As anyone who has been pressed into service this past year as a Pre-K teacher knows, pattern-making is a fundamental part of learning. Searching for patterns is how people approach and digest the vast amount of sensory information available in every flutter of one’s lashes. Patterns are stories that help us understand what was, make sense of what is, and predict what will be. In fact, our brains want to tell us stories so badly that there’s even a word for it: pareidolia, the phenomenon that gives us the ethereal perception of a man in the moon, or the decidedly more earthly one of the many Twitter accounts devoted to finding Faces In Things.
Spring Training’s version of Faces In Things might more be an ongoing quest to distinguish Brady Lail from Casey Sadler, but it’s also similarly fraught with the lure of pareidolia, of seeking to make meaning and order out of a handful of Spring Training at-bats, a month-long collision of games at all hours of the day and night that could easily be more faked than the moon landing. I mean, men walking on the moon or the existence of professional baseball player Jantzen Witte, which one do you want to bet is real? [Please note that the previous sentences fall under the clause of Just Getting Off Some Jokes, no one at this site believes the moon landing was faked, not even Zach, no e-mails please from either moon truthers or Jantzen Witte truthers.]
But it’s impossible to resist the tidiness of this particular Spring Training narrative: the Mariners end as they begun the spring, with a tied game, this time 5-5 against Cincinnati, the most medium of ballclubs. For those of you who don’t remember because the beginning of March feels like it was a year ago (is that just how Marches are going to feel from now on? Like March 2020 borrowed the month and stretched it out and it will never fit right again?), the Mariners started off with a 1-1 record and then went on to tie in four straight spring training contests. Eventually I—and many other Mariners fans—started rooting less for wins and more for ties, the pattern developing right before our eyes. After recording just one tie after that initial spate, the Mariners obliged those of us who love a circular narrative structure by ending their spring training campaign with one final tie, matching the Reds 5-5 at Goodyear Ballpark—the ballpark that yes, is overshadowed by an airplane graveyard, because why not dig into the Symbolism bucket with both hands?
The game probably shouldn’t have been that close. The Mariners, boasting their Opening Day-ish lineup, jumped out to a lead early on against Reds starter Brandon Finnegan, who hit Ty France in the foot and yet remains a free man??? and then walked Kyle Seager. Evan White got himself into a hole 0-2, which is unfortunately familiar territory for him, but this Evan White was able to work back to find a pitch he could handle, shooting a double to the wall for his 15th and 16th runs batted in this spring.
Here's that Evan White double ... pic.twitter.com/C8olnNgfz7— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) March 29, 2021
White also added a hit in a later at-bat, fighting off a pitch in on his hands to use his strength to muscle a ball into the outfield, and then alertly took an extra base when Nick Senzel bobbled a single off the bat of Luis Torrens. With no strikeouts in his at-bats today, White ends the spring with a 22% K-rate, a little lower than his 29% in a shortened spring campaign last year, and a lot lower than his 41.6% K-rate of the 2020 season. The low-20s is about White’s strikeout rate from his time in the minors—just a tick under his 23% K-rate at Double-A in 2019—and more importantly, his at-bats, even the ones that ended in strikeouts or outs, looked to be founded on a more solid plate approach. He also worked six walks this spring (13% BB rate), which was one of his areas of strength in 2020. If this version of White shows up in the majors over a full season, plus his unimpeachable glove work, the first base curse might get a final nail in the coffin. “If” might a Spring Training face in the moon, but it’s encouraging to see nonetheless.
There was another competing narrative in today’s game, though, and it came from the guy who’s been forcing himself into all the Spring Training narratives: Taylor Walter-Lee Trammell. Trammell has discussed openly how being traded twice affected him, especially being traded away by the Reds, the team that drafted, developed, and marketed him; the team with whom he thought he’d be making his major-league debut. There’s an old line in fiction writing that there are only two stories: someone leaves home, or a stranger comes to town. I guess Trammell fits into that first category; I guess all revenge stories do.
