Game 153, Mariners at Twins

marc w · September 23, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Kyle Gibson, 5:10pm

That walk-off win against the Jays kept the M’s playoff hopes on life support, and they’ll get a further boost from the fact that the teams chasing the wild card all finish off the year playing intradivisional games. That means the M’s finish up against the out-of-it-A’s, while the Orioles and Jays are beating up each other, and tussling with the Red Sox. Of course, the Astros get the Angels to end with, AND they face the M’s at home after this series. Any gains the M’s get from their easier closing schedule are moot if they can’t actually win some series against the team’s they’re chasing.

But first, they face the Twins, a team whose rebuild looked great last year, but has collapsed to 98 losses thus far. They’ve done it despite Brian Dozier setting the HR record for 2Bs, and the team as a whole has drawn a decent number of walks. It’s just that so many of their youngsters have scuffled – Byron Buxton was the headliner here, but Miguel Sano took a step back as well – and the team compounded its weaknesses by being an inept defensive club. The pitching hasn’t helped either. Today’s starter, Kyle Gibson, was coming off of two consecutive better-than-league-average-by-fWAR seasons, but he’s fallen back thanks to a spate of home runs. Those HRs haven’t just troubled Gibson – they’ve been an anchor around a Twins staff that still doesn’t strike enough batters out to get away with dinger problems. For Gibson, part of the problem has been a spike in his platoon splits – lefties are destroying him this year. As a sinker/slider pitcher, you’d expect this, and he’s had sizeable splits his whole career, but this year, his results against lefties have gone from bad to gross.

No team in the AL’s given up more HRs than the Twins – the M’s are in 2nd, of course, 9 back of Minnesota. While Minnesota’s given up a lot of fly balls, the problem affects everyone, including GB guys like Gibson. I’ve been looking at park data for yet another post about Safeco, so I’ll say that this doesn’t appear to be just a case of awful pitchers pitching awfully; the Twins have given up more HRs at home, and a LOT more extra-base hits. I mentioned this way back in early July, but thanks to all the new data we have access to, there are a lot of ways to think about park factors. Tony Blengino’s batted-ball factors show Target Field as a good doubles park, but somewhat hard to homer in. But just this week, we got another way to think about this. Ex-M’s employee and saber-man-about-town Tom Tango and BaseballSavant guru Daren Willman came up with a new way to categorize really well-hit balls. They’re called ‘barrels’ – as in, when a batter really barrels up a ball. The definition combines launch angle and velocity such that the *minimum* ‘barrel’ has a slugging percentage of 1.500. These are elevated shots hit hard, so most HRs in the game qualify. Anyway, the point is: Target Field’s seen a lot of ‘barrels’ this year…even more than Safeco Field (they’ve had to pitch more in Target Field, so Safeco wins on a rate basis). I’m trying to square this circle wherein Blengino tells us that Safeco and Target are still limiting home runs with all of the actual home runs flying out of both parks. More on this shortly.

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

Speaking of Buxton, he’s had a very rough year and ended up getting sent back to AAA earlier, but man, he’s looked like a different hitter since returning. He’s hitting .300/.355/.686 in September (77 PAs). No, he’s not drawing enough walks and yes, the K rate is still vertiginous, but he’s driving the ball after spending most of the year popping the ball up to infielders.

As you probably expect, the M’s leader in ‘barrels’ is Nelson Cruz, who’s hit 60 of them. Exactly half have come at home.

The Astros welcome the Angels to Houston, with Alex Meyer and Doug Fister facing off right as the M’s game starts. The Orioles host the D-Backs (who are thinking about canning their front office, apparently), while the Jays host the Yankees.

Game 152, Blue Jays at Mariners

marc w · September 21, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Aaron Sanchez, 12:40pm

Ha…happy, uh, Felix Day everyone. Woo! Not sure anyone’s feeling it.

If it makes you feel better, thanks to the past week, the importance of today’s game has dropped dramatically. No, doesn’t make me feel better either.

Maybe this article from Jonah Keri will help. Nope, that didn’t work either.

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

Game 151, Blue Jays at Mariners

marc w · September 20, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. JA Happ, 7:10pm

Last night’s loss was a tough one. Between Marco Estrada’s brilliance and a stadium full of Canadians cheering him on, it didn’t feel like a critical M’s game. The M’s continue to struggle against pitchers like Estrada and Mike Fiers, which sucks, as JA Happ’s rising four-seamer could presage more harmless fly outs. To be fair to the M’s, they hit the ball somewhat hard later in the game – Cano’s bases-loaded warning track drive was the most frustrating example. The loss knocked the M’s playoff odds down to 15+%, down about 7 percentage points from yesterday. The Blue Jays not only got a big win, but saw the Orioles lose as well, so their odds crossed the 70% mark, up about 9 percentage points on the day.

Tonight they face 2015 Mariner JA Happ, who I think doesn’t get enough attention for how odd he’s been over the last 3 years or so. For several years, he was a garden variety 5th starter, who walked too many and gave up too many HRs thanks to a deadly combination of both below-average velocity and “stuff” AND below-average control and command. Things started improving, seemingly out of nowhere, in 2014, when Happ was 31. He began throwing more strikes and added 2mph on his FB. His 90-91mph rising four-seamer and sinker were suddenly 92-93+, and while he still had some HR issues, he at least offered a bit of potential. That was enough for Seattle, who traded Mike Saunders for him despite his looming free agency. At the time, I wasn’t thrilled with the trade, but thought that Happ could adapt to his new surroundings by ditching his sinker and actively courting fly balls. He didn’t really listen, and while his GB% crept up slightly, he gave up a ton of base hits and thus too many runs in Seattle. He’d be great at times, but inconsistency doomed him, and he was shipped to Pittsburgh for unheralded SP prospect Adrian Sampson.

