Tuesday, August 10, 2010

PART III - Advanced Experimentation 410:
When Asceticism & Failing the Alderson Wisdom Pushes You Below the Event Horizon  

Every decision a team's off-field management makes
has to balance 
the baseball considerations and the non-baseball considerations
--Sandy Alderson

As I explained in Part II, the pre-2010 Mariners tried an exciting but risky standards-busting experiment: Try to prevent so many runs through a combination of an outlier pitching-friendly home stadium a mix of great to acceptable pitching and a close-to unprecedented quality of team defense that the amount of offense required to win a trip to October would be unprecedentedly low. And that buying that low level of offense to fulfill the effort would save a lot of money that could go to the team's bottom line or the top line.

As Vince Gennaro can tell you, the amount of money you need to move a team from 85 to 90 wins is significantly more than to move it from 80 to 85 wins. But some offense is required...but how little would be too little and how little would be just enough?

Success at determining that demilitarized zone between "too little" and "just enough" was going to determine the experiment's success or failure. The 2009 team's offensive performance was a data point to consider; dead last in the league in OPS+.

2009 Mariners Offense                           
Starters                        Age   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
C            Rob  Johnson         25 .213 .289 .326 .615   65
1B      Russell  Branyan*         33 .251 .347 .520 .867  128
2B            Jose  Lopez         25 .272 .303 .463 .766  102
SS   Yuniesky  Betancourt         27 .250 .278 .330 .609   63
3B         Adrian  Beltre         30 .265 .304 .379 .683   82
LF    Wladimir  Balentien         24 .213 .271 .355 .625   66
CF    Franklin  Gutierrez         26 .283 .339 .425 .764  103
RF        Ichiro  Suzuki*         35 .352 .386 .465 .851  127
DH          Ken  Griffey*         39 .214 .324 .411 .735   95

Bench                           Age   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
DH          Mike  Sweeney         35 .281 .335 .442 .777  106
SS           Josh  Wilson         28 .250 .294 .398 .693   83
LF     Michael  Saunders*         22 .221 .258 .279 .537   44
LF      Ryan  Langerhans*         29 .218 .311 .386 .697   86
SS           Jack  Wilson         31 .224 .263 .299 .562   51
             Team Totals       29.9 .258 .314 .402 .716   90
           Rank among 14 AL teams     13   14   13        14

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table     Generated 8/7/2010.

In 20-20 hindsight, his line-up featured one very legitimate lead-off hitter (Suzuki) and one legitimate batter to bat fourth or fifth (Branyan) and one batter (Sweeney) who would not insult your lineup if he batted seventh or on his best days, sixth. No one else's performance justified them batting third or clean-up or fifth, or even really, sixth.

So what would they do?

The offense protocol Seattle had to work with was not standards-busting; it was the norm. Teams with a shortstop who can hit 25 homers or a catcher who can slug .580 can play around with letting guys they're not sure about play key offensive positions. The Mariners didn't have such benefits. They would have to work the protocol of the four and half keys; they would need to produce their significant offense from DH, First Base, the two corner outfielders, and to an optional degree, Third Base.

At Right Field, they logically decided to stand pat. Ichiro Suzuki, signed for the next season, perhaps the team's most recognizable figure and only all-time record holder, slots in as a legit lead-off batter, and while he doesn't get you power (unless someone throws at his head), you can buy that elsewhere.

At First Base, the front office let their best OPS+ hitter, the health question-mark Russell Branyan, go and, given the market and their budget (left over after so much allocated to Cliff Lee, as mentioned in Part II), plugged in reasonably-priced glove man Casey Kotchman, whose 2009 line looked like this:

      1b  Casey  Kotchman*             26 .282 .354 .409 .764  103

The most optimistically you can look at this switch is:

  • He's only 26, so he might have some improvement potential.
  • He's a left-handed hitter who has a swing that can pull the ball, and the only affordance the Mariners' stadium provides is for left-handed flyball hitters who pull the ball.
  • He's a big defensive upgrade (at a position that doesn't have a strong individual defense contribution but does contribute to team defense since it interacts with roughly 10 chances a game)

I think the Ms focused on the last bullet, considered the first two and crossed their fingers. Of the four usual primary offense contributing positions (DH, 1B, LF and RF), they knew they had a likely offensive downgrade at 1B they hoped would be cushioned by better defense.

