What 1993 and James Paxton have in common . . . and what they don’t

Paxton Fanfest 2016

James Paxton at Fanfest 2016

1993 was a pivotal year in the history of the Seattle Mariners.  The previous year was a disaster, as general manager Woody Woodward traded young pitchers Bill Swift, Mike Jackson and Dave Burba for Giants slugger Kevin Mitchell.  Mitchell was an unenthusiastic performer and with the young relievers stripped from the bullpen, the Mariners were a disaster.  Their 64-98 season cost Bill Plummer his job.

Plummer’s departure, however, made way for the arrival of Lou Piniella.  Piniella made it clear things would be different.  The team that took the field in the Kingdome in ’93 had many of the heroes of ’95.  Griffey and Buhner, Tino Martinez and Rich Amaral.  Edgar Martinez had torn his hamstrings in the last pre-season game in Vancouver, after winning his first batting title in 1992, but he would be back as a DH in ’94. The other hero of ’95 who returned was Randy Johnson.

Johnson was in his sixth year in the majors, his fifth year with the M’s.  Let’s just say he was unique.  The tallest man in major league baseball, he threw hard, had a slider with something nasty and loved heavy metal music.  But he was wild, leading the American League in walks from 1990-92 with 120, 152 and 144 respectively.  If only he could put it all together, Johnson could be a monster. But in 1992 Johnson was outpitched by soft-tossing lefty Dave Fleming, who went 17-10 and finished third in Rookie of the Year balloting.

It would never happen again.

In 1993 at age 29, after working with Nolan Ryan in the off-season Randy Johnson appeared a different pitcher. He won 19 games, struck out 308 batters and finished second in  Cy Young voting. It was the beginning of Randy Johnson as a Hall of Fame pitcher.  From 1993-2004 Johnson would finish first or second in Cy Young voting eight times and make all-star appearances nine times.

In a September 2016 story with Tim Rodmaker of Professional Baseball Strength and Conditioning, Johnson credited his off-season sessions with Ryan for helping him find a new delivery that helped him control his extra long limbs.  Ryan taught him to be more aggressive, control the game more effectively, and make clear to batters that he was in charge. Ryan also taught Johnson more about the importance of being a teammate.

2018 is James Paxton’s sixth season, also his age 29 year. His big year might have been 2016 when with a change in his arm slot and a big tick up in his fastball velocity and better command of his pitches, Paxton became a much better pitcher. But, like Johnson in ’93, this year is the most important of Paxton’s tenure with the Mariners.  My belief is that progress by the big lefty is critical and makes him, in many respects, the most important player on the team.

Pitching has changed so much since 1993.  The critical role of the starting pitcher has diminished somewhat as dominant bullpens have assumed a larger role.  So comparing Johnson to Paxton maybe doesn’t make sense.  Johnson had 14 years of over 200 inning pitched. Between 1993-2002, Johnson missed 200 twice, once because of the strike in 1994, and in the season of his back surgery in 1996.  Paxton hasn’t thrown 150 innings in any of his years.  Johnson was 6’10” of angry, volatile rocket fuel who not only won 303 games, but is tied for fifth all-time for most career hit batters. Roger Clemens at 14 and Don Drysdale at 19 are pikers by comparison. James Paxton isn’t that guy. He may be tall, but angry he isn’t.

But like Johnson in ’93, the Mariners are putting a lot of hope on the tall Canadian’s shoulders. He’s received a lot of accolades from his GM as being among the top ten pitchers in the American League. Some of the stats support this. Of course you’re going to have to dig around for them, because he doesn’t qualify for many of the basic numbers and doesn’t appear on the ESPN or Baseball Reference leader boards.  Not enough innings pitched. Yes he is 10th in the AL in pitcher WAR, but still a long way from the league leaders.  Jeff Sullivan wrote a great article in August about Paxton leading the American League in wOBA or batted ball speed.  And that was just before the big man went on the DL for the second time in August after a pectoral strain.  He’d miss three starts and never pitch well in a game for the rest of 2017. Yes, Paxton has great rate stats, but they don’t measure loss to the team when Christian Bergman or Max Povse are taking his starts, or the number of starts when Paxton is regaining his mechanical consistency after  time away on the DL.

I can talk until I’m blue in the face about the Mariners rotation, whether it’s passable, or decent, or downright terrible. But if there is a chance for the Mariners to make the playoffs in 2018, it begins with James Paxton. For the years 1993-1998, those remaining  of Johnson’s career with the Mariners, The Big Unit was surrounded by a plethora of lesser lights-a declining Chris Bosio, Jeff Fassero, Tim Belcher, reinforced by Jamie Moyer in 2017, and a highly volatile bullpen. Johnson was the guy who led the rest of the pitchers, alongside an admittedly brilliant offensive cast, to the playoffs in ’95 and again in ’97 in spite of the mediocrity of the rest of the pitching.

We can also argue about the 2018 offense, whether it is average, a little better than average or really good, but unless the pitching staff can perform it won’t matter how many runs this team scores, they will lose. A quality pitching staff begins with a legitimate ace, and Paxton has to be that guy.  Pitchers become aces by being on the field. Click those ESPN WAR stats again.  Check the top five.  None has less than 193.1 innings. By comparison, Paxton ranks 47th in innings pitched.

