Game 124, White Sox at Mariners

marc w · August 23, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. John Danks, 1:10pm

The Mariners have been cycling through bullpen arms at quite a clip; Rob Rasmussen has been up and down a few times just within the last week, and now Charlie Furbush and Joe Beimel are on the shelf with shoulder injuries. With Carson Smith tiring, the M’s need fresh arms. But after last night’s bullpen implosion, they decided they’d seen enough of Fernando Rodney and Danny Farquhar. The Fernando Rodney Experience will be some other fanbase’s thrill ride, and Danny Farquhar will return to Tacoma just 8 days after leaving. Bullpens are notoriously volatile, but the M’s in 2015 seem to have suffered every possible problem. In context-neutral stats, the Mariners bullpen has the worst walk rate in baseball, the 7th worst HR rate, the 4th-worst ERA and the 5th worst FIP. But if you add context to the picture, things look even worse somehow. They’ve had the most meltdowns of any group in the AL, meaning that they’ve had *64* relief appearances that have dropped the M’s win probability by at least 6%. By RE24, or the sum of the run-expectancy changes of each plate appearance, the M’s bullpen has been the worst group in MLB - worse than the dumpster fire in Oakland.

The M’s face veteran lefty John Danks today, the White Sox highest-paid player in 2015. Despite suffering from injuries and ineffectiveness since 2011, his five year extension that covered 2012-16 will net Danks $65 million, or DOUBLE what Chris Sale’s 5-year deal will pay him, or $10m more than the *combined* outlay for the 5-year deals for both Sale ($32.5m) and Jose Quintana ($21m). It’s a bad contract, is what I’m getting at. To his credit, this looks somewhat better less awful than it did a year ago, when Danks velocity continued to slide under 89, and when control problems cropped up. He’s not throwing hard now, but his FB velocity’s slightly higher than it was last year, and his walk rate’s under his career average. That’s helped his FIP look better than it has in some time, hence his decent fWAR figure, but unfortunately problems with righties and stranding runners have led to a very familiar RA/9.

When he was a good starter – 2008-2011 – Danks used a good change-up to neutralize right-handed bats, and gave his name to the Danks theory, or line-ups in which the Rays would stack with *lefties* to make it harder for Danks to use his best pitch. From 2008 through 2010, Danks posted reverse splits each year. In more recent years, though, his change-up hasn’t been nearly as effective, and righties have been teeing off. Righties have 5 HRs off his change, and he’s never really found an effective breaking ball against them. Danks’ GB% has been trending down as well, as righties learn to elevate his change. In his heyday, Danks’ change was something of a ground ball pitch. It didn’t show natural sink, but the difference in movement between his FB and change was large enough that batters would swing over the top of the latter. The percentage of balls in play off of change-ups has dropped by over 10 percentage points since then, though, and that’s meant more fly balls in total…and thus more HRs. The M’s could really use enough runs to put the game out of reach, and to ease the pressure that’s mounting on their beleaguered bullpen.

1: Marte, SS
2: Jackson, CF
3: Cruz, RF
4: Cano, DH
5: Gutierrez, LF
6: Seager, 3B
7: Trumbo, 1B
8: Miller, 2B
9: Sucre, C
SP: Walker

The most important appearance for the M’s today won’t take place in Seattle. James Paxton makes his first rehab start for Tacoma today, his first game action since going on the DL with a strained tendon in his finger. If the M’s are going to be good at some point in the near future, Paxton figures to be a contributor.

To replace the roster spots of Rodney and Farquhar, the M’s have brought up Roenis Elias and reliever Logan Kensing. Elias will work out of the pen for now.

The Rainiers host Memphis, who’ll start lefty John Gast. Gast had TJ surgery as a high school senior, and after shooting through the Cardinals system, made his MLB debut in 2013. Unfortunately, he then suffered a serious shoulder injury, and has been inconsistent this year as he attempts a second major comeback. The Rainiers won the finale in Colorado Springs 7-4. Jabari Blash hit his 27th HR of the year, and Chris Taylor had 3 hits. Logan Kensing pitched a scoreless inning in relief of Forrest Snow, and then learned he’d be headed to Seattle after the game.

Jackson lost to Biloxi 2-1, despite getting 6 scoreless innings from starter Edwin Diaz. Tyler Smith singled and walked, making it 17 straight games in which he’s reached base. Stephen Landazuri starts today.

Bakersfield beat San Jose, thanks in part to yet another HR from Canadian slugger Tyler O’Neill. The RF has now homered in four straight games and has an even 30 on the year. Dan Altavilla starts today for the Blaze against Christian Jones, a sinkerballer who was drafted out of the U of Oregon in 2013; it’ll be Jones’ first start of the year after 34 relief appearances in the San Jose pen.

Zack Littell threw 8 scoreless innings for Clinton, but it wasn’t enough as Cedar Rapids scored 2 in the 9th to win 2-0. Kernels starter Sam Gibbons had quite a day, throwing 8 scoreless of his own, and yielding just 1 hit and no walks while striking out *12*. A single by 9th hitter Arby Fields was the only offense of the day for the L-Kings. Tyler Herb shares the mound with Cedar Rapids’ Randy LeBlanc, another sinkerballer who’s spent most of 2015 in the bullpen.

Everett edged the Tri City DustDevils 3-2, picking up the eventual winning run in the 7th on an error by the DustDevils pitcher. Drew Jackson went 4-4 with a walk, pushing his OBP on the year to .460. Joe Pistorese got the win in relief, tossing 4 1/3 scoreless, giving up a single and a walk while striking out 5. The ex-WSU cougar now had 40 Ks to just 6 walks in 37 2/3 IP on the year.

Game 123, White Sox at Mariners

marc w · August 22, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Vidal Nuno vs. Carlos Rodon, 6:10pm

Felix wasn’t sharp, but he didn’t look obviously hurt last night. He had some issues maintaining his velo late, so we’re not out of the woods here, but Felix’s performance wasn’t clearly off. The bullpen, on the other hand…

Today, the M’s face 2014 draft pick and one of the White Sox best young players, Carlos Rodon. The lefty was a consensus 1-1 pick heading into his junior year at NC State, but some velocity fluctuation and inconsistent performances allowed him to drop a few spots to the Sox at #3 overall. He’s got above-average velocity with both his four-seam fastball and sinker, and generates loads of movement on both. His signature pitch is a sweeping slider that breaks away from his sinker by about a foot. That kind of separation is impressive, and demonstrates the kind of spin Rodon’s able to get on all of his offerings. To righties, he’ll throw a pretty good change-up that’s been better than advertised at this stage – he’s getting whiffs on nearly half of the swings on his cambio.

