Game 156, Indians at Mariners

marc w · September 24, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Corey Kluber, 1:10pm

It’s a Sunday in September, so a game like this between an already-qualified Cleveland team and the out-of-it M’s would always get eclipsed by the NFL in general and Hawks fever more specifically. But the past 24 hours have ensured this game will have even less of an impact on the consciousness of the US sports fan. And that’s as it should be. The President’s bizarrely decided to go to war against the NFL and much of the NBA, giving the protests sparked by Colin Kaepernick and, more recently, Michael Bennett, not only more visibility, but more urgency. Baseball’s belatedly getting in on the act, with A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell taking a knee during the anthem; the M’s will get to see that soon, as they head to Oakland after today’s game.

Corey Kluber’s quietly posting one of the more remarkable seasons in recent baseball history. He comes into play today with a K-BB% of nearly 30%, a mark not even Clayton Kershaw’s reached. If the season ended today, he’d have a better K-BB% than Curt Schilling’s 2002, and the highest mark since Randy Johnson’s unearthly 2001 season. Perhaps surprisingly, he’s doing it without the kind of ridiculous raw stuff that powered Randy Johnson’s dominance. Kluber throws a four-seam and sinker, both around 93. By movement, the pitches are unremarkable, generating less horizontal AND vertical movement than average. By spin rate, Kluber’s sinker (his primary fastball) gets above average spin, but ranks behind guys like Andrew Triggs and Kendall Graveman. Of course, that’s not the pitch that makes him an ace. Kluber’s best pitch – by far – is his slurvy slider, a pitch that sweeps across the zone like Carson Smith’s. Like his fastball, the pitch doesn’t look THAT interesting by the raw numbers – its spin rate is nothing special, and it doesn’t have the kind of gap in vertical movement between his fastball that might make it a whiff-inducing pitch. However he does it, it’s one of the most remarkable pitches in the game. As I’ve talked about at length, the pitch types that get the most swings are fastballs and change-ups. Batters gear up to attack fastballs, and they swing at cambios because they are designed to look like fastballs. Breaking pitches get a lot of chase swings, but hitters that identify them often don’t swing; pitchers take advantage of this by dropping a curve into the zone for called strikes. Kluber throws his breaking ball out of the zone most of the time, but still manages to induce a swing on 60% of them.

Only Noah Syndergaard comes close, and his “slider” is really more of a cutter, without as much sweeping horizontal movement as Kluber’s. However he does it, Kluber’s slider is probably the best single pitch in the game right now, as Jeff argued earlier this month. Righties are slugging .092 on the thing this year, while lefties are at .176. Again, there’s no reason why a sinker/slider guy (which is reductionist, but hey, he throws a ton of both) should lay waste to lefties like this, but here we are. I have no idea what the Indians saw in Kluber when he was a middling starter in the Padres system, but he’s become something unique and remarkable. May the M’s one day pull off a similar trick.

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

Jean Segura sprained the middle finger on his right hand on that bizarre play last night in which Ariel Miranda tried to throw out a runner at 2B on a comebacker. It doesn’t sound serious, which is good, but it was one of the most unlucky/flukey injuries to a Mariner since Franklin Gutierrez was concussed on a pickoff attempt.

Game 154, Indians at Mariners

marc w · September 22, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Trevor Bauer, 7:10pm

Another outing from James Paxton, and another set of questions raised. It’s easy to say in the midst of a six-game losing streak, but this is not the way the M’s wanted to end the season. Their home slate ends with a three-game set against the white-hot Cleveland Indians, beginning tonight. It’s still been a fun season, as long as you didn’t pin your hopes on the expectations of a playoff run. The M’s are starting to show hints of who they’ll be when their big stars move on; not enough of them, sadly, but we’ve learned a thing or two about what may drive the M’s of 2020 and beyond.

That’s nice and all, but M’s fans can’t shake the feeling that things happen faster for other clubs. The Indians and Mariners were both terrible in 2010. But since 2013, the Indians have been above .500 every year, won 90 games three times, and won an AL pennant. This is NOT the story of a complete tear-down and then a savvy rebuild – they were a good team in 2013, but were led by Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez (?) and their youthful 5-win 2B, Jason Kipnis. Corey Kluber is essentially the only holdover to that club; Kipnis is still technically there, but he’s been absolutely awful and is now filling in at CF given a rash of injuries the Tribe’s suffered. They drafted Francisco Lindor, which is a big, big deal, but that’s only part of their successful rebuild-on-the-fly strategy. Turning Jose Ramirez from journeyman utility guy into one of the league’s best players doesn’t hurt.* The club’s posting the 2nd-lowest strikeout rate for batters behind the Astros, but the real driver of the Indians’ transformation has been their pitching staff’s development into the most whiff-tastic grouping the game’s seen.

