Game 71, Red Sox at Mariners

marc w · June 16, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Wade LeBlanc vs. Steven Wright, 5:15pm

A day after another unbelievable comeback, the M’s make their national TV debut for 2018. Fox Sports is televising the game, hence the odd start time. The M’s have been one of the league’s better stories of the year, and part of it is that they seem so perfect for TV – Dee Gordon acting as the hype man, Cruz is the classic slugger, Haniger’s all-around brilliance has included a few made-for-TV defensive plays recently. Add to that the fact that the M’s have played so many close games, and have had innumerable comeback wins, and I’m actually surprised they haven’t had more national games yet.

All of that said, viewers tuning in tonight will see a very un-2018 game. With velocity ticking up year after year, pulling the leaguewide K rate with it, today’s game features two starters with the lowest average velocities in the game. Wade LeBlanc’s sinker is over 1.5 standard deviations slower than the league mean, and his four-seam (which he uses sparingly) is over 2 full standard deviations slower. And yet LeBlanc’s the fireballer tonight, as the M’s face Boston knuckleballer Steven Wright and his 76 MPH floater. When Wright does try to sneak a fastball past a batter (something he does around 7% of the time), it comes in around 82-85, or 3 full standard deviations from the mean.

Not everything about their game is anachronistic, though. In the past, both Wright and LeBlanc have suffered from problems with the long ball. Wright made only 5 starts last year, giving up 9 dingers in 24 IP. LeBlanc’s last go-round with the M’s saw him yield 14 in 50 innings back in 2016. It’s a warm night, and with two pitchers throwing sub-batting practice speeds, we could see several balls leave the yard. But part of why this match-up is so interesting is that both pitchers are having remarkable seasons avoiding big innings despite those tendencies. Both have incredible strand rates, both are running low BABIPs. Yes, knuckleballers and lefties often DO run low BABIPs, so this isn’t just a “regression is coming” notice. It’s just something to look for – how exactly do they manage to generate weak contact on a consistent basis? Knuckleballs are odd, because you can’t really see anything in their movement data – in general, they don’t have spin, and thus don’t really break. The late movement or fluttering that confounds batters tends to confound efforts to measure them, too. Still, it’s a known unknown; knuckleballs are often very, very difficult to hit (except when they’re not). I simply don’t know what’s going on with Wade LeBlanc. I enjoy it, but I’m baffled it.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Span, LF
8: Zunino, C
9: Heredia, CF
SP: LeBlanc

Everett kicked off its season last night, and LookoutLanding’s got a great preview of the AquaSox 2018 – take a look. They’ll look to rebound from a down 2017, a year that featured slow starts from a number of international prospects, and then had plenty of turnover as many of those players moved to new clubs following Jerry Dipoto’s midseason trades for David Phelps and others.

Their roster features a mix of 2017 and 2018 draft picks and a sprinkling of players who’ve moved up from the Dominican league in the past. Felix’s brother Moises is the pitching coach, and he’ll work with recent draft picks like Joey Gerber, Penn Murfee, Michael Plassmeyer, and Grant Anderson. The position players are highlighted by Keegan McGovern, who’s coming off a huge year for Georgia, and Josh Stowers, the M’s 2nd-round pick out of Louisville.

They lost their first game of the year to Hillsboro, 5-2, but they’ll get after it again tonight in Everett with Carlos Hernandez on the hill. It’s Chris Taylor bobblehead night, so you’ll come away with a cool souvenir and bad memories of one of Dipoto’s least effective trades.

Tacoma beat Omaha 5-2, with Mike Marjama hitting his 5th HR. Christian Bergman takes the mound tonight for Tacoma, who welcome the Iowa Cubs for a once-every-two-years visit. Manager Pat Listach is on vacation, so hitting coach David Berg will manage the series. Why did Listach schedule a vacation during the year? Apparently the Mariners *require* managers to take a four-game vacation once a season, and this is when Listach chose his.

Williams Perez tossed 6 sharp innings as Arkansas edged Springfield 3-1. Max Povse starts tonight’s game for the Travelers.

Stockton blanked Modesto 3-0, who got a solid start from Reggie McClain in a losing effort. The Nuts had just two hits in the game off of Ports starter Dustin Hurlbutt, who’s now thrown 12 scoreless innings against Modesto, giving up just 4 hits.

Beloit demolished Clinton 9-1, as Oliver Jaskie and Stephen Moyers got hit hard. Ryne Inman takes the mound for the Lumberkings tonight. Inman’s coming off of two mediocre starts; hopefully he can get back to the form he showed in much of May.

Game 70, Red Sox at Mariners

marc w · June 15, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Rick Porcello, 7:10pm

Last night’s 2-1 loss is the kind that, in other circumstances, would feel bitterly frustrating: the M’s lost despite a strong 7 IP from Felix, they got the first two runners in the 9th on and then squandered them, classic Mariners, right? I don’t know about you, but it felt almost encouraging. If this club gets actual production from Felix, they look less like an overachieving group and more like a solid team that’s playing just a touch over their heads. If they are in the game against the league’s best team, with a former Cy Young winner on the hill, and with the M’s giving the ball to their worst starter (god it sucks writing that), then this team can play with anyone. I mean, we knew that, but given that even great teams will lose 60-70, I don’t feel bad at all about that one going into the loss column. Sure, it’d be nice if the Astros stopped winning, but I’m honestly not as interested in them. The M’s need to hold off the Angels, and that effort’s going swimmingly right now.

