Game 149, Mariners at Astros

marc w · September 16, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Dallas Keuchel, 10:05am

After yesterday’s disappointment, it’s kind of nice to have an early game. We can’t linger on James Paxton’s disaster of a start, as we’ve got to focus on…uh, going up against a Cy Young winner. Great.

Paxton threw about 50 pitches without his normal velocity, command, or effectiveness, and mercifully pulled after 1 1/3 IP. With a pitch limit of 60, expecting him to work deep into the game or to look like the Paxton from April of this year wouldn’t have been realistic, but yesterday’s game raised a lot more questions than it answered.

A month or so ago, I noted that Erasmo Ramirez had thrown more four-seam fastballs since being traded to Seattle. He was throwing more fastballs of all types, but more four-seamers in particular. Jake Mailhot at LL wrote an article on this for LL as well, expanding far beyond my sentence-or-two observation. Erasmo’s made two starts since Jake’s article at LL, and since then, he’s all but abandoned his four-seam. After throwing 22 4-seam and 22 sinkers against Baltimore, he’s thrown *94* sinkers over his last two games against just 12 four-seamers. As soon as we noticed a shift in his pitch mix, he’s made another one. Whatever he’s doing, it’s worked pretty well – he’s on a streak of 6 consecutive quality starts.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Heredia, CF
8: Ruiz, C
9: Motter, LF
SP: ERASMO

The M’s have their righty-heavy line-up to face lefty Dallas Keuchel. Keuchel absolutely kills lefties, so that’s probably appropriate. Still, Keuchel’s effectiveness is based on his ability to locate his sinker on the edge of the zone and on inducing swings on it when it’s below the zone. Jean Segura’s the best M’s hitter on pitches on the low edge of the zone and below, while Danny Valencia and Robbie Cano have wOBAs on such pitches below .200 (yeeesh). Oddly enough, if we just look at batters’ performance against sinkers – regardless of their location – then Cano and Valencia look pretty good, while Segura falls to 339th out of 351 hitters who’ve put at least 10 in play.

Congratulations to the Modesto Nuts who completed a three game sweep of Lancaster to win the California League title. The M’s affiliates had a rougher go this season, but they won a title last year (AA) and one this year (high-A). Modesto didn’t lose a game in the postseason, and hit incredibly well. Joe Rizzo, Kyle Lewis and Jordan Cowan all hit especially well. And with that, another year of minor league baseball comes to a close.

Game 148, Mariners at Astros

marc w · September 15, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton (!) vs. Charlie Morton, 5:10pm

A day after getting their heart and soul back from an extended DL trip, the M’s today activate their *best* player, lefty James Paxton. By fWAR, Paxton’s been the best player on the M’s by about a full win, and by RA9-WAR by more than half a win. It’s a counting stat, so Paxton’s already penalized for missing time like, uh, James Paxton, so that says something about the rate at which he accumulates production: when healthy, no one on the M’s comes close to Paxton’s level this year.

That’s…that’s a double-edged sword, though, isn’t it? Jeff had a good post today about which tranche of players on each team have contributed WAR. The Indians have the most as a team, followed by the Dodgers, so perhaps it won’t come as a huge surprise that those teams’ top 5 and 10 players are much better than other teams’ top 5 and 10 players. The Astros are also remarkably deep, having the 5th best group of 1st-5th-best players, and the single best collection of supporting stars, and the 5th best collection of depth players (players below the top 10 in WAR). The Mariners come in around the middle in each group, and thus come in around the middle in overall WAR. They have 7 position players at or above 2 WAR on the year, compared to the Astros 6. But those 6 players on the Astros combine for 24 fWAR, while the M’s top 7 add up to just 19. And while the M’s have just one pitcher above 2 WAR, the Astros have four of them.

That’s a big reason why the Astros are looking to officially wrap up the AL West during this series. They’ve been remarkable successful in developing talent through the minors, and thus not only do they have a number of great young players, but they’ve also been able to make a number of trades to shore up weaknesses they’ve had. They’ve turned their top prospects into productive regulars, and then they’ve gotten remarkable production from less-than-can’t-miss prospects like Jose Altuve or Brad Peacock. This ability to turn big-time prospects into at least starting-caliber players and then hit on a player development lottery ticket or two has been huge for the darlings of baseball right now, the Indians. Francisco Lindor was a top-100 prospect, and he’s now a superstar. But Jose Ramirez seemed like org depth until last year, and he’s a top-10 fWAR position player now. The Astros are getting contributions from George Springer, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa, but they’re also getting them from Altuve and Dallas Keuchel, whom essentially no one saw as future stars.

The M’s have a solid core of players; they’re not playing at last year’s level, but that’s partially balanced by improvements in the 6th-10th-place players. The problem is that their stars can’t compete with Houston’s, and they can’t compete with Houston’s sheer number of contributors. Other than that, it’s a pretty balanced contest. The M’s have developed a handful of players who essentially came out of nowhere to be contributors – Emilio Pagan’s one, and you can add Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia to that list too. In the past, the biggest star the M’s produced from outside of their top 10 was Doug Fister, whom they traded away before he was arb eligible. The emergence of Mike Zunino’s been a huge story this year, and an all-important player development win, but it’s impossible not to notice the difference in the quantity and quality of home-grown success stories between the two clubs. Sure, the Astros had a lot of high draft picks, but so have the M’s the past several years.

