Dave · February 22, 2012 at 7:32 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

(Yes, I’m back. Vacation in Colorado was awesome, thanks for asking. I’m still traveling, but I’m working while I travel rather than last week’s enjoy-the-snow trip. We’ll resume normalcy next week, at least until I head down to Arizona on March 8th, at which point I might disappear for a few days again.)

So, we’ve known something like this was coming for a while, but yesterday, Eric Wedge made it official – Ichiro is not going to begin the season as the team’s leadoff hitter. In the current iteration of the plan, in fact, he’s being moved to the #3 spot in the batting order. This move has several ramifications, so let’s deal with each of them in order.

What This Means For Ichiro

He’s going to come up to bat less often. Seriously, that’s about the only thing we can really know right now. By dropping down two spots in the batting order, Ichiro will hit about 35 fewer times than he would have if he was still leading off. If we think that Ichiro is still one of the best hitters on the team, that’s bad, because now we’re giving fewer at-bats to one of the team’s better offensive players. If we think that 2011 was the beginning of the end of Ichiro as a good hitter, though, that’s good, as the team is now going to give fewer at-bats to a guy who is headed for the end of his career and was pretty lousy last year.

But, the Mariners aren’t making this move to give Ichiro fewer at-bats. That’s a byproduct of the decision, not the motivation behind it. The M’s are doing this for a couple of reasons – some that have nothing to do with Ichiro specifically – including the need for teams to make changes when things aren’t going well. And let’s be honest, the offense hasn’t gone very well the last few years. Two years ago, it was pretty easy to say that wasn’t Ichiro’s fault, as he was just playing with awful teammates. Last year, though, Ichiro was part of the problem, and the team is hoping that moving him from first to third in the order can help bring about some change that will improve his production.

Will it work? I have no idea, and neither does anyone else. Yes, the change has resulted in Ichiro adopting a new stance at the plate, in which he spreads his feet further apart and barely lifts his leg off the ground. It’s possible that he’s also going to take a new approach and attempt to drive the ball more to the outfield now, rather than relying on beating the ball into the ground as often as he has in the past. Maybe these changes will make him better. Maybe they’ll make him worse. There’s no way to know. Different doesn’t always mean better, and of course, there’s the very real possibility that Ichiro would have just performed better than he did last year even if the team sent him back out there to do the exact same thing he’s always done.

That’s the thing about baseball – the old cliche about the definition of insanity being an expectation of a different result from doing the same thing over and over again doesn’t apply. In baseball, you absolutely can do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. In fact, in many cases that’s exactly the right thing to do when you get bad results – just keep plugging away until the results change. Players regularly get themselves in trouble when they let a slump convince them that they need to tinker with the things that got them success in the first place. In baseball, randomness happens, and good processes won’t always lead to good results. The right approach is often to continue right along with the good process, knowing that the results that are out of your control will eventually change.

But, then, we dont’ know if Ichiro’s old process is still a good process. He’s older now, so it would make sense that the approach he took as a 27-year-old won’t be as effective now that he’s 38. He very may well need a new process in order to adapt to his new physical skills. If he’s not as capable of beating out grounders as he used to be, maybe he should look into hitting fewer ground balls. And maybe he will. And maybe it will work. But now we’re just down the speculative rabbit hole so far that we can’t even see facts anymore, and we’re just living in the land of guess work.

This is, for all intents and purposes, what the Mariners are doing with Ichiro. They’re guessing (and hoping) that by moving him down in the order, it will have some kind of positive impact on his results. It might, it might not. No one’s really seen Ichiro do things any differently than he’s always done them, so there’s no way to know if that Ichiro will actually be better or worse. He’ll be different, but whether that’s a positive or a negative, we’ll just have to wait and find out. For now, the Mariners are essentially just doing something because they had nothing to lose. If it doesn’t work, well, he’s a free agent at the end of the year and at least they can say they tried. If it does work, huzzah, they “fixed” Ichiro. This is why managers tinker with the line-up; you’re a genius if the results change, but it’s the player’s fault if they don’t. So, we’ll try Ichiro as the #3 hitter, at least for a while. Eric Wedge has nothing to lose by doing things this way.

