Game 26, Mariners at Angels

marc w · May 4, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Matt Shoemaker, 7:05pm

Happy Felix Day. We need to stop celebrating these under such dour circumstances, but it’s nice all the same to be able to celebrate after a four-game intra-divisional sweep.

A sweep at the hands of the surging Astros has led to the first roster shake-up of the young season. After the game, the M’s sent Yoervis Medina and Tyler Olson to Tacoma, and have brought up SS/IF Chris Taylor and LHRP Joe Beimel to the big club. As Beimel wasn’t on the 40-man, that means there’s a DFA coming – could be Lucas Luetge, could be moving LHP Edgar Olmos from the 15- to 60-day DL – aaaand the DFA is control-plagued LH starter Mike Kickham, who started yesterday’s Rainiers loss. Taylor’s been hot in Tacoma, and there’s some hope that he can add more with the bat than his so-so projections indicate, but he clearly makes the team a bit more flexible, as he can swap in for Brad Miller as necessary and is a better defensive SS than Bloomquist (and perhaps Miller). The move changes the size of the bench and bullpen, which makes some sense – Taylor’s no one’s idea of a pure bench bat, but it’s just better to be able to play match-ups on the bench as well as the bullpen. [EDIT: the Jackson DL/Lowe call-up re-jiggers things, so it looks like there won't in fact be a shift towards position players. Ah well.]

In addition, CF Austin Jackson’s been placed on the 15 day dl with an ankle injury, and the M’s have brought in old friend Mark Lowe from Tacoma to take his 25-man spot. They still needed to make a 40-man move for *that*, and they’ve decided to place Julio Morban on the restricted list for “personal reasons.” Hmmm.

Ah, Matt Shoemaker. He came up in some of the preseason projection posts, and I was just comparing him to Collin McHugh over the weekend. Shoemaker famously came out of nowhere last year – from an org guy with a plus beard to an above-average AL starting pitcher with a plus splitter. I mentioned earlier that he had some interesting home/road splits; he was dominant at home, and fairly ordinary on the road – like a much more extreme version of Jered Weaver, a guy having his own struggles thus far. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise then that Shoemaker’s struggled in the early going, as he’s made three of his four starts on the road. That said, he gave up 2 road HRs (to the M’s, at Safeco), and gave up 2 at home (to the A’s). While his K:BB ratio is still quite good, it’s not quite where it was last year, and his BABIP is up substantially. As you’d gather from looking at his FIP, Shoemaker hasn’t been as bad as his 6.00 ERA would indicate, but he hasn’t been “an above average AL starting pitcher” either.

Last year, he used a mix of 1/4 four-seamers, 1/4 two-seamers, 1/4 splitters and 1/4 breaking balls (curve/slider). In the early going, he’s throwing a few more FBs, particularly four-seamers, though the difference isn’t huge. If anything, his fastballs have had better results. On the other hand, he gave up more HRs on his splitter in April this year than he did in the entire 2014 season. I don’t see any change in where he’s thrown them – hitters have simply done a bit more damage this year on seemingly identical pitches. The default explanation is that it’s noise – we have no way to disprove that, not with a handful of hits and just 3 HRs on it thus far. But it makes you wonder how far an out-of-nowhere guy can go by being essentially anonymous. Certainly by the end of the year, you’d figure teams would know a bit about Shoemaker’s arsenal and how he deployed it, but do you know how long advanced scouting takes to work? I don’t. It may not be about learning his pitches – it could be some sort of indication (either in tendencies or an outright physical difference in his motion) about what pitch is coming. In any event, it may soon be time for Shoemaker to make further adjustments.

Shoemaker probably can’t simply assume it’s SSS noise, which is one of the reasons why sabermetrics must seem like snake oil to many players. It’d be comforting to hear that a spate of HRs are “unlucky” or “noise” but that may not hold a lot of water with the manager. And the number crunchers probably can’t detect pitch-tipping as quick as a pitching coach/scout. The number-cruncher would simply say that at this stage, there’s no evidence one way or the other. The scout might offer something more immediate, something he can do *right now*. This isn’t to disparage either side – it’s possible the scouts can find something that really can be corrected quickly. It’s also possible the placebo effect of thinking about your motion helps, or that whatever change coincides with some regression, and that is interpreted as proof by the pitcher. Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter, so long as a team’s got multiple people examining an issue from very different viewpoints. We’ll see what Shoemaker’s 2015 turns into. McHugh’s hit some bumps in the road, and has already made a fairly big change – ultimately, he’s looking OK. Will Shoemaker follow suit? If so, let’s hope he waits a week.

1: Smith, DH
2: Ruggiano, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, RF
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Ackley, C
9: Taylor, SS
SP: FELIX.

That’s…not a great defensive OF, but hey, you’ve got Felix on the hill and his ground ball game, so maybe it works out.

Mike Montgomery faces off against ex-Astros pitcher and current Angels prospect Nick Tropeano tonight as the Rainiers face Salt Lake. The R’s lost 6-5 to Fresno yesterday; Chris Taylor was removed from the game after 2 ABs, which is why we’re all essentially assuming he’s been called up. Domingo Santana had a two-HR game for the Grizzlies, the latter a 3 run job that gave Fresno the lead. LHP Mike Kickham’s control problems continued, as he walked 7 in 4IP, bringing his season total to *28 walks* in 21 innings. That’s…problematic, and it’s undoubtedly what moved him to the front of the DFA queue. As a lefty with good velo, he’ll garner some interest, but as a guy who needs a roster spot and just walked 28 in 21 IP, I could see him slip through. We’ll see.

Pensacola shut down the Jackson Generals 5-1 yesterday; the Generals got their lone run in the 9th, after Jabari Blash’s 2nd double of the game. Still no DJ Peterson. The Generals played an early game today in which they nuked the Blue Wahoos 15-4. Blash and Jordy Lara hit HRs, and SS Tyler Smith hit 2 doubles.

