In October of 2008, Jack Zduriencik was hired by the Mariners to take over the team’s open GM position and essentially fix a broken organization. In order to help facilitate a new direction, Jack filled the front office with his own guys. From Milwaukee, he brought Tony Blengino to be his assistant and serve as the analytical voice as a complement to his scouting background. He also brought Tom McNamara from the Brewers to take over amateur scouting and run the draft. As part of an agreement with the Brewers, he agreed to only hire two front office members from his old organization, so Pedro Grifol was promoted from within to fill the job of director of minor league operations, and Carmen Fusco was hired to run the professional scouting ranks.
In part to familiarize ourselves with the new guys, we decided to host a USSM/LL event in early January of 2009, a few months after they all joined the staff. We booked the auditorium at the Seattle Central Library, and invited a bunch of you guys to come hang out and talk baseball on a Saturday in the middle of winter.
I invited Jack to come to the event, but because of a prior commitment to do an extended radio interview at the same time, he wasn’t able to make it. To make it up to us, he offered to send essentially the entire front office as his replacement, so representing the Mariners were the four executives just mentioned: Blengino, McNamara, Grifol, and Fusco. Here’s some photographic evidence, if you want to see pictures.
That’s the only event I’ve ever not been able to make it out to Seattle to attend, but from what I gathered from those who were there, it went off like a giant four hour celebration. Fusco went through so many bottles of water that people were legitimately amazed at his capacity to retain liquids — I only learned later that he did the entire event while suffering from two kidney stones, which he passed only after the event was over. With that kind of dedication, no wonder spirits were high. Everyone was enthused. While Jack himself wasn’t able to make it, his employees inspired a great deal of confidence in the organization, and reflected extremely well upon his decision to hire them to begin with.
Which brings to one of the most common questions I’ve been asked this winter: how it is possible that a front office that saw so much value in Franklin Gutierrez, Endy Chavez, and Brendan Ryan — among others — could spend the winter pursuing the likes of Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay, and Michael Morse. The shift in the type of players acquired this winter has been so stark that it is hard to reconcile the idea that it’s the same front office making these decisions. But, therein lies the rub; the current front office is not the same one that was in place in the winter of 2008.
Fusco was relieved of his duties in September of 2010 for reasons that are another post entirely. Grifol was removed from his front office position last year, and was replaced by Chris Gwynn as the head of minor league operations; he just officially left the organization after spending 2012 managing High Desert in the California League. And this winter, the Mariners have made one more front office adjustment, as Tony Blengino is no longer working out of the Seattle office but has moved into an advisory role that involves him having conversations with Jack from his home in Milwaukee. He is still under the employ of the organization, but the official comment that I was given by the M’s PR department is that Tony is going to focus more on analytical research and be less involved in decisions relating to player personnel. Of the four men who made up something like Jack’s inner circle during that first off-season, Tom McNamara is the only one who is still serving in that same function.
It’s not that those positions got eliminated, of course, and Jack still has a group of folks that he trusts advising him on talent acquisition decisions. Jeff Kingston was hired by the Mariners as an Assistant GM in September of 2009, and he oversees the analytical department in the organization now. Ted Simmons was hired as the Senior Advisor to the GM in 2010. Last winter, the team added three Special Assistants, bringing in Pete Vuckovich and Joe McIlvaine, as well as promoting Roger Hansen, with all three currently listed on the organization’s front office page as “Special Assistant to GM, Player Procurement”, notably differentiating them from Blengino, who does not have those final two words in his title. Ken Madeja, who previously had held that role, moved into a pro scouting job. John Boles, who also held that position, left the organization after last season.
And, we can’t forget the one other major change, as there was the complete turnover of the field staff as well, with Don Wakamatsu and his crew being replaced by Eric Wedge‘s coaching staff after the 2010 season.
Blengino represented one of the few remaining holdovers from the initial group brought on by Zduriencik during his initial winter as GM. And now, with his reassignment, the structure of the analytical department is changing as well.
Tom Tango noted on his blog a few days ago that he was now exclusively providing his services to the Chicago Cubs. Tango, as you probably know, is one of the most well known statistical analysts in our community, and was hired by the Mariners as a consultant back during that first winter. According to the organization, Tango left for an exclusive position with the Cubs approximately three months ago, and Tango himself confirmed that publicly when asked how long he’d been working with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer in Chicago.
The Mariners stress that they still value analytical decision making higher than ever, and do not see Tango’s departure or Blengino’s new role as a sign of a change in philosophical approach. Indeed, they’ve just brought on several new interns to serve in the baseball operations department, and guys like Andrew Percival and Casey Brett remain in the organization, working in their respective roles within Kingston’s group. The names and titles may be changing, but the Mariners suggest that this is simply part of the natural turnover of the game, and not any kind of organizational shift in decision making process.
That said, there’s no question that different people have different ideas, and it seems pretty clear that the current front office has some different ideas than the 2009 front office had. We’re not privy to the inner workings of each decision, so we don’t know how much each kind of acquisition was influenced by which individuals, but the results of the current roster construction methods speak to a pretty significant shift at some point along the line. Whether that shift is a reaction to the failures of players like Chone Figgins and Milton Bradley, or whether it’s simply a reflection of the preferences of the current front office decision makers, we have no idea. Maybe it’s not either of those things, and there’s no connection between the front office turnover and the shift in the type of players the Mariners have acquired this winter. Without being in the room when those decisions are made, we simply can’t know what has changed, if anything.
