of it. Buchholz’s FIP certainly didn’t swing as much from 2013 to 2014, but that’s what FIP’s designed to do. The more interesting side of this is that Buchholz has an almost Phil Hughes-like* capacity for tinkering and self- uh, self-improvement doesn’t sound right in this context. A capacity for change, we’ll call it. When he came up, Buchholz had an extreme over the top delivery and a four-seam FB at 95 with plenty of vertical rise. He paired it with the oddest change-up ever, a sort of hybrid cutter/change that came in extremely slow with zero horizontal movement. He dropped his release point a bit after that, and that altered all of his pitches – less vertical rise, a bit less cutter-action on his change (which was now harder), and a sinker with plenty of armside run. By 2013, he’d moved a foot over on the rubber, but his four-seam fastball (now 92-93) now had less horizontal movement and more vertical. The change was still there, and still weird, but he now had a cutter that he threw to RHBs and LHBs alike – the odd thing of course is that the cutter and change sort of blurred together, with relatively similar movement but a 7mph difference in velo. This year, that oddball change-up is gone, as it the splitter experiment. In their place is a regular old change-up – one that’s still a bit slow (although it’s faster than it was in 2007), but that moves like other cambios. It’s his putaway pitch to lefties in the early going – and his strikeouts are up sharply in the first month and a half. His fastball’s movement changed back to where it was a few years back, helped again by another drop in release point. The results HAVEN’T been there, though, as both of his fastballs have been hit hard this season. His strand rate won’t stay this low for long, and it may be he’ll start regressing towards his FIP, but Buchholz is still reeling right now, with an ERA approaching 6. Boston’s defense probably hasn’t helped, as their BABIP-allowed is 7th worst in baseball.

1: Smith, LF
2: Miller, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Ruggiano, CF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Weeks, DH
9: Zunino, C
SP: Happ

The Rainiers split their doubleheader with SLC yesterday, losing the opener 2-0, but winning the nightcap 4-0 behind a spot start from Andrew Kittredge and a HR from Stefen Romero. Mike Montgomery, originally scheduled to start last night’s 2nd game, will get the start today against Nick Tropeano, the ex-Astros hurler and the PCL pitcher of the year in 2014.

Jackson beat Biloxi 2-0 as peripatetic reliever Trey Cochran-Gill got the win in relief in his first AA appearance. Jake Zokan started and went 5 2/3 scoreless, and then TCG went 2 1/3, before handing it over to Tony Zych for the save. Jordy Lara and Dan Paolini had two hits for the Generals. Moises Hernandez gets a spot start today as all of the affiliates juggle their rosters after a spate of promotions/relegations and injuries.

Bakersfield was rained out, so Tyler Pike will go today against his old club/former M’s affiliate, the High Desert Mavericks.

Clinton dropped a 9-3 contest to Wisconsin (another former M’s affiliate), as Pat Peterson got knocked around a bit. The L-Kings had 9 hits, but none for extra bases. Lukas Schiraldi gets the start tonight in Burlington.

* It’s funny, because Hughes and Buchholz were the two big pitching prospects of 2006-7, and both debuted in the 2nd half of 2007. At any given time, one or the other has been deemed to have “won” this non-existent competition, only to have the other one come back with a great season. Both are fascinating pitchers to follow, though I’m pretty happy neither is on the team I care about.

Game 34, Red Sox at Mariners

marc w · May 14, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Roenis Elias vs. Joe Kelly, 7:10pm

Ah, the Red Sox. Some of my favorite memories of Safeco have come from games against the Red Sox, including a sweep-clinching victory in 2007 wherein Ryan Feierabend gave up about a dozen 390′ fly balls that Ichiro managed to track down. Of course, most memories of Red Sox series in Safeco aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. The Sox have been good, the M’s have been bad, and there are way, way too many people in Red Sox gear.

Last night’s game was a tough one. James Shields did indeed leave some pitches hanging, but with one exception, the M’s couldn’t quite barrel them up. A ball that Nelson Cruz fouled back early on and a Zunino miss on a high fastball stick out, but they were far from the only offenders. On the positive side, that’s another quality start for Tai Walker, who now needs to follow it up with several more.

Tonight’s contest features extremely hard throwing righty Joe Kelly, who the Sox picked up from St. Louis in the John Lackey deal. Kelly throws a sinker at around 96-97, and has a slider and curve as well. In the past, his change-up and four-seam fastball were afterthoughts, as he threw them once or twice a game. This year, though, the four-seam is now a major part of his arsenal, at about 1/4 of his pitches. Before 2015, Kelly was known as one of those confounding pitchers who throw incredibly hard and yet don’t get strikeouts and whiffs – he was a Henderson Alvarez type with a high GB% and not much else. At least Alvarez never walked anyone – Kelly’s walk rate’s pretty standard, or even a bit higher. Still, you can see how it’s supposed to work – pitch to contact, but have the velocity take the sting out of much of that contact. Ideally, you’d get a GB pitcher with better than average BABIP, or better than you’d expect given his batted ball profile. As it happens, that’s what Kelly’s done over his career. From 2013-15, he’s put up BABIPs of .289, .274 and .277 (league average is .295 this year).

