The Mariners’ Spring Power and Traveling North

Sometimes it’s worth unpacking something that seems like it’s fairly cut and dry. Like, for example, the Mariners are showing quite a bit of power in spring training right now, but it seems like folly to put too much stock in those numbers. That statement alone can send you on a journey.

As of Thursday morning, the Seattle Mariners had hit 30 home runs this spring. The second-place team, the Cleveland Indians, had hit only 21. No other team had 20. In three times as many games last year, the Tigers led Spring Training with 46 home runs. Then again, the San Diego Padres led the National League last season so there’s clue number one that this power surge may not be such a big deal. (The Padres only hit more home runs than two teams in baseball last regular season).

But the Mariners tied for 14th in spring training home runs last year, and they’ve already hit more home runs than they did then. The new acquisitions must be working. Break up the Mariners.

Except that weather is a big part of power. And Arizona doesn’t have much in common with Seattle. Check out the average temperature by city last season:

City Ave Temp City Ave Temp
sfn 63.3 ana 73.2
oak 63.4 col 73.5
sea 63.7 mil 73.9
chn 68.5 pit 74
bos 68.9 hou 74.2
cha 68.9 phi 74.5
sdn 69.6 cin 75.6
cle 69.9 mia 76.7
tor 69.9 sln 76.8
min 70.8 was 77.2
det 71.6 bal 77.5
nyn 71.9 kca 77.9
tba 72.1 atl 80.2
nya 72.2 ari 81.9
lan 72.9 flo 83
tex 86.3

There’s Arizona, all the way near the warmest part of the country, and Seattle over there by the coldest part of the country. Physics professor Robert Adair found that ten degrees of air temperature meant four extra feet of batted ball distance, so this means something. Jeff Zimmerman agreed, or he found that those same ten degrees meant 4.2 feet of distance. Our own site found a relationship between batted ball distance and home runs per fly ball, so this is meaningful stuff.

It’s not some ‘heavy air’ thing either. If you bucket games into temperatures as Zimmerman did, you find that the ball goes 274 feet in Seattle when it’s colder than 65 degrees, and 277 in the rest of the country at that temperature. When it’s over 65 degrees, the ball goes 279 feet in Seattle and 282 feet otherwise. The effect due to temperature is more stark than any effect due to humidity.

So it really looks like Arizona’s atmosphere is conducive to power and Seattle’s isn’t. But did you see Carson Cistulli post about spring training run environments and how there are *fewer* home runs in spring training then there are in the regular season? That’s weird.

Maybe it’s because it’s colder in Arizona in spring than your average mid-summer park? It’s 69 degrees there this year. That’s way colder than the seasonal average. It’s been 79 degrees the last two Marches in Phoenix, though. Either way, 69 is still warmer than Seattle, most days.

It can’t all be about weather. The studies looking at relationships between spring statistics and the regular season have found that component stats like strikeout and walk rates are more predictive than overall stats and in-season studies have found similar things about samples during the regular schedule. It takes a long time to know a player’s true-talent power level.

So if we were going to say something about the Mariners and their power this coming season, we’d have to first be able to say that the new parts will definitely show more power than the old parts. We do have, as ammunition, ZiPs projected isolated slugging numbers for next season, and a crude depth chart, too:

2012 Mariners ISO 2013 Mariners (ZiPs)
C John Jaso 0.180 C Jesus Montero 0.144
Miguel Olivo 0.159 Kelly Shoppach 0.149
DH Jesus Montero 0.126 DH Kendrys Morales 0.181
Mike Carp 0.128
1B Justin Smoak 0.147 1B Justin Smoak 0.153
2B Dustin Ackley 0.102 2B Dustin Ackley 0.126
Chone Figgins 0.090
3B Kyle Seager 0.164 3B Kyle Seager 0.132
SS Brendan Ryan 0.084 SS Brendan Ryan 0.078
Robert Andino 0.085
LF Casper Wells 0.168 LF Raul Ibanez 0.162
Jason Bay 0.130
CF Michael Saunders 0.185 CF Franklin Gutierrez 0.130
Franklin Gutierrez 0.160 Michael Saunders 0.150
RF Ichiro Suzuki 0.092 RF Michael Morse 0.162
Team 0.135

Looks like a few upgrades and a few downgrades and maybe a little nudge in the right direction. It’s no Slam Dunk Solution ™.

But then there’s John Dewan’s rule: in 2009, he showed in his Stat of the Week newsletter that players who beat their career slugging percentage by more than 200 points in Spring Training had more than a 60% chance at beating their career slugging percentage during the regular season (mininimum 200 regular season at-bats and 40 Spring Training at-bats). Does anyone satisfy his rule right now? Quite a few: Raul Ibanez, Franklin Gutierrez, Brendan Ryan, Justin Smoak, Jason Bay, Jesus Montero, Casper Wells and Michael Saunders.

Take out everyone definitively past their power peak — why would Jason Bay show a power surge beyond his career rates, at his age — and you get Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders and Jesus Montero. Those guys are maybe halfway to maybe showing something that could have a 60% likelihood of carrying over into the season.

At this point, things have gotten weird. The weather is some sort of factor, in a power-dampening way. The level of competition in spring training is a factor, also suggesting the team power surge is a mirage. The roster upheaval is a factor, and it seems like a positive, but the players doing the best this spring — doing so in the most believable way at least — were all on the team last year. It’s probably not the new guys. We’ll have to see about the fences.

It seems unlikely that this Mariner power surge will travel north. And we might have thought so from the beginning, but it was fun checking it out anyway. Maybe three young men and a set of new fences will make a grand impact against the odds.

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers’ fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A’s or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Angry Miguel
Angry Miguel

Michael Saunders is playing for Team Canada.