Under Ray Searage, Happ completely abandoned the sinker, and started firing four-seamers over 70% of the time. This sounds like a bigger change than it was; he’d often thrown a ton of fastballs, going all the way back to his days in Philadelphia. And he’d typically thrown them up in the zone – batters swung at more of them there, and the location plus his rising action allowed Happ to miss more bats than he otherwise would, given his so-so velocity. But in Pittsburgh, he was flat-out dominant. His K rate spiked to over 26% and he essentially stopped walking people at all. Curiously, though, his GB% didn’t really move. No one cared, because no one could actually hit him, and he looked like a completely different pitcher.

The Jays thought that was enticing enough to extend him a 3-year, $36m contract in a move that left a lot of people shaking their heads. Thus far, Happ’s been worth it. The weird thing is that he’s been successful by abandoning the approach that worked in Pittsburgh. From the beginning of the year, he’s been throwing more sinkers. Not just more than he threw in Pittsburgh (none) or Seattle (15%), but far more than he’s ever thrown – nearly 30% of his pitches. Eno Sarris notes that Happ’s sinker has a lot more drop than his four-seam, and that’s true – but it’s also not new. That was true very late in 2014, and the gap was even bigger in Seattle than it is now.

So with this new-fangled approach, he’d have to have a different batted ball profile, right? Well, no. His GB% now is essentially unchanged from where it was last year. Even comparing just his Pittsburgh stats (zero sinkers) to this year’s Toronto numbers (lotsa sinkers) shows a delta of less than 2 percentage points. The pitch is put in play often, goes for grounders often, and he’s throwing more of it…but his batted ball profile is stuck at around 40% grounders. The key here is that the approach is doing something to his *four-seamer*. His whiff/swing ratio on his four-seam is over 26%, way higher than in the past, and one of the best in baseball. Not only that, but because batters are more likely to swing at it when it’s up (or out of) in the zone, when they DO put it in play, it’s most likely a fly ball or pop-up. The increased grounders he’s getting with the sinkers are offset by the decrease he’s inducing with his four-seam.

So, are fly balls good? When he was moving to Seattle, I thought they would be, and indeed, Happ had pretty good success on fly balls last year. Like everything else, this was magnified in his time in Pittsburgh, where an ultra-low HR/FB ratio helped keep his ERA and FIP gaudy. He’s got a very low BABIP, and again, he’s been pretty successful on fly balls this year, though it’s worth noting that his HR/FB luck ran out, and he’s giving up MORE dingers than he did in Seattle. What’s actually driving that low BABIP (and thus a big gap between ERA and FIP) is ground balls. In 2015, batters slugged .305 on GBs against him (data from statcast, so it doesn’t match Fangraphs/BBREF exactly). This year, that figure is .217. BBREF has it as .207, a figure that gives him an sOPS+ of 58 (relative to the league average of 100). Why? Statcast shows a slight change in his modal or mean launch angle – here’s 2015’s and here’s 2016’s – you’ll see a bigger grouping of GBs around -10 degrees in 2016, and those grounders should theoretically be easier to convert into outs. But what about playing in front of an infield featuring Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Darwin Barney, Devon Travis, etc.? Toronto’s IF defense rates very high by advanced and regular metrics, and that’s probably driving some of the improvement as well.

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

Big changes in the M’s minor league system, as the Jackson Generals signed a two-year affiliation agreement with the Arizona Diamondbacks. That’s pushed the M’s out of the Southern League and back to the Texas League, where they had a club from 2001-2006. Back then, they were with San Antonio, a club that featured a fair to pitcher-friendly run environment. Now, the M’s affiliate will be the Arkansas Travelers, one of the toughest parks for home runs in all of AA. Statcorner’s park factors give it an almost comical HR factor of 57 for right-handed bats. Arkansas was an Angels affiliate recently.

With Bakersfield sadly contracted, the M’s needed a high A affiliate, too. I’d thought that they may need to go to the Carolina league, who’ll grow by the two teams the Cal League shed, but instead they’ve inked a deal with the Modesto Nuts. The ex-A’s affiliate and more recently Colorado Rockies affiliate, is another park that really suppresses HR, though of course the Cal League as a whole sees more HRs than the Texas League. By Statcorner, their HR factors are 46 for LHB and 61 for RHBs. That sounds insane, but I assume the league values are inflated by High Desert, Lancaster and some of the other launching pads. It’ll certainly make a change from Sam Lynn ballpark, which featured the shortest CF distance in all of professional baseball, and thus had HR factors of 120/142 (LHB/RHB).

Speaking of the minors, it’s impossible to see this Toronto line-up and not think of the 2010 Tacoma Rainiers. Sure, I think of the 2010 Rainiers when I look at most things, but Toronto has three key offensive players from that PCL-winning team: Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders, and Ezequiel Carrera. It’s tough to predict MLB success, and so much is down to opportunity, blah blah, but I will never stop being stunned that Ezequiel Carrera is a better 2016 big leaguer than Smoak, Ackley, Matt Mangini, Mike Carp, etc. Saunders has been better, of course, and we’re not even getting into guys like Michael Pineda or Shawn Kelley, but Carrera was one of the worst players I saw that year. He hit 0 HRs in 64 games and generally looked like a slap-hitting 4th OF for a AAA team. The M’s traded him in June and I thought we’d never hear from him again. He’s not been good, mind you, but he’s been more valuable than Smoak, and with Ackley hurt and so many other prospects of 2010 now out of baseball, Carrera’s pretty far up the list of most successful alumni. Baseball is baffling.