The Red Sox and/or Kelly may have wanted a bit more out of that 97mph heat, though. By using his four-seamer more, and actually attempting to get Ks with his breaking ball (he’s using them more in 2 strike counts than in previous years), Kelly looks like he’s trying a modified approach. It worked brilliantly in his first start of 2015, where he set a new career high in Ks against the Yankees. But it’s come at a cost. Fewer sinkers have resulted in fewer grounders. More fly balls – and his FB% has jumped from 23.7% last year to 34.3% now – have meant more home runs. And while his BABIP’s still low, he’s been terrible with men on base. With no one on, he’s giving up a wOBA of .254. With men on, it’s .396, and it just goes up from there if they’re in scoring position. In one sense, this is encouraging – guy making some adjustments, and has an undeserved 6+ ERA. That sequencing luck will probably turn around, but the HR issue is tougher. Sure, his HR/FB is up, and thus his xFIP isn’t too bad, but as a control-challenged righty who now yields more FBs, we can’t expect his HR rate to fall all the way back to his own career average. Let’s see if the M’s can push it higher tonight. Kennedy and Shields were guys they needed to be somewhat aggressive with, but Kelly – coming off a game in which he walked 7 Blue Jays in 5 2/3IP – is someone to be patient with.

1: Smith, RF
2: Miller, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Ackley, CF
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Elias

And there we have it, Brad Miller’s first OF start. He may get some work with the lefty Roenis Elias on the hill and a righty-dominated line-up against him. That said, Elias has had some GB tendencies, and the Red Sox as a team hit more grounders than average.

The Rainiers were rained out yesterday, so they’ll play a doubleheader today at Cheney. Forrest Snow starts game 1, and Mike Montgomery will go in game 2. Head to Cheney if you don’t want to deal with an army of Sawx fans tonight.

Jackson faces Biloxi again, and look to get back in the win column behind Jake Zokan. He’ll face off with Hobbs Johnson, a 14th round pick out of UNC who’s put up gaudy ERAs but doesn’t have the raw stuff to rank highly on prospect lists.

Tyler Pike leads the Bakersfield Blaze against Rancho Cucamonga. Scott Barlow starts for the Quakes. Barlow’s a former 6th rounder the Dodgers grabbed out of HS, and who has a very good FB/Curve combo. He’s struggled to stay healthy, though, and his results haven’t been there in the past. Rancho topped Bakersfield 4-3 last night, getting a walk-off win in the 11th off newly-demoted RP Dylan Unsworth.

Game 33, Padres at Mariners

marc w · May 13, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. James Shields, 7:10pm

After tieing a club record with six HRs yesterday against a HR-challenged Padre Starter (and their HR-challenged bullpen), the M’s face a guy who’s having even more trouble with the long ball this year. James Shields has yielded seven HRs in his last two starts. His season total of 11 leads MLB, and he’s facing an M’s team that’s making up for a poor OBP by clubbing a few baseballs senseless.

Shields has been remarkably durable and consistent over his career. As Eno Sarris mentions in a great interview with Shields, the righty has made the most starts in baseball since 2007, and he’s just six IP behind the leader in IP since then (the leader, or perhaps the King, in total IP? Felix, of course). His repertoire has been the same since he joined baseball, too – a four-seam fastball, a great change-up, a curve ball and a cutter (and a two-seamer he very rarely throws). Over time, his pitch *mix* has changed a bit, but we’re really getting marginal now – in the main, he’s a guy who throws 1/3 four-seam fastballs and 2/3 change/curve/cutter.

Obviously, the change-up is his signature pitch. He gets whiffs on 20% of them, or 35% of swings against it, and he’s racked up over 700 punchouts on change-ups in his long career.* It’s helped him neutralize lefties, as he throws the pitch more often to them. It’s probably also helped him stay healthy – Shields fastball results aren’t all that great. Hitters appear to see his four-seamer pretty well, and thanks to above-average “rise,” they elevate the ball pretty easily on it. That’s led to some of the home run problems that have dogged Shields since his Tampa days, and without the change, he’d either have to throw more of a pitch batters hit hard, or throw a lot more breaking balls. The change seems easier on his arm, and again, it’s been a consistently good pitch for him.

But it’s not perfect. Like basically all pitchers, Shields like to keep his change low in the zone, or below the bottom edge of the zone. When he doesn’t, bad things happen. It’s similar to the issue we talked about yesterday with Ian Kennedy – when everything works just the way it’s supposed to, he’s fine. But mistakes are costly, and he’s essentially hoping that hitters miss the mistakes – either that they’re looking for something else, or mishit the ball. That’s true of literally every pitcher, so it’s not like some great insight, but I think it matters to certain pitchers more. To a degree, this is “more” true for fly-ball pitchers like Kennedy. But because Shields *fastball* is a flyball pitch, it matters to him even when his overall GB% (pushed higher by the change and curve) is at or above league average. Making mistakes with his fastball results in more damage (in the long run) than it does for Felix for a variety of reasons. But when hitters sit on his change, the same thing can happen. Last night, the M’s were ready for every Kennedy mistake. Here’s hoping they’re ready again tonight.

