Monday, July 12, 2004

Here's Something That's Been Bugging Me . . .

I know this is old news, and others have covered this pretty well, but what the hell . . .

Bob Finnigan wrote an Independence Day analysis that was laughable on many fronts. For a change in the M's blogosphere, I'm not going to focus on Mr. Finnigan (he has his faults, and says some dumbass things, but let's face it, the basic premise of the article -- its title was "Mainers Analysis: No Speed, No Power, and a Struggling Bullpen" -- was on the mark, even if patently obvious) but on the comments of some of the Mariners players/management/apologists. There is plenty enough "dumb" going around that picking on writers seems a bit silly.

Not to pick on Jamie Moyer, who has been his usual professional self this year, but this is kinda dumb:

"You've got players here who have been successful. How do you know suddenly they aren't going to be? Are you supposed to anticipate that, when you're geared to try to win, to do all you can to win. If you've got a chance, you try to fill in your roster holes with the right people and you go for it again.

"Is it an age thing?"

No, he said.

"Rebuild? How do you determine when is the time? How do you do it?"

With all due respect to a guy who has been able to defy the odds for years now, and understandably let's his competitive nature lead him to expect the same of others, this is a cop-out.

First, of course you are supposed to anticipate that a long-successful team will reach a point, even (seemingly) suddenly, when it is no longer going to be successful. It involves foresight, planning, and a willingness to risk being wrong (and weathering the inevitable criticism that will accompany prophylactic moves, whether wrong or right), but that's what well-managed teams do. Second, I would dispute whether this has ever been a team "geared to try to win" by "do[ing] all you can to win" and "fill[ing] roster holes with the right people." If that were the case, demands to fill obvious needs at mid-season in each of the last two seasons would have been met rather than answered by drive-numbing pablum about being up against an illusory budget. Teams that are "geared to try to win" maintain the financial flexibility -- even if it means foregoing tens of millions of dollars in profit for a year -- to act not just in the offseason but during a competitive season. Third, this is not a team that spent the past offseason "fill[ing] roster holes with the right people." This is a team that spent the offseason trying to clear away players it saw as either attitude problems or guys who didn't fit the team's antiquated view of performance analysis (or both) in favor of "clubhouse guys." And fourth . . . sorry, Jamie, but it is an age thing.

For the last two years in a row, usually right when I go camping the last week or so in August, the M's have begun folding up their tent with about 6-8 weeks to go. In 2002, the M's were in first place on August 15, at 74-47 (.612) and 1.5 games up on Anaheim and 4 games ahead of the A's. By Labor Day, they had dropped 10 of 17 games and found themselves in third place, 6 games behind Oakland and 4 behind Anaheim. They would play only .500 ball (12-12) the rest of the way and finished 10 games back of Oakland. In mid-August of 2003, the M's were playing .607 ball and had a 5 game lead on Oakland and a 16 game lead on Anaheim. By the beginning of September, the A's had caught and passed the M's, who would continue to muddle about (13-12) the rest of the way, continuing to give ground to the A's, who finished 3 games ahead of the M's. In both years, "the stretch" was a time when the Mariners became a sub-.500 team.

Folks, that kind of consistent, late-season fade is one pretty good sign of an aging team, and not a good indicator for avoiding future, precipitous, age-related decline. Average weighted team batting age in 2002 was 31.2 (for pitchers, it was 30.3); in 2003, it was 31.9 for batters and 29.9 for pitchers. These are not ages at which anybody should expect performance to continue at peak levels, much less for three straight years. After all, we are all -- even Edgar and Jamie -- human.

At least for hitters, Bill James did a study of this in one of his early abstracts, and he revisited it in Win Shares more recently, in a random essay called "Aging Patterns Among Great Players" (pp. 199-202). He looked at all inactive players in major league history who had earned 280 or more career Win Shares (with no more than 10 of those as a pitcher) and looked at the average distribution of Win Shares across the players' careers, relative to their peak, by age. He argued that this was the best way to look at aging patterns, because lesser players get released when their skills decline just a little bit, and thus "great players are the only players who have 'clean' careers with a full opportunity." He came up with a database of 148 great players, ranging in value from Ty Cobb at the top to guys like Ron Cey, Bert Campaneris, Fred Lynn, and Earl Averill on the bottom.

The results were pretty interesting, and very telling about the situation in which the Mariners found themselves this past off-season (and to some degree, the off-season before that, too). By far, the biggest drop-offs (in terms of WS earned at a given age years, relative to peak) were the very years in which the average Mariners hitter found himself -- the years after a player's age 32 year (the last year, on average, where you can expect a great player to perform at within 90% of peak value), and the year after a players age 33 year. James' research suggested that the average M's hitter entered 2004 knowing that the probabilities were that performance should decline by at least 8-10%, even if they were a player of the caliber James studied.

