Game 24, Mariners at Angels

marc w · April 20, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Trevor Cahill, 6:07pm

I mentioned yesterday that Marco Gonzales, Mike Leake and Wade LeBlanc were three of the starting pitchers with the lowest average and peak velocity in this new strikeout-fueled game. Even after last night’s gem, Marco’s still got the absolute highest contact rate of any qualified starter – it’s almost impossible to come up empty on a swing in the zone against Marco. That doesn’t mean that something good for the batter is going to happen, but the best outcome for the pitcher – the one that’s more and more common every year – is not really in Marco’s game right now. That hasn’t mattered, of course, and I hope it stays irrelevant. But what about Kikuchi? Yusei Kikuchi throws legitimately hard, and is clearly nowhere near the bottom of the league table in terms of velo, especially peak velo.

Well, *still* he’s near the bottom in terms of contact rate. I’m not sure why. He gets tons of swings-and-misses with his slider, but the fastball’s been quite hittable, with balls in play resulting in over half of the swings. It doesn’t have remarkable movement or anything, but solid velo from a lefty who also has a very good slider and good curve… I don’t get why this is happening. Like Gonzales, he isn’t getting hit *hard*, so it’s not the worst thing in the world, but there’s a reason teams look for strikeouts more than HR/FB results or BABIP: they’re more consistent.

Kikuchi’s expected batting average/wOBA etc. in statcast show he’s been slightly lucky thus far, but nothing remarkable. That’s a good sign, as a very low walk rate and fairly low hit rate against him that isn’t the result of a great defense on hard-hit balls should be a skillset that lasts decently well. It’s not exactly a #2 starter ceiling, and I was hoping that’s what we’d get, but if he took a very different path to Marco Gonzales’ results, well, that’ll do, Kikuchi. That’ll do.

Trevor Cahill saw that Marco Gonzales got the most out of his so-so raw stuff by being unpredictable on the mound and is now replicating that strategy. Marco threw four different pitches last season around 23% of the time (each), making it harder to go up and look for, say, a sinker. OK, so Trevor Cahill this year is doing him one better, and throwing *5* different pitches at least 15% of the time, and all between 15-26%. He’s got a four-seam and sinking fastball with fairly big movement differences between them, a change-up, a slider, and a curve. His fastballs are generally around 92, with the change at 83, the slider almost cutter-ish at 86, and the curve at 80. And like Marco, this is confusing enough that batters are swinging at less than 40% of his sinkers, but over 50% on his sliders and curves. Obviously, you want batters to swing and miss, and failing that, to make contact on a pitch out of the zone. A less-good-but-still-good result is to get batters to make contact on breaking stuff and leave your fastballs alone. Cahill’s got a solid K:BB% thanks to a very low walk rate, a good approach…but hey, juiced baseball. He’s given up 5 dingers, and that’s enough for his FIP to be crap, but he’s better than that shows, and probably a touch better than his also-ran ERA. Thanks to the raw stuff, he’s not MUCH better, but there’s still a decent starter in there.

1: Haniger, CF
2: Santana, LF
3: Encarnacion, 1B
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: Bruce, RF
6: Beckham, SS
7: Narvaez, C
8: Healy, 3B
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Kikuchi

The M’s picked up several key additions this off-season, but one I wanted to highlight today is Omar Narvaez. He was coming off a career year at the plate, but his fielding metrics were atrocious. They still pretty much are, but here’s the thing: I don’t really care. His production at the plate has been off-the-charts good at a position the M’s haven’t really had great production from since Kenji Johjima. Thanks to those fielding metrics, he was worth about 1 win over replacement per Fangraphs and was dead-on replacement per BP’s metric, which reflects his poor pitch framing. He’s at 0.8 wins above replacement now by FG, and 0.6 by BP, and it’s still April. I give Dipoto grief about his many trades that’ve blown up on the org, but this one is clearly, clearly in the win column.

Game 23, Mariners at Angels

marc w · April 19, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Felix Peña, 7:07pm

The M’s look to shake off their first real struggles of the season by winning a second consecutive game tonight, perhaps one that doesn’t expose their bullpen quite so much as last night’s bizarre late-inning victory. They turn to opening day starter Marco Gonzales, and while I’ve been harping on this all year, I can’t overstate just how bizarre I find his transformation in 2019.

Baseball Prospectus has a cool stat where they measure a pitcher’s 95th-percentile velocity – or an approximation of “peak” velocity. They call it, uh, peak mph. If you look at pitchers this year and set the IP limit to 10, you’ll find 185 pitchers qualify. Of these, Gonzales ranks 182nd (his good buddy Wade LeBlanc comes in last at 185).* Gonzales’ average sinker is around 88 this year, or several MPH below the 91 he was at in 2017, and the 90 he sat at last year. In April of 2018, he was at 90.5, so this isn’t just a normal progression where he’s slower in April and works his way up. But his *peak* velo is just 89, which suggests to me that he’s not taking something off the pitch to accentuate movement; when he rears back and adds something extra, he’s *still* 1.5 MPH slower than his average from last April.

This seems to have plenty of other impacts, as his K rate has dropped markedly from last year’s career high. This year’s is essentially a career low. What’s the point of this? Is this intentional? If so, what’s the point? His average exit velocity and the other newfangled Statcast metrics aren’t that impressive, but it’s worth pointing out that his expected wOBA-allowed is even lower than his actual wOBA-allowed. Statcast thinks he may be UNlucky, whereas I’m out here wondering how he’s not a left-handed Blake Beavan. He’s clearly managing contact, and his old struggles with BABIP seem to have been tamed somewhat, and that’s saying something with a defense that doesn’t look too hot by any measure. He seems to have a plan out there, and that plan is mostly working, so I’ll just say that I have no firm ideas on what that plan might be, and that I worry he took that “crafty lefties” commercial a bit too literally.

