Month: September 2015

For Me–Jerry Said All the Right Things

If you didn’t have a chance to catch new General Manager Jerry DiPoto’s introduction to the local press I encourage you to take a look.  Unfortunately it’s less than three minutes of his talk.

This follows last night’s two-hour meeting with Manager Lloyd McLendon.

What struck me, first of all, is his honesty.  He is clear that he will make mistakes beginning today.  Jack Zdurencik never admitted to a mistake–ever. He also explained that while he liked Lloyd McClendon personally, he likened their pairing to a long distance relationship, one that is yet to develop into one that can work long-term.

Most of all I liked things that didn’t appear in video, but rather in Greg Johns’ story.

  • He likes the Mariners core of Felix Hernandez, Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, and Kyle Seager
  • It’s important the team have plan A, but it needs a plan B for contingencies in case of serious injury or if a key player under performs the plan.
  • The Mariners must construct a roster that can succeed at Safeco Field
  • To that end, the team needs to acquire and develop players that are more athletic.
  • The bullpen needs an immediate rebuild.

Needless to say, these are all music to my ears.  In the coming months DiPoto and his team will make decisions that are likely to make waves.  But from a fan’s perspective, a fan who is willing to put his views out for the two or three people who read these musings, it was nice to think the Mariners GM shares many of my same views on what it will take to make the M’s better from a big picture.  It will be interesting to see how he gets it done.

Mariners Hire Jerry DiPoto as GM

Jerry DiPoto

Amid a five game losing skid at the tail end of a season full of disappointment, significant news about the Mariners for the rest of 2015 is likely to occur off the field. I suppose it’s possible James Jones will hit for the cycle, or Vidal Nuno will toss a no-no, but at this point we are watching the last twitching of the 2015 Mariners cadaver.

But I am buoyed with the news today that former Angels GM Jerry DiPoto was hired to fill the vacant GM job.  I’ll go into my reasons for optimism about DiPoto shortly, but I really do think Mariners management, particularly baseball operations chief Kevin Mather. are due for some recognition.  When he fired former GM Jack Zdurencik, Mather shared his preference for an experienced GM, and he got one.  But he did it without resorting to aging retreads like Kevin Towers, Dan O’ Dowd or Larry Beinfest.

Mather also made it clear he wanted to hire a manager who had a variety of skills, knew what he didn’t know, and was comfortable having people around him who could help. Mather’s statement today indicates that DiPoto seems to fit that bill.

During our conversations over the past few weeks, it became clear to me that he has a very solid understanding of our team and organization, both where we are and where we want to be. And he has a strategy to get us there. Few candidates bring the combination of playing the game, scouting, a solid understanding of statistical metrics and a plan for player development.

Mather also made good on his promise to make an early decision.  I was surprised a decision was made with six games left to play in the regular season.  But the early hire allows DiPoto the opportunity to have his staff together prior to the beginning of the off-season, ready to go with a plan when the free-agent period begins.  By contrast Jack Zdurencik wasn’t hired until October 22, 2009.

Will DiPoto succeed where Bill Bavasi and Zdurencik failed?  Only time will tell.  But one can point to players drafted and developed under DiPoto’s leadership from 2011-2015 and draw some conclusions.  They include:

Kole Calhoun age 27.  Joined Angels in 2012

C.J. age 25.  Joined Angels in 2014

Mike Trout age 23.  Joined Angels in 2011

Garrett Richards age 27. Joined Angels in 2011

Dipoto has drafted and developed players and he’s made a passel of trades.  Pedro Moura graded his moves for the Orange County Register after his July resignation.  Check them out and see what you think. Some hits and some misses. But there is also little doubt in my mind that he was doomed in his job. Angels owner Arte Moreno is a meddler and forced the signings of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton on the Angels GM. Hamilton was a disaster, and the Pujols contract will be, sooner rather than later.  When manager Mike Sciosia refused to use on-field analytics in his game planning, he received the support of the owner, leaving DiPoto to do little more than say “Later . . .” and head out the door.

