Cactus League Game 12, Mariners at D-Backs

marc w · March 14, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Chase Anderson (maybe), 1:10, 710am Radio (no TV)

The battle for starting shortstop rages on, with both Brad Miller and Chris Taylor playing extremely well. Miller’s impressed on defense, while Taylor’s shown a bit more pop than expected.* As Lloyd McClendon mentioned, the fact that the decision’s so tough is a pretty good sign. The battle for 5th starter is starting to like a rout for Tai Walker. His simplified, only-using-the-stretch delivery looks effortless and clean, and he’s shown solid command. The results are small samples, but you’ve got to love the way he’s put up those results. It’s not that Roenis Elias has faltered, but at the moment, Walker seems like an easy choice.

Chase Anderson, a 27-year old righty, is in his own fight for a rotation spot. The D-Backs rotation is in flux, especially after the trade of Wade Miley, so the snakes have penciled in former swingman Josh Collmenter as their opening day starter. If Collmenter’s your nominal ace, then yeah, you’re going to have some open spots in your rotation. Anderson came up last year after a dominant seven starts in AA to give Arizona 100 innings of solid work. He throws 92, with a decent curve and one plus pitch – his change-up. His career minor league strike out rate approaches 9 per 9IP, and he maintained a fairly low walk rate as well. His issue, and Erasmo Ramirez will nod ruefully at this, is the home run. Anderson carved up the low minors, but got blasted in limited duty in the PCL. He gave up 16 HRs last year in 114 big league innings for a rate of 1.26/9IP which is quite high. Batters elevate batted balls against Anderson, and lots of fly balls in Arizona could lead to more damage in 2015. The other issue is that while his change is a legitimate weapon against lefties, his curve isn’t at that same level. That gave him some problems against righties last year in the bigs, and righties killed him in AAA in 2013 as well. Reverse platoon splits aren’t normal, and we should expect them to narrow going forward, especially as his K:BB looks fine against RHBs. But righties seem to see his FB very well, and that puts even more of a premium on command. That’s a tall order for any young pitcher, but the D-Backs don’t have a lot of options, so a rotation slot is his to lose at this point.

I should note that while MLB.com and others still show Anderson starting, Ryan Divish just tweeted out a line-up card showing Rubby de la Rosa as the starter. De la Rosa’s a righty who came up in the Dodgers system, and was then traded to Boston in the massive Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett contract dump. After a promising 2011 debut with LA, De la Rosa was only OK in the Red Sox minor league system, leading to a couple of brief call-ups. He finally got more of a chance to start last year in the Sox lost 2014 campaign, where he was as inconsistent as his teammates. This off-season, he and fellow member of the big Dodger trade haul, Allen Webster, moved to Arizona in exchange for Wade Miley. De la Rosa throws very hard, averaging 95mph on his fastball, and pairs it with a change-up (probably his best pitch) and a slider. For a guy with plus velocity and a whiff-inducing change, De la Rosa’s been strangely hittable, notching a below-league-average K% and coupling that with higher than average HR rates. There’s upside here, but then, that’s what the Red Sox thought back in 2012, and they were unable to extract much value.

Line-up:
1: Jones, CF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Weeks, DH
6: Ackley, LF
7: Bloomquist, 1B
8: Miller, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Walker

The Diamondbacks send a split squad out today, so we won’t get another look at big Cuban free agent signing Yasmani Tomas, whom Arizona’s trying to use at 3B. Reports about his defense haven’t been glowing, which has opened the door to Seattle native Jake Lamb, who starts today. Lamb, who went to Blanchet and then UW, put up great walk rates in the minors, but after never topping .500 in SLG% at Montlake, the question was always going to be about his power. A .551 SLG in the Southern League went a long way towards answering that question, and he ended up making his big league debut last year. If Tomas’ Sandovalian body and inexperience at the hot corner prevent him from earning the starting job, then Lamb will be the beneficiary.

For those of you celebrating Pi Day, have a look at this Diane Firstman post on the pitchers that have posted FIPs closest to Pi. The winner? Mickey Lolich’s 1976, the long-time Tigers right-hander’s sole season with the Mets. In almost 200 IP, Lolich’s FIP stood at 3.14165. Mike Marshall of the Dodgers and eight other teams had a *career* ERA of 3.141 over nearly 1,400 big league innings.

* Miller’s wrist, which was hit by a pitch in yesterday’s game, swelled up over night, and that’ll keep Taylor out of action today and tomorrow.

