Game 82, Orioles at Mariners

marc w · July 3, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Ubaldo Jimenez, 1:10pm

When the M’s are successful, there’s a natural tendency to see the results as an expression of the great changes brought about by the new front office, but it’s kind of funny when you look at *how* they’ve succeeded. Zduriencik was rightly criticized for what seemed like a fixation on power – and RH power in particular – at the expense of every other aspect of the game. The M’s have won three in a row for the first time since May by outslugging the slugging Orioles. The M’s right-handed sluggers like Nelson Cruz and Dae Ho Lee are a key reason why the M’s find themselves over .500. The M’s defense still isn’t great, and they still can’t run the bases very well, but instead of getting pitiful performance from every right-handed complementary player (Trumbo), they’re getting actual production from the odd-couple of Guti and Lee. This isn’t a complaint, mind you, but it and Trumbo’s resurgence with the O’s, must be frustrating to Zduriencik.

Ubaldo Jimenez fascinates me. His Fangraphs page defies explanation and sabermetric ideas. There’s volatility, and then there’s whatever Jimenez is doing. Since 2010, his ERAs have been: 2.68, 4.68, 5.40, 3.30, 4.81, 4.11 and now 6.63. A tremendously lucky (or unlucky?) player? I don’t know, because his FIP (and xFIP) follows the same lack-of-pattern. I can’t tell if his bizarre career is the product of too much luck or too little. Sabermetric analysis of pitchers has centered on the concept of true talent, a lodestar around which results orbit, pushed from the center by luck, variance, park effects, opposition strength, defense, etc. The idea of getting a glimpse of true talent by measuring these results is an attractive one, but Jimenez makes a mockery of it. Instead of these smooth arcs, resembling planetary orbits, Jimenez calls to mind someone trying and failing to control a massive machine that spinning out of control. Parts are flying off, there’s smoke billowing from the engine, but every now and again, it almost looks controlled. But whatever that big machine is doing, it’s pretty clearly not orbiting anything – the point around which it’s spinning is moving, too.

Jimenez has changed his pitch mix a few times, and he’s gained and lost velocity. Occasionally, he’s quite good against lefties, and at other times, he makes them look like a collective Mike Trout. There is nothing but variance. There’s no fixed point with Jimenez, there is only the struggle to figure out how to change next.

It helps that his mechanics look so odd. Some pitchers look fluid, like their arm and trunk make graceful arcs and circles in the course of delivering the baseball. Jimenez is all angles and thrusts at angles that go everywhere but towards the catcher’s mitt. When he’s going great, you can see that it might be tough to pick up the ball, and when he’s not, it seems like a gigantic waste of effort and source of potential error.

1: Martin, CF
2: Smith, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Gutierrez, RF
8: Iannetta, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: Iwakuma

Game 81, Orioles at Mariners

marc w · July 2, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Tyler Wilson, 7:10pm

On the M’s last trip to Baltimore, they faced extreme pitch-to-contact righty Tyler Wilson, who came up without much hype thanks to a strong aversion to missing bats and so-so minor league numbers. Despite all of that, he’d held opposing offenses in check through his first few months in the bigs (split between 2015 and 2016) thanks to a freakishly low HR rate. Back in May, I wondered if he might follow the dispiriting path that so many pitch-to-contact guys (Nick Blackburn, Scott Diamond, etc.) had gone before, where the league adjusts and a low HR/FB ratio just isn’t sustainable any more. We’re a few months later now, and the evidence is starting to come in that Wilson really is Blake Beavan in a more compact exterior. With a HR/9 over 1, his ERA and FIP are both in the mid 4s instead of the mid 3s (his xFIP is essentially unchanged, which shows how dependent he’d been on fly balls falling short of the wall).

Wilson isn’t quite the extreme fly ball guy that Beavan or various Twins were; his fastball has a bit too much sink for that. It’s also freakishly straight, which may help explain his lack of platoon splits. His sluve-slider has been his best pitch, and it’s curveball-ish enough that it works pretty well to left-handed bats. He’s got a change-up too.

I didn’t get into this to talk about Tyler Wilson, no offense to him, his family or his fans. So let’s talk about the M’s defense. Getting more “athletic” on defense was a key part of Jerry Dipoto’s offseason strategy, and they’ve clearly done that, bringing in ball hawk Leonys Martin, and replacing Mark Trumbo with Nori Aoki (a move that looks…different now). To a degree, that shift in emphasis has brought results: the M’s defense turned 89.1% of fly balls into outs in 2015, while turning…uh… 89.0% this year. Moving from the gaffe-pron Brad Miller to Ketel Marte has helped the infield go from turning 75.4% of ground balls into outs in 2015 to 74.7% this year.*

That’s…surprising, I think. The Mariners overall defensive efficiency is pretty good, thanks to a great job at turning line drives into outs. But these numbers don’t neatly match up with what the team talks about. That is, the team loves to tout the extra outs they’ve saved using defensive shifts. And maybe they’re right! But the overall ratio of ground balls to outs seams kind of low if the shifting was getting them dozens of extra outs every where, and while you can argue that the real benefit is showing up in line drives, I’m not sure that an approach that results in a lot of line drives (even ones caught by fielders!) is an optimal strategy.

So am I against shifting? No, I don’t think so. But like I’ve mentioned before, it’s a bit hard to see the clear, obvious evidence that it’s helping the M’s defense overall. Is it hurting the defense? Ehhhh, probably not. There’s no reason not to put your fielders where a batter typically hits the ball, and the evidence seems pretty good that it works against a certain type of hitter. It’s possible that the real issue is how the M’s pitchers perform in a shift, which is something both Russell Carleton and others have mentioned. As Joe Sheehan points out (and as the M’s infield confirms this year) – way more shifting does nothing to limit singles or base hits. It may “work”, but it doesn’t do what we think.

