Game 132, Mariners at Rangers

marc w · August 30, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Cole Hamels, 5:05pm

The M’s have now lost 6 of 7, and everyone wants to know why. Nathan Bishop’s article at LL notes that the M’s have struggled because they’ve ran into some really good opposing starters, all bunched together – a string that continues tonight, with Cole Hamels on the hill. Greg Johns of MLB.com refines this by noting that the M’s are really struggling against left-handed starters; it’s not just that the M’s have run into a string of top starters, it’s that the majority of them have been southpaws, and for whatever reason, the M’s just don’t do very well against such pitchers.

After reading Johns’ article, I looked at the batting splits at BBREF, and if anything, it’s even worse than Johns thought. The M’s line-up has been much worse against lefty starters than either righty starters or lefties in general. While Robbie Cano, Nelson Cruz, Franklin Gutierrez and even Kyle Seager have been solid or better against lefty starters, the drop off from there is severe. Chris Iannetta, Adam Lind-and-Dae Ho Lee, Leonys Martin, Guillermo Heredia and especially Norichika Aoko have all been varying shades of disastrous, and that’s been a big factor in the fact that the M’s are now 20-29 in games started by an opposing southpaw. Lind and Seth Smith were never supposed to *play* in these situations, and guys like Leonys Martin had so many question marks, the fact that we’re only talking about very specific platoon splits is encouraging in itself. But Iannetta (and Zunino too, by the way) and Ketel Marte needed to be better. Marte and Martin are up-the-middle defenders, and that means it’s much harder to think about platoons, so the bat-first platoon guys really needed to step up.

The other factor that I’d bring up to explain the M’s sudden slide is the bullpen. This is all really obvious and hardly needs stating, but here we go: the M’s bullpen was never as good as the group that looked unhittable in early August, and they’re not as bad as the group that’s given up 8 HRs in their last 41 IP. This is what happens when you build a bullpen out of high-K, high-HR hurlers, which seems to have been the plan all along. Because Ks are relatively frequent and HRs are relatively infrequent, they’ll have strings of games where they strike out errybody and keep the ball in the park, and look amazing. Then, some of those balls in play go over the fence, and you get a flurry of gut-punches. The back of the pen is now as good as it’s been in years thanks to Edwin Diaz, but the middle of it goes as Vidal Nuno or Nick Vincent or Tom Wilhelmsen, three of the more predictably volatile relievers you’ll find.

Cole Hamels is putting together another good year for Texas, with a sub-3 ERA despite a merely ‘good’ FIP. Hamels is walking a few more batters, but he’s still a tough match-up for right-handers thanks to his excellent change. That said, he’s been throwing more of his cutter in recent years, and that’s pushed his platoon splits more in the ‘normal’ direction after years of running slightly reversed splits. I’m hoping he’s still atypical enough that the M’s bats that have scuffled against lefties might have a chance, but 1) he’s a very good pitcher and 2) commanding his cutter has made him tougher on left-handed bats like Martin and Cano. We’ll see. His change is still a weapon, but he’s prone to mistakes with it. Righties have a low batting average against the pitch, but they’ve always connected for a fair number of HRs. Just like the M’s reliever corps, he may get some Ks against this M’s line-up, but a HR or two will really change the game.

1: O’Malley, RF
2: Marte, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Gutierrez, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lee, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Heredia, LF
SP: Paxton

That’s an…that’s not a great line-up. Nelson Cruz is out with an injured hand, which leads to O’Malley starting at corner OF against Cole Hamels. Marte batting 2nd? I have no idea.

Tyler O’Neill headlines three Jackson Generals named to the Southern League All Star team - the others are Ryan Yarbrough and 2B Tim Lopes. O’Neill’s in the running for league MVP, an award that’ll be announced tomorrow.

The Arizona League playoffs kick off tonight, and the AZL M’s are playing in the league’s first round – the top 2 teams in the league have first-round byes. The team’s lead by CF Anthony Jimenes, 3B Joe Rizzo and SS Christopher Torres.

