Crushing DreaExpectation Management, Part II: The Seattle Mariners

Full disclosure: I love the Twins more than is probably healthy, but to the exact extent that it’s possible to love two teams in the same league, I love the M’s. And I love their weird-ass fans, who I think I’ll probably have to write a whole thing about someday. But today is not that day.

As I type this on Thursday night, the Mariners, who ended ’08 all alone at the bottom of the AL with 101 losses, are 7-2, all alone at the top of the AL, and three games clear of all the other teams in the sorry-looking West.

What they’re saying: Yesterday, I noted that people didn’t seem all that excited about the Orioles’ hot start. Those Mariner fans? Not so much. My sense is that when this season started, nobody in the Northwest actually noticed. But nine games later and they’ve won a bunch of them? Well now!

  • Rob Neyer notes in passing while on a trip to Seattle that “the good citizens are wondering if the Mariners will ever lose again (seriously: people here are talking about 2001 and they’re not kidding).”
  • The Olympian’s Gail Wood would like you to avoid making the mistake of thinking that these are last year’s Mariners. She extols their leadership, their pulling together, and their stringing together of hits, and is very excited indeed.
  • The Seattle Times’ Larry Stone encourages everybody to get giddy for the hot start and home opener, but then basically says it ain’t gonna happen.
  • The P-I’s (hey, didn’t they fold?) Gerry Spratt notes that Wednesday night’s Mariners game out-ratingsed American Idol, Lost and Law and Order in Seattle.

So basically, the fan base is now freaking the geek out. Good idea? …Well, yes it is. As Stone says above, why not go nuts? It’s the home-opening series. It’s baseball in the best modern stadium in the game. Go for it, people. Yet, onward:

Reasons for hope: Well, they’re not going to win 116 games. Only two teams ever have, and there will be another, but it won’t be this bunch. They’re also not going to win 100. But there are reasons to think they might be playing games that mean something in September:

  • Ichiro! hasn’t been around for this. The leadoff hitter and face of the franchise just made his season debut yesterday. He’s 35 and not likely to be the truly great player he was in ’01 and ’04 and ’07. But he’s awfully good. He’s maybe the only player you can count on to get on base at a good clip without really drawing walks, and he’s an excellent fielder and baserunner. Ichiro means that Junior doesn’t have to drag himself around the outfield, and that Endy Chavez doesn’t have to lead off (I have to assume he’ll be dropped to 9th once the effects of his season-opening hot streak disappear). These are good things.
  • That outfield defense is unbelievable. With Chavez, Ichiro! and Franklin Gutierrez, the M’s are starting top-flight center fielders in every outfield spot. It really is a treat to watch these guys run around, especially in the vast emptiness that serves as Safeco’s outfield. They also have the best defensive third baseman in the league in Adrian Beltre, and though the rest of the infield (the lumbering Branyan/Sweeney combo, the enigmatic Jose Lopez and the sure-handed, awesome-named, lead-footed Yuni Betancourt) is a singles-hitter’s dream, the Mariners have put together a mostly-flyball staff, which plays to the strengths of both their defense and their spacious park.
  • Eric Bedard is healthy. Under old management, the Mariners made a foreseeably terrible trade with the O’s to nab Bedard, and it got worse when Bedard proved hurt, unhappy and ineffective. Through his first two starts, though, Bedard has thrown 13 innings, struck out 15 batters and walked just 1 with a 2.08 ERA and a crazy 1.53 FIP, looking much more like the Bedard they thought they were getting (3.88 K/BB ratio, 3.19 FIP in 2007) than the one they did get in ’08 (1.95 K/BB, 4.32 FIP). If he stays healthy, along with Felix Hernandez, 40% of their games will be started by one of the ten or so best pitchers in baseball.
  • Adrian Beltre is in a contract year. There is evidence that players do perform better when their continued employment or a big raise is on the line, and the last time Adrian was in that position, he had one of the best years a third baseman has ever had. He’s put himself in a bit of a hole on the trip back to that level, but you never know.