They’re not perfect, but Cleveland’s K/9 and K% look like they’ll be MLB records, which is pretty remarkable for an AL team, and Jeff Sullivan said they may have the best rotation ever. The names have changed in Cleveland, but this has been a consistent strength of theirs going back to 2013-14, and it’s driving their best-in-baseball FIP and ERA. Having Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco atop the rotation doesn’t hurt, nor does a bullpen featuring Andrew Miller. But that’s just it: ANYONE could’ve had those guys at one time or another. Mike Clevinger was acquired for the immortal Vinny Pestano, Kluber in a 3-way deal involving Ryan Ludwick and Jake Westbrook, and Carrasco, while part of a Cliff Lee deal, had been relegated to the bullpen and seemed like a classic busted prospect. This team’s done an absolutely amazing job with a varied cast of pitchers, and while the M’s have talked a lot about controlling the zone, the Indians have absolutely dominated it.

The Tribe’s been careful not to pigeonhole their hurlers; there’s no one ‘Cleveland Way.’ Tonight’s starter, Trevor Bauer, certainly appreciates that, and he’s clearly in a better situation for him – and his own unorthodox, highly-analytical approach – than he was in Arizona. It seems like no team could extract more value from Bauer than the Tribe, and despite years and years of tinkering, and clear and manifest improvements in some areas, he remains…Trevor Bauer. His FIP has gone from 4.01 in 2014 to 4.33 the next year, down to 3.99 and 3.96 this year. His ERAs/runs allowed have remained stubbornly higher each year. The causes vary, but the results remain strangely underwhelming: he had a high BABIP in 2014, then too high a walk rate, then lower Ks, and now HRs AND BABIP problems. For a guy who is perhaps singularly unafraid of changing everything from repertoire to approach, it’s kind of remarkable to see these consistent issues, even if the specific causes vary.

This year, he’s having his best year by K% – and it’s not even close. He’s seemingly reached the potential he flashed at UCLA and in the minors, and the problems he had putting away righties seem to have been solved. But it’s like playing whack-a-mole: now lefties are driving the ball off of him even as his K-BB% to righties soars over 20%. For the second straigh year, he’s been among MLB leaders in the percentage of balls in play hit at least 95 MPH. To his credit, these aren’t going for “barrels” – they’re not 95+ with ideal launch angles. But that’s still a ton of hard contact, and even if a low percentage of them have been hit for HRs, the sheer volume explains why he’s suddenly got a HR problem. A big part of his K% spike has been the fact that he’s largely shelved the sinker he used extensively last year, especially to lefties. He’s also throwing a lot fewer cutters, especially to righties, preferring instead to go with four-seam fastballs (at 94) and his big breaking curve.

Since 2014 or so, he’s also shifted his release point, dropping down a tad and sacrificing some vertical rise for more run. Even within a season, he’s tinkering; Travis Sawchick noted he started throwing his curveball up in the zone in the second half which may be part of the reason for the dramatically improved results he’s had. Still, with so much change going on, it’s tough to know what to keep and what to ditch. I’m sure he could’ve given you a reason for going to a sinker in 2016, just as he could give you one for abandoning it now. For someone so interested in measurement and data, I’d think he’d want to test variables one at a time, but that probably doesn’t fit with what seems like a restless personality. In any case, he’s been especially tough on righties, while lefties have accounted for a majority of his HRs-allowed, and this may be a decent match-up for Yonder Alonso and Robbie Cano.

Francisco Lindor was picked 8th overall in 2011, 6 spots after Danny Hultzen. He’s a great SS and is sitting on 32 HRs this year, which will likely be his 2nd consecutive 6-fWAR season. Yyyyup.

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

* Turning utility guys into stars is the new market inefficiency. The Dodgers did it with Chris Taylor, the Astros with Marwin Gonzalez (and Jake Marisnick), the Indians with Ramirez, and the Nats have benefitted from Daniel Murphy’s transformation, even if it started while he was still in New York.

Game 153: Rangers at Mariners – 10 More To Go

marc w · September 21, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Cole Hamels, 7:10pm

Felix clearly didn’t have it yesterday, and despite a few good innings, unraveled in the 4th. Despite all of that, it’s nice to see his velocity is right back where it was at the beginning of the year, right around 91. He’s de-emphasized his four-seam fastball, a pitch he was relying on more than he had in years just before he hit the DL, so that’ll be something to watch in his next start. Despite the short outing and mediocre results, there were some things to like in Felix’s performance, and I’d say that fans are more nervous right now about Paxton and how HIS first appearance of his return to the line-up looked.

That says a lot about Paxton’s importance to the team vis a vis Felix, and the way our expectations for both have changed. Paxton may get a pass for his 1+ IP start 5 days ago, but he’s simply got to show something quite different tonight. Paxton seems really susceptible to mechanical problems, which is odd to me given how simple his mechanics look to the naked (and untrained) eye. Yes, he’s changed them markedly a few times, but he’s capable of repeating them well. And then he’ll come out and have something consistently “off” and he looks unrecognizable: velocity tanks, command goes south, etc. He’s very good about identifying and correcting them, but it seems like this happens frequently with him.

