Archive for Mariners

Justin Grimm Is Rebuilding Himself

“When I signed here,” said Justin Grimm, leaning forward over the back of one of the teal folding chairs that dot the home clubhouse at Safeco Field, eyes intent and slightly wide, “I just came in with the attitude like, you know what, I don’t know shit. I’m going to learn everything I can about myself and what works for me, and I’m going to start over from square one.”

It’s been a year of beginnings for Grimm, who was released by the Cubs — his club for the past five seasons — on March 15th, signed with the Royals three days later, put up a 13.50 ERA in 16 disastrous appearances for Kansas City, and was released for the second time in less than four months on July 7th. To cap it all off, Grimm and his wife Gina — an All-American gymnast at UGA, where the two met — welcomed a baby boy, their first, on May 25th.

“When I was released [by the Royals], I was on the disabled list,” Grimm said, “and the Mariners came in and were like, ‘Hey, come rehab in Seattle, we want to sign you.’ I saw it as an opportunity to go out and get better. I knew I was better than the numbers I was putting up. I knew they could help me get back to where I was.”

The early returns are promising. In five appearances for the Mariners, Grimm has allowed just a single run in 4.2 innings. His velocity is up, his walks are down, and his confidence is starting to recover. The difference, as is typical in these situations, has been a combination of a fresh mental approach to the game and some very specific mechanical and pitch-mix adjustments, made courtesy of the Mariners’ coaching staff.

Brian DeLunas, Seattle’s bullpen coach, had noticed that Grimm’s fastball had a tendency to “spray” left and right up in the zone, which meant that, on nights when his other key pitch — the curveball — wasn’t playing either, hitters were able to sit fastball, accepting walks when the heater wasn’t touching the zone and crushing it when it was. Grimm needed a third pitch.

“So,” said “DeLunas, “we went out and looked at video, and did some work on the numbers, and had him throw some different stuff and figure out what was going to work for him, and found out that he actually threw a really good slider. It was something that he felt with his hand speed and his effort this year, he could get it into the zone consistently. That kind of opened up a little bit more for him, where he uses the slider to get into good counts and puts guys away with the curveball.”

Thus, after nearly eliminating the pitch from his repertoire in 2016 — the data indicate he threw just two all year — Grimm’s slider was back. Just over one in every five pitches Grimm has thrown for the Mariners has been a slider, and batters are missing nearly half the ones at which they swing. If you’re looking for a single reason Grimm’s been able to generate so many more swings and misses during his time with Seattle than he was in Kansas City, look to the slider.

But also look to how he’s throwing it. The reason Grimm dropped the pitch in the first place, three years ago, was that he felt his max-effort delivery didn’t allow him enough control over the pitch. This season, sage at 30 years old, he’s found a delivery that works the same for his entire repertoire and gives him more options when he falls behind in counts.

DeLunas’s laid-back, highly physical coaching style — even talking to me, restricted by the low ceiling and close walls of Safeco’s dugout tunnels, he backed me up and demonstrated each element of Grimm’s new delivery himself, exacting step by exacting step — was, apparently, just what Grimm needed to cut through the clutter of his up-and-down season and previous biases — and to make a change.

“Growing up,” says Grimm, “you always hear ‘Don’t get so rotational, don’t be rotational.’ And all that means is just you’re firing your front side too soon. If you don’t do that, though, it’s okay to get rotational. That’s a big change I’ve made. It’s something that you see Charlie Morton do — and Bauer, how he opens up his front side, and gets that really big chest. For years, that approach sounded so negative to me, because I took it the wrong way. But it’s all about the timing.”

Consider, for example, this slider that Grimm threw for the Cubs in August 2015:

And compare it to this slider Grimm threw this past Tuesday for the Mariners:

The difference is, to my eye, stark. Grimm’s body, whipping out of control in the first video, is subdued but no less powerful in the second. “Really,” says Grimm, “it’s just about keeping that front side closed, and getting the timing of when it fires right. I feel like now I have a good feel of that, and there’s a couple cue points that I can go to.” The tools were always there, in other words, it’s just that now they’re used in a different way and to a different effect. That’s growing older. That’s getting better.

