Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Collin McHugh, 7:10pm
The M’s go for a three-game sweep of the preseason divisional favorites tonight. A day after Taijuan Walker’s electrifying performance against the Astros, Nate Karns nearly one-upped him, going 7 shutout innings and yielding just 2 hits. Karns came into the game getting plenty of whiffs on his change-up, and after mixing cambios and curve balls through the first three innings, he and Chris Iannetta noticed something and shifted to the curve nearly exclusively. Karns ended up throwing an astonishing 53 curves on the night, or one less than Rich Hill threw in his own dominant performance in Seattle on April 9th. By the 6th/7th IP, the Astros must’ve known it was coming, but couldn’t hit it – after struggling a bit with his command, Karns found a groove and the Astros simply weren’t able to get him out of it. Here’s a graph of his usage – the first inning’s at the left, and it goes chronologically until the 7th IP on the far right:
He only had 6 Ks which kind of understates how great Karns looked, but fortunately we have other metrics. Linear weights measure the change in the game state after each pitch – if it’s a ball, that’s a fraction of a run deducted from the pitcher, and if it goes for a strike, he’ll be awarded a fraction. Hits are bad, obviously, and anything that helps tilt the balance in favor of the pitcher is good, whether it’s a foul, a whiff, or a pop-up. It’s not a perfect tool, as an 0-2 chase slider that’s taken for a ball isn’t necessarily “bad” and fastballs have an uphill climb to rate well, given they’re often thrown when a pitcher’s behind in the count, and thus go for walks or for hard-hit balls. Still, since it’s measured by pitch type, it gives you ONE way to see what a pitcher’s most effective pitch was for the day. Last night, Karns’ curveball was 2.86 runs better than average. That’s a pretty astounding level for one pitch. In Hill’s mastery of the M’s, his curveball rated below average because the M’s actually managed to knock some base hits on it when they weren’t frozen by it, a fact that makes me question the metric more than Hill. But those games are good illustrations of HOW you’d score well by linear weights. Do you mix 4 pitches well, like Kershaw or Felix? Eh, probably pretty tough. You almost need to be a two-pitch pitcher and throw some breaking ball a ton; it’s a counting stat after all, not a rate stat.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise, but Karns -2.86 is the best mark of the season for a Mariners’ pitcher. It’s better than any one pitch Felix threw in his perfect game or Iwakuma’s no-no. That’s not to say it’s historic, though. The last game by a Mariner that I can find with a modicum of searching that beats it came from Taijuan Walker in his destruction of the Twins late last year. In that game, Walker’s *fastball* was easily over 3 runs below average. Clayton Kershaw’s topped 3 runs with his fastball as well, and would easily get there if he threw either his slider or curve enough, but he mixes them to great effect instead. Jake Arrieta, and this is probably not shocking, is essentially making a habit of this with his sinker. I’m kind of shocked that Noah Syndergaard hasn’t done it yet this year, but as with Kershaw, it’s often because he’s mixing his pitches and not throwing any one of them enough to rack up runs. The most dominant game *of Karns type* and I’m totally making this up as I go here, but a game in which a pitcher dominates by throwing a blizzard of yellow hammers, was Jose Fernandez’s brilliant 14K, 0BB start against Atlanta in April of 2014. Fernandez went 8, threw *54* curves, and had -4+ run value on the pitch. Steve Cishek actually closed that one out when he was with the Marlins. (Alex Wood struck out 11 with no walks and took a hard 1-0 loss for the Braves).
Collin McHugh started 2016 in about the worst way possible, lasting 1/3 of an inning and giving up 6 runs to the Yankees. His K and BB rates are nearly identical to last year’s, and he’s given up just one dinger on the year, leading to a FIP under 3, but as you’d imagine given that first start, he’s been extremely hittable and given up 15 runs in less than 17 IP. Like Keuchel (and Miley, and Karns-before-last-night), McHugh’s BABIP is off-the-charts high. Never a big ground ball guy, his GB% has plumetted by 12 percentage points this year, and he’s been an extreme FB guy thus far. McHugh works with a low-90s fastball, a high-80s cutter with a tiny bit of glove-side break and a curve. In the past, the curve was his putaway pitch, and his cutter was a useful one to lefties and righties, but he was prone to hang the odd one. Over time, batters have started to elevate both his curve and fastball, and that’s what’s leading to his dwindling GB%. That’s not awful; plenty of pitchers actively court fly ball contact, after all. But it certainly hasn’t been good for McHugh. On the plus side, he’s giving up weak fly ball contact, with an average that’s one of the best in the league, sandwiched between Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard. They’re not pulling more of them, nor hitting them harder, the way we saw with Dallas Keuchel. So will McHugh eventually figure this out? We’ll see.
1: Marte, SS
2: Smith, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Lind, DH
6: Seager, 3B
7: Lee, 1B
8: Clevenger, C
9: Martin, CF
Jackson beat Homer Bailey and the Pensacola Blue Wahoos 5-3. Tim Lopes and Leon Landry had two hits each. Brett Ash got the win with 5 IP, but the bullpen pitched extremely well, yielding zero runs. Forrest Snow made his 2016 debut with 1 2/3 hitless innings.
Bakersfield’s comeback fell just short, as they lost to Lancaster 5-4 despite homers by Austins Wilson and Cousino. Eddie Campbell starts tonight.
Bowling Green raced out to a 10-0 lead on Clinton and held off a late rally, winning 12-8. Dalton Kelly hit his first pro HR in the game. Kyle Wilcox gave up 10 runs in 2 2/3 IP. The former 6th rounder is off to a slow start, as is today’s starter, Nick Wells. Thankfully, Wells has been somewhat better of late; he gave up 3 runs in 4 2/3 today, but ended up losing a tough 3-2 decision. RF Gus Craig homered for the Lumberkings. Speaking of Dalton Kelly, the former 38th round pick out of UCSB leads the org with a .451 OBP, edging out Mike Zunino’s .449.
Larry Stone wrote a great story on Zunino’s mental adjustments and how much fun he’s having tearing the cover off the ball in Tacoma.
The story of the day may not be the M’s beginning play in 1st, or Nate Karns great outing. Instead, the M’s announced a big change in their ownership group, with Howard Lincoln, in charge since 1999-2000, stepping down and minority owner John Stanton moving to acquire the club. Stanton and partners are seeking to acquire 90% of the club according to Geoff Baker. What will this mean to the M’s? We’ll have to wait and see, but probably very little in the short to medium term. Kevin Mather’s retained as the President. It’s important to note that Nintendo’s share would be sold, so while Stanton’s currently part of ownership, this is more than shuffling the titles on the ownership committee, but Stanton isn’t a complete unknown. The M’s ownership has taken a lot of deserved criticism for seeming out of touch in the M’s years of wandering through the AL wilderness, talking more about the ballpark experience than the product on the field, or meddling in Eric Wedge’s practices, but most of all for not opening their purse strings. The M’s payroll has been on the low side, and calls to spend more will increase as the M’s TV revenue looks to be among the game’s highest. As part of Stanton’s purchase, the team’s been valued at $1.4 billion. Should the M’s be acquiring more free agents? Or having acquired Robbie Cano and Nelson Cruz, is the focus going to be elsewhere for a while? The M’s avoided a rebuild and would need some talent to go head to head with the Cubs or to pull away in the AL, so it’s something that Jerry Dipoto could be talking about sooner rather than later. That said, the historic contract to Cano shows that the primary problem hasn’t necessarily been a reluctance to pay, but abysmal performance from low-paid arb and pre-arb players the club’s depended on. I’d be happy to learn that ownership will commit to in-season upgrades, but if this team is going to go anywhere, change needs to start in player development.
