JA Happ and Why Velocity Matters

December 5, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 9 Comments 

J.A. Happ’s Fangraphs page does not make for encouraging reading. A fly-balling left-hander sounds like a good fit for the park,* but ideally the M’s would want a bit more than a generic label in exchange for a good cost-controlled OF, whatever his injury history. Happ’s home parks have hurt, no doubt, but it’s the combination of high walk rate and high home run rate that have really made his career FIP a mess. Unlike, say, Chris Young, Happ doesn’t have a history of beating the fielding-independent stats – he did, rather famously, back in 2009, but that looked like a fluke, and at this point, I think it’s pretty safe to call it one.

There is something worth talking about here – a reason for hope beyond the generic “lefty in Safeco” tag. Happ’s throwing a lot harder than he used to. This is something I talked about when he faced the M’s last year, and it’s something Jeff’s mentioned in his analysis of the deal over at Fangraphs. When he debuted with the Phillies, Happ’s fastball averaged around 89-90. Last year, it was around 93, well above average among qualified starters. Just to be clear, Happ is 32 (he played last year at age 31). This isn’t supposed to happen, but it keeps happening – Brandon McCarthy threw 89-90 in 2008, then 91 with Oakland, and last year, at the age of 30-31, started sitting at 93, and touched 95 occasionally.

But so what? Happ used to throw 89 and was bad. Last year, he threw 93 and was still pretty bad. Is this another case of people overrating velocity? Well, it matters because hitters, as a group, fare much worse against fastballs thrown faster than 92. This isn’t earth-shattering research or anything. But it’s not just whiff rates – batters slugging percentage drops when velocity increases.** Here’s a table of league-wide slugging percentages off of hard pitched (four- and two-seam fastballs, plus cutters) both faster than 92 and slower than 92 (data from BaseballSavant):

League Ave SLG% on FB> 92 SLG% on FB<92
2009 0.410 0.477
2010 0.402 0.459
2011 0.389 0.456
2012 0.402 0.472
2013 0.393 0.459
2014 0.382 0.442

That’s an average gap of about 65 points of slugging, and as you can see, the trend is downward, especially for the faster fastballs. Despite league-wide velocity rising a bit, hitters are still having more trouble with plus-velo, or what used to be plus-velo and is now a shade above average velo.

Ah, but that’s cheating, you say. By slicing it that way, you add in all of the high-octane relievers and elite power arms like Strasburg, Fernandez, Richards and Harvey. Let’s look at some pitchers whose fastball averages around 92 and see what THEY look like with the same criteria – slugging percentage on fastballs above and below that 92mph mark:

Player SLG% on FB> 92 SLG% on FB<92
JA Happ 0.361 0.459
Roenis Elias 0.39 0.626
Phil Hughes 0.395 0.495
James Shields 0.477 0.482
Felix Hernandez 0.349 0.396
Clayton Kershaw 0.349 0.409
Sonny Gray 0.344 0.508
Henderson Alvarez 0.420 0.414
Brandon McCarthy 0.277 0.433
Greinke 0.383 0.468

Same thing. The range is a lot higher, but the pattern is very consistent (except for Henderson Alvarez, who remains baffling to me). Happ and McCarthy fit the pattern, though obviously the sample size differences are huge (they just recently became capable of throwing 92). Felix is awesome in every context, which is why we love him. But look at Sonny Gray and Phil Hughes! Elias’ splits are hilarious, but again, the sample is tiny. Or look at Kershaw, whose splits here mirror the league-wide numbers, albeit shifted lower. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but maintaining good FB velo should help Happ.

So why didn’t it help him last year? In part, it’s because he had some bad luck on his other pitches. In part, it’s because he pitched in the AL East, home to a number of good hitters’ parks (his road stats were worse than his home line). In part, it’s because, despite the velocity, he’s not a great pitcher. Still, given the overall numbers, you can see why the M’s might see Happ as a good fit. The value of the pick-up is still, uh, debatable given salary, control and Saunders, but Happ may be better than he’s looked.

