Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Colby Lewis, 7:10pm
What a difference three games makes. The M’s capped a painful three game sweep at the hands of Oakland with the most painful game of all, an extra-innings one-run loss in a game Felix tossed seven scoreless with 10 Ks. It’s not that any one game means a whole lot in the standings, it’s just the kind of game that gives this scarred fanbase some flashbacks to the Bad Times of 2010-12.
The M’s offense, riding high after the opening series, was wholly ineffective against the A’s. The M’s batting average on balls in play tanked, in part because the A’s seemed to shift a bit better than the M’s. To be clear: the M’s defense has looked atrocious, but they’ve done a decent job of turning balls in play into outs. But the A’s were able to beat the shift several times, from Jed Lowrie’s two opposite field grounders to Yonder Alonso’s bunt in yesterday’s game. Meanwhile, the M’s offense has been really hurt by the shift. The M’s are hitting .184 into the shift, in part because they’ve got the second-highest GB% when the shift is on. The highest, Kansas City, has an even *lower* average in the shift. Teams know which M’s to shift, and to date, those M’s hitters have hit accordingly. The other big problem with the offense was their putrid performance with men on base. In both cases, though, a freakishly low BABIP is part of the problem. The shift thing is concerning, because it hints at a *reason* the M’s BABIP might be low, but the M’s have had their share of bad luck thus far as well.
Today, they take on Texas, whom they obviously enjoyed hitting against in the opening series of the season. Colby Lewis starts, and just like last time, that makes for a solid match-up for the M’s. The big story of the game isn’t the M’s sweep or Lewis, or ‘Kuma, but rather the Rangers newest call-up, catcher Brett Nicholas. The 27-year old backstop was drafted back in 2010, and slowly worked… Ok, in actuality, the big story is the Rangers promotion of one of the top position-player prospects in the game, Nomar Mazara. Mazara’s first game was yesterday in Anaheim – the Rangers hit him second in the line-up. I can’t think of the last time a 20-year old call-up hit 2nd in the line-up. In Mike Trout’s debut (against the M’s), he batted 9th. Carlos Correa hit 6th, as did Miguel Sano. Kris Bryant batted 4th in his first game, but he was 23. Mazara’s approach and ability to drive a variety of pitches has had scouts drooling for years, ever since he signed the highest international signing bonus ever in 2011, right before the new bonus cap system went into place. After a couple of slow years (and aggressive assignments), he began settling in and putting up solid, but not eye-popping numbers. Still, scouts have given Mazara’s bat and overall talent for hitting grades that are absolutely in that Correa/Sano class. In his debut yesterday, he had hits in his first three PAs, with the third a home run off of Jered Weaver. Rangers fans probably expected to see Mazara at some point this year, but his early arrival and dominant debut were unexpected bonuses, and take the sting out of losing Shin-Soo Choo to a hamstring injury.
As I talked about in the minor league preview, Texas’ AAA affiliate in Round Rock was a loaded group, and they’ve still got Joey Gallo waiting another call-up. They may add to it by promoting CF Lewis Brinson, a guy I’d have right about equal with Mazara in terms of overall value (Brinson’s a CF, which helps balance out Mazara’s more advanced bat). Gallo is somehow still only 22, and Jurickson Profar is at Round Rock as well, trying to show he can stay healthy and contribute.
Here’s tonight’s line-up:
1: Aoki, LF
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lind, 1B
6: Smith, RF
7: Iannetta, C
8: Marte, SS
9: Martin, CF
I don’t really want to, but I suppose I should address this stupid click-baity fan loyalty ranking thing. Nathan at LL already remarked that it’s irrelevant, but I just wanted to point out that this kind of thing is designed to be controversial and generate click-throughs and pageviews. How? By imbuing a series of survey results with a big, overarching, vaguely moralistic heading. The marketing group (there’s your first hint, people) responsible for measuring “Loyalty” asked some fans about how entertaining they are (?), how “authentic” they are as a team (??), and some other dubious “metrics” and summarize the whole thing as “loyalty.” They do so annually, which leads to the insanity/inanity of seeing certain fanbases jump up* (or tumble down) in the rankings on a year-to-year basis. The genius here is the headline, and the vague whiff of “science” to it. There are like, metrics and stuff, and sub-categories, and people from the marketing group that would be happy to talk to your reporters. As a culture, we can’t stop consuming this stuff, even as the social sciences undergo a reproducibility crisis, and even as people demonstrate exactly how to turn nothing into viral stories. No, the M’s are not a disloyal fanbase. Safeco wouldn’t have been packed with yellow-shirted crazies yesterday if that were true. No one would be reading this if that was true (uhhh, never mind, let’s go back to the Felix thing).
In much happier news, I got to see the Rainiers nuke the Albuquerque Isotopes yesterday, 13-1. The game wasn’t as close as the score indicates, actually. Stefen Romero launched a long, long HR, Boog Powell had hits and scored runs in each of the first two innings, and Chris Taylor was on base four times. You get the picture. Lost in all of the run-scoring was a great outing by Adrian Sampson, who went 6 scoreless innings, yielding just one hit. He sat 90-91 for the most part, touched 92 frequently, and showed a change and workable slider/breaking ball. Donn Roach makes his first start today as the R’s open a series with El Paso. The Chihuahuas have an interesting team – a pitching staff anchored by veteran Jeremy Guthrie, an IF made up of several ex-prospects like one-time Ranger prospect Mike Olt, ex-Giants prospect Nick Noonan, and ex-Dodger prospect James Loney. Then, they have actual prospects in the OF, led by top-100 guys Manual Margot and Hunter Renfroe. LF Alex Dickerson is something of a prospect himself, and made his big league debut last season.
Jackson finally lost to Mongtomery, 9-2. Brett Ash and reliever Ryne Harper struggled, and the offense didn’t score until the 8th inning. Guillermo Heredia had three hits, and Tyler O’Neill had two. The Generals were rained out today.
Bakersfield dropped another close one, losing 3-1 to Visalia in extra innings. The Rawhide tied the game at 1 in the 9th, then scored 2 in the 10th to win. Tyler Pike pitched very well, which is incredibly encouraging, given his struggles over the past two years. 1B Kyle Petty had three singles for the Blaze. Left-hander Eddie Campbell takes the mound for Bakersfield tonight.
Clinton beat Kane County 4-3, with a 2-run rally in the 7th capped by another Ricky Eusebio hit. Eusebio is now 6-13 on the year. The relievers for the L-Kings were great, especially Joey Strain, who went two perfect innings to close it out. Prospect Nick Wells starts for Clinton today; the lanky lefty was part of the return for Mark Lowe last year.
* This year, Pittsburgh jumped up 10 spots in loyalty. Loyalty is essentially *defined* by the persistence or durability of a connection or affiliation, but Pittsburgh’s loyalty jumped 10 spots in a year. That’s an awesome loyalty measure you’ve got there. The Cubs, who sell out every game, are 16th. It is nonsense on stilts, and I don’t want to talk about it anymore.
King Felix vs. Chris Bassitt, 1:10pm
Happy Felix Day. May the King lead us out of rather ugly two-game skid and back to the happier times of dingers and doubles, and annihilating opposing relievers.
