March 17, 2011
The Situation: The 2010 Seattle Mariners had a historically bad offense, so bad that ESPN.com's David Schoenfeld argues that they were "the worst hitting team in history." They scored 513 runs as a team, the fewest runs in a non-strike season since the 1971 San Diego Padres — back before the advent of the Designated Hitter rule and free agency. (The 2010 Mariners certainly didn't make good use of the DH rule as their DHs batted .194 as a group. They might as well have let the pitchers hit.)
The team also seems to have gotten profoundly unlucky, or profoundly snakebit, at the same time. As Dan Szymborski writes:
You could look at that lineup and think "OK, they need some real middle of the order guys" but if you say that you saw all of Kotchman, Figgins, Lopez, and Bradley spending most of the season struggling to keep their OPS above .600, you're telling a fib.
Last year was pretty much the definition of a worst-case scenario. Common sense and statistical trends would seem to suggest that the Mariners offense couldn't possibly be worse. Or could they?
The Analysis: The Mariners offense will never be confused for the Yankees, in part because the club really isn't built that way. Seattle plays in a cavernous home park that tends to depress batting averages and rob home runs, and its roster emphasizes pitching and defense. The team's one "slugger" is Jack Cust(notes), a 1B/DH on the wrong side of 30 who hits for high power but low batting average, with a lot of walks and strikeouts — much like the departed Russell Branyan(notes). Szymborski projects just two other Mariners to provide even league-average offense, the mercurial Milton Bradley(notes) and the amazing Ichiro Suzuki(notes).
The team is likely to get minor improvements from all its hitters, but none of those improvements is likely to move the needle much. Figgins can get on base but can't hit for power, and Miguel Olivo(notes) and Franklin Gutierrez(notes) can hit for power but can't get on base; Brendan Ryan(notes) and Jack Wilson(notes) can't really do either.
However, if the Mariners are truly going to make up for last year, they'll need to get some outsized improvements from more unexpected sources. Like Justin Smoak(notes), the former uberprospect and main return in the Cliff Lee(notes) trade whose disappointing rookie year tarnished some of his luster. Of all of the Mariners' starters, Smoak is the one with the widest gap between his ZiPS projection and his Bill James projection: Bill James projects a decent .249/.351/.414, while ZiPS sees an awful .228/.333/.367. That would be bad for a shortstop, but as a first baseman, Smoak would be unplayable at that clip. It's not entirely implausible, considering how inept he looked for much of last year, but his terrific minor league numbers suggest that he ought to be able to hit like a star pretty soon. He may have the widest range of outcomes of any hitter on the team, and as a result, he may also be the key to the team's success.
The second-biggest gap between Bill James and ZiPS occurs in the projection for Milton Bradley. Frankly, it's hard to analyze Bradley with anything approaching certitude, because his on-field injuries and off-field issues have done so much to drive a wedge between his talent and his production. Only once has he ever played more than 126 games or had 500 at-bats. His career batting line of .272/.366/.443 is plenty good, but his slugging percentage took a major dive in Chicago in 2009, and another one in Seattle in 2010, and ZiPS and Bill James diverge on the question of just how much of his power is gone. ZiPS, predictably, takes a more dismal view, projecting .241/.354/.393, while Bill James more optimistically predicts .257/.366/.429. But both of them project him to finish with fewer than 300 at-bats.
The team's construction is perhaps best embodied by its all-glove, no-hit keystone combination, Wilson and Ryan. But the Mariners' top position prospect, 2010 AFL MVP Dustin Ackley(notes), also plays second base, and he can really hit, so if he avoids a rookie year like Justin Smoak's he could represent a major offensive improvement up the middle. He probably won't break camp with the club, but he'll almost certainly see action at some point during the season. He doesn't have a ton of power, but he hits for average and can control the strike zone. He won't change the complexion of the club as a midseason call-up, but he'll likely represent another slight improvement.
The Forecast for 2011: The Mariners were so bad in 2010 that they could have a substantially better year in 2011 and still be awful. And that's exactly what the projection systems predict. Baseball Prospectus predicts that the M's will score 576 runs and produce 70 wins in 2011, 53 runs and nine wins more than last year — but nonetheless the fewest runs and third-worst record in baseball. The Mariners have a good farm system and several impact players on the team and in the high minors, as well as arguably the best pitcher in baseball, Felix Hernandez(notes). But Hernandez can't hit for himself. The Mariners won't hit as badly as they did last year — it'd be really hard to replicate a performance like that — but they won't be any good, either.
Previous questions: Can the Red Sox win 100 games? • How many games will the Astros win? • Will the Phillies miss Jayson Werth? • Will Buster Posey experience a sophomore slump? • Will Trevor Cahill be a Cy Young contender? • Will Justin Upton solve his strikeout problem? • Will Neil Walker be a top 10 second baseman? • Can Zack Greinke win the NL Cy Young award? • Can Manny still be Manny at 39? • Is this a breakout season for Jay Bruce's power?