Morton looks like one of the better free agent pick-ups of the offseason, as if Houston needed further successes. As we talked about when the M’s saw him (against Paxton, actually) back in April, he’s seen a velo bump and now sits at 96 with his four-seamer and swerving sinker. That sinker’s the key to Morton’s continually-high ground ball rate, but after settling in for many years with K% rates in the teens (in the NL), he’s now scraping 27%, and thus his K-BB% is far and away a career high. This combination of strikeouts and grounders sort of reminds you of peak Felix, and while Morton isn’t quite at that level, he should easily pass 3 fWAR in a season marred by injury stints.

Of note, Morton’s shown remarkably reversed platoon splits this year, with lefties utterly lost against him while righties have been successful. Yes, a .100 point gap in BABIP explains a lot of it, but it’s there in FIP too – his K% and HR rates are just better against lefties. Lefties haven’t fared well against his sinker, but they’ve been particularly flummoxed by Morton’s curveball. It’s not a perfect comparison, but it reminds me a bit of the reverse splits put up this year by Astros’ relief ace Chris Devenski, whose fastball confounds lefties – they’re *slugging* .111 on his four-seam fastball this year. I have no idea why the release point or mechanics with these guys so confuses opposite-handed hitters, but I have a hunch the Astros do.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Alonso, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Gamel, LF
9: Heredia, CF
SP: Paxton!

Game 147, Mariners at Rangers – The Return of the King

marc w · September 14, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

FELIX vs. Andrew Cashner, 5:05pm

:clears voice: Happy Felix Day.
Man, that feels good to say again. Felix’s season hasn’t gone at all like we’d hoped, so assessing where he is now is an important part of how the M’s view their 2018 season. Felix remains the heart of the club, even if he’s far from its most productive member. There’s been a lot of talk this year about how Felix’s slide means his days as an above-average pitcher are over, and I get that, but pitchers are strange. Let’s hope the King is strange, too, and that just continuing 2-year trend lines below replacement level looks silly next year.

Hell, his opponent today is a good example of this. Cashner teased with his high-90s velocity with the Padres, but while he put up decent FIP-based stats for years, he never quite made the leap to staff ace that many expected. BABIP struggles in 2015 and then 2016 led him to post 2 straight below-replacement level seasons by RA9-based WAR, and with his velocity dropping fast, the Pads flipped him to Miami last year, whereupon he put up perhaps his worst stretch of pitching as a professional. He was released by the Marlins and struggling with injuries, but the Rangers signed him to a one-year deal because their pitching coach was convinced he could unlock something. He was activated in April (against the M’s, actually), and while his velo is lower than ever, and though his K:BB ratio is abysmal, he’s got an RA9-WAR of 4.2 on the year. 4 wins! Yes, yes, FIP still doesn’t buy it, but not many runs have scored on Cashner this year, despite his inability to miss bats. After two years of getting BABIP’d to death, he’s morphed into a contact manager, at least temporarily. Part of the story there is a shift in how he uses his fastballs, throwing his sinker more to same-handed batters and his four-seam to opposite-handed bats. This is what the “numbers” (pitch type platoon splits) would suggest, but surprisingly few teams do it. His change is still a decent pitch, but he ditched his slider for a harder cutter, and that seems to have helped him this year.

If Felix can stay healthy, can he figure out his HR problems? As a pitcher who’s made countless adjustments thus far, I don’t really see why not. Age and injuries are formidable foes, of course, but Felix doesn’t have to be royal again to be effective. The story of the past few years has been Felix’s ineffective fastball(s). After years of dominating lefties with the game’s best change-up, lefties started to batter his fastballs, especially in fastball counts. Righties have gotten into the act now too, even as they continue to struggle against Felix’s change. He’s thrown fewer and fewer fastballs, but the ones he HAS thrown just get hit harder and harder. We know where the problem is, so now he just needs to adjust. One potential could be the cutter that’s he’s toyed with off and on for years – something to give very different movement to his sinker. It’s his sinker that’s been the primary offender, and I said he should consider moving back to his four-seamer and throw it up in the zone more, but as I mentioned the other day, the league as a whole is hitting those pitches more better now. Felix has gotten hit especially hard up in the zone (sorry Felix! Don’t listen to me!), but I think he can learn to nibble the way Zach Davies (and others) does and get some bad contact on pitches just out of the zone. As a guy with a splitter-like change, that should be easier for him than most: he can already induce swings on out-of-zone pitches. He’s just got to keep his fastballs out of the center of the zone, even if that means a few more balls and a few more walks. That’s where the cutter could help – once batters think armside movement will take a pitch out of the zone, say, a cutter could bring it back to the corner. Once hitters look for *that*, then they’ll be more like to swing at sinkers as they dart out of the zone. Rinse/repeat.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Alonso, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Gamel, LF
9: Heredia, CF
SP: FELIX HERNANDEZ.

