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Entries in Seattle Mariners (36)

Wednesday
Feb122014

Lefties Lay Off Rodney's Fastball/Changeup Combo

Excluding a select few bullpen iron men  like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, relievers just aren't built for sustained excellence. Their job -- hurling max-effort pitches, logging what amounts to two months' worth of innings for a starter -- is inherently volatile. Some 'pen arms manage to dominate for a decade-plus, avoiding injury and bad bounces that balloon ERAs, but many more devolve from relief ace to dud quicker than you can say "Derrick Turnbow."

Fernando Rodney hasn't quite fallen to such depths -- he just landed a two-year, $14 million contract from the Mariners, after all. But he's nonetheless a prime example of how transient the "relief ace" label can be. The changeup artist was considered a chronic underachiever entering the 2012 season, posting a career park-and-league-adjusted ERA just one percent above average (101 ERA+) and issuing 4.9 walks per nine innings pitched. Then Rodney, in his mid-thirties, suddenly became an arrow-slinging assassin. He walked a mere 1.8 hitters per nine for Tampa Bay in 2012, with the best single-season ERA+ (638) ever for a reliever working 60-plus frames. After a decade of disappointment, Rodney turned in a year that made Dennis Eckersley's fabled 1990 campaign (603 ERA+) look tame.

Was Rodney a changed man? Apparently not. While no one should have expected a repeat performance of 2012, he was pretty much the same strike zone-challenged pitcher who unnerved fans in Detroit and L.A. for a decade (4.9 BB/9, 113 ERA+ with Tampa in 2013). Left-handed batters proved especially troublesome. While lefties took wild swings against his fastball/changeup combo during his banner 2012, they learned to lay off and trot to first base in 2013.

Rodney enticed lefties to chase his pitches 38.9 percent of the time in 2012, blowing away the 28 percent average for righty relievers against opposite-handed batters and trailing only Red Sox teammates Koji Uehara (48.3 percent) and Junichi Tazawa (39.4 percent) among American League firemen. In 2013, though? Rodney baited lefty hitters 31.3 percent of the time, which matches his overall lefty chase rate during the Pitch F/X era (2008-present).

What changed? Lefties stopped bailing Rodney out by swinging at pitches so far off the outside corner that they'd need a telephone pole to make contact. Check out lefties' swing rate by pitch location versus Rodney's fastball over the past two seasons, and then against his changeup.

Fastball 

Lefties' swing rate vs. Rodney's fastball, 2012

Lefties' swing rate vs. Rodney's fastball, 2013

Changeup

Lefties' swing rate vs. Rodney's changeup, 2012

Lefties' swing rate vs. Rodney's changeup, 2013

Rodney's fastball chase rate against lefties dipped from 33.7 percent in 2012 to 24.7 percent this past season. That's awfully close to his overall 26.8 percent fastball chase rate versus left-handers during the Pitch F/X era. He also got fewer chases on the changeup: 47 percent in 2012, and 39.7 percent in 2013. His changeup chase rate against lefties since '08? 39.1 percent. With lefties showing more typical plate patience against him, Rodney surrendered a free pass to 15.2  percent of batters faced after walking lefties just 6.3 percent the previous season. Lefties reached base at a .363 clip, after being held to a .222 OBP in 2012.

Rodney will always have 2012, but he doesn't appear to be a fundamentally different pitcher than the guy who gave Jim Leyland and Mike Scioscia heart palpitations for years. Unless lefties do him a favor by lunging at unhittable, off-the-plate pitches, Seattle's new crooked-capped closer figures to keep walking the yard.