Bakersfield got another extra-inning win against Visalia, winning 4-2 in 10, with Tyler Pike having another solid start. Carlos Misell takes the hill today as the Blaze face the Modesto Nuts.

Clinton beat Cedar Rapids 5-2 thanks to another strong start from Pat Peterson and a 3-run HR from Kristian Brito, the husky Puerto Rican 1B the M’s took in the 2012 draft (when they also nabbed Puerto Rican pitcher Edwin Diaz). Lukas Schiraldi gets the ball for the L-Kings today against Peoria.

Game 25, Mariners at Astros

marc w · May 3, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

JA Happ vs. Roberto Hernandez, 11:10am

I for one welcome our new Astros overlords.

The M’s lost their second game in which their offense knocked four HRs, which is at least a novel way of losing games compared to the ways we’ve seen in the recent past. I’m just glad I didn’t talk about McHugh’s newfound HR-suppressing ability in the game thread. The M’s offense, if nothing else, put a lasting bruise on McHugh’s FIP, which had been under 2. Take THAT, Astros.

Today, the Astros go for their 10th straight win. Their last loss came on April 22nd, when JA Happ and the M’s beat Roberto Hernandez’s Astros at Safeco. That game was a fairly sharp pitchers duel, with Hernandez going 7 and giving up 3 runs, but taking the loss. I talked about Hernandez’s grounder-generating stuff and strike-zone avoiding approach last time, so review that if you’re so inclined. It’s still pretty early to tell much about Happ’s adjustments to life in the AL West; he’s thrown a few more change-ups and cutters this year, though that may be due to facing a few more RHBs. Whatever he’s doing, he’s been successful at it. May it continue this morning/afternoon.

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: Happ

While the M’s can’t beat the Astros, the Rainiers have handled the Astros AAA affiliate pretty well. The R’s beat Fresno yesterday 5-1 behind a sharp game from Sam Gaviglio and a 2HR day from Stefen Romero. Joe Beimel pitched two scoreless innings in relief. Today, Mike Kickham takes the hill for the Rainiers – the Grizzlies starter is TBD.

Jackson beat Pensacola 7-4 despite a mediocre start from Misael Siverio. Their second six-run inning in as many days turned things around for the Generals. The M’s got a scare in the 4th when top prospect DJ Peterson was hit by a pitch and had to come out of the game. This is the guy who missed a good chunk of 2013 after being hit in the jaw by a pitch. Hopefully this was just precautionary, and it was actually good to see him tweeting about the big boxing match after the game. Stephen Landazuri starts for the Generals today against Josh Smith.

Bakersfield stopped the red-hot Visalia Rawhide 3-1 behind Dan Altavilla, dropping Visalia’s record to 18-5. Behind 1-0 in the 5th, the Blaze rallied with two outs, getting an RBI double from Ian Miller, and then a huge error on a ball hit by Tyler Marlette scored two runs. Tyler Pike takes the hill today for the Blaze

Clinton lost in 13 innings to Cedar Rapids, 7-6. Gianfranco Wawoe had the day off, but Alex Jackson had a hit in 6 ABs. Today, Pat Peterson, fresh off a 10K performance in his last start, takes the hill.

Game 24, Mariners at Astros

marc w · May 2, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Collin McHugh, 4:10pm

So, the Astros seem to be better than we thought. A few days back, I mentioned that they’d passed the A’s for 3rd highest division odds, and today Fangraphs tweeted a pretty cool graph showing that they’ve passed the Angels as well. Their projected win total now stands at 84, with the M’s at 85. It’s the tight AL West we all expected, just with a different set of contenders. Of course, the projections are still driven in large part by the underlying true-talent estimates of each team. You adjust those based on the first month, but the starting point still matters. That’s why the M’s are still on top in Fangraphs odds, and it’s why the M’s are rapidly falling off the pace according to BP. There, it’s the Angels who were supposed to be the leaders, and they’ve seen their edge slip. BP also saw a tight division, with the leader now projected at 85 wins and the Astros’ charge has upped their projected total to 84. It’s just that the M’s and Angels are flip-flopped. What about Clay Davenport, the projections that had the A’s winning the West? Well, now it’s a mess, with the Astros a tiny fraction of a win ahead of the A’s, and with the M’s and Angels within a game or two. At this point, it’s too soon to write anyone off, except Texas, who are in shambles. But it looks like it’s a four-team mess now, and if the Astros just go .500 the rest of the way, the M’s will need to win 77 of their remaining games to win, a winning percentage of .554 or so. That’s not impossible by any stretch, but the road’s getting harder.

And it’s not getting easier today, with the M’s facing Collin McHugh, who’s having another solid year *despite* giving up a BABIP over .340. Like Matt Shoemaker, McHugh came out of nowhere to post shockingly high K:BB ratios, and both had elite K-BB%, with McHugh finishing one spot ahead of Shoemaker, and just a fraction behind Hisashi Iwakuma. While K rates and walk rates tend to be fairly stable, it’s still tough to know what to make of someone whose own rates had been so volatile. Neither McHugh nor Shoemaker had shown signs that they were capable of this in the minors, and of course McHugh had been knocked around and waived by a few NL teams already. This year, Shoemaker’s K-BB% is still pretty solid, but it’s fallen back to 15% from the 18+% it was at last year. McHugh’s, however, continues to rise, and it’s above 19% now.

To be clear, 19% is really, really good, but it’s not Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Felix Hernandez good. That’s OK, I think even McHugh would acknowledge he’s not in that class. Instead, it’s a testament to what he’s able to do without nuclear-grade stuff. Shoemaker and Iwakuma use a splitter to get weak contact and whiffs while avoiding the middle of the plate. McHugh, as we talked about last time, has become a crafty junkballer, throwing a blizzard of sliders and curves – keeping them in the zone when he wants, and expanding the zone with two strikes. McHugh now throws a fastball only 1/4 of his pitches, and essentially uses his slider as his primary pitch. No one in baseball pitches this way, unless you include knuckleballers.

