Some more follow-ups.
Have the Mariners miscalculated (and Fangraphs in the org rankings) by relying too much on UZR and other defensive metrics that end up being neither as predictive or descriptive as they were presumed to be?
To me, this is more narrative than reality. Because the Mariners got competitive using a great defensive team a year ago, and a lot of people wrote about it this winter, it has become popular to deride the Mariners for choosing defense over offense. That’s just not really the case, though.
Regardless of what you think of him as a person, Milton Bradley‘s track record as a hitter can’t really be argued with. From 2007 to 2009, he posted a batting line of .293/.407/.495 over 311 games. His .389 wOBA during those years put him at the same offensive level as Adam Dunn and Magglio Ordonez and ahead of guys like Jayson Werth and J.D. Drew. He’s not much of a defender, though, and he’s unreliable, but the Mariners took a gamble on a guy who had proven that he was one of the best offensive players in baseball. It didn’t work, obviously, but the intent to acquire an offensive force was clearly there.
Then, there’s Chone Figgins. Yes, he was a guy who added value with his defense, but they got him for his bat, not his glove. His 2007 to 2009 line was .301/.386/.382, good for a .350 wOBA. Like Bradley, he’d established a track record of being a well above average hitter. They didn’t bring in Pedro Feliz – they spent a good chunk of money on a guy who had shown that he could get on base.
At first base, they only ended up with Casey Kotchman after attempting to sign Russell Branyan. They offered him more money than what he eventually got from the Indians, but he was holding out for a multi-year deal. They wanted him back for 2010, but didn’t want to guarantee 2011 to a guy with a herniated disc in his back. Everyone else in baseball agreed, and that’s why Branyan eventually settled for a one year deal with Cleveland. But bringing Branyan back was clearly the team’s primary choice to fill first base.
There’s just no real pattern of choosing defense over offense. The guys they brought in to provide offense failed. That’s different than not trying to bring in any offensive upgrades to begin with. Don’t buy into the narrative that the team decided to try to go balls out for defense. It’s just not true.
Some of the furor has to reside in the fact that a Front Office was praised for putting together such a high variance team to begin with. There was quite a bit of interweb pats on the back, so to speak for the way the 2009 offseason went, and yet they put out a team that, at best, was on the way to 83 wins.
I just don’t agree with this assertion. ZiPS pegged the Mariners for 86 wins, the most of any AL West team. When Replacement Level Yankee Weblog did their simulation blowout, running five other projection systems through 1,000 times each, the Mariners made the playoffs 29.4 percent of the time. The roster wasn’t high variance because they were .500 at best with a lot of downside – they were high variance because they were either going to succeed or flop. They flopped. However, I think that people who are taking the 2010 results as proof that the plan couldn’t have worked are overlooking evidence to the contrary.
The San Diego Padres are winning the NL West with essentially the same overall plan as the Mariners had – league average offense with league best run prevention. The Padres offense has been the definition of average this year – they’ve been worth +4.2 runs above average as a group in over 4,500 plate appearances. They’re in first place in spite of a just okay offense because they’re #1 in xFIP and #1 in UZR. The pitching and defense have both been outstanding, and have carried a mediocre offense into playoff contention.
We can disagree about the likelihood of Bradley, Figgins, Lopez, and Kotchman all performing as they were projected to by ZiPS or CHONE. I don’t think we can make the leap to saying that the team wouldn’t have contended if those guys would have hit as expected, however. We’ve got a team winning with the exact same formula that the Mariners were going for. You don’t have to field an above average offense to have a good team. I don’t think we can pretend that this roster was doomed from the start.
I think we as stat heads overrate the “process” and its ability to produce future results. There are several teams who on the surface really don’t look like they’ve had the best “process” but seem to make things work…
This is a conversation I had with several people up in New York – how much credit or blame should we apportion to a front office for getting unexpected results?
I go with not much. Let’s use the Giants for an example. They openly pursued Adam LaRoche to be their first baseman this year, offering him a decent sized contract to come in and help fix their offense. He decided to go to Arizona, and the Giants ended up signing Aubrey Huff instead. Huff, of course, has been much better than LaRoche, posting a +4.5 WAR compared to +1.8 WAR for the Diamondbacks first baseman.
The Giants preferred LaRoche to Huff. Had he taken their offer, they likely would have ended up with a lesser team. Instead, their back-up plan has blown away their first choice, and it has helped push them into contention. Should we give the Giants credit for signing Huff?
Some, certainly. But they obviously didn’t expect him to do this, or he wouldn’t have been the back-up plan. They’ve received far more than they thought they were going to get from their first baseman. I’m not sure why we should apportion credit to them for the performance above what they expected.
The reality of the situation is that a good process gives you a slight advantage over teams who are making sub-optimal choices. There’s a reason that Jonah Keri has entitled his book about the Rays “The Extra Two Percent” – that is the advantage that teams like Tampa Bay are trying to sustain through good decision making processes. It’s not a huge advantage, but it’s the one that teams can control.
Yes, teams with bad processes get lucky sometimes. If you watch enough poker, you’ll see a lot of bad players beat good players with hands they should have never been involved in to begin with. But the good players are good players because the understand that small advantages add up over time, and they’re willing to put their money on the line when they have an advantage because, more often than not, they’ll win.
More often than not, the good process teams beat the bad process teams. It won’t always work out that way, because there are far too many variables that clubs cannot control, but you want to bet on the teams that are doing things the right way, not on teams that are relying on career years from unexpected sources.
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