As promising as he is, though, Rodon’s not a finished product. Walks troubled him occasionally in college and the minors, and he’s walked over 12% of the big league batters he’s faced. Worse, he’s showing extreme platoon splits in the early going. Lefties have struggled, particularly against Rodon’s fastball, which is released from way over towards 1st base. But that fastball hasn’t troubled righties, and that’s led to some problems. While his slider is a big swing and miss pitch -even to righties- RHBs have 3 HRs off of it, more than any other of his pitches. At this point, he’s given up 9 HRs to righties and none to lefties, which is magnified by his higher walk rate to righties as well. Already, Rodon’s seeing line-ups that are stacked with righties, kind of like his teammate Chris Sale. Command improvements would help, as would learning how Sale uses his slider against righties. In the meantime, he could probably use his change-up a bit more often than he has thus far.

1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, DH
4: Cano, 2B
5: Gutierrez, LF
6: Trumbo, 3B
7: Jackson, CF
8: Montero, 1B
9: Zunino, C
SP: Nuno

Colorado Springs scored 5 runs late to win what had been a good pitchers duel by a score of 5-2. Tyler Olson was great, but ran into trouble in the 7th, and the bullpen couldn’t bail him out. Ariel Pena, the Sky Sox starter, K’d 10 in 5 1/3 scoreless IP. Forrest Snow starts today’s game against Zach Davies, a Puyallup native who grew up in Arizona, and was the Orioles #3 prospect when he was traded at the deadline to Milwaukee as part of the Gerardo Parra deal.

Biloxi shut out Jackson 3-0, as Tyler Wagner outdueled Jimmy Gilheeney. Wagner’s now faced Jackson twice, and throws 7 scoreless innings in both appearances. Edwin Diaz faces off with Hobbs Johnson of Biloxi today.

Bakersfield beat San Jose 5-3 behind Tyler O’Neill’s 29th HR. Austin Wilson chipped in with his 8th of the year. Brett Ash got the win, and then Emilio Pagan K’d 5 in 3 scoreless for the save. Scott DeCecco shares the mound with Giants’ prospect Martin Agosta, who just came off the DL for San Jose.

Clinton beat (!) Cedar Rapids 2-1 on a walk-off single by Austin Cousino. Kody Kerski and Pat Peterson combined to throw 4 scoreless innings in relief with 4 K’s against no walks. Zack Littell takes the mound for the L-Kings today.

Everett beat Tri Cities 6-3. Andrew Moore threw 3 scoreless innings to kick it off, and then the bats came alive late to pull away. Ryan Uhl had 3 hits, including 2 doubles, and DH Erick Mejia went 4-4. Drew Jackson singled and walked. Enyel de los Santos starts for the AquaSox today.

Game 122, White Sox at Mariners

marc w · August 21, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Chris Sale, 7:10pm

Happy Felix Day. If you’re having trouble summoning the normal excitement that Felix Day is supposed to bring, and this delectable pitching match-up *should* bring, you’re not alone. It’s not enough that the M’s season has sunk under the weight of World Series expectations or that for all of the changes they’ve made, the M’s runs per game is *still* just 3.79. Now, we’re in the unfamiliar place of looking at our loyal King in a new light: Was that fastball slower than normal? Is that how he normally falls off the mound? After his last start, and a second half that’s seen him yield 26 runs in just 35 2/3 IP, now we’re all on Felix injury alert.

Lefties in particular have knocked Felix around a bit, and they’re doing it against Felix’s best pitch: the change-up. Perhaps as a result, he’s now throwing them more curves than ever before, and while the results are slightly better, they’re still not, well, Felix-esque. The Felix of recent years has been extremely tough on lefties; he’s got a solid K:BB ratio against southpaws, but he’s also limited HRs to them, with HR/9 marks of 0.60, 0.66 and then 0.27 from 2012-2014. This year, it’s up at 1.02, and it’s paired with a drop in K rate. Eno Sarris’ article at Fangraphs asked the question many fans already think they know the answer to: “Is Felix Hernandez hurting?”

Using some injury indicators from Jeff Zimmermann at Baseball Heat Maps, Sarris notes that Felix’s velocity has been “down all year” and doesn’t seem to be rising the way we’d expect. Next, he’s throwing fewer and fewer pitches for strikes, with his zone% dropping consistently over a 2 year period. Worse, his release point seems to be less consistent this year, and more so after an ankle injury on June 1st. To create the graphs in that piece, Sarris looked at Felix’s games since the start of 2014. And yes, his 2015 velocity is down slightly from 2014. It hasn’t risen as much throughout the year as it did last year, though to be very clear: Felix was throwing harder post-AS break than he was before it. As for zone%, this is probably a tool to use if a pitcher’s repertoire is remarkably consistent, but that’s not the case with Felix. He’s constantly shifting between four-seam fastballs and sinkers, between curves and sliders as his breaking ball, and shifting how and when he throws his change from game to game. All of this means it’s really hard to know what to make of game-to-game variance in just about anything with Felix.