Modesto beat Lancaster in extra innings last night 8-5 on a three-run shot by local kid Jordan Cowan. That gives the Nuts a 2-0 lead in the Cal League championship series, and a win would help erase the bad taste the 2017 MiLB season’s left. RP Art Warren touched 96-97 in the 8th according to Bobby DeMuro, who was at the game.

Speaking of bad tastes, the M’s former #1 prospect Luiz Gohara recently made his MLB debut for Atlanta after rising from high-A ball all the way through the minors. His second start was last night, opposite Max Scherzer and the Nats, and the young Brazilian pitched a gem, going 6 IP with 6 hits allowed, 2 runs (1 earned), no walks and 6 Ks. He was efficient with his pitches, allowing him to sit at 97-98 with his fastball into the 6th. He threw several change-ups along with a slurvy slider. He’s still somewhat raw, and his fastball command isn’t there, but…he was in A ball this year, and is now sitting comfortably in the high-90s against Anthony Rendon and the Nats. No, Gohara wouldn’t have had this season here, but that doesn’t make this deal any easier to forget. This one could sting, and sting for a while, particularly given that the primary return for Gohara (Mallex Smith, who became Drew Smyly), will likely never pitch in an M’s uniform. Sigh.

Game 146, Mariners at Rangers – Shohei Otani

marc w · September 13, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

My Clique vs. Martin Perez, 5:05pm

The M’s remain 3.5 games behind the Twins in the wildcard chase, and while it’s fun to see how well Mike Leake’s adjusted to the AL, their odds of winning this particular race remain slim. As such, it’s not a shock that M’s fans now have a great distraction from 2017’s frustrations: Shohei Otani is going to be posted. There are two main reasons to think the M’s could be in the running to win the right to offer him an absurdly below-market-value contract.

First, there’s the M’s demonstrated interest. Jerry Dipoto attended Otani’s first start of the year the other day along with the M’s scouting director, Tom Allison. As a two-way player who’s currently a starter and DH, an AL team may make the most sense for him, as he could rack up more total ABs in the junior circuit than he would in the NL. A former OF, a team could conceivably use him in an OF corner, but given his (non-arm) injury history, I think most would be loathe to expose Ohtani to that much risk. The M’s history with Japanese players and Seattle’s spot on the West coast with non-stop flights to Japan may help a bit, too.

Second, and perhaps much more importantly, Ohtani can’t make his initial decision based on his initial contract. Last year’s changes in the CBA affected the posting system in a way that seemed designed to personally impact Otani. Previously, 16-23 year olds were subject to the international bonus pools, designed to stop teams from lavishing multi-million dollar deals on teenage prospects in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Players older than 23, and thanks to the NPB’s rules on free agency, it was essentially impossible to have a player posted younger than that, weren’t subject to that system, and could sign with the highest bidder. That’s why, say, Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish generated huge posting fees and signed significant major league contracts. It’s why Yoenis Cespedes could sign a 4-year deal and reach free agency faster than a regular draft pick or international signing. The new CBA raises the age to which the international bonus pool rules apply to 25. Otani’s age? 23. Thus, Darvish/Tanaka/Cespedes money is officially off the table, and posting fees themselves are now capped at $20 million. Whichever team signs him is going to get a ridiculous bargain, and at least at the outset, a willingness to break the bank for a long-term contract isn’t relevant the way it usually would be.

But wait, haven’t a bunch of teams blown past the international bonus pool caps, accepted the penalties, and gone about their business? Why wouldn’t some team thrown $100 million at Otani if the penalty means they’d have to take a break on signing international 16-year olds for a while? The new CBA prevents that as well, by turning the bonus pools into hard caps. If you wanted to design a set of rules *specifically* to prevent Shohei Otani from coming to MLB in 2018, I’m not sure you could’ve done better than what the league and player’s union did last year. And yet he’ll be here next year.

That doesn’t mean that teams aren’t feverishly working to get around the restrictions they agreed to in the CBA. Dave Cameron’s article notes that a team could have an under-the-table agreement to sign a multi-year extension, though that would probably have to wait until after Otani’s first year in the majors – otherwise, MLB would likely revoke the contract as an obvious attempt to dodge the rules. He further mentions both opt-outs and an opt-IN to arbitration, so if the player thought he could make more than his contract through arbitration, that option would be available; Jose Abreu’s contract with Chicago had this, and he used it to get a small raise this year. Players like Chris Sale and Evan Longoria signed team-friendly extensions soon after arriving in the majors, and one-time Astros 1B Jon Singleton famously signed an extension while still in the minors. Otani won’t BE in the minors, and MLB will probably police any extensions given out as soon as he steps onto a big league field, but if they didn’t stop Singleton’s extension, they’d have a hard time preventing a team from giving Otani a much bigger paycheck fairly soon. The question is if that’s going to sway him. Kate’s article at LL talks about his spartan lifestyle and lifelong dream to play in MLB. Would making the league minimum for 3 years while, I don’t know, Marc Rzepczynski earned 10 times that eat at him?