But from an outsider’s perspective, it sure appears that things have changed, and changed pretty significantly. For a large portion of the fan base, that’s probably a good thing, as I know many of you are tired of seeing a low scoring offense with no power. You won’t be seeing that again any time soon, and with Blengino mostly out of the mix on player acquisitions — and Tango totally gone — that’s probably a change that’s here to stay. If there’s one thing we can clearly deduce from the organization’s maneuvers over the last few months, it’s that the Mariners are putting a premium on power hitting again. Maybe that’s a coincidence, but it seems like it’s probably not.
The moves the team is making are different. Why? We don’t know for sure, but we do know that besides Jack Zduriencik and Tom McNamara, the front office now is entirely different than the front office that was in place back in the first few years of the new regime. I’d guess that those two things are related. Whether this new direction is for better or worse remains to be seen, but it’s hard for me to see how losing Tom Tango is beneficial to an organization, and I’m clearly not the biggest fan of the moves the team has made this winter.
But, I’m reminded of something Jack said during his first few days as GM of the team, as recorded by Larry Stone on October 25th, 2008.
“I’d love to have guys with good makeup and good character, committed to the city and the ballclub. But when all is said and done, talent wins.”
I’d love to have a front office that values the same things I value, and employs people that think similarly to the way I think, but when all is said and done, talent does win. Dustin Ackley doesn’t have any less talent now than he did when Tango worked for the Mariners. Felix Hernandez didn’t relocate to Milwaukee with Tony Blengino. The Mariners have never fired Kyle Seager. Teams without nerdy consultants win too. Letting Tango leave doesn’t mean the Mariners can’t win, or that the hard work done during the last few years won’t pay off in the future. Or, maybe things break right for the organization and they pay off in 2013. Who knows?
This post isn’t about predicting what all these changes will do to the organization. It’s more about attempting to explain why the moves seem so different now. We don’t have enough information to make any kind of firm conclusions, but there’s definitely some correlation between the front office turnover and the apparent change in team building approach we’ve seen this winter. Just because the GM hasn’t changed doesn’t mean nothing has changed. The group around Jack now is a lot different now than it was a few years ago. The group around Jack now is apparently are big fans of home runs.
Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS projection system is one of the best publicly available forecasting tools available. No system is perfect, and of course teams can perform quite differently than their forecasts — hello, 2012 Orioles — but it’s still important to understand what a good forecasting system expects from a specific group of players. And for most of the Mariners current specific players, ZIPS does not think very favorably.
Focus mostly on the plus and minus stats, as the overall numbers will likely change due to the change in the dimensions affecting how Safeco Field plays. I’d expect most of the hitters to post better numbers, and most of the pitchers to post worse numbers, but all you really should care about is their performance adjusted for league norms and park effects.
For instance, Kendrys Morales is projected for a 115 OPS+, right around what he got last year. That’s not bad. He’d be a roughly league average player when he’s on the field if that forecast is correct, which is about what we pegged him for when the Mariners acquired him. After that, though, the idea of a rejuvenated offense kind of goes away.
Michael Morse is projected for an OPS+ of 103, the same as Kyle Seager and Jesus Montero. ZIPS doesn’t see him aging very well. Meanwhile, the team’s next best projected hitter after Morales and those three — Mike Zunino, who is likely to have a very limited role in the big leagues this year, if he gets there at all. Now, the projection for Zunino is fantastic, calling him a +3 win catcher right now, but that doesn’t do a lot of good for the 2013 Mariners. You should be excited about Zunino’s future, but you were probably already excited about Zunino’s future. That ZIPS likes him a lot as well shouldn’t be a huge surprise.
Behind Zunino, hanging out in the roughly average hitter category, are Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Mike Carp, Raul Ibanez, Casper Wells, and Michael Saunders. For Ackley, a decent defensive second baseman, this makes him a pretty solid everyday player and the best position player on the team. For the rest, it suggests that they’re marginal role players at best, as an average bat at a corner position isn’t that valuable unless it is paired with elite defense. Wells and Saunders play good enough defense to be useful, but by and large, it thinks most of these guys aren’t good enough to start on a quality MLB team.
And then there’s the pitching. Oh, the pitching.
Again, the superficial numbers might look okay because the environment is based on a park that drastically deflates run scoring, but look at the ERA- numbers, which measure performance relative to park adjusted league average.
Felix has an ERA- of 79. In other words, still an ace. #1 comp is Greg Maddux. Felix is good.
Iwakuma comes in at 100. Solid average starter. About what you should expect.
Erasmo Ramirez comes in at 109, making him an okay #5 starter. I think he’s probably a little better than this, but it’s worth noting that his pedigree has always been about performance over stuff, and even a performance-only forecast isn’t a big fan.
And then the wheels come off. Blake Beavan is forecast for a 121 ERA-, making him a replacement level pitcher. Hector Noesi is at 132, and if he pitched 130 innings, he’d rack up -1 WAR. No Major League team should be okay with either of these guys in their rotation. Right now, the Mariners have both. Noesi is going to be replaced, but Beavan likely isn’t, and the depth behind him just isn’t there. Hultzen (115 ERA-), Paxton (120 ERA-), and Walker (127 ERA-) aren’t ready, and even the more command oriented Brandon Maurer (124 ERA-) is projected as another replacement level arm for 2013. These kids might have a bright future, but it’s not here yet. Expecting them to come in and turn into quality Major League starting pitchers is simply not realistic.
To be a legitimate contender for the playoffs, a team basically needs to compile 40 WAR, and needs more like 45 to 50 to give themselves a good shot at getting in. Just based on the M’s ZIPS projections and their current depth chart, the team comes in around +26 WAR. If you replace Noesi with an average starter, that puts them at +28 WAR. Maybe you bump them up a bit because you like the young bullpen arms more than the projections, so now you’re at +30 WAR. For comparison, the 2012 Mariners posted a total of +28 WAR.
