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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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July 16, 2008 10:30 AM

Numbers and logic

Posted by Geoff Baker

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Wow, wasn't it fun watching last night's All Star Game? Or, as we here in Seattle like to call it, just another Mariners adventure? I mean, when's the last time we in the Emerald City were able to see so many runners left on base in the same game? Probably last Sunday, or Saturday, I'd suspect.

At least Larry Stone got to star gaze a bit. Ah, the joys of covering the All-Star Game. Know them well. Up at 6 a.m. every day to cover sponsor-driven press conferences, then to bed by 3 a.m. after being forced to sit through the entire Home Run Derby, then a 15-inning game, in which you have to hustle off to interview your team's player, who went 0-for-2 or something. Actually, at least Ichiro gave Larry plenty to write about, going 1-for-3 and throwing out Albert Pujols trying for a double on a ball off the wall. Good on Ichiro, though if he'd connected with those guys on base, the game might have ended two hours earlier. Anyhow, if you see Larry after the break, or write in on his guest blog appearances, give him a hand. These all-star things are not as easy to cover as they might seem.

For those wondering how the M's are faring on the pitching market, this start next week could have plenty to do with whether a Seattle pitcher gets moved to Philadelphia. From that same blog (a lot shorter than ours, wouldn't you say?) comes word that the Phillies are taking a look at Joe Blanton. Not surprising. So is everyone in baseball in need of pitching. No big concern there.

OK, on to today's topic.

I read a comment from 7hourlinedrive written at 2:11 a.m. this morning, which states: "You people, you "fans" who claim to be Mariners fans but waste no time trashing its players, its coaches, its management, want so badly to hit Riggleman with the idiot stick, that you just can't fathom the fact he could be RIGHT... so you'll spend all your energy disproving it or explaining it away, with the whole "correlation doesn't prove causation" argument. You've been proven wrong, at least for the moment, and that so badly discombobulates you. You people still don't deserve the M's when they get better. You've abandoned them.''

Doesn't mince words, huh?

Anyhow, it struck a chord with me because I've noticed, for the better part of a year, a growing gap between what is written here, by me, and a lot of you when it comes to numbers and analysis. It's bothered me, because we all used to get along so well (holding back a smile here). But seriously, there is also an obvious gap between the day-to-day decisions taken by this team and what some of you consider to be logical and acceptable statistical analysis. And it's not only with decisions made by this team. But in just over a year, I've now seen three Mariners managers, Mike Hargrove, John McLaren and now Jim Riggleman trashed on this blog for being what some of you have called "stupid" and "idiotic" and "clueless".

Now, obviously, those three men are neither. They do know the game of baseball. Better than just about any of you, and certainly more than I do, for that matter. No, that does not mean they are always right. They have been wrong before and it's been pointed out. But after thinking about it for a bit, I think a big part of the gap is that their timeframe for making logical decisions is different from the one being used by many of you, and other folks on sites like U.S.S. Mariner and Lookout Landing.

In the case of major league baseball teams, both the Mariners and other clubs, the timeframe for making their "logical" moves is often short term. With a lot of you, it's the longer term. And that's where it gets tricky.


The whole debate yesterday over Jose Vidro showed me two things. Number one, that the Jose Vidro fan club meeting can be held in Jim Riggleman's office, behind a locked door with only the player and manager in the room. And number two, that Riggleman is obviously looking at things in the very short term while most of you, and me to a large extent, are seeing the bigger picture and wonder -- as one of you so artfully put it -- WTF?

It reminded me of last year's two-month square-off on this blog, not to mention some feuding in the greater blogosphere, over the issue of whether Adam Jones should have been playing every day down the stretch instead of Jose Vidro or Raul Ibanez. Many of you crucified McLaren and the M's for that one. At the time, I agreed with many of you that, if it was the start of the season with a long-term outlook in mind, Jones should play and eventually show what he can do.

But the team clearly was taking a short-term approach. It had about a six-to-eight-week window to qualify for the playoffs. There were concerns that Jones, in his first full-time role, would take too long to adapt to big-league pitching. Yes, his defense would have made the team better. But the concern was that his bat would be a hole in the lineup and that taking any playing time away from everyday regulars might make those players worse. Not to mention the impact it might have on the clubhouse if Jones tanked.