After losing last night, the Rainiers turn to Sam Gaviglio to beat Fresno and keep the M’s on track to win the PCL north. The game’s at Cheney, so head over if you’re in town.

Jackson’s on a losing skid, punctuated by yesterday’s double header sweep at the hands of the Biloxi Shuckers. Paul Blackburn takes the mound for the Generals as they look to hit the playoffs on a winning streak.

Tyler Pike leads Bakersfield against the San Jose Giants.

Game 131, Mariners at Rangers

marc w · August 29, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Yu Darvish, 5:05pm

A week after facing Masahiro Tanaka, Hisashi Iwakuma once again takes the hill opposite a superstar countryman. Yu Darvish missed most of the year recuperating from the Tommy John surgery that he had shortly before the 2015 season, and his absence is one reason why the Rangers have some strange pitching stats on the year.

No team in the game has struck out fewer batters than the Rangers. No team except the Reds has a worse K-BB%. The Rangers’ team FIP ranks 28th. They’ve given up more contact than anyone else in the AL except the Twins. Their *bullpen* ERA is 27th in MLB. The Rangers lead the division by 8.5 games. We’ve talked about it before, but the Rangers are getting pretty hard to explain with the tools we typically use. Their run differential on the year is only +5, far worse than the M’s, and by BaseRuns, they’re actually negative. They’ve outperformed their pythagorean record by 11 games, and outperformed their BaseRuns record by 12. The bullpen has not only been terrible in blowout losses, they’ve given away a number of games (the M’s have been the beneficiary of a few), but at other times have come up huge.

The Rangers line-up has seen two of their cornerstone players, Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder felled by injuries – in Fielder’s case, they’ve caused his retirement – and growing pains from their rookies, and it simply hasn’t mattered. This isn’t to say they’re a great offense – the M’s have scored far more runs – but like the pitching staff, they’ve scored runs *exactly* when they need them time and again. None of this sounds all that sustainable, but this is now year 2 of the Weird Rangers, the club with some obvious holes and with a so-so run differential that nonetheless keeps winning ball games.

They’re a much more formidable team in the playoffs than all of the preceding makes them sound for a few reasons. First is the return of tonight’s starter, Yu Darvish, who looks like he hasn’t missed a beat. His velocity is all of the way back, and he’s striking batters out at nearly the rate he did back in 2014. Second has been the deadline acquisition of Jonathan Lucroy, who ended up in Texas after nixing a deal that would’ve sent him to Cleveland. Lucroy leads MLB catchers in WAR, and while the Rangers cobbled together some decent production before getting him, they’ve clearly upgraded their true-talent. Add in the low-key pick up of Carlos Beltran, and the Rangers are clearly a better club than the one that posted a great record in the first half. Let’s just hope they aren’t as lucky.

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

The Bakersfield Blaze played their final regular season home game last night, as the team will cease operations after this year. I tuned in to hear Dan Besbris’ call, and the Blaze picked up the win, sending fans home happy. It won’t actually be the final game at Sam Lynn, as the Blaze will be in the Cal League playoffs, so here’s hoping that Bakersfield’s final act as a Cal League team is hosting the league trophy. The Blaze built a true Cal League lead of 11-3 with HRs from Justin Seager, Austin Wilson and Chantz Mack and then watched as the bullpen gave much of it away in the 8th, but their closer Thyago Vieira got the job done in the 9th, and the Blaze had an 11-8 win.

Tacoma’d built a big divisional lead, and saw Reno chip away at it, and Reno had taken the first two games in a critical head-to-head series, but Tacoma beat the Aces 4-3 last night to rebuild a 3.5 game cushion.

Cedar Rapids beat Clinton and Vancouver beat Everett, but at least the AZL M’s shut out the AZL Rangers in what we all hope is a foreshadowing of today’s big league game.

Jackson was rained out, which is pretty much the only way to avoid losing to them. They’ll play 2 today. Interesting prospect match-up of Taylor Jungmann facing off with the Generals’ Andrew Moore in game 1.

Tacoma’s Zach Lee gets the start in a big, big game against Fresno, and the R’s need him to post a solid start. Since joining Tacoma, he’s 0-7 with an ERA of 7.04. Fingers crossed. Reno’s in Sacramento.

