The Problem With Only Focusing on Improvements
A few days ago, Shannon Drayer wrote a post about the Mariners potentially pursuing Robinson Cano, based on comments made by Jim Bowden. The Cano rumors don’t interest me much, because I don’t think there’s any reason to believe the Mariners should or will go after Cano, nor do I believe that Cano would have any interest in relocating to Seattle, and I think the idea of a big free agent signing turning around a franchise’s reputation is pretty much 100% BS. But in that piece, Shannon wrote another thing that was a little more interesting, and something I think is worth mentioning.
If you read my blog on a regular basis, you know I hate to make predictions. I will predict this, however: The Mariners’ No. 3, 4 and 5 starters will be significantly better next year. I know I am going out on a limb, but James Paxton and Taijuan Walker will be an upgrade from 3, 4 and 5 and most likely 6 on that list above. General manager Jack Zduriencik is planning on adding a starter from the outside as well. Great. Add a pitcher, do not trade Paxton or Walker and you can pencil in (I am done with my predictions so we are going with “pencil in” here) a 100-run swing.
Zduriencik has said that upgrading the defense is a priority as well and there is a lot of room for improvement. That translates to runs saved, which you can tack on to that 100-run swing. Go ahead and add a few more for an improved bullpen as well. That 754 runs allowed in 2013 should come down significantly in 2014.
She’s right that the back-end of the Mariners rotation last year was dreadful. Whether you’re looking at Joe Saunders, Aaron Harang, Brandon Maurer, Jeremy Bonderman, Blake Beavan, or even Erasmo Ramirez, the results were lousy. A lack of starting depth was one of the main reasons the 2013 Mariners were terrible. It should not be hard to improve upon what the team got from those three spots in the rotation. If Walker and Paxton are what some people think they are, and the team acquires a “legitimate #2” — or someone they’ll stick that label on, at least — then the 2014 rotation should project to be significantly better.
But Shannon makes a pretty common mistake that a lot of people make when projecting the future; she focuses only on the positive improvements from replacing lousy performances from the year before. When you do projections like this, and note that Awesome New Guy X is some number of runs better than Old Crappy Guy Y, you’re inherently treating everyone else on the roster like their performance is fixed from year to year. And that is simply not the case.
As great as Felix Hernandez is, and as good as Hisashi Iwakuma was last year, those two simply cannot be expected to repeat their 2013 performances again in 2014. It’s not that they couldn’t possibly throw another 423 innings while allowing just 143 runs (3.04 RA9, combined), but that their performance from last year represents something very close to the upper limit of their potential, and there’s a significant probability that the Mariners will get less from their top two next year. And you absolutely have to factor the expected regression from those two into any kind of forecast for runs allowed by the team in 2014.
For instance, right now, the Steamer projection system forecasts the Mariners rotation to post a combined 4.07 ERA in 969 innings, barely any improvement over the 4.18 ERA the Mariners got from their starters over 960 innings last year. Part of that lack of improvement is because there is no “#2 starter” included in the depth chart yet, so Shannon’s projecting some improvement from a pitcher the team doesn’t yet have, so you could go ahead and make some adjustments for adding that guy to the mix. And I’d imagine she’s probably more optimistic about the short-term performances from Walker and Paxton than Steamer is, since that system is forecasting something close to league average pitching from both. No one is saying the Steamer projections are the gospel truth and can’t be underselling the expected performances of the team’s 2014 rotation, and perhaps Shannon’s right to be more optimistic about the young kids than the numbers suggest.
However, I think we can say with near certainty that the Mariners rotation will not improve by 100 runs next year. In fact, we can basically prove that they won’t do it just through looking at the recent history of major league rotations.
The Mariners starters allowed 481 runs in 2013. Over the last 30 years, no American League team has allowed 381 runs over a full-season — a bunch of teams did it in 1994, when the season ended in mid-August — and in fact, no team has even come close. The fewest runs allowed by an AL starting rotation over the last 30 years? 412, by the 1990 Red Sox. That was a team that had Roger Clemens throw 230 innings with a 1.93 ERA, and a bunch of good hurlers behind him.
A few other teams have gotten close to that mark recently, including the 2012 Tampa Bay Rays (David Price, James Shields, and a bunch of good young arms) and the 2013 Tigers (Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and Doug Fister), but have maxed out around 415 runs allowed. Those are two of the best run prevention rotations we’ve seen any team run out in recent history, and they topped out at about 65 runs better than the 2013 Mariners. Realistically, it would be impossible to expect the Mariners rotation (and defense) to be better than any of the recent Rays teams, last year’s Tigers, or even the ’85 Blue Jays, ’89 A’s, or that 2002 Red Sox team that featured Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe.
Even if we narrow the timeline to the more recent years, as offense in baseball has declined and so comparing the current game to the one seeing 15 years ago is a little bit of apples and oranges, we still only find a handful of teams even getting under the 450 run barrier. Over the last three seasons, only seven different pitching rotations have allowed fewer than 450 runs, and five of those seven were between 432 and 442. If you were to look at the runs allowed totals by the best rotations (and defenses) we’ve seen in the last few years, we’d peg the expected upper limit around 435 or so. It’s possible to push it to 415, but it takes such a remarkable performance from so many elite talents that it’s basically impossible to expect anyone to match those levels.
435 runs allowed isn’t even a 50 run improvement over what the Mariners rotation put up in 2013, less than half of the 100 run improvement that Shannon wrote about. And that’s the level reached by the best starting staffs in the AL over the last few years, which it isn’t entirely clear that we should expect the 2014 Mariners to be. Yeah, Walker is a great prospect, and Paxton had a nice final start to his season, but the performance range of young pitchers is all over the map. Pitching prospects are as flakey as anything in baseball, and it’s not like either Walker or Paxton destroyed Triple-A in a way that suggests that the inconsistencies of young pitchers shouldn’t be expected to apply to them. There’s as good a chance that one or both of them just fall on their face — as Brandon Maurer did a year ago after winning everyone over in spring training — and get shipped back to Triple-A as there is that they pull a Michael Pineda and dominate from day one. The reason we were all impressed with Pineda is because that kind of performance from the start was unusual. You can’t expect that from every young kid who throws 95.
And even if you could, you’d still have to expect less from Felix and Iwakuma. They might stay perfectly healthy and make 64 starts between them again, but there’s basically no room for upside beyond that, and even short DL stints from either one could really cut into their overall production levels. And, realistically, a 2.66 ERA for Iwakuma is almost certainly not happening again. He needed absurdly low rates of hits on balls in play and stranding runners in order to post that mark last year, and those numbers fluctuate greatly from year to year. Even if he pitched the same in terms of walks, strikeouts, and home runs, you’d expect his ERA to go up significantly just due to different timing of events.
It’s fine to expect the Mariners 2014 rotation to be better. It might even be a lot better. But, in reality, a lot better is a 30 run improvement, not a 100 run improvement. If the Mariners really do commit to upgrading the defense, and the bullpen gets some positive regression as well, maybe the overall staff can be 50 or 60 runs better than they were last year. But anything beyond that is really pushing it. 100 runs just isn’t realistic.