* So, about those park differences. You all know that Toronto inflates HRs to LF while Seattle suppresses them, but Tony Blengino’s granular batted ball park factors – something we get glimpses of in his articles at FG, are still something to behold. In this piece on Michael Cuddyer, Blengino includes a table of the park factors for fly balls to left center field. Toronto inflates production on such fly balls by just shy of 30%, as fly balls produced about 130% more runs than expected, given velocity and angle. Safeco? Safeco annihilates such balls in play, as actual production was just *36%* of expected given their launch angle and initial speed. 36%! To be fair, Happ’s HRs came more down the line than in the alley, but Safeco *also* suppresses doubles, which Happ also struggled with.

** This makes some sense, but may be counterintuitive to those who grew up on people saying the “pitcher supplies the power” and watching replays of Mark McGwire’s 500′+ HR off of Randy Johnson.

The M’s Put a Premium on Certainty

December 4, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 32 Comments 

Soooo, welcome Nelson Cruz. Thanks for everything, Michael Saunders. Enjoy playing in that ballpark in which you’ve hit your longest career HR, and hit more HRs than you did in Texas, Anaheim or Oakland. The M’s seemed desperate to improve their offense, and thus they didn’t balk at four years for a 34-year old slugger. Despite this, they took some public shots at their 3rd best hitter – on a rate basis – last year, and all but hung a “make an offer” sign around his neck. How do we interpret these moves? What’s the pattern here?

First of all, we need to address the M’s very public infatuation with “right handed power.” As every sabermetric fan reminds them, production is production, and it doesn’t matter how you get it. That’s true for most every team, but if any team can make the case that they’re falling short *because* of a specific offensive hole, it’s probably Seattle. From 2012-2014, the M’s have been in a dead heat with the Marlins for the worst offense against left-handed pitchers. Limit it to the last two seasons, and the M’s have been the worst offense in baseball. The M’s wRC+ keeps dropping, and they were saved from last place in 2014 thanks only to a truly horrific showing by the Padres. Now, wRC+ is park adjusted, but perhaps it’s not adequately accounting for the marine layer, and 2014′s stats include Kendrys Morales’ weird collapse, and remember that Morse was hurt in 2013, and…. You can quibble with the numbers, but only at the margins. What’s worse is that all of baseball knows it, and thus they know how to attack the M’s. Over the last three years, no team has had more plate appearances AGAINST left-handed pitching than the M’s, and it’s not particularly close.

Moreover, the M’s have tried remedying this situation in several ways. Morse was acquired in a (bad) trade as an arb-eligible player. Corey Hart was a low-cost bargain-bin pick-up after a year off due to injury. Casper Wells came in trade, as did Franklin Gutierrez. They tried marginal prospects of their own (Liddi); they tried other teams’ marginal prospects (Wily Mo Pena. They tried switch-hitters from Justin Smoak to Milton Bradley to Chone Figgins, and all of it has blown up in their face. The M’s have apparently decided that they’d rather buy some line-up balancing right-handed production at full price rather than continue to try to cobble it together on the cheap. And frankly, given what we’ve seen of the market thus far, that may be understandable. I’m not thrilled that the M’s are so dead set on such a limited player, but that doesn’t mean they should’ve given MORE money for a Pablo Sandoval or Hanley Ramirez, two players with defensive ability, but a particular kind of defensive ability the M’s don’t need. You could theoretically play them in an OF corner or 1B, but their prices are determined by where they COULD play, not where you’ll actually play them.

Thanks to their position on the win curve*, the M’s didn’t want to turn their pitching prospects or Saunders into prospects, and for a number of reasons (including what sounds like LA’s asking price) they haven’t made a move for Matt Kemp, who’d cost plenty in dollars and talent. So, hey, Nelson Cruz. The M’s – and fans – don’t seem to care about the “value” of the deal; I think everyone essentially agrees it’s dead money in years 3-4, but for the first time in a long while, the M’s can focus on the short term.

