Game 58, Indians at Mariners

marc w · June 7, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Wade Miley vs. Cody Anderson, 7:10pm

Let’s be clear: last night’s loss hurt. As Texas walked off Houston, the M’s fell a season-high 4 games behind the division leading Rangers, AND they’ve fallen further behind Cleveland in a hypothetical wild card race. The M’s have to keep their eye on a number of teams, and four-game losing streaks have a way of negatively impacting all sorts of potential races.

All that said and acknowledged, hooooly smokes, that was an encouraging game. James Paxton has somehow cloned Noah Syndergaard’s right arm and attached it to his own left side. That’s the only explanation I have for this. James Paxton, the frustratingly inconsistent, injury plagued 27 year old, now throws as hard as Noah Syndergaard, the fireballer that throws faster – by a mile – than any other starter in the game. I keep trying to come up with some sort of precedent for this, and I just can’t. The past few years have taught us a lot about how velocity aging curves aren’t set in stone, and that even veteran hurlers can suddenly add velocity. But essentially all of those cases are guys going from 90-92, or 91-93, touching 95. Paxton was already at the far tail end of the velocity distribution (especially for lefties), and, well, James Paxton’s fastball last night averaged *99mph* and touched 101. 101! From a lefty starter! There are no precedents for this, because lefty starters don’t throw 101. You can’t look at their background or evolution, because they do not exist. Aroldis Chapman is a lefty and the hardest thrower in the game, but he’s a reliever who many thought *should* start. Chapman’s never started a big league game, and made only a handful of starts in the minors. But he *did* start a spring training game back in 2012 in Peoria against the Pads, so we can see what he’d be like as a starter. In that game in late March, Chapman threw 61 fastballs with an average velocity of 96.7mph. In last night’s game, Paxton threw 61 fastballs with an average velocity of 99.0, and a higher peak velocity than Chapman. Let that sink in. It hasn’t fully sink in to me yet.

The only analogs I can think of involve position players. JD Martinez adding over .100 points to his ISO and going from a slap hitting mediocrity to a power hitting force, but then, he was a power hitting slugger in the minors. Joey Bautista’s the poster child for this late transformation, but even there, he’d always shown power…he just lacked opportunity and a good hit tool. Then there are comeback stories, sort of like Mark Lowe’s last year, in which a guy who once threw 95 fades and bumps around in the low 90s for a few years before returning to his former strength. That’s nice and all, but even last year’s Mark Lowe wasn’t the kind of dominant force he looked like when he first came up with Seattle, and what we’re talking about with Paxton is jumping to an entirely different level of ability.

So why’s he still getting hit? That’s a good question, and one I’d like to look into as the season goes on. His new mechanics may give right-handers a longer look at the ball, but then again his velocity jump eats away at that. He’s still missing his location every once in a while, but I saw some good swings on very well located pitches too. Tough to say, at at this point, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts showing more platoon splits than he did as an over-the-top pitcher.

If Paxton wasn’t enough, Edwin Diaz followed him and made his own MLB debut. To say it was electric is again to understate things. Many people talked about how it reminded them of Mark Lowe’s debut. I thought about Rafael Soriano’s first two games in Seattle, when he hit 100 and struck out 6 in a combined 6 IP. Why? Because Diaz threw 7 fastballs *averaging* 99.53mph, topping 100 a few times, as in this strikeout. His slider was tight and induced perhaps the best swinging strike of the night. The M’s lost a game, but may have gained an elite set-up man.

Hats off to Trevor Bauer, though, who threw the best game I’ve seen from him. Even in solid starts in the past, and his duel with Tai Walker last year comes to mind, he’d be breezing along and then give up a hit or a walk and then a HR that just killed his chances at a win. Last night, TWO deep drives from Seth Smith were caught on the warning track, and that was the difference. Still, he had much better command than I’ve seen – walking one, for example – and his curve was elite. He also got out-of-zone swings…exactly what he hasn’t been able to do all year.

Today’s game is as much of a must win as you can get in early June. The M’s face Cody Anderson, who’s making the spot start as Danny Salazar’s shoulder is hurting. Anderson was demoted to AAA after stinking up the joint as a starter early in the year. He had good ERA thanks to an extremely low BABIP in 15 starts last year, but when his BABIP shot up, he’s been disastrous in 2016. He’s still not walking anyone, but he’s given up 10 HRs and 56 hits in total in just under 40 IP thus far. He’s been bad against everyone in 2016, but he’s still not shown an ability to get lefties out. In his career, they’re slugging .485 off of him, and remember, that includes his mostly successful 2015. This is kind of a surprise, as his best pitch may be his change-up. The only problem is, it’s been much more successful against right-handed hitters. He’s got a cutter that he throws mostly to righties, but he’ll throw the change to lefties and righties alike. His fastball’s 93-94 or so and has some solid armside run.

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

Tacoma dominated Las Vegas 9-1 last night, as Chris Taylor went 4-4 with a walk. Las Vegas is flipping the script today, leading Tacoma, er, 9-1, despite a HR from Mike Zunino. Today was Adrian Sampson’s first really bad start of the year.

Jackson lost to Pensacola last night as Reds prospect Amir Garrett was spectacular over 6 IP, giving up only an unearned run. Dylan Unsworth starts for the Generals tonight.

Bakersfield beat San Jose 8-5 behind homers from Joe DeCarlo (who’s now homered in 3 straight games) and Kyle Petty. Tyler Pike starts for the Blaze tonight, looking to build on a 12 K performance in his last game.

