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Wild Card: Baseball's Uber-Overachiever
In early May I filled this space with a list of five teams that I thought were overachieving. The following is a chart detailing the records of those five teams then and as of today:
I got the Braves, Brewers, Indians, and Pirates right, but the Mariners have not only avoided a correction, they’ve gotten better. Since I declared them overachievers, the Mariners have gone 41-28 (.594) and have only gotten stronger as the season has gone on. The M’s have posted an 18-7 (.720) record over their past 25 games and appear unaffected by manager Mike Hargrove’s surprise resignation; they’ve gone a solid 8-6 under replacement John McLaren, splitting a four-game set with the equally hot Tigers to open the second half.
So what’s the deal with the Mariners? Here’s what I wrote on May 4:
"The Mariners are the only team in the major leagues with a winning record that has failed to outscore its opponents for the year. Richie Sexson (.143/.233/.377) is a candidate for improvement, but the bullpen, particularly closer J.J. Putz (1.38 ERA) and LOOGY George Sherrill (no runs allowed) will have their struggles. Similarly, Jarrod Washburn (2.88 ERA) is due for some correction. Finally, though Felix Hernandez is expected to return next week, the M’s aren’t out of the woods with respect to his elbow problems just yet."
Sexson has indeed improved, though not as much as one might have expected. He’s hit just .217/.322/.407 since May 4. Hernandez has taken each of his turns since returning from the DL in mid-May, but has posted a roughly league average 4.18 ERA over that period, while Washburn has indeed added more than a run to his ERA. What about Putz and Sherrill? Here's our first clue. Prior to May 4, Putz and Sherrill had combined to allow two runs in 20 1/3 innings. That’s a combined 0.89 ERA. Sherrill allowed three runs in one inning to the Yankees the night of my original column, but the two have combined to allow just three more runs since then, good for a combined 1.03 ERA since the morning of May 4.
Of course two relievers alone do not make a contending team, but Putz and Sherrill do appear to have had an unusual influence. Consider Pythagorean record, which translates a teams’ runs scored and allowed into wins and loses. (For those who doubt the usefulness of Pythagorean record, the Indians' Pythagorean winning percentage on May 4 was .583. Compare that to their winning percentages in the chart above.) One reason I pegged the Mariners as overachievers back in May was that they had a winning record despite allowing more runs than they had scored. The Mariners’ runs scored have since surpassed their runs allowed, but not by much. Of the 901 runs scored in Mariners games, just eleven more have been scored by the M’s than by their opponents. That works out to a .512 Pythagorean winning percentage, which falls nearly six wins short of the Mariners’ actual record.
A couple years ago I contributed some research on Pythagorean records to Baseball Prospectus’ Mind Game, a book on the 2004 World Champion Red Sox. My findings were that teams that regularly outperformed their Pythagorean projections did so by "losing big and winning small." That’s actually just common sense. A team that loses more than their share of blowouts but wins an unusual number of close games would have a skewed run differential. Indeed, the Mariners’ average margin of victory has been 3.36 runs, while their average margin of defeat has been 4.28 runs. Having Putz and Sherrill to protect those small leads (more than half of the Mariners’ wins have been by three runs or fewer) has been crucial to the Mariners’ ability to maximize their success thus far this season.
That, however, is only half of the story. Somehow the Mariners, a team that has rotated Jose Vidro, Raul Ibañez, and Jose Guillen in the third spot in its batting order and plays its home games in an extreme pitchers' park, has enjoyed the seventh-best offense in baseball judging by raw runs per game. Consider too that their first baseman has hit .199/.303/.399 on the season, their current three-place hitter, Ibañez, is hitting .264/.314/.408, and his predecessor, Vidro, is slugging just .366. Where’s all that offense coming from?
A lot of it has come from Ichiro Suzuki, who is perpetually overrated, but just happens to be equaling his best season this year. Some of it has come from Guillen and third baseman Adrian Beltre, both of whom have shown some signs of life at the plate this season. And some of it has come behind the plate, where Kenji Johjima has been a league-average hitter (which is impressive for a catcher), and his backup, minor-league veteran Jamie Burke, has been enjoying one of those fluke seasons that every backup catcher seems entitled to at some point (see Bard, Josh). In general, however, it seems the Mariners have squeezed every run they can out of their lineup.
Taking a closer look, the M’s appear to be doing this by simply putting the ball in play. The Mariners have a league-average on-base percentage, but that OBP is comprised of a higher ratio of hits to walks than is typical (the average AL team reaches base 73 percent of the time by hit and 27 percent of the time by walk; the Mariners reach 79 percent of the time by hit and 21 percent of the time by walk). Meanwhile, the M’s have posted the major-league’s lowest strikeout rate. This approach is radically divergent from that of the league’s other top offenses, who typically walk and strike out in bunches. The Mariners’ approach is largely dependent on luck, on the hope that enough balls drop in to sustain success (particularly as the M’s don’t hit many homers either). The M’s team speed certainly won’t help, as Ichiro is responsible for almost exactly half of the team’s steals.
One has to assume that the Mariners' luck will run out later, even if it failed to do so sooner. The M’s are a team that’s been riding two mind-blowing relief seasons, a trio of merely average starting pitchers (Washburn, Hernandez, and Miguel Batista), and a hope-and-pray offense. I still say they’re overachieving. They’re just doing a heck of a job of it.