What This Means For Chone Figgins

In reality, the bigger news isn’t that Ichiro is now the #3 hitter, it’s that the team was willing to proclaim Figgins the lead-off hitter – a role he can only fill if he’s playing everyday. And, really, the only spot for him to play everyday is at third base, so the de facto result of this announcement is that Chone Figgins has come to camp as the team’s starting third baseman. If he hits .150 during March, they’ll probably abandon the experiment, but right now, we should probably assume that third base belongs to Figgins, and Kyle Seager is going to head back to Triple-A to form the world’s biggest positional logjam.

This is the part of the news that you probably shouldn’t be thrilled with. The team tried to move Figgins all winter and couldn’t find any takers – not surprising, considering just how bad he’s been the last few years and that he’s still due $18 million over the next two seasons. So, rather than have him just serve as the team’s 25th man, they’re opting to give him the start of the 2012 season to try and rejuvenate himself as a leadoff hitter again, and hopefully convince a scout or two that he’s got something left in the tank so the Mariners can ship him somewhere else and save a few million dollars in the process.

Make no mistake about it – this move is more about Figgins than it is about Ichiro. He has no real chance of finishing his contract as a Mariner; the only question is whether he relocates because someone else decides they want him or the Mariners just get tired of him taking up a roster spot. By opening up the leadoff spot in the order again, the team is hoping to take advantage of the fact that people still believe that part of his struggles in Seattle are due to being moved to the #2 spot in the batting order after succeeding as a lead-off hitter in Anaheim.

Now, let’s be honest, there’s no real reason to believe this is true. Last year, Figgins led off an inning 55 times, and he hit .173/.218/.231. In 2010, he led off an inning 119 times, and he hit .233/.336/.272. Despite all the talk about different mindsets and approaches that come with hitting first rather than second, we’ve seen Figgins be the first guy to walk up to the plate in Seattle a lot, and he’s been just as terrible in those situations as in any other. The idea that just naming him the “leadoff hitter” will cause him to become good again is just wish-casting. It has no basis in fact. It’s just as likely that Figgins would benefit from rubbing Felix’s left toe in between at-bats. There’s just no real evidence that batting position has any real tangible effects on a player’s ability to hit a baseball.

But, from the Mariners perspective, that doesn’t really matter. What matters is what they can sell to other teams, and there are still enough people in decision making positions in Major League Baseball who do believe that batting position matters that the M’s can sell a good start to the season as being the result of having Figgins back at the top of the order. Actual causation here is irrelevant – if the team puts Figgins back in the first batting position and he hits better, there will be other teams who believe that A and B occurring simultaneously must mean that A caused B, and will believe that Figgins could continue to hit well for them as long as they let him hit leadoff for them too.

The Mariners don’t need to peddle the truth here. If May rolls along and Figgins is hitting .300 and drawing walks again, they are under no obligation to try and explain to potential suitors that correlation does not equal causation, and that Figgins may very well revert back to pumpkin form at any minute. The fact that other teams might make the causation leap themselves means that a good start to the season does present the M’s with some chance to actually trade him without assuming the entirety of the remainder of his deal.

They’re never going to get anyone to take the whole contract. But, if they just ate the contract now, they’d be out roughly $17 million of the remaining $18 million on the deal (someone would sign him as a free agent for the league minimum, and then they’d be on the hook for that part of his contract). If Figgins hits well in April and May, they’ll have paid down about $2.5 million of the contract already, and might be able to convince someone that taking $5 or $6 million of the remaining $15.5 million is an okay investment for a rejuvenated leadoff hitter.

Maybe you don’t care if the team lowers their 2013 expenses by $5 million, but if it gives them the budget room to bring in a player who better fits into the future of the team, then it’s a decent reward for pushing forward with this experiment. That’s essentially the best case scenario here – Figgins plays well enough to generate a modicum of trade value and the team dumps him in the early summer for some cash savings for 2013.

There’s also a pretty good chance that he’s still pretty lousy and spends the first few weeks of the season just making a ton of outs at the top of the batting order. In that scenario, he’s probably DFA’d by May 15th, and the team can say they gave him every opportunity to succeed here. They tried him at second base and he failed at that. They tried him at third base and he failed at that. They tried him at leadoff and he failed at that. At that point, Figgins will be out of excuses, and the team will just dump him and move on to Plan B.