“When I was younger,” continued Grimm, “the message was always ‘Your stuff’s really good, so just go let it play.’ And instead of understanding what that actually meant, I would just hear it as it as, ‘Oh, your stuff’s good, you’re going to be fine.’ And so you get your pat on the butt and you go on your way. But I got so tired of hearing that. Like, okay, if I’m going to be fine, why am I blowing up every eighth outing? Back in Chicago, and Kansas City, I was losing a lot of sleep over the fact that it was happening, versus going to work to figure out why it happened.”

I think we underrate, as a baseball-writing community — or, at least, I do personally — the degree to which big leaguers are adjusting their game all the time to changing bodies, changing circumstances, and changing opposition. We know that baseball is all about adjustments, of course, but still tend to get an image in our heads of who a guy is, then have a hard time re-calibrating our expectations of his capacity in the face of something new. And most big leaguers’ anodyne interview answers, in which they blandly confess to nothing much at all, reinforce an image that hides much more change than it reveals.

But change still happens, all the time, sometimes subtly and sometimes rather more dramatically, game by game and pitch by pitch. Grimm’s change, this second half of the season in Seattle, has been notable. He has taken from himself the best parts of what he was and added the best of what he can be now. He has become, seven years into his big-league career, a different kind of pitcher. He has become, at the same time, a father. He has grown up in the game and grown with it.

“This year,” he said, “has obviously had a lot of change. I had a newborn, and adjusting to that has been a lot, plus I had some setbacks this year with injuries and other stuff. But, you know, life goes on. I’m just happy to be healthy now and think that over this past couple months,  I’ve found more of myself and who I am. That’s all you’re really looking for.”


Edwin Diaz, Blake Treinen, and the Greatest Reliever Seasons Ever

Reliever performance is volatile, fluky even from year to year. One season, a closer is dominant; the next, he’s just average. Over the past 40 years, there have been 59 relief seasons of at least 3.0 WAR. Only Rob Dibble, Eric Gagne, Rich Gossage, Tom Henke, Kenley Jansen, and Craig Kimbrel have produced seasons of that standard consecutively. By comparison, 10 starting pitchers have exceeded 7.0 WAR in consecutive seasons (67 seasons total), and 10 position players have exceeded 8.0 WAR in consecutive seasons (83 seasons total). Those 59 relief seasons were compiled by 41 different relievers, and three of those seasons are happening right now.

Josh Hader’s second half hasn’t been as good as his first after a forgettable All-Star Game, but with a 1.83 FIP and a 2.08 ERA, Hader is right at 3.0 WAR. In a lot of seasons, a solid finish to the year would make Hader the highest-rated reliever by WAR. This year, however, Hader is solidly in third place behind Edwin Diaz and Blake Treinen.

A year ago, Diaz posted a 4.02 FIP and a 3.27 ERA. That’s not bad, but it’s also not great. Diaz struck out 32% of batters faced, which is quite strong, but he also walked 12% of batters and gave up 10 homers. This season, Diaz is using his slider a bit more to get swings outside of the zone. The results have been staggering: he’s increased his strikeouts by about 50% while decreasing his walks and homers by 50% as well. With a few weeks to go, Diaz has piled up 3.7 WAR thanks to a 1.38 FIP — or 34 FIP- when factoring in league and park, which allows us to compare across eras. Only four relievers have ever put up a FIP- that low: Wade Davis, Gagne, Jansen, and Kimbrel (twice). The increased specialization of the closer role means that those four players all come from the past 20 years. Although Diaz’s 1.95 ERA and 48 ERA- are very good, they are not the best marks in the game. That honor goes to Treinen.

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Daily Prospect Notes Finale: Arizona Fall League Roster Edition

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

Note from Eric: Hey you, this is the last one of these for the year, as the minor-league regular season comes to a close. Thanks for reading. I’ll be taking some time off next week, charging the batteries for the offseason duties that lie ahead for Kiley and me.

D.J. Peters, CF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Level: Double-A   Age: 22   Org Rank: 7   FV: 45+
Line: 4-for-7, 2 HR, 2B (double header)

Notes
A comparison of DJ Peters’ 2017 season in the Cal League and his 2018 season at Double-A gives us a good idea of what happens to on-paper production when a hitter is facing better pitching and defenses in a more stable offensive environment.

