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Player performance and stadium giveaways

M's players typically haven't performed very well on nights when they've been featured in a stadium giveaway.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

During the mid/late 1990s (when I was eight ~ 13 years old), my family would usually go to Mariners games two or three times a year. Typically, we'd carefully pick which games to attend based upon which ones had the best stadium giveaways. (In hindsight, this was a pretty savvy decision by my parents; they likely saved a not small amount of money by not buying my sister and me a bunch of additional souvenirs. We were always satisfied with the giveaway.) As a result, whenever I went out to play ball with my friends in our neighborhood, I was entirely decked out in SGAs. My hat, mitt, and bat were all courtesy of the Seattle Mariners.

Giveaway days are something that a lot of folks look forward to, especially younger fans, but I've always wondered how the players feel about them? Are they excited? Nervous? Do they even care at all? Earlier this year, one of Hisashi Iwakuma's starts happened to line up with his bobblehead night. Late in that game, after Kuma had been dominating the Athletics all night, Dave Sims said something about how Kuma's great performance was especially nice since it coincided with his bobblehead night. For whatever reason, this comment got me thinking about how it felt like M's players actually didn't seem to usually do very well on the nights when they've been featured with a giveaway. Although this impression was mostly based upon a handful of foggy Ichiro-related memories, I went ahead and scribbled down "Player performance SGA???" in my IDEAS NOTEBOOK to save for a rainy today. That day is today.

If my impression is correct, a simple narrative to explain any dip in performance could be that a player gets a little over-amped when he looks into the crowd and sees 20,000 people waving ceramic figurines that vaguely resemble him. I can understand how this might cause someone to be nervous or try a little too hard, resulting in some overswinging/overthrowing. Of course, maybe there is no correlation between giveaway nights and performance. Players generally appear to be pretty good at ignoring fan-related distractions. Or maybe any apparent correlation is simply caused by happenstance and a small sample size (this seems pretty likely). In any case, to see whether or not a trend exists, I looked back at all of the Mariners giveaways since 2010 (which is as far back as the lists on their website go) to determine how well players have performed on "their" giveaway nights.

Over the last five seasons, the Mariners have had more than 70 player-centric giveaways, ranging from Dustin Ackley garden gnomes to Franklin Gutierrez fly swatters to Jason Vargas sunglasses. First, looking at how Mariners batters have performed on their giveaway days:

2010-2014 giveaway games 148 161 32 24 6 1 1 20 8 12 0 25 0.216 0.275 0.291
2010-2014 at Safeco
13189 14622 3047 2140 557 43 307 1343 1280 1167 71 3143 0.231 0.296 0.350

161 PA isn't very many (I thought there might be more), so we certainly can't take  away anything definitive from this data, but man oh man is that slugging percentage in giveaway games atrocious. Only eight extra base hits (and just a single home run) in more than 160 trips to the plate. This is almost certainly mere coincidence, but it's still kind of interesting? Maybe? I think it is... Regardless, it does appear as though my memories of Ichiro were fairly well-founded:

2010-2012 giveaway games 49 52 10 6 3 1 0 6 3 2 0 4 0.204 0.235 0.306
2010-2012 games at Safeco
841 896 230 189 29 6 6 93 58 48 14 109 0.273 0.312 0.344

Again, 52 PA is an absurdly small sample size, but Ichiro struggled mightily, going hitless in half of his giveaway games. The 2010-2012 version of Ichiro definitely wasn't The Wizard at his finest, but he certainly wasn't a .200/.230/.300 hitter. That 115 point drop in his OPS is pretty dramatic.

A potential explanation for the discrepancy between giveaway and non-giveaway statistics could  be that most player-related SGAs occur within the first three or four  months of the season (before the trade deadline). The only M's players to have giveaways after July 31st (since 2009) have been Felix, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and... Franklin Gutierrez (sad). This makes sense from a marketing/economic standpoint; you don't want to end up trading/cutting a player midway through the season, only to be stuck with a bunch of junk that nobody wants. Offensive stats, particularly at Safeco, tend to be somewhat suppressed during the first few months of the season, which could help explain what's going on above.

On the pitching side, there have only been a few pitchers who've played on their giveaway days.

  • Felix: 0-2, 5.68 ERA, 1.74 WHIP, 2.13 BB/9, and 9.94 K/9 in two starts
  • Iwakuma: 1-0, 6.17 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 0 BB/9, and 8.48 K/9 in two starts
  • David Aardsma: gave up three earned runs while recording two outs in one relief appearance
  • Ryan Rowland-Smith: 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 7.5 BB/9, and 3 K/9 in one start

Those are some pretty uninspiring numbers from Felix and Kuma.

A few other giveaway-related "fun facts" from the past five seasons:

  • The only player to hit a home run on one of his giveaway nights was Robinson Cano, who blasted this 2-run shot against Cleveland on Robinson Cano poster day. (This was one of my favorite home runs from 2014; the sequence of almost getting hit with a pitch -> blasting a home run to right field -> super fluid/nonchalant bat flip was pretty great.)
  • The player who had the best performance (by WPA) on his giveaway night was Guti, who put up 0.186 WPA on 8/29/2010 (Franklin Gutierrez jersey night).
  • The player who had the worst performance was Seager; last season, on Turn Back the Clock Night, Seager went 0 for 5 with two strikeouts and -0.175 WPA. In case you don't remember, the giveaway for that game was this majestic poster.

In closing, giveaways are fun but M's players haven't really done very well on nights when they've been honored
with a train/bobblehead/t-shirt/poster. If you feel like sharing which M's giveaway you've liked best, I'd love to hear about it.

Go M's.