Either way, I don’t see Chone Figgins on this team much past June. He’ll either be good and traded or bad and cut. No matter how you look at it, Figgins-as-Mariner-leadoff-hitter is a short term thing.

What This Means For Everyone Else

We mentioned this briefly, but the biggest ramification of this announcement is that Kyle Seager is probably ticketed for Tacoma. The team probably won’t want him sitting around not playing, and if Figgins is going to be the regular third baseman, then they’d likely rather give Carlos Guillen the backup 3B/1B job and let Seager play regularly in Triple-A. Of course, that creates a problem, because the working assumption before this news was that Francisco Martinez was going to be the Rainiers third baseman, a decision that had already pushed them to move Alex Liddi to first base for this year. Sending Seager down means that Martinez could be headed back to Double-A to repeat a level. They could also have Seager play second base down in Tacoma if they want Martinez to still be able to play third, but having Seager get reps at second with Dustin Ackley entrenched at the spot in Seattle isn’t all that useful to the team. As weird as it sounds, the team doesn’t really have room for Seager back in Tacoma. Sending him down creates some problems, and even if it’s just for 6-8 weeks, the sooner they can end the Figgins-as-starting-3B experiment, the better off the guys with an actual future in this organization will be.

In terms of the line-up, Figgins at #1 and Ichiro at #3 means that Ackley is almost guaranteed to be slotted into the #2 spot in the order, followed by some mix of Smoak-Montero-Carp as the 4/5/6, and then Olivo-Gutierrez-Ryan as the 7/8/9. It also means that the line-up isn’t likely to very much from day to day, as Wedge is opting for more “set roles” than “platoon advantages”. Rather than taking advantage of left-right match-ups, the team is putting their faith in the magical power of players knowing what they’re going to hit everyday, and hoping that brings them out of their multi-year doldrums. Wedge is an old-school guy and this is old school thinking. It’s something we’ll just have to deal with as long as he’s in charge.

What happens to the line-up once Figgins is traded/dumped? It depends a bit on everyone else, but my best guess is that Ackley will get bumped up from #1 to #2, and then his spot will be filled by either Franklin Gutierrez (if he’s hitting well) or Kyle Seager (if Guti’s not). They’re the guys who most fit the mold of a typical #2 hitter besides Ackley, and neither one runs well enough to convince a traditional manager like Wedge to hit them leadoff. So, my guess is that come June, the line-up is Ackley-Guti-Ichiro or Ackley-Seager-Ichiro, whether Figgins-as-leadoff-hitter was a success or not.

And that’s why, in the end, this Big News isn’t really big news. It’s one last chance for redemption for Figgins. It’s an experiment with Ichiro. And it’s a chance for the team to try and dump some portion of the money that Figgins is still due for 2013 on someone else. Given that the cost isn’t super high – yes, Seager’s probably a better player and the team is probably making themselves a bit worse with this move, but the gap between them over 200 PA is small and the team probably isn’t contending this year anyway – it’s not that hard to see why the Mariners are going in this direction. I don’t think it will work, but it’s a move without a ton of downside and at least a little bit of upside if you squint hard enough.

So, Figgins is the leadoff guy, Ichiro is the #3 guy, and Seager is the Triple-A guy. Don’t get too used to this arrangement – it won’t last long.


68 Responses to “Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes”

  1. Gormogon on February 24th, 2012 12:20 pm

    No one is talking about what it means for the young guys and how the FO is going to address that.

    I see this move as more of a throwing down the gauntlet to the young 3B prospects to see who can step up in the first two months of the season and secure Figgins’ spot. Not only that, but it gives those prospects some extra time to prove that they are the player to take Figgins’ spot, instead of trying to prove it in ST. Lastly, it takes service time away from those players.

