Podcast: The Mariners are Really Upsetting

April 25, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 32 Comments 

The last time Jeff and I recorded a podcast, the Mariners had just dropped a series to the Astros, a team we were confident that the Mariners should steamroll. This time is different though because this time the Mariners dropped a series to the Astros in Houston. Also, now we’ve lost most if not all expectations that the Mariners are significantly better than the Astros. The season starting Mariners probably were, but that team is already gone.

So, big time warning here on the explicitness. Really. We are displeased and since we don’t script or rehearse these beforehand our displeasure typically manifests itself in a string of curses. Do not play this over your speakers at work. Do not play this around people with fragile sensitivities. Perhaps just don’t play this. Go outside instead, it’s pretty enjoyable out there. The Mariners are not enjoyable.

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When Do People Start Getting Fired?

April 24, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 93 Comments 

In my pre-season preview of sorts, I wrote the following paragraph:

And, finally, I expect everyone will be back for one more run next year. I think the young guys will show enough to keep anyone from getting fired, though the team won’t win enough to earn long term extensions for everyone in charge either. They’ll get one more shot to win with the young players they’ve acquired. 2014 is the make-or-break year. 2013 is another building-for-the-future season, or will be seen that way in retrospect, at least.

I take it back. This team is going to get people fired. The question now is more when and who than if. And given how badly the team has started, I know a lot of you are hoping to see these changes sooner rather than later.

Side note – I take no pleasure in writing about people potentially losing their jobs. These are still human beings with families to support and bills to pay, and you’d be surprised how little MLB teams pay their front office staff below the GM level. If there is a regime change and the new guy eventually cleans house, there are going to be a lot of people out of work who aren’t independently wealthy. That sucks. I have a lot of empathy for people who might be eventually unemployed because of this team, especially the ones at the lower pay grades. Please don’t take this as rooting for people to get fired.

But, before we go starting any kind of lynch mob, it’s worth remembering that emotional decisions that are solely made to make a point are often regrettable in retrospect. If the Mariners are going to make some changes at the front office or field staff level, they should be able to explain why those changes are going to help move the organization forward. Taking a pound of flesh might appease the angry horde, but the Mariners should be in the business of improving the organization, not simply bowing to public pressure. Responding to the push for “more dingers!” is part of why the 2013 Mariners put together a dreadful roster in the first place.

So, let’s start with the field staff. I’ve never made a big secret out of my disagreements with Eric Wedge, and I don’t think he’s shown that he’s a very good evaluator of talent or that he has a good grasp on what traits should be emphasized to build a winning baseball team. In short, I don’t think Eric Wedge is the right guy to be the Mariners manager long term, and I won’t be too sad to see him move on at some point. But, what good would firing Eric Wedge do right now, really?

You’re not going to go conduct a full managerial search. Those happen in the off-season, not the middle of the year when the candidates are committed to other organizations. And, unless you know for sure that you’re not changing GMs, hiring a permanent manager now just means you have an awkward situation if you do make a change in the front office, since new GMs generally want the power to bring in their own staff. If you lay the blame for this team at the feet of Eric Wedge — certainly, he deserves some of the blame, so I’m not absolving him of responsibility for this roster — all you’re really going to accomplish is removing him so that you can promote a coach that was selected based in large part on his ability to work with Eric Wedge.

Carl Willis is here primarily because of his previous relationship with Wedge. Robby Thompson and Jeff Datz were with Wedge in Cleveland, and Datz was his bench coach, the guy who usually has the most interaction with the manager during games. The only “new guy” on the bench is Dave Hansen, who came over from the Dodgers to serve as hitting coach this year, but are you really excited about promoting the team’s hitting coach right now? Is there any indication that anyone on the staff now would be doing anything any differently?

Making change just for the sake of making change is usually useless. That doesn’t mean I’m completely against the idea of replacing Eric Wedge in-season, but I’d like to see a reason for the change simply beyond “I’m frustrated and someone has to take the fall for this.”

In some ways, managers are hired to be the fall guy for when the roster goes badly, and since Wedge had a lot of input into how this particular roster was built, it’s not totally unfair for him to take the fall for the performance of this team. But, is firing him now going to actually make things any better? If not, then what’s the point? As illogical as some of Wedge’s decisions are, it’s not like the team has a bunch of talented reserves who are getting shut out of playing time right now. The Mariners got rid of all those guys over the winter. The reserves suck now. Getting a new manager to play the bench guys more often would probably make the team worse, not better.

I don’t think it really makes all that much sense to fire Eric Wedge until you’ve also decided you’re going to fire Jack Zduriencik and go another direction. And firing a GM in season comes with some complications.

The main one is the draft. We’re six weeks away from the Mariners selecting 12th overall, and there’s a lot of work that has already been done to get the staff prepared to pick another crop of young prospects. Making a change at the GM level doesn’t mean that Tom McNamara would do his job any differently, but it adds another variable to the mix. Does whoever get promoted from within to hold the job on an interim basis — the most likely candidate would be Assistant GM Jeff Kingston, though Tony Blengino is also still on the team’s payroll, and would give the team a different voice than what they have at the moment — decide to pull rank and exercise more control in the draft room in order to try and make a name for himself in hopes of landing the full time job? You’d hope not, but is that a dynamic you really want to mess with right now? If there’s one area the organization has succeeded at in the Jack Zduriencik era, it’s been drafting. I’m not sure I’d want to mess with the current organizational structure before these guys got to do the thing they’re best at.

