This Is What An MVP Looks Like

Jeff Sullivan · August 12, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Let’s just take a quick little look at the American League leaders in WAR:

Player WAR
Felix Hernandez 6.2
Mike Trout 5.9
Alex Gordon 5.3
Corey Kluber 5.2
Jon Lester 5.1

Felix would lead the National League, too, but for MVP purposes, we split the leagues apart. How about a closely-related alternative, where we use a pitcher WAR that gives more direct credit for runs allowed or prevented?

Player WAR
Felix Hernandez 6.6
Mike Trout 5.9
Alex Gordon 5.3
Corey Kluber 4.9
Garrett Richards 4.8
Robinson Cano 4.8
Michael Brantley 4.8
Ben Zobrist 4.8

Hey, another Mariner. Anyhow, Felix’s WAR is the highest in the league. Felix’s RA9-WAR is the highest in the league. By those measures, Felix has been the American League’s most valuable player to date, and while this is more of a starting point than a definitive conclusion, this really gets to the core of things quick. You start with WAR and argue around it, and there’s only so much room to budge.

There is room to budge. Trout has been insanely good. He’s even been clutch, somehow. Most of the time, Trout’s a shoo-in. Maybe Trout still is a shoo-in, despite the current landscape. The whole precedent here for Felix would be 2011 Justin Verlander, who’s the only pitcher to win a league MVP in the last 20+ years. Verlander’s main competition, statistically, was Jacoby Ellsbury, who was amazing, but that was the year that the Red Sox collapsed down the stretch and they ultimately barely missed the playoffs, while the Tigers won their division. Voters, apparently, hate collapses. We know they reward playoff berths. Trout vs. Felix looks a lot like Ellsbury vs. Verlander, except that Felix’s team is currently out of the playoffs and Trout’s team is somewhat safely in. Presumably, if the voting happened today, Trout would win by a landslide.

But, I don’t know for sure. I’m guessing Felix would end up splitting some votes with Robinson Cano — Cano’s been great, and in some voters’ minds, he’s the difference here. The Mariners have had awesome Felix, and they’ve been terrible. Now they have Cano and they’re competing. Okay. What Felix really has going in his favor, aside from his overall numbers, is that he has a thing. He has this ongoing streak. Felix has made those 16 consecutive starts of 7+ innings and no more than two runs, and that’s the longest such streak ever, and that might gain him a little more purchase. He’s done something no one’s ever done, and it’s taken place into the stretch run with the Mariners turning their season around and getting deep into the race. Who knows how much longer it could continue? Voters love high-leverage performances, and they love consistency, and Felix is breaking baseball in his first playoff chase since blooming.

Plus, there’s the whole sub-2 ERA thing. If that keeps up, it sure is mighty hard to ignore a sub-2 ERA from a starting pitcher. That’s one of Felix’s other things. And maybe there’s a little Mike Trout fatigue? I’m just flailing around and grasping at anything right now, but I think that’s also how some of the voting takes place.

Today, Mike Trout would almost certainly win the AL MVP, and he’d almost certainly win it by a lot. But for one thing, the season isn’t over, and Felix might get into the postseason yet. He can still gain even more momentum. For another thing, even if Felix doesn’t win, that doesn’t mean he won’t have been the most valuable player in the league, or at least basically tied for it. The headline reads “This Is What An MVP Looks Like”. That’s true. This is how an MVP looks and feels. You have more confidence in the player than you have in all the other players combined. An MVP leaves baseball in ruins behind him, and by certain criteria, Felix has put together the longest dominant streak in baseball history. Impossibly, he’s raised his game to a level we couldn’t have dreamed would exist. If you were building a 2014 baseball team from scratch, you very well might select Felix Hernandez first.

Within the last few years, we’ve gotten to care about the Cy Young. This year, we get to care about both the Cy Young and the league MVP. And also a run to the playoffs. Nothing quite like caring about a run to the playoffs. The Mariners wouldn’t be in this position were it not for the King, who has become in every sense the perfect player. Sure would be great for him to get an MVP. Sure would be great for him to get something better.

Game 117, Blue Jays at Mariners

marc w · August 11, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Drew Hutchison, 7:10pm

Here it is, the biggest series of the M’s season, and thus the biggest series the M’s have played in several years. The Blue Jays can overtake the M’s in the WC race, or the M’s could do some serious damage to the Jays’ playoff hopes. It’s a match-up featuring the team with the best pitching against the team with the (second) best hitting, and it’s going to be fun to hear the Safeco crowd pulling for the M’s against Toronto for the first time in a while.

Today’s game in particular offers another interesting contrast: a team that’s presumably well-rested and one that’s exhausted and has no idea what time it is right now. The Jays flew across the country after a 19 inning game against Detroit, and two days after a 10 inning game. The Jays’ bullpen is essentially toast, as they threw nearly 16 innings last night. Starter Drew Hutchison averages about 5 2/3 IP per start, but the Jays really, really need him to get deeper than that tonight. In case he can’t, the Jays have called up swingman Brad Mills from the minors, optioning 2B Ryan Goins back to AAA.

Speaking of Hutchison, he’s an intriguing starter – a guy with a 92-93mph four-seamer, a slider and a change-up. With a “rising” FB, he’s definitely a fly ball pitcher, but he’s kept the HRs in check, at least, he’s allowed a decent number of them considering his home park’s pretty HR-friendly. His real problem concerns his change-up, and thus, his platoon splits. His change-up, which he throws often to lefties, gets respectable whiff numbers, but when batters hit it, they hit it hard. In a tiny sample, lefties are slugging .746 on the pitch this year, and thus he’s been weak against lefties. Like Brandon Maurer, this problem never really showed up in the minors; his MiLB FIPs are essentially dead even for RHB/LHBs. If you want to work in baseball, this’d be a great project to work on – what are the attributes of a successful big league change-up? Why do some work very well against minor leaguers but don’t fool major leaguers?

