Game 1, Giants at Mariners

marc w · April 1, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Kevin Gausman, 7:10pm

Well, here we go. The M’s season kicks off tonight in the first-ever interleague opening day for Seattle. Marco Gonzales makes his third consecutive opening day start, and he’s coming off a brilliant, if short, season. After a 2019 that showed him survive serious regression in his walk and K rates – driven in part by lower velocity – he improved every facet of his game in 2020. His walks dropped below 1 per 9IP, an unfathomably low mark, and he did it while increasing his strikeouts. No, that missing velocity didn’t come back, but with a variety of pitches thrown with command (and seam-shifted wake adding to batters’ confusion), he didn’t miss it.

The Giants come to Seattle in a similar place, organizationally. The glory of their three World Series championships has faded a bit, and they’re now in something of a rebuild. Catcher of the future, Joey Bart, had a rough introduction to MLB, but the club hit the ball well thanks to a bounce-back year from Brandon Belt, and a breakout campaign from OF Mike Yastrzemski, and a good year from new 2B Wilmer Flores. They had some holes in the line-up, but overall, the strength of the team was their position-player group.

The pitching staff wasn’t terrible, but it had very little depth. Unfortunately for the Giants, there’s not a lot of depth in their system at the moment. Their system leans towards position players, and the guy nearest to the majors is Hunter Bishop, brother of the M’s Braden Bishop. Hunter doesn’t pitch, though, so the Giants have to hope their jury-rigged rotation holds together. To their credit, the Giants have done pretty well scrounging the waiver wire for pitchers.

Their rotation’s mainstay is 35-year old Johnny Cueto, but they had almost no one behind him to fill out the other four spots. They picked up tonight’s starter, Kevin Gausman, off of waivers before last year, and watched him become the staff ace. They also got Jeff Samardzija, whom they cut in September, and Drew Smyly, who left after the year. So, back to free agency they went, but the bargain bin of free agency. They weren’t in on Trevor Bauer, but picked up Aaron Sanchez and hope he’ll be healthy enough to pitch, and got Anthony DeSclafini from the Reds org.

Gausman was the big prize, and his growth was a feather in the cap of the big league coaches. Gausman’s been an elite talent since college; the Orioles picked him 4th overall out of LSU in 2012 thanks to a mid-90s fastball, a slider, and a real outpitch: a hard sinking splitter. He’s got velocity, movement, and a bat-missing weapon that works against righties and lefties alike. How’s this guy in the *bargain bin?*

We can see the velocity numbers, his arsenal, and, these days, things like spin rate. But ultimately, only batters determine how good a pitcher’s stuff is. That…that was unfortunate for Mr. Gausman. Despite touching the high-90s at times, batters have simply never been troubled by Gausman’s fastball. After throwing over 10,000 of them in his big league career, batters are hitting .288 and slugging .461 off of the heater. But it gets worse: off of Gausman’s slider, his one breaking ball after ditching an ineffective curve, batters are hitting .321 and slugging *.564*. Off of a breaking ball. For his (long-ish) career. That’s stunningly bad.

It’s a testament to that velo and of course that transcendent splitter (career .191 average, and SLG% just over .300) that he’s still getting offers. Despite sporadic success, he’s fallen hard in 2017 and then again in 2019, despite finally missing the bats that pitching coaches all thought he should. Home runs have been a fairly consistent problem, but the real issue has been his BABIP. Yes, it’s often seen as random, but in Gausman’s career, it’s at .313, and has dipped below .300 only twice (including last year). Whatever the opposite of deception? That’s Gausman’s fastball to batters.

It’s funny, because I think of Marco Gonzales as the anti-Gausman: he has poor velocity, no real “wow” outpitch (when he was drafted, everyone thought that pitch would be his change, but it’s never really happened), and elite command. All that said, Gonzales struggled for years with…home runs and BABIP. Even after solving those issues in recent years, Gonzales’ career BABIP is still pretty high. But the pitcher perhaps most akin to Gausman in terms of BABIP woes-despite-high-octane-stuff is James Paxton, who has the exact same BABIP since 2016 as Gausman: .317.

The Line-up:

1: Haniger, RF
2: France, DH
3: Seager, 3B
4: White, 1B
5: Trammell, CF
6: Moore, 2B
7: Fraley, LF
8: Murphy, C
9: Crawford, SS
SP: Marcooooo Gonzales

I love flipping Crawford to 9th and hitting Mitch Haniger lead-off. It takes pressure off of Crawford, and gives the M’s some sneaky OBP in the bottom of the order. That said, I’m definitely not a fan of starting Evan White at clean-up.

So, as usual, it’s time for some predictions.
I’ve complained for years that the M’s key indicators are always ambiguous. JP Crawford is neither an all-star nor washes out, he’s…fine. The team gets massive improvement from some of their prospects, but Evan White faceplants, etc. It’s added up to some incremental improvement, but it’s not the kind of improvement where you can easily say “look out for this team in 2022.” So, as I argued in the last post, they really need to finish around .500. 80 wins is a successful season, and 73-74 has to be seen as failure: it doesn’t close the gap between where they were and where they need to be to have a couple of free agents help them become contenders. Given all of that, I think they continue confounding our efforts to figure out how this :gestures grandly: whole thing is going, and finish right in the middle with 77 wins.

I think the Dodgers and Yankees are the class of the league, and think that 2021 will set new records for strikeouts and home runs. Even if the ball is dampened – again, it’s not clear they’ve done that correctly – the problem will be that the quality of pitching will decline as teams will be forced to dip way into high-minors depth to eat the glut of innings. Even good starters can’t/shouldn’t go from 55 IP to 200 IP, and that means we’ll need a lot more middle relievers. Good luck trying to hold down scoring with that game plan.

On the plus side, I think we *will* see more balls in play. Again, the tidal wave of 7th-8th-9th options out of the pen will play a big role in that, but the baseball and a new trend towards teams selecting players for their contact ability will also play a part. Nick Madrigal, Luis Arraez, Ketel Marte, Mookie Betts, DJ LeMahieu, David Fletcher, and Nolan Arenado are going to have an impact as they get tons of PAs for their respective teams. We’re seeing an interesting trend of pitcher Ks increasing even as veteran bats like Arenado and Freddie Freeman improve their own K rates. If teams have to dip into the minors more for pitchers than for position players – and I think they will – the balance of power shifts a bit towards the batters.

I’ve got Cy Young, MVP, and ROY predictions up over at BaseballProspectus, so go check those out too.

Go M’s.

The Risks: 2021

marc w · April 1, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

It’s opening day, a day for optimism. In a year of loss, polarization, and isolation, baseball is back to be a constant companion. It asks little, and simply exists along side you. You can go immerse yourself in it, but it’s not required. If you don’t want it right now, that’s fine. Another game will start in a few hours, or you can just come back tomorrow. I’m surprised at how excited I am for another 162-game season, and for that near-daily interaction with my imaginary friends on the radio and on TV. If you can’t be hopeful and happy on a day like this (and it helps that it’s absolutely gorgeous as I write this in the northwest), you may need professional help.

Around 8:00am this morning, the opening day match-up between Jacob deGrom and the Mets vs. Max Scherzer and the Nats was cancelled due to a Covid outbreak on the latter club. The new Detroit Tigers pitching coach can’t be with his own club, as he, too, tested positive, leading to contract tracing protocols and isolation for several close contacts on the club. That optimism, that happiness, that longed-for return to normalcy was *there*, but you had to wake up pretty early to really bask in it.

