Game 139, Mariners at Cubs

marc w · September 2, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Justus Sheffield vs. Kyle Hendricks, 11:20am

Happy Labor Day to all of you.

The M’s head to Chicago for a series that still means something to the Cubs. The M’s split 4 in Texas where both teams were just trying to see some of their September call-ups and avoid injuries. Unfortunately, the M’s didn’t quite manage that, as SS JP Crawford injured his right hamstring on Thursday and/or Friday, and he’s been sent back to Seattle for further tests, which is never a good thing. You have to assume that Crawford’s 2019 is now over. Getting Braden Bishop back from that lacerated spleen was good to see, and the ex-Husky drew a bases-loaded walk in yesterday’s easy win, but Crawford’s growth is exponentially more important to the M’s in 2020 – 2021. Please get healthy JP, and please, M’s – just rest him up. We’ll be fine if he doesn’t come off the IL as soon as the 10-day period is over.

So, Justus Sheffield’s back for his first start since that intriguing/frustrating/encouraging outing against the Yankees. For the first time in his very brief MLB tenure, he looked like a pitcher who could be an effective starting pitcher. He used his slider to get whiffs against right-handed batters, while sneaking strikes looking with his fastball. This Cubs line-up is much less righty-dominant than the Yanks’ was, with Jason Heyward, Anthony Rizzo, and Kyle Schwarber all hitting lefty. But it’s a line-up with a lot of power, and so it’s imperative that Sheffield avoid spots with the fastball that batters can elevate and drive. The HR that Mike Ford hit off of him in Seattle wasn’t in a terrible location, but he muscled it out of the yard. If there’s any saving grace, it’s that that ball probably would be an out in deep right in Chicago.

Kyle Hendricks is a remarkable soft-tossing righty who’s thrived in the age of the juiced ball. He generally uses just a sinker, a four-seam fastball and a change-up, none of which regularly exceed 88-89. While he’s given up a few HRs, he limits walks, and then a combination of a great defense and weak contact help him limit base hits. It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t *look* sustainable, but he’s been doing it his entire career, and is closing in on 1000 innings pitched.

1: Smith, RF
2: Fraley, CF
3: Seager, 3B
4: Murphy, C
5: Vogelbach, 1B
6: Moore, SS
7: Gordon, 2B
8: Bishop, LF
9/SP: Sheffield

I’d say playing Bishop in LF is a good way to reduce any value he could add to the club, but that’s a quibble. Frankly, Fraley needs these ABs and looks in CF more right now. The M’s need to figure out who their starting CF will be next year, and Bishop may be a 4th OF. The bigger question is what to do with Mallex Smith, but they’ve seen plenty of Smith, and precious little of Fraley, so c’mon Jake, show us something.

Game 136, Mariners at Rangers – Soft-Tossing Lefties and the Statistics that Love Them

marc w · August 30, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Kolby Allard, 5:10pm

After Felix’s solid if unspectacular start yesterday produced a decent road win, the M’s look to continue their run with another win in Texas today. Today, the M’s turn to their opening day starter, Marco Gonzales. After his last start, I wrote about how difficult it’s been to describe his season, as the advanced metrics are all over the map in terms of his value. Just yesterday, Craig Edwards wrote about Marco in a post crowning him the King of Soft-Tossing Lefties. Fangraphs’ version of WAR rates Marco very highly, as it omits the one big problem Marco’s had: he’s given up a ton of base hits.

Marco’s made 28 starts, and you can neatly divide his season into two halves. In the first, he allowed 89 hits and 54 runs in 77 1/3 IP, with 9 HRs allowed. He was fairly stingy (especially for 2019) with the long ball, but batters hit the ball hard and thus he always had men on base. Even with a fairly low walk rate, his walks+hits per inning pitched was 1.435. In the second half, he’s allowed 88 hits in 86 2/3 IP, with 8 HRs allowed and a WHIP of 1.246. A lot of this is BABIP related, and the replacement of Tim Beckham with JP Crawford at short, but it’s interesting that even in the “good” half, he’s allowed more hits than innings pitched. For decades, that would be normal, it wouldn’t merit a mention. But we’re now at a point where the entire league allows fewer hits than IP, and racks up more strikeouts than hits. Marco’s a throwback, and does neither. That doesn’t make him bad, I don’t think, but I fear it’s going to make him really streaky, a fact that seems like a fairly obvious thing to point out after his crazy year (April was awesome! May was awful!).

Is this what soft-tossing lefties do? Essentially create a bend but don’t break defense by allowing baserunners, but don’t let them score? Even on that scale, Marco’s strand rate is sub-par, because he can’t rely on strikeouts to help him out of tough spots. But more broadly than that, even soft-tossing lefties don’t have to pitch to contact. When he was at his peak in 2015, Dallas Keuchel had an above-average K rate, and had more IP than hits-allowed. He did that several times, before reverting to a more Marco-like approach in 2018 and now in 2019. There’s no doubt that Gonzales’ defense hasn’t done him many favors this year, but it’s also clear that Ryan Yarbrough’s remarkable 2019 isn’t due solely to his defense in Tampa. Some soft-tossers figure out how to reliably generate weaker contact or to miss bats (or both). Marco hasn’t quite done that yet, but he certainly could.

At one point, it looked like Marco Gonzales’ pathway out of soft-tossing purgatory was just to start throwing harder. When he was acquired, he really did have noticeably higher velocity than he’d shown with the Cardinals. He averaged over 92 MPH in 2017, for example, and so we thought he might matriculate at hard-throwing lefty graduate school. But he’s given all of those gains away, one of those weird things that happen to pitchers from time to time.

