Morrow or Jones?

December 28, 2007

The opinion has been expressed by some people, notably Geoff Baker, that Brandon Morrow is more valuable to Adam Jones. It is my belief that this statement is false. I think the premise that people who are of this opinion operate under is that Brandon Morrow was successful in relief last year basically right out of college and this portends great things for his future as a starter. I do not buy this.

First off, Morrow was not “very successful” in relief last year. Let us get establish this right away. Morrow may have struck out 66 batters in 63.3 innings, a very good rate, but he also walked 50, a very very poor rate. Morrow did do a commendable job limiting homeruns, but we also only have a small sample on that, so we cannot be sure if this is a repeatable rate or a fluke. Morrow’s low groundball percentage (35.2%) indicates it’s more likely a fluke, though one he could sustain somewhat if he stayed in the bullpen as relievers HR/FB rates are almost always lower than that of their starting brethren.

All told, Morrow had a 4.12 ERA and a 4.09 FIP in 2007. Those aren’t bad numbers by any stretch, but they are not spectacular either. I bet a lot of people are suffering from first impression syndrome. Morrow’s first 20 games at the big league level resulted in a 2-0 record, 22.2 innings pitched and a sparkling 1.59 ERA. Problem is, even then his walks were a huge problem; he had 19 over those first 22.2 innings.

The more pertinent question is: what is Morrow’s future? For that, there’s three separate paths to consider.

PATH ONE: Morrow Stays in the Bullpen

This is basically stasis. Present Morrow stays at 2007 Morrow level, with perhaps a touch of experienced-related improvement, and Future Morrow’s whole development curve is flattened down to whatever improvement Morrow can find while pitching sporadically out of the bullpen in high leverage innings. In effect, very little can be done here. Future Morrow’s value tops out as a very good relief pitcher (nothing to sneeze at in today’s markets) and Present Morrow stays the same as 2007 Morrow, so not much improvement there to the 2008 squad.

PATH TWO: Morrow Learns to Start in Seattle

This would almost certainly be disastrous in the short-term, and likely long-term. Dave Cameron at USS Mariner wrote a post just today outlining Morrow’s deficiencies as a starting pitcher. It is important to hammer home one of Cameron’s main points; starting is vastly different from relieving. I’ll leave it up to the reader to go over to Cameron’s post for a more thorough understanding of why, but if you do not accept that premise then you might as well leave this site, head over to Baker’s blog and join in on the commenting fun there where you can be around people that think like you do.

All in all, Morrow as a starting pitcher in 2008 is going to be bad, like Jeff Weaver bad. So that is not going to net us any improvement. It also begs the question of what struggling this much will do to Morrow’s development as a starter. He needs to be developing offspeed pitches and command in order to reach his full potential, but if his offspeed stuff and slower fastball are getting shelled in the big league rotation, he might resort back to throwing pure gas as long as he can, burning out around 75 pitches but at least being somewhat more effective at getting outs. Problem is, that leaves Future Morrow in the same position as Present Morrow; worthless to the Mariners as a starting pitcher.

PATH THREE: Morrow Learns to Start in Tacoma

He gets a chance to work on all the things he needs to: better command, and improving his offspeed offerings, away from the pressures of attaining good results all the time. This is the best option for Future Morrow, but obviously reduces the value of Present Morrow to 0.

What we end up with is no rational way to expect Brandon Morrow to provide more value in 2008 than he did in 2007 and his future value added is directly tied to him being able to start games somewhere, be it Tacoma, Seattle or Baltimore. Brandon Morrow will not learn how to start by pitching out of the bullpen. The preceding sentence needs something stronger than bold to emphasize it enough. The pitchers that are able to make successful transitions from the pen to the rotation (e.g. Liriano, Santana, Pineiro when he was on the juice) all had massive amounts of experience starting in the minors. Brandon Morrow has none. That’s the key point to remember. It’s so important I am giving it its own paragraph like a newspaper sports writer would.

Brandon Morrow has practically no experience being a starting pitcher.

The only way Brandon Morrow provides significant future value is if he goes back to the minors and works his way back up as a starting pitcher. And that is not going to happen under this regime. Morrow is staying on the active roster come hell or tradewater. That is precisely why Morrow is expendable in the pursuit of Erik Bedard.

If we acquired Bedard, our rotation (Felix, Wash, Batista, Silva, Bedard) would be set for 2008-9. So you’d be keeping Morrow in the pen until 2010. By that point, Morrow has 3 years of service time and still has zero starting experience. The idea that he’ll make a flawless transition to the rotation is retarded no matter if it’s 2008, 2010 or 2015. You can almost surely chalk up 2010 to growing pains, meaning, if everything breaks right you get Morrow as a good starting pitcher for 2011-2 before he hits free agency. Two years. The same two years you get out of Bedard right now.

