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2001/2017: How the AL West was won (and might be won again)

The recipe for 116 wins included a heavy dose of magic, but the science was good too, and the Mariners are following it again in 2017.

Suzuki, Olerud and Boone with Gold Glove award
This plan might be gold.

Do you remember April 2, 2001? Sophomores in high school don’t, as some of them were born that day, Opening Day. Do you remember the names from that team? Assuredly. Ichiro Suzuki is the only active player remaining, but Edgar Martinez, Dan Wilson, and Jamie Moyer all have coaching roles of some sort in the organization. Jay Buhner and Bret Boone sashay their way into the broadcast booth from time to time. Jerry Dipoto remembers the 2001 team, too, and believes rediscovering their formula is the best way to end Seattle’s postseason drought. The 2017 Seattle Mariners have been designed to emulate the Mariners of the early 2000s, prioritizing defense and speed on the basepaths. Dipoto and Scott Servais have said as much, repeatedly.

What’s this, you say? It’s both sacrilegious and deeply homerist to compare an as-of-yet untested team to a team that tied the record for most wins in a single major league season? Well hey, we’re not looking to do that. The 2001 Seattle Mariners were as unreal a team as we will see, read, or hear about in our lifetimes. Bret Boone went from being worth 0.3 fWAR to 7.8 fWAR. Out of nowhere Japan came a 6 win player in right field, making spectacular catches and performing calisthenics in the batter’s box. This was #youcantpredictball come to life for an entire season. With that in mind, please understand that this piece is not meant to predict that the 2017 Seattle Mariners will win 116 games and run away with the division. You’re welcome to yell at us about any number of other things though. This piece was borne out of a conversation about the purposeful new construction of the 2017 Mariners, and its structural parallels to the 2001 team.

The original plan was to compare positional projections, so that our comparisons would not be so tainted by the inexplicable collective career years of players from ‘01. Unfortunately, in 2001 there were no projection systems, save for the Marcel Forecasting System, which uses such minimal intelligence that it was named for a monkey, and whose results were not even fully supported by its creator. Therefore, consider the following to be loose comparisons, based more generally around the similar styles of these two teams, rather than expected, or hoped for, results. The goal here is to look at how a speed and defense roster fared in 2001, and how a similarly constructed roster is expected to fare in 2017.

2001 Results vs 2017 Depth Charts Projections - by Position Group

Position 2001 Mariners fWAR 2017 Mariners fWAR (proj)
Position 2001 Mariners fWAR 2017 Mariners fWAR (proj)
C 3.0 2.5
1B 5.0 0.8
2B 7.4 3.7
3B 3.2 4.1
SS 2.3 2.3
LF 7.0 1.4
CF 5.5 2.2
RF 6.3 1.6
DH 4.7 2.3
SP 13.3 13.4
RP 5.6 4.2
Total 63.3 38.5

The 2001 Mariners were a strong offensive team, but didn’t overwhelm opponents with power. They walked it out like Unk, with a league-leading team .360 OBP and capitalized an extraordinary 174 stolen bases to just 42 caught stealings. Their baserunning as a whole was an exceptional strength, and while pre-2002 BsR only tracks wSB as a formula for baserunning prowess, it is fair to assume that a team with Ichiro, Mike Cameron, and Mark McLemore was grabbing extra bases. Similarly, while more sophisticated defensive metrics are still being developed, the Mariners were by Total Zone, so dramatically better defensively than the rest of the league that the second place Cardinals were closer to the ninth place Twins than the immaculate M’s. That defense helped a team with the 21st ranked FIP (4.12) as a pitching staff post the best ERA (3.54) in the league. People refer to 2001 as a fluke in many ways, and a .260 BABIP against certainly raises some eyebrows. Those numbers were generated over 6,000 plate appearances, however, (roughly the first 14 seasons of Edgar Martinez’s career) and numbers of that size often tend to indicate something substantial. The ‘01 Mariners weren’t lucking into nullifying home runs at some inane rate either. They were eighth-best in the league for HR/9, solid, but behind ace-heavy teams like the Yankees and Braves, as well as other teams in pitcher’s parks like the Giants and Marlins. The defense filled in the edges and lifted them to greatness.

Exceeding expectations was the norm for the 2001 Mariners, but their success appears have some degree of formula behind it. The 2017 Mariners are attempting to rediscover the recipe, and unleash their rekindled Greek Fire onto the baseball world. In doing so they have created a team that likely lacks the breakout potential of many of 2001’s stars, but bears a remarkable resemblance in style at every position around the diamond.

Position: 2001 Starter(s)/2017 Projected Starter(s)

Catcher: Dan Wilson/Mike Zunino

Zunino’s glovework draws rave reviews from ratings systems and pitchers alike, much like Wilson’s did in his long career. Both have offensive limitations, but Zunino’s upside far outstrips Dan the Man. In fact, Zunino’s 115 wRC+ in 2016 was the second best mark for any catcher in Mariners history. Wilson never eclipsed a 95 wRC+ in his career, but was able to hit enough in ‘01 to keep from sinking the ship. Wilson benefited from 37 year-old Tom Lampkin’s excellent work as a backup, which the similarly-aged Carlos Ruiz should also provide.