Nate Karns vs. Dallas Keuchel, 7:10pm
The M’s find themselves in first place after a dominant – and very, very encouraging – performance by Taijuan Walker, who pitched around defensive miscues, some early command issues, to finish the night with six consecutive Ks. The line-up couldn’t score despite a career high 7 walks from Doug Fister, so run support was added to the burden Walker had to carry, but he did so easily. Sure, he had some help – two HRs and a baffling caught-stealing in a nail-biting 9th inning come to mind. But Walker’s fast start is everything we could’ve hoped for. The M’s rotation needed another anchor in Felix and Kuma’s slow decline, and, to bring it back around to today’s game, the uh…not so fast start of the newcomers.
I talked about Miley the other day, but Nate Karns hasn’t quite found himself yet either. He’s striking out batters at the same rate as before (the K/9 is higher, but his K% is roughly equal), but walking many more and giving up far too many hits. Like Miley, his BABIP is terrible, and that should regress as soon as his 30%+ line drive rate does. That’s encouraging, as is his declining contact rate. Wait out the bad luck and you’ll have something. But there’s conflicting stuff too, as you’d imagine looking at a guy who’s been hit so hard. Batters are pulling their fly balls against him far more than they have in the past, and in general, pulled fly balls are good for the batter. This increase in the *percentage* of pulled fly balls is accompanied by a similar increase in the number of fly balls. Having all but ditched his sinker, a pitch he threw over 10% of the time last year, that makes sense: he’s trying to get more FB contact, and he’s doing it. It’s just getting hit a bit harder than he’d like.
And that brings us to Karns’ biggest weakness, the biggest blemish on what’s been a decent start to his career. He’s been hit hard – destroyed, really – by right-handed bats. Like with BABIP, the temptation is to rely upon general rules that such beasts cannot exist, and that this is an illusion borne of random chance or running into a bunch of good righties in the AL East. It’s true: his career’s too short thus far to say much with conviction. But thus far, Karns is giving up over *2* HR per 9 IP to same-handed bats. Both lefties and righties have hit his four-seam fastball well, but while lefties have an ISO of over .200 against, righties are up over .300. Similarly, lefties have an ISO of .039 against his curve, while righties are up at .134. This could be nothing, but it’s kind of interesting to imagine a guy with a weakness that’s hidden by standard theory that you bat tons of lefties against righties. I mean, Karns has faced over 3 times more lefties this year than righties, so it’s clear most teams don’t buy this is real at all. But his K:BB ratios show similar reverse splits, so it’s not JUST about a few doubles turned into HRs. Is he more deceptive against lefties somehow? Are righties able to guess more easily, given he doesn’t throw his change as much to them?
Speaking of batters who’ve been giving up too much hard-hit contact, the M’s face the reining Cy Young winner tonight, Dallas Keuchel. Keuchel who, for the past two years, has been amazingly good at inducing both ground balls in general and slow ground balls in particular, has had a rough start to 2016. In his last start, he gave up 13 hits and 6 runs in 6 IP. In his 2nd start, he walked 6 in 5 2/3, leading to a big spike in his walk rate. Like Karns, Keuchel has seen batters chase fewer pitches outside of the strike zone, and like Karns, he’s seen his contact rate improve – he’s getting more swinging strikes. But the problem is that hitters are doing more damage. It’s kind of amazing how often this pattern has repeated this year: batters appear more selective, and do a bit more damage, but don’t make more contact. Back in 2013, when Keuchel was essentially replacment level, 29% of the contact against him was classified as “hard” or well-hit. In the past two seasons, he’s been around 19-20%, a mark that led the league both seasons. Thus far in 2016, he’s sitting at 30%. Some of this may be due to a velocity drop that looks a bit bigger than the standard April decline (Karns’ velo is actually up this year). Whatever the cause, the M’s need to take advantage.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Marte, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Gutierrez, LF
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Lee, 1B
9: Smith, DH
Smith’s legs necessitate another RF start for Nelson Cruz, which… man, he did not look comfortable out there last night. At least Gutierrez can play LF?
The Astros have 5 righties in their line-up and two lefties in the middle of the order with big platoon splits of their own (Preston Tucker/Colby Rasmus), which seems like a good line-up on paper against Karns. Of course, it’s not like they’re consciously opting for righties in lieu of lefties; Altuve/Correa/Springer are starting against anyone. But it’ll be interesting to see how Karns deals with that top third of the line-up tonight.
Tacoma played a morning game, and it looks like the position players were a bit tired. Sacramento won it 1-0 with a run in the top of the 9th. Ramiro Pena homered off of Justin De Fratus for the only score. Chris Taylor had his hitting streak broken yesterday, so started a new one with a single. Not much else going on for the offense, but Mike Zunino had a pinch-hit single in the 9th as well. Tacoma’s off tomorrow.
Jackson lost 9-3 to Pensacola, as Sam Gaviglio had his first poor outing, giving up 2 HRs and 7 runs in 5 IP. The Generals couldn’t figure out Reds prospect Amir Garrett, who fanned 9 in 6 2/3 dominant innings. They’ve got another tough assignment tonight, as they face rehabbing Reds starter Homer Bailey, trying to make his way back from injury. Brett Ash starts for Jackson. Like Tacoma, Jackson’s got a travel day tomorrow.
Tyler Pike starts tonight for Bakersfield, and Kyle Wilcox starts for Clinton.
Taijuan Walker vs. Doug Fister, 7:10pm
Taijuan Walker’s strong start is one of the real bright spots of the season’s first month. After some awful outings in early 2015, Walker seemingly turned a corner and looks great. What’s interesting, at least to me, is how he’s done it. His strikeout rate was *higher* in his awful first-half-of-2015, and it hasn’t rebounded thus far in 2016. His walk rate is now Iwakuma-esque, but then it was fairly low when he was getting knocked around, too. In short, Walker’s improvement is largely the result of much-improved results on balls in play. In the past, maybe we’d chalk that up to luck, but in the Statcast world, we can now… well, what, actually?