Friday
Dec202013

Jesus Montero Hacking His Way Back to Triple-A

Few trades in recent memory have been as sexy -- and subsequently disappointing -- as the Jesus Montero-Michael Pineda deal consummated by the Yankees and Mariners in January of 2012. Back then, it looked like an old-fashioned challenge trade of potential franchise cornerstones -- your hitting prodigy for my fireballing ace. Instead, Pineda has yet to throw a single pitch in the majors for New York, missing the entire 2012 season following labrum surgery and trying to regain his stuff in the minors late in 2013. Montero, meanwhile, has played like a minor league lifer (career 0.3 Wins Above Replacement) and is buried on the Mariners' 2014 first base/DH depth chart behind the likes of Corey Hart, Logan Morrison and Justin Smoak. The 6-foot-3, 230 pound Montero's squatting days are already over, due to a mix of injuries (a torn meniscus in his left knee in 2013), downright Doumitian glove work, and the arrival of well-rounded top prospect Mike Zunino.

It's hardly a shock that Montero, who also served a 50-game PED suspension last year, is no longer catching. His work behind home plate has long been panned, and even his most ardent supporters were only hoping that he could fake it in a Mike Piazza kind of way. Montero can't, as his career caught stealing rate (14 percent) is barely half that of the league average (26 percent), and his called strike rate on pitches thrown in the strike zone (76 percent) is the lowest among all backstops over the past three years, save for Ryan Doumit

Montero's predictable slide down the defensive spectrum wouldn't be so bad if he had developed into the devastating hitter that scouts had long prophesized. But that hasn't happened: in 732 major league plate appearances, he has a park-and-league-adjusted on-base-plus-slugging percentage that's three percent below average. Ditching his catcher's mask raised the bar on Montero's bat -- as a DH/first base type, he has to swat homers and get on base to be worth a roster spot. It's hard to say who the 24-year-old is at this point. He's not a catcher, and he's not a slugger. Which is why he'll almost assuredly be a Tacoma Rainer in 2014, assuming GM Jack Zduriencik doesn't sell low on the former top-five prospect.

The hulking righty hitter has already proven that he can mash fastballs at the highest level. But if Montero is to escape Triple-A purgatory and eventually join Robinson Cano in the middle of the M's lineup, he'll have to start laying off curveballs, sliders and changeups thrown off the plate. The stud once likened to Piazza and Miguel Cabrera is now drawing parallels to young hitters undone by their hacking like Jeff Francoeur and Delmon Young.

Against fastballs, Montero looks like a seasoned pro. While he chases heaters slightly more often (28.7 percent) than the average hitter (25.4 percent), he's also slugging .514 (about 80 points above the MLB average). Fourteen of Montero's 22 career homers have come off fastballs. When pitchers challenge him, Montero makes them pay with decent plate patience and serious power.

They rarely challenge him, though, as Montero has seen the fifth-lowest percentage of fastballs (42.2 percent) among AL hitters logging 500-plus plate appearances from 2011-13. There's a good reason for that approach -- Montero gets himself out against breaking and off-speed stuff by chasing pitches off the edges and in the dirt.

Montero's swing rate by pitch location versus breaking and off-speed pitches, 2011-13

MLB average swing rate by pitch location versus breaking and off-speed pitches, 2011-13

Montero has chased 42.2 percent of curves, sliders and changeups thrown outside of the strike zone, way above the 31.7 percent MLB average. That puts Seattle's hoped-for cleanup hitter in the same neighborhood as Francoeur (44.1 percent) and Young (44.8 percent), among other bad-ball swingers.

It's no secret that plate judgment is paramount for batters, but the difference between swinging at a ball and a strike is, well, striking. When hitters swing at a breaking or off-speed pitch thrown out of the zone, they slug .187. When they swing at a strike, they slug .474. Chase a curve, slider or changeup off the plate, and you hit like a pitcher. Swing at a strike, and you're suddenly Pedro Alvarez

Montero isn't a lost cause, but his plate approach needs a serious overhaul if he's going to rake in the majors. Currently, pitchers can toss soft stuff galore and watch with glee as he buries himself in the count or makes weak contact. There's no reason to let him pull a fastball into the bleachers when he's so eager to lunge at unhittable junk. Montero could still become a Paul Konerko-esque slugger, overcoming a rough big league introduction and crushing enough pitches to make a difference at a bat-only position. Short of learning to lay off soft stuff, though, Montero will join free-swingers like Francoeur and Young in top prospect infamy.