After the draft, it’s a little more palatable to make a change, but it’s still not the easiest transition ever. At that point, you’d be looking at seven weeks before the trade deadline, so it’s a time where a lot of important decisions are going to have to be made, including some that could have some long term ramifications for the franchise. Maybe the Mariners will decide that they don’t want Jack to be the guy making those calls if they’ve already determined that he won’t be back next year, but would you feel any better with an interim GM making those decisions? Remember when Lee Pelekoudas was the interim GM of the Mariners in 2008, and he was reportedly overruled on several veterans-for-prospects trades he attempted to make? Are the Mariners really better off with a guy who isn’t empowered to make the final call than they are with a lame duck?

A few years ago, Jim Hendry was fired by the Cubs on July 22nd but stayed on until August 19th in order to help the club transition through the deadline. Bavasi was fired mid-season, as we noted. Josh Byrnes was fired by the Diamondbacks on July 1st, 2010, and then replaced by Kevin Towers a few months later. But there aren’t a lot of other examples of in-season GM changes. Baseball America has an executive database and you can go through each team’s GM history and see the date of the hirings and firings; they’re almost all in October or November.

Realistically, if you’ve gotten to the point where you think the organization is headed in the wrong direction — I reached that point this off-season — and are in need of new blood, then you’re probably going to be waiting until this coming winter to see the new GM brought in. Making a change now might guarantee that a change is made, but it doesn’t necessarily put you in a better position long term, unless you think Jack, Wedge, and company are actively undermining the development of the players on the roster with their presence. Maybe they are, I don’t know. But “maybe, I don’t know” isn’t a reason for me to throw my full support behind a house cleaning that will lead to a bunch of interim replacements.

My sense is that the guys in charge needed a non-embarrassing season to keep their jobs, to keep organizational faith in the process, and show that there were positive steps in the right direction, even if those steps didn’t result in a winning season just yet. They needed Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, and Justin Smoak to hit. They needed Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, and James Paxton to pitch well enough in the minors to justify the hype. They needed to get Mike Zunino to the big leagues without it feeling like he was rushed to try and save someone’s job. They needed to establish that the young players were worth building around.

They needed this April to not happen. Embarrassing is the only word I can use to describe this. The team is publicly stating that they think they can win while starting Endy Chavez, Raul Ibanez, Robert Andino, and Kelly Shoppach. They traded for Aaron Harang to save the pitching staff. This roster is embarrassing. This roster is probably going to get everyone fired. This roster should get everyone fired.

But, I don’t know that it’s all that helpful if it gets them fired soon. If it happens, I’m not going to be against the decision, and I don’t think having an interim manager or GM would lead to impending doom. But, I don’t know that it would really help anything either.

During a season, there’s only so much an organization can really do. The Mariners made this bed when they let the front office try and build a winning team around dingers and voodoo. It has blown up in their faces in a comical way, and it’s probably going to cost the people in charge their jobs. But, I don’t know that it needs to cost them their jobs in a RIGHT NOW THIS MINUTE I DEMAND CHANGE kind of way.

Firing people shouldn’t just be about making yourself feel better because you fired someone. Firing people should happen because you think you have someone who can do a better job. Maybe the Mariners have those people in place and think it’s the right time to make the move. From the outside, it’s impossible to know whether or not that’s true. But we shouldn’t demand change without knowing whether there are actually better options internally.

The time for change is coming. If ownership decides its here already, I’m okay with that. If they decide to wait a while, I’m okay with that too. I’d rather have them make an informed decision after seeing all the evidence over a longer period of time than see an emotional reaction to 23 bad games. If they don’t need any more time to make a rational, informed decision, so be it, but that’s a different reason for firing everyone than “this team sucks and you’re going to pay for building it.”

Closed-Door Meeting

April 24, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 9 Comments 

This afternoon, the Mariners lost to the Astros for the fourth time in six games. This afternoon, the Mariners slipped into a tie for last place in the AL West, with those same Astros. The Astros are expected by many to be one of the worst teams in recent baseball history, and while maybe that’s off the mark, it’s telling that you can even make the argument. It’s too early to back off the pre-season assumption that the Astros suck, and now the Mariners have lost consecutive series against them, and the Mariners aren’t supposed to be Astros-bad. This is the sort of development that often leads to a closed-door team meeting, and indeed, the Mariners had one in the aftermath. Have you ever thought about what it might be like to see a new color? According to Ryan Divish, Eric Wedge’s face after the game was new-color red.

This is a familiar tactic, and other teams will have closed-door meetings between now and the end of the year. The Mariners will probably have more, maybe if they lose to the Astros again. See, managers have high expectations, and they have a low tolerance for players and teams who under-perform, so every so often they feel like they need to scream a little. Like they need to scream loud enough for one to question the purpose of closing the doors. It’s supposed to be a release, and it’s supposed to motivate by intimidation.