1: Martin, CF
2: Smith, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lee, 1B
7: Lind, DH
8: Zunino, C
9: O’Malley, SS
SP: Paxton

This is not the line-up that’s going to improve the M’s DER on its own, so hey, strike some dudes out, Paxton.

Welcome back to the bigs, Mike Zunino. After one of the most horrific non-injury related career trajectories ever seen, Zunino’s spent 2016 getting his approach right in Tacoma. So far, so good; he hit .282/.366/.512. His K rate’s fallen as well, which helps me overlook the fact that he’s been only OK after a brilliant April. That weird thing from 2013 where he hit a ton on the road and struggled at Cheney Stadium? Ha, in 2016 he’s actually…no? Still there? Huh, yeah, still doing that.
* Of note: Miller’s new team, the Rays, rank dead last in ground ball defensive efficiency this year.

Game 80, Orioles at Mariners

marc w · July 1, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Wade LeBlanc vs. Kevin Gausman, 7:10pm

Taijuan Walker threw a great game, and helped the M’s beat their long-time nemesis, Chris Tillman, last night. He also said that his foot pain was still bothering him, but he’d gut it out knowing there was no structural damage. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the M’s season so far: there’s some real good things happening, but they’re always followed up with something concerning. The M’s bullpen’s great, except for that Joel Peralta guy. Ok, great, he’s gone…and now Nick Vincent’s shaky. We have Edwin Diaz now! Aaaand Joaquin Benoit’s having control problems. Wade Miley’s back! Aaaand he’s still ineffective.

Maybe the M’s can follow up their win yesterday by going on a bit of a run. Wade LeBlanc’s success makes no sense, but hey, James Paxton picking up several MPH on his FB somewhere between Tacoma and Seattle makes no sense either, so let’s just roll with it. Maybe Paxton shared a detailed map with Zunino, and he’ll have a similarly-sized improvement in his K:BB ratio.

Today’s match-up is a fun one, in that these two pitchers are so dissimilar, but share a statistical oddity. Kevin Gausman went a couple of picks after Mike Zunino early in the 1st round of the 2012 draft, and with velocity that sits at 96 with ease, you can understand why. Wade LeBlanc’s velocity is… well, LeBlanc was not drafted for his velo, and even after showing some signs of adding a tick or so recently, his average FB velo will always start with an 8. LeBlanc’s calling card has always been a solid change-up. It’s a pitch without dramatic movement, and it comes in at a curveball-esque 75MPH, but his arm action’s good enough that it works for him. In his career, batters hit worse against LeBlanc’s change than any other pitch. Gausman’s primary non-fastball is his splitter, a pitch which averages 86mph. Like LeBlanc, he’s enjoyed some success with the pitch, and it plays well with his ultra-fast four-seamer.

Their physical tools are so different, but this looks like a pretty similar approach, and it leads to a similar problem. Without an effective breaking ball, both depend on their fastballs and offspeed stuff to attack same-handed hitters. And, to date, they haven’t been effective. Righties are hitting .254/.327/.411 off LeBlanc, which, if he had *normal* splits would make him a pretty good starter. But he doesn’t: lefties are hitting .313/.369/.532. Gausman’s the same: lefties are hitting .238/.301/.380 off of him, but righties have feasted to a .274/.321/.463 line, and they’re doing even better this year, with a slugging percentage right at .500.

Gausman uses his splitter to lefties and righties alike, and that shouldn’t be a big problem. But for whatever reason, righties just see the pitch better, and tee off on it. It’s a devastating weapon to lefties, though. LeBlanc tries to get lefties out with breaking stuff, but it simply doesn’t work, and neither does his fastball. Gausman’s got an intriguing curve/slider thing that seems like it’d be an average-ish pitch, but righties are teeing off on it like they know it’s coming.

1: Martin, CF
2: Smith, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lee, 1B
7: Lind, DH
8: Iannetta, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: LeBlanc

Noooo, not the standard lefty line-up, nooooooo!

I still can’t get over the fact that Wade LeBlanc is on the team and in the rotation and Nate Karns is in the ‘pen. If you told me that would happen in 2016, I would assume the club was 35 games under .500. They’re actually above .500, and still on the fringes of contention. Baseball is amazing.

Tom Wilhelmsen is back in place of Donn Roach. Mike Zunino’s up, replacing Steve Clevenger, who’ll have surgery on a broken bone in his hand.

Game 79, Orioles at Mariners

marc w · June 30, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Chris Tillman, 7:10pm

Well, it can’t be as bad as last night’s lackluster effort, can it? The surging Orioles come to town with a 5.5 game lead over Boston in the AL East. Led by an offense that’s hit the most HRs in baseball (the M’s are actually in 3rd place) and a solid bullpen, they’ve been able to shrug off some mediocre team defense and a starting rotation that’s average at best.

The M’s old nemesis Chris Tillman starts today, and he’s been the O’s top starting pitcher by a mile. The veteran’s 10-1 record gets some attention, but he’s improved his strikeout rate fairly significantly this year, and while his ERA’s a product of some freakishly high strand rates, the fact that his BABIP is low isn’t anomalous any more – Tillman’s consistently got low BABIPs thanks to his fly-ball and pop-up approach, an approach he’s increased this year.