D.J. Peters’ Production
Year AVG OBP SLG K% BB% BABIP wRC+
2017 .276 .372 .514 32.2% 10.9% .385 137
2018 .228 .314 .451 34.0% 8.1% .305 107

Reports of Peters’ physical abilities haven’t changed, nor is his batted-ball profile different in such a way that one would expect a downtick in production. The 2018 line is, I think, a more accurate distillation of Peters’ abilities. He belongs in a talent bucket with swing-and-miss outfielders like Franchy Cordero, Randal Grichuk, Michael A. Taylor, Bradley Zimmer, etc. These are slugging center fielders whose contact skills aren’t particularly great. Players like this are historically volatile from one season to the next but dominant if/when things click. They’re often ~1.5 WAR players who have some years in the three-win range. Sometimes they also turn into George Springer.

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Strength of Schedule and the Pennant Races

No team plays a completely balanced scheduled over the course of a season. Some divisions, naturally, are better than others. Because intradivisional games account for roughly 40% of the league schedule, there is necessarily some irregularity in the strength of competition from club to club. Interleague play, which represents another 10% of games, also contributes to this imbalance. Given the sheer numbers of games in a major-league campaign, the effect of scheduling ultimately isn’t a major difference-maker. Talent and luck have much more influence over a club’s win-loss record. In any given month, however, scheduling imbalances can become much more pronounced.

Consider this: at the beginning of the season, just one team featured a projected gain or loss as large as three wins due to scheduling. The Texas Rangers were expected to lose three more games than their talent would otherwise dictate. Right now, however, there are eight teams with bigger prorated schedule swings than the one the Rangers saw at the beginning of the season — and those swings could have a big impact on the remaining pennant races.

To provide some backdrop, the chart below ranks the league’s schedules, toughest to easiest, compared to an even .500 schedule.

The Diamondbacks have a pretty rough go of it. Outside of five games against the Padres, the other “worst” team they play is the San Francisco Giants. They have one series each against the division-leading Astros, Braves, and Cubs along with a pair of series against both the Dodgers and Rockies. If Arizona were chasing these teams for the division or Wild Card, their schedule would present them with a good opportunity for making up ground. Given their current status, however, it just means a lot of tough games down the stretch.

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The Mariners Still Look Like an All-Time Anomaly

The Mariners lost two of three to the Dodgers over the weekend. It wouldn’t be fair to say the series was an accurate representation of the Mariners’ season, but it works as a convenient caricature. On Friday, the Mariners lost to the Dodgers by ten. On Sunday, the Mariners lost to the Dodgers by eleven. On Saturday, the Mariners beat the Dodgers, by one, in the tenth inning, on a walk-off balk. The Mariners avoided a sweep, and, indeed, the Mariners actually still have a better record than the Dodgers do. Over the three games, though, the Mariners were outscored by a margin of 27-7. Sunday was the Mariners’ worst loss of the year.

It’s hardly new information that the Mariners’ winning percentage and their run differential don’t exactly match up. This has been true for a matter of months, and it partly helps to explain why the AL West is as close as it is. But before we all just collectively get used to something, we should take a step back so we can reexamine precisely what’s been going on. Although the Mariners have slipped out of playoff position, they’re still within striking distance of both the A’s and the Astros. The Mariners are 3.5 back in the wild-card hunt, despite a run differential of -42. The Rays are 7.5 back of the Mariners, with a run differential of +10. The Angels are 8.5 back of the Mariners, with a run differential of +39. The Twins are 11 back of the Mariners, with a run differential of -22. Every year, there are run differential overperformers and underperformers. Yet this is far more extreme than is typical.

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Exile for King Félix?

The outcome seems unthinkable, but the trendlines are undeniable and the conclusion unavoidable: Félix Hernández, for so long the ace of the Mariners, is doing more to hinder the team’s bid for a playoff spot — and thus end the longest drought in North American professional sports — than to help it. As the Mariners try to claw their way back into the second AL Wild Card spot, his place in the rotation is in jeopardy. The 32-year-old righty fondly known as “King Félix” may not be dead, but his exile from a job at which he’s excelled for so long may be imminent.