Hutchison originally came up in 2012, jumping from AA to the Jays rotation, but after 11 starts, he tore his UCL and needed Tommy John surgery. In those 11 starts his change was better against lefties, though we’re now talking about a miniscule sample. Has he changed his delivery post-surgery, such that the pitch isn’t as deceptive now? Is it small-sample nothingness? Is he now familiar enough that hitters have learned his tendencies and pitch sequencing? I don’t know, and I’m not GOING to know, because I don’t cover the Blue Jays, and for the next few weeks/months, the Blue Jays are the enemy. Your change-up sucks, Drew Hutchison.

Let’s talk about Felix for a minute here. This morning, Ryan Divish of the Times tweeted the Baseball-Reference stats for Felix’s current 15-start run. The line contains multitudes, and I’m not sure what to focus on. The OBP of .208? The K:BB ratio of 126:20? It’s all just so, so beautiful, except for the part about the M’s suffering four losses during the streak. It made me think back to the last time we saw something like this – the summer of 2012, and Felix’s incredible run from mid-June to late-August. That streak spanned 14 starts and 109 innings, so it’s just about exactly as long as Felix’s current run (114 IP). There are some surface similarities, obviously. Felix gave up a higher OBP in the 2012 streak (thanks to four HBPs), but only two HRs, so his SLG% against is actually higher in the current streak. But the more I look at it, the more I think the current streak is actually more mind-blowing, and I saw that despite the fact Felix punctuated that 2012 run with a perfect %$#ing game. Felix’s 2012 streak featured fewer strikeouts and a very different batted-ball profile. In 2012, Felix paired his devilish change-up thingy with a four-seam fastball. He threw twice as many four- as two-seamers, and had a GB/FB ratio just under 1. This go-round, he’s thrown twice as many sinkers as four-seamers, and he’s actually throwing both of them harder than he did in 2012. After years of gradual velo decline, Felix has ticked up slightly this year, and that’s comparing a sample that started in mid-June to one that started in mid-May.

More than the change in his fastball usage, though, what really stands out is the change in his, uh, change usage. In 2012, he pitched off of his fastball, and was extremely effective in limiting hard contact (until September rolled around, and he gave up all sorts of hard contact). In 2014, he’s pitching *off of his change-up*, a pitch he’s thrown more often than any other, sinker included, and generating even weaker contact while also getting more strikeouts. In the 2012 streak, about 4% of his change-ups were hit for fly balls, which is remarkably low, but in the current streak, it’s just under 2%. 2%! As a result, his GB% is higher in the current streak, and while you can’t assume a hot streak = a player’s true talent, Felix has pretty clearly shifted how he pitches, and the way he pitches now looks fairly sustainable. He’s not always going to be nearly untouchable, but Felix can have a so-so night and still be very effective (I’d argue that’s what he did against Baltimore back on July 25th) with this approach.
So is it a good idea to throw the change-up so often? Is there a greater injury risk? I don’t know, but I’d tend to doubt it. Part of the problem is that looking at how change-up frequency correlates with injury wouldn’t tell us much we could apply to Felix. No one throws a change-up like Felix, and I hesitate to even call it one.

Tonight’s line-up:
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Chavez, RF
9: Miller, SS
SP: King Felix

Good lefty line-up today; here’s hoping facing Hutchison can get Miller going again. Endy Chavez actually has a .301/.329/.411 slash line against RHPs this season, which explains why he’s still here. I wouldn’t want to bank on that going forward, but… I’m sorry, I can’t get over the fact that his SLG% starts with a 4, even if it is a platoon split. Endy Chavez has two HRs against righties this year! You should feel bad, Scott Carroll and Trevor Bauer! (Both HRs came on breaking balls, and neither was in a spot that you’d expect Endy Chavez to do some damage. Both were inside, of course, but Bauer threw a cutter that was arguably a ball, while Carroll hung a curve ball).

As you know, the M’s (and Jays) are currently chasing the KC Royals for the 2nd wild card. Jeff’s got a good post today explaining what it is the Royals do well – better than anyone, in fact.

Noted Royals fan Rany Jazayerli has a great post up on an even more noted Royals fan, at least for the past month or so. If you’re on twitter, you may have heard a bit about the story of Sun Woo Lee, and how the South Korean’s first trip to KC has kind of taken off and made the unassuming Kim (who became a fan of the Royals in the 1990s) a minor celebrity in the area. The Royals and several of their players have reached out to Lee, and they’re stepping it up by allowing Kim to throw out the first pitch of tonight’s game. Of note: the Royals haven’t lost since Lee came over. Damn you Royals, and your attempts to humanize yourself in the eyes of your bitter Grass Creek rivals!

In the minors, Taijuan Walker pitched his best game of the year last night, striking out 13 Fresno Grizzlies (and only walking one) in the Rainiers 2-1 win. As a team, the R’s struck out 17 and walked just the one batter. Today, though, they lost 4-3 after Jordan Pries had some control issues, walking 5 in 5 1/3 IP. Ramire Cleto starts for Everett as they host Spokane.

