Voros McCracken is one of the most influential sabermetricians, mainly because of his “DIPs Theory”. DIPs Theory radically changed the way pitchers were evaluating in a way that wasn’t matched until the availability of Pitch F/X. McCracken is a guy I don’t disagree with often. With that said, I still don’t get Voros McCracken’s interpretation of the Mariners, and their front office approach. McCracken recently spoke at the Sloan Analytic Conference, and said something weird that I just don’t get. I have been thinking about this for several days and am still trying to understand whether or not I am missing something, whether contextually (I wasn’t at the conference) or otherwise, because this is so baffling wrong. Here, I will try to deconstruct what he said, and I think you will see with me that what he said was too simplistic and a misunderstanding of intent.
Here is the whole relevant quote via FanGraphs:
Just because everyone knows OBP is important doesn’t mean OBP isn’t important. Just because we learned something a long time ago doesn’t mean we should unlearn it. We should keep it and add to it. There are a lot of people who are itching to do the next new thing. That’s great, it’s just that mindset can cause you to forget some of the basics.
Not to pint (sic) fingers at any team, but to a certain extent the Mariners did that. They got so wrapped up in talking advantage of fielding statistics that they forgot they should have a first baseman with an on-base percentage over .280. Maybe that’s unfair. If they were here, they may interrupt me and say no, that’s not the way it happened. But my perception is that sometimes you can forget about the basics when you’re pursuing something new
Of course the Mariners have been focused on defense (before this off-season), but I don’t think it was so much so that they ignored other factors of the game, which seems to be what McCracken was saying. First, let’s look at his main point, the Mariners’ low OBP totals at 1st base. In 2012, their 1st base OBP was .296, the second lowest in the Majors (not adjusting for park). In 2011, the Mariners first baseman had a .308 OBP, 26th in baseball. So while it wasn’t as bad as McCracken made it out to be, but the point stands, the Mariners’ first basemen have not done a good job of getting on base (not adjusted for park). However, that wasn’t McCracken’s main point. His main point comes in the 2nd sentence of the 2nd paragraph above, in which he seems to believe that the Mariners’ first baseman’s OBP has been so bad because they haven’t worried about OBP, and instead have cared only about defense. Just from a common sense standpoint, this doesn’t make a lot of sense, but let’s look at some evidence, particularly, the players they have been using at first base.
Over the last two and a half years, the Mariners’ main 1st baseman has been Justin Smoak, who they acquired from the Rangers in the famous Cliff Lee deal. Here is Kevin Goldstein’s (writer for Baseball Prospectus at that time, now working for the Astros) scouting report from before the 2010 season, when he was still with the Rangers:
Smoak projects as a middle-of-the-order run producer who can score and drive in 100 runs annually. He has the best plate discipline in the organization, and among the best in baseball, with plus raw power from both sides. He has good instincts for the game and is a solid to plus defender at first.
It just didn’t work out, as every Mariner fan knows. Maybe the Mariners misevaluated him (along with a lot of scouts), maybe it was the ballpark, maybe it was just one of those things. Prospects don’t always work out. That doesn’t mean that the Mariners didn’t care about 1st base offense. They didn’t acquire Smoak because he was a plus defender but bad hitter because they were so focused on defense and not on offense. He might have been viewed as a good defender (defensive metrics have him as mediocre in the Majors), but the big thing was his bat.
How about some of the Mariners’ Backup first baseman over the past few years, do these acquisitions imply that the Mariners’ have been so focused on the defensive statistics that they haven’t cared about OBP from first baseman.
Casey Kotchman: You could argue that this was a defensive signing, and boy he did not hit.
Russell Branyan: Yeah, this was not for defense.
Mike Carp: Carp was a failed corner outfielder, but was solid defensively when he did play 1st. He wasn’t bad offensively, but he wasn’t good either. The Mariners were so in love with him, that they DFA’d him, and gave him up for cash.
Not a lot of options above, but nothing that screams “defense over OBP”. Let’s look at some of the Mariners moves over the past two or three years to see if we see this theme:
The Brendan Ryan for Maikel Cleto trade has been a coup, especially since they drafted other hard throwers in Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps who have already got to the Majors. The bullpen has not been the problem. Ryan is obviously a low OBP, high defensive value player, but I think some of the other moves below show that this was somewhat of an outlier.
Chone Figgins was an offensive signing (the speed was obviously attractive too). It just didn’t work out.
The Ichiro extension was inked not only because of the fanfare and legend surrounding Ichiro, but the speed/defense/and offense (!) combination is why he provided value on the field. His hitting regressed, making him more of a speed and defense player, but that wasn’t because that is what the front office wanted. They didn’t tell him to stop hitting.
Dustin Ackley was basically just a defensive player last year, but remember, there were a lot of questions about his 2nd base defense when he was brought up. He was an offensive player, he just was bad at the plate last year.
The Mariners brought in Jack Cust in 2011. That isn’t a defensive move, that was a move that attempted to boost the offense, as was the Ryan Langerhans signing. They didn’t work out because they are both AAAA hitters. They are bad defenders, signed because it was believed they had a chance of hitting.
It is one thing to say: “The Mariners first baseman, especially Justin Smoak, can’t and haven’t hit”. It is another to say that: “This was on purpose”. The first thing is right. The second is wrong. Of course the Mariners would interrupt McCracken and say he was wrong. The first baseman not hitting, or the hitting in general struggling, was not by design, no more than the Indians intentionally traded for a terrible pitcher in Ubaldo Jimenez. If you want to say “look, they made bad moves here”, critique how they have done things, point to things, even in hindsight, that showed where we should have known Smoak would fail and Jimenez would regress so poorly. You can say “they are bad at evaluating talent”, but you can’t say “the Mariners don’t care about 1st base offense or OBP” or “the Indians don’t care about starting pitching”.
I am the last person that wants to defend the Mariners’ front office. I don’t have a lot of rooting interest in this team, so I don’t want to needlessly pile on the front office (as a negative Mariner fan might), or defend the front office (as a positive Mariner fan might). The front office has made their mistakes, and I have been especially critical of this off-season. If you want to be critical of the Mariners for ignoring OBP, the 2013 off-season would be the off-season to critique. They traded John Jaso, who would take a step back just based on general regression to the mean, who was an OBP king in 2012 for Michael Morse, a guy that doesn’t walk a lot but hits for power. My favorite move of the off-season was when they traded Jason Vargas (and replaced him with Joe Saunders) for Kendrys Morales. However Morales is a guy who really struggled with plate discipline in 2012, and had a .320 OBP. The Mariners also signed Raul Ibanez, a player that has regularly had a OBP under .300 over the past few years. Not only did the Mariners sacrifice defense this off-season, they sacrificed some OBP as well.
This post is somewhat outside of what I usually write about. I much prefer just doing player evaluations, or analyzing transactions. I don’t like meta-narrative posts, because meta-narrative posts, especially when contained in 1500 word posts, are usually wrong. Meta-narratives contained in two paragraphs are even more likely to be wrong. Geography prevents me from going to these kind of analytic conferences, but my guess is that really simplistic meta-narratives that can be shown to be wrong so easily and quickly are probably not big parts of them. I want to be fair to McCracken, so if I am missing any context let me know, but if he is saying that the Mariners’ have been bad at offense, particularly at 1st base (again, as Brendan Ryan shows, they are intentionally bad at offense at shortstop, but not at any other position) because they have cared too much about defensive value, then he is just wrong.
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Favorite general sports moment: The Texas versus USC college football national championship comes to mind, as does Gary Matthews Jr. catch on July 1st 2006.
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