Game 63, Twins at Mariners: Development is Not Linear

marc w · June 15, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Sonny Gray, 1:10pm

It’s a matinee for get-away day today in Seattle, as Marco Gonzales takes the hill against a team he’s struggled against. Sonny Gray makes his first start since coming off the IL with a pectoral strain.

I want to get back to something I mentioned yesterday, brought up by this great BP article on Jarred Kelenic’s struggles, particularly with breaking balls. In that piece, Jarrett Seidler mentions that concerns about swing and miss were pretty consistently waived off as Kelenic continued his ascension through the M’s system, and that his overall ability perhaps papered over the issue as opposed to actually solving it. The point he’s making concerns evaluation: how should scouts/evaluators/prospect nerds handle a concern like that? What should it mean to a prospect’s ranking or floor/ceiling? These are all great questions, but they’re not my concern.

What I’m interested in is what happens to a prospect as he’s moving up the ranks, or in some cases, after he faces his first sustained bout with failure? How does a team *teach* things like pitch recognition, or mechanics, or any of the tools in a baseball player’s tool kit for improving and attacking opposing pitchers. Seidler points out all that we don’t know – especially in the public sphere. We don’t have pitch-level data for the low minors (mostly). We don’t get to hear from PD staff what they’re trying to change in a hitters’ swing and why, or how it’s going. This means it’s essentially impossible to disentangle a whole bunch of confounding variables. Did a hitter’s K rate improve because he had more reps, because he changed his set-up, because he focused only on fastballs, and pitchers in his league obliged, some combination of these, or none of the above?

What I think complicates the Kelenic story in particular is just how many tweaks he’s made. I can’t count how many articles you can find about him making adjustments, both to his swing and his attitude. He talked to M’s coaches, to Mark McGwire, his old youth-baseball swing coach, and probably plenty more. He seems exceedingly coachable, always willing to try something to improve. But something’s not quite clicking, or at least, it hasn’t just yet.

So again: is this a case where evaluators knew something, and all the world’s hitting coaches and all the willingness to learn in the world can’t help address it? I just doubt that, given everything we know about how new coaching methods and training have transformed careers. All of that to me points to development as a potential issue, and at least in Kelenic’s case, I wonder if it’s a bit more systemic than we’d hope.

I am absolutely not comparing Kelenic and Evan White, whose own career has been crushed by injuries as much as his struggles at the plate. But White had more swing-and-miss in his game at the AA level, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he dealt with whispers about it from scouts. But it’s just as true that they popped up, or become more apparent anyway, after a swing change in high-A that enabled him to improve his power. It worked. But often times there are reactions for actions like this, and White’s swing was exposed badly in MLB in 2020. So, the M’s presumably made further adjustments, and White cut his K rate significantly early in 2021. The problem was that those adjustments sapped that power: his exit velo cratered, wiping away the advantage of the contact improvement.

Let’s be clear: White had a different problem. White struggled with fastballs, and in-zone fastballs, while Kelenic’s problems have been more with breaking/offspeed stuff. But the point is, the reactions – the adjustments – have hurt as much as they’ve helped. By pitch values, Kelenic slumped further in 2022 compared to 2021 (in a minuscule sample, I know, but it continues in AAA), all while *not* improving on fastballs. His exit velos dropped a bit, too. White kind of collapsed across the board. To me, this speaks to developmental issues and how hitters are coached, perhaps even what kind of cues they’re given to get into position. I don’t know that, and am not qualified to speak to how to improve it or even how to know that it’s the issue. But we’re seeing this…pretty often? Luis Torrens has slumped badly from last year’s pace. Shed Long took a solid half-season opener and hasn’t been back to that level since (though statcast expected stats always saw that cup of coffee as a mirage).

I worry about this because there are plenty of players who’ve had that “swing and miss” flag in their file, and who became superstars regardless. George Springer is perhaps the best example, as he was a college-trained hitter with K rates far in excess of anything we saw from Kelenic/White/Julio Rodriguez/etc. He was older for the level and K’d way more than Kelenic. Yordan Alvarez did too, and at the same rate as White in AA. Obviously, we don’t have data at the level we’d need to say that those K rates were a categorically different problem than the one Kelenic faced, but we don’t really need to. The point is: Alvarez and Springer got better, and Kelenic, to date, has not. None of this means he’s a bust or doomed or that he should’ve been docked in prospect rankings back in 2020. It just means the M’s PD hasn’t fixed this issue. I really hope they do soon.

1: Frazier, 2B
2: France, 1B
3: Rodriguez, CF
4: Suarez, 3B
5: Winker, (DH)
6: Moore, SS
7: Torrens, C
8: Trammell, RF
9: Haggerty, LF
SP: Gonzales

JP Crawford was a late scratch last night with “flu like symptoms” and isn’t in the line-up today, which… sounds like Covid. But it is *not*, in fact, Covid. Ryan Divish reports he’s in the clubhouse today, and thinks he had food poisoning instead, which led him to vomit three times before the first pitch last night, necessitating Dylan Moore replace him. That’s good news – not the food poisoning and barfing, of course – as it means we could see him very soon.

Game 62, Twins at Mariners

marc w · June 14, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners

Logan Gilbert vs Joe Ryan, 7:10pm

Quick one today, as I’m standing outside T-Mobile…(but headed to a Sounders game). Two things today: first, Jesse Winker’s getting a night off. So far, so normal- Julio was off last night. But there are rumblings, per Ryan Divish, that the M’s are getting a bit tired of Winker’s inability to hit the ball hard in key situations. He was up with two outs in the 9th last night in a favorable situation: he represented the go-ahead run, and Dylan Moore was on 2nd. His opponent was a righty with a penchant for allowing HRs and hard, elevated contact. He struck out. Winker is clearly better than he’s shown, but my patience is wearing thin a bit, too.