That’s still not a very good team. The offense isn’t as improved as the Mariners are hoping for, and the pitching looks like it could be a total disaster. There’s some reasons for optimism in the forecasts for Zunino, Ackley, Montero, and Brad Miller (forecast to be nearly a league average player right now, which is kind of interesting), but by and large, ZIPS is unimpressed with the imports the Mariners made this winter, and thinks this team would need a few minor miracles to have a shot at contending in 2013.
The Mariners could outperform their forecasts. These aren’t written in stone tablets, of course. But think of this like a weather forecast. Based on the available information, and what we know about historical patterns, the 2013 Mariners don’t look very good. Prepare for a pretty lousy team, just as you would prepare for rain if the weather guy told you a storm was coming. It might not happen, because there are unpredictable variables that can have a real impact on the team’s outcomes, but the most likely outcomes involve the 2013 Mariners being bad.
The seemingly inevitable deal is apparently done. We still may not know exactly how to measure catcher defense, but we know who’ll likely be doing some defending for the 2013 Mariners: veteran back-up Kelly Shoppach.
Unlike the Ronny Paulino deal, I’d assume this is a major league contract, meaning that the M’s have another 40-man decision to make. Yoervis Medina may sleep a little less soundly tonight, and I can’t imagine Carlos Peguero is safe either. They could also choose to drop someone a little more prospect-y but further from the majors – Julio Morban or Francisco Martinez come to mind.
Shoppach is a three-true-outcome hitter – he couples Olivo-like contact and with above-average power with decidedly non-Olivo-like walk rates. His batting average and strikeout rates are going to require some patience, but he’s put up very nice wOBA’s in his short stint in Boston last year and in more regular duty in Cleveland. His manager with the Indians was Eric Wedge, and it’s easy to assume that Wedge had a hand in picking Shoppach. Given the talk this winter about changing the nature of the veteran presence in the clubhouse, it makes sense that they’d find some guys they’re familiar with.
His defense is a bit harder to get a handle on. He’s generally rated poorly in the defensive metrics at fangraphs, where some solid work throwing out runners is undone by pitch blocking. The Mariners FO clearly thinks a lot about catcher defense, but looking at the succession of catchers who’ve played for the M’s (Rob Johnson, Adam Moore, Miguel Olivo, Jesus Montero, John Jaso, now Kelly Shoppach), it’s glaringly obvious that they don’t much care about passed balls/wild pitches. I’m not saying they’re wrong to see it as a minor element of a catcher’s overall worth – it’s just an interesting and very consistent pattern.
From Dave Cameron to Larry Stone, people have seen Kelly Shoppach’s signing with the M’s as something of a formality. He’s a veteran, he’s played for Eric Wedge before, he’s got a solid defensive reputation. Meanwhile, the normally tight-lipped M’s front office has made it clear that John Jaso’s defensive problems limited his value both to the M’s and potential trading partners. So, how do we know that catcher A is good and that catcher B is terrible? Perhaps no other area of analysis has changed so much in the past five years, so it may be time to look at what we think we know about measuring a catcher’s impact. For those looking for an air-tight conclusion, or a single number we can confidently slap onto Ronny Paulino, Shoppach or Jaso, this piece may disappoint. Those of you who are used to my epistemological musings will understand that we can’t yet do that, but yet it’s still interesting to think through the process.
So: what does a catcher do? What’s in the job description? They’re there to call pitches (sometimes), catch/block wayward pitches, to present somewhat less wayward pitches in the best possible light so that they may be called strikes, throw out runners attempting to steal bases, and function as psychologist, coach and motivational speaker to pitchers. Measuring passed balls/wild pitches is easy, though comparing it to an appropriate baseline is. Same with stolen bases – adding up the runs saved/lost in the running game is easy, but apportioning those runs to catchers and pitchers can be a bit trickier. Still, sabermetrics is on pretty firm ground in assigning values to these two components of catching; Fangraphs’ catcher defense metric is the sum of these two measures. However, the range of this metric simply isn’t all that big. The best/worst catchers range from about -5 to +5 runs in each one, so the gap between the best and worst catchers would realistically be in the neighborhood of +1 to -1 wins per year. That’s…not a lot, and several years ago, the idea that teams were too willing to move “questionable” defenders off the position were popular in some sabermetric circles. The squishy stuff like pitch framing and “managing a pitching staff” seemed near impossible to measure, and no one was certain if it was really true, or if it was just a baseball equivalent of an old wive’s tale.
The first real attempt at trying to measure the impact of the psychologist-cum-strategist role of the catcher is Catcher ERA, or cERA. In its simplest form, it just the earned runs scored while a catcher was playing – crediting the pitcher’s ERAs to the catcher. The problems with this are legion, and we’ve dealt with this issue several times at USSM. As Dave said back when people were clamoring for more Rob Johnson (this really happened! There was clamoring!), the fatal flaw with the measure is selection bias. John Jaso looks great by cERA in 2012 because he caught a lot of Felix’s starts.* Craig Wright updated it years ago in his book “The Diamond Appraised” by focusing solely on pitcher/catcher pairs. That is, he took selection bias out by controlling for the pitcher. Still, methodological problems remain – two catchers could have identical ERAs with a set of hurlers and come out with vastly different cERAs depending on how frequently they caught each of them.