Game 150, Blue Jays at Mariners

marc w · September 19, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Marco Estrada, 7:10pm

Yesterday’s win gave the M’s about a 5 percentage point boost in playoff odds, as it not only knocked the Astros back a game, but it was paired with a Blue Jays loss. That M’s game essentially came at the expense of Toronto, who saw their own odds drop from about 66% to 61%. That’s still an enviable position, but the M’s have a chance here to make up the gap: the Jays have a 2 game lead as this 3 game set kicks off.

A sweep would radically change the race, given that we’re now about 2 weeks away from the end of the season. It coincides with the Astros facing off with the A’s, so losing the series may see the M’s go from tied-for-3rd in the WC standings down to 4th or even 5th. This is clearly Taijuan Walker’s biggest start, and thanks to his dominant performance against the Angels, I’m less concerned about that than I would’ve been a few weeks ago. To be clear: the Blue Jays are a much better offense than Anaheim, and Walker’s gem came after a string of dismal starts. If you want to feel pessimistic about tonight’s game, you’ve got plenty of ammo. Still – they’re a better club against left-handed pitching, and old scouting reports on Walker may be less useful now.

Whatever Walker does, the M’s need to score some runs. They faced two crafty right-handed batters who don’t mind pitching up in the zone and allowing elevated contact, and they looked awful doing it. Tonight, of course, they face another crafty right-handed change-of-speed guy who pitches up in the zone. And it’s not just a matter of fly ball pitches flummoxing the fly ball hitting M’s offense (they’ve been fine against them overall on the year) – the problem is that the M’s offense has slowed down considerably in the second half. As the weather’s gotten warmer, the M’s ISO has fallen from .181 to .159, and their wRC+ has dropped from 110 to 102. They’re still OK (on offense – the defense is still atrocious), but a 110 wRC+ can paper over some things on the pitching-and-defense side of the ball a lot better than an essentially league-average offense can. Let’s hope Seth Smith – long one of the M’s streakiest hitters – stays hot.

Marco Estrada is a remarkable pitcher, fashioning himself into an All-Star in a ballpark that seems so ill-suited to him. He throws a rising fastball (it gets more vertical movement than any other starter in the game) in the middle and up in the zone, and actively courts fly ball contact. That approach – and the movement he gets on his fastball – allows him to generate above-average strikeouts despite velocity that’s now in the mid-high 80s; his average fastball this year of 88.9mph ranks 2nd slowest in MLB among those who’ve thrown at least 1,000 four-seamers this year. In Milwaukee, he gave up tons of home runs and struggled to consistently gain the benefit of a profile like this, namely, a low BABIP (lots of fly balls and pop-ups = low BABIP). Something changed when he moved to Toronto, though. Yes, last year’s phenomenal year was driven in large part by an unsustainable .216 BABIP. But it’s regressed only as far as .241, giving him three straight years and over 450 IP with a low (.257 was the high mark) BABIP. The M’s need home runs. Of course, Estrada still gives up plenty. He yielded 24 last year, and he’s already at 22 this year, and he, like so many others, may not have cottoned on to the fact that Safeco’s playing like a launching pad this year.

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

The Great Lakes Loons beat Clinton to lift the Midwest League championship trophy, so the season’s officially over in the M’s system. We’ve talked at length about the M’s disastrous 2015, so it’s only fitting to close it out with this chart, showing the M’s leading all of baseball with a minor league winning percentage of 59.4%. This will never stop being astonishing to me, especially given what happened a year ago. Is this a sign that the M’s farm system is a lot better than people think? Not exactly; you can win in the minors without blue-chip prospects. But it IS a sign that the front office’s talk about changing habits and building a winning culture was more than nice-sounding pabulum. Something’s going on.
MiLB WP%

Game 149, Astros at Mariners

marc w · September 18, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Ariel Miranda vs. Doug Fister, 1:10pm

The last two games have nearly cut the M’s playoff odds in half; it would’ve been worse if the Blue Jays, Orioles AND Tigers hadn’t all lost yesterday. But that’s cold comfort to a fanbase that’s seen the M’s offense look terrible in consecutive games – games that had an outsized impact on their chances of playing in the postseason.

I’m sure that’ll elicit lots of armchair psychology about the M’s wilting under pressure, but the Astros have had the M’s number all year. Lots of teams have bad games, and the Astros have looked just as helpless whenever they’ve played the Rangers, but it’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder if the Astros’ advanced scouting hasn’t spotted something. Dan Vogelbach’s slow start hasn’t helped much, either, and with Adam Lind healthy again, Vogelbach heads back to the bench today.

Doug Fister’s skirted danger the whole year, and while his FIP’s edging towards replacement level, he’s given up a decent number of runs for a 5th starter. This late-period Fister isn’t striking anyone out, and his trademark control is mostly gone, too, so his K-BB% has dropped to its lowest level ever. He’s giving up more HRs than he did in his peak, too, which explains why his FIP’s been below average for three years running. It’s not really BABIP that’s bailed him out; it was over .300 last year, and it’s .291 this year, right in line with his career numbers. Instead, he’s been much better (or much luckier, depending on your view of how much a pitcher controls his own sequencing) with men on base. In the past, he had a low BABIP and very low walks allowed in all situations. Even in recent years, his bases-empty HR/9 and men-on-base HR/9 climbed together. But this year, as he’s giving up an awful 1.59 HR/9 with no one on, his men-on-base rate has plummeted to 0.54. In rate terms, he’s given up a HR in 3.9% of PAs with no one on and just 1.6% once someone reaches. Hisashi Iwakuma did something similar for years, of course, so it’s not like you can just chalk it up to luck. But given Fister’s waaaay low HR/FB ratio with men on (he’s still giving up fly balls, they’re just not making it to the wall) AND the fact that this split is limited to 2016 makes it hard to give Fister all of the credit.