On Tuesday night against the Rangers in Arlington, a hellish place for a hurler even when the first-pitch temperature isn’t 98 degrees, Hernández was torched for a career-high 11 runs. Granted, just seven of those were earned, due to a pair of errors when hot smashes deflected off the normally reliable glove of Kyle Seager, but by the time those happened, the reality was already clear: the Hernández who had breezed through the first two innings on just 23 pitches, retiring all six hitters and making his pal Adrián Beltré look silly on an 0-2 curve, had left the building:

Alas, there was little joy in what transpired after that. After getting ahead of Robinson Chirinos 1-2 to start the third, Hernández’s command deserted him. He threw three straight balls for a leadoff walk, then surrendered hits to four of the next five batters, plating four runs (two on Rougned Odor’s double) before Beltré grounded into a double play. A one-out walk to Joey Gallo in the fourth, followed by Seager’s first error, set up the Rangers’ fifth run, via a Willie Calhoun sacrifice fly. A two-out, one-on error by Seager in the fifth was soon followed by a three-run homer off the bat of Jurickson Profar to run the score to 8-4.

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The American League’s Only Playoff Race

While the AL East race appears to have tilted decisively towards the Red Sox over the past five weeks, an even more dramatic turnaround has taken place in the AL wild card race over an even longer timeline, one involving the Mariners and A’s. This one has yet to be decided, which is good news, because it’s practically the last race standing in the Junior Circuit.

Through June 15, the Mariners were running neck-and-neck with the Astros despite a massive disparity in the two teams’ run differentials, a situation that — as I had illustrated a few days earlier — owed a whole lot to their records in one-run games (22-10 for Seattle, 6-12 for Houston). The A’s, though solidly competitive to that point, were something of an afterthought, far overshadowed by the Mike Trout/Shohei Ohtani show in Anaheim:

American League West Standings Through June 15
Team W-L W-L% GB RS RA Dif PythW-L%
Astros 46-25 .648 366 220 146 .717
Mariners 45-25 .643 0.5 311 284 27 .541
Angels 38-32 .543 7.5 319 286 33 .550
A’s 34-36 .486 11.5 304 313 -9 .487
Rangers 27-44 .380 19 297 379 -82 .390
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

On June 16, despite placing Matt Chapman on the disabled list with a contusion on his right thumb, the A’s, who had lost to the Angels 8-4 the night before, kicked off a five-game winning streak, taking the two remaining games of the series that weekend, then two from the Padres at Petco Park and the first game of a four-game set against the White Sox in Chicago. Though they merely split a four-gamer on the South Side, they swept four from the Tigers in Detroit, sparking a six-game winning streak that also included two victories at home against the Indians. Remarkably, they’ve strung together two separate six-game winning streaks since then, as well, one against the Giants (a pair of walk-of wins) at home and the Rangers in Arlington from July 21 to 26 and then another from July 30 through August 5 at home against the Blue Jays and Tigers. Alas, that one ended on Tuesday night against the Dodgers.

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Players’ View: Learning and Developing a Pitch, Part 20

Pitchers learn and develop different pitches, and they do so at varying stages of their lives. It might be a curveball in high school, a cutter in college, or a changeup in A-ball. Sometimes the addition or refinement is a natural progression — graduating from Pitching 101 to advanced course work — and often it’s a matter of necessity. In order to get hitters out as the quality of competition improves, a pitcher needs to optimize his repertoire.

In the twentieth installment of this series, we’ll hear from three pitchers — Zach Duke, Kyle Gibson, and Trevor Hildenberger — on how they learned and/or developed a specific pitch.

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Zach Duke (Mariners) on His Two-Seamer

“I didn’t start throwing a two-seam fastball until I got to Triple-A. My pitching coach there was a guy named Darold Knowles, an old-time lefty who could manipulate a baseball as well as anyone I’ve met. He said, ‘You know, Zach, have you ever thought about throwing a two-seamer?’ I said, ‘Well yeah; I throw one.’ He goes, ‘No, a real two-seamer.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’

“He told me to move my thumb up a little bit on the ball, and put a little pressure sideways. He said, ‘Throw it. You’ll see.’ Sure enough, I throw it and the bottom drops out of the ball. All of sudden I had a true sinker. I thought to myself, ‘How did I get this far without knowing something like that?’ Read the rest of this entry »


How the Mariners’ Request for Public Funding Is Different

Back in May, the Mariners agreed to a lease deal that would keep them in Safeco Field for another 25 years. At the time, I wrote that the Mariners appeared to be bucking a trend by foregoing public money for a new stadium in favor of staying where they were.

Then, last week, things seemed to change.

Predictably, this was not well received.

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How New Mariner Zach Duke Reinvented Himself

Five years ago, Zach Duke found himself in a sobering situation. The then-30-year-old left-hander had exercised an August 1 opt-out clause — he’d been pitching well for Cincinnati’s Triple-A affiliate — and his next opportunity was seemingly right around the corner. With 200 big-league appearances under his belt, it was only a matter of time until his phone rang and he was fielding offers.

