Franklin Gutierrez is Baseball, All Right

June 25, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 15 Comments 

I’ve watched the play so many times – Alexi Casilla lining a ball into the left-CF gap in the old Metrodome, April 9th, 2009. I remember watching it in slow motion and stopping the video at various points, trying to see at what moment a catch looked likely, or even possible. My honest answer was never. At the start of the video, Franklin Gutierrez wasn’t on the screen, and while he comes flying over to his right, his stride seemingly at a different frame rate than the rest of the video, as he begins his dive, the whole thing still looks ludicrous. “Why is he diving at thaOH MY GOD!”

Baseball is so good at delivering moments like this, and stories like Franklin Gutierrez’s 2009. It’s why Jeff’s piece from April is still 100% true- MLB serves up so much greatness, so much upside, that the whole thing can get dizzying. It’s why M’s fans have convinced themselves they could compete in 2006, 2007, 2010, OK, 2013, maybe 2015. Taijuan Walker’s pitching tonight in Tacoma after slicing through the Southern League this month. No one can get Brad Miller out. Jesus Montero’s the best hitting prospect in the minors. Franklin Gutierrez is the guy you build a dynasty around.

In 1940, 21-year old OF Pete Reiser was hitting .378 and slugging .618 for Elmira of the Eastern League. After a one week dip in Montreal, the Dodgers called him up in late July and watched the youngster hit .293, and post a 104 wRC+ in 58 games. He had a lot of speed, and covered a lot of ground in CF, and obviously had some ability at the plate, but I’m not sure anyone could’ve predicted Reiser’s breakout 1941 campaign. Reiser hit .343/.406/.558, playing in 137 games. He was robbed of the MVP award, which went to his teammate, Dolph Camilli, a 1B with a lower slugging percentage than Reiser’s. Reiser’s 7+WAR led all position players in the NL, despite missing several games due to injury. Reiser’s all-out style made him a stellar defender, but he was never able to hold back, to keep a hitter to a single. Fans probably loved it, if fan reaction to Ichiro’s lack of dives is anything to go by. The next year, the 23 year old was building on his jaw-dropping 1941 season, and was sitting at .366/.423/.564 in mid-June. A little later, Reiser crashed face-first into the OF wall in St. Louis, trying to catch a drive off the bat of Enos Slaughter. Another great effort, he’s just 23, give him a day off and send him out there. That’s just the way he plays, kid can’t help it. Reiser was never the same, slumping through the end of 1942, and then getting injured again while playing for a US Army team during WWII. He was selling cars in his early 30s, and managing in the minors through the 1950s (including a stint in Spokane).*

Upside is probably why a bunch of us are still here, still following this team. We put downside and risk out of our minds because it’s not terribly fun, and if a player flames out, well, that just opens up a spot for this guy they haven’t had room for, the guy who’s tearing up the PCL/SL/whatever. Upside is preferable to downside, and it is *everywhere*. And thus, I think we miss what baseball’s doing at the same time it’s presenting all of this upside. It’s brutally, mercilessly, hunting down and attacking greatness. Injuries are always a great way to lay a pitcher low, but simple regression can be just as effective. The Jeremy Reed career trajectory is familiar to many M’s fans, but we just sort of look past the Raul Mondesi/Tim Salmon career paths – guys who were very good and looked like they could take the leap to great, and just didn’t, because it’s ridiculously hard to do and truly great players are rare. It’s why the transcendent stars like Trout/Cabrera/A-Rod/etc. are so incredible. They fight regression to a draw for a while – their true talent so incredible, random variance can’t obscure it – and then, hopefully, age gracefully. Fighting age is particularly impressive – I think this is huge reason why fans love and overrate Nolan Ryan, and it’s a big reason why Raul Ibanez is perhaps more popular now than he was in 2006. But sometimes, baseball doesn’t wait for age. Sometimes the initial volleys are enough.