  2. MrZDevotee on February 24th, 2012 12:31 pm

    Agreed, on almost all counts. I would even go so far as saying “if a player believes it helps, there’s a good chance it could have a positive effect”, the problem is with extrapolating it to a larger degree– we just don’t know who’s gonna benefit, and who’s gonna suffer, which is why I think folks like Dave aren’t comfortable relying on those ideas… (We’ve all seen Ichiro play at a Hall of Fame level for 10+ years, as consistent as anyone in the game until last year, and have a pretty good handle on his “makeup” as a person– but none of us have any idea if moving him in the lineup will make him flourish, flounder, or stay the same…?)

    On a more personal level, many of us who’ve played sports know the guys on our teams who “choked” under pressure, and also those who somehow seemed most composed and, oddly, calm, in the most “pressure cooker” situations.

    I believe 100% that psychology is a major player in sports, especially at the professional level. I just don’t know why, or how, or the way to take what works with player A and have it apply to players B-Z with the same level of effectiveness. I think just the “idea” of a manager is that you’re paying somebody big money to do that better than the players (or owners) could do it themselves, even if there’s no proof that managers actually have that ability.

    Unfortunately, that TOO is something that can’t really be measured and applied to other teams.

    Was Joe Torre (Sparky Anderson/Connie Mack) an amazing manager… or, did he just have the best talent in baseball during the particular years he managed?

    Whatever makes players perform great, in whatever circumstances, somebody’s gonna make a LOT of money when they find those genes, and can regenerate them and put them into 14 year olds.

    But until they do, folks into the stats side of things aren’t gonna really be interested, because the idea here is to deal with things at a level that can be quantified, presented and repeated, and more importantly depended upon (as much as can reasonably be expected in baseball).

    It’s just not part of their conversations (though other folks certainly carry on those conversations). Doesn’t mean anyone is saying it’s not an important topic. I think sometimes we can confuse the notion of “Prove it” with someone saying “Wrong!” A lot of guys here would be as excited as anyone if someone discovered the answer to a question the majority of us viewed with skepticism. Heck, that’s the entire reason people are into neo-stats, you can learn stuff you never knew was there before, that was always right before your eyes.

    That’s my intrigue anyways, even if in my own sports life I enjoy the psychological aspect of things more than the analytical side.

  3. BLYKMYK44 on February 24th, 2012 1:29 pm

    You can only make a decision with the data you have available. The vast majority of players have not seen an effect when they get changed…therefore that is the assumption you have to make.

    To do it the opposite way: test out every scenario because MAYBE the unlikely conclusion happens…just doesn’t make sense.

  4. BLYKMYK44 on February 24th, 2012 1:30 pm

    And BTW, the comment about how we all know a player that chokes in pressure situations is usually not true either. Perfect example is the concept that LeBron isn’t very good in the clutch while Kobe Bryant is great in the clutch. The numbers just don’t bear that out.

  5. MrZDevotee on February 24th, 2012 3:11 pm

    I stand corrected, I was using the stereotype of the choker, when really I meant there are guys on teams that you want with the ball in their hands and 10 seconds to go, when you combine their skillset and confidence. And, then there are guys whose skillset and lack of confidence don’t warrant risking that moment. I was really alluding to guys whose lack of confidence grows under pressure, and guys who already have confidence and who aren’t affected by the pressure as much.

    I’m sticking Albert Pujols at the plate in the bottom of the 9th, game 7 of the World Series, not Michael Saunders.

    And to bring it all the way down to Little League– please God don’t let the game be on the line when Billy the RF who can’t catch, and bats 9th because you can’t bat any lower, is up.

    (Whereas “Choking” implies two players with similar skillsets who tend to fail or succeed differently during similar high pressure moments– your Kobe and LeBron example– not what I meant, so poor word choice).

  6. terry on February 24th, 2012 4:38 pm

    I’m completely down with Figgins leading off if they make sure to keep his bat off of his shoulder. He shouldn’t need more than three pitches to get on base.

  7. Hammy57 on February 24th, 2012 9:26 pm

    I’m not the greatest at sensing sarcasm over the internet, but someone please tell me Terry (post above mine) is joking!?

  8. downwarddog on February 25th, 2012 11:55 am

    Riddle me this: If Chone Figgins is so mentally fragile that moving to lead-off will get him back on track, then he’s not mentally tough enough to be a major leaguer in the first place.

