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Date: Sunday, 21 Sep 2014 17:19

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Collin McHugh, 11:10am
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 37.4% Baseballprospectus.com: 42.2%

It’s weird – with the A’s and Royals losing, yesterday’s blowout lost was nowhere near as costly as it could’ve been. On the other hand, the M’s had everything to play for – a chance to tie for the FIRST wildcard – and got blown out by a bad team. This is the perfect test of where a person lies on the optimism-pessimism spectrum.

Yesterday, I mentioned that it took a while for people to warm up to the concept that Dallas Keuchel was actually good. Not “a useful 5th starter” or “solid depth” if he got his HR problem under control, but actually good. That same process played out this season with his teammate, Collin McHugh. McHugh entered the season with a career record of 0-8 and an ERA of about 9. He was a righty with a fairly generic arsenal – a four- and two-seam fastball around 91, a slider, a change and a curve. The curve was actually a decent pitch, but he couldn’t get to it because his fastball was just freakishly hittable. Everything was a small sample of course, but lefties in particular couldn’t help but hit him hard. Coming into 2014, he’d only faced about 100 lefties in total, but their wOBA against him was nearly .500. They had 34 hits and six walks in just 94 plate appearances with a remarkable 17 extra base hits.

When the Astros called him up to make what we all assumed was a spot start in Seattle in April, I’d never heard of him and assumed he’d be sent back down to AAA immediately after the game. He’d been knocked around in AAA, after all, and again, 0-8, 8.94 ERA. Instead, McHugh pitched a gem, with 12 Ks and no walks in 6 2/3 shutout innings. Suddenly, the guy without an out pitch, the guy who couldn’t get lefties out, was an effective big league starter. As I’ve talked about a few times, the Astros made a few adjustments to his delivery and arsenal, getting him to concentrate on his four-seam, slider and curve, and changing where in the zone he throws them. The change in usage wasn’t all that big – he’d always thrown more four-seamers than sinkers. He moved over on the rubber a bit compared to 2013, but it’s quite close to where he was in 2012. His breaking balls have less vertical break than they did, but that’s just because he’s throwing everything a bit faster in 2014. If there’s a change here, it’s in where he’s putting them. He’s been able to keep his fastball away from lefties, and keep his curve down. He’ll sneak called strikes with his slider, which…I mean, it takes guts for a guy who’d been torched by lefties to throw sliders middle-middle to them, but whatever the cause, McHugh’s been excellent against everyone this year. In 143 innings, he’s at 3.3fWAR, with a FIP barely over 3, and an ERA under that.

I wondered if he was getting by on novelty, and about a month after coming up, McHugh had a rough patch – including a loss to the M’s. But looking at his splits, he’s only gotten better in the 2nd half. He’s not getting as many K’s (and that first-half number was likely inflated by that one spectacular 12K game against the M’s), but he’s stopped walking anyone, and he’s limiting HRs as well. This new and improved version may not be his true-talent level going forward (the 8+ K:BB ratio is peak-period Cliff Lee), but the body of work is remarkable. I have no idea how the Astros turned a career minor-leaguer, and a guy who’d been cut by two separate orgs last year into a great pitcher. I really hope the M’s know.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morales, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Saunders, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: Iwakuma

The BP podcast with Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller had a guest for episode 538 – ex BP guy turned political forecaster Nate Silver. Interesting listen.

The Royals/Tigers match-up features Jeremy Guthrie facing off against Rick Porcello. The A’s host Philadelphia, where Scott Kazmir will try and get a win for Oakland against AJ Burnett and the Phillies.

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Game 155, Mariners at Astros

Author: "marc w" Tags: "Mariners"
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Date: Saturday, 20 Sep 2014 22:51

Chris Young vs. Dallas Keuchel, 4:10pm
Wildcard Odds- Fangraphs.com: 41.7% Baseballprospectus.com: 48.3%

I swear it was just a few days ago that the M’s wildcard odds dipped under 20%. With each game’s impact so large, and with the AL Central leaders facing each other, we’re going to have to get used to these massive swings in playoff odds. This is pretty cool.

As strange as it is to see a seven-foot righty soft-tosser succeeding by allowing a blizzard of fly balls, it’s taken the AL a while to get used to the idea that Dallas Keuchel‘s actually quite a good pitcher. Lloyd McClendon memorably dismissed Keuchel as “average” and putting the blame on his hitters after Keuchel stymied the M’s in Seattle in early May. But at that point, Keuchel was one of the AL Leaders in FIP/fWAR, thanks to a career low walk rate and an insane GB%. Keuchel throws 88-89, and came into 2014 with an ERA well over 5 over parts of two seasons, so it’s not like McClendon was really going out on a limb, but the fact that the story got so much attention shows just how sharp Keuchel’s first few months were. Instead of a great GB% of 53-55%, he was in the 60s. This helped him address his biggest weakness – the long ball. In his 239 career innings before 2014, he’d given up 34 HRs, easily over 1 per 9IP. This year, in 192 IP, he’s given up just 11, or about 0.5 / 9IP.

While his walk rate’s also better, it’s that HR rate that’s driving his vastly-improved FIP. Sure, it’s hard to give up HRs when no one’s able to hit a fly ball at all, let alone a deep one, but HR/FB rates are variable, and just as his career HR/FB looked extremely unlucky, is it possible he’s just gotten lucky in 2014? Anything’s possible, but his HR/FB looks a lot more like “normal” than “freakish” – for that, you just have to look at Chris Young’s numbers. But it’s not just that he’s giving up fewer flies, he’s changed his approach. He dropped his lousy curve for a slider, and for whatever reason, that pitch has been effective against right-handed hitters; a lefty sinker/slider guy sounds like someone who righties should dominate, but they haven’t managed it this season. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t have platoon splits – he does. They’re pretty sizable, really, because he’s not able to miss very many right-handed bats. That’s fine if you can get 62% grounders against them, as Keuchel can. Lefties have had almost no chance against him, as they combine an even higher GB% with a K:BB ratio of 5, so the M’s are going to get as many RHBs as they can in the line-up. I know I’ve said it a million times, but the M’s have struggled this year against extreme GB guys like Keuchel – they’ve got a .604 OPS against them, and are slugging about .300. Some teams, most notably the A’s, have tried to counteract sinkerballers by stocking up on fly-ball hitters. The Angels just have Mike Trout, a guy with preternatural ability to drive low and low-and-in pitches. The M’s don’t really have that, but if it’s any consolation, they’re in a better position to get to Keuchel now than before their deadline deals. Now if only they could get Austin Jackson to hit like himself and not like Abe Almonte.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Denorfia, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, LF
7: Hart, DH
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
SP: The Magical Giant

-- This post came from: U.S.S. Mariner, and is copyright by the authors. This RSS feed is intended for the personal use of readers and not, for instance, spam blogs.

Game 154, Mariners at Astros

Author: "marc w" Tags: "Mariners"
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Date: Saturday, 20 Sep 2014 00:00

Taijuan Walker vs. Brad Peacock, 5:10pm
Wildcard odds – Fangraphs.com: 34.2% Baseballprospectus.com: 33.7%

The development of Taijuan Walker’s split-change has certainly helped him boost his GB%, but it hasn’t turned him into an ace just yet. He’s struggled at times this year with wildness, with HRs, and, of course, with injury. But I think Paxton’s emergence (and all the time Walker missed, of course) have led people to overlook the top prospect. I’m not saying Walker’s going to be as good as Paxton’s been, but we haven’t seen what Walker can be just yet. His cutter’s intriguing at times, but his command of it hasn’t quite been there thus far, though his control woes of July seem to have subsided.

Brad Peacock…everything I said about him a few weeks ago remains true.

Line-up:

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morales, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Saunders, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: Taijuan Walker

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Game 153, Mariners at Astros

Author: "marc w" Tags: "Mariners"
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Date: Friday, 19 Sep 2014 00:30

King Felix vs. Wade LeBlanc, 7:05pm
Wildcard odds- Fangraphs.com: 24.4% Baseballprospectus.com: 22.9%

Happy Felix Day.

The playoff odds look bleak, as does the gap in the schedule between the M’s and Royals, but if you want to hang on to hope, forget the Mariners – just watch the A’s for a while. Tony Blengino had a fascinating post up at Fangraphs today on the A’s collapse, focusing on the disappearance of first-half stars Brandon Moss and Derek Norris, but they are fun to watch in a cringe-comedy sort of way. Yesterday, it was closer Sean Doolittle imploding against whoever those people are in Texas Rangers uniforms. Today, it was their (good) starting pitcher uncorking another sub-par start against the murderer’s row of Jake Smolinsky, Tomas Telis, and Ryan Rua. The M’s have been running in place right when they needed to be sprinting. This has very likely cost them the ability to chase down whoever finished 2nd in the AL Central. However, running in place is a hell of a lot better than what the A’s are currently undertaking.