The King faces off against Chris Bassitt today, an A’s right-hander acquired in the Jeff Samardzija trade. Bassitt seemed like a classic Oakland target – a big-league ready starter without much in the way of pure stuff, but solid command of four pitches. For the team that got Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin for Josh Donaldson, this seemed pretty normal/predictable, if a bit underwhelming considering what they were giving up. Bassitt’s been surprising, though – his velocity last year kept climbing, going from 92 with the White Sox to averaging 94 in Oakland. That, combined with very low HR-allowed marks allowed him to post a string of quality starts after getting a July promotion from AAA. To be clear: with a K rate solidly below average and a few too many walks, it’s not like Bassitt turned into a #2 starter or anything, but the improvements he’s made to date allow A’s fans to think the missed bats could come soon enough.
In his first start this year, the velocity was 95, suggesting he could average even higher by June/July. Again, though, he’s not yet a strikeout pitcher. As many have observed, including in the preview of the last time he faced off with El Cartelua, he doesn’t have much of a weapon against lefties. He’s been primarily a sinker/slider pitcher, and like most sinker/slider guys, he had big platoon splits in the minors and in his cup of coffee in Chicago. In recent games, he’s shifted to his slow curve a bit more. He’ll still throw his hard slider (85+ mph) to lefties, but he’s going with the curve as his putaway pitch. That sounds bad for an M’s offense that looked absolutely lost against Rich Hill’s curve (which he threw an astounding 54 times), but Bassitt’s a righty, and that should make a difference.
The real reason Bassitt’s put up very nice FIP (and ERA) marks in 2014-15 isn’t because he’s putting batters away, and it’s not due to great control. He’s been remarkably good at keeping the ball in the park. Oakland’s park probably has something to do with that, and there’s no way we can ascribe some kind of skill to him given the short track record, but I’m hoping the M’s can drive a pitch or two today. Bassitt gave up one HR in his 5 1/3 IP start against the White Sox last week, so hopefully the regression in HR/FB is already underway.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Lind, 1B
6: Smith, DH
7: Marte, SS
8: Clevenger, C
9: Martin, CF
SP: KING FELIX
EIGHT lefties in the line-up today, plus Nelson Cruz.
Ryan Divish tweeted last night that the early MLBAM gameday total showed Hill had thrown 52 curves. This morning, BrooksBaseball had revised that upwards to 54. My first thought was: that has to be at or near a record, but it’s not. Last September, Lance McCullers of the Astros threw 54 against the Angels, and then 54 against the Royals in October. Jose Quintana of the White Sox threw an astounding 59 in September, also against KC. AJ Burnett got to 57 in a 2013 game, too. It’s still incredibly rare, but it’s not quite AS rare as I’d thought.
The Rainiers dropped their first game of the year yesterday, 2-0, to Albuquerque. Jeff Hoffman was solid, tossing 6 scoreless frames with 3 walks and 6 Ks, and the Isotopes bullpen made it hold up. James Paxton struggled with his mechanics a bit, according to BP’s Brendan Gawlowski, and sat 91-93. That’s pretty much on par with what we saw in the Spring – and perhaps a bit better – but still noticeably down from where he was in April a year ago, and in 2014. Not sure what it means. Paxton didn’t get hit hard – he gave up 2 hits in 4 IP – but he walked 5 against 3 K’s. Lefty Paul Fry made his AAA debut and K’d 3 of the 4 hitters he faced, tossing a perfect 1 1/3 IP. Today, the Rainiers finish up their opening series against the Isotopes, and the R’s send Adrian Sampson to the hill. He’ll face off with Albuquerque’s Shane Carle.
Jackson beat Montgomery 3-1, taking the first three games of the season against a very, very good Biscuits starting rotation. The Generals have now beaten Jacob Faria (the Ray’s #6 prospect) in game 1, Taylor Guerrieri (the Rays #3 prospect) in game 2, and Ryne Stanek, the one-time M’s draftee, then a candidate to be the #1 overall prospect out of Arkansas several years ago, and now the Rays #16 prospect last night. Sam Gaviglio got the win for Jackson, tossing 5 solid innings, and then the Generals got good relief performances by Steven Landazuri and Dan Altavilla, who struck out 3 in 2 IP for the save. Guillermo Heredia and Tyler O’Neill led the offense with two hits each. Brett Ash takes the hill for Jackson today.
Bakersfield was rained out for the first time since 2012 last night. Tyler Pike makes the start for the Blaze today.
Kane County beat Clinton 5-4, despite three hits from Ricky Eusebio. Zack Littell went 5 shutout innings for the L-Kings, striking out 8, but the bullpen kind of imploded behind him. Kyle Wilcox makes his 2016 debut on the mound today.
Nate Karns vs. Rich Hill, 6:10 – note the odd start time
Nate Karns makes his M’s debut opposite one of the unlikeliest opening day starters in years, the A’s Rich Hill. Hill’s 36, and was a big prospect for the Cubs back in 2004-5, back when Felix was tearing up the minors in the M’s system. A lefty with a great curve, he induced a flurry of strikeouts, but he was never all that great at throwing strikes. After a very good year in the Cubs rotation back in 2007, keeping his walk rate in check, but even then, he was prone to odd control lapses. When they got more frequent the next season, he was sent back to the minors, first to AAA and then all the way to extended spring training.
As a control-plagued, out-of-options pitcher, Hill hung around by moving from org to org – first Baltimore, then Boston, then Cleveland, and filling in wherever he could. The A’s are his *sixth* organization since 2013 (Cleveland, Boston, Anaheim, Washington, New York, Oakland). That he’s found his way to Oakland seems inevitable – this has been Oakland’s recipe for assembling a pitching staff for years. That he got there after signing a $6m free agent contract is the odd part.
Last year, Hill started in the Nats org, pitched poorly in AAA and opted out of his contract. He went back to the Red Sox, who moved him from the pen to the rotation. Hill’s walk rate fell, and the Sox decided to call him up. After four of the best starts of his life, Hill was a hot commodity again for the first time since the Bush administration. Hill was incredible, fanning 36 and walking only 5 in 29 innings. The raw results, the FIP numbers, the curve ball – they all shouted legitimate talent, but it was *29 innings* by a 35 year old journeyman with TJ surgery in his history. That obviously capped what he’d make on the open market, and the A’s decided they could absorb the risk.
It’s a cooler day in Seattle, and the humidity’s supposed to rise in the late evening – hopefully that keeps the ball from flying, allowing Karns to pitch up with confidence. Hill’s occasionally had HR problems as well, but the M’s need to focus on working the count to see if Hill’s incredible control in Boston was another temporary thing.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Marte, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Iannetta, C
7: Gutierrez, RF
8: Lee, 1B
9: Martin, CF
The Rainiers won their 2nd straight behind a good start from Gonzaga product Cody Martin and more great relief from David Rollins and Blake Parker. Ed Lucas, Mike Zunino and Efren Navarro each had two hits, leading to a 5-2 win. The R’s staff K’d 10 Isotopes without allowing a walk. Today’s game is the big pitching match-up of the early season, as James Paxton faces off with Jeff Hoffman of Albuquerque.