If you missed it, I’m sorry. It’s time to be brutally realistic, and to imagine all that can go wrong. This task is easier for us M’s fans, of course. With one opening day game already banged due to the pandemic, and with the M’s projected by many to post an equal or *worse* winning percentage than last year, this is not a difficult post to write. The M’s President admitted to service time manipulation, insulted two of the M’s most beloved players of different eras, and then got fired. The relationship with their top prospect may not recover. This post could write itself.

1: The Mariners Offense is Sunk by a Wave of Strikeouts

The Mariners opening day line-up includes *five* batters with either a career K% over 30% or at least one projection of 30%. They are bunched together from 5th-8th. Sure, sure, you say – this isn’t the preferred line-up, though. With Kyle Lewis out, the M’s have to use Taylor Trammell and Jake Fraley together, instead of essentially platooning them. The problem is, Lewis has a career 31.5% K rate.

Strikeouts are up throughout the league, and teams can be very effective offensively despite a lot of whiffs. The Rays won the AL Pennant despite finishing 2nd in MLB in team K rate. The White Sox struck out more than the M’s did, but hit enough to make the playoffs. It can be done. But it takes something to balance the whiffs – the White Sox hit for average *and* hit for a much higher ISO. The M’s can’t count on either thing, but they certainly hope to hit for more power in 2021 with Tom Murphy and Mitch Haniger returning, but both of those guys swing and miss, too.

For a lesson in the importance of strikeout rate, we can look back at last season, and the sad saga of the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers had perhaps the game’s best bullpen with ROY Devin Williams and brand name closer, Josh Hader. Those two helped the club post the second-best K% *for pitchers* in the game, en route to the 4th-most fWAR in MLB. But despite a great walk rate, the offense couldn’t take advantage of the advantage they had in run prevention. They’d been projected to be a contender with the reigning NL MVP, hyped rookie Keston Hiura, and vets like Lorenzo Cain and old friend Omar Narvaez. But they ended up worse than the sum of those impressive parts, as they put up a team average around .220 and one of the highest K rates in the game.

The M’s have kind of a bi-modal distribution of K rates, with Kyle Seager and JP Crawford posting very low rates, and the OF and catcher spots striking out frequently. But the club is built a bit differently than the club that started 2020…and put up the 8th-highest K rate. Gone is Austin Nola, a low-K guy, and in his place the M’s will use Tom Murphy (highest projected rate on the team) and Taylor Trammell. Dylan Moore, who has a career 30.8% K rate, will play all over, and the utility guys behind him include Sam Haggerty (16 Ks in 50 career ABs) and, at some point, Shed Long (career 26% Ks). The preferred line-up is K-heavy, and the back-ups…are just as whiff-prone.

And we haven’t even touched on the elephant in the room, here. Evan White’s K rate was over *40%* and the second-highest in MLB. He actually fared slightly better with men on base, but a K rate of over 38% in those situations certainly cut some rallies short. The good news is that he’s projected to improve markedly, cutting that rate by ten percentage points. The projections pull him strongly towards the mean, because there’s just not a lot of precedent for MLB hitters striking out like this.

The M’s will post a below-average K rate on offense, and they’ll quite likely post a below-average batting average. They absolutely need to hit for power and walk at a decent clip, and that’s where the new ball becomes important. The league has said they were trying to reduce fly ball distance, and thus HRs, by tweaking the ball’s construction. It’s not at all clear that they’ve succeeded. But what does seem clear is that the new baseball *moves* more. Curves snap more menacingly, and fastballs move more as well. That’s pushed the K rate in the spring higher with the new ball as compared to the 2020 baseball. If there’s one thing the M’s don’t need right now, it’s the baseball giving pitchers an advantage.

2: The Mariners Finish with 74-75 Wins, Declare Victory

In a great piece on the AL West yesterday, Yahoo’s Hannah Keyser spoke to Jerry Dipoto about expectations for the year, and what results the M’s are looking for – what would constitute a success in 2021? Jerry Dipoto emphasized that he’s worked for years in Seattle to get people to focus more on process than results, and that the real key for the year is just to improve. He’d like to get just a bit better in every category: “we’re going to look just to get 1 percent better in every area with the idea that if we just get 1 percent better at our ability to get on base, 1 percent better at our ability to hold other teams down, to not allow runs, the way we run the bases.”

That sounds good, because those 1% gains compound across so many different areas, and because it’s reminiscent of what Gonzaga coach Mark Few said literally the day before this piece came out after his club demolished USC to make the Final Four. This is just what great teams do, right?

Not necessarily. If the club still sees contention as a year away, and Dipoto made it clear to Keyser that he does, they simply do not have time for incremental improvement any more. They could argue that, in 2019, the fact that the club lost 94 games was irrelevant – they were embarking on a rebuild. They can claim in 2020 that their bullpen was awful because they didn’t emphasize it, and that they were still running through a bunch of unknown pitchers to see what they had. At some point, the bullpen can’t simply go from a 5.92 ERA to a 5.81 ERA to a 5.56 ERA. The offense can’t go from 5.1 WAR to 6.0. They have to get *better* in a hurry. Gonzaga can improve at the margin, because they’re the best in their sport. The M’s have to pick up the pace.

One of the problematic aspects of the idea that the M’s have essentially solved their long-standing player development woes is that we don’t see it consistently. The club that’s helped Logan Gilbert become a top prospect is also the club that’s trotted out replacement-level bullpens in consecutive years. In that light, how much of Gilbert’s success is just a function of Logan Gilbert? If their coaching allows some players to improve, but struggles with others, that sounds remarkably like…every other PD group in the game. Several years in, it’s time for the M’s to show, and stop telling.

The M’s need to be near .500 for this to be a successful season. They can’t have some bright spots, some regression, and have it all add up to 74 wins. They absolutely CAN finish with 74 wins, and essentially every projection system thinks they will. But I have no interest in hearing from the club how that was a really *good* 74 wins, or a super-encouraging path to 74 wins. If the projections are right, it constitutes failure, period.

3: The Dip in the Quality of the AL West is Negated by Improvements Elsewhere

As we talked about yesterday, the AL West has gotten weaker in recent years. The Astros are no longer a juggernaut after losing Justin Verlander to injury, and George Springer/Gerrit Cole to free agency. Charlie Morton’s gone, Carlos Correa’s been injury prone. Now Framber Valdez is hurt. The A’s lost Liam Hendriks and Marcus Semien. If you squint, you see a clear path to the playoffs in a year, especially if the Astros lose Correa and the Athletics do what they always do and think about trading Matt Chapman before he gets too expensive.

The problem for the M’s is twofold. First, the gap between themselves and the best teams in the division is still sizable. The Astros have fallen back, but they haven’t yet fallen *apart*. They’re still projected to win over 90 games, and that’s pretty rarefied air. Second, in an environment with multiple wild cards, the division matters less. The M’s have been competing for years with clubs in the AL East for one of the wild cards, and that competition’s only grown stronger. The East has the defending AL champs in Tampa, the best projected team in the AL in New York, and a very talented Boston team that could surprise people. They’ve also got the Blue Jays, who’ve improved mightily and look very solid. Worse, the AL Central – long the worst division in the league, and thus not likely to supply wild card contenders – is improving. Minnesota remains a powerful team, but Chicago is knocking on the door. Even after selling off Francisco Lindor, Cleveland’s remarkable pitching development keeps them in the hunt.