But both of today’s pitchers bring up the question of how and where you set the boundaries between pitch types. What IS a slider, and how is it different from a cutter? If you include cutters, there are plenty of pitchers who use them as a primary pitch – the M’s just saw one the other day in Scott Feldman. If you see McHugh’s slider as a sort of cutter, then his pitch mix doesn’t look so remarkable. McHugh’s “slider” is thrown quite hard, with only about a 5mph gap between it and his four-seam fastball. It’s got a different shape than Feldman’s, so he may use it a bit differently, but you can argue they’re different versions of the same strategy. With Taijuan Walker, we heard a lot about how he was shifting to a true slider from his hard (91mph) cutter. Thus far, his slider/cutter thingy is *still* 91mph, and damn if I can see much of any change in its break (OK, OK – it has 1″ more horizontal movement). What you call it ultimately doesn’t matter as much as what you want to do with it. Walker still pitches off his 96mph fastball, and uses the cutter/slider thingy as a breaking ball to righties, just as you would a slider. McHugh’s slider-y/cutter thing is his primary pitch to lefties and righties alike, and mixed in four-seamers and curves to both (with a change-up for lefties). That’s what, say, Scott Feldman or the old version of Brandon McCarthy would do with their cutters. I don’t know what we’ve proven here except that language is malleable and can conceal/confuse as much as it can reveal. That’s pretty heady stuff for a Saturday morning.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Smith, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Weeks, LF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: Walker

The M’s are six games back. The furthest back the Angels got last year was also 6 games, back when the Athletics looked like they were going to rip off 110 wins. The year before, the A’s got to 7 games back before going on a tear to reel in the Rangers. Back in 2012, the A’s started slowly, falling 13 games behind the high-flying Rangers before essentially not losing in the 2nd half to win. Those three years all had a dominant team or two, and the winning club won at least 94. It might be easier to come back if you don’t need to go 51-25 like the A’s in 2012 or beat another club winning 90+, but man, I’d like the M’s to avoid falling 7 back. I guess the positive to take from this brief review is that there was a team in each year that flew out of the gates and built a big lead only to lose it in the season’s second half.

The Rainiers won 2-0 last night against Fresno, with Justin Germano throwing 5 1/3 excellent innings in the spot start, and…look, you know what you’re for, I know what you’re here for, let’s cut to the chase. Jesus Montero stole home. Once again, the Rainiers pulled off a double steal, with Jesus Montero, the one you remember, not some other one, but Jesus ACTUALLY Montero stole home. Here you go. Tacoma faces the Grizzlies again today with Sam Gaviglio on the hill.

The story in Jackson was the return of lefty Danny Hultzen. Hultzen made his 2015 debut against Pensacola and Robert Stephenson, and pitched 3 1/3 innings, giving up an unearned run with 4 Ks and 3 hits. The Generals knocked out Stephenson in the first, scoring six runs. DJ Peterson doubled in the first, then knocked a solo HR in the 2nd. Cuban southpaw Misael Siverio starts for the Generals today opposite Daniel Wright, a 10th round pick who put up 141 Ks to 22 walks last year across two levels, but who’s struggled a bit in his first taste of the high minors.*

Ryan Yarbrough struggled for Bakersfield, giving up 7 runs on 7 hits in 3 2/3 IP as Visalia put out the Blaze 9-2. Tim Lopes went 2-4 with a 2B, and continues to rebound from a slow start. Dan Altavilla starts today against Visalia, with Blayne Weller taking the mound for the Rawhide. Weller’s an org guy – at 25, he’s making his second go-round in High-A, and that’s as high as he’s been. While his overall numbers aren’t great, he’s a remarkably streaky pitcher who misses tons of bats. He joined the D-Backs org in 2013 out of the independent Frontier League, and struck out 61 in 60 IP. Nothing out of the ordinary there. But last year, he K’d 161 in just 120 IP. He started in the midwest league, and threw a no-hitter in his final game, racking up 12 Ks. He was then promoted to the Cal League, where his K rate actually went up, punctuated with 16 strikeouts in an 8 inning start against Modesto. In his next start, he couldn’t make it out of the 3rd, giving up 7 runs, and walking 3 against 2Ks. If he could harness his stuff, he wouldn’t be in the Cal League at 25, but he’s not your typical org depth.

It’s tough to get noticed on a day when Danny Hultzen makes his return to the minors after 20 months, or when Jesus Montero steals home. To get the attention of M’s fans, the Lumberkings would need to do something special. Well, they managed it. Clinton threw a combined no hitter at the Cedar Rapids Kernels, with Danial Missaki, the Brazilian prospect-who-is-not-Luiz-Gohara starting and going 7 IP with 7 Ks. He was perfect through 6, but walked a man in the 7th, then pitched around it. Kody Kerski pitched a 1-2-3 8th, and then Troy Scott finished things off in the 9th. With two outs and a 2-2 count, Scott thought he’d rung up Tanner English, then *really* thought he had him at 3-2, but the umpire called ball 4. No matter – Scott K’d Nick Gordon and that was that, the first combined no-no for Clinton since 1996, and the first no-hitter since Victor Sanchez threw one in 2013 aaaand now I’m sad again. Missaki now has a 30:4 K:BB ratio on the year in 29 1/3 IP. Tyler Herb starts for Clinton today in Cedar Rapids against hard-throwing Twins prospect Michael Cederoth. Cederoth got lots of scouting attention at San Diego State thanks to a high-90s fastball and the makings of a change-up, but struggled with his control in his sophomore year (he went 3-9, too). A move to the bullpen helped, but that sent him down the draft board, and the Twins got him in the 3rd round, and promptly moved him back to the rotation.

* Like a number of guys with gaudy K:BB ratios, Wright had some hidden free passes – he also plunked 11 batters. Ryan Yarbrough’s hit three to go with his four walks, meaning he’s given up one more free pass this year than he did in his remarkable 2014 with Everett, when he had 53Ks, 4BBs and 2 HBPs. This year, it’s 17Ks, 4BBs and 3 HBPs.

