List of common (Mariners-related) misconceptions

not competent - Jared Wickerham

Sometimes, people who are not me say things about the Mariners with which I do not agree. Let's take a look at a few of those things!

Probably my favorite Wikipedia article is the list of common misconceptions. It's amazingly useful for starting conversations, shutting down other people's attempts to start conversations, and just generally being a pedantic asshole at parties. A couple days ago I was at a party, just generally being a pedantic asshole, when I thought to myself: you know what I should write? A list of common Mariners-related misconceptions! If I penned that, I could be a pedantic asshole at Mariners parties!

So I did.

#1: The Mariners' run differential is awful, and that means they're worse than their W-L.

Let's start out with a softball. The first half of this sentence is absolutely , definitely true. The Mariners' first-order Pythagorean record based on straight run differential is 67-92, which is really bad. Only the Astros, Marlins, Phillies, White Sox, and Twins have been worse. The second half of this sentence is almost certainly not true. Really, the fact that Pythagorean win expectation makes the Mariners look so bad is more of a comment on the flaws of the Pythagorean method of modeling record than a comment on the Mariners.

Check out the Baseball Prospectus Adjusted Standings. These include not only W-L and first-order Pythagorean expectation but also second-and-third-order Pythagorean expectation, which are built not based on runs scored and allowed but on more detailed data. And second-and-third order Pythag actually kind of like the Mariners, putting them at 72-87. That leapfrogs them past the Yankees, Padres, and Mets. Second-order Pythagorean expectation has them tied with the preseason darling Blue Jays, which is sort of sad for everyone.

In a nutshell, while the Mariners' record has overperformed their run differential, their run differential has really underperformed their actual hitting, mostly because of their terrible performance with runners in scoring position. This is a case where we should look just a little bit deeper than run differential. When we do, we find that the suggestion that the Mariners are worse than their record because of their run differential is sketchy at best. If we were to actually take sequencing out of the equation, things would start to look better - not worse - for the Mariners.

Actually, on second thought, maybe not. If the standings were determined by second-order run differential, the Mariners wouldn't have a protected draft pick. Their tie with the Blue Jays would be broken by last year's standings, bumping the Jays ahead of them in the draft order, and Toronto's comp pick for failing to sign their 10th overall selection this year would kick the Mariners out of the top 10. That's the trade-off: two more wins for a protected pick.

Which would you rather have?

#2: The Mariners have a below median offense.

This one comes not from any one person but from Fangraphs, which is nice because I can actually name the source of the argument I'm countering without offending anyone. I realize that in all of these other cases, because of my reticence to call out people making the opposite argument from me, these points are going to seem kind of straw-manny. I don't really care, though. If you do actually believe some of these things, my goal is to make you re-evaluate your beliefs. If you don't believe any of them, my goal is to give you food for thought. Even thoughts need to eat!

Anyways. Fangraphs says that the Mariners are tied for 19th in the majors with a 92 wRC+, pegging them as a solidly below-median offense. This seems to be the perception that has pervaded the Mariners blogosphere: that the offense is still below average. On the other hand, Baseball-Reference says that the Mariners are tied for 13th with a 98 OPS+. Oh no! Conflict! With which site do we agree? In general, I mostly like to use wRC+, because while OPS+ is generally mostly equivalent, wRC+ has a more solid mathematical foundation beneath it. It's easy to understand how OPS+ is calculated, but honestly I don't really care how a statistic is calculated. I'm not doing the work myself. I care why a statistic is calculated the way it's calculated, and on that front wRC+ has a clear advantage. Also Fangraphs has a more intuitive page layout and a shorter URL.

But in this case I'm not sure that Fangraphs' wRC+ is preferable to Baseball-Reference's OPS+. The difference, it seems, is in the park factors. Fangraphs' park factors for Safeco Field were updated in mid-July, but because of the fence move, Fangraphs is using single-season park factors regressed heavily (think 90%) to league average. Which means that wRC+ and fWAR are essentially assuming that Safeco is a neutral park. Maybe very slightly pitcher-friendly. Baseball-Reference, on the other hand, is as far as I can tell still using historical park factors, which think Safeco is extremely pitcher-friendly.

