Reason for Hope
If you’ve read the comments on the threads where we discuss roster construction for 2006, you’ve almost certainly seen a comment or twenty that read something like this:
“2006 is a lost cause. The M’s should be building for 2007 and 2008, and anyone who doesn’t fit into those teams shouldn’t be bothered with.”
Or, maybe, you’ve seen the cousin of that comment:
“This team has no chance to contend. Build for the future!”
There are a lot of people out there who think that way. The team was terrible in 2004, and was terrible in 2005, so, naturally, they’ll be terrible in 2006. It’s a bad assumption. The list of teams that improve dramatically from one season to the next is extensive:
The 1996 Giants went 68-94. The 1997 Giants went 90-72.
The 1998 Diamondbacks went 65-97. The 1999 Diamondbacks went 100-62.
The 1999 Cardinals went 75-86. The 2000 Cardinals went 95-67.
The 2000 Twins went 69-93. The 2001 Twins went 85-77.
The 2000 Phillies went 65-97. The 2001 Phillies went 86-76.
The 2001 Angels went 75-87. The 2002 Angels went 99-63 and won the World Series.
The 2003 Angels went 77-85. The 2004 Angels went 92-70.
The 2003 Padres went 64-98. The 2004 Padres went 87-75.
The 2003 Rangers went 71-91. The 2004 Rangers went 89-73.
The 2004 White Sox went 83-79. The 2005 White Sox went 99-63 and won the World Series.
Massive leaps forward, adding 15-30 wins, just are not rare. They happen every year. A team is not bound by its previous seasons performance. Say that to yourself again. A team is not bound by its previous seasons performance.
Okay, so, eliminate everything you think about the Mariners from your mind. The last two and a half frustrating seasons, Beltre chasing that slider low-and-away, Putz giving out 9th inning homers like candy, hearing “ladies and gentleman, now pitching, Matt Thornton”, get rid of all of it. Take the preconceived ideas of what this team needs and throw them out the window. Let’s take a look at what the 2006 Mariners should actually be expected to do.
One of the neat little things I’ve discovered recently that I’m shocked I didn’t know earlier is that on a team basis, runs scored are basically equal to team OPS. Seriously, it’s that simple. If you have a .750 OPS, you’ll score somewhere in the neighborhood of 750 runs. It’s not exactly 1:1 (the actual factor for 2005 was 99.2), but it’s darn close. How close? Last year, the M’s had a .703 OPS and scored 699 runs. That’s pinpoint accuracy from what should be a rough tool. And, it’s right for every team in baseball within 10 percent. The other factors besides OPS that go into run scoring (baserunning, clutch hitting, random luck) account for 10 percent variance on either side. So, this hypothetical .750 OPS team would be expected to score 750 runs, with the actual range being 675-825. We think they’ll score around 750, but we know they won’t score less than 675 or more than 825. It might seem like a big range, but dealing with realms of possibility rather than trying to predict what will happen is a much better way to get an actual view of likely outcomes.
So, when building a projection for the 2006 Mariners offense, all we really need to do is come up with team OPS and we’ll get ourselves pretty darn close to what we should expect for runs scored with a built in range of forseeable outcomes. No need for park factors, run-to-win conversions, or replacement level calculations necessary.
Okay, so let’s get to it. We’ll use the line-up I constructed in my offseason plan post. Essentially, the additions I make to the current offensive roster are considered minor moves. I’m adding Kenji Jojima at catcher, Jacque Jones in left field, and Wes Helms to the bench, then leaving everyone else where they are. No Big Bat needed. How does the offense fare?
Pos Player PA 06 OPS 05 OPS C Jojima 400 0.750 0.000 1B Sexson 600 0.900 0.910 2B Lopez 550 0.720 0.661 3B Beltre 650 0.800 0.716 SS B'court 550 0.675 0.666 LF Jones 500 0.800 0.757 CF Reed 600 0.750 0.675 RF Suzuki 700 0.850 0.786 DH Ibanez 650 0.750 0.792 C Yorvit 150 0.650 0.630 IF Helms 200 0.800 0.814 IF Willie 150 0.650 0.619 OF Morse 150 0.700 0.718 OF Bohn 150 0.650 0.000 Team 6000 0.770
Some people may quibble with some of the projections, but honestly, I feel like I took the conservative side overall. Reed and Lopez could easily whoop their projections. Beltre’s career OPS is .780, so asking for an .800 OPS in his age 27 season isn’t exactly going out on a limb. And, after all, this is approximations. We’re not dealing in specifics. If you want to lower Beltre’s OPS back down to .720, assuming no improvement at all from his 2005 season, it drags the team OPS all the way down to .761. Same general range, overall.
