Cactus League Game 1? M’s Vs. Padres, Average

marc w · February 28, 2021 at 11:32 am · Filed Under Mariners 

Marco Gonzales vs. Adrian Morejon, 12:10pm

It’s the first cactus league game, so at this point the M’s are going to roll into 2021 with the team on display today. The line-up in today’s game looks more or less like what we’d all expect their opening day line-up to be. It’s…not bad. Jose Marmolejos and Shed Long look to cede their places to better options, while Dan Vogelbach, Mallex Smith and Austin Nola now ply their trade elsewhere, replaced by Ty France, the returning Mitch Haniger, and the returning Tom Murphy. There’s a bit less shrug-emoji in this line-up, but it’s also a line-up projected to score about 715-720 runs, one of the lowest totals in the league (714 by PECOTA, 711 by ClayDavenport, 731 by Fangraphs). What gives?

The Mariners are projected to have a terrible batting average. Yes, don’t adjust your monitor, I’m going to talk about batting average in this post. One of the earliest lessons any analytically-minded fan learns is that batting average can be misleading, hiding important information all over the place even as it’s held up as some sort of final word on a batter’s skill. We’ve all learned that batters can be fantastically productive despite a low batting average; OBP correlates more with run scoring, and hitting a bunch of dingers will do the trick, too. The M’s are composed of many such players – players with strong skills in one or more phases of the game, albeit with some pure bat-to-ball or batting average-type skills. For each individual player, we can shrug our shoulders and say, eh, sure, I’d love it if he hit .280, but his batting eye or power or up-the-middle-defense are more important to how we evaluate him.

The question the M’s asked in 2020 and haven’t exactly resolved is: What if you made the entire team out of players with the same flaw? The M’s are projected to bat in the mid .230s *as a team*. That can’t be much of a shock, given that they hit .226 last year. Sure, guys like Vogelbach and Smith have moved on, and Ty France and Dylan Moore will produce more base hits. But up and down the line-up, you see the same pattern. We are all excited about a healthy Mitch Haniger, but the man did hit .220 before his injury in 2019, and is projected to hit around .250 (which, for this team, is positively Ichiro-esque). He’ll be surrounded by the likes of Moore (.220 by ZiPS, .229 by PECOTA) and Tom Murphy (.221 by ZiPS, .219 by PECOTA). Both JP Crawford and Kyle Lewis, two guys who look like they’ll be hitting at the top of the line-up, project as sub-.240 hitters. Evan White…well, you get the point.

But what about all of the things those guys do well? That’s true, and you can go down that list and talk about why there’s plenty of hope for each player, or say that they could be league average or better even if those batting average projections are pretty close. The M’s have batters like Haniger and Crawford who are more than capable of drawing walks, and for all of his struggles, White demonstrated a solid eye too. They’re going to take their fair share of walks. Many of these players, especially Murphy, Lewis, and White, have demonstrated some power prowess. But here’s the issue: a solid walk rate won’t be enough to score runs if their average is so low. This is macro version of JP Crawford’s career: very good walk rate, but it pulls his OBP up to .325 for his career. The M’s solid walk rate produced an OBP under .310 last year, and that won’t work long term. If this continues, it’s going to be exceedingly hard to score runs without home runs.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with getting your runs via the long ball. Given where strikeout rates are going, it’s becoming much more of a baseball problem than a Mariner-specific one. With Murphy and Haniger back, the M’s are a good bet to improve upon last year’s disastrous .370 SLG% (again, decent-ish ISO, but added to a low, low BA). With league-wide trends in the game, and with research continually finding that teams that are dependent upon dingers score MORE runs than supposedly balanced teams both in the regular season and the playoffs, maybe the M’s roster construction is right.

If the ball stays similar to 2019-2020 models, the M’s have a chance to Oakland A’s their way to low-BA, highish-OBP, high-SLG% their way to success. If the ball were to change, somehow, though….OH, COME ON. If MLB is successful in reducing the baseball’s COR (bounciness) in a consistent way, it could reduce fly ball distance and thus home runs. Max Bay created estimates for this impact on *each player* given their batted balls in recent years. Kyle Seager’s name is among the top 10 most impacted by this change. A team with a .230s batting average and a low ISO is going to seriously, seriously struggle to score runs, especially if they strike out a lot. The M’s strike out a lot.

All of this puts a spotlight on players who might give the M’s some base hits on a consistent basis. Ty France is perhaps the best example of this, but it also means we’ll keep a close eye on players like Haniger and Crawford, who’ve had stretches as solid hitters, and other times where they’ve traded average for power or walks. Tom Murphy and Dylan Moore have both been very productive in their short M’s careers, but have done so despite high K rates – what will they do in 2021 in what looks like a full season? And which version of Kyle Lewis will we see? The average-and-power-and-defense five-tool stud we saw early in 2020, or the guy who really struggled to consistently make contact in the second half? The answers to these questions will go a long way to determining how long the M’s hang around in the expanded playoff chase.

Today’s line-up:
1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: France, DH
6: Moore, 2B
7: White, 1B
8: Murphy, C
9: Fraley, LF
SP: Marco Gonzales

Marco will go one inning, I’d expect. Interested to see (er, not SEE exactly, as the game’s only on radio) Wyatt Mills and Rule 5 pick Will Vest, who may pitch an inning in relief. Vest opened eyes in instructs with the Tigers, gaining velo after he spent the 2019 season…gaining velo.

The battle for LF will be fascinating, and not just for the whole soap opera surrounding Jarred Kelenic. Jake Fraley will get another chance after a very disappointing couple of years, and Dylan Moore could see some time there if the M’s want to play Ty France at 2B, Sam Haggerty returns after an injury-shortened 2020, and Braden Bishop remains on the outskirts of this competition, too. None of these options looks like a sure-fire way to avoid a grievance by keeping Kelenic down, mind you.


2 Responses to “Cactus League Game 1? M’s Vs. Padres, Average”

  1. eponymous coward on February 28th, 2021 3:44 pm

    And Jarred is driven in by Julio for the winning run.

    I hope that’s a preview of a regular season game real soon.

    Also, yeah, “M’s have a chance to Oakland A’s their way to… success” sounds about right as the team strategy for success in 2021. The offense is walks, power and Ks, the starting pitching isn’t amazeballs with electric stuff destined for Cy Young Awards, but it’s serviceable, and the defense is good as opposed to 2019’s actively bad (and it will reinforce the reasonable starting pitching). The bullpen is a bunch of retreads and cheap pieces hoping for some gas improvements, which also sounds about right for a Beane team as well. Oh, and the budget is at the bottom of the league, too. I’m not sure if it’s entirely imitative because everybody in the league, Dipoto included, has gone “duh, this is how you put together cheap teams that aren’t ridonkulously bad, and have a shot of being OK to good”, but it does have that feel.

    It’s not terrible (and we do know terrible here in Seattle), if sort of leaning into Three True Outcomes baseball where we wait to find out which team makes the HR mistake today and we don’t see a lot of balls in play. Shades of the 1960’s (or including the early 70’s in the AL).

  2. joealb on March 1st, 2021 1:39 pm

    I think the team as a whole will be right about where PECOTA has them with the exception of Evan White. I think Evan way out performs a .216/0346/.392 But of course I was 1 of the people that thought Mike Zunino would come around…..

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