Track Records

July 27, 2007 · Filed Under Mariners · 97 Comments 

Friendly Reminder – I’ll be on KJR with the Groz at 2:20 this afternoon. I’ll try to resist the urge to just yell Adam Jones’ name repeatedly for eight minutes.

One of the main things you’ll hear over the next few days, during the run-up to the trade deadline, is that so-and-so has a track record of success. They’re veterans, they’re proven commodities, and they’ve shown that they can perform in the major leagues before. These statements will often be made to mask the fact that there’s a reason the other team was willing to trade you the guy in the first place.

The Mariners, probably more than almost any other team in baseball, love track records. Bill Bavasi is fond of saying “Managers hate kids. Young players get managers fired.” This pro-veteran belief is widespread in baseball, but even more so in Seattle. Guys with track records hold their perceived value for a long time, often far beyond the point of having actual skills to contribute.

This is especially true with pitchers. If a pitcher has a successful season, especially as a starter or a closer, he inherits a label that takes all kinds of work to remove. If he has two successful seasons, he’s essentially guaranteed to pitch until his arm falls off. Teams will always be willing to take a chance on guys with track records.

You can probably guess where I stand on the projection value of a track record in many cases. As I laid out in the Evaluating Pitcher Talent post, pitching success can often have very little to do with repeatable skills and an awful lot to do with factors beyond the pitcher’s control. However, it is still completely in vogue for teams to acquire players simply because they’ve succeeded before, ignoring their current skill levels in projecting what they’ll do going forward.

So, despite the fact that I’m preaching to the choir, I figured I’d make a point about how well track records predicted pitching success in the AL in 2007 so far. What follows is a list of starting pitchers in the American League that have pitched at least 50 innings, their ERA+, their xFIP, and how they came to be members of their current team. This list is sorted by ERA+ (park adjusted ERA where 100 is average) so that those of you who still think I’m wrong about how to evaluate pitchers can have one less thing to complain about. On to the list.

1. Lenny Dinardo, 183 ERA+, 4.47 xFIP, Claimed on Waivers
2. Dan Haren, 183 ERA+, 4.15 xFIP, Acquired as minor leaguer in trade for Mark Mulder
3. Jeremy Guthrie, 152 ERA+, 4.05 xFIP, Claimed on Waivers
4. Johan Santana, 152 ERA+, 3.72 xFIP, Rule 5 selection
5. Kelvim Escobar, 148 ERA+, 4.14 xFIP, Mid-Tier Free Agent Signing
6. Erik Bedard, 144 ERA+, 3.02 xFIP, Developed by Team
7. Mark Buehrle, 141 ERA+, 4.41 xFIP, Developed by Team
8. Josh Beckett, 140 ERA+, 3.53 xFIP, Aquired in trade for Hanley Ramirez
9. Fausto Carmona, 133 ERA+, 3.98 xFIP, Developed by Team
10. John Lackey, 132 ERA+, 4.19 xFIP, Developed by Team
11. Jered Weaver, 131 ERA+, 4.84 xFIP, Developed by Team
12. Justin Verlander, 127 ERA+, 4.35 xFIP, Developed by Team
13. Javier Vazquez, 123 ERA+, 3.90 xFIP, Acquired in trade for for Chris Young
14. Chien-Ming Wang, 122 ERA+, 4.23 xFIP, Developed by Team
15. Brian Bannister, 122 ERA+, 5.03 xFIP, Acquired as minor leaguer in trade for Ambiorex Burgos
16. Gil Meche, 122 ERA+, 4.12 xFIP, Mid-Tier Free Agent Signing
17. Chad Gaudin, 121 ERA+, 4.79 xFIP, Acquired as minor leaguer in trade for Dustin Majewski
18. Daisuke Matsuzaka, 121 ERA+, 4.18 xFIP, Top-Tier Free Agent Signing
19. Joe Blanton, 120 ERA+, 4.07 xFIP, Developed by Team
20. C.C. Sabathia, 119 ERA+, 3.61 xFIP, Developed by Team
21. Shaun Marcum, 119 ERA+, 4.37 xFIP, Developed by Team
22. Jeremy Bonderman, 118 ERA+, 3.59 xFIP, Acquired as minor leaguer in trade for Jeff Weaver
23. Roger Clemens, 117 ERA+, 4.17 xFIP, Top-Tier Free Agent Signing
24. Andrew Miller, 115 ERA+, 4.84 xFIP, Developed by Team
25. Roy Halladay, 111 ERA+, 3.95 xFIP, Developed by Team
26. Scott Kazmir, 110 ERA+, 4.37 xFIP, Acquired as minor leaguer in trade for Victor Zambrano
27. Jon Garland, 110 ERA+, 5.01 xFIP, Acquired as minor leaguer in trade for Matt Karchner
28. Curt Schilling, 109 ERA+, 4.29 xFIP, Acquired in trade for Casey Fossum, J. de la Rosa, and Brandon Lyon
29. A.J. Burnett, 107 ERA+, 3.74 xFIP, Top-Tier Free Agent Signing
30. Felix Herandez, 106 ERA+, 3.19 xFIP, Developed by Team

