Michael Morse And John Jaso From Another Angle

Michael Morse returns to the dugout after hitting his fifth dinger of the season. - David Banks

Did prior collective impressions of Michael Morse and John Jaso influence public reaction to the trade?

This past January, the Seattle Mariners shipped John Jaso to Oakland in a three team trade that brought Michael Morse back to Seattle. Throughout the Mariner blogosphere, the trade was instantly maligned. As an offense-only player with severe defensive limitations, Morse is the kind of player Jack Zduriencik usually avoids, and for the most part, fans angrily lamented the outfielder's return to the Northwest, particularly at the expense of Jaso. Rooted in the analysis of those that disliked the trade was the idea that Jaso was a better player than Morse, and that the catcher's additional years of team control made the deal a head scratcher.

Whether one liked the trade or not, though, it's initially hard to understand why the move produced such a sharp reaction from Mariner fans. Jaso was certainly a popular player, but stark platoon splits limited his utility, and there was reason to believe that 2012 was something of a career year for the lefty backstop. The condemnation appeared more appropriate for a fanbase that lost a superstar, not a role player. Following public reaction to the move over the past few months has made me wonder if this consternation stems less from the value of Morse and Jaso, and more from the two players themselves and what they mean to Mariner fans.

Backing up a bit, I recognize that there are a number of analytical reasons to dislike the trade from a Mariner point of view. Jaso was a catcher, and despite Mike Zunino's impending promotion, the deal's consummation thinned the organization's depth at the position. Moreover, Jaso was a good offensive catcher, a double rarity on a team largely devoid of thumpers. He also, as mentioned, has three years of team control remaining prior to hitting free agency, compared to only one season for Morse.

But for as productive as Jaso was with the bat, it's important to remember that he was smartly and carefully platooned last year, and that it would be unrealistic to expect him to play much better in the future. Well rested, platooned effectively, and only slightly dinged for his defense, Jaso earned 2.6 fWAR in 2012, a fantastic return on investment for a player who initially appeared ticketed for a backup role. Nonetheless, while Jaso had hit as well as anyone could reasonably expect, he produced a WAR that was only a bit higher than what an average regular contributes. He was not an all-star caliber performer, and at 29-years-of-age, is not likely to become one in the future.

Morse, meanwhile, has a divisive skill set. Nobody doubts his ability to hit for power, but his overall package is bogged down by a low walk rate, high strikeout totals, and bouts of .gif worthy defensive ineptitude. Still, in three years of semi-regular playing time -- injuries limited him to 1,300 plate appearances in Washington -- the former National compiled wRC+'s of 134, 148, and 113 while bashing 64 homers. In particular, his 2011 season suggests that, with good health and optimal defensive positioning, Morse is a player with upside that Jaso can't match.

For a number of reasons, it is difficult to compare Jaso and Morse, and thus hard to accurately assess the trade. Both players have decent bats and poor reputations with the glove, but there are limits to how accurately we can measure a player's defense, particularly when it comes to catchers. I can't definitively say which player costs his team more runs in the field, and I wouldn't argue with an organization that thinks WAR understates Jaso's defensive limitations, overstates Morse's, or some combination of both. Reasonable people can disagree on whether having one year of Morse is better than two of Jaso, and in practice, that's exactly what happened.* From a distance, the A's and Mariners received similarly valued assets in a routine January swap.

* - It's also worth mentioning that the Mariners could have had a couple additional motivations for this trade: Morse could help "prove" to right-handed free agents that power can play in Safeco (hat tip Nathan Bishop) and the Mariner brass probably also fancied the opportunity to exclusively negotiate an extension with Morse, a luxury that wouldn't have applied to Jaso because of Zunino's presence.

You may recall, however, that news of the trade was not well received around the Mariner blogosphere. Commenting on how the team's failures to land a bat in free agency had put the team in a bind, Jeff wrote "[g]iven such a circumstance, the Mariners had three options: (1) Sit tight... (2) Search harder for a non-obvious fit. (3) Do something dumb. The Mariners, ultimately, opted for #3..." He also polled Lookout Landing readers for their reactions later that day. Over 1,800 people voted and nearly two-thirds of respondents disliked the trade. 796 people tabbed the "disliked it, reacted with emotion" option while less than 20% of polltakers expressed their support for Morse's acquisition.