Speaking of bad luck, Fister’s been annihilated by left-handers this year, something that hasn’t been a consistent problem for him in the past. Given that track record, and another HR/FB-driven difference, we probably shouldn’t get too carried away with the whole “he can’t get lefties out anymore!” stuff. The advantage isn’t as big as his raw slash lines would indicate, but it’s an advantage nonetheless. If the M’s lefties get some challenge pitches from Fister, they need to deal with them. Speaking of lefties: Nori Aoki is now hitting .333/.381/.488 since returning from AAA. I wouldn’t have that he was capable of that over any stretch, particularly since he was slugging .313 when he was sent down.

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

I’ll admit I’m feeling somewhat nauseous about Miranda making this start, by far the biggest game he’s even been a part of. That said, I’m reminded of a game in 2014 when the M’s had a must-win against the Astros and turned to rookie Cuban lefty Roenis Elias, and Elias pitched 6IP, giving up just a single run. He kept his team in it, matching up against M’s nemesis, Collin McHugh. I’d take one of those, Mr. Miranda. (Yoervis Medina gave up a run in that one, and the M’s lost 2-1. Even the scores in this series remind me of previous crushing losses in September to the Astros).

Speaking of nausea, Ketel Marte’s made 4 errors in his last 5 games and he’s 3 for 16 in that span. Since HIS return from injury rehab, he’s slashing .244/.281/277. I don’t think anyone will mind seeing Shawn O’Malley in there today.

Game 147, Astros at Mariners

marc w · September 16, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Collin McHugh, 7:10pm

In September of 2014, the M’s returned home following an inordinately successful road trip. Their record was 78-64 as they prepared to host the Houston Astros, and they had King Felix on the hill. Their wildcard odds at that point were right about 50%. While Felix won that one, the Astros and then the Blue Jays conspired to ruin what had been an out-of-nowhere playoff push. As late as the final week of the season, the M’s still had playoff odds of better than 1/3, but Collin McHugh and the Astros held the M’s at bay, and then a disastrous series in Toronto put an end to the M’s hopes. I recount all of this not to revel in pessimism, but to point out the almost eerie parallels between this year and 2014, and how nice it is to have another shot at this.

It’s also to point that Houston’s played a remarkably outsized role in two AL playoff races in the last three years. In 2014, the M’s lost 4 of 6 critical games to the Astros, who’d go on to finish 70-92. This year, the Astros are much better, so it’s less of a surprise that they’re 8-5 against the M’s, but it’s a key reason why the M’s trail Toronto in the Wild Card race. The Astros themselves are in 3rd in large part because of their complete inability to compete with Texas, who’s an astonishing 15-4 against them. Houston and Seattle are normal, in that they have much better records against worse-than-.500 clubs, while Texas, perhaps the oddest team in recent memory, is actually better against .500+ teams, largely because that group includes the Astros (and Mariners).

Collin McHugh came out of nowhere to post a great 2014 season, but he’s struggled to regain that form. While the Astros’ improvement helped his record, he declined quite a bit in 2015 thanks to a much higher BABIP and a decline in his K-BB%. While his K-BB% has rebounded some this year, it’s been more than offset by a spike in home runs – the problem that got him waived by New York and Colorado before his Houston renaissance. As fortunate as his 2014 was, his 2016 is Chris Snelling-level cursed. His BABIP is now a about 100 points higher than it was in 2014, and coupled with his HR trouble, he’s been a mediocre starter by fielding-dependent metrics.

For a guy who uses a roughly equal mix of fastballs, slider/cutters, and curves, he’s got surprisingly little in the way of platoon splits. In the past, his success against lefties was a key component of his value. Now, his LACK of success against *righties* is driving his slide into back-of-the-rotation status. I’ve said that many times this year (this’ll be McHugh’s 4th start of the year against Seattle) and it hasn’t mattered; McHugh is 3-0 against the M’s, who’ve managed just a .640 OPS against him. In his last start against the M’s back in July, McHugh K’d 10 in 6 IP. That’s surprising, given just how bad McHugh’s struggled against everyone else. Righties have teed off on McHugh’s underpowered four-seam fastball; they’re slugging .727 off of it. Meanwhile, lefties are feasting on his cutter, against which they’ve slugged .713.

The key to this game, though, is Felix. In 2014, Felix had a rough ending to the year, culminating in a 10-1 loss in Toronto that was essentially the M’s death knell. He recently suffered through back-to-back disaster starts, and he’s had some pretty bad Septembers in recent years. That said, I think this is the outcome every M’s fan wanted: Felix starting the first game of a crucial homestand, with the M’s riding an 8 game win streak. I don’t want to take too much comfort in these “playoff-like” substitutes that Felix has had to settle for, but it’s pretty awesome to see meaningful baseball in September again. Like Larry Stone, I have no idea how this team is in this position all of the sudden, but I’ll take it.*

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Martin, CF
8: Vogelbach, 1B
9: Marte, SS
SP: KING FELIX

The M’s get a bit of a break, as new Astros 3B Alex Bregman’s not making the trip after injuring his hamstring. After starting off his MLB career with an absymal 2-38 slump, Bregman’s hit .310/.353/.582 in 37 games. Of course, he’s not the only addition the Astros have made since the last time these two clubs met back in July. The Astros now feature Yuliesky Gurriel, the Cuban corner IF/OF, who’s off to a great start in MLB – the 32 year old has played 21 games, and he’s hitting .338/.360/.521.

