Game 132, Mariners at Padres

marc w · August 28, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Jacob Nix, 7:10pm

Happy Felix Day to you and yours.

The M’s are in San Diego in one of those trap series, one that can really make up some ground in the standings, what with the M’s playing a rebuilding (read: terrible) Padres team while the A’s and Astros slug it out. It’s an opportunity, but it’s also hard to know what to make of it. Sweep the Pads and it’s, “Sure, but that’s just the Padres.” Lose the series, and it’s full-on panic time, especially with Marco Gonzales now on the DL and the team struggling to figure out who to give a spot start to. So, M’s, this is a tough spot to be in, but science tells us that sweeping this thing is the path of least resistance, so go that route.

The big problem with the Padres isn’t that they’re rebuilding, or that they gave too much to 1B Eric Hosmer, or even that they employ one of this site’s founders. Instead, their problem is that they employ too many players who are not good enough. That sounds simplistic and harsh, and it’s both, but as with the White Sox, I think they’re getting waaaaayyy too much credit for having a good farm system, and not enough scrutiny about how much the first wave of those prospects is actually faring. And like the White Sox, I think this makes them a cautionary tale when it comes to the tear-down rebuild. Yes, Theo Epstein did it on the South Side of Chicago, and yes, the Astros famously made it work in Houston. But that doesn’t mean that all you need to do to become a juggernaut is to tear things down to the studs. The White Sox gave up tons of talent on team-friendly deals, and while they’ve now got an impressive system, the early returns are…mixed on Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Adam Engel, etc.

The Padres have one of the game’s premier farm systems again for the second time this decade. They wasted the first group on a short-term go-for-it strategy, and now they’re trying to find a new, team-controlled core with the next wave. Progress is…mixed. Former #1 prospect Anderson Espinoza hasn’t thrown since 2016, though he may get back on a mound in instructs this fall. #2 prospect Hunter Renfroe now mans an outfield corner, and his power keeps him playable, but he’s the kind of high-floor guy that looks like more like a rich man’s Ryon Healy than a young Nelson Cruz. Cal Quantrill’s dealt with injuries and inconsistency, and Manny Margot – like many of his teammates – is held back by a persistently low OBP.

They’ll dip into more of that impressive farm system today, as Luis Urias makes his MLB debut in the infield, and as starter Jacob Nix makes his 4th MLB appearance. Nix was drafted by the Astros, but his overslot deal was scuttled when the Astros couldn’t sign 1st rounder Brady Aiken, leaving Nix in limbo. He signed the following year with the Pads, and has made steady progress up the ranks. He’s not an ace, but has a FB that sits 93 and the makings of a legitimately great change-up with real splitter-like drop. It pairs well with his heavy four-seam, and he’s got a breaking ball to round out the arsenal. The problem, it seems to me, is that each pitch comes from a completely different release point. This was Marco Gonzales’ problem in the past, but if anything, Nix seems more extreme, with his change-up shifted by almost 6″ in both horizontal and vertical planes. Even so, the change has had good results, but it should be a swing-and-miss pitch in addition to being a grounder-inducing offering. He’s only pitched a few innings, so it’s tough to say much, but he’s struggled more with his fastball. He’s *really* struggled with lefties (Nix is a righty), and while some of that may regress, this sure seems like a good match-up for the M’s lefties.

1: Haniger, CF
2: Cano, 1B
3: Segura, SS
4: Cruz, RF
5: Span, LF
6: Seager, 3B
7: Zunino, C
8: Gordon, 2B
9: FELIX.

With Cruz in their again, the M’s are clearly favoring offense over defense. Good. The M’s offense has struggled and is more of a reason why they’ve fallen behind Oakland than the pitching staff. Things like keeping Heredia over Gamel haven’t been a HUGE problem, but this team desperately needs to focus on scoring. Little decisions add up, and while Felix would probably love to see, I don’t know, Gamel in at RF, you can’t take Nellie’s bat out of THIS line-up right now. There’s not enough there there to make up for the absence of someone like Cruz.

Game 130, Mariners at Diamondbacks

marc w · August 25, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Wade LeBlanc vs. Robbie Ray, 5:40pm

A classic battle of opposites tonight, as soft-tossing command guy Wade LeBlanc faces hard-throwing, control-challenged enigma, Robbie Ray.

Ray was traded for Doug Fister once; the deal was much mocked at the time, as no one thought Ray was a big prospect. He didn’t do much for Detroit, but after a trade to Arizona, he’s had an opportunity to start consistently, and he’s become an elite strikeout pitcher. He’s also still got serious problems with walks.

So, how does he grade out overall? It’s….still not clear. In 2015, he was quite good, but then the next year his ERA was well over a run higher than his FIP. DRA (uh, that year’s iteration at least) thought he was a star, ERA thought he was bad, and FIP split the difference. Then last year, he seemed to break out with a dominant season (or 3/4 of one) – one in which his ERA was far better than his good-not-great FIP. This year, everything has regressed, and his ERA is back up near 5, thanks to even worse control plus HR problems. It’s tough to know what to make of him, but I hope the bats know tonight.

