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M's never deserved their narrative

8/10/2010

Posnanski on the 2010 Seattle Mariners and unrealistic expectations:

    It all seems so obvious now, doesn’t it? Bringing back Ken Griffey Jr.? Trading for Milton Bradley? Giving 32-year-old Chone Figgins (and his lifetime 99 OPS+) a big-money, four-year deal based mostly on one good season (and then moving him to second base)? Signing 32-year-old Jack Wilson to a multi-year contract though he had not played a full season in two years? Going into the season with Rob Johnson, and his 58 career OPS+, slotted as the regular catcher? Trading for light-hitting Casey Kotchman and inserting him as the Opening Day No. 3 hitter? Building up all sorts of hopes about Ian Snell as a No. 3 starter? Making the moves of a “contender” when the team finished dead last in the American League in runs scored in 2009 and was outscored by 52 runs? Trading a 25-year-old one-time phenom Brandon Morrow and his 98-mph fastball for an older, hard-throwing reliever with the same first name (Brandon League)? Expecting another low ERA closer year from David Aardsma? Letting go of Russell Branyan, who was one of only two good offensive players on the team in 2009 (he led the team in OPS+)?

    Yes, it seems so obvious now that the Seattle Mariners were likely to have a terrible crash this season. And it probably should have seemed obvious in February, too. And it probably WAS obvious then — Monday’s firing of manager Don Wakamatsu was etched in stone back before spring training.

    But a whole lot of us missed it. Why?

    --snip--

    I so clearly remember the 1987 Cleveland Indians ... the team that ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The cover read: “Believe it! Cleveland is the best team in the American League.” There was absolutely no reason to believe it. The 1986 Indians had won 84 games (after losing 100 in 1985) with a terrible and old pitching staff (Their second-best pitcher was 47-year-old Phil Niekro — their TWO best pitchers were knuckleballers). But they had won more than they lost by leading the league in batting average, slugging percentage and by scoring a bunch of runs (they were last, though, in walks — a pretty decent sign that things could turn bad when their luck changed). The narrative that things had changed in Cleveland was strong, and the Sports Illustrated cover strengthened it, and the excitement of young power hitters like Joe Carter, Brook Jacoby and Cory Snyder (all would hit 30-plus homers) made it even more appealing. So many of us WANTED it to be true. I did believe it.

    But wanting it to be true doesn’t make it true. The Indians lost 100 games again. I thought then that it was bad luck, but it was a bad narrative. This year’s Mariners are on pace to lose 100, too. Yes, all those promising narratives written in February end up in the trash can. And we are left wondering what ever made us believe in the first place.

That's the beginning and the end of Joe's brilliant (as usual) piece. The middle is mostly about a movie from the 1950s called "12 Angry Men" and (as Joe writes) if you haven't seen it, you should. His point is that once a narrative's established -- in this case, that the Mariners were good last year and got better over the winter, thanks to their sabermetrically friendly front office -- it's really hard to look at the actual evidence with any real objectivity.

Fortunately for the defendant in "12 Angry Men," he's got Henry Fonda looking out for him.

And fortunately for us, we've got numbers.

No, the numbers didn't suggest the Mariners would lose 100 games this season. But the numbers -- most of the ones I looked at, anyway -- suggested the Mariners were not a 90-win team, and in fact weren't fundamentally better than the Angels or the Athletics. Not that they would lose 100 games, but that they could easily finish in last place, with (say) 75 wins.

So how do you get from 75 wins to (say) 62?

Well, you make a few lousy moves and you get really, really unlucky besides. I thought a commenter in this thread basically nailed the lousy moves:

    Switching Figgins' and Lopez's positions seemed dubious at the time and those two are having terrible seasons. I still don't understand why in the world they did that. Getting Milton Bradley when he wasn't going to be a full time DH seemed like a mistake from the get go. Going with Kotchman over Branyan was another bizarre move. Those are just the ones I remember off the top of my head.

Still, you'd think something would have worked. I mean, something other than trading for Cliff Lee (who was a Mariner for only 13 starts before moving to Philadelphia).

I just got this great new book about the 1990 Reds, and was reading the story about shifting Norm Charlton from the bullpen to the rotation in the middle of the season. Charlton had been a starter as a rookie in 1988, pitched OK but nothing special. Moving into a relief role in '89, Charlton went 8-3 with a 2.93 and became one of the Nasty Boys. He got off to a fine start in 1990, and when the Reds needed a starter in the second half, Charlton got the nod, and went 6-5 with a 2.60 ERA in 16 starts.

Did it have to work? Hardly. But as the authors write, "The move was just another in a year when everything seemed to work."

We know it didn't have to work because the Reds were not, in that period, an outstanding franchise. The year before they won the World Series, they went 75-87. The year after they won the World Series, they went 74-88. Same manager in 1991 as 1990. Same general manager. Many of the same players. It was just one of those years.

This is just one of those years for the Mariners, but in a bad way. Nothing seems to work.