Monday
Dec092013

Investigating Felix Hernandez's Modified Arsenal

While much of the focus on the Seattle Mariners this offseason will remain on how vastly improved the club's offense will be with Robinson Cano now in the fold -- and rightfully so given Seattle's offensive ineptitude last season -- one aspect that cannot be overlooked is staff ace Felix Hernandez's tremendous arsenal changes last season.

With respect to value, 2013 was not Hernandez's best campaign as a professional. Over 31 starts, the now 27-year-old posted a 3.04 ERA and 1.13 WHIP (slightly better than his 3.20 ERA and 1.20 WHIP career marks) en route to a 5.2 bWAR, which was good enough to be his third-highest season wins mark. Yet while these numbers weren't quite on par with his Cy Young award-winning 2010 season in which he posted a league-best 2.27 ERA and 1.05 WHIP, Hernandez was noticeably better last season with respect to strikeouts -- hoarding a career-best 9.5 punchouts per nine innings.

As it turns out, Hernandez's increased strikeout rate stemmed from an abrupt adjustment in pitch usage.

Comparing Hernandez's Pitch Usage and Strikeout Rate, 2008-2013

The graph above depicts Hernandez's pitch usage since his age 22 season in 2008, dividing his arsenal into two categories: 'Hard' stuff (i.e. fastball, sinker, cutter, splitter) and 'soft' stuff (changeup, curveball, slider). With that, I've included Hernandez's strikeout rate, which is shown by the gray line at the bottom. A few things we see right off the bat include:

  • Hernandez's reliance on fastball variations (or 'hard' stuff, in this case) decreased progressively from 2008 to 2012, declining 5.8% on average each season to the point where he threw less fastballs in 2012 (46.7%) than non-fastballs (53.3%). That changed last season, as Hernandez reverted back to a reliance on his hard stuff, throwing fastball variations 66.8% of the time.
  • Consequently, only one third (33.2%) of Hernandez's offerings last season were 'soft' offerings -- nearly 20 percent lower than that of his 2012 campaign in which a career-high 53.2 percent of his offerings were non-fastballs.
  • Hernandez's strikeout rate has been on a steady incline, increasing from 20.4% in 2008 to a career-best 26.3% in 2013 (enough for a 0.98% average boost per season).

The question now becomes: Exactly what caused the abrupt increase in 'hard' stuff last season? Another look at pitch usage reveals everything.

Comparing Hernandez's 'Hard' Offerings Usage

This next graph shows Hernandez's use of his three 'hard' offerings (fastball, sinker, cutter) over the past two seasons. In 2012, King Felix utilized his fastball most often, throwing it at a 48.8% clip while mixing in his sinker and cutter at essentially the same rate (26.6% and 25.3%, respectively). Last season was a far cry from 2012, as Hernandez's sinker became his most frequent fastball variation by tossing it 51.8% of the time -- nearly twice as often as the previous season. His four-seam fastball rate declined slightly to 42%, and he went to his cutter at a 6.2% rate -- nearly 20% lower than in 2012.

Taking a look at how Hernandez's command of his sinker improved over the past two seasons, it's no wonder he went to it so frequently.

Hernandez sinker pitch frequency, 2012 vs. 2013

Hernandez's sinker command adjustments weren't obvious, but they were enough to make a significant difference. In 2012, Hernandez located his sinker in the 'down' portion of the zone at a 40.4% rate, and opponents posted a .396 batting average against the offering -- the highest mark against any qualifying starter's sinker that year -- to go with a strikeout rate of 7.4%, which was second worst among qualified starters. Last season, he placed the pitch 'down' 53.3% of the time and batters struggled against it, generating a .264 batting average while striking out at a 23.1% clip, which was second best among qualified rotation arms.

What we've learned is that when Hernandez locates his sinker 'down', as he did in 2013, the pitch is a lethal offering with a high strikeout capacity. Due to the offering's success, he reduced his reliance on 'soft' pitches yet increased his strikeout rate.