My view is that DiPoto is a great middling choice.  He’s see both sides of the ball-as a player, a scout, and an executive.  He embraces analytics but will also employ traditional scouting methods. He’s not all one thing or another.  He’s been around longer than highly though of Yankees assistant GM Billy Eppler, but isn’t one the persistently recycled MLB old guard.  Does that mean he’ll win immediately? No. Does that mean he’ll please the fan base with his decisions? No.

And just one more point.  Be ready for more changes. There will be moves made in the front office and on the field from Safeco Field to Everett Memorial Stadium. It is unusual for a new GM to keep the old field manger around.  While views of Lloyd McClendon’s acumen are mixed at best, it’s unlikely he survives this new hiring.  Given his relationship with Sciosia, I can’t imagine DiPoto won’t insist on his own guy loyal to him. Another casualty, a little closer to home, however, is likely to be Edgar Martinez.  By all accounts Edgar has helped players like Robinson Canoe and Mark Trumbo turn their seasons around.  However, a new field manager is likely to insist on their own choice for a hitting coach .  A new guy, wanting collaborators he knows and trusts, is likely to pass on the greatest hitter in Mariner history. It’s just business. But that’s the price for failure.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s press conference.

Rethinking the Mariners outfield

There is little question the M's will be looking for some outfielders for 2016. A few of my thoughts on the topic.
There is little question the M’s will be looking for some outfielders for 2016. A few of my thoughts on the topic.

As the M’s chances of a respectable finish to the 2015 season begin slip, sliding away, it’s time to look at what they might think about for next season.  When my team is out of it, why not offer some prescriptions and see if my medicine as the same the new GM will offer.

Let’s start with the outfield, but it offers the most complex challenges.  The Mariners currently have an outfield that looks something like this:  Seth Smith against right handed pitching in LF or RF, Franklin Gutierrez in LF playing fairly regularly, Mark Trumbo is getting at bats in a corner outfield position, Nelson Cruz in RF, but not at the present time due his quad injury.  Brad Miller and Shawn O’Malley are sharing time in center field.  That’s a lot of guys sharing three spots, but to be expected this time of year because of the increased roster size and the team wants to get a look at who might help them in the future. Here is my view:

End the Cruz era in right field

One of the wise things Jack Zdurencik did in 2015 finale was identify and sign the best right handed hitter available in Nelson Cruz.  And Cruz has paid off.  While not perfect, the man is still a strikeout machine, he has some of the best offensive numbers in the league, and exceeded my wildest expectations, and just as importantly, the complaints of critics of his signing. But he was signed to be the DH.  Yet within a week of the regular season’s start he was the Mariners starting right fielder. For all of his offensive accomplishments, Nelson Cruz is not a good right fielder, and this is historical not just in 2015.  In his time with the Brewers and Rangers from 2005-2010, his defensive numbers, as they appear on FanGraphs were above average. From 2011-2015 they are below average, with the exception of 2014 when he played in somewhat smaller Camden Yards. His UZR/150 for 2015 are a career worst -11.8.  That’s nearly an additional 12 runs per season allowed above an average right fielder. There is a tradeoff to consider.  According to his season splits, Cruz definitely was a better hitter as a right fielder. He played 80 games in the outfield and his slash is .337/.402/.670, while in his 65 games as a DH he was .272/.348/.468.  However, Nelson Cruz is also 35 years old.  His performance as an outfielder is likely to continue its decline.  Another consideration in this, is he has been remarkably injury free with the exception of his quad condition late in the season.  That has not always been his history.  I’m not saying this is an easy choice to make, but I believe if Cruz can find more comfort as a DH it will help the team.

Adopt a run prevention model for the outfield.

Of all the guys I mentioned who are coming back to the outfield, the only sure bet is Seth Smith.  He has a contract through next year with a team option. There are no other players, whose primary position is outfield.  This allows the new GM to be as creative as he can afford to be. It makes sense to bring back Franklin Gutierrez to share time with Smith and fill in at the other corner.  But that still leaves the team without a center fielder and  they’ll need at least one more outfielder.  In my world I would look for the best defensive outfielders I can find. The bulk of the Mariners thump is on the infield-Seager, Cano, Marte (in his own way,) Trumbo/Morrison, Cruz at DH.  The Mariners don’t have to have big, slow slugging outfielders.  In fact they should be looking in the opposite direction. The outfielder needs a total makeover, composed of athletic talented defenders who can also get on base for the sluggers who follow them, and support the pitching staff with their gloves.  This is more likely to be a winning combination for playing half a season at Safeco Field. Here are some free agent players available who may fit the bill:

Denard Span (32)– .301/.362/.431 wRC+ 120. Span was injured most of this year and had a poor year defensively with a -10.3 UZR/150.  At 32, his age may be working against him.