Breaking it down by category:

Developed by Team: 13
Acquired as minor leaguer in trade: 6
Top-Tier Free Agent Signing: 3
Acquired as major leaguer in trade: 3
Mid-Tier Free Agent Signing: 2
Claimed on Waivers: 2
Rule 5 Selection: 1

Take a look at this list. A grand total of six of them were considered upper echelon established pitchers at the time they were acquired and have pitched at a level consistent with their track record. An equal number of them were acquired in a move that cost the organization nothing of value – a $25,000 waiver claim, a $50,000 rule 5 fee, or a minor trade for a spare part. These guys – Lenny Dinardo, Jeremy Guthrie, Chad Gaudin, Brian Bannister, Jon Garland, and some guy named Johan Santana – all came from the pool of talent that we often refer to as freely available talent. These guys cost essentially nothing, and they had no track record of success when they were acquired.

Beyond that, over half of the list, 16 of the 30, were either developed internally or were acquired as somewhat highly though of minor league pitchers. They also had no track record of major league success when they were acquired.

Add it all up, and you’ve got 22 of the 30 guys on this list who were acquired without a major league track record. Two of the top 3 were claimed on waivers within the past year! Only 1 of the top 10 was acquired in a trade as an established major league pitcher, and he cost his team Hanley Ramirez in the process.

This isn’t anything of an in depth study, but it does make one point abundantly clear – the pool of potential pitchers with which to find a quality starter is not limited to guys who have a track record of being a quality starter. Teams who pigeonhole themselves into believing that the way to build a successful pitching staff is by acquiring successful pitchers are ignoring a massive populous of pitchers that could help them, and they’re usually dooming their franchises to making some terrible trades and giving out horrible free agent contracts in the process.

The Mariners are shopping for an arm and the list of potential available pitchers being discussed are guys like Jose Contreras, Matt Morris, Jon Garland, and the pipe dream is Dontrelle Willis. Why? Because they all have track records.

I’m guessing the A’s are quite happy with the fact that their entire freaking rotation is on the above list, and not one of them had a track record when they were acquired.

Baseball needs to wake up. Chasing past success is a great way to become the Pittsburgh Pirates. Forget proven veterans – go find guys with talent and acquire them. If you need a name to push you in the right direction, call the Devil Rays about J.P. Howell. He’ll cost a fraction of what the big names are going to command and he’s every bit as good.

What Now?

July 27, 2007 · Filed Under Mariners · 104 Comments 

Sitting here after a seventh consecutive loss, I don’t know what to write. It isn’t for lack of topics, but instead, I’m wondering what the point is. We’ve talked the roster to death. We’ve talked about the poor job of managing the bullpen that John McLaren has done the past week. We’ve talked about the line-ups that don’t make any sense. We’ve talked about the offense, the pitching, and the defense. We’ve talked about ways to improve the team for a playoff run. And here we are, watching the team’s playoff hopes slip away, and nothing changes.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, maybe we’re the ones who need mental help. We all badly want the Mariners to win, to be successful, and to field a team we can be proud of and root for. But who are we kidding? This isn’t that team. Maybe it could be if things were different, but things aren’t different. Reality is staring us in the face, and it’s a decent but flawed ballclub with no signs of real improvement on the horizon.