Taijuan Walker was absolutely awful at contact management in 2015 according to Statcast, and as Tony Blengino said last September, given his K and BB rates, Walker would be a well-above average starter if he had just average marks in quality of contact allowed. Late in the year and in 2016′s first month, Walker’s obliged, posting below-average exit velocities. So, scientifically, he’s fixed now? I don’t know. I hope so, but seeing pitchers bounce from above- to below-average and vice versa makes the measure look fairly volatile. As mentioned last week, Russell Carleton’s BP article brought some context to the topic, showing that exit velocity stabilizes pretty quickly, but it also doesn’t become *more* stable as you add more and more data – there’s a signal there, but some part of the package we get will be noise, and that’s true with 50 balls in play on up to 5,000 balls in play.
But even there, it seems like an “average” exit velocity can mislead, even if it represents something within a pitcher’s ability to control. A pitcher with a rising fastball might give up lots of home runs, but will also generate plenty of pop-ups and lazy fly balls, as batters mishit the ball. Some pitchers batted balls may be more narrowly distributed. Is one better than the other? As with everything, it depends. How many HRs balanced with pop-ups is too many? A fly ball pitcher who gave up all 90mph fly balls would be a Cy Young candidate, but a fly ball pitcher who gave up 96mph fly balls wouldn’t be. Someone who consistently got batters to hit the ball at odd angles would be great, no matter how hard they hit them. Thus far, Taijuan Walker’s done great. He’s given up some hard-hit balls, but he’s been better than average at ground balls and air balls alike. Last year, he was awful. Is his command responsible for the improvement? Is it familiarity with his role, with his defense, and with the hitters he’s facing? Or is the fact that he’s now actually throwing breaking balls producing a few in-between swings? I’m not sure, but Walker’s a great test case for how we might use Statcast data going forward. Given how differently his 2015 and 2016 started, this should be fertile ground for research.
Speaking of which, Tony Blengino had a great article at Fangraphs today looking at Statcast, and how to interpret the numbers. He notes that we’re still missing a pretty good number of balls in play, and that those “null” data points are predominately extremely weak contact. He also noted that several parks, including Safeco, are missing quite a bit more than the average. I’d link to it, but it seems to have been pulled. Not sure why.
Today, the M’s face old friend Doug Fister, who suddenly fell off the table last year and hasn’t yet regained the form he showed from 2011-2013, when he was quietly effective, averaging 4 fWAR per year in that span. The big, obvious problem is that his velocity’s fallen fairly dramatically. While he was never a power pitcher by any stretch, his average FB is now about 86mph. Despite reports that his velocity reappeared this spring, his velocity looks essentially unchanged since last year. Batters are swinging at fewer of his offereings, and doing more damage when they do – Fister’s given up 3 HRs thus far, and his K% is his lowest ever (though not by much). The Astros as a team have had a horrific time with long balls thus far, but in Fister’s case, it’s a real worry. His GB% (once a real strength), has been trending down for a while. Since peaking at 54% in 2013, Fister’s GB has plummeted, and now sits below 40%. It’s been an utterly bizarre career for Fister, and he’s done so much better than many of us (I’m among the guilty here) ever imagined. I love that he succeeded as an old school command pitcher in the middle of the strikeout boom. I’m not, however, all that bullish on his chances going forward.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Lind, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Martin, CF
9: Marte, SS
He tried to pitch through it, but now Joaquin Benoit will take some real time off to rest his shoulder. He’s moving to the 15-day DL, with Mayckol Guaipe coming up from Tacoma to replace him. The M’s bullpen has been a strength thus far despite a large number of injuries. Let’s hope that continues. Joel Peralta becomes the 8th inning righty.
The Sacramento RiverCats shrugged off a 4-run first by the Rainiers and beat Tacoma 10-5 in a rain-shortened contest. Chris Taylor and Mike Zunino doubled, while Cody Martin would like to just move on from yesterday’s game. James Paxton starts tonight.
Pensacola doubled up Jackson 6-3. Tim Lopes and Leon Landry each had three hits for the Generals. Ryan Yarbrough had 6 Ks to 1 BB, but also gave up 4 runs in 5 IP. The same two teams face off tonight, with Sam Gaviglio on the mound for Jackson. The rest of the M’s affiliates have a travel day.
Bakersfield dominated Lake Elsinore, winning 8-0 and allowing just two hits to the over-matched Storm. Tyler Herb went 7 innings, giving up a single hit and striking out 3. Ramon Morla and Kyle Schepel closed it out. Austin Wilson and Chantz Mack each had two hits, and combined to hit three doubles.
Cedar Rapids shut out Clinton 9-0. A so-so start for Zack Littell, who pitched 6 IP giving up 11 hits and 6 runs, though only 2 were earned.
Wade Miley vs. Matt Shoemaker, 12:35pm
The M’s finish up a three game set in Anaheim in this match-up between disappointing middle-of-the-rotation starters. With Matt Shoemaker, the problem’s been pretty clear since his first season, but his ability to mitigate or compensate for it has steadily dwindled. Armed with a very good splitter, an improving slider and a below-average fastball, Shoemaker can miss bats, but batters have consistently punished mistake pitches. His HR rate was acceptable in his rookie campaign, and his splitter allowed him to post a near-elite K:BB ratio. Last year, the HR rate crept up to 1.6 per 9 innings, at the very fringe of what any pitcher can allow and remain on the plus side of replacement level. His K:BB ratio regressed a bit too, and thus Shoemaker was worth less than 1 fWAR in 135 innings. After giving up just 2 HR on his plus splitter in 2014, resulting in a SLG%-against of just .227, batters hit 9 on it last year, good for a SLG%-against of .435.
It’s still his big swing-and-miss pitch, but he’s using it less this year in favor of a slider. It doesn’t have much horizontal break, but it’s got some vertical drop, meaning it’s actually a bit more split-like than most sliders. That’s going to be a big pitch for him, as his split, for whatever reason, has been more effective against lefties, and he uses it much more like a traditional change-up. For Hisashi Iwakuma, the splitter is a great equal-opportunity pitch, but Shoemaker’s FB/SL to righties and FB/Splitter to lefties. Last year, that slider wasn’t quite good enough for that approach to work, and he put up reverse splits. In the tiny sample we have thus far, Shoemaker’s now throwing a blizzard of sliders at righties, but it hasn’t quite solved his problems with same-handed bats. When righties swing at the slider, good things happen for Shoemaker. The problem is that they’re taking too many, and that’s put Shoemaker behind in too many counts, leading to a lot of walks and a lot of hard-hit balls. I don’t mean to suggest that the M’s stack the line-up with righties; in his career, his splits are just about even.