At the time, I read all types of arguments about how, over time, excellent Class AAA statistics tranferred over well to the big leagues. Over time, yes. But the M's were not viewing this situation from a long-term perspective.

They were worried about exactly what Jeff Clement talked about this past weekend. How every new player goes through an adjustment period in the majors. Some don't. Some get lucky and hit right away. Some are truly great players and hit right away. But a lot of them don't. Clement is now roughly six weeks worth of games into his career and has an on-base-plus slugging percentage of .608.

Wladimir Balentien had an OPS of .611 in roughly the same number of games with the M's before being shipped back to Class AAA. Jones himself had an OPS of .643 two full months into his career with the Baltimore Orioles. He's picked it up over the long-term, as many of us thought he would, and is now at a "lofty'' .732. So, a work in progress.

But yet, when the M's had a six-to-eight-week playoff run staring at them a year ago, many of you could not understand why they would hesitate at throwing a raw rookie into the fire. You pointed out how other rookies had done in other cities (having been broken in much earlier on, mind you). There was no acceptance of the fact there might have been some other logic at-play.

Many of you wrote that it was wrong for the M's to believe that Raul Ibanez, having been there, done that, already, would turn around a slumping bat and put up his usual norms in terms of offensive numbers. Well, he did. With lesser defense to be sure, but over such a short-term span, rather than a full season, the defensive impact was not going to be as huge in any event. Same with Vidro, who had already started hitting several weeks earlier. He didn't have to get used to major league pitching. He'd already seen it, done it before. The gut feeling within the organization was that he wasn't done, still had something left and could produce more in terms of offense than a raw rookie.

In the end, Vidro had a strong second half, which is all that mattered in a short-term timeframe. His final OPS of .775 was better than any of the short-term samples put up this year by Clement, Balentien or Jones.

Does that mean the same thing would have happened if Jones had been inserted in a pennant race last August? Of course not. He might have put up a .950 OPS for all I or you know. Stuff happens. Al Reyes could have been the bullpen spark needed to carry this team to the playoffs. Maybe his numbers would not have tanked as they did when he stayed in Tampa Bay? I doubt it now, looking back at things a year later, but you never know.

But the logic the team used at the time, working on a short-term objective, is tough to dispute. That young players need an adjustment period. That veteran players who don't need such an adjustment might serve the team better in the short-term. Even if you believed that Jones should have replaced Richie Sexson at first base (by putting Jones in left and Ibanez at first), Sexson's pre-all-star OPS was .712 last season and his August OPS was .707.

Compare it to what we've seen from the Clement-Balentien-Jones trio until now and there's little clear-cut argument for using one above the other. Especially when the team figured that Sexson would eventually put up his numbers as he did in the final two months of 2006. Well, the team was wrong on that guess because Sexson fell off the map.

But there was still logic behind the decision-making. Call it "flawed logic" if you will, but others would counter that, had Jones put up a Clement-like .608 OPS the final two months of 2007, hurting the offense and causing a clubhouse mutiny that led to John McLaren's firing, the logic of putting all that pressure on a rookie and sticking by him no matter what was just as stupid. Even dumber when you considered the track records of the guys he would have replaced. In Sexson's case, you'd have legions of folks screaming that he was "guaranteed'' to put up his usual 30-homer, 100-RBI season and would have in 2007 had the M's not benched him in early August so a .610 OPS rookie could play left field.

Yes, the M's were working off a hunch. It was educated guesswork that the veterans would have a greater chance of producing in the short term than the young guys did. And the educated guesses paid off -- at least on offense.

Why am I bringing this all back up now?

To tie it into present-day and some of the decision-making we talked about in regards to Vidro as a clean-up man and why it's lasted this long.

Once again, I suspect the big difference opinion between Riggleman and most of you centers around short-term versus long-term thinking.

When Riggleman was handed his new job, his boss, Lee Pelekoudas, stated that the team was going to give players a little more time to show what they could do. That Riggleman had to see what he had playing for him before the more difficult decisions were made. Remember, we're still only at the All-Star-Break. It seems like Sept. 23 to a lot of us, I know, trust me, I know. But it's relatively early. There was more than half a season to go when Riggleman took over and in his first few games as a steady regular under the new manager, starting June 28 in San Diego, Vidro went 5-for-17. So, Riggleman continued to play him. Should Vidro have been released back in May? Possibly. But that's not Riggleman's call. When he did play Vidro, early on, the team was winning. No "correlation versus causation"? Perhaps none. But managers don't think that way. Very few that I know of. A manager's job is to win day-in, day-out. If a guy is getting hits in a lineup and that lineup tends to win -- at least as much as it loses -- then the manager will ride that until it stops working.