More than anything else, I’m amazed at what this team has done to my psyche. For most fans of contending teams, the trade deadline is one of the more exciting times of the year – it gives you a chance to dream, to wonder what if, and to think of how the new guy you may acquire will improve your chances in October. I’m not excited. I’m petrified. I just want it to be August 1st already, knowing that the team hasn’t made another disastrously bad decision based on their inability to correctly evaluate major league talent.

I could sit here and hope that the team will make the necessary moves to improve the team. I could sit here and hope that they won’t make an ill-advised trade for someone who had some modicum of success several years ago. I could sit here and hope that the team will end this losing streak and return with a vengence, blowing through the A’s and Angels the next week.

But it wouldn’t really be hope. It would be a wish, because this team hasn’t given me any reason to believe in them.

Game 100, A’s at Mariners

July 26, 2007 · Filed Under Mariners · 368 Comments 

Haren vs Weaver, 7:05 pm.

I don’t have it in me to root for this team tonight. Six straight losses, return of the ridiculous line-up, Ibanez still in left, obvious moves to help the team still not made. Whatever.

Outfield Defense

July 26, 2007 · Filed Under Mariners · 180 Comments 

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that one of my pet projects is the value of outfield defense, especially as it relates to the Mariners. During his time in Seattle, I continually wrote long treatises on the value of Mike Cameron’s defense to the Mariners, and did a bunch of work showing just how tremendously valuable the M’s outfield alignment of Winn-Cameron-Ichiro was during the 2003 season.

That year, the M’s essentially ran an outfield alignment with a mediocre center fielder playing left field, a great center fielder playing center field, and a good center fielder playing right field. They converted long fly balls into outs instead of doubles, and their range also helped them cut balls off in the gaps and keep hitters to singles instead of taking the extra base. Over the course of the season, the gloves of the M’s outfielders saved approximately 40 runs above what an average outfield defense would have allowed. 40 runs!

If you add 40 runs back to the 2003 Mariners earned runs total, their team ERA for the season goes from 3.76 to 4.01, and instead of going 93-69, the team would have gone something like 89-73. The Winn-Cameron-Ichiro group added approximately four wins to the Mariners ledger simply by gobbling up fly balls hit into the outfield.

The Mariners, however, failed to understand what was happening before their very eyes. They non-tendered Mike Cameron (a staggeringly bad decision), moved Randy Winn to center field, and imported Raul Ibanez from Kansas City to act as an offensive upgrade while admittedly sacrificing some defense, but still expected their contact pitching staff to duplicate the results from their successful 2003 season. It didn’t happen.

Ryan Franklin’s ERA rose from 3.57 to 4.90. Jamie Moyer’s went from 3.27 to 5.21. Joel Pineiro went from 3.78 to 4.67. Shigetoshi Hasegawa went from 1.48 to 5.16. Julio Mateo went from 3.15 to 4.68. And the team went from 93 wins to 63 wins.

Now, not all of that regression was due to the outfield defense. Franklin and Hasegawa were going to get worse no matter who was playing defense behind them – they had flukey years that simply weren’t sustainable, and it was obvious before the season started that expecting a repeat was just going to lead to disappointment. But the Mariners failed to recognize the strong connection between the performance of their pitchers and the abilities of the defenders in the outfield.

It’s been 3 1/2 years, and the Mariners still fail to recognize the strong connection betwen the performance of their pitchers and the abilities of the defenders in the outfield. They’re still asking Raul Ibanez to cover the largest left field area in the American League despite the fact that he runs like an 84-year-old grandfather looking for his life alert button. They’re discussing the idea of giving Jose Guillen a contract extension despite the fact that his continuing ankle and leg problems have eroded a lot of his ability to cover ground in right field. They have one very good defensive outfielder flanked by a disaster and a problem. And it’s killing them.

