Two Early M’s Observations

marc w · April 23, 2015 at 10:23 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

The Mariners have played 15 games – not terribly well, as it happens, but they remain an intriguing and promising team. Less than 10% of the way through the regular season, we’re not yet able to say a whole lot about true talent. We can identify some patterns in their results, but we can’t say that those results are representative. We can’t yet say what the Mariners *are* as a team, but we can say what they’ve *done* as a team. Through 15 games. This isn’t a gripping lead-in, but I’m describing a 6-9 team in April.

Just for reference, at 15 games in last year, we would’ve focused on the near total collapse of Kyle Seager’s batting line, and the signs of hope from Nick Franklin and Corey Hart. So let’s forget about individual players, and look at what’s defined the Mariners as a group thus far. I’ve got two random, unrelated observations here: 1) The M’s defense has been remarkably lousy/unlucky. 2) The M’s sequencing on offense has been about perfect. The former goes a long way towards explaining both why the M’s pitching staff’s ERA is so much worse than its FIP, and also why the team strand rate’s poor. The latter says that while their luck may improve on the run prevention front, they’ve been pretty fortunate on *when* they’ve scored runs.

1) Mike Petriello had a good piece at Fangraphs this morning about the Cleveland Indians defense, and how the club sought to improve it this past offseason. Last year, you can make the case that defense prevented the Indians from running away with the Central, or, more conservatively, that the over 120 run gap in UZR between the Indians and the Royals *might* have been a factor in the Royals edging out the Indians for the wild card. It’s early yet, but despite a number of personnel changes, the Indians still rate poorly. They have reason to hope that they won’t be awful for long, but awful they’ve been.

One of the ways this awfulness is demonstrated is by looking at a team’s BABIP against, or defensive efficiency. By Fangraphs’ BABIP, the M’s rank 28th in baseball, easily ahead of Cleveland, but edging out the Rangers as well. By Baseball Prospectus’ defensive efficiency stat, the M’s are 29th, a bit *worse* than the Rangers. The M’s have allowed 420 balls in play, while the A’s have allowed 419; the M’s have allowed 26 more base hits than have the A’s, which, if you’re into that sort of thing, pretty much explains the A’s advantage in the standings.

What’s interesting is that this defensive problem isn’t so much a problem with the outfield – an outfield that’s seen a whole lot of Nelson Cruz, thanks to Seth Smith’s groin injury – it’s been an infield issue. I mentioned it in yesterday’s game thread, but the M’s positioning and first step hasn’t been up to par yet, and that’s meant that ground balls that would normally be turned into outs have bounded into the outfield. The M’s staff has generated a good number of ground balls, but they’ve been awful at turning double plays. The Rangers and A’s have each turned 5 more DPs this year despite the fact that the M’s pitchers have induced more ground balls.

Personally, I’m a bit encouraged by this. It hasn’t been fun to watch, of course, and the loss to the Astros on Tuesday was an object lesson in how BABIP can kill, but this doesn’t seem to be a systematic weakness. By advanced metrics, the M’s defense looks OK. The fact that the problem’s concentrated on the IF means that guys like Robinson Cano just haven’t gotten to a few balls. If Robbie Cano is the problem, it’s probably not going to be a problem for long. Sure, the OF defense could get worse, especially if Cruz continues to see a lot of time in right, and if Austin Jackson’s first step doesn’t return. But if the M’s start turning grounders into outs, they’ll start to chip away at the yawning chasm between their fielding-dependent and fielding-independent pitching marks, and that’d mean fewer total runs allowed.

2) As unlucky as M’s pitchers have been, their bats have been remarkably fortunate. The Hardball Times founder Dave Studeman mentioned it on twitter, but the M’s have a high offensive win probability added despite relatively few total runs scored. The M’s rank 21st in both runs scored and on-base percentage, but 5th in WPA, a stat measuring how the offense improved the team’s chance of winning games. Traditionally, and this is one of those groundbreaking sabermetric insights, offenses that make a ton of outs don’t improve their team’s odds of winning. A line-up that HAS been quite good at improving WPA despite a sub-.300 OBP is something of an odd duck, though it’s worth noting both that the M’s had a surprisingly good WPA given their putrid output in April of 2014, and also that the team that led the league in WPA last April was the Minnesota Twins’ juggernaut of an offense.

Some stats *feel* right – they highlight something that you see while watching a game, but that doesn’t get picked up in traditional stats. This one…depends. What’s happening is that the M’s offense has racked up plenty of WPA in their big comebacks, two extra-inning wins in Oakland, and then the wild 11-10 comeback against the Rangers. That said, it’s not like the M’s are a clear Pythagorean outlier – if you re-allocated the M’s total runs scored, you might come out with a similar W/L record. Sure, any runs added in that 12-0 shellacking in Oakland would be wasted, but the M’s have two one-run losses and four two-run losses on the year.* An optimist would point out that this is more an artifact of great M’s offensive performances coinciding with awful pitching, allowing the O to take all of the WPA spoils (as the pitching WPA in those three big games was negative). The pessimist would point out that the M’s are 6-9, and have an OBP below .300, and wouldn’t deign to talk about WPA.