Jackson pulled away from Montgomery 9-2. Ryan Yarbrough gave up 2 runs in 5 1/3, matching Rays prospect Taylor Guerrieri, who gave up 2 in 5IP. Jordan Pries shut the Biscuits down the rest of the way, tossing 3 2/3 of no-hit, no-walk, no-run ball with 5 Ks, while the Biscuits bullpen imploded. The big hit was a grand slam from CF Guillermo Heredia in the 7th. Today, Sam Gaviglio starts for the Generals – he spent last year in Tacoma’s rotation.
Visalia beat Bakersfield in another pitching duel, this time 3-2. Austin Wilson doubled for the Blaze. Anthony Misiewicz gave up all three runs in 5 IP – only two of them were earned, as Bakersfield made a couple of errors. Tyler Herb makes his high-A debut for Bakersfield today.
Clinton’s game in Kane County was rained out. Zack Littell starts today.
Taijuan Walker vs. Eric Surkamp, 7:10pm
Happy Felix Day! No, the King isn’t pitching today, but it’s his 30th birthday, and he should be praised and supplied with offerings as a result.
A year ago, Taijuan Walker pitched the M’s fourth game, the opener of a three-game set against Oakland. Like last year, he’s coming off a great spring, and appears ready to solidify the rotation behind Felix/Iwakuma. In last year’s game, Walker fell apart, setting the stage for a painful April/May in which he couldn’t strand runners and in which the M’s quickly fell behind their rivals, never to challenge them again. Of course, Walker improved dramatically throughout the year, and while he was never as consistent as we all (and he) would like, he showed flashes of the promise that made him a top prospect for several years.
This spring, there was talk of Walker abandoning his so-so cutter for more of a true slider. That sounded great to me, as it’s something I’ve been suggesting since his struggles last year. In games tracked by pitch fx this spring, though, the cutter he threw looked MORE cutter-like, even LESS slider-y than it did last year. Maybe he’s still tweaking it, and maybe he’s saving it for key spots in games that count, I don’t know, but that’s what I’ll be looking for tonight.
The M’s were 1-2 coming in to Walker’s first start last year, and while they’re only a game ahead of last year’s pace, the feeling around the team seems pretty different. Two dominating wins and a blizzard of long balls will do that to a fan base. The M’s blitzed Tom Wilhelmsen for a bunch of runs before he could record an out, and then did the same thing to closer Shawn Tolleson in Wednesday’s game. Why mention this, besides the fact that it was fun, and worth reflecting on? Because if you’ve heard of tonight’s A’s starter, Eric Surkamp, it may be because you may remember a moment a few weeks ago in Peoria when the M’s pulled a similar trick. Surkamp was in the bullpen, and entered a Cactus League game in the 5th inning. The first batter, Chris Iannetta, singles. Then he plunked Seth Smith. Dae Ho Lee worked a walk. With the bases thus loaded, Luis Sardinas pulled an 0-1 Surkamp fastball well over the wall in left field, and the M’s had scored 4 off of Surkamp before he’d recorded an out or knew what hit him. To be fair, Surkamp recovered, pitching three IP in total and actually striking out 5. But it showed a couple of things: the M’s offense is capable of scoring in bunches, and Eric Surkamp is still something of a marginal big league pitcher.
A draft pick of San Francisco coming out of NC State, Surkamp breezed through the minors racking up 10+ K/9 marks and low ERAs thanks to great command of middling stuff. He looked like an ace in the stat sheet, but scouts scoffed at his 88-90mph fastball, decent change and slow curve arsenal – they thought he was a classic case of a pitcher essentially built to frustrate low-minors hitters who simply didn’t have the pure stuff to get big leaguers out. This wasn’t that long after the big scouting/stat fights over Yusmeiro Petit, Josh Phelps, and literally any thing else they could fight about, so Surkamp bumped along as a guy rated in the top 10-15 prospects in a so-so Giants system. As with anything in baseball, there really are no absolutes or one true path to player acquisition or success – even Yusmeiro Petit, a decade after we all fought about what his lines in the Mets system *meant* turned himself into a useful pitcher for the World Champion Giants, even if he was never a solid #3 starter that statheads thought. Eric Surkamp stands as the closest thing to a black and white answer in the old scouts/stats debate. Score one for the scouts. In the majors, Surkamp’s K rate has tumbled, and worse, his walk rate has shot through the roof. Where was the pinpoint command? It may be the Surkamp’s been chased out of the zone, as he’s given up home runs and extra base hits when he throws strikes. That fastball that kept minor leaguers honest hasn’t worked at all in the bigs, and while his curve shows some promise, it’s hard to get to it when batters are slugging .550 off of your four-seam and sinker.
To his credit, Surkamp had a solid spring outside of that bad inning against Seattle – that was the only HR he gave up in 20 IP, and the only HBP too – but I’m still not quite sure why he’s making this start. Looking at the A’s depth chart, only 4 pitchers are listed in their rotation. Sure, many teams, Tampa for one, don’t *need* a 5th starter for a while, and are going with 4. But the A’s quite evidently *did* need a starter, and I’m not sure how/why they decided on Surkamp. It’s just a game, and they can get back to their main four, but Surkamp didn’t seem to be in the running. Part of it may be Jesse Hahn’s bad spring, and part of it may be the little gap between when Henderson Alvarez returns from injury (and their depth took a hit when Jarrod Parker got hurt again), but whatever the specific cause(s), this is less than ideal for the A’s.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Marte, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Iannetta, C
7: Gutierrez, DH
8: Lee, 1B
9: Martin, CF
SP: Taijuan Walker
Last night’s opening day in the minors was a great one in the M’s system. Tacoma won their opener after a back and forth battle with Albuquerque, winning 6-5 on a two-run single by Boog Powell who went 2-4. The M’s got some nice relief pitching from Mayckol Guaipe to close things out. Cody Martin starts game two tonight at Cheney. It’s going to be about 75-80. You should go.
The Jackson Generals got their second straight opening day shut-out, this one headlined by Edwin Diaz, who went six scoreless with 9Ks. Broadcaster Brandon Liebhaber said he was using his breaking sutff more than he did last year, and the results seem to show it – Diaz showed some potential last year in AA, but this was the kind of dominating performance he had in the California League and couldn’t seem to repeat in AA. Great, great start for one of the more important M’s prospects. Tyler O’Neill tripled in his AA debut and DJ Peterson had 2 hits. They beat Jacob Faria and Rays affiliate Montgomery, which is notable. Faria was dominant in AA last year, and utterly destroyed Jackson in August, throwing 7 shutout innings with 2 hits, no walks and 11 Ks. Nice to see the Generals figure him out. Big start tonight for Ryan Yarbrough, as he makes his first foray into the upper minors.
Bakersfield got a great pitching performance of its own, as Andrew Moore twirled 6 shutout innings, with 6 hits, 1 walk and 6 Ks. Unfortunately, the bullpen couldn’t hold the lead, as Ryan Horstman, the guy who gave up 0 runs last year, allowed 2 runs on a HR, and that was all Visalia needed, winning 2-1. The Blaze’s sole run came, encouragingly enough, on a solo shot by RF Austin Wilson. Between that and Moore’s high-A debut, I don’t care about the loss at all – this was still a great night. Michigan State product Anthony Misiewicz starts tonight for Bakersfield.