Instead, all he heard was crickets.

“I was on the verge,” Duke admitted this past weekend. “When you make yourself available to every team and none of them want you, that’s a pretty good indicator that the end might be near. To be honest, I thought that might be it.”

After reinventing himself, though, he’s not only still pitching, he’s a wanted man. Earlier today, the Seattle Mariners acquired Duke from the Minnesota Twins in exchange for Chase De Jong and Ryan Costello. His appeal to the pennant contenders is apparent in the numbers. In 45 relief appearances covering 37.1 innings, Duke has a 3.62 ERA, a 58.5% ground-ball rate, and has yet to give up a gopher.

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Mariners Acquire Adam Warren for Role He Deserves

As reported by the indefatigable Ken Rosenthal and Emily Waldon of The Athletic, the Seattle Mariners acquired relief pitcher Adam Warren on Monday afternoon from the New York Yankees in return for bonus slot money.

Is it possible for a bullpen to be too good? Obviously, at some level, that’s a silly question: no lead is 100% safe and, consequently, a team should never stop surveying what it has. But there’s also the question of utility. Any given club is bound to play only so many high-leverage innings. While you’d rather have a good reliever in the game than a poor one, the stuff you can get in return for that good reliever may simply be more useful to your franchise. Warren has been used mainly in low-leverage scenarios this season. Consider: of the eight Yankee pitchers primarily used in relief this season who have thrown at least 20 innings, Warren’s entered the game in the second-least crucial situations overall, ahead of only A.J. Cole, who has more swingman-type utility than Warren.

Chasen Shreve has already been traded by the Yankees for similar reasons, Zach Britton’s arrival in the Bronx only making the competition for those high-pressure situations more fierce. Tommy Kahnle is still standing by if the team loses a reliever and there’s still depth remaining, including J.P. Feyereisen, who continues to refine his control, and Raynel Espinal.

Game-Entrance Leverage Index for Yankee Relievers, 2018
Name gmLI ERA FIP
Aroldis Chapman 1.65 1.93 1.71
Chad Green 1.49 2.74 3.29
David Robertson 1.44 3.61 2.87
Dellin Betances 1.21 2.44 2.35
Jonathan Holder 0.98 2.11 2.55
Chasen Shreve 0.85 4.26 4.98
Adam Warren 0.68 2.70 3.30
A.J. Cole 0.64 0.83 2.01
Min. 20 IP.

Just to illustrate how Warren’s skill are wasted by using him in the low-leverage innings available, just compare his performances to other relievers with 20 innings pitched and a game-entrance LI with 0.1 of Warren.

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Mariners Turn Future Bullpen Piece into Present Bullpen Piece

The Mariners and Cardinals swapped relievers today, the latter sending RHP Sam Tuivailala to Seattle for prospect Seth Elledge. The deal gives Seattle a marginal bullpen upgrade in Tuivailala (probably over Casey Lawrence) for a stretch run that’s going to require them to continue winning close games. Every slightly better bullpen option is more meaningful in this situation than it is when looking at reliever value from a broader point of view. The deal is also a good fit for St. Louis, who acquires a comparable talent whose service-time calendar better aligns with their competitive schedule. Tuivailala is arbitration-eligible starting in 2020, when Elledge will probably be in his first or second year of big-league service.

Tuivailala is a fine middle reliever. He sits 93-96, will occasionally touch 99, and has two very average secondary offerings in an upper-80s cutter/slider and an upper-70s curveball. The Mariners have had success drafting low-ceiling, high-probability college relievers in the middle rounds of the last several drafts and quickly flipping them for mature big-league pieces on the margins. Elledge was the second pitcher Seattle traded from their 2017 draft class (JP Sears was sent to the Yankees for Nick Rumbelow last fall), which means Seattle’s 2017 draft has technically yielded the most subustantial big-league return in all of baseball right now.

Seth Elledge is a big-bodied, crossfire reliever with a mid-90s fastball and plus breaking ball. He was a 2017 fourth-round pick out of Dallas Baptist, a college that parades hard-throwing relievers into pro ball annually. He has a 54:14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 38.1 innings. He might eventually be better than Tuivailala because the breaking ball is better. It’s reasonable to project a 2020 debut for Elledge, though has a non-zero chance to debut next year.


