I hope to summarize here how I understand the Mariners current situation in the context of how I understand what makes a Baseball team win. Interspersed are the questions I still have (if there's an answer out there, I haven't read it, and if there isn't, I don't have the passion or skill to figure it out myself.)
It's nearly impossible to say anything new about the M's or Baseball in general these days. I don't know how Dave Cameron sleeps, but between USSMariner and Fangraphs, he must average more than three posts per day (955 posts in 15 months on Fangraphs alone!), and he is only one of several contributors to USSM. Add the often-insightful (and often "colorful," shall we say) commentary and analysis on Lookout Landing and the beat reporting found on the Seattle Times Mariners Blog, it's no surprise that most of us that started blogs during the early years of the Bavasi regime have quit, officially or unofficially. What is there to say?
Like many fields, quanitative baseball analysis is getting more and more technical. I used to be ahead of the curve using OPS and range factor, but you used to be ahead of the curve if you were using a modem. I later "upgraded" to VORP and Zone Rating, but I only have a vague idea about wOBA and xFIP and tRA in the same way my grandfather had a vague idea about what the Internet was. Needless to say, I have an easy time being convinced by the preeminent bloggers and a hard time adding anything to the discussion. What follows is not supposed to be an original argument, just an assessment of where one long-time fan sees going on in baseball in general and with the Mariners specifically.
Voros McCracken was mostly right
The only really reliable way to project pitching performance in the future is to assume pitchers can't control the batting average of balls in play (BABIP). The more groundballing a pitcher is, the better chance he has of avoiding home runs, but BABIP is higher on ground balls. The way to reduce BABIP is to have a great defense behind you.
For the Mariners, the spacious Safeco Field outfield allows flyball pitchers to succeed more than in other contexts, as long as they have a defense to turn those flyballs into outs. And the M's have that.
Ben Franklin should have coined aphorisms (no pun intended) about baseball
"A run prevented is a run scored," might have been his maxim. It doesn't matter if you win 3-1 or 10-8; what matters is that you score more runs than your opponent. (Is it that simple? Is it harder to reliably win low-scoring games, since the margin of victory is small?)
The Mariners have applied this principle to the extreme, improving due to their increased run prevention, having allowed the fewest runs of any American League team this year. In fact, if you add the runs scored and runs allowed totals together, the Mariners have the lowest total in the AL by far. They have taken the low-scoring offense, low-run-allowing defense model as far as you can take it. (The AL comparison makes more sense here than all-MLB, since NL offenses have to include pitchers.) Can the M's improve any further by improving their defense? Or must they look to other areas?
The Mariners drive an Acura, but not a Porsche (of which the Yankees own a fleet)
The M's still rank tenth in MLB payroll this year, but indications from the front office are that we won't likely increase our ranking signficantly. In the last ten years, the M's have been as low as 15th and as high as 7th, but they have never been the highest spenders in their division.
For the last eight years, the Yankee's payroll has been twice the median MLB payroll, despite the increase in revenue sharing and luxury tax:
So, the M's can spend some money, but don't have a money tree in the backyard.
Defense is a Bargain and Pitching is a ripoff, and hitting is...
...you get what you pay for?
Dave Cameron has repeatedly (and for the most part, convincingly) argued that what many have called good pitching is really mostly good defense. Jarrod Washburn is Exhibit A in this case. Washburn was marginally better this year than last, but the defense was exponentially better. He's come back to earth, and we've lost little by replacing him with Ryan Rowland-Smith.
Free Agent pitchers are almost always a bad deal. And again we are reminded that the attrition rate for pitching prospects is much higher than for hitters.
Which brings me to the set of my most pressing questions:
Since the Mariners have limited resources, doesn't it make sense to focus on acquiring--through free agency or player development--good hitters?
Can they offset a lack of elite pitching talent with enough hitting and defense to make them competetive for a playoff spot?
How much should they pay to retain the valuable players they have (in particular, Felix Hernandez)?
And finally: if the Mariners can go from forehead-slapping dumb to giddy-laughter smart in one season, how much longer will they be able to exploit market inefficiencies caused by other ignorant front offices? How much longer until every front office knows how to rightly evaluate defense? How much longer before the advantages of being smart can't overcome the advantages of being rich?