Let’s take a look at some numbers. Thanks to the great work of Baseball Info Solutions and The Hardball Times, we have some raw data on where balls are being hit when they’re put in play. I’ve taken the 2007 data and done the number crunching for you. There are, on average, .21 catchable balls hit into the zone of a left fielder in any given inning. That number is .27 for center field and .21 for right field. These numbers don’t include things like home runs or groundballs – plays that obviously the fielders have no chance of converting into an out. These are balls that, to some degree or another, are catchable in at least some occassions. Adjusting those rates per 150 games (assuming that most players won’t play every inning of every game), we get the following opportunities:

Left Field: 282 chances
Center Field: 377 chances
Right Field: 291 chances

RF is slightly higher because there are fractionally more chances hit to right field than left field leaguewide, but the difference is pretty small. Center fielders clearly get more chances than their corner outfield brethren. This is all intuitive, or at least it should be, and this is why teams stick their rangiest outfielder in center field, then basically split left/right field between which guy has the better arm, with the wimpy throwing armed guy heading to left field.

Now, again, leaguewide, we see that these outfielders don’t turn the balls in their zones into outs at an equal rate. To date in 2007, center fielders have converted 90% of their chances into outs. Right fielders are at 87%, and left fielders are at 85%. Again, this should be about what we expect. The best defenders play center field, and they get to more balls than their less agile counterparts. The right fielders make more plays than the left fielders, which isn’t a big surprise either, as LF is generally the dumping ground for guys who should be DH’ing but aren’t.

Now, where do the Mariners outfielders rate. I’m glad you asked.

Raul Ibanez: 148 opportunities, 117 outs, 79%, 22 “out of zone” plays
Ichiro Suzuki, 226 opportunities, 204 outs, 90%, 66 “out of zone” plays
Jose Guillen: 152 opportunities, 135 outs, 89%, 20 “out of zone” plays

Ibanez is ahead of only Manny Ramirez among American League outfielders in turning balls in his zone into outs, and his 22 out of zone plays is not particularly impressive either.

Ichiro has been just about average on getting to balls in his zone, but his 66 out of zone plays is way ahead of the pack – Torii Hunter, for instance, in the same amount of innings, has made 35 out of zone plays, and only Curtis Granderson and Gary Matthews Jr have more than 50. Some of this is a ballhog effect, where Ichiro calls off other outfielders on plays either of them could have made, but just the fact that he’s able to cover so much ground to be able to catch so many balls in left and right field is remarkable.

Jose Guillen has been a tick above average on getting to balls in his zone, but his 20 out of zone catches is rather unimpressive.

Now, I need to stop and make some caveats about this information before we get too carried away – this is rudimentary work, and there are some things that can significantly effect this data that need to be adjusted for. Safeco, for instance, makes it significantly easier for left and center fielders to catch a flyball than the average park, thanks to the air that kills the ball in the left-center field gap and causes it to hang for what seems like years. There are also issues with hit locations – not all balls hit into a zone are created equal, and over a sample as small as half a season, there’s no guarantee that all fielders are getting equal opportunities. To get a real sense of the value of the performances of the outfielders, the data needs to be adjusted in several ways.

Thankfully, a guy named Mitchel Lichtman has done a huge amount of the heavy lifting, creating a run value statistic that does a fairly good job at evaluating outfielders abilities when given a large enough data sample, even including the value of arm strength on outfield assists. MGL’s work on Ultimate Zone Rating got him hired by the St. Louis Cardinals, so don’t worry, this isn’t some idiot in a basement who needs to get out and watch a game or two. UZR isn’t perfect, and if you’ve read any of my takes on defense before, you know that I still believe there’s a fairly decent margin for error in the numbers, so I prefer to present individual defensive data in ranges. But, contrary to a lot of generally accepted knowledge, we really can quantify defensive value with some degree of certainty – at least enough to put people into groupings such as “terrible”, “solid”, and “good”. And when we get agreement in opinion between the data and scouting reports (both think Adam Everett is one of the great defensive shortstops of all time), we can be fairly certain that the information is right on.

So, we know what the raw data says. What does UZR, with its adjustments for parks and hit type, say about Mariner outfielders year to date?

Raul Ibanez: 14 runs below average
Ichiro: 3 runs above average
Jose Guillen: 11 runs below average

If we project that out over a 150 game season, we get -29 for Ibanez, -24 for Guillen, and +5 for Ichiro, or a season total of 48 runs below average. 48 runs below average. According to UZR, the 2007 Mariner outfield defense is as bad as the 2003 Mariner outfield defense was good.

