Archive for Mariners

Leonys Martin Stopped Being a Slap Hitter

I keep a little notebook next to my computer, so I can keep track of potential things to write about. Generally, topics break down into two categories: there are the topics that practically need to be written about, and there are the possible topics to monitor. Maybe those need bigger sample sizes; maybe those just need to become more interesting. Some of those topics turn into posts, and some of those topics never leave the piece of paper. I see that I crossed out something about Joe Ross. No idea what that was supposed to be.

For weeks, because of the notebook, I’ve been casually following Leonys Martin. I noticed in the early going that Martin didn’t look like himself: he was striking out a bunch, but he was also hitting more baseballs in the air. That seemed to me like something to follow, and wouldn’t you know it, but here we are, and Martin is still a fly-ball hitter. That’s odd because, in his entire major-league past, Martin was a ground-ball hitter. We’re more than a quarter of the way through the season, and now Leonys Martin appears to be a bat worth talking about.

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How the Mariners Became AL West Favorites

This isn’t my own subjective interpretation. When you throw around a word like “favorites,” that opens the door to opinion-based writing, but I have numbers on my side. Sweet, sweet, precious numbers. Look at the following table. You have our preseason projected win totals, and our current projected win totals, which take into account everything that’s happened.

Projected Wins, 2016 AL West
Team Wins, Before Wins, Now
Angels 81 74
Astros 88 82
Athletics 79 77
Mariners 82 86
Rangers 79 81

We liked the Astros a lot. Still do, but they’ve done themselves considerable harm. After the Astros, there was a group of four teams, all vying for second or last. The Mariners have emerged through the early going, and now they’re well out in front. Sure, that’s just us, but if it makes you feel any more trusting, PECOTA agrees. Projections still like the Astros, but the Astros are way behind the Mariners, just because of the games in the books. So the Mariners find themselves in a great divisional position. Getting to the point faster: This.

playoff-odds-al-westA lot has gone into that picture. Let’s talk.

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Taijuan Walker Has a New Weapon

When you’ve got a problem with command, your options seem obvious. You can clean up your mechanics, which is easier said then done. You can focus on throwing strike one. You can move on the rubber in order to move your heat map to a better spot. You can tinker with your fastball selection in case you have better command or outcomes with one of them. You can limit throwing a secondary pitch you don’t command that well. You can throw in the zone more and risk home runs if you miss more middle-middle.

It looks like Seattle’s Taijuan Walker is fighting poor command with a new weapon: throwing a secondary pitch in the zone more often. The best part is that, if it’s the right secondary pitch, command of that pitch is not super important. Tai’s fighting with a new approach to his curveball.

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We’ve Never Seen This Felix Hernandez

I recognize that this is a sensitive subject at a lousy time. I mean, the Mariners are winning, winning on a fairly sustained basis, and Felix Hernandez owns a lower ERA than Stephen Strasburg and Noah Syndergaard. According to our playoff odds page, the Mariners have a better than 50% chance of getting to the postseason, which for Felix would be his first-ever taste of those stakes. Mariners fans aren’t looking to be worried. Not now, not when they have circumstances to appreciate.

So I know this post might be interpreted as a bit of a bummer. It’s not meant that way; these are just observations. And no part of me presently thinks that Felix is toast. It’s just, there are things to talk about. What Felix has been doing, he’s never before done quite like this. It’s looking like he could be beginning a new chapter.

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Here Comes Taijuan Walker

You’ve read articles like this before. That’s because Taijuan Walker has been a somebody for years, and we’ve all been waiting for him to kick it up. When you know a player is already hyped, you’re predisposed to think the most of any encouraging performances. It’s a bias, is what it is, leading observers to get ahead of themselves. I think, in the past, it’s been easy to get too excited about Walker. He needed to show more. But that’s why this is a post now. He’s showing more. Taijuan Walker is showing signs that he might be almost complete.

You remember that something seemed to click for Walker toward the end of last May. Through nine starts, he had 23 walks and 39 strikeouts. Through the remaining 20 starts, he had 17 walks and 118 strikeouts. That got people excited, and rightfully so, because those are tremendous indicators of improvement. But something was missing. Something was just a little bit off — over those 20 starts, Walker ran a near-average ERA. He had the strikes, and he had the whiffs, but he didn’t have the contact management. He was tantalizing, but unfinished.