Many of you have applauded the job done by Riggleman so far. He's 12-11 as a manager. If he was 3-20, how many of you would be congratulating him for having the team play better fundamental ball while losing just about every game? Very few of you.

Riggleman was thrust into the role of a drowning man having to grasp on to any life preserver he could find to turn this sinking season around. With Vidro hitting for him right away and appearing -- yes appearing -- to be an OK fit behind Raul Ibanez in the order, he figured he'd stick with it. I don't have a problem with that because his alternatives were few. We've already shown you that Adrian Beltre is a better No. 5 hitter over the long haul than a clean-up man. That Clement has a .608 OPS overall and strikes out a lot, meaning that thrusting him into a clean-up role might be the worst possible thing for his confidence.

Jeremy Reed as a clean-up man? Maybe, but again, if you're trying to develop these guys, how is putting that much pressure on them truly helping? Kenji Johjima? He hits worse than Vidro.

Look, we all know that Vidro can't keep hitting cleanup if his numbers keep dropping. Riggleman mentioned before the break that Vidro -- playing the field much more than he should be IMO -- needed time off to heal some hurts. If he comes back rested and hits some more, it buys him more time. If he comes back with more 0-fers, it's on to the next plan.

Many of you are screaming that it's time to "play the kids" and I agree that it's time to try some new things going forward. Balentien should probably be called back up, once he does a better job in Tacoma and earns the promotion. But Riggleman's job, in real life, is twofold. To get the team playing better ball while giving the younger players like Clement, and even Reed, though he's more experienced, a chance to break into the majors. It's a delicate balancing act, and so far, he's pulling it off with better-than-.500 baseball.

And once he's run the Vidro well dry, he'll have to grasp on to another life preserver in the clean-up spot. Maybe that plan ends in two days, or in two weeks. We'll see.

That's the logic, the way I see it, currently being applied.

Many of you will argue that it's flawed. That there are chapters and books out there explaining why, over the long-term, it makes little sense to believe Vidro is helping Ibanez.

But truthfully, I think many of you are fooling yourselves if you believe you have a greater grasp on logic than the people out there earning a living at this game. You can scream all you want that you are right and that every manager who runs this team, from Bob Melvin through to Riggleman, has been wrong. But you also have to remember this fact: that you are placing your bets with house money. That you are summoning up all of your courage and risk-taking skills with absolutely nothing at stake.

It's easy to talk about "playing the kids" and "correlation versus causation" when you can still head off to your jobs, or classes, the next day. You all have that long-term period to wait and see whether your theories pan out in every situation. If they don't, you simply shrug, forget about it and move on to the next test-case, the next theory, to see whether it actually does work out as a result. And when it does, some of you -- not all, but some -- will scream from the rooftops about how you were right. The stuff that didn't work out, even if you felt "right'' in applying your logic? Quickly forgotten.

In day-to-day major league ball, the stuff that goes wrong is rarely forgotten. Jobs can be won and lost with every test case. And that's why, often, the waiting period on these theories and "plans'' is short-term. Sometimes weeks, sometimes days. Often, it really can seem like a team is flying by the seat of its pants. And maybe, that type of thinking is all that's available at the time. Had McLaren gone with Jones over Ibanez or Vidro last year, seen a .600 OPS produced and lost the clubhouse, he'd have been unemployed a lot quicker than he was. No obvious jokes here, please.

For Riggleman, he is playing not only for this year, but next. He wants a job someplace, if not in Seattle, someplace else. He won't get that if he manages this team to a .300 winning percentage the rest of the year. So, like I said, his job is twofold -- generating both short-term returns in wins and better play and long-term returns in getting young players some experience. And if Vidro helps him get some of those short-term results, even if it's for only a few weeks, with no Barry Bonds wannabes waiting to take over, that is what you're going to see.

A lot of you won't agree. Most of you won't.

But at least, for now, you will understand why the "logic'' some of you try to apply -- while correct in the long-term sense -- will often seem a thousand miles apart from the logic actually employed on a daily basis by the M's and other teams around the game. It doesn't make you wrong. And it doesn't make you right. It just makes you far apart.


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