What Marco Gonzales has done is incredible

Coming into the year, I had written Marco Gonzales off. I hadn’t written him off completely, I just didn’t think he would be good. Last year Marco Gonzales was not good, and he was also barely serviceable. Through 40.0 innings, Gonzales accumulated 0.1 WAR, a 6.08 ERA, 5.06 FIP, and 4.46 xFIP. He was, almost by definition, a replacement level player.

This year, Gonzales has been one of the better starting pitchers in the league, as he has been good for 2.5 fWAR thus far. Given what Gonzales has said about his health, we shouldn’t be surprised about the results of either this or last year.

Last year, I thought I was about 85% back, but looking at it from where I am now, it was closer to 60-70%. Now I think I’m 90-95%.

A lot of us knew that Marco Gonzales was coming off of a (somewhat) recent Tommy John surgery, but it feels different hearing him say that he wasn’t very close to 100%.

You could just read the article, but there are quite a few interesting tidbits about his health, as well as how Gonzales’ injury affected him.

In April, I, with a hint of skepticism, raved about what Marco Gonzales was doing. At the time, he was coming off of a couple encouraging starts, and I was interested in how his pitch mix, release point, and effectiveness had all changed. Then, I was going off of just two promising successive starts, but now we have 113.1 innings to go off of. The title then was Is Marco Gonzales for real?, and it now feels safe to say that Marco is at least not not for real.

Some things have not been surprising. That Gonzales’ changeup has been good — not surprising. Since college, it has been his best pitch, and according to Eno Sarris, it’s “a special pitch.”

What have been surprising are his cutter, sinker, and curveball.

His cutter has been incredible. So incredible that it has been, by most metrics I have looked at, his best pitch in terms of outcome and batted ball quality. What’s interesting is that this is a brand new pitch for him. He introduced it this year, and throughout the year has equally mixed it in with his sinker, changeup, and curveball. However, if you look at how his month-to-month pitch mix is trending, you’ll notice something interesting.

Gonzales pitch mix update

(Try to halfheartedly ignore the month of July, because Gonzales has only made two July starts.) Marco has phased out his four-seam because he knows it sucks, and month by month, he has grown increasingly confident in his cutter as a quality pitch. The 36 times Gonzales threw his cutter against the Angels on July 5th was the most times he’s thrown any pitch in a game this year.

Baseball Info Solutions and PITCHf/x pitch type data vary in terms of pitch classification, but regardless of which you look at, Gonzales has had one of the most valuable cutters in the league (per 100 pitches).

According to PITCHf/x:

gonzales pfx

Seventh!

And Baseball Info Solutions:

gonzales pi

Twelfth! Ignore Tyler Mahle!

Regardless of how you look at it, Gonzales did not have a cutter, and now he has a cutter. When you add a new pitch and it becomes one of your best pitches, surely you’re probably going to improve.

As for his sinker, which he calls a two-seam fastball (same thing!), it has also been one of the most valuable of its kind. Don’t let me tell you, I’ll show you!

sinker gonzales

there are only five sinkers with positive value

While his sinker is interesting, I think it’s enough to say that 1) It’s been good. 2) He has benefited from throwing it less with other pitches mixed in.

What I wanted to focus on is that his curveball, which previously was not good, has been one of the best in baseball.

Lately, I have grown fond of using QOP Baseball. Their website looks like it was designed by a sixth grader in his (or her!) intro to web design class, but it has been cosigned by baseball minds I trust and appears to be very legitimate. What has drawn me to QOP Baseball is the uniqueness of its QOP statistic. Their website describes QOP as follows:

QOP gives a statistic describing the quality of a pitch on a scale of mostly 0 to 10. The MLB average is around 4.5 with median 5. QOP is a patent-pending proprietary regression model that incorporates MPH, location, and movement (vertical break, horizontal break, breaking distance, and rise).

Apparently, Gonzales’ curveball grades out as the best in baseball via QOPA.

QOPA Gonzales

If the threshold of pitches is lowered to 300, then Gonzales falls to second just behind Seth Lugo, but regardless, Marco Gonzales once again has had a poor pitch become a very good pitch. In terms of his curveball’s components:

  • Quality of pitch: 97th percentile
  • Rise: 13th percentile
  • Late break: 90th percentile
  • Horizontal break: 42nd percentile
  • Vertical break: 13th percentile
  • Location: 91st percentile
  • Velocity: 50th percentile

From these numbers, it’s clear what makes Marco’s curveball successful is both his location and the late break of the pitch. This overlay exemplifies why it’s so hard to hit his curve:

This gif couldn’t be a more perfect example of how the late break of his curve benefits him. Gonzales’ curveball is identical to his cutter, until it reaches the hitter’s swing decision point, at which point it drops off the table into the middle of the strike zone. Hitters are left swinging at a cutter that isn’t there and left to brood over the curveball that they are currently swinging over. Oh, and according to FanGraphs?

curveball Gonzales

Not one, but two Mariners!

Turns out, FanGraphs concurs: it’s one of the most valuable curveballs in baseball. It used to feel more prestigious being at King Felix’s level in, well, anything. Nowadays, it’s more troubling than it used to be to rank behind Felix, and here Marco’s curve does. But Felix’s curveball has never been the problem, and it remains a very good pitch.

It’s true that Gonzales has been fortunate. His .299 wOBA is 27 points better than his .326 expected wOBA (xwOBA), but there are 40 pitchers with higher wOBA-xwOBA differentials. Good fortune notwithstanding, he ranks 62nd in xwOBA above Zack Greinke, David Price, and Masahiro Tanaka.

For all the grief Jerry Dipoto received for trading dinger-hitting Tyler O’Neill for soft-tossing Marco Gonzales, the Mariners have been more profitable thus far. Through 19 MLB games, O’Neill has a 2.1% BB%, 42.6% K%, and 0.2 WAR. That’s really bad! Meanwhile, Gonzales has helped to buoy the Mariners’ rotation with a 3.41 ERA, 3.48 xFIP, and (if you’re into it) team-leading 10 wins. Clearly, it is far too early to determine the “winner” of the trade, but it certainly feels better to be on our end than the Cardinals’ at the moment.