Of course, some of this is due to actual decline, and some to increased injury, decreased endurance, or to some combination of all of these, and it's all based on averages across the database. Some players (like Edgar, for many, many years, or Jamie with the M's) defy this, but not many: Of the 148 players, only 47 had their best year when they were 30 or older, 25 when they were 32 or older, and only 16 at any age later than 32. Forgetting about any specific player, to me this is the biggest single reason to be hesitant about acquiring (or keeping) a player who has already played his age 32 year, or will have a number of years left on a hefty contract after that point. It's just a bad bet, like hitting a 16 when the dealer shows a 3.

But, as I usually do, I digress. The point is, any competent baseball management team should be well aware of this kind of thing or, at the very least, the M's fade in 2002 and 2003 (the M's played under .500 ball after August 15 in both years - 19-22 in 2002, and 19-21 in 2003) should have piqued their interest in figuring it out.

So, what did Mariners management do this offseason? In almost every case where the Mariners chose or were forced to replace a player, they opted for an older player. Carlos Guillen (heading into his age 28 year) almost became Omar Vizquel (37), and then did become Rich Aurilia (32); Mike Cameron (31) became Raul Ibanez (32); Greg Colbrunn (34) became Quinton McCracken (also 34 this year, but a lot worse hitter: a career 81 OPS+ hitter -- meaning 19% worse than league average (which would be a 100 OPS+ by definition) versus Colbrunn's 107 career OPS+, a pretty significant difference); Arthur Rhodes (34) became Mike Myers (35); Armando Benitez (31) became Ron Villone (34); Dave Hansen (35) took the spot of either Colbrunn, or John Mabry (33), depending on how you look at it. Even where they got a younger, it was only by a little, and never with players younger than 30. The only instances I can think of where the M's didn't swap a player for an older player (or a player the same age) are Eddie Guardado (33) for Kazu Sasaki (36), and Jolbert Cabrera (31) for Mark McLemore (39) -- hardly a youth movement.

Now, I am not saying I knew this would result in the kind of collapse we've seen, but this I did know: adding older players like this to an already aged group that has already shown signs of decline put this team at far greater risk for something like this happening than was necessary, or prudent. Forget about talent analyses (I think most of these moves are charitably described as lateral moves offensively, at best, and a fairly significant drop defensively -- but that's a whole 'nother post); the risk of age-related decline alone was never addressed, other than to exacerbate it.

The Mariners never saw it coming. They didn't even see the risk of it coming. As so many of their moves demonstrate, they seem to believe (and count on) guys' ability to repeat career years, close to indefinitely, and express genuine surprise when it doesn't work out that way (despite such basic statistical truths as "regression to the mean"). This quote in the same article, from Howard Lincoln, is typical:

"When I took over we went to the ALCS and you start telling yourself this is the cat's meow. Well, I know now it is a lot harder. You assume it's going to continue that way, it's a shock when you don't. Out of spring training our expectations were rightfully high. Guys did pretty well in the spring. There was nothing to suggest this was going to happen."

That's just sad.

So, to answer Jamie's question, how do you do it? I'm sure, as we go forward, their will be a lot of discussion about this, as the fans and front office demands that Bavasi & Co., with the resources they have available, re-tool rather than rebuild. Re-hashing the past, specifically, doesn't help much, but here are the broad outlines: Build a team that has some balance, between power and speed, the ability to get on base and the ability to clear them, offense and defense, age and youth. Find an offensive style that fits your team's personality and personnel. The 2004 Mariners (and to a lesser extent, the 2003 Mariners) show none of this kind of balance. Zip.

It may be more difficult, even painful, to make the changes necessary to find this kind of balance. But can any of us say that the risk presented by the alternative, especially when realized, is better?
Update: Peter White of Mariner Musings made largely the same observations -- much more concisely -- in a recent post called Slip Sliding.  If you are here and aren't aware of Mariner Musings . . . well, I doubt that might happen but you should check it out.  Along with my friends at the USS Mariner, the good folks at the P-I and Steve at Mariners Wheelhouse, Peter is one of my regular staples in the Mariners Blogosphere.  There are others, but these guys are regular and consistently good.  Check them out.


At July 14, 2004 at 11:44 AM, Blogger Dave Richardson said...

Pete - I am in. I will comment this week on this. This is a great idea.


Post a Comment

<< Home