It was 1981, and M’s phenom Edwin Nunez headed back to Wausau in the Midwest League. He’s pitched there the year before, at age 16-17, posting a credible ERA even in the pitcher-friendly league. He’d pitched for Bellingham in 1979, as a brand-new 16-year old. If the Northwest League wasn’t a short-season league, he’d have begun the year at 15. So, in 1981, at age 17 but with considerable professional experience, the Puerto Rican began laying waste to the college kids in the Midwest league. Nunez went 16-3 with a 2.47 ERA, striking out 205 in 186 innings, and giving up just 143 hits. His walk rate, which was fairly high the year before, was now pretty good. His K rate was ridiculous, especially in the pre-K boom 1980s. Thus, it wasn’t ridiculous when the M’s had him start the 1982 season in the major league bullpen. He was 18 when he made his debut against Minnesota, pitching 3 1/3 IP against the Twins, and giving up just one run. He was even better in Anaheim a few days later. The M’s and Angels were locked in a 2-2 tie in the 12th inning, and the 18-year old needed to sop up some innings as he was the sixth pitcher used that day. He couldn’t hold a lead in the 14th (giving up hits to Rod Carew and Don Baylor…NUNEZ WAS 18, REMEMBER), but he kept the M’s in the game through the 17th. They eventually suspended the game after the 18th inning, and the Angels won the continuation the next day, because of course they did. Nunez’s line was 6IP, 2H, 1R, 2BB, 5Ks. The M’s moved him into the rotation for a couple of starts, then sent him back to Salt Lake in the PCL to get stretched out. Partially due to the M’s indecision around Nunez’s role, and partially due to some lingering soreness, the M’s kept him in relief for much of the next few years. He pitched 90 innings in 1985, but his shoulder continued to bother him. Nunez complaints of injury were ignored or refuted by the team, who told him every pitcher is sore now and then. This battle between Nunez and the team reached a boiling point when the M’s sent him back to AAA during his poor 1986 season, and Nunez refused to report, and then accused the team of racism in their treatment of him. Somehow or another, GM Dick Balderson and Nunez made peace, and Edwin bounced back in 1987 to some degree. In 1988, the M’s traded him to the Mets for Gene Walter, who the M’s released not long after.

Anyone who watched him in 2011 could see it wasn’t the same Franklin Gutierrez. He looked hollowed out, and when he was diagnosed with IBS in April, we at least knew why. Now we had a cause of his terrible second-half in 2010. Now, with management, he’d be back to 2009-level! The more they managed the disease, the more Guti looked like a shell. His K% was lower than it was in his good year, but the ball made a different sound off his bat. He limped through a rehab stint in Tacoma, but he couldn’t hit at all once he was back in Seattle. His defense still looked OK, at least visually, but my relationship to it had changed. That old feeling of anticipation when a ball went into a gap was replaced by apprehension. The possibility of seeing a diving play was replaced with the sincere hope that I wouldn’t. Since then, the glimpses that we’ve gotten have been great, but we know what they are and what purpose they serve.**

As Larry Stone wrote, none of this is Gutierrez’s fault, just like none of this was Nunez’s fault or Reiser’s fault. This is baseball’s fault. Almost every nail that sticks up gets hammered down, so we resume scanning for other protruding nails, and we cheer for them even as the hammer falls again and again. It’s awesome when someone upsets the natural order and Ryan Vogelsong’s, or Tom Wilhelmsen’s their way to something approaching greatness. It’s fun, and it shows a range of possibilities beyond another setback with Franklin Gutierrez’s leg or another 4-3 groundout by Dustin Ackley, but it doesn’t change the game. The hammer’s still falling.

Look, I know he just tweaked his hamstring and he’ll be back in a day or two. He isn’t dead, and his career’s not over. But I could’ve written this any of a half a dozen times over the past 12-18 months. The more we learn about Gutierrez’s struggles, the more we see them as potentially unique and the more we see Franklin as a tragic figure. This probably isn’t the injury that marks the end of his M’s career. The problem’s that we’re all waiting for the one that does. Imagine trying to play with that over your head.*** You were amazing, Franklin Gutierrez.

* Just saw someone with SBN did a Reiser-Bryce Harper piece. It’s good, and the link to Bryce Harper makes more sense than to Franklin Gutierrez DNA-level maladies, but the point of all this is to show the range of baseball’s cruelty.

** Not “this is a player you build a dynasty around,” kinds of purposes.

*** I always imagine specialists trying to contain their enthusiasm around Guti. “This test revealed a bizarre genetic malfunction that’s caused the tendons to seat the bones in the joint under stress. But the weirdest part is that the malfunction may be preventing the tendons from adapting and rewiring. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s so cool.”
“Horrible. So horrible. Didn’t I say horrible?”

The John Jaso Family Of Hitters

November 28, 2011 · Filed Under Mariners · 33 Comments 

Since Jaso’s value is primarily tied to how well he hits – and he didn’t hit very well last year – I decided to look and see how players with similar skillsets have fared over the last 10 years in order to give us a better understanding of what kind of results should be expected given this particular blend of abilities. To create a list of comparable player seasons, I isolated players who had shown similar skills in approach, contact rate, and power. More specifically, the list includes 34 players who had at least 250 plate appearances in a season, made contact at least 87% of the time they swung the bat, swung at 40% or fewer of the pitches they were thrown, and had an Isolated Slugging mark between .100 and .140.

