’18 40-Man Preview Extravaganza

Jay Yencich · November 12, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Is anything better than last year? Is something better than nothing? Such philosophical questions as into the nature of being and non-being have plagued man since started thinking too much. Me, I just write the minor league baseball material.

Last November, I wrote 1500+ words and the Mariners added no prospects to the 40-man. “How dare you say our system ranked last in baseball!” said the Mariners. “None of these guys are worth using space over lol,” also said the Mariners. We utilized the Rule 5 Draft to select and then reject first baseman Mike Ford, who went on to have a “meh” season for the Yankees triple-A affiliate, restocked on minor league catchers—a far more efficient tactic than converting every infielder who wasn’t quite twitchy enough, and lost a talented but often injured left-hander who went on to pitch more in one season in the D’Backs season than he had in the two previous years combined, though it only got him to 76.1 innings total.

Now we have the same batch of dudes if they’re still around! We also have prep and international signings to consider from back in 2014 as well as college picks from 2015, the exciting last draft of the Zduriencik era. In some other weird alternate universe, we’d be talking about adding Alex Jackson to the 40-man, gosh, remember him? A lot of people remembered him all-too-much after he had an .808 OPS between advanced- and double-A last season for the Braves. I didn’t hear a peep about him this year and oh look, .647 OPS at double- and triple-A, whoops. Considering the college picks of 2015 is less depressing although that finds us in a familiar position of “we would more strongly consider adding him were he still a member of the organization.” Fingers crossed that this won’t remain the case as we get to next year and the first draft under DiPoto. Of course, these are the Mariners, and for all we know we’ll have a different GM next year who has limited appreciation for the previous paradigm etc etc. NOTE: I am not speculating, I merely default to gallows humor as a large-scale coping mechanism.

It was a bad year for recent Aquasox as Michael Suarez and Andres Torres were both injured and neither Ronaldo Rosario nor Joseph Rosa could figure out how to hit. I’m also going to discount Chuck Taylor who, like Curletta, needed to be re-signed but was without being added to the 40-man. Other omissions included: Bryan Bonnell (not a good relief profile), Adonis de la Cruz (K numbers fascinate, but is without buzz), Marvin Gorgas (bad command), Spencer Herrmann (weak double-A debut), Ryne Inman (remains a bit wild), Anthony Jimenez (hit worse in a more favorable league), and Matt Walker (needs to “prove it” as a deception guy). I also found out while writing this that there are three guys named “Logan Taylor” in the minor leagues. White people, amirite? Darin Gillies and Anthony Misiewicz were considerations, but they’re less likely as major contributors and I ought to cut myself some slack more.

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The First Big Trade and the M’s Approach to 2019

marc w · November 9, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Sorry for the delay in writing this one up, but I ended up writing about this for Baseball Prospectus. Uh, yeah, so I’m going to be contributing over there now. It’s a big honor, as I’ve read BP for *almost* as long as I read this blog, and of course, it was through USSMariner that I found BP in the first place.

The upshot is that the M’s are essentially paying Tampa as a professional development contractor. The M’s have tried desperately to find a CF, and they’ve failed. Guillermo Heredia – also included in the trade – never developed despite the ability to work a walk and defense that looked good at times. Leonys Martin seemed to get into a slump midway through 2016 and just was never able to get out of it. Uh, until this year, in Detroit. Dee Gordon…the less said, the better.

Mallex Smith looked to be very Guillermo Heredia-like when the M’s sent him to Tampa as part of the ill-fated Drew Smyly acquisition. But as is the Rays’ wont, they were able to improve him and create a more-than-playable CF. Unsurprisingly for a guy with his speed, Smith hits the ball at a lower trajectory and hits plenty of ground balls. It may help his BABIP a bit to run out GBs in the SS/3B hole, so it’s not like the Rays wanted to get him to hit a lot of fly balls; as one of the weaker fly ball hitters in the game, that’d be a recipe for disaster. The problem was the nature of those low-to-negative angled hits. In 2016, the average Mallex ground ball came off the bat at 73.8 MPH (per Statcast). That was good for 466th out of 471 players with at least 50 balls in play, beating out the likes of Johnny Cueto and Max Scherzer. In 2017, he somehow dropped even more, all the way to an average of 72.3 MPH. That left him at 462 out of 466 players, but hey, in your FACE, RA Dickey. But last year, he was up to 80.3 MPH, which, while not good, at least ensured he was in the range of position players and not pitchers. Not only that, but Smith cut his K rate as well, meaning those grounders weren’t just hit harder, but they were coming at the expense of strikeouts. At all added up to a wRC+ pf 117 and a 3+ win season.

Things changed, though, when the Rays acquired Tommy Pham from St. Louis. With a full OF, and an OF that promised more power than Smith could provide, the Rays had a 3-win, club-controlled asset that they didn’t desperately need, and like anything they don’t desperately need, they shopped him immediately. The M’s get a massive, massive upgrade in CF, and they can finally bring Dee Gordon back to 2B. This does a couple of things. Not only does it improve the M’s defense, but it may help them dominate the market around the trade deadline. Dee Gordon is untradeable now, after an abysmal offensive season and the whole let’s-just-forget-it-ever-happened CF experiment. A solid 1st half back at his old position could help the M’s find a buyer, and a great 1/2 year from Smith could make him a guy who commands a premium. He’s still a pre-arb guy; he’ll have his first arb season in 2020. If the M’s aren’t bad in 2019, they keep him and let him be a cheap, useful piece to build around. If they’re horrible, they’d go into the deadline with players to sell that other teams might actually *want* for a change.

So much of what happens next depends on the market for James Paxton. There’s been a lot of talk in recent days about the M’s willingness to move him, with Ken Rosenthal talking about the Yankees interest today. The M’s don’t have to move him, and frankly *should* be listening to offers on their ace, but it’s nice that they don’t need to move him unless they’re blown away by an offer. If he stays, the M’s could again be semi-competitive. If the M’s drop out of contention, I think another healthy 1/2 year might make him a great win-now pick-up. But if someone offers two-three top 100 prospects, then I think the M’s take the deal now.

Mike Zunino’s volatility made it harder to assume he’d be decent trade bait. His value would’ve been fairly high at this time last year, but it had tanked by the time July of 2018 rolled around. The M’s clearly didn’t know how to bring him out of the slumps he was so often mired in, and decided to sell now when he had both a sterling defensive reputation and memories of his 2017 were fresh. It’s got to be a humbling situation; the M’s have been trying to develop a catcher since Dan Wilson (who was mostly developed in Cincinnati), and they finally did it, but it didn’t stick, and then they had to use that partial success to cover over their other glaring developmental failure: CF.

