What does the Mike Montgomery trade mean?

Dan Vogelbach

Managed to catch a goodly chunk of the Felix return on the radio during my interminable drive home from Bellingham.  It was another nice comeback and a really important win for the M’s.  Heard the ding of a text message from my friend Todd as I was driving, reporting Mike Montgomery’s trade.to the Cubs.  Todd was excited about the deal-and I became desperate to learn what we’d acquired.

Let me be clear-I believe Montgomery has been the most consistent pitcher for the M’s this year.  Though he’s had a couple of rough games out of the bullpen (compared to the rest of the guys, a couple is like microscopic,) but he’s pitched short, middle and long relief. He’s started a couple of games and been okay.  He also has the virtue of being young, cheap and controllable, fitting G.M. Jerry DiPoto’s criteria of young, athletic and controllable.

It’s also really tough to see the Mariners give up pitching, especially good pitching. The M’s remain within striking distance of the second AL Wild Card, but that can only happen if the M’s either acquire more pitching, or wave a magic wand over the the guys they have. So tossing AAA pitcher Jordan Priess into a deal that brings no major league ready pitching back is a bit of a head scratcher. Unless, of course, management is throwing in the towel and is reassessing this team, positioning it for next year. Of course, they would never say that.

This was a trade, so the M’s actually did get something back in return.  The headliner is AAA slugger Dan Vogelbach. The big left-hander is hitting .318/..425/..548.  Yes, he is hitting the shit out of the ball at Iowa City.  Why isn’t he a Cubbie?  Well, dude is 6’0″ and weighs 250 lbs, and can only play 1b and DH.  His route to the majors is blocked by Anthony Rizzo. at 1b, and, uh, there is no DH in the National League.  The Cubs also included AA RHP Paul Blackburn, a starter, in the deal. Blackburn was selected 56th overall by the Cubs in the 2012 draft. At AA Tennessee he’s started 18 games, thrown 102.1 innings, and struck out 72.  He’s 6-4 with a 3.17 ERA and 1.192 WHIP.  Not bad.

I know I’m tired from a week at journalism camp, but this deal doesn’t do it for me.  Look, Vogelbach has demonstrated that he is a helluva minor league hitter. He’s shown he has power and on-base ability everywhere he’s gone. But he’s also a really big guy.  In 2014 MLB.com carried an article about Vogelbach’s efforts to lose weight. Clearly his size is an issue. He is likely a candidate to play DH.  I feel like an awful person for even raising this, but didn’t we just try this with Jesus Montero? How does this fill the goal of becoming more athletic by the M’s?  Why do I feel like this guys is Jack Zdurencik’s wet dream?

If Vogelbach’s route to the majors is blocked  with the Cubs, what about the M’s?  The Mariners have a platoon at first base with Adam Lind and Dae-ho Lee. Yes, they are each ten years older Vogelbach. And Lind has trouble getting on base.  But the M’s also owe him the balance of an $8 million dollar contract. And who tied the game today with an opposite field home run?  Who has a pair of walk-off dingers?  Yes, Adam Lind in all of his .261 OBP glory has had some pretty big hits for this team. At DH, that Cruz fellow, with cameo performances by Lee, seems to have the inside track on the vast majority of at bats, especially with the return of Nori Aoki, to fill Cruz’s  role in the outfield. And what does this mean for minor league first baseman D.J. Peterson, an M’s first round draft pick, having a terrific year in the minors after struggling the past couple of seasons?

I dunno, maybe there is another shoe that’s gonna drop and in a few days there will be another deal set up by this one. But it’s hard to see the team’s most consistent pitcher traded when it’s clear this team needs more pitching, not less, if it has any hope of making the playoffs. Maybe if they got back someone filling a clear position of need for now or in the immediate future I’d feel better about it. I know Dipoto went on the radio and talked it up,  but right at this moment I’m feeling the best get in this deal is Blackburn.

The Deplorable State of Mariners Defense

Kyle Seager error

Kyle Seager bobbles a ball on opening day in Texas.

I’ve blathered relentlessly about the shaky condition of Mariners pitching.  I haven’t focused quite so much on the M’s problems in the field.  A defense can make your pitching lots better, or can make it seem much worse.

There’s no nice way to say this.  The M’s suck defensively.  How sucky?  Well, let’s approach this from a few different angles. Let’s begin anecdotally.  Listen to the Mariners television coverage and resident M’s veteran and rooter, Mike Blowers comment on their lack of defensive prowess.  Blowers often turns to traditional stats like fielding percentage as his reference and we’re going to see that is not our friend if we’re looking for support. We’ll also see that advanced metrics show the 2016 Mariners to be lousy in the field.

Do they catch the ball?

Traditional statistics take a look at numbers of errors vs. numbers of chances and calculate a fielding percentage.  So lets take a look at that using the stats compiled at ESPN.com. We find the M’s rank 13 out of 15 AL teams in fielding percentage with a .982 rating, tied with the Angels. The M’s are also tied with the Angels for 13th for most errors with 58.  So near the bottom of the league for most plays converted into extra outs for the bad guys. Only the Twins are worse.  The M’s are also near the bottom of the league for converting those errors into enemy runs.  The Mariners have allowed 35 unearned runs in 2016. Only the Twins and Red Sox have allowed more, with 36 and 41 (!!) respectively. The Mariners have allowed lots of extra base runners, which also extended innings, and created lots of extra opportunities for opposing teams to score.  Their numbers are much worse than their division rivals:

  • Texas-50 errors, .985 fielding pct., 29 unearned runs
  • Houston-41 errors, .989 fielding pct., 21 unearned runs (best overall numbers in the AL)
  • Seattle-58 errors, .982 fielding pct., 35 unearned runs
  • Oakland-57 errors, .983 fielding pct., 22 unearned runs
  • Los Angeles-58 errors, .983 fielding pct., 29 unearned runs.