Look, I’m not suggesting Paxton is a malingerer, a slacker, or anything of the kind.  Perhaps the hiring of Dr. Lorena Martin as director of high performance will make the difference, or maybe Paxton will figure it out.  But the bottom line is no Paxton hurts the team.  He needs to be on the field. The Mariners have no shot without him.

This is not only a huge year for Paxton as a Mariner. He’s just avoided his second year of arbitration for a tidy $4.9 million.  2019 will be his final year under Mariner control before he hits free agency. Will he enter the market as a 31-year old established star, or will he limp onto the big stage long on potential but ever-injured like Brett Anderson?  Will he be Clayton Kershaw as he walks unscathed on to the big free agent stage in 2019, or will he merely be another can on the scratched and dented aisle in 2020?

James Paxton isn’t likely to be a Hall of Fame pitcher.  But it isn’t difficult to see he is the leader of this pitching staff.  In 2018 he must take the next step forward by being on the field, just as Randy Johnson made the same leap at the same age.  To me that means at least 30 healthy starts and a minimum of 180 innings pitched.  Just to compare, that puts him number 15 in the American League using 2017 stats, just behind Jason Hammel and just ahead of Jason Vargas, not anywhere near the AL’s top ten.

The M’s will fare as well in 2018 as James Paxton does.  The day his name appears on the DL is the day their hopes for a successful season are likely over.  Mark it down.

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Is Jerry Right?

It is an unbelievably cold Hot Stove season.  Free agents aren’t moving much, and it seems unlikely the Mariners will add much more anyway.  Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto seems set on the team he assembled, and has said as much in several interviews with radio hosts and on The Wheelhouse, his weekly podcast with Aaron Goldsmith.

I think most fans, based on what I’ve seen posted on Facebook groups, comment pages and blogs, are comfortable with the position players Dipoto has gathered.  The acquisition of Dee Gordon seems interesting, out-of -the-box thinking from the current baseball trend of homers and strikeouts.  Trading for first baseman Ryon Healy met with a resounding, meh, but can’t be worse than previous first base combos, and does fit perfectly with the dingers and K’s model.

No, fans, and I count myself among them,  reserved their strongest responses for the pitching staff. Dipoto has touted the strength of the bullpen he’s assembled, featuring 24-year old closer Edwin Diaz, as well as recent acquisitions Juan Nicasio, David Phelps and Nick Rumbelow.  Teaming up with returning players Nick Vincent, Tony Zych, Mark Rzepczynski, and James Pazos, Dipoto has touted this group as a real strength given their versatility, and their ability to pitch multiple innings if necessary to form a “wolfpack” whatever that means. This week Dan Szymborksi’s ZiPs Projections seemed to support Dipoto’s view on the bullpen.

But fan comments are at consistent cross purposes with Dipoto’s declaration that he is comfortable with the projected rotation and its depth.  The assembled starting candidates include James Paxton, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake, Erasmo Ramirez, Ariel Miranda, Marco Gonzales, Andrew Moore, Max Povse, Rob Whalen, Sam Moll, Casey Lawrence, Chase De Jong. and possibly others.  If you are drawing a blank after Moore, it’s okay.  You should. Dipoto has repeatedly reassured the fan base that these starters, with this bullpen should be enough to keep the M’s in a playoff hunt for 2018.

He reminds us that with the rotation in absolute tatters by July of last year, Dipoto acted to acquire rotation pieces that filled in well while Felix, Paxton, Iwakuma, and Smyly were all hanging out with physicians.  Some, such as Leake and Ramirez, fulfilled team expectations, providing generally consistent performance.  Marco Gonzales in seven starts for the Mariners went as many as five innings once (Sept. 12 vs. Texas.) Andrew Moore was rushed into service from the minor leagues before he was ready as his 5.34 ERA and 5.65 FIP will attest. Just to be clear, the Mariners finished the year 12-16 when all the rotation pieces were in place and Paxton and Felix returned to the rotation.

Not a lot to get excited about, unless the a healthy Felix and Paxton, plus a full year of Leake, Ramirez and whoever at five represents a reset, supported by the Mariners Wolfpack. And this is Dipoto’s argument, that this rotation with a superior bullpen and some fill-in guys in the minors will be better than last year’s injury-riddled team.  Not only that but the pitchers available on the free-agent market have their own flaws, and would come with those flaws at too high a cost in years and dollars and be a persistent drag on future Mariner budgets.

Is Dipoto correct about this free agent class?  Do they bring flawed performance profiles at to high a cost to team that’s already a bit top-heavy with large long-term contracts.  I’ve taken starting pitchers from MLB Trade Rumors Top 50 Free Agents as well as their honorable mentions from November 2nd.  I’ve used their projections to approximate years and dollar costs.  Other statistics come from Baseball Reference.com

yu Darvish

Yu Darvish–Darvish is at the top of the class in terms of performance and cost. Darvish placed 2nd in Cy Young voting in 2013, and has made the All-Star team in each of his major league seasons, except 2015, the year of his Tommy John surgery.  Darvish has made a full comeback from that surgery, making 31 starts and pitching 186.2 innings in 2017.  Darvish still managed 10.1 K/9, with BB/9 rate of only 2.4.  But his HR/9 rate increased to 1.3, his MLB high.  Darvish is projected at six years $160 million.  He will be 32 in August.  By contrast Felix Hernandez is 31 years old and has thrown 2,502.1 innings.  Darvish has thrown 2,127.2 innings including his Japan League stats. Too much? You decide, Dipoto already has.

jake arrieta

Jake Arrieta–Arrieta won the 2015 Cy Young Award with a breathtaking season.  33 starts, 229.0 IP, 2.35 FIP, he didn’t allow hits, homers and had a walk rate of 1.9 BB/9.  He had an astonishing 215 ERA+ (100 is average.) It’s been all downhill from 2015 with all the good numbers going down, and all the bad numbers going up.  Arrieta lost fastball velocity to boot.  He hasn’t been a bad pitcher, but from innings pitched, to FIP to a league worst wild pitch number two years in a row, the numbers are trending the wrong direction.  Jake will turn 32 in March. Who says a 4-6 year deal at $25 million per annum is too much?  Jerry does.