It’s always easy to make fun of a team that holds a closed-door meeting. In part, this is because such a meeting is a response to the team being bad. More, it’s because closed-door meetings don’t do anything. At least, it doesn’t make sense that they would, if you break them down logically. Let’s try to follow along.

Meetings are held after a team has been bad. The manager wants the team to stop being so bad, so he addresses the players sternly and bluntly. There’s always communication between the players and the coaching staff, but it usually isn’t aggressive and borderline hostile. That’s what makes closed-door meetings stand out.

Focus is important in baseball, just as it’s important in everything. It’s important for baseball players to be focused and motivated, and you don’t want to see a big-leaguer who’s going through the motions. Now, it makes sense that a team meeting might have a temporary effect on focus. Players might try a little harder afterward, tapping into their deepest mental resources. But it seems to me focus is a lot like happiness — you have an individual baseline, and when you vary from it, you don’t vary for long. Pretty soon you regress back to your norm, and it’s hard as hell to shift that norm in a direction. Maybe Dustin Ackley is going to be a little more energized tomorrow night, but a week or two from now, he’ll be Dustin Ackley, approaching the game more or less how he always has. These players have been through a lot of coaching and development. A talk can only do so much. A talk can pretty much not do anything of import.

And if anything, don’t baseball people always say that players should play comfortable and relaxed? Not unlike they’re “having fun out there”? Wouldn’t an angry team meeting just put people on edge, maybe stress them out? Worried players are unlikely to be better players, and I imagine the Mariners were already aware of the fact that they weren’t doing well enough. Overall and individually. Getting vented at isn’t going to make Jesus Montero realize he’s sucked.

You could argue the players need to know the manager is capable of holding them accountable. That he’s capable of getting really pissed off. That’s one way in which a manager can exert authority. But I suspect the Mariners knew Wedge was capable of this, so it’s not like this is out of left field. When Eric Wedge got up to lock the doors or whatever it is you do to initiate this sort of thing, I can’t imagine players were surprised.

And ultimately you just can’t talk players into being better at baseball. That’s the real problem — the Mariners aren’t good. It doesn’t help that Michael Saunders has been hurt and that Michael Morse might have been playing hurt, but getting yelled at isn’t going to lead to better defense. Getting yelled at isn’t going to have Joe Saunders stop missing his locations. Getting yelled at isn’t going to cause Montero to start recognizing different pitches and their corresponding locations. It’s not a matter of focus or drive. The Mariners, presumably, are always trying to win. But they don’t win enough, because they aren’t good enough, and that’s the principal issue. The only talking that can fix that is talking between front offices. Not that I think I want this current Mariners front office to engage any others. The way out of this probably involves different leadership.

Now, the alternative to a closed-door meeting is no closed-door meeting. It’s the status quo, it’s inactivity, and no manager wants to be seen as inactive when the team around him is circling the drain. So managers feel like they have to do something, but they don’t have the power to do much, so they get the players together and shout at them. It’s like when a manager goes out to argue a questionable call. It won’t change anything, but then people can say “That manager? He really cares.” Eric Wedge doesn’t have a boat, so he can’t lead the Mariners across the river, but he does have a wallet and keys, so he’ll use them to try to paddle. It won’t work, but it won’t not work because Eric Wedge didn’t do anything. He did something.

I suspect that, if one were to analyze historical closed-door meetings, he’d find an improved team winning percentage afterward, compared to before. This wouldn’t be evidence of effectiveness; this would be evidence of regression, since meetings tend to follow stretches during which teams are unusually bad. Afterward, they’ll play more like themselves, so there will be a greater rate of wins. As such, I imagine the Mariners won’t keep playing .348 baseball, but then they’re not a .348 team. They’ll play better, and we have to assume they’d play better regardless. We can’t know that for sure, but we can have a good idea.

The Mariners are in a desperate situation. Even though this wasn’t supposed to be a competitive year, it was supposed to be exciting, and so far it’s been a nightmare. The Mariners are 2-4 against the Astros. Eric Wedge has decided to yell at the players, to hold them accountable and to remind them that none of their jobs are safe. But it seems to me one job in that clubhouse is the least safe of all. Eric Wedge can feel it getting hotter, and who doesn’t get more irritable in heat?

Game 23, Mariners at Astros

April 24, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 153 Comments 

Saunders vs Harrell, 11:05 am.

Big news of the day – Brendan Ryan is being displaced by Robert Andino as the starting shortstop. Eric Wedge has had enough of Ryan’s offensive ineptitude, so instead of having a great defender who can’t hit, the Mariners are going to lean on a mediocre defender who can’t hit. That should solve all of their problems.

On the one hand, it’s dumb, because Brendan Ryan is clearly better than Robert Andino. On the other hand, none of this matters. Ryan wasn’t part of the long term future here, and I figured he’d hold the job until the summer, when the team promoted Brad Miller to take his spot after trading him to a contender who wanted a defensive replacement on the bench. The gap between Ryan and Andino isn’t going to change things drastically over the next couple of months, and this swap might even hasten Miller’s call to the big leagues. The end product of this decision will be a marginal loss of value in a season that is headed down the tubes.