Line-up:
1: Smith, LF
2: Miller, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Ackley, CF
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Walker

Man, it was nice seeing Mike Zunino get into a couple of pitches last night. Essentially recreating last year’s season line isn’t great, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the decline-on-all-fronts we’d seen before. Gradually, his O-swing% has dropped below last year’s frightening mark of 40%, and he’s actually making a bit more contact than last season. We couldn’t say that two weeks ago.

After another solid performance this week, the M’s have promoted righty Edwin Diaz from Bakersfield to AA Jackson. This is a well-deserved promotion; Diaz has 42 strikeouts in 37 IP against 9 walks, and he’s limited hitters to just 21 hits. At 21, it’s not too aggressive, and I’ll be interested to see what he learns from longtime AA pitching coach Lance Painter.

Tacoma lost to Salt Lake yesterday 4-3, on two HRs from the delightfully named Jett Bandy. Angels top prospect Andrew Heaney was tough for 7 IP, but was matched by Sam Gaviglio, who gave up 1 run in 6 IP. But Lucas Luetge gave up a three run shot to Bandy in the 8th, and that was essentially that. Forrest Snow starts for the R’s tonight against minor league veteran Zach Stewart.

Misael Siverio disgorged another clunker of a start, giving up 6 runs in 5 IP in Jackson’s 6-3 loss to Biloxi. The hitting star of the day was old friend Steve Baron, who went 2-3 with a triple. The two teams played an early game today, which evidently disrupted the pitchers’ circadian rhythms, as Jackson lost by a score of 14-10. Perhaps it’s not a big surprise that just as Bakersfield’s team batting stats were off the charts bad, Jackson’s pitching staff is last in the league in ERA by *1.24* runs. They’re at 5.25, as a team, in a league where 8 of 10 teams have ERAs below 4, and the team in 9th place is at 4.01. Anyway, Jabari Blash hit 2 HRs today and knocked in 7 in a losing effort.

Bakersfield lost 6-3 to Rancho Cucamonga, as Ryan Yarbrough gave up 6 runs in 2 2/3 IP. Reliever Paul Fry had 5 Ks in 2 scoreless innings. Tyler Marlette had two hits, a double and a triple – here’s hoping his long slump is over.

Clinton takes on Wisconsin tonight, with Tyler Herb starting for the L-Kings. The TimberRattlers send LHP Kodi Medeiros to the hill. The Hawaiian was a 1st round pick in last year’s draft, and someone scouts thought might make a big impact right away. But he got destroyed in the Arizona league, showing lower velo, poor command and general hitability that he hadn’t shown before. He’s been slightly better, all things considered, this year, as he’s jumped straight to full season ball, but the results are still not there.

* Shields is often credited, as that Sarris piece notes, as having the best right-handed change in the game. At this point, I think Felix has the superior claim due not just to equally solid K rates, but because hitters have done so much less damage on it when they DO make contact.

Game 32, Padres at Mariners

marc w · May 12, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Ian Kennedy, 7:10pm

Everything feels better after an intra-division sweep. Dave had a great article on the star-crossed A’s and their horrible luck at Fangraphs yesterday, but it’s worth your time. You get much the same picture by looking at raw team stats - the A’s have a team wRC+ of 101, and are scoring 4.6 runs per game. The M’s, thanks to a poor OBP, are at 94 and 3.8, respectively. For pitching, the M’s have a better K:BB ratio, but the A’s edge in HRs-allowed means they’ve got the superior team FIP. They’re both awful by UZR, but the A’s have a sizable advantage in DER. The A’s even have the edge in run differential. They looked out of sorts for the reasons Dave highlighted (awful performance in high leverage situations), but they aren’t awful. This isn’t to minimize what the M’s did this past weekend – it magnifies it. The M’s swept a decent club, a team that won’t be in the cellar the whole year. In a tight division, that has added meaning.

Today, the new-look Padres come to town with their overhauled roster and high expectations. They’re currently second in the NL West behind the juggernaut in Los Angeles, and they’ve done it through a combination of A’s-like sequencing luck and solid raw power. It’s kind of interesting that both the M’s and Padres – two teams that inhabit extremely HR-suppressing parks – find themselves in the top half of the league in ISO this season. It’s not THAT surprising, given that both teams very consciously sought to improve that aspect of their club, but the M’s have been trying for years without a lot to show for it. The Padres compressed years of personnel moves into one incredible off-season, as new GM AJ Preller made blockbuster trade after blockbuster trade. Instead of hoping that Chase Headley’s power comes back, the Padres now have Justin Upton, Wil Myers, Derek Norris and Matt Kemp in the middle of the order. Upton and Norris have been great thus far, and Myers’ start is much more reminiscent of his 2013 than his 2014. On the other hand, Will Middlebrooks has disappointed again, and Matt Kemp’s slow start in the field and the plate have him near the bottom of the league in WAR. It’s all added up to a team scoring 4.64 runs per game, good for 7th in baseball, right behind the Twins (?) and just ahead of the A’s.