Whether through his interviews or watching him pitch, you can tell Marco Gonzales is a bright, deliberate individual. We have watched him evolve just in the matter of months. Finally, after several years, he is healthy, and for the first time in his major league career, he is good. Marco has always had the plus changeup, and he has always had the plus command. For the first time, his other pitches have seemingly caught up to his change, and at the very least they aren’t lagging behind. You would never mistake Marco Gonzales for Chris Sale, but for the Mariners, you have to be giddy, because you would also never mistake him for Yovani Gallardo.

Yet another Edwin Díaz post

At the present moment, Edwin Díaz ranks first in the MLB in reliever WAR. On May 1st, I wrote an article discussing how Edwin Díaz had changed. At that time, he was behind Josh Hader and Adam Ottavino in WAR. Now, despite only pitching 6.2 more innings, Díaz leads Ottavino by 1.0 WAR, and leads Hader by a not-insignificant 0.4 WAR.

Before I was skeptical because it’s rather easy to fall prey to small sample sizes. Díaz had surely been dominant, but it had just been a month or so, and his 2017 was certainly more mediocre than elite.

Yet here we are, July 10th, and Díaz is among the top of most leaderboards in which you would like to see him leading. In xwOBA (expected weighted on-base average), Díaz is second only to Josh Hader. In actual wOBA, Diaz ranks sixth. In xFIP, Díaz is first. In SIERA, Díaz is second (by only one point!). In K/9, Díaz is fourth.

As I was taking a peek at QOP Baseball, I was surprised to find that Díaz’s fastball and slider both ranked incredibly low in terms of quality. How could someone who has been so elite not have quality pitches?

According to FanGraphs, Díaz has one of the best sliders in the league.

Slider table (7-10-18)

wSL/C: Weighted slider runs per 100 pitches

FanGraphs’ leaderboard falls in line with what most people believe of Díaz’s slider: it’s good! More specifically, it’s the 11th best in the MLB.

According to QOP Baseball, this is how Díaz’s slider ranks in the following categories:

  • Rise: 57th percentile
  • Late break: 47th percentile
  • Horizontal break: 5th percentile
  • Vertical break: 29th percentile
  • Location: 21st percentile
  • Velocity: 97th percentile
  • 3.36 QOPA (quality of pitch average; 4.50 is league average)

For QOP Baseball, their logic is that a good pitch will rank highly in many, if not most, of these categories. Díaz only fares well in velocity. If you hadn’t seen him pitch and only looked at these metrics, you would think he’s a mediocre fireballer.

QOP Baseball does have a point. Díaz’s slider is pretty subpar in terms of movement, and his velocity is very high for a slider.

Here is a table of the top 11 sliders in baseball (per FanGraphs), mostly in order:

Name HMov VMov Velo
Snell 2.75 0.79 88.54
Alexander 1.23 1.11 85.95
Pruitt 1.49 2.00 88.67
Bradley 2.55 3.54 88.18
McHugh 9.51 1.97 80.36
Robertson 4.66 1.09 87.13
Mikolas 2.25 1.7 88.57
Hader 3.44 1.8 82.26
Glasnow 3.08 6.73 85.99
Bauer 6.88 0.99 83.32
Díaz 1.12 2.24 89.76
 averages: 3.541818 2.178182 86.24818

Díaz’s horizontal movement is well below average (even with McHugh single-handedly swaying the mean), and his vertical movement is relatively average. However, he does have the fastest slider of the group by more than 1.0 mph.

This seems like an oversimplified method of measuring the quality of a pitch. Or maybe it’s not! Like QOP Baseball says: it’s measuring the quality of a pitch, not the value of it.

Other than velocity, location, and movement, there are other methods to set yourself apart as a pitcher. Here is where Díaz does just that:

Pitch tunneling is an increasingly popular concept that suggests that the longer two different pitches travel within the same path, the more effective they will be. That seems incredibly intuitive — and it’s likely a reason why Felix Hernandez was successful for so many seasons: his changeup looked like his fastball, until it didn’t.

So if you see a hitter swing at a Díaz slider like this, you’ll know that it must have looked like his fastball:

A more straightaway view may give a better glimpse into how utterly ridiculous it must be to try and hit against Edwin Díaz:

Wow.

To further visualize this, we will compare Edwin Díaz and Juan Nicasio’s fastball-slider combos to one another.

First, a bird’s-eye view visual:

Diaz-Nicasio top

You can see that Nicasio’s pitch trajectories diverge earlier, and are wider later.

A side visual:

Diaz-Nicasio side

This is just another vantage point, but again, you can see that immediately Nicasio’s fastball-slider trajectories are not intersecting. For Díaz, they are intersecting for the first five or six points.

It still isn’t entirely clear why Díaz has taken such a gigantic leap forward since 2017. As I’ve suggested before, his slider has gained a 1.0 mph uptick in velocity. He’s stopped throwing his two-seam fastball as much in favor of his four-seam. He’s increased slider usage. His release point has changed.

Regardless of what is precipitating his success (which is almost definitely the return of his slider), he’s a major reason the Mariners have had so much success this season. When you have a closer as dominant as Díaz, you’re going to win close games, and boy have the Mariners won more close games than they should have. Edwin Díaz is on pace for 3.2 WAR, and the Mariners are 6.0 games ahead of the Athletics in the Wild Card race. For now, all is well. There’s not a better way to slice it.

Juan Nicasio has not been lucky

The Mariners’ bullpen has been one of the best in the MLB. To date, they rank 6th in bullpen WAR. While they have pitched well, they haven’t necessarily been the most lights out group in the league. More precisely, their bullpen ERA (3.73) is ranked 13th in the league, while their bullpen xFIP (3.83) is good for 7th. While these numbers aren’t necessarily elite, they’re certainly nowhere near bad.

Chasen Bradford has been as good as you can expect from him. James Pazos has been stellar. Edwin Diaz has been one of the best in the league. Juan Nicasio, though, has not been good.

That’s weird to say, because Nicasio has, in his own way, been good! He has faced 123 batters thus far while striking out 38 and only walking 2. That’s great! His 5.16 ERA? Not great.

