Game 59, Twins at Mariners – Paxton *and* Felix Day

marc w · June 6, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Hector Santiago, 7:10pm

Happy Felix Day. And also, Happy Paxton Day.

The M’s welcome the strangely successful Twins to town, and the M’s have their ace on the mound in what certainly looks like a lopsided pitching match-up. Equally importantly, Felix Hernandez makes his first rehab start 30 miles south in Tacoma. To really work, to be a team that’s capable of making up a bunch of ground in a thick field of wild card contenders, the M’s need both of these pitchers healthy and effective. Tonight’s an important night, then.

To start with the big league club, the M’s face the surprising leaders of the AL Central – a team that finds itself in first despite a pitching staff that ranks last in the AL in HR/9, last in K% and K-BB%, and – perhaps unsurprisingly – last in FIP. As a staff, the Twins get far fewer grounders and lots more fly balls than average. As mentioned, they don’t strike people out, so combining a whole lot of balls in play with lots of balls in play in the air, and you’re going to see a bunch of home runs.

Today’s starter, Hector Santiago, has been one of the primary offenders, with a 1.88 HR/9 mark thus far. That’d make the fourth consecutive increase in that stat for Santiago, or every year since he became a big league starter. Santiago throws about 90, and while he came up as a guy with a screwball, he hasn’t really used it in the majors. Instead, he’s tried to use his command to stay away from the center of the zone, and use his rising fastball to get either whiffs or called strikes. For a few years, it worked – pretty much, anyway. As a guy with poor stuff, he was always walking a very fine line – miss his spot by a little bit, and it was likely to go a long way. This may account for both his high HRs-allowed and mediocre walk rate. Those stats tanked his FIP, and thus his fWAR, but he kept his ERA below 4 for 4 straight years. Last year and this year, though, something’s changed, and he’s gone from FIP-beating oddity to oft-beaten replacement-level guy. He’s still not as bad as his FIP would suggest thanks to a persistently low BABIP, but for that to matter, he’s got to stop yielding so many home runs.

When Santiago was “good,” he froze hitters with inside pitches, getting well more than league average looking strikes. When he hit the edges of the zone, he could be tough. If the ball strayed out over the middle, the results were much worse. Now, that’s true of everyone, of course, but Santiago’s margin for error is lower than most thanks to his pedestrian stuff. When he was decent, in 2015, he got called strikes on 19% of his pitches, well more than the league average of 16.9% (Santiago ranked 28th out of 260 pitchers who threw at least 1000 pitches). This year, he’s under 16%, ranking 285 out of 421 pitchers who’ve thrown at least 200 pitches. That slight loss of command is debilitating for him. He’s *still* great when he hits the edge. But batters aren’t looking at strikes, and he can’t make them swing at balls.

Over the past three years, no one’s given up more “barrels” – essentially, balls hit really, really well – than his teammate Phil Hughes, but Santiago’s in the top (bottom?) ten. This is amongst the saddest leaderboards you’ll see, with late-period Jered Weaver and AJ Griffin featuring prominently. This is the consequence of Santiago’s loss of command. He used to get away with an occasional grooved pitch. As his grooved pitches creep upwards, there are fewer K’s and more balls flying over the fence. The fact that Phil Hughes and Tyler Duffey are also on it makes you wonder what’s going on with the Twins – is this some weird developmental strategy gone wrong?

One explanation may be their home park. The Twinkies have given up 52 of their 81 HRs-allowed at home, and their park ranks 2nd in the AL in average HRs per game. That’s odd, given its sheer size and the fact that Tony Blengino’s statcast park factors still peg it as a pitcher’s park. This reminded me of Safeco’s 2016, where (some) numbers called it a pitchers park, even as balls were flying out of it like it was 1999 at Coors Field. This year, Target Field and Comerica Park are similar, and it reminds me of my very first post on the topic midway through last year. The clubs have pitching staffs that are actively trying to court elevated/non-GB contact, thinking perhaps that a big park will bail them out or lower their BABIP. To a degree, it is, as fewer balls hit at a given speed will go for HRs there. But that’s cold comfort to the pitchers if they’re giving up really hard contact at economy-size rates. More on this to come, I think, as I can’t stop writing on this topic.

1: Heredia, LF
2: Valencia, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Motter, SS
7: Gamel, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Dyson, CF
SP: PAXTON

King Felix returns to Tacoma tonight, leading the Rainiers against Aaron Laffey and the Reno Aces. Gametime’s 6:05, and you should go, if you’re not going to Safeco. Felix is a big reason I can’t get behind calls for the M’s to do a full-on rebuild (not that it’d do much), and Felix is still a prime source of baseballing joy for me. The idea that he might be back soon, and – dare to dream – effective again… it’s exciting. This team and this sport is just better when Felix is healthy and dealing, and while we’re now well into the decline phase of his career, I keep hoping that rehab and working with Tacoma’s coaches (the guys who figured out Paxton) can get him close to what he used to be. The odds are long, but after a month or two away, I’m just ready for Felix days again.

