The Next Step For The Young Mariners

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This past season for the Mariners produced shockwaves of optimism not felt in the Mariners fandom for a few years. From magical one-run wins to a lockdown bullpen, there was reason to be excited in Seattle about baseball again. Amongst those reasons were introductions to a new cast of characters. A much-heralded 22-year-old Wisconsinite, a Catcher that crushed AAA-ball, and a lanky 6’6 1st round pick from Stetson University made their debut in Seattle, ushering in a youth movement that provides the foundation that this newfound hope is built upon. While the debut seasons were certainly a mixed bag in terms of results, each rookie debut provided sparks that indicated the possibility of something greater to come.

The expectation for 2022 is for those sparks to become fire, to build off of that aforementioned foundation in conjunction with free-agent acquisitions to produce a Mariners team that is not only competitive all season long, but also a team that still has games on the schedule come the second week of October. We’re talking playoffs, baby. For that to happen, players like Kelenic, Gilbert, Raleigh, and Kyle Lewis need to step up their game and take it to the next level. Here are some key points to look for in order for that to happen.

Jarred Kelenic:

Reduce Chase Rate/Lower K%

Kelenic, a consensus top-three prospect at the time of his arrival to the MLB, had a rather tough season. After a truly abysmal first stint in the majors, Kelenic was sent down to AAA Tacoma to regain some confidence, and towards the end of the year that began to pay off in dividends.

If you watched a few Kelenic plate appearances this year, you’re likely to know what the issue is. He just can’t help himself when it comes to chasing pitches outside of the zone at his knees. Take a look at his swing profile, and it tells you all you need to know. 

Kelenic’s chase rate ranks in the 39th percentile of major leaguers, along with a K% ranked in the 11th percentile. The swing and miss remains his worst enemy. If Kelenic can learn to lay off those outside pitches and focus on lengthening ABs, an increase in production is possible. Kelenic notably has trouble with offspeed pitches, reflected in his chase rate of 40% on pitches labeled as offspeed, 10+% higher than either the fastball or breaking pitch chase rates he posted on the season. If Kelenic can lay off the changeups, there’s reason to believe he will succeed. In looking at his month-by-month chase rate percentages, it should come as no surprise that the further he drops the green line, the more success follows. 

When Kelenic dropped his chase rate on offspeed nearly 10% from 45% to 37% in September, his best month followed. In September/October Kelenic had his best month, with a 135 wRC+, OPS’ing just over .850.

The soon-to-be second-year outfielder already walks more than the average player, so focusing on extending at-bats by laying off textbook chase pitches will not only provide Kelenic more opportunities to sit on fastballs deep in counts but also to drive up his nearly double-digit walk rate. If that K% drops to right around 20% next year, consider that an extremely solid piece of hitting development from the Seattle staff.

Cal Raleigh:

Become an Upper Echelon Framer

The catching position in the Mariners organization has been a defensive letdown for a bit now. Cal Raleigh can change that. Raleigh will see no clearer opportunity to prove that he is an MLB caliber starting catcher worthy of 120 games a season this year, with Luis Torrens shifting to a DH and (potential) corner infielder, while Tom Murphy doesn’t seem to be a mainstay in the Mariners plans for the future.

Although he didn’t light up the stat sheet offensively during his time in the MLB, Raleigh just needs more ABs against major league level pitching, and the offense should pick up. When it comes to framing, Raleigh has work to do there as well. Currently ranked 18th overall among qualified catchers in Runs Extra Strikes, while finding himself in the lowly 39th percentile for framing according to the Savant sliders.

Raleigh lags behind league average in important framing zones, most notably lateral framing. If you look at the comparison between a league-average catcher (top) and Raleigh’s 2021 (bottom) he lags behind average in zones 14 and 16. Raleigh seems to struggle the most when it comes to framing on the right side of the plate, likely a product of having to reach across his body. With improvements to make in four out of eight of the zones, Raleigh has a path to improvement in baseballs’ most underappreciated skillset. 