Lance Lynn

Lance Lynn–Lynn had Tommy John surgery in 2015, and missed all of 2016 recovering Lynn managed 33 starts and 186.1 starts for the Cardinals in 2017.  You can do the math. 4.82 FIP (eep!!) Lynn had a walk rate of 3.8/9, combined with a 1.3 HR/9 rate, would not bode well with this staff. It’s shocking he is the number three ranked free agent pitcher.  MLBTR projects Lynn at four years $56 million. Third best pitcher available? Jerry says no.

Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros

Alex Cobb–Cobb turned 30 in October.  He is another of the long line of Tommy John survivors, with surgery in 2015. In 2017 Cobb managed 29 starts for 179.1 innings. His numbers haven’t regained their pre-TJ health, but they aren’t execrable. 2017 showed Cobb with a 4.17 FIP, with H/9 8.8, HR/9 1.1, BB/9 2.2.  His strikeout rate was low at 6.4/9, well below his career high.  Cobb might be the most reasonable investment, with a projected four year $48 million price tag. Jerry?

Andrew Cashner

Andrew Cashner–Cashner had difficulty staying on the field in 2015-16.  But he did manage 28 starts and 166.2 innings for the Rangers.  Were they good starts.  ERA+ likes him at 138, but 4.61 FIP is pretty suspicious.  Cashner allows a fair number of baserunners, with 8.4 H/9 and 3.5 BB/9, but he does keep the ball in the park with .8 HR/9.  Once in trouble, Cashner has one of the lowest K/9 rates in the league with 4.6. Projected at two years for $20 million.  Jerry thinks what he’s got is better.

jaime garcia

Jaime Garcia–Garcia will turn 32 in July.  He made 27 starts last year for three different teams and completed 157.0 innings. Garcia is injury prone and underwent thorac outlet  surgery in 2015. Garcia finished the year with a combined, unappetizing 4.25 FIP, 1.408 WHIP, and 3.3 BB/9.  MLBTR projects Garcia at two years and $16 million.  As a number 5 starter?  Miranda/Gonzales/Moore?  Better? Tough choice.

jason Vargas

Jason Vargas–I was really disappointed when the M’s traded Vargas to the Angels for the hated Kendrys Morales in 2013.  When Kansas City signed him to a four year deal in 2014, I thought good for him, but after a solid 2014, his career was derailed by Tommy John surgery.  Vargas got off to a blazing beginning to 2017, but his last 16 starts were horrendous. He is 35 years old and MLBTR projects a 1 year $10 million deal.  Too much Jerry?  I dunno.

Chris Tillman

Chris Tillman–Former Mariner property Tillman will turn 30 in April. After four years of reminding Mariners why they should be hunting down Bill Bavasi and tossing him into Elliott Bay for completing the Eric Bedard trade, in 2016 Tillman developed shoulder problems.  His 2017 was disastrous.  19 starts, 93 innings, 6.93 FIP.  It gets worse from there.  MLBTR projects a 1 year deal worth $10 million for a bounce-back year. I say don’t touch Tillman with a ten-foot pole.  Jerry says no.

jeremy Hellickson

Jeremy Hellickson had a generally dreadful 2017, but could be a bounce-back candidate.  He has the virtue of having made at least 27 starts in eight of the last nine years.  Even if his numbers are pretty mediocre, at least the guy takes the ball every five days.  Doesn’t walk a ton, or strike out a lot, but does have a frequent flyer plan just in his name.  HR9 at 1.9 last year means bonus miles.  Catch that Ben Gamel. Hellickson didn’t make the top 50 on MLBTR.  He earned $17.2 million in 2017.  Hope he didn’t spend it all.

Wade Miley bad

Wade Miley–Don’t even get me started.

So these are the unsigned free agents still out there.  I feel like the M’s missed the boat when the Rangers signed Doug Fister to a one year deal for $4 million with Texas.  Not great, but not godawful.  There are some reasonable deals here like Cobb or Vargas, unless you really believe what you have is better and more affordable.  It will be interesting to see if these values stay as high as projected as the signing period drags on toward spring training.

Is Jerry wrong? There isn’t a single pitcher in this list, with the possible exception of Darvish, that doesn’t come out of the scratched and dented goods aisle. Even Darvish bears the ignominy of 3.1 ungodly awful innings he threw in the World Series.

That said the forecasted price of one WAR in 2018 is $11.1 million according to Fangraphs by free agent pricing, which is somewhat higher than the cost overall. Dipoto’s contention that free agency is an inefficient way to acquire talent has some merit. But it’s also a way to inject some enthusiasm into the fan base.  Is Dipoto wrong not to cast dollars into this free agent market.  It seems there are some chances worth taking, but all come with risks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everything’s Coming Up Edgar! Well Maybe . . .