But, like pretty much every other move the organization and this manager have made in the last few years, it shows a continuing lack of ability to actually analyze or accumulate talent. The fact that Robert Andino — a replacement level player — is now the starting shortstop on a team that had aspirations to win is hilarious. The Mariners tried to sell the idea of an improved roster based on false hope, and now they’re starting Andino, Kelly Shoppach, Endy Chavez, and Raul Ibanez more often than not.

This roster was poorly put together, and every crack has been exposed early. This is the kind of roster that gets people fired. This is the kind of roster that a GM deserves to get fired for. It won’t happen until the end of the season, because you can’t lure good GM candidates from other organizations in the middle of the year, but this is the kind of disaster that the front office had to avoid in order to keep their jobs.

Starting Robert Andino is a disaster. Just like starting Endy Chavez and Raul Ibanez is a disaster. Yeah, they’ve had injuries and under-performances, but these are the alternatives that this organization chose to have around. The Mariners are reaping what they’ve sowed.

1. Chavez, CF
2. Seager, 3B
3. Morales, DH
4. Morse, RF
5. Smoak, 1B
6. Ibanez, LF
7. Shoppach, C
8. Ackley, 2B
9. Andino, SS

Game 22, Mariners at Astros

April 23, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 104 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Bud Norris, 5:10pm

Man, everything feels better after a single day of full-spectrum dominance. Thank you, Felix. Thank you, Brad Peacock.

Bud Norris is the Astros nominal ace, and at a cool $3 million, the highest paid member of the team. He’s a straight-fastball/slider pitcher, who throws a 50:50 mix to righties, but will mix in the occasional change to left-handers. His slider is a swing-and-miss pitch, which has helped him rack up impressive strike-out totals over the past several seasons, but so-so control and a HR problem have limited his effectiveness, even with the 22%+ K rates. Lefties have typically hit a bit better off of him, which makes some sense given his arsenal, but given his lack of fastball movement, he’s not dominant against right-handers.

The M’s made a roster move today, placing Franklin Gutierrez on the 15-day DL and recalling Carlos Peguero from Tacoma. This was all but announced last night, when Peguero was removed from the game in Salt Lake pretty much as soon as Guti went down. Eric Thames is out-hitting Peguero, left-handed, on the 40-man, and possessed of a superior MLB career line, but that wasn’t enough to get the call. Peguero isn’t in the line-up tonight, and it’s not immediately clear how much he’ll play; he could find himself back in Tacoma when Michael Saunders comes off the DL in a few days.

Hisashi Iwakuma’s been incredibly effective this year despite a real change in his batted ball profile. Fly balls are up considerably over 2012, but while he’s given up the occasional homer, this hasn’t led to a flurry of long balls. His K% is essentially dead-on his 2012 figure, but he’s not walking anyone. Yes, his BABIP is absurdly low and this will regress, but he’s been legitimately good this year, with a FIP and xFIP solidly better than his 2012 results. As Matthew said, signing him to a two-year deal is looking like the M’s best move of the off-season, and one of the better moves by any team.

The line-up:
1: Chavez, CF
2: Seager, 3B
3: Morales, DH
4: Morse, RF
5: Smoak, 1B
6: Ibanez, LF
7: Montero, C
8: Ackley, 2B
9: Ryan
SP: Iwakuma

SO I mentioned it was a big start for James Paxton last night, and he got hammered by Salt Lake. Two HRs and six total runs in less than 2 IP, as the Rainiers dropped a classic PCL game, 13-11. Just to keep things fresh, they played a pitcher’s duel today, beating the Bees 2-1 behind “PCL Dream” Brian Sweeney (6Ks in 5 IP), Lucas Luetge and Logan Bawcom.

Clinton’s game was postponed, again. That’s seven in the last twelve days.

Chance Ruffin starts tonight for Jackson in the only night-game on the M’s affiliate scoreboard.

What 100 Means

April 23, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

Monday night, Felix Hernandez picked up win No. 100 of his major-league career. It was something of an occasion, as all these round-number achievements tend to be, and Felix was a wee bit emotional in the aftermath. Felix has always cared about wins, because wins mean that the team won. Felix is awful young to have 100 wins already, and now people are looking forward to another 100 more, all in a Mariners uniform. Yesterday, Felix reached a milestone.

Of course, he reached that milestone against the Astros, in a start in which he had to come out early with back discomfort. Everything you need to know about wins, you can glean from the fact that Felix didn’t get win No. 100 in his previous start, in which he allowed a run to the Tigers over eight innings, generating a dozen punch-outs. Against maybe the best team in the American League, Felix was nothing short of dominant, and he came away winless. The milestone was reached when Felix turned in an inferior performance against a team that’s laughably bad.

It’s easy to ignore the achievement, because we’ve been conditioned to ignore pitcher wins. For good reason — pitcher wins are stupid and they don’t make sense. Nobody would design pitcher wins as they are from scratch were they beginning today. Sometimes some pitchers get more wins than they deserve, and sometimes other pitchers, like Felix, get far fewer. It’s a small miracle that Felix ever won 19 games in 2009. He had 13 wins when he won the Cy Young. Felix’s career ERA in no-decisions is 2.80. A dozen times, Felix has allowed no more than two runs, and lost. An incredible 39 times, Felix has allowed no more than two runs, and come away with no decision. Last April, Felix blanked the Indians over eight frames, with a full 12 strikeouts. He didn’t get support and the closer blew the game. Felix didn’t get a win. It’s not an unfamiliar experience.