Zack Littell starts for Clinton in Wisconsin tonight.

Finally, the hitting star of the day is probably OF prospect Brayan Hernandez, who went 5-6 in the DSL M’s 15-1 win in the Dominican.

Game 57, Indians at Mariners

marc w · June 6, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Trevor Bauer, 7:10pm

That Texas series was a serious blow. As Jeff detailed today at Fangraphs, the Rangers have overtaken the M’s as the playoff favorites in the AL West. Their ace starter is back, and many of the things that impeded them early on – Shawn Tolleson, Delino DeShields – have been demoted. They are by no means a juggernaut – their DH is expensive and suffering through a terrible year, and is now whining about his playing time. Their 1B has been nearly as bad. Their pitching staff has a terrible FIP thanks to a ton of HRs allowed. Still, they exposed some weaknesses on the M’s, and now we’ll see how Seattle responds.

One of the Rangers’ strengths this year has been their depth, and thus when Rougned Odor got suspended, they called up ex-top prospect Jurickson Profar, who’s been amazing. Profar’s play – and the, uh, needs at 1B – has essentially made it impossible for the Rangers to send him down again. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’d love to see James Paxton force the M’s hand with a couple of eye-popping starts. He had unreal velocity and stuff the other night, but zero command of it, and he paid the price with tons of hard contact. The new velo means he doesn’t need pinpoint command, just something better than what he showed in San Diego.

His opponent tonight is enigmatic right-hander Trevor Bauer. I’ve probably spent more words on Bauer than any non-M’s pitcher over the past few years – attention that his performance to date doesn’t seem to warrant. There’s something remarkable about his very public discussion of strategy, training, and study of the game that’s remarkable for fans (no need to have that information filtered through the press), and for sabermetric fans in particular. The fact that he came up throwing pretty much every pitch under the sun, like a nerdy American Yu Darvish, didn’t hurt, either (screwballs! Woo!!). Yet here we are, over 400 innings into his big league career, and he’s put up about 3 fWAR. So much of the promise he showed at UCLA and in the minors remains to be tapped, and you start to wonder why.

It’s certainly not due to any lack of effort on Bauer’s part. Whether working with Kyle Boddy at Driveline Baseball here in the northwest, or working with Ron Wolforth in Texas, and of course his own coaches with Cleveland, Bauer’s diligent about training and talking about his process. His work on “pitch tunneling” – or making sure different pitches look very similar at the point where a batter chooses to swing or not – is a great example, and we’ve now got data suggesting that being good at doing this leads to much better outcomes. He’s not just training for the hell of it, he’s got a (very good) plan, and he’s attempting to execute it. In fits and starts, it shows a hell of a lot of promise.

But it’s not working nearly enough, and I’m not quite sure why. 119 pitchers in baseball have thrown at least 50 innings this year. Of these, Bauer ranks 115th in o-swing%, or getting batters to swing at balls. By itself, that’s not a kiss of death – there are some decent pitchers in the 100-119 range. But they’ve all got some way to mitigate that deficiency. Steven Matz and Bartolo Colon just don’t throw balls to begin with. Same with Rich Hill, who gets batters looking with his curve, and has very low contact rates when batters DO swing. Steven Wright’s 119th and having a great year, but hey, the knuckle ball really is a different animal, and it can lead to plenty of whiffs on strikes. Aaron Sanchez gets a ton of ground balls. Bauer doesn’t really have these mitigating circumstances – he walks too many batters, so the fact that batters seem to recognize pitches that are going wide (even if “tunneled” correctly) is bad news. He’s not a big ground ball guy, so HRs have been an issue as well. There’s nothing weird about his BABIP, unlike, say Chris Tillman, so he’s giving up plenty of baserunners.

All he can do is keep tinkering, the way he’s always done. Last year, his slider was his primary breaking ball, with a rising four-seamer as his #1 fastball. In 2016, he’s basically thrown no sliders at all, replacing it with a cutter, and gone to his good curve a bit more. This year, he’s throwing his sinker more than his four-seam, which may be why his GB% is up substantially. He’s not afraid to throw it up in the zone, but its movement is different enough that it gives batters a different look. That’s great. But his ERA/FIP are both around 4.25, and that’s just not what the Indians expected when they acquired him, nor is it what Bauer would expect of himself. Through years of training, through years of honing, altering, and remixing his repertoire, there’s been remarkably little change in his results. He’s never had an ERA or FIP under 4.

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

Welcome back, Ketel Marte! Leonys Martin’s eligible to be activated on the 10th, I believe, but it’ll be longer than that for King Felix. Fingers crossed.

Good pitching day in the minors, with Tacoma’s surprising Adrian Sampson starting in Vegas, and Tyler Herb in San Jose. Brett Ash and Jackson host Pensacola.

Andrew Moore was solid for Jackson yesterday, but benefited from some good offense in the Generals win over the Blue Wahoos. DJ Peterson led the way with 2 HRs. Joe DeCarlo also hit 2 dingers for Bakersfield, part of a 4 HR day for the Blaze, in a 7-5 win.

