Rob Whalen is one of two starting pitcher prospects the M’s picked up from Atlanta in exchange for Alex Jackson, and given his size, stuff, and results in his first big league trial with the Braves, I kind of skipped over him in my write-up of the trade to get to Max Povse. Povse is 6’8″, and while his fastball velo has been all over the map, it’s at least touched the mid-90s, something Whalen is probably not going to do. That said, I think I may have skipped over Whalen a bit too quickly.
Whalen’s minor league track record is more encouraging, in that he’s consistently posted great runs-allowed numbers despite a good-but-not-great FIP thanks to low BABIPs. It’s generally a fool’s errand to count on something like that long term, and even though he had a low BABIP with the Braves, it didn’t prevent him from getting knocked around. The story’s somewhat similar for the guy I saw/still see as his best comparison, albeit purely from a pitch fx/pitch movement standpoint: former Dodger Stephen Fife. But when I mentioned Whalen’s 90mph fastball, I mentioned another, better, comp: “Purely on movement, his four seam looks like Garrett Richards’, though of course Richards adds about 7-8 MPH to the mix.” How does this change how we might see Whalen, particularly given the huge gap in velocity between the two odd fastballs?
Back in 2015, I geeked out about Garrett Richards’ spin in this game post before he faced off against Felix and the M’s. As Alan Nathan’s baseball physics lessons teach us, there are two kinds of spin a pitcher can impart to the ball. One, the one we generally care about, is transverse spin, which is what causes the pitch to move. A fourseam fastball from Chris Young or Yu Darvish has a ton of backspin, meaning that the ball is spinning around an axis perpendicular to the direction the pitch is going. In this case, that spin causes turbulence behind the ball, and the magnus force pushes the fastball up (Ok, technically, it just resists gravity more than a non-spinning pitch would). This backspin produces the big “rise” or vertical movement you see from pitchers, and these rising FBs generally induce more swinging strikes. The other type of spin, gyro spin, is on an axis parallel to the direction of travel: this is akin to a spiral in football. The quarterback isn’t throwing a spiral to cause the ball to move – he’s throwing a spiral so that it DOES NOT deviate from its course. Gyro spin in a baseball produces *no movement* compared to a ball thrown without spin.
If you measure a pitch’s spin based on that pitch’s movement – and that’s exactly how pitch FX does it (it imputes spin from trajectory, so it’s *only* picking up transverse spin) – then you’ll find that fastballs move like crazy, while some breaking balls, particularly sliders, don’t “move” at all. Trackman’s cameras can actually measure spin directly instead of deriving it from other data, so it’s an entirely different measure, one that includes *both* transverse and gyro spin. In general, as Alan Nathan found, fastballs have a higher proportion of transverse spin (again, think of a rising fastball), and thus the measures of spin on fastballs in pitch fx and trackman are closer than they are for sliders and curves.
But not for Garrett Richards. Pull up a pitch fx view of his fastball, like this one, and you’ll see a pitcher with a *low* spin fastball – well under 2,000 RPM – but a higher (2100) rate on his curve. Ask Trackman/Statcast, and the picture’s very, very different: Garrett Richards is the high-spin poster boy. His four-seam fastball, the one pitch fx shows as spinning very little, is a wonder in Statcast, spinning 2,500 times per minute. That’s a huge, huge discrepancy, and the only explanation is that there’s a lot – an absolute ton – of gyro spin on his fastball.
Eric Longenhagen’s scouting report on Whalen is a lot like mine – 90mph, scuffled with Atlanta, may be a reliever or swingman. But buried at the end was a note about Whalen’s exceptional spin rates, measured at 2,400RPMs. I pulled up Baseballsavant, and it’s true: Whalen’s FB spins like crazy, it just isn’t generating any movement, just like Richards’. But why would you *want* that? If high transverse spin creates movement (and whiffs), then isn’t that better than this useless gyro stuff? Maybe not.
Years ago, Max Marchi set out to categorize pitches and how batters reacted to them with pitch FX. Instead of using the standard pitch types, or what MLBAM classified them as (or even what the pitchers *themselves* called them), he made his own categories based on how they moved. In the end, he came up with *17* categories, separating “jumping” fastballs (think Chris Young) from “riding” fastballs (think Sean Manaea now, or old school Randy Johnson). This debate about where the boundary between a slider and a cutter or a fastball and a cutter is keeps popping up, and it’s something I’ve mentioned here before. Anyway, if you click the link to Max’s work, his “cutter” bin had an average horizontal movement of -0.4″ with vertical movement of 6.6″. Garrett Richards’ “four seam” last year had average horizontal movement of -0.4″ with vertical movement of 6.9″. Rob Whalen’s “four seam” last year averaged -0.2″ and 6.5″, respectively. There are two things I take from this: first, Whalen and Richards’ four-seamers are actually cutters, and second, a handy definition for *this sort of cutter* (not those way over on the slider end) is a fastball thrown with gyro spin. They spin like mad, but don’t move like mad.
Ok, ok, so again, why does that matter? Why should we care more if we call them cutters versus four-seamers versus shplankoids? Because batters have a bit more trouble with cutters – their movement may be part of the reason why. Firing up statcast, we see that the average exit velocity – how hard the average ball was hit – on a four-seam fastball in 2016 was 90.5 MPH. For sinkers, it’s exactly the same, 90.5 MPH. For cutters, the average exit velocity was just 87.5 MPH. This difference of ~ 3.333% doesn’t sound like much, but it is. If we look at the average slg% on contact for balls hit at at least 90 MPH, we see a Godzilla-like SLGCON% of .874. But for balls hit below 88 MPH, it plummets down to just .255. That’s…that’s a big difference.
There are caveats galore here. That SLGCON analysis is focused on balls in play, and thus misses the big advantage of the high transverse spin FB: all of the whiffs. It’s also using MLBAM’s definition of cutter, so it might be pulling in more slider-y pitches, perhaps thrown in slider counts like 0-2, 1-2, when SLGCON plummets for everyone, no matter what pitch is thrown. And then there’s the obvious point that averages don’t really help individual pitchers. Jarred Cosart throws a Richardsian 94-95mph cutter 70% of the time, and he got destroyed last year. Stephen Fife couldn’t hack it either. Throwing a weird FB is not a panacea.
It might, however, be a strategic move. Back in 2014, when he was still in the Mets org, Whalen pitched in the Arizona Fall League. Maybe due to pitching at the end of a long season, or maybe due to small sample weirdness, he got hit pretty hard in the desert. Looking at his meager pitch FX numbers from back in 2014, though, Whalen looks completely different. His four-seam was more of a traditional, rising, back-spinning offering. He didn’t yet have a slider, just a slurvy breaking ball that showed *less* spin than average. Everything about Whalen’s movement was just…average (or worse). What he’s done since then is split the meh slurve into an actual slider and a high-spin curve that comes in slower. Gone is the completely normal (but slow) four-seamer, replaced by his cuttery thing. Whalen dominated in the minors despite good-not-great K rates and K-BB% with his new approach. It carried over into the bigs, but was undone by a bout of wildness. This was always Fife’s downfall, and it’s destroyed Cosart, too – Cosart’s career K-BB% is around 3%. Whalen still needs to limit his walks, but the great thing about the cutter-FB hybrid thing is that he doesn’t NEED to post big K rates. Even getting hit fairly hard, and with a HR/9 mark of nearly 1.5 last year, Whalen’s average exit velocity was just 88 MPH, well below average. On grounders, it was under 84 MPH, which is great; too bad he was more of a FB pitcher, but still, it’s encouraging. You can begin to see how Whalen can succeed despite his underpowered arm, and despite the cautionary tales of Fife and Cosart. He may not need Richards’ velocity (Collin McHugh is a 90-91 MPH example), and he may not need a lot of Ks. If he can use his gyro-spinning FB to limit contact authority, he may be better than I initially gave him credit for.
A day ago – literally a day ago – I said this of the Jerry Dipoto M’s:
Jerry Dipoto and the M’s came to view a player who’d played his way to a lower ceiling as having more value in trade – even without a mint-conditioned prospect sheen – than they do on the M’s roster.
That was true of Tai Walker, who, despite adding a few wins above replacement level at the MLB level was clearly not picking up something that Dipoto/Servais was laying down. It’s *also* true of the latest Mariner to be traded: OF prospect Alex Jackson, the #6 overall pick in the 2014 draft, and one of the M’s top prospects (based on pre-draft ability/pedigree) ever since.
If M’s fans have thought of Jackson since draft day, it’s probably to lament his lack of progress. Most of this is Jackson’s fault (he’s still only been as high as Class A Clinton), and a great deal of *that* is due the lingering stain of Jackson’s disastrous early 2015 stint with Clinton, where he was clearly unready for the pro arms that he faced. In every other assignment, he’s hit a bit better than league average. It’s not that Jackson’s been out and out awful, it’s that he’s been flawed (his K rate is worryingly high) and his progress slower than we’d expect from the consensus best prep bat in his draft class.
Of course, that pedigree and the fact that he’s been kind of okay (if you see past the expectations that come with his draft position) that enable Jerry Dipoto to acquire prospects for him. It would surprise no M’s fan if Jackson stalls out in AA. You look at his peripheral stats, and you see a guy who looks like Mike Zunino, but in a corner OF spot, and that’s just not going to work. And yet, the idea of a ‘prospect pedigree’ is more than marketing/hype and old-school mumbo-jumbo. Not many big leaguers suffered through the slumps Jackson has, but the uber-talents have a better track record (or, depending on your perspective, are granted a much longer leash and/or second, third, & fourth chances).
