Month: May 2013

Who are these Mariners?

Tom Wilhelmson and Jesus Montero celebrate after the final out of last night's Mariners game
Tom Wilhelmson and Jesus Montero celebrate after the final out of last night’s Mariners game

I was able to watch the last three innings of last night’s game in New York. It was gritty, nail-biting baseball at its best.  After Tuesday night’s debacle, I couldn’t even watch the Wednesday demolition Phil Hughes.  I figured if Iwakuma stepped on the mound he’d fall into a pit of hidden punji stakes and the Yankees would win by default.  Instead, it was New York’s turn to suffer a little bit of bad luck as their starter didn’t make it out of the first inning.

Last night, however, was a different kettle of fish.  With projected starter Aaron Harang out with a stiff back, insert Hector Noesi-plan for doom.  But Noesi pitched well, give him credit. When I turned on the game the Mariners led 3-1.  Though they gave up another run, somehow Oliver Perez, Carter Capps, Lucas Luetge, and Tom Wilhelmson managed, to cough, snort, wheeze and belch through the remaining innings but avoid the full body chokefest of Tuesday night, hanging on to the win and the series victory.

This team feels a bit different Somehow I don’t see this team as the same Zdurencik/Wedge teams of the last few years.  In the past, after a dissappointing loss this team would go straight into the can, with a long stretch of losing baseball ahead.  This feels different.  Maybe it’s the veterans on the team.  Maybe it’s the winning.  Maybe it’s the kids getting hungry.

But tell me you weren’t cheering when Kendrys Morales corraled Brendan Ryan’s errant throw to keep Ichiro at third.  Tell me you weren’t watching through your fingers, rubbing your rabbit’s foot when Wilhelmson got Robinson Cano to ground out to end the game despite his early wildness.  Doesn’t this feel different?

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The life and times of Justin Smoak

Justin Smoak entered the season as the Mariner with the most to prove.  He was the highly touted hitter received in the Cliff Lee trade that was going to be the M’s first baseman for decade.  He was a switch hitter with power from both sides of the plate that would be a 30 home run guy.  He’s failed to live up to that billing and his name is regularly trolled through the internet as a symbol for the failure of the Mariners’ rebuilding efforts.  He’s often Exhibit A for why Jack Zdurencik should go.

Smoak hits lefty Smoak hits righty

I continue to hope Smoak can turn it around.  I keep thinking he’s the kind of guy who is going to figure it out with somebody and be the 30 homer monster he was supposed to be.  I may be whistling past the graveyard.  But maybe not.

Smoak continues to struggle.  Justin’s slash line thus far is .237/.357/.314. This is a definite conundrum.  In the first 38 games of the season, he’s drawn 21 walks.  In 2012 Smoak drew 49 walks in 535 plate appearances. In 2011 he drew 55 walks in 489 plate appearances.  He’s getting on base at a rate about 37 points above league average.  Smoak got off to a slow start and is slowly pulling his batting average out of the mire, but it’s not likely he’ll be a .280 hitter this year (which is 25 points above league average.)  The most disturbing numbers to me are his power numbers and his runs scored.

Justin Smoak’s power shows up as being virtually non-existent.  He has six doubles and one home run, well, well below his historical numbers. Due to this, and that he’s not hitting for much of an average, Smoak’s slugging percentage is ridiculously bad.  Smoak has never had a particularly high slugging because he hits for a lousy average with too few extra-base hits .  His slugging for the last three years (2010-12) is .371, .396, .364.  However, though he has zero career triples and not a lot of doubles, he’s been in double figures for homers in each of those years. What’s happened this year?  With six doubles on the year so far, he’s probably on a pace to break his career best of 24, but only one home run? Really?

