Notes on a Lost Decade

marc w · December 30, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

To be clear from the start: there was no way this decade wouldn’t seem like a let-down after the highs of the 2000s. The Seattle Mariners have felt like afterthoughts in the game for most of their existence, but for a little while there, they were among the dominant franchises in the game. It didn’t/couldn’t last, and the slide from the upper echelons back to mediocrity doesn’t hurt any less for those who loved the team when they were losers. It’s banal and obvious that the sheer length of the M’s futility starts to eat at one’s fan experience. You can only watch the same movie so many times, especially when the movie isn’t that exciting. Ultimately, though, the 2010s were defined by failed promise. We saw tantalizing signs of development, we followed tons of prospects who had near-universal acclaim, and the result was a .468 winning percentage and no playoff appearances.

I’m not sure if it’s a good or a bad sign that the MVP of the decade is so blindingly obvious. Felix was the most fun player to cheer for the team’s had, at least since Ken Griffey’s Jr. first go-round. The decade opened with Felix at the top of his powers, winning the first of what felt like 5-7 Cy Youngs in 2010. More important, though, was his stature as the team’s building block, the singular talent who had both youth and experience that the M’s could structure their rebuild around. By mid-2010, the Mariners had a top-10 prospect in all of baseball in Justin Smoak, and one of the most heralded college hitters in a generation, Dustin Ackley. Ackley was MLB’s #15 prospect in 2010, but headed into 2011 ranked #5, just behind guys named Trout and Harper. Jesus Montero ranked #9, and the M’s would add him before the 2012 season. The M’s had another pair of prospects in the top 20 in 2012, with Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker, and Walker cracked the top 5 the following year. You all know what happened.

As great as Felix was, and as much as he towers over the Mariners 2010s, he can’t be the story. He was great, and the M’s were bad – we need to figure out *why* and we won’t find that out by examining the great ones, just like you can’t scrutinize Mike Trout to figure out why the Angels haven’t won a playoff game in years, either. Instead, to tell a disappointing story, we need to go where the disappointment is. The story of the M’s decade is the story of Dustin Ackley. You could pick several players for this dubious honor, from Smoak to Franklin Gutierrez to Montero (whose fight with a scout armed with an ice cream sandwich supplied the jet-black comedic moment of the decade, a bizarre and deeply sad moment in which the failures of the M’s player development group poured out their frustration with players in public). The M’s had Felix, and they had a guy in the high minors rated right around where people had Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.

Ackley debuted at 23 after a dominant half-season in Tacoma. He always looked slightly off in my viewings, but he was hitting for average, drawing walks, and putting up solid gap-power numbers – things that had eluded him the year before in AA. Brian Cartwright’s pre-call-up forecast looked downright alarmist and pessimistic at the time, but Ackley essentially exceeded them in half a season with the M’s. His SLG% was a bit low, but it was more than made up for with surprisingly good defense – a bonus that bumped his production to 3 fWAR in just half a year. At this rate, even if the power never showed up, he’d be a tremendously valuable player at the keystone for a decade. But his first full season was a disaster: a slash line of .226/.294/.328 that not even great defense could overcome. I don’t know how much influence that season had in the M’s decision to move the fences in at the end of 2012, but I bet it played a pretty big part. Of course, it wasn’t just Ackley – Justin Smoak swooned in 2012, too, and Jesus Montero had a sub .300 OBP at DH. Something was going very wrong with how these should-be superstars were developing in the big leagues.

The M’s knew how critical Ackley was to their plans, so they figured the only solution to poor coaching and development was a whole lot more coaching and development. Ackley showed up in Peoria for spring training in 2013 with a bizarre new swing, and then scrapped it a few weeks into the regular season – which he started 3 for 30. Despite his solid defense, the M’s decided to move him to the outfield to accommodate prospect Nick Franklin, sticking him in CF for a good chunk of 2013, and then to LF in 2014. After coming so close in 2014, the M’s had an abysmal 2015, and shipped Ackley to the Yankees for Ramon Flores and Jose Ramirez. Ackley slugged .654 in limited duty in 2015 with the Yanks that year, then was sent down after an awful start to 2016. He hasn’t made it back since.

Ackley was always supposed to hit for a higher average than his career .241 mark, but his .367 SLG% was also a big strike against him. But there’s an asterisk there: Ackley played for Seattle from 2011 to the first half of 2015, a period wholly encompassed by the little batting ice age, where a different ball mixed with reliever usage and the inexorable rise of strikeouts to suppress offense league-wide. It was even worse in Seattle from 2010-2012, as fly balls died in left field. Given those disadvantages, it’s not a shock that he accumulated 3 fWAR in half a year in 2011 despite a so-so SLG%. It may be why guys like Smoak and Ackley floundered for a bit, and why they sought so many changes and different ideas on how to “fix” their swings, when all they needed to do was play with a different baseball. Smoak actually got that chance, and became an intermittently solid starter. I wish Ackley got more than a handful of games in baseball’s new normal.

But that was part of the problem, wasn’t it? The M’s always seemed a year or two behind whatever baseball was doing. They built a team around a staff and OF that would allow fly ball contact, and watched the all-time HR record get shattered as more fly balls turned into HRs than ever before (at least until 2019 came along). They built an offense around avoiding strikeouts and hitting singles as their rivals built teams that avoided strikeouts while hitting dingers. They looked for pitchers who pitched to contact as their rivals built formidable staffs of strikeout-throwing, high-velo guys they’d developed or tweaked. None of it’s worked, at least not well enough or long enough to make a sustained run at the postseason. 2020 looks like another rebuilding year, and we’ve seen an awful lot of those recently.

It’s true that there are glimmers of hope on the horizon, but the same was true in 2010. The only thing that will change the outcome is if the M’s aren’t just good, but better than other teams at turning prospects into really good MLB contributors. This is essentially the same conclusion to every post of mine for the past few years, and I really want to thank those of you who’ve hung around listening to me repeat myself while going slightly crazy. The failure of either the Ackley/Smoak/Montero troika or the Walker/Paxton/Hultzen three-headed-monster to lift the M’s was the defining story of the decade. It was a failure that spanned multiple front offices, even as both touted the ways they were revolutionizing development. There were enough success stories (Kyle Seager!) that you couldn’t chalk it up to total incompetence. Whatever it is, it seems deeper, more insidious than a few bad coaches. It’s gotten to the point where it’s almost a defining trait, as depressing as that sounds. I sincerely hope they can get it turned around, if only because it’d make 2020 a much different experience for M’s fans. It would put meaningful baseball back in play for 2022 or so, and it would end this pervasive ennui that at least I feel towards the team I support. I’m ready for that.

There have been real, honest, joyful moments this decade. Felix’s perfecto, of course, but some of the highlights in their chase in 2014, or Taijuan Walker’s debut in Houston, or Paxton’s first great game against Kansas City. The weird team no-hitter, or Hisashi Iwakuma’s brilliant no-no after the team decided against trading him. There’ve been reasons to watch, but the sum total is still kind of dispiriting. A few years ago, I mused that it must be almost impossible to be an A’s fan, with the team trading away any budding superstars and seemingly trying to hang out near .500. Since then, the A’s have two 97-win seasons, and have developed some superstars. I’m going to refrain from any further “at least we’re not like X fans!” takes for the foreseeable future.

