The Fundamental Flaw

Dave · January 16, 2013 at 5:29 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

You’ve heard, by now, that the Mariners traded John Jaso for Mike Morse. The spin is essentially going to go something like this:

The Mariners needed to improve their offense, specifically, hitting for power. Mike Morse is a better hitter than Jaso, and because he doesn’t have Jaso’s large platoon splits, he can affect the line-up everyday. As a platoon catcher, Jaso’s value was limited to only playing against right-handers, and with Mike Zunino on the way, he didn’t have a future behind the plate for the Mariners. Jesus Montero and Kendrys Morales were going to make it difficult to get him at-bats at DH, and the team had hole in the outfield. Thus, by trading a C/DH for an outfielder, they’re dealing from a position of strength to fill a void.

There are some true statements in there. John Jaso does have big platoon splits. The Mariners did have a bit of a glut of C/1B/DH types. John Jaso is coming off a career year, and he won’t repeat his numbers from 2012 again. The problem comes when you try to stretch all those true statements together to form a rational defense of trading a younger, cheaper, more valuable player for one who is simply worse overall.

The only way to view Morse as an improvement over Jaso is to think in a particularly narrow minded way, seeing players primarily through the lens of labels, mostly defined by their hitting abilities. Mike Morse is a “power bat”, John Jaso is a “part time player”. And who wouldn’t rather have a guy who can hit cleanup rather than a guy who needs to sit on the bench regularly?

Of course, players are far more complex beings than that, and seeing baseball through that kind of particular worldview was a hallmark of the last Mariners front office. You remember those days, back when Carlos Silva was “an innings eater”, Jarrod Washburn was a “proven workhorse”, and Richie Sexson was a “big bat”. The Mariners fired the last guy who thought in those terms, but not before he had torn the franchise down to shreds and left it in ruins. You cannot build a winning baseball team by evaluating a player’s value in terms of generic cliches.

Back in October, I wrote about the need to stop underrating John Jaso. I’m going to quote three paragraphs from that post, but just go read the whole thing.

There is simply no argument to be made that Jaso’s problems against left-handers or his throwing serve to significantly drag down his value to the point where he’s best served in some kind of part-time bench role like he was used this year. His usage this year was a mistake, and one that should absolutely be corrected in 2013.

John Jaso is a Major League quality starting catcher, and based on his MLB performance to date — again, in over two full seasons worth of playing time — he’s showed that he’s probably one of the 10 best catchers in baseball. That doesn’t mean you have to run him out there against every left-hander, but using him like the Diamondbacks used Montero or the White Sox used Pierzynski is completely rational. That’s around 120 starts per year, with a bias towards using his days off when a left-hander is on the mound.

John Jaso is pretty obviously the team’s best hitter right now. He might very well be the team’s best player, even with his moderate power, big platoon splits, and his mediocre throwing arm. While Eric Wedge failed to recognize Jaso’s strengths and simply focused on his weaknesses, that doesn’t mean that we have to do the same. Jaso isn’t a perfect player, but besides Joe Mauer, there are no perfect left-handed hitting Major League catchers. Other organizations have realized that the positives so far outweigh the negatives that they’ve simply found a capable right-handed hitting back-up to start 40 games a year and let their lefty hitting catchers be significant assets to the organization.

John Jaso, with his inability to hit left-handers and his poor throwing arm, is still an above average Major League catcher. He’s comparable in overall value to Alex Avila, who was the starting catcher for the team that just won the American League. Because there are so few catchers in baseball who can hit, even a bad defender who can hit right-handers like Jaso can puts him in rare company. Even limiting him to just 450 plate appearances, due to strict platooning, Jaso’s career average grades out to about +2.3 WAR. If you assume that any of his 2012 improvement was real, and that he’s better than a straight career average, then he’s closer to a +2.5 to +3.0 WAR player.

Now, no one has figured out how to perfectly evaluate everything a catcher does. We can make a pretty good guess at the obvious things, like controlling the running game and keeping pitches from going to the backstop. Those things are already included in WAR, since they’re not that hard to measure. There are other parts of catching that are not easy to measure, and are not included in WAR, so no one is claiming that WAR is the gospel truth here. Jaso could easily be a worse player than WAR calculations suggest. In fact, given his defensive reputation, that’s probably the truth. So, hey, let’s just knock a win off of his value, in addition to the penalty he’s already getting for allowing stolen bases and blocking balls in the dirt. Let’s call him a +1.5 to +2.0 win player, assuming that there really are big parts of catcher defense that we can’t accurately measure, and assuming that Jaso is terrible at those things.