Unfortunately, the offense isn’t the only group that’s getting used to more in-game power. The pitching staff has the second worst HR rate in baseball, and therefore an abysmal FIP. While their ERA is a bit better than that, 4.07 in 2015, playing half your games in Petco is simply not getting it done. Ian Kennedy is one of the prime offenders (along with James Shields), giving up 5 HRs in less than 20 innings thus far. Kennedy went 21-4 for Arizona in 2011, using a located 91mph fastball, a curve and a good change-up to a solid season that looked even better than that by “wins” and ERA. He wasn’t able to maintain that level of performance, as HR issues plagued him occasionally, and the D-Backs cut bait, shipping him to San Diego for a lefty reliever and an A-ball closer. Kennedy rebounded with a brilliant 2014 and was the subject of lots of trade rumors down the stretch. The Pads ended up keeping him but this is his last arb year; Kennedy will likely be a free agent at the end of 2015.

Like a number of other pitchers, Kennedy’s fastball has actually gotten *faster* since his career year of 2011. It’s now around 93, thrown from a lower angle, giving it run along with plenty of vertical rise. That rise has helped push his GB rates down below 40% for pretty much his entire career, but he’s up around 47% in the early going this year. That doesn’t seem to be related to any changes in his pitches; it may just be the result of keeping his fastball lower than he did in the past. In 2011, Kennedy’s out pitch was his change, which he threw at 81, and which he used as his putaway pitch to *right handers*. It’s always had great whiff rates, and it still does, but he’s liable to make mistakes with it. He’s given up 27 HRs on the change in his career, which has pushed his ISO on the pitch up, despite the fact that he uses it more in favorable counts.

Since 2011, his FB velocity’s up over 1mph, but the real change has come with his, uhhhh, change. These days, it’s touching 85. It was up 3mph from 2013 to 2014, and it’s maintained (and even extended) those gains in 2015. He’s given up 2 HRs on it out of 40 total cambios though, so it’s not like the velocity has cured his tendency to hang the odd pitch. In his career, he’s got essentially zero platoon splits – by wOBA and FIP, there’s just nothing there. A four-seamer and change-up-heavy pitch mix is part of the reason, as is his curve ball, which looks great despite the fact he doesn’t throw too many of them. It’s not imperative to stack the line-up with lefties, but it IS imperative that the M’s look for and punish fastballs that stray over the heart of the plate and centered change-ups.

1: Smith, LF
2: Miller, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Ackley, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Paxton

Still no Hisashi Iwakuma, who won’t start throwing for another 10-14 days, apparently. Roenis Elias has been solid in his stead, but man, the M’s could really use another top-flight starter. James Paxton, if you wanted to start pitching the way you did last year, this would be a good time.

Jeff’s got a fun article about Carlos Peguero’s strangely solid start this year in Arlington. As I mentioned over there, while the patience and swing rate are new, and real improvements, we still haven’t seen Peguero fix his old struggles with velocity. At this point, Peguero *still* hasn’t hit a HR on a pitch over 90mph. I took a look at a random smattering of hitters at Baseball Savant and looked at their slugging percentage on contact. For pitches between 90-94, Nelson Cruz is up over .700, and Brad Miller and even Chris Taylor are over .500. Dustin Ackley looks shaky at .432, but Peguero comes in last at an absurd .310. But what happens when he look at pitches thrown between 80-90? Now it’s Peguero at the top of the heap, with a SLG% over .800. I would honestly be happy for Carlos if he keeps up this weird poor man’s John Jaha thing going for a going-nowhere Rangers ballclub. Still, I think it’s going to be tough to hack it if you can’t drive even mediocre fastball velocity. Punishing mistakes is great, and not swinging at balls is even better, but this flaw may still be a fatal one in a league with record high average velos and ever-improving advanced scouting.

The story in the M’s affiliates last night was Danny Hultzen’s second start, this time against Biloxi (who hired radio guy Chris Harris away from Jackson). Hultzen went 2 2/3 IP, giving up 2 runs on 4 hits and 3 walks. He struck out 2. Jimmy Gilheeney was again brilliant in long relief, and the Generals won the game 8-3. DJ Peterson went 2-4 with a 2B. Misael Siverio starts tonight for the Generals against Tyler Wagner of the Shuckers. Wagner’s a 2012 4th rounder who’s cruised through the minors, posting great ERAs and extremely low HR totals thanks to a very good sinker. He finished 2nd in the FSL last year to uberprospect Tyler Glasnow, but Wagner’s never going to get a lot of hype thanks to a lack of Ks (and the bat-missing stuff that produces them). Sickels had him as the #8 Brewers prospect, for what it’s worth.
DJ Peterson’s brother, who plays for high-A Carolina in the Braves organization, was on the bus that flipped over in a late-night accident last night. He, and the rest of the team, seems to be OK, but tonight’s game has been postponed.

