What If the M’s Hadn’t Traded Mike Montgomery?

marc w · October 7, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

The pain of the M’s season-ending loss to Oakland is still fresh; it’s been less than a week before that crazy game officially eliminated the M’s from the wild card chase. In a season in which their late-season push came up *just* short, you can’t help but wonder if this or that game, or this or that at-bat could’ve swung something. These are all counterfactuals, and so by definition there’s nothing to really learn here. That said, as the Chicago Cubs play their first playoff game tonight, I find myself thinking about an important piece of their (juggernaut) club, a piece they picked up from Seattle in late July: lefty Mike Montgomery.

Montgomery opened some eyes with the Cubs, pitching well in relief and as a spot starter (he made 5 starts for the Cubs in August/September) and stabilizing a bullpen that’s now one of the league’s best. Corinne Landrey’s article at Fangraphs goes over what he’s doing differently (throwing a ton of curves) and what he’s maintained (high velocity) since the trade, and given the plaudits Monty’s racked up and some of the crushing bullpen collapses the M’s suffered after the trade, well…would the M’s have won a wild card berth if they’d kept him?

Obviously, it’s impossible to know, but if you think he was the missing piece, I’d think you’d need to show a clear pattern in the 2nd half losses: 1) that the M’s bullpen had fewer/worse left-handed options, and thus lacked the platoon advantage more often; 2) that this led to lefties enjoying more success against the M’s pen, and 3) the way Montgomery was typically used would’ve made a difference. The third is important, because we don’t just want to take the M’s worst 2nd half reliever and swap him out for Montgomery. We can’t just plop this hypothetical Monty in any situation that went poorly and say the M’s would’ve won the game. I’m going to be up front here, the data for this is a little spotty. I can’t get platoon splits vs. relievers for a certain date range. I’m using first half/second half splits because they’re easy to get, but you and I will make a mental note that Monty was traded before the AS break. We’re going to have to do the best we can with limited data. Ok? Ok.

Let’s start with a bit of context. The M’s bullpen in the first half of 2016 was a very high-K, high-HR club, and the plusses and minuses even out and produce the 14th-most valuable bullpen by fWAR. Their ERA was 3.44 and their FIP was 3.97; the ERA was aided by an impressive .278 BABIP-against. The club’s most-utilized reliever in the first half? Mike Montgomery, with just over 50 innings, over 10IP more than 2nd place Steve Cishek. In the second half, the bullpen’s K rate came down substantially, but this was balanced by an improved walk rate and a slight improvement in HR rate. All of this and a good-but-not-great BABIP pushed their ERA up to 3.68, and sent their FIP soaring from 3.97 to 3.98. All told, they were, again, the 14th most valuable unit. Nothing changed.

That’s not true, of course. They were led by Edwin Diaz, who logged the most innings in the second half, again with a 10IP margin over 2nd place Cishek/Nick Vincent. Diaz’s emergence was a critical factor in the M’s push; he finished with a FIP *under 2* and struck out nearly everyone. With Evan Scribner’s return and Steve Cishek’s improvement, it’s kind of amazing that the bullpen didn’t really change; the M’s added the best reliever they’ve had in years and yet the bullpen’s overall numbers were unchanged. It’d seem that regression came for some of the lesser lights of the ‘pen.

In the first half of the season, the M’s bullpen logged a total of 280 1/3 IP. Of these, left-handers pitched 86 1/3, or 31%. In the second half, the Monty-less bullpen tossed another 242 IP, but lefties pitched just 44, or 18%. The M’s pen was clearly less left-handed, and the lefties that filled in (Nuno, David Rollins, and sometimes-lefty Pat Venditte) weren’t exactly world-beaters. It’s not clear that these guys pitched the innings Monty used to get, though. Despite his success, Montgomery wasn’t given particularly high-leverage innings in the first half; his leverage index was a bit under 1. That would’ve probably gone up, but not as high as Edwin Diaz’s. By WPA, the guys who “got” Monty’s innings were Arquimedes Caminero, Drew Storen and Nick Vincent, with Vidal Nuno thrown in as well as the team’s primary lefty. Caminero, Vincent and Nuno combined to put up a -1.24 Win Probability Added, with Vincent and Nuno finishing 2nd-to-last and last on the club in reliever WPA. This is circumstantial evidence, but you could make a case that Montgomery would’ve led to the M’s using less of their most unhelpful relievers, but the picture’s still mixed: Storen was oddly effective, putting up a plus-1 WPA all by himself.