1: Haniger, LF
2: Cano, 2B
3: Segura, SS
4: Cruz, RF
5: Healy, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Zunino, C
8: Gordon, CF
9: LeBlanc, SP

Game 129, Mariners at Diamondbacks

marc w · August 24, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Zach Godley, 6::40pm

With the M’s playoff odds trimmed to less than 22%, the M’s head to Phoenix to face the NL West-leading Diamondbacks. To say that the M’s have scuffled against the NL West is an understatement. The long-standing dominance of inter league play by the AL has come to an abrupt stop this year, and the M’s difficulties with Colorado and the Dodgers seems like a microcosm of that larger trend.

As good as the Dodgers looked in Seattle (and you should read Brendan Gawlowsku’s post on the gap between the teams at the Athletic), the D-Backs have been great in different ways. Acquiring Zack Greinke helped stabilize their rotation, but after a series of disastrous trades, the Snakes have done a brilliant job of building around a homegrown core. Patrick Corbin (acquired as a low-minors guy from the Angels) has taken a colossal step forward to become the staff ace, while today’s starter, the modestly named Zach Godley, is following up a 3.5 win season with another solid campaign.

Godley’s development is great news for the D-Backs, who are getting solid production from a guy who was once seen as org depth. It also highlights that there’s still room in the majors for guys without premium velocity.

In a lot of ways, Godley reminds me of Marco Gonzales; both throw sinkers, a change, a hard (uh, relatively) cutter and a curve. Both top out around 91, and when on, both look like they could run 3.00-3.50 ERAs/FIPs for years. Godley misses more bats and racks up grounders, while Gonzales has better control. Sure, Godley’s a righty while Marco’s a lefty, but the repertoire is so, so similar.

So how has Godley, the 10th rounder, not the 1st rounder, been able to stay a touch more consistent? How is he surviving the much more offense-friendly home park? I can point to a few things that help on the margins, and then I have a guess about what’s really doing the work here.

First, the Snakes defense is one of the game’s best. The pitchers are running a .284 BABIP, which puts them up by Oakland and far, far from the M’s. This is why the D-backs ERA is lower than their FIP, and how their run prevention is even better than their 7th-in-Baseball fWAR.

Second, Arizona installed a humidor this year, and so the park that saw an unbelievable number of extra base hits and barreled contact last year is playing a bit more even this year. I talked earlier how the league-wide drop in HRs benefitted the M’s (who were sunk by HRs in 2017), but the D-Backs are reaping huge benefits too. Their defense-first mindset pairs perfectly with a season in which balls stay in the park.

Third, Godley has the better outpitch, a weird, hybrid curve. It’s thrown in the low 80s, and looks a bit like a hard breaking slider, and has been his big strikeout pitch. He’s now throwing it over 40% of the time, giving him an almost Lance McCullers-like pitch mix at 6-7 MPH slower speed.

Gonzales has done a great job of mixing his pitches this year, and from a game theory POV, that’s great. But he does so in part because there’s no one single pitch that can completely flummox opposing batters. Coming up, it was supposed to be his change. For much of 2018, it looked like it was going to be his curve. But that curve isn’t working well anymore.

In recent games, Gonzo’s giving up tons and tons of hits, yielding hard hit balls all over. Righties, whom he’d handled this year for the first time, are starting to figure him out again. It’s all very sudden, which also means the sample sizes are tiny. We can’t prove anything. But batters are suddenly annihilating Marco’s cutter and curve, and they’re hitting his sinker well, too. This is what would happen if Marco were tipping his pitches. Marco may be tipping his pitches.

To be fair, this could be the result of predictable sequencing and locations, and his habit of going sinker-away followed by cutter or curve in *does* look pretty obvious. But that’s easy to say from a computer screen; it was fine early this year, and it should be. The cutter and sinker should start from the same place, before the sinker’s armside run takes it to the outside edge vs. a righty, while the cutter just stays on the inside edge. There’s nothing crazy about that strategy, *unless* batters knew where the ball was going to break beforehand.

Godley’s always had some deception, but he went through a long stretch where batters teed off on him back in 2016. He fixed something the following year, and had a great season. As I’ve been saying all year, while pitching is incredibly complex and difficult, there are *always* ways to improve, and teams throughout the game are helping pitchers improve and as velo, deception, or both. The M’s need to follow suit.