The Rainiers built a big lead and got 7 great innings from Justin Germano, but had to hold on for a 9-7 win over Fresno. Dominic Leone’s AAA debut didn’t go too well, as he gave up 4 runs on a Jon Singleton grand slam in his one inning of work. Yoervis Medina pitched the 9th, and gave up a solo HR of his own, this one to Luis Flores. John Hicks and Leury Bonilla homered off of Grizzlies starter/ex-A’s starter Dan Straily. Sam Gaviglio takes on Andrew Heaney of Salt Lake tonight at 6:05.

Edwin Diaz gave up 2 runs (on 2 HRs) in 6 IP, but Visalia came back to beat Bakersfield in extras. Tyler O’Neill hit his 7th HR, and Tyler Marlette’s slump continued with another 0-4. Bakersfield’s gotten amazing pitching, but their *team* OPS is under .600. In the California League. That’s…well, it’s last in the league by a mile, of course. The team with the shortest CF wall that I’ve heard of has a slugging percentage of .309. Onward and upward though – tonight Ryan Yarbrough faces off with John Richy of Rancho Cucamonga.

Clinton topped Wisconsin yesterday 8-3, getting Eddie Campbell a win in his first appearances of the season. Alex Jackson had a double and 3 RBIs, and the L-Kings got HRs from Kristian Brito and Taylor Zeutenhorst, a 34th rounder out of Iowa last year who was playing his first game for Clinton since moving down from Bakersfield. The L-Kings played Wisconsin this morning, and came away with another win – this one by a score of 4-3. Brito homered again, his 3rd on the year, and Joe DeCarlo doubled. Jeferson Medina had his best start of the year, yielding just 1 hit (but he walked 5) in 6 scoreless IP. The L-Kings scored 2 off of Wisconsin starter Cy Sneed, whose name and visage mark him as someone dropped into uniform directly from 1895. The Brewers apparently had a rule about lawless frontier-style mustaches in their affiliated minors, but that picture shows him in uniform this year, so maybe the Brewers had a change of heart.

In other, sadder, M’s minors news, Daniel Missaki, the Brazilian kid who started Clinton’s team no-hitter a few weeks back just had Tommy John surgery today. He (and Ramire Cleto) had the procedure in Seattle, according to Bob Dutton of the TNT.

Game 31, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · May 10, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Felix Hernandez vs. Jesse Chavez, 1:10pm

Happy Felix Day, and a very happy Mother’s Day. It was my mom who instilled a love of baseball in me as a toddler, and it’s my wife who tolerated my love of baseball and encouraged me to take our kids to countless Rainiers games.

The M’s go for the sweep against the reeling A’s, who are now a full game below Texas in last place. Their bullpen’s been atrocious, as we saw in the first game of the series, but their rotation’s been hurt by underperformance and injury. Jesse Hahn’s better than he looked yesterday, but he clearly hasn’t quite adjusted to the AL quite yet. So today the A’s are turning to Jesse Chavez, the reliever turned (effective) starter turned swingman again. Chavez’s career took off in Oakland, but he never seemed like a great candidate to move to starting, but he made 21 starts last season and was a key part of the A’s torrid start. His pitch mix changed pretty dramatically last year, as he opted for the old Brandon McCarthy special – out with the four-seamer, and in with a sinker and cutter. His fastball’s around 92-93, and he’s also got a change and a curve ball. The change-up’s a plus pitch, and it helped him dominate left-handers – he limited lefties to a sub-.300 wOBA last year, and he’s been just as successful in the early going of 2015. With the influx of new players like Hahn and Kendall Graveman, Chavez began the year in the bullpen. He moved back to the rotation in late April, and I’d expect he’ll remain there for the rest of the year. The A’s depth has taken a big hit with Jarrod Parker’s recent injury, and Drew Pomeranz has been shaky since a solid start.

1: Smith, LF
2: Weeks, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Ackley, CF
8: Miller, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: El Rey

Miller’s back at SS today after Chris Taylor suffered a hand injury in last night’s game.

Tacoma’s game should be an interesting one. The Rainiers have called up Bakersfield reliever Trey Cochran-Gill to make a spot start today at Fresno. He’s obviously close by, given that he’s in the Cal League, and AAA teams do this occasionally if they’re low on pitchers – it’s not necessarily a sign that the M’s are really high on someone. That said, I’ve been intrigued by Cochran-Gill since he got a few innings for the M’s this spring. He’s got a low-90s fastball with good sink and some run, and he’s putting up extremely high ground ball rates thus far in high-A. That’s a good plan when your home park has a CF wall only 350′ away, and it’s a good plan in the homer-happy PCL as well.

Stephen Landazuri’s making the start today for Jackson as they finish up the series with Chattanooga. They’ll be home to face Biloxi tomorrow – Biloxi’s the new club in the Southern League – with Danny Hultzen on the mound.

The suddenly Cochran-Gill-less Bakersfield Blaze are off today. They lost an 8-6 decision to Visalia yesterday, despite a two-HR game from the surging Tyler O’Neill. Unfortunately for the Blaze, as O’Neill’s awoken, Tyler Marlette’s cooled off – he’s in a 3-37 slump. Edwin Diaz takes the hill for Bakersfield tomorrow.

