There are a lot of fans out there who have misunderstood the main idea of Moneyball (popularized by Michael W. Lewis in his chronicle of the relative success of A's GM Billy Beane).Â Because the undervalued asset in 2000 was on-base percentage in players with low batting averages, some have come to see the idea of Moneyball as being synonymous with "building station to station offenses full of guys who get on base."
That's what the A's did to make the post-season several times despite a tiny payroll.Â Unfortunately for the A's, that skill (drawing walks) is no longer undervalued.Â Execs are no smarter than they were a decade ago, but they are more open to getting information from a variety of sources, and their economic understanding of the game is constantly evolving.Â What Moneyball is really about is finding wins on the market that are not fully appreciated and taking advantage before other clubs realize what you're doing.Â This is precisely what's happening in Seattle.
Ichiro and Gutierrez give Seattle one of the best outfield defenses.
Fielding statistics have not advanced as rapidly as hitting and pitching statistics, in part because it has taken this long to begin tracking the kinds of information on the trajectory, landing spot and velocity of every batted ball that are necessary to get a real idea of the run-value of a great fielder like Franklin Gutierrez (vs. a flashy but inferior glove like that of Vernon Wells).Â Local icon Jack Zduriencik seems to be treating defense like an uncharted frontier.Â And like the old west, the frontier offers the promise of an economic boon to the first men to pillage it for resources.Â There is much consternation among die-hard Mariner fans about the lack of thunder in the Mariner line-up, and perhaps that's rational.Â It's hard to win games if you're not scoring runs.Â But Zduriencik is doing the exact same thing that sabermetric cult hero Beane did to earn his fame.Â He's realized that fielding wins are not accounted for correctly by most GMs and he's building a defensive juggernaut for a modest price.Â His plan appears to be something like this:
- Safeco Field is a moderate pitcher's park if and only if you can field.Â The balls tend to hang in the gaps a bit thanks to the inbound wind currents in left center and the spacious power alleys, but you've got to catch the ball or opposing teams aren't going to be held back by the park.Â Luckily, fielding is undervalued at present, so...gobble up as many great fielders who can at least hit enough to stay in the line-up as you can and find yourself a field manager who knows how to position them.Â In 2009, he converted a 101 loss team into a competitive 85-77 club almost exclusively by swapping Jeremy Reed for Gutierrez, Raul Ibanez for Ryan Langerhans/Michael Saunders/Endy Chavez and, eventually, Yuniesky Betancourt for Josh Wilson and Jack Wilson.Â This year, he kept a plus glove at third despite Adrian Beltre's departure by signing Chone Figgins, he upgraded his infield defense further by acquiring Casey Kotchman, he upgraded his catching defense with internal options Rob Johnson and Adam Moore (over departing Japanese clunker Kenji Johjima), and kept left field staffed with good fielders including Milton Bradley and the aforementioned Langerhans and Saunders as well as Eric Byrnes.
- Once you have the defense, go out and get two or three big starting pitching arms and fill the back of your rotation cheaply with guys who pitch to contact and throw strikes.Â Heading into 2010, guys like Doug Fister, Ryan Rowland-Smith and Ian Snell figure to benefit from the great defense and the lack of pressure on them to be dominant thanks to the acquisition of Cliff Lee and the re-signing of Erik Bedard, who should join the club in June.
- Once you've got your rotation, make your bullpen unstoppable.Â The Mariners will need to win most of their close games, and the way to do that is to have four or five top-notch closers and set-up men to call on when you get the lead in the seventh.Â He added to his 2009 strength in the pen by trading oft-injured and erratic prospect Brandon Morrow for a rising star in the AL - Brandon League.Â The addition of a new split fingered pitch to his already above average command of the strike zone and deceptive delivery threatens to make him one of the most dominant set-up men in baseball (he already showed flashes of this transformation in the second half of 2009).
- Build your offense around speed (necessary to have good defense) and patience.Â Not all of the new Mariner position players draw tons of walks and get on base, but even those that do not do work the count and see lots of pitches per plate appearance.Â The club figures to be very annoying and pesky and to drive starting pitchers out of the game early more frequently in 2010.
- Plug your line-up holes cheaply in the short term, following the Billy Beane philosophy that you play two months to see what you have, two months to fix where you're weak, and two months with what you added to reach the post-season.Â Obviously, the offense has been upgraded only marginally thus far and the club is going to have to get some help from young players like Jose Lopez, Adam Moore, Rob Johnson, Michael Saunders and perhaps Matt Tuiasosopo if it expect to score enough runs to win the west, but the Mariners are going to be in contention in June (most likely, barring a major injury to Lee, Felix Hernandez or one of the few offensive stars like Gutierrez, Ichiro or Figgins), and they're going to have enough roster and payroll flexibility that they can make trades to upgrade the line-up as opportunities become available.
A few things we know about Zduriencik so far.Â He's supremely confident in his talent evaluators and in his own judgment when making roster decisions.Â He doesn't hesitate to go after the things he wants and he's not afraid to deal from his prospect deck when opportunity knocks.Â He's pretty good at eying potential break-out candidates.Â Not only did he successfully snag Gutierrez for broken-down closer J.J. Putz, but he found his replacement closer on the waiver wire (David Aardsma), his best slugger on the cheap through free agency (Russell Branyan), and he almost got himself a power hitting infielder -- he was very close to trading for 2009 sensation Ben Zobrist. The deal was nixed by the Rays when they went another direction to get pitching help, but Z called that shot correctly as well.Â He's got more control over day to day decision-making than former GM Bill Bavasi did.Â Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong had a rather tight grip on the reigns when Bavasi was in charge.
For whatever reason, Bavasi lacked the skills he needed to convince the bigwigs to let him carry out his vision without interference, and the incoherent front office produced an incoherent club.Â Zduriencik, on the other hand, seems to be very adept with people and has managed to get himself enormous freedom in a very short time.Â With the possible exception of Ken Griffey Jr. -- a player acquired to put butts in the seats and help with the clubhouse, though perhaps not Zduriencik's first choice for the DH spot -- you can bet that anything the Mariners do with their roster was Z's call.
It's nice to see Seattle calmly, but efficiently, executing a coherent plan that has a good chance at successfully turning the Ms into perennial contenders, starting perhaps as early as 2010.Â The Angels are still a good team, and the Rangers and As have both gotten a lot better as well, so the West is going to be very difficult to win, but I for one look forward to a long year pulling for a team with a great chance to go somewhere in October.