What We Can Say About Safeco Field

October 8, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 19 Comments 

There were times this summer — lots of them, in fact — when I couldn’t tell if I cared about baseball anymore. The Mariners weren’t provoking any sort of emotional response at all, and that’s supposed to be my most favorite team. I didn’t just not want to watch them; I actively avoided them, and I recognized my own behavior. But it turns out it wasn’t baseball — it was the Mariners. The Mariners were downright unwatchable for stretches. I’m sitting here, watching the playoffs, and it’s incredible. No one has a better atmosphere than the Pirates right now. Pirates fans have been through a lot worse than we have. The Pirates are proof that the Mariners can be good again, and Safeco can be packed and loud again, and baseball can be fun again. Don’t know when, but no matter how you feel about the Mariners today, they’ll pull you back if and when they can win 90 games. Baseball’s awesome when it matters.

The Mariners have a vested interest in mattering, and last offseason, a step they took toward that end was bringing in most of the fences at Safeco Field. It wasn’t something that was going to directly give the Mariners any more wins — it was a change that would affect the Mariners and their opponents equally. But the change was intended to make the park more neutral. More fair. More appealing to other players. More tolerable for current players. There probably was too much imbalance before, and it’s possible the park got into some hitters’ heads. Safeco seemed overdue for a fence-bringin’, and over the course of some months those fences were brought. A full season, now, has been played.

So it’s only natural to wonder what’s become of Safeco Field. We grew accustomed to all the old park effects. How about the new park effects? We should have an idea by now, right, since it’s been a whole season? What is Safeco Field, v2.0? The answer is not contained within this post. But there will be numbers anyway.

The most important thing to get is that park factors take more than a year to overpower the noise. There’s signal in there — there’s signal in there after even just one single game — but this is going to take years. Split the season in half, first. That’s how many home games there were. Then you have to consider all the balls in play, and how many of them were grounders, or routine flies, or homers that would’ve easily cleared any fence. Only a small percentage of balls in play are subject to park effects, and there aren’t that many of them hit to each location. Plus, there’s the matter of other, unseen, confusing park effects, like effects on walks or groundball rate. Parks do lots of stuff, directly or indirectly, and you just have to let the games be played for a while.

There are a few things we know for sure, though. The fences were brought in in left, left-center, center, and right-center. The fence was lowered a little in left. Automatically, we know that’s going to mean more dingers. Reasonably, it can’t not. The dinger threshold is reduced, so home runs will go up, because they have to. The question is by how much, and the other question is what else is going to happen? What happens to doubles and triples? What happens to run-scoring, overall?

Nothing can be said conclusively, but we can at least look in the numbers for clues. Below I’m going to include a table, showing 2000-2012 Safeco Field, and 2013 Safeco Field. The percentages are simple park factors. A percentage of, say, 90% means that Safeco’s rate was 90% the same measure on the road. For example, between 2000-2012, games in Safeco had a .252 batting average, while Mariners road games had a .269 batting average. The percentage shown is (.252/.269) * 100 = 94%. This approach is too simplistic, but I have interest in simple approaches.

2000-2012 94% 96% 91% 87% 96% 89% 90% 107% 108%
2013 99% 98% 96% 92% 102% 106% 88% 93% 106%

For the record, the 2B/3B and HR rates are rates on contact, not rates overall. Anyhow, to just walk through: this year, batting average was almost even. OBP was almost even. BABIP was almost even. Doubles and triples were up a lot, combined, while homers didn’t actually budge. Something might’ve happened with walks, but that’s going to take years to sort out, just like everything else. There’s so much noise. All of these error bars overlap the previous park factors, so none of this, I have to imagine, is statistically significant.

But, there you have it. Safeco didn’t quite play neutral in 2013 — OPS in the park was .705, and .727 elsewhere — but it played more neutral, especially compared to the season before. Interestingly, this didn’t happen as would’ve been projected. Instead of increasing home runs, it left home runs the same and increased other hits, despite reduced in-play surface area. This is the opposite of what we would’ve thought, and compelling evidence of just why we’re going to need a multi-year sample. These results don’t quite make sense, and there’s no reason to believe Safeco isn’t going to increase homers going forward from last winter.