Edgar Martinez

Ryan Thibodeaux has recorded 167 of the approximately 424 votes that will be cast for the Hall of Fame in 2018.  So far this has been a really interesting year with some pretty fascinating trends.

First, any way you look at it, this stands to be pretty large HOF class as votes seem to coalesce around four candidates.

The absolutely no-doubters are:

  • Chipper Jones with 98.8%
  • Jim Thome with 94.6%
  • Vladimir Guerrero with 94.0%

There is almost no question these guys will get in.  Yes there are still votes to count and if there was a horrendous downturn in marks on ballots it would be bad, but there is nothing to suggest this will happen.

Really likely to get in:

  • Trevor Hoffman with 78.4%

On its face, the elite closer looks to be on the border.  But Hoffman was very close to election last year.  He began the counting needing five new votes to get into the Hall, he’s gotten 12.  The only tricky thing is he’s also lost three votes, so he’s only netted nine new votes. Closers, as in real life, are a volatile commodity on the HOF ballot. There are those who don’t value them as much as starting pitchers, so it’s conceivable Hoffman could lose enough voters to be kept out a second year, but it doesn’t seem likely.

And then there’s Edgar:

  • Edgar Martinez with 81.4% of the vote.

Yes, we should definitely be cheering Edgar’s progress, but with 60% of the vote still to count, I have my doubts.  As the counting began, Edgar needed 73 new voters to mark him on their ballots.  At the present time he has 21.  What’s more he’s lost three who voted for him last year. I’m not quite sure what Mr. Martinez did in the past 365 days to piss off Filip Bondy of Forbes Magazine, Jon Heyman of Fanrag, or freelancer Jon Perrotto and give their votes to Sammy Sosa, Scott Rolen, and Manny Ramirez respectively, but it is possible to lose votes. So Edgar has netted +18, but needs 55 more to reach the magic number.  Is it possible he will do so and make a big hall class bigger?  Yes, but I gotta guess it is unlikely.  I could see him climbing close to the 70% mark, but I will be very happily surprised if he gets in this year.

Several data guys have made projections on who gets in based on votes received and past voting patterns.

Ross Carey, based on 167 ballots predicts Chipper, Thome, Vlad, and Hoffman get in, with Edgar stalling out at 69.5%

Scott Lindholm using 165 ballots is more positive, with Chipper, Thome, Vlad and Hoffman in and Edgar squeaking over the line with 76.9%.

Jason Sardell from 156 ballots has Chipper, Thome, Vlad and Hoffman meeting the requirement, with Edgar in the close-but-no-cigar department with 74%.

Who knows? It’s all a game at this point.  But, our guy has taken a step up with voters, and roped in some important writers, such as Tracy Ringolsby, Mel Antonen and Murray Chass. Not that the other guys aren’t important–just mark Edgar Martinez on your ballots boys.

Other interesting news from the balloting–number of votes per ballot continue to climb.  It is 8.99, and has hovered just around 9 throughout the voting. 2017 was at 8.43, 2016 was 8.23, which means voters are more inclined to find more candidates hall-worthy.  That helps at the fringes, and for specialists like DH’s and closers.

Big Winners–Vlad who gained 31 votes so far, and lost zero.  Second is Larry Walker at a net +23.  A big move for Walker, but probably too late to help his candidacy; he’s still at only 40.1%. Third would be Edgar with his +18.  Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling have also made nice moves at +14, and are positioning themselves for solid gains in the last halves of their candidacy.

Big Losers–The PED guys. I really thought Bonds and Clemens would do better.  They have each netted only a +1.  They may do better with the later counted ballots, but the private ballots are usually much more conservative. Sosa is a net 0.  Sheffield is a net -1. Manny Ramirez is a net -1.

Lots of guys in the also ran group.  Andruw Jones looks like a potential one and done candidate with 5.4%.  Scott Rolen should stay on with 10.4%, and Omar Vizquel has a solid first year at 28.7%. Johnny Damon and Johan Santana look to be done at under 2%.

One last quick note, there is one more player on the ballot with ties to the Mariners and that is lefty slow-ball pitcher Jamie Moyer.  Moyer is one of my favorite players, and he is one of the most successful pitchers in Mariner history.  This morning, word came that Bob Sherwin, former writer for the Seattle Times and Sportspress Northwest, and now a writer for Golfers West, cast a vote for Moyer’s candidacy.  While some may ridicule the gesture when there are plenty of deserving candidates on the ballot, there is a certain poignancy in voting for a player like Moyer who learned to pitch late in his career.  There was nobody smarter, who knew what he needed to do to get a batter out, and depended on his smarts as much as on his stuff. I wish I’d had the courage to include Jamie on my IBWAA ballot.  Good work Bob.

Jamie Moyer

My Mariner of the Year for 2017

This is likely my last post of the year, unless I absolutely tear my hair out over Hall of Fame voting. No, I’d like to end the year on a high note and talk about the Mariner player who made the team so much more watchable during what can only be termed a crappy year. That player is Nelson Cruz.

Nelson Cruz 2

When Nellie was signed by Jack Zdurencik in 2014, I was at best ambiguous. Cruz was an aging slugger, one year removed from the Biogenesis scandal.  He’d hit 40 homers in Baltimore’s bandbox of a ballpark (sorry, I say this with all the admiration I can possibly muster,) but he also struck out 140 times.  He had the 9% walk rate and the 20.7% K rate, but there was something about the righthanded wRC+ of  137 that just grabbed my eye.  And, of course, he was Zdurencik’s wet dream.  Right handed hitter with power. But he was also on the wrong side of 34, and how long might the good times last?