Another oddity in Smoak’s numbers is his runs scored.  He’s scored exactly ten runs this season.  Yeah, he’s hitting lousy, but he leads the Mariners in walks with his 21 and his OBA is well above league average.  Yet, his ten runs is fewer than Jason Bay’s eleven, and Bay has far fewer plate appearances.  It is also fewer than Dustin Ackley’s 14 runs scored. Ackley has the same number of hits (28) as Smoak, but only four extra-base hits and has drawn only five walks for an OBA of only .268.  Just to extend this a bit further, Smoak has been on base 50 times (hits + BB+HBP) more times than any other Mariner except for Kyle Seager (55) and Kendrys Morales (52.)  What accounts for his inability to pass the pay station? There is the matter of the guys hitting behind him.  Smoak usually hits fifth or sixth.  The guys hitting behind him are Jesus Montero .200/.250/.341; Dustin Ackley .231/.268/.281; and the twin black holes Brendan Ryan .122/.198/.122 (!!!!), or; Robert Andino .159/.206/.221.  Why would anybody give Smoak a pitch worth hitting ever?  How could anyone expect to score in front of these guys?  Smoak is slow and is a station to station guy, but the guys behind him hit rarely and with very little pop.  The bottom third of the Mariners’ lineup is Death Valley.

I’m not sure I have any answers here.  At least no more than anyone else.  Dave Cameron pronounced Justin Smoak an irredeemable failure over on USS Mariner on April 21st. Cameron suggested Smoak was not strong enough to be a mashing first baseman, he’s simply Casey Kotchman without the contact or defensive skills. Logan Davis on Lookout Landing suggested this might not be the case, rather that Smoak was likely to never be the big hitter we want and need in Seattle with it’s cool weather and big park.  But, if he went somplace like Texas . . . who knows. I’m reluctant to accept any of these explanations, but either could be correct.  Certainly Smoak, in his 1,500+ plate appearances has produced disappointing results.  It’s equally as clear to me that he’s doing something different.  He hits to the opposite field better as a leftie.  He’s walking a lot more than in the past and not whiffing on those pitches inside he had so much trouble with last year. One more thing.  On April 21, as the M’s wrapped up their Texas road trip of death, Smoak was hitting .188.  Today he’s hitting nearly 50 points higher.  Something is going on. If Mike Zunino or Nick Franklin played first base I might be really antsy, but there isn’t anyone ready to step in and take his place. There is little question the clock is ticking on Justin Smoak, but I need to see the end of the story before I’m satisfied that it’s finished.

The road ahead

The M’s head off on the road having greased the skids for the A’s continued slide out of contention for the AL West.  It was great to see Iwakuma do what he does best.  It’s nice to see Brandon Maurer stay in a game.  It was good to see Safeco Joe Saunders be, well, Safeco Joe Saunders. The A’s are struggling right now, and it’s important to kick those teams when they’re down, especially if they’re ahead in the division.

Kendrys Morales' three run homer helped beat the Oakland A's yesterday, 6-3
Kendrys Morales’ three run homer helped beat the Oakland A’s yesterday, 6-3.  Photo: Elaine Thompson

The teams the M’s will face on this road trip are not struggling.  The Yankees and Indians are both division leaders and they’re both red hot.  The Yanks are 7-3 in their last ten games, having swept the improved Kansas City Royals.  The Indians are 8-2 over their last ten, trashing the Twins, A’s and Tigers, moving past Detroit to the top spot in the A.L. Central. They finish the trip with two games against the Angels.  The Halos are 4-6 over their last ten, but did take a series from the Astros, something Seattle has yet to manage.

This will not be an easy road trip.  The Yankees’ pitching staff is ranked in the AL’s  top five, which always poses a problem to the Mariners’ improving, but still incomplete offense.  If there is any good news at all, it is that the M’s will run out both Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma to face the Bronx Bombers.  So, all the hitters should struggle. Though the Yankees are short the Alex Rodriguezs , Derek Jeters, and Mark Texeiras of yesteryear, they still have an otherworldly Robinson Cano, and the reinvigorated Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner to do plenty of damage.