So You Still Want Me To Write About the 2017 Draft

Jay Yencich · June 5, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners, Minor Leagues

Hello. Once again, later than usual, we are looking down the three-day period where 1200 or so names are called out and added as grist for the peculiar mill that is minor league player development, sort of a Rube Golberg machine that specializes in severed ligaments and PB&J sandwiches. Obviously, not all players will be signed and those that are inked will probably stand a better chance of reaching the major leagues. Probably. For the most part, saner baseball fans are only really looking to pay attention to the top ten rounds or so and the hope of funny names or intriguing storylines thereafter. Seeing as how summers are more ideal for my sit-down writing time, I’ve decided to throw down a brief look at what we have out there and where we’ve been, with the caveat that drafting later in the draft provides more unpredictability. Not that drafting earlier guarantees any amount certainty. Remember when I wrote five or six draft previews and then we picked Danny Hultzen? I certainly remember that happening. I used colorful language.

So, this thing, when does it happen?
Day One will be Monday, June 12th, with the preview show starting at 3 pm Pacific and the real draft starting around 4 pm. This will cover rounds one and two along with the Competitive Balance Rounds A and B after each round. Day Two will follow with the previews beginning at 9:30 am and the real stuff, carrying us through the tenth round, starting at 10 am. Day Three, our beloved conference call day, will begin at 9 am on the 14th.

When does our team select?
Our first pick on Day One will come at #17. Since we were not awarded any picks in the Competitive Balance Lottery, our next pick will be at #55, then our third round pick at #93, then in intervals of thirty thereafter barring someone dropping out early, although that’s been far less frequent since the draft was set to forty rounds. The last time we had a Competitive Balance selection was 2015.
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Game 58, Rays at Mariners

marc w · June 4, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Ariel Miranda vs. Erasmo Ramirez, 1:10pm

The M’s completely mishandled Erasmo Ramirez, but saved a modicum of value when they flipped him for Mike Montgomery. Erasmo was out of options, and it looked like the M’s might lose him for nothing, so it was a rare well-executed trade. The problem was that they’d made it necessary in the first place. I thought of that watching Chris Taylor’s grand slam last night. The issue isn’t the trade or a reasonable evaluation of other players at a given position. The problem is squandering a player’s potential.

Erasmo is still a swing man for Tampa, relieving often and then popping into the rotation when needed. And if Alex Cobb’s pitch mix and approach remind me of Hisashi Iwakuma, Erasmo does at least as much. His change is his best pitch, and while it’s not a real splitter-style cambio, they’re clearly in the same family. Erasmo will give up HRs, but the great control he showed in the low minors is finally showing up in the majors. He generates plenty of grounders, and has moderate splits thanks to that good change.

1: Gamel, RF
2: Powell, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Motter, SS
8: Dyson, CF
9: Zunino
SP: Miranda

Boog Powell gets a start today against the org he played for in the minors for several years. Zunino’s 7 RBIs last night get him the rare start in a day game after a night game. Man, this offense just looks different when there’s not an automatic out at the bottom of the order. It’s looked different facing the Rays, in any event.

Andrew Moore leads the minor league pitching probables today. He leads Tacoma in Fresno; the R’s are trying to avoid a sweep. Tyler Herb and Anthony Misiewicz also take the hill. Joe Rizzo had 2 hits last night, and Braden Bishop had a hit and two walks.

Game 57, Rays at Mariners

marc w · June 3, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Sam Gaviglio vs. Alex Cobb, 7:10pm

It’s always nice to come into a game after battering the opposing pitchers the night before. When the M’s are on, they can really hit, and that’s with Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger sidelined. Jake Odorizzi isn’t chopped liver, though tonight’s starter, Alex Cobb, is probably a bit better.

I’ve always thought of Cobb as an American version of Hisashi Iwakuma. His splitter doesn’t quite have Kuma’s movement, but he throws it a ton, and it plays well off of his four-seam and sinker. It doesn’t hurt that Cobb’s got a bit more oomph on his fastball, and it really doesn’t hurt that Cobb never really tried to throw a slider (forget the slider, Kuma. It’s unnecessary). Cobb’s been a contributor to the Rays since he came up in 2011, but he’s been critical off the field, too. Apparently, he’s the guy who taught Odorizzi his split-change.

The problem’s been staying on the field. Cobb’s never managed 30 starts in a year, and this’ll be his 17th since *2014*. He’s lost time after getting hit in the head by a line drive and suffering from vertigo for months. He’s missed time due to forearm tendinitis, and its big brother, Tommy John surgery. When he’s healthy, he has smaller than normal platoon splits due to that great splitter, and makes up for so-so K rates with very good GB rates and an ERA that’s been persistently below his FIP (sounds like Kuma).

Sam Gaviglio’s given the M’s some quality innings since being forced into action due to one of the myriad injuries to M’s starters. He throws what Brooks Baseball calls a four-seam fastball at 88 MPH, but what really operates like a sinker. If it IS a four-seamer, it’d have well over 2 standard deviations less vertical movement than average. He complements this with a hard slider/cutter at about 82-83, and an even firmer change-up at 84+. He’s given up a HR on the change, and he may need to dial the velo down, but it looks kind of interesting as far as third pitches go.

