Rainiers Opening Night (For Real, This Time) and PCL Preview

marc w · April 7, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

I’ve run through the affiliated full-season teams, but as always, it’s worth spending some time on my beloved Tacoma Rainiers. This is the club that M’s fans in the northwest can easily check out, and for the first time in a while, it’s got the most interesting roster, especially for position players.

The club’s starting out on the road, and I’m kind of thankful they were rained out yesterday so that this post is accidentally timely and not just an afterthought. The point herein is to go over the R’s roster in a bit more depth, and then to talk about the opponents who’ll come into Tacoma and what big prospects they may be featuring. It’s all a bit speculative, a fact that was brought home to me when reading last year’s version. Not only are we focused on the big prospects coming out of 2016, but we’re trying to figure out when they’re going to be in AAA. For the top players, they better be blocked at the big league level, or they won’t stick around past May. AA players start moving up around then, and injuries/trades/etc. mean AAA rosters are constantly shifting. Still, we can do what we can to identify any potential must-see games.

The Rainiers rotation, as I mentioned yesterday, contains four players who’ve moved to the M’s system fairly recently in Sam Gaviglio (late 2014), Chris Heston, Christian Bergman (late 2016) and Chase de Jong (2017), all along side M’s prospect and the pride of Durban, South Africa, Dylan Unsworth. The group as a whole lacks elite or even average velocity, but have solid command and mix their pitches well. Of the group, de Jong may have the liveliest fastball, and it may not average 91 MPH (he touched 91 in his ill-fated MLB debut the other night) – Bergman and Heston are right around 90, while Gaviglio and Unsworth come in lower than that. Of note: Unsworth’s velo seemed to be a bit on the low side this spring, but it clearly didn’t affect his results. Tonight’s starter is rehabbing reliever Tony Zych, who figures to get an inning or two before giving way to Gaviglio.

The bullpen features MLB vets Nick Hagadone, Jean Machi, Mark Lowe and Ryan Weber, but M’s prospects Paul Fry and Emilio Pagan are the guys to watch. Fry’s a lefty the M’s drafted out of a Michigan JC, and while he wasn’t quite able to match his jaw-dropping 2015 stats last year, his 2nd half showed why he’s moved up the M’s affiliates so quickly. Pagan pitched for tiny Belmont Abbey in college, and has also flown through the system thanks to a 95 MPH fastball and a good slider. He pitched for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic (Gaviglio pitched for Italy, too) and seems like he could slot into the back of a big league bullpen soon. Fry lacks the top-end velo of Pagan, but with his arm angle and slider seems like he could get big league lefties out right now. Both Pagan/Fry could use some work on their change-ups.

Catching this group will be long-time M’s farmhand Steve Baron, who was drafted way back in 2009, when Jack Zduriencik was still seen as a heroic figure. Baron’s off the 40-man now, but still has a great reputation as a defensive catcher. His bat’s come around a bit in recent years, as he’s put up better than .700 OPS marks in both the PCL (2015) and SL (2016). That’s not a terribly high bar or anything, but Baron’s early years were ugly. PCL veteran Tuffy Gosewisch joins Baron this year. The 33-year old has played at the AAA level for the D-Backs, Blue Jays, and Phillies organizations, and he’s seen a fair bit of MLB action in Arizona. He’d been seen as a defensive catcher early in his career, and had the putrid batting lines to match, but like so many players, turned into an offensive force after moving to Reno. It’ll be interesting to see how he fares in a more neutral environment in Tacoma.

The infield features SS Tyler Smith, 3B Zach Shank, ex-White Sox starter Gordon Beckham, 2016 holdover and occasional Mariner utility guy Mike Freeman and the 1B/DH pair of Dan Vogelbach and DJ Peterson. As mentioned yesterday, this is a pivotal year for both. Peterson’s missed time with injuries and looked dominant at times and then mediocre for months. Vogelbach’s been more consistent, but defensive issues and a horrific spring slump have him back in the PCL trying to make the leap to big league regular. For years, the M’s had players who struggled with this exact move: Mike Carp, Mike Wilson, Jeff Clement, Dustin Ackley, Nick Franklin, etc. That’s why it was so heartening to see Mike Zunino’s progress last year; the club was going to leave him in AAA for the entire year, but his production forced their hand, and while he wasn’t great for Seattle, he was far more productive than he’d ever been. If one or both of Peterson/Vogelbach can make that kind of improvement, it really changes how we’d see the M’s offensive depth.

The OF’s headlined by top prospect Tyler O’Neill, with Ben Gamel taking second billing. Gamel seemed like an intriguing pick-up from the Yankees org last year, but he’s looking to prove he’s more than a tweener/4th OF. He’s never hit for a ton of power, and doesn’t have the best batting eye either – he can make it as a pure average hitter with enough doubles power to play in an OF corner, or he’ll have to improve one of those two deficiencies. I’m sure that’s what he’ll be working on for Tacoma. Also on the team are Dario Pizzano, another long-tenured M’s farmhand out of the baseball mecca that is Columbia University, and PCL vet and former 1st round draft pick James Ramsey, who’s played in AAA in the Cards, Indians, and Dodgers orgs.

The Rainiers home opener is next Tuesday, the 11th of April against rival El Paso. Last year’s feuds with El Paso began when SS Chris Taylor plunked the Chihuahuas mascot with a ball and ended with El Paso eliminating Tacoma in the PCL playoffs. The Chihuahuas graduated their two top prospects from last year’s team (Hunter Renfroe/Manny Margot), but feature a solid pitching prospect in Tyrell Jenkins who saw plenty of action with the essentially-AAA Atlanta Braves last year, and Dinelson Lamet, the Pads #8 prospect, a righty who played at three levels in the system last year and features a fastball that can touch the mid-upper 90s. 2B Carlos Asuaje is their best position-player prospect. They certainly won’t be in Tacoma in April, but the Chihuahuas come back to town in August, when we could see Cal Quantrill and, dare to dream, top prospect Anderson Espinoza. Both will begin in High A Lake Elsinore, but Quantrill’s a polished college pitcher and could move quickly. Espinoza’s one of the most talented pitchers in all of baseball, but is just 19 years old.

The Albuquerque Isotopes, a Rockies affiliate, come in immediately after El Paso. They again feature pitching prospect Jeff Hoffman (#2 in COL system) and stout lefty Harrison Musgrave. OF Raimel Tapia has been a toolsy prospect for a while (and he’s still just 23), and is coming off a dominant year that earned him a cup of coffee with the Rockies. When they come back in July, they could have pitchers Antonio Senzatela and Yency Almonte.

Giants’ affiliate Sacramento rounds out the Rainiers’ April home schedule. The Giants’ #1 prospect, RHP Tyler Beede, headlines the RiverCats roster, and he’s joined by former KBO star Jae-Gyun Hwang, a 3B, who nearly made the Giants roster. #2 Giants prospect, SS Christian Arroyo, will also start for the RiverCats. Sacramento has an inordinate number of mid-tier Giants prospects, from Albert Suarez, Austin Slate, and Steven Okert, but the Giants’ system isn’t terribly strong.

The newly-rechristened New Orleans Babycakes will come to Tacoma in early May. The Marlins farm club features a couple of mid-tier prospects in big RH pitcher Drew Steckenrider and IF JT Riddle, but the club’s filled with long-time minor league vets like Stephen Fife, Clayton Mortensen, Moises Sierra and Steve Lombardozzi.

