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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

July 12, 2007 at 9:26 AM

Second half forecast

Before moving on into this morning’s post, thought I’d update you on a mini-controversy brewing down in Florida over the pending Ichiro signing. Marlins president David Samson (who made tons of friends in Montreal before leaving that city, let me tell you) was on the radio in Miami borrowing a few lines from the group REM. To quote Samson, the Ichiro signing, in baseball terms, is “the end of the world as we know it.”
Wow. I wonder if he’s still willing to dump (er, trade) Dontrelle Willis to the M’s?
Good morning everyone. Nice to be able to sit and type without breaking into a sweat. Never thought the low to mid 80s would feel so cool. Anyway, it’s time to throw out all the cliches about it still being “early” and what not, because the “second half” is about to begin with the Mariners right in the thick of things. Here’s my obligatory reference to (why not have some fun?) where the Mariners have seriously upped their chances. More so in the division than the wild-card. But why are the computers still not bullish on Seattle’s chances on the whole?
I can think of two reasons:
1. The quality of opponents ahead of Seattle in both the division and wild-card races.
2. Seattle’s relatively small differential in runs scored versus runs against.
Let’s start with the first reason. In order to make the post-season, the Mariners will have to overtake either the Los Angeles Angels, Cleveland Indians or a defending AL-champion Detroit Tigers squad in town tonight. Now, all three of these teams have had recent problems, the Angels in their starting rotation (hello Ervin Santana, Bart Colon) and offensively, the Indians and Tigers mainly in the bullpen.
Are those problems curable? Or will they lead to the teams collapsing? In the Angels’ case, they are waiting for several regulars to rebound from or return off injury, including Garret Anderson, Casey Kotchman and Mike Napoli. Get those three fully healthy, clear the cobwebs out of Kotchman’s noggin after his concussion and the offense should improve. Is the world catching on to Reggie Willits? I’d say yes. His OPS for May, June and July….820, .862…then a .301. Ouch! But still, even if Willits does have a more human second half, the recovery of the other players from injury should boost the offense, especially if veteran Orlando Cabrera keeps producing and Vlad Guerrero snaps out of his recent power slump. You know Guerrero will.
In Santana’s case, he can’t keep putting his team in an automatic position to lose whenever he takes the mound. Think Jeff Weaver back in April and May. The Angels will have more patience with Colon, coming off surgery and given his former Cy Young Award status. Look for Santana to be replaced, at least internally, in the rotation if things don’t change quickly.
Given the multitude of concerns that seem to have hit the Angels all at once, it’s no wonder Seattle is given a better chance at the division by some computers than at the wild-card.
The Tigers and Indians? Not as many assorted woes. But they both have trouble closing out games, Detroit because it lost 100-mph set-up man Joel Zumaya until September with a freakish finger injury and Cleveland because it went into the season without an established closer. That Keith Foulke retirement in spring training really hurt. How to fix? The Indians need to do more of the fixing, since there is no imminent solution waiting to return off the DL. They will be shopping for bullpen help these next few weeks. Bet on it. But they’ve got a ton of offense (especially at home) to make up for some bullpen shortcomings.
As for Detroit, this story in today’s Free Press more or less sums it up. When healthy, this team is better than last year’s World Series finalist. Oh yeah, and it has the league’s best road record. The M’s have their hands full right out of the chute.
So, as you can see, none of the three teams mentioned above has any woes that would amount to an obvious second-half collapse. Even the Angels, with two of their five starters misfiring, still have three others who are better than most in the league. In other words, that the Mariners will catch them is not a given.
Here is the second part of why I think there are plenty of skeptics, computer and human, when it comes to the M’s. Their runs scored versus runs against differential. Simply put, it isn’t big enough. Some of that has to do with those 16-1 and 17-3 losses of late. But even before those occured, it was a concern. There are all types of statistical theories out there that are used to predict won-lost records based on runs-scored, runs-against numbers.
The first version of this, the so-called “Pythagorean Expectation” was devised by stat guru Bill James and there have been several variations on it since. But the theme remains the same: stay too close to the break-even point in runs-scored, runs-against, and you’ll stay a .500 team or worse.
Let’s look at the Baseball Prospectus adjusted standings, which stubbornly keeps insisting that the Oakland A’s are vastly below where they should be, largely because they have scored 23 runs more than they’ve allowed. In contrast, the Mariners have scored only 17 runs more than they’ve given up. But while Seattle is 13 games over .500, the A’s are exactly at .500. That’s how these things start. Look to the far right of the BP standings, at the W3 and L3 charts. These factor in an updated version of the “Pythagorean Expectation” we mentioned above, plus ballpark factors, strength of schedule, etc. to get what the “real” standings should look like.
Oakland comes out on top in that formula. Seattle places third. Not too good for the home team here. I tend to think Seattle is maximizing its small run differential by using a lights-out bullpen to take advantage of one, two and three-run leads and hold them until the end of the game. The M’s are 27-17 in games decided by three or fewer runs, your typical save situations. While computers may view too many of those types of wins as statistical flukes, I tend to see them as the benefit of a bullpen being the best part of a team.
Seattle isn’t the only team the numbers crunchers tend to penalize.
Cleveland has scored 57 more runs than it’s allowed, but also gets taken down a few notches in the BP standings. I assume it has plenty to do with the enormous difference in the runs being scored at home by the Indians compared to on the road. That will impact the run differential over-all and must be taken into account when projecting an entire 162-game season. That’s why these computer simulations can be interesting. Not as an absolute Bible as to which team should win some ficticious computer trophy. But as a guide to which teams may be “fluking it off” to some degree. Or, to which teams should be looking to “buy” at the trade deadline rather than standing pat.
We already had a good story published by The Times today in which a freelance contributor looks at sabermetric numbers to gauge where Seattle’s offense is destined to head in the second half. Now, if you tend to buy the argument that the M’s will need offensive help to maintain their current offensive pace, which is well below that of the Tigers and Indians teams they may need to catch in the wild-card chase, then you might be bullish on a quick promotion of Adam Jones from Class AAA. (Jones started in center in last night’s Class AAA All-Star Game and went 2-for-5 with a run and a double. Tacoma pitcher Justin Lehr started the game and recorded the loss allowing four runs on three hits, two home runs and a walk in just an inning of work. Yikes!)
But of course, real life, as some of you have mentioned, is not based on computer projections alone. There is a human element and the three guys who stand to be most impacted by a promotion of Jones as a right fielder — Raul Ibanez, Jose Guillen and Jose Vidro — represent a third of the current lineup. You at least owe it to them to get their input, speak to them directly, or offer them another bit of time in their roles before making such a drastic move. I personally think they’ve all had enough time to show what they can do. But the first two things I cited still apply.
This team is winning, whether or not the computers — and some humans — feel part of it is a fluke. If you’re going to make changes, you have to do it the right way.
So, what’s my forecast of this team’s second-half chances of making the playoffs? Just like their opponents this series: tough. That doesn’t mean the M’s can’t pull off their dream season. But they almost certainly won’t do it by standing still. This team has to get better, if only because other contenders will all be looking to do just that. And because contenders tend to get a second wind down the stretch and play better baseball. Also, as a hedge. Just in case those computers and folks who keep suggesting the first half went a little better than it should have for the Mariners turn out to have been right all along.
Buckle up your seatbelts. This should get interesting in a hurry.



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