My half-formed idea is that he’s good at getting called strikes. Is that a repeatable thing? Maybe? I don’t really know. If there’s additional deception in his delivery now, that could help explain the low expected-batting-average numbers from MLB and also the called strikes, but I’m still not really sure why it doesn’t result in whiffs.

Felix Peña was a fungible bullpen arm in the Cubs org before popping up last year as a starter for the desperate-for-starting-pitching Angels and turning in a pleasant half-year for them. He cut his walk rate, and armed with a so-so 92mph sinker and a very good slider, he ended up striking out 21% of batters. In addition to the FB and SL, he’s also got a change-up at around 85. All in all, he reminds me a bit of a right-handed…Marco Gonzales. At least, the Marco from 2018. Seriously: in 2018, their sinkers had almost identical movement, and Marco’s K% overall was 21.1% compared to Felix’s 21.9%. Their change-ups are different, though, as Pena’s plays a bit more like a splitter, with less armside run, and Marco’s is all about maximizing that armside movement. The slider is a true outpitch, something Marco doesn’t quite have yet. But then, Marco had better control. Peña’s not great at limiting HRs, though it’s really too early in his career to say much about that yet; his elevated HR/9 in 2019 is the result of precisely two dingers yielded. What he HAS shown is platoon split issues, as you might expect from a sinker/slider guy. This is a good match-up for the M’s lefties like Vogelbach and Bruce.

1: Smith, CF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Encarnacion, 1B
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: Bruce, LF
6: Beckham, SS
7: Narvaez, C
8: Healy, 3B
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Marco…

…Polo. I guess it’s time to retire that joke, as the M’s released OF Tito Polo who’d been with Tacoma. He spiked El Paso 1B Alex Dickerson in a game and had been suspended by the PCL. The R’s added SP Christian Bergman, who’s seen time with them the past few years, and sent SP Nabil Crismatt and erstwhile M’s RP Dan Altavilla to AA, replacing them with new-to-the-org guys RP Parker Markel and RP Aaron Northcraft. Tacoma edged El Paso 7-6 in the finale of that series on a 9th-inning HR from Eric Young, Jr. They kick off a series in Albuquerque tonight with Bergman on the hill.

Arkansas beat Tulsa for what feels like the 28th time this year by a score of 8-2. HRs from Dom Thompson-Williams, Logan Taylor, and Donnie Walton helped, and the bullpen kept the Drillers in check until the Travs exploded for 6 in the 6th IP. Reigning Texas league pitcher of the week Darren McCaughan starts today for Arkansas.

Modesto came from behind to beat the Stockton Ports 6-4 last night, scoring 2 in the 7th and 2 in the 9th to make a winner of closer Sam Delaplane, who now has 18 Ks in 9 2/3 IP. Luis Liberato was 2-3 with 2 walks for the Nuts.

West Virginia beat the Asheville Tourists 12-7, with the Power belting out 18 hits. I don’t know much about the Sally League, but one thing many long-time minor league fans know about are the insane park factors in Asheville. MiLB.com gave the park a 1.7 HR park factor in 2016, which makes it kind of stunning that a total of only 2 dingers were hit last night. Today’s game was rained out. More worrisome was the news that top prospect Julio Rodriguez hand injury was more severe than first thought. He’ll hit the IL with a hairline fracture, which contradicts earlier reports that x-rays were negative for fractures. He’ll be out 4-6 weeks.

Finally, the long Gareth Morgan experiment is at an end. The powerful Canadian slugger signed with the M’s out of high school in 2014, but scuffled in the AZL complex league, striking out in 41% of his PAs. Still, he was just 18, and a bit raw. He was better in 2015 at the same level, with a low BA, but a K rate down below 40%, but in 2016, it was up over 46%. Pushed up to the Midwest League in 2017, he had his best season, hitting 17 HRs, but still striking out over 40% of the time and unable to get hardly any non-HR hits. Promoted to high-A in 2018, things went from bad to worse. His K rate soared past 50% (187 in 342 PAs), and while 19 HRs are nice and all, they can’t support a slash line of .157/.246/.382. A slow start this year (he was 2-27 with 20 Ks in the early going) doomed him, and he’s now free to sign elsewhere. The M’s stuck with him, but it’s got to be tough. He was a classic Jack Zduriencik high-ceiling, low-floor slugger, and one of many guys the old FO scouted out of Canada. Much of that didn’t work out, though Tyler O’Neill would make the majors for St. Louis after netting the M’s Marco Gonzales in trade. Morgan was something of an object of macabre fascination for prospect watchers, and I legitimately feel bad for the kid. I hope he finds success somewhere, or goes back to school and has a great, quiet life in something else, where every day’s minor failures are tabulated and broadcast to everyone.

* Mike Leake is #181.

Game 22, Mariners at Angels

marc w · April 18, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Chris Stratton, 7:07pm

Happy Felix Day. It *almost* feels like old times, doesn’t it? The M’s are in a bit of a nose dive, and turn to Felix to pull out of it. Felix’s K rate doesn’t exactly remind you of 2010-2014, but on this staff, it’s noteworthy (as is Mike Leake’s, which is nuts). It’s been one of the stories of the early season that the M’s have taken pitching to contact and keeping hitters off-balance to new heights, and it’s another way that they’re moving in an opposite direction from the game as a whole. Of course, more starts like the one we saw yesterday from Erik Swanson should boost the M’s team whiff rates.

Swanson’s fastball averaged 92, but with its rise and location, it was easily his best pitch. His slider would’ve been his best if he’d only throw it a bit more; he mixed in more of his change given the handedness of the Tribe’s line-up, but the slider looked intriguing.

Anyway, tonight Felix looks to keep his decent start going. Felix is no longer capable of generating a lot of helpless flailing swings at out-of-zone pitches, but by mixing things up, he can occasionally get called strikes. He leads the team in the percentage of pitches *in* the zone that are swung at (meaning, his rate is the lowest). That’s helping him maintain a low walk rate thus far, though that’s somewhat misleading, as he’s conceded one walk, but plunked three batters in the early going. Still, I’ll take crafty junk-balling Felix if we’re bound and determined to have a rotation full of crafty soft-tossers.