Atlanta might ‘win’ this trade handily. Jackson is, by some margin, the most talented ballplayer in the exchange. He’s demonstrated some power, but really needs some help with making contact. In return, the M’s get low-to-mid ceiling pitchers Robert Whalen and Max Povse. Whalen’s best comparison player may be Stephen Fife, the one-time Dodger who was part of the 3-team trade that netted the M’s Trayvon Robinson. He throws 90 and got hit hard in 5 starts for the Braves in 2016. Povse, a 6’8″ righty, is more of a traditional prospect, but doesn’t have the pure stuff to be among Atlanta’s org top 10 (or possibly 20).
Whalen’s fastball is something of an oddity in that it has absolutely zero horizontal movement, but also no vertical rise. Purely on movement, his four seam looks like Garrett Richards’, though of course Richards adds about 7-8 MPH to the mix. That brings us to Stephen Fife, a long-time MiLB vet who possesses a similar FB and change-up. Fife’s ‘odd’ FB couldn’t consistently confuse big league hitters, but he was okay in between injuries and minor league options. Despite Whalen’s struggles, there’s room for optimism. Whalen’s average exit velocity was well below league average last year, and he was exceptionally good at limiting GB batted-ball authority. If part of that is skill and not just unfamiliarity/luck, then he might have some value, particularly if he makes more use of his sinker. This is a longshot #5 prospect whose real utility may be at the AAA level, but if he can ride his weird low-spin movement to poor contact (he gave up very few ‘barrels’, or exceptionally well-struck balls in his 20-odd IP), he may end up more useful than Jackson. And it’s not just tiny-sample batted-ball data: Whalen’s posted consistently low BABIPs throughout the minors and in his MLB stint, too. Of course, he’s also coming off a shoulder injury that ended his 2016 campaign, and thus may be even riskier than the underpowered-funky-fastball-and-guile profile suggests.
Povse has much more of a traditional prospect profile thanks to his 6’8″ frame and a sinking FB that’s touched 97. He’s also hit AA in 2016 and posted freakishly low walk rates.* Despite all that, Povse hasn’t wowed scouts because he’s struggled to miss bats. In isolated games, he looks like an ace, but more often, he’s been tall-Aaron-Cook, giving up a ton of (mostly grounded) contact. Still, if the M’s look back on this trade fondly, it’ll likely be due to Povse, who could morph into a Justin Masterson or Jeff Samardzija type, if everything breaks right.
The return is…fine, I suppose, and at least Povse holds out the possibility of some upside, but it feels amazing after following the team that couldn’t quite quit Dustin Ackley/Justin Smoak. The last time the M’s moved a pre-Major Leagues first-rounder was when they packaged Philippe Aumont as part of the Cliff Lee deal (that worked out). They traded Adam Jones earlier – you may have heard how that turned out – but he’d already hit AAA for the M’s. The M’s haven’t made a move quite like this in a while, though the motivation for it may be similar to the Tai Walker trade we discussed yesterday.
The M’s were unhappy with Walker’s effort/fight during the year and moved him to AAA for a week or so in 2016. Following Jackson’s lost 2015, the M’s held him back in instructs until he met, as Ryan Divish reported, performance and attitude standards. He got out of instructs, but the M’s haven’t been shy about ID’ing the prospects that frustrate them. They’ve moved them despite performance struggles and despite their own public misgivings about the players, and yet it’s hard to say it’s really hurt them. Would Jackson have fetched more after 2014, if he could’ve been moved in a Dansby Swanson-type deal? Sure, but the fact is he wasn’t, and given the M’s made the move now, when every other club knew about the K’s and the ‘attitude’ concerns, Dipoto and company did all right.
That’s not to say it’s a clear upgrade the way the Walker/Segura move was. This has a much, much bigger chance of blowing up in the M’s faces. But at this point, Jackson’s odds for contributing to the Mariners was quite low, and yet Dipoto was able to move him for something of value (not much value, but value nonetheless). Dipoto clearly had a contingency plan with Jackson, and in Atlanta – a rebuilding team with a deep, deep farm system – he had an ideal trading partner.
* Like a few low-walk pitchers before him, Povse’s walk totals hide some elevated HBP numbers. It doesn’t change his value or control grade, but it’s worth remembering that his Bb% or BB/9 understates the number of batters he put on base.
There’s a natural tendency for people writing about baseball to judge a General Manager based on his/her biggest moves: the blockbuster trade that changes a franchise, the big first-round draft pick who turns into a star, the key free agent signing (or avoiding the big free agent land mines). This isn’t wrong, of course, as big moves (especially when you can pick out the big moves with the benefit of hindsight) clearly do impact a team’s chances. The problem is that they’re not distributed evenly. The M’s were *able* to take a risk with the Robinson Cano signing while the A’s, for example, were not. Similarly, inheriting a team with a loaded farm system, a big new TV deal, or just a club in a big coastal city means you’ve got a leg or two up on some of your rivals. And of course, even if you (correctly) saw that signing Player A was the key to your offseason, you may or may not be able to prevent the Yankees from signing him first. The key to having a universally-praised resume is first building a resume that can be judged.
As a result, some bright internetting soul (I forget who) pointed out that a key component of a GM’s value is the ability to actually make good on their plan. It’s not enough to intuit that some free agent is a good value – you’ve got to go out and make the deal, with all that that entails: convincing the player, his agent, maybe your own ownership group, whatever veteran is most at risk of lost playing time, etc. So far, we’ve been focused on players *entering* an org, but there’s something just as critical about how and when players leave it, too.
Poor player development results in trading an ex-prospect for pennies on the dollar and watching them develop into Jake Arrieta. Misjudging one’s own talent leads to disasters like the Erik Bedard trade. Hold onto a struggling player too long, and suddenly your scouts are flinging frozen foods at them on some low-level field, but trading a player after a surprisingly good season or two can result in Josh-Donaldson for some 5th starters and a SS prospect. The result seems like a kind of baseball Anna Karenina principle (great moves are all alike, while bad moves are each bad in their own way), but is really a restating of the principle we just discussed. A GM needs to play for each player’s possible role, but to have – and enact – contingency plans.
Two different Mariner front offices planned on Taijuan Walker becoming an ace. They invested in development, and thanks in large part to Walker’s ability to learn and adapt to a series of coaches, watched Walker move from ultra-raw talent to a universally-lauded prospect. As they waited for him to assume the mantle of Felix’s heir apparent, they also at least engaged in some discussions to move Walker (for Justin Upton, perhaps for Yoenis Cespedes, etc.), then decided to hold on to the young righty. Until now.
As you’ve no doubt heard by now, the M’s and Diamondbacks kicked off the Holiday weekend last Wednesday when they swapped Tai Walker for SS/2B Jean Segura, OF Mitch Haniger, and LHP Zac Curtis. The D-backs sidestepped a horrific free agent pitching market, and got a players who can help them for the medium-to-long term. They also dealt from surprisingly solid middle-infield AND outfield depth. Meanwhile, the M’s, as expected, addressed *two* of their key weaknesses for 2017 by netting a starting shortstop and getting a right-handed hitting OF who’s projected to out-hit Guillermo Heredia and with the potential to clear bars a hell of a lot higher than that.
I’ll admit it: I was one of the guys most intrigued by Taijuan Walker’s potential, and continually thought he was one mechanical tweak, one adjustment, from becoming a clear #2 or better. It’s so easy to do considering their numerous missteps, but I wondered if any, er, delays in Walker reaching his potential were due to unforced errors made by the Zduriencik front office. The more time went on, the harder it was to sustain that sort of conspiratorial thinking. The Dipoto regime clearly saw Walker as responsible for his own struggles, as they made the rather stunning move of demoting him for a short while last year. At that point, with a manager and GM who’d pretty much openly questioned their ace-in-waiting’s mental toughness, a move like this one comes to seem inevitable.
As with the Chris Taylor deal last year, Jerry Dipoto and the M’s came to view a player who’d played his way to a lower ultimate ceiling as having more value in trade – even without a mint-conditioned prospect sheen – than they do on the M’s roster. Unlike that Chris Taylor deal, though, I think Dipoto was able to leverage Walker’s potential and the historically bad pitching market to make an intriguing deal, one that could make the M’s much better in 2017. We can quibble with Dipoto’s handling of Walker, but Walker’s the guy who gave up 1.81 HR/9 last year. Dipoto saw 1) that he needed a shortstop and 2) that Walker was probably not going to be an ace *in Seattle* anytime soon. Instead of trading him for Zack Cozart, he was able to snag Jean Segura, who posted a 5-WAR season in Arizona, AND get an interesting OF prospect in the process.
Walker’s remaining potential and the paucity of external alternatives mean that the classic arguments about overpaying for a player coming off a career year don’t apply. Segura’s got two remaining years of club control and joins an M’s squad that got all of -1.1 WAR from their SS last year, much of that thanks to the frustrating Ketel Marte, who’s Arizona’s puzzle now. Segura’s Steamer projections look a lot like Walker’s – about 2.2 WAR. That’s less than half of his production last year, and that’s despite a so-so defensive year at 2B (so he got less of a bump in positional value). A 2.2 WAR year adds over 3 wins to the M’s middle infield, and the M’s again look to be in a position where three wins would be pretty important.