Fortune’s bestowed a second gift to the M’s today, too. Jered Weaver’s been scratched and replaced by Wade LeBlanc. This was Weaver’s spot, and it shaped up as a classic pitcher’s duel: a repeat of opening night right when the M’s need a win the most. That’s dramatic and all, but I think we’d all take an easier path to contention as opposed to a “dramatic” one. We’ll get drama in the playoffs, should they get that far. Before that, though, give us your LeBlancs, your Tropeanos, yearning for a big-league paycheck. Yes, yes, the Tropeano thing didn’t work so well, but LeBlanc’s a guy that most of the M’s have faced.*

He’s a classic soft-tossing lefty, a guy with an 87mph fastball, a pretty good change and a not-so-hot cutter. He came up with the Padres in 2008, and faced the M’s here and there for years as a spot-starter/swing-man for our hated interleague rivals. He shuttled between San Diego and AAA for a few years, logging a decent record as a back-end starter in spacious parks, but not really grabbing a permanent job. In 2012, he was traded to Miami, and absent a familiar (if less-than-full-time) role with the team that drafted him, he’s really bounced around since then. The Marlins waived him in 2013, and he headed to Houston. Then he signed with Anaheim, who waived him, and he signed with the Yankees. After a single inning in the Bronx, the Angels re-acquired him on waivers, hence his appearance today. Many, many pitchers are in the position of not knowing who they’ll report to spring training with the following year. In the past two years, LeBlanc really has had no idea which uniform he’d be putting on a week or a month in the future.

The problem is that LeBlanc’s a fairly extreme fly-ball guy with so-so stuff. He’s tried to make that approach work in PETCO PARK and had trouble. Anaheim is a sneaky-tough park to homer in, but LeBlanc’s stuff eases the hitter’s burden a bit. To make matters worse, his control isn’t great. A walk rate over 8% seems like it’s far too high for a guy who doesn’t rack up strikeouts and has a gopher-ball problem. Really, there are only two reasons LeBlanc’s still a major leaguer. 1) He’s left-handed. 2) The change-up really is pretty good. In his career, he’s generated whiffs on about 35% of the swings at his cambio, and when batters put it in play, they’re more likely to hit it on the ground. He’ll still hang a few of them – he’s given 13 HRs on it overall – but it’s been effective overall. It’s also why he’s posted reverse-splits in his career, with righties posting a much lower wOBA and FIP against him than lefties. *LEFTIES* are hitting a combined .315/.372/.540 off of him, or a bit better than Miguel Cabrera’s 2014 line.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Denorfia, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
SP: FELIX

* Actually, as a guy who spent most of his time in the NL, and as a swing man, he’s missed more of these guys than you’d think. He’s faced Morales and Seager once, Taylor/Zunino/Jackson/Cano/Ackley zero. Denorfia and Morrison have seen him a few times, but that’s about it. That really surprises me, but there you are. LeBlanc has been around a while, and been in many places, but he has not actually pitched that many innings. He topped 100 back in 2009, when Seager/Ackley/Taylor/Zunino were in college.

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Game 152, Mariners at Angels

Author: "marc w" Tags: "Mariners"
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Date: Thursday, 18 Sep 2014 00:30

James Paxton vs. CJ Wilson, 7:05pm

For four innings, it looked like the M’s season would end at the hands of a random middle reliever making a spot start. The M’s playoff odds had dipped below 20% according to BP, and when the Royals rallied to tie the White Sox, well, that looked like that. A couple of doubles later, the M’s took the lead against the second Angels middle-reliever, and then the White Sox fought back against KC. An Oakland rally in Texas stopped short, and then the M’s poured it on against the dregs of the Angels’ 40-man. Their playoff odds, in serious danger of dropping to somewhere in the 10% range, shot up 15 to 20 percentage points, and are above 1/3 again. Unreal. Everything about it was insane, from how completely hapless they looked against Cory “The Other” Rasmus, to the timing of the White Sox rally, to the actual Mariners posting a six-run inning later on after several days of an almost religious-level of run avoidance.

So, today’s game comes to you with a modicum of drama and stakes attached, and that’s worth celebrating considering that it’s mid-September. Today’s game shows a big reason why – the M’s are in Anaheim, facing the team that’s run away with the AL West, and facing one of that team’s better/highest paid pitchers. And while the Angels clearly have a leg up in terms of their line-up, there’s essentially no way to spin the pitching match-up as anything but a clear M’s advantage. I know, I know: James Paxton’s entire professional career is still a small sample oddity, and CJ Wilson is a big-league veteran with all-star appearances, a massive contract and a Brazilian super-model girlfriend. But Wilson is very clearly not the same guy he was when he signed that big free agent contract, just as Paxton’s clearly not the guy who spent three months of his first AAA season (this was LAST YEAR, not the ancient past) with an ERA over 5.

After coming up as a reliever with the Rangers, Wilson shifted to the rotation thanks to a deep arsenal of pitches (he routinely throws six different pitches) and his ability to keep the ball down and get weak contact. He never quite figured out the strike zone, and walk rates over 4/9IP pepper his fangraphs page, but he generated enough Ks and gave up few HRs, even in Arlington. His change-up allowed him to deal effectively with the legions of right-handers he suddenly had to face, and thus his contract – while large – didn’t seem to be a disaster, particularly considering his excellent 2011 season. Wilson’s strengths seemed to be reinforced by his new home park; if Wilson was good at suppressing his HR/FB ratio, Anaheim was a legend at doing so for just about everyone. If Wilson walked a few too many, a good infield defense and the marine layer would reduce the price he’d need to pay for those baserunners. In his first season in Anaheim, he posted his highest HR/FB since becoming a starter, and saw his ERA and FIP rise markedly (along with his walk rate). 2013 was a bounce-back year, as his HR/FB dropped to his career norms, but his declines against right-handed bats was masked by his incredible success against lefties – a BABIP in the .230s looked like luck, though his K:BB was still excellent. This year, his luck’s evened out, and that’s made him look remarkably hittable. He’s still excellent against lefties, and the M’s are right to do everything they can to get RHBs in today’s line-up, but he’s not as dominant as he was a recently as last year. Against righties, though, he’s continuing to slide – his wOBA-against to righties since 2011: .290, .316, .329, .350.

Worse, those six pitches simply aren’t as deceiving as they once were. Here’s a table of qualified pitchers in 2014, sorted by O-swing, or the percentage of swings each pitcher gets on pitches outside of the strikezone. CJ Wilson’s in last place, with a paltry 22.7% o-swing. A very low o-swing isn’t the kiss of death – Jered Weaver’s just barely ahead of Wilson, and he’s been OK. Lance Lynn’s at #8, and he’s been excellent. Bartolo Colon’s been weirdly effective despite a low o-swing for a while now. Weaver and Lynn both pair good control with well above-average pop-up rates; their game isn’t based on getting hitters to chase, it’s about getting them to mis-hit the ball or swing under a high (but in the zone) fastball. Bartolo Colon throws nothing but fastballs and nothing but strikes, so it’s not a surprise that his o-swing suffers. Wilson, though, has seen his control suffer – again, whether this is age-related or the effect of giving up so many HRs suddenly – as his zone% tumbled from about 51% in 2012 to 44.9% this year. He’s throwing more balls, and no one’s swinging at them. He’s earned every bit of his nearly-11% walk rate. Wilson’s game is now predicated on bad contact, but his stuff isn’t as good at generating it as it was in previous years. CJ Wilson will be paid $38 million for 2015-16.

James Paxton – despite the elite velocity, despite the achingly beautiful curveball – actually pitches in a similar way. He’s just better at it right now. While Paxton’s o-swing isn’t bottom-of-the-league bad like Wilson’s, it’s slightly below average, which is pretty remarkable when you think about it: here’s a lefty throwing 95+, and yet he gives up MORE contact than the league average. His zone% isn’t quite as bad as Wilson’s, but it’s low. But while Wilson’s GB rates are no longer special – and that’s a problem if his HR/FB are likewise trending the wrong way – Paxton is still a GB machine. More importantly, he doesn’t need to rely on secondary offerings like a change or his curve to get grounders. Because it’s his *fastball* that does the heavy lift, he’s able to generate weak contact in just about any count – he doesn’t need to get you to 0-2 or 1-2 to induce a chopper to shortstop. BrooksBaseball has some really cool tabs that you can play around with when looking at each pitcher’s pitch fx numbers. One is the Z Score tab on a few of the tables. Check out Paxton’s fastball here - the numbers are the standard deviations above or, for negative numbers, below the league-wide mean for that pitch type. Paxton’s fastball generates over two full standard deviations more GBs than the mean, and two full standard deviations fewer fly balls. The ratio is over 3 standard deviations higher than the average four-seam fastball. His curve, too, gets far fewer fly balls than average. It is extraordinarily, freakishly hard to hit fly balls off of Paxton. Elite velocity and poor launch angles make Paxton a tough, tough match-up for lefties and righties alike. Paxton is still a pre-arb player.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Denorfia, RF
7: Smoak, 1B
8: Taylor, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Paxton

* Kind of funny that the bottom two qualified starters in O-Swing are teammates CJ Wilson and Jered Weaver, while the top two, the guys with the BEST o-swing rates, are also AL West teammates: Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma.