While he was traditionally one of the most over-the-top, rising-fastball pitchers in the game, he’s dropped his release point in recent years, giving him less vertical rise than he had as a youngster. That may be part of the reason for an uptick in his ground ball rate, which has gone from “absolutely not” to within sight of the league average. Coming up, he was famed for his big curve, and while the pitch still has tons of spin and vertical drop, he doesn’t throw it as much as he used to. Instead, he mixed in more of a so-so change and a really intriguing cutter. Like the curve, the cutter has extreme vertical movement, dropping 9-10″ compared with his fastball despite being thrown at 87. In that spectrum from slider to fastball that define the nebulous idea of the cutter, Tillman’s definitely nearer to the slider pole.

The pitch is so good, it’s surprising to me that he hasn’t been better against righties. I suppose having 12-6 movement as opposed to horizontal break may make it more of an equal-opportunity weapon, but Tillman’s never been a guy who shuts down righties. The rising fastball and curve combo is often associated with pitchers who don’t have platoon splits, so that’d explain his career numbers, but it’ll be interesting to see if they change with his lowered release point. In fact, this year, he’s finally showing some huge splits, with a FIP a full run better vs. RHBs. Of course, that’s still not driven by more strikeouts, the way it would be for most pitchers. Instead, Tillman’s walk rate is much higher against lefties. That doesn’t seem like anything that’d be related to release point or pitch mix shifts, so it’s hard to say what’s driving it – it may just be a fluke.

1: Martin, CF
2: Smith, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lee, 1B
7: Lind, DH
8: Iannetta, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: Walker

Game 78, Pirates at Mariners

marc w · June 29, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Wade Miley vs. Jameson Taillon, 7:10pm

Wade Miley returns from the DL, swapping out with Nick Vincent, who’ll head to the DL with a back problem. The M’s have certainly been hit hard by injuries in the first half, with Miley, Felix, Vincent, Adrian Sampson, Tony Zych, Joaquin Benoit, Leonys Martin and Ketel Marte all missing time, and Evan Scribner, Charlie Furbush and Ryan Cook suffering injuries during the spring.

Tonight’s game’s an interesting one, as the M’s get a look at long-heralded pitching prospect Jameson Taillon. Taillon went #2 overall back in the 2010 draft, a spot ahead of Manny Machado, and worked his way up the ladder, hitting AAA in 2013. He’s been a top-100 prospect, and even a top 10 prospect in baseball several times. He was primed for his big league debut in 2014, but blew out his elbow in April, spending 18 months rehabbing from TJ surgery. He then needed a hernia surgery that further delayed his return to baseball, so Pirates fans were justifiably nervous of what he’d be like when he started out with the Pirates’ AAA club this April. Taillon still sits in the mid 90s with his two fastballs, and his control seemed, if anything, better than before, and with the Pirates dealing with injury issues of their own, they brought him up. In his 2nd start, he took a no-hitter into the 8th inning against the Mets, and he looked like a guy who could spearhead a surge for Pittsburgh in the second half.

Things haven’t looked quite as rosy since that start against on June 14th. It’s just two starts, but he’s given up 16 hits and 8 runs in 8 IP since, with a 3-HR drubbing by the Cubs, and then another loss (at home) to the Dodgers. Any pitcher will have a couple of clunkers in their gamelog, so it’s not a big red flag, but it’s something to watch – can he keep big league lefties off the basepaths consistently?

No disrespect to his mid-90s heat, but Taillon’s best pitch is a great curve ball, a pitch that’s pretty firm at 80-81 MPH and features remarkable downward break. He’s got a change-up, but it doesn’t seem to be thought of as highly, and it looks pretty mediocre by pitch fx. His fastballs movement is nothing to write home about, as he’s essentially got dead-on average “rise” on both his four-seam and sinker. This scouting report notes his height and downward plane (at 6’5″, his release point’s a bit higher than average), but thus far, batters have elevated his four-seamer pretty easily. The sinker gets grounders, but it’s his curve’s ridiculous break that makes it his best ground ball pitch (when batters can put it in play, that is).

We can’t say too much about Taillon’s prospects, but given his struggles, I was struck by this scouting report mentioning that batters may get a long look at the ball in Taillon’s delivery. Taillon’s got plenty of velo, but his fastballs have both been hit hard thus far. Maybe that’s just a function of him running into a ridiculous Cubs club with less-than-his-best-stuff, but maybe there’s something to the idea that his fastball plays slower than it actually is.

1: Martin, CF
2: Smith, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lee, DH
7: Lind, 1B
8: Clevenger, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: Miley

Glad to see Dae Ho Lee get more at-bats against righties, and not be limited to strict platoon duty. Like many hitters who’ve played in NPB, he doesn’t show much in the way of platoon splits, and he’s actually hitting a bit better vs. RHP this year than lefties.

Guillermo Heredia’s in Tacoma now with Boog Powell suspended. Jesus Sucre’s with the Rainiers as well as he continues to rehab his leg. Zach Lee lasted just 3 IP in a loss to Fresno yesterday, but Tom Wilhelmsen was solid in relief, and Mike Zunino had 3 hits.

Game 77, Pirates at Mariners

marc w · June 28, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Jon Niese, 7:10pm

As disappointing a season as it’s been for the M’s, the Pirates may have them beat. After three consecutive playoff appearances, the Pirates find themselves completely out of it in the NL Central, three games below .500 and looking up at a Cubs club that might win 110 games. Like the M’s, they’re well behind a number of teams in the wildcard race. The *lack* of parity in the AL’s been a surprise, but it really doesn’t look like any teams at 81-84 wins are going to squeak into the playoffs in 2016. The Pirates won 98 games a year ago, and even coldly rational sabermetric-loving baseball fans believed their pitching coach was a literal wizard. The Pirates find themselves below .500 in 2016 thanks to a pitching staff that ranks 2nd worst in baseball, ahead of only the historically-bad Reds.