Since I don’t have platoon splits that’d shed some light on if lefties suddenly started destroying the M’s pen, we’re going to have to do this the old-fashioned way. Let’s take a look at the M’s second half bullpen losses and see where we think Monty may have been used. Of course, these situations may have been different if Monty had been there, and the M’s may have suffered different bullpen losses if they hadn’t made the trade, but this is what we can do without time machines and alternate universes. If you’d like to dive into some very masochistic qualitative data, follow on:
Read more

Game 162, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · October 2, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Sean Manaea, 12:10pm

It’s both a blessing and a curse that things change quickly in baseball. 2 years ago, the M’s headed into their final game knowing they wouldn’t be going to the playoffs, but thinking they could in 2015; I wrote back then that they’d narrowed the gap between themselves and the Angels (lol). 2 years ago, Felix pitched a brilliant game, a fitting coda in his brilliant season, one that came very close to earning him a 2nd Cy Young. It’s 2016, the M’s came up just short, but Felix is both despondent and vulnerable now. We’re all just waiting to see what happens next. It’s always been a possibility, but the odds that the M’s won’t make the playoffs in Felix’s M’s career are getting larger. That hurts.

To put my cards on the table, last night’s agonizing loss isn’t close to the most painful I’ve experienced. It stung, no doubt, because it always felt winnable, right up to Seager’s fly out (“they’re pitching to him? Ha!”). But coming so close in an irrationally fun, against-all-odds late season push trumps blowing a solid lead late (2014 sucked) any day. It beats David Justice, it beats Alfonso Soriano, Paul $&@!ing Assenmacher. I can’t, in a very literal sense, hurt as bad as I did back then. But there’s something about seeing Felix so heartbroken last night that makes me forget that I’d written off this season plenty of times before last night. I thought this was all fun, playing on house money, and then I see Felix and I’m reminded that the players aren’t going to say, “Well we certainly beat the odds for several weeks!”

Do you want a silver lining? Here you go: I always wondered how to weight the various components of a GM’s job: the amateur draft, trades, free agent pick-ups, and player development. I thought the M’s failures in player development played an outsized role in their struggles, and this year would seem to support that. The M’s minor league success wasn’t just great for the affiliates, it gave the M’s Edwin Diaz, without whom the M’s wouldn’t be in a position to curse Edwin Diaz for last night’s loss. Remember that Paxton and Zunino started this year in AAA. The strides they made in PD covered so many flaws elsewhere and give me a lot of hope going forward. I still don’t know how to rank PD in a team’s skill set, but it absolutely has to be near the top.

Why am I so confident about that? Because *so* much of the other stuff went against the M’s, and decisively so. The M’s traded the MLB leader in home runs for a back-up catcher who made a name for himself for all the wrong reasons. The M’s traded Brad Miller for a pitcher they demoted, then 60-day DL’d, while Miller hit 30+ bombs. Joaquin Benoit was so-so, then traded on, while the big free agent moves were a mixed bag as well. None of them really sucked, but Scribner was hurt, Lee lost confidence, and Cishek struggled in high-leverage situations.

Let’s be clear: this is all results-based, and the M’s had their reasons, some of them good, for making each move. The point isn’t to assess Dipoto’s trade acumen, but to say that in 2016, a whole lot of breaks went against the M’s and *still* they played a meaningful game 161. It also gives me some confidence when I say that a great player development group covers over a multitude of trade and/or free agent sins.

Thanks so much to all of you who’ve read this stuff. It’s a strange compulsion, and compulsion’s the only word for something so irrational, impecunious, and pointless as talking about not-quite-every Mariner game. But many of you stop by, and it makes all of this worth while. I’ve never met the vast majority of you, so I can’t even chalk it up to my winning personality. Seasons like 2015 make me want to quit, or at least, the only motivation to stay is to write some cutting remark on the front office’s tombstone. This feels different, and less schadenfreude-riffic.

It also feels familiar, and ‘familiar’ is always bad when you’re an M’s fan. I, like many others, felt encouraged by 2014 and where the AL West teams stood after it. 2015 was a long, drawn-out torture for prideful, hopeful M’s fans, and highlighted just how quickly Houston moved from laughing-stock to long-term contender. The point is: the M’s must build on this season, or the repercussions will be long-lasting. Nelson Cruz is aging, and has 2 years left on his contract. Hisashi Iwakuma has one guaranteed year. They don’t really have a 1B. There are holes, and a combination of free agents and the fruits of their player development tree will need to fill them. Given my experience, I find my own optimism/confidence distasteful, but there it is: 2016 can turn the most pessimistic among us back into fanboys/fangirls, and I’ll always be grateful to 2016 for that.

1: Heredia, CF
2: O’Malley, SS
3: Cano, DH
4: Gutierrez, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lee, 1B
7: Gamel, LF
8: Iannetta, C
9: Freeman, 2B
SP: King Felix Hernandez

Game 161, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · October 1, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Jharel Cotton, 6:10pm

It’s the second to last game of the year, and the M’s are still alive. That’s not bad. Hell, even a week ago, I wouldn’t have thought it possible. The M’s are favorites again with a reliable vet on the hill facing an A’s line-up that’s last in all of baseball in WAR thanks to poor performance in essentially every aspect of the game, from defense to baserunning to batting.