1: Gamel, RF
2: Heredia, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Motter, SS
8: Dyson, CF
9: Zunino, C
SP: Gaviglio

Dylan Unsworth, Pablo Lopez and Brandon Miller highlight the pitching probables today. The Rainiers were throttled by former teammate Casey Coleman in Fresno’s 4-1 win last night, and Inland Empire knocked around Nick Neidert a bit in a 7-2 win. It was Neidert’s first loss of the season, though he only gave up 3 runs on 7 hits and no walks in 5 IP. Robet Dugger and Danny Garcia had another successful piggy-back start in Clinton’s 4-1 win.

Game 56, Mariners at Rays (the Anti-Mariners)

marc w · June 2, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Christian Bergman vs. Jake Odorizzi, 7:10pm

It’s our own fault. We tend to apply a label to a team and stick to it, even as personnel and front offices come and go. It was an article of faith among NON-sabermetrically inclined fans that stat nerds would automatically view a Billy Beane trade favorably, and a…I don’t know, Royals (in 2010-2014) trade unfavorably. These criticisms weren’t exactly wrong. I’ll admit I would look at an A’s move that didn’t seem to make any sense (Billy Butler?) and really try to consider alternative angles that maybe I’d missed at first. I wouldn’t linger as long on moves by others. All of this is to say that Tampa’s rapid rise to relevance gave them the patina of a smart organization, and thus not only were most of their moves seen as intriguing or at the very least justifiable, but *everything* they did – every blip in some rate stat, every 20-game rolling average – seemed to connote the evidence of a team-wide approach. And if Tampa was doing something, then maybe others should look into it.

In recent years, the Rays have been one of the most consistent teams in terms of the batted balls their pitchers give up. Year after year, the Rays and Angels would lead the league in fly ball percentage, and rank near the bottom in ground ball percentage. It made sense: the Rays couldn’t afford a do-it-all, traditional, 5-tool OF. They had a CF with one really exceptional tool, and they got pitchers that induced contact that got the most value from it. Since Kevin Kiermaier debuted in 2014, the Rays leapfrogged the Angels as MLB’s true fly-ball pitching staff, and since 2014, they’ve run a good BABIP despite some…less than solid infielders. Again, you can follow the logic here. The Rays have a great OF defense, so they get pitchers like Drew Smyly or tonight’s starter, Jake Odorizzi, who yield mostly flies. That could enable them to punt on IF defense a bit and add the offense that they gave up in the outfield. Kiermaier’s “only” a league average bat? Fine, get Brad Miller and Logan Forsyth in the infield.

Traditionally, the M’s have taken the opposite tack. Jack Zduriencik wanted bulk in his outfield, and he wanted OF who HIT fly balls, not necessarily guys who went around catching them. On the IF, whether by design or not, they’d assembled a largely solid group of defenders with Kyle Seager and Robbie Cano stabilizing things around a revolving door of shortstops (but the M’s always seemed to prioritize SS defense, hence why Brad Miller was hitting dingers in Tampa). The M’s too managed an above-average BABIP over multiple years, but they got there a very, very different way.

So, imagine my surprise when looking at the Rays ahead of this series to find that the Rays are now an essentially average defensive team, and if you were to break that defense into components, it’s actually been the INFIELD that’s carrying them. The team with the worst defensive efficiency on grounders last year now ranks 5th, while it’s the Mariners who struggle on grounders. Kevin Kiermaier hasn’t prevented Tampa’s DER on fly balls from falling below .900, ranking 12th in the league…behind Seattle, of all teams.

There are a lot of things to say about this. First, the M’s improvement since April on fly balls is jaw dropping. I have no idea if it’s luck, or if Ben Gamel’s a better defender than Mitch Haniger (I wouldn’t care much if he was, of course), but I think at this point the scale of it seems to indicate that Jarrod Dyson is just way, way better than Leonys Martin. Second, while the Mariners fly ball percentage isn’t sky high (it’s above average, though), the fact remains that the M’s have had more fly ball *opportunities* than any team except Detroit. The reason is that no pitching staff produces balls in play – of all kinds – than the M’s. This is what happens when your rotation consists of Sam Gaviglio, Christian Bergman, Ryan Whalen, Yovani Gallardo, Chris Heston, etc. The Rays aren’t a strikeout staff either, but they’re much better in terms of the “Control the Zone” measures like K% and K-BB%. So the M’s are giving Dyson and Heredia more opportunities – why are the Rays suddenly moving away from watching Kiermaier run down gappers?

The answer has to do with another big trend that we’ve been watching this year: the drop in fastballs. I mentioned it in April after watching the Astros confound the M’s with a blizzard of curves and sliders, and at that point, the Astros led the league in the percentage of non-fastballs thrown. We’ve obviously got a lot more data at this point, and while the Astros percentage of bendy stuff is still high, they’ve been passed. Now, it’s the Yankees in the lead at over 50% non-fastballs. After a sizable gap, we get to second place, where we find Tampa. Here’s where it’s interesting, though. If we look at the same table, but for 2016, many of the same teams are near the top. The Yankees ranked 2nd last year, and the Angels (3rd this year) were 1st. Where’s Tampa? They ranked 20th. This is a big, big move. They’ve increased their non-FB usage by ten percentage points. In a year. (The M’s dropped from 2016-2017, because somehow they must always move in opposite direction to the Rays).

