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

January 11, 2008 at 1:27 PM

Closing the gap

NOTE (6:27 p.m.): I’ve tried to answer some of your questions from the comments thread. Just go to the end of the post if you want to see them. Thanks.
A fine point was brought up by Adam during yesterday’s discussion thread, with Alaska seconding the motion, about the gap between the Angels and Mariners. This point cannot be overlooked because, alas, even if the Mariners do go out and acquire Erik Bedard from the Orioles, the fact remains that they will still — on paper at least — not be as good as the Angels. Not on paper, or in my book. I will still list the Angels as my division favorites because a number of other things would have to happen in order for Seattle to overtake last year’s division champions. How realistic is that of happening? How big is the actual gap between the clubs? Let’s look at some numbers.

Adam paints a grim picture with OPS+ and ERA+ figures. First, let’s look at the ERA+ totals for the projected five starting pitchers of each club. Remember, anything higher than 100 is that many percentage points above a league average ERA (with ballpark factors accounted for). Anything below 100 is that many percentage points less.
Lackey 151
Escobar 134
Weaver 117
Garland 112
Saunders 103
Bedard 146
Hernandez 110
Batista 101
Silva 103
Washburn 100
So, as Adam pointed out, the Angels, even with Bedard pitching in Seattle, still hold an edge. The wild card in this whole thing, though, will be the progress of Felix Hernandez. At age 21, he stands to improve more than any other starter among the 10 in this equation. In fact, there is little point in the Mariners trading for Bedard if they don’t expect significant improvement out of Hernandez. The whole “dual aces” theory requires a second pitcher well above average. So, is it entirely out of the question to expect Hernandez to advance to someplace between 120 and 130? I don’t think so. Not with a healthy season. Remember, so much of this club’s future has been predicated on Hernandez being a special pitcher. If he isn’t, this team is in serious trouble going forward — Bedard deal or not. I think you have to assume significant improvement on the Hernandez front.
Conversely, the Mariners would have to hope for some regression out of either Kelvim Escobar or John Lackey. Escobar being the older of the two, now a decade in as a major leaguer with a history of injury troubles, I don’t think it’s that out of the question to expect a slight regression down to a 125 range. Just look at his career history. Is this wishful thinking? Not necessarily. But a continued Hernandez improvement and slight Escobar regression does bring the top two starters on both squads very much in-line with each other. A whole lot more than they would be minus Bedard.
The rest of the rotation slightly favors the Angels. But do you know what? These teams don’t have to face each other 162 times. If they did, the head-to-head comparisons would mean a lot more. As it is, what this says is that the Mariners have a pretty good chance of winning any games started by their top two pitchers and an even or slightly better shot at taking games started by the remaining three. Much the same for the Angels.
It also means that, in a head-to-head series between the squads, the Mariners would have a fighting chance in most of the games if they got their rotation properly aligned. A much better chance of avoiding a 5-14 record against the Angels that was the case last season.
In the bullpens, Adam looks at the combined OPS against of both relief corps, .708 to .718 favoring the Angels. That’s actually a very close figure that doesn’t take park factors into account, as he mentioned. But let’s forget about how the long relievers match up in blowouts for a second and focus on the primary arms, in terms of ERA+ with park factors counting.
K-Rod 162
Shields 118
Oliver 121
Bootcheck 96
Speier 158
Putz 314
Sherrill 183
Green 113
Morrow 105
O’Flaherty 97
A pretty big advantage for the Mariners at the back end. Now, of course, we have to mitigate some of that, especially if Sherrill gets traded. Also, the Angels do have an advantage from the right side in the seventh and eighth innings. But Scot Shields remains a huge question mark going forward for L.A., based on his unprecedented dropoff in last year’s second half. The Mariners also have the less experienced bullpen, meaning some progress by arms like Brandon Morrow, Sean Green, Eric O’Flaherty and others is not out of the question. Any way you slice it, I would argue that Seattle does have a slight edge if it comes down to a battle of bullpens between these clubs — and a decisive edge over other AL teams. Let’s face it, if the long relievers are coming into play all that often, neither of these teams stands much of a chance. The idea is that the starters on both teams will be strong enough to carry the games to the seventh and eighth innings. And the M’s should win, as they did last season, on most nights they turn a lead over to this bullpen.
Overall, I’d still give the Angels a very slight pitching edge over the M’s because of Hernandez having to make a significant jump coupled by a decline of one of the Angels’ Big Two.
Now, on to offense. Adam makes the point that the starting nine of the Angels post significantly better OPS+ results than the Mariners.
Figgins 117
Izturis 98
Hendrick 108
Vlad 147
Hunter 122
Kotchman 119
Anderson 114
Matthews 93
Napoli 107
Ichiro 122
Vidro 109
Beltre 112
Ibanez 121
Sexson 84
Lopez 71
Johjima 101
Betancourt 93
Balentien 100 (what Adam terms as VERY generous).
Adam also points out that injuries impacted the Angels severely last season and that several of the younger players should get better.
But let’s look at what that decisive score actually translated to in terms of runs scored by both teams.
Angels — 822
Mariners — 794
Not a huge difference, is there? About one more run by the Angels per week. What if I told you that the OPS for each team was dead-even at .762? Does that surprise you? Well, what if I point out that the Angels play half their games in a more hitter-friendly park? Still think the offensive gap is all that big? Looking at the numbers, the Angels likely scored their runs because of a slightly better on-base-percentage. They drew far more walks and tended to run the bases better than the Mariners. I’d attribute the run-scoring gap to that, not to mention the huge dropoffs by Richie Sexson and Jose Lopez.
Look at the last five years of Sexson’s OPS+ and tell me which number does not belong. Now, I’m no big fan of what Sexson has done in Seattle the last two years, but I’ll argue that it is not beyond the realm of possibility to expect that — in his contract year — he will at least progress to the ranks of a league average hitter. Unless I’m missing something. Am I?
2003 — 140
2004 — 126
2005 — 144
2006 — 117
2007 — 84
Would having Sexson hit at least the way he did in 2006 help this team score more runs? Of course it would. So would better baserunning, one of the things the team will focus on big-time at spring training. I don’t know about Lopez. But I can tell you that if he goes back to his ways of last season, he will certainly not be on the field long enough to hurt the team with his bat as much as he did last season.
Yes, the team is counting on Sexson to rebound at least somewhat and I don’t think that expectation is unreasonable. Expecting him to become Albert Pujols overnight is highly unreasonable. But it is reasonable to expect him to improve over the worst season of his career. Yes, the Angels have gotten slightly better offensively with the addition of Torii Hunter. And we’ll have to see what the Mariners do to replace the bat of Jose Guillen in the outfield.
But there is not really as big a gap between these teams as it seems when it comes to scoring runs.
The huge gap was in runs allowed, with the Angels giving up just 731 compared to 813 by the Mariners. A gap of 82 runs is a lot tougher to account for than the 28 on the hitting side — especially with the Mariners playing in a more pitcher-friendly park half the time.
So, the argument is really over how to make the most dramatic leap forward. Those arguing the defensive aspect say that a right fielder in Adam Jones will make up a significant gap over Jose Guillen — though clearly not enough to account for the whole difference. The biggest proponents of defense say that Jones over Ibanez in left and an improvement in right (though who knows who that will be?) will close the gap even more. That’s nice thinking, but again, who is that right fielder going to be?
The proponents of the Bedard deal say that a jumpstart to the rotation will close the gap quicker than anything else.
Instead of last year’s ERA+ by the starting five, which read:
You would get a rotation — assuming continued Hernandez progression — that reads more like:
That is leaps and bounds better. All things being equal defensively, it really could close the runs-allowed gap in a hurry. How do you keep things equal defensively? By getting better infield defense out of Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt. By living with Raul Ibanez in left field and hoping to at least have a Guillen equivalent in right. By trading for a pitcher, Bedard, who relies less on the fielders behind him than just about any other starter in the AL. By signing a pitcher, in Carlos Silva, who gives up an abundance of groundballs instead of rocket shots to every other batter. Does keeping the status quo defensively sound far-fetched? I don’t think so. Not when this team has banked so much of its future on the Lopez-Betancourt combo. If that’s your plan, you can’t ditch it because of one bad year by Lopez.
Look, I’m not trying to sound like I’m wearing rose-colored glasses here. Obviously, the Angels are still the division favorites. But I don’t see there being a big enough gap between these clubs to justify anybody simply giving up because of what the stats say. There is too much room for variance here. This is why they play the games. If the Angels became the Yankees version of hitting overnight, to go with their pitching, by no means would I advocate trading Jones and whoever for Erik Bedard.
Do the Mariners have to have a few things go right for them? Sure they do.
Are those expectations unrealistic? I don’t think they are. Not when a ballclub has committed tens of millions towards a vision of at least some of these things going their way. And if the expectations are realistic and the numbers gap is still reasonably close, you can’t just write off entire seasons, skipping ahead to 2010, without trying to compete in 2008 and 2009. If that was the case, we wouldn’t have to bother playing the games. Let’s just crown the same on-paper champion year after year and go play golf.
Oh wait, what’s that? There hasn’t been a back-to-back World Series champion this decade? Exactly.

ADDED (6:27 p.m.): Lots of questions already. Here are some answers:

Q: You pointed out Felix will likely get better, but you didn’t extend the same courtesy to Saunders and Weaver. Since Saunders has a total of 33 career starts, can’t we expect his progress to be significant, as well?
A: Well, Saunders is five years older, threw only 107 innings last year and has been a league average pitcher over his brief career. With his limited upside, moderate strikeout totals and high baserunner ratio, I’d expect any progress to be small. He went from an ERA+ of 97 in 2006 to 103 in 2007, so maybe he’s a 106 next year? Or does he throw more innings and regress? Weaver went from a 178 in a half-season of 2006 action, then down to a 117 last year when he finished his “once around” the league. It is a question mark as to which direction he’ll head in next. He allowed more baserunners last year as his innings totals went up. He’ll be counted on for more innings in 2008. If he takes his ERA+ up towards 130 range, that’s an Angels rotation that will be tough to beat. He’s relatively young at 25, but it’s debatable whether he’ll go up or down.
Hernandez is only 21 with loads of potential upside still ahead of him. Hernandez went from an ERA+ of 98 in his first full season in 2006 up to 110 last year, throwing 30 more innings than Weaver despite shaking off a month-long elbow injury. He averages a strikeout more than Weaver and two more than Saunders over nine innings, so he has the natural ability to escape trouble on his own. Expecting big progress in 2008, if he stays relatively healthy, is not a stretch.
Q: Would Shannon Stewart work (in right field?), or Shawn Green, or the timeless Kenny Lofton, who still manages to play a little CF?
A: Stewart would be terrible in right field. A high school football injury weakened his throwing arm to the point where only his speed saves runners from scoring from second any time a ball is hit to left field. In right field, runners would go from first to third with regularity. I could live with Stewart as a left fielder and move Raul Ibanez to right field. Green has a stronger arm, but is still a defensive liability in right, leaving both outfield corners weak if it’s defense you’re worried about. Lofton is intriguing, but, at age 40, I keep waiting for the bottom to drop out on him. I’d rather see the Mariners acquire Brad Wilkerson, stick him in left field and move Ibanez to right until Wlad Balentien is ready.
Q: Looks better on paper? What does that even mean? The Angels could be one key injury to Vlad or Lackey of falling out of contention.
A: True, they could be. But the Mariners could also fall out of contention if Hernandez’s elbow gets tweaked again or Richie Sexson repeats his tank job. The term “on paper’ means the Angels have a statistical edge and that there is a higher probability they will win the AL West if the universe unfolds as expected. My argument is that the difference in stats and probabilities isn’t so large that the division should be given up without a fight. Breaks and surprises are a part of baseball every year. Hope that helps.
Q: Since ERA was a large part of the argument, why not use W-L record too? Also why not use RBI for the position players and possible errors to compare their defense?
A: Actually, total runs allowed and scored was also a large part of the argument, as was on-base-plus slugging percentage. W-L records and RBI are highly impacted by other factors out of hitters’ and pitchers’ control, while errors are only a reflection of how fielders did on balls they actually got to. Not the greatest way to measure success or failure. But I’m sure you know that and were just being sarcastic. Here’s a suggestion: post an argument showing that defensive zone ratings are infallible and trump all other baseball statistics. Or, keep on cherry picking.
Q: Can someone please tell me why, if Bedard is this great pitcher, sure ACE that is hardly if ever available, and would lead the m’s to the play-offs …. why is it that ONLY the M’s and the Reds are interested?
A: Good question. This Chicago-based columnist was asking the same thing this past week. We do know why some are reluctant to get in on Bedard. Many teams simply don’t have the package of prospects needed to meet the steep asking price. That was the whole argument used by many Seattle fans last summer to hold on to top prospects in lieu of dealing for a starter or reliever at the trade deadline. They felt there would be bigger fish to try to bait and they were right. The fishing is much better now. New York and Boston are sitting this one out because Bedard doesn’t want to play in either place and both have been preoccupied with Johan Santana. The disparity between contenders and non-contenders is also far greater in the AL than the NL, and many NL teams don’t feel they need to make so dramatic a move to close the gap.
Q: Since when is holding onto Adam Jones and others “writing off ’08 and ’09’ ??”
A: Since the Mariners will not have a starting rotation capable of competing with the Angels in ’08 and ’09. One rookie right fielder — perhaps a slight defensive upgrade over another potential rookie right fielder or free-agent pickup — is not going to make up for an 82-run difference in runs allowed between the Mariners and Angels.



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