There are many signs that Nicasio hasn’t gotten a fair shake. Of relievers with 20 or more innings, Nicasio is the 30th ranked reliever in xFIP. His 29.3% K-BB% is 11th. On Baseball Savant’s xwOBA leaderboard, Nicasio has one of the most extreme wOBA-xwOBA differentials in the MLB.

Nicasio Xpected

Expected versus actual batting average, slugging %, and weighted on-base average

His wOBA currently checks in at .334, while his xwOBA is .286. That’s good for a .048 differential, which is the 5th most extreme in the MLB, and not extreme in a good way. By this measure, Nicasio is the fifth unluckiest pitcher in the MLB. You could say, then, that Nicasio is just suffering from bad luck.

Something isn’t right though.

His current K/9 (11.53) is well above his career average, and easily higher than his 2017 K/9 of 8.96. If anything, it seems off that his BB/9 is too low. Numbers are bound to fluctuate, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Nicasio has developed pinpoint command, as he’s nearly 32 years of age.

What’s odd is he isn’t *actually* throwing in the zone more. A cheap way to lower one’s walk rate is to pound pitches in the zone. You may not be very good, but you’ll surely stop walking players! Nicasio’s in-zone % is almost exactly the same for his four-seamer, and it has actually dipped to a career low for his slider. Overall, his in-zone % is down from 54.4% to 51.6%, but it is nowhere near his career low of 47.6%.

His batted balls, though, have changed. The MLB league average launch angle is 10.8 degrees. Last year, Nicasio’s average launch angle was 10.8 degrees. That ranks 376th out of 673 qualified pitchers and was, by definition, league average. This year, it’s jumped massively to 17.0 degrees, which is 96th out of 534 qualified pitchers. (Weird side note, one thing I noticed was that Wade LeBlanc has been next to Nicasio on the launch angle leaderboards for both years. While LeBlanc has been better, Nicasio has been worse.)

It’s clear that something is up with his slider. It’s being offered at less than ever, and when hitters do swing, they’re missing less. When they connect, they’re having more success with it. Ground balls are down while line drives, slugging percentage, and isolated power are up.

According to FanGraphs, Nicasio’s slider has never been worse. his wSL/c (the weighted value of his slider) is -3.55. Over his career, it has fluctuated from below average to above average, but it has never been this bad.

Consider the following gif of Nicasio’s slider in 2017 vs. 2018:

Webp.net-gifmaker (1)

 

That… is much different. Nicasio’s zone percentage numbers on his slider may not have changed significantly, but his pitch location sure has. This year, Nicasio has pitched his slider almost exclusively on the corner of the plate, while last year he pitched over the middle of the plate much more often. He’s nibbling.

The pitch itself has changed, too. In 2017, Nicasio had a different slider than he has ever had before. That’s a good thing! The old one wasn’t good. This year, it appears to have reverted to its previous form.

Here is a table:

a nicasio table

this is a table

Tables aren’t always easy to read! Here is a graph:

a nicasio graph i drew one

this is not a table

I made it incredibly easy for you. So incredibly easy that I even went into MS Paint and added poorly drawn arrows!

Nicasio’s 2015 and 2017 sliders are good! His 2016 and 2018 sliders are not. It turns out, it doesn’t matter if Nicasio is getting a lot of vertical movement or horizontal movement, he just needs to be getting a lot of one of them. His 2016/2018 sliders didn’t get enough horizontal or vertical movement, and therefore are not good pitches.

It’s plausible that multiple things are going on here. First, Nicasio has been on the wrong side of luck — a lot. Second, there are things that are amiss with Nicasio. His slider is different, and his velocity is down. It may not be a coincidence that in 2015 and 2017, Nicasio had the best sliders of his career. He had the fastest pitches of his career. With the velocity has went his movement, and with his movement went his effectiveness.

As I wrap up this post, Nicasio has just given up three runs and the lead to Boston. Nicasio is probably (hopefully?) fine. His velocity and slider movement issues don’t change that fact that the actual batted balls that he’s induced suggest that he has been pretty solid. Last year, his wOBA against was .265. This year, his expected wOBA is .286. If his expected wOBA was his actual wOBA, he would be tied with Charlie Morton, Clayton Kershaw, and Tyson Ross. Not at all bad company! That, unfortunately, is not the case, and also not how things work. Baseball Savant’s expected batted ball data is imperfect. Juan Nicasio, really, is imperfect. But, this information can shed enough light on what’s going on that maybe we can stop crucifying Juan Nicasio for his struggles.

Kyle Seager could turn his season around with this One Weird Trick

Generally when I write about the Mariners, I prefer to write about players on the upswing. I prefer to write these articles because they are human beings, and it’s not fun to write about players sucking. Kyle Seager, for all intents and purposes, is not on the upswing. His swing, I suppose, is literally an uppercut swing, but that’s the closest he currently is to being on the upswing.

Many weeks ago, I wrote an article detailing how Kyle Seager hadn’t made changes despite teams adjusting to him. At the time, I was optimistic that Seager would make the necessary adjustments, but he has yet to show any signs of improvement.

Through this date in 2016:

Seag2016Line

Through this date last year:

Seag2017Line

To date this year:

Seag2018 update

Ignore the top line, see: grey line

There are very clear trends. First, no two years show any kind of similarities. Second, his numbers, overall, are trending down. The key thing here is that his BABIP, specifically, is negatively trending.

Normally, it would be wise to cite that his .238 BABIP is far below both his career average and league average. Someone may say, “The league average BABIP is around .300, and so surely it is inevitable that more balls will start falling in his favor and his production will go up!” While these things are true, the league has changed rapidly in the past couple years.

His wOBA is 28 points lower than his xwOBA (expected wOBA), but most of that is likely due to how teams are defending Seager. This was evidenced last year, as he underperformed his wOBA by a similar 25 points in 2017.

Here are three pictures, courtesy of Baseball Savant, depicting teams’ defensive positioning against Seager in 2016, 2017, and 2018.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As shown by the changes in fielder positioning (specifically the red blotches), teams are becoming more consistent and more extreme in their defensive positioning. More telling is that teams are starting to become much, much more aggressive in how often they shift him.