Wade Miley’s been a problem for different reasons. No starter in baseball’s got a worse BABIP than Miley; after three starts, his BABIP sits at a credulity-straining .480. He’s got a K:BB ratio of 4, and all of the obvious “bad luck” boxes are checked, so we should just await regression, right? I’m not so sure, actually. Miley’s made some notable adjustments this season, presumably under the direction of the M’s staff. In years past, he was a solid ground-ball pitcher, which had less to do with the movement on his pitches or the pitches themselves and more to do with how he used them. This year, he’s using his four-seam fastball a bit more, and he’s using it in a completely new way. Take a look at this chart of the vertical location, on average, of his hard (fastballs), breaking and offspeed pitches over his career:
He’s never thrown his fastball above the middle of the zone…until now. It kind of makes sense – he was moving from Boston, a place where elevated lefty fastballs were punished severely, to Seattle, a park that suppresses right-handed contact. The move to elevated fastballs has gotten him more whiffs, and that may be helping his K%, which would be great if it weren’t for all of the runs he’s allowing. The sample’s still small that you don’t want to overreact and change a gameplan too early, but I’m always a bit suspicious of attempts to improve a pitcher by telling them to overhaul their entire approach. I mean, it works for some guys, but for every Brandon McCarthy, you hear about plenty of pitchers who get into trouble by abandoning an approach they’d honed over many years.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lind, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Clevenger, C
8: Martin, CF
9: Marte, SS
A few days after Bakersfield played a 15 inning contest, the Clinton Lumberkings one-upped them by beating Cedar Rapids in an *18 inning* pitcher’s duel, 2-1. To make matters worse (or better, I guess?), it was game 1 of a double-header. Clinton wrapped up a split by winning the nightcap 3-0. Thus, in 25 innings yesterday, Clinton held the Kernels to just a single run. It’s Sunday, so the LumberKings and Kernels are already back on the field – Zack Littell is pitching for Clinton.
Also in the minors, Tacoma lost their third straight, dropping the opener of their homestand 8-4 to Sacramento. Chris Taylor extended his hitting streak and Mike Zunino doubled, but Joe Wieland had another poor start, failing to get out of the 2nd inning. Cody Martin starts for Tacoma this afternoon.
Edwin Diaz got BABIP’d to death, and the Generals lost to Pensacola 10-4. He struck out 8 to just one walk, but gave up 8 hits and was victimized by a couple of fielding errors as well. On the plus side, Tyler O’Neill swatted two home runs. The Canuck’s season line is up to .304/.385/.571. Ryan Yarbrough starts today.
Bakersfield lost to Lake Elsinore 4-2, as they couldn’t figure out the Storm’s starter, Dinelson Lamet. Lamet struck out 9 in 6 scoreless innings, and while the Blaze managed two late runs, they couldn’t pull off the come-back. Drew Jackson had 3 hits, and RF Chantz Mack had 3 of his own, including a home run. Tyler Herb starts for the Blaze today.
King Felix vs. Hector Santiago, 6:10pm
Our valiant King is healthy and again ready to extend his rule over the insolent, rebellious southerners. Felix has had a strange year thus far; his control’s been off, but he’s missing bats, and batters can’t square him up. Last year, he wasn’t able to limit contact the way he had in 2014, and his HR rate and BABIP paid the price for it. This year, while he doesn’t exactly have great command, he’s been able to avoid the barrel of opposing bats.
Baseball Savant’s got a cool leaderboard showing the average exit velocity each pitcher’s given up. Near the top, you’ll find Felix, with below-average velocity on his fly balls/line drives, and extremely low velocity on his ground balls. It’s extremely early, but his numbers last year weren’t great. Now, obviously, we’d love some more context for all of this, and thankfully Russell Carleton of BP’s given us a bit. In this study, Carleton found that batted ball velocity “stabilizes” quite quickly, in that the R^2 gets to around .5 after only 50 or so balls in play. But that’s about as high as it goes: even if you add hundreds more balls in play, the exit velocity doesn’t get more “reliable.” It’s not exactly K rate, but Felix’s contact management may not be pure noise or small sample nothingness.
Looking at his pitches, Felix’s change looks just as effective as it’s always been. Batters swing at it over half the time he throws it, and their results aren’t great. They’re making slightly more contact on his curve, but hitting more grounders on it. What’s different is his sinker – batters have been laying off it more and more, but they’re just not swinging at it much in 2016. They’re not chasing it out of the zone, and they’ve hit it pretty hard when they have swung. Felix has talked about his fastball command being a bit off, so this may be something he wants to work on. But it’s kind of interesting: why would batters take his sinker when his change-up is thrown at nearly the same velocity and has similar armside run? If it’s something simple like “they can tell the difference between his fastball and change” then you’d see the results in his *change* – but we don’t. They’re as hapless against it as ever. In recent years, batters have battered Felix’s sinker – they hit 11 homers off of it last year, for example. But I wonder if that’s a price Felix is happy to pay to preserve the effectiveness of his change – does he *need* to throw hittable sinkers in order to prevent batters from really figuring out his change’s movement and finally adjusting to it?
I’ve mentioned it before, but Felix really doesn’t get enough credit for the continual adjustments he’s made. I don’t think they’re the result of hours of video study or match-up tendencies or the like, but he’s a cerebral pitcher in other ways. He’s survived and even flourished as his velocity’s fallen by disguising his out-pitch as a fastball. If he went back to throwing all four-seamers or something, he’d be using his “worst” pitch a lot less, but I don’t think pitching is that simple. Felix probably has a reason for throwing the sinker, and while I’m sure he’ll make some tweaks to it, I think he knows it’s a critical pitch to his overall gameplan.
Speaking of exit velocity, today’s opponent, Hector Santiago is another AL leader in inducing weak contact. Coming up as an unheralded guy who rode a trick pitch (a true screwball) to minor league success, Santiago struggled with his control, and his rising fastball led to tons of home runs. As a result, FIP hated him as much as the scouts. But Santiago’s figured out how to pull off a poor man’s Marco Estrada routine – getting lots of infield pop-ups and a low BABIP to beat his opponents AND fielding-independent stats. His ERA’s a full run under his FIP for his career, which now stretches over 550 innings. His control’s improved as he’s realized he can live within the zone even with a completely average fastball.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Marte, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Gutierrez, RF
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Lee, 1B
9: Martin, CF
The R’s dropped the final game of their road trip despite a 3R HR from Mike Zunino. Tacoma’s back home tonight hosting Sacramento, with Joe Wieland starting. Game starts at 5:05.
Dylan Unsworth threw 6 shut-out innings in Jackson’s 1-0 win over Pensacola. Big pitching match-up tonight, as Edwin Diaz faces off with rehabbing Reds starter Anthony DeSclafini.
The story in the minors was Andrew Moore’s brilliant start for Bakersfield. The 2nd round pick last year tossed 7 shut-out, no-hit innings before coming out of the game at 97 pitches. The outcome wasn’t in doubt, as the Blaze had a 10-0 lead. Ryan Horstman relieved and gave up a hit in the 8th, but it was still a great night for Bakersfield and the M’s system. Anthony Misiewicz starts for the Blaze tonight.
Clinton’s making up a rain out by playing a double-header today against Cedar Rapids. Lucas Schiraldi starts game 1, and Art Warren takes the hill in the nightcap.