Dexter Fowler (30)– .249/.345/.418 wRC+ 110.  Fowler has never been a great fielder, but was average with the Cubs this year. Low batting average, strikes out a ton, but also has some speed, some power, and takes his walks.

Colby Rasmus (29)-.232/.302/.430 wRC+ 99.  Rasmus has the virtue of being able to play all three outfield positions pretty well, though his best is center field. He’s had trouble sticking with one team due to an inconsistent bat.  But with his combination of defense, thump  and affordability he could be intriguing

Jason Heyward (26)– .288/.353/.423 wRC+ 116.  Heyward is likely to be the most spendy player in the off season–certainly at least among position players.  But there is also little question he is the best offensive and defensive outfielder available. Win now Mariners?

Alex Gordon (32)-.280/.380/.435 wRC+ 117.  Alex Gordon is as fine a left fielder defensively and offensively as there is in the game.  It is hard to imagine he won’t exercise his option for 2016 with the Royals.  But if he’s looking further afield, there aren’t many better players for a revamped Mariners outfield.

Austin Jackson (29) .265/.307/.378  wRC+ 92  Ah, an old friend. Despite utterances to the contrary, Jackson had a better year offensively and defensively than 2014.  Of the names above, he is the weakest offensive player, but someone whose skills were never suited to his role as a lead-off hitter.  He had an above average year defensively and he knows Safeco and Seattle.

The Brad Miller Experiment

We finished the season with lots of opportunities to see Brad Miller roaming center field.  The result?  Small sample size so it’s way too early to tell.  But the early defensive numbers are terrible–too awful to repeat here, they will frighten small children. But you can look.  See those big negative numbers; those are bad. I don’t know if Miller can be transformed into a regular outfielder.  I don’t like the idea, but there are certainly plenty of cases in which moving a player from the outfield has worked.  You can start with Dustin Ackley who became a pretty decent left fielder.  Alex Gordon is another player who failed as a third baseman, but became a really good left fielder. You’ll notice they were corner outfielders.  Miller could become one of those–probably an at least average one.  I don’t like the idea of Miller in center field.  I don’t believe you give a guy who has never played the position the responsibility of positioning other players, requiring the best reads off the bat and the best instincts, determining the best routes to the ball–that’s just a lot.  Miller may become a good outfielder; he may even become a good centerfielder–Robin Yount did it.  But Robin Yount is a Hall of Famer, and, dream as we might, Brad Miller is not. No, you don’t give a new 16 year old driver the keys to a Lamorghini.  Miller could fill a corner outfield spot as he continues to work on his game.  My own personal view is that Miller may be most valuable as a trading chip, one of the few the Mariners have, but maybe he could mature into a nice corner outfielder.

Draft Better

I know, you always take the best player available.  But look, the Mariners are in a very tough spot.  This team has not developed a major league level outfielder in the entire time Jack Zdurencik was here.  There are some marginal guys like James Jones, there are some guys who became outfielders like Stefen Romero and Patrick Kivlehan in Tacoma, even first rounder Alex Jackson from 2014, but they are athletes and bat first guys, not players who were drafted as outfielders.  I have repeatedly stated my objections to taking a hitter, sticking a glove on their hand, waving a magic wand and stating “You are now an outfielder,” and hoping for the best.  Corey Hart, Michael Morse, Logan Morrison, Mark Trumbo.  These are all players who came to the Mariners in the hopes they could play a position requiring considerably more athletic ability than they had.  Not their fault, the numbers were all right there for the Z-man to see.  Perhaps if he thought they were important he’d still have a job. No, this team must give attention to the outfield position in the draft.  Ken Griffey, Jr. and Adam Jones, the two best outfielders ever developed by the Mariners, were both No. 1 picks.