So what does this have to do with Michael Saunders? The M’s pretty clearly hated the fact that he was hurt several times. That sounds petulant or uncaring, but teams obviously put a very high premium on durability – on the ability to play every day. Nick Markakis just signed a four-year, $44m deal with Atlanta that can only make sense if teams are willing to pay for durability (even then, I’m not sure this deal will ever make sense). Ryan Divish of the Times talked about this on twitter last night, saying that durability is something teams and managers focus on, and pointing out that it’s something arbitrators look at in salary hearings. Michael Saunders played less than 100 games in 2011 and 2014, and missed time in 2012 and 2013 as well. While on the field, his production was great – he put up more batting runs in 2014 than Dustin Ackley has in his entire career, but the M’s were frustrated with Saunders. WAR incorporates playing time, and replacement level’s utility rests, in part, on its ability to highlight the *value* of playing every day, even at a below-average level. But it’s pretty apparent that at least some teams assessment of the value of part-time production and health don’t line up with our publicly available stats. That’s interesting, if only because the implied premium looks so high.

Both of these deals seem like a way to gain certainty, or lower variance. The M’s got the top HR hitter because they were tired of trying to patch a long-term problem with home-grown talent, trade pieces and lower-tier free agents. They were tired of not knowing when they could write Saunders’ name in a line-up, and decided instead to bolster their rotation. So were the M’s…right? Does this make a kind of sense? Well, sure, but it doesn’t answer the question everyone’s asking: “were these good moves? Do they make the team better?” The premium teams place on durability seems like one piece of a larger puzzle of how teams’ own valuation of players *has to be* different than ours. I don’t say that to suggest Fangraphs/BP/whoever have the right numbers in every case. I’d hope the teams could do better. But the gap is so large that it’s worth wondering if teams (or maybe managers) don’t OVERvalue health.** Still, the M’s have to be encouraged by what they’ve seen from their investment in Felix and Robinson Cano. Felix’s greatness comes in part from his remarkable durability, and Cano showed the value of buying premium production if you haven’t been able to develop it yourself.

Ultimately, however you frame the moves, it all comes down to talent, and developing talent. The M’s are in a position where they absolutely needed to upgrade their DH slot, and balance their line-up a bit more. The M’s are in this position because they failed, spectacularly, to develop a half-decent right-handed hitter, and their attempts to buy or trade for one haven’t gone much better. It’s not that the M’s haven’t tried other ways to fill this need, it’s that they keep trying to fill this need with limited, flawed and out and out bad players. That they cast out Saunders, a guy who M’s fans may be overrating but at least has shown the ability to hit at the big league level, puts the Figgins/Hart/Morse/Tui/Mangini/Bradley/etc. history in even starker contrast.

Nelson Cruz has far more pull power, and more power overall (5th highest ISO on fastballs in MLB last year) than Morse or Hart. The M’s in-house options at DH included Carlos Rivero and Stefen Romero, both of whom own career minor league slugging percentages below .400, and Jesus Montero, who…yeah, not an option. You can see why the M’s think they’ve plugged the hole, and honestly, I think the team’s got a better chance at the playoffs with Cruz than they did with either Romero, Billy Butler, or Michael Cuddyer. Moreover, I think taking on more of Kemp’s contract or signing Hanley Ramirez would have been more likely to hamstring the team’s finance in 2017-19 than the deal Cruz signed. But at the end of the day, the M’s signed an aging, one-dimensional player to a contract that everyone agrees is too long. The M’s traded a good, cost-controlled young hitter despite having serious issues with outfield depth. The M’s value certainty, but they haven’t proven they can identify it yet.

* I wonder what effect the Josh Donaldson deal had on the M’s. Maybe none, but the M’s chief rival for the 2014 wild card just traded their best player, and will lose their best pitcher in FA. The M’s were going to upgrade anyway, but maaaan, the A’s certainly made it easy for the M’s to justify an overpay.

** To make this pencil out, you’d essentially have to reject the concept of replacement level – the idea that Saunders+Player X might give you more in total than a healthy-but-bad Player Y. Incidentally, the M’s have been burned on this both ways. They dealt with Erik Bedard’s injury woes and Milton Bradley’s existential ones, and watched as some of their most durable players posted lackluster batting lines. Mariners!

