Keeping Things in Context
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.