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August 20, 2007 at 9:16 AM

Who let the dogs out?

Woof! Woof! A couple of you have written in, wondering whether Ben Broussard is somehow in the doghouse of manager John McLaren. Absolutely not. Broussard is simply the “victim” of the new reality in the Mariners batting order where several “dogs” (read: long-term slumpers) are now free from their chains, running wild at the plate and making life very easy for Seattle pitchers and for McLaren when it comes to filling out the lineup card.
In Broussard’s case, the trials and tribulations of Richie Sexson will determine his daily playing time. We had advocated all through July that Sexson be benched in favor of at least a platoon with Broussard if he was going to stay a .200 hitter. The team stubbornly held off until the very last moment on doing that, knowing — as we all did — that Sexson at his absolute best was going to trump an excellent Broussard on most days and potentially “carry” the offense.
I don’t think Sexson is “carrying” the team by any stretch. But his bat has finally woken up. As I’ve written many times before, this is the time of year where merely glancing at a full season’s statistics can be misleading. On the face of it, Sexson is just a .209 hitter with a .299 on-base and .406 slugging percentage.
All three numbers are awful.
But they are also quite useless when it comes to trying to predict whether or not Sexson will be of value to the Mariners over these final six weeks of the season. Here are some more useful statistics when it comes to predicting how he might perform down the stretch:
Three-year (2004-2006) post All-Star Game numbers: .296 batting average, .388 on-base percentage, .599 slugging percentage.
Three-year (2004-2006) stats in September: .323 batting average, .426 on-base percentage, .632 slugging percentage.
And now, let’s look at what Sexson has done so far in August:
.277 batting average, .292 on-base, .489 slugging
No, he hasn’t set the world on fire this month, especially in terms of on-base percentage with all those whiffs. That said, his average is up roughly 75 points and his slugging is about 80 points higher than it’s been most of the year. That’s a positive sign. Now, let’s look at what Sexson has done the past week:
.304 average, .333 on-base, .694 slugging
Do those numbers resemble something? To me, they are starting to resemble his September numbers of the past three seasons. They signal to me — and to any logical observer — that the annual strong finish by Sexson is underway. If the team’s braintrust believes this to be true — and the historical numbers and what is happening in front of their faces every day gives reason to believe it — then how can they possibly sit Sexson in favor of Broussard now?
What happened six or seven weeks ago in early July has nothing to do with this discussion. If you want to make an argument about platooning Sexson and Broussard for the entire first half next year if Sexson again struggles out of the gate, I’d be a lot more inclined to listen.
But the next six weeks are not about a beauty contest to see who finishes with the best over-all statistics. It’s about fielding the lineup that gives you the best possible chance to win games. And if Sexson and his numbers are finally out of the doghouse and producing the way a $14-million man should, then platooning him with Broussard makes little sense. Back in July, sure it did. But all those games potentially lost when Sexson was hitting at a sub-.200 level are games you’ll never get back. This is now about winning the games that are still winnable. And for now, the stats and most pertinent predictive indicators say that Sexson is your guy. And if they’re wrong, it’s not like Broussard is going anywhere. But you have to wait to see whether they are wrong first. You don’t make a move when they appear to be spot-on.
Over at USS Mariner, the excellent Dave Cameron pens an interesting piece today about the risk of reading too much into “hot streaks” by players. And having digested everthing written in that post, I tend to agree with him. If Jose Lopez hits five home runs this week and posts an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.000, there’s no way I stick him in the clean-up hole. I simply advise M’s fans to thank their lucky stars and wait for the inevitable downturn.
But if there are indications that the performance I’m seeing is not a “fluke” or “hot streak” then my thinking must change. Is what Sexson is now doing a “hot streak” or were there firm indicators that this is his late-season norm? I would conclude the latter, therefore the “hot streak” thing doesn’t really enter this equation.
Let’s move now to using predictive statistics to make the case for Raul Ibanez and Jose Vidro getting the bulk of playing time over Adam Jones.
The last three seasons prior to this one, from 2004 to 2006, Ibanez hit .304, .280, and .289. His on-base percentage was at .353, .355, .353. Slugging was at .472, .436, .513.
So, what do we deduce? That he should probably hit around .290, with a .355 on-base and maybe a .475 slugging percentage if he’s just having an average year. Pop at least 20 home runs and drive in 90 to 100 when he plays close to a full season. In fact, if we go off last year’s numbers, we know Ibanez is capable of hitting 33 homers and driving in 123 runs. Were those numbers a “career year” unlikely to be repeated? Perhaps. Maybe we have to tune those expectations down, which we have.
But by that same argument, is Ibanez merely a .184 hitter, .241 on-base guy and a .262 slugger? No way. Not from what we’ve seen. But that’s what he did in July. It’s also what he did in the second-half of June. It’s the reason why we suggested six weeks ago that bringing Jones up to replace Ibanez made sense. At the time, Ibanez was battling through an assortment of injury woes (the most recent being a hamstring injury) and seemed to be breaking down. Historical numbers or not, if you aren’t physically healthy and it’s messing up your swing then stats alone can’t determine playing time.
Vidro was floundering at the same time as well. He had managed only 12 extra-base hits prior to July — only three of them homers, two coming in the same game. That’s unacceptable for a DH, even one who isn’t expected to put up typical DH home run numbers. We mentioned back in spring training that Vidro’s typical on-base percentage in a healthy year is high enough that he can have an acceptable OPS for a DH (low-800s) if he slugs at least .450.
Has Vidro historically done that? Yes he has. Did it for six consecutive years before injuries took their toll on him in Washington the past two seasons. His on-base percentage has rarely changed at all, aside from in his injury-devastated 2005 campaign when he missed much of the year. This year, his knees and body feeling strong because of not playing the field, his on-base numbers are at a slightly better-than average (for him) .388. So, that .450 slugging number I mentioned? Hit that target and you have an OPS of nearly .840, which is more than suitable.
Since the All-Star Break, Vidro has done far better. He’s hit .405 with a .466 on-base and .486 slugging percentage. Is that a “hot streak”? If it is, it’s going on its sixth week. And even if it is, Vidro still has about 100 points of OPS he can afford to drop while still producing at a better-than-expected .850 OPS clip.
And some people want to cut his playing time in favor of Jones? A guy who hasn’t played in the majors regularly? Why would you do that? Maybe you do it before the break, when Vidro produced an acceptable .349 on-base percentage and a putrid .349 slugging percentage. When folks were whispering that it might not have been the injuries sinking his numbers the past two years. That the line drives he’d once hit routinely were turning into double-play grounders. That he might, in fact, be done. But if Vidro can hit like this for six weeks straight, he clearly isn’t done. He is clearly capable of producing at much higher levels than he did in the first half.
It’s clear that his pre-All Star numbers were likely the exception, rather than the career rule and that basing any future predictions (meaning the next six weeks) off them would be foolish. Maybe he doesn’t hit this well the rest of the way. But he very likely isn’t as bad as he was before. Somewhere in the middle perhaps? That’s a very acceptable risk for the team to take with so little time left in the season. Remember, this isn’t about year-end numbers. It’s about what will happen the next six weeks. Same with Ibanez. His terrible mid-June-through early August numbers appear more the exception than the rule. How much more? We’ll see. But if he drops off a cliff again, Jones will always be there to spell him until things get right.
With Jones? Nobody knows what he’s capable of. So, why roll the dice with him when you don’t have to? Sure, maybe he produces an .850-.900 OPS the rest of the way with a truck load of homers. Or, maybe it takes him six weeks just to warm up. Maybe he struggles like many first-year regulars tend to do. Why take the risk to find out? The Mariners can’t afford to drop any more games needlessly. It’s an unacceptable risk with little but Class AAA stats to work off. Next year is a different story and you’ll have much more time to play with. Today, time is a serious factor. There was a need to think about cutting the playing time of Ibanez and Vidro in favor of Jones back in early July, just like the Detroit Tigers had a need this week when they cut the slumping Craig Monroe and promoted their own version of Jones from Class AA.
Right now, though, that need in Detroit no longer exists in Seattle, since the track records show that Ibanez, Vidro and Sexson are all capable of producing at “acceptable” or “required” levels — if not always “spectacular” levels — the rest of the way.
It’s a no-brainer. And there are no numbers out there that logically say otherwise without needlessly risking a playoff shot.



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