Written by Matt Souders (Contact & Archive) on December 29, 2008
It has been seven years since the Seattle Mariners have seen the promised land of October baseball.Â Seven years of frustration, led by business moguls Chuck Armstrong, Howard Lincoln and a committee of investors with little to no background in baseball prior to buying the team in the â€™90s.Â That team oversaw the transition of the Mariners from an ineptly run business owned by one of the cheapest men in pro sports history (George Argyros) to one of the most successful teams in the big leagues and the only team to report a net profit every season from 1996 to 2007.Â
Armstrong and Lincoln, when they were focused on the teamâ€™s business model, were among the best at what they did.Â The club won many games, made post-season appearances, remained stable and profitable and became Seattle best-loved sports attraction instead of baseball biggest joke.Â The problems began, however, after the departure of Pat Gillick; the business moguls thought theyâ€™d learned to be baseball moguls.
This teams of lawyers, business managers and accountants tried to run a ball club like youâ€™d run a bank.Â They chose a GM (Bill Bavasi) based on their ability to come to consensus with him, rather than on his ability to put a good product on the field.Â They chose managers (Bob Melvin, Mike Hargrove and John McLaren) based on their relationships with the players and their PR image rather than based on their leadership qualities.Â They micromanaged every transaction, often costing the team chances to acquire players where timing was critical.Â They held the reigns, not Bavasi, in deciding how much to spend, and which players to pursue.Â They tried to minimize risk by buying free agents with established track records of performance, rather than scouting real talent.Â
The result was a team that was as immovable as the committee in charge.Â Almost a dozen long term contracts gummed up the works for developing prospects and made men like Shin-Soo Choo publicly state that they felt the club didnâ€™t care about their progress if there was not spot for them to play.Â They got old incredibly fast, not once, but twice!Â In 2000, the team had a combined age of 28.7.Â In 2004, it had soared to almost 33!Â In 2005, they were young again, led by guys like Beltre and King Felix and barely older than 27.Â By 2008, they were old as dirt at 32+.
Without flexibility and with a focus on acquiring free agents to plug holes, the team became top heavy, sluggish and prone to sudden collapses like 2004 and 2008 and the sad part isâ€¦they should have seen it coming, and so should I.Â
I am a sabermetrician. My first impulse when I analyze roster moves and try to predict the success of teams is to look at what players have done in the past and try to figure out what theyâ€™re likely to do in the future.Â But my projections have been too sunny for the same reason the teamâ€™s ownership has been making these mistakes.Â Neither they, nor I, had the appropriate appreciation for the complexity of a 25 man roster or the fatigue and attrition induced by a 162-game season.Â To build and sustain a good team through injuries, aches and pains, and fatigue, you need roster flexibility.Â You canâ€™t make player projections based on the assumption of perfect health and expect your teams to win if your roster is old.Â And you canâ€™t assemble a squad of 25 human beings and expect them to perform like adding machines in the face of uncommitted management proclaiming that their goal is to put an entertaining product on the field and have a nice environment for the kids at the ballpark while your rivals are talking about winning the World Series.
What is needed is a competitive minor league system where good performance is rewarded with promotion (even if that promotion makes the youngster a part-time player), a major league roster with contracts you can unload when the players fail to perform and a nucleus of relatively young stars you can build around.Â After seven unsuccessful seasons, the Mariners (and this sabermetrician) have finally learned their lessons.
The committee has turned over control of the team to Milwaukeeâ€™s rising star Jack Zduriencik.Â Theyâ€™ve opened their minds to the idea of statistically-driven player analysis and advanced scouting.Â Theyâ€™ve hired a manager based on his talent evaluating skills rather than on his ability to be a yes-man for the GM and the committee.Â Theyâ€™ve fired entire legions of incompetent scouts, player development personnel and statisticians in favor of a new hand-picked staff chosen by GMZ (as the Mariner blogosphere has taken to calling him).Â Theyâ€™ve begun turning over an aging roster (and you can expect more of this in the future), and theyâ€™ve prepared themselves to have a tremendous draft in 2009 with 5 picks in the top 50, taken by the man who hand-picked almost every current Brewer star.
In terms of team philosophy, a club that was second to last in DER two straight years chose a manager whose primary skill is in evaluating defensive talent and establishing a working defensive system.Â Theyâ€™ve traded an injury prone closer for the best defensive outfielder in baseball (few recognize just how good Franklin Gutierrez is with the glove â€“ that will soon change).Â Theyâ€™ve ordered Yuniesky Betancourt on a strict diet and workout program with former Mariner gym-rat Raul Ibanez.
It may take a couple of years to begin to see how skilled Zduriencik is in talent evaluation and negotiation with agents and other GMs, but what we do know for sure is that it will be Zduriencikâ€™s party or Zduriencikâ€™s funeral.Â The business moguls have gone back to the business and left the baseball to baseball minds.Â And this sabermetrician has learned a thing or two about the human elements that influence the numbers and about his preconceived notions about the game â€“ especially the defense.
A new direction for a new era. Itâ€™s about time. Play ball!