All Right, Seattle

Jeff Sullivan · August 11, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Dayton Moore said a couple things last year that got him staring down the business end of the Internet. And he definitely deserved it, if not to such an extreme degree. Around the All-Star break, defending his decision not to sell, he said he believed the Royals could get back in it by winning 15 out of 20. Shortly thereafter they won 17 out of 20. And then, Moore was speaking after the year, after a year in which the Royals again didn’t make the playoffs. His exact words: “In a small way, I feel like we’ve won the World Series.” That got him roasted. Few things the baseball Internet loves quite like roasted Dayton Moore.

Of course, 15 out of 20 is usually over-optimistic. Of course, the Royals didn’t win the World Series, or the ALCS, or the ALDS, or the wild-card playoff, or an 87th game. But talking about that second quote, if you allow yourself, you can see where Moore was coming from. He said himself after the fact it was a poor choice of words, but he was trying to convey a certain sentiment, and one that isn’t untrue or invalid. The Royals last year didn’t succeed by playing in October, but they did succeed in getting people engaged, and keeping people engaged. People went to Royals games in August; people were excited to go to Royals games in August. There was a buzz, and it was as if someone had revived a comatose franchise. The 2013 Royals returned the Royals organization to local and national relevance.

The Mariners are about to host the Blue Jays. The Mariners are competing directly against the Blue Jays. These could be games described as having a playoff atmosphere, and that’s because, in terms of feel, these games won’t feel altogether that different from playoff games. The Mariners are definitely fighting for their lives. Nothing will be conclusively determined by the next three games, but the future in part depends on this. You might not think these will be pseudo-playoff games. You might not remember the feel of playoff games. That’s okay, I don’t either. I’m just basically guessing here, but I think that I’m on to something.

We can’t say the Mariners organization overall has been rescued, but a feeling buried deep within us has been unearthed. It’s August and we give a shit, and if we’re lucky, soon it will be September and we’ll be able to continue giving shits. Not in the “this prospect might help us down the road” kind of way — in the other way, the more immediately meaningful way, the way where we care about team outcomes over individual outcomes. It’s the reverse of our usual stretch run, and when it’s August and when you care, you get games against competitors, not just games against the White Sox or some interleague opponent. Yesterday’s game, for the Mariners, was of a certain leverage. Tonight’s game, and the following couple games, will be of a higher leverage. These matter, more than usual, and they’re at home, and the Mariners have their three best starting pitchers lined up against three inferior starting pitchers.

This is the biggest Safeco series of the year. It was big to take two of three from the A’s before the break, but the A’s were so far out ahead it’s not like the Mariners were playing for the division. It was important to take two of three from the Indians at the end of June, but that was June, and the Indians were several games behind. There was nothing this big in 2013, of course. Nor 2012, nor 2011, nor 2010, nor 2009 nor 2008. You know where this is going. There was a hyped home series in August 2007. When it started, the Mariners were two games out of first place in the division, and they had the lead in the wild card. Then they got stomped, outscored 24-8, and the tailspin lasted for, I don’t know, years? Felix Hernandez might remember that series. Kendrys Morales might remember that series, too, albeit with a hell of a lot more fondness.

It’s been that long since we had this. How precious is this? Well, it’s been that long since we had this. Last time people got to look forward to a playoff atmosphere in Safeco in August, the team lost 13 of 14 games and plummeted right out of the race. It could happen again! There’s absolutely no way to know. The only thing we know for sure is these games matter, an awful lot, and this is something that ought to be cherished. For those in attendance, this is something that ought to be wild.

The complaint has existed for more than a decade, that Safeco is baseball’s most beautiful library. But, what do you expect from a crowd of people watching the last decade+ of the Mariners? Maybe you’d like for there to be more noise, but the noises would not have been pleasant or appropriate for kids. Crowds respond to a response-worthy product, and Safeco used to ring, it used to roar during that four-year window of incredible success. I can’t say enough about the idea behind and execution of the King’s Court. The King’s Court is the second-coolest damned thing in baseball, behind the King himself. That atmosphere was made possible, once every five home games, by the formation of such a fan-centric area. There’s another kind of atmosphere made possible for every home game by the baseball team being one of the better baseball teams. To participate, the only special ticket you need is a ticket for entry. The whole park’s involved, to say nothing of the fan network watching somewhere else. This is the sweet spot of fandom, where you have legitimate hope that falls well shy of entitled expectation. It makes a sound, and you can hear it for nine innings at a time.

Lloyd McClendon’s talked about the second season, the season that begins August 1. Everybody plays after August 1, but only some of the teams play for any reason. The Mariners made it to season #2, and they’re trying to make it to season #3. The stakes right now are lower, yet at the same time they’re incredibly high, and this is why Dayton Moore emerged from 2013 feeling more than a little satisfied. In theory there’s a black-and-white difference between regular-season baseball and postseason baseball, but really, towards the end you’re either playing baseball that matters or you’re not. The point is to make people care for as long as you can, and the Mariners today are where they haven’t been in some time. This is fragile and God knows we don’t trust it, but we get to look forward to immediate opportunity. What’s the worst that could happen? I mean, we know the worst that could happen, because we already went through it in 2007. At least we get the anticipation.

The fans never left. The sports scene in the northwest is rabid and loyal. The fans never left. They just didn’t show up, because why would they? They checked out because there was no reason not to. They’re all now getting pulled back in, so they can maybe be a part of something. A part of what, we don’t know, but without the hopeful mystery sports would be a sentence told to you.