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Game 151, Mariners at Angels

Author: "marc w" Tags: "Mariners"
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Date: Wednesday, 17 Sep 2014 00:30

Roenis Elias vs. Cory Rasmus, 7:05pm
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 21.8% Baseballprospectus.com: 19.3% (ouch)

Well, that was no fun at all. Matt Shoemaker is now 2-0 against the M”s, and in 20 1/3 IP, he’s got an 18:2 K:BB ratio and an RA/9 of 1.77. Hisashi Iwakuma’s late season slide was a popular topic on twitter last night, with many pointing to his poor ERA down the stretch. Our fearless leader Dave pointed out that his fielding independent stats have generally been pretty good. Outside of the three-HR game, he’s not been getting shelled, it’s just teams have strung a lot of hits together off of him. I recognize that Iwakuma’s FIP has generally been pretty good (it’s significantly better in the 2nd half than it was in the 1st, actually), but FIP’s always been a tough way to evaluate the guy. For two years, Iwakuma posted ERAs lower than his FIP, because while he’d give up HRs, he tended to do so when there weren’t runners on. His weird FIP-breaking trick wasn’t a freakish HR/FB ratio, like Chris Young, it was posting much better results with men on (and with men in scoring position) than with the bases empty. That’s not normally a skill, but it’s probably that SOME pitchers can reliably do this, especially given that pitchers have an entirely different motion with men on base. Well, in 2014, Iwakuma just hasn’t had that…skill/luck, depending on your POV. This year, he’s been WORSE with runners in scoring position, and thus, while he isn’t necessarily giving up more HRs, his ERA’s now worse than his FIP. To the optimists, this is the ultimate small-sample fluke, and it’ll just bounce back to his career norms next year. The cynics probably never believed Iwakuma’s success with RISP was skill at all, and see this year as regression. So many baseball arguments are really just about what mean to regress someone towards.

Hey, another ballgame against the white-hot Angels. Sigh. Ok, the Angels are going with a bullpen day, though, as middle-reliever Cory Rasmus starts. In his last start, he pitched effectively, but for less than four innings, which means we’ll probably see quite a few Angel hurlers. Rasmus has a fastball around 93 – a rising four-seamer that he’ll throw up in the zone. In terms of movement and how he uses it, it’s actually quite similar to Matt Shoemaker’s, albeit a tick or two faster. That said, he doesn’t have a big-time weapon like Shoemaker’s split. What he DOES have is a pretty good change-up that he throws a lot to lefties, and a slider he throws to righties. He’s got a curve as well, but his best pitches are the slider and change-up. Since he’s got pitches to throw to both, he’s posted good numbers against lefties and righties alike this year – a far cry from his struggles against lefties in 2013. In 2013, lefties teed off on his fastball, slugging over 1.000 in extremely limited duty. After a couple of tweaks, his fastball’s been effective against them this year, which is why he’s been tabbed to make a couple of spot starts with the injury problems plaguing the Halos.

He can miss bats, he throws reasonably hard, and he’s got four pitches. Why’s he normally a reliever? Rasmus has not seen eye to eye with the strike zone in his career, and this isn’t just nerves. In his minor league career, he posted a BB/9 of 4.3. Last year, in his first big league stint, it was over 5. This year, because Angels, his K% has improved markedly while he’s cut his walk rate from 12.6 to 8.2%. He’s still a very far cry from Greg Maddux, but it’s not a crippling problem anymore. And a move to Anaheim helped his HR problems, too. Like Shoemaker and most other Halos, Rasmus has sizable home/road splits, largely driven by home runs – Rasmus has a GB% under 40%, so he’s a fly ball pitcher, and Anaheim’s a great place to ply that particular trade. We’ll see who follows him, but Rasmus will get the first crack at this line-up:

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morales, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Chavez, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
SP: Elias

I’ve actually loved watching Clayton Kershaw pitch this year (thank you, MLB.tv), but Ben Lindbergh’s open letter to Kershaw from Pedro Martinez’s 2000 season is hilarious and spot-on.

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Game 150, Mariners at Angels

Author: "marc w" Tags: "Mariners"
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Date: Tuesday, 16 Sep 2014 00:30

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Matt Shoemaker, 7:05pm
Wildcard odds – Fangraphs.com: 33.6% Baseballprospectus.com: 31.0%

Fangraphs’ odds feature gives the M’s a nearly 70% chance of winning today’s game, based almost entirely on the identity of the starting pitchers. The Angels have the better line-up, and are playing at home, so the fact that the M’s are prohibitive favorite tells you something about how the projection systems see both Iwakuma and Shoemaker going forward. To me, the game doesn’t feel like a cakewalk, and while we’ve been shocked by Shoemaker before, it’s time to give the guy a bit of credit.

At the same time, I can’t really blame ZiPS/Steamer. Look at his minor league record, and you see org depth, a guy who has no business in a big league ballpark without paying to be there. Look at his major league stats, and you see an elite starting pitcher. If this sounds familiar, well, yes, Jeff’s article on Shoemaker at Fangraphs was spot-on. The takeaway, at least for me, was just how similar Shoemaker is in arsenal and results to guys like Hiroki Kuroda, Masahiro Tanaka and, yes, Hisashi Iwakuma. Shoemaker’s splitter is a difference-maker, and it’s carved up the American League in 2014. The big question I have is: why does a guy with a pitch that can torch good big league line-ups struggle so much in the minors?

As Jeff pointed out, and as you can verify at your leisure, Shoemaker’s career AAA ERA – accrued over bits and pieces of five seasons – was 5.38. This isn’t a case where he was awful, then learned the splitter and turned interesting. No, Shoemaker made five starts in the PCL *this year* and was inconsistent, hittable and not terribly noticeable just like always. The righty has always had good control, and that’s been critical to his success in the big leagues. An above-average first strike% and a BB/9 under 2 is a great way to limit damage, but there’s often a trade off in home runs, especially if you’re not a ground-ball guy; with a GB% under 42%, Shoemaker’s clearly in the fly-ball camp. Indeed, home runs were a perennial problem for Shoemaker in the minors. Even in his excellent AA campaign in 2011, he allowed a higher HR/9 than the league average. Again, though, fans of Iwakuma and Tanaka will recognize this pattern – ultra-low walks, high strikeouts, with pretty much all of the damage coming on longballs. It’s not great for FIP/fWAR, but it’s clearly an approach that can work. More interesting to me, though, was that it wasn’t *just* HRs that killed Shoemaker. At nearly every stop, he’s been extremely hittable. In his minor league career, he’s given up about 10 hits per 9 innings. In AAA, that figure rose to over 11 per 9.

This is a minor league journeyman, an undrafted minor college player, who’s pitching like an All-Star. His K-BB% is 20th in baseball, tied with Jonny Cueto, and just a tick behind Iwakuma. He’s got a well-above average contact rate, which is probably how he can be around the plate so much without paying for it in hits and home runs. We’ve seen a few guys with essentially no big-time track record break into the big leagues and post a nice ERA for a year or two (JA Happ, a million relievers), but we haven’t seen guys fluke their way to this kind of fielding-independent success. Here’s a table of the best K-BB% from a rookie starter over the past 10 years. Shoemaker’s in there at #10, and while a place on the list doesn’t guarantee a long, happy MLB career, the most of the guys who haven’t done much after their rookie year have one thing in common: surgery. Corey Luebke’s had two, as has Brandon Beachy. Michael Pineda had one, Matt Harvey’s still on his way back, etc. It’s just not normal to pitch this well for 100 innings and have it not mean anything.

How on earth is he giving up *8* per 9 in the big leagues? How has his K% increased, while his walk rate’s dropped, and his HR rate is stable/a bit lower? It seems like there are a couple of possible answers here. First, while lengthy flukes of this nature are rare, they’re not unheard of. Once big league hitters adjust, Shoemaker may find his stats reverting to his minor league averages (which would still be kind of amazing given that MLB is, you know, BETTER than the minors). The parallels here are Tony Cingrani and one-time sleeper prospect Erasmo Ramirez. It’s both remarkable and painful to see Erasmo on that list of rookie starters – he was 22, didn’t walk anyone, and posted a 5:1 K:BB ratio in 59 innings for the 2012 M’s. Since that time, he’s dealt with serious home run problems and either lost his control or been scared out of the zone. His K:BB ratio since is under 2, and his HR/9 has gone from 0.92 (Shoemaker-esque!) to 1.48 (Shoemaker-in-Salt-Lake-esque!). Personally, I think injuries may have more to do with this sad slide than Erasmo and the team have let on, but whatever the cause, Erasmo was not able to fulfill the promise of that brief call-up. Cingrani’s an interesting case, as he came up through the Reds system with basically one pitch, a fastball. Thanks to a deceptive delivery, Cingrani’s average velocity played up, and he struck out errbody in the minors. The Reds wanted him to develop secondary pitches, because no one can succeed with just a fastball (Bartolo Colon excepted), but that’s what Cingrani did last season, posting a K% near 29% (that’s incredibly good) and an ERA under 3. Unfortunately, the National League seems to have adjusted this year, and Cingrani’s ERA’s in the mid-4s, his K rate is down, and his HR rate is even higher than Erasmo’s. Again, Cingrani’s shoulder injury makes you wonder if he’s been 100% this season, but then again, his velocity wasn’t down, and, I feel like I should repeat this, the guy’s entire game plan was throwing 92mph fastballs.