Using a less traditional measure, Revised Zone Rating (RZR) which measures “the proportion of balls hit into a fielder’s zone that he successfully converted into an out” (Hardball Times) the M’s are poor as a team.  Their RZR of .777 is 13th in the American League and considered poor to below average according to standards set by designer John Dewan of the Hardball Times.

Do they get to the ball?

The other part of defense is range.  Players who can get to more balls also make more plays.  Sometimes that means more errors because players are getting more chances.  But it can also mean that double in the gap gets caught instead of being an extra base hit that scores runs. Traditional statistics don’t measure this very well. When we were building our teams for Sherco Grand Slam Baseball we’d take a look at Assists and Putouts.  But that doesn’t really measure range very well. Using that as a measure the Mariners rank pretty much in the middle of the pack.

But range is better measured by a couple of advanced statistics, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR).

DRS combines many defensive ratings to reach a description in runs saved.  A rating of 0 is average.  In Defensive Runs Saved the Mariners rank 12th, behind the Rays and ahead of the woeful Twins with a -21 rating. That is not good, but much better than the statues on the Athletics who scored a whopping -70.

UZR is amazing statistics found in the Fielding Bible that tracks each defensive play and divides the field into zones.  A player’s range rating is determined by the balls he gets to in zones that are in, adjacent to and beyond his zone.  We’ll take a look at individual zone ratings soon.  But as a team, the M’s struggle with UZR.  They rank 12 th with a UZR of -17.2, with 0 being average.

Looking for a bright spot?  The Mariners have a positive DPR (Double Play Runs saved) of 1.2.

What does this all mean?

Well, the big take away is that the M’s aren’t very good defensively.  Measure it by any statistic you want, old statistics, new statistics, the M’s are a lousy defensive team.  If you are Jerry Dipoto and one of your team goals is run prevention, this team of guys is probably not the one that’s going to get you there.

The other point is that a bad defensive team makes a   pitching staff look much worse. A great example of that is in Cleveland where they supposedly had the best pitching in baseball that would take them to the ALCS (where they would beat the Mariners) in 2015.  But their fielding was so terrible, the Indians were nothing more than an also-ran. Today, the Indians have the best defense in the American League.  It’s no accident their pitching is also superb.  This weekend they will likely pass Texas for the best record in the AL.

Despite the shortcomings of the Mariners pitching staff, it’s impossible to believe the defense has not contributed to their struggles.  If the M’s are going to make a run in the second half, the defense must improve immediately.

 

Mariners: Buyers or Sellers?

Mike-Montgomery

Mike Montgomery may step into Seattle’s rotation. But will it simply leave a hole in an already depleted bullpen?

Smack-dab in the middle of the All-Star break, the Mariners will have to make a decision whether they are buyers or sellers with the trading deadline just a few weeks away. They find themselves 8.5 games behind the faltering Texas Rangers in the AL West, and three games behind the surging Astros in second place.  That’s right, as poorly as the M’s performed in their recent road trip, they actually gained a game on the Rangers.

Probably more important, the Toronto Blue Jays, playing quite well, have a five game lead over the Mariners in the second Wild Card race, with four teams between the M’s and Jays. These include the Astros, the Royals, the Tigers and White Sox, with games left to play against all but Kansas City.

Should the M’s go for it and try to acquire the help needed to win a playoff spot?  I think   we need to answer these questions:

  • Are they close enough to win with 73 games left to play?
  • Can they upgrade enough to catch the leaders?
  • What will it cost them?

Are they close enough to win with 73 games left to play?

The answer to the first question is yes.  73 is a lot of games left to play, and five games is nothing if a team catches fire.  You all remember 1995-well don’t get too excited that was a playoff run for the ages. And Oakland had a helluva run in 2002, but that doesn’t happen often either. Today FanGraphs projects the Mariners probability of making the Wild Card at 9.6 %.  That’s not a static number.  The more the M’s win and teams in front of them lose, the better that number gets. But on July 12th, that number isn’t very promising.

Confusing everything is the two different seasons the Mariners have had. For the first eight weeks, the M’s exceeded everyone’s expectations.  On May 25th the M’s were 28-18.  They’ve gone 17-26 since then, and are teetering on the edge of irrelevance. The question is, which team will show up when the M’s resume play on Friday against the Astros?

Can they upgrade enough to catch the leaders?

Without noodling around the question, the M’s biggest weakness is pitching.  Yes they could get consistent production from Adam Lind.  They could get better defense and offense in left field.  But the bottom line is they simply can’t score enough runs with this pitching staff as it is at this moment. The entire pitching staff is in disarray from the ace, Felix Hernandez, to the closer Steve Cishek.  The Mariners have used 23 different pitchers this year, which sounds like a lot, but it merely ties them with Oakland, Minnesota and Chicago.  Toronto and Cleveland used 24, and the leader in the American League is Texas with 26–things could be worse.