Take late game consistency. Felix has been worse than 2014 this year in this metric, but BOTH years are light-years better than 2013. Felix’s velocity isn’t quite as high as 2014, but again, it’s far above his 2013 levels, and it’s quite close to where it was in late 2012, when he had – to put it mildly – a pretty good run. His strike zone percentage is the one metric that shows a clear, nearly unbroken decline. Here again, though, you have to ask whether or not this is the result of strategy or fatigue? Felix’s zone% numbers on Fangraphs have dropped consistently since 2010, though that measure sees Felix throwing MORE strikes in 2015, not less. The reason this isn’t surprising gets back to something we’ve talked about a lot regarding Hisashi Iwakuma: the change-up (or, for Iwakuma, the splitter) is a great pitch precisely because batters will swing at it even if it’s not in the zone. If batters will swing at balls, then by far your best course of action is to *throw balls*. Iwakuma’s no-hitter coincided with his lowest Zone% for any game in his career. Last night, Chris Archer threw a one-hit shut-out in only 95 pitches with an even *lower* Zone% than Iwakuma’s career-low mark. Fastball-dominant pitchers from Bartolo Colon to Max Scherzer to Jordan Zimmermann – those guys have extremely high Zone%, and if you saw them drop precipitously, that’d be concerning. Guys who throw sinkers at the very bottom of the zone (or below) or use change-ups a lot have much lower Zone%, and this can be just as effective – think of Dallas Keuchel, Tyson Ross, Zack Greinke or Iwakuma.

None of this should be seen as a comment on the utility of the tools, or of Sarris’ use of them. I think the tools Zimmermann’s made are fascinating, and I use them occasionally. But Felix is such a difficult pitcher to characterize. He doesn’t *fit* patterns, and you get the sense that any time he feels himself becoming predictable, he makes a bunch of changes. It’s what makes him great, but it also makes it next to impossible to look for hidden information based on variance from a baseline. So that’s it then, Felix is definitively unscathed? Er, no, we haven’t proven anything. For myself, and this is speculation based on some public comments after his lower-body injuries this year, is that his quad and ankle bother him from time to time, but that his arm isn’t the problem. I think he’s trying to pitch through some pain, and it occasionally leads to some disastrous results. But at this point, I think Felix needs some extra rest in September, not a visit to a surgeon’s office.

Chris Sale’s also having an odd season. Like Felix, he jumped a level in recent years, honing his command until his walk rate dropped below 2 per 9, while his K rate crept upward. He’s now posting a FIP of just 2.40, below Felix’s career best. But like Felix in 2013, it hasn’t fully showed up in his actual runs allowed. In 2014 and 2015, Sale became something much more than a left-handed Justin Masterson – he used his slider to dominate righties, and thus become something like the template for Chris Archer this year. His K:BB ratio is now stratospheric, but he’s been unlucky on balls in play (particularly to left-handers, oddly enough) and home runs. The M’s could really use a home run tonight from Cruz, who’s hit Sale well.

1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, RF
4: Cano, 2B
5: Gutierrez, LF
6: Trumbo, DH
7: Jackson, CF
8: Montero, 1B
9: Sucre, C
SP: KING FELIX

Chien Ming Wang took a shutout into the 7th in the inhospitable environment of Colorado Springs last night, before settling with a quality start of 7 IP with 3 runs allowed. He K’d 5 and walked none in Tacoma’s 10-5 win. Jabari Blash and Patrick Brady homered for the R’s, who send Tyler Olson to the mound today against Ariel Pena.

Biloxi beat Jackson 5-1 in Game 1 of a twin bill yesterday, before Jackson took the nightcap 4-0. Jimmy Gilheeney shares the mound with Tyler Wagner, the sinkerballer in the Brewers org we talked about earlier this year. Wagner shot through the Brewers system and even made a start with the Brewers this year. He has two career shutouts, one in 2013 and one this year, and both of them came against Mariner affiliates.

San Jose edged Bakersfield 3-2 despite Tyler O’Neill’s 28th HR of the year. Ryan Yarbrough continues to improve, tossing 6 IP with 9 Ks and just 1 walk yesterday, but he took the tough loss. Brett Ash starts for the Blaze tonight.

Clinton also lost 3-2 yesterday to Burlington. Lukas Schiraldi gets the ball tonight as the L-Kings return home to host Cedar Rapids.

Tri-Cities beat Everett 4-3. Andrew Moore starts for the AquaSox tonight.

Great article at Fangraphs by ex-Mariner employee and evident Erasmo Fan Tony Blengino, who looks at what’s made the difference for the diminutive Nicaraguan this year. Come for the analysis of Erasmo’s contact management and confidence, stay for the potshots at his former bosses!

Game 121, Mariners at Rangers

marc w · August 19, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Montgomery vs. Derek Holland, 11:05am

Early game today as the M’s will catch a flight home and await the arrival of the White Sox on Friday. Today’s game’s an interesting one, as it marks the 2nd start, and 2nd *inning* lefty Derek Holland will toss for Texas in 2015. The oft-injured lefty hurt his shoulder just one inning into his first start of the year – this after coming back from knee surgery that limited him to just five starts in 2014. When he was on, he used a plus fastball, a curve, and his excellent slider to get strikeouts. The K’s were important, as his swerving, rising FB leads to a lot of elevated contact, and that can often spell problems in a place like Arlington. His HR rate is fairly high for his career, a product of his home park and continued struggles with right-handed bats. Righties are slugging .450 against Holland in his career, and have a HR rate of 1.38/9 IP.

Part of Holland’s problems to righties was that his change-up was never a consistently effective pitch. In recent years, it had even more “rise” than his sinker and occasionally more than his four-seam fastball, which is rather remarkable for a pitch 8-10mph slower. Righties are slugging an even better .543 off the change-up for Holland’s career – and that’s over 1100 change-ups thrown. Thus, in recent years, Holland’s limited the change and started throwing a blizzard of sliders to righties as well as lefties – Eno Sarris has a great interview with Holland in which the lefty talks about how he moves the pitch around the zone to righties.

So: in the past, he was a 94-95mph four-seam fireballer with a solid breaking ball to back it up. He’s tossed all of 38 big league innings in the past two seasons, though, and hasn’t pitched more than 5 IP in the minors this year. I have no idea what Holland will look like today, and I doubt the M’s do either. In his single inning in April, his velo was down significantly, but then that’s often a precursor to injury. The M’s have seen a lot of Holland over the years; Mark Trumbo’s seen him the most, and I’m sure he’ll be in the starting line-up because of it.