Clinton’s also off today, but they’ll open a series at Wisconsin on Monday.

Game 30, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · May 9, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

JA Happ vs. Jesse Hahn, 6:10pm

Man, walkoffs take a lot of pressure off a team. Now it’s Oakland in the cellar, and they’re off to their worst start since 2001, when they…awww, come on!

Hahn’s the righty they got from San Diego in the trade of Derek Norris. At the time, it seemed insane for Oakland to ship out Norris, a high-OBP/solid D catcher AND maybe-ex-catcher, but still a decent lefty bat John Jaso and essentially hand the starting gig to Steven Vogt. Let’s just say Vogt’s off to a good start. Hahn was a sinker/curve guy primarily last year, but he also had a four-seam, a change and a slider. This year, he’s using his four-seamer a bit more, and it’s come at the expense of the curve. It was always a good guess that his K rate would come down as he moved from NL to AL, but it’s plummeted from 22.9% to 14.3%. That said, his walk rate been cut by two thirds, so his FIP’s still fairly pretty. As I mentioned about the entire A’s club, though, it’s sequencing that’s hurting Hahn. His strand rate is an absurd 55%, and while that’ll regress, it’s a partial reason the A’s have won only one of Hahn’s five starts this year.

1: Smith, LF
2: Miller, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Ackley, CF
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Happ

Tyler Olson’s option has been rescinded and he’s been placed on the 15-day DL with a knee contusion suffered against the Astros back on the 2nd. That means this doesn’t yet count as one of Olson’s option years.

Miller’s at DH again today, but could see action in the OF as soon as tomorrow, according to Bob Dutton.

Mike Montgomery starts for Tacoma tonight, Carlos Misell for Bakersfield, and Jake Zokan for Jackson. Clinton already played, and got crushed 14-3. Each of the M’s full-season affiliates are now below .500.

Game 29, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · May 8, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Sonny Gray, 7:10pm

Well. The M’s begin a homestand against a key divisional rival, and tonight’s pitching match-up pits the A’s ace against a promising youngster, and if the M’s take *this* one, then that just opens up the rest of the series, and…. I would love to be excited about this series. This really is a big one, considering that either the M’s or A’s could see their playoff odds absolutely smashed at the end of it. But as everyone knows, we’ve had way too many “huge” or “critical” series in May, when the M’s have one last chance to stay relevant. We’ve had precious few September series that really, really mattered, where you were scanning the pitching probables days ahead and planning exactly how to watch the first few innings of that 4:05 east coast start. Somehow, last year, we had both. We had the 8 game losing streak and irrelevance in late April, and then, miraculously, a run at the wild card that wasn’t over until the last day.

Two consequences of that set of facts: one, I think some M’s fans greatly overestimate the odds of it happening again, and two, another group of fans are reacting to the mismatch between expectations and early results and just giving up. The M’s were bad last April, and were under .500 in May, but the 2014 M’s were never this far down, and, crucially, they never had this many teams to leapfrog. At some point, and reasonable people can argue that we haven’t hit that point yet, it’s more about the number of teams in the way than it’s about the gap to the front of the pack. Could the Astros go 0 for June? I’ve seen recent Astros teams, and I think some of them actually did that – so yes, yes, they could. But that’s not all that needs to happen. The other side of the coin, though, is that it’s too early to say the season has nothing to show us. The odds on the M’s winning the division aren’t great, and they’re dropping by the day, but I’m interested in some/any sign of what the next really good M’s team will look like. We thought we’d assembled it, and a mixture of normal variance and even-more-normal over-rating some players illustrate that we’re not quite there yet. OK, so exactly what needs to change? Does the team look radically different with Brad MIller in CF, or does it look like a team running a streaky-hitting SS in center because they bet the house on an Austin Jackson rebound? It sounds pathetic to hope for a different, fake kind of relevance, but we’re all used to it and it’s still true that the team is better than they’ve played thus far. It may be too late for that to matter, but I’d love them to prove me wrong.

The A’s have had every bit as disappointing a year as the M’s. Even after trading in Josh Donaldson, they seemed like a dangerous team poised at the fringe of the playoff race, and they could easily push their chips in if they found themselves in a good spot in July. Instead, they’re 12-18, percentage points above the M’s. I’m fascinated, because so many of the things that looked like serious weaknesses or risks haven’t actually bitten them. It’s not that Ike Davis and Marcus Semien haven’t hit – they have, and hell, Ike Davis has even *pitched* well. Sonny Gray hasn’t regressed, he’s just as good as ever. Instead, they’ve been undone by sequencing and depth. The back of their rotation was in worse shape than we thought, and thus Kendall Graveman now toils in the PCL. Their overall wRC+ and ERA are perfectly fine, but their pythagorean winning percentage is still bad. They look good every now and again, but they have been utterly annihilated by the Minnesota freaking Twins. Tough team to understand.