Game 56, Mariners at Rangers

marc w · June 5, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Derek Holland, 12:05

The M’s could really use a win here, having dropped the first two of the series and thus two games back of the first place Rangers. The M’s are still the division favorite according to Fangraphs, but it’s narrowing. The projected final standings show the M’s a game up on Texas, at 86-76, and thus the M’s have a lead in playoff odds. But as you can see from this chart, their lead has narrowed considerably in the past few days.
AL West playoff odds

Today the M’s face Derek Holland, the veteran lefty who’ll be making his 11th start of the year, or one more than he made in his injury-plagued 2015. He’s always had sizable platoon splits, kind of like Martin Perez, thanks to a so-so change-up and better breaking stuff. It’s not only a pitch mix problem, either: his fastballs have been crushed by righties, while his sinker in particular has remained very effective against lefties. At this point in his career – and in his recovery from injury – Holland’s not missing many bats, so he’s trying to get by getting lazy fly balls and infield pop-ups. He’s been successful in inducing pop ups, and thus his FIP looks okay, but he’s had a tough time stranding runners, and his BABIP isn’t as low as you might assume given his batted ball profile.

Of course, nothing that Holland does matters if the M’s keep getting disastrous starts from their starters. Hisashi Iwakuma was decent in his last appearance, or at least as decent as a starter can be while giving up 4 dingers. In context, it was probably better than the line looks: the M’s scored a million runs, and Iwakuma needed to just throw strikes. But Arlington isn’t a place to just throw strikes and hope for the best, so he’ll need to be a bit sharper than he’s been in recent starts.

Iwakuma’s slider has never quite rounded into form, so this year he’s throwing more of the cutter he developed in 2014 and showed very occasionally last year. It’s thrown at 85-86, so very near his four-seam fastball’s speed, but has none of the armside run. Unfortunately, it too seems to be a work in progress, as batters have hit it fairly hard. We’ll see if it’s something he continues to go to, or if he’ll go back to his curve…or just stick to the splitter.

1: Aoki, CF
2: Gutierrez, DH
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Lee, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Romero, LF
9: Sardinas, SS
SP: Iwakuma

Game 55, Mariners at Rangers

marc w · June 4, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Nate Karns vs. Martin Perez, 6:05pm

No shame in dropping a road game to Yu Darvish, but the M’s need to grab some wins in series like this. M’s right-handed bats have been great against opposing left-handers, and Martin Perez is a southpaw. That said, they haven’t exactly punished lefty starters overall, because some of their lefties have struggled. Norichika Aoki, I’m looking at you. For a guy who’s shown reverse splits over his career, he’s getting destroyed by lefties in 2016. Hasn’t hurt the M’s thus far, but this sure feels like a good day to give him a day off (hey, looks like the M’s agree!).

Perez is a familiar foe to the M’s, having made 7 starts against them previously. He throws a fairly hard sinker around 93-94, and mixes in a number of four-seamers, too. He throws a firm change with very similar movement to his sinker – it comes in around 8-9mph slower, though. He’s got a slider and a curve that he throws about equally. Perez has struggled a bit in his career and this year in particular with righties, so he typically sees a righty-dominant line-up; tonight he’ll see another. More than most pitchers, Perez really struggles to miss bats against opposite-handed bats. Most everyone strikes out more same-handed hitters, but Perez has below average K rates specifically because he can’t whiff righties. This year, that inability to get Ks has been supplemented with a lot more walks; control problems were a sporadic problem for him in the minors. This hasn’t hurt him thus far, but his FIP’s well above his superficially solid ERA. “Beating” his FIP isn’t some repeated skill for him – he posted a much *worse* ERA than his FIP last year.

Nate Karns is an oddity in that, unlike Perez, he’s consistently struck out more *opposite* handed hitters. His career FIP, career K% and HR rate are all better against lefties than righties. The Rangers’ line-up is pretty well balanced, with 4 lefties in there today. Karns stands apart from his teammates too in that he’s actually been a bit sharper on the road. The M’s as a staff have a much, much better K:BB ratio at Safeco, but Karns’ has been better on the road. The M’s could seriously use a longer start after their starters have been battered around for the past week.

Speaking of which, the M’s just gave their beleaguered bullpen an upgrade, calling up top prospect Edwin Diaz. The righty will be available for tonight’s game, with Cody Martin heading back to Tacoma. A few weeks back, I mentioned my skepticism about the timing of his shift to the pen, but also that his two-pitch mix and deadly sinker could be valuable to the M’s at some point. While you don’t judge a move like this on the basis of a few weeks in AA, his transition to relief really couldn’t have gone any better. In 10 relief appearances, Diaz has tossed 11 2/3 IP, given up just one unearned run on just *3* hits and 2 walks while striking out 16. He’s done 2IP appearances, he’s made 4 out saves, he’s come in with men on base, and to start innings. He’s seen most situations he might encounter as a Mariner, and he’s essentially dominated in all of them. With velocity touching 98 repeatedly and a sweeping slider, he’s a tough match-up. Diaz seems to have seen more of a jump in velocity than many who make the shift. He’s added 3-4mph, ala Mike Montgomery, and clearly needs more of a challenge at this point than the Southern League can provide. I’ll be curious to see how Scott Servais uses him.

1: O’Malley, CF
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lee, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Romero, LF
9: Sardinas, SS
SP: Karns

Tacoma wrapped up their homestand with an exciting 3-2 win in 10 innings. Trailing 2-0 going into the bottom of the 9th, the R’s struck for two runs, one on a Chris Taylor swinging bunt single, and the other on a Mike Zunino fielders choice. The Rainiers then walked it off in the 10th, when Patrick Kivlehan led off with a dinger. The R’s are in Las Vegas tonight, with recently called-up Sam Gaviglio starting.