If you don’t believe in a stat, it doesn’t make sense to care when a certain level is reached in that stat. I don’t care about how many times I’ve been to Walgreens, so I wouldn’t care about the hundredth time I went to Walgreens. What’s deemed to be insignificant ought remain insignificant regardless of circumstances, and if you can’t stand pitcher wins, then you shouldn’t ever care about pitcher wins, no matter what they’re saying, because ultimately they’re still pitcher wins and you decided to dismiss them.

But let me tell you a thing about Felix’s 100 wins, as flawed and as dumb as the total is. Objectively, wins are stupid, and objectively, celebrating round-number achievements is stupid. There’s no reason at all why this should matter, but it does, if only in a little way. And you shouldn’t deny yourself the feeling.

For one thing, pitcher wins aren’t completely meaningless. There is a correlation between winning and effectiveness, so wins aren’t measuring nothing. They just don’t measure effectiveness as well as other things. But far more importantly, consider Felix and consider how you’ve probably come to take him a little for granted. When Felix came up and set the league on fire, many of us took for granted that he’d be amazing, and we were disappointed when he disappointed. When Felix blossomed into an ace some years later, it started to feel like routine, and now whenever Felix isn’t outstanding people wonder what’s wrong. Every time Felix allows three or four or five runs, there’s panic, because Felix isn’t supposed to do that.

The greatest barrier to happiness is the failure to appreciate what you have, what’s good, what are blessings. We’re always thinking about change, we’re always thinking about upgrades, and while evolutionarily there’s a benefit to what one might consider ambition, there needs to be a balance and people have difficulty finding it. Unhappy people tend not to be appreciative enough. Ordinary people also tend not to be appreciative enough, and they could be happier. Look around you. You’re doing well, at least on average. A lot of the time you probably don’t feel like you’re doing well enough.

The Mariners have a blessing in Felix Hernandez, in the so-far durable ace who’s committed his career to this team and this city despite what one might see as indications that the Mariners have been trying to drive him away. Other teams, most other teams, don’t have a Felix. I laughed the other day when Buster Olney compared Matt Harvey to Felix because there’s no comparison, at least not yet. Harvey’s a hell of a baseball player; Felix is a team. Felix is a player who seems to love us all back, and that’s a rare quality, or more accurately a rare constellation of qualities. As bad as we’ve had it overall, we have it good here.

We have, in Felix, something every sports fan wants. A superstar athlete who allows you to daydream, to overlook the fact that it’s all just a business. It doesn’t feel like it’s just a business for Felix, and he’s selected this place as his home. We have this fantasy of a starting pitcher and more often than not we take him for granted. It’s not necessarily something we can help, not without re-wiring ourselves, but there’s no way Felix is appreciated as much as he ought to be. This is not a feature — this is a bug.

What 100 wins does is, if only for an instant, give us a little perspective. It allows for a moment of reflection, and out of reflection comes appreciation, appreciation for what Felix is and how he’s come along. When Felix won the Cy Young, it only mattered because it let us appreciate him naturally. We got to feel natural appreciation when Felix threw his perfect game, and when he signed his extension. And we get to feel natural appreciation now, or at least we did last night. It’s only temporary, because we are wired to not feel those feelings all of the time, but it’s important to feel them on occasion. We got to count a blessing. That’s an easy thing to suggest, but it’s a diabolically tricky thing to do.

None of this stuff really matters. None of the achievements really matter, none of the inductions really matter. Not to us, as fans and outsiders. What matters is the amazing ability these players have on the field, and what they do for teams and cities, and so 100 wins isn’t significant because it’s 100 wins. It’s significant because it reminds us, ever so briefly, of how lucky we are and how lucky we’ve been. In the aftermath, Felix got to reflect on his career, and we got to reflect on Felix. We got, for a few moments, to appreciate, and those are the moments of greatest clarity. Here’s to these moments, and to the next.

Two-Strike Fight

April 23, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 33 Comments 

You may have seen Geoff Baker’s full-throated denunciation of the M’s “passivity” with two strikes the other day. If you missed it, the M’s beat writer asked some very pointed questions of the M’s line-up, and, by extension, their manager:

“Are they going to be a team that rolls over in the face of adversity? Or are they at least going to go down with a fight?”
“When push comes to shove, do the Mariners fight back? Or do they take it lying down?”

A hitter, quoth Baker, “Has to battle. Has to fight. And this past weekend, the Mariners had no fight in them.”

That sound pretty bleak. Ok, it sounds like a bunch of cliches, but those cliches sound bleak. This being USSM, I immediately went to baseball-reference’s splits pages to quantify this pusillanimity, and see if we could find a way to take it one day at a time and learn to fight again. The M’s are between a rock and a hard place, and frankly, I hate geology. Do the M’s?