Big Maple’s going for the M’s tonight, giving them their best odds per Fangraphs/538, and while Rick Porcello’s having a solid year again, I think neutrals would agree that Paxton’s the best starter going tonight. Porcello came up as a sinkerballing ground ball kid with Detroit, and one who had a good amount of success, but who never quite pitched up to his solid #3 peripherals. Boston pretty clearly reworked his entire approach, and while he’s had some serious ups and downs, he turned in a Cy Young campaign two years ago and is again pitching like a good #3 in what’s one of the league’s deepest rotations. Initially, Boston had him throw more of his four-seam fastball, the pitch that made him the most talked-about high school pitcher in the 2007 draft (and whose bonus demands saw him slide down the 1st round). His GB% fell dramatically right as the HR surge was getting underway, leading to a big increase in runs-allowed despite a career high in K rate. 2016 was much, much better, as his HR/FB ration dropped, allowing him to take advantage of his newfound ability to miss bats. He went 22-4 and earned his first Cy Young. Last year was another campaign tanked by HRs and BABIP, followed by 2018 in which those trends reversed, making him look solid again.

His K:BB has been pretty stable in Boston, but he’s shifting his approach a bit, using a lot more breaking balls, especially his slider. Interestingly, that increased use of bendy pitches has put a stop to his free-falling GB%, and it’s back up to just over league average after three years below it. Yes, he’s sitting on a career low HR/FB, and so some of this year’s success is luck. But he’s also reducing the number of fly balls allowed in the first place.

That last series against the Mike Trouts has put a bit of a damper on the M’s amazing trend towards limiting HRs-allowed, something Boston’s also been quite good at this year. Felix did a brilliant job against the Red Sox’ big three of Mookie Betts, JD Martinez and Andrew Benintendi last night, and that’s something Paxton will have to repeat tonight. The M’s best hitters, Mitch Haniger and Jean Segura, have been worth about 13.5 runs above average this year, which is great before the halfway point of the year. Boston’s big three have all passed the 20 run mark at this point, with Betts the best of the bunch at 30.4.

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

As you saw in last night’s game, the M’s made some moves, optioning Dan Vogelbach back to Tacoma, DFA’ing Mike Morin, and calling up RP/SP Rob Whalen and RP Nick Rumbelow, who found his way into a one-run game. Rumbelow pitched for the Yankees in 2015, and did pretty well, then had TJ surgery and a setback and hadn’t pitched competitively this season until this month. He showed the exact same fastball velocity he did back in 2015 – around 93 MPH. He still showed the same secondaries – a change and a slider – but they’ve been transformed a bit. While his FB velo was unchanged, the other pitches were much, much faster. The slider (called a curve at Brooks) was over 4 MPH faster last night, averaging over 85. The change-up was a bit firmer, but it had a bit more downward break. I don’t want to make too much of this, as he only threw two of them, and both were pretty bad, but it’s something to watch for. Dipoto obviously loves the guy, and the M’s used him in a tight ballgame in the 8th, which shows the confidence they have in him. I still don’t see a whole lot that’s noteworthy about the FB, but the change could be interesting in the future. I suppose I should mention that his release point is right smack above the midpoint of the rubber, so he may have less in the way of platoon split issues, but we’ll see. For now, it’s just good to see him out there again now that his neck issue has subsided.

Game 69, Red Sox at Mariners

marc w · June 14, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. David Price, 7:10pm

Happy Felix Day. Yes, Felix Days haven’t been the most joyous occasions this year, but everything else about the team is so damn fun that it’s all feels like a big party. Felix has been the rotation’s weakest member, and today he’s up against one of the best teams in baseball – possibly the best. Opposing him is a Cy Young winner. I have no idea how the M’s are supposed to win this, but I now believe that they will. Maybe their 1B who’s sporting a sub-.300 OBP will hit another critical HR. Maybe Mitch Haniger will continue a Troutian hot streak. Maybe it’ll be Mike Zunino. It doesn’t really matter, and that’s the fun part.

At different times this year, this team has been carried by frankly unsustainable performances. When those players return to the mortal plane, someone else steps up. This is how they’re able to overcome a month+ cold snap from Dee Gordon, their lead-off hitter who is ALSO sporting a sub-.300 OBP. Because Ben Gamel decided to get off the mat and do that weird .450 BABIP trick for a while. Or Ryon Healy who was AWOL for April, then essentially won the Cleveland road series single-handedly, then fell apart again, and is now a serious power threat again. The fact that it won’t last doesn’t matter – he’s helping the team win, and now we just expect someone else to fill in for him. Maybe Kyle Seager will finally go on a tear. Maybe Nelson Cruz’s hot streak just doesn’t end for another month and a half. Embrace the weirdness, revel in the run differential-flouting timeliness of the M’s in 2018. Have fun.

Being an M’s fan has not, historically, offered a surfeit of Fun Times. Certainly in the last 17 years or so they’ve been especially rare. So we’ve got to enjoy this for the crazy, unexpected bounty that it is. It may all blow up, but that’s irrelevant to what we do with this gift we’ve been given. Go Felix, and Go M’s.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Heredia, CF
8: Span, LF
9: Zunino, C
SP: Felix Hernandez

Game 68, Angels at Mariners – Brooms Out

marc w · June 13, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Garrett Richards, 1:10pm

After two *consecutive* games in which Mike Trout has had multi-homer nights, the M’s go for the sweep today behind Marco Gonzales, one of the league’s hottest starters. I’ve said all I can say about how improbable and bizarre this run is, but The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh has a great post today on the M’s and how we long-suffering fans deserve a little luck on our side for a change.

