Month: May 2016

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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Isn’t this the way it’s supposed to be?

me and dave

I am a Mariners fan.

I am also a high school teacher.  My colleagues are regularly bedecked in Seahawks blue and Sounders green to support their successful teams.  I have an aged Mariners windshirt I bought from a street vendor back in the day.  I have a blue, misprinted Mariners jersey, and a gorgeous teal Ichiro jersey I picked up cheap(er) when the team store was closing them out.  I bought a tacky, but lovely Mariners sweater at FanFest.  I wear them all proudly.  All my colleagues know where my sporting loyalties lie.

But this year it’s different.  My buddies stop me in the hall in the morning before students arrive and want to talk baseball.  Inevitably the questions start with, “Did you stay up late enough to. . .?”, because of all the come back wins.

Usually my answer is no.  I suffer from insomnia, and when I start to feel sleepy at nine or nine thirty at the very latest I have to go to bed. But because I wake up very early–say at 3:00 or 3:30, I follow the game news–ESPN, MLB.com, Lookout Landing–I usually know what transpired.  Sometimes my iPad on my night table wakes me up with news.  “Leonys Martin’s walk off homer beats A’s 6-5.” I usually sleep better those nights.

I find myself giving inordinate amounts of time to this baseball season and the Mariners.  I’ve made 15 posts in May.  Most posts take me a couple of hours. That’s a lot of hours. In 2015 I wrote 79 posts for the entire year.

If my behavior seems obsessive, my guess is that if you’re taking the time to read this then you’ve become a bit of a Mariners nut yourself. Watching the games, following storylines on the ‘web, maybe trying to figure out the new stats–what the heck is BABIP, xFIP and dWAR anyway? Why the heck is Adam Lind’s fWAR so bad?

But that’s the way it’s supposed to be, isn’t it?  That’s what happens when your team is winning. In 2001 when it seemed the M’s couldn’t lose, we still read the print paper.  But we looked at the box scores, all of ’em. We read Larry Stone and Larry LaRue every day.  And there was a Post Intelligencer to give us a third view. I never missed a game on television, and I spent a fair amount of cash to take my wife to games at Safeco.

I still look at the Times and News Tribune coverage-until my free views run out.  I check FanGraphs, MLBTR, anything I hope will give me a little more insight into my beloved Mariners.  Winning teams inspire their fans to do that.  And it sure feels good.  That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

I’ll be away, playing games with toy soldiers this weekend, trying to sneak in views of the M’s vs. Twins in the bar. Go M’s.

Why the next seven games are critical

Mariners win

The Mariners will look back on May and remark, “damn we were good.” Or at least they will if they finish the month strong.  They are currently 15-8 in May with three games against the Twins and two more against the Padres at Safeco Field.  They head out on the road for the first two games of June against those NL rivals, the Padres for the second leg of the home and home series.

These seven games are absolutely critical. May is a month in which they’ve been able to beat up on a lot of the weak sisters in both leagues.  They’ve pounded the A’s and the Astros, as well as the last place Reds.  The M’s stumbled against the Angels, but they managed a 5-1 record against the Orioles and the Rays, really good and fairly decent respectively.

The Twins are terrible at 12-34, the worst record in the American League.  The Padres, in their continuing effort at rebuilding under A.J. Preller, also are not good 19-29, 10.5 games behind the Giants in the NL West basement. The M’s improved their record and held on to the top spot in the AL West beating up bad teams and they need to continue doing that to the Twins and Padres.

Things get much tougher for them in June.  First, they have 15 games on the road and only 12 games at home.  Of course, the way things are going, that may be a good thing.  But they play some very good teams on the road next month.

After the Padres series, it’s on to the Rangers, their arch rival for the top spot in the division.  Then they come home to face a hot Indians team for four games, and three more against the Rangers.

Then it’s back out on the road to face the Rays, a weekend series against the Red Sox run-scoring machine, and four against a very hot Tigers team. But wait, before they get an off day the M’s come home to for an interleague series in Seattle against the Cardinals. No gimmees in this 13 game pilgrimage. This may be a couple of weeks that makes or breaks their season.

But it doesn’t get any easier. June closes out with a series against the Pirates at Safeco, and begins a series against the Orioles that overlaps into July.

From their June schedule, only the Rays have a losing record at the present time.  The Red Sox lead their division.  The Pirates, Tigers and Indians are currently blazing hot. We’ll get a chance to see what the Mariners are really made of.  They can’t afford a June swoon, because July doesn’t look any better.

Assessing trades at the quarter pole: Nate Karns

Karns 2

The Mariners got out of the gate in the trading period early. On November 2nd they announced the first deal in major league baseball, and their biggest trade of the season.They swapped shortstop/outfielder Brad Miller, 1b/DH Logan Morrison/ and reliever Danny Farquhar for right-handed starter Nathan Karns, reliever C.J. Riefenhausen, and minor league outfielder Boog Powell.