But Kotchman would not under any circumstances, be a batter other teams would fear or even think extensively about (in his best offensive production season, he was intentionally walked once ...and that was to set up the double-play, not to get to a weaker hitter behind him).

Essentially, without a breakout season, Kotchman was not going to provide an offensive upgrade at first base.

At Third Base, the Mariners had another switch, allowing a player they thought should be a legitimate #5 or even optimistically a #4 batter, but who hadn't performed up to those offensive expectations, to move on. But Adrian Beltre was one of the keys to their great team defense...while Third Base is not the most critical positions defensively, he was arguable the best or second-best in the league at the position. So this change could imperil the experiment if they didn't pay attention to defense. They felt they could not replace Beltre with a lumbering, concrete-handed slugger and they felt there was no-one promising in the Ms spotty minor leagues to take a chance on. They signed Chone Figgins, a lead-off hitter of some quality and who, at Age 31 in 2009, was indicating some "old guy skills" acquisition; not power, but taking walks (101 for the season compared to the 69/season he'd averaged previously as a starter), which had gotten Figgins' on-base average close to .400, roughly 40 points better than his previous average as a starter. A second legitimate lead-off hitter, perhaps, but on a team that already had one.

On the side of caution, of the seven seasons Figgins had gotten 20 or more plate appearances in the Mariners' home field, he had only performed better than his seasonal numbers twice and over those seven years had produced about 21% less offense than he had in the rest of his games (pretty sharp decline). And while Beltre's homers happened at about one every 25 at-bats during the years he was a starter, Figgins was getting a homer about once every 122 at bats.

So while Figgins was not likely to erode Beltre's defensive contributions much if at all, he was unlikely to keep up in power, even the disappointing (to the Mariners) power numbers Beltre had put up.  Equation at this point: Kotchman (lower homer power) aligned with Figgins (lower homer power), and the magical Suzuki (one could hope equaling his prior power output).

If the next-to-last in the American League power numbers were going to be exceeded...or even equaled...it would require significant positive impact from Left Field and D.H.

In Left Field,  the team replaced young Wladimir "The Willemstad Weed-Whacker" Balentien (OPS+ of 66) with Milton Bradley, an excellent athlete who has a difficult history with some press guys, many management guys but few teammates. Bradley had come in a toxic waste swap with the Chicago Cubs, when the Ms sent the second-worst starter in franchise history to the Windy City for the clearly-very-skilled but sometimes disruptive outfielder. The hope for his ability to add to the offense was pretty-well founded (20-20 hindsight aside). In the six years from 2003-2008 inclusive, he'd been out of action a fair amount, but in the 100 games a year he averaged, had been on base at a .390 clip, blasted out an OPS+ of 132 -- better than any 2009 Mariner, and collected 15 homers per shortened season. His 2008 year had been his best, his 2009 an emotionally turbulent campaign which had been tied for his worst (still this worst was an OPS+ of 99), but it was not as though at age 31, his agility and fine motor skills had fallen off the table.

While it was not a given that Bradley could revert completely to the 2003-2008 model, it was not delusional to think he might not bounce half-way back to his good-looking history from his sub-par 2009.  And that half-way PRO+, 116, is 50 points higher than Balentien's 66, more than enough to cover the shear-off from Branyan to Kotchman. But if Bradley couldn't make up that difference, no one else on the roster could (without an extraordinary season), and given the significant dollar investment the team poured into Bradley & Cliff Lee, and the owners' execs' commitment to showing a profit every season, the front office wasn't going to get a stimulus package if the lien-up went into a depression.

But this move and the money involved put ownership, which values family-friendly warm fuzzies very highly (since the contemporary family-friendly marketing concept in Pacific Northwest sports generally outweighs on-the-field performance as a profit optimizer), really put them at the mercy of Bradley maintaining an even keel. More than about any men's professional sports franchise I can think of, the Mariners value their image of good citizenship and family-friendly fuzzies.