1: Haniger, RF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 1B
4: Span, LF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Maybin, CF
7: Zunino, C
8: Gordon, 2B
9: Erasmoooooo

Game 122, Mariners at Athletics: Stop The Bleeding

marc w · August 15, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Brett Anderson, 12:35pm

There’ve been a few days in this month-long slide the M’s are on where it felt like the M’s had hit bottom. The day they lost their lead in the playoff spot to these A’s. Felix’s horrific last start in Texas. Pick your bullpen implosion of choice. For good or ill, none of really felt like THE signature moment. The M’s recovered after the Rangers series and swept the Astros. The rotation looked dead and buried, but has gotten better – as has the bullpen. Cano’s return makes us look differently at an offense that’s been stuck for so much of summer.

All of that said, last night really, really hurt. James Paxton took a line drive off of his left arm and left the game in the 1st. He’ll be placed on the 10-day DL. Even Felix’s gutsy long-relief outing couldn’t shake the fact that it looked like the M’s were up against a better team. The A’s newly-remade bullpen held up, and they’re now 50-0 in games they’ve led in the 7th inning. Mike Fiers was…fine, I guess, and he and his home park conspired to turn a so-so start into a very useful one. The offense showed signs of life, only for the A’s to make a series of brilliant defensive plays, illustrating why the A’s have the lowest BABIP in baseball.

The A’s are good, and the M’s now need to outplay them down the stretch instead of just run out the clock with a big lead. Their rotation’s been great, but it’s now showing signs of stress, with Marco Gonzales in a tailspin and Paxton hitting the DL. The club desperately needs Mike Leake to close 2018 the way he closed 2017. The fact that it happened last year shows it’s possible, but the entirety of Leake’s career and his 2018 numbers show it’s not exactly likely.

Most importantly, the M’s offense needs to shake the rust off and break out again. Their overall season numbers rank them 18th at Fangraphs, and while that’s in part due to some poor defense, they’ve got the 19th-best OBP in baseball. Kyle Seager has struggled all year, as have Dee Gordon and Ryon Healy. Guillermo Heredia isn’t quite ready to be an everyday player, and while it’s nice that with Denard Span and Cameron Maybin, they don’t need too much out of Heredia, the fact remains that the M’s aren’t putting their best offense on the field. Yes, they won so many 1-run games in the first half thanks to Edwin Diaz and a great bullpen, but they’re not winning them all now. They don’t have the kind of offense that’s going to bludgeon teams to death, nor a shut-down pitching staff. They’re going to need to make each run count, and that’s why it’s insane that Ben Gamel remains in Tacoma. He’s no savior at the plate, but the M’s are struggling to score enough runs and it would appear that one of their better offensive outfielders is in the PCL. Fix it, M’s.

1: Hainger, RF
2: Cano, 2B
3: Segura, SS
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Gordon, CF
9: Heredia, LF
SP: Leake

Christian Bergman’s the injury replacement on the active roster with Paxton hitting the DL.

Heredia’s a righty and the M’s are facing a lefty in Brett Anderson. But the M’s are moving things around to have Guillermo Heredia start in an outfield corner in a playoff race. I dunno, man.

Game 121, Mariners at Athletics: Welcome Back, Robbie

marc w · August 14, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Mike Fiers, 7:05pm

Mike Fiers makes his second start in Oakland green tonight, five days after a very solid debut against the Dodgers. Fiers is undersized and his fastball velocity is still well below average, but exceptional backspin gives his fastball very good vertical rise, enabling him to miss more bats than you’d think. He puts that spin to good use with his primary breaking ball, a huge diving 12-6 curveball thrown in the low-70s. With nearly 12″ of vertical drop compared to a ball thrown without spin, it’s a remarkable pitch. Fiers is fairly consistent, but his results have been more volatile recently, as his up-in-the-zone approach made contact with the juiced baseball. If he keeps the ball in the ballpark, he can be a very effective FIP-beating, low-BABIP middle of the rotation guy. When a few fly balls turn into HRs, his ERA/runs-allowed suffers. Dingers, Mariners…Dingers.

On the other end of the FIP-vs-ERA spectrum is James Paxton, who’s been excellent by FIP since he became, y’know, JAMES PAXTON back in 2016. But his ERA’s lagged behind a bit. 2016 seemed like horrible BABIP luck mixed in with some strand rate weirdness. A lot of the noise has fallen away since then, but in 2017 and 2018, his actual runs allowed is stubbornly higher than his FIP would predict. I’m not ready to put him in the Javier Vasquez group of pitchers whose ERA was always worse than their FIP, but we’re at the point in the year where I’d love to see some zeroes on the board. More games like that breathtaking start against Houston in Seattle, James! Less of the 5 2/3 with 3R allowed type things like your last start!

Robinson Cano has sat out his 80-game suspension and is ready to rejoin the club. He’s in the line-up at 1B tonight, giving Ryon Healy a night off. It sounds like the plan is for Cano to move around the diamond a bit, but I think he’ll get most of his time at 1B. He played a bit of 3B in Everett, so he may give the scuffling Kyle Seager a breather as well.

