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January 31, 2012
Fixing a Bug in the Mariners
Despite research and development's best efforts, the 2011 Seattle Mariners shipped with several bugs that prevented them from performing as desired by those who built the product and those who paid to watch it. In preparing the 2012 release, the team's engineers set about fixing some of those bugs—most notably the complete absence of offense—in the hope of improving the product's effectiveness, increasing its sales, and keeping customers happy enough to buy future versions.
The big move came last week, when the Mariners sent right-handers Michael Pineda and Jose Campos to the Yankees for catcher Jesus Montero and right-hander Hector Noesi. If we were to document the bug fix, it would look like this:
The loss of Pineda likely will have a negative impact on the Mariners' ability to prevent opponents from scoring runs in 2012 and beyond. The loss of Campos may have the same effect at a later date, although this is mitigated somewhat by the presence of top prospects Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, and James Paxton.
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But enough software analogies for now; let's get to the good stuff. Did I say that the Mariners didn't score enough runs in 2011? Try the fewest in MLB for the second year in a row. Ten teams averaged fewer than 4 runs per game last year:
Eight of these teams finished below .500. The worst team in each league appears here. Unless you have the Braves' or Giants' pitching staff, this is not where you want to be.
As we noted earlier, there was no single point of failure for the Mariners. In their case, it is more appropriate to talk about a single point of success. Technically, it was two points, but Dustin Ackley and Mike Carp together accumulated 689 plate appearances last year, which is roughly equivalent to one player-season. They combined to hit .274/.338/.440 (similar to Casey Blake's career numbers), while the rest of the team hit .228/.286/.336 (sort of a lesser Adam Everett or, if you want to kick it old school, Buck Martinez). As for the rest:
The Mariners failed at offense no matter how you slice it. Here is the breakdown by defensive position (OPS is a crude metric but effective enough for our purposes):
They were in the bottom half at eight of nine positions, dead last at four. Bear in mind those DH numbers as we continue. They will come in handy when we eventually return to Montero and his ability (or not) to remain behind the plate.
Splits by batting order position present no less a bleak picture:
So, if you can make it to the nine hole, you're okay. Less facetiously, it is difficult to overstate just how desperately the Mariners needed to improve their offense.
Runs per inning? Same thing. Except for the seventh, the Mariners ranked near the bottom of the AL in runs scored for every inning.
To summarize: The Mariners didn't get completely terrible production at second base, in the ninth spot, or in the seventh inning. As battle cries or foundations for future success go, that is completely terrible.
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Returning to Montero, there is significant concern that his defense may not be good enough to keep him behind the dish, where his bat is more valuable. But would a move elsewhere doom him and the Mariners? Montero isn't either of these players, but consider the difference between Mike Piazza and Edgar Martinez.
More realistically, perhaps, consider the difference between Chris Hoiles (23.3 WARP) and Mike Sweeney (25.5 WARP). This isn't a perfect comparison for many reasons (Sweeney needed about 2,500 more plate appearances to get there), but it gives us a rough idea and is enough to make the point that it is possible for a catching prospect to shift positions and still have a productive career.
Sweeney isn't the only player to do this. Without digging deeply or examining those who failed (the burden of proof is much lower in attempting to answer whether something can happen than whether it will happen), here are a few converted catchers who have enjoyed fine careers in recent years, with Montero included for completeness:
*Includes rehab stints later in career; this has minimal impact on overall numbers
I don't want to get too hung up on specific comparisons because there are obvious differences. Biggio moved to second base by way of center field (where another former backstop not on this list, Dale Murphy, eventually settled), Ibanez and Morneau stopped catching before they reached Double-A, Sweeney and Zeile tried it at the big-league level, Willingham started out as an infielder and didn't establish himself until age 27 after several position changes, etc.
The salient point is that, without looking very hard, we've found counterexamples to the notion that moving Montero out from behind the plate must kill his value. It is greater if he remains at catcher, but if you can mash (and my esteemed colleague Jason Parks calls Montero “a future .300 hitter with 25-30 bombs in the tank per season,” which sounds suspiciously like Konerko or Sweeney), you will find your name in the lineup for a long time, regardless of any defensive deficiencies.