The upshot of all of these breaking balls and change-ups is that the Rays have induced more contact on breaking balls than any team except the Yankees, and more grounders on non-FBS than ANYONE – by a mile. Colorado’s induced nearly *200 more* grounders on fastballs, but Tampa’s ahead on non-FB grounders by about 150. Add it up, and the Rays have given up much lower production on grounders than just about anyone (although, oddly, they’re a spot behind Colorado). And that’s with a double-play tandem of Tim Beckham and Brad Miller.

The Rays’ HRs-allowed or HR/9 rate has dropped this year, and I’m assuming the shift away from fastballs has something to do with that. Jake Odorizzi clearly got the memo, as – just like his team as a whole – his FB% has dropped by ten percentage points over last year. The problem is that the fastballs that he DOES throw are getting hit much harder. The primary beneficiary of his shift in pitch mix has been his splitter, which is a very good pitch, but which yielded 7 HRs and a .440 SLG%-against last year. This year, throwing it much more, he’s given up just 1 and his SLG%-against is much lower. His SLG%-against on his four-seamer, though, has increased by 100 points. If you’re looking for reasons he’s sporting a career high HR and HR/FB rate, there you go.

1: Gamel, RF
2: Heredia, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Motter, SS
8: Dyson, CF
9: Zunino, C
SP: Bergman (please be GOOD-Bergman, and not overmatched-Bergman tonight)

Damn. Just when the M’s get James Paxton back, Jean Segura heads back to the DL with an ankle injury.

Nick Neidert, Dylan Unsworth and Chase DeJong take the mound in the minors tonight, with Unsworth matching up with Rangers prospect Yohander Mendez again.
Tacoma jumped on Astros prospect Francis Martes, racing out to a 7-1 lead, but they couldn’t hold it in a disappointing 12-9 loss. Leonys Martin homered. Chuck Taylor continues to subject Texas League pitching to abject cruelty, hitting a HR in Midland. Nathan Bannister was sharp for Modesto in a 2-1, late-inning loss, while Ljay Newsome wasn’t in Clinton’s 9-1 loss to Beloit.

Game 55, Rockies at Mariners

marc w · June 1, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Yovani Gallardo vs. Kyle Freeland, 12:40pm

Early game today, as the M’s try to run their current winning streak to 5, and continue their mastery of a Rockies pitching staff that came in with some decent numbers.

As I mentioned before, the Rockies as a team showed strong GB tendencies even as they used four-seam fastballs more than other teams. They’re not great at strikeouts or walks, which seems like it’d spell doom given their offense-inflating home park. Instead, they’ve been contact managers, as the list of low exit velocity starters is peppered with Colorado hurlers.

That’s true again with today’s starter, Kyle Freeland. He’s perhaps the best true GB guy, even more so than Tyler Chatwood, whom he resembles in certain ways. Filtering pitchers who’ve given up 150 balls in play (to remove relievers and spot starters), Freeland ranks 12th in lowest average exit velo, a few spots better than Chatwood, and 9 spots behind exit velo ace Tyler Anderson. His launch angle speaks to his ground balling ways, as his average of 0.9 degrees ranks 5th in MLB, one spot ahead of Chatwood. Freeland’s a lefty, unlike Chatwood, but his arm slot’s similar, and Freeland releases the ball way out towards first base, giving batters a different angle. He throws a four-seam as well as a sinker, throwing the former much more often to lefties and the latter to righties. The sinker is a true, true ground ball weapon, whereas the four-seamer is kind of a boring, plain vanilla sort of pitch. This is why he has some of the widest batted ball platoon splits I’ve seen. His GB% against righties is about 18 percentage points higher than it is against lefties.

A sinker-slider guy (he throws a harder cutter and a true slider, but his breaking balls are all in the slider family, and frankly, not terribly well differentiated) should have big platoon splits, and he kind of does. His K-BB% against righties is 1% – he walks essentially as many righties as he K’s. Against lefties, he’s actually a strikeout guy, with a 25% K rate and a 16%+ K-BB% rate. But his FIP this year 1.3 runs HIGHER against *lefties* and those batted ball splits show why. Lefties actually hit HRs against him, because they’re the ones that elevate the ball. Righties don’t, because they can’t. I’m not saying that his true-talent splits mean that Servais should load up with lefties. Rather, this isn’t a guy you need to worry too much about the handedness of the batter. In general, the M’s don’t, because it’s not like they’re going to sit Cano or Seager just because they’re facing a lefty. Sometimes, when going against a Chris Sale, you go into the game knowing that some of their best hitters are at a disadvantage. I’m not feeling that this time. It helps that Freeland’s fairly similar to some of the guys that came in with solid results and whom the M’s were able to touch up (looking at you, Antonio Senzatela).

1: Segura, SS
2: Valencia, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Heredia, CF
7: Motter, LF
8: Gamel, RF
9: Ruiz, C
SP: Gallardo

For the M’s, this is their righty-heavy line-up, but enh, they’ve got 3 lefties, and at this point, Heredia’s probably earned a start over Dyson when a lefty’s on the hill.