The other possibility here is that MLB is no longer a bigger, better version of the minor leagues – that the changes that have swept through the big leagues have simply not filtered down the affiliate ladder yet. The big change I’m referring to is how the strike zone’s changed since the 2007 introduction of the pitch-fx system. Among the many culprits people point to for the decline in offense in the bigs, the strike zone changes seems (at least to me) the most plausible. Arming the umpires with much more information about what they were getting right and wrong, the strike zone has increased in size, and it’s done so by growing at the knees. That is, pitches near the bottom edge of the zone are now called strikes more often than they were in 2008. This finding has been corroborated many times, so it’s not likely to be due to pitch fx calibration issues or a botched research design. The question is, has the same change occurred in the minors? Some parks have pitch fx, and many have the TrackMan system, but to my knowledge, they tend to be used by teams for quantitative scouting, not checking the work of minor league umps. If it hasn’t, the effect would be different for different pitchers. A guy like Shoemaker, whose game seems predicated on getting people to chase low splitters and sliders, it could be pretty important. If hitters can know that a splitter isn’t going to be called, they may be able to hold off, even if it initially looks like it’s right down the middle. Since his fastball’s straight and only 91mph, they could sit on them once he fell behind in the count. Is that what happened to Shoemaker? I have no idea. It sounds possible, but then almost no one throws splitters to get *called* strikes – they’re whiff generators. It’s guys with good curves who should *really* notice the difference. But given Shoemaker’s breakout, that spate of awful games PCL umpire call-ups had early this season, and Javier Baez’s frustration about the zone, I do wonder if they’re more dissimilar than they’ve been in a while, and I wonder what that means for everything from Taijuan Walker’s chances of success to stats like major league equivalencies (MLEs) if they are.

A linked, but distinct possibility is that the PCL is especially hard on command guys like Shoemaker because their breaking balls flatten out in the high-altitude parks of Colorado Springs, Albuquerque, Reno and Shoemaker’s home park, Salt Lake. With less vertical “rise” on his fastball, less side-spin on his slider, it’s easy to assume that Shoemaker would be a sitting duck, and the hypothesis would seem to explain why Shoemaker could be effective at AA and then implode once he got to AAA. The problem is that his best pitch, the splitter, would seem to be an ideal pitch at altitude, because it relies less on pure spin than a true breaking ball (it doesn’t really need horizontal movement, and some of the apparent “drop” can be the result of *less* backspin than a regular fastball, causing the pitch to appear to sink more). In any case, Shoemaker’s minor league numbers suggest a mid-rotation insurance or medical device salesman, not a guy with a big league ERA of 3 in over 130 innings.

Roenis Elias’s solid season has boggled my mind. Whoever the hell Shane Greene is has stabilized the Yankee rotation. Yusmeiro freaking Petit has a lower contact% than Felix Hernandez, Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer. Baseball is weird, and pitchers are engine of entropy at the center of it all. A pitcher like Kluber can suddenly click and pitch like a Cy Young candidate. Or, they can suddenly lose any concept of the strike zone like Erasmo (at the mild end of the spectrum) or Cody Buckel/Mark Wohlers (at the extreme end). But what Shoemaker shows is the possibility that even pitchers who don’t change their approach can look completely different when placed in a new context. That’s thrilling (“wait, could *I* be a big league if I changed my shirt and received just the right series of butt-pats?”), and also disorienting. I love hearing from scouts because I think I learn something new about pitching/hitting and even about *watching* baseball every time. I respect them tremendously. Maybe the Angels pro scouting department knew this was coming, but I can pretty much guarantee that 29 other scouting departments did not. That is, the best scouts in the business can watch a guy pitch in the high minors and have no inkling that he’s about to go 12-5 in the big leagues. Just like 20-some odd teams can pass on Mike Trout, who was essentially the best baseball player on the planet on draft day, and has remained so ever since. To be fair, I’m not picking on scouts here: they were clearly slightly ahead of the statheads, who if they’d had a vote, would’ve told Shoemaker to move to the bullpen or retirement. All of us, except for maybe a couple of people in Anaheim, saw this coming. Personally, I’m glad about that.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morales, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Saunders, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Miller, SS
SP: Iwakuma

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Game 149, Mariners at Angels

Author: "marc w" Tags: "Mariners"
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Date: Monday, 15 Sep 2014 08:12

The regular season podcast finale. Hopefully the Mariners will still be playing when I return.

Podcast with Jeff (@based_ball) and Matthew (@msea1): Direct link! || iTunes link! || RSS/XML link!

Thanks again to those that helped support the show and/or StatCorner in general last week, and in the past, and hopefully in the future. It’s truly appreciated. And thank you to our sponsor for this episode, TodayIFoundOut!

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Podcast: Thank you, 2014

Attached Media: audio/mpeg ( 0 ko)
Author: "Matthew Carruth" Tags: "Mariners, podcast"
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Date: Sunday, 14 Sep 2014 19:10

Chris Young vs. Jon Lester, 1:10pm
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 39.6%. Baseballprospectus.com: 35.0%

Line-up:
1: Jackson, CF
2: Denorfia, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Hart, LF
6: Seager, 3B
7: Smoak, 1B
8: Taylor, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Young

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Game 148, Athletics at Mariners

Author: "marc w" Tags: "Mariners"
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Date: Sunday, 14 Sep 2014 00:50

King Felix vs. Sonny Gray, 7:10pm
Wildcard odds – Fangraphs.com: 55.9% Baseballprospectus.com: 50.1%

I’m tempted to leave Jeff’s piece below up to function as the game thread, because it encapsulates what this game feels like so well. As it turned out, the M’s didn’t exactly build off the momentum they had following that sweep of the Blue Jays. Instead, they meandered around for a few weeks, getting some huge wins, but losing to the Astros. Playing well against Oakland, but dropping a series to Texas. That can be frustrating, in that you can see what a difference a few wins would make in the standings right now, but a part of me is glad we get this game, in this situation, with these two guys on the mound. This doesn’t feel like a playoff race, this feels like a playoff game.

King Felix stumbled in recent weeks, as his incredible run of HR prevention gave out for a time. He’s now essentially right at the same HR rate he’s run for the past few season, and that means his FIP is now merely incredible instead of otherworldly. His numbers are down across the board in the second half, which makes sense as they essentially had nowhere else to go. Still, Felix is the M’s ace, and even down the stretch in a long, unusually hot summer, he’s still the guy the M’s want to see on the hill. Put aside the fielding independent stats, and he’s (mostly) the same guy. BA allowed in the first half? .199. In the second? .198. His slugging is up thanks to that HR barrage a while back, but you just expect Felix to pitch like an ace.

Contrast that with Sonny Gray, who, like the rest of his team, has declined in the second half. Gray’s fastball/curve combo was so effective because it neutralized lefties and righties equally, and because he gets ground balls, he could be effective at home and in places like Arlington and Houston. Gray’s still a work in progress, as his control isn’t ace-level yet, and while the curve’s been useful in generating bad contact, he hasn’t racked up as many K’s as he should at Felix’s age. In the second half, Gray’s numbers have declined across the board, and unlike Felix, he couldn’t fall as far and still be great. In the 2nd half, Gray’s FIP and ERA are in the low 4′s, and his K:BB ratio is a pedestrian 1.96. Gray’s still an extremely talented young hurler, but you wonder if he’s wearing down a bit; remember that Gray fell in the draft as evaluators saw his size as an impediment to his development as an ace/workhorse.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Chavez, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Jones, RF
9: Taylor, SS
SP: The King

Best M’s news I’ve seen in a while, courtesy of Ryan Divish: The M’s have announced that today’s game is a sell-out. Nice work, M’s fans.

Dustin Ackley’s ankle continues to bother him, hence Endy Chavez in the 2 spot tonight. Michael Saunders gets a day off.

Logan Morrison’s first half/second half splits still look identical, thanks to an abysmal July, but he’s followed a decent August with a good start in September. With Zunino fading a bit, and with Morales still stuck a bit, the resurgence of both Morrison and Brad Miller has been critical to the M’s offense.

For the scoreboard watchers, the Tigers are playing Cleveland tonight, while the Royals take on Boston. Ex-Rays prospect turned Rule 5 guy Kyle Lobstein’s pitching for Detroit against diminutive fireballer Danny Salazar, while the Royals have Jeremy Guthrie taking on Sox prospect (ex-Dodgers prospect) Rubby De La Rosa.