The 2018 Replacement-Level Killers: Center Field and Designated Hitter

Bradley Zimmer’s injury has created a vacuum in center field for Cleveland.
(Photo: Erik Drost)

They can’t all be Mike Trout, and this year, with the Millville Meteor posting a career-best 191 wRC+, the rest of the center-field pack has been as unproductive as any time in recent history. The collective 95 wRC+ recorded by all center fielders (including Trout) is the lowest it’s been since 2006, back when Trout was a high-school freshman.

Even with that fairly modest production, only a small handful of contenders — which for this series I’ve defined as teams with playoff odds of at least 15.0% (a definition that currently covers 15 teams) — are receiving less than 1.0 WAR from their center fielders, which makes them eligible for a spot among the Replacement-Level Killers.

By the way, since I don’t have anywhere else to put it — this is the last article in the series, since the RLK concept doesn’t work so neatly for pitchers and just one AL team has a DH who could be classified a Killer. Sorry if that was awkward; continue as you were…

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On Liking Jean Segura

There are few things that can make us feel more anxious than when we realize that people we consider our friends don’t enjoy the same things we do. Music, comedy specials, how much to go outside. There’s a little daring in liking things, especially when we like them deeply. By professing that we like something, we invite someone else to say that they don’t like that something, and then suddenly, there is one less thing that knits us to that someone.

Not liking the same little somethings is fine; I like eggplant and I have friends who don’t and it has never mattered, not even one time. But it can be hard to suss out in advance which little things, when pulled open, will lead to the bigger somethings that do matter. And so sharing the things we like can make us feel nervous. Perhaps you, the eggplant disliker, don’t care for its texture. That’s fine; eggplant has divisive mouthfeel. But maybe you don’t like it because you prefer the meaty taste of the human persons you have folded up in your basement freezer. That’s considerably less good! I went in liking eggplant and came out knowing you’re a murderer. Friendship can be dicey in this way, but I guess we have to risk it.

So here’s what I like. I like watching Jean Segura play baseball.

I liked this single, on a ball just above the zone.

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The Mariners Are Trying to Be the Clutchiest Team on Record

The Rays lost a one-run decision in Miami Monday night, and it didn’t matter. I’m sure it mattered to the Marlins, and I’m sure it mattered to the Rays, but it didn’t really matter in the standings. Not as far as the playoff race is concerned. In the hunt for the AL’s second wild card, the Rays are in fourth place, but they’re separated from the first-place Mariners by 11.5 games. The Angels are 11 games back, and the A’s are the nearest competition, at eight behind. Nothing is actually yet set in stone, but it feels like we know the AL’s five playoff teams before we even reach the Fourth of July.

In some other universe, not much is different, except for everything. In this other universe, teams have win-loss records that match their run differentials. If you arrange by Pythagorean records, the Mariners still hold the second wild card, but they’re only one up on the Angels. They’re two up on the A’s, and they’re two and a half up on the Rays.

And then there’s the universe where everything goes according to BaseRuns. The inputs are the same as they are here, but the outputs simply make more sense. If you arrange by BaseRuns records, the Rays take over the lead for the second wild card. They’re a half-game up on the Mariners, and then there’s a little more room before the A’s and the Angels. According to the only standings that matter to us, the Rays are out of it. Basically everyone behind the Mariners is out of it. According to what you’d expect would have happened, there would be a tight race. In those other universes, there’s stress. There’s a far greater degree of uncertainty.

Not so. The Mariners have found a separator. They’ve pulled well away from all of their wild-card competition, and they’ve done so by being the clutchiest bunch of clutches that ever clutched.

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Players’ View: Learning and Developing a Pitch, Part 14

Pitchers learn and develop different pitches, and they do so at varying stages of their lives. It might be a curveball in high school, a cutter in college, or a changeup in A-ball. Sometimes the addition or refinement is a natural progression — graduating from Pitching 101 to advanced course work — and often it’s a matter of necessity. In order to get hitters out as the quality of competition improves, a pitcher needs to optimize his repertoire.

In the fourteenth installment of this series, we’ll hear from three pitchers — Yoshihisa Hirano, Joe Musgrove, and James Paxton — on how they learned and/or developed a specific pitch.

