2008 Sabermetric Year in Review: Seattle Mariners

The tour bus moves along to another city that probably wants to forget that 2008 happened.  I have to wonder what it takes to be a fan of the Mariners.  Consider the following.  The Baseball Reference page for the 2008 Mariners is sponsored by an Angels blog.  Am I the only one who finds that funny?  Anyway, stop #2: Seattle.

Record: 61-101 (4th place, AL West)
Pythagorean Projection: 66.67 wins

Team Statistical Pages:
Baseball Reference
Baseball Prospectus

MVN Blog:
Caffeinated Confines

Other Mariners Resources:
Latest News
Contract Status
Trade Rumors

Overview: To think that before last season, there was serious talk of the Mariners, who had just picked up Erik Bedard from the Orioles, as a possible playoff team.  How quickly things change!  The Mariners became the first ever 100 (million dollars in payroll)/ 100 (loss, OK actually 101) team in baseball history.

What went right:  Raul Ibanez has officially reached that guy status.  Ask a casual fan of the game about Ibanez and he’ll search his memory banks for a moment.  Then you’ll point out that he’s the guy who consistently puts up a .350 OBP and 20-some home runs and plays a decent left field for the Mariners.  He’s never been an All-Star, but your friend will think for a minute and go “Oh yeah!  That guy!”  Raul Ibanez is the best player that no one cares about.  Sadly for the Mariners, he’s a free agent.

Ichiro had 200 hits again.  And stole 43 bases.  And played a really good outfield.  And played in 162 games.  I actually saw him at a Mariners-Indians game this year.  Now I understand why the folks over at U.S.S. Mariner have a hard time being objective about him.  He’s fun to watch.  That might not be the same thing as “good”, but he sure is fun.  

What went wrong: Carlos Silva.  Somehow, signing a guy who puts up a .500 record with an ERA of 4-somethng to a four year contract worth eight digits per year didn’t turn out so well.  How weird that no one at all anywhere saw that one coming a mile away.  Someone call Kyle Lohse’s agent and congratulate him on having the foresight to cash in for his client before that particular lesson sunk in.

Yeah, that about sums it up: On June 23, 2008, in an interleague game in Shea Stadium against the Mets, Felix Hernandez came to the plate twice.  In the second inning, he took the first pitch that he saw (from Johan Santana!) over the wall in right-center for a grand slam.  In the fifth, he bunted Willie Bloomquist over from first to second.  In these, his only two plate appearances of the year, Felix Hernandez accumulated 0.30 WPA on offense.  This put him in fourth place on the team overall behind Raul Ibanez, Jose Lopez, and Ichiro.   

Wlad the impaled: Is there something about this guy that I don’t get?  I understand that it’s fun to say Wladimir, but honestly, what’s the big deal with this guy?  We got to see him for 260 PAs in 2008 and he had a .250 on base percentage.  In AAA, of course, he hit like gangbusters.  What’s the difference between his AAA and MLB numbers?  He struck out in 32.5% of his plate appearances in the majors (and “only” 21% in his halcyon AAA days.)  OK, so he wasn’t ever going to be a singles hitter, but could he make it as a big bopper in the bigs?  Take a look at these swing numbers.  He swung at about 31% of the pitches thrown to him that were outside the strike zone, putting him well above the league median, and 65% of pitches in the zone, putting him well below the league median (min 250 PA).  My guess is that he’s got a lot of physical strength, but can’t read the strike zone.  That sort of approach might work well against inferior pitching (like the kind you’d find at AAA), but not at the big league level. 

What part of DH don’t you understand?: Will someone please explain the following list to me.  Jose Vidro 69, Jeff Clement 21, (list continues, and oddly, includes Miguel Cairo for a game.)  Those are the top two entries on the list of “who started the most games at DH for the Mariners in 2008” list.  DH, for those of you who don’t know stands for designated hitter.  Maybe there’s a word in there that stands out.  I’ll give you a hint.  It’s not “designated.”  Yet, Vidro had a .274 OBP and Clement didn’t make it to .300 either.  Vidro did appear to have a weird outlier with a .254 BABIP, and most of his other peripheral stats were unchanged, so that might just be a freaky happenstance, but still…

Last year, I wrote: Sexson actually dropped his K rate from 2006 to 2007, increased his BB rate, and his batted ball profile was pretty much unchanged (he hit a few less line drives, and instead beat them into the ground.)  His BABIP was the culprit.  A gentleman who has normally put up a .280-.320 BABIP over a number of years suddenly saw it drop to .217.  In statistics, that’s called an outlier.  Sexson gets paid to hit 35 HR.  He also usually checks in with an equal number of doubles.  This year, he not only dropped to 21 HR, but he also only hit 21 two-baggers.  The other thing that changed was that he saw about a quarter of a pitch less (3.97 to 3.74) per plate appearance from 2006 to 2007.  Sexson needs to relax.  Assuming that there wasn’t a huge major injury that wasn’t made public, Sexson should revert to form.

Can I get a mulligan on that one?  (Oh, the Mariners already tried to use one on the Bedard trade…) Indeed, Sexson’s BABIP did rebound to a more characteristic .275 for the year (including his time with the Yankees).  But what no one really saw coming was that he would stop swinging (his swing rate dropped from 47 to 43%).  Worse, when he swung, his contact rate went down.  Not surprisingly, his strikeout rate shot up above 30%.  The real danger though is that Sexson has become a ground ball hitter.  While he used to hit about an equal number of FB and GB, his ground ball numbers are trending toward 50% now, and Sexson is a guy who needs to be hitting home runs to be valuable.  Sexson was either doing something different this year (and it didn’t work) or he’s toast.  My guess is that he’s toast. 

Here’s an idea:  I was going to write about the Mariners’ search for a GM.  It’s hard to argue against the guy who built the Milwaukee farm system, even if I can’t pronounce or spell his name, but I was hoping for something more.  I had hoped that a more Saber-savvy GM might get his call to the big time, but alas, alack, anon, it was not to be.  It’s a sensible strategy to build the farm first, but let’s hope that the new guy learns from the past and doesn’t commit a lot of money in a foolish way.

Outlook: I suppose that the Mariners are in the same position now as they had been last year.  A lot of really bad contracts, even if Sexson is gone.  Bedard is out for half of next year anyway.  It would be nice to suggest a total root canal, but it’s never quite that easy.  To do that, the Mariners would have to off-load some of those awful contacts, and it’s not like people are in line to take them.  This looks like it’s going to be a slow re-build.


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