Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Matt Shoemaker, 7:10pm
Yesterday’s game was the kind of soul-sucking mess that I’d like to just avoid talking about, but this is a baseball blog and it was baseball. Kind of. CJ Wilson’s game plan looked a bit different than last year’s. Instead of nibbling around, trying to entice a bad swing or whiff, Wilson just pumped strike after strike pretty much down the middle and dared the Mariners to hit it. They didn’t.
It’s not that every single out was on a pitch middle-middle, but you look at this graph of the location of every at-bat-ending pitch, and you don’t see a pitcher working the edges. You see a cluster of centered pitches getting beat into the ground or popped up on the IF. There may be pitchers who can survive like this, at least a while, but Wilson wasn’t one last year, and I’m not sure he’s one now. More importantly, you can’t win many ballgames if you get 90mph pitches thrown pretty much exactly where you’d like them and turn them into outs. Just ugly to watch, and I’m resentful that they turned my well-argued preview on its head – Wilson actually DID manage contact, while Paxton’s HR-avoiding mojo gave out, albeit only once.
Now the M’s get another shot at a series win behind Hisashi Iwakuma, the guy who’s posted back to back 3 fWAR seasons, and whose actual RA is even better than that. As you know, Iwakuma’s FB is just barely touching 90 at this point, and he’s vacillated between throwing mostly four-seamers (which may disguise his splitter better) and two-seamers (to help manage his HRs-allowed). He’s got a slider that he seems fond of, but which hasn’t been a great pitch, and then he has an absolute beast of a splitter. Overall, Iwakuma gets swings on 60% of his splitters, despite throwing it in the zone less frequently than his fastballs. With 1 strike, batters swing 55% of the time, and then with 2 strikes and batters protecting the zone, they swing over 70% of the time. Meanwhile, almost none of these 2-strike splitters are in the zone – batters can’t stop swinging, but they have nearly zero chance of a positive outcome. This is part of the reason why Iwakuma’s career BABIP is just .271, and why his walk rate and strand rates are also better than average. He still gives up too many HRs, especially for someone pitching in Safeco, but his approach (and command) allow him to run sparkling ERA/RAs despite the dingers. After a healthy spring, expectations are high for the 34-in-a-few-days Iwakuma. Maybe he can share something with Masahiro Tanaka about succeeding without a big fastball (please don’t actually do this – this was cliched writing, not a suggestion).
The Angels counter with one of the better out-of-nowhere stories of last year. Undrafted righty Matt Shoemaker was known in the minors mostly for his neatly-trimmed Billy Mays-style beard (his AA team had Matt Shoemaker beard giveaways once). He pitched in the PCL in pieces of four separate seasons and couldn’t figure it out in any of them. He gave up plenty of HRs, but was just incredibly easy to hit (BABIPs in the .350 range), and without plus stuff, that rendered his pretty-good control moot. Injuries gave him an opportunity, first in 2013 when he shut out the M’s over 5, and then last year where he twirled 136 innings with a 23% K rate and a walk rate of just 4.4%. Behind a meh four-seamer and a splitter, Shoemaker turned in a more-Iwakuma-than-Iwakuma season that gave the Angels staff a much-needed boost. Shoemaker relies a lot less on the ground ball, which helps explain his high road HR rate, but it also helps explain his own above-average results on balls in play and strand rate.
How “real” that was, and how much of that level of performance Shoemaker can shield from the regression gods will go a long way towards sorting out the AL West this year. I mentioned that Shoemaker wasn’t great on the road last year, but Safeco’s a good park for a fly-balling control artist. On the other hand, after a poor showing against their first lefty starter of the year, the M’s may enjoy seeing another RHP.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Weeks, DH
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
One of the most notable performances last night occurred in the Rangers 3-1 win in Oakland, where new A’s 3B Brett Lawrie went 0-4 with four K’s. *On 12 pitches*. I caught the second half of the game, and saw him strike out twice on six consecutive breaking balls. As it turned out, he saw a first pitch fastball in his first AB, and then saw eleven consecutive sliders and curves. Jeff’s article at Fangraphs notes that something similar happened to Mike Schmidt in 1983, but he got yet another AB and hit a game winning HR. Good, even GREAT hitters have terrible games every now and again, and we all remember Iwakuma striking out Albert Pujols three times in a game, the first pitcher to ever do that to the great Angels 1B. But this looked like something else – a clear and purposeful approach to dealing with the aggressive Lawrie. He took called breaking balls, swung through breaking balls in the zone and out, and continued to look frustrated and confused each time. Not sure if that was part of the plan with the hyper-intense Lawrie, or if it was just as simple as “we’re going to throw sliders until he hits one,” but it was remarkable. Seattle-product Keone Kela made his big league debut for Texas, and it says something about the status of the Rangers ballclub that they gave him the ball up 2 in the late innings. After a sharp single from Billy Butler, Kela walked Ike Davis, bringing Lawrie to the plate with no outs and the tying runs aboard. To that point, every one of Kela’s pitches had been fastballs. The Rangers left Kela in, and three pitches later, he notched his first out with a swinging K. That, much more than Lawrie’s final K against Neftali Felix, was the key at-bat of the game. A reeling rookie reliever against a guy with borderline all-star projections, and Kela came out ahead.
Lawrie’s going to come out of this at some point – he’s a good player, and “just throw sliders” seems a little light to be a game plan (although Lawrie will have to prove that). But the comparison I thought of last night wasn’t Mike Schmidt, it was Brett Wallace in 2013. Wallace was a 1st round draft pick who sailed through the minors in a few different organizations, including Toronto and Oakland, like Lawrie. He’d had so-so stints in the majors before that, but came into 2013 as the Astros 1B by default. He’d had some K problems in his cups of coffee, but it seemed to be getting better, and his minor league K rates were under 20%, albeit barely. Then April 2013 happened. The ‘stros started against Texas, then played Oakland and then Seattle. After his sixth game, against the M’s in Seattle, Wallace was 1 for 21 in 22 plate appearances…with 17 strikeouts. That game against the M’s was a particular low point – it was his first golden sombrero, and it came in a game in which his teammates couldn’t stop hitting. That game was Brandon Maurer’s home debut, and he went 2/3 of an inning, giving up six first-inning runs. He did, however, strike out Brett Wallace swinging. Maurer gave way to Kameron Loe, so you basically know how that went. Loe gave up another 5 runs on three HRs in just 2 IP, but he, too, struck out Brett Wallace swinging. Charlie Furbush relieved Loe, and he struck out Brett Wallace swinging in the fourth, then struck him out swinging in the fifth on his way to a comparatively tidy 2IP with only 1 run allowed. It was just the 5th inning, and the Astros were up 13-0, and Brett Wallace had four swinging strikeouts. The Astros mercifully replaced Wallace with Brandon Barnes, who promptly doubled and came around to score on a Marwin Gonzalez single. This isn’t a fun game to remember, but I hadn’t seen someone look as lost as Lawrie did since April of 2013. Wallace went 0-4 in his next game (but without any Ks!) and was sent down to the minors for a few months. He hasn’t played a big league game since that 2013 season.