Rangers’ affiliate the Round Rock Express make their first visit in May as well. Top prospect Yohander Mendez, a pitcher, flew up the system last year and played with both Round Rock and the Rangers, but he’s been assigned to AA to begin the year. A couple of great starts could get him to Round Rock in time for this trip, but other than that, this club is full of guys with big league experience. One of the more surprising assignments is Keone Kela, who was great out of the pen (when healthy) for the Rangers last year. The Seattle native’s been assigned to Round Rock for personal reasons after bad behavior this spring. This report has several (unnamed) teammates grousing about Kela, and calling him a clubhouse cancer. Yeesh. The team features several ex-prospects like Travis Snyder (another northwest native), Allen Webster and Tanner Scheppers (who’s on a rehab assignment). 1B Ronald Guzman, signed at the same time as Rangers OF Nomar Mazara, is the biggest true prospect to start the year with the Express.

The Fresno Grizzlies, the Astros AAA club, round out the May schedule, hitting Tacoma for a four-game set from the 23rd to the 26th. Houston’s been an absolutely loaded system, and the 2017 Grizzlies reflect that. #1 prospect Francis Martes, a RHP, will start with Fresno, as will 1B AJ Reed, who’s looking to put 2016 behind him. The OF features Andrew Aplin, Preston Tucker and Teoscar Hernandez. Closing for the club is the rare 30-year-old prospect, James Hoyt, who’s been shockingly good after moving to the Astros system. He K’d 93 in 55 IP for the Grizz last year, against just 19 walks. That got him a cup of coffee in Houston where his rising fastball got plenty of whiffs, but a few too many HRs as well.

The Reno Aces come to town June 5th, and the D-Backs affiliate feature the Snakes top pitching prospect in lefty Anthony Banda. They’ve got another couple of prospects on the staff in righties Jimmy Sherfy, Braden Shipley, and ZAck Godley – the latter two spent most of 2016 with Arizona. The best position player prospects are both ex-Mariner prospects: shortstops Ketel Marte (acquired in the Walker-for-Segura swap) and Jack Reinheimer (acquired in the Mark Trumbo for Wellington Castillo deal). Former Twins/Rays power hitting OF Oswaldo Arcia will start for Reno and probably put up some eye-popping stats in Reno’s home park.

Las Vegas follows Reno in that early-June homestand. The Mets team was a prospect hound’s dream a few years back with Noah Syndergaard and Jacob de Grom, but was filled with AAA vets last year. This is more like it: the Mets top 3 overall prospects will start for Vegas: SS Amed Rosario, SS Gavin Cecchini and 1B Dom Smith. The pitching staff’s a bit thinner, however.

Salt Lake makes their first visit beginning on Sat. the 17th of June. As an Angels affiliate, it’s a prospect desert, but 6’9″ pitcher Alex Meyer’s worth a look. He came over from the Twins system in the Hector Santiago deal last year. Kaleb Cowart starts at 3B for what seems like the 5th straight year, but the most familiar name to M’s fans is 2B Dustin Ackley. LHP Manny Banuelos, a former Braves farmhand, is interesting, and the club could eventually feature some of the Angels top prospects like 1B Matt Thaiss.

Vegas and Albuquerque make return trips to close out June/open July, and then Fresno and Sacramento return later in the month. Tacoma’s home most of August, and welcome the Memphis Redbirds beginning on Thursday the 3rd. The Cards club features top position player prospect OF Harrison Bader, along with catcher Carson Kelley and ex-Gonzaga starter and first-rounder Marco Gonzalez, who’s nursing an injury at the moment. By this point, they could be joined by the two AA players I mentioned yesterday: pitchers Jack Flaherty and Sandy Alcantara. CF Tommy Pham makes an appearance with the Redbirds for the fifth consecutive season.

A’s affiliate Nashville follows Memphis, and they’ve got several of the A’s best prospects, including #1 prospect Franklin Barreto. The SS was the primary “get” in the deal that sent Josh Donaldson to Toronto. The Sounds also have 3B Matt Chapman (#4 prospect) and 1B Matt Olson (#15). By this time in the year, they could be reinforced with AA players like RHP Grant Holmes (#3), SS Richie Martin (#6), and 2B Max Schrock (#20). The diminutive Schrock was actually born in Tacoma, and has hit repeatedly since being drafted in 2015. His height and position keep him well down top prospect rankings, but he essentially never strikes out and has hit for average everywhere he’s been.

El Paso and Salt Lake close out the 2017 home schedule, with the final home series taking place from August 28th-31st. Get out and see some games this year; it’s a better year for prospects than last year, and while there’s no Kris Bryant to get on the calendar early, with promotions and the like, the above guide could be obsolete fairly quickly. I’ll try and mention if someone particularly noteworthy is coming through town in the minor league game previews.

Game 4, Mariners at Astros

marc w · April 6, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Ariel Miranda vs. Joe Musgrove, 5:10pm

It’s ludicrous to talk about must-win games in the season’s first week; it’s like a marathoner talking about not getting out of the blocks well. But M’s fans are in a weird head space right now, and I’m sure many of them feel that this game IS critical. The M’s have gotten solid pitching against a good line-up and come away with nothing. The Astros seemed better (on paper) than the M’s, and now they’ve got a three-game head start. It’s already caused the M’s playoff odds to dwindle by a noticeable amount. Is the sky falling?

No, but that’s not to say that everything’s fine. Keuchel and McCullers are excellent pitchers, and they’re excellent in large part because they’re able to define the terms of at-bats. Every single hitter goes up knowing that they’re going to see a sinking fastball, and that the pitcher’s game plan is to induce a ground ball. Everything that the hitters try to do is aimed at countering that, at driving the pitchers up in the zone and driving a pitch in the air. With that perhaps overly obvious prologue, take a look at this list of teams’ average launch angle thus far. The Cubs and Orioles, you won’t be shocked to hear, are near the top with average angles over 10 degrees. Perhaps more surprising is that they’re trailing the Padres, who haven’t been great against the Dodgers, but have hit the ball in the air. The Pads have picked up a number of players with this skill, but it’s too early to say that they’re able to dictate terms to opposing pitchers: the Dodgers induce a lot of fly-ball (and pop-up) contact.

But look at the M’s! Last in the league, and the *only* team in baseball with a negative launch angle. Again, given who they’ve faced, this may not be all that shocking, or indicative of some sort of failing. It DOES show, though, that the M’s have been singularly ineffective at getting the Astros’ hurlers out of their comfort zone. The Astros wanted ground ball contact, and they’re getting it, again and again. The M’s have some fly ball hitters – the guys who are supposed to do *better* against ground-ball pitchers – but it hasn’t mattered thus far.

Musgrove flew through the Houston system and had an intriguing debut with the Astros last year. He throws an odd, straight 93 MPH fastball that’s been tough for batters to pick up. His best pitch has been a slider with a ton of horizontal break. In the minors, he showed absurdly low walk rates, and while they climbed a bit in the big leagues, it’s still one of his standout skills. The raw stuff isn’t eye-popping, but it plays up due to some deception and movement, and he’s not going to give away a lot of free passes. Against righties, he’s pitched a bit like yesterday’s starter, Charlie Morton, in that he pitches off his breaking ball. He’s a bit more traditional vs. lefties, but that slider’s a pitch he’ll throw any time. Lefties fared much better than righties, as you’d expect, so this game is critical for Cano/Seager.

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

As expected, Dillon Overton was activated today from the paternity leave list, and Chase de Jong rejoins Tacoma.