Given these restrictions, what would the M’s best, uh, pitch to Otani be? Otani would presumably like to live somewhere nice, something Seattle could offer. He’d probably like an agreement in place about hitting/DHing, something the M’s could conceivably do, even with Nelson Cruz around for 2018. Finally, he may want to play for a contender; somewhere offering very good odds on reaching baseball’s biggest stage. That one’s going to be tougher for the M’s to compete on. Now, because of previous penalties, some of the biggest competitors for Otani’s services – the Dodgers, Cubs, Astros- are restricted from going above a measly $300,000 this year. If Otani wants to play for LA, and he wanted to out of high school, then he’ll either need to take $300,000 as a signing bonus (as opposed to ~$10,000,000 from another team) or LA’s lawyers will need to get pretty creative. The Yankees and Dodgers simply can’t outspend everyone, and the M’s still have their bonus pool money, but it still may be a tough sell. This is one side of the GM job that’s so hard for outsiders to evaluate, but is so critical: how good is a GM at getting what he/she wants? I think Jerry Dipoto can present a very good case that his organization has historical links to Japanese baseball icons, that it works hard to take care of those players, and knows the NPB well. I’m not sure that they’ve done as much as some other teams to strengthen those ties, and I hope that doesn’t hurt them here.

John Trupin’s article at LL notes that Dipoto mentioned that he was scouting some *other* pitchers on the Nippon Ham Fighters, which sounds like a ridiculous statement, but might be key to the M’s pitch. I wonder if the idea isn’t to sign 2 or even 3 players at once. Otani could take a buddy to MLB, and the M’s would get still more pitching depth. If you want to get sneaky, you could envision a scenario in which the M’s worked out another deal where the over-25 pitcher would get an inflated deal and essentially give some of it to Otani. This practice happened a lot in the days before the international bonus pools came into effect, with extra money going to trainers or even international scouting directors. MLB investigated these, so they’ve got experience in policing this, so it’d be insane for a team to try and get away with it. Still, the idea of taking on a teammate might help the M’s separate themselves from the mass of teams offering literally everything they’re allowed to offer. So, if the M’s want to be in this fight, and they do, they should maximize their chance by presenting themselves as NPB friendly as possible. Iwakuma’s contract includes things like first-class plane tickets to Japan 8 times a year or whatever, so they could include those, and perhaps provide housing in Seattle’s insane market. They can sign at least one more NPB player, preferably a teammate, and they can commit to playing him at least part time at DH. I still think the two LA teams, Texas, Boston and maybe the Cubs have a better shot, but the M’s aren’t almost certainly out of the running the way they were with Darvish and Tanaka.

Right, right, there’s a game on soon. The M’s again face Martin Perez, the one-time prospect darling turned fairly steady #3-4 starter. His K rate never really improved, and it’s just difficult to be a contact manager in Texas on a consistent basis, so while he had a decent ERA last year, he’s now *over*rated by FIP, as his ERA’s closer to 5. Mike Leake’s had two very encouraging starts in Seattle, and he got very close to 94 MPH at times in his last start. That’s higher than his peak velo in his first start for the M’s, which itself had a higher peak than any of his recent starts with St. Louis. This is a good trend.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Heredia, CF
9: Gamel, LF
SP: Leake

With the lefty on the mound again, Danny Valencia gets the start at 1B, and Gamel moves to the 9 spot. Let’s hope Gamel’s recent power surge continued; he homered off of a lefty on Friday, in Leake’s last start.

Game 145, Mariners at Rangers – There’s Always Next Year

marc w · September 12, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Miguel Gonzalez, 5:05pm

Whoa, wait, Miguel Gonzalez is on the Rangers now? He’s made one start for the club, which is to be expected as he pitched – for the White Sox – on the waiver trade deadline of August 31st. The Rangers, like a few other teams, probably had to rethink things during August as they stumbled back into the race for the 2nd wildcard after dealing ace Yu Darvish to the Rangers.

Gonzalez is still the same fly-balling righty we got to know from his days with the Orioles – he still throws a rising four-seam fastball at 91-92, doesn’t miss a ton of bats, and gives up a fair number of home runs as a result. It’s somewhat odd that he’s been so consistent in ground ball rate after developing a sinker and throwing it much more than he used to. Despite that new pitch, his GB% is still within a percentage point of his career average. His HRs-allowed are more volatile, of course, but given his fly-balling ways, he’s managed to run a low BABIP and thus post better ERA’s than his FIP would predict.

This is essentially what we’d like to see out of Andrew Moore, and Moore showed some encouraging signs last night. He had 7 strikeouts, and *all* of them came on fastballs. Moore’s got even more rise on his fastball than Gonzalez, and that should help him get a couple more whiffs on the pitch. Of course, Gonzalez also has a decent slider and a splitter, while Moore’s secondaries are still works in progress. His change-up looked better last night, and he certainly threw it often, but his fastball seems like his putaway pitch, which is unusual. Former Reds starter and current Dodger reliever Tony Cingrani struck out staggering numbers of minor league batters with a fastball that sat at 91 and that he threw over 80-90% of the time. It was remarkable, and it still pretty much is – he’s been in the majors full time (pretty much) since 2013, and he’s still a one-pitch, low-velo fastball guy. As impressive as that is, it’s not been a great career, and he obviously got bumped from the rotation along the way. His 2013 season is essentially what we’d all hope to see from Moore someday, while his 2014+15 seems more like Moore’s season line from this year. Moore’s fastball is an interesting one, and last night was his most successful usage of it yet. But it still got dinged for a home run, and thus Moore needs better secondaries. The change is the furthest along, and it’s great to see his growing confidence in it, but I’d love to see his slider improve. The curve – again, it kind of reminds me of Cingrani’s for its lack of vertical movement – may be a lost cause. Still, that performance will likely earn Moore another shot to start, just as Marco Gonzales’ great long relief game made tonight’s start possible.