Starting Rotation

The team’s troubles really start here. In these past six weeks it has grievously under-performed.  Some of its troubles are caused by injury.  Other problems were caused by ineffectiveness.  On Friday the Mariners will return to action.  It is also the night of what should be Felix’s final rehab start in Tacoma.  Assuming all goes well, the rotation will look something like this : Hernandez, Iwakuma, Paxton, LeBlanc, Miley, Montgomer/Walker.

Of these, only Iwakuma has been solid, and even he has not been the Iwakuma we are used to. Will a healthy Felix provide a consistent, competitive 7 innings per start? Is Paxton about to become a dominant flame-throwing monster? Can Miley resume the form he showed April 6 to May 22nd in which he was a consistent 6 or more innings per start? Is LeBlanc the guy we saw his first two starts, or is he the guy Houston dismantled July 6th at Minutemaid Park? How long will Walker remain on the DL?  His injury, while not seeming serious is painful and will require time to heal.  Should Mike Montgomery move from the bullpen to the starting rotation, creating one hole to fill another?

If there is an abundance of starting pitching available to be had on the trade market, the M’s should be early buyers.  My sense is there is not. Starting pitching league wide is thin.  There are plenty of teams nursing similar injury problems.  What is available isn’t that good and it is expensive to acquire both in trading and salary cost.

Bullpen

The Mariners bullpen had a brilliant April, but it’s been mostly downhill from there, as the relief corps was overused to cover for the faltering rotation. Injuries to Tony Zych, Joaquin Benoit and Nick Vincent depleted a thin bullpen.  Cishek has lost five games.  The team has a 13-18 record in one run ball games. But the discrepancy since May 25th is much worse: the M’s have a 3-9 record with four walk-off losses.

In addition, bullpen innings are mounting at an alarming rate.  With roughly 55% of the season complete, Cishek has thrown 40 innings.  His career high is 69.2 innings in 2013.  Mongomery has logged 56.2 innings in his role of reliever-without-portfolio in his first season out of the bullpen.  Vidal Nuno has 35 innings in 31 appearances.  His career high for appearances, often as a swing man, is 32 in 2015.

Though every bullpen member has had moments of shut-down lucidity AND instances of disaster, only Montgomery and Nuno have demonstrated consistent, cold-eyed close-the-door ability.  I might throw Edwin Diaz in that mix with another 20 games under his belt. The current bullpen of Cishek, Benoit, Diaz, Montgomery, Nuno, David Rollins and Tom Wilhelmsen does not give the Mariners the quality or depth it needs to regain its stride in a pennant race. Though help may be coming if lefty Charlie Furbush and righty Ryan Cook recover from their injuries, I’ll believe that when I see it.  But likely the M’s will have to acquire help for the bullpen if they are to compete for a playoff spot.  In my view this is the best place for the team to spend money and limited tradeable resources.

Buyers or Sellers?

In order to answer the question, there has to be some certainty what this team is.  Is it the April-May team or the June-July team? Because if they come out of the gate against division rival Houston and do a swan dive into an empty pool as they did on the road against the Astros a week ago, the game is probably up, and they should start thinking about the future.  On the other hand, if they play well over the next two weeks, they should be all in. It won’t be easy.  They have a home series against the Astros and White Sox, two teams ahead of them in the Wild Card standings, and then a very challenging road  trip featuring series with the Blue Jays, Pirates and Cubs. Just win baby. Go M’s.

 

 

 

 

The Miley we need

Miley vs astros

Miley was effective in a 2-1 loss to Houston on July 4th.

If today’s 2-1 loss to the Astros didn’t go quite the way we’d like it, at least there was a silver lining. The return of a functional Wade Miley, if he can continue, is a welcome reinforcement to the starting rotation.

Yes, Miley gave up both Astro runs. But his line was a respectable 6.2 innings pitched, 7 hits, 2 walks, 2 strikeouts and 2 earned runs. To be clear, the last appearance when pitched six or more innings was June 7th, a 7 inning 7-1 victory over Cleveland at Safeco.  Four of his previous five outings were of the five innings or less variety.  So today’s start was a breath of fresh air and a relief for this team.

Miley’s outing added a bit more buoyancy to a  pitching staff that is still gasping for air as they try to align their bullpen, wracked by too many injuries and too many games with three, four and five innings to fill. Tom Wilhelmsen came in and pitched a perfect inning, and David Rollins provided some excitement for the final out in the eighth.

If the M’s didn’t win, it’s hard to pin this one on the pitching. Lance McCullers is a fine pitcher who pretty much kills the Mariners.  His line going into his game against the M’s was 15.1 IP, 2.93 ERA, .182/.297/.236 slash allowed, with a record of 2-1.  Now it’s 3-1 with even better supporting numbers.

But it’s not like the M’s didn’t have their chances. Leonys Martin’s leadoff triple in the first inning was wasted when Seth Smith and Robinson Cano both struck out, and Martin was inexplicably thrown out at home when he tried to advance on a throw to first when Cano’s third strike was in the dirt. The M’s wasted a similar chance in the 7th, when they loaded the bases with no outs and Dae Ho Lee grounded into a double play with  Cano, the runner at third, forced out at home. Not much clutch hitting, and the unforced TOOTBLAN  in the first simply undid the few opportunities available in a tightly pitched game. Unforced baserunning errors and defensive mistakes have cost this team dearly. .