M’s Take Astros RHP in Rule 5 Draft

marc w · December 12, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

The Rule 5 draft kicked off this morning in San Diego, with the M’s telegraphing their move early. Last night, Greg Johns and others reported that the M’s had their sights set on two pitchers, and if they were off the board by the time the M’s picked at #6, they wouldn’t pick anyone. Apparently, at least one of them was still around, as the M’s selected righty Yohan Ramirez, who’d been in the Astros org.

Ramirez is your classic live arm with poor control. He’d opened some eyes in 2018, touching the high-90s with his fastball, and getting the occasional mention for his curve and change-up (he’s also worked on a slider). That *should* be good enough to carve up the low minors, and it mostly was, even as he had to work around a concerning walk rate. Those walks hurt him more when he’d get bumped up a level, but to his credit, even after struggling at a level, he’d often solve it the following season.

This year was fascinating: both his strengths and weaknesses were cranked all the way up, as he racked up an impressive 158 strikeouts in 106 innings (a career high). But he also walked 74, including 52 in 62 1/3 IP in AA. This is the classic case of a team betting on their coaches to “fix” a power pitcher who struggles throwing strikes. As a rebuilding team, the M’s could conceivably take their time with Ramirez, using him in mop-up duty this year and continuing to work on his mechanics for the future. But just because they *could* doesn’t necessarily mean they should. The M’s need to figure out what Ramirez’s ceiling might realistically be, and if the progress isn’t there, to move along. Ramirez will turn 25 early next year, so he’s not an Elvis Luciano from last year (picked by Toronto at age 19) or some of the former international free agent prospects available in today’s draft at 20-21. You can’t fault the M’s for shooting their shot, though. Here’s a guy who put up ridiculous strikeout numbers working both from the rotation and bullpen, and who has at least the makings of a starter’s arsenal with 3-4 pitches.

The M’s had the room, and bet on upside. They’re focused, as you tend to be in the Rule 5 draft, on what Ramirez does well and not his easy-to-spot flaws. That’s what player development should be about, and without mucking up a perfectly optimistic post with criticism, it’s the opposite of what we saw in the hasty trade of Omar Narvaez. I believe that Narvaez’s defensive struggles could impact pitchers, and I also believe the M’s when they say that Tom Murphy should be the starter. But that entire situation was borne of the M’s laser-focus on Narvaez’s flaws, and letting those drive their overall valuation of him down. It’s possible, even likely, that Ramirez doesn’t throw a pitch for the M’s, but I hope they’re able to rein in his “high effort” delivery and help him find the plate. I hope they’re able to get the most out of the many flawed players on the roster, because it’s going to be a long year, and some real, meaningful, hope would be nice.

M’s Rid Themselves of League Average MLB Player

marc w · December 5, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

The fact that Omar Narvaez was traded today is perhaps not the biggest surprise of the off-season. With the emergence of Tom Murphy, with Cal Raleigh on his way, and with Austin Nola hitting better than expected, the M’s had signaled that Omar Narvaez was available if a deal could be struck. Today, the M’s consummated a deal with the Milwaukee Brewers, sending Narvaez east in exchange for a low-level sort-of-prospect and a competitive balance pick in next year’s draft, likely around pick 71 or so. I find this troubling, but many in M’s land seem pretty chuffed about it, and I thought I’d try to lay out where I’m coming from , because reading the reaction to the deal, I feel I may be sort of crazy. You perhaps have known about my infirmities for a while, but allow me to make my case.

Here goes: the M’s say they’re trying to compete in 2021, and today they shipped out a catcher who hit .278/.353/.460 last year and everyone who likes the deal is raving not about the actual ballplayer they got back, but about the 70-odd pick in next year’s draft. That seems crazy. The huge, unmissable caveat here is that Narvaez’s defense laid waste to so much of that offensive and positional value. That’s absolutely true, and we should account for it, as WAR does. Fangraphs had him as just under 2 WAR in a bit less than full-time duty. At BaseballProspectus, he was slightly over 2, but both absolutely hated his defense – BP just liked the bat a bit more. I want to stress: both sites thought he was abysmal defensively, and that is *included* in his 2-ish WAR numbers, which were similar to his numbers in 2018, his final year with the White Sox (adjusted for playing time). How would you value a roughly averagish, maybe lower, maybe higher depending on your view on how teachable C defense is?

I think reasonable people – and reasonable teams – can differ on that question. But I’ve been absolutely floored to see M’s fans thinking that a 70-ish draft pick is decent compensation for an above-average MLB hitter and average-ish ballplayer all around. What are the odds that the #70 draft pick, or a team’s 15th or 12th or 18th or whatever rated prospects becomes a league-average MLB player? The answer is substantially lower than 1/2, probably less than 1/4, right? But beyond that, the M’s, as opposed to other teams, have clearly set their sites on contention in 2021. So, to be blunt, how on earth does trading away a productive major league player right now, today, in exchange for a draft pick in the 2020 draft help further that goal?

Corey Brock at the Athletic has an answer: it’s addition by subtraction. To be very clear here, I love Corey’s work and remember following him way back from his News Tribune days. I don’t dislike his article, I just dislike the reasoning the M’s are evidently giving for it. There are a couple of related points Brock works through, but I encourage you to read it in full ($). First, the M’s evidently prioritize defense at the catcher spot. Second, the M’s need for defense has never been more pressing with the wave of young pitching prospects coming to Seattle.

On the first claim, let’s remember that we’re a bit under 13 months from the M’s willingly trading Mike Zunino for Mallex Smith, and then trading Alex Colome for Narvaez. The M’s had great defense and some question-marks on offense, and decided to fling the ol’ pendulum all the way over to “fuck it” and picked up a catcher who was an outright bad defender, but seemed to break out at the plate. Now, we’re told that the organization’s focus is on catcher defense? If the org really values stealing strikes, they…they had that, and a bit over a year ago decided they wanted its opposite. I don’t completely hate the reasoning here, but I have to point out that what “the organization values from its catchers” seems kinda variable.

The second claim – that the prospects coming up need help from favorable catchers – seems reasonable as well. I would point out that the presence of Narvaez didn’t stop the M’s from bringing up Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, and a cavalcade of RP prospects, waiver-claims, and anyone else the M’s could find. If Narvaez can’t be on the same field as an M’s pitching prospect, this seems to be a new-found conviction. It’s clearly felt, though – as Brock writes in that Athletic piece: “Seattle couldn’t take the chance on keeping Narváez, not because some feel his bat will regress moving forward, but because of a real fear he couldn’t help — but could actually hinder — the development of these young pitchers who have arrived or will arrive soon in the big leagues.”

Everything about this deal lines up with that statement. The M’s made up their mind that they were going to trade Narvaez because his framing cooties could actually hurt the M’s pitching prospects. This is not an encouraging statement about either the pitchers’ resilience or the coaching at either the C or P position, but let’s look past that. The argument is that the M’s will be better for having Tom Murphy as the everyday catcher. For what it’s worth, I agree with that. The problem is that the M’s don’t seem to have thought about what to do as a result. Right now, their DH is Dan Vogelbach, a talented hitter coming off an awful second half. He’s projected to outhit Narvaez next year, but Narvaez’s has two straight years of about a 120 wRC+, and Vogelbach hasn’t reached that plateau yet. Even if you were determined not to let Narvaez catch a minority of 2020 or 2021 games, he could *still* have MLB value that a 2020 draft pick will not. I completely understand shopping Narvaez, but if no one offers a reasonable return, you just hang on to him. The M’s seemed bound and determined to move Narvaez, even if the return was a box of baseballs. This is curious.

