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Author: R.A. Dickey
Category Archives: News
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"] 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Read another sciencewitness.com article: King Felix plays a Game of Thrones.
Reports indicate that the Sacramento Kings are in negotiations with a group headed by Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer to move the team to Seattle. Yahoo Sport’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that the NBA’s relocation committee will ratify the motion to move the team to Seattle for the 2012-2013 season.[caption id="attachment_1305" align="alignleft" width="1500"] Surveying has begun at arena site in Seattle.[/caption]
Other reports also confirms that Chris Hansen has also begun purchasing additional parcels of land in the SODO district. It is possible that plans are being made for a new parking garage to accompany the arena.
If the team does move to Seattle for the 2013-2014 season, they will play temporarily in Key Arena for two years. Down the road, the group may eye a new NHL team to serve as co-tenants. Read also: The NHL in Seattle: Can Key Arena provide a temporary home?[caption id="attachment_858" align="alignleft" width="1000"] Key Arena in Seattle, Washington[/caption]
Today, the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council are holding meetings to discuss study on sports-related concussions in youth. The group began a 15 month study in October and will prepare a report on sports-related concussions in youth, from elementary school through young adulthood. A goal of the meeting will be to review the science on concussions, including risk factors, long-term consequences, and the effectiveness of protective devices and equipment among other topics.
Interestingly, the group will also cover potential impacts on military personnel and their dependents. specifically, there will be a focus on concussion resulting from sports and physical training at Service academies and recruit training for military personnel between the ages of 18-21
The specific list of topics to be discussed are:
-the acute, subacute, and chronic effects of single and repetitive concussive and non-concussive head impacts on the brain;
-risk factors for sports concussion, post-concussive syndrome, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy;
-the spectrum of cognitive, affective, and behavioral alterations that can occur during acute, subacute, and chronic posttraumatic phases;
-physical and biological triggers and thresholds for injury;
-the effectiveness of equipment and sports regulations for prevention of injury;
-hospital and non-hospital based diagnostic tools; and
-treatments for sports concussion.
One of the primary deliverables for the group is to provide recommendations to specific agencies and organizations (governmental and non-governmental) on factors to consider when determining the concussive status of a player.
[caption id="attachment_1191" align="alignleft" width="1500"] Randy Johnson back at Safeco Field[/caption]
On Saturday, Randy Johnson and Dan Wilson were inducted into the Seattle Mariners‘ Hall of Fame. The pair were featured in a video montage recounting their contributions ranging from the 1995 play-in game, Randy’s relief appearance in game 5 against the Yankees after one days rest, Wilson’s in the park home run, to both players extensive community service.
Johnson is a sure bet for the baseball Hall of Fame. Regularly topping 300 strikeouts a year, the intimidating lefty found his game as a Mariner before anchoring the Arizona Diamondbacks staff to a world series. He won a Cy Young in Seattle with a .900 winning percentage, which is the second highest of all time. Johnson also threw a no hitter in 1990 against the Tigers and struck out 18 batters in 1992 while throwing an unthinkable 160 pitches.
Dan Wilson came to the Mariners from the Cincinnati Reds to play under Lou Piniella. A defensive stalwart, Wilson’s game included an AL record 1051 putouts in 1997 while submitting a 0.9987 fielding percentage. Wilson settled in as a valuable game caller who helped develop a talented pitching staff anchored by the likes of Johnson and Jamie Moyer. In 2001, Wilson led a staff that was the engine for a record 116 wins.
[caption id="attachment_1072" align="alignleft" width="640"] Jamie Moyer & Danny Hultzen at Cheney Stadium[/caption]
While a heat wave rolled through much of the country, a perfect storm was forming on the west coast Thursday night. The Seattle Mariners past, present and future was on full display, embodied in three starting pitchers – Felix Hernandez, Jamie Moyer and Danny Hultzen.
The present: King Felix delights his “supreme” court.
