The king is dead*, long live the king!
Oh Billy Beane, some of the sheen (it rhymes!) has certainly been dulled by three losing seasons. As a reflective Angel fan a curious thing has happened recently. Statistical fawn-dom has seamlessly passed from one emperor (Billy Beane) to another (Jack Zduriencik). There are many questions I want to ask about the decade gone – and hope a better blogger or sportswriter than myself will answer – such as, was Moneyball a symptom of the steroid era? Would Moneyball be written about Billy Beane (and his three years of sub .500 final standings) today? Sky Andrecheck posted an interesting article on Thursday if you’re into such topics. In any case you do have to wonder what Theo Epstein thinks of all of this torch passing, as the most successful member of the old SABR four (Ricciardi, Beane, DePodesta, Epstein), not to be confused with the Oceanic five (I’m very excited about the final season of Lost...).
*Not really, Beane actually has had a pretty good 2010 offseason...
So we are now being told that defense and base running are the new under-valued commodities*, replacing on base percentage. Wait… is this the same base running and defense that Mike Scioscia has preached for the past decade? Quiet snarky voice in my head, we’re talking about a different defense, called UZR. Who knows, maybe Michael Lewis will write Moneyball 2: Attack of Zduriencik. Another book for Joe Morgan to get worked up about, and a sequel for Brad Pitt to star in (I wonder who would play Jack Z though… Michael Chicklis? It would fit his bad-ass reputation… Jack "the road to justice is twisted" Zduriencik). As the Mariners are the new darlings among AL West predictors, I want to take a look (and a critical swipe) at our competition. So how have Seattle improved? How good are the Mariners actually? Here is my humble narrative of the key issues facing Seattle in 2010 (as a counter to the deluge of projections of how the Angels have got worse or significantly worse depending on who or where you read).
*Phew! Luckily the baseball and sabermetric community has not managed (yet, of course) to put a value to the Angels greatest under-valued asset. Once people realize we have only managed to win via pure luck we will be doomed to finish in 4th place. Once the value of pure luck goes up, we're gonna have to actually look at signing good players. Rather than lucky ones.
This is a biased Angels fan account on the current state of the Mariners and on what needs to happen for them to win the AL West:
- I take great joy in saying this. Seattle were 10 wins better than their Pythagorean projection (75-87) in 2009. No, really. For a while I thought it was only us that managed to outperform our Pythagorean W-L standing. So let me just say what has been said about us regularly for the past decade: Seattle were lucky last year, and they inevitably will regress. Wow. That felt good. Sweet, sweet revenge.
- The Mariners had two (we had five) players post an OPS over .800 in 2009. One has left. He also happened to be the one that hit 31 HR and 76 RBI, posting a line of .251/.347/.520. Of course I’m talking about Russell Branyan. They replaced him with former Angel, Casey Kotchman. Kotchman showed promise in 2007 but stalled for the Angels in 2008* before disappointing for the Braves (and never getting a chance with the Red Sox). Where once we expected a .300+ batting average and 20+ homers, reality produced a .290 hitter with 15 homer power. He is a great defender though… unfortunately it’s at the least important defensive position in baseball (and easiest to master if Kendry Morales’ rise is any judge). Kotchman needs a career year to offer the same production or WAR as Branyan did last year. That my friends, is statistical fact.
*A curious observation: perception sees Kotchman in 2010 as an under valued asset, one that was picked up cheaply by Jack Z. Well, we got maximum value out of Casey by selling high in 2008 in a trade for Mark Teixeira (that yielded solid production for half a season and 2 draft picks) yet Tony Reagins is often lost in the jostling for the great roster moves award.
- Talking about career years, Franklin Gutierrez just had one. If we play the projection card (it’s like asking for help from Spiderman, ‘you only get one’) he outperformed his CHONE projections last year, and is expected to regress according to his 2010 CHONE projections (they are marginally better than his 2009 projections). But I don’t care too much for projections. I only bring it up because the same argument gets used against Erick Aybar and Kendry Morales all the time. The Mariners better hope his UZR defensive ratings hold steady, as this is where his WAR value is mainly derived from. Ahh, variable and unpredictable stats used to generate more variable and unpredictable stats, which then go form the basis for future predictions. If baseball is Wall Street, the projectors are the risk analysis traders*…
*Taking the analogy to its logical (and very illogical) conclusion the Angels winning seasons must be the economic crash that no one sees coming! Ha.
