2015 Seattle Mariners Top Prospects: #16 John Hicks

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2014 was a breakout year for the Seattle Mariners, but an array of intriguing prospects could mean the best is yet to come.

16. John Hicks, C, Age 25, AA/AAA

After an underwhelming 2013 season, John Hicks returned in 2014 with a solid performance. In 81 games between Jackson and Tacoma, Hicks hit .290/.351/.403 with five home runs and 47 RBIs. It’s obvious he was a bit over matched when he was moved up to AAA, as his OPS slipped from .780 in Jackson to .707. Still, the young catcher held his own in his first 28 games of AAA.

Hicks will never be a liability at the plate, but his upside offensively is somewhat limited. While he won’t hit a large amount of home runs, he can still produce gap power, and spray line drives all over the field. Good plate discipline allows Hicks to draw a lot of walks and not strike out an alarming rate. One of the biggest assets for Hicks is his athleticism. Not many catchers are able to steal double digit bases, but the Mariner prospect swiped 22 in 2012, and has stolen 46 in his professional career. Physically, Hicks is a stud, and that should help him in all facets of his game.

Defensively is where Hicks shines. He has a very strong, accurate arm, and was able to throw out 38% of runners in 2014. In college, Hicks didn’t play catcher full time, and it wasn’t until the Mariners drafted him that he began taking regular reps there. His relative inexperience with the position has led some to question his receiving skills, but there’s no doubt they have improved quickly, and should continue to improve as he progresses.

If his bat can carry him, Hicks is a potential Gold Glove winning catcher. Along with his outstanding athleticism, he provides great leadership skills, and can handle any major league staff. With Mike Zunino currently blocking him from a full time job, a backup role is something Hicks could excel at. The Mariners haven’t had an offensively and defensively capable second string backstop in a long time.

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Keep up with us on Twitter: @Seatown_Mariner

Logan Morrison, Breakout Candidate 2015

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Logan Morrison had a bizarre 2014. He joined the Mariners during the off-season, fresh off two knee surgeries. Coming to Seattle, there was no clear position for him.

The No. 3 hitter, Cano. The No. 1 starter, Felix. Our third baseman is Seager. My catcher is Zunino, and my first baseman is Smoak.” – Lloyd McClendon, March 10th, 2014.

LoMo got some games in right field, and then hit the DL for the month of May. He returned in June, got productive at the plate, then stole the job of first base from Justin Smoak.

Morrison played daily from early June until the season’s end. That’s nearly four straight months of baseball. And in 3 of those 4 months, he was excellent.

But for the month of July, Morrison was menaced by the BABIP Gods. (If you’re unfamiliar, “BABIP” stands for batting average for balls in play. The league average for BABIP is about .300.) In July of 2014, Morrison had a severe .211 BABIP. He wasn’t striking out more than normal, nor rolling over everything. He was hitting the ball hard. Just, at people.

Hitting the ball hard is important. Balls that are “hit hard” fall for hits at a 70% clip. And last year, Logan Morrison was in the Top 50 players for hard hit balls. (So was Dustin Ackley…. Interesting.)

In August, the BABIP Gods forgave LoMo, and for the final two months, he was the Mariners best hitter.

When looking at these things, I tend to wonder “what does the stat line look like without the outlier”? If we subtract all July stats from Morrison’s line, here’s what his 2014 campaign would look like:

BA: .291
OBP: .339
SLG: .474
OPS: .813
BABIP: .310

The only caveat is that LoMo owns a career .282 BABIP, which is basically identical to his .287 BABIP of 2014. It’s hard to trust that number, though, as he’s only played one full-ish season in his 5-year MLB career.

That caveat aside, there’s a lot to like about Morrison going into 2015. He’s entering his prime at age 27. His contact rate is good. His strikeout rate is mildly low. He’s always been able to draw a walk, with a career 10.2% BB rate. (However, in 2014 LoMo saw strikes thrown to him at a 4% increase, thus pushing his walks down about 4%.)

