Archive for Mariners

Should Kevin Gausman and James Paxton Throw More High Fastballs?

Understand that I’m not a pitching coach. I’ve never played one on TV, and if I were asked to serve as one for an actual team, I’d be wildly out of my element. Pitching is complicated, and pitchers in the major leagues are impossibly good, and pitchers in the major leagues also have reasons for doing what they do however they do it. I don’t know if what follows is good advice for Kevin Gausman and James Paxton, or garbage. It’s just, there’s at least enough here that we can have a conversation.

Thursday, I wrote about the Rays and collecting and encouraging high fastballs. I’m interested in this high-fastball thing — it’s an intuitively sensible way to attack hitters who are increasingly prepared to hit down low. The Rays have talked about this idea. The Astros have talked about this idea. Brandon McCarthy has talked about this idea, during an interview for the Hardball Times Annual. It’s a trend, seemingly, to counter a different trend. But it’s worth noting, not just any fastball should be thrown high. You need to have some command, and you need to be able to generate the right kind of spin. You want to have a fastball — a four-seamer — with a high PITCHf/x vertical-movement reading. That’s not the way pitchers themselves think about it, but that’s how we can understand it.

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2015 ZiPS Projections – Seattle Mariners

After having typically appeared in the very hallowed pages of Baseball Think Factory, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections have been released at FanGraphs the past couple years. The exercise continues this offseason. Below are the projections for the Seattle Mariners. Szymborski can be found at ESPN and on Twitter at @DSzymborski.

Other Projections: Arizona / Atlanta / Boston / Chicago AL / Chicago NL / Cleveland / Colorado / Detroit / Houston / Los Angeles AL / Los Angeles NL / Miami / Milwaukee / Minnesota / New York NL / Oakland / San Diego / San Francisco / St. Louis / Tampa Bay / Washington

In the first year of his 10-year and $240 million contract with the M’s, Robinson Cano served as a one-man illustration of park effects, recording almost precisely the same batting-average and on-base figures as the previous season with the Yankees, but producing only half the home runs. (We’ll ignore for the moment that he actually hit more homers at Safeco than on the road, as that would disturb the narrative.) The result was a park-adjusted offensive line roughly approximating 2013’s. ZiPS calls for another five-win season in 2015 despite a home-run total somewhere below 20.

On the topic of park effects, offseason acquisition Nelson Cruz moves from a home field that inflates right-handed homers by roughly 8% to one that suppresses them by about 6%. That move plus age plus mere regression conspire to produce a forecast of 29 home runs for Cruz in 2015 after last season’s total of 40.

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The International Bonus Pools Don’t Matter

International baseball has been in the news often lately with the ongoing saga of Yoan Moncada (he’s in America now), the signing of Yasmany Tomas and yesterday’s news that Cuba-U.S. relations could be getting much better.  In recent news, at the yearly international scouting directors’ meeting at the Winter Meetings last week, sources tell me there was no talk about the recent controversial rule change and no talk about an international draft, as expected.

So much has been happening lately that you may have temporarily forgotten about last summer, when the Yankees obliterated the international amateur spending record (and recently added another prospect). If the early rumors and innuendo are any indication, the rest of baseball isn’t going to let the Yankees have the last word.

I already mentioned the Cubs as one of multiple teams expected to spend well past their bonus pool starting on July 2nd, 2015.  I had heard rumors of other clubs planning to get in the act when I wrote that, but the group keeps growing with each call I make, so I decided to survey the industry and see where we stand.  After surveying about a dozen international sources, here are the dozen clubs that scouts either are sure, pretty sure or at least very suspicious will be spending past their bonus pool, ranked in order of likelihood:

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Mariners Get Depth, Blue Jays Get Better

There’s a current story, that Ken Rosenthal has reported and written about. Bryce Harper and the Nationals are butting heads, trying to figure out the specifics of Harper’s arbitration eligibility. At stake are several millions of dollars, now and down the road, and it seems like a situation that could cause there to be bitterness between the player and the team. But, probably, the business side will be separated from the baseball side, and they’ll go on to get along fine. People thought there might be an issue with Mike Trout, too, when the Angels renewed his contract that one time near the league minimum. It seemed like the wrong thing to do to a superstar, and then later on Trout signed maybe the most team-friendly contract extension ever. Sometimes there are feelings, and often those feelings pass.

And then, sometimes, they don’t. At the end of the year, Mariners officials made some pointed remarks about Michael Saunders‘ preparedness and durability. They were unusually specific, and they hadn’t bothered to talk to Saunders first, and so Saunders’ side shot back. There was a rift, and while there was a chance things could be patched over, it seemed likely that the Mariners would send Saunders away so he could try to thrive somewhere else. Jerry Crasnick had reported that Saunders was being shopped at the GM meetings, and, at last, Saunders has been traded, from a team that didn’t value him to a team that could badly use him.

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How Valuable a Trade Piece is Taijuan Walker?

It’s beyond evident the Seattle Mariners are trying to win in 2015. That’s the only reason you’d commit $58 million to a guy like Nelson Cruz, and even after that acquisition, the Mariners continue to look to add another bat. If they find one, it’s probably going to be an outfielder, and as the Mariners explore the trade market, some names keep popping up. Names of people to be traded for, but also names of people to be traded away. It seems unlikely the Mariners will elect to move James Paxton. Yet there’s also Taijuan Walker, whose inclusion in a trade could open a lot of doors. Walker might be best described as not unavailable, so it’s worth thinking about how much value he might possess at the moment.