Ray “Not a Literal Wizard” Searage was supposed to fix Jon Niese, a dependably average left-hander the Pirates acquired from the Mets in the Neal Walker trade. Niese was a ground-baller, perfect for Searage’s Pirates, and was coming off something of a down year. A few magical incantations, something about balance and pitching low, and boom, he’ll be fine, right? Jon Niese has a FIP of 5.55, over one full run higher than his next-worst season. This ugly FIP’s been driven by a massive spike in home runs; Niese’s previous career high in HR/9 was right around 1 (1.04 to be exact), but it’s now an eye-watering 1.85. This in turn’s been driven by huge struggles with his splits. As a sinker/curve/cutter guy, Niese has always been much better against lefties than righties, but his splits were nothing alarming. This year, righties are destroying him, with a .550 SLG%-against mark, and pushing Niese’s FIP vs. RHBs over 6. Meanwhile, he’s been even worse on the road. For whatever reason, batters are slugging .626 against him away from Pittsburgh, and have an OPS against him of right about 1.000.

There’s nothing alarming in his velocity or movement – he appears to be the same Jon Niese who underwhelmed for the Mets last year. Niese’s 90mph fastball (four-seam and sinker) were never swing-and-miss pitches, but the damage done on contact is suddenly much, much worse. Why? Part of it may be Niese struggling to adapt to his wizard pitching coach’s strong belief that the best fastball is a low fastball. Niese is throwing both his four-seam and sinkers lower than ever before, and they’re getting hit like never before.
Niese vert. pitch location

Of course, the M’s have had loads of winnable games and favorable match-ups in recent weeks and have found a way to fumble away most of them. The club needs to start pitching better or the season will completely get away from them. That sounds harsh, especially given the staff’s pretty-good ERA on the year, but someone’s got to take the pressure off an over-worked, under-performing bullpen. Through much of May and into June, Hisashi Iwakuma was the only pitcher reliably working deep into games, but after a less-than-5-IP, 3 HR disaster, even he’s looked a bit shaky. But while the Pirates’ offense has been good overall, they may be a good match-up for Iwakuma in that they’re relatively underpowered (while Iwakuma’s achilles heel is the long ball) thanks to strong ground ball tendencies. Throw some splitters, Kuma.

1: Marte, SS
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lee, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Martin, CF
9: O’Malley, LF
SP: Iwakuma

The Futures Game rosters were announced today, with a World Team of prospects facing off against the US’s top prospects on All-Star Weekend. The M’s have two representatives this year, like last season, and again both will suit up for the “World” team. Jackson starting pitcher Dylan Unsworth (from South Africa) and his teammate Tyler O’Neill (Canada) represent the M’s org. In 9 starts this year, Unsworth’s allowed all of 9 total runs, and has an ERA of 1.16 and a K:BB ratio of 5:1. O’Neill just turned 21, and is hitting a well-better-than-expected .310/.371/.532 for the Generals. The top prospects on the rosters include SS Alex Bregman and Dansby Swanson, record-breaking international free agent signing Yoan Moncada, SP prospect Alex Reyes, and OF Alex Benintendi. Like many, I’d kind of assumed Unsworth’s South African heritage would make him the Futures Game representative with the most unlikely background, but no, that honor has to go to Pirates relief prospect Dovydas Neverauskas, who hails from Vilnius, Lithuania.

Zach Lee makes his second start for Tacoma today, this time in Fresno. He gave up 5 runs in 6 IP last time, so hopefully this’ll go a bit better. Tacoma scored 4 late runs to beat the RiverCats 6-2 last night, as Norichika Aoki had 2 hits in his first game for Tacoma. Tacoma’s now 11 games over .500 at 44-33.

Jackson won again, this time 3-1 over Chattanooga. Brett Ash tossed 6 2/3 solid IP to get the win, and the bullpen went the rest of the way without yielding a hit or a walk. DJ Peterson continues to rake, as he went 1-1 with a double and 3 walks, bringing his line up to .271/.340/.466 (after a dreadful April). The club’s off today, and are an incredible 48-27 on the year.

Tyler Herb matched up with Giants’ prospect (and Futures Game invitee) Phil Bickford yesterday, and both held their opponents scoreless for 5 IP. Bickford then left the game to his bullpen, who finished the shutout, while Herb tired in the 7th and gave up 4 runs in an eventual 5-0 loss. The Blaze had just one hit on the day, a bunt single by Aaron Barbosa. The loss dropped Bakersfield to 40-35 on the year.

Clinton destroyed Wisconsin 10-2 behind another solid start from Art Warren. The two clubs played an early game today, and Clinton again came out on top, this time 5-3. Nick Neidert pitched 7 strong IP, giving up 2 R on 2 solo HRs, but largely befuddling the TimberRattlers. Conner Hale had 4 hits for the L-Kings, who are now 45-31.

Everett dismantled Boise 13-1 thanks to a 2-hit, 5 RBI game from Kyle Lewis, whose bases-clearing 2B put an exclamation point on the win. Jake Brentz had 9 Ks in 4 2/3 IP for the AquaSox. Luiz Gohara’s off to a strong start and he’ll start tonight’s game in Spokane. The club is 7-4.

Game 72, Mariners at Tigers

marc w · June 22, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Michael Fulmer, 4:10pm

Is this road trip over yet? Remember when fans were convinced the M’s biggest problem was playing at home? Good times.