This gives us 34 guys who match up with Jaso’s offensive profile very well – they’re patient hitters who lack big time power but offset some of that with an ability to put the bat on the ball with frequency. Overall, these guys compiled 16,866 plate appearances in the season in which they showed similar skills as Jaso, so we’re dealing with a pretty good sample of similar players.

Here’s the table of their performances, sorted by wRC+, which shows how far their offensive performance was above or below the league average (which is 100 by definition).

Season Name PA Contact% Swing% ISO BABIP wRC+
2008 Joe Mauer 633 0.908 0.358 0.123 0.342 132
2010 Daric Barton 686 0.882 0.349 0.131 0.316 126
2010 David DeJesus 394 0.887 0.386 0.125 0.355 125
2003 Scott Podsednik 628 0.878 0.369 0.129 0.361 122
2010 Brett Gardner 569 0.906 0.31 0.103 0.34 120
2009 Denard Span 676 0.898 0.396 0.104 0.353 118
2007 Joe Mauer 471 0.887 0.362 0.133 0.319 116
2010 John Jaso 404 0.884 0.336 0.115 0.282 116
2009 Marco Scutaro 680 0.934 0.345 0.127 0.304 112
2006 Brian Giles 717 0.933 0.372 0.134 0.272 111
2011 Marco Scutaro 445 0.947 0.376 0.124 0.312 110
2004 Scott Hatteberg 638 0.921 0.367 0.136 0.285 107
2006 Maicer Izturis 399 0.901 0.377 0.119 0.313 106
2010 Jeff Keppinger 575 0.929 0.387 0.105 0.298 105
2009 Craig Counsell 459 0.893 0.382 0.124 0.317 104
2004 Dave Roberts 371 0.882 0.383 0.125 0.282 103
2011 Brett Gardner 588 0.914 0.355 0.11 0.303 103
2007 Maicer Izturis 374 0.889 0.397 0.116 0.308 101
2009 Scott Podsednik 587 0.911 0.391 0.108 0.341 99
2009 Brett Gardner 284 0.878 0.342 0.109 0.311 99
2004 D’Angelo Jimenez 652 0.886 0.35 0.124 0.308 99
2004 John Olerud 500 0.89 0.356 0.115 0.281 98
2003 Scott Hatteberg 622 0.892 0.336 0.129 0.261 95
2011 Alexi Casilla 365 0.877 0.386 0.108 0.294 95
2011 Michael Brantley 496 0.899 0.383 0.118 0.303 93
2006 Jamey Carroll 534 0.915 0.382 0.104 0.339 92
2010 Marco Scutaro 695 0.948 0.375 0.112 0.295 92
2011 Sam Fuld 346 0.901 0.372 0.12 0.276 92
2005 Craig Counsell 670 0.911 0.36 0.119 0.276 91
2002 Mark Grace 348 0.881 0.399 0.134 0.258 91
2007 Dave Roberts 443 0.891 0.392 0.104 0.308 88
2009 Jeff Keppinger 344 0.914 0.383 0.131 0.266 84
2011 John Jaso 273 0.886 0.367 0.13 0.244 82

You’ll note Jaso’s 2011 is at the very bottom of the list. Because we’ve essentially controlled for approach, contact abilities, and power, the variable that drives the differences in results is almost entirely the player’s BABIP in that season. Jaso’s .244 mark is by far the worst posted by any of these players, and so naturally, his overall production comes out worse than the rest as well.

The good news? The weighted average BABIP for players showing this skillset was .306, so there’s simply no evidence that these type of hitters are prone to posting lower than average BABIPs as a group. And, while you might point out that Jaso is a slow-footed catcher who should be prone to low BABIPs due to his lack of speed, the comparable player list is peppered with the likes of similar sloths, including Joe Mauer, John Olerud, Daric Barton, Scott Hatteberg, and Mark Grace. There are some fast guys on the list who were able to inflate their BABIPs by bunting and getting infield singles, but this is certainly not just Jaso and a bunch of speed merchants – this offensive skillset is shared by fast and slow players alike.

The weighted average wRC+ of the group, by the way, was 105 – this is a selection of players that are generally slightly above average Major League hitters. The fact that we capped power production at an ISO of .140 means that there’s almost no chance of a hitter having a great offensive season – Joe Mauer’s 132 wRC+ in 2008 is the closest we come, and he’s obviously the very best version of this type of hitter in the sport – but this skillset also has a pretty high floor. Only three of the 34 player seasons resulted in a wRC+ of 90 or below, which shows how hard it is to be an offensive sinkhole when you make contact this often and don’t chase pitches out of the strike zone.

