Archive for Mariners

Conversion Arms Flash Big Velocity In AZL

Perhaps my favorite players to stumble upon betwixt my scouting escapades are the “Conversion Guys”, players who are undergoing a positional change because shortcomings in their skill set force them to find a new path to the Majors if they hope to achieve that dream at all. Most often this occurs when a position player with superlative arm strength struggles to hit so mightily that his employer abandons all hope in his ability ever to learn how and moves him to the mound.

These conversions happen at various stages of development and have any number of useful results. Jacob deGrom moved off of shortstop between his sophomore and junior year of college and is a budding rotational mainstay. Kenley Jansen spent four years catching as a pro before moving to the mound in 2009 and exploding to the majors as a reliever. Tony Pena Jr. moved to the mound at 28 and became a minor league depth arm who ate innings at upper levels for a few years and made Veteran Minor Leaguer Money for a little while longer than he would have if he would’ve been a stubborn, punchless shortstop.

Plenty of these developmental journeys begin in the Rookie-level Arizona League (AZL), where I was lucky enough to observe a handful of them this summer.

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Felix Hernandez and Situational Pitching

We’ve got a lot of weeks ahead of debating Felix Hernandez vs. Corey Kluber, as the Cy Young race seems like it ought to be a dead heat. Several different elements come into play, and to be perfectly honest it’s basically impossible to separate the two from one another, but something that’ll get talked about is Felix’s ERA advantage. While Kluber has outstanding peripherals, people also care about actual runs, and Kluber’s allowed a dozen more runs than Felix has. Some of this is probably because of defense. Some of this is probably because of ballpark environment. But you also have to consider this:

Felix Hernandez 2014 splits

Bases empty: .259 wOBA allowed
Runner(s) on: .215
Scoring position: .208

In run-scoring opportunities, Felix this year has stepped up his game. With the bases empty, that wOBA allowed ranks tied for 22nd. With runners on, that wOBA allowed ranks first, and by a whole 17 points. As you could guess, this sort of thing needs to be regressed, and it won’t surprise you to learn that Felix’s BABIP is also lower in run-scoring situations. But this goes beyond just a BABIP thing. Felix probably deserves some credit for this, because that doesn’t all seem like a fluke.

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Will the AL Cy Young Voting Reflect That the Race is Dead Even?

The winner of the 2014 American League Cy Young Award is going to be either Felix Hernandez or Corey Kluber. Yes, indeed, there are other worthwhile candidates, and yes, you can argue whether Chris Sale should be penalized that heavily for his injury early on, but it’s a virtual lock that this is coming down to one of the two guys. So let’s just accept that assumption, and move forward. Which of the pitchers is going to win? And just how big will the winning margin be?

When we talk about awards, I don’t think we really care about the awards. I think it’s about the fun of trying to solve a problem, and about seeing how other people try to solve the same problem. It’s basically mental exercise, and in many cases there’s no obviously clear deserving winner and you can get as detailed as you like. For example, let’s take Felix vs. Kluber. You know one way to get really detailed? What’s Felix’s benefit of having pitched to Mike Zunino, against Kluber’s benefit of having pitched to Yan Gomes? That’s a question worth asking. This is really the fun of it every year, but for purposes of this post, let’s not try to figure out our own preferred winner. Rather, let’s consider the actual voters’ processes. What will the results tell us about how the BBWAA feels about splits?

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Mike Zunino’s Keeping Unusual Company

It’s a sign of the times that, when you think about Mike Zunino, you might well first think of his defense. He’s proven himself to be a tremendous receiver of pitches, and when you fold in the rest of his defensive skillset, Zunino has a lot of value, even independent of his bat. There’s evidence to suggest that Zunino is one of the people behind Felix Hernandez‘s Cy Young-caliber campaign, and Zunino’s been trusted as a staff leader in his first full year in the bigs. Behind the plate, and off the field, Zunino scores high marks. At the plate, he’s also been interesting, but in more of a peculiar way.

It’s easy enough to look at the normal numbers. An 84 wRC+? He’s young, and, good thing he plays a premium defensive position. A .199 average, a .254 OBP, and a .404 slugging? This provides more insight on the sort of hitter Zunino is — he’s the picture of an over-aggressive power hitter, and you can see why his offensive profile has drawn comparisons to J.P. Arencibia. We’re familiar with this kind of hitter, and most teams probably have at least one or two of this kind of hitter. But it’s in the more minute details that Zunino’s season really stands out.

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Is Dustin Ackley Fixed?

