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July 30, 2010 at 9:59 AM

Want to fix the Mariners? Time to take a page from Bill James and start thinking “outside the box” again

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Reading through some stuff from last night’s comments threads, I saw a few things that need addressing. One person wrote that GM Jack Zduriencik had to have known the Mariners would tank offensively because they lacked any big power bats. Well, he maybe should have known. But I will point out that several of the brighter baseball thinkers in the media and online blogosphere went right along with Zduriencik’s plan. They felt that an offense with good on-base ability did not need any big bats to at least be adequate. One of the better guys I read constantly even said this offense could score 800 runs.
My goal isn’t to embarass anyone here. Or get into a game of “I was right!” and “You were wrong!”
I thought this offense could be slightly better than last year’s. Never dreamed it would be this bad. Also thought the M’s would finish third. Not be challenging for the No. 1 overall draft pick. But degrees, or extremes, are tough to predict one way or the other. You can say a team will be good, or not good enough, but picking the really good and really bad involves a certain amount of luck. But let’s get off that.
The one thing that alarms me about those who want to “fix” the Mariners are the folks who keep insisting that the “plan” should have worked and that things will be OK if the Mariners just live up to their career norms. I keep seeing this resistance to the importing of power hitters that is just mind-boggling. One reader of last night’s posts even went so far as to write that the White Sox power hitters wouldn’t do well at Safeco Field because of their right-handedness.
Well, that’s not the point. No one is saying you have to trade for Paul Konerko or sign Alex Rios. The point is, when you acquire power, coupled with a good on-base percentage, it can help you score runs a whole lot quicker than good OBP with no power. How it compensates for mistakes. It doesn’t have to be Konerko or Rios. It can be a good, power-hitting lefty. Anyone who fits the Safeco profile.
But the resistance I keep seeing to this idea, from those who suggest “good hitters” alone will solve Seattle’s woes, is just puzzling to me. Many of these people refuse to even consider the idea that the reason the M’s failed so massively is because their abundance of “one base at a time” on-base types required too much consistency day-to-day to be realistic.
To say “This would have worked if everyone lived up to expectations/career norms” is also unrealistic. No team ever has that. Every team has guys who struggle. Some who slump for an entire year. And this team can’t keep kissing off entire seasons if two guys go into a slump at the same time.
Frankly, I’m thinking that even if Chone Figgins had a really good year, this team would have had a tough time matching last year’s dismal offensive totals. If Figgins and Milton Bradley had taken off, would that really have made this team a contender? I’m just not seeing it. It maybe would have made them closer to the middle of the pack. Probably not enough to win half their games and avoid a Cliff Lee trade, though.
This offense is historically bad. It’s a very long way from being adequate. It’s a universe away from being 800 runs good.
And I think it’s time for everyone to take a page out of the book of Bill James, founder of sabermetrics, and start to think “outside the box” again.
Because the thinking I’m seeing offered up, even from people who followed James in their youth and are now numbers wizards themselves, seems to be creating an entirely new box to confine ourselves within.


That new box states that anything that can’t be quantified with numbers, or a stats formula written in “The Book” by Tom Tango, or measured with a high degree of certainty, has to be discarded.
These same people will keep repeating that team chemistry doesn’t really matter, citing a stock quote from Jim Leyland — now apparently recognized as the greatest thinking mind in baseball by some of those same folks who had written him off as “yesterday’s man” five years ago.
OK, you have Leyland saying it doesn’t matter. Who else in the game? I can give you a dozen managers off the top of head who say it does, Don Wakamatsu among them. Jack Zduriencik has been around the game forever and says it matters.
Know who else does? Bill James. A guy who invented stats wizardry and has actually worked for a major league team.
When we sat down to interview James back in spring training, he said the Red Sox — you know, Terry Francona, Theo Epstein, two World Series since 2004 — paid a huge amount of attention to it.
Baseball would be a quite remarkable activity if it was the one place in the world where your co-workers didn’t have any impact on how productive you were. But in fact, baseball is a high-stress occupation and those sort of stress-inducing activities have a sort of, just have a huge impact on how the team functions, I think.
Can James quantify it? Nope.
Nor can he quantify the intangibles that a catcher brings to the table. I asked him then, how we could possibly go about considering things we can’t quantify. His answer? Start thinking outside the box.
You don’t learn by studying the stuff you know. You learn by studying the stuff that you don’t know. So, if you divide the world into (crap) that you know and (crap) that you don’t know, and you study the stuff that you know, then you’re not going to learn very much. All of the progress comes from studying the stuff that you don’t know. So, that’s really what’s interesting. And that’s where most of your focus should be. Studying stuff that you can’t agree about.
And maybe trying some of it, too.
After our interviews, a lot of people tended to dismiss James with backhanded flattery. Hinting that he is still a great mind and all that, but that maybe he’d lost his edge. Maybe he wasn’t quite on the forefront anymore.
All I know is, he correctly predicted the M’s would not contend this year. He also predicted the Oakland A’s would be a surprise team, which they have been despite a ton of injuries that have made them worse than they could have been.
James won’t boast about it, but I will do it for him. He was right and a lot of his subtle detractors, well…let’s just say they weren’t quite right about things.
So, now, how do we go about fixing the M’s? I’d say that to simply repeat the same exercise next year, insisting that it was a fluke that the majority of the offense happened to slump at the same time, is foolhardy.
Yeah, it’s going to be very tough to prove that the M’s were unable to individually reach career norms this year because of collective criteria throughout the lineup. That there was too much pressure on players to produce “one base at a time OBP” and hope for some doubles sprinkled in on a day-to-day basis. That the pressure could have been removed with the addition of some bats that could impact a game’s outcome with one swing and compensate for the very “human” down days that all players have.
Like “team chemistry” we’re talking about human frailties here and how an emotional state can impact physical performance. We may not gain the insight to quantify this for another 50 years.
Does that mean we ignore it?
Seems a bit lazy to me.
Why not think outside the box?
If players keep telling you they are pressing too hard and your team lacks the power hitters that most other teams have, is it really that big a leap to conclude they are trying to do too much to compensate? No, you can’t quantify it. Call it a gut instinct.
And if you know that baseball players can slump for weeks, even months at a time, is the type of offense the M’s built reliant on too much day-in, day-out consistency?
I think it’s worth considering.
Some of the greatest ideas known to mankind have evolved from gut instinct.
And I think it’s one worth exploring. I think it’s worth trying something new next year.
Yeah, it’s going out on a limb to some extent.
But more of a limb than repeating an experiment that has resulted in a flop of historic proportions? I think not. It’s time to think outside the box of “quantifiable decisions” given how prone to disaster some of those still can be. If you don’t believe me, look at the standings.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins

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