Cactus League Game 11, Brewers at Mariners

marc w · March 13, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

JA Happ vs. Mike Fiers, 1:05pm, Root TV/MLB Network/KIRO radio

The M’s welcome the Brewers to Peoria in a Ferrell-free Friday contest between lefty JA Happ and right-handed over-achiever Mike Fiers. Fiers’ velocity increased last year (it kind of seems like everyone’s did with the exception of Jered Weaver who is rapidly approaching Moyer-esque velocity at this point), but that just nudged it over 90mph. And yet Fiers rode that 90mph straight fastball to a great K% of 27.7% and a FIP and ERA under 3 in limited duty last year. Does he throw some trick pitch, or have an amazing change-up or something? Eh, not really. His best pitch is that 90mph four-seamer. In fact, Fiers cracked the top 10 in MLB last year for whiff rate on his fastball, placing 8th – he was a bit behind Yordano Ventura, David Price and Jacob de Grom, but ahead of Chris Sale and Max Scherzer. Fiers is able to combine a large amount of vertical movement with location to confuse hitters who would normally eat 90mph fastballs for breakfast. Here’s where he threw his FB last year – he uses the top of the zone and above, and he tries to bust right-handers inside. He targets the same spot to lefties, so that puts it high and away to LHBs. It’s a useful approach only if his command is good enough to keep the ball where he wants it; a high, centered fastball is a very different animal, and it’s also one that’s familiar to M’s fans: this is the blueprint Chris Young used for Seattle last season. One of the benefits of a rising, over-the-top fastball and the top-of-the-zone approach should be reduced platoon splits, and that’s exactly what we see from Fiers.

JA Happ came up as a (mostly) three-pitch lefty – he used a four-seam fastball, a cutter and a change-up, and while he didn’t have a sparkly K:BB, he had some success. But as a flyball pitcher, he had some issues with HRs, and then after a trade to Houston, he added a sinker to the mix and started throwing more of his curve ball. For the next several years, he’s mixed in a number of sinkers while keeping the four-seam as his primary fastball. Interestingly, he uses it primarily against *right* handed batters, despite the fact that sinkers typically have greater than average platoon splits – they should be easier for righties to hit than lefties. By and large, that’s what we’ve seen. It’s not that Happ’s four-seamer is a great pitch, though it’s certainly better at 93 than it was at 90. And it’s not like he should never use a sinker – if he needs a ground ball, it’s a nice option to have. However, it seems clear that the sinker approach he’s used since 2010 isn’t really working. It’s not that righties are teeing off against it, but that it provides them comfortable ABs. His K:BB ratio on sinkers is 1.4:1, and righties have a high BABIP and thus average on it despite the fact that Happ uses the pitch *less* when he’s behind in the count. He uses it more in even counts, and most to sneak a first-pitch strike. In his career, Happ’s been below average in even counts.

I’d be suspicious of a sinker-heavy approach to righties anyway, but given Happ’s skillset, it makes even less sense now that he’s a Mariner. Happ’s K:BB ration has risen in recent years, but he’s still been troubled by long balls. Moving from Toronto to Seattle means the run value of any fly ball he allows goes down – perhaps dramatically. I mentioned it before, but if Tony Blengino’s park factors are accurate, Happ’s moving from a park that inflates left-field fly ball run values by 30% to one that suppresses them by 36%. If you want to best match park and repertoire, you don’t necessarily want Happ to avoid fly balls. To extract the maximum benefit from not just his own home park but Oakland’s and Anaheim’s, he needs to stick to the four-seamer. Back in 2009, righties hit fly balls nearly 44% of the time, and saw 10% of their batted balls popped up. Last year, those numbers were down to just under 40% and 6.5%. The difference isn’t huge, but it can matter, especially given the parks. This could be something of an adjustment for a guy who’s spent most of his career in hitters’ parks, but I think seeing the first few well-struck fly balls die in the early-April marine layer will prove persuasive.

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

Robinson Cano, who missed the past six contests after his grandfather passed away, has rejoined the team, though he’s not in the starting line-up today.

Extra Fake Game (#10), Mariners at Athletics

marc w · March 12, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Jordan Pries vs. Scott Kazmir, Noon

Sorry for the late post here, but the game time got bumped up as part of Will Ferrell’s day-long attempt to play all nine positions in several different games. He’ll play some IF for the M’s by taking Willie Bloomquist’s spot at some point.

The story of yesterday wasn’t Erasmo’s start, Kyle Seager’s home run, or the final score. The best thing about yesterday’s game was seeing Danny Hultzen again for the first time since September of 2013. After missing all of last year recuperating from labrum surgery, Hultzen looked better than I would’ve expected, with velocity higher than I saw in 2013, and throwing all three pitches from his modified delivery. The mechanical change is fairly subtle, but his right leg steps much more towards the plate than it did when he was with the Rainiers. The M’s believe that “Crossfire” delivery may have added stress on his shoulder, hence the post-surgery adjustment.

That said, I do wonder how much of that delivery aided his deception; he was very good against righties in college and in the minors despite a change-up that flashed plus but that he struggled to command consistently. Would the new delivery make it easier for righties to see the ball? We certainly don’t know from a single inning, but I liked the way he used the change to the righties he faced after walking Troy Tulowitzki to start the inning (when he was clearly amped up, touching 95, but missing badly at times. He took several deep breaths in the at bat, trying to calm down, and after the walk, he looked great).

Today, RHP Jordan Pries makes his second start against the A’s Scott Kazmir.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ruggiano, LF
3: Romero, DH
4: Cruz, RF
5: Kivlehan, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Montero, 1B
8: Bloomquist, 2B
9: Marte, SS
SP: Pries

The big sabermetric news yesterday was this exciting post (ok, to ME anyway) by Jonathan Judge at THT. Judge has come up with a new run estimator (think FIP, xFIP, SIERA, etc.) using an entirely new approach, and he’s attempting to incorporate context in ways that haven’t been included in previous models. ERA, FIP, etc. all assume that the batters a pitcher faces essentially even out over the course of the year, and while we know that’s probably not actually true, it’s tough to try to account for it without making the modeling overly complex. Is this new metric the gold standard? I’m not sure, and I’ll have more to say later, but it’s still some groundbreaking work, and I’d encourage you to take a look.