What we know for sure is that the M’s had one of the most productive catching duos in the league. Their production from the C spot ranked 4th in the majors last year, and again, that includes the massive debits that Narvaez’s catching accrued. The bulk of the positives came from Murphy, it’s true, and he figures to provide more of them going forward (though his profile is frought with risk, just as Zunino’s was, and MUCH more offensive risk than Narvaez’s). We know for sure that Narvaez has 2+ years of service and three more years of club control. What we know for sure is that Narvaez won’t be paid the league minimum anymore. I’d gone into my view of the trade thinking that it hinged on an outsize view of the impact his defense makes. Again, multiple credible views of the impact of his defense are *already* baked into his value. No one is ignoring it, though we can quibble with how it’s actually calculated. My worry now is that all of this is a fig leaf for the fact that Narvaez has 3 years of MLB service time, and Murphy just 2 (and Nola less than 1). We’ve seen for a few years now that bat-first, corner IFs seem absurdly undervalued, with CJ Cron freely available for the second straight year after hitting 30 and 25 HRs in consecutive seasons. Cron’s not really a prospect now, and was paid just $4.9 M for his contributions to the playoff team in Minnesota. Given his patience, I think Narvaez is a decent bet to outhit Cron next year, just as he did in 2019. And no one seems to want either one.

Ultimately, it may be true that the M’s traded Narvaez for the absolute best package on offer. I still find that really sad, not just because Narvaez will be far more useful for a team trying to win in the near-medium term than the return here (a low-level Brewere RHP named Adam Hill, who’s likely a reliever, and had control issues this year plus the vaunted draft pick). Rather, because if this is the best deal on offer, then the distortions in baseball’s economy have been laid bare: if you’d rather get a draft pick than pay a bat-first catcher a few million in his *first* season in arbitration, then that work stoppage people talk about in 2021 is all but a certainty. We’ve been hearing for a while about the problems in the middle-tier of free agency, or perhaps the tier below that. I’ve written a bit about how the league and players have agreed to further suppress pre-arb salaries in the hope that the savings would be spent on non-star free agents. But if teams aren’t willing to spend it on the already-suppressed arbitration-eligible players, and we’ve seen a ton of interesting players non-tendered this year, then the game’s up. That money isn’t going to arb players OR to low-level free agents. The Zach Wheelers of the world (like the Patrick Corbins and Bryce Harpers) are fine – the problem is that arb eligible, contributing players have a value equivalent to that of a random, low-level flyer, or a literally unknown future draft pick. That simply does not map to actual, on-field, in-the-majors baseball value, and the further these player valuations get from on-field value, the higher the risk of a work-stoppage gets.

The M’s Get Two New Pitchers and Commit to 1B Evan White

marc w · November 26, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Okay, it’s been a while. I’m not dead, and, technically, neither are the Mariners, so after a lengthy mourning period for the inglorious end of the Felix era, let’s look at this newly King-less club.

1: The most important move of the past few days was the signing of 1B Evan White to a six-year contract with three option years. At the press conference, Jerry Dipoto said that they’d be giving White every opportunity to make the club out of spring training, as the contract obviates the need for the kind of service time manipulation that’s become routine.

In length and dollars (6 years/$24M guaranteed), the deal is essentially a carbon copy of the contract the Phillies gave to Scott Kingery before the 2018 season. It’s perhaps a bit surprising that there’s not been any inflation in the price of pre-MLB 6-year buyout contracts, but of course there haven’t been many of these. Further, Kingery was a bit more highly regarded prospect, with his ability to play multiple defensive positions including SS/CF. White’s prospect sheen has returned a bit after a slow start in the Cal League in 2018. His overall numbers still don’t look great for a 1B, but they were severely impacted by his home ballpark in Arkansas this year.

White hit just .260/.309/.408 at home, but crushed Texas League pitching on the road, posting a .940 OPS with 13 of his 18 HRs. You can’t really understand White’s production by looking solely at his overall line, so let’s try to find other MLB hitters who faced this home park hindrance. Kyle Lewis is perhaps the poster child for the effects of Dickey-Stephens park, as he was utterly lost at home (.555 OPS) but solid on the road (.896 OPS). The more concerning comp would be 2018 Texas League star Joey Curletta, the 1B kind-of prospect the M’s waived this past April. In 2018, he hit .262/.363/.439 at home, but .299/.401/.520 on the road – not quite the splits that White had, but pretty similar. Curletta got off to a slow start in AAA, and signed on with Boston and had a rough go of it in the AA Eastern League. Going a few years further back, future MLB 1B CJ Cron played at Dickey-Stephens park, but oddly had a better *home* batting line than on the road. He’s not a great comp for White in any event given his low walk rate, but he’s managed to stick around in MLB despite never really locking down a long-term gig.

For years, the knock on White has been a lack of obvious game-ready power that you’d expect/want from a 1B. That lack of power prevented the very real plate discipline from playing up, as it limited his overall batting line. But his road performance combined with Kyle Lewis’ impressive power display in the majors (he slugged below .400 in Arkansas) shows that he might be fine in that department. The more pressing need is to ensure a smoother transition from the minors to the majors. Guys like Jake Fraley and Braden Bishop face-planted after great MiLB campaigns, and while Lewis’ power was unreal, he did K in almost 40% of his PAs. Scott Kingery was awful in his first year for Philadelphia too, so this is not just an M’s problem, but it’s something that teams like the Dodgers have been remarkably good at. Of course, one can argue that it’s more important to just get White acclimated to the majors and worry about performance in 2021, but I hope the M’s are thinking carefully about how to make this transition as easy as possible.

Whither Dan Vogelbach? His defense was always barely-playable, and with his post-April cooling off, it’s not a huge concern. But a good M’s club would likely get contributions from all of their young(ish) players, and not just cycle through them. White’s a legit MLB 1B, but it may take a while for his performance to match the talent. The M’s have a bit of time now, but they’ve also got serious roster holes. Domingo Santana’s seemingly imminent exit would give the DH spot to Vogie, but it’s not clear he can keep it.

2: The M’s signed former A’s starter Kendall Graveman to an incentive-laden 1 year $1.5M deal. With Mike Leake, Wade LeBlanc, Tommy Milone, and, :sniff: Felix all exiting the M’s rotation, the M’s need some experienced arms to hold down the fort until guys like Logan Gilbert are ready/have passed the Super 2 deadline. Graveman’s an interesting case, in that he’s coming off of Tommy John surgery that wiped out nearly the entirety of his 2018 and 2019 seasons. His first season with the A’s he seemed like a garden-variety pitch-to-contact sinkerballer, with below-average velocity and low spin that enabled him to post good ground ball rates. But in each season, his velocity ticked up, and he was touching the mid-90s when his elbow gave out. You never know what to expect with a bounce-back pitcher like this, but I *really* have no idea what to expect from Graveman.