Looking at the team: In 2014, Robinson Cano was the only Mariner to post an OPS over .800. This year, Logan Morrison is one of a handful of players who could join Cano in that tier. Nelson Cruz likely will, and Rickie Weeks had an .809 OPS last year in Milwaukee. Seth Smith also produced an .807 OPS for San Diego in 2014, and Kyle Seager fell just shy of the .800 mark.

With the outfield platoons, we could see the collective 2-7 lineup slots all producing a near .800 OPS each. (If Weeks and Ackley share the 7th slot.) Just think about that for a moment.

The 2015 Mariners are shaping up to be a highly sufficient offensive ballclub. I’m betting that Logan Morrison is a bigger storyline than any of us expect.

700 runs, here we come.

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Keep up with us on Twitter: @Seatown_Mariner

2015 Seattle Mariners Top Prospects: #17 Tyler Pike

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2014 was a breakout year for the Seattle Mariners, but an array of intriguing prospects could mean the best is yet to come.

17. Tyler Pike, LHP, Age 20, A+/AA

2014 was a horrendous season for Pike, posting a 6.44 ERA across two levels. His strikeout rate stayed the same as 2013, at 7.3 per 9, but his BB/9 jumped to an awful 6.5. His WHIP spiked to 1.749, as he gave up 113 hits to go alongside 80 walks in just 110 innings.

Anyway you spin it, Pike’s numbers were awful. His value has obviously gone down, and his once promising future with the Mariners has been put into question. Many scouts have have dropped him from the Mariners top prospect list entirely, after being in the top 10 a year ago. But I don’t agree. In the two seasons prior, Pike’s highest ERA was 2.37. As a 20-year-old in the Cal League, you’re expected to struggle. And those struggles won’t go away after you’re promoted to Double-A. Pike was not mature enough for the next level and was over matched by older opponents, but he still has the stuff to be a big league pitcher some day.

The 6’0″ lefty, while not projectable, is extremely athletic. His fastball sits in the high 80s to low 90s, which isn’t bad, but he needs to command it better. The ability to command the fastball is the key to success at the professional level. Pike has a plus changeup that looks like an elite pitch, and a tight curveball to keep hitters off balance. He has such a great repertoire, but his mechanics keep him from being able to command his pitches. Here’s a quote from Fangraphs on Tyler Pike:

The young lefty utilizes an over-the-head delivery with a high leg kick from the full windup so it’s easy to see why he struggles with both his command and control. He tries to guide the ball at times, which also hurts his command. On the plus side, though, his delivery helps him hide the ball, which gives hitters less time to identify the pitches coming out of his hand. Pike needs to do a better job of commanding the inner half of the plate against right-handed hitters.

If Pike can smooth out his delivery and boost his command, he should have a huge comeback in 2015. I still like him a lot, and I believe he can be a third or fourth starter in the Mariner’s rotation some day.

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Keep up with us on Twitter: @Seatown_Mariner

Calm Down about Austin Jackson

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Seattle’s 710ESPN “Brock and Salk” took a break from their endless Seahawks ramblings this week, and had Keith Law on their show. Law said nice things about the Mariners. However, he seemed pretty concerned about Austin Jackson.

The “concern” isn’t about Jackson struggling, but that he’s not a traditional leadoff hitter. Law said he likes his leadoff hitter to have a .380 or .390 OBP. Well now, who doesn’t? That sounds great!

The problem with Law’s “concern” is that only 12 MLB players posted an OBP of .380 or better in 2014, and only 5 players had a .390 OBP or better.

And, not a single leadoff hitter had a .380+ OBP last year.

The best leadoff hitters in 2014 were Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler, who both posted a .375 OBP. (Fowler only spent a quarter of his time batting leadoff, with a .345 OBP from those PA’s.) Which goes to show: Keith Law was being somewhat idealistic, and not overly realistic. Leadoff OBP averaged at .326 last year in the MLB— as noted by Law’s colleague David Schoenfield— with the top tier of teams in the .340 to .350 OBP range.

Anyhow, what does this mean, specifically for the Mariners?