Second, Jarrett Seidler has a great piece on Jarred Kelenic and his swing and miss issues. With statcast data, we can see he hasn’t solved his big problem, even as he was putting up good numbers for Tacoma (he was before tweaking a hamstring). Seidler notes that there were swing and miss concerns throughout his rise, but people ignored or more accurately downplayed them because he hit the ball so hard, so often. But breaking balls and off speed pitches have flummoxed him at the big league level, and continue to in Tacoma. Did evaluators miss something? I’m perhaps more inclined to give them a break: his K rate (which is a crude but huge metric) was going down as he hit the low minors. Big league pitchers found a weakness that minor leaguers couldn’t exploit perhaps, but something else is going on. The hitting development has had a couple of these, where swing changes unlocked power, but perhaps at the expense of pitch recognition. Was there an overemphasis on timing the fastball?

1: Frazier, 2B
2: France, 1B
3: Rodriguez, CF
4: Suarez, 3B
5: Toro, DH
6: Raleigh, C
7: Trammell, RF
8: Moore, SS
9: Haggerty, LF
SP: Gilbert

JP Crawford was supposed to start and play SS; he’s apparently a late scratch. Hmmm.

Game 61, Twins at Mariners

marc w · June 13, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners

Chris Flexen vs. Chris Archer, 7:10pm

The M’s had a chance to win a series against a wild card rival, at home, against a spot starter. It looked like a mismatch. Robbie Ray pitched a gem, and it didn’t matter. The M’s managed a lone hit against Kutter Crawford and a series of relievers, and the M’s limped to perhaps their most uninspired loss of the season. It chipped away at the good feelings from the previous day’s improbable comeback, and it must hurt the team’s morale.

Today, they begin a series with the Central-leading Twins, who’ve bounced back from a disastrous 2021. A huge problem last year was their starting rotation, which seemed to put them in a hole early in every game. As a result, they’ve overhauled the entire thing, with four of their top five starters in 2021 shown the door in 2022. To replace them, the Twins made a series of interesting trades in order to combine their younger prospects like Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober with lower-cost vets and reclamation projects, from Chris Paddack to Dylan Bundy to today’s starter, Chris Archer.

It hasn’t been perfect, but this diversified portfolio has led them to a rotation that’s more middle of the pack rather than “clear bottom 5” like last year. Bundy’s been bad, Paddack needs Tommy John again, and Sonny Gray’s been hurt, but they’re hanging around. In a flashback to the mid-2000s, the Twins have one of the lowest K rates and average fastball velocities in the game, but they’re making it kind of work. Joe Ryan’s been good, and Archer’s been…well, not “Good” exactly, but oddly effective?

All in all, it reminds me a bit of the M’s plan in 2021, when they picked up guys like Chris Flexen to fill in and give time for Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, and Emerson Hancock to emerge. Flexen didn’t – and doesn’t – do anything flashy, but he could pitch a bit, and mix his 92-93mph fastball with a hard cutter, change, and curveball. The velo and shape of his pitches meant that racking up a ton of K’s probably wasn’t in the cards, but limiting walks and hopefully running a low BABIP would make him a perfectly fine middle of the rotation/#4 starter. That’s pretty much exactly what happened, and Flexen turned into the bargain of 2021 for the M’s.

This year, Flexen’s just sliiiightly worse in every respect, and he’s much more of a #5. His K rate dropped about 1 percentage point, while his walk rate rose by 2. His ground ball rate dropped a bit more – from the low 40s to the mid-30s. This has helped produce a pretty large increase in his home run rate. Some of that may have been by design: he’s changed his cutter fairly dramatically.

Last year, the cutter was just 3ish ticks slower than his fastball, and while it didn’t get many whiffs, it helped him get grounders. This year, he’s taken a lot off of it; it comes in 2 mph slower than last year, expanding that gap even though his fastball’s down slightly as well. His fastball shape is straighter, and he’s improved the spin efficiency and thus rise on it. That might play better with his cutter, which sinks compared to the heater. All of that has actually paid off in a way; batters have a lower average off of his cutter, which makes some sense, as they no longer hit on the ground. It’s a perfectly fine trade off to make, but it results in fewer grounders overall. Even with a supposedly draggier ball, that’s something of a dangerous game.

Right now, Flexen has the 5th-lowest K rate of any qualified starter (Marco’s in 4th). You can kind of make this work; there are successful pitchers on that list. Framber Valdez and Paul Blackburn (and Martin Perez) make it work by getting tons of grounders, and thus limit dingers. Jameson Taillon and Blackburn don’t walk many. But you’ve got to do something. Flexen’s given up on trying for even average grounder rates, and now his walk rate is heading towards average. This is a dangerous spot to be in, and he may need to think about how he’s going to attack a line-up that’s been one of the best in the AL.

Of course, the *Mariners* are supposedly one of the better offenses (at least according to Fangraphs), but games like yesterday’s make that tougher to really understand. The M’s biggest problem thus far has been an inability to score any runs. They’re giving them up at essentially league-average rates – nothing crazy either way. But they can’t score. Sure, by BaseRuns, they “should have” scored more – and yes, it’s darkly comic that they’re unlucky by BaseRuns one year after a campaign that essentially broke BaseRuns in the other direction (BaseRuns, sobbing: “You can’t score six runs on two singles and three strikeouts. It doesn’t work like that! 2021 Mariners: “Run machine goes brrrrrrr”)

This is largely the result of park effects, and I get it. T-Mobile’s been a brutal park for run scoring. But in *this* year, I’m just not certain that the M’s get this much of the benefit of the doubt. They’ve certainly enjoyed hitting at home much more than on the newly-humidified road.