1: Haniger, RF
2: CANO!!!, 1B
3: Segura, 3B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Span, LF
6: Seager, 3B
7: Zunino, C
8: Maybin, CF
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Paxton

Game 120, Mariners at Athletics: The Showdown

marc w · August 13, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Sean Manaea, 7:05pm

The M’s unlikely sweep of the Astros in Houston has remade the AL West. The M’s are just 4 out of first, and 1.5 back of the A’s in 2nd place. The season seemed to be settling in to the M’s in 2nd behind the Astros who looked like they’d run away with things the way everyone expected. Injuries and trouble in the clutch have confounded those expectations, at least temporarily. The biggest beneficiaries of the Astros’ stumbles, though, have been the A’s, who continue to steamroll their way through their 2nd half schedule. The A’s are a very good team, but they share a common attribute with the M’s, one that’s essentially the inverse of the Astros’ current foible: they are dominant when they get a lead.

Edwin Diaz just racked up a save in all four wins against Houston, the perfect capstone to the perfect series for the Mariners. On paper, the Astros are better at hitting, pitching, and defense, but Diaz gives the M’s a clear edge in an important phase of the game. While the new crop of situational relievers (and the pre-deadline set-up men) have had their ups and downs, the M’s essentially have things won when they turn the ball to Sugar. That’s essentially the A’s plan, too. In Blake Treinen, the A’s have a similar kind of lock-down closer, one who enables them to overachieve their base talent level, particularly given the rash of injuries they’ve had to deal with.

By Fangraphs’ WAR, Eddie Diaz is the top reliever in the game at 3.1, thanks to an other-wordly FIP borne of his K:BB dominance. By RA9-based WAR, Treinen jumps ahead, and essentially blows MLB out of the water. Treinen doesn’t have the same kind of K rate as Diaz, but he’s given up all of 1 HR and has stranded more runners. To be clear: some of this is due to factors outside of Treinen’s control – his spacious home park, the A’s excellent defense (especially 3B Matt Chapman). Still and all, the A’s closer has an ERA that starts with 0, and while you can justifiably say it won’t last, it’s a huge reason why the A’s keep on surging.

Diaz has his psychedelic slider, a pitch with late, angry break, to confound hitters with. Treinen generally sticks with his fastball, using his 98-MPH four-seam and sinker over 60% of the time. A west coast Zach Britton, Treinen’s sinker often looks like a near-100-MPH breaking ball, with serious late downward break. The sheer life on the pitch make any kind of worries about platoon splits moot. Sure, they’re there…kind of, but he’s got a FIP below 2 against both lefties and righties. Picking who’s got an “advantage” seems like a great way to miss the point.

Of course, we wouldn’t be talking about either Diaz or Treinen if they didn’t have save opportunities, and that’s meant that much of the focus on both clubs has gone towards the starting rotation. The M’s were high on the rotation coming into the year, and health is a big reason why that faith has been at least partially rewarded. Sure, they could’ve used another starter at times, and maybe they’d be neck and neck with the Astros if they’d splurged on someone, but their starting pitching has been remarkably solid all year long. Contrast that with the A’s, who’ve already gone through a few years worth of starting pitchers. When the year started, their rotation looked like this:
1: Kendall Gravemann
2: Sean Manaea
3: Daniel Mengden
4: Andrew Triggs
5: Daniel Gossett

Top prospect AJ Puk waited in the wings for either the super 2 deadline or just a few weeks to give the club an extra year of club control.

Within a few weeks, the rotation was a smoldering pile of ash. Gravemann was demoted and has since had TJ surgery. Daniel Gossett was demoted and had TJ surgery. Andrew Triggs remains on the 60-day DL with forearm tightness but as of this writing, has not yet had TJ surgery, which makes him a kind of success story. Daniel Mengden was merely demoted, so is even more of a success story. AJ Puk had TJ surgery before the year even started. Only Sean Manaea remains, and he’s been reinforced by a motley crew of journeymen, ex-prospects and waiver fodder. Trevor Cahill joined at the end of April, followed by his old teammate Brett Anderson in early May. Paul Blackburn and Frankie Montas joined near the end of May. Chris Bassitt and Edwin Jackson came on in June before the most recent signing, Mike Fiers, joined at the deadline. Blackburn and Bassitt have already departed, the latter optioned to AAA while Blackburn was shut down with, yes, an arm injury. This last iteration of the rotation has been their most successful yet, and currently includes:
1: Sean Manaea
2: Edwin Jackson
3: Trevor Cahill
4: Mike Fiers
5: Brett Anderson

Manaea’s been the rock, but the club wouldn’t be handing the ball to Treinen without Jackson, Cahill, and Anderson turning the clock back to the early years of this decade. Jackson in particular seems like an out-of-nowhere savior, as he hasn’t posted a big league season above replacement level since 2014, and hasn’t posted at least 1 win by RA9-based war since 2012. Everyone gets hot from time to time, but this is every bit as fascinating to me as the Yankees pitching PD success. At least those guys are working with youngsters (CC Sabathia excepted) – the A’s are fueling their comeback with has-beens.