Go Team

December 3, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 42 Comments 

According to recent chatter, even from the front office itself, the Mariners are in pursuit of a pretty talented corner outfielder. In related news, the Mariners just traded a pretty talented corner outfielder, for a year of J.A. Happ.

This one is beyond easy to analyze. It’s almost too easy. Which player is better? Statistically, it’s Michael Saunders. Which player is younger? Michael Saunders. Which player is cheaper? Michael Saunders. Which player is under control longer? Michael Saunders. Over the next two years, Saunders will cost roughly what Happ will cost for this upcoming one year. Saunders was born late in 1986, while Happ was born late in 1982. Happ does address a team need for better starting-rotation depth. That’s been a concern we’ve all had. Problem is, now the Mariners’ outfield is Dustin Ackley and Austin Jackson. As clear as it was that Saunders was on his way out, he wasn’t out until a little while ago, and he sure looked good where he was.

I offer only two bits of consolation. One is that we’ll get over this. I got over the John Jaso trade. I got over the Jose Vidro trade. I got over the Erik Bedard trade. We’ve gotten over everything, and those who haven’t are no longer with us (on a baseball blog). It is about laundry, and it is always about the team over its players, and while it’s frustrating to think deeply about that and realize that we all agree, this is sports, we’ll all shut up and keep watching the sport. You know who the Mariners have? Felix Hernandez. Who could turn their back on a team that’s paying Felix Hernandez?

Also, it was apparent to the whole world that Michael Saunders could be had. The Mariners shopped the hell out of him, dating back at least to the GM meetings. Everyone paying attention heard about what the Mariners said about Saunders at the end of the year. It was no secret that Saunders has frustrated the team in some ways. Saunders’ value wasn’t determined by how the Mariners valued him — it’s always about the market, and I guess it should be clear that Saunders didn’t have a strong market. This wasn’t a trade that came out of nowhere. If anyone out there really badly wanted Michael Saunders, they didn’t offer much. I don’t know if Happ is the absolute best the Mariners could’ve done, but this is information. This is some indication that other teams don’t like Saunders as much as some of us do.

Yet, a team just gave four years to Nick Markakis. This team just gave four years to Nelson Cruz. Saunders’ numbers have been pretty good when he’s played. There shouldn’t have been urgency here. This team actually needs two outfielders, not one. Saunders would’ve made a hell of a fourth-outfielder type, able to step in in case Dustin Ackley were to bomb or something. Saunders could’ve had a role here, but the front office wasn’t interested.

I’m coming at this with a bias. I have to be honest. I’ve always liked Michael Saunders, from the beginning. I liked him as a prospect and I liked him as a big-leaguer. Some years ago I actually hung out with him once in a bar. We got drunk and talked about hockey and he swore that the next year the Mariners would make the playoffs. So I guess it turns out Michael Saunders is a liar. Maybe that’s why the Mariners stopped liking him.

So I can’t process this completely objectively. I can’t process anything completely objectively, but this one even more so. I like Michael Saunders, and it’s more fun when the team you root for has players you like. I guess I also liked Ryan Rowland-Smith. And Munenori Kawasaki. At some point their performances no longer justified their presences. Wasn’t the case with Saunders. The stakes are different now, with the Mariners actually poised to contend, but it’s not like they just dumped some utility player or seventh reliever. Am I going crazy? Saunders did just slug .450, right?

From that perspective, I guess it’s good for Saunders that he’s headed to Toronto. He’s going to like playing in Canada, and he’s going to like having an opportunity to play every day. Loving things and letting them go, or something. Let’s pretend like the Mariners are a good friend, and Saunders was a partner. Let’s say you like Saunders, but he and your friend were just having a lot of problems. Somewhat irreconcilable problems. From a selfish standpoint, you want them to stay together, but you realize Saunders would be happier in a different relationship. I guess if we’re talking about people, you can still try to maintain some form of friendly contact. With teams and players, that’s tampering. This was a stretch from the start.