This was Taylor Trammell's 15th hit of Spring Training and his 10th that went for extra bases. His OPS is up to 1.036 in Cactus League play. pic.twitter.com/BzpOtZDIbF— Daniel Kramer (@DKramer_) March 29, 2021
If Trammell’s story is “leaving home,” Chris Flexen’s is “a stranger comes to town.” We’re still learning what Flexen’s Whole Deal is after his KBO Eye for the Flex Guy makeover, and it’s been hard to follow him as seemingly very few of his 16 spring training innings were televised. But with three more no-sweat innings today with another three strikeouts—giving him 17 across Spring Training, and strikeout rate is one metric that is fairly narrative-proof—I for one welcome our new Doosan Bear overlord. Flexen has given up 17 hits in his 16 innings, which is not great, including a couple of homers, but he’s also gotten burnt on some weak contact, like an infield hit off the bat of Mike Moustakas today
Top Reds prospect Nick Lodolo (picked seventh overall in 2019) got some work against the big-leaguers in Seattle’s lineup and looked good, striking out Fraley and Haniger (whom he nailed with a slider, a plus pitch for Lodolo) and also retiring Dylan Moore on a flyout in his first inning of work. The second inning was a little shakier for Lodolo, with France and Marmolejos working walks before Sam Haggerty hit a two-run double to push the Mariners lead out to 5-0. Former Mariner R.J. Alaniz had to be called in to bail out the youngster, which he did by getting Dillon Thomas to fly out, as the second line had come out a little earlier in today’s game for the visiting Mariners. People have planes to catch! Apartments to pack up and whatnot. Unfortunately for the Mariners, the appearance of the second line has meant a halt to the scoring all spring. But hey, a five-run lead should be safe in the hands of the bullpen, right? Right? Hint: it’s not a spoiler if it’s a pattern!
Kendall Graveman was first out of the pen for the Mariners and despite giving up a leadoff, first-pitch swinging double to Nick Castellanos (it was a drive into deep left field but it bounced over the wall, not a home run), Graveman escaped damage while sitting 96-97, thanks in no small part to this catch by Dillon Thomas:
Rafael Montero would not be as lucky, letting a run score after a base hit, wild pitch that moved the runner up, walk, and then the stupidest RBI, a check swing ground ball that rolled wide of the third baseman. Montero then re-loaded the bases on a walk to Nicky Delmonico, leaving Taylor Guerrieri the unenviable task of facing Joey Votto with the bases juiced and denying us a Guerrieri-Delmonico Italian-American showdown. To his not-credit, Guerrieri threw a wild pitch that scored another run; to his credit, he got Votto to flyout deep on the warning track; to his not-credit, infielder-not-outfielder Sam Haggerty dropped the ball and another two runs scored. Kyle Farmer would then tie the game up with a first pitch swinging double down the third base line. A sun double! Just like is common at the beginning of spring training, but here at the end. That’s the kind of circular narrative that is less satisfying and more like a too-small belt around the idea of Sam Haggerty, Center Fielder. Please get well soon, KLew.
From there on, it was just rooting for the tie, which provided the most exciting action of the afternoon, thanks to the Mariners mostly cromulent pitching and not-so-cromulent batting. The future Louisville Bats pitching staff of Carson Fulmer, Josh Osich, Ryan Hendrix and Heath Hembree mostly made quick work of the Mariners they faced; Hendrix did give up a double to the abstract concept of Jantzen Witte, and Hembree really wobbled (literally as well as metaphorically, as he fell down trying to field a bunt from Jack Reinheimer), but ultimately entropy won out.
Meanwhile the likely future Seattle Mariners bullpen of
Anthony Misiewicz Tony Sandwiches, Will Vest, Casey Sadler and Brady Lail held the Reds off the board, although it took a conservative call by the Reds’ third-base coach to hold the runner at third and keep the tie intact when Reinheimer misfielded a ball that could have ended the game, denying Reds fans in attendance a play at home plate but delighting all fans rooting for ties. Maybe the coaches are in on it? Or maybe they’re just trying to adjust expectations for Reds fans. Anyway, the highlight here was Will Vest’s inning; he was at 95 with the fastball and got a groundout, popout, and swinging strikeout for a quick 1-2-3 inning. Like Flexen, Vest is a little bit of a mystery, a stranger in town, who will be fun to learn about this season.
Although really, the best part of these back-nine innings came when Gary Hill was talking about Tony Sandwiches (what a befuddled PA announcer apparently called Misiewicz in the minors) and revealed that Nick Margevicius was once referred to as Nick MoreCabbages, which is both hilarious and a handy way to remember how to pronounce “Margevicius.”
And just like that, spring training is over. Time to pack away sun doubles and long wandering off-topic stories by the radio announcers and discussions of where the wind is blowing and wild mispronunciations of minor-leaguers names for another year. We have followed the path around the mountain, up and down, and it has left us off where we began, a place both the same and not the same, and us the same and also changed by the time spent under the stars trying to pick out patterns, to tell ourselves stories about what is to come.