At one point earlier this post had a direction. Appropriately, I guess, I’ve gotten lost in my own tangled mental web of excitement. Seattle isn’t hosting playoff games, but it’s hosting almost-playoff games, and that beats the crap out of everything we’re used to. For three days, the Mariners will try to thump the damn Blue Jays. For three days, we’ll think everything about these Mariners, from the best to the worst and to everything in between. For at least three days, we’ll hope that someone can beat the unbeatable Royals. There are no teams of destiny, but there are teams that reach the end and stand alone, and on August 11 we wonder if — this season — that team is our team.

Podcast: The Mariners are Winning

Matthew Carruth · August 10, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Sunday Evening Podcast! These times are getting way off schedule.

Podcast with Jeff and Matthew: Direct link! || iTunes link! || RSS/XML link!

Thanks again to those that helped support the show and/or StatCorner┬áin general last week, and in the past, and hopefully in the future. It’s truly appreciated.

Game 116, White Sox at Mariners

marc w · August 10, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Erasmo Ramirez vs. John Danks, 1:10pm

As a rebuilding team, it’s probably not that surprising that the White Sox have some payroll flexibility in the next few years. Paul Konerko’s gone after this year, and Adam Dunn’s four-year deal expires. Most of the players under contract are still good, and most of the contracts are remarkably team friendly. Jose Quintana’s due all of one million next season. Alexei Ramirez isn’t great, but his $10m salary isn’t crippling, either. Jose Abreu’s under contract until 2019, and I think the Sox are OK with that. In any event, he’s due just $7m in 2015. But then there’s John Danks.

Danks was a solid starter around 2010, topping 200 IP twice and riding a 92mph fastball and a very good change-up to around 15 fWAR in the four seasons from 2008-2011. The change-up was good enough that it inspired a counter-strategy by Tampa – Joe Maddon would stack his line-up with *lefties* against the left-handed Danks to try to get him to throw fewer change-ups. At the end of that 2011 campaign, the Sox locked him up on a 5-yr-$65m extension, covering 2012-2016. So far it…well it hasn’t been good. He made all of nine (bad) starts in the spring of 2012 before going down with a season-ending shoulder injury. After a difficult surgery to repair a torn capsule, he returned to make 22 starts in 2013. Unfortunately, his velocity was down, and he got hammered in those starts, finishing with an ERA and a FIP over 5.00.

So, 2014 – another year removed from surgery, another opportunity to re-build arm stre…no, just, no. His velocity’s down again, now hovering from 88-89 with his fastball, and while his change-up’s still a decent pitch, it’s harder to get to it when batters are teeing off against his fastball. The Danks Theory thing is probably out the window as well – right-handers are eating that not-so-fastball alive. RHBs have a total of 12 HRs against his four- and two-seam fastballs this season alone, on their way to 20 HRs off of him in all. After running remarkably even splits for years, even some reverse splits, RHBs are teeing off. I don’t think we’ll see Endy Chavez, is what I’m saying. We may be seeing the sad end to Danks’ career, as he’s not been able to pull his FIP below 5 since his injury. The HRs are mounting, and it’s not like he can get a change of scenery – his contract is unmovable. Next year, Jose Quintana and Chris Sale will make $7m COMBINED, while Danks will take in $14.25m. He’ll out-earn Quintana/Sale again in 2016, but the odds he’ll actually pitch for the White Sox that year are looking pretty remote.

Erasmo Ramirez has a Danksian change-up, but he’s struggled with the long ball as well. Danks had a useful cutter for a few years to keep lefties honest, but Ramirez’s slider has been remarkably bad against right-handed bats. If it was me, I’d tell him to shelve his two-seamer and work on a cutter or a curve.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Denorfia, RF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Taylor, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Erasmoooooo

Tough end to the game last night. It’s actually a good sign that the M’s are sticking with Taylor today after his inglorious end in the 10th last night (error, then game ending DP). The Royals keep winning, and they and the Yankees have home games today. This is a big game, M’s.

Game 115, White Sox at Mariners

marc w · August 9, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Hector Noesi, 6:10pm (note odd start time)

Early start tonight for the M’s as they celebrate Lou Piniella and induct their ex-manager into the team’s hall of fame. James Paxton gets the start tonight as the M’s look to re-take the lead in the race for the second wild card slot. Opposing him is old friend Hector Noesi, who dominated the M’s back in Chicago.

With the M’s surging again, it’s natural to look at the remaining schedule as a key factor in the wild card race. The M’s have a fairly favorable run down the stretch; they played a lot of road games early, and saw the A’s and Angels an awful lot (not that either of those teams dominated Seattle). Now, they get the soft underbelly of interleague play (Philadepelphia), the AL teams who were supposed to be good but weren’t (Boston and Texas), and two series against Houston. They also get seven games against Toronto – the first three start Monday – the team sitting just behind them in the WC standings (tied with New York). Their schedule’s one reason Fangraphs’ playoff odds gives the Mariners the best chance to win that second wild card spot; KC has a half-game lead, but they’ve got a tougher road in August/September, and thus are forecast to play .500 ball. Cleveland has a great schedule, but they’re four games back of Seattle, and they’ll struggle without Asdrubal Cabrera or a healthy Justin Masterson. Still, the imbalance between the divisions is concerning. The Royals have to face Detroit, but they’ve still had a whole lot of Minnesota to rack up wins against. The M’s would be in a much better position if they could transfer the front office to, say, Chicago (hey, Boeing did it) and play in the Central. Sure, divisions wax and wane, but the Central’s been the weakest of the three since realignment.

