Monday, March 19, 2012

The Path to Respectability: Seattle Mariners

by Jason Wojciechowski

Where's the rain?
Photo by Michael Righi

You'll forgive the long layoff between Path to Respectability posts. I poisoned myself this week with peanut butter, so I was out of commission for some time. To catch up, the Orioles were covered here and I wrote about the Royals here. After the Mariners, I'll go on to do the A's, Astros, Pirates, and probably the Cubs. Arguably bad teams that I'm skipping are the Twins (because Bill covered there at Baseball Prospectus), the White Sox (because in the Central, as a team that PECOTA sees winning 77 games, 88 could result just via schedule and some luck), the Mets, Dodgers, and Padres (78-to-79-win teams per PECOTA, too close to my target of 88 to make this exercise much fun). This is a shift from my original idea to take the worst team in each division, because that's less fun than looking at the actual bad teams. Like I said, pushing the Mets or Padres to 88 wins is boring.


The basics on Seattle: PECOTA has them at 70-92, last place even behind the A's in the West, a full seventeen games back of Texas, on the "strength" of the second-worst offense (by True Average, BP's offensive value stat, which is park-adjusted) in the American League. The only real bright spots on the roster are Jesus Montero (2.8 WARP projection despite nearly all his playing time coming at designated hitter) and Felix Hernandez (you've heard of him).

As always, I start with five free wins purely on run-distribution or other luck, which pushes the Mariners to 75 wins and leaves me looking for 13 more wins on the roster as it stands.

One place to look for help is the starting rotation, which, behind Felix Hernandez, is not impressive. Jason Vargas has had two good seasons (putting up league-average WARP figures), but PECOTA is not a believer in his low-strikeout, low-walk, low-BABIP ways. He's still just 29, though, and he's one of Those Lefties, and his fly-ball ways theoretically play well with Seattle's park and defense (depending on who is in center and left, anyway -- Mike Carp doesn't come with a stellar defensive reputation, and Franklin Gutierrez may never stay healthy). Instead of the 0.6 WARP he's currently projected for, I think 1.6 is entirely reasonable -- it's less than he was worth the last two seasons, after all.

I'd love to find hope for Kevin Millwood, but I think the hope lies in Danny Hultzen, the Mariners' first-round pick from last season, coming quickly and becoming a major-league weapon in Millwood's place, either because the veteran gets hurt or is released. PECOTA sees Millwood being below replacement level (in 168 IP). That slot in the rotation could easily turn positive with Hultzen there, even if modestly so. Let's add one win there from a combination of addition-by-subtraction and prospect growth.

Finally, Hector Noesi probably isn't very good (his minor-league BABIP numbers look like those of a player who typically does not survive to be a major-leaguer), and PECOTA says he'll be replacement level in 144 innings. If he runs into some luck and starts getting a bunch of pop-ups or allows some freakishly low number of homers or sees his BABIP drop from the projected .310 down to .270, then he could be worth a win more than we're currently counting on him to be worth. It's a tough sell, a lot tougher sell than for Hultzen or Vargas, but I'll be honest: I'm struggling. I need to squeeze every win out of this rotation that I can.

Moving to the lineup, there are a number of highly regarded (or formerly highly regarded) young players who will have every-day roles. Justin Smoak disappointed with just a .234/.323/.396 line and bad defense by FRAA at first base in 2011. Dustin Ackley stung the ball to the tune of a .296 TAv in a half-season last year while playing adequate defense, managing to rack up 2.5 WARP despite playing 66 games to start the year in Tacoma. Finally, Jesus Montero was acquired by trade from the Yankees and should be the DH, as mentioned above, though the word is that the Mariners aren't done with him behind the plate.

Montero's projection calls for 2.8 WARP, and I just can't ask him for more, not as a DH, not as a rookie. Smoak, though, is projected for some regression in his bat, though PECOTA likes his defensive track record (a positive year in 2010, non-terrible numbers in the minors) enough to give him average defense at first. This is probably fair, because, whatever injury excuses and so forth that Smoak has for his 2011 year (and he does have them), he didn't hit in 489 PAs last year and didn't hit in 397 PAs in 2010. He did hit in 225 PAs in AAA in 2010 and 227 PAs in AA in 2009, and he's got a draft pedigree, but he's hardly a sure thing to bounce back. Still, we're being optimistic, so let's say that a full, healthy season does let Smoak, at 25, show what everyone's been waiting for, hitting like a first-baseman, defending adequately, and playing 150 games. We won't make him a superstar, but expecting two more wins than PECOTA does (2.8 WARP instead of 0.8) sounds fine.

As to Ackley, here are his True Averages at his four professional stops:

Year Level PAs TAv
2010 AA 350 .284
2010 AAA 237 .290
2011 AAA 331 .294
2011 Maj 376 .296

It's silly to project Ackley to actually improve on those numbers, but the guy wasn't the number two overall pick in 2009 for nothing. He can hit, he can take a walk, and he can steal a base. As long as his defense isn't atrocious at second, Seattle fans are justified in being excited about Ackley's 2012 season. PECOTA says just 1.6 WARP, but if Ackley repeats last year, we can add three to that.

On the opposite end of the age spectrum is 38-year-old Ichiro, who had by far the worst season of his career in 2011, hitting over 40 points below his career True Average, and even having FRAA throw up all over his defensive skills -- he'd been rated average or above-average by the system his entire career, but managed an astounding -18 in 2011. PECOTA sees a bounce-back to league-average work on offense (still well below his career numbers) and defense, which adds up to just one WARP because he's a corner outfielder, and league-average offense isn't good enough for those types. We don't have to think that Ichiro will get all the way back to his old level (he's averaged over four WARP per year for his career, even after 2011) to give him more value than PECOTA thinks he'll have, which is good. Like I said, he's 38. So let's say two WARP instead of one.

Third base is currently populated by a bunch of dudes. Chone Figgins has fallen apart after spending the early part of his career being an on-base source with blazing speed and good defense at multiple positions. Kyle Seager and Alex Liddi are basically nobody. Their total contributions at third base come to something like 1.5 WARP. That's not a happy figure. It's possible, though, that Liddi, a still-young large man with pop, could break out. Figgins could return to his glory days. Seager, also just 24 and with a history of getting on base in the minors, could translate his success to the majors. We don't have to worry too much about which one or why, but let's suppose that one of the three seizes the position and proceeds to put up a nice 2.5 WARP season, adding a win to the ledger.

Franklin Gutierrez is hurt again, this time with a torn pectoral muscle. The current BP Depth Chart has Gutierrez racking up just 373 PAs on the season, which is probably right, but being optimistic, he could make it back from his injury and put up a reasonably full season -- say 575 or 600 plate appearances. Additionally, PECOTA apparently doesn't like his defense, even though he's put up above-average FRAA marks for five years running. A full year with 2010's bat (a down year compared to his remarkable 2009) and 2009's glove (+10 in the field) should make him something like a 2.5-WARP player, a one-win improvement over his projection. (Technical note: Gutierrez getting more time on the field eats into Michael Saunders, who currently has a WARP projection of 0.4. Let's assume he'll get half that time (soaking up the rest of the center-field at-bats) while hitting better than the ugly .238 TAv PECOTA sees for him and thus duplicating his WARP contribution in less time.)

We're down to needing two wins to get the Mariners to 88. One of those is going to come from John Jaso claiming the lion's share of the playing time at catcher and replicating his 2010 season in Tampa, when he hit .263/.372/.378 in 404 plate appearances, good for two WARP. Two wins is 1.2 more than he's currently projected for, but we're going to lose 0.2 when we cut Miguel Olivo (0.4 WARP in 324 PAs) down to a 160-PA backup role, so the actual gain is one win.

The last win comes in the bullpen. Tom Wilhelmsen is currently slated to take away half a win in 60 innings of relief. We can figure this two ways: if he's pitching that many innings, he has to pitch them well; or if he's pitching poorly, his innings will be taken by someone else. Despite the fact that Wilhelmsen left professional baseball for four years, the state of Seattle's roster (looking at you, Lucas Luetge) means that it's easier for me to see Wilhelmsen pitch like last year (3.40 FIP, 0 WARP in 32 2/3 innings), improving his projection from negative to zero, than to see someone else stepping up. The last half a win (and I'm sorry to do this, but ...) comes from Brandon League, Shawn Kelley, Chance Ruffin, Hong-Chih Kuo, and George Sherrill. Combined. I can't figure out a +0.5 WARP from any single one of them, so how about +0.1 from each?

So, summing up:

+0.5 wins, general bullpen
+0.5 wins, Tom Wilhelmsen (pitches like 2011)
+1.2 wins, John Jaso (OBP source, seizes the role)
-0.2 wins, Miguel Olivo (Jaso seized the role)
+1.0 wins, Franklin Gutierrez (health and glove)
-0.2 wins, Michael Saunders (PT)
+0.2 wins, Michael Saunders (small uptick in the bat)
+1.0 wins, third base (flip enough coins)
+1.0 wins, Ichiro (regaining mojo)
+3.0 wins, Dustin Ackley (repeating 2011)
+2.0 wins, Justin Smoak (redeems himself)
+1.0 wins, Hector Noesi (pitches like Guillermo Moscoso)
+1.0 wins, Danny Hultzen / Kevin Millwood (fast-tracked rookie arrives)
+1.0 wins, Jason Vargas (pitches better than his stuff again)
+5.0 wins, run-distribution luck
+18 wins

It wasn't easy, but there's your reasonable shot at 88 wins, Mariners fans.


William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

I love this series and the way you work out these numbers.

Jason Wojciechowski said...