Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Comedy and Tragedy at the Small Sample Size Theater

Ridiculous fluctuations in rate stats are one of my favorite parts of the first month of the baseball season. Yes, the numbers are entirely meaningless but that doesn't make it any less hilarious to look at the stats page on ESPN.com and see leaderboard-toppers like Vernon Wells for AL home runs (5), or Livan Hernandez (!) and his shiny 0.00 ERA.

That said, a common theme of this offseason with regard to the Seattle Mariners was their focus on building another elite defense while attempting to augment 2009's offense, which oscillated between mediocre and occasionally painful to watch. The condemnation of the Mariners' offensive prowess came with some significant provisos: namely the team's poor performance with runners in scoring position (.235/.312/.358) and the complete lack of offensive production from C (.224/.282/.354, 77 sOPS+*), 3B (.247/.294/.349, 71 sOPS+), SS (.231/.262/.335, 65 sOPS+), and LF (a truly repugnant .219/.276/.333, 57 sOPS+).

Building in some regression toward the mean in the team's hitting with RISP, replacing the truly horrific Yuniesky Betancourt with a full season of Jack Wilson at SS, and deploying actual major-league bats Milton Bradley and Eric Byrnes in LF should improve the club's performance in 2010. Indeed it seemed that anemic as the offense may be, they were bound to improve on the 640 runs they scored last year.

Through eight games, oh man it looks like we were hilariously wrong. I wrote some context at the top of the post, but I should probably state it explicitly here: None of the following numbers mean anything this early in the season. That said, they are hilarious.

After being two-hit by Oakland in a 4-0 loss that dropped the team to 2-6 on the year, the Mariners as a team are posting a laughable .212/.287/.286 line.** I started looking through old leaderboards yesterday for the following thought experiment: Which pitcher/year combo posted an OPS-against as low as the current Mariners squad? Put another way, the 2010 Mariners are making pitchers they have faced collectively look like [Pitcher X] in [Year Y].

The comparables are not particularly uplifting.

Before yesterday's "effort," the Mariners had a .612 team OPS. Pitchers facing the Mariners had performed like 2009 Javier Vasquez or 2008 Tim Lincecum. The Mariners are turning pitchers like Justin Duchscherer into Cy Young-caliber performers.

I re-ran the numbers through the 7th inning of yesterday's game, because (a) I'm apparently both masochistic and easily distracted at work and (b) sabrmetrics has taught me to seek out new and exciting ways to quantify suck.

A team OPS of .582 at that point meant that new comparables included 2009 Chris Carpenter and 2001 Randy Johnson, a Cy Young winner and a close second.

After the merciful end of last night's game, the Mariners' OPS stands at .573. I don't have a comparison here because only 12 pitchers in the last 10 years (min. 100 IP) have posted season OPS-against figures lower than that. We're getting into early-2000s Pedro territory here, one of the most dominant pitching performances ever. A Mariners fan friend of mine suggested that any pitcher looking to bolster his Cy Young credentials should demand a trade every fifth day so that he can join his new team just in time to make a scheduled start against the Mariners. Eight games in, with meaningless numbers, it wouldn't be the worst idea.

The Mariners will start hitting. They won't hit particularly well, but they won't be this hilariously inept for long. Their 2010 success, fortunately, does not require them to mash the ball, and a season of 3-2 games is all I ask for as long as they come out on the right end the majority of the time. But thus far the offense has performed at an epically poor clip. If this continues, I'm going to keep the "Pitchers facing the Mariners are performing at a level like [Pitcher X] in [Year Y]" feature going throughout the year.

Because all baseball fans should get reacquainted with the pitching legends of the deadball era.

*split-OPS+, i.e. compared to league average=100, the Mariners' catchers were a collective 23% below the league average for catchers.

**It bears mentioning that their BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is an unsustainably low .254. Even last year's team, as anemic as it was, posted a BABIP of .293.

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