Game 129, Mariners at White Sox

marc w · August 27, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Ariel Miranda vs. Jose Quintana, 4:10pm

Having vanquished Chris Sale, the M’s now have to deal with an equally formidable (though completely dissimilar) pitcher in Jose Quintana.

Another lefty, Quintana’s done a great job of dominating left handed bats over his career – they’ve got an OBP of .293 in Quintana’s career. But while Sale gets far more K’s and thus strands more base runners, Quintana’s steady excellence produces a similar value. In years like this one, where Quintana’s BABIP or strand rate allow, he allows fewer runs than his more heralded teammate.

He has a change, but the pitch that really allows him to succeed against righties is his curve. It’s thrown at about 77 MPH and, like his fastball, doesn’t show much in the way of eye popping movement or spin. Command obviously allows it to play up, and the result is a pitcher far better than the sum of his velo and stuff.

1: Martin, CF
2: Heredia, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Gutierrez, RF
7: Lee, 1B
8: Iannetta, C
9: Marte, SS

As you can see, the M’s flurry of roster moves continues, as Dae Ho Lee’s been recalled from Tacoma, with Nori Aoki returning to AAA for a week or so.

Because they needed help in the bullpen, the M’s have also added Pat Venditte, the switch pitcher they traded for a few weeks ago. To make room, they optioned Mike Freeman back down.

They had a spare 40-man spot though, and that leads to the most interesting move: the M’s have purchased the contract of AA reliever Dan Altavilla. Altavilla was an undersized starting pitcher from a small northeastern college, which checks all of the boxes for a McNamara draft pick. He had a solid season in the rotation for Bakersfield last year, but he’s responded well to life in relief, with a FB that touches 95.

Game 128, Mariners at White Sox

marc w · August 26, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Chris Sale, 5:10pm

Happy Felix Day! The King would want you to enjoy today’s game exuberantly, but also with an eye towards safety in this heat.

Last night’s loss hurts, particularly with this brutal stretch of opposing starters coming up. Chris Sale’s K rate is down noticeably since last year, but an improvement in the Sox team defense has done wonders for his BABIP, his Achilles’ heel last year.

1: Martin, CF
2: Heredia, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Zunino, C
6: Gutierrez, RF
7: Lind, 1B
8: O’Malley, 3B
9: Marte, SS

Game 127, Mariners at White Sox

marc w · August 25, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton! vs. Anthony Ranaudo, 5:10pm

James Paxton returns to the rotation, with Tony Zych heading to Tacoma. Meanwhile, Mike Freeman’s been recalled, and Wade LeBlanc’s been DFA’d. That last one probably comes as a shock to many, but with Paxton back and the rotation pretty well sewn up, LeBlanc had been working as an extraneous lefty out of the pen. Without options, it’d be hard to keep him, and the AAA season’s just about done anyway. Ah, the life of an out-of-options journeyman.

Anthony Ranaudo was once a real prospect, taken in the 1st supplemental round out of a major program and seen as a very high floor prospect. To date, he’s produced at a subterranean level for three teams, struggling with his control, home runs, and missing bats. He began this season in the Texas system, and made two disastrous appearances early on to bail out a struggling Rangers bullpen. In the second, he walked *5* White Sox hitters in 1 1/3 IP, and the Rangers released him. He was picked up by those same White Sox, another project for long-time pitching coach Don Cooper to tinker with. Ranaudo was assigned to AAA, and *immediately* started running the best walk numbers of his career: in nearly 100IP this year in AAA, Ranaudo walked 11, for a BB/9 mark of 1.02. All hail Don Cooper and his minor league minions, right? It’s Matt Thornton all over again!

That control improvement may have come at a price. The *other* thing he started doing in AAA is giving up home runs by the bushel. He yielded 15 in 16 appearances, and when you remember that the IL hits a lot fewer dingers than the PCL, let alone the majors, that was something of a red flag. Called up to make a couple of starts, Ranaudo’s given up 4 in 10+ innings already. In 2011, the M’s Anthony Vazquez gave up 13 HRs and struck out 13 in just shy of 30 IP. I never thought another pitcher, especially in this high-K era, would come close to equalizing both dingers and Ks, but Ranaudo actually has a shot – he’s given up 5 dingers in the majors this year (Across two teams) while striking out 7.

