I had time on my hands so idle playthings happened and the podcast got some experimentation to it. In the meat of the episode, Jeff and I comment on the various RH power bats that the Mariners have been linked to, enjoy Kyle Seager briefly, and then keep the hot stove off in favor of some slow cooking.
Alas, left unaddressed is how we are all now in a different reality from the one(s) in which Felix Hernandez was (rightfully) awarded a Cy Young for his 2014 opus. Alas.
Thanks again to those that helped support the show and/or StatCorner in general last week, and in the past, and hopefully in the future. It’s truly appreciated. And thank you to our sponsor for this episode, TodayIFoundOut!
Kyle Seager will earn $100 million, and Kyle Seager *deserves* that mind-boggling sum. Despite a park/division that suppresses offense, the 3B has become a lynchpin of the M’s offense, which sounds far more like faint praise than I’m intending. The M’s have struggled at the plate, but Seager’s power and consistency have helped bring them up from the historically awful group they were in 2010. Seager is incredible, and yet underrated, as he wasn’t a first-rounder or hyped prospect. How did Kyle Seager get here? Why did everyone underrate him? Who should get the credit for Seager becoming a core Mariner?
In Dave’s Fangraphs piece on Seager’s extension, he quotes from a Baseball America scouting report written around the time of the 2009 draft. Here’s how BA summed up his bat: “His best tool is his bat. He has a smooth, balanced swing and makes consistent contact with gap power. He ranked third in the nation in 2008 with 30 doubles and was on a similar pace in 2009. He has a patient approach but doesn’t project to hit for much home run power because of his modest bat speed and flat swing plane.” Not wildly off, right? Line-drive guy. Good bat, level swing, lots of “OK” tools, no headline-grabbing, off-the-charts skill. He hit for average and had a so-so ISO slugging (thanks to lots of doubles) in college, and that’s essentially what he did in his whirlwind tour of the M’s affiliates. His career MiLB ISO is .146, boosted by a full year of High Desert and an incredible hot streak in the thin air of the PCL.
But how accurate is that scouting report if you focus on Seager’s MLB career? His big league ISO now stands at .167, and it’s increased in each year. This isn’t the result of a bunch of hot ground balls over the bag at first, either. That “level swing” is now a clear uppercut, and that swing produces the batted ball profile of a slugger. Only two Mariner hitters had a GB/FB ratio below 1 (meaning that they hit more fly balls than grounders): Mike Zunino and Kyle Seager. This is not a recent development. Seager’s 0.89 mark in 2014 was actually the *highest* of his career. I don’t mean to pick on BA’s scouting report here – it matches his college stats, and it’s a pattern that seemed to persist into the minors. I don’t think BA screwed up at all. I think that somewhere along the line, Kyle Seager changed in some pretty fundamental ways.
Earlier this month, A’s blogger Ken Arneson wrote a great post called “Ten Things I Believe About Baseball Without Evidence.” Everyone from Rob Neyer to beat writers mentioned it, and it’s something that I’ve thought about a lot in the few weeks since I read it. Anyway, Seager’s rise to cornerstone bat reminds me of something I believe without evidence: Player development is more important than pure amateur scouting. I say “without evidence” because it’s not clear at all where one ends and the other begins. Scouts will say that the entire reason they scout make-up is to ensure that a player can make more use of coaching/player development. They’re right! They love “projectable” players for the same reason – the gains from player development are much higher for some players than others. And none of this is to suggest that scouting doesn’t matter or is overrated. It’s not; Tom McNamara got Kyle Seager before some other team did, and that decision had a big impact on the M’s fortunes. In fact, I have no doubt that scouts play a role in PD, as they’re identifying specific rough edges for the development staff to sand down even before a player signs his first contract – this clearly happened with Brad Miller, and may have happened with Seager. But Seager’s transformation from over-achieving line-drive hitter to $100m slugger is the kind of thing that underscores just what player development is capable of.
I have no idea how the M’s apportion the credit here, and it doesn’t matter all that much. The M’s PD group changed over during the time Seager was in the minors, so even if you wanted to give 100% of the credit to the development side of the house, you might have to split it again between the Gwynn and Grifol teams. In the main, it sure seems like player development has been inconsistent for the M’s. For every Kyle Seager or James Paxton, there’s a Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley or Justin Smoak that seems to stall out (at best). This may reflect selection bias, confirmation bias AND reporting bias, but here goes: player development was one of the big stories of 2014. Kyle Seager didn’t just maintain production in the 3-4 WAR range, he jumped a level and knocked on the door of 6 WAR. The Astros (the ASTROS) rotation posted a better collective FIP than the Mariners or the Royals, headlined by Collin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel. Grant Brisbee’s post on Pablo Sandoval, the OTHER unheralded-to-unbelievably-rich 3B, mentions that Fat Panda never cracked the BA top *30* prospect list, no doubt due to things like posting a .629 OPS in the Sally League. Michael Brantley knocked 20 HRs last season after hitting 16 in his entire MiLB career, spanning 566 games and well over 2,000 at-bats.