For the M’s, Mike Montgomery heads to another difficult pitching environment and tries to stop his recent slide. As Tony Blengino’s article at Fangraphs talks about, Montgomery put up so-so K:BB numbers in his first 7 starts, but benefited from an absurdly low level of production on balls in play. Montgomery gave up a decent number of fly balls, but they all found gloves…as did the grounders he induced. Since then, it seems that every fly ball finds a gap and every grounder splits the defenders. In Blengino’s reckoning, it’s great that Montgomery’s GB% is trending up, but given that Montgomery doesn’t seem to be all that good at limiting hard-hit contact, he’s going to struggle to stick around even as a 4-5th starter.

Erasmo Ramirez, the guy Montgomery was swapped for just before the season started, has blossomed into a solid part of the Rays rotation, and his numbers are nearly dead-on where they were in his great 2012 campaign. If you’d looked at Ramirez’s batted-ball authority in 2013-14, you’d have seen a hopeless AAAA pitcher too, and one with much bigger control problems than even Montgomery’s recent skid have demonstrated. Given that, I’m not sure that the batted ball data over 7 starts are dispositive here. They certainly aren’t *encouraging*, but Ramirez’s resurgence demonstrates that a pitcher’s “true talent” is pretty malleable. Montgomery still struggles against same-handed hitters. The Red Sox seemed to know that, and thus left Travis Shaw and Brock Holt in the line-up around David Ortiz. Yes, yes, righties knocked him around too, but lefties get a very good look at Montgomery’s fastball, and it’s something he might want to think about changing. Keep the four-seamer for righties, and he’ll probably always see more righties than lefties, but use his sinker and even his change-up a bit more to lefties. Right now, he’s doing the exact opposite: it’s righties who are seeing more of the sinker.

Just like Erasmo, Montgomery’s running reverse splits, and that may always be a part of his profile. But he’s got to keep lefties from driving the ball, and it’s possible that his sinking change might help with that. Obviously, the pitch has been more effective to righties, and I understand that he doesn’t want to over-use it to lefties, lest it become less effective as a putaway pitch, but it’s time for Montgomery to make some adjustments. Oh, one more adjustment. Montgomery’s fastball location needs to be better. Here’s a heat map of Montgomery’s four-seam fastball, the pitch he’s thrown more than any other. There are a number of ways to use a fastball, and there’s no real right answer of where you want to throw it. But there IS a wrong answer:
montgom location
Not there, Mike.

1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, RF
4: Cano, 2B
5: Gutierrez, LF
6: Jackson, CF
7: Trumbo, DH
8: Montero, 1B
9: Zunino, C
SP: Mike Montgomery

3 lefties in the line-up against Montgomery today: Shin-Soo Choo, Mitch Moreland and Rougned Odor.

Tacoma topped OKC last night 3-2, with Roenis Elias tossing 7 strong innings for the win. I should mention that Chin-hui Tsao pitched the final 2 innings for the Dodgers. As amazing as it is to see Chien-ming Wang still pitching in the minors, it’s even more remarkable – and cool – that Tsao’s still going. Once one of the most highly touted pitchers in the minors, and a future mainstay of the Rockies rotation, Tsao made his MLB debut back in 2003. Before that, he was the #15 overall prospect in baseball before 2001, thanks to a dominant season in the Sally league in 2000. Wang is actually slightly older, but they hit the affiliated minors around the same time, but Tsao was a step ahead – and much, much more successful in the early going. Wang didn’t debut with the Yankees until 2005, so Tsao was the big Taiwanese star for a few years. Working in relief in 2005, he touched 100mph with a fastball, a speed he reached again pitching in Taiwan several years later. Unfortunately, his shoulder never held up, and he returned to Taiwan in 2008. After a game-fixing scandal, he was kicked out of his domestic league, so he tried to come back to the US to play for independent league teams, but when that failed, he became a restauranteur in Taiwan. The Adelaide Bite of the ABL wouldn’t let him suit up, so I was surprised he was allowed in to the US affiliated minors, but he’s been pitching reasonably well this season (mostly in AA) after a layoff of an incredible 5 years, from 2010-2015. Anyway, Adrian Sampson starts today for the R’s as they head to Colorado Springs to face Harvard product Brent Suter, who put up some excellent RA numbers in AA Biloxi.

Speaking of Biloxi, the Shuckers beat Jackson 3-1 last night after reliever Trey Cochran-Gill gave up 3 runs in the 8th. Misael Siverio tossed 6 shutout innings, but opponent Jorge Lopez went 7 scoreless for the win. Dylan Unsworth takes the mound for the Generals as they face Biloxi righty Adrian Houser, who was a part of the recent Carlos Gomez trade.

Lake Elsinore beat Bakersfield, also by a score of 3-1. Dan Altavilla struck out 7 in 5 IP and Justin Seager got his first Cal League HR in the loss. Tyler Pike starts for the Blaze tonight.

Clinton got 2 runs in the 9th to get a rare road win over Burlington by a score of 5-3. Joe DeCarlo’s 2 run HR was the difference, and sinkerballing closer Kody Kerski picked up the save. Kerski’s got 51 Ks in 49 2/3 IP on the year, and has only given up 1 HR this season. His ERA is sparkly, but it’s partially the result of 10 unearned runs…almost as many as the 11 earned runs he’s been charged with. Still, as a 2nd day draft pick out of a small school (and the closer for a team that’s had precious few opportunities for saves), Kerski’s done enough to warrant more attention. Clinton’s Jarrett Brown makes the start tonight in Burlington against the Bees’ Jake Jewell.

Spokane used an 8 run 8th to down Everett 11-8. Drew Jackson was held hitless again, but he did have 2 walks. Alex Jackson doubled, and Luis Liberato had 3 RBIs for the AquaSox. Starter Nick Wells was solid again, giving up 2 runs on 3 hits in 6 IP while striking out 6. Jason Churchill was at the game and got a quick video of Wells – it’s linked in this tweet. Spencer Herrmann had a forgettable day, giving up 5 runs in 1/3 of an inning – you can probably guess which inning he appeared in. Luiz Gohara starts in Everett tonight, and the Brazilian’s looking to break out of a slump. After a solid first few starts, Gohara’s given up 14 earned runs in his last 4 starts and 13 1/3 IP. His K:BB ratio’s still pretty good, but he’s been very hittable for a guy with good raw stuff in a short-season league.