Of course, many observers would take the over on that projection for Segura. This Al Melchior piece at Fanrag (hat tip to Bob Dutton) dives into his peripheral stats and note that Segura’s power spike seems like the product of sustainable changes in approach rather than luck or a fortuitous home park (he had pretty minor home/road splits last year). If Segura’s able to post a 3-4 WAR season, look out. If Safeco’s as homer-friendly as it was last year, and Segura’s able to hit 20 bombs again (I have more faith in that than a repeat of his 41 doubles, for the record), the M’s look like a formidable team, even with a hole in the rotation.
To be clear: you can’t just start with Segura’s 2016 and work from there. Segura spent all of 2014 and 2015 hitting like Ketel Marte hit in 2016. He had slightly more value thanks to a decent glove and some baserunning success, but at the plate, Segura was utterly lost. It’s nice to point to changes in approach, or working with a well-respected coach, but there’s risk here, too. Any projection has to take his entire history into account, and much of that history – even the recent stuff – looks bad. That said, his 2016 counts too. This is the part of the post where we’d typically look at similar moves – cost-controlled SS/2Bs coming off big years that get traded. The problem is that it just doesn’t happen that often (for obvious reasons).
The buy-low adage is still a good one, but it often leads to even-lower production. Cristian Guzman to the Nationals, Yuniesky Betancourt to the Royals (LOL), Ronny Cedeno/Jack Wilson/etc. Players have signed free agent deals after solid years – Marco Scutaro’s 2-year deal with the Red Sox after a breakout with the Blue Jays comes to mind, or Jose Reyes’ blockbuster deal with the Marlins – but it’s just rare to move a decent SS coming off a great year. That makes it hard to judge (is Segura more Brad Miller, Aaron Hill, or Howie Kendrick?), but at the very least, there’s not a clear pattern of similar moves backfiring. It’s not like there’s clear evidence that guys who go from 20 runs below average to 20 runs above give all of those gains back again.
The inclusion of Mitch Haniger makes the deal even easier to like. Dave Cameron’s wrap-up of the move spent a great deal of time talking about the young OF, whom many observers think has the glove to play CF long term. Even without that advantage, he’s projected as a near-league average player in 2017, and he’d fill perhaps the biggest need the M’s have.
The Mariners pitching depth wasn’t great, but the drop off from Walker to Karns is a lot smaller than the drop off from Segura to Marte. I don’t really understand what went on between Walker, Scott Servais and Jerry Dipoto, and I think there’s still a chance a change of scenery helps him unlock his potential. Those are cliches layered on cliches, I realize, but as much as I’m disappointed Walker never really “happened” in Seattle, maybe Walker made the M’s 4-5 wins better after all.
A year ago around this time, Jerry Dipoto traded upside for a rotation upgrade. He did it when he moved Brad Miller for Nathan Karns, and he did it when he traded Roenis Elias and Carson Smith for Wade Miley. Perhaps we need an addendum to the principles we’ve discussed here: learn from your mistakes. Brad Miller is not, and was not, anything remotely akin to Jean Segura. But a year ago, the M’s saw reliability in the rotation as a cornerstone value. It didn’t have a pithy acronym that everyone would say on the broadcast, but it was worth parting with Miller and it was worth trading the most valuable reliever in the org for what seemed like a generic, if reliable (ha!), #4. This year, the M’s had a frustrating but valuable #4, and this year, Dipoto saw the worth of that – the frustration, the possibility, the clear value in 200 IP – differently.
(I realize I’ve given short shrift to Zac Curtis, the lefty reliever the M’s picked up. I saw his BrooksBaseball page and literally lol’d. Curtis throws 92, and has a ton of horizontal movement, the byproduct of the exact same low 3/4 delivery Dipoto’s sought out throughout organized baseball.)
Given the sheer volume of activity during Jerry Dipoto’s first offseason at the helm of the M’s front office, it should be much of a surprise that he’s been busy again this fall.
Since my AFL update post, the M’s have made three fairly interesting trades, added a few players to their 40-man roster, and lost and signed a number of minor league free agents. Let’s take a look at each of them.
1: The M’s traded for former Oakland/Boston/Minnesota/Kansas City/Baltimore corner OF/IF Danny Valencia, who’s coming off a solid year at the plate, playing 130 games with a 118 OPS+. Valencia’s always been a lefty-mashing platoon guy; he’s got a career 139 OPS+ vs lefties, but just 85 against righties. That and some defensive limitations partially explain his availability, and his availability for the bargain-basement price of AA starter Paul Blackburn (the throw-in in the Montgomery for Vogelbach trade this summer). The rest, and perhaps the BULK of the seeming chasm between his value and his price, is that he’s gathered the reputation of a difficult personality. Valencia slugged 17 HRs last year, but his most noteworthy smash of 2016 was a punch he landed to the face of Oakland DH Billy Butler. He played for two organizations at the big league level in 2012, 2014 and 2015. There’s essentially zero question about his ability to hit lefties, and his performance against righties has actually been trending upwards in recent years – he was a slightly-above-league-average hitter against them last year. This is an amazing get for the M’s, especially given Blackburn’s lack of projection.*
Personality rumors aside, I don’t want to oversell the “headcase” angle. He’s also going into his third year of arbitration, and will presumably be a free agent after the year. He’ll get a substantial raise from the $3+ million he made last year, and while that’s not terribly important to the M’s, it’s starting to sound like real money to Oakland. His defense has also been an issue. He’s primarily played 3B, something the M’s don’t need him to do. That’s probably for the best, as UZR and DRS agree that Valencia’s been a poor defender at the hot corner. He got a few games at 1B for the A’s last year, and would fit nicely in a platoon with Vogelbach there, but he’d be a lot more interesting as an OF. The M’s #1 LF at this point (via the M’s official depth chart) is Ben Gamel, a lefty who’s projected to post a 91 wRC+ next year. Guillermo Heredia’s a right-handed alternative with a much better glove, but he’s projected for an only slightly better 94 wRC+ mark. Seth Smith is 34, and his defensive marks tumbled last year. There’s room for someone like Valencia (who’s 32 himself) to get a look. Right now, the depth chart lists Valencia as the starter at 1B, but given everything the M’s have said about Vogelbach (and given the M’s interest in acquiring him), I’d assume the hefty lefty will get every opportunity to start vs. righties and thus claim the lion’s share of playing time. Valencia can play 1B, I’d assume, but he’d have a bit more value if he could fill in in an OF corner as well. There’s a surprising amount of risk in his profile: he’s had several lost years at the plate, he could be a defensive disaster in LF, etc. But this is a great, low-cost move to solidify their batting order and satisfy Dipoto’s desire to get another RH bat.
2: As good as that trade was, I’m still scratching my head about the M’s trading impressive starting pitching prospect Zack Littell for left-handed reliever James Pazos of the Yankees. Littell was an 11th round pick out of a North Carolina high school in 2013, and he’d moved slowly in his first couple of years in the system. In 2015, something clicked, and he quickly became the only bright spot on a dismal Clinton Lumberkings team. He started in Clinton in 2016, and was even better. A promotion to the California League didn’t slow him down, and he ended the year as a top-10 prospect for the M’s (that’s where I would’ve put him, anyway). MLB had him as the M’s 14th best prospect, while mentioning that his FB touches 94. Other reports have him with a bit less velocity, and in any case, Littell hasn’t been successful thanks to a spectacular FB. He typically sits around 90 with his well-located FB and has a very good slow curve along with it, according to those who’ve seen him pitch. His calling card is probably his command, as his mediocre stuff plays up, allowing him to post a walk rate below 5% last year while minimizing HRs. He doesn’t have clear, obvious plus-grade stuff, but this is a pretty good get for the Yankees.
In return, the M’s get a hard-throwing lefty reliever who’s had intermittent control problems and battled the always-encouraging “undisclosed injur[ies]” in his minor league tenure. He throws very hard: Brooks measured his average FB last year at 96 MPH, up from 94.5 in 2015. Pazos throws it from a low 3/4 motion, and it’s got plenty of armside run. I kind of like the pitch in theory, but big league hitters haven’t had too much trouble hitting it hard (miniscule sample alert). He’s been great in the minors, and he seems ready for an opportunity to get more playing time in the bigs, though it’s perhaps telling that the Yankees are moving him after clearing some space in their bullpen by trading Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. They, like most teams, have plenty of options for the back of the bullpen, so that’s not a slam on Pazos, but this feels like an overpay by the M’s because of their stated need to get a lefty reliever. Pazos shouldn’t have come free – he’s a lefty with a weird arm angle throwing 96 – but I was amazed it took Littell. On the plus side: despite his long tenure in the minors and being drafted out of college, Pazos should still have two options years left. He didn’t use one in 2015, so he burned the first of three in 2016. If his control goes south again, he can head to Tacoma to refine it. If he’s working out the kinks in the PCL, though, the trade may seem even more lopsided, however.