We have made it to double-A and I have been typing for hours. Literally hours. But I don’t mind it so much because the Jackson Generals have been a good affiliate for us, very active in hyping up their various alums, and this year, look to have a very talented team. Their outfield is the second-most interesting to me, but it’s close, and their infield is likely the best and most balanced. I like a lot of what I conceive to be their rotation as well, though I would clarify that there are a lot of pitchers on the DL for them right now and on pure prospect watching, Bakersfield is easily better. Jackson just gives us an opportunity to see who we might add to future depth discussions. As for the roster’s liabilities, the bullpen is nothing special and the catchers are defensively-oriented, but otherwise this looks like a really solid group that could do some playoff damage down the line, provided the team stays intact. No promises.
Diversions? Some sour grapes of an international flavor, our last remaining South African player and references to the United Nations, my most frequently used Aqua Teen Hunger Force quote, left-handers who can’t get left-handers out, the elixir of life (in passing), big bats with position questions, utility player heartthrobs, BABIP vagaries, player reevaluations, and a section in which I copy and paste a player’s injury history. I still have no idea who pitches where in the rotation.
Tacoma will be up tomorrow. I don’t know when, but probably before they start play.
This marks the first year since 2007 that the Mariners have had an affiliation outside of High Desert. Okay, let’s think about that for a moment. Eight years we were there. Whaaat. But shifting up north to Bakersfield leads me to think of things in new and unfamiliar ways. Park factors, for one. I don’t have any handy at the moment (sorry), but I remember from experience that the offensive environment is slightly inflated and that the quality of the infield is notoriously poor. It’s something that we may not have to consider for very long as there have been discussions of moving the team to Salinas, roughly 200 miles to the northwest, and the Mariners likely bought in early with that in mind. A new park there may figure to be pitcher-friendly.
In the larger scheme, I wonder about other things. While we are nominally leaving the Desert, these have been a hard few years for the state of California and the dry conditions are only spreading. This leaves the team name, Blaze, a little uncomfortable at times. Will it be long before, over concerns of water usage, baseball stadiums in the league switch over to field turf or some equivalent? I say this as someone long suspicious of lawns and their use of resources purely for aesthetic purposes. Long-term droughts and baseball. Someone think of this as a potential thesis topic. Theses have been written about chairs, this is hardly worse.
So, the Blaze. Actually, the whole rotation has something going for each member and the back end of the bullpen looks to be pretty special, I just worry about the guys in between. Catching will present some interesting choices as to who to play and when, as both guys need their defensive time but could pass as DHs, particularly with an emergency catcher already on the roster. The infield is in one of those, “the less said, the better” realms, but the outfield doesn’t have any real liabilities and for prospect watching, is probably the best group we’ll be running out at any level this season. I could be into it. I could see myself listening to Bakersfield broadcasts during the year.
Over the course of this preview, I also manage to keep on subject pretty often. Nevertheless, one of the rotation members is still sort of an enigma, there’s an important hyphenated reliever, in lieu of writing about one pitcher I instead flipped out and went off on a few vaguely connected tangents, mentioned one of the maybe two stock car drivers whose names I know, failed to comprehend an infielder’s transition to High Desert but did get to type “Panamanian” again, talked about favorite injured prospects, favorite gritty types, favorite inside jokes, and a guy whose slugging with High Desert at home was equal to his road OPS who also happens to be named after a famous actor with a famous mustache.
James Paxton vs. CJ Wilson, 7:10pm
The M’s needed opening day, and they came out with a win against an opposing starter who really did, in Jeff’s memorable phrase, look like “a righty Barry Zito with the flu.” But if beating Jered Weaver behind King Felix *in Seattle* seems like a game you really ought to win, so too does this contest. As we discussed, Wilson’s fallen off in recent years too, and he started lower, too. Wilson’s career K% is inflated a bit by his years as a reliever for Texas. As a starter, it’s fluctuated a bit, from 22.5% in his one truly excellent year in Arlington in 2011 down to 19.8% last year. There’s been more movement in his walk rate, which was only 8% in 2011, but was up over 11% in 2014. Wilson’s a lefty with an assortment of pitches who is no longer a big strikeout guy, and deals with serious control issues. What he’s done fairly effectively up until 2013 or so was control the contact he gave up.
That’s tough to do, particularly if you start your career in Texas, but Wilson was up to the challenge. He throws six different pitches routinely, allowing him to utilize four pitches against righties, and a slightly different four pitch mix to lefties. Looking at his walk rates, you might expect pitching coaches to tell him to simplify his arsenal and throw strikes instead of throwing the kitchen sink, but Wilson’s pitched around high walk totals his whole career. What he HAS done is limit his BABIP (something some lefties have been better than average at, for whatever reason) and limit his HRs allowed. Last year, though, his BABIP hit .306, its highest level ever, and just above his previous career high of .300 from 2013. Combining that with his career high walk rate, and it’s a wonder that his FIP was “only” 4.31. Last year, he was above replacement (well, the way Fangraphs calculates it) because he kept his HR rate under 1.00/9IP. It wasn’t exactly LOW, and at 0.87, it was the highest it had been since 2008, and the highest level ever as a starter, but it was better than average. The problem is that it was only low at home. On the road, Wilson was a total disaster.
So why can’t the M’s figure him out? If he’s so bad, why has he limited the M’s to a career .669 OPS *in Seattle* and and a .593 OPS last year despite his abysmal overall road stats? A big part of the reason is that he’s left-handed. As he’s aged, Wilson’s platoon splits have widened, and I’d assume part of the reason his walk rate is up is that he’s consciously or sub-consciously pitching around essentially every tough righty. Moreover, the M’s lefty-heavy line-up struggled against left-handed starters, putting up an OPS+ of 80 relative to the league (against righties, they were at 100) – that was actually worse than they struggled in 2013, when their OPS+ against lefty starters was 85 relative to average. The M’s have had serious platoon issues for a few years, and that’s one of the big reasons Nelson Cruz is here. Tonight’s the first test of that – can the M’s knock Wilson around the way everyone else has in recent years?
Interestingly, James Paxton reminds me a little bit Wilson. He’s tall, throws harder, and is Canadian and not prototypically Southern Californian, but both are lefties that rely less on strikeouts than managing contact. Paxton’s K rate in his abbreviated 2014 was a touch below Wilson’s, though of course Paxton’s walk rate was, while high, below Wilson’s level as well. When Paxton’s on, he’s running low BABIPs, the way CJ Wilson did back from 2010-2012. As Paxton throws much harder, in a good defensive park and behind a solid defensive club, his BABIP has been extremely low as opposed to just “better than average.” And thanks to a combination of high GB rates, velocity and Safeco, Paxton’s HR rate is also remarkably low, leading to a FIP that isn’t as high as you’d expect given the walks. The question is how well Paxton can keep this up. We’ve seen velocity fluctuations from him before, but we haven’t seen the command lapses that plagued him in the minor leagues. As we talked about, he’s an extremely hard guy to project since the things that make him so exceptional are the things that sabermetric orthodoxy would tell you aren’t as “true” as things like strikeouts. Still, velocity is about as true as it gets, and as long as Paxton’s four seamer continues to generate ground balls the way it has in his brief big league career, he can be an effective starter. Because Paxton’s throwing motion is so vertical, so over-the-top, he should also fare much better against righties than, say, CJ Wilson. That’s been true thus far, and if it continues, he’ll be a borderline all-star many times.
1: Weeks, DH
2: Jackson, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Ruggiano, LF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
A revamped line-up tonight, with five righties. Ideally, you’ve have another RHB or two, but it’s not too bad.
