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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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June 27, 2008 8:39 AM

The prediction game

Posted by Geoff Baker

Some fun responses to the Ichiro trade issue put up yesterday. Much more intelligent than some of the discussions we've had on here this season. I guess most of you are in the mood to talk baseball when given a chance. On that topic, let's get today's issue out of the way so that we don't have to go over this which each new debate on what to do with this team.

Yes, I predicted that the Mariners could win this division. Yes, I was wrong. Wait, let me repeat that again. I was wrong. Now, I know that most of you have moved past this issue and are on to the next thing. But for those who aren't, keep reading this paragraph.

One of you asked what my qualifications are to discuss the inner workings of this team. Well, as good as anyone else's I suppose. I've covered baseball for 10 years, in two different cities and countries, in major markets and mid-sized ones. Seen multiple firings and rebuilding jobs and their impact on players and teams, from inside the clubhouse and out. Seen what good clubhouses and bad ones have looked like. Covered seven playoffs and World Series up close, getting a firsthand look at what winners look like and the way their teams play the game. Talked to players, coaches, scouts and GMs, both on and off the record, before and after they held their jobs. Hey, no one is forcing you to agree with me. If I tell you a team has a problem in its clubhouse, you'll just have to take my word on it. Or not.

But, they gave me this blog, I'm trying to make it work, and getting tired of seeing discussions hung up on the useless theme of "I predicted this way back when..."

I predicted more division winners than any other Seattle Times writer in our 2007 baseball preview section. Round of applause, please. No? It's OK. Because guess what? It doesn't matter. Has no relevance to what the 2008 Seattle Mariners have to do next. Things change. Scenarios change. Baseball is a fluid entity. Like most professional sports. The winners are the teams that make adjustments. Not those that cling to mantras like "proven veterans are always better than rookies" or "bad teams criticize their best players" or other fun sayings like that. No saying can be applied like a blanket to each scenario. Sometimes, Bill James will be right. Other times, he will be wrong. I like Bill James. But let's stick to the 2008 Mariners.

We can all crunch numbers. Some of us better than others. But this game is about so much more than mere numbers. Yes, there were some predictions out there that were pretty close to saying the Mariners might be a last-place team. In fact, the Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projections had them as a 76-win club. Once again, a round of applause, please. Unfortunately, BP also had the Indians as a 92-win squad, edging out the 90-win Tigers and winning the AL Central. They had the 96-win Yankees taking the AL East. The 93-win Mets winning the NL East. So, um, what happened there? Those predictions are only about nine wins off where the Yanks are concerned, but, so far, they are 18 wins off with the Indians, 11 with the Tigers and 13 with the Mets.

Once again, my M's prediction was way, way off. So, no gold star for me at the end of the year. But again, for the sake of moving forward and figuring out what comes next for the M's, how close have they come to actually meeting anyone's prediction or expectation?


Over on the U.S.S. Mariner site, Dave Cameron predicted the M's would be an 83-win team. Cameron was not in favor of the Erik Bedard deal. Once again, a round of applause. But for all of Cameron's instincts that did prove correct, especially where offense was concerned, he did not envision this as a 58-win team.

An 83-win team? That's a better-than-.500 club. I went further than Cameron did. I believed these M's would be .500 at worst and potentially a 95-win club at best. So again, I was wrong. No applause. But an 83-win squad, playing at that pace, would be about 40-38 right now. Would face a gap of 7 1/2 games. Not great. But this season would yet to have been written off. The M's would theoretically be seeking an impact bat at the trade deadline, hoping to make up the gap on an Angels team heavily outperforming its Pythagorean Expectation so far.

So, if this really is a .500 team that plays like a .350 squad when the heat is on, that's a big deal. No amount of "talent" is going to remedy that one in a hurry.

If we look at last season, the M's were an 88-win team. Much better than .500. Yes, their Pythagorean Expectation was only that of a 79-win club. Two wins lower than .500. But around .500 nonetheless.