Rob Whalen and Ljay Newsome highlight the pitching probables in the system tonight. Whalen faces off with Astros’ prospect Francis Martes down in Fresno.

Big performances from the abbreviated schedule yesterday include Chuck Taylor’s three hits- he’s now got a slash line of .386/.481/.538 – and Tyler Marlette, who hit his 5th HR. Reggie McClain’s 6 innings of 1-run ball (4Ks, 0 BBs) was the best pitching performance, and pushed his line to 7-2 with a 2.60 ERA and 55:18 K:BB ratio in 65 2/3 IP in a very offense-heavy league.

Game 54, Rockies at Mariners

marc w · May 31, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Antonio Senzatela, 7:10pm

After doing what they should, and spraying extra base hits around Denver, the M’s beat up on the soft underbelly of the Rockies starting 5. Now, the action shifts to Seattle, with a great pitching match-up between the newly-returned James Paxton and surprising Colorado rookie Antonio Senzatela.

Writing about the minors a lot means certain names keep popping up in the match-ups with M’s affiliates. Antonio Senzatela was one of them 2 years ago. He faced the dearly departed Bakersfield Blaze 4 times in his Cal league season. He seemed to have a great fastball – he averages 95 with it – but not much else, hence the good but not great stat lines in the minors. He didn’t walk anyone, but he didn’t get the kind of K’s you’d expect for a guy in the low minors with a fairly accurate 95 MPH fastball. This year, with all of 7 starts above the Cal League, he’s suddenly pitching Colorado to contention. So did he finally get the hang of a breaking ball? Death-dealing change-up?

No, Senzatela is a two-pitch pitcher in a very loose sense. He complements his fastball – which is arrow-straight without much rise – with a slider. He technically has a change-up as well, but he throws it less than 5% of the time. His pitch mix is essentially the opposite of a Lance McCullers: instead of chasing whiffs by throwing a blizzard of breaking balls, Senzatela throws his fastball over 3/4 of the time. By pitch FX, he throws more fastballs than anyone in the game, and it’s not close. There’s Senzatela at 76%, and then there’s Kevin Gausman, Eduardo Rodriguez and Vince Velasquez at 67% or so, and then there’s a bunch of pitchers in the mid-50s-60%. The game’s moved away from fastballs, but no one told Senzatela.

He’s still walking very few, but thanks to his Bartolo Colon approach, he’s not getting strikeouts, either. He’s given up his fair share of HRs, although nothing extreme like we saw with Tyler Anderson. Add it up, and his FIP looks underwhelming. His ERA’s great thanks to a high strand rate and low BABIP. Rockies fans love his command/composure, but there are other signs pointing to luck being a big factor in his first few months. Tyler Anderson’s extremely low average exit velocity wasn’t enough to produce great expected results on balls in play. Anderson gave up a lot of hard hit balls amidst a flurry of choppers. Senzatela does the same thing, and by Statcast, it’s actually Senzatela who’s given up a higher xwOBA than Anderson. It’s just that Anderson’s actual results have been about equally worse than that expected value as Senzatela’s have been better. He’s pitched a bit worse than Anderson on the year, but produced very good results nonetheless. Here’s hoping regression comes tonight.

Seeing Senzatela succeeding in MLB after writing about him in the Cal League makes me lament the M’s ability to develop starters. Edwin Diaz wasn’t long out of the Cal League last year, sure, but that’s with a change to reliever. The M’s have been very deliberate with their pitching prospects, like Andrew Moore and Nick Neidert, and that’s a valid way to go. But Senzatela joins a decent list of players who faced Bakersfield and are now in the big leagues. The M’s groomed James Paxton, but that took quite a while, and it happened years ago, under a different FO. Since then, much of the pitching depth’s been traded away, and while Ariel Miranda’s cool, he spent his minor league seasoning in the Orioles org (and Cuba, of course). All of the SP depth that the M’s have been forced to deploy this season is similar – Christian Bergman came up with the Rockies, Dillon Overton with the A’s, Chris Heston with the Giants, Rob Whalen with the Braves. Maybe the M’s didn’t have much in-house SP depth, but I’m not exactly sure what it means that the org essentially went out and bought someone else’s high-minors starters.

Speaking of guys at the opposite end of Senzatela’s quick rise, I wanted to give a tip of the cap to ex-Mariner prospect Austin Bibens-Dirkx, who’s making his first MLB start tonight. He was drafted by the M’s out of the University of Portland in 2006, and thanks to a 2017-style pitching crunch in Tacoma, made his debut at AAA before settling in with Everett. He was great as a reliever in the system, but injuries and alternatives closed his options, and with a new FO in place (he was drafted in the Bavasi-era M’s), he was moved off to Chicago and began a really, really long journey to the big leagues. He’s now 32, and has played in 2 Indy ball leagues, both the Dominican and Venezuelan summer leagues, and bounced just about everywhere in the affiliated minors. He was a favorite of mine back before I started here in 2010, and I’m stunned to see him get this chance. Happy, but still stunned. Congrats, Austin.

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Heredia, LF
8: Dyson, CF
9: Zunino, C
SP: PAXTON IS BACK YEEEAAAAAHHHHHH

Reggie McClain, Lindsay Caughel and Nick Wells start today.