Saunders was pretty good. Still is. Got hurt some, and that’s too bad, because if it hadn’t happened that way, maybe Saunders would still be a Mariner, and maybe last year’s Mariners would’ve gotten to the playoffs. Ultimately we’ll get past this because Saunders wasn’t a star and we forgive and forget a lot of things when a sports team is winning. Happ should play a role on the team, and he’s a decent starter, and he’s a good fit for the park, as a fly-balling lefty. Shades of Jason Vargas. But. I have to dwell on this frustration now, because I know I won’t be doing so in a few days or weeks. I want to embrace the opportunity to be upset. This was something we all saw coming, in general if not in specific, and objectively I don’t know how one could twist this as anything but a downgrade for a team in Seattle trying to upgrade.

It’s the upgrade I’m really afraid of. It’s so easy to see. The Mariners traded an outfielder for a pitcher, as the Braves signed an outfielder. Rumors have linked a Mariners pitcher to a Braves outfielder, and now it’s so, so very easy to see Taijuan Walker on the move for Justin Upton. I mean, it’s happened before, hasn’t it? I don’t want that. I’d at least hope for more coming from Atlanta’s side. But I can see it happening. Go big or go home. I know that trade could happen, and I know I’d come to terms with it, too. You know who’s good? Justin Upton. And young pitchers bust all the time, and Walker needs a lot of work, and flags fly forever, and the Mariners are so close and can you imagine what the lineup would look like if-

The Mariners are mostly done building a heck of a baseball team for 2015. In some ways, they’re doing this via routes I approve of. In some ways, they’re doing this via routes I don’t like. It’s pretty easy to see how it could all come apart, because we’ve lived that reality, but what’s done is done, and what becomes done becomes done, and we’re left with a choice: support what we’re given, or opt to sit out. Go team, no matter what, I guess. I’m sure there are things the Mariners could do that would cause me to abandon them for good, but we’ve gone through some real depths together. What’s a Michael Saunders trade? What’s a Justin Upton trade? The Mariners next year could win the World Series. If nothing else, I’m sure they’ll play baseball.

Podcast: Dealing with Cruz’s Deal

December 2, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 20 Comments 

The Mariners signed Nelson Cruz. To a lot of money for a lot of days to come. So Jeff and I discussed it.

Podcast with Jeff (@based_ball) and Matthew (@msea1): Direct link! || iTunes link! || RSS/XML link!

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!

The Day That They Signed Nelson Cruz

December 1, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 36 Comments 

I don’t mean to exaggerate, but it’s kind of like being sick. If you’re like me, you’re a bit of a worrier, and you have a tendency to worry about symptoms. You worry less upon receiving a diagnosis, even if it turns out something is wrong. It’s just better to know how to focus your worry — it’s the mystery that’s terrifying. When you don’t know what’s going on, anything could be going on, and there’s no defending yourself against that. When you have an answer, you develop a plan. You’re able to think more clearly, and you see the upside in whatever is happening. Mystery is important when it comes to the good things, but when something’s bad, there’s comfort in certainty.

Many have been afraid of the Nelson Cruz contract for more than a year. Almost exactly this Nelson Cruz contract, as a matter of fact. More recently, there was also reason to be afraid of the other rumors, rumors involving names like Taijuan Walker and James Paxton and Justin Upton who’s almost a free agent. It was clear the Mariners were going to do something about their right-handed deficiency, and we just weren’t sure what that something would be. Could involve money. Could involve youth. Could involve money and youth. Last night I almost sat here and wrote about this, but I couldn’t find a thesis. Doesn’t matter now, we have the answer. It involves money. The Mariners are giving a lot of it to the Cruz family.

It also involves youth, in that the Mariners are losing a draft pick, which isn’t worth nothing. But it’s a lot easier to stomach losing something you didn’t yet feel like you had, and that draft pick didn’t have a name. It didn’t have a position and a height and a weight and a projectable body. It didn’t have a girlfriend and family members watching along in the living room waiting for a familiar name to be announced. The Mariners are trading a prospect for Cruz, but it’s a prospect they never started to mold, so the focus is on the four years and the $57 million. That overwhelms the value of the prospect anyway. Justifiably, the story is the commitment.