King Felix Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Nick Tropeano, 7:05pm
Citing an “illness” – quotes around the word in the original Bob Dutton story - the M’s have pulled King Felix from his start tonight, though it’s mild enough that he may start tomorrow. We’ll have to wait a day or so until he supplants Randy Johnson as the M’s all-time strikeout king.
The M’s head to Anaheim for their first regular-season look at the Angels. You know, the team that employed Scott Servais and Jerry Dipoto last season, and the team that’s fallen on hard times after being one of the division’s toughest in the first few years of Dipoto’s tenure as GM. The Angels and M’s are in some ways similarly situated: both have offenses that haven’t quite clicked yet, with the Angels’ OBP at .294 and the M’s’ at .295. Both have committed a ton of money to aging superstars in their decline phase, with the M’s payroll tied up in Felix/Cano/Cruz, while the Angels paying Albert Pujols, Jered Weaver, CJ Wilson, and Josh Hamilton. Obviously, the M’s are getting more out of their old guys right now than the Angels, but the Angels have Mike Trout which tends to even things out pretty quick. Moreover, both teams have been hamstrung by a brutal BABIP – the M’s and Angels are turning only a quarter of their balls in play into base hits; the M’s are 29th in baseball by that metric and the Angels are in 30th.
The biggest problem for the Angels right now is at once easy and difficult to discern. In the short term, the problem is that they can’t hit for power at all – their ISO is second-worst in baseball to Atlanta, and the Braves aren’t really a big-league team right now. Organizationally, from a macro point of view, the Angels biggest problem is depth. They have nothing to speak of in the minor leagues, and after swinging a trade with the Braves to bring Andrelton Simmons to the club, there’s really nothing they can do to bring in talent short of draft and develop it. That’s a good strategy, obviously, but it takes a long time. You know what else takes a long time? Waiting for their mega-contracts to start falling off. The back-loading that enabled the club to be so aggressive a few years ago is now a pretty clear problem, and it may shut them out from another non-traditional way to bring in talent: agreeing to take on “bad” contracts.
The short-term, wins-in-2016 problem is linked to the longer-term, front-office-centric problem in the person of Albert Pujols. The Angels have an aging, injured slugger who hasn’t, as of yet, done much slugging. That’s an issue, because given the state of his legs, Pujols isn’t going to be turning many balls in play into hits. To his credit, he’s not hitting many grounders, but Pujols is a microcosm of the team right now: they’re not hitting their fly balls hard enough to matter. By BBREF, the Angels have just two HRs on fly balls this *season* which is why their BABIP on fly balls is well under .100. Ok, ok, but they can adjust: the Angels lead MLB in GB%. True, but their production on grounders is nearly as bad as it is on fly balls. I don’t think Albert Pujols is sub-replacment level in true talent, so the Angels will get better. But they’ve got to show they’re more than just Mike Trout and Kole Calhoun, and this start isn’t helping. Their pitching has done a remarkable job of keeping them near .500 considering the offense is scoring fewer than 3 runs a night, but regression in the rotation might eat up some of the gains they’ll get from positive regression at the plate.
The M’s get a look at Nick Tropeano, the one-time Houston Astro who pitched fairly well down the stretch for the Angels after a shaky campaign in the PCL. The righty’s put up decent numbers in the minors (for the most part) and has a low ERA in short stints in the majors, but doesn’t do much to impress scouts. Armed with a 90-91mph fastball, a change-up about 9mph slower, and a kind of in-between curve/slider breaking ball, he doesn’t have a clear “plus” pitch. The FB has rise, but not a ton. The change-up has armside run, but not much sink and isn’t really a swing-and-miss pitch. The slider gets some whiffs, but isn’t a real putaway pitch and gets elevated pretty easily. The closest comp I’ve got is the starting-pitcher version of Mike Montgomery. Monty’s change is just flat out better, with more run and much better results, but movement-wise, they’re sort of similar.
The Angels seem to be stocking up on guys who out-pitch scouting reports. Tropeano hasn’t really been harmed by a lack of a GIF-worthy pitch; his FIP is under 3 in his first 70 IP. Similarly, Hector Santiago’s riding a 90mph elevated fastball and the occasional screwball to some early success and even Jered Weaver, he of the 80mph fastball, pitched relatively well the other night and has a Chris Young-style line of a 3.12 ERA and a 5.69 FIP. The Angels – well, Garrett Richards aside – have been about as fly-ball dominant as their offense has been ground-ball fixated, and so it’s not a huge surprise that they’ve given up 19 HRs (while their offense has all of 7). Still, the club’s getting by in part because a small fraction of their fly balls have left the park. Some of that’s related to their HR-suppressing yard, but it seems to be a belief that they can identify and/or teach whatever HR/FB magic Chris Young has, and that Jered Weaver’s been known for since he came into the league. The bullpen’s led by Huston Street, another ultra-low FB guy, and thus a low BABIP guy. Tropeano’s GB% was low to begin with, but it’s essentially non-existent thus far in 2016.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Martin, CF
9: Marte, SS
SP: Hisashi Iwakuma
Sorry about the lack of a game post yesterday – I was pretty sure the game was going to get rained out, and was too busy once I find out it wasn’t. Fortunately (or unfortunately? I don’t know), the game turned out to be one of the most entertaining in a while, with Cano’s extra-innings 3-R HR capping things off.
The Rainiers were shut out by El Paso 5-0, but Chris Taylor extended his hitting streak to 11 games. The two teams finish their series – and the R’s road trip – tonight as Donn Roach faces off with Greg Reynolds.
Jackson held off Birmingham 4-3, taking a 4-1 lead in the 2nd and then holding on. Brett Ash got the win, throwing 5 IP of 1 run ball with 5 Ks, and DJ Peterson and Leon Landry doubled for the Generals offense. Dylan Unsworth starts tonight.
Bakersfield beat Lake Elsinore 7-4, with Eddie Campbell striking out 8 in 6 solid innings. Of note, the starting pitcher for the Storm was ex-Rockies lefty Christian Friedrich. Friedrich impressed me back in 2012 on his way up to the majors, and had some initial success before getting rocked along with every other Rockies hurler in 2012-2013. Some of those struggles may have been related to a back injury he suffered – a fracture of his spine. After rehabbing that, he suffered a hamstring injury, which ended his 2nd year prematurely. He made it back to Denver in 2014 and pitched out of the bullpen for Colorado last season, though not terribly well. He was DFA’d after the Corey Dickerson/Jake McGee trade, and so the Angels made a waiver claim on him and brought him in to camp. After his physical, they reversed the waiver claim, sending him back to Colorado, who immediately released him. Apparently, he ended up with the Padres, as Lake Elsinore’s a Pads affiliate. Hope he’s healthy and can make it back – he’s still only 28. Andrew Moore starts for Bakersfield tonight.