There’s obviously a lot to like. Walker’s young, and a year ago, he was ranked by Baseball America as the No. 11 prospect in the game. As a starter in the bigs in 2014, over limited time, Walker showed his usual great velocity, averaging a fastball almost as fast as Stephen Strasburg‘s. Walker was sidelined by a shoulder issue, but he recovered and resumed pitching, so that seems like a thing of the past. Those who evaluate young players by their ceilings see in Walker a potential future ace. That’s also not a great way to evaluate young players.

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Mariners Reward Nelson Cruz’s Overconfidence

The winner’s curse can often be used to describe the free-agent market. Generally speaking, a free agent will sign with the team that offers the most, and the team that offers the most will generally be the team that most overrates the given free agent. After Pablo Sandoval signed with the Red Sox, I found myself wondering whether the winner’s curse would apply, since according to reports, the Giants and Padres more or less made the same offer. Sandoval didn’t necessarily go to the high bidder. Nelson Cruz? Nelson Cruz went to the high bidder.

That high bidder being the Seattle Mariners, who are giving Cruz four years and $57 million. The Orioles wanted Cruz back, but they weren’t willing to match the Mariners’ aggressiveness. The Orioles didn’t want to go from three to four years, and the Orioles are reportedly interested in giving four years to Nick Markakis. It’s the Mariners who most highly valued Cruz, making for a pretty significant immediate overpay. It’s never really fun to analyze contract terms, but that’s the natural starting point, as Cruz has landed the contract he’s wanted for more than a year.

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Let’s Find a New Team for Yoenis Cespedes

The Boston Red Sox, as you might have heard, currently have an outfield glut. There is ten pounds of outfield meat in their five pound bag. Something has to give, and that something is likely Yoenis Cespedes.

When the Sox acquired Cespedes from Oakland in the Jon Lester trade, it felt more like a rental than a long-term investment in the player. Cespedes’ unique contract allows him to become a free agent at the end of the 2015 season, so Boston put themselves in an enviable position. They received an established big leaguer in exchange for their walk-year ace and got an up-close and personal look at a potential big free agent bat.

Whether or not a look under Cespedes’ hood informed their decision to sign both Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, that’s the route they went down. Now Cespedes is trade bait, the precious “right-handed power” commodity in a marketplace clambering for those skills. He’s headed into his age-29 season, he’s owed $10.5 million this year, and there’s going to be a line around the block to bid for his services. Where might he land?

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Mariners Pay Kyle Seager Like The Player He Is

Heading into the 2009 draft, Baseball America wrote the following about Kyle Seager‘s future while rating him as the 97th best prospect in the draft.

A three-year starter for North Carolina, Seager is an area scout favorite, not to mention a player opposing coaches respect immensely. National evaluators have a harder time pegging him because he doesn’t fit a neat profile. His best tool is his bat. He has a smooth, balanced swing and makes consistent contact with gap power. He ranked third in the nation in 2008 with 30 doubles and was on a similar pace in 2009. He has a patient approach but doesn’t project to hit for much home run power because of his modest bat speed and flat swing plane. While he’s a fringy runner, he’s a fine baserunner.

Seager played second base for his first two seasons and moved to third this year, where he has played good defense. Featuring an average arm and impressive agility, he’s an average defender at third, if not a tick above. Scouts who like him see a Bill Mueller type who doesn’t fit the profile but grinds out at-bats and outs in the field. His detractors see him as a safe pick with low upside and a future reserve or utility player.

Major League teams agreed with the assessment, and Seager went 82nd overall, sandwiched between Trevor Holder and Jerry Sullivan. He was a classic low upside guy, taken because he looked like he could provide some value with minimal risk, but no one expected Seager to turn into a star.

After three seasons (and some change) in the big leagues, though, it’s probably time to throw that profile out the window. In 2,200 big league plate appearances, Seager has now launched 70 home runs, or an average of 19 longballs per 600 plate appearances. For comparison, Pablo Sandoval has averaged 20 home runs per 600 plate appearances through his career, and has been the focus of a pretty significant bidding war for his services. The market recognizes Sandoval as a significant offensive force, and is paying him as such; given that, we probably have to recognize Seager as a legitimate asset at the plate as well.

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The AL Cy Young Can’t Go Wrong, or Right

Though we won’t know the winner of the 2014 American League Cy Young Award until later Wednesday, we’ve already been given some clues. The BBWAA has told us the three finalists are Felix Hernandez, Corey Kluber, and Chris Sale. Based on the association’s own precedent, Sale isn’t going to win because he didn’t throw enough innings, so this is coming down to Felix vs. Kluber, as we’ve been assuming for months. The feeling is that Felix is going to win, and ESPN agrees with that pretty strongly, but Kluber’s case only got stronger as the season wore on, so it’s hard to imagine a bad choice. Which, from another perspective, means it’s hard to imagine a good choice.

There were two Cy Young winners in 2013. There were two Cy Young winners in 2012! There were two Cy Young winners in 2011, and in 2010, and in 2009, and in 2008, and in…you get it. There have been two Cy Young winners every year since 1970. In 1969, there were three, as AL voting was split between Mike Cuellar and Denny McLain. That’s our one existing case of there being co-Cy Youngs, meaning I think it’s safe to presume Wednesday will reveal a single winner. That’s too bad when you’ve got a pair of guys who are equally worthy.

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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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