Game 23, Mariners at Astros

marc w · May 1, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Roenis Elias vs. Sam Deduno, 5:10pm

Not only did the M’s drop yesterday’s game in extras, but they lost Carlos Quentin, who left the Tacoma Rainiers two days ago and is now officially retiring. That obviously sounds worse than it is – Quentin was stuck behind Jesus Montero, Pat Kivlehan and Chris Taylor as likely RHH call-ups, and he needed to absolutely mash to have any shot. He didn’t absolutely mash, and he’s going to spend more time with his family, which is admirable, and something I should probably do myself. And the game, while frustrating, offered a few rays of hope. Yesterday was James Paxton’s best start of the year, combining some swing-and-miss stuff with command that, if not exactly plus, was good enough to get grounders and stay out of trouble. With Hisashi Iwakuma hobbled a bit, it’s imperative that the Rainiers get some production from Tai Walker and James Paxton, and both showed real promise in their last outings. Roenis Elias, essentially the #6 starter on the 40-man, can’t replace Paxton if he’s already replacing Iwakuma, so it’s nice to see continued signs of a James Paxton that isn’t in imminent need of rescuing.

Today, Elias faces off against righty Sam Deduno, who has always fascinated me more than an ex-Twins pitcher without a lot of control or bat-missing ability should. As you know, I talk about each pitcher’s arsenal through a pitch fx lens, and as a result, you get pretty familiar with the ranges you expect to see. FB velocity is generally in that 89-96 range, and thus, if someone’s outside of that 1-2 standard deviation range, you notice it. Well, Sam Deduno’s fastball is a pretty rare bird. It’s (appropriately) classed as a four-seam fastball, and has essentially no horizontal movement. It some in at 89-90, but it has essentially zero rise. Its vertical movement is like nothing I’ve seen before, and so I always kind of look forward to seeing the guy (another example of how this job really messes with your head – you look forward to a guy with a career walk rate of 11% because his vertical movement numbers are pleasingly puzzling).

A fastball, and in particular one without horizontal movement, typically has a lot of backspin on it. Imagine the ball coming off of your hand, and how your fingers and wrists point down after release – that motion creates backspin, and it’s that spin that means that a fastball doesn’t fall as much as it would if it had no spin. This is where the “vertical movement” number comes from in the first place – it’s the difference between where the ball would’ve been with no spin, and where it is WITH all that backspin. Guys who throw straight over the top, like James Paxton or Chris Tillman, typically impart a ton of vertical movement because essentially *all* of the spin is going in the same direction – there’s not much sidespin, all the force is creating backspin. Carson Smith, on the other hand, has a funky sidearm delivery, and thus tons of side spin, so he gets much more horizontal movement on the ball, with relatively little rise (this is more true of his sinker; even Carson Smith’s four-seamer, which he very rarely throws, has about twice as much ‘rise’ as Deduno’s). So how do you get a baseball to go 90mph, straight ahead (with little to no horizontal movement), without just heaps of backspin? I still don’t know. Felix Hernandez’s four-seamer used to look something like this – particularly a few years back. But with 6-8″ of rise, and more horizontal movement, it’s not a particularly useful comparison. Anyway, I’m hoping now with statcast data around that we might start to learn more about what he does – I assume that he simply imparts much less spin than normal, but it’d be nice to know exactly how much less, and how/why he does that. His old catcher Joe Mauer has said that his FB moves like a knuckler, and if it’s got very low spin, you can kind of squint and see what he means. On the other hand, Deduno’s always dealt with injuries – he had TJ in the minors and has missed bits of pieces of several seasons. Is THAT partially the result of his motion? No idea, and it’s essentially impossible to find out. Still, I’d love to see what statcast has to say about the guy – that and an extreme slow-mo shot of his delivery.

As you’d expect with a ball that appears to sink more than normal, Deduno’s typically been a ground-ball pitcher, with a career rate of about 57%. Walks have killed him though, and without Ks to balance them, it’s pretty easy to see why his FIP’s 4.51. His career platoon splits are reversed, but he hasn’t pitched enough for that to be definitive proof of anything. They’re driven by some HR problems he had with righties for a while; righties have fared much better on Deduno’s fastball. But he didn’t have reversed splits last season, and hasn’t shown them this year either, and his HR issues have been much better since his first few call-ups. That’s not to say he’s “normal” – this is Deduno we’re talking about – but it’s probably better to assume he’s got smaller than normal splits than to think stacking the line-up with righties makes sense.

1: Smith, RF
2: Jackson, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Miller, SS
8: Ackley, LF
9: Sucre, C
SP: Elias

The suddenly Quentin-less Rainiers dominated the Fresno Grizzlies yesterday, torching the rehabbing Brett Oberholtzer (that name just cries out for umlauts) for 7 runs in the first inning. The R’s just held on until they exploded again for 6 runs off Alex White, the guy who was supposed to start. It ended up at 13-3, with Chris Taylor staying hot, going 2-4 with a 2B, and Jesus Montero and Franklin Gutierrez also chipping in with 2 hits. Stefen Romero had 3, and the R’s got HRs from Julio Morban and Carlos Rivero. Jordan Pries got the easy win, and Logan Bawcom pitched another sharp 2IP in relief – the Texan had a terrible year last year, which ended in him losing his 40-man spot this December. He’s been better so far, and hasn’t given up a run in his last 5 games, covering 9 1/3 IP, and he’s missing a few more bats than he did in 2014. Today, Justin Germano gets a spot start against the Grizzlies and lefty starter Luis Cruz.