Sean Manaea was once a potential 1st overall draftpick with a mid-90s fastball and a wipeout slider, but arm trouble and inconsistency knocked him down the draft board. With a low 3/4 slot and low spin rate fastball, he seemed like a great Justin Masterson-style high-GB% starter, albeit one who might struggle with right-handed bats (Manaea’s a lefty). In his first two years, those platoon split problems plagued him, but he still managed league-average years in the A’s makeshift rotations. This year, he’s taken a step forward despite a somewhat worrying drop in velocity. As LL’s Jake Mailhot detailed back in May, he pitched around his declining velo with swerving horizontal movement and increased confidence. Only, a strange thing has happened to his plus horizontal movement – it’s dropping just as fast as his velocity. When he came up, he had sidearm-quality armside run, averaging over 11″. It’s now down to something like 7″, pushing him from long-tail edge case to…normal pitcher. It hasn’t exactly hurt; he’s having his best season even as his K rate drops. The key’s been that his change and fastball are now confusing *righties*. He doesn’t really throw his slider to righties, so his developmental arc has been predicated on developing his solid split-change into a useful weapon. Armed with a new release point that’s practically on top of 1B, Manaea seems to have upped his deception, and that’s enabled him to be an equal-opportunity pitcher. Trevor Cahill and Edwin Jackson always had more muted platoon splits, but they too seem to be doing something more deceptive than in the past. And while Andrew Triggs can’t stay healthy, he was the right-handed version of Manaea – a very low 3/4 sinker/slider guy who looks for all the world like a situational reliever but whose mechanics or stride or something seems to be confusing to opposite-handed batters. I have no idea what the the A’s are doing with these guys, but as of today, the A’s starting pitchers – including a bunch of guys who’ve been demoted and injured or both – have a lower ERA and way, way less hits-allowed than the M’s. Sure, they’ve pitched fewer innings, but even on a rate basis, they’ve given up fewer runs.

The M’s control the zone much better, and the A’s are among the league’s worst at missing bats. But then, they know they don’t have to get outs themselves. Their job is to keep things close, rely on their defense (and yes, their spacious park), and then turn things over to Treinen and company in the bullpen. That *seemed* to be the M’s plan, but Marco Gonzales’ development and Mike Leake’s sheer durability have allowed them to get more innings out of their starters…which is good, as relief arms like James Pazos and Nick Vincent seem to be slowing down a bit. In the past 30 days or so, the A’s starting pitching has morphed into a strength, kind of the way the M’s SPs did in May. How each group fares in September will determine who picks up the second wildcard.

Tonight’s line-up:
1: Haniger, RF
2: Maybin, LF
3: Segura, SS
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Heredia, CF
9: Romine, 2B
SP: Gonzales

Game 119, Mariners at Astros

marc w · August 12, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Dallas Keuchel, 11:10am

Three games against the toughest set of opposing starters the M’s have faced, with the possible exception of Chris Sale, and the M’s head into today with a three-game winning streak. The offense teed off against Justin Verlander, but they won the last two thanks in large part to great, timely, pitching. Solid starts from Wade LeBlanc and Mike Leake, and then solid relief efforts leading up to the nearly-unhittable Edwin Diaz. If you squint, you see a true AL contender, a team with good-but-not great everything leading up to an undeniably great closer – a team whose greatness doesn’t bowl you over, but reveals itself slowly through consistency and calm. Of course, this is the same club that played terrible baseball in Arlington and have put themselves behind the A’s, so it’s hard to give them TOO much credit for consistency, but the team could’ve let the last few weeks overwhelm them. No one would’ve batted an eye if they’d lost these last three, so it’s a testament to the club and to the eternal weirdness of baseball that the M’s are riding somewhat high again.

And that brings us to Erasmo Ramirez. The Nicarguan righty hasn’t started since April, when he gave up 5 HRs in 5 IP against Cleveland. It’s been a strange, strange career for the afterthought of a prospect, who ignored the doubters and rose to the M’s in 2012 behind a much better than advertised FB and a true weapon in his diving change-up. He threw 93-95 that first year, and his change came in about 12 MPH slower, leading to tons of swings and misses. That gap was important, because the movement on the pitch was quite similar to his sinker, and the M’s loved having him pitch off of that sinking fastball, perhaps as a way to reduce his dinger problems. Almost immediately, though, things deteriorated. His FB velocity dipped by 1 then 2 MPH. That 12 MPH gap between SI and CH shrunk with it. More importantly, he always struggled to develop a real breaking ball – something to throw against right-handed batters. He had a slider, and the M’s kept tweaking it, but nothing really worked. By 2014, batters slugged .731 off of his slider, with 5 HRs against a sparingly-used 3rd pitch, and the M’s had seen enough.