The Angels and A’s are still a bit better than the M’s, and may be better in the years to come. If they play well, the M’s could pass one or both, as they passed Anaheim last season. It’s just that that isn’t enough. *10 AL Teams* have playoff odds greater than 20% per Fangraphs. The M’s odds are below 5% because there are so many paths to the playoffs for other, better teams. Worse, those teams are just as young – or younger – than the M’s. The Blue Jays got older this year as they push for short-term contention, but their stars were 21, 22, and 25 last year. The Red Sox best players were 23, 24 and 27. This is a problem the M’s will be contending with (or not) for years to come until they can figure out a way to ignore wild card races and compete for a division title. That hasn’t happened since 2001, though, a fact that you may have heard once or twice in recent years.

The Upside, 2021

marc w · March 31, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Another season is upon us. Hope *generally* spring eternal, even if it often misses my house, but there’s a lot to be hopeful about right now. The vaccine roll-out is picking up speed, heralding a return to normalcy or something like it within a few months. The M’s care enough about Jarred Kelenic to mess with his service time, and Kelenic himself just showed us all what he can do in an electrifying spring. The team’s brought in some wild cards, like Chris Flexen and Rafael Montero, who could really solidify the team’s run prevention. And for the first time in several years, the best teams in the league and division don’t feel completely out of reach – like they’re playing a completely different sport.

Thus, it’s time for another post on the potential upsides to 2021 for the M’s. No, they don’t really figure to contend, but a lot *could* go right, and set up them up nicely for 2022. This isn’t about starry-eyed optimism and ignoring projections or track record entirely. Instead, this is about figuring out where there are gaps that projections might miss, and potential production that hasn’t shown itself in a projectable track record to date.

1: The Projections are Fundamentally Too Low on the M’s Due To Bad Luck
Ok, I’ll admit it. After saying this isn’t just ignoring the projections, this looks a heck of a lot like…ignoring the projections. It’s not – or at least, it’s not JUST that. The point here is that the M’s in 2020, and to a degree in 2019, wildly under-performed even their own meager true-talent level. Especially in the shortened season of 2020, weird statistical anomalies can creep in, and ossify as objective data for future projections to work from.

For example, the Mariners finished dead last – 30th out of 30! – in batting vs. left-handed pitchers last year. No one’s going to confuse the 2020 Mariners with Murderer’s Row, but that’s 1) weird and 2) less relevant to 2021 than you might expect. Sure, many of the M’s left-handed hitters or lefty-dominant guys like JP Crawford or Dee Strange-Gordon struggled against lefties. But what really *sunk* the M’s was the production from *righties*. Kyle Lewis was fine, but Ty France, Evan White, and Dylan Moore showed weird reverse splits.

What’s wrong with France, White, and Moore? Well, nothing. It was a 60-game season, and now we’re splitting it in less-than-half. Weird stuff can happen. Is there any real, fundamental, baseball-reason why Ty France can’t hit lefties? Of course not – he had all of 33 PAs against them in an M’s uniform. It’s utterly, utterly meaningless. Evan White struggled overall, but his .212 BABIP had more to do with his reverse splits than any meaningful trouble in seeing the ball out of a lefty’s hand. This is just noise.

And that means that the M’s simply didn’t show their true talent in 2020. It happens, particularly when the season’s cut to just 60 games. But even if it WAS their true talent, you’d have to be excited by the return of Mitch Haniger and Tom Murphy, two powerful right-handed bats. If anything, this club is primed to do damage against lefties *more* than righties, and the fact that the club was kind of okay against righties thus becomes an encouraging omen.

The same is true for the pitchers. The M’s were flummoxed by left-handed batters last year, and a number of *lefties* like Yusei Kikuchi were the prime offenders. Look, there’s no way that a fastball/slider/cutter guy with Kikuchi’s velocity is going to struggle against lefties. Marco Gonzales is a completely different style of pitcher, and the fact that he doesn’t really show platoon splits makes sense, but I don’t think he has some special vulnerability to same-handed bats. Why would he? And just to be sure, just for that extra layer of protection, the M’s re-signed James Paxton, another high-powered lefty arm. The 2020 M’s had a weird vulnerability, but it can’t drive our expectations about the 2021 club.

As solid as the starters were in 2020, the bullpen was remarkably bad. As a crew of waiver-claims and minor-league signings, you wouldn’t have predicted great things, but I think their statistical record is at least partially the result of bad luck. The massive turnover in the group makes it harder to claim that the poor record hurts the M’s projections for 2021, but it clearly has some impact for guys like Aaron Fletcher, Kendall Graveman, and Nick Margevicius.

The M’s bullpen had the worst walk rate in the game. They had one of the worst home run rates. Thanks to Philadelphia, they weren’t clearly the most inept group out there, but man, Philly’s bullpen cleaned Seattle’s clock in K:BB. But what do you expect? The M’s fielded essentially a AAA pen of minor league vets, and then traded off anyone who was close to league average. What’s that got to do with this group?

Well, the M’s bullpen has been reinforced not just by the relatively minor FA and waiver claims, but also by the club’s starting pitching depth. This is where a Margevicius or Newsome can help out with reasonable IP that don’t sink the team. Importantly, neither guy is liable to run unpalatable walk rates. Reinforcements like Domingo Tapia are waiting in the wings. I’m not saying they’ll be great; they don’t really need to be, and yet again, if they are, they’ll get moved at the deadline. What I’m saying is that the M’s had a weakness that looked worse than it actually was due to luck, and the perception is that they didn’t do enough to address it. In that narrow sense, they’re probably OK, just as we saw with the line-up. Their past performance was unreasonably bad, and their future performance isn’t dictated by those unsightly numbers.

2: The M’s Finally – FINALLY – Have OF Depth

Taylor Trammell played his way on to a big league OF that returns both reigning ROY Kyle Lewis (ok, after he heals from a bone bruise) and 2018 All-Star Mitch Haniger. Jarred Kelenic, Mathered away in Arizona, is only a call away, and is able to help the team *responsibly* in only the couple of weeks it takes for the club to gain an extra year of club control. Jake Fraley could figure some things out in the pressure-free first month of the season, and we’re not even getting to Julio Rodriguez.

In recent years, if there’s been one constant to the M’s woes, it’s been the production from their outfielders. Mallex Smith was brought in to solidify the group, but face-planted. Dee Strange-Gordon was traded for to become a CF, but that was quickly abandoned (not that it mattered where he played, given his batting line). LF famously became a revolving door, much to Kelenic and his agent’s frustration.

The M’s were attempting to buy time while guys like Rodriguez and Kelenic developed, and they’ve *mostly* done that. Importantly, they get Haniger back right when Trammell went nuts during the spring, both bringing some hope to 2021 while giving the team some options while Lewis recovers. Both Trammell and Haniger are especially hard to project given what happened in 2020 *and* 2019. Trammell was an underperforming prospect in 2019, then hung out at two different alternate sites in 2020, away from meaningful games. Haniger’s 2019 and 2020 were, if anything, worse, given that they began with a destroyed testicle in 2019 and, improbably, got worse from there.

But both looked rejuvenated in the spring, and after a horrific start, Fraley looked ready to be a competent back-up – a role he’s failed at in extremely brief looks in 2019 and 2020. Importantly, no one needs this group to be world-beaters. The projections already have Trammell imploding and Haniger regressing towards his disappointing 2019 half-season. It doesn’t take some improbable set of circumstances for this group – headlined by Lewis, of course – to become a league-average or better unit. And if that happens, the M’s offense isn’t the dead weight the projections think it is.

