Thursday, March 27, 2008

Ignorance About the Mariners

John Donovan of Sports Illustrated writes today how the 2008 Seattle Mariners are primed for a playoff push due to the team's offseason moves as well as dedication to pitching and defense.

He's wrong. The M's are still second banana in the AL West, despite the pitching injuries that have been plaguing the Angels this spring. And Seattle still doesn't emphasize pitching nor defense. To prove my point here is a series of paraphrased quotes from Mr. Donovan, followed by some analysis.
Erik Bedard eats up a lot of innings (thereby saving wear and tear on the bullpen) and scares the bejesus out of opponents.
The second part is probably true. Last year he struck out an incredible 11.2 batters per nine innings. A healthy Bedard is among the five best starters in the game. Keyword being healthy. Bedard has never pitched 200 innings for a season and averages 164 frames per year for his career. Hardly an innings eater.
According to Baseball Prospectus, in the 68 games last year that Felix Hernandez, Jarrod Washburn and Batista did not start, the pitchers that the Mariners ran out there (mostly Jeff Weaver and Horacio Ramirez, both now out of work) won only one more game than a bunch of league-average pitchers would have won.
32-36 to be exact. In 2007 Weaver and Ramirez simultaneously chucked two of the most historically awful pitching seasons in baseball history -- yet the Mariners won 47% of games started by the bottom of their rotation.
When you add to that the signing of a slightly better than league-average kind of pitcher, righty Carlos Silva, the Mariners are infinitely more solid in their rotation than they were last September.
Projected 2008 starting rotation (win-loss record in 2007):
Erik Bedard (13-5)
Felix Hernandez (14-7)
Carlos Silva (13-14)
Jarrod Washburn (10-15)
Miguel Batista (16-11)

66-52 equals a winning percentage of .559. Interestingly, the "slightly better than league-average" Silva had a worse winning percentage than the M's 4 and 5 starters. Regardless, this incarnation of the Mariners rotation is superior in talent to last year's version. Donovan, conveniently, fails to acknowledge the bullpen -- that other aspect of pitching. Seattle's relief corps, led by All-Star closer J.J. Putz and George Sherrill, was the team's strongest asset last year. That is no longer the case.

Putz's 2007 campaign was so amazing (71.2 IP, 1.38 ERA, 52 baserunners, 82 K, 40 saves) that one can't expect him to emulate such success again. Some regression is probable. Sherrill (45.2 IP, 2.36 ERA, 46 baserunners, 56 K) was traded to Baltimore. Brandon Morrow, an erratic but somewhat effective flamethrower, is suffering from shoulder fatigue and may miss the start of the season. Cha Seung Baek (one of those guys Seattle "ran out there" in lieu of Weaver/Ramirez) is expected to be the long reliever.

While Seattle's pitching situation has overall improved this offseason (starters, after all, are more valuable than relievers), to gloss over the potential problems is misleading.
The pitching means little, in the Mariners' mind, without a decent-enough defense to back it up. A lot of analysts question the strength of the Seattle defense, but the Mariners claim they have one of the best.
Projected 2008 defense (run defense in 2007):
C Kenji Johjima (difficult to quantify, but most agree he's good behind the plate)
1B Richie Sexson (-14; missed 40 games)
2B Jose Lopez (+6)
SS Yuniesky Betancourt (-9)
3B Adrian Beltre (+7)
LF Raul Ibanez: (-21)
CF Ichiro Suzuki (13)
RF Brad Wilkerson (N/A; slightly below average)

Aside from the catcher and right field positions, this group of fielders is, according to a compilation of metrics, is -18. In other words, they are expected allow 18 more runs than a theoretically average defense. And Seattle plays in the cavernous Safeco Field, so its deficiencies are further magnified.

Statistics aside, a simple eyeball test suggests the baseball nerds are right. Ichiro and Beltre can be categorized as good defenders. Betancourt's miscues last season were mostly due to mental lapses and simple mistakes. Baseball insiders rave about his arm, range and instincts. Once Yuni puts it all together he should play above average defense. Everyone else, however, can be rated from average to awful in the field. Personally I tend to agree with the analysts.
Ibanez -- no Gold Glover in left, but not a complete stiff.
Complete stiff. It makes no sense to pencil in the sloth-like Ibanez to cover left field on a daily basis.
Ibanez sees the left side of the infield on a daily basis and says Beltre and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt are the best he's ever seen.

"Their range is phenomenal. And it's not just their ground ball range, but their fly ball range. Their pop-up range. It's unbelievable."
Maybe because they're running out to snag fly balls and pops up you can't catch?

Donovan's article wasn't exactly a fluff piece but it failed to acknowledge the (sometimes glaring) weaknesses of a flawed team.

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