The MiLB performance of the day yesterday goes to Andrew Moore, whose 8 shutout IP paced Tacoma in their 4-0 win in Salt Lake. Joe Rizzo went 3-3 with a HR in Clinton’s loss to Beloit.

Game 53, Mariners at Rockies

marc w · May 30, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Ariel Miranda vs. Tyler Anderson, 4:10pm

I didn’t know much about Tyler Anderson, the Rockies lefty starter in today’s game, so I pulled up his Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs pages to see if anything jumped out. Very good year last year, struggling this year, especially with the long ball. GB% down a bit. Rising fastball at 92, change-up at 83 and hard cutter around 87. Throws the cambio plenty, but still has sizable platoon splits. So far, so normal.
The Fangraphs page had a link to a contact management post by ex-M’s employee Tony Blengino, wherein Anderson’s 2016 season was proclaimed the best of the 2016 pitchers who didn’t qualify for the ERA title – just ahead of some guy named Kershaw. “The highlight is [Anderson’s] ability to suppress contact authority across all BIP types,” wrote Blengino, “This guy is for real and is part of an organizational effort to put strong contact managers in place.” I checked the Statcast leaderboards for 2016, and sure enough, there’s Anderson in 3rd place among all pitchers with at least 100 batted balls, and #1 among starters. So Anderson was great at limiting contact authority in 2016, particularly on ground balls. How much of that carried over into 2017? If you sort this 2017 table for average exit velocity, Anderson is now #1.

Again, that average is driven primarily by his ability (if it is an ability, and not just weird results two years in a row) to smother ground ball contact. The problem is that he’s no longer magically able to dampen air ball contact – hence the 12 HRs he’s given up this year. Dallas Keuchel’s in 4th spot for lowest exit velocity, and like Anderson, it’s driven by a sub-80 MPH average for grounders. Anderson’s average GB comes out *6 MPH slower* than Keuchel’s. Anderson’s not giving up ground balls, he’s giving up swinging bunts. His OPS-against on grounders is under .400. While he’s not the ground ball pitcher Keuchel is, or even that Anderson himself was in 2016, you’d think a GB rate north of 40% paired with that kind of results on GBs would mean he’d have a really low BABIP. You’d be wrong.

His BABIP in 2016 was .318, and it’s .309 this year. His “Expected WOBA” given launch angle and velocity this year is an above-average .320, meaning that while he’s a *bit* unlucky on balls in play, he really is giving up a lot of contact that goes for hits. If everything goes right and Anderson induces a grounder, he’s golden. If batters elevate the ball at all, they all turn into Mike Trout. I looked at the xwOBA for all non-grounders this year, and he’s in the top – er, bottom, I guess – 20 with a mark of .566. His *actual* wOBA on air balls is worse: .686, 2nd worst behind Steven Wright.

These leaderboards of air contact results are a mixture of the already-demoted and some very good hurlers. Keuchel’s up there, as is Marcus Stroman. Felix would actually lead the league if you reduced the thresholds for balls in play. You can kind of get with this profile, but you absolutely have to keep the ball down more. Keuchel can, but Anderson’s failing this year, and it’s killing him. His K/9 and K-BB% are very good – he doesn’t *need* elite contact management to survive. But he may need to rethink how he uses his four-seamer going forward.

The whole package reminds me a bit of another pitcher who debuted last year and rode solid contact management to a solid year: Kenta Maeda. Maeda had one of the best GB exit velocities of 2016, just behind Anderson, and posted a low BABIP of .283. His average fly ball EV was higher, so he gave up a “normal” amount of home runs and XBH, but posting a very good K-BB% and being death to rolling things is a pretty good combination. But this year, his HR rate has spiked, and his ERA’s over 5 despite another extremely low average EV. As we’ve talked about this year, exit velocity isn’t everything – having a low one doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful, and having a high one doesn’t mean you’re doomed. Some pitchers who are great at getting weak ground balls really struggle if batters adjust and put the ball in the air, and now Maeda and Anderson are going to need to make some adjustments of their own.

Anderson’s been better in May (his April was pretty awful), but he’s still giving up the long ball. This isn’t a Coors field thing, either: 9 of his 12 HRs-allowed this year have come on the road. The M’s should look to elevate his four-seamer, which seems like it’d be an easy thing to do given its high “rise” movement. A line-up of righties would help, too, given Anderson’s struggles with them.

1: Segura, SS
2: Valencia, 1B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Heredia, LF
7: Zunino, C
8: Dyson, CF
9: Miranda, P

Hmm. Interesting order shuffle, but this kind of seemed like a Heredia-to-CF-Motter-to-LF sort of a deal. Not a big deal, and it’s understandable to want your best defensive CF in the game with Nelson Cruz trying to patrol Coors’ area code-sized RF.

Tacoma lost a pitcher’s duel in Salt Lake 2-1 last night on a walk-off hit by CJ Cron. Dillon Overton was solid though 5, but the bats couldn’t figure out Alex Klonowski or the Bees Bullpen. Tacoma got its revenge in the early game today, as Andrew Moore hurled 8 shutout IP in his best start in AAA. He gave up 4 hits, walked 1 and K’d 3. DJ Peterson supplied the offense with a 3R-HR. 4-0 was the final score.