Erasmo revived his career in Tampa, with a slower slider, a different approach, and then a hard cutter. Used as a swingman and occasional high-leverage long-reliever (there’s a concept for you), he thrived. His FB never recovered its 93-95 velo, but he had enough guile and deep enough repertoire that it didn’t really matter. As the game approached Peak Dinger, Erasmo suffered, but he remained playable thanks to a low BABIP and low walk rates. Upon returning to Seattle last season, though, his gopheritis returned with a vengeance. He gave up 12 HRs in 11 starts (62 IP) down the stretch, and then 7 in just 2 starts (9 2/3 IP) this year. That’s 19 HRs in just over 70 IP, and while that will regress, that’s…that’s ugly. The velo gap between FB and CH is down to 8 MPH, and there’s essentially no difference in the vertical movement between his sinker and cambio. He uses his 88 MPH cutter as a fastball now, but while there’s a big horizontal movement gap between the sinker/cutter, it means he’s throwing 88 MPH fastballs to left-handed batters an awful lot. The slider’s regressed yet again, as batters are back to slugging over .700 against it since he arrived last August. But they’re slugging .765 against his primary fastball, his sinker.

There are a number of options here. He could go back to using his four-seamer, which maximizes the gap between FB and CH, and which has been successful for him in Seattle. He could use his cutter up in the zone a bit more, instead of keeping it low (same as his sinker). I’d love to have more confidence that the M’s are the team to unlock Erasmo’s potential. And frankly, potential’s too strong a word for it – he just needs to do what he was doing for a few years in Tampa. He’s regressed badly, and if he’s going to stabilize this post-Felix rotation, he needs to be the guy he was in St. Pete again. If not, then the M’s won’t have improved by demoting their icon to the ‘pen.

Dallas Keuchel remains an extraordinarily successful sinkerballer despite below-average velocity, and he’s maintained a well above-average HR rate throughout the HR-explosion of 2016-18. His low spin pitches stay down, and his command enables him to make the most of so-so stuff. Fundamentally, he’s got the same basic repertoire as Erasmo, with a rare four-seamer, a sinker, a cutter, and then a slider and change. Erasmo’s pitches have much higher spin rates and are thrown from a lower arm angle, and I wonder if that’s part of the problem. You look at Erasmo’s mechanics, and then the whole sinker/slider, high-ground ball thing makes some sense. But his sinker’s got above-average spin, 200 RPMs more than Keuchel’s, and that gap remains after taking into account Erasmo’s higher velo. The gap’s even larger for his cutter. Erasmo’s got a very high spin rate cutter, and he’s now targeting the bottom of the zone with it. Sure, cutters show higher spin rates, but I’m just not convinced that he should be trying to get grounders and whiffs on a pitch with the kind of spin he puts on the ball. Keuchel’s pitches have much lower than average spin, hence his GB-centric approach makes sense. Erasmo’s HIGHER than average spin would seem to conflict with his cutters-and-sinkers-at-the-knees approach.

1: Haniger, RF
2: Maybin, LF
3: Segura, SS
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Heredia, CF
9: Romine, 2B
SP: Erasmooooo

Another day off for Dee Gordon as the M’s face a tough lefty starter. After facing three super-high-velocity starters in Verlander/Cole/Morton, we’ll see how they adjust to a low-velo, command and sink guy like Keuchel today. They’ve shown very little in the way of splits against fly ball or groundball pitchers this year.

Game 114, Mariners at Rangers

marc w · August 7, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Bartolo Colon, 5:05pm

Happy Felix Day. Apparently, Felix did enough in his last start against the Jays to get another. I still can’t quite believe that this day-to-day, start-to-start nonsense is how the team chooses to motivate Felix freaking Hernandez.

It’s interesting – nearly the entire arc of Felix’s career, and certainly since 2007-8 or so, has been a story of declining velocity. It’s not new, it’s just that there was nowhere for his velocity to go. He arrived as a teenager touching triple digits with a four-seam fastball, and, a ton of HRs-allowed later, morphed into the guy we know and love: a sinker/change guy with a FB that settled in around 93-95, then 92-94, then 91-93, then 89-92. His Cy Young year of 2010 he averaged 95, but he was better in 2014, when he threw 93. What’s the point of this historical digression? The point isn’t that Felix never learned to deal with a slower FB; that’s literally all he’s ever done. The point is that when it dipped below 91-92 or so, it stopped being playable.

Felix’s control improved over the course of his career, and his contact management followed suit for a while. But his velocity seemed to cross some invisible line right around when the ball got juiced, and Felix hasn’t adjusted back. That’s at least *partially* on him, but it’s still interesting to me that so much of the decline in his results have come on his sinker, and in particular, against left-handed batters. Back in 2014, Felix had reverse splits, and has many times throughout his career. This isn’t a huge shock for a guy whose best pitch is a change-up of death, and one that looks a hell of a lot like his sinker. But something seemed to change in 2015 that caused lefties to start picking up that pitch much better.