Jackson keeps rolling too, winning 2-1 over Tennessee. Tyler O’Neill homered yet again – his 10th on the year. Speaking of guys who might need more challenges than the Southern League can provide, O’Neill has been remarkable on the season. Kyle Hunter got the start and pitched 5 solid innings, and the Generals pen did the rest. Special mention goes out to Emilio Pagan, who K’d 4 in 2 IP, and now has 35 Ks in 25 1/3 IP, and has successfully converted all 8 of his save opportunities. They’re trying to play tonight, but it’s raining in Tennessee at the moment. Ryan Yarbrough was scheduled to start.

Bakersfield beat Stockton 8-6, keeping A’s prospect Casey Meisner winless for 2016 and touching him for 7 runs in 4 2/3 IP. Tyler Marlette had his third two HR game since May 18th, getting Meisner in consecutive innings. The Blaze head to San Jose and a series with the Giants beginning tonight.

Clinton beat Beloit 4-2 thanks in large part to a 3-run first. Braden Bishop had three hits to pace the offense, and Nick Neidert turned in another good start, going 5 1/3 with only 1 run given up. He’s walked only 3 in his 15 2/3 of full-season ball experience. Nick Wells starts tonight’s game in Beloit.

The M’s Dominican Summer League team opens play today, too. The team’s three July 2nd signings from last year are all on the team – the troika of 17 year olds are SS Carlos Vargas, P Ivan Fortunato, and C Daniel Santos. OF Brayan Hernandez is probably the biggest prospect on the team; he was a notable July 2 signing in 2014 – BA had him as the 3rd ranked International prospect that year.

Game 54, Mariners at Rangers

marc w · June 3, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Yu Darvish, 5:05pm

Last night’s game almost – almost – makes up for what feels like thousands of agonizing 1-0 Felix losses and pointless, punchless 3-1 games that make you question why you’re even following at all. Given the stakes, the opponent and all of that, it can be surprisingly easy to hand-wave it away – the M’s made a miraculous comeback against a team whose owner calls them “miserable failures.” Given the nature of baseball, and the fact that the sheer number of games on the schedule makes *some* remarkable outcome almost a weekly or monthly occurrence, it’s tempting to downplay this. But it seemed like a sign, or at least, those of us who want to see something out of this franchise would like to take it as one, even if that sign is in an incomprehensible foreign language. The M’s big off-season pitching acquisition pitched, uh, poorly, and is teetering around replacement level, but the M’s can hit. Like, not “hit pretty well for a team at Safeco” and not, “MUCH better hitting team than they’ve been in the recent past,” but HIT without modifiers or caveats. I don’t know if that’s enough, but it’s remarkable. More than anything save perhaps Dae-ho Lee, it’s made this team’s game worth watching. If they go on to lose, at least they’ll do so differently.

Today, they head to Texas and a showdown with the team they share first place with. Making his second start since coming back from TJ surgery is Yu Darvish, one of the most unique and absurdly talented pitchers in the game. Pull up his repertoire on BrooksBaseball and you’ll find 8 separate pitches. Does he use each of them in every start? No, of course not, but sometimes I feel like that’s just because he runs out of time. The sheer variety makes him sound like a classic pitch-to-contact junkballer, or the tinkering by necessity when a pitcher finds his fastball keeps getting smashed. I see Lou Piniella in my mind, shaking his head at the thought of 5-6-7 pitches per game. But let’s be clear: Yu Darvish is not the Persian-Japanese Ryan Franklin.

Darvish’s fastball averaged 95-96 and touched 98 in his last start. But beyond velocity and arm speed, Darvish spins the ball like no pitcher I’ve ever seen. With his sweeping, plunging slider and hard, hellish sinker, Darvish’s pitches spanned a range of about 10″ in gloveside break to 12″ in armside run. His four-seam fastball has 10-11″ of vertical rise, and he’ll drop in a slow curve at 67mph with 14-15″ of drop. Given the sheer number of pitches, you keep expecting them to sort of bleed into one another – a four-seamer/sinker thing that doesn’t sink much, and doesn’t spin enough to get rise, or a hard curve and slider that are really two ends of a single spectrum. But somehow, Darvish keeps the edges clean – there’s separation and intent in each offering, and he’s somehow able to command them.

If I had to pick a favorite, it might be his slider, which has incredible two-plane break. No pitch moving that fast has any business moving that far to the gloveside AND down, and if it’s going to do THAT, then it really shouldn’t be thrown for a ball under 30% of the time. The only clear parallel among starters is Corey Kluber’s: pitches with hellish break that batters both can’t stop swinging at, and can’t do much when they contact it. It’s one reason why Darvish has been nearly unhittable against right-handed hitters in his career. Over 900+ PAs, righties are posting a sub-.600 OPS. Lefties aren’t exactly doing well, of course, but righties have been completely flummoxed.

The M’s have been lefty dominant as an offense in recent years, which may be why they’ve actually fared pretty well against Darvish. This year, they’re actually balanced, . Darvish will only throw 85-95 pitches tonight according to the Rangers, so having an actual bench is going to be useful.