Yes, yes, can’t predict baseball and all that. People have career years. But several years after Brandon McCarthy’s transformation, and several years into Kyle Seager’s emergence, and a year-plus since James Paxton’s quantum leap, we’re starting (or maybe I’m starting) to get a sense of how radically PD can remake a player and a team. Finding a kid in Texas or Venezuela who can touch 91 is great, but increasingly, teams are somehow able to turn established big leaguers throwing 89 into better big leaguers throwing 93. They take a so-so minor league catcher and turn him into an All Star 3B. And they take your standard over-achieving baseball rat, adjust his swing plane, and create a middle of the order hitter.
Scouting is still critical. PD wouldn’t matter if the M’s got beat to Seager in the draft. Taijuan Walker’s another PD star (so far), but he got that chance thanks to a gutsy pick in the sandwich round. Good teams will obviously have both great scouts and an elite set of coaches. To compete in the division and the AL, the M’s need to get the most out of what they have, and from a team-wide perspective, that’s been an area they’ve struggled with. But Kyle Seager is at least an example of what CAN happen; an exhibit on how the next really good M’s team might develop.
We didn’t learn anything new about Kyle Seager as a player today. Presumably, nothing ought to change. I suppose it’s possible he could just up and stop trying now that he’s getting his money, but I’m going to regress that possibility very heavily to the mean. Kyle Seager now is what Kyle Seager was yesterday is what Kyle Seager was in September. Except now Kyle Seager is getting locked up for seven years and about $100 million, with an option. Locked up by the Mariners, I mean, not by some other team, or prison.
It’s simultaneously good news and a strange thing to celebrate. Kyle Seager’s becoming one of those expensive players, and those are the ones who can do the most damage if they under-perform. And the Mariners didn’t add anything; Seager was already going to stick around for the next three years, so this is something that affects the relatively distant future. Who knows what 2021 is going to look like? That’s seven years from now. Seven years ago, Alex Rodriguez was the league MVP, and the Devil Rays were wrapping up their tenth consecutive season with at least 91 losses. The guesses we make about the future now are stupid, but at least as we can perceive it, this seems like it should be more good for the Mariners than bad.
It’s the long-term extension people have long been asking for. And while the sum might be jarring, there are a couple of points to keep in mind. For one, Kyle Seager is a very good baseball player. For two, money in the future means less than money now. Prices go up. A good baseball player costs more and more every single season. Let me expand a little more on this second part. You’re already familiar with the first part — you’ve been watching Seager since he came up.
Let’s estimate that in the last year of his deal, Seager’s salary will be about $20 million. That number means something to you, as a single-year salary, but now let’s also estimate that baseball spends 5% more every year that passes. Over the past decade, annual inflation has averaged 5.4%. In terms of present money, then, that $20 million would be about equivalent to $15 million. That’s less than Hiroki Kuroda money. $15 million now buys you something in the vicinity of an average player, so it’s not an exorbitant total. No, at least, as far as professional baseball player salaries are concerned.
What I think we all love about Seager is his trajectory. It’s not only that he’s a valuable player — it’s that he’s earned it every step of the way. We used to joke that Doug Fister seemed to add a new skill every year, until he became a borderline ace. In that way, a nobody low-ceiling prospect turned into a highly valuable asset. Kyle Seager started his professional career as a low-upside infielder with contact skills, but since then he’s added power and he’s dramatically improved his defense at third. Take a guy who projects to be average. Now improve two of his most important skills. You get something like what Kyle Seager has become.
There’s no part of his game where he’s amazing, outside of his work ethic. But across the board, Seager is something like average or better. He knows his way around the bases, and though he doesn’t walk a whole lot, he doesn’t chase and he makes consistent solid contact. He handles third base like a far more athletically-gifted player, and even though Seager does still struggle some against southpaws, that much is to be expected and he’s not a complete liability. And for all I know, this is the area that Seager will select to improve on in 2015. You know, as long as he’s pushing himself. That’s how you’d turn Kyle Seager into an MVP candidate, but we don’t need to go crazy.