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

Guaranteed Rate Field is the single dumbest name in stadium naming right history.

Freeman’s recall’s probably related to Seager’s foot injury – with O’Malley now manning 3rd, they don’t really have a back-up SS/3B.

Game 126, Yankees at Mariners

marc w · August 24, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Masahiro Tanaka, 12:40pm

Whoa, early one today, and a great match-up of former teammates. If Kuma pitches 5 innings today, he’ll earn his 2017 guarantee.

Tanaka’s having a good year, with a reduction in HRs allowed driving improvements in FIP and ERA alike. I’m not sure how he’s viewed in New York – if he was seen as a potential ace, or just a better-than-average #2-#3 starter, but he’s been remarkably consistent. His walk rate is still miniscule, and while his K rate’s dropped a bit, it’s still right in line with his 2015 marks. While his injury scares may have sapped a bit of his raw stuff, he’s been fairly durable *after* it looked like TJ surgery was imminent. Like Kuma, Tanaka’s command and splitter help him avoid problems with left-handed bats. In Tanaka’s MLB career, lefties have hit a touch worse than righties against him – just as they have against Iwakuma.

The Rangers are playing the hapless Reds today, but Baltimore’s got a tough challenge against Washington’s Tanner Roark.

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

Kyle Seager’s out with a bruised foot suffered in last night’s loss. Doesn’t sound serious, but he may miss a couple of games.

Game 125, Yankees at Mariners

marc w · August 23, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. CC Sabathia, 7:10pm

Welcome back, Taijuan. Walker’s banishment to AAA lasted all of 2 starts, though he’s made 3 this month, if you include his rehab start against Albuquerque on the 1st. While Walker shut out the Nashville Sounds over 6 1/3 IP in his last start, there are still some warning signs: in every one of Walker’s starts this month, 3 in AAA and 1 in MLB, he’s walked or plunked more batters than he’s struck out. Walker’s vanishing K rate is a worrying sign, and it’s directly related to his problem with big innings; nothing helps a pitcher out of a jam like a big strikeout.

In his last game in the bigs, Walker was almost comically reliant on his four-seam fastball, throwing it on 50 out of 64 total pitches. It sounds like the M’s forced Walker to work on his secondary stuff in Tacoma, and that’ll be something to look for today. This will actually be his first game of the year with Mike Zunino as his battery mate. I don’t think Iannetta’s to blame for Walker’s poor start against the Angels, but if the M’s had a huge problem with his pitch selection, they need to make sure the M’s catchers are hearing that message as well. To be fair to both Walker and Iannetta – Walker’s curve didn’t look so good recently. He’s not getting the spin and thus the drop on it that he needs, and if it just didn’t feel right/wasn’t working, that may have played into their heater-centric game plan.

To make room for Walker, the M’s optioned Cody Martin to AAA. To bolster their bullpen, the M’s also activated Tony Zych from the 60-day DL today, with Stefen Romero surrendering his 25-man slot. They didn’t need to make a move on the 40-man, as they had an open slot in anticipation of either Zych or Evan Scribner being activated. Apparently Zych was further along.

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

Glad to see Zunino slide up a position in the batting order. Not a huge deal by any stretch, but the man simply deserves more at bats at this point.

Bob Dutton’s notebook article mentions that Hisashi Iwakuma’s about to trigger the vesting option in his contract for 2017. While Iwakuma’s looked shaky at times in the past year or two, that’s still good news for M’s fans. He, like Felix, has made a number of adjustments, and Iwakuma’s been a big part of the M’s recent surge.

