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Medium-Data Baseball

What we can learn about the 2016 Seattle Mariners from the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates

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José Rivera

As the off-season settles upon us, I am picking up my series of baseball book reviews again, to keep the home fires burning over the long, dreary off-season. Feel free to shoot recommendations my way over on Twitter or in the comments!

This is half a book review—Big Data Baseball, by Travis Sawchik, which was recommended to me by Isabelle—and half a meditation on the Mariners’ rebuilding process under Jerry Dipoto. Big Data Baseball, if you haven’t read it, is not at all as intimidating as its title would suggest; rather, it is largely narrative, telling the story of a rebuilding Pirates team that has many parallels to the Dipoto-led Mariners. At about 230 pages and written with a nice blend of stats and clubhouse anecdotes, this is an entertaining yet informative read, and even though it chronicles a baseball team across the country in another league several years ago, it is of special interest to the modern Mariners fan.

When Clint Hurdle was hired to manage the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2010, he inherited a team that was coming off a 57-105 season, their second 100-loss season in ten years. Decades removed from the “Killer B’s” Pirates teams of the early 90s, who dominated the NL with Bonds, Bonilla, and Bell, the Pirates sank into mediocrity in the late 90s, and then into straight-up badness in the in the ‘00s, failing to post a winning season in 17 consecutive years. 2010, the 18th consecutive losing season, was a particular low; the .352 winning percentage, prompting the hiring of Hurdle, was the lowest in club history since 1954. The streak of consecutive losing seasons would eventually reach 20, the longest in baseball history. Even at their worst, the Mariners only made it 13 years, although I suppose this is grounds to argue that this just means the Mariners couldn’t even win at losing.

That much losing takes a toll on a city. It wasn’t that Pittsburgh lacked winners—the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2005, as we are achingly aware, and the Penguins collected the 2009 Stanley Cup. Slowly, however, Pittsburgh lost its identity as a baseball city, the home of Wagner and Clemente and Stargell. Attendance fell steadily at PNC Bank Park, opened in 2001. If this sounds familiar, it should; from a franchise-high mark in 2002, the year following the 111-win season, of about 43,000 fans per game, Mariners attendance fell steadily to just about 21,000 fans per game in 2012-2013. As in Pittsburgh, the shadow of the stadium across the street falls heavily on Safeco. Unlike Pittsburgh, the Mariners have such a short history that they cannot lay claim to any of the greats of yesteryear; our roots, as a franchise and as a city, just don’t run that deep.

Something else that will give Mariner fans unpleasant déjà vu: the list of players the Pirates allowed to slip away over the course of that losing streak. Jason Schmidt, Tim Wakefield, Chris Young, Jon Lieber, Bronson Arroyo, Aramis Ramirez, Rajai Davis, Jose Bautista; the list goes on. They drafted poorly, as well, taking Brian Bullington with the top overall pick in 2002 over players like Zack Greinke and Prince Fielder, and drafting home run leader John Van Benschoten in 2001 and converting him to a pitcher. (That one actually makes me feel a little better, as a Mariners fan; even Jack Z, with his love of the dinger, wouldn’t do something that dumb).

New GM Neal Huntington, hired in 2007, was tasked with rebuilding the struggling Pirates. Huntington was committed to sabermetric principles in theory, but moved slowly to enact his vision on the field. In comparison to Jerry Dipoto and his immediate flurry of roster moves, the Pirates’ GM moved at a glacial pace; results on the field, unsurprisingly, did not improve. After the dismal 2010 season, Huntington hired Hurdle. The Pirates fared a little better in 2011, but still finished with a losing record; in 2012, they were even more aggressive with acquisitions, both in the off-season and at the trade deadline. Although they started off the season strong, they faltered down the stretch and would ultimately end with another losing record and the unfortunate moniker “the Epic Collapse.” Huntington and Hundle had exhausted every last drop of patience in the city of Pittsburgh. 2013 would have to be a winning season. There was no other option.

The holes in the 2013 Pirate’s roster look eerily familiar to Mariners fans. The catcher position was a black hole, putting up a combined -1.2 WAR; first base was a quagmire of a platoon putting up -1 WAR; Clint Barmes played a fine defensive shortstop but struggled offensively; and the starting rotation was a series of question marks. To further complicate things, the Pirates have one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. This was not a club that would go out and offer a nine-figure deal to a star. Another similarity: after years of poor draft decisions, the Pirates farm system offered little relief, with Andrew McCutcheon as the lone bright spot.