It was a similar story at USS Mariner. In a post titled "Mariners do Stupid Thing," Dave Cameron pulled out the ultimate insult card, calling the move "(Bill) Bavasi-esque" while also claiming that it was "Jack's worst trade." Not surprisingly, most reader comments on the blog espoused a similar tone.

Taken together, it was a bit of an odd reaction. Even if Jaso were a true talent three-win player and Morse a one-win pony, it would be strange to rip the deal all that harshly. Three years of Jaso at that value exceeds what Morse would provide by a little more than 2.5 wins a season. That's a poor tradeoff, certainly, but it hardly takes the M's from the playoffs to the cellar. It's certainly no worse than the Brandon Morrow trade or the Doug Fister deal. And of course, that's an unrealistic valuation of those two players. If you think Morse is even slightly better -- which is perfectly reasonable -- this isn't an egregious move at all.

My guess then, is that the trade wasn't disliked because of Morse and Jaso's value. I think a big part of the reaction was, and is, because of Morse and Jaso themselves.

Back in the day, when Mariner fans and bloggers alike thought that Jack Zduriencik could do no wrong -- I'll confess to firmly placing myself in that camp -- his decision to trade Morse for Ryan Langerhans was met with acclaim. 2009 was close to the peak of defense's popularity among statheads and plugged in fans, and Langerhans's ability to patrol all three outfield positions combined with his willingness to draw a walk made him a walking example of an undervalued asset. Strangely enough, Dave had even recommended acquiring Langerhans just days before it actually happened. He was destined to be a community hero from the beginning.

Morse, by contrast, was unpopular because he was everything Langerhans was not. Impatient at the plate and poor defensively as always, Morse hadn't yet flashed the power that would rejuvenate his career in Washington. It also didn't help that he had been popped for steroids back in 2005. Traded in June of 2009, Morse hadn't appeared in Seattle at all that year, and his place in Tacoma hinted that he was a part of the organization's past long before the deal was actually made. In any case, he wasn't widely missed: a Lookout Landing post titled "Mariners Make Dual Improvement By Adding Ryan Langerhans, Ditching Mike Morse" and its subsequent reader comments suggests that few shed a tear over Morse's departure.

In short, Morse served as a reminder of what the Mariners had been like under Bavasi: a bad team with poor defense, one guilty of hanging on to a few players far past their usefulness. In getting swapped for Langerhans, the two players came to embody the differences between the Bavasi and Zduriencik regimes. At the time, night and day couldn't have seemed further apart, and Morse's legacy among fans suffered from the comparison.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Jaso was an extremely popular player during his time in Seattle. From the start, he had a number of things working in his favor. He was acquired in exchange for the widely reviled Josh Lueke, he had a great beard, and most importantly, he produced at the plate from day one, the best olive branch a new player could offer a fanbase desperate for someone who could hit.

Though Jaso didn't receive a start until the season's seventh game, the beginning of his Mariner career couldn't have gone better. Jaso went 2-4 in his debut, scoring Seattle's first run after an eighth inning triple, and giving the M's their first lead of the game with a go-ahead single in the top of the ninth. Again, auxiliary circumstances helped thrust him further into the good graces of fans. Because Jaso had gone so long without playing -- and because he hit ninth while serving as the DH that day -- the game helped fuel a season-long perception that the front office, coaching staff, and Eric Wedge in particular, severely underestimated Jaso's usefulness.

That Wedge didn't play Jaso again for another six days -- a game in which Jaso homered -- further contributed to that sentiment. It was over those first two weeks that #freejaso emerged as an enduring hashtag. It popped up throughout the season, and at least one article at a national blog published a title inspired by the moniker. Meanwhile, as Jaso continued to hit, he earned more and more playing time, soon establishing himself as the most productive hitter on the team. Over the course of the season, calls for him to start every day, to catch more often, and for Mike McGinn to give him a key to the city grew louder. I got in on the fun by suggesting that Wedge give Jaso some of the starts against lefties that been going to Miguel Olivo. By season's end, the former Ray had become, at least among regular LL/USSM readers, one of the most well liked players on the team.

My guess is that the common perception of these players greatly affected public reaction to the deal. I could be wrong: people might just be universally bearish on Morse's defense, and it's certainly possible that a majority of fans disliked the trade purely from an analytical perspective. But given the relative abilities of the two players in question, and in light of both Morse's link to the Bavasi era and Jaso's popularity, I think it's reasonable to speculate that reactions to the trade were and are skewed by prior collective impressions. I'm curious to hear if any of you agree.

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