On the plus side, he seems to have right-handers pretty much figured out. Earlier in his career, he exhibited pretty normal platoon splits, especially in terms of K-BB% or just K%: he struck out lefties, and, when effective, managed contact against righties. Now, he’s simply blowing them out of the water, with a K% near 30% vs. RHBs, higher than his K% against lefties. An over-the-top motion was often seen as a way to counteract platoon splits, as the fastball’s movement (straight) didn’t tail on to the sweet spot the way a “normal” 3/4 delivery pitcher’s would. But as we’ve seen with Chris Sale and others, there’s often an advantage in deception when the ball isn’t released directly overhead. Paxton seems really hard for righties to pick up – at least when he’s “on.” Let’s hope he is in his final couple of starts this year.

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

Game 152: Rangers at Mariners

marc w · September 20, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Andrew Cashner, 7:10pm

Happy Felix Day. Let’s hope the festivities last a bit longer than last time, when the M’s limited Felix to 3+ solid innings as El Rey worked on rebuilding his stamina after missing so much time.

I spoke a bit about CF Guillermo Heredia in yesterday’s post. He’s perfectly good against lefties, but struggles against righties thus far in his MLB career. He’s a good but not great defender, but clearly has some modicum of value in the game. His opposite number in today’s game, Delino DeShields, is a good comparison, and maybe a version of what a “good” Heredia season would look like. He’s also a former Rule 5 guy. DeShields had some prospect sheen at one point, the result of a famous father and 83 stolen bases at one stop in the minors. His bat was streaky, and I think many assumed he’d never hit. After a down year, the Rangers plucked him from the Astros system (I really want to know what ratio of current MLB’ers spent some time in the Astros system) and he had a decent year for them. Nothing special, as DeShields’ lack of power makes it hard to put up huge offensive numbers – just like Heredia. Their peak simply can’t be that high, but their speed and defensive position raise their floor at the same time. DeShields was abysmal last year, providing the worst case scenario view for Heredia, but he’s bounced back this year, and has put up 2.5 fWAR thus far, solidly better than MLB average. He’s done it with a Gamel-esque combination of moderately high strikeouts and very little power, which is a bad start, admittedly, but he then adds a good walk rate and makes up nearly a win with his speed and baserunning ability. If Heredia really wants to ensure himself a spot on someone’s roster for 5-6 years, that’s where he needs to improve. His speed/baserunning runs above average stand at -1.6.

Beyond that, DeShields’ success shows that there are a variety of ways to add value when you can play a big-league-caliber CF, which is why he got opportunities even after scouts worried he’d never hit. The “no bat” thing got him left unprotected in Rule 5, while the “can catch/run” thing got him a big league chance. What’s fascinating is that *in that same Rule 5 draft* the Rangers lost a CF who’d also go on to post above-average seasons by fWAR. They acquired DeShields with the 3rd pick, and then lost Odubel Herrera to the Phillies at #8. Herrera went on to post a 4 win season the next year with a rebuilding Phillies club, and did it in a similar way to DeShields: Herrera struck out about 1/4 of the time, and while he had fractionally more power, it’s not enough to separate him from the Heredias and DeShields of the world. He didn’t have quite the same baserunning ability as DeShields, but a bit more pop and an even better defensive rating led to a surprisingly valuable season.

So, what’s the point? I have good news and bad news for Mr. Heredia. The good news is that it’s possible to turn in a very useful season with his profile. It doesn’t work at all in a corner, which is why I’ve been lukewarm on Gamel, but it absolutely can in CF. There are things Heredia needs to work on for it to actually happen, but they’re not things like “now be able to hit 25 HRs” or “cut your K% in half.” The bad news is: so can a hell of a lot people. Two CFs in a single Rule 5 draft have already reached what, the 90th percentile outcome for Heredia? An even better sometimes-CF used to play SS for the M’s before getting frozen out and dumped to the Dodgers in a change of scenery deal. The M’s have some speed/defense guys with bats that project…questionably in the majors. Heredia needs to hold them off and hope the M’s don’t look to the open market for an upgrade at the position the way they did last year.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Alonso, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Gamel, LF
9: Heredia, CF
SP: El Cartelua

Speaking of Rule 5 guys, the Astros UTIL guy Marwin Gonzalez is another Rule 5 guy turned above-average regular. The sometimes-3B entered play yesterday tied with Kyle freaking Seager in fWAR, and came out of it with a slight lead. Guess they should call him Morewins Gonzalez, amiright?

This is Marc, and I’d like to say the above note was written by a member of my staff, not me personally. We’ll find the culprit and deal with him/her severely.

Game 151, Rangers at Mariners – What Now?

marc w · September 19, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Martin Perez, 7:10pm

A rematch of the game back on the 13th in Arlington, tonight’s pitching match-up pits sinkerballer Mike Leake against lefty Martin Perez. Perez and Leake remain low K pitchers, but they get a fair number of groundouts and thus avoid huge HRs-allowed totals. Perez walks too many, however, while Leake doesn’t, and that makes Leake better.

