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September 10, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Man Up, Mariners!

by Steven Goldman

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Man up, Seattle Mariners. On August 27, Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln e-mailed his employees a message which read in part:

If it seems to you like the local media is going out of its way to trash the Mariners, well, you're right, they are! And you can expect this to continue as the season winds down. We're getting hit like never before--or at least never before in recent memory! Indeed, if you read between the lines, you get the clear impression that at least one beat reporter would love nothing better than to step right in and run the Mariners. (Don't worry, that's not going to happen!)

[snip]

I want you to know that Chuck, Jack and I have very thick skins and that nothing said by the folks in the media or, for that matter, the bloggers, is going to distract us from continuing to do our jobs to the best of our ability, with the goal of giving our fans a championship team.

As the old saying goes, “Denial is a river that flows out of Puget Sound.” This year, the Mariners have accomplished something, if not unprecedented, then very unusual. Hitting .236/.300/.341 and averaging 3.2 runs per game in a league that averages .259/.327/.406 and 4.4, The Mariners have at once placed themselves among the hundred-worst offenses of all time, the 40-worst offenses of the postwar period, and the 10-worst offenses of the last 20 years. Where they will ultimately rank on those lists is still an open question, but by some measures it could be quite high, which is to say, low. It is truly an amazing offense. Mariners catchers are hitting .199/.266/.310. Mariners designated hitters are hitting .191/.268/.350. None of their positions has enjoyed aggregate production superior to the league average. Even right field, where Ichiro Suzuki may slug less than .400 for the second time in his career, doesn’t quite make it to average. The 1952 Pirates, a team which lost 112 games and whose lineup featured Ralph Kiner’s bad back and eight guys named Del Greco, could have battled them to a draw.

Along the way to this dubious accomplishment, the Mariners have fired their manager, alienated the biggest star in franchise history , took their above-average defensive third baseman and turned him into a below-average defensive second baseman, and dealt Cliff Lee to the Rangers for a take that already looks questionable given (A) they backed out of what might have been a better deal with the Yankees, (B) Justin Smoak’s utter failure to hit, and (C) their acquisition of sketchy personality Josh Lueke, who in 2009 pleaded no contest to a charge of “false imprisonment with violence,” having plea-bargained his way out of rape and sodomy charges. Their denials of awareness of Lueke’s record rank somewhere between Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton on the credibility chart. It has been a special year in the Emerald City. The only thing that might keep them from losing 100 games is the 1 ½ seasons of excellent pitching they received from Lee and King Felix Hernandez, who, if there is any justice in this world, will win the Cy Young Award.

Rather than acknowledge that general manager Jack Zduriencik, in his eagerness to create a team that won with leather, totally neglected the wood and thus created a disaster, as did all those that signed off on the plan, Lincoln opted to blame the media and circle the wagons. This is a bit like Admiral Kimmel blaming the New York Post for Pearl Harbor. It is a desperate obfuscation at best, a weak-kneed excuse at worst.

Parenthetically, even if one of the beat writers did want to “step right in and run the Mariners” that wouldn’t be so ridiculous. A newspaperman was hired to run the Chicago Cubs in 1917 and won three pennants over the next 15 years, a record that no modern Cubs GM could claim. His name was William Veeck, Sr,, and despite his ink-stained origins, he taught his son Bill enough about running a baseball team that he won two pennants of his own and was elected to a place in Cooperstown.

In fairness to the GM and the Mariners braintrust, some aspects of the club’s attack were destroyed by a series of unlikely worst-possible outcomes. Whatever Milton Bradley’s personality problems, he seemed certain to hit better than .205/292/.348. Junior Griffey might have had one last encore in him. Franklin Gutierrez seemed like his could support his excellent glove with at least league-average hitting after last season’s breakthrough. Jose Lopez, just 26, had hit .297 and 25 home runs in consecutive seasons. It wasn’t impossible that heading into his peak years, he might do both at once, solving the problem of his resistance to taking a walk. Instead, both Gutierrez and Lopez crashed and burned, the former teasing with a .326/.378/.483 April, but hitting only .235/.298/.349 since.