1: Winker, LF
2: France, 1B
3: Crawford, SS
4: Suarez, 3B
5: Frazier, 2B
6: Toro, DH
7: Raleigh, C
8: Trammell, CF
9: Moore, RF
SP: Flexen

No Julio tonight, as he gets a day off with a FB/SL righty on the bump for Minnesota.

The Twins have been hit very hard by the injury bug. They’ve already lost more days to the IL than any other team in the AL, but things got worse when they learned they lost #1 prospect Royce Lewis to his second ACL tear. Lots of prospects and high draft picks have gone down, with Walker Buehler on the shelf for months, Casey Mize going for TJ, as summarized in this post.

Game 60, Red Sox at Mariners

marc w · June 12, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners

Robbie Ray vs. Kutter Crawford, 1:10pm

Last night’s thrilling, come-from-behind win felt like it could be important. Another in what’s seeming like a string of games the M’s looked sure to lose, but putting together tough at bats in key situations and doing just enough to come out on top. The Sox jumped on George Kirby for 3 in the first, but the M’s weren’t too concerned. They gave up what felt like a crushing HR in the 9th, but yawned again and came back with 2 in the bottom half. That was legitimately fun.

Kirby was solid, but I’m still unsure about his secondaries. Kirby’s fastball is a great, if straight, pitch. It’s key for him, as it allows him to get swinging strikes, and I keep thinking that if it stays effective and gets him ahead in counts, it almost won’t matter that his slider hasn’t really been fooling people. But as the league moves further and further towards swing-and-miss breaking balls in fastball counts, I worry that it could keep Kirby’s K rate lower than it should be. And even then, it would keep him playable and effective given his microscopic walk rate. But I’d like to be greedy, and get something other than a great #3, because Kirby’s got the ability to do more. He just needs a better slider.

Speaking of better sliders, I hope the M’s are keeping an eye on today’s starter’s breaking ball, too. Robbie Ray’s seen his K rate drop noticeably this season – a season that’s seen his velocity drop as well. It’s possible he picks it back up in the warmer months, but right now, he’s down over 1 mph with his fastball and breakers, too. It’s not a bad pitch by any stretch, but as we’ve seen over the course of Ray’s career, it’s prone to hard contact. He’s given up 7 “barrels” – the best quality of contact for hitters – on sliders this year, tied for 4th most in MLB. Sure, he throws so many of them that they’re not exactly common, but they’re why he’s already allowed 6 home runs on the pitch, 2nd most in MLB.

It’s such a key pitch for him, and it’s what’s enabled him to become essentially a two-pitch pitcher. It’s a pitch that elicits swings, which can be tricky for breaking balls. In recent years, Ray’s getting swings on well over 50% of his sliders, which is great because many of them become whiffs, and at least theoretically, you’d always prefer batters to put sliders in play as opposed to fastballs. Even with high exit velocities, it’s still garnered lower exit velos than his fastball – last year, that gap was 2 mph on average. This year, the gap is down to a half an mph – and his slider exit velo is just about 91 mph. Sure, the whiffs are still there, but there are a bit fewer put in play, and those that ARE put in play are hit slightly harder. It’s a series of very small declines adding up to a more precipitous one. He reminds me so much of Yusei Kikuchi, actually. Kikuchi’s given up the highest exit velo on sliders in MLB (among pitchers with at least 25 BIP off of them), while Ray sits in 10th.

But hopefully that can change today. Boston’s back of the line-up isn’t all that different from the M’s – both line-ups have some ugly stat lines. And beyond that, the edge in starting pitching is in the M’s favor, no matter what your projections are for Ray. Boston’s starting Kutter Crawford, an improving righty who’s more MLB depth option than real prospect. A 16th round pick, Crawford’s had mop-up duty in 2021 and 2022, and produced a 10.66 ERA. William the Conquerer, he is not. He has good velocity on his fastball, and of course his primary breaker would be a cutter. But the overall results have not been there. He’s giving up hard contact to just about everyone, and even his AAA numbers look like there’s something wrong. He has no platoon splits, but in the bad way, not the good way. On paper, this is a mismatch.

1: Winker, LF
2: France, 1B
3: Rodriguez, CF
4: Crawford, SS
5: Suarez, DH
6: Frazier, 2B
7: Toro, 3B
8: Trammell, RF
9: Torrens, C
SP: Ray

Tacoma lost a wild one at home to Round Rock. They scored 5 in the bottom of the 9th to tie a game that looked lost, then gave up 5 in the top of the 10th. They’re back at it today in Tacoma.

Arkansas’ Taylor Dollard continues his eye-opening season, and his ERA remains below 1 into June.

Modesto jumped all over Inland Empire, winning 14-3. Edwin Arroyo and Jonaton Clase hit back to back homers in the victory.

Game 58, Red Sox at Mariners

marc w · June 10, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Rich Hill, 7:10pm

The M’s won a second straight series from the Astros on Wednesday. It wasn’t always pretty, but the M’s won 2 of 3 from Houston *in Houston* after earlier beating them in Seattle. They’ve won 3 of the 4 series they’ve played against the Astros this year. Look, I wish that these wins meant more, or that Houston and Seattle were neck and neck in the standings. But they’re not meaningless either, not for a Mariner team that was dangerously close to falling out of the hunt completely. These series wins coupled with the epic collapse of the Angels mean we get to care about the standings for a little longer, and sure, hopefully a lot longer.

