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September 11, 2007

Prospectus Hit and Run

Taking on Water

by Jay Jaffe

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After a surprising bid not only to win the Wild Card but to challenge for the AL West lead, the Mariners sank from postseason contention in rather dramatic fashion. As August 25 dawned, they were 73-53, just one game behind the Angels in the AL West and three games up on the Yankees in the Wild Card race. Their Playoff Odds stood at 28.8 percent for the division, 29.9 percent for the Wild Card, and a season-high 58.7 percent overall. Two and a half weeks later, after a 1-13 plunge, they're down 8.5 games in the AL West, are given just a 0.3 percent shot at winning their division, and 5.5 back in the Wild Card, with just a 1.2 percent chance. In terms of raw wins and losses, they've set a dubious record--no team that far above .500 that late in the season has ever collapsed so quickly.

What went wrong? As has been remarked several times, the Mariners were overachieving relative to their run differential. At that August 25 juncture, they were just 28 runs in the black, and ranked 12th on the Hit List, one rung below the A's, who were eight games worse in terms of their actual record. Now, through yesterday's action, the Mariners are 19 runs in the red, and an even more middling 17th in the most recent Hit List. It's as though they'd borrowed runs from Pythagoras all season long, and when they couldn't pay up, his hired goons broke their kneecaps with a tire iron.

The Mariner offense was never considered one of the league's juggernauts, but thanks to an August surge, they crossed the 5.0 runs per game threshold for a short time thanks to an OBP that was in the league's top third. Led by J.J. Putz, whose WXRL still leads the majors, and rookie Brandon Morrow, who not too long ago ranked in the top 10, their bullpen was one of the league's best, and a key reason the team had gone 31-21 in games decided by two runs or less. Had that been backed with a reasonable performance from the rotation, they coulda been a contender, or, more accurately, a legitimate contender. But the M's have had just two starters who've allowed less than five runs per game, and based on that Support-Neutral Winning Percentage we discussed here last week (SNLVA_R + 0.5), none of their starters even clears a .550 winning percentage.

The bullpen's crash and burn has been a big reason for the team's skid; in the first 12 games of it (as noted in the recent Hit List) they compiled an 8.21 ERA while the team went 0-6 in close games. If we compare the Seattle relievers' Fair Run Average since the All-Star break with their performance in the first half, we can see that they've declined considerably. What's more, they're not the only contender who's done so:


      1st    2nd
Team  Half   Half   +/-
COL   4.87   3.51  -1.36
PHI   5.66   4.68  -0.98
TOR   4.30   3.32  -0.98
DET   5.48   4.63  -0.85
WAS   4.32   3.48  -0.84
CHA   6.49   5.67  -0.82
TBA   6.97   6.25  -0.72
HOU   5.57   4.90  -0.67
PIT   5.06   4.69  -0.37
FLO   4.60   4.36  -0.24

KCA   4.38   4.17  -0.21
ATL   4.52   4.35  -0.17
NYN   4.22   4.06  -0.16
CLE   4.29   4.14  -0.15
OAK   4.62   4.58  -0.04
TEX   3.91   3.88  -0.03
SLN   4.22   4.39   0.17
CHN   4.08   4.27   0.19
ANA   4.42   4.65   0.23
ARI   4.29   4.60   0.31

BOS   3.22   3.74   0.52
CIN   5.56   6.21   0.65
LAN   3.63   4.29   0.66
MIN   3.92   4.87   0.95
NYA   4.20   5.31   1.11
SFN   3.65   4.80   1.15
SEA   3.72   5.30   1.58 <---
BAL   5.56   7.35   1.79
MIL   4.05   5.93   1.88
SDN   2.51   5.45   2.94

Keeping in mind the fact that the two halves are not weighted equally--teams played about 88 games apiece before the All-Star break and have played about 55 since then--only two nominal contenders, the Phillies and Tigers, rank among the 10 most-improved second-half bullpens. For both, the improvements fueled by returns of key injured relievers may be cases of too little, too late. On the other hand, of the 10 bullpens which have experienced the biggest second-half decline, five belong to contenders-the Red Sox, Dodgers, Yankees, Brewers, and Padres. The story is pretty much the same if you measure the effect via Fair Run Average, WXRL, or Adjusted Runs Prevented (the latter two on a per-game basis to account for the aforementioned schedule imbalance); what we're likely seeing is a good amount of regression to the mean.

Which is bad news for the Mariners, obviously. It's unclear as to whether we can blame an increased workload as the reason; though the second-half struggles of Morrow, Eric O'Flaherty, and Sean Green hint that the long season may be getting the best of the youngsters, the percentage of innings thrown by the team's relievers before the All-Star break and after it has declined from 35.8 percent to 32.1 percent. The first-half figure was eighth-highest of any team. Of the ones that threw a higher first-half share--the Rangers, Nationals, Marlins, Yankees, Cardinals, Royals and Braves--only the Yanks are stuck in that bottom third with the Mariners, and on the whole those seven teams actually declined by about .03 runs per nine in the second half.