Face it–This Little Tease is Over

Wednesday night the M’s managed to stake Roenis Elias to 3-1 lead by the time he left in the 6th inning. But the bullpen, as it has most of the season, was unable to to hold it.  Closer Tom Wilhelmsen, after five days of inactivity wasn’t sharp, gave up the tying run in the ninth, and inevitably a variety of Rollins’, Zychs and whoever else was handy made short work of things in the 10th.

Last night’s game was strictly ant-climax as an early injury to starter James Paxton led to a string of relievers who helped the Royals to one of those all-too familiar double digit romps, 10-4 over the visiting boys from Seattle. The Royals clinched their first division title in 30 years, while the Mariners clinched a final road series to LA before returning to Seattle to play out the string.

For those of you counting the ways the M’s can sneak into the division title or find the secret entrance into the wild card race, you’re running out of games and fingers.  The division leading Rangers are red-hot and have a 9.5 game lead and the M’s have nine games left to play.  The M’s are six games out of the wild card race with six teams in front of them for the final spot.

Even my modest goals of finishing at .500 and catching the hated Angels seem unlikely after these two losses. The M’s are 4.5 games behind the demons from Orange County.  They would have to go 8-1 over their final games to reach .500.  With Taijuan Walker being held out to limit his innings, and James Paxton possibly injured, the M’s would have to cobble together four pretty amazing starts from the likes of Vidal Nuno and some combination of bullpen swill in order to have a shot at that.

The one possibility at satisfaction is for the Mariners to breeze into the Big A tonight and take three from the Angels.  Knocking those red shirted, haloed, buggers out of the wild card race would be good enough.

The M’s have played some pretty good ball over the past few weeks, but they didn’t leave any margin for error.  The team just waited a little too long for to play up to their talent level.  The little tease is over.

Franklin Gutierrez and Reasonable Expectations.

Franklin Gutierrez rehabs with the Rainier in 2013. It was one of many stints as Gut tried to cope with a series of mysterious ailments.
Franklin Gutierrez rehabs with the Rainiers in 2013. It was one of many stints in Tacoma as Gut tried to cope with a series of mysterious ailments.

In 2009 new Mariners center fielder Franklin Gutierrez had one of the best defensive seasons in major league history. A .283/.339/.425 hitter, the Mariners believed the 26-year old outfielder could hold down Safeco’s vast centerfield for years to come. Nicknamed “Death to Flying Things” Gutierrez was signed to a four-year, $20.5 million contract before the 2010 season.  It was the apex of his baseball career. By the summer of 2010 with his defensive stats still good, but not as good, and his promise as a defensive whiz with power evaporating, it’s clear the M’s did not have the player they thought they had.

The Myth of Early Innings Meltdown Syndrome: Mariners pitching just isn’t very good.

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Roenis Elias in action against the Cleveland Indians in a baseball game Saturday, May 30, 2015, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Though he’s had fewer short outings than in 2014, Roenis Elias would sure like to know what happened to the Mariners pitching in 2015.

For the entire 2015 season I’ve complained about the inconsistency of the starting rotation.I’ve also fussed about the bullpen (but then again who hasn’t.) More than anything, however, I’ve tried to understand why a pitching staff that was so incredibly good, historically good at preventing runs, could be so much worse in just one year.  Yes, there were some personnel changes and some injuries, but especially in the case of the bullpen, not that much.

I was sure one of the reasons for the early implosion of the bullpen was because the M’s starters suffered from Early Innings Meltdown Syndrome, or EIMS.  I looked for starts in both seasons in which pitchers did not go at least six innings. Why six, why not five or seven?  Six is the yardstick used to identify a “quality start.”  I didn’t try to factor in runs allowed, because I really wanted to look at how much work was foisted back on the shoulders of the bullpen.  Did they suffer from overwork in 2015 as opposed to 2014? My hypothesis was that the 2015 team had far more incidents of EIMS than in 2014, which likely contributed to bullpen exhaustion and collapse, especially in April.