The Indians are different.  Cleveland’s pitching staff is middle of the pack with an ERA+ of 100, league average.  But their offense ranks in the top third of the league.  It is first in slugging, led by catcher Carlos Quintana and Mark Reynolds at first base. Their team OPS+ is 122.

The Angels are a disappointment.  Their pitching is bad.  With their best pitcher, Jered Weaver, on the DL and an ERA+ of 85, this team, formerly built on pitching, has struggled. As you would expect, Mark Trumbo, Peter Bourjos, and Mike Trout are lighting it up, but Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton have yet to get their games going.  Their offense is a league average OPS+ of 101.

Seattle heads out on this road trip 6-4 over their last ten games. With the exception of the Saunders meltdown 10-2 at Rogers Centre last Sunday, they’ve played good ball and been in every game. They take an OPS+ of 95 and and ERA+ of 96 with them.  They have two of the hottest starters in the league in Hernandez and Iwakuma. Felix and Kuma will each get two starts. So will Aaron Harang.  They have a bit of momentum, but New York and Cleveland are not pushovers, and they are not currently struggling.  To keep things interesting, they’ll need to find a way to win five games to make this a successful trip, or four games to at least save face. The M’s cannot afford a 1-8 meltdown if they hope to stay relevant in the American League West, or, more importantly, in the minds of their slowly evaporating fan base.

A year later: some OBP improvement

 

Michael Saunders walked three times and scored against Pittsburgh in the M's 2-1 win on Wednesday.  Saunders leads the team in OBP with .362
Michael Saunders walked three times and scored against Pittsburgh in the M’s 2-1 win on Wednesday. Saunders leads the team in OBP with .362

The M’s were terrible at scoring runs again in 2012.  Their  619 runs scored was dead last in the American League. Again. One of the chief reasons why is nobody could get on base.  Seattle’s OBP was a league low .292.  One of my keys to some offensive improvement was to increase on-base-percentage.

So far Seattle has managed some improvement.  As a team, the M’s increased their OBP to .304, good enough for next to last in the American League. That’s a load ahead of the White Sox’s .279, and one point behind Houston’s .305 and two points behind Toronto’s .306.  The league average for on base percentage is .321.

While an increase in 12 points isn’t a lot to cheer about, there are some individual averages that are encouraging.  In 2012, the team leader in OBP was John Jaso, with an excellent .394.  Of the remaining regulars, only Kyle Seager (.316) and Michael Saunders (.306) had a percentage over over .300.  The rest were terrible. League average in 2012 was.320. Though it is a small sample size, some players this year are actually doing quite well.  Michael Saunders leads the team with .362. Kendrys Morales is at .342.  Kyle Seager has shown progress from last year and is at .336.  For all intents and purposes Jason Bay is a starter and is at .357.  Kelly Shoppach is taking the majority of catching reps, and is at .362.  Justin Smoak leads the team in higher expectations and walks and is a respectable .344.

Then there is the magical shortstop duo of Brendan Ryan at .220 and Robert Andino at .222.  Jesus Montero is .250. Dustin Ackley is .277.  Michael Morse is .286.  The M’s rank next to last in runs scored with 120, or 3.4 runs per game. Some of the guys who are struggling are really struggling.  Morse is near his historical averages, but Ryan and Andino continue to demonstrate their days in the majors may be near an end.

Though there is progress, a great deal more needs to be done if the M’s are going to significantly increase the number of runs scored.  Hitting solo homers doesn’t make one a winner.  A player can hit his way on base, or walk his way on base, but without baserunners, it’s pretty tough to score.

Don’t get too excited yet: the Mariners and the numbers

With their recent success between the lines, there’s a lot of excitement about Mariners.  When I say excitement, it means people remember there is still a team in Seattle and folks are talking about them-the first step on the long road to excitement.  Not to be the turd in the punch bowl here, I would simply draw attention to some of the teams they’ve been beating.  They are teams with bad pitching.