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Game 147, Athletics at Mariners

Author: "marc w" Tags: "Mariners"
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Date: Saturday, 13 Sep 2014 23:21

Welcome to the middle of the biggest Safeco series in more than a decade. One month ago, the Mariners were preparing to begin the biggest Safeco series in more than a decade. Remember that? Remember how big a deal it was at the time? The Mariners were hosting the Blue Jays, and the Blue Jays were one of the wild-card rivals, and the Mariners had Felix prepared to start game one. That was at least the biggest series since Lollablueza, and then the Mariners swept it, and it felt fantastic. It felt like something beyond ordinary meaningful baseball — it felt like transition-meaningful baseball, between the regular season and the playoffs.

It’s funny to look back on that now. It’s funny what time and accomplishment does to perspective. In middle-school English, the big challenging assignments for us were writing 11-sentence paragraphs. Thesis, support, conclusion. We’d build the skeleton of a book, but we’d limit it to a page. High school brought longer papers. College brought longer papers still. Everything got harder and harder, but because of the progression, everything felt similarly hard at the time, and I could always look back on how laughable it was to have been intimidated by a smaller project earlier on. Gotta write this 12-page paper on Elie Wiesel. A decade ago, I wrote a one-page paper on Elie Wiesel.

A month ago, the Mariners played an important series. It was their first truly important home series in a while. That was all very much true at the time, but boy is this ever more important now. In part because the Mariners beat the Blue Jay boss, now they have the opportunity to defeat the Oakland menace. According to FanGraphs, when the Mariners won the first game against the Jays, it lifted their playoff odds a little more than five percentage points. When the Mariners won the first game against the A’s on Friday, it lifted their playoff odds nearly 13 points. So in a sense the game was more than twice as important.

We all know that the leverage is building. God, that Toronto series was a long time ago. When it started, the Mariners were ten games behind the A’s. The A’s were leading the West! The Brewers were leading the NL Central. Chris Davis hadn’t yet been caught for his cheating. People didn’t suspect that the undoing of the A’s was the unloading of Yoenis Cespedes. People didn’t know about the undoing of the A’s yet. It’s a different world we live in today.

In the past, people would say they wanted the Mariners to make the World Series in large part for Dave Niehaus. A more recent sentiment is that people want the Mariners to make the playoffs for Felix Hernandez. People, of course, want the Mariners to make the playoffs for themselves, but when you dive into your imagination, it’s hard not to be carried away by the thought of Felix starting in the playoffs at home in front of a massive Kings’ Court. It’s how you design the ideal playoffs in your mind, in the way that people who haven’t seen the playoffs yet greedily do. Before the playoffs, you try to script them. After the playoffs, you don’t really care, provided there were wins.

We know when the playoffs begin. We know where the Mariners have to be in order to qualify. Officially, there’s a line between the playoffs and the non-playoffs, in that every year, there’s a given number of playoff teams. But, what are the playoffs, but a period of high-leverage baseball games? And what are the Mariners playing right now, if not high-leverage baseball games? The leverage isn’t as high, but how close do you have to be for it to not be silly to suggest you’ve already basically made it? Saturday night — in a couple of hours! — Felix will start a game at Safeco against the A’s. At stake will be a swing in championship odds, as the Mariners and A’s battle for positioning. Behind and around Felix will be 40,000 casuals and fanatics, behaving the same. Officially, this isn’t a home playoff start for Felix Hernandez. Unofficially, there’s not really much of a difference.

I’m fully aware of how that could be construed as loser-talk, the talk of someone who doesn’t remember how the playoffs actually feel. In my defense, I don’t remember how the playoffs actually feel. I also realize that, if the Mariners are still alive in one month, we’ll look back and laugh at how important we thought things were a month earlier. We’d look at this series like we look at the Toronto series. But it’s to the point where every day either kills us or makes us stronger. Things have ratcheted up from last month, and it’s sure as shit not just us who’re aware:

“I told my guys, this is really playoff baseball,” manager Lloyd McClendon said.
[...]
Robinson Cano, whose first-inning home run got the Mariners off on the right foot, echoed the same thought, saying the playoffs began Friday for his new club. And he should know, having played in seven postseasons and a World Series with the Yankees.

It’s not the playoffs, because it’s not the playoffs. It’s not the playoffs because, a few days from now, the Mariners visit the Astros. It’s not the playoffs because Michael Saunders is sitting tonight in favor of James Jones, because McClendon thinks Saunders needs a break, even though James Jones sucks. But every day now is crucially important, no matter the opponent. And these games against the A’s are more important still, like late-inning at-bats with runners in scoring position. It’s not the playoffs, but it’s so, so close to the playoffs, and though you could technically be closer to the playoffs without being in the playoffs, the feeling is almost alike. We feel like it’s practically playoff baseball. The players feel like it’s practically playoff baseball. The manager feels like it’s practically playoff baseball. The atmosphere tonight will sound like it’s practically playoff baseball. It’s not the playoffs, but it’s the playoffs. Felix Hernandez is getting the ball.

We’ve all wondered what it would be like to have Felix start a home playoff game. Tonight we won’t find out, and tonight we will find out. A month ago, in that start against Toronto, Felix took the hill before a big court and thousands upon thousands of Jays fans, and he left after seven with a ten-run lead. That felt important then, but it was nothing compared to this. This time there aren’t going to be any Jays fans around.

It can get more intense than this. It can’t by very much. Tonight King Felix starts a playoff game in September.

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Felix And A Playoff Start

Author: "Jeff Sullivan" Tags: "Mariners"
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Date: Saturday, 13 Sep 2014 00:55

James Paxton vs. Jason Hammel, 7:10pm (If you’re going, please note the Sounders have their own late-season really-important game tonight as well. Pioneer Square/SoDo is going to be jammed tonight, which is great, but something you should probably plan for if you’re driving to the game).
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 42.5% Baseballprospectus.com: 35.4%

It’s been a little over ten days since the last time the M’s and A’s faced off, and, at least for the M’s, almost nothing’s changed. They were coming off a disappointing series loss (to the Nationals, in that case), and saw their playoff odds in the low-40% range. They faced Jason Hammel, who was pitching much better in recent games, but who couldn’t stop the A’s from losing. Today, the M’s are again coming off a disappointing series loss, have similar playoff odds, and face Jason Hammel again. The M’s have essentially treaded water for 10 days, while the A’s continue to sink. Some portion of the M’s lower playoff odds (considering they picked up a game on the Royals without playing yesterday) is due to the easier schedule the AL Central teams have down the stretch, which we talked about the other day. It’s in that context that makes this series so important. If the Tigers/Royals feast on the likes of the Twins/White Sox, then the M’s may be better off focusing on the reeling Athletics.

I’m still completely befuddled by their collapse. Through July, this team was one of the most complete, one of the most dangerous, we’d seen in a while. The M’s played them tough, but they annihilated everyone else, and their run differential was off the charts. That incredible run differential’s (mostly) intact, as the A’s have turned to losing one-run games instead. Their last SEVEN losses have been one-run affairs, and 10 of their last 30 games in total have been one-run losses. This wasn’t supposed to happen, especially not after the team jettisoned closer-turned-disaster Jim Johnson. The A’s bullpen has the third-best ERA in baseball (the M’s are #1), and have a solid FIP as well. But shift from context-neutral to context-dependent stats like WPA and they fall to the middle of the pack. Why? The A’s relievers have, for whatever reason, given up their runs at the absolute worst possible times. The “meltdown” stat counts games in which a reliever drops his team’s win probability by 6% – this is a more expansive, less arbitrary version of the blown save. Like blown saves, a team should have at least twice as many games in which a reliever ADDS 6% to WPA than those in which they give away 6%. The M’s have the 3rd fewest meltdowns in baseball behind the Padres (who rank 2nd in ERA, and have been excellent all year) and the Royals, who feature one of the most well-known and successful groups of relievers in baseball. The A’s are in 7th, with 9 more meltdowns than the M’s. But focus on the 2nd half, and it gets worse. In the 2nd half, the M’s have a nearly 3:1 ratio of shutdowns to meltdowns, while the A’s are nearly even (21:17). Their bullpen is 26th in win probability added, while the M’s are up in 5th. The A’s offensive struggles get a lot of attention, and in many ways their bullpen numbers overall still look OK, but the pen’s clearly a major part of the A’s slide.*

Their starting pitching was solid, and it’s been even better recently with Jason Hammel’s resurgence. Back on the 1st, he was showing signs of coming out of the slump he’d been in since coming over from Chicago. After a good start against Seattle, he had another versus Houston, bringing his Oakland ERA under 5. That said, he’s still giving up too many HRs, so his FIP remains terrible. I wanted to see if he’s done anything differently in recent weeks, and a few things look like possibilities. First, he’s simplified his pitch mix. Earlier in the year, he threw a four- and two-seam fastball, a slider, a change-up and the occasional curve. In the past month, he’s essentially throwing only fastballs and the slider. That seems like it’d make him vulnerable to lefties, but his splits don’t look too wide, and in fact, they’re pretty normal for his career. The bigger change was that his control got a bit better. He was missing with too many fastballs in July, and that led to bad counts, and that led to extra-base hits. He’s around the zone a bit more now, and while he’s still giving up his share of HRs, his BABIP and OBP-allowed have come down.