Clinton and Cedar Rapids got rained out yesterday. Nick Wells is scheduled to make his 3rd start of the year tonight.
Taijuan Walker vs. Danny Salazar, 3:10pm (what’s with these weird start times?)
Today’s game pits two great young right handed power pitchers against each other. Danny Salazar kicked around the minors for years as a low-to-moderate K command type, and then flipped an extremely useful switch and started striking out well over a batter an inning. Happily for Salazar, this newfound ability didn’t come at the expense of his control, which is still pretty good. After a dazzling major league call-up in 2013, he regressed badly in his first full season, with an extremely high BABIP probably playing a role.
In fact, his FIP has been pretty stable, moving between around 3.2 to 3.6, but even that seems high given Salazar’s pure stuff. An electric fastball at 96, a curve with huge break, a slider, and then a splitter which he can use to get lefties and get ground balls. If that repertoire sounds familiar, it should: that sounds a lot like Walker’s. Walker’s curve is a lot slower, and his split moves a bit differently, but these pitchers have a similar gameplan and use similar tools to implement it.
Both of them debuted in 2013, and since then they’ve kind of moved in opposite directions in terms of their release point. Walker came up with a fastball with great vertical rise, but he’s getting less backspin on the ball this season, and it’s firmly in the normal range – a slightly lower release point may help with this, too. Salazar, meanwhile, has gotten more on top of the ball, and so his four-seam fastball has more rise now than at any point in his (short) career. For Walker, this has meant a lot more ground balls. Less rise, less elevated contact. Salazar’s FB now generates fewer GBs, but he’s able to compensate with his split. As his command of the pitch has improved, its gotten more grounders while maintaining and even increasing its whiff rate – it’s a hell of a pitch.
Walker’s looks great at times, but he’s using it – and his fastball – less in the early going. This year, he’s using his breaking balls a lot more; the M’s field staff last year pretty clearly didn’t think much of his curve, but he’s throwing it a bit more now, and his work-in-progress cutter is getting more of a workout as well. This spring he claimed to be working on a true slider, but we still haven’t seen it. No matter what he calls it, his hard (90mph) cutter can be effective if he can command it, and more repetitions might help with that. At times last year, Walker was pretty clearly operating with two pitches: a four-seamer and a split, and batters, especially righties, seemed too comfortable against 96mph fastballs when they knew they didn’t have to look for a breaking ball. Walker’s been solid in the early going, but like Salazar, hasn’t quite broken out like many of us expect. If he can maintain this new level of ground ball contact, or if he can really start to dominate righties the way he *should be* capable of, he’ll make that leap.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Martin, CF
9: Sardinas, SS
Seth Smith’s gimpy legs have healed to the point where he’s able to play in the OF, allowing Cruz to move back to DH. Taijuan Walker must be happy about that.
Tacoma played an early one today, beating El Paso 3-1 to move to 10-3. The big story was James Paxton getting things back on track, going 6 shutout innings and striking out 3 *without a walk*. Nice to see. Chris Taylor continued his rampage with two doubles, but Mike Zunino went 0-4. Last night, the Rainiers kicked the Chihuahuas 11-7, behind two hits from Taylor and Zunino and a HR from Mike Baxter. Cody Martin wasn’t great, but it was a hitters’ night, as the Rainiers dropped 11 runs on Jeremy Guthrie.
Jackson had an early one as well, and they too came away with a win, beating Birmingham 4-3. UW product Andrew Kittredge got the win with three scoreless innings in relief, and DJ Peterson continued his hot streak with two more hits including a double. Last night, the Generals beat the Barons 5-4, despite quiet nights from middle of the order guys Peterson and Tyler O’Neill. Kraig Sitton got the win in relief.
Bakersfield beat Modesto 6-2 behind Tyler Herb, who K’d 10 in 5 2/3 IP. Drew Jackson had 2 hits for the Blaze, which is great, as his grounder-heavy offense hasn’t played as well in the Cal League as it did in Everett last year. Oddly, he was caught stealing for the 3rd time, meaning he’s just 2-5 on steal attempts after going 47-51 last year. Tonight, Tyler Pike starts opposite Modesto’s Sam Howard, a left-handed prospect in the Rockies’ org.
Clinton completed the org sweep last night with a big comeback against Peoria. Joey Strain of the Lumberkings had a rough 8th inning, letting an inherited runner score and then coughing up 3 more runs of his own, breaking a 3-3 tie. Undaunted, Clinton scored 4 in the 9th to tie, and then another 3 in the 10th to win it. 38th round pick Dalton Kelly had 5 hits in the game, and 2B Chris Mariscal had 3. In today’s getaway game, Clinton beat Peoria 6-4. Starter Kyle Wilcox’s control battles were still an issue, but the Lumberkings bailed him out with 10 hits including 5 doubles.
Wade Miley vs. Carlos Carrasco, 3:10pm
The M’s head to Cleveland to face one of the better teams, on paper, in the AL. Projection systems swooned over the Tribe, and their formidable starting rotation, but the actual season’s been a mixed bag thus far. Their actual runs allowed has come in far above predicted levels, which seems to happen about as often as the Royals beat their preseason projections (note: the Royals are once again beating their preseason projections). On paper, it’s pretty weird: the Indians staff, led by Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, light up the radar guns, strike out a ton of batters and walk comparatively few. That’s a recipe for gaudy fielding-independent stats, and that’s just what Cleveland has. But as we talked about last year, the Indians hurlers have long given up a few more runs than those FIP stats would predict.
Now, the Indians long suffered with a horrendous team defense – they were essentially then anti-Royals there for a while – but with the promotion of Francisco Lindor, and swapping Lonnie Chisenhall out of third and into RF and then signing Juan Uribe, that shouldn’t be a glaring weakness anymore. But last year, today’s starter Carlos Carrasco put up an ERA about 8 tenths of a run higher than his FIP, and that was with half a year of Chisenhall-in-RF and Lindor at SS. Why? Part of the reason might be the fact that Carrasco’s built to induce whiffs, and if batters make contact with his pitches, they generally do pretty well with them.
This article at Pinstripe Alley mentions some of the numbers on Carrasco and speculates why it is that his results on contact are so much worse than Jacob DeGrom, a pitcher whose fastball is a statistical doppelganger for Carrasco’s. Carrasco’s short stature and lower release point mean that his stride’s not that long, giving batters more time to react to his pitches – his “apparent velocity” as measured by statcast is lower than his actual velocity, reflecting this extra time batters have to decide whether or not to swing.