The M’s 3 HRs last night take them to 92 home dingers on the year. That took them past last season’s total of 90 HRs hit at Safeco, and shockingly, ties them with the 92 they hit over 2010 and 2011…*combined.* In 2010, the M’s hit all of 35 home runs at home, which is one of the many stats about that club that is both horrifying and impossible to turn away from. If you’re wondering, the M’s allowed 69 HRs at home in 2010 and 77 in 2011, both far lower than this year’s 87, but the comparison isn’t as bonkers as it is for batters. The M’s allowed 90 last season at home, so they’ll certainly surpass that, but this year marks the continuation of an upward trend thanks both to the league-wide dinger uptick as well as the park-specific dimension changes a few years back. The offense, though…that’s harder to explain. I’ve certainly tried, but I think there’s still a lot of ground to plow in figuring out why Safeco’s suddenly playing so differently.

Mike Zunino’s Subtle Changes and Not-So-Subtle Results

marc w · August 23, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Zunino won the M’s another ball game last night with a late 3-run dinger. He crushed a pitch over the right field wall after laying off a two-strike slider the pitch before. It was, as many pointed out on twitter afterwards, a perfect encapsulation of how 2016 Mike Zunino differs from the 2015 version, who may recall was one of the worst hitters in recent memory. The transformation feels comprehensive, universal; it feels like he’s a completely different hitter thanks to a huge spike in walk rate, a drop in K%, the power surge, etc. Every aspect of his offensive production seems remade, whether by savvy player development, or the same dark magic that turned James Paxton into a Canadian Noah Syndergaard. And yet, the more you dig deeper, the smaller those changes appear.

Jeff’s got a great piece on his improvementat Fangraphs today, and he looks both at the staggering numbers Zunino’s put up thus far, and also a potential mechanical tweak to his swing: instead of a small stride forward, he’s keeping his front leg on the ground and transferring his weight without so much movement in his lower half. He also points out that Zunino’s giving away fewer at-bats by being more selective on 0-2 and 2-strike counts, as he did in last night’s game. Eno Sarris tweeted last night that he thinks a big part of Zunino’s surge has come from a bit more selectivity on breaking balls, regardless of the count, pointing to this Brooks chart of his whiff% by pitch types. Both of these explanations are probably factors in the drop in Zunino’s K rate and the dramatic improvement in his walk rate, but I’m still struck by just how subtle the changes look when you drill down to peripheral stats.

Here’s a chart with a bunch of those peripherals. Here’s Zunino’s K rate, his O-swing rate (swings at balls), Z-swing rate (swings at strikes), his SwStr rate (whiffs) and his contact rate (duh).
zunino
There are encouraging signs, no doubt, particularly in K%, which we knew already. But there’s no massive transformation in his contact rate – he had a very low contact rate in 2015, and has a very low contact rate in 2016, too. Against fastballs, Zunino had one of the worst whiff rates in the game in 2015. Aaaand he’s still got one now! One of his many problems last year was that he couldn’t deal with high fastballs, and even swung and missed at about a quarter of fastballs *thrown right down the middle*. None of that’s changed this year, and he’s actually whiffing on *more* middle-middle fastballs now. How does this line up with the chart Jeff used showing the change in Zunino’s *production*? (I’ll copy and paste that here):
zunino-wrc

I initially thought that Zunino was learning to recognize different pitches, and that he was able to drive breaking balls instead of being absolutely flummoxed by spin. But in looking at his 2015 data, he actually slugged .500 against sliders last year – much, much better than he did against fastballs. He’s hit sliders well thus far in 2016, but despite a poor batting average against them, that was about the only thing he did *right* a year ago. I wondered how much of this was BABIP driven, but that doesn’t look like it either. His BABIP was awful last year, and while it’s better, it’s still not great – that just hasn’t hurt him because it excludes all of the glorious dingers Zunino’s mashing. Was it platoon related? Doesn’t look like it thus far.

It occurred to me that my entire approach to this problem was centered in looking at which of Zunino’s weaknesses he’d eliminated or improved. I don’t know for sure, but I’m starting to wonder if that wasn’t the default approach the last M’s player development group took too – O-swing’s too high in 2014, so they made an adjustment and lo and behold, Zunino’s O-swing was better in 2015. But whatever change they made *also* sapped his power and saw him take too many called strike threes.* This year, he’s taking even *more* called 3rd strikes, so the M’s new approach probably isn’t centered on reducing the myriad things Zunino struggles with at the plate. Instead, I think they’re focusing on what he does well.