They encountered one another on a major-league field for the first time this past weekend — the first two picks of the 2009 draft, the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg and the Mariners’ Dustin Ackley. The two names are forever linked in Mariner lore, as it was their ill-timed winning streak at the end of the 2008 season that landed both players in their eventual homes. Strasburg made the Mariners look silly on Saturday night, but Ackley got in a solid counterpunch, drilling a late homer that cost the Nationals’ righty his shutout, ending his night a bit earlier than expected. Truth be told, the Mariners’ return on their first-round selection has looked better of late, as Ackley’s second-half surge has helped keep his club firmly entrenched in the wild-card race. Which is the real Dustin Ackley? The one that struggled for the better part of the last three seasons, or the guy who has shown up for the last month and a half? Read the rest of this entry »


Hisashi Iwakuma and an Unexpected Record

Somewhere along the line in their development, pitchers are instructed to try to control the running game. At younger ages, pitchers are more able to stop runners than catchers are, since the catchers aren’t very good and the runners aren’t very good. At upper levels, catchers tend to get most of the credit, and indeed catchers bear a lot of responsibility, but for the most part it’s still pitchers on whom the fate of a running game depends the most. Controlling the running game is one of the ways in which Mark Buehrle excels. It’s one of the ways in which Johnny Cueto excels. For Tim Lincecum, it’s a weakness. Nothing’s more critical for pitchers than pitching, but how you manage baserunners can grant an extra advantage or disadvantage, depending. Every little run’s important, if any run is important.

It’s a weird thing, trying to control runners on base. You don’t want to allow steals, but you do want to allow steal attempts, so that you might be able to get baserunners erased. Better for a pitcher to have one stolen base and one caught steal on his record than zero of both, because the value of a caught steal is considerably higher than the value of a successful steal. If you’re too good at controlling runners, you won’t really throw runners out. Now take a glance at this year’s leaderboard. Leading the majors in caught steals is Madison Bumgarner, with nine. Just six steals against him have been successful. Three pitchers are tied at eight caught steals. Against Drew Smyly, runners are 14-for-22. Against Max Scherzer, they’re 11-for-19. Against Hisashi Iwakuma, they’re 0-for-8.

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Felix Hernandez and the AL MVP

A week ago, I wrote an InstaGraphs post noting that the current favorites for MVP in both leagues were playing in the Los Angeles market. The point of the post was to highlight Clayton Kershaw‘s candidacy, but in running through the other candidates for AL MVP, I wrote this:

Robinson Cano only has eight home runs and will probably split any votes he might get with Felix Hernandez, who would be a serious threat to Trout if the BBWAA gave pitchers the same credit as hitters in the voting. They don’t, though, so Felix probably finishes outside of the top five.

Since that post was published, Robinson Cano has hit .381/.536/.810, good for a 253 wRC+, including a couple more home runs. And Felix Hernandez has thrown 15 innings, allowed just seven hits, given up two runs, walked one, and struck out 16. In retrospect, I undersold the MVP case for both of Seattle’s stars, and particularly, the growing case for Felix as the top candidate.

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Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez and Appreciating Greatness

How do you measure a truly great starting pitching season? Having an ERA that starts with a “1″ generally qualifies, but there’s some obvious issues with that. First, that’s happened 82 times in the last 100 seasons, making it notable but perhaps not unthinkable. Second, obviously, are the flaws inherent to ERA, most importantly that it’s not adjusted for ballpark or league. Pedro Martinez (2000), Sandy Koufax (1964) and Carl Mays (1917) all had an ERA of 1.74. Clearly, none of them were facing the same kind of offenses.

You could, if you wanted, go by WAR. Steve Carlton‘s 1972 and Martinez’ 1999 make sense atop the list, but convincing people that Bert Blyleven‘s 1973 was the third-best season ever or that Bob Gibson‘s legendary 1968 was merely his third-best season seem like tougher sells. Besides, since that’s a counting stat rather than a rate stat, it means no modern-day pitcher will ever be able to come close, because it seems pretty safe to say that we aren’t seeing a starting pitcher top 320 innings again, as both Carlton and Blyleven did.

FIP? That’s better, though still imperfect. Martinez, again, and 1984 Dwight Gooden top the leaderboards there, followed by a pair of guys essentially playing a different sport, Walter Johnson and Pete Alexander in 1915. (In 1915-16, Johnson pitched 706.1 innings; he allowed one home run. It was, as were 24 of the 97 total dingers he allowed, an inside-the-park job.) FIP also assumes some league-average inputs, and if we want “best-ever” perhaps we don’t want to assume any kind of average; like WAR, you’d also have a tough time winning a bar argument with something that you need to explain formulas for.

