Justin Smoak and the Seattle Mariners' Hitting Woes: 5 Telling Statistics
The Seattle Mariners' biggest problem from the 2011 season, hitting, has persisted through the start of the 2012 season, exemplified by struggling slugger Justin Smoak.
Smoak has heated up a bit recently, but the past two years have been rough for him. He was supposed to be the team's go-to clean-up hitter when he came to Seattle from Texas in 2010 as part of the Cliff Lee trade, and, as we know, that hasn't worked out perfectly. We can cut him some slack because of past accidents and family issues, but any time he's ready to get the chains moving would be fine with me.
General manager Jack Zduriencik took the offense through a pretty dramatic makeover beginning in the middle of last season with the call-up of Dustin Ackley. It was marked predominantly by replacing the old with the young, and it continues to take effect as the team trudges through 2012.
It's not too serious of a problem for the team at this point, since many of the hitters have a lot of room to improve, and the revamped lineup is actually quite a bit more successful than last year's, but a problem worth noting as the M's move into the second quarter of the season.
Here's a statistical view of the Mariners' hitting in comparison to other teams in the AL and last year. For each stat, I'll give the 2012 Mariners value thus far with their rank in the AL in parentheses, the 2012 AL average thus far, the 2011 Mariners value with the AL rank in parentheses and my prediction for what the value will be by the end of 2012.
Runs Per Game (R/G)
2012 Mariners: 3.86 (11th)
2012 AL Average: 4.35
2011 Mariners: 3.43 (14th)
This statistic is pretty self-explanatory, as it calculates the average number of runs a team scores in a game.
So, like I was saying, they're slightly improved from last year, but still well below the AL average. (For reference, the AL is averaging 0.31 more runs per game than the NL this year.)
One interesting observation I've made this year from watching the M's is that they do a much better job scoring early. In a surprisingly large proportion of their games, they get out to an early lead (though they often lose that lead). That characteristic takes pressure off the over-burdened pitchers, which undoubtedly comes as a welcome relief.
With the periodic addition of hot, new hitters, I predict the upward trend in the number of runs the M's are producing will continue and bring the team's winning percentage with it.
2012 End-of-Season Prediction: 4.20
On-Base Plus Slugging (OPS) and OPS+
2012 Mariners: .664/89 (13th)
2012 AL Average: .724/100
2011 Mariners: .640/82 (14th)
OPS is calculated by simply adding slugging percentage (total bases divided by at-bats) and on-base percentage (the quantity of hits plus walks divided by plate appearances). It's ostensible purpose is to provide a balanced view of a player's ability to contribute at the plate, though it slightly favors power hitters.
OPS+ is a modification of OPS that factors in the league average in order to take away bias resulting from teams' home ballparks.
The same relationship from runs per game holds here (2011 Mariners
Safeco Field, the Mariners' home field, is often used as a scapegoat for why the Mariners don't produce runs, but OPS+ weakens that notion since the Mariners are ranked 13th in both OPS and OPS+. It's true that the fences are deeper in Seattle, but the M's play just as many games away from Safeco.
The Mariners' OPS is 1.23 standard deviations away from the AL average, and their OPS+ is 1.04 standard deviations away. So that satisfies the idea that it is harder to hit in Safeco, but it's not something worth too much fuss.
Like with R/G, I expect the Mariners to continue trending upwards as players like Kyle Seager and Alex Liddi further settle in and summer call-ups start rolling.
2012 End-of-Season Prediction: .700
Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP)
2012 Mariners: .275 (12th)
2012 AL Average: .287
2011 Mariners: .283 (11th)
Batting average on balls in play is calculated by dividing a team's hits (not including home runs) by the quantity of at-bats minus strikeouts minus home runs plus sacrifice flies (or (H-HR)/(AB-SO-HR+SF)).
The idea behind BABIP is to determine how the fielders on the other team handled the ball. One way to look at it is an indicator of how "lucky" a team got.
A low BABIP would indicate fielders on the other team were relatively efficient in making outs, and vice versa.
This is one stat category in which the Mariners dropped from last year, though not by much. That means either they M's are getting tougher luck this year or AL teams are playing better defense since the 2011 AL average was .294 compared to this year's.287.
In any case, it would be reasonable to expect regression towards the mean in this stat category as more games are played. I would also expect the AL average to increase and approach .300 as the season continues, since .300 is considered a baseline BABIP.
2012 End-of-Season Prediction: .285
Isolated Power (ISO)
2012 Mariners: .138 (10th)
2012 AL Average: .154
2011 Mariners: .115 (13th)
Isolated power is the difference between slugging percentage and batting average, or a player's extra-base hit average with proportional weights on doubles, triples and home runs.
To see that the Mariners have stepped it up significantly in this category makes us fans feel great. The only thing more painful than having a team average of .233 in 2011 was that so many of the hits they did get were singles, and singles aren't quite as efficient at driving in runs as extra-base hits are.
The .023 point increase this year has been noticeable for viewers. No longer is the home run a rare sight at Safeco, and no longer is Miguel Olivo the team's leader in long balls.
No one on the team is on pace for many more than 25 home runs this season, but there are at least three guys who could get to 25, which is a big improvement from last year (top three were Olivo with 19, Smoak with 15, Mike Carp with12).
Another problem last year was that Ichiro Suzuki was the only one on the team with more than 130 games played, which is representative of the considerable inconsistency.
We've already seen a lot of players in the batting order this year, but a defined lineup is starting to come through, even as players continue to transfer between levels in the organization.
As players like Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager who have the potential to occupy starting spot for years to come slot into the lineup, the team's consistency will build, and the hitting will heat up.
2012 End-of-Season Prediction: .150
Power/Speed Number (PwrSpd)
2012 Mariners: 30.2 (8th)
2012 AL Average: 32.0
2011 Mariners: 116.5 (8th)
The Power/Speed number was developed by famous baseball statistician Bill James as a way to highlight players like Matt Kemp and Alfonso Soriano that have both power and speed upsides.
Calculated by finding the harmonic mean of stolen bases and home runs (2*(HR*SB)/(HR+SB), PwrSpd is considered less analytically useful since it doesn't account for extra-base hits besides home runs or how many times a player is caught stealing, as well as the fact that sluggers who can't run and speedsters who can't slug lose value.
However, looking at a team's PwrSpd number is more of a wholesome analysis since those unbalanced players cancel each other out—or actually, combine with each other—to form a broader view of a team since it's important to have both qualities.
The 2011 number is so much bigger because the more games played, the more home runs and stolen bases accumulated. Accounting for how much of the season has elapsed so far, the numbers are very close in caliber.
The fact that this is the Mariners' highest ranking stat and all of the other stats were focused solely on hitting seems to suggest that they've got a fast team. That, however, is not exactly true, as they rank 10th in the AL in both stolen bases and stolen base percentage.
So how do they have the eighth-best PwrSpd when neither their hitting nor their running is ranked that high? It's because they're a more balanced team—other teams with better hitting have worse running and vice versa—and that's a good sign!
The Mariners' PwrSpd number could go up marginally as their hitting improves, but I don't think it'll take them much above eighth place in the AL.
2012 End-of-Season Prediction: 120.0