Why it won’t happen: Well, it might. But concerns:

  • The other 60% of the rotation is awful. Carlos Silva, probably the most overpaid active player in baseball (thanks again to the prior administration), is an extreme ground-ball pitcher (at least when he’s not completely lost, which happens), and he’s not as bad as his ERA is going to look, but as long as it’s Betancourt, Lopez and Sweeney/Branyan trying to track down the ground balls he induces, he’s going to keep looking about that bad. They’ve been trying to dump Jarrod Washburn since the end of ’08, and there are good reasons for doing so, and for the same good reasons, it hasn’t worked.
  • There’s no real offense here. Chavez and Betancourt look pretty awesome right now, but they’re not. Of the nine starting position players, only Beltre, Lopez and maybe Ichiro figure to be above-average hitters for their position, and they won’t be by much. When this team wins, they’ll have pitching, defense, and a bit of good luck to thank. Lots of close games.
  • They’ve been lucky so far, though not in the same way as the Orioles; they’ve got a very solid run differential and reasonable BABIP. But they’ve scored about an average number of runs, and have had to hit .362 with runners in scoring position to do it. When that number comes down to earth, they could have some problems.

What PECOTA is saying: Before Thursday night’s game against the Angels (which looks like a loss as I near the end of this), Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA-Adjusted Playoff Odds Report had the M’s finishing 79-83 on average (good for a virtual tie for second in their craptastic division), and with a 28% chance of making the postseason. That is huge for a team that lost 101 last year.

My take: I was one of the crazy few who actually thought the Mariners would win about 80 games before the season started, and obviously I like what I’ve seen so far. The brilliant Dave Cameron at the brilliant USS Mariner blog would say that I need to adjust that figure upward for the fact that they’re now 7-3: that record + my original expectation of .494 play over the next 152 = 83-79. And I have no doubt that that’s mathematically accurate, but I’m not going to do it. I think BP’s projection is basically dead-on; this is a near-.500 team that, if it gets a little lucky and the A’s and Angels get a little unlucky, has a pretty decent shot at making a run at the postseason. That’s not 2001, but it’s a pretty solid six-month turnaround for the new bosses.

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3 Responses to “Crushing DreaExpectation Management, Part II: The Seattle Mariners”

  1. Jason Golden Says:

    Interesting take, Bill. Most of your points are well-taken here. I think you could add another section to this called “Why we’re not sure if it will happen or not” and discuss the x-factor players, players that are contributing even though they were virtual unknowns as late as mid-March. Rob Johnson, catcher comes to mind the most, but Chris Jakubauskas rags-to-riches rise this spring and last night’s solid 5 innings (before the wheels came off), and really the entire bullpen’s uncanny ability to blank other teams (except for Batista, who could challenge Silva for most overpaid).

    116 wins, probably not, but those x-factors could be the difference between 80+ and 100.

    BTW, there were TWO teams that have won 116 games: 1906 Cubs, and the 2001 Mariners.

  2. Bill Says:

    Ha! Good point on the last…I knew that, of course, but had momentarily convinced myself that the M’s had broken rather than tied the record. That’s going to bug me if I don’t fix it. 🙂
    Good points about the other guys, too. Jakubauskas is a fascinating story, and is definitely one of those guys where nobody can really know what to expect.
    Thanks for reading, Jason.

  3. Kristen Says:

    I like what you write and I am definitely one of those crazy M’s fans. I think what the M’s are doing is exactly what baseball is all about. With a new season and a (relatively) new team, anything is possible. In a game where players failing 2/3 of the times is considered GOOD…I would love to see the M’s playing in October. 🙂
    I also like Jak as a pitcher and Morrow looked particularly stellar last night. Even if they are getting mostly lucky at least I can say of this team that they take advantage of those moments. Last year they couldn’t seem to make anything of anything.

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