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Inside Mr. Met's Head


August 17, 2010 1:14 PM

The Great #6org Failure

Mariners.jpgDuring the offseason, Dave Cameron of Fangraphs and USS Mariner ranked the Seattle Mariners as the sixth best organization in baseball from top to bottom. Obviously anyone who isn't a huge Mariners homer knows this simply isn't the case but still, here we are. It became a bit of an in-joke on twitter, with people overusing the hashtag #6org.

I applaud accountability for people writing about sports. Far too many times people write dumb things without the slightest sense of irony and then refuse to be held responsible for said stupid things. As the saying goes, to err is human. There is a thin line, however, between admitting accountability and coming off as a petulant jackass while doing it.

This is a line Dave Cameron has pranced over. Cameron has written three egocentric articles this week about this meme in an attempt to rationalize his decision.

UPDATE: It's FOUR now!

Have the Mariners miscalculated (and Fangraphs in the org rankings) by relying too much on UZR and other defensive metrics that end up being neither as predictive or descriptive as they were presumed to be?

This is a simple answer. Yes, Cameron and the rest of the SABR community overrated the value of defense because of the success of the Mariners last season. Basically everyone understands at this point that while defense is important a team actually needs to score runs to have success. At least that's the theory I proposed in this article.

To me, this is more narrative than reality. Because the Mariners got competitive using a great defensive team a year ago, and a lot of people wrote about it this winter, it has become popular to deride the Mariners for choosing defense over offense. That's just not really the case, though.

Regardless of what you think of him as a person, Milton Bradley's track record as a hitter can't really be argued with. From 2007 to 2009, he posted a batting line of .293/.407/.495 over 311 games. His .389 wOBA during those years put him at the same offensive level as Adam Dunn and Magglio Ordonez and ahead of guys like Jayson Werth and J.D. Drew. He's not much of a defender, though, and he's unreliable, but the Mariners took a gamble on a guy who had proven that he was one of the best offensive players in baseball. It didn't work, obviously, but the intent to acquire an offensive force was clearly there.

Cameron kind of has a point here. As an outside observer, I was a big fan of the Mariners shipping off the awful Carlos Silva for Milton Bradley. Even though Bradley was an extreme malcontent (a man whose issues were exaggerated by the Chicago press) he obviously has a lot of offensive value for the reasons he outlined.

Cameron's analysis falls extremely flat, however, when one actually looks at Bradley's stats during that time and consider the fact that he picked an arbitrary point to begin at. 2007 was a 62 game injury shortened campaign where he hit .306/.402/.545. In 2008, he was on the Texas Rangers playing in Arlington, a nice hitter's park. There, he hit .321/.436/.563.

Then in 2009, with the Cubs, he hit .257/.378/.397. So basically, after a small sample and one great season, he had a bit of a decline. And, considering his .397 slugging, the writing was on the wall that there were issues with his power.

While the guys Cameron named have played in more games during that stretch and have been consistently good during that time, Bradley did not do that. Of course, this is ignored for the sake of saving face.


Then, there's Chone Figgins. Yes, he was a guy who added value with his defense, but they got him for his bat, not his glove. His 2007 to 2009 line was .301/.386/.382, good for a .350 wOBA. Like Bradley, he'd established a track record of being a well above average hitter. They didn't bring in Pedro Feliz - they spent a good chunk of money on a guy who had shown that he could get on base.

Here, Cameron picks another arbitrary beginning to make his point look better. Here's a breakdown of his 2007-2009 seasons:

2007: 117 OPS+
2008: 82 OPS+
2009: 108 OPS+

Not that awful, right? Except his 2006 season had him below replacement level at an 85 OPS+. If you add that season in, Figgins is barely replacement level. Basically, Cameron is cherry picking stats to make his analysis look better which really isn't a surprise.

Oh, and in case you forgot, we're still on the first question. "Did the Mariners overvalue defense." The same simple yes or no question that I answered in two sentences.  

