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July 26, 2011

The BP Broadside

The Mariners are Simultaneously Sinking and Treading Water

by Steven Goldman

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Just a few more days to go. On Monday night, the Seattle Mariners lost their 16th consecutive game, falling to the Yankees in a sloppy 10-3 contest that saw them make two errors and numerous other misplays. It was not an atypical game for a team that has scored just 2.7 runs per game during this stretch while allowing 6.1. And yet, the Mariners’ freefall must run another six games before they break the American League record of 21 straight losses set by the Orioles in April 1988, and they have to toss up another eight in a row before they dethrone the 1960 Phillies and their 23 straight losses.

The 2011 Mariners have a lot in common with that long-ago Phillies club. The roster contained more than its share of has-beens, never-weres, and never-would-bes; throughout that season they added solid contributors like Johnny Callison, and Tony Gonzalez, who would star on the ill-fated but still quite successful 1964 team that won 92 games. In the same way, the Mariners have added Dustin Ackley and Michael Pineda. Of course, the Phillies lost 95 games that year and 107 the next before they finally broke through and posted the first of what would be six years of winning records.

Until then, the Mariners remain a team that can pitch, even if they aren’t doing so right now, but can’t hit  at all. Their offense is so bad that you might say it’s historic. They have nine players with over 100 plate appearances batting under .230, and nearly half of them are under .200. According to WARP, their best player is Brendan Ryan, a sweet-fielding but light-hitting shortstop who was lightly dispensed with by a Cardinals team desperate for middle infielders. Even the ageless Ichiro Suzuki is scuffling, and Justin Smoak, who looked as if he was going to justify his part in the Cliff Lee deal early on, has completely disappeared, hitting .206/.296/.358 since April ended.

The Mariners are scoring the fewest runs per game in baseball, and have the lowest OPS+ at 79. That they are under 80 should be a clue that something special is going on—as Baseball-Reference calculates the statistic, in all of modern baseball history there have been just 93 teams that have hit so poorly as to put up an adjusted OPS under 80. Only 37 of them have come in the last 60 years, and only four have been part of our glorious century, the last two came in 2004, when the Arizona Diamondbacks and Montreal Expos finished at 77 and 78, respectively. That Arizona team was special. Despite Randy Johnson contributing an excellent season, the club lost 111 games.

BP’s True Average stat takes a more benign view of the Mariners’ offense. By its lights, the worst offense of the last 60 years belonged to the 1972 Texas Rangers (77 OPS+) which had a lineup consisting of aging giant Frank Howard, Toby Harrah in a bad year, and almost no one else. The Rangers hit 56 home runs as a team—they hit that many against the Twins on Monday night alone—and batted .217/.290/.290 in a league that hit .239/.306/.343. This works out to a TAv of .229. It is the only club in our database under .230. The current Mariners, at .244, hardly rate.

Indeed, for fans of negative performances, the Mariners are disappointing. Even restricting the list of possibilities to 2000 and up doesn’t place them in the top 10 of misery:


TEAM

YEAR

AVG

OBP

SLG

TAv

1.

ARI

2004

.253

.310

.393

.232

2.

LAN

2003

.243

.303

.368

.238

3.

DET

2003

.240

.300

.375

.239

4.

HOU

2010

.247

.303

.362

.239

5.

MON

2001

.253

.319

.396

.240

6.

PIT

2010

.242

.304

.373

.241

7.

SDN

2011

.233

.303

.333

.241

8.

DET

2002

.248

.300

.379

.242

9.

NYN

2003

.247

.314

.374

.242

10.

PIT

2009

.252

.318

.387

.242

11.

MIL

2004

.248

.321

.387

.243

12.

MON

2004

.249

.313

.392

.243

13.

SFN

2007

.254

.322

.387

.243

14.

SFN

2009

.257

.309

.389

.244

15.

SEA

2010

.236

.298

.339

.244

16.

SEA

2011

.226

.289

.334

.244

Perhaps the most important takeaway from this table is not the historic ineptitude of Mariners hitting—it’s just run-of-the-mill bad—but that despite a winter’s activity and more than half a season to make adjustments, this year’s offense is almost exactly as poor as last year’s. With the exceptions of the acquisition of Ryan, and the promotions of Ackley and, latterly, Mike Carp, the lineup was handled with a King Midas-in-reverse touch by general manager Jack Zduriencik.

Clearly, no one could have anticipated some of the problems, like Ichiro, a career .301 hitter on ground balls, seemingly losing a step and dropping to .239—having averaged about 54 infield hits a season coming into the year, he has only 26 this year. Nor could anyone have foreseen the health problems that had deprived Franklin Gutierrez of any semblance of hitting ability.