Clinton beat Kane County 2-1 behind a solid start from Lukas Schiraldi and two hits apiece by Luis Liberato and Braden Bishop.
One big link today: Ryan Divish and the Seattle Times sports section put together this incredible project looking back at Felix Hernandez’s career as the King turns 30 years old. I can’t believe it’s been 11 years since we got to see him make even the hardest, seen-it-all old scouts giggle in Tacoma. Happy Birthday, Felix.
I know, I know: I just wrote a post about the minors, and the post in fact mentioned that tonight is opening day across the full-season leagues. But anyone who knows me or has read the blog for any length of time knows that I am, in Mike Curto’s perfect phrase, PCL for Life. At times in this rather lean decade for the big club I’ve felt more of a Rainiers fan than an M’s one – that’s where you get to see Ackley/Smoak/Montero *succeed* after all – and while this is and will always be a Mariners blog first and foremost, the Rainiers will always get a lot of attention. I spent years living within walking distance of Cheney Stadium, and it’s nights like this – it’s near 80, no clouds in the sky – that I most miss it. I’ll be up at some point in the opening series, but let’s take a look at the Rainiers in a bit more depth and talk about things to look for if you head to Tacoma for a game.
The rotation features James Paxton, Cody Martin, Adrian Sampson, Donn Roach and tonight’s starter, Joe Wieland. Of that group, only Adrian Sampson lacks MLB experience. Paxton’s got the most innings pitches, while Martin/Roach and Wieland have all pitched (very sparingly) for multiple big league clubs. Sampson was a mid-level prospect the M’s got from Pittsburgh in exchange for JA Happ, and he figures to get some friends and family to the games, as he went to Skyline HS in Sammamish and attended Bellevue College. Roach was the star of spring training coming out of the bullpen, but will stretch it out as a starter in the early going. Cody Martin made his debut out of the pen for Atlanta last year, got demoted, and was then traded to Oakland. As I mentioned when he was acquired, Oakland seemed to make some fairly big changes to his pitch mix, and the results were awful – like Roach, I’m really curious to see what and how he’s throwing in the early going.
I went over the IF and OF last night, and the question about Rob Brantly’s place on the roster’s been answered: the M’s released Steve Lerud to make room for Brantly. He’ll be Mike Zunino’s back-up. Via Mike Curto, here’s a great John McGrath column on the new player development group and their work with Zunino, Chris Taylor and James Paxton. It also covers the, uh, struggles the last group had in trying to make Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, etc. were consistent big leaguers. According to the column, Ackley in particular got tips from a variety of coaches and tried to incorporate all of them. The new group prioritizes the mental side, and they may have more of an organization-wide philosophy on hitting, if that “hitting summit” during the off season is any indication.
Here’s tonight’s opening day line-up. With the M’s traveling, it’s the perfect time to head to Cheney or just tune in to the game here , on 850am in the south sound, or via MiLB.tv. Game time is 7:05pm
1: Boog Powell, CF
2: Shawn O’Malley, 2B
3: Stefen Romero, RF
4: Efren Navarro, 1B
5: Mike Zunino, C
6: Mike Baxter, DH
7: Ed Lucas, 3B
8: Chris Taylor, SS
9: Daniel Robertson, LF
I didn’t mention Ed Lucas in yesterday’s post, so let’s talk about him: Lucas was a long-time Royals farmhand who’s moved through the Braves/Angels/Rangers and Marlins systems. He’s mostly a 3B, but has displayed a lot of versatility: in his extended call-up with the Marlins in 2013 and 2014, he played SS, OF, 3B and some 2B. He’s got good control of the strike zone, but very little power, which makes him eerily similar to tonight’s 2B, Shawn O’Malley.
Ok, so what’s the PCL look like this year? And when should you come out to a game? Let’s take a look at some of the clubs visiting Tacoma this year:
It’s spring, and the Mariners top pitcher has made a single start. He faced the Rangers, in Arlington, and was extremely difficult to square up. On the other hand, he had awful command, walking 5 and plunking another, and velocity was in the :SIRENS BLARE: FELIX VELOCITY WARNING! IMMINENT INJURY???
This is now a rite of spring. We do this – baseball bloggers, I mean – every single year, and those of us in the Northwest are among the biggest offenders. I get it, I really do: he’s a star player with a large amount of money committed to him, and he looks nothing like the pitcher he was when he entered the league, or, for that matter, in 2009 or whatever. The proliferation of pitch fx data has been revolutionary for baseball analysis, and I will admit that 90% of what I do utilizes or is based upon that data set. It enables reliable trend data on all manner of pitching results, including velocity, and *we cannot look away*. In this specific case, I think we should. To say that Felix’s velocity is down is to state a truism, and something you could say after literally any start in the past six years. To state that it’s a sign of injury or impending ineffectiveness is, to put it mildly, not supported by the results of the past six years. Is THIS the time it suddenly matters? Is this the end of Good Felix? Pitch FX or release points or any of that *cannot give us an answer*. Only batters can do that.
Is this just me being a homer? Look, I’m the pessimist around here. This is my beat; I should be all over a great doom and gloom story. But we’ve all been through this more times than I can count. Here’s old friend Graham MacAree writing about Felix’s slowing fastball in the offseason following the 2009 season. He noted that as it slowed, it produced better results by pitch-type linear weights. Here’s Jeff in the spring of 2012, a bit after Dave wrote a post on Felix’s velocity after his first start of that year. Remember 2012? Good year for Felix, that one. Adam Wong noted Felix’s velocity was down in 2013, but that it was climbing again after a slow start.
As the years go by, the nexus between velocity loss and potential injury get more and more explicit, as with this piece last year, or this one from a few days ago. I don’t dispute the premise of these articles, which is that velocity decline can be a sign of injury, and that velocity decline is generally pretty highly correlated with performance declines. As Felix ages and his margin of error decreases, you might argue, it’s much more important. Going form 97 to 95 is one thing, but going from 92 to 90 may be very different. I don’t dispute any of these arguments, well-supported as they are. What I’d like to see is a bit more understanding that the same exact articles have been written now for years, and that in Felix’s specific case, it is very, very difficult to see any kind of connection between lower velocities and injury and/or ineffectiveness. Felix is *constantly* changing and adjusting, which can set off alarm bells too, as other measures start to look weird, from pitch usage to release point. Picking injury risk out of data works a lot better when you’ve got an extremely consistent pitcher who then varies from the established pattern. It’s much, much harder to do that with Felix, and other guys like him – Zack Greinke, for one. I tried to make this point last year, and I’ll schedule a post about it next year, too.