The combination of small samples, a lack of evidence for a real effect, potential biases and the lack of an identifiable *reason* for catchers to have vastly different results led many in sabermetrics to dismiss cERA, leaving just the running game and pitch blocking to measure. Two things fundamentally changed that. First, Dan Turkenkopf and others tried to assign a value, in runs, of a pitch being called either a ball or a strike. An fastball on the black is ruled a ball by a vindictive umpire – what did that cost the pitcher and his team? The answer he got (0.161 runs) was stunningly high – if catchers had a repeatable skill in getting on-the-edge pitches called strikes, the impact of it could dwarf the value of CS% or wild pitches. Initial studies of the impact of pitch framing saw massive, almost impossible gaps between the best and the worst catchers, until Mike Fast’s definitive study on the matter put the range at about +/- two wins per year. For some catchers, this skill does in fact dwarf the impact of CS% and passed pitches. The measure is so new, and researchers are still tweaking it to ensure that they control for everything from the umpire, the park’s pitch fx calibration, the hitter, and the pitch type. This gap remains, and, more excitingly, this appears to be an actual skill – good pitch-framers in year X are generally good pitch-framers in year Y. Maybe the old baseball saw about catcher defense wasn’t just precedent mixed with hokum.
Now that pitch fx has been in use for 5 full seasons, and now that researchers can correct for the park-by-park idiosyncrasies in the data, sabermetrics is again looking at something like cERA to see if there’s any other effect a catcher might have on a pitcher’s performance. In reality, something like a new-fangled cERA (or what Tom Tango always called a WOWY -with or without you- study) is more about capturing everything than it is about isolating a particular skill. Still, might framing and, say, pitch blocking taken together exert a bigger impact on a pitcher’s confidence? Might a catcher’s pitch calling or the way he sets a target have an impact? Controlling for pitch fx, pitcher, batter and just about everything else, Max Marchi tried to measure the runs saved or lost by each catcher.
All of this suggests that teams should be focused on catcher defense. Indeed, the Astros snapped up Mike Fast not long after his article on pitch framing appeared (and another just hired Dan Turkenkopf), so we know that teams *are* paying attention to developments in this field. Marchi’s work on handling a staff and Fast’s work on pitch framing are so new, they’re not incorporated into WAR measures.** This may lead to WAR understating the importance of catcher defense, but I think it’s reasonable for sites to wait a few years to see if anyone’s able to shoot holes in these studies. There’s plenty of work to be done teasing out what it is a catcher does to get a pitcher more comfortable, and, perhaps more importantly, why a catcher will work quite well with one pitcher (or kind of pitcher) and not at all well with another.
There’s also the problem that catchers who are great at one aspect of the job are often poor at others. To bring this back to the Mariners’ catching depth (finally!), we see that Ronny Paulino isn’t great at blocking pitches or controlling the running game, but he’s above average in framing. Miguel Olivo was (surprise!) one of the worst in baseball in blocking pitches, but one of the best (at least from 2008-2011) at handling a staff. John Jaso rates poor in blocking and not-so-hot in pitch framing, but is a touch above average in pitcher results/handling a staff. Kelly Shoppach was a bit above average in framing and in the running game, but a bit below in pitch blocking and hide-your-eyes-bad in pitcher results. Jesus Montero’s not been catching long enough to show up on a lot of these lists, but his results in 2012 weren’t great. He was noticeably worse than Jaso/Olivo with many pitchers last year, and posted the worst K:BB ratio and OPS-against of the three backstops. We’ve got a heck of a lot more data, and even some new theories about how to use it, but I’m not sure we can definitively say that John Jaso was terrible*** or that Kelly Shoppach/Ronny Paulino/anyone else is really good. So help me out: what did YOU think of the M’s catching defense in 2012, and how do you think it’ll change in 2013? What aspects of the catcher’s role is sabermetrics ignoring, even now? What do YOU think the M’s care about in assessing a catcher’s performance, and if you had your way, what WOULD they care about?
* – It’s sort of interesting how catching a bunch of Felix’s starts doesn’t count as a credit, though. I mean, why would Felix keep throwing to him – and so well – if he Jaso was god-awful?
** – Baseball-Reference’s WAR measure for catchers – Defensive Runs Saved – apparently incorporates a cERA-like measure, though it’s tough to tell.
*** – John Jaso’s cERA highlights something that may be the next frontier in researching catcher defense. Over his career, he’s been pretty good compared to other catchers he’s played with (like Kelly Shoppach) in things like K:BB ratio and plain old BB%. Where he’s had a problem is giving up long balls. With the M’s in 2012, Jaso yielded runs and walks at the lowest rate of the three M’s catchers, but saw a lot more HRs per PA against him – particularly with Blake Beavan and Jason Vargas. In Tampa, Jaso had solid RA numbers and decent BB% rates, but was beset by HR problems, particularly when paired with fly-ball pitchers like James Shields and Matt Garza. But just as he had good results – better than Olivo/Montero’s results- catching Felix, Jaso seemed to work well with David Price. I initially thought the issue may be the result of issues with a specific pitch: the change-up. But most of the HRs came on fastballs, and Blake Beavan barely even throws a change-up. Still, it’d be interesting to see if there are specific characteristics of catchers that can lead to problems or successes in things like homers, double plays, walks, or strikeouts. Is Jaso’s low BB% and high HR% the product of a catcher who doesn’t call enough breaking pitches out of the zone? This would be an interesting topic for further research.
The M’s had their media luncheon today. A bunch of people talked. We learned that the M’s are going to have fireworks after some games this year, they’re giving away a Dustin Ackley gnome, and that the list of talking points for Jack and Wedge haven’t changed. They checked off pretty much every box, saying all the same things they always say. No one’s on scholarship. Competition is great. Veteran leadership taking pressure off the kids. Excited about the future. Who knows what might happen. We’ll see. Special group of young pitchers. You know the drill by this point.