But if we’re going to do that, the M’s have to beat teams like Boston. The four-game sweep in Boston was the early season’s low point, and while they’ve bounced back admirably, they have to figure out how to grind out wins against good but flawed teams like this. The bullpen that was such a problem early has been improving steadily, kind of an echo of last year’s success (as were the almost bizarre late-game rallies we’ve seen recently).

One thing that’s *nothing* like last year is the M’s batting success at T-Mobile park. A year after a BABIP-depressed home line of .214/.296/.367, they’re hitting .256/.346/.419 at home – 5th best in MLB. Sure, on the road, things are still a little bleak, but being able to hit at home helps them create a legitimate home field advantage, and it helps their pitchers feel a bit less pressure – that one solo HR might doom their start. T-Mobile boasts the 5th highest wOBA (for the M’s and their opponents) and the 5th highest exit velocity. It’s still not a real hitters park, but it’s also not an anchor on the offense this year, which is kind of remarkable given the cold we’ve seen in the area this year.

It’s also just not somewhere they’ve *played* very often thus far. I saw Scott Servais’ minor complaint about the brutal schedule and travel the M’s have had thus far, and it’s pretty accurate. The M’s have played 35 road games thus far, and none in Oakland or Anaheim, and just 22 home contests. They’ll have a nice streak of home games and closer road travels through the rest of the month.

Marco Gonzales is having a repeat of his 2021 season, as his K rate drops, his HR rate spikes, and it…all just sort of works out somehow? His FIP, his expected stats, DRA, all of them are horrified, but while a 4 ERA doesn’t mean the same thing it meant in 2019, he’s still on the good side of the line. I think a K rate of 13.7%, as Marco’s is now, is borderline unless you’re a world class ground baller, and Marco is not. He’s gone to his change-up more than he ever has as a Mariner, and while it’s been his best pitch, I’m not thrilled that he’s doing so because his breaking balls – cutter and curve – have been so ineffective. Getting those right is going to be key to restoring at least some bat-missing, and that can help him avoid big innings. If it helps, maybe his teammates can make up some stories about him being disrespected by that day’s opponents or something; he always pitches well when he thinks he’s being overlooked.

1: Winker, LF
2: France, 1B
3: Rodriguez, CF
4: Crawford, SS
5: Suarez, 3B
6: Moore, RF
7: Toro, 2B
8: Torrens, DH
9: Raleigh, C
SP: Gonzales

Tacoma beat Salt Lake 5-3 last night, getting a win for Darren McCaughan, and giving the loss to one of Jerry Dipoto’s first acquisitions as M’s GM, Jonathan Aro. Aro was acquired from Boston in the Wade Miley deal, heading east for Carson Smith and Roenis Elias back in late 2015. Tacoma’s supposed to start a series at home against Round Rock tonight, but that…might be difficult.

Arkansas split a double-header with Wichita last night. It was Joe Rizzo’s best night of the year, as he hit three HRs over the two (shortened) games, giving him 9 on the year.

Everett beat Hillsboro 4-2, with Bryce Miller pitching 6 excellent innings in what turned out to be a no-decision.

Modesto lost at Inland Empire, 3-1. Sam Carlson had a strong outing in relief.

Game 55, Mariners at Astros

marc w · June 6, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners

Robbie Ray vs. Cristian Javier, 5:10pm

Yesterday’s win was a wildly improbable robbery, thanks to Eugenio Suarez’s 4 RBIs. It looked like a boring, listless loss to a boring, listless Rangers club until their remarkable 9th inning comeback, and a great relief performance from the suddenly-unhittable Diego Castillo. Two series wins is just so, so different from coming into this series at .500 on the trip. Intellectually, it’s not all that different at all; only the Angels collapse is keeping these M’s games slightly meaningful. But if we can’t get a thrilling playoff chase – yet – we want two things: 1) some sort of improvement, and beating the teams you’re supposed to beat; and 2) to be exciting. Give me chaos or give me greatness, but don’t give me dependable mediocrity.

Justin Choi had a great article at Fangraphs today on the declining effectiveness of the high fastball. Choi notes that perhaps the primary reason pitchers employ elevated hitters – to get swings-and-misses – wasn’t working out in 2022, as whiff rate on them is down markedly, after a minor drop in 2021. As Rob Arthur noted as BP late in 2021, and as Choi mentions as well, a big part of that 2021 leveling out was due to the crackdown on sticky stuff. The ban on Spider Tack produced a near instantaneous drop in whiff rate, right as fastball spin rates dropped. But then, spin rate returned. And velocity on elevated fastballs (and, er, everything else) continues to rise too; fastballs are a full tick faster than they were just a few years ago.

All of that is interesting to read given that tonight’s starting pitcher, Cristian Javier, is a pitcher whose entire strategy/profile could be summed up in the phrase “elevated heaters.” Here’s his zone chart for fastballs from Brooks, first for his career, and for this year. It’s why Javier’s yet to post a season ground ball rate above 30%, and why his current rate of 26.1% is 3rd-lowest in MLB among pitchers with at least 30 IP. Unlike the rest of the league, Javier’s whiff rate on his fastball continues to climb, and it’s helped him post great strikeout numbers.

But it’s interesting: where Javier gets fastball whiffs looks a lot different than where he throws most of his fastballs. This is a reminder that there are other reasons to throw an elevated fastball than just to chase, uh, chases. wOBACON (weighted On Base Average on Contact) on high strikezone fastballs is down considerably in 2022; it’s dropped every year since 2019. If we look at all high fastballs, not just strikes, we see the exact same pattern. It doesn’t change much if we include all fastballs and not just four-seamers. I think Choi is right that batters are getting better at reaching these pitches due to changes in batting practice and using more high-velo pitching machines instead of lobbed pitches from coaches. But they haven’t yet made the switch to actually hurting those pitches the way they did with low fastballs.