Take a look at that. With just two mid-level offensive acquisitions and a moderately effective pinch-hitter, while returning the rest of the roster, you’re looking at a team that should score around 770 runs while playing half their games in Safeco Field. That’s an above average offense, folks. The White Sox scored 741 runs. The Indians scored 790. The Angels scored 761 and the A’s scored 772. 770 runs is more than enough to contend.
Even the most pessimistic projections for that line-up brings you in at the .750 OPS range. Ignore the myth of the needed “Big Bat”. It’s just not true. The M’s, with what they have on hand, replacing the historical ineptitude of last season’s hackers with even just adequate hitters, will have an offense that averages around 4.75 runs per game.
Run scoring is only half the battle, though. Unfortunately, the team OPS trick doesn’t work as well with runs allowed. The correlation between OPS and runs allowed is just as high, but the variance is much larger, especially on the negative side. The Royals allowed opponents to have an .825 OPS, but gave up 965 runs, 17 percent away from the “expected” performance level. Tampa and Texas were similar. Very few teams actually came close to their “projected” runs allowed based on their OPS. The good pitching teams beat the projection by a significant margin, and the bad pitching teams underperformed it by even more significant margins. So, we have to be a little more tempered with our predictions here as it relates to runs prevented. But, we can say that teams that allow low OPS numbers often are among the best pitching staffs in the league.
In 2005, The M’s were abysmal at run prevention last year, thanks to a pitching rotation that was just awful. Painfully bad. Can an entire rotation be salvaged in one offseason? Let’s go to the tape, again, using the plan I presented a few weeks ago, which adds A.J. Burnett, Esteban Loaiza, and Kevin Brown to the staff.
Pos Player PA 06 OPS 05 OPS SP1 Felix 900 0.600 0.546 SP2 Burnett 900 0.650 0.643 SP3 Loaiza 900 0.750 0.703 SP4 Pineiro 800 0.800 0.808 SP5 Moyer 700 0.800 0.772 SP6 Brown 300 0.750 0.840 CL Eddie 250 0.700 0.680 Setup Soriano 300 0.650 0.563 Setup Sherill 300 0.650 0.635 Setup Putz 250 0.700 0.710 Relief Mateo 200 0.750 0.698 Relief Atch 200 0.700 0.719 Team 6000 0.709
Talk about taking the negative side; this is probably the most pessimistic projection for this pitching staff you could come up with that doesn’t include massive injuries. I factor in pretty heavy negative regressions for two of the top three starters, assume little improvement from Pineiro, more decline from Moyer, and more injury issues for Brown. Pitching is so volatile that I’d rather err on the side of caution and be pleasantly surprised. But this staff is almost certainly more talented than I’m giving them credit for here.
Even using mostly conservative projections (the Soriano one is probably the most optimistic), the team’s .709 OPS allowed would have ranked fourth in the American League this year, behind only Oakland, Cleveland, and the White Sox. In fact, the vaunted White Sox, the World Champions, posted a .707 OPS allowed, basically identical to what we’d project the reshaped M’s to give up.
Again, pitching is volatile. If you take Felix out of the rotation and replace him with a Triple-A arm, you lose a ton. If they acquire Morris instead of Burnett, again, you take a big hit. So I’m not as certain that the pitching staff that I assembled would be as good as the projection as I am with the hitters. However, if we went with what the projections, we’d be looking at about an 87-94 win team based on their runs scored and allowed.
87 to 94 wins. A top 5 pitching staff and a league average offense (after adjusting for Safeco, the offense would probably be the true strength of the team). And, with the exception of a few role players, it’s still a young team on its way up.
I know its tempting to be pessimistic after watching the M’s run out terrible teams for the past 400 games. But, there’s no reason to let that cloud our judgment. The next M’s team, with some intelligent tweaks, are a contender next year.