3: In a great change-of-scenery trade, the M’s picked up IFs Richie Shaffer and Taylor Motter from Tampa in exchange for SP prospect Dylan Thompson, RP Andrew Kittredge and 1B Dalton Kelly. Thompson’s the prize here, as the M’s went overslot to get him a few years ago in the draft, but he threw just a handful of innings this year, all of them in the Arizona League (he started the championship game, actually). Kittredge, a former UW Husky, has been a long-time M’s farmhand, working out of the bullpen in Jackson and Tacoma for many years. When the M’s pulled Thyago Vieira out of the AFL, they replaced him with Kittredge, presumably so the Rays could get a better look at him. He throws a a low-90s FB with a hard, cuttery slider and a slower, big breaking curve. Dalton Kelly was a very late round pick out of UCSB and had a hot start for Clinton, but really tailed off down the stretch. He showed some good bat-to-ball skills, but doesn’t currently have the power you’d look for in a 1B.
In return the M’s got a lottery ticket in Richie Shaffer and at least the potential for a super-sub in Taylor Motter. Shaffer was the Rays’ first-round pick out of Clemson in 2012, but he combined poor power (for a 3B/1B) and didn’t hit for average. He’s shown the ability to work a walk (you can tell why Dipoto was interested), but hadn’t really gotten his BP power to show up in games. That changed in 2015, when he knocked 26 HRs and worked his way from AA to MLB. While his walk rate stayed high, his K rate crept up at each level, and that’s been a huge problem in his two cups of coffee in Tampa. Without any development, he’s a useful piece for Tacoma, as a “Mike Zunino’s skillset minus the catching parts” isn’t playable, but while his odds of breaking out aren’t great, he’s shown he’s capable of driving the ball. Will working with Edgar unlock some latent ability? I’m not wagering any money on it, but his odds are better than your average waiver-wire find.
Taylor Motter has always hit remarkably well for a guy who’s always had the “4th OF” or utility man tag slapped on him. A 17th rounder out of not-yet-national-power Coastal Carolina, Motter combined decent speed with a solid eye and contact skills to post solidly above-average batting lines throughout the minors. He played all over the diamond, logging most of his time at 3B and RF, but getting quite a few games at SS, 2B and CF. Motter’s older and right-handed, but there’s some Ben Gamel in is approach at the plate: both have a decent eye, don’t hit for a lot of power (Gamel’s 2 years younger, to be fair), and after some solid seasons in the upper minors, both got steamrolled by the American League last year. Gamel’s projected to do a bit better next year, but Motter had the superior MiLB lines and didn’t crash *quite* as badly as Gamel.
In terms of his, uh, utility to the M’s, the clear comp for Motter is Shawn O’Malley, a guy who can play all over and not embarrass himself, and hit enough to justify a roster spot, particularly given today’s short benches that put a premium on positional flexibility. Motter appears to be a top-shelf version of O’Malley (who, like Motter, was drafted by the Rays), with a bit more upside at the plate, but without the switch-hitting ability. O’Malley’s the better defender at SS, but Motter’s got more upside than most utility guys.
4: So, I mentioned it above, but just after I wrote about Vieira, the M’s removed him from the Peoria roster, replacing him with Andrew Kittredge. You can understand the thought process: the deadline for the M’s to roster was fast approaching, and they had one last chance to see him face decent competition. Vieira responded by throwing 102 with decent control, and thus the decision didn’t turn out to be that difficult: the M’s added Vieira to the 40-man, and then shut him down to avoid the risk of injury.
Joining Vieira on the MLB roster were left-handed reliever Paul Fry and 1B/DH DJ Peterson, the club’s first round pick in 2013. Peterson had some injury issues in 2016, but on the whole, he performed far better than his atrocious 2015. At this point, I’m not sure he’s ever going to hit for average, but he’s demonstrated in-game power in the upper minors, and could tap into more after some work with the M’s coaches. Paul Fry could be a LOOGY for the M’s next year, a possibility Dipoto mentioned to Ryan Divish the other day. He posted a nice ERA, though a high walk rate and plenty of un-earned runs make that a bit misleading. Making room on the roster were Tom Wilhelmsen, who’s now a free agent, and Stefen Romero, who’ll ply his trade in Japan next year. LH RP David Rollins, the M’s last Rule 5 pick (2014), was claimed by the Cubs off of waivers.
Speaking of the Rule 5 draft, by adding Vieira, Fry and Peterson, the M’s 40-man roster is now full, so it doesn’t look like they can play in the MLB portion of the Rule 5 on December 8th. In fact, the M’s are already facing a roster crunch: CF Boog Powell is currently on the restricted list following his PED suspension, so while he’d been on the 40-man, his spot doesn’t officially “count” until he serves his time. At that point, the M’s are going to have to make a move to either keep Powell or try to slip him through waivers. Powell’s currently playing in the Dominican League, where he’s posting his customary solid OBP, but, sadly, a sub-.300 SLG%. Hey, better than Taylor Motter who’s 0-18 in the Dominican.
5: The M’s signed a few minor league free agents, grabbing RP Peter Tago who’d last been in the White Sox org. Tago had been with the White Sox, where he showed solid bat-missing ability, and elite-level strike-zone-missing ability. They also signed Blake Perry, a right-hander who’d played his entire pro career (dating back to the 2010 draft) in the D-Backs organization. They even re-signed Steve Baron, whom they bumped from the 40-man roster a few weeks ago. The M’s have lost a few farmhands as well, with Venezuelan righty Osmer Morales signing with the Angels and 2016 Tacoma starter Kraig Sitton signed with Colorado.
6: At this point, the M’s have made a number of small moves that, taken together, make the 2017 club a bit better at the expense of some low-minors pitching depth. That sounds like an unalloyed good thing, and I suppose it’s not bad, but if you’re going to play for 2017 – and let’s be clear: they absolutely should – then they need to take a decisive step instead of tinkering with the 11-13th reliever on the active roster. The M’s SS position is a problem, and they’re actively working to upgrade it, either with Cincinnati’s Zach Cozart or someone else. Ketel Marte needs more seasoning, more ABs…*something*. But the M’s OF is a bigger, more complicated problem. They have 5 rostered OFs (6, including Powell), and only Seth Smith – who’ll turn 35 next year – is projected to be league average at the plate. Leonys Martin’s 2nd half swoon makes his projection of an 82 wRC+ a bit more plausible, and Gamel and Heredia’s sub-100 projections seem fair, too. Shawn O’Malley isn’t on the roster to be a league-average bat, and if Motter impresses, he may not be on the roster at all. Sure, use Danny Valencia out there, but that makes it less likely that they improve on their -40 defensive runs last year, and you also can’t use him at 1B. You can hope Gamel and Heredia make strides, but the whole “he hasn’t shown it yet, but I swear it’s coming,” thing is what sunk the Zduriencik administration.
I’m preaching to the choir, and the M’s know this as well as anyone. This is not the OF that the M’s will enter the regular season with. But with all of the talk about the SS position, the M’s have lots to do with their outfield.
* I kind of imagine the A’s making the deal without really knowing who they were getting.
“We’re interested in Valencia”
“SURE, no problem. We can make this work.”
“Ok, you want pitching?”
“Yes. Or hitting.”
“We’ve got a lefty in AA who ca”
“Done. Sounds great. I’ll start the paperwork.”
So since last we spoke of Brazilian fireballers and AFL data, a lot has happened. Free agency is now in full swing, with the Braves already landing two starters in RA Dickey and Bartolo Colon. There’s been…other news as well. I’m not going to talk about any of that today, as I’ve a well-earned anti-topicality reputation, and now’s no time to start getting timely. The news brings us some interesting musing on the free agency market, but I’d like to talk about trades – which is nice, because the M’s recently made another one.
The real impetus of this post was an image – a picture of Mike Montgomery and the Cubs celebrating their Game 7 win, an event you probably heard about. I think it was this one*, and I think it came from a retweet from new Lookout Landing co-editor and Montgomery fan Kate Preusser, but there are a bunch of them; this happens when you get the save in Game 7 of the World Series, breaking a 108-year Series drought. Mike Montgomery, recent trade acquisition (with M’s, for Dan Vogelbach), replaced Carl Edwards Jr., less-recent trade acquisition (with Texas, for Matt Garze), who replaced Aroldis Chapman, most-recent trade acquisition (with Yankees, for Gleyber Torres+), in a game started by Kyle Hendricks, least-recent trade acquisition (with Texas, for Ryan Dempster).
Everyone knows that the Cubs had been in a rebuild, and that they drafted well in recent years, giving them key contributors Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber, among others. What stood out to me, though, was the sheer volume of traded players on that team. Jake Arrieta was acquired in a deal so minor it involved the actual Steve Clevenger. Addison Russell came over in a blockbuster, with the Cubs shipping two starters (including Jeff Samardzija) to Oakland. Anthony Rizzo swapped for Andrew Cashner, etc. Sure, sure, as a team with plenty of resources, they didn’t need to rely *solely* on this draft-and-trade philosophy; Jon Lester was a big free agent signing, along with Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. But the volume and importance of the trades seemed somewhat remarkable, and so in the wake of that win, I tweeted this:
Wonder what the average WAR from players acquired through trades is for a WS winner? Cubs have to be 2X, 3X that, right?
— Marc W (@USSM_Marc) November 3, 2016
Was that off-handed comment even close to being right? Does it matter? This is just some observations and not a real study or anything, but the initial answers are 1) kind of, but it depends and 2) no, none of this matters, but it’s nice to think about championships sometimes.