The M’s, who now find themselves just a half-game up on the 3rd place Astros, face Detroit’s young Michael Fulmer today at Comerica Park. Fulmer, a right-hander whose fastball sits at 96, was the big prize the Tigers got from the Mets in the Yoenis Cespedes deal about a year ago. After slowly moving up in the Mets system since being drafted in the 1st round in 2011, something clicked and he posted great numbers at AA first in the Mets’ system, and then carried that success over to Detroit’s affiliate. While he gave up a few too many HRs early in the year in AAA, he’s been something of a revelation for Detroit, with solid K rates, and some poor contact leading to very few runs scoring against him – this is how he had a long (33 1/3 IP) scoreless IP streak earlier this year.

It’s funny – when he was in the minors, he was one of those prospects (James Paxton was another) that many saw as a future reliever. Good FB, good slider, command is so-so, and his change-up is worse than that. Lots of effort in the delivery, etc. In the Fangraphs’ article on the Tigers’ top prospects, Fulmer’s ceiling in the rotation was given as a #3 starter, with a better chance to be a late-inning reliever. I’m not trying to pick on Fangraphs, or the broad consensus about Fulmer’s strengths and weaknesses at the time or projected 5-10 years into the future, but I struggle to see that picture when I look at what he throws. His four-seamer, as mentioned, averages 96, with very little horizontal movement and lots of vertical rise. That great slider is thrown around 86-87, drops quite a bit compared to the fastball, and has little horizontal cut to it. But the “below average” change-up…now that looks like something. It, too, is thrown quite hard, at 85 or so, has 7″ of armside run, and even more vertical “drop” than the slider. It looks like a very solid splitter.

Of all Fulmer’s pitches, it’s that change-up that he’s thrown for strikes the most, it’s the pitch that’s gotten the most swings, and yet it’s the pitch that’s been put into play the *least*. When it is, it’s overwhelmingly on the ground. It’s his third pitch, and he uses it as such: he throws it mostly to left-handers, and he throws it most when he’s *behind in the count*. It’s amazing to me to look at the pitch results after looking at how he uses it. In 3-1 counts to opposite-handed hitters, and you have results like this? This is in no way a “below average” pitch. Luckily for the M’s, he doesn’t throw nearly as many of them. His slider’s a good pitch too, to be fair, and he’s comfortable throwing it to lefties, but man, that change looks intriguing. My broader question is: did Fulmer’s change-up suddenly get a whole lot better? Did he improve his arm action and/or command, and so the lingering worries about it are more outdated than out and out wrong? Or is there something about a change-up that’s harder to evaluate, especially when looking at a fireballing FB/SL guy’s third pitch? 2 strike sliders low and away *look* really good, and they are of course. But do evaluators overrate them vis a vis a solid change that can keep lefties off balance, even if it doesn’t make them look completely silly?

Anyway, Fulmer’s running reverse splits thus far. Well, he’s striking out a ton of righties, and walking too many lefties, but lefties just haven’t hit him very hard at all. Righties are pulling the ball against him at a rate 10 percentage points higher than lefties, and lefties have zero HRs against him. The change is something to watch, is what I’m saying.

1: Martin, CF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Lee, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Marte, SS
8: Clevenger, C
9: Aoki, LF
SP: Iwakuma

The M’s starter for Friday won’t be Tai Walker, who’s still struggling with tendinitis in his foot. And it won’t be new Rainier Zach Lee. Instead, it’ll be ex-Padres/Blue Jays soft-tossing lefty change-of-speed guy Wade LeBlanc, whom the M’s just acquired for “cash considerations.”

In addition, Tom Wilhelmsen is back in the M’s bullpen after signing a deal with Seattle. The Rangers dropped him from their 40 man the other day, and the bartender refused an outright assignment to AAA. The overworked bullpen needs help, and I think Wilhelmsen is much, much better than he showed in Texas, but I’d like to hear an actual explanation for what happened down there, whether mechanical or mental. To make room, Jonathan Aro’s headed back to Tacoma. The M’s will need to make another move to get LeBlanc on the active roster.

I’m going to be on a quick family trip for the next few days, so I can’t promise to get anything up. Hopefully a line-up or something, but even that’ll depend on phone reception. Hopefully the M’s will have figured out whatever it is that’s causing them to lose repeatedly by the time I’m back.

Game 71, Mariners at Tigers

marc w · June 21, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Justin Verlander, 4:10pm

The M’s lost another close game after yet another disappointingly short starting pitching outing and despite scoring enough runs to win. Texas won, again, and now the M’s face a 9.5 game deficit in the AL West, and find the Astros perilously close behind. The Astros have gone ahead of the M’s in expected wins for the season, in fact. This despite the fact that the Astros have a negative run differential, while the M’s are up at + 53. That’s not the best in the league, but it’s far, far better than the Rangers, Giants, and a number of teams the M’s are looking up at in the standings. Last year, the Rangers won the division despite carrying a negative run differential into the season’s final month, and Kansas City’s similarly bested its win projections over the past several years (they’re currently 38-31 despite a negative run differential). The M’s do not seem to be appreciably worse than the Rangers, but this is year 2 of the M’s needing to console themselves with that thought as they watch Texas race off ahead of them. This is a frustrating season, and the fact that it’s *differently* frustrating from 2010-2012 (“The M’s have no business being on the field with real, actual, major league baseball teams”) doesn’t make it any easier to stomach. It also lends itself to a frenzy of quasi-psychological explanatations, from lacking a will to win, to tut-tutting about bullpen construction when the M’s bullpen has given up 33 fewer runs than Texas’ despite pitching more innings.

It’s a tough time to be a fan right now, and I’m definitely feeling it too. The bullpen’s an easy target, despite the quality of their stats overall, just because it’s generally way worse for a reliever to give up a home run than a starter. And the M’s bullpen gives up *a lot* of home runs. We’ve talked a lot about how that was part of the plan – the M’s actively acquired pitchers who’d given up lots of dingers, and bet on regression. They’ve actually GOTTEN that regression, but they’ve gotten the dingers too, and a homer-prone bullpen’s a great way to post a worse actual record than your baseruns or pythagorean record would expect.