Leake’s been great since joining the M’s, marking a rare improvement for a player upon joining the club. His durability makes the 2018 rotation look noticeably better, too. Taking on a portion of his contract essentially gets the M’s a do-over for the Drew Smyly acquisition; Smyly’s in his last year of arb next year, but given the late date of his TJ, it’s hard to see the M’s tendering him an offer. Paxton/Felix/Leake isn’t a world-beating top 3, especially given Paxton’s injury history, but it’s also much better than what the M’s have had to throw out there this season, as the M’s top three in terms of number of starts were Ariel Miranda, Yovani Gallardo and Paxton. Andrew Moore looks like he’s improving, but it still seems like something’s missing in approach. The M’s have given up the 4th-most HRs in baseball this year, the same as they did last year. The Tacoma Rainiers gave up the most HRs of any team in any classification of the affiliated minors, and they – like the M’s – play in a nominal pitcher’s park. Avoiding the long ball is going to be critical if the M’s want their pitching staff to push them over the top.

The thinking this year, of course, was that the pitching just needed to be OK – the position players were going to be the engine of the club, though they’d do it a bit differently. It worked for a while, as the M’s OF defense kept BABIP low (partially mitigating the HR barrage), and the bats were better than anticipated, racking up about 4 runs over average. As engines go, you’d prefer a bit more displacement, but at least they were above average, and they were fairly efficient, too – scoring more runs than base runs would’ve predicted. But in the second half, they’re far below average, pulling the season total below 0, and there simply isn’t any help left in the system. The Rainiers were one of the best hitting clubs in the minors, but much of that production came from guys who are already gone (Leonys Martin, Boog Powell, Tyler O’Neill) or already struggling in the majors (Taylor Motter). The M’s have selected two position players that have made it to Seattle since the 2010 draft: Mike Zunino and the unforgettable Tyler Smith, who was DFA’d after 16 at-bats this year (admit it: you’d forgotten). A huge chunk of recent draft picks has already left the org in order to win in 2017, so this number may not move a whole lot in the next few years (though Braden Bishop’s progress is very encouraging, and hooray for Kyle Lewis).

This looks like a colossal failure of player development, and while that WAS the story for much of this time period, I don’t think we know as much about the Dipoto era. This isn’t an exoneration of the group, but it’s an acknowledgement that they haven’t really had much of a chance. This is the downside of the relentless churning the front office did in the minors, picking up tons and tons of minor league vets and shifting players here and there throughout the year. It’s hard to work on development in an environment like that, and while that doesn’t completely get them off the hook, it’s a mitigating circumstance. The problem is that this year could’ve been critical in developing or identifying depth – for both pitchers and position players – for 2018. Due to injuries and a complete inability to stand pat, the M’s essentially had a lost year in PD. That’s going to limit their options going forward.

The M’s have a lot of needs next year, and they need to triage them well. Starting pitching’s way up there, of course, but they need a new 1B and a new OF as well. Trading O’Neill was easier when the M’s thought they had three cost-controlled OFs in Ben Gamel, Guillermo Heredia and Mitch Haniger. But since then, Gamel’s hitting .224/.259/.367 and Heredia’s hit .233/.307/.327. These two had issues with isolated power which seemed to be addressed at times in the first half, but those concerns are back and can’t be ignored. The M’s need to take some pressure off these two by bringing in another OF. Would Jarrod Dyson want to return, or will he try his luck on the open market? Will the M’s go for Camerin Maybin instead? The free agent OFs aren’t great, but the M’s need to find someone. 1B is a bit more interesting, as they both retain a “prospect” who plays that position and have watched the market for 1Bs absolutely crater. I’m not sure what Yonder Alonso will get, but whatever it is, the M’s can afford it. If Dave’s right and Jose Bautista won’t scare up any offers, you could see him taking a cheap one-year deal, too. All of which puts a bit more pressure on Dan Vogelbach, who simply needs to start hitting at the big league level, and he can’t do that from the bench. If we get one thing out of the last 11 games, I hope it’s 30-40 Vogelbach PAs. My fear is that he won’t get any until the M’s are mathematically eliminated.

There may not be enough time to settle the debate on whether Vogelbach’s a big leaguer, but they can re-start their examination. Then, Dipoto’s going to need to get creative to bring in a starter or two and an OF. But after a few moves, the M’s are going to need to pump the brakes a bit. They need to figure out what they have and what they need in the medium term, and it’s just harder to do that when you’re swapping out pretty much every pitcher in the system. They need to see if their vaunted development processes are working, or if they need to go study the Astros a bit more. They need to see if their first couple of draft classes adapt to their methods any better than the last few of Zduriencik’s cohorts. They need to do this, because while they can compete in 2018, it starts to look somewhat bleak after that. There’s a lot of salary coming off the books in the next few years, but there’s also some production leaving, too. The M’s will have some flexibility, but as they’ve learned, you can’t compete with the Astros/Indians if you’re not developing comparable talent.