In my thinking, it’s all about improvement. For 2014, the Mariners were flat out terrible with OBP. Here’s the team stats for OBP by batting slot last year:

1- .287
2- .260
3- .378
4- .295
5- .287
6- .305
7- .298
8- .331
9- .260

It was the Robinson Cano show, with no production in front of him, and not much behind him. (Kyle Seager produced well, but his numbers were scattered across the 4-5-6 holes, diminished by Corendrys Moralehart.)

Thus, acquiring Nelson Cruz cannot be overstated—for what it means to this team. By anchoring that cleanup spot, it allows Seager and Logan Morrison to solidify the 5 and 6 spots, respectively. Making for a fine heart-of-the-order.

But let’s talk about the top of the order…

Keith Law obviously didn’t watch endless Mariners games in 2014. If he did, he’d have seen way too many appearances from Abraham Almonte, James Jones, Endy Chavez, and Dustin Ackley in the 1 and 2 slots. And I mean, WAY TOO MANY. It’s simply remarkable that the Mariners scored 634 runs and won 87 games with the lineup they had last year.

On paper, the biggest upgrade this winter probably comes in the 2 slot. Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano— and perhaps Rickie Weeks— all have good OBP skills. Combined, we should expect around a .340 OBP from that slot, which provides a profound improvement over the .260 OBP of last year.

But what about Austin Jackson? What can we expect from him? How much improvement will he provide over the .287 OBP we saw from Mariners leadoff hitters last year? (1/3 of which was Jackson’s own contribution.)

Jackson’s OBP by each year in the MLB:

2010- .345
2011- .317
2012- .377
2013- .337
2014- .308

Career- .336

Now, as many are aware, Jackson struggled when he came to Seattle. But what most people don’t realize is that Jackson only struggled mildly in August of 2014, producing a .308 OBP for the month. It was actually September in which he flat out slumped. Last September, he produced a bewildering .224 OBP, which was actually higher than his .200 SLG… Yikes.

If we subtracted Austin Jackson’s September from his stat line, he would’ve produced exactly a .326 OBP for the year. (Which was the league average for leadoff OBP in 2014.) .326 isn’t far from Jackson’s career .336 OBP either.

The indicators suggest that Jackson—a 27 year old in his prime—should be performing close to his career norms in 2015. While his 2012 season was an outlier, so was his 2014 season. Is a .330 OBP unrealistic? Not at all.

Now, string the projected top 5 slots together: .330/.340/.370/.330/.330 and you’ve got an enormous improvement over 2014: .287/.260/.378/.295/.287.

Jackson might not be the world’s most ideal leadoff hitter, but he’s certainly acceptable. After all, this is a pitching/defense team. We don’t need the league’s best offense, just a serviceable one.

Seriously…

Calm Down about Austin Jackson.

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Keep up with us on Twitter: @Seatown_Mariner

Top 5 Reasons to Love the 2015 Mariners

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It occurred to me yesterday: I absolutely love this baseball team.

You might think that’s a hometown bias speaking, but it’s not. It’s more about respecting an honest ball club. A team with balance. Stars who are humble, kids who are hungry, veterans who use seasoned minds to compensate for declining bodies.

The Seattle Mariners of 2015 are a legitimate entertaining cast of characters. Here are my top reasons why.

5) Youth Core

Jack Zduriencik was a scouting director before landing Seattle’s GM gig. His biggest skill in professional baseball is targeting young talent. Thus, it took time for his crop of draftees to become MLB players. But they are here now, and they are good.

Of the projected 2015 Mariners roster, only 5 or 6 players will have come via free agency. Quality young players scatter the field, from Mike Zunino to Kyle Seager to Brad Miller. Pitching is even more impressive, with top youth talent of James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, a rebounding Danny Hultzen, and the best bullpen in the MLB.

Of course, a fair assortment of players have come via trade. But each of those were possible by moving quality young talent. (Some Bavasi draftees included).

Any which way you slice it, there is little more exciting than homegrown talent in the MLB. And this team has plenty of it.

4) Prospects Pushing Forward

Spring Training gives us a great look into the Mariners farm. And from what we’ve seen, there’s all types of developing talent to be found. (I mean, D.J Peterson belting a dinger on his first AB in the first game of 2015? That was just cruel!)