Felix Hernandez submitted yet another classic performance in shutting down the resurgent Boston Red Sox 1-0 at Safeco Field Thursday night. King Felix used 128 pitches over 9 innings to record a career-high 13 strikeouts. After starting the season slowly and seeing his pitch velocity topping out between 91 and 93 mph, Hernandez has been gaining velocity every outing and is again throwing upper 90’s heat.
But even as Felix was leading the way for the Mariners (that’s not news), an equally intriguing game was being played far away from the bright lights of Safeco Field. Just 50 kms south, a minor league matchup pitted the Tacoma Rainiers (Mariners affiliate) against the Las Vegas 51s (Jays affiliate) and showcased two pitchers at opposite ends of their professional careers.
The past: Jamie Moyer won’t stop believing.
Jamie Moyer, the former Mariners ace, signed a minor league contract with the Las Vegas 51s this week. The agreement suggests that the Jays will decide whether to promote Moyer (or not) after two triple-A starts.
At 49, Moyer is by far the oldest member of the 51s. He is being considered because the Jays starting rotation has been decimated by a combination of injury and mediocre performance. After being released by the Colorado Rockies and Baltimore Orioles earlier this season, Moyer still aims to compete at the sports the highest level. His quest to return to the majors brought Moyer back to a market he once owned.
During his time in Seattle, Moyer led the team both on and off the field. In the 2001 season, Moyer was a 20-win anchor for a pitching staff that won a record 116 games. As a leader in the community, the Moyer Foundation has remained active in the region long after the pitcher ended his Mariners tenure.
Thursday was, in a way, a return home for the soft-tossing lefty, who is clearly still loved in the Pacific Northwest. The last time Moyer made a start in Tacoma was during a 1997 rehab assignment with the Rainiers. On Thursday, Moyer received roaring applause from the sellout crowd as he walked in from the bullpen before the game. The pitcher appropriately tipped his cap to the crowd acknowledging the fans appreciation.
Once the game started, Moyer displayed his varied arsenal of slow, slower and slowest pitches. He topped out at 84 mph, but sat comfortably between 70 and 80 mph for much of the game. After running into trouble in the first two innings, Moyer settled down and blanked the Rainiers over the next three. He exited after throwing 82 pitches, 51 of them for strikes and handed off a 7-3 lead.
It was by no means a dominating performance and the end is clearly nearing for Moyer. The only question is whether the former Mariner can throw father time a change-up to earn one more major league ride.
The future: Danny Hultzen rises.
Moyer’s opponent on Thursday was young Danny Hultzen, the second overall pick in the 2011 MLB draft who was making his first home start for the Rainiers.
After blazing through the AA ranks earlier this season, Hultzen has been pegged as a future number two starter for the Mariners behind Hernandez. The pitcher may have found the game particularly unnerving facing such an accomplished opponent. By the time Hultzen was born in the fall of 1989, Moyer had already made 94 starts in the major leagues. For further context, it should be noted that Thursday was not the first time the two pitchers had crossed paths.
When Hultzen led his University of Virginia team to the 2011 college world series, none other than one Jamie Moyer was serving as an analyst for ESPN. Moyer’s analysis was not entirely flattering and focused on the prospects need to develop his complementary pitches and his inability to hold runners on base. Fair or not, the comments were surely not forgotten before the game last night.
Against the 51s, Hultzen was consistently hitting 92-93 mph, but struggled mightily with his control, walking in a run during the second inning. The command problems are particularly surprising for the lefty and in sharp contrast to the tight control he displayed in college, Arizona fall league and AA.
Hultzen left after four innings, 90 pitches and with a 3-1 lead. His stuff was impressive, but he may require more time to harness it at the next level. Still, Hultzen looks like a star in waiting and is certainly a key to the Mariners future.
Three pitchers thinking about tomorrow.
Like ships in the night, the three pitchers passed one another Thursday as they each pursue their major league dreams. Each has built an impressive list of past accomplishments, each has designs on future professional glory and each lives in the present just trying to get the next out.