Jeff mentioned it in his post, but the Rangers nearly got no-hit by Sonny Gray in the opener yesterday in Oakland. Gray’s a great young starter, but to me, didn’t even look like he had his best stuff. Yovani Gallardo looked mediocre, and the Rangers line-up looked punchless. I think Prince Fielder will have a decent bounce-back, but his days as a preeminent power hitter are probably over.
One of the better pitching match-ups yesterday was the Astros/Indians game featuring Dallas Keuchel and last year’s CY Young winner Corey Kluber. Imagine what you’d think one year ago today if you were told that Keuchel/Kluber was an anticipated pitching match-up, and that Kluber and Carlos Carrasco just signed long extensions.
Speaking of extensions, the Red Sox inked Rick Porcello to a four-year, $82.5m deal running from 2016-2019. Porcello is very young (still), and has been remarkably steady in recent years, but hoooooly crap that’s big-time money for a guy with a career ERA and FIP over 4. Part of this is age, and a big part is just the inexorable inflation as cable tv money works its way through the arteries of baseball, but I also wonder if teams aren’t putting more of a premium on durability with the rash of TJ surgeries throughout baseball. Of course, this would mean reliably identifying traits that are linked to durability with enough confidence that would lead to contracts like this.
The M’s affiliates have all set (or just about set) their opening day line-ups. The full-season affiliates start their seasons this Thursday, April 8th. AA Jackson gets DJ Peterson and Gabby Guerrero to start the year, while class A Clinton will see Alex Jackson and Brazilian RHP Daniel Missaki. Patrick Kivlehan starts at AAA Tacoma, and High-A Bakersfield, the M’s new Cal League affiliate, gets the pitching prospects Edwin Diaz and Ryan Yarbrough.
Did you miss reading thousands of words on things of interest to a narrow subset of the human population? Well good news! Though my prose writing/analytic tendencies are largely occupied with other stuff these days (there’s also going to be a book review on Poetry Northwest’s site sometime soon), I still geek out enough about baseball and prospect happenings that some weird glitch in my brain triggers and I think, “sure, it sounds like a swell idea to write exhaustively on a subject with an inherently high attrition rate! Wheeeee!”
The overhead perspective on this year’s Lumberkings team is that there are some intriguing arms in the rotation who have had a limited or uneven track records so far, the bullpen features a few guys who might be fast-tracked later, the team’s primary catcher won’t be a hitting liability, the infield features a sleeper at the hot corner and a few Latin hitters of some potential, and then the outfield has The Second Coming and some other dudes who I guess are all right by mortal standards.
I’m typing frantically to get some of the other previews in order later (work schedule is not especially friendly at the moment), but in the meantime, the diversions shall take us through talk of baseball’s spread through particular portions of Latin America, twins, names and how one might speculatively pronounce them, bloodlines, teammates, associations one might make based off of initials and positions, a guy who could be on the C/OF track who isn’t an elite prospect, and players whose OBP exceeds their SLG. This somehow ended up more on-track than past entries, despite still not being edited under my usually rather attentive standards. Well, let’s get to it then.
While I don’t necessarily agree with those who argue that Opening Day of the baseball season ought to be a national holiday, I do, at least, understand the sentiment. The wait is so long and the anticipation is so great, and the instant you see a baseball stadium get all dressed up, you slip into this warm state of comfort you forgot you ever felt. This is the feeling of belonging; this is the feeling of being at home. It doesn’t even matter where you are. It just matters what’s happening. Being in the car with a baseball game on feels more like home than home on any January 10th. All isn’t quite right, but it’s closer than it was.
Because it’s such a treasured event, and because at the end of the day we’re all just baseball fans, you hate for people to come away from the occasion disappointed. In a just world, Opening Day would be kind to fans of all 30 teams. Save the letdowns and the devastation for at least another game. Look around the league, and you see the Brewers lost 10-0. The White Sox lost 10-1, and the Rangers lost 8-0, very nearly getting no-hit. It doesn’t seem fair. You want there to be another way, a better way, but you just can’t always make everyone happy.
Which made this Mariners opener a particular treat. Usually, in a baseball game, half the fans come away happy, and half the fans come away sad. Rough for that latter half, on the first day of the season. But what we saw on Monday, that game had something for everybody. Everyone gets to consider their Opening Day a success. Angels fans got to watch their best player hit a home run, and then effectively hit another with a great play in the field. And Mariners fans got to watch their best player beat the crap out of the Angels. Thumbs-up all around. We’re all friends.
Look, I don’t have a great way to work this in, so this is going to function as a segue. The home opener in Safeco is always a production, and this year gave Safeco the rare opportunity to host both the home and season openers at once. As has been the norm, Mariners players jogged in from the outfield as they were introduced, with fog machines adding to the drama of the affair. As somebody who has written papers in high school, I understand that, if you look hard enough, you can identify hints of symbolism everywhere. There were definite hints in the intros. Here we see Robinson Cano, preparing to jog down the carpet:
The curtains part, and the fog drifts, revealing Cano as he lifts his head and prepares to be greeted. Everything fell exactly into place. There is, before Cano, a clear path forward, unobstructed by anything peripheral. For Robinson Cano, it’s always come easy. For Robinson Cano, it always looks easy. In truth, he’s the result of inconceivable talent and preparation, but when you see him he’s smooth as a man who knows he’s already won.
Two names later, it was Kyle Seager’s turn:
Kyle Seager always has to do shit the hard way. Curtains didn’t part? Guess he’ll part the damned curtains. Doesn’t look cool. Looks like he’s getting out of the shower. No one looks cool when they’re getting out of the shower. Kyle Seager never looks cool. Never will. It’s just not his “thing”. Doesn’t mean he can’t also get the job done. Doesn’t mean he can’t also be excellent. He’ll just always look like he’s working harder for it. Kyle Seager’s never going to not look like his middle name is Duerr.
So, that’s how Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager emerged from behind a Mariners curtain. Later, a game was played.
Years ago — years and years ago — there was an argument over which pitcher was better, between Felix Hernandez and Jered Weaver. And while Felix had the advantage of his debut, the reality was that the argument was justifiable. I mean, we used to argue about a lot of silly things. We used to get really emotional when we’d talk about Roberto Petagine. I remember that Felix/Weaver stuff. It was very much a “then” argument, and there were strong arguments to be made in Weaver’s favor. He really was an ace at one time. Felix, for his part, disappointed, as he took some time to get things to click. Felix had the stuff; Weaver had the run-prevention results. One thing the argument didn’t discuss much was the future.
And I don’t know what would’ve been argued. I don’t know how those futures would’ve been projected. Was a time when everyone thought Felix’s arm was a ticking time bomb. We’ve come a long way. But now we have the benefit of knowing exactly how things have taken place. Felix doesn’t throw as hard as he used to. That was never going to keep up. Thankfully, he figured out command, and he figured out a changeup, and he’s maybe the best starting pitcher in his league. And Weaver? Weaver doesn’t throw as hard as he used to. Today I saw him throw a pitch above 86 miles per hour, once. It seems like it should’ve been painfully obvious even a decade ago that Weaver would need to develop pinpoint command to keep things going smoothly. That command doesn’t seem to be with him. He’s working with a razor-thin margin of error. Today he looked like a guy who’d deserve the 6.00 ERA that’ll be by his name at least another few days.
Seth Smith doubled in the first. Fastball, 82, over the middle.
Austin Jackson doubled in the third. Curveball, 65, over the middle.
