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Mariners blog

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

September 16, 2007 at 12:13 PM

The blame game

Two weeks to go in a very disappointing season finish by the Mariners, who are now 3-3 on the “easy” part of their schedule against teams bringing up the rear. That three of those wins took runs in Seattle’s final at-bats sort of spells out how this season’s stretch run has gone.
It’s getting to be that time of year where finger-pointing and assignation of blame must begin. And there is plenty to go around. But the one thing you will have to understand about this blog, as well as with reporting for a daily newspaper, is that you’re not going to see me take out a season’s worth of frustrations on anybody. It’s been written here before and bears repeating: I am not a fan of the team, in particular, only a fan of baseball. I have no real frustration with anybody here, only the disappointment that I won’t get to cover a playoff-bound club. I laugh and shake my head at some in-game decisions at times. But there is no dartboard with anyone’s face on it in my house. There is no agenda being pushed here. If Bill Bavasi returns next season, or John McLaren, it will have zero impact on what I write here or what I choose to write for the paper.
The easiest thing, I realized very quickly upon beginning this blog, would have been to fall in-step with the anti-Bavasi crowd out there. I mean, let’s face it, if I want all the readers in Seattle’s blogosphere singing my praises, I can just parrot whatever’s written on USS Mariner, Lookout Landing, SportSport, our paper’s Mariners forum, Seattle Hardball, or anyplace else I read on a daily basis. Believe me, I am well aware of what the average fan is thinking. I read what you folks write here and post on other fan blogs. I even agree with quite a bit of it.
But not all of it. I do think some of it goes too far and has been thought out from a fan’s perspective rather than a truly analytical one. And that, I suppose is where our views begin to branch off in different directions.
I’ll admit, there are plenty of moves Bavasi has made that leave me scratching my head. I don’t believe he did all a good GM could do to make this team better. That said, I am not going to use this space to advocate for his firing or his return. Frankly, I’m not allowed to. Nor should I be. That is not my mandate at The Times. We have columnists whose job it is to do just that. What I try to do is analyze what’s happened — fairly — and present it to you for your consumption. Is there some subjective bent to this? Of course. We’re all human, not robots.
Nowhere do I part company more with some of the fan blogs out there than on the subject of Jose Vidro. And this is, believe me, a very important subject because it drives much of the debate where the offense is concerned. Vidro has been targetted for fan criticism from the moment he arrived in Seattle and I suspect much of it has to do with the fact the team traded Chris Snelling and Emiliano Fruto to get him. The jury is still out on whether Fruto will contribute anything of major league value, but I think that, with another injury-filled season for Snelling, we can finally close the book on him. At least from an analytical perspective. I know he was a popular guy when he was here, fans and media loved him, blah, blah, blah. I didn’t know him very well during the three weeks I was here and thus don’t have any emotional attachment.
Guess what? Vidro’s a pretty popular guy in that clubhouse. And when he hit an empty .300 the first three months of the season, with just 12 extra-base hits in the entire first half, you’d better believe I was ready to close the book on that trade, bash Bavasi along with everyone else and advocate that Adam Jones be used in his place.
So, what happened? Well, the next half of the season is what happened. Since July 1, about when my advocacy of Jones was published on this blog — guaranteeing me weeks of love from the local fan blogosphere — Vidro has produced a .423 on-base percentage and a .459 slugging percentage for an OPS of .882. Now, I don’t know about any of you, but in my book, an .882 OPS from a DH not counted on strictly for power is quite good. It’s excellent, as a matter of fact.
Vidro is hitting .349 in August and September. He’s hitting .365 since the All-Star Break. In September, he’s at .348. For the last seven days, he’s at .450.
Which of those numbers bothers you? For the entire season, he’s hit .350 with an .808 OPS against righties. And another .308 with a .786 OPS against lefties. Those are season-long numbers, where the OPS was dramatically impacted by the first three powerless months. And do you know what? Neither OPS split is all that terrible.
So, what to conclude? I’ll let you decide. But I am not about to write off 10 consistent weeks of top-level production by a guy as a “fluke” or a “hot streak”. I’ve heard this same tune being sung for weeks now. It was a “hot streak” two weeks in, then four, then eight and now 10. At what point do we conclude that possibly, just possibly, the first three months of the season were a matter of Vidro adapting to being a full-time DH?
I mean, I looked at his slugging percentage career-wise, in years when his legs were healthy, and concluded that a mark of .450 or higher would not be out of the question. That and his traditionally good on-base numbers would make him a good DH as long as the home run power was acquired someplace else. Well, if you want to point fingers, point them at Richie Sexson, because Vidro has now morphed into exactly what was hoped for when acquired.
Hey, I was wrong about Vidro being “done” back in July and can admit that. Vidro’s numbers since have been beyond what anyone imagined. When I see folks scouring the boxscores to pick up on any one five-game downturn to justify benching him, I just cringe. So, when folks advocate any plan that involved sitting Vidro to work in Adam Jones, I just don’t understand it. Name me a team that’s going to sit a hitter, any hitter with a .423 on-base percentage over any prolonged stretch.
So, let’s move on to Raul Ibanez, another supposed “hot streak” in progress. Since the day Adam Jones was called up, Ibanez has posted a .418 on-base percentage and a .630 slugging percentage. That’s an OPS of 1.048 over the last six weeks — the only six weeks when Jones was up here. Throughout that period, I’ve heard the “Free Adam Jones Society” continuously chant that his addition would make the team better. But at whose expense? Some of you keep saying the team could have shifted Ibanez to first base. Really? You’re going to take a guy who has played 13 games at the position since 2004 — and none in two years — and suddenly chuck him in there in the middle of a playoff push? When his bat is on a tear that’s now pushing two months? That’s interesting. All I will say is, there is a big difference between simulating things on a computer and managing real people in real life. I know some of you will be up-in-arms over that statement, but hear me out first.
Real people get impacted by real things. In the conversations I’ve had with Ibanez the past two months, he’s indicated to me how important it’s been for him to shut out all of the outside distractions and concerns that can get into his head. He has dedicated himself to simplifying things as much as he can for himself on a daily basis. He doesn’t even want to risk losing his focus by so much as getting into a detailed explanation to reporters about the changes he’s made in his plate approach. That’s how delicate a situation it is for him. So, with all of that going on, are you going to risk throwing it out-of-whack by making him play another position? Or “platooning” him against lefties for that one game a week Seattle actually faces one? For what purpose? Maybe some of you would take that risk. I don’t know. But it’s funny, I never see that part of things — the “head game” — discussed when folks talk about moving a player here, or plugging him in there.
Remember, this is not spring training. The parameters for this discussion began the day Adam Jones was called up and ran through to right now. A six-week period. Who are the guys who can give you the best production over the next six weeks to two months of playoff contention. Over the six weeks since, Ibanez and Vidro have been ripping the baseball, as I’ve shown. There is no need to remove either of them to squeeze a Class AAA call-up into the lineup.
Even if Jones puts up an .850 OPS over that stretch, he’s still nearly 200 points below Ibanez over the same period. Why take the risk when you don’t have to? Ahh, for defense, you say? Once again, I have heard the math equations and realize the theory of how many runs per month Jones would save the team over the course of a full year. But as I said, that’s a debate for next spring. Even if I grant some of you your defensive projections and admit that, OK, Ibanez has cost the team seven runs more than Jones over the past six weeks, can any of you point to games being lost because of it?
I’ll point to one potentially being lost.
On Aug. 30 in Cleveland, Ibanez could not squeeze a hard liner by Ryan Garko that popped out of his glove for a double. That turned a 4-4 game into a 5-4 lead for Cleveland. Seattle tied it in the ninth, but lost when Rick White walked home the winning run. So, maybe Ibanez cost the M’s a shot at winning that night, maybe not. What else?
He didn’t run down enough line drives to the gaps, you say? Well, point them out. Tell me which ones lost the game. I’d probably tell you the chances of winning would soar if the starting pitchers stopped yielding line drives to the gaps, but that’s just me.
Here are the games Ibanez has helped win with his bat since Jones was called up:
Aug. 7 — Hits a two-run homer in Baltimore that turns out to be the winner in a 10-3 victory.
Aug. 9 — Seattle is losing 5-4 to the Orioles in the sixth, but scores five that frame to go on to a 13-8 victory. Ibanez singles home Seattle’s eighth run of the game, which turns out to be needed because of late Baltimore scoring.
Aug. 11 — Ibanez hits a three-run homer in the first inning at Chicago and the M’s never trail in the game. Take a 7-0 lead, then hang on late for a 7-6 win.
Aug. 17 — Ibanez hits a two-run homer in the first to make it 2-0 and Seattle never trails. M’s lead 5-0 in the seventh, serve up a slam but still go on to beat Chicago 5-4 at Safeco Field.
Aug. 18 — Trailing 3-0 and going nowhere fast by the fourth, until Ibanez singles in a run to get Seattle on the board. M’s come back to beat Chicago 7-5.
Aug. 20 — Hits two homers in the first three innings at Minnesota for a 9-4 win.
Aug. 21 — With the bases loaded and one out and M’s clinging to a 3-2 lead in the eighth, Ibanez drives in a key insurance run with a ground ball to the right side.
Sept. 9 — Ibanez hits three-run homer in third inning to provide decisive margin in eventual 14-7 win over Detroit.
We’ll leave out the fluke double-play grounder that went off the pitcher’s mound on Sept. 1 and prevented Ibanez from driving home the tying and go-ahead runs in the ninth. And maybe a takeout slide by Jose Guillen at second on Aug. 21 prevented Ibanez from grounding into a double-play and not driving that insurance run home. So, if you reverse those two outcomes, one good and one bad, you still have eight occasions where his bat definitely was a key to victory.
There have been more occasions where it could have been over the past few weeks, with better pitching by the M’s.
When I hear his performance called a “hot streak” I do some checking of stats.
Ibanez’s monthly OPS since a slow start in April:
May — .787
June — .870
July — .503
August — 1.129
Sept. — .843
Obviously, the July numbers stand out, when he was hurt and trying to work his way back from bad habits picked up over that time. So, isn’t it easier to make the argument that he was on a “cold streak” for one of those five months, than a “hot streak” for four of them?
Again, I don’t have a stake in Jones failing or succeeding. But some of you want me to rip the team for not rolling the dice over the past six weeks. For me, it’s an easy argument to make. I don’t see there being enough of a justification to get Jones in there. To jolt folks around in the field or lineup when they’re batting well over .300 and hitting for power. You’re right, we don’t know what Jones would have done. Only what Ibanez and Vidro did do.
Jones numbers in Class AAA: .968 OPS
Shelley Duncan’s numbers at Class AAA: .957 OPS
Duncan’s numbers since his first three games as an outfielder for the Yankees after a July call-up: 11-for-48 (.229) with a .275 on-base and .396 slugging percentage for a .671 OPS.
Yes, I know Duncan is five years older than Jones. And that his prior Class AA numbers were .813 and .814 in 2006 and 2005. But that’s still a long way from .671. Bottom line? None of us know what Jones would have done short-term and putting him in there would be a risk.
This isn’t meant to let Bavasi and company off the hook. That starting rotation has been awful when it mattered. Should he have made that deal for Horacio Ramirez? No, it was a bad trade based on how it’s hurt the team on two, maybe three fronts. Could the team have gone with Cha-Seung Baek or Ryan Feierabend in one of the rotation spots? Yes. Right now? Yes again with Feierabend.
But that’s still a long way from saying the team lost because it stuck with veterans too long. It lost some games because of sticking by Sexson, yes. But many more defeats were caused by a below-average rotation. And even Feierabend, or a little more Baek, from their numbers, were unlikely to improve that lot.
The rotation’s lack of innings — remember us preaching about this all through May? — ensured that the bullpen wore down. Is it all because of the young arms? Not entirely, but they have been unable to maintain their previous pace. Is this a surprise? Not really.
Here are the walk-rates per nine innings of some of the young relievers:
Sean Green
July: 0.00
August/Sept.: 3.80
Brandon Morrow
July: 4.05
August/Sept.: 6.43
So, they’ve walked a few more batters down the stretch. I’ve seen the games and they weren’t all squeezed by umpires. When you’re not making the pitches to begin with, umpires don’t always give you borderline calls. The duo has been making fewer effective pitches as the season moves along.
Batting averages against
Sean Green
July — .139
August — .333
Sept. — .455
Brandon Morrow
July — .167
August — .267
Sept. — .500
No, Eric O’Flaherty’s did not alter very dramatically. George Sherrill’s went up, but from .167 in July to .267 in August and .231 in September. Hardly back-breaking stuff. But the two main righthanders other than J.J. Putz have seen both their hits and walks totals shoot up as the season progresses.
Do I want to pin the season on them? No way. But both have already surpassed their career highs for appearances and innings pitched — especially in Morrow’s case. Is it a stretch to deduce that their arms are tiring? Or that maybe they aren’t making those one or two pitches they need to make in an outing? I think it’s a combination of their arms wearing down and perhaps succumbing to the pressures of a pennant race. Nobody is saying they are mentally feeble. But I don’t think it’s an unfair assumption. Like I said, a little of both.
I know the team was worried about both of these aspects as July 31 approached. So, no, I can’t fault the team for trying to find solutions. I wouldn’t have picked Rick White for that eighth inning role. Some of you wonder why I keep trying to “justify” Rick White. I never have. But if you go to your boss with a problem and the boss says, here, we special ordered this gadget for you, what comes next? You use it. Was White what John McLaren wanted? I doubt it. But knowing the bullpen was wearing down, as evidenced by the numbers seen from the right side, he used White in the role White was acquired for.
White did not get lit-up that first time in Texas. So, he was used a second time. Truthfully, I can count one time White succeeded at what was asked of him, and one time when he “failed” — on a broken-bat Vladimir Guerrero hit in that eighth inning comeback by the Angels three weeks ago — before that Cleveland walk-fest. After Cleveland, we never saw White pitch with the game on the line again. But before? When you are presented with a late-inning solution by the “boss” you have to try it out. And not just once. I know it’s painful, in retrospect. But I will not get all over McLaren for using him until White showed — painfully so — that he could not throw strikes when it mattered.
So, I will not try to make this out to be more than it was. This wasn’t a matter of picking an old guy over a “young guy”. It’s the matter of, when you see there’s a problem, trying to fix it. The M’s spotted the problem, saw things go the way they figured on the bullpen front, but failed to address it adequately.
That’s what happened. Again, I just don’t see the purpose of trying to make this a young guys/old guys or talent/non-talent debate.
It amazes me how some will call for lineup shuffling and the jerking around of two guys hitting .300 when it counts, but will scream and pull their hair out over the benching of a second baseman who has put up sub-.700 OPS numbers every month since mid-June. Jose Lopez has also had trouble turning the double-play all year and been prone to lapses in defensive concentration and execution. And yet, a great cry goes up from some quarters when he is removed from the lineup.
I just don’t get it. Well, actually, I do get it to an extent. But like I said, if you come here expecting an “agenda” where certain players, like Lopez, Green, Morrow, Jones etc. can do no wrong, while others, like Ibanez, Vidro, Sexson, and Willie Bloomquist can do no right, you won’t find it.
There are peaks and valleys to every season. The one constant this season, from the negative side, has been starting pitchers unable to win when it matters, or deliver innings, and Richie Sexson not hitting the ball. On those two fronts, the team deserves all the criticism it gets. Maybe even job-costing criticism.
On the other matters, though, there is far more of a gray area than most have seemed willing to consider. Hopefully, some of you will consider it by reading this. I don’t expect to change your minds on everything, nor that I am 100 percent right about all of it. But the goal of this blog is to help you think beyond the stuff that’s just going to make me popular with all of you. The numbers we’ve hit on this site all year show me that the popularity of the blog is already there. That’s really all I care about. So, I hope this distracts you from today’s game, which, at 3-1 for the Devil Rays in the fifth, is not going all that well once again.

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