1: Aoki, CF
2: Smith, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, DH
7: Lee, 1B
8: Clevenger, C
9: Sardinas, SS
SP: Walker

The Rainiers beat Tim Lincecum’s Salt Lake Bees 5-1 last night, with Tacoma scoring 3 off of Lincecum in the first two innings. Mike Curto reports that Lincecum got into a groove after that, and made it through 5 innings with only the 3 R against him, and on only 88 pitches. Not bad for a guy who’s probably quite rusty after not throwing in a meaningful game since late June of 2015. Adrian Sampson outdueled the ex-Cy Young winner for the win. Donn Roach starts tonight at Cheney. I’d suggest going to the game given the weather and Seattle’s road trip, but it sounds like it’s sold out.

Jackson won their 8th consecutive game, 8-4 over Tennessee. Tyler O’Neill was 2-4 with a walk – not bad for the Southern League’s player of the month in May. Edwin Diaz pitched two scoreless with 2 Ks in relief. Kyle Hunter will make a spot start for Jackson today.

Bakersfield came back to beat Stockton 2-1 with single runs in the 7th and 8th innings. Tyler Pike struck out a career high 12 in only 5 IP for the Blaze. Today, Eddie Campbell takes the mound against A’s prospect Casey Meisner, who came over from the Mets in the Tyler Clippard trade last year. Meisner was ranked as the A’s 2nd best pitching prospect after Sean Manaea, who’s now in Oakland’s rotation, by MLB before the year, but he’s had something of a rough go. A lower K rate, a spike in walks, and lots of hard contact has Meisner sitting at 0-8 with a 4.09 ERA, but a 5.68 RA/9.

Clinton lost a tough one, 4-3 to Quad Cities. The Bandits got a run in the top of the 9th to take the win. Pablo Lopez, a 2013 international signing out of Venezuela, made his second start for Clinton and picked up the win.

Game 53, Mariners at Padres

marc w · June 2, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Wade Miley vs. Colin Rea, 6:10pm

Well, last night’s game sure was something. There’s no way to sugar coat James Paxton’s results: he got hit hard, and giving up dingers in Petco prevents any attempt at crying BABIP: Paxton threw poorly located pitches and the Padres hit them hard. And yet it’s kind of hard to be too upset.

Paxton’s four seamer *averaged* 98 mph, according to MLBAM. He touched triple digits during a start in which he threw 100 pitches. His curveball’s movement was unrecognizable from the one he threw last year. Whereas his curve in September last year had essentially no horizontal movement and 2-3″ of drop compared to a ball without spin, this new pitch has actual gloveside break and drops a lot more despite having the same or even a bit more velocity. Much of the change in movement comes from a shift in his arm angle – instead of the old over-the-top Paxton, we saw a more traditional 3/4 delivery. That, of course, doesn’t explain the additional velocity, nor the increase in spin on his hook. It’s all a part of a package – a package which, at least last night, contained some wonderful, expensive gifts, but also contained a dead rat and twenty cigarette butts. Wait, what’s that? You just read this article? Sullivan, huh? Damn it.

I don’t want to get carried away and say that the good things we saw (100mph velocity, better curve) are somehow “real” while the serious command problems were the transitory byproducts of a serious mechanical change. But, like, that would be nice, wouldn’t it?

Today the M’s face Colin Rea, a right-hander with a 92-93mph four-seam and sinker with essentially average movement. His primary breaking ball is a cutter at 88mph, but he also throws a fairly firm curveball that gets good downward break. The curve and change-up get a lot of ground balls, which help keep his overall GB rates around average. Rea’s claim to fame in his brief MLB career was his start against the Mets in early May in which he went 8+ innings, giving up just 1 run, and taking a no-hitter into the 8th. That success wouldn’t last, as Rea was optioned to AAA El Paso just a few weeks after that start against New York, and he’s just been recalled to make this start. Rea isn’t an overpowering guy, as his K rates are fairly average, and he walks a bit more than you’d like from someone who doesn’t miss that many bats; his walk rate is 10% this year, and some control issues led to a series of short starts just before his demotion.

1: Aoki, CF
2: Smith, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Iannetta, C
8: Sardinas, SS
9: Miley, SP

The big news in the minors tonight is that Tim Lincecum’s making the start for Salt Lake tonight in Tacoma. Lincecum last pitched in Tacoma in 2007, in what is still probably the most electric, most jaw-dropping performance I’ve ever seen live. Tonight will likely *not* be a repeat of that; I don’t think Lincecum will sit 98 with his fastball tonight, but it’s still going to be interesting to see where he’s at. I want to pull for him, as he’s one of the most unique pitchers in recent memory AND a local success story, but…did you have to sign with the Angels?

Here’s a quick check on how the M’s affiliates have done on the year:
Tacoma: 31-21, run differential: +49
Jackson: 34-18, +42
Bakersfield: 24-28, +13
Clinton: 28-24, 0

Cumulative record: 117-91
Cumulative run differential: +104

Game 52, Mariners at Padres

marc w · June 1, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Christian Friedrich, 7:10pm

What is normally a celebration is now a day of reflection and somber determination. Our great King has been sent to the 15-dal DL, retroactive to May 28th, with a calf strain. That’s…let’s be clear, that’s a good limb for a pitcher to injure, assuming (as seems to be the case) that a pitcher must injure something. Now is not the time for histrionics and wailing. Our King would want us to soldier on. But clearly, we can’t do what we normally do, not just because Felix isn’t pitching, but because Felix was injured in the very ACT of celebrating. Celebrations themselves seem suspect right now. Time for Marshawn Lynch-style handshakes for the next few HR celebrati..er, I mean, observations.