In order to learn this I sat for a couple of hours looking at looking at every box score for 2014 and 2015 on Baseball-Reference.com. I checked each game for starts under six inning for each pitcher who started a game for the M’s in the two seasons. I’ve given the name of the pitcher and the number of starts less than six innings.  It would be great if I could display this as a chart–but no such luck:

2014

  • Roenis Elias–17 starts less than six innings
  • Erasmo Ramirez–9 starts less than six innings
  • James Paxton–5 starts less than six innings
  • Blake Beavan–1 start less than six innings
  • Chris Young–11 starts less than six innings
  • Brandon Maurer–6 starts less than six innings
  • Hisashi Iwakuma–7 starts less than six innings
  • Felix Hernandez–5 starts less than six innings
  • Taijuan Walker–3 starts less than six innings.
  • Tom Wilhelmsen–2 starts less than six innings.

Altogether that’s 66 starts that went less than six innings.  Of those 13 of them occurred in April, 7 in May, 10 in June, 8 in July, 12 in August, and 15 in September.  Felix had his 8-run 2-inning meltdown against the Blue Jays on September 23rd, which likely cost him the Cy Young Award.  With 66 starts that went fewer than six innings the Mariners allowed 554 runs, the fewest in franchise history.

The 2015 season looks a bit different, as you might expect, but perhaps not in the way you (or I) imagined.

2015

  • Taijuan Walker–10 starts less than six innings
  • Felix Hernandez-4 starts less than six innings
  • Hisashi Iwakuma–7 starts less than six innings
  • James Paxton–5 starts less than six innings
  • Roenis Elias–10 starts less than six innings
  • J.A. Happ–8 starts less than six innings.
  • Mike Montgomery–5 starts less than six innings
  • Vidal Nuno–4 starts less than six innings
  • Edgar Olmos–2 starts less than six innings.

Altogether that’s 55 starts that went less than six innings. Of these, 9 occurred in April, 9 were in May, 6 in June, 8 in July, 10 in August, and 8 in September.  In 150 games the Mariners allowed 669 runs.

As you can see, my hypothesis is shot all to hell. The 2014 team seemed to suffer more from EIMS than the 2015 team, despite being much better. One of my beliefs was that a lot of poor and brief April starts got the bullpen off to a bad start.  But the M’s had a much worse start in April, using the same criteria, in 2014.

So comparing just these two sets of numbers what can we learn about he M’s pitching?  Nothing factual.  Maybe the bullpen was so good in 2014, Lloyd was simply willing to go to them much more often, including earlier in games, resulting in fewer six inning starts. . And in 2015 the reverse is true–the bullpen is poison, stay away as long as possible.

However, it is not too difficult by simply looking at fairly basic numbers this group of starters is not as good as last year’s.  Of the entire rotation, only King Felix has an ERA+ higher than league average of 100.  He’s only at 107, much lower than 2014’s 168.  Remember the September 23, 2014 loss to the Blue Jays when Felix gave up 8 runs in two innings?  Felix has had three of those games this year, capped by the August 15th Fenway horror show when he gave up 10 runs in 2.1 innings. The only difference was that in 2015 so many teammates were willing to jump on board and contribute to the bonfire-final score 22-10.

In the bullpen, only Tom Wilhelmsen and Carson Smith have above average ERA+. The season totals for everyone else are pretty bad.  Low ERA+, high WHIP, high ERA.

In any case, there doesn’t seem to be much causal relationship between the mediocre rotation and the lousy bullpen.  They both just suck.  Hopefully the new GM will have a lot better analytical tools than i do and will be much better about recognizing patterns than I am, and, most importantly, have a plan to solve the problem.

The Ichiro Watch

Editor’s Note: At no time did I suggest in my article the Mariners should go get Ichiro.  I was merely observing the Marlins expressed an interest in bringing him back. I know Mariners and Marlins both start with M.

Ichiro went 0-4 in Saturday’s 5-2 loss against the Nationals

ichiro went 0-4 in Sunday’s 13-3 loss to the Nationals with three strikeouts.

Ichiro’s average is down to .237.

Remembering Ichiro

Ichiro Marlin

I was poking through MLB Trade Rumors this morning and wandered across this quote by Miami Marlins President of Baseball Operations Michael Hill about outfielder Ichiro Suzuki:

The organization is “pleased with the job he’s done for us,” Hill said. He also suggested Ichiro was in the team’s future plans.