Guess what? That’s still better than Mike Morse. Dan Szymborski released his ZIPS projections for the Nationals a few weeks ago, and he has Morse at +1.4 WAR in 2013. Because, quite simply, there’s more to baseball than hitting home runs, and Mike Morse is pretty terrible at every part of baseball that isn’t hitting home runs.

For a more detailed breakdown, you can read this post I wrote on Morse last week. We go through his offensive projections (still pretty decent!), but also through his defensive value (awful), his baserunning skills (lousy), and his durability (not good). Despite all the talk about Morse being a “full time player”, he’s dealt with a litany of health problems during his career, and has only managed to play more than 102 games once in his career. You simply can’t project Morse as a 150 game regular next year, and his deficiencies in the field and on the bases cut into his value even when he is in the line-up.

Morse has power. His power is valuable. It helps make him a decent player even though he doesn’t do anything else at a Major League level. In a lot of ways, Morse is similar to Kendrys Morales, in that his power tool is good enough to carry him despite being a pretty one dimensional player. It’s useful to have these kinds of players, but if you don’t do anything besides hit, you better be a spectacular hitter. Morse is not a spectacular hitter. He’s a decent hitter, an above average hitter, but he doesn’t walk, he strikes out a decent amount, and he doesn’t run the bases well. When you only do one thing, it significantly limits your value.

So, in reality, the Mariners are swapping an average-ish player (if you give Jaso a big penalty for catcher defense) for an average-ish player. Only, the average-ish player they’re receiving has one year left on his contract, while the average-ish player they’re giving up is under team control for three more years. Even if you ignore the roughly $6 million difference in salary, Morse would have to be a significantly better player than Jaso to justify giving up two extra years, as the Mariners have done here.

And, of course, there’s the problem of roster construction. We talked about how the pieces fit together the other day, noting that the Mariners couldn’t simply acquire another hitter without giving any consideration to defense. While Morse officially takes Jaso’s spot on the roster, they obviously have to replace Jaso with another catcher, so there are one of three players who could go away to make room for Morse on the roster: Jason Bay (the best choice), Casper Wells (the likely choice), or Justin Smoak (the easy choice).

Because the Mariners already have a glut of 1B/DH types, Morse is almost certainly going to get a decent amount of playing time in the outfield. Right now, he displaces Wells as the third starting OF — despite the fact that Wells is probably Morse’s equal in terms of value going forward — and moves Wells and Bay into a competition for the fourth OF job. If the Mariners wanted to keep both, they could theoretically option Smoak to Tacoma, then use Bay in the outfield against lefties with Morse shifting to first base, which is the role Smoak was slotted in for when we did the exercise the other day. Or, if Bay shows nothing in spring training, then the could just cut him and go with both Smoak and Wells as reserves. The problem is that there wouldn’t be much playing time for either one, and the lack of defensive flexibility would cause the team some real problems with in-game strategy.

More likely, I think, is that the Mariners trade Wells along with one of their extra bullpen arms for starting pitcher, taking him out of the picture entirely. Then, they’ll bring in a super utility type who can play both IF and OF to round out the bench, then let Bay and Smoak compete for the final bench spot depending on who has a better spring.

In the end, I’d bet that this series of moves is likely going to end up looking something like Jaso, Wells, and a reliever for Morse, a free agent catcher of some sort, and whatever pitcher Wells can bring back in return. And the Mariners are not likely going to get any more production from their new trio than they would have from just keeping Jaso and Wells and using the salary difference to sign a free agent pitcher. Only, now, they also don’t have Jaso’s future, probably won’t have Wells’ future, and might very well get a worse pitcher than they would have had they gone after a free agent starter back when there were still some good ones available.

The Mariners didn’t need offense. The Mariners needed talent. The Mariners didn’t get a talent upgrade today. They turned one piece into a less valuable piece, all because the new guy does the thing that that everyone has been wanting to see more of; hit home runs. Home runs are nice, but the 1990s Mariners should have taught everyone that home runs don’t win games. Runs, of all shapes and sizes, win games. And Mike Morse won’t help the Mariners outscore their opponents any more than John Jaso would have.

Just like with the Brandon Morrow swap, this is just the Mariners misevaluating a player they had, because they focused too much on what he wasn’t good at. Just like the Brandon League acquisition is looked back on as a silly one, so will this. The Mariners paid a premium to not get better in the present and cost them some value in the future.



126 Responses to “The Fundamental Flaw”

  1. terryoftacoma on January 17th, 2013 10:15 am

    Not upset at all Jason(well maybe some) I fully expected this short term run this year.