If you’re looking for something resembling news, probably the closest thing was Eric Wedge noting that his preferred alignment has Smoak as the full-time starter at first base, with Morales serving as the regular DH. Of course, he didn’t exactly write it in stone, and with Ibanez around, Smoak’s probably not going to have much of a leash. Still, it sounds like Wedge’s preference is for something resembling a set line-up, as there doesn’t seem to be any preference for platoons or job shares.
Beyond that, most of the big league roster stuff wasn’t anything that wasn’t already known. The organization is going to sign Ronny Paulino to a minor league deal, and then probably sign another catcher as well, which I’d still bet on being Kelly Shoppach. They’d like to add a “veteran starter”, which is basically code for anyone better than Hector Noesi, which isn’t a super high bar to clear. Seager will get some reps at shortstop, which is necessary if they’re only going to carry Andino as a backup infielder, and Morse will be the emergency 3B who will take over if someone gets hurt after they pinch hit for Brendan Ryan.
On the minor league front, Stefen Romero is going to be used as a utility guy, playing second, third, and outfield. And Chris Gwynn, at least, thinks Zunino needs a good amount of seasoning in the minors before he gets to Seattle. But, yeah, not huge news.
If you want to watch the press conferences, Ryan Divish has videos and transcripts, and some additional thoughts from someone who was there. Feel free to check it out, especially if you like repetitive cliches.
1: The M’s were quite clear after trading John Jaso that they intended to pick up a veteran catcher to split time with Jesus Montero. Someone who wouldn’t cost a lot, so they can jettison him once they deem Mike Zunino MLB-ready, but someone who could handle a staff and with a bit more defensive chops than Jaso/Montero. Yesterday, they settled on Ronny Paulino, who signed for $1m which could grow to $1.2m if he breaks camp with the team. This may not be their final decision; there are several free agents out there, and they could always make another move either at the beginning or the end of spring training, but they have their veteran catcher now.
Paulino will be 32 for the season, and has played very sparingly the past two years. He’s a career .272/.324/.376 hitter, though much of that production came when he was the starter for the 2006-07 Pittsburgh Pirates. He had a solid year in limited time in 2009, but his power has dropped each season since then, and thus he’s not expected to add much at the plate. Behind it, the story’s mixed too. His CS% has dipped under 30% in recent years (though CS% is down league-wide too), and while he has fewer PB+WPs allowed per inning than Montero, Olivo or Jaso, he’s not exactly Pudge Rodriguez in that department.
Paulino’s main attribute is his ability to hit left-handed pitching; he’s got a career wOBA of .367 against southpaws. Still, it’s a bit strange given that Jesus Montero also hits lefties well, so the M’s aren’t platooning or helping shield Montero from tough RHPs. And there’s also the fact that Kelly Shoppach, a free-agent back-up catcher with slightly better CS%/PB numbers, has a career .374 wOBA against lefties. George Kottaras, the guy the A’s DFA’d to make room for Jaso, hits lefthanded and while his average will always be low, at least offers power/patience (sort of like Shoppach). Kottaras is no one’s idea of a great fielding catcher, so the move highlights that the M’s view the C position as a defense-first job. Despite publicly wanting to improve their offense, the M’s have willingly punted on offense at catcher in order to shore up some suspect defense.
This was highlighted today when Buster Olney reported that the Mariners included John Jaso in their proposed package for Justin Upton, which the D-Backs slugger vetoed. If true, it adds a bit more credence to reports that other GMs saw the M’s package as a gross overpay. It also highlights that the M’s appear to have been shopping Jaso around quite actively – he came up in rumors with the Pirates and Diamondbacks before ultimately heading to Oakland. There’s value in trading a guy like Jaso at the peak of his value, particularly if you think he just had a career year. But the willingness to include Jaso in various deals again shows how little the M’s brass thought of his catching prowess. I still don’t see why he was so much worse than Miguel Olivo or Jesus Montero, but the M’s front office, stocked with ex-catchers, obviously disagreed. They may have worried that Jaso wouldn’t work well with one of the pitching prospects, should Hultzen/Paxton/Maurer/Walker push their way to Seattle in the second half of the year. These are perhaps reasonable concerns, and the M’s were careful not to give Jaso a start at C with Erasmo Ramirez starting last year, but it’s still remarkable the degree to which they outweigh offense. In a year in which the M’s desperately need to improve their batting, they were still willing to punt Jaso due in part to concerns about his D.
2: In happier news, the Mariners are rumored to be discussing a new four-year extension with Felix Hernandez. Ken Rosenthal reports that a 4/$100 million deal to keep Felix a Mariner through 2018 may be a possibility. Felix’s current contract pays him about $20m per year for 2013 and 2014, and the extension would give him a raise to $25m/year from 2015-2018. Pitchers are impossible to project, and health issues make long contracts for hurlers risky. But I’m on board for this extension. Felix clearly, improbably, wants to stay, and the M’s need to make sure their best player and the undisputed face of the franchise does just that.
3: The Philadelphia Phillies added Delmon Young for $750,000. That’s a tiny sum in MLB terms, but it seems to keep Phillies’ prospect Domonic Brown blocked (unless they want Young to be a bench bat only). Many of you have already mentioned it on twitter, but I imagine many teams are inquiring about Brown’s availability in the wake of the Young signing. Given that the M’s team is mostly corner OFs and 1B/DHs, I can’t imagine Zduriencik would be involved too heavily, though it wouldn’t cost them much to swap out Brown for, say, Bay. USSM/Fangraphs head honcho Dave Cameron points out that Young isn’t that older than Brown, and may make sense for a team like Philadelphia that doesn’t care as much about bases on balls. He also points out that Brown hasn’t exactly made the most of his (few) chances with the Phillies.