Speaking of which, it’s been a while since I’ve been able to do this:
Tacoma faces off with the Rivercats in Sacramento (SFG), with Sam Gaviglio taking the hill for the Rainiers against Chris Stratton.
Arkansas plays their first game as an M’s affiliate with Andrew Moore on the mound, as the Travelers host the Corpus Christi Hooks (HOU).
Nick Neidert starts Modesto’s opener at Lake Elsinore, and Ljay Newsome takes the Clinton Lumberkings into Kane County (OAK).

2017 M’s Minor League Preview

marc w · April 6, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

What a difference a year makes. It’s difficult to overstate just how thoroughly the M’s full-season affiliates struggled in 2015, and while the new front office talked a good game regarding player development, they had an awful lot of work to do. Last year, every single M’s affiliate made the playoffs, from AAA down to the DSL. The M’s led all of baseball in minor league winning percentage, and while that’s not at all the same thing as having a deep/talented system, it was a sign that the coaches they brought in got much, much more out of many of the same players that were around for the abysmal year of 2015.

Many of the M’s top prospects exemplify this: Tyler O’Neill cut his strikeout rate on his way to a league MVP. Andrew Moore showed he was more than a college command/control guy and succeeded in the high minors. Nick Neidert made the leap from the Arizona League to full-season ball with aplomb.

Coaching and development played a role, but another factor helped the M’s affiliates post such a gaudy W/L record: the M’s brought in plenty of minor league vets to fit around their home-grown players, and many of them made important contributions. In general, those players don’t stick around, so guys like Bengie Gonzales (AA) or Kyle Schepel (A+/AA) have moved on, but the M’s have a new crop of MiLB and independent league vets this year. At AA and especially AAA, doing this is standard operating procedure, but the scale of it seems much greater under Dipoto; part of this is the volume of minor trades that hollowed out some of the system’s depth in the low minors, but part of it is simply a different philosophy to Zduriencik or especially Bavasi, who was content to see prospects (and teams) struggle if he thought it was best for player development.

After such a successful 2016, what will they do for an encore? After another offseason full of trades involving the minors, I’m looking for development at the individual player level and to see who steps forward and grabs a place in the M’s top 20-30 prospect lists. I’m looking to see if Tacoma pitching coach Lance Painter can work his magic on one of the R’s starters the way he did with James Paxton last year. As far as specific players go, I’m hoping that the M’s can resuscitate the development of DJ Peterson and Dan Vogelbach. This is always one of my favorite days of the year, and there’s a hell of a lot less trepidation/unease than there was last year at this time.

Class A Midwest League: Clinton Lumberkings
Last year: 86-54, lost league championship to Great Lakes (LAD)

Mitch Canham took over the team last year and led the club to a dominant season, so it’s no surprise that the ex-Oregon State catcher got a promotion of his own. That means that the club will have another new manager, this time Pat Shine, a former Gonzaga Bulldog and a longtime assistant to the UC-Irvine program and then with the Miami Marlins. He managed in the collegiate Northwoods League back before moving to UCI, but didn’t overlap with M’s Player Development guru Andy McKay, who coached a different team in the league after Shine moved to UCI. The Lumberkings will try to repeat last year’s success with newcomers like starting pitcher Ljay Newsome, an undersized righty out of a Maryland HS, and OF Dimas Ojeda, a JC draft pick who hit well for Everett last season. The bullpen looks pretty good, with Marvin Gorgas, Michael Koval and others. Nick Wells was my pitcher to watch last year, and he was perhaps the one big disappointment on a team full of overachievers. He’s back, and has an opportunity to rebuild some of his prospect lustre.

In the IF, Bryson Brigman moves up to split SS duties with returning starter Rayder Ascanio. Ojeda headlines the OF along with returning prospect Luis Liberato, whose season was undone by a dreadful start. Canadian slugger Gareth Morgan, who’s struggled making contact in three years in the complex league, finally gets a full-season assignment. Ultra talented, but contact issues have absolutely sunk his value. He’s a real test of the new PD group.

Position Player to Watch: Dimas Ojeda. Anthony Jimenez, a Dominican CF, is in the mix here, but Ojeda hit at a higher level last year, and they’re the same age. Jimenez plays CF, so that narrows the gap. Would love to see one of these two break out, and I’d love to see Liberato make the big strides that I hoped he’d make last season.

Pitcher to Watch: Ljay Newsome. Tim Viehoff is another great pick, as one of the M’s myriad small college in the northeast draft picks, and he put up a nice 55:23 K:BB ratio in just 39 IP last year, PLUS he’s a lefty and has prototypical size. Newsome has none of that – he’s under 6′, a righty, and wasn’t a high draft pick. But he gets rave reviews for his competitiveness and pitchability, and hopefully he can ride that to a surprising season.

Opposing team to watch: For the 2nd straight year, it’s Quad Cities (HOU), who feature 6’7″ pitching prospect Forrest Whitley and CF prospect Daz Cameron, ex-M’s CF Mike Cameron’s son. Cameron struggled mightily after the Astros pushed him to the MWL initially, so he’s looking to make a very different impression this year.

High-A California League: Modesto Nuts
Last Year (as Bakersfield Blaze): 76-64, lost div. semifinals to Visalia (ARI)

Mitch Canham will try to make the playoffs in his first year in a new league yet again this year, as he’ll take over Modesto, a brand new M’s affiliate. Bakersfield was contracted, and weird, wonderful Sam Lynn Ballpark won’t host any Cal League baseball this year, but the M’s picked up the Modesto contract from Colorado. The pitching staff’s anchored by top prospect Nick Neidert, who more than held his own in the Midwest League at age 19. He’ll throw more IP this year, and we’ll see how aggressive the M’s want to be with his assignments. That’d be a nice problem to have. Also on the staff are college draft pick Reggie McLain, who gets the challenge assignment after pitching for Everett last year, and a pair of 6’3″ hurlers who starred for Clinton last year, Pablo Lopez (K:BB ratio of 56:9) and Art Warren (55:18). The IF’s headed up by Gianfranco Wawoe, who’ll repeat the Cal League, and newcomer Joey Curletta, whom the M’s acquired from PHI in exchange for Pat Venditte. The OF features glove-first CF’s Braden Biship and Ricky Eusebio, and they’ll be flanked by Indy/MiLB vet Willie Argo and Eric Filia, who the M’s drafted out of UCLA and who overmatched the NWL with a line of .362/.450/.492. He had 39 walks and just 19 Ks on the year for Everett, so of course the control-the-zone M’s bumped him past Clinton.

Position Player to Watch: None of the position players are young (or even average aged) for the league, so it’s a bit hard to pick here. We’ll go with Filia, whose development in college was stunted by a number of injuries, which was why he was 23 when the M’s picked him. Braden Bishop, the ex-UW Husky, is another pick, as his blend of speed and defense are basically MLB caliber, but whose bat trails far behind. If he can tap into even gap power, he’ll shoot up the prospect rankings. As it is, his career MiLB ISO is under .070. If that gets to .130 or so, he could become an intriguing OF. The Cal League will help with that, of course.

Pitcher to Watch: Neidert. The M’s first pick in the 2015 draft, Neidert has been at least as good as advertised in the M’s system. He’s polished beyond his years, and could make a statement this year in a real hitter’s league.

Opposing Team to Watch: Lancaster JetHawks. After losing the Modesto team, Colorado picked up Lancaster, the hitter’s haven. Their line-up is stocked with wonderfully named IF Forrest Wall, and SS Brendan Rogers, one of the best prospects in all of baseball. Those two make the best DP combination in the league by far. Also, they have a catcher named Hamlet Marte.

