Wild Card Picture

The American League wild card race remains unsettled with just 9 games (plus a suspended game in the 10th inning for Cleveland and Kansas City) to go. With so few games the race is essentially a sprint to the finish.

However, the sprint has a pattern and only so many outcomes possible at this point. I took some time this morning to visualize the remaining games in the AL Wild Card race by creating a mathematical graph. Graphs in math are comprised of nodes and paths, and for this exercise nodes are teams and paths are games between teams. I also weighted the nodes based on their odds to earn a wild card spot (according to FanGraphs), and weighted paths based on how many games remain between two teams, including today's games (even the one underway between Detroit and KC, plus the suspended game between KC and Cleveland).

There are six teams with odds remaining in the AL wild card race according to Fangraphs, ranging from the A's odds (92.7%) down to the Yankees odds (0.3%) with the Royals, Mariners, Tigers,* and Indians between, respectively. The Mariners, if you are interested, sit at 41.7% odds right now.

*I am using only wild card odds. The Tigers are at 95.7% odds to make the playoffs according to Fangraphs, but only 19.5% of those odds are wrapped up in the wild card. The rest of their odds represent their chance to win the AL Central. Similarly, the Royals' overall odds are split between the division and wild card, and for this graph only their wild card odds are considered.

Below is the resulting graph, which has two distinct cycles:

AL Central cycle

AL West/East cycle

One observation sticks out to me just looking at the two parts of this graph. The Central cycle has fewer teams and and fewer path than the East/West cycle. That means the East/West cycle is the more "open" of the two parts, which means there is more freedom for more teams in the East/West cycle to go on winning or losing streaks.

It is also interesting to consider where power is based on the graph. One way to measure a team's potential impact on the wild card races is to multiply the strength of the path by the weight of the nodes - essentially measuring how high the playoff implications are in each game remaining for each game in a team's remaining schedule. Here are the results of multiplying odds by nodes in the graph:
  1. Athletics (834.3)
  2. Royals (483.0)
  3. Angels (403.2)
  4. Mariners (375.3)
  5. Rangers (370.8)
  6. Tigers (264.3)
  7. White Sox (236.1)
  8. Indians (189.3)
  9. Phillies (185.4)
  10. Blue Jays (167.7)
  11. Astros (83.4)
  12. Twins (80.6)
  13. Rays (3.9)
  14. Yankees (2.7)
  15. Orioles (1.2)
  16. Red Sox (0.9)
The focus down the stretch will obviously be on the teams directly in the Wild Card race, but there is a strong case to be made that the Angels will actually decide who goes to the playoffs. They have a higher ranking than the Mariners thanks to their remaining series against the A's. Moreover, the Angels have the best record in baseball, so they have the talent to knock off wild card hopefuls along with the opportunity.

However, what kind of lineups will the Angels throw against teams the final week and a half of the season? How much will they rest their regulars since they have already clinched the AL West? Do they care enough about the A's or Mariners to try to steer one of them into the playoffs over the other? My guess is that the Angels will play hard through the A's series, but if they have the best record in the AL wrapped up by the time they face the M's (a real possibility), they will rest their starters liberally. That could bode well for the Mariners.

The graph also suggests that the Rangers and White Sox are best poised to play the part of playoff spoiler. Given the Rangers injury woes and the sudden departure of Ron Washington, plus the fact that Chicago has Chris Sale and Jose Abreu, I like Chicago's chances to spoil either the Royals or Tigers - though their better odds are balanced out by the smaller impact their potential victories would have on the wild card race.

Lastly, the games in the graph can be analyzed as a whole, particularly with so few games left. In such a short stretch basically every team would "likely" go .500. For instance, the Blue Jays have 6 total games in this graph and a 3-3 record in those games is easily the closest approximation to their actual winning percentage when compared to other two most likely outcomes (2-4 and 4-2). Therefore, by simply splitting games in this manner, pressure point games can be identified.

The Central, theoretically in this exercise, works out pretty nicely. The Angels clearly have a pressure point game though. They have 6 games total between the A's and Mariners, which would mean an expected 3 wins in this exercise. Whether they take 2 from Seattle and 1 from Oakland, or vice-versa, would make a huge difference in the Wild Card standings.

If everyone in the Wild Card hunt plays .500 ball the rest of the way, with the Angels taking 2 out of 3 from the A's and dropping 2 out of 3 to the M's at the end of the year, here are the final wild card standings:
  • (Tigers win AL Central with 90-72 record)
  • Athletics: 88-74
  • Mariners: 88-74
  • Royals: 88-74
Begrudgingly, I'll be an Angels fan for the next week, but only until Friday.