It’s a post of mine, so you know PD is going to come in for criticism, but putting that aside, this has the potential to make the M’s better in 2019. Yes, a great Zunino would’ve been the easiest path to improvement, but that was far from a sure thing. An easier improvement would be getting more than replacement-level production from your starting CF. The options in free agency at C aren’t great, but then, they don’t need to be. They need to replace Zunino’s overall performance, which, to be fair, was buoyed by his amazing defense. But his .259 OBP and .289 projected OBP aren’t exactly high bars to clear. AJ Ellis comes to mind as a cheap one-year stop-gap who has some of Zunino’s strengths in game-calling/managing a staff, while also offering a solid eye at the plate. No 450′ HRs, though, and his framing grades poorly on BP’s metric. Stephen Vogt lives locally, and had solid framing numbers the last time he was healthy; that “healthy” part means he’d come cheap, but it’d be tough to count on 120 games from him. Anyway, there are options for even a team that’s going to claim budget constraints.

Other notes/transactions:

1: Mallex Smith brings a ton of value on the basepaths, and that’s an area that the M’s have struggled with for years. Last year’s team should’ve bucked that trend, and maybe it would have if Dee Gordon had gotten on base more, but the M’s graded poorly in FG’s baserunning metric, which measures SBs/CSs, but also things like scoring from 1st on a 2B, going from 1st-3rd, etc. The problem is that the M’s have been bad every year, and while they’re better than they were in, say, 2015, they’re still grading poorly even after spending on speedy guys like Gordon. Some of this comes from signing Nellie Cruz and watching Kyle Seager’s speed slip away, but my guess is that the same factors that make it really hard to hit 2B and 3B in Safeco make it exceedingly hard to take extra bases on the basepaths. The OF is simply too small, meaning it’s harder to be certain a ball will find a gap, and it’s correspondingly easier for an OF to get a ball off the wall back to the IF quickly. It didn’t seem to bother Jarrod Dyson too much, but Gordon’s speed number sank along with…all of his other numbers last year. Here’s hoping Mallex is able to keep his amazing SB% and still go 1st-3rd on singles.

2: The M’s signed utility IF Dylan Moore out of the Brewers org. He’s hit well in recent years, but is 26 and AA/AAA, and is just now back on the map after a terrible stint in the Braves org after a trade from the Rangers for international bonus pool money. He put up gaudy numbers in High A in both High A leagues, but those were partially a product of great hitting environments (High Desert!). He collapsed for the Braves AA affiliate, slugging .292, and thus got released. He signed a minor league deal with the Brewers and blew away AA, eventually spending most of the year in AAA. He hit incredibly well, but then there’s that whole environment thing: he played in Colorado Springs. Still, as a young-ish guy with a promising bat, but perhaps not quite as promising as the stats show, he’s got enviable positional flexibility. In 2018 alone, he played SS, CF, 2B, 3B, 1B, and LF. He’s played all 3 OF spots in the past, and seems to know how to handle the middle infield without anyone losing their job over it. This could be your new Andrew Romine, or at least a more interesting AAA IF than the Rainiers have had in a while.

3: Speaking of the Rainiers, they’ve resigned reliever Ryan Garton, who’d been outrighted last year and played sporadically in Tacoma in 2018 while navigating a series of injuries. You may remember him coming over from, you guessed it, the Rays in the minor trade that netted the M’s Mike Marjama. That trade sent IF Luis Rengifo to Tampa, but they quickly moved him to Anaheim, whereupon he had a huge breakout, and now finds himself in the Angels’ top 10 prospect list, and a guy who will probably get some big league time next season.

The Rebuild is On?

marc w · November 6, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

The Hot Stove League’s season is still young, but the M’s are all over the news. Importantly, we’ve seen the M’s signal their willingness to move key members of the 2018 roster if a deal can be made. Perhaps even more importantly, they’ve revamped their coaching staff, indicating that they need a new approach to player development *at the major league level.*

Discussions of the M’s predicament are thick on the digital ground in the M’s blogosphere and nationally. The M’s remain mired far, far behind the likes of Houston and Boston, and now must contend with an up-and-coming A’s club as well as an Angels squad that still has 2-3 of the best players in the world, depending on your definitions. The M’s have the highest payroll obligations for 2019 *and* the worst farm system in the AL West, and they’re coming off of a year in which they finished 3rd in the division.

The M’s have a decision to make this offseason, but it’s set up with a series of smaller decisions. The former dominated the news cycle today, as news broke nationally that the M’s are taking offers on just about everyone and exploring a full-on rebuild. The M’s ability to pull off what, say, the White Sox did a few years ago or the Cubs before that is limited because of the fact that so much of their payroll is tied up not in young, exciting players like literally Chris Sale or, say, Jeff Samardzija. They’re tied up in Felix Hernandez and a weird version of Kyle Seager who just finished a full season with an OBP of .273. But that’s where the smaller decisions come in: the M’s made a very non-traditional hire at Pitching Coach by picking up the St. Louis Cardinals’ erstwhile Director of Pitching Analytics, Paul Davis. They’re looking for a new hitting coach, too, with Edgar Martinez stepping back from that role to more of an advisor position.That’s important because a lot of *why* the M’s are paying untradeable players is that they simply weren’t able to coach those players to higher levels of performance. Whether they do a tear-down now, or wait until the trade deadline, the M’s need to have coaches in place who are all about getting players to a fundamentally different level of performance. Population-level data was really revolutionary in the Moneyball era, but it’s all but meaningless now in an environment where all clubs have it, and any fan can access it. Successful teams are upending those general rules, and terrifyingly for the M’s, it doesn’t look like luck. There’s a reason Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton got better in Houston, and there’s a reason players as disparate as Aaron Judge and CC Sabathia contributed more than anyone would’ve imagined in New York the past two years. Unless and until that changes, not even a free agent spending spree would fundamentally alter the M’s trajectory.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that the M’s could forego a rebuild by committing to be major players in free agency. With impact classes both now and next year, and with the M’s cash crunch easing after 2019 AND with the luxury tax level rising, there are no baseball reasons to worry about investing in some of the bigger names on offer this year. Ownership may not want to, and I know exceeding the luxury tax threshold in 2019 may be unpalatable, but it’s not some major impediment: the penalties really ramp up for exceeding the soft cap three years in a row, and the M’s don’t need to do that. Moreover, coaching changes can help the M’s become the team that helps free agents unlock hidden potential instead of remaining a team trying to compete against newly-Astrofied competition.


