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September 18, 2013 at 10:24 AM

Raul Ibanez, Kendrys Morales the last guys to blame for 2013 woes

Raul Ibanez leads the Mariners in home runs, slugging and OPS despite being brought to Seattle in a part-time role. Photo Credit: AP

Raul Ibanez leads the Mariners in home runs, slugging and OPS despite being brought to Seattle in a part-time role. Photo Credit: AP

Last night, the two best hitters on the Mariners did what they could to keep their team in it against a powerhouse Detroit Tigers squad.

Raul Ibanez hit a tying home run off Anibal Sanchez in the sixth inning, at a time the Detroit starter — who’d allowed only nine homers all year — was in the process of mowing down 10 Mariners hitters via strikeouts. Then, in the seventh, Kendrys Morales delivered a clutch, pinch-hit double with one out that tied the game yet again and positioned the Mariners to take the lead had any of their ensuing hitters been able to execute.

They did not and the Mariners lost.

It’s been the story of the season for the Mariners, who have gotten offensive production expected out of two of the veteran bats imported this past winter. Unfortunately for the team, the younger bats already here, by and large, have failed to live up to the offensive expectations placed on them last winter.

But make no mistake: whether you prefer OPS+ (park-factored on-base-plus-slugging percentage), wOBA (weighted on-base average), or park-factored weighted runs created (wRC+) as your advanced metric of choice, Ibanez is currently the best hitter on the team strictly by the numbers and Morales the second best. Looking at plate appearances, Ibanez is headed for about 500, while Morales is already over 600. Both have spent most of the year hitting in the middle of the order.

You can argue that Kyle Seager is a better hitter than Ibanez based on his 648 plate appearances and also as a mid-order guy and I won’t quibble. But safe to say, all three guys are right up there on a different level than anybody else.

Contrast this with John Jaso from last year, who statistically led all Mariners in hitting “rate stats” but only as a part-time player limited to 361 total plate appearances. Thus, Jaso’s “counting stats” — the totals of what he achieved in terms of homers, doubles, etc., weren’t all that much to write home about. Unlike Ibanez and Morales, either leading or right up there in the top-3 of the team in such things.

That’s the difference between full-time players and part-timers. Nobody in Boston would be crazy enough to suggest Mike Carp — having a stellar .917 OPS season is his role as a part-time, platoon outfielder/infielder, DH and pinch hitter, is a better hitter than .841 OPS guy Mike Napoli. That’s because Napoli has proven himself over the prolonged exposure of 550 plate appearances compared to only 222 for Carp.

Don’t get me wrong, Carp’s season — like Jaso’s last year — has been outstanding for what was expected over a small, highly-protected sample. But give him the daily exposure of a Napoli, Morales, Ibanez or some other player? Chances are very likely that his numbers would come crashing down far below what those other corner infielder/outfielder/DH types have done.

The reason I bring all of this up is that the perception some fans and pundits have of Ibanez and Morales in Seattle continues to baffle and irritate me at the same time. Last night, I was reading the game thread of a local fan site and watching some of the commenters express disappointment when Ibanez went deep. They were upset that arguably the best hitter on the team had hit another home run and might get invited back next season.

Similarly, I’ve read arguments from fans terrified that the Mariners might make Morales a qualifying offer so they can keep one of the top hitters on the team.

A team, that remember, right now is going to be hard-pressed to score even 600 runs. Sounds a bit crazy if you’re just dropping in from outside of Seattle and trying to figure out what the team should do for 2014. But that’s the reality nowadays for a pretty vocal segment of the online fanbase. There has been this narrative running through the online Mariners dialogue all year that the team’s problems stem from poor roster construction and the fact Jack Zduriencik brought in a bunch of veteran, DH types.

Now, I’m no huge fan of what Zduriencik has done so far and that stretches back way beyond this one year. This plan had huge question marks surrounding it way before assistant GM Tony Blengino had his role reduced and much of that was also all about roster construction.

And I’ll agree partly that roster construction is to blame in 2013. But not for the reasons I’ve seen oft-stated and blindly repeated since before this season even began. I believe that overall narrative to be largely flawed in identifying the chief culprits of this year’s failure. And if the team fails to identify the main culprits, it risks repeating the current failures over and over again, as has happened through much of this five-year rebuilding plan starting way back in 2009.

For me, there will always be room for a guy like Ibanez and another like Morales on a Mariners team hard-pressed to score even 600 runs. Now, let’s cut to the chase about why this flawed narrative even exists in the first place.

Those who are constantly trying to minimize the offensive achievements of Ibanez and Morales have — since before even the midway point of the season — cited their Wins Above Replacement level (WAR) statistics. They do this, even though we know the defensive components of WAR — be it the FanGraphs or Baseball Reference versions — can be unreliable over samples of even an entire season.

But this has been going on for years. The abuse of the WAR statistic to make partial season arguments stand up has been a daily feature of baseball debates for some time, despite protestations from the stat’s backers that no intelligent baseball analyst would resort to such comparisons. But it happens daily. All over the internet, not just here in Seattle. From fans and analysts of all stripes.