Yet, Gutierrez hadn’t hit in 2010 either. Mariners catchers hit an amazing .201/.263/.303 in 2010, but Miguel Olivo’s .220/.257/.390 is hardly a decisive upgrade. Jack Wilson is a veteran non-hitter. Michael Saunders had spent two years disappointing in the majors, and Milton Bradley’s bat had been on life support as early as 2009, and Jack Cust’s home run swing had mysteriously vanished in 2010, when he lost nearly half of his home runs from the year before. And then there is Chone Figgins, of whom the Mariners’ signing and subsequent handling it would be impolite to discuss.

There is hope for the Mariners. Their pitching propelled them into contention in the weak AL West before this current slump killed their hopes. They have something to build on, assuming they don’t foolishly part with too many assets at the trading deadline. The 1989 Orioles won 87 games. The 1961 Phillies were terrible, but they were building something. The 2009 Giants, tied with the Mariners on the list above, were the 2010 world champions. Despite the current malaise, there is something there. Whether they have the right GM in place to exploit that hope is another matter entirely.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  Mariners

20 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

ScottyB

When you have a disater of a season like this, the least you can hope for is that you are developing some good young players. The time developing Ackley, Pineda & Smoak is about the only silver lining I can see. Any other bright spots?

Jul 26, 2011 07:54 AM
rating: 0
 
redspid

Once again it only took until the 2nd sentence for Steven to talk about the Yankees. Ha.

Jul 26, 2011 08:07 AM
rating: 4
 
Richie

He's joking, everybody.

Jul 26, 2011 08:32 AM
rating: 1
 
lmarighi

No disrespect Steven, but why is every article you write about the Mariners? Some of us don't live in Seattle, and want to hear about other teams, you know. Lousy West Coast bias! Someday I'd like to hear about the little upstart team in the Bronx, I think they've really got something special.

Jul 26, 2011 08:42 AM
rating: 13
 
FrankL

Now if only the Mariners could take their .244 TAv (which includes the DH) to the offense-challenged NL West....

Jul 26, 2011 09:46 AM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

Warms my heart to see the 2010 Astros at #4.

Jul 26, 2011 10:03 AM
rating: 0
 
Jamey
(208)

Why do player cards have no 2011 stats? I clicked through to Ichiro and Smoak, then tried a few more. No 2011 stats.

Jul 26, 2011 10:35 AM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

Real stats are misleading. BP only lists projected stats on the player pages. What should happen/should have happened is more important than what did happen!!!!! (I say this with love for BP, but this has bothered me, too- it makes me go to baseball reference)

Jul 26, 2011 10:38 AM
rating: 1
 
ScottyB

Actually 2011 real stats are listed. Just not at the top of the page. This is new this year, IIRC

Jul 26, 2011 10:40 AM
rating: 1
 
ndcohn

I'm with you in someways, but the jab at the GM and his efforts to correct their offensive woes seems quite a bit off.

The off season acquisitions all represent marginal improvements at best, but virtually no payroll was available for a better bat. For <10m, the Mariners acquired Ryan, Kennedy, Cust, Olivo, and resigned Erik Bedard. Between those upgrades, expected improvements from young players like Smoak and later Ackley, and regression from *someone* like Figgins, Bradley, Ichiro, Bradley to anywhere near their 09' production levels, I'd say Jack Z put together a team with a reasonable shot at a simply mediocre offense.

The Mariners offense is historically bad because of terrible performances from virtually all of the team's biggest $ pieces, and in those instances where Jack Z was responsible (Gutierrez, Figgins, Bradley), it's hard to argue that the decision to dish out deals was a true error in judgment. At this point, Guti and Figgins don't look too good, but these performances were truly unforseeable. Even if they didn't perform at their career best 09' levels, they still would have been worth the contract. Jack Z's failure to acquire better bats through free agency is not his fault given declining payroll over his tenure and the constraints of pre-09 contracts.

The Mariners offense in 10/11 is the culmination of several simultaneous and unforeseen career collapses. This is not Jack Z's fault, and these events do not cast doubt on his ability to rebuild the offense.



Jul 26, 2011 11:09 AM
rating: -1
 
Pat Folz

I disagree with most of this. I don't think upward regression from any of those guys was really expected -- two are aging speed-only guys and one has a length injury history and cleary declining power. And while I agree that most of this year's acquisitions were reasonable bargains, what was the expected offensive upside? Best case, Cust gives what, 20-25 HR as a DH? Olivo gives 15 HR with a .290 OBP? I know they're going all-in on defense, but literally the only guy they acquired with an offensive upside better than "pretty good for the position" was Smoak, who's pretty much sucked (I contend Figgins and Bradley were clearly declining, OBP-only hitters when they Mariners got them in the first place). So even best-case the Mariners offense was going to be sub-mediocre, and that's if *all* the little gambles paid off.