Now, again, we’re only working with a little over a half season’s worth of data, and the margin of error is higher with defensive statistics than offensive statistics, so we have to temper our conclusions a bit. Regression to the mean needs to be a vital part of any defensive analysis, and since we have other data (previous years, scouting reports, injury information, etc…), we can use these inputs to create a realistic projection of what the actual talent level of the Mariners currrent outfielders defensive level is. Using what we know about Ibanez, Ichiro, and Guillen, I’d say that their expected defensive value over the course of a normal season would be -20 runs for Ibanez, +10 runs for Ichiro, and -10 runs for Guillen, with a margin of error of about 5 runs in each direction. Ibanez might be -15 or -25, but either way, he’s horrible. There’s no way around that.

A lot of people are kvetching over the Mariners lack of pitching, blaming the guys on the mound for the team’s inability to keep other teams from scoring runs. But, as a whole, the entire city of Seattle, including the team in it, is missing the boat on the other aspect of the run prevention formula – defense. The Mariners defense, especially in the outfield, is terrible – one of the very worst in the league.

This is one of the reasons I’m not particularly concerned with the alignment of the Mariners outfielders. It doesn’t matter much if Adam Jones is in left field, center field, or right field. The key is to simply have the terrific defensive outfielders actually out there. Alignment doesn’t really matter. A center fielders defensive value isn’t wasted in left or right field, especially in a park like Safeco Field, as long as you still have an actual center fielder playing center field.

The Mariners need to allow fewer runs. They have yet to figure out how to identify good pitchers and bring them to Seattle, so it’s time to go another direction. Surround your mediocre pitchers with great gloves and then just watch the pitching magically improve.

Sticking Adam Jones in left field instead of Raul Ibanez will save the team more runs than trading for any starting pitcher. Forget the offense – forget his Triple-A numbers. Adam Jones could hit .200 and help this club win games.

This is a move that absolutely has to happen. The Mariners have ignored a glaring weakness for far too long. It has to end tonight. Improve the defense – improve the team.

Conclusions – Correct and Incorrect

July 25, 2007 · Filed Under Mariners · 43 Comments 

It’s only natural to draw emotinoal reactions to games and series like this. Losing four straight games by one run is brutal on the psyche, and tonight’s loss couldn’t have been a bigger heartbreaker. However, in spite of our emotional reactions, we should still be sure that our opinions are based in reality and aren’t just frustration turning into a call for a senseless action. So, with that, here are some good and bad conclusions that I expect people will come to.

The season is over.Bad conclusion. The M’s are 3 1/2 back and the calendar still reads July. The season is not over.

This team isn’t good enough to make the playoffs.Good conclusion. This is an decent team with some strengths and some glaring weaknesses. There’s almost no way to believe that this 25 man roster is better than what Detroit, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Boston, or New York are running out there on a daily basis. This team needs an influx of talent.

See, this is why we need an 8th inning setup guy so we can save J.J. for the 9th inning.Bad conclusion. He was going to blow one eventually, and it’s not like he’d been overworked lately. He threw a bad pitch that Vazquez hit out of a bandbox of a stadium. It happens occassionally. And, really, until the Mariners actually give Sean Green and George Sherrill a chance to prove that they can’t handle the 8th inning, they have no ground to claim that the team lacks anyone who can do the job.

The M’s should put a hold on making any trades and see how the team responds this weekend.Good conclusion. If the M’s trade some of their valuable young talent only to see this losing streak extend through the weekend, next week’s USSM gatherings will turn into a mass seppoku. We can’t handle both a simultaneous collapse of the season and the loss of hope in the next wave of talent.

Game 99, Mariners at Rangers

July 25, 2007 · Filed Under Mariners · 340 Comments 

Batista vs McCarthy, 5:35 pm.

The M’s try to salvage one game out of the debacle of the last week before returning home tomorrow. Feel the excitement of pennant race baseball.

McLaren changes the line-up again, and if you can figure out the logic behinid this, you win a prize. Beltre now hitting 2nd, Vidro drops to 5th. Ibanez still hitting 3rd, of course. God forbid we mess with his awesomeness.

Adrian Beltre is the team’s best power hitter. The only players hitting for less power than Jose Vidro in the major leagues this year are Luis Castillo, Jason Kendall, Reggie Willits, and Nick Punto. That’s a 2B/leadoff hitter, a C/9th hitter, a LF/leadoff hiter, and the Twins version of Willie Bloomquist. Every other major league hitter is hitting for more power than Turbo. Regardless, Vidro now hits 5th.