  2. ChrisFB on January 17th, 2013 10:15 am

    I don’t know, Chris. Morales was an improvement – but enough to get us to .500?

    It depends on who you think is an upgrade or replacement for who on the roster, production-wise. Morse is a replacement for Jaso, in one sense, because they’re swapped out, literally replacing one another. But will their playing time be the same? Will the net effect of Morse plus whoever-backup-catcher is, be equal to or greater than the net contribution of positions-Morse-plays plus Jaso?

    If for the sake of optimism, and the sake of simplicity of math, you assume everything is net neutral… i.e. assume the bullpen is still good, that full seasons of Iwakuma and Erasmo are equivalent to last year’s Vargas and Millwood, that the net add of Morales-Ibanez-Morse-Andino-TBD catcher is no worse than the loss of Jaso-Kawasaki-Olivo-Figgins… I guess it’s a way of asking what the improvement from the kids will be.

    It’s a huge assumption, yes, but what if all other things were equal and we saw a step forward from Ackley, Montero, Smoak (assuming he stays…), Saunders, and if we see Seager contribute in 2013 similar to 2012? That seems .500ish. It’s also a house of cards.

  3. amnizu on January 17th, 2013 10:26 am

    Overall, this is a bad trade but it is not a catastrophic one, its not like it will prevent the M’s from a playoff run. Once you it combined with all the other poor moves this off season a pattern of suboptimal management becomes clear, which makes me wonder why? I personally don’t think Z is stupid of desperate. I would call for Z’s head but this move has changed my perception on the overall direction of the franchise.

    Perhaps this really is a long term play and bet on Montero or Zunino being the catcher for the next 3 season.

    Perhaps the team has finally decided that it needs to get worse before it can get better.

    Perhaps this is why Z has been reluctant to give up the #12 pick to sign a mid-market free agent.

    Maybe the FO is finally saying, we need to stop the mediocrity and be bad enough to get top five draft picks and truly build through youth.

    The down side of this approach is, if true, it means that Felix will probably need to be traded for young talent and we’ll have to suffer through a few years of 60 to 65 win seasons. I’m fine with this if it means the team is built to Z’s strength, drafting and grooming young talent. It is probably what should have been done four years ago.

  4. bfgboy on January 17th, 2013 10:59 am

    After being ticked off and wondering aloud how much of a buffoon Jack Z. was, I think I started to grasp a little bit of what he might be trying to accomplish. After realizing that none of the “big fish” were interested in coming to Seattle, he had to re-format a plan that not only moved the team forward, but addressed the issues that kept the “big fish” away. I think it is reasonable to say that a huge factor in not getting people to play here is that Safeco is viewed as a wasteland for well-hit balls. How can you break that perception? By putting out a lineup that has hitters that can have the power to hit the ball out of EVERY park, Jack Z. can change the perception of Safeco.

    Check out the data at hittrackeronline, and you’ll see that both Morales and Morse AVERAGED well over 400 feet on each of their home runs last year, and Ibanez averaged over 390. Z didn’t just get home run hitters, he got guys that hit monster shots. In terms of average distance on home runs, each of those guys are top 20. Every home run these guys hit would be out of just about every ballpark in the majors. By moving in the fences (helping the current M’s) and getting these guys to each knock 20-30, he is banking on obliterating the view that Safeco is where homers go to die.

    The beauty of this whole plan is that they are all signed to one-year contracts. Along with Guti and Chone, the worst case scenario is that they all tank, we get 30 million off of the books next year, and start the whole process over, but with twice as much money to throw around and more “seasoning” for our kids. The best case scenario (which is very real) is that these guys perform or even exceed expectations, obliterate the negative perception of Safeco, and get traded for good pieces at the deadline. All this occurs while Zunino, Cerberus, Franklin, and Romero get their initiation to the bigs.

    I am sick to death of the “wait ’till next year” crap, but I can kind of see this. We are no longer in five-year plan territory, but two-year territory looks real. While I’m not jumping for joy, I can convince myself that these moves, along with maybe Rick Porcello and Kelly Shoppach, can get us through this year. As long as we beat the Astros…

  5. eponymous coward on January 17th, 2013 11:15 am

    Perhaps the team has finally decided that it needs to get worse before it can get better.

    How much worse do you need to get than three consecutive last place finishes, and seven last place finishes in the last nine years, with precisely zero meaningful games after the first week of September during that whole time?