The trade implemented General Manager Jerry Dipoto’s view the Mariners needed a deeper rotation, to lengthen and deepen the bullpen, and to acquire younger, more athletic players who would play well at Safeco Field. In order to that, Dipoto traded, arguably, the Mariners most valuable, but expendable chip in Miller, and included pieces, Morrison and Farquhar, who failed to contribute to Mariner success in 2015.

So let’s take a quick look at the new Rays.  Beginning with Farquhar, the news is not good. Danny has had trouble staying with the big club.  He’s compiled only 5.1 inning in Tampa, while spending considerable time in AAA Durham. His Tampa Bay line isn’t terrible, a 3.38 ERA on 7 hits.  But he’s also give up two walks and two home runs for a WHIP of 1.668, a BABIP of .313 and xFIP of 4.08, s0 he’s not exactly keeping guys off the bases. He was DFA’d on May 14th as the Rays try to sneak him through waivers in a bid to control their 40 man roster.  It’s not clear what his final destination will be.

Logan Morrison got off to a horrendous start. When the Rays swam into Seattle to be beaten up by the Mariners on May 9th, Morrison was hitting a frigid .122/.188/.149.  Yes, do the math, that’s a .271 OPS. I didn’t know they made OPS that low. Like Leonys Martin, and others, Morrison has improved. as the season has progressed. He has a big hole to dig himself out of, but his current slash is .206/.309/.280, adding a couple of home runs to his repertoire. LoMo has clearly heated up during the last four weeks.  What isn’t clear is if this is sustainable improvement or if it is simply similar teases we’ve seen from him in the past. First base remains a weighted offensive position, and though the Rays lead the American League in home runs, they are only tenth in runs scored.  They need all hands on board.

Brad Miller became expendable when Ketel Marte demonstrated he could handle shortstop, hence his cross country trip to Tampa Bay. Like Morrison, Miller started out slow. Though he’s now slashing .233/.303/.434, it’s been a slow rise from his nadir of .106/.176/.213 on April 23rd. Offensively, Miller is rated above average with an OPS + of 105, and a wRC+ of 106.  Defensively, the story is a little different.  The shortstop is rated unequivocally bad at the present time, with -8 defensive runs saved, and a UZR 150 of -28.7  These are MUCH worse ratings than he posted as shortstop with the Mariners.

For the Rays, its still a bit early to determine how successful this trade was for them.  They’ve put their eggs in the Miller basket for shortstop, but clearly that has some defensive ramifications.  In the case of Logan Morrison he hasn’t shown much yet. Farquhar looks to be a throwaway.

On the Mariners side of the ledger, C.J. Riefenhausen didn’t remain a Mariner property for long.  He was included in the Mark Trumbo trade, and never donned Mariner teal.

Nathan Karns struggled during much of spring training, but in his last few starts, showed enough consistency to win the 5th starter’s job. Karns is 28, but a young 28 and does not have a ton of time in the big leagues.  2015 was the first season he spent much time in the majors.

Karns has some great numbers, starting with 4-1.  He has a great K/9 ratio in 9.0, and solid ERA of 3.53.  But all is not perfect. His WHIP of 1.294, while not fatal is not great.  Though he allows some baserunners, at least he doesn’t give up piles of homers.  He’s had difficulty getting deep into games. In only one of his starts has he gotten as deep as the seventh inning.  Five of his starts ended 5.0-5.1 innings. Overall his rating is above average.  His ERA+ is 108, BABIP is .294, and xFIP is 3.75. Plenty of room for improvement, but probably better than most of the fifth starters most teams are running out once a week. Karns earned .7 WAR, which is pretty darn good for May 25th.

Boog Powell 2

Boog Powell is in Tacoma. Powell was brought to the Mariner organization to be a lights out, balls for leather defensive outfielder, with the expectation he would likely make the majors as a fourth outfielder.  I have no actual evidence to share about Powell’s defensive prowess, only anecdotal observation that he plays hard and is a classic dirty shirt guy. He can hit a little too. His slash in the offense-happy PCL is .280/.341/.373. with six doubles, a triple and two homers. Just to be clear that’s twice as many extra base hits as Logan Morrison.

It feels like the Mariners half of the trade is out-performing the Rays at this time.  It will be interesting to see how this pencils out in, say, August.  Is Powell a candidate to take Nori Aoki’s spot if he continues to struggle?  Can Karns make progress and lengthen his outings? Will Miller turn around some of his defensive woes?  Lots to learn as the season goes on.

Checking in on old friends

Ichiro

Once a Mariner always a Mariner? Well, no, probably not. Still I often like to check in on former M’s to see how they’re doing in their post-Seattle careers.