The other thing to remember is that high fastballs are often great at disguising breaking balls, especially curves, because the curve’s trajectory can look an awful lot like a high fastball’s before the magnus force causes it to head south. Javier has a curve, but his primary breaker is a slider, but the same effect may occur. Whatever the reason, Javier has thrown 213 fastballs *out* of the zone and only 207 within it. He’s *more* likely to throw a ball than a strike with his primary pitch, and yet it’s drawn a swing over 55% of the time. That’s remarkable.

On the plus side, the Mariners have fared better against fly-ball pitchers than any other kind of hurler, according to BBREF’s batting splits. They just have to make sure they’re hitting strikes, and not popping up above-the-zone fastballs. As a FB/SL guy, Javier has pretty noticeable splits. This isn’t a great match-up for, say, Julio, so Winker and Crawford are going to need to step up.

1: Winker, LF
2: France, 1B
3: Rodriguez, CF
4: Crawford, SS
5: Suarez, 3B
6: Frazier, 2B
7: Trammell, DH
8: Moore, RF
9: Raleigh, C
SP: Robbie Ray

Would be good to see a real ace-type game from Ray.

Tacoma lost the final game in their series in Reno 6-5 despite Justin Upton’s first org home run.

Taylor Dollard was excellent in Arkansas’ 6-0 win over Springfield, tossing 6 IP of 2 H, 0R, 3 BB, 6 K ball at the Cardinals. That brought his ERA on the year under 1 (5 ER in 47 1/3 IP).

Everett beat Eugene 5-1, as Noelvi Marte homered. Marte’s prospect stock has dipped a bit, so it’s nice to see him heat up a bit. He’s 3 for his last 7 with a double and a dinger.

Modesto beat Fresno 7-4, as Edwin Arroyo (whose prospect stock has moved sharply up) got back in the hit column.

Game 54, Mariners at Rangers: Give and Take

marc w · June 5, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners

George Kirby vs. Martin Perez, 11:35am

After a close win and a close loss, the M’s look to win the series this morning in Arlington. They’ve got George Kirby on the mound against veteran lefty Martin Perez, and if you’ve followed Perez for any length of time, that sounds like a favorable match-up. But in one of the more improbable early-season lines, Perez is 4-2 with a 1.42 ERA and a 2.36 FIP. If the season ended today, Martin Perez – the journeyman, the ol’ pitch-to-contact, yikes, not THAT contact guy – would get Cy Young votes. The guy on a one-year, $4M contract has been one of the AL’s best starters, and it makes zero sense.

Perez was one of the most anticipated prospects in years, coming up in 2012 as a 21-year old. He showed poise, a deep repertoire, and just enough bat-missing ability to be a widely-hailed prospect, and rose through the ranks quickly. This was despite some troubling signs, though. Despite the decent peripherals, Perez gave up a lot of runs for a top-50 prospect. Sure, he was young for the league, but he gave up too many walks. He got grounders, which helped, but evidently not enough. This was the classic scouting over stats call; the numbers showed a young guy struggling to put it all together, but the scouts insisted he would.

In his second season, the scouts appeared to be on the march, as he crested 100IP with an ERA under 4. FIP was a bit more concerned at the lack of K’s and mild HR trouble, but the guy was 22. He looked erratic, but often sharp the next year, notching two CG shutouts in 2014, but his season was cut short when he blew out his elbow. After returning, he just looked…off. He logged innings, he was perfectly serviceable, but his K rate collapsed as the league’s was surging. Perhaps because of that inability to miss bats, he really struggled to strand runners, and this led to higher ERAs than his already high FIPs. After a disastrous 2018, the Rangers cut bait, and Perez began wandering through the AL. He gained a bit of velo in 2019 with Minnesota, raising his K rate. But HRs and that awful strand rate gave him a nearly-unchanged ERA/FIP. He moved to Boston the next year, and his walk rate spiked, and he oddly transformed himself into a fly ball pitcher after making his name as a rather pedestrian ground baller. His K:BB ratio was a career best last season, but being a fly baller in 2021 wasn’t a great recipe for anyone, and he again struggled. Lacking anything better, he moved back to Texas.

And all of the sudden he’s an ace. He has already pitched his first CG shutout since 2014, and he’s back to being a ground ball pitcher after that stint in Boston. He’s lowered his walk rate below 6%, easily a career-best. While his K rate is still low, it’s his first time above 20%. So what’s the difference? A new pitch? Different mix? A faddish sweeping slider? No, not really any of that. He’s leaning on his sinker more after being a cutter/change guy for a few years. That explains the increased ground balls, but there’s no real difference in movement with any of his offerings. His velo is *down* compared to last year. He’s just hitting his spots much, much better. After a decade of consistent mediocrity, Martin Perez is taking off. It makes no sense. It’s tempting to think it’s short-term luck, and his HR luck is pretty remarkable (in over 63, he’s yet to give up a home run this year), but he’s been so consistently good this year. I’m trying to think of something like it – that Jason Vargas all-star year in KC comes close, but Vargas was better than Perez.