3: The AL West Got Bad in a Hurry

For years, I’ve been fretting not just about Houston’s advantage in current talent – guys like Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Yordan Alvarez will make you feel insecure about your team, too – but about their farm system. If Houston turned their prospects into big league production at a better clip than the M’s, then not only would the M’s finish behind the ‘Stros, but the gap would get wider and wider over time, the way it did from 2015-2019.

Worse, it wasn’t just Houston. The Angels had been, if anything, worse than Seattle in developing talent, at least in the post-Trout world. So, in 2020, they stopped trying, and simply signed Anthony Rendon. Now, they’ve tried to solidify an awful pitching staff by picking up Jose Quintana, after last year’s reclamation project – Dylan Bundy – turned out so well. That’s great and all, but their pitching has been bad for years, and despite the change in GM, they haven’t shown a clear skill in getting more out of the free agent market OR the draft in terms of pitching production.

The division lost Gerrit Cole to free agency last year, then Justin Verlander to injury a couple of innings into 2020. This year, they lost Framber Valdez to injury, and saw perennial pitching prospect Forrest Whitley go down with TJ surgery. The A’s lost world-beating closer Liam Hendriks to free agency this past off-season, and have seen injuries delay the arrival of most of their best pitching prospects, like AJ Puk and James Kaprelian. Texas hasn’t developed a serious pitching prospect since, what, Derek Holland? Not only did the division fail to increase the gap, the gap narrowed without the M’s doing anything.

The Mariners aren’t the laggards in player development anymore, and now boast by far the division’s best prospects. In a multiple wild card environment, it’s not clear that we should be as focused on the division as we were before, but even still, the M’s rank among the game’s elite systems. They’ve been there before, and managed to turn that expected production into some minor trades, a waiver claim, and a flying ice cream sandwich, so things can go south at any time. But the gap between the M’s and their divisional rivals hasn’t been this narrow since 2015-17, and the M’s haven’t had the edge in minor league systems since 2010-12. This is a fundamentally different picture than the one the M’s confronted in 2019 and even at the beginning of 2020.

The M’s can’t simply wait it out, though. After a down year in 2020, the Astros are projected for 92-95 wins, easily 20 better than Seattle. But there’s a path to contention now, and one that doesn’t rely on increasingly unlikely developmental wins. The M’s aren’t there yet, but you can see a pathway to contention in a way that wasn’t there in recent years, no matter what Jerry Dipoto said.

The 2021 Mariners: There Must Be Something More in Here

marc w · March 31, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

The M’s are about to finalize their opening day roster, a process made more difficult by today’s news that a bone bruise will require Kyle Lewis to begin the year on the injured list. But even an injury to the reigning AL Rookie of the Year won’t dramatically change the M’s prognosis for the season. Projection systems all the club as an AL also-ran, with essentially everyone ranking them 4th in a weakened AL West. How should we think about that? About right for a rebuilding club? Or that the projection systems are missing something important about this group?

I think you can make the case for both – acknowledging that, on paper at least, the M’s don’t stack up well against the bulk of the AL, while also pointing out that some of the guys the M’s are counting on are nearly un-projectable due to the pandemic’s disruption and overseas transformations. It’s this sense of volatility around the club that is, while not exactly new, kind of fun – if you’re excited about 2021 (and I understand completely if you’re not), this is why. In recent years, the M’s have had tough-to-project players, and guys who either over- or under-shot their projections by a mile – Dan Vogelbach comes to mind here, but so would Yusei Kikuchi and, in better news, Marco Gonzales. But this year, you can legitimately hope for some serious outliers on the positive side of the ledger. If you’re still pessimistic, you can say that unless they get some, the club’s medium-term outlook is pretty bleak.

To get a sense of the importance of this volatility, let’s zoom in from the team level and take a look at the specific players who’ll matter most to producing a lot more wins than the 71-75 that the projections all coalesce around. First, though, let’s set the stage by talking about where the M’s are weakest. As usual in recent years, the M’s biggest problem is that they don’t look like they can score enough runs. Fangraphs’ projections have them 27th in runs per game, PECOTA’s got them around 25th. They rank 24th in context-neutral scoring per Derek Carty’s projections – you get the point. While they’re not as hopeless on the pitching side, they don’t rank all that well thanks to a bullpen that’s projected to be slightly better than last year’s dumpster fire. Mediocre run-prevention and mediocre run-scoring don’t cancel out.

The Most Important Position Player: Ty France

I’ve mentioned this before, but given all of the confusion over the new baseball, the M’s primary concern is probably stringing together base hits. They’ll hit some home runs, though not as many as most of their rivals. But they simply don’t have a lot of high-average hitters, or, depending on your view of how Mitch Haniger comes back from 1.5 lost seasons, any at all. Enter Ty France.

It’s not clear that France IS a high average hitter, but he certainly has been in the high-minors and, for about a month or so, in Seattle. The projections have no idea what to do with France, a squat, late-blooming hit-first utility guy who was boxed out in San Diego when the Pads threw caution to the wind and procured the best infield money could buy. Nothing jumps out at you from his career stats, but the guy we saw this spring and last summer looks like a sneaky-great hitter – something much more in line with his video-game style PCL stats than his 2019 cup of coffee in San Diego.

That said, his statcast numbers have been atrocious, and were poor last year, despite good results. Thus, Derek Carty’s BAT-X projection has him at .240/.314/.396. But ignore Statcast and use the PCL numbers plus some age-related improvement, and you get to something like Clay Davenport’s line of .280/.358/.456. ZiPS is more towards the bullish end, while PECOTA’s a bit more bearish. Unlike the team as a whole, there’s simply no agreement on France amongst the systems, and that makes him a real wild card.

If the M’s are going to make the most out of a line-up with some productive players who don’t hit for average, they’re going to need to balance that out. The M’s have been down this road before, most notably last season, when their very low average counterbalanced a pretty good amount of plate discipline and OBP. No one’s saying that average is suddenly more important than OBP/SLG%, but the easiest way to boost OBP and SLG% is by getting base hits. If France’s average is near the top end of those projections, AND if he can hit for gap-power with the occasional long ball, the offense simply looks very different than if he’s a younger Kyle Seager, with an average in the .240s and solid on-base skills. If he scuffles, it’s just hard to see how the team overcomes potential regression from Tom Murphy and Dylan Moore. 2021 is a big opportunity for France, and he’s now a critical part of this offense – a great year from France would help show what a decent M’s offense could look like.

Runner-Up: Taylor Trammell

In 2019, Taylor Trammell – long one of baseball’s top prospects – was traded from Cincinnati to San Diego, and finished off a very disappointing campaign. His batting numbers slipped from 2017 to 2018, before falling hard in 2019 – culminating in a below-league-average line in AA for Amarillo: .229/.316/.381 in 133 PAs. His OBP in particular had been better pre-trade, thanks to his excellent eye, but overall, Trammell looked like a corner OF without enough in-game power to make the most of his talent. Then, the 2020 minor league schedule got wiped out, and he was packaged with France in the Austin Nola trade. How do you project a player like this?

It’s essentially impossible. All they can go on is what they saw in 2019 and before, and then project him playing against the best competition in the world. It’s…it’s not pretty, and here, there’s a lot more agreement than we saw with France. Essentially everyone expects Trammell to be nearly unplayably bad this year. But that doesn’t quite comport with what we saw in Peoria, and while you’d never take a couple of weeks of meaningless games over a long minor league track record, what happens when there was no 2020 season? Is his 2019 *really* more relevant? If so, by how much?