Game 120, Mariners at Rangers

marc w · August 18, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Chi Chi Gonzalez, 5:05pm

Hisashi Iwakuma takes the mound for the first time since his no-hitter last Wednesday, and he’ll be facing one of the Rangers’ top young arms in right-hander Chi Chi Gonzalez. Iwakuma’s command allows his so-so fastball velocity to play up; ask Adam Jones how an Iwakuma rising fastball looks when you’ve got to keep an eye out for the splitter. If Gonzalez is to achieve his potential, he’ll need similar command, as he doesn’t have a clear knockout weapon like Kuma does. Instead, Gonzalez mixes two different fastballs with a slider and change (plus a rarely-used curve) to induce weak contact.

Although his four-seam fastball touches 94-96, it averages somewhere around 92. The four-seam is arrow straight with a below-average amount of rise; it’d look like a sinker if it wasn’t for his *actual* sinker, which has more, uh, sink along with a bit more armside run. His slider impressed scouts in the minors – it’s firm, and has two plane break, if not a whole lot of it. He’s got a decent if typical arsenal, but Gonzalez pitches as if he were allergic to whiffs. Even his *slider* elicits whiffs on fewer than 13% of swings against it, and his sinker gets fewer than that. This is why he’s currently sporting a K:BB ratio *under* 1 – he’s given up 24 walks and struck out only 19 of the 207 batters he’s faced. Even in the minors, bat-missing was never a big part of his game.

That didn’t stop him from garnering attention from prospect-hounds, though. In Kiley McDaniel’s top 200 list at Fangraphs, Gonzalez slots in at 27, in the middle of a run of pitchers including Jose Berrios, Robert Stephenson, Luis Severino and Jake Thompson. Everyone around him has fastballs in the mid to upper 90s, and displays potential to be a #1 or #2 starter. Scouts absolutely love Gonzalez’s hard-to-define pitchability and believe he was practically guaranteed to be a #3-4 starter in the big leagues. Not knowing a whole lot about the guy after he was drafted (in the first round in 2013, out of Oral Roberts), I find that kind of fascinating. I think scouts believed he would become an elite ground-ball pitcher – a Tim Hudson type – and that his slider would allow him to miss enough bats that he wouldn’t be pigeon-holed as “just” a ground baller. What we’ve seen – in what’s obviously a very small sample – is a bit different. The slider functions more as a cutter, and doesn’t seem geared to get strikeouts. Moreover, he’s comfortable using his four-seam against righties, including up in the zone, which means his GB rate against them isn’t noteworthy at all.

Despite an identical fastball mix to righties and lefties, he looks like two different pitchers depending on who’s standing in the box against him. Lefties put his sinker in play a ton, and they deal with Gonzalez’s change-up, the pitch with the most sink of any of his offerings. As a result, they’ve got a GB:FB ratio of 3:1. Righties have put his four-seamer into play a bit more, and see quite a few sliders, a pitch they’ve not had any trouble elevating. Thus, his GB:FB ratio is a touch over 1 against RHBs. He can’t strike anyone out, so he’s a very low average, but high SLG% guy against righties and a higher average but low SLG% against lefties. Overall, they’ve got nearly identical wOBAs, but HOW they got them is completely different.

1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, DH
4: Cano, 2B
5: Smith, RF
6: Jackson, CF
7: Miller, LF
8: Morrison, 1B
9: Sucre, C
SP: Iwakuma!

Tacoma lost a tough one last night 2-1, on a 2-out walk off single. Forrest Snow threw 5 scoreless innings for Tacoma, and Eric Surkamp threw 7 scoreless in reply. All 3 runs scored from the bottom of the 8th on. Today, Roenis Elias takes the mound against once (and future?) Dodgers prospect Zach Lee. Lee got a huge bonus to buy him out of a football scholarship at LSU and moved quickly, but had a tough year in AAA last year for Albuquerque. This year, he’s been much better, in what’s admittedly a friendlier pitching environment. Lee too doesn’t rack up strikeouts, but his control’s much improved and that’s meant a lot for him thus far. He made a spot start for the Dodgers this year, and while that wasn’t exactly a great showing, he’s still on the map for a team who’s lost quite a few SP innings to injury.

Bakersfield lost to Lake Elsinore 3-1, as Scott DeCecco gave up 3 runs in the 4th. Dan Altavilla starts for the Blaze today.

Everett shut out Spokane 5-0 behind Enyel de los Santos, who struck out 6 in 5 IP and WSU-product Joe Pistorese who K’d 4 in 3 IP. Nick Wells makes his 2nd start today for the AquaSox after his brilliant debut for the M’s org on the 13th.

Jackson hosts Biloxi today, and Clinton kicks off a series against Burlington – Misael Siverio and Tyler Herb will take the hill for their respective clubs.

Game 119, Mariners at Rangers

marc w · August 17, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Cole Hamels, 5:05pm

After giving up 45 runs in a 3 game series, the M’s turn to Taijuan Walker to stop the bleeding. *Despite a no-hitter last week* the M’s staff has produced at replacement-level as a whole since the all-star break. Ill-timed swoons from Mike Montgomery and, as much as it pains me to say, King Felix have meant that the team hasn’t been able to benefit a whole lot from Hisashi Iwakuma’s resurgence and a good stretch of solid-if-unspectacular work from Taijuan Walker. Worse, the team’s allowed far more actual runs than their FIP would predict. They’re allowing a few more runners, and then many more runners are managing to come around to score. It’s not a BABIP issue, though – it’s home runs.

The M’s are allowing HRs at a frightening clip these days, with 43 allowed in the 29 games since the break. Only one team, the Red Sox, have allowed more. Sure, some of the blame lies with pitchers no longer employed by the M’s, like JA Happ. But Felix, Montgomery and, yes, Tai Walker have all contributed. Walker’s improved throughout the season, and his newfound confidence in his curve has allowed him to maintain a low walk rate while still missing plenty of bats. Returning to his curve made a lot of sense, given that his cutter/slider has been terrible; he’s had essentially no breaking pitch to throw to righties. Against lefties, he had a splitter, and that’s helped him neutralize them to a reasonable degree. But pretty much all of Walker’s attributes: the high arm angle, splitter and slow curve, are correlated with flat or reverse platoon splits, as this great bit of research shows. In any event, Walker *still* throws his curve more often to lefties than righties, meaning he’s a FB/Split pitcher (for the most part) to right-handed bats. And it’s righties that Walker’s struggled with. Of Walker’s 21 HRs allowed this year, 12 have been hit by righties, and that’s despite the fact that only 44% of the batters he’s faced have been right-handed. His FIP to righties is 1.5 runs above his FIP to lefties, and while a chunk of that is luck, some of it isn’t – over his career, his FIP-splits are similarly (though not quite as) bad. I’ve mentioned it before, but job 1 this off-season for Taijuan has to be developing a true slider.

