There was some thinking that there might need to be a one-question Twitter mailbag once a month to control the answer output and the usage of pop culture references, food recommendations and mentions of Red Dirt country music genre (you really need to listen to Randy Rogers Band’s new album Hellbent; “Wine in her coffee cup” is a fantastic song).
But this mailbag has had no trouble adapting from an every-so-often content filler to a weekly staple. Then again, the mailbag’s agent didn’t do a very good job of negotiating terms of the agreement. That’s why he’s a former agent now. Anyone interested?
As always these are real questions submitted by the eclectic mix of kind-hearted souls known as my Twitter followers.
Given the circumstances of the situation: piggybacking off a one-inning start, which isn’t a normal routine, making your debut for a new team in that odd circumstance and only having three days rest, Sheffield’s debut was fine. If anything, you could criticize the Mariners for not making the debut more normal. But this was a good test run for Sheffield. It gives him another taste of big-league life while giving him definite things to work on when he goes back to Class AAA Tacoma. As expected, the team optioned him back to the Rainiers after Friday night’s game, which was always the plan, regardless of his performance.
He pitched three innings, allowing two runs on two hits with four walks and three strikeouts.
“I had some jitters early on,” he said. “It’s been a while since I pitched in a big-league stadium but I was happy to get out there and I really wanted to keep the game as close as possible when I left the game and handed it over to the bullpen.”
Obviously, the three walks are glaring. But even the outs he recorded were pitch-filled ordeals, which is why he threw 75 pitches in three innings. He just wasn’t very efficient with his pitches. His fastball command was spotty at best. That’s something he’s dealt with at Class AAA Tacoma.
“I felt at some points in the game I was able to slow it down and make some pitches,” Sheffield said.
A National League scout watching the game said the fastball issues are a product of Sheffield’s mechanics, body frame and maximum-effort delivery.
“It’s the same thing that he dealt with when he was with Cleveland and the Yankees,” he said.
Of Sheffield’s 75 pitches, just 39 were strikes. He threw 47 fastballs with 28 registering for “strikes” per Brooks Baseball’s pitch F/X data. That includes pitches that were fouled off, put in play or swung at that were not necessarily in the strike zone. He threw 23 sliders that generated 10 strikes, including seven for swings and misses and four changeups.
It has to get more efficient. This organization values “controlling the zone.” If I had a dollar for every time a member of the organization said some form of that mantra I could build a house next Mike Trout in Newport Beach or perhaps afford a 400 square foot condo in Seattle.
If it’s mechanical, it can be fixed. If it’s mindset, it has to be tweaked.
But instead of just my thoughts, let’s get those of manager Scott Servais.
“He threw a lot of pitches in the three innings, obviously,” Servais said. “I think that’s been an issue with him in Tacoma as well. The pitch counts have gotten up there. There are different ways to go about it. Is it a mechanical thing? Is it a mindset?”
The goal and approach are simple to Servais.
“You have to get ahead in the count,” Servais said. “It’s not just in this league, but for us organizationally, it’s very important. It’s first-pitch strikes and certainly the 1-1 strikes and being able to sway the count in your favor. It seems like when Justus falls behind in the count, he does right the ship and get back into the strike zone. I think that mindset might be more productive early in the count. Let’s just get ahead with strike one and then if you want to get nasty after that, go ahead. He’s still got room to develop.”
It’s easy to forget that Sheffield is just 22 years old because of how he carries himself with such presence on the mound and in the clubhouse.
Teammate Dee Gordon could see how amped up Sheffield was before the game and tried to get him to calm down.
“Before he even got on the mound, I was like, ‘Hey, relax!’” Gordon said. “And he went out there and did it anyway. It’s all part of it. He’s 22 years old. You tell me at 22 to calm down, that’s about as much I could, too. I think he did a good job.”
Sheffield understood his outing and what he wants to improve on in his coming starts with the Rainiers. He knows that improvement in those areas will be contingent to when he gets called up again.
“It’s a lot easier to get when you get ahead of guys and then attack the guys,” he said. “Sometimes I fly open a little bit. I’ve been working on that, staying closed and getting that fastball down. It was going up tonight and I had to revert some offspeed to get it back on track.”
The lack of a spring training due to the elbow issues would be a convenient excuse for Smith or the Mariners. But neither will use that as the reason. He did have hits in his first five games of the season and had five hits over three games in Chicago and Kansas City.
“He swung the bat well out of the chute,” Servais said.
But over his last 13 games (nine starts), he’s batting .077 (3 for 39) with a double, five walks and 15 strikeouts. Striking out in basically 1/3 of his plate appearances isn’t ideal.
Smith admitted he’s in “a funk” at the plate. His overall contact rate is down, including on pitches in the strike zone, which isn’t good. An overall strikeout percentage of 29.1 percent is not ideal for a hitter with his skillset.
Servais and hitting coach Tim Laker seemed to have identified the problem – his timing with his swing is off.
“Mallex is out of whack right now,” Servais said. “We need to try to some things. Often times when players get traded and are on different teams, it takes a while for them to build trust with those guys and them to trust us. I had a good talk with him (Friday). I said, ‘Here’s what I see. I think Tim Laker sees the same thing.’”
Now the onus turns to Smith and his willingness to do what is needed to get out of the funk and fix the timing issues.