I don’t really know what to think about either of these stats, and it’s quite possible neither will persist much into May. I don’t *think* the M’s are going to be a lousy defensive team, but it’d be concerning if they weren’t as good on the IF as we thought. You can’t count on WPA luck to stick around and help you win a pennant, but it doesn’t really need to. The M’s won three games they very easily could’ve lost, and here’s hoping we’ll remember them when toasting a divisional championship – the gap between runs and WPA could shrink either because the M’s sequencing luck deserts them, or because they *start scoring lots of runs*. Which of those is more likely depends on what you expect from Logan Morrison, Mike Zunino and Rickie Weeks.

* Outside of that one game in Oakland, *every game* the M’s has been decided by three or fewer runs.


8 Responses to “Two Early M’s Observations”

  1. Westside guy on April 23rd, 2015 11:51 pm

    Thanks for the interesting and informative piece, Marc. It has something for everyone – pessimists like me can point to parts of it and say “see?”, while more optimistic types can look at other bits and say “they’re gonna be fine”.

    The team had better start looking good, though, over the next few weeks – this is supposed to be the *easy* part of the schedule!

  2. maqman on April 24th, 2015 2:19 am

    The metrics seem to mirror the eye test. You have to think that things will stabilize eventually and the team will revert to its true talent level but you also have to recognize there is nothing absolute about this because baseball.

  3. DJG on April 24th, 2015 8:40 am

    Another point that bears mentioning is that the M’s currently have a .275 team BABIP. This will almost certainly go up, as only the worst teams in the league finish the season with a mark this low. The M’s don’t have the profile of a terrible BABIP team. In fact half the lineup — Ackley, Morrison, Zunino, and Smith — are well-below their career BABIP marks, and the others are very close.

    So even if the M’s are outperforming their WPA, there is reason to believe (or at least hope) the runs and OBP will increase.

  4. Eastside Crank on April 24th, 2015 9:09 am

    “if you re-allocated the M’s total runs scored”
    It would be nice to be able to do that and it would help every team. Some games will be blowouts and some will be close. I always wish that runs from blowouts could be saved for later in the series when they might be needed. The Mariners offense will stink as long as they string players with poor batting averages together. It is like facing 4 or 5 pitchers in the lineup every day.

    The defense is as bad as the metrics suggest. Cano did not have good range in New York so I do not see why that would change in Seattle. It looks like he is guessing (instead of reacting) where balls will be hit this year and getting out of position when he is wrong. Miller looks like his defense is better than last year, he just is not a strong defensive short stop. The outfield range on defense is bad and that does not show up in the metrics this early in the season. Remember when you wished a ball would be hit to right so Ichiro could show off his range and arm? Now you already know the outcome of close plays and it does not favor the Mariners.

    In spite of all this, the other AL West teams have problems too. Playing mediocre ball will keep the Mariners competitive.

  5. ensignofcommand on April 24th, 2015 3:37 pm

    How does our offense stink? Granted we’re only 16 games in, but we’re ninth in OPS+ and tied for 11th in wRC+ (with the Mets of all things). So even with the 19th lowest BABIP we’re a top 10-ish offensive team.

    We’re three games under because of pitching. We have the worst FIP to ERA differential in the majors, and I think it’s too early to say whether that’s the result of bad defense or bad luck. We’re not even half way through the first quarter of the season.

    Marc really nailed it with the Seager line. Going into game 19 he was batting .156/.280/.219/.499. He got hot and raised his line to .229/.333/.458/.791 in the span of five games.

    Five games. I can’t get too down on a team when we’re still at a point in the season where a good week can raise your OPS 292 points.

  6. joser on April 24th, 2015 5:14 pm

    this is supposed to be the *easy* part of the schedule!

    Actually, it isn’t. Just this morning on FG, Dave Cameron had a piece on the Mets and their strength of schedule so far. Along the way he provided a graph showing all the teams which compared the opponents played so far vs RoS (Rest of Season) with the note “Teams above the line have had an easier schedule, teams below somewhat tougher.” Seattle is right on the line.

    Of course that’s based on FG game odds projection; invariably a few teams underperform their projections a couple exceed them, so we don’t know the real strength of schedule until the end of the season. That is, as they say, why they play the games. But based on what we know right now, and what we project going forward, these games haven’t been the easy or the hard part of the schedule.

    I leave it to the reader to decide whether that’s good news or bad news.

  7. Westside guy on April 24th, 2015 7:11 pm

    I was referring to this current stretch of subpar teams they are facing, more or less all in a row – Texas, Houston, Minnesota, et al. These are not good teams but so far the M’s haven’t exactly shined against them.

  8. ensignofcommand on April 24th, 2015 7:48 pm

    I like Houston going forward. Their pitching and defense has been great so far, and I like their lineup. Altuve, Springer, Carter, Gattis, Lowrie, Rasmus, Valbuena, Marisnick. Keuchel and McHugh at the front of their rotation.

    Say what you will about Luhnow, but he’s accumulated a lot of young talent and they still have a miniscule payroll. If they’re .500 or better this season I could see them picking up a Heyward or Cueto and becoming contending for years to come.

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