M’s cross the half way mark at 43-39

Seth Smith Grand Slam

Seth Smith hits his first career grand slam against the Orioles in Sunday’s 9-4 win. The Mariners four game sweep of Baltimore gives them momentum heading into a critical seven game road trip against Houston and Kansas City leading into the All-Star break.

Today the Mariners played their 82nd game; 80 games left to play in the season.  They clubbed Baltimore pitching into submission with all the elegance of a runaway jackhammer, just missing the team record for most extra base hits in a four game series.  For all the question marks the M’s have about their starting rotation, the O’s must be looking at their battle-torn quintet and wondering what the heck happened.

With the Mariners just crossing the half way mark an assessment is in order.  Clearly there are two distinct Mariner seasons at work here:  everything that happened before May 28th when the M’s were ten games over .500, and everything after.

Offense

Most of the past seven seasons were characterized by terrible offenses, even historically terrible offenses. That is clearly not the case this year. The Mariners have scored 407 runs just across the halfway stripe.  That’s about 800 runs in a season give or take.  The last season the M’s scored 800 runs or more was 2002, when they plated 814 runs.The M’s haven’t scored 700 runs since 2007.

What’s nice about this is it isn’t just a few guys. Everybody chips in, and everyone has had a big hit to win a game.  Even Adam Lind, who seems incapable of tackling a walk and nailing it in the scorecard next to his name, has had some big games and at least one walk off homer. It’s nice to see that Nelson Cruz‘s 2015 production wasn’t a fluke, and that Robinson Cano is having the bounceback year we thought he might have, and that Kyle Seager is having a little better Kyle Seager year than usual.  But how about Dae-Ho Lee? Together with Lind’s 11 home runs, the two of them managed 31 extra base hits including 23 home runs (not sure how Lee has only three doubles to go with his 11 homers!!!)

All is not perfect with the offense.

  • Is there an effective replacement for Nori Aoki’s at bats?  Despite his speed Leonys Martin is not a good lead off hitter. He has struggled to find his form since coming off the DL.  Seth Smith, despite his lack of speed, may actually be a better lead off guy.
  • The Mariners offense as a whole struggled in June. The team slashed as follows
    • March/April  .228/.319/.397  with 100 runs scored
    • May  .283/.346/.477 with 156 runs scored
    • June  .265/.320/.425 with 120 runs scored.

Though the M’s  offense obviously didn’t run and hide in June, I believe the team tried do too much as the rotation got further behind earlier in game after game.  Injury to Martin and Aoki’s relative ineffectiveness didn’t help.  I’m not quite sure what to make of  Lind’s miserable .278 OBP. When everybody is able to play a part to extend an inning and score a run or two, this team performs much better.  The long ball is a great weapon, but staying in the middle of the field works too.

Defense

This is an area that nobody talks about, but the M’s are generally a lousy defensive club. Let’s start with traditional stats. This team makes too many errors.  The M’s have made 53 errors, tying them with Oakland for 13th of 15 teams in the American League.  It also ties them with the A’s and Angels for 12th in fielding percentage at .982.  In terms of the less traditional range statistics, the Mariners rank in the bottom third in Defensive Runs Saved with -20, in UZR and UZR 150, and in FanGraphs overall Defensive rating with a -12.  The Mariners have allowed 36 unearned runs that might have gotten pitchers out of innings and preserved wins.  This is a required area of improvement for a stretch run. Outfield defense, in particular, has not been very good.  Looking for an upgrade in left field wouldn’t hurt.  The combo of Smith, Martin and Cruz just isn’t going to get to enough balls.

Starting Rotation

I honestly believed this would be an area of strength for the M’s in 2016.  And for the first couple of months it was. The Mariners were in the top five for both most runs scored and fewest runs allowed-the building blocks of a winning season. But having massive disruption in a starting rotation is the worst thing that can happen to a team. There was the Felix injury, Hisashi Iwakuma was still struggling, Wade Miley forgot how to pitch and became injured, Nate Karns forgot everything he knew about pitching, and Taijuan Walker struggled with fear of being really hurt.  It all combined for really bad. Here are some useful stats for the starting staff

  • April-23 Games; 597 Plate Appearances; .240/.310/.370 allowed; 2.60 K/W; 14 HR’s allowed.
  • May-28 G; 681 PA; .256/.310/.456 allowed; 3.07 K/W, 30 HR’s allowed
  • June-28 G; 672 PA; .291/.347/.477 allowed; 2.55 KW; 22 HR’s allowed.

Though June seems much worse (and will become more evident when we look at the bullpen), in fact the rotation was in pretty serious decline in May.  Too many less than six inning starts, and this team allows a lot of home runs.  Today the M’s stand at 102 home runs allowed, number six in the American League (league average is 98)

With Felix, Miley, and Walker hurt, Karns ineffective, and Iwakuma inconsistent, June was a very tough month, and it show in the team’s 10-18 record. With more consistent performance from Iwakuma, Walker pitching with less fear,  James Paxton showing flashes of dominance,  the acquisition of Wade LeBlanc and Felix due to come off the DL, it still isn’t clear if this is a rotation built for the stretch run. With Boston, Texas, Anaheim and other teams suffering significant injuries and rotation failures may mean the M’s can get by with what they have.  But maybe they should join the Drew Pomeranz sweepstakes.