Opposing him is Chris Stratton, whom we’ve had the pleasure of discussing once before. As I said before, Stratton throws a straight FB at 91, and can’t quite get to his useful curve thanks to the general mediocrity of the rest of his arsenal. Like a lot of pitchers this year, Stratton’s exiting the strike zone, as throwing a juiced baseball where batters can do damage is a scary proposition these days. That’s led to 10 walks in 13 IP for him thus far against only 7 K’s. I totally get why a guy like Stratton, who wasn’t too bad for the Giants two years ago, was quickly picked up and placed in a major league rotation, but I can’t quite get why a team that wants to win picked him up instead of, say, Dallas Keuchel.

1: Smith, CF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Santana, LF
4: Encarnacion, 1B
5: Vogelbach, DH
6: Beckham, SS
7: Narvaez, C
8: Healy, 3B
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: EL CARTELUA

Good to see Haniger back after an illness kept him out in yesterday’s game. Gordon missed yesterday’s tilt after fouling a ball off of his foot on Tuesday, but he’s obviously healthy enough to go today, too.

Justus Sheffield had his best outing for the R’s yesterday, but 1) that’s a really low bar and 2) the bullpen had one of those games again and the R’s lost 11-10. Sheffield went 6 2/3, giving up 3 runs on 3 hits and 3 walks versus 6 K’s. 11 walks now in 15 1/3, but hey, progress, I guess. Matt Festa took the loss, giving up 4 runs on 2 dingers in 1 1/3. He and Nick Rumbelow haven’t gotten off to the best start thus far. JP Crawford extended his hitting streak to 12 games, and Austin Nola homered. Today, Nabil Crismatt takes the mound down in El Paso.

Arkansas lost a pitcher’s duel 2-1 to breakaway republic Northwest Arkansas. Dominican righty Ofreidy Gomez allowed just 2 hits over 7 shutout, and while Zac Grotz and the Travs’ pen kept it close, they couldn’t get past the Naturals. The Arkansas staff leads the Texas league in most pitching stats while the offense has been lacking of late. Kyle Lewis is hitting .170/.278/.362 and C Joe DeCarlo’s line is at .059/.238/.059, which is not where you want it. The Travs have the worst hitting stats in the league, but sit at 10-3, so, hey. Anthony Misiewicz starts tonight.

Visalia kept Modesto in check in a 3-1 win. Nick Wells had probably his best start of the year in a losing effort, going 5 IP and giving up 2R, but striking out 9 Rawhides? Raws-hide? No word on the starter tonight.

West Virginia beat the Lakewood BlueClaws 7-1 behind Ryne Inman’s 5 solid IP, giving up 1 run and striking out 7. Jarred Kelenic went 1-5, bringing his line on the year to .280/.410/.440.

Game 20, Indians at Mariners

marc w · April 16, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Shane Bieber, 7:10pm

Soooo, the M’s are in a bit of a losing streak. Their once unstoppable offense has been slowed considerably, though that’s against some of the better pitchers in the league. Tonight’s opponent hasn’t pitched all that long, but is aiming to join that group, and after a solid 2018, particularly down the stretch, he’s been brilliant thus far in 2019.

Shane Bieber, a righty, has a four seam fastball averaging a touch over 93, and his best pitch is a hard slider around 85-86. He’s also got a big breaking curve that has serious drop considering it’s thrown at 80mph. His biggest asset is his control, as he’s limited walks at every step in pro ball, and a vanishingly small walk rate in Cleveland last year. What’s been surprising is the extent to which Bieber’s gotten strikeouts. He’s striking out batters at higher rates now than he ever did in the minors.

This both is and is not reminiscent of Yusei Kikuchi. Stuff-wise, they’re almost dead ringers. They rely on the same three pitches, with the slider the best of the bunch for both guys. Each averages 93 and change on their rising four seam, though Bieber adds in more armside run. And as I’ve said, while control wasn’t Kikuchi’s calling card in Japan, he’s been quite stingy with free passes in Seattle.

So why is Kikuchi struggling a bit to put hitters away, and why can Bieber do so despite throwing the same pitches at basically the same speed? How can Bieber get guys to miss his FB while they put it in play against Kikuchi? That’s what I’ll be looking for tonight. Kikuchi got better as the night went on yesterday, using his curve especially well to start putting guys away, but he got in trouble in the first giving up hits because batters put the ball in play against his fastball so often – the 0-2 pitch to Hanley Ramirez was a frustrating example.

1: Smith, CF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Santana, LF
4: Encarnacion, DH
5: Bruce, 1B
6: Beckham, SS
7: Healy, 3B
8: Murphy, C
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Leake

The Rainiers are in El Paso tonight, with Tyler Danish on the mound against Padres prospect Cal Quantrill.

Ricardo Sanchez leads Arkansas against NW Arkansas.

Austin Hutchison will start game 1 of a twin bill for Modesto as they face Visalia.

Clay Chandler’s on the mound in West Virginia, trying to keep up with teammate Logan Gilbert, who tossed another gem last night.

Game 19, Indians at Mariners

marc w · April 15, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Trevor Bauer, 7:10pm

Befitting a team whose mantra is to control the zone, Mariner starters lead all of MLB in walk rate, at under 5%. That’s quite an impressive mark, especially given the league-wide growth in walk rate this April. In part it reflects some choices in the construction of the rotation, but it seems to be the product of coaching as well, as tonight’s starter, Yusei Kikuchi, was never exactly a control pitcher in Japan. Thus, his projections showed a walk rate much higher than he’s demonstrated in his first few starts.

That said, all of this control has come at a cost. The M’s starters have the second WORST K%. They continue to lead the way in balls in play, and with this defense, that’s something of a problem. So while they have a nice ERA, just under 4, they lead the league in unearned runs, which is why the M’s runs-allowed is as high as it is despite the pleasing ERA totals. And here again, Yusei Kikuchi defies expectations. Armed with a lively fastball and a very good slider, he *should* generate whiffs and strikeouts. It just hasn’t happened yet.