I’m not declaring that Walker now is finished. That’ll take more proof. But Walker, this year, has carried over the walks and the strikeouts. In that sense, he looks exactly the same. Yet he’s allowed just one home run. He’s giving up far less solid contact, having dramatically increased his rate of grounders. Coming in, Walker was missing one thing. It seems he could be finding it.

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What Pitchers (and Numbers) Say About Pitching in the Cold

Maybe it was the fact that she spent her formative years in Germany, while I spent most of mine in Jamaica and America’s South, but my mother and I have always disagreed about a fundamental thing when it comes to the weather. For her, she wants the sun. It doesn’t matter if it’s bitter cold and dry; if the sun’s out, she’s fine. I’d rather it was warm. Don’t care if there’s a drizzle or humidity or whatever.

It turns out, when we were disagreeing about these things, we were really talking about pitching. Mostly because life is pitching and pitching is life.

But also because the temperature, and the temperature alone, does not tell the story of pitching in the cold. It’ll make sense, just stick with it.

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Baseball’s New Approach to the Changeup

Baseball can be slow to change. We’ve had this idea for decades that certain pitch types have platoon splits, and that you should avoid them in certain situations because of it. Righties, don’t throw sliders to lefties! It’s Baseball 101.

Think of the changeup, too. “Does he have a changeup?” or some variation on the theme is the first question uttered of any prospect on the way up. It’s shorthand for “can he be a starter?” because we think of changeups as weapons against the opposite hand. A righty will need one to get lefties out and turn the lineup over, back to the other righties, who will be dispatched using breaking balls.

As with all conventional wisdom, this notion of handedness and pitch types should be rife for manipulation. Say you could use your changeup effectively against same-handed hitters, for example. You could have a fastball/changeup starter that was equally effective against both hands, despite the history of platoon splits on the pitch.

To the innovators go the spoils. And we’re starting to see some innovators.

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Robinson Cano, Back to Punishing Mistakes

Did you, like many others, come into this season wondering what to expect out of Robinson Cano? Did you believe that reports of his demise might be greatly exaggerated? Well, if three games are any indication, wonder no longer. He’s hit four home runs in 14 plate appearances! I don’t really need to dive too deep into his wRC+ (it’s 340), or many other stats at this point in the season, because they’ll simply reinforce for you that he’s been pretty impossibly good in 27 innings of baseball. The “I don’t need to hit the ball in the field of play” second baseman has a BABIP of .000. The point of this piece, then, is to tell you how and why Cano has been good, and the specific parts of his plate approach that are assuaging some of the fears people had about him last season.

Cano’s 2015 featured, at root, two halves. Every season of every player’s career features two halves, but Cano’s were relevant in that his production was starkly divided between the two of them. There was pre-July 1st Cano, he of the .105 ISO and 71 wRC+. And then there was post-July 1st Cano, he of the .209 ISO and 157 wRC+. Second-half Cano was literally 100% better than first-half Cano when compared to league average.

If you’re reading this, you probably know that everyone was trying to figure out what was wrong in that first half. Here’s Jeff mainly talking about him hitting too many ground balls. Here’s Dan going in-depth on how his hitting mechanics were a little messed-up. Here’s an interview in which Cano says a stomach parasite sapped his strength. There was obviously a lot going on, and his first-half performance was probably all of those negative forces coming together in the form of terrible baseballing.

The second half of 2015 was a complete turnaround, however. He started to hit more line drives and fly balls. He went to the opposite field at something closer to his career rates. His home run/fly ball rate and BABIP regressed toward (and surpassed) his career norms. His first half probably wasn’t as bad as it looked, but his second half was a pretty effective inversion of that. Players in their early 30s who play poorly for extended periods while on massive contracts tend to be placed under a microscope, however, so questions about Cano’s partial 2015 failures followed him into 2016.

He’s answered those questions pretty effectively in the early going. And, while we shouldn’t take anything away from what Cano’s done so far, we also need to ask some questions of how the Rangers approached him in their just-concluded opening series. Sure, we should remind ourselves that it’s just three games, but the very obvious way Texas pitched to him could act as a bit of a warning for those teams about to face him. So how did the Rangers approach him? The answer was, unequivocally, “witin the zone.” Take a look at Cano’s in-zone rate and rate of first-pitch strikes from 2013 to 2015 as compared to the series against the Rangers:

Robinson Cano Zone/F-Strike%, 2013-2016
Zone% F-Strike%
2013-2015 45.5% 58.9%
2016 71.8% 71.4%
SOURCE: FanGraphs

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Felix Hernandez’s Ominous Company

Let’s talk about the King. Felix Hernandez lost his start on opening day. In one sense, it was just the same old Mariners — Felix allowed one earned run, and literally just one hit, a fly-ball blooper into the shallow outfield. So, that makes it sound crazy, but Felix also walked five batters in six innings, and put a sixth on base by hitting him. Fewer than 60% of his pitches were strikes, which would be a bad mark for anyone, and Felix acknowledged he wasn’t working like himself. The plus side, naturally, is that he still wasn’t hittable. But he was kind of wild, and — and — his velocity was down.