  9. MKT on February 25th, 2012 3:16 pm

    “he’s not mentally tough enough to be a major leaguer in the first place”

    Mental toughness in a player is certainly a desireable attribute, compared to mental fragility. But there’ve been plenty of players with frail psyches, who had to be coddled somewhat, but who could be successful even though it was a nuisance to have to coddle them. Jose Guillen was a time-bomb waiting to go off, but the Mariners got a useful year out of him. Milton Bradley, not so much; but when not self-imploding he was a decent player (again, for the M’s not so much). Josh Hamilton. Jimmy Piersall. Etc.

    Mentally fragile players should be avoided when building a roster, but so are physically fragile players and the reality is that there are plenty of both in the major leagues.

  10. Breadbaker on February 25th, 2012 9:01 pm

    I don’t get the whole thing. If Chone Figgins needs to lead off he had a simple expedient taken care of by his free will and the gift of Marvin Miller, Andy Messersmith, Dave McNally and Peter Seitz: not sign with the Mariners, who had a leadoff hitter who wasn’t going anywhere. Figgins appears to be an intelligent man who understood this. Once he agreed to come here, he was going to hit anywhere in the lineup other than first that the manager asked him.

    I’m sure I can prove psychologically that I’d perform better with Bill Gates’ bank account instead of my own. I don’t think anyone is going to let me prove this empirically.

  11. MoreMariners on February 26th, 2012 10:03 am

    I don’t necessarily think this will magically fix Figgins, but if he’s willing to be more patient and less aggressive, I am all for that approach.

  12. John D. on February 26th, 2012 11:49 am

    “Players regularly get themselves in trouble when they let a slump convince them that they need to tinker with the things that got them success in the first place. In baseball, randomness happens, and good processes won’t always lead to good results. The right approach is often to continue right along with the good process, knowing that the results that are out of your control will eventually change.”

    Right on!
    HENRY AARON was about 0-20 once, and a reporter asked him what he was gtoing to do about his slump.
    “I’m not in a slump,” he answered, “I’m seeing the ball well, and I’m hitting it well; unfortunately right at someone. They’ll drop in.”
    They did.

  13. qwerty on February 26th, 2012 7:54 pm

    Can we trade Figgins for HENRY AARON?

  14. goat on February 27th, 2012 10:41 am

    Fair enough. Though I think there is the danger of being so focused as to lose sight of the bigger picture. And I think the onus should be on the relatively new statistical crowd to provide evidence against traditional views and not the other way around. They’ve done this in some areas, and should be commended for that. But the areas in which nothing has yet been found doesn’t necessarily mean the prevailing views are incorrect.

  15. Steve Nelson on February 27th, 2012 11:24 am

    @goat on February 27th, 2012 10:41 am

    Fair enough. Though I think there is the danger of being so focused as to lose sight of the bigger picture. And I think the onus should be on the relatively new statistical crowd to provide evidence against traditional views and not the other way around. They’ve done this in some areas, and should be commended for that. But the areas in which nothing has yet been found doesn’t necessarily mean the prevailing views are incorrect.

    This is absolutely and totally incorrect and completely fallacious.

    In any argument, the burden of proof always lies with the person advancing the position. If you want to argue for prevailing wisdom, then you bear the burden of proving that prevailing wisdom is correct. If you want to argue in favor of a counter position, then you bear the burden of that argument. If neither side can support their argument than the conclusion is that we can’t know given current information. But it no case is it ever correct to say that prevailing opinion is correct simply because it’s prevailing opinion.

    Whether it is prevailing wisdom or not is irrelevant to any analysis of whether or not something is correct.

  16. MrZDevotee on February 27th, 2012 11:34 am

    (Mr. Positive with breaking news)

    Franklin Gutierrez in instrasquad game Sunday:

    3-for-3, including a bomb off King Felix

  17. henryv on February 27th, 2012 9:22 pm

    Did Dave pull down his twitter account? I can’t find it at d_a_cameron any more.

  18. georgmi on February 27th, 2012 9:57 pm

    Yeah, it looks like he changed it. It’s currently @dcamreonfg, but I suspect he’ll be fixing the typo soon.

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