Notes: Shortstop Nick Franklin played second base and third baseman Alex Liddi played first. A possibly interesting development considering the continued struggles of Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak with the big club.[caption id="attachment_1088" align="alignleft" width="700"] Nick Franklin[/caption]
In 2008, a group led by Clay Bennett ripped the Supersonics from Seattle to search for browner pastures in Oklahoma City. It is rumored that during the move they took Seattle’s baseball team with them. The Mariners have finished last in the AL West in three of the past four seasons, while finishing next to last in the other. After committing in earnest to a rebuilding effort with a cohort of promising young players, the 2012 Mariners again find themselves in the West’s basement. The team, its players and their fans are again left searching for answers.
Safety not guaranteed: no home field advantage.
With the season nearing the halfway mark, one alarming truth has emerged for the 2012 Mariners – they struggle to win at home. At 12-19 (.387), the Mariners currently hold the worst home winning percentage in baseball. The most obvious problem appears to be rooted in the team’s inability to score runs on their home turf. Over the past month, Safeco Field has been a house of horrors for the Mariners where they score a mere 2.8 runs per game while allowing 3.9 runs against. On the road, however, the Mariners have scored 5.2 runs per game while allowing a comparable 5.3 runs (throwing out the crazy 21 run outburst the Mariners had against Texas on May 30). Although opponents do tend to score less at Safeco Field, the large outfield and thick marine air appear to be getting into the heads of some of the Mariners young hitters. Justin Smoak, expected to be a heart of the order masher, has shown outward signs of frustration both on the field and during recent post-game interviews. Things have gotten so bad that talk around Seattle now centres around whether the Mariners should bring the fences in during the offseason. Until the team starts making it tough for opposing pitchers to come through Seattle, they will remain an easy out in the West.
Looking for a leadoff hitter… Buehler? Buehler?
For over a decade, Seattle managers have penciled Ichiroin at top of the lineup and went from there. But this offseason the Mariners superstar was asked to bat third, allowing Chone Figgins, Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders to audition for the leadoff spot. Things were so bad at one point that manager Eric Wedge had CATCHER John Jaso leading off for a game. By May, Ichiro was struggling mightily with runners in scoring position and Kyle Seager had emerged as a clutch hitter (24 RBI with 2 outs), so the team moved their veteran outfielder back to his customary leadoff position. Unfortunately, this is not the 2001 version of Ichiro, but rather a 38 year old outfielder sporting a 0.282 on base percentage. It appears the sun is finally setting on Suzuki’s all-star career and the Mariners now need to find a long-term solution to fill the top of their order.
We Are Young, but this is not Fun.
Seattle fans entered the season understanding that any rebuilding plan requires above all else, patience. The core of the team is clearly talented, but the growing pains have been overwhelming with no guarantee that any of them are future franchise players. Smoak started the season as the cleanup hitter, but he struggled early and was batting an ugly 0.183 on the “Smoakamotive” promotion night. He has raised his average to 0.218, but his inability to power balls out of Safeco Field has led to frustrated comments such as this,
“You go up there and you try to put yourself in the best position to succeed. And you hit a ball like that and it goes nowhere.”
Thus far, results from the other youngsters have been a mixed bag. Michael Saunders and Jesus Montero have hit for a 0.270 average, Kyle Seager 0.256, Dustin Ackley 0.247 and Mike Carp 0.157. As the losses began to pile up, and with the veterans unable to right the offense, the younger players on the team started to play with an air of desperation. For example, Montero may be the slowest player in the MLB, and yet he has been caught three times in recent games as a result of overly aggressive running errors. These gaffes emerge because the young catcher is pushing himself beyond his natural game in hopes of helping the struggling offense. If the veterans on the team cannot provide some cover for these talented youngsters, this will be a painful season with periods of regression and long hitting droughts.
The slow progression of so many young prospects has been all the more painful when compared to other rookies that are successfully making adjustments on more stable rosters (e.g., Bryce Harper hitting 0.294 and Brett Lawrie 0.286). Most alarming, however, is that the resurgent Los Angeles Angels are being led by youngster Mark Trumbo (0.321) and phenom outfielder Mike Trout (0.324). For a Mariners team committed to rebuilding with youth, it looks very much like they are being passed by a divisional rival that is simply reloading.
