Keeping Things in Context

Dave · May 6, 2013 at 10:38 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

I debated whether or not to write this post, since I know that it’s just going to be fuel for the fire for those who believe that I’m constantly looking for the negative side of things, and only have bad things to say about the organization. But, I don’t really want to let perception drive what I write, and I think there’s an important lesson in the following piece of data, so I’m going to share it, even if people just take it as more Debbie Downer talk.

Over the last few weeks, the Mariners have played a lot better than they did the first few weeks. In the last 14 days, they’ve gone 8-5, mostly propelled by an offense that put up a 123 wRC+ that rates 4th best in baseball during that time frame. The moribund offense of the first 23 games has sprung to life, led by Michael Saunders, Kyle Seager, and a rejuvenated Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak. This hasn’t just been the veterans carrying the young kids; the guys who are supposed to be part of the core have been tearing the cover off the ball.

Even just over a two week span, a .275/.344/.451 stretch fuels optimism. The Mariners spent their winter trying to upgrade the offense, and it’s finally paying dividends. Get encouraged, right?

Well, sure, it’s nice to see them swinging the bats well and scoring runs, but just looking at the raw results can be a bit deceptive. Context is everything in baseball. 10 runs at Coors Field is not the same thing as 10 runs at Safeco Field. You always have to put numbers in context. And in this case, the primary variable over the last two weeks has been the lousy quality of opposing pitching.

The Mariners last 13 games have come against the Angels, Orioles, Blue Jays, and Astros. Those four teams rank 27th, 28th, 29th, and 30th respectively in xFIP, making them the four worst pitching staffs (to date) of 2013 by BB/K/GB rates. The Mariners hit well against four teams that everyone is hitting well against. In fact, the Mariners hit almost exactly the same against those four teams as the rest of the league has.

Mariners, last two weeks: .275/.344/.451
MLB, vs BAL/TOR/HOU/LAA: .267/.345/.442

Now, hitting the league average against those teams is still a vast improvement over what the team did in the first 23 games, so I’m not trying to say that there haven’t been any positive signs for the team the last couple of weeks. Michael Saunders is showing that last year’s improvements are sustainable, and might even be a foundation for bigger and better things. Kyle Seager has more power than we’ve all given him credit for. Dustin Ackley no longer looks hopelessly lost. These are good things.

But the Mariners offensive improvement the last few weeks has been heavily influenced by facing some terrible pitching staffs, and not just bad pitching staffs, but fill-ins on bad pitching staffs.

With Jered Weaver on the DL, Garrett Richards has been forced into the Angels rotation, and he started in lieu of the Angels ace. With Josh Johnson hitting the DL right before the M’s got to Toronto, they missed out on a good pitcher and were instead able to feast on the still broken Ricky Romero, who got optioned to A-ball after spring training for a reason. The Orioles called up Zach Britton to make a spot start against the M’s, then shipped him right back to Triple-A after the game. The guy who came in to relieve Wei-Yin Chen in the final game against the Orioles was just DFA’d, cleared waivers, and is going to be turned into a knuckleball pitcher after his traditional arsenal was deemed a failure. And the Astros are the Astros.

There’s a reason the Mariners offense looked so terrible against Detroit and Texas – they had to run a gauntlet of the best pitchers the AL has to offer. Those two teams rank #1 and #2 in 2013 pitching by nearly any reasonable metric you want to use, and the M’s ran into their best pitchers. Just as you shouldn’t have been too down that the M’s couldn’t hit Darvish, Verlander, and Scherzer, you shouldn’t be too excited that the M’s could hit Romero, Britton, and Richards.

This is why so many narratives about a player or team heating up or going into a big slump are simply B.S. In reality, many of these fluctuations are just due to the quality of opposition faced, and the Mariners have followed up a run of facing elite starters with a couple of weeks against baseball’s worst pitching staffs. Of course they looked better facing guys who belong in Triple-A than guys who belong in the All-Star Game.

That’s why you adjust for context. And when you look at the staffs the Mariners have faced the last few weeks, their recent performance looks more average than spectacular. Average is still a nice step up from the first few weeks of the season, but don’t be too shocked if this new and improved line-up doesn’t keep hitting the same way against PIT/OAK/NYY. You have to recalibrate your expectations for what a good performance looks like based on the opposing pitcher, the ballpark the game is being played in, and even the month of the year. For the Mariners, they happened to get a nice gift from the schedule makers. Now, though, they’ll actually have to show that they can hit real MLB pitchers, or else another slump is on the way.


40 Responses to “Keeping Things in Context”

  1. Jordan on May 6th, 2013 10:47 pm

    Although context and perspective are always good, the abysmal offense hasn’t hit AAAA pitchers much either for the better part of a decade. The fact that they can match the rest of the league allows room for reasonable optimism.