4: Wendy Thurm had a great piece in Fangraphs today regarding the lawsuit several fans filed against MLB alleging that its blackout policy violated anti-trust laws. Yes, baseball’s had an anti-trust exemption, but that doesn’t mean the courts (or Congress) couldn’t revisit that. It’s fitting somewhat that Thurm’s article came out on the day that new reports valuing the Dodgers deal with Time Warner at between $7-8 billion came out. Many, like Maury Brown, pointed to Cleveland’s tv deal in late December as a sign that smaller teams can’t count on eye-popping deals like the LAs and Texas teams, and Thurm makes the good point that regional sports networks are probably factoring in losing this lawsuit either in the price they’re willing to pay or with opt-out language. The M’s can opt out of their current deal in 2015, but it seems increasingly likely that the market two years from now may be substantially different.
5: Finally, for those of you who’ve had enough of wall-to-wall Manti Te’o coverage, enjoy the single funniest baseball article I’ve read in the last year: Sam Miller’s satire on Baseball’s Greatest Hoax.
I know a lot of Mariners fans are tired of bad offensive teams. I know the Mariners are tired of bad offensive teams. In order to not have a bad offensive team next season, you’re more than willing to give up equal or greater amounts of pitching and defense, because you’re just tired of watching bad offensive teams.
Here’s the problem – if you want to win, you have to divorce yourself from that mindset. If you’re one of those who simply believes that the Mariners are doing the right thing by focusing solely on adding more power hitters in order to score more runs, please read this post. There’s some math, but it’s not scary math, and it’s not math you have to do. And the conclusion is perhaps the most important thing you can accept about baseball. I’m going to put the conclusion below this sentence, but you’ll want to read the whole post to see the evidence for yourself.
There is no evidence of additional benefit from improving a bad offense rather than improving a strong run prevention squad. There is simply no way to look at this data and suggest that there are strong levels of diminishing returns for run prevention, or that the models overrate the likelihood of a team with a bad offense’s chances of winning. If anything, the data points to the models slightly underrating those types of teams, and confirming the idea that, when it comes to winning more baseball games, a run is a run is a run.
Now, it’s almost certainly easier to improve on a weak offense than it is to improve on a strong run prevention group, or even vice versa. Filling a hole with a moderately useful player is simply not as challenging as upgrading on that a productive member of your team, and it’s certainly engrained within our personal psyche to focus on fixing what’s broken rather than improving areas that are working just fine. I’m not using this data to say that a team with a bad offense should just be content to keep having bad offensive clubs and focus entirely on preventing runs.
I am saying, however, that if a team makes a conscious decision to trade 20 runs allowed for 15 runs scored, they’re making a bad decision, no matter how bad their offense was the previous year. What matters is maximizing your ratio of runs scored to runs allowed, not reaching some kind of ideal balance between the two. Making a larger downgrade in pitching and defense in order to fix a bad offense is a trade-off that is likely to result in fewer wins. The same is likely true for swapping out hitters for pitchers, if you had a bad pitching staff last year.
Building a baseball team isn’t about simply improving on weaknesses. Building a baseball team is about putting as many good players on the field as possible, and caring too much what kinds of good players those are often leads to poor decision making. Don’t focus so much on scoring more runs or preventing more runs. Just focus on outscoring your opponent. That’s what wins games.
This isn’t “new stats versus old stats”, or “stats versus scouts”, or “insiders versus outsiders”, or any kind of argument that can be broken down along those lines. This is simply fact-based evidence. And that evidence simply refutes the idea that the Mariners are better off improving their offense, even if they have to sacrifice a greater number of runs prevented in order to make that improvement.
The “more power, more runs scored” approach to team building is simply incorrect. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t win games. Outscoring your opponent wins games. That’s the only thing the Mariners should care about.
Today, the M’s announced the hiring of 29-year old Aaron Goldsmith to be Rick Rizzs’ full-time partner in the radio booth. They’d rotated several people through that role since Dave Niehaus’ death in 2010, and wanted to bring someone on for continuity and consistency. Goldsmith served as the announcer for the Red Sox AAA affiliate in Pawtucket last year, and with the Rangers’ AA team in Frisco, TX before that. I’m sure he’ll be great, and while I don’t get as passionately upset/elated about announcers as many of you, I look forward to hearing how he works with the long-tenured Rizzs.
Many of you know that this blog is fond of a different AAA announcer, and were openly pulling for Mike Curto in this process. I am in absolutely no way an impartial, unbiased observer, so my two cents is worth even less here, but I’m disappointed Curto didn’t get a chance. That’s not a slight on Goldsmith, who didn’t create this situation and wasn’t involved the last time Mike got passed over. But I’ll be solipsistic for a minute and say that if the team wanted to undo some of the damage from yesterday’s news, they didn’t exactly do that.
I’m over the shock of the trade now, and I’ve had the chance to replace bile and dismissal with contemplation and discussions with smart people who like, er, ok, don’t mind this trade from the M’s perspective. The arguments still don’t convince me, but it might be helpful to step through why.
1: The M’s didn’t trade prospects, they made a simple 1-1 exchange for one of the most valuable commodities in baseball: power.
I think one of my biggest flaws as an analyst is that I tend to overrate prospects. Unlike Dave (and many of you), I thought the rumored deal for Justin Upton was too much for the M’s to give up. So believe me when I say that I’m not a “prospects mean nothing” or “prospects are just minor leaguers” type, and believe me when I say I’d rather have traded prospects. The Mariners goal for the past few seasons has been to upgrade their anemic offense. Their minor league system has enviable pitching depth. The Nationals wanted pitching. Instead, the Mariners traded away the guy who put up the best wOBA, wRC+, OPS, and even slugging percentage on the 2012 team.