I’m perhaps reading too much into the public statements, but it’s somewhat interesting to me that the M’s seem to be making Marco Gonzales all but untouchable, even as James Paxton becomes trade bait. A part of that may just be a testament to how much “club control” uh, controls discussions of player value, and it may be that the team doesn’t see their window of contention overlapping with Paxton’s remaining contract. But Gonzales (and Paxton!) are a good reminder of another way the club can start to chip away at the gap in current/projected talent: defense. M’s fans point to Gonzales finishing in the top 20 in Fangraphs’ WAR measure, and it’s true, there he is at #20! A low walk rate, moderate dingers keep his FIP low. But using Fangraphs’ own RA-9 based WAR, he drops to 39th. BBREF’s different version of RA-9 WAR slots him behind Wade LeBlanc, for example. Now, sure, a high BABIP pushed his ERA higher than his FIP, and that’ll regress, right? Well, we’ve been saying that about James Paxton now since this point in 2016, and it simply hasn’t. Paxton’s wOBA-allowed with men on base has remained stubbornly higher than his overall mark, and Gonzales’ is following the same path. Both of them have posted high BABIPs now for multiple years in a row, and it’s possible that neither is all that great at contact management. Again, that could be related to coaching to some extent, but some of it is clearly defense. The M’s have tried to build a great team defense, and it hasn’t quite worked out, just as the A’s own attempts to turn around an awful run-prevention group succeeded beyond anyone’s imagining this year. Other teams can do this. If Marco Gonzales is going to be a centerpiece of the next good M’s team and not just a perfectly cromulent, cheap #3-4 starter, then they need him to give up the runs FIP says he should, not the runs the scoreboard said last year.

Corey Brock’s got an interesting piece at the Athletic today about the M’s High Performance Camp in Peoria today. Instead of working on skills, the camp seems to be about building strength, diet/exercise habits, and about assessing their mental state after a grueling season of bus rides and fast food. There are no baseballs, but lots of wearable tech, cooking lessons and discussions. It’s a great idea, particularly given the brutal nature of the minor league season. But I also don’t think the M’s will get as much of a benefit from it unless the entire team – meaning coaches at every level – are on board. If the M’s want more players to cook and not eat out all the time, then they need a way to make that practical in Clinton, Iowa and Charleston, West Virginia, and Modesto, California. The M’s wanted a change in their primary big league coaches. More important than any one coach below them, though, they need every coach to be speaking the same language. I’m not sure that happened last year, impacting how well players developed and how they transitioned between minor league levels and between the minors and majors. Several of those coaching spots will turn over, as the M’s already know several minor league coaches won’t be back. That’s an opportunity to do things differently, of course, but it’s something they absolutely have to get right if they want to restock the team with prospects due to, say, and Edwin Diaz trade.

The White Sox embarked on a full-on rebuild in late-2016/early-2017 by shipping off Chris Sale, signed to an absurdly cheap extension, and Adam Eaton. Later in 2017, they offloaded another cheap/good starter, Jose Quintana, as well. With an excellent coaching staff led by Don Cooper, the Sox bet on themselves in opting for high-ceiling talent in return for Sale/Eaton/Quintana instead of league-average, high-floor closer-to-guarantees. It was an interesting approach, with super high-risk guys like Michael Kopech, Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and more coming to the Sox. If they were able to coach these guys to their potential, they’d pair with Carlos Rodon and high draft picks and build a team that could compete with the Cubs/Red Sox. It’s still early…kind of…but they haven’t gotten all they would’ve liked. Giolito’s been roughly replacement level in 200+ innings, Carson Fulmer’s been worth less than that, and Kopech needed Tommy John not long after debuting this year. Moncada’s improving, but led the league in Ks this year with a SLG% of exactly .400. He’s only 23, things can and will get better, but they gave up several absolute market-defining players and are still in wait and see mode, with two awful seasons in the books and more to come, it looks like. This is a collective failure – albeit one that they still have time to correct. The M’s won’t be trading anyone like Sale (though Diaz may come close), but whoever they get, they absolutely need to have a higher batting average on the players they get than Chicago’s had to date.

The M’s got here because they bet on their ability to develop players at the big league level and lost that bet. They’ve bet on their ability to build around a core of players locked up with long-term contracts, and while they’ve done OK at finding players to slot in around them, the core’s production has dropped alarmingly. They seem to recognize the danger here, and the changes in staffing and development processes are an attempt to address the risk. But this absolutely needs to be straightened out in advance, and thankfully, addressing the gap in player development (or the consistency of message in player development?) can help whatever path forward the M’s choose.

2018: The Year of Standing Still

marc w · October 10, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

I’d like to believe that there’s no way to call an 89 win season a failure. It’s hard to look past all of that winning and perceive a wave of pain and indifference (paindifference? Apainthy?) looming ahead. It’s also not much fun to read, and I can assure you, not much fun to write. It’s been a strange year, and it’s manifested itself lately in an aversion to writing this post down. That’s odd; in general, I don’t mind criticizing the team’s direction. It’s just that we’ve gone a year and I don’t feel like I’ve learned anything about what the M’s are good at, or how they might want to move forward. I thought this year would reveal something, for good or ill, about the M’s approach, about their player development, about their pathway to challenging the AL’s premier teams. I was wrong.

It’s obvious to all involved, not least Jerry Dipoto and the front office, that they’re in a serious bind. In the weeks since the season ended, Dipoto’s given admirably frank assessments of the painful second-half slide the M’s experienced and the fact that they may have to forge ahead against a rebuilt Oakland side without the services of Nelson Cruz. The Astros saw injury-plagued and/or just plain down years from essentially their entire core: George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Jose Altuve. They won 103 games. The Red Sox won 108, as Mookie Betts put together an inner-circle HOF-type season, Chris Sale kept on getting better, and Xander Bogaerts tapped into his power. Worst of all, the Athletics offense carried a weak and then historically injury-ravaged rotation into the playoffs with 97 wins. The M’s remained in the playoff hunt despite scoring 100 runs fewer than the Astros, about 140 less than the A’s, and a staggering 200 fewer than the Red Sox. They allowed more than each team, too. The Mariners were a balanced team, without too many black holes, and with a pitching staff that did remarkably well considering the circumstances, but even if they can maintain this level of balance, the super teams are balanced, too, and balanced at a much, much higher level.

That’s not to say that the competition has ten times better talent. Ok, you actually CAN say that about the Astros and Red Sox. But teams like the A’s and Brewers don’t boast world-beating pitching staffs, and I think there are probably half a dozen A’s front office employees who couldn’t name all of the pitchers they ended the season with. Despite no real stars, and despite needing to utilize more than 5-7 starters, both teams allowed fewer runs than the M’s. As I said last off-season, great teams now do NOT use analytics to identify star-level players. EVERY team uses analytics, and there’s no hiding someone with a great record of performance. Everyone knows about them. The problem is that Wade Miley just pitched a playoff series-clinching game. Wade Miley is not a more talented pitcher than recent M’s teams have had, because recent M’s teams have had the actual Wade Miley. Wade Miley pitched much, much better this year than he did in Seattle, and while all of this is small-sample stuff, it seems pretty clear that certain teams are doing player development and big league coaching radically better than Seattle.