For a sinker-dominant pitcher, Graveman has surprisingly small platoon splits. They’re actually negative over his career, which is either a good sign or a bad one, depending on your disposition. A part of the issue may be that he doesn’t rely on a big slider as his breaking ball, as so many sinkerballers seem to do. That limits his effectiveness with righties, which is a big factor in his platoon split weirdness. Developing one might help, but I can understand if the M’s are wary of that given his recent elbow surgery. Beyond that, it severly limits his strikeouts, and Graveman’s spent his whole career ignoring the modern game’s reliance on Ks. In some sense, this is another classic Dipoto move of trying to get cheaper production by paying for skills *other* than pure bat-missing strikeout potential, something that would be a bit concerning after the M’s paid dearly for their lack of whiffs last season. But that said, Graveman’s a low-risk flyer and could be an interesting test case for pitch design work; there’s something to start with in his seldom-used slurvey curveball, which could be tightened up. His cutter’s interesting, but he allows more elevated contact on it, and that’s a red flag if we still have the dragless HR-Derby-type baseball we saw last year.

3: Another newcomer is SP/RP Nestor Cortes, Jr., whom the M’s picked up from the Yankees in one of their annual trades after the Yankees firm up their 40-man roster. The M’s didn’t protect any players this year, leaving the likes of Ljay Newsome eligible for the Rule 5 draft. There’s very little chance that any club would/could roster someone like Newsome for an entire year, so for the M’s, it’s a low-risk way to go shopping on *other* teams who have severe 40-man roster crunches and more solid players to roster than they have roster spots. The Yankees are a clear example, and that’s why the M’s take a careful look at players right at the cusp of the 40-man roster. Nick Rumbelow was one of the last 40-man adds a few years ago, and they drafted Mike Ford in Rule 5 after he was one of the last cuts. This year, crafty lefty Nestor Cortes, Jr. was DFA’d to free up room on the Yankee 40-man, so the M’s swooped in and acquired him for an international bonus pool slot.

Cortes throws about 89 with his fastball that’s almost comically “Yankee-ish” with about 3″ of armside run and 9+ inches of vertical movement. Those marks are very, very close to Nick Rumbelow’s, and they have similar bizarre little gyro-spinning curveballs, though of course everything Rumbelow threw came in much harder. Cortes’ claim to fame, if you can call it that, is his ability to dramatically alter his delivery. He’s got different arm slots, different wind-ups, etc. Think of Johnny Cueto with his penchant for either drawing out his wind-up with multiple shimmies and hesitations, or quick-pitching. All of this is probably why a guy with sub-90 velocity has been able to get plenty of strikeouts.

If you want a comp based on something other than FB movement, that’s reasonable, so here you go: Vidal Nuño . Nuño is 5’11”, 210 pounds, an exact match for Cortes, Jr. Both lefties get a few more K’s than you’d think given their raw stuff, with Cortes’ posting higher rates, but Nuño pitching more in a starting role. Overall, the projection systems have them for nearly identical K:BB ratios, with Cortes having a few more Ks and a few more walks. But like Nuño, the real risk here is the long ball. Cortes’ rising fastball leads to very high FB rates and low GB rates. With solid coaching, as in New York, he was just about playable. In tougher environments, like Baltimore, Cortes got annihilated and quickly released. But hey, the very same thing happened to Nuño back in 2017! If the M’s are suddenly able to coach their pitchers to avoid some HRs, that would be remarkable, given their INability to do so recently, but it would greatly help a pitching staff that looks quite weak at the moment.

Neither Graveman nor Cortes look all that great by the projection systems, and you can see why. Here’s my annual hope that the M’s player development group (now with Kris Negron!) can help players like these take a huge leap and blow their projections out of the water. We’ve seen some interesting steps in the minors, from the aforementioned Ljay Newsome to Reggie McClain to Evan White’s newfound power stroke. But it’s time to turn those developmental successes into big league production, and there’s been precious little of that. There’s no other option for 2020, as the M’s are unlikely to begin the year with one-year rentals like Edwin Encarnacion. It’s time for the prospects – and these reclamation pick-ups – to show what they can do.

’19 40-Man Preview Extravaganza

Jay Yencich · November 4, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

If the Dipoto era has borne out a trend in the 40-man deadline, it’s been that there are fewer thrills and spills involved simply because picks have been added earlier. That doesn’t mean that our roster management isn’t without drama (churn, baby, churn), we just move it up in the calendar year and reserve mid-November for more-marginal-if-still-useful forms of excitement. Or not. Two years ago, we didn’t add anyone! Last year, we added the obvious in Braden Bishop and Joey Curletta (goodbye, old friend), then rounded out with a couple of minor league free agents while Rule 5’ing a guy who we didn’t manage to sign initially. Life comes at you.

This year features first eligibility for college-level picks from 2016 and international signings and high schoolers from 2015. In another space, the drama would have gone to Kyle Lewis being potentially added, but instead we’re pondering whether he might break camp as our left fielder. Much of what remains has already been added (Walton! Festa! McClain!). The 2015 high schoolers and int’l prospects may prove more thrilling, but that’s more in a “we stan” sense than “core contributor.” Who knows? The early portion of the offseason has featured a fair bit of paring down and it could well be that the organization wants to reward their own guys now, drafted and developed by Dipoto, rather than consider marginal add-ons in the minor league FA field, though a few of those names and trade acquisitions do pop in. Those will provide an interesting litmus for the “development” side and how confident we are proceeding with them.

I’m only going over five names this time, but there are more eligible than that. Notably, southpaw Ian McKinney destroyed the Cal League, but his profile is back-end and he’s only seen limited time in the high minors. Fireballer Elvis Alvarado also gets a “pass” due to wildness and the fact that high-end velo is easier to come by than it used to be. The deadline to be added is Nov. 20th, so you’ll have two+ weeks to fret about this or not.

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Game 162 A’s at Mariners – What’s It All Mean?

marc w · September 29, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Justin Dunn/Tommy Milone vs. Tanner Roark, 12:10pm

It was a rebuilding year, so there was never any doubt – save for a couple of crazy nights in early April – that the M’s string of seasons without a playoff game would continue. The M’s asked to be judged on a very different set of criteria, and while attendance and their win total have declined, it’s perfectly valid given their circumstances. I’m not opposed to the direction they took, but I’m still not feeling confident about their future, and that’s despite some luck finally going their way. I think my main issue is this: I thought we’d see clear, obvious evidence that this rebuild was on track, or that it was doomed. Yet again, I think we’re somewhat in the middle. It’s possible that my evidentiary standards are too high, and that we should see the lack of clear signs that it’s doomed as a good sign. But in a league that’s so bifurcated between superteams and everyone else, pretty much everything needs to go right for them…for multiple years. Not everything went right.

Back in March, I did my annual upside and risks posts. On the upside, there were three things they needed – to identify a superstar player (even if they didn’t play like one in 2019), having a prospect make the leap to one of the game’s best, and an above-average year from JP Crawford. I’d give them one out of three here, as *both* Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic have indeed become two of the game’s 15-25 best prospects. The development that occurred in the minors was formidable, but that growth was supposed to supplement growth that occurred at the major league level. And that side of the equation’s a bit harder to solve. Crawford looked like a 3-5 WAR shortstop at times, but fell into horrific slumps that left his overall season slash line well below average. He comes into the last game slashing .229/.316/.375. There are positives in there, of course, and he could tap into a bit more power as he develops, or get some BABIP help to up that batting average. But as is, the pure bat-to-ball skills haven’t materialized to help him make use of his amazing batting eye. His defense was simply way better than advertised, so again, not everything’s disastrous. But his streaky play and the unreal state of the shortstop position in baseball (7 shortstops hit over 30 HRs, and 12 hit over 20) makes it harder to see Crawford as the 6-8 WAR superstar who gives the M’s an obvious advantage in most every match-up.