In 2016, teams shifted Seager 47.1% of the time, good for 45th in the MLB. Okay, that’s extreme, but not too extreme. Last year, Seager was shifted 54.9% of the time, which ranks him 27th in the league. Again, this is getting more extreme, but not yet ridiculous.

This year, teams have put the shift into play on 72.1% of his plate appearances(!), well above the league average of 30.2% against left-handed hitters. This means Seager is now the 14th most shifted against player in the MLB.

Interestingly, Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus has argued that the shift has actually done more harm than good for teams employing it. But, in a newer article he mentions how teams can assure that the shift will be worth it.

The defensive team needs to believe that a hitter will pull his grounders about three times as often as he will go oppo with them in order for The Shift to break even.

Last season, Seager had 17 at-bats that ended with a grounder to the opposite side of the field. As for grounders that were to the pull-side, Seager had 98.

But this isn’t a new problem! Surely we are aware of this. Over his career, Seager has pulled 722 ground balls while going the opposite way with 127 grounders. This means that Seager hits about 5.69 times more grounders to his pull-side than to the opposite field. So according to Russell Carleton, teams are more than justified in shifting against Seager, even though it may not be appropriate for other hitters.

Carleton then touches on why it is that the shift is effective.

The power outage (specifically, the home run loss) from The Shift exceeds the loss on balls in play. The Shift works, although not in the way that we think it does. It doesn’t make fielding the ball easier. It scares the batter from pulling the ball so much and saps his home run power as a result!

Coming out of the offseason, Seager spoke about how his swing was the best he has ever had. He specifically talked about handling balls away and hitting the ball into left field, and intuitively, this makes some sense. Over his career, Seager sports a .562 OPS on balls hit to opposite field. For reference, over their careers Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano have OPS’d .878 and .932, respectively, going the other way. Why wouldn’t Seager want to improve on his greatest weakness as a hitter?

Kyle Seager seems to be at somewhat of a defining moment in his career. In trying to learn to go the other way with the ball more, his numbers have suffered as a result. It may be, then, that Seager should accept himself for the player he is. As Seager nears the age of 31, it is highly unlikely that he will learn how to hit the ball to all fields at this point in his career. It seems clear that he is someone who will always be exceptionally bad going the other way.  Because of the shift, he may never be, offensively, what he was in 2014 or 2016. And that’s fine!

If anything, Seager should be making more of an effort to hit the ball towards the shift, not away from it. The reason that teams have shifted Seag for all of these years is because he’s known for hitting home runs and doubles. The shift isn’t going to stop most doubles, and it sure as heck isn’t going to stop any balls traveling over the fence. The greatest thing that Seager can do for himself at the present moment is to pretend that defenses are not shifting him, and to hit the ball hard. That, or he could imagine them all in their underwear.

Edwin Diaz has changed

I’ve been thinking a lot about Edwin Diaz lately. I’ve been thinking a lot about Edwin Diaz because he has been incredible. As it’s just the beginning of May, I’ve tried my hardest to not overreact to any particular players’ performances, because the sample sizes are incredibly small. Because they are so very small, the statistics have not had time to become more stable. This will take time, but what we can do is speculate, and use several metrics to paint the fullest picture we possibly can at this point.

Several days ago, Diaz took the MLB lead in saves, and became the fifth fastest pitcher in MLB history to reach 200 strikeouts. In terms of relievers, Diaz is currently tied for 3rd in the MLB in WAR, and really, the only relievers who have truly been more lights out are Josh Hader and Adam Ottavino.

There have been a couple clear changes thus far with Diaz. The first is that Diaz is throwing his slider harder than ever.

Diaz mph

 

While his fastball has stayed around the same relative velocity, his slider has received somewhere around a 1.00 to 1.50 mph uptick in velocity. This has rendered hitters absolutely helpless, as his fastball and slider play well off of each other.

The second change is that he’s using his slider more, and thus his fastball less.

Diaz usage

 

This change in usage has optimized the values that Diaz’s fastball and slider provide him. Although it is widely considered a plus-plus pitch, Diaz’s heater has never before registered as such. It seems the effectiveness of his slider and his shift in usage may have helped his fastball play up.

When Diaz is locating his fastball on the edges of the strike zone, he’s near impossible to hit, and this year his fastball has been spectacular.

According to Pitch Info, his wFA/C (the number of runs above average batters were against his fastball) have been -0.29 and 0.45 in 2016 and 2017, respectively. This year, it’s 2.78. As for his wSL/C (slider value), it registered a 3.72 and 1.61 in 2016 and 2017, respectively. This year, it checks in at 2.34.

So far, his slider has been an absolute worm killer. The only batted balls in play that hitters have been able to manage against Diaz’s sliders have been grounders. Think about that: Out of Diaz’s 95 sliders this year, zero of those balls put in play have been line drives, fly balls, or pop ups. Further, 68.89% of sliders that hitters have offered at have been whiffs. That’s insane.

Along with more velocity, Diaz has kept his slider out of the zone more than ever.

Diaz out of zone

While pitching out of the zone didn’t make Diaz’s 2017 better than his 2016, hitters have been much worse at hitting balls pitched out of the zone this year in comparison to the years before.

Overall, these changes had led Diaz to see improvements almost everywhere. Hitters are:

  • Swinging at more pitches in the zone
  • Making far less contact on pitches outside the zone
  • Making less contact on pitches inside the zone
  • Swinging through a higher % of pitches

And yet, maybe the most interesting tidbit is that Diaz has increased the spin rate on his slider and fastball considerably.

Diaz spin rate

Since last year, the spin rate on Diaz’s slider and fastball have increased by about 1,000 revolutions per minute (rpm). This now puts him with the likes of Craig Kimbrel, Blake Treinen, Brandon Morrow, and Ken Giles.

Most likely due to his change in spin rate, the vertical movement of his pitches, particularly his slider, have both increased as well.

Diaz movement

Diaz’s newfound spin rate appears to be behind his added movement, and thus his early season successes.