AA Texas League: Arkansas Travelers
Last Year (as Jackson Generals in the Southern League: 84-55, League Champions

Daren Brown moves with the affiliation, as the former Rainiers manager helmed Jackson to a league championship in their last year in the Southern League. The M’s had a Texas League affiliate years ago with San Antonio, but it’s been 11 years since the M’s were last a part of it. The Texas League’s the smallest of the three AA leagues, and is probably a bit more hitter-friendly than the Eastern League/Southern League. That said, the M’s are moving into a park that’s absolutely dreadful for power, particularly right-handed power. Statcorner puts their HR park factor for RHBs at an absurd 57, and MiLB’s own park factors (for all batters) are in that same vicinity. Keep that in mind when looking at AA stats this year.

The pitchers are led by Andrew Moore and Max Povse. Moore was the consummate polished collegiate pick, an Oregon State vet with an underwhelming fastball but solid command and great intangibles. Max Povse was, perhaps, the opposite: a mammoth 6’7″ frame and easy velocity but results that lagged behind his physical gifts. The bullpen features Brazilian fireballer Thyago Vieira, a candidate to join the big leagues if he can get past the control issues that sunk his spring training. Long-time M’s MiLB vets Marcus Littlewood and Tyler Marlette will catch. Every year at this time I talk up Marlette. One day, man.

Ryan Casteel, an MiLB veteran who had some good Cactus League ABs, joins the club along with returning IFs Justin Seager and Kyle Petty. AAA veteran Joey Wong will start at shortstop. The all-lefty OF features Chantz Mack, a corner OF with some pop, and Ian Miller, a CF without any, but who makes up for it with plus speed. Another MiLB vet, Kyle Waldrop, will play as well; Waldrop came up in the Reds org, and actually made the majors for a bit last year with Cincinnati.

Position Player to Watch: Uhhh, Marlette? Marlette was drafted way back in 2011, and had a rough go of it for a few years at the tail end of the Zduriencik era. He remains, somehow, the youngest position player on this roster (!). Chantz Mack is your runner-up.

Pitcher to Watch: Moore. Povse opened a lot of eyes in camp, and with a 95 MPH fastball, it’s easy to see why. But Moore is no longer sitting in the high-80s; he’s throwing 93 himself, and is slowly but surely breaking out of his old reputation. He was dominant at times down the stretch at this level last year, and after a strong spring, may get a look if the big club’s starters have injury issues. Thyago Vieira is absolutely fascinating, but can’t get past the two starters on this list.

Opposing Team to Watch: Springfield Cardinals. They’ve got pitching prospects Jack Flaherty, Sandy Alcantara and Austin Gomber, a bunch of position players no one knows (but one of whom will inevitably make the bigs and succeed), but I think all eyes are on ex-MLB closer and Steve Blass’ disease sufferer Daniel Bard.

AAA Pacific Coast League: Tacoma Rainiers
Last year: 81-62, lost in PCL Playoffs to El Paso (SDP)

It’s not often that the AAA club boasts the most intriguing roster, but I’d argue that’s what we have here. The pitching staff is designed to offer immediate help to the big club, and that’s most obvious in the bullpen, which features tons of big league experience. Ex-Cleveland Indian and UW Husky Nick Hagadone joins the org to play near his hometown, and ex-Giants RP Jean Machi will begin the year in Tacoma as well. Mark Lowe will rejoin the Rainiers, a team he’s pitched for (briefly) twice after making his big league debut with Seattle back in 2006. The rotation of Sam Gaviglio, Chris Heston, Dylan Unsworth, Christian Bergman and, we think, Chase de Jong is a strength, as Bergman and Heston have big league experience. Only Unsworth is a home-grown Mariner, and he looks to become the first African player to make the big leagues. While his fastball struggles to scrape 90, he’s made adjustments and used his pinpoint command to succeed in AA, and he’s coming off a very surprising Cactus League stint with the M’s. The bullpen features lefty Paul Fry, who shook off a mediocre first half to become the shut-down reliever I thought he could be down the stretch. He’s on the 40-man, so he could be someone the M’s bring up if they need another lefty. Tony Zych will start in Tacoma on a rehab assignment as well.

The infield features returning players Tyler Smith at SS and Zach Shank at 3B, though both have played all over the IF. Smith showed a bit of pop in Peoria; it’d be nice to see if that made the trip north with him. MLB vet Gordon Beckham just joined the club, after spending last year in the Anaheim system. Still, the focus will be on a pair of bat-first corner IFs: former 1st round pick and former #1 prospect DJ Peterson, who’s seen his stock fall due to injuries and a surprisingly lackluster hit tool, and Dan Vogelbach, the presumed starting 1B in Seattle before a bad spring got him sent down to AAA to work on a few mechanical adjustments. The OF boasts another couple of prospects in Tyler O’Neill and Ben Gamel.

Position Player to Watch: Despite the interest in Vogelbach/Peterson, the answer here has to be Tyler O’Neill. The top hitting prospect in the organization is coming off of a dream season in AA that saw him take the league MVP and then the league championship series MVP awards. He’s cut his strikeouts and become more of a complete hitter, but there are still enough question marks here that his will be a name to look for every day in the box score. AAA features a lot more craft veterans, and pitchers who know how to identify and exploit a hole in a prospect’s swing. How will O’Neill adjust? How will he fare in the spacious OF at Cheney Stadium? For a top-50-in-baseball sort of player, O’Neill still has some warning signs in his profile: he’s battled contact issues and while a wRC+ of 152 is great, it’s not jaw-dropping as the best season in a bat-first corner defender’s career. O’Neill can make the leap to big league contributor this year, or he could struggle for a while before making some adjustments to good pitching. I’m really looking forward to watching him this season.

Pitcher to Watch: Chris Heston. Tempted to go with Fry or newly-acquired reliever Evan Marshall, but even if they’re more likely to pitch in Seattle, they probably won’t have much of an impact. With one starter already on the 60-day DL and with another throwing 84, it’s starting pitching depth that’s critical to keeping the M’s afloat. As a major league vet who’s on the 40-man and returning from a serious arm injury, Heston can either solidify big league starting depth, or he can falter and wash out of the org. If he’s able to get back to the form he showed in 2014-15, he’s a brilliant get by Dipoto.

Opposing Team to Watch: Iowa Cubs. This is another pick that seems like a default choice now. The Cubs AAA affiliate features 2B Ian Happ, ex-Rockies P Eddie Butler, and at some point could feature OF Eloy Jimenez. El Paso is another possibility, with IF Carlos Asuaje and pitchers Phil “Auto” Maton and Walker Lockett.

Game 3: Mariners at Astros (And Iwakuma’s Performance Yesterday)

marc w · April 5, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Charlie Morton, 5:10pm

This isn’t the *best* match-up of the season’s opening series, but I think it’s the one that fans of both teams are most curious about. James Paxton’s transformation last year from frustrating, frequenty-injured enigma to fireballing potential ace was thrilling, but it didn’t erase the question marks surrounding his future – it merely expanded the range of possibilities. Peak Paxton looked a hell of a lot better, if you can get past the health issues or his own historic issues maintaining velocity. On the Houston side, Charlie Morton had been a reliably boring, pitch-to-contact groundball maven, but he had a brilliant month with Philadelphia as a strikeout pitcher throwing much harder than he ever had before.