Daniel Vogelbach looked like he’d finally arrived, torching the league in April and making an All-Star team. But he’s essentially been replacement-level since then, hitting .160/.286/.343 in the second half, and .189/.319/.383 since *April 21st*. As a DH/kinda-1B, that’s not going to cut it. I still think he can contribute, especially if he swings more at pitches in the zone, but this was a worrying slide. I’m not really sure if Vogelbach is in the plans going forward now that Evan White looms, and the M’s can’t afford to miss out on players like that. Is he just Bryan LaHair 2.0, or is there a 7-10 year starter lurking underneath the hot/cold streaks?

It’s the same question with Mallex Smith, whose late-year improvements may have saved his 2020 job, but who now looks like someone the M’s can’t count on to man CF long-term. He’s hitting .228/.301/.337, with essentially all of his numbers cratering since his 3+ WAR 2018. Even with the new ball, he’s never going to be a power hitter, which makes the low average harder to stomach. It wasn’t just BABIP luck, as that number was on the good side of .300, just down from the .366 it stood at in Tampa. You know all about his defensive struggles, and while I’m glad those turned around somewhat, it’s harder to see him as a consistently excellent defender now. The M’s have young OFs on the way up, with Jake Fraley, Kyle Lewis, and of course Kelenic, but I’m not sure any of those three should be in CF full time. Braden Bishop probably should, but his injury-plagued 2019 makes it harder to see how he breaks out of the 4th-outfielder ceiling many have slapped on him. It was only 58 PAs, but .109/.140/.109 is not how you make a great first impression.

That brings us to the two players the M’s themselves identified as critical: Mitch Haniger and Marco Gonzales. Haniger’s lost year made 2019 harder to watch, and harder to evaluate. He wasn’t tearing things up before he tore…a really important thing up, but I’m fine giving him a mulligan. We’ve all been waiting for him to make the leap from excellent/All-Star candidate RF to superstar, and he’s still got the possibility, though it’s diminishing with age. And if Mitch was hard to evaluate, I’m not even sure what to say about Marco Gonzales. I’ll start with this: He’s better than a lot of people, including me, give him credit for. I think I’ve been the most pessimistic about his chances to succeed with diminished velo, but he’s been a quality MLB starter this year, albeit with some hot/cold streaks of his own. It all adds up to someone that’s more than the sum of his peripherals/measurables, and I think I’ve underestimated him because of that.

But you can put a thumb or two on the scale for his pitchability and competitiveness and still not have an ace, and I’m still not sure why the M’s have seemed to argue that he is one, or could become one. Gonzales ended up essentially repeating his good 2018, albeit with fewer strikeouts and more walks. The ERA was essentially identical, so he’s got two years of a 4.00 ERA, and two years of solid HR-suppression. I think his 2018-2019 run is essentially the best anyone could hope for given his bat-missing and velocity, and while that level of production is higher than I ever would’ve thought possible, I simply don’t see a path to a 6-8 WAR season. Give Marco 5 extra MPH and you could, but at this point, I’d just settle for him stopping the velo decline. Justus Sheffield was supposed to push his way into the rotation in May, but that didn’t happen. His rebound from a worst-case-scenario type of April/May has been encouraging, and his change-up is probably better than I think it is, but a wholesale change in M’s pitching coach/PD approach didn’t unlock #1 potential in Sheffield, at least not yet. If the M’s have an ace in 2021, it’s not going to be someone on the team now.

With their OF prospect superstars and an absolutely massive year from Logan Gilbert, the M’s clearly have the potential for a home-grown core that has real upside in 2021. Gilbert could easily be their #1 in 2021 or 2022, and that takes a lot of pressure off of Sheffield and today’s starter, Justin Dunn. The question is, what does that get you? I’m not sure they’d be ready to fully compete, but you can identify some obvious stars that’ll make them much more compelling to watch than this year’s group. But as we watched the Astros continue to lay waste to the league, we need to come to terms with just how massive the gap between the M’s and the superteams really is, and how many complimentary players they’ll need *even if* the prospects hit their 99th percentile outcomes in the bigs. That’s why figuring out what the hell the A’s are doing is even more critical. The Indians keep churning out pitchers like Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber. The Twins look ready to be at least a wild card player for years, and here are the A’s, fighting through ridiculous injury luck to win 90+ games for a second straight year.

1: Long, LF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Lewis, RF
6: Narvaez, C
7: Vogelbach, DH
8: Smith, CF
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Dunn

More to come in the days ahead, as we dig through 2019 and where the M’s go from here. It’ll actually be a fascinating off-season for them, as they’ll have several key decisions to make. Thanks again for reading this season.

Game 160, A’s at Mariners – No Gods, No Masters

marc w · September 27, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Justus Sheffield vs. Mike Fiers, 7:10pm

What day is automatically happy now? How do we get up to watch a regular playing-out-the-string ball game? Why couldn’t Felix have had Mike Fiers age-30-34 seasons? That’s not too much to ask, right? He’s just Mike Fiers! Why is he good now, and Felix has tearfully left for an unknown future? Why do we like something so unrelentingly cruel?

Justus Sheffield is starting, so ostensibly we can check in on the M’s rebuild, but I’m not feeling it. I hope the M’s are soon competitive, but they’re clearly not today. I hope Sheffield can become a solid #3 starter, but he’s not one now. I hope his change-up develops into something intriguing, but while it’s got a small velo gap, a la El Cartelua, it lacks the bite and swerve. This isn’t meant as a criticism of Sheffield, who’s improved markedly since being recalled, and could be an important player in 2021. But he’s still just a player. We’re missing an icon, and I’m not sure we’ll get another one, however many wins the M’s notch up in 2021.

Mike Fiers. What in tarnation? Fiers throws a four-seam fastball at 90 MPH, and while it’s got good vertical movement, it’s not all that special. He pairs it with a good curve, and an assortment of good-enough pitches: a cutter, a sinker, and a change. The whole thing adds up to more than a collection of sub-standard parts because of the way he uses them, and his command. In a game that now preys on fastballs, he’s thrown less of them and used his approach to generate a low BABIP to at least staunch the damage the HRs he inevitably gives up do. The low BABIP gameplan has even led to two no-hitters. Not bad for a non-prospect 22nd-round draft pick. Fiers career only really took off, haltingly at that, at the time Felix’s started to stumble. I’m going to keep seeing echoes of the King, little reminders of how fickle the game is, for years, but a day after Felix’s emotional farewell, I find myself randomly mad at Mike Fiers. Sorry, Mike. Nothing personal; your story would be encouraging and worth celebrating at another time. Today is not that time.

1: Long, LF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Lewis, RF
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Murphy, C
8: Walton, 2B
9: Moore, CF
SP: Sheffield.