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Yoshihisa Hirano (Diamondbacks) on His Splitter

“I started throwing it when I turned pro in Japan. The truth is, when I was in college, I was able to get hitters out without having a splitty. A fastball and a slider was enough. When I got to the pros, there was a lot of talk of needing a pitch that comes down and about how there’s more success with that pitch. I started toying with it a little bit my last year of college, and when I got to the pros I started using it.

Kazuhiro Sasaki was a big splitty-forkball thrower. There are some books about him, and I studied those. No one really taught me anything. I just went out and started playing with it, checking the books on how he grips it. I found a grip that was comfortable for me. There are some guys who throw it the same way, but there are other pitchers in Japan who grip it differently, too. They have a different placement within the seams.

Hirano’s splitter-forkball.

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Why Wade LeBlanc Might Make Sense

The Mariners currently possess nearly a 70% chance of making the postseason, are six games clear of the Shohei Ohtani-less Angels, and are firmly in control of the American League’s second Wild Card.

Back at the beginning of the season, this looked unlikely. Back at the beginning of the season, the Mariners had less than a 10% chance of making the postseason by our methodology. In the meantime, the club has not only lost Robinson Cano to injury but also to PED suspension. Their one-time ace, Felix Hernandez, is nearly a replacement-level player. The club is leaning heavily on Wade LeBlanc.

The absence of Cano and the decline of Felix both count as serious hurdles to the club’s postseason’s hopes. It’s looking less and less, however, like Wade LeBlanc is a liability. It’s looking more and more, rather, like he’s someone who can continue helping this team.

Just to give some context on what Wade LeBlanc is, here are some figures of note. LeBlanc made his major-league debut with the Friars in 2008, and was worth -0.6 WAR in 21 innings with more walks than strikeouts. The next year, he posted a FIP of nearly 5.00 in 46 innings and walked nearly four per nine. The year after that, he started 25 games for the Padres, threw 146 innings, and had a 4.80 FIP. Before this year, LeBlanc’s best season was — depending on what metric you chose — either 2012, where he was worth a half-win across 68 innings as a swingman (despite a FIP once again over 4.00), or 2011, where he accrued 0.8 WAR despite a 132 ERA- and 107 FIP-.

I could keep going, but you get the idea. LeBlanc, now 33, has spent the last few years as an up-and-down depth arm bouncing across the majors and Triple-A, passing through Miami, Anaheim, Pittsburgh, Houston, and Toronto, among others, before landing with Seattle.

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It’s Time to Talk About the AL Playoff Picture

It might seem a bit premature, but I think it’s time to talk about the American League playoff picture. Even though we’re only in the middle of June, the field might already be rounding into its final form, so we ought to at least entertain the conversation. During the preseason, we thought we had this all figured out; the preseason is when we feel our most clever. And for the most part, things in this sortable table don’t look terribly different than we expected them to before Opening Day.

American League Playoff Odds
Team Preseason
Odds
Current
Odds
Win Div Win WC SOS Pyth.
Record
BaseRuns
Record
Astros 98.8% 100% 98.1% 1.9% 0.491 -5 -2
Indians 96.6% 95.9% 95.4% 0.5% 0.477 -1 -1
Yankees 89.7% 100% 74.8% 25.2% 0.489 +3 +1
Red Sox 84.2% 99.5% 25.2% 74.3% 0.509 +1 +2
Blue Jays 37.1% 2.7% 0.0% 2.7% 0.506 0 +2
Twins 28.7% 7.0% 4.4% 2.6% 0.484 -2 0
Angels 27.1% 14.0% 0.1% 13.9% 0.510 -1 0
Mariners 9.4% 74.9% 1.8% 73.0% 0.516 +8 +7
Athletics 9.2% 5.6% 0.0% 5.5% 0.508 +1 +1
Rangers 7.7% 0.1% 0.0% 0.1% 0.504 +1 +2
Orioles 4.9% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.523 -4 -3
Rays 4.9% 0.2% 0.0% 0.2% 0.515 -1 -5
Royals 0.9% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.501 0 -2
Tigers 0.7% 0.2% 0.1% 0.1% 0.506 +2 +1
White Sox 0.1% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.505 -2 -6

The Astros, Yankees, and Red Sox are the class of the league, with all three teams projected to win at least 100 games and the first two of those each projected to win 103. The Indians are worse than we thought they would be, but the presence of the Royals, White Sox, Tigers, and even the Twins means their pursuit of another division championship likely won’t be imperiled.