Fangraphs' heavily regressed park factors don't ring true to me. If you agree with Jeff Sullivan that fence moves don't necessarily have large effects on how pitcher-friendly fields are and that Safeco Field still probably suppresses offense, you probably shouldn't be using wRC+ and fWAR to evaluate the Mariners' position players. The fence move probably did have some effect, so BBREF's park factors are probably a little bit extreme in their evaluation of Safeco Field's pitcher-friendliness, but I'd be willing to bet that the truth is closer to OPS+ than to wRC+.

That information has some pretty significant implications for the Mariners. For example, BBREF's park factors bump Kendrys Morales from a 116 wRC+ to a 123 OPS+, and that improvement combined with a change from UZR to DRS actually more than doubles his WAR. Baseball Reference WAR thinks that 2013 Kendrys Morales has been worth the qualifying offer. Turns out which data set you choose to use can be really, really important!

#3: Justin Smoak's 2013 season proves he can't hit right-handed.

The last two corrections were long. This one's really short, because it mostly involves me screaming "SSS!" The sample that has some people convinced Justin Smoak can't hit from the right-handed side of the plate - his performance this year - consists of 145 plate appearances. Anything can happen in 145 plate appearances. You know how we can prove that? Let's look at Justin Smoak's last 145 LEFT-handed plate appearances!

Drumroll please...

Left-handed Justin Smoak, July 22 to September 25: .197/.292/.409

Maybe there are valid reasons to think he can't hit right-handed. If you're a scout, and you think his RH swing is fouled up, that's a valid reason. If you're Justin Smoak's wife, and he's told you he's deliberately failing when hitting right-handed because he wants to be traded, that's a valid reason. But his statistical performance in 2013? That's not a valid reason. If Justin Smoak's last 145 right-handed plate appearances have you convinced he can't hit left-handed pitching, then Justin Smoak's last 145 left-handed plate appearances should have you convinced that he can't hit right-handed pitching. Not at an acceptable level for a first baseman.

Weirdly, I don't see anyone making that argument.

#4: Dustin Ackley has a future as a utility player.

No. He's a butcher in center field, both by the eye test and by the numbers, and he doesn't have the bat to make up for his substandard defense in left. If he did have the bat to make up for his substandard defense in left, he wouldn't need to be a utility player, because he'd be a star second baseman. Ben Zobrist moves around a lot because he can play good defense in a lot of different positions. Dustin Ackley can play good defense in one position and be barely adequate in a couple of other less valuable positions. It's not even close to the same thing. It's nice that he's got a little outfield experience now, and maybe it means the team doesn't need to carry a fifth outfielder next year, but penciling Ackley in as a starting outfielder is a recipe for disaster. As the Mariners learned. This year.

Hey, that one was even shorter! Maybe the next one'll be like one senten-

#5: Michael Saunders isn't an acceptable starting outfielder.

Welp. Time for Logan's monthly essay in defense of the Condor!

There's a lot of sentiment out there that Michael Saunders, while a nice role player, would not be a starting outfielder on a contending baseball team. I've heard it in the comments, I've heard it from beat writers, and in the past I've even said it myself. Geoff Baker has been vocal in blaming Saunders (among other young players) for the Mariners' outfield woes this season, and Dave Cameron recently quibbled on Twitter with Eric Wedge's description of Saunders as a good player. I, on the other hand, am an avowed Saunders fanboy. And I think that one this one you should agree with me.

Why? As simply as I can put it: Michael Saunders is a league average outfielder, and a league average outfielder is a starting outfielder on practically any major league baseball team.

I'm going to split that sentence into two halves and prove each half separately. First up: to prove Michael Saunders' average-ness!