Trammell’s final line could be anything. It could be considerably worse than the already-dire projections; this was Evan White’s fate last year. It could look much more like Kyle Lewis’ 2020, with a high K rate balanced by lots of walks and the occasional dinger: that’s got considerable value. I’ve been saying for years that the M’s need players not to just meet or exceed their projections, but to utterly demolish them. In this case, that bar is pretty low, and Trammell is talented enough to pull this off. Thanks to the incredibly talented prospects below him, he’ll make his MLB debut on opening day and yet doesn’t suffer from unreasonable expectations. Trammell’s just a great story, not the savior of the franchise, but he could be a big part of the M’s scoring far more than they’re supposed to.

The Most Important Pitcher: Chris Flexen

Essentially the only MLB pitchers to throw at least 100 IP in 2020 are those who’ve come from the Japanese NPB or Korean KBO. Again, you can do a statistical translation of their seasons in Asia and have it inform a projection, but the error bars are a mile wide. Chris Flexen flamed out as a Mets prospect, undone by horrendous control at the big league level. That problem didn’t make the trip to South Korea, where Flexen struck out a ton and kept walks in check. Some part of this is obviously confidence, mechanical adjustments, aging, and coaching – all of which are still a part of his arsenal now. Some of it is usage, and the M’s six-man rotation may help him translate his success in Korea back to MLB. The wild card here, as in each season since 2015, is the baseball itself.

Many pitchers who’ve played in both leagues have noted that the ball in MLB is physically different, particularly the seams. It’s never quite clear how consistent this is, but it given the differences in manufacturer and given how much the MLB ball has changed in recent years, it’s got to be a factor. Can a minute difference in seam height really turn a guy who couldn’t throw strikes into a control artist? No, I don’t think so. But Flexen has had to make some adjustments during the spring to re-acquaint himself with the Rawlings ball, and he appeared to do so pretty well.

No, he didn’t have a jaw-dropping spring the way, say, Trammell did, but Flexen missed more bats than I think I would’ve expected, and while he had some control issues, he got better as time went on. More than any other pitcher in the rotation, Flexen is *prepared* to log some serious innings this year. Because of Marco and the signing of James Paxton, Flexen doesn’t need to be the ace – he just needs to be the bulk guy in the rotation, taking the pressure off of a bullpen that’ll be taxed early and often. What he does in those innings will be crucial to the M’s surprising people, or falling out of the running by late May. If Flexen is able to be league average, the rotation looks fundamentally different, even if Marco Gonzales and Justus Sheffield regress a bit. If he falls flat, the M’s need to count on even more innings from Nick Margevicius, Justin Dunn and Ljay Newsome.

Given his arm angle, I think Flexen’s going to be the most fly-ball oriented of the M’s starters. As such, he’s probably the most interested in what’s going on with the damn ball. The league talked about reducing the COR (“bounciness”) of the baseball and increasing drag in an effort to rein in the home run surge. I’ve already covered some estimates of how that might impact individual players. However, today the Ringer published an article from the great Rob Arthur that shows that the new ball was used in the spring, and caused HRs per batted-ball-event to…rise. The M’s have seen a few of their FA starters sunk by the tidal wave of dingers, and have to hope MLB’s “adjustments” to the ball have the intended effect.

Logan Gilbert is waiting in the wings, and he’s more than capable. But there are so many innings to go around in a 162 game season following a shortened season. Today’s COVID diagnoses in Detroit and Washington remind us that teams have to be ready to swap players out at a moment’s notice. The M’s most talented starter, Paxton, is not a model of health. All of these factors put more pressure on Flexen to give the M’s a chance each time out. If he can, this becomes the best one of the better free agent moves of the Dipoto era.

Runner Up: Rafael Montero

The M’s bullpen last season was a disaster, with an ERA and FIP near 6 in over 200 innings. They yielded more than twice as many runs as Oakland’s league-leading unit, and in the clutch, when it mattered most, they somehow got worse. While Chris Flexen’s workload makes him a more valuable pitcher overall, even a great season from Flexen could be rendered irrelevant if the bullpen doesn’t improve. Jerry Dipoto knew this, of course, and made bullpen improvement a priority this offseason. They brought in Keynan Middleton, who’d been cast away by an Angels bullpen that was about as bad as Seattle, and they’ve brought in other vets who’ve opened eyes like Drew Steckenrider, who just made the opening day roster. But this focus on the bullpen hinges on the man Dipoto brought in to close: Rafael Montero.

On paper, it’s a curious choice to entrust your highest-leverage innings to a guy with a career walk rate over 11%, and with a FIP/DRA in the mid-4s. Somewhat like Flexen, Montero came up in the Mets system and walked pretty much everyone in three seasons, mostly working as a starter. After injuries and getting canned by the Mets, he reinvented himself in 2019 with the Rangers, tossing 29 sparkling innings and taking over the closer job. Not only did his velocity inch up pitching in one-inning stints, but his control was inch-perfect. He looked like a completely different pitcher.

But last year was a bit rougher, as it was for all of us. He wasn’t *bad* by any stretch, but his walk rate essentially split the difference from his Mets days and his brilliant 2019. His FIP and DRA were only so-so, and some other peripherals were worse. He averaged 96 MPH on his four-seamer, and kept it in the park, but it’s just so hard to make much out of less than 20 innings last year.

The bullpen behind Montero is essentially a shrug emoji. Kendall Graveman would presumably close if Montero struggles, but there are a lot of old waiver claims in that pen. The M’s don’t need great seasons from pretty much any of them, but a team like this simply cannot afford to give away wins late in games. If the offense – through a combination of talent and run environment – struggles to score runs, then high leverage innings are only further magnified. Montero needs to take the job he’s been handed and run with it. If he doesn’t, things could get ugly.

On the other hand, if he takes off under the M’s coaching, he could be a nice trade target at the deadline, even if the M’s are out of it. The M’s could be sellers, and it’d help to have a closer on a hot streak to get some infield help or even just more bullpen lottery tickets. I don’t think a closer can make or break a season like the Mariners’ 2021, but Montero is either a brilliant match of innate talent with player development staff, or a curious-in-hindsight move of giving the closer job to an up-and-down guy with very little track record of being effective and before any sort of competition began.

M’s Take the Easy Way, Re-assign Jarred Kelenic

marc w · March 27, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

The M’s made it clear, as soon as Jarred Kelenic came up limping a bit after trying to beat out a ground ball, that his chances of making the opening day roster were non-existent. Pay no mind to the comments made by disgraced ex-President Kevin Mather; this was nothing to do with service time manipulation, you see, and everything to do with lost in-game at-bats. Missing a couple of weeks left him behind in his development compared to his older rivals. It’d be for his own good.

Yesterday, the M’s followed through, re-assigning Kelenic to minor league camp. As Daniel Kremer’s story at MLB.com notes, he’ll stay in Arizona after the end of the Cactus League, as teams are trying to quickly schedule some games at the complexes. With the minor league season delayed, assigning him to the “alternate site” would mean another month of workouts and scrimmages, but no actual games against other teams.

But if another month of batting off of Ljay Newsome wouldn’t do his development any favors, it’s not quite clear that playing against, say, Texas’ A+/AA relievers is any big step up. Most of the prospects who are nearest to the big leagues will probably be in the alternate sites, after all. The move also opens up a possibility that I’d joked about on Twitter: that the M’s will leave him down long enough to gain another year of club control, then call him up *before* the minor league season actually begins. As good as Jerry Dipoto is with the media, that’d be tough to spin.