Felix’s finale occasioned some amazing, emotional writing. Patrick Dubuque’s “Long Live the King” is magisterial and affecting. Meg Rowley’s is equally so, and both hit on the unique ability of a guy like Felix to lift us out of time and space. Both use debt as a metaphor, albeit in opposite ways. It was so emotionally wrenching in part because we feel both sides: our hopes of championships and parades a debt unpaid, and at once filled with so much meaning and emotion and pride that he never asked for – we borrowed it all *from* him, and can’t pay it back (not that he’d ask us to). I love and I hate that it ended like this. I love that he got to hang with King’s Court, that the M’s could engineer a memorable night like this, right down to the mid-inning call to the ‘pen. I hate that all of this was possible because the M’s had been eliminated, like every other year, and thus gratitude, and respect would fill in for delirious joy. We’re all older now, especially him, and gratitude and respect are old-people feelings.

Game 159, A’s at Mariners – Good Bye, Felix

marc w · September 26, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Sean Manaea, 7:10pm

Happy Felix Day. I’ve written that a hell of a lot over the past 9-10 years, and this is the last time I’ll get to do that. Happy Felix Day. There’s something kind of magical about it, it’s child-like simplicity, its naive hopefulness. So much of being a sports fan is complicated, and let me tell you, those complications do not go away when you’re a fan of a team that seems stuck in neutral for 18 years. But that’s what was so great about it. Forget all of the complicating factors, forget billionaire owners, forget “club control”, forget the churn of attrition and arm injuries and general failure that baseball brings. Hell, forget about the team’s record, and forget about their place in baseball’s landscape. Go back to basics: the guy in our colors throws the ball past the guy on the other team, and we all cheer. Like many of us, he’ll cheer on the Seahawks. Like us, he couldn’t seem to imagine trying to recreate this somewhere else, or with some other pitcher. We stick with our guy, and every fifth day, cheering for the M’s is the easiest thing to do in the world.

It was never that simple, and I think we all understand that intellectually. Sports aren’t generally where you turn if you’re trying to get intellectual, but I think we all knew that Felix wasn’t perfect, and that he didn’t conjure lollipops and rainbows from the sky. I’m not sure he was the best pitcher ever to suit up for Seattle, but he was – by far – the easiest to root for. And to be honest, that’s probably made real criticism of him harder to stomach, as fans rush to shield him from judgment. I’m guilty of this. That’s why I liked reading Ryan Divish’s retrospective on Felix in the Times – it was kind of like eating a bunch of kale or something. At this point, the arguments aren’t exactly new, but it’s helpful to read through the back and forth of the team trying to convince their star that something was wrong, and Felix thinking that he could do it alone, because that’s what had worked up until 2016-17 or so. I’m not here to convince you that Felix is blameless. I would like to say that the personality that made Felix a superstar at age 19 may have gotten in the way of his ability to be a superstar at age 35. That’s a part of the legacy, maybe.

Something sticks out, though. Divish wrote of Felix that, “He loathed losing more than he enjoyed winning — and he really enjoyed winning.” If that’s true, then why didn’t he reach out sooner, when the losing became all too common? I’ve written here a lot about how much Felix has evolved over time, and how he was more effective at 93 on his fastball than he’d been at 97-98. But when nothing worked, why didn’t he look for help? It seems like he sized up the people asking him to change, and thought that they didn’t know enough to help him. We’ll never know, but…he may have been right.

This blog is inextricably tied to Felix. In its first year of existence, long before I ever got here as a writer, it gave Felix his nickname, as Divish’s story notes: “The U.S.S. Mariner, a must-read blog for the advanced-thinking fan, first used it July 17, 2003: ‘All hail King Felix. Hernandez worked five innings last night against Spokane, allowing just one run on two hits and striking out five. He also walked four, but it’s important to remember that he’s only 17 and facing much older competition, including some college players. I’m trying not to get too excited about him, but it’s difficult not to with the way he’s pitched so far.'” That name stuck, and all of us in the burgeoning M’s blogosphere knew him by that name long before he debuted in 2005. Beyond the nickname, though, this blog and Felix are forever linked by an open letter.

In June of 2007, Dave Cameron and Jeff Sullivan had grown weary of the King looking a bit less than regal. After his breathtaking half-year in 2005, Felix settled in as a perfectly fine, above average, starter for some so-so M’s teams. He had a decent FIP, but he posted an ERA of 4.52 in 2006, and then scuffled after a great first outing or two in 2007. Dave had identified an over-reliance on fastballs early in each game, and wrote to then-pitching coach Rafael Chaves about it. Shockingly (at the time), Chaves not only saw it, but brought it to Felix. Felix made some adjustments, and while he wasn’t appreciably better in 2007, he was better in 2008 before truly settling in as a dominant force in 2009. The letter was framed around Felix’s desire to establish his fastball before his command had reached a level that would allow him to do so without getting hit hard. You, the M’s, needed to intervene and tell him not to trust his velocity alone. I still wonder if it wasn’t Felix who wanted to establish the fastball, though. What if it’d been his team, or his catcher, or just the overall message that he’d imbibed? What would that letter look like to Felix then? I’m still amazed that Chaves did what he did, and I’m glad Felix quickly became less predictable, a few years before the entirety of the game made the same judgment and stopped throwing so many fastballs.

Late in 2007, the M’s signed Venezuelan righty Carlos Silva to a four-year deal to solidify their rotation. 2007 had been an unexpectedly good year, and the M’s needed a veteran presence with Jamie Moyer and Jeff Weaver gone. Silva was the first Venezuelan pitcher Felix had gotten to play with, as his idol, Freddy Garcia, was traded away about a year before Felix made his debut. Silva was no one’s idea of an ace, but had solid seasons in 2007 and 2005 thanks to his control and ground ball tendencies. Immediately upon donning an M’s jersey, he lost it. He managed two injury-plagued seasons here, posing a 6.81 ERA in 183 2/3 IP. To his credit, Felix never followed in Silva’s footsteps of blaming his defenders for errors, moaning about Ichiro!, or instigating fights. But he was right there where his countryman utterly lost it. Trust us, the M’s said to Felix. We can help you.

It continued like that for years, as Felix fashioned himself into the league’s best starter. This isn’t to say none of his coaches helped – I believe that they did. But they came and went, and Felix stayed. Rafael Chaves didn’t make it to 2008, when Mel Stottlemyre sr. took over. After that debacle, Rick Adair became the coach. Carl Willis took over in 2011, and lasted through 2013, when Rick Waits took over. Mel Stottlemyre Jr. took over in 2016, and of course this year, Paul Davis assumed the reins. That’s 7 coaches since the open letter, and that’s three GMs and who knows how many assistant coaches and performance specialists and baseball ops folks. Were each of these people telling him the same thing? They couldn’t have – the problems were different (or non-existent), and philosophies change. When it really came time to make wholesale changes, I worry that there wasn’t enough trust on either side: Felix had learned that coaches came and went, and coaches had learned that Felix didn’t have much time for them.

All of this is to say I can’t quite blame Felix, even as I’m sad at how this is ending. I’m really glad the M’s have opened up an expanded King’s Court, and that we’ll have a chance to send him off while he’s wearing an M’s jersey, unlike with Griffey, A-Rod, Randy Johnson, etc. But this undercurrent of sniping between the M’s front office and Felix has made the end of his M’s tenure sad. He’s been blamed for failing to step up when the M’s needed him in playoff races like 2018’s (for a while) and 2016’s. Those failures were collective ones, of course. And they sit atop years and years of other, equally collective, failures that make Felix the best pitcher not to appear in a playoff game in the divisional era. Those failures mount not because the M’s are uniquely bad (though it’s felt like it at times), but because other teams figured out how to re-shape pitchers and individual pitches and, even MORE importantly, how to communicate that to athletes. The Astros and now the A’s get more out of their pitchers. That’s been true for a couple of years now, and it’s made the gap between them and the M’s quite wide (even in the M’s good 2018 season). I know Felix may have been bull-headed about new ideas, but this cannot have escaped his notice. Houston isn’t calling Justin Verlander out, they’re making him better. I’m at the point where I just want someone to make Felix better, and I don’t care if it isn’t the M’s.