Bill Mueller was a common player comp. That was before. Take Bill Mueller’s profile and add more power. It’s not like Seager is any kind of threat to all fields. A home-run spray chart from Baseball Savant:
Yeah. You already knew that, even if you didn’t specifically know that. Seager isn’t a guy capable of standing in and knocking any pitch out of the park. But he seems to select his opportunities, jumping on pitches he can yank to right field. He’s been doing this for long enough now that it doesn’t seem like the league is going to figure him out overnight. Last year Seager saw fewer fastballs than ever, and it didn’t seem to bother him. He has a favorite part of the park, but he’s gone there for three years in a row, and he doesn’t hit enough groundballs for the shift to cripple his productivity.
All the elements are in place for Seager to be underrated. Underrated in the present, and underrated as a prospect. As a prospect, Seager was a safe bet to make a contribution, sort of the position-player equivalent of a pitcher with a good changeup. If you take that pitcher with a good changeup and make his command even a little better than expected, sometimes he’ll pitch like an ace. Seager never ranked higher than ninth on Baseball America’s top-10 list of Mariners prospects. The one year he was in the top-10, he was sandwiched between Marcus Littlewood and Dan Cortes. Everyone else on that list today is a question mark or a has-been. Seager’s got a nine-figure contract.
And in the present, Seager plays way over in a corner of the country for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in forever. He’s not the flashiest player, nor has he ever once commanded headlines, and players who’re solid across the board don’t get eyes like players with individual standout skills. In the first half of this past season, Seager ranked fourth among American League position players in WAR, and he was basically tied for second behind Mike Trout. He only made the All-Star Game as an injury replacement. He didn’t finish among the top five vote-getters at third base. People elsewhere don’t know anything about Kyle Seager. People locally might not be fully aware of how good Seager is.
He’s good enough to get a nine-figure contract. Good enough to get it and deserve it. Seager last year had the same WAR as Anthony Rizzo and Jose Abreu. He actually narrowly eclipsed Robinson Cano. And Cano was in no way a disappointment, so maybe that drives the right point home. Kyle Seager was just as good as the player given the biggest contract in Mariners history. It’s fun to think about how Felix Hernandez has turned out perfectly, given his skillset as a prospect. Seager’s the same kind of way, except he wasn’t blessed with Felix’s raw skills. Considering what Seager was, he’s actually close to his all-around ceiling, and that’s an uncommon thing to achieve.
We never actually really know these players as people. We don’t go on walks with them, asking them about music and family and wilderness conservation and space and the tiny-house movement. We don’t know anything about Kyle Seager aside from what we’ve been told, and what he’s done on a baseball field. But Kyle Seager absolutely busted his ass to become good enough to be worth this kind of commitment. So many similar players turn into nothing, floating around as minor-league free agents. Seager earned this — he earned this — and that sort of drive to improve isn’t a characteristic that just suddenly goes away. I trust that Kyle Seager’s going to be as good as he can be, and I’m pretty happy about having a player like that in the Mariners’ clubhouse for most of the following decade. Felix is proof of what you can become if you’re born with uncommon ability. Seager is proof of what you can become if you’re not.
I have to admit, I was a little caught off guard by that rumor being thrown around that the Red Sox could try to trade Yoenis Cespedes for Hisashi Iwakuma. It’s not that I’m surprised that Cespedes could be on the move — with what the Red Sox have just done on the free-agent market, it seems like he’s already as good as gone. It’s also not that I’m surprised that the Mariners would have interest in Cespedes — he’s a righty-hitting outfielder with power and visibly incredible skills. Cespedes to the Mariners? Yeah, I can buy that, now that he’s out of the division.
I just never really thought about trading Iwakuma. Why would you? He’s good. Teams trying to win don’t trade good players. But the more that I think about this, the more I just end up stuck. Which is why I’m including a poll in this post. Would you, or wouldn’t you?
I wanted to hate this. And my initial response, in my own head, was, no, Cespedes isn’t enough. I’ve spent a couple years watching his OBP bounce between .2-something and .3-something. That’s a hard impression to shake, and all Iwakuma has done is pitch brilliantly since joining the Mariners’ starting rotation in 2012. People have argued at points that Iwakuma is quietly as good as Felix Hernandez is, and while the specifics of that argument are kind of silly, the message is legitimate: Iwakuma’s been very good, very quietly, cementing himself as one of the most underrated pitchers in the game.
But — okay. Usually, when I’m putting a poll in something, I don’t want to write a lot first, because I feel like it biases the voters. But I don’t care. Is this science? This isn’t science. If anything, making you read a whole post first before you vote will make you less likely to vote based just on your first impression. I want you to think about this. I guess I can’t stop those of you who have already scrolled down to click on a circle. That’s fine; nothing hinges on this.
What are the big details, here? Cespedes is a year away from free agency. Iwakuma, too, is a year away from free agency, and by the terms of their contracts, neither one of them can be extended a qualifying offer when the season’s complete. So there are no draft-pick considerations here. Iwakuma’s set to make something like $7 million. Cespedes, $10.5 million. Right there, that’s a point in Iwakuma’s favor. The Mariners don’t have Red Sox money.