“It’s easy to identify the problem, now how are we going to fix it?” Servais said. “That’s what coaching is. I told him, ‘You need to be open and listen to what he says and if you don’t like it, give us some feedback.’ It’s a give and take. But he understands it. He wants to get going again. This guy can hit. He’s got a track record of hitting, he knows the strike zone, we just gotta get him back on the right page.”
It’s just a product of so much data that is available on hitters and where they are putting the ball in play in different situations. If Healy is headed over to the right side of the field with two strikes, it means the player at the plate has a tendency to hit the ball in that area with two strikes, but not early in the count.
Baseball is so different now than it used to be. Every team knows what hitters can or can’t do in almost every situation. Shifts are not foolproof. Hitters can beat them. But more often than not, when a hitter does beat the shift it’s because the pitcher failed to execute the pitch that would optimize the defensive alignment.
Rush later clarified that he was asking if the Rainiers pitching was a concern for the big-league team in terms of depth.
Obviously, that’s not a good thing if the team that is supposed to be serving as your immediate support system is having pitching problems. The Rainiers staff has been abysmal. In the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, Tacoma has a 7.51 ERA, which as of Saturday afternoon was the worst in the league. Rainiers pitchers have allowed the most runs (177), hits (254), issued the most walks (99) and allowed the second most home runs (42) in the league. In the search for positives, the Rainiers also lead the league in strikeouts with 213.
To be fair, some of this poor production is directly related to the roster churn and the constant shifting from the big-league club in the need to cover innings, starts and replace poor performances. The Mariners have pieced together Tacoma’s staff at times, calling up youngsters from extended spring training and signing veterans like Tyler Cloid and Jon Niese to minor-league deals.
The only way it really pertains to the big league club is if there were injuries to key pitchers. Seattle has covered Wade LeBlanc’s stint on the disabled list with rookie Erik Swanson. Closer Hunter Strickland’s injury was absorbed by a couple of trades for MLB relievers that had been designated for assignment.
But the depth has been taxed. It does get a little uninspiring if you look at the pitchers on the 40-man roster that are not with the big-league club.
- Ruben Alaniz – just went on the minor-league injured list with shoulder soreness
- Dan Altavilla – command issues with his fastball got him demoted to Class AA Arkansas
- Gerson Bautista – still on the disabled list since straining a pectoral in spring training.
- Matt Festa – has a 9.53 ERA in four appearances since being sent down.
- David McKay – has a 6.92 ERA in eight appearances but does have 20 strikeouts.
- Nick Rumbelow – has a 12.53 ERA in seven appearances since being sent down.
- Ricardo Sanchez – he’s been solid with AA Arkansas, posting a 1.08 ERA in four starts.
It would benefit the organization and the Rainiers if Shawn Armstrong clears waivers and accepts an outright to Tacoma. The best relievers thus far for the Mariners in their minor-league system have been Parker Markel, who signed a contract out of the independent leagues, Aaron Northcraft, who missed almost two seasons due to injury and was signed out of the Venezuelan winter league and Art Warren, who didn’t get an invite to MLB spring training.
I don’t tell people how to be fans of their team since I’m not really a fan of any professional team. And it’s really not the place of any sportswriter to tell any fan how to be a fan. Being a fan is a personal experience that comes with varying levels of intensity.
So if you want to think they have a puncher’s chance, throw a few jabs and go with a haymaker. It doesn’t make you wrong. Given how they’ve started, you have a few reasons to hope and a few to mope. This much we know about the Mariners:
- Hitting has been good, particularly against average to below-average pitching. Elite pitching shuts it down.
- Fielding has improved marginally, but will likely never be great or perhaps even good.
- Bullpen has been inconsistent and will continue to be due to personnel.
- Starting pitching has been adequate to good even with the injury to LeBlanc.
If you are a fan of run differential (runs scored – runs allowed) and its meaning to success, well, here are the teams with positive run differential going into Saturday.
- Rays +41
- Mariners +41
- Yankees +31
- Astros +25
- Twins +24
- Blue Jays +10
- Indians +4
It does seem like one wild-card team will come from the AL East. But after that, it’s a toss up. If you looked around the AL, you’d still say the Rays, Astros, Yankees and yes, the struggling Red Sox, are high level in terms of talent and potential with the Indians, A’s, Mariners and Twins behind in some order. On the list of teams that you feel don’t have a chance: Rangers, Angels, Tigers, White Sox, Royals, Orioles and Blue Jays. So if seven of the 15 are basically out of it, that leaves eight teams for five spots. It’s going to take more than 85 wins.
Seattle is 18-11. If the Mariners played a game over .500 the rest of the way, it would put them at 85-77. That’s not good enough. So much will be learned about Seattle over the next stretch of games against the Cubs (2), Indians (3), Yankees (4), Red Sox (3), A’s (2) and Twins (4). That’s a solid run against good teams, including 10 on the road.
My advice: just enjoy it while it’s good and don’t overreact when it’s bad. It’s the same approach that I take to mailbags and I-5 traffic.
Well, the Rangers fans don’t travel quite as well as the Blue Jays or Red Sox (their fans are actually from Renton). But there should always be long lines for Jack’s BBQ. I could use a huge cup of Texas chili and a Shiner Bock right now.
It’s a hearty scramble of eggs, bacon, opposing pitchers’ mistake pitches and a sprinkling of plate discipline.