2: The M’s had to rethink the move after the Nats signed Rafael Soriano – the Nationals needs changed 24 hours prior to this trade.
Again, that sounds plausible, but it isn’t completely exculpatory. The Nationals hung the “for sale” sign around Morse’s neck for weeks, and the M’s had plenty of relief depth to trade from. Maybe the Nats didn’t want a youngster like Stephen Pryor, but a package around Tom Wilhelmsen might have intrigued them (“proven closer”). And in the end, look at what the Nationals got back in return: RHP prospect AJ Cole, a hard-throwing kid who got blasted in the Cal League, but dominated the Midwest League after his demotion. No pitching prospects are exactly alike, but Brandon Maurer offers a better performance record at a higher level, and the gap in overall talent is lower than it once was (Maurer’s stock rose considerably last year). Not saying Maurer alone would’ve gotten it done, but I’m saying that the Nationals wanted pitching for Michael Morse, and they got it. The M’s seemed intent on moving Jaso, as they apparently didn’t see him as a catcher, so he was one of the myriad guys who may shuffle between 1B/DH/bench bat. In order to improve the team’s offense, the M’s seemed intent on moving one of their best offensive performers from 2012. Hmmm.
3: You can’t focus too much on 2012 stats. Morse was a beast in 2011, and Jaso was more or less replacement level. When Morse is healthy, he has upside that Jaso just doesn’t.
There are two things here, one of which is absolutely true, and one of which is almost certainly wrong. First, Morse had an amazing year at the plate, knocking 31 HRs in just shy of 150 games, and putting up a .390 wOBA. That same season, Jaso’s wOBA was .292. Both players have had career years and some, let’s say, challenging ones in the recent past. The problem is that when you combine defense and position into the equation, Jaso’s value looks pretty close to Morse’s upside value. That is, Jaso’s been worth 2.5 fWAR in 2010 and 2.7 fWAR in 2012, despite playing a lot less than Morse. Morse’s career year was worth 3.3 fWAR. Play Jaso anything approaching 130 games (even if not all are at catcher) and it’s easy to see him getting close to that 3.3 win figure. Given Morse’s age and injury history that Dave discussed yesterday and it’s harder to count on another 3 wins next year. The Fangraphs ‘fans’ projection (the average of fan estimates of what Morse would’ve done in DC) forecasts a big improvement in Morse’s skills in 2013 compared to 2012 – better power, fewer Ks, more walks – along with more games played. All of that only gets him to 2 WAR. That seems like a reasonable estimate not for a best case scenario but for a slightly optimistic one. To reiterate, Jaso put up 2.7 WAR last year and 2.5 WAR in 2010.
4: Morse consolidates value into one line-up and roster slot, instead of spreading the value across two in the case of platoon players like Jaso. Even at equivalent value, Morse allows you to do something with the extra roster spot.
Dave has mentioned why he doesn’t think Jaso needs to be typecast as a platoon player, and Matthew Carruth points to Jaso’s minor league numbers as more evidence that his usage is too restrictive. But let’s say you’ve dug in your heels and won’t hear of Jaso improving against lefties. If the goal is to improve the offense, or to field a line-up that has the potential to score more than 600 runs/year, you want Jaso on the club regardless. Regress his performance severely. Have him get fewer plate appearances. Cut his positional value if you disagree with Felix Hernandez and consider him worthless as a catcher. After all of that, Jaso still appears to add plenty of value to the line-up thanks to his approach. A guy who drew 55 unintentional walks to 51 Ks has value to the line-up even if he’s not knocking 30 HRs…especially to a team that posted the worst OBP in Major League Baseball. For the third consecutive season.
5: The Mariners can’t keep building low-cost, club-controlled but flawed teams. The Mariners needed to change course and really attempt to win. Getting a proven slugger to pair with growth from Seager/Ackley/Montero shows that the M’s aren’t content to compete in 2016, they are taking a run at 2013.
The Mariners have obviously had plenty of flaws, but once again, the M’s haven’t posted a team on base percentage above .300 since Jose Lopez was good (in 2009, they finished merely last in the AL, unlike the last three seasons when they’ve ignored the DH rule and posted worse OBPs than every team in the NL). Getting a slugger to protect Kyle Seager sounds great, but this gets back into the well-trod ground about “protection” or about how many HRs you need to be a successful team. This isn’t beating a dead horse, this is whipping protohippus fossils. I think this argument really stems from the idea that the M’s committed to building a team a certain way, and need to change the way their entire approach to player value. We’ve all seen so many losses that looking at the team and saying, “Whatever you’re doing, just do the opposite” seems logical as well as cathartic. The problem is that everyone has a slightly different idea of what they thought the M’s were trying to do. And no matter what your preferred ‘philosophy’ of team construction, the fact remains that John Jaso showed that he could potentially add some value to your club. A high-OBP guy, an up-the-middle defender (albeit not a pretty one), someone whose power seemed to make a large jump after reworking his swing – this seems like the kind of player you would accommodate. If you’re a power/offense-first type, you might limit him to a platoon, and limit his C innings. If you’re an on-base/Moneyball type, maybe you *increase* his playing time and keep him at C. If you want to squeeze value out of certain spots and bring in big-ticket free agents, you could do either one. But it’s pretty hard to see him as a problem, particularly if you’re focused on offense. There is perhaps no greater difference of opinion between the blogosphere and the M’s front office than how we value John Jaso and perhaps Casper Wells. In many cases, there may be more to it when we bash a move the FO makes – lots behind the scenes that, if we on the outside knew, might change or at least ameliorate our confusion/disagreement. I kind of doubt that’s the case here.