Arkansas travels to Midland, TX to play the Rockhounds today. Tyler Herb gets the start opposite Grant Holmes, who’s coming off his best start of the year…against the Travs.

Down 4-3 late, the Modesto Nuts got 2 in the 8th and 1 in the 9th to pull away from San Jose 6-4. Joe DeCarlo and Logan Taylor both homered in the 8th, and Taylor also added a HR in the 4th. Anthony Misiewicz struggled, but Lukas Schiraldi and Joey Strain teamed up for 4 2/3 IP of scoreless relief with 7 K’s. The Nuts are off tonight.

Clinton dominated Wisconsin again, winning 11-3. The Lumberkings got HRs from C Yojhan Quevedo and Luis Liberato. Quevedo got a nice write-up on MiLB.com on his hot streak in May. SP Brandon Miller K’d 8 in 6 solid IP for the win. The L-Kings open a series in Beloit today with Ronald Dominguez on the mound opposite 2016 A’s draftee Dalton Sawyer, who’s been very good this year in the MWL.

Game 52, Mariners at Rockies

marc w · May 29, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Sam Gaviglio vs. Tyler Chatwood, 12:10pm

Happy Memorial Day. Let’s all remember that this is more than just a Monday for day-drinking and baseball.

The M’s visit the surprising Colorado Rockies, owners of the second-best record in the game, and the best in the National League. They’re scoring 5.13 runs per game, so is this team just a throwback to the 2000-era sluggers of Vinny Castilla, Andres Galarraga, and Larry Walker? Well, no – they’re a high scoring team, but far behind the Yankees and Nationals. Their slash line of .267/.323/.443 looks decent enough, but Fangraphs gives that a wRC+ of just 83, one of the worst in the game. Park effects matter, of course. The real story is on the run *prevention* side of the ball, where the Rockies are giving up just 4.27 runs per game, about 7-10ths of a run less than the Mariners *every game*.

The pitching staff has been decent, and even by BaseRuns, their runs allowed are quite low. There are a few reasons why. The first is one I talked about a week or two ago in the article about fastballs and home runs: the Rockies are near the lead in ground ball rate despite the fact that they’re ALSO leading the league in high fastballs. Their home park is rather famous for yielding home runs (you may have heard of this before), but its dimensions make it the most difficult park in baseball to defend: they’re so much area, that doubles and triples flourish as well. By Statcorner’s park factors, the park inflates 2Bs/3Bs significantly more than HRs, in fact. The remarkably high GB rate is critical in that it lowers the opportunity for extra base hits, counteracting the park’s tendency to produce tons and tons of extra base hits. I’m not sure *how* they’re doing it, but the results say it’s happening.

The second reason for their surprising run prevention is that the team’s been very good at turning batted balls into outs. The outfield defense is solid, but again, there’s no way anyone can cover that much ground. Thus, their outfield defensive efficiency is fair to middling – they rank 15th in fly ball defensive efficiency. Look at ground ball defensive efficiency, though, and they’re #2, just behind Zack Cozart and the Reds. The pitching staff induces a bunch of grounders, and the infielders turn those grounders into outs. By BBREF’s hit trajectory splits, the Rockies are allowing a .436 OPS on grounders, good for an OPS+ of 71. It’s a nice little system they have. Add it up, and the Rockies have allowed a remarkably low BABIP.

The final reason is that their bullpen’s been dominant. Greg Holland and Jake McGee make up a formidably one-two punch at the back of the pen, and they’ve gotten serviceable innings from Adam Ottavino and Chris Rusin, too. They lead baseball by two full WINS in WPA thanks to the most shutdown appearances in the game. I’ll admit I was one of the many people who thought it was strange for a team seemingly in a rebuild to spend money and talent to bring in a closer like Holland (one coming off injury at that) and a set-up guy like McGee, but after watching the 2017 Mariners, I’m just jealous. The M’s didn’t need a closer, but the Rockies sent a surplus OF to Tampa for McGee and they’ve reaped the benefits of it. The M’s weren’t really a good trade fit with Tampa in that case (the M’s have obviously made plenty of trades with the Rays), but man, McGee would fit nicely here.

Today’s starter, Tyler Chatwood, is a familiar player to M’s GM Jerry Dipoto. Dipoto became the Angels GM in the fall of 2011, and one of his first big moves was shipping Chatwood to Colorado – where Dipoto’s worked years before. Chatwood wasn’t great, but he’d logged 140+ innings as a rookie with the Halos in 2011, his awful K and BB numbers ameliorated by his ground ball ability. In return, the Angels got Chris Iannetta, who Dipoto had presumably seen as head of pro scouting for the Rockies (he’d acquire him again with the M’s, of course). In Colorado, Chatwood kept his GB profile, but has been stung by the long ball, a product of persistently high HR/FB ratios. More worryingly, he’s missed lots of time to injury. He’s always had good stuff, if you like velocity and sink, but hasn’t quite put it together as a consistent big league starter.

