Two Early M’s Observations
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.