Fake Game 9, Rockies at Mariners

marc w · March 11, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Christian Bergman, 1:05pm, 710/Mariners Radio/Root TV

So yesterday we had Felix day, which tends to elevate his commoner subjects like yesterday’s Rockies starter. Today’s game offers none of that. Instead, we have Erasmo Ramirez essentially trying out for another team, while Christian Bergman tries to figure something out to avoid the kind of beating he took in his big league call up last year. Bergman’s a four seam/sinker/cutter guy who can best be described as the Rockies’ Blake Beavan. A 24-round pick out of UC-Irvine, Bergman throws 89 without a lot of movement, but he simply pounds the zone, with a minor-league BB% of around 5%. Despite some sink, his minor league GB rates weren’t all that noteworthy, but what IS interesting is that his GB% cratered upon arriving in the majors. To sum up, low-velo, lots of fly balls, pounding the zone, pitches for Colorado. You can probably guess how that all worked out. Bergman gave up 9 HRs in 54+ IP, leading to a 4.74 FIP. The lack of walks could’ve help his ERA, but his lack of pure stuff and a .333 BABIP pushed his ERA nearer to 6.

What’s interesting, particularly for a guy with a sinker, is that Bergman ran reverse platoon splits. Now, he pitched 50 IP, so it’s easy to chalk that up to a meaningless fluke. But then, it wasn’t just a BABIP thing – he actually struck out a few lefties, while righties nearly always put the ball in play. Lefties hit only one HR off of him, while righties knocked eight. The HR thing wasn’t entirely tied to his home park – he was largely the same on the road. So I went back to his minor league numbers, and the same pattern showed up (albeit less stark). In his minor league career, his K% is 19% against lefties compared to 15% against righties. His HR% was higher against righties too. The problem really seems to be with his four-seam fastball. Lefties may not see it all that well, as they have higher whiff rates and foul ball rates than righties. Against righties, 21 big league hitters put his fastball in play last year. EIGHT of them knocked extra base hits, including four HRs. That’s the definition of a small sample, but pair the results with the odd reverse splits and it looks like a problem. It’s odd because he throws a sinker, and sinkers themselves tend to have large (normal) platoon splits. Lefties certainly knocked his sinker around last year, but righties had a harder time with it. Nothing’s as simple as “just stop throwing your worst pitch” but it seems like it’s time for some kind of a change.

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

As we suspected, it’s looking like Yu Darvish will require TJ surgery. Today we find out that Derek Holland’s shoulder is bothering him, and the Rangers are saying he may not be ready for opening day. If you were trying to forecast who might put in a waiver claim on Erasmo, start with Texas.

They’re not the only team dealing with injury, though. Yesterday, we learned Marcus Stroman, the young ace of the Blue Jays, will miss 2015 due to a torn ACL that he suffered fielding a bunt. Stroman’s fun to watch, and his absence goes a long way towards opening up the AL East race - this has to sting for Jays fans. I take no joy in either Stroman or Darvish’s injuries, because they make being a baseball fan a bit more fun. We also don’t know what the Jays will do in response. However, any hit to the Jays chances would tend to improve the M’s wildcard odds (though the M’s would obviously prefer to just win the AL West), and thus help the playoff odds of Seattle, Oak/LAA and Cleveland.

The Shortstop Battle and its Consequences

marc w · March 10, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

A tweet from Bob Dutton makes clear that the M’s intend to send the loser of the battle for starting SS to Tacoma to start, pushing Ketel Marte to 2B and opening up a roster spot on the big league club. At first glance, this is a no-brainer. Brad Miller and Chris Taylor are both young players, and both have things to work on, and it makes sense to have both of them playing every day. The development process may slow if both get 350 plate appearances, and Miller and Taylor’s development will go a long way towards defining what the 2018 M’s look like, and what the front office needs to build around.

The problem, though, is that this plan comes at a cost, and the M’s are finally in a position where they need to think carefully about every single decision that impacts 2015 wins. As we’ve talked about, the M’s are projected as the favorites in the 2015 AL West race. That’s the view of many projections systems (though not quite all), with ZiPS and Steamer putting the gap between the M’s and the A’s and Angels at around 1-3 wins. These are projections, so there’s a margin of error that’s several wins wide around all of these win totals. If the Angels win, it won’t be a historic upset, but at the moment, knowing what we know about who’s going to suit up for each team, the M’s win a few more times than their rivals. For a number of reasons, this may be the M’s best opportunity at playoff baseball, as the A’s collection of moves sets them up better for 2016 and beyond than it does for 2015. The Angels are going to start to feel the ravages of age and attrition, but any team that’s built around Mike Trout is always going to be a threat. The Rangers minus Yu Darvish are awful, but a smart rebuild could set them up for 2017 at the earliest and 2018 if Darvish heals and stays in Texas. The Astros controversial philosophy has to pay dividends at some point, right?