The Jackson Generals won the Southern League Championship last night in Mississippi with a dominant 11-3. Jackson knocked out the opposing starter after 2/3 of an inning. Tyler O’Neill was named the series MVP after winning the season MVP. Jackson had the league’s best record as well. Really can’t see how this season could’ve gone any better except for maybe avoiding that weird late-season slide that kept them from having the best record in both halves. It’s going to be fun to see Tyler O’Neill in Seattle next year (figure he’ll get a call-up at some point).

The last club still playing is Clinton, who’ll start Kevin Gadea in Game 3 of the MWL championship series on Saturday. Great Lakes counters with Caleb Ferguson, a 38th rounder out of an Ohio HS who’s been a nice surprise for the Dodgers org this year. He began the year in Rookie Ball, but moved up to make 10 starts for Great Lakes. In 50+ innings, he’s walked just *3* and struck out 41. Over 3 levels in the low minors, Ferguson’s K:BB ratio is 63:5. Mind you, Gadea’s no slouch either. He’s at 95:14 on the year, and he misses a lot more bats than Ferguson. Gadea’s struck out 31 more batters than Ferguson in the exact same number of innings at this level.

* The Astros facing Texas for 2 series while the M’s dealt with LA and Oakland certainly helped, of course.

Game 146, Mariner at Angels

marc w · September 14, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Jhoulys Chacin, 7:05pm

The M’s have won seven in a row, and that tends to amp up your emotional response to each event, but when’s the last time an M’s game was as much fun to watch as last night’s? Every facet of the game, with the possible exception of defense (what the hell happened to you, Ketel Marte?), was clicking, and the result was not only an easy win over a rival, but a number of performances that offer a lot of hope for the future.

Obviously, the biggest takeaway was Taijuan Walker’s comfort and effectiveness, mixing three pitches in a way we’ve simply not seen before. For all the talk of mechanical tweaks, Walker remains metronome-like in terms of the movement he gets on his pitches. Any mechanical adjustment should impact either movement or velocity, and that’s just not what we’ve seen. Here’s Walker’s vertical movement over his career:
Walker vert move You’d expect more variance from game to game just due to pitch fx calibration (which Brooks largely corrects for) or just because Walker woke up 15 minutes earlier. Walker’s done a lot of things wrong in his MLB tenure, but he does not have a problem with repeating his delivery. It may be a bad delivery or a good one, but it IS consistent.

What hasn’t been consistent is his pitch mix. In my opinion, he’s been far too fastball-reliant, making it easier for batters to focus on location. To be fair to the M’s and Walker, a lot of that reliance was a product of poor secondary pitches. Coming up through the minors, I thought his curve could become a plus pitch. Many other observers came to the opposite conclusion, and suggested he scrap it for a cutter. I’ve seen the cutter in the minors and the majors, and I’ve simply never seen an average, let alone plus, pitch. This may be my own weird issue; some scouts raved about it when he’d first developed it, and it’s possible the real issue isn’t with the cutter, but overall consistency (though again, that seems unlikely to be his issue). Worse, whenever he DID throw the curve against big league hitters, it looked noticeably worse than it did in Tacoma. I’m assuming some of this was just rust – he’d focused so much on his fastball, the new cutter/slider thing, and his splitter, that the curve was an afterthought. That feedback loop built on itself, and you had games where he’d throw it once, or as he did against the Rays this year, not throw it at all. He’s thrown it less than 10% of the time this year, about the same as he did last year.

It wasn’t a great pitch, but it at least offered a change of pace. His splitter’s been hit fairly hard, too (7 HRs off of it this year), but no one would suggest he scrap it. What we saw last night was Walker in command of both the curve and the splitter. We’ve really never seen Walker command and actually utilize three pitches in a game. There’ve been games where he’s thrown a bunch of cutters, and games where he’s thrown a few dozen splitters, but these two things didn’t really overlap. Last night’s mix of – in rough terms – 50% FB, 25% CU and 25% CH/SP worked well, and they worked because he was able to throw them for strikes. The curve ball he struck out Trout on was a great example, and a great job by both Walker and Zunino to have the confidence to throw it in that situation.

The M’s clawed to within 2.5 games of the 2nd wild card, so this win came at an opportune time, and it helped the M’s chances, etc. It also gave me much more confidence – maybe too MUCH more confidence – in 2017. It must’ve felt incredible for Walker, too – remember that when he was sent down, the M’s called him out publicly, with Servais saying he needed to work deeper into games and compete more. I have a feeling Walker reminded Servais of that when he (successfully) lobbied to go back out in the 9th and go for the complete game.

The Angels were supposed to start Tyler Skaggs today, but he was scrapped, and Jhoulys Chacin, the ~ replacement-level innings-sponge will start instead. This’ll be Chacin’s 5th appearance against the M’s this year, and while he was very effective in his first 2, he’s been destroyed in the last two, giving up 9 runs and 14 hits in 8 2/3 IP. Chacin’s been particularly bad against left-handers this year; he’s been surprisingly decent against righties. The M’s seem well-positioned to take advantage, with both Seth Smith and Nori Aoki suddenly hot.

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

Everett lost the Northwest League Championship to Eugene last night, falling 2-1 thanks to another great game from lefty Manuel Rondon. Reggie McClain was the hard-luck loser, giving up both runs in 4 2/3 IP with 6 Ks. Congrats to the Emeralds.

