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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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January 10, 2009 11:48 AM

Bloomquist hits paydirt

Posted by Geoff Baker

bloomquist.jpg

Most of you already know that Willie Bloomquist signed a two-year, $3.1 million contract with the Kansas City Royals yesterday. The reaction in the blogosphere has generally been of the WTF variety. Don't forget, though, this is a guy who went by the unauthorized nickname of WFB throughout that same blogosphere, so WTF is about the reaction you'd expect.

Much of the furor is being caused by our very own Mariners bloggers, this one appearing on FanGraphs from USS Mariner's Dave Cameron. There's plenty of Seattle contribution to the comments thread of this topic on Baseball Think Factory as well.

I don't want to pile on all the anti-Willie "love". Bloomquist has long stated he'd love a shot at a full-time job in the majors and that's what he's getting. A shot at the second base job in Kansas City. Royals GM Drayton Moore, generally considered to be taking his club in the right direction, is taking lots of heat for this and some of his other off-season signings. You have to overpay to get guys to Kansas City, especially when there's interest from other teams. The Red Sox had been interested in Bloomquist. Moore is looking at Bloomquist's .377 on-base-percentage from a very small sample last season and obviously feels there's some underrated talent there.

Which brings me to this point, which I feel has been missed in this whole discussion. Don't the Royals employ statistical consultant Mat Olkin to help Moore with such calls? Last I checked, they still did. Olkin, you may remember, is the stats consultant the M's also keep on retainer. The Mariners have kept Olkin on, along with hiring widely-heralded Tom Tango as an additional consultant, to form part of Tony Blengino's new department of statistical analysis. Both Tango and Olkin are highly respected in their field.

But Olkin could not stop Moore from paying three years, $36 million to Jose Guillen last year, could he? Moore takes plenty of flak for that signing and despite Guillen's RBI total last year, he did not deliver the best value for the money. Also, it's hard not to notice that the Royals have brought in Gil Meche, Guillen, Horacio Ramirez and now Bloomquist.

Except for Guillen, those are all guys Mariners fans loved to link to the awfulness of the Bill Bavasi era. Meche was a frustration that extended beyond Bavasi, but you get the picture. When he signed with the Royals, the M's blogosphere exploded in laughter.

Which begs the question: what influence is Olkin the statistical whiz having on the Royals? Is he telling them to bring in all these ex-Mariners? Or is his voice just a distant one, largely ignored? Somewhere in the middle, perhaps?

Don't expect me to answer, because he won't tell you. Probably doesn't know.

We do know that, as per Mariners team president Chuck Armstrong, Bavasi and Olkin sat down before last season and worked on a detailed statistical analysis about the M's chances of winning. I can tell you, having verified this with club sources, that the Pythagorean record from 2007 (the fact the M's were outscored and probably fortunate to win 88 games) was discussed in detail. And yet, the M's still went out and sold the farm for Erik Bedard. So, obviously, being well aware of the Pythagorean "rules" and all the probabilities, the M's still came away convinced they were only a couple of players away from contending.

And they used their stats expert to verify this.

Believe me, this isn't about running down stats analysis in baseball. Good teams are all making use of stats. But I think the performance of the Royals, in signings from Guillen on down, raises some interesting things for M's fans to ponder, since they share one of their top stats consultants with that team.

The fact that stats analysis is not perfect. Even the best educated guesses can wind up exploding in your face. Stats give you a reasonable expectation of how things should average out under the right circumstances. But determining those circumstances is, of itself, a subjective task. You take your best educated guess and some guys are more educated than others at doing this. And you try not to allow outside influences to cloud your approach. And you do it with the knowledge that, even if you cover all your bases and still do everything "right" it is still an educated guess and the results could turn out wrong.

The next thing to consider is that analysts are only as good as the way in which they are used. I've gotten the impression the M's didn't always listen to Olkin enough. But then again, if he worked on a stats analysis with Bavasi before last season, and the team used it to justify "going for it" with Bedard and the Carlos Silva signing last year, maybe the stats model was flawed and the team relied on it too heavily?

For the record, I've always maintained that the majority of Mariners underperformed most stats-based expectation models last season. Especially when it mattered and the team was falling out of contention. Some players padded their stats when the season was pretty much over and that doesn't help. So, I tend to side with those who say the players helped torpedo the team's projections by underperforming. Not that the projections placed too high an expectation on them.

But that's me. Those of you who say the team expected too much of its players (and you'll throw out the names Sexson, Vidro, Silva to back you up on it), fair enough. But then, you can't have it both ways. You'll have to answer the question of why the M's, after a detailed statistical analysis that included the Pythagorean challenges, led the team's braintrust to believe it could contend.

Maybe Olkin raised these issues and was ultimately ignored by the team's braintrust. We'll never know because he's sworn to secrecy. But I know that when Armstrong first brought up the issue of the Olkin-Bavasi analysis last September, he did it as a suggestion that such studies can often be overrated.

"If it had proven to be accurate, we would not be in last place,'' Armstrong said. "We would at least be in second place.''

Sounds like a guy whose team had bought into the analysis and was now regretting it.

Did Olkin and company get it wrong? If so, they would not be the first.

Many of you have written in, asking what I think of the hiring of Tango and the retaining of Olkin.

I think it's great,and that the decision of the team's new front office to seek out more voices and more information, is a positive step. That said, I think we can all agree that Tango and Olkin alone probably will not revolutionize the team. What they will do, is provide some additional points of view for GM Jack Zduriencik to consider. And based on some of the contracts I've seen handed out in Kansas City and Seattle, not to mention the poor M's performance-versus-expectation last season, the mere presence of stats analysts will not insulate the team from making boneheaded decisions.

Much will depend on how the information is used. And how it is interpreted. It's highly possible Bavasi looked at Olkin's pre-season stats projections last winter and -- knowing his job was on-the-line -- heard what he wanted to hear while filtering other stuff out.

So, going about compiling the stats in the proper way, from the proper angle, will be key. And deciding which ones to retain and which to discard could also make a difference in the millions of dollars.

And so, my reaction to the consultants is one of very cautious optimism. I do think it's a positive step to open your mind to different ideas. I just don't know how successful it's going to be. Successful teams that employ stats consultants, like the Red Sox, also have plenty of other good things going for them. We'll see as time unfolds just how valuable these resources prove to be.

Remember our discussion the other day. If you resist the temptation to canonize people now, before they've really done anything, you won't be disappointed if things collapse. And if things work out, you can smile and be a happy fan.

For now, I wish them luck. I wish Bloomquist luck as well. They all face stiff challenges and are going to need all the luck they can get.


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