All of that said, at this point, I’m kind of struck by just how *accurate* the overall pre-season projections have been for the M’s. They made a hash of the M’s rivals – remember that Texas was picked last, and everyone was wayyyy too high on Oakland, evidently. But the systems all had the M’s as a slightly-better-than-.500 team, and that’s pretty much what they’ve been. Sure, some of the individual forecasts are off, but they did a decent job of capturing the M’s in a big picture sense.

James Paxton’s a fireballing rebuke to the cyncism and pessimism you get from watching the M’s fritter away a division lead, or struggle with bullpen overuse and dingers. When so much seems to go against the M’s, or when Joe West’s “Strike zone” is the last thing you need to struggle with as the M’s continue to lose in June, it’s nice to remember that fate can actually smile upon Seattle every so often. I was looking again at some of Paxton’s games this spring, when he pitched in a pitch fx ballpark in Peoria. On the 2nd of March, Paxton pitched a few innings and averaged 91.5mph with his fastball. 10 days later, he was up to 92. The trail goes dark after that, but the next game we have reliable measurement from is his start in San Diego on June 1st, where he averaged 98. He *averaged* 99.0mph in his next outing. Justin Verlander is pitching today, and Paxton makes Verlander look like late-period Jamie Moyer at this point. This makes absolutely no sense, and I love it.

Verlander’s velocity is actually much more volatile than I remember it, so even back in 2008-09, he had games where his FB averaged 93, and others where he sat 95-96, but I can’t find any starts that rival what Paxton’s just done several times in a row. Sure, Verlander averaged 99 a few times in the All-Star Game, but that’s throwing a single inning, or at most 2. In 2011, he had a game against Toronto in which he sat at 98+, and he’s had a few games averaging 97, but those are all several years old. Anyway, Verlander’s change and cutter have been very good pitches against left-handed hitters, which is one reason he has very even – or even slightly reversed – platoon splits over his long career. In recent years, in fact, his slash lines against lefties are actually much better than righties, though FIP thinks that’s all just BABIP luck. But clearly, Verlander’s not a guy you need to be too concerned with getting in an all-lefty line-up or anything.

1: Martin, CF
2: Smith, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Marte, SS
9: Aoki, LF
SP: Paxton

It’s the All-Star break for most full-season affiliates, but there’s still plenty going on in the minors. Everett’s Ljay Newsome made his short season debut last night a memorable one, as he tossed 7 scoreless IP, giving up 2 H and 0 BB while striking out 6. He was a late round pick-up out of a Maryland high school in the 2015 draft, and pitched a bit in the Arizona League last year. Everett won, 10-0, by the way.

Fresno edged Tacoma 2-1, despite a 9th inning HR from Stefen Romero. Cody Martin pitched 7 brilliant IP, with 4 H, 0 BB allowed, and the Gonzaga product K’d 7. Steve Johnson, who was recently outrighted back to Tacoma, pitched a scoreless 8th. Brad Mills starts for Tacoma today as they open a series in Sacramento.

The Arizona League M’s won their first one, 9-6 over their hated rivals on the Padres. Joe Rizzo’s first pro hit was a 3R inside-the-park HR to CF. Catcher Juan Camacho went 4-5. Danny Hultzen made the start and went 1 IP, and hopefully hasn’t re-injured anything. We’re all pulling for you, Danny, or, you know what, forget we said anything about pulling. We wish you well. Another 2015 HS draft pick, Jio Orozco, pitched 5 solid IP after that.

Game 70, Mariners at Tigers

marc w · June 20, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Nate Karns vs. Mike Pelfrey, 4:10pm

Lots to talk about today, and very little time, so we’ll just bullet point this out:

1: Still tossing around the Taylor-for-Lee swap in my head. The question “do you like the trade?” seems woefully inadequate, or at least, I’m conflicted in how I’d answer. I think that Chris Taylor’s not ready to play in the big leagues for the M’s – he showed that last year, and he showed it in his brief call-up. Everything we’ve seen from him in AAA says the opposite: that while he’s not going to be a star, he could add some value. There’s a huge chasm between those two piles of evidence, and for whatever reason, the M’s haven’t been all that interested in helping Taylor bridge it. If that’s where the M’s found themselves – with a player who simply didn’t fit into their long term plans thanks to the likes of Luis Sardinas and Steve O’Malley, then the M’s were right to move Taylor for the shiniest bauble they could find.

Lee’s so interesting because it seems like he’s got a similar issue to Taylor, where you see some ability and some flashes of real MLB-ready talent, but it’s lost in inconsistency and stalled growth. Even if Lee hears the same thing from his new pitching coaches (and Tacoma’s Lance Painter is an excellent one), it’s probably worth hearing it from a different voice.

I like the deal, and I’m still bewildered and maybe a bit miffed that it had to be made. But because it so obviously did, hey, Lee’s a better lottery ticket than many stalled-out prospects can fetch.

2: Soooo, those playoff odds. The last time we looked at ‘em, the M’s and Rangers were neck and neck, with the Rangers having made up a ton of ground since the opening day forecasts had them last in the division. OK Fangraphs, graph me up today’s version:
Playoff odds
Gaahh! Damn it, Texas. The M’s are 3-7 in their last ten ball games, while the Rangers have gone 8-2 and opened up the second-biggest divisional lead in baseball, after the Cubs scorched earth policy in the NL Central. The division is rapidly becoming a runaway win for the Rangers, which makes this series against an AL Central team all the more important. Losing 2 of 3 in Boston to *that* team certainly didn’t feel good, and the M’s had so many chances to do more, but it’s an understandable series loss. But if you’re going to allow yourself some room for error when playing very good teams, you need to take care of business in winnable games. That’s what the M’s haven’t done of late, and it’s what they desperately need to do now.