I’ll always be grateful that John McLaren’s presence helped the team keep Ichiro, but man, his line-ups and bullpen usage have been pretty terrible. That might be an understatement, actually. This line-up defies logic and reason – it’s the baseball version of throwing crap at a wall and hoping something sticks. Every day, this team gives me new reasons to think that the people in charge should be doing something else with their lives.

Also, for those who want to hear me talk way too fast again, I’m doing another radio interview 10 minutes before the game starts – this time, it’s Fox Sports Radio 790 in Spokane. They have an online stream, but it requires registration, so it will take some work on your part to hear me hyperventilate today. If that’s too tough for you, you can wait until the KJR gig with Grosby on Friday afternoon.

The Felix Thing, Revisited

July 25, 2007 · Filed Under Mariners · 55 Comments 

I’ve got a whole bunch of different posts that I’m working on but haven’t finished yet, so if you’re upset that you want to talk about a specific Mariner topic, have patience, the post is probably coming.

Until then, you can read about us. Kind of. Keegan Hamilton wrote an article for the Riverfront Times, the St. Louis version of the Seattle Weekly, about the whole Felix pitch charting thing. I believe it’s scheduled to run in the Weekly next week, so if you prefer a paper version, you can pick it up then, or you can read it online now.

Adjust Or Fiddle

July 24, 2007 · Filed Under Mariners · 183 Comments 

The M’s have now lost 5 games in a row, wasted a great opportunity to make up ground in the standings, and have dug themselves another hole that will take a lot of work to get out of. The season isn’t over, and losing four one-run games in five days doesn’t mean that this team is a huge failure. They’d won more than their fair share of squeakers during the first half, and regression to the mean said they were going to lose some.

However, this five game losing streak should be enough to break the hold of the myths that have frozen this team from making the necessary adjustments. This team doesn’t “just know how to win” any more than any other baseball team does. They aren’t really a .580 ballclub, even if they had a .580 winning percentage last week. This isn’t a team that qualifies for the If-It-Aint-Broke-Don’t-Fix-It exception to roster maintenance. This team has some issues that need to be addressed if they’re going to make a playoff run. They’re not a secret to anyone. They also can no longer be ignored.

The Mariners have a choice – they can continue to hope a solid but flawed team can overcome four better baseball clubs and sneak into the playoffs, or they can make the obvious internal moves that everyone on the planet knows would increase their chances of winning baseball games.

Promote Adam Jones and give him the everyday left field job. Let Jose Vidro and Raul Ibanez fight over the DH at-bats (Raul should never again face a lefty in any close game), and when Raul plays, hit him no higher than 6th. Play Ben Broussard at first base against right-handers more often. Show some willingness to use Sean Green and George Sherrill as more than situational guys against same-handed hitters, extending the high leverage innings into the hands of the team’s best relievers. Stick Chris Reitsma, the worst reliever on the team, as far from close games as possible. Or, heck, just admit that was a mistake, call up Kam Mickolio to take his place, and move on.

This team has talent, and it can still make the playoffs. But it won’t as currently constructed. You can adjust, or you can fiddle while Safeco burns. It’s up to you.

Game 98, Mariners vs Rangers

July 24, 2007 · Filed Under Mariners · 377 Comments 

Washburn vs Loe, 5:30ish

Game two game thread.

Game 97, Rangers at Mariners

July 24, 2007 · Filed Under Mariners · 230 Comments 

Feierabend vs Rheinecker, 2:05 pm.

Game 1 of the double-header features two emergency Triple-A starters. Both are lefties. Both teams hit lefties better. The ball flies in Texas, especially in the afternoon. Expect a football score.

McLaren, by the way, bows to platoon splits, knowing that he has to use his bench today due to the combination of 18 innings and the Texas heat. So, with a lefty on the hill, Ellison starts in left, Bloomquist in center, Ichiro DH’s, and Ibanez and Vidro head to the bench.

Also, Mark Lowe will be activated from the DL at the end of the game, with Feierabend heading back to Tacoma. He’ll be eligible to pitch in game 2.

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