I’ve seen all the great Mariner players: Alvin Davis, Mark Langston, Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey, Jr., Jay Buhner, Dan Wilson, Edgar Martinez, Jamie Moyer, Freddie Garcia, Felix Hernandez and a whole bunch more, and Ichiro Suzuki was as great, in his own way, as any of them.

Watching him play right field was a real treat.  The ways he managed to get on base were always amazing.  And then once in a while he’d really surprise you.

I was at Safeco with friends sitting in right field.  The Red Sox were in town.  I don’t like the Sox, but I hate their faux fans that infest Safeco Field when Boston is in town even more. But predictably the M’s had fallen behind.  Not much was going on (this was in say 2006 and the M’s were baaaad) We entertained ourselves by raining abuse on Red Sox right fielder Trot Nixon.  Nixon deserved this treatment anyway because, let’s face it, his name is Trot, and he’d hit a two run homer to put Boston ahead. Late in the game, the Mariners rallied, loading the bases, Ichiro stepped into the batters box and tatered the ball into the seats a few sections from where we sitting. Suzuki Salami wins the game.

Ichiro has been gone from Safeco for three full seasons and part of another. When he was traded to the Yankees, I didn’t shed a tear, but I felt like something was over. And maybe it had ended years before. Ichiro was a very highly paid player with a limited and declining skill set. He didn’t hit for power, didn’t walk much, his defensive numbers were diminishing, and as a player whose skills were really complementary to what everyone else on the team could do–he’s a run scorer, not really a clutch hitter who drives in other runners–there wasn’t much room for a player who had come to be a lighting rod for his style of play, his high salary, as well as what he could do for a lousy 2012 Mariners team.

Ichiro endured questioning from the press about his style of play and why he wasn’t willing to change it.  Fans questioned his heart and his leadership ability.  Even his teammates seemed to be at odds with him as Ichiro, seemingly isolated by language, culture, and a fanatical devotion to regimen and routine often seemed unwilling to do what was best for the team–whether that was trying to hit for more power or moving his show to centerfield. This view has been questioned by his Yankee and Marlins teammates, but when a team is losing, and one player with a really big contract doesn’t seem to be providing bang for the buck, it’s easy to point fingers.

I’d also suggest that Ichiro was playing in the wrong era. Coming to the Mariners near the end of the steroids era, when diminutive teammate Brett Boone was hitting 37 home runs and speedy outfielder Brady Anderson was smashing 50, Ichiro’s perennial 200+ hits a year between 2001-2010 somehow seem less significant. If Ichiro came to the 2016 Mariners as a high average, high on-base percentage, great defender in the outfield, we might feel differently than we did when we waved good-bye to him on July 24, 2012.  Could you imagine Ichiro on a team that had Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager hitting behind him instead of Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley and Casper Wells?  Could you imagine that Ichiro today on a team like the Kansas City Royals?

But it looks like Ichiro may be back with the Marlins next year.  That’s a team that started hot, but suffered a fair number of injuries and tanked early. Ichiro had a surprising 405 plate appearances for the Fish.  His slash line was only .242/.297/.298, a shadow of his career .314/.357.407. Suzuki had only 12 extra base hits, and drove in only 20 runs. Ichiro had 11 stolen bases.  He didn’t strike out much–but he didn’t walk much either. But he did play respectable defense for Miami with UZR150 rating of 12.2. By comparison, Mariners right fielder Nelson Cruz was a -11.7.

One inescapable fact is this: Ichiro Suzuki is 67 hits away from a career total of 3,000.  That’s a guaranteed ticket to Cooperstown.  Significantly, Ichiro has 4211 career hits including his nine years playing in the Japan Pacific League. That’s 45 hits short of Pete Rose’s career 4256.  There is little question comparison of the two career compilations will spark a plethora of disagreement about the validity of Ichiro’s Blue Wave stats. But there is little question Ichiro has had a fabulous career.and ranks with some of the best pure hitters of all time.

With the end of his career in sight, it’s great to see Ichiro may have a little bit more time to make history. He will doubtless enter the Hall as a Mariner. He’s the next logical addition to the Mariners Hall of Fame.  Ichiro may be quirky and press-shy (at least in America) but from 2001-2010 he was a baseball god in Seattle, and I hope he makes it to the 3,000 hit finish line.