Kikuchi’s walked just 3 in 21 2/3 IP, but he has also struck out under 18% of opposing hitters. That’s not awful; this sort of ratio made Hisashi Iwakuma a minor star for several years. Kikuchi’s even matching Iwakuma’s underrated skill of maintaining a very low BABIP. Kikuchi’s slider works a bit like ‘Kuma’s splitter, in that it generates a ton of swings and also some whiffs. The problem here is that Kikuchi’s fastball has played very hitter-friendly in the early-going, generating next to no whiffs and nearly all of the hits he’s given up. It’s not fooling anyone at the moment, despite the fact that his slider remains confusing to hitters. The lack of whiffs mean that more fastballs are put in play in front of this defense, and thus Kikuchi’s already given up 4 unearned runs himself.

On the positive side, though he’s already faced the rebuilding White Sox and Royals, and though the Red Sox have been awful at the plate this year, tonight’s opponent has been far, far worse. The Indians slash line as a team sits at .194/.282/.316, which is essentially tied with Detroit as the worst in the AL. It’s all the more remarkable given that short-time Mariner Carlos Santana has an OBP over .500 and playing like he did several years ago. Worse, they just got rid of one of their more successful hitters, though that’s obviously a very low bar, by DFA’ing Brad Miller. IF Jose Ramirez was one of baseball’s best players in recent years, but has cratered in the early going, and while BABIP is a big part of the problem with his line, the team as a whole is striking out at remarkably high rates. If Kikuchi could use some strikeouts to get going, this is the opposing line-up that can help with that.

His opponent is Trevor Bauer, the tireless pitching tinkerer and at times tiresome personality. After re-designing his slider last year at Driveline Baseball, his big offseason project this year was to refine his change, and it’s now a pitch he’s throwing much more often. I’ve caught a start or two of Bauers, and it’s looked like a great pitch, and it’s helped out when his slider command was off a bit. Iffy command has plagued him a bit this year, as his walk rate is up substantially. But as I’ve talked about a lot, the change-up is a great pitch in that it generates so many swings no matter where it’s thrown. It can get whiffs for Bauer, but it’s the pitch that’s put in play most often against him, and often on pitches below the zone. It’s one reason Bauer’s BABIP is miniscule, and thus he’s pitched better than his FIP would indicate. The M’s faced some very tough pitchers in the Astros series, and things aren’t getting a lot easier tonight.

1: Smith, CF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Santana, LF
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: Encarnacion, 1B
6: Narvaez, C
7: Beckham, SS
8: Healy, 3B
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Kikuchi

The Rainiers took an 8-0 lead into the 7th inning last night, and ended up losing the game 17-9 in a true PCL classic. RP Taylor Scott, who’d been so successful early on this year, took the loss in one of those cautionary tales about what can happen in the PCL when your command goes wonky. Tim Lopes homered and JP Crawford doubled. The R’s got their revenge today in an early start, winning 10-0 behind 7 shutout innings from Tommy Milone and 2 from Dominican teenager Deivy Florido, who went the final 2 IP, gave up 3 hits, walked one and K’d one. Who the heck is Deivy Florido? Early on, the full-season teams often need extra players when they’ve got a lot of personnel moves, so they’ll pull up players from short-season teams. We saw this in the home opener when Penn Murfee came in to give them some innings despite only pitching for short-season Everett. Florido’s even more remarkable, as today’s game was his stateside debut; he’s only ever pitched in the DSL, and then instead of starting off in the AZL, he gets thrown up to AAA. Cesar Izturis Jr. played a bit for Tacoma and Arkansas before starting in the AZL (he’s with West Virginia now), and going back many years, future major leaguer Austin Bibens-Dirkx made his debut with Tacoma before starting up the chain in Everett. Why is all of this roster shuffling necessary? In the Jerry Dipoto era, the answer is always minor trades. Yesterday, the M’s traded away catcher David Freitas to Milwaukee in exchange for RP Sal Biasi, a Royals draft pick from a few years ago, who’s 23 and had been in the Midwest League. In addition, the R’s lost a couple of relievers to bolster Seattle’s pen, and then lost SP Erik Swanson when Wade LeBlanc hit the IL with a Grade 2 oblique strain. Anyway, Joey Curletta and Ian Miller homered for Tacoma today in the easy win.

The most interesting game in the system last night took place in Arkansas. The bad news is that the Travelers were no-hit in 10 innings by several Tulsa pitchers. The good news is that they won it on a walk-off walk, as the all-important MiLB rule of a runner starting on 2B doomed Tulsa. Tulsa couldn’t score on 5 hits, as Darren McCaughan dominated in 6 IP, striking out 8 without a walk allowed. Not much to talk about hitting-wise, as you’d expect. Justin Dunn starts for the Travs tonight as they host separatist movement Northwest Arkansas and former 4th-round pick and classic MiLB named pitcher Jace Vines. The Travelers were clearly one of the most talented of the M’s affiliates, and, with West Virginia, one of the more prospect-laden groups. They’re playing like it; they’re 8-2, and the only M’s affiliate to be above .500 (the WV Power are 5-5).

Modesto beat Stockton 5-1 on yet another dominant start from righty Ljay Newsome. Newsome’s been a command-control guy, who’d alternate solid starts with some disastrous ones, as he didn’t have the kind of stuff that reliably got strikeouts. That left him to the whims of the BABIP gods, and that partially explains his volatility. He…he appears to have found the kind of stuff that reliably gets strikeouts. The 22-year old struck out 10 against no walks in 6 2/3 IP, and in three starts on the year, he’s now struck out *30* against just 2 walks in only 16 2/3 IP. That’s pretty remarkable, and a great sign. Tonight, the Nuts host Visalia, the D-backs affiliate that’s been a tough team in recent years, and they’re 7-4 in the early going.