Christian Yelich slashed .298/.376/.483 in a cavernous pitcher’s park in 2016. It gave him an fWAR over 5, and at 24, it made him an interesting sort of star. He hit the ball on the ground too much to hope for much power, but 21 HRs for a 24-year old OF wasn’t bad in that context, and he had remarkably consistent BB:K ratios. He was forecasted to slug about .480 again in Milwaukee this year, with an .843 OPS (by ZiPS, at least), a mark quite close to Mitch Haniger’s .859 this season. Mitch hit for a bit more power than Yelich’s projection, but Yelich was supposed to take a few more walks. You know what happened: Yelich dropped a .326/.402/.598 season on baseball, making him the MVP favorite. Even as baseball seems to trade HRs for ever more strikeouts, many players are increasing their power while making MORE contact. Alex Bregman did it for Houston a little while after George Springer did it. Betts hit for a ton more power while striking out a teensy bit more, sort of the way Altuve did a few years ago. Aaron Judge was never supposed to be…this. Chris Sale and Gerrit Cole were very good starting pitchers, who’d settled in after several years of MLB play, and then suddenly after getting traded, they became nearly untouchable. Even Trevor Bauer, who’d been talking about this sort of lift-off for years without actually *doing* it, finally went and did it. The M’s had very good seasons from Marco Gonzales and Mitch Haniger that very clearly “beat” their respective projections, but are not in the same league as any of the others referenced above. Do you think that was bad luck? Was it GOOD luck, but just not as much as these other teams enjoyed? Will Fortune find some random M’s under-appreciated prospect and see him add 6-7-8 MPH on his fastball the way Josh James did this year for…damn it…Houston? I don’t know, and nobody knows, but I know that I doubt it. Mitch Haniger was a revelation this year, but he followed up a 2017 slash line of .282/.352/.491 with a full year of .285/.366/.493. I like the second one better! It’s great! It’s progress! It’s not transformative.

The M’s seem to have a great analytics group, and they’ve built a development staff who’s receptive to input from that great analytics group. They have coaches who seem interested in getting good ideas out of the spreadsheet and on to the field. It just doesn’t seem to be…happening the way I hoped it would. The M’s deserve a lot of credit for helping vets like Robinson Cano and Nellie Cruz *maintain* all-star level performance when age should be stripping it away, and they deserve credit for helping Gonzales and Haniger improve (though they’re both essentially at an age where performance peaks anyway). It’s not perfect: Kyle Seager’s slumped and Felix…I don’t want to talk about it. But my criticisms shouldn’t be taken as a blanket condemnation of the M’s front office. They’re fine, but despite having money, despite having a deep bench of former Baseball Prospectus writers and the like, something’s getting lost in translation somewhere.

You know the times-through-the-order penalty: that as pitcher face batters multiple times in a start, they fare a bit worse each time. Maybe it’s fatigue, maybe it’s that batters can time their pitches/know their repertoire once they’ve seen it again, but this is a sabermetric idea that’s essentially common knowledge at this point. Anyway, the league put up a .315 wOBA overall on the year, but that rises to .321 after seeing the pitcher at least once before their current at-bat. If they’ve seen the pitcher twice already, it inches up to .322. This is completely normal. The M’s .313 overall, and if they’d seen the pitcher before, that moved up to… .312. If they’d seen him twice or more? .309. The M’s have a completely normal times-through-the-order penalty, it’s just that they’ve started assessing it on their own batters.

The M’s line-up was supposed to be a strength, although it was never really clear just why. The M’s clearly punted on OBP, opting to put a ton of balls in play in a home park that suppresses BABIP. Worse, those swing-early-and-often hitters seem to have had some exploitable holes, and the more pitchers saw them, the more they went ahead and exploited them. Mike Zunino and Kyle Seager had uppercut swings, seemingly designed to attack sinkers and low fastballs. Soooo pitchers pitched them up, and on fastballs more than 6″ above the center of the strikezone, Seager put up a .233 wOBA and Zunino a .174. It’s small sample stuff, of course. Maybe everything will be fine next year. I wouldn’t stake my job on it, though. The M’s need to frankly assess their players strengths and weaknesses AND the strengths and weaknesses of their coaches and they *process* of delivering actionable information to those coaches and players.

I wanted to see the M’s make the playoffs this year, or at least see a resurgent Felix Hernandez give some hope – and entertainment – to a few years that look a bit bleak on paper. The M’s opponents are better, while the M’s may be getting worse. They can rebuild after a fashion, but with well over $100 M tied up in untradeable veteran contracts, it’ll be an odd sort of rebuild. To move forward, the M’s will need to sell off the most valuable players they employ – the kind of players they’d love to build around if they have a reasonable pathway to contention in the next 3-4 years. It sounds like they’re already seriously considering how likely that really is, and they’re probably looking at all manner of painful scenarios. If the team had fallen on its face this year, we’d likely already have seen a clear directional shift, with either Diaz or Paxton, or both, already traded. As it happened, they all stuck around and made a valiant run at the playoffs, which just delays the decision. The M’s can absolutely re-sign Nellie Cruz and hope to get to 86-89 wins (though matching this year’s win total will require more than just more Nellie), but they have to think about what 86-89 wins will get them.

I still don’t really know what the M’s bankable skills are, as an organization (OK, it’s marketing/communications/social and media relations). I can’t quite tell if getting 2-4 top-100 prospects would be playing to strengths or just wishcasting. I can’t quite tell if Trader Jerry will come up with a Walker-for-Hanigura blockbuster or a Peralta-for-Adam Lind, Enyel de los Santos-for-Joaquin Benoit, Chris Taylor-for-Zach Lee stinker. I can’t tell if Safeco’s back to being a serious, serious pitcher’s park again (look at these actual/expected wOBA numbers), or if MLB will quit messing around with the baseball. All of this impacts how the M’s approach this off-season. But I find myself frustrated at being in the same position as last year – they’re no better than they were relative to their peers, and obviously coming off an 89-win season with a negative run and HR differential, they’re quite likely worse. I’m frustrated that I still don’t see some positive signs from a barren farm system – a wave of players becoming unrecognizable versions of themselves all at once. The mitigating circumstances are everywhere: how COULD the farm system do much when everyone’s been traded (or hurt)? How could the M’s know that the ball would sink their 2016 season, or that injuries might sink their 2017? Those caveats make it hard to give in to cynicism and say “fire the lot” and start over. Optimism generally finds it hard to take root in these arid soils, so that’s not really an option either. Yes, it was great to see them succeed for much of the first half, and yes, it was awesome to see Edwin Diaz put up an all-time relief season. On day 1, I said the M’s needed to win that 2nd wildcard *or* see a great lion-in-winter season from Felix. They got neither, AND I feel like I haven’t learned anything about the game or the team I love. I have no idea what they plan to do next, nor any real rational basis for criticizing or supporting their decision. That rational basis needs to be grounded in some plan to leverage the org’s strengths, and I’m still no clearer on what those are.