So you reflect on recent performance. Iwakuma’s been a good starting pitcher for two and a half years. By his peripherals, he’s a 3 – 4 win starting pitcher. By actual runs allowed, though, he’s been worth ten wins in two years. That’s a factor — we’re not accustomed to seeing too many guys score with Iwakuma on the mound. Cespedes? He’s held somewhat steady. He hasn’t been what he was in 2012, offensively, but he’s stayed above-average, with obvious jaw-dropping power. He’s not a defensive liability, at least not when you consider the value of his throwing arm. He’ll fail to run down a few balls in play, but he’ll make up for that with some baserunner kills, which is just a different way of creating outs.
Based on what’s already happened, Iwakuma seems a bit better than Cespedes. Throw in the salary difference and you can see why the Mariners might say no to this proposal. It’s then that you turn to the unknown. Iwakuma turns 34 next April. Cespedes turned 29 the same day I turned 29, this past October. Take what you know about both players. How do you adjust them for age, when you only care about the single season directly in front of us?
This is what gives me so much trouble. But, rationally, I get that Iwakuma is a pitcher, and pitchers are less reliable than hitters. Iwakuma’s more likely to have a major injury, and Iwakuma’s more likely to have a little age-related skill erosion. Cespedes hasn’t exactly had a clean bill of health since arriving, but he’s younger and stronger and I can see how he might have a higher probability of having another 3-win season in 2015. The difference wouldn’t be great, but perhaps it offsets the track records. Perhaps it offsets the difference in money due.
My biggest issue might be about something else entirely. Let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, that Cespedes and Iwakuma are as good as one another, at this writing. So swapping them straight up would be moving a strength from one place to another. But right now, the Mariners don’t have a whole lot of starting-pitcher options. Beyond the five, there’s Erasmo Ramirez and Danny Hultzen. Maybe you add Tom Wilhelmsen. One of those guys has declined, one of those guys has had a catastrophic shoulder injury, and one of those guys has been a reliever. Move Iwakuma and, at least for the time being, one of those guys goes into the rotation.
But you’re not plugging an outfield hole. The Mariners think there’s a hole, but, Michael Saunders is not bad. I’d be content to move forward with Saunders, Dustin Ackley, Austin Jackson, and a decent fourth-outfielder guy. The real need is at 1B/DH, and Cespedes doesn’t do that, and the other outfielders don’t do that. The Mariners would get better in the outfield, but they wouldn’t get better by a lot, and they’d still need help. They’d still need a 1B/DH. They’d need a starting pitcher. Or two. Pitchers get hurt. Several of the Mariners’ pitchers did get hurt.
So the Mariners trade Saunders, then, maybe packaged with something else for something else. That much already feels inevitable and there’s potentially some upside there. Just because the Mariners might be giving up on Saunders doesn’t mean it has any effect on his trade value, provided other teams want him. Nothing has happened to Cespedes’ trade value because he’s all but out of a job in Boston. Demand is demand. There would be some demand for Michael Saunders, so he could be turned into help at another spot.
But because of all this, thinking about Cespedes for Iwakuma just makes me upset all over again about how the Saunders saga is playing out. The Mariners don’t have many starting pitchers or outfielders. Weird for them to maybe think about trading a starting pitcher, or an outfielder. Yet I suppose offseason plans are complicated.
Yoenis Cespedes, Hisashi Iwakuma. Maybe if you trade Iwakuma now, it makes it less likely you can sign him after the year. Maybe not. Maybe you wouldn’t want to sign Iwakuma after this year anyway, given his advancing age. Cespedes probably wouldn’t re-sign with the Mariners, but for one thing, that’s a guess, and for another, the priority is 2015. The Mariners should be good in 2015, even if they make a move or three we disagree with. There’s a strong foundation here, and Cano/Cespedes/Seager would admittedly be a fun thing. Cano and Seager do the consistent damage, and Cespedes adds the occasional detonation. The long ones count the same as the shorter ones, but the long ones sure are delightful.
If I were to take my own advice, this is such a difficult decision that it should be an easy decision. Can’t really go wrong. But it’s one thing to think like that in theory, and it’s another to think like that regarding specifics. I think, though, I have my mind made up, at least for right now. Do you? I’m interested in how this goes.