The M’s announced Paxton was coming up last night, which made for a very uncomfortable evening of trying to tell myself that the move wasn’t about Felix, even though it was pretty obvious from the timing that the move had everything to do with him. Paxton’s been solid in AAA overall, but his line is the product of some serious peaks and valleys. He’s given up more runs than innings pitched in three of his 10 starts on the year, but in the other 7, he’s given up a TOTAL of 3 earned runs. Adding in unearned runs brings it up to 6, but that’s still less than a run per start. His K:BB ratio are better now than they’ve ever been at the level, and he’d have a brilliant FIP if it wasn’t for some HR problems: his HR/9 is a career high, setting aside a weird 12-inning stint in 2014. He’s striking out more than a batter per inning for Tacoma, a bit more than he did in his last extended AAA time in 2013, but the biggest improvement has come in his control.

One of the many things that’s always confused me about Paxton is the fact that he’s displayed even or reverse platoon splits at the big league level. Seriously, take a look: the very few lefties to face him have hit a combined .314/.403/.419, while righties hit .206/.276/.321. FIP sees through the huge BABIP issues with the lefties, but still shows him with essentially even splits. In the minors, however, Paxton’s shown sizable splits, and that’s continued this year, where lefties hit just .136 off of him, while 5 of his 6 HRs have come against righties. I’m assuming the Pads will stack their line-up with righties, so here’s hoping his BABIP devil magic against MLB right-handers continues.

Christian Friedrich is someone I’ve always kept an eye on after seeing an impressive start against Tacoma on his way to the majors in the Rockies org. Unfortunately, injuries and altitude torpedoed his career. After being waived by Colorado this spring, he signed on with the Angels – a team that could seriously use some pitching depth right now. After a physical, they decided not to take him, and he was sent back to Colorado, who then waived him. I mentioned he was pitching in the Cal League for the Padres org back in April, and, well, here he is, pitching for the big club. He’s made three starts for them thus far, and he’s coming off a real gem: 7 shutout innings giving up just 3 hits and a walk, while striking out 5 D-Backs. He had serious control problems in his first two starts, but he hasn’t paid a high price for it, in part because he hasn’t given up a dinger yet. He’s getting more grounders than he did in Colorado, which is interesting because he has a very, very similar release point and throwing motion to Paxton. Both are lefties who release their fastball about 7′ above the ground, and generate the kind of backspin you’d expect from such over-the-top deliveries. It’s interesting, then, that their *other* pitches look nothing alike. Paxton’s curve is much firmer, and thus has a bit less vertical drop than Friedrich’s. Friedrich’s cutter has strong vertical drop, especially compared to his fastball and change, while Paxton’s is more of a horizontal breaking pitch.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Lee, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Iannetta, C
8: SardiƱas, SS
9: Paxton, SP

Abbreviated MiLB news today, but wanted to point out that Patrick Kivlehan rejoined Tacoma today in time for their day game against Salt Lake. Kivlehan had 3 hits in the game, and lead off man Ketel Marte had 2 – both players doubled. Tacoma won 5-1 behind a solid start by Brad Mills.

Kivlehan was the player to be named later in the Leonys Martin/Tom Wilhelmsen trade this winter, but he struggled mightily with Round Rock, hitting .184/.252/.262. Texas then offered him back to Seattle, and so he’s back with the team he played for last year.

Game 51, Padres at Mariners

marc w · May 31, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. James Shields, 12:40pm

Well, that was more like it.

The M’s try to take the series in today’s day game against veteran righty, James Shields. You know Shields and what he throws: he’s still got a rising four seamer and a change up that’s been his signature pitch for a decade or more. In recent years, he’s developed a hard cutter at 87mph or so that he used as a change of pace, and he needs a pitch like that, given that he throws his four seam or sinker around 40% of the time *combined*. It also seems like an attempt to improve his ability to get right-handed hitters out. For years, his fastball/change game led to even or even reverse platoon splits. That’s fine, but he was only league-average or so against righties. Keep the lefty-destroying change, and get a slider-y thing to get righties out, and he’d become a star. He rode the cutter to his best performance vs. righties in his career last year, but there was a catch: now lefties torched him. He throws the cutter to lefties as well, and for whatever reason, they’ve annihilated it. His splits are back to normal (er, for him) this year, but he’s also gotten a handle on his HR rate, which spiked despite his move to Petco park last year, sinking his 2015 campaign. Maybe the M’s can remind him of those troubles today..

Another thing to look for: Shields’ velocity is down this year.

1: Aoki, CF
2: Smith, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Gutierrez, RF
8: Clevenger, C
9: SardiƱas, SS
SP: Iwakuka

So, uh, Tacoma…tied New Orleans yesterday. I am acquainted with ties; I follow soccer, this is not unknown to me. I just never thought I’d be telling y’all about a tie baseball game. 2-2. Cody Martin was solid through 3 IP, giving up both runs, and then Casey Coleman shut things down with 4 Ks in 2 IP. James Paxton takes the hill tonight in Tacoma as the R’s welcome Salt Lake to Tacoma.

Jackson was off, but Andrew Moore will make his 2nd AA start against Tennessee tonight.

Bakersfield came back from an early 6-1 deficit in their 8-7 win over Inland Empire. Drew Jackson had 3 hits and Chantz Mack homered. The Blaze have an off day today.

Clinton lost a tough one, 6-5 to Burlington on a dreaded walk-off error. Logan Taylor homered for Clinton, but it wasn’t enough. The L-Kings head home to start a series vs. Quad Cities today with Art Warren on the mound.