The Bullpen

Relief staffs are so fragile and unpredictable, it was hard to know what to expect in 2016.  The M’s stockpiled a nice stack of guys, but as the year began, a queue of injured relievers formed and has only gotten longer as the season progressed. Ryan Cook, Evan Scribner, and Charlie Furbush inaugurated the Wounded Reliever Society, and they’ve been joined by Tony Zych, Joaquin Benoit, Nick Vincent, and Jonathan Aro. Joel Peralta, Mayckol Guaipe, Cody Martin, Steve Johnson and Don Roach made the their trip up and back on the Rainiers Express.

Like the rotation, the bullpen has experienced good times and bad times:

  • April-58 Appearances; 64 Innings Pitched; .173/.245/.293 allowed; 3.30 K/W; WHIP 0.938; 7 saves; 5-2 record
  • May-83 appearances; 90.2 IP; .208/.231/.330 allowed; 3.30 K/W; WHIP 1.081; 6 saves; 5-3 record
  • June-81 appearances; 98.1 IP; .264/.344/.453 allowed; 2.63 K/W; WHIP 1.515; 7 saves; 2-8 record.

As you can see, June was catastrophic for the bullpen as offense allowed increased by about 50%. But that should be accompanied by some other important statistics.  The 64 IP in April was second lowest in the AL.  The innings pitched in May and June were the second highest in the American League.  The M’s had the second lowest BABIP in the AL during April and May.  In June it was the fifth highest.

There is little question in my mind that a bullpen that overachieved in April and May was way overtaxed in June.  While I believe Dipoto has done a great job of mixing and matching, and picking up pieces where he can, the bullpen is a weakness, further undercut by the performance of the starting rotation.  In order for the M’s to effectively compete for the pennant, they must add at least one and maybe two arms.

While the Mariners have righted a season on the verger of a catastrophic capsizing, it is far from clear that they have the goods they need to win a playoff spot.  They finished their highly successful homestand 7-2, four games over .500, and only one game out of the second Wild Card spot.  Their seven game road trip comes against two of their competitors, Houston and Kansas City.  It’s a tough way to finish off the official first half before the All-Star break.  It’s imperative, they not tank this trip.

After the break, their schedule doesn’t get any easier, with only six more games at home, and every series against a playoff contender.  July can’t be a continuation of June.  Go M’s.

What Was Lost is Found

Mike Zunino returns

Mike Zunino crushes his second home run of the night in Saturday’s 12-6 rout of the Orioles. It was Zunino’s first game back from Tacoma.

Saturday night was an evening out with the missus, but quite fun as I was able to check in on the Mariners’ 12-6 dismantling of the Orioles. Today the M’s go for a four game sweep of the East-division leading O’s.  With a disastrous June flowing into a more promising July, the M’s seem poised to climb the ladder of teams ahead of them in the Wild Card standings.  Or, not, July looks just as tough as June, beginning with the series in Houston that starts on Monday.

What is clear, however, is that at this moment the Mariners have assembled a workable starting rotation. That doesn’t mean it’s the best rotation or even a good one, but that an Iwakuma, Paxton, Miley, Walker, LeBlanc rotation might give enough quality innings to keep a team that has the potential to score a lot of runs in the game and allow M’s a chance to win with its rapidly changing bullpen. Is this rotation good enough to take Seattle to the playoffs?  If Felix comes back healthy, and Miley can figure out what’s wrong with him, maybe. But these guys will have to remember who they were in April and May and flush June down the clubhouse potty.

The bullpen also has yellow construction tape all over it. Remember the relatively soft tossing crew of Cishek, Benoit, Peralta, Vincent, Montgomery, Zych and Nuno?  With the exception of Montgomery and Zych, they all threw 89-92.  Through injuries and ineffectiveness, the bullpen has a new motto “speed kills.” With Nate Karns’ right-handed speed moving to the bullpen, he joins hard throwers Tom Wilhelmsen and Edwin Diaz to add some explosive right handed relief to a bullpen that was overworked and ailing.  If Karns can find some consistency and if Wilhelmsen can find his missing confidence, this bullpen could be a more effective weapon moving forward.

Again, I give a lot of credit to Jerry DiPoto, his wide contacts in the game. He knew LeBlanc from his time with the Angels, and he wasted little time pulling in Wilhelmsen after his release by the Rangers.  Are these long-term moves that will make the M’s winners?  I have no idea.  But he didn’t wait for things to get better on their own.  I like to see that. Starting play today, the M’s have moved within 1.5 games of the second Wild Card spot.  Just win baby, just win.

 

When almost everything goes wrong

LeBlanc

Wade LeBlanc pitched the Mariners to victory over the Cardinals Friday night.  LeBlanc was acquired from the Blue Jays on June 22nd.

75% of baseball is pitching. Right now the Mariners don’t have much of it. With Felix Hernandez and Wade Miley on the DL, and Tai Walker a big question mark,  and Nate Karns relatively ineffective in seven of his last eight starts, it is not a surprise the M’s have plunged from a season zenith of 28-18 and first place in the AL West to 37-36, in third place in the division and 10 games behind the streaking Rangers.

To give you a quick idea of what has happened pitching-wise, here are some quick stats, easily accessible from Baseball-Reference:

For the 2016 season: BA: 250; OPS .725; Hits: 618; Runs: 304; Home Runs: 90; WHIP: 1.292

If these numbers don’t look great, it’s because they include the numbers for the past month. They’re terrible. For the past 28 day, covering 26 games in which the M’s are 8-18, here are those same numbers:

BA: .284; OPS .823; Hits 264; Runs: 138; Home Runs: 42; WHIP 1.506

As you can, see these numbers are much worse. Consider these 26 games represent slightly more than a third of total Mariners games played, and I can come to only one conclusion: Yikes!