Every team needs to balance the needs of its current big league team and the development of every player on its 40-man roster. The 2014 Texas Rangers weren’t trading prospects for a closer, and the Angels weren’t going to trade CJ Wilson for prospects (that contract…gahhh). For many years, the M’s needed to prioritize development. All things equal, you’d prefer a prospect playing every day and working on specific improvements over coming up and struggling/playing sporadically. At times, the M’s decided that the needs of the big league team were so great that they outweighed the benefit of minor league development; that’s what brought us an over-matched Mike Zunino in 2013, and that’s what necessitated bringing up Nick Franklin and then Miller in the same year. But given the (small) gap between the M’s and their California rivals, the equation’s pretty clearly different in 2015. This year, the M’s need to prioritize big league wins, even if that comes at the expense of a modicum of future depth/strength. The M’s can’t afford to take steps backward in 2015, however small.

Unfortunately, that’s what they’ll do if they consign the loser of the SS battle to Tacoma. It’s not that development is unimportant, and it’s not like both Miller and Taylor are finished products. The problem is that the gap between Miller/Taylor and whoever wins the big league bench job is pretty massive. The Fangraphs depth charts assume Taylor and Miller get (nearly) equal playing time at SS, with Miller also filling in at 3B and RF for a few games. The combination put up about 3 WAR at SS, and then Miller adds fractional WAR at other positions. Swapping one or the other out for Willie Bloomquist, the most likely replacement IF,* results in a total loss of around 1.7 WAR, or about the sum total of the M’s lead over the Angels. To restate it, the M’s are currently projected at somewhere between 1-2 wins better than their rivals, if constructed optimally. The M’s have made it fairly clear that they want the loser in AAA, and that means the optimal roster construction is out the window. Replacing Miller or Taylor (who have different skill sets but project to add roughly the same value to the club) with the replacement level Bloomquist replaces somewhere between 1 and 2 wins with a zero. This seems important.

Let’s acknowledge that if we’re talking about back-up spots/bench bats as the critical decision, that’s light years ahead of where the M’s have been in recent years. And yes, that 1-2 win gap shrinks if you just ramp up the playing time the starter gets in place of Bloomquist or whoever. And I don’t want this to be the latest in a very long string of USSMariner diatribes against Bloomquist. This isn’t about WFB, it’s about the talent level of Miller/Taylor. Bloomquist could potentially add value to a team that needs to avoid replacement-level production at a couple of spots, and/or needs a veteran with some positional flexibility. Given the fact that the M’s HAVE a shortstop battle in the first place, it’s hard to see the M’s as the kind of team that needs what Willie provides. You could use Rickie Weeks as your backup 2B/3B and give him the occasional SS start, but given that the M’s have publicly said he’ll play LF/1B, that’s pretty difficult to envision. The club’s depth means that the drop off between the starter and replacement level is pretty high; that’s great, that’s what a playoff team should look like. That also means that carrying a replacement-level player on the club is a choice, and, given the stakes, not one the M’s should make lightly.

Fangraphs sees Miller and Taylor as 2-3 WAR players over the course of a full season. They’re both projected at just shy of 2 WAR because Fangraphs assumes a job share between them. Bloomquist’s projected for a flat 0.0 WAR (ZiPS thinks better of his bat, while Steamer thinks he won’t cost as many runs in the field). If you hand more of the PAs at SS to Miller/Taylor, the production goes up, but so does the gap between the starter and back-up. You can whittle down the penalty by playing, say, Miller almost all the time, but that in itself may have consequences, and you maximize the hit to the line-up when you give him a rest. The benefit of carrying Miller and Taylor is that each gets a few more at-bats against opposite-handed pitchers. While Lloyd McClendon may hate the term “platoon,” the M’s ability to mix and match with Ruggiano/Smith in RF and Ackley/Weeks in LF could pay dividends. It needn’t be a strict platoon, but giving Taylor more at-bats against lefties may help bring his bat along slowly, and letting Miller face more than righties wouldn’t hurt; enabling both to face slightly more opposite-handed pitchers bends their offensive projection up a bit. Beyond that, Taylor would add additional value as the pinch runner – he added 1.4 baserunning runs last year in his short time with the club, while the aging Bloomquist’s BsR have been in the red the last three seasons. Either one could spell Cano and Seager whenever they need an off day.

So sending one of the them to Tacoma has some ramifications for the big league club. But what about Tacoma? The M’s 3rd best prospect is SS Ketel Marte, who rode a surprisingly solid bat to AAA midway through 2014. Given that the M’s have two cost-controlled SS, plus Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, there’s essentially no way to squeeze Marte onto the team. Marte actually *does* need development time, and he’s also one of the M’s most marketable trade chips.* The M’s aren’t parting with DJ Peterson or Alex Jackson, so if they need to move someone at the deadline, Marte seems like a likely suspect. And if that’s the case, it seems unlikely that having him start at 2B in 2015 is a good way to showcase his value as a near-ready big league SS.