Damn it. There I go again, complicating this by trying to assign blame, or deflect criticism. This is supposed to be simple. Felix is on, and we’ll watch and yell, and hopefully he’ll frustrate the high-flying A’s. They’ll be playing a postseason game again, and good for them or whatever. But Felix is ours, and for one last time, you can’t have him. He’ll be someone else’s soon enough, and then his family will have him. But I’m so thankful I got to watch his career here. It’s been revitalizing, and it’s shaped how I interact with baseball and the Mariners. I watched him in the PCL in 2004, sitting next to the scouts giggling as he broke off that Royal Curve. I remember refreshing my browser on the day of his MLB debut, a game which wasn’t even televised. I remember his first few home games, when it seemed there simply wasn’t a ceiling for his kind of talent. And then I remember his untouchable 2010-2014 run, punctuated by his perfecto in 2012. I started writing here – the place that put the King in King Felix – in 2010. Since then, I’ve yet to write up a playoff game, and I’ve seen a lot more losses than wins. But I got to see that run, and I got to talk about it, analyze it, wish upon it.

Sabermetrics and internet writing about it predates Felix of course, but their growth overlapped so strongly, and I’m just glad I was there for it. Felix was the one-man counter to the idea that saber-inclined writers didn’t care about the players, or couldn’t *feel* what made the game fun. I still write about the game, but I’m 100% positive I’ll never root for a player the way I do for Felix. A big part of that is just age; there are other uberprospects around, but I’m not in my 20s anymore. I don’t have the energy to expend emoting anymore, and to be honest, it takes more and more to summon it even with Felix. It’s here now, though. Thank you, Felix, and good bye.

1: Long, 2B
2: Crawford, SS
3: Lewis, RF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, 1B
6: Narvaez, C
7: Santana, DH
8: Moore, LF
9: Smith, CF

Go M’s. Go Felix.

Game 158, Astros at Mariners

marc w · September 25, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Zack Greinke, 7:10pm

Last night’s performance by Gerrit Cole was effortlessly dominant, but it wasn’t as captivating as the *last* time he faced the M’s. This illustrates the weird point of yesterday’s post: by some measures, Cole’s 2019 is the most dominant of all time, and I think baseball fans are split over which pitcher’s the ace of the staff, and the potential Cy Young winner. He tosses 14 Ks and no walks in 7, and we’re all like, “It’s a September line-up” and “yeah, but he gave up a few hits.”

If nothing else, we should recognize that if you’re going up against Verlander/Cole, the only chance – the ONLY chance – is to swing for the fences. In years past, we sabermetric fans knew that on-base percentage was more closely associated with run scoring than either batting average or slugging percentage. It made sense: the important thing is to avoid outs. You can come back from X number of runs down, but you can’t come back from 27 outs. The problem is that the way the game’s evolved, and the way pitching and pitching development has gone, there’s simply no benefit to avoiding outs. Strikeouts are too common to manufacture runs anymore. Some lament this trend, and it IS really changing the feeling of watching a game, but what we can’t do is pretend that it isn’t happening.

This great piece by BP treasure Rob Mains highlights the fact that not only is SLG% much MORE correlated with run scoring in 2019, it’s been true many times in the past. The old collective wisdom just isn’t true, at least not now. It’s only true if you look at all of baseball history aggregated together, and while that’s a useful thing to do in some circumstances, it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to add in the deadball era to 20-freaking-19 to get a fuller picture of the impact of home runs. Gerrit Cole’s statistics benefit from this change, as I spelled out yesterday. He gets more strikeouts because more batters are going for broke up at the plate. But those batters are making the right choice.

Cole’s transformation felt nearly instantaneous, and it felt like he moved further than Justin Verlander, though Verlander himself looked like a much-improved version once he donned an Astros jersey. I think between those two examples and this gif taken a few days after Greinke was acquired, everyone just sort of assumed Greinke would dominate right from the start. That hasn’t really happened though; he hasn’t been bad, with an ERA/FIP in the mid-3s and a DRA of 4, but that’s higher than it’d been in Arizona. There’s no big, clear warning sign – his Ks are down a bit, but the walk rate’s still low and he’s getting ground balls. Unlike Cole, there’s no jump in his spin rate, nor in his velocity. He’s almost exactly the same, save for throwing a few more sliders and fewer change-ups, which could just be the result of the handedness of the batters he’s faced. Why isn’t Greinke SuperGreinke by now?

Partly, that’s the result of comically inflated expectations about what PD can do, and do instantly. Part of it is the fatalism of watching the M’s run into the Astros buzzsaw repeatedly this year, and partly it’s the result of watching Cole do what he did last night and not, say, Aaron Sanchez/Joe Biagini, whose transformations have been both manifestly more tangible than anything Greinke’s done and also not all that successful. In any event, as many observers note, this habit of helping pitchers reach their potential isn’t quarantined in Houston anymore, not as Tampa’s success with Tyler Glasnow (and Blake Snell, as if the reigning Cy Young winner is yesterday’s news) and Cleveland’s Mike Clevinger show. And that’s a problem, given that Cleveland and Tampa figure to be perennial contenders for the Wild Card in the coming years. Clevinger in particular seems remarkable; he’s fashioned himself into a poor man’s Gerrit Cole, with a K/9 well over 12. None of this would’ve seemed possible when he debuted way back in 2016, but here we are. The best thing we can say about the Indians, who keep doing this (Corey Kluber was a random trade throw-in, let’s recall), is that they haven’t been great at keeping their pitchers healthy. No pressure, M’s.

1: Long, LF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Seager, 3B
4: Lewis, CF
5: Narvaez, C
6: Vogelbach, 1B
7: Murphy, DH
8: Gordon, 2B
9: Lopes, RF
SP: Kikuchi

Not a great defensive OF, but glad to see Kyle Lewis get some looks in CF here and there. That’s what September’s for.

It’s Yusei Kikuchi’s last start of the year, and I think we’re all ready for him to get to work on improvements off the field. He’s still absolutely critical to the M’s 2021 timeline, and he was the most talented starter the M’s threw out there, but there’s no way to sugar coat his 2019 struggles. He should’ve been better, and I’m still kind of flummoxed as to why he didn’t show it. The M’s player development group, and their big league coaches, have had some real wins this year, but this has to go down as the biggest loss. He looked better momentarily after they fixed what they saw as a mechanical flaw, and getting the ball away from his body too early. But since that first success against San Diego, and then the CG shutout of Toronto two starts later, he’s scuffled just as bad as before. In his last 5 starts, he’s given up 18 runs in 20 1/3 IP on *37 hits* and 7 walks against just 9 Ks.