That post shows how the M’s are faring vis a vis their preseason projections at each position. What’s striking to me about that exercise is that, at least for the position players, the projections *correctly* ID’d 1B as a concern, and has been mostly right about a number of spots. They also saw Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger as above-average players. Where they missed is just how FAR above-average those two would be. Segura’s absolutely on fire right now, but Haniger’s had both a torrid streak and a cold snap, and I feel we have a pretty good handle on who he is as a player. Those projections undersold his patience and power, and he’s demonstrated both this year. Segura’s BABIP may eventually come down a bit, but he’s both hitting for a touch more power and demonstrating able defense at SS, and thus blowing his own projections out of the water. Those projections accounted for each guy’s potential to collapse – Haniger’s swing-and-miss getting the best of him, or posting a stubbornly low average, and Segura regressing to his 2014-15 nadir. What I think we’re seeing is that their FLOOR was a lot higher than the projections thought; Jean’s simply not the same hitter (or person) he was in Milwaukee, and Haniger’s a better all-around hitter than he first came up in the Brewers and D-Backs systems.

Spin-master Garrett Richards dominated the M’s in his first start against them, but the M’s are absolutely magical now, so…uh, good luck with that one, Garrett. Richards K% is over 27% this year, a mark that would easily be a new career high for him. But his control problems that were evident as early as the Cactus League haven’t subsided, so he’s on track to set a career high in BB%, too. Whether its his freakish spin rates or a deceptive delivery, Richards has never shown much in the way of platoon splits.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, CF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B Andrew Romine, 3B
6: Span, LF
7: Healy, 1B
8: Gamel, RF
9: Zunino, C
SP: Gonzales

Making his debut for the Angels today is 3B David Fletcher, whom you may have heard of through Carson Cistulli’s remarkably effective Fringe Five series at Fangraphs. Prior to this year, Fletcher was a low-power, low-K oddball, someone with good bat-to-ball skills, but without a position that would allow that particular skillset to play. This year, seemingly out of nowhere, he’s hitting for some power. A swing-change guy? No, not really – his fly ball rate is actually down, it’s just that more of them are leaving the yard. Salt Lake City effect? Maybe, though he didn’t show this in half a year there in 2017. We’ll see how he looks now that Zack Cozart’s shifted over to SS as the Angels wait for the return of Andrelton Simmons. In related news, it’s stunning just how different this line-up looks without Simmons, who’d blossomed at the plate for Anaheim. Imagine the M’s without Segura. Yeeesh.

The M’s have signed most of their recent draft picks, including 11th rounder, Damon Casetta-Stubbs. Josh Stowers, Michael Plassmeyer, Jake Anchia, Joey O’Brien, and Joey Gerber are some of the top-10 rounders who’ve inked deals. Still waiting – and probably not for long – on 1st rounder Logan Gilbert, 3rd rounder Cal Raleigh, and the rest.

The Rainiers welcome Omaha to Tacoma tonight, as the R’s kick off a homestand against the Royals’ affiliate. They were off after their first extra-inning win in Nashville on Monday night.
Arkansas starts a series in Springfield against the Cardinals. The Travs lost to NW Arkansas last night 7-4, as the Naturals took advantage of a rare off-night from RP Art Warren. One of the batters Warren walked? Former Rainier and Team Italy mainstay Alex Liddi.
Modesto continues a series in Visalia; the Rawhide destroyed the Nuts last night 11-3. Randy Bell gets the start for Modesto in tonight’s game.
Clinton got blanked by Astros’ affiliate Quad Cities yesterday 4-0, but the two teams are back at it tonight, with the Lumberkings giving the ball to Clay Chandler to start.

Game 66, Angels at Mariners

marc w · June 12, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Jaime Barria, 7:10pm

Corey Brock’s got an interesting article at The Athletic today, with some great quotes from Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais on the M’s run differential. Sure, many analysts look at their solid but unspectacular run differential and see a team that’s lucky rather than elite, but the M’s have a different set of numbers they look at: a plus/minus-based Control the Zone metric. Essentially, you take the pitching staff’s K’s plus the batters’ walks and subtract the inverse – pitcher walks and batter K’s. Good zone-related outcomes minus bad zone-related outcomes. When you do that, you find the M’s come out at +80, a far sight better than last year.

But, I mean, we’re having this discussion because the team’s doing so much better than last year. We don’t really need a new zone metric to tell us that this year the M’s have played better. Does this new plus/minus number show that the M’s are one of the league’s best teams, unlike run differential? Well, not really. The M’s +80 is still a far cry from the Astros’ + 192. And it’s slightly below the Angels’ +84. The M’s run differential doesn’t show an *awful* team, it shows a good, wild-card contending club that’s just not quite as good as their record. That’s what this CtZ number shows as well. The two are correlated quite well, which makes sense if you think about it. Thus, the best clubs by CtZ are the same as the best clubs by pythagenpat or base runs. The Dodgers show up as the anti-M’s, a team with an unbelievably good CtZ, but a barely .500 record. But hey, run differential shows that too! All in all, the M’s rank 8th in baseball by this measure, 6th in the AL behind the Astros, Red Sox, Yankees, Indians, and Angels. It tells a story, it’s easy to wrap your head around, and it’s reflective of an organizational philosophy, so it’s not meaningless. It’s just not an effective retort to people who point out that the M’s run differential doesn’t look all that impressive.

You know what IS an effective retort to those people? The M’s record. Continuing to win baseball games. Letting the irrationality become part of the charm.

Jaime Barria is a soon-to-be-22-year old who’s served as the Angels’ 6th rotation member for much of the year, bouncing between AAA and the Majors and filling in when off-days don’t allow sufficient rest. With the injury to Shohei Ohtani, it seems like we’ll be seeing more of Barria going forward. He was signed out of the DR by the Angels (under Dipoto’s watch), but the bonus must not have been large enough to merit a blurb in BA. He moved steadily up the ranks in what was generally seen as one of the worst farm systems, but never attracted much attention. He cracked the Angels top 10 this preseason, though, albeit with a note that could’ve been cribbed from Andrew Moore’s – high floor/back-of-the-rotation-type is the sens you get. As mentioned there, he throws from a high 3/4 arm slot, and his resulting straight fastball has solid rise, but at average to a tick worse velocity. Like so many pitchers these days, he goes to his secondaries *a lot*. Righties see more sliders than fastballs, and lefties see about 50% fastballs and then a mix of sliders and change-ups. Barria’s great ERA is in part the result of amazing strand rate and BABIP numbers. He’s avoided really good contact by and large, according to Statcast’s numbers, but that may be due to his unfamiliarity.