Game 157: Athletics at Mariners

marc w · September 25, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Brett Anderson, 7:10pm

Blake Snell was a great HS prospect, and added something on his way through the Rays’ minor league system. He was a solid MLB starting pitcher at a young age, and then, midway through last year and again midway through *this* year, he’s taken his game to another level. Matt Chapman was a solid prospect out of Fullerton State, with a brilliant defensive reputation that was partially marred by swing-and-miss concerns, enough that some teams wanted to take a look at him as a pitcher. He hit well enough in the high-minors, though those K rate concerns looked pretty apt. In his first taste of the big leagues, Chapman showed that yeah, okay, he had some holes in his swing, but with great defense and a developing eye, he wasn’t quite in the Joey Gallo category – he wasn’t THAT kind of all-or-nothing player. This year, he’s cut his K% significantly while maintaining the impressive power he showed last year. Those Ks have turned into singles, so his batting average looks nothing like Gallo’s, and of course he’s a gold glove 3B.

Mike Leake is exactly who the M’s acquired. Presumably targeted because of his remarkable consistency, Leake has given the M’s what they wanted: 30+ starts with a FIP and ERA right near 4, posting a solidly (but not dramatically) above average season. Teams *need* these kinds of performances, and in a baseball world defined by attrition, churn, and inconsistency, Leake’s acquisition stands out as a smart pick-up for a team that desperately needed someone to count on after trying and failing with Wade Miley, Yovani Gallardo, and Ariel Miranda. I don’t think you needed advanced stats to see Leake as a solid buy, not when the regular old stats looked remarkably consistent. Giving up essentially no talent to GET him was another solid win, as the M’s were willing to eat salary from a team that had Jack Flaherty, Carlos Martinez, Alex Reyes (whoopsadoodle), and Dakota Hudson on the way up.

It was a good process and a good result, but there’s a problem: it’s just not enough anymore. Teams ahead of the M’s are taking interesting players, especially those with a lot more variance in their potential outcomes, and developing them into stars. I have no idea what Ramon Laureano’s career will look like from here on out, but he was a laser-armed OF with serious questions about his bat, and had already washed out of an org that’s been brilliant at developing guys like this. With the A’s…well, you know what happened. Maybe it’s all a fluke, akin to Jeremy Reed’s debut with the M’s. But it’s happening so much now, and the M’s haven’t quite followed suit.

Mitch Haniger’s development, about which I spilled too many words yesterday, stands out as a local example, but his overall slash line looks freakishly like last year’s. He’s cut his own K% issues down, but fundamentally, the change that turned him from busted prospect to MITCH HANIGER happened in Arizona. We’ve seen some encouraging signs from Evan White, but the overall seasonal record isn’t greatly encouraging. We’ve seen solid improvement from Braden Bishop, and at least Kyle Lewis is healthy now. But this can’t *just* happen at the minor league level. This team needs the ability to watch major league players cut whiffs and increase power, the way the Astros have done with Alex Bregman this year, and the way they did with George Springer the year before.

So much of what’s gone wrong has been due to the unexplained collapses of Kyle Seager and Dee Gordon, whose BABIP luck took a serious turn for the worse. It’s great that Edwin Diaz blew his projections out of the water, and became what he looked like in 2016: completely untouchable. But it needs to happen on offense, and it’s not happening enough. The trade for Ryon Healy only made sense if the M’s could turn him into a fundamentally different hitter; to succeed where the A’s had failed. It didn’t happen. I don’t think the M’s get enough credit for Nelson Cruz’s remarkable, age-defying, late-career renaissance, but while they got what they paid for there, they need Cruz-level performance from someone who wasn’t already a league HR champ. Who’s it going to be? Is this team ready to do that? If not, the M’s will just fall further behind, a point that Twins’ GM Thad Levine made in this BP Q and A. There is no standing pat, there is no treading water. You’re either actively improving, or you’re falling further behind. It’s a dead horse I like to whack at, but the M’s need to figure out what they’re good at and do more of it. It’s not enough to be an OK, perfectly average, reliably Mike Leakean General Manager. The American League circa 2018-19 demands much, much more.

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

Game 156, Athletics at Mariners: What *Are* the Mariners, Really?

marc w · September 24, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Daniel Mengden, 7:10pm

It’s time for one of this blog’s patented, not terribly beloved, meta-analytics posts. If posts on the differing WAR frameworks are your cup of tea, then boil the kettle and grab some cucumber sandwiches. If not, uh, the M’s and A’s are playing a mostly meaningless game tonight, one saved from instant irrelevance by the return of James Paxton.

A few weeks ago, this post by sports statistics Prof Ben Baumer came across my Twitter timeline:

I looked at some of the responses, as it ties in to the big debate about confidence intervals that OpenWAR (Baumer was one of the developers of OpenWAR) and now Baseball Prospectus’ WARP have been leading since at least late 2017. But fundamentally, I skipped over it, because I think we’ll *always* have these big differences between a WAR framework based on RA9 (runs allowed) and one based on FIP (three true outcomes only). Aaron Nola had a ridiculously low ERA and a somewhat higher FIP, so… there you go. Similarly, James Paxton’s going to look much better in a FIP-based system than an RA9-based system, and that holds up, too. In general, things should line up a lot more for position players, and pitchers can have outliers like Nola.

As the M’s season winds down, many fans have talked about the positives they can take from this season. Despite the late collapse, and despite the M’s dicey short- to medium-term prospects, there should be some positives given how many games the M’s just won. And thus, I’ve seen a number of comments about Mitch Haniger and his ascension into a star player. I’ve loved watching Haniger this year, but I guess I’d thought of him as in a tier below the upper-echelon position players in the game, and while that distinction may be semantic, it made me go and see how the different systems rate Mitch. What I found was a distinction about as wide as the Aaron Nola example.