The M’s won’t give up the most hits in the game this year, not with the Rockies/Tigers/Orioles hanging around. But the reason they *won’t* is their bullpen, which, as bullpens are wont to do, is stingier with base hits. Their rotation has hemorrhaged hits, as Kikuchi’s recent struggles show. The M’s seem to notice this, and their rotation in 2021 figures to be much more, uhhh, modern in their orientation. Guys like Logan Gilbert, Justin Dunn, etc. figure to get Ks and limit BA/offense the way great rotations this year do. But I wonder what goes on in turning the org’s orientation so dramatically. For a few years, the M’s relished getting “undervalued” pitchers who didn’t strike people out, but pitched with moxie and grit. With Marco Gonzales, it’s been largely successful, and they’ve seen flashes from Wade LeBlanc and others. I’m sure even Jerry Dipoto would argue they acquired who they did because it’s what they could afford, or more accurately, what they were willing to pay. They’ve had coaches work to get the most out of 89 MPH pitchability guys from Mike Leake to Marco to Tommy Milone, and that’s admirable and all, and I’m sure all of those coaches would RATHER work with a Gerrit Cole/Tyler Glasnow-style talent, but the whole pitching focus will change – and should change – and I wonder how hard that is on player development staff and coaches. Maybe it’s easy, I have no idea. Just keep Logan Gilbert healthy, folks.

Game 157, Astros at Mariners – The Gerrit Cole Show

marc w · September 24, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Justin Dunn/Tommy Milone vs. Gerrit Cole, 7:10pm

In 1999, Pedro Martinez went 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA and 313 strikeouts. It was one of the greatest pitching seasons ever, and it marked the first time in history a pitcher posted a K/9 ratio over 13. Somewhat like today, baseball saw strikeout records fall in the mid-late 90s, as Pedro and Randy Johnson hit their primes. Pedro’s K/9 record topped Kerry Wood’s 12.58 mark, which had been set the previous year. RJ came just shy in 2000, with a K/9 of 12.56, but he topped it in 2001, striking out 372 batters in 249 2/3 IP for a K/9 of 13.41. For years, pitchers got close, but couldn’t quite eclipse them. But this season, we’re set to crown a brand new all-time single season K/9 champion. Gerrit Cole enters play tonight with a K/9 of 13.57, and 302 K’s in 200 1/3 IP.

Wait, wait, you say. K/9 just tells you how a pitchers got his *outs*; it’s obviously correlated with dominance, but a pitcher who gets hit hard and walks a ton of people could theoretically have a super-high K/9 even as they struck out a lower percentage of opposing hitters! This is absolutely true. I led with K/9 because Baseball-Reference has a wonderful all-time single-season K/9 page, linked above, and it’s just a great visual. Did you know that 10 of the top 50 K/9 season in baseball history are occurring this season? You’ve got this list of some of the most amazing seasons in history and also Matt Boyd’s 2019, and some Robbie Ray years, Shane Bieber, etc. It’s absolutely remarkable, and the problem is that there’s no equivalent single page like this for K%. I’m sorry. Fangraphs lists K%, so we can overcome some of the downsides of K/9, but it’s just really hard to figure out how to get a bunch of different season leaderboards to cohere into an all-time leaderboard. You can do it using the splits leaderboards, and I tried, but I failed.

Still, I just went through a bunch of years, and I’ll just cut to the chase: Cole’s K% this year of 39.1% is going to smash the previous record. It’s not terribly close. Chris Sale got over 38% just last year, and that would’ve been the record, but he only tossed 158 innings. From what I can see, Pedro Martinez’s 1999 had the old record, at 37.5%, just barely edging out Randy’s 2001, at 37.4%. But that’s kind of interesting, isn’t it? Pedro had a BB/9 of just 1.56 in 1999. He gave up *9* HRs. In the entire year. Why isn’t that K% higher? Gerrit Cole’s BB/9 is in the low 2s this year, like RJ’s in 2001. Why is Cole’s K% so much higher than Pedro’s if Pedro wasn’t giving up as many walks or HRs?

The answer of course is hits. Even in the greatest pitching seasons I’ve ever seen, batters managed to get a decent number of base hits. It’s all relative, of course; Pedro gave up 160 hits in 1999, and RJ yielded 181 in 2001. Sure, they faced more batters, but Cole’s given up just 136. Pedro faced 63 more batters in 1999 than Cole has right now. To match Pedro exactly, he’d need just 11 more Ks in those 63 ABs, but he would give up 24 more hits. Batters hit .202 off of Pedro in 1999 (they’d drop even further in the next few years, but so would Pedro’s K rate), and .200 off of RJ in 2001. Batters are hitting .188 off of Cole.

So is Cole’s 2019 in the conversation with these Mt. Rushmore-type seasons of yore? Errr, no, not really. Part of what made Pedro and RJ so remarkable was that they posted those K numbers at a time when K’s weren’t as big a part of the baseball landscape as they are now. The game’s just different now, and well, now the top 19 pitchers in baseball have a K/9 over 10, and 10 have a K% over 30%. Part of it is the fact that nobody in 2019, not even record-setting strikeout mavens, are immune from the HR glut. Cole has given up 28 dingers. Against lefties, Cole’s given up more HRs than *singles*. People complain about it, but there’s no real way to argue that stringing singles together is a better way to get to Cole than to wait for a mistake and hope someone’s on board. If Cole pitches in 1999, he’d probably give up a few more hits, but I’d bet his ERA/runs-allowed would drop considerably.

Cole is now closely associated with the Houston Astros player development wizardry. After solid seasons in Pittsburgh, he’s become absolutely dominant for Houston, and it happened essentially right away. The same thing happened to Justin Verlander, who’d been a big strikeout pitcher in Detroit, but is averaging 11 K/9 in Houston. I probably harp on this too much, but it’s why the M’s plan to contend in 2021 still has some Astro-y problems.

Those plans would look better if Justin Dunn would kindly refrain from walking more batters in 2019 and 2020. It’s a tiny sample, and he looked much better in outing 2, sure, sure, but…he’s walked an awful lot.

1: Long, LF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Lewis, RF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Narvaez, C
6: Nola, 1B
7: Vogelbach, DH
8: Gordon, 2B
9: Smith, CF
SP: Dunn/Milone

Julio Rodriguez is at 1-13 in the Arizona Fall League, which obviously isn’t what we wanted/expected, but it’s still fairly meaningless. Angels uber-prospect Jo Adell is 1-19 and Reds prospect Jonathan India is 0-13.

Statcast’s new swing/take feature looks interesting. It breaks up a hitter’s total run value above/below average by zone – the heart of the plate, the “shadow” pitches on either side of the edge of the zone, chase pitches off the zone, and waste pitches that are way, way away from the zone. Most everyone has positive values on waste pitches, because they’re obvious balls, and people don’t swing at them. But different hitters vary considerably in how they rate on the pitches near/in the zone. This great LL article on Dan Vogelbach’s reticence to swing used the new visual to great effect: Vogie takes too many strikes, and thus he rates poorly in and near the zone. Vogelbach does some damage on middle-middle pitches, though, so he was at -4 runs on pitches in the “heart” zone, better than his -21 runs on shadow pitches. Anyway, I bring this up because I believe Mallex Smith may have the lowest rating on “heart” pitches in the game. Joe Panik’s been the anti-leader for months, and is now up to -25 runs on pitches in the heart of the zone. Smith is now sitting at -26. He’s also at -15 on shadow pitches. It’s been an abysmal year all around for Smith, and I’m not sure if the M’s are going to invest the time to get him right, or just turn to Jake Fraley/Braden Bishop going forward.

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