One other thing I did look at was ESPN Home Run Tracker data, going back to 2006. One of the things that’s measured, for each home run, is how many ballparks would’ve allowed that home run to be a home run under standard conditions (no wind, room temperature). The maximum value, of course, is 30. The minimum value is 0, in case the homer got help from the air in some way. Between 2006-2012, Safeco averaged 19 homers a year that would’ve left 15 or fewer ballparks. It averaged eight homers a year that would’ve left ten or fewer ballparks. Last season, there were 37 homers that would’ve left 15 or fewer ballparks, and 18 homers that would’ve left ten or fewer ballparks. So there’s some evidence of more hitter-friendly dinger conditions, and it goes along with our own memories of some homers, especially to left-center, that wouldn’t have been homers before. Ryan Divish has casually estimated that Safeco yielded ten extra homers this season, and that seems to be roughly in the ballpark. That’s not meant to be a play on words, but I don’t care enough to think of another expression.

So Safeco played differently in 2013, as expected, but it didn’t play differently as expected. More than anything else, that’s a demonstration of the noise that goes into single-season park factors. As for how Safeco feels, now? It probably still feels big, especially on cold nights, but hitters should no longer live in such fear. Don’t know if the new Safeco is going to mean brighter futures for the Mariners’ young position players, thanks to increased confidence, or decreased non-confidence. At worst, it ought to have no effect, so there’s no reason to be upset. With the park. Lots of reasons to be upset with the Mariners.

Something I neglected to mention earlier: anecdotally, it seemed like a long and dry and beautiful summer. Certainly, it was a better summer than the two previous summers in Seattle, and that would’ve had an effect both on the gameplay and on the attendance. There’s also the matter of what might have changed as a consequence of the new big giant videoboard, but that’s just going to be folded in with the rest of the ballpark adjustments. We don’t care so much about the individual components; we care about the overall park factors, of the park as a package, and as more and more time passes, we’ll get a better and better idea of what Safeco has turned into.

For now, we’re left with assumptions and approximations. We know that Safeco has changed its clothes, but we don’t quite know what it’s decided to wear. It’ll emerge from the dressing room slowly, over a matter of a handful of years. This has been one godawful metaphor.

Kendrys Morales And A Timeline

October 8, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 31 Comments 

We’ve already heard that the Mariners intend to extend to Kendrys Morales a qualifying offer, worth a year and around $14 million. The idea is simple: the Mariners want Morales back, and it helps them to drive down his market. They want to try to sign Morales to a multi-year deal, and this will make other teams less likely to do that, and if Morales does sign elsewhere, the Mariners get a compensation pick. It’s highly questionable whether Morales really is a $14-million player, but just as important is how Morales sees himself, and indeed we have word:

Morales will turn down the qualifying offer, as he’d expect to hit it much bigger in a market flush with cash but bereft of power[…]

So the Mariners will offer Morales a year and ~$13.8 million, and Morales will reject it. The Mariners will no longer be held to that $13.8-million figure; if Morales doesn’t find what he wants in the market, the Mariners could conceivably re-sign him for less. I don’t love Kendrys Morales, because I don’t think he’s the upper-tier slugger the Mariners seem to consider him, but with all this in mind I want to show you a timeline. Courtesy of Rotoworld, here is Adam LaRoche’s 2012-2013 offseason:

November 2: Nationals extend $13.3-million qualifying offer

November 4: Nationals reportedly reluctant to offer LaRoche more than two years to re-sign

November 5: LaRoche, Nationals not close to deal

November 7: Red Sox, Rangers in LaRoche pursuit

November 9: LaRoche declines qualifying offer

November 29: “nothing hot” between LaRoche and Nationals

December 1: LaRoche, Nationals still at odds over contract length

December 3: Orioles in hard on LaRoche

December 3: Nationals say no developments in LaRoche talks

December 4: report that LaRoche would take two years from Nationals with vesting third year

December 6: said that no team will offer LaRoche more than two years

December 12: indications LaRoche will sign before Christmas

December 14: Nationals said to have not upped $25-million, 2-year offer

December 17: LaRoche talks with Nationals reach stalemate

December 17: LaRoche said to be willing to take free agency deep into winter

December 22: LaRoche, Nationals make progress

December 27: Red Sox reportedly after LaRoche

December 28: Nationals and LaRoche still disagree over contract length

January 8: Nationals re-sign LaRoche for two years, $24 million

Adam LaRoche wanted a big contract, and he was coming off a big season. The Nationals made a two-year offer, LaRoche didn’t like it, LaRoche explored the market, and eventually LaRoche took that same two-year offer. The Nationals did well to hold firm, and though they wound up with a bit of a roster crunch, they were able to unload Michael Morse for young talent, so that solved that. Teams liked LaRoche, surely, because there was no denying that he looked like a pretty good first baseman, but teams value draft picks highly. Maybe the highest they ever have. That did enough to LaRoche’s market to leave the Nationals with a lot of the leverage.