I mentioned before that Hammel’s career year came when he switched to a sinker instead of being a four-seam pitcher. In the years since then, he’s steadily gone back to the four-seamer, and thus his GB% has dropped markedly since 2012. A career 44% ground ball guy, his rate topped 52% in 2012, before dropping to under 40% this year. Given his home park – and the park he’s in today – that’s understandable, I suppose, but the M’s need to look for fastballs they can drive. Only five of his 21 HRs overall -and only one of his last nine- have come off of breaking balls/offspeed pitches.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Saunders, RF
7: Zunino, C
8: Morrison, 1B
9: Miller, SS
SP: Paxton

Yesterday’s MLB schedule was marred by a serious injury to the Marlins superstar OF Giancarlo Stanton, who turned into a Mike Fiers fastball and took it on the cheek/mouth. Stanton suffered, “lacerations, facial fractures, dental damage” but has already stated he’d like to return before the end of the season. Dave had just speculated about what kind of contract he might be in the market for should the Marlins lock him up, or if he tests the open market after 2016. Here’s hoping he comes back healthy and effective.

Also at FG, Tony Blengino talked about where the M’s excellent pen ranks with other historically good groups. From that list, it’s extremely hard to stay as hot as the M’s have been for multiple years, though the 2002-2004 Angels managed to stay very good for three years, and the Royals look like they’re on their way to something similar (even if they haven’t been quite as dominant as they were last year).

Welcome back, Dustin Ackley. It was nice to be in the position of wanting Ackley’s bat in the line-up down the stretch, though Saunders’ return meant the M’s didn’t miss too much. Still, this team needs its best line-up on the field in September, and with Ackley healthy, they can do that.

* The A’s are activating their closer, Sean Doolittle, from the DL for today’s game. They can blame injuries for the slide, but even guys with great numbers – like Luke Gregerson – have struggled of late in the closing role.

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Game 146, Athletics at Mariners

Author: "marc w" Tags: "Mariners"
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Date: Thursday, 11 Sep 2014 00:15

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Nick Tropeano, 7:10pm
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 49.6% Baseballprospectus.com: 47.7%

A tough loss against a surprisingly tough pitcher last night, and suddenly the M’s wildcard odds edge below 50%. A part of the issue is the Tigers closing schedule is fairly easy, with seven games against the Twins and another three against the White Sox. The Central teams have an advantage in the very last weeks thanks to the unbalanced schedule and the enduring mediocrity of the AL Central itself. That said, the Royals and Tigers are playing each other at the moment, and thus the M’s have to gain ground on SOMEONE. They’ll face off four more times including tonight’s match-up, which features James Shields and Rick Porcello.

The Mariners hope to get back on track behind #2 starter Hisashi Iwakuma, who’s sustained level of success is nothing short of remarkable. Given his sky-high strand rate and low BABIP in 2013, it really felt like there was no way to go but down. Indeed, his BABIP and strand rate have slipped a bit this year, but he’s compensated by improving his peripherals. He is a phenomenal starter and his acquisition and extension remain the two biggest feathers in this front office’s cap.

Nick Tropeano makes his big league debut tonight for Houston. The righty is a product of Stony Brook, where he put up two fantastic statistical seasons in 2010 and 2011, but fell to the fifth round due to pedestrian stuff. After signing with the Astros, his velocity took a bit of an uptick, and he’s been successful at essentially every level, rising through the lower leagues until spending an entire year at AA in 2013 and the whole year in the PCL in 2014. There’s nothing flashy about him; he flashed slightly above-average velocity in the Arizona Fall League in 2012, but that came in relief and the AFL data’s always a bit weird. He’s earned rave review for his change-up, and he also flashes a slurvy curve ball and, according to many scouts, a splitter. In the AFL, we saw just the four-seam, the change and the curve/slider thingy, and it seems a bit odd to throw BOTH a change and a splitter, but hey, it seems to be working for Tropeano.

He’s a fly-ball pitcher, and when he’s run into trouble in the minors, home runs have largely been to blame. His command may have improved, as his numbers overall look better in AAA than they did in the Texas League, despite the increase in altitude/skill level/video game ballparks. Tropeano reduced his dinger rate, and as a result, became one of the the PCL’s best/most consistent arms this year. He sustained a forearm strain early in the season, but was healthy down the stretch, and thus the Astros summoned him up to become the sixth starter in their rotation through the end of the year. Thanks to the change, he’s not shown much in the way of platoon splits. They’re there, but they haven’t been a major problem; while his K:BB ratio’s a bit worse, he still struck out about a quarter of lefties. All in all, the Astros have to be happy with the development of a guy many thought had a back-of-the-rotation (or 7th inning reliever) ceiling. He hasn’t proven he’s any of those things, but his bounce-back year in the PCL showed he could add some value if he can keep the ball in the park in the American League.

Line-up:
1: Jackson, CF
2: Saunders, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Miller, SS
8: Zunino, C
9: Jones, LF
SP: Iwakuma

You may have seen/heard about the latest skirmish in the long-running battle about WAR, the comprehensive value stat for baseball players. Jeff Passan of Yahoo wrote a pretty good article about the incongruity of seeing Alex Gordon’s name top Mike Trout on the fangraphs leaderboard. Gordon’s value’s propelled in large part due to his defensive numbers, numbers which are out of line with his career averages (which were always good, just not great). Dave’s response was measured, and pointed to Robert Arthur’s work at BP and baseball’s own division of payroll to support the idea that the metrics absolutely need to include defensive numbers to get the total WAR numbers right for position players. Today, Tango (the inventor of WAR) has his own multi-part series explaining what WAR is and responding to criticisms about playing time, position adjustments and defense. It’s worth your time, whatever side of the fence you’re on.

One of the benefits of last night’s game, maybe the only one, was getting a longer look at rookie RP Carson Smith, who threw two great innings. I’ve been a fan of his for years, and think he could be a Zach Britton/Jeremy Affeldt type out of the pen at his peak, thanks to a freakish sinking fastball that should generate top-of-the-charts ground ball rates. He can pair it with a good breaking ball, allowing him to get some strikeouts too. The issue, for a side-arming sinkerballer, is going to be platoon splits. We all worried this would hurt Carter Capps’ ability to close long-term, and then Capps suddenly couldn’t get RIGHTIES out either, a fact that I still can’t quite fathom given his arm angle and velocity. Indeed, Smith’s platoon splits in the minors are fairly wide, though that’s mostly because he gave righties fits. This is also where the GB% can give him something of a cushion – if he can’t miss as many lefty bats, that’s OK as long as they’re hitting grounders. It’s also worth noting that his BABIP in the minors was always quite high, which could just be an artifact of lesser fields and fielders, or it could indicate some issues with hard contact. Still, Smith looks like a good one, and while the M’s don’t really have any vacancies for righties in their pen, having too many good big-league arms is a good problem to have.

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Game 145, Astros at Mariners

Author: "marc w" Tags: "Mariners"
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Date: Wednesday, 10 Sep 2014 01:02

Roenis Elias vs. Collin McHugh, 7:10pm
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 59.3% Baseballprospectus.com: 55.6%

You can see what last night’s comeback win did for the M’s wildcard odds. That was a huge comeback, and while it perhaps shouldn’t have taken a late-innings triple to salvage a game against the Astros started by Felix, a win is a win. Felix was not sharp at all last night; I felt his change-up was missing all over the place (usually down, which is better than missing up) and he got through it by throwing some curves and by being Felix.

Today’s match-up features two of the least-likely average-ish starters in all of baseball. Last year, Collin McHugh was cut by two teams, and in a handful of big league innings, compiled an ERA over 10, and a FIP near 6. He did not make the Astros starting rotation out of spring training, which isn’t quite as damning an indictment of one’s big league prospects as it once was, but is not an encouraging sign. In a few PCL appearances in the beginning of the year he was underwhelming. He came up to make a spot start against the M’s during the M’s spring tailspin and pitched 6 2/3 shutout innings with 12 Ks and no walks. Who the hell is Collin McHugh?