That said, this feels like a trap game. They’re facing a rookie pitcher who’s K rate doesn’t wow you, but who has a legitimate plus pitch in his change. You may have seen his name pop up in minor league game wraps here and there, but he was a Dodger draft pick, a kid out of the Virgin Islands who attended a US college, but never attracted a lot of attention. Even despite notching solid strikeout rates in the minors, he moved slowly through the Dodger system. That started to change in 2015, when he got off to a fast start repeating the Cal League and ended the year in the AAA bullpen. He took another big step forward this year, and was thus one of the big prospects the A’s got from LA when they traded Rich Hill and Josh Reddick.

He’s an undersized righty at 5’11”, and has just average velocity on his fastball at 92 mph or so. His big weapon has been his change, which depends entirely on his arm action. At 77mph, it often looks like a curve when he throws it (it’s slower than his actual curveball somehow), but batters can’t pick it up. Movement wise, it’s more akin to a splitter, though it’s got a bit less vertical movement than you’d imagine given its slow velocity. Cotton really sells it well, and while he’s only thrown it 93 times, batters have managed just a single, er, single off of it. Lefties are hitting a combined 1 for 32 off of Cotton, while righties have 13 hits including 3 HRs. He’s got a cutter he’ll throw to righties, and a curveball that’s his 4th pitch. Pretty early to tell on either, though his cutter’s had solid results thus far in terms of whiffs. This is a day to chuck the standard vs-RHP line-up out the window. Of course, I noted that Alcantara’d been better v. LHBs, and Cano and company ripped him up, so hey, maybe do some damage early and see about the dregs of the Oakland bullpen.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: Iwakuma

But…but that’s just the standard vs-RHP line-up.

Game 160, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · September 30, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Raul Alcantara, 7:10pm

Thanks to a Mike Zunino HR and Edwin Diaz regaining some semblance of command at the last minute, the M’s remain alive in the wild card race. Tonight, they’ll try to focus on the A’s and rookie Raul Alcantara and not so much on the games back east, though that’ll probably be difficult. With Jesus Montero again nabbed for a banned stimulant and his pro career now in hanging in the balance, this’d be a good time for Michael Pineda to do something nice for the Mariners franchise.

Alcantara’s intriguing for me in two very different ways. First, he’s got impeccable fastball command. He displayed very low walk rates all through the minors, and he’s sitting on a 3% BB rate in his first cup of coffee with Oakland. He can target different areas of the zone and uses an occasional sinker to supplement his four-seam. It looks like he can get batters to expand the zone a bit with it, and at least initially, he’s avoided a lot of hard contact – it helps that he’s averaging 94mph with both fastballs.

The second reason is much, much worse for Mr. Alcantara, and better for M’s fans clinging to hope: I’ve never seen someone so incapable of spinning a breaking ball. Ok, ok, he gets a decent amount of horizontal movement on his cutter-y slider, but it gets much less vertical drop than average, and that’s still a far sight better than his low-80s curve, which looks more like a true slider. He’s thrown a total of 50 of these breaking balls, so this truly is a miniscule sample, but batters have swung and missed at these things a grand total of two times. His whiff/swing rate is far better with his fastballs, and thus, when he’s gotten strikeouts, it’s because of the fastball: he has 10 Ks on four-seams/sinkers, and just 1 on breaking balls. He’s given up 2 HRs and 2 doubles on breaking balls, meaning he’s given up an equal amount of HRs and whiffs, or 4 times as many extra base hits as strikeouts. That’s…those are not the ratios you want. To get a better sense of what it looks like in action, click here.

Lucky for him, his second-best offering is a change, a pitch which benefits by not being quite as terrible as his slider. It doesn’t get much vertical movement, but it’s 8 or so MPH slower than his fastball. It’s a fly ball pitch, and it helps explain Alcantara’s very low GB% despite a sinking four-seamer and an actual sinker. It also helps explain why Alcantara’s run extreme reverse splits thus far. Lefties may have a hard time picking the ball up from him, but righties have destroyed him: they’re hitting a combined .342/.400/.707 off of him. That screams small sample oddity, but he had the same trouble in AA this year. Righties hit 10 HRs off of him in the Texas league, while lefties managed just 1. Across 3 levels this year, RHBs have 15 HRs while lefties are at 2.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: Walker

The A’s oft-injured Jed Lowrie’s scheduled for another surgery soon, this one for a deviated septum. I though that sounded like the most heavy metal injury ever (didn’t Deviated Septum open for Yautja at the MigrationFest afterparty?), displacing thoracic outlet surgery and plantar fasciitis. I then spent far too long making this handy table:

Name Baseball Injury? Metal Band?
Thoracic Outlet X  
Concussion X X
Plantar Fasciitis X  
Planta Cadaver   X
Mantar   X
Deviated Septum X  
Deviated Tomb   X
Broken Hamate X  
Hammers of Misfortune   X
Subluxation X  
Subterrax   X
Cyst X X
Avulsion   X
Avulsion Fracture X