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

If you were wondering who the M’s would send to Boston to complete the Roenis Elias trade, we now know: it’s Eric Filia, the older prospect who missed time this year due to suspension. As an older corner defender without a ton of power (and a 20th-round pick), he was always something of a longshot, and would need to hit a ton at every level. Undeterred, Filia…hit a ton at every level. He’s played just 13 games this year for Arkansas, but has 23 hits already, and a nice little .426/.508/.537 line. For his career, he’s at .343/.428/.460.

Game 66, Angels at Mariners – It Begins

marc w · June 11, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Wade LeBlanc vs. Andrew Heaney, 7:10pm

After a brief respite in Tampa, the M’s schedule turns sour for a bit, as the M’s face the Angels, Red Sox and Yankees for a while. People have been eyeballing this slate of games since before the season started, with the optimists considering this an absolutely critical stretch against likely wild card opponents. Here we are, and indeed, these three are the competition for the two WC spots – you figure one will go to the loser of the East, leaving the second for the AL West to fight over. The Angels hot start showed that they’d be a strong opponent, but they stumbled a bit in May, and today came the crushing news that Shohei Ohtani’s been shut down with ulnar collateral ligament strain – one that may need Tommy John surgery to repair.

The Angels appeared to do everything right with Ohtani. They employed a modified 6-man rotation, they gave him plenty of rest, and gave him fewer innings than other starters. He rewarded them with brilliant pitching when he was healthy, but then that’s been Ohtani’s issue the past few years. I’ll be honest, I think he’s great for baseball and I was hoping he’d be a star in MLB. I wanted Ohtani to succeed and for the Angels to blow it anyway. I sincerely hope the TJ talk is just worst case scenario-ism, and that he’ll return this year. If not, I hope he comes back and hits triple digits again. And that the Angels *still* blow it anyway.

I’m not sure if it’s the 6-man rotation or what, but the Angels staff has been stouter than I would’ve thought. Garrett Richards is turning in a decent season, but they’ve been buoyed by the emergence – finally – of Tyler Skaggs, and the more than solid fill-in, Jaime Barria. Still, the big breakout (aside from Ohtani) has been Andrew Heaney, himself coming off of TJ surgery rehab. Specifically, the lefty’s command has enabled him to post an above-average K-BB% while limiting HRs. After allowing 12 in his 20-odd innings last season, he’s allowed just 4 in 60 2/3. His velocity’s up a bit since his return – now at 92+ with his running sinker, thrown from a low-3/4 arm slot. His best pitch is a slurvey curve/slider thing that he throws a ton of to lefties, but he’s also got a firm change-up at 83-84 that he employs to righties.

With a lower arm slot and a sinker/kinda-slider arsenal, it’s no big shock that his platoon splits are pretty sizable. This is definitely a better match-up for Jean Segura/Mitch Haniger/Nelson Cruz, but his curve has been better this year, even to righties. That said, what seems to have made a difference for him is his primary fastball, the sinker. In general, sinkers have less spin than four-seamers, with less pure backspin producing “rise.” Heaney’s, though, gets plus spin, which may help it miss some bats. From Statcast, it looks like Heaney’s spin rate has improved since his TJ surgery, which may be a byproduct of that increased velo. But it *also* looks like he’s getting some extra cutter spin – that is, some spin that does NOT produce movement. Heaney’s armside run was higher back in 2015…but his spin was lower. This may be what’s happened with James Paxton this year, too – his spin rate keeps rising, but his…uh…rise does not follow suit. That is to say, Paxton’s adding extra spin without it influencing the movement of the pitch. With so much emphasis on spin efficiency, is that “cut” spin doing anything useful? I don’t know, but it certainly seems to be working for Big Maple – and it’s been effective for Garrett Richards, the guy who occasioned me learning about gyro spin in the first place a few years back. Whatever it is, Heaney’s fastball has been more effective than in the past, and that’s made a big difference for him.

Speaking of more effective fastballs, the entire Mariner team has been on a roll, and they’ve done it in much the same fashion as Heaney – they stopped allowing dingers. A bit over a year ago, I wrote a post about how much of the HR explosion had to do with four-seam fastballs. That’s less true now, as the percentage of four-seamers that turn into dingers is down fractionally, even as the overall percentage of four-seamers thrown remains the same as last year (35.5% according to MLB). The M’s are throwing dramatically fewer four-seamers and have actually allowed the fewest HRs on four-seamers of any club in the game. For a team that led MLB in HRs in 2016, and came darn close to repeating that feat last year, this is noteworthy. If you’ve watched Felix recently, it won’t come as much of a shock that they are giving up too many HRs in the NON four-seam FB category, but the numbers are low enough that that seems like an easier problem to deal with. In any event, it’s something to watch the rest of the way – are the M’s changing their pitching strategy? And is that what’s behind the resurgence of guys like Marco Gonzales, Mike Leake, and today’s starter, Wade LeBlanc?

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Heredia, CF
8: Span, LF
9: Zunino, C
SP: LeBlanc

Christian Bergman and Max Povse start for Tacoma and Arkansas, respectively, and look to continue a run of effective starts. Colin Rogers and Ryne Inman take the hill in the lower levels of the system.