Not every “Is Felix Hurt?” and “Felix is throwing 89!!!” piece hits the blogs in the spring, but there’s a pretty big glut of them in April and May. Why? Because Felix’s velocity, and essentially every other pitcher in baseball’s velocity, is lower in April. Average April velocities are the lowest of any month, with May next-lowest. If you’d like to get a clear, dramatic velocity drop, just compare a pitcher’s velo in April against their yearly average the previous year. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but it’ll make the gap look huge. To make matters worse, the pitch fx values *themselves* are a little “cold” in April, as Max Marchi wrote years ago at BaseballProspectus. Later in that piece, Marchi notes that the pitch FX systems differ by up to a full MPH or so, with the slowest guns about a 1/2 MPH below average, and the fastest three-quarters of an MPH above. What are the *slowest* radar guns in baseball? They’re in Arlington (#1) and Oakland (#2). In recent years, the M’s have opened against Oakland, Anaheim and Texas, in April (or even March). Look back to many of the articles linked above and notice how many were written following starts in either Oakland or Texas. What’s the point? I don’t think we can accurately, definitively say that Felix’s velocity IS down in any real sense from last year. We can say it’s down from 2010, but that tells us nothing. Did Felix throw 89mph in his first start? No, he threw 91, and touched 93. What was his average velo in April of last year? 92. In 2012? 92. In 2013? 92. Let’s see where Felix’s velocity is in May, shall we?
Why do we keep doing this? Why do we seemingly *want* to point out Felix’s decline, even when his performance doesn’t really decline? I think Patrick Dubuque summed it up best in this piece, which argues that as Felix rate of improvement slows or even halts entirely, we reach for all manner of explanations, partially out of concern for the king, and partly because we have an endless firehose of data pointing at us, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to grab some and turn our worries into evidenced-based arguments. For non-M’s fans, this is even easier. The general pattern is clear, and Felix sets off plenty of alarm bells, and the trend really does look ominous. But *every year* since that first “Felix is losing velocity” piece back after the 2009 season (and that’s just the first I could find last night; there must be earlier ones), Felix has put up more fWAR/bWAR than *every year* prior to it (with the exception of 2015). Felix has been a better pitcher as an average velo guy with a diabolical change than he was when he was a plus-plus velocity FB and plus-plus curve guy. We *know* this, but we’re just scared that it’s going to stop. It WILL stop, eventually, and that’s going to really sting, but the methods we use to suss out that decline don’t work. M’s fans are drawn to this because we’re protective of Felix, and I can’t think of a worse end to his M’s tenure than an undiagnosed, untreated problem that suddenly becomes a career-threatener. Velo seems like it’d be a good way to find something like that, but Felix can’t be reduced to his sinker velocity. Felix is getting older. Felix won’t be royal forever. I know that we can’t, and won’t, but let’s all *try* to relax on the annual velo freak-outs.
Just think: it can’t be worse than last year. Tomorrow’s opening day across the full-season minor leagues brings with it the usual rush of optimism and joy, but really: there’s something kind of of nice about knowing that the season realistically can’t go any worse than last year did. DJ Peterson was bad, then hurt. Alex Jackson was awful, sent to extended ST, then started showing some signs in short-season ball. Clinton seemingly lost every game in August and September. Tacoma was relatively lucky to plod along around .500 and at the periphery of a AAA divisional playoff race. It was a tough, tough season for the four full-season clubs, but with some new coaches, new development staff and some new players, I’m excited to see what the year brings. I don’t want to bury the lede here: there’s no obviously loaded, don’t-miss-this team in the system. I don’t want to oversell things, but with any big organizational shake-up, there’s always the opportunity to see some changes in *how* players progress, and what messages click with what players. Given the focus on development in the organization, I think we’re going to have to fight the urge to ascribe every hot start to a change in teaching methods and/or personnel, but I relish the opportunity to be excited about the minors again. This organization was pretty bad at extracting production from the raw material of talent, and it’s going to be fun watching that change. Because, and I really, really don’t want to be proven wrong here, the bar can’t be lower.
Class A Midwest League: Clinton Lumberkings
Last year: just…don’t ask.
The Lumberkings have a new manager in ex-Oregon State catcher Mitch Canham, and are the lucky recipients of several players who played for Everett last year…you know, the only minor league club to post a winning record. Headlining the newcomers are CF Braden Bishop, the glove-first ex-UW Husky who hit .320/.367/.393 after being taken in the 3rd round of last year’s draft. Joining him in what should be an extremely good defensive outfield are Ricky Eusebio, who started for Miami but played in the Arizona League after the draft. He’s even more of a glove-first guy than Bishop, and may need some time to adjust to the pitcher-friendly Midwest League. OF Luis Liberato flanked Bishop in Everett last year and offers a bit of power – something the Lumberkings aren’t likely to get from Bishop/Eusebio. As another guy who’s seen time in CF, the L’Kings could literally have three centerfielders patrolling the OF.
The IF is headlined by SS prospect Rayder Ascanio, a Venezuelan who just turned 20. He saw a bit of time with Clinton last year, after a push-promotion to the California League didn’t go so well. 12th round pick Logan Taylor will play multiple corner-IF positions; the righty got off to a torrid start for Everett before slumping in August.
The pitching staff is headlined by Nick Wells, a lanky lefthander the M’s got from Toronto in the Mark Lowe trade. He opened some eyes for Everett after the trade, giving up 2 runs on just 6 hits in 18 innings, and he’ll make his first start of the year on Sunday afternoon. Lukas Schiraldi (son of ex-Red Sox pitcher Calvin) gets the opening-day start, and he’ll be followed on Friday by Zack Littell, an 11th round pick out of a NC high school who’s garnered raves for his competitiveness and pitchability and who was Clinton’s best starter a year ago.
Position-player to watch: Tempting to go with Bishop or Wells, but I’m going to give the nod to Liberato. Intrigued to see what he can do against full-season pitching, and want to see if he can consistently hit some gaps in full-season ball. He’s nowhere near the defender Bishop is, but I’m hopeful he can make the leap in a tough hitting environment.
Pitcher to watch: Wells. He was only so-so in the months before the trade, but the improved command might he flashed in Everett might allow him to move quickly. The MWL might be a great environment for a fly-ball guy like Wells, too.
Opposing team to watch: Last year was all about the Astros affiliates, and the MWL was no exception, as Quad Cities dominated with a 88-50 record. Their staff combined to throw over 40 consecutive scoreless innings, they had a run differential over +200, you get the idea. They’re going to be good again, with an OF headed up by Kyle Tucker, the #5 pick in the 2015 draft and Daz (son of Mike) Cameron, whom the Astros picked at # 37.
Class Advanced-A California League: Bakersfield Blaze
Last year: 61-79
2016 marks the second year the M’s have been with Bakersfield, and hopefully this one goes a bit better. Bakersfield’s Sam Lynn ballpark is a unique environment, and for the California League (home to High Desert, for example), that’s saying something. Laid out such that the setting sun is *directly* in the eyes of the batter, the team needs to schedule its games around sunset. Further, with a gentle arc of an outfield wall, the centerfield fence is a mere 354 feet from home.
The Blaze struggled to score in the first half of 2015, but rode a hot Tyler O’Neill to a more normal mark in the second half. This year’s club is an interesting mix of holdovers from 2015 and those who’ve skipped over the Midwest League entirely. Representing the former group are catcher Tyler Marlette and IF Joe DeCarlo, while Drew Jackson (Everett’s NWL MVP) heads up the latter group. The IF looks relatively solid with Gianfranco Wawoe probably playing 2B to Drew Jackson’s 3B, and Joe DeCarlo’s 3B. Kyle Petty, who hit well in a nice winter league assignment with Adelaide of the Aussie League, will play 1B (he got time at 1B and C last year).