In more newsworthy information, the M’s announced their minor league awards for 2016 (hat tip to Ryan Divish). No points for guessing who the position player of the year is; when you win league MVP, lead your team to a title, and win title series MVP…you’re probably on the short list for something like this:
Ken Griffey Jr. Minor League Hitter of the Year: Tyler O’Neill
Jamie Moyer Minor League Pitcher of the Year: Andrew Moore, who also had one of the minors’ best games of the year as ranked by Game Score (courtesy of BA).
Edgar Martinez PTPA award: Dalton Kelly (1B, Clinton Lumberkings)
Alvin Davis “Mr. Mariner” Award: Zach Shank (IF, Tacoma/Jackson)
Dan Wilson MiLB Community Service Award: David Rollins
Dave Henderson MiLB Staff Member of the Year: Mitch Canham, manager for Clinton

Game 159, Athletics at Mariners

marc w · September 29, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Ariel Miranda vs. Kendall Graveman, 7:10pm

Baltimore’s late comeback spoiled a perfectly good opportunity to gain some ground. The Tigers earned a rain-shortened win last night, but their game against Cleveland today was rained out, which introduces an odd possibility: if the Tigers are within a half game of the wildcard at season’s end, they’ll need to make that game up. The Indians, who’ve already won the Central, will need to fly to Detroit and play a game that means nothing to them, except as an annoyance. Instead of a day of rest, they’ll have to go to Detroit. The M’s (or Baltimore’s) fate could be decided by this exceedingly odd high-stakes exhibition game, a play-in game for the play-in game.

Today, the M’s entrust their playoff hopes to Ariel Miranda. The lefty had his best outing recently against Houston, but wasn’t too sharp in Minnesota. He’s been homer-prone of late, with 4 given up in his last 11 innings and 9 in his last 7 starts. That’s tanked his fielding independent stats, but given his walk rate and middling bat-missing skills, Miranda’s never going to be a FIP superstar. If he’s going to make it as a starter, he’s going to have to use his weird arm angles and movement to get soft contact. Thus far, he’s done enough (a .221 BABIP) to resemble a decent 5th starter, but it’s a tough act to maintain. The bit of statcast data on him don’t offer a clear picture, either. His average exit velocity isn’t special, and it’s the product of really high velo on fly balls/line drives (that’d be the HR problem) and very *low* velo on grounders. I love his splitter and would love to think this is skill and not luck, but whatever the case, Miranda doesn’t give up enough grounders for it to matter a whole lot. Still, there’s enough here (he throws two different change-ups!) that you can squint and hope for some development that makes him a valuable back-of-the-rotation guy.

Kendall Graveman seemed like he had an even lower ceiling than Miranda, an unexceptional sinkerballer with HR issues of his own, and that’s without even getting into the fact that he must remind A’s fans of the worst trade in recent franchise history. Yet he’s now mostly through his second straight year of giving up a lot fewer runs than you’d think by watching (or, again, from his FIP). Unlike with Miranda, there’s been no BABIP luck/wizardry, and he doesn’t seem all that adept at pitching with men on. Somehow, he’s just made his sinker/cutter arsenal work, and fired just shy of 300 perfectly adequate innings for the A’s. One thing that may have helped him this year is that he’s added about 2mph to his fastball. It’s still not a swing-and-miss pitch, but it may help him get grounders and, even better, weak grounders. His exit velocity profile looks just about identical to Miranda’s in 2016, but with a key difference: Graveman’s a ground ball pitcher, so he’s got below average exit speeds on the type of contact he gives up the most.

The M’s as a team fare a bit worse against groundballers like Graveman. I say “like Graveman” because Graveman himself doesn’t seem to benefit. He’s given up 36 hits in 21 2/3 IP against the M’s. He’s got normal platoon splits, so this’d be a great day for another Cano HR or more of this strange, late-season surge from Nori Aoki. Aoki’d been remarkably, freakishly consistent in recent years, which made his collapse in the first half more surprising. With this extended hot streak, he’s actually pulled his season line up to the point where it looks like a normal Nori Aoki season, maybe with a touch of age-related decline. Like so many things (among them: the M’s entrusting their playoff hopes to Ariel Miranda), if you’d told me that in June, I would’ve thought you were crazy.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: Miranda

Go M’s.

Game 157, Mariners at Astros

marc w · September 27, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Mike Fiers, 5:10pm

Happy Felix Day. Yes, Felix wasn’t at his best the last time he had a must-win game against these Astros, but hey, he bounced back in his next start. The M’s finally won a game started by Collin McHugh last night – now they need their ace to show he’s ready to dominate this Houston club.

I really thought they’d blown it. The M’s odds of winning were well over 90% in the top of the 9th, but after Edwin Diaz stumbled, the *Astros* odds surged to over 80%. Just look at the win probability chart:
win prob

Even after Cano’s HR, when the Astros got two on in the bottom of the inning, I thought it’d happen again. This is what being a fan for a long time does to you; even in your moments of triumph, you’re looking around, waiting to see how it’s going to be taken away from you, waiting to see who’s going to ruin it. The M’s have done what they absolutely needed to do these past two games, and while the last homestand pushed them to the brink, the M’s got some help in recent days from the Indians and Yankees. They’re somehow not out of it yet. And that’s why something like tonight’s Indians line-up in Detroit hurts more than it should. The Indians clinched the central the other day, so their line-up today (as pointed out by Bob Dutton) looks like a split-squad game in the first week of March. Someone named Michael Martinez is starting and batting 2nd; he’s had 570+ PAs, and has a career wRC+ of 36. Jesus Aguilar is the 1st baseman, and good old Abe Almonte is hitting 3rd and starting in an OF corner. Another former Mariner, one-time #1 prospect Adam Moore, starts at catcher. This is entirely appropriate for a team that’s already won the league, but it can’t help but feel like trolling.