His opponent, Cole Hamels, has had similar HR issues recently. Thanks to a slight groin problem, this’ll only be Hamels’ 3rd start for Texas. In his 2 previous starts, including against the M’s back on the 7th – the LAST time I was returning from a camping trip – Hamels has allowed 5 HRs. Walker’s giving up too many, but 5 in 5 starts (including 1 in Colorado) is quite different from 5 in 2 starts. Deadline acquisitions often have sky-high expectations thrust upon them, as each start gets magnified when viewed through the lens of a playoff run. Carlos Gomez’s struggles in Houston seem significant, just as Hamels’ struggles would seem to make him a target of fans, but the Rangers have won 4 in a row. If the Rangers keep it up, Hamels could struggle and still be seen as an important signal to the team and the league. Old-time M’s fans might remember this with Andy Benes’ acquisition in 1995 – the M’s are going for it, they’re serious contenders, etc. papered over the fact that Benes was pretty awful down the stretch. Hamels is a much better pitcher, but he’s had HR issues – the kind of problem that isn’t normally helped by moving to Arlington.

1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, RF
4: Cano, 2B
5: Gutierrez, LF
6: Jackson, CF
7: Trumbo, DH
8: Morrison, 1B
9: Zunino, C
SP: Walker

Walker’s been tough in his last 3 starts, which is remarkable given how distracted he must’ve been: Taijuan’s younger brother Deshaun underwent brain surgery on the 11th. Apparently it went well, but my thoughts are with the whole Walker family. Scary stuff.

Tacoma lost to Oklahoma City 9-1 yesterday, so instead I’ll mention that Chien-Ming Wang threw his best start in years on Saturday, blanking the OKC Dodgers 2-0 in a complete game shutout. Because this is Wang, he struck out just 2 and walked 4, but because this is Wang, he had 19 ground-ball outs to just 2 fly balls. Today, Jordan Pries shares the mound with Eric Surkamp, a lefty with some big league time with the Dodgers and White Sox.

Jackson dropped the deciding game of their 5-game set with Jacksonville yesterday, 9-2. Tyler Marlette doubled, helping him maintain a hot start to the 2nd half after a dismal early 2015 split between Bakersfield and Jackson. It’s a travel day in the Southern League; Biloxi heads to Jackson to take on the Generals tomorrow.

Bakersfield beat Modesto 6-5, getting a run in the top of the 9th to decide the game. Still, the story of the weekend came from Saturday’s 1-0 *loss*. In that contest, Ryan Yarbrough had perhaps his best outing of the year – and while that’s damning with faint praise, Yarbrough went 4 IP, giving up the only run, but striking out 6 without walking anyone. Progress. Scott DeCecco starts for the Blaze today as they host last-place Lake Elsinore.

Clinton dropped a pair of games over the weekend, including yesterday’s 3-2 loss in 10 innings. That’s left them at 37-81. They get a break today before heading to Burlington to face the Bees tomorrow.

Everett was no-hit yesterday by Kyle Twomey and the Eugene Emeralds bullpen. Apparently getting no-hit is the only way to stop SS Drew Jackson, who saw his 21-game hitting streak snapped in the 3-0 loss. Today, Enyel de los Santos starts for Everett as they face Tyler Davis and the Spokane Indians.

What’s Wrong with Carson Smith?

marc w · August 17, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Carson Smith suffered another blown save yesterday, his 3rd of the year. As of mid-July, Smith was a nearly unhittable force of nature. His swerving, tumbling sinker and big slider combined to make life exceedingly difficult on lefties as well as righties, and, crucially, he had enough control that he wouldn’t give up many free passes. From the beginning of the year through July 12th, Smith allowed a triple slash line of . 169/.223/.262. His K:BB ratio was 47:6 in 36 1/3 IP, and while he had 3 HBPs, that’s still over 5 punchouts for every free baserunner. Because of the sink on all of his pitches, he was a ground-ball machine which made it next to impossible for batters to drive pitches in the air.

Since that date, however, his slash line is .265/.419/.347. His BABIP in that stretch is a mind-boggling .433, and worse, his K:BB ratio is just 19:11. Obviously, we’re talking about a relief pitcher and we’re divvying up his season into little chunks; sample-size is a pretty big concern here. It’s possible, maybe likely, that a bit of regression in control coupled with a BABIP fluke explains essentially all of Smith’s struggles. But that’s true of just about anything, especially within-season. I know a lot of fans and others have been asking the same question as Sky Kalkman did on twitter yesterday:

. Let’s take it as a given that regression and luck play a role, and then forge ahead to see if we can find other potential culprits.

At this point in the season, and with someone without a ton of big league experience, it’s probably a good idea to start with velocity. Some fans perceive a drop, and his overall yearly fastball average velo isn’t what it was in 2014. Unfortunately (uh, make that *fortunately*), I don’t see any evidence of a big drop here. His month-by-month averages for 2015 are quite stable. He had some extra oomph in June, but his stats in July/August aren’t appreciably different from his stats in May…when he was untouchable:
Brooksbaseball-Chart

I’ll say that it is mildly surprising that Smith’s recent velo is “only” the same as it was in May. Typically, pitchers gain velocity as the weather heats up - April and May averages are below their own yearly average, which July/August are above. The fact that Smith’s line moved up in June but then back down in July is interesting, but again, we don’t see any evidence that he’s suddenly lost 1-2mph on his pitches.