I have covered Jones’ value in a previous post, but to reiterate, Adam Jones provides an immediate value to the 2008 Mariners (mostly in the form of his defense) and is under club control for six seasons. Removing Adam Jones from the picture means we are certainly doomed to Raul Ibanez’s continued existence in left field and we also have to either use Wladimir Balentien in right field or go find a free agent. This is a tremendous hit to our outfield defense for 2008. (In fact, Bavasi should be looking at a free agent outfielder anyways [Kenny Lofton FTW!] to put over in left field so that we can move Raul’s decaying husk off the field entirely.)

Adam Jones is as essential to our 2008 squad as Jarrod Washburn. Brandon Morrow is as essential to our 2008 squad as Sean Green. Tell Baltimore they can Morrow (and Wlad and Chen and Saunders and Butler and Feierabend and Tui), but they cannot have Jones under any circumstance.


From Guillen to Jones

December 14, 2007

All current indications seem to point to the Mariner lineup staying nearly static from the past year with a lone exception. This is going to be a rudimentary, quick peek into what we might expect from that one change.

In 2007, Jose Guillen batted .290/.353/.460. He was pretty lucky to have done so, with a higher than expected BABIP, but that’s tangential to our intended discussion here since Jose Guillen’s 2008 performance is not what we are concerned with. According to The Hardball Time, Guillen played 1273 innings and snagged 234 of 273 balls in zone and 34 out of zone. Taking the league rates for rightfielders, the average rightfielder would have gotten to 237.5 balls in zone and 47.5 out of zone. Adding these up and you get that Guillen made 17 fewer plays than our expected average defender over the course of 1273 innings.

With the performance in 2007 established, we move on to the more difficult part; projecting our 2008 performance. This is going to come primarily from Adam Jones. Jones is the subject of a few favorable projections already, notably ZiPS which pegs him as a .276/.335/.477 hitter next year. While I am sure that seems tad optimistic, let us not dismiss it outright, but instead delve a little deeper and see where we feel afterwards. Jones is not the easiest projection since he has such a limited big league sample to draw from. Luckily, I prefaced this entire investigation by saying it would be rudimentary so any statistical qualms I have are easily ignored. Are you not glad that I have such flexible morals?

Here is what we do know about Jones 147 big league plate appearances, spread almost equally between 2006 and 2007. Jones posted a 26.9% and 27.3% line drive rate each year. That is a very very good number, almost certainly too good to sustain itself. If they were done in seasons long enough to qualify, those numbers would rank 7th and 3rd highest respectively among single season line drive percentages over the past four seasons. In other words, unless you think Adam Jones is going to be the best line drive hitter in Major League Baseball next year, that number is going to come down.

How far down? For that, we turn to Jones’ Tacoma numbers where we get the benefit of an additional 886 plate appearances over the same time span. Those figures were lower in Tacoma, hovering a few ticks above 20%. That is still quite good if he can maintain that level. I am unsure if anyone has looked at how line drive rates move between AAA and MLB so for now, let’s just leave it as is and project a 22% LD% in 2008. Applying a (little less than standard) +11% to go from LD% to BABIP (not that robust, but again, good enough for this), we arrive at around a .330 BABIP.

We’re missing homeruns and strikeouts in order to figure out an estimate for batting average. Strikeouts are fairly straight forward; Jones Ks in about 29% of PAs over the course of his career. That’s going to improve with time, but in 2008 I would not count on much, let’s call it 28%. Jones hits groundballs at about a 40% clip, leaving us with 38% flyballs. Of those 38%. Jones smacked about one out of every five flybals over the fence in Tacoma, significantly less in Seattle. For 2008, I expect something in the middle and call it 13.5%. So in a 100 at bat sample, we expect something like 28 strikeouts, a little over five home runs and 67 balls in play yielding a little over 22 hits. Add it all up and you have a projected .272 average. It is worth reiterating that .272 accounts for a regression in line drive rate, virtually no progress in reducing strikeouts and just an average home run per flyball rate. The latter two points, middle especially, Jones could easily surpass.