Both of these pitchers showed flashes of previously untapped, undreamed-of levels of performance last year. Neither pitched a full season in the bigs – Paxton because he didn’t make the team initially, and Morton because of a hamstring injury. But both attracted attention by gaining velocity -a LOT of velocity – well beyond the age that pitchers generally begin LOSING velocity. Both have a lot to prove. Morton looked like a completely different pitcher…but for a single month. Paxton looked excellent for longer, but his club needs him much more; Paxton falling back into decent-but-not-great form of 2016 would be a major blow to the M’s playoff hopes, while the Astros would still have McCullers/Keuchel/McHugh/etc. to lean on if Morton goes back to being regular-Charlie-Morton. The range of outcomes for these pitchers is perhaps wider than all but a handful of uber-talented rookies, and that makes the match-up a great one to watch.

Morton threw a 95 MPH swerving sinker last year, but in previous years it was more like 92-93. His change-up is a good split-grip pitch with drop and a ton of armside run thrown around 86 MPH, and his primary breaking ball’s a curve. Last year, though, he brought back an old pitch he’d thrown only sporadically since about 2011-12: a cutter. With the uptick in velo, his new cutter averaged 90 MPH and generated plenty of swinging strikes. As a sinkerball righty, Morton’s big problem in Pittsburgh was his inability to deal with lefties (in his career, lefties have hit .301/.392/.466 against him). In his excellent month last year, he’d narrowed (but not eliminated) his platoon splits, and the cutter may have helped him accomplish this. To be fair: the big change in his platoon split results came on his sinker, against which the league slugged just .308. Everything you can say about Morton’s 2016 comes with the huge caveat that it was only a month, and thus no one really knows what to make of him now.

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

Soooo, let’s talk Hisashi Iwakuma. His final start of the spring was, let’s just say, not encouraging. His first start of the regular season produced a quality start, and a part of me thinks we should just leave it at that. But the Iwakuma we saw last night looked a whole lot like the Iwakuma of the spring, and from a pitch mix standpoint, nothing like we’ve seen from Iwakuma in the past. Those close to the team argue, with some justification, that Iwakuma’s fastball is roughly the same as it was last year, which itself was down a bit from his previous averages. Pull up his BrooksBaseball card, and you’ll see that his four-seam fastball was 88.6 MPH last year and 87.3 MPH last night – a drop, but not the end of the world. The problem is that Iwakuma’s now throwing a ton of pitches in the low-80s and even high-70s, and Pitch FX isn’t really sure what to call them. Statcast thinks he threw 2 four-seam fastballs last night, while Brooks thinks it was 8. Both agree that they were in the 87 MPH range. Both think he threw 8-9 sinkers at about 86. From there, though, it’s less clear. Statcast thinks he threw 17 cutters around 81 MPH, or 20 cutters+sliders all in the 80 MPH range. Brooks thinks he threw 20 sliders, by far the most of any pitch type, and just 2 cutters at 84 or so. The issues are magnified by the fact that pitch fx data seems to be missing for several innings, so the total pitch numbers don’t match.

But if you think that Iwakuma’s fastball is down “only” 2 MPH, then you also must believe that he’s all but given up on it, and now pitches backwards from his slider/cutter – something no Mariner fan would ever have picked out as the pitch he needs to feature more often. If that’s accurate, then Iwakuma is substituting his subpar fastball with breaking balls at a rate roughly double anything we’ve ever seen from him. He threw about 1/2 breaking balls last night, if you include those slow cutters. If you believe that’s he’s using his cutter as a fastball, or that he’s only able to touch 87 very occasionally by reaching for a bit extra, then the problem’s a bit different. In that case, he’s now the Japanese Jamie Moyer and will have to ensure his command’s perfect. Last night, despite the walks, he essentially did that. Either way, Iwakuma threw the vast majority of his tracked pitches last night between 79-82. He’s never done that in a big league game. Whether it was strategy or capability, we’re still not quite sure.

Either way (“he’s just pitching backwards!” or “Yes, he throws 84 rather often now, but he can get away with it!”), it’s concerning because it’s such a break from his previous approach. Iwakuma’s savvy enough to adjust his approach and rely on his control/command to give himself a chance to succeed, but he’s simply never needed to make adjustments of this magnitude before. That’s tough for any pitcher, and while command can help, doing this consistently is going to be a challenge.

Game 2: Mariners at Astros

marc w · April 4, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Lance McCullers, 5:10pm

Hmmm. It’s one game, and the M’s faced a recent Cy Young winner last night, but it’s tough given the excitement of the day to see the M’s throttled so thoroughly by Dallas Keuchel et al. And it doesn’t get any easier tonight, with the M’s facing another elite ground ball pitcher, righty Lance McCullers.

Dave had a great article on the guy last week at Fangraphs, noting why he was picking him to win the AL Cy Young this season. He’s struggled to stay healthy, and missed time last year with various arm ailments, but has been incredible when he’s able to take the ball. He’s got a sinking 94-96 MPH fastball that gets plenty of ground balls thanks to his low 3/4 arm slot and natural armside run, but his bread and butter is a borderline-unfair curve/slider thing that’s thrown very hard (around 85-86). This would seem to make him susceptible to platoon splits, as sinker/slider guys are often torched by opposite-handed hitters, but McCullers has, thus far at least, run reverse splits. The credit for that goes to his high-spin curve that has the horizontal break and velocity of a great slider, but the vertical depth of a curve. It essentially checks every box: batters swing and miss it all the time, when they DO contact it, it goes for ground balls (as Dave mentioned, McCullers gave up just 5 HRs in 14 starts last year), and he’s able to control it fairly well. Batters have *slugged* .209 off of it in McCullers’ two-year career, but lefties have fared even worse, with just a .186 SLG% against the thing.

You might think that after recurring arm troubles have cropped up, he’d throw less of it. Instead, when he came back from early-season shoulder problems (!), he started throwing his breaking ball all the time. He ended up using it more than his fastball – a full half of his pitches last year were curves. Batters have squared up his fastball reasonably well, and his change looks good but hasn’t been effective as of yet. So he responded by throwing a blizzard of a pitch that no one’s figured out. Makes some sense to me.

Besides health, the big red flag with McCullers has been control. Maybe it’s the swerving run on it, but McCullers’ command of his fastball trails his curve command, and thus he’s posted high walk rates both in the majors and on the farm. If the M’s can be patient and work their way into good counts, they’re more likely to get his fastball, and obviously more likely to get on base. That’s going to be important, as we didn’t get to see too much of the M’s new-and-improved baserunning last night.

Soooo, this is Hisashi Iwakuma’s first start since…whatever that was happened in Peoria the other day. I think I’m more nervous about Iwakuma right now than Yovani Gallardo, and I’m not exactly confident in the newcomer. A healthy Iwakuma becomes one of the better middle-of-the-rotation arms in the league. An unhealthy Iwakuma is going to try to face this Astros line-up with 86 MPH “fastballs” and a lot of guile. No one combines command, competitiveness and pitching smarts like Iwakuma, but there’s a velocity floor below which no one can be effective in today’s major leagues. Iwakuma is getting really, really close to it. If it’s not health and just mechanical foibles, that’s not a whole lot better: Iwakuma minus command would actually be worse than Iwakuma WITH command and an 84-85 MPH fastball. He’s at the point in his career where everything has to be working, and on every pitch. Fingers crossed.

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

The M’s have, as expected, moved Drew Smyly to the 60-day DL and with a spot open on the roster, have picked up Evan Marshall off of waivers. Marshall’s pitched in portions of three seasons with the Diamondbacks, and throws a good 95 MPH sinker along with a splitter-style change-up and slider/cutter (both around 86). Despite the velocity, he’s not been a strikeout guy – he’s a ground ball machine. It’s an intriguing arsenal, albeit one that hasn’t been sufficient to allow him to reliably stay on anyone’s active roster. Walks are a big part of the reason why, and that’s something he’ll work on down in Tacoma for a while.