Clinton swept a double-header from Kane County yesterday and are closing in on a first-half title in the Western division of the Midwest League. Modesto, who got blown out by San Jose, are in last in their division, and already eliminated mathematically from the first-half race. Arkansas leads their division, albeit with a record of just 32-30; no other team in the North division has a .500 record. Tacoma’s 7.5 games out in the Pacific Coast League’s pacific north division.

Game 65, Mariners at Rays

marc w · June 10, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Nate Eovaldi, 10:10am

Happy Maple Day.

The M’s actually lost a game yesterday, which felt novel and strange more than out and out bad. The M’s record currently stands at 40-24, which is nearly the inverse of the White Sox’ current 21-41 mark. Think about just how bad the Sox have been, how despite a massive prospect haul, they still struggle to find anyone to give them replacement-level innings (outside of Reynaldo Lopez). How they’ve given over 100 PAs to an OF with an OBP of .180, which is the only way to make CF Adam Engel’s .228/.289/.329 mark look acceptable. How every single mark is negative, from baserunning to defense to strand rate to FIP, etc. Take that pile of woe, invert everything about it, and you’ve got the M’s 2018 season. I’ll admit, I still don’t quite get what’s happening here, or what’s propelling the M’s so far above the .500 mark I thought was in store for them. But thinking about the M’s this way reminds me that this is so comprehensive, so thorough, that they are clearly better than I gave them credit for.

Today, James Paxton faces off with former Marlins and Yankees fireballer, Nathan Eovaldi. For years, Eovaldi ranked as one of the hardest throwing starting pitchers in the league, but that was essentially the only stat that stood out. He put it all together for one solid year in the Bronx back in 2015, but overall, he’s struggled to turn his 98mph fastball into whiffs and strikeouts. It’s not that he lacks secondary pitches – he throws a slider, curve, and a splitter along with a sinker and four-seam fastball. Part of it is that his fastball movement is pretty underwhelming. It’s got a bit of armside run, but not too much, and little horizontal rise. The splitter is probably his best overall offering, but it’s not exactly an all-star pitch.

Eovaldi’s coming back from TJ surgery this year, having missed all of 2017 and most of this year, too. His velo’s right back where it was, but we’ll see how he looks to the M’s offense. He’s tossed 11 IP at the major league level this year, and done quite well, thanks to his more than serviceable control. His first outing was a brilliant 6 shutout inning performance against the A’s, though the Nats roughed him up in his last outing. Eovaldi’s always had pretty significant platoon splits, so we’ll see how Servais adjusts the line-up:

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, CF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Span, LF
7: Healy, 1B
8: Gamel, RF
9: Zunino, C
SP: PAXTON.

Just some tweaks, but nothing as significant as swapping Healy and Vogelbach. Span moves up the line-up, I suppose, and Heredia sits in favor of Gamel/Span/Haniger OF.

Game 63, Mariners at Rays

marc w · June 8, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Wilmer Font, 4:10pm

This was always going to be the “breather” series in a very tough stretch for the M’s, but I don’t know if we knew just how much the Rays’ outlook had changed until recently. As I mentioned yesterday, the Rays are in 3rd in the AL East, and until their sweep in Seattle and some stumbled against the Nats, their record wasn’t too bad. Their decision to cut salary and essentially quit trying – or even pretend to try – for the wild card has had some impacts. Gone are their 4th and 6th-best hitters by wRC+ (Denard Span, Brad Miller), as well as their erstwhile closer. They’ve called up Jake Bauers who wasn’t exactly destroying the International League. Maybe the one good thing to come out of the past week/ten days has been Chris Archer heading to the DL with an abdominal injury. How’s that good, you ask? Archer characterized it as a mild problem that he would’ve played through, but that rest may take care of the issue for good. With the team’s motivation sunk, I think it’s great that Archer realized he needs to focus on his own career. Staying healthy nearing the trade deadline is critical for both Archer AND the Rays, and I’m sure the Rays newfound conviction to playing the kids helped Archer make the decision to take 10 days of rest.

Archer pitched pretty well against the M’s last week, so the M’s won’t complain, either. In Archer’s place is a pitcher who may be his opposite. Archer’s remarkably steady, having made at least 32 starts four straight years, and who’s reliably generated strike-outs, a few too many walks, and good FIPs to go with solid but not spectacular ERAs. Wilmer Font has produced a season of gaudy, even rococo awfulness. There’s nothing steady about a season that’s seen him play for three teams in three months. If Font qualified for the ERA title, he’d rank in the top 20 in HRs-allowed despite having pitched 1/3-1/4 of a starter’s workload. Batters are slugging over 1.100 on his slider, meaning it’s one of the worst sliders in the league, which just heightens the differences between he and Archer.

Font throws 95, but it hasn’t helped him quite yet. With the Dodgers, Font gave up 5 HRs in 10 1/3 IP this year, or 5 in 48 batters faced. That dog pretty clearly will not hunt, so he was DFA’d and ended up on the A’s, who were sick of similar problems with former Mariner Emilio Pagan. You can see the appeal – he throws hard, misses a few bats, and if you just wait for regression to deal with those HRs, you might have something. Font’s HR troubles laughed in the face of your “regression.” The impossible is nothing, they seemed to say, and actually improved on that HR rate, giving up another 5 dingers in just *37* batters faced. I haven’t sat around and counted HRs in a MLB batting practice session, in part because I’m not allowed to, and in part because it seems like a spectacular waste of time, but I honestly wonder if that’s not a higher HR rate than you’d see in one. Sure, Nelly Cruz probably hits more than 5 in 37 quasi-At Bats, but if you looked at the entire session, I’m reasonably sure it’s lower than 5-for-37. The A’s dropped Font like a hot rock.