I was wrong, wrong as I could be. There is no player I’ve enjoyed watching more than Nelson Cruz the past three years. Yes, he still strikes out too much.  But if chicks dig the long ball, they must be in ecstasy when the Boomstick is hot. In 2017 Cruz was shy one homer from hitting forty in each of his first three season as a Mariner.

One thing I clearly overlooked was how tough the man is.  First, he is just a huge dude. Baseball Reference has him listed at 6’2″ 230 lbs, but he seems so much bigger. Maybe not Aaron Judge big, but he’s a freak, no Cruz seems maybe two inches taller.  I loved his effort in the outfield his first couple of years, even though he was a pulled hamstring or a disastrous collision away from being out of the lineup. I also loved his effort on the bases, with all the previous conditions applied.  But even as a DH, it is clear Cruz plays hurt. Remember the September series in Minnesota 2016, with the M’s barely hanging on to Wild Card contention, and Cruz screaming in pain with a wrist injury after every swing?  Boomstick tallied four homers in that series and the M’s took two out of three. It’s clear Cruz had times when he was struggling with injuries during the 2017 season.  Hell, every Mariner player did, but Nellie played in 155 games, just as he did in 2016.

In 2017 Nelson Cruz won the Edgar Marinez Award for best DH.  In each of his three years as a Mariner he’s gotten MVP votes. This year, his home runs were down, his average was about the median for his three Seattle years, but he led the league in RBI’s with 119, a career high,  by settling for singles sacrifice flies to drive in runs, and raising his walk rate to highest for a full season at 10.9 percent.

But most of all I was impressed with Nelson Cruz the teammate, and Nelson Cruz the person.  Every new Mariner talks about the clubhouse and how positive their experience is, and frequently mentions Cruz and his co-agitator Robinson Cano and their role in keeping things light but accountable. Cruz also gave a pair or wonderful interviews to ESPN’s Marly Rivera about his experience as a Domincan player making the change to the United States.  I’ll never forget how much the stories on May 9th and June 24th humanized him.  And then his antics at the All-Star game, the selfie with umpire Joe West.  It just doesn’t get any better.

I may be just a sentimental old fool, but I am impressed with players who not only play great on the field, but do something more.  Cruz’s contribution to baseball academies in the Dominican Republic are legendary.  It is no surprise to me that he organized pre-spring practice in Florida during the Winter Meetings and that he singled out new centerfielder Dee Gordon to take part.

There hasn’t been a lot of Mariner team success to celebrate the past three years. But what little we’ve enjoyed, Nelson Cruz has been a big part of.  This is the final year of his four year deal.  He’ll be 38 on July 1st.  Despite the fact that he seems ageless, it’s hard to imagine the M’s bringing the Boomstick back.  It’s just as hard to imagine the Mariners without him, but 2018 is probably the end.

Happy new year Nelson, and new year M’s fans.  My fingers are crossed for 2018, as always.

 

Hall of Fame voting and my IBWAA ballot

Edgar for the Hall
Hey baseball writers. In my book .300/.400/.500 is a sacred algorithm. This man needs your vote for the Hall of Fame. Make it happen.

It’s that time of year when the baseball press submits their ballots to the Baseball Hall of Fame for induction candidates.  This year the ballot is clogged with plenty of new candidates to go with the those who are carried over from previous years. The two obvious new candidates who, barring a disaster of some kind, that will be elected are Atlanta’s excellent third baseman Chipper Jones and the traveled slugger Jim Thome and his 609 career home runs.

At this writing, with 118 votes or 28.4% of the vote tallied on Ryan Thibadeaux’s awesome Hall of Fame Tracker there some clear winners and not-so-winning in the voting.

Winners

Here are some quick positive results to report

Chipper Jones–98.3% of votes cast.  Not a surprise.  It shows all is right with the world

Jim Thome –95.8% of votes cast.  Shows what 609 homers can buy you.  Again not a shock

Vladimir Guerrero–94.9% of votes cast.  Vlady missed election last year by 15 votes.  He’s gotten 19 new votes and is a shoo-in at this point.  Good on him.  Can’t think of too many more fun players to watch performing at his level.

Trevor Hoffman–78.8% of the vote.  Hoffman was five new votes short of election last year. He’s gotten eight new ones but lost three.  Seems to have gotten what he needs, but closer voting is volatile and it’s best not to count chickens before they’re hatched.

Larry Walker-40.7% of votes cast.  No, in his ninth year on the ballot Walker likely hasn’t moved much closer to the Hall’s 75%.  But he’s received 19 new votes. with likely more to come. Walker’s vote in 2017 was 21.9% of the vote.

Making progress

Mike Mussina–70.3% of votes cast.  Last year Moose received 51.8% of the vote.  So progress.  Still think he was a good pitcher on some lousy Orioles teams before moving to the Yankees and the big time.  He’ll get in, just not this year.

Curt Schilling–67.8% of votes cast.  Schilling got 45.0% of the vote last year.  Fewer Schilling eruptions on Twitter this year and more votes for the hall.  Is there a correlation?   Ummmmm–maybe?

Omar Vizquel–26.3% of votes cast.  Omar’s first year on the ballot.  Started out of the gate really fast, but his support has fallen off quickly.  But he’s gotten enough to remain on the ballot for next year and he can make his case that he is a defensive whiz that is Hall-worthy.

