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An offseason of cognitive dissonance

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Jerry Dipoto is asking us to believe in the Mariners.

Cleveland Indians v Seattle Mariners Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

It’s been five days since the Mariners’ annual spring training luncheon and fans are still trying to digest some of the statements made by the organization. Some of us are confused and put off by the confidence and bravado exhibited by Jerry Dipoto and co. Others are confused and put off by those vocal fans who are airing their grievances. No matter how you’re feeling right now—optimist or pessimist—we’re all feeling a little cognitive dissonance.

The overarching message from the organization was summed up perfectly by Larry Stone of the Seattle Times: “The Mariners, it seems, are asking you to believe, to trust, to have faith—at a time when all of those qualities are rightfully in short supply.” To ask fans to take that leap of faith feels tone-deaf considering the past decade and a half. Our learned Pavlovian response to any glimmer of hope is to expect crushing disappointment to follow soon after. Dipoto made a point to deflect most of the responsibility for the plight the Mariners find themselves in. “We can’t be responsible for 17 years. We can be responsible for 2018. … If we focus on what happened in the last 17 years, you get lost in the weeds.” And rightfully so, as he’s not responsible for the misdeeds of Bavasi or Zduriencik.

Dipoto is responsible for the current state of the roster and seems content to stand pat as the free agent market continues to move at a glacial pace. His reluctance to engage with any notion of bolstering the starting rotation seems to be the main sticking point. It’s one thing to believe in the health of Marco Gonzales and the potential of Andrew Moore, but when you’re also asking them to anchor the back-end of the rotation when there are clear upgrades available via free agency, it can feel like misplaced faith. With the lack of team news recently, we’ve all grown a little restless. With Dipoto at the helm, a flurry of activity throughout the offseason (and throughout the regular season) had been the norm, so this lull feels weird.

Throughout this quiet offseason, FanGraphs has published a number of pieces examining potential causes of the slowdown. Just the other day, Travis Sawchik wrote about the effects this sluggish market has had on the fans. He writes,

“Periods of nothingness only serve to create a vacuum for the sport—one that’s been filled, this offseason, by suspicions of collusion and speculation of future labor unrest. Maybe filling in the offseason with more activity is a minor, short-term issue, but the offseason is a time for maximizing fan/customer engagement. It is in the sport’s interest to make the offseason newsy and entertaining, to have year-round relevance.”

In years past, the annual spring training luncheon and Fan Fest have served as exciting milestones on the road towards spring training and the regular season. These two events were a chance for the organization to set the tone and message for the upcoming year and engage and galvanize the fan base. With Fan Fest cancelled this year, the luncheon—and to a lesser degree the Wheelhouse podcast—was the only venue for Dipoto to present his vision to a wide audience. When that vision runs counter to the collected wisdom of the crowd, it’s no surprise the reaction has been heated.

Again, Sawchik speaks directly into this dissonance we’re feeling right now:

“The way we consume the sport has changed…Many fans love to play general manager. There are those among the public, certainly, who believe they could run a team more effectively than certain front offices. That’s always been the case, of course. What’s changed, though, is the information available to those would-be GMs. We’ve reached a point where the collective knowledge of the public is adequate for placing valuations on players. And it seems that transactions, the movement of pieces around the proverbial chess board, have become more interesting for some than the game itself.”

This very site wouldn’t exist in its current form if Jeff Sullivan hadn’t started playing armchair GM, analyzing and critiquing the Bill Bavasi-era Mariners. With Jack Zduriencik following him, that culture of critically assessing the organization only continued to grow. A large part of the heritage at Lookout Landing is centered on believing that we’d be capable of making better choices than the Mariners front office. It was easy to criticize the John Jaso-Mike Morse trade because the data showed it was flawed from the start. This isn’t a bad thing—critical evaluation is an important give and take between the organization and the fan base. But the dysfunction and poor decision-making of the past regimes has been replaced with an organization that appears to be healthy, transparent, and forward-thinking. The amount of access and information flowing from the organization now stands in stark contrast to the black hole that was when Zduriencik was running the show.

The general public understands more about the game than ever before. There’s more publicly available data. There are more people writing about the game from completely new analytical angles. But with all this knowledge, it can be easy to fall prey to the illusion of expertise. For the most part, both the fans and the front office are working from the same baseline dataset—using sabermetric principles to make data-informed decisions. But there are huge amounts of data that aren’t available to the public. Hiring Andy McKay and Lorena Martin is evidence enough that the Mariners value a holistic approach to player evaluation. It’s not enough to take their on-field performance at face value; the Mariners are concerned with all the aspects of the players in the organization—physical, mental, and everything in between.

If Jerry Dipoto believes Marco Gonzales is capable of taking a giant leap forward in 2018, I believe he has the data and expertise to back up that claim. If he believes ignoring the free agent market is the best course forward for the organization, let’s go down that road together. Because no amount of grumbling or complaining is going to change their course.

That doesn’t absolve the organization of all responsibility for this dissonance. They’ve certainly done a poor job of exciting and engaging a weary fan base. The message presented at the spring training luncheon seemed to be directed inwards, towards members of the organization, more than outwards towards the general public. Dipoto believes in the people and players he’s assembled. That’s an important message to send when criticism is flying. But it’s just as important to invite the fans into that process too, especially now.

Belief is a fickle thing. It can come easy when everything is going your way. But it can slip away just as easily when things get tough. It’s in the fire that your belief is truly tested. Jerry Dipoto has made mistakes—doubling down on a pitching staff filled with fly ball tendencies in the year of the juiced ball was a poor choice in hindsight. The Mariners have dealt with their fair share of bad luck too—Drew Smyly, we never knew ye. We’ve seen what happens when an organization’s belief in their process, their people, and their players was shaken after a particularly difficult test—John Jaso gets traded for Mike Morse, that’s what happens. This could be the final year Dipoto gets to prove his process works if his contract isn’t renewed. He’s not going to abandon ship now.

For our part, as fans, I don’t think this leaves us with a binary decision. We don’t have to buy in with blind faith. There’s still room for critical evaluation. We also don’t have to reject the organizational message outright. There is a healthy middle ground. But that’s exactly where this dissonance we’re feeling exists. I think Isabelle put it best:

“Fandom is really hard. That sounds so silly, and goodness knows there are more difficult things, but it’s an unconscious release of control that most people would not ever willingly do in their normal lives. And I think this offseason really highlights that inability to enact any real change.

And that’s okay. It’s okay to feel frustrated. It’s okay to feel confused. As long as we understand its roots, come to terms with the dissonance, and allow room to give people the benefit of the doubt.