With two strikes, the M’s are putting up a lily-livered .513 OPS. They’ve struck out in 40.3% of their two-strike plate appearances. Compared to their overall OPS+, their two-strike OPS+ split (tOPS+) is a meager 59. When the going gets tough, the M’s are noticeably, clearly, worse. So how’s that compare to some other teams – teams that aren’t afraid to battle, teams that aren’t lying down when push comes to shove. The first I turned to was Boston. They’ve struck out in…hmm, 41.5% of their plate appearances with two strikes. They’ve got a .534 OPS, but their tOPS+ split is a pathetic 43. They may be leading the AL East now, but I’m not sure that a group of two-strike pacifists has what it takes to survive a battle with the AL East big boys. We’ll see.

The next team I looked at absolutely astonished me. I’m sure several of them run for cover upon hearing the word “fight.” They strike out in an astonishing 47.6% of their two-strike plate appearances. They’ve put up, no, that’s too active: they’ve timidly submitted a .490 OPS with two strikes, good for a tOPS+ of 32. Just watch them play – they’re only too happy to tip their cap to the pitcher when they strike out (and as a team, they strike out far more than the M’s!). When they’ve got two strikes, they *accept* a strikeout, and you know and I know: that dog won’t cut mustard. In one of the great ironies in sports, this group of cowards is known as the “Braves.” You can’t make this up! They’ve slinked and slithered their way to a 13-5 record, but two-strike hitting may be their achilles heel as the season progresses.

Ok, Ok, that’s enough snark. I’m glad Baker wrote that piece, because he’s obviously picking up on something that the M’s are focusing on. As he noted, Wedge has mentioned this in his post-game interviews, and it seems like some of the players are repeating the message as well. The M’s K% spiked this past week, and while Darvish/Verlander pitched against them, so did Justin Grimm. But the numbers tell us that the M’s are about as hapless with two strikes as literally every other team in baseball. The M’s problem isn’t that they’re a great hitting team that falls to pieces with two strikes – that’s the Braves. The M’s problem is that they get into so many two strike counts to begin with. I’m not going to argue that the lack of “fight” the M’s display is entirely made up. I’m not there, and I’ve always struggled at knowing when to deploy combat metaphors after watching a team solely on TV. I can only say the problem doesn’t *appear* to be related to their especially poor two strike hitting.

Game 21, Mariners at Astros

April 22, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 101 Comments 

King Felix vs. Brad Peacock, 5:10pm

The M’s have dropped three straight, and seven of their last ten ballgames. They’re 1-9 in Felix Hernandez’s last 10 starts. They’re exactly where most thought they’d be, in fourth place in the division, and looking like an also-ran. Larry Stone’s post states what we all feel/intuit: this front office is in trouble if things don’t change, and this series is about as critical as a series of cellar-dwelling teams, in April, can be. There have been rational calls in recent days to avoid going overboard. Everyone slumps, and it’s not like the M’s are 3-17 or something like that. A fanbase can deal with a rebuild, and Zduriencik and company had so much goodwill to start off with first because they were able to articulate a plan and second because he wasn’t Bill Bavasi. It’s not that the M’s haven’t yet caught up with the Rangers (seriously, where’s the ‘Moneyball’ book about that club?), it’s that they don’t appear to be moving forward at all.

So far this year, the M’s have used Jason Bay as a pinch runner, and Endy Chavez and Brendan Ryan as pinch hitters. Raul Ibanez has the third-most defensive innings, and nothing, not even becoming the worst hitting 1B in MLB history with at least 1,500 plate appearances, can move Justin Smoak from 1B. Jesus Montero’s lost his starting job, Dustin Ackley appears lost, and Michael Saunders remains hurt. The M’s come into a make-or-break series suffering from a noxious combination of offensive malaise and injuries, and it’s not clear what they can do about it. The M’s have appeared to place a great degree of emphasis on confidence, and about making commitments to players to remove doubt and angst about playing time. They did it with Chone Figgins in 2012, and they did it this spring with Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero. I wonder what the confidence levels are like in the GM’s office right now.

Like Matthew, I was initially just floored by the decision to use Brendan Ryan as a pinch hitter in the 9th the other day. The more I looked at it though, I was floored by how, well, not rational, but *understandable* it was. Dustin Ackley’s 0-12 against lefties this year, bringing his career wOBA against LHPs to .287. Ryan’s is .296. If you want to discount Ryan’s for his recent history, I’m with you, but you may need to do the same with Ackley’s. The pinch-hitting penalty means you’d have to be really, really down on Ackley’s approach versus lefties right now, and, well, that’s not exactly pants-on-head crazy. Some of Eric Wedge’s managerial decisions this season (particularly in Felix’s last start) have been head-scratchers at best, but this one had more to do with weakness in the M’s young core than in the M’s grizzled manager. With Franklin Gutierrez both hurt and cooling off against RHPs (after a fast start), the M’s are settling into a team that’s exceedingly easy to pitch to. I’m hopeful that things will improve as Saunders returns and Morse heals, of course, but the Astros are in the odd position of being *in* a series; they’re not favorites, especially given the match-ups, but they’re not prohibitive underdogs.