I’d love to win now; I’m really sick of following a last-place team. But that’s somewhat dangerous, for the reasons many talked about after the Wil Myers for James Shields deal. The M’s get Morse for one season (unless they negotiate an extension), and absolutely everything needs to break right in that season for the M’s to pass OAK/LAA/TEX. Not to say it can’t happen, but it’s fairly unlikely that everything goes right for Seattle and simultaneously many, many things go wrong elsewhere in the division. It’s possible that the need to “go for it” and change the culture is more important than we basement-dwelling bloggers know, but it’s scary to see how blurry the line between “going for it” and “desperation” is.
6: You just hate Mike Morse from his days as a slightly odd M’s prospect without much power and without a position.
Anyone who’s played parts of 2 seasons in Tacoma is OK in my book. Seriously. Whatever league Bobby Livingston is in, I hope he makes its all-star team. All things equal, I’d rather purchase insurance from TJ Bohn than somebody else. If Juan Thomas really is a police officer in Atlanta, then I need everyone in the ATL to mind their Ps and Qs. I hope Mike Morse hits 31 HRs again, and it’s pretty cool that he became a huge fan favorite in DC. I’ll be cheering for him. But I still don’t understand this move unless it really WAS an attempt to win now. I know many of you are sick of talking/arguing about this, so I won’t dwell on it. I’m glad Michael Morse is back, but I’m worried about what it says about this organization.
Obviously, I’m not a big fan of yesterday’s trade from the Mariners perspective. I don’t think it makes the Mariners better in the short or long term, and I think how the Mariners evaluated the relative merits of the two players suggests a problematic approach towards valuing different skills. A few years ago, the Mariners were focused on adding value in any form they could find it; today, the Mariners are focused on scoring more runs. It’s an understandable reaction to the offensive struggles of the last few seasons, but it’s regrettable at the same time, and the focus on simply improving the team’s run scoring instead of their run differential is going to make it less likely that the team is competitive in 2013.
So, no, I haven’t talked myself into liking this move a day later. But, I will say that we should probably realize that this Mariners team, with this coaching staff, might be slightly better off with Mike Morse than they would have been with John Jaso. Because, whether it is rational or not, John Jaso wasn’t going to be a significant piece of the Mariners team next year. The world in which John Jaso got 450 plate appearances and was the team’s regular catcher against right-handers was a fantasy that simply wasn’t going to happen.
It may very well happen in Oakland, since the A’s think about baseball differently than the Mariners do. And I think we could make a pretty strong case that it should have happened in Seattle, and that the evidence points to the team’s unwillingness to use Jaso behind the plate more often being a mistake, but it was always going to be a hypothetical. Had the team gone into camp with Jaso and Montero as the catching tandem, the likely outcome was Montero taking a larger bulk of the duties, with Raul Ibanez or Justin Smoak sliding into either the 1B or DH spot so that the team could keep Jaso on the bench and not have to carry a third catcher on the roster this year. We’ve talked about the inflexibility that the team has because of all the defensively challenged players on the roster. The Mariners solution to that problem was to not put both catchers in the line-up on the same day.
Had the Mariners not made this trade, John Jaso’s value almost certainly would have gone down over the next six months, as the staff would have relegated him into a role that gave him even less playing time than he got last year. We would have spent the entire year screaming about the daily line-ups, with Ibanez regularly slotted in as the starting DH while Jaso sat on the bench. It would have been not too dissimilar to last April, when Jaso was buried as the 25th man and hardly ever played, and his presence was more a source of frustration for the fans than a source of value for the team.
That shouldn’t have been the alternative, but that’s what life in Seattle held for John Jaso in 2013. And so, yes, Mike Morse will likely provide more value to the team next year than Jaso would have, because Jaso as the regular catcher against right-handers wasn’t on the table. This trade didn’t end that possibility, because that wasn’t a consideration even before the trade. That’s simply not a job that this organization was willing to entrust him with.
Or, to use a metaphor, John Jaso was a t-bone steak in a vegan’s refrigerator. If that vegan converted into being a carnivore, they had some delicious dinner waiting for them, but as long as they remained a vegan, they just had an item taking up room in their cooler that wasn’t ever going to be used. So, the vegan found a carnivorous neighbor who had some extra celery root and a few carrots that he didn’t need anymore, and now the neighbor gets a free steak dinner and the vegan gets to go on with the type of dinner they prefer.
Trading John Jaso for Mike Morse is a sign of the organization’s commitment to baseball veganism. John Jaso doesn’t provide the kind of package that they want in a catcher. We can argue about whether or not they should value him as a catcher, but this trade is simply a byproduct of that evaluation, and that evaluation was made a long time ago.
I’d rather have Morse on the roster than have Jaso as a 200 PA catcher who wastes away watching lesser players get his playing time. And, while there was a theoretically viable third option, it wasn’t viable in Seattle. So, perhaps, making this trade was the lesser to two evils, and perhaps, the Mariners will be better off than they would have been had they not made the trade. The best option, the one we’re comparing the Morse acquisition to, wasn’t an option in Seattle.
That’s too bad. And it speaks to a larger organizational problem. But it wasn’t something that was going to change, and keeping Jaso around as a once-per-week catcher wasn’t going to do the team any good either. Given the position that their evaluation of his abilities boxed them into, this might very well be preferable to the alternative. And now, at least, we don’t have to spend every day of the 2013 season lamenting the fact that the team’s best left-handed hitter isn’t in the line-up.