Starting Candidates and Opponent Quality

Oddly familiar face - USA TODAY Sports

Jon Garland is battling for a job in the rotation and the club put Jason Bay in center. Draw your own conclusions.

Spring training is imperfect for a number of reasons when it comes to evaluating talent. Yet every spring we have position battles that will be decided by what amounts to a woefully small sample size. You've seen it enough here and elsewhere that spring statistics really don't mean a whole lot, but if you're Eric Wedge, they probably do. Maybe they even have to.

As you are no doubt aware, there is currently a contest for a spot in the rotation. Depending on the news source you're reading, perhaps there's a battle for two spots in the rotation. Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma are safe. Joe Saunders seems to be safe despite himself. Ignore for a moment the fact that Erasmo Ramirez very well could have the second best stuff on the team and accept that he's competing with Blake Beavan, Jon Garland, and Brandon Maurer for spot somewhere within the starting five.

Presumably the cream that rises to the top will be made of spring results. And probably some amalgam of strike-throwing-ability, grit, and (insert intangible). It might not be fair, it might not even be preferred among the coaching staff, but almost certainly the last handful of outings between these gentlemen will decide their fate. At least their short term fate.

Add to this the interesting twist of Jon Garland having some sort of clause in his contract in which he can tell the team to take a hike. This apparently takes effect today, I have no idea what time, and I have no idea if he'll use it at all. But if the team wants Jon Garland around, they will in all likelihood need to make some kind of commitment to him. Or some kind of overture. Zduriencik strikes me as an overture kind of guy. Doughnuts maybe.

Here's the bulk of the group of starters for the Mariners, and their spring stats. We won't even bother including Felix, because he could go out there and roll the ball sixty feet six inches and he'd still be the King:

Player ERA IP H ER HR BB SO
Iwakuma, H 3.60 15 13 6 1 2 4
Maurer, B 1.20 15 13 2 5 15
Beavan, B 3.86 14 13 6 3 9
Ramirez, E 3.86 14 18 6 1 2 10
Bonderman, J 7.20 10 13 8 2 2 5
Walker, T 5.14 7 7 4 1 5 4
Saunders, J 9.45 6.2 13 7 2 2
Garland, J 5.14 14 16 8 3 7 11

It almost seems ridiculous to be talking about spring ERA, but I'm going to talk about spring ERA. Obviously, Joe Saunders hasn't fooled too many hitters, and perhaps he's helped more than one rookie solidify their chances at making their respective team. Maurer has been very good. Ramirez was fantastic until he imploded versus Chicago last night. Beavan has been okay and Garland has been actually quite good in the games counted by MLB.com, to the tune of something like a 2.15 ERA or something.

But if you add in the debacle vs. the Netherlands, Garland's spring ERA goes to 5.14 as he gave up five earned runs over three innings pitched, striking out an uncharacteristic seven batters. The outing included one of the more majestic home runs I've ever seen in person as Wladimir Balentien crushed a ball to left center and subsequently took about eight minutes to jog around the bases, invoking images of what it would look like if James Baldwin were ever to hit a home run. For what it's worth, Kelly Shoppach was terrible -- allowing what amounted to about three passed balls, but it didn't show up in the box score. But I'm not a scout. Or a catcher.

Garland was actually cruising last night versus the Cubs until he gave up this:

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Yeah, that's opposing pitcher Jeff Samardzija. I know, he's "athletic" they say, which is a nice way of saying you're not slow and fat for a pitcher. Anyway, it wasn't a positive development for Garland, but there was a silver lining. The broadcast crew was interviewing Kyle Seager at the time of the at bat, with a screen-in-screen thing going on, and while the ball was in flight, this is the look on Kyle Seager's face:

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Insert your own caption.

Moving along, there's a curious new little tool over at Baseball-Reference.com called "OppQual". That is, it attempts to quantify the quality of the batters faced by pitchers in the Spring on a scale of 1 to 10. Excerpted from the B-R website:

Based on the levels their opponents played at in the previous season:
10 - MLB
8 - AAA
7 - AA
5 - High A (California & Carolina)
4 - Full-Season A (SALLY and Midwest)
1.5 to 3, Rookie and Short-season,
1 - Opposing batter is a pitcher

To my knowledge, this is the first of its kind. I find it interesting because of the number of comments you see from beat writers and other Twittery connected folk that cite "solid outings" from pitchers in which they faced a majority minor league team in a split squad endeavor. So how did these guys fare?

Player OppQual
Iwakuma, H 9.7
Maurer, B 9.2
Beavan, B 8.7
Ramirez, E 8.3
Bonderman, J 8.9
Walker, T 8.8
Saunders, J 9
Garland, J 8.6

What does this mean? Perhaps nothing at all. But between Beavan and Ramirez, they've averaged less than elite talent, like they've been facing the Houston Astros every time out. Garland hasn't faced top shelf bats either, and if we consider that the quality doesn't include Team Netherlands, mostly made up of prospects, well, his number would probably drop even lower.

This OppQual metric is untested of course, so lets just say it's in "beta." and take it as a nugget of information and keep shuffling along.

Objectively, I shouldn't really care who makes the rotation out of the gate. If and when Beavan and/or Garland start to get rocked, the team will likely make some kind of adjustment. But part of my frustration is that it could serve to bury the Mariners by the end of the first month of the season, and my fear is that Eric Wedge is stubborn enough to stick to his guns until the obvious is just punching him in the face (see Jaso, John).

Go with talent. Go with Erasmo Ramirez and Brandon Maurer. If they fail, at least you're giving innings to guys that are part of your future. I have a suspicion this will all be cleared up in less than 24 hours, for better or worse.

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