This little roll the M’s are on began with the Anaheim Angels We usually don’t think of the Angels as being a poor pitching team, but this year they are.  If we consult  the Angels’ baseballreference.com page, we can see how bad they are.  As a team they’re in the bottom third of the league in most important measures.  They are 13th in ERA, 14th in hits allowed, 15th in walks allowed, and 12th in strikeouts.  Combine these impressive numbers with 13th in home runs allowed with all those baserunners, and you’re looking at a disastrous season in the making. The team has an ERA+ of 82.  An average team has a rating of 100.   I don’t care how many Josh Hamiltons, Mike Trouts and Albert Pujols a team has, they can’t score enough runs fast enough to match the number of enemy runners circling the bases.  Jered Weaver’s injury, the inability of the Angels to sign Zach Greinke and the subsequent reliance on a staff of lesser lights will make it much more difficult for the Angels to remain in the division race.

The Orioles’s staff ranks in the middle of the pack in the American League.  If the O’s make a return to the playoffs it will because they are young and athletic, with an excellent bullpen.  It will be in spite of their mediocre starting rotation not because of them.  By the numbers, they rank 7th in ERA, 8th in hits allowed, 11th in walks allowed, and 9th in home runs.  Not terrible numbers.  Baltimore’s ERA+ is 110, so a bit above league average.  The Orioles have some decent starters, not including Zach Britton, who the M’s tortured, burned alive and tore into tiny pieces before his early exit.  But even Wei-Yin Chen (ERA+ 144) became fodder for the resurgent Mariners. The Orioles lack an ace, though their starters are certainly serviceable.

Today the M’s had their last game against the Blue Jays today. Joe Saunders did his magic road disappearing act, as in his stuff disappeared.  Brandon Morrow pitched like the guy we know he can be instead of the guy he’s been all year.   The Jays seemed so smart in the off-season.  They seemed to make all the right moves.  They made the trade with the Marlins for Jose Reyes, and pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle.  They traded with Mets for Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey.  They were poised to build on last year’s success, and were the sexy pick to win the American League East.  Ha! (Cue thunder, lighting, plagues of grasshoppers) Nothing has turned out the way they hope.  Their moves are making the trade of the entire Mariners farm system for Eric Bedard in 2008 only terrible instead of disastrous.  The hitters ain’t hittin’ and the pitching is bad. By the numbers, Toronto is 14th in ERA, 12th in hits allowed, 13th in walks allowed, and 14th in home runs allowed.  Not surprisingly, given the numbers of home runs combined with baserunners, they are also 14th in runs allowed.  Their OPS+ is a deceiving 91.  Deceiving because their bullpen is pretty good.  In their rotation only the J.A. Happ has an ERA+ of 107, or slightly better than league average.  The rest: Dickey 79; Morrow 81; Buehrle 66; Johnson 98.  Those are phenomenally bad numbers for guys who are supposed to carry two thirds of the pitching load.

I share this information simply as a cautionary note. The Mariners are winning games against teams that lack good pitching.  That’s important in a positive way because in past years the boys from Sea-town have had difficulty scoring against any pitching, as in if a pitcher showed up for the other team, the M’s were in trouble. You laugh?  You think I jest?  Philip Humber is my case in point.  It’s important the M’s beat teams they should beat, and they should have their way with poor pitching teams.

This month the M’s will face some really good pitching teams, like the Yankees and Rangers, and some pretty horrible ones like the San Diego Padres.  It will be interesting to see if the M’s can continue to beat up on the teams they should, and if they will continue to struggle mightily with the good teams.  Probably the greatest tragedy of the year so far is the Mariners inability to dominate the Houston Astros in their six games with them.  Everybody else has.

Blue Jays: the other white meat

It’s cruel to kick a team when it’s down, it makes me feel a little ashamed of myself to make fun of Toronto.  I suppose I should feel guilty and appeal to the better angels of my nature and hope the Jays find their way and live up to pre-season expectations, that they get over their injury issues, that R.A. Dickey remembers how to throw his knuckleball without the expectation that it will disappear like a Saturn V rocket headed for the moon, and Jose Bautiste will once again be the home run hitter he was rather than the fellow standing at the plate trying to corral a change-up with a butterfly net.  I should be a better person and wish only the best for the Jays in the final game of the series–naahhhhh!!!!!