Considering only his 2012-2013 performance, which I think is fair given what we know about his post-2011 swing change, wRC+ credits the Condor for +2.6 runs above average per 600 PA. If you don't trust 2013 wRC+, as discussed above, OPS+ says he's produced +5.7 RAA per season. Similarly, Fangraphs and BBREF baserunning stats differ a little on his value, but both agree he's been consistently above average: the former pegs him at +3.7 baserunning runs / 600 PA, while the latter is a little more conservative with +3.0. I think we can agree: all the evidence available to us suggests that Michael Saunders is somewhere between 5 and  10 runs above average per season at the plate.

Ranking him defensively is a little bit trickier, because we get into the realm of positional adjustments. This is where WAR's flaws start to make themselves evident. If you don't believe in positional adjustments, that's your call... personally, I don't think that every +10 run defensive left fielder will make an average center fielder, and I don't believe that every good 2B is a good 3B, but I do think it's pretty obvious that shortstop defense is harder than first base defense and Tom Tango's positional adjustments are a pretty good rule of thumb you can use to account for it.

Defensive metrics seem to agree that Saunders is a plus corner outfielder, but a seriously minus defender in center. This doesn't quite fit with Tango's positional adjustments, but as I said above, I don't think that those apply to positional translations in every case. Maybe Saunders is just worse at playing center field! We don't know. Personally, considering that the Mariners are probably going to go for Jacoby Ellsbury this offseason, I think we should evaluate Saunders as a corner guy.

In the corner outfield, UZR credits Saunders for +5.1 runs per season. DRS is a little more generous, rating him at +6.1 runs per season. The Fangraphs corner outfield positional adjustment for defense is -7.5 runs, which you can disagree with with, but whatever. Considering both his plus corner defense and the positional penalty, Saunders comes out as a slightly below average defender. And slightly below average defense plus slightly above average offense makes...?

Basically, Saunders is slightly above average in every respect, except that you have to dock him a little because he plays in the corner outfield. It'd be pretty unreasonable to dock him enough to make him look below average, though. I don't see any evidence that he's a below average outfielder. (Note that I'm very pointedly completely ignoring his offensive upside and his injury issues this season.)

Now for the second bit. Over a full season, a league average player is worth approximately 2 fWAR. I'm well aware of WAR's flaws, but I'm using it here to make a very rough generalization, so I give myself leave to sweep its issues under the rug. You can take me to task for it in the comments, if you like.

Here's a list of the teams with three outfielders who have compiled at least 2.0 fWAR each this season:

Athletics, Cardinals, Dodgers, Nationals, Padres, Rangers, Rays, Rockies, Rangers, Tigers

OK, but that includes teams with league average outfielders starting for them. Let's narrow our search to only those teams with three clearly above average outfielders by bumping our threshold up to 2.5 WAR. The new list is as follows:

Nationals, Rangers

Hey, but we're trying to see whether or not contending teams need three good outfielders, right? Let's remove all the teams on our list that would miss the playoffs if the season ended today. Here's the new list: all of the playoff teams with three above average outfielders!

...

Oh. Whoops. There aren't any teams on that list.

This idea that a playoff team needs three outfielders better than Michael Saunders is just bunk. Playoff teams don't need three outfielders better than Michael Saunders. There aren't even any playoff teams that have three outfielders better than Michael Saunders.

Caw caw.

#6: Even if this front office is bad at MLB roster management, at least they can still draft.

This is one of those ones that's not so much a misconception as a mis-conception. To translate: as far as I can tell, this conclusion is widely accepted, but there's really no reason why it should be. It's not definitively wrong, but we don't have enough evidence to draw it. In fact, there's some pretty significant evidence against it.