- You know whom the Angels lost this year? John Lackey and his 11 wins, 3.83 ERA and 176 innings (7.09 K/9, 2.96 K/BB, 3.73 FiP). You know whom the Mariners lost this year? Jerrick Bedardburn. Who?! Only the pitcher who produced this line: 13 wins, 2.73 ERA and 216 innings. Wow. Luckily the Mariners have signed Cliff Lee and traded for Ian Snell (he of the more walks then strikeouts 39BB to 37SO) to replace Bedardburn. Luckily we signed Joel Pineiro and traded for Scott Kazmir… oh you get the idea. Lee replaces Bedardburn and the Mariners hope that Ian Snell isn’t the reincarnation of Carlos Silva (he of the more walks than strikeouts 11BB to 10SO. Ha! Statistical irony, love it).
- What do you do when you lose a team icon and one of the best defensive 3B of the past decade in Adrian Beltre? You replace him with Chone Figgins (which has funnily been Scioscia’s answer to any question following an injury to an Angel from 2002-2009: Garret Anderson injured you say? Replace him with Figgins!). A very good move. I don’t really see this backfiring in 2010 (2013 and 2014 is a different matter). Figgins has better plate awareness and speed than Beltre. Figgins is inferior on defense and slugging (assuming Beltre bounces back from a horrendous hitting 2009). The only issue I would have is that Seattle could probably do with more slugging with the loss/addition of Branyan/Kotchman. Oh, but they have added a slugger…
- Milton F’ing Bradley. How many times must Lou Piniella have said that over the past year? Scratch that, how many managers have not said that when dealing with Bradley. Well, Milton Bradley, your time has come. You are the middle of the order bat in the heart of the Seattle line-up. Forget your struggles last year, you are the man. Wonder how that will screw with his head… will he step up? God knows. Seriously. Some years he gets injured, most years he causes trouble. Some years he hits very well (see 2008 as a Texas Ranger), others he struggles to achieve a .280 average and 15 homeruns. What we do know is that he steps in to replace Ken Griffey as the primary DH and will face the bulk of high leverage situations this year. Think 2-on with 2-out… Project away gentleman!
- Random stat alert! SS Jack Wilson career OBP is .002 less than SS Erick Aybar’s AVG of .312 for 2009. Totally irrelevant, but I got bored looking at Jack Wilson’s numbers. Real bored.
- So fielding. The Mariners are going to be awesome at it. Does fantastic defense lead to titles and championships? Is there a comparable team in baseball history? Can the Mariners reinvent the wheel or will they hit sufficiently to win enough games. We’ve been a solid fielding side since 2002, however the times when we have finished outside of 1st in the division we either didn’t pitch well or hit well. I want some evidence before the coronation that the defensive improvements of the Mariners correlate to more than just picking up undervalued assets and actually correlate to winning (not WAR but wins, as unfashionable as that may sound). The Red Sox are focusing on fielding but at least Mike Cameron, Marco Scuturo, Adrian Beltre et al can hit. The lack of offensive upside (outside of Milton Bradley) should be worrying to Mariners fans. We’ve spread our offensive risks. The Mariners haven’t.
What does this all mean? Well, I believe the Mariners have improved. It will be a tighter and more exciting division for sure. I do think the Angels are still better (but I guess I would say that, wouldn't I?). I hope that the emphasis league-wide on defense will lead to more baseball excitement. I will have a chuckle looking at the Angels 2007 corner infield when the Mariners take to the diamond. So want a projection? I think I’ll just leave that to the experts. They usually get it right. Right? Ok, ok. I’ll give you one prediction. See the Angels PECOTA projection*. Then add ten. I call it the PECOTA +10 principle.
Only applicable to the Angels.
*In many ways, the most surprising thing about the recent PECOTA projections is not that the Angels are projected to finish last and with the third lowest total of wins in the AL, but that the Mariners aren’t projected at the top as clear favourites for the AL West. As Angel fans we should be used to being overlooked and under-projected by now.