3: Former Mets/Twins starter Mike Pelfrey played 3 seasons for Minnesota, logging 341 IP with an ERA right around 5. A groundballer without extreme GB rates, he’s notable mostly for his pitch-to-contact approach. While his FIP numbers were a bit better thanks to his avoidance of home runs, he was injury-plagued and not terribly successful at preventing runs for the Twins. Pelfrey signed a two-year, $16 million deal with Detroit this off-season, a deal that was roundly mocked by internetting commenters, and also held up as a sign of just how bonkers the market for starting pitching had become. For everyone unhappy with the return in the Carson Smith trade, Pelfrey’s deal at least gave you pause. Is pitching just worth more than we thought? Or were the Tigers insane? I suppose that question’s still up in the air, as Pelfrey’s been reliably bad, just in different ways. The HR luck he had didn’t make it across state lines, so Pelfrey now has an above-average HR rate to go with an awful K:BB ratio. This makes his FIP abysmal, but he’s stranded some runners, so his ERA is only bad as opposed to awful. He was paid for something like 1 WAR per season, and he’s going to have to work pretty hard in the 2nd half to get there, but at the same time, he’s given them a bunch of not-awful innings, and maybe they saw value in that. The guy he sort-of replaced in Detroit’s rotation, Alfredo Simon, has an ERA of 9.45 and a FIP of 7.20 in 11 starts, and has a lingering shoulder issue. That shouldn’t matter to how they value Pelfrey, but I can imagine someone in the Tigers FO thinking that things have generally worked out.

4: As a sinkerballer with a slider as his primary breaker, Pelfrey is clearly vulnerable against left-handed hitters. He’s tried to combat this with a splitter, a pitch he throws a lot to lefties. It’s got good sink to it, and it’s somewhat effective overall, but it’s not a real outpitch the way Hisashi Iwakuma’s is.

5: The Arizona Rookie League starts up today, so we’ll have another league with a bunch of new draft picks to follow. Thomas Burrows, the 4th round pick, appears on the roster, though MLB’s signing tracker hasn’t seen him sign yet. I assume he has, and that Donnie Walton’s the last of the top 10 round guys still unsigned. All told, the M’s didn’t save a ton of money, thanks to 2nd rounder Joe Rizzo going about $500,000 over slot. They signed him, and they made up most of that amount with their 6th-9th rounders, but I don’t think there’s a ton left over to take a run at the 32-35th round high-ceiling high schoolers. We’ll see, though.

The line-up:
1: Martin, CF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Aoki, LF
9: Marte, SS
SP: Karns

Donn Roach tossed 8 shutout IP in Tacoma’s extra-inning 1-0 win over Fresno. Adrian Sampson’s been more consistent, but Roach has really come on after a disastrous April. He’s not the ground ball phenom he’s been in the past, but he’s on quite a roll in Tacoma’s rotation. Cody Martin starts for Tacoma tonight at Cheney Stadium.

Gareth Morgan got a few games for Jackson before he suits up for Arizona now that the complex league opens, and he knocked 3 doubles in 2 games – Jackson won last night to get a franchise-record 46 wins in a half-season. Morgan also K’d six times in 10 PAs, so there’s still a ways to go, but three XBHs in 2 games is great to see from the young Canuck.

Chantz Mack had 5 hits, 5 RBIs and hit for the cycle last night in Bakersfield’s 12-2 win.

Ljay Newsome, an interesting HS pitcher out of Maryland the M’s signed in the 2015 draft, makes his short-season debut tonight.

M’s, Dodgers Complete Classic Change-of-Scenery Trade

marc w · June 19, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

The M’s and Dodgers just traded one disappointing ex-prospect for another. I’m sure both fanbases are feeling a similar mixture of disappointment in the return and yet a weird sense of closure. Chris Taylor, the M’s out-of-nowhere SS prospect turned SS of the future turned shrug emoji will head to Los Angeles, while Zach Lee, former bonus baby pitching prospect whom people have finally stopped expecting a big breakout from, will head to Tacoma.

Lee was a highly regarded high school quarterback, and his commitment to play for LSU caused him to slip in the 2010 amateur draft. The Dodgers bought him out of that commitment with a then-team-record $5.25 million signing bonus, and assigned him to the Midwest League in 2011. After a solid debut, he was a consistent top-100 in baseball prospect, though his results came and went. 2012, split between high-A and AA, was a down year results wise, but he made some adjustments and had a great 2013. He was promoted to AAA to begin the 2014 campaign, and his debut happened to be in Tacoma, where he faced off with a brand new shortstop the Rainiers were trying out with Nick Franklin sliding over to 2B. Again, he struggled at the new, higher, level and finished the year with poor stats, but like before, he made some adjustments and had a very good year in the PCL in 2015.

Few prospects have been so scrutinized, so anticipated, than Lee, and that made Lee’s declining K rates as he ascended the Dodgers system all the more worrisome, a fact that led to even more scrutiny. Lee reportedly had mid-90s velocity, but he would commonly work in the high-80s, and his slider and change weren’t big swing and miss pitches. In a perfect world, Lee’s a solid back-of-the-rotation guy who can get lots of ground balls thanks to a well-located sinker, paired with a very firm slider to righties and a change-up to lefties. He’s got a four-seamer with lots of vertical rise, so the M’s could remake him as a high-FB, slow curve fly-ball pitcher if they wanted to.