But even as Texas gets an unexpected All-Star season out of a guy all of baseball thought it knew, they’ve reached the end of the road with a player who was supposed to drive their re-build. The Rangers called up OF prospect and 80-grade name Steele Walker today, and to make room on the 40-man, they’ve DFA’d Willie Calhoun. Calhoun was the prize in the trade that sent Yu Darvish to Los Angeles, and despite being undersized and defensively challenged, he was born to hit. He flew through the Dodgers system, hitting at every step. The key was preternatural bat-to-ball ability that limited Ks, paired with sneaky power. Two initial cups of coffee with Texas weren’t great, but he hit 21 HRs in a very solid 2019, and while his defense kept that season from being *valuable*, it was at the very least *encouraging.* He seemed to be exactly what he was supposed to be: a DH or corner OF who hit enough to be dangerous. And then it all went wrong.

He was disastrous in the shortened 2020, as both his BABIP and his power just evaporated. Everyone in the world had a bad 2020, so how did he bounce back? By showing 2020 wasn’t a fluke. He hasn’t really struck out much, but everything else has been bad: no power, no average, no defense. He’s clashed with the team and demanded a trade after being optioned to the minors. This day has been coming. Calhoun’s ability to make contact will get him a shot somewhere, and it’s easy to convince yourself that this kind of profile plays up in today’s high-K environment – hell, that’s why Adam Frazier is here. But in something that’s really surprised me, so many guys with this skillset have really struggled. This was supposed to be Nick Madrigal’s year with Chicago, but he’s played himself out of a starting role. Willians Astudillo is back to being a journeyman. Steven Kwan is trying, and has been good for Cleveland, but his line is propped up by an insane first week. You’ve got to hit a ton of line drives like Luis Arraez and Michael Brantley, or have power like Wander Franco (who hasn’t shown as much as he’s got) and Jose Ramirez. With shifting and a draggier baseball, it’s hard to make it on pure BABIP.

But again, that wasn’t supposed to Calhoun’s problem. At his shape, he wasn’t going to make it by slapping grounders around the park. This is someone with 20-30+ HR power, and then it just…went away. I’d love to know if this was the result of an injury, maybe one Calhoun never knew about, or possibly even Covid. Was it a disastrous swing fix suggested by a coach (leading to Calhoun’s mistrust and headbutting with the Rangers coaches)? Whatever it was, Calhoun’s moving on. I’m not sure the M’s have any kind of track record with a player like this, but they’re clearly a team that doesn’t mind the low-K, low-power profile. Their work with JP Crawford has been encouraging, but they couldn’t help Dan Vogelbach. We’ll see if they kick the tires on Calhoun, but with Justin Upton in Tacoma, I’m just not sure there’s room.

1: Winker, LF
2: France, 1B
3: Rodriguez, CF
4: Crawford, SS
5: Suarez, 3B
6: Torrens, C
7: Toro, 2B
8: Moore, RF
9: Haggerty, LF
SP: Kirby

Taylor Dollard is the biggest name amongst today’s minor league starting pitchers.
Tacoma lost to Reno last night, and Everett got swept by Eugene in a double header. Modesto came back to beat Fresno 4-3, getting three runs in the 9th.

Game 52, Mariners at Rangers

marc w · June 3, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners

Logan Gilbert vs. Dane Dunning, 5:05pm

After a hard-fought series win in Baltimore, the M’s face another of the AL’s weaker teams. The Rangers have been quite bad in recent years, but their slow start is a bit more of a concern this season. I don’t think anyone had them challenging their in-state rivals in Houston, but you don’t add Corey Seager and Marcus Semien and expect to be an also-ran. Yes, yes, I know: they’re ahead of Seattle right now. But if the M’s start is seen by M’s fans as a massive disappointment and a brewing crisis, I think Rangers fans are one losing skid away from the same sorts of feelings. The M’s had higher expectations, but only just.

The problem is very similar to the one I talked about when the M’s hit Baltimore: Texas has failed to develop pitching. Unlike Baltimore, they haven’t had the problem of bringing in free agents or trade for vets who suddenly get worse. In fact, Texas had developed something of a reputation as a good place to go after getting quite a lot out of Lance Lynn and Mike Minor. But they haven’t had any success at all with pitchers they’ve drafted and developed. In recent years, they’ve been extremely active on the trade market, seemingly attempting to outsource the process of pitcher development to other, more successful, organizations. Thus, their rotation currently includes Glenn Otto (developed by the Yankees, acquired in trade), Taylor Hearn (developed by the Nats and Pirates, acquired in trade), Martin Perez (developed by the Rangers, but then laundered through the Twins and Red Sox orgs, acquired as free agent), Jon Gray (developed by the Rockies, acquired as free agent) and Dane Dunning (developed by the White Sox, acquired in trade – for Lance Lynn).

The Rangers have seen prospect after prospect stall out at or near the majors. They’ve traded a few, like Hans Crouse, but they’re still high on Cole Winn, who’s scuffling a bit in AAA, and Jack Leiter, perhaps the most anticipated pitching prospect in the game, who’s at AA and giving up more runs than he should. I’m not really sure what’s happened, as for years, the Rangers seemed to get a lot out of their prospects and pick-ups from other orgs (Nelson Cruz being the best example). But things have changed since Scott Servais was their minor league coordinator, and not many have been good. The Rangers once enviable pipeline of international free agents has dried up, and they’re struggling to develop league-average players to plug in around their big free agent acquisitions.

But there are encouraging signs that they’ve sort of bottomed out, and that their player development may be getting a bit better. Dane Dunning is an interesting case. He’d flown through the minors for the White Sox, pairing high ground ball rates with strikeouts, an optimal combination. What was powering those outcomes? A turbo sinker like Blake Treinen? Err, no. Dunning throws 88-89, and if I’d comp him to anyone, it would be as a right-handed Marco Gonzales. That sounds like a less-than-exciting prospect pedigree, but Dunning gets a lot out of mediocre raw stuff. Michael Ajeto tries to explain it over at Baseball Prospectus, and mentions one of the keys to Dunning’s success: batters don’t swing at his sinker when he throws it in the strike zone. He’s got the highest called-strike rate on his fastball of anyone in the game. That’s for any type of fastball, too, not just sinkers.