Brad Peacock faced the M’s at Safeco and cruised to a relatively easy win, though he did give up three runs in five innings. The righty uses a Justin Grimm-like mix of a 91-93mph fastball and curve, though he’ll mix in a few more change-ups than Grimm. Of course, Grimm looked excellent against this team, so that’s not exactly damning with faint praise (or damning with so-so comps). Shockingly, Peacock did *not* set a career high in K’s when last he faced the M’s, though he did manage to go five and qualify for the win. As you may have noticed in the three-game set at Safeco, the Astros are attempting a soft ‘piggy-back’ rotation strategy, where their starters pitch relatively few innings and then turn it over to the bullpen. The Astros’ starters have averaged about 4.5IP per game this year, and that’s not *solely* because they’ve been getting pummeled. Erik Bedard pitched in long relieft on opening day, then yielding after four shutout innings in Seattle on 4/9.

Peacock’s fastball is arrow-straight, with a bit of rise to it. It’s enabled him to get a decent amount of K’s, and he’s all but eliminated platoon splits, but he’s an extreme fly-baller who pitches in Houston. I mentioned the last time he pitched against the M’s that they needed to get a long-ball or two against him. As it happened, they did – both Shoppach and Guti hit solo shots. But it didn’t matter, as the M’s were already essentially out of the game. Today would be a good time for Kendrys Morales to get it going, but so would yesterday and the day before so……

1: Gutierrez, CF
2: Seager, 3B
3: Morales, DH
4: Morse, RF
5: Smoak, 1B
6: Ackley, 2B
7: Montero, C
8: Chavez, LF
9: Ryan, SS
SP: King Felix

Wow, Smoak-Ackley-Montero in the middle of the order. Bet you thought you’d relish seeing that in the line-up a year or so ago.

Today’s dog-bites-man news: Franklin Gutierrez is mystified by his latest injury, and says it’s nothing he’s had before. I mentioned it before the season, but at some point, Gutierrez’s non-recurring injuries become *worse* than one chronic problem. A chronic back/ankle/hamstring problem is severe, and it’s the kind of thing that get a player tagged with the ‘injury prone’ label, but they’re manageable. Gutierrez has a different, serious, out-of-nowhere problem every year, and at this point it looks like evidence of a systemic as opposed to localized/contained problem. The M’s need his bat. You’re awesome, 2013.

Important start for James Paxton down in Salt Lake tonight, as he tries to maintain the plus stuff he showed last time, while limiting walks (he walked four in six innings in his last start). Paxton’s put a sub-par spring behind him, and flashed excellent stuff in Tacoma; with the walks and some big innings, he’s still dealing with the perception that his home is in the bullpen, but the M’s may give him a shot in the rotation this season. Hultzen’s first in line (depending on Erasmo Ramirez’s health, I suppose), but Paxton could get a chance as well. Gametime’s 5:35.

Tumbling Mariners Will Face Astros

April 22, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 4 Comments 
HITTING (wOBA*) -16.0 (28th) -8.2 0.2 (15th) Astros
FIELDING (RBBIP) 5.2 (11th) 3.0 -5.6 (21st) Mariners
ROTATION (xRA) 5.5 (7th) -1.0 -13.3 (29th) Mariners
BULLPEN (xRA) 1.1 (11th) 0.3 -10.6 (30th) Mariners
OVERALL (RAA) -4.3 (17th) -6.1 -29.2 (29th) MARINERS

Last week I spoke of my emotional difference between the records of 6-11 and 7-10 and how it seemed larger than it should in reality. Just three games later and that gap is gone. Who cares between 7-13 and 6-14? So perhaps I was more influenced by the win coming in that final game leaving a small residue of optimism. Well, mission accomplished, Mariners!

There’s certainly the opportunity for the Mariners to roll through the Astros and re-establish some fringe hope of contention. I’m not optimistic about that however. CoolStandings has the Mariners’ playoff odds already down to 8% with Baseball Prospectus even more grime  at 6%. Frankly, I’m just hoping for mild entertainment. It’s a low bar, Mariners.

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The “New and Improved” Justin Smoak

April 21, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 70 Comments 

Last June, I publicly “gave up” on Justin Smoak. In that post, I presented a list of the first baseman in the last 30 years who had been given 1,000 Major League plate appearances before the end of their age-25 season. Justin Smoak was the worst hitter on that list when I published it. He is no longer the worst hitter on that list, because as you know, he had himself a pretty good September, and it was enough to push him to second worst on the list, passing Travis Lee so as to no longer be the least productive young first baseman of the last three decades.

You don’t need any reminders about Justin Smoak’s September. You might have seen it, if you were still paying attention to the Mariners last September, and if you didn’t, you certainly read about it all winter. The mechanical changes. The different approach. The adjustments. The confidence. Justin Smoak reinvented himself in September, you’ve been told.

Justin Smoak, September 1st of 2012 to April 21st of 2013:

179 11.7% 17.9% 0.146 0.336 0.275 0.363 0.421 0.342

Since the big change starting making itself manifest — remember, he didn’t come back up on September 1st, so it’s an arbitrary beginning point that simply eliminates a bunch of bad at-bats he had before he started hitting because they don’t fit the narrative, but that’s besides the point — Smoak has now racked up 179 plate appearances and has 12 extra base hits. Twelve. That projects out to 40 extra base hits per 600 plate appearances, or essentially a full season of regular playing time. To put that in context, Casey Kotchman has averaged 42 extra base hits per 600 plate appearances in his career. You remember Casey Kotchman, right? The underpowered first baseman who is in the big leagues for his contact rate and his glove?