Even if those hopes were excusable, there were so many that were not. Catcher was simply never addressed—no backstop of major-league hitting ability would be on the roster. First baseman Casey Kotchman, acquired from the Red Sox for Bill Hall, was a career-long disappointment even before a 2010 seasons which should permanently end his aspirations to starting. Free agent signee Chone Figgins was speedy and patient, but not an impact hitter at any point in his career. Another free agent signing, Eric Byrnes, had hit .218/.271/.382 over nearly 500 plate appearances over 2008 and 2009. Shortstop Jack Wilson is of long standing one of the worst hitters in baseball. In short, even had all the wishes spent on Bradley, Griffey, Figgins, and the rest come true, this offense still would likely have failed to carry the pitching.

In an extraordinary turn of events, the Mariners who went from 101 losses in 2008 to a very promising 85-77 in 2009, gave back all their progress of last year. You could get whiplash trying to follow that kind of U-turn. But no, the Mariners haven’t fouled up from within, they’re under attack from without. Funny thing about the media, the sports media in particular. Because the bottom line in sports is so basic—wins and losses, runs scored, batters struck out—it can’t really make things up about a team’s performance and expect to get away with it. A political commentator can say that the president is a Muslim or wasn’t born here and some people will believe him despite a general lack of evidence, but a sports commentator can’t say that Albert Pujols is hitting .211 and having a miserable season when he’s really hitting .311 and leading the league in home runs. He can’t say that Mariners are winning when they’re losing.

If the Mariners were winning, they would be getting the coverage they think they deserve. To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, since they’re losing, they’re getting the coverage they need instead of the coverage they want. With little room to invent (most of the creativity goes into explaining what sportswriters “know” about the effects of PED usage), journalists must report the reality of the Mariners, and that reality is that they stink on ice. Howard Lincoln, with his manic usage of exclamation points, might have wanted to buck up his employees, but instead he conveyed nothing more than a man as detached from the truth of his team as the Mariners are from winning baseball.

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

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

BP Comment Quick Links

PSIllini

"Because the bottom line in sports is so basic—wins and losses, runs scored, batters struck out—it can’t really make things up about a team’s performance and expect to get away with it."

Obviously you didn't read this gem from espn.com this morning (http://espn.go.com/mlb/baseballtonight). I love the idea that the Rays (who are 3rd in the majors in runs scored) are in trouble because they have a low team batting average. The author also tries to argue that the Rays pitching isn't good because they have only 2 outstanding starting pitchers and 2 outstanding relievers.

Sep 10, 2010 09:08 AM
rating: 0
 
krissbeth

Don't forget the Donovan McNabb deniers: http://www.footballoutsiders.com/walkthrough/2010/walkthrough-mcnabb-deniers

Sep 10, 2010 14:34 PM
rating: -1
 
hyprvypr

While some of the moves by the Mariner's have come under heavy critisim, and some of them very rightly so(building a lineup without any projected above-average 'power bat'), the majority of moves made by Jack Z and crew have been backed by baseball 'experts' and media alike for the majority of the preceding twelve months. Even BP had the M's projected for a winning season based on the pieces gathered in the off-season.

Gm's cannot account of players of substancial previous offensive value basically turning into Willie Bloomquist(Chone Figgins), nor could they expect almost the entirely lineup to regress offensively(F.Gutierrez, Lopez, in which regress is too weak a word, no catcher offensive growth, a tragedy from Griffey, etc.). Monday morning quarterbacking a situation few saw coming isn't fair either but...


They SHOULD be admitting that things didn't work and that they are going 'back to the drawing board' this off-season and see what can be fixed.

3 easy moves, right off the bat:
*Re-sign Russell Branyan on the cheap, leave him at 1B and enjoy the .250/.330/.500 season with decent defense

*Sign Adam Dunn, stick him at DH with occasional spot starts in LF and 1B, enjoy the .250/.370/.500

*Make third-base a four-way competitive race between Lopez, Figgins, Liddi and Tuiassipoppo with either Lopez or Figgins returning to 2B.