I took a look at the 10 most recent Series winners, going from the 2007 Red Sox through the 2016 Cubs, and then broke out the WAR they got from players acquired in trade. I then broke that out by pitchers and position players. I used bWAR for this, since they have some handy tables on traded players. The average Series winner over the past 10 years got 7.36 WAR from traded-for players, while this year’s Cubbies got 22.2 – nearly triple the 10-year rolling average. Not bad. But this is way too simplistic you say, snatching away a tiny, harmless moment of joy from me: isn’t this 10-year look going to heavily, heavily overweight the Giants teams that somewhat bizarrely had essentially no contributions from traded players? Yes, I suppose you’re right, you pedant, but if you think I’m going to pull the numbers from every WS winner, you’re insane. Fine, continues this irritating-yet-undeniably-on-to-something know-it-all, but at least show the WS *losers,* as then you might pick up on trade-crazy teams like the Rangers. To get rid of this pest and this equally-annoying writing device, I did the same for the WS *losers* from 2007-2016. The Series *losers* averaged 15.3 WAR from traded players, with this year’s Cleveland Indians notching 21.4 WAR from traded players (thanks Corey Kluber). The Cubs got a ton of value from traded players, but so did the Indians, and neither was all THAT far out of step with previous Series teams.**
The Giants clearly were a team that got by with savvy free agent pick-ups and a truly remarkable player development team. The first Giants Series winning team (2010) had all of 3.5 WAR from traded players. Their 2012 winners were up to 8 thanks to Melky Cabrera. By 2014, Hunter Pence was a key factor, but they were still at only 6 WAR from traded players. Joining them in the trades-are-overrated camp were the Phillies of 2008-09, who had 5.2 WAR *combined* in their two NL championship years. Their opponents in 2009, the Yankees, had only 1.4, so the combined traded-player WAR total of the AL and NL champs in 2009 was just 2.8. The Cardinals had very little, too, and even the Mets last year, who famously rode Yoenis Cespedes and Noah Syndergaard to the NL title, only came in at 7.7. So the Cubs have been quite remarkable for a *National* league team, but much less stunning than several recent AL teams.
Why have recent AL teams gotten so much more WAR from traded players? Fully 5 of the past 10 AL champs have at least 20 WAR from traded players, headlined by the team with the most in this 10-year look, the 2011 Texas Rangers. The Rangers have long had a a formidable talent pipeline; they’re a team that’s done a lot of work in Latin America, but they’ve also drafted fairly well. Still, these data reflect the fact that Jon Daniels and the Rangers make a *lot* of deals. Hell, we’ve already mentioned that the Cubs got some vital components of their Series winning teams by trading with Texas. The Rangers were, in many ways, the anti-Giants (or, perhaps better, the anti-Phillies) – they developed young talent and then traded it away for whatever they needed. They developed Edinson Volquez then swapped him for Josh Hamilton. They acquired Mark Texeira, then swapped him for Elvis Andrus, Neftali Felix and Matt Harrison. It’s still their MO – need a lift? Trade for Cliff Lee, or Cole Hamels, or Matt Garza, or Ryan Dempster, etc. In part, this is the benefit of a deep farm system; you always have the ability to make a deal if you want to. But it also allows them to avoid the problems that come with being TOO focused on free agency or player development. The Phillies have had a hard time since their homegrown core turned brittle and bad, and they’re now rebuilding through some big trades after a front-office shake-up.
The Rangers and Cubs are notable in that their WAR was acquired through multiple deals, many of them minor. The Tigers of 2012 and, to an extent, the Royals of 2014-15 are the opposite: they had a decent amount of production from traded players, but it came from a couple of big blockbusters. The Tigers 23.1 WAR in 2012 was in large part the product of the franchise-changing trade that sent Miguel Cabrera to Detroit for Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller. Not only that, but the Tigers swapped Edwin Jackson for Max Scherzer, so they had huge contributors on both sides of the ball. The Royals made the series in 2014 thanks to two huge trades: their swap of Zack Greinke to Milwaukee that netted them Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar, and the much-discussed swap of Wil Myers for Wade Davis and James Shields. By 2015, Shields had moved on, and so nearly all of their trade value came from Cain, though Ben Zobrist – acquired at the deadline from Oakland – helped as well.
The Cubs experience stands out because so many of their deals turned out favorably. Turning a clearly busted prospect in Jake Arrieta into an ace? Buying low on Anthony Rizzo and watch him go from average-ish to superstar? Tweaking Dexter Fowler’s positioning and watching him go from overrated player to all-around asset? That’s got less to do with a front office’s *approach* and much more to do with its *skill*. The Rangers traded just as often, if not more so, at every level – from waiver claim swap to blockbuster – and have a history littered with both wins and losses. That trade for Rule 5 pick Josh Hamilton? Huge, as was the Teixeira trade. Losing Kyle Hendricks to Chicago, or Chris Davis to Baltimore, or even Edwards in exchange for Garza, who’d put up negative WAR in 2013 hurt. That’s not to say their approach is wrong; the Rangers won two pennants and are *still* a threat in the AL West thanks to their high-frequency trading strategies.
What have we learned here? Not quite sure, but we’ve confirmed that the Cubs had a much larger-than-average share of their production come from trades. Texas is almost addicted to swaps, which has entailed suffering through some oops moments, but may help their resilience and budgetary flexibility (NOT signing Josh Hamilton helped there, too). The recent Giants and Cardinals teams were remarkably good at developing home-grown players, which lessened the need for trades. There are clearly multiple pathways to success in the league, but in the end, player development is a key part of any of these strategies. You can lean almost entirely on player development, like the Giants did (Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Brandon Crawford, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, etc.), OR you can turn low-key trade throw-ins into superstars like the Cubs (Arrieta, Hendricks). You can get more value out of hyped prospects like Addison Russell, and you can take players with some MLB experience to the next level, like Wade Davis or Anthony Rizzo. Ultimately, everything in baseball gets easier when player development works. The M’s saw some hopeful signs in that department this year; let’s hope they build on them.
* I’ve thought about the most iconic moment from a recent Mariner is – that is, what’s some event or image that’s indelibly imprinted on sports fans that centered on a Mariner? The Double, yes, Felix’s perfecto, ehhhhh – there are things that mean the world to US, but that suffer due to the fact that the M’s have never won an AL title, let alone a series. I was thinking that this image, of Mike Montgomery as the final pitcher in the final inning of the Cubs 108-year drought would have to be it. While it was an unremarkable performance from Monty, it was highly, highly leveraged. In fact, it was a rare example of a “Golden Pitch” – a term invented by SABR member Wade Kapszukiewicz for a pitch that could produce two different World Series winners. An out, and the pitcher’s team would win the Series. A HR, and the batter’s team would win. Only a few series in history come down to situations like this (the 2014 Series had some, too). This displaces Dave Henderson’s heroics in Game 5 of the ALCS of 1986. Henderson, who’d been acquired a few months earlier in exchange for Mike Trujillo and Rey Quinones, came in late in the game and ended up hitting a go-ahead HR with 2 outs in the 9th, with the Sox down 3-1 in the series against the best closer in the AL. To top it off, Henderson knocked in the winning run in the 10th (after the Angels tied it in the bottom of the 9th). That was amazing, and I remember being so happy for him – this was M’s fandom in the dark days of the 80s: hoping to see your favorites do well in the playoffs after being traded away/signed by bigger clubs. Randy Johnson has plenty of qualifying moments, like his Series MVP-win in 2001, but they occurred quite a ways after leaving Seattle. He nearly single-handedly carried Houston to the playoffs after the trade in 1998, but Houston couldn’t hit, giving him 2 losses despite an ERA under 2. Any others come to mind?
** The Cubs didn’t have as much total WAR from traded players as the ’11 Rangers, but they’re the only team in this (small) sample to get at least 10 bWAR from both pitchers and position players.
The timetable having moved up a year since our last check-in (I always re-read my old articles, it seems faster that way), we are now looking at 2013 college draftees and early international and high school signings from 2012 due to be added before the end of day on Friday. This would mean protecting Edwin Diaz for the first time if he wasn’t already an amazing and intimidating closer! It would also mean protecting Tyler Olson if he weren’t at this moment in another organization and someone who often reminded us of good ol’ Anthony Vasquez. Never forget. As further disclaimer, which renders this paragraph mostly disclaimer at this point, roster legerdemain sometimes results in my international prospects being guesses. I came into this offseason expecting that we’d be staring down a potential Luiz Gohara addition, but as Ben Badler showed us, that ain’t happening. But this also leaves me not really knowing if Kevin Gadea signed a 2013 or a 2012 contract. I’m guessing we won’t need to worry about him until next year, when we’ll have more tasty data and he’ll have pitched a year in our new awesome Cal League affiliate.
If you want to ask about specific players, I’m happy to answer in the comments, but these were my best guesses in the order of expectation, and still more exhaustive than you’ll find in many places. Over 2300 words? Light reading for me!
With Nori Aoki claimed by the Astros and Chris Iannetta opting for free agency, the M’s added two more players the other day. They claimed lefty reliever Dean Kiekhefer off of waivers from St. Louis, and then traded Vidal Nuno to the Dodgers for veteran catcher Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz.