Smith tripled in the third. Curveball, 66, over the middle.
Cano singled in the third. Fastball, 83, over the middle.
Dustin Ackley homered in the fifth. Fastball, 81, over the middle.
Brad Miller singled in the fifth. Changeup, 74, at the belt.
Smith doubled in the fifth. Fastball, 83, at the belt.
You can’t count Weaver out, and you certainly can’t judge by one game at the start of a long season, but this was a game that would be thrown by a pitcher about to be cut. This version of Jered Weaver, throwing away his track record, might not get a major-league contract as a free agent. We just watched something like a right-handed Barry Zito with the flu, and Weaver used to be a guy who succeeded in part because he got hitters to swing and hit pitches on or beyond the edges. Nothing about Weaver today was about the edges. Except perhaps a career edge. It’s a long way down. Gotta watch your step.
As Weaver gets worse, Felix sustains. I don’t know how he does it, either, but, recognize our fortune. There was a time that Weaver might’ve been better. Imagine that. I know this gets awful jinx-y when you’re discussing two active careers, but look at them side-by-side today. At the moment, there is no comparison, not in stuff and not in ability. Today Felix faced 24 batters. Whiffed 10. Today Weaver faced 25 batters. Whiffed one. It was Mike Zunino, which doesn’t even count.
Once again, Felix coughed one up to Trout on Opening Day, getting a high fastball not high enough. Once again, it was reduced to a footnote, as Felix settled in just as his support did the same. Yeah, this could’ve gone a little differently. Smith’s game-tying triple in the third narrowly avoided Kole Calhoun. Smith’s insurance double in the fifth narrowly avoided a sliding Matt Joyce. With a couple more half-steps, who knows if those get down, and who knows what game we have? But on the other hand, that same sliding Matt Joyce collided with a not-sliding Mike Trout, and while Trout avoided any kind of injury, we’ve seen that play go tits-up. The Mariners were lucky to not have a double taken away. The Angels were lucky to not have their entire season crippled before the first seventh-inning stretch. Fun thought exercise: turn Joyce into would-be outfielder Josh Hamilton. Have Hamilton also not make the catch. This time, have Trout get hurt. Would Hamilton have been released on the spot? Probably not, but I can’t imagine he’d be allowed back in Anaheim.
Maybe that’s not a fun thought exercise. That’s a dreadful thought exercise. Kind of like having the Hamilton, Weaver, Albert Pujols, and C.J. Wilson contracts at the same time. That’s how you get Johnny Giavotella standing in against Felix Hernandez on Opening Day and trying his best.
Not everything went well for the Mariners. If everything went well for the Mariners, they might’ve won by twenty. The point is to make sure enough goes well, and this year, more than any other year recently, “enough” shouldn’t be too difficult a bar to clear. You saw some elements of a playoff team today. They didn’t all chip in as much as they could’ve, but this team has a lot of potential chipper-inners. Roster’s littered with ‘em. Someday Nelson Cruz will probably get a hit.
Nine straight Opening Days, the Mariners have left us smiling. Nine straight Opening Days, I’ve written something to the effect of how, even though it’s incredibly early, every game matters, every single game matters, and when you’re 1-0, that makes it incrementally easier to be there in the playoffs at the end. It’s all about the probability, right? Winning on Opening Day improves the probability. Nine straight Opening Days of this. Try not to worry about what happened after the first eight.
Felix Hernandez vs. Jered Weaver, 1:10pm
Happy Felix Day, and happy opening day 2015.
The M’s face the team that most see as their primary competition for the AL West title. Given the expectations, this is probably the most anticipated opening day in years, but then, some of us get a queasy feeling in our stomach any time national writers place expectations on this club. Still, after so many Aprils when it really felt like the M’s had no shot, it’s nice to see the pendulum swing and, if anything, care *too much* about each early match-up. The division’s tight, and the M’s need to get a leg up on Anaheim while Garrett Richards is out. This can lead to over-analyzing every bullpen move, every sacrifice, every 1-2 pitch call, etc. That’s not fun, but it does evidence some investment in the outcome.
As we’ve talked about, the Angels won 98 games behind a powerhouse offense and a surprisingly good rotation. And as I mentioned last night, that rotation has a number of question marks heading into 2015. CJ Wilson probably engenders the most, but tonight’s starter, Jered Weaver, is close. I mentioned Weaver’s declining velocity in last year‘s opening day post, but if anything, that decline is picking up speed. Spring training is for getting work in, and it’s not iron-clad evidence of decline, but Weaver’s one start with gameday data this spring occurred on March 11th, and in that contest, Weaver’s four-seam fastball averaged 83.9mph. Bad pitch fx calibration? No, I don’t think so, as the start occurred in a Trackman park. Like most pitchers, Weaver’s velocity is down a bit in the early months of the year before peaking in August or so. Last year, he came out of the gate at around 86 before getting back to 88 in September. Not coincidentally, he was average or so in April before settling in with a brilliant May and a strong finish to his season.
Beyond velocity, though, there’s the matter of his home/road splits that we talked about last night. Weaver’s known for his rising fastball and the extreme fly ball rates it produces. Like Chris Young, his game is based around managing fly ball contact and running low HR/FB ratios – it all adds up to a pitcher who routinely outpitches his fielding-independent stats. Given his home park, you might assume that this approach works well in any park that suppresses home runs; anywhere that a fly ball produces fewer runs would seem to be a great park for Weaver and Chris Young. For whatever reason, that hasn’t been the case for Weaver.
Weaver has started 17 games at Safeco field, and has faced some of the most anemic offenses in recent baseball history. If any park in baseball would seem tailor-made for Weaver’s approach, it’s Safeco. And yet Weaver’s career batting line against in Seattle is .286/.331/.486. In one of the toughest offensive environments in the game, the M’s have hit like Adrian Gonzalez or Justin Upton in 2014. Sure, Weaver’s career stats are pulled down by struggles early in his career (though that just meant he was getting hit hard by Yuniesky Betancourt). After several good years, the old pattern has returned. In his last six starts at Safeco, he‘s given up 8 HRs, including four in two games last season. These are the kinds of games the M’s need to win if they want to take control of the division. They were great in the second half last season, but this year they need to start faster than they have in the past.
