Monday, April 27, 2009

Don't get mad, get Wlad

Welcome back, Tad.  And welcome back me.  I posted a fair amount last season, but stopped midseason as the Mariners hit rock bottom and my interest in curling exceeded that of baseball - and the only thing I know about curling is that it's essentially goofy-looking shuffleboard on ice.

I will be shocked if this team wins more than 75 games this year, hot start notwithstanding.  However, I like the direction Jackie Z has taken the club.  The puke-inducing, dumster-diving Bavasi days are over.  Dice rolling no longer rules the decision-making process.  Emphasis on the less "sexy" aspects of the game has come to the forefront, not the least of which is defense.

Despite Seattle ranking near the bottom in fielding percentage, there are sophisticated metrics presently available that demonstrate Zduriencik has put together a very nice defensive team.  Here's one of them:

On this chart, the M's are currently near the top in UZR, which is defined as follows:

UZR (ultimate zone rating): The number of runs above or below average a fielder is in both range runs, outfield arm runs, double play runs and error runs combined.

I don't pretend to be an expert in this statistic, or whether or not it is valid.  However, if so (and assuming it holds up), it helps to validate Zduriencik's team-building approach.  

Ok, so what the heck does this have to do with the thread title?

Franklin Gutierrez was picked up in the J.J. Putz trade and has been a significant part of the defensive improvement for the M's during the early part of this year.  He's got a good glove, solid wheels and seems to pick the right route to the ball, unlike the circuitous misadventures of a certain former M's outfielder.  He's probably a great guy in the clubhouse and maybe even smells nice, too.  He has a significant role to play on this club, without a doubt.

However, his bat might as well be made out of milk chocolate.  I realize that he's just 26, but when you're coming off a .248/.303/.691 season after logging a career high 399 ABs, you'd better be good defensively.  Couple that with similarly "meh" stats in parts of three previous MLB seasons and good-but-not-great stats in the minors, and it seems clear that you might be destined to be an outfield version of Willie Bloomquist.  Pinch-running, late-inning replacement in the field, and spot starting might make more sense for Mr. Gutierrez, long term.

Wladmir Balentien, by contrast, displayed multi-tool talent in the minors, smacking 24 homers in his first PCL campaign, then 18 in just 275 AB's in his second.  Slugging was .509 and .584, respectively, and OPS was .871 and .938.  He even stole 15 bases (against four caught stealing) in 2007.  His previous lower-level minors stats look pretty zesty, too.  He doesn't hit for high average, but the boy can get on base, drive in runs, and has above-average power.  It's time to see if he can do it in the Show as well.

Balentien had slightly sprained his wrist early in the year and thus was not available.  Now that he's healthy, he needs to be given a chance to see what he can do.  This M's team is going to scratch and claw for runs all year long.  If Balentien is the real deal, he could give them a dose of what they need offensively and actually make Gutierrez more valuable as a true role player in the process.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

It’s Hero Time

This blog has been dark for the better part of a year.

Last year's the M's mis-management team turned me off so bad that I largely lost the joy of baseball. I barely followed the playoffs, discontinued my subscription to Baseball Prospectus and came perilously close to folding a 15 year fantasy league for general lack of interest.

But I like the moves Zdurenczik made this offseason and have been pleasantly surprised at the results of the team so far this year, so when someone offered me tickets for Friday night's Tigers tilt I took em. It was Ichiro Bobblehead night after all. Kate, my 9 year old, is deeply into her softball this year and was very excited to go with me.

Two things happened at this game that may be the road to recovery for me as a baseball fan.

The first is that I was very much surprised at the amount of emotion I felt watching Junior bat for the first time in 10 years. Those that know me may not be surprised that I would have an emotional response, I am an emotional guy, but the depth of the feeling surprised me.

A flood of memories came back. I was a fan before Junior of course, and I've got the Ruppert Jones baseball cards and Jim Presley growth charts to prove it. But when Junior arrived in 1989, it felt like the Mariners had arrived too. We had our first winning season two years later and were no longer a joke. Junior led to the winning season, the first winning season led to Piniella, and Sweet Lou led us to 1995. Seeing Junior brought back all of that and put a serious lump in my throat.

If me getting choked up over seeing The Kid was somewhat predictable, the second inspiring moment was completely random and totally unexpected.

Kate loves the bullpen. You are so close to the players, you can almost touch them. Other than the 12 foot fence of course. The sound of the ball popping in the bullpen catcher's glove is a definite "Wow!" moment for a 9 year old.

We made our way to the pen in the eighth and watched Brandon Lyon throw in the Tigers pen. When he got called in, we wandered over to the much more crowded M's side, but just as we got there a spot opened up, right on the mound end.

It was a little boring at first because Morrow was the only guy up and he was already warm, only throwing once a minute or so to stay ready. After two outs in the M's inning though, he started working pretty seriously. Shortly the M's made the third out and Morrow came in to close it out. We shouted good luck at him and Kate turned to go.

I held on for a second because I enjoy watching things in the margins. Sometimes you see some pretty interesting things during changeovers and after everyone else has stopped watching. In this case my patience was rewarded. The bullpen catcher flipped the ball Morrow had been throwing to pen coach John Wetteland, who made a beeline for Kate.

You assume that these guys are used to the crowds and don't pay any attention to who is watching them. They have been trained all along to be indifferent and aloof from the adoring (or heckling) throngs. But Wetteland had clearly seen us already, he asked for the ball and didn't look around for someone to give it to, he knew where he was going.

"Can I throw you this ball sweetheart?"

My normally poised and composed daughter, who talks incessantly, was completely speechless. Grinning, she could only manage a nod.

Wetteland points to the top of the fence. "I have to throw it over, are you ready?"

Kate holds her hands out in a fielding stance.

"Of course you are ready, you brought your mitt! Okay, ready, here it comes!"

The ball goes up and over the top of the fence and comes down to rest squarely in her glove. She stares down at the ball as if she has been given some priceless gift (Jonas Brothers tickets?) beyond measure. By the time she looks up, Wetteland has already turned to go. "Thank you!" we both shout.

Wetteland doesn't turn back, acknowledging us only by the briefest flick of his left hand in some sort of minimalist wave.

The grin on Kate's face is impossible to describe. The trip home was filled with as many details of John Wetteland's career as I can recall and a lengthy dissertation on the duties of the bullpen coach. She woke her mother up to tell year the story and called her Grammy at 7 am the next morning to tell her. I think she slept with the ball.

I don't know if I am all the way back. The Bavasi years have scarred me permanently. But the thrill of seeing my favorite player and experiencing the simple pleasure of a free baseball through the eyes of my little girl have started the recovery.