Realistically, the M’s need to go about 5-1 to have a chance. That’d put them at 88 wins, right where Baltimore would end up if they go 3-3. They’ve got the Jays to deal with now (who are definitely not at the let’s-just-start-some-prospects stage) and then finish with New York. Detroit finishes with the Braves, so they have a shot at matching a 4-2, 5-1 run by the M’s, but it’d be tough. A tie would be fascinating, of course, and while I’m not sure it’d play to the M’s strengths, I think it’d be very rough on Baltimore, a team that might need to give critical, one-game-playoff-type innings to Wade Miley.*

Mike Fiers just shut the M’s down in Seattle 10 days ago. The underpowered righty has a 90mph fastball with tons of rise that he pairs with one of the biggest breaking curve balls in the game. The two pitches differ in vertical movement by about 2 *feet*. His curve’s been tough to hit in recent games, which is good for Fiers, because he’s struggled a bit with his fastball. Not against the M’s, of course, but Fiers can be homer-prone. He’s also got a decent change-up, and his arsenal’s been quite good against left-handed bats- Fiers has reverse splits this year and for his career. In about 570 career IP, lefties have a .302 wOBA against Fiers while righties are up at .323.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Sucre, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: El Cartelua

Every year, someone comes up and posts a bonkers slash line in a handful of plate appearances and either makes fans irrationally hopeful about his subsequent season, or causes fans (and teams!) to think that a veteran made some critical adjustment. Think Bloomquist’s M’s debut, or Abe Almonte’s last month in 2013 – for a slightly less cynical take, there was Jose Bautista’s final month of 2009, when he went from journeyman to JOSE BAUTISTA and hasn’t stopped all-caps’ing since. I don’t think anyone’s going to suggest that Jesus Sucre get the bulk of the playing time next year, but Sucre is, against all odds, hitting .500/.560/.727. No, it doesn’t mean anything, but Sweet Jesus has a quarter of his career XBH in his last 2 games. Yes, it’s a miniscule sample, but it’s also *Jesus Sucre*. The guy’s had plenty of small samples and his best SLG% in the majors was the .246 mark he managed in 2014. This is that rare and wonderful intersection of baffling and fun.

* This is similar to Baltimore in 2012, which rallied to win a wild card and had to turn to Joe Saunders in a one-game, do-or-die contest in Arlington. Saunders won that game, and earned himself a contract from the M’s in the off-season. That went somewhat less well than the WC game.

Game 156, Mariners at Astros

marc w · September 26, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Collin McHugh, 5:10pm

The M’s enter the final week of 2016 with a shot at the playoffs. That’s an unalloyed good thing, but to win they need to be nearly flawless AND get a lot of help. They’re long shots, and to give themselves any chance at all, they’re going to need to figure out Collin McHugh. The righty’s made 4 starts against Seattle, and won all 4, yielding 16 hits and 8 walks in 25 IP, with 24Ks; he’s given up a grand total of 3 runs to them. The M’s are hitting just .186/.263/.279 against him, while the rest of the league is hitting .306/.346/.457. The M’s inability to hit one of the league’s more hittable pitchers has been both bizarre and, as we’ve seen down the stretch, incredibly important.

In recent games, McHugh’s been much tougher, with three straight solid outings against the M’s, Cubs and A’s. He’s only really had one clunker in the past month – a forgettable start against Texas immediately on September 4th. In the past month or so, he’s been using his four-seam fastball a bit more, but it’s been pretty subtle. He used it even more against the M’s, and that’s something to look for tonight – the degree to which he goes after the M’s with elevated fastballs. He’d all but scrapped his change-up, but brought it out of storage against Mariners like Robbie Cano back in Seattle; we’ll see if he does that again, or just sticks with his curve and cutter. The curve in particular’s been good of late, and he’s using it a bit more too. Throughout the year, he’s had decent results with both of his breaking balls, but he’s also allowed a lot of HRs – like so many pitchers this year, his mistakes have been punished much more severely than in the past.