Enjoy the Moment

King Felix (wikimedia commons)
I haven't posted in forever, which from a business plan standpoint is a horrific idea. The Mariners have been quite interesting since my last post.

Good thing this blog isn't a business. I also moved and got ready for the school year (as a public school teacher), so life happens. Those are some big, time-consuming happenings in my life, along with following every game for the Mariners, which I have been doing. Ironically, I've probably followed the Mariners more closely the last month and a half, while I haven't been writing, than for most of the time I have maintained the Musings.

Quite honestly, I have more than come to terms with this blog's radio silence. It's really the best statement I could make about the Mariners right now. Don't read about them. Don't analyze contracts, WAR, future returns, upcoming free agency, draft classes, who will go where in the winter leagues and how they will do. There will be time for all of that, but that time isn't now.

Just go out and experience the 2014 Mariners, specifically the 2014 Mariners of tonight, September 13.

Tonight's game, as far as I'm concerned, is at the heart and soul of what sports are all about. There are tangential parts that have spun into massive industries (marketing, fantasy sports, the business and politics) that are fascinating in their own right. However, tonight's game is guaranteed to be special. The only question is how special.

King Felix takes the mound against the A's tonight. The Mariners are making this a "black out" night, and the game promises to be a near sell-out, if not a total sell-out. If the Mariners win they take over first place in the wild card standings.*

*They might be tied in first place, depending on results of other games, but that doesn't really change the point or tenor of this moment.

Tonight will be amazing. This is an event that will draw 40,000 people together in unison, to cheer on a team that at least like and a player they absolutely love. Remember for years all the chatter about trading Felix? The analysis of the roster and contract flexibility? That's all part of the back story that makes tonight so special. Felix is still ours, and he has embraced the franchise and city, hoping to be the man that guides the Mariners back to the playoffs. Tonight's game wasn't guaranteed, but here it is, and we get to celebrate it together.

Sports has many ugly aspects, particularly in the modern age of massive media contracts and the scrutiny that comes with it. The NFL has reminded us several times over in the past week just how ugly modern sports can look when things go wrong. However, despite the distasteful and blatant cash grabs of modern professional sports, I still believe there must be something so compelling about sports for all the money and opportunities to be there in the first place.

Tonight's Mariners game is that compelling space. This game will be fun for bandwagon fans and amazing for those who dare stick it out through thick and thin. There have been those random moments - like when Felix starts a midweek matinee against Tampa Bay and never gets around to allowing a baserunner - where it's easy to dream of what could be if he ever gets to pitch on a bigger stage. That dream, the dream I'm sure just about every Mariners fan has harbored in their mind and soul for the past decade, becomes a reality tonight.

Sports, at its best, engenders hope, perseverance, determination, celebration, and unity. All of these traits will come together tonight at Safeco Field.

A win, obviously, would be huge, and make tonight much better. However, the existence of this game - King Felix in September with seismic playoff implications on the line - is such a monumental victory. Games like this don't come around often. Playoff chases like these don't come around often either. Mariners fans have no issues appreciating this, given the current playoff draught.

I, for one, have largely tucked away FIP, xFIB, K/BB ratios, BABIP, and the rest of sabermetrics' alphabet soup for the offseason. The stats help a team get to tonight's game, but they can't quantify what it means to watch our face of the franchise, a true Mariners hero, go after a playoff spot that has eluded Seattle's grasp for 13 years. I can analyze the game all I want to in the future. Tonight is for experiencing the game at its finest.

Mariners Decide They Want To Field Actual MLB Outfield

Austin Jackson (wikimedia commons)
Lo and behold, the Mariners were active at the trade deadline! When the dust settled the Mariners grabbed a pair of right-handed outfielders for nobody on the current MLB roster. Clearly they are better, and addressed their most glaring spots of need. Time to get to know the newest Mariners, just how much better they've made the team, and how much was given up to get them:

Mariners acquire OF Chris Denorfia from the Padres for OF Abe Almonte and RHP Stephen Kohlscheen

Denorfia is what he is, a right-handed bat with a bit of gap power and good corner outfield defense. He becomes a free agent at the end of the year and is 34 years old. He is a rental and marginal upgrade for most teams, though not the Mariners. Keep in mind he will replace a slew of right-fielders that have combined for about -1.5 WAR this season. He could be as much as a 2-win upgrade because he supplants players posting negative totals.