If Montero shifts to a less demanding position (even DH, where as we saw earlier, the Mariners need serious help despite the belief in some circles that finding one is easy), this could affect his career in a couple of ways. First, it could allow him to focus on his strengths, i.e., bludgeoning baseballs. Second, the reduced wear and tear could allow him to play and hit at an elite level longer than had he remained behind the dish—think Jason Kendall through age 26 (.314/.402/.456) vs. after (.277/.350/.345). Add the fact that Montero's defense isn't what got him to the big leagues, and a move doesn't seem so bad.
Regardless, fretting about position changes is a luxury reserved for teams that don't have offensive holes everywhere. For as miserable as the Mariners were last year, it was an improvement over 2010, which was the worst offensive showing in franchise history (3.17 R/G). As I noted on Twitter, the 2010-2011 Mariners scored 1,069 runs in 324 games, while the 1931 Yankees scored 1,067 in 155. Granted, the offensive environments are different, but those Yankees could have been held scoreless for the entire 1932 season and still not have matched Seattle's level of futility over the past two years.
So yeah, Montero will help.
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There is a cost to plugging holes, and in this case it is creating another one. Baseball America ranked Michael Pineda as its 16th-best prospect entering 2011. Our own Kevin Goldstein had him at 24th , and Montero third overall.
Pineda is a special talent and not easily replaced. Although his overall numbers as a rookie weren't spectacular, he succeeded at putting the ball past hitters. As James Click reminded us some years ago (and again in Best of Baseball Prospectus Vol 2, which is why this is fresh in my mind), a pitcher's K/9 is one of the few metrics that shows any consistency from season to season.
As a 22-year-old rookie, Pineda registered 9.1 K/9 for the Mariners. In MLB history, only 15 pitchers have fanned at least one batter per inning at age 22 or younger while qualifying for the ERA title. The list of names is interesting, and perhaps a bit cautionary as well.
Even accounting for the fact (which I've touched on elsewhere) that strikeout rates are much higher now than they were in previous decades, this is a pretty exclusive list, albeit one that is littered with tales of what might have been. My bold predictions about Pineda?
The point is that Pineda is a young man with a special arm. How do the Mariners replace him? The most honest answer is that they don't, as that type of arm doesn't come around too often. The more helpful answer is that they have a few options, none of which is terribly appealing. Long term, there are Walker, Hultzen, and Paxton; given the attrition rate of pitching prospects, you hope that maybe one of those three makes it.
Short term, the team signed Kevin Millwood to a minor-league contract. Judging from his brief and somewhat inexplicable stint in Colorado last summer, Millwood appears to be in demand by rebuilding teams that need someone to make starts until the kids are ready. Seattle also inked erratic southpaw Oliver Perez (you'll remember him from that cautionary table we saw earlier) to a minor-league deal. Even those of us who loved Perez when he first came up through the Padres organization will concede that the productive part of his career is in the rearview mirror (you laugh at my obviousness, but I actually saw Brian Lawrence start a game in Tucson last May).
Blake Beavan? Okay, but he's slightly... uh, more hittable, than Pineda. Heck, he might be more hittable than Lawrence (I mean when Lawrence was good, not the 35-year-old version getting abused in the PCL last year). Charlie Furbush? Decent minor-league track record, great name. Noesi, who also came over in the Pineda/Montero deal, is another possibility. There are options, albeit not very exciting ones.
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Then again, how much is a team that has lost 95 games or more in three of the past four seasons concerned about the short term? Especially in a division that features two teams—the Rangers and Angels—that have become major players. With Texas coming off back-to-back World Series appearances and Albert Pujols headed to Anaheim, Seattle's window is more of a brick wall right now.
Pineda might well have been a part of the Mariners' next contending team, but in an organization with pitching depth and a paucity of bats, Montero is the better fit. Assuming the latter develops as anticipated, he should be a stud regardless of defensive position. Keeping him behind the plate might give him greater peak value at the expense of long-term value, while moving him to a less demanding position likely will have the opposite effect.
Although Pineda will be difficult to replace in the short term, given the fickle nature of young pitchers, the Mariners' other long-term options, and their terrible offense, this is an acceptable risk. He could be a perennial All-Star for the next 15 years, or he could flame out before he reaches 30.