Game 151, Mariners at Angels

marc w · September 17, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. CJ Wilson, 7:05pm

For four innings, it looked like the M’s season would end at the hands of a random middle reliever making a spot start. The M’s playoff odds had dipped below 20% according to BP, and when the Royals rallied to tie the White Sox, well, that looked like that. A couple of doubles later, the M’s took the lead against the second Angels middle-reliever, and then the White Sox fought back against KC. An Oakland rally in Texas stopped short, and then the M’s poured it on against the dregs of the Angels’ 40-man. Their playoff odds, in serious danger of dropping to somewhere in the 10% range, shot up 15 to 20 percentage points, and are above 1/3 again. Unreal. Everything about it was insane, from how completely hapless they looked against Cory “The Other” Rasmus, to the timing of the White Sox rally, to the actual Mariners posting a six-run inning later on after several days of an almost religious-level of run avoidance.

So, today’s game comes to you with a modicum of drama and stakes attached, and that’s worth celebrating considering that it’s mid-September. Today’s game shows a big reason why – the M’s are in Anaheim, facing the team that’s run away with the AL West, and facing one of that team’s better/highest paid pitchers. And while the Angels clearly have a leg up in terms of their line-up, there’s essentially no way to spin the pitching match-up as anything but a clear M’s advantage. I know, I know: James Paxton’s entire professional career is still a small sample oddity, and CJ Wilson is a big-league veteran with all-star appearances, a massive contract and a Brazilian super-model girlfriend. But Wilson is very clearly not the same guy he was when he signed that big free agent contract, just as Paxton’s clearly not the guy who spent three months of his first AAA season (this was LAST YEAR, not the ancient past) with an ERA over 5.

After coming up as a reliever with the Rangers, Wilson shifted to the rotation thanks to a deep arsenal of pitches (he routinely throws six different pitches) and his ability to keep the ball down and get weak contact. He never quite figured out the strike zone, and walk rates over 4/9IP pepper his fangraphs page, but he generated enough Ks and gave up few HRs, even in Arlington. His change-up allowed him to deal effectively with the legions of right-handers he suddenly had to face, and thus his contract – while large – didn’t seem to be a disaster, particularly considering his excellent 2011 season. Wilson’s strengths seemed to be reinforced by his new home park; if Wilson was good at suppressing his HR/FB ratio, Anaheim was a legend at doing so for just about everyone. If Wilson walked a few too many, a good infield defense and the marine layer would reduce the price he’d need to pay for those baserunners. In his first season in Anaheim, he posted his highest HR/FB since becoming a starter, and saw his ERA and FIP rise markedly (along with his walk rate). 2013 was a bounce-back year, as his HR/FB dropped to his career norms, but his declines against right-handed bats was masked by his incredible success against lefties – a BABIP in the .230s looked like luck, though his K:BB was still excellent. This year, his luck’s evened out, and that’s made him look remarkably hittable. He’s still excellent against lefties, and the M’s are right to do everything they can to get RHBs in today’s line-up, but he’s not as dominant as he was a recently as last year. Against righties, though, he’s continuing to slide – his wOBA-against to righties since 2011: .290, .316, .329, .350.

Worse, those six pitches simply aren’t as deceiving as they once were. Here’s a table of qualified pitchers in 2014, sorted by O-swing, or the percentage of swings each pitcher gets on pitches outside of the strikezone. CJ Wilson’s in last place, with a paltry 22.7% o-swing. A very low o-swing isn’t the kiss of death – Jered Weaver’s just barely ahead of Wilson, and he’s been OK. Lance Lynn’s at #8, and he’s been excellent. Bartolo Colon’s been weirdly effective despite a low o-swing for a while now. Weaver and Lynn both pair good control with well above-average pop-up rates; their game isn’t based on getting hitters to chase, it’s about getting them to mis-hit the ball or swing under a high (but in the zone) fastball. Bartolo Colon throws nothing but fastballs and nothing but strikes, so it’s not a surprise that his o-swing suffers. Wilson, though, has seen his control suffer – again, whether this is age-related or the effect of giving up so many HRs suddenly – as his zone% tumbled from about 51% in 2012 to 44.9% this year. He’s throwing more balls, and no one’s swinging at them. He’s earned every bit of his nearly-11% walk rate. Wilson’s game is now predicated on bad contact, but his stuff isn’t as good at generating it as it was in previous years. CJ Wilson will be paid $38 million for 2015-16.