The opening day line-up:
1: Jackson, CF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Ackley, LF
9: Miller, SS
SP: KING FELIX
The Padres had one final trade in their off-season, trading for Craig Kimbrel and Melvin “BJ” Upton last night in exchange for prospects Matt Wisler, Jordan Paroubeck and the expiring contract of Carlos Quentin. Much of the focus of the trade thus far has been on the Braves’ ability to shed the contract of Upton, who produced essentially 0 WAR in two seasons in Atlanta. People have questioned why the Padres would need a closer at this point, but given their busy off-season, adding the game’s best reliever (it’s him or Aroldis Chapman) seems like a decent move in a two-wild-card environment. The Braves shed a lot of salary in what’s now unambiguously a rebuild, and given the moves THEY’VE made this off-season, they had less need for a lights-out closer than just about anyone. But given their roster at the end of the year, I’m a bit confused about why they decided to tear the whole thing down. This wasn’t an aging ballclub by any means – many of the players they’ve shipped out, including Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Kimbrel and Evan Gattis were under 28. Alex Wood and Julio Teheran, two of their top young starters, were both 23 last year. Heyward, 1B Freddie Freeman and SS Andrelton Simmons were all above-average players at age 24 last season. They finished a bit below .500 in 2014, but this is the kind of young core most teams would kill for. Instead of building around it, they’ve traded it all away, and while they’ve achieved a modicum of cost savings, it’s not like Heyward or Kimbrel were costly players in this era. They’ve acquired plenty of minor league talent – given the two Upton trades, they now employ a good chunk of the Padres’ top end-of-2014 prospects, but they don’t have a signature, key guy that’s an obvious part of their next young core. Max Fried, part of the first Upton haul, has a very high upside, but the young lefty missed almost all of 2014 with a forearm problem, and then had TJ surgery late in the year - he won’t pitch at all in 2015. Last night, the Braves picked up the Pads new #1 or #2 prospect, RHP Matt Wisler, a guy with solid command and the kind of make-up scouts rave about. What that hasn’t yet translated into is dominant stuff, as HR problems in the admittedly-HR-friendly PCL pumped his FIP and ERA over 5 last year. You don’t evaluate prospects based solely on stats, but the Braves gave up a lot of MLB talent and have a large collection of prospects with some very solid attributes and a whole lot of question marks. Instead of a good young club with a few holes, they’re now a decent staff with a questionable line-up that needs Nick Markakis (signed to what looks now like a completely bizarre four-year deal) and Eric Young, JR to produce. Sure, if you’re rebuilding, it seems smart to shop your closer. I’m just not clear on why Atlanta recreated Sherman’s march to the sea on their own line-up.
As a working stiff, I’m not thrilled about the early start time. I’ve heard from plenty of fans who like it, and for those of you heading to the game, I’m sure it works well, but I doubt I can watch any of it, and that’s disappointing.
Go Felix, and Go Mariners!
The variance around projections doesn’t just run one way. While it may seem hard to believe for M’s fans since 2003, the team could just as easily outpace its projected win total as undershoot it. Similarly, their divisional rivals have the same sorts of risks that we talked about yesterday. By the projection systems, the AL West is a tight three-team race, with ZiPS/Steamer showing the M’s about a win in front of the Angels, while BP’s PECOTA has the Angels on top by a bit. Clay Davenport’s projections look quite a bit different, with the A’s a game up on the M’s, with the Angels further back). ESPN’s “Experts” projections show the M’s as the clear favorite, with the Angels in 2nd. So, *people* tend to like the M’s more than the projection *systems* and there are a number of reasons for that. It’s also worth remembering that while the M’s were good last year, the Angels won 98 games and still employ Mike Trout. Still, just as there are areas where the M’s are vulnerable, there are specific projections that the M’s have a good chance of surpassing. Here are a few areas where the M’s might get more production than forecasted:
1: Tai. Juan. Walker.
It’s not that Walker’s forecast is *bad* so much as the walk rate pushes his from “excellent” to “average-y.” Last year in the Majors, Walker’s walk rate was near 4 per 9 IP. In AAA, Walker’s walk rate has been near 4 per 9 IP as well. Sometimes projections use complicated regression and aging algorithms, and some times they just look at what a pitcher’s put up in the past. This is a sensible way to project young pitchers, and arguing against it on the basis of spring training stats or 90th percentile wishcasting is generally a bad idea. And yet…Walker’s unrecognizable from the guy who debuted in 2013, and he’s changed markedly from last year too.
His new mechanics (going from the stretch exclusively) seem to have simplified his entire motion and given him much better control. Carlos Carrasco made a similar change, and had even more dramatic results last year, and while no one’s projecting *that* from Walker, it’s extremely easy to see him put up a BB rate nearer to 2 per 9 than 4. That said, it’s not just about control improvements. While the stretch doesn’t seem to provide more deception by itself, there’s something deceptive about a 96mph fastball from such an easy delivery. In the spring, his whiff rate is up slightly, but it’s his ground ball rate that’s up significantly. A sneaky-fast four-seamer and a ground-ball machine split are a good way to keep Walker’s GB rate up and his HR rate down.
The focus coming into spring was the change in his cutter/slider, but he hasn’t thrown enough of them to say much about that. Instead, the story is that he simply hasn’t needed it – simplified mechanics and a simplified arsenal have positioned him well, and a healthy, effective spring have positioned him well going into the season. ZiPS and Steamer see an ERA/FIP nearer to 4, but with half his starts in Safeco and another chunk in Oakland/Anaheim, even the occasional grooved fastball won’t hurt as much. With lower walk rates, it’s easy for biased fans like ourselves to see him beating that projection handily. At 150 IP with lower walk rates, even a HR rate above last year’s can get him closer to 3 WAR than 1-1.5 he’s looking like now.
James Paxton would work here too, as the lefty has similar projections to Walker. The difference is that those projections are based on some regression in Paxton’s HR rate; there’s nothing odd about his K:BB projections. And while Paxton’s been great at limiting his HRs thus far, I’ve been stunned at just how few fly balls he gives up. It’d be easy to see that continuing, but since I have no idea how he’s doing it, I can’t complain too much about the projections. If I had to bet, I’d take the over on Paxton too, but I think Walker has the best chance to blow his projection out of the water.
2: OF Depth
Thanks to the black hole of CF and a down year in LF, the M’s posted the worst OF batting line in the AL, and finished 29th in MLB last year. As a team, they had issues with left-handed pitching for the second consecutive year. While Lloyd McClendon hates to use the word, the M’s are positioned well to use platoons to their advantage, especially in the OF corners. Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano aren’t great players, but they can be quite useful. This alone puts the M’s in a much, much better position than they found themselves in last year.
But don’t platoon players introduce a problem of their own? Now when someone has an injury, the replacement isn’t really geared to playing every day. Having a healthy right-handed platoon OF doesn’t really matter if you’re facing a righty that day. It’s true, and in years past, the club’s lack of OF depth has been a serious issue. With Michael Saunders hurt, the M’s turned to everyone from Cole Gillesie to Stefen Romero to Endy Chavez in the OF corners, and they simply weren’t up to the job. In 2013, when Michael Morse went down, they turned to Jason Bay, Carlos Peguero, Franklin Gutierrez and, of course, Endy Chavez, and the results were similar. The starters have underwhelmed, but the back-ups have been atrocious. It’s not like having an every-day OF protected the club – injuries have forced them to use sub-standard filler, and they’ve paid the price for it.
For the first time in a while, the M’s upper-minors depth is concentrated in bat-first corner defenders. Ketel Marte aside, the M’s have DJ Peterson and Patrick Kivlehan in the high minors this season, and while neither has played much in the minors, I think we’re all ready to move on from the Endy Chavez contingency plan (evidently, so was Chavez, who declined an assignment to Tacoma and became a free agent). These are inexperienced players, particularly in the OF, and neither is a franchise savior. What they are is very different kind of players than Romero, the last IF-to-OF conversion the M’s tried, and very different from Carlos Peguero, whose K% and swing made him hard to comp to just about anyone. Peterson offers big-league power and solid all-around bat to ball ability, while Kivlehan has completely re-made himself from a mistake hitting 3B with huge K% issues to a solid all-around bat. It’s not the Kivlehan’s stats are eye-popping, it’s that the trend line is going up. Even last year, his wRC+ went from 123 in high-A to 140 in AA (and it stayed there in the AFL). Let’s be clear, it’s not like the either is – or should be – projected to out-hit Michael Saunders, and ZiPS doesn’t even see them outpacing Stefen Romero. If you were *counting* on one or both of them contributing in 2015, that’d be a big problem. But with additional seasoning in the minors, the M’s can see first how they fare in the OF, and second how their bats are faring against tough pitching.