I don’t know how it’s going to play out with Morales, because Morales is younger than LaRoche and seems to have a better reputation. On the other hand, Morales’ contract season was worse, and he doesn’t look like he can be a regular first baseman. There’s the distinct possibility this qualifying offer is going to reduce Morales’ market to the point where it makes some sense for the Mariners to bring him back. And if another team out there is still willing to give him three years or big money, then the Mariners can back away and take the pick. Or, they should. They shouldn’t go to three years. They shouldn’t go to big money. Morales would project as a fairly minor inefficiency, but inefficiencies are inefficiencies and they’re matters of millions of dollars. There’s no need to splurge on a Kendrys Morales.

Out of this, there are three potential outcomes:

(1) Mariners keep Morales on reasonable deal
(2) Mariners keep Morales on unreasonable deal
(3) Mariners get a compensation pick

Two of those three outcomes are good. I like those odds!

Lincoln Speaks, Hope Disappears

October 1, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 136 Comments 

Howard Lincoln talked to the media today. Ryan Divish did the yeoman’s work of transcribing the entire conversation, 44 minutes worth of talking on a wide variety of subjects. Other people are going to summarize the comments, or offer commentary on the comments, but Divish gives you the full context, the full question and answer session, and you should read the whole thing.

I’m going to keep my comments about his comments brief, because its 2:30 in the morning and I need to go to bed. Also, because I wanted the organization to have learned something from 2013. I hoped there’d be some soul searching, some wondering about what happened, and perhaps a questioning of whether their plan was flawed from the start. Instead, I saw this.

You’ve had a few days now to look back, what were your thoughts on the 2013 season?

This was the most disappointing and frustrating season I’ve ever endured without any question.

Worse than 2008?

Yeah, really. I don’t judge it just by wins and losses. And the reason I say that, at spring training our expectations were very high. And I think that was justified. You were there. This looked really good.

Still believes that spring training matters? Check.

If I go around the infield (Kyle) Seager, (Brad) Miller, (Nick) Franklin, (Justin) Smoak, (Mike) Zunino – I think that’s our future.

Justin Smoak, still part of the core of this team’s future? Check. (Also, Franklin mentioned but not Ackley, which you can probably read into.)

So I think I’m very optimistic about the future. I think there were some good things. For one thing, I just realized today that we hit more home runs than any other team in the league except Baltimore. That’s unbelievable. I actually had to check that statistic.

Still focused on home run totals? Check.

Certainly, the young talent is coming up or is already up. I’m very confident about the organization going forward. I think it’s regarded in major league baseball as a really good organization. And I think if you were to ask Bud Selig, he would tell you that. So that’s how I feel.

Still completely oblivious to the actual view of the organization within the game? Check. (Oh God, the Bud Selig comment. I can’t even…)

How do you sell this team to fans? If two fans were standing here right now and asked, ‘Why should we spend our money to go see your product?’ What do you tell them?

First I’d tell them that when you get to Safeco Field you are going to have a safe, friendly environment. You are going to be sitting in a first class ballpark. You are going to get great entertainment. It’s a great place to come whether it’s at the Pen or at Edgar’s or wherever. So there’s a lot of things going on at Safeco Field for the fans to enjoy besides watching major league baseball. And I would point that out to them. Many of our fans are thinking about things other than just what’s on the field, so we have to provide a really good entertainment experience across the board as well as getting that major league team to perform.

Still totally unaware of how patronizing this answer is to people who are actually fans of baseball and don’t just treat Safeco Field as a distracting place to show off their wealth? Check mate.

I’m going to go to bed now. I may or may not punch myself in the face on the way there.

