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Entries in Seattle Mariners (36)

Saturday
Jul132013

Raul Ibanez Destined for Old Dude HR History

When the Seattle Mariners originally drafted Raul Ibanez, Bill Clinton was the sax-playing governor of Arkansas, Sir-Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back" topped the charts and cell phones were bigger than Jose Altuve. Much has changed since 1992, but Ibanez is still slugging. The 41-year-old has already clubbed 24 home runs this season, a mark bested by only Chris Davis, Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Gonzalez among MLB hitters.

Ibanez's power display is impressive for a batter at any age, but it's nearly unprecedented for a guy who's closer to AARP eligibility than the beginning of his career. Even if he cools off in the second half, Ibanez looks primed to break the single-season home run record for a player in his forties:

Highest single-season HR totals for 40+ year-old hitters

 Source: Baseball-Reference.com

Ibanez's plate approach at this advanced stage of his career can be summed up as, "swing hard in case you hit it." Here's a closer look at how Ibanez is on pace for forty-plus homers in his forties.

He's whiffing often...

Ibanez is coming up empty about 26% that he swings, up from 23% last season and well north of the 21% big league average. That, in turn, has led to a career-high 24.3% punch out rate.

But when he connects...

He's ripping the ball down the right field line. Ibanez has pulled about 48% of pitches put in play, compared to 43% in 2012 and the 33% average for left-handed hitters. No one has been more pull-happy than Ibanez, who trails just Domonic Brown among lefties in pull-side homers (18) and ranks seventh in slugging percentage (1.042) on balls hit to right field.

Ibanez's HR in 2013

 

He can still handle the heat, too

While he might lose a foot race to manager and fellow forty-something Eric Wedge, Ibanez has plenty of bat speed left. He has 15 home runs against "hard" pitches, meaning fastballs, cutters and splitters. Ibanez's fresh-faced, flame-throwing victims include Justin Wilson (96 MPH), Garrett Richards and Jarrod Parker (95 MPH).

Monday
Jun242013

Peter Gammons: Success after Safeco

The day after Dustin Ackley was shipped out to Tacoma, one American League East general manager called the Mariners’ Jack Zduriencik to see if Seattle would be willing to move the 25-year old once drafted one slot after Stephen Strasburg. “I still believe in the bat,” said the GM. “I don’t know how we’d use him. Maybe first, second, left, center…But I still believe he’s a .300 hitter who could hit 50 doubles.”

As it turned out, that wasn’t the only Ackley call Zduriencik fielded the first couple of days after the demotion. “I also believe in Dustin Ackley,” said Zduriencik. “He can still be a major part of our rebuilding.” Two weeks later, Tacoma manager John Stearns told his GM, “this guy is a .300 hitter who’s going to hit doubles and steal bases. He’s really good.”

After 24 games in Triple-A, Ackley was hitting .366. He was getting on base at a .467 clip. He was slugging .495. "I feel right again,” he said. “I don’t know what happened. I made some changes in my approach before spring training. Maybe that didn’t take. But I’ve been healthy (after the removal of bone spur in each ankle this past winter). It isn’t the move to second base; that was fine. I don’t know what happened, but I feel like myself again.”

Dustin Ackley (Seattle Mariners)

Safeco is still a pitcher's park

Zduriencik thinks that while they moved some of the fences in, Safeco is still a pitchers’ park, a death sentence for hitters. Adrian Beltre was spooked at Safeco. Jesus Montero has disappeared back to Tacoma. Ditto Justin Smoak. “I’m a great believer in getting hold of someone who has struggled in Seattle but we believe can hit,” says another GM. Which is what the Red Sox did when they took the shot on Mike Carp.

“I got to Fenway, started relaxing, didn’t try to pull the ball and my old stroke came back,” says Carp. “Safeco is death on driving the ball to left-center, which is where I need to stay. Fenway is the opposite.” Ask Fred Lynn, Mo Vaughn, David Ortiz, Wade Boggs

The fact remains that while the Mariners are second to last in the American League in runs scored at home, in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 they were last. Dead last.