All of the short starts, injuries and fourth inning meltdowns has put additional pressure on the bullpen.  In some cases they’ve pitched well, but it is a relief corps in chaos, throwing in roles that weren’t intended, and overused in a fashion that exposes their weakness. That they have surrendered a lot of late runs should not be a surprise. But there are some commendations to give out as well. Mike Montgomery and Vidal Nuno have been tossed into to some very difficult situations, and generally handled them well. Joaquin Benoit, not so much.

Also deserving of some praise is Jerry Dipoto.  Faced with this situation, the previous regime would have assumed their Winston Churchill faces, adopted a stiff upper lip and simply stated “this is our team,” and watched the season spin away out of control.  Though that may still happen, Dipoto has acquired as much pitching help as possible on the cheap.

  • Exhibit A: Adrian Sampson was promoted from Tacoma to fill in for Miley.  No, that didn’t turn out well as Sampson could not get out of the 5th inning, giving up four runs in a loss on June 18th in Boston. And he’s now having season ending elbow surgery.
  • Exhibit B: Dipoto traded superfluous shortstop Chris Taylor to the Dodgers for minor league starter Zach Lee. Deemed a trade of surplus commodities, it is unclear whether Lee can help the Mariners with their immediate problems, but it addresses some of the depth problems the M’s are suffering through with their rash of pitching injuries and ineffectiveness.
  • Exhibit C.: Dipoto traded for lefty veteran Wade LeBlanc from the Blue Jays.  LeBlanc pitched in six big league seasons, but hasn’t thrown in MLB since 2014, opting instead for Seibu in the Japan League.  LeBlanc won his first start as a Mariner Friday night, 5-4.
  • Exhibit D: Dipoto picked former Mariner Tom Wilhelmsen out of a very deep hole..  Wilhelmsen was the centerpiece of the deal that brought Leonys Martin to Seattle in the off season. The Bartender was nothing short of horrifying for the Rangers.  Released, Dipoto depended on prior relationships to bring Tommy back to Seattle.  After pitching one game, for the Mariners, Wilhelmsen was sent to Tacoma for further conditioning.

None of these moves represent the second coming of Nolan Ryan, and they are classic “buying on the cheap.” But it is something more than throwing up of hands and stating, “woe is me.”

The M’s bit the bullet on Nori Aoki, and sent him to Tacoma to work on his swing mechanics. Aoki hit a meager ..245/.323/.313.  He was never going to be “the man” offensively, but he was seen as a complimentary piece who could contribute offensively with on base and baserunning skills and average outfield defense. Unfortunately his slash his well below his career numbers of .282/.350/.378.  His below average defense in each outfield position doesn’t contribute to his value either.

The M’s have opted to carry David Rollins as an extra bullpen piece rather than adding to their stable of outfielders, currently consisting of Nelson Cruz, Leonys Martin, Seth Smith, and Franklin Gutierrez with Sean O’Malley filling in when needed. Boog Powell, a player the M’s were looking at as a future outfielder was given an 80-game suspension for violation of the league’s PED policy.  This is Powell’s second offense.

The M’s managed to eke out a pair of wins against the Cardinals, as they open their homestand.  They’ve peered into the brink of the abyss of another losing season and stepped back, even if momentarily.  Only 2.5 games out of the second wild card, hopefully the M’s have righted the ship enough to play decent ball while waiting the return of the injured, ineffective, and the trade deadline.

 

 

 

 

It’s the pitching stupid!!

Wade Miley

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Wade Miley throws against the San Diego Padres during the first inning of a baseball game Thursday, June 2, 2016, in San Diego. Miley unraveled in a 4.2 inning performance, allowing 12 hits, nine runs and two walks. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

In the last 14 days, comprising 12 games, the Mariners have hit like nobody’s business. They’ve had 138 hits, smacked 21 homers, and scored 85 runs.  That’s just over seven runs per game. The Mariners have slashed .322/.375/.515.

Their record during that time is 7-6.

Why not more wins?  Because their starting pitching has been B-A-D, bad. I envisioned the starting pitching on this year’s M’s as a real strength, while the offense would be better but only incrementally so.  Wrong on both counts.  Well, maybe wrong.

On May 22nd the Mariners returned home from their 5-1 road trip, taking 2 of 3 from Baltimore and sweeping Cincinnati.  The won their series with Oakland and promptly fell into a funk, swept by an awful Twins team, seeming to recover against San Diego at Safeco, but looking very bad in two games in San Diego, and looking bad in the opening game against he Rangers. These results are chiefly because of bad starting pitching.  Let’s review:

  • May 27th-Felix Hernandez was pounded for five runs in the 3rd inning.  6 IP, 8 H, 6 ER Ms lose 7-2
  • May 28th-Wade Miley can’t get an out in the 5th inning. 4 IP 6H 4BB 5ER M’s lose 6-5
  • May 29th-Taijuan Walkers throws 95 pitches in 4.1 innings, loses. 4.1 IP 6H 5ER 3 HR, M’s lose 5-4
  • May 30th-Nate Karns throw 6.2 innings against Padres. 6.2 IP 8 H 1BB 0HR 6K. M’s win 9-3
  • May 31st-Kuma wins, M’s bats incinerate Padres. 7.0 IP 5H 0BB 3HR 4ER M’s win 16-4
  • June 1st- Felix Hernandez placed on 15 day DL with calf strain. Replaced by James Paxton. Paxton sucks in brief outing in San Diego. 3.2 IP 10H 2HR 8R 3ER 1BB 7K and a critical throwing error. M’s lose 14-6
  • June 2nd-Wade Miley destroyed in second straight start, but saved when Mariners bats stage biggest comeback in team history. 4.2 IP 12H 2 BB 9ER 2K. M’s win 16-13
  • June 3rd-Taijuan Walker ineffective through five innings. 5.0 IP 9H 4 BB 3HR 6ER 2K. Mariners lose against healthy Yu Darvish 7-3.

The M’s are now their second time through the rotation in which at least three of their five starters have been terrible. Paxton (and Felix, when he returns,) Miley, and Walker have got to improve if this team is to win consistently AND spare the bullpen from repeated overuse.  Walker has pitched poorly in five of his last six starts.

So what’s to be done?  I have no idea.  Rub a lucky rabbit’s foot.  Pray to the baseball gods?  Hope for the best?  The M’s have done best when their pitching is performing well. About 75% of baseball is pitching. It won’t matter how many runs the Mariners score if you can’t stop the other guy.  If you’re ready to point to Thursday’s exceptional game, the Mariners have only done this once in their 40 years.

June and July’s schedule is packed with the good teams. Not only will they hit well, they’ll pitch better.  Don’t expect Cleveland’s excellent staff to surrender 14 runs in a Mariners comeback bid. Watch the offensive numbers all you want.  They’re fun, but they won’t win without effective starting pitching.

 

The Mariners at 51

Mariners Beat Padres

I promised to withhold judgment of the Seattle Mariners until they’d played 50 games.  Now I’m back, a day late and a dollar short, as usual.  You may recall I predicted the M’s would be at best an 83 win team and not make the playoffs.  I reasoned that the team was counting on too many bounce-back seasons from too many players for everyone to pull together individually successful performances to win as a team.  I specifically pointed out the bullpen as a critical weakness that would undo the work of a pretty solid starting rotation.

Okay, I admit it, I don’t know anything and I was wrong. While I’m not going to guarantee anything, this team should have the legs to remain in the hunt until the season’s end, competing for a playoff spot and perhaps a division crown. I’ll raise my pitiful win prediction to 88 wins. This, of course, means they’ll go on a prolonged losing streak and it will all be my fault.

Encouraging Tidbits

Two reasons this is not a fluke

Yes these are big numbers, but they are not unimportant.  The Mariners are second in the American League in runs scored with 256.  They trail only the Boston Red Sox, who are scoring runs fast enough to suspect that Jackie Bradley, Jr., Xander Bogaerts and David Ortiz (I hate that guy) are some kind of super villains.) Not to be forgotten, the pitching staff has allowed 191 runs.  That’s one less than the White Sox in one less game played to take the lead for stingiest pitching staff in the American League. Those are two important reasons for the Mariners success–they’re scoring a bunch and they aren’t allowing a lot of runs to be scored.  Their run differential is +65 and trails only the cudgel that is the Red Sox.

Not the same ol’ Mariners

This is where things become a bit more anecdotal.  These are not the 2015 team.  Yes, it hits a lot of home runs.  That’s probably what Jack Zudrencik planned for when he brought on Nelson Cruz last year.  But they do lots of things differently.  Lots more singles up the middle to drive in runs.  Not a lot of solo home runs.  Plenty of sacrifice flies.  Loads of homers with guys on base.  Earl Weaver would be proud.

But by the numbers, they are good too. They aren’t scoring all those runs by accident. Yes lots of homers, but they are second in the league in On Base Percentage.  Never thought I’d see that, with .327.  They are third in slugging.  They are second in wRC+ or Weighted Runs Created. with 113. It’s not just a few guys contributing as Leonys Martin, Adam Lind, and Franklin Gutierrez begin to find their strokes and help out the Canos, Cruz, and Seagers.

There are still things they don’t do well. With the exception of Martin, they are poor base stealers. They make mistakes on the basepaths-as per Saturday night’s walk-off double play hair-pulling, eye-poking, dope-slapping TOOTBLAN to end the M’s comeback effort against the Twins. For those not in the know TOOTBLAN equals “Thrown Out On Basepaths Like A Nincompoop.” I would suggest the M’s are likely rated poorly on the TOOTBLAN spectrum.

No Bullpen Blues

I believed this team’s bullpen would be godawful.  Maybe not as bad as last year’s bullpen, but bad enough to cost a demoralizing number of games. So far, I’ve been wrong about that. And what’s more, I’m glad I’m wrong. Just by way of simple comparison, last year’s bullpen was worth 1.1 WAR for an entire season. They were in the bottom of third of the league in K/9, BB/9 allowed, in ERA, and BABIP allowed.

How different is this year’s pen?  Through 51 games, the M’s bullpen is worth 2.0 WAR. They are 3rd in K/9 with 9.96, 1st in BABIP allowed with .245, and second in ERA with 2.53.  They still walk too many guys, and seem a little less lights out than they were a few series ago.

They’re not perfect, and it seems to me they are easily overworked.  They are good at supporting a rotation that is doing its job, but vulnerable if the starters don’t eat innings.  Even so, their work is a very pleasant and important surprise.