    I’ll point something out here: Morales, Ryan, Morse, Bay, Ibañez, Gutierrez will all be pretty much able to be cleared off the books after this year. So if this does turn out to be a debacle

    That being said, if I told you the Mariners were going to spend $10 million in combined salary in 2013 on three over-30 guys to play the OF with a combined WAR that was less than Casper Wells’ 2012 WAR, and that they’d also trade John Jaso to do it… well, yeah, I think it’s perfectly valid to think that this is Bill Bavasi 2.0. Overspending for marginal bats is just as dumb as overspending for mediocre starting pitching. The only upside is that if this turns out to be as bad an idea as it appears to be at first glance, it isn’t going to cripple the franchise past 2013. We’ll have just wasted another year of Felix, etc.

  6. ThanatosK on January 17th, 2013 11:16 am

    hmm, very interesting bfgboy. i hadn’t thought of that but yes, i can at least see that idea. even if it’s not true, i’ll choose to believe it cuz it gives me more hope and makes me feel better.

  7. Seattleken on January 17th, 2013 11:22 am

    Interesting idea but its a scary reach that Z was looking for guys who can hit not only homeruns but ones that travel a long way. You might be right that this was a consideration in his thinking.

    But if that is true it makes him worse as a GM in my mind. What basis is homerun distance a critical factor on player value? The GM should be looking at overall player value on base percentage, power, speed, defense, durability and of course team need.

    To focus on going for guys that hit the ball farther in very low sample sizes is frankly quite faulty. Why not then only look for hitters who pull their homers down the line like Jose Lopez did, as then the distance to hit a homer is less?

  8. ThanatosK on January 17th, 2013 11:27 am

    are you sure he didn’t? how much do morales, ibanez, and morse pull their HR’s?

  9. downwarddog on January 17th, 2013 11:33 am

    This medieval linear comment board makes the discussion very difficult to follow, please switch to Disqus or some other format.

  10. currcoug on January 17th, 2013 11:34 am

    14 of Morse’s 18 HR’s in 2012 were to RF..but his moonshots averaged almost 403 feet. As Frank Stampf pointed out, however, it is going to take Morse time to adjust to AL pitching again…

  11. amnizu on January 17th, 2013 11:35 am

    >How much worse do you need to get than three consecutive last place finishes, and seven last place finishes in the last nine years, with precisely zero meaningful games after the first week of September during that whole time?

    You’re only looking at AL West finishes, not overall MLB finishes. As far as overall record is concerned this team has been in the mediocrity range for the majority of the last 10 seasons. The seasons they were awful, they got good picks back. Zunino, Ackely, Morrow.

  12. Dobbs on January 17th, 2013 12:20 pm

    Dave, what are the chances you ever work for the FO of the Mariners? I’m tired of reading these posts and would rather the Mariners follow some of your advice, as you’ve clearly demonstrated the proper acumen for acquiring players to help build a roster.

  13. hailcom on January 17th, 2013 12:21 pm

    The emotional reaction to this trade seems overblown. There are some talent evaluators I respect, Jason Churchill for one, who regard Morse as a significantly better hitter than Jaso. So, losing Jaso’s years v. improving the hitting for 2013 seems like a decision a not-crazy, not-stupid GM might make. Projections are just projections, of course, and the trade may look bad in hind sight, or it might not. I’m happy to have our prospects not traded away. The team make-up does seem heavy with bad defense, slow-footed types right now and I hope that changes, but this trade seems more of a blip than a catastrophe to me.

  14. Dobbs on January 17th, 2013 12:26 pm

    Also… Morse, Ibanez and Montero are pretty much the same player at this point. None can play the field and aren’t really good enough hitters to be average as a DH.

    Jaso and Wells were at least average players who can play the field. With Morales we got a guy who can hit well enough to DH. The focus on acquiring a big hitter could’ve just been in getting Laroche in FA without giving up a guy like Jaso.

    Instead, Oakland just got a great hitter that can catch… Billy Beane just improved his team and we got worse.

  15. eponymous coward on January 17th, 2013 12:44 pm

    You’re only looking at AL West finishes, not overall MLB finishes. As far as overall record is concerned this team has been in the mediocrity range for the majority of the last 10 seasons. The seasons they were awful, they got good picks back. Zunino, Ackely, Morrow.

    The “majority” of their seasons post-2003 (five out of nine) have been 93 losses or more. So 55% of the past nine years this has been a team you can’t call anything other than “bad”… and for the rest of the franchise’s history, they have only had eight other of those seasons (out of 25). Oh, and Jack Zduriencik was so enamored of that great pick you mentioned he traded the player picked for a mediocre reliever.