By Fangraphs’ WAR, Mitch grades out as the 28th-most valuable position player, at 4.4 WAR. That’s really good, and it’s driven by an excellent park-adjusted wOBA – a park adjustment that’s perhaps larger than it’s been in a while. But that offensive performance is partially balanced by some negatives on defense. First there’s the good ol’ position adjustment, which dings him for playing in an OF corner (mostly), and then there’s the actual fielding component, which at FG dings him quite a bit, especially for his performance when he’s NOT in an OF corner. What does Baseball Reference have for him? There, Haniger is the *9th-best* position player in the game at 6.3 WAR,* essentially tied with Christian Yelich of Milwaukee, and within a half-win of the Astros’ Alex Bregman. This…this is good company. Defense is a big part of this, as BBREF also dings him for being a right-fielder, but gives him 7 defensive runs. So is this all about defense?

Maybe not. Comparing the “value” tables at BBREF and Fangraphs gives us a very different idea about what Mitch’s batting stats mean for overall value. At the former, combining batting, baserunning, league, park, and position, Haniger comes out with 5.5 offense-based wins above replacement. This is clear, unambiguous star-level play, but even if we throw out defense, there’s still about a half-win or more of difference between the two systems. Maybe that’s within the margin of error (and if we had confidence intervals, we could check that), but these differences can really add up for players and it gets magnified at the team level.

Which team has the best pitching staff? By Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus, the answer is easy: the Astros, who’ve given up an absurdly low number of runs, and who do FIP-pleasing things like racking up strikeouts. By Baseball-Reference’s measure, it’s…the Phillies. How can this be? Well, I’d argue that it literally cannot be, but to follow the logic train here, the Phillies may have given up nearly exactly the same number of runs as the M’s, but that’s actually heroic work given that they pitch in front of one of the league’s worst defenses in many years. Once you account for opposition, ballpark, and, crucially, that defense, the Phillies are *actually* giving up about a run per game less than an average team would. Contrast that with the Astros, who are giving up 3.3 runs per game, but even an average pitcher would do pretty well in the pitcher-friendly parks of the AL West and with Houston’s defense. The gap’s not nearly as large as it is for Philadelphia’s.

This result implies something about the Phillies position players, and it’s borne out on the offensive side of the ledger: the Phillies position players – as a group – have played at replacement level all year. Rhys Hoskins, whom FG has at 2.5 WAR? Replacement level. If team defense is the weird trick that makes the Phillies pitchers’ completely average runs-allowed look amazing, then it’s got to be accounted for on the position player side, and boy is it ever.

A somewhat similar thing happens with the M’s, whose offense looks better by BBREF’s numbers than it by Fangraphs’. While Fangraphs’ has the M’s pitching staff ranked 10th in MLB, they slip to 14th in BBREF’s rankings. Baseball Prospectus has them 13th, thought they see them similarly in overall value as FG. Meanwhile, BBREF’s got the M’s 3 wins better on offense than FG. The gap isn’t huge, perhaps, but at some point, this Mariners front office is going to have to triage its needs for 2019, and these gaps add up. Essentially, these differences are large enough that, depending on the source, you could argue that the M’s should invest in their offense *first* or you could argue that they need to shore up their pitching staff.

If you work for the M’s (or Phillies), you’ll have your own internal data that can probably shed some light on this, but whatever it is, it will rest on some pretty fundamental questions of value, and THOSE assumptions will drive the output. This extended look at the gaps between the publicly-available sites just highlights how those slight differences in assumptions can drive massive differences in the final computation of value. This is obvious when you compare the distribution of pitching WAR between FG, BBREF and BP. Baseball Prospectus’ new DRA-based pitcher WAR is fascinating to look at, because it doesn’t really line up with either of the previous approaches. Using mixed models, it creates a per-plate-appearances run estimator based on a ton of different variables, from the park to the umpire. One of the issues many in this field have pointed out is that actual runs allowed gives a much wider distribution that many run estimators, like FIP. You can reduce error (and have solid correlations with future runs allowed) by narrowing the distribution; regression toward the mean is great, and it works, but it can sometimes feel like doing that just eliminates the differences between really good and really bad pitchers. Well, DRA isn’t going to have that problem. The gap between the best pitching staff in Fangraphs’ FIP-based WAR (tighter distribution) is 26 wins. In BBREF’s Runs-allowed system, it shoots up to 37 wins, with Miami running out a staff that’s a shocking 8 wins below replacement level. DRA-based WARP ups that distribution even further, at nearly *47* wins between the Astros and Rangers. They’ve got 5 teams with multiple wins below replacement level, with the Rangers coming in at an unfathomable 12.6 wins below what you’d get if you just swapped in the Tacoma Rainiers’ staff. I…I don’t believe that can possibly be true, but it’s nice to see a distribution that doesn’t minimize the gap between the Astros and, say, the Orioles.

However you set up your system, you’ve got to balance the reduction in bias from accounting for park, league, umpire, whatever, with increases in variance/noise. Everyone’s looking at the same basic data: the M’s have scored too few and given up a few more. But what you do with the data is essentially limitless. I just hope the M’s can figure out how to use that data to coax some real improvement out of their young hitters. Failing that, I’d just like them to get a real, meaningful picture of where they stand vis a vis their likely rivals moving forward.

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

* Baseball Prospectus, by the way, essentially splits the difference. Mitch Haniger isn’t 28th or 9th, he’s…17th. They’ve got Mitch as a plus defender as well, and given their higher replacement level baseline, his 5.5 WARP is closer to BBREF’s than it is to Fangraphs’ 4.4. They agree with Fangraphs on James Paxton, though, whose higher ERA hurts his value at BBREF.

Game 155, Mariners at Rangers – It’s Officially Over

marc w · September 23, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Wade LeBlanc vs. Martin Perez, 12:05

So as you may have heard, the M’s were mathematically eliminated yesterday, despite crushing the Rangers. Jerry Dipoto has been about as forthright as he can be, as summarized in this TJ Cotterill article. They’ve seen the Yankees/Red Sox/Astros ascend into superteams who have more talent, younger players, and better player development, and then they’ve seen teams in the middle ground like Tampa and Oakland take steps forward, passing the M’s. While they’ve had awful seasons in 2018, it’s hard to assume the M’s will be better than Anaheim and Minnesota, too.

Dipoto’s right to point out that it’s been a successful season on the field, albeit one that hurts more than any successful year should. The M’s have been a better ball club than I thought possible. They also seem stuck. After years of being sunk by black holes – players far below replacement level – the M’s essentially fixed that problem in 2018. They’ve been hurt by a lack of high-end, superstar-level play. I’d hoped that Mitch Haniger would get there, and you can make a case he has, especially if you ignore some newfangled defensive metrics. But it’s tough when all the teams above them/around them have at least one player playing at an even higher level. James Paxton, Jean Segura, and maybe even Marco Gonzales showed flashes of that 6-7-8 WAR talent, but none’s been able to sustain it. To get to the next level, they’ll need further development from Haniger – which seems doable – and another player at that level – that seems a bit harder.

