There’s nothing worse than having an idea spoiled by numbers.
Yesterday morning, Mr. David Cameron wrote an article over at FanGraphs about the surprising success of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Their recipe: consistency. Every single player in the lineup holds a WAR of 1.2 or better with the exception of young outfielder Juan Miranda, who isn’t embarrassing himself at 0.6 so far. At this rate, every Arizona starter will end with more than a 2.0 WAR, the general benchmark for a starting-level player.
This doesn’t sound like much. However, no one accomplished the feat in 2010, and in 2009, the Yankees were the sole team to make the cut. In thirty-four years, the Mariners have only accomplished it (sort of) once. The season in question is 2001, of course, but you have to rewrite history a little by giving fourth outfielder a retrospective starting bid over the 0.9 WAR of Al Martin. Please do.
As a matter of fact, only three Mariners hitters are currently more valuable than Miranda, the worst position player in the Diamondbacks’ starting lineup. Those three players are Justin Smoak, Brendan Ryan, and Adam Kennedy. Kennedy is the interesting name. Signed as a non-roster invitee, he’s the sort of player who irritates the experts, not because of his success, but because of how easy it is for fans to buy into it. There’s a plethora of warnings: at age 35, Kennedy’s ISO is .157, the highest of his entire career. His HR/FB percentage (9.1%) is nearly double his career average. At his current pace, he’s headed toward his best season since 2005.
So I imagine it was with a heavy (but always, always rational) heart that Dave wrote another article Tuesday night for U.S.S. Mariner in which he advocates Kennedy as the team’s new starting left fielder. It’s a brash move, given that Kennedy has played essentially seven full games there in his career. But the logic is impeccable; given the alternatives, and given his (up to this point) bat, this is the best way to keep him in the lineup.
The tone of Cameron’s article is one of resignation, the bemoaning of a lack of alternatives. Peguero is lost, Wilson is useless, Figgins needs to simplify his life (and he may have already lost his own job to Luis Rodriguez anyway). When I read about the story, though, I thought about Greg Briley. Or more specifically, Rob Neyer writing about Greg Briley in his Big Book of Baseball Lineups:
"One of the most interesting things about this franchise is that while it’s obviously produced a number of Grade A players, there haven’t been many Grade B players … At every position [of Neyer’s No. 2 All-Mariners team], virtually any seventy-three year-old member of the BBWAA would arrive at exactly the same conclusion that I have, and there certainly aren’t many other things you can say that about. … What hurt the Mariners for a long time was their inability to develop or acquire enough Grade B players, players better than Greg Briley and Jim Presley and Al Cowens."
Which brings us back to Adam Kennedy, the guy you wish you didn’t need, but also the guy the Mariners usually don’t have. It’s all a matter of perspective: good teams have glue guys, bad teams have useless spare parts. The Mariners, and Kennedy, don’t quite fit either description.
So there’s a nice little story, and if I’d ended it there, I would have been happy. Instead, I decided to test Rob Neyer’s theory, one that I had always accepted, that the Mariners have typically surrounded their stars with detritus, and cost themselves titles in doing so. My first attempt was to collect every full season (500+ PAs) by a Mariner hitter, and compare them by WAR. I then did the same with every major league player from a sample of seven seasons spread across the Mariners’ existence. I broke the results into four categories: stars (4.1+ WAR), starters (2.1-4.0), bench players (0-2.0), and players who were below replacement level (<0 WAR). I expected to see Greg Briley. Instead, what I saw was this:
The results stunned me. How could this be right? It’s not the most scientific method for measuring lineup balance, I admit. But to see only a 2% difference between the Mariners and the rest of the league seems counterintuitive. I tried a different tack: by limiting our search to players who had 500 plate appearances, we’re essentially examining the players who didn’t need to be replaced, and weren’t much of a problem. What if we expand our search to platoon players, the kind of guy who gets playing time but isn’t considered a solution? I lowered the cutoff to 300 plate appearances and ran the numbers again.
There’s our difference. Adding role-players to the mix, the numbers diverge. Not only did the Mariners fail to have as many decent starters as the league average, they didn’t have more decent backups to fill those spots. Instead, the vacant roles were filled with negative value players, names like Brian Hunter, Tiny Felder, and Greg Briley.
It isn’t that the nineties were a particularly notable decade for bad Mariners; there were just as many of them in the eighties. The difference was that the nineties were also the decade of four Hall of Famers and Jay Buhner. Perhaps the apex of the "stars and scrubs" makeup of Seattle baseball came in 1992, when Edgar Martinez (6.7), Ken Griffey Jr (6.0) and Omar Vizquel (3.9) put up excellent seasons… and the entire rest of the team collected all of 5.5 combined.
Eventually the numbers do prove that the Seattle Mariners have to win 116 games in order to resemble the 2011 Arizona Diamondbacks. In fact, out of thirty-four season, twenty-six of them featured at least one starter who wound up below replacement level. The club has been better with its second-hand shopping these days, although that has a tendency to backfire as well (see: Casey Kotchman). So for a moment, let’s appreciate Adam kennedy for all his reliable, versatile mediocrity. For many Mariner lineups, mediocrity would have been a valuable thing.