West Virginia got rained out, so Augusta couldn’t hit any more Mariners prospects. Logan Gilbert leads the Power today as they host the Lakewood Blue Claws.

Game 17: Verlander vs. Felix and Astros vs. Mariners

marc w · April 13, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Justin Verlander, 6:10pm

Tonight’s starters debuted exactly a month apart back in 2005, and both became the most durable starters in the league not long after. Both struggled a bit in their first few seasons, as their raw staff was far ahead of their execution and strategy, and frankly, with the weight of the expectation placed on them. They soon figured it out, and after Felix won the Cy Young in 2010, it was Verlander who followed in 2011 (and doubled up by winning MVP). But in 2014, in the midst of a league-wide depression in batting, Verlander started to falter. His fastball velocity, which had sat at 95-96 in 2011, was down to 93, and his strikeouts dropped markedly. His FIP wasn’t terrible, but thanks to a poor strand rate (which was influenced by his lack of strikeouts), he had an awful ERA (and DRA actually saw him as below-replacement-level) and it looked like years of reliably tossing 230+ innings were catching up to him.

At the same time, Felix was in the midst of his peak. Felix threw 236 brilliant innings in 2014, with an ERA of 2.14, and a FIP not far behind at 2.56; DRA splits the difference. In all of these metrics, 2014 ranks as his career low. Felix looked like he was just getting warmed up in 2014, but…well, you know. 2015 was something of an transitional year for both. Verlander missed a fair number of starts for the first time, ending the year with just 133 1/3 IP, and posting a FIP in the mid-3s. His K rate trended up, as did his velocity, but both were pretty far from his peak of a few years earlier. Meanwhile, Felix just crept over 200 IP, but each peripheral stat trended the wrong way, and he ended up with a FIP in the mid-3s, too.

And then their paths really forked. There wasn’t as much movement in Verlander’s FIP thanks to the league-wide HR binge in 2016, but with Felix’s control trending south right when his legendary HR-suppression was starting to fade, Felix was in trouble. Verlander’s K rate spiked to 28%, a new career high. Felix’s fell below 20% for the first time. He was hanging on by a thread, while Verlander was starting to look more like the Verlander of 2011.

After a trade to the :shudders: Astros, Verlander changed his pitch mix a bit and gained all of the velocity he’d lost since 2011. He’s back at 96, and after winning a World Series in 2017, he’s coming off a 2018 that saw him obliterate his prior best for K rate, at an obscene 34.8% Felix is coming off of a year in which he was banished to the bullpen and pretty publicly challenged/shamed by his coaches. He’s now the M’s 5th starter, and his position on the team has never been more perilous. He’s three years younger than Verlander, but age seemed to slow him, while Verlander shrugged off its clutches.

The point here isn’t to compare Felix unfavorably, though God knows I’m sure plenty of M’s fans and even M’s personnel have done so. Rather, it’s to say that Verlander crafted a pathway to undo, to reverse, age-related decline. These things are possible, if unlikely (though less unlikely every year). What they take is hard work, of course, but a very specific plan and specific areas to work on. Not “strength” or “conditioning” or “using your lower half” or whatever, but specific, actionable, targeted, measurable things that can lead to velo gain and improvement. For all of the grief I’ve given the M’s for how they handled the Felix situation, I’ll give them credit for turning over a fair bit of their player development folks. The key is to ensure that the PD folks and analytics staff communicate and help each other. It’s hard, and if you’ve got a pitcher who rebuffs both groups, then, welp, that’s not going to work. But I would love to know what the Astros would do with Felix if he ended up over there.

1: Smith, CF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Santana, LF
4: Bruce, 1B
5: Vogelbach, DH
6: Beckham, SS
7: Narvaez, C
8: Healy, 3B
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: FELIX

Justus Sheffield continues to battle some wonky fastball command, but he made it through 4 IP yesterday on 3 walks and 2 Ks, giving up 2 runs. But the R’s bats destroyed the Albuquerque Isotopes 10-3, as Shed Long went 3-4 with a triple and JP Crawford doubled. Nabil Crismatt starts tonight’s game.

Arkansas lost to Tulsa 8-2, as the Drillers scored 6 in the 7th off of Darin Gillies. Jake Fraley was 1-2 with 2 BBs, and used those times on base to run rampant, stealing 3 bases before getting caught once. Today’s game was rained out.

Modesto lost to Stockton 6-2. Nick Wells gave up 5 in 4 1/3, and the Nuts didn’t score until the 6th. Ray Kerr starts today’s contest.

Augusta beat West Virginia 9-3, but they cheated: they knocked out Julio Rodriguez on a HBP to his hand in the first. He’ll be out a few days, but apparently X-rays didn’t spot any fractures. Whew. The Power got a modicum of revenge by winning today’s game 2-1, as Steven Moyers went 7 scoreless, striking out 9. Augusta pitchers again plunked an M’s prospect, as Jarred Kelenic got hit (he was fine, and stayed in the game). I’m still navigating the Sally League, and don’t know it very well, but I DO have a least-favorite team now.

Game 16, Astros at BASEBALL’S DOMINATING, INVICIBLE FORCE

marc w · April 12, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Wade LeBlanc vs. Wade Miley, 7:10pm

So, this game pits the two Wades against each other, two lefties who both pitched for the 2016 M’s, where LeBlanc was acquired to eat the innings Miley would have, had he not been dumped traded. Both Wades feature unimpressive fastballs, and both have been susceptible to the HR in recent years. As such, both were projected to pitch around 110-120 IP this year at a mediocre/below average rate. ZiPS was higher on both, and in particular Miley, while Steamer was more pessimistic. Any projection system had to figure out what to do about their surprising 2018s. Both pitchers posted solid ERAs, and if their fielding-independent stats weren’t as sparkly, they were better than they’d been in a while. Miley famously started using a different pitch in Milwaukee, but he wasn’t striking anyone out. LeBlanc *was* getting some strikeouts, but his FIP improvement was largely down to strand rate and the ever-fickle HR/FB ratio. Tough to bet on that.