BP believed it would be a 76-win team. That is 18 wins better than the pace this M's club is currently on.

So forgive me, please, if I'm not prepared to let these players off the hook so easily by claiming they are the mere victims of a front office that left them with no talent. If the team was a handful of games under .500, I could buy that argument. If it indeed was on-track to win only 75 games and life was playing out as it should, I would be standing on the mountain top and claiming BP to have the greatest system ever created. Or, maybe I'd be saying it was having one great year -- knowing how volatile the prediction business can be. But here's the thing.

At worst, the most pessimistic of M's detractors felt this was a squad that could win 70-80 games. Most prognosticators, or systems, felt it was at least a few wins away from .500 in either direction.

In reality, this might go down as one of the worst teams in Seattle history.

Something has gone horribly wrong. Forget my prediction. It was obviously way off. But I don't think you can criticize the folks who felt this was a .500 team. You can't laugh at them for being about 23 wins off their predictions. Too many people saw the same thing. They saw that this club should at least be winning roughly -- I say roughly -- half their games. Not one third. That's a huge discrepancy and there is a reason for it.

Part of it can be attributed to Richie Sexson and Jose Vidro going AWOL. But so what? Sexson went AWOL last year and so did Vidro for a half-season. How does that explain the rest of this train wreck? Is it the Perfect Storm of baseball disasters? Or are there other things at-play? Is this a team that quits too easily? I'll argue that, on some nights, it has. You don't lose this many games so quicky by being a team that is afraid of losing. You lose this many by being a team that grudgingly accepts it. By letting personal stats, petty clubhouse squabbles, off-field distractions and other things get in the way of the common goal of winning ballgames.

Of course poor clubhouse "chemistry" can get worse with losing. Of course. But on good teams, the players find ways to shove the other stuff to the back burner. They find ways to win so that their teams don't have to fire the manager less than a year into his stint.

This team has not done that.

To me, there is something dreadfully wrong with a club where so many players are underperforming at the same time. Not all of those players lack talent. Not all of them are "done" so to speak. But some of them continue to play like they're "done" for whatever reason.

And ignoring that reason, stating that there is not enough "talent" around them to perform better, is setting this team up for future failure. If this is actually a team of not-quite-ready-for-prime-time types, incapable of performing when the heat is on and expectations are real, then keeping the core together and trying to bolster it with a couple of additions will be foolish. It will waste more time.

Some players win when they are expected to. Others can't.

Now is the time to figure that out. But this season hasn't all been about Sexson and Vidro. Please, let's not kid ourselves. This has been a colossal failure all across the roster.

So, when professional scouts who have followed this team day-in and day-out tell me that it looks like a team waiting to lose every night, I'm not going to laugh in their face and tell them they don't know what they're talking about. That it's really just a matter of swapping some underperforming numbers for some higher-projected "talent". Sorry, I'm just not that arrogant. And frankly, I happen to agree with them -- even with my non-pro baseball eyes. I've never seen a team with this much potential .500 talent fail on so large a scale night after night.

Yes, I'm certain that more talent will help this club. In theory, it should help any club. But help it to do what? Play .500 ball? If you believe -- as I do -- that this club should be around .500 right now, then adding talent just to get it up to that level seems like a waste. I know that things like chemistry, attitude, and makeup are tough to gauge. If they were easy to figure out, you could simply run projected standings every year and save every team from actually having to play.

But things change. Nothing goes according to plan for every team every year. Things like makeup, chemistry and the ability to perform when the games matter -- not right now, or the next three months for the M's, when they won't -- is what makes the prediction game so uneven.

And so, those of you who think you have it all figured out: you don't. Like the rest of us, all plodding about in the dark seeking answers, you'll have to be patient, listen to a multitude of voices, then make some new predictions next winter.

So, keep putting forth your own theories. All of them. Take mine with a grain of salt. At the end of the day, we all have our theories.

It's what makes this game so much fun.


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