And so, it looks as if Edwin Diaz has made adjustments. When pitchers make adjustments, hitters make adjustments back. Baseball, really, is a game of back-and-forth adjustments. Maybe Diaz loses his feel for his pitches. Maybe Diaz starts throwing his fastball too much. If hitters somehow manage to stop swinging at his pitches, maybe Diaz starts walking more hitters. Really, he already is walking a lot of hitters. Too many hitters.

It’s early, and so these early season results could be a whole lot of nothing. This is just a blip in the season, and maybe Sugar is simply throwing a few more sliders than usual. As recently as April 26th against the Indians, Diaz threw 73% fastballs. Maybe he didn’t have a feel for his slider, but it is certainly easy to envision a 24-year-old fireballer overindulging in a pitch of his that can surpass 100 mph.

It’s been just 14 games and 14.1 innings. Diaz’s BABIP is .105, and he’s stranded 91.7% of hitters on base. Clearly, this isn’t completely sustainable, and if you’ve watched some of his outings, it’s easy to imagine them ending up much worse than they did. One thing to keep an eye on is if he continues to walk a lot of hitters, which Diaz is prone to doing at times. That said, if he continues utilizing this mix of his fastball and slider, it would not be surprising to see him finish the year as a top-5 closer.

 

Is Marco Gonzales for real?

For quite some time, the Mariners’ starting rotation has been bad. So very bad that Yovani Gallardo pitched 22 games for the Mariners last season. Just years ago, Felix Hernandez was regarded as the best starting pitcher in the American League, and Hisashi Iwakuma was considered by some to be one of the most underrated #2 starting pitchers in the MLB. The former threw a perfect game, while the latter tossed a no-hitter. Nowadays, Felix is more bad than good and Iwakuma’s shoulder might as well have fallen off.

Last year, Jerry Dipoto took a lot of heat for trading one of the Mariners’ top prospects in Tyler O’Neill for a soft-tossing lefty coming off of Tommy John surgery in Marco Gonzales. Interestingly, both were taken in the 2013 MLB draft. O’Neill was taken with the 85th overall pick (3rd round), while Gonzales was taken 19th overall (1st round). Ever the optimist, I thought there was some logic in trading a dice roll in Tyler O’Neill for something (theoretically) steadier in Marco Gonzales.

More recently, Gonzales has been making the trade look a lot more justifiable than it had been just a month ago. After pitching 4.2 innings with no earned runs against the Astros, Gonzales blanked the White Sox yesterday through six innings while striking out eight.

Gonzales was truly bad last year, or at best uninspiring. There’s a lot to unpack here, because it’s not entirely clear why Gonzales has been so much better through his last couple outings. According to the man himself, he feels that he was only 60-70% last year. Now he feels like he’s 90-95%. Turns out, it helps to be healthy.

In the aforementioned article, Gonzales talks about how his curveball was his most affected pitch due to complications from his injury.

Marco SLG against

Slugging percentage vs. Gonzales’ pitches in 2017 and 2018

The numbers are in agreement with Marco’s reasoning. In 2017, hitters slugged .588 off of his curve. This year, they’re slugging just .364 off of it. FanGraphs concur with this sentiment, as his wCU/C (the value of his curveball) has improved from -2.76 to -0.31. It remains to be a good pitch, but it’s a big deal that it is no longer bad.

Gonzales has completely changed the way he’s utilizing his pitches. While he leaned heavily on his four-seam fastball last year, his changeup is now (just barely) his most used pitch and he’s throwing them all at more similar rates than he had previously.

Marco pitch mix

Gonzales is mixing all of his pitches in

But! Looking at it from year-to-year oversimplifies things. Especially because there hasn’t been a clear pattern that Gonzales has used his pitches this year.

Marco pitch mix by game

Gonzales’ game-to-game pitch mix

As you can see, 2018 has been incredibly messy. In terms of pitch mix, his first three games were somewhat similar, and those games ended with a total of 11 earned runs in just 12 innings. Against the Astros, Gonzales leaned much more heavily on his cutter and curveball, while ditching his changeup. In his last game against the White Sox, he almost completely abandoned his four-seam fastball and used the combination of his sinker and changeup almost exactly two-thirds of the time.

Gonzales is experimenting with what works for him, which makes sense, because his sinker and cutter are both new pitches. Technically, the sinker is something he has used sparsely before, but he only used it in one game in 2017. Through this experimentation, Gonzales will, theoretically, be able to decipher which pitches are his best and how he can properly sequence them.

Coming out of college, Gonzales’ changeup was arguably the best changeup in college ball, and became one of the best in the minor leagues. There’s no doubt that it will be heavily featured in his repertoire. His sinker and cutter have been his first and second best pitches in terms of slugging percentage (.278 and .294, respectively). This is notable given they’ve both been introduced this year.

In 2017, Gonzales threw his four-seamer 47.93% of the time, and that usage is down to 21.84% this year. Although it appears he is starting to go away from it, it’s peculiar that Gonzales continues to use his four-seam fastball at all. The interesting thing is that it is, without question, his worst pitch. Hitters have slugged .578 and .650 off of it in 2017 and 2018, respectively, and his wFA/C (the value of his fastball) is listed at -3.28. That’s incredibly bad, and to make matters worse, the average velocity on his four-seamer has dropped from 92.11 to 90.86. (Although to be fair, his velocity is down in general.)

But Gonzales hasn’t only changed his pitches. He’s also discussed moving to a more natural arm slot. This has worked in the past for many others, including Mariners ace James Paxton. Once Paxton lowered his arm slot, his fastball became faster, and he became better. Curiously, Marco has seen his all of his pitches get slightly slower.

Below you can see that, on most of his pitches, the horizontal release point has moved by almost exactly half a foot across the board.

Marco horizontal

Horizontal release point (’17 and ’18)

As for his vertical release point, it seems to have dropped slightly for his pitches. The error bars are still pretty wide at this point in the season, so it isn’t apparent exactly how much he’s adjusted his release point vertically.