I’ve always thought of Houston as a launching pad, particularly with the short porch in LF. It’s obviously cavernous to center, but it’s a park that can reward contact that isn’t quite perfect, particularly down the lines. Of the 161 HRs hit there, 54 haven’t been ‘barreled’, the 2nd highest percentage in the league. But it’s also giving up fewer HRs on contact that IS perfectly struck. In this sense, Houston’s like the anti-Safeco: Safeco was always a smothering pitcher’s park especially for fly balls, but it’s now seeing a flurry of HRs. Houston always allowed HRs, but it’s now playing like a solid pitcher’s park overall. Baseball-Reference’s park factor for it this year is a stingy 94. While Statcast still shows that it inflates HRs, it also reduces run scoring. Both Astros hitters and pitchers have large splits; the pitchers’ OPS against is *127 points worse* on the road, and their ERA is a full 1.50 runs better at home, while the batters have an OPS that’s 46 points better away from Houston.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: Iwakuma

So many great articles and tidbits in the outpouring of grief following Jose Fernandez’s death yesterday. Dave Cameron’s article at Fangraphs was great and includes some amazing links. Here’s one of them:

Be happy

Fernandez’s Reaction to Stanton HR

For scoreboard watchers, the Blue Jays host the Yankees, with JA Happ facing off with Luis Severino. The Yankees clean-up hitter is the actual Billy Butler.
Cleveland heads to Detroit, where the match-up’s a bit better for M’s fans: Corey Kluber takes the hill opposite Buck Farmer.

Game 155, Mariners at Twins

marc w · September 25, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Hector Santiago, 11:05am

Baseball lost one of its brightest stars today. Jose Fernandez was 24 years old. If anyone would encourage baseball to keep playing and find joy in every aspect of the game – from playoff chases to random moments of brilliance from Mike Freeman to Nelson Cruz – it’d be Jose. I know this, but I can’t do it just yet.

Fernandez was a test. Was his ever-present smile a bug or a feature? When he laughed while dominating a line-up or hitting a home run about his own joy, or was it mean-spirited and against several unwritten rules? Was his personality a much-needed boost to the game, or an unwelcome, invasive import from a different (and tacitly or not-so-tacitly irreconcilable) baseball culture? Unlike so many things in the game, there really was a right and a wrong answer to this.

Fernandez was about to become a father, and should’ve given Clayton Kershaw a run for NL Cy Young for years. I’m sad I didn’t see him enough. I’m sad baseball can’t build off a guy like that. I’m sad for players around the league, many of whom are clearly taking this pretty hard. I’m sad for Marlins fans, who’ve lost the face of their franchise. Most of all, I’m sad for his family, who’ve been through so much, and now have to go through the unimaginable.

The M’s are 2.5 games out of the wildcard. Dylan Bundy faces off with Braden Shipley in Baltimore, Edinson Volquez starts opposite Detroit’s Matt Boyd (a Seattle native), Michael Pineda and Marco Estrada start for the Yanks and Jays, respectively, and someone named Daniel Wright leads the Angels against Joe Musgrove and the Astros.

1: Heredia, LF
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lee, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Sucre,
9: O’Malley, SS
SP: Walker

Yet Another Update on Safeco Field, Home Run Haven

marc w · September 24, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

I mentioned it in the last game thread, but like most of you, I’ve been really confused by the fact that Safeco Field’s seen the most HRs hit in baseball. Seriously – more than Coors Field, more than Boston, more than Arlington. Safeco Field, once a park that absolutely destroyed fly ball contact, particularly to left field, is suddenly a launching pad. Just as I was trying to wrap my head around *that*, I read Tony Blengino’s batted ball park factor articles at Fangraphs, wherein he used actual batted ball data to make the claim that Safeco was still a pitcher’s park; sure, lots of balls had been hit out of the park, but if it wasn’t for Safeco’s fly suppressing ways, it’d look even MORE like Coors Field, circa 2000.

This implies, as I wrote back in July, that batters make a lot more “good” contact at Safeco. I wondered why that might be, and investigated a couple of hypotheses that…well, they didn’t work out. Then, this week, MLB.com and saber-luminaries Tom Tango and Daren Willman introduced a new metric for extremely well-struck batted balls, the Barrel. Essentially, these are batted balls that combine exit velocity (speed of the ball off the bat) with the launch angle (angle of the ball off the bat) such that the minimum expected slugging percentage is 1.500. This combination of speed and angle accounts for the majority of home runs, and while there are some fly outs in the group, the league is batting .822 on these things this year. Instead of setting somewhat arbitrary cut-offs at 100mph (lots of ground balls qualify) or just looking at fly balls (who cares about shallow pop-ups?), this definition focuses on the balls that do the most damage.

If Safeco Field sees a ton of HRs, and yet ALSO rates poorly in the percentage of 100mph fly balls that go over the fence, we’d need to see a LOT of ‘barrels’ in Safeco. And we do! Safeco ranks 5th in MLB with 266 barrels, just behind Target Field in Minnesota:

Barrels player_id total_pitches pitch_percent
312 ARI 24078 1.3
291 DET 21402 1.36
274 TOR 22270 1.23
270 MIN 23926 1.13
266 SEA 22981 1.16

That final column is a rate stat – the percentage of total pitches that’ve been barreled up. Here, Safeco leapfrogs Target Field (though it’s only 6th in MLB). As you might expect, the *results* on barrels vary pretty widely by park. Parks like Coors and Fenway not only see a lot of HRs hit, but those ‘barreled’ balls that stay in the park tend to go for hits – in Coors because the park is physically gigantic, and in Boston because of the odd dimensions/Green Monster – the BABIP on these hits in Coors is .783, and it’s .733 in Boston. At the other end of the spectrum is Detroit, where the BABIP is just .364. In Safeco, it’s just .418.