The big story in the minors today is Danny Hultzen, who’ll be making his first appearance of the season for Jackson as the Generals face Pensacola. He’ll face off with Reds prospect Robert Stephenson, a fireballing 22 year old who cruised through the low minors, but had an inconsistent season in AA last year. This is one to watch if you’ve got MiLB.tv, though it starts 5 min. before the M’s game. Two screens, people. Pensacola beat Jackson 3-1 yesterday, as ex-Padres prospect Keyvius Samson threw 4 solid innings. Spot starter Jimmy Gilheeney was pretty good, but took the loss. DJ Peterson went 0-4.

Ryan Yarbrough starts for Bakersfield as they face Visalia for the first time.

Daniel Missaki gets the ball for Clinton, who ALSO get to face a new team – the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

Game 22, Mariners at Astros

marc w · April 30, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Scott Feldman, 5:10pm

That certainly feels better, and it’s hard not to come away from the Texas series with the impression that the pitching staff is rounding into form a bit. The related, but much less encouraging, observation is hooooly crap, the Rangers are awful. The M’s swept the Rangers in Arlington, behind an out-of-sorts Tai Walker (who at least looked much better than he had), JA Happ (ok, Happ looked pretty good), and a King Felix pretty obviously cruising along at about 70% of maximum efficiency.

Today, the M’s head to Houston to face the division-leading Astros. As I mentioned yesterday, the division is no longer a two- or three-team race. The Astros weren’t supposed to be, you know, GOOD, but they’ve got 14 wins thus far that can’t be retracted. That’s pushed them from the fringes of the race right into the thick of it, as BP now has their odds at winning the division identical to the M’s. The projected final records are off by a fraction of a win. Fangraphs’ odds still show the M’s as the clear favorite, but the picture’s similar - the Astros have essentially eliminated the gap between themselves and the Angels, and have already left the Athletics in the dust. Is this luck? A hot streak? Or signs of a rebuild coming together?

Even in the preseason, the Astros looked incredibly balanced. They lacked big-time stars, but they seemed to have very few of the sinkhole positions that’ve killed recent M’s teams. As you might expect, their actual production’s been a lot more volatile/variable. Despite abysmal showings from their two-headed DH monster of Chris Carter and Evan Gattis,* the Astros still rank 5th in baseball in battting.

Perhaps more surprisingly, they’re third in baseball in ERA and sixth in FIP. Given the out-of-nowhere breakouts by Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh last year, the Astros were one of the tougher teams to project. The same was more or less true of the Indians, but given the Tribe’s huge advantages in strikeouts, velocity and stuff, they seemed like a safer bet to hold on to their gains. In actuality, it’s the Astros who have an advantage in FIP (albeit a tiny one), and a huge advantage in runs allowed. As you may have heard, the Indians have been undone by their defense, who’s team defensive efficiency is an obscene .642, which is far, far worse than any team in recent history. At the other end of that team DER table? Yep, the Astros. Maybe it’s better to talk about the Astros’ run prevention as opposed to just “their pitching staff” but the overall results have been quite good.

Scott Feldman, tonight’s starter, is a veteran righty who signed a three-year deal with the Astros when they were at a low ebb in their rebuild. He’s largely done what’s been asked – been a steady, unremarkable, healthy starter who overcomes a poor strikeout rate by pounding the zone and getting some ground balls. Feldman came up with the Rangers, and had some so-so years out of the bullpen in his early 20s. At 25, he got a chance to start, and it didn’t go well. His K rate plummeted, his walk rate increased, and he wasn’t getting ground balls like he used to. In Texas, that’s a bad combination. However he did it, he came back the next year and went 17-8, and despite a so-so K:BB ratio, he kept the ball in the ballpark and had a solid year in a tough environment. He did it with an interesting pitch mix – a sinker, a cutter and a curve. He’s got a change, but by and large, he’s a three pitch pitcher, and he’s had the same approach now for many years.** He uses it pretty much as you’d expect, with righties getting a lot of sinkers, curves and the odd cutter, and lefties seeing the cutter, curve and occasional change.

Feldman doesn’t have much in the way of platoon splits, but the ones he has are kind of interesting – over 2000 batters faced from either side, lefties have hit *worse* off of him than righties. The gap – which is there in pure wOBA/batting lines as well as FIP – is largely the result of home runs. Lefties have hit 14 fewer HRs off of him than righties in a bit more than 100 *more* plate appearances. And getting more granular than that, the home run gap is itself centered on Feldman’s curve. In his career, he’s thrown just shy of 2,000 curve balls to lefties, and they’ve managed 5 HRs on the pitch. Righties have seen just a hair *over* 2,000 curve balls, and they’ve hit 22 HRs on it. If Cruz can recognize the pitch, he can do some damage on it.

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

Tacoma opens a series with Fresno, Houston’s new AAA affiliate, today with Jordan Pries facing off against Alex White, the first-rounder that went from Cleveland to Colorado (along with Drew Pomeranz) in the Ubaldo Jimenez deal years ago.

Jimmy Gilheeney gets a spot start for Jackson against Pensacola tonight. Gilheeney’s been excellent as the Generals long-man in the pen, and he’s got years of starting experience.

Bakersfield’s off today.

Clinton had another early one against Wisconsin today, and they came out on the losing side of a 3-1 score. Jefferson Medina struck out 9 in 5 IP, and Gianfranco Wawoe’s hitting streak continued, but other than that, the L-Kings couldn’t figure out the TimberRattlers pitchers. Alex Jackson went 0-4, and is now 0 for his last 17.

* Carter also gets a lot of PAs at 1B, where he teams up with Marwin Gonzalez to form another chimera of ineptitude. I say this not to suggest that Carter’s worthless…I said that years ago, and he’s done OK for himself. Still, the Astros have actually HAD black holes at DH and 1B and they’re STILL a good hitting team. If Carter and Gattis climb out of this early hole, the team could be even better.

** This approach caught the eye of his teammate in Texas, Brandon McCarthy, who modeled his own sinker/cutter shift on Feldman at the end of McCarthy’s Rangers tenure.