Apparently, the biggest change for him is when a Houston coach told him to scrap his sinker and stick with a four-seam fastball that (apparently) hides his curve ball well. As you’d expect, he doesn’t get too many grounders, but with a good enough fastball (at 92), and a surprisingly effective curve, he’s nearing 3 fWAR on the year.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Chavez, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morales, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Saunders, RF
9: Miller, SS
SP: Elias

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Game 144, Astros at Mariners

Author: "marc w" Tags: "Mariners"
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Date: Wednesday, 10 Sep 2014 00:30

You probably knew this, but the Mariners sucked for a while. It didn’t cause us to stop being fans, but it did cause us to become different fans, fans who adapted to the miserable circumstances. When a team loses over and over, it’s only natural for one to develop a defense system, and I think a lot of us survived with humor, much but not all of it dark. We also would’ve distanced ourselves, because, who can really be the textbook example of a die-hard when the team you’d die for reliably blows? The Mariners forced us to change our fan behavior, and along the way they conditioned us, they altered our psychology. Every fan group has different psychologies. We identified with our own.

And now there are the 2014 Mariners. I still don’t really know what to do with them, because this whole course is unfamiliar. It’s like we’ve been hiking uphill in the cold and the clouds and the rain, only now it looks like the clouds might break, like we might be able to achieve a clear and warm summit. This team feels like a gift, but it’s also challenging the identities we developed over the course of the previous decade. This is a good baseball team, unlike even the 2007 mirage. We’ve been trained to laugh at the bad. We’ve been trained to expect even worse. But we can’t laugh at what bad that there is, because it’s September and we still freakin care, and you can’t laugh at the bad during good. And as much as we know what we’ve expected in the past, this year feels different, as any winning year does.* If the Mariners are better, are…we…better? Just a few months ago, the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl. They actually won so convincingly I think they won a few of them. What has that done to the city’s psychology? What’s going on with the city’s psychology?

So I want to see how people feel, today. I want to monitor the mental state of things, because I’m legitimately curious where people are finding themselves after so many years of getting let down. Is your brain allowing you to really buy in, or are you still too damaged? Does it take more than a single pennant race to heal? I want you to answer this honestly, and I’m not asking for what you want to happen.

It feels like this year’s Mariners are writing a completely different story. The story is also far from finished.

* I’m told

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Psychology Test

Author: "Jeff Sullivan" Tags: "Mariners"
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Date: Tuesday, 09 Sep 2014 00:30

King Felix vs. Brad Peacock, 7:10pm
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com 52.3% Baseballprospectus.com: 47.5%

Happy Felix Day, everyone. I apologize for not getting game threads up, but I decided to take a page out of Jeff/Matthew’s book and go camping instead. I’ve mentioned the many ways this season feels different than its immediate predecessors, but I’ve been camping several times over the past few years and not once was I upset about missing an M’s game. I was a bit upset at missing these two games. Not distraught or anything, but hey, after the decade we’ve all had, any sort of feeling is a good sign.

The Astros come to town fresh off a series win against the Athletics, another sign that Houston’s not quite the embarassment they’ve been for the past few years. Since July 1st, they’re 19-15, which isn’t bad for a team that lost an astonishing 218 games over 2012-13. They’ve even posted the 2nd best improvement in run differential from 2013 to 2014 at +152 runs (2nd behind Seattle at +223). They’re still not good, of course, and with George Springer on the 15-day DL, they’re arguably less interesting than a a team that’s this far into a rebuild should be. But they’re not without strengths. One player to whom the label “strength” applies is 1B/LF/DH Chris Carter, the lumbering slugger who came to Houston in the Jed Lowrie deal with Oakland – a trade that also netted the Astros tonight’s starter, Brad Peacock.* Carter went from PCL terror (Mike Curto still shudders involuntarily at the mention of his name, the result of the show he put on in the 2009 PCL playoffs) to overmatched, overage MLB prospect to possible AL home run crown winner. His success sheds some light on the shifts baseball’s undergone in the past five-ten seasons.

Carter had light-tower power coming out of HS, and put up solid power numbers in the minors, first in the White Sox system and then with the A’s. But he was always beset by strikeout issues, and his trouble with breaking balls and pitch recognition has led to freakishly high whiff rates. By pitch fx, no qualified batter has made less contact than Carter. That’s a problem – one that can only be overcome with great defense, an extremely patient approach, or off-the-charts power. Carter’s not a great fielder, even at 1B, so the combination of his fielding and his spot on the fielding spectrum means he’s yielded over 50 runs in his brief MLB career thus far. So, the balancing attribute isn’t going to be defense. Carter’s walk rate is a very respectable 8.8% this year, but that’s down substantially from his 11% career rate, or the 12% he put up last year. The problem is that he’s an aggressive hitter, and thus he swings at more pitches than average, despite seeing a few less strikes. It’s not that he flails at pitches in the dirt, but that he’ll swing at pitches on the edges – and just off the edges – of the zone. So, he’s not going to put up peak-period Adam Dunn OBPs either.

To be viable at ALL in baseball, Carter has to make the most of every time he contacts the ball. For Carter, that’s meant focusing on launch angle. Just looking at Mike Fast’s tweets (former public sabermetrics guy and current Astros employee), it looks like the team pays a lot of attention to that too. We don’t have hit FX, but we can certainly look at Carter’s GB and FB rates. Since 2012, his FB% has gone from 45.7% to 46.8% to 53.9%. The Astros aren’t paying Carter to hit ground balls, so this looks like a very good sign. Carter’s 2nd in the league in HRs, but his overall batting line certainly isn’t up to those his peers like Jose Abreu, Mike Trout or even Nelson Cruz are crafting. We’re still talking about a limited player here,** but the larger question behind all of this is: how do you get the most out of what you have? The Astros are getting more out of Carter than most thought they could.

Brad Peacock is a righty with a 93mph four-seam fastball that gets a ton of vertical rise. As such, it won’t shock you that he’s an extreme fly ball/pop-up guy who has his share of home run problems. To lefties, he’ll throw a big curve ball and a change-up, and to righties he features a slider, backed by the curve. The hook’s his best pitch, with solid whiff rates and a record of success against lefties. The fastball’s solid, as the vertical movement gets him less contact than you’d think, while minimizing platoon splits. The problem is that he trades occasional hard contact for these assorted virtues, and his walk rate makes that a really steep price to pay. It’s odd for a guy who throws so many four-seam fastballs, but Peacock’s *career* BB/9 is 4.42, and his career walk rate is over 11%. That’s fine if you’re a fireballer with enough velocity to minimize HRs/hard contact or a reliever who strikes out enough to compensate. It’s not fine if you’re a starter giving up 1.35 HR/9. His career ERA/FIP are essentially identical, and thus he’s just slightly above replacement level over his 212 career IP whichever flavor of WAR you choose. There’s always the sense that there’s more talent in there somewhere, and that a small change would produce big results the way they have for teammates Collin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel. But for now, Peacock’s the same guy the M’s have seen often the past two seasons – a guy who will reward a patient approach, and will give batters a few mistakes over the course of the game.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Chavez, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Saunders, RF
9: Miller, SS
SP: KING FELIX

Go out and watch this one, Seattle. This is a critical game in September with the M’s best pitcher taking on a divisional rival. Gooooooo.

Lots of lefties tonight, and a warm welcome back to Michael Saunders. Nice timing too, with Dustin Ackley’s ankle still bothering him.

The Tigers and Royals are facing off right now, so the M’s gain ground on someone. I suppose it’s time to temporarily start cheering for the Royals, which is tough because I *just* got used to rooting against them. The A’s have been in free fall, which makes their trip to the south side so critical. Schadenfreude is seeing a team that looked like the class of baseball pressing in a must-win game against Hector Noesi.

* That trade’s been good for all involved. The A’s got Lowrie’s best/healthiest year ever last year and rode him to a 3+ WAR season and the playoffs. The Astros solved their 1B/DH woes after shuffling through Carlos Pena, Brett Wallace and Brandon Laird.

* I’ve been thinking about what player Carter reminds me of. Mark Reynolds comes to mind, of course, but a 3B has more to offer defensively, and Reynolds got started a bit quicker. I’d point out that Carter’s 2013 K% was actually higher than Reynolds career high, a fact that surprised me more than it probably should have. Going back to the similar offensive environment of the 80s, Jesse Barfield is out due to great defense, and George Bell because he struck out infrequently. But I think I’ve got one. This player bounced between AAA-MLB for three years before getting a starting gig at 27 and putting up a line of .244/.320/.498. In his next season, he went .243/.307/.477 and led the league in strikeouts. Carter’s first year? .223/.320/.451. This year, he’s at .235/.309/.521, and ranks last in contact. Neither had big platoon splits ala Ryan Howard, they’re the same type of hitter against righties and lefties alike. So there you go, Chris Carter is most like ex-Royal and ex-Mariner Steve “Bye-Bye” Balboni.

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Game 143, Astros at Mariners

Author: "marc w" Tags: "Mariners"
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Date: Monday, 08 Sep 2014 00:37

A quick turnaround and the Mariners have gone back to winning since our last recording. They now sit just two back of Oakland. We spend some time talking about that.

Podcast with Jeff (@based_ball) and Matthew (@msea1): Direct link! || iTunes link! || RSS/XML link!

Thanks again to those that helped support the show and/or StatCorner in general last week, and in the past, and hopefully in the future. It’s truly appreciated. And thank you to our sponsor for this episode, TodayIFoundOut!