  2. Klatz on May 6th, 2013 11:22 pm

    I’ll take average offense. While they beat up on some below average pitchers they did win against Wei-Yin Chen and Dickey (admitted a not so great Dickey lately). And have had reasonable success against Darvish who’s having an amazing year.

    I’ll take the last set of games as hopeful portents. At least Ackley is getting some solid contact, with a worrisome groundball tendency. Smoak has at least shown the ability to get on base with flashes of average (yay average) power. Bay against lefties.

    The Condor looks like he’s still soaring and Seager has retained his progression.

    The 3-5 in the rotation look like more troubling, short-term issues.

    I’d be happy with an average offense, but can we at least get average from J. Saunders and Maurer?

  3. heychuck01 on May 6th, 2013 11:40 pm

    I would stop reading Cameron if he became a cheerleader. I really appreciate the intelligent, critical thinking he contributes to the community.

    With that said, I hope he is wrong and the Mariners start going on a roll ! 🙂 Stranger things have happened.

  4. Steve Nelson on May 7th, 2013 12:13 am

    Context is everything.

    Five years ago Dave was being ripped for being a downer and always criticizing the team and the office. I remember many commenters accusing him of not wanting the Mariners to win so he could be proved right. Then during the early Jack Z. euphoria he was being accused of being a fan boy, and allowing his Mariner fandom to blind him of reality. Now the pendulum of opinion swings to the other side.

    I guess the principal difference over time is that with each swing the pendulum drops a bit lower. If I were the one on the table, right about now I would be smearing whatever I could find on the leather straps.

  5. Gibbo on May 7th, 2013 12:57 am

    While I totally get the reality check, I guess we could probably say if our #3-5 in the rotation pitched a little better, even league average then April could have been a lot better. A baseball season is so long that there is still a fair amount of luck, so running into teams, hitters and pitchers that are hot or cold or injured can play a decent part into your results… Just pleasing that we are getting the results that we should be… Even if it is a small sample size, I’ll take it!!!!!

  6. Fog Cutter on May 7th, 2013 1:04 am

    As a fan of the team, I will always celebrate when they win- even when they play like crap and don’t deserve a win. “Just win, baby”. When they do manage to score some runs, I’ll let a little optimism creep in, cuz damnit, I want this team to be good. But are they?

    Until I came across your blog, I had no way to know if these Mariners were any good. Thanks to your analysis of the data, and the “context” you provide, I’ve got no excuse for unsubstantiated claims like “Mariners starting to turn things around”.

    Keep up the good work, Dave.

  7. Rboyle0628 on May 7th, 2013 3:06 am

    Hmm, perhaps “Davey Downer” would sound more fitting? Just kidding. I read USSM quite often, multiple times a day I check in. And I’ve been reading it since back in the Bavasi days. I rarely comment though, probably have 10 or so comments the entire time. But if I believed you were nothing but a Negative Nancy (couldn’t resist) I wouldn’t read the blog. There is no sugar coating the truth, if the front office makes a bad move or a player is playing like a AAAA player its because that’s whats going on. I like honesty, I wouldn’t read USSM if every post was how wonderful so and so is, or the ship is turning around. When it does, there is no doubt in my mind there will be an optimistic and well thought out post regarding it. But until then, you cant turn a turd into gold by just painting it gold. I like the posts here.

  8. HighlightsAt11 on May 7th, 2013 3:19 am

    Certainly happy to see some bats liven up recently, and the M’s winning three straight series. But as the title says, have to view it all in relative context.

    Getting soundly swept in Texas (7-0, 5-0, 11-3), losing big-time to Houston 16-9 and 8-3 at Safeco and 10-3 in Houston, and the last game losing 10-2 in Toronto.

    The THREE close losses (4-3, 4-3, 2-1) pitched by Felix. With just little more hitting, those were wins for the taking.

  9. Brantid on May 7th, 2013 3:47 am

    Completely understand that we just played the mediocre to poor teams. But I am looking at it another way. People say to have a winning record you need to play .500 ball against the best teams and beat the bad teams. Well, for 2013, my goal for the M’s is .500 ball. I have no expectations of the playoffs. So, what is the formula for playing .500 ball? My guess is that it involves winning less than half your games against the good teams and winning more than half your games against the poor teams.

    That is what we just saw. And while I think the current M’s are trending to less than .500 ball, if they start beating the good teams a bit more, I think we could make the correction and get there. But first things first, you have got to beat the poor teams.

