For The Record

June 30, 2010 · Filed Under Mariners · 27 Comments 

I didn’t have a problem with Felix pitching the ninth tonight, even with a 7-0 lead and his pitch count sitting at 102 after eight innings. The fact that the game was out of hand meant that he didn’t have to throw at anything near max effort, and the Yankees made it even easier by sending up scrubs to hit for Teixeira and Rodriguez. It was a pretty easy inning that didn’t do much to tax his arm.

The team should still make a point to try to limit his workload over the rest of the season, but again, not all pitches are created equal, so don’t freak out about the 115 he threw tonight. This was fine.

Game 77, Mariners at Yankees

June 30, 2010 · Filed Under Mariners · 151 Comments 

Hernandez vs Vazquez, 4:05 pm.

Happy Felix Day.

No pitcher in the AL has thrown more pitches than Felix Hernandez this year. In his last nine starts, Felix has thrown 1,028 pitches, which would equal out to about 3,750 over a full season. Last year, only Justin Verlander threw that many pitches. And, to top it off, the workload is only getting larger, as Felix has averaged 117 pitches per start in June.

Pitch counts aren’t the be all, end all of keeping pitchers healthy. But, they shouldn’t be ignored either. Over the last month or so, as Wak has lost faith in the bullpen, he’s asked Felix and Lee to shoulder a very heaven burden. With the season down the drain, it’s time for the M’s to back off and give their young ace a bit of a rest. The results of the games this year don’t matter anymore, but if Felix blows out his arm, there’s a good chance that the Mariners won’t be playing meaningful baseball next year either.

It’s in everyone’s best interests to keep Felix healthy, and part of that is keeping his pitch counts reasonable. I’m not advocating yanking him every time he gets to the 100 pitch mark, but it would still be wise to stop sending him out in the 8th or 9th inning when he’s already in triple digits. Let’s save some bullets for next year, eh?

Ichiro, RF
Figgins, 2B
Branyan, 1B
Bradley, DH
Lopez, 3B
Gutierrez, CF
Jack Wilson, SS
Johnson, C
Saunders, LF

Game 76, Mariners at Yankees

June 29, 2010 · Filed Under Mariners · 67 Comments 

Lee vs Hughes, 4:05 pm.

The last time Lee pitched in Yankee Stadium, he threw a complete game, gave up a single unearned run, didn’t walk anyone, and struck out 10. That was Game 1 of the World Series, and perhaps the performance that solidified his place as the premier left-handed pitcher in baseball. He returns to the Bronx in one of his final auditions for other teams – if he pitches well again tonight, it will be almost impossible for his trade value to get any higher.

So, enjoy it. As always, this could be the last time we get to see Cliff Lee pitch in a Seattle uniform. It’s been a treat.

News Item: Josh Bard activated from DL, Eliezar Alfonzo DFA’d. Oh, and welcome back, Russell.

Ichiro, RF
Figgins, 2B
Branyan, 1B
Bradley, DH
Lopez, 3B
Gutierrez, CF
Jack Wilson, SS
Johnson, C
Saunders, LF

The Problem With The Protection Theory

June 29, 2010 · Filed Under Mariners · 70 Comments 

Of all the reasons given for re-acquiring Russ Branyan, perhaps the one that resonates most with people is the hope that having a guy who can hit the ball 450 feet may help the underachievers in the line-up to perform better. There’s no doubt that Chone Figgins, Jose Lopez, and Milton Bradley have all been miserable at the plate this year, producing far less than they did a year ago, and beyond any reasonable expectation of their performance for 2010. Now, with Branyan in the line-up to provide some power, a good amount of people are hoping that those guys will get better pitches to hit, and their production will rise over the course of the season because of it.

There’s two problems with this, however. The first one is that there’s no evidence to support the protection theory. It has been studied many times, and there’s been no link found between the performance of a batter and quality of the player hitting behind him. It’s a theory based on speculation, not on data, which should always make you take pause.

However, that’s not the only issue, nor the one I want to focus on, because making the data argument just leads us back down the tired road of people suggesting we’re too tied up in numbers (read: facts) and miss the human aspect of the game. So, instead, let’s talk about that human aspect, and the side that never gets brought up when the protection theory is espoused – the pitcher.

Pitchers want to get hitters out. In general, pitchers who get to the major leagues and stick around are pretty good at this singular job. It’s what they do, and what they get paid for. However, a key assumption of the protection theory is that major league pitchers are dumber than a box of rocks.

Seriously, here’s the basic theory – if there’s a good hitter on deck, pitchers will want to avoid pitching to that guy with a runner on base, so they’ll throw more strikes in order to avoid walks. These strikes are apparently meatballs, and because the batter in front of the feared hitter is now getting good pitches to hit, he’ll get more hits and get on base more often. The theory demands the pitchers actually pitch in such a way that they fail at the original stated goal, which is to avoid pitching to good hitters with runners on base. Apparently, we’re supposed to believe that pitchers are dumb enough to not notice that this suboptimal pitching strategy allows the guy in front of the good hitter to get more hits, as they just continue pounding fastballs in the strike zone that Mediocre Hitter X can whack.