The Seattle fans that rallied to bring back their beloved Sonics last week are evidence that in sports, there are always second acts. For the young Mariners, there is much baseball left to be played this season and their fans will continue to wait for a hero.[caption id="attachment_1098" align="alignleft" width="640"] It’s fast approaching the time to bring in Danny Hultzen.[/caption]
After inserting a slew of young players into their lineup in 2011, the Seattle Mariners needed to see production from their youth in 2012. Many youngsters were given a taste of the majors in 2011 and manager Eric Wedge is now pushing for results. The plan requires above all else, patience. Early in the season the Mariners offense was as impotent as it has been in the past. Justin Smoak, who started the season as the cleanup hitter, struggled early and was batting 0.183 on Smoakamotive promotion night. As May was winding down, Michael Saunders was hitting 0.226, Dustin Ackley 0.242, Mike Carp 0.155, Kyle Seager 0.255, Jesus Montero 0.247. Things were so bad that the debate around Seattle was whether the team should pull the fences in at Safeco field.
At the same time, other rookies (Bryce Harper 0.287, Brett Lawrie 0.283) were successfully making their adjustments to the major leagues. More alarming, however, was that the resurgent divisional rival Angels were being led by youngsters Mark Trumbo 0.338 and phenom Mike Trout 0.306. For a Mariners team that is committed to rebuilding with youth, it looked like they were at risk of being passed by a team that was simply reloading.
With few signs of progress from their young position players, the Mariners limped into Texas and prepared to be shelled by one of the leagues best offenses. But then something funny happened against the Rangers. The Mariners young hitters found their feet.The team scored 35 runs over three games including one 21 run outburst that sent the team to a series win over the Rangers. The Mariners offense continued to click with Justin Smoak slugging his way to an AL player of the week award.
Since the Texas series, Michael Saunders has continued his hot streak batting 0.500. After carrying a league-worst 0.149 batting average in 2011, the talented outfielder is now contributing power, defense and steals. Saunders revamped a loopy swing in the offseason and adopted a much more aggressive approach at the plate that allows him to better dictate the at bat.
But the biggest revelation has been the ascendance of Kyle Seager, who has turned into a clutch hitter (23 two out RBI’s). Seager is now batting third, allowing for Ichiro to move back to his traditional leadoff position. The next obstacle is for the young players to continue hitting at Safeco Field, where fly balls go to die.
Well, if Albert Pujols was in a slump, that’s news to the Seattle Mariners. The Angels first baseman came into the series with 4 homeruns on the season while batting a shockingly low 0.213. In his first three games in Seattle, however, Pujols is batting 0.500 and has hit three homeruns. Recent talk in Seattle has suggested that the team needs to bring in the fences at Safeco Field to help increase production for the anemic Mariners offense. The shots hit by Pujols show that a true power hitter can have no problems hitting at Safeco Field.
A highly anticipated showdown between Pujols and Mariners ace, Felix Hernandez. In their first meeting, King Felix struck Pujols out, sending the King’s Court into a frenzy on “Turn Back the Clock day”. However, Pujols would get a measure of revenge the next time up as he hit a solo shot in the fourth inning.. A Justin Smoak homerun helped keep the Mariners ahead, until the sixth when Hernandez loaded the bases for pinch hitter Alberto Callaspo who promptly hit a grand slam.
Felix seemed to be in control until the grand slam, even though his velocity remains lower (~92-93 mph) than in past years. On offense, the Mariners again had trouble putting together sustained rallies and Ichiro Suzuki looked especially out of sorts. One wonders if he shouldn’t be moved back to leadoff since his inability to drive in runs is clearly hurting the team. Dustin Ackley was leadoff for this game, but struck out 4 times. Miguel Olivo returned from injury and was hitless. However, he did throw out a speedy Mike Trout and kept the Angels running game under control in a way the Montero cannot.