At first base, they only ended up with Casey Kotchman after attempting to sign Russell Branyan. They offered him more money than what he eventually got from the Indians, but he was holding out for a multi-year deal. They wanted him back for 2010, but didn't want to guarantee 2011 to a guy with a herniated disc in his back. Everyone else in baseball agreed, and that's why Branyan eventually settled for a one year deal with Cleveland. But bringing Branyan back was clearly the team's primary choice to fill first base.

But they failed. They didn't bring him back. Plus they wanted to give a lot of  money to an old dude with a number of serious injuries including the aforementioned herniated disc.

This is not good baseball decision making.

More importantly, their backup option was a dude with a career 95 OPS+. Who is an excellent defensive 1B.

There's just no real pattern of choosing defense over offense. The guys they brought in to provide offense failed. That's different than not trying to bring in any offensive upgrades to begin with. Don't buy into the narrative that the team decided to try to go balls out for defense. It's just not true.

But they ended up doing just that. Milton Bradley, who was basically given away, was the only one. Chone Figgins is not an offensive powerhouse. Neither is Casey Kotchman. If the Mariners ended up signing Branyan (instead of trading for him later), I suppose Cameron would have a point but they didn't.

Some of the furor has to reside in the fact that a Front Office was praised for putting together such a high variance team to begin with. There was quite a bit of interweb pats on the back, so to speak for the way the 2009 offseason went, and yet they put out a team that, at best, was on the way to 83 wins.

People thought that way because everyone was obsessed with run prevention. I fell into the trap because almost everything written in the 09 offseason was about how amazing run prevention was and how super duper the Mariners were for outplaying their pythag. 

You created this monster Cameron. You beat the run prevention drum. Now you're trying to kill it way too late.

I just don't agree with this assertion. ZiPS pegged the Mariners for 86 wins, the most of any AL West team. When Replacement Level Yankee Weblog did their simulation blowout, running five other projection systems through 1,000 times each, the Mariners made the playoffs 29.4 percent of the time. The roster wasn't high variance because they were .500 at best with a lot of downside - they were high variance because they were either going to succeed or flop. They flopped. However, I think that people who are taking the 2010 results as proof that the plan couldn't have worked are overlooking evidence to the contrary.

In part two of this awful series, Cameron said this: "Since we don't know what's going to happen, I don't find a lot of value in predictions."

Then in the next article, he quotes projection systems that predicted the 2010 season.

Now, mind you, these projection systems can be quite accurate sometimes. Other times, you get things like PECOTA predicting that the 2009 Indians would win 90 games. They're not perfect.

The idea behind these articles is that as designed, the Seattle Mariners were the sixth best organization in baseball. A high variance team is obviously not well designed. Anything that's feast or famine isn't put together very well. If someone is depending on variance for success they're going to be broke a lot more than rich.

The San Diego Padres are winning the NL West with essentially the same overall plan as the Mariners had - league average offense with league best run prevention. The Padres offense has been the definition of average this year - they've been worth +4.2 runs above average as a group in over 4,500 plate appearances. They're in first place in spite of a just okay offense because they're #1 in xFIP and #1 in UZR. The pitching and defense have both been outstanding, and have carried a mediocre offense into playoff contention.

The Padres are also playing in an awful division. The Dodgers have been a disappointment, suffering from a bunch of injuries and guys they need to play well not playing well at all (like Matt Kemp). The Diamondbacks are awful and have gotten worse since Jerry DiPoto took over. The Giants are sticking in there but they're not really that good either.

We can disagree about the likelihood of Bradley, Figgins, Lopez, and Kotchman all performing as they were projected to by ZiPS or CHONE. I don't think we can make the leap to saying that the team wouldn't have contended if those guys would have hit as expected, however. We've got a team winning with the exact same formula that the Mariners were going for. You don't have to field an above average offense to have a good team. I don't think we can pretend that this roster was doomed from the start.

Not to get into a "NL v. AL" debate but there's no doubt that the quality of offense in the NL is much worse than the offense in the AL. It's the nature of the beast having a DH. You can't plug in the Padres in the AL West and assume that they'd do just as well there.

The Padres are decently designed. They have great pitching and great defense. No one expected them to be this good. They're built for PETCO. But if we're taking variance into consideration, isn't it more than likely that the Padres are having the same kind of season that the Mariners had last year? 

More importantly, even though the Padres' offense isn't that good, they're still scoring more runs than they give up. They're actually underplaying their pythag by two games. The Mariners last season did not.

I think we as stat heads overrate the "process" and its ability to produce future results. There are several teams who on the surface really don't look like they've had the best "process" but seem to make things work...

This is a conversation I had with several people up in New York - how much credit or blame should we apportion to a front office for getting unexpected results?

None. The front office has nothing to do with a dude playing way above his head. They have zero influence on what happens on the field outside of designing the team. They cannot take credit for a player essentially outplaying expectations.

I go with not much. Let's use the Giants for an example. They openly pursued Adam LaRoche to be their first baseman this year, offering him a decent sized contract to come in and help fix their offense. He decided to go to Arizona, and the Giants ended up signing Aubrey Huff instead. Huff, of course, has been much better than LaRoche, posting a +4.5 WAR compared to +1.8 WAR for the Diamondbacks first baseman.

Huff was a -1.3 WAR player last season and has been a big surprise this year. That's all well and good. But...

The Giants preferred LaRoche to Huff. Had he taken their offer, they likely would have ended up with a lesser team. Instead, their back-up plan has blown away their first choice, and it has helped push them into contention.

...this doesn't mean that it was overall the right decision at that time because we don't know what would happen if LaRoche was on the Giants.

Remember, hindsight is 20/20.

Should we give the Giants credit for signing Huff?

Some, certainly. But they obviously didn't expect him to do this, or he wouldn't have been the back-up plan. They've received far more than they thought they were going to get from their first baseman. I'm not sure why we should apportion credit to them for the performance above what they expected.

No one should though, Dave. This also has absolutely nothing to do with the Mariners being the sixth best organization in baseball.

The reality of the situation is that a good process gives you a slight advantage over teams who are making sub-optimal choices. There's a reason that Jonah Keri has entitled his book about the Rays "The Extra Two Percent" - that is the advantage that teams like Tampa Bay are trying to sustain through good decision making processes. It's not a huge advantage, but it's the one that teams can control.

The problem is that the nine times out of ten a team signs a bad player to a contract he doesn't perform way over his head. A team that makes good personnel decisions will win more. This isn't a surprise. A team that has to rely on signing players and hoping they'll produce is not the hallmark of a good organization.

Yes, teams with bad processes get lucky sometimes. If you watch enough poker, you'll see a lot of bad players beat good players with hands they should have never been involved in to begin with. But the good players are good players because the understand that small advantages add up over time, and they're willing to put their money on the line when they have an advantage because, more often than not, they'll win.

The reason why a poker player will win in the long run is because they're simply better players with a better understanding of the game. Again, if someone needs to depend on variance to win they're not very good. Just like how the Mariners are a not very good team.

More often than not, the good process teams beat the bad process teams. It won't always work out that way, because there are far too many variables that clubs cannot control, but you want to bet on the teams that are doing things the right way, not on teams that are relying on career years from unexpected sources.

How can you honestly believe that the Mariners are a good process team? They finished last season more than ten games above their pythag. Isn't that the very definition of "it's better to be lucky than good"? Isn't that the very variance you're talking about? Isn't Russell Branyan having a career year an "unexpected source"? What about Jarrod Washburn having a 165 ERA+? Or Ryan Rowland-Smith having an 116 ERA+? While both are pitching way above their peripherals? Or is this a case of "this is only true for other baseball teams but not my unique flower Seattle Mariners"?

I would have a lot more respect for Dave Cameron if he just came out and admitted he was wrong. Don't try to rationalize it by cherry picking statistics and trying to change the subject. It just makes you look silly.

Not that #6org didn't make you look silly enough.

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