It’s too big. The Mariners are overpaying for Cruz. The team that loves him most — the team that just saw him lead the league in dingers — didn’t want to go past three years. So the Mariners are doing it, and they’re getting their guy, the guy they almost had a year ago before ownership reportedly nixed the deal because of a policy it must no longer have. To explain the $57-million expense, no one’s talking about what Cruz will be worth in the back half; the hope is what happens this year or next year will make it okay. The hope is Cruz will be a big help immediately, and then the future will sort itself out, and you can work around a Nelson Cruz overpay if you’re able to see it coming.

Cruz’s average salary is $14.25 million. I don’t know how it breaks down year to year, but toward the end, that’ll represent at least 10% or so of the Mariners’ payroll. Cruz probably isn’t going to be very good when he’s 37 or something. This is an example of how that can matter:

Dead money gets in the way of things. It renders your payroll a lower effective payroll. It would be silly to suggest the Mariners will be somehow immune to feeling Cruz’s decline, because they can spend only so much, and Cruz will be guaranteed a big chunk of the money, but the future’s a mystery, right? What we care about most is what we understand most, and that’s the single season ahead. In 2015, the Mariners project to be quite good. Cruz projects to be the best he will be from now on. He’s right-handed. He fills a position of absolute, inarguable need. I don’t think the Mariners acted out of desperation; I think they just saw a shining example of something, and they decided to click on Buy It Now instead of participate in an auction. They’ve been left out before, waiting until there was nothing good available. There’s some value in knowing you’ve plugged a hole on the first of December.

The Mariners were blessed with Edgar Martinez. Between 1995 – 2004, the Mariners had the best DH slot in the American League, and they were the best by a lot. Then, of course, Edgar retired, and while there was nothing wrong with his retirement, one could say he didn’t do much to help the team to identify a worthy replacement. Between 2005 – 2014, the Mariners had the worst DH slot in the American League, and they were the worst by a lot. You know the stat wRC+? It’s a measure of offense, where 100 is league-average. Over the past decade, the second-worst team DH slot has had a wRC+ of 100. The Mariners came in at 84.

Now here’s the part you really won’t believe. Red Sox DHs — David Ortiz — have led the way, with 32 WAR. Then you’ve got the Indians, at 15.6. The Blue Jays, at 10.4. The Yankees, at 9.0. Keep going down. The Orioles, at 1.0. The Astros, at 0.2. The Mariners, at -11.7. Read that again. The Mariners, at -11.7. Over the past ten years, since Edgar called it a career, Mariner designated hitters have been worth a combined dozen wins below replacement level. This might be the most incredible thing I’ve seen all year. I can’t tell. I objectively recognize it as incredible, but it doesn’t pack the same punch to me since it’s not really a surprise. We’ve all lived it. We just didn’t look at it so cumulatively.

It’s amazing how bad the Mariners have been there. At what’s supposed to be the very easiest spot to put a hitter, the Mariners have posted the same collective positional wRC+ as Ben Revere. That’s why it’s okay to feel some sense of relief. Cruz should at least hit, and hit at a not-embarrassing level, and while we’ve said that about various Mariner DH candidates before, this one feels better. Partly explains why, in the poll below, three times as many people have positive opinions as negative. Some of that’s also just bias, but we’ve lived a nightmare within a nightmare. Cruz might one day decline into a nightmare, but he should at least allow us to rest easy in 2015. And then after that, who knows? Maybe we’ll be dead.

Watch this. You’ve seen it before. It’s stupid.

That’s a stupid home run. Nelson Cruz hit it at Safeco Field against maybe the best pitcher in the American League. It’s also practically an impossible home run. Only a handful of players in baseball could do that, feels like. According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, that home run was never more than 41 feet off the ground. Which means it was the lowest home run of the season that actually flew over a fence.