It certainly didn’t hurt him in his last outing, but Gonzales seems to have a very different release point for his fastball than his change or breaking balls. Here’s his release point from the 2nd against Oakland:
Spot the fastballs!
There’s a big grouping of pitches represented by the black squares around 2′ to the first base side. Then, there’s a smudge of yellow and blue, over 2.5′ towards first. The change is the furthest away, and the fastball grouping is distinct; there’s zero overlap between fastball and non-fastball. Gonzales has always had somewhat distinct release points, but it looked more like a continuous blob as opposed to two distinct groups. Here’s a start of his from 2014:
gonz release 14

So does this matter? I’m not sure how much, but you’d think it’s something hitters would pick up on. We’re talking a few inches here, so it’s not like it’s going to be as obvious to a hitter as it is in those tidy graphs, but hitters, hitting coaches, and other personnel using technology (apple watches!) get paid to turn observations into actionable information, so I bet at least some are taking advantage.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Alonso, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Gamel, LF
9: Heredia, CF
SP: Gonzales

Jarrod Dyson’s having surgery to repair a sports hernia, so he’s done for the year and may have just played his last game in an M’s uniform. That, coupled with last night’s loss, would certainly seem to put an end to this year’s playoff race. No, they’re not eliminated yet, but the drop from Dyson to Heredia defensively is pretty steep, and while the rotation’s looking better than it has in a while – particularly with Paxton/Felix ready to return on this road trip, there just isn’t enough time to track down the Twins/Angels. Assuming Dyson goes elsewhere, the M’s have some shopping to do in the offseason to build another contending team. They’ll need a 1B, as Alonso/Valencia can walk, and they may need another true CF. Would Dyson take a cheap extension to stay, given that his value may be hurt by the way his 2017 season ended? Either way, the M’s will probably be buyers as they can fairly easily contend for the wild card next year in Cruz’s final year in Seattle. It gets more interesting after that, when the M’s either need to have developed more star-caliber players (Kyle Lewis?) or they’ll need to spend even more in free agency. The make up of the club and contracts make it a pretty easy decision to essentially stay the course for 2018, but 2019 could look very different.

Game 144, Mariners at Rangers – Org Churn

marc w · September 11, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Ariel Miranda vs. Cole Hamels, 5:05pm

It’s pretty simple: the M’s currently sit in 4th place in the AL West, and to have any shot at the 2nd wildcard, they need to finish 2nd. They just took a series from the Angels, the team currently occupying 2nd place, but they remain 2 games behind them. Today, they begin a series against Texas, the team currently in 3rd, and just a half game ahead of the M’s. The M’s need to win the series, because time’s running out and they really need to start passing some teams. The fact that the 2nd wildcard is still pretty open is great, and being within a handful of games mattered how the M’s viewed their playoff odds and their club in general a month or two ago. Now, it’s not enough. There just aren’t enough games left.

Today the M’s activated pitcher Ryan Weber from the 60-day DL and outrighted him to Tacoma. This is what the M’s did with Christian Bergman on the 1st of the month, and it essentially means Weber’s tenure in the org is over. They picked Weber up on a waiver claim from the Braves, as he seemed to offer decent depth, given his experience both as a starter and a reliever. Weber didn’t disappoint; after an outing or two as a reliever, he moved into the Rainiers rotation in mid-April and proceeded to absolutely dominate, running an ERA of 0.85 over 31+ innings, which earned him a call-up in May. He blew his arm out 3 innings into his M’s career, and has been on the DL until today. I bring it up because that means that 4 of the Rainiers’ primary April starters have been DFAd – Weber, Sam Gaviglio, Christian Bergman, and Chris Heston. The other two, Chase de Jong and Dylan Unsworth ended up demoted to AA, and only de Jong is on the 40-man. Of the Rainiers 9 opening day relievers, only Emilio Pagan and Tony Zych are still in the org, and Zych was only in Tacoma on a rehab assignment. The sheer number of DFAs, waiver claims and minor league transactions this year has been staggering, and while some of that comes with the territory, the degree of attrition and replacement this year feels well nigh unprecedented. The Rainiers used 54 pitchers this year. Texas’ club used fewer than 40. Beyond the churn, though, I think I have *less* of a sense of how to prioritize the club’s pitching depth. This wasn’t throwing a bunch of prospect spaghetti at the wall and seeing who sticks. This was throwing minor league free agents at the wall, and even if they stuck, those guys can just go elsewhere. The M’s *had* to rely on minor league vets because they didn’t have a ton of homegrown players. Now, having sent off pretty much every remaining M’s-drafted player, it’s not clear where they go from here. They’re going to need to do it again next year just to fill out rosters, so get ready for the M’s to be active on the waiver wire and in minor league free agency. That’s…fine, I guess, but there’s no way to spin this season as anything but a failure in terms of pitching development overall.

