Seattle Mariners @ Houston Astros: Series No. 7 Preview

It seems like all the Mariners have done in the last few weeks is fly back and forth to Texas. The M’s will conclude its upcoming series with the Astros on Wednesday, having played teams from Texas in 13 of their last 16 games. While that is of little importance, here are some things that are important. Since I’ve talked enough about the Astros here and here, let’s talk more about the Mariners.

The Mariners are playing like one of the worst teams in the AL right now. Not just in terms of wins and losses, but in a -1.8 run differential per game, a .281 wOBA (82 wRC+), and with a back end of the rotation that’s getting hammered. Even the Mariners’ defense has recorded a below-average UZR, and we thought we could at least count on defense! I preach about paying attention to small sample sizes—and the sample size is small for many stats this season—but the team as a whole has accumulated a season’s worth of plate appearances (746) and defensive innings (1623).

Some key players need to play better, but it’s one guy that’s not playing—not for the M’s anyway—that has me a little frustrated.

A week ago, Geoff Baker decided to tell the blogosphere to shut up about Casper Wells; he argued that Wells simply wasn’t as good as Jason Bay, and the organization is no worse off for severing Wells after Spring Training. I can’t possibly argue that the reason for the M’s failure is because they don’t have Casper Wells. He’s a marginal player that could make a marginal difference that we might not even feel now. But when marginally productive decisions are made constantly throughout an entire organization, then it can add up into something meaningful. It’s like deciding not to eat that chocolate bar. Your gut won’t notice it today, but after lots of uneaten chocolate bars, you might even lose some weight!

  • The Mariners are paying Jason Bay $1M to play in place of Wells, who was slated to make $505K this season.
  • Bay has cost his teams an average of 8 runs per season defensively throughout his career, and he can’t play center field. In 1400 defensive innings, close to a full season of playing time, Wells has saved his teams 15 runs. Since UZR takes close to three seasons to stabilize, let’s regress Wells two-thirds of the way toward zero…and he’s still at a projected 5 runs saved.
  • ZiPS and Steamer are at odds about Bay’s offensive value, with ZiPS projecting him for an 87 wRC+ and Steamer for a 102. For Wells, ZiPS says about 92 and Steamer says 102. So offense is basically a wash, but Wells may have a tiny edge. Oh, and he’s 28.

The point is not say how much better the M’s would be with Wells. One player of Wells’ caliber is not going to make a noticeable difference in 20 games, and maybe not even in 162. But teams make lots of decisions, and those differences of $495K, 13 runs saved defensively, and maybe a few wRC+ points mean something, especially if multiplied out by five or 10 decisions. When counting cards in black jack, you take something like a 2% casino edge, and make it a 2% edge for yourself. 2%. That’s all it takes to make a difference when you multiply it out over many bets. Okay, I’m done talking about our friendly ghost.

On to … Justin Smoak. We have been waiting and waiting on Smoak, who has a habit of hitting so well over the course of a month here and there that we keep waiting and waiting. If we look at Smoak’s hot streaks—the first and last months of 2011 and his August/September of 2012—is there anything there that suggests a real change? Or was it just noise? Below is a chart of some of Smoak’s fastest stabilizing statistics, split up over his hot months, his cold months, and his 2013 season.

PA GB% FB% LD% BB% K%
Hot 328 40.6% 39.3% 20.1% 11.9% 19.5%
Other 1093 40.4% 42.3% 17.4% 10.2% 22.2%
2013 78 36.0% 46.0% 18.0% 10.3% 24.4%

 

There are some slight differences during his hot months—mostly improvements to his walk, strikeout and line drive rates, but not enough to discredit noise as the culprit. In other words, even if we assume that Smoak is as bad as he’s been during the “cold” months, it’s still very possible that he could have a few hot months like he did, and perhaps it’s even probable. It’s starting to look more and more like the best we’ve seen of Smoak is just part of the ups and downs that a player with a career 88 wRC+ is wont to show off every once in a while. And maybe that’s all he is. A subpar offensive player with the ability to flash a little something now and then. ZiPS and Steamer average his projected wRC+ out to 96, and that’s not going to cut it at first base.

BB-K Color Charts 4-22-13

Mariners walk and strikeout rates, color-compared to preseason ZiPS projections.

More wood-bat baseball games start today, and these ones are winnable. The Astros are the only team in the AL with a worse run differential than us!

Game 1: Monday, April 22, 5:10 PM PST

Felix Hernandez!!! vs. Brad Peacock

Game 2: Saturday, April 23, 5:10 PM PST

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Bud Norris

Game 3: Sunday, April 24, 11:10 AM PST

Joe Saunders vs. Lucas Harrell