I’ll stipulate that carrying both Miller and Taylor could impact both players’ development. It’s possible that it affects the M’s projections in 2016 and 17, and those seasons matter too. But it’s hard to argue that impact is larger than the cost to 2015 of NOT carrying both. Miller is the rare left-handed bat that can back-up every IF position and even play some corner OF. Taylor adds value on the basepaths and is an ideal late-game defensive replacement. That he bats righty makes him all the better for late-game situations when a lefty’s facing Miller. Keeping Marte at SS could help maximize his trade value, given that it’s hard to see him adding value to the M’s in any other way. Letting Miller/Taylor play every day has *value.* It’s just that you have to ascribe so MUCH value to it in order for it to pencil out that it strains credibility. The M’s are finally at a place where they can legitimately play for *this* year. They need to make roster decisions accordingly.**

* The M’s have stated that they’ll go with a 12 man bullpen, so that leaves spots for 13 position players. Cano, Zunino, Seager, Ackley, Jackson, Smith, Morrison, Cruz, either Miller/Taylor and a back-up catcher get you to 10, and the club looks likely to take Weeks and Ruggiano to enable don’t-call-them-platoons in the OF corners. The last spot, #13, should go to someone who could fill in at SS, which seems to leave the loser of Miller/Taylor, Bloomquist or Ketel Marte.

** The Players Union has said it’ll be watching the situation in Chicago pretty closely, where uber-prospect Kris Bryant may start the year in the Minors, despite all-world projections for the Cubs. The reasons why the Cubs might want to keep Bryant in the minors are pretty clear – they’d gain an extra year of club control if they keep in in Iowa for a month or so. As both Miller and Taylor have played a good chunk of 2014, they’re in a slightly different position, but there’s still a CBA impact. If Taylor is kept down for much of the year, the M’s could avoid having him burn more service time. If he stayed down until the rosters expanded, the M’s could end up delaying arbitration and free agency by a year. This would be much tougher with Miller, since he saw plenty of time in 2013 as well, but just wanted to point out that there are salary implications with the move too. Again, if a team’s on the upswing and expects contention in a few years, keeping a player down for reasons other than ability make some sense from management’s point of view. As the Angels learned in 2013, though, putting a weaker team on the field, even for a month, can make a critical difference between making the playoffs and heading home.

Fake Game 8, Mariners at Rockies

marc w · March 10, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Kyle Kendrick, 1:10pm no tv, radio delayed until the evening – listen live at Mariners.com

Happy Felix day, and since this is the first time I’ve had the honor of typing that in many months, a joyous Felix Year to you and yours.

Among the many odd ways we can measure or define our interest in baseball, our passion for it, I’d submit this factoid: Kyle Kendrick, a right-handed starter, will make $5.5m this year. This isn’t the result of a clearly dumb move by a desperate GM, it’s not a mistake per se (though bringing a low-K, average GB, homer-prone pitcher to Colorado does make you scratch your head a bit), it’s just an example of where salary inflation has taken us. Kendrick is a back-of-the-rotation workhorse, and he’s made it to free agency by being adaptable. What he hasn’t really done is demonstrate a clear, identifiable skill that allows him to be effective. That’s not a…ok, that’s kind of a bad thing, but the point of all this isn’t to dismiss him, or laugh at all the money that goes to fungible 5th starters. Kyle Kendrick is a boring pitcher, with middling results over many years. He’s amazing at what he does, and is better at pitching than you are at anything you do or will do, but that isn’t enough to stand out. It’s enough to get by, so long as a few more line drives find gloves, or a fortuitous wind turns a couple HRs into warning track outs. Kyle Kendrick does not rank highly amongst qualified SPs, but because he keeps qualifying, and because none of us can stop following this game, he’s absolutely worth $5.5m. Not in a $/WAR calculation (though that may depend on your projections for him), but in the sense that he’s filling a role that we need filled. Beyond just making up numbers, Kendrick allows us to fully understand what Felix *is*. Thanks Kyle.

Kendrick came up as a Bob Tewksbury-ish control righty, striking out less than 4 per 9IP in the National League, but surviving on BABIP and extremely low walk rates. People pointed out that couldn’t last, and so it didn’t – the next year, more HRs crept over the wall, and his results were awful. He’s changed his repertoire a bit, and while he’s never going to get a lot of K’s, he can take the ball and generally stay on the right side of replacement level.

Felix came up as a typical fireballing ace, and has gradually turned himself into a sui generis type of pitcher. When the elite velo left him, his command began to compensate. After an injury scare, his curve didn’t have the same bite, so he used the odd interplay between his sinker and change-up-like-pitch to give himself an entirely new way to dominate. He is among the best pitchers of his generation, and it’s because of him that I have so much more appreciation of what greatness is in this context. Greatness needs to be sustained, and there’s no way for a pitcher to do this unless he changes and adapts. A great pitcher needs to have a way to process information, analyze it, and come up with a strategy based on it. Some guys, like Brian Bannister (who wrote the forward to this year’s Baseball Prospectus annual) or Brandon McCarthy, do this in a very analytical way. They incorporate pitch fx or sabermetric information and plan their approach based on that. Felix pretty clearly doesn’t do that, and it obviously hasn’t hurt him. He’s developed his own way, maybe not even consciously, of reacting to the swings he’s getting, to the strike zone, his own ability, on the fly. Whatever that is…this ability I’m struggling to even define… that should be a tool in scouting, though it’s the kind of thing that can only become apparent over years. Whatever you call it, Felix is an 80 in it.