Defense was also a problem for the Pirates, as it has been for the Mariners. As Sawchik puts it, delicately, “the Pirates fielded mostly athletically challenged defenders in traditional alignments, and the numbers demonstrated a stunning inefficiency.” The Pirates ranked 24th in total defense in 2012; by 2013 (a year the Mariners ranked dead last), they ranked 13th, with the third-best DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) mark in MLB. Part of the Pirates’ defensive improvement was a willingness to adopt the shift before it became de rigeur. For their part, the Mariners actually shifted more before the hiring of manager Lloyd McClendon. The Mariners shifted within the top ten of teams in 2012, but by 2015, the Mariners shifted a total of just 537 times, last in the American League and well behind the MLB-leading Astros at 1,697, the A’s (909), the Rangers (801), and even the Angels (651). In 2016, as Jake pointed out, the Mariners shifted much more, ranking third in the AL behind saber-savvy clubs like Houston and Tampa Bay. The Mariners ranked 29th in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in 2015; by 2016, they’d improved on that mark, to 23rd. Like the Mariners, the defensively-challenged Pirates knew they had to focus on run prevention. Unlike the Mariners, they didn’t have the money to buy power-hitting superstars like Nelson Cruz to make up for their defensive shortcomings. They would have to find a different way.

The Pirates made improvements on the cheap by tapping into defense as the new market inefficiency. To address the issue at catcher, they signed Russell Martin, whose superior framing abilities saved the Pirates runs that had previously been lost by their poor defensive catchers. The 4.1 WAR Martin put up in 2013 was a full five points higher than they’d previously gotten from the position, good for seventh-best among all catchers. Martin’s salary, sucking up half of the free-agent budget, seemed like a princely sum to the cash-poor Pirates, but the value he brought showed that teams didn’t necessarily have to spend more, they just had to spend smarter. While Dipoto had more money to play with (insert Mario Brothers coin sound), you can see this mindset at work in the player acquisitions he made. It’s just too bad 2012 Russell Martin wasn’t out there for the signing.

With a smaller payroll, the Pirates couldn’t afford a star pitching acquisition, so instead, leaning heavily on the work of Voros McCracken, the Pirates targeted two specific types of pitchers: bounceback candidates, flawed but with high upside, such as Francisco Liriano; or durable, average, rotation fillers. They also worked to maximize the players who were already within their system, like Charlie Morton. When Morton had arrived in Pittsburgh, coaches wanted him to focus on his higher-velocity four-seam fastball, and encouraged him to stop throwing his two-seamer, a pitch he was more comfortable with. After Morton returned from TJ surgery, new pitching coach Ron Searage suggested he go back to what he was comfortable throwing, to excellent results. “Morton was reinvented simply by returning to a pitch he was comfortable with and adopting a new arm slot,” notes Sawchik. Yet it wasn’t a new arm slot; it was an arm slot that felt natural to Morton, one he’d been coached out of in the Pirates organization. Similar to Morton, this year James Paxton also developed a new/old arm slot that feels more natural to him, and the results have been extraordinary. Both these approaches are based in meeting a player where he is, and not trying to force him to be something he isn’t.

Hidden value can come from focusing on what a player can do, not what he can’t do. The Pirates were able to sign Starling Marte out of the Dominican Republic because where other teams saw a deficient shortstop, the Pirates saw a left fielder. Dipoto has already shown a willingness to look into international markets for hidden gems, but also the ability to look within the M’s own farm system and make drastic changes that focus on a player’s strengths over his flaws. Where some might see a fringy starter, Dipoto sees the dominant reliever within. Perhaps it’s this, more than anything else, that is the strongest commonality between the Pirates teams of a few years ago and today’s Mariners: despite challenges facing the clubs in payroll or contracts or weak farm systems, both teams have proceeded not from a deficit model, seeing holes and desperately patching them with pricey free agents, but from the idea of optimizing what the club already has as assets, and using data-driven decision-making to identify possible roster fixes.

While the specific innovations discussed in Big Data Baseball are by now old hat to teams, the common thread is being willing to think about the game in ways your competitors aren’t. Where Jerry Dipoto is outpacing other GMs is in this approach to player development: setting up environments where players can be successful; offering them instruction that is individualized, meaningful, and positive; and utilizing players in ways that are centered around their strengths. The turnaround in Seattle might not be a rocket to the stars—the farm is a concern, as is the age of the roster—but Pirates fans of the ‘00s would probably be happy to have our problems.