We expected the Indians to win, and it looks like they will. We expected the Yankees and Red Sox to kick the snot out of each other on their way to sterling records, and for one of them to end up a quite overqualified Wild Card teams, and that looks overwhelmingly likely, too. And despite their currently narrow two-game lead on the Mariners, we expected that the Astros would run away with the West. That still looks probable, as well. It all still mostly looks probable. We (or at least the projections) were pretty clever.

Except for one thing, that is — namely, that the Mariners are currently in sole possession of the second Wild Card and that the Mariners are 7.5 games up on the Angels.

This isn’t a post about the Mariners, per se, but it is useful to think about how they got to this point. As Jay Jaffe wrote, they’ve been both ridiculously successful in one-run games (currently 23-10) and ridiculously clutch in high-leverage situations. (Their current 7.17 Clutch Score still leads the AL.) Their bullpen is quite good (fourth in the AL). Mitch Haniger has taken a big step forward, Marco Gonzales a more modest one. James Paxton has a FIP in the twos. Jean Segura would deserve to be an All-Star if shortstop weren’t such a crowded position.

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The Mariners’ Bullpen Stayed Good

A little more than two months ago, I noted that the Mariners’ bullpen had been — through that point in the season — among the most improved in the game, relative to preseason expectations. Before the 2018 season began, we projected Seattle relievers to strike out 9.1 batters per nine innings and walk 3.5.

A couple weeks into the season, they weren’t doing that. They were performing much better than that, actually. At the time I wrote that first article, Mariners relievers had struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings and walked just 1.5, both of which were tremendously good numbers and perhaps merited further investigation at the time. But it was still early, so I kept the article general and cautioned that we shouldn’t necessarily expect the men in teal to keep up their early-season performance too much longer.

Well, we’re now more than a third of the way through the major-league schedule, and the Seattle bullpen has stayed improved. In fact, the Seattle bullpen has been among the top three or four in the game, no matter which way you slice it, but this piece is about improvement against expectations. Here’s an updated version of a chart I included in my original article, which plots each teams’ actual relief K/9 and BB/9 (adjusted so that positive figures are good in both cases), through games played on Friday, against our preseason expectations of the same:

Observant readers will note that there is another happy story to tell here about the Astros’ pen — featuring Héctor Rondón and Chris Devenski — and a sad one about the Orioles, featuring almost every Oriole. But, again, this article is about the Mariners, whose improvement relative to projections in both K/9 and BB/9 has been outstanding — and key to the club’s outrageous performance in one-run games, which was detailed here by my colleague Jay Jaffe. Maybe it’s finally time to dive a little bit deeper into what they’ve been doing and why it’s been successful.

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The AL West and One-Run Success

Sunday’s Mariners-Rays game in Tampa Bay ended in memorable fashion, with Seattle right fielder Mitch Haniger failing to make a sliding catch on Carlos Gomez’s bloop, mishandling the ball while attempting to pick it up, but recovering in time to throw home, where Johnny Field, who had been running on contact from first base, was out by a country mile. Catcher Mike Zunino could have paused to make an omelette between receiving the ball and applying the tag:

The play preserved the Mariners’ 5-4 lead and gave them not just their 41st victory of the season but their 21st in games decided by one run. With the Astros also winning, 8-7 over the Rangers, Seattle and Houston remained tied atop the AL West. If you haven’t been paying attention lately, the Mariners — while missing the suspended Robinson Cano and overcoming a 5.70 ERA/4.77 FIP from Felix Hernandez — have spent every day since June 2 with at least a share of the division lead. They’ve done this despite the fact that the Astros have by far the better run differential — the majors’ best, actually:

AL West Leaders
Team W-L WPct Run Dif 1-Run W-L WPct Other W-L WPct
Mariners 41-24 .631 20 21-9 .700 20-15 .571
Astros 42-25 .627 127 6-12 .333 36-13 .735

Now there’s something you just don’t see every day: two teams whose run differentials differ by more than 100 but are basically even in the standings. Those one-run games are the reason. The Astros, who would be on a 109-win pace if they had merely gone .500 in such games to this point, actually won a pair of ’em on Saturday and Sunday, but when it comes to such those contests, they’re still tied for the majors’ fourth-lowest winning percentage and fourth-lowest win total in one-run games. The Mariners, on the other hand, have five more one-run wins than any other team and eight more than any other AL team, though they’re merely third in winning percentage:

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