Kick ’em when they’re down and get out of town as quickly as possible.  Joe Saunders isn’t quite King Felix or the amazing Iwakuma, but here’s to hoping he suddenly remembers how to pitch on the road.

The thirty game check

Today the Mariners jet off to Toronto. It’s one of their two off days during the first 30 games  of the season. I feel a bit different about them than I did when they limped home, tongues dragging, from their road trip to Texas.

The M’s finished their homestand 5-2 against one lousy team, the Anaheim Angels, and one pretty good team, the Baltimore Orioles.  They head out on the road against one awful team, the Toronto Blue Jays, and one division-leader, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

While I still think it’s early to assess the quality of any team, it seems to me the M’s recent homestand provides some encouragement, and some qualities to continue looking for as the season rolls on.

The Starting Rotation-Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma are solid.  They pitch well enough to win every time out.  Home or road, no differences.  Lefties and righties, doesn’t affect them.  Though they won’t always win, this usually has less to do with their performances and more to do with their teammates.  The rest of the rotation, however, will have more to do with whether the M’s record will improve over last year’s 75-87.

Joe Saunders wins at home and loses on the road. His performances home and away are like two different guys.  The one at Safeco is cool, calm, collected, the picture of a methodical soft-tossing leftie.  The one on the road is simply at war with himself-unable to locate his pitches or even throw strikes. Brandon Maurer is young.  We’ve seen him be very, very good a couple of times, and very, very bad all the rest of his starts.  I’m much more encouraged about Aaron Harang after last night’s game than after his other starts.  Harang’s fast ball was up into the mid-90’s allowing him to have more success with the high fastball he likes to throw.  Previously his high fastball was like 89 and hitters were riding the express out to the cheap seats.

The rotation still seems unsettled.  It’s unclear whether Maurer has the ability to stick at this level at this time, but there’s not a lot to replace him with in Tacoma.  Saunders, yeesh.  Has to get better on the road.  Harang, we’ll see, but he could be this year’s Kevin Millwood, and I’d take that.  But like I said in a previous post, this team will get as far as its rotation will take them.

The Big Boys: Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse

These were the two big bats the Mariners acquired in the off-season.  So far, they’ve been worth the prices paid for their services.  Though Morales isn’t yet lighting the world on fire, he is a stabilizing influence in the middle of the lineup.  His OPS+ is 119.  He’s consistently walking, with an OBP of .358, his power just hasn’t emerged yet, which is pretty much in line with his career performance, a bit of a late starter.  He’s someone the M’s can count on to start or continue rallies.

Morse got off to a hot homerun pace, but his broken pinkie really derailed his progress for a couple of weeks.  He is a force of nature with his nine homers tied for the American League lead.  However, most of those have come with the bases empty.  In addition he also has 29 strikeouts to go with his 6 walks.  Would definitely like to see the K’s go down and the BB’s increase.

You’d definitely have to rate these trades as a success, though how much of a success remains to be seen.

Promises, Promises: Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley

Ten games ago I was pulling my hair out and wondering if Smoak and Ackley, together with Jack Zdurencik, should be on Pierce Transit headed for a seat on the Rainiers bench.  I’ve begun to feel differently, however.  Smoak is getting his walks and his hits.  He currently leads the team in walks with 15, resulting in an OBP of .345.  He’s also starting to get his hits and his average is up to .240.  The last few games he has doubled-pulled line drives and hard liners to the opposite field.  I’m encouraged, and hope that soon we’ll start seeing balls leaving the ball park.  That’s kind of the way things went in Spring Training.  Still very much in a wait and see mode on Smoak, but there’s at least reason to hope.