Mariners Plan To Trap Kendrys Morales

October 1, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 37 Comments 

An important principle is having an understanding of how a team’s success or failure can bias your evaluations. A certain player on a bad team is likely to look better than if he were on a good team, even given a completely identical performance, because good teams come with things like expectations and standards. Everything’s relative, including evaluations, and they’re relative to the context of the team. I had lots of conversations about Michael Saunders a year ago. I was really excited about his breakthrough, coming out of nowhere. Liked him as an everyday outfielder. The reality is that Saunders was and is fine, but he’s more Mariners-good than actually good. Kyle Seager is more Mariners-great than actually great. These guys are values, but they’d seem less valuable on a competitive ballclub.

Kendrys Morales, also, is more Mariners-good than actually good. He seems like a big-bat thumper in large part because of what else and who else we’ve experienced. On a good team, Morales isn’t critical, but the Mariners aren’t a good team, and so that’s kind of how we end up with this:


This has long been the suspicion — now it’s basically been confirmed. The Mariners will offer Morales a one-year deal worth something in the vicinity of $14 million. They’ll also, I bet, try to negotiate a multi-year deal around a similar average annual value. Morales might not be super jazzed about coming back, but the qualifying offer could do a number on his market value, since he’s a DH with an unspectacular track record. He might well end up trapped by the Mariners, and even if he does get away, then the Mariners will get a little compensation. Not so bad, for Seattle.

Except for the ~$14 million part. As a DH who can’t run, Morales needs to hit great to be good, and he hits a level below great, leaving him a level below good. By hitting well, he’s okay, fine even, and the economics of the game are healthy with salaries going through the roof, but Morales is a $14-million player around his career peak, and he hasn’t been there for a long time. He just had an offensive year like Seager’s. We like Seager. Now take away Seager’s defense, and make him less athletic. Also make him years older. You’re left with a role player with a weirdly-shaped head. Morales isn’t the guy the Mariners want him to be.

But he is, at least, acceptable. He’s a demonstrably above-average hitter, and I’m not worried about him collapsing in 2014. The front office would advance the argument that he makes the rest of the hitters better, and, maybe. They’d say it can be hard to find quality bats who want to come to Seattle, and, maybe. They’d say Morales gives the Mariners more credibility, and, maybe. We know the team has a lot of money coming off the books, and even if the Mariners end up overpaying Morales next season, they’ll overpay by just a few million, and they have lots of flexibility. That’s part of the thing — Morales isn’t a $14-million player, but he’s also not a $0-million player. We’re talking about relatively minor inefficiency.

But there’s the matter of a potential long-term contract. That would be an issue beyond 2014, when things look more cloudy. Also, there’s the matter of what this could signify, with regard to the front office’s thinking. I imagine they could spend $14 million better this winter, and to make a commitment to Morales suggests they’re still big on bats and big on dingers and worried about not scoring enough instead of not outscoring enough. I’ll give them time to reveal their plan, but Morales isn’t a star, and I’m not encouraged by a group of executives that thinks that he might be. It’s like if someone at your table can’t calculate a simple tip. In isolation, it doesn’t really matter, but it makes you wonder about what else the person can’t do.

I liked the trade for Morales. I like Morales, as a player. I like that he learned how to improve his switch-hitting, and I like that he doesn’t use gloves. I like that he came back from a devastating injury. I don’t like when the money gets steep. I don’t like when money makes me feel negative about a guy I support. There’s no franchise-ruiner here, but you get the sense the Mariners are about to overpay a DH, and that makes you wonder how else they’ll maneuver. Like it or lump it, the future is coming, and with it some answers.

The Hisashi Iwakuma Cy Young Argument

October 1, 2013 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

As advanced stats go, I’m not sure how much nerdier it gets than xFIP-. The number, at least, takes some real-life inputs, but then it makes a bunch of hypothetical adjustments. It attempts to adjust for defense. It attempts to adjust for sequencing. It attempts to adjust for fly balls and home runs. It attempts to adjust for ballpark. The stat is valuable, in that it correlates well with future performance. Good pitchers tend to post good xFIP-, and among starters this year, no one posted a better xFIP- than Felix Hernandez. That’s really great, and we should be happy about that, but good luck using that to convince many people of anything. It’s too far removed from the game that people watch on the field.

I’m not above trying to use xFIP- to support a Cy Young argument. Especially if there’s a Mariner in the running, since it’s not like the Mariners can win anything else. But today I can make a cause for a Mariner using something much simpler, much more easily understood. There is a case to be made that Hisashi Iwakuma should win the 2013 American League Cy Young.

