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Forgettable First Half Suggests Forgettable Second Half

The Mariners had a tough first half, especially given the expectations going into the year. It is hard to find an interesting spin on this team worth writing about. Seemingly anything noteworthy is depressing and obvious.

The Mariners aren't a comically bad team. They're a sad and bad team. They aren't all that pleasant to watch as they lose, they make bone-headed plays that are frustrating and not even amusing. Even worse, the team has quite a few veterans piling on to the misery, so the sense of hope for the future as the failing unfolds isn't really there.

What follows is my attempt to find something interesting. It's at least something, and without any MLB games today, you could do worse scouring the internet for something to do than the chart and table that follows.

I plotted WAR as a function of WPA on the 2015 Mariners just to see what would happen.

WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement, and is the best sabermetric attempt to date to quantify the value of a player in one number. Think of it as an overall talent rating.

WPA stands for Win Percentage Added. Since so many baseball games have been played in history, it is possible to chart from any game state the percentage of teams that have won in that exact game state. The changes of a team's win percentage can be tracked as game states change, and sliced at the individual batter and pitcher level.

Think of WPA as an overall contribution rating. Obviously, being good at baseball tends to help a player contribute more to wins, but as you might expect, not all situations are created the same. The WPA changes a bunch more with the bases loaded in the 8th inning of a one-run game than when the bases are empty in the 5th inning of a 10-2 drubbing.

Below is a WPA vs. WAR chart for the 2015 Mariners so far. I only included players currently in the M's organization (so no Willie Bloomquist, Wellington Castillo, Dominic Leone, or Yoervis Medina)* because I wanted to see what the current Mariners look like. I also plotted a best fit line, though I don't care much about the line itself. Data points above the line represent players who have higher expected WAR totals than their WPA would "predict." In other words, these players have not been clutch. Data points below the line represent players who have been clutch, or at least accumulated less WAR than their WPA contribution would predict:

*And I didn't catch Rickie Weeks. He should be out of the data set too. Oops. Oh well.

Some hot takes on the chart from yours truly:
  1. What a disaster. The 2015 M's are bunched in quadrant III, the one with both negative WAR and negative WPA. In fact, 13 Mariners fall in this category, and what's even more alarming is that about half of them aren't even close to the origin (0, 0). In other words, the most common 2015 Mariner is below replacement level and has contributed to losses more than wins.
  2. The Mariners are clutch. There are 13 players above the best-fit line and 21 below it. Remember, above the line represents WAR totals that exceed WPA, below represents WAR totals worse than expected based on WPA. For all the hand-wringing about the M's inability to come through in the clutch, not only could it have been worse, this chart suggests it should have been worse. This really gets back to the first hot take - what a disaster.
  3. Trade Nelson Cruz now. Cruz has exceeded expectations. Not only is he the M's best hitter, but also their most clutch. His data point on the chart is a legitimate outlier and the safe bet is that his WPA will regress. In other words, Cruz could hit just as well in the second half and see his runs and RBIs dwindle. Cruz had a great first half, batted cleanup for the American League in the All-Star game, and accumulated counting stats beyond what would be expected. If the Mariners are ever going to trade Cruz, they should do it this instant. His value will never, ever be higher as a Mariner. His first half could not have gone any better...which again goes back to the first hot take. What a disaster! The M's hit a prodigious home run with their big free agent splash and are still bad.
  4. The starting rotation is not clutch, sort of. King Felix, Taijuan Walker, J.A. Happ, Roenis Elias, and Mike Montgomery are all above the best-fit line. This is interesting and might say more about the Mariners offense than any of these starting pitchers. Since the Mariners score so few runs, the runs allowed by starting pitchers will usually carry heavier WPA penalties because they tend to swing outcomes of the game more. A run given up when the score is tied impacts a game much more than a run given up with a couple-run lead, so WPA swings are higher in tight games. For instance if the M's score 1 run, and Elias gives up 2 runs over 7 innings, Elias is going to end up with a negative WPA for the game because that second run especially sunk the chances of winning considerably.
  5. The bullpen has been deployed inefficiently, sort of. The two data points between J.A. Happ and Kyle Seager represent Carson Smith and Mark Lowe. They have both been amazing, yet both rate as "unclutch." Meanwhile, guys like Fernando Rodney and Danny Farquhar live just above Mike Zunino and rate as "clutch." In reality, bullpen WPAs are a decent place to start a conversation about bullpen use. A manager can control the kind of situation a reliever gets used in much more than any other type of player. So, it is theoretically possible for a manager to load up their best relievers in the highest leverage situations, which would allow good relievers to exceed their expected WPA total. However, both Smith and Lowe have much lower WPA totals than expected. At this point they are pitching the 8th and 9th innings with leads - typically the highest leverage situations - so there isn't much more McClendon can do. Again, this is probably driven more by the M's horrendous offense that can't generate ties or leads to hand over high leverage situations to the bullpen.

If you want to sift through all the data for yourself, here it is as a table sorted from highest to lowest WAR. This is Fangraphs WAR, by the way:

Frankly, I don't see any compelling reasons to expect the second half to look different than the first half. Individual players are likely to rise and sink, but overall the Mariners on paper do not look like a team suffering bad luck. They look like a bad team, and bad teams don't tend to magically get better after three months of bad play.