Kiekhefer is a side-arming lefty specialist who came up through the Cards system as an extreme control guy (he walked 4 in over 60 innings in the Midwest League, for example), which made up for some seriously underwhelming raw stuff. Ethan Novak’s article at Lookout Landing has some stats and a video, so check that out. Ethan finds an interview he did where he mentions that he changed the grip on his (underwhelming) change-up in order to make it a legitimate pitch against right handers, which is good in that Kiekhefer is well aware of his biggest problem. Like a lot of guys with a funky arm angle and low velocity, he essentially has nothing to offer righties, and they torched him last year. In the majors, Kiekhefer K’d 12 of the 46 lefties he faced…but just *2* of the 52 righties struck out, and they ended up with an OBP over .400 against him. He’s fine against lefties, but it’s actually really, really hard to use someone purely as a LOOGY. Vidal Nuno faced far more righty batters than lefties, Charlie Furbush is very close to 50:50, but has faced more righties than lefties in every year of his career. True LOOGYs like Oliver Perez actually see more lefties, but 1) that’s in the National League, and 2) he still sees ~45-48% righties. Given that managers can pinch hit, managing (not dominating, but just not getting dominated) opposite-handed batters is a critical skill. And it’s one Kiekhefer hasn’t learned yet.
He IS trying something new, though. Like Roenis Elias used to do, Kiekhefer employs two different release points, one for righties and one for lefties. In the early part of the year, like the game that video’s from, he dropped way down against lefties, but was more low-3/4 than straight-up sideaarm to righties – just like Elias. His fastball sat at around 88, and his change-up (a pitch he threw to righties only) came in at around 85 with, and this is problematic, nearly identical movement to his fastball. Brooks calls his fastball a four-seamer, but it functions like a sinker, with very little vertical ‘rise’ and a ton of armside run. Think Daniel Hudson minus 6 MPH, maybe.* In those early games, his change broke 10″ armside, just like the FB, and was within 2″ of vertical movement. That’s close enough that it’s tempting to say it’s not a separate pitch – he threw four-seam fastballs and four-seam nearly-imperceptibly-less-fastballs.
At some point, presumably tired of getting pushed around by righties, Kiekhefer tried something else. He pushed his release point v. righties down, not quite to where he is agaisnt lefties, but the gap narrowed.
Here’s his release point in May:
And here it is in his final game, back on October 2nd:
At the same time he was doing that, he must’ve tweaked something in his change grip, because he started getting a bit more separation between it and the fastball. In the Dodger game in May, his ave. FB and CH vertical movement were within 1″ of each other, and by October it was more like 2.5-3″. In several games, he got the gap up nearer 4″. If there’s a downside, it’s that these changes came at the expense of velo. Kiekhefer wouldn’t be the only guy who throws a bit softer as he drops down, and obviously he may have been tired at the end of the year, but he was averaging 85-87 in the autumn, and that’s something of a concern. Still, if the change works, then it’s worth it. With Nuno in LA and Charlie Furbush still hurt, there’s a real need for a lefty in this bullpen. I’d love more of a sure thing, but for now, Kiekhefer’s fine as a darkhorse candidate.
The bigger news, which I probably shouldn’t have buried under all of this LOOGY-minutiae, is the trade for Chooch Ruiz. In his prime from 2009-2012, Ruiz was an on-base machine as well as an expert handler of the vaunted Phillies pitching staff. He had an even-or-better K:BB ratio in 2009, 2010 and 2011, and while he finally broke that string in 2012, that was by far his best season as a pro, with an out-of-nowhere power spike and a slash line of .325/.394/.540. Of course, that version of Ruiz isn’t walking through the clubhouse door, as he’s hit as many HRs in every year since 2012 combined as he did in that magical 2012 season alone. After an abysmal 2015, Ruiz bounced back last year with his customary great batting eye and an OBP in the mid .300s.
As a back-up, that’d be fantastic, and it seems like that’s the role he’d settle into, with Mike Zunino starting. Ruiz will be 38 on opening day next year, so a full-time gig probably isn’t in the cards. Ruiz signed a 3-year contract with the Phillies after the 2013 season in a deal that was widely panned, with Ruiz’s age and the Phillies tentative rebuild underway (it was a lot less tentative a few years later). That deal carried him through 2016, but it included a $4.5m player option, and the M’s agreed to exercise that. That’s pretty hefty for a back-up, as Iannetta was on $4 million to start, but Dipoto’s a believer in Chooch’s leadership role. That clubhouse value is one reason the Dodgers acquired him for the stretch run last year, even agreeing to part with previous back-up C and clubhouse dynamo AJ Ellis in the process. It’ll be great to see what that hidden value gets the M’s, because Ruiz certainly doesn’t add value in framing. By Baseball Prospectus’ measures, Ruiz has been consistently poor, coming in at 7 runs below average last year and *19* runs below average in 2015. On the other hand, he’s got a great reputation for controlling the running game, as he’s gunned out 42% of base stealers in recent years. That pushes his Fangraphs defensive ratings well into positive territory, a fact that Bob Dutton notes in his post on the trade here.
Nuno was somewhat of an odd fit in the LOOGY role. Yes, he was much better against lefties, but he’d been a starter and his stuff didn’t play up in short stints. At age 29 (he’ll be 30 midway through next season), he’s perfectly fine as a swing-man or as rotation depth, but his platoon issues will make it hard to carve out a clear role, especially on a team as pitching-rich as the Dodgers. Still, he has his uses, and Dipoto used him well to make a clear upgrade to the M’s bench.
* The best comp for movement and release point (at least vs. righties) might actually be fellow waiver claim Ryan Weber. When Dipoto identifies a pitcher type or skillset he likes, he buys in bulk.
We’re nearly a month into the Arizona Fall League, the premiere offseason showcase for both top prospect and potential Rule 5 guys each year. The M’s contingent this year was a great mix of high-upside guys and close-to or even in-the-majors guys who could use some extra games. It also mixes guys with great stat lines – like Dylan Unsworth and Southern League MVP Tyler O’Neill – with players who had down years, like SS Drew Jackson and Guillermo Heredia (whose lack of polish was perfectly understandable given his aggressive promotions). Not only is the league an excellent test for prospects, as the level of competition can be fairly high (though pitching depth isn’t great), it’s also a source of important information about guys we know little about beyond scouting reports; thanks to pitch fx in two parks, we actually get data on pitchers. It’s incomplete, and the calibration on Peoria’s system has been off for years (sometimes laughably so), but even with those caveats, it’s an incredible resource.
To me, there are really 3 big stories thus far from the AFL:
1: Tyler O’Neill cannot be stopped. O’Neill was one of the big stories of LAST year’s AFL, when he showed his huge 2nd half in Bakersfield was real by hitting the ball extremely hard for Peoria for a week or two before joining Team Canada. He then dominated AA, and now gets a victory lap of sorts against a number of tough pitchers. He’s faced guys like Michael Kopech, a top prospect for the Red Sox who touches 100mph, and made hard contact (he went 1-2 off of him), and his K rate is slightly below is season line at Jackson (which was itself a new career low for O’Neill). That’s not to say he’s now a contact hitter; swing-and-miss will always be a concern. But he’s made tremendous strides, and even still, the trend line is still pointing up.
2: Something’s going on with Thyago Vieira. The Brazilian righty’s been in the system since 2011, and he’s just now reached high-A in his age-23 season. Scouting reports on him from his tenure at Everett (back in 2013) were underwhelming, and his career stats look like a really good failed-prospect bingo card. Poor control? Check. Repeating a low-minors league? Check. Gaps in the record due to injury? Check. This would’ve been a huge headscratcher of an assignment if it wasn’t for the fact that reports had him touching triple digits for Bakersfield along with huge steps forward in control. That was tantalizing, but really hard to fathom; had Vieira suddenly added the best part of 10mph to his fastball AND learned where to put it? Or was someone’s radar gun on the fritz?
Now we know: Vieira’s for real. If you go to BrooksBaseball, which has some pitch fx data for AFL guys, you’ll see Vieira’s averaging *AVERAGING* a cool 101.6mph on his fastball. MLBFarm uses the raw MLBAM data, which calculates pitch speed at 50′ from the plate, not 55′ like Brooks, so their numbers are a bit more restrained, but he’s still got the fastest average pitch in the league by quite a margin. And that league includes guys like Kopech, who’ve thrown 100 repeatedly. Vieira’s velo is not just in the league with some of the minors premiere flamethrowers, it’s putting them to shame.
Even better, his control looks more like it did in 2016 than it did, uh, every other year. It’s a tiny sample, but he’s walked 1 in 5+ innings, along with 7 Ks. As you can see from the BrooksBaseball link, his fastball doesn’t have elite movement; it’s fairly straight and flat. This is probably why he gives up more contact than anyone throwing that hard should, and it may prevent him from ever really harnessing the potential of a pitch like that. But if you’ve watched the World Series this year, you’ve seen that a 102mph fastball doesn’t need pinpoint location to be effective.
A better comp than Aroldis Chapman is a guy I mentioned in my AFL check-in last year – a Braves prospect named Mauricio Cabrera. I’d never heard of him, but he too popped up in the AFL throwing 102. A look at his stats showed no hint of anything special. It’s very similar to Vieira’s, in fact. Like Vieira, he joined affiliated ball in 2011, and moved slowly after that thanks to real problems with control/command. Over 2 stops in the minors in 2015, Cabrera had an RA/9 of 6.33, walking 35 in 48 1/3 IP, so there was no reason to assume he’d do anything in the AFL besides frustrate scouts. That seemed to sum it up, as he hit 102, and watched line drives fly past him going even faster. Cabrera was hit hard, but demonstrated such potential that the Braves gave him a roster spot. In 2016, Cabrera made the leap that Vieira’s apparently made, and jumped from AA straight to the majors, where he was a moderately successful middle-reliever. He’s still walking too many, but he contributed in the majors the year following an awful statistical year. A lot would have to go right for Vieira to do that, including getting rostered, but I’m not betting against Vieira logging some MLB innings in 2017.
