The State of the M’s Thus Far: Examining the Team through Questionably-Useful Lenses

marc w · March 16, 2018 at 12:05 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

I’m sorry for the lack of posts recently, but I’ve been completely slammed at work, and something had to give. That something has been posts admiring Dan Vogelbach’s hot spring, or Taylor Motter coming on strong or what have you. That said, I’ve tried to have a check-in post most springs that tries to wring some sort of information out of spring training statistics. This is dangerous territory, for a variety of reasons, but I figure if we caveat the whole thing and keep the focus at the team level, maybe we’ll find something.

Last year, I wrote about the M’s remarkable success at turning their own mantra into on-field results: the team preached controlling the zone, and then their pitchers AND hitters went out and did exactly that, posting solid ratios on both sides of the ball. Did that carry through to the regular season? Noooooo (damn you, tempting Arizona mirages). But even that was understandable, perhaps, given the M’s injuries and the transactions that some of them necessitated. Moreover, and I know this is familiar to anyone who’s read this site, the story of the M’s disappointing 2017 wasn’t just their zone ratios (K:BB, K-BB%, etc.), it was the fact that, for a second straight year, home runs stole the show. The problem with the M’s jury-rigged back-of-the-rotation wasn’t that they didn’t miss enough bats (though they didn’t miss enough bats), it was that they gave up so many HRs that K:BB ratio didn’t matter nearly as much.

I looked at each team’s zone stats in 2017 and then I added their net home runs – this is just home runs hit minus home runs allowed. Those of you who are yelling, “That’s essentially just re-stating FIP” aren’t wrong: walks, strikeouts and dingers are, of course, the three inputs in FIP, and thus it should come as no surprise that my “net KW” or net strikeouts and net walks (strikeouts earned by pitchers minus strikeouts taken by batters, plus walks earned by batters minus walks given by pitchers) and net HRs correlates really well with fangraphs pitching WAR which is, of course, FIP based. But you look at the standings last year, and it just sort of jumps off the page: the most surprising teams dominated in net HRs. The two best marks were earned by the Yankees and Diamondbacks, and the Brewers weren’t far behind. The league’s two worst clubs by net HRs were two of the worst teams in the game: the San Francisco Giants and Chicago White Sox. The best clubs in the game, the Astros, Dodgers and especially the Indians, were elite in BOTH net HRs and net KW, while clubs like the Nationals and Cubs looked solid, if a clear step behind the Astros/Dodgers/Indians. It’s not foolproof or anything – the Red Sox didn’t hit many HRs at all, and thus ended up with a sharply negative net HR mark, but they made up for it with an elite net KW mark. The A’s had a positive net HR mark, but gave it all away on the net KW side of the ledger. Of the two “stats”, net HRs correlated slightly better with wins, and both correlated slightly more than offensive WAR as measured by FG.

This is a single year of data – the year of the HR – so I’m not claiming these measures are anything more than an interesting diversion, but it highlights the importance of HRs in today’s game. The M’s had a net HR mark of -37, and that, more than anything, crushed their playoff hopes. All of that to say that the focus going forward needs to be on avoiding HRs. I think the M’s went for elevated fastballs and fly ball contact last year on the solid premise that the HR explosion was occurring on low pitches, and thus they could achieve better results on both HRs-allowed AND BABIP by generating whiffs and fly outs. They batted .500 on those premises. The problem was that the HR explosion proved a bit more ecumenical than previously thought, and a primary driver for THAT sure looks like the ball itself.

The M’s remarkably hands-off approach to roster building this off-season may be many things, from the product of ownership closing their wallet, to misreading the market to an honest, earnestly-held belief that the team literally has too many starters to go off in search of new ones in free agency. But what it clearly results in is elevating the importance of player development. The M’s now have to coach their way past their projections and the previously-measured abilities of their players. And because HRs are so, so prevalent now, and because the M’s pitchers now give them up at the same rate as Colorado pitchers did in 1999-2000, the *focus* of that teaching/coaching effort seems pretty clear.

So how are the M’s doing thus far down in Peoria? Uh, they’ve given up 31 HRs and hit 20. Look, spring training isn’t over, and the whole enterprise is beset by problems in trying to extract signal from noise. As Dan Rosenheck’s Economist piece back in 2015 details, it’s split between two fundamentally different run environments, it’s got a host of weird park effects, there’s the ultra-wide range of talent on the field – much wider than in MLB games. It all makes things hard (but not impossible) for those looking to find something meaningful in the practice games. That’s where net HRs or KW can be helpful: they’re intrateam measures first, so you don’t have to worry as much about the fact that HRs are much, much more common in Arizona than Florida. Like last spring, the Indians pitchers look particularly HR-prone, but then, their batters have clubbed more than any other team: this looks more like a park effect than a particular area of concern for a pitching staff that utterly dominated in these net stats in 2017. The M’s though… hey, it’s still early. But the M’s are getting dominated in these metrics by the Padres, a team who shares a home park with them, and whose rotation looks even more questionable than the M’s.

The M’s zone stats have also dropped off markedly this spring. Maybe it’s not as much of a point of emphasis, or maybe it’s the product of shifting ABs both to minor leaguers and the position battles that matter: utility infielder and back-up catcher, neither role of which is traditionally the source of gaudy offensive stats. But part of the reason for highlighting their success last year was that it lent credence to the idea that they could *teach* these skills. If that lesson is a fleeting one – and we don’t know that it is yet – then that’s a problem. If it’s less of a point of emphasis, especially for pitchers, that’s fine by me, but there are several approaches that could benefit BOTH K:BB ratio and HRs-allowed. I’d love to see more evidence that they’re implementing one.


One Response to “The State of the M’s Thus Far: Examining the Team through Questionably-Useful Lenses”

  1. bongo on March 26th, 2018 8:03 pm

    The Mariners early season schedule is daunting (playing 11 games against the Indians and Astros). That means that unless the Ms can feast on the bad teams like the Giants, Royals and White Sox they could be facing an uphill battle for the rest of the season. It also means that if they finish April with a .500 record that should be considered a very positive sign.

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