A young player without a lot of minor league PAs being sent down isn’t the end of the world; it’s routine, and in most cases, absolutely justified. That said, the M’s are trying to compete in a near future that never quite materializes. They’re trying to build around a core group of players they can count on for years to come. There’s no doubt that an extra year of club control on Kelenic could help the M’s, but if this spring showed anything, it’s that he can help them right now. If the M’s had LF locked down with established veterans or something, no one would note this move. Instead, M’s left fielders are projected for *negative* WAR in 2021, a year after a disastrous year with Dee Strange-Gordon, Tim Lopes, Jose Marmolejos, and, yes, to be fair, some Dylan Moore starts. The M’s themselves have made it extremely easy for Kelenic’s eventual grievance: Kelenic would help this team from April 1st, and everyone knows it.

Years ago, Bill Bavasi – for all of his faults as a GM, and there were many – recognized that you gained some good will just by not picking stupid fights with players. Thus, the M’s under Bavasi never took a player to an arbitration hearing. Those hearings can be brutal, as to win, teams need to essentially tell an arbiter just how bad they think he is. They’re adversarial, by nature, and the stakes are generally so *low* that Bavasi found the financial juice not worth the squeeze. Likewise, he promoted oft-injured Aussie and one-time USSM fave Chris Snelling *after* he suffered an injury, putting him on the MLB injured list instead of the minor league one; this did nothing but give Snelling some service time and provide him more money. It made no financial sense, and he was under zero obligation to do it. But he did.

If Jarred Kelenic is who we all think he is, the M’s will want to sign him to a long-term extension. To say that the relationship between Kelenic and the M’s has been a bit strained is an understatement. After Mather’s comically awful performance in front of the Bellevue Rotary Club, the best thing the M’s could do for a while is to show that they can be a good employer. No, that doesn’t mean doubling everyone’s salary or extending Kyle Seager for another 10 years. It means trying to put the best team on the field, and it means not falling back on the true-but-weak “the CBA allows us to do this,” excuse. You don’t have to do everything the CBA allows you to do.

Baseball players are notoriously competitive, and as I’ve written before, there’s a large and growing gap between player competitiveness and team competitiveness. Teams don’t need to be good to make money, and club control seems to be of equal value to teams as, you know, skill at playing baseball. That tension between the baseball side of the house and the financial side grows when teams do this, and the fact that the Players Union’s agreements allow it doesn’t make it feel any better to, say, Kyle Seager, who knows that the M’s are putting out a worse team than they could. Again.

If the M’s are going to compete next year, they simply can’t be as bad as many of their projections think they’ll be. They can’t be a 73 win team this year and transform things in an off-season. The M’s themselves tend to think that their pitching is much better than projected, and they may be right. But if they are, if they’re closer to .500 (78-81 wins), then weakening themselves for a month is even more dubious. Yes, Kelenic’s age-27 season has a lot of value to the club, but so does this season.

Kelenic led the M’s in OPS this spring, and struck out just one time. It was an open question as to how he’d respond after a year stuck at the alternate site. He answered them about as convincingly as possible for a kid who only had 9 games. It’s not a shock that he’s been sent down, and he handled it quite well. All of this is by the book. But it just highlights that the “book” is not about winning.

Cactus League Nights Roll On: Cubs at Mariners

marc w · March 24, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Justin Dunn vs. Zach Davies, 6:40pm

The M’s host the Cubs in Peoria in an evening game as opening day looms.

If you want to be optimistic, it’s hard to beat the last few days. Chris Flexen was on point against fellow KBO foreign player Merrill Kelly and the Diamondbacks. And the M’s were in the media for good things for a change after manager Scott Servais’ tongue in cheek comments clapping back at Trevor Bauer, who suggested he was just trying messing around/getting in his work when the M’s hit three dingers in one inning against him. The biggest blast came from struggling 1B Evan White, who apparently didn’t take kindly to my questioning his power grade in these digital pages before the game.

After solid starts from Flexen and Justus Sheffield gave the rotation a bit of hope going into April, it’s now Justin Dunn’s turn to claim the sixth and final rotation spots. He and Nick Margevicius have had a great competition in Peoria, with Dunn showing better velocity and Margevicius putting up better small-sample numbers.

After selling off Yu Darvish and letting Kyle Schwarber walk, the Cubs signaled that they’d go ahead and close their own contention window. What had looked like the beginning of a dynasty in 2016 now looks like a .500 team (or worse, if you buy Fangraphs’ projections) who’s just waiting for the contracts of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to expire. We’ve talked a lot here about evaluating rebuilds, and we may have a chance to do that soon with the North Siders, but the Cubs are in a pre-rebuild. They haven’t really started tearing down, but they’ve made it quite clear that winning’s no longer a big goal. Sounds familiar to us M’s fans, of course.

Zach Davies, the one-time Brewers rotation mainstay, was one piece the Cubs got back from San Diego in exchange for Darvish. Davies (who’s from Puyallup, apparently) throws in the high-80s, but has gotten enough weak contact to run a 3.79 career ERA in nearly 700 big league innings. No, it’s not amazing or anything, but it’s surprisingly good. From 2016-2020, Davies’ combined ERA ranks 41st, just ahead of Jake Arrieta, Marcus Stroman, and Lance Lynn – and it’s not far behind James Paxton or…Yu Darvish.

1: Haniger, RF
2: France, 1B
3: Seager, 3B
4: Torrens, C
5: Trammell, CF
6: Murphy, DH
7: Fraley, LF
8: Crawford, SS
9: Haggerty, 2B
SP: Dunn

The M’s have a DH, but the Cubs do not – Davies will hit for himself as the NL teams get ready for pitchers hitting after a year of the universal DH.

There’ve been a spate of injuries throughout the game in recent days. Fernando Tatis Jr. took himself out of the game after a throw to first; he’s apparently got shoulder soreness. Eloy Jimenez hurt his own shoulder today reaching over the wall to try and pull back a HR. Zac Gallen, Arizona’s best starter, has a hairline fracture in his forearm, Spencer Turnbull of the Tigers was diagnosed with Covid-19, and yes, Felix Hernandez, last seen throwing 87-88, has some elbow discomfort. Please, M’s, just stay healthy.

Cactus League Nights: Dodgers at Mariners – Pitching Stability

marc w · March 22, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Justus Sheffield vs. Trevor Bauer, 6:40pm Root Sports, MLB.tv, Mariners Radio

Yesterday’s game couldn’t have gone any better for M’s fans. A great pitching performance from James Paxton in his spring debut, homers from Kelenic/Rodriguez, solid work out of the bullpen – it was just about perfect. Sure, you’d have liked a bit more offense from players who’ll actually play for the Mariners come April (the M’s got three solo HRs by players who won’t be on the opening day roster), but other than that, it hit all the right notes. Paxton looking just about as good as he did in his Seattle heyday was great to see: here’s the guy that helps solidify the rotation, and he looks healthy and ready for the season.

That’s important, because for all the compliments paid to the pitching staff this spring by their manager and GM, they’ve not been all that effective. Yes, yes, it’s spring, and Arizona remains a great hitting environment, but you’d like to see the M’s above average in some sort of category. They’re 24th in ERA, and 18th in K:BB right now. Paxton hasn’t been playing in the “real” fake games, and Chris Flexen’s been working out the kinks, but the real problem has been the bullpen. This was a known weakness, but it’s one the M’s at least attempted to address in the offseason. They’ve gotten great performances from Aaron Fletcher and Casey Sadler, but some of their late-inning arms like Rafael Montero, Kendall Graveman, and Keynan Middleton have all scuffled. Yes, one bad outing can distort the stats, but it seems like most arms in the ‘pen have been quite hittable – they’ll get strikeouts, but they’re giving up baserunners.