3: Tyler Marlette, for years a disappointment after his selection in the 2011 draft, also looks to be turning a corner. Marlette had plus raw power out of HS, drawing raves from then-scouting director Tom McNamara, but couldn’t translate it into games. He was hitting decently, but with sub-par defense, he’d need to demonstrate more power to move up. A good showing in the Cal League in 2014 got him a call-up to AA, but 2015 turned sour for Marlette, as it did so many M’s prospects. He was assigned to the Cal League again, and scuffled, posting a sub-.300 OBP in a hitter’s haven. He repeated the Cal League yet again this year, but looked much better. Still, the M’s need to protect him or face the possibility of losing him in the Rule 5 draft.
As Bob Dutton writes in the News Tribune, Marlette’s done all he can to show he’s worth rostering. He’s hit for power, and he’s making a decent amount of contact against tough competition – better than what he saw in the Cal League. Would anyone actually take Marlette – a bat-first catcher – in the Rule 5 draft? Maybe not, but Marlette’s done enough to show he has a future in the org. Yes, yes, this is the guy that was my “player to watch” in every MiLB preview post from 2013-2015, but like O’Neill, there are encouraging signs that something clicked for Marlette this year.
Things had been a bit quiet from Jerry Dipoto since that Micah Owings signing, but the M’s made a small flurry of moves today. First, they removed several players from the 40-man following the end of the season and thus the end of the 60-day disabled list. LH RP Charlie Furbush is the big name, though this is hardly a surprise given the state of his health. Furbush is arb-eligible, and while he wouldn’t have earned a raise, the M’s outrighted him instead of making an offer. Furbush can deny the assignment, so essentially Furbush is now a free agent. RH RP Ryan Cook and C Steve Clevenger were also activated and outrighted. Cook pitched a few innings in rehab in the minors, but was then shut down, and may have re-aggravated the lat strain that he suffered in spring training. He’s likely gone, unless he signs a new free agent/minor league deal with Seattle. Clevenger is really, really gone; I think both parties are eager to just be rid of each other at this point.
The M’s lost pitcher Adrian Sampson to the Rangers, who claimed the injured SP off of waivers. He’s still recuperating from surgery, so can’t contribute early in 2017, and may bounce around in waiver purgatory a few more times before he’s back to full fitness. The bigger news is that the M’s also made a waiver claim, snagging RHP Ryan Weber from Atlanta. Weber’s a command and control righty, whose fastball is in the 90mph range with decent sink. He posted great MiLB walk rates, which is probably what caught Dipoto’s eye, and he clearly had his fans in the game: Fangraphs’ ranked him in the Braves top 5 prospects coming into 2016, but a poor season (he gave up a lot of HRs and couldn’t miss bats with the Braves) saw him placed on waivers despite having 2 options left.
This isn’t a great comparison, but his motion (check the video in Dutton’s post) and approach remind me a bit of late-period Joel Pineiro. On the down side, as a sinkerballer with an underpowered fastball, he’s going to be vulnerable to lefties. He’s developed a cutter/slider pitch that might help him against righties, but strikeouts have never really been the focus of his game. That’s fine, but then he absolutely has to limit HRs, something he couldn’t do this year. Thanks to the lack of an outpitch (his best pitch may be his curve, but nothing he throws is a real weapon), he’s fairly consistently given up more runs than his FIP would assume, and if he can’t keep the ball in the park, that tendency is magnified. With options and a history as a starter, he could provide some much-needed SP depth in Tacoma, or he could try to make the big league ‘pen as a Sean Green-style grounder guy. That said, the M’s bullpen already looks fairly crowded, with Edwin Diaz, Steve Cishek, Nick Vincent, Evan Scribner, Dan Altavilla, Vidal Nuno, Tony Zych, a yet-to-be-identified lefty and potentially Nate Karns/Ariel Miranda already in position. That group doesn’t really have a ground ball guy, however, so he could Donn Roach his way to occasional innings if things break right.
Steve Baron, the C the M’s drafted in the first round all the way back in 2009, was also Designated for Assignment. That’s not to say that Marlette is in line for this roster spot, but it clearly helps Marlette’s chances. Baron actually had a good year at the plate for Jackson, and always drew raves for his defense and handling a staff, so he’ll clearly catch on somewhere on a minor league deal. The team still has a big decision to make at C next year, with the club having a $4m option on Chris Iannetta, who faded badly down the stretch last year, and would likely be in a back-up role again with Mike Zunino starting. They’re also shopping for a 1B, with Dae-Ho Lee a possibility to return and platoon with Dan Vogelbach, but Lee’s comments about playing time may indicate that Lee’s ready to move on. The M’s will pick up Seth Smith’s $7m option, but I think we’ve seen the last of Norichika Aoki, Drew Storen, Adam Lind. Franklin Gutierrez will be a free agent, though he’s been in this position before and keeps coming back.
As we move through the fall, we’ll soon drown in the steady drip of minor roster moves and non-roster invites. They’ll blend together, as this reliever or that, or that guy who once had a good year in 2013 (or was it 2011?) signs a deal with Seattle (or was it Oakland?), complete with opt-outs. There will be best shape of his life quotes for the papers, and we won’t even have time to mull it over before the next one pops up on Twitter.
The M’s recently signed Micah Owings. Owings last played in the majors in 2012. In April of 2013, Bradley Woodrum penned this cri de curve that someone, ANYONE, should give Owings a roster spot. He didn’t get one, and after a so-so season in the minors, it looked like he was done. He played a handful of games in the Brewers and Nats systems that year, then a year with Miami, and the trail went cold. He popped up again this year with the York Revolution, putting up a pitching line that’s both encouraging for a guy who’d been out of organized ball for a few years, and also not inspiring for a league who’s 2016 batting champ was Endy Chavez. So is this just another meaningless bullpen pile signing? No. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.
In 2005, college junior Micah Owings transferred from Georgia Tech to Tulane. In 2 years in the ACC, Owings posted back to back 9-3 seasons on the mound, and hit a total of 25 HRs while keeping his OPS over .900 in each year. At Tulane, facing slightly weaker competition, Owings simply went nuts, with a slash line of .355/.470/.719, hitting 18 bombs. He also was the 2nd starter, going 12-4, and striking out 135 hitters and walking just *25* in 129 2/3 IP. The Diamondbacks signed him in the 3rd round, just 2 picks after they took Jason Neighborgall out of the Georgia Tech program that Owings had just left.* Owings wasn’t actually Tulane’s top prospect – that’d be Friday starter and OF Brian Bogusevic, who went in the first round to the Houston Astros. Bogusevic’s stats weren’t as gaudy as Owings’ but scouts loved him, as you can see in this frozen-in-amber scouting report from MLB, which compared him to Mark Mulder.
While Owings torched the Cal league with 30 Ks in 22 IP after signing, and backed it up in AA the following year, Bogusevic struggled to miss bats in the Houston system. Owings slowed down a bit in AAA, as his K rate started to settle in at around 7 per 9. He was a decent starter in some tough run environments, and while he didn’t have top-end velocity, a great breaking ball, or the the ability to throw left-handed, he was passable. From 2007-2009, Owings pitched more than 100 innings every year, with a couple of decent seasons for the D-Backs before velocity trouble and injuries sapped his effectiveness for Cincinnati. After transitioning to the bullpen, he had another solid year for Arizona, who re-acquired him in 2011, and then an injury plagued cup of coffee with San Diego in 2012.
But if you know anything about Owings, it’s that he’s much more interesting than a garden-variety failed starter. Owings could always hit. Not “for a pitcher” hit, but HIT hit. In a roughly half-season’s worth of ABs, Owings career line looks like something befitting his college statline: .283/.310/.502. The run environment was different than, so that’s “only” a 104 wRC+, but don’t miss that there are three digits in that figure. He was a (slightly) better than *league average* hitter. Many teams, including the Nats, who signed him as an OF, wanted to make more use of his bat, but they struggled to figure out how. The Nats had something of an excuse: they had a kid named Harper in RF and had given plenty of money to Jayson Werth, so they were full. The Pads can claim injury impaired their ability to innovate, sure, but why didn’t the Marlins in 2014? Hell, why didn’t York last year?
At some level, this isn’t hard: if a guy’s shown aptitude At the plate and bounced along as a so-so reliever, you should figure out how to maximize his utility. Owings’ career started just a couple of years after the last OF/RP hybrid player fizzled out. That was Brooks Kieschnick, a slugging left-handed OF who moonlighted as a right-handed set-up guy for the Brewers. While he had power, it wasn’t at Owings’ level, and his overall bat-to-ball ability wasn’t quite at Owings’ level. He was a decent enough hitter though, albeit not great for a corner OF bench bat. On the mound, he gave up lots of contact, and wouldn’t have survived as a starter, but at least had solid control. After two years, though, the Brewers had seen enough, and surprisingly (at least to me), Kieschnick never caught on anywhere else.