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

Game 150, Mariners at Astros – On Going Gently, Good Nights, etc.

marc w · September 17, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Andrew Moore vs. Justin Verlander, 11:10am (Note: due to the Seahawks game, the M’s radio broadcast will be on AM 770 instead of 710)

The M’s are stuck at 3.5 games back in the wildcard race, but there are now just 12 games left in the regular season. It’s…ah…it’s not happening this year. The most important thing the M’s can do now is figure out who’s likely to be a part of a similar run in 2018, and that means figuring out what went wrong with the M’s pitching depth in 2017. Andrew Moore was one of the team’s top prospects and he was excellent in AA, pretty good in AAA, and then fell on his face in the big leagues. That happens to plenty of pitchers, but it’s critical that the M’s understand why it happened to Moore and what they plan to do about it. He was always better than he seemed when every other batter homered off of him and he was demoted and then lost his rotation spot. But the key is figuring out where he’ll slot next year, and what tweaks to his arsenal the M’s will make. Moore seems like a great learner, and I’ll be he has his own ideas of what to do, some of which he may be implementing now.

Justin Verlander’s turned back the clock since moving to Houston. In 2 starts and 14 IP, he’s given up 7 hits and just one run while striking out 16. After a dreadful August, the Astros are once again set up fairly well for the playoffs. Damn it.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Alonso, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Gamel, LF
9: Heredia, CF
SP: Andrew Moore

Congrats to Jacob Hannemann on his first big league hit in yesterday’s game. It was a quintessentially M’s-of-2017 moment, as the M’s mounted a challenge but ultimately fell short. A young player made a good first impression, but 95% of serious M’s fans probably didn’t know who he was, where he came from, or when.

Game 149, Mariners at Astros

marc w · September 16, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Dallas Keuchel, 10:05am

After yesterday’s disappointment, it’s kind of nice to have an early game. We can’t linger on James Paxton’s disaster of a start, as we’ve got to focus on…uh, going up against a Cy Young winner. Great.

Paxton threw about 50 pitches without his normal velocity, command, or effectiveness, and mercifully pulled after 1 1/3 IP. With a pitch limit of 60, expecting him to work deep into the game or to look like the Paxton from April of this year wouldn’t have been realistic, but yesterday’s game raised a lot more questions than it answered.

A month or so ago, I noted that Erasmo Ramirez had thrown more four-seam fastballs since being traded to Seattle. He was throwing more fastballs of all types, but more four-seamers in particular. Jake Mailhot at LL wrote an article on this for LL as well, expanding far beyond my sentence-or-two observation. Erasmo’s made two starts since Jake’s article at LL, and since then, he’s all but abandoned his four-seam. After throwing 22 4-seam and 22 sinkers against Baltimore, he’s thrown *94* sinkers over his last two games against just 12 four-seamers. As soon as we noticed a shift in his pitch mix, he’s made another one. Whatever he’s doing, it’s worked pretty well – he’s on a streak of 6 consecutive quality starts.

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

The M’s have their righty-heavy line-up to face lefty Dallas Keuchel. Keuchel absolutely kills lefties, so that’s probably appropriate. Still, Keuchel’s effectiveness is based on his ability to locate his sinker on the edge of the zone and on inducing swings on it when it’s below the zone. Jean Segura’s the best M’s hitter on pitches on the low edge of the zone and below, while Danny Valencia and Robbie Cano have wOBAs on such pitches below .200 (yeeesh). Oddly enough, if we just look at batters’ performance against sinkers – regardless of their location – then Cano and Valencia look pretty good, while Segura falls to 339th out of 351 hitters who’ve put at least 10 in play.

Congratulations to the Modesto Nuts who completed a three game sweep of Lancaster to win the California League title. The M’s affiliates had a rougher go this season, but they won a title last year (AA) and one this year (high-A). Modesto didn’t lose a game in the postseason, and hit incredibly well. Joe Rizzo, Kyle Lewis and Jordan Cowan all hit especially well. And with that, another year of minor league baseball comes to a close.

Game 148, Mariners at Astros

marc w · September 15, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton (!) vs. Charlie Morton, 5:10pm

A day after getting their heart and soul back from an extended DL trip, the M’s today activate their *best* player, lefty James Paxton. By fWAR, Paxton’s been the best player on the M’s by about a full win, and by RA9-WAR by more than half a win. It’s a counting stat, so Paxton’s already penalized for missing time like, uh, James Paxton, so that says something about the rate at which he accumulates production: when healthy, no one on the M’s comes close to Paxton’s level this year.

That’s…that’s a double-edged sword, though, isn’t it? Jeff had a good post today about which tranche of players on each team have contributed WAR. The Indians have the most as a team, followed by the Dodgers, so perhaps it won’t come as a huge surprise that those teams’ top 5 and 10 players are much better than other teams’ top 5 and 10 players. The Astros are also remarkably deep, having the 5th best group of 1st-5th-best players, and the single best collection of supporting stars, and the 5th best collection of depth players (players below the top 10 in WAR). The Mariners come in around the middle in each group, and thus come in around the middle in overall WAR. They have 7 position players at or above 2 WAR on the year, compared to the Astros 6. But those 6 players on the Astros combine for 24 fWAR, while the M’s top 7 add up to just 19. And while the M’s have just one pitcher above 2 WAR, the Astros have four of them.