The OF’s a bit thinner with glove-first guy Austin Cousino in CF and linebacker-sized enigma Austin Wilson in RF. As I mentioned before, Wilson was an over-slot pick out of Stanford a while ago, and a huge, huge talent who underwhelmed a bit in college. Thus far in his pro career, he’s kicked the underwhelming into overdrive, but you never know when/if the new coaching crew unlocks some of his prodigious potential. Well-named OFs Chantz Mack and Arby Fields will also get some time, as will converted IF Brock Hebert.
The pitching staff is headed up by 2015 draft pick Andrew Moore, he of the sparkling 43:2 K:BB ratio in Everett. The raw stuff isn’t eye-popping but Moore is supposedly a guy who competes and uses his command to dominate batters, and that’s pretty much what we saw last year. Of course, the NWL is a much easier environment for college-trained pitchers, while the California League is…not. Just ask Ryan Yarbrough, who posted a 58:5 K:BB ratio before posting just a so-so line for Bakersfield last year. Another pitcher to look for is reliever Ramon Morla. If you’ve been following the system for a while, you may remember Morla as a power-hitting 3B prospect several years ago. Well, he’s now a reliever, and hey, I love position-player conversions. It’s Rafael Soriano’s fault.
Position player to watch: Gotta be SS Drew Jackson. After a middling career at the plate at Stanford, Jackson hit far better than most observers expected, and he’s shot up the M’s prospect rankings. This is a challenging assignment for him, and he’s going to need to prove he’s more than just a slap hitter who rode exceptional speed to a high batting average. Of course, exceptional speed isn’t a BAD thing: Jackson stole 47 bases for Everett while being caught just 4 times. He’s also got a plus-plus arm at SS.
Pitcher to watch: Andrew Moore. Another challenge assignment, and obviously the California League is murder on command/control guys. But if Moore can thrive here, he turns into an intriguing bargain prospect for the M’s. Oft-injured lefty Ryan Horstman didn’t pitch much in 2015, but also didn’t give up any runs, and he’s been an under the radar relief prospect who’s just struggled to stay healthy for the club.
Opposing team to watch: ex-M’s affiliate High Desert, now a Rangers affiliate, has 9 of the Rangers top 30 prospects.
AA Southern League: Jackson Generals
Last year: 53-84
Jackson’s run differential and raw stats weren’t quite as bad as their overall record, but they weren’t any good. A team that was supposed to be paced by top prospect DJ Peterson just never got the bats going, and with turnover and ineffectiveness in the rotation, it was just a year to forget. The Generals have some star power in the form of the M’s top pitching prospect, Edwin Diaz, who blew through the Cal League and pitched most of the year for Jackson a year ago. The skinny righty out of Puerto Rico can touch the mid-high 90s, and got some time in the Futures Game at the All-Star break last year. He’ll be joined by Ryan Yarbrough, the breakout star of 2014 who had some injury issues last year, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, couldn’t recapture the form he had with the AquaSox in High-A. Still, for a budget senior sign, he’s been a revelation, and now that he’s healthy, he could reclaim that top-10-in-the-org prospect status with a solid year. Dan Altivilla was a dominant Division II hurler when the M’s drafted him a few years back, and he had a good 2015 for Bakersfield as well. The right-hander had a great stretch in the middle of the year in which he struck out 58 to just 16 walks, but he fell off a bit towards the end of the year.
The big position player prospect is OF Tyler O’Neill, the stocky Canuck who hit over 30 HRs for Bakersfield, despite missing time to play with the Canandian National Team during the summer as well. DJ Peterson will get another shot at the Southern League to start out, though the 1B could move up to Tacoma fairly quickly with a hot start. 2B Tim Lopes has good speed, but the high minors will be a tough test for a guy who struggled at the plate before a minor break out in the California League last year.
The catchers are long-time M’s farmhands Steve Baron and Marcus Littlewood.
Joining O’Neill in the OF is Cuban CF Guillermo Heredia, who looked a bit rusty in the spring, which is to be expected for a guy who hadn’t played much in two years. Fellow speedsters Ian Miller and Leon Landry make this another extremely good defensive OF.
Position player to watch: With apologies to DJ Peterson, who may be getting underrated in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of prospecting, but it’s got to be Tyler O’Neill, who was one of very, very few solid raw talents to start translating that into in-game production and power.
Pitcher to watch: No surprises here: it’s Diaz, who can either make the leap into top-50 prospect or who’ll hear more and more chatter that his future is in the bullpen.
Opposing team to watch: The Cubs have had their day, so it’s not Tennessee this year. Instead, let’s go with the Brewers affiliate, the Biloxi Shuckers. The Brewers system was on life-support for a few years there, but a new front office has made a number of trades, and that’s allowed the Brewers to take a large slice of the Houston Astros prospects, and many of them are in AA this year. The group’s headed up by OF Brett Phillips, who dominated for the Astros before moving to Biloxi in the Carlos Gomez deal. C Jacob Nottingham played for Houston’s Quad Cities club last year before moving to Oakland, and then to Milwaukee in the Khris Davis deal more recently. They’re joined by an unheralded lefty starter who kept racking up results Josh Hader; Hader, you’ll be shocked here, came over from the Astros org in the Gomez deal, too. Homegrown corner OF Victor Roache was a first rounder back in 2012 after being one of the better power hitters in the minors for Georgia Southern. He hasn’t fared as well in the minors, but after a solid year in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, he could break out if he can learn to recognize pitches a bit better. The Mississippi Braves will be interesting to watch once SS Dansby Swanson joins them from the Carolina League.
AAA Pacific Coast League: Tacoma Rainiers
Last Year: 68-76
The roster churn throughout the org, mixed with some tough positional battles for the big club make the Tacoma roster kind of a transitional one – there are lots of veterans with big league time, and only a few promoted players. That’s more and more common in AAA, but there’s still plenty to talk about with Tacoma. Perhaps the biggest name is James Paxton, who went from #3 starter a year ago for Seattle to starting 2016 in the minors. This assignment probably stings, and how he responds is going to be critical. If he wants to commiserate, he can talk to his battery mate, Mike Zunino, who’s getting a reset season outside of the big league eye. Zunino obviously struggled much more than Paxton, and is saying all of the right things about working on his swing in the minors, but it’s got to be weird when the front office signs TWO catchers and all but publicly states that he’s not getting promoted this year. Still, that’s a hell of a starter and catcher, and Zunino’s framing figures to get the entire Tacoma staff some favorable counts.
The infield will look familiar to those who saw the team last year, with SS Chris Taylor and IF Shawn O’Malley playing all over, and corner IF/OF Stefen Romero doing the same at less demanding positions. Ex-Oregon State SS Tyler Smith joins the club after spending all of last year with Jackson.
The OF’s made up of some true PCL veterans, like Efren Navarro, a long-time Angels farmhand, and Mike Baxter, who got call-ups with the Cubs and Mets. Daniel Robertson was Navarro’s teammate in Salt Lake (and, briefly, Los Angeles) last year, too. Call-up Dario Pizzano was having a solid campaign for Jackson when he got hurt and missed six weeks last year; he’ll try to pick up where he left off while fighting for team with Navarro/Robertson. The CF, and biggest prospect, is Boog Powell who made a run at a spot on the M’s bench, but will start the year in AAA and getting more playing time. The ex-Rays prospect with an excellent batting eye may make his big league debut later this year. For a guy whose ceiling has been downplayed due to a lack of in-game power, the PCL is a good place to show some development in that area.