While we're at it, we can gawk at how the 30 teams stack up in terms of starter Fair Run Average changes from half to half:


      1st    2nd
Team  Half   Half   +/-
TEX   6.86   5.50  -1.36
CLE   5.05   3.95  -1.10
TBA   6.06   5.00  -1.06
TOR   4.92   3.93  -0.99
MIN   4.95   4.38  -0.57
KCA   5.40   5.05  -0.35
WAS   5.49   5.14  -0.35
SLN   5.72   5.42  -0.30
COL   5.10   4.86  -0.24
BOS   4.41   4.32  -0.09

ATL   4.84   4.77  -0.07
SFN   4.49   4.48  -0.01
PHI   5.15   5.21   0.06
NYA   4.97   5.12   0.15
ANA   4.55   4.71   0.16
ARI   4.62   4.91   0.29
SEA   5.53   5.82   0.29
CIN   5.12   5.42   0.30
CHN   4.38   4.79   0.41
LAN   4.45   4.88   0.43

NYN   4.30   4.84   0.54
MIL   4.70   5.54   0.84
HOU   4.63   5.65   1.02
SDN   3.84   4.88   1.04
BAL   4.26   5.40   1.14
PIT   4.77   6.05   1.28
FLO   5.66   7.23   1.57
CHA   4.42   6.24   1.82
DET   4.40   6.33   1.93
OAK   3.85   6.01   2.16

Pre-break, post-break, any way you slice it, the Mariners' rotation has collectively been pretty awful. Sure, Felix Hernandez has shown flashes of brilliance, but his 4.45 Fair Run Average does not befit a staff ace. Miguel Batista's been worse than league average at 5.10. Jeff Weaver partially atoned for that early-season Master of Disaster stretch, but he's still at 6.46, which is enough to buy an artery-clogging combo meal at your favorite fast-food joint. Cha Seung Baek and Horacio Ramirez have combined for 29 starts of 6.80 FRA ball. If that's the rotation of a contender, then maybe my dreams of big-league glory are still viable.

Elsewhere in those rankings, contenders like the Brewers and Padres have shown ominous declines, while a couple of teams playing out the string with young pitchers in their rotation, Toronto and Minnesota, have been among the majors' best. The Red Sox, even with Curt Schilling sidelined for a spell and Daisuke Matsuzaka yielding 28 runs in his last 28 1/3 innings, have shown admirable consistency from half to half. But the real take-home message comes from the AL Central, where the rotations of the Indians and Tigers have seen a relative swing of about 3.0 runs per nine. In fact, the Tigers have put up the second-worst post-break FRA of any rotation, beating out only the Marlins. Somebody pray for Jim Leyland.

---

This week's JAWS Bite comes thanks to an email from reader D.S.:

ESPN ran a poll last week asking whether Pedro Martinez should make the Hall if he retired today. I was surprised that roughly one-third of respondents said No. I asked Jeff Ma about this in his chat, and he further surprised me by agreeing that Pedro was marginal given durability, career length, etc. (and Jeff is a Red Sox fan!). I have always thought of Pedro as closer to Inner Circle than Hall of Nearly Great, and wanted to know where he stands in JAWS terms. Is he clearly worthy, or is he more of a Koufax-like high peak, low career value kind of guy?

Martinez showed that last week's wily comeback appearance was no fluke, and frankly, he's a no-doubt Hall of Famer even if he never picks up a baseball again. If we're talking slam dunks, then his is of the Darryl Dawkins variety.

Coming into the year, Martinez's JAWS score (113.7 career WARP3/75.3 peak/94.5 JAWS) was well above the Hall standard for starting pitchers (99.0/62.7/80.9). His JAWS score ranks 20th all-time, and his peak score ranks 14th. As I noted in Mind Game, his 2000 season ranks as the best ever in terms of RA+ (293) for any pitcher with at least 150 innings.

Compare that to Koufax; as impressive as the Dodger lefty's stats were, his best seasons were achieved under some of the most favorable conditions of any pitcher, and his JAWS score (70.7/60.3/65.5) is miles behind Pedro, ranking 80th of all time. He was basically a league-average pitcher from 1955-1960 before taking a big step forward in 1961 (the year before the team moved into Dodger Stadium), but he's only got three seasons above 9.0 WARP3. In comparison, Pedro has six. Koufax's best RA+ was "just" 196. But before anybody gets the pitchforks out to either run him out of the Hall (or me out of the field of baseball analysis), as one Schmuck tried to do to BP alum Dayn Perry, let's not forget that Koufax's Hall of Fame case also includes three Cy Youngs, an MVP award, gallons of black ink, three World Series rings, an 0.95 postseason ERA, and the enigmatic glow that comes from retiring while at the pinnacle of success.

Glow aside, Martinez isn't lacking in any of those categories, with three Cys, a ring of his own, and even more black ink in an era where the increased player pool makes it much harder to come by. His JAWS score and other Hall of Fame credentials are so rock solid that he stacks up pretty well with 300-game winning teammate Tom Glavine (129.4/61.4/95.4 coming into the year). He's my lock of the week, and it's a pretty big lock.

---

I'll be traveling for the better part of the next two weeks, leaving the Hit List in the capable hands of Marc Normandin. To accommodate his schedule, the column will be running on the next two Saturdays instead of Fridays, and when I return, we'll flip-flop the schedule of my two columns and wrap up the season with the Hit List finale.

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

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