Marco vertical

Vertical release point (’17 and ’18)

Given all of these changes, there’s nothing to suggest Gonzales should be nearly as bad as his 4.37 ERA. The difference between his xwOBA (expected weight on-base overage; .335) and wOBA (.334) is nearly non-existent. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play; .406) and LOB% (left on base percentage; 62.9%) are also inflated. His FIP (2.60) and xFIP (2.41) suggest that he’s pitched a lot better than his ugly ERA shows. More precisely, his FIP and xFIP convey Gonzales (so far) as a ~2.50 ERA pitcher, not a 4.37 ERA pitcher.

Marco Gonzales has, in the matter of two starts, catapulted himself into relevancy and given Mariners fans some badly needed hope in terms of starting pitching. He also, for the time being, has made himself interesting. Whether his success is due to an arm slot change, new pitches, or injury recovery isn’t entirely clear. But just as with everything else in life, it’s likely a mixture of factors coming together to cause substantive changes in his performance.

Gonzales could come out and be miserable in his next start and we could go back to writing him off. This article would be all for naught! Boo. Surely, many pitchers have had elite two-game stretches before. Most pitchers, however, have not endured the amount of changes as Marco Gonzales has. For now, Gonzales is showing why he was once drafted 19th overall. It’s far too early to tell if Marco Gonzales is for real, but it seems reasonable to think that he’ll be serviceable. For the Mariners, that just might be enough.

Mitch Haniger is good at baseball

The Mariners haven’t been particularly good, but they also haven’t been particularly bad. The White Sox, though, have been particularly bad and are currently 5-15. The Mariners got absolutely steamrolled by the White Sox on Monday to the tune of 4-10, and Tuesday eeked out a 1-0 win. The Mariners, for the most part, failed to do anything noteworthy.

Except, there was one thing. Mitch Haniger hit a single.  There wasn’t anything especially notable about it, other than it scored the game’s lone run. In fact, Haniger has been driving in a lot of runs lately. If you’ll remember, Haniger was the proud owner of a 1.054 OPS through March and April last year, until a Grade 2 oblique strain sidelined him. What he was doing pre-injury probably wasn’t sustainable, but Hanny never seemed fully healthy until the last month of the year.

This year, it seems like Hanny may be able to keep it up. From 4/3/17 to 4/23/17, he slashed .325/.435/.597 with a .434 wOBA and 180 wRC+. From 3/29/18 to today, Hanny is slashing .321/.389/.692 with a .449 wOBA and 189 wRC+ on the season. Clearly he can’t keep up this pace, but his peripherals suggest that he’s earned everything he’s produced thus far.

Last year’s hot start was buoyed by an inflated .396 BABIP, suggesting a little bit of good luck. This year, he owns a .327 BABIP, which is just a touch above his career .319 BABIP. Haniger also has an xBABIP (expected BABIP) of .290, so there may be a few more balls that have fallen in for hits than there should have been, however, xBABIP isn’t perfect.

As I’ve mentioned before, xwOBA uses Statcast’s exit velocity and launch angle data to measure what a player’s wOBA should be. Mitch Haniger owns the 8th highest xwOBA in the MLB at .465. After today’s game, Haniger’s wOBA is .461, meaning he isn’t necessarily playing over his head right now. He’s just hitting the ball really hard. So hard that he’s in a virtual tie with Mookie Betts and Eric Thames for 13th highest average exit velocity in the MLB at 92.8 mph. Holy cow.

There are a couple of things going in. First and foremost, Hanny is healthy. Oblique injuries are known to be a huge pain in the neck, and it’s clear that his swing was impacted by his injuries last year.

Second, Haniger is lifting the ball more than ever. In 2017, Hanny’s average launch angle was 10.6 degrees. That’s… not very high. This year, Hanny’s average launch angle is 19.4 degrees, good for 20th in the MLB. For reference, the average launch angle in the MLB in 2017 was 11.1. That’s a substantial difference, and significantly higher than notorious fly ball hitters like Trevor Story, Justin Smoak, and Eric Thames. In other words, Haniger might be buying into the so-called fly ball revolution. However, with just 90 plate appearances, it could also be too small of a sample to draw meaningful conclusions from.

Haniger FB BIP

As you can see, I am not crazy

Again, it’s not very far into the year, but the amount of fly balls per ball in play have increased significantly this year with both hard and breaking pitches.

There is one place in which Haniger is sure to regress. Haniger’s 29.6% HR/FB is about 12% higher than his career average, and it shouldn’t be much higher than 20%. This means that Hanny’s fly balls are inevitably going to start being caught by outfielders instead of going over the fence, but it would be ludicrous to expect Haniger to continue to hit at a clip 89% above league average.

Another form of forthcoming regression is in strength of opposition. To date, Haniger’s oppRPA+ (opponent’s run per plate appearance) is 92, or 8% below league average. This means that Haniger has faced competition that is a slightly below average. Going forward, Haniger may face stronger pitchers than he has up until this point.

As of right now, Mitch Haniger is 8th in the MLB with a 1.3 WAR. Just as he’s done before, Hanny is knocking the cover off the ball. What Haniger has not done before is hit the ball in the air at this rate. It remains to be seen how pitchers will adjust to him. What we know for sure is that Hanny has been one of the best players in the league this year. He’s hitting the ball at a higher angle than Aaron Judge, as hard as Eric Thames, and he’s been more productive than Bryce Harper. Sure I’m cherry picking hot, sexy household names, but maybe Mitch Haniger is on his way to becoming one.

Kyle Seager hasn’t changed, but maybe that’s the problem

Last year was a different year for Kyle Seager. Although it was ultimately a solid year for Seager, it was also his lowest WAR output (3.6 fWAR) since his rookie season. Despite this, Seager played a lot more like someone referred to as Corey’s Brother than Mr. Consistent.

His 2017 triple slash (.249/.323/.450) does not deviate very far from his yearly numbers in the past. However, his advanced stats better illustrate his regression in 2017. His wOBA (.326) and 106 wRC+ were both career lows (excluding his rookie season).

xwOBA (expected weighted on-base average) is a fun statistic to play with, because it uses Statcast’s exit velocity and launch angle metrics to assign batted balls a hit probability. These probabilities are then calculated and used to convert into xwOBA, which is directly comparable to wOBA, and so players’ skills can be compared with defense quite literally taken out of the equation.