Ichiro Suzuki

When last we left the future Hall of Famer, Ichiro signed a deal with the Miami Marlins to be a part-time outfielder.  That the Marlins extended him before the 2015 was over was a pretty big surprise. But Ichiro is rewarding their faith with pretty Ichiro-like year in limited playing time. Though he’s lost most of his speed and almost all of his pop, Ichiro is slashing an incandescent .385/.444/.431 in 73 plate appearances.  He’s walking a little (7) and striking out even less (3).  Defensively, the Marlins have played him in all three outfield position, but he’s at his best in left field.  He currently has 3 DRS and a cumulative 11.2 UZR 150 in the outfield.  Ichiro’s seemed to be in decline in the teens, but he turned in a strong performance with Miami last year.  He currently sports a .7 WAR, while last year he had a -.8 WAR.  Good news for him as Ichiro steams toward the Hall of Fame “promised land” of 3,000 hits. He has 25 in 2016 and needs 40 more. Great story on Ichiro in Five Thirty Eight.

Justin Smoak

On April 22nd Chris Colabello was suspended for PED’s, insuring old friend Justin Smoak would be the regular first baseman.  Smoak’s 2015 season was very Smoak-like, but with more thump.239/.299/.480.  Lots of strikeouts, not a lot of walks. 16 doubles and 18 homers.  Not bad, but not brilliant. Smoak was able to fit in very well with Toronto as a role player.  He didn’t have to be the show. This year, the native of Goose Creek, S.C. is showing a different side of Justin Smoak.  Not as much pop, but with a .282/.398/.417. His batting average is the highest of his career, and his OBP is the highest on a team of pretty good hitters. Only three homers so far, and the Jays have him hitting sixth.

Chris Young

Chris Young is one of my favorite former Mariners.  He had a decent year with the world champion Kansas City Royal.  Working as a swing man, Young posted an 11-6 record with a 3.06 ERA. But this year the 6’10” Princeton graduate stumbled out of the gate.  Young started seven games and was pounded, going as deep as six innings only once. He assembled a dubious 1-5 record with a 6.68 ERA.  In 32.1 innings, Young struck out 31, walked 13 and allowed an incredible 13 home runs. He was added to the fifteen day disabled list on May 10 with a right forearm strain.  He is scheduled for a simulated game later this week.

Dustin Ackley

Together with Smoak, Dustin Ackley might be the most polarizing figure of the Jack Zdurencik era. At the end of the 2015 season, he was traded to the Yankees, where he spun some pretty good numbers, .288/.333/.654.  As the season ended, many Mariners fans grumbled about what happened to former Mariners when they left the team.  Yankees fans wondered about where Ackley would play.  But honestly, Ackley has not performed that well. He’s only played in 23 games and earned 47 plate appearances. His slash is a meager .163/.276/.163.  That’s right, all of Ackley’s five hits are singles. Though his splits seem to show he may be getting off the snide, we’ve seen this kind of performance from Ackley before–sustained mediocrity, sprinkled with glimpses of something more.  Nice to see it in pinstripes instead of teal.

Michael Saunders

After missing most of 2015 with a serious knee injury, Michael Saunders came back to the Jays with a vengeance.  He is hitting a robust .314/.379/.556 with eight home runs. Saunders is in his age 29 season, and is leading his offense-heavy team in average. He’s also has more than a few strikeouts with 43.  Saunders has managed to stay away from the disabled list, a chronic situation that has followed him around throughout his career. Always liked Saunders.  I’m hoping he can use his health and talents to beat up some Yankees and Red Sox.

 

What happened to Leonys Martin?

Leonys Martin
Seattle Mariners’ Leonys Martin hits against the Los Angeles Angels during the first inning of a spring training baseball game, Tuesday, March 15, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Every year the Mariners have a player with a great story.  For me, I love those players who have a tale of redemption.  Sometimes it’s a guy who becomes a star.  Often it’s a guy who was lucky to catch on and make his role work.  In 2014 the story was Chris Young.  In 2015 it was Franklin Gutierrez.  They are both players I keep tabs on, because they both remind me of what a tough game baseball is, and when a player has additional physical challenges it takes real courage to fight through those issues and succeed. I will always admire Young and Guti.

The M’s have lot of great stories on this team.  Robinson Cano’s out of the blocks beginning after fighting with illness and injury for an entire year is a great story.Steve Cishek’s emergence as a legit closer after a year in wilderness is another. But my absolute favorite story is Leonys Martin and whatever it is he might become.