That’s not to say he’s a comfortable at-bat for hitters. He’s got well-above average velocity, two devilish breaking balls that generate whiffs on about half of the swings against them, and a real weapon in his splitter-like change-up. It’s that last pitch that makes him a threat to lefties as well as righties, and it helps him generate well above average ground ball rates as well. That combination of strikeouts, low home runs (thanks to the grounders) and low walks is tough to beat, so the only issue with him has been a slightly elevated BABIP. If you ignore balls in play, Carrasco’s clearly an elite pitcher. Hell, even Tony Blengino’s contact management view had him the 2nd best starter in the AL Central last year to Chris Sale. But that’s *despite* of his contact management, not really because of it. He gives up relatively few flies and line drives, but the ones he gives up are hit harder than average. Last year, his non-grounder contact came off the bat faster than average, and his overall exit speed rates are above average again in the early going this year.
Despite the results, you know whose average exit velocity is much *lower* than the league average thus far? Wade Miley’s.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Martin, CF
9: Marte, SS
Tacoma lost to Albuquerque last night 11-6, despite TWO MORE HRs from Mike Zunino, who’s absolutely crushing the ball right now. He’s homered in 5 straight games, with 6 total HRs to 3 Ks in that span. As you might imagine, that’s resulted in lots of calls to promote him, but I’m with Brendan Gawlowski that the entire point of 2016 is to avoid reacting to short swings in performance, whether good or bad. Way back in his first taste of the PCL, Zunino mashed in road parks, but showed some holes, especially at home. Let’s let him get several months of work in and then reevaluate. The worst thing the M’s could do would be to call him up and have him caddy for Chris Iannetta 5 days a week. The other white-hot player on the club, Chris Taylor, hit his first HR as well, and also added a double. After looking a bit passive in the first series, he’s hit 7 extra-base hits in his last 7 games, hitting safely in all of them, and striking out just 5 times. He’s been walking less, but it’s good to see him actually drive the ball instead of fight pitches off and try to work the count. Cody Martin takes the mound today against Jeremy Guthrie, in the rematch of a game back in Cheney 5 days ago.
Jackson beat Birmingham 9-3, as DJ Peterson had his best game of the year, going 3-4 with his first HR. Tyler O’Neill added his second dinger, and Edwin Diaz was sharp over 5 IP, yielding 2 hits and striking out 8. Diaz now has 24 strikeouts to just 2 walks in 16 IP. A great, great start for the lanky Puerto Rican. Ryan Yarbrough starts today. Speaking of O’Neill, he had a great 2nd half in the Cal League last year, but as a guy with some swing-and-miss in his game, I worried a bit about how he’d adjust to the high minors and the advanced pitching of AA. No need. O’Neill’s still struck out 12 times in 10 games, but he’s done plenty of damage, and that’s against a very good slate of experienced starters, particularly in the first series of the year. He’s got a slash line of .317/.364/.537, and while it’s perhaps too early to put much stock in that, he’s showing he’s more advanced than the K rate would indicate.
Bakersfield lost a tough one in *15 innings* to Modesto, 3-2. The Blaze scored a run in the first, and then went quiet for hours, but things looked good in the 14th when Tyler Marlette crushed a Craig Schlitter pitch to left for a HR. Isaac Sanchez couldn’t hold it, giving up the tying run and sending the game to the 15th. Despite getting Drew Jackson on base, the Blaze couldn’t ignite a rally, and the Nuts ended up scoring another run off of Sanchez in the bottom of the inning to win it. Anthony Misiewicz was solid for 6 IP and Ramon Morla had one of his better outings as a pitcher, K’ing 3 in 2 scoreless innings. Tyler Herb takes the hill for Bakersfield today.
Clinton got lit up by Peoria, 11-3. It was a tight game going into the 6th, but the L-Kings bullpen struggled, with Nick Kiel ineffective in relief of starter Lucas Schiraldi and then Spencer Herrman’s first outing of the year resulting in another 4 runs in 1 2/3 IP. They’re back at it tonight behind Zack Littell.
Let’s get this out of the way early: it’s still April. Numbers are still bouncing all over the place, and a good game can totally change a player’s “season” averages, because the seasonal sample is still tiny. I get that, you get that, but we can’t just shut the blog down until the All-Star break. We can look at things, and muse on them, all while keeping in mind that they could be the product of small-sample gremlins, dumb luck, or however you personify the concept. Ok? Great, let’s talk about Tony Zych, one of the most intriguing pitchers on the M’s. As Jeff Sullivan wrote at Fangraphs, he came from nowhere to become one of the M’s secret weapons with a lively fastball and a weirdly great slurvy slider. A lot of the time, the term “slurve” is a disparaging comment on a breaking ball’s inability to be either a true curveball, with topspin and downward break, or a slider, typically thrown harder with later and less downward break. Sometimes, though, being unlike traditional or textbook examples of a pitch works really well.
To further set this up a bit, we’ve talked a lot about how the best pitches in baseballs induce a lot of swings on balls – if you get a batter to swing at a pitch outside of the strike zone, good things will generally happen. For Hisashi Iwakuma, for example, the splitter gets plenty of whiffs despite the fact he throws it below the zone all the time. And if they DO make contact, the quality of that contact is generally poor, leading to a lot of ground balls in Kuma’s case. Not everyone has a pitch that does this, and certain pitch types are better for the whole swing-at-bad-balls gameplan: change-ups and splitters work well, while, say, curves generally don’t. That doesn’t mean curves are bad, obviously, as there’s an obvious inverse strategy: get batters to *NOT* swing at strikes. Curves are the classic example – think of The Bartender practically tearing Alexei Ramirez’s knee ligaments a few years ago. That’s great, but Tony Zych doesn’t throw a curve, right?
Batters swing at pitches within the strike zone around 2/3 of the time. In 2015, the average was 66.9%, and it was 65.7% the year before. In the early going in 2016, it’s dead on 66%, so it’s pretty stable. If you sort pitchers by the zone-swing%, you get this list, and see Zych at #3, with just 41.5% of his pitches in the zone inducing swings. How’s that possible? At first, I thought it might be his fastball’s strong horizontal run – maybe batters just leave it alone thinking it’ll be a ball, or just because their gameplan is to make Zych prove his command’s good enough to get strikes with it. Lots of first-pitch fastball takes? That’s a piece of it, perhaps, but the story here is that slurvy breaking ball. The heatmap for it is pretty conventional, with a big red spot down and away to right-handers. The swing rate chart looks similar, with pitches away to righties/in on lefties generating lots of swings. The flip side of the that, and it’s easier to visualize this in this chart focusing on righties, is that righties generally aren’t offering at sliders on the inner half, or really, at anything BUT those outside sliders. This year, it’s almost comical - he’s thrown 18 sliders within the zone, but not on the outer third to righties, and they’ve offered at 3 of them.
This is the definition of a tiny sample, and he’s due some regression here, as big leaguers generally don’t take pitches, even breaking balls, middle-middle. But you can see the contours of a successful approach here, and it’s something we saw in his very first MLB at-bat, with the first slider he threw. Jeff linked to this in his post, but here, take another look. The key is that this pitch is starting right at a right hander’s hip. A slider with “normal” horizontal break might not hit the batter, but it wouldn’t get all the way back to the strike zone. Zych’s horizontal break is just over 2 standard deviations from the league mean, so it’s probably understandable that most hitters – almost all of whom haven’t faced him often – assume the pitch will stay inside.