That’s the kind of power that the revamped, new-and-improved Justin Smoak has shown since the beginning of last September. Overhauled Justin Smoak hits for about as much power as Casey Kotchman. You might look at the overall line and say “hey, a .342 wOBA, I’ll take that”, but note what’s driving that mark — a .336 BABIP which is simply not sustainable for a guy with Smoak’s profile. He’s extremely slow, he hits the ball in the air a decent amount, and he hits his fair share of pop-ups. That is not the profile of a guy who is going to post a high BABIP over any real length of time. Take the air out of those numbers, and you’re basically left with a guy who takes some walks and has gap power, but also strikes out at about an average rate, so he won’t hit for enough average to overcome the fact that he just doesn’t hit the ball very hard all that often.

This is, essentially, the inevitable conclusion that evidence forces us to draw: Justin Smoak is just not very strong. He’s never been very strong. He’s never really hit for power in any kind of extended sample. Even going back to the minors, he has a career .407 slugging percentage in Triple-A. That’s in 559 plate appearances, all of them in the PCL, which is the most hitter friendly league in organized baseball. In 50 games at Double-A as a 22-year-old, he had a whopping 16 extra base hits.

Justin Smoak has always been Casey Kotchman without the defense or the contact skills; it’s just taken us a while to realize it. But, at this point, there’s just no other conclusion to draw. If we look at the list of first baseman in the last 30 years that have been given 1,500 PAs through age-26, we find 49 names, and once again, Travis Lee is the worst hitter on the list. But he’s only going to be the worst hitter on that list for another day or two, because Justin Smoak has 1,495 career plate appearances, and he’s going to cross the 1,500 PA threshold at some point in Houston. And when he does, he’ll officially become the worst hitter on that list, as his start to the 2013 season has pushed his career wRC+ down to 88.

In fact, even if you double the time frame we’re looking at, and go back to 1953 so that we’re looking at 60 years of baseball history, you will find exactly two first baseman who received 1,500 PAs through their age-26 season and hit worse than Justin Smoak; Dan Meyer and Dalton Jones. They are two of the worst players to get substantial playing time in Major League history. Meyer finished with a career -5.6 WAR, while Jones finished with a career -3.6 WAR. They were artifacts of a time when talent evaluators weren’t so great at their jobs.

Now, Major League teams weed out players like Dan Meyer and Dalton Jones. They stop giving playing time to below replacement level players, because as the term suggests, there are equal or better players just hanging out in the minors, waiting for a shot at the big league level. Once it becomes fairly clear that a player is not substantially above replacement level, there’s no real reason to keep running him out there anymore.

Justin Smoak has 1,495 career plate appearances and is at -1.0 WAR. Maybe Justin Smoak made some real changes last September that he’ll be able to tap into occasionally, and maybe he’ll have a few more good months in the big leagues before his career is over. Guys develop at different paces. Baseball is weird, and bad players can become good players. It is not impossible for Justin Smoak to eventually become a decent Major League player.

But, at this point, there’s just no real reason for the Mariners to keep trying to squeeze blood out of this particular turnip. The mirage of hope that surrounds Justin Smoak is just that — a mirage. Until he magically develops some strength that he has never possessed before, nothing else he changes will really matter. There is a large mountain of evidence that Justin Smoak is just not strong enough to be a productive Major League first baseman.

He wasn’t strong enough before he made all those adjustments and he’s not strong enough now. At least with Jesus Montero we can point to his age and hope that maybe there’s some development time left that can make a difference. With Dustin Ackley, we can point to his contact skills, his speed, and his defense as reasons to think that he might still become a productive big league player.

With Justin Smoak, there’s nothing left to point to. He’s not young. He’s not improving. His mechanical adjustments haven’t made him any stronger, and he’s currently only making contact on 72% of his swings at pitches in the strike zone, about the same rate as guys like Mark Reynolds and Dan Uggla. This isn’t an approach issue. Justin Smoak can’t learn how to be strong. He simply lacks a physical skill necessary to make the rest of his physical skills worth playing.

I know a lot of people are questioning whether the Mariners have a developmental problem within the organization, given how the young core of hitters seem to be regressing and are nowhere close to living up to their minor league hype. And, I’m open to the idea that maybe the Mariners are doing something at the minor league level that is causing talented young players to underperform in the big leagues. But, with Justin Smoak, I think the reality is that we’re just seeing a physical flaw exposed. Scouts liked the swing, analysts liked the walks, and everyone — myself included — just ignored the fact that he was a bat-only player who lacked real power.

I don’t think the Mariners have failed to get the most out of Justin Smoak. I think we’ve seen the best Justin Smoak has to offer. It’s just not very good, and it’s time for the organization to move on and give someone else a chance. Or, at least, it would be if they had anyone at Triple-A or on the bench who deserved a promotion. They don’t, so we’ll get Justin Smoak a little while longer, maybe even for the rest of the year.

But, at this point, we can all give up on Justin Smoak now. He’s not part of the core. He’s not a long term answer to any question a Major League team should be asking.

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