James Paxton – despite the elite velocity, despite the achingly beautiful curveball – actually pitches in a similar way. He’s just better at it right now. While Paxton’s o-swing isn’t bottom-of-the-league bad like Wilson’s, it’s slightly below average, which is pretty remarkable when you think about it: here’s a lefty throwing 95+, and yet he gives up MORE contact than the league average. His zone% isn’t quite as bad as Wilson’s, but it’s low. But while Wilson’s GB rates are no longer special – and that’s a problem if his HR/FB are likewise trending the wrong way – Paxton is still a GB machine. More importantly, he doesn’t need to rely on secondary offerings like a change or his curve to get grounders. Because it’s his *fastball* that does the heavy lift, he’s able to generate weak contact in just about any count – he doesn’t need to get you to 0-2 or 1-2 to induce a chopper to shortstop. BrooksBaseball has some really cool tabs that you can play around with when looking at each pitcher’s pitch fx numbers. One is the Z Score tab on a few of the tables. Check out Paxton’s fastball here - the numbers are the standard deviations above or, for negative numbers, below the league-wide mean for that pitch type. Paxton’s fastball generates over two full standard deviations more GBs than the mean, and two full standard deviations fewer fly balls. The ratio is over 3 standard deviations higher than the average four-seam fastball. His curve, too, gets far fewer fly balls than average. It is extraordinarily, freakishly hard to hit fly balls off of Paxton. Elite velocity and poor launch angles make Paxton a tough, tough match-up for lefties and righties alike. Paxton is still a pre-arb player.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Denorfia, RF
7: Smoak, 1B
8: Taylor, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Paxton

* Kind of funny that the bottom two qualified starters in O-Swing are teammates CJ Wilson and Jered Weaver, while the top two, the guys with the BEST o-swing rates, are also AL West teammates: Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma.

Game 150, Mariners at Angels

marc w · September 16, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Roenis Elias vs. Cory Rasmus, 7:05pm
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 21.8% Baseballprospectus.com: 19.3% (ouch)

Well, that was no fun at all. Matt Shoemaker is now 2-0 against the M”s, and in 20 1/3 IP, he’s got an 18:2 K:BB ratio and an RA/9 of 1.77. Hisashi Iwakuma’s late season slide was a popular topic on twitter last night, with many pointing to his poor ERA down the stretch. Our fearless leader Dave pointed out that his fielding independent stats have generally been pretty good. Outside of the three-HR game, he’s not been getting shelled, it’s just teams have strung a lot of hits together off of him. I recognize that Iwakuma’s FIP has generally been pretty good (it’s significantly better in the 2nd half than it was in the 1st, actually), but FIP’s always been a tough way to evaluate the guy. For two years, Iwakuma posted ERAs lower than his FIP, because while he’d give up HRs, he tended to do so when there weren’t runners on. His weird FIP-breaking trick wasn’t a freakish HR/FB ratio, like Chris Young, it was posting much better results with men on (and with men in scoring position) than with the bases empty. That’s not normally a skill, but it’s probably that SOME pitchers can reliably do this, especially given that pitchers have an entirely different motion with men on base. Well, in 2014, Iwakuma just hasn’t had that…skill/luck, depending on your POV. This year, he’s been WORSE with runners in scoring position, and thus, while he isn’t necessarily giving up more HRs, his ERA’s now worse than his FIP. To the optimists, this is the ultimate small-sample fluke, and it’ll just bounce back to his career norms next year. The cynics probably never believed Iwakuma’s success with RISP was skill at all, and see this year as regression. So many baseball arguments are really just about what mean to regress someone towards.

Hey, another ballgame against the white-hot Angels. Sigh. Ok, the Angels are going with a bullpen day, though, as middle-reliever Cory Rasmus starts. In his last start, he pitched effectively, but for less than four innings, which means we’ll probably see quite a few Angel hurlers. Rasmus has a fastball around 93 – a rising four-seamer that he’ll throw up in the zone. In terms of movement and how he uses it, it’s actually quite similar to Matt Shoemaker’s, albeit a tick or two faster. That said, he doesn’t have a big-time weapon like Shoemaker’s split. What he DOES have is a pretty good change-up that he throws a lot to lefties, and a slider he throws to righties. He’s got a curve as well, but his best pitches are the slider and change-up. Since he’s got pitches to throw to both, he’s posted good numbers against lefties and righties alike this year – a far cry from his struggles against lefties in 2013. In 2013, lefties teed off on his fastball, slugging over 1.000 in extremely limited duty. After a couple of tweaks, his fastball’s been effective against them this year, which is why he’s been tabbed to make a couple of spot starts with the injury problems plaguing the Halos.

He can miss bats, he throws reasonably hard, and he’s got four pitches. Why’s he normally a reliever? Rasmus has not seen eye to eye with the strike zone in his career, and this isn’t just nerves. In his minor league career, he posted a BB/9 of 4.3. Last year, in his first big league stint, it was over 5. This year, because Angels, his K% has improved markedly while he’s cut his walk rate from 12.6 to 8.2%. He’s still a very far cry from Greg Maddux, but it’s not a crippling problem anymore. And a move to Anaheim helped his HR problems, too. Like Shoemaker and most other Halos, Rasmus has sizable home/road splits, largely driven by home runs – Rasmus has a GB% under 40%, so he’s a fly ball pitcher, and Anaheim’s a great place to ply that particular trade. We’ll see who follows him, but Rasmus will get the first crack at this line-up:

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morales, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Chavez, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Elias

I’ve actually loved watching Clayton Kershaw pitch this year (thank you, MLB.tv), but Ben Lindbergh’s open letter to Kershaw from Pedro Martinez’s 2000 season is hilarious and spot-on.