That’ll be something to watch in a game like tonight’s, as the defending champs run out an almost-opening-day-worthy line-up. Justus Sheffield’s had some of the same problems as his bullpen comrades this spring, with 11 hits and 5 walks allowed in his 8 1/3 IP. Sheffield’s alternated good games with poor ones, but this is not the kind of team you want to have less than your best stuff against. A nice game tonight would give Sheff some momentum as the regular season approaches.

On the plus side, the M’s got to Dodgers starter Trevor Bauer the last time they faced him, and have to have a bit of confidence. They’ve been solid this spring, and while there are still some serious holes, it’s impossible not to dream on guys like Kelenic and Rodriguez.

The biggest story in baseball today was the report in the Athletic of the bizarre and dysfunctional Colorado Rockies, who used front office staff as part-time clubhouse attendants during the 2020 season, and seem to have run off most of their baseball operations/research group. Only the Kevin Mather debacle got the Rockies a brief respite from bad press, but that’s over. The Rockies had a homegrown core, but categorically failed to build a winner around them, as Jeff Bridich’s big free agent signings have put up *negative* WAR since 2015. They’ve been almost comically mismanaged, and now find themselves in the division with two of baseball’s best clubs. You could *almost* feel sorry for them, but then you realize that they’ve been to the playoffs twice in recent years, despite it all. Good things happen when you draft/develop Nolan Arenado, Trevor Storey, and Charlie Blackmon.

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

Good to see the Seager brothers start against each other.

Cactus League: Mariners at Brewers – Get Up, Get Down

marc w · March 21, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Freddy Peralta, 1:10pm no tv (!?), M’s radio network

Paxton’s visa issues are sorted, and the M’s are facing an NL team: get the Big Maple out there and let’s see how he’s doing! Opposing him is the enigmatic Freddy Peralta, M’s prospect who got away or trick-pitch guy that the league will figure out, depending on your perspective.

Peralta was packaged with the more polished (and more injured) Daniel Missaki in one of Trader Jerry’s earliest deals: the ill-fated deal for Adam Lind in late 2015. Adam Lind was below replacement level in his one season, Missaki’s elbow never recovered, but Freddy Peralta tore through the minors and reached Milwaukee in 2018 thanks to unreal strikeout rates.

So, did he have a freakish slider? An airbender change-up like his teammate Devin Williams? No, his pitch mix, especially when he initially came up, was *80%* four-seam fastballs. How can a guy who pitched like late-period Bartolo Colon post a career K/9 over 12 and a K% over 30%? What is his internet-marketing-style one weird trick?

Peralta came up throwing in the low-90s, so it wasn’t a case where he was able to simply blow it by overmatched hitters, not that the big leagues supplies a ton of overmatched hitters. Instead, the Brewers found that he was able to combine a couple of things that are typically seen as mutually exclusive: a low 3/4 release point with plenty of ride/rise. The hitter sees an angle that would seem to produce lots of arm-side run and maybe some sink, and what they get is a back-spinning high heater that they simply can’t avoid swinging under. If that sounds familiar, it’s something Brewers fans know pretty well: that’s Josh Hader’s pitch.

Hader, too, throws 75% four-seamers, and while he throws a bit harder, he’s not touching triple digits. What he’s done now for years is avoid barrels on four-seam fastballs that *batters know is coming.* This is supposed to be impossible – when hitters know a fastball is coming, and if that fastball is in the zone, they kill it. That’s why you need to disrupt timing, or mix in breaking balls, and you definitely need a change for opposite-handed hitters. Or, you know, you can just keep throwing heaters until batters show that they can hit it.

Peralta’s thrown a few thousand fastballs in the bigs, and while the results aren’t quite at Hader’s level, he’s proven that batters aren’t exactly getting the hang of things. He showed promise as a starter in 2018, but then collapsed due to BABIP and strand rate in 2019. That said, he put together his best year in 2020 out of the pen, with a K/9 over 14 – that’s getting near Hader/Williams territory. It must be said, the Brewers pitching development group has done a pretty good job of helping their guys develop or hone singular, nasty, ridiculous pitches. Their task now is to help Peralta figure out what to do with men on. Peralta’s still looking for a season strand rate above 70%, and that weakness with men on has killed his overall effectiveness. The Ks give him a gorgeous FIP, but his ERA has never come close to matching it, and it won’t as long as he can’t pitch effectively out of the stretch.

One improvement he made last year was to learn to trust his slider, at least against righties. He’s never really differentiated his approach against lefties/righties, because it’s hard to call “just throw heaters” an approach at all. But he moved his slighter usage vs. righties up from 10-15% to about 40% last year, and the results were great. Against lefties, he’s still pretty much heater first, second, and third, but he’s got a curve that he’ll mix in there occasionally.

Enough about Peralta, a guy I definitely wish was still in the M’s organization. I’d like to talk about two hitters that the M’s will count on to improve their overall offense this year. Evan White simply can’t repeat his horrific 2020 rookie year, or he’ll be sent to the minors, now that the minors exist again. And JP Crawford can hopefully build on what was a strange, but partially successful season at the plate – and this time he won’t face the pressure of batting leadoff.

Crawford’s always had a terrible BABIP for a guy with his speed. Evan White had a terrible BABIP last year to go with that terrifying strikeout rate. Watching them in the spring, it’s clear that the team is helping them take two very different approaches heading in to 2021. White’s hand position is now higher, and he seems to be making more contact (though he didn’t have any problems in the spring before 2020 either), but his batted ball distribution isn’t any different: White essentially never hits the ball on the ground.

This was true last spring, and, to a lesser extent, marked his rookie campaign. It makes sense, too: White had the highest exit velocity on balls hit in the air on the 2020 Mariners. His BABIP on these wasn’t too bad. A ball hit, well, really anywhere by White is an improvement, and a ball hit in the air has to be seen as something of a win. But we’re seeing the flaw here this spring: despite what the announcers and the exit velocities say, White isn’t a huge power hitter. Joey Gallo can often get away with a high-K, high-fly ball, high SLG% approach. I’m not convinced White can come close to that.

The Gallo approach is really hard to replicate without near-80-grade power, and it’s *especially* hard to do if MLB goes and reduces the springiness of the baseball for 2021. What can happen then is, well, it’s what we’re seeing now: a BABIP under .200 because all of those air balls hang up for fielders to catch, and too few of them creep over the wall. I don’t think White will run a BABIP under .150 for the year, but I think it’s going to be hard to get it over the .264 he put up last year, and that’s going to limit his average and overall production *even if* his K% regresses towards the league average quite a bit.

But wait, you say: Ty France is hitting the ball in the air, and he’s neither 1) Joey Gallo or 2) struggling, so why can’t White emulate France and not Gallo? France looks superficially like White: no massive power, but has success on elevated contact, and can put up a decent overall line despite lower-than-.200+ ISOs. The short answer here is that France has done it, and is doing it again this spring. Despite poor exit velos (again perhaps showing the limitation of the metric more than the limitation of the player), France has been a productive hitter, and is even more productive now. I’d suspect he’s hitting the ball harder now this spring..right when we can’t measure it. But again, players will show you what can work. If White wants to hit like France, that would show us all that it can work. Right now, it’s not working.