Today’s opponent, Kolby Allard, knows all about that. A first-rounder for the Braves out of a Southern California HS, Allard showed solid velocity in the 92-93 range, and paired with great command, he seemed like a good bet to rise through the system quickly. He *did* rise quickly, but at some point, that plus velocity got left behind. When he made his MLB debut with Atlanta he averaged just under 90 MPH with his four-seam fastball, and got annihilated. He didn’t show a ton of life on the pitch in the minors this year, and thus he was a great change-of-scenery pick-up by the Rangers at the break. At the time, I wondered if Texas was the right organization to unlock Allard’s potential given their struggles with once-heralded prospects like Ariel Jurado and Yohander Mendez. It’s very early yet, and despite a great FIP, he’s still nothing special given his actual runs-allowed. Buuuut, there are signs he’s doing things differently. First, he’s taking the Marco-in-2017 approach of throwing a lot harder. He’s added a full 2+ MPH to his four-seamer, and is up over 92 on average. Second, he’s done the same thing Lance Lynn did upon moving to Texas, and that’s to shift his position on the rubber, moving out towards the edge a bit more. He’s got 23 Ks in his first 21 1/3 in Arlington, which, despite the tiny sample, is a lot more than the projection systems or my personal opinion would’ve predicted. Like Marco, Allard also throws a change-up and curve, though he lacks Marco’s cut fastball. [Edit: Uhhh, he totally has a cut fastball. He didn’t in Atlanta, but picked one up somewhere this year, whether in AAA in the Braves org or in the Rangers org.]

1: Smith, RF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Murphy, C
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Lopes, LF
8: Fraley, CF
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Gonzales

Game 135, Mariners at Rangers

marc w · August 29, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Lance Lynn, 5:10pm

Happy Felix Day!

This is the first one that’s felt sort of happy as opposed to elegiac or funereal, so that’s pretty cool. Imagine last year at this time if someone said that in late August of 2019, Felix will face off against Lance Lynn and both teams would be well out of the race. I can imagine the game seeming like the biggest waste of time, or a potential slugfest. It still may BE a slugfest, but after Felix’s solid performance against Toronto and Lance Lynn’s out of nowhere career year, this game turned out to be pretty interesting.

Lance Lynn signed a fairly cheap 3-year deal with arriving-earlier-than-expected Minnesota Twins before the 2018 season. Jake Odorizzi did the same, and it seemed like the Twins wanted some veteran leaders around their very young position player core. It didn’t go well. Odorizzi scuffled, and Lynn had his worst year ever. He’d never posted an ERA over 4 in his tenure with St. Louis, but in 100+ IP for Minnesota, his ERA was over 5, and his FIP was in the high 4s. A late season trade to Texas saw him improve, especially with bases on balls. He’d never been a control pitcher, but he couldn’t find the plate in the twin cities, but immediately could upon leaving. That’s carried over to 2019, where he’s setting a career high in strikeout rate and a career low in walk rate. With the exception of 2017, Lynn had always been rather stingy with home runs, and even THAT’s continued here in the year of the home run. It’s all made for a very unlikely 6-7 WAR season at age 32.

Felix is just a tad older at 33, and while I don’t think a 6-7 WAR season is in his future, it just goes to show that trends aren’t destiny. A year ago, it looked like Lynn was going to pitch himself out of the game in 2019. Now, he’s leading MLB in fWAR. So much of pitching is coaching and altering a game plan. Felix may have been resistant to that in the past, but a part of it may just be due to the deterioration of his relationship with the M’s. He’ll sign some small FA deal or maybe even a minor league deal, which would be quite a blow to his ego. But I would not be too surprised to see Felix have a perfectly decent season again somewhere. A lot’s made out of his declining velocity, but Lynn’s declined for a long time before making a U turn recently. What he needs is a bit more deception.

The one big thing the Rangers did immediately upon acquiring Lynn was to change his position on the rubber. He’d been releasing the ball around 2.5′ towards the 3B bag, and the Rangers immediately had him shift that to 3.5′. I’m not sure why that would have such a big impact, but it seems to be associated with a huge change in his results and peripherals.

Lance Lynn's Horizontal Release pt.

Spot the point at which Lynn was traded!

1: Smith, RF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Narvaez, C
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Fraley, CF
8: Moore, LF
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: El Cartelua

Julio Rodriguez cannot be stopped. He went 5-5 last night for Modesto, bringing his high-A line to a robust .587/.620/.891 in 50 PAs. He remains 18.

Game 134, Yankees at Mariners – Trade Showdown

marc w · August 28, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Justus Sheffield vs. James Paxton, 1:10pm

It just had to happen, didn’t it? James Paxton returning to Seattle to face the big return the M’s got when they traded him to New York, Justus Sheffield. Like a few more trades between these two clubs, the immediate returns haven’t quite lived up to expectations on both sides. A rise in home runs and walks have pushed Paxton’s FIP over 4, and as usual, his ERA’s a touch higher. He’s getting strikeouts, and he’s talented enough to shut down even great line-ups on the right day, but there’ve been quite a few off days for him. He’s made a short stop on the IL, but health doesn’t seem to be his big problem. To the extent that any issue he has is “big” it’s mostly BABIP. With the M’s, he had real problems with men on base, pitching way, way worse if anyone was on each year from 2015-2018. That hasn’t been the issue in 2019; rather, his nobody-on performance has just dropped to match his struggles with men on. I’m not sure if he’s challenging hitters to an unhealthy degree, or if it really is just BABIP luck. Whatever the cause, it reminds me of 2016, the first year Paxton became PAXTON. He’s dropped his arm angle slightly, and he has more horizontal movement on his cutter, which has had worse results, but I think everything starts with his fastball.

The same is true for Justus Sheffield, of course. His slider could be an interesting pitch, and it kind of reminds me of Sean Manaea’s, but it’s kind of irrelevant if he can’t figure out how his fastball can play effectively at this level. Part of that is command; a big reason it’s not successful yet is that he’s throwing too many balls with it. But beyond that, it SHOULD be an effective pitch within the zone given his angle and velocity. I think he’s always going to have some issues with right-handed batters, but he’s got to learn to fight them to a draw. It hasn’t happened in his microscopic big league sample, but even the minor league track record shows it’s a lingering issue. It doesn’t need to be. I’m pretty sure deception can be taught, and I think the M’s need to work on that now. Guys who would kill to have Sheffield’s raw stuff – Ryan Yarbrough for one – have similar arm angles and are having success at the MLB level. It’s not exactly common, but then, neither are lefties working 94-95 from the left side with some sink.

I keep saying it, but this is a huge test for Sheffield, and it’s going to be great to watch how he attacks a line-up with righties like Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres, and Gary Sanchez. We’ve seen some interesting signs from Yusei Kikuchi, although less of them last night, and now we need to see some adjustments from Sheff. The largest share of the burden here falls on the coaches. You can’t ask a young starter to just figure it out on his own. This is mostly a test of the M’s ability to make actionable adjustments on the fly.

1: Lopes, LF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Murphy, C
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Moore, RF
8: Gordon, 2B
9: Broxton, CF
SP: Sheffield

Keon Broxton starts in CF as he appeals his 2-game suspension. Jake Fraley sits against a tough lefty, with righties Lopes/Moore in the OF alongside the righty Broxton.

The big news in the minors is that the Arkansas Travelers’ playoff game on Sept. 4th will be broadcast live on Root Sports in the Seattle area, live, at 5pm. With Brad Adam and Jerry Dipoto on the call, apparently. As I mentioned yesterday, the Travs were in fine form as Ian McKinney k’d 10 in 5 outstanding innings in Arkansas’ 3-2 win. Ljay Newsome gets the start for Arkansas today against Astros top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley.
Modesto beat Stockton 4-3 with two late runs. Down 3-2 in the 8th, Keegan McGovern homered off of one-time M’s prospect Trey Cochran-Gill, and then the Nuts got another run off of him in the 9th to win it. The sinkerballing Cochran-Gill was a part of the M’s 2014 draft class that included Ryan Yarbrough, and was shipped to Oakland for Evan Scribner.
Tacoma snapped a losing streak thanks to a great start from Sean Nolin, beating Fresno 4-1. Andrew Moore starts for the R’s tonight.
West Virginia are playing 2 after getting rained out yesterday.
Vancouver’s Damon Casetta-Stubbs starts for Everett tonight against Spokane.

Game 133, Yankees at Mariners – Kikuchi vs. Tanaka

marc w · August 27, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Masahiro Tanaka, 7:10pm

After a fairly hard-fought loss last night, the M’s face off against the Yankees in a game pitting two of the bigger NPB stars against each other. Sure, sure: Shohei Ohtani’s the bigger name, but it at the time he was posted, Tanaka had Daisuke Matsuzaka-like hype. He’s settled in as an above-average #3, but he was pretty dominant in his first year, but just hasn’t been *quite* the same since an elbow injury scare in 2014. Part of that is velocity related, but not a ton: he was 93+, and now he’s more 91-92, but a larger part is his once super-human splitter becoming more and more mortal.

Batters didn’t hit above .200 on his splitter until *last year*. This year, they’re hitting .281 and have 8 HRs, that’s the second-most he’s given up on the pitch in his career, and given the new baseball, he’s probably going to break that record. The pitch is looking more like a regular change-up, with more horizontal movement and a bit less drop. As his four-seam fastball’s ride decreases, the gap between it and the splitter drops, and batters seem to like the resulting mishmash. Of course, the real problem in his arsenal is that fastball, which batters are really hitting hard now. He’s responded by throwing ever fewer of them, replacing the fastballs with sliders, which seems to be the general Yankee advice. That pitch has proven to be a life-saver for him, particularly against righties.

Yusei Kikuchi is making his first start since his remarkable complete game shutout of the Jays. It’s another line-up filled with tough hitters, but it’s what Kikuchi does that matters much more than who he’s facing. He’s been remarkably hittable, but he’s so much better than he’s shown. The M’s changed his delivery slightly, and that seems to have made a big impact. The team says his pitches have more life after the changes, but the velo’s down a tiny bit. His vertical movement has dropped in recent games, but it doesn’t quite coincide with the mechanical changes. That drop in vertical movement’s coincided with a tiny bit more horizontal movement, likely the result of a slight drop in arm slot. More noticeable, and something to watch tonight, is how he’s spotting his fastball and breaking balls. He seems to be using his fastball higher than he did much of the year, but it’s still a bit early and the changes a bit subtle to pinpoint it as a real driver of his improvement. He’s using a few more sliders now as well, but that can’t be the sole reason for his improvement, given his struggles with the pitch. It seems like the new delivery helps mask whatever pitch he throws, and I hope he gets more comfortable with it in September. That Jays game has to give him a much-needed confidence boost.

Whatever happens, it’s still been great to see his general improvement late in the year. The 2020 season may be fairly bleak as well, and we’re going to need something good to watch. JP Crawford could be one of those things, and I *hope* Justus Sheffield will be, but Yusei Kikuchi really should be. Jake Fraley, too. Anytime you’re ready to go on a hot streak, that’d be great (he’s got the night off tonight).

1: Smith, CF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Narvaez, DH
4: Seager, 3B
5: Murphy, C
6: Vogelbach, 1B
7: Lopes, LF
8: Gordon, 2B
9: Moore, RF
SP: Kikuchi

Justin Dunn overwhelmed Corpus Christi last night in 4 perfect IP (he struck out 8 Hooks), meaning he’s probably due up in Seattle on September 1st. Ian McKinney is trying to match him now, with 5 shutout innings against Corpus Christi with 10 Ks and no walks.
Visalia walked off Modesto in extras, and Fresno dominated Tacoma 9-3 as Dan Altavilla and Brian Ellington had bullpen outings to forget. Today, Sean Nolin starts for Tacoma tonight, and Modesto kicks off a series with Stockton. The Arizona League Mariners ended their season last night; they finished 22-34.

Game 132, Yankees at Mariners

marc w · August 26, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Matt Wisler/Tommy Milone vs. JA Happ, 7:10pm

Ahhh, yesterday’s win felt great. It’s nice that even in a lost season, the team’s capable of making you pump your fist or high five strangers. Walking around downtown Seattle yesterday, it’s hard to overstate just how visible the Canadian invasion of the city and T-Mobile is. People in Jays uniforms and shirts were *everywhere* and they’re heading home with a series loss. This weird annual tradition must be great for a lot of people, from Seattle area hoteliers to the Jays themselves. It has to be odd for the M’s players, and I could see it having some very small impact on their play. But for the ultra-competitive Marco Gonzales, I think it may have backfired. Gonzo looked motivated and pitched one of his best games in an M’s uniform yesterday.

One of the recurring themes on the old blog this year has been what to make of Marco Gonzales. This is where we typically dig in to some statistics or trends to help put his performance in context, but this year, that’s just adding to the confusion. What do I mean? By FIP, which looks only at strikeouts/walks/home runs, Marco’s had a great season – he’s essentially followed up on last year’s breakout by surpassing last year’s WAR total, standing at 3.5 fWAR today. Baseball Reference’s WAR formula starts with RA/9, and attempts to correct for park and team defense. Those last two adjustments are pretty important, and they pull Marco up to 1.9 WAR, or essentially right at league average. Baseball Prospectus’ DRA formula is based on linear weights, or counting up all of the hits/walks/outs etc. a pitcher’s given up, and then adjusting and regressing for everything from park to umpire to batter to weather. When they do all of THAT, Marco comes out at a DRA of 6.05, good for a WAR(P) of *negative* 0.4. Three big WAR formulations, and we’ve got a replacement-level scrub, a league-average hurler, and an all-star.

We can just forget all about this WAR stuff, right? What about plain-old ERA? By that measure, Marco’s at 4.17. But if we count unearned runs and measure his RA/9, it’s nearly 5, at 4.94. However you plan to tackle a question like, “How good has Marco Gonzales been this year?” you’re confronted with some challenges like what to include and what to exclude. FIP largely excludes balls in play, under the rightish but not 100% accurate idea that pitchers don’t have a lot of control over how often balls in play are converted into outs. RA/9 WAR like BBREF’s includes everything, from unearned runs to bad sequencing luck. There’s no real right or wrong answer, and in 99% of the cases, they tend to arrive at the same basic answer. But not so with Marco.

This isn’t the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last. A few years ago, the great Sam Miller had an article at ESPN talking about how the three systems were hopelessly split on Arizona’s Robbie Ray, with DRA loving him, RA/9 hating him, with FIP somewhere in the middle.* But even in that case, everyone agreed he’d had SOME positive value. It was just an argument over how much. Here, we can’t even agree on that. What’s going on? While Marco doesn’t have a great K:BB ratio, he’s been stingy with home runs, and since they’re weighted so heavily in FIP, he comes out looking quite good. Essentially, Marco gives up a heck of a lot of base hits, but hasn’t allowed a ton of runs – and those runs that HAVE scored on him have been charged as unearned more frequently than normal. All of those base hits are getting added up in DRA, and they push his total-average-against or wOBA-against higher. That accounts for a bunch of his poor DRA, but certainly not all of it.

Marco’s TAv-against is .262, ranking 56th out of 79 qualified pitchers (#79 is Yusei Kikuchi). It’s that context stuff that’s dragging him down; DRA expects, given the kind of batters he’s seen and the places he’s pitched that just about anyone could stumble into a TAv-against of .262. Is that realistic? I don’t really know, but I looked at 20 pitchers (including Marco) with similar TAv figures, ranging from .255 to .267. As a whole, the group has an ERA of 4.40, a FIP of 4.33, and a DRA of 4.83. Because we’re only looking at *qualified* pitchers, there’s a pretty big survivorship bias, as all of these pitchers have been successful enough to get a lot of starts (it’s a low bar for some teams, but it’s a bar). Hence, I’m not too shocked to see a lower ERA, just like I’m not surprised to see a low FIP. Beyond that, it’s a wildly disparate group, from strikeout maven Matthew Boyd of Detroit hanging out with strikeout-allergic Brett Anderson. Robbie Ray’s in the group, as is Homer Bailey and Dylan Bundy. Their RA/9s range from 4.29 to 5.92, and their DRAs range from 3.4 all the way up to 6.8. I’d love to know more about what’s dragging Marco and Ivan Nova down (and pushing Joe Musgrove up), but the average RA/9 in this group is 4.84, essentially dead on the average DRA.

Today, the M’s face another pitcher that DRA hates, ex-Mariner JA Happ. Happ’s creeping up on negative 2 WAR by BP’s formulation, the result of a DRA over 7. For the record, FIP isn’t terribly impressed either, giving him a 5.69, good for 0.7 fWAR. The problem here is home runs, as Happ’s allowing well over 2 per 9. His 31 HRs allowed tie him for 4th-most in the game along with Yusei Kikuchi, and just three back of the leader, Mike Leake (it’s been a bad year for M’s pitchers). The bulk of the damage has come against his four-seam fastball. In his career, he’s given up a .413 SLG%-against on the pitch, but this year, it’s way up to .627, thanks to 23 HRs-allowed on that one single pitch. The pitch has had strongly positive pitch-type run values for several years, but they’ve all tipped negative this year. His velocity’s down, I suppose, compared to his great years in Toronto, but by less than 1 MPH. The pitch is a tad straighter, but there’s no obvious red flag in movement or velo. His park plays a role, I’m sure, and then there’s the baseball, but it’s noticeable that he wasn’t destroyed in 2017, the last time the league played with a new, different, batter-friendly ball. I’m a bit surprised the Yankees – a club that eschewed four-seamers in favor of breaking balls in recent years – hasn’t had him rein in his four-seam usage. As you’d expect, righties are doing the most damage because righties see more four-seamers. He throws more sinkers to lefties, and thus has extreme platoon batted-ball splits – lefties hit the ball on the ground (but if they get it in the air, it’s going for a dinger), while righties hit a lot of fly balls. This just isn’t the kind of year where you can give up a ton of fly balls and succeed.

1: Lopes, LF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Murphy, DH
6: Narvaez, C
7: Fraley, CF
8: Moore, 2B
9: Broxton, RF
SP: Wisler/Milone

Tacoma’s home schedule is over. They dropped their final game 2-0 to Las Vegas on a 2R-HR by ex-A’s OF Nick Martini. I say “ex-As” because he was DFA’d today to make room for Seth Brown, who was called up. Wonder if Jerry Dipoto’s already asking about acquiring him…

Tacoma’s in Fresno tonight, but the big prospect interest in the system is Justin Dunn starting for Arkansas against Corpus Christi.

* The debate’s kind of moot now, as DRA was reformulated subsequent to the article, and rescinded all of the praise it had heaped upon Mr. Ray, changing his 2.95 DRA to 4.83.

Game 131, Blue Jays at Mariners – Return of the King

marc w · August 24, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Wilmer Font/Brock Stewart, 6:10pm

HAPPY FELIX DAY.

Bo Bichette did his best, and the infernal corvids tied the game in the 6th, but the M’s came right back thanks to the bat of Dee Gordon (?) and scratched out a win. The Jays have young pitchers, but they’re not quite ready to make the club competitive, despite their young position-player core.

JP Crawford’s home run was a key moment, and a great sign going forward. I mentioned yesterday that he was in another hot streak, and it’s great to see. He was still a productive player even when his average dropped below .240, but he’s markedly better when his value comes from more than walks and defense. He’s got the ability, but he just suffers from prolonged slumps. Part of growth, part of a hitter’s aging curve, is adapting more quickly when pitchers challenge them or adjust their plan of attack. I hope next season will have a better ratio of hot streaks to cold.

As encouraging as Crawford’s been, I’m less and less sure about Sheffield. To be sure, in mid-May or so when he was struggling in AAA, if you’d told me he’d have this kind of outing, I’d take it in a heartbeat. But the more we see him, the more I’m worried that his fastball/slider combo isn’t quite potent enough to make him a middle-of-the-rotation starter, let alone a #2. It’s not bad, and I’m not about to suggest the M’s try him in the bullpen. But I’ve been worried that he needs more to attack right-handed bats, and I’m even more worried about that now. This isn’t to say the old bromide about improving his change-up or developing another pitch. I mean, that’d be wonderful, but the concern is more basic than that: they’re seeing his primary pitches far too well, and doing more damage. With his low arm angle, he’s been much better against lefties, and any improvement in command/control should help him be a deeply unpleasant match-up for lefties. But righties…they’re not missing his fastball, and they did most of their damage off of the slider yesterday. It’s just 4 innings, and the slider’s a solid pitch. But I still think the M’s need to redesign the fastball to work better with that slider.

All of that’s for the future, though. Sheffield and Crawford and Kelenic and Juliooooo are, we hope, a part of the next good M’s team. Today’s game isn’t about that at all. It’s about honoring the M’s past, and the M’s greatest competitor and champion of a barren era. That it comes during one of the annual infestations of Jays was annoying, but I think I’ve come around. I worried that Felix would never face Bo Bichette or Vladito. These guys figure to be playing in 15 years, in a game that may look quite different. But they’ll have faced Felix. Sheffield and Crawford will have played with Felix. He’ll be the link between the pain of 2005-2019 to whatever glory the M’s may stumble into in the future.

Do you know how much charisma and will it takes to make this :gestures at the M’s history: tolerable? Why are any of us still here, beyond the accident of our birth or a great season that’s receded far into the past? What grabs your attention about this slow, stately game? Felix is the reason I’m still here, and I say that having lived through the M’s worst and best seasons. I’d probably still call myself a fan, but I wouldn’t be doing any of this; I’d be focused on the Seahawks, same as most people around here. Felix made the game come alive; I keep thinking that his bearing, his movement was like an interpretive dance for leverage. When he got a key strikeout in a big moment, he led us in cheers. When he’d go on one of his runs, he was appointment television. We all know he’s not that guy anymore. He now views the game through a business lens, just like so many others do. He’s not commanding a throng of followers, he’s not the high priest of baseball anymore. He’s applying for a job next year. Even Kings have to settle.

A part of me wants to be mad at all of this. The relationship between the club and the King ruined. Another lost season, and a meaningless appearance in front of a horde of drunken Canadians. It all feels cheap and undignified. But I hope the full house rouses him, and I hope the King reaches back to make T-Mobile his house once again. This is another opportunity for a bunch of youngsters on the M’s team to understand what this guy meant to so many, and how to compete and wear your heart on your sleeve for an entire region of fans. If the coaches and GM never quite “got” Felix or found him difficult, I hope the players take the opportunity to learn whatever they can. I hope he whiffs Vladito on a great change-up, providing a great lesson not only for, say, Sheffield or Wisler, but for Vladito as well. I think Felix makes baseball *better.* Whatever happens tonight, it was better for having Felix in it. Hopefully, this isn’t Felix’s last start, so we can say goodbye another time. But I’ve never been so happy to see him back. Shut up some Jays fans, my King.

1: Smith, RF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Narvaez, C
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Lopes, LF
8: Fraley, CF
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: El Cartelua

Brock Stewart was just recalled to pitch this one behind the opener, Wilmer Font. Stewart’s a righty with an even lower arm slot than Sheffield, and features a similar fastball/slider combo. He pitched for the Dodgers org for years, making sporadic relief appearances for them as recently as this April. But he’s been stretched out a bit more by Toronto, and he’s done OK. He throws more strikes than Sheffield, and his slider has a different shape, more sweep and less drop. But the real issue for him has been the long ball. He gave up 3 in 5 1/3 IP in his last big league appearance, and then gave up 6 in his last 4 appearances in AAA. Just as with Sheffield, his low-slot sinking fastball and slider combo has made him really vulnerable to opposite-handed batters, so in this case, lefties. This is a great match-up for Seager and Vogie.

Game 130, Blue Jays at Mariners – The Invasion Begins

marc w · August 23, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Justus Sheffield vs. Trent Thornton, 7:10pm

Ryan Divish identifies this as one of the more interesting weekend series in a long while in this Times article, and I’m inclined to agree. Jake Fraley’s home debut coincides with the return of Justus Sheffield, whom we saw for a few ineffective innings earlier in the year, in the midst of a concerning slump. A demotion to AA seems to have done wonders for him, though of course you wonder how much switching to the old minor league ball had to do with that. Felix returns tomorrow to face the Jays young line-up, and we’ll get another look at the Jays young pitchers, many of whom are scuffling like their M’s counterparts.

That’s an issue, by the way. Fangraphs allows you to look at WAR generated by players under a certain age cap, and the M’s contributions from pitchers under 26 is the lowest in the league, and is actually slightly negative (sorry, Erik Swanson). Tonight’s game will be vital in how we view a statistic like that going forward. Right now, it’s mostly been accumulated by mid-tier prospects like Swanson and the vast sea of fungible relievers the M’s have picked up and discarded over the course of 2019. Matt Wisler’s looking like a real find, whereas Matt Festa and David McKay struggled. But this year was supposed to be about Sheffield, and watching him take control of a rotation slot. That hasn’t happened, hence the negative WAR total. But if his time in AA Arkansas fixed him, then you can write off the 2019 numbers as just some bad luck from guys who won’t play major roles in 2021. Sheffield *has* to play a role in 2021. The M’s pitching depth has to give them quality innings, if not now, then soon. So this is a big test, and a big opportunity for the young lefty: if his command has improved, then that makes his struggles in 2019 worth it.

Beyond his command and avoiding the base on balls (something that bedeviled him in Tacoma), I’d like to see how the M’s ask Sheffield to attack the Jays line-up. In his brief M’s debut, Sheffield’s four-seam fastball had a spin rate of 1,884 RPM, which puts him near the bottom in that category among everyone who’s thrown a pitch in 2019. There’s Wily Peralta, and then a bunch of position-players below him. This isn’t to say that the pitch is bad because of this; Michael Pineda isn’t TOO far away, as is Mike Montgomery. But it may help explain why the pitch isn’t generating a ton of whiffs. It’s not the only issue, of course – he was all over the place early in the year, so no one swung. It’s hard to whiff if the bat’s on your shoulder, but they didn’t even on the rare occasions when they DID swing. Sheffield’s movement reflects the low spin, too: there’s very little rise, and not a ton of armside movement given his low 3/4 arm slot. I’d be kind of intrigued to see him experiment with a sinker from that slot, though the entire league has suddenly gone off of sinkers.

Whatever he does, his fastball is critical as it sets up his slider, which is actually a HIGH-spin pitch. It’s been his calling card ever since he turned pro, but it’s only going to be effective when he can disguise it and when he gets ahead in the count. Because he was always behind, his slider was essentially neutralized. It’s been a good pitch when he can get to it, with gyro spin and some solid differentiation from the fastball. It certainly LOOKS like it’s been working for him in the minors, but again, this figures to be a great test of his newfound confidence and command. The Jays strike out a lot, just a tad less then the M’s, so if he has any semblance of command, he should miss some bats. There are still questions about how he’ll deal with righties, and the Jays have some good ones. This should be interesting.

On the other side is Trent Thornton, a super high-spin pitcher who came up in the Astros system before making his debut this year with Toronto. He throws average-ish 92-93 MPH fastballs, but tries to set up his ultra-high spin slider and curve. Brooks Baseball has him throwing those two pitches about equally, whereas MLB has it at about 90:10 in favor of the slider. I’m actually on MLBAM’s side here, which is a rarity in pitch classification debates, but the pitch that Brooks is calling a curve looks oddly like his slider. Whatever you call it, it’s thrown around 80 MPH and misses plenty of bats. He will throw a very rare slow curve in the low-mid 70s, and then a hard cutter at 88 or so with about 6″ of vertical movement separating it from his four-seam fastball.

Like Sheffield, he’s got a low arm slot, but his fastball looks quite different – it has more ride and it’s arrow-straight. Their biggest similarity is a struggle with walks. Thornton’s walk rate is approaching 10% this year, after he came up as an extremely low-walk guy in the minors. And like Sheffield, that’s meant that batters just aren’t swinging very much – his swing rate is well below league average. Thornton is a big fly-ball pitcher, and that’s hurt him this year, as the rubber baseball has led to an inflated HR rate.

Sheffield was something of a ground ball pitcher, which makes sense given his sinking fastball, but his GB% dropped markedly in his AA stint. That’s something to watch for tonight: is he throwing up in the zone to try to get whiffs and fly balls? Or is he trying to sink the ball down at or below the bottom of the strike zone?

1: Smith, RF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Narvaez, C
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Lopes, LF
8: Fraley, CF
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Sheffield!

I mentioned before that Kikuchi’s struggles have been a big part of the reason why this year felt so bad to me, like the M’s were failing at their all-important development mission this year. The growth of JP Crawford is another question mark, but the streaky SS seems to be heating up again. As a key piece of the M’s future, I thought being at 2-3 WAR would be enough, especially this year. He’s on track for that now, but we’ve entered another period of absolutely incredible riches at the shortstop position. A 2-3 WAR young player is great, and is clearly contributing to even a good team. But it won’t get you into the top tier of young shortstops, not with Xander Bogaerts, Alex Bregman, Gleyber Torres, Jorge Polanco, Javier Baez, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa….deep breath…Paul DeJong, Trevor Story, Fernando Tatis Jr., Corey Seager, Amed Rosario, Trea Turner, and now Bo Bichette. You can’t just take a hot streak and forecast a player based on that alone, but maaaaaaan it would be great if Crawford’s hit tool improved just a bit to push his batting average up, which would help push his OBP into the elite realm. It’s a lot to ask, but he’s young and hopefully improving. Still, it’s tough to know what to make of his 2019. Fangraphs gives him a wRC+ (an all-in-one batting stat where 100 is average) of 102, just slightly better than average, thanks to his OBP and park/league factors. BP’s DRC+ is less impressed, with a mark of 91 on the same scale.

Ian McKinney, a signing out of an indy league who opened eyes in Modesto, made his AA debut yesterday opposite Astros uber-prospect Forrest Whitley. McKinney had a bout of wildness, but kept his team in the game through 4 IP, striking out 5. Whitley had 4 walks as well, albeit in 5 IP, but he struck out 9 en route to a 4-2 win. Jarred Kelenic tripled off of the hard-throwing Whitley.
San Jose beat Modesto 6-4 thanks to 2 ninth-inning runs off of Ray Kerr, the Nuts closer who’s showing elite velocity all of the sudden. Julio Rodriguez went 3-4, making him 7-13 in the three games against San Jose. His transition to the Cal League has been as smooth as anyone could’ve hoped for. Braden Bishop is rehabbing with Modesto and went 1-5.
Matt Harvey pitched Las Vegas to an 8-2 win in Tacoma, as Franklin Barreto hit a 3-Run HR off of R’s starter Sean Nolin. Austin Adams was sharp in his own rehab stint, striking out 2 in a perfect inning. Brian Ellington has also looked good since being picked up on waivers from the Red Sox org; the hard-throwing reliever had 2 Ks of his own in the 9th.

Ljay Newsome starts for Arkansas tonight against Amarillo’s Nick Margevicius, a Padres prospect who made 12 lackluster starts in the majors this year. Andrew Moore starts for Tacoma against rehabbing Sean Manaea of Las Vegas. Unlike Seattle, the A’s figure to have a wealth of intriguing September call-ups between injured players and prospects like Sean Murphy and Jorge Mateo.

Game 128, Mariners at Rays

marc w · August 21, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Cory Gearrin/Wade LeBlanc vs. Charlie Morton, 10:10am

If the season’s worn you down and you checked out in May, OR if you’ve been scrutinizing every box score throughout the system for signs of a coming juggernaut, today’s a game you’ll probably want to see. The suddenly surging M’s start CF Jake Fraley, the ex-Rays farmhand who’ll make his MLB debut. There’s no doubt that the progress of Kelenic/Rodriguez has been exciting, but to make a competitive club, the M’s need contributors besides the ones everyone saw coming. They need a bunch of Mitch Hanigers, essentially, and Fraley seems pretty similar to our injured RF. Like Haniger, Fraley was bobbing along in another club’s system, not hitting the ball with enough authority. After a swing change, his stats looked completely different and right then, just as those changes started to become apparent, he was traded to Seattle.

Fraley was a bit younger and obviously hadn’t made his MLB debut, but the parallels are there. He’s sustained those gains first with Arkansas, where he outshone the heralded group of Kyle Lewis and Dom Thompson-Williams, and then in Tacoma. Of course, even with his .553 SLG% in Tacoma, it’s been hard to know what to make of AAA stats after the introduction of the MLB juiced baseball. Fraley’s line is good for a wRC+ of only 103, though I believe wRC+ doesn’t account for a player’s home park (in the minors; it does for MLB). The entire league is slashing .278/.355/.481, after all. But you can’t hold him back because the PCL’s hit too much, especially if the player blocking him is Keon Broxton. Fraley’s pushed his way here, and it’ll be fun to see how he adjusts.

Charlie Morton’s curveball is one of baseball’s most effective pitches, and while this is almost sacrilegious, it reminds me a lot of Randy Johnson’s slider. He’s used it to post a career season at age 35, and he’s one of the big reasons the Rays are in the wild card chase. Speaking of which, the M’s wins the past two days have knocked the Rays OUT of the WC lead, with Oakland slipping past them. It’s a very tight three-way race for two spots between Cleveland, Oakland, and Tampa. On paper, this game is a mismatch, with Morton a dominant, high-K starter and Wade LeBlanc a…not as dominant command/control/change-of-speeds lefty. But who knows? The M’s got to Morton in Seattle, even if the Rays pulled ahead late. The M’s bullpen’s been better of late, and if they can score some runs early, maybe they don’t need Wade to go too long.

The M’s initial uses of the opener strategy backfired, as the openers had an ERA near 20 for a while. But they’ve gotten much better recently, with Matt Wisler one of the key contributors. Gearrin hasn’t been nearly as effective, but hopefully they’re learning from their initial failures and tailoring their opener to the specific line-up they’re facing, kind of the way the Rays did when they originated this strategy a year or so ago.

1: Smith, RF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Nola, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Narvaez, C
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Lopes, LF
8: Fraley, CF
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Gearrin/LeBlanc

Game 124, Mariners at Blue Jays

marc w · August 17, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Reggie McClain/Erik Swanson vs. Trent Thornton, 12:00pm

A rebuild is a process, and not a quick one. This was never going to be a contention year, and thus the best use of it isn’t necessarily to trot out the line-up that gives you the best chance of winning any one particular game. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

All of that is true, and losing is a piece of the overall process. But something about today’s game is just galling. Both Domingo Santana and Mallex Smith are out after repeated mental errors in the field and on the bases, and general slumping. In their place, the M’s outfield consists of Keon Broxton, Tim Lopes, and Dylan Moore. A minor league free agent, a waiver claim and a freely-available MLB pick-up. Starting the game is Reggie McClain, a senior-sign 13th rounder a while ago, and someone not on the prospect radar. The one big prospect here was Swanson, who has an ERA over 7 and a FIP just behind that at 6.77.

Similar with what we saw in Tampa, the Blue Jays counter with…uh, Vlad Guerrero Jr., the biggest prospect in the game coming into the season, Bo Bichette, who, if anything, has overshadowed Vladito after his own promotion, and Cavan Biggio. They are loaded with very young position player prospects who are already in the league. Now, they have a problem, and it’s the same as the M’s: they can’t pitch. Trent Thornton, Jacob Waguespack, and Sean Reid-Foley are an interesting trio of young arms, but they haven’t exactly taken the AL by storm the way Bichette did. But with flame-throwing Nate Pearson in the high minors and their return from dumping trading Marcus Stroman, they’ve got depth to help overcome that weakness. The M’s have a wave of talent coming, but Jarred Kelenic is a mere four months younger than Vladito, and a year younger than Bichette. The M’s need to close the gap in talent quickly, and eyeballing 2021 with these two line-ups in mind is a bit concerning.

It’s not all bleak: McClain is here because he’s much, much better now than he was when he was drafted. That’s cool. Swanson has time to figure things out and be good in a year where being good means more. But despite all of the good stories on the farm, I think we need to come to terms with the magnitude of the problem here. The M’s problem in recent years was that other teams were not just better, but also younger. That’s still largely true. The M’s point to a future in which the M’s will be just as young as their rivals, but it’s still hard to see how they’re supposed to be better. Interesting, sure, contending, yes, perhaps. But even as M’s fans follow their uberprospects as they rise through the minors, their rivals have similar talents, and many of them are already contributing in the majors. That’s…that’s a problem.

1: Lopes, LF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Narvaez, C
4: Seager, 3B
5: Nola, 1B
6: Vogelbach, DH
7: Gordon, 2B
8: Broxton, CF
9: Moore, RF
SP: McClain/Swanson

Manager Scott Servais seems to be losing patience with the struggling Yusei Kikuchi, according to this well-done piece by Ryan Divish in the Times. So much of the M’s rise to contention hinges on their ability to improve prospects, to turn non-prospects into contributors ala McClain, but also to turn solid MLB talents into All-Stars. The Kikuchi saga throws that into question. Apparently, they made a minor tweak to his mechanics and it worked well for one game, but then Kikuchi subconsciously (or not?) switched back in his start against Detroit, and he got battered around. The M’s – or Servais – weren’t pleased with it.

Enough about this. Let’s get to the good stuff. Julio Rodriguez hit a grand slam in his first Cal League game, as Modesto beat Lancaster 13-1. Justus Sheffield gave up 3 HRs in Arkansas loss in Springfield. Tacoma beat Fresno 8-1 behind a solid start from Anthony Misiewicz, and a Robert Perez 3R HR walked it off for Everett against the Tri-City Dust Devils.

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