Sonny Gray’s their ace, a small right-hander with a 94mph cutter-ish four-seam fastball with essentially no horizontal movement and plenty of rise. He pairs it with a sinker, a curve, a rare change-up and a slider that he’s reworked for 2015. Last year, his slider came in at 87 and had more sink than horizontal break – it moved horizontally about 3.5″ more than his arrow-straight fastball. This year, it’s breaking over 6″ more than his fastball, and it’s dropping more too. It’s still at 87, so it’s not like he’s taking something off – its spin that doing this, not gravity. It was a tough pitch before, but it’s lethal now, especially to righties. Gray’s always had platoon splits, and he’s always been tough on righties, but this situation is tailor-made for the platoon-capable M’s. This really should be an off-day for Austin Jackson, and that’s in fact what we see:

1: Smith, LF
2: Miller, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Ackley, CF
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Walker

I get that you can’t just assume an ideal line-up all the time and that Miller isn’t ready to be a big league CF yet. But here’s Miller’s first start since the big announcement that he’s the new Ben Zobrist – your erstwhile shortstop DHs so you can shift your LF, the guy you didn’t like in CF last time, over to center, all of which necessitates your righty-hitting SS starts against Sonny Gray. I’d complain more if I was sure that Jackson’s a better hitter against RHPs than Chris Taylor right now, but I’m not. That’s the larger problem, of course, and one that Miller’s move may eventually assuage. But the M’s HAVE a lefty SS *on their team* *in their line-up* and have him DH, with Ackley playing CF. It’s… it’s very Mariners.

The R’s have good ol’ TBD on the mound tonight against Fresno. Andrew Heaney was no great shakes against Tacoma last night in Salt Lake, but the Bees still killed the R’s 11-4. Ketel Marte and Jesus Montero each hit three singles.

Scott DeCecco starts for Jackson against the Chattanooga Lookouts. Misael Siverio suffered his first really bad outing as the Lookouts beat the Generals 10-4 last night. DJ Peterson did have 2 hits, and Dario Pizzano had 2 as well, pushing his season line to .416/.444/.519 on the young season.

Tyler Pike will look to extend his modest streak of games without serious control lapses tonight against Visalia. Modesto blanked the Blaze 5-0 last night.

Pat Peterson starts for Clinton against Kane County. Gianfranco Wawoe’s hitting streak ended last night unfortunately.

Roll The Die

Jeff Sullivan · May 8, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Okay, we’re back to do it again. The Mariners are fresh off a skid of, I don’t know, sucking, and at present they sit with the second-worst record in the American League. It’s time for me to issue a response, which means it’s time for me to leave the tenor of said response up to the whims of Microsoft Excel. To refresh your memory, here’s the first time this happened, when we all got to learn a cool thing about owls. The necessary details:

roll-the-die

I’m here to talk about the Mariners in some way or another, though I’m 17% here to talk about owls. What’s there to be said about this baseball team, or owls? Let me roll the die.

Random number: 1!

Unrestrained Emotional Overreaction

As I’ve sat here, pretty much exactly here, following this compost heap of a baseball team, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked aloud, what the shit is this shit? It’s like the Mariners are playing roster problem Whac-A-Mole, where for everything they try to solve, another problem pops up somewhere else. Got Nelson Cruz to fix the lineup? Robinson Cano hurts the lineup. Add J.A. Happ to stabilize the rotation? Time for Taijuan Walker, miscalibrated pitching machine. Hey, Seth Smith is all right! But now the bullpen is more afraid of outs than Dustin Ackley is of hits. For good measure, we’ve also got a team that for whatever reason isn’t even playing fundamentally sound. The symbol of the season to date is Cano inexplicably wandering off third base. Look how close the Mariners can get! They don’t want to get any closer. The Mariners are comfortable observing good baseball, but they’ll be damned if they’re going to participate.

“Close.” That’s been kind of a buzzword. The Mariners over one stretch played 19 consecutive games decided by three runs or less. Since that ended, they’ve played four one-run games in a row, the streak interrupted only by a delightful drubbing at the hands of the Astros in a game the Mariners once led by three. People find consolation in close losses. “They’re right there,” it gets repeated. “One break and it’s a whole other result.” Yeah, that’s the thing about losses. Losses are basically just wins but with things that are bad instead of good. Every Dustin Ackley groundout to second is a matter of feet away from being a Dustin Ackley single into right-center! He’s practically Trout. The Mariners have the second-worst record in the American League. On the plus side, they have the second-worst run differential in the American League. Thank god for BaseRuns. Oh, the Mariners are 11-17? Well, according to BaseRuns, they should be 12-16. Plan the parade!

People like to point out that the Angels are a glorified one-man team. Well that might be, but if I say the Phillies are shitty, that doesn’t mean the Mariners aren’t shitty. Felix has started six times this season, and the Mariners have won six games. Which is outstanding, except for the fact that all of the other games have taken place and haven’t been rained out. Being 6-0 with Felix means the Mariners have also been 5-17 with not-Felix, and, I gotta tell you, most of the games aren’t Felix games, although at some point maybe the team should consider starting him every game day just to see. Have to try something, right? That one commercial might as well have been foreshadowing. We know Felix would be game for it. We know this because Felix is a very confident individual, and because Felix is stupid. Why else would he commit himself to the baseball-team equivalent of a dog standing up on its hind legs? It’s almost like the dog is a regular person, except for it being a dog.