Scott Rolen–9.3%–Rolen was a wonderful third baseman who also had some great years at the plate. He has a ratings by Bill James, Jay Jaffe and fWAR that should leave him in the Hall conversation.  Still needs ten more votes to remain on the ballot for 2019.  If he fell off in his first year, that would be a shame.

The Steroid Era

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens–71.2% and 72.0% respectively.  Bonds and Clemens have done well this year.  I think the observation that they were Hall-worthy before their drug use resonates with many voters.  I don’t believe they’ll get in this year, but do think they will be voted in before 2022 when their eligibility would expire. I remain resistant to this argument, but at least it makes logical sense.

Manny Ramirez–28.8% of votes cast.  Manny’s votes are up slightly from 2017.  Support for this serial drug user AFTER MLB instituted its drug policy in 2006 is beyond me. Votes for Manny represent a contempt for any kind of MLB rules–just let in Pete, Shoeless Joe, all eight of the Black Sox, and throw in Hal Chase for good measure.

Edgar

The Edgar–80.5% of votes cast.  The Edgar vote is the one that really matters to me. The percentage is good, but it was as high as 86% a week ago. He has 15 new votes, and is getting the returning vote.  He hasn’t gotten a new vote in quite a while and he needs 60 more (and no losses) to gain induction.  I don’t believe it will happen this year and I’m pessimistic about next year.  Bummed.

My IBWAA Vote

I cast eight votes on the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America ballot.  It’s a fun exercise that allows fifteen votes.  We’ve already elected Valdimir Guerrero and Edgar Martinez, so they don’t appear.  I cast votes for the following players:

Chipper Jones

Jim Thome

Mike Mussina

Curt Schilling

Larry Walker

Scott Rolen

Trevor Hoffman

Fred McGriff

No, it doesn’t count, but it is an honor to participate in the activity.

 

 

Three Keys to Winning in 2018

Let’s take Jerry Dipoto’s word that he isn’t making any significant adds to Your Seattle Mariners for the coming season.  Maybe some relief pieces on minor league contracts, some waiver wire signings, still need a back-up catcher, but expect nothing major.  The team you see is the team you got.

The first thing I gotta say is, this is not a bad team. On paper, the rotation is not strong, but it’s certainly serviceable.  It’s not Houston Astros or Boston Red Sox good, but they should keep the team in games, assuming there are no extenuating. circumstances.The bullpen is likewise serviceable, maybe even good.  The addition of Juan Nicasio helps, the subtraction of Emilio Pagan hurts.  They are at least middle of the pack decent, but not a dominant shut-down group, though they did that for at least a month or two in 2017. The strength of the team should be on offense with the addition of Dee Gordon, but important pieces of the puzzle continue to age, and keeping them all more than just ambulatory becomes more difficult with each passing day.

I know my previous post was a downer, and sounded hopeless.  On reflection, I am excited about the start of the 2018 season as I am about the beginning of any baseball season. Do I think the M’s will win their way into the playoffs? I think they have a pretty tough road ahead, with the Angels and Yankees both so improved. It seems to me the M’s have a very narrow window and a lot of things will have to break right for them to win the 90+ games it will likely take to win a Wild Card spot. But it certainly won’t require simultaneous meteor strikes on the other 14 American League cities to pull it off. Maybe just 11 or so.

No, I think there are three key factors to the M’s winning in 2018.

1. James Paxton must take the next step

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There is little question that James Paxton, with deference to Felix Hernandez, is the current royalty in the Mariners starting rotation. Since 2015, we’ve seen his time on the field increase from 67.0 innings to 121.0 innings in 2016 to a career high innings to 136.0 innings in 2017.  Over that same three year span all of his important peripherals have improved: ERA, ERA+, FIP, xFIP, WHIP, all of them at elite levels.  His K/9 of 10.3 and HR/9 in 2017 were career bests, and though his walk levels were up a bit last year his K/BB ratio of 4.22 is still excellent.

Paxton made 24 starts in 2017.  In those games he pitched 6.0 innings or more in 14 them.  Of the remaining games, he definitely had a tough June after his May stint on the disabled list.  Likewise, September was not so good after an August stay on the DL.  Paxton is a really big man who thrives when all his mechanics are aligned, and when he is out of sync, struggles.  Time on the DL costs the Mariners starts, and the four or so in the wake of his return mess with his mechanical momentum.

If the Mariners are to have a shot at winning, Paxton must take the next step and pitch a full season.  For me, a full season is a minimum 30 starts and a minimum 180 innings. Even with time away, Paxton was one of the best starters in the American League, His FIP of 2.61 was good for 3rd in the American League, and his 3.9 WAR tied for 10th (Baseball Reference) IF he’d had enough innings to count in the final tallies. Paxton has the stuff to pitch effectively against the Chris Sales, Cory Klubers, and Dallas Keuchels, the aces of the American League.  The Mariners need a full season of the real James Paxton.

Honorable Mention: Felix Hernandez. Let’s be clear, I believe the King’s glory days of 2009, 2010, and 2014 are likely gone.  But if he wanted to surprise me, that would be good.  No, I’m hoping for a return to 2015.  Not a great year by Felix standards, but 31 starts for 201.2 IP, 108 ERA+, 3.72 FIP, 8.5 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9.  Yes, I’d definitely take that.