Another guess was that he’s been facing a lot more left-handed hitters. While he’s been excellent against them overall, he’s still got large platoon splits – it just hasn’t mattered because righties have had no chance, so anything lefties do looks decent by comparison. Again, though, I don’t think that’s what’s happened. There’s quite obviously a ton of noise here – we’re looking at the percentage of pitches thrown to lefties and righties by game. If anything, he’s seen a few more righties recently, but if you think the entire chart is noise, I wouldn’t argue. What we DON’T see is some clear, distinct change in batters-faced that would account for the performance drop.
Brooksbaseball-Chart(1)

So what IS going on here? I’ve got three observations that may play a part in this, particularly in combination. On their own, they all seem a bit too subtle, but remember that the luck component of Smith’s struggles is probably pretty big, especially given the starring role BABIP has played. First: Smith is throwing a few more balls in recent games. From July on, he’s thrown balls on 37% of his sinkers and a bit over 40% of his sliders. From April through June, those figures were 35% and 26%, respectively. His slider’s fallen markedly, and it’s not just that batters are suddenly taking it whereas they were chasing them in the early going: batters typically swing much less often against Smith than the league average. When he was great, batters swung at around 41% of his pitches. Now, it’s 40% or so. This suggests that the increasing ball rate is a product of pitch location and not a batter’s willingness to chase.

Second, he’s using his slider much more often. Through the end of June, Smith threw 56% sinkers and 38% sliders, including 43% sliders to right-handed bats. Since then, he’s thrown a bit under 41% sinkers and a whopping 51% sliders. To righties, he’s at nearly 2/3 sliders to 1/3 sinkers. He’s throwing a whole lot more of the pitch he’s struggling to command, and that may be making him more predictable. To righties, he’ll only throw a fastball when he’s behind. Lefties can count on fastballs very early, and they can count on sliders if Smith’s ahead. Given the fact that he’s throwing the slider for a ball more often, it’s likely he’s pitching from behind a bit more.

Third, he’s shown a tendency for separation between the release points of his sinker and slider. That is, from time to time, Smith will release his sinker 4-6″ below where he releases his slider. At other times, the two points are nearly identical. Recently, the two have diverged a bit, as you can see here:
Brooksbaseball-Chart(2)
Now, as you can *also* see, they were pretty far apart at the beginning of 2015; it’s not like this has never happened before. Still, there are probably things you can get away with as a relative unknown that are harder to get away with as an MLB closer. Pro scouting presumably pays a lot of attention to things like this, as we discussed earlier regarding Tai Walker. If one team spots a subtle tell, word may get around. And all of these things could be interrelated: if batters have a good idea a slider is coming, they may be more likely to take it (they haven’t fared any better when they DO swing at sliders), and if his slider location is off a bit, that means more hitter’s counts. As a guy who depends on getting batters to take or swing through pitches *in the strikezone*, if batters have a decent idea what’s coming – whether because they can recognize the release point or they’re counting on a 2-0 sinker – Smith’s job becomes doubly difficult.

I think it may be worthwhile for Smith to move back to a pitch mix that features more sinkers, even if that’s the pitch that’s getting hit the hardest recently. Instead of looking for out-of-zone swings and punchouts, I think it might be good to focus on ground balls for a while, and see how his slider responds to being a putaway pitch as opposed to his primary offering. So if you’ve seen him throughout the year, what have you noticed? Is there a Fernando Rodney-style tell? Velo drops *within* outings, as he’s now seeing a few more 2IP appearances? Something else?

Game 117, Mariners at Red Sox

marc w · August 15, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Wade Miley, 10:05am

Happy Felix Day!

Unlike Rick Porcello and Joe Kelly, the Red Sox didn’t do a whole lot to left-hander Wade Miley, who they got from Arizona in exchange for two still-sorta-prospects in Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster. He still throws about 92, still has a four-seam, a sinker, a change and a slider (and the odd curve ball), and he still has some issues with right-handed bats. If they thought a change of scenery would help Miley, it hasn’t to date – instead, he’s clashed with his manager and has the same odd ERA-way-higher-than-his-FIP problem that’s plagued Joe Kelly. It’s been a lost season for Boston, with their rotation clearly the primary reason why. Miley hasn’t been quite as bad (or unlucky?) as Kelly, but that’s not saying a whole lot.

1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, RF
4: Cano, 2B
5: Gutierrez, LF
6: Jackson, CF
7: Trumbo, DH
8: Montero, 1B
9: Zunino, C
SP: THE KING

Game 116, Mariners at Red Sox

marc w · August 14, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Montgomery vs. Joe Kelly, 4:10pm

The Red Sox were coming off of a disappointing 2014 and knew they needed pitching. They’d picked up Eduardo Rodriguez and today’s starter Joe Kelly at the 2014 deadline, and then they spent the off-season on a trade spree – they got Robbie Ross from Texas in exchange for Anthony Ranaudo. They picked up Wade Miley from Arizona for two prospects. Finally, they signed Rick Porcello for an eye-popping 82.5 million deal over 4 years. This year -after all of that – their pitching is worse.

What makes their overhaul so interesting is that the Sox didn’t appear to select pitchers based on their current traits or strengths. Rather, they brought them in and tried to re-mold them into something new. Like many of these guys (notably Porcello), Joe Kelly really is different. But “new” Joe Kelly is pretty clearly worse than the one they traded for. With St. Louis, Kelly used an extremely fast sinker to rack up ground balls, and while he didn’t have the control to limit walks or the breaking stuff to rack up K’s, Kelly fared OK. The Sox saw the velo and wanted to trade some contact for whiffs; after throwing 3 sinkers for every 4-seamer with the Cards, that ratio’s down to 55:45 with Boston. As you’d expect, that’s pushed Kelly’s GB down from over 50% to the low 40′s. While Kelly’s been a touch unlucky on HR/FB, you have to figure at least SOME of those “extra” fly balls would creep over the fence. To make matters worse, after years of “beating” his FIP in St. Louis, his ERA is scraping 6, over 1.6 full runs higher than his 4.29 FIP.

His BABIP is high, especially against righties, but a part of that could be the result of moving away from his bread-and-butter sinker. More worryingly, his breaking balls are getting hit hard by righties, who’ve posted a .383 wOBA against him this season. Like Porcello, perhaps, Kelly *looks* like he should be good – he’s among the tougher hurlers the M’s will see among pitchers with replacement-level fielding-dependent stats.