It was down a full couple ticks. This follows a string of appearances in spring when Felix was below his previous velocity. That wasn’t a big deal then, but it’s a bigger deal now, with the season underway. According to PITCHf/x, Felix threw just two pitches at at least 91 miles per hour. Last year’s average fastball was 91.8. Every so often, there can be these blips — in one April start in 2013, Felix threw just one pitch north of 91 — yet this could be a developing pattern. And it’s worth taking a step back to consider just how far Felix’s velocity has fallen.

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KATOH Projects: Seattle Mariners Prospects

Previous editions: ArizonaBaltimore / Boston / Chicago AL / Chicago NL / Cincinnati  / Cleveland / Colorado / Detroit / Houston / Kansas City / Los Angeles (AL) / Los Angeles (NL)Miami / Milwaukee / Minnesota / New York (AL) / New York (NL) / Philadelphia / Pittsburgh / San Diego / San Francisco.

Yesterday, lead prospect analyst Dan Farnsworth published his excellently in-depth prospect list for the Seattle Mariners. In this companion piece, I look at that same Seattle farm system through the lens of my recently refined KATOH projection system. The Mariners have the 24th-best farm system in baseball according to KATOH.

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Evaluating the 2016 Prospects: Seattle Mariners

EVALUATING THE PROSPECTS 2016
Angels
Astros
Athletics
Blue Jays
Braves
Brewers
Cardinals
Cubs
Diamondbacks
Dodgers
Giants
Indians
Mariners
Marlins
Mets
Nationals
Orioles
Padres
Phillies
Pirates
Rangers
Rays
Red Sox
Reds
Rockies
Royals
Tigers
Twins
White Sox
Yankees

The Mariners organization won’t be confused for having one of the top farm systems in baseball, but the developments of the past year help bring some legitimate optimism for its future contributions to the big-league product. A number of low- and medium-level trades have bolstered the middle of the pack, with guys like Boog Powell and Nick Wells providing some high-floor, moderate-upside additions to a prospect pool that has seen better years.

On top of that, and maybe most excitingly, the 2015 draft class is already proving to be a kickstart for the organization. Though it’s way too early to anoint a lot of their fresh faces as sure big leaguers, it’s hard to have a better start than what they have put together so far. Drew Jackson and Braden Bishop were both known as excellent defenders, but it was their hitting performances that were the story of the post-draft months. Nick Neidert and Andrew Moore lead a list of 2015 draftees who are quality contenders for at least upper-minors success as pitchers, and both have a reasonable chance of eventually being starters for a major-league team.

The very recent success of the prospect class couldn’t come at a better time, when less recent high draft picks like Alex Jackson and Austin Wilson have seen their stocks plummet in a very short time. Jackson is particularly troubling for me: although you can still see similarities to the hitter he was before being in conversation for a first-overall pick, nearly everything has gone south for him statistically and physically. Though the player development and scouting staffs still have their work cut out for them, new management under Jerry Dipoto promises to at least add some fresh voices to the fold. If you buy into momentum, they have plenty of it heading into the 2016 season and this June’s draft.

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Nathan Karns on Studiously Overpowering Batters

Nathan Karns is currently competing with James Paxton for a spot at the back end of Seattle’s starting rotation. The 28-year-old right-hander has the potential to be more than a No. 5, however. Acquired by the Mariners from Tampa Bay in November, Karns has a big fastball, a power curveball and a much-improved changeup. In 27 games last year, he logged a 3.67 ERA and struck out 145 batters in 147 innings.

Karns has a studious approach to go with his raw stuff. That much was evident when the Texas Tech product broke down his repertoire and his pitching philosophy earlier this week.

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Karns on his approach: “I focus my pitching on the lineup I’m facing. I kind of preplan. I identify weaknesses and strengths, so that I can go in with a plan for each hitter. I’ll get their numbers. First-pitch swinging is one. Do they swing at first-pitch curveballs? I’ll keep little things like that in the back of my mind.