Dustin Ackley is a mystery.  The best hitter drafted in 2009, he really augured in last year, and has struggled since arriving in Spring Training this year.  Recently he seeems to be having more success getting hits to all fields.  However, they aren’t much in the way of hits.  When Ackley came up he was a gap hitter with doubles power.  That’s simply not in his game right now.  He didn’t look very good last night with three strikeouts.  I’m less optimistic about his success than Smoak, but it’s still a bit early.  Let’s see what the next ten games produce.

The Brendan Ryan and Robert Andino Show

I love watching both these guys in the field.  There simply is not a better defensive shortstop in the game than Brendan Ryan.  Andino plays the game with a lot of grit and toughness and I like that too.  Unfortunately, a bucket of clams could hit better than the two of them, and I don’t know what the M’s can do about it.  The “Ryan is working on it”, and giving Andino a little more time excuses offered by Eric Wedge are getting old, and there is that Franklin guy down in Tacoma who is lighting up the Pacific Coast League.  It will be interesting to see how this works out.

The Bruised Brothers: Michael Saunders and Franklin Gutierrez.

If I stepped off a three week cruise and you’d told me Franklin Gutierrez was injured, I’d ask what else was new.  If you’d told me the entire M’s starting outfield was hurt, I’d respond “Holy shit Batman!”

Gutierrez, on the few occasions when he is physically able, makes this team so much better.  Playing him in center field, pushes Saunders’ speed out to a corner position, and improves the ability of all the outifelders to run down balls. He’s a good hitter, has some power, and adds some speed to the lineup this team sorely lacks. I hope he gets back soon, but it’s a hammie.  It’s Franklin.  Time to make do with what we have.

Saunders looked like he was taking the next step on the ladder.  His shoulder injury seemed to really impact this team.  When he homered in his first game back against the Angels, it’s sort of like he was making a statement.  He’s been a bonus in the outfield.  He’s a terror on the bases.  Saunders is still a project.  Struck out three times on Tuesday, but he makes the team better.

Kyle Seager

Though he was slow out of the gate, Seager, hitting second, built on last year’s success and, and while I wouldn’t call him a monster, he is definitely the most complete of the young hitters on this team.  Though he’s not likely to be the .400+ OBP guy Edgar Martinez was, he could be a 50 doubles, 20 home run guy, hitting around .300.  That and the fact he plays a very good third base makes him look like the cream of Jackie Z’s youth crop.

Jesus Montero

I keep pulling for this guy because we potentially gave up so much to get him.  Not only that but Kendrys Morales likely won’t stay beyond this year and he’s supposed to be our designated hitter of the future. I keep thinking something is going to jump start him.  Some of the hits he’s had have been big, but there are just so few of them. Between his lack of catching skills and his struggles at the plate, Montero hasn’t gotten off to an encouraging start.  All he has going for him is his comparative youth.

Guys without jobs: Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez

I wasn’t wild about the Bay pickup in the offseason, but he’s done a good job filling in during the Great Outfield Massacre. His defense is decent and he shows some signs at the plate he might still have a career left. I might feel more comfortable with him in a backup role, but he does have a tidy 127 OPS+.  Raul Ibanez is the opposite of Jason Bay.  Raul is one of my favorite former Mariners. He should remain a former Mariner.  He’s looked embarassingly bad in the field, and despite a couple of homers, he’s not hittin’ a lick.  His OPS+ is 44.  Raul is probably ready to go.

The Injury Bug

In seasons past, the Mariners have been bad.  They’ve played below expectations.  They’ve done stupid stuff. But for the most part they’ve avoided a plethora of injuries.  Not the case this year.  So far the M’s suffered a raft of injuries contributing to their slow start.  This is the casualty list:

Franklin Gutierrez (naturally), Michael Morse, Michael Saunders, Erasmo Ramirez, Stephen Pryor, and Josh Kinney.  Of these, only Morse hasn’t been on the DL. How much better would this team be with Ramirez in the starting rotation, Pryor in the bullpen, and Gutierrez in center field?  No question they’d be better.  Maybe not loads better, but definitely improved, and two games better makes them a .500 team.