Beyond that, the M’s have pieces to deal for short-term help. They can move Marte, who realistically has no shot at a big league job in Seattle. If the price is right and his wrist checks out, they could deal Chris Taylor (or Brad Miller). If Paxton and Walker look good and guys like Jordan Pries look good, the M’s could move Roenis Elias. And that’s only if one or both of Smith and Ruggiano are hurt, Kivlehan, Romero and possibly Peterson fall on their face *and* the M’s are still in the race. The M’s have options in the OF, and for the first time in a while, they’re not bad ones.
3: The M’s rivals have down-side risks, too.
We’ve already gone into great detail about the areas the M’s are vulnerable to underperformance, but the A’s and Angels have plenty of their own. The Angels, for example, had surprisingly good starting pitching last year, with a top-10 staff by FIP – a few spots ahead of the Mariners. Garrett Richards led the staff, but the team stayed hot after Richards’ injury thanks to Matt Shoemaker and veterans CJ Wilson and Jered Weaver. Shoemaker was the most successful of the three, but the trio combined to go 45-22 and stabilize a staff rocked by injuries to both Richards and Tyler Skaggs.
At home, the three had very different approaches, but each had tremendous success in keeping the ball in the ballpark. Shoemaker was a revelation, with more than 5 strikeouts for every walk, and a HR/9IP rate of 0.66. CJ Wilson’s slide into mediocrity continued, but he kept up appearances at home, with more than 2 strikeouts per walk and a low HR rate producing a FIP in the mid-high 3′s. For a back of the rotation guy – never mind his salary, that’s Wilson’s role – that’s not awful. Weaver fell somewhere in the middle, with a solid K:BB ratio (though not the equal of Shoemaker’s) and an exceptionally low HR rate. While his velocity has continued to slide, Weaver’s home stats showed some reasons for optimism – that his arm angle and FB rotation might allow him to continue to be successful. Unfortunately, the Angels, like every other team, play road games.
Shoemaker’s HR rate doubled from 0.66 to 1.32 – while he continued to pound the strikezone, batters exacted a much higher price. CJ Wilson was below replacement level, with a walk rate over 13% compounded with 1.47 HR/9IP – this resulted in a FIP just about 5, and an ERA that was worse. Weaver’s HR/FB magic failed completely, and batters teed off to the tune of over 2 HR per 9IP. Weaver’s road FIP was 5.59, and while his ERA was better than that, it wasn’t good. As solid as the Angels rotation was at home, it was Richards and then a lot of slugfests on the road. The Angels offense was a potent group, but even they couldn’t salvage many of these starts, and thus the Angels, who had the same road record as the M’s, finished 11 games ahead.
Of course, huge splits of any kind aren’t some iron-clad guarantee that the Angels got lucky somehow in 2014. They’ll play half their games in Anaheim in 2015, too, and they still get to visit Oakland and Seattle several times – a good thing if your problem is home runs. For years, Weaver’s game has been based on dominating at home for whatever reason, and being average-to-a-bit-better on the road. When he was great, like in 2011, Weaver was a near-ace on the road, and nearly-unhittable at home. Since then, his road numbers have fallen quickly, while he’s managed to keep him home stats decent. In a tight division, the Angels can’t afford to just punt road games, and if Weaver’s FB falls to Zito-level velocity, then his remarkable string of “beating” his expected HRs allowed might not continue. CJ Wilson has pitched around poor platoon splits and HR issues for years, but at 34, it’s not clear he’ll be able to do so forever, especially not if he continues to walk so many batters. Matt Shoemaker, of all people, showed more pure bat-missing stuff last year, and it’s possible he could be effective in a poor-man’s-Iwakuma sort of way even if his home run rate regresses. But it’s also possible that a guy who hasn’t yet succeeded at the AAA level and dominated teams who’d never seen him before returns to earth the way Kris Medlen did in 2013.
The projection systems can see this too, for the most part; no one’s simply taking Shoemaker’s rate stats and extending them out to 200 IP in 2015. Still, there’s the potential here for a more systemic collapse, particularly if Weaver’s home form falters. Jeff had the great idea to tailor Weaver’s schedule to maximize his home (and daytime) starts, and the Angels could try that – but they can’t do it for all three of these guys. Shoemaker and Weaver already had more home starts than road ones, but if anyone needs their schedule moved around, it looks like it’s Wilson. The Angels attempted to build some depth behind the vets by trading Howie Kendrick for Andrew Heaney, and they hope to get Skaggs back at some point, but while Heaney’s a solid prospect, the loss of Kendrick means there’s less offense to help bail out the rotation. The Angels could get regression in the right direction and see the troika’s road stats move back towards average, Wilson’s control could improve a bit, and Shoemaker could do…no, he couldn’t, the entire idea of Matt Shoemaker is already the most Angels thing in history, or at least since Scott Spiezio was good. But if they don’t, the Angels may not be the good-to-very-good club ZiPS and PECOTA see, and that’d open the door to Seattle.
For Oakland, the problem’s really on the offensive side. If anything, the projected pitching WAR for the A’s looks low, though they once again rely on a number of young, untested arms. But after dealing their biggest offensive threat for a decent buy-low candidate and a promising teenage SS prospect, the A’s new look offense looks much more suspicious to the eye than the projection system. To me, the A’s have issues at 1B, SS, 3B and the OF. This isn’t to say all of these positions will be black holes, or even below average. Rather, it’s that the projections seem bullish on players with some red flags, particularly injury issues.
At 1B, the A’s have ex-Met Ike Davis penciled in. Davis famously hit 32 HRs in 2012 and then suddenly misplaced his power, accumulating 20 HRs total in the two seasons after that. His playing time slipped, which explains part of it, but then, the fact that he wasn’t hitting also explains the lack of playing time. One of the things the Mets seem to have concluded is that Davis is an extreme platoon hitter. In his career, Davis has a .577 OPS against lefties, and thus in his almost-sort-of-bounceback campaign last year, Davis had only 35 plate appearances against lefties compared to nearly 400 against righties. We talk about Ruggiano as a platoon OF, but Ruggiano can actually hit righties a bit, and *actually faces them occasionally*. While the projections don’t love Davis (and given the NL-to-AL move, the power-sapping ballparks in the AL West, and the glut of lefty pitching teams can throw at the A’s, that’s understandable), they like him enough to give him 490 PAs, with Billy Butler getting most of the rest. If Billy Butler playing defense is a better option, something’s gone wrong.
The A’s picked up Marcus Semien in the deal that sent Jeff Samardzija to Chicago, and seem to have installed him as their starting SS. Their IF coaches have done a tremendous job, but while Semien’s young, this seems like a stretch. For the White Sox, Semien split time between 2B and 3B and didn’t seem like an obvious candidate to move up the defensive spectrum. While he played SS quite a bit in the minors, he was shifting to 2B and 3B often, beginning in the Carolina league. Eno Sarris had a good article at Fangraphs about the A’s confidence in Semien, but many of the other players who’ve moved from utility-guy to SS were clear defense-first guys, from Adeiny Hechevarria to Brendan Ryan. If Semien is more of a 2B-pressed-into-SS, and if Butler gets more reps against lefties than assumed, the A’s defense as a whole could struggle. Meanwhile, even with the positional adjustment, Semien’s bat has question marks following a year in which he K’d 27.5% of the time, and hit for less power than his MiLB numbers would suggest. Since 2013, Semien’s had surprising pop for a middle infielder, and while he hasn’t been Brendan Ryan-esque, he’s played in a very hitter-friendly park and put up a .140 ISO. He’s obviously developing, but playing half his games in Oakland isn’t ideal.
