I’ll admit that I don’t know a lot about the other sports, so I can’t speak to situations more messed up than what we’ve got in baseball. But in baseball — little details aside — we’ve got the A’s, and we’ve got the Marlins.
The A’s consistently try really hard to win, despite the odds being stacked against them. Oakland has a brilliant front office, and they play in a ballpark plagued by sewage leaks in the clubhouse and in the dugout. The Marlins are crooks. Money-hungry crooks. They play in a brand-new ballpark they didn’t pay for — a ballpark they’ve made no effort to fill after a disappointing debut season. The Marlins did what the Marlins do: They got some people excited, then they undid the goodwill and more.
Some baseball teams have reputations. The Yankees are the big spenders. The Dodgers are the other big spenders. The Twins are lovable throwbacks. The Braves are slightly less-lovable throwbacks. The Royals are run by people who shouldn’t be running the Royals. And so on. The Marlins’ reputation is that they’re run by criminals who deceive with every word. Two offseasons ago, it looked like they were trying hard to turn the page, to create a new identity. Two offseasons ago, the Marlins tried to spend to build a powerhouse. But their identity is still their identity. You know how it went. The Marlins are as the Marlins have been.
Which brings us to a fun hypothetical exercise. Dave had his FanGraphs chat on Wednesday, and here is one of the questions:
Comment From Sgt. Pepper
Would the Marlins have been a winning team this year if it wasn’t for the multiple fire sales? Hanley has been very good, Reyes has been very good, Sanchez has been very good, etc. Add Fernandez to the mix and they look better on paper than they did at the start of last year.
In other words, how would the 2013 Marlins be doing if they didn’t shed half their 2012 salary? It’s a hypothetical because these are the Marlins, and they are what they are, and they obviously opted against keeping everyone expensive on the books. But what if the Marlins weren’t the Marlins? What if they stuck to their new identity? How different would their record be, according to really hasty and convenient approximations?
I reconstructed the important parts of the Marlins. I’m not worried about the bench or depth starters or whatever. They don’t have much of an effect on a team’s WAR profile. And, yeah, we’ll be using WAR, because what else would you recommend? A simulator? I don’t have a simulator. This is good enough. This is probably good enough.
All these guys have at least somewhat recently been Marlins property. It doesn’t make much of a difference what you do with left field and center field. In one special case, I had the Marlins re-signing Anibal Sanchez, who became a free agent last winter. Maybe that’s cheating, because Sanchez could’ve signed anywhere, but the Marlins of two winters ago demonstrated that they didn’t mind throwing money around, and Sanchez would’ve been comfortable there. Just keep this in mind.
Here is the current, actual landscape of things, by WAR:
Whoa! The Marlins suck! Not as bad as the Astros, but they’re closer to the Astros than to any other team. This is why they’re probably going to end up with triple-digit losses. The team is not good.
Now, here is the hypothetical WAR landscape. This assumes the same individual levels of performance, and I didn’t bother subtracting WAR from other teams that lost hypothetical Marlins. That would be getting too involved. I also assumed the Marlins’ non-starters would be replacement-level, and I didn’t change anything about their 2013 bullpen performance. I could’ve done this more carefully, but the point is less about the specific numbers and more about the general idea.
Well, that’s much better. We have a Marlins team just below 35 WAR. For pitchers, I was using WAR, instead of RA9-WAR — use the latter and it barely makes a difference. Give the depth guys two wins and you have a team WAR just below 37. Give the depth guys negative two wins and you have a team WAR just below 33. The comparable teams, then, would be the:
Overall, the Marlins would be somewhere in the upper-middle of the pack. There’s not a perfect relationship between team WAR and team winning percentage, but the Marlins would probably be in the race. They’d at least, probably, be respectable. And, who knows, maybe they’d be giving the Braves a run for their money. The Indians are well behind the Royals in WAR, but check out those wild-card standings.
Of course, Sanchez is critical. Sanchez has been a WAR All-Star, accounting for a sixth of the Marlins’ hypothetical total. Had he not been hypothetically re-signed, the Marlins presumably would’ve given those innings to someone much worse, and then they wouldn’t look so good. So that’s where some of this swings. The Marlins sold Sanchez in a trade, but they weren’t really giving up future value. I’ll let you decide how you want to handle this, since this exercise is purely for fun.
But now we get to where it’s really complicated. Back in the middle of April, Reyes injured his ankle in a game and went on the disabled list for a while. Who’s to say that happens if he’s with the Marlins? Who’s to say Josh Johnson’s season happens as it’s happened this season? Who’s to say Fernandez’s season happens as it’s happened, given the hypothetical roster? Who’s to say anything? How can we possibly know how players would do under different conditions?
This is an important point — a point that’s too often glossed over — and it’s probably worth its own post. But we absolutely cannot say that player performance X on Team A would be the same on Team B. It seems like it should be the case, but we don’t know for sure; in fact, we don’t know at all. Hanley Ramirez has been great with the Dodgers. He wasn’t so great, more recently, with the Marlins. Maybe he would’ve been equally great this year for Miami, had he not been traded. But then, from a Ken Rosenthal article:
“Everything turned around after I came here last year,” Ramirez says. “That passion, all the fans in LA, that turned everything around.
“Pretty much everybody in Miami was young, happy to be in the big leagues. We still competed, but, I don’t know, this is a different feeling. Since I got to the clubhouse here, everyone was focused, happy, together.
“Only I know what I went through in Miami. I don’t want to talk about that… that’s in the past. But I knew that as soon as I left there I was going to be a different guy. When I came here, they just let me play. They said, ‘Play hard and be you.’ ”
Maybe that’s all crazy talk. I don’t know, but the point is that I don’t know. Nobody knows. Maybe, with the Marlins, Ramirez doesn’t re-emerge. Maybe Sanchez pitches worse. Maybe Johnson pitches better. Maybe anything. Baseball is a game of individual showdowns, but between different teams and different rosters, you’ve got so many different variables, and it would be silly to suggest they ultimately don’t matter. Numbers can’t just be lifted from one team and placed on another.
You can keep extending this idea. You can absolutely do it with prospects and draft picks. I know I live in regret that the Mariners drafted Jeff Clement over Troy Tulowitzki. This is because Clement busted, and a healthy Tulowitzki is a superstar. But the reality is Clement might’ve developed differently in another organization. The reality is that Tulowitzki might’ve developed differently with the Mariners. We don’t actually know that Clement was the wrong pick; we just know he didn’t work out, under the circumstances he faced. It’s paralyzing, how little we can actually know, but I think it’s important to acknowledge because that way we can all look a little less like idiots.
But anyway. The second half of this post has tossed the first half of this post into the garbage. We don’t and can’t know how the Marlins would’ve done in 2013 with a more expensive roster. It’s an impossible investigation, as fun as it is to think about. What we can say, though, is the hypothetical 2013 Marlins would’ve had playoff-caliber talent. Maybe every team has playoff-caliber talent, but this team could’ve been something, provided the Marlins atmosphere wasn’t toxic. It could’ve been what it was supposed to be in 2012. This year’s Marlins aren’t going to the playoffs, but that isn’t the shame. The shame is we don’t know if that’s even the Marlins’ goal. The shame is that we all have our suspicions.
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