Game 149, Mariners at Angels

marc w · September 15, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Matt Shoemaker, 7:05pm
Wildcard odds – Fangraphs.com: 33.6% Baseballprospectus.com: 31.0%

Fangraphs’ odds feature gives the M’s a nearly 70% chance of winning today’s game, based almost entirely on the identity of the starting pitchers. The Angels have the better line-up, and are playing at home, so the fact that the M’s are prohibitive favorite tells you something about how the projection systems see both Iwakuma and Shoemaker going forward. To me, the game doesn’t feel like a cakewalk, and while we’ve been shocked by Shoemaker before, it’s time to give the guy a bit of credit.

At the same time, I can’t really blame ZiPS/Steamer. Look at his minor league record, and you see org depth, a guy who has no business in a big league ballpark without paying to be there. Look at his major league stats, and you see an elite starting pitcher. If this sounds familiar, well, yes, Jeff’s article on Shoemaker at Fangraphs was spot-on. The takeaway, at least for me, was just how similar Shoemaker is in arsenal and results to guys like Hiroki Kuroda, Masahiro Tanaka and, yes, Hisashi Iwakuma. Shoemaker’s splitter is a difference-maker, and it’s carved up the American League in 2014. The big question I have is: why does a guy with a pitch that can torch good big league line-ups struggle so much in the minors?

As Jeff pointed out, and as you can verify at your leisure, Shoemaker’s career AAA ERA – accrued over bits and pieces of five seasons – was 5.38. This isn’t a case where he was awful, then learned the splitter and turned interesting. No, Shoemaker made five starts in the PCL *this year* and was inconsistent, hittable and not terribly noticeable just like always. The righty has always had good control, and that’s been critical to his success in the big leagues. An above-average first strike% and a BB/9 under 2 is a great way to limit damage, but there’s often a trade off in home runs, especially if you’re not a ground-ball guy; with a GB% under 42%, Shoemaker’s clearly in the fly-ball camp. Indeed, home runs were a perennial problem for Shoemaker in the minors. Even in his excellent AA campaign in 2011, he allowed a higher HR/9 than the league average. Again, though, fans of Iwakuma and Tanaka will recognize this pattern – ultra-low walks, high strikeouts, with pretty much all of the damage coming on longballs. It’s not great for FIP/fWAR, but it’s clearly an approach that can work. More interesting to me, though, was that it wasn’t *just* HRs that killed Shoemaker. At nearly every stop, he’s been extremely hittable. In his minor league career, he’s given up about 10 hits per 9 innings. In AAA, that figure rose to over 11 per 9.

This is a minor league journeyman, an undrafted minor college player, who’s pitching like an All-Star. His K-BB% is 20th in baseball, tied with Jonny Cueto, and just a tick behind Iwakuma. He’s got a well-above average contact rate, which is probably how he can be around the plate so much without paying for it in hits and home runs. We’ve seen a few guys with essentially no big-time track record break into the big leagues and post a nice ERA for a year or two (JA Happ, a million relievers), but we haven’t seen guys fluke their way to this kind of fielding-independent success. Here’s a table of the best K-BB% from a rookie starter over the past 10 years. Shoemaker’s in there at #10, and while a place on the list doesn’t guarantee a long, happy MLB career, the most of the guys who haven’t done much after their rookie year have one thing in common: surgery. Corey Luebke’s had two, as has Brandon Beachy. Michael Pineda had one, Matt Harvey’s still on his way back, etc. It’s just not normal to pitch this well for 100 innings and have it not mean anything.

How on earth is he giving up *8* per 9 in the big leagues? How has his K% increased, while his walk rate’s dropped, and his HR rate is stable/a bit lower? It seems like there are a couple of possible answers here. First, while lengthy flukes of this nature are rare, they’re not unheard of. Once big league hitters adjust, Shoemaker may find his stats reverting to his minor league averages (which would still be kind of amazing given that MLB is, you know, BETTER than the minors). The parallels here are Tony Cingrani and one-time sleeper prospect Erasmo Ramirez. It’s both remarkable and painful to see Erasmo on that list of rookie starters – he was 22, didn’t walk anyone, and posted a 5:1 K:BB ratio in 59 innings for the 2012 M’s. Since that time, he’s dealt with serious home run problems and either lost his control or been scared out of the zone. His K:BB ratio since is under 2, and his HR/9 has gone from 0.92 (Shoemaker-esque!) to 1.48 (Shoemaker-in-Salt-Lake-esque!). Personally, I think injuries may have more to do with this sad slide than Erasmo and the team have let on, but whatever the cause, Erasmo was not able to fulfill the promise of that brief call-up. Cingrani’s an interesting case, as he came up through the Reds system with basically one pitch, a fastball. Thanks to a deceptive delivery, Cingrani’s average velocity played up, and he struck out errbody in the minors. The Reds wanted him to develop secondary pitches, because no one can succeed with just a fastball (Bartolo Colon excepted), but that’s what Cingrani did last season, posting a K% near 29% (that’s incredibly good) and an ERA under 3. Unfortunately, the National League seems to have adjusted this year, and Cingrani’s ERA’s in the mid-4s, his K rate is down, and his HR rate is even higher than Erasmo’s. Again, Cingrani’s shoulder injury makes you wonder if he’s been 100% this season, but then again, his velocity wasn’t down, and, I feel like I should repeat this, the guy’s entire game plan was throwing 92mph fastballs.