Here’s a point of perplexity for me: Every year, baseball does a great deal to improve the profile of the minor leagues through active promotion of the flashy components. We get the Futures Game, and we get the Arizona Fall League, and we get the Draft being put on the rack and stretched out to three days with a lot of televised hooplah on day one to get people excited about a player development system that has uniquely bad returns among the sports. And yet, in the offseason, when I’m looking up information on the important dates, I can’t find a single thing on when 40-man rosters are supposed to be finalized in the 2014 season, but I can find information on when the GM Meetings occur even though nothing relevant has ever happened during them. They just happened. You didn’t know it. Who cares? Why not mention a deadline? Why is that important vetting process, without which most prospects are useless, wholly ignored by the sport’s own website? How long would it conceivably take to throw just a line of information on your website? That’s it. I’m through. (storms off)
(storms back) Okay. So the name of the game this year: ’10 high school draftees and early international signings, ’11 college draftees. Those are on the chopping block for the first time. I’m going over more than just the likely candidates here, but if I omit a name that you think is relevant, ugh, I’m sorry, there’s only so many candidates that I don’t expect to be added to the roster that I can fruitlessly cover anyway. Part of the issue is that, with how the Mariners have recently operated their player development system, remarkable players get added far earlier and so this deadline becomes more surprising on average but less sexy. Taijuan Walker, Brad Miller, and Carson Smith would be eligible for the first time— zowie!— if… they… hadn’t already been added to the 40-man some time ago. What we’re left with is sifting amongst the dudes who have not already been Mariners, which takes the enthusiasm out of it. Also looking at next year, which at least now, seems like it will be far more interesting.
I don’t know if I could love hockey more than I do, but just as I have issues with the way baseball is played, I also have issues with the other sport. Most especially — and this isn’t unique — I can’t stand the regular-season shootout. Everyone loves playoff hockey overtime, and it would be unreasonable to suggest that regular-season games have the potential to go on forever, but there should at least be more overtime, and there should never be a shootout. There should be a tie before a shootout. A shootout awards a point to a team for something other than how it plays hockey. It serves as a tiebreaker, but it’s a tiebreaker that has nothing to do with the game that was played to a tie in the first place. Feel like settling even baseball games with a home-run derby? It’s random. It’s nonsense. It’s exciting nonsense, but it’s nonsense.
If the AL Cy Young race were a hockey game, it was played to a shootout. Felix Hernandez’s team had 1, and Corey Kluber’s team had 1, and then they couldn’t break the tie, so they went to the designated tiebreaker. The tiebreaker didn’t reward the better team — it rewarded a team, where no better team stood out. Because this is America, hockey games aren’t allowed to end in ties. The Cy Young voting, in theory, can end in a tie, but that hasn’t happened for decades, so more realistically, someone had to win. Every ballot had a first place and a second place. The individual ballots can’t reflect how close a race this was. The overall ballots can, and did. Corey Kluber beat Felix Hernandez because someone was going to beat someone.
I was surprised. You were surprised. Felix and Kluber were surprised! We all kind of assumed. Some of us wrote about how Kluber probably wasn’t going to get enough support in the voting, given Felix’s first-half momentum and given Kluber’s relative anonymity. But see, the voters are also readers, and in addition to that, the voters aren’t idiots. They’re a lot smarter than they used to be. You don’t make votes based on momentum. You make votes based on the numbers you pull up in front of your eyes. Once people really took a look at Felix vs. Kluber, they were left thinking, welp, gotta pick one. The voting tally indicates it came down to little more than a coin flip.
It would be difficult to make up a closer race than the one that just concluded. The innings were the same. Neither pitcher got hurt. Felix pitched in a better environment with a better defense, but he also induced weaker balls in play. Felix seems to have gotten more help from his catchers. Some of that is because of Felix’s own command. Felix seems to have faced an ever so slightly more difficult schedule. It was that close. The gap was well within our own statistical error bars, and really, I don’t see a gap, anyway. I’ve looked at this off and on for months. The two pitchers were equally good. Which means there’s nothing to be upset about, except a justifiable loss that could’ve been a justifiable win.
There are people who feel like Felix should’ve won because he ripped off that 16-start streak. Valid — that was an incredible streak. He ran a 1.41 ERA. Kluber ran a 1.77 ERA over his last 18 starts. Why focus on fractions of a season? Other people feel like Felix blew it when he allowed eight runs to the Blue Jays in his penultimate game. I’m absolutely sure that did cost him, but all it meant was that voters would take a harder look at Kluber than they otherwise might’ve. Again, we’re left with the overall season performances. Had some things happened differently, the outcome would’ve been different. Felix had chances to cement his victory. If you want to stick with the hockey-game analogy, Felix’s team rung a few shots off the crossbar before time expired. He allowed this to get as far as a shootout, and then it was out of Felix’s hands. 50/50, like Yoervis Medina throwing a strike.
