Joe Posnanski Writes A Bad Article

Dave · August 11, 2010 at 7:30 am · Filed Under Mariners 

The headline is news, because Posnanski is the best sportswriter alive. He writes well on nearly every subject he tackles, and is often the most thoughtful pundit on each topic he is assigned. He understands the game and how to spin a good story. There are few people in the world I would rather read than Posnanski. So, when I saw that he wrote about the Mariners, I looked forward to going through it.

I was surprised more than I was disappointed. The guy who almost always gets it right missed, and missed big time.

Let’s start with the opening paragraph.

It all seems so obvious now, doesn’t it? Bringing back Ken Griffey? Trading for Milton Bradley? Giving 32-year-old Chone Figgins (and his lifetime 99 OPS+) a big-money four-year deal based mostly on one good season (and them moving him to second base)? Signing 32-year-old Jack Wilson to a multi-year contract though he had not played a full-season in two years? Going into the season with Rob Johnson, and his 58 career OPS+, slotted as the regular catcher? Trading for light-hitting Casey Kotchman and inserting him as the Opening Day No. 3 hitter? Building up all sorts of hopes about Ian Snell as a No. 3 starter? Making the moves of a “contender” when the team finished dead last in the American League in runs scored in 2009 and were outscored by 52 runs? Trading a 25-year-old one-time phenom Brandon Morrow and his 98-mph fastball for an older hard-throwing reliever with the same first name (Brandon League)? Expecting another low ERA closer year from David Aardsma? Letting go of Russell Branyan who was one of only two good offensive players on the team in 2009 (he led the team in OPS+)?

In order:

Bringing back Griffey? Bad move, yes. We (and a lot of other people) said so at the time.

Trading for Milton Bradley? Given what the cost was, this was a perfectly reasonable gamble. Carlos Silva wasn’t going to make this team, and so the front office paid $3 million to add Bradley, a switch-hitter with a strong offensive track record.

Chone Figgins had one good year? His WAR by season in LAA after becoming a regular: +3.2, +2.4, +0.0, +3.2, +2.7, +6.1. He had one bad year out of six, not one good year. He’s just factually wrong about Figgins.

Signing Jack Wilson? Not my favorite move, and I expressed concern about the injuries, but calling it a “multi-year deal” is not really being honest about the contract. Instead of picking up his one year, $8 million option, they signed him for $10 million over two years. He’d been worth $5 million or more every year but one since 2004.

Rob Johnson as the regular catcher? That wasn’t the plan. Adam Moore struggled and got hurt. It happens.

Casey Kotchman as #3 hitter? Again, not a factually correct argument. Kotchman hit 3rd against RHP for the first seven days, then moved down to 7th. He’s hit in the #3 spot only 20 times all season, most of which have come since the team gave up on the season.

Ian Snell as #3 starter? Another gamble, and maybe you can argue that the team should have known it wouldn’t have worked, but you can’t really blame the starting rotation for how the season has gone.

Moves of a contender for a team that was outscored last year? We’ve covered this. Pythag record is useless, and using it is lazy analysis. The Mariners won a game or two more than they should have last year. They had every reason to believe that they had a chance to be decent this year.

Trading Morrow for League? Bad deal, and we said so at the time. There’s no defending this one.

Expecting another good year from Aardsma? You can’t criticize them for bringing in League to shore up the bullpen on one hand, then act like they were counting on Aardsma to repeat his 2009 season on the other.

“Letting go” of Russell Branyan? The Mariners tried to re-sign him. They offered him more money than he ended up taking from Cleveland later in the winter. The problem is that he wanted a multi-year deal, and the Mariners didn’t think it was wise to give a guy with his history of injuries that kind of contract. You know, the exact same thing that Posnanski criticized them for doing with Jack Wilson a few sentences earlier. His right hand is criticizing them for doing something that his left hand criticized them for not doing. He then continues on with this:

Yes, it seems so obvious now that the Seattle Mariners were likely to have a terrible crash this season. And it probably should have seemed obvious in February too. And it probably WAS obvious then — Monday’s firing of manager Don Wakamatsu was etched in stone back before spring training.