Podcast: Mariners Sweep

Matthew Carruth · April 30, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

We again make fun of Jered Weaver; we again gush over Felix; I make the case that the Mariners are in first place; there’s some more ding-donger talk; we get around to the Josh Hamilton trade. Those are some of the topics!

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 21, Mariners at Rangers

marc w · April 29, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Wandy Rodriguez, 5:05pm

Happy Felix Day. This is more like it – King Felix on the hill, going for a series sweep. Such a different feeling than King Felix, heroically trying to stop a losing streak almost single-handedly.

The Rangers were projected to be terrible, and for as much as you-can’t-predict-baseball remains true, it’s nice to see some confirmation every now and again. The Rangers have a wRC+ of 71 as a team, or a bit worse than Derek Jeter hit last year. Their staff’s xFIP is 4.19, and they’ve already dealt with injuries to Derek Holland and Yu Darvish. It’s those injuries that have allowed former Astro Wandy Rodriguez another shot in MLB.

The lefty was a minor star with Houston, making his debut in their pennant-winning 2005 team, and racking up some 3-4 WAR seasons from 2007 to 2010. In 2011, he was traded to Pittsburgh, and that’s where the wheels came off. He dealt with minor injuries here and there, but lost his effectiveness pretty dramatically in 2014. The Pirates cut him, despite him having one of their richest contracts, in May of last year. This December, he signed a minor league deal with the dumpster-fire Phillies, but failed a physical. He signed another minor league deal with the Braves, but was cut early this month. The Rangers are trying to resuscitate the lefty’s career, and he actually won his first start against the Angels. The Rangers are risking nothing here, and he may soak up some meaningless innings to save development time for the Rangers’ prospects (or just kill time until Holland’s healthy). But man, these are the games you target as an opponent.

Rodriguez was always a fastball/curve guy. He’s got a four-seamer with tons of vertical rise, a sinker, and that big curve. He’s also got a change-up that he’s used pretty sparingly. His arsenal shouldn’t produce a ton of platoon splits, and that’s what we see – when he was good, they’d be normal, even, or even reversed, and when he was awful, he was an equal-opportunity offender. This isn’t a case where the M’s need to really overload their line-up, though if they do, that’s not the end of the world.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ruggiano, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Weeks, LF
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Bloomquist, 3B
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: King. Felix.

I know, I know, it’s not the end of the world, but man, the line-up looks different when Bloomquist replaces Seager. It’s equally true that Seager’s played nearly 150 straight games and the M’s really *should* give him more days off.

Apropos of nothing, Chris Taylor hit another double last night. Just…throwing that out there. The Rainiers lost the game 3-1 to Sacramento, however, wasting a pretty good pitching performance from Mike Montgomery. The lefty gave up doubles to ex-Mariner SS Carlos Triunfel AND Ronny Cedeno. The Rainiers have a well-earned travel day today.

Jackson beat Montgomery again 7-6 in 10 innings. DJ Peterson is showing some signs of life, going 2-4 with a double. The two clubs played an early one today on getaway day, and Jackson *again* nipped the Biscuits with a late-inning comeback. Today, DJ Peterson racked up yet another double, part of a 2-5 day. More, please. The star of the day was reliever Trevor Miller, who pitched 3 1/3 IP in the middle of the game, giving up no runs and striking out 7.

Bakersfield lost to Stockton 5-3, but I’d like to tip my cap to Tyler Pike who, while hit fairly hard, struck out 5 and walked only 1 in 5 IP. He was opposed by rehabbing A’s star Jarrod Parker, but the Blaze got to the lefty, scoring 3 runs in 5 IP, with Justin Seager picking up a 2B. Today, Edwin Diaz pitched six more brilliant innings, striking out 7 and giving 3 hits, 1 walk and no runs. The Blaze beat the Ports 2-1 on a Luis Caballero walk-off single in the 9th.

Clinton beat Wisconsin 7-2, behind a good start from Pat Peterson, who struck out 10 in 5 IP. Arby Fields homered for the L-Kings, and Gianfranco Wawoe extended his hitting streak to 13. Today, the TimberRattlers got their revenge, clubbing Clinton 10-2. Lukas Schiraldi was bad, and Osmer Morales was equally bad in relief. Joe DeCarlo had a good game at the plate, and yes, Gianfranco Wawoe got another hit and two walks. His slash line is now .365/.443/.500.

Game 20, Mariners at Rangers

marc w · April 28, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

JA Happ vs. Ross Detwiler, 5:05pm

Now that’s more like it, Taijuan. Armed with better command, Walker carved up the Rangers line-up, and while the Rangers aren’t exactly Murderer’s Row, they had enough lefties to give someone like Walker fits. That they didn’t is very good news. Early on, he used his curve ball, and that seemed like a good change of pace, but then he put it away and stuck with his FB/cutter and change (the M’s announcers mentioned that he used his curve more, but he only threw 4 on the day). To me, the biggest takeaway was that Walker was able to find a pitch that worked when he didn’t have his best stuff. Against the Rangers’ lefties, I expected that pitch to be his splitter, but unfortunately, the splitter is still a work in progress – it was better than it’s been, and he gave up some hard contact even when he put it where he wanted to (like Rougned Odor’s single), but it’s simply not fooling anyone, and I’m still not sure why. That said, his cutter picked up the slack, and he felt comfortable using it against lefties – the strikeout of Choo in the 2nd, for example, or the double play that Leonys Martin hit into. Put it all together, and Walker had his second best career start, and he did it essentially without a change-up and using his curve 4 times total. I’d still like to see what he could do with three or four pitches functioning at the same time, but it’s nice to know he doesn’t HAVE to have that to win.