There have been so many stunning stat lines this year from guys with essentially zero power who’ve knocked a bunch of home runs and pushed their SLG% way up. Jake Marisnick, Chris Taylor, the list goes on. We saw Elvis Andrus run an ISO far beyond his career averages last year, but you still wouldn’t call him a slugger or anything – he slashed .302/.362/.439, which is a very good season for an up-the-middle defender, and he posted his career high in HRs with 8. So, this year, he’s slashing .306/.348/.497. He’s sitting on 20 HRs and counting, and could tip over the .500 mark in SLG% by the end of this series (or game). He went from a bad hitter, to someone posting Jean Segura-in-2017 last year, and now he’s posting Segura’s 2016 slash line. It’s remarkable, and it’s remarkably frustrating as an M’s fan. Andrus in 2015 hit .257/.309/.357, and in a few years is within a few percent of Kyle Seager’s *best* batting season.

Cole Hamels had a velocity spike from about 2014-16, where he went from 92 on his fastball to nearly 94, but that seems to have run its course now. He’s back at 92, so the big change from his heyday with the Phillies is that he’s now throwing a sinker a lot more. His usage has gone from about 5% to over 20% these days, so while he’s still known mostly for his change and to a lesser extent his cutter, he’s got two different fastballs that he features pretty often. Lefties see the pitch a lot more, and it’s been effective against them. His change is still quite good, but he’s run normal platoon splits for several years. They’re even for his career, but righties have hit him a bit better than lefties over the past 3-5 years, as you’d expect.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Heredia, CF
9: Gamel, LF
SP: Miranda

Modesto finished off Stockton to sweep their first round series in the California League playoffs, so they’ll kick off the championship series against Lancaster on Tuesday. Lancaster’s the Astros affiliate, and they’re led by Cal League batting champ Yonathan Daza, who hit .341/.376/.466 on the year and went 10-18 in their playoff series win over Rancho Cucamonga.

Game 142, Angels at Mariners

marc w · September 9, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Andrew Albers vs. Andrew Heaney, 6:10pm

Andrew Heaney, acquired in exchange for Howie Kendrick, had a great 2015 with the Angels. In 18 starts, he struck out fewer batters than average, but his great control and a low HR rate to a very good FIP and ERA.

Times change, though. After suffering a UCL tear, he rehabbed after TJ surgery and is now healthy again; he’s made four starts with the Angels. Four completely unrecognizable starts. Unlike 2015, he’s now striking out well more than a batter an inning. And the home runs…ohhhh, the HRs. In 4 starts totaling less than 20 IP, Heaney’s given up an astounding 11 dingers.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Heredia, CF
8: Ruiz, C
9: Motter, LF
SP: Albers

So Modesto

Game 141, Angels at Mariners

marc w · September 8, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Ricky Nolasco, 7:10pm

Time is growing short, and the number of teams the M’s need to hurdle is long. They’ve got to play nearly perfect baseball from here on out, and they still don’t have Felix or Paxton back yet. Stabilizing the rotation was why the M’s picked up Mike Leake, and to his credit, he was far better than advertised in his first game out, striking out 7 Oakland A’s in a convincing win. The M’s are going to need more of the same, and having another such performance against a much better opponent – like the Angels – would go a long way towards extending Seattle’s 2017 hopes and building some optimism for 2018.

Leake’s velocity dip in the second half this year was a worrying sign, especially as it coincided with a drop in Ks and overall effectiveness. Thus, it was great to see Leake’s velocity up noticeably in his first game in an M’s uniform. His sinker averaged 91+ and he touched 93. In his final start for St. Louis, he averaged 89+ and didn’t ever hit 92. He was 90-91 most of the second half, so it’s not like he’s suddenly throwing much harder, but it showed the declining trend was some kind of death sentence. He also threw more curveballs than in any start he’s made this year with the Cards; it’s a good pitch, and while he still threw more sliders, it’s nice to see that he’s got another pitch to keep hitters off of his sinker/slider combo. I’d say I hope we see more of the curve tonight, but by pitch type linear weights, the Angels struggle more with sliders, so if he wants to throw a bunch of those, be my guest.

I get something out of writing this blog, and there are times I can easily come up with reasons I spew words about pitching match ups every day, and the patterns of thought it engenders. Then I mentally tally the sheer volume of words I’ve written about Ricky Nolasco, and kind of want to quit. Why must the M’s face Ricky Nolasco so often? Can’t he turn interesting, the way Doug Fister has, or any number of other pitchers who either come back from near baseball death or transform themselves completely? No? Ok, Ricky Nolasco throws two fastballs around 91, has a decent-looking splitter, and a slider. He was once a decent starter, but settled in as a mediocre, near-replacement level arm after signing a contract with the Twins. He was traded for fellow HR-prone pitcher Hector Santiago, and both he and Santiago have continued to be mediocre, homer-prone starters in new cities.

