(Photo by Associated Press)
Mike Zunino, the Mariners’ No. 1 draft pick, was today named the winner of USA Baseball’s Golden Spikes Award, which goes to the top amateur player. it completes an awards sweep for Zunino, who previously garnered the Johnny Bench Award as the top collegiate catcher, and the Dick Howser Award as the top collegiate player. He will be recognized at the All-Star Game in Kansas City on Tuesday before returning to join the Everett AquaSox.
There’s a lot of angst about the Mariners these days, and for good reason. They have been wildly inconsistent, terrible at home, and are on pace for 95 losses — exactly the same as last year. The young nucleus upon which they are banking so much — Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero and Justin Smoak — has struggled to find their way. Even Kyle Seager, the early success story, has hit lean times, with a .091 average (4-for-44) over his last 13 games.
In a moment, I’ll present an impassioned defense by Eric Wedge of the Mariners’ plan for success, and why he believes the bumps and setbacks are all part of getting to the promised land: Sustained success and championship-quality teams. In light of all the “doubting Thomases,” as he calls them — including, recently, me — it seemed worthwhile to put out his counterpoint.
And, by the way, it’s not that I don’t believe that going young is the right move for the Mariners; it’s just that so far, the players that they have identified as the key pieces in the rebuild are not getting the job done. That’s right now. That doesn’t mean they won’t figure it out and realize their potential. Wedge believes with all his heart that they will, and furthermore, that to give up on them now, and go for an easy fix — like a veteran who might be better now but with a lower upside — is, in his words, “the sucker play.” That’s all well and good, and a sentiment I agree with as well. But this is all predicated on the inconsistent, struggling, maddening young players becoming consistent, producing, winning players. And just wishing it doesn’t make it so. They still have to make it happen.
Which brings me to my first point. Evaluating this group of young players is much harder than it should be, because the home-road dichotomy with the Mariners is simply off the charts. If you look solely at their road numbers, in fact, you could rightly conclude that the process is working perfectly. Away from Safeco Field, the young Mariners core is on the verge of becoming a success story. Away from Safeco Field, the Mariners are a top-level offensive team, ranking second in MLB in runs, fourth in homers and eighth in OPS.
But when you look at Safeco Field, the numbers are dreadful. Historically dreadful. The Mariners are halfway to the worst offensive season at home since home-road splits began to be kept in 1918. That’s old news. We know they can’t hit at home. But their struggles are reaching such epic proportions, and visitors are having such troubles themselves at Safeco (.222 average, 3.39 runs per game, compared to .195, and 2.85 runs per game for the Mariners), that you really have to wonder if something abnormal — meteorologically, or atmospherically — is happening in Seattle, beyond just a lost group of youngsters who are psyched out by their home ballpark. And if that’s the case, maybe the Mariners hitters aren’t as far off as it appears, if the Safeco dynamic returns to normalcy next year, either by virtue of a change in dimensions, or a change in the environment.
Just check out these home/road splits (I list average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage, followed by OPS in parentheses, and then the difference between home and road OPS). I knew it was stark, but I don’t think I realized quite how stark:
Dustin Ackley: .216/.298/.269 (.567) at home; .256/.335/.387 (.722) on road. Difference on road: Plus 155.
Justin Smoak: .165/.229/.241 (.470) at home; .239/.304/.413 (.717) on road. Difference on road: Plus 247.
Kyle Seager: .157/.265/.261 (.526) at home; .316/.348/.566 (.914) on road. Difference on road: Plus 388.
Jesus Montero: .209/.246/.343 (.590) at home; .279/.313/.407 (.720) on road. Difference on road: Plus 130.
Ichiro: .217/.257/.298 (.555) at home; .302/.319/.408 (.727) on road; Difference on road: Plus 172.
Michael Saunders: .189/.263/.264 (.527) at home; .302/.354/.531 (.885) on road. Difference on road: Plus 358.
Casper Wells: .263/.333/.439 (.772) at home; .244/.333/.378 (.711) on road. Difference on road: Minus 61.
Miguel Olivo: .184/.205/.303 (.508) at home; .227/.244/.437 (.676) on road. Difference on road: Plus 168.
John Jaso: .266/.392/.438 (.830) at home; .295/.362/.492 (.854) on road. Difference on road: Plus 24.
Brendan Ryan: .211/.336/.263 (.599) at home; .160/.241/.277 (.518) on road. Difference on road: Minus 81.
Chone Figgins: .143/.231/.214 (.445) at home; .213/.255/.315 (.570) on road. Difference on road: Plus 125.
Munenori Kawasaki: .138/.194/.138 (.331) at home. .222/.300/.250 (.550) on road. Difference on road: Plus 219.
Franklin Gutierrez (in limited action): .192/.250/.231 (.481) at home; .368/.400/.737 (1.137) on road. Difference on road: Plus 656.
Mike Carp (in limited action): .125/.317/.250 (.567) at home; .176/.263/.392 (.655) on road. Difference on road: Plus 88.
If that doesn’t tell a dramatic story, I don’t know what does. Young player or veteran, the differences are staggering. The only two players doing better at home than the road (not the other way around, as originally posted) are Wells and Ryan — and in Ryan’s case, he’s not doing very well in either. We all need to keep those numbers in mind, and the vast home/road disparity, when deciding whether players like Ackley, Smoak, Montero and Seager are truly overmatched.
Now, as promised, here’s what Wedge had to say pre-game on Wednesday, starting with a question about the difference in talent level in the organization now compared to when he arrived:
“For me, it’s…I’m a little careful about saying night and day, but it’s a extremely positive situation. If you look at the changes we’ve made up here, if you look at the changes we’ve made in the minor-league system, if you look at what Tom McNamara has been doing with the draft, the talent we’ve brought into the organization, you look at the talent we’ve brought up to the big leagues, all the youth that are up here, gaining this experience and everybody that’s climbing through the system in the minor leagues, the setup in our minor-league system, the way we go about things there.
“One thing you can’t deny is how we’re doing it differently up here. This will allow us to have the success we want to have that we’ve been talking about. Because, again, it’s not just about becoming a good big-league club and having a window. It’s about becoming a good big-league club and sustaining a level of championship play from year to year.
“If you’re going to do that, and take the path less traveled, it’s going to be more painful, it’s going to take longer, and it’s going to be more difficult. That’s why most people don’t do it. Because of the pressure of the press, or the fans, or the doubting Thomases. Which is fine. That comes with the territory. I’ve got no problem with that. I’ve got thick skin and broad shoulders, and it’s my job. I hope the heat comes on me before anybody. But I’m not going to give in to the fight. I didn’t give into it when I hadn’t been there and done it; I’m damn sure not going to give in to it the second time when I’ve been there and done it.
“I believe in our system. I believe in Jack (Zduriencik). I believe in our minor-league system. I believe in our kids, and I know we’re doing it the right way. But it’s hard to be successful in the big leagues. It’s hard to win a big-league ball game. It takes a lot of people working in the same direction to do that, and that’s what we’re doing.
” I wanted to work with Jack the first year. Both of us just watch and pay attention, and decide where to take it from there. Last year was about acclimating myself to the entire system, and Jack and I establishing a relationship, which…we’re partners in this thing. We are on the same page 100 percent. We both have the same vision, as do the coaches and the entire organization. That’s what you have to do. You have to build that foundation. And we’re right smack dab in the middle of it.
“I trust the market. I trust the fans. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here, because I do believe the fans understand what we’re doing, and they understand why we’re doing it. But ultimately, they’re waiting to see, and watching. I get that. But they’re still coming out and supporting us, and eventually they’re going to come out in droves, because they’re going to really like what they see. It’s not just the fact that we’re going to be a good ballclub, but they’re going to like the way we play, and how we play. And we do that right now. You have bumps in the road, but we address it, and they’ll be better for it.
“In the end, with our market, as we develop our kids, unlike the smaller markets, we’ll be able to hang onto to the people we want to hang onto, and we can sustain that success. Or we can pull from our minor-league system because of what Tom McNamara’s doing. So that’s what you want to do, build that slow-moving locomotive that’s solid and consistent and something you can count on from year to year.
On whether there’s temptation to deviate from the plan and go for a quick fix: “For me, no. I think for every organization, at some point in time, that comes up. That’s the sucker play. That’s why…(People say), why hasn’t this organization done this, why hasn’t this organization done that. Because at that point in time, you made a decision, which was easier at the time, to go in an easier path, which makes it a little less painful, a little easier, you have a little more immediate success, but in the end, where does that get you? You look up a year from now, two years from now, three years from now, and we’re kind of in the same place. This is different. We’re building, and doing it with people we know are going to be a part of this. For me, no, there isn’t (temptation). That can’t even become an option. Because if something is an option, what could happen? It could happen, right? It doesn’t become an option for me.
“What allows you to sustain success, once you figure it all out, is what our guys are going through right now. That’s what’s hard for everybody to understand. All this inconsistency and the failure and frustration and frustration you’re going through helps you become who you are. And once you figure it out. Once you get there and become more consistent, that’s what allows you to sustain it.”