The M’s face Ross Detwiler, the guy who started the great 11-10 comeback game 9 days ago. As I mentioned then, Detwiler’s got massive platoon splits, with righties hitting .282/.347/.446 off of him in his career. This year, their wOBA is a Nelson-Cruz-inflated .523. He hasn’t pitched since that wild game at Safeco, and he’s given up 18 runs in 12+ innings – it’s not like Texas has a lot of good alternatives, but you’ve got to assume he’s another bad start or two from swapping roles with a current reliever. The M’s will try to hasten that along with their righty-centric line-up.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ruggiano, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Weeks, LF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Miller, SS
9: Zunino, C
SP: Happ

The Rainiers lost 6-5 to Sacramento in extra innings last night, failing to hold a few late leads. Ronny Cedeno tied the game with a HR off of Joe Saunders in the bottom of the 8th to send it to extras. I love the PCL sometimes because of blasts from the recent pasts like that, perhaps the most 2009 sentence you’ll read on this blog all year. Chris Taylor went 3-5 with a 2B and 3B, while Carlos Quentin went 2-3 before being lifted for a pinch runner. Mike Montgomery starts today against Austin Fleet.

Jackson was on the other end of a late comeback, scoring 4 runs over the final two innings to beat Montgomery 5-4. Stephen Landazuri was sharp in the early going, and then the line-up bailed the Generals out after some shaky relief work in the middle innings. Gabby Guerrero had two hits and Dario Pizzano three. Lefty Kyle Hunter starts today for the Generals.

Bakersfield lost to Stockton 9-4, as starter Paul Fry recorded only a single out, giving up 5 runs on 6 hits. Tyler Marlette went 2-5 with a HR, and 2B/SS Brock Hebert pitched a scoreless inning in relief – the only Blaze pitcher not to yield a run. Tyler Pike starts today, and maybe *this* will be the start where his control clicks back into place. I know I’ve been saying that for the best part of a year now. Annnnny day now.

Clinton faces ex-M’s affiliate Wisconsin today. Pat Peterson starts for the L-Kings, and David Burkhalter goes for the TimberRattlers.

Game 19, Mariners at Rangers….Maybe

marc w · April 27, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Yovani Gallardo, 5:05pm

The thunder storms that plagued the Dallas metro area last night (forcing the M’s plane to divert to San Antonio) are still in the area, so it’s not clear that the M’s will get this one off. If they do, it’s something of a big series. First, Texas just signed LF Josh Hamilton, after the Angels/Rangers and players union agreed on a split of Hamilton’s remaining contract. The Angels are still on the hook for most of it, but Texas will pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $7m for the remainder of Hamilton’s deal. Initially, it seemed like all parties would agree to write down some of the $83m total that Hamilton’s still owed. It now looks like that isn’t the case - it’s just that Hamilton is taking “less” because he’s paying income tax on the deal. He receives less money than if he’d signed the deal with Texas (which has no state income tax) in the first place, but that’s quite a bit different from Hamilton – or the Angels – taking less than he’s owed. Hamilton won’t be suiting up in this series; he’s going to do some work at extended spring training and then may go on a rehab assignment in the minors. It’s still a big deal in the AL West, and it will eventually give Texas more options in LF. Texas is doing pretty well for themselves here, though it’s worth remembering how close the M’s came to signing Hamilton to an ill-considered contract. Yeesh.

Second, the M’s come in with the AL West even more muddled than it was before the season started. Their poor homestand hasn’t hurt their playoff odds as much as you’d think, largely because the Angels and A’s haven’t taken advantage. But what we do see is Houston’s playoff odds have gotten off the floor, and are now higher (by Fangraphs) than Oakland’s were on opening day. The Astros gain has come from the supposed front-runners, and while they’re clearly still the underdog, it’s kind of stunning that there are four teams in the running, even in the early going. If you look at BP’s playoff odds, the picture’s a bit different. Because BP had the Angels as the clear favorite, the fact that the M’s have had a poor start hurts them more – they’ve dropped 10% of playoff odds in the past week, and have seen their odds of winning the division fall below 20% – just 4+ percentage points ahead of Houston. You can quibble with one or the other, and you can quibble with the idea of even looking at such things so early, but the M’s had a chance to rack up wins against some of their weaker opponents, and couldn’t. However, their chance isn’t entirely gone. A run against Texas, Houston and LA would help quite a bit.

And that’s where Taijuan Walker comes in. Despite some improvements in his last start, the M’s haven’t won any of the games he’s started, and while he battled a bit more, his command still hasn’t really shown up. A big part of the M’s struggles can be laid at the feet of some poor pitching performances, Walker’s among them. I’ve mentioned that his BABIP is due to come down purely due to regression, but Walker can help matters by locating his pitches and getting batters to chase. It’s interesting that for all of Walker’s raw stuff, he’s never generated even average chase numbers – his contact rate’s better than average, so this isn’t the kiss of death, but a guy with a 95mph fastball and even a decent split should do pretty well in oSwing. I’d love to think someone’s looking at his arm action really carefully to see if he’s giving the change/splitter away – and I’d love it even more if the person looking really closely worked for the M’s.

I’ve written more about Yovani Gallardo this year than I ever thought I would, so if you’d like a crash course, check out the game preview here, or this look in spring training. Thus far, his numbers have been pretty good. His K% is up, and while yes, he has faced the whiff-tastic Astros, but the other 3 teams are average or better. His HR rate is high, but that’s always going to be part of his game, and his strand rate doesn’t look out of line with his career numbers. I’d imagined that the transition to the AL would’ve been tougher than it’s been to date, but that could always change. Here’s the line-up that will go about trying to change it:

1: Ruggiano, CF
2: Smith, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Weeks, LF
7: Miller, SS
8: Bloomquist, 1B
9: Zunino, C
SP: Walker

Tarp on the field, rain in the air…I don’t have a good feeling about this, but we’ll see.

I know Gallardo hasn’t had much in the way of platoon splits, but that’s a remarkably right-handed line-up. It’s not like even small-sample hitter-vs-pitcher stats are to blame, given Weeks has never faced him (they’ve spent their careers up to 2015 as teammates). Lomo’s probably out because he’s 1-16 against him, but Bloomquist is 2-14, and Lomo at least had two walks. I can understand giving a night off to Ackley, but the Rangers have two lefties scheduled to start Tuesday and Wednesday’s games.