No, it was not obvious in February. There’s a reason you didn’t see this coming, Joe – it was impossible to see coming. The things that have sunk the team – getting career worst years from Bradley, Kotchman, Figgins, Jose Lopez, Snell, and Rowland-Smith – were not things that you could predict. There was no reason to believe that those six guys would all play at replacement level or below. None.

A few commenters on Posnanski’s blog pointed this out to him, and he responded in another post, suggesting that if we look back a couple of years, maybe it was possible to see this coming, as Figgins and Gutierrez both had mediocre offensive seasons a couple of years ago, so if we just looked at more than one year of data, we could have seen some signs of the crash.

The problem? He’s wrong again. This is exactly what the various projection systems have been created to do. They take 3 years (or more, in some cases) of data to give a decent sample size, regress the performances to account for luck, and add in aging curves that take into account the way players skills develop and erode over time. Projections from systems like ZiPS and CHONE have proven to be pretty accurate overall. Here’s how those six main failures were projected to do this year:

Chone Figgins: .334 wOBA (ZiPS), .339 wOBA (CHONE), .307 wOBA (actual)
Milton Bradley: .355 wOBA (ZiPS), .353 wOBA (CHONE), .289 wOBA (actual)
Jose Lopez: .322 wOBA (ZiPS), .331 wOBA (CHONE), .266 wOBA (actual)
Casey Kotchman: .333 wOBA (ZiPS), .325 wOBA (CHONE), .275 wOBA (actual)

Ryan Rowland-Smith: 4.52 FIP (ZiPS), 4.41 (CHONE), 6.79 (actual)
Ian Snell: 4.45 (ZiPS), 4.49 (CHONE), 6.48 (actual)

In every single case, the player is performing so far below any reasonable expectation that you cannot make a case that this was something that anyone should have seen coming. Posnanski isn’t even consistent with his points. He asserts that we should been questioning the Figgins signing because his 2008 wasn’t as good as his 2009, but never mentions the fact that Bradley was the best hitter in the American League two years ago. We should have been worried about the age of Figgins and Bradley, but ignore the fact that Lopez and Kotchman were both at an age where players traditionally have the best years of their career?

Joe’s assertion is that looking at multiple years of data would have allowed us to see that the Mariners had a terrible offense and would crash and burn. The problem, though, is that this isn’t reality. ZiPS projected the Mariners for 86 wins, and it’s based on data, not off-season hype. CHONE was a bit more conservative, coming in at 78 wins, but not projecting any AL West team for more than 86 wins. Overall, the best projection systems thought the M’s were about a .500 team, maybe a little bit better.

Guess what? So did we. In my brief pre-season preview, I noted that this was a high variance team that was basically unpredictable. I projected the team for 83 wins and a second place finish behind the Texas Rangers. The guys over at Lookout Landing did two polls on Opening Day, with the majority of the readers suggesting that the team would win 82-86 games and miss the playoffs.

The idea that there was this runaway, uncontrollable optimism about the Mariners season that was unfounded based on facts is just revisionist history. By any reasonable standard, this team should have been viewed as a .500ish club – one with some problems, but also one with strengths. If things went their way, they could have been a contender. Instead, absolutely nothing has gone their way, and the result has been a disaster.

But no one saw this coming, and no one should have seen this coming, because this was essentially the perfect storm of problems in one season. There’s a reason Murphy has a law – sometimes, everything that could go wrong does. This is one of those times. It is not, however, a chance to look back and say “well, we should have known better.” No, you shouldn’t have. The team was evaluated fairly based on the best information available. It didn’t work out. That’s life.

Sorry Joe, but you’re better than this.


51 Responses to “Joe Posnanski Writes A Bad Article”

  1. dantheman on August 13th, 2010 8:15 am

    Strange how much of what Bill “left behind” James wrote still appears to be true. There may be advances and refinements to his theories but he is right far more often than he is wrong.

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