That’s a big reason why the Astros are looking to officially wrap up the AL West during this series. They’ve been remarkable successful in developing talent through the minors, and thus not only do they have a number of great young players, but they’ve also been able to make a number of trades to shore up weaknesses they’ve had. They’ve turned their top prospects into productive regulars, and then they’ve gotten remarkable production from less-than-can’t-miss prospects like Jose Altuve or Brad Peacock. This ability to turn big-time prospects into at least starting-caliber players and then hit on a player development lottery ticket or two has been huge for the darlings of baseball right now, the Indians. Francisco Lindor was a top-100 prospect, and he’s now a superstar. But Jose Ramirez seemed like org depth until last year, and he’s a top-10 fWAR position player now. The Astros are getting contributions from George Springer, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa, but they’re also getting them from Altuve and Dallas Keuchel, whom essentially no one saw as future stars.

The M’s have a solid core of players; they’re not playing at last year’s level, but that’s partially balanced by improvements in the 6th-10th-place players. The problem is that their stars can’t compete with Houston’s, and they can’t compete with Houston’s sheer number of contributors. Other than that, it’s a pretty balanced contest. The M’s have developed a handful of players who essentially came out of nowhere to be contributors – Emilio Pagan’s one, and you can add Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia to that list too. In the past, the biggest star the M’s produced from outside of their top 10 was Doug Fister, whom they traded away before he was arb eligible. The emergence of Mike Zunino’s been a huge story this year, and an all-important player development win, but it’s impossible not to notice the difference in the quantity and quality of home-grown success stories between the two clubs. Sure, the Astros had a lot of high draft picks, but so have the M’s the past several years.

Morton looks like one of the better free agent pick-ups of the offseason, as if Houston needed further successes. As we talked about when the M’s saw him (against Paxton, actually) back in April, he’s seen a velo bump and now sits at 96 with his four-seamer and swerving sinker. That sinker’s the key to Morton’s continually-high ground ball rate, but after settling in for many years with K% rates in the teens (in the NL), he’s now scraping 27%, and thus his K-BB% is far and away a career high. This combination of strikeouts and grounders sort of reminds you of peak Felix, and while Morton isn’t quite at that level, he should easily pass 3 fWAR in a season marred by injury stints.

Of note, Morton’s shown remarkably reversed platoon splits this year, with lefties utterly lost against him while righties have been successful. Yes, a .100 point gap in BABIP explains a lot of it, but it’s there in FIP too – his K% and HR rates are just better against lefties. Lefties haven’t fared well against his sinker, but they’ve been particularly flummoxed by Morton’s curveball. It’s not a perfect comparison, but it reminds me a bit of the reverse splits put up this year by Astros’ relief ace Chris Devenski, whose fastball confounds lefties – they’re *slugging* .111 on his four-seam fastball this year. I have no idea why the release point or mechanics with these guys so confuses opposite-handed hitters, but I have a hunch the Astros do.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Alonso, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Gamel, LF
9: Heredia, CF
SP: Paxton!

Game 147, Mariners at Rangers – The Return of the King

marc w · September 14, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

FELIX vs. Andrew Cashner, 5:05pm

:clears voice: Happy Felix Day.
Man, that feels good to say again. Felix’s season hasn’t gone at all like we’d hoped, so assessing where he is now is an important part of how the M’s view their 2018 season. Felix remains the heart of the club, even if he’s far from its most productive member. There’s been a lot of talk this year about how Felix’s slide means his days as an above-average pitcher are over, and I get that, but pitchers are strange. Let’s hope the King is strange, too, and that just continuing 2-year trend lines below replacement level looks silly next year.

Hell, his opponent today is a good example of this. Cashner teased with his high-90s velocity with the Padres, but while he put up decent FIP-based stats for years, he never quite made the leap to staff ace that many expected. BABIP struggles in 2015 and then 2016 led him to post 2 straight below-replacement level seasons by RA9-based WAR, and with his velocity dropping fast, the Pads flipped him to Miami last year, whereupon he put up perhaps his worst stretch of pitching as a professional. He was released by the Marlins and struggling with injuries, but the Rangers signed him to a one-year deal because their pitching coach was convinced he could unlock something. He was activated in April (against the M’s, actually), and while his velo is lower than ever, and though his K:BB ratio is abysmal, he’s got an RA9-WAR of 4.2 on the year. 4 wins! Yes, yes, FIP still doesn’t buy it, but not many runs have scored on Cashner this year, despite his inability to miss bats. After two years of getting BABIP’d to death, he’s morphed into a contact manager, at least temporarily. Part of the story there is a shift in how he uses his fastballs, throwing his sinker more to same-handed batters and his four-seam to opposite-handed bats. This is what the “numbers” (pitch type platoon splits) would suggest, but surprisingly few teams do it. His change is still a decent pitch, but he ditched his slider for a harder cutter, and that seems to have helped him this year.