First Base: John Olerud/Danny Valencia+Daniel Vogelbach?

If you play Andrew’s Friday Sporcle quizzes Olerud is usually going to be one of the first names to enter, assuming it’s one of the happy Friday quizzes. 2001 represented his best season as a Mariner, but his performance wasn’t terribly surprising given that he’d been worth 3.6 wins the year before. Even if Scott Servais duct taped Danny Valencia and Daniel Vogelbach together, there is no way the 2017 platoon will as productive as Olerud. Fangraphs is incredibly low on those two, particularly based on the plate appearances Vogelbach has been allocated, so the chance that they outperform their projection is solid. That being said, this is our weakest comparison, which makes sense because this is the position, in 2017, that doesn’t as easily ascribe to the stylized speed and defense construction.

Second Base: Bret Boone/Robinson Canó

In 2000 Bret Boone was worth 0.3 fWAR. In 2001 he was worth 7.8 fWAR. This performance is the 2001 season in a nutshell; utterly unexpected, and completely mindblowing. Robinson Canó is a Hall of Famer, but Boone’s 2001 is still better than any single season Canó has had. Despite Boone’s gaudy fWAR, his wRC+ was not too far off from Canó’s in 2016, and this season we can still expect Robi to display similarly exceptional performances on both sides of the ball.

Third Base: David Bell/Kyle Seager

We praise Kyle for his Ripken-like tendencies, but David Bell was steady as they come for the 2001 Mariners, largely based upon what Fangraphs wants us to believe was spectacular defensive prowess. Bell certainly wasn’t starting based on his offensive talents. Seager is the superior, and infinitely more well-rounded of the two, providing strong defense in the field and power in the lineup. In fact, Seager’s 133 wRC+ last year puts him in range of being more closely an ethereal hybrid of Olerud’s offense and Bell’s defense. Have you appreciated Kyle Seager enough today? No, you have not. The answer is always no.

Shortstop: Carlos Guillen/Jean Segura

Guillen’s flower only just began to bloom in 2001, and his rangy defense and 10.1% BB rate made up for his unremarkable power and offense overall. Segura brings a slightly stronger skill set to the table, but the value comes in a way that fits with the rest of the roster. Guillen was an exceptional defender, and while Segura should just be average, his career low 20 stolen bases in his abysmal 2014 season would be five times Guillen’s ‘01 output, and matches his career high. Considering Segura’s ability to pressure pitchers and take extra bases, he seems to emulate a bit of the Mark McLemore oeuvre as well.

Right Field: Ichiro Suzuki/Mitch Haniger

One of us is biased, but this is arguably the most compelling, and most direct, comparison to make on a player-by-player basis. Ichiro was the first Japanese position player to sign a Major League contract and, despite overwhelmingly strong numbers with the Orix BlueWave, was entirely unproven at an MLB level. Haniger doesn’t have the same kind of sustained prior success that Ichiro did, but he’s younger and has produced to a similar degree as Ichiro in the year prior to his full-time MLB debut. In 2000 Ichiro had a 0.999 OPS, while Haniger’s AAA OPS was 1.098 (interestingly, Haniger’s combined AA and AAA OPS from 2016 is identical to Ichiro’s in 2000). Ichiro modestly beats out Haniger when it comes to defense, and pretty decisively comes out on top with speed but, when it comes to power, Haniger has the upper hand. It’s not fair to expect an Ichiro-level rookie season from Haniger, but it’s interesting to consider that after sixteen years the Mariners once again find themselves hoping for continued success from an as-of-yet unproven right fielder.

Center Field: Mike Cameron/Leonys Martín

This is, perhaps, the cruelest of comparisons, in that Cameron was the second-best center fielder in franchise history, whose remembered greatness will always be overshadowed. In this single season examination, Martín is expected to be less than one third the player Cameron was. This is not an indictment of Martín, simply an acknowledgement of Cameron’s greatness, and an opportunity to remind you that we do not expect similar productions with these comparisons, simply that the styles of play are similar. Martín and Cameron diverge dramatically offensively, but are more fairly matched with defense and speed, the attributes that are our focus. The two even had identical BsRs in 2001, and 2016. Ultimately it’s pretty unfair to compare any contemporary Mariner outfielder to Cameron, which is delightfully ironic given that his most common comparison (Griffey) is deeply unfair to him.

Left Field: Al Martin+Stan Javier+Mark McLemore/Jarrod Dyson+Guillermo Heredia+(sigh) Ben Gamel

Al Martin was the Ugly Duckling of the Mariners outfield, and I’m inclined to wonder if his career best defensive numbers stem more from the exceptional play of Cameron and Ichiro to his side. Super-subs Stan Javier and Mark McLemore were far more effective, and showed off range and speed that would make Jerry Dipoto blush. Jarrod Dyson is likely a better left fielder than any of the players on this list, and his placement next to Martín and Haniger completes the stifling Marine Layer. While comparing Haniger to Ichiro and Martín to Cameron feels cruel to the 2017 team, the depth in the outfield should stand up well, and allow for interchangeable substitutions, with players of similar skill sets and quality defensively fitting in everywhere in the green grass of Safeco. Taylor Motter is unlikely to approach McLemore’s Zobrist-like super-utility play, but he’s shown excellent speed, versatility, and the pop to make up at least some of the gap.