As always, this makes you wonder a little bit about the nature of rooting. We all like the Mariners, so we all like seeing the Mariners win awards. It’s like a little sugar rush. But the awards are to recognize outstanding performance. Felix not winning the Cy Young doesn’t do anything to retroactively change his performance. It doesn’t do anything to change his future projection. Maybe, this reduces Felix’s chances of making the Hall of Fame by like a tenth of one percent. And next year, when Felix gets introduced, he’ll get introduced a second or two faster, time that would’ve been filled by saying “your 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner”. But there’s a funny thing about that shorter introduction: the sooner it’s over, the sooner Felix gets to pitch. That’s what we actually care about. That’s why there’s always a huge group of people with signs and bright yellow t-shirts. Felix Hernandez, this past season, was arguably the best pitcher in his league. That’s because Felix Hernandez is arguably the best pitcher in his league.
It would’ve been nice for Felix to have the label. Not a whole lot of two-time Cy Young winners. We would’ve gotten a little rush, and Felix would’ve given an awesome press conference, with awesome quotes about how he’s awesome and how he thinks this city and this team are awesome. Would’ve been an evening of warm fuzzies. But we aren’t fans for the warm fuzzies in November — we’re still hoping for the warm fuzzies in October, and what happened today has not anything to do with what’ll happen in 11 months. Felix himself managed to say it best:
“[The Cy Young Award] means a lot,” Hernandez said. “But my goal is just to win the whole thing with this team right here, the Seattle Mariners. They deserve it, the fans deserve it. Individual stuff doesn’t matter, this is a team sport.”
Have I mentioned that the Mariners project to be one of the best teams in the American League? The competition is incomplete, but the Mariners are also incomplete, and they’re working to improve. You get today to be bummed about the award. Day’s almost over.
On a recent trip deep into the outlaying heart of Mt. St. Helens, Jeff and I came to a realization after many hours of meditation and peyote – that we hadn’t recorded a podcast in forever! Not literally. So we rectified that, getting the recording mostly done under the wire of the ensuing power outages taking hold.
So quickly download this, and curl up with a candle, and a good whisky — maybe some Overholt Rye? — and enjoy!
Thanks again to those that helped support the show and/or StatCorner in general last week, and in the past, and hopefully in the future. It’s truly appreciated. And thank you to our sponsor for this episode, TodayIFoundOut!
I have a clever memory when it comes to the failed experiments of the Mariners organization. I remember fondly the year where the Tacoma Rainiers tried to field six to seven DHs. I was overjoyed that minor league season when we tried to convert at least five position players to the mound, which culminated in trying to teach a career catcher the knuckleball. And I recall, with less fondness, the beginning of that three-year span where the Mariners initiated a supposedly revolutionary conditioning program that later fizzled out and went unmentioned for the last two years of its implementation. Since baseball remains that sport where from a mechanical standpoint, no one has a clear idea of what’s right or wrong, it certainly seemed like a good idea at the time, unlike the other trials, which were fun!, but not well-advised.
A story that I read during that period but now can’t find in archive (edit: Reader and LL author Colin O’Keefe tracked it down) made comparison between two kinds of strengths, a “lateral” strength, which was presented as the good kind, and the “vertical,” which was bad I guess unless you were Russell Branyan. For the purposes of illustration, the Mariners trotted out two of their younger hitters and demonstrated that one Dustin Ackley was a good boy for having the right, lateral kind of strength, and that Michael Saunders was suspect for having the wrong, vertical kind of strength. A weird spectacle to go through, but surely the Mariners were proud of their recent draft pick and wanted to use the example to vet both him and the new method.
The reality of Mariners fandom is that since Ackley debuted in 2011, he’s accumulated 6.3 in offensive WAR according to B-R and in the same span, Saunders has had 6.4 in oWAR, which includes a rather disastrous -1.1 2011 and fewer opportunities both that year and in 2014. And Ackley gets the boost of a 2.7 oWAR in 90 games in 2011, a clip he has never come close to repeating. The past three years, of course, provide few metrics you can look at that wouldn’t say that Saunders has been the superior offensive performer (7.5 oWAR vs. 3.6 oWAR, as one example). These are facts that exist as we enter the offseason and rumors begin to emerge that the Mariners will be expected to shop Michael Saunders around on the heels of them calling him out earlier in the offseason. Swell timing, guys.
Jeff and Matthew and others have discussed the matter of general management and how, as multiple organizations have gone out to develop their braintrusts and start implementing methods previously relegated to use by nerds, the gap of talent amongst GMs has closed and it’s no longer an easy inefficiency to take advantage of. But the Mariners are not a team that is presently perceived as having management on that cutting edge, instead they use their old methods, have their old favorites, and sometimes things work out for them. Sometimes things work out for the Giants and the Royals too. Sometimes things don’t work out in the same way.