While top prospect Alex Jackson is still years away, other faces could make the big leagues soon enough. Patrick Kivlehan is on the short list, while Ketel Marte shows enormous promise. Tyler Olson is making a name for himself, and John Hicks or Tyler Marlette could hit their way onto this team.

3) Lloyd

We simply have the most entertaining manager in baseball. That voice. Those one-liners. The straight-forward no-BS demeanor… Here’s hoping 2015 brings at least one hat-thrown-into-the-stands moment.

2) No Cheap Success for Seattle

The Mariners compete in a strong AL West. They also have the heaviest travel schedule in baseball, due to location. This means, you can take pride in the Mariners success, knowing their achievements come well-earned.

Take the Nationals in comparison. While the Mariners travel 45,000 miles this year, the Nats will travel 25,000 miles. While the Mariners play excellent teams as divisional rivals (Angels and Athletics) many times, the Nats will spend the summer playing all of the NL East teams, none of whom project to be better than .500.

1) The Felix & Cano Show

Just last week, the MLB network listed their 100 best players in the game. The Mariners had two players in the Top 10. This is no surprise. Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano are two phenomenal ballplayers who are a joy to watch, day in, day out.

What I like most about this duo is that both guys are rockstars, but without the ridiculous rockstar egos. Cano smiles unabashedly, Felix jokes without reservation. They blend swagger with humbleness, while never daring to suggest they are bigger than the game they play.

One day, years from now, baseball historians will romaticize about the era of Felix & Cano in Seattle. Don’t forget to bask in the moment. These are glory years for PacNW baseball!

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Keep up with us on Twitter: @Seatown_Mariner

The Shift is not the Problem

Kyle Seager

During my commute between school and work today, I decided to tune-in to the Mariners’ spring training game on the local ESPN Radio channel. In the booth with the always awesome Rick Rizzs and Aaron Goldsmith was Brock Huard, one of the ESPN Radio Seattle personalities. Kyle Seager stepped to the plate in the bottom of the sixth inning, and the guys began to talk about how great Seager was in 2014 and things he’s been working on camp. One of the topics discussed was the amount of shifts put on Kyle last season, and how he is working on going the other way. This started the booth on a tangent about the amount of shifts used in baseball during the previous season. Huard began saying “league average and runs are both down,” in large part due to the shift. The rest of the booth chimed in on the issue, mostly agreeing that the shift is hurting offensive production in today’s game.

This is a scary yet common misconception around the baseball world. Many people are uninformed on the issue of shifts, reaching all the way to the top of the baseball hierarchy. First year commissioner Rob Manfred has entertained many ideas to increase offense league wide, and he has openly considered reducing defensive shifts. To be fair, Manfred has gone back on this, saying they had brainstormed many ideas, and one just happened to be a shift elimination. You can’t blame the guy for trying new things, as innovation is something we all want for the game. Offense and fast pace is a must in the current generation of short attention spanned consumers who currently plague America. Sports do best when the casual fans get what they want. Unfortunately, the casual fan is often misinformed, especially when it comes to the shift.

Huard and Manfred do make some valid points though. It is true that offensive production, as  a whole, has fallen drastically since 2002 (I use that year because that’s the first year Fangraphs started recording plate discipline data, not because 2002 is aesthetically pleasing). The league combined to score 3000 less runs in 2014 than it did in 2002. It’s batting average dipped from .261 to .251. The home run total has fallen from 5059 to 4186. These huge changes in production are not due to an increase of strategic defensive shifting.

The end of the steroid era has certainly played a part in the recent decline of offense across Major League Baseball. I think most of us would agree that’s a good thing, though. However, there is a scary trend currently happening in baseball. While batting average and home runs are falling, so too is BB%, dropping from 8.7% in 2002 to 7.6% in 2014. Plate discipline has been declining around the league. The percentage of swings batters take at pitches out of the zone has gone up 13% since 2002, while total swing percentage has stayed the same. Contact percentage on pitches outside the zone has gone up almost 20%. This has resulted in pitchers throwing inside the zone 10% less since 2002. Hitters have shown a willingness to swing at anything, and pitchers are using that to their advantage. This has resulted in a 4% increase in strikeouts, and weaker contact when the ball is put in play.