The pitching staff is a bit thinner behind Paxton, but the bullpen figures to be interesting. Lefty Paul Fry was, statistically, a dominant prospect, but Fry struggled a bit in the Arizona Fall League. If his command and velocity are back, he could be an effective reliever in any environment: Fry gave up a grand total of zero homers despite pitching in the Cal League and in AA last year. Justin DeFratus will try to get his career back on track; he was a solid member of the Philadelphia bullpen not long ago, and then after an inning or two this year, the M’s cut him and signed him to a minor league deal instead. The pitching star of spring training this year, righty Donn Roach, starts in Tacoma. The sinkerballing journeyman had been known for an otherworldly GB% and next to no missed bats, but he started racking up strikeouts in Peoria – he’s one to watch, and you could tell that the M’s were loathe to send him down. Other newcomers like Jonathan Aro, Cody Martin and long-time Orioles org guy Steve Johnson round out the bullpen. Former Padres and Rangers prospect Joe Wieland starts tomorrow’s opener, and he’ll be followed by Cody Martin, Paxton, and then Adrian Sampson (acquired for JA Happ) on Sunday. As Mike Curto notes, they may make a roster move tomorrow after learning that C Rob Brantly passed through waivers and was assigned to Tacoma. The club already had C Steven Lerud backing up Zunino.
Position player to watch: Mike Zunino. Many of us lamented Zunino’s rush through the minors and wondered what things would be like if he’d actually had some time to develop in the minors. He showed serious red flags the first time he came through Tacoma (though he showed plenty of encouraging things, too), and now he’s back with the psychological toll of sustained failure weighing on him. This whole experiment is predicated on the idea that you actually CAN go back and make up for lost developmental time. I think that’s *probably* true, as, say, Roy Halladay shows, but that it’s also not ideal. Of course, the ideal’s been gone a loooong time, and there’s no sense worrying about that now. The new org has been stressing the importance of development, and this is their primary job. New hitting coach Scott Brosius has a great reputation, and I’m excited to see if this works. And hey, if they’ve got some developmental mojo to smear on Chris Taylor, that’d be fantastic.
Pitcher to watch: Paxton. Can he stay healthy? Can his mechanics and newfound ability to pitch up in the zone make him more consistent that he’s been? It feels weird to even talk about Paxton here, so if you’d like, we can give the honor to Roach. Spring training is weird – remember Zunino hitting like .500 last year, or Mune Kawasaki lining base hits everywhere a few years ago? – but it’s just odd to see a guy who couldn’t strike out a folding chair in 2015 tear through big league line-ups the way he did. Maybe he’s learned something.
Opposing team to watch: This feels like an easy one this year. It’s got to be Round Rock, the Rangers affiliate, and the club that’ll be starting RF Nomar Mazara, 3B Joey Gallo, ex-Rainier/M’s prospect Pat Kivlehan, and former #1 prospect in baseball, Jurickson Profar. Mazara is a top-10-in-baseball prospect, and one of the best pure bats in the game, and the club could get even better when CF Lewis Brinson (another top-10 guy, and someone who ended the year in Round Rock) joins. Unfortunately for those of us in the northwest, Round Rock won’t be making the trip to Tacoma this year; we’ll have to catch them on MiLB.tv in May when the Rainiers visit.
If you’re looking for a prospect-laden club that’ll actually travel to Tacoma, then catch the OKC Dodgers when they visit Cheney in mid-July. They feature phenom Julio Urias, one of the best pitching prospects in the game, along with Zach Lee, a prospect who bounced back from an ugly 2014 and nearly made the Dodgers out of spring training this year. Rounding out their staff is Jharel Cotten, a solid right-hander from the Virgin Islands who breezed through High-A and AA last year, and Carlos Frias, who pitched against the M’s in the Cactus League. Their position players aren’t great shakes, but who needs them with that kind of rotation?
Fresno’s got 1B AJ Reed, 3B Colin Moran and CF Andrew Aplin, and they do the honorable thing and visit Tacoma multiple times (June, and late August).
Wade Miley vs. Colby Lewis, 11:05am
After a triumphant, decisive win last night, the M’s have a great opportunity to win an early series at a divisional rival’s place today. Wade Miley makes his first official start for the M’s in something of a tough situation for him. At a very high level, he’s a middle-of-the-order guy who’s struggled at times with the home run, so playing in a park like Arlington’s going to challenge him (and everyone else, of course). That said, this *specific* game has some positives as well. First, Texas’ line-up has been re-jiggered a bit to get more right-handed bats in there. That makes sense given Miley’s pretty normal platoon splits, but it also means that the Rangers are throwing out something of a B team line-up, particularly down the batting order.
Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder are two of the Rangers’ best bats, but they’re also lefties. Miley will need to be wary of Adrian Beltre, but other than that, he’s going to face Ian Desmond (playing CF!!), Brian Holoday, Ryan Rua, Justin Ruggiano and Hanser Alberto. Rougned Odor’s another tough out, but he too bats lefty, making Miley’s job a bit easier. Choo’s platoon splits are fairly extreme, and it’s something that’s tugged his overall value down a bit, but Prince Fielder’s are sizable, too. This is a divisional game in a hitter’s haven, but this is still a favorable way for Miley to get his M’s career going.
Colby Lewis gets the start for Texas. The righty now throws in the high 80s, and has been dogged by platoon split issues of his own for many years. A more pressing concern has been health, as Lewis had Tommy John a few years ago. Impressively, he topped 200 IP last year for the first time in years, so he clearly put in the work, but I think that also says a lot about the dire situation the Rangers were in in 2014-15 with their pitching staff just decimated by injuries that Lewis was required to stabilize the rotation and become a workhorse.
Lewis throws a rising four-seam fastball and a lot of sliders at 83-84. He’s got a decent curve ball, but, like his change, he uses it sparingly and mostly against lefties. Lewis has great control, which is probably what’s kept him in the big leagues. Against lefties, he gets very few strikeouts and thus has a very high career FIP against them, but at least he doesn’t give up free passes. The M’s offense *liked* facing fly-ball pitchers (and Lewis is an extreme fly-ball guy) last year, and figures to do well against them again this year: Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager love pitches they can elevate and drive. It’s not dispositive, but it’s nice to see that Seager and Cano in particular have clubbed Lewis over their careers.
1: Martin, CF
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Lind, 1B
6: Smith, DH
7: Sardinas, LF
8: Clevenger, C
9: Marte, SS
Marte’s defensive lapses have been unfortunate, but it’s easy to chalk up to nerves. Something to keep an eye on, perhaps. Luis Sardinas, the utility man brought in in large part for his ability to play a competent SS, has now seen time at 1B and LF. The M’s will give the lefty-swinging Steve Clevenger his first start – a great move against a guy like Colby Lewis. Finally, after a spring in which pretty much no one could get him out, it’s great to see Seth Smith race out of the gates. As an M’s fan, it’s often hard to separate the beauty of a hitter’s swing from the results it produces, and I’m not sure I can, but I will just say that I love watching Seth Smith hit.