Mike Zunino’s got an uppercut swing, and always has since he came into the league. In 2015, Zunino had the 4th lowest GB/FB ratio in MLB (out of 268 hitters w/more than 300PAs), surrounded by sluggers like Chris Carter, Lucas Duda and Brandon Moss. In 2016, it’s still among the lowest in the game. This helps explain why Zunino sometimes struggles against elevated fastballs, but it also means he should hit well against low pitches. *Should* hit well. In 2015, Zunino’s slugging percentage on contact with pitches in the lower third of the zone and below (the “low pitches” definition I used a lot in the posts about Safeco Field) was all of .293, or just about dead on his season SLG% of .300. Given the problems with high stuff, Zunino needs to clobber these pitches, and he was utterly unable to do so a year ago. It makes some sense, given that the lower the vertical location of a pitch, the more likely it is to turn into a grounder. To be fair, Zunino’s average launch angle on such pitches (11.7 degrees) exceeded the league average (6.8), showing that his uppercut helped him avoid some grounders. But too often, it led to pop-ups and lazy fly balls. How about in 2016? Thus far, Zunino is slugging *1.000* on contact with low pitches, with an even better launch angle of 15.7 (league ave. now = 7.6). Over half of his HRs have come on pitches in this zone, and he’s added some low-ball doubles, too. This, to me, seems like the critical part of the change: Zunino looks for pitches in his zone, and looks to ^$&*ing destroy them. If the ball isn’t in that zone, he may still struggle – he’ll swing through a fastball, get caught in-between on a good change, etc., but that’s true of everyone. What I think Zunino’s done, presumably with the M’s encouragement, is to focus on what he *does* do well, and his uppercut is a great weapon in a league where pitchers are throwing more and more low pitches, trying to take advantage of the new, lower strike zone. To be clear: laying off 2 strike chase pitches is a big part of this. You can’t hit the big 3-2 HR if you strike out on the 2-2 slider. But simply laying off tough pitches is *not* the key part of what Zunino’s doing. Annihilating the ball is the key part. Forget trying to “defend” with 2 strikes, forget trying to “stay alive” or advance the runners – Zunino’s never going to have enough pure bat-to-ball skill to do that. Zunino needs to find pitches he can drive and drive them, and maybe that’s all he needed to hear.**

* There was some work at BP, Fangraphs and BTBS a few years back on an expected K rate, using things like SwStr% as inputs – essentially, what would you expect the K rate of a guy with these peripherals to be? Given the big improvements in those metrics, particularly O-Sw%, you’d have imagined Zunino’s K% would’ve dropped markedly in 2015, and dropped more than the comparatively tiny improvements Zunino made from 2015 to 2016. But that’s not what we see at all, which I think strengthens the case that 1) Zunino was utterly, completely messed up last year, and probably guessing on most every pitch and 2) the most important “fix” is destroying pitches in his zone, and not worrying so much about trying to defend against pitcher’s pitches.

** I was talking about Zunino last night on twitter with two of my favorite baseball internetters, Brendan Gawlowski of BP and Lookout Landing and Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball. While we’re in agreement that the M’s PD group should get a huge amount of praise for these changes, we had a bit of a debate over what caused his slide from 2013 to 2015 – Kyle/Brendan think most/nearly all of his problems can be traced back to the disastrous decision to promote him in 2013 after less than a full year in the minors. To me, that clearly played a role, but something else must’ve played a role in the collapse of 2015 – from K% to ISO to walk rate, everything got much, much worse. I’m not really sure if that’s right, but it’s the kind of season that just cries out for additional explanation – something like that shouldn’t happen to anyone, least not someone with a season and a half of big league experience, but Brendan and Kyle are smarter than me, and may be completely right that it’s all driven by his initial struggles, and the inability to work on them out of the public eye. Anyway, one of the things that Kyle’s always tweeting about is the importance of “intent” for pitchers. That is, working on one’s fitness and mechanics to the point where you’re physically capable of directing 100% of your effort into a pitch (and doing so safely, repeatably, etc.). I keep coming back to that concept when I watch Zunino stalk and smash pitches these days, and think about how that’s essentially the polar opposite of going to the plate focused on a series of things to avoid (“Don’t chase the low-away slider; watch out for the high fastball; 2-2 pitch, maybe look change and react to FB?; he struck you out on Y last time, so protect against that, etc.”).