Today’s game likely marks Adrian Beltre’s final game in Arlington, where he’s become an org favorite/legend. Still would’ve loved to see what would’ve happened if Adrian played on the M’s *after* the walls moved in, or in the offensive environment of 2017.

1: Segura, SS
2: Cano, 2B
3: Cruz, DH
4: Healy, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Maybin, LF
7: Negron, RF
8: Heredia, CF
9: Freitas, C
SP: LeBlanc

Game 153 Mariners at Rangers

marc w · September 21, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Connor Sadzeck, 5:10pm

It’s been a rough year for the Rangers. It’s hard to believe it was only a couple of years ago that the Rangers occasioned a bunch of “Can teams beat their run differential consistently?” articles by winning 95 games despite a run differential of just +8 (and which was negative for most of the season). A pretty clear rebuild started last year, when the Rangers swapped FA-to-be Yu Darvish for today’s #9 hitter, Willie Calhoun. They’d spent lavishly on FAs like Adrian Beltre, Shin-Soo Choo; they’d extended Darvish and Elvis Andrus, and they’d taken on Prince Fielder’s and Cole Hamels’ salaries. Injuries to many of this crew meant that some salaries weren’t movable, while Fielder’s injury forced him into retirement. Hamels and Darvish were traded, and at this point it’s clear that the Rangers aren’t trying to add more veteran presence.

All of that means they’re in a very different position than they were back in late 2014 when they hired manager Jeff Bannister to try to coax another run out of an aging core. Bannister did that to a degree, but after a meeting with team ownership, the Rangers fired him, seemingly out of nowhere, this morning. Old M’s manager Don Wakamatsu will now manage about 10 games. It’s a weird situation, albeit quite different from the one that saw long-time manager Ron Washington fired near the end of 2014 – the move that opened the door for Bannister. The Rangers are bad, and were bad last year. I’m not sure that anyone really had high expectations for the club, but I’m still pretty surprised to see a manager canned this close to the end of the season. Like Scott Servais, Bannister came in with the idea that he’d be the bridge between the analytics department and the players, but I wonder if the GM/owners wanted to get a bit more avant garde in the dying days of a lost season that Banny was comfortable with.

It’s sort of fitting that the first game of the post-Banny Rangers will feature a Rays-style “Opener” in right-handed reliever Connor Sadzeck. Sadzeck was a Rangers draft pick back when they were coming off an AL pennant, and he’s racked up solid K numbers in the minors, but couldn’t avoid walks or dingers. He’s got great velocity from a 6’7″ frame, but he could never put everything together as a starter, so the Rangers moved him to the pen. Even there, he never quite pitched up to the level his stuff suggested, but pitchers can often live by the BABIP as often as they die by it. After getting BABIP’d to death in AAA, he’s pitching around too many walks in his first few MLB innings by giving up essentially no hits on balls in play. He’s walked 5 and K’d 5, and there’s nothing in his performance record that gets you too worried about things, but then he’s averaging 97+ with a straight, almost sinker-y fastball, and he’s got a hard slider at 88 and a big breaking curveball at 79 that could be a real weapon some day. The fastball isn’t fooling anyone, but the slider sure is. This is a classic specialist profile, at least at this stage; he’s struggled with lefties for a while, but he can often give righties problems.

Since moving to the leadoff spot, Mitch Haniger’s been absolutely great, hitting for average and power and racking up key at-bats. This *should* have more of an impact on run scoring, but much of the team has scuffled just as their lead-off man got hot. With Jean Segura back, the M’s have the best 1-2 line-up positions they’ve had all season… and you can understand why the Rangers might want to use Sadzeck in the first inning to see if he can get past these two plus Nellie Cruz before handing it over to someone who could pitch a bit longer. For all of the potential the whole “opener” thing has to artificially suppress salaries, it really seems like it’s working. The Rays give up surprisingly few runs employing the strategy, and they only use it when Blake Snell isn’t pitching. They’re making the back of their “rotation” – guys like ex-M’s prospect Ryan Yarbrough – into legitimate MLB pitchers by putting them in positions to succeed. Remember it was the Angels’ righty-heavy top of the line-up (anchored by that Trout guy) that brought about this experiment in the first place, when the Rays used ex-closer and current ROOGY Sergio Romo to “start.” It’s weird, and I get why a lot of people don’t like it, but just like the shift, if you’ve got a lefty 4th or 5th starter and you’re facing a line-up with 2-3 tough righties at the top…doesn’t it make sense?

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

The top of the line-up is still righty-heavy, but the M’s may have overcompensated in making the bottom of the line-up so lefty dominant. It’s not a bad line-up – it’s probably the M’s best possible line-up overall – but the lefties are bunched up together starting with Kyle, and a lefty reliever may get a couple of innings in to deal with it.

Game 152, Mariners at Astros – Bullpen Day

marc w · September 19, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Matt Festa vs. Dallas Keuchel, 5:10pm

Like Charlie Morton, Dallas Keuchel will be a free agent at the end of the year, and it’s not yet clear whether the Astros will make a big effort to keep him in Texas. As a former Cy Young winner, he’ll generate some interest, but as a low-velo, command-and-grounders guy, he won’t command the sky-high prices of the high strikeout pitchers. He’s been somewhat volatile in the past 3-4 years, but he’s been volatile within the “pretty good” to “great” range, which is not a bad place to bounce around in. The M’s have traditionally shied away from ground ballers, with Jerry Dipoto arguing they simply cost too much; the Cubs deal for Tyler Chatwood would seem to make that point AND serve as a cautionary tale. But of course, the M’s have plenty of money, and Keuchel’s kind of the polar opposite of Chatwood: he’s been consistently good, a results-over-scouting report pitcher as opposed to Chatwood’s velocity and not much else.

I’ve talked a lot about the Astros player development work, and Keuchel’s another great example. He throws 89, and had kind of established himself as a boring, near replacement-level starter for a while before suddenly turning great for a few years. No, he hasn’t been able to maintain Cy Young-like stats, but he’s been an excellent pitcher now for 5 years. The question is: what happens when he leaves Houston? Keuchel strikes me as something like an old MG or another cool, slightly culty car model that collectors and enthusiasts go nuts for, and which performs incredibly when tuned by a talented mechanic, but which may be a money pit for someone without highly specialized mechanical training. I don’t know much about either cars or acquiring free agent pitchers with poor fastball velocity, but it’ll be interesting to see what Keuchel’s contract ends up at. Same for the going-on-35-year-old Charlie Morton.