I know I've been banging you guys over the head with this recently, but I'll reiterate: Jack Zduriencik is not the front office. Not everything that they do comes from him. Assuming that Z's slew of key personnel firings over the last few years won't adversely affect draft quality because Z himself is still around isn't a rational thing to do. Yes, he was a scouting director in Milwaukee, and a damn good one, but that doesn't mean he's running the draft in Seattle. Moneyball seems to have convinced the average baseball fan that it's standard procedure to have the GM in the draft room controlling all of the picks, but if you actually read the book it's made pretty clear that Billy Beane's obtrusiveness in the draft is considered an oddity by his scouts. An infringement, if you will, on their turf. We have no proof that Jack Z is heavily involved in the drafting process.

The only guy that we know for sure is involved in the draft is Tom McNamara, since drafting is his whole job. But we can make a couple of other educated guesses. While I don't think Jack Z is nearly as involved in the draft as he's given credit for, he's probably at least got his finger in the pie. There are a bunch of pro scouts, obviously. What I'm really getting at: I think there's a pretty good chance that Tony Blengino was heavily involved in the Mariners' 2009-2012 drafts. And now that he's gone, things are going to change, and we have no guarantee that they'll still be as good.

Consider: before coming to Seattle with his boss Jack Z, Blengino was assistant director of amateur scouting in Milwaukee. Meaning he did a lot of work on their drafts. In Seattle, he was an assistant GM without a terribly defined role. It makes sense that he'd help out with the draft in addition to the major league acquisitions.

So is there any evidence in the drafts themselves of Blengino's effect? How would we find such evidence? Well, we'd take a look at the team's draft strategies and see if we notice any apparent changes in philosophy after Blengino's early-2013 excision from the organization. Sure enough...

Year Rd Name Brief Profile
2009 2 Rich Poythress college 1B masher
2009 3 Kyle Seager college fringe 2B/SS, "baseball rat"
2010 2 Marcus Littlewood prep fringe SS, "baseball rat"
2010 3 Ryne Stanek prep RHP, mid-90s FB, great curve
2011 2 Brad Miller college fringe SS, "baseball rat"
2011 3 Kevin Cron high school 1B masher
2012 2 Joe DeCarlo prep fringe SS, "baseball rat"
2012 3 Edwin Diaz prep RHP, mid-90s FB, projectable

The 2009-2012 Mariners sure did like drafting a few specific types of players in rounds 2 and 3! Most common was the Kyle Seager / Brad Miller type: fringy defensive middle infielders with histories of good offensive production and great work ethics but no real standout tools. Occasionally the team went in for high school pitchers with serious stuff or bat-first 1B/DH types, but notably absent from the list were the toolsy outfield picks that scouts like to dream on and sabermetricians tend to dislike. Given Blengino's position as resident chief stathead, it's not unreasonable to suggest that he was pushing the team to draft players like Seager and Miller over flashier but less proven outfielders.

So what happened in 2013?

Year Rd Name Brief Description
2013 2 Austin Wilson toolsy college outfielder
2013 3 Tyler O'Neil toolsy prep outfielder

One of these drafts is not like the others

One of these drafts doesn't belong

Can you tell which draft is not like the others

By the time I finish this song?

We don't know for sure whether or not people that were involved in the Mariners' first four drafts great have been fired since those drafts, but based on some apparent changes in philosophy between 2012 and 2013 (I didn't even mention fourth-rounder Ryan Horstman, a freshman pitcher signed weirdly early in the draft who pitched all of one inning before getting hurt), it seems pretty likely. The Mariners' current draft crew is not the same as its old draft crew. Tom McNamara is still around, but that's really all we know for sure. We can't prove that the drafts won't get worse post-Blengino. I mean, I guess we also can't prove that they won't get better, either. We can't prove anything. But that might mean that we can no longer credit this office for being great at drafting. All we can say is that they were great at drafting, and then they changed, and now we don't really know.

Anyways. I'm 3000 words into this, you're bored, and I've burned through six article ideas in one article. This was probably unwise of me. Still, at least you and your newfound knowledge of Mariner misconceptions will be the life of every Seattle baseball party you attend! Yep! Every single one of those numerous baseball parties!

DAMMIT, SEASON, END

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