AL West Preview
Two years ago in the inaugural 30 Teams in 30 Days series, I projected the San Diego Padres, coming off a 71-win season to win the NL West. It stood as the biggest surprise of the series and though the Padres rallied late in the season to stamp the Over 73 ½ win ticket a winner, that pick was wrong in so many more ways than it was right. Last season the big surprise was a call for the Cleveland Indians, coming off a 67-win season to make the playoffs. That pick, in contrast to the Padres call a year earlier was a rousing success. In both cases, although the projection was model-driven, I strongly supported the narrative and expressed my conviction for both of those out-of-consensus calls in my writings.
In the case of this year’s out-of-consensus call, I’m having a little trouble mustering the same level of conviction. So instead of donning a megaphone and shouting from the lectern, I think I’ll just whisper this and get the hell off stage.
The Seattle Mariners are going to win the AL West in 2014.
I think one of the reasons I’m having a small degree of discomfort getting behind the Mariners pick is that I’m subconsciously swayed by the sabermetric community. Dave Cameron, Jeff Sullivan, and Dave Schoenfield are three of the most visible contributors to the on-line baseball content and they all happen to be Mariners fans. As a result they are all, usually without exception, hyper-critical of Seattle and especially its front office. Some of that criticism from the seemingly haphazard construction of the roster that never seems to address their true weakness (more on that in a second) to the trading of Adam Jones for Erik Bedard to the consistent misuse of bullpen personnel, is certainly justified, but I wonder if some of the sarcastic “glee” that accompanies some of the commentary simply arises from being in love with the subject.
The Mariners front office should get some credit for trying. Scratch that. Not just trying but credit for what they’ve succeeded in creating. In the last preview, I noted the Tigers had, by far, the best starting rotation in baseball last year. This stat helps illustrate that: The Tigers were the only team in the American League with two starting pitchers (minimum 100 innings pitched) in the top 7 of league ERA (Sanchez and Scherzer.) If you expand that list one more spot to the top 8, another team joins the list – the Seattle Mariners (Iwakuma and Hernandez). Like the Tigers due, Iwakuma and Hernandez’ results are supported by their underlying skill sets. So why do I think the Mariners will allow less runs than last year while I warned of a backslide by the Tigers? Because the Mariners also trotted out, for more than 300 innings last year, two of the worst pitcher in the AL in Aaron (that’s pronounced A-A-Ron for all my fellow Key and Peele fans) Harang and Joe Saunders. (Other things to whisper in this piece – Saunders is a Virginia Tech grad. Sigh.)
It doesn’t matter how negative you are on Iwakuma’ early-season replacement as he recovers from hand injury, or how much you want to mock the Mariners front office for recruiting Scott Baker to the rotation I absolutely guarantee you that the combination of Baker and Blake Beavan (or whoever else they put in this parlay) will give up materially less runs over 300 innings than last year’s combination of Harang and Saunders. They allowed 198 total runs in 303 innings for an astounding RA of 5.88.
An improvement in starting pitching will certainly reduce the amount of runs Seattle allows year-over-year but it’s only part of the pitching equation. What about the Mariners bullpen? Providing their critics/fans with fodder for their misery, en route to a 19-29 record in 1-run games the Mariners bullpen was the second-worst in baseball allowing runs at a 4.87 clip per nine innings – over 505 innings. Which means that when manager Eric Wedge went to the mound to take the ball from Harang or Saunders, he essentially replaced them with different versions of themselves.
Regular readers of my writing know how volatile bullpen performance is year to year and how easy it is for a team to replace ineffective parts, and how improving the league’s worst bullpen can be easiest way to go from worst to first (see Diamondbacks, Arizona, circa 2011.) But here’s the thing; unlike Saunders and Harang, the bullpen wasn’t anywhere close to as bad as the results reflected. As stated, based on runs allowed, the Mariners had the second worst bullpen in baseball. However, based on expected runs allowed – a regression formula that forms the basis for SIERA, or Skill-Interactive Earned Run Average – the Mariners move so far up the ranks that you actually have to change the category. They’re no longer the second worst, based on skill sets they’re the 13th best.