The other possibility here is that MLB is no longer a bigger, better version of the minor leagues – that the changes that have swept through the big leagues have simply not filtered down the affiliate ladder yet. The big change I’m referring to is how the strike zone’s changed since the 2007 introduction of the pitch-fx system. Among the many culprits people point to for the decline in offense in the bigs, the strike zone changes seems (at least to me) the most plausible. Arming the umpires with much more information about what they were getting right and wrong, the strike zone has increased in size, and it’s done so by growing at the knees. That is, pitches near the bottom edge of the zone are now called strikes more often than they were in 2008. This finding has been corroborated many times, so it’s not likely to be due to pitch fx calibration issues or a botched research design. The question is, has the same change occurred in the minors? Some parks have pitch fx, and many have the TrackMan system, but to my knowledge, they tend to be used by teams for quantitative scouting, not checking the work of minor league umps. If it hasn’t, the effect would be different for different pitchers. A guy like Shoemaker, whose game seems predicated on getting people to chase low splitters and sliders, it could be pretty important. If hitters can know that a splitter isn’t going to be called, they may be able to hold off, even if it initially looks like it’s right down the middle. Since his fastball’s straight and only 91mph, they could sit on them once he fell behind in the count. Is that what happened to Shoemaker? I have no idea. It sounds possible, but then almost no one throws splitters to get *called* strikes – they’re whiff generators. It’s guys with good curves who should *really* notice the difference. But given Shoemaker’s breakout, that spate of awful games PCL umpire call-ups had early this season, and Javier Baez’s frustration about the zone, I do wonder if they’re more dissimilar than they’ve been in a while, and I wonder what that means for everything from Taijuan Walker’s chances of success to stats like major league equivalencies (MLEs) if they are.

A linked, but distinct possibility is that the PCL is especially hard on command guys like Shoemaker because their breaking balls flatten out in the high-altitude parks of Colorado Springs, Albuquerque, Reno and Shoemaker’s home park, Salt Lake. With less vertical “rise” on his fastball, less side-spin on his slider, it’s easy to assume that Shoemaker would be a sitting duck, and the hypothesis would seem to explain why Shoemaker could be effective at AA and then implode once he got to AAA. The problem is that his best pitch, the splitter, would seem to be an ideal pitch at altitude, because it relies less on pure spin than a true breaking ball (it doesn’t really need horizontal movement, and some of the apparent “drop” can be the result of *less* backspin than a regular fastball, causing the pitch to appear to sink more). In any case, Shoemaker’s minor league numbers suggest a mid-rotation insurance or medical device salesman, not a guy with a big league ERA of 3 in over 130 innings.

Roenis Elias’s solid season has boggled my mind. Whoever the hell Shane Greene is has stabilized the Yankee rotation. Yusmeiro freaking Petit has a lower contact% than Felix Hernandez, Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer. Baseball is weird, and pitchers are engine of entropy at the center of it all. A pitcher like Kluber can suddenly click and pitch like a Cy Young candidate. Or, they can suddenly lose any concept of the strike zone like Erasmo (at the mild end of the spectrum) or Cody Buckel/Mark Wohlers (at the extreme end). But what Shoemaker shows is the possibility that even pitchers who don’t change their approach can look completely different when placed in a new context. That’s thrilling (“wait, could *I* be a big league if I changed my shirt and received just the right series of butt-pats?”), and also disorienting. I love hearing from scouts because I think I learn something new about pitching/hitting and even about *watching* baseball every time. I respect them tremendously. Maybe the Angels pro scouting department knew this was coming, but I can pretty much guarantee that 29 other scouting departments did not. That is, the best scouts in the business can watch a guy pitch in the high minors and have no inkling that he’s about to go 12-5 in the big leagues. Just like 20-some odd teams can pass on Mike Trout, who was essentially the best baseball player on the planet on draft day, and has remained so ever since. To be fair, I’m not picking on scouts here: they were clearly slightly ahead of the statheads, who if they’d had a vote, would’ve told Shoemaker to move to the bullpen or retirement. All of us, except for maybe a couple of people in Anaheim, saw this coming. Personally, I’m glad about that.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morales, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Saunders, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: Iwakuma

Podcast: Thank you, 2014

Matthew Carruth · September 15, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

The regular season podcast finale. Hopefully the Mariners will still be playing when I return.

Podcast with Jeff (@based_ball) and Matthew (@msea1): Direct link! || iTunes link! || RSS/XML link!

Thanks again to those that helped support the show and/or StatCorner┬áin 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!