It doesn't make for a great team, but a lineup of:

Suzuki
Figgins
Dunn
Gutierrez
Branyan
Lopez/Liddi
Saunders
Jack Wilson
Moore/C

would at least provide more runs then the sorry-looking, sub-.300 obp, pray for 4 runs offense and with the current solid pitching should make for a competetive team...


Also, I like Jack Z, but there's no reason another dedicated baseball mind, even a reporter, couldn't step in and do a feasable job. The GM job of a baseball club is more about experience, knowledge and opportunity then genius sabermetric thinking and knowing the right people.

Sep 10, 2010 09:22 AM
rating: 4
 
Richie

I'm a bit on Lincoln's side on this one.

It was an internal email, not a public release. Bucking up your employees via 'us vs. them' is a long-used tactic. I personally don't care for it, but so what about that aspect of it. And I don't see anything in that email that suggests 'our win-loss record is the press' fault, not ours'.

Oh, and sportswriters and everyone else knows that PED use helps you build strength and also shortens recovery time, such that you can play sooner and better than the poor schleps who aren't shrinking their testicles.

I think I've figured this out. You guys had a meeting, and you volunteered to keep the Sheehanites portion of the customer base happy. By telling them how much smarter they are than some of those jerks actually running baseball teams.

Sep 10, 2010 09:24 AM
rating: 4
 
thegeneral13

I would click the '+' all day if it counted.

Sep 10, 2010 11:23 AM
rating: -2
 
cjslawyer

Agreed.

I think he has a point that the team's moves shouldn't be influenced by the media.

Sep 10, 2010 11:31 AM
rating: -2
 
Shaun P.
(676)

I'm not touching the PED thing with a ten foot pole, though I'm tempted. Its not really relevant, and Communism was just a red herring, after all.

I don't see how bashing a bunch of "them" (sportswriters and bloggers) makes anyone's morale better for more than a couple of seconds. If you've got to put someone else down to feel better about yourself, the problem isn't the someone else, its the person staring back at you from the mirror.

This was stupid. Steven pointed out why, and unlike Lincoln ("If it seems to you like the local media is going out of its way to trash the Mariners, well, you're right, they are!"), used facts to back up his points. If that's "volunteering to keep the Sheehanites portion of the customer base happy", then I hope BP never stops keeping the Sheehanites portion of the customer base happy.

Sep 10, 2010 11:42 AM
rating: 6
 
IronPrawn

I just want to know if I'm a Sheehanite or not...

Sep 10, 2010 11:47 AM
rating: 2
 
Lou Doench

I'm proud to be an unapologetic Sheehanite!

Sep 11, 2010 08:56 AM
rating: 2
 
awayish

steve was using the memo as a jumping off point to discuss the failings of the mariner season. you are talking as if steve took the memo more seriously than you did, which is most likely not the case.

Sep 12, 2010 06:26 AM
rating: 2
 
Matt Kory

Ah, whadaya'll know? Yer just a bunch of bloggers!

Sep 10, 2010 09:42 AM
rating: 1
 
dianagram

Unlike the owner of a certain pro basketball team, at least Mr. Lincoln didn't type this up in Comic Sans.

Sep 10, 2010 10:41 AM
rating: 6
 
Matt Kory

No, but he does seem to have a predilection for exclamation points.

Sep 10, 2010 12:49 PM
rating: 0
 
jlefty

One terrible move that goes under the radar is the Morrow vs League trade of the Brandon's. I understood the logic of wanting to shore up your bullpen and try to win this year, but I think you have to see Morrow as the more valuable asset going forward and at least capable of putting up similar numbers to league in the bullpen this year.