Today the M’s are going to have a bullpen day, and Matt Festa will start things off. Festa put up huge strikeout numbers in AA last year and has largely continued to rack up whiffs this year. Looking at his scouting report, it’s easy to see why. He’s got a mid-90s fastball, a sweeping slider, and then a curve and a change up. That’s a broad repertoire, one befitting a starter. Unfortunately, that’s not who we’ve seen in his admittedly limited duty. Festa’s come up with a fastball at 93 and a slider. And that’s essentially it. He’s thrown a couple of curves, no cambios. His scouting report at Fangraphs had *4* pitches with at least 50 grades (average), and now he’s your standard sinking-fastball/slider reliever. Simplifying can be good for a pitcher upon a promotion, but I’m not sure this is working: he’s got a single strikeout in the bigs. Is today the day he can take his mothballed change up out for a spin?

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

Postscript on the post yesterday regarding Josh James – someone on twitter sent me this explanation for his breakout: being diagnosed and treated for sleep apnea. That’s fascinating to me, but it seems a bit incomplete. At the very least, it probably greased the skids for any work the Astros did with him, but a jump in velo of ~ 8 MPH sounds like too much to attribute to sleep. But maybe not? Maybe I’d be 10X the blogger I am now if I slept properly.

Jeff Sullivan pointed out that for the first time since 2004, the NL has officially won the interleague series -the AL had dominated for 14 years.

Game 151, Mariners at Astros

marc w · September 18, 2018 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Josh James, 5:10pm

I mentioned Josh James in yesterday’s game post, but feel like I may have sold him short. If you’ll recall, James was a 34th round draft pick with a solid but unspectacular career in the low minors until this year. Then, at 25, he suddenly laid waste to the high minors. Is this a funky delivery guy, a Tony Cingrani-type thing where minors hitters can’t see the ball and so a guy without much stuff racks up insane K rates in the minors? Uh, no, apparently not. Scouting reports and MiLB broadcasts noted that James sat at 95, and hit 97 with some regularity. He also brought a very good slider to the table, and thus overwhelmed minor league hitters by pitching like a closer for 5 innings at a time.

He made his MLB debut on the first of this month, and I was kind of curious to see what velocity we’d see once we had proper measurement and not stadium radar guns. It didn’t take long: the third pitch of his big league career registered at 101.6 MPH. While he wasn’t able to sustain *that*, he ended up throwing 91 pitches on the night, so this wasn’t some opener strategy where he knew he was only going to pitch 1-2 innings. James doesn’t sit 95; he sits 97-98. That’s just great, really good stuff. That’s…:cries softly:

He hasn’t been perfect, and his ERA has lagged his strikeout-inflated FIP the whole year (MLB and MiLB), but he’s struck out 17 and walked 4 in 10 2/3 IP. This’ll be his second start, and he’s now essentially proven he can be an asset at the big league level, perhaps giving them yet another reliever capable of triple digits as they face great offenses in the playoffs. Framber Valdez is a great story, as it seems just about impossible to get an MLB-quality starting pitcher from a 21-year old DR signing. But James is, if anything, even MORE of an outlier. Valdez came into the year on the prospect radar, albeit just barely. James was *nowhere*. Popup prospects are a thing, and every once in a while, a guy everyone had written off has a huge year, but often that’s due to injury, or it happens a year or two after the draft. It’d be one thing if he rode some crazy change-up or hidden ball delivery to great statistical success, but dude’s been throwing *at least* 95 all year. If you do that as a starter, prospect people will rank you, period. If you do that without walking people, you get those people very, very excited. Every single time. How did everyone miss this guy?

His fastball doesn’t have a ton of movement; it reminds me a little bit of Thyago Vieira’s, but there’s no huge sink or rise. The key to his success, it’d seem, is his control not so much of his fastball (though that’s good), but of his slider. Already in the majors, he’s throwing his slider for strikes at an impressive rate. If anything, I think he’s doing it TOO often. But the Astros turned a nobody into a guy touching 10-freaking-2 who can drop a slider into the zone in any count. God I love the AL West. Perhaps as overkill, he’s got a change-up as well, albeit one he’s not throwing all that often. Looking at the pitch fx/statcast movement numbers, I was instantly reminded of another brilliant cambio, and another time the Astros pulled some absolute nobody from their bag of nobodies and watched him slice through the major leagues: Chris Devenski’s. Devenski had a bit more rise on his fastball, but his change produced sharp sink, about 8″ less than his FB. James has the same 8″ gap, coupled with the same few inches of additional armside run on his change, which comes in around 89-90. It’s not getting the swings/whiffs I’d expect yet, though that may be due to the fact that he’s not hiding it all that well yet (his release point seems pretty different with it). All of that’s to say that James still has room to grow. Faaaaantastic.

The Astros pitchers have dominated this year, and they’re the primary reason why the Astros are headed back to the playoffs and may win 100 games again. Here’s a table of teams ranked according to how many total runs they’ve allowed. There’s no real attempt at controlling for factors like park, opponent, or even games played. This is the highest of high-level metrics. 11 teams have already given up at least 700 runs, while the Orioles are already well over 800. The Astros have given up the fewest, at an astounding 498, by a mile. The gap between the Astros and second-place Dodgers (who play in the NL, remember) is more than the gap between the second-place Dodgers and the 16th-place Pirates. They rank #1 in strikeouts, #1 in hits-allowed, #1 in K-BB%, #1 in ERA (by a mile) and #1 in FIP (by a mile). They’re lapping the field. Teams can content themselves with the knowledge that the gang probably can’t stay together after 2018, though. Both Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel are free agents after the World Series, and while the Astros could bring them back, they may want to focus on the line-up and finding a 1B. It’s possible that the staff responsible for these breathtaking numbers will look quite different next year. Regression is coming, as it always does. But you look at Josh James and think: the Astros don’t really need to care. Charlie Morton has essentially been step for step with James Paxton all year; Pax has the better FIP, Morton the better ERA, HR-rate and innings pitched. Charlie Morton could walk away from the Astros at the end of the year, and it barely puts a dent into their 2019 projections. How does this happen?

The M’s better figure that out. They’ve played the Astros very tough this year, and they’ve figured out a way to keep the Astros close, something no one could do in 2017. That’s got a ton of value. But the M’s can’t really compete over the course of a long season with a team like this, and if the Astros keep piling on unheralded pitchers who throw 100, it’s going to be like this for a while. Signing Charlie Morton might help, especially if he can help them reverse engineer some things, but more importantly, they’re going to need to jump start player development. Logan Gilbert’s now crucial to the M’s hopes of keeping the Astros within visual range.

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

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