Game 148, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · September 14, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Chris Young vs. Jon Lester, 1:10pm
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 39.6%. Baseballprospectus.com: 35.0%

Line-up:
1: Jackson, CF
2: Denorfia, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Hart, LF
6: Seager, 3B
7: Smoak, 1B
8: Taylor, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Young

Game 147, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · September 13, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Sonny Gray, 7:10pm
Wildcard odds – Fangraphs.com: 55.9% Baseballprospectus.com: 50.1%

I’m tempted to leave Jeff’s piece below up to function as the game thread, because it encapsulates what this game feels like so well. As it turned out, the M’s didn’t exactly build off the momentum they had following that sweep of the Blue Jays. Instead, they meandered around for a few weeks, getting some huge wins, but losing to the Astros. Playing well against Oakland, but dropping a series to Texas. That can be frustrating, in that you can see what a difference a few wins would make in the standings right now, but a part of me is glad we get this game, in this situation, with these two guys on the mound. This doesn’t feel like a playoff race, this feels like a playoff game.

King Felix stumbled in recent weeks, as his incredible run of HR prevention gave out for a time. He’s now essentially right at the same HR rate he’s run for the past few season, and that means his FIP is now merely incredible instead of otherworldly. His numbers are down across the board in the second half, which makes sense as they essentially had nowhere else to go. Still, Felix is the M’s ace, and even down the stretch in a long, unusually hot summer, he’s still the guy the M’s want to see on the hill. Put aside the fielding independent stats, and he’s (mostly) the same guy. BA allowed in the first half? .199. In the second? .198. His slugging is up thanks to that HR barrage a while back, but you just expect Felix to pitch like an ace.

Contrast that with Sonny Gray, who, like the rest of his team, has declined in the second half. Gray’s fastball/curve combo was so effective because it neutralized lefties and righties equally, and because he gets ground balls, he could be effective at home and in places like Arlington and Houston. Gray’s still a work in progress, as his control isn’t ace-level yet, and while the curve’s been useful in generating bad contact, he hasn’t racked up as many K’s as he should at Felix’s age. In the second half, Gray’s numbers have declined across the board, and unlike Felix, he couldn’t fall as far and still be great. In the 2nd half, Gray’s FIP and ERA are in the low 4′s, and his K:BB ratio is a pedestrian 1.96. Gray’s still an extremely talented young hurler, but you wonder if he’s wearing down a bit; remember that Gray fell in the draft as evaluators saw his size as an impediment to his development as an ace/workhorse.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Chavez, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Jones, RF
9: Taylor, SS
SP: The King

Best M’s news I’ve seen in a while, courtesy of Ryan Divish: The M’s have announced that today’s game is a sell-out. Nice work, M’s fans.

Dustin Ackley’s ankle continues to bother him, hence Endy Chavez in the 2 spot tonight. Michael Saunders gets a day off.

Logan Morrison’s first half/second half splits still look identical, thanks to an abysmal July, but he’s followed a decent August with a good start in September. With Zunino fading a bit, and with Morales still stuck a bit, the resurgence of both Morrison and Brad Miller has been critical to the M’s offense.

For the scoreboard watchers, the Tigers are playing Cleveland tonight, while the Royals take on Boston. Ex-Rays prospect turned Rule 5 guy Kyle Lobstein’s pitching for Detroit against diminutive fireballer Danny Salazar, while the Royals have Jeremy Guthrie taking on Sox prospect (ex-Dodgers prospect) Rubby De La Rosa.

Felix And A Playoff Start

Jeff Sullivan · September 13, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Welcome to the middle of the biggest Safeco series in more than a decade. One month ago, the Mariners were preparing to begin the biggest Safeco series in more than a decade. Remember that? Remember how big a deal it was at the time? The Mariners were hosting the Blue Jays, and the Blue Jays were one of the wild-card rivals, and the Mariners had Felix prepared to start game one. That was at least the biggest series since Lollablueza, and then the Mariners swept it, and it felt fantastic. It felt like something beyond ordinary meaningful baseball — it felt like transition-meaningful baseball, between the regular season and the playoffs.

It’s funny to look back on that now. It’s funny what time and accomplishment does to perspective. In middle-school English, the big challenging assignments for us were writing 11-sentence paragraphs. Thesis, support, conclusion. We’d build the skeleton of a book, but we’d limit it to a page. High school brought longer papers. College brought longer papers still. Everything got harder and harder, but because of the progression, everything felt similarly hard at the time, and I could always look back on how laughable it was to have been intimidated by a smaller project earlier on. Gotta write this 12-page paper on Elie Wiesel. A decade ago, I wrote a one-page paper on Elie Wiesel.

A month ago, the Mariners played an important series. It was their first truly important home series in a while. That was all very much true at the time, but boy is this ever more important now. In part because the Mariners beat the Blue Jay boss, now they have the opportunity to defeat the Oakland menace. According to FanGraphs, when the Mariners won the first game against the Jays, it lifted their playoff odds a little more than five percentage points. When the Mariners won the first game against the A’s on Friday, it lifted their playoff odds nearly 13 points. So in a sense the game was more than twice as important.

We all know that the leverage is building. God, that Toronto series was a long time ago. When it started, the Mariners were ten games behind the A’s. The A’s were leading the West! The Brewers were leading the NL Central. Chris Davis hadn’t yet been caught for his cheating. People didn’t suspect that the undoing of the A’s was the unloading of Yoenis Cespedes. People didn’t know about the undoing of the A’s yet. It’s a different world we live in today.