The Mariners gave up a surprising amount at first glance, though not an alarming amount. It depends on how much you like Almonte. I still like him as a fourth outfielder, and frankly he was a better option than James Jones in center this whole time (though Jones likely has more long-term upside). Kohlscheen also looks like a solid bullpen piece, but he was buried in the Mariners embarrassment of bullpen riches.

Usually, a player like Denorfia comes at virtually no cost (like cash or a player to be named later), but this wasn't a normal market. Very few bats were available, and the ones that went tended to go for surprising prices. Asdrubal Cabrera, in a down year, netted Cleveland a surprisingly decent shortstop prospect in Zach Walters. Gerardo Parra, an all-glove, limited-bat type, went to the Brewers for a pair of prospects. It seems to me that the price the M's paid for Denorfia is in line with this year's market values. More importantly, the Mariners kept their group of core prospects together. At least until a few hours later...

Mariners acquire OF Austin Jackson from the Tigers for 2B Nick Franklin (who goes to the Rays in the David Price blockbuster)

It's hard not to like this deal for the Mariners. Jackson is a bona fide center fielder, though his defense has slipped the last few years according to advanced metrics. Still, defensively, he's an upgrade over James Jones (at least until Jones develops further; I like his raw tools) and is lightyears ahead of Jones with the bat. Jackson strikes out a bit, but with some power. He was a 5-win player a few seasons ago and is still just 27 years old. He should be entering his prime right about now. Jackson is also under team control through next season, so he is not a pure rental.

Nick Franklin is a more than fair price for Jackson. Franklin had no spot on the Mariners once Robinson Cano signed. He continues to crush AAA pitching and strike out too much in the majors. Either he will figure out MLB pitching or he won't. I think Franklin will, and if/when he does he could be a good everyday player for the Rays. However, his high strikeout rates make me wonder if Sean Rodriguez is a reasonable comp for him at this point - and if that's the comp, then the Mariners swung a great deal.

Honestly, I am pleasantly surprised that the Mariners could get Jackson for Franklin, straight up, and also pleasantly surprised that Zduriencik pulled the trigger on this deal. I have a hard time imagining this trade turning into a disaster, even if Franklin develops into a good player.

Overall, the Mariners are probably 2 or 3 wins better between now and the end of the season with Jackson and Denorfia, and only gave up one core prospect to improve - and of the core prospects, Nick Franklin was the most expendable thanks to Robinson Cano.

The Mariners may or may not make the playoffs with the roster they have, but they should hang around the race. Their rotation could get huge boosts from James Paxton and Taijuan Walker if either can get totally healthy and locked in between now and September. Denorfia and Jackson aren't the same kind of additions the A's and Tigers made grabbling Lester and David Price, respectively, but I'm not sure what else the Mariners could have done that would have made good sense. Two thumbs up from me. Time to see how the pennant race unfolds.

Those Moneyballin' A's

Billy Beane (wikimedia commons)
This might be a two-post day as I already planned to write something after the trade deadline passed (at 1pm Pacific Time). The deadline is pretty much over now though, thanks to Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics. He has already acquired Jon Lester, Jonny Gomes, and Sam Fuld this morning, giving up Yoenis Cespedes, Tommy Milone, and a draft pick in the process.

One reason I hate the Angels so much is because I can't hate other division rivals. Maybe I can conjure up some solid hatred for the Astros once they rise to prominence, but for now I admire their ability to utterly give up competing for a few years to focus on their farm system - which, by the way, is loaded and starting to graduate some good players. The Rangers can only be hated so much with a jigging, coke-snorting manager, and the lovable interplay between former M's favorite Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus. Plus they are just awful this year, thanks largely to an unfair slew of injuries.

Then there are the Athletics, the team I cannot force myself to hate. Moneyball, to my memory, is the first book I ever asked for as a Christmas present. I had the potential to take a closer, analytical look at baseball before that book but it is what took my fandom to another level. It's been hard for over a decade to both root against the A's as a Mariners fan, and root for them as a general baseball fan. I want Billy Beane to get a ring. He deserves it.

So I love today's trades by the A's. Billy Beane has proven with so many trades over the years that he keeps a certain cold-blooded distance from his players. They are assets to him, which serves him well in a small market where only so many players can be kept on long-term deals within the budget. Moreover, Beane can wheel and deal as a man entrenched in his job. Really, will he ever be fired? What in the world would he have to do to get fired in Oakland at this point? Beane can afford to make riskier deals if he chooses to with the confidence that a backfired deal or two won't cost him his job.