The Rays were interested, because of course they were. Not only is Font making the league minimum, but high HR rates are not exactly a turn-off in the St. Petersburg area. Andrew Moore is in the right org for him, just as Jake Odorizzi was, and just as Alex Cobb and others were. The Rays probably don’t mind Font’s fly-ball tendencies*, but they’d just need to make a few tweaks. They appear to have done just that. Font has had many, many problems, as both his fastball and his two breaking balls have been utterly destroyed. Would another pitch work? He’s had a change, but he’s not used it much at all. BrooksBaseball counts all of 1 (one) thrown in his Dodger tenure this year. He threw 4 in his first game in Oakland, and then another 5 in another game. So, arriving in Tampa, he’d thrown 10 of them all season. In 4 games with the Rays, he’s at 18. More than just the usage, though, the Rays seemed to have changed it.

To be fair, so did the A’s…they just didn’t seem to like it. That solitary cambio with the Dodgers looked the way his 2017 changes did – that is to say, it had *less* armside run than his fastball, and about 4-5″ less “rise”. They were thrown at 84 or so. With the A’s, that vertical drop was accentuated, bringing the gap in rise up to about 8-10″. In all, it looked like a solid splitter, albeit one that he didn’t have much faith in (or the A’s didn’t have faith to call). With the Rays, it has slightly more horizontal run than his fastball (helped by a slightly different release point for ALL of his pitches), and a bit less vertical movement – but that’s in part due to the fact that he’s throwing it harder, 85-88 MPH now. It now looks more like a split-finger fastball, and in particular, like Alex Cobb’s old pitch, the one he taught to Odorizzi. I’m not sure if that makes Font *good* or anything, but at least Font’s not challenging records or credulity with his HR rate (he’s given up 1 with the Rays). This is pretty much what I’d expect the Rays to do with Andrew Moore, another pitcher with a serious gopherball penchant.

So is Font just the opener? I believe they’re going to hand the ball to Matt Andriese after Font, but with Archer down, I’m not sure if they’ll try to get more than 3-5 batters out of Font. All of these openers can tax the bullpen; Ryne Stanek threw more pitches than I think the Rays would’ve liked, so I’m not sure if he’s available. At least Austin Pruitt gave the 7, so guys like Romo may be available. That’s good, because Andriese’s season high in innings pitched this year is…3 1/3, a mark he’s hit just once. Andriese has a straight fastball at 93 or so, and pitches off his best pitch, a hard split-change thing. He’s what you imagine when you hear the phrase “pitches for the Rays.” Incidentally, while the concept of the “opener” could work in some applications – like Romo-facing-the-top-of-the-Angels-line-up or something similar – this feels a lot more like a good old fashioned bullpen day. An opener who was completely different from the following pitcher might work; a righty followed by a lefty, or an 88-MPH junkballer followed by a 96 MPH fireballer – something to maximize the platoon advantage or mess with hitters’ timing. Today is…not that. It’s two righties with similar fastballs, similar off-speed pitches, and poor breaking balls. Go M’s.

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

Dakota Hudson and Memphis shut out Tacoma last night 6-0. Ashton Goudeau took the loss in relief of Lindsay Caughel, who went 3 scoreless. Ex-MLB starter and recent indy league signing Ross Detwiler starts for Tacoma tonight.

Arkansas lost a late lead to Tulsa, as the Drillers scored 5 in the last two innings to win 6-4. Chase de Jong tossed a quality start, giving up 1 R in 6, but Scott Kuzminsky gave up 4 runs in the 8th, and newcomer Daniel Schlereth gave up another in the 9th. Braden Bishop doubled and walked, continuing his absolutely torrid streak. Bishop posted a .610 OPS in April, raised it to .789 in May, and has gone nuts in June thus far, with a 1.382 OPS in 30 ABs. Nathan Bannister starts tonight opposite old org signing Justin DeFratus for Tulsa.

Modesto scored a run in the 9th to beat Visalia 1-0. The Rawhide’s Riley Smith and the Nuts’ Darren McCaughan were locked in a pitcher’s duel, and Seth Elledge got the win with a scoreless 9th. Elledge has 36 Ks in 24 IP and could probably stand to try things out in AA now. Randy Bell starts for Modesto against the anachronistically named Melvin Adon.

Clinton beat Burlington 8-2 on HRs by Ryan Costello and Greifer Andrade and a good start by Nick Wells. Sam Delaplane tossed 1 2/3 IP, and now has 41 Ks to 10 BB in 26 IP. Hey, he could replace Elledge in High A? The Lumberkings send Clay Chandler to the mound tonight, an undrafted free agent they signed last year. He’s been solid for Clinton this year.

* You really have to admire Font’s commitment to the bit – in his short career, he’s somehow managed to have a very high fly ball rate, AND a high HR/FB rate, *AND* a high BABIP-allowed. That’s really, really hard to do. Small samples can produce anything, but this is remarkable.

Game 62, Mariners at Rays – Everything Must Go!

marc w · June 7, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Ryne Stanek / Austin Pruitt, 4:10pm

A few weeks ago, the M’s traded for Denard Span and Alex Colome in exchange for Andrew Moore and Tommy Romero. To me, the deal doesn’t really hinge on what you think Span has left in the tank or your projections for Moore’s ceiling. Rather, the most important factor seemed to be that Span was the Rays most expensive player this year, and Colome ranked 6th. The Rays aren’t bad; they’re currently 3rd in the AL East, albeit several miles behind the Red Sox/Yankees. But because of how the early season’s shaking out, they’re pretty clearly not interested in trying to make a run at the second wild card. It’s not just that they have no real shot at catching up to whoever comes in 2nd in their own division – it’s that the M’s, and to a much lesser extent the Angels – have made competing for the SECOND wild card look like a fantasy. That’s the context for today’s Rays move, DFA’ing former Mariner Brad Miller and bringing up 1B prospect Jake Bauers.