As long as Jaso is able to maintain his contact rates and the level of power he’s shown to date, history suggests that he’s going to be something close to a league average hitter going forward. His 2011 performance is the absolute floor for a player with his skills, and given some natural bounce in his BABIP, he should easily be expected to be a positive offensive contributor next year.

Jaso is exactly the kind of hitter who shows why looking at process instead of results is important. If you just focus on his slash line from last year, he looks like a bad hitter. If you dig a little deeper, however, you’ll realize that Jaso belongs to a group of players who are almost always productive at the plate, and you should expect Jaso to produce at a similar level again next year.

An Opportunity Arises

May 6, 2009 · Filed Under Mariners · 75 Comments 

Usually, when teams get frustrated with one of their own underachievers, they don’t get a chance to trade that guy away and get anything of value back. It either turns into a dump-the-contract kind of situation where the team gives the player away, or they go in another direction and just let that guy sit on the bench while everyone regrets the situation.

Thanks to a move by the Minnesota Twins this afternoon, a window may have just opened for the Mariners.

The Twins, more than any other team in baseball, value contact hitting. They hate strikeouts – it’s an organizational philosophy that is preached at their kids from day one. They want aggressive, high contact guys who hit for average and are willing to sacrifice power to get that. They also care very little for statistical analysis, and give no heed to any of the newer defensive metrics out there. They evaluate defense by scouting reports and tools. They’re a small ball, speed and defense kind of team, and as long as Ron Gardenhire‘s the manager, they always will be.

There’s not a team in baseball more apt to value Yuniesky Betancourt than the Twins. He fits all of the things they like in a player – he’s fast, he’s got good defensive tools, he’s almost impossible to strike out, he hits the ball on the ground, and he’s a high average hitter. The things that he fails at – drawing walks, working counts, living up to his defensive reputation – are the things that the Twins value less than anyone else in baseball.

Betancourt and the Twins are a match made in heaven. He’s their kind of player. No other organization in the game will see as much value in Yuni as the Twins.

And as of today, the Twins could use a middle infielder.

They just demoted starting second baseman Alexi Casilla to Triple-A, as he’s gotten on Ron Gardenhire‘s last nerve. He made some fundamental mistakes over the weekend, dropping a throw on a relay from the outfield, and has always struggled to live up to Gardenhire’s expectations. The fact that he’s hitting .167 to start the year didn’t help.

To replace him on the roster, the Twins called up Matt Tolbert, who is more of a corner infielder than a middle guy. They’ll give Casilla’s playing time to Brendan Harris, but he profiles more as a utility player than anything else. A Punto-Harris middle infield tandem is not exactly the stuff that the Twins dream of.

Jack, get on the phone. Call Bill Smith and tell him that you’d like to talk about acquiring Casilla. Point out that your team is too right-handed, and you wouldn’t mind adding a switch-hitter to the roster. Do the whole change of scenery thing. When Smith asks what you’re willing to give up, make it sound like it kills you to part with your starting shortstop, but throw out the old “I know I have to give something to get something” line, and see if he’ll throw in Jose Mijares just to make it easier on you.

Alexi Casilla isn’t a great player – he’s basically a switch-hitting Yuni with a few more walks – but there’s no doubt that this team is better with Cedeno at SS and Casilla as the utility guy than they are with Betancourt at SS and Cedeno backing him up. You ship out the biggest defensive liability on the team, replace a hacking right-handed bat with a slightly more patient left-handed one, and shed some future contract obligations in the process. If Smith is willing to give you a decent second piece to “even the deal”, all the better.

Yuni to Minnesota. Make it happen, Jack. Gifts like this don’t come along all that often.

Anatomy of a really dumb series of moves

April 20, 2007 · Filed Under Mariners · 65 Comments 

Today’s game offers us some unwelcome insights into how Hargrove thinks, and how that thinking costs the team games (I recommend Geoff Baker’s entries here, and here, which are likely as close to transcriptions of Hargrove’s brain process as we’re likely to get).

The situation before Hargrove starts making decisions:
1b: empty
2b: Alexi Casilla (who is crazy fast)
3b: Jason Bartlett

The M’s lead 2-1 and have one out.

Up next:
C-L Mauer
RF-R Cuddyer
1B-L Morneau
DH-R Redmond

Notes on those guys:
Mauer has a huge platoon split: 04-06, he hit .275/.337/.334 against LHP and .342/.427/.535 against RHP.

Cuddyer’s hit significantly better against lefties than righties (his OPS split is .845/.788) but it’s not that huge.

Morneau’s not as bad as Mauer, but he’s got a split vulnerability (.262/.304/.457 v LHP, .290/.360/.536 v RHP).