Cespedes is an otherworldly athlete that, believe it or not, is overrated as a ballplayer. His insane arm in the field make up for some defensive gaffes, and bruising power at the plate make up for lots of bad swings and misses. His contract ran through 2015 and then he would have hit free agency, where no doubt some team would have valued his raw tools more than the A's. This is the cold-blooded Billy Beane at his best: Cespedes was not the entrenched superstar, he of back-to-back home run derby titles and a starting bid in the All Star Game - he was an above-average left fielder with only a year and a half left in Oakland. So, Beane traded him for Jon Lester, a rental for sure, but a bona fide star.

Furthermore, Beane even went out and immediately got the Cespedes replacements, Jonny Gomes and Sam Fuld. Neither superstars, but with their powers combined, a surprising Cespedes facsimile. Fuld brings superior defense and plate discipline, Gomes some thunder, especially against lefties.

This is Oakland's best chance to win the World Series. They are already the best team in baseball, and a surprising number of big market teams (like the Red Sox, who they just got Lester from) are out of contention. Oakland knows as well as anyone, from the Mulder-Hudson-Zito days, that the playoffs can be an unfair crapshoot. However, the whole point of baseball is to step up to the table and play with whatever pair of loaded die you can get your hands on. Billy Beane is breathing in to his hands right now, and will cast his set in October. This is why I love the A's trades this morning, and why I will be frustrated if/when the Mariners stand pat at the deadline once again in the name of preserving the future.*

*Hopefully, this last sentence reverse jinxes the Mariners into a deal.

Deal or No Deal

Jack Zduriencik (wikimedia commons)
I despise writing theoretical trade posts. Any old blogger can cook up some theoretical trade and analyze it, justifying why both teams should go for it. The ideas and posts are so formulaic. I dare you to find some random internet writer/commenter's trade proposal that doesn't follow one of these three patterns:

Pattern 1: The now-for-future swap. The (insert fan's favorite team) should trade (top prospect) and (best prospect at superstar's current position) for (superstar). (Superstar) would be the impact (arm or bat, depending on position) that the (fan's favorite team) need, and (other team) would be loaded a few years down the road when they are ready to contend.

Example: The Mariners should trade Taijuan Walker and Alex Jackson for Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton would be the impact bat that the Mariners need, and the Marlins would be loaded for a few years down the road for when they are ready to contend.

Pattern 2: The delusional trade pillage. This comes in two variants, depending on where the fan's team is in the standings. If they are contending, it looks like, "(fan's favorite team) gets (superstar) for (young bench player that's a marginal prospect at best). Once a team with a superstar is out of contention they should grab any young player with a pulse."

Example: The Mariners get Giancarlo Stanton for Stefen Romero. Stanton is about to get paid but Romero is cheap, young, and has right-handed power!

If the fan's team is not contending, then this kind of trade looks like, "(fan's favorite team) trades (marginal starter that had a hot April, May, or June) for (other team's top prospect). (Other team) needs impact (bat/arm) and need to JUST WIN, BABY."

Example: The Rangers trade J.P. Arencibia to the Mariners for Taijuan Walker. The Mariners need an impact bat and Arencibia drove in a run last night. They can't let Walker's potential get in the way of WINNING NOW.

Pattern 3: Speculating on a rumor from a reporter. This is the most common of all.

Example: Reports are that the Mariners might be looking at Chris Denorfia of the Padres. 90% of internet commenters have next to no idea who Denorfia is. So, with the report in mind, they then take Denorfia and fit him in Pattern 2, since he isn't the superstar that could fit in Pattern 1.

Example: The Mariners should give up Stefen Romero to get Chris Denorfia.*

*Actually, I could see the Padres taking Romero for Denorfia. Sometimes random, pattern-fitting trade proposals make sense.

So now that I've written every trade proposal you could ever run into this time of year, let me get to the second point in this post. Jack Zduriencik, apparently, is hard to make a deal with, according to anonymous sources that respected journalists Ken Rosenthal and JP Morosi talk to. The money quote, from their joint article:
"They think, ‘Who can we give up that will never be any good?’ They don’t want to give up anyone who will haunt them. That’s just flat-out fear.”
True to the blue :-(

The evidence follows classic conspiracy-theory logic. There is no way to prove this statement wrong, particularly because Zduriencik has not pulled a noteworthy trade in a few years. We have almost no idea what kind of deals the Mariners considered or proposed. The only "proof" is the lack of proof to contradict the theory. Zduriencik is guilty until proven innocent.

Furthermore, to fully play devil's advocate, there is an art to trade deadline deals. The media can (and is) a pawn in the trade deadline game. Everyone wants to make a deal that favors their team. The anonymous sources in Rosenthal and Morosi's article have heavy incentives to criticize Zduriencik's trade style. If they can manufacture an added sense of urgency and pressure on Z, then he might be more willing to part with better talent.  It is in their best interest to push a bad reputation on him whether these anonymous sources actually believe Zduriencik is gun shy or not on deals. It could help their leverage, and since they are anonymous, comes with virtually no risk of harming their bargaining position and relationship with Zduriencik.

However, the anonymous sources got me thinking about Z and his trading style. I doubt he is as skittish as "anonymous sources" make him out to be, but there is evidence to suggest he values his own players rather highly.

Jack Zduriencik, way back when he started on the job, seemed to be the master of trades. He made a massive 3-team, 12-player swap that gave away J.J. Putz and brought back Franklin Gutierrez and Jason Vargas. The next offseason he made the megaswap for Cliff Lee. Zduriencik seemed to quickly assert himself as a crazy wheeler and dealer.

Here's the deal though: None of those trades involved guys that Zduriencik's regime drafted or developed. The same goes for the Doug Fister deadline deal, the most recent trade deadline swap Zduriencik pulled. Fister was drafted by Bill Bavasi. The only Zduriencik draft picks traded to date are Carter Capps (for LoMo) and Stephen Pryor (for Kendrys Morales). Bullpen guys that had been leapfrogged by other bullpen prospects, namely Dominic Leone. Additionally, Kendrys spent a year with the Mariners and Zduriencik tried to sign him back to the M's in a few different ways last offseason. The crazy wheeling and dealing ways of Zdurienick evaporated once "his guys" populated the Mariners system.

Take an even deeper look at the system, and Zduriencik's preference for his own guys becomes even more obvious. He originally drafted Tom Wilhelmsen in Milwaukee. Corey Hart, although a free agent signing, is also a draft pick of Zduriencik's from his Milwaukee days. Lucas Luetge, a mildly productive Rule 5 pick from a few years ago, stays around the 40-man roster and was plucked from Zduriencik's Milwaukee farmhands too.

None of these moves make Zduriencik an outlier per se. Teams draft players because they like them (duh) - moreover, particularly in the mid to late rounds, teams are highly likely to draft players that they value significantly more than other teams. The simple fact is that, by the 10th round or so, every player has been passed over by every team 9 to 10 times. So, teams generally select players they are less interested on passing on than every other team in baseball. The system is subtly designed for teams to prefer their own players to outsiders.

Additionally, it is worth remembering that Zduriencik got the Mariners job because of the phenomenal work he did building up the Brewers farm system. His baseball DNA is grounded in finding amateur talent and watching it flourish.

Conventional wisdom suggests that, if Zduriencik is on the hot seat, he would go in full "win now" mode and trade the farm. I'm not so certain that's how he would respond though. Managers and GMs generally prefer to go down with "their guys," and nobody is more Zduriencik than the prospects in his farm system.

With all that said, Zduriencik will trade his own guys. Remember that he had pulled off a trade with the Diamondbacks a few years ago that would have landed the M's Justin Upton for a package that included Taijuan Walker and Nick Franklin. Justin Upton rejected the trade, not the Mariners or the Diamondbacks. Zduriencik successfully brokered that deal. The Putz megadeal and Cliff Lee trades can't be forgotten either, even if they didn't involve Z's own draftees.

Zduriencik is just like every other general manager in baseball - he pulls a trade when the price is right in his estimation. He has in the past, and will continue to do so in the future, perhaps (hopefully) as soon as today, tomorrow, or Thursday before the trade deadline passes. For better or worse, he appears to prefer his own players more than most general managers.

I'd say that Mariners fans better get ready for a quiet deadline. Perhaps Zduriencik trades the farm for Giancarlo Stanton - I think Z would be willing, whether the Marlins would be too is another question - but he definitely would trade next-to-nothing for a guy like Chris Denorfia.

Start rooting for Taijuan Walker, D.J. Peterson, Brad Miller, Chris Taylor, and others to figure out life in the big leagues in a hurry before Robinson Cano and Felix Hernandez exit their primes. That's true to the blue, at least underneath Jack Zduriencik's leadership.