As a sinker/slider/change guy, he could have pretty significant platoon splits, and despite his neat trick of not getting swings on in-zone 88mph fastballs, he does. Lefties have traditionally done considerably better against them. Against them, he throws roughly equal numbers of sinkers and change-ups, and against righties, it’s a blizzard of sliders and cutters. What allows him to be playable and even effective against lefties at times is *how* he allows balls in play. Lefties have put more than twice as many change-ups in play as sinkers. He’s almost trying to let southpaws make contact with change-ups, where he, and the rest of the league, allow weaker contact. That’s a big reason why his average exit velo and thus his expected ERA is low. The best option is always to strike everyone out. If you can’t do that, the next best option is to have batters put balls and non-fastballs in play. This isn’t his plan against righties, though. Righties actually DO hit his sinker, and hardly ever swing and miss at it – but they struggle mightily to make contact with his slider. He gets far, far more ground balls against righties because of this; his sinking/running sinker is a grounder machine to righties. Thus, Dunning has two different approaches depending on the hitters’ handedness.

All of this hasn’t made him great yet, though, and in his relatively brief career, he’s posted better FIPs than ERAs. He’s given up a flurry of base hits, and his BABIP is super high despite the overall downward trend in BABIP and with a deadened ball. Bringing in the likes of Seager/Semien should help Dunning more than most, but to date, it hasn’t. That’s not the fault of the IFs, though – his BABIP on grounders is super low. Rather, it’s that he’s prone to giving up line drives. The M’s lefty-heavy line-up needs to barrel up those change-ups, something they’ve been pretty good at doing this year.

1: Winker, LF
2: France, 1B
3: Rodriguez, CF
4: Crawford, SS
5: Suarez, 3B
6: Frazier, DH
7: Toro, 2B
8: Trammell, RF
9: Raleigh, C
SP: Gilbert

With Kyle Lewis on the concussion IL, we’ll go back to seeing the DH slot rotate through a few different players depending on the handedness of the opposing starter. With Dunning on the mound, the M’s get to use it on an extra lefty tonight.

The R’s have been doing quite well in Reno, and won last night’s game 7-0. Justus Sheffield shut out the Aces for 6 to get his first AAA win of 2022. Jarred Kelenic led off the game with a dinger, but is still struggling somewhat – he’s got 8 Ks and 0 BBs in his last three games, going 3-16, but two of those three hits are homers.

Arkansas destroyed Springfield 16-5 – all 5 of the Cardinals runs came on solo shots. Kaden Polcovich led the attack for the Travelers with a home run and 4 hits in all.

Modesto beat Fresno 2-1 as Edwin Arroyo had two hits and Jimmy Kingsbury went 5 solid IP for the Nuts.

Everett was rained out, but they’ve got the rehabbing Ken Giles as the opener tonight.

Game 49, Mariners at Orioles

marc w · May 31, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners

George Kirby vs. Bryan Baker, 4:05pm

After perhaps their best series of the year, the M’s head back out east to face the Orioles. Their last road trip put a serious dent in their playoff odds, so the M’s simply have to do better this time. Lucky for them, their quality of opposition drops noticeably. Instead of the Blue Jays and Rays, they get the Orioles and Rangers before resuming the difficult task of facing the Astros again.

Time has not been kind to the Orioles rebuild. Since the start of 2017, the Os are a combined *202* games below .500. They bottomed out in 2018 at 47-115, but then lost 108 games the very next year. After drafting well and building a well-regarded farm system, they came back strong in 2021…no, I’m sorry, they lost 110 games *again.* I understand that fans tolerate this sort of thing now, and that spending money to finish .500 is bad or inefficient or what have you, but, uh, this doesn’t look good, and it’s looked bleak for a while.

On the plus side, #1 prospect Adley Rutschman is now up and Grayson Rodriguez is in AAA. The line-up isn’t good, to be clear, but it looks like a bad MLB team and not a AA line-up anymore. Perhaps most crucially, and that’s kind of damning right there, the aggressive re-making of the left field dimensions at Camden Yards have allowed their pitching staff to more or less hold their own. Since 2017 began, the O’s have allowed 134 more home runs than any other team (Seattle is 3rd, 143 behind at 1,030). They pair that with the lowest K rate of any team in that span, AND a below-average walk rate.

Sure, the short porch in left was a factor, but the plain truth is that the Orioles pitching staffs have been bad because no one’s really tried to make them good. They’ve taken cast-offs from other orgs and watched them get worse (Andrew Cashner, Alex Cobb, Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Miley), and they’ve brought up prospects and saw them flail or stagnate (Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy). The prospect failures aside, the team hasn’t prioritized getting good pitchers during this rebuild, and it shows. They haven’t really tried much this year, but the deader ball and the shockingly deep LF have combined to make the group sort of playable despite a bottom-third K-BB%.

The offense, though, hasn’t been helped a whole lot. They have a 90 wRC+ at home, killed by their lack of power. They’re not great anywhere, but their sudden turn to playing in a pitcher’s park has consequences. That means this is a good day for George Kirby to attack the hitters, something that’s essentially been his MO since he was drafted. It’s not always a great plan, and he’s scuffled slightly in his last two starts – he’s given up 16 hits and three HRs in his last 10 IP. Here, though…why not?