While the pitchers were similar, with similar concerns and similar reasons-for-what-passes-for-optimism, the context of the two teams employing them couldn’t be more different. The Astros want to win another World Series and have assembled their team accordingly. Their line-up projects to be one of the game’s best, even if they’re not playing like it right now (my view is warped by the M’s; every other team looks pitiful, like dead-ball-era holdovers in comparison). But they somewhat shockingly passed on re-signing both Charlie Morton and 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, with the only real pitching addition being…Wade Miley. Is there a better sign of baseball’s odd competition problem than the presumptive division winner and playoff team ditching Dallas Keuchel for Wade F$%^ing Miley? It’s been all of two games, so caveats abound, but here’s the deal: Wade Miley looks a hell of a lot like Dallas Keuchel right now. God damnit, Astros.

The M’s weren’t supposed to contend at all, and their low-dollar extension of LeBlanc helped keep a solid, potentially undervalued starter and clubhouse guy around. If he wasn’t projected to be league average, well, who cares from the 4th starter on a rebuilding team? He could help mentor some of the young guys (like Marco Gonzales), and he could give the Erik Swansons and Justus Sheffields in the org some additional seasoning time. Except now, the M’s are suddenly relevant and winning a ton of games. They could conceivably need quality innings out LeBlanc. Can he deliver them? I’m going to be honest, I don’t really know. But I also know that it hasn’t mattered yet, and nothing about…pitching will matter until the offense stops partying like it’s 1999. May the party never stop.

Seriously: before the year, everyone identified pitching as a serious weakness, with the bullpen a particular cause for concern. So far, those worries have been pretty spot on. The M’s are yielding 5 runs a game, and while the rotation has at least limited walks, the bullpen is giving them out like candy. But here, in a weird, almost poetic inversion of the M’s problems over the past few years, the M’s caught a break: everyone else sucks too.

For years, the M’s suffered not because they didn’t really understand their own talent level, but rather because they couldn’t see where that level put them vis a vis their rivals. They were right about themselves, but wrong about what that meant. I’d guess the same thing happened with the FO this year, and I will raise my hand and say that I know with 100% certainty I’ve been wrong thus far about what the M’s bad bullpen *means*. It’s meant nothing. Will it continue to mean nothing? Ehhh, probably not, but it’s important to see that M’s bullpen’s 5.34 BB/9 or 13% walk rate isn’t close to the worst in the league. The Astros and Angels (?) have been amazing by peripherals or raw results, respectively, but it hasn’t been as important as run scoring for the M’s (or, for the Rays, overall run prevention). It’s early, and so production in one area will cover for a bad showing somewhere else, and I don’t expect relievers overall to be this bad, but after years of awful luck, the M’s very much known weakness smacked headlong into a more unknown, collective weakness in the league.

Wade Miley throws a cutter now, and he’s essentially ditched his old slider. The fastball’s down to more of a side-dish as well, at around 20% of his pitches. The cutter’s thrown around 88 with the fastball at 90, and he’s got a curve and change as well. In his very good first full-season in the bigs in 2012, Miley looked like a pitch-to-contact command/control guy with a very low walk rate, but he wasn’t able to hold onto it. Over time, he gave up more fly balls and a lot more walks, and he did so *right* when the ball got juicy, punishing fly ball pitchers without great command/control. Two years ago, I thought he’d be out of baseball by now, but here is again, with a walk rate of 4% and a GB% of nearly 60%. Like I said, it’s very Keuchel-esque. While it’s not peak Keuchel, we can perhaps call it suburban Dallas.

1: Smith, CF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Santana, LF
4: Encarnacion, 1B
5: Bruce, DH
6: Beckham, SS
7: Healy, 3B
8: Murphy, C
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: LeBlanc

The M’s made a couple of roster moves today, adding Shawn Armstrong and RJ Alaniz to the pen. To make room, Matt Festa and Erik Swanson head to Tacoma.

Tacoma dropped the finale of their series against El Paso 6-2, despite two hits each from JP Crawford and Shed Long. Tyler Danish got tagged with the loss, but Ryan Garton was solid in relief. Today, they welcome the Albuquerque Isotopes, with Justus Sheffield facing off against the ‘Topes Evan Grills, a 26-year old Canadian lefty dropped by the Astros org in 2016 and signed by Colorado in 2018.

Arkansas moved to 7-1 by holding on for a 9-8 win over their favorite punching bad, the Tulsa Drillers. The Travs led 8-1 before some seriously shaky relief work made it interesting. Jake Fraley hit his first HR in the org, and Zac Grotz went 4 scoreless for Arkanasas, striking out 6. Like Grills, Grotz was drafted by Houston, but has been in and out of a few more orgs since his release in 2016. Anthony Misiewicz takes the hill today for the Travelers.

Modesto ran into a red hot Brady Feigl and got blanked by Stockton, 5-0. Feigl shut them out over 6 IP with 9Ks, moving his K:BB ratio in two Cal League starts to 17:3, and his ERA down under 1. If you’ve heard of Feigl, it may be because of this bizarre coincidence reported on last year by Levi Weaver and Katherine Acquavella. There are now two pitchers in pro ball with the same, uncommon name of Brady Feigl, and weirder still, they look like twin brothers, even though they’re not related and aren’t the same age. Anyway, M’s prospect Damon Casetta-Stubbs got into his first game action in the high-minors yesterday, giving up 4 unearned runs in 2 1/3, but striking out 3. Not bad for a high school draft pick last year. He’ll probably move to a short-season affiliate when they get going, as he’d only played for the rookie-level Arizona M’s last year after the draft.

West Virginia blanked Augusta at home 4-0 behind what may be Ryne Inman’s best start in the Org. Inman went 6 scoreless, giving up 2 hits, 1 walk against 8 punchouts. Julio Rodriguez went 0-5, but Jarred Kelenic continues to shake off a slow opening week by going 3-4. Elias Espino get the ball tonight for the Power.