Stay Healthy

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Jean Segura is injured sliding into 2nd base in a June 1st game against the Rockies. Segura left the game to begin his second trip to the DL in 2017. Photo by Ted Warren of Associated Press

2016 was a tough year for injuries, but paled in comparison to 2017’s utter shitshow. We could go through lists.  If you want a real glimpse at all the Mariners transactions, take a look at the list of ESPN’s team transactions     But just to illustrate the depth of their injury issues I’ll share the most illustrative examples I can remember.

May was the most devastating month for the Mariners litany of wounds.  Evan Marshall was an April waiver claim from Arizona after Drew Smyly was placed on the disabled list. He threw relief in five mostly forgettable games in April, and was summoned in to a May 5th extra inning game against Texas and collapsed with a severe hamstring injury and had to be helped off the field. Ryan Weber was a November 2016 waiver claim who began the season in Tacoma.  He was pressed into the rotation on May 13th after the failure of various Chris Hestons, Dillon Overtons, and Chase DeJongs to provide the depth General Manager Jerry Dipoto promised.  Weber pitched into the fourth allowing one run against Toronto, when he walked off the field with an arm injury.  Even the injury emergency call-ups were injured.

Baseball is a sport, a demanding athletic contest in which highly skilled athletes are pushing their bodies to their limits to pitch, catch, throw and hit those little bitty balls.  If you doubt this, check out the still photos of pitchers as they throw and their impossible arm angles, or watch Ben Gamel run into the wall down the left field line at Safeco Field. The Mariners can chalk their two year run of injuries up to the breaks of the game, or their turn, karma or whatever.  But for the M’s to compete this year they must be healthier.  More guys have to get rest.  Perhaps the most disturbing injury news out of Mariners camp was news that CF Guillermo Heredia suffered multiple dislocations of his non-throwing shoulder finally resulting in off-season surgery.  That he kept playing through this condition is appalling.

Perhaps the addition of Dr. Lorena Martin as Director of High Performance will have an impact on keeping players healthier.  But injuries, whether the serious pitching kind, bumps and bruises, strains and pulls are just part of this game.  The M’s simply must have fewer of them.

3. Offense Needs to Party like it’s 2016

Three reasons the M’s offense might improve in 2018-Mike Zunino, Dee Gordon and Mitch Haniger.

The Mariners made a lot of position changes in 2017, swapping out their shortstop, their outfield and their perennial search for an adequate first base combo. The result was an offense that was within a tick or so of league average up or down for many important stats.  Some were downright bad. Contrast that with 2016 when the Mariners were in the upper half of the league for most offensive statistics, most importantly runs scored.  In 2017 the M’s scored 750 runs for 7th in the league, but in 2016 their 768 runs scored was good enough for 3rd.  The 2016 team walked more, hit more home runs, and had a higher slugging percentage.  Add to this a qualitative improvement in the American League with scoring up a little over 4% and the M’s definitely took a step backwards.

The M’s made some choices after 2016 that definitely impacted their run scoring ability.  They went with a younger, athletic outfield that hit fewer homers than the Seth Smith/Franklin Gutierrez-led teams. They opted for Danny Valencia rather than the Adam Lind/Dae Ho Lee combo at first. They also made a choice for an upgrade at shortstop with Jean Segura in place of Ketel Marte. None quite worked out the way they were intended, but, with the exception of Valencia, none was really a failure.

Injuries played an important role in the M’s offensive development.  Leading the pack was Segura who only played 125 games due to a couple of trips to the DL.  An ankle injury also robbed him of much of his speed, which the Mariners were counting on to bust loose their moribund base running for 2017.  Two trips to the DL also cost the Mariners 66 games worth of Mitch Haniger, who started the season hot as a laser cannon, but suffered an oblique strain and was later hit in the face with a pitched ball. Haniger struggled after his trips to the DL, but finally recovered his spring form in September.

Two of the Mariners core, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, never approached their 2016 numbers.

In 2016 Cano slashed .298/.350/.533 with 39 homers, good for 7.3 WAR.  In 2016 Robbie was down to .280/.338/.453 with 23 dingers and only 3.4 WAR.

Likewise Seager struggled with .249/.323/.450 and 27 homers for 2.5 WAR in 2017, compared to his career best .278/.359/.499 with 30 homer good for 6.9 WAR in 2016.

Cano and Seager have been better and let’s hope they are in 2018.  But there are other reasons to hope for more scoring in 2018.  Catcher Mike Zunino finally delivered on his potential in the second half of the season.  The addition of Dee Gordon offers another player with high batting average and a history of leading the National League in stolen bases.

Even with the addition of Gordon, however, the M’s must end their string of leading the galaxy in base-running numbskullery.. Scott Servais promised in his end-of-year overview it would improve, and so it must. A healthy Segura and the addition of Gordon really offer the M’s some opportunity to wreak havoc on the basepaths, and that should also improve the offense.

So there you have it, three pathways to improvement and possibly a playoff berth for the 2018 Mariners.  All are fraught with danger, but certainly not impossible. My fingers are already crossed.

 

 

Jerry, You Lost Me at I’m Done

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Home from the winter meetings, Jerry Dipoto met with the press and declared his tinkering with the major league roster is done. Signing reliever Juan Nicasio and adding first baseman Mike Ford as a Rule 5 draftee will fill the 40 man roster.

After I stopped crying and then laughing hysterically, I simply dropped my head and decided one of two things.  1) Dipoto is foolin’ and there is still a deal for a starting pitching in the gloamin’. 2) The Mariners are running up the white flag on the 2018 season.