Zych’s part of the reason why the M’s are off the charts as a *team* in zone-swing%; Felix, for all of his control problems, looks excellent so far in this metric, too. I don’t know that Zych can keep this up once hitters have seen him 3-4-5 times, but for now, it’s kind of amazing to see, and as that leaderboard shows, some of the best relief pitchers in the game make their living this way. At #2 on the list was Andrew Miller, and his teammate Dellin Betances was #5. Betances has that huge curve, so that makes sense, but Miller’s a FB/SL guy like Zych, and he led the league in fewest strikes-swung-at last year (Dellin Betances was #3, right behind the M’s Carson Smith). Miller uses his slider somewhat similarly, with lefties not swinging very much at “front door” sliders – pitches that break right over the inside corner, while hacking away futilely at low-and-away sliders. Miller’s command is such that he can throw those same pitches to *right handers* and back door them, so that’s why he’s one of the best relievers on the planet. Still, not a bad guy for Zych to emulate.
First off, I want to thank Marc for taking over the system preview for this season. I’m presently in a phase of my life that’s not particularly conducive to sitting down and writing thousands upon thousands of words of minor league preview each season. This year, in particular, the scheduling looked pretty “nope” early on, but in light of certain happenings and certain concerns the team has going forward, I wanted to bring something to everyone’s attention because I think it could be relevant for us down the line.
One of the narratives to emerge from spring training was that the Mariners, with Iwakuma’s unexpected re-signing, were so flush with pitching that they had the enviable problem of choosing between Nate Karns and James Paxton in the back-end of the rotation. The beginning of the minor league season has further impressed on us that Edwin Diaz is exceeding expectations and could be ready to challenge for a spot soon enough. While the overall depth in the system is rather thin at the high levels (though guys like Ryan Yarbrough and Adrian Sampson probably shouldn’t be overlooked), right now we’re looking outward from a position of relative security. If anything, it’s the bullpen that has given us pause, and rightfully so, with a couple of dudes approaching forty and many of the rest being known as gambles, some of which have already faltered, in the cases of forgotten men Ryan Cook and Evan Scribner.
Let’s back up a moment. One of the recurrent sources of frustration in writing minor league previews is that a past role tends to be a bit more indicative of a future role only in the case of position players. Generally, if anyone is going to move, either to a more or less demanding role on the field, you’re going to hear about it. Less certain is the status of pitching prospects, who could begin starting or stop without much fanfare. One could propose that it’s a side effect of the weird pitching schedules in the Cactus League and no one really noticing or caring at the time, but I bring this up to illustrate a point: The present configuration of the Jackson Generals pitching staff is not something one could have readily predicted.
Sure, the way it begins could potentially lull you into some false sense of security. You look up and see Diaz followed by Yarbrough and figure that it’s likely one of the better one-two, left-right punches you’re going to get, even if the metrics plainly favor Diaz. Thereafter is where it starts to get weird. You have right-handers Sam Gaviglio, Brett Ash, and Dylan Unsworth. If you’re unfamiliar with any or all of those names, I’m not going to fault you. College baseball fans might remember Gaviglio from his days pitching for Oregon State, but they might not remember that we acquired him from St. Louis in exchange for Ty Kelly, the positionless OBP wonder, at the end of 2014. Brett Ash, with all due respect to his friends, family, neighbors, and acquaintances, is Some Guy, a NDFA out of Kansas’ famed baseball powerhouse Washburn College who signed after the ’14 draft and didn’t make a pro start until June of last year when necessity pushed him into the rotation. Dylan Unsworth is from South Africa and his nickname is Sharky and we will love him forever, but he doesn’t possess extraordinary stuff and is a fifth starter at best, and a fringe one.
What is instead “weird” about all this is the sheer number of former starters in the Jackson bullpen. Matt Anderson, a holdover from last year, got the Tom Wilhelmsen treatment and switched to relief on making it to double-A. He remains the same “good fastball, potentially great curveball, sketchy command” guy that he has been previously.
Among the other former starters after him, you have Jordan Pries, who was the big surprise in 2014 as a former 30th round pick who was one of the Rainiers’ best starters down the stretch. The same was not true in 2015, when his ERA caught up to his existing components/stuff (90 mph-ish FB)/pitch to contact approach and he additionally missed the final month+ of the season with an elbow strain.
Or you could look at Stephen Landazuri, who was a long-time sleeper favorite of mine as a guy with a low-90s heater and a good curve. Lando hadn’t relieved in a regular season game since 2012, and while he was quite excellent starting in the Mexican Pacific League over the offseason, his command numbers for both Jackson and Tacoma last year were dire. To boot, he’s had a few recurrent injury issues: biceps strain, oblique strain, missed starts here and there. He’s now pitching out of the Jackson ‘pen as well.
Or we could go with the surprise in Dan Altavilla. Altavilla was fast-tracked up, with a half-season in Everett and a full-season last year in Bakersfield where he showed good stuff and iffy command. People had talked about the possibility of him moving to the bullpen eventually because Major League Baseball scouts have a rather Irken approach to projecting pitchers, but the left-right numbers were solid and the command improved in the second half even as the hits increased a skosh. There was nothing in particular that was projecting him to a doom-and-gloom forecast, and yet here he is now, relieving for the Generals, with the kind of stuff that showed very well as a starter between the slider and the fastball.
Stuff could happen that could push any of the above back into the rotation. “Stuff happening” is one of the inviolable laws of minor league baseball. However, in the case of these three (or four if you feel like including Anderson), the bullpen could present a good career opportunity. Pries was never going to crack in as anything other than an emergency fifth starter and could gain some velocity/Ks from working solely in relief. Landazuri’s command has yet to straighten out for long enough to get you to see him as a three or four and his injury history, while mostly unrelated to the tenderest of the shoulder bits, does not inspire confidence. Altavilla in the bullpen goes from the low-90s velocity he showed as a starter to flashing more in the high-90s as he did in more limited stints and he no longer has to worry about developing a change-up in that role. Whereas a spot in the starting five would have been harder to come by, the bullpen is far less stable moving forward.
Is this experiment likely to work out for everyone involved? Does any minor league experiment ever do that? “Here, try catching.” “Here, try throwing this weird pitch.” “Play this position that you never have before outside of pickup games maybe.” “You can’t hit, but can you throw a knuckleball?” Minor league baseball is silly. However, if it does work out for any of these guys, what you have done is increased their odds of making a big league roster, perhaps minimized the variables they previously had to contend with, and given your team a cost-controlled arm that allows you to maneuver money elsewhere in the roster building process. These aren’t exciting moves, but they look like they could be good for everyone involved. Good work, Mariners.
Late Edit: I wrote this before Landazuri and Pries had poor outings over the weekend, but consider the SSS and the unfamiliarity with the role.