If Felix can stay healthy, can he figure out his HR problems? As a pitcher who’s made countless adjustments thus far, I don’t really see why not. Age and injuries are formidable foes, of course, but Felix doesn’t have to be royal again to be effective. The story of the past few years has been Felix’s ineffective fastball(s). After years of dominating lefties with the game’s best change-up, lefties started to batter his fastballs, especially in fastball counts. Righties have gotten into the act now too, even as they continue to struggle against Felix’s change. He’s thrown fewer and fewer fastballs, but the ones he HAS thrown just get hit harder and harder. We know where the problem is, so now he just needs to adjust. One potential could be the cutter that’s he’s toyed with off and on for years – something to give very different movement to his sinker. It’s his sinker that’s been the primary offender, and I said he should consider moving back to his four-seamer and throw it up in the zone more, but as I mentioned the other day, the league as a whole is hitting those pitches more better now. Felix has gotten hit especially hard up in the zone (sorry Felix! Don’t listen to me!), but I think he can learn to nibble the way Zach Davies (and others) does and get some bad contact on pitches just out of the zone. As a guy with a splitter-like change, that should be easier for him than most: he can already induce swings on out-of-zone pitches. He’s just got to keep his fastballs out of the center of the zone, even if that means a few more balls and a few more walks. That’s where the cutter could help – once batters think armside movement will take a pitch out of the zone, say, a cutter could bring it back to the corner. Once hitters look for *that*, then they’ll be more like to swing at sinkers as they dart out of the zone. Rinse/repeat.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Alonso, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Gamel, LF
9: Heredia, CF
SP: FELIX HERNANDEZ.

Modesto beat Lancaster in extra innings last night 8-5 on a three-run shot by local kid Jordan Cowan. That gives the Nuts a 2-0 lead in the Cal League championship series, and a win would help erase the bad taste the 2017 MiLB season’s left. RP Art Warren touched 96-97 in the 8th according to Bobby DeMuro, who was at the game.

Speaking of bad tastes, the M’s former #1 prospect Luiz Gohara recently made his MLB debut for Atlanta after rising from high-A ball all the way through the minors. His second start was last night, opposite Max Scherzer and the Nats, and the young Brazilian pitched a gem, going 6 IP with 6 hits allowed, 2 runs (1 earned), no walks and 6 Ks. He was efficient with his pitches, allowing him to sit at 97-98 with his fastball into the 6th. He threw several change-ups along with a slurvy slider. He’s still somewhat raw, and his fastball command isn’t there, but…he was in A ball this year, and is now sitting comfortably in the high-90s against Anthony Rendon and the Nats. No, Gohara wouldn’t have had this season here, but that doesn’t make this deal any easier to forget. This one could sting, and sting for a while, particularly given that the primary return for Gohara (Mallex Smith, who became Drew Smyly), will likely never pitch in an M’s uniform. Sigh.

Game 146, Mariners at Rangers – Shohei Otani

marc w · September 13, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

My Clique vs. Martin Perez, 5:05pm

The M’s remain 3.5 games behind the Twins in the wildcard chase, and while it’s fun to see how well Mike Leake’s adjusted to the AL, their odds of winning this particular race remain slim. As such, it’s not a shock that M’s fans now have a great distraction from 2017’s frustrations: Shohei Otani is going to be posted. There are two main reasons to think the M’s could be in the running to win the right to offer him an absurdly below-market-value contract.

First, there’s the M’s demonstrated interest. Jerry Dipoto attended Otani’s first start of the year the other day along with the M’s scouting director, Tom Allison. As a two-way player who’s currently a starter and DH, an AL team may make the most sense for him, as he could rack up more total ABs in the junior circuit than he would in the NL. A former OF, a team could conceivably use him in an OF corner, but given his (non-arm) injury history, I think most would be loathe to expose Ohtani to that much risk. The M’s history with Japanese players and Seattle’s spot on the West coast with non-stop flights to Japan may help a bit, too.

Second, and perhaps much more importantly, Ohtani can’t make his initial decision based on his initial contract. Last year’s changes in the CBA affected the posting system in a way that seemed designed to personally impact Otani. Previously, 16-23 year olds were subject to the international bonus pools, designed to stop teams from lavishing multi-million dollar deals on teenage prospects in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Players older than 23, and thanks to the NPB’s rules on free agency, it was essentially impossible to have a player posted younger than that, weren’t subject to that system, and could sign with the highest bidder. That’s why, say, Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish generated huge posting fees and signed significant major league contracts. It’s why Yoenis Cespedes could sign a 4-year deal and reach free agency faster than a regular draft pick or international signing. The new CBA raises the age to which the international bonus pool rules apply to 25. Otani’s age? 23. Thus, Darvish/Tanaka/Cespedes money is officially off the table, and posting fees themselves are now capped at $20 million. Whichever team signs him is going to get a ridiculous bargain, and at least at the outset, a willingness to break the bank for a long-term contract isn’t relevant the way it usually would be.