Lefties slugged .423 vs. his sinker in 2014, but since then, that figure’s skyrocketed: .566 in 2015, then .588 in 2016, wayyy up to .706 last year, and .731 this year. Sure, there’s BABIP in there, and there are sample issues, and noise, etc. But you can’t survive in the majors when people are slugging 6-700 on your primary fastball. Shockingly, his change is still effective against lefties, so this isn’t a case where the lower-velo sinker is just getting mushed up with his change. He’s got a good change and an awful fastball. Using the four-seamer could help with this, and that’s what many have been saying (including Jerry Dipoto!) for a few years now.

But I want to draw to your attention just how weird it is that Felix’s SI would just die a horrible death at 90 MPH, *especially* given that his SLG-agaisnt vs. righties is under. 450 this year. Isn’t it possible that the problem here is that he’s either tipping it or that he’s lost whatever kind of deception he had just a few years ago? These are kind of “Strong” and “Weak” forms of the same argument: Felix’s FB is worse, sure, but it’s unusable in games because people are reading it. If that’s the case – and it very well might not be – the problem here isn’t with Felix. It’s using all of the wonderful technology we have to see if we can spot a tell and help him fix it. Instead of carping at him, or grudgingly giving him another start (especially with Erasmo still on the mend), give him a fix, give him an actionable thing to work on.

Look, this may be the end for Felix, and it’s entirely possible that he’s not tipping the pitch, and that lefties simply get too long a look at it in flight. There may be no well to go back to. But if I’m the M’s, and I’m now down in the wildcard, and the A’s picked up some rotation depth…I’d figure out if there wasn’t a way to make 2018 Felix the equivalent of 2018 Mike Fiers. There’s no reason Felix can’t do the high-HR, low-BB sorta-mostly good thing. And if he does, this team gets a whole lot more interesting down the the stretch.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Haniger, RF
3: Span, LF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Herrmann, C
8: Maybin, CF
9: Romine, SS
SP: EL CARTELUA

The struggling Jean Segura gets a day off today. Robbie Cano continued his rehab in Tacoma, singling today AND yesterday and making some plays at 1B. The Colorado SkySox beat the R’s tonight in the final game the two franchises will play. Mike Curto reports that this brought the overall series between the clubs – which dates back to 1988 – to a dead heat: both teams have won 174 and lost 174.

Game 112, Jays at Mariners

marc w · August 5, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Sam Gaviglio, 1:10pm

I suppose it’s been a while since we’ve had such a crystallizing series. The parallels to 2007’s LollaBlueza against the Angels essentially write themselves. This one’s been marred by the presence of thousands of drunk/annoying Jays fans (Hosebullah?) but then, their arrival wasn’t much of a shock. It’s just that the M’s weren’t really in a position to prevent it, and let’s face it, I don’t think anyone forecast the M’s to be ~20 games over .500 when this series started.

They’re not 20 games over anymore, and the A’s, improbably, are. The A’s have stabilized their decimated rotation by adding guys like Edwin Jackson, first seen dueling peak-era Randy Johnson 15 years ago, and Frankie Montas, the hard-throwing prospect who’s now in his 4th org in the last 5 seasons. I will freely admit that the way we evaluate player development and the overall value of a front office is too often skewed by the last month or two of results. I don’t think the A’s magically “fixed” anything with Jackson, any more than the Padres did when Jackson pitched an absolute gem in the one game I’ve ever seen in Pittsburgh. Still, the contrast between the A’s getting a modicum of production from their waiver-wire crew and the M’s still chirping at Felix is…palpable. We don’t know that the M’s PD has “failed” because we/I don’t know what they’ve tried, what Felix’s reaction has been, and what alternatives they’ve explored. But again, players around the game and, pretty crucially, within the division have turned their careers around because they’ve worked hard and had the right help.

I wrote about Sam Gaviglio, ex-Mariner, in late July, as another example of a pitcher who’d seemingly gained another gear. He pitched poorly that day, and in general, his July went about as bad as possible. After outpitching a miserable FIP in Seattle/KC last year (the ol’ Ryan Franklin deal of giving up tons of solo HRs), he’s now got an ERA worse than a so-so FIP. Neither’s really all that encouraging, but at least they’re *different*. Gaviglio seemed like a classic AAAA guy, without the pure stuff that could miss big league bats. Given that and the overall environment, he seemed like he’d always give up HRs and couldn’t balance that with any positive attribute. He’s still pretty marginal, but incremental improvements in his slider and especially change have at least enabled him to miss a few bats. He’s no longer on David Price’s tail in K% or anything, and may still be a AAAA pitcher, but for a team like this, he’s a decent enough flyer.