1: Segura, SS
2: Alonso, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Haniger, RF
7: Zunino, C
8: Gamel, LF
9: Heredia, CF
SP: Leake

The Modesto Nuts are the one M’s affiliate in their league’s playoffs, and they’re off to a great start. They got a HR from Kyle Lewis in an 11-5 drubbing of Stockton yesterday and now have a 2-0 lead in the best of 5 series. They go for the series win tonight behind Robert Dugger, who was dominant for Clinton but struggled a bit in his first taste of the offense-friendly Cal League.

Walking Into an Ambush

marc w · September 7, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

The 2016 season’s finished, and you and a group of M’s baseball ops staffers are talking about how to change direction for 2017. The Mariners allowed a ton of HRs, and Safeco – the impregnable, right-handed-power-destroying citadel – had seen the most HRs hit of any park in the game. Given your financial and minor league talent constraints, acquiring elite talent through free agency (not that this was on offer, really) or trade wasn’t likely. “What does the data say?” someone asks, and heads turn in your direction.

Let’s do this, you say to yourself, and gulp some water. You’ve brought slides. Sweet, irrefutable trend analysis. The HR revolution is real, but it is highly localized. Run scoring is increasingly due to HRs, and more and more HRs are being hit. But HR rates at the top of the zone are unchanged. The HR revolution or air-ball revolution or whatever you want to call it is a phenomenon restricted to the bottom of the zone.

HRs and HR/P 2013-16

HRs and HR/P 2013-16


Here’s the total number of HRs hit on high pitches, where high is defined as at least 6″ above the center of the zone. The absolute number of HRs hit on pitches in this zone has dropped, and while the rate of HRs per pitch is fairly high, it’s not rising, and is actually a bit below rates from 2013, a low-run-scoring season. Compare that to the trend for *low* pitches. Here, in a single chart, is the story of the HR glut in baseball:
HRs and HR/P 2013-16

HRs and HR/P 2013-16


The absolute number of HRs hit on pitches 6″ *below* the center of the zone starts off far lower than the high pitches, but it blows past the high pitches in 2015, and it keeps growing. On a per-pitch basis, the rate’s now approaching the same rate as the high pitches, and remember there are far, far more pitches thrown in the low zone; in 2016, two pitches came in the low zone for every one pitch in the high zone. If that’s too broad, we’ve re-done the analysis using Statcast’s new detailed zones and eliminated wide pitches. If anything, the results are even more stark. HR/P in the lowest zones increased markedly between 2015 and 2016. The data are clear: if you want to avoid HRs, and remember that avoiding HRs means avoiding runs-allowed, you need to target pitchers who pitch up in the zone. Batters have gone all-in on the low pitch, and their swings are tailored to damage these pitches specifically. Pitch up, and you gain increase whiffs and decreased batting average against, while the big drawback of pitching up – namely, a much higher SLG%-against- isn’t really there anymore. You should look at guys like Drew Smyly, and we definitely need to get the message to Felix.

I’ll be honest, there’s a potential problem. If something meteorological or otherwise has happened and Safeco is now an especially EASY park to homer in instead of an incredibly difficult one, then this could backfire. But that’s crazy, right? It’s still at sea level, right by Puget Sound and that thick marine layer. Yes, HRs spiked there in 2016, but all the statcast park factors say it’s a pitcher’s park. It’s a risk, but it’s not a crippling one. Oh, almost forgot: to really maximize the value of Safeco and pitching up, we need a really athletic, Kansas City Royals-style outfield. BABIP-against is going to be pathetically low, and that can mean that even if injuries happen, our depth guys will look better than their raw stuff or FIP would predict.

:2017 Season happens:

Sssoo, I got your e-mail, and yes, I’ve updated the charts I shared back in January with 2017 data. I…I don’t know..there are many possible..what? Right, right, yes sir. Uh, high pitches:

Ooops

Ooops


Yes, the giant leap in 2017 does rather catch one’s eye. Ok, low pitches now:
Dagnabbit

OOps


Sooo, the bit about the HR revolution being localized may, and I stress that this is all preliminary and that we need much more data, MAY have been overstated. Perhaps. It would…appear, that batters are now better at elevating and punishing pitches of all types, but that in 2017, they’ve done the most damage on, uh, pitches that are thrown, um, rather higher. It’s the damndest thing.

I said that the risk was that Safeco became truly HR-friendly, and while it’s seen a ton of HRs, I’d like to point out for posterity that our pitchers have given up far more HRs on the road. Safeco hasn’t been the issue. I would also like to point out that our ERA really is better than our FIP, and that Jarrod Dyson and company can really go get it, and it is amazing to watch. Bloggers who worried about there not being enough fly balls in play have been thoroughly shamed, as I suspected. Ha! What’s that? Our team fWAR from pitchers? Yes, 7.5, 25th in the league. There’s clearly room for improvement. Our HR/9 ranks 28th, and no, I didn’t see that coming; very sorry, sir. I really, really thought we had this whole fly-ball revolution thing sussed. Won’t happen again; I’m already for looking for new trends, and hoping they are much longer lived, sir.

————————————

I’ve been frustrated with the M’s this year, and their lack of consistent pitching that goes far beyond the injuries they’ve suffered. Sam Gaviglio just pitched a gem for the Royals as I wrote this, while the M’s struggled to get anything from higher-tier prospects and trade targets. The key has been the HR ball; the M’s have given up way too many, and it’s killed their playoff hopes. I sometimes find myself damning the front office for this, or for failing to really understand what was going on in baseball generally and at Safeco in particular: you couldn’t count on running a low HR/FB ratio, not in 2017 anyway. Great strategy for 2010, Jerry. From what I’ve heard of his talk at LL night, Dipoto seemed to admit as much.