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

Adrian Sampson leads Tacoma against ex-Angel/Brave pitcher Tommy Hanson of Sacramento today (if it’s playable).

Jimmy Gilheeney, Tyler Pike, Eddie Campbell and Luiz Gohara take the mound for the other M’s affiliates.

Kuma/Sucre and Learning How to Be a Junkballer

marc w · August 14, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma’s no-hitter was a perfect example of a pitcher using unpredictability as a weapon. As Jeff’s great post at fangraphs shows, Kuma essentially used three different approaches – a fastball/slider-heavy look in the early-going, then splitters/breaking balls in the middle innings, followed by fastballs and splitters exclusively down the stretch. In the postgame show, Shannon Drayer asked Hisashi about his slider usage, noting that he threw more of them than normal. And many on twitter pointed out that he threw more *splitters* than normal. Both are true, but it was *how* and *when* he used them that set this new, junkballing version of Iwakuma apart.

Hisashi Iwakuma’s splitter is, of course, his best pitch. The split is exceedingly difficult to lay off of, as evidenced by Iwakuma’s career 60%+ swing rate on the pitch. But because of its movement, he doesn’t need to throw it in the zone to get strikes, and that’s how you get this:

The lower a pitch comes in, the more likely it’ll be put on the ground (if it’s put in play). And as you’d expect, Iwakuma has a GB/FB ratio on his splitter over 7:1 for his career. Iwakuma isn’t the only guy with a good split, of course. Matt Shoemaker of the Angels gets an even higher swing rate. Masahiro Tanaka gets a very high swing rate and a better-than-Kuma whiff rate. Nate Eovaldi gets a ridiculous GB/FB ratio. But Iwakuma’s combined these attributes extremely well, and it’s allowed him to be consistently effective even in his mid-30s.

In addition, because the pitch does what it does, it allows Iwakuma to be remarkably consistent *within games*. As you know, the “times through the order penalty” is fairly large, and it’s consistent; really good pitchers face it, as do AAAA scrubs – it’s there in day games as well as night games, etc. Throughout his career, Iwakuma has a .666 OPS-against the first time through the order, and that drops to .643 the second time through, and stays at .648 the third (the OPS-against plummets the 4th time through, but he hasn’t done that much). FIP is not the only sabermetric “rule” that Iwakuma flouts.

Hisashi Iwakuma has been pitching here for years now, and you’d expect to see batters make some adjustments. What we’ve seen, though, is that batters haven’t needed to thanks to the weakness of Iwakuma’s breaking balls. His slider stood out as his worst pitch of all, but instead of scrapping it, he’s made some minute tweaks (as in: I can’t discern anything in its velo/movement). What’s different is that he’s controlling the pitch a bit better. He’d back-door lefties with it and occasionally try and sneak a strike to righties, but hitters by and large destroyed the pitch, particularly if it was thrown within the zone. Over the past month or so, he’s thrown it for a ball less than 1/4 of the time compared to over 1/3 of the time in 2015 overall and 32% for his career. The ratio of called strikes to called balls on the pitch is now 2nd highest in the league, behind Felix – another guy who uses his change-up as his chase pitch.

So the tweaks to his mechanics, if he’s made any, may have helped. But they seem too subtle to turn a pitch’s results from utter garbage to useful, nearly overnight. This seems like a case where sequencing is playing a role, and that’s why the pattern Jeff pointed out is so interesting. In the early part of the game Wednesday, Kuma threw tons of sliders, then replaced them with splitters late. Both pitches have very similar vertical movement, but the slider is, for whatever reason, easier for batters to identify. Thus, in the early going, Iwakuma was giving up plenty of contact. 4 of the first 6 batters put sliders into play, and batters put sliders into play more often than any other pitch on the day. It may – may, this is speculation – also have helped Iwakuma’s splitter play up in the late innings – after seeing another pitch with drop thrown *in* the zone early, it may have made the splitter even harder to lay off than normal.

Here’s what Hisashi’s pitch mix looked like on Wednesday:
1

And here’s what it looked like the other day against the Twins – a game which was *nearly* Iwakuma’s first ever CG.
Minnesota game

It’s a slightly different pattern, as in that case he used his four seam early, before swapping it out for sinkers and splitters late, but you get something of the same pattern – using the splitter later and trying to confound the scouting report early on.

That contrasts with something like this, which was his game against Texas in between the two games above:
Brooksbaseball-Chart(2)

Here, the splitter usage is a constant. There’s some change going on with four- and two-seamers, but it doesn’t jump off the page. So what’s the difference here? Well, there are many – different opponents, different day (maybe his slider was garbage during warm-ups), lots of things. But one difference was his catcher. For the Twins and O’s games, Sucre caught Iwakuma, while Zunino handled the game in between. This is really, really tentative and I’m hesitant to even bring it up given Zunino’s offensive struggles, but thus far, Iwakuma has fared much better when Sucre’s calling the pitches. Over Iwakuma’s career, he has the highest K:BB ratio when Zunino’s behind the plate. But he’s also given up HRs on over 3.5% of his PAs, leading to a high SLG%-against. Sucre’s caught Kuma far, far less, but batters are slugging .259 against Kuma in those games, as opposed to the .423 they’re slugging when Zunino’s calling pitches.

This would just be noise if we didn’t see some kind of evidence that they call games *differently*. Even that is complicated by the fact that Sucre’s caught so few, and he’s been behind the plate for some shaky starts – and starts in which the pitch mix doesn’t move the way it has this month. It’s possible this is a fluke, and it’s possible Sucre’s figured something out. If he has, there’s nothing preventing the M’s (or Sucre) from telling Zunino. It’s also possible that this is *Iwakuma’s* doing – that he’s told his catchers he’d like to throw the slider early to get a feel for it. In any event, it’ll be interesting to see if Iwakuma stays with Sucre the rest of the way, and if his pitch mix strategy evolves. For now, though, Sucre and Iwakuma seem to have come up with a way to confuse hitters and scouting reports all without throwing fewer splitters.

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