Opposing him is the Orioles’ journeyman spot-starter, Bryan Baker. Baker was drafted by the Rockies, and made one appearance out of the Jays bullpen last September before being waived. A reliever, his presence as the starter portends a bullpen game – see above for the O’s hesitance to spend money on the rotation, OR to have to spend money later by bringing up Rodriguez too soon. Baker throws a four-seamer and a cutter, and as such, has some platoon split issues. He’s trying to remedy them by learning a change, but he hasn’t trusted it too much thus far – still, his MLB career is all of 20 IP long, so it’s not like he can’t reinvent himself. At 94-95, his fastball’s decent, and he’s had great results with it in his brief career. The cutter, though, just hasn’t been big-league quality.

I know Orioles fans have been through a lot. I know many are excited to cheer on Rutschman and Rodriguez (eventually). But I wonder what they think of watching yet another team stumble to the AL East cellar? I bet many, many people wonder why we’re all still watching the M’s try and fail to make the playoffs, and there’s the kernel of a disappointingly good question in there. But there’s one thing about watching a team try, maybe not as hard as we’d all like, with plenty of missteps here and there, but *try* – and whatever it is the Orioles are doing. I know, I said something very similar about the White Sox a few years ago, and their aggressive rebuild finally starting paying off. And even they weren’t *this* bad *this* often. I have seen M’s teams put up 100 loss seasons, and no, there’s no meaningful difference between 105 losses, say, and 110. But losing 100 in the last three full seasons and starting out in last place again? I don’t know that I could keep caring, even as I’m sure the fans are treated to every encouraging performance on the farm, and reminded about the importance of the draft. At some point, though, the will runs out.

1: Winker, DH
2: France, 1B
3: Rodriguez, CF
4: Crawford, SS
5: Suarez, 3B
6: Frazier, 2B
7: Moore, LF
8: Trammell, RF
9: Raleigh, C
SP: Kirby

With a Covid outbreak sidelining the Rainiers manager and batting coach, the M’s have turned to Dan Wilson to take the helm of the Rainiers as they head to Reno this week. Good luck, Dan!

Game 47, Astros at Mariners

marc w · May 28, 2022 · Filed Under Mariners

Logan Gilbert vs. Jose Urquidy, 7:10pm

When was the last time the Mariners were favored in a match-up with the Astros? Not sure, but it can’t have been too recently. But that’s exactly what we have tonight, as the M’s surprising ace, Logan Gilbert, faces off against the underbelly of the Astros rotation.

Let’s be clear: Jose Urquidy isn’t a bad pitcher. For years, he’s beaten his FIP through low BABIPs driven by fly balls and infield pop-ups. To his credit, he’s been extremely stingy with walks as well. It’s just that this season, the whole BABIP-suppression thing isn’t working, and he’s allowed 52 hits in just over 40 IP. That sort of thing just isn’t *done* anymore; he’d have been a star in the 1980s, but is verging on anachronism now.

He seems odd because he doesn’t strike a ton of batters out, and he’s a rare fastball/change-up guy – kind of a right-handed crafty lefty. The change has been easily his best pitch, and it’s often why he’s able to get poor contact and pop-ups. It’s also driven his sharply reversed platoon splits. In his career, lefties have a .253 wOBA against him, while righties are up at .332. That speaks both to the high quality of his change, but also the relative weakness of his breaking stuff. Righties should not be able to hit that well against him.

So, what’s happening this year? Well, his dominance of lefties is over with, at least for now. They’re destroying the ball, and his change-up is at the heart of it. I’m never really sure why pitchers with a great weapon want to change it, but Urquidy came into 2022 with a new change, or rather, he extended some changes he’d been making through 2021. Over the course of that season, he started throwing his change faster – from 84 and change to a bit over 86 mph this season. That didn’t change the horizontal run on the pitch, but it has reduced its vertical drop (as you’d kind of expect). By getting more active spin on his fastball, his heater’s vertical movement moved up through 2021 even as it lost velocity. But still, the changes were larger on the change, and the upshot is that there’s less of a gap in either speed or vertical break than there used to be. Lefties seem to have noticed. Hell, everyone has. He throws the pitch to righties too, and even they are hitting him better this year.

Logan Gilbert and Urquidy are very, very different pitchers, but, uh, Gilbert’s career platoon splits show a .254 wOBA for lefties and a .324 for righties. The driver in this case is much more the fastball than the change, but I think it’s pretty obvious at this point that Gilbert’s change is his second best pitch. An effective pitcher overall without a very good breaking ball…that descriptor works for both pitchers tonight. Michael Ajeto wrote up the evolving Gilbert over at Baseball Prospectus, talking about him using more of his secondaries in recent starts, and the change in particular. That bears watching in tonight’s contest.

Like Urquidy, Gilbert has a re-made change in 2022. Last year’s version was slow – down at 80 mph and with plenty of vertical drop. This year, Gilbert’s change averages 86+ mph – over 6 mph added to the pitch in one year. As with Urquidy, this has had some impact on its vertical movement, and sure, it’s shrunk the gap with his fastball. But Gilbert’s pitch has better movement; it really dives despite the added oomph. It was a very unsuccessful pitch last year, with MLB giving it a run value of +6, an absolutely terrible figure for a pitch thrown infrequently. This year, it’s down at -2; it’s already saved 2 runs despite the fact he’s still using it sparingly (below 10% of his pitches). Throw it more, Logan!

1: Winker, LF
2: France, 1B
3: Rodriguez, CF
4: Crawford, SS
5: Suarez, 3B
6: Frazier, 2B
7: Lewis, DH
8: Trammell, RF
9: Raleigh, C
SP: Gilbert

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