Ultimately, the Dodgers just ran out of patience with him, and despite a multitude of injuries to their pitching staff, they always had someone else ahead of him in the pecking order. This spring, it was Ross Stripling. Last year, it was Mike Bolsinger. Next year, it…it wouldn’t have been Zach Lee. While nothing about Lee’s path to this point recalls Chris Taylor, the glove-first, no-expectations 5th round pick out of UVA, this sense that not only had he been passed over, but that regular looks were going to be difficult, feels familiar. The M’s SS of the future was supposed to be Brad Miller, the SS they took higher in the draft, and who played in the same conference at the same time as Taylor. Miller flew threw the minors, which actually worked in Taylor’s favor. Despite being drafted a year later, there was always room at a higher level, because Miller kept dominating and needing another challenge. Taylor’s reputation with the glove helped out, but after a swing overhaul, he was hitting far more than even M’s fans would’ve expected, and essentially forcing himself into the conversation at the big league level.

His breakthrough came in 2014, right as Zach Lee’s ascent was stalling out. In his first taste of AAA, Taylor thrived, hitting for more power than ever. After an OPS of nearly 1.000 in April, he hit .391/.452/.652 in May. Brad Miller was a revelation in his 2nd-half debut for the M’s in 2013, but 2014 was a disappointing slog of a season, with his OBP under .300 most all year, and the club grousing about mental mistakes in the field. Taylor was the right man at the right time, and earned himself a shot at a job-share agreement – it helped that Miller hit lefty while Taylor was a righty. The M’s continued to mess around with Miller throughout the next 12 months, moving him to CF, and then to both OF corners. The starting SS job was there for the taking, a fact confirmed when younger SS Ketel Marte started working out in CF for Tacoma.

And then Taylor collapsed. Among the 445 batters who logged at least 100 plate appearances last year, Taylor’s wRC of 23 (a line of .170/.220/.223) was the 6th worst, just ahead of another failed SS-of-the-future, Luis Sardinas. As the gap power and bat-to-ball skills went AWOL, defensive lapses became too much to ignore. Miller wasn’t seizing his job back, or at least, the M’s weren’t thrilled with the idea of just giving it to him by default. Into this sorry state of affairs stepped Ketel Marte, and the rest is history.

I’ll be clear: I saw a lot of Taylor in early 2014, and the guy I saw can play SS in the big leagues. My opinion of Taylor will always be colored by that stretch of high-level play, a level even I have to admit now may be his career peak. I was encouraged that Taylor’s big league debut in 2014 was nearly as encouraging, but any M’s fan knows how those stories tend to end – hell, ask Marte about his nearly-10% walk rate from last year. Given Marte’s emergence, and the new FO’s stated opinion from day 1 in the spring that Marte was the starter, you can make the case that this trade has been an inevitability for 6-10 months. Once the M’s decided that Marte, and not Taylor, was the starter, the M’s needed to move Taylor just as they moved another middle IF prospect, Nick Franklin.

When the M’s acquired Sardinas, I assumed they wanted big league utility depth to stash in AAA. But when Sardinas mashed in the spring and took to playing 3B far more readily than did Taylor, then Taylor’s days in Seattle were pretty clearly numbered. Not only was Taylor not going to beat out the starter, but he wasn’t going to have a shot at the utility role…and both Marte and Sardinas are *younger* than Taylor. The only thing left was to rebuild value with a great season in AAA, and that’s exactly what he’s done. Sure, his brief horror-show of a call-up may have put a dent in that, but it’s nothing compared to 2015.

Zach Lee’s disappointed, and now has no clear role in the Dodgers org. Chris Taylor over-delivered before stalling, and getting passed by younger players. He too has no real shot at a long-term job on this club. To be clear, a change of scenery trade like this doesn’t come with an automatic job opportunity, especially given that both of these clubs are fighting for a wild card spot. Despite the M’s starting pitcher injuries, Adrian Sampson’s ahead of Lee right now, and Taylor’s looking up at an even younger, even more talented incumbent in Corey Seager. But there’s always the chance that a different org, different coaches, and different rosters might afford them more of a shot than they had before. I’ll be the first to admit that I was always high – maybe TOO high – on Taylor, and that it sucks to see them trade kind-of-low on him, especially given that they’re also buying low on Lee. But given the M’s needs and the development of Sardinas, Taylor had no realistic path to playing time here.

So what does Lee need to do? I’m honestly not sure, but I think James Paxton’s development’s been encouraging. That black swan of a development path will get far too much use as an exception that proves a rule, but I’m guessing Lee has more in his arm than he’s shown. If not, there’s only so much you can get in exchange for a guy like Taylor, who can’t get even the extended big league trials that Nick Franklin got due both to his own face-plants and the success of others. Here’s hoping the M’s pitching coaches can unlock something in Lee, who’ll start off in the Tacoma rotation. Here’s hoping Taylor becomes a super-sub for the Dodgers.

One last thing: when these two players met for the first time, back in April of 2014, Taylor stepped in against Lee, who reared back and missed badly with a fastball, plunking the Rainiers SS. Here’s that pitch:
lee-plunks-taylor

Not a great photo, but it’s one of those cool coincidences that baseball abounds with. That game was a fascinating document about the different paths the M’s and Dodgers were taking. Starting in CF for Albuquerque was another youngster new to AAA, Joc Pederson. The R’s leadoff man was Endy Chavez. Albuquerque featured a couple of ex-M’s flameouts in Miguel Olivo, former-SS-of-the-future Carlos Triunfel, and 2012 Mariner Trayvon Robinson. The Rainiers had prospects like Taylor, Jesus Montero, Nick Franklin and James Jones – all of whom are now in other orgs.

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