Game 50, Padres at Mariners

marc w · May 30, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Nate Karns vs. Andrew Cashner, 1:10pm

Let’s just forget about that last series, shall we? What better way to do that than with the adrenaline rush that only the M’s natural rivals can bring? Everything means a bit more, every inside pitch seems laden with evil intent. Ok, not so much. The Padres come into the series in last place in the NL West, with a below-average pitching staff and an even more below-average line-up.

After AJ Preller’s failed go-for-it bid in the 2014 off season, the Padres changed course, attempting to fix their cover-your-eyes-bad defense, and moving guys like Craig Kimbrel for prospects. For whatever it’s worth, these moves seem fairly solid – prospect folks like the haul they got from Boston from Kimbrel more than the guys they shipped to Atlanta FOR Kimbrel, and their defense has graded out a bit above average thus far, with Jon Jay replacing the ill-advised Wil Myers in CF experiment (Myers is now the Pads first baseman, so, y’know…) and the strangely ineffective Will Venable.

Moving on from the likes of Justin Upton and Kimbrel hasn’t really helped the 2016 team, though. Their offense has posted a .284 OBP, tied with Cincinnati for the worst in baseball, and their wOBA is dead last in the game, thanks to a line-up (and park) that’s relatively power-free. Their pitching staff’s given up the 3rd worst walk rate, and their bullpen’s been somewhat unlucky. The arms are merely a bit disappointing, as opposed to the out-and-out bad of the bats, but it still seems kind of remarkable that this club decided that they could do without Nick Vincent near the end of spring training.

Today’s starter is Andrew Cashner, the hard-throwing right-hander who’s been with San Diego since 2012, and a member of their rotation since 2013. In his early years with Chicago and San Diego, he threatened the 100mph barrier pretty regularly, and had top-10 velocity for a few years. He’s dropped back a bit, now more 94-96, and the league has caught up a bit; pitchers throw a bit harder now, so Cashner’s velocity is no longer really remarkable. He’s thrown an evolving mix of four-seamers and sinkers. In 2012-13, he was primarily a four-seam guy, mixing in a rare sinker just to give the hitter something to think about. By 2014, he’d almost flipped, throwing 2 sinkers for every four-seam fastball. This pushed his ground ball rate up over 50%, but it meant Cashner missed remarkably few bats. For someone with an above average fastball, a decent change-up and a slider, his 18% K rates were disappointing. He was better last year, getting his K rate over 20%, but perhaps due to the Padres’ defense, his sky-high BABIP made his perfectly good FIP kind of irrelevant.

Thus far in 2016, he’s shifting back towards his four-seam fastball, and he’s picked up a new pitch – a curve ball. He threw it sparingly last year, but he’s going to it more in 2016, and while it’s not an obvious plus pitch, it might help change batters’ eye level, particularly paired with high four-seamers. That’s the theory, anyway. The reality is that his K rate is down to 16%, and his walk rate’s threatening 10%, somewhere it hadn’t been since his initial cups of coffee with the Cubs 6 years ago.

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

Sooo, the M’s have a playing-at-home problem. I’ll talk about this in the next post, but this seems to be a home run issue. Do the M’s pitchers, or at least a subset of them, pitch *differently* at home than they do on the road? I think so, and that means the M’s have some decisions to make.

Tacoma’s Donn Roach had another solid start for Tacoma, but came away with a hard-luck loss in New Orleans’ 2-1 win. Former Astros/Marlins starter Jarred Cosart got the win. Chris Taylor had two hits to lead the offense. Cody Martin starts today for Tacoma.

Jackson beat Montgomery 6-2, with Ryan Yarbrough getting the better of former M’s draft pick Ryne Stanek. Leon Landry homered off of Stanek in the 6th. The Generals are off today, and start a series against the Tennessee Smokies on Tuesday, with Andrew Moore on the hill.

Bakersfield couldn’t make up for a 6 run first inning, eventually losing a 10-7 game to Inland Empire. Kyle Petty had two hits, two RBI and two walks in the game, and the 25 year old’s line is up to .337/.413/.500 on the year. Anthony Misiewicz starts for the Blaze today.

Clinton suffered a heartbreaking loss to Burlington, coming into the 9th with a 3-0 lead and giving up 4 runs, including a walk-off walk. The M’s first pick in last year’s draft, Nick Neidert, started and went 5 shutout IP with 3 Ks and just one hit allowed. Dalton Kelly homered and doubled for the L-Kings. Alex Jackson took home a golden sombrero, with an 0-4 with 4 punchouts. Nick Wells takes the mound today for Clinton.

Game 47, Twins at Mariners

marc w · May 29, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners

Taijuan Walker vs. Ricky Nolasco, 1:10pm

Sorry for the lack of a post yesterday. Contrary to rumors, I was not sulking after the near-perfect inversion of everything I wrote – I was busy, and got home too late to write one. I *was* however, thinking about the fact that Pat Dean shut down the offense, that pretty much each Twin I ID’d as underpowered launched HRs. There’s nothing really to do about it; weird things happen, and you move on. That said, I’d love to understand more about exactly what type of pitcher the M’s struggle against and why. I’d like to understand what’s going on when a no-stuff pitcher with no record of sustained success starts to, er, sustain success. I’m not saying Dean or Graveman or whoever has done so, but there comes a point when a pitcher’s historical record isn’t just irrelevant, but actively deceiving. Mets fans talk about this a lot with Jacob de Grom, whose stuff got a ton better and allowed him to cut through the minors and then majors despite a so-so low-minors track record. Mike Montgomery is doing something similar now, though these are two cases where their raw stuff improved, as opposed to some kind of mental or pure command tweak. The problem is that every pitcher who throws a BABIP-lucky quality start thinks it was superior command, mental toughness, guile, etc., and that obviously isn’t always so (it’s probably vital that they DO believe this noble lie). But somewhere hidden in the haystack of false positives is…something. Some combination of mechanics and insight into hitters’ psychology that allows a pitcher to make a leap in results without making a leap in velocity.