Cruz also hits the other kind of impressive home run:

He’s a pure power hitter. The alarming thing is that he’s very similar to what Michael Morse was supposed to be, and that’s a valid observation. This has gone tits up before, and Morse wasn’t signed for four whole years. But Cruz has actually been quite healthy lately, missing time in the last three years only for that pesky suspension, and it seems like Cruz won’t see much of the outfield. Cruz is also kind of what Corey Hart was supposed to be, which is another valid observation, but Hart was coming off a whole year lost. This past season, he couldn’t find his legs, so he didn’t have his swing. Nelson Cruz, to my knowledge, has his legs. Probably the kind of thing that gets noted on a physical.

Nelson Cruz is going to have what one might refer to as visceral at-bats. When he hits a pitch, he’ll really hit it, and you’ll know it immediately. Some of his home runs, you’re going to feel coming; others are going to come completely out of nowhere. You’re going to look forward to his spot in the lineup, even though he’s going to make his share of easy outs. In the short term, there should be enough productivity to make it all worthwhile. In the short term, the Mariners are trying to make the 2015 playoffs, and if they pull that off, what might be possible with the additional revenue in the seasons ahead? The ultimate message is that the team just signed last year’s league leader in home runs. That’s as matter-of-fact as it gets. The Mariners got what they wanted, and we’ll worry about the future when the future knows how 2015 went.

Here’s what could conceivably happen. Over a stretch of 255 plate appearances last June through last August, Cruz hit .203/.267/.388. It’s obvious when he’s not hitting, and when he’s not hitting, he’s pointless. Before that stretch, though, his OPS was in almost the four digits. Afterward, it was north of four digits. If Cruz falls apart, we can’t say it came without warning, because he was just bad for a couple months. But the story of Cruz’s whole career is that he makes up for his outs with his homers. There are a lot more outs than homers, but homers are a lot more positive than outs are negative. As he declines, the ratio will get worse. Cruz is the kind of guy who can pick his overall numbers up overnight. His decline will just look like slightly longer slumps.

Richie Sexson might be a data point here. His wRC+ after signing with the Mariners:

  • 144
  • 117
  • 84
  • 92

Then his career was over. Sexson provided one great year, and one fine year, and then he was dreadful. The last two years, he was a complete waste of money. But now bring that into the current circumstances. Would that be an acceptable trajectory, given where the Mariners presently stand? I think a lot of people would argue it would. People are pretty tired of finding something else to do in October.

Here’s one other way you can think about this. As long as we’re rationalizing, let’s rationalize. There’s no such thing in baseball as an obviously brilliant move, or an obviously terrible move. At least, there’s almost no such thing. Moves, mostly, have about a 50% chance of going well and a 50% chance of not going well. Some moves might be more like 60/40, and others might be more like 40/60. Let’s say that Cruz and the Mariners is more like 40/60. Let’s say it’s probably more bad than good.

What are the chances Cruz goes as projected? Like, exactly as he’s projected to go? There’s a good chance Cruz out-plays his projections, in which case, he’s basically worth the commitment. And there’s a good chance Cruz badly under-performs, in which case, he’s not worth the money, but we could write it off as an unforeseen and sudden decline. If Cruz falls apart overnight, we couldn’t say the Mariners should’ve seen that coming. It would be kind of like Chone Figgins, except that Figgins looked smarter at the outset. But, if Cruz goes badly enough, people will blame Cruz more than the front office. It’ll just be bad luck. The Mariners aren’t investing in a probable disaster, they’re just investing in a possible disaster, and the odds favor Cruz being, at worst, overpaid. Especially in four years, but the Mariners are giving four years to one Nelson Cruz, not a whole team of them.

2,000 words to say, it’s better than trading Taijuan Walker. The Mariners are a good team, and Nelson Cruz makes them a better team, and they paid more than anyone else would pay, but the need was also greater than anyone else’s, and the Mariners look to be right there among the contenders. So the Mariners, on paper, dealt damage to their own future to try to improve the present, and if it works out, benefits from the present will help to erase the future damage. Nelson Cruz wasn’t the only move the Mariners could’ve made. Other, more creative routes might’ve been possible that would require less of a commitment. For that reason, signing Nelson Cruz isn’t a brilliant move. But an acceptable move? I think we can accept it. Sometimes a man wants a double cheeseburger. Sometimes a double cheeseburger is the best god-damned thing you’ve ever eaten.