There’s been a lot of talk about the compensation consequences of the Rays’ new “opener” strategy, of using a reliever for an inning and then handing the ball to someone who pitches a starter’s workload (that’s the plan for today’s game, for example). Letting Span go and then DFA’ing Miller seems to suggest that they’re not only looking for longer term payroll flexibility, but *current year* savings. To me, that’s even grosser. It’s true – the Rays aren’t getting the wild card. We’ve anticipated a Chris Archer trade for the past 18 months or so. But if they trade Wilson Ramos and Archer, and if another team picks up Miller, it’s essentially letting the Rays hide behind an opening day payroll they had no intention of actually paying out. There’s nothing illegal about that, and again, you can kind of understand the baseball thinking behind some of these moves, but it means the entire operating starts to look more like a way to profit from baseball’s revenue sharing. Stay in MLB’s good graces for taking on Span’s salary and signing Ramos, then start trading players when they hit arbitration and paying a few million to make the balance of your short term contracts go away. I don’t hate the “opener” gambit, and if it was any other team, I don’t think I’d worry that it was just a ploy to reduce a pitcher’s arb award. This isn’t any other team.

Today’s, uh, “opener” is Ryne Stanek, one-time Mariner draftee, who spurned the M’s and went to Arkansas where he became the presumptive #1 overall pick in the 2013 draft. But an inconsistent junior year saw his stock fall, and the Rays nabbed him with the 29th pick. He moved to the bullpen a few years after that, and made his MLB debut last year, sitting at 98-99 out of the pen, but getting hit far harder than anyone sitting at 98-99 should. Of particular note, he’s got pronounced reverse splits, which is odd given that his big pitch coming out of college was a slider. Instead, his best pitch now appears to be a split-change, thrown at around 89-90 with similar horizontal movement to his fastball, but which dives downward. It’s too soon to know how effective he can be with it, or to know what to make of a righty reliever with a career FIP against righties over 8, but that splitter’s the key to why the Rays may be trying this.

The first “opener” the Rays used was the famous ROOGY Sergio Romo. Romo’s a classic righty-killer, a guy who threw a sweeping slider against righties and basically just tried to keep the ball in the park against lefties. Playing an Angels line-up that included big righties at the top like Mike Trout and Andrelton Simmons, Romo cleared the way for a lefty like Ryan Yarbrough to miss some high-stress PAs against tough righties. Like Romo, Stanek’s a righty reliever, but the M’s line-up starts with Dee Gordon, and they’ve often swapped Kyle Seager and Mitch Haniger depending on the handedness of the starter. The M’s aren’t biting this time. Haniger’s hits 3rd, so the M’s will have a fairly right-handed slate of hitters face Stanek, hopefully neutralizing the impact of Stanek’s best pitch.

After that, it’s Austin Pruitt again, the guy who “Started” after Romo “opened” in the series opener back in Seattle. In that one, Pruitt pitched 5 good innings after Romo threw 1 1/3, staying in through Haniger in the 5 hole. We’ll see if the Rays do something similar, letting Stanek face Seager before giving way to Pruitt, who incidentally doesn’t have huge platoon splits either way.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Span, LF
8: Heredia, CF
9: Freitas, C
SP: Leake

Levi Weaver concluded his 3-part series for the Athletic on Driveline Baseball and its founder, Kyle Boddy, today. As LL’s Tim Cantu noted on twitter, there are some disconcerting references to an “AL West” team that broke off a planned partnership – a team that’s almost certainly the M’s. With that deal smoldering, Boddy is pursuing…some kind of arrangement with Texas; Weaver notes Boddy was in the Rangers draft war room this week. None of this is to say that any team that hires him has an advantage, or that the M’s were stupid not to move forward with whatever it was they had planned with Driveline. I don’t know anything about pitcher development. I just would love to see the M’s stick with SOME kind of development program for their pitchers. The recent improvement from Marco Gonzales is the cause for some optimism, no doubt, but at the time THAT deal was made, the M’s made a point to say how much Gonzales had changed after coming back from TJ. That is, how much he’d changed in the Cardinals org that drafted him and got him to the majors. None of that’s to downplay the job that Mel Stottlemeyer Jr.’s done this year – he seemed embattled at the end of 2017, but his charges are doing extremely well, with notable improvements from Gonzales, Edwin Diaz, and Wade LeBlanc.

Good article from Jeff Sullivan on how we may be on the down slope from peak HR. HR rates league wide are down, even as batters have hit more and more fly balls. Certainly, there’s far fewer GBs this year than last, the year of the fly ball revolution. It’s just that fly balls aren’t getting rewarded the way they were, and as I’ve talked about, the same exit velocity and launch angle is less likely to turn into a HR this year compared to 2017. Has the ball changed back again? Maybe looking to get more of a handle on year-to-year differences, MLB purchased ball manufacturer Rawlings this week for $395 million.

Lindsay Caughel faces off with Cardinals prospect Dakota Hudson and the Memphis Redbirds tonight. Chase de Jong starts for Arkansas, who host Tulsa, and Darren McCaughen takes the mound for Modesto as they host Visalia. Nick Wells starts for Clinton, who are in Burlington to face the Bees. In last night’s games, Tacoma lost 2-1 despite a strong start from Christian Bergman. Former Rainier Tyler O’Neill went 1-2 with 2 BBs. Max Povse continued a run of strong starts, beating Tulsa 5-3, and K’ing 9 in 6 IP. That’s 19 strikeouts in his last two starts, covering 12 IP. Former Rainier reliever Brian Moran pitched in that one for the Drillers.