But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I would’ve said the exact same thing as the unfortunate baseball-ops intern in the hypothetical above. Hell, I *did* say as much in that post about Felix. This really did seem like a change in how batters attacked pitches in a specific location. And then this year, all of the sudden, it wasn’t. Jeff has a post today about baseball moving away from the sinker, and a correlated fact came through in my research: pitchers are throwing fewer low pitches this year. It makes some sense, as the strike zone’s no longer expanding to the south, and as more and more have become aware of hitters’ increasing propensity to turn low pitches into souvenirs. I have no real explanation for their sudden increased ability to swat high pitches for HRs; it’s come much too late to have anything to do with the ball, which seems to have changed earlier on. And the ball itself wouldn’t explain the DROP in HR/pitch on low pitches from 2016 to 2017. This is a shift in where batters are doing damage, a reversal of a similar (inverse) shift a few years ago.

I have no idea why this is happening, or if it’ll continue next year. What I can say is that I understand the motivation behind the M’s offseason a bit more, and I have to admit that my own writing and surmising would’ve been supportive. There was no real clear sign of danger, beyond the traditional “the HR/pitch rate is high up in the zone.” This may be the result of the human tendency to find patterns in random variation, and it may be the result of a shift in batting instruction. Whatever the cause, the M’s identified what they saw as a potential improvement, and they implemented it well. I’ve been extremely critical of this FO’s ability to implement its own plans, but credit where it’s due: they set out to increase fly balls and improve OF defense, and they have absolutely done that. But they had no idea that they were walking into an ambush – that baseball would see a spike in HR/FB just as they successfully developed a fly ball staff. No one ever said being a GM was fair, but…damn. Tough break, Jerry.

Game 140, Astros at Mariners

marc w · September 6, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Andrew Moore vs. Lance McCullers, 7:10pm

A day after getting to face Justin Verlander in his first start in an Astros uniform, the M’s have the honor of welcoming Lance McCullers back to the majors to make his first start in over a month. After spending the first half of the season as one of the league’s premier starters, McCullers struggled mightily in July, and then, after giving up 5 runs in 5 IP, he went on the DL with back issues. This isn’t new for McCullers, who’s essentially a more southerly James Paxton: dominant when healthy, but frequently unhealthy. That DL stint that cost him August was his 2nd of the season, and he’s missed tons of time in previous seasons as well. Paxton and McCullers have pitched an eerily similar number of innings over the past 3 years, 307+ to 312+.

Sooo, Andrew Moore. The M’s announced he was coming up to bolster the bullpen, but after using Marco Gonzales in long relief the other day, Moore will get another opportunity to start. With so many of the M’s depth options, I’ve advocated using the Yankee (and Astros!) strategy of throwing a blizzard of breaking balls to maximize effectiveness. McCullers throws his slurvy curveball more than any of his pitches at over 40%, for example. Well, Moore should not do that. He’s given up 5 dingers on his rising four-seam fastball, but it’s been a decent pitch overall. Not great, mind you, but not disastrous, which is the only way to describe what’s happened when he’s thrown other pitches. His whiff rate is better on his straight four-seam fastball than it is on his curve, which simply doesn’t generate enough break. His slider and change are a bit better at generating whiffs, but batters have put more of them in play, and they’ve put more of them in the air (the change especially). It’d be nice to see if he can modify his usage of the change to get more below-the-zone swings on it.

1: Segura, SS
2: Alonso, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Haniger, RF
7: Gamel, LF
8: Zunino, C
9: Heredia, CF
SP: Moore

Ariel Miranda was effectively wild last night, walking 6 in 6 innings, but holding the Astros hitless through 6 before giving up a decisive 2-run HR in the 7th. That’s his second game this year where he’s walked 6, and it marks his 5th start giving up *at least* 4 walks. But in those 5 starts, covering 26 2/3 IP, he’s given up a total of just 2 home runs. By contrast, he’s given up zero walks in 4 starts, covering a total of 20 innings. And in *those* games, he’s given up 9 dingers, or 4.05 HR/9. His HR/9 in the high-walk games is a very un-Miranda-like 0.7.

Shawn O’Malley was DFA’d in the series of moves that enabled Rainiers IF and ex-White Sox player Gordon Beckham to earn a 40-man spot and a place on the M’s bench. O’Malley made it through waivers and was outrighted to Tacoma, whose season is over. Hmmm. “Shawn, please report to Tacoma…and when I say “Tacoma,” I mean “anywhere but here.” See you next year, possibly.”

Fangraphs’ David Laurila had a post talking about M’s relief prospect JP Sears, the guy with the incredible K rate stats in Everett and Clinton; it’s worth a read.

Speaking of Fangraphs, their playoff odds now give the M’s just shy of a 5% chance. Darn. BP’s odds have been more bullish on the M’s chances this year, but no longer; their odds are fractionally lower than Fangraphs’ now.

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