Let’s be clear.  I love great defensive outfielders, especially great centerfielders. When I lived in the Bay Area in the early 70’s I loved the Giants with their outfield of Bobby Bonds, Garry Maddox and Gary Matthews.  It was a stable of greyhounds who could really go get a ball.  They could hit a little too. One of my all time favorite Mariners is Mike Cameron. Cammie was a thrill to watch.  I’m hoping he’s still got that home run ball he swiped from Derek Jeter in his first Safeco series.  Cameron is ranked number 12 among the greatest center fielders of all time in Michael Humphreys’ quirky little book Wizardry about the greatest defensive players in baseball history. I had dreams last summer about the Mariners acquiring Kevin Pillar or Kevin Kiermaier.

Didn’t happen. But instead the M’s took a chance on Leonys Martin. Let’s be clear what Martin is and what he is not.  Leonys Martin is ranked third in the AL among regular center fielders in dWAR at .7.  Yes, it’s Pillar and Kiermaier ahead of him.  He is an elite defender, and he’s been a defensive standout throughout his career.

Martin has not been a great hitter.  His career slash is .255/.308/.371.  Last year he was deemed expendable because the Rangers insisted he lead off despite his low on-base percentage, which was exacerbated by injury and his generally lousy year. Martin is not a power hitter. The most home runs he’s ever hit in a season is eight. You know why I spell out eight?  Because it’s less than 10.  Fewer than 10 home runs home runs makes you less of a power hitter than Brad Miller.

So what the heck is happening with Leonys Martin? One thing that’s happening is he has suddenly emerged on May 24th as a power hitter with eight home runs, tying his season high. That’s in 139 at bats as opposed to 457 at bats required in 2013, the last time he achieved that feat.  Does that mean he’s going to hit 25-30 home runs? I don’t think so, but clearly Jeff Sullivan is impressed.

No, what I find impressive, is that on May 9th Martin was hitting .198. with five homers and 37 strikeouts. 11 games later his slash is .259/.335/.468. He’s struck out only six times.  In the last seven games his slash is .600/.660/1.100.  with two K’s.

There will be plenty of folks who are super impressed with the idea of a Martin with power. I am much more impressed with a Martin who can be a legit leadoff hitter with speed. With Ketel Marte injured and Nori Aoki slumping, Martin offers the M’s an enfant terrible of their own.  A guy who can get on base, can run, drive pitchers and catchers nuts, and I’ll take the occasional homer just for good measure.

Will Martin’s success continue?  Will his average continue to rise?  Will he continue to suppress his strike outs?  Damned if I know.  But that’s baseball.  Pitchers will try to figure him out and he’ll have to continue to make adjustments.

Look, we know what to expect from Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager.  We’ll continue to hope Chris Iannetta hits enough to supplement his good defense. But I’ll be rooting for Martin to continue hitting and provide the kind of production the Mariners haven’t had in a very long time.

 

Assessing trades at the quarter pole: Steve Clevenger

On December 2nd, when the Mariners traded Mark Trumbo and C.J. Riefenhausen for left-handed hitting catcher Steve Clevenger, I was astounded. This looked like an NBA trade.

Thomas Nast Boss TweedThe trade always reminded me of this Thomas Nast depiction of Boss Tweed.

Trumbo was a lifetime .253/.303/.465 hitter with high strikeout and low walk rates.  He was defensively impaired at any number of positions.  Most importantly, he was going to be due between $9-10 million in arbitration.  Though Trumbo made progress in some of his all or nothing approach at the plate working with Edgar Martinez in 2015, it was just as clear that given his defensive limitations, Trumbo was someone Dipoto already traded once to Arizona, and he wouldn’t be afraid to do so again.

Clevenger has filled in capably as a back up for Chris Iannetta. In  43 plate appearances he’s hit .175/.233/.250.  He had a big hit to win yesterday’s game in Cincinnati.  Defensively, he isn’t horrible.  FanGraphs has him at -2 DRS.  No other ratings at all in his small sample size.

But the big part of the trade was the salary relief.  The M’s saved the $9.1 million Baltimore negotiated with Trumbo’s people prior to arbitration.  Undoubtedly the M’s put that savings elsewhere, like re-signing Hisashi Iwakuma.

Trumbo

How has that worked out?  Though he has cooled off in recent days, Mark Trumbo is off to a hot start, slashing .293/.345/.573 with 13 home runs and 31 RBI’s, good for wRC+ of 150.  These far exceed his career numbers. It’s unclear that he continue, and indeed his performance has cooled considerably in his last 24 games.

In retrospect, should the Mariners have held on to Trumbo, given his early season success? Hanging on to Trumbo likely would have meant the M’s could have avoided their current platoon situation at first base.  However, hindsight is always 20/20.  Trumbo’s quick start was not foreseeable; it is clearly out of line with his career performance. It’s also not clear that it’s sustainable, and we see that in his splits on Baseball Reference.

It was a strange move.  The M’s have a serviceable back-up catcher and cash. The Orioles have a serviceable outfielder with gigantic pop.  It’s a trade that seems to have worked out for both teams.