That’s surprising, as there were several high-profile pitcher-to-position player (or vice versa) moves around this time. Owings’ college teammate, first-round-pick Brian Bogusevic, finally abandoned pitching and somehow made the majors as a light-hitting corner OF, garnering 800 plate appearances, largely with the truly awful Astros teams of a few years ago. Bogusevic had a partial Kieschnick in 2012, when he pitched an inning for the Phillies in addition to coming off the bench as an OF, but that was more of a common “throw someone out there who used to pitch and save the bullpen” cases. Adam Loewen made the majors as a starting pitcher in 2006, but injuries made him turn to hitting full time in 2010. He made the majors as an OF the next year for Toronto, and then moved *back* to the mound for the Phillies in 2015; he too had a partial Kieschnick, tossing 19 1/3 IP and batting three times for Philadelphia that year. He had a cup of coffee with Arizona last year, so he’s yet another candidate for hybrid player if anyone’s interested.
To me, it’s pretty remarkable that no one’s really tried to utilize an Owings or Loewen as a true hybrid player. “They’re not good enough at any one skill,” you say, convincingly. That’s a good point, and it’s clearly what doomed Kieschnick, as he couldn’t miss bats right around the time MLB bullpens turned into nuclear-powered strikeout factories. Owings isn’t going to give you that, even if his velocity’s back. His fastball’s most salient feature is that it’s arrow-straight – almost cutter-like. It also has below-average “rise”. Arrow straight, slow, and neither-rising-nor-sinking isn’t how you want a pitcher’s FB described, but here we are. He’s got a slider and change, but both have far-below-average whiff rates. Still: have you seen what clubs carry in their pen? Would he be worse than, I don’t know, JC Ramirez? Maybe, maybe not. And the upside here seems pretty clear: you get the benefit of a bench bat without the defensive issues. Throughout baseball, teams have gone from 11 to 12 to now 13-man pitching staffs, cutting corners on their bench. Given the need for a back-up C and someone who can credibly play SS, teams often have just 1 or 2 options, generally the off-side of a platoon. Having a decent hitter you could deploy AND give your pen a rest or face one or two same-handed hitters…that seems like an exceptionally helpful thing. It scratches the modern itch of ensuring your pen is full of options, while going old-school on the bench. You could start a guy in the OF, bring him in to pitch, then move him back. Or bring him in to face a righty, put him in LF for lefty, then bring him back to the mound. It’s weird and fun, and the batting line, even if it is older now than Mike Trout’s career, is tantalizing enough to make you think you’re not getting a replacement-level bench bat, but an actual bat. The problem isn’t that he isn’t good enough at either skill – the problem is that he’s only *actually* valuable if he’s used as a hybrid…the one thing teams don’t seem willing to do.
And that probably includes the Mariners. He’s listed as a RHP, and again, he never came to bat for York last year. It really seems like he’s given up hitting. That’s a shame, because the odds on his arm carrying him are long. I’m all for giving him a shot, as he’s been a favorite of mine for years. I just wish he got the opportunity to Kieshnick full time, and truth be told, I wish he got it about 5 years ago. That’s a bit of a downer, so let’s end on a positive. With Arizona, he threw from a normal 3/4 delivery, with that arrow-straight fastball. His lack of backspin on the fastball is what prevented him from generating a lot of “rise” on the pitch; it had the vertical movement of a sinker with none of the horizontal run, and thus, despite a lack of rise, batters elevated it easily. His arm angle dropped very slightly in later years, perhaps due to the injuries he struggled with, but his fastball movement never really changed much. Every once in a while, though, he seemed to toy with a sinker. Brooks doesn’t show one in his stats, but if you pore through game logs, you’ll see a group of “four seamers” that had some horizontal movement. A two-seam grip and low spin seems like a good start to throwing a proper sinker, if only he’d drop his arm angle *on purpose.* This would help him generate more horizontal movement by adding side spin to the ball. Ok – go look at that Lookout Landing article again, and notice the picture at the bottom of it. That looks just about right- a low 3/4 delivery. It’s not much to go on, and you can find similar shots from his MLB days. But it seems like the mechanical tweak would be so small that it could work. A groundballing ROOGY can work, sort of. A flyballing, rusty reliever in what’s suddenly a HR-prone ballpark sounds like a tougher sell.
* Neighborgall is another fascinating story that any stathead of a certain age will remember. He threw blazingly fast but couldn’t quite figure out where it was going. Signed as a “project”, his control problem went from bad to worse in pro ball, leading to one of the most baffling statlines you’ll ever see. In 42 career innings, Neighborgall walked…128 batters. In his final stop, and he posted the heartbreaking line of 1 3 12 12 0 12 2. Yes – he pitched one inning, yielding 3 hits and 12 runs on, uh, just checking this one more time…ok, *12 walks* and 2 Ks. This led pre-politics Nate Silver to pen a post about how this low-minors fireballer had essentially broken his PECOTA forecasting system.
The pain of the M’s season-ending loss to Oakland is still fresh; it’s been less than a week before that crazy game officially eliminated the M’s from the wild card chase. In a season in which their late-season push came up *just* short, you can’t help but wonder if this or that game, or this or that at-bat could’ve swung something. These are all counterfactuals, and so by definition there’s nothing to really learn here. That said, as the Chicago Cubs play their first playoff game tonight, I find myself thinking about an important piece of their (juggernaut) club, a piece they picked up from Seattle in late July: lefty Mike Montgomery.
Montgomery opened some eyes with the Cubs, pitching well in relief and as a spot starter (he made 5 starts for the Cubs in August/September) and stabilizing a bullpen that’s now one of the league’s best. Corinne Landrey’s article at Fangraphs goes over what he’s doing differently (throwing a ton of curves) and what he’s maintained (high velocity) since the trade, and given the plaudits Monty’s racked up and some of the crushing bullpen collapses the M’s suffered after the trade, well…would the M’s have won a wild card berth if they’d kept him?
Obviously, it’s impossible to know, but if you think he was the missing piece, I’d think you’d need to show a clear pattern in the 2nd half losses: 1) that the M’s bullpen had fewer/worse left-handed options, and thus lacked the platoon advantage more often; 2) that this led to lefties enjoying more success against the M’s pen, and 3) the way Montgomery was typically used would’ve made a difference. The third is important, because we don’t just want to take the M’s worst 2nd half reliever and swap him out for Montgomery. We can’t just plop this hypothetical Monty in any situation that went poorly and say the M’s would’ve won the game. I’m going to be up front here, the data for this is a little spotty. I can’t get platoon splits vs. relievers for a certain date range. I’m using first half/second half splits because they’re easy to get, but you and I will make a mental note that Monty was traded before the AS break. We’re going to have to do the best we can with limited data. Ok? Ok.
Let’s start with a bit of context. The M’s bullpen in the first half of 2016 was a very high-K, high-HR club, and the plusses and minuses even out and produce the 14th-most valuable bullpen by fWAR. Their ERA was 3.44 and their FIP was 3.97; the ERA was aided by an impressive .278 BABIP-against. The club’s most-utilized reliever in the first half? Mike Montgomery, with just over 50 innings, over 10IP more than 2nd place Steve Cishek. In the second half, the bullpen’s K rate came down substantially, but this was balanced by an improved walk rate and a slight improvement in HR rate. All of this and a good-but-not-great BABIP pushed their ERA up to 3.68, and sent their FIP soaring from 3.97 to 3.98. All told, they were, again, the 14th most valuable unit. Nothing changed.
That’s not true, of course. They were led by Edwin Diaz, who logged the most innings in the second half, again with a 10IP margin over 2nd place Cishek/Nick Vincent. Diaz’s emergence was a critical factor in the M’s push; he finished with a FIP *under 2* and struck out nearly everyone. With Evan Scribner’s return and Steve Cishek’s improvement, it’s kind of amazing that the bullpen didn’t really change; the M’s added the best reliever they’ve had in years and yet the bullpen’s overall numbers were unchanged. It’d seem that regression came for some of the lesser lights of the ‘pen.
In the first half of the season, the M’s bullpen logged a total of 280 1/3 IP. Of these, left-handers pitched 86 1/3, or 31%. In the second half, the Monty-less bullpen tossed another 242 IP, but lefties pitched just 44, or 18%. The M’s pen was clearly less left-handed, and the lefties that filled in (Nuno, David Rollins, and sometimes-lefty Pat Venditte) weren’t exactly world-beaters. It’s not clear that these guys pitched the innings Monty used to get, though. Despite his success, Montgomery wasn’t given particularly high-leverage innings in the first half; his leverage index was a bit under 1. That would’ve probably gone up, but not as high as Edwin Diaz’s. By WPA, the guys who “got” Monty’s innings were Arquimedes Caminero, Drew Storen and Nick Vincent, with Vidal Nuno thrown in as well as the team’s primary lefty. Caminero, Vincent and Nuno combined to put up a -1.24 Win Probability Added, with Vincent and Nuno finishing 2nd-to-last and last on the club in reliever WPA. This is circumstantial evidence, but you could make a case that Montgomery would’ve led to the M’s using less of their most unhelpful relievers, but the picture’s still mixed: Storen was oddly effective, putting up a plus-1 WPA all by himself.
Since I don’t have platoon splits that’d shed some light on if lefties suddenly started destroying the M’s pen, we’re going to have to do this the old-fashioned way. Let’s take a look at the M’s second half bullpen losses and see where we think Monty may have been used. Of course, these situations may have been different if Monty had been there, and the M’s may have suffered different bullpen losses if they hadn’t made the trade, but this is what we can do without time machines and alternate universes. If you’d like to dive into some very masochistic qualitative data, follow on: