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Jerry Dipoto

The Mariners hired Jerry Dipoto a week ago to take over the good ship Mariner for the foreseeable future. I wish I would have written about him sooner, I guess. This post would feel a bit timelier if this news was more new, but such is life. Also, in the meantime I have taken some time to do research. Plus, honestly, Dipoto was not going to do anything in the last week of the season. His job starts today.

First of all, if you are thirsting for a hot take, I like the hire. I might even love the hire. Kevin Mather said he wanted a GM with experience that would not waste what remains of the Felix-Cano-Cruz prime. That makes good sense, though the task seemed awfully tall.

I saw only two experienced GMs that would be available and worth hiring: Dave Dombrowski, who the Red Sox swooped in and hired in a rather stunning move, and Jerry Dipoto. Maybe Ben Cherington too, once Dombrowski was hired by the Red Sox, but I prefer Dipoto to Cherington. While Ben has one World Series championship to his credit, and what appears to be a strong Boston farm system, the up-and-down massive roster fluctuations that he orchestrated in Boston seem unhealthy to me. He does not look to me like the kind of GM that would succeed in Seattle without blowing up the roster. Mather made it clear the roster wasn't going to be blown up, so at the very least Dipoto is the better fit.

Dipoto's background is intriguing, especially given his reputation as an analytics guy. He issued an ultimatum to Angels owner Arte Moreno because Mike Scioscia would not adopt some of Dipoto's data-driven suggestions. Dipoto resigned over the struggles, so he has some conviction in his beliefs.

What is unclear to me is exactly where and why Jerry Dipoto became an analytics guy. He broke into the majors as a relief pitcher in 1993 and carved out a modest MLB career that ended in 2000. He was with the Rockies at the time and immediately transitioned into their front office as a scout. Dipoto silently went about his business as a scout with the Rockies from 2001-2002, and then he scouted for the Red Sox in 2003 and 2004. He probably picked up his analytics bend in Boston, given that he scouted for them at the height of the Theo Epstein era. 2004 is when the Red Sox broke their long-standing curse. However, that's just a guess on my part.

Dipoto returned to Colorado as their director of player personnel in 2005 and then jumped to the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he held leadership roles in their player personnel/player development department from 2006 through 2011. He gained a reputation as GM material during his time in Arizona, probably thanks in part to how their farm system performed while he held a key leadership role. Here are some notable Diamondbacks draft picks while Jerry Dipoto worked for them in player development:

  • 2006: RHP Max Scherzer, LHP Brett Anderson, LHP Clay Zavada
  • 2007: RHP Jarrod Parker, RHP Josh Collmenter, RHP Evan Scribner, OF Golden Tate*
  • 2008: LHP Daniel Schlereth, LHP Wade Miley, RHP Bryan Shaw, OF Collin Cowgill, LHP Danny Hultzen (!)**
  • 2009: CF AJ Pollock, 3B Matt Davidson, SS Chris Owings, 1B Paul Goldschmidt, RHP Chase Anderson
  • 2010: CF Adam Eaton
  • 2011: RHP Trevor Bauer, RHP Jed Bradley, LHP Andrew Chafin

* Yes, the same Golden Tate that currently catches passes for the Lions. Fun fact!
**Hultzen didn't sign with the Diamondbacks, hence why he became a high M's draft pick later

That is quality and quantity by MLB draft standards. It intrigued the Angels enough to name Dipoto their GM after the 2011 season ended.

I will not say as much about the Dipoto Era in LA of A as this Halos Heaven recap (very much worth reading), but I will summarize the Halos Heaven work. Long story short, there was a power struggle between Dipoto and Scioscia from day one. This was further complicated by the blockbuster signings of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, both of which were largely negotiated by Angels owner Arte Moreno no matter the wishes of Dipoto or Scioscia.

Dipoto had some power in LA of A, but only so much. His payroll got engulfed by massive contracts he had no say in, so his trades had to focus on supporting pieces with an eye towards cost control. Supporting pieces, basically by definition, have strengths and deficiencies as players. If they had no blemishes then they would be stars. Dipoto had to find these players that he valued within a world where his manager had different values. The tension eventually boiled over and Dipoto left.

So, this is my long way of saying a few things. First of all, I am not convinced that Jerry Dipoto is an analytics guy. He certainly does not have the usual analytics background. For instance, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow worked for McKinsey and Company (a business consulting firm) and was COO of Archetype Solutions (his own consulting firm) before stepping foot in a baseball front office. Theo Epstein has an undergraduate degree from Yale and a juris doctorate (JD) from the University of San Diego that he earned while he was an intern with the Padres. These are the kinds of backgrounds that analytics guys tend to have. Dipoto's background is classic old-school: the former player who continues his life in baseball by going into the front office.

Moreover, Dipoto rose to front office leadership roles in places not exactly noted for their love of analytics. The Diamondbacks could have offered their vacant GM position to Dipoto in 2011 (he served as interim GM to finish out the 2010 season) but instead opted for Kevin Towers. He famously traded Justin Upton in 2013 and publicly stated that Upton wasn't "gritty" enough for the D'Backs. Towers also ditched Trevor Bauer in a curious deal that clearly boiled down to personality differences much more than performance.

Then there was the lengthy struggle with Mike Scioscia that has already been referenced a few times in this post. Reports surfaced that Dipoto could not get Scioscia to use scouting reports. This is pretty easy to believe based off of anecdotal evidence.

I have no doubt that Jerry Dipoto was at the forefront of analytics in his contexts. However, his most significant experience is with organizations that are noteworthy for their obvious disregard of analytics. I will believe the advanced analytics when I see evidence of them, which should pop up in Seattle if they exist in Dipoto's ethos.

So what is Jerry Dipoto going to do with the Mariners?

I think one of the most interesting questions is what Dipoto will do with Lloyd McClendon. Popular thinking suggests that he butted heads with old-school Mike Scioscia, so a similarly old-school manager like McClendon is obviously toast. I don't think the answer is that straightforward. Again, Dipoto's background suggests more than a splash of "old-school" pumping through his veins. Also, McClendon isn't a godfather-like figure in Seattle like Mike Scioscia was (and remains) in LA of A. The power dynamic in Seattle is very different, and that cannot be overlooked. If I had to guess I would say that McClendon gets fired, but I put that odds at something like 55-60% - far from a foregone conclusion.

What might make the difference with the McClendon decision is how willingly he starts players where Dipoto wants them to go. Dipoto is already on record saying that Safeco demands athletic fielders, which is a breath of fresh air for this blogger. That almost certainly means Nelson Cruz is a full-time DH in Dipoto's plan. Does that work for McClendon?

Dipoto's position would also suggest that Mark Trumbo is a first baseman or possibly traded. Again, is this fine with McClendon? It is hard to tell.

McClendon played both Cruz and Trumbo in the outfield extensively, but he also had few other options with the personnel Zduriencik put together. How much of that is a result of Z, and how much of that is a result of McClendon? Dipoto has to find that answer for himself, sooner rather than later. Maybe he already has the answer.

By the way, Fangraphs estimates that Cruz and Trumbo's outfield defense were 25.1 runs below replacement level. Just playing them at positions they can capably defend would squeeze over 2 more wins out of them, provided that Jerry Dipoto can find replacement-level defenders in the outfield.

In general, I would anticipate that Dipoto makes a ton of small, seemingly inconsequential moves that (hopefully) add up to magic. The Mariners had 6 players log at least 100 at-bats in 2015 with negative WARs. If Dipoto can find replacement-level players for all these at-bats that's worth another 3 wins right there.

When I say replacement level I am talking minor league free agents. The Shawn O'Malleys of the world. Willie Bloomquist in his "prime." Heaven forbid Dipoto even finds someone who contributes positive value! Replacement level players are not supposed to be hard to find, though Zduriencik sure struggled to find them in the back half of his tenure with the Mariners.

If you are keeping tally, between paying attention to defensive shortcomings and replenishing a scrap heap of replacement level players, Dipoto could improve the talent level of the Mariners by 5 wins. Then, suppose that Cano, Seager, and Felix bounce back and recover at least half of the value they slipped by in 2015. That's another 3 or 4 wins. Throw in two or three replacement level relievers that absorb some of the whopping 262 relief appearances logged by relievers with negative WAR and there are another 2 or 3 wins.

Add up all the wins and that's an 11-13 WAR improvement without signing a significant free agent or assuming a guy like Brad Miller, Ketel Marte, Taijuan Walker, or James Paxton blossoms into something more than they are now. Add 11 to 13 wins to the 2015 Mariners and they make the playoffs, so this is hardly a trivial improvement.

So settle in for the MLB equivalent of dumpster diving, or at least hope for it. That will be the first sign that Jerry Dipoto is doing his job well. It won't be sexy or headline-grabbing, but it's needed and relatively easy. He is going to find one or two lanky outfielders with no power but legs and a knack for running great routes as they track down fly balls. He will sign a handful of journeyman catchers that may or may not have a little bit of juice left in the tank. One or two of them will stick on the opening day roster. He almost certainly will bring in a few fly-ball prone pitchers, in particular ones with horrible home run luck in 2015. I haven't scanned the numbers yet to make a list of who these pitchers might be, but those are the kind of guys Dipoto should be able to get for nothing and he understands that Safeco - especially a Safeco with good defense - can hide the sins of fly ball pitchers.

Let the Jerry Dipoto era begin. Kevin Mather probably does not hire Dipoto unless Dipoto convinced Mather that he can make the Mariners a winner as quickly as 2016. Dipoto took some risks with the Angels, for better and for worse, so he was almost assuredly make some bad moves with the Mariners. However, he also built up some solid depth at the MLB level with the Angels, which the Mariners desperately need. Also, if Dipoto is as much of an analytics guy as many say he is, then he is quite open-minded to new thinking and ideas, especially given his background as a ballplayer. He had no qualms placing his stamp on the Angels when he was hired and he will likely do the same with the Mariners. I, for one, welcome his stamp and look forward to seeing what it looks like.

Season Done

I will have a Jerry Dipoto post up tomorrow when there is no baseball to think about. However, for one last time, the Mariners took the field in 2015 and squeezed out a legitimately clutch win. Seth Smith hit the deciding home run in the bottom of the 8th and Tom Wilhelmsen preserved the one-run victory in the ninth. The Mariners, for their troubles, probably got penalized for winning. A 76-86 season isn't wildly different from a 75-87 season, except that the win kept the Mariners out of the top 10 MLB draft picks which means they will have to give up their first round pick if/when they sign a free agent.*

*This is unfortunate, but not nearly as unfortunate as some people are going to claim. MLB draft picks are a step above total crapshoots. Free agents are much better bets to produce at the MLB level than any draft pick.

The 2015 Mariners were not all that different from the 2014 Mariners, believe it or not, despite a season that feels very different. The reality is that the 2014 team played better than their .500 talent, thanks in large part to a superhuman bullpen. It is also true that the 2015 team had roughly .500 talent and they squandered a number of games. Bullpens giveth and taketh away.

Here are the 2015 and 2014 Mariners were by WAR:

2015 WAR
2014 WAR
First base
Second base
Third base
Left field
Center field
Right field
Designated hitter
Top Three SP
Rest of rotation

Better Offense: 2014 by 1.8 WAR
Better Rotation: 2014 by 1.8 WAR
Better Bullpen: 2014 by 3.3 WAR

The 2014 Mariners won 11 more games than the 2015 Mariners with about 6.6 WAR more talent. WAR doesn't equate perfectly to wins, but it's the most perfect conversion of individual talent to team wins that we've got. Like I said, the 2014 Mariners played beyond their abilities by just a bit, and the 2015 Mariners played beneath them by just a bit. The end result feels like a large chasm but to some degree that is a mirage.

A difference of 1.8 WAR for an entire unit, like a lineup or a rotation, is razor thin. For instance, Robinson Cano was worth over 3 WAR more in 2014 than in in 2015. Kyle Seager also was over 2 WAR worse in 2015. Either of those players (not even both!) looking more like the 2014 versions of themselves would have wiped out the gap. Heck, even Mike Zunino was over 1.8 WAR better in 2014. These aren't even individual players taking steps forward - just not taking steps back.