Game 1, Mariners at Astros

marc w · April 3, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Felix Hernandez vs. Dallas Kuechel, 5:10pm

Happy Felix Day, and a felicitous Felix New Year to all of you.

The M’s have playoff expectations this year, but that’s not actually new: they were *supposed* to win back in 2015, and while they weren’t favored in 2016, they were clearly in the wild card picture both in the projections and, as it turned out, in real life. This year feels different, somehow, and it’s not just because they’re coming off a good year and made a series of trades to improve the roster. The difference this year is that the club reflects the goals and strategy of the GM much more. We’ve talked at length about how the core of this team was put in place by Jack Zduriencik (and even Bill Bavasi – love you, Felix), and so Jerry Dipoto’s job was to do a better job of filling in the complementary pieces either through player development or through trade. In his first year on the job, Dipoto really focused on the trade market to bring in guys we now see as more marginal. This year, from the Walker/Segura trade to the acquisitions of Jarrod Dyson and Drew Smyly, fans have a sense not only of what the M’s are trying to do, but how they want to do it.

The M’s want to lead the world in OF defense and greatly improve their baserunning. They won’t be trying to out-slug the Astros or Red Sox, but, the idea is that they’ll have easily enough offense to win with their current pitching staff. There are a number of key assumptions that drive that simple-sounding summary, and the M’s have actually been pretty open about what they are (another notable difference from their predecessors in the M’s FO): they want their pitchers to yield fly balls and thus drive down their opponent’s expected batting average. They hope Safeco reverts to form and helps hold down opponent HRs. They assume improvements in the top of the order will help the middle of the order drive in more runs. They believe improvements on the basepaths add up to an easy win or two. And, crucially, they believe all of this adds up to a team that can compete with Houston, tonight’s opponent.

The M’s need to see how they stack up against an opponent whose projected batting lines exceed the M’s at 8 of the 9 line-up spots (OK, technically Cruz/Correa are tied in the clean-up spot). They need to see if Felix is prepared to make the adjustments he needs to make to give the team its ace back. Felix has struggled mightily against the Astros in the past two seasons, and that can’t continue if the M’s want to hold off Houston. With the depth the Astros have at their disposal, the M’s will need to be both healthy and creative to either reduce their need for depth or to gin up solutions to roster holes.

All of this makes it sound like a nearly impossible challenge, and that’s going too far. We know the Astros can fritter away an “on paper” advantage: they did it last year! But the M’s are going to be fascinating to watch this year, and could do something much better than just compete for a division title: they could extend their competitive window. If Mitch Haniger and Jean Segura live up to a fraction of M’s fans hopes, the trade that brought them north will be seen as a franchise-changing one. Dyson/Valencia/Cruz even Martin and Cano won’t be around long term, but a core involving Seager/Segura/Haniger with lion-in-winter contributions from Cano and whoever else the M’s assemble is a decent starting point. It’s not enough, not on its own, so that’s where the team’s player development group comes in. As it stands now, the M’s farm system looks somewhat weak, especially after Tyler O’Neill and the rehabbing Kyle Lewis. That won’t cut it, and so as important as it is to see Segura in 2017, it’ll be critical for the M’s to develop another complementary big league piece or two. A comeback from DJ Peterson? A leap forward from one of the low-minors arms? Dan Vogelbach making some key adjustments? None of this is far fetched, and it’ll be fun to see who steps up and pushes their way into contention for a big league job.

But for the 9th time, today is mostly about Felix. His struggles not only doomed the M’s playoff push, but made the entire season less enjoyable than it otherwise would have been. Quite obviously, we can handle not making the playoffs – we’re well-versed in finding value in other elements of the regular season. But there’s something jarring about watching Felix stumble, even as we know he can’t pitch forever. I want to see another big adjustment and a comeback player of the year award for the big righty. I tell myself that I’d rather have Felix play a minor role on a playoff team than a starring role for a loser, and I think even Felix would agree with that, but ace-level-Felix is one of the most compelling things I’ve seen in decades of being a fan, and I’m really glad to have seen it. A part of me wants that back more than anything team-related. I’ll try to keep that part of myself away from the keyboard this year, but he may make a few appearances.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Dyson, LF
SP: King. Felix.

I think Houston holds off the M’s this year. I think the M’s compete for a wild card and end up getting the 2nd one. I think run scoring continues to climb, and that Safeco continues to see record numbers of home runs. I think Tampa’s a contender, that Texas looks much better than people think, but that their weird base runs devil magic runs out.

The 2017 M’s: The Risks

marc w · April 3, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

The M’s improbably built a club that gets to talk about playoff expectations just two years after the franchise-altering failure of 2015. The M’s of 2017 boast a formidable defense, a well-regarded bullpen, and an offense that’s helped turn Safeco Field into a home run haven. But we’ve seen this too many times to really believe; there are innumerable monsters out there, and they seem drawn, inexorably, to the M’s.

The past two years saw the projection systems forecast an extremely tight spread between the American League clubs, a fact that help foster some optimism in the northwest. “We’re a few games back of the best team in the AL!” “Parity+an owner willing to spend+a GM willing to trade anything that’s not bolted down=playoffs.” The problem is that real seasons generally don’t look like that: SOME team or teams will win 93-95 games, and some teams will be bad, not just a-bit-below-.500. The projections were a complicated mathematical shrug, an acknowledgment that the error bars were wide enough to swamp true talent. That’s essentially what we got – in 2015, the Astros were just better than anyone thought, and in 2016, the Rangers…ok, I have no idea what’s going on there. The point is that the M’s had reasonably similar projections in both years. What’s changed now is that we all have a better idea of the spread in talent, and we’re more assured that the Astros/Red Sox/Indians are good teams. 84 wins wasn’t good enough when 84 wins was supposed to keep you in it. 84 wins is almost assuredly not going to cut it now.

So what might prevent the M’s from passing Houston? I was looking at Ryan Divish’s answers to that question in the Seattle Times’ Baseball Preview section and agree with all of them. Drew Smyly may be out 2 months and Hisashi Iwakuma’s fastballs may reach Jered Weaver speeds soon, so I’m very concerned about the rotation and the team’s overall health. But what struck me was that some major risks overlap with what Divish (correctly) ID’d as potential strengths.

1: The OF can’t hit, and the embrace of a glove-first OF is negated by another flurry of dingers at Safeco.

I like Mitch Haniger. I think he’ll hit…probably. But he’ll have to beat his projections soundly to be a league average bat, and he’s – by far – the best hitter in the M’s OF. Leonys Martin brought a good glove to CF, and showed flashes of upside last year, tapping into his long-dormant power. But when the season ended, he remained a well-below-average hitter, and one who’s projected to decline from there in 2017.

Flanking him in LF is Jarrod Dyson, a speed-merchant who’ll turn 33 this season and is already nursing a hamstring issue. Never a great hitter, he’s coming off of his best season, but is being asked to play every day. That means facing more left-handed pitching, and he’s *slugging* .285 against them for his career.

Guillermo Heredia and Taylor Motter are capable back-ups, but not yet starting-caliber players for a club in contention. Ben Gamel will start in AAA, and top prospect Tyler O’Neill likely needs seasoning as well. Haniger is the key to this group hitting enough to make use of the middle-of-the-order’s ability, and he’s got all of 123 big league plate appearances to his name. If Martin, Dyson, or both collapse offensively, the offense may struggle.