Seriously, this is the backbone of the theory, and it doesn’t make any sense at all. Why would a pitcher rather give up a hit to a mediocre batter than a walk? They wouldn’t, and they don’t. If a pitcher saw that the way he was attacking guys in front of the sluggers was allowing more baserunners (a necessary result of the idea that guys like Figgins will perform better than they have been), then they would pitch differently, because they would actually be faced with more situations where the slugger had a chance to drive in runs, not less.

With just a few exceptions, pitchers are not dumb. If they can get Chone Figgins to hit .230 by pitching him the way they are now, sans home run hitter behind him, they’re not going to suddenly start pitching him in a way that will let him hit .280. That’s counterproductive to their entire goal. If the protection theory was legitimate, and pitchers did indeed throw meatballs to guys batting in front of big sluggers, they would quickly figure out that this wasn’t a very good idea, and that they would be better off pitching each hitter in a way that gives them the absolute best chance of getting that guy out, regardless of who is on deck.

Which is exactly what they do. This is how pitchers work – get the guy out at the plate, worry about the next guy when he steps in. They do not throw easily whacked fastballs down the middle because they’re living in fear of the guy on deck. It’s just not reality.

Chone Figgins, Jose Lopez, and Milton Bradley should hit better the rest of the year, but it won’t because pitchers are finally giving them pitches they can tee off on due to the presence of Russ Branyan.

Pineda/Rainiers Game Thread, 6/28/10

June 28, 2010 · Filed Under Game Threads, Minor Leagues · 13 Comments 

Since Tacoma is having issues with their radio stream, you can tune into the Sacramento River Cats feed, where Curto is co-broadcasting with Sacramento’s usual guy.

What you’ve missed:
Rainiers taking a lead a two-run shot by Tui.
The first inning: Pineda striking out leadoff man on six pitches, then fly out, and then another strikeout on seven pitches.

SS Woodward
LF Tuiasosopo
1B Nelson
RF Winfree
DH Carp
C Moore
2B Hannahan
CF Halman
3B Mangini
P Pineda!

Why Branyan makes sense (economically)

June 28, 2010 · Filed Under Mariners · 43 Comments 

This team is horrible to watch offensively. They’re hitting .239/.308/.344. At this rate, they’ll be outhit by the 2008 61-101 team (.265/.318/.389). They’re even with the inept 1983 Mariners squad that hit .240/.301/.360. And if you go back and look at that team, they had Steve Henderson for an offensive mainstay. This year has Ichiro! and Gutierrez and they’re still terrible.

They’re not an exciting small-ball team that makes announcers drool onto their microphones: they’ve got two good runners in Ichiro! and Chone, then Gutierrez is adept, aand… yup. They’re a singles-hitting, low-walk, no-power offense where you can go do something else for 2/3rds of the lineup and not miss anything, ever.

I’m not going to argue here about whether or not the team took the right gambles. But even in bad seasons, Safeco Field’s drawn well for home games in the summer. There’s a vast number of fans who attend 3-5 games a year in person when the weather’s nice. They’re vaguely aware if the team is doing well, or terrible. When I talk to them about the team, they ask “so what’s going on with the Mariners sucking it up this year?” and want to talk about where to sit when they take visiting relatives.

The M’s want people who come to a few games a year to have a good time, and see the team win. They want the stadium experience to be lively: a lot of music cues, scoreboard activities, jarring bursts of 115 db noise piped directly into your eardrums, and there’s only so large a bow you can put on this sow before it falls on its side and can’t get up. We’re there. I went to a Felix start where the crowd seemed half-asleep the whole time as he put on a clinic. When the team gets a single and the fanfare kicks up like we just landed humans on Mars or defeated the zombie Nazis and the crowd yawns in response, you’re in trouble.

Branyan solves for that, a little. Kotchman may on balance end up being as good a player, but his offensive value is entirely in cheap singles and walks, and that’s not drawing enthusiastic applause. No one’s going to come home from a game and say “it was so great when Kotchman hit that dying quail to shallow left to advance the runner” but they’ll absolutely talk about the moonshot. And if they want the ugly single, there are still four or five more hitters each night who’ll do their darnedest to serve one up.

The M’s know more about this than anyone. They might well be prepared to avoid trading off good players unless there’s a can’t–miss offer so they play .500 ball the rest of the summer in front of the fatter crowds, and reap the word of mouth benefit, get people thinking maybe they were just off to a slow and unlucky start and might have been in it if only Lee had stayed healthy, and next year they could put it all together.