In Safeco’s case, the culprit here’s one we’ve know about, though I didn’t know it was this important: it’s essentially impossible to hit a double in Seattle. Just 31 ‘barrels’ went for doubles or triples in Safeco, almost *one-third* the number that fell in at Chase Field in Arizona. Arizona obviously gets a ton of barrels – even more on a per-pitch basis than Safeco -thanks to some good hitting and so-so pitching, but the range of outcomes after that is more varied. In Seattle, a barrel has a much better shot of going for a HR than it does in Arizona (or Detroit). This table shows the parks that’ve seen the most ‘barreled’ HRs, and the fraction of ‘barreled’ contact that’s left the park. Seattle’s seen more such HRs than any other park, and it’s well above the league average in the fraction of barrels that end up as HRs (league average is 59.2%):

Barrels player_id HRs HR Pct.
266 SEA 175 66%
312 ARI 174 56%
260 BAL 172 66%
240 TEX 165 69%
270 MIN 155 57%

That measure, the fraction of really well-struck balls that turn into HRs, makes for a pretty handy HR park factor, I’d say. You’re already controlling for quality of contact, and if some combination of bad hitters or really good pitchers suppress HRs, well, that’d show up in fewer barrels, too, I’d think. By this ‘barrel’ ratio, Safeco looks like a strong HR park in 2016, which is good, because, you know, all of the home runs that’ve been hit there this year. It’s not the best, though. Yankee Stadium’s seen 72% of the barrels leave the yard, and that shouldn’t be a big surprise, as Yankee Stadium rates as a strong hitters park no matter how you run the numbers. At the other end of the spectrum is AT&T park in San Francisco, where just 41% of barrels have left the yard, and where teams have hit 70 2Bs+3Bs. Kansas City’s seen a ton of barrels, and on a rate basis, more than Safeco, but just 50% have left the yard.

That said, there’s another way of looking at this: how many NON barreled shots turn into HRs? If plenty of mis-hit fly balls or low line drives go for HRs, it’s probably a good hitter’s park. Here, parks like Boston (duh), Houston and Cincinnati (which has seen *80* non-barreled HRs) come to the fore, while Seattle falls to below average. 23% of all HRs have been these non-barrels. In Safeco, only 21% of non-barrels have left the yard, and it’s just 13% in Oakland. You get some oddities, like Texas and Arizona coming in below Safeco, so I’m not suggesting this is a great measure, but it complicates things a bit, and shows a bit more how taking a different look at batted ball data could produce a very different conclusion.

Another way of looking at this is just using home/road data for the M’s line-up. The M’s line-up has produced 268 barrels after Cruz’s 2 last night, with 52.2% coming at home (just 49.5% of their total PAs have been at Safeco thus far). For the pitchers who’ve played for the M’s all year, the fraction’s similar – a bit more than half of the best-struck balls have come at home. This doesn’t really prove anything, but it’s consistent with Safeco being a park that somehow generates or facilitates or encourages barreled balls. We still don’t have an explanation for WHY, but it’s fairly consistent with the original hypothesis that the M’s pitch *differently* at home, perhaps thinking the park will bail them out. The M’s K-BB% is much better at home (15.6%) compared to the road (11.8%), suggesting that they attack batters a bit more, generating more K’s and fewer walks. But they’ve paid a price in HRs, as evidenced by their 1.44 HR/9 at home to just 1.22 on the road.

Interestingly, the pitches that have generated barrels are somewhat different at Safeco. Here’s a pitch heatmap for the 266 barreled hits in Seattle – you’ll notice that they peak middle-up in the zone. It’s not high enough to be a ‘high strike’ that I looked at back in July; these are at the top edge of the middle of the zone:
SEA heatmap
Compare that to Arizona, where batters have most often barreled up pitches at the *low* end of the center of the zone:
Minnesota’s more purely middle-middle, but again noticeably lower than Seattle:
M’s pitchers have tended to throw more low strikes, but these high (but not TOO high!) pitches have really been hammered in Seattle. It’s tempting to connect the higher average pitch with the higher-than-average ratio of barrels to HRs, but remember, the launch angle on ALL of these pitches is consistent with long fly balls.

Moreover, this doesn’t appear to be a 2016 phenomenon. In 2015, there were a lot fewer barreled hits overall- just 0.88% of pitches became barrels last year, compared to 1.03% this year. But Safeco was far above average in both years, coming in at 1.01% last year and 1.16% this year. While much of the discussion of Safeco’s HR issues this year has centered on the dimension changes making things easier for right-handed bats, Safeco seems to generate more barrels for *lefties* than righties. Not sure what to make of that.