DH: Edgar Martinez/Nelson Cruz

Nelson Cruz turned 36 years old during last season and had a 147 wRC+. That’s outrageous. Edgar Martinez was 37 years old in 2001 and had a 157 wRC+. That’s incomprehensible. Cruz also posted his third straight season of over 150 games played, which is splendid news, and matches his hitting coach’s excellent health as he entered his late-30s. Where Edgar hit doubles, Cruz hits dingers. Where Edgar walked at a 16% clip, Cruz hits dingers. Gar will be a Hall of Famer (if you say it enough it will be true) and Nellie is not quite his match, but neither show(ed) signs of slowing and both seem to age like fine wine.

Starting Pitchers: Freddy Garcia+Jamie Moyer+Aaron Sele+Paul Abbott+Joel Pineiro+John Halama/Félix Hernàndez+Hisashi Iwakuma+James Paxton+Drew Smyly+Yovani Gallardo+? (No, no, no please NO)

If there was a place to point at the 2001 Mariners, retroactively, and identify a weakness, it was the starting rotation. Surprisingly, the rotation was consistently hailed as the lone strength of the Mariners ‘01 roster in the predictions we tracked down. That rotation was 22nd in the league in K/9, with a paltry 5.59 (6.37 was league average for starters in 2001). They did, however, C the Z, with a 2.69 BB/9 that was sixth-lowest in the MLB. 2001’s team had three starters eclipse 200 IP, and were able to get deep into games by attacking the strike zone and trusting their defense. 2017’s rotation is an equally understandable red flag, but their plan is simple and familiar: throw strikes, give your defense a chance to make a play, and get through the sixth, seventh, eighth inning. When your starters get deeper into games, that bodes well for your bullpen, and your team as a whole.

Relief Pitchers: Lots of them/Even more

Speaking of the bullpen, this group was the linchpin of 2001’s success. Arthur Rhodes and Kazuhiro Sasaki were a devastating 1-2 punch at the end of games, with veteran Jeff Nelson and the ancient Sheriff Norm Charlton contributing as well. Whereas the starters lacked strikeout stuff, the pen brought the fire. Seventh in K/9 and third-best in BB/9, they snuffed out opponents with designs on comebacks. The 2017 Mariners may have some question marks out of the gate, but as Shae Simmons, Steve Cishek, and Tony Zych return, this electric bullpen may strangle all hope out of opposing teams, even before they reach their elite closer, and anthropomorphic fire emoji, Edwin Díaz. Many projection systems see the 2017 bullpen as the best in the league, and they too should benefit from the defensive mastery behind them, just as the ‘01 pen did before them.

The 2017 Mariners are expected to finish in second or third place by most major projection systems and publications. Some have them as a Wild Card team, some do not. That seems fair for a team with as many uncertainties as this one. The 2001 Mariners were picked by every major publication and columnist to finish in second or third place. Sports Illustrated had them second. Time had them behind the A’s and out of the playoffs. Baseball Prospectus’ 13 writers, including Keith Law and Rany Jazayerli, had them as the consensus third place finisher, with just one person choosing them to nab second place behind the unanimous winners, the A’s. ESPN’s 12-man staff chose similarly, with an even split between second and third place, as well as a last-place selection for color. The intent with highlighting these projections is not to shame these analysts. Predictions are difficult, and nobody was expecting them to be as good as they were.

But why not? Defense and speed are hailed by traditionalists as the hallmarks of playing the game grittily, “as it’s meant to be played.” Surely even one old-fashioned columnist would see the 2001 team of speedsters and defensive aces and believe in them. But no, the lip service these skills are granted seems to be just that. Despite the years and statistical breakthroughs that have transpired since that time, advanced metrics, like route efficiency through Statcast, continue to develop so that we can better evaluate defensive contributions.

The 2017 Mariners receive more love from predictions and projections than the team they’re emulating, with a few more second place/Wild Card selections. For this year’s M’s to excel, however, they will likely need to be further ahead of the curve than projections realize. It’s a team with fly ball pitchers in a spacious, pitchers’ park, boasting an outfield full of center fielders. They’re looking to get on base and run like the wind, and deliver leads to a bullpen that, when at full health, could be one of the best in the league. Baseball is a fluid but simple game, so in any given season there are a number of teams with similar constructions, and just a few who are constructed differently. Those with different constructions who experience success will be emulated by more teams in ensuing seasons, until that initially different construction becomes the style for the majority of the league, and so the cycle begins again. We saw this notably in 2001, with the successes of the Mariners and the Oakland A’s, which contributed to the dawn of the OBP Adoration Era. This season Dipoto has bet on a team that prioritizes speed and defense, with a fly ball pitching staff in a pitcher-friendly park, in the hopes that this style of construction has been underrated. That’s not a bet that’s going to win 116 games, but it could very well be enough for a playoff berth. After 15 years, I’ll make my own bet that it’ll taste just as sweet.