Earlier today, ESPN released a subjective ranking of how every team in the four major American sports uses analytics. To definitely evaluate and sort how each teams uses statistics and vast objective datasets, the staff got a rough feel for the professionals involved, their work and then stuck their fingers in the air and ordered the franchises based on their reputations.
If it sounds kind of dumb, it’s because it is kind of dumb.
But I imagine a lot of work went into it, they made it look really sharp and it was inevitably going to generate a lot of chatter and inbound links. So, you win there ESPN.
In a quick glance at the overall rankings, you’ll see who might suspect at the very top in Jeff Luhnow’s Houston Astros and Sam Hinkie’s Philadelphia 76ers. In the baseball-specific category, the Astros are joined at the top by the Rays, Red Sox, Yankees and A’s.
The Mariners are two notches below that group (one dubbed "ALL IN"), instead landing in the "ONE FOOT IN" bunch that includes the White Sox, Angels, Brewers, Giants and Rangers.
Now, I’m not sure the designation is wrong, but the groupings and reasoning have made me wonder. If you’re looking for their quick write-up on the Mariners, that is here, with some expected key points—namely, the departure of former analytics head Tony Blengino, and the ensuing Geoff Baker exposé.
The blurb concludes with this:
Some of the most memorable statements about Zduriencik came from Blengino (who is now an MLB analyst for ESPN): "Jack never has understood one iota about statistical analysis. To this day, he evaluates hitters by homers, RBI and batting average and pitchers by wins and ERA. Statistical analysis was foreign to him. But he knew he needed it to get in the door."
Now baseball operations analyst Wesley Battle and quantitative analyst Jesse Smith are running the numbers, and Zduriencik is supportive of their work. But among the analytics community, Zduriencik's reputation remains tarnished.
Earlier this morning, Matt called the Mariners' rank silly and shared a point I tend to agree with.
The reason? The analytics community is skeptical of Jack Z. But that has no correlation to the analytics the team actually uses.— Matthias Ellis (@matthiasellis) February 24, 2015
What does it matter what third-party pundits—pundits in a relatively small community of which a justifiably upset former Mariners employee now resides—think about the Mariners and their use of analytics?
While I was a little annoyed with that, I’m not sure feeling so is entirely justified. There’s no way to really know how much each franchise uses analytics—or, really, anything at all. We have their decisions, of course, but the top baseball team on this list is set to have Evan Gattis in the outfield, so I’m not sure that was considered here. Earlier today on Twitter, Eno Sarris said the fact that we really have no way to know the internal machinations of any franchise is a big reason Fangraphs stopped doing its organizational rankings.
But, we’re already talking about them, so we’re going to talk about them some more. I thought this would be an interesting time to take a temperature for how Mariners fans—at least the Mariners fans around these parts—feel about the team’s use of analytics.
Before doing so, let’s quickly refresh some of the key points.
The Mariners don't value analtyics
- They parted ways with Blengino, their top analytics mind, who left in his wake a damning series of quotes on Zduriencik.
- The John Jaso trade.
- That hilaribad 2013 outfield defense.
- A team that consistently strikes out a lot and doesn't get on base.
- The Michael Saunders trade, maybe.
- The Nelson Cruz deal?
The Mariners value analytics
- They have a team of people specifically tasked with pouring over data, one that uses HITf/x and looks forward to new defensive analytics. We spoke to a member of that team last offseason.
- Though personnel and circumstances have changed since, Zduriencik placed a big priority on blending traditional scouting with an analytics view—and built a team in 2010 with an enormous emphasis on run prevention.
- It's clear they prioritize catcher defense, perhaps the most en vogue topic in the analytics community.
- They platoon an awful lot, and it seems that may have been a philosophical point in McClendon's hiring.
- They seem to have aimed at acquiring players to overcome Safeco's park effect.
- They use wearable technology to track rest and use it to look for patterns.
You likely know where I stand on this. As linked to above, I've spoken to the Mariners about the analytics efforts and continually get the sense the Mariners are more than "one foot in" on their value—though I do think, if that aims to simply capture that they're not full-blown all-analytics-everything like the Sam Hinkies of the world, maybe that's correct.
Going back to my interview with Mariners baseball ops analyst Jesse Smith, one point has stayed with me on the conflict between analytic and non-analytic types—in baseball, we generally think of scouting when we think of the latter group. He explained that, when scouting and analytics disagree on a player and a value or skill, that isn't a problem but, as he described it, "really an opportunity to probe deeper."
I was reminded of this when, in the wake of TNT analyst Charles Barkley's outburst on Sam Hinkie and analytics in basketball, Mariners hitting coach Howard Johnson tweeted this:
"Statistics don't give you the answer but they tell you what questions to ask"...Bill Polian— Howard Johnson (@20Hojo) February 12, 2015
If that's "one foot in," so be it, but the two points here capture about where I'd want an organization to be.
But if the pundits at ESPN, or elsewhere, have the Mariners as some kind of analytics skeptic, only using data reluctantly, I just can't buy it. The notion that Zduriencik entered this organization with a big emphasis on analytics, only to completely back off once he was firmly entrenched is just too much for me—especially considering some of the recent moves they've made and the team they've built. If that's something the ownership group valued upon his hiring, why wouldn't they now—and the multiple times they extended his contract?
If that's results-based analysis, so be it, but analytics—or any tool, really—are only as important as how they're applied. Looking back, and looking ahead, the Mariners seem to have used them well for the most part.
But still, I'm interested to hear what everyone else has to think.