Gale Warnings

Life is not perfect with this team. Here are a few things that concern me:

Bullpen fragility

This bullpen still has guys I worry about, guys the M’s don’t seem to want to use in high leverage situations.  They include Steve Johnson.  He’s pitched okay, but it doesn’t seem like Servais uses him when the game is close, and if you don’t trust your guys to use ’em when you need ’em what use are they to you?  Same with Joel Peralta, who has actually given up a few long balls we’d like to have back. This bullpen has also failed when overtaxed.  The Angels sweep occurred mostly because the rotation didn’t do its job and the bullpen was asked to perform on too little rest.  It’s just not deep enough. It may become a more apparent issue when we have our run of games against better teams.

The rotation is meh

I truly believed the rotation would be much tougher than it has been.  Felix and ‘Kuma have been a crapshoot in each of their outings.  Felix’s last start against the Twins was a disturbing reminder of last year’s difficulties. There is more pressure on Miley, Walker and Karns to perform because there is no certainty the two veterans are going to rescue the team.  It also puts additional stress on the bullpen.  The consecutive implosions by Felix, Miley and Walker was dangerous, and it’s super the offense and Nathan Karns rescued them. The rotation has to pitch up to its potential or other answer will have to be found.

The Biggest Stories

The Bullpen

I’ve already said enough about these guys, but their contributions thus far are huge.

Leonys Martin

I’ve already written a lot about this guy too, but he’s added so much, contributing in the field, at bat and on the basepaths.  Get healthy sir, you are missed.

Robinson Cano

If anyone doubts that a healthy Cano is different than a broken Cano, consider this: on May 31, 2015 Robbie slashed .251/.295/.344 with two home runs.  Today a healthy Cano is slashing .293/.345/.585 with 15 home runs. The MVP whispers have begun, and it ain’t just from sympathy.

Nelson Cruz

If the boomstick hasn’t quite made the splash of 2015, he’s still doing his bit.  Last year his slash was .302/.369/.566 with 44 homers and 93 RBI’s.  So far he is .289/.386/.506 projected with 32 home runs and 104 RBI’s.  Which would you rather have?  One more set of numbers of importance is OF slash .205/.310/.301 with one home run vs. DH slash of .346/.434/.635 with nine home runs.  Cruz is making the transition to a full time DH role.

Looking Ahead

As we move into June, with the trading deadline in view, the M’s have certainly begun considering how to address their needs.  Another arm or two could provide more depth and security for the bullpen into a playoff run.  Perhaps the M’s should look into another starter.  While there are lots of things I like about Nori Aoki, another player who can provide a little more offense and better defense in the outfield would improve this team.

Revenge is a dish best served with homers

Adam Lind Homer

Adam Lind hits the last, and longest, of the Mariners home runs in their rout of the Padres 16-4 in Tuesday’s Safeco finale.

Awww, I go away for a few days and the M’s find a way to get swept by the Twins?  Are you kiddin’ me? I dunno how this stuff happens.  The M’s have been swept three times this year, all at home.  They’ve been swept by the A’s.  The A’s are terrible and injured.  They’ve been swept by the Angels.  The Angels can barely find 25 unwounded guys to put in a uniform.  They’ve been swept by the Twins, a team playing sub-.300 ball who don’t even have the excuse of being injured.  How does this happen?  I have no freakin’ idea; it’s just baseball.

So the only thing to do is take it out on the next team in, the equally hapless San Diego Padres, our fierce rivals in the N.L.

It was certainly nice to get a decent pitching performance from starting pitcher Nate Karns on Monday after three consecutive clunkers from Felix Hernandez, Nate Miley and Taijuan Walker.   Mariner hitters took out their frustrations first on starter Andrew Cashner for four runs in the sixth inning, and then pounded former Mariner Brandon Maurer for five more in the eighth inning to leave no doubt the M’s were pissed and the Padres pitchers better come to Safeco with their steel helmets for the two game series.  Kyle Seager homered off Cashner, and Dae Ho Lee went deep off Maurer, but five of ten Mariner hits were of the extra-base sort, including two doubles by Seth Smith, a career first.

Today’s game was a daylight send-off to a brief road trip to San Diego and Texas.  But it was like the guys in the home dugout really needed to make amends to the Seattle fans.  They did. Scoring early and often, they drove starter James Shields out of the game after 2.2 innings, scoring ten times.  Turning their attention to reliever Luis Perdomos, the Mariners scored another six runs, taking a 16-0 lead before taking a little breather and allowing starter Hisashi Iwakuma to polish off the Padres, with the help of Vidal Nuno and Mike Montgomery, 16-4.

It was great day for Mariners hitting.  Every starting Mariner stater had at least one hit, except Robinson Cano, who was walked three times and scored twice. The 14 Mariner hits combined with ten free passes for congestion on the base paths and required an occasional cleaning.  Kyle Seager, Seth Smith twice, Franklin Gutierrez, and Adam Lind were happy to provide domestic service, driving the ball out of Safeco Field, driving in 12 of the 16 runs. Only Smith’s second homer was a solo blast.

The Mariners now lead the major leagues in home runs with 78. Though the M’s left a path of rubble while waltzing through the Padres’ pitching staff, they remain tied with the Rangers for the AL West Division lead with the Rangers leading the Cleveland Indians 3-0.

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