Still, if it’s ex-Rainiers you want, check out the Durham Bulls – the team Jake Bauers played for until today. They’ve got Andrew Moore, who pitched for Tacoma in 2017-18, Andrew Kittredge (2015-16), Ryan Weber (2017), Forrest Snow (2011-2015), and catching them all is Adam Moore (2009-10, 2012). They have also seen appearances from Vidal Nuno (2015) and Zach Lee (2016).

Game 61, Mariners at Astros

marc w · June 6, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Wade LeBlanc vs. Lance McCullers Jr., 5:10pm

After a pleasingly convincing, easy win yesterday, the M’s hand the ball to Wade LeBlanc, who’s on a month + hot streak. That streak has been characterized by an astonishingly good K:BB ratio that has NOT been accompanied by dinger troubles. When LeBlanc last played here, he posted a 15.4% K-BB% mark, the best of his career. Unfortunately, it was also accompanied by a wave of HRs allowed, which sunk his fWAR, if not his actual in-game utility. It’s funny; with the Padres, LeBlanc had awful strikezone numbers – missing too few bats and walking too many – but kept his HR rates low, in part thanks to his spacious park and the overall environment in scoring’s little ice age. In 2016 and 2017, he flipped – he wasn’t exactly Max Scherzer, but he struck out more batters and he pushed his walk rates significantly lower, but then had to deal with dingers. What we’ve seen thus far is what LeBlanc looks like when he does both at the same time. It’s a good look.

After mentioning Dallas Keuchel’s emerging HR problem and then watching the M’s demonstrate it, I wondered: is Wade LeBlanc really *worse* in some absolute sense than Dallas Keuchel? Is Dallas Keuchel the bloated major-label version of the same thing, while LeBlanc is the innovative, indie-label alternative? Keuchel has the credentials and career, but who’ll be better in 2019-2020? If we look at the projection systems, the answer’s pretty clear: Keuchel’s still better. They all assume Keuchel will recover his HR mojo AND miss some more bats, and that’s essentially the difference. By pure K:BB projections, though, it’s surprisingly close – at least if you look at ZiPS. Steamer is still not a fan, no matter what trendy label LeBlanc is on. But so much of the work being done here is Keuchel’s career HR/FB and HR/9 rate. I understand that LeBlanc’s should probably be higher, if only because he gives up about twice as many fly balls, but I’m not completely sold on Keuchel just bouncing back to where he was a year ago. It’s closer than I would’ve thought, anyway, and it’s kind of awesome for the question to pop up.

Today’s match-up pits two very, very dissimilar pitchers up against each other. Kind of. McCullers throws very hard, gets a ton of grounders, and strikes out and walks many more opposing batters. LeBlanc’s a soft-tosser who has very good control, gives up fly balls and has below-average K rates. In approach, though, they’re more similar than you’d think. McCullers got a lot of attention early in his career for his remarkably high breaking ball usage rate. This year, McCullers throws only 40% fastballs, and then another 40% or so of breaking balls, with the balance change-ups. The league in general and the Astros in particular have been moving away from FBs and towards other pitches for a while, but McCullers is kind of the poster boy for this “pitching backwards” strategy. But hey, look at ol’ Wade LeBlanc! If you use Brooks’ pitch categories, he’s throwing 65% “hard” pitches, but that’s counting his cutter as a quasi-fastball. At 4 or so MPH slower than his FBs and with a break that’s about 10″ or so different from his sinker, it feels slider-y to me. And if you put it with the breaking balls, then he’s throwing 43% fastballs, 30% change-ups, and 27% breaking balls.

Tonight’s line-up:
1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Span, LF
8: Heredia, CF
9: Zunino, C
SP: LeBlanc

The draft lumbers on, and the M’s have added another big group of players to the organization. Rounds 11-40 were today, and the interesting pick from a few angles was local product Damon Casetta-Stubbs, a righty pitcher from the Vancouver, WA area. As this article from the Columbian mentions, he’d heard he might go anywhere from the 3rd-8th round, and his coach encouraged him to pick a price and stick with it in negotiations. As you probably know, there are slot values for each pick in the first 10 rounds, with the signing bonuses all counting towards a team’s overall bonus pool. They can go “over slot” with someone, but not by too much, or they’ll need to sign others for under slot money. As always, teams sign a few college seniors who’ll command less than their “slot” value would suggest in order to allow them to sign a reach pick – last year, the M’s got Sam Carlson in the 2nd round, but gave him 1st round money in part by signing Wyatt Mills in the 3rd to a far under slot bonus. What’s this have to do with Casetta-Stubbs? Well, picks after the 10th round that are over $125,000 count against the bonus pool. To sign him, I think it’s going to cost them more than that. But by waiting until the 11th round, they had an entire night to see how their draft crop looked, and how much money they expect to have available. They obviously think they can sign him AND stay under the worst of the penalties. It’d be nice to get another player with ~5th round talent in the 11th round.

Anyway, Casetta-Stubbs aside, the story of the M’s draft is their overwhelming tilt towards the college ranks. That’s been an organizational preference for a while, but this year stands out. Of interest to me, anyway, is 9th rounder Keegan McGovern, a senior out of Georgia who looks like a completely different player this year. In his junior year, he hit all of 2 HRs, but broke out with 18 this year, one of the top marks in the SEC.

Important article in the Athletic by Meredith Wills, who examined baseballs pre- and post-HR surge, and finds that the new balls have thicker, tougher laces. This small difference may account for a big chunk of the ball’s decreased drag AND why so many pitchers have been having blister problems. It’s free (at least today) to read, and it’s worth your time.

The M’s announced today that they’d offer a ballpark pass for the July slate of home games – 14 in all. It’s just $98. Pretty cool move to get more fans to Safeco as the playoff race heats up. A few other teams have done this, or targeted kids with similar promotions, but it’s cool to see the M’s offer something like this for July. It’s well-timed, kids are out of school, and it includes some really nice match-ups and promotions.

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