You could now make the argument that plate discipline has gone down, but the advent of strategic defensive placement is adding fuel to the flame. However, we may be seeing the opposite. Batting average on balls in play is actually up in recent years, from .293 in 2002 to .299 in 2014. Meaning, strikeouts aside, when hitters put the ball in play they are getting more hits than they did before shifts became all the rage.

A great stat to look at the shift with is wOBAcon, essentially, a player’s wOBA when he makes contact. Jonathon Judge of Hardball Times explains why it’s the perfect stat to measure effectiveness of the shift:

 wOBAcon is perfect for our purposes, though, because it allows us to measure whether offense on balls in fair play has truly declined over the last 15 years or not.  If it has, then and only then is it fair to question whether the shift is reducing baseball offense. If the value of baseball contact has not gone down, though, the shift is irrelevant.  It is a convenient scapegoat and nothing more.

There were 2,464 shifts in 2010 compared to 13,296 in 2014. The graph below shows the value of balls put in play was about the same in 2014 as it was in 2010, even though there was a 440% increase in the amount of batted balls. This shows that balls put in play now are not only going for more base hits since the pre-shift era, they’re also more valuable hits. However, the graph also shows that runs per game is still going down, but know now that it is not because of the shift.
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Plate discipline and quality of hitters has gone down in recent years. There are so many exciting, athletic, five-tool prospects that have come up in recent years, after bolting through the minor leagues. Players used to have to spend at least one year at each level of the minors before reaching the majors. Now only a brief stint is needed before getting the call. Players are younger and less experienced, and thus are not as disciplined or skilled at the plate. They can’t draw walks or hit the ball the opposite way, thus becoming susceptible to the shift. We always talk about throwers becoming pitchers, but we rarely discuss swingers becoming hitters. If we want to increase offense and excitement in the game, let’s take a page out of Robinson Cano‘s book. Start instructing young hitters to hit the ball the other way on a line, rather than pull balls over the fence. Let’s put aside the notion that the shift is hurting offense in baseball.

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Keep up with us on Twitter: @Seatown_Mariner

2015 Seattle Mariners Top Prospects: #18 Jabari Henry

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2014 was a breakout year for the Seattle Mariners, but an array of intriguing prospects could mean the best is yet to come.

18. Jabari Henry, OF, Age 24, A+

The potential has always been there for Henry, and he seemed to finally put it all together during a tremendous 2014 campaign. The outfielder hit .291/.398/.584 with 30 home runs, a .420 wOBA+, and 152 wRC+ in 114 games at High Desert. The argument can be made that Henry was just a creation of the Cal League, but he continued to show outstanding plate discipline, with a BB% of 13.5, and it was only a matter of time before the raw power he possess began to show. Now about to enter his fourth season as a member of the Mariner’s organization, the former 18th round pick will likely start the season with Double-A Jackson, and has the opportunity to prove he is more than just a Cal League stud.

Henry is just six-feet tall, but at 200-pounds, he is able to fill out his frame with broad shoulders and a powerful lower half. He has the body of a power hitting corner outfielder and the skill set to go along with it. His best feature at the plate is his patience and and willingness to draw a walk. In his two full professional seasons, Henry’s BB% has never dipped below 13%. His career OBP through 275 professional games is a whopping .380. The number one killer of young power hitters is strikeouts, and Henry has kept his rate at an impressive 20% his whole career. While his home run total will likely go down at the next level, 20 home runs a year is certainly not out of the question, and his plate discipline doesn’t seem like it’s going away anytime soon. There are many skeptics about Henry offensively, and it’s very possible many of them will be believers by the end of 2015.

One concern about Henry is his lack of mobility on the base paths and in the outfield. This isn’t a serious problem as he should be fine defensively. Though limited to a corner outfield spot. Henry’s arm is above average, giving him the ability to play both right and left field. Offensively, he will never be a menace on the base paths. However, he did steal six bases and score 79 runs in 2014. Henry is noted as a instinctive base runner, something that compensates for his lack of speed. Running will never be a plus for Jabari, but it should never hold him back either.

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Keep up with us on Twitter: @Seatown_Mariner

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