“The count and runners on base come into play. So does what I’m working with on a given day. For instance, if I can’t throw my curveball in the bullpen before a game, I’m not necessarily going to run away from it, but it might not be my No. 2 pitch that day. What I’m executing may cause me to adjust.

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Willie Bloomquist Was a Lot of Things

Retirement announcements are seldom surprising, because even from the outside it’s pretty simple to tell when a player has outlived his utility. Willie Bloomquist is 38, now, and after spending the offseason making up his mind, he tweeted the following last Friday:

Bloomquist is hanging them up, which means Bloomquist articles on analytical websites must also hang them up. In a way it’s amazing Bloomquist achieved such Internet fame in the first place, being a career reserve, but his name meant a little something over the years, and here, for one last time, I want to talk about what Willie Bloomquist was.

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Just How Quickly Did Ichiro Used to Get Down the Line?

As far as topic ideas go, they’re typically the product of one of three circumstances:

  1. stumbling upon a unique storyline or stat that could serve as the root of an interesting/fun article
  2. reacting to a recent transaction
  3. asking a question that leads to an unshakable curiosity

Door number one is probably the most common. Door number two is the majority of the offseason, and while those sometimes feel contrived, they’re the most necessary and topical. Door number three is almost always the most fun, both for the writer and reader.

What follows is sort of a mixture of what’s behind doors one and three. See, I was reading an article the other day written by Mike Petriello, formerly of FanGraphs and who’s now doing excellent work for MLB.com, usually using or explaining Statcast numbers. Mike wrote about which players, according to Statcast, got down the line from home to first the fastest. Billy Hamilton wasn’t the fastest, but he was third-fastest. Dee Gordon was second. Billy Burns, surprisingly, or maybe not, was number one. No matter the order, these three guys are the kind of guys you’d expect. They’re young, they’re obviously extremely fast, they steal plenty of bases, they’re all very relevant; this all passes the smell test, and why shouldn’t it?

But Mike’s leaderboard went five deep. And there was a tie for fifth place:

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 8.16.07 AM

Mike’s parenthetical bewilderment says it all. Ichiro! Ichiro is still one of the five fastest players (from home to first) in baseball at 41 years old! Let’s run through our smell test checklist from just a second ago and apply the criteria to Ichiro. Young? Ha, nope. Obviously extremely fast? Eh, debatable, at this point. Steal plenty of bases? Nope. Very relevant? Mostly when pitching.

This is when the unshakable curiosity took over. If Ichiro at 41 is one of the five fastest down the line in baseball, how fast could he have been in the early 2000s? Let’s begin with a quick Google query, our search terms being: “ichiro home to first time.”

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Cliff Lee Was Everything You Could’ve Wanted

The 2010 Mariners were a dreadful baseball team, and an unexpectedly dreadful baseball team at that. They were designed to be competitive — they should’ve been competitive — and from a fan’s perspective, I’m not sure I’ve witnessed a bigger letdown. It was a difficult season for countless different reasons, but what’s been most upsetting, both now and back at the time, is that the Mariners being terrible cost me the opportunity to watch more Cliff Lee on my favorite team. I knew he was awesome when he was first brought in, but I didn’t appreciate the extent until I got to watch him every five days.

I bring this up because Lee is in the news:

Lee hasn’t officially retired, and you never know when someone might have a change of heart. Yet it’s never been less likely that Lee will return, so I want to take this chance to offer a quick retrospective. Not everyone is deserving of the treatment, because not everyone is equally interesting, but Lee developed into the perfect pitcher. It took him some time, and he’s not going to end up in Cooperstown, but for a good six-year stretch, there was nothing else you could’ve wanted Cliff Lee to be.

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The Two Things Chris Iannetta Represents

Let’s cover some old ground, and let’s cover some new ground. Chris Iannetta is going to catch pretty often for the Mariners. The previous four years, he caught pretty often for the Angels. Last year, offensively speaking, was mostly bad. Yet last year, defensively speaking, was mostly good. I wrote in April about how there were signs Iannetta had gotten significantly better in terms of framing pitches, and though I didn’t later re-visit that, I guess I didn’t need to — John Dewan just highlighted Iannetta in a post entitled “The Most Improved Pitch Framers.” The early indications held up; between 2014 and 2015, Iannetta took a leap forward.

