Why Branyan makes sense (economically)
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.