WAR gets particularly troublesome when it comes to the alleged value of catchers, because any attempted defensive measurement of that position has been incomplete at best over the years and remains a work-in-progress. There are intangibles to catching that will likely never be quantified and therefore, attempts to incorporate catcher-defense into a catch-all stat will remain imprecise guesswork on the overall scale. Still, we have fans clamoring for Jaso to be given 500 plate appearances based on WAR stats that have no way of measuring the fear the Mariners had of putting him behind the plate multiple games in a row because pitchers didn’t want to throw to him.

The defensive numbers for Morales have been all over the map on mostly the positive side until this year. For Ibanez, they’ve also fluctuated wildly, though mostly on the negative side.

Still, it’s tough to know with any real accuracy just how much to dock Ibanez for his defense. In terms of Ultimate Zone Rating, he’s all over the map as a left fielder the past five years — swinging wildly from a plus-4.0 last season to a minus-13.2 this year. But even if we suspend our skepticism over the defensive components of WAR and simply agree that Ibanez is a below average defensive player, that doesn’t really change the argument that he’s the team’s best hitter.

Lots of big bats aren’t the best defenders or baserunners. And we know Morales is a lousy baserunner and Ibanez is below average, no matter how hard he tries.

So, was the plan to bring those guys here to have them tear up the basepaths and be Gold Glove defenders? First, there’s no real evidence Morales can’t play defense if we’re going off UZR. He’s had one partial season in the negative column and the metrics are unreliable over anything less than multiple seasons.

Second, no, neither Ibanez nor Morales were brought here primarily for defense or baserunning.

Ibanez was supposed to be a part-time, platoon outfielder, sometimes DH and pinch-hitter. When he played the field, it was supposed to be with two-thirds of the outfield comprised mainly of above average defenders Franklin Gutierrez in center and Michael Saunders mostly in right.

Gutierrez and Saunders have played in the big leagues for the Mariners since 2009 and were the first early youthful additions to this ongoing rebuild. And neither player did what was expected this year. Gutierrez once again missed too many games due to injury and Saunders tanked offensively in the first half.

As a result, Ibanez was forced to play the field far more than anybody wanted. And he played it in an outfield where the center field defense was exposed — Saunders is better in the corners than when he’s filling in for Gutierrez in center — and placed even more of a burden on guys like Ibanez to track down balls.

So, naturally, Ibanez’s defense almost certainly wasn’t going to look as good as it would have had he be given the center fielder initially supposed to be positioned beside him. And it wasn’t going to look as good when he’s so far played over 100 innings more — and counting — in the outfield than he did last season with the Yankees.

That wasn’t by design. It was forced upon the Mariners by the non-production — and not playing in Gutierrez’s case counts as non-production — of the two younger outfield pieces the Mariners first brought in five years ago as part of this plan.

For Morales, the month-long injuries to Justin Smoak and Michael Morse forced him into the field far longer than the Mariners initially envisioned in late May and through June. As such, Morales developed a back issue and likely saw his numbers take a tumble as a result.

Yes, the team’s basepath speed has been awful all year, as has its defense.

I’ll submit that had Gutierrez, Saunders, Dustin Ackley and Brendan Ryan lived up to even minimal projections in the first half as far as getting on-base, the team would have had plenty of basepath speed. To blame Ibanez and Morales for the team’s baserunning woes is ridiculous.

Same with defense. Had Gutierrez and Saunders done what they were supposed to, the team could have lived with Ibanez’s below average outfield defense on a part-time basis. It could have lived with Morse’s┬ádefense in right field for a stretch.

I’ll be the first to admit the Morse trade went badly. But not because of his defense. Because he didn’t hit anything close to what he’d done in the past. That one’s on the GM, but not for glove reasons.

The “roster construction” woes that plagued the Mariners all year weren’t as a result of bringing in veteran bats and having two of the three do what was expected and more. These woes were the result of the rebuilding plan’s longer-term pieces not living up to expectations on a mass scale. And their inability to meet minimum performance expectations wound up exposing the secondary liabilities of the veteran bats.

But who do you blame for that? The bats for having secondary liabilities? Or the younger players for not matching even their primary performance targets?

For me, it’s an easy answer and this is where rating players based only on WAR makes for a nice stats-based argument, but misses the more complete context.

Ibanez has far and away exceeded anything he was brought here for and has been the team’s top hitter for good money value.

Morales has been a solid, dependable, switch-hitting bat in the middle of the order over 600-plus plate appearances. If played at first base three times per week and not six, he’s a great bat addition for an offense that needs it.

Some may worry that a one-year, $14 million qualifying offer is too much to make him. Again, it’s not my money so I don’t worry too much. If the Mariners can find better bats for that price or less, by all means, go get them. But I’ve heard this theory repeated over and over again the past five years and somehow, the Mariners never come up with those bats. So, I’m taking a pragmatic view on this.

And barring any obvious bat improvements on the DH and part-time 1B/outfield front, there’s nothing wrong with having Ibanez and Morales return to the team in 2014. They were not the “roster construction” problem this year. The guys who did not perform to minimal expectations in starting roles were the problem.

Want better defense and basepath speed next year? Get it from the guys capable of delivering it, who keep falling on their face when it matters.




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