Enough setup, then. To the point, now. Clearly, there’s many different ways to do this, and no obvious, unassailable answer. You could make an argument for probably a dozen different years as the “best” starting pitching season of all time. What I’m doing, today, is to break it down into the most important things a pitcher can do that are more or less entirely within his control:

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The Mariners Are or Aren’t Wasting Historic Run Prevention

Arguably the best team in baseball history wasn’t built around superstars. It was built instead around depth and consistency, and as the 2001 Mariners won 116 games during the regular season, they posted an 82 ERA- that was, therefore, 18% better than league-average. While the pitching staff wasn’t particularly noteworthy, it was healthy and solid and bolstered by an all-time-great defense, which made for an outstanding level of run prevention. The 2014 Mariners aren’t anywhere near a 116-win pace — that would be almost impossible, and in fact these Mariners have already lost eight more games than those other Mariners. But to date, these Mariners have posted an ERA- of 79.

Following the trade deadline, much of the talk concerns the rotations built in Detroit and Oakland. Both were strong before adding, respectively, David Price and Jon Lester, and those are the teams considered to have the most intimidating pitching staffs down the stretch. But it’s the Mariners who’ve had better run prevention than anybody else, by a decent margin, and two things are remarkable: it’s remarkable that that’s true, and it’s remarkable that the Mariners still aren’t presently in a playoff position.

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In Austin Jackson, Mariners Land Decent Player and Massive Upgrade

In one of the smaller moves of the day, the Mariners dealt Abraham Almonte and another minor leaguer to the Padres for Chris Denorfia. It wasn’t a trade that caught much attention, because neither of the younger guys is of any real consequence, and Denorfia is a rental having a down season. It was just something that flew by, completely under the radar, and now something you should consider is that Almonte began the season as the Mariners’ starter in center field.

So it could be said that, later on Thursday, the Mariners addressed a need that was ever so desperate. They didn’t end up with David Price, but they did get themselves involved in the deal, adding Austin Jackson and subtracting Nick Franklin. Jackson has only another eight months of team control, and it would appear he might’ve peaked in 2012. But while Jackson hasn’t been playing like a star-level player, for the Mariners he ought to be an upgrade of some very real significance.

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Stars and Scrubs and the Trade Deadline

While this is definitely a gross simplification, there are essentially two competing schools of thought on how to construct a roster: emphasize talent at the top of the roster — the Stars and Scrubs approach, as it is often called — or spread the wealth around to limit glaring weaknesses. To be sure, either approach can work, as the reality is that the total production level is more important than the distribution of that production within the roster, but there are certainly differing camps who prefer one strategy or the other.

The argument in favor of the Stars and Scrubs approach has a lot of overlap with the argument for the non-linear valuation of WAR. As the argument goes, one +6 WAR player is worth more than two +3 WAR players, because it is easier to upgrade on a +0 WAR player than a +3 WAR player, so if you start out with +6 and +0, you can upgrade the +0 guy to a +1 or +2 WAR player and come out with a higher overall level of production.

I think the theory has a few problems, however.

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Mariners Replace* Rusty Corey Hart with Rusty Kendrys Morales

* Update: kind of. Though Morales will surely take opportunities from Hart, they may coexist on the active roster. It’s complicated, but it shouldn’t change too much about the analysis.

There was never any question that the Mariners liked Kendrys Morales. They traded for him in the first place, and he hit. They offered him a three-year contract. They kept in touch with him during the offseason. If the Mariners had had their druthers, they would’ve locked Morales up to return as the team’s DH. But Morales, see, didn’t really want to go back to Seattle:

“He knew it was going to be tough to look for another offer, or another job, but in his heart he just didn’t really want to come back here and be in the same spot … he was taking his chances to see if something was better.”

When a player is a free agent, he gets to decide where he ends up. When a player belongs to a team, however, he can’t control where he gets traded, barring a full or partial no-trade clause. The Mariners couldn’t sign Morales, so he waited and waited and signed with the Twins. The Twins fell quickly out of the race, and now they’ve traded Morales to the Mariners, for Stephen Pryor and salary relief. The Mariners got Morales the only way they knew how to, and now he’ll serve as the rusty DH, in replacement of a rusty DH.

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Prospect Watch: Trade Deadline Stars

Each weekday during the minor-league season, FanGraphs is providing a status update on multiple rookie-eligible players. Note that Age denotes the relevant prospect’s baseball age (i.e. as of July 1st of the current year); Top-15, the prospect’s place on Marc Hulet’s preseason organizational list; and Top-100, that same prospect’s rank on Hulet’s overall top-100 list.

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Joc Pederson, CF, Los Angeles Dodgers (Profile)
Level: Triple-A Age: 22.3   Top-15: 2nd   Top-100: 58th
Line:  381 PA,  28.1 K%, 18.1 BB%, .324/.449/.576 (wRC+ 169) Read the rest of this entry »


FG On Fox: Nine Things to Know about the Best Changeup in Baseball

If the baseball season ended today, an awful lot of people would be awfully confused, and the Seattle Mariners would qualify for the playoffs. There’s no bigger reason for the Mariners’ success than Felix Hernandez, and there’s no bigger reason for Felix Hernandez’s success than his changeup. Felix featured his change as the American League’s starting pitcher in Tuesday’s All-Star Game, and here’s that pitch putting away Yasiel Puig:

FelixPuig

Here’s that pitch putting away Troy Tulowitzki:

FelixTulo

Good hitters, both of those. Good pitches, both of those. By this point Felix is a household name, and it’s no secret that he offers a dominant changeup, or cambio. He’s been throwing the pitch for years, for almost exactly as long as he’s been a Cy Young contender.