1: Jones, RF
2: Jackson, CF
3: Ackley, LF
4: Morrison, DH
5: Peterson, 3B
6: Miller, 2B
7: Bloomquist, 1B
8: Taylor, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Felix.

Fake Game 7, Indians at Mariners

marc w · March 9, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Carlos Carrasco, 1:05pm

No offense to the David Huffs and JA Happs of the world, but it’s really nice to get a pitching match-up to savor, as much as anything about spring training can be “savored.” Taijuan Walker has a very good upside, and his health and development can go a long way towards maintaining the almost impossibly good run-prevention numbers the M’s 2014 staff put up. Walker’s new slider will be under the pitch fx microscope today, and we’ll get some sense of his confidence with his split-change. And then there’s Carlos Carrasco, the most out-of-nowhere ace in baseball, up to and possibly including his teammate, Corey Kluber. Carrasco was a Phillies prospect (his first mention on these pages came in a comment about a trade involving Erik Bedard) who eventually moved to Cleveland in the first Cliff Lee trade. Like many pitching prospects, he just never seemed to put it all together. He spent several years as a swingman with control issues, or strikeout issues, or both. He seemed like a fungible ground ball guy until the middle of last year, when a tweaked delivery and the confidence borne from a long stint in the bullpen (?) made something click. Like Kluber, part of this is mental, but a lot of it is change-up related. Carrasco’s doesn’t move the same way most hurlers’ do, and it’s thrown very hard with a Felix-like gap between FB and CH velocity. It didn’t hurt that Carrasco’s velocity was up a bit since 2011-13, but it’s not like Carrasco’s FB is blowing people away. Taijuan – look closely at what Carrasco is doing, and look at what Felix is doing with their change-ups. Not saying you have to copy either of them, but incorporate something if it helps.

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

The M’s added former Twin Kevin Correia today. Correia’s a non-descript low-K, solid control guy, so of course he was a Twin. He’s gone from a two year, $10m deal in Minnesota to a minor league deal with Seattle thanks to some poor performance with the Twins and then a collapse with the Dodgers.

Fake Game 6, Mariners at Reds

marc w · March 8, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

JA Happ vs. Jason Marquis, 1:05pm (note daylight savings-adjusted time) 710am Radio

The M’s head to Goodyear today to take on Cincinnati. There they’ll face Jason Marquis, a pitcher who came up way back in 2000, in the last period when the M’s were picked as a playoff team. Marquis didn’t pitch in the majors last year; he threw 50 unremarkable innings in the Phillies system, and if you couldn’t break last year’s Phillies’ roster, that’s not a good sign. One reason why is health. Marquis had his 2013 season shut down with elbow pain, and he was bothered by a sore back last year. After some recuperation time, he’s feeling healthy, but he’s still something of a long shot, even with Homer Bailey still sore following forearm surgery.

Though his career platoon splits look pretty normal, when Marquis’ velocity dropped, his splits have gone through the roof. He’s always been a ground ball pitcher, but he’s also had home run problems that have grown worse later in his career. It’s interesting (ok, that’s a stretch, but it’s early March), because Marquis still has a pitch that’s been quite effective against LHBs. His split/change generates plenty of ground balls and weak contact. Against righties, he’s approaching a 50:50 mix of fastballs and sliders, and the slider is still difficult for righties to deal with. The problem is that he simply can’t GET to the offspeed stuff. Over his last two seasons in the bigs (a sample of over 200 innings), righties are slugging .522 off of Marquis’ sinker, while lefties are slugging .525. The fact that Marquis’ fastball velo has dropped about 3mph over the past several years seems like an important factor here.

The injuries and the poor FB explain why Marquis’ been mediocre recently, but they don’t explain why he’s been so bad against lefties in particular. That seems less about pure stuff than an odd game plan. At this point in his career, Marquis’ basically a three-pitch pitcher, with a sinker, a slider and a splitter. To righties, he’s just a two-pitch guy, throwing a flurry of sliders, and keeping the change mostly on the shelf. To lefties, he throws the sinker and splitter, but he also throws a fair number of sliders – nearly 20% over his last 200IP. Maybe it’s to give lefties another look. Maybe he thinks he can sneak a strike throwing a backdoor slider early in the count. Whatever the reason, it’s been disastrous. Since 2012, lefties are slugging .877 against the slider, and have as many HRs off of it as they do his fastball. Now, maybe the reason his split’s been so effective is BECAUSE lefties have to at least consider a slider could be on its way. Maybe the problem isn’t the pitch, it’s the location. In general, Marquis tries to bury the pitch at lefties front foot, but if he misses, it tends to get crushed. In any event, it seems time to try something new. The old approach made him ineffective, and all those sliders (mostly to RHBs, of course) may have contributed to his elbow injury in 2013. We’ll see if he’s doing something new today.