Labels: Wild Card
posted by SI.com | View comments |
On paper the team has always been good, even the past few years. The difference this year is that we're actually producing up to our potential. If Bavasi can get his act together (and not overpay) and pick up a starter, we should be in good shape for the playoffs. Go M's!
I was able to read along with your largely masturbatory diatribe until you got to Ichiro being overrated. Mother of God! If you've come up with some dreadful manner of judging players which doesn't include him in your top five you are just picking the fly shit out of the pepper. And being uncommonly stupid besides.
The Irish Troubles
Mariner's winning way this year is "luck"? One game behind the Angels at this point in the season? Sweeping series from top teams like the Padres and Red Sox? ...so if they won their division it would be luck, right? Or winning the WS? It would be luck, yes? And all this time I thought it was scoring more runs than the other team that explained a team's position in the standings. Thanks for the insight.
I wouldn't say this blog is 'stupid' per se. Obviously there is some kind of confusion though.. and it wouldnt be going nearly far enough to say there seems to be alot of confusion on the writer's part here. I think its realistic to say that he does what every other writer does, rides the bandwagon, and focuses intently on stats. Obviously this article is proof that any dumbass can work for Sports Illustrated, but let it be a testament to those who think they have something to say.. you probably don't unless your willing to actually watch the team in question. The mariners, coming from an unbias opinion, are obviously a very talented team. No, they didnt make the playoffs last year. No, they aren't from the east coast or within close proximity to california.. but the numbers speak for themself fortunatly for every dumbass writer at SI this time. I'm not trying to be derogatory either. To the writer: I'm sure you are a great family man, and a really good person.. but you shouldn't have the right to writer articles. This article proves that you had nothing to say aside from your opinion.
Wow, that was really insightful. You must be a super genious. Ask for a raise.
You got the Braves, Brewers, and Indians right? By predicting they would not keep up that pace and finish with 102, 104, and 110 wins, respectively? Good call...
I was going to make an insulting comment for saying Ichiro is overrated before I realized you're a fantasy writer. The talents and value of Ichiro is therefore lost on you. Oh how valuable would he be with a .265 average and 35 home runs annually, right?
Are you actually bragging about an old article in which you said you would take Adam Dunn over Ichiro?
For a guy who researches so many numbers, I would think you would bother to look at win shares and what not. Oh and how dominating one is at their respective positions/roles.
Enjoy Adam Dunn's 40 solo HRs a year. While his managers can't even find a batting slot for him in which he'll actually be useful to the team. Can't have too many men on base when he comes up, then he won't homer after all.
And that doesn't even mention the fact that his defense resembles a big log rolling to the ball.
I tried clicking the link to find out why Ichiro is so "overrated", but an error message came up. It's just as well, as it probably saves me a headache.
Remember when you said that Chipper could not maintain his pace? Or that Hudson was a lock for the DL?
First, I disagree that Ichiro is overrated.
Second, the Mariners have been lucky. Modern analysis has shown that pitchers don't have much control over what happens to balls put in play (apologies for the lack of a reference, just Google
"BABIP"). Anytime time a team has a higher-than-average BA on balls put in play (yes, people keep track of this), it is due to *luck* (especially considering Seattle's below-average team fielding percentage as of this post).
Similarly, as of this post, Seattle has over-performed their projected pythagorean win total by five games. Many of the division leaders have overperformed as well (including LAA, by 2 games), but only Arizona, with an amazing 10 game advantage over their expected record, is enjoying a better deviation from the norm than Seattle. Unless Seattle's players somehow know early on when they are going to loose a game and stop trying (inexcusable in almost any circumstance), there is no way to explain why their average margin of victory is greater than their average margin of defeat... other than luck, that is.
david, your most recent comment doesn't make sense in two regards.
First of all, you talk about how the Mariners are lucky with a high BABIP, with the parenthetical remark about their poor fielding. But poor fielding doesn't influence their hitting. It would influence their opponent's hitting, however.
You also mention Pythagorean run totals. But if the Mariners are outperforming their Pythagorean run totals, this suggests that the Mariners are winning by small margins and losing by large margins, not the reverse as you put.
I think there are a number of explanations for this:
(1) The Mariners are a team that's succeeding largely because of "hot hitting". When hot hitting cools down, you're going to lose a number of games (see their multiple losing streaks of 5 or more games).
(2) The Mariners have average -- at best -- starting pitching. Accordingly, these pitchers aren't going to be shutting down opposing offenses.
(3) The Mariners do have a well-performing bullpen this year. Accordingly, when the games are close late, more of these games are going to fall in favor of the Mariners.
(4) Also, the Mariners lead the majors in "clutch hitting" (forget exactly how it was defined, but it was something along the lines of BA in the 7th inning or later when up by 1, tied, or with the tying run at the plate/on deck?) by a large margin. This also suggests that close games late are going to favor the Mariners.
So when they lose, their starters are going to give up some runs, and the M's probably aren't going to score many. When they win, their starters are still giving up some runs, but the M's are outscoring their opposition by a few runs.
Which should grossly skew the Pythagorrean records, if you ask me.
Ack, my bad. You are correct. I suppose its a bit of a moot point now, though, with the M's recent struggles.
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