But sometimes it isn’t enough to just know something. With Felix pitching as well as he ever has, it seems like a good time to get more familiar with the best pitch he throws, that’s also one of the best pitches in the league. Let’s review some facts about the Felix Hernandez changeup.

Read the rest at Just A Bit Outside.


The All Star Game’s Fast Fastballs and Slow Curves

As a starting pitcher, you get to the All Star Game by dominating with a full array of pitches. You’re built to go deep into games and see lineups multiple times. You scout the opposing hitters and it’s all a lot of work. Then you get to the All Star Game, you break from your routine, you have to come in for a short stint, and you can air it out.

It’s a situation ripe for fastballs.

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Whom The All-Stars Are Looking Forward to Seeing

Because of  interleague play, many of this season’s All-Stars have already seen who’s on the other side. But there’s a unique opportunity to see the best of the other league on one field in Minnesota. So I asked some All-Stars if they were looking forward to a particular matchup today.

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Mike Zunino, First-Pitch Killer

An easy way to think about productivity is Efficiency x Frequency. If you’re really efficient at doing something, but you don’t do it very often, you won’t be very productive. Look at the career of Carlos Quentin. When he’s played, he’s always hit, but rarely is he healthy enough to play, so he hasn’t actually produced much. By the same measure, being frequently inefficient won’t get you very far, either. True production comes from maximizing your opportunities while remaining efficient.

A few weeks back, Jeff Sullivan wrote about Carlos Gomez and his unprecedented first-pitch swing rate. Gomez is swinging at the first pitch in over half of his plate appearances. That’s one of the highest rates in recent history. Not only that, but he’s doing some pretty serious damage on those pitches, to the tune of a 1.046 OPS.

Where there’s a leaderboard, there’s someone in second place. In this case, that guy’s first-pitch swing rate is still quite a bit lower than Gomez’s because, as we’ve covered, Gomez is in relatively uncharted territory. But still, there exists a guy who has the second-highest first-pitch swing rate in baseball. There has to. And that guy happens to be doing even more damage on those pitches than Gomez. That guy happens to be doing more damage on first pitches than just about anybody, really. That guy happens to be Mike Zunino.
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What Did We See in Taijuan Walker’s Return?

Taijuan Walker is back. It’s an unusual thing to say of a guy who was barely here in the first place, but Walker finally made his big-league 2014 debut Monday night, turning in six decent frames against the Astros. The hope is he’ll stabilize a back of the rotation left in the unstable hands of Brandon Maurer and Erasmo Ramirez. More than anything, the Seattle Mariners are just happy to have Walker seemingly past his shoulder issue. If all goes well, Walker will be starting the rest of the way, and though he’s short on major-league experience, it’s interesting to note some adjustments he flashed. Walker started for the Mariners three times in 2013; his 2014 start doesn’t fit the same patterns.

Much more will be learned, of course, over the following weeks. One start against one opponent can’t be easily compared to other starts against other opponents, and so Walker will take some time to even out. But Monday, Walker showed some differences in his pitch mix. He showed a difference in his setup. And he showed a difference in his delivery. What looks like it’s changed, for one of baseball’s very best young pitching prospects? Let’s get into a little bit of detail.

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Kyle Seager and Breaking the Safeco Field Curse

Ever since it opened in July 1999, Seattle’s Safeco Field has had a reputation as a pitcher’s park, and for good reason. (“Everyone thinks of subpar offense in Seattle because the Mariners have given nearly 1,500 plate appearances to Willie Bloomquist over more than a decade, right?” That’s not the right answer, but it certainly is an answer.) Since the park’s first full season in 2000, the Mariners have consistently hit for more power on the road, ranking ahead of only the Padres in terms of percentage of overall ISO and SLG they’ve compiled at home:
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Prospect Watch: Early Appalachian Standouts

Each weekday during the minor-league season, FanGraphs is providing a status update on multiple rookie-eligible players. Note that Age denotes the relevant prospect’s baseball age (i.e. as of July 1st of the current year); Top-15, the prospect’s place on Marc Hulet’s preseason organizational list; and Top-100, that same prospect’s rank on Hulet’s overall top-100 list.

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Reymin Guduan, LHP, Houston Astros (Profile)
Level: Rookie-Advanced   Age: 22  Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 7 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 6/4 K/BB, 1.29 ERA, 3.97 FIP

Summary
Can you feel the heat?

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