With the offensive environment for catchers so limited in baseball as a whole, Raleigh can make himself useful with a less-than-average bat if he becomes more valuable on the defensive end.

Kyle Lewis:

Play in 60% of Mariners Games

We all know what Kyle Lewis can do when he’s on the field. The issue is, he’s rarely there. Since the former first-round pick debuted back in 2019, the Mariners have played 240 games. In those 240, Lewis has appeared in only 47% of them. In that time he has dazzled both Mariners fans and the MLB community as a whole, as proven by the 2020 AL Rookie of the Year award that belongs to him, but his knees are proving to be problematic.

Lewis had previously torn his ACL in his right knee during his time in the minors, and this year missed a significant portion of time at the beginning of the season on account of a torn meniscus during spring training, only to suffer a bone bruise that would end his 2021 campaign than 40 games after returning from the first injury. The Seattle front office has been noncommittal about his return date, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see Lewis miss some time at the beginning of spring training this year.

Lewis has shown the upside of a middle-of-the-order bat, graded at 70 raw power in Fangraphs scouting report, when he’s healthy he can crush the ball. He’s done just that too, with 100+ wRC+ numbers in all three of the campaigns he’s made (albeit brief) appearances in. If he’s on the field, it’s must-watch baseball.

How the Mariners attempt to keep him healthy will be an interesting storyline to follow. His arm and fielding in CF proved to be a valuable asset to his game during his rookie campaign (ask Ramón Laureano how he feels about Lewis’s glove) so would a move to DH depreciate his value? Would moving him to a corner outfield spot lessen the injury risk by any meaningful margin? Do you give him multiple days off in a week? There’s no easy way to go about this rather unfortunate situation, but regardless of how he plays, seeing 100+ games of Kyle Lewis this season is good news. Focus on staying healthy first, production later.

Logan Gilbert:

Continue Developing Secondary Pitches

Logan Gilbert, the 6’6 starter out of the same alma mater as the best pitcher in baseball Jacob Degrom had by far the best debut season of any of the Mariners 2021 rookies. In this past season, he made 24 starts, pitching 119.1 innings to the tune of a 4.68 ERA. His FIP of 3.73 and xERA of 4.09 may corroborate the theory that his ERA is mildly inflated too, and that Gilbert pitched better under the radar than a look at the basic stats may seem.

How Logan got it done was rather simple. He relied on a rather effective fastball extremely heavily, throwing it 62% of the time. Following that was his slider, thrown 24% of the time, meaning that he relied on only two pitches 86% of the time. That can get it done the first time through the order, but for Logan to develop the ability to pitch deep into games his pitch mix needs to be diversified. Pitchers universally struggle the more times they pitch through the lineup, but Gilbert’s case proves that theory beyond a reasonable doubt. (From his FanGraphs profile)

An ERA increase of FIVE whole points between his 1st and 3rd trip through the lineup? That’s because hitters have had two previous opportunities to time up Gilbert’s fastball, and can just sit and wait for what they know is about to happen.

The path to amending this runs through the development of his slider and curveball as reliable pitches that he throws a combined 45-50% of the time. Fangraphs scouting profile of Gilbert labels his curve and slider both at 50 grade on the 20-80 scale, meaning that by no means are they bad pitches when he can command them, it’s instead more of a comfortability issue. Gilbert only ranks in the lowly 31st percentile for chase rate, and the lack of diversity in the pitch mix is to blame. When you look at his month-to-month chase rates for each of his four pitches he throws at least 5% of the time (fastball, slider, curve, changeup) the reasoning behind that low chase rate is revealed. 

The pitch Gilbert throws the most is chased by far the least. While pounding the zone with high fastballs may be an effective strategy for the first time through the order, Gilbert needs to focus on forcing bad swings and weak contact by upping the usage of his slider and curve, especially when he’s ahead in the count during AB’s he starts with fastballs. Between stealing strikes, changing velocities, keeping the batter guessing, and leaving them without the opportunity to sit and wait on the pitch they want to see, the path to success deep into games for Gilbert is relatively clear. 

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