In the past, people would say they wanted the Mariners to make the World Series in large part for Dave Niehaus. A more recent sentiment is that people want the Mariners to make the playoffs for Felix Hernandez. People, of course, want the Mariners to make the playoffs for themselves, but when you dive into your imagination, it’s hard not to be carried away by the thought of Felix starting in the playoffs at home in front of a massive Kings’ Court. It’s how you design the ideal playoffs in your mind, in the way that people who haven’t seen the playoffs yet greedily do. Before the playoffs, you try to script them. After the playoffs, you don’t really care, provided there were wins.

We know when the playoffs begin. We know where the Mariners have to be in order to qualify. Officially, there’s a line between the playoffs and the non-playoffs, in that every year, there’s a given number of playoff teams. But, what are the playoffs, but a period of high-leverage baseball games? And what are the Mariners playing right now, if not high-leverage baseball games? The leverage isn’t as high, but how close do you have to be for it to not be silly to suggest you’ve already basically made it? Saturday night — in a couple of hours! — Felix will start a game at Safeco against the A’s. At stake will be a swing in championship odds, as the Mariners and A’s battle for positioning. Behind and around Felix will be 40,000 casuals and fanatics, behaving the same. Officially, this isn’t a home playoff start for Felix Hernandez. Unofficially, there’s not really much of a difference.

I’m fully aware of how that could be construed as loser-talk, the talk of someone who doesn’t remember how the playoffs actually feel. In my defense, I don’t remember how the playoffs actually feel. I also realize that, if the Mariners are still alive in one month, we’ll look back and laugh at how important we thought things were a month earlier. We’d look at this series like we look at the Toronto series. But it’s to the point where every day either kills us or makes us stronger. Things have ratcheted up from last month, and it’s sure as shit not just us who’re aware:

“I told my guys, this is really playoff baseball,” manager Lloyd McClendon said.
[...]
Robinson Cano, whose first-inning home run got the Mariners off on the right foot, echoed the same thought, saying the playoffs began Friday for his new club. And he should know, having played in seven postseasons and a World Series with the Yankees.

It’s not the playoffs, because it’s not the playoffs. It’s not the playoffs because, a few days from now, the Mariners visit the Astros. It’s not the playoffs because Michael Saunders is sitting tonight in favor of James Jones, because McClendon thinks Saunders needs a break, even though James Jones sucks. But every day now is crucially important, no matter the opponent. And these games against the A’s are more important still, like late-inning at-bats with runners in scoring position. It’s not the playoffs, but it’s so, so close to the playoffs, and though you could technically be closer to the playoffs without being in the playoffs, the feeling is almost alike. We feel like it’s practically playoff baseball. The players feel like it’s practically playoff baseball. The manager feels like it’s practically playoff baseball. The atmosphere tonight will sound like it’s practically playoff baseball. It’s not the playoffs, but it’s the playoffs. Felix Hernandez is getting the ball.

We’ve all wondered what it would be like to have Felix start a home playoff game. Tonight we won’t find out, and tonight we will find out. A month ago, in that start against Toronto, Felix took the hill before a big court and thousands upon thousands of Jays fans, and he left after seven with a ten-run lead. That felt important then, but it was nothing compared to this. This time there aren’t going to be any Jays fans around.

It can get more intense than this. It can’t by very much. Tonight King Felix starts a playoff game in September.

Game 146, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · September 12, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Jason Hammel, 7:10pm (If you’re going, please note the Sounders have their own late-season really-important game tonight as well. Pioneer Square/SoDo is going to be jammed tonight, which is great, but something you should probably plan for if you’re driving to the game).
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 42.5% Baseballprospectus.com: 35.4%

It’s been a little over ten days since the last time the M’s and A’s faced off, and, at least for the M’s, almost nothing’s changed. They were coming off a disappointing series loss (to the Nationals, in that case), and saw their playoff odds in the low-40% range. They faced Jason Hammel, who was pitching much better in recent games, but who couldn’t stop the A’s from losing. Today, the M’s are again coming off a disappointing series loss, have similar playoff odds, and face Jason Hammel again. The M’s have essentially treaded water for 10 days, while the A’s continue to sink. Some portion of the M’s lower playoff odds (considering they picked up a game on the Royals without playing yesterday) is due to the easier schedule the AL Central teams have down the stretch, which we talked about the other day. It’s in that context that makes this series so important. If the Tigers/Royals feast on the likes of the Twins/White Sox, then the M’s may be better off focusing on the reeling Athletics.