James Paxton is pretty good, people. He clearly didn’t have his best command the other day in Baltimore, but he still kept a very good – maybe the best – right-handed line-up off balance. That’s been the key to his remarkable run in his brief MLB career – his success against righties. Lefties don’t stand too much of a chance with plus-plus velocity from the left side and two very different breaking balls. Paxton’s fastball’s over the top, so it’s not *too* uncomfortable, but they’ve really struggled to elevate anything, and they’re clearly not seeing his breaking balls at all. So it’s been up to righties to do some damage, and while he’s given up his share of HRs, he’s still incredibly effective against them. It’s got nothing to do with his change, a work in progress that still needs lots more work. He’s doing it all with his fastball.

Against righties, he’s thrown fastballs 72% of the time. If the batter’s ahead, or on first pitches, it’s nearly 90% fastballs. There’s nothing tricky about this pattern. It does help explain why a guy who struggled so much with his control has limited walks (excepting his last start) in the bigs. He’s learned to trust his fastball and spot it better than he did with Tacoma, and as a result, he’s got several chances to get the count back in his favor. The key is that even when righties know what’s coming, and even if they know it’s going to be in the zone, they’ve struggled to consistently elevate it. Most of the time it’s put in play, it’s a ground ball. It’s tough to know how to project him. On one hand, excelling against opposite-handed hitters so early is incredibly encouraging; he’s most of the way towards hitting his ceiling as an elite #2. On the other, you’d figure that hitters would eventually learn how to hit a fastball, especially one with so much vertical rise. On yet another hand, if batters DO start tracking his fastball a bit better, he can probably just ramp up his curve ball usage which is among the most effective curve balls in baseball (very, very, very small sample, but very, very, very good hook).

Hector Noesi is still the same guy. Chicago PC Don Cooper has him throwing a cutter now, but it looks pretty much exactly like the slider he threw with Seattle – same movement, same velo. He’s traded off great results (like the game against the M’s) with disastrous starts, another pattern he learned here, although he’s clearly having a bit more success with Chicago than he did in either Seattle or Texas. Noesi’s running reverse splits this year, which is nothing new. In his career, they’re reverse by wOBA and nearly identical by xFIP, with lefties having a SLG% advantage, while righties enjoy an OBP advantage.

The line-up:
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Morrison, DH
8: Taylor, SS
9: Chavez, RF
SP: Paxton

The Rainiers won last night’s game, their salute to WSU, behind UW-guy Forrest Snow. Today’s the “Paint the Park Purple” night honoring UW, but there won’t be an WSU Cougars starting. Mike Curto notes the only Coug hurler in the PCL is on New Orleans’ roster. Instead, it’ll be ACC product Jimmy Gilheeney on the hill against SF prospect (kind of) Mike Kickham. The game starts at 7 – go if you’re local. Looks like a great night for it.

Victor Sanchez, a top-5 M’s prospect, starts for Jackson tonight, while Jose Flores goes for Clinton. Jeffeson Medina gets the ball for Everett in Spokane.

Via Bob Dutton, the M’s are calling up Erasmo Ramirez to make tomorrow’s start, with Roenis Elias already in Tacoma. The idea is to start to slow Elias’ down and avoid running up too many IP (though he’ll start on Tacoma’s upcoming road trip). The M’s also brought up Lucas Luetge yesterday when they optioned Elias – Luetge’s expected to be sent back tonight/tomorrow to make room for Erasmo. Dutton also notes that this will be another one-and-done call-up for Ramirez – he’ll head back to Tacoma after making the start. He suggest the M’s may recall James Jones, which’d probably bridge the bench until Michael Saunders is 100%.

Game 114, White Sox at Mariners

marc w · August 8, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Jose Quintana, 7:10pm

Today’s game is one of the great underrated pitching match-ups in the American League. Two of the top 30-or so pitchers in baseball, and yet both tend to get overlooked for a number of reasons. Both have underwhelming fastballs, with Iwakuma’s dipping below 90mph this year and Quintana’s velocity gains stalling out between 91-92. Neither are what you’d call strikeout pitchers, although both get over 21% Ks this year. The bigger issue is that neither’s the best pitcher on his own team. Felix’s combination of stuff and durability mean you can reliably write him in as a top-5 Cy Young contender every year, and he’s running away with it this year. Chris Sale’s combination of effectiveness and oddness (his odd delivery accentuates his thin frame, and it must look to batters that the ball’s being delivered by some sort of giant insect – all exoskeletal arms and legs stuffed improbably in a baseball uniform) have made him a top-10 pitcher as well. Iwakuma got hurt after failing to sign with the A’s; the M’s picked him up for pocket change before the 2012 season. Quintana was a minor league free agent, after the last of several times he’d been cut by New York clubs. He was in his 20s and hadn’t pitched above AA; the Sox picked him up for pocket change that contained more lint and old receipts than legal tender.

The elite – the Kershaws and Sales and King Felixes – do everything well. They strike out batters, and they don’t walk many. They limit hard contact, and they strand runners. They face line-ups stacked with platoon-advantaged hitters, and they swat them away regardless. Quintana and Iwakuma can’t quite do THAT, but it’s impressive how many of these attributes they possess. Quintana, a lefty, has run remarkably even platoon splits since coming to the big leagues in May of 2012. Iwakuma’s gone one better and actually run reverse splits – more because he’s dominant against lefties than because he struggles against righties. Quintana’s move into the upper tier of pitchers (he was around the middle of Dave’s great Top 50 Trade Values series at Fangraphs, which makes sense given his great contract, but also makes no sense when you remember he was cut from the Trenton Thunder not that long ago) has been the result of a run of preternatural HR-suppression. To the cynics, that a journeyman -a MINOR league journeyman – has had a solid 2/3 of a season getting lucky on his HR/FB explains the dissonance of seeing him nestled with the games best pitchers on a Fangraphs leaderboard. To the optimists, it’s a sign that Quintana’s command – not just his control – has developed to the point where he can limit his own mistakes. This is, of course, the one facet of Iwakuma’s game that’s still developing. He’s essentially stopped walking anyone, and his combination of grounders, whiffs and excellence with men on has meant that a bit of a HR problem is more than manageable.