Is this as bad as it gets for the Seattle Mariners? Friday night, the team absorbed a most demoralizing ninth inning loss to their rival LA Angels. Although the Mariners jumped out to a quick lead, it felt like they left too many runs on the field. Angels pitcher Earvin Santana issued three of his seven walks in the first inning, but the Mariners could only muster one run. Still, the Mariners built a 4-0 lead until Albert Pujols struck back with a home run that brought the Angels back within one. It remained that way until the ninth inning when closer Brandon League entered the game. The closer blew his fourth save of this young season in a chaotic final inning. At the stadium, there was a palpable feeling of inevitability and even the Seattle players looked overly wound up on defense. If the fan reaction inside the stadium was harsh, the twitter response afterwards was equally panicked:
“heard Brandon League had another meltdown. this guy should never work in sodo again unless he’s part of the new arena construction crew”
“Brandon League is worse than Judas. #Mariners”
“Brandon League for Brandon Morrow? The worst move of Jack Z’s career. #garbage”
It seems pretty clear that League needs to be removed from the closer position and allowed to work things out in some lower pressure situations. At this point his confidence can’t be where it needs to be. The problem is that Tom Wilhelmsen could be given an opportunity to close, but it leaves a gaping hole in the eighth inning. You would probably want to put League there, but that doesn’t exactly lower the pressure for him. No, moving League will likely shift multiple relievers into new roles, so such a move shouldn’t be taken lightly. That said, the young, developing Mariners can hardly afford to continue losing games like this. Change may come from within down the road as there is some bullpen help in the minor leagues starting with phenom Stephen Pryor.
Jesus Montero looks like he has regressed since I last saw him a few weeks ago. His throwing is still far too slow and he was inaccurate as he tried to push the ball to make up for his slow feet/setup. More alarmingly, however, is that his approach at the plate looks far worse. It may be that Montero needs to be pulled back a bit, because he looks overwhelmed on both offense and defense right now. Miguel Olivo is back and Jason Jaso is always dependable, so there is no reason that Montero can’t have his workload lightened a little bit as he works things out.
Kyle Seager continues to impress. He was playing at second base as Dustin Ackley had the night off (on Dustin Ackley bobblehead night?). His defense was superb and his approach at the plate was sound, even if the results were not there.
Justin Smoak continues to improve at the plate. He had a sharp line drive, a fielder’s choice that scored a run and a homerun for good measure. In this game, his swing from the left side looked to be quite a bit ahead of that from the right side.
Ichiro is playing about how you would expect. At this point, one wonders if he wouldn’t be more useful at the top of the batting lineup. Such a move is unlikely at this point, but the team desperately needs a leadoff hitter.
It was an uneven performance by the team and a disappointing loss for their fans. However, this is not rock bottom for the Mariners. The fact that it was a terrible loss is the first sign of life for this organization. The team has for too long had no offense and thus no hope of staying close with better teams. The offense remains inconsistent (see no hitter or 14 strikeout games), but shows potential in spurts. Friday, the offense sputtered, but hung in there until the ninth inning. That’s when the experience of the Angels kicked in and the young Mariners couldn’t respond. The pitching of Blake Beavan and Tom Wilhelmsen was good enough to win, and it was just a blown save opportunity that needed to be addressed. So, there are signs of life and the first hints of a young core forming. The offense will continue to improve, which makes this team more watchable than the one that bottomed out last year.
This is my guest blog about the Mariners’ early season and can also be found over at Sportsnet.ca. Felix Hernandez leads a new crop of youngsters including Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Kyle Seager and Jesus Montero.
Summer is coming. As the Seattle Mariners open their 35th MLB season, hopes are rising in the Emerald City. For the first time in a decade, the mantle of team leader passes from Ichiro Suzuki to 26 year old Felix Hernandez and his King’s Court. Emerging from seasons of 101 and 95 losses, the Mariners have fielded a historically anemic offenses over the past two seasons. In a division with heavyweights like the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels, the Mariners might not contend, but their young prospects must show progress in their development. This season’s slogan, “Get after it” doesn’t tell us much about team expectations (or anything really), so what exactly will we see from the 2012 Mariners?