I’m still completely befuddled by their collapse. Through July, this team was one of the most complete, one of the most dangerous, we’d seen in a while. The M’s played them tough, but they annihilated everyone else, and their run differential was off the charts. That incredible run differential’s (mostly) intact, as the A’s have turned to losing one-run games instead. Their last SEVEN losses have been one-run affairs, and 10 of their last 30 games in total have been one-run losses. This wasn’t supposed to happen, especially not after the team jettisoned closer-turned-disaster Jim Johnson. The A’s bullpen has the third-best ERA in baseball (the M’s are #1), and have a solid FIP as well. But shift from context-neutral to context-dependent stats like WPA and they fall to the middle of the pack. Why? The A’s relievers have, for whatever reason, given up their runs at the absolute worst possible times. The “meltdown” stat counts games in which a reliever drops his team’s win probability by 6% – this is a more expansive, less arbitrary version of the blown save. Like blown saves, a team should have at least twice as many games in which a reliever ADDS 6% to WPA than those in which they give away 6%. The M’s have the 3rd fewest meltdowns in baseball behind the Padres (who rank 2nd in ERA, and have been excellent all year) and the Royals, who feature one of the most well-known and successful groups of relievers in baseball. The A’s are in 7th, with 9 more meltdowns than the M’s. But focus on the 2nd half, and it gets worse. In the 2nd half, the M’s have a nearly 3:1 ratio of shutdowns to meltdowns, while the A’s are nearly even (21:17). Their bullpen is 26th in win probability added, while the M’s are up in 5th. The A’s offensive struggles get a lot of attention, and in many ways their bullpen numbers overall still look OK, but the pen’s clearly a major part of the A’s slide.*

Their starting pitching was solid, and it’s been even better recently with Jason Hammel’s resurgence. Back on the 1st, he was showing signs of coming out of the slump he’d been in since coming over from Chicago. After a good start against Seattle, he had another versus Houston, bringing his Oakland ERA under 5. That said, he’s still giving up too many HRs, so his FIP remains terrible. I wanted to see if he’s done anything differently in recent weeks, and a few things look like possibilities. First, he’s simplified his pitch mix. Earlier in the year, he threw a four- and two-seam fastball, a slider, a change-up and the occasional curve. In the past month, he’s essentially throwing only fastballs and the slider. That seems like it’d make him vulnerable to lefties, but his splits don’t look too wide, and in fact, they’re pretty normal for his career. The bigger change was that his control got a bit better. He was missing with too many fastballs in July, and that led to bad counts, and that led to extra-base hits. He’s around the zone a bit more now, and while he’s still giving up his share of HRs, his BABIP and OBP-allowed have come down.

I mentioned before that Hammel’s career year came when he switched to a sinker instead of being a four-seam pitcher. In the years since then, he’s steadily gone back to the four-seamer, and thus his GB% has dropped markedly since 2012. A career 44% ground ball guy, his rate topped 52% in 2012, before dropping to under 40% this year. Given his home park – and the park he’s in today – that’s understandable, I suppose, but the M’s need to look for fastballs they can drive. Only five of his 21 HRs overall -and only one of his last nine- have come off of breaking balls/offspeed pitches.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Saunders, RF
7: Zunino, C
8: Morrison, 1B
9: Miller, SS
SP: Paxton

Yesterday’s MLB schedule was marred by a serious injury to the Marlins superstar OF Giancarlo Stanton, who turned into a Mike Fiers fastball and took it on the cheek/mouth. Stanton suffered, “lacerations, facial fractures, dental damage” but has already stated he’d like to return before the end of the season. Dave had just speculated about what kind of contract he might be in the market for should the Marlins lock him up, or if he tests the open market after 2016. Here’s hoping he comes back healthy and effective.

Also at FG, Tony Blengino talked about where the M’s excellent pen ranks with other historically good groups. From that list, it’s extremely hard to stay as hot as the M’s have been for multiple years, though the 2002-2004 Angels managed to stay very good for three years, and the Royals look like they’re on their way to something similar (even if they haven’t been quite as dominant as they were last year).

Welcome back, Dustin Ackley. It was nice to be in the position of wanting Ackley’s bat in the line-up down the stretch, though Saunders’ return meant the M’s didn’t miss too much. Still, this team needs its best line-up on the field in September, and with Ackley healthy, they can do that.

* The A’s are activating their closer, Sean Doolittle, from the DL for today’s game. They can blame injuries for the slide, but even guys with great numbers – like Luke Gregerson – have struggled of late in the closing role.

Game 145, Astros at Mariners

marc w · September 10, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Nick Tropeano, 7:10pm
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 49.6% Baseballprospectus.com: 47.7%

A tough loss against a surprisingly tough pitcher last night, and suddenly the M’s wildcard odds edge below 50%. A part of the issue is the Tigers closing schedule is fairly easy, with seven games against the Twins and another three against the White Sox. The Central teams have an advantage in the very last weeks thanks to the unbalanced schedule and the enduring mediocrity of the AL Central itself. That said, the Royals and Tigers are playing each other at the moment, and thus the M’s have to gain ground on SOMEONE. They’ll face off four more times including tonight’s match-up, which features James Shields and Rick Porcello.

The Mariners hope to get back on track behind #2 starter Hisashi Iwakuma, who’s sustained level of success is nothing short of remarkable. Given his sky-high strand rate and low BABIP in 2013, it really felt like there was no way to go but down. Indeed, his BABIP and strand rate have slipped a bit this year, but he’s compensated by improving his peripherals. He is a phenomenal starter and his acquisition and extension remain the two biggest feathers in this front office’s cap.