According to Greg Johns at MLB.com “Dipoto feels James Paxton, Felix Hernandez. Mike Leake and Erasmo Ramirez are a solid top four, with Ariel Miranda, Marco Gonzales and Andrew Moore competing for the fifth spot. Leake, Ramirez and Gonzales all were acquired by trade in the final two months last season when the club was beset by injuries”

Dipoto went on to confirm earlier statements about the adoption of a “wolfpack” pitching strategy that requires a more even distribution of innings between starting staff and bullpen.

There is a growing groundswell of fan dissatisfaction with the Mariners off-season moves.  Trading reliever Emilio Pagan for first baseman Ryon Healy.  Allowing starting pitcher Andrew Albers his release to play in Japan. Touting the depth of a pitching staff that was riddled with varying degrees of injuries and ineffectiveness, while letting others get away is simply mystifying.

But the truly wacky piece I don’t understand is that we should be satisfied with what Dipoto has done.  I will credit him this, he did act last year to shore up a pitching staff that had every reason to be disastrous, and stabilized it with additions of Leake, Ramirez and Albers.  They also added Gonzales and brought up Moore, who were notably less successful.  So Jerry runs out the rotation of Paxton, The King, Leake, Ramirez and some competition between between the remaining Gonzales, Miranda and Moore at number five.

But that makes an erroneous assumption right from the start.  Paxton and Felix have NOT demonstrated they are healthy or effective enough to assume those number one and two roles. In 2016 Paxton made 20 starts for 120 innings, in 2017 it was 24 starts for 134 innings.  In neither season did he pitch enough to qualify for the ERA title (180 innings,) which should be a minimum mark for a staff ace..  When he was healthy, Paxton pitched very well, but number one needs to be a horse, a thoroughbred, someone you can count on, not a Shetland pony. In 2016 he missed the entire months of April and May. In 2017 Paxton made two trips to the DL in May and August. When he’s healthy and pitching regularly, James Paxton is as good as anybody.  When he’s not available, he’s just a very tall guy with a beard on the bench.

Felix is not the Felix we like to remember.  We remember him as the guy who finished second in Cy Young balloting in 2009, won it in 2010, was jobbed out the award in 2014.  He pitched more than 200 innings from 2008-15.  The King had an ERA+ of more than 120 from 2008-14 except for 2011 and three times met or exceeded 170.  That was the King that wowed the crowds, built the King’s Court; that was the King that signed the highly lucrative extension through 2019 that makes him the highest paid player on a team full of highly paid Mariners.  And I don’t begrudge him a penny of it. But Felix doesn’t pitch like that King anymore. After never making fewer than 31 starts from 2006-15, the past two years it was 26 and 16 respectively.  Not very good ones. K rates and velocity have declined. Walk rates and dinger rates have increased. Felix pitched only 153.1 innings in 2016, a paltry 86.2 innings last year.

There is so much more to share, but most importantly, Jerry Dipoto has Felix marked in at number two in red ink. Like Paxton, we can hope, but based on recent memory there is no reason to believe Felix will be healthy, or that he will even approach his past glory years. Bottom line is this, if Paxton and/or Felix goes down, Leake, Ramirez and combo five all move into their places in the rotation. Assuming THEY all stay healthy. Assuming THEY are effective. To say the starting rotation is eight or nine deep is silly; eight or nine of what deep?

There is a terrific realignment taking place in the American League.  Houston has emerged as a head and shoulders front runner in the West.  Boston is still the likely favorite in the East. Cleveland is much the best team in the Central. The last few years the two wild cards were up for grabs, so teams like Seattle, maybe capable of winning 85 or so, could compete down to the wire.  But the emergence of New York’s young players and their off-season trade for Giancarlo Stanton gives the Yankees, a 2017 wild card team, a leg up competing with Boston, and a very likely WC winner in 2018.  Angels GM Billy Eppler shot out of the hot stove gate by resigning outfielder Justin Upton to a contract, and their good fortune has only improved since then.  Shohei Ohtani signed with the Angels, and the Eppler traded for veteran second baseman Ian Kinsler and shorstop Zack Cozart who will move to third.  Mike Trout, the best player in the game, now has a real team playing around him.  The only thing that should keep the Angels from a real shot at the second wild card is their own habitually broken pitching staff.

I give Dipoto credit for a lot of things.  He’s added lots of younger pieces to a less young Mariners core. This team is much more athletic than the 2016 team.  The Dee Gordon trade was inspired, if a bit risky.  Gordon and a healthy Segura should be a lot of fun to watch. I acknowledge his efforts to rebuild the rotation mid-season in 2017.  But I am not impressed with his management of pitching resources. Wade Miley? Nate Karns? Yovanni Gallardo? The conga line of AAA and AAAA pitchers that were supposed to be last year’s depth?  And with this rotation being held together with chewing gum, paper clips and bits of wire, suggesting there is no need to get more?

C’mon Jerry, I know when I’m being sold.  Jack Zdurencik did it every year of his tenure.  This pitching staff is not good enough to win anything of consequence, barring some sort of miracle. You may be able to convince yourself, but I don’t think the fan base is buying.

It is worth your time, if you’ve read this far, to take a look at Dipoto’s interviews with Shannon Drayer of MySports NW  on December 15th and Larry Stone of the Seattle Times on December 14th.  Both offer a glimpse inside his thinking,