1: Jones, RF
2: Jackson, CF
3: Seager, 3B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Peterson, 1B
6: Bloomquist, 2B
7: Chavez, LF
8: Taylor, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Happ

Robinson Cano’s on bereavement leave due to the death of his Grandfather in the Dominican Republic.

Yesterday we heard about Yu Darvish’s elbow injury. Today, it sounds like Cliff Lee could be next.

Speaking of injuries, Franklin Gutierrez made it only a couple of days before suffering his first setback of 2015 – in this case, a groin strain. It doesn’t sound too serious, but then they never do.

We could see Fernando Rodney today, along with Charlie Furbush, Danny Farquhar, Lucas Luetge and assorted minor leaguers. Go M’s.

Baseball Mitosis Allows M’s to Face White Sox AND Diamondbacks

marc w · March 7, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Split Squad -
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Josh Collmenter 12:05pm, 710am radio
Jordan Pries vs. Hector Noesi 12:05pm

The M’s first split-squad game allows both Brad Miller and Chris Taylor to get some reps at SS, but other than that, there’s just not much the M’s need to learn this spring. For the prospects, there are generally more questions, as level, position and balancing line-ups come into play. But the clarity at the top of the M’s seems like it extends at least as far as AAA Tacoma, where DJ Peterson and Patrick Kivlehan can both see time thanks to Kivlehan’s willingness to get some work in in an OF corner.

RHP Jordan Pries, who takes on the Sox and our old friend Hector Noesi, spent 2014 last year and is essentially guaranteed another season there this year. The former 30th round pick was an early-April call-up to AAA and cemented his place in the rotation by giving up one run or less in six of his first seven starts for the Rainiers. Without big time velo or great pure stuff, the smallish righty used deception and guile to navigate the treacherous PCL. Through May he had a combined RA (including his two starts for Jackson), and was excellent through July. While he tired down the stretch, he did enough to be named the M’s minor league pitcher of the year and open a lot of eyes.

Hisashi Iwakuma’s healthy this spring, which could pay dividends later in the year. The righty told Bob Dutton that while the finger injury he suffered last February didn’t affect his play, missing spring training was the primary cause of his late-season struggles. He’ll face D-backs righty Josh Collmenter, the ex-15th round draft pick who breezed through the minors thanks to a funky straight-over-the-top delivery. Without much in the way of pure stuff, some thought he’d be figured out once big league hitters adjusted to him. Collmenter’s now logged over 500 innings, and while he’s never going to be a star, he’s been worth over 6 fWAR to the D-backs both from the rotation and out of the bullpen. Not bad for a right-hander with a fastball that clocks in at 86. After spending all of 2013 in the pen, and 2014 split between the two roles, it sounds like he’s slotted in to the rotation this year.

A prion is a protein molecule that’s somehow mis-folded, and which, when it replicates, creates long fibrils that form plaques that disrupt or destroy healthy tissue. They are transmissable, and can essentially turn normal, healthy proteins into misshapen disease agents. They’re the cause of some truly nasty, incurable disease of the brain, like Creutzfeld-Jakob’s disease (Mad Cow disease). Like a prion, Hector Noesi looks like a normal, helpful member of a pitching staff. He’s got solid velocity, some interesting movement on his sinker, and an array of decent offspeed pitches. Whatever the reason, a slight mis-alignment caused extensive damage to his host (the M’s), and despite the best efforts of a series of pitching coaches, Noesi remained a stubbornly effective win-destroyer throughout his M’s tenure. Noesi then became transmissable, first infecting the Rangers, who succumbed frighteningly quickly. He moved to the White Sox soon after, and while the south siders struggled with the effects of the encephalitis-like symptoms Noesi creates, they seemed to reach a bizarre kind of equilibrium. The White Sox incorporated the pathogen into its system and somehow directed it back against the M’s as a weapon, the way a Komodo Dragon uses powerful microbes in its mouth to kill prey. Noesi appeared in four games against Seattle, throwing 18 1/3 innings without allowing an earned run. Against the Rangers, he made a single start, going 7 IP, and giving up just 1R on 4H. Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of prions is that they can’t be stopped – medical science seems to learn more about they progress and how they leap from animal to animal, but that hasn’t helped come up with a game plan of how to slow or reverse their terrible, brain-destroying progress. Similarly, it seems reductive to say that Noesi’s success against the M’s is another Don Cooper special. Anyone who’s watched him for long knows that Noesi is virulent, and that he produces strong neurological reactions. Perhaps it’s for the best that today’s contest isn’t on tv.