Then there's the matter that almost *none* of their gambles have paid off. Ryan's probably the closest and he's OBPing .323. Yes it's hard to predict, and no one's going to be perfect, but it's the responsibility of the organization (and ultimately the GM) to figure out which guys are worthy gambles, players who still "have it," and which guys are just washed up. I think their track record under Jack Z pretty clearly shows that they cannot do this, at least for hitters, so his ability to ever assemble a viable offense is absolutely in question.

Jul 26, 2011 16:25 PM
rating: 2
 
ndcohn

Preposterous.

Your whole premise that JackZ has taken "gambles" which should have been expected to "pay off" is way off-base.

Since Jack-Z was hired, payroll has declined by 20 MILLION.

In response to a constrained budget, he has attempted to make stop-gap, low cost upgrades, and with success roughly commensurate to the investment. Some have gone as well, or better, than one could expect, including Branyan, Kennedy, Olivo, and Ryan . Others did not, like Cust. Considering that these players were all acquired for less than 3 million each, it's exactly what you'd expect.

He has attempted to upgrade through trades. Here the bag is mixed, with some fantastic successes - including the Putz, Aardsma, and Lee trades - and some questionable moves - mainly the League for Morrow trade. Some moves have failed but at relatively no cost to the team, like acquiring Kotchman, Bradley, Jack Wilson, or Ian Snell. These were junk trades.

My central point - which you have no refuted - is that the Mariners offense has struggled do to collapses in production from players already in place when JackZ got here, or unforseeable collapses in production from players who were acquired or signed at reasonable rates.

You might think Figgins was in decline - and you'd be wrong, since he just came off a career year - but no one could have expected that he would bat .183 in year two of his contract.

You might think Gutierrez isn't a .283 hitter like he was in 2009, but clearly his offensive performance this year was unanticipated.

You might think that Ichiro was aging, but he hit .350 two years ago, and many writers were speculating as recently as a few months ago about the possibility that he might make a run at 3000 or more hits, or in one instance, the all time hits record, despite being at 2400 at age 37. He hit .300 last year - which is not historically unprecedented, and there were few signs that the cliff was just in front of him.

The collapse of Jose Lopez was also clearly not his fault. One of the few cost controlled offensive pieces at his disposal completely vanished.

You might think Bradley was declining - and that's true - but it wasn't unreasonable to expect something above .200

Bottom line - given the financial circumstances, Jack Z has been forced to make stop gap moves and trades. They have come out even or better from these moves. Their offensive collapse is due to unexpected failure from players acquired at reasonable rates or who were already in town, not bad management.



Jul 27, 2011 08:13 AM
rating: -1
 
akcolonial

It's painful as a Mariners fan to see Casey Kotchman suddenly putting up a great year after how bad he was last year. If they release Figgins, next year he'll be the new Jose Bautista.

Jul 26, 2011 14:02 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

It's painful as a baseball fan to see Casey Kotchman still employed at a power-hitting position.

Jul 27, 2011 16:25 PM
rating: 0
 
Matt Kory

Wonderful work as always, Steven. One small nit to pick: the last sentence of the first paragraph says 1960 Phillies, but it was the 1961 Phillies that lost 23 in a row. From July 29th through some portion of the afternoon of August 20th 1961, the Phillies did nothing but lose. They finally won the second half of a double header on the 20th.

(http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/PHI/1961-schedule-scores.shtml)

Jul 27, 2011 01:28 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

You're right. Another reader corrected me on this as well, and I apologize for the oversight. Fortunately, it doesn't change anything about the Mariners' situation. They go for #18 today, and with Phil Hughes vs. King Felix, have a good chance to break the streak.

Jul 27, 2011 08:14 AM
 
drawbb

If the streak continues, I'm expecting another article on the 1899 Spiders who lost 24 in a row.

Jul 27, 2011 02:10 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

I intentionally didn't mention them. The Spiders basically have no application to modern ball. What happened to them was the result of syndicate baseball and I can't see any analogy to today.

Jul 27, 2011 08:13 AM
 
drawbb

While I wasn't being totally serious, it does always make me cringe to hear "the modern major-league record" or "since 1900". Drawing a line is both insulting to the accomplishments of players whose careers straddled or predated that time, as well as being expressly forbidden by the commissioner's 1969 edict on record-keeping.

Besides, just on a narrative level I see quite a few parallels between the NL of the 1890s and some of Bud's follies of more recent vintage: Cries of overexpansion, contraction, and franchises shifting leagues; ill-advised attempts to fool with the playoff format; and letting owners have control of multiple franchises at once (Jeffrey Loria, anyone?).

Jul 27, 2011 11:55 AM
rating: 1
 
Sacramento

Looks like the streak is over unless the Mariners bullpen has a meltdown of epic proportions.

Jul 27, 2011 12:42 PM
rating: 0
 
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