Don’t think it’s possible? Well there is nothing a reliever can do that’s more important in high-leverage situations than strike batters out. Seattle’s bullpen was 4th in K-rate in 2013. They did walk too many people (25th in the league at 10.1% of batters) and their ground ball tendencies were merely middling. But put that together and the Mariners had a league-average bullpen that should have had an ERA of about 3.37. They could pitch exactly the same as last year and give up anywhere from 1.25 to 1.5 less runs per nine innings. Over the 505 innings the bullpen pitched that’s an amazing reduction in runs allowed of at least 70 and perhaps (gulp) 100 runs.
I’m starting to warm up to this call.
Let’s look at the offense. The Baltimore Orioles, paced by Chris Davis’ 53 dingers, led the majors in home runs. In 2013, fourteen different players hit 30 or more home runs and none of them played for the Mariners. Therefore, I can almost guarantee this next sentence is going to stun all but the most statistics-obsessed fan: Last year, behind only the Orioles, the team with the second most home runs in the majors was the Seattle Mariners. So why were they 22nd in runs scored? There was some negative cluster luck but even factoring for that league-wide, they still tied for just 18th in adjusted runs scored.
The real reason is the same shortfall which has bedeviled Seattle for years – they were 26th in on-base percentage. That actually represented a massive improvement because the Mariners had been last in on-base percentage the three prior years and hadn’t finished out of the bottom three since 2007.
That’s why the addition of Robinson Cano and his lifetime .355 on-base percentage is so exciting for the Mariners outlook. Cano, of course, would have improved every team in the majors leagues except possibly the Red Sox, but his addition to the Mariners line up is especially crucial given their dearth of on-base skills. Fortunately, for Seattle, it’s not just Cano. Corey Hart and Logan Morrison have also been added to the lineup replacing Raul Ibanez and Kendrys Morales and while they may not be able to replicate their 52 home runs, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. However, based on their lifetime on-base percentages, it’s a near guarantee that while they might not clear the bases as often, they’ll certainly be on the basepaths more often. And that, more than anything, is what the Mariners need. They certainly have flaws on offense but they’re going to score a lot more runs this year.
You know what? I’ve come around to this call. Sometimes you have to take the Tom Cruise route, jump up and down on a couch, and tell the whole world. You have to channel your inner-Joel Goodman from Risky Business, don the sunglasses, and throw caution to the wind. Sometimes you just have to say,
The Seattle Mariners are going to win the AL West in 2014!
87-75 – First in AL West
721 Runs Scored 669 Runs Allowed
(I think it goes without saying that I support the “over” 80 total wins even if that number creeps up a bit in reaction to inter-division injuries.)
Living in the Bay Area, I can’t tell you how little joy I take in throwing cold water on the A’s projection this year. (My three-month isolation in Las Vegas, while I finished my book during the 2012 season, was made forever memorable by Oakland’s run to the division title, a story I chronicled here: http://tradingbases.squarespace.com/blog/2013/2/20/2013-preview-oakland-athletics.html )
This year, the A’s market opened at 89 wins and it was instantly one of my favorite under. At the time, I thought the A’s still had a decent chance to win the division, but as I saw virtually equal chances from their three, non-Astros competitors, they represented an easy under call. Then, early this week, Jarrod Parker was lost for the season to Tommy John surgery. There was no way anyone on the staff – and keep in mind, I love rookie Sonny Gray who is going way too low in fantasy drafts – was going to replace Barolo Colon’s run-suppression success (2.65 ERA in 190 innings). Now the loss of Parker means a truly replacement level pitcher is going to replace his innings. On the margin, that means replacing 400 innings pitched, and the health news for their other 200 inning starter from 2013, A.J. Griffin, looks cloudy as well.
