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Dipoto's Delightfully Insane Front Office

Jerry Dipoto more or less locked in his whole front office this week (manager included!) A few weeks back I had a list of people who did not know their fates. Those fates are now known. Let's start there:

The remaining unknowns:
  • Tom Allison (pro scouting director) - staying with the Mariners in the same position
  • Roger Hansen (assistant to the GM) - staying with the Mariners in the same position
  • Jeff Kingston (assistant GM) - staying with the Mariners in the same position
  • Tim Kissner (international scouting director) - staying with the Mariners in the same position
  • Tom McNamara (amateur scouting director) - staying with the Mariners in the same position
I find this non-news rather remarkable news in itself. Dipoto did not come in and blow up the leadership. Only Hansen pre-dates Jack Zduriencik, so it isn't like any of these people are lifers within the Mariners franchise. They were Zduriencik hires and now they remain. This will not get enough attention because the lazy narrative has already been written: New GM comes in, fires manager, cleans house. Dipoto let Lloyd McClendon go over differences in approach, which seemed like a convenient euphemism for "I'm not dealing with another Mike Scioscia situation."

However, given how many people Dipoto kept on from the Zduriencik regime, it sure seems like Dipoto legitimately talked with McClendon and took time to discern whether he and McClendon could work together. Dipoto clearly gave everyone in the front office some time and thought, and ended up deciding their vision fits with his.

However, Jerry Dipoto made one splash, and it looks significant. He hired Andy McKay as the new farm director. McKay replaces Chris Gwynn, who resigned - though, now that we can see the whole picture a bit more clearly, he was likely either going to choose to leave or be told to leave.

Nobody knows how McKay will do as farm director, McKay included. He was the "peak performance coordinator" in Colorado when Dipoto reached out to him about the M's opening. He was a mental coach of sorts.

Dipoto and McKay did not know each other before McKay's interview with the Mariners, though Dipoto knew of McKay. Apparently Dipoto reached out about a position with the Angels a few years back, but one way or another an interview never happened.

McKay seems to have some strong opinions on how teams develop players, especially mentally. He went as far as saying no team does a good job developing the mental side of the game. McKay added that he has developed a program for mental training. Seems pretty obvious that the 2016 Mariners will be his first real guinea pigs.

I knew nothing about Andy McKay until roughly Wednesday of this week, but I am convinced this is a huge hire. The idea of Andy McKay is what's so powerful. None of us know how this move will work out, but I love the theory and there is only one way to find out if the theory actually works - put it into practice and see what happens.

Sports psychology has been a big topic rumbling around the back of my head for a few years, probably thanks to where my research as a high school teacher has led me. I say with some confidence that I think about student metacognition on math problems more than 99% of baseball bloggers, but every now and then those thoughts drift perilously close to baseball.

For instance, one of the most powerful ideas I've ever read about is Carol Dweck's research on mindsets.* Her research suggests that human beings approach contexts with either fixed or growth mindsets. The basic notion is that people with fixed mindsets believe they are permanently only so good or so bad at something. Meanwhile, people with growth mindsets believe that their abilities change over time depending on what they do and experience.

*I also say with some confidence that I am among, I don't know, 1-5% of baseball bloggers who could quote research from Carol Dweck in a baