Author Archives: mike

Are the Mariners’ days of future already past?

If the line is “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, then Seattle is truly a tale of two cities. Whereas the glow from the Seahawks’ Superbowl win still envelops the city, the Mariners have nearly exhausted any goodwill from their fanbase.

Mariners

70 wins. The Seattle Mariners have averaged 70 wins over the last five years. They have been long-term cellar-dwellers in the AL West until the arrival of the Houston Astros. What’s worse is that the despair of losing has at times given way to acts of absurdity.

  1. Outfielder Eric Byrnes’ failed squeeze attempt was amongst the strangest at bats ever by a Seattle Mariner.  So embarrassed after the gamer, Byrnes sped away on his bike through the clubhouse hallway past reporters and general manager Jack Zduriencik.
  2. Richie Sexson, who was unfortunately the last to know that his career was over, tried to spark the team by charging the mound on a pitch that was OUTSIDE. Bonus marks for throwing his helmet with the form of a 12 year old.
  3. When shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt wasn’t displaying a lack of discipline at the plate, he was ignoring his own outfielders calls on plays in the field. Let’s just say that his horrific collision with outfielder Endy Chavez was the worst, but not the only example of his defensive recklessness.
  4. The wife of outfielder Carlos Peguero was charged after defrauding Felix Hernandez’s wife of thousands of dollars at Saks Fifth Avenue.

This type of behavior is clearly not conducive to winning, but it also makes the team difficult for fans to rally behind. However, it wasn’t just the players that were sucked into this bipolar vortex.  A long line of managers have sacrificed a good measure of their physical and mental health during these times.

  1. Mike Hargrove thought so much of his lot that he quit during an eight game winning streak.
  2. His mild-mannered replacement John Mclaren was, well not so mild-mannered after months of losing. His public meltdown at a post-game presser was an instant classic.
  3. Chone Figgins took to actually fighting with manager Don Wakamatsu in the dugout.
  4. Poor Eric Wedge was subject not only to terrible play, but also suffered a stroke during the season!

Crazy behavior aside, the team’s losing on the field has led to dwindling crowGriffey_bannerds at the gate. During the most recent offseason, Seattle Times reporter Geoff Baker penned an eye-opening piece that pointed to wide-spread dysfunction in the Mariners’ front office. The team of GM Jack Zduriencik, President Chuck Armstrong and CEO Howard Lincoln appear to be so flawed that players, managers and coaches are at a competitive disadvantage.

Even when opportunity presents itself, it is unclear that the Mariners are capable of capitalizing.  The team signed a new television deal that will provide far more financial flexibility. Not that money was ever the biggest problem, remember they were the first team to lose 100 games with a $100 million roster. Their biggest offseason acquisition was ex-Yankee Robinson Cano (31 years old) to a 10 year deal that is sure to create problems at its tail end. On its face, it is a bad deal, bit the Mariners needed legitimacy and had to overpay to get it.  They needed a veteran position player who could lead the youngsters and a bat in the middle of their order. Cano fits the bill, at least for the near future. For Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio and Jeff Kent, their WAR fell off a cliff between the ages of 34-35, so it is unlikely that Cano will be helping much at age 40.

Then there was the curious case of Randy Wolf. Brought in this spring to compete with Scott Baker to provide veteran depth as the fifth starter, Wolf won the spot, or so it appeared. With Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker due back by May, the team asked Wolf to sign a waiver that would allow the team to release him after 45 days. Wolf balked, contending that the two parties had not agreed to such an arrangement at the beginning of spring training. The move was curious considering: 1) Wolf would only make $1 million as their fifth starter and; 2) the Mariners will have at least three rookies in the starting rotation and will likely need someone to eat innings late in the season. Instead, Wolf left and the Mariners signed 34 year old Chris Young to a $1.25 million contract

Still, the fortunes of this team rest on its youth. The Mariners have committed to this rebuild but have yet to see any payoff. Entire coherts have yielded surprisingly little. Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Michael Saunders and Jesus Montero represented the first wave of talent, with only Seager developing into an everyday player. The poor results thus far give Seattle fans the sinking feeling that the future for these players may have already past. Bringing in veterans Raul Ibanez, Mike Morse, Jason Bay and Kendrys Morales as stopgap measures last year gave way to calling up an even younger set of players from AAA.

Then a second wave of Nick Franklin, Brad Miller, Mike Zunino and Abraham Almonte was brought in late last year making the Mariners a very young team indeed. The most alarming fact is that the players in Seattle’s system rarely develop. Is this a consequence of poor talent evaluation or poor coaching? It is difficult to say, but with two cohorts of young players without any breakout performances (and more commonly significant regression), the likelihood is that player development throughout the system could stand for some improvement.

All the same, there do exist some glimmers of hope.

Justin Smoak has always possessed an above average eye at the plate while providing steller defense at first. However, Smoak has struggled when he presses to much elevating his strikeout totals.  Last year Smoak seemed to turn the corner at the plate, hitting for decent average, but lacking enough power for first base (only 6 homeruns by July). New manager Lloyd McClendon has wisely encouraged him to hit more doubles, which should allow him to play to his strengths. Could 30 homeruns be within reach for Smoak this year? If so, a switching hitting first baseman with power and a good glove will be of great value.

For all the turmoil that Dustin Ackley has been through, it appears that he is settling in to his major league role. Ackley and Seager came up together after being drafted in 2009. After their first offseason, Seager gained considerable weight, while Ackley remained quite light. Seager immediately showed much more authority at the plate, while Ackley started adopting a slap-hitting approach. Losing his confidence, Ackley bottomed out last year when Wedge questioned his aggressiveness and demoted him to AAA. Note: my favorite Ackley picture below after going down two strikes on balls he couldn’t hit (and were outside). This year, Ackley looks like he has gained some weight and is swinging much more aggressively to all fields.

Dustin  Ackley
Ackley with 2 strikes in ninth

Shortstop Brad Miller (24) and catcher Mike Zunino (23) have both looked good early this spring. Gaining consistency will be their challenge in 2014, but they have both flashed a level of genuine talent at the big league level.

James Paxton is expected to hold a starting spot throughout the season. He excelled during his call up last September and continued that success early this year. As the graph below illustrates, Paxton was able to vary the speed of his pitches very well in his first start. He stuck out nine over seven innings and looked like he belongs.

James  Paxton April 2, 2014

The success of the team in the spring will also depend on the patchwork pitching staff. The starting rotation needs to find a way to bridge to May when the regulars return. The Mariners are taking a risk by asking pitchers that are returning from injury (Chris Young) or exceedingly inexperienced (Roenis Elias) to carry the load. The bullpen may be strained early in the season, so depth right down to AAA will be a pressing issue. Blake Beavan, Brandon Maurer or Lucas Luetge may be called into action before too long.  There is a pathway to success, but the margin of error is vanishingly small for this fragile team. We’ll see if McClendon can install enough belief in these players to weather the storm.

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Red Sox bring Boston championship and healing

To some degree, most of us are fascinated by violence. Contact sports, horror movies and the agony of defeat all garner our attention for various reasons. Paired with the spectacle of violence, however, is a fascination with those who perpetrate the most violent of acts (see Mindy Kaling’s interest in serial killers). Unfortunately, infamous is still famous.

Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden remain larger than life figures. We seek to learn what motivates individuals that commit acts we cannot understand. The “Boston Bomber”, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is the latest of these “natural born celebrities”. Although the victims are the ones that deserve to be remembered, they rarely remain in the national spotlight. Part of this stems from friends and families of the deceased deserving privacy as they work through their grief. The victims never wanted to be famous and to sift through their lives, even in tribute feels like a gross violation. ‘Rest in Peace’ is what we wish for each of them. So there is an asymmetry. The victims are laid to rest whereas the killers remain in our collective consciousness. Killers remain a mystery because they do not fit our understanding of normal and we cannot predict their behavior. This uncertainty stokes our fear and as a result, these perpetrators have inflicted a form of terror upon us all.

This is where sports enters the conversation. Some argue that sports has no place during these times, that sports are insignificant when we talk of lives lost. They are correct of course. However, sports has a very real place in the process of healing as the spectacle of sports excels at crafting modern mythology. Jesse Owens performance at the 1936 Olympics was a strong rebuke of Hitler’s Aryan superiority. The 1980 US Olympic hockey team renewed national pride for a country battered by economic and political malaise. Jason McElwain, scored 20 points in 4 minutes and taught us that autistic children dream big too.

The Boston Marathon bombing was a clear act of violence and terror. In the days following, the Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox all provided a public forum for remembrance and healing.

David Ortiz, in particular, gave an emotional address proclaiming that, “nobody gonna dictate our freedom”. The same Ortiz that carried the Red Sox and Boston to a World Series Championship. The team provided the city with something to rally around, something to focus on. Everyone wanted to forget about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev while leaving those lost to rest. Six months later, the Red Sox gave Boston one way to move forward in a positive light.

Sports can’t bring back those that have been lost. Championships can’t distract us from the immensity of last spring’s events. Teams, however, can rally a city and ensure that its spirit remains strong. Boston Strong.

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Ken Griffey Junior was Seattle’s biggest star, still is.

 

[caption id="attachment_1576" align="alignright" width="640"]Ken Griffey Jr Seattle loves Ken Griffey Jr.[/caption]

Ken Griffey Jr. entered the Mariners Hall of Fame Saturday and now awaits his place in the Baseball Hall of Fame. 46,027 fans filled Safeco Field in a season where fans have rarely filled Safeco Field. The city’s  longstanding love affair with Junior serves as a reminder of the gulf between the glory of the past versus the struggles of the present.

[caption id="attachment_1582" align="alignright" width="150"]Fans lined up around block to get in for Griffey's Hall of Fame night Fans lined up around block to get in for Griffey’s Hall of Fame night[/caption]

Growing up in Canada I watched many of the Seattle Mariners prospects play for their AAA affiliate, the Calgary Cannons. Edgar Martínez, Tino Martinez, Jay Buhner, Danny Tartabull and even a young Alex Rodriguez all made stops on their way to the big club. However, the one player who never made the trip north was Griffey Jr. Too talented for AAA, “the Kid” jumped directly from AA to the majors as a teenager. So, like everyone else, I watched and admired the growing talent that was Ken Griffey Jr. through his Sportcenter highlights. Before long, he joined the short list of the world’s best athletes, Bo, Gretzky, Jordan, Montana and Griffey.

But it wasn’t until I moved to Seattle in 2005 that I realized just how much Griffey meant to Seattle. Year after year, the Mariners were awful and at home games, they replayed clips of “The Double” repeatedly. The glow from Junior, an aging Edgar Martinez and Randy Johnson clearly hung over the new Mariners teams. As an outsider, the video tributes seemed strange and a little sad. Here was a team with so little history, that it was celebrating a divisional series as its golden era. Can you imagine the Yankees waxing poetic about the accomplishments of the 2004 team? Seattle was still in love with Griffey and no Alex Rodriguez, John Olerud or Adrian Beltre was going to make them forget their adopted son.

That love was on full display in the summer of 2007 when Junior returned to Safeco Field, known affectionately as “the house that Griffey built”. 46,340 fans came out, the sixth largest crowd at the time, to catch a glimpse of the 37 year old “Kid”. Standing ovations, ceremonies and an outpouring of appreciation marked the occasion. Again, the whole weekend was a little uncomfortable to an outsider as the Mariners lost 16-1 amid cheers for an opponent. The whole scene was in stark contrast to the venom surrounding A-Rod’s return after signing for more money on a lesser team within the division.

No, Griffey was different. He left to play on the team he grew up with. He left to be closer to his family in Florida. He left for less money. The move was logical and understood, but for Seattle fans it didn’t hurt any less. He was their first superstar and indeed the city’s biggest sports star. Steve Largent, Cortez Kennedy and Walter Jones were (or will be) Hall of Famers, but never ignited imaginations the way Junior did. Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Sean Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck made it deeper into the playoffs, but weren’t the face of their sports.

Junior grew up as a player in Seattle just as baseball grew up as a major league attraction in Seattle. Indeed, Griffey was so revered because he led the first wave of Mariners success in the 90’s. In sports, like life, the first time is always special. A 25 year old Griffey led a talented 1995 Mariners team that included Buhner, Martinez, Johnson, and catcher Dan Wilson. The “Refuse to Lose” crew caught the imagination of a city that had waited two decades for a contender. The Mariners staged a thrilling come from behind pennant before beating the Yankees in the playoffs to cement the teams place in Seattle lore. Later an aging 2000 Mariners team (including a 41 year old Rickey Henderson?) also made it to the ALCS, led by Rodriguez’s amazing 40/40 season, but that team is largely forgotten. No, the first time is always the most exhilarating, and the shame of it all is that the 1995 core was never able to advance to the World Series. Losing Johnson and then Griffey slammed the window shut, reminding Seattle how rare such talents were.

Mariners for Griffey

During his 2007 speech to the Seattle faithful, Griffey made a not-so subtle reference to his return. It was strange considering that he was playing for the Reds at the time, but the circle was completed when Griffey made his return home in 2009. He was the one star that loved Settle as much as they loved him. Randy was theirs, but he was discontent and traded too early. A-Rod was theirs, but he left them for money and fame. The Sonics were theirs, but left for a city that would build an arena. Griffey left for the right reasons and returned to the city when it was all over. Old girlfriends don’t return years later saying “I always remembered you”. Griffey did just that. He was the original Mariners star showing the current star, Ichiro how to let the team and city love him. Ichiro, for his part, was ecstatic to play with his childhood hero and it made for a happy ending.

So, the Griffey memories begin to fade together – the backwards hat, the Spiderman catch at the wall, home runs in eight straight games, the all-star homerun off the warehouse in Baltimore and the slide into home. Until the team can provide new memories of success, the images of Griffey will remain frozen in time, a reminder of an electrifying past when the present is so non-descript. The torch has passed to ARod, Ichiro Suzuki and now Felix Hernandez, but the stature of each lacks the added value of team success that can be shared with the city. For now, Griffey is a symbol the very best of the Mariners and the Seattle sports and that is why he is so loved here.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="421"]Griffey_banner Not everyone is so loved by Mariners fans[/caption]

Griffey bigscreen

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Why NHL relocation is looking to Seattle

Key Arena

Does it seem strange to anyone that Seattle is being touted as the #1 landing spot for the Phoenix Coyotes? There is an arena plan, but no actual arena or plan to build it. There is a potential NBA co-tenant, but likely no plans for further basketball relocation/expansion discussion until David Stern retires. The question doesn’t really center on whether Seattle can support an NHL team or not, but rather, why now?

As we speak, Quebec City is building a hockey arena. You can literally watch them pour every once of concrete on one of the city’s three arena construction webcams. Note: 3 out of 7 of Quebec City’s municipal webcams are pointed on Quebecor Arena’s construction site. Think they miss the NHL? The Canadian winter is dark and full of terrors.

And then there’s Hamilton, Ontario. If Chris Hansen wants an example of why you shouldn’t cross a league’s commissioner, he needs only to look to Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie’s efforts to relocate a team to Hamilton. The former Blackberry CEO tried unsuccessfully to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2006, the Nashville Predators in 2007 and the Phoenix Coyotes in 2009.

In the Phoenix case, Balsillie actually offered then owner Jerry Moyes $212.5 million to purchase the team after it went into bankruptcy. However, the NHL had previously extended Moyes $38 million to stay afloat in return for proxy control of the team by the commissioner Gary Bettman. Just hours after the sale agreement to Balsillie, the NHL stepped in and removed Moyes from any form of team control. The case eventually went to court and the NHL retained ownership of the Coyotes. Balsillie likely sunk any future chance of securing a team in Hamilton, though an anonymous bid was made for the Buffalo Sabres in 2011. That bid was to relocate the team and amounted to $259 million, significantly more than the $189 million price the team was eventually sold for to remain in Buffalo.

So, there is clearly a rabid appetite for new teams in Canada. Why then is Seattle an assumed front runner? The most obvious explanation is that Seattle is being used as leverage to squeeze the city of Glendale for a better deal in much the same way the NBA did with the Sacramento Kings. Indeed, with so much effort already invested in Arizona, it would be surprising to see the team move until all other options have been exhausted. However, there are some key differences between the NBA and NHL landscapes that contribute to Seattle’s inclusion as the top relocation destination for a hockey team.

For the NBA, owners aren’t keen on expansion because it would dilute their share of the upcoming TV deal. Once that deal is in place, expansion becomes much more likely. For the NHL, however, there is little revenue from their national TV deal, so owners are eager to expand while collecting those expansion fees. Would an ownership group from Seattle be willing to pay a hefty expansion fee, probably not. Could the NHL collect higher fees from applicants from Quebec City or Hamilton? Just follow the dollars.

Ultimately, the NHL wants a team in Seattle as much as Seattle wants a team. The Emerald City is a lucrative market with a significant corporate presence (Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks headquarters). It is also the 12th largest TV market, something to consider if a team is moving out of Phoenix, which is the 13th largest TV market. Neither Quebec City, nor Hamilton can offer similar numbers.

If Phoenix is not viable, then the best strategy for the NHL is to address the situation by landing a team in a place such as Seattle. The goal would be to get a foothold in the region with potential rivals in Vancouver and San Jose. Large expansion fees from Seattle are unlikely and ultimately not that important. Replacing a league-owned, hemorrhaging team in Phoenix with a privately owned, functional team in Seattle would be considered a win.

After Phoenix comes off the NHL books, a new round of expansion to Quebec City and/or Hamilton can proceed. NHL owners will be rewarded with a fresh stream of expansion fees from eager Canadian applicants.

This all makes sense, but the most glaring risk in the plan is the lack of an NHL-caliber arena in Seattle. Teams can play in small venues for a several years, but a suitable arena must eventually be built for a team to be anywhere close to profitable. Right now, new ownership would have to assume a large part of the risk for building a new arena if they bring a team to Seattle. Chris Hansen has an arena plan, but the city isn’t going to move forward without an NBA team to fill it. New owners will have to convince Hansen and the city that they are viable partners that can help fund the development of a new arena. If they succeed, Key Arena can suffice in the meantime.

As I explained in a previous article - “However, many teams have made small venues work on a temporary basis. Before the Shark Tank was built, the San Jose Sharks played in the Cow Palace (1991-1993), an arena that seated just over 11,000. Likewise, the Tampa Bay Lightning played their first year (1992) in the 11,000-seat Expo Hall before moving to the much larger Thunderdome.  The Carolina Hurricanes played two years (1997-1999) at Greensboro Coliseum (23,000 seats), where they averaged just 8,637 fans. So, there does seem to be a precedent for arenas of this size, but the question depends largely on the magnitude of financial loss that the new owners are willing to absorb while a new venue is built.”

Conversely, if a team moves to Seattle and no arena is built, does the team have any better chance of succeeding than in Glendale? Not likely. Would the NHL really relocate a team without an arena, or even an agreement for building one? Well, if the losses in Phoenix are large enough, then selling to new owners might be preferred to holding or folding the team. Having credible owners such as Raymond Bartoszek and Anthony Lanza could bring much needed stability to the franchise in a potentially lucrative market. At worst, the financial losses would be someone else’s problem, and at best the NHL gains a strong foothold in a valuable market.

Read related article: “The NHL in Seattle: Can Key Arena provide a temporary home?”

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Yankees still loom large over Mariners

Marinano Rivera YankeesThe Yankees are having a mediocre year. The Yankees are lacking star power. Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez all missing. Still, they had more than enough to eclipse the Seattle Mariners both on and off the field Saturday afternoon. Pitcher Andy Pettitte struck out six batters over 7 1/3 strong innings on the same day his son was drafted by the Yankees. The victory was Pettitte’s 250th of his career, earned just before he turns 41.

Mariners’ pitcher Joe Saunders had a good outing as well, especially considering that he was working for the first time with a rookie catcher in his first big-league game. Unfortunately, Seattle’s offense simply couldn’t provide enough support to capitalize on the pitching effort.

Another of NY’s veterans, Ichiro Suzuki still casts a formidable shadow over Seattle’s right field. The Japanese star may be in the twilight of his career, but he still scored the winning run while patrolling his old turf with style. While statistically the Mariners may not miss Suzuki, his presence was a reminder that the void he left has yet to be filled by any of the team’s young talent.

Ichiro  Suzuki

The Yankees’ player of the present, however, is  Robinson Cano, who drove in the first game’s run. Once on board, Cano stole second, taking advantage of rookie catcher Brandon Bantz. Cano is the type of game-changing talent that Seattle has been desperately searching for at second base without success.

The Yankees true star showed up in the ninth inning in the form of Mariano Rivera. Making his final visit to Safeco Field, Rivera is still performing as an elite-level closer. With the Mariners down two runs, there was little doubt that Rivera would lock the game down for the Yankees. The save was Rivera’s 630 of his career, or about the same as the top eight closers in Mariners history.

While the Mariners wait for the rewards of their rebuild to truly take hold, Saturday at Safeco Field the Yankees provided a reminder of what true stars look like.

 

 

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Mariners in extra innings: A bit of everything

Seattle Mariners extra innings

This was a game. Gratification was not instantaneous and only the patient fan was rewarded. But that is part of what makes baseball so unique.

For nine innings at SafeIwakumaco Field, neither team could score. Seattle Mariners starter Hisashi Iwakuma and his Chicago White Sox counterpart Dylan Axelrod kept batters off-balance and guessing. In addition, strong defense on both sides helped maintain the scoreless tie. Alex Rios cut down Kyle Seager with a strong throw from right field to home plate. Nick Franklin made a diving stop on a grounder up the middle and in the eighth, Kendry Morales made an amazing juggling catch that landed him two rows into the stands.

Extra innings saw more of the same until the top of the 14th, when the White Sox strung together a series of hits that opened the floodgates. Five runs later, it seemed like a simple mop up job for Addison Reed. Indeed, many of the fans were headed to the exits.

Kyle  SeagerBut then the Mariners got a series of singles that saw them down 5-1 with the bases loaded for Kyle Seager. With 2 outs, 2 strikes and after fouling a ball off his foot, Seager did the unthinkable. A grand slam shot that tied the game.

It was the first extra-innings grand slam to tie a game in MLB history. It was the biggest comeback in the 14th inning and set the table for the longest game in Mariners history.

 Two innings later, the Sox rallied with Alejandro De Aza, Gordon Beckham and Rios singling in two more runs. This time, the Mariners could not reply and the Sox salvaged a win in the three-game series.

The game was the most entertaining of the season, and perhaps of the past few seasons. The Mariners showed some real fight with a developing combination of youthful energy and veteran leadership. Before the wins can come, the team needs to serve notice to the league that Safeco is a hard place to play. This game is a small step in that direction.

Nick Franklin was a force on the basepaths. Here is the first of his two steals.

 

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Mariners return to Safeco and top White Sox 4-2

Monday night the Mariners returned to Seattle to kick off a 10 game homestand starting with the Chicago White Sox. Joe Saunders continued his dominance at Safeco Field pitching 6 1/3 innings and allowing just one run. The defense was also solid, with shortstop Brendan Ryan and new second baseman Nick Franklin teaming up for a nifty double play in the sixth inning.

[caption id="attachment_1488" align="alignright" width="1535"]Second baseman Nick  Franklin Second baseman Nick Franklin[/caption]

On offense, Franklin and catcher Jesus Sucre got the Mariners on the board with a pair of singles in the second inning.

Although Kyle Seager got things started with a bunt in the third inning, once again, it was the veterans who supplied the fireworks. Kendry Morales doubled, missing a home run by a few feet. A dafter his 41rst birthday, Raul Ibanez followed with a two-run homerun. The homerun was all the more impressive because it came after a 13 pitch at bat where Ibanez fell behind 0-2. Once again, Raul showed his teammates how to grind out a professional at bat.

Mariners skipper Eric Wedge on Ibanez, “That was one of the best at-bats I’ve ever seen up there”.

White Sox starter John Danks was also left more than impressed, “I just ran out of ideas”.

Not everything was clicking for the Mariners though. Outfielder Michael Saunders continued to struggle at the plate getting called out on strike not once, but twice. With Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero in Tacoma, Justin Smoak recovering from injury and Ryan righting his ship, the focus is now on Saunders to get thing in order (see this article about Saunders by JJ Keller over on SodoMojo).

[caption id="attachment_1489" align="alignright" width="1462"]Michael  Saunders called out looking twice Michael Saunders called out looking twice[/caption]

Notes: A paltry 13,491 were in attendance at Safeco Field on Monday.

Read this related article – The Seattle Mariners: Into Darkness

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The Seattle Mariners: Into Darkness

The Mariners season has consisted of equal parts of the good, the bad and the ugly. Well, maybe not equal, but fans have certainly witnessed a bit of each.  After a rough first month that saw the team sink to a familiar 9-16, veterans Jason Bay, Mike Morse and Raul Ibanez helped stabilize the season by pulling the team back to 20-21 and second place in the AL West. For the first time in years the team possessed an experienced backbone, relieving much of the pressure hanging over the youngsters. They didn’t need to be saviors, just contributors. The veterans could hold the fort while the high-end prospects came into their own. Sounds like a plan right?

Batting averagesUnfortunately, the evidence suggests that the young players have regressed sharply. Jesus Montero opened the season throwing 0-15 baserunners out and had significant holes in his swing that were regularly being exploited by opposing pitchers. Dustin Ackley was constantly down two strikes at the plate and was not leveraging his speed on the basepaths. Justin Smoak’s value as a switch hitter was minimized because he wasn’t hitting from either side and lacked anything that approximated power. Rookie pitcher Brandon Maurer was taking the team out of games early by getting lit up by major league hitters.

The weight of these underperformances finally became too much to bear and Montero, Ackley and Maurer were all sent to AAA Tacoma to work themselves out. Painfully, the next wave of prospects (Nick Franklin and Carlos Triunfel) were promoted to the big club, leaving many to wonder if Seattle has whiffed on an entire cohort of players. As part of the ugly sideshow, Eric Wedge conducted a series of interviews where he appeared to lash out at the fans, the media and sabermetrics in general as contributing to the struggles of his players. Not surprisingly, the calls for heads to roll have become louder and now include Wedge, GM Jack Zduriencik, front office fixtures Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong and the Mariner Moose.

An interesting point that has been lost in all of the noise was Wedge’s call to stay the course, “You just can’t keep changing. They did that here for a lot of years — didn’t work. You gotta stick with the program”

Fans want change and immediate results. Good teams compete while implementing a consistent philosophy that provides continuity. An interesting idea that has been making the rounds in Seattle is that only one manager has lasted through four years for the Mariners, Sweet Lou Pinella. And it’s true, the likes of Dick Williams, Mike Hargrove, Don Wakamastu and Jim Lefebvre were all out after less than four years. However, another commonality is that none of them had winning percentages above .500. So, the question is, do good teams keep their managers, thus providing continuity, or are good managers kept because they win? A quick look at the tenure of MLB managers this year shows us that most managers have been hired very recently with a smaller number retained for five or more years. Among the teams that have long-serving managers are the Twins, Angels, Phillies, Rays, Tigers, Rangers, Giants, Padres, Yankees and Reds. Padres notwithstanding, these are all teams that have experienced recent success.

MLB managers

So, regardless of causality or the specifics of this Seattle team, history suggests that third year manager Eric Wedge needs to get this team winning if he hopes to make it to year five.

Into Darkness

The future of the Mariners has not looked this uncertain for some time. Although the minor league system is stocked, translating such talent into MLB success is anything but assured. Positive examples exist, such as the Tampa Rays, who have used their farm system to maintain a competitive major league club for many years. On the other hand, two years ago the top two farm systems were the Kansas City Royals and the Toronto Jays. Today, both teams sit in last place in their divisions (winning % = 0.420 and 0.434 respectively), even though they got there through widely divergent paths.

KC took a slow approach, pairing their young core of Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas with a veteran starting rotation secured by trading some of their prospects. Toronto went a different route, using most of their prospects to trade for veterans R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson. Both teams have struck out thus far and serve as a warning for Seattle fans that minor league strength alone is insufficient to guarantee success.

Although it is clear that many of Seattle’s prospects are struggling, we don’t know if this is due to poor talent evaluation, player development or a combination of both. What is more important is predicting whether these are minor bumps for young players or early indications that they may never fulfill those lofty expectations.

Let’s start with Dustin Ackley, the second overall pick who was widely regarded as the best hitting prospect in his year. With a record of success in college, Ackley moved to second base and shot (perhaps too quickly) through the minor league system. Since arriving in Seattle, Ackley has played a solid second base, but has regressed as a hitter. A quick look around the league shows that the elite second basemen (Dustin Pedroia, Robinson Cano, Ian Kinsler, Howie Kendrick) experienced early success at the plate, usually within the first two years of reaching the majors. The player who most closely mirrors Ackley’s career thus far is Gordon Beckham of the Chicago White Sox (that’s the sound of a thousand Mariners fans poking their left eye out). Drafted high in the first round, both Beckham and Ackley batted .270 in their first seasons followed by regression over their next few. Ackley’s future now depends somewhat on the performance of Nick Franklin, who just hit two home runs in his fourth game with the Mariners. A move to the outfield could be possible before he returns to Seattle.

[caption id="attachment_1088" align="alignleft" width="700"]Nick  Franklin Nick Franklin[/caption]

Justin Smoak was a highly regarded, switch-hitting prospect at first base. Since arriving in Seattle, Smoak has performed well defensively and has shown a remarkable eye at the plate. However, his situational hitting has remained inconsistent and this year his power seems lost. Smoak is somewhat older and so time is clearly running out for him to make an impact. Top first basemen Joey Votto, Mark Trumbo, Adrian Gonzalez all produced results early in their careers. Even younger prospects like Anthony Rizzo (23), Paul Goldschmidt (25), and Freddie Freeman (23) are showing more progress than Smoak (26). The one player that Seattle fans can look to is Chris Davis, who took several years before finally becoming an impact first baseman.

Finally, Jesus Montero is the onetime catcher of the future who has struggled to, well catch (that’s the sound of a thousand Mariners fans poking out their other eye). With remarkably slow feet, Montero has demonstrated a limited ability to hold runners or stretch out hits. Behind the plate, Montero appears to struggle receiving, specifically framing pitches. On offense, Montero has flashed power, especially to right-center which makes him ideal for Safeco Field. However, hitting a curveball has been increasingly problematic and in 2013 he is hitting a weak .119 on curveballs

Although some elite catchers (i.e., Buster Posey, Salvador Perez, Joe Mauer) are seemingly hatched to succeed at the position, others have taken more time to develop. Many good catchers were inconsistent at the plate in their first three years, with wide variation in their batting averages (Matt Wieters, .249 to .288; Yadier Molina .216 to .267; Carlos Santana .239 to .260). Montero is the youngest of the Marines prospects at 23 years and so it is far too soon to close the book on his career, though his catching days may be finished.

Once returned to AAA, the prospects helped the Tacoma Rainiers to a 25 run outburst. These players may have underperformed for the Mariners, but they are clearly close. They all hit in spring training and in AAA, now the tough question is how to translate this into success to Safeco Field. Are these the Mariners of the future or do they give way to the next wave of prospects? Will Wedge and Jack be here to see the rebuild through, or will there be a regime change in 2013?

Read also: Mariners in extra innings: A bit of everything

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The Mountain West, PAC-12 and perceptions in the NCAA tournament

No conference has more on the line in this year’s NCAA tournament than the Mountain West Conference. With a number of teams making the big show, there are grumblings that the MWC is getting seeded higher than deserved.

Much of the criticism centers on the fact that some teams in the Mountain West have scheduled games against division II teams, which does not affect their RPI’s, and thus their ranking. In the end, these teams still have to beat good teams, but their RPI boost may contribute to securing higher seeds in the tournament. What’s most intriguing is that these teams are not well covered by the national media, so it is unclear what type of respect the conference merits.

Against this backdrop, all eyes are on the MWC teams. If they don’t live up to their rankings, future selection committees may remember. The stunning losses for UNLV (5) and New Mexico (3) this week have certainly hurt the conference, but a deep run by the likes of San Diego could even things out. .

All of this talk brings up an old analysis (see: Things we already knew about the NCAA tournament) of first round winning percentages from a couple of years ago. I thought I would update that analysis to see how perception and performance differ in the tournament. First, I calculate “perceived” conference strength”, which combines the number of teams from each conference in the tournament and the seeding of each of those teams. Then, I related those weightings to first round winning percentages. As I stated last time, this is obviously a limited approach, but still fun to look at. Conferences that have elite teams that make deep runs aren’t accounted for here. So here is the data from 2010-2013.

[caption id="attachment_1450" align="alignleft" width="750"]NCAA From 2010-2013 seasons[/caption]

The PAC-12 is clearly seeded lower than their performance. This is not hard to see as many of these teams have upset higher seeds in recent years. The PAC-12 has not been highly regarded for years, and was predicted to go 0 for 5 in the tournament this year.

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Sports analytics: Nate Silver, Jeff Ma and Daryl Morey discuss all things data

This weekend, geeks of all shapes and sizes gathered at the Boston Convention Center for the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. The definition of what exactly analytics is remains a bit fuzzy, but the crowd was a mixture of analysts from the NBA/NFL/NHL/MLB/Premiere League teams, statistical consultants, eager engineering students, and a good number of business students.

[caption id="attachment_1319" align="alignleft" width="600"]Sports Analytics Conference Michael Lewis, Mark Cuban, Nate Silver, and Daryl Morey open the Sports Analytics Conference. Revenge of the Nerds indeed![/caption]

As for the actual content delivered, the early returns were a mixed bag. On one hand, the breadth of sports covered was breathtaking. We all know that analytics has swept through the major professional sports, but who knew there was so much attention being given to tennis, triathlon, MMA, NASCAR and video games? It was very cool to see people digging into these different games, each with it’s unique set of challenges for making prediction.

On the other hand, analytics for all of these fields, including the major sports, are still in their infancy. Much of the work centered around finding simple correlations in the data, with little to no ability to address the underlying mechanisms driving the overall pattern. No new Bayesian approaches to sports analytics, though I suspect they were largely being kept under wraps. The inherent weakness with most of the analyses shown at this conference is that they only apply to a very narrow set of conditions. Faced with a new or novel set of conditions, it is unclear how well these models will hold up. That’s not a great proposition for a dynamic realm like sports.

The most interesting session was one that included Nate Silver, Jeff Ma and Daryl Morey. Silver is the statistician and author of FiveThirtyEight, rising to fame for his accurate predictions of the 2012 elections. He subsequently authored the book The Signal and the Noise. Jeff Ma used his statistical background to employ a card counting strategy that made him the subject of Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. Daryl Morey is the Houston Rockets general manager who brought an analytics approach to team management and is the founder of the analytics conference.

During the panel, Silver and Ma both emphasized the need to separate the analytics process from outcomes. Teams focusing too narrowly on outcomes over short time horizons or small sample sizes will render any analytics effort a dicey proposition. Patience and discipline to stick with the predictions of the model are required characteristics, but difficult to maintain when short-term success is so (understandably) important to most teams. Being swayed by losing streaks and short-term underperformance are powerful motivators to deviate from the plan. Unfortunately, waiting for data to provide a definitive prediction of success is a less realistic goal than using the data to understand and reduce risk. Professor of Sport Management at Menlo College, Benjamin Alamar, who was also on the panel suggested that analytics simply serve to narrow the range of noise. Successful teams must understand that analytics is a long-term strategy.

Sports Analytics Conference

Owners, the panel went on to explain, often want experts that can tell them what moves will definitively ensure that they are going to win, but analytics can’t do that. At best, they can make recommendations for strategies to shift the odds. This puts the statistician in a bind, because they are generally interacting with scouts who KNOW they are right, whereas the statistician can only talk of probabilities. Morey gave an example about how the Rockets, lacking any superstars, needed to find high-variance players. In this sense, high variance equates to high risk and the players they got could have flamed out, but gave the team a chance to improve markedly. Silver mentioned the Blue Jays under JP Riccardi made a habit of selecting low variance college players that were closer to making the majors, but lacked the potential upside of players taken out of high school. Over the long term, that strategy didn’t appear to work out all that well, especially when the competition in the AL East was loaded with high end talent.

Jeff Ma suggested that successful outcomes can be used as a measure of progress for an analytics system, but only over long time periods. An insight into the type of long-term discipline that exists was on display by Cleveland Browns president Alec Scheiner. It’s generally understood, he contends, that one does not easily give up draft picks to move up in the draft, but we also know that quarterback is one of the most valuable positions. So, a difficult choice was presented about moving up in the 2012 NFL draft to pick Robert-Griffin III. Scheiner contends that the models suggested no and that picking RG3 was, “at it’s core” the wrong pick. Even in the face of so much early success, one season was not a large enough sample to change his opinion about the pick. Scheiner suggested that it may take 5 years to properly assess the value of RGIII given the potential injury risk.

Morey and Silver then made comparisons to weather forecasters who sometimes bias their predictions towards more rain because their job incentives are asymmetrical. Miss predicting a sunny is fine, but missing a storm is held strongly against them. This, they contend, is where sports analytics can help by avoiding the big mistakes. Another interesting point was that weather forecasters often avoid predicting that the chances of rain are 50-50%, because who needs a weather forecast that appears no better than a coin flip? I wonder how often this occurs in the world of sports analytics?

So what is the real value of using computer models versus human experience and intuition? Silver contends that humans are good at pattern recognition. When the NBA came back from strike, it was clear that poor performance was related to players being rusty and out of shape. Humans understand that sort of context easily, whereas computers cannot. However, overconfidence in this very skill is also what leads to many errors in judgement. There are special cases where the models do not apply and human intuition can help, but one must always guard against calling every case special. In his review of Silver’s book, Princeton professor Sam Wang sums it up best, “Heuristics are no substitute for careful and rigorous study— – in other words, expertise”.

Ma agreed that one strength of computers is that they check bias, but that the models must not only be appropriate, but also stable over time. Morey gave an example of this, where the inability of existing models to assess the potential of ivy league players was a contributing factor in why Jeremy Lin was overlooked. To this, Silver pointed out that using analogies from other systems may help identify if there important characteristics from other environments that work.

So, how does one create a culture that appreciates process over output? Ma argues that the big shift coming is that people who hate numbers will begin to embrace the analytics approach. In this respect, effective communication is paramount. Morey’s position with the Rockets serves as a good example of the challenges that lay ahead. Even though the moves made are consistent with their analytics approach, the team has not yet won a title. The owners have continued to hold a firm belief that sound process will lead to successful outcomes.

Visual Tracking

Another theme this weekend was the rising interest in visual tracking data. For instance, Sportvision is a group that has developed it’s PitchF/X system to track pitches in 3D. The baseball tracking system can be used to analyze how effective pitchers are against hitters (see Mariano Rivera video below). The technology holds much promise as teams may track not only the flight trajectory of balls, but also the movement of body parts to improve injury prevention by picking up small changes in arm slot or delivery that my not be so obvious to the eye.

Another company, SportsVu, has adapted missile tracking technologies to track the motion of players, referees and the ball on NBA courts. The system, which consists of six cameras tracking motion at 25Hz, is currently installed in about half of the arenas in the NBA. These new spatial approaches have the potential to fundamentally change the scope of what analytics can provide. The most significant bottleneck appears to be that the expertise to understand the large amount of data produced is limited to a select pool of experts, which brings us to our next topic – Big Data.

Big Data

Another recurring theme was the need to deal with big data. The large amounts of unstructured data being generated for every player in every game will only grow as visual tracking systems become more commonplace. The question is whether there is a lot of Big Data being collected that provides very little robust insight. Teams are still struggling with the ability of systems to allow people to ask the right questions to get the information on which to make management decisions. On this front, there were many commercial demonstrations from big players that embed tools to manipulate large data sets. Since this isn’t an advertisement for those companies, suffice to say there are many tools available that come at a cost.

Communication challenges

Another challenge touched on was the need to communicate findings to decision-makers in some form of actionable information. For instance, SportsVu can produce data for teams in 60 seconds, but can that data be communicated in a manner that it is useful for making in-game decisions? The only real message here was that the onus lies on the communicator. Clear ideas, actionable information and effective visuals should be the goal for any analytics.

The disconnect between clear communication and science literacy was on full display in the Data visualization session, Marten Wattenberg of Google emphasized the need to indicate the relative error on graphs, a simple point from any science 101 class. This was followed up on the very same stage by Ben Fry of Fathom who presented a bubble-plot of Wonderlic scores for the different positions in football. The graph was clean and showed differences in scores among the different positions. However, it lacked any measure of variance, leaving the reader with no sense of whether the differences are actually meaningful. Remember, Signal and the noise!

Where were the Seattle teams?

Sadly, there were no representatives from the Seattle Seahawks, Seattle Mariners or Seattle Sounders at the conference. Maybe the Seattle statheads were too busy analyzing the effect of the proposed Sonics arena on local traffic patterns. Not surprisingly, the Patriots and 49ers had the largest NFL contingents. The Canucks and Oilers were both there, but nobody from the Calgary Flames.

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Read another sciencewitness.com article: King Felix plays a Game of Thrones.

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