The A’s offense, a true strength, and a testament to a carefully constructed roster, will keep Oakland competitive all year if their other three division mates beat up on each other. (Again, I’m excluding Houston.) But, there’s a decent chance Oakland loses too many high-scoring games to every get very far over .500.
84-78 – Tied-Second in AL West
710 Runs Scored 685 Runs Allowed
Los Angeles Angels
Largely due to the expectations that came with the signing of Albert Pools after the 2011 season, the Angels have been considered such a disappointment the last couple of years that it’s hard to remember they actually won 89 games in 2012, in barely missing the playoffs. Then they added Josh Hamilton last offseason and anything less than a pennant would have been a disappointment. So when the won just 78 games last year, their manager of 14 years, Mike Scioscia found himself on the hot seat.
There should be better news this year. Los Angeles may have only won 78 games but they were really a .500 team when you strip out cluster luck. The still have the services of the best player in baseball, Mike Trout, and since he won’t be 23 until August, there is still the chance he’s getting better. Hamilton and Pujols suffered such huge drop-offs in production last year that you can expect some positive regression, even if it’s unlikely either will return to prior MVP form.
The problem, though, is that there are still other holes – just like last year, the starting rotation looks to be a considerable weakness – and expectations are still inflated. The Angels are still sporting a total wins market of 87 games. No team slated to start 41-year old Raul Ibanez in a stadium that heavily suppresses left-handed power (just ask Josh Hamilton) should be sporting an 87-win market. If that creeps up just one more half-game by the time the final projections are released on Opening Day-eve they may be an official “under” selection.
84-78 – Tied-Second in AL West
726 Runs Scored 702 Runs Allowed
As a rule, I really don’t like to turn an objective, model-based exercise into a subjective one, and I try to limit the use of the ex-factor. By ex-factor I mean the logic flaw that occurs when people exclude items. Things like, I’m thin, ex-ice cream or I have a perfect driving record, ex-the state of California. But I’ve decided to make an exception when considering the Texas Rangers because there really was an extraordinary item last year.
The extraordinary item came in the form of the 111-loss Houston Astros. Texas won 91 games last year and outscored its opponents by 94 runs in advancing to the Wild Card game for the second year in a row. But a huge part of their success came on the backs of the Astros. Texas went 17-2 against Houston and outscored them by 57 runs. That means they went 76-70 against the rest of the league and when you strip out cluster luck from their scoring I have them barely outscoring their opponents, essentially a .500 team when they weren’t beating up on the worst team in baseball over the last decade.
From that baseline, they’ve made two significant changes, trading for Prince Fielder and signing on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo. The problem is the Rangers lost three solid contributors to last year’s team, Ian Kinsler, Craig Gentry, and A.J. Pierzynski. They’ll be better on offense this year but I don’t think it’s going to be as dramatic as people think and they’ll give up something on defense, especially in the Choo for Gentry department. They’ve got as good a chance as Oakland, the Angels, and Seattle does to win the division, but like the Angels, I don’t think there is any value in their mildly inflated total win market of 87 games.
84-78 – Tied-Second in AL West
762 Runs Scored 731 Runs Allowed
I missed huge on the Astros last year because I didn’t account for just how far they’d go in tanking. Unlike the NBA or even the NFL where taking can improve your place in the draft, that wasn’t driving Houston’s indifference to fielding a competitive team. They had the first pick in the draft locked up before the season started. No, Houston apparently felt that if they were going to be the worst team in baseball there was no sense in spending anything above the a minimum amount of salary on players. The result? A 111-loss team that beyond their promising young catcher, Jason Castro, embodied the replacement-level concept.
They’ll be somewhat better this year, but it’s really impossible to see them fielding a team much better than one that is destined to lose 100 games, or, judging from management’s attitude last year, caring if they do. Their 66-win market is fair.
65-97 – Fifth in AL West
633 Runs Scored 790 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) publication currently available wherever books are sold. Here are three on-line booksellers you can currently choose from:
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