According to xwOBA, Seager’s 2017 wOBA was expected to be .352. This is a far cry from his actual wOBA of .326. By subtracting Seager’s wOBA from his xwOBA, this shows that Seager’s wOBA was 0.025 less than expected compared to similarly batted balls.

This can be interpreted in a couple different ways. One of the most common viewpoints may be to say that Kyle Seager was one the wrong side of luck. A lot.

Rather, I think there has been a change in the way that teams have treated Kyle Seager. For years, teams have utilized variations of the ‘Ted Williams’ shift against Seager. This includes stacking the right side of the infield in a manner in which the third basemen moves to closer to second base, the shortstop plays to the right field side of second base, and the second basemen plays in shallow right field. This is commonly used against extreme pull lefty hitters, and Seager is no exception.

As MLB.com notes, Seager is one of the most shifted against players in the MLB. Anthony Rizzo led the league with 370 shifts faced, while Seager ranked second with 369. In other words, Seager is in a virtual tie for the most shifted against player in the league. Consequently, he is also one of the most affected by the shift.

This trend doesn’t appear to be slowing anytime soon. As teams have utilized the shift against Seager more and more, he has gotten worse at hitting against it by year.

Seager vs. shift

With statistics such as these (i.e., defensive shifts), they are often imperfect, and there are likely some errors in categorization of shifts and outcomes. Regardless, what this table tells us is Seager has been shifted against more every year, and it seems to be effective against him. This year, the differential appears to getting even more extreme, as Seager has 2 PAs with no shift and 14 PAs with a shift. The sample is ridiculously small, though, so it’s early to say with confidence.

The league has been adjusting to Kyle Seager. Kyle Seager does not seem to be adjusting back. Every so often, we will see Seager bunt to try and beat the shift, but this has not sufficiently dissuaded teams from using the shift any less. Seager may need to effectively bunt against it more often, but teams could simply be willing to give up bunt singles in exchange for more effective protection against the doubles that Seager is so inclined to hit into right field.

Defensive positioning isn’t the only way in which Seager has been dealt with differently. Pitchers made slight tweaks to how they attacked him in 2017 with great success.

Over the years, teams have learned to stay farther and farther away from Kyle Seager’s hands because he loves to pull the ball. Pitchers have always known to pitch away from him, but in 2017 the lower right quadrant was targeted more than ever, and he started getting pitched off of the edge of the plate like never before. Seager responded with a career high in swinging strike percentage and a career low in contact percentage.

While the location has changed, the types of pitches have changed as well. In 2016, Seager’s pitch breakdown was 59.25% hard pitches, 27.20% breaking pitches, and 13.55% offspeed pitches. In 2017, it changed to 55.14% hard pitches, 29.55% breaking pitches, and 15.20% offspeed pitches. These changes may seem minute, but when considering the large amount of pitches hitters see per year, it is more consequential than it appears.

Given this, it is unclear what adjustments Seager can make.  It doesn’t appear that Seager will benefit from the fly ball revolution, as his 2017 fly ball percentage (51.6%) was significantly higher than his career average (43.7%). At 20.2 degrees, his launch angle is already the 11th highest in the MLB. You could say he needs to learn to go the other way, but at 30 years old, that seems unlikely. If you are a believer in lineup protection, then maybe Seager would benefit from hitting ahead of Cruz or Canó.

Taken together, there seems to be a lot going on. Teams have positioned their defenses more extremely, pitchers have made adjustments, and Seager’s offensive production has suffered. There’s are reasons why his BABIP has plummeted to .262 (i.e., defensive shifting), although I reckon that a small portion of that is due to bad luck.

Kyle Seager hits the ball plenty hard. It may be time to venture into changing how he’s hitting the ball both horizontally (i.e., towards opposite field) and vertically (i.e., at a lower angle). Even if Seager can’t recreate his 2014 or 2016 offensive production, the criticisms Seager has received in the infancy of the 2018 season are irresponsible. With a few adjustments, we could see more consistency out of the player deemed Mr. Consistency.

Mariners acquire Dee Gordon, ammo for Ohtani

Yesterday I wrote this article and mistakenly posted it incorrectly. The Shohei Ohtani portion of the article is now very, very sad. Enjoy!

In the midst of a seven-team pursuit for Shohei Ohtani, Jerry Dipoto did something only Jerry Dipoto would do in acquiring Dee Gordon and $1M in international bonus space. In the process, the Mariners also freed Robert Dugger, Christopher Torres, and their #2 prospect Nick Neidert from their perpetually middling franchise.

To make it that much easier:

Mariners receive:

  • Two-time All-Star Dee Gordon
  • $1M international slot money to pursue Ohtani

Marlins receive:

  • Nick Neidert
  • Robert Dugger
  • Christopher Torres
  • The relief of Dee Gordon’s contract

The Mariners accomplished two things with this deal, and I’m not sure which part is more sexy. In the acquisition of Dee Gordon, the Mariners are getting a player who can play second base and shortstop.  What the Mariners hope is that he will be able to adequately play center field, which is where they intend on playing him for now.

On its own, acquiring international slot money is very much an unsexy thing to receive in a trade. But! What if I told you that the Mariners now have a slight lead in international slot money. (Or… really more of a tie with Texas.) This means the M’s can offer Shohei Ohtani more money than any other team. If you ask me, that’s as sexy as it gets. If you know some of his backstory, money clearly isn’t a pressing matter to Ohtani, but I’ve never heard of a player who doesn’t care about money.

The framework of this trade is almost identical to that of the Mike Leake trade. In the Leake deal, the M’s took on most of Leake’s contract and gave up SS Rayder Ascanio in exchange for $0.75 million international bonus space. The formula seems to be taking on contracts slightly underwater, giving up middling prospects, and getting a major league ready player and Ohtani ammo (international slot money) in return. Hell, Gordon is 29 years old; the same age as Mike Leake at the time he was traded.

Before the days of Leonys Martin and Jarrod Dyson, the Mariners were thinking of ways they could get creative to solve their black hole in center field. Back then, some suggested that Brad Miller could move off of shortstop to try and hack it. He ended up playing 146.0 innings in center for the Mariners in 2015, and the results were… not good.