  10. MissouriMariner on May 7th, 2013 5:09 am

    I think that I read somewhere about the horrible staffs the M’s were facing. Average does sound pretty good at this point though. I guess after years of being awful, that average is beginning to sound good. Kind of pathetic actually. It would help if 40 percent of the starting rotation didn’t live by the motto of “chuck and duck.”

  11. Greeff on May 7th, 2013 5:36 am

    I like the critical tone Dave. it’s not like the past couple years have been a party.

    i still think the offense isn’t as bad as it has been this year. but those 3-5 spots in the rotation…
    like Dave said, Maurer needs a changup, Saunders can only pitch at home and Harang, well he didn’t get DFA’d because he’s such a good pitcher.

    Hultzen, Erasmo, please get healthy soon!

  12. McExpos on May 7th, 2013 6:48 am

    I don’t think this post was necessary. Not because you’re overly negative – that’s fine, it’s part of the personality you’ve cultivated as a national baseball analyst – but because the good people of places like USSMariner and LookoutLanding aren’t the type of Mariners fans who are going to look at our recent stretch and think this means we’re suddenly a 90-win team. The Mariners fans of these two communities are pragmatic enough to enjoy wins against bad teams while focusing on the incremental improvements.

    If the goal on your part is to try and reach out to new users who may not be long-term USSMariner readers, then I’m not sure that the defensive first paragraph starts you off on the right foot. So many of your articles are written from an “Us vs. Them” mindset which only serves to turn people who might be open to your wonderful analysis against the things that you have to say.

    Just my thoughts, anyways!

  13. Westside guy on May 7th, 2013 6:50 am

    The THREE close losses (4-3, 4-3, 2-1) pitched by Felix. With just little more hitting, those were wins for the taking.”

    So… pretty much the same thing we’ve seen for several years? 😉

    Thank you for the reality check, Dave. There’s one other difference, though, that you only half touched on. Sure, we got the Condor back – but he also basically replaced Ibañez in the line-up. That improved the performance coming out of that spot immensely.

  14. thurston24 on May 7th, 2013 7:03 am

    Prior years the team wouldn’t have hit AAAA pitching, so I’m going to enjoy this. Yeah, it may not be as good as we how/want but it’s better than getting almost no runs each game.

  15. Philly M's fan on May 7th, 2013 7:34 am

    The good news is everybody beats the bad teams so for the M’s had to do it to even stay close to competing. The M’s have lost to these teams over the years and have this year against the Astros so I consider it an improvement to say the least. They have to start beating the bad teams to even think about hanging with playoff teams.

  16. greentunic on May 7th, 2013 8:51 am

    So, the Mariners are hitting well against bad pitching and poorly against good pitching?

    Not quite sure what the point is.

    Don’t get excited when they hit bad pitching?

  17. currcoug on May 7th, 2013 9:32 am

    A gift from the schedule makers? LOL.

  18. bookbook on May 7th, 2013 9:46 am

    I don’t think the brutal schedule in the early going helped. The Mariners travel more than every other team every year, The schedule makers should be mindful of this and not set up the M’s to have 22 games in 23 days (or whatever it was), nor extra 3,000 mile trips just to play Pittsburgh for two days, then leave the East coast. It seems like adding insult to injury.

    About tempering the optimism. Good point, but of course if the M’s soar to league average performance that really would be something. It certainly didn’t look like Bay or Smoak or Ackley were capable of anything like this two week stretch, even against the worst pitching in the majors. (I wouldn’t have been sure the M’s offense could beat the Rainiers’ offense in a long series,)

  19. PackBob on May 7th, 2013 10:03 am

    I’ve been waiting for this post, as too many blog sites are saying the Mariners bats are finally heating up. Well, yeah. But confidence and attitude matter too, and although the hits have come against inferior pitching, it may help the batters overall to have had this good stretch. A hit is a hit.

    “Context is everything in baseball”

    I would add *timing* to that statement, whether it be hit sequencing or a bird flying in front of a Randy Johnson pitch.

    Context is the overriding factor, but individual players and teams ebb and flow. Players do run hot and cold, or warm and cool, and the sum total of the players either way dictate what the team does. It may be difficult to tease out of the data, but I think it’s there. A hot-hitting team can do damage to a good pitcher, especially if the pitcher is running cold.

    An obvious manifestation would be a player playing through injury. Michael Morse was on a hot streak to start the season, then got hit by a pitch which broke his pinky, and then hit miserably while playing though the pain.

    If the M’s hit abysmally while facing good pitchers, they may have also been cold as a team. If they have improved, it should show against better pitching as well as the bad pitching, and the next few weeks should tell the tale.

  20. absolutsyd on May 7th, 2013 10:09 am

    League average would be an enormous improvement for this team. Hell, a league average offense would have probably put them in the playoffs a time or two in the last eight years.