    You’re not exactly making a strong argument for “it needs to get worse before it gets better”. News flash: we are already a franchise that’s a joke, things are already “worse”. Remember, this is one of two franchises to have never appeared in a World Series, as well as one of a handful who’s not played in the postseason in a few years, and you have to think the Nationals have a decent shot in 2013. Us? Not so much.

    Also: how is it that if the strategy is to get terrible before you get good, how does Billy Beane make postseasons with cheap A’s clubs and never having a terrible team (no years with 90 losses ever)? Is he screwing things up by not having a couple of 100 loss A’s teams over the past decade or two?

  16. Snuffleupagus on January 17th, 2013 12:52 pm


    I think the emotional response is due to the stupidity, not the impact on the team.

    If someone does something really stupid that barely hurts the team, it almost illicits a more emotional response. It’s kind of frightening for the state of the team and future.

    If someone does something smart(or at least not stupid) that really hurts the team (like Chone Figgins), the response is less emotional.

    fuck this stupid trade.

  17. Dobbs on January 17th, 2013 12:55 pm

    “So, losing Jaso’s years v. improving the hitting for 2013 seems like a decision a not-crazy, not-stupid GM might make.”

    Problem is it doesn’t improve the team and Jaso should have more value than Morse. Know any other good-hitting left-handed hitting catchers on the market that could also DH pretty well?

  18. Dobbs on January 17th, 2013 12:57 pm

    “If someone does something really stupid that barely hurts the team, it almost illicits a more emotional response.”

    Except this could be a 4-win swing if we have a 0-win catcher replace Jaso and a 1.5 win Morse replace a 2.5 win Wells.

    Not to mention the money spent on Morse and Ibanez could’ve easily been spent on Edwin Jackson or Adam LaRoche to increase our wins in other positions.

    And where do you find a 2+ win catcher now other than rushing Zunino up?

  19. Westside guy on January 17th, 2013 1:03 pm

    “Dave, what are the chances you ever work for the FO of the Mariners?”

    The team already hired Tom Tango a couple years ago – why would they need a SECOND person to ignore?

  20. currcoug on January 17th, 2013 1:04 pm

    Unlike Upton, Michael Morse isn’t crying about being traded to Seattle.

  21. terryoftacoma on January 17th, 2013 1:09 pm

    Just curious but what source are you using to get 2.5 WAR for Wells? Fangraphs has him at 1.2 last year and 1.1 is this year fan projection.

  22. terryoftacoma on January 17th, 2013 1:31 pm

    haha Westy. That made me laugh.

  23. Choo on January 17th, 2013 1:52 pm

    You guys are crazy. Logjam? I don’t see a logjam. I see a group of pinch hitters that is nothing short of fucking bad ass. Down 5-1 in the 8th inning? Yeah, good luck holding that lead, Texas! We are about to empty the bench and fuck up your shit to the tune of 5-2, maybe even 5-3!

    Wait. What’s that you say? Our pinch hitters are in the starting lineup? Well sheeeit . . .

    This roster is a total clustercuss.

  24. amnizu on January 17th, 2013 1:53 pm

    eponymous coward

    The point is for only 3 of the past 10 years the team was BAD ENOUGH to receive a top 5 pick. Two of those three pick were made by Z. We know that Z has a history of being an excellent scout and talent identifier.

    He is showing through the trade of Morrow as you mention and his other recent moves, or non moves, that he isn’t much of a negotiator at the MLB level. So play to your strengths, much like Billy Beane does. If you’re good at talent evaluation then build the team through the draft the way he did in Milwaukee. Billy Beane builds his team the way he knows how and using his skills and abilities. Z is not Beane, he never will be, so stop expecting him to behave like someone he is not. There is more than one way to construct a winning MLB roster.

  25. stevemotivateir on January 17th, 2013 4:01 pm

    BTW, would you have been upset if Z had dealt Jaso to the A’s for the package the Nats received?

    This is really dragging out. I really don’t think you’re following me, but that’s ok.

    To answer your question, which should have already been clear, NO. No I didn’t want to see Jaso traded and especially not to a division rival.

    I don’t care about the return of a pitching prospect. Jaso’s a proven, effective player now, who is now under Oakland’s control for a significant amount of time.

  26. Dobbs on January 17th, 2013 4:07 pm

    “Just curious but what source are you using to get 2.5 WAR for Wells? Fangraphs has him at 1.2 last year and 1.1 is this year fan projection.”

    In 656 plate appearances over his career, he has 4.1 WAR. Double his plate appearances last year and he’s about 2.5.

    Make him a full-time player and he’s shown to be plenty capable of being at least average.

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