Game 15, Mariners at Royals

marc w · April 11, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Jorge Lopez, 10:15am

The M’s are 12-2. I know they’re facing the hapless Royals, but I guess I didn’t anticipate how many times I’d look over the probables and whatnot and just *expect* the Mariners to win. It happened yesterday, and even though the M’s did almost enough to somehow lose, they found a way to win. (Seriously guys, that was unnecessary. Just get back to dominating again.)

Today, they again face a Royals team that starts Terrance Gore in the line-up (and why wouldn’t they, after yesterday’s stunning 3-4 performance at the plate) and with a pitcher who seems destined for an ERA/FIP around 5 or so. Jorge Lopez came over from the Brewers a while back, and has good velocity with his four-seam and sinker. But despite throwing two fastballs, a cutter/slider, a change and a decent curve, there’s just not much there to get excited about. His walk rate’s high and his K rate is too low, and they’ve been that way for his entire career. The movement on each is unremarkable, and even the decent drop on his curve’s been more muted this year.

1: Smith, CF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Santana, LF
4: Encarnacion, 1B
5: Vogelbach, DH
6: Beckham, SS
7: Healy, 3B
8: Murphy, C
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Leake

Game 14, Mariners at Royals

marc w · April 10, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Heath Fillmyer, 5:15pm

I’ve looked over the starting line-ups, and friends, I’m shook. I’m going to need to post the Royals starting line-up too, because I’m not sure I’ve seen the like of it, and I posted about the 2010 Seattle Mariners hundreds of times. I’m going to need a minute here….

Ok. What do you do when your opponent’s biggest strength is your big weakness? There are a number of things, really, but they break down into two major categories. First, you can work on cutting down the gap by improving whatever deficit you’ve got. Second, you can ignore that gap and instead lean even harder on whatever advantage you possess; you’ll let them have a big advantage in X, but you’ll hit ’em with some serious Y when the opportunity presents itself. The Mariners, as we’ve discussed extensively, are Dingermen the likes of which we haven’t seen since 1998. They are quite simply bludgeoning teams, making their own weaknesses in defense and relief pitching irrelevant. The Royals are one of baseball’s most punchless teams, with 7 HRs on the season, but that *undersells* their struggles at the plate. Their OBP is easily under .300, and what’s worse, it’s not just an early season slump. They were made for this. If you’re going to opt for “playing up your own strength and ignoring the deficit area” the implicit rule is that your strength and the opponent’s strength have to be roughly equivalent in importance. If not, well, you get this.

What’s that supposed to mean? I mean: Billy Hamilton, the offensively-challenged CF and stolen-base auteur is batting *second* tonight. You know, the spot where you’re supposed to put your best overall hitter. Actually Billy Hamilton! Hamilton sports a career OBP of .298, and what I’m trying to convey here, through bewildered laughter, is that in this line-up, that’s not half bad. #3 hitter Adalberto Mondesi’s career OBP is .274, and while he hit 14 dingers last year, his game’s more about speed. Clean-up hitter Jorge Soler is a perfectly fine prospect, but things pick up speed at the back of the order. #5 hitter Frank Schwindel is 1-12 with no walks in his brief career. Chris Owings put up a wRC+ of 51 last year in Arizona, and is 5-34 on the year with 13 Ks and 2 walks. #7 hitter Hunter Dozier has a career OBP of .274 as well. #8 hitter Cam Gallagher has fewer than 100 MLB PAs, but has yet to post a AAA wRC+ north of 90. And batting 9th, and making literally his first start ever, is Terrance Gore.

Terrance Gore has more career stolen based in MLB than he has plate appearences. This is because Gore is impossibly fast, and because Gore cannot hit. At all. Thus, he’s used as a pinch-runner, and, if need be, defensive replacement. With Gore, just as with Hamilton, the idea is to maximize their appearances on the basepaths by minimizing their plate appearances. He’s toiled in the minors for a while, amassing over 1900 PAs, and has a career SLG% of .273. He’s drawn walks, but essentially nothing good has come following Gore’s decision to swing a bat. The M’s are bringing a line-up that’s red hot, and the Royals are essentially mocking the idea of batting. When you get over the juxtaposition, it’s almost like performance art. It’s like a cooking competition, and one chef creates some impossibly intricate 10-course haute-cuisine meal, and the other submits a PB&J sandwich in which the peanut butter’s been replaced by drywall spackle. It’s sending Dan Vogelbach to compete against an Olympic gymnast in the floor routine, and having his entire routine comprised of standing still and chugging a beer.

The Royals definitely do like to run, and in that respect, they present a very different strategy, a differing idea of how to score runs. The M’s line-up is nearly as one-sided, I suppose, with four 1B/DH types (AND Domingo Santana), but with all eggs placed in a very different basket. It’s just that one of these strategies has a hell of a lot to do with run-scoring, particularly in 2019, and the other leads to you penciling in Terrance Gore’s name in the starting line-up, or batting Billy Hamilton second.

Health Fillmyer was just called up from AAA Omaha, and features a four-seamer without a ton of rise at 92-93, a little-used sinker, a change-up with decent sink, a so-so curve, and what looks like an interesting little slider. The slider’s fairly effective against righties, but they’ve torched his four-seam fastball. He’s been better from a results point of view against lefties, though that’s much more due to small-sample HR/FB and the like; he struggles to strike them out or to avoid bases on balls. Overall, Fillmyer doesn’t get enough Ks to offset so-so control, AND he’s been vulnerable to the long-ball. The only real hope here is the strong winds that have moved in to KC. I’m not sure what direction they’re blowing, but they blow in they could keep the M’s in the ballpark and, I don’t know, make soft fly balls off the bat of Hamilton/Owings/Gore more tricky to catch?