For walk rate, I am just going to assume he holds at his 2007 level of 5.6% and that he both gets drilled and lays a sac down once every 100 PAs. That means 6.6 free passes per 100 PAs and 92.4 atbats giving us an on-base percentage of .318. For slugging, we’ve already anticipated homeruns, and using an average of 2006 and 2007 at both Tacoma and Seattle yields expected rates of 4.2 doubles and 0.9 triples per 100 at bats next season. Subtracting 5.1 from the 22.1 non-HR hits gives us 17 singles and a grand total of 48.63 bases in 100 at bats. Putting it completely together we have a .272/.318/.486 line for 2008. That is pretty close to ZiPS. The power output seems high to me, but again, you expect high power from somebody striking out nearly 30% of the time so if you think Jones is going to struggle hitting for power in 2008, you have to acknowledge that he might adjust and start going more for contact thereby reducing his strikeout rate and upping his batting average and OBP.

Turning to defense, Jones in 2007 played 176 innings and snagged 31 of 34 balls in zone and 8 out of zone. Taking the league rates for rightfielders (I understand Jones did not play exclusively in RF), the average fielder would have gotten to 29.5 balls in zone and 6 out of zone giving Jones 3.5 plays above average per 176 innings. Prorating that up to 1273 innings leaves us with 25 plays above average. That’s a 42 play improvement over 2007 Jose Guillen. Is that reasonable? Jones is a centerfielder playing rightfield, so we definitely expect him to be above average, but 25 plays? Half of that seems much more likely. That would roughly paint Jones as a league average centerfielder in terms of defense which seems about right for now.

One more time, there are huge sample size issues at stake here. Nonetheless I am just searching for a broad picture of what we might be looking at. Given the assumptions stated above the Mariners will move from a .290/.353/.460 hitter to a .272/.318/.486 hitter. Assuming 600 at bats (reasonable barring injury for a full time player) and using a simplified formula, we arrive at 92.7 runs created with Jones’ bat compared to Guillen’s 96.3 in 2007. So we lose 3.6 runs of offense. On defense however, we gained 29.5 plays, which works out to at least 23.6 runs using Tango’s established 0.8 runs = 1 play conversion. Funny how in the end we end up with nice round number, but there it is. -3.6 + 23.6 = 20 run improvement.


Guillens Hole

October 23, 2007

With Jose Guillen opting out of his contract in the near future, in search of greener pastures, the Mariners find themselves with a hole in their offense. Make no mistake; Guillen leaves the Mariners with a significant hole.

 

The first notion that we should dismiss (one I have heard spouted by fans at various get to gathers) is that the Mariners found Jose Guillen on the scrap heap. This fallacy is followed by another which states that there are more Jose Guillens just waiting to be picked up for pennies on the dollar. If your definition of “scrap heap” includes players that are getting 5 million guaranteed (with roughly another 3 million in incentives and a mutual option for 9 million the next season) —- then Guillen was on the scrap heap. This isn’t to say that Jose Guillen was a unique opportunity, players like him come along all every so often. Let’s not kid ourselves; Jose Guillen bargain contract included the following baggage: 1) recovering from a serious injury and 2) had the reputation as a headcase. In spite of this the Mariners guaranteed him 6 million (the extra mill was for the buyout if needed), because he was in his prime and he’s an above average player. Imagine the contract Guillen would have gotten if his reputation had been better and he had been healthy. My guess would be it would have been a 4 for 40 type contract. I don’t think another Jose Guillen caliber player will be available for next season at pennies on the dollar.

 

His defense was poor but his offense was above average. I have much more faith in the accuracy in his offensive numbers than I do in the accuracy of his defensive numbers, but why don’t we assume Jose Guillen is an average RF all around. This means that the Mariners need to find an average RF to replace him. Considering that the Mariners have overachieved in terms of Pythag last year, the Mariners have the doubly (is that even a word?) difficult task of improving on this team.

 

Maybe Adam Jones or Wlad Balentein go bananas next season and fill the void nicely. I think that this is an optimistic projection. Both of those young men would almost certainly exceed Guillen in terms of bang for the buck, but the Mariners primary concern right now should be getting more production (regardless of the cost). The short story on Jones and Balentein is that both strike out a ton and I don’t feel comfortable projecting either of them to hit enough to become an average RF. Also Jones could be headed to LF which means that the M’s still need to find someone to play RF next year. Given the other areas of weakness on this team, I would rather the Mariners have this situation wrapped up. Instead the Mariners have another player to replace, and this time he isn’t terrible.

 

Remember in order to win the division next year, the Mariners would likely need to dramatically improve.

 

The ray of sunshine is that the Mariners have a few holes to fill this offseason, and many of them will be easier to fill than RF. The two rotation slots, 1B, LF, 2B or DH slots are all candidates to be upgraded. If Bavasi does it right, he can improve this team.

 

Feel free to chime in with any names that could fill the void left by Guillen.

-Brent