In the past 20 years, statistical analysis of baseball has been progressing at a fast pace. Bill James published his Baseball Abstracts starting in 1977 and ever since then, Sabermetrics has taken off. Back then, James relied on a calculator and a pen and paper to do his calculations, and the application of the information was limited due to the overwhelming traditional aspect of baseball team management. The introduction of the computer and eventually the internet allowed for quicker calculations and more widespread sharing of the information. Today, Sabermetrics are finally becoming a part of many GM’s repertoires. The Boston Red Sox hired Bill James as a consultant in 2003 and since then, other front offices have hired Sabermetricians. One such team is the Seattle Mariners.
Tom Tango, the author of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball (which I own and highly recommend to anyone interested in Sabermetrics) was hired by both the Toronto Blue Jays and the Seattle Mariners to do statistical analysis for their teams. Tango is also credited for his work on DIPS (Defense Independent Pitching Statistics), specifically FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) which normalizes a pitcher’s performance based on the things they control, like strikeouts, walks, and home runs. FIP tends to be a good indicator of pitchers who are under- or over-performing their ERA. Anyone interested in Tom Tango’s work should check out www.insidethebook.com.
Back to the Mariners. After the 2008 season, Seattle fired GM Bill Bavasi and hired Jack Zduriencik. Zduriencik came from the Brewers scouting department, and is one of the biggest reasons for their drafting and fantastic development of players like Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, and J.J. Hardy. Since taking over the ship in Seattle, Zduriencik has turned his focus on defense, most notably outfield defense. He traded J.J. Putz away for Franklin Gutierrez, a stud center fielder who posted a 29.1 UZR in 2009. That’s almost 3 wins on defense and that’s fantastic.
All of this is great for the Mariners, but some may ask “why is it relevant to all of baseball?” Zduriencik is a fairly adamant subscriber of Sabermetric baseball theory. Some of the moves he has made this season have been hailed as genius and they have the pundits placing the Mariners in the thick of the race for the AL West crown. Zduriencik maneuvered for Cliff Lee in the three team deal that sent Roy Halladay to Philadelphia. He moved one of the worst contracts in baseball in Carlos Silva for the bane of Chicago, Milton Bradley. While some may consider that move a lateral one, it likely isn’t. Bradley has very high potential while Silva’s potential is 4th starter at best. The Mariners signed Chone Figgins who, despite his struggles in Spring Training thus far, will probably be a good player for them and at the very least will play great third base defense. They also brought in Casey Kotchman to play first base. They won’t slug the ball, but they’ll sure as hell catch it.
The issue here is that the Mariners are now being heralded as the “new Moneyball” team with their focus on defense. They are now the face of Sabermetrics, for better or for worse. This season could be seen as a barometer of sorts for the ideology. If they end up having a great year, Sabermetrics looks great in the mainstream eye and more people will likely start looking into it. If they end up worse than they were last year, some will likely consider it a failure and write Sabermetrics off.
This is something to keep track of this season. Sabermetrics won’t go away no matter what happens, but it’s public perception could be swayed by how well the Mariners do.