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Podcast: Inside the Cutoff Again

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Author: "Matthew Carruth" Tags: "Mariners, podcast"
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Date: Friday, 05 Sep 2014 23:30

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Scott Baker, 5:05pm
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com: 46.6% Baseballprospectus.com: 47.3%

Only Detroit’s seven-run 11th inning against Cleveland marred a dominant night by two Seattle sports teams, with the M’s drubbing a Texas team featuring two players making their MLB debuts, and Jon Edwards, who was apparently a failed OF in the Cardinals organization as recently as 2010. They are shattering the record for most players used in a season, and despite a universally-praised system, nothing’s been able to staunch the bleeding. Not the kids, and not the veteran stop-gaps like Joe Saunders or today’s starter, Scott Baker.

When the M’s signed Baker on a minor league deal, it seemed like a great low-risk pick-up. Baker’s road back from Tommy John had been unusually long and winding, but he’d come back to make a handful of appearances for the Cubs in 2013. If his velocity continued to rebound, he seemed like a decent 5th starter candidate. Not good enough for the M’s, of course, who opted first for Randy Wolf and then, at the 11th hour, for Chris Young. Baker’s an extreme fly-ball pitcher, and with Texas, his GB% is a Chris-Young-esque 26%. In his best years with the Twins, he was able to get a decent number of strikeouts thanks to a solid slider and by working up in the zone with his fastball, and he’s always had good control. The problem, even in those good years, has been home runs. Pitching up works well for some, and on balance it probably was the right move for Baker, but he (like everyone else in baseball) didn’t have Chris Young’s magical HR/FB suppressing ability, and so he’d give up a fair number of long balls, which meant his ERA and FIP weren’t as pretty as his K:BB ratio.

An important part of his ability to last despite an elevated HR rate was the fact that he really didn’t display any platoon splits, or at least he didn’t show constantly wide splits. For his career, he’s got a FIP of 4.02 against lefties and 4.00 against righties, and he’s done this despite using primarily fastballs and sliders. That said, this is not the same Scott Baker anymore. While his velocity’s up a tick from where it was last year, it’s just 90-91, or 1.5-2mph down from his peak in Minnesota around 2010-2011. That’s part of the reason why his K% has stayed around 15% this year as opposed to the 20%+ figures he ran years ago, despite the fact that he’s been used in relief a lot this year. That relief usage has allowed him to face more right-handed bats, which is somewhat lucky, given his problems with lefties this year. Given his career numbers and the fact he hasn’t pitched much, it’s easy to see those splits as an Arlington-driven, small-sample oddity, but I’m not so sure. Lefties are destroying his slider these days, and given that he’s used his change-up so sparingly, it’s not clear what Baker can do about this.

Obviously, it’s possible that Baker’s issues with BABIP and the ugly line drive rate he’s given up have something to do with the quality of the OF defense behind him. Balls that fall in for hits are more likely to be scored line drives than those that are caught, so who knows. But the M’s aren’t terribly interested in Baker’s “true talent” today – they just want to beat him. And given his struggles against lefties, his HR problems, and the fact that the M’s have fared better against fly-ballers overall, they’ve got a pretty good shot to do that, especially with Hisashi Iwakuma on the hill.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Morales, DH
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Chavez, RF
9: Miller, SS
SP: Iwakuma

Detroit hosts the Giants tonight in a game pitting Jake Peavy against Rick Porcello. The Royals send James Shields to the hill against the Yankees and old friend Michael Pineda.

Texas has seen so many players lost to injury, and now they’ll have to struggle on without their manager. Ron Washington resigned before today’s game, saying that he needed to focus on, “an off the field personal matter.” No idea what that is, and have zero interest in speculating, but I sincerely wish you well, Wash.

In much less surprising personnel moves, the Arizona Diamondbacks fired their GM today. Kevin Towers was widely seen as a lame-duck, especially after the DBacks brought in Tony LaRussa as their chief of Baseball Operations back in May. Towers’ deals over the past two seasons drew criticism from the Fangraphs crowd and from more traditional baseball folks, and while his insistence on grit was always going to get him some barbs from the sabermetric community, the team he put together has been a disappointment by any measure. I’m a bit surprised they made the move now, with less than a month to go in the season, but given that his firing seemed inevitable, I guess there was no point in keeping him around. Towers had a very good run as GM with the Padres, and had some initial success in Arizona, but it’s been a very rough couple of years.

Jeff’s got an article at Fangraphs today showing how Mike Zunino’s power and hit-by-pitch acumen have him in select company. Or, uh, the company of Miguel Olivo. “Select” can have many implications. Jeff went with the term “unusual,” and Olivo DID chew a teammate’s ear off, so we’ll go with Jeff’s term. This is in no way a comparison between the two in overall value; Zunino’s a great defender, while Olivo remains *a guy who chewed a teammate’s ear off.* But yeah, neither of them are overly fond of taking pitches.

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Game 140, Mariners at Rangers

Author: "marc w" Tags: "Mariners"
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Date: Thursday, 04 Sep 2014 23:50

Roenis Elias vs. Robbie Ross, 5:05pm
Wildcard Odds- Fangraphs.com: 45.3%. Baseballprospectus.com: 41.6%

Big day yesterday, as a great performance from Felix paired with a Detroit loss to give the M’s playoff odds a boost.

Today, the M’s head to Arlington to take on the reeling Rangers, who more resemble a AAA club than the team many thought could win the division. Robbie Ross won a spring competition to start the year in the rotation, and while injuries helped with that, he looked like he belonged. The lefty blanked the M’s over 7 2/3 IP back in April – his third straight solid outing to begin the year. Five days later, he got knocked around a bit and simply hasn’t been the same.

Ross is heavily fastball dependent, though he also throws a slider, curve and change. He gets good sink, and his delivery must be deceptive to righties, as he never had problems with RHBs, at least until this year. He’s always generated grounders, which has helped him avoid HRs, but even with a solid GB%, he’s had HR issues this year. It can’t be too shocking considering his home park and raw stuff that’s never been elite (he was seen as a finesse lefty by many when he was coming through the minors), but he, like the entire club, has been both bad and tremendously unlucky.

Most teams stack their lineups with righties, but Ross has reverse splits for his career in part because his slider’s been so bad against lefties. That said, his fastball’s been poor to righties this year after being effective for the two years he spent in the Texas bullpen.

1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Hart, DH
7: Denorfia, RF
8: Taylor, SS
9: Sucre, C
SP: Elias

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Game 139, Mariners at Rangers

Author: "marc w" Tags: "Mariners"
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Date: Wednesday, 03 Sep 2014 19:05

King Felix vs. Jon Lester, 12:35pm
Wildcard odds – Fangraphs.com: 38.9% Baseballprospectus.com: 37.0%

Happy Felix Day!

The M’s desperately needed a long outing from James Paxton last night following Chris Young’s less-than-an-inning disaster the previous day. They got one, and the M’s can now take the series with their ace on the hill.

I talked about Gray being potentially the A’s ace, and evidently that prospect frightened Billy Beane a bit, as he traded Yoenis Cespedes for today’s A’s starter, Jon Lester. The Piece County native has put up his best season in the majors, with a FIP under 3 for the first time in his career. His K% is now approaching his career high, but he’s also cut his walk rate substantially, all without a return of the home run problems that plagued his 2012.

Lester’s maintained his excellent peripherals and runs allowed stats since moving to the A’s, though his fastball velocity is down a bit from August of 2013. It clearly hasn’t hurt his whiffs, and he’s throwing more strikes, but it’s odd to see his velocity settle down a bit right when most pitchers peak, and where he was throwing hardest last year. Since moving to the A’s, he’s shelved his change-up, which was never a big part of his arsenal. He’s now a four- and two-seam fastball/cutter/curve ball pitcher. He’ll throw cutters in any count, to RHB/LHBs, and often features it more than his fastball.

Line-up:
1: Jackson, CF
2: Denorfia, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Hart, DH
7: Zunino, C
8: Romero, RF
9: Taylor, SS
SP: King Felix

Seven righties in the starting line-up today against the lefty Lester. I understand it a bit, though Lester’s been extremely tough on righties this year, and has career splits narrower than many left-handers. I’m not sure the platoon-split gain of starting Romero is worth the trade-offs, but of course that’s got a lot more to do with injuries than anything. Endy Chavez has been hot, but you do not want him within a quarter mile of today’s starting line-up. If the choice was Romero or a healthy Saunders, I think you go with Saunders, but that’s not helping McClendon fill out the line-up card.

The A’s line-up’s been quiet recently, with many pointing to the departure of Cespedes in the Lester deal. But the A’s are also down a lefty hitter who’s put up a 119 wRC+ this year in 344 PAs – C/DH John Jaso, who’s been sidelined with the aftereffects of a concussion. Jaso spoke with Eno Sarris about his recovery today at Fangraphs.

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Game 138, Mariners at Athletics

Author: "marc w" Tags: "Mariners"
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