You know who’s in first place right now? Of course you do, it’s the team that just recently swept this team. The Astros have almost twice as many wins as losses, which is interesting because just a few years ago they had twice as many losses as wins. The Astros bottomed out in 2011 and they’re already back and looking at a playoff spot. They’re already stocked with talent, and the problem with promoting Carlos Correa is they might have too many good players. The Mariners bottomed out in 2004, but I’m sure success is right around the corner. The Astros, despite all the mockery, despite all the disastrous PR, have lapped the Mariners, who’ve been looking for room to play Willie Bloomquist. Who’ve been stuck on Dustin Ackley, and Logan Morrison. Hey, Morrison’s hot! This time it has to be for real. And if something happens, there’s Jesus Montero. The dream of 2009 is alive in Seattle. The future was bright, and instead of wearing shades, the Mariners blinded themselves.

It’s been fun to watch Nelson Cruz obliterate baseballs and put spectators in mortal danger. And because he only ever hits solo dingers no one has to come away feeling too bad about themselves. It’s good theater and a good distraction, the Mariners saying “look over there!” whenever we think we smell something funny. Cruz is fleeting positivity, a puddle of water on a California sidewalk. Look, right there — that’s the solution to everything. That’s all that anybody needs. But the puddle will inevitably evaporate, just like all the other puddles. That’s what puddles do in that kind of environment.

That’s the root of all of this. You think the answer is other players, better players? It’s tempting. Alluring. Easy. Here is a roster, and here is a roster with a few better players. Voila, a good roster! That can be how it works elsewhere, but that’s not how it works here. The Mariners’ problem isn’t talent, and it hasn’t been about talent for years. The Mariners have as much talent as any other team. But there’s talent, and there’s converting that talent into success, and where other teams are locked in a space race, the Mariners are stuck in the Bronze Age. They can’t get good players out of good skills. Worse, good players seem to deteriorate, like they’re being drained. Ackley was automatic until he wasn’t. Mike Zunino has only gotten worse. Justin Smoak never did anything. Jesus Montero never did anything. Taijuan Walker isn’t progressing. James Paxton is frustrating. Austin Jackson is somehow hilariously bad. Robinson Cano’s OPS starts with a 6, and this is Year Two of a guaranteed 10. Kyle Seager was the one exception, the one miracle, but even he now seems defeated. By the way, D.J. Peterson is slugging .301. Alex Jackson is slugging .194. Nelson Cruz’s performance is almost adorable. Look at him, try to ignore his context. He’s so bold, so full of hope. It’s futile. It’s like life itself — in the end, death always wins. Cruz has been an oasis, but he’s going to Mariner it. It won’t be his fault, even though we’ll pretend it is.

Our exception is Felix Hernandez. In Felix, we have the perfect player, and the perfect pitcher, the perfect star and the perfect one-time prospect. You couldn’t possibly ask for more. He’s reached his ceiling and then some, and he’s been marketed so well the stadium is sometimes full of people in matching t-shirts chanting for him in unison. Between ourselves and Felix, it’s hard to say who carries the greater burden. Long ago, when the Mariners were shredding all their young arms, we asked for just one to survive and were given a curse. We got what we asked for. Felix is the victim. Rooting is a struggle between wanting more wins around Felix, and wishing for Felix to be granted his freedom. It makes no difference. There will never be enough wins. There will never be freedom.

There will never be freedom. This is our cage. If we look in the mirror, it’s almost like we have company.

Game 28, Mariners at Angels

marc w · May 6, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Roenis Elias vs. CJ Wilson, 7:05pm

I talked about the Angels’ rotation’s downside risk before the year, and Matt Shoemaker and Jered Weaver have obliged. Wilson, though, has been strangely successful, as he’s given up just a single HR this year after battling serious gopheritis last year. His problems with righties had grown over time, and seemed like a harbinger of decline, but he’s been ok thus far. He shackled the M’s in the first series of the year, and he’s kept up a good string of results, giving up 2 runs or less in 4 of his 5 starts. Maybe the M’s learned something?

1: Weeks, DH
2: Bloomquist, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Ruggiano, CF
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Elias

Hmmmm. Or, you know, just throwing it out there: the Rainiers take on Salt Lake at 5:35. Justin Germano faces the Angels big pitching prospect Andrew Heaney (the return for Howie Kendrick). The R’s beat the Bees 5-2 behind Jordan Pries and two HRs by Franklin Gutierrez (my kingdom for a healthy-legged Franklin Gutierrez).

Jackson’s facing Chattanooga, with Jimmy Gilheeney facing Alex Wimmers, a former 1st round pick (2010) of the Twins.

Bakersfield has Ryan Yarbrough on the hill against Modesto.

Peoria blanked Clinton in Daniel Missaki’s first start since starting that team no-hitter on the weekend.

Hey, I just wrote about the Brad Miller position change, so scroll down and read that if you’re so inclined.

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