Redmond’s a less-good Cuddyer: .795 OPS v LHP, .678 v RHP.

In the bullpen:
RHP Sean Green
RHP Julio Mateo
RHP Chris Reitsma
RHP Sean White
LHP George Sherill

Also, RHP Brandon Morrow, who Hargrove seems to have forgotten (side note: Morrow would now have three starts under his belt had he not broken camp with the team, instead of 3 innings).

Assumptions: Washburn’s done and needs to come out.

Desired outcome: get out of the inning with as few runs scored as possible.

Potential strategies:
No roles. Put Putz in. This is a critical juncture in the game, so you want your best reliever out there. Putz can get strikeouts and keep the ball in the infield. He’s effective against lefties. But this isn’t even a possibility, since Putz is the closer. Hargrove brings him in much later in the game, with the M’s way down.

Assume the closer is sacred. So we don’t get Putz, because Putz must be saved for a possible close situation later. Who do you want? There seem to be two obvious choices:
– Bring a lefty – which means Sherill – to face Mauer. Mauer’s a kitten versus lefties, hopefully you get a K, or an easy pop-out. A fly out might score Bartlett and advance Casilla, but you’re already in trouble there. Either way, you could then intentionally walk Cuddyer, even, and face another guy who has trouble with lefties in Morneau. Given Sherill’s spring, it would clearly take some stones to make the move, and maybe you’d even rather there was a different lefty here… but there isn’t. Tough call to make.

– Bring in an effective righty who isn’t Putz. Almost certainly you want Reitsma. Given how the next set of hitters do against righties, though, tough call between Sherill and Reitsma.

Walk Mauer and hope for a double play. I almost never like intentional walks, but with only one lefty in the bullpen (and that being Sherill, who you might understandably be reluctant to gamble on) let’s say this a valid strategy.

What then? You’ve loaded the bases with the intention of getting a double-play, which requires a ground ball and reliance on your infield. Who do you look to?

By 2006 G/F ratio

RHP Sean Green 2.48
RHP Chris Reitsma 1.68
LHP George Sherill 0.59
RHP Julio Mateo 0.51
RHP Sean White (?)

(excludes Morrow, Putz)

Mateo is the pitcher least likely to succeed in this situation. Equally clearly, if you want an experienced veteran groundballer to pound the strike zone with breaking pitches to get a grounder, Reitsma is your guy.

There’s an argument that Hargrove was looking to a batter-pitcher matchup and liked Mateo. That may be possible. But if that’s the case, it’s a further evidence that Hargrove can’t make these decisions. Mateo can get groundouts. But he doesn’t. He’s not that good at it. He has a pitch you might think should get a groundball – Hargrove clearly does – but Mateo does not throw it well enough to be effective with it.

And the rest is much the same. Once Mateo’s in there and gives up a double to Cuddyer, Hargrove has a similar choice, and choses to walk Morneau with Mateo instead of bringing Sherill in to defang him. The double play is set up again, and Mateo is no more suited to get a ground ball here than he was the last time. He predictably fails to get one. Finally, he gets Josh Rabe to ground to short – and then is removed for Sherill. In terms of G/F ratio, this is about what you’d expect from Mateo.

There’s a further argument here, that you can’t use Reitsma early because he’s reserved for later innings, to which I make the same counter-point: with two men on, facing the heart of the Twins lineup, putting a bad pitcher in there means that there’s no lead to protect later in a neat 8th-9th fashion, no save situation for Putz, nothing. If this adherence to roles is really so strict that in a crucial situation in the 7th the two best-suited pitchers are barred from helping the team win a game because they’re going to be used in less-meaningful situations later, that is a gift to every opponent the team faces, a significant disadvantage the team is taking on willingly, for no better reason than the modern book on reliever usage is rigid, and the team follows its dogma.

Is the team really better off having Putz and Reitsma watch from the bullpen as Mateo lets inherited runners score and squanders games, ensuring they don’t get in?

Are they better off letting other teams know that if they can work a starter for enough pitches and chase them from the game early they’re guaranteed a gift-wrapped chance to put up a nice, crooked number on the board?

And how can the M’s management tolerate having a manager this inflexible who, even in choosing poor strategies, finds the most destructive way to implement them?

Minor League Wrap (8/24-30/09)

August 31, 2009 · Filed Under Mariners, Minor Leagues · 12 Comments 

This is the second-to-last wrap of the season, as the affiliates not playing into the post-season won’t be active after the seventh of September. In fact, the Arizona League playoff is tomorrow and Pulaski won’t play after this coming Tuesday, so the end of the recaps is already in wind-down mode.

To the jump!
Read more