But defense doesn’t slump, right? The M’s were unquestionably better defenders last year, but even with a fly-ball pitching staff in front of them, they struggled to make up for their lackluster batting lines.

The culprit here may have been as much meteorological as it was anything baseball related: Safeco Field yielded a ton of HRs, meaning there were fewer well-struck balls that remained fieldable by the OFs. That spike in HRs doesn’t seem to be related to a noticeable change in approach, so it may have had something to do with the marine layer in the atmosphere that’s reliably knocked down balls hit in the air. If that doesn’t change in 2017, the M’s may have brought incredible defenders to high-scoring slugfests. If the M’s pitching approach targeting high strikes works to perfection, they’ll produce more high-launch-angle contact: pop flies and shallow fly balls with lots of hang time. Even if scoring is low, that kind of contact can be fielded by anyone, not just the Dysons of the world. The M’s OF defense really should be great, but they require opportunities to demonstrate it if they hope to make up for some mediocre offense.

2: The vaunted middle-of-the-order can’t maintain last year’s production.

Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz have become franchise cornerstones and clubhouse leaders. Kyle Seager made the leap from ‘good’ to ‘great’ at the plate last year, and remains remarkably durable. This group of hitters remains Seattle’s greatest strength, but they may need to recapture their 2016 form if the M’s want to hold off Houston. And that’s going to be hard.

Cruz set a personal best in isolated slugging in a full season in 2016. Robinson Cano narrowly missed his own record, set in 2012 in the bandbox that is new Yankee Stadium. Kyle Seager blew his previous level of performance out of the water, and again, much of the gains came in the form of increased power. Seager will play his age-29 season this year, but given the age of Cruz/Cano, some significant regression seems likely.* If it comes, this puts a lot of pressure on the supplementary pieces to meet or exceed their projections, and as we just discussed above, requiring Dyson and Martin to help out on offense may be asking too much.

The M’s projections already incorporate a noticeable jump in runs scored. It’s easy to say that Jean Segura will add much more at the plate than Ketel Marte – that’s (essentially) a given, and it’s also already factored in. The question is: will the gains from adding Segura/Haniger/Valencia counter the regression from Cruz/Cano after what look like career seasons. The durability of the core three has been remarkable, and it’s a key reason why the 2016 M’s scored so many runs. As with any team, remove a middle-of-the-order bat from the line-up, and the entire run scoring outlook changes dramatically. No one has “good” alternatives for their best players (being irreplaceable is a decent definition of a great player), but given the pitching staff’s expected runs allowed (particularly now with Drew Smyly out), the M’s can’t really afford a down year from their middle-of-the-order stars.

3: The Astros may run away with this.

In last year’s “upside” post, I noted that the Astros (like now, the putative favorite) had some serious issues, especially at first base. (Please don’t read any of the other “upsides” I identified. Focus, please.) While they didn’t go out and grab an Edwin Encarnacion or Jose Bautista, their line-up still looks formidable. Similarly, while they don’t (yet) employ Jose Quintana, their pitching staff looks better thanks to more playing time for Lance McCullers, the emergence of Chris Devenski, and further development by Joe Musgrove. The M’s have amassed some laudable rotation depth, but it simply isn’t in the same league in terms of upside and 2017 ability.

If everyone in the M’s staff stays healthy from this point on (ha!), they can hang around with the Astros. The larger problem is that the Astros are projected to outscore the M’s by over 0.4 runs per game. The M’s core group of Cano/Cruz/Seager now includes Jean Segura, who had a brilliant season for Arizona last year. But the Astros’ group of Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman and Josh Reddick is deeper, better, and significantly younger. There are weaknesses in the OF for both teams, so it’s not like Houston’s put together a 1927-Yankees style juggernaut. But they would seem to have a significant edge in true talent, and thus the M’s margin for error is much less than it was a year ago.

The Astros got off to a terrible start in 2016, but came back in the second half. They were never going to catch the Rangers, but they played well enough to push the M’s for 2nd down the stretch. With more time for Bregman, with Brian McCann replacing Jason Castro, and with role players like Carlos Beltran and Yunliesky Gurriel, they have a projected advantage at 6 of the 9 positions, and the superior pitching staff as well. It’s easy to argue for flipping a few of these – a big year from Haniger can overcome the Astros’ perceived advantage, for example. But the Astros have been building for a while, and now seem like a team that’s built to compete and win the division for the next few years. The M’s last best shot is in 2017, and that unfortunately coincides with Houston’s FIRST best shot.

* Potentially interesting side-note: if Cruz/Cano ARE able to maintain something close to what they did in 2016, it may mean Safeco is once again playing like a home-run park, which, while it takes pressure off of the offense, makes the run-prevention group’s job that much harder.

Hisashi Iwakuma’s Outing Today

marc w · March 29, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

It’s easy to be paranoid on a day when we’ve just learned that Drew Smyly may not be ready to pitch when the season starts. I look forward to laughing about this in a month after Hisashi Iwakuma twirls a few gems against Houston, Texas and Miami. It may be premature, given that there are questions about the Pitch FX calibration in Peoria, so maybe the velocity readings aren’t as bad as they look.

But here, look at this:
Iwakuma velocity chart
This was Hisashi Iwakuma’s velocity today in his abbreviated start against the Dodgers. This is from BrooksBaseball, who’ve taken the raw MLBAM Gameday data and adjusted it to measure the speed at 55′ from the plate as opposed to 50′. That means that these readings are actually faster than what you’d see in the Gameday app, where Iwakuma appeared to throw a blizzard of 82 MPH “change ups.”

The first inning looks OK (through pitch 27 in the chart), with a couple of sprightly 88 MPH fastballs to Tyler Holt, followed by an oddly slow slider that Holt singled on. But look at the stubbornly low velocity immediately after that. He begins the 2nd inning with a walk of ex-Mariner Chris Taylor, and none of the pitches exceed 84, leading Gameday to call them changeups. The problem is that they very clearly aren’t. His velocity gets slightly better towards the end of his outing, but it’s still far below where it was in the first inning.

Clayton Kershaw’s velocity was slightly lower than usual today too, so it may be that after further adjustments, Iwakuma’s 83 MPH fastballs were really 85-86 MPH sinkers – something low, but not THAT low. The problem is that while the M’s are saying there’s nothing physically wrong with him, and Iwakuma himself blames mechanical issues for his wildness, that picture is exactly what an injury looks like.

There are, of course, other explanations. This spring, Iwakuma’s been a little slow out of the gate with his fastball. Here’s a velo chart from a few outings ago, where we started off 85-86 and then worked up to 88.
3-18 speed.php
Since his outing ended in the 2nd, maybe he just never got loose. That might explain the velo and the wildness (four walks? From Hisashi Iwakuma?), but is a warning sign of its own.

Still, it’s scary to see such a drop after a frankly odd-looking slider; it’s not good to be able to look at the chart and instantly spot where…something happened. Iwakuma’s thrown a few sliders this spring, but none as slow as that 75 MPH hanger to Holt. It’s 5 MPH slower than he averaged last year, and it appears to be the only slider he threw in today’s game. I sincerely hope Iwakuma just tried to work on his mechanics in the 2nd, and, for whatever reason, it didn’t work. But this is now something to watch, in between watching for news on Drew Smyly’s health.

Please stay healthy, M’s.