Nick Tropeano makes his big league debut tonight for Houston. The righty is a product of Stony Brook, where he put up two fantastic statistical seasons in 2010 and 2011, but fell to the fifth round due to pedestrian stuff. After signing with the Astros, his velocity took a bit of an uptick, and he’s been successful at essentially every level, rising through the lower leagues until spending an entire year at AA in 2013 and the whole year in the PCL in 2014. There’s nothing flashy about him; he flashed slightly above-average velocity in the Arizona Fall League in 2012, but that came in relief and the AFL data’s always a bit weird. He’s earned rave review for his change-up, and he also flashes a slurvy curve ball and, according to many scouts, a splitter. In the AFL, we saw just the four-seam, the change and the curve/slider thingy, and it seems a bit odd to throw BOTH a change and a splitter, but hey, it seems to be working for Tropeano.

He’s a fly-ball pitcher, and when he’s run into trouble in the minors, home runs have largely been to blame. His command may have improved, as his numbers overall look better in AAA than they did in the Texas League, despite the increase in altitude/skill level/video game ballparks. Tropeano reduced his dinger rate, and as a result, became one of the the PCL’s best/most consistent arms this year. He sustained a forearm strain early in the season, but was healthy down the stretch, and thus the Astros summoned him up to become the sixth starter in their rotation through the end of the year. Thanks to the change, he’s not shown much in the way of platoon splits. They’re there, but they haven’t been a major problem; while his K:BB ratio’s a bit worse, he still struck out about a quarter of lefties. All in all, the Astros have to be happy with the development of a guy many thought had a back-of-the-rotation (or 7th inning reliever) ceiling. He hasn’t proven he’s any of those things, but his bounce-back year in the PCL showed he could add some value if he can keep the ball in the park in the American League.

Line-up:
1: Jackson, CF
2: Saunders, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Miller, SS
8: Zunino, C
9: Jones, LF
SP: Iwakuma

You may have seen/heard about the latest skirmish in the long-running battle about WAR, the comprehensive value stat for baseball players. Jeff Passan of Yahoo wrote a pretty good article about the incongruity of seeing Alex Gordon’s name top Mike Trout on the fangraphs leaderboard. Gordon’s value’s propelled in large part due to his defensive numbers, numbers which are out of line with his career averages (which were always good, just not great). Dave’s response was measured, and pointed to Robert Arthur’s work at BP and baseball’s own division of payroll to support the idea that the metrics absolutely need to include defensive numbers to get the total WAR numbers right for position players. Today, Tango (the inventor of WAR) has his own multi-part series explaining what WAR is and responding to criticisms about playing time, position adjustments and defense. It’s worth your time, whatever side of the fence you’re on.

One of the benefits of last night’s game, maybe the only one, was getting a longer look at rookie RP Carson Smith, who threw two great innings. I’ve been a fan of his for years, and think he could be a Zach Britton/Jeremy Affeldt type out of the pen at his peak, thanks to a freakish sinking fastball that should generate top-of-the-charts ground ball rates. He can pair it with a good breaking ball, allowing him to get some strikeouts too. The issue, for a side-arming sinkerballer, is going to be platoon splits. We all worried this would hurt Carter Capps’ ability to close long-term, and then Capps suddenly couldn’t get RIGHTIES out either, a fact that I still can’t quite fathom given his arm angle and velocity. Indeed, Smith’s platoon splits in the minors are fairly wide, though that’s mostly because he gave righties fits. This is also where the GB% can give him something of a cushion – if he can’t miss as many lefty bats, that’s OK as long as they’re hitting grounders. It’s also worth noting that his BABIP in the minors was always quite high, which could just be an artifact of lesser fields and fielders, or it could indicate some issues with hard contact. Still, Smith looks like a good one, and while the M’s don’t really have any vacancies for righties in their pen, having too many good big-league arms is a good problem to have.

Game 144, Astros at Mariners

marc w · September 9, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners

Roenis Elias vs. Collin McHugh, 7:10pm
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 59.3% Baseballprospectus.com: 55.6%

You can see what last night’s comeback win did for the M’s wildcard odds. That was a huge comeback, and while it perhaps shouldn’t have taken a late-innings triple to salvage a game against the Astros started by Felix, a win is a win. Felix was not sharp at all last night; I felt his change-up was missing all over the place (usually down, which is better than missing up) and he got through it by throwing some curves and by being Felix.

Today’s match-up features two of the least-likely average-ish starters in all of baseball. Last year, Collin McHugh was cut by two teams, and in a handful of big league innings, compiled an ERA over 10, and a FIP near 6. He did not make the Astros starting rotation out of spring training, which isn’t quite as damning an indictment of one’s big league prospects as it once was, but is not an encouraging sign. In a few PCL appearances in the beginning of the year he was underwhelming. He came up to make a spot start against the M’s during the M’s spring tailspin and pitched 6 2/3 shutout innings with 12 Ks and no walks. Who the hell is Collin McHugh?

Apparently, the biggest change for him is when a Houston coach told him to scrap his sinker and stick with a four-seam fastball that (apparently) hides his curve ball well. As you’d expect, he doesn’t get too many grounders, but with a good enough fastball (at 92), and a surprisingly effective curve, he’s nearing 3 fWAR on the year.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Chavez, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morales, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Saunders, RF
9: Miller, SS
SP: Elias

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