That brings us to 3B, and perhaps the biggest deal of the winter. The A’s had 5-win 3B Josh Donaldson heading to arbitration, but instead flipped him for a package built around 3B Brett Lawrie and SS Franklin Barreto. The latter won’t be in the bigs for a few years, so the A’s ability to challenge the M’s rests in part on Lawrie bouncing back from two sub-par, injury plagued seasons and replacing Donaldson’s production. Right now, Lawrie’s projected for 3.5 fWAR in 560 plate appearances, shockingly close to Kyle Seager’s 3.9 in 616 plate appearances. Is Lawrie Seager’s equal on a per-PA basis, but we’ve just missed it because he’s been hurt? The short answer is no, and the longer answer is hell no. First, Lawrie’s slash lines are aided both by his home park and generated in very few games. Lawrie’s never made it to 560 PAs in the bigs, and hasn’t done so at all since AA in 2010. The A’s are confident that they can contain his hyper-aggressive style in order to keep him healthy, but they can’t change where they play. In his career, Lawrie has a .183 ISO and a 119 wRC+ at home compared to a .139 ISO and an 89 wRC+ on the road. Given his aggressive approach at the plate, Lawrie needs to hit for enough power to make up for a lack of walks. Like Semien and Davis, that’s a tall order given his new park and division. I think Lawrie’s a solid player, and a good buy-low candidate (though why you need to offer an all-star, borderline MVP candidate to get back a buy-low candidate is another question), and I can see him staying healthier than he’s been and putting up league-average or better numbers. What I can’t see is him challenging Seager’s production.
The A’s OF has seen a lot of turnover, but it’s been a solid group in recent years, with Josh Reddick and Coco Crisp anchoring the group. Crisp has aged surprisingly well, and given the A’s a better-than-league-average bat in CF in each of the past three years. Reddick has been more volatile, but produced a sneaky-good 2014 after a down 2013 campaign. The issue here is somewhat obvious given recent headlines – both Crisp and Reddick start 2015 on the DL, and injury problems are starting to mount up for both players. The A’s have some depth in Craig Gentry, and neither Crisp nor Reddick injury will keep them out for long, but the A’s are getting an early preview of what it looks like to lose both at the same time. With Sam Fuld playing CF, Craig Gentry is essentially the back-up for all three OF slots. He can’t play everywhere, so the A’s may open with Gentry, Fuld and Zobrist in the OF. Zobrist’s versatility covers a multitude of sins, but ideally, Zobrist plays on the IF, obviating the need for Eric Sogard starts. They could play Mark Canha in the OF, but Canha is both a 1B by trade and someone who’s hasn’t played a big league game as of today. They’re the A’s – they’ll figure it all out by late May, and maybe Crisp and Reddick play the rest of the games without incident. But a bad start may prove difficult to overcome if the Angels and M’s play up to their potential, and if the A’s fall behind, they could opt to trade Zobrist for prospects instead of trading Barreto for big league reinforcements.
We are back. With two podcasts! We had so much to discuss having been gone for awhile that I attempted to cleave our discussion into two parts; the first is almost all Mariners while the second is more general MLB talk plus some stuff on hiking and Jeff’s vacation. As usual, there remain random digressions throughout but hopefully this is some sort of coherent order for y’all. Apologies for the necessary edits.
Thanks again to those that helped support the show and/or StatCorner in general last week, and in the past, and hopefully in the future. It’s truly appreciated. And thank you to our sponsor for this episode, TodayIFoundOut!
We tend to forget all of our memes as soon as we adopt new ones. They’re ephemeral things, which can make it a trip when something comes along and jogs your memory. Like, every so often, I’m reminded of Chris Jakubauskas, and then I’m reminded that some people used to call him the Jakubaustrich, and that was as recent as 2009, and that’s always a little bit flooring. Every old meme is ridiculous. We never think of our current memes as ridiculous. Something to think about. Anyway, the reason I’m bringing this up: used to be, for a few years, it was popular to compare the Mariners to the Royals. More than that, it was popular to say the Mariners were the Royals, if perhaps delayed by a year. The two organizations operated the same way, and the two organizations seemed doomed to the same unremarkable fates, the same sequences of the same fourth- and fifth-place finishes. People compared the Mariners to the Royals, and this was intended as a criticism.
Then people stopped. The comparison would’ve taken on new meaning after the Royals got to the World Series. But, well. In hindsight, we should’ve stuck with it. All the bad Mariners were all the bad Royals. The 2014 Mariners were the 2013 Royals. And the 2015 Mariners are the 2014 Royals. The comparison is still alive. It might be stronger than ever. The parallels just aren’t what they used to be, in terms of the takeaway message.
You, me, that guy, this girl, all those people who’ve been milling around SoDo — we’re fans of a good baseball team. This is important. Read that sentence fragment again, and then, read that sentence fragment again. Here, I’ll repeat it: we’re fans of a good baseball team. This is an identity we’re still working to cultivate. It’s the complete opposite of the identity we developed over the course of a long and dark decade. Thing about being irrelevant and disappointing for so long is that you get your thicker psychological skin. Your sense of humor spins off in a very particular direction, as you learn the ins and outs of coping with a pastime that only ever lets you down. We identified with failure. We made jokes at our own expense. We were the sad-sack people who rooted for the sad-sack team, the people others felt bad for, the team nobody hated. The identity we had — the identity in which we found comfort — it’s no longer appropriate. It’s a little like one of those What Not To Wear episodes where the 43-year-old mother of two dresses like she’s in junior high. The mother needs to dress her age. We need to behave in accordance with our circumstances. Nobody feels bad for us. Our team is now hated, by people other than us.
Clearly, this has been a long time coming. The regular season goes for a while. This one was preceded by several months of projections claiming the Mariners would be good. Before that, the Mariners of 2014 very narrowly missed the playoffs. This is by no means an overnight sensation, so we’ve had about a year and a half to recognize our changing situation. But a year and a half is nothing compared to the years we spent asking ourselves why this hobby was a hobby. It’s going to take a long time for it all to sink in. It’s going to take a long time for our identity to re-sequence. What’s the rule with break-ups — one month of recovery for every year you’re together? Might be there’s a similar principle, adjusting to a sports team no longer being really good or really bad. You’re forgiven if you still aren’t used to this, if you still don’t identify with this. Just, be aware of what’s coming. We’re fans of a good baseball team. If it hasn’t yet, this is going to change you.
I’m sure this goes without saying, but, gosh, it’s one thing to expect a pretty good baseball team, and it’s quite another to actually see one. You remember the preseason projections. I think, as far back as November, I wrote about why the Mariners might be the best team in the American League. The projections were encouraging, and they were encouraging across the board. Steamer liked the Mariners. ZiPS liked the Mariners. PECOTA liked the Mariners. Clay Davenport liked the Mariners. Vegas liked the Mariners. Baseball analysts and commentators liked the Mariners. Scouts liked the Mariners. The Mariners were not an underdog. The Mariners were not a surprise. The season they’ve had — this is a season that we all knew could happen. I remember a tweet from sometime in March, and I think it was posted by Peter Gammons, and he cited a scout who saw the Mariners in spring training and said they looked like the league’s best ballclub. The response wasn’t, “what on earth?” The response was, “sure”. The scout wasn’t exactly going out on a limb.