Mike Kickham, Steven Landazuri and Carlos Misell get the starts in AAA, AA and A+ tongiht – Clinton’s got a day off after they got swept in a double-header (technically, a game and a continuation) yesterday.

The Rainiers sputtered to a 6-2 defeat in Sacramento, as Chris Taylor and Carlos Quentin both went 0-4, while starter Sam Gaviglio got knocked around, giving up two home…you’ve stopped reading, haven’t you?

Jackson lost to Montgomery 3-2, and starter Austin Pruitt, who was very sharp against the Generals – he faced the minimum through 5. DJ Peterson was 0-4 with 3 Ks, dropping his season line to .179/.242/.196. Misael Siverio put together another fine start in a losing effort; he’s now given up only 7 H and 2 R in 16 1/3 IP and has a 15:4 K:BB ratio.

Bakersfield lost to San Jose, with Dan Altivilla taking the loss after walking 4 (to 2 strikeouts) in 4 2/3 IP. Trey Cochran-Gill gave up his second run of the year in relief as well. Tyler O’Neill continues to move past his early struggles, and went 2-4 with a double.

Game 18, Twins at Mariners

marc w · April 26, 2015 · Filed Under Mariners

Roenis Elias vs. Kyle Gibson, 1:10pm

James Paxton couldn’t overcome some errors, and while I agree with Lloyd McClendon that his start showed some improvement, the M’s are still 7-10, and Paxton’s numbers are still ugly. Of interest is his strand rate, which is currently below 50%. As you might imagine, this is in turn the product of his incredibly poor results with men on base. With nobody on, Paxton’s giving up a .208/.250/.377 slash line. As soon as someone gets on base, that plummets to .412/.477/.618. He’s been terrible with two outs as well, though that may be the result of one awful inning against Texas. Still, it makes you wonder if there’s something out of whack when he’s in the stretch. His HR rate is elevated, but while it’ll likely come down, we’re getting close to having to say that his previous record of HR *suppression* was more small-sample-oddity than real, lasting skill. Hope I’m wrong there.

Today, the M’s look to win the series behind Roenis Elias, just called up from Tacoma after yesterday’s game. As you probably know, Hisashi Iwakuma was placed on the 15-day DL with a lat injury, but he’s having an MRI on his shoulder, so that’s….that’s just fantastic. Elias was one of the surprises of 2014, but he was so so in the spring, and he’s been a bit worse than that in three starts for Tacoma. The Cuban lefty’s given up 21 hits in 15 2/3 IP, along with three HRs – one for each start. Last year, Elias was good enough against righties despite a low 3/4 delivery that *looked* like it would make his pitches easier for righties to track. He gave lefties fits, often dropping down to make his arm angle even more extreme, but it was his performance against righties that enabled a very solid 1.3 fWAR year. It could mean nothing, and it could be the result of working on specific pitches, but AAA righties have dominated Elias in the early going, and that’ll be something to look for today. Elias remains a great option for the rotation. Not every team can recall a guy who pitched 163 *good* big league innings last year. It’s just that this isn’t the way the M’s wanted to deploy Elias, and there’s now a bit more pressure on Taijuan Walker, as there’s no one else on the 40-man who could conceivably slot in. Making a 40-man move isn’t the end of the world, and pitchers get hurt all the time, but the pitching depth drops off markedly after Elias, and you’d hate to require a DFA just to bring in someone the team didn’t think was ready.

Kyle Gibson is a ground-balling righty with a sinker, a change and a slider. His fastball sits around 92 and has good arm-side run, but, as with everything Gibson throws, the intent is poor contact, not whiffs. In the minors, Gibson was something of a strikeout pitcher, with K% over 20% most everywhere, and over 21% in two long stints in AAA. Upon his call-up, though, the K’s were essentially gone – his K% hit 14% last year, a bit higher than the 12% he managed in 2013. This year, he’s K’d 3 of the 73 batters he’s faced, or 4%. Worse, he’s walked 9 and plunked another. Grounders can help you pitch around some control problems, but Gibson’s GB% is down as well in 2015 – all in all, it’s not been a great start to the year for Gibson. That’s a bit surprising, given that there were reports in the off-season and spring that Gibson’s velocity was up, and he had a solid spring, leading the Twins in strikeouts. It’s actually nice to see the whole “great spring, regular season face plant” thing happen to other teams too. For a sinker guy, he’s had relatively minor platoon split issues, but this does seem like a good spot for the M’s lefties.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Smith, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Ackley, LF
8: Miller, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Elias

With Elias on his way up, Forrest Snow got a spot start last night for Tacoma and pitched well, as the Rainiers downed Sacramento 6-1. Snow went 4 2/3 allowing a run on 5 hits and no walks, while striking out 4. Joe Beimel pitched an inning, and then Logan Bawcom closed it out. Chris Taylor went 2-4, and John Hicks had a big double to help the offense. Sam Gaviglio starts today against Ty Blach.

Montgomery downed Jackson 7-4, as Dylan Unsworth gave up 5 runs in 2 IP. DJ Peterson had three hits for the Generals, though all were singles. Misael Siverio leads the Generals today, with Montgomery countering with mustached righty Austin Pruitt.

Bakersfield twirled yet another shutout, their 5th on the year, to beat San Jose 3-0. Ryan Yarbrough went 6 for the win, and Tyler O’Neill supplied the offense with a three-run HR. Bakersfield, who plays in the Cal League, in a park where the CF wall is 354′ away, now has a team ERA below 3.00. Dan Altavilla starts today against San Jose’s Nick Vander Tuig.

Clinton dropped a 4-3 contest to Beloit, though Gianfranco Wawoe’s hitting streak remains intact. Wawoe’s hitting .349/.417/.512 on the year in a pitcher-friendly league. Clinton plays a double header today, with Daniel Missaki and Tyler Herb starting.

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