It’s understandable if the name “José Marmolejos” gives you unpleasant flashbacks to the moribund May the Mariners were mired in. After an alright first big league season in 2020 in which he flashed some real power, he defied the odds and made the Opening Day roster, and got off to a nice start while giving us one of the wildest home runs in recent memory in the first few weeks of the season.
In the weeks following that fateful blast, though, Marmo slumped badly, slashing a pitiful .087/.232/.087 across eighteen games en route to a single-digit wRC+. Fairly or not, in some fans’ eyes he was emblematic of those dark days of half the lineup featuring sub-Mendoza hitters (although really, Jack Mayfield and Jacob Nottingham were worse). Unsurprisingly, he was designated for assignment in mid-May as part of the flurry of roster moves that brought Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert to the bigs, having burned his final minor league option last season by one day, and I was pleasantly surprised (and frankly, relieved, given my longtime love for the guy) that he cleared waivers. I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised, though. After all, a 28-year-old, power-hitting first baseman who can fake it in the outfield with nearly 850 games played in the Minors is the definition of Quad-A, right?
In 46 games with Tacoma, to say Marmolejos has been tearing up
the Pacific Coast League Triple-A West would be an understatement. The slash line alone - .353/.443/.718 - is enough to pop, and his 173 wRC+ is second in the league out of hitters with at least 150 plate appearances. After being more of a doubles hitter in his early career, Marmo found his home run stroke in 2019 while in Fresno, putting up a career-high .230 ISO, but he’s found dizzying heights this season, with his .365 clip ranking third in the league. He even took home Player of the Week honors earlier this month!
Congrats to José Marmolejos on being named Triple-A West Player of the Week! pic.twitter.com/zRv7PXCtfX— Mariners Player Development (@MsPlayerDev) July 19, 2021
Of course, all the usual caveats come to mind. The league formerly known as the PCL is practically on the moon! They’re still using the old rabbit ball! The gap between Triple-A and the Majors has never been more stark than this year! And the most damning point from the doubters of all...
Despite these dashes of salt (and maybe that last point is more of a spoonful), there’s still quite a bit to like in Marmo’s performance in Tacoma, and encouraging trends he showed in the Majors have continued to translate. About the only thing he did well in Seattle this season was draw walks; in fact, his 14.9% walk rate is still second-highest on the team behind Jake Fraley. Striking out a third of the time was pretty ugly, but there’s reason to think that he was getting pitched very toughly - per Ryan Blake, he ranks within the 94th percentile of shadow pitches seen at 45.2%, and he started seeing a lot more once the calendar flipped to May.
By my own pitch selection metric, Marmolejos went from bottom 5% of MLB in April to top 10% in May. It's almost like a switch clicked on for him.— Ryan Blake (@_ryan_blake) July 19, 2021
Here's a five-game rolling average. pic.twitter.com/oUXx8ufO7S
To my eyes, he battled hard and worked deep counts seemingly every time up, and the data bores that out: out of every hitter in the Majors this year with at least 90 plate appearances, his 4.64 pitches per PA was second in baseball behind only Yasmani Grandal. I can also recall an instance or two where a blown third strike call on a full count cost him a walk...
...and even with that three-week slump before getting hit with a DFA, he drew a free pass nearly a sixth of the time up (fun fact: the called strike above ended a nine-pitch at-bat) - and remember, this was entirely before the crackdown on foreign substances. That disciplined hitting has paid big dividends in Triple-A; the walk rate for him is a touch lower than in Seattle at 14.2%, but he’s cut his strikeouts almost in half, and the pop-ups have been nearly nonexistent. Fully embracing his pull power, he’s been playing by far the best baseball of his career the last two months, and I think he’s earned a second stint in Seattle.
The problem is, where does he fit? Having been designated for assignment, there would be another 40-man roster move needed to bring him home, and there aren’t any obvious candidates on the injured list to move to the 60-day (...yet). Jake Fraley, being on the COVID IL, isn’t currently there, but Ryan Divish indicated on Thursday that he’ll be out of quarantine by today. Cutting Jake Bauers loose feels like the obvious move: he hasn’t recorded an extra-base hit since June 22nd, while his BABIP luck has started to come back a bit recently, his punchless swing has been pretty painful to watch for over a month. Strong throw yesterday aside, his outfield defense hasn’t been very inspiring, either (though Marmo isn’t likely to be much better out there). With the Mariners having given up an Actual Prospect for him, however, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them give Bauers some more time - but one has to wonder if that leash is starting to tighten.
None of this is meant to imply that the Mariners must make space for José Marmolejos - especially on the back of swirling rumors of acquiring Whit Merrifield from the Royals. What he’s done in the two months since being outrighted has been pretty remarkable, though. His process in the Majors was intriguing despite the lack of results, and we’ve seen how Luis Torrens made an adjustment in Tacoma that has stuck in Seattle. If nothing else, he’s earned a chunk of semi-regular playing time to see if any of this is for real, and whether that’s in Seattle or ultimately for another team, it’s something worthy of praise.