As for the starting rotation, King Felix had an off year. He was worth over 3 more WAR in 2014. A return to form for him would have made for a 2015 starting rotation that was superior to 2014's.

So, depending on how you feel about the Mariners core players moving forward, it might not be too hard to imagine this team getting way better in a hurry. Jerry Dipoto will inevitably receive significant praise if/when the Mariners improve in 2016, and perhaps he will make some magical moves, but the 2015 Mariners were never as far away from contending as they seemed. For whatever reason, things just went wrong for them. The American League had lots of .500-ish teams, the Mariners being one of them, and a few subpar performances from key players were enough to sink them. That's what it meant to be True To The Blue** in 2015.

**Had to use the slogan one more time before the marketing department makes something new for 2016. The irony of this slogan might be what I remember most from 2015.

End Draws Near

The Mariners are 12-6 so far in September, and oddly enough seem poised for their best month of the year. They are winning "when it counts" - the only problem is that they didn't win enough the other five months (when wins don't count?) So these game don't matter because the games that didn't matter were lost too often. It's as if winning is always a good idea.

Anyway, on one hand the M's run seemed inevitable with the talent they have, but on the other is quite improbable. It has come with a roving platoon at center field featuring two career infielders, Brad Miller and Shawn O'Malley. Every now and then Lloyd McClendon sprinkles in a surprise, such as Stefen Romero today. The Mariners started winning once they stopped playing a center fielder in center field. Of course. We should have all seen the wisdom in this.

Also, say what you want about Mike Zunino, but his replacements are far from lighting the world on fire. John Hicks and Steve Baron are a combined 1 for 35 with 1 walk and 16 strikeouts. In fairness to Baron that is mostly Hicks's flailing away at the plate. In fairness to Hicks this whole disaster is not really his fault. There was a reason I never called for Mike Zunino to be demoted. I watch enough Rainiers games in person. Hicks and Baron can both defend, but their hitting was suspect at best. Catcher was a known hole that Zduriencik failed to address - or did, with Wellington Castillo, and promptly ditched because he couldn't resist Mark Trumbo. Regardless, now that the Mariners have eliminated any semblance of production at catcher, they are finally winning. Sure. Why not?

Maybe this is just how the 2015 AL West works. The Rangers lead the division despite a negative run differential and crippling injury luck. In fact, most of the season Texas has had a worse run differential than the basement-dwelling Athletics (and might again after today's drubbing). Nothing has been all that predictable in this division.

The Mariners have four series remaining, at the Royals, at the Angels, versus the Astros, and versus the Athletics. That very last series against Oakland will likely be a dud. Both the Mariners and Athletics should be mathematically eliminated from contention by then. The Royals series might be rather boring too because Kansas City is close to clinching, although one would think they would like to pluck home field advantage from the surging Toronto Blue Jays. Those Angels and Astros series look pretty interesting right about now though.

The Mariners have the look of a spoiler. All of a sudden they are looking much more like the team that many though would win the AL West this year. The Angels and Astros increasingly find themselves fighting for one playoff spot. Both of them must play the Mariners. The Mariners are 4-1 against the Angels and Astros this month, by the way, and all five of those games took place on the road too.

I have gone quiet on the blog because my school year started up again, but I have been listening to the Mariners. I am at the odd emotional moment where I realize that these games are pointless for the Mariners. Let's be honest, Lloyd McClendon understands how meaningless these games are too. Why else would Stefen Romero start in center field?

However, meaningless baseball is still baseball. Moreover, baseball is about to be over for the long, dark winter. Paradoxically, as the games have become increasingly meaningless, I find myself more intent on tuning in. The lure of baseball is just too strong for me, and it only beckons louder with every Mariners victory.

Now, with the way things are unfolding, the Mariners just might play some meaningful baseball next week - not for them, but for someone else. None of these games will leave an imprint like the crazy 11-inning game they played last year to make game 162 matter, but not every game is destined to be so great. A fun game with playoff implications is still worth paying attention to though. These last few weeks could be fun. I, for one, would take some pleasure in keeping the Angels out of the playoffs.