The tough thing is that the new statcast stats seem not to illuminate the idea of a clear, definable, measurable “true talent” obscured by variance, luck, and chance, but rather to question its existence. That’s not to say that Ricky Nolasco might actually be a really great pitcher. He’s not. But rather that luck and variance are obscuring something that is itself variable and constantly shifting. This shouldn’t really be a shock to anyone whose experienced being human, but it seems like an interesting problem. What do we mean by true talent? If it’s always shifting, how do we push it towards improvement and not regression? What is Clayton Kershaw *doing* getting better despite a much slower FB than he had years ago?

This seems like a random philosophical aside, and it kind of is. I indulge in it not only because it’s better than cursing Pat Dean’s name but because it’s a distraction from last night’s debacle. Given the circumstances, last night’s baserunning…uh…thing may have been one of the costliest and ugliest in M’s history. That it came innings after the M’s failed to score on a bases-loaded, no out situation made it hurt all the more. Many fans took the opportunity to castigate the coaches and players, and I get that, but it feels so crazy and stupid that blame is almost besides the point. It was getting shut down by Pat Dean compressed into 5 seconds. That’s insane, and there are so many people looking sheepish and stupid and uncoordinated that blaming people is both easy and feels like it misses the forest for the trees. The M’s are not cursed, the M’s are not historically awful at baserunning or competing with bad Twins teams, or anything else. But every good team will look like it sometimes (the 2001 M’s losing That Game to Cleveland, for example), and all we can do is move on.

At the risk of tempting the baseball fates, I should point out that this is another very good match-up for the M’s. We’ve talked a lot over the years about those pitchers who seem to have some sort get out of DIPS free card, some ability to consistently post lower ERAs than FIP would predict. There are a number of ways to do this, from posting consistently low BABIPs, by stranding a ton of runners, or allowing only solo HRs, etc. Given that these guys seem to exist, that implies that there must be a group of pitchers at the opposite end of the distribution – guys who seem consistently worse than their FIP. Javy Vazquez was once the posterboy for this group, a guy who missed bats, limited waks, but had a lot of trouble stranding runners. Brandon Morrow was another for a few years. For many years now, Ricky Nolasco has suffered from the most severe case of DIPS sickness I’ve ever seen. In his career, covering over 250 starts and 1500 innings, his FIP is around 3.8, which isn’t too bad, and gives him 22.2 fWAR. By RA9 WAR, or fielding dependent WAR, he’s down under 9 WAR.

Worse, while this problem used to wax and wane from season to season, it’s really settled in after he signed a 4 year, $49m contract with the Twins. With Minnesota, he’s tossed 44 starts over 2+ years with an RA9 of 5.91. His strand rate is now abysmally low despite decent strikeout totals and an average walk rate. The problem is that his BABIP is consistently sky high. In his career, it’s .315, and it’s over .350 in his Twins tenure. Nolasco isn’t throwing any slower than he did in his most recent “Good” year of 2013. He’s still a guy with a fastball at 91 and a junkballer’s mix of 5 pitches. If anything, he’s become more reliant on his slider, which he now throws near half the time against righties. That increase has come at the expense of his splitter, but it’s not like lefties are causing his troubles: his platoon splits don’t look much different now, and if anything, have improved since 2013. It’s just that righties and lefties alike keep hitting him hard. It’s tempting to point to pitch sequencing or something like that to explain it, but you’d imagine if that was true, Nolasco would shake off more pitches, or the Twins would start to question their own (or Kurt Suzuki’s own) game plan.

1: Aoki, CF
2: Smith, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Gutierrez, DH
8: Iannetta, C
9: Sardinas, SS
SP: Walker

Donn Roach starts today for Tacoma in New Orleans. Roach has clearly made some improvements, and it’s showing up not only in his runs-allowed, but his strikeout rate. In his first five starts combined, he K’d 7 hitters. He K’d 7 Iowa Cubs on May 19th, then K’d 6 in his last start. Speaking of pitchers who seem to have turned a corner, Adrian Sampson fired 7 shutout innings at the Zephyrs last night in Tacoma’s 7-3 win. Mike Zunino homered.

Jackson swept a DH from Montgomery. DJ Peterson homered again and Tyler O’Neill doubled in each game. Jackson has the best record in the Southern League at 31-18 and a 6.5 game lead in their division. They’re the biggest reason why the M’s have the 5th best organizational record in baseball. Ryan Yarbrough starts today.

Bakersfield continues to struggle with Inland Empire, losing 5-1 last night to the celler-dwelling 66′ers. Lukas Schiraldi starts for the Blaze today.

Clinton beat Burlington 11-4 behind an Alex Jackson 3R HR, and Logan Taylor added 3 hits and a HR of his own. Jackson’s average is still atrocious, but his K:BB ratio’s looking a lot better than last year. Starting to worry that the hit tool might be a long-term problem, though.

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