Iannetta now is all aboard the framing train, and there seems to be a pretty simple explanation for his improvement. In short: he didn’t realize he was doing anything wrong, and then all of a sudden he learned what to change. Inspired in part by this Tangotiger post, I think it’s worth discussing two things that Iannetta’s step forward means.

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MLB Farm Systems Ranked by Surplus WAR

You smell that? It’s baseball’s prospect-list season. The fresh top-100 lists — populated by new names as well as old ones — seem to be popping up each day. With the individual rankings coming out, some organization rankings are becoming available, as well. I have always regarded the organizational rankings as subjective — and, as a result, not 100% useful. Utilizing the methodology I introduced in my article on prospect evaluation from this year’s Hardball Times Annual, however, it’s possible to calculate a total value for every team’s farm system and remove the biases of subjectivity. In what follows, I’ve used that same process to rank all 30 of baseball’s farm systems by the surplus WAR they should generate.

I provide a detailed explanation of my methodology in the Annual article. To summarize it briefly, however, what I’ve done is to identify WAR equivalencies for the scouting grades produced by Baseball America in their annual Prospect Handbook. The grade-to-WAR conversion appears as follows.

Prospect Grade to WAR Conversion
Prospect Grade Total WAR Surplus WAR
80 25.0 18.5
75 18.0 13.0
70 11.0 9.0
65 8.5 6.0
60 4.7 3.0
55 2.5 1.5
50 1.1 0.5
45 0.4 0.0

To create the overall totals for this post, I used each team’s top-30 rankings per the most recent edition of Baseball America’ Prospect Handbook. Also accounting for those trades which have occurred since the BA rankings were locked down, I counted the number of 50 or higher-graded prospects (i.e. the sort which provide surplus value) in each system. The results follows.
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The End of the Terrible Number-Two Hitter

If you’ve recently spent time with other humans, it’s likely that you noticed that they tend to be overconfident about how well they understand the world around them. Think of all of the people you know who have tried to weasel their way out of admitting they were wrong even when presented with strong evidence that they had misinterpreted a situation. Humans are bold and unapologetic in their declarations and do not like it when you point out that they’ve made a serious error.

It’s hard to criticize people for that when it seems to be a pretty fundamental aspect of the species. It’s not good or bad, it simply is. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy little moments when someone makes a compelling argument and then the world totally destroys their hard work by changing around them.

For example, two political scientists once wrote a book called Congress’ Permanent Minority? Republicans in the U.S. House which was the first major scholarly account of how a minority party operates when it expects to be in the minority for the foreseeable future. It’s a well-researched book and was well reviewed when it came out. Unfortunately for the authors, it came out in January of 1994, just 11 months before the Republicans would win control of the House for the first time in 40 years. It was a perfectly fine analysis, it was just totally detached from the reality of American politics almost immediately.

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Dae-ho Lee Ends Up In Seattle

There’s something that should probably be acknowledged from the beginning. The Mariners have signed Dae-ho Lee to a minor-league contract. Mostly, we ignore players signed to minor-league contracts, at least before the start of spring training. The thing about Lee is that he might be a good hitter. We’ve paid very little offseason attention to, say, Chris Carter and Pedro Alvarez, who are proven above-average hitters. There’s a bias here, because Lee feels more interesting, on account of the fact that we don’t know quite what he is. Lee, in other words, is sort of a prospect, even though he’s 33 years old, and while the majority of prospects establish low ceilings, it’s fun to wonder before the establishing begins.

I don’t know if Lee is a better player than Alvarez, who is in his 20s, and who has 6 career WAR. I do know that it’s more fun to think about and write about Lee, compared to Alvarez. Maybe that’s not fair to Pedro Alvarez, but, you know what, Lee is in the news today, and this is his post, and it seems like he can do some neat things. I can’t worry all the time about fairness.

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Petco and Safeco, Three Years In

To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t think about park factors very much anymore. Obviously, they matter as much as ever, but you just encounter them less since so many advanced numbers automatically fold them in. They go somewhat unseen, but they’re important, and I was recently reminded that three years ago, Petco Park and Safeco Field debuted new dimensions. There are other factors that affect how stadiums play, like weather patterns and nearby construction, but what’s most important tends to be the shape of a given field itself. So now that we have a good amount of data, let’s see how Petco and Safeco have played more recently.

To be straight, what follows isn’t very rigorous. I didn’t make adjustments or regressions, and almost anyone would tell you that the ideal involves more than three years of information. There are ways to do this more precisely. But, three years are three years, and it shouldn’t be hard to observe any significant changes. Off we go!

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