Boil everything down. What’s the job of a pitcher? A pitcher is supposed to prevent runs from scoring, for as long as he can. There will be runs, eventually, but there can be fewer of them. Pitchers are just trying to keep batters from advancing four bases. One base, two bases, three bases? Dangerous, but manageable. Those bases don’t hurt. The goal is to keep people from going those last 90 feet.

This season, Hisashi Iwakuma allowed 2.83 runs — earned and unearned — per nine innings. That’s an extraordinary mark. In the AL, it’s better than everyone but Anibal Sanchez, and though Sanchez edged Iwakuma by six hundredths of a point of RA/9, Iwakuma also threw nearly 40 more innings, since Sanchez had a DL stint. Voters love innings, and innings that go to good starters are innings that don’t go to other guys, who are worse. Iwakuma beats Sanchez in playing time, and he beats everyone else in straight-up runs allowed.

Make little adjustments if you want to. That’s entirely fair. Yeah, Iwakuma pitched half the time in what’s still, presumably, a pitcher-friendly environment. But how pitcher-friendly is an environment with faraway walls but the Mariners’ defense? The Mariners had one of the worse team defenses in recent baseball history, and it’s not like Iwakuma was given a special exception. The park and the defense might balance out. Yu Darvish pitched in a hitter-friendly park, but with a good defense. Max Scherzer pitched in a pitcher-friendly park, and though his defense was also not good, it was better than the Mariners’ defense. Bartolo Colon was in a relatively friendly situation. Chris Sale allowed lots more runs than Iwakuma did, and his defense, too, didn’t compare with the one in Seattle.

Where Iwakuma stood out was with runners on base. He was fine with runners not on base, but here’s an AL leaderboard, showing wOBA allowed with men on:

  • Hisashi Iwakuma, .248
  • Felix Hernandez, .266
  • Hiroki Kuroda, .275
  • Max Scherzer, .277
  • Ivan Nova, .277

Iwakuma blew away the rest of the field, preventing damage in more damaging situations. Of his 25 home runs allowed, all but six were solo shots. This is how Iwakuma managed to allow so few runs, and you’ll notice that .230 BABIP with runners on base. This gets to the core of a common conversation.

What we care about, usually, is seeing what’s coming. That’s where we care most about strikeouts and walks and dingers and whatnot. It’s trickier to evaluate the past, because we don’t actually know how to divvy up credit. Countless hitters have said they can’t get good, reliable swings against Iwakuma, and this year he depressed his rate of hits given up. In particular, he didn’t budge when budging would’ve meant runs. It hasn’t been shown that pitchers can sustainably reduce hits on balls in play and pitch extra well in the big situations, but what if it happened over a few months? Iwakuma was trying to get those outs. He threw the pitches that got those outs. How can he not be given some credit? How can he not be given a lot of credit? We don’t care about sustainability looking backwards. Next year, Raul Ibanez won’t hit 29 home runs. This year, he most definitely did hit 29 home runs.

By innings and runs allowed, Hisashi Iwakuma was the top pitcher in the American League this season. If you pay more attention to the peripherals, he wasn’t. But if you pay attention to sequencing and quality of contact, he probably was. And to get a little more hardcore, Iwakuma’s average opponent had a .749 OPS. Scherzer’s average opponent had a .730 OPS. All the other candidates have figures lower than Iwakuma’s. Despite his friendly ballpark, he faced tough hitters before a lousy defense. This can’t be outright ignored.

I don’t mean to convey that I believe this argument. It’s not necessarily my argument — I still haven’t decided. I might never decide, and thankfully, I don’t have a decisive vote. I’m fully aware that I’m more receptive to the runs-based argument because the pitcher in question pitched for the Mariners. But that bias can open you up to different ideas, and Iwakuma was arguably the best at doing his job. Make some adjustments, and maybe he was still the best. How did Iwakuma limit hits, in front of mediocre gloves? Did the gloves perform unusually well, or did Iwakuma actually generate inferior contact? If the latter, isn’t that important? Isn’t that the most important?

I don’t know if I support Hisashi Iwakuma for this year’s Cy Young. I know that he’s not going to win it. But there is a case to be made, and as primitive as it might sound, it’s not that primitive, really. We know when runs do and don’t score. Runs didn’t score much, against Hisashi Iwakuma. That’s an important thing.

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