Dee Gordon’s missing his 2nd straight day with an injured ankle.
Ben Gamel went 4-5 in yesterday’s game, bringing his line since his demotion to 7 for 13 with 3 doubles and a HR. I completely understand the flexibility that Heredia provides the defense, but the M’s can’t score any runs right now and their active roster management doesn’t seem to suggest that they see this as a problem. Ben Gamel is not a great offensive player, and can’t stop the M’s offensive woes by himself. But when you’re in an offensive funk like this, I’d assume that the M’s would go all-out in trying to put their best offensive line-up out there. They…don’t seem to agree. Even if it’s marginal, you kind of have to go for it, right? There’s a reason Chris Herrmann is up instead of Freitas, and the equivalent reasoning would argue for Gamel. Mini-rant over.

1: Span, LF
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, RF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Herrmann, C
8: Heredia, CF
9: Romine, 2B
SP: Leake

Game 110, Jays at Mariners: Big Game Marco, We Need You

marc w · August 3, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Ryan Borucki, 7:10pm

Last night’s game was frustrating on so many levels, from losing to a team that’s kicked off a rebuild, to the bullpen continuing their slide, to, uh, the small matter of the Oakland A’s overtaking the M’s in the wildcard race. The fan base is anxious/angry, and the A’s kick off a series at home against the similarly-rebuilding Detroit Tigers. The M’s really, really need a win here. In the first game of the Astros series, the M’s were similarly desperate, and they turned to Big Game James who delivered one of his best performances right when the M’s needed it. Today, the M’s desperately need Marco Gonzales, someone the FO clearly thinks is one of the best SPs in the league, to be on his game tonight, as the playoff expectancy of this game is higher than any the M’s have played this year. To be clear: the FO’s not wrong in their assessment of Gonzales. By Fangraphs fWAR, Gonzales ranks 19th in MLB at 2.6, and by BP’s DRA-based WARP, he’s 26th at 2.9. He’s at 2.7 by BBREF’s RA9-based WAR, but I’m not exactly sure where that ranks him, but he’s in a statistical dead heat with his teammate James Paxton, which is a good spot to be.

Opposing him is Ryan Borucki, a former 15th-round pick and org-depth sort of prospect who’s popped up in a big way this year, tossing 5 quality starts in his 6 MLB opportunities. After being injured off and on for a few years, he broke out in 2016 as an over-aged soft-tossing lefty in A ball, but ran through 3 levels the following year. For Borucki, his game depends on getting to his plus change-up, a pitch with pretty odd movement. Borucki’s fastball is only 91-92, and it’s thrown from a 6′ release point that’s more or less dead on average. It’s just that the thing MOVES like it’s a sinker thrown by a low-3/4 arm slot guy like Adam Conley or Sean Manaea. All in all, his fastball is almost a dead ringer for Manaea’s, right down to the 92-ish velo. Borucki’s gets a touch more horizontal movement and maybe slightly less vertical movement (though it’s really, really close). That’s why it’s so weird that Borucki’s got the slightly more elevated release point. You can see in the gifs of that FG post linked above that his delivery *looks* kind of side-army, but it’s released from 6’+. The dissonance of movement and release point may be making it harder on batters.

The other problem is that his secondaries are just as weird. His signature change has plenty of armside run, but *less* than his four-seam fastball (that’s not unheard of, but it’s not super common). It also has MORE vertical rise (which I’ve almost never seen from an overhand pitcher). His slider sinks a ton, again simulating a pitch thrown by a sidewinder. AAA hitters seemed unfazed by this gap between expected and actual movement, as he threw 77 IP in the IL this year with a FIP of just over 4. That’s not bad, but it doesn’t scream instant success, either. I wonder if MLB hitters get more coaching preparing them to react to arm angles – if they mentally make little adjustments based on cues like release point MORE than minor league hitters, who may not have as much access to video scouting and the like. In any event, he’s been much tougher in the bigs, with a FIP of 2.5 over those 6 starts.

1: Gordon, 2B
2: Segura, SS
3: Haniger, LF
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Healy, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Maybin, CF
9: Heredia, LF
SP: GONZALES

I get, intellectually, the idea of keeping Guillermo Heredia over Ben Gamel. Tonight’s game with a tough lefty on the hill would seem to validate it. But now the M’s, in a complete offensive tailspin, get to take defense-first Heredia and stick him in an *outfield corner*. I love platoon splits, and they matter and all, but the answer to persistent offensive struggles is not Guillermo Heredia in LF. No, you don’t need your 4th OF to spark the offense, and no, Ben Gamel’s no great shakes vs. lefties. But the M’s seemed to prioritize defensive flexibility here, and I find that kind of strange. Cameron Maybin has reverse splits for his career, which…I don’t know. This is all a very small point, but at this point in the season, with anxiety peaking, we’re all picking at a lot of the small things.

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