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Lloyd McClendon, Jack Zduriencik and analytics: what they're saying

How does SB Nation not have any photos from Lloyd's presser? Credit
How does SB Nation not have any photos from Lloyd's presser? Credit
Leon Halip

Sabermetrics alone are not going to make the Mariners a successful franchise. As much as Tampa Bay and Oakland and whoever else make us want to believe that advanced statistics are baseball pixie dust, and the more you apply the better you'll be—it just isn't the case.

In responding to our post on this site taking a look at the Mariners' analytics department and what it does, Jeff responded at USSM and laid out some key points everyone should understand, if they don't already:

  • Everyone has an analytics department, and they aren't all equally talented or equipped.
  • Just because a team has an analytics department, it doesn't mean the team utilizes it properly.
  • We don't know how big an impact analytics really have, and player development is going to have a bigger impact on adding talent to a roster.

All of these ideas, I believe, are a given. I wouldn't debate a single one.

But there's something about analytics that's taken on a life of its own—and has made the idea of embracing advanced statistics feel a lot like a political viewpoint. I won't go anywhere near fleshing out that particular idea because it's going to end up with one side being the sabermetric side and the other not, but there's something about the idea of analytics that does make it feel like this is black magic, that the more you have the better off you'll be.

It isn't necessarily new-school—the concepts that make analytics appealing are two principles closely tied to success in almost any endeavor: preparation and evidence-based thinking.

I've said in other places that I'm one of the few—is it still "the few"?—who's starting to feel fired up about this Lloyd McClendon hiring. I know it likely isn't the best idea to judge someone on coachspeak, but it isn't what he's saying in and of itself that I'm impressed by. It's the philosophy he embodies. And it's a philosophy, from what I can tell, that's built around preparation.

In McClendon's opening presser he had the one fiery line everyone loved: "I respect my opponents. But I fear nobody." That line, part of McClendon's opening remarks, was precluded by one relevant to this subject:

"I don’t promise victories on a nightly basis and I don’t ask my players to go out and win any particular game,’’ McClendon said. "But one thing that I do and I will demand is that we prepare — both from a physical and a mental standpoint – to go out and do battle."

And, sure, that's not a lot nor is it anything on advanced statistics, but can you imagine if he went the other way? How would we treat him if he said, I don't know, something like this on the subject of using analytics?

"I think there's some value to some of that," ______ said. "I can tell you that players do not like to be inundated with numbers. They don't want to know what a pitcher's [tendencies are], what percentage of fastballs he throws in a 2-1 count. It's just not usable information. But I think if you can take some of that statistical information and grind it down into a usable piece of information that you can hand off to a player, I think that can be important. I don't think it has to be one school or the other."

Sure, that's probably not the type of thing we'd skewer him for, but if it were coming from a "retread" like him it'd sound a lot like the eyebrow-raising "Yeah, I'll listen—but I have my ways" doublespeak we heard from Wedge.  And you know who said that? New-school wunderkind, and Detroit Tigers manager, Brad Ausmus. (Hat tip to ThundaPC)

Brad Ausmus, of course, will work with reigning MVP Miguel Cabrera. Probably your two-time reigning MVP. That guy just wakes up and hits, right? This is random, but here's what Lloyd McClendon said on that very subject in a 2012 interview:

"That guy seems like that’s what he does but I tell you what, he is without a doubt probably one of the most intelligent hitters that I’ve ever been associated with. His ability to remember how pitchers have tried to work him in the past, what they’re going to try to do—he really puts his time in and the work in as far as the mental aspect of getting it done."

That isn't my paraphrasing of the Ausmus quote up above but, yeah, the idea that hitters don't want to know what a pitcher's tendencies are and what's made Miguel Cabrera the hitter he is don't seem to mesh. But, I digress here. This isn't about Lloyd McClendon versus Brad Ausmus.

In that same interview, and returning to the subject of preparation—and I don't mean to infer "preparation" and "analytics" are interchangeable, just that one who focuses on the former is more likely to utilize the latter—McClendon spoke on his role as Detroit Tigers hitting coach. When we think of a hitting coach—or when I think of a hitting coach—I think of a guy coaching technique. He's telling young players to do that with their foot and this with their hands and a bit more of that with their legs and wrists. And, sure, sometimes it works. But, with McClendon, his role in Detroit was more than telling guys to "keep it simple" or whatever else.

"My job js to make sure these guys are prepared, not only physically but from a mental standpoint as to how we’re going to approach today’s pitcher and what they’ve got coming out of the bullpen. I’m usually here, 12:30 or 1 p.m. looking at film, trying to develop a gameplan for that particular day."

The interview is from more than a year ago, shot during last year's pennant race between the Tigers and White Sox, so I apologize for dwelling on it. But McClendon drops this quote I love when asked about the pressure of the playoff chase:

"If you know what you're doing, you enjoy the game, and you prepare everyday, there’s no pressure. Pressure comes when you’re not prepared."

So we've got the preparation, but what about the evidence—what about analytics? Lloyd McClendon, for anyone who didn't already know, has been vetted by the Mariners' analytics team. Proper credit to LL and Seattle Clubhouse writer Rick Randall:

The skeptic, of course, says "Sure he sat down with them, but if they hated the guy Jack could've just overridden them." Well, trust him or not, here's what Jack Zduriencik told 710 ESPN's Wyman, Mike & Moore radio show the day McClendon was hired.

"We went over a lot of the things that we are doing – some of the stuff we view that we are going to do in the future – presented it to him, and Lloyd's response was, 'This is great. I am all in on everything. Anything that is going help us get better, give us an advantage, I am going to be wide open to. I am looking forward to sitting down with all your baseball ops guys and hear their contributions as well as the old-school baseball guys and kind of put the whole package together and make decisions and move forward with that thought process.' "

Baseball Ops, as we've covered, is analytics. It's Jesse Smith, and it's Wesley Battle, and it's everyone else working on the sabermetric stuff the online community seems to love.

There have been theories, theories I'll admit I enjoy, that Jack Zduriencik is returning to a manager that's more "his type," someone who agrees more with his philosophies than the old-school Wedge. If you're looking for evidence on that idea and, to go all meta on this, evidence that McClendon is the evidence-based thinker we want, here first is Jack Zduriencik on going after stars in free agency and what the Mariners could do instead.

"We may have to look at some other alternatives like platooning. In our matchups this year, I would have hoped we had done a little better job going forward with matchups, and a lot of that has to do with health, and that hurt us. There were so many times this year we were so left-handed oriented, just throw a left-hander against us and we were in trouble. And we knew that. It's hard to rectify that in the middle of the season.

Seeing as this is one thing Zduriencik is actually admitting Wedge did a poor job of, maybe even hinting towards the gap in vision Wedge was so upset about, I wonder how McClendon feels about it. Your last quote, from McClendon's appearance with Steve Sandmeyer and Jason Churchill, on if you can get by without a set starting lineup everyday:

"There’s no question about it. It’s a specialized game now. People are depending so much on matchups—left on left and right on right, platooning. It’s just the nature of this game now and you certainly have to be able to adapt and be progressive in how you attack other teams."

All we have now is talk, because it's the offseason—and not even the exciting part of the offseason. But there's a lot to be encouraged by, particularly if you'd like to see the Mariners employ more advanced strategies than we've seen in recent years.

Are Jesse Smith and his colleagues in analytics going to win the Mariners a pennant on their own? No, of course not. We shouldn't expect them to, and no one in the organization expects them to. But if Jack Zduriencik and Lloyd McClendon build the kind of culture they're talking about around an improved talent base—and that's the big key here—things could work out better than most anticipate.

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