Nelson Cruz Poll

December 1, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 15 Comments 

On the one hand,

On the other hand,

On the mutant third hand,


On the fourth hand??,

I want your overall opinion. Not your opinion on 2015, not your opinion on Nelson Cruz, not your opinion on images of numbers wearing festive birthday hats — I want your overall opinion on the Mariners, today, signing Nelson Cruz for four years and $57 million, and in so doing giving up a draft pick. You by now have had plenty of time to come to terms with whatever your feelings might be! Share said feelings, by clicking a little circle on the internet.

A Lukewarm Take on the Nelson Cruz Signing

December 1, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 15 Comments 

Given the timing, the weather, and my own sentiments, “lukewarm” is about all that I could muster at this point. Unless you have been hiding under a hole in the ground for the last several hours, you are probably aware at this point that the Mariners have made an offering to free agent Nelson Cruz of four years and $57 million. Not an offering of blood sacrifice on a flaming pyre. Different kind of offering. Except we did lose the #19 draft pick to the Orioles, so there’s that.

Nelson Cruz is cashing in on an age-33 season in which he led the American League in home runs for the Baltimore Orioles. He took that one-year contract in order to build up some credibility as to his general health and well-being as an offensive producer and has succeeded. He is now, presumably, financially secure through his age-37 season although he’ll turn 38 that July. From there, who knows, except that he’ll be $57 million dollars richer. Plenty of smart people have already analyzed this move, in terms of the money offered and in terms of the Mariners player archetypes and the risks involved.

My schtick is more attuned to the minor league side of things and with that I have this much to say. The Mariners have long had a depth issue in the realm of outfielders. We have tried patching this with the likes of Abraham Almonte, Eric Thames, Trayvon Robinson, and Casper Wells (miss u) with little success over the years. It wasn’t until two Junes ago that the Mariners began to start addressing this matter through the draft with Austin Wilson and Tyler O’Neill, but as we all well know, development is something that takes time due to player adjustments and unforeseen circumstances. Sometimes, for example, players try to punch holes through walls.

Of our various bits of outfield depth at the moment, Gabriel Guerrero is probably at least two years away from being a viable contributor to the team in the outfield. Julio Morban remains an enigma for his inability to play more than 90 games annually, ever. James Jones is James Jones. It’s unlikely that we’ll have to worry about a declining Nelson Cruz so much as blocking anyone until late in the contract, barring an improbable meteoric rise by Alex Jackson. By then, we’ll shift him into DH anyway and continue batting him fourth just like Kendrys Morales because it’s the principle of the matter.

Here’s the other consideration. Had the Mariners not invested the four years and mucho dinero in Sr. Cruz, they would have likely gone into further talks on the trade market for Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, and the like. Using past rumors as template, the deals probably would have been for Walker+ and would have provided little long-term security on the investment. We presently have Cruz coming off one of his best seasons and have retained our trade chips. The core now includes Seager, Cano, and Cruz on offense, and likely Felix, Paxton, and Walker in the rotation, with a couple of those guys being pretty cheap. That’s not a bad starting point looking forward in the next few years and gets us into the conversation when projecting the top of the AL West standings.

The Nelson Cruz contract will last us four years. My reckoning has that as two years longer than I would have liked and one year longer than I was personally comfortable with. But the Cano contract has already pushed us into “win now” territory and we have done so without blocking prospects or significantly jeopardizing the team’s future. This is probably our big signing, and we may not do much more other than gather incidental pieces for the rotation, outfield, and first base/DH. That’s probably okay. The Mariners project pretty well at least through the next couple of years as it stands.

P.S. Please DH Cruz/don’t trade Saunders oh please oh please oh please

Podcast: Seager Yes But No Tomas

November 26, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 15 Comments 

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.

Podcast with Jeff (@based_ball) and Matthew (@msea1): Direct link! || iTunes link! || RSS/XML link!

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!

Who’s Responsible for Kyle Seager?

November 25, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 8 Comments 

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.

Kyle Seager: Core Mariner

November 24, 2014 · Filed Under Mariners · 8 Comments 

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.

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