Now, in a city like Seattle, with some of the most intelligent analysis in the baseball journalism universe, one cannot pawn off the Mariners’ ill-fated history. Erik Bedard for Adam Jones and Chris Tillman? Jeff Clement? No need to go further. But they began to worry that Ackley was part of the bad legacy.

Ackley wasn’t just a good hitter at North Carolina, he was a great hitter, hence being the second pick in the 2009 draft after Stephen Strasburg and the signing bonus of more than $8M. He played 90 games for the Mariners in 2011, hit .273 with a .348/.421/.908 slash.

But it didn’t hold. In 2012, bothered by his ankles, he fell to .226/.294/.328/.622. Then he started 2013 a mess, .205/.266/.250. 

On to Tacoma. There they decided to let him play both left and center fields. “He took to both,” says Zduriencik. “He’s played both really well. His throwing has really come back."

In the meantime, Nick Franklin has played second base very well. Shortstop Brad Miller is starting to emerge in Tacoma. Catcher Mike Zunino is in the grooming process in the big leagues. And the off-season acquisitions of Raul Ibanez and Kendrys Morales have paid off, because they both can hit in Seattle.

“The most important thing is that the Seattle Mariners are returning to being a pitching team,” says Zduriencik. King Felix Hernandez is under contractual lock and key. Hisashi Iwakuma is really good, and his GM says, “believe me, he’s not going anywhere.” While Zduriencik admits he regrets trading Doug Fister, he projects Taijuan (Sky) Walker, Danny Hultzen and Erasmo Ramirez in the Seattle rotation by this time next season.

If that pitching is as good as they believe and Ackley, Franklin, Zunino and others join Kyle Seager in developing in Safeco, the Mariners can get good again, in a hurry. Parity? NFL equality? Fine, if you live in Seattle, you deserve a reason to believe.

Friday
Jun142013

Hisashi Iwakuma's Logic-Defying Fastball

Who would have thought that arguably the leading candidate for the 2013 AL Cy Young Award would be a Seattle Mariner not named Felix Hernandez? As good as King Felix has been, rotation mate Hisashi Iwakuma has been even better. In his second season stateside, Iwakuma ranks second among qualified major league starters in ERA+ (204) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.21).

The 32-year-old righty has emerged as an ace in part due to dramatic improvement with his fastball. Hitters are slugging just .362 against the pitch this season, compared to .595 in 2012. Iwakuma's success with his fastball flies in the face of baseball logic -- he's throwing it slower and putting it over the plate more often, yet he's getting swings and misses like a flame-thrower

Iwakuma didn't throw hard during his rookie season, with an average fastball velocity (90.3 MPH) that was one tick below the MLB average for right-handed starters (91.3 MPH). This year, he's lost some of his already modest zip, averaging 89.5 MPH on the radar gun. At the same time, Iwakuma has increased his percentage of fastballs thrown within the strike zone from about 58% to 62%. No starter outside of knuckleballer R.A. Dickey has pumped more fastballs over the plate this season.

As you might imagine, slow fastballs get fewer swings and misses (11.8% for sub-90 MPH gas) than higher-velocity heaters (15.6% for 90+ MPH fastballs). And fastballs thrown over the plate get dramatically fewer whiffs (12.1%) than out-of-zone fastballs (22.1%). Iwakuma was already a soft-tosser who filled up the strike zone in 2012, and those tendencies only became more pronounced in 2013. Therefore, his fastball miss rate should drop, right? Wrong.

Iwakuma's fastball contact rate, 2012

 

Iwakuma's fastball contact rate, 2013

In 2012, Iwakuma got swings and misses with his fastball 14.5% of the time. This year, while throwing more soft strikes, he's getting whiffs at a 22.5% clip. To put that into context, Yu Darvish (27% fastball miss rate), Shelby Miller (25.5%) and Matt Harvey (24.2%) are the only starters to miss lumber at a higher rate. Darvish (92.9 MPH average fastball velocity) Miller (93.4 MPH) and Harvey (95 MPH) all bring the heat. One of these things is not like the other. Iwakuma's fastball remains a mystery, to hitters and analysts alike.