The contingency plan in case Bradley imploded:  the even-younger than Balentien Michael Saunders (OPS+ unknown...true, his was 44 in 2009 but in the slimmest of appearances. Unlike the move at 1B, where one could be fairly confident there'd be at least some drop-off, LF was a shot in the dark, a big bag of uncertainty). But on the power front, it couldn't look like a shift for the better. While Balentien notched 20 or more homers at every level in the minors, about one every 17 at bats in AAA, Saunders had notched more like one home run per 30 AB. Saunders was more athletic and younger, so one could imagine that one day in a few years Saunders could sport more pop than Wladimir, but not as soon as 2010.

Which put every last bit of hope the Mariners had of at least equaling their previous year's offense (dead last remember...you really can't carry a drop-off from that if you have hopes of a wild card, and there was no fact-based reason to think it could be better) in getting absolutely mega-studly DH performance.

This is where the plan came off the wobbling rails, and that was because the Seattle ownership has persistently not gotten the Alderson Wisdom down: the need to balance field decisions against business decisions.

To kick off the 2009 season, they'd come up with the master stroke of signing the original Mariner star (okay, there were other Mariners who qualified as stars, but one who was really a star in the rest of the baseball world, too) Ken Griffey Junior.  This wasn't an on-the-field master stroke. Griffey Junior, as you have seen from the chart of 2009 performances, wasn't even average for a D.H. But while he wasn't producing remarkable on the field, he was kicking axe at the box office, selling incremental tickets and making the city feel good about the Mariners through the application of nostalgia and the belief, probably founded, that Griffey Junior was headed to Cooperstown after he retired, and this reprise would pretty much assure his Hall of Fame plaque would end up featuring his head under a Mariners cap. So, with the owners and executives above the front office valuing the business considerations of the team way way way way more than the on-field ones,

At D.H., they re-signed Griffey Junior. Who of adult age would have predicted that at age 40, Griffey Jr would be able to exceed the .411 slugging percentage w/19 homers he'd hit as a 39 year old? Clearly someone on the business side at the Mariners' offices. But with the Griffey re-signing, the Mariners had no slack to make the Zdurienck Supremacy function; there was no position on the field where they could get enough additional power to lift the team from last place in that category. Yes, they still had old Mike Sweeney who had been an adequate contributor in a minor role, but one he would not be able to expand much given incurable injuries that prevent him from playing the field except under dire circumstances.

The Designated Hitter spot, as Earl Weaver figured out before he ever had to actually ink one onto a line-up card, is a magnificent and high-return affordance for a team with a run-prevention orientation. That's because DH gives you the chance to use an incomplete (less-expensive, easier to find) player who can hit a lot but not play the field. True, great DHes don't fall off trees in bushels, but an abundance of quite good ones are easy to find.

...means the only way to succeed is massive bouts of good luck unsullied by any significant bad luck. That was not to be.

The biggest single disruption was not on the defensive side, but on the run-production side (because no matter how successful your run prevention engine is, you still have to outscore your opponent to win a game) when (again failing to sufficiently weight the on-field factors relative to the business factors) management pressured Ms manager Don Wakamatsu to not just give Griffey the main weight of the DH role, but to bat him 5th in 15 of the first 23 games. This promotional feel-good nostalgia almost assured that whoever was batting clean-up would get nibbled to death, since the consequences of walking the clean-up hitter and facing Old Junior were close to non-existent. Bradley started the season batting 4th, and then it was the In-No-Way A Heart Of The Line-up batter Jose Lopez. With Old Junior anchoring the 5th spot, Bradley at clean-up managed .059/.238/.235 and Lopez hammered a better but not adequate.253/.282/.333.

From an on-the-field factors view Griffey pulled the team below the event horizon, and close-to-guaranteed the failure of the defensive experiment. With Griffey in the line-up as DH, the Mariners yielded their easiest-to-fill offensive boost. It was as though ownership had taken the nimble little Smart Car Z-Man had designed and planted on it a glorious 3,000 pound hood ornament. The Mariners elected to fritter their on-field design slack away in exchange for a series of feel-good promotional bobble-head opportunities.

Whitey Herzog, who went to Cooperstown this year for constructing successful run-prevention teams would never have considered the possibility the 2010 Mariners experiment could succeed minus a Balrog of a DH. Nor would Earl or any of the Baltimore front office guys he worked with. The bold experiment never got a fair shake.

In Part IV I get to give you a positive example from this failed season. I'll tell you the brilliant part of Z-Man's execution, his deft contingency planning that any manager Beyond Baseball would be wise to mimic as part of planning a bold experiment.

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