Felix and the Low Fastball

marc w · March 29, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

I should probably be writing about Drew Smyly, who’s suddenly sidelined with what he called a “soggy” arm, and may not be ready for opening day. But I’m going to write about Felix, and I will attempt to make it topical by saying that Felix is suddenly even more important to the M’s 2017. With the bottom of the M’s rotation in a bit of flux, and as we all wait to hear why Drew Smyly’s arm is suddenly taking on water, the M’s need a bounce-back season from Felix more than ever. The M’s were never supposed to be a dominant run-prevention group, but the return of Good Felix makes the M’s path to contention a whole lot easier.

The M’s attempts to restore Felix’s regality took two paths, as detailed in this great Ryan Divish piece from late last year. First, Felix had mechanical problems which impacted his command, and second, he targeted the bottom of the zone almost exclusively, allowing hitters to either take low fastballs and draw walks (his 2016 walk rate was the highest of his career) or wait for him to throw a get-it-over strike higher up. The theory, as described by Jerry Dipoto in that Divish article, is that hitters got comfortable against him knowing where he was going to spot his fastball.

An objection I’ve heard on Twitter and one I talked about back in June is that it’s dangerous to so completely change a pitcher’s plan of attack; Felix is Felix because of his great sinking fastball/change – if you try to force him to elevate four-seamers, something he hasn’t done much of since he threw 97, he could really struggle. Well, in this case, I’m fully on board with the M’s change of strategy. Felix’s 2013-14 peak (by fWAR) and his 2015-16 struggles have coincided with some fairly large-scale changes in how the league attacks low fastballs, and batters have made adjustments that make them much better against low fastballs than they were even a couple of years ago.

Jeff Sullivan pointed this out at FG a while back, but the spike in home runs last year did not come from batters driving more high fastballs. Instead, it was largely the result of a sea change in how they attacked *low* fastballs. Jeff compared 2008-2015 with 2016, while I’m going to focus on the past four years. Here’s a graph showing the league’s slugging percentage on fastballs in the lower third of the zone (and below/to the side of the zone) and on fastballs up (and out of) the zone. Batters fared better on low FBs – barely – in 2013, but the gap has grown thanks to a jump in results on low FBs in 2015 and 2016.
lg slg 2

I’m using SLG% because it incorporates both batting average AND power; it makes sense that low FBs have a surprisingly high SLG% because there are a lot of singles and ground-ball hits in there. IF we focus just on home runs, the change is even more evident:
lg hrs 1

HRs on low FBs overtook HRs on high FBs in 2015, and while HRs were up everywhere in 2016, low FBs were much more likely to go for HRs in 2016. Batters have adjusted not just to low pitches, but to low FBs. It’s not about putting more of them in play (balls in play rates continue to drop), they are doing far more damage on these pitches than batters did (many of the SAME batters, remember) in 2014.

The strike zone grew dramatically in the early part of this decade, with nearly all of the growth in the actual, as-called-by-umpires zone coming through expansion downward, below the batters’ knees. This helped all pitchers, but two kinds in particular: those with great command of sinkers and low pitches, and those with catchers who could make low pitches more likely to be called strikes. Felix was obviously a great example of the former, while anyone who pitched to Jonathan Lucroy fit the latter category. Scoring dropped, as pitchers got ahead of more hitters – hitters who weren’t used to seeing those pitches called strikes. And pitch framing took off, as the Lucroys of the world made throwing down more profitable. Pitchers responded by following the money, and changed where they put their fastballs:
lg pitches 1

Now we’re seeing the counter-adjustments. The strike zone’s expansion slowed and then, ever so slightly, reversed. Hitters like Josh Donaldson and others learned to elevate low fastballs, and now hit low fastballs for power. The league as a whole first changed in a direction that seemed tailor-made for Felix to take advantage of, and he responded with two of his best seasons. The league as a whole has now changed in ways that seem perfectly designed to hurt Felix, and they’ve done so. Whereas Felix used to make his living on low fastballs, his advantage is essentially gone now.
fel low fb
Felix is now league average when he throws a low FB, which is terrible, because almost by definition, any elevated fastball from Felix is a mistake. These data come from BaseballSavant.com, but the change is even starker if you focus on the bottom third of the zone in Brooks Baseball’s charts. Excluding the out-of-zone contact and focusing just on low strikes, they show Felix’s SLG%-against on fastballs as going from .448 in 2013+2014 to .661 in 2015+2016.

Felix needs to change. Here’s a chart of his vertical pitch locations throughout his career. Brooksbaseball-Chart As Felix has lost velocity, he’s increasingly targeted the bottom of the zone (below the midpoint of the zone). He could learn something by looking at what Justin Verlander’s done, as shown below. Verlander was struggling for a few years, and his return to form has coincided with what looks like an intentional move UP in the zone.
Brooksbaseball-Chart(1)

This may be uncomfortable, but the benefits are significant. A counter-adjustment is warranted, and ANY change from Felix seems like it’d make it harder for batters, especially those intra-divisional hitters who have seen him often. Felix’s command may not be what it once was, but that’s why targeting something other than the low strike might help: predictability plus so-so command is worse than unpredictable and so-so command.

So how’s it going? What meager data we have from the WBC and Spring training show that he’s already making some adjustments. His average FB height seems to be up this spring, especially in the WBC, where he used high FBs repeatedly to get weak contact, whiffs, and to set up his change/breaking balls. Unfortunately, he’s done this before – he’s thrown significantly higher FBs in the spring several times before, only to pitch differently once the regular season started. Felix doesn’t get enough credit for his pitching smarts, and it’s time for him to put them to use. More than FB velocity, more than command, Felix needs to rediscover the high FB. This isn’t a quick fix, as we saw with Brandon Drury’s HR on a high FB yesterday. They’re risk in changing a successful approach, and there may be bumps in the road as Felix learns how/when to go high. Still, he can’t rely on last year’s game plan, and using the entire zone offers his best chance of retaking his throne.

:Note: This post is similar to a lot of what Jake Mailhot had to say at LL a week or so ago, and both of us pointed to Jeff’s article at FG. Sorry to harp on this subject, but I wanted to talk about Felix’s adjustments specifically, and I wanted to get back to this topic after raising it (not just about FBs) midway through last year in one of my “what’s going on with Safeco?” posts.

With Vogelbach Demotion, M’s Roster Nearly Set

marc w · March 23, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Didn’t see this one coming. For the past several months, the expectation has been that the M’s would give Dan Vogelbach the starting 1B job, either on his own or in a platoon with Danny Valencia. Today, though, the M’s optioned Vogelbach to Tacoma, handing the 1B job to Valencia and opening up a roster spot – presumably for a reliever.

Vogelbach has struggled in recent weeks, and leads the team in strikeouts with 19 in just 57 at-bats. For a team focused on controlling the strike zone, Vogelbach’s slump in precisely that area was going to draw attention. After opening the season with 8 Ks and 4 BBs in his first 26 ABs, he’s had 11 Ks and 3 BBs in his last 28. Overall, his K rate is 30%, not what the M’s wanted out of a bat-first position. Dipoto referenced the temporary demotions last year of James Paxton and Mike Zunino, with the thinking that he can get more work in for the Rainiers instead of playing sporadically as a bench bat in Seattle. That’s probably a good thing. He dominated the strike zone for Tacoma, but his SLG% of .422 probably wasn’t ideal for the position. Sure, the OBP was amazing, but I wonder if he made some adjustments looking to tap into more power and threw his swing (and process at the plate) out of whack a bit.

The final utility roster spot seems decided as well: Shawn O’Malley’s imminent appendectomy will require a few weeks of recovery time, so the job is essentially Taylor Motter’s by default. As with Vogelbach, I’d imagine we’ll see O’Malley at some point this season, but Motter will get the first crack at the job.

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