We knew the Mariners looked strong. We knew they had both talent and depth. But there’s another thing we also knew: the error bars around preseason projections are enormous. When we thought the Mariners could be a playoff team in 2008, they lost 101 games. When we thought the Mariners could be a playoff team in 2010, they lost 101 games. Those memories aren’t easy ones to dismiss. Those were the most recent years in which we began all optimistic, and they wound up with names like Tug Hulett and Chris Seddon. As baseball fans, we root for players, not projections, and sometimes players under-perform. Sometimes players develop ankylosing spondylitis. You’d think that it might be a little less enjoyable to go into a year where success isn’t surprising, and that’s probably true when you get to the point where you really do take perennial success for granted, but, none of us were actually doing that. We’ve not been in position to take winning for granted. Maybe five years from now. But the projections were always at odds with that aforementioned identity. And when there’s a disagreement between the gut and the numbers, you’ll feel the gut more than you’ll feel the data. We wouldn’t be able to accept the Mariners as a good team until they played like an actual good team. An actual playoff team. A playoff team like the playoff team they are.
It’s stark how different the feeling is when the baseball team you follow is playing for something. The games matter, every single day. Games thrill you or upset you, every single day. On the penultimate day of the 2014 regular season, I remember watching the end of a Mariners/Angels game at a bar, and then Austin Jackson hit that incredibly stupid game-winning forceout. He made contact that was too bad for the Angels to turn an inning-ending double play, and that’s how the Mariners survived into their final nine innings. It didn’t matter. It didn’t have to be pretty, and it didn’t matter who was responsible. I left that bar and just about skipped for ten blocks. It was genuine elation at minutes before midnight, and it was elation because the Mariners still had a chance to go to the playoffs, because of a game they won.
Sure, it ultimately didn’t work out, but 2014 gave us a few glimpses of what 2015 would be like. There was more than occasional elation. There was a very real sense of hanging on just about every pitch, and while it would be romanticizing things to say that was always the case, when the games you’re watching are important, you’re less likely to notice how slow they might be going. You’re less likely to notice if it’s, say, Willie Bloomquist driving home the run instead of Robinson Cano. All you want is a win, and it doesn’t matter how it happens, and a slow pace might be appreciated so that you can give your heart a breather. You remember, last offseason was the offseason of speeding up the pace of the game. A noble goal, absolutely, but the people to whom that matters most are professional baseball writers and fans of bad teams. Fans of good teams don’t have complaints. The biggest complaint might be that the next game isn’t here yet.
To get more personal for a paragraph, I moved to the Pacific Northwest in February 2010. Like many, I’ve fallen in love with it here, and more than anything else, I’ve been delighted by the summers, and the opportunities they’ve afforded for incredible hiking and other-worldly camping. Some summers, it seemed like just about every weekend I’d be leaving the city and leaving the grid to get lost somewhere in the woods or the rock. I never feel more centered than I do when I’m out there, and in no time that developed into my primary passion. This became the summer of staying in. More and more, I found myself torn, choosing between getting outdoors and watching the Mariners. This was my least-active summer of all my summers here. Hiking was always the excuse for abandoning the Mariners. The Mariners became an excuse for abandoning the trails. Now, I don’t think that’ll be long-term sustainable — one needs to go into the world — but that reflects the appeal of the ballclub we were given. The Seattle Mariners are an entertainment venture, and this year they’ve actually looked it.
I remember being so annoyed by the obvious marketing. All the ploys I’d see on Twitter to get you to go to a game and hand over all your money. The team’s a business, and businesses succeed by collecting what you’ve earned, and when you start to see through it, it’s repulsive. Out there, there are so many agendas. But then, people generally do know when they’re being marketed to, and it didn’t seem to diminish any of the enthusiasm. The Mariners are always trying to sell themselves, but this has been a baseball team people wanted to be sold. There was nothing sinister afoot. No one had to be convinced to go to a game and get a beer and a hot dog, because beer is delicious, and hot dogs are delicious, and games are where you can watch the Mariners win around 40,000 other people. Sometimes some of them wear yellow and they’re loud as fuck.
The King’s Court gave us our first glimpse of a kind of playoff atmosphere, even within dead seasons. Felix was a draw — watching Felix pitch was an experience. This team has delivered other experiences, more often than once per five days. Nelson Cruz really does hit the ball differently, like a full-season version of pre-injury Michael Morse. James Paxton isn’t Clayton Kershaw, but we’ve been able to see the influence. Robinson Cano is the kind of steady hitter we hadn’t seen since Edgar Martinez, and it seemed like he had two hits every day. Every time Fernando Rodney came jogging in, it felt like a rock concert. All Brad Miller did was develop into the best all-around shortstop in the AL. And there was, you know, the general team experience. Cheering every run, every out, and every win. Didn’t matter whether Felix was pitching or not. Felix didn’t start any of those four games against the Angels that the Mariners swept going into the All-Star break. Didn’t mean it wasn’t maybe the most enjoyable series of baseball the Mariners had played in, man, I couldn’t even tell you. Felix helped to get us through the darker days. In the brighter ones, he was always going to be just a part of the whole.
It’s been months of baseball at the best that baseball can be. Which, if you step back, is kind of amazing, if you consider what we’ve talked about. Right around when the Mariners signed Cano was when Geoff Baker published that article bringing down the front office, and we’ve all previously pondered the question of whether we wanted these people to be in charge anymore. We all felt like, even just a few years ago, the Mariners were stuck in the bottom tier. At that point, if you recall, the Mariners seemed almost hopeless, and the Rangers seemed like a model franchise. It’s not that everyone was totally wrong. Baseball will surprise you. For their part, the Rangers have been undone by a few bad decisions and a lot of bad luck. But, front-office evaluations and organizational summaries are things we talk about to fill the time between baseball seasons and baseball games. All we care about is the baseball team we like the most winning more games than it doesn’t. This team has. Things were unquestionably dark. It can just be hard to appreciate how soon the light of dawn can arrive. Baseball moves quicker than a five-year plan.
Five years ago, the Mariners wrapped up a 61-101 season they began with title dreams. They began it with Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins before Chone Figgins was a bad name to invoke in a sentence like this. It was more than just a damaging season — it was a season that forced the organization to go back to the drawing board. It was a season that, reportedly, altered the way the front office operated. It was a season we wouldn’t be able to forget if we tried, even though it was also a season we stopped paying attention to by the time it was half of the way over. It was a season that made success feel more distant than ever.
As this season has wrapped up, this season also has not wrapped up. It’s simply given way to a later season, a special season, a season the Mariners get to begin by dealing with the Blue Jays. And maybe that’s the way it’ll end, who knows, but getting here was the point, and the season has been a success, no matter what happens. First place is first place, and most good teams fall short of the World Series. For years, Safeco has been invaded by Blue Jays fans traveling down from the north, and they’ve been loud and Mariners fans have tried to be loud in response, as if the teams or the games even mattered. This is going to be a little different. There won’t be so many opportunities to think about being as obnoxiously loud as possible. The fans’ll be too busy being as obnoxiously loud as possible.