Jackson’s story is a bit happier, as they took a 2-0 lead in the Southern League Championship series with a, er, 2-0 win. Brett Ash started and went 7 scoreless. Ryne Harper made it hold up with 2 shutout innings for the save. The big hit was a HR by Adam Law, a 3B the M’s picked up during the year. Guys like Ryne Harper and Law have really helped, and also highlight how active the M’s have been in making minor trades..wait…really? The M’s just sent Joe Wieland to Atlanta for a PTBNL. Yesterday, they sent Wade LeBlanc to Pittsburgh. Dipoto can’t stop.

The Midwest League Championship series kicks off today, with Clinton hosting the Great Lakes Loons, a Dodgers affiliate. Luiz Gohara takes the hill for Clinton opposite Jordan Sheffield, a 2016 draftee out of Vanderbilt with some pretty good blood lines. His father is Gary Sheffield, and his little brother Justus (who signed out of HS) was part of the big Andrew Miller deal this year.

Game 145, Mariners at Angels

marc w · September 13, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Alex Meyer, 7:05pm

It’s a late-season battle between two former top prospects whose stock has dropped of late!

I mentioned Alex Meyer in yesterday’s post, as he was a part of the deal that brought Ricky Nolasco to Anaheim. In addition to swapping back-of-the-rotation starters, the Twins and Angels also swapped hard-throwing enigmas who seemed destined for middle relief. Alex Meyer was a first-round pick by the Nationals who moved to the Twins in exchange for Denard Span. Meyer touched 98, and while he had control issues, he was a college arm and seemed to offer a limitless upside. In the Twins system, he posted gaudy K/9 ratios, but didn’t dominate thanks to a consistently-high BABIP and control problems. While he showed signs of improvement this year, shoulder pain’s limited him to just a handful of innings.

Despite being drafted a year later than Walker, Meyer’s 2 years older; he’ll turn 27 before next season. Physically, Meyer’s gigantic – he stands 6’9″ and at 225 pounds, is essentially what scouts have in mind when they talk about an ideal frame. Sure, sure, long limbed pitchers can have trouble repeating their delivery and all, but 6’9″ guys throwing 96 always seem to go higher in the draft than a 5’9″ guy throwing 96 “at max effort.” Meyer had a great junior season at the University of Kentucky, but struggled mightily with his control in his time there. Contrast this with Marcus Stroman, who K’d more and walked fewer and dominated at Duke and went in roughly the same draft slot a year later.

Meyer has a surprisingly low release point for a power-forward-shaped pitcher, so he doesn’t get a ton of vertical rise on his fastball. It’s got some horizontal movement, though, and it comes in at 96, touching 98-99. His primary breaking ball’s a curveball thrown at 85, and he’s also got a change-up. Despite the arm angle, his pitch mix looks like a fly-ball pitcher’s, and that’s what he’s been thus far in the majors (all of 9 IP!). Even in the minors, he’s been neutral- to fly-ball heavy. That plays well in Anaheim’s fly-ball suppressing park, and it *should* help with his long-standing BABIP problem. That hasn’t happened yet, as his BABIP’s been sky high thus far. That’s a problem that afflicted Taijuan Walker last year and, to a degree, James Paxton this year. I’d love to know more about how/why this can happen, and yes, I’m aware that “bad luck” is always a factor in a situation like this. But there’s no reason a guy like Meyer should give up so many hits – he *really* shouldn’t have in AA, but it’s still true in MLB.

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

Adam Lind’s injured finger gives Dan Vogelbach the opportunity to get his first MLB start. He pinch hit last night to make his MLB debut, hustled down the line to avoid a DP, but then made a really dumb out on the basepaths when he missed 2nd base trying to go 1st to 3rd.

In the minors last night, the big story was the elimination of the Bakersfield Blaze. The team that’s called Sam Lynn home for 75 years lost their Cal League series against Visalia and will be contracted. Such a sad situation. Full credit for a great broadcast in surreal circumstances to Dan Besbris and David Gascon.

Jackson won game 1 of their series against Mississippi, with Tyler O’Neill leading the charge with 2 hits including a double. Andrew Moore was solid once again, tossing 6 IP and yielding 2 runs with 2 strikeouts and 0 walks. Brett Ash starts game 2 tonight against ex-Angels prospect and Alex Meyer 2.0, Sean Newcomb.

Clinton beat Peoria with a walk-off shutout (what else), 1-0 in 11 innings. Nick Neidert was the star of the show, pitching 7 scoreless with 9 Ks against 0 walkss and giving up just 3 hits. One of those hits was a lead-off double in the 5th, and after a wild pitch, the Kernels had a man on 3rd with no outs. Rayder Ascanio then made a pair of great plays at SS, and then Neidert got out of the inning with a pop-up. Ricky Eusebio’s single in the 11th scored Logan Taylor for the walk-off win. They’ll start the MWL championship series on Wednesday against either the Great Lakes Loons or the West Michigan White Caps.

Ljay Newsome gave up 0 HRs, just as I suggested, and dominated the Eugene Emeralds in Everett’s 7-1 win. Newsome K’d 6 in 6 IP and didn’t walk anyone. Eric Filia had 3 hits and 3 RBIs. Everett faces off with the Emeralds’ top starter, Manuel Rondon. Rondon’s yet another ex-Angels farmhand, who moved to the Cubs in a minor trade and took off this season, posting 1.10 ERA in 12 starts to take the NWL pitcher of the year honors. That said, he’s 21 and in short-season ball, so he doesn’t appear on the Cubs’ top prospect lists, but the lefty can apparently touch the mid-90s, so he may jump into the top 20 in an admittedly loaded system next year.