But wait, haven’t a bunch of teams blown past the international bonus pool caps, accepted the penalties, and gone about their business? Why wouldn’t some team thrown $100 million at Otani if the penalty means they’d have to take a break on signing international 16-year olds for a while? The new CBA prevents that as well, by turning the bonus pools into hard caps. If you wanted to design a set of rules *specifically* to prevent Shohei Otani from coming to MLB in 2018, I’m not sure you could’ve done better than what the league and player’s union did last year. And yet he’ll be here next year.

That doesn’t mean that teams aren’t feverishly working to get around the restrictions they agreed to in the CBA. Dave Cameron’s article notes that a team could have an under-the-table agreement to sign a multi-year extension, though that would probably have to wait until after Otani’s first year in the majors – otherwise, MLB would likely revoke the contract as an obvious attempt to dodge the rules. He further mentions both opt-outs and an opt-IN to arbitration, so if the player thought he could make more than his contract through arbitration, that option would be available; Jose Abreu’s contract with Chicago had this, and he used it to get a small raise this year. Players like Chris Sale and Evan Longoria signed team-friendly extensions soon after arriving in the majors, and one-time Astros 1B Jon Singleton famously signed an extension while still in the minors. Otani won’t BE in the minors, and MLB will probably police any extensions given out as soon as he steps onto a big league field, but if they didn’t stop Singleton’s extension, they’d have a hard time preventing a team from giving Otani a much bigger paycheck fairly soon. The question is if that’s going to sway him. Kate’s article at LL talks about his spartan lifestyle and lifelong dream to play in MLB. Would making the league minimum for 3 years while, I don’t know, Marc Rzepczynski earned 10 times that eat at him?

Given these restrictions, what would the M’s best, uh, pitch to Otani be? Otani would presumably like to live somewhere nice, something Seattle could offer. He’d probably like an agreement in place about hitting/DHing, something the M’s could conceivably do, even with Nelson Cruz around for 2018. Finally, he may want to play for a contender; somewhere offering very good odds on reaching baseball’s biggest stage. That one’s going to be tougher for the M’s to compete on. Now, because of previous penalties, some of the biggest competitors for Otani’s services – the Dodgers, Cubs, Astros- are restricted from going above a measly $300,000 this year. If Otani wants to play for LA, and he wanted to out of high school, then he’ll either need to take $300,000 as a signing bonus (as opposed to ~$10,000,000 from another team) or LA’s lawyers will need to get pretty creative. The Yankees and Dodgers simply can’t outspend everyone, and the M’s still have their bonus pool money, but it still may be a tough sell. This is one side of the GM job that’s so hard for outsiders to evaluate, but is so critical: how good is a GM at getting what he/she wants? I think Jerry Dipoto can present a very good case that his organization has historical links to Japanese baseball icons, that it works hard to take care of those players, and knows the NPB well. I’m not sure that they’ve done as much as some other teams to strengthen those ties, and I hope that doesn’t hurt them here.

John Trupin’s article at LL notes that Dipoto mentioned that he was scouting some *other* pitchers on the Nippon Ham Fighters, which sounds like a ridiculous statement, but might be key to the M’s pitch. I wonder if the idea isn’t to sign 2 or even 3 players at once. Otani could take a buddy to MLB, and the M’s would get still more pitching depth. If you want to get sneaky, you could envision a scenario in which the M’s worked out another deal where the over-25 pitcher would get an inflated deal and essentially give some of it to Otani. This practice happened a lot in the days before the international bonus pools came into effect, with extra money going to trainers or even international scouting directors. MLB investigated these, so they’ve got experience in policing this, so it’d be insane for a team to try and get away with it. Still, the idea of taking on a teammate might help the M’s separate themselves from the mass of teams offering literally everything they’re allowed to offer. So, if the M’s want to be in this fight, and they do, they should maximize their chance by presenting themselves as NPB friendly as possible. Iwakuma’s contract includes things like first-class plane tickets to Japan 8 times a year or whatever, so they could include those, and perhaps provide housing in Seattle’s insane market. They can sign at least one more NPB player, preferably a teammate, and they can commit to playing him at least part time at DH. I still think the two LA teams, Texas, Boston and maybe the Cubs have a better shot, but the M’s aren’t almost certainly out of the running the way they were with Darvish and Tanaka.

Right, right, there’s a game on soon. The M’s again face Martin Perez, the one-time prospect darling turned fairly steady #3-4 starter. His K rate never really improved, and it’s just difficult to be a contact manager in Texas on a consistent basis, so while he had a decent ERA last year, he’s now *over*rated by FIP, as his ERA’s closer to 5. Mike Leake’s had two very encouraging starts in Seattle, and he got very close to 94 MPH at times in his last start. That’s higher than his peak velo in his first start for the M’s, which itself had a higher peak than any of his recent starts with St. Louis. This is a good trend.

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

With the lefty on the mound again, Danny Valencia gets the start at 1B, and Gamel moves to the 9 spot. Let’s hope Gamel’s recent power surge continued; he homered off of a lefty on Friday, in Leake’s last start.

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