Part of Quintana’s HR-suppressing ability/luck is the result of getting ahead of hitters. He’s well above average in throwing first-pitch strikes, and he’s pitched ahead in the count more too. Both marks are much higher in 2014 than they were in 2012, which makes it all the more interesting – at least to me – that he’s throwing fewer and fewer pitches in the strikezone. This was always a key part of Iwakuma’s success too – get ahead, and then batters have to protect, and that makes the splitter look even more un-takeable than it otherwise would. With two strikes, Quintana shifts his approach from pounding the bottom of the zone and tries to get batters to go for high four-seam fastballs. This probably makes his curve – thrown low - look better too.* It also helps explain why he can get 21% Ks with below-average contact rates. After a called-strike or a couple of fouls, he’s able to go to breaking stuff and either freeze hitters with FBs or get them to chase the curve or change.

This gets at an issue I’ve touched on before, and the Westside Guy brought up in the comments to last night’s game thread. How much of the credit for Quintana (or Noesi or Carroll, and the other not-that-great, but holy crap, how are they in a big league rotation?) should go to legendary pitching coach Don Cooper? Cooper’s fond of Quintana, and there are some similarities to other guys he’s worked with. He’s done wonders at turning talented-but-wild arms like Sale and Matt Thornton into strike-throwers, but that wasn’t Quintana’s problem. Whatever Cooper does, it’s been effective now for many years. He’s got more work to do with the rebuilding White Sox, and the fact that their highest paid pitcher – John Danks – is circling the drain, on his third year with a FIP over 5, sandwiched around major arm surgery. Now, it’s reclamation projects like Noesi and Carroll, and working with talented but extremely raw talents like the Brazilian Andre Rienzo, who’s back in the minors after face planting this year.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Denorfia, RF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Iwakuma

Forrest Snow looks to continue his great late-season run as he takes the hill in Tacoma against the Fresno Grizzlies. Brazilian prospect Luiz Gohara’s face-planted in the NWL the way Rienzo has in the bigs, but he’s still a major talent. He starts tonight against Spokane. Edwin Diaz starts in Clinton against Burlington; the Puerto Rican is coming off a complete-game shutout of the Bees back on the 3rd.

* Since I brought it up regarding Alex Wood, I thought I’d mention that Quintana does the same thing with his curve – it goes to *one* spot, no matter the handedness of the batter. That obviously hasn’t hurt its effectiveness, but I still think it’s funny.

Game 113, White Sox at Mariners

marc w · August 7, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Roenis Elias vs. Scott Carroll, 7:10pm

I can’t be the only one who’d never heard of Scott Carroll until recently. Some of you heard his name when you read/heard the pitching probables for this game (Carroll’s first ever game against Seattle), and some of you may have seen Mike Petriello’s Fangraphs article about Carroll’s role in the worst called strikezone of 2014. Even the name is non-descript; he sounds like a fungible mid-80s swingman on a team the M’s didn’t play often – maybe Cincinnati or Philadelphia, almost certainly mustachioed.

Carroll was drafted in 2007 by Cincinnati, as a matter of fact, and spent several years kicking around the mid-minors before running out of steam soon after reaching AAA. He wasn’t a strikeout guy, but wasn’t a control pitcher either. He gave up tons of hits, but…uh, no, there was nothing counteracting that, and thus the Reds released him in 2012. The White Sox picked him up, and just 25 total appearances later, they sent him to the big leagues. The right-handed sinkerballer made his MLB debut in late April – at the age of 29 – and he’s been with the club ever since. As you’d guess, he *still* isn’t missing any bats, with a poor strikeout rate and an abysmal whiff rate. He’s allowed plenty of walks, which means his K-BB% is the second worst in baseball, behind Nick Martinez of the Rangers, and the one guy who came into spring training as a bigger long-shot to be on a big league roster by May 1.

He features a 90mph sinker, which he throws 50-60% of the time, a rare 90mph four-seamer that’s noteworthy for having a whiff rate under 1%, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, a cutter at around 87, a change-up and a curve. The change and curve aren’t bad pitches in a vacuum. He’s had decent results off of them, but a portion of that is due to when he throws them – if he gets ahead of a hitter, he’ll use his breaking/off-speed stuff, and get weak contact or the rare strikeout. But that’s been something of a challenge for him. By Statcorner’s metrics, he’s thrown a greater percentage of his pitches while behind in the count than the league average. At some level, a sinkerballer should be better in these situations than others, because if you’re just going to pound the knees, the count may not matter as much. On the other hand, Carroll’s a marginal talent, essentially the walking embodiment of “replacement level.” It’s tough to compound your problems by falling behind if you don’t have swing and miss stuff.