Game 144, Mariners at Angels

marc w · September 12, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Ariel Miranda vs. Ricky Nolasco, 7:05pm

It sounded crazy – and I still think it WAS crazy, for the record – that the Angels would turn to Ricky Nolasco to help their beleaguered starting rotation limp across the finish line in 2016. The league was punishing Nolasco again, and his four-year contract was something of a joke throughout baseball, and probably a key piece of evidence when the Twins’ ownership decided to fire GM Terry Ryan. But the Angels thought he’d be enough of an upgrade over Hector Santiago that they took on some currenty-year salary to do so. And hey, it’s actually worked! For once, Nolasco’s ERA isn’t wildly out of line with his FIP, and Santiago’s been awful in the twin cities.

In the kind of trade that only sabermetric data wonks would be interested in, the Angels acquired a guy who’s always posting worse actual runs-allowed numbers than his FIP would predict. The return, Santiago, was the opposite: thanks to a consistently low BABIP, he had a string of good ERAs backed up by marginal-at-best FIPs. If this was a pure regression bet, you’d assume a team could do a sell-high, buy-low kind of a thing, but again: the two were traded for each other.* If you’re making a bet that your staff can fix some specific weakness, that’s cool, but then I’d expect to see something different in Nolasco’s numbers or approach pre- and post-trade, and I don’t; his FIP was 4.30 before the trade, and 4.32 after. He still throws the same pitches, and has a nearly-identical K:BB ratio and the same problem with HRs. It’s just that he’s stranded more runners in California than he did in Minnesota.

If the Angels have done anything, it’s a small change to his pitch mix. Nolasco appears to be throwing more sinkers now than he did with the Twins. That’s resulted in a *slightly* higher GB% with the Angels, though the difference is small enough that it could simply be noise. Theoretically, that should help Nolasco’s HR problems (and playing in Anaheim should really help them), but like a balloon that’s been squeezed on one end, the problem just pops up somewhere else. Nolasco’s throwing fewer four-seam fastballs, but batters are making more contact and hitting them harder now.

Ariel Miranda’s had a very Hector Santiago-y stint with Seattle. In six starts, his walk rate’s awful and his HR-rate is hide-your-eyes bad. But he’s allowed 15 earned runs (18 total) in 32 2/3 IP, which…I mean, that’s not exactly good, but it’s perfectly acceptable. It’d be nice to fix something, as his peripherals are bad enough that he could collapse at any moment; no one like Miranda should have a walk rate that high, for example. His fastball’s still getting destroyed, but I *still* like his splitter, even though he’s now throwing more of his change-up, a pitch that seems kind of superfluous for a guy with a good splitter. He’s not really throwing a breaking ball, which is odd, but I’d prioritize command work over refining his slider/learning a curve any day.

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

I’ve now written about Ricky F#$^ing Nolasco three times this year, after writing about him in 2014, etc. I like what I do enough to keep doing it, but there are times when I look at the sheer volume of words I’ve expended on Nolasco or Brett Oberholtzer or whoever and I get a lump in my throat.

Then I read something like this phenomenal write-up on Bakersfield and their staff pulling together to run a Cal League franchise on a shoestring, and now playing each game like it may be their last…*ever* and I vow not to feel sorry for myself for voluntarily writing about Ricky Nolasco. Seriously, go read that article by Bobby DeMuro and tell me you don’t feel for Dan Besbris and the rest of the Blaze staff, players and fans. The parallels to Tacoma are somewhat eerie, from that look people (used to?) give you when they heard where you were from to the fact that the Rainiers had been saddled with a historic-but-problematic park and were thus kind of a money pit. Tacoma really could’ve gone the way of Bakersfield, but didn’t, as the City ended up helping out with a stadium remodel. Obviously, that didn’t happen in Bakersfield. Bako is down 0-2 in their best of 5 against Visalia. They’ll start Osmer Morales at Sam Lynn field and try to forestall contraction for another day.

Since last we spoke (sorry, another camping trip), the Rainiers were eliminated by the yapping Chihuahuas of El Paso. The other affiliates are still alive, with Bakersfield facing elimination and Clinton now in a decisive game 3 in their series against Peoria. The Lumberkings Kevin Gadea struck out 11 in 6 shutout IP last night in a dominating Clinton win to force the 3rd and final game that’ll decide which team will play for the MWL championship. Clinton sends ace Nick Neidert to the hill tonight opposite 19th round draft pick and Harvard man Sean Poppen. Go L-Kings.

Jackson kicks off their 2nd round match-up with the Mississippi Braves tonight. Andrew Moore, who dazzled in game 1 of the opening series against Montgomery, gets the start for the Generals. The M-Braves counter with Michael Mader, a former Marlins prospect who came to the Braves system in a deal for reliever Hunter Cervenka as the Braves have loaded up on young, MiLB talent. He’s been very tough since moving over to the Braves, and the Generals haven’t seen him before. The big pitching prospect for Mississippi is former Angels #1 prospect, Sean Newcomb, who shook off an awful start to 2016 to finish strong. The club also includes dimunitive catcher/contact wizard Willians Astudillo, speedy CF Mallex Smith, and hyped middle IF prospect Ozzie Albies.

Everett’s in the second and final round of the NWL playoffs against Eugene, who are up 1 game to 0 thus far. Tonight, the AquaSox send Ljay Newsome to the hill against Tyson Miller down in Eugene. Miller was a 4th rounder this year out of a small school in California and gets rave reviews for his competitiveness, but hasn’t missed many bats in pro ball thus far. Newsome was drafted out of a Maryland HS last year, and definitely features more present stuff, but has been victimized by HR problems. If he can keep the ball in the yard, he’s got a good chance; he blanked the Emeralds over 4 IP back in late August.

* Technically, the prospects in the deal – one on each side – complicate things, as the Angels got the guy with the higher upside/bigger name. Not sure it really changes the picture, especially when you add in the salary differences.