Game vs. AZ line-up:
1: Jackson, CF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Weeks, LF
6: Peterson, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Kivlehan, 3B
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Iwakuma

Game vs. CHW:
1: Marte, 2B
2: Ruggiano, RF
3: Gutierrez, CF
4: Seager, DH
5: Morrison, 1B
6: Rivero, 3B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Baker, C
SP: Pries

I’m not saying you can pin the Rangers staggering string of injuries on that ill-fated waiver claim on Hector Noesi, especially because Jurickson Profar went down before Noesi got there. Still, with the news that Yu Darvish has an elbow injury that could, COULD, mean TJ surgery, it’s possible that the Noesi virus spread quickly in an immuno-compromised host. The Rangers are a divisional rival, and I don’t want them to return to the all-conquering colossus they appeared to be back in 2011-2013 with a great young line-up, an elite minor league system and a smart GM. But we’re at the point where I feel legitimately bad for them, and I’d hate to see Darvish out for the year. They were always going to struggle to win 80 this year, but without Darvish, they look lost. A top three of Darvish, Holland and Gallardo was better – at least on paper – than anyone in the division save perhaps Seattle, but the depth dropped off quickly after that. Take out Darvish and the team starts to look more like last year’s throw-25-guys-at-the-wall-and-see-who-sticks disaster. Get well soon, Yu.

Danny Hultzen’s progress continues, as he’ll throw live BP today. No word on when he might appear in a game. Felix will appear in a game on Tuesday, not Wednesday as previously reported.

The Royals made a pair of interesting ex-Mariner signings in recent days. First, they picked up 1B Casey Kotchman, who didn’t play at all in 2014. Today, they signed magical giant RHP Chris Young to a one-year deal. It’s actually kind of remarkable how long Young was on the market given his success last year and reasonable health (hat tip: Ryan Divish).

Practice Game 3, M’s at Dodgers

marc w · March 6, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Erasmo Ramirez vs. David Huff, 12:05pm, 710am radio

Erasmo Ramirez enters camp at 24, with 35 big league starts under his belt and a very uncertain future. Bob Dutton’s piece details it well - his struggles over the past two years resulting in minor league stints that burned his options and leave him entering the 2015 without a lot of hope for a roster spot in Seattle. Ramirez isn’t pitching to make the team, but he’s pitching to make A team. As a long-time Ramirez fan, this is disappointing, but it’s hard to argue the M’s have misused the Nicaraguan. Instead, he’s been undone by the failure of his breaking balls to develop (curve and slider), nagging injuries that probably torpedoed his 2013, and mental lapses that he’s perfectly willing to cop to in that interview with Dutton. He’s 24, has a plus change-up, sneaky-good velocity, and declining results. With the M’s rotation and bullpen all but set, it seems inevitable that someone will land a cheap, young starter this spring. If they can iron a few things out, they’re going to get some value out of him. The M’s are simply at a point on the win curve where they can’t be sentimental, and they can’t think about “value” in the abstract. If Elias and/or Walker give them more chances to win games in 2015, then Erasmo will move on.

David Huff has bounced around to several teams recently after coming up in that interesting mid-2000s glut of Indians starters who had low K-rates and tried to manage contact – while Minnesota was obsessed with this profile, Cleveland dabbled before moving on to Salazar/Kluber/Carrasco-style nuclear-grade stuff. Huff had some surface similarity to Erasmo, at least early on. Huff’s a lefty, but moved quickly through the ranks thanks to a good change-up and low walk rates. Like Erasmo, the super-low walk rates didn’t follow him to the majors, and a new problem emerged: home runs. Unlike Ramirez, though, Huff’s biggest challenge was that his primary weapon – a change thrown around 81-83 – wasn’t good enough to dominate MLB hitters. In his career, batters have hit .300 with a .500 SLG% off of Huff’s change. They hit his fastball too; if they can identify a change-up on its way, then they were clearly capable of recognizing a non-change. While he’d have some success now and again out of the bullpen, that says a lot more about Huff’s role than it does about Huff.

Last year, though, he made a pretty big adjustment. He’ll still throw the cambio, but it’s in a supporting role now, thrown to RHBs only. Instead, he developed a cutter and throws that 30% of the time, about the same as he used to throw the change. He’d been using a few more cutters early on in a disastrous two-month stint with the Giants, but changed his approach markedly after the Yankees picked him up on waivers in mid June. From then on, he was excellent, albeit in a tiny, tiny sample. In every previous year, he’d shown reverse platoon splits, but last year, he was actually effective against lefties. He’s signed a MiLB deal with the Dodgers, and given his success with the Yanks, he may be looking for a bullpen job, but he’ll get the start today to see if the cutter can help him manage his long-standing problems with homers, and if he can maintain his improvement against LHBs without letting righties force him into the ever-crowded pool of potential LOOGYs.

1: Ruggiano, CF
2: Weeks, LF
3: Gutierrez, DH
4: Montero, 1B
5: Peterson, 3B
6: Romero, RF
7: Bloomquist, 2B
8: Taylor, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Erasmo Ramirez

LHP Edgar Olmos is back in camp today, after MLB voided the Rangers’ waiver claim on him. He’s the reliever the M’s got from the Marlins, then lost to Texas on waivers. When he showed up at Rangers’ camp, they detected a problem in his shoulder – an impingement of some sort. So, they complained to MLB, and MLB agreed that the M’s had sold on defective goods, so un-did the waiver claim, returning Olmos to the M’s 40-man roster. Because life, and baseball, can often be impossibly cruel, the M’s responded by DFA’ing 1B Ji-Man Choi, fresh off of his surgery to repair his femur. The Rangers eventually FOUND a left-handed reliever who isn’t damaged (yet) when they signed Joe Beimel to a one-year deal. This has been a depressing update.

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