So Carroll’s an unlikely big league starter, is what I’m saying. Given the whole “righty throwing 90″ thing, and the released-while-in-the-minors thing, and not even getting into the “blew-out-his-elbow-after-joining-the-Sox-org” thing, he’s been remarkably not awful. He’s been worth 1/2 of a fWAR thus far, thanks to a low HR rate (for the park) and he’s had some solid games. Of course, if you’ve heard of Carroll at all, it’s probably got something to do with a company he invested in called Doodlehats, and the prank teammate Chris Sale played on him earlier this year. After a June start, Sale wore a Doodlehat (which Carroll had graciously distributed to each teammate) with Carroll’s phone number written on it for his post-game interviews. That led to the rediscovery of this YouTube video he did in 2012. He’d even written a decent article on his TJ surgery rehab for a chicago blog just before this year’s spring training. There are ways for pitchers without top-shelf stuff to post great results; Dave wrote about Tanner Roark today, for example. To be fair, Carroll isn’t really using any of them. But as far as long-shot 5th starters go, he’s pretty memorable.

Carroll’s sinker makes him pretty vulnerable to left-handed bats, hence Endy Chavez today. Speaking of lefties, Michael Saunders joins Tacoma tonight on rehab as they welcome Fresno to Cheney Stadium. Gorgeous night – if you can’t make it to Safeco, head to Tacoma.

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

Even with the platoon split angle, Chris Taylor stays put as the starting SS. Brad Miller will get a start some day, but this is not a job share. McClendon’s made it clear, and this is just a good example, that Taylor’s his starter.

To stuff one more gratuitous fangraphs link into this sucker, you should really check out Jeff’s great piece on the M’s historically good run prevention this year – and the fact that said run prevention hasn’t been enough – YET – to lift them into a playoff spot. I think we all expected the bullpen to be better than 2013′s, but this is pretty remarkable. Also remarkable: a team in a playoff chase has given Endy Chavez so many at-bats.

Erasmo Ramirez takes the hill for the surging Rainiers tonight, while Tyler Olson starts for Jackson. The Aquasox are in Spokane tonight, and they’ll send Dan Altavilla to the mound against the Indians.

Don’t Try To Fight Your Good Dustin Ackley Feeling

Jeff Sullivan · August 6, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

By and large, your brain is pretty smart. It’s pretty good about looking out for itself and for its host body, and it’ll usually tell you what it wants. You have instincts and first impressions and feelings for a reason, and though these days we have feelings about things our bodies never could’ve known would exist, there’s a lot of validity in listening to yourself. Your brain will tell you if a song is pleasing. It’ll tell you if the weather’s uncomfortable outside. It’ll tell you if you’re in the mood to socialize, or if you’d be better off laying low. Most of the things you think, you think because of your brain, which is something I learned in college. And your brain has reasons for sending signals, even if you might not always understand what they are.

Right now, your brain is telling you that you want to believe in Dustin Ackley again. Of course, you’ve been through this, and you’re not alone — we’ve all been through this. Dustin Ackley has been through this. But this time, like the other times, you want to believe. Your brain is sending those signals.

It’ll also indicate to you, in a minute, that I might be a wet blanket for pointing out certain things. Over his last 112 plate appearances, Ackley’s posted an .887 OPS. That’s very good. It’s unquestionably encouraging, as we all continue to wait for Dustin Ackley to turn into himself. But then earlier this very season, Ackley managed an .823 OPS over 86 plate appearances. In 2011, he had a stretch with a .921 OPS over 167 plate appearances. In 2012, there was a run of an .822 OPS over 102 plate appearances. In 2013, there was a run of an .851 OPS over 120 plate appearances. Dustin Ackley’s had hot streaks before. Every single time, we wanted to think he’d figured things out. Every single time has led to this year, where Ackley still has a below-average batting line. He has a below-average career batting line, and he’s coming up on 2,000 trips to the plate in the bigs.

Your brain wants you to believe. Your brain wants you to ignore skeptics or otherwise discouraging information. Your brain doesn’t want you to bum yourself out. Some of you might be trying to override your own brains, trying to use it to convince itself that there’s no sense getting excited this time, on account of all the previous times. But, you want to have a good Dustin Ackley feeling. So you should embrace it. Why the hell fight the hope, even if the hope’s been spoiled before?

Isn’t that kind of the whole point? Fan projections are always more optimistic than objective projections, and reality. Fans tie themselves into knots every season trying to see reasons why the next year could be The Year. Every time a young player turns things on, we entertain the idea that they’re breaking out. We’ve been there with Ackley and god knows we’ve been there with Justin Smoak. Most of the time the breakouts aren’t breakouts at all, but every so often there’s a Michael Saunders, or a Michael Brantley, or a Jose Bautista. In theory, being skeptical can protect you from further disappointment, but do you really want to be a sports fan on the defensive? This is the one part of your life where you can entertain unreasonable dreams. And it feels better to hope. That’s why your brain wants you to do it.

This isn’t a situation like junk food and exercise. In those areas your brain can be cruel — it tells you to keep eating junk food, and it tells you that exercise sucks, and then it’s hard to stay in consistent shape. The downside of giving in and eating junk food without exercising is that you die soon. The downside of allowing your hopes to get up in following a sports team is that you’ll be let down a lot, but you’re likely to be let down anyway, and the upside is that you can actually enjoy your damned self. You can be aware of the analysis, you can do your own analysis, and you can still let yourself get carried away. It isn’t going to hurt you, and you get to experience more smiles and less dread.