Sep 10, 2010 11:34 AM
rating: 2
 
HeavyHitter

Jack Z had a plan, which he boldly executed. This is all on the players. Kotchman got his full shot, which he had never been given before, and he blew it. Figgins was reasonably expected to score 100 runs. Etc., etc. That said, Jack Z blew it in the Lee trade. He should have taken the Yankees' offer. Montero is Edgar Martinez with more power, and Lueke will never be accepted by the fans.

Sep 10, 2010 12:30 PM
rating: 2
 
hyprvypr

Of course it's a bit premature to claim that he's even made a bad selection here. If Smoak had failed outright for 3-4 years and Montero was Longoria at 1B you could come to that conclusion. At this point there is still zero evidence that Montero is going to have a better offensive career then Smoak - and one thing is certain that Smoak is a better defender. This trade was made two months ago - I think we can relax a bit here and give it a couple years.

If you asked me today, sure I'd say I want Montero over Smoak but that's a luxury I have that Jack Z didn't. Ask me in two years.

Sep 10, 2010 15:30 PM
rating: 1
 
Brian Cartwright

MLEs from my Oliver projections


Montero Smoak
Age BA OB SA wOBA BA OB SA wOBA
18 277 317 394 314
19 299 343 492 359 241 328 423 336
20 264 321 453 335 225 346 376 327
21 273 386 448 370
22 249 354 355 325
23 217 313 362 303


Average MLB wOBA for catcher is 312, for 1b 357

At age 19 and 20, Montero already has MLEs solidly above average for a MLB catcher, although below average for 1b. However, he still has at least four years of growth expected out of him.

Smoak at age 23 in 2010 is just about out of growth, and his MLEs have been above MLB average for 1b once in five years, the other four scraping by at near or below replacement.

Sep 11, 2010 11:00 AM
rating: 2
 
wnalyd

If Lueke pitches well, I think the fans will be willing to overlook the past transgressions.

Of course, given the history of the M's, he'll get dumped in the offseason for pocket lint and then proceed to have a very successful career for someone else, leading everyone who complained about "trading for the rapist" to bitch they "traded an All-Star for nothing."

Sep 11, 2010 19:18 PM
rating: 2
 
WaldoInSC

How was Fig "reasonably expected to score 100 runs" if there's no one hitting behind him? Runs is a team event.

Sep 12, 2010 17:57 PM
rating: 4
 
bflaff1

I still remember getting offended by a "This Week in Quotes" item from around midseason where Jack Z was quoted saying something like, "Well, it's unfortunate that there was so much hype around this team, but I never believed it." Yeah, like you signed Cliff Lee to get you to .500. I don't think the org deserves to walk around in sackcloth begging for forgiveness, but its reluctance to publicly acknowledge its responsibility for a disaster probably makes people more inclined to treat them harshly.

That said, while the 'it's the media's fault' is a pitiful brew, I get the sense that Lincoln was mostly just trying to maintain morale and assure everyone that he wasn't going to start mass firing.

Sep 10, 2010 14:08 PM
rating: 1
 
wnalyd

Clearly Jack Z didn't need to make the Lee deal, but sometimes stuff like that falls in your lap. If Minaya is saying hey, I'm going to trade for Lee, do you say, no, we don't want in?

They traded what most of us felt weren't the best prospects in the system for half a year of Lee, then dealt him for Smoak, Beavan, and the rapist. One of those prospects the M's dumped on Philly, Tyson Gillies, was busted for coke possession.

In the end, it was a trade he was offered in on, and the Phillies were willing to do it for second-line prospects in the Mariners system. It's hard to say no to that.

Sep 11, 2010 19:14 PM
rating: 1
 
JimmyJack

Lincoln & Armstrong are well past the point of needing to be run out of town on a rail.

I still believe in JackZ.

Sep 10, 2010 17:13 PM
rating: 0
 
cfinberg

61-101 to 85-77 to 62-100 ain't a U-turn, but rather a chicane:

http://www.streetfilms.org/chicane-animated-traffic-calming/

However, this type of chicanery historically results in upset fans and not calm traffic.

Sep 12, 2010 21:59 PM
rating: 0
 
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