  21. RaoulDuke37 on May 7th, 2013 10:13 am

    Good streaks and bad streaks aside, this looks like a .500 team at best. I wonder if .500 will keep Z and Wedgie employed.

  22. WalterNeff on May 7th, 2013 10:22 am

    Dave – you harshed my mellow.

  23. leftarrow2 on May 7th, 2013 10:33 am

    I like the stat you used to show how the Mariners fared against the bad pitchers vs how the rest of the league did.

    How did the Mariners do against the top pitchers vs the rest of the league? I imagine it wasn’t good.

  24. stevemotivateir on May 7th, 2013 11:06 am

    Wonder if we’re going to see a ton of Ibanez and Montero in NY?

  25. The_Waco_Kid on May 7th, 2013 11:35 am

    Yes, Dave, it can be hard to balance pessimism and realism. I think the site’s readership proves you find a pretty good balance.

    We sucked against elite pitching (and the Astros!?) and we beat up on some crappy pitchers. Now we need to see how we do vs mediocre pitchers!

  26. heyoka on May 7th, 2013 11:49 am

    Debbie Downer is so much better to hang out with than ….Ursula Upper….she’s just annoying.

  27. TheMightyMariner on May 7th, 2013 11:49 am

    Negative?! Are you kidding me. The franchise has been one of the worst in MLB for over a decade. I think you’ve been pretty decent and fair. Yes, Jack Z has given us some hope; a very good farm system. However, the MLB product is still awful and prospects don’t always become MLB players let alone stars.

    The Mariners are getting all time low attendances and rightfully so. Things haven’t improved yet. I think the USS Mariner site is great. My go to site for Mariners stuff.

  28. Gormogon on May 7th, 2013 12:13 pm

    “Average is still a nice step up…”

    Hear hear.

  29. MKT on May 7th, 2013 1:02 pm

    “League average would be an enormous improvement for this team. Hell, a league average offense would have probably put them in the playoffs a time or two in the last eight years.”

    True of the teams the last few years. But this year the Mariners have people like Morse and occasionally Ibanez/Bay in the outfield, and Andino in the infield. And earlier at least, Montero at catcher. So league average offense won’t get them as many wins as it used to.

  30. Westside guy on May 7th, 2013 1:04 pm

    ^ Not to mention making decisions like sitting Morales in favor of Smoak when the team is playing NL rules…

  31. jryoung222 on May 7th, 2013 1:05 pm

    As Earl Weaver said when asked about momentum: “Momentum? Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher.”

  32. HighlightsAt11 on May 7th, 2013 1:32 pm

    Interesting Mariners rankings in the MLB.

    Errors: (11) 4th <<< Nice!

    The rest is not so nice.

    Grounded into Double Plays: (35) 1st

    Base Running:
    Stolen Bases: (8) last

    Wild Pitches: (16) 5th

    Player stat – Catcher Position: Montero

    Passed Balls: 3
    Caught Stealing: 0
    Stolen Bases Allowed: 15
    Caught Stealing %: 0.000

  33. JasonJ on May 7th, 2013 1:35 pm

    “I wonder if .500 will keep Z and Wedgie employed.”

    Good question. I would say yes.

  34. The_Waco_Kid on May 7th, 2013 2:28 pm

    Day game tomorrow so Morales rests in one of them. No big deal

  35. rick m on May 7th, 2013 3:28 pm

    This is actually good news. League average hitting is good when you got two lockdown starters. An OPS+ of 98 backs Dave’s observations up. Got some work to do with the rest of our pitching rotation (91 ERA+ overall). But, we have good defense, league average hitting, Felix and Iwakuma and a strong pen. We can work with this.

  36. diderot on May 7th, 2013 5:45 pm

    Mariners are also 23rd in BABIP and 27th in RISP. Unless you think these reflect inherent traits that won’t stabilize, they would seem relevant to the analysis.

  37. californiamariner on May 7th, 2013 7:51 pm

    They’re probably 27th with RISP because they don’t have a good offense. Don’t expect that to stabilize.

  38. Phightin Phils on May 7th, 2013 9:10 pm

    Is there a single stat that best weights xFIP of opposing pitchers with wRC+ of offense?

  39. IllinoisMsFan on May 9th, 2013 6:00 pm

    This reads like a Baker piece:

    “[insert whatever success we’re talking about] doesn’t count because it came against bad teams.”

    The M’s offense isn’t good. We all know that.

  40. Athanasius on May 16th, 2013 9:03 am

    Is the glass half empty or half full? A league average offense against poor pitching? In “the context” of the last few years, I’ll take that.

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