1: Smith, CF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Bruce, LF
4: Encarnacion, 1B
5: Vogelbach, DH
6: Beckham, SS
7: Narvaez, C
8: Healy, 3B
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Kikuchi

The Rainiers beat El Paso in their home opener last night. As Erik Swanson was called up just before the game, they had a bullpen day, and it went exceedingly well, with the R’s racking up 16 strikeouts. Of note, South African low-3/4 guy Taylor Scott getting 6 Ks in 3 perfect innings. Jose Lobaton homered, and while Nick Rumbelow continues to scuffle, he picked up the win.

Ljay Newsome would normally have the line of the night, going 5 IP with 11Ks (where’d that come from?) against Inland Empire, but he walked 2 and gave up an unearned run on 4 hits, so we’ve got to go with Logan Gilbert, who tossed 5 scoreless on only 1 hit with no walks and 9 Ks. Arkansas won in the 9th, 4-3, to give Parker Markel (god, I love saying that) his first win in the org.

Game 13, Mariners at “Royals”

marc w · April 9, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Jakob Junis, 5:15pm

The M’s simply cannot stop hitting dingers, and after yesterday’s 5-spot, have established pretty conclusively that there isn’t a park in the game that can slow down the unceasing volleys from our Dingermen.

Yesterday, the Royals all but encouraged the M’s to slug them into submission by starting a pitcher who’s had HR troubles in the recent past. They’ve re-calibrated for today’s game, and instead st…:taps earpiece: whoops, no they’re doing the exact same thing again and hoping for a different outcome. If only there were a pithy saying to summarize this pattern of thought.

Today, the M’s face righty Jakob Junis, a former 29th-round pick from 2011 who featured a so-so fastball but an interesting slider and solid control. He slowly advanced up the chain, and has been a fairly solid SP on a team that could desperately use one. He’s posted average- to above-average K rates, which, for a K-starved rotation who’s best pitcher is a Rule 5 pitch-to-contact GB% maven, is a welcome sight. What’s more, though his FB only averages 91, it’s had interesting sinker-ish movement in the past, with well-below average rise. His slider really dives down, so the whole package could work together, but in this case movement isn’t destiny. Because of his location (I think?), Junis’ four-seamer doesn’t get GBs at all. It’s a FB pitch, and with below-average HR/FB rates, that’s made it a pitch that sluggers have feasted on, with SLG%-against in the high .500s over his first two years. He’ll work in a sinker, especially to lefties, and while slugging’s slightly lower against it, its own HR/FB ratio isn’t a whole lot better. By and large, Junis has been fine except for the fact that he can’t keep batters in the park with his fastballs. And now he’ll face the 2019 Seattle Mariners.

Junis changed up the spin axis and thus the movement on that four-seamer this year, giving it more useful spin, and thus pushing its vertical rise over 10″, which is considerable given it was under 8″ last year. Will that make a difference? I suppose it’s still down to where he locates it, but of course this isn’t a path towards fewer fly balls. It could increase whiff rate, and that’d be valuable, but if they make contact, look out.

Dan Szymborski has a post today at Fangraphs about the Reds’ playoff chances tanking due to their fast start. (For the record, the M’s chances have improved by 10 percentage points over their nugatory odds at the end of spring training, per Fangraphs.) That’s neither here nor there, of course, but Dan has a table in the post showing that the Reds team plate discipline, measured by the difference between their rate of swings at pitches IN the zone and pitches OUT of the zone has gotten quite a bit worse. But in that table, we find the Mariners are the offense that’s had the largest improvement in that same measure. 710am’s Lydia Cruz made the related point in this tweet, that several M’s have seen dramatic improvements in their out-of-zone swing rates; guys like Ryon Healy, Domingo Santana, and Dee Gordon in particular look like different/better hitters this year.

I’ll be up at Tacoma’s home opener, so won’t be able to track the dinger parade in this one. Go M’s.

1: Smith, CF
2: Santana, LF
3: Bruce, RF
4: Encarnacion, 1B
5: Vogelbach, DH
6: Healy, 3B
7: Narvaez, C
8: Moore, SS
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Gonzales

Another Chris Sale start, another poor result and another disappointing average velo. The Sox lost in Toronto, with Sale averaging 92mph. I know many Boston fans shrugged off his poor start in Seattle, noting he’d had low velocities in some starts (particularly in April) before, but this is now a worrying trend. Sad for baseball.

Speaking of sad, we M’s fans often recall with rueful laughs the time in 2008 when the Mariners started long-time utility IF Miguel Cairo at *1B.* He had a lifetime SLG% of .361, and it was just .330 in that year. In that Boston/Toronto game, the Jays may have beaten it. Today, the Jays started newly-acquired IF/OF Alen Hanson, late of the Giants, and a one-time Pirates prospect at 1B. Hanson’s perhaps got a touch more pop, but he also has a career .268 OBP. He was once a glove-first SS prospect, and while he’s more of a 2B now, this is not at all what you want at 1B. I suppose this is what happens when the M’s corner the market on 1Bs.

The Rainiers host the El Paso Chihuahuas tonight in the home opener at Cheney Stadium. Sounds like Erik Swanson will get the start for the Rainiers.

Arkansas edged NW Arkansas 2-1 with a run in the 9th, making a winner of Wyatt Mills, who K’d all 4 batters he faced. Makes it easier to shrug off his ugly first appearance. Kyle Lewis HR’d for Arkansas as well. Justin Dunn takes the hill for the Travelers today.

Modesto dropped a Cal League pitcher’s duel 3-1 at Inland Empire last night. Luis Liberato hit another 2B to maintain his hot start. Ray Kerr took the loss, but the bullpen was excellent in keeping IE from adding on. No word on the Nuts’ starter tonight.

West Virginia lost to Lexington 6-1, as the Legends gave OF prospect Jarred Kelenic a golden sombrero. Julio Rodriguez had two hits and an amazing catch in CF, though. Tonight sees Logan Gilbert make his second start of the year. The M’s first-round pick last year, Gilbert pitched 4 scoreless in the first game of the year in 2019.

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