In any given season, the odds are stacked overwhelmingly against the Mariners winning the World Series. We know that, we all know that, but we still watch to see how the story plays out. By investing ourselves at all in the first place, we’re selecting hope over reason, so why then draw lines? It’s all silly irrational nonsense, and the goal is to maximize the good, not to minimize the bad. These aren’t your savings. These aren’t even your real, important, deeply-significant feelings. These are your feelings about a hobby, and sports-depression is nothing like life-depression. Sports-depression isn’t something you need to protect yourself against, unless you’re way too wrapped up. Sports-depression makes you unhappy watching a ballgame. Life-depression makes you unhappy doing anything, and those aren’t the stakes here. You can be a dreamer because why the hell not?

I don’t know if Dustin Ackley’s figured things out. I honestly suspect nobody does. I suspect even the Mariners are taking this one day at a time, Ackley included. My guess is that Ackley hasn’t figured things out, or that he’s temporarily figured things out, and pitchers will soon make him figure other things out. That’s the rational part of my brain, responding to a request for consultation. But that’s not a part of my brain I like to consult very often when I’m watching a game where I want a team to win, because that’s the side of my brain that doesn’t have fun. That’s the side I need for important life decisions, but choosing whether to believe in Dustin Ackley again isn’t anywhere near the top of my important-life-decision list. Those decisions I leave up to the young party side, and that side has been burned a lot and recovers fast. Young people can recover from anything, and it’s the hopeful part of your brain that preserves your youth, even when you’re hoping against probability.

Maybe Dustin Ackley’s finally arriving. Maybe he’s going to quit it with his annoying little drift in the batter’s box, and maybe now he’s going to be that consistent line-drive machine he was supposed to be from the beginning. Maybe Jesus Montero’s turned himself into the answer at DH, and maybe D.J. Peterson is less than a season away. Maybe everything good. We already know that Ackley has turned himself into a pretty good defensive corner outfielder. We’re already seeing him improving. If the bat’s for real, he’s a core piece, and a vital asset down this particular stretch run. Maybe Dustin Ackley is valuable. If he’s not, I know I can take it, but I don’t see the value in bracing yourself against a pain that won’t hurt. This is sports. This isn’t even sports — this is one player out of a lot of players in sports. People seem to have more fun on roller coasters with their arms up.

Game 112, Braves at Mariners

marc w · August 6, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Chris Young vs. Julio Teheran, 12:40pm

I’d like to propose that this is *Still* a happy Felix day, as I’ve got a bit of a Felix hangover right now. That was a brilliant game against a tricky line-up, and then Chris Taylor added to it with the best defensive play by a SS that the M’s have made all year. The M’s didn’t hit particularly well, but for a night, it didn’t matter. There was more angst than usual following Felix’s exit after 8 IP and 97 pitches, but I’m not going to complain about that. Seems like a more than defensible position for McClendon to take, especially as the M’s look for Felix to pitch them into the postseason in September.

Today’s game features the Braves young ace, Julio Teheran. The righty throws a four-seam, a sinker, a slider, a curve and a change-up, with the slider doing the bulk of the work as far as non-fastballs go. The change-up’s an effective pitch not because it’s a huge swing-and-miss pitch, but because it generates some ground balls, which helps Teheran keep left-handed hitters in the ballpark. As a fly-baller overall, and someone who pounds the zone effectively (witness the 5-and-change walk rate in both 2013 and 2014), that’s important. That said, he’s comfortable throwing his slider to lefties as well, and as of yet, lefties haven’t made him pay for it. It’s a really good pitch, so that’s not a shock, but lefties have hit about .170 on the pitch in his career. It’s not clear if it’s good luck or a change in approach, but while lefties knocked six HRs on it (giving them a slugging percentage over .500 with their .170 BA in 2013), they’ve only hit one this year.

Because of that HR/FB issue – one that was confined pretty much to lefties last year – his career splits are a bit wider than they’ve been this year, and, frankly, his ERA’s a lot better than his FIP. Chris Young knows all about this, of course, but you can make a case that Teheran’s underrated by fielding-independent metrics. Of course, you could simply argue that he’s been HR-lucky and sequencing-lucky this year, and that his ERA will rise. In any event, this is a very, very good starter – one without true ace potential, but who’s knocking on the door of that tier at just 23 years of age.

You probably knew I couldn’t get through this without mentioning it, but Teheran is a common alternate spelling of Tehran, the 27th largest city in the world by population. As Miguel Cairo retired after 2012, I think that makes Teheran the active pitcher who shares a name with the largest world city. Cairo’s the all-time leader, with the 18th largest city, while the late Jose Lima follows with the 21st-largest city. After that, there’s a fairly large break down to #48 – Sydney. If you’re lax with your spelling criteria, you could say Sidney Ponson qualifies, but you’re probably better off with Sydney “Syd” Smith, a back-up C/1B on the 1911 Cleveland team that featured Shoeless Joe Jackson. Current minor leaguers who can join the elite group include pitcher Gabriel Lima, a pitcher in the VSL for the Cubs, and D-Backs org-guy Taylor Harbin, who shares his name with the 59th-most populous city.*

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Taylor, SS
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Chavez, RF
9: Sucre, C
SP: Chris Young

I’d say something about Taylor’s hot start moving him up the line-up, but it seems it has at least as much to do with getting Endy Chavez and Jesus Sucre in the line-up as anything Taylor himself has done. The M’s just can’t quit Endy Chavez.

* I’m surprised there aren’t more Londons out there, given the NFL had a London Fletcher for so many years. There’ve been a few minor leaguers with that surname, though none appeared in a big league game. There’s one active player in the Dodgers Dominican League team named Miguel Londono – again, not sure how you handle that. I think it doesn’t count, but perhaps you’re more accomodating/inclusive than I am.

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