Bill James, father of sabermetrics, doesn't expect Mariners to improve on 2009's 85-win season
Bill James said he expects the Mariners to play at a similar level as 2009, when they won 85 games.
Seattle Times staff reporter
PEORIA, Ariz. — Legendary baseball researcher Bill James had a firsthand view of last year's Cy Young Award race from his home just outside Kansas City.
And while James loved to watch hometown favorite Zack Greinke of the Royals in person whenever he pitched, he still feels the wrong guy might have taken home the American League's top pitching prize. That honor, he says, probably should have gone to Felix Hernandez of the Mariners, a player he ranks as the top "young talent" performer in all of baseball in a new book he's here promoting.
But while James is high on Hernandez and fellow starter Cliff Lee, he's not nearly as bullish on the prospects of the 25-man Mariners team. James feels the Mariners overperformed last season and that this could be a "consolidation year" for the squad unless it finds some way to vastly upgrade an offense that last year scored the fewest runs in the league.
"When you bring in players, you may bring in a lot of players who have a good year," said James, considered the founder of the sabermetric movement in baseball and employed the past eight years as a senior adviser by the Boston Red Sox. "But when you've got a 61-win team, you don't owe anybody nothin'. You can tell everybody there 'Perform, or get out!' But when you bring in new players and they perform for you, you're in a different position."
In other words, the Mariners should expect some performance drop-offs this year from a squad that vaulted from 101 losses in 2008 to 85 wins in 2009 despite being outscored. The views James holds should not be a shock since he literally invented the so-called "Pythagorean expectation" formula of predicting the win-loss records of teams based on runs scored versus runs against.
That theory states the Mariners were really more of a 75-win squad last year that overachieved through luck and by winning a ton of close games. There are those who dispute the "luck" contention regarding the Mariners and who espouse other statistical formulas that suggest Seattle was truly an 85-win team.
But James is not one of them.
"Everybody agrees and I agree that the Mariners' front office has done a fantastic job," he said. "On the other hand, it remains true that they overperformed last year. I think they gave up more runs than they scored and still won 85 games."
James then added: "Historically, the great majority of teams that overperform by that margin relapse the next season."
His new book, "The Bill James Gold Mine 2010," contains a section on the Mariners, as well as his "Young Talent Inventory" and a review of the Cy Young races. In the book itself, James is noncommittal about whether Hernandez or Greinke was more deserving of the award, but he tipped toward the Mariners pitcher in an interview this week.
"The Mariners scored 149 runs in Felix's starts and went 25-9," James said. "The Royals scored 117 for Greinke and went 17-16. There's a difference in the bullpens of course. But then, the Mariner bullpen was struggling for some of the year and the Royals have (Joakim) Soria, so that's not the whole thing, either. So, I'm not arguing with anybody else's numbers and I love Zack Greinke. But I'm not certain that Greinke is better than Felix. I think they were on the same level, or that Felix was an inch ahead."
James said he hopes fans can delve into some of the fun debates in his book, as well as appreciate the work that went into the research.
"There's an awful lot of ... three hours of work leads to one paragraph in this book," he said, "and I hope that people can read those paragraphs and realize this isn't something you just find, like the game notes. It's not stuff that's just obvious and you find it right away. It's stuff that requires some research."
James admits he never expected the type of notoriety he receives from disciples of his work and the more widespread baseball community. He began self-publishing his annual Baseball Abstract guides in 1977, eventually getting paid for his work, spawning a generation of fans who pored over statistics in a way never seen previously. Later he moved inside the game when Boston hired him in 2002.
The switch from "outsider" to a seat inside the Red Sox front office is something James found humbling.
"I'm just astonished by what I didn't know until I worked for a team," he said. "For example, everybody uses the changeup to the opposite-side hitter. Right? I mean, a right-hander throws a changeup to a left-handed hitter. It's something that everybody who's played baseball apparently knows. And I'm reluctant to confess it, but I never knew that. I never realized that people were throwing their changeups one way and not the other."
James says he takes that approach to other areas of his work — assuming there is always stuff he won't have mastered but is nonetheless important. His book contains statistics on controversial areas like catcher defense — he's a Rob Johnson fan — that even he admits nobody has quite figured out.
But that doesn't mean, he adds, that people should stop trying. That thinking extends to areas like clubhouse chemistry, which the Mariners have placed a great deal of emphasis on.
"Baseball would be a quite remarkable activity if it was the one place in the world where your co-workers didn't have any impact on how productive you were," he said. "But in fact, baseball is a high-stress occupation, and those sort of stress-inducing activities ... just have a huge impact on how the team functions, I think."
But while James and the Mariners see eye-to-eye on many things, including controversial areas of research, he does not envision them unfurling a pennant come October. Not this year, anyway.
"I think the Mariners are a tremendous organization and I think they're getting really close to being on the same level as the Angels," he said. "But I think that this is a consolidation year. They'll play at a similar level to last year, but not better."
Sobering words for a franchise run by many James disciples no doubt hoping this is one time the student can outperform the master.
• The Mariners lost to the Rangers, 8-1, in Cactus League action Wednesday night. Starting pitcher Ian Snell allowed three runs in four innings of work, striking out five.
• Manager Don Wakamatsu appeared to be running out of patience in Wednesday night's game when Milton Bradley was ejected in the third inning for arguing a called third strike. Bradley didn't appear to say much at all to plate umpire Dan Bellino prior to the ejection, which brought a clearly-irritated Wakamatsu out from the dugout to argue his player's case.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or email@example.com.
Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners
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