On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got JP Crawford, who’s really leaning in to the slap and run style of hitting. As with White, it seems to make sense: Crawford’s exit velocity and barrel rates are terrible, and having a slap hitter hit fly balls is a recipe for disaster. For years, Crawford’s been trying to find an approach that can work at the plate. In his first big test with Philadelphia in 2018, he combined an elevated K rate, a low BABIP, and gap power. The combination of walks and some extra base hits were great, but the low average sapped some of his effectiveness, and he began to change things up. Here’s the thing, though: that 2018 season was his most productive at the plate.

In 2019, he started extremely well. In the first half, he reduced his K rate some, but stung the ball. His line of .277/.347/.466 was amazing, and portended even more as he gained experience. Then he got hurt. He simply wasn’t the same when he returned; he was all batting eye, and no pop. He slumped to a .188/.288/.299 finish. And then he seemed to decide that the path to being a productive hitter at the plate was by taking the second half approach and abandoning the first half approach.

In 2020, any real hint of that gap power was gone, as his ISO continued its slide, dropping below .100. The K rate, too, continued to drop, and his BABIP stopped looking unplayably ugly. The overall results were just shy of that similar, but completely different 2018 campaign, so in some sense Crawford’s decision was rewarded. But where do you go from here? Crawford doesn’t have even average sprint speed, and if he continues to beat the ball into the ground, he could be vulnerable to shifts, even as a switch hitter; like pretty much every other non-Ichiro hitter, he doesn’t hit opposite-field grounders.

So this spring, Crawford’s GB/FB ratio is skyrocketing. It’s the continuation of a trend that began in 2019 and picked up steam in 2019. As with White, I’m just not sure you can get to a good end point using this approach. That’s hard to say after what was a mostly-good…ish 2020 for Crawford, and if he continues to make more contact, he could get even better with some help from the BABIP gods. But as discerning as Crawford’s batting eye is (and it’s great), I’m not sure big league pitchers will allow him to run 10% BB rates if his ISO is still down below .100. I’d like the version of Crawford who was capable of SLG% in the mid-400s, and we’ve just not seen that guy since the injury. I hope the M’s have him on a viable path to being a league-average hitter, even if he got there using 1980s-style approaches. I’m worried, though, that a drop in walk rate could lead to a collapse.

1: Haggerty, 2B
2: France, 3B
3: Torrens, DH
4: Murphy, C
5: Marmolejos, 1B
6: Kelenic, CF
7: Rodriguez, RF
8: Fraley, LF
9: Reinheimer, SS
SP: JAMES PAXTON WOOOOOO!

We all thought the utility infielder gig was a fight between Sam Haggerty and Donovan Walton, but Jack Reinheimer’s not going away quietly. Now, the fact that he’s not on the 40-man might doom his chances, but he’s certainly elevated his profile.

Cactus League Nights: Mariners at Rangers

marc w · March 20, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Robert Dugger vs. Wes Benjamin, 6:05pm

Gone are the 7 inning games, the “rollover inning,” and the weird take-the-pitcher-out-in-one-inning-but-bring-them-back-in-the-next. The games are going to start looking a bit more normal from here on out. Adding to the verisimilitude is the fact that we’ve got a night game, and a night game against a division rival.

But it’s not a perfect simulacrum. For one, the M’s start Robert Dugger, an add-on in the Dee Strange-Gordon trade in late 2017 (the larger prize was Nick Neidert). Dugger was coming off a good year in the Midwest League, and went on to pitch quite well in AA for the Marlins. A poor start in AAA delayed his ascent somewhat, but he went on to pitch in the majors in both 2019 and 2020. His 2019 campaign was a somewhat rocky introduction, but so are most young starters’, and it was something he could buil…no, no, just no. Like many of the best things in life, Dugger utterly collapsed in 2020. He was Nestor Cortes Jr.’s doppelganger on the east coast, and his season lasted just a bit longer than Cortes’. And as with Cortes, the Marlins had seen enough – they didn’t want to stash him in their system, they just let him go.

He was briefly on the M’s 40-man, but passed through waivers when the M’s DFA’d him early this year. So why’s he starting here? Well, James Paxton is apparently still having some visa snafus, which seems odd, but whatever. There’s also the fact that they’re playing Texas, and don’t want the Rangers overly familiar with their actual starting rotation. Thus, Yusei Kikuchi was sent to start a B game where they still do rollover innings and teams can choose how many times they bat. Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez played in that one, too, which Cleveland “won” 3-2. Kikuchi struck out 7 in 4 2/3 IP, with 1 R allowed on 4 hits and a walk.

In this game, the M’s face Wes Benjamin, a lefty who pitched his first 20+ big league innings in last year’s crazy sprint-season. He throws about 91, same as Dugger. But while Dugger’s four-seamer sinks kind of like 2019 Justus Sheffield’s, Benjamin gets plenty of ride and carry on his. Also like Dugger, Benjamin throws a change, a slider, and a curve. There’s the makings of a decent change in Benjamin’s repertoire, but he hardly ever throws it.

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

Cactus League Nights – Angels at Mariners

marc w · March 17, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners

Chris Flexen vs. Jose Quintana, 6:40pm Root Sports, MLB.tv

The M’s face off with the Angels tonight under the lights in Peoria, with Chris Flexen on the hill. It’s on ROOT and MLB.tv, so we can see how well Flexen’s command is going. Given his walk problems in his brief MLB career and then his great control in the KBO, I was a bit worried about 3 walks and one plunked batsman in just 5 IP, but then I remembered that 5 innings don’t mean much, and 5 spring innings mean less. It’s funny – he pitched 7 IP for the Mets in previous spring trainings and never walked anyone. So yeah, small sample spring stats…not too reliable.

The M’s jumped all over Kansas City yesterday, in a game highlighted by a solid Justus Sheffield start and a gorgeous HR from Julio Rodriguez. The news wasn’t all rosy, as we learned that Roenis Elias needs TJ surgery, so that’s essentially it for him. The news is better on Jarred Kelenic, who’s recovered quickly enough to play in tonight’s game.

The Angels added free agent veteran Jose Quintana to help stabilize their rotation. The lefty was a model of consistency with the White Sox, notching an ERA between 3.20 and 3.51 from 2013-2016 and making 32 starts every year. After moving to the North side and the Cubs, he was still able to make his starts, but HR trouble and higher walks hurt his effectiveness. No single skill collapsed, and his K rate went up (it does help to face pitchers), but he just wasn’t the same.

For a somewhat boring pitcher (he threw 92 in his heyday, he throws 92 now), Quintana’s 2021 will be fascinating to watch. As we know and love, the Angels pitching development has been terrible in recent years. Perhaps Griffin Canning will change that, but most of their pitchers have needed to be developed elsewhere, and even then, they’ve been beset by injuries. It makes sense to get a steady vet while they try to diagnose what’s gone wrong with their player development, but Quintana could use some development himself. This could go horribly wrong, the way Julio Teheran’s 2020 went in Anaheim, or Quintana could bounce back, as a kind of proof-of-concept for their revamped pitching instruction crew.

1: Haniger, RF
2: Moore, 2B
3: France, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Lewis, CF
6: Murphy, C
7: Trammell, LF
8: White, DH
9: Crawford, SS
SP: Flexen

The order’s a bit messed up, but that’s your opening day line-up right there.

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