So, last night’s game was an entertaining one. After several innings in which pitching had the upper hand, the M’s broke through against the bottom half of the Rangers bullpen, getting to Federal Way’s Tony Barnette and then absolutely destroying Tom Wilhelmsen. Like many of you, it wasn’t as fun to see Wilhelmsen self-destruct as it would’ve been to see, I don’t know, Shawn Tolleson, but the M’s line-up looked much more potent than we’ve seen in a while. In a sense, that’s been the most surprising aspect of the first two games: the M’s got away from the all-HRs, no-glove approach and yet they’ve produced six HRs in two games with some pretty shoddy fielding thrown in. Whatever works.
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Martin Perez, 5:05pm
What a strange, strange game we had yesterday. Felix’s command was awful, but he was still difficult to square up. The M’s new-look defense largely did OK on balls in play, but made critical errors in the 5th inning. Adam Lind in there against a tough lefty looked bad in hindsight, but I wonder if that wasn’t a slightly modified version of the old Joe Maddon “Danks Rule” – trying to take away a change-up specialist’s best pitch by hitting SAME handed hitters against him. Robbie Cano still looks great at the plate, and Mike Montgomery was something of a revelation, at least for a day.
We now have a whole game’s worth of pitch fx data, which is both fun to look at and too small to mean much. Following on gameday, Montgomery’s numbers were so anomalous that it looked like he was throwing a new pitch. Now, a day later, and after BrooksBaseball’s cleaned it up and recalculated stuff… it looks like he’s throwing a different new pitch. What I initially saw were a group of four-seam fastballs with sky-high – like, outrageously high – vertical movement. That’s *never* been a strength of Montgomery. He’s generated plenty of horizontal movement with his arm action and mechanics, but he doesn’t get big time spin rates or backspin. Yesterday, it looked like he did…at times. Brooks shows just a single change-up, but two really odd “sinkers” thrown around 90 with sub-0 vertical movement. I’m skeptical that such a pitch can actually be thrown (unless it’s thrown sidearm), but there they are. Do I think Montgomery can vary his fastball vertical movement by well over a foot? No, but… that’d be cool. And whatever he was throwing, it was working. Unfortunately for the M’s, the Rangers bullpen looked equally good.
Which means it’s all the more important that they get to lefty Martin Perez early today. Perez is a former hyped uber-prospect who’s never quite been able to get over the 4th-5th starter hump. He’s got solid velocity, decent-ish command of five pitches, and he keeps the ball on the ground (important when you play in Texas). Unfortunately, he’s got a couple of big problems that stand in the way of growth. First is simply health. Perez has missed time due to TJ surgery, which killed off nearly his entire 2014 season and much of his 2015 as well. But beyond that, he’s *always* struggled to strand baserunners. This is why a guy who yields suspiciously few home runs can *still* put up ugly ERAs in the current low-run environment. For his career, he’s stranded fewer than 70% of baserunners. His opponent today, Hisashi Iwakuma, sits at the other end of this distribution, with a career mark of nearly 79%, which is one reason FIP consistently under-values Kuma.
Why would this be? How real is this? That’s hard to tell, frankly, especially when Perez’s career been marred by an injury and a long rehab. And he was great at it in 2013, somewhat randomly. But this pattern was present in the lowest levels of the minors, and it’s what drove his AAA numbers into the toilet. With runners on, Perez walks more and strikes out fewer opponents, and that’s a big deal for someone who doesn’t miss many bats to begin with. Maybe he faces more hitters counts with runners on? Maybe he’s just not comfortable out of the stretch? Maybe it’s dumb luck? Let’s hope it keeps up today.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Marte, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Gutierrez, RF
7: Iannetta, C
8: Lee, 1B
9: Martin, CF
Rosters for the M’s minor league clubs were set yesterday… we’ll have a look at the clubs in the next day or two, as the full-season minor league teams begin their season this Thursday.
King Felix vs. Cole Hamels, 1:05
Happy Felix Day!
The M’s kick off their 2016 season as a strange kind of dark horse contender. They’ve completely overhauled the roster and the front office, and despite a painful 2015, and despite the myriad failings false starts dogging them, they’re neck and neck with some of the best teams in the American League. A lot of that has to do with today’s starter, a wise and magnanimous King. The M’s are going for the tenth straight opening day win in large part because Felix has started most of them.
I’m still too scarred to be truly optimistic – thanks, Jack Z – but I’m grateful for another opening day, and another opportunity to revel in the singular awesomeness of Felix and the unique-in-sports endurance race that is baseball’s regular season. I’m looking forward to new developments in the minors as well, and reading way too much into every early-season hot start as Andy McKay and the development staff try to work their magic and undo the damage of 2014-15 on the M’s prospects.
With that, here are some other projections/pronouncements on the upcoming season:
1: Texas is good, and they’re kind of going unnoticed.
Sure, the rotation’s kind of a mess, but that’ll get better when Yu Darvish returns, and they have a bit more depth in AAA than they did last year thanks to AJ Griffin. Their bullpen’s underrated, too. It’s probably just me, but I see the potential for an absolutely elite group, and I’m trying to take comfort in the fact that the projection systems don’t see it that way.
2: Scoring will be up in 2016. By a lot.
Jeff Sullivan talked about the increase in HRs in the THT Annual, and Dave mentioned it today as well, but I think we’ve seen the peak of the pitcher era in baseball, and we’re going to see the pendulum swing back towards the batters. Dave mentions the glut of young hitting prospects hitting the league, but I think the league is going to exert some pressure on umps to halt or reverse the strikezone’s seemingly relentless move down, and make pitchers throw at or above the knee again. I think the players and especially training methods have had an impact on players ability to drive pitches. That is, slugging on contact will rise in part because teams keep acquiring George Springer-types, but also in part because they’ve gotten better about how to develop and nurture them. Finally, I think temps may be slightly higher in this El Nino year, and that’ll help the bats. Good luck, M’s bullpen.
3: The M’s 40-man roster will look very different in August
On opening day several years ago, the M’s were projected to be a bottom-feeder (they were), but they had an aging roster. That was the classic case of a team that was due for a roster shake-up. This year’s M’s are quite different – they’re a bit younger, and they’re at a different spot on the win curve. But despite all of the churn, the *way* Dipoto’s built this roster is remarkably suited to plug-and-play. If the M’s race out of the gate and look to be a playoff team, they can shop for help at the deadline and deal their prospects – the ones Dipoto didn’t draft/develop. This is what Zduriencik did upon taking over the team, after all. If they struggle, they could move Seth Smith, Norichika Aoki, whichever relievers are pitching well and perhaps Wade Miley near the deadline, when prices are highest. The team’s got several talented guys in the lower minors who ooze potential but have terrible performance records: Austin Wilson, Gareth Morgan, Alex Jackson. DJ Peterson and Tyler O’Neill are two more similar hitters who have more of a track record, as well. No matter how the big club performs, a fast start by some of those guys and the right deal on the table, and Dipoto may decide to cut bait on guys who may not be stylistic fits for the new org.
Opening Day Lineup:
1: Aoki, LF
2: Marte, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Gutierrez, DH
7: Lind, 1B
8: Iannetta, C
9: Martin, CF
SP: FELIX. HERNANDEZ.