And for now, as baffling as it may seem at the baseball level, there’s a story they get to tell now, which is “hey, we realized this was a team without power, and you wanted a big bat, right? Here’s a bat you know and love…”

You may be rolling your eyes at that. But if you attended one of the low-scoring home losses where the team seemingly stranded a dozen runners, there’s a good chance you’ll reconsider going next time. And similarly, if you’ve been cursing them for not pursuing Branyan in the off-season*, maybe you feel validated now, and will head to the park.

I know all of that seems vague and foo-foo. And as the most dedicated and tortured fans, we don’t see a lot of difference between losing 85 games and 90, much less 90 and 95. But it’s there, and you can read up on this if you’re interested. The best explanation is Nate Silver’s chapter “Is Alex Rodriguez Overpaid?” in Baseball Between the Numbers, and while it’s true the difference is far greater for wins 81-95 or so, it’s also true that below that it’s fairly consistently $1m/win. There’s a lot of follow-up research that’s added to this, but that’s the crux of it: every loss lowers revenue a little, and every win brings it up. And that comes from all of the small bits of aesthetic arguments: someone who watches the team play horribly on TV is less likely to tune in for the next game, and if they spend $100 to take their spouse out to the park and watch the M’s get beat up by the Orioles, they’re less likely to spend that next time.

From a pure supported-by-research side, if the M’s get a win upgrade from Branyan over Kotchman in the rest of the season, they’ll make $1m — and there’s no reason not to, if the Indians as rumored are picking up salary. And it makes sense that for the M’s in low-attendance seasons, where such a huge chunk of the actual people-in-seats attendance happens late, that they’d value putting a marginally better team on the field so highly, even when it seems pointless in the long term.

In the long term, though, if they can keep fan interest up and it gives the business side confidence to spend on payroll next year** and beyond, then the whole economic reason to give Branyan a shot starts to make sense for the team’s baseball future as well.

* and let’s just again dispel that myth: the Mariners made Branyan a one year offer, guaranteeing him the starting job even though he had a herniated disk and his long-term prospects were uncertain, with a one year option we don’t know the details of but which likely vested at 400 plate appearances or was similarly health-based. Branyan wanted 2-3 years guaranteed for a lot more money. When they agreed they couldn’t come to terms, the M’s made their very public “No really, we’re not re-signing Branyan” comments in order to clear up the wide perception that he wasn’t really on the market. Branyan then explored the free agent market and found nothing near what he wanted and in the end settled for something substantially worse than the M’s came out with.

** I know. It’s the reality of the situation, though, and I’ve long since given up trying to convince teams that budgeting this way is often counter-productive.

Dave On KGA

June 28, 2010 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

I’ll be on with Toby and Danny at 5:15 on 1510 KGA in Spokane. You can listen live here

Here’s the audio file if you missed it.

Minor League Wrap (6/21-27/10)

June 28, 2010 · Filed Under Mariners, Minor Leagues · 36 Comments 

The awkward cousin to the draft, the July 2nd opening of the international signing period, will come this week. I don’t know how much I’m going to have to say about that immediately, but I’ll cover what I have next time around. Let’s just say that the Mariners are planning on spending a lot of money on interesting players, as usual, and probably won’t break any records with their bonuses while they’re at it. In the meantime, the wrap is now more than 50% longer, because really, it was way too short in its earlier incarnation.

To the jump!
Read more

Game 75, Mariners at Brewers

June 27, 2010 · Filed Under Mariners · 24 Comments 

Vargas vs Narveson, 10 minutes ago.

Sorry, forgot to put this up earlier.

I Don’t Get It

June 26, 2010 · Filed Under Mariners · 139 Comments 

Marc’s got the details on the Branyan trade below, so read that. Nuts and bolts, M’s gave up two fringe prospects who probably max out as bench players long term, so don’t freak out about them giving up the farm, but I still don’t get it.

The Mariners are 14 games out of first place. The time to try to add some offense to this roster was six weeks ago. Branyan is better than Carp and Kotchman, but not enough to matter. Hell, at this point, Albert Pujols might not be enough to matter. The Mariners are not catching the Rangers – not with this roster, and certainly not with this roster minus Cliff Lee, which is where we should be in a week or two.

Branyan makes the team marginally better, and the M’s didn’t give up much in prospects, but they’re now going to pay an opportunity cost. As we talked about a few weeks ago, the big benefit to being out of the race in June is that you can take flyers on young kids who need a shot to show what they can do. The M’s just eliminated a chance to do that at first base, a position that is an organizational hole for 2011. Rather than giving a shot to a guy like Kila Ka’aihue (.313/.481/.577 in Triple-A, age 26, completely buried in KC), the M’s are now going to use a few hundred at-bats on a guy who turns 35 this winter and has a serious back problem.

Yeah, the team needed power, but they needed power when it mattered. It doesn’t matter anymore. Now, they need to be looking to 2011. And, as much as I like watching The Muscle hit home runs, if he’s the 2011 starting first baseman, this team probably isn’t a contender. This isn’t a move for the future – it’s a move to make the present team less painful to watch hit. This is a move they should have made on May 1st, not June 26th.

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