This year, his fastball’s averaging 95 MPH, faster than it was when he came up with Anaheim. He’s throwing it all over (and out of) the zone, and, like the rest of his teammates, getting GBs with it wherever he throws it. He hasn’t been as extreme as teammates Antonio Senzatela and Kyle Freeland, who’ve racked up nearly 30 ground balls on fastballs at least 3′ high (the physics of this baffles me), but then, Chatwood’s real GB ability manifests itself on his secondary pitches. He throws a slider at about 89 and a big breaking curve at 79 that both generate plenty of ground ball contact. To top it off, he throws a change-up that’s even more of an extreme GB pitch.

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Dyson, CF
9: Gaviglio, P

Tacoma beat Salt Lake 9-7 thanks in part to a 4-run 7th. Kyle Hunter got the win in relief of Tyler Cloyd. Tyler O’Neill doubled twice. Today, Dillon Overton takes the hill in SLC.

Arkansas was locked in a close game with Frisco but then decided that pitcher’s duels are lame and uncorked a 13-run 6th inning. Highlighted by a Grand Slam by Tyler Marlette, the Travs sent 14 men to the plate, and had 11 consecutive reach base. Thyago Vieira’s still scuffling a bit, but coming in with a 15-run lead is a good way to get some extra work in. The Travs are off today.

Modesto’s bats couldn’t back up a brilliant effort from SP Nick Neidert, as the Nuts lost to San Jose 1-0 in 10 IP. Neidert went 6 hitless innings, striking out 9 against just one walk. Spencer Herrman kept it going with 2 more hitless IP in relief, and then Bryan Bonnell completed 9 no-hit innings with three groundouts in the 9th. He gave up 3 hits in the 10th, though, and that was that. The Nuts had 4 hits and *7* bases on balls, but couldn’t push a run across. Anthony Misiewicz starts today and hopes to get a bit more run support than Neidert got.

Clinton jumped all over Wisconsin in an easy 9-2 win. Clinton led 6-0 after 2 and coasted after that. Bryson Brigman and Rayder Ascanio homered, 2 of the L-Kings 6 extra base hits. Robert Dugger and Danny Garcia teamed up for the win; Dugger started and went 3, and then Garcia went the next 4 IP. Brandon Miller starts today’s game.

Game 51, Mariners at Red Sox

marc w · May 28, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Christian Bergman vs. Rick Porcello, 10:35am

The M’s have now faced a hard-throwing lefty and a soft-tossing righty and scored a grand total of nothing in the series. Will they break out of their slump against the defending AL Cy Young winner? Actually, maybe. Rick Porcello’s having a much worse year than last year, which makes sense, as he’s not a true-talent ace; everything broke his way last year.

He’s not bad, of course. As the consensus top HS pitcher in his draft, his bonus demands made a bunch of teams pass on him, until Detroit – a team that did this a lot (Andrew Miller, for another example) – drafted and paid him his money. With Detroit, he was a sinkerballer with GB rates in the 55% range. Boston picked him up and instantly asked him to change – to throw more four-seamers and throw up in the zone more than he ever did. He’s done so, and while his 2015 and 2017 weren’t earth-shattering, he’s been a solid pitcher. It’s before and after picture time. Here’s a heat map of his fastballs (four-seam and sinker) from a random year when he was with Detroit. It’s representative of his approach with the Tigers:
Porcello FB 2011

Aaaand here’s the same thing from this year with Boston:
Porcello in 2017

Pretty clear change in approach. It’s helped Porcello – who’s always had solid control – cut down on his walks to the point where he’s consistently walking less than 5% of batters faced. He’s striking out many more batters as well – he’s got 9 K’s per 9 IP this year, after years and years in the 5’s with the Tigers. But this change in approach isn’t without risk. He’s also giving up a lot more home runs, something he did in 2015, too. His sinker’s yielded a number of home runs, just like always, but this year it’s his breaking balls and change-up that are getting hit a bit harder. The M’s need to jump on hanging cutters and change-ups today; Porcello won’t walk them, so they’re going to need to be proactive.

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Heredia, LF
8: Dyson, CF
9: Ruiz, C
SP: Bergman

Today’s roster move: Rob Whalen’s been optioned back to Tacoma after his start yesterday, and up from Tacoma is Ryne Harper, another RHP that the M’s picked up out of the Braves organization a few years ago. Harper’s been a bullpen arm in the Tacoma pen and has been very effective this year, though it’s worth pointing out that everyone the M’s have brought up has been successful in the PCL…it just hasn’t translated. Harper’s 28 and this is his first time in the bigs – congratulations to him. The 40-man spot was opened up when the Dodgers grabbed Mike Freeman on waivers.

James Paxton’s set to begin a rehab assignment with Arkansas.

Former Phillies RP Tyler Cloyd starts today for Tacoma (who lost in Salt Lake city last night). Cloyd’s now made 3 starts for the Rainiers and has yet to allow a run – he’s coming off of injury, so he’s only pitched 12 2/3 IP, but that’s still not bad. At this rate, we’ll probably see him in Seattle in a month or two.

Dylan Unsworth starts for Arkansas tonight, Robert Dugger starts for Clinton, and Nick Neidert takes the hill for Modesto.

Yesterday’s best MiLB performance goes to Tyler Marlette of Arkansas who homered twice off of big time Rangers prospect Yohander Mendez in the Travs 5-4 win.

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