We talk about organization blind spots and how one group might prioritize this or that and do it exceptionally well and another might be deficient. One recurring sentiment, I would guess, amongst new GMs is a tendency to value the players they’ve inherited somewhat differently from the players that they themselves acquire. It’s natural, different philosophies and all. And one thing that we saw as the Zduriencik team got settled was that there was an inclination to remove players who were holdovers and retain those who had the present administration’s stamp of approval.
I don’t know what changed particularly in the trajectories of Ackley and Saunders. We know that Ackley has messed with our hearts and minds so much that we have taken a .245/.293/.398 batting line from last season, as a corner outfielder, and ascribed to it new hopes of improvement. We also know that Saunders re-invented himself as an offensive player a few years back thanks to Josh Bard’s brother and his rubber bands (remember those? remember when we wanted to hire them as our hitting coach?). The lateral/vertical thing of 2010 may not hold true in the same way now. But we are also aware that Saunders has had difficult stretches, last year on account of rushing back from a shoulder injury a bit too quickly and this year, partially on account of a freak illness that caused him to lose fifteen pounds which he contracted from his baby daughter. The shoulder and oblique injuries that preceded that? Maybe those are on him and his conditioning. Maybe they aren’t.
What we also know is what we’ve rehashed the past month+. Saunders was called out by the organization for his work ethic in a 2014 wrap-up press conference. This was the first time Saunders became aware of any dissatisfaction with his personal upkeep. And if we know that much, we can also conjecture as to whether or not the Mariners sat down with Saunders and said “look, what can we do to work together to try to ensure that this doesn’t happen again?” From experience, talking about Saunders and Smoak and other players, we’re also cognizant of another possible blind spot, in that many present Mariners have had to go outside of the organization for solutions to what was perceived as holding back their performances. Which brings to the fore another point: Would Justin Smoak, a young first baseman who never hit above .240 and has slugged over .400 once over a season in his five years in the major leagues, have been granted so many opportunities had he been a Bavasi holdover?
I feel like I’m down to the point where I’m trying to make a pattern on inference alone. I certainly don’t know how involved the Mariners are with player conditioning, for one. Maybe we just hear about the outside efforts because it’s unusual. Working internally is no news at all. But we’ve seen the Mariners play favorites with their guys, we’ve seen them undervalue and sometimes marginalize players who don’t fit into their present scheme (Jaso), and we’re now seeing Saunders, who was not their guy and who in the past did not adhere to the current ideology, talked about as an expendable part in a struggling outfield where another, favored player continues to get chances with less in the recent past to support his case outside of general health. Let’s see where this goes. I’m not especially looking forward to it.
* The Author would like to note for the record that he has been defending Saunders since USSM had its original cast and was holding pizza parties on Capitol Hill, so, probable bias.
Looking back, it’s pretty remarkable the Mariners were able to get Justin Smoak in the first place. Cliff Lee had just three months left on his contract, and, granted, he was amazing, but that’s not a lot of time. The Mariners turned him and Mark Lowe into three guys and Smoak, and Smoak at that point was a 23-year-old starting first baseman for a World Series contender. He was very highly regarded, having recently been ranked the No. 13 prospect in baseball, and if the Rangers had issues with him, he probably wouldn’t have been starting for them. The Mariners made a good trade. They didn’t get what they wanted out of it. Neither did the Rangers. Book’s closed now.
With Smoak going to the Blue Jays on waivers, none of those players are left with Seattle or Texas. Yet don’t let it be said that the Mariners didn’t get anything out of the deal. I don’t know what Matt Lawson was, but Josh Lueke was sure as shit a memorable experience. We all formed opinions of Blake Beavan, and we watched Smoak bat almost 2,000 times. What the Mariners gave up were potential memories of Lee and Lowe. What they got in return are memories of different players. Relatively few of them are good memories, but all the memories woven together inform or even make up our fanhood, and we’re all still here. There’s something about this we’ve liked, and Smoak was a part.
We all knew this was coming. One way or another, Smoak wasn’t going to be a part of the 2015 Mariners, not given what he’s done, and not given what Logan Morrison did. I wasn’t sure exactly how Smoak would go away, but this feels appropriate, a quiet press release announcing the news before maybe the final game of the World Series. Smoak wasn’t traded for a player. There’s nothing to continue the transaction tree. Smoak was exchanged for the right to not have to pay him anymore. With the money saved, the Mariners might invest in a different player, or more coffee-cup lids for the office. Some of those newer eco lids have a real problem with steam.
