Why the Mariners plan did not work

Before the season began, the sexy pick to win the AL West was the Seattle Mariners. They had an innovative GM who put an emphasis on pitching and defense. And hell, they just traded for Cliff Lee. Yeah, the offense didn’t look good, but they weren’t supposed to give up any runs anyway.

But today the Mariners are 39-63, 20.5 games out in the West, and Cliff Lee is a Texas Ranger. As a result of the poor season, many people have criticized the Mariners plan of attack, citing that defense was overvalued. That’s not quite right.

Building a team on pitching and defense, or mainly defense, does work. Yes, having an all-around team or a balanced team probably works best, but a win is a win. As we found out last year, total team WAR correlates to W% with an R2 of 0.77. So if you have the best team WAR in baseball- whether you got it all through offense, defense, pitching, or a combination- chances are you have a great team on your hands.Yet it’s not working for the Mariners for a multitude of reasons:

1) The defense itself has been the “problem”. For a team that knew their offense was not good enough to win, they planned on having the top defense in the league. They signed Chone Figgins who rated as a good defender in 2009, re-signed Jack Wilson, and signed Kotchman to play first. In the outfield they already had stellar defenders in Franklin Guitierrez and Ichiro. But after playing 8184 innings as a team, their UZR is 14.2. It’s a good mark, but “only” the tenth best in baseball. That’s not good enough for a team that needed their glove work to be the best. In fact, divisional foes, Texas and Oakland, have better team UZR’s. When it comes to DRS, the Mariners are tied for tenth, at +34. So the defense has been good, but not as good as projected. And that’s the one problem with relying on defense- it can be unpredictable.

2) The offense. Everyone knew the offense was going to struggle, but not this bad. I thought they were actually going to be decent offensively after trading for Milton Bradley and signing Chone Figgins. But Bradley and Figgins have been the biggest culprits. In 278 PA, Bradley has a .289 wOBA. His career average is .353 and his 2009 wOBA was .345. Eeesh- his WAR is -0.1 WAR by the way. Meanwhile, Chone Figgins has a .297 wOBA in 439 PA, after posting a .358 wOBA in 2009. They have been major disappoints for a team that needed any type of offensive upgrade. The Mariners are dead last in baseball with a team wOBA of .289.

The pitching in Seattle has been pretty good. Missing Lee for a month did hurt and maybe that’s what did them in because of their slow start. But the defense and offense didn’t live up to expectations. And that’s the reason for the poor season- not the strategy to rely on defense.

Just look at other teams for proof that defense can win ballgames. The San Diego Padres have one of the best records in baseball and lead the NL West. They have a pretty bad offense that has a .310 wOBA but appear to have good pitching with a 3.76 xFIP. However, their E-F is -0.42. Wow! They don’t give up runs because of the defense. They lead baseball in UZR and are second in DRS. If they had a mediocre defense, that pitching staff would have an ERA closer to their FIP and the NL West race would be a lot closer than it is. And just looking at the UZR leader board, every team in the top ten is a winning team, with the exception of Arizona. Coincidence? I think not.

Placing value and emphasis on good team defense is important to winning games. It can help your pitching staff and ease the pressure and expectations of the offense. However, it can be the kiss of death if you rely on defense like the Mariners have, because defense can be unpredictable and if it doesn’t live up to expectations, well, just ask the Mariners what happens.

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