Game 141, Mariners at Athletics

marc w · September 9, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Daniel Mengden, 7:05pm

Is it better to finish a bit above .500, on the edge of contention, where a late-august swoon rips your heart out, or is it better to fall out of it early, try a bunch of new players and see if you can discern the first stirrings of a new, competitive core? You can say that there’s merit in the Astros’ recent rebuild or even the Phillies’ nearly instantaneous move from “too old” to “stocked with fascinating young players, but still not ready to compete,” but the case of the Athletics is somewhat different. With the A’s, you’re never sure it’s going to end, and while they were more than competitive just a couple of years ago, the trade of Josh Donaldson highlighted that developing elite young talent is kind of a double-edged sword. Hooray for watching that player come up to the majors and succeed! Boo, because he’s going to need to be traded as soon as that success is sustained. I don’t think the M’s or their front office wants the M’s to be a .500-ish team for several years, but that almost seems like the goal in Oakland. The M’s are going to be an old, old team next year, and that’s not ideal in terms of trying to contend in 2018-19, but the M’s signed Kyle Seager to an extension, and locked up Felix, Cano and Cruz. I know I pick on the A’s too much, especially as a sabermetrically-inclined guy, but it really has to be hard to be a fan in years like this one.

2015 was a pivotal year, as they dealt Donaldson away, and then moved decisively once they fell off the pace in the AL, acquiring Daniel Mengden from the Astros in a mid-year trade for Scott Kazmir last year. Mengden’s not overpowering, though his fastball will touch 95, but he has four pitches (five if you include a sinker) that he’ll throw pretty regularly. That diverse repertoire pairs with a…throwback delivery that may add a bit of deception. He was untouchable in the minors this year, but it’s been a very different story since joining the A’s. It’s not platoon splits, it’s just that *everything’s* gotten worse. His walk rate’s soared, nearly doubling from where he was in AAA. He’s giving up more HRs, and that may be a long-term issue, given that he throws over-the-top and is running a ground ball rate below 40%. His BABIP’s too high, and his strand rate’s absurdly low. This mixture of bad peripherals AND bad luck account for his diabolical ERA of 6.66 headed into tonight’s game.

Mengden’s still young and anyone who can come close to commanding four pitches this early has a real shot. But he’s another example of how tricky the A’s rebuild is. Sean Manaea was their top pitching prospect coming into the year, and while he’s recovered from a ghastly start, he’s only shown flashes of being more than a #3. Mengden’s adjusting to the big leagues slowly, and Andrew Triggs hurt his back. Sonny Gray’s been one of the biggest disappointments in the league, which increases the chances that he’ll stay in Oakland, but decreases the chances that A’s fans will be stoked about that in 2018. Zach Neal and Kendall Graveman have pitched pretty well, but can’t strike anyone out, Jharel Cotton CAN, but he’s only pitched one big league game thus far, etc. Having this many young starters is great, though of course it means something’s gone wrong. But the A’s haven’t seen the kind of instant star they had with Gray. Maybe with time to develop they’ll put together a great, cheap core. Or maybe they’ve got a whole lot of perfectly serviceable players but don’t yet have the pieces they need to challenge Texas and Houston, no matter how much development time you give them.

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

Another solid night in the minors, as Bakersfield won to give Sam Lynn another home game before the whole team’s contracted out of the Cal League. Jen Mac Ramos had a great article on the ballpark and club as they face the inevitable end of their team today at the Hardball Times. The Blaze dominated from start to finish last night, beating San Jose 7-1 to equalize the series at 1 apiece. It’s a best of 3. Zack Littell struck out 11 in 7 1/3 dominant innings. Tyler Pike starts the deciding game tonight in Bakersfield opposite Jake McCasland who was called up for this start – he hasn’t played for San Jose yet, spending his 2016 repeating the Sallie League in Augusta.

Tacoma lost by that same 7-1 score, so their series with El Paso’s also tied 1-1. Wade LeBlanc’s on the hill for the Rainiers today against Bryan Rodriguez who gave up 108 hits in 86+ innings while striking out 51 AAA hitters this year. Go Rainiers.

Montgomery simply can’t hit Jackson pitching. A day after Andrew Moore twirled a 9IP, 1H, 0R game at them, Brett Ash and the Generals bullpen limited the biscuits to 1 run in Jackson’s 2-1 win. Brent Honeywell was as advertised, giving up 2 runs on HRs by Tylers Marlette and O’Neill, but that was it: his final line was 7 IP, 4H, 2R, 1BB, 7Ks. Jackson goes for the sweep tonight in Montgomery behind Paul Blackburn, the pitcher the M’s got in the Vogelbach/Montgomery trade.

Clinton beat Peoria 4-3 to win the best-of-3 series in the first round of the MWL playoffs. Luiz Gohara was unhittable through 5, and though he gave up 3 runs in the 7th, the bullpen made it hold up. Luis Liberato led the offense with 3 hits, and was a defensive star, too: The game ended on a play at the plate, as Liberato threw out Matt Davis at home after Magneuris Sierra singled. Phew. They’re off today, but face Cedar Rapids tomorrow with Pablo Lopez on the hill.

Everett beat Spokane in Game 1 of their series, as the Sox to an early 5-1 lead and held on for an 8-5 win. Everett plays game 2 of the series tonight in a pretty special location: Safeco Field. Just like the Rainiers’ 2010 playoff run had to be moved to Safeco Field as Cheney Stadium was being renovated, Everett will get a playoff start in Seattle tonight as their home field hasn’t quite drained from the rains that scuppered the Wednesday start. Tickets are $12, and they’re only opening 100 level seats.

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