I probably don’t need to review Smoak’s accomplishments in Seattle. I don’t need to include a paragraph or two of statistics. You might already have them memorized, and even if you don’t, specifically, you do, generally. Smoak sometimes was good, but almost never good enough. He reached a few incredible highs, but the same could be said for most underwhelming players, because players fluctuate in two directions around their averages. Smoak achieved the same WAR in a Mariners uniform as Rey Quinones. In Mariners plate appearances, he ranks between Dustin Ackley and Ruppert Jones. He might get passed by Michael Saunders in April; he also very well might not.
If you were to watch Smoak in batting practice, you’d see an awesomely talented hitter. The Mariners know that, and the Mariners have long known that, but there’s raw talent and there’s game talent, and Smoak hasn’t translated enough of the former into the latter. The Mariners have worked with him. Oh, how the Mariners have worked with him, in the minors and in the majors and on the off-days and on the gamedays. No player Smoak’s age is completely out of promise, but the more time that passes without everything clicking, the less likely it becomes that things ever fully click. Last spring, the Mariners believed in Smoak’s odds. They don’t anymore, but the Blue Jays do. They can both be right, I suppose — not every team is identically patient, or identically hopeful.
The numbers declare that Smoak hasn’t been real good. What they suggest is that he’ll continue to not be so good, until he exhausts his opportunities. It’s very possible he’s only one tweak away. That kind of thing wouldn’t show up on someone’s Baseball-Reference page. The Mariners just never found the tweak, and it’s not like Smoak is the only guy out there with promise to do better. Everyone around major-league baseball got to that level for a reason. Everyone is either good or a project. This project, locally, is over.
There’s something that I think is easy to forget — when a player struggles to make adjustments, it isn’t only frustrating for the team and for the fans. It’s also frustrating for the player, and quite possibly the most frustrating for the player, because it’s that player’s career, and he can tell when he’s not doing enough. I’m not sure how Smoak evaluates himself. Maybe he’s all about batting average and RBI. That would be silly, but since he’s at .224 and 234 for his career, it’s not like he’d be missing the point. Justin Smoak understands that he hasn’t been a good-enough baseball player to this point. Earlier in his career, he might’ve embraced the challenge, even been kind of thankful for it. Now it’s not just a front office that might be thinking about wasted potential.
For Smoak, this is probably getting scary. He knows how much work he’s put in to get better, and he knows it hasn’t paid off. He knows he’s running out of time, and he knows he might never have a better opportunity than the one that just officially ended. As long as he was still with the Mariners, at least there were the elements of a familiar routine, but now he’s moving, to a different team in a different city in a different country, and that has to be cold and startling. Smoak has a family, with a very young child, and now the family life is changing, and eventually it might cross Smoak’s mind that this wouldn’t have happened if he’d performed better. Maybe that’s already been on his mind; maybe that’s the only thing on his mind. What do you do when you don’t understand why you’re not good enough? Smoak just spent more than four years with an organization that couldn’t get him going in the right direction. And they gave everything they had.
Overall, this was basically a predictable move, in that Smoak no longer had a role in Seattle. As a Mariner, most of the time, he disappointed, and that was disappointing. I’m hopeful that, going forward, the Mariners will have better baseball players, so they can look like a better baseball team. But while I’ve never personally been in Smoak’s situation, here, I have wondered on many occasions what I’m doing and why I’m not better at it. I’ve had everything changed in the blink of an eye, and after the fact I’ve recognized that everything was preventable, if only I’d done more, and done it well. A failure is just a gut-wrenching learning experience, so Smoak will emerge the better person for this, but I’m not sure he’ll emerge the better ballplayer. I’m not even sure that anyone would notice.
Weird day. On to the next thing, for all of us.
Every year. Except last one? Maybe I forgot last one. Mostly every year.
The Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants will face each other in the 2014 World Series, which begins on Tuesday. The Royals have advanced this far by defeating the Oakland Athletics, the Los Angeles Angels, and the Baltimore Orioles. The Giants have advanced this far by defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Washington Nationals, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Both the Royals and Giants managed to defeat their opponents by outplaying them in a short series.
Both the Royals and Giants are filled to the brim with possible difference-makers. The 50 listed above will likely be the most important.
Can the San Francisco Giants outscore the Kansas City Royals?
Can the Kansas City Royals outscore the San Francisco Giants?
Will one of the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals outscore the other four times?
Most certainly yes!
The Royals will play a maximum of four games at home, while the Giants will play a maximum of three games at home. The home crowds may or may not help. I imagine there are also intangibles somewhere.
Both the Royals and Giants are good teams. The Royals are probably better by a tiny bit. If you re-played the World Series a million times, maybe 50-55% of the time the Royals would be crowned as champions. This World Series will be played once. One of these teams will win four games. The other probably won’t. The outcome will mean everything, and nothing.