So where are we? I’d say that these data challenge the notion that Safeco’s still suppresses fly balls. More of the best-contacted balls are hit at Safeco, and when they are, more of them become HRs than in other parks. Safeco may still be something of a pitchers park because it’s very difficult to hit doubles there. But even more than that, it plays like a pitcher’s park because the M’s (and their opponents I’d guess) walk fewer batters and strike out more. This seems like a difference in approach more than something to do with the park itself, but whatever the cause, it’s still somewhat more difficult to score in Safeco than elsewhere. It’s NOT, however, a park where HRs go to die. Whether that’s due to the same shift in approach, a shift in the marine layer, or a shift in the ball still isn’t clear.

I mentioned it above, but I want to reiterate just how much things have changed from 2015. That jump in the percentage of pitches that turn into barrels is pretty remarkable; teams have already hit more than 800 more barrels than in all of 2015. And slightly more of them have become HRs – 59.2% vs. 58.5%. The jump in some parks is also remarkable – Detroit going from 1% to 1.36%, Baltimore from 0.98% to 1.15%, etc. The increase in the percentage of barrels that leave the park is certainly consistent with a juiced ball, but the rest of it seems like a difference in approach, though one could argue that a juiced ball would lead to higher exit velocity and thus more ‘barrels.’ None of this is dispositive, but it’s an interesting way to look at what’s happened in Safeco this year, and it bears watching in the future. ‘Barrels’ are a really interesting way of looking at quality of contact, and they hold the promise of helping improve swing paths as well as merely describing events.

Game 153, Mariners at Twins

marc w · September 23, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Kyle Gibson, 5:10pm

That walk-off win against the Jays kept the M’s playoff hopes on life support, and they’ll get a further boost from the fact that the teams chasing the wild card all finish off the year playing intradivisional games. That means the M’s finish up against the out-of-it-A’s, while the Orioles and Jays are beating up each other, and tussling with the Red Sox. Of course, the Astros get the Angels to end with, AND they face the M’s at home after this series. Any gains the M’s get from their easier closing schedule are moot if they can’t actually win some series against the team’s they’re chasing.

But first, they face the Twins, a team whose rebuild looked great last year, but has collapsed to 98 losses thus far. They’ve done it despite Brian Dozier setting the HR record for 2Bs, and the team as a whole has drawn a decent number of walks. It’s just that so many of their youngsters have scuffled – Byron Buxton was the headliner here, but Miguel Sano took a step back as well – and the team compounded its weaknesses by being an inept defensive club. The pitching hasn’t helped either. Today’s starter, Kyle Gibson, was coming off of two consecutive better-than-league-average-by-fWAR seasons, but he’s fallen back thanks to a spate of home runs. Those HRs haven’t just troubled Gibson – they’ve been an anchor around a Twins staff that still doesn’t strike enough batters out to get away with dinger problems. For Gibson, part of the problem has been a spike in his platoon splits – lefties are destroying him this year. As a sinker/slider pitcher, you’d expect this, and he’s had sizeable splits his whole career, but this year, his results against lefties have gone from bad to gross.

No team in the AL’s given up more HRs than the Twins – the M’s are in 2nd, of course, 9 back of Minnesota. While Minnesota’s given up a lot of fly balls, the problem affects everyone, including GB guys like Gibson. I’ve been looking at park data for yet another post about Safeco, so I’ll say that this doesn’t appear to be just a case of awful pitchers pitching awfully; the Twins have given up more HRs at home, and a LOT more extra-base hits. I mentioned this way back in early July, but thanks to all the new data we have access to, there are a lot of ways to think about park factors. Tony Blengino’s batted-ball factors show Target Field as a good doubles park, but somewhat hard to homer in. But just this week, we got another way to think about this. Ex-M’s employee and saber-man-about-town Tom Tango and BaseballSavant guru Daren Willman came up with a new way to categorize really well-hit balls. They’re called ‘barrels’ – as in, when a batter really barrels up a ball. The definition combines launch angle and velocity such that the *minimum* ‘barrel’ has a slugging percentage of 1.500. These are elevated shots hit hard, so most HRs in the game qualify. Anyway, the point is: Target Field’s seen a lot of ‘barrels’ this year…even more than Safeco Field (they’ve had to pitch more in Target Field, so Safeco wins on a rate basis). I’m trying to square this circle wherein Blengino tells us that Safeco and Target are still limiting home runs with all of the actual home runs flying out of both parks. More on this shortly.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Smith, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: Paxton

Speaking of Buxton, he’s had a very rough year and ended up getting sent back to AAA earlier, but man, he’s looked like a different hitter since returning. He’s hitting .300/.355/.686 in September (77 PAs). No, he’s not drawing enough walks and yes, the K rate is still vertiginous, but he’s driving the ball after spending most of the year popping the ball up to infielders.

As you probably expect, the M’s leader in ‘barrels’ is Nelson Cruz, who’s hit 60 of them. Exactly half have come at home.

The Astros welcome the Angels to Houston, with Alex Meyer and Doug Fister facing off right as the M’s game starts. The Orioles host the D-Backs (who are thinking about canning their front office, apparently), while the Jays host the Yankees.

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