Dee Gordon will now attempt to succeed where Brad Miller failed. Some have proposed the Gordon serve as a Ben Zobrist-esque superutility player, but Dipoto seems adamant that Gordon will only play center field. When Robinson Cano’s contract inevitably becomes an albatross, Gordon would hypothetically be a candidate to replace him at second base.

Today’s trade does not come without potential drawbacks. In Nick Neidert, the Mariners lost their top pitching prospect. John Sickels projects Neidert as somewhere around a number three starter. That’s not game-changing, but the back of the Mariners’ rotation isn’t exactly game-changing either. Unless you’re the other team. Our pitchers will serve up runs all day if you’re the other team, and that by definition changes the game.

Christopher Torres is an 18-year-old shortstop that wasn’t expected to join the M’s until 2020 or 2021. He is said to have the tools to stay at shortstop while also possibly being able to hit for contact and some power. Robert Dugger has been a starter and reliever in the minors and has worked a 3.22 ERA in 156.2 innings pitched.

The big deal here is not losing Neidert, and it certainly isn’t losing Torres or Dugger. It’s in getting Dee Gordon. In 2016, Gordon was popped with an 80-game suspension for performance enhancing drugs. Despite taking performance enhancing drugs, Gordon’s highest home run total for a season is 4.

It’s obvious that Gordon’s value comes predominantly from his speed on the base paths. In his last four seasons, he has averaged or been on pace for at least 60 stolen bases over 162 games. In order to swipe bases, though, Gordon will have to get on base. Going into 2018, Steamer projects that Gordon will hit .286/.325/.368 with a .301 wOBA and 85 wRC+ (i.e., 15% below league average). For comparison, Jarrod Dyson is currently projected to slash .261/.328/.369 with a .304 wOBA and 85 wRC+.  Gordon, you could argue, isn’t far from Dyson as a hitter.

Except there are clear differences between the two. The most important of which is their splits by handedness. To compare them, we’ll use wRC+. (For reference, 100 is league, 110 is 10% above league average, and 90 is 10% below league average.) Versus lefties over their careers, Dee Gordon hits a respectable 97 wRC+ while Dyson hits a comparable 93 wRC+. Versus righties, Dee Gordon hits a subpar 82 wRC+, but Dyson hits an abysmal 55 wRC+. That’s even worse than Seth Smith’s wRC+ versus lefties, and this difference will allow Gordon to play in more games and face more pitchers than Dyson would have been able to.

If the Mariners win the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, this trade looks incredible. If they lose, well, it doesn’t look nearly as good. If you think about it, though, it is curious that the Mariners have continued to add international money recently. Ohtani is passing up millions and millions of dollars to come to the United States now. So theoretically, he can’t have that much desire for a couple million extra dollars, at least one would think. If we’re making the assumption that Ohtani is to sign here, then this signing becomes more important. To accommodate Ohtani as a DH, Nelson Cruz is going to have to play in the field where he’s below average at best. With an athletic, defensive first outfield, Gordon should fit right in.

Mariners take a Leake

Associated Press (AP)

The Mariners currently rank 28th in the MLB in starting pitcher WAR, and so they have attempted to bolster their rotation by acquiring Mike Leake, cash, and international cash in return for SS Rayder Ascanio.

Leake is owed a $16M APY for the next three years. With the Cardinals kicking in cash, Mike Leake is essentially on a three-year, $36M deal with a $5M buyout in 2021. Leake waived his no-trade clause in order to come to Seattle.

With a 2017 WAR of +1.9 to date, Leake joins the Mariners as their second most productive starting pitcher, and it isn’t particularly close. Next in line is Ariel Miranda at +0.5 WAR.

After posting a 3.12 ERA in the first half, Leake has floundered, conceding a 6.90 ERA to batters since the All-Star break. One reason for this regression seems to be that Leake’s velocity on his sinker has been declining. Both Brooks Baseball and FanGraphs have his sinker’s velocity as the lowest it has been since 2012, and nearly an entire tick down from just last year. That’s problematic considering Leake throws his sinker almost 50% of the time.

Regardless, a stellar first half and pitiful second half combine to equal a fairly normal year for Leake. He now has seven consecutive seasons of at least 150 innings, and most of them have fallen under a 4.00 ERA. It’s reasonable to expect somewhere around 185 innings and a 4.00 ERA per season from Leake for the remainder of his contract. With Seattle’s current rotation, it’s hard to complain about that.

The going rate for middling, veteran starters is currently somewhere around $10M-$15M per year. Jeremy Hellickson, he of 9.9 WAR from 2010-2017, is on the books for $17M in 2017. Currently, one WAR is priced at around $8.5-9M, and so Leake will need to be worth around +4 WAR for the next three years. In the past seven seasons, Leake has averaged +1.89 WAR per season, so he would be hard pressed to not be worth the money.

The dip in velocity is concerning, but there are some reasons to be hopeful. First, Leake is getting more swings out of the zone than he has in many years. His swing percentage on pitches outside of the zone is up a full percentage point from his career average. Second, his outside-zone (O-Swing) contact and inside-zone (Z-Swing) contact percentages are both down around 2% from his career averages. Lastly, his swinging strike percentage (SwStr%) is the highest it’s been in his career.

As for the Rayder Ascanio, he’s a 21-year-old, 155-pound shortstop who has spent most of his time in 2017 in A+ ball. As a hitter, he is extremely light-hitting, but is an absolute wizard with his glove. While not an issue for many big league shortstops, it’s concerning that Ascanio is hitting a mere .656 OPS in A+ (21% below league average). He currently has an uphill battle to be a capable major league starter. John Sickels graded him a ‘C’ in February.

In short, the Cardinals used this as an opportunity to free up salary cap space. Seattle has made it even more clear that they aren’t tapping out anytime soon. Paired with the Segura extension, picking up a $12M annual contract through 2020 shows they are trying to win now. Fortunately they were able to do so with a 29-year-old proven veteran pitcher. Look for Mike Leake to get his first start as a Mariner sometime this weekend against Oakland.