The Mariners' New Direction

In the post-Moneyball era, the value of raw offensive power has become more universally recognized. Where as once upon a time, slow and aged one-tool sluggers had difficulty finding non-DHing jobs, nowadays, even hated players like Adam Dunn can find a good pay day. However, as a consequence of offensive value appreciating on the market, the yang to the baseball's ying, defensive ability and runs prevention, has become the new underrated asset of baseball.

Despite popular belief, the spirit of Moneyball was not about on-base ability and slugging. It was about exploiting market inefficiencies so as to maximize the difference between runs creation and runs prevention. Back in 2002, when the raw tools of offense were undervalued, the focus of the underrated market value game was OBP and OPS. In this new era of baseball, however, "[t]he newest, cheapest commodities are defense and athletic players." And it's not just Billy Beane who has taken notice. Enter Jack Zduriencik.



Jack Zduriencik, the man who almost single-handedly built the Brewers' talented farm system over most of the past decade, was hired as the GM of the Seattle Mariners following a disastrously disappointing 2008 season, where the M's went 61-101. Just one year later, Zduriencik has made some big, bold changes, exploiting both market inefficiencies and Safe Co.'s park dimensions to the benefit of the organization and put the team in a position to contend in 2010.

Despite the presence of strong defenders like Adrian Beltre and Ichiro Suzuki, the Mariners ranked in the bottom half of the league defensively in 2008. Not surprisingly, the pitching staff ranked in the bottom half of the league as well. The other side of the game was much less pretty. The team's cumulatively below average glove was poorly complemented by an even weaker bat, as the team's collective .310 wOBA was bottom five in all of baseball. In short, the active roster was in shambles and the minor league system...well, the Mariners really did not have much of one. This was the state of being for the Mariners when Zduriencik stepped in.

Since taking over as GM, Zduriencik has made a bold change by moving the team's spending away from offensive production and shifting it towards runs prevention and defense. Instead of luring in "offensive" players to fill team holes last season (those like Adam Dunn, Bobby Abreu, or, god forbid, Ritchie Sex), the Mariners went out and got guys for their gloves, acquiring Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez. Even Russell Branyan, who was brought in for his offensive contributions, provided the team with a league average glove. Zduriencik, realizing that both Safe Co. Park and the Oakland Coliseum (between which the Mariners play approximately 92 games a season) similarly deflated offensive production, decided to exploit the runs creation/prevention gap by focusing on the prevention aspect of the game. And he did successfully.

By a wide margin, the 2009 Mariners had the best defensive team in baseball last season, preventing 16 more runs from scoring than the second best defensive team (the Rays). Between the park's cavernous dimensions and +62.0 UZR outfield, the team was able to turn even Jarrod Washburn into a staff ace and the team won 85 games behind the league's 6th best team in ERA (note: ERA is a terrible metric to evaluate future success, but it does evaluate the level of success a pitching staff had in a single year, whether it be luck, defense or talent based). And although I normally lobby for FIP-based ERA regression, I dare utter no such thing about the Mariners' league leading -0.52 ERA-FIP split going into next season. Why? Because the Mariners defense is only gettting better.

As Erik Manning points out, the Mariners continue to abuse the persistence market inefficiencies of defense. Chone Figgins has a stellar glove and above average/no-power skill set that should bode well with Safe Co. and the Mariners. After posting a +6 WAR season, $36 million over four years seems a steal for Chone Figgins; especially when you consider that Jason Bay is posed for a +$60 million dollar, four year pay day after posting a mere +3.5 WAR season. In addition to bringing into Chone Figgins to play third, the team has also extended mid-season SS acquisition Jack Wilson, who averaged a +18 UZR/150 over the last two seasons. That solidifies the left side of the infield, while some combination of Ichiro, Franklin Gutierrez, Michael Saunders, and Ryan Langerhans man the outfield.

The right side of the infield is more ify, though still solid with Jose Lopez (decent bat, average glove) playing 2B. 1B remains an unknown at this point, though the team seems intent on bringing Russell Branyan back. If they cannot, however, the market is plenty saturated (I smell value) with players the team can plug and play at 1B.

In sum, the Mariners are poised to again be the league's best defensive team. A few high risk, low cost gambles like Rich Harden or Ben Sheets help lead the team to a stellar 2010 season (escpecially when you consider that Chone Figgins and Jack Wilson cannot possibly hit any worse in 2010 than Adrian Beltre and Yuniesky Bentacourt did in 2009).

The AL West needs to look out. With Jack Zduriencik around, the M's are back in force.

15 comments:

Cubsfan4evr said...

Great Article! I didn't realize the great job he has been doing. My favorite GM's were Bill Stoneman and John Schuerholz, who are both retired now. I should look more into Jack Zduriencik.

Sexy Rexy said...

Do your fucking homework dude! Seriously, this article could have been written after Civ Pro. You better have finished that if you're gonna spend 1+ hours on this

Cubsfan4evr said...

It was a really good Article! Everyone needs to take a study break!!!

David "MVP" Eckstein said...

Yeah dude. He's almost as smart as Beane. I put him top 5 amongst GMs, behind Beane and the guy in Florida..

The 'Bright' One said...

Thats easy for cubsfan to say, the only one not in school

But really great article. Although the idea and content was all mine, at least it wasnt stolen by withleather

David "MVP" Eckstein said...

Horseshit TBO! I brought this all up last night and you know it

The 'Bright' One said...

I brought it up 2 nights ago, when i told you that i spent 90 minutes talking sabermetrics with a buddy of mine and it hit me that the mariners are stacking up on defense like nobody else. I know you knew this as well, but i was the one to breach the subject.

Owned!

David "MVP" Eckstein said...

nuh uh

The 'Bright' One said...

pillow fight

Cubsfan4evr said...

When all of you are on Winter break I think we should make a list of the best 5 MLB GM’S together. That could be fun.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. Nothing new for those of us who follow USSMariner, but a good summary for the folks in the rest of the country who may not have been paying attention (ie, the people for whom the Rays "came out of nowhere" in 2008).

However, if you're going to do all that work you really should use something better than ESPN's park factors. It didn't affect your conclusion (the observation that Safeco and McAfee both surpress offense -- especially to LF -- and that disproportionately affects the M's and the A's, is valid and has been noted elsewhere although it's been overlooked by many including, apparently, Bill Bavasi). But for future reference you might want to look at Home Run Park Factor: A New Approach and Batted Balls and Park Effects, both at THT.

David "MVP" Eckstein said...

Thank you for the links. Quality stuff.

Cubsfan4evr said...

Those are some good other facors to consider and good links!

Anonymous said...

Meet Jack Zduriencik

David "MVP" Eckstein said...

PSH. I wrote it first