From the hand of the king
Felix Hernandez returns after two dominating seasons during which he received little to no offensive support (unless you count this). This year, Hernandez is the unquestioned leader of the pitching staff and should provide his normal 200+ innings and 220+ strikeouts. While the zip on King Felix’s fastball has been missing early this year, it is in part due to cool weather conditions. Opening night, for instance, was very cold in Seattle and although Felix started well, he lost both velocity and control as the game proceeded. Regardless, Hernandez has demonstrated that he knows how to pitch to contact when required and remains the leader of the team. It’s the supporting cast, however, that GM Jack Zduriencik has been forced to upgrade for the King.
The search for a true dragon.
Last year, the Mariners stopped gambling on declining veterans (see Chone Figgins, Jack Cust, Carlos Silva, Carl Everett, Ken Griffey Jr.), and instead bet heavily on youth and potential. Much of 2011 was spent seeing whether the rookies could survive at the major league level. This year, manager Eric Wedge is looking to see who can become an impact player for the team. Players to watch include:
- Dustin Ackley (2B) – Drafted second overall in the 2009 draft. Ackley was considered one of the best hitting prospects in his class. He quickly progressed to the big league club and has settled in as the second batter in the Mariners lineup. A first baseman/outfielder in college, Ackley moved to second base with the Mariners.
- Jesus Montero (C/DH) – The Mariners gave up pitching phenom Michael Pineda for the heavy hitting Montero. The power was evident early this season as Montero hit a line drive home run to the deepest part of Safeco Field against the A’s. The question is whether Montero’s slow feet will prevent him from being an everyday catcher. He will spend the season as DH learning to hit at the major league level while backing up catcher Miguel Olivo.
- Justin Smoak (1B) – In the first two months of 2011, Smoak was showing signs of being a legitimate power source in the middle of the Mariners lineup. Injuries to his hands combined with the death of his father derailed his season and it wasn’t until September that he regained his form. Expected to be the cleanup hitter this year, Smoak appears much more effective when he employs his batting eye to force better pitches and draw walks. He sometimes gets into trouble when he adopts an overaggressive mindset and tries to hit home runs.
- Kyle Seager (3B) – Seager roared his way through minor league ball and ended up on an undermanned Mariners team in 2011. This year, Seager has shown increased power while providing strong infield defense. Soon the Mariners will have to make a decision about what to do with 3B incumbent Chone Figgins to make space for the rising Seager.
- Micheal Saunders (OF) – The Victoria, BC native boasts a tantalizing combination of speed and power. This year, the Mariners need to see once and for all whether Saunders can make contact at a high enough rate to be a regular contributor.
The three kings
While the Mariners evaluate their hitting prospects at the major league level, the real future of the team rests on the development of three minor league pitchers: 2011 second overall pick Danny Hultzen (22), flamethrower Taijuan Walker (19) and former Jays first round pick James Paxton (23). The three prospects are now pitching at AA Jackson TN, with intentions of developing them as a unit. Paxton appears to be the most advanced at this point, Hultzen, a lefty, combines good command with a low 90’s fastball and the raw Walker features a fastball that touches 98. When these three arrive in Seattle, they will join King Felix and gives the Mariners a chance to compete with the likes of the Rangers and Angels. The plan echos the Jays efforts a decade ago when they tried to develop a young core of pitchers in Chris Carpenter, Roy Halladay and Kelvim Escobar. A lot can go wrong as these prospects develop, but it represents a gamble that the Mariners and their fans are willing to take. The alternative of continuing to recycle the Jeff Weaver’s, Carlos Silva’s and Erik Bedard’s of the world brought the Mariners nothing but 100-loss seasons.
The Mariners young prospects will battle throughout the summer to prove their worth. Wedge has been clear that the clock has started and that tangible progress is expected from the youngsters this season. The gap between the Mariners and the Rangers/Angels must be closed and the charge must be led by the newcomers. If these young Mariners prove that they are up to the task, their divisional rivals will soon know that winter is coming.
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