Game 124, Yankees at Mariners

marc w · August 22, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Cody Martin vs. Michael Pineda, 7:10pm

The trade was so long ago now, but it still feels weird. You want to move on, but the Jesus Montero career arc won’t let you.

So, the Yankees are in town, with a 63-60 record that leaves them with almost no chance of a playoff spot, and a roster in transition. With guys like Carlos Beltran and Andrew Miller traded away, A-Rod retired, and new RF Aaron Judge now installed, the Yankees are in a transition period, and for once they’re not trying to jumpstart the process by bringing in more veteran guys.

If the Yankees were realistically going to challenge for the AL East this year, the key was going to be their starting pitching. In Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, they’d built one of the most fearsome bullpens in history, but with an aging line-up, they needed their starters to hand the ball off to their reliever cerberus with the Yankees close enough for that late-inning dominance to matter. That didn’t quite happen; though their starting pitching FIP is middle-of-the-pack, their ERA ranks 21st. The big culprit has been HRs, as their K-Bb% is 7th best. Masahiro Tanaka’s been solid, and CC Sabathia has fought the demons of aging and attrition to a draw, but the back of the rotation’s been something of a mess.

Michael Pineda was a pivotal player, in that he was supposed to be a strong #2, bridging the gap between Tanaka and the questionable arms like Nate Eovaldi or Ivan Nova and the youngsters like Luis Severino who started the year in the minors. Fully healthy now, Pineda’s velocity is creeping back to the 95 or so he sat at with Seattle all the way back in 2011, and he’s destroying his previous career high in K%. But like so many of his teammates, the batters who have put the ball in play have hit it really hard. Pineda’s given up 21 HRs on the year, along with 41 doubles-and-triples, meaning he’s surrendered an extra-base hit to 10.6% of all batters he’s faced. That’s absurdly high for someone with his skills and K rate.

Pineda statline yields a bunch of these seeming contradictions. His o-swing rate is at a career high, approaching 40%, showing that he’s fooling batters like never before. His overall swinging strike rate is also up. But his BABIP is .334, almost dead on last year’s mark of .332. In his past 300 IP, Pineda has looked like an absolute ace at times, and like a batting practice guy at others. Over that period, he’s got a K-BB% of 20%, well above average – but batters are slugging over .600 every time they’ve put the ball in play off him, way above the league average, which was .547 in 2016 and .523 in 2015.

When he was coming up in Seattle, a worry was that given his FB/SL repertoire, lefties might be able to hit him, but that’s not what’s happened. In pretty much every year, he’s had very even platoon splits, and that’s still true today: lefties are hitting him better in 2016, but then, so are righties. He’s changed his primary fastball from the four-seamer he had with the M’s to a hard cutter. It’s got similar velocity, but has very little horizontal movement. All told, it’s not a pitch with great results – he’s given up some loud contact on the cutter, and it gets fewer whiffs than his old four-seamer did. That said, it’s more of a ground ball pitch, and that can be important for a guy whose HR/FB is spiraling out of control. Still, I just wonder about the cutter-slider combo; if you’re going to essentially use two pitches – and Pineda throws 50+% cutters and *40+%* sliders – then you’re minimizing the gap between your pitches. You’re taking armside run out of the equation. Given Pineda’s injury issues, if the cutter’s any easier for him to throw, then sure, you use it. But absent that, it just seems like the cutter/slider combo means the hitter can quickly rule out certain zones: if the ball looks like it’s on the inside corner, then you just don’t have to worry about it running in and off the plate. If it looks like it’s off the plate away, you can forget about it perhaps running back over the outside corner.

Cody Martin will make his second start tonight for the M’s. The righty’s velocity’s down a bit from 2015, though that makes some sense, given that he was used out of the pen in the first half of last year. The cutter he developed with Oakland’s still a part of his arsenal, but it looks like he agrees with me on the whole cutter/slider combo deal: he ditched the slider in favor of his curve once he started throwing the cutter. He throws the cutter low and away to righties, so it kind of functions as a hard slider, which further differentiates the pitch from his four-seam, which he throws up in the zone, much the way he did in Atlanta at the start of last year.

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

Big news in the minors today, as the California League announced they’d be contracting two teams, the High Desert Mavericks and the Bakersfield Blaze. That’s the M’s last affiliate and their current affiliate. It sounds like the Carolina League will add a couple of teams, one in Fayetteville and one in Kinston. High Desert’s already clinched a playoff berth and Bakersfield’s close, so they’ll go out with some post-season games, at least. It’s looking likely that the M’s may have a team in the Carolina League for the first time in team history.

Nick Neidert highlights the pitchers starting tonight for M’s affiliates. Last night’s games featured an org sweep, 2 players with 2 HRs (Joe DeCarlo and Kristian Brito), and Jake Brentz extending his scoreless streak since joining Clinton to 7 1/3 IP, with 1 1/3 scoreless in relief of Luiz Gohara.

MiLB to Shuffle Affiliates; M’s Counting Cards

Jay Yencich · August 22, 2016 · Filed Under Minor Leagues

Perhaps you’re looking for something to wash the foul taste out of your mouth after last night’s game. Well, there’s only so much I can do other than to point out that, hey, at least we have playoff contention to consider here.

In truth, I’m only by on account of something I noticed coming through the wire last night. You see, it being an even-numbered year, the minor leagues are due to have their affiliation contracts renewed or perhaps exchanged. In light of this, it was noted last night on Today’s Knuckleball, which is a fine baseball site not given its proper due, that the Cal League is set to contract Bakersfield and High Desert. The rationale for why, you can read within the article, but both franchises have long been vexed by various on-field issues. Bakersfield has a poor infield and a bad orientation and had long been rumored as a candidate to move to Salinas or elsewhere. High Desert, home of Battleship Baseball, was built in the anticipation of local growth that never came through, nor did its own potential movement to another city with better infrastructure.

This news is relevant to Mariners fans in that we’ve been affiliated with both teams after the Inland Empire 66ers traded up and got themselves a honey of a deal with the Dodgers. I’ll always have fond memories of High Desert although not likely for the right reasons. In truth, we all know the practical elements of the Mariners having major pitchers skip the Cal League to avoid it and the situation in Bakersfield, preferable if the team moved, was also troubled in its own way for aforementioned circumstances. Hard infield. Old stadium. Westward facing? The sun’s only set in that direction for so long, you guys.

Now, where does this leave the Mariners? Incidentally, they have already been planning ahead. You see, according to reports, they have purchased a 51% stake in the Modesto Nuts. While the consequences in terms of “Deez Nuts” jokes are obvious, this has actually been a match-up I’ve wanted for a long time. The Mariners had never been inclined to buy ownership stakes previously, but Modesto is one of the very few California League ballparks that has conditions similar to Safeco. According to Statcorner, home runs are suppressed at a factor of 44 and 64 for left- and right-handed bats respectively. Overall offense is reduced by an 87 factor. I imagine Modesto is probably more livable than other places too, which is an asset as you want your players to be able to focus on baseball.

The remaining four affiliates are TBD at this point. I don’t imagine that we’re going to leave Tacoma or Everett and we’ve been in Jackson for ten years now, with the team recently having broken their season wins record as a Seattle affiliate, and counting. The system itself leads the minor leagues in winning percentage after being bottom five last year. You shouldn’t extrapolate too much from that, as it doesn’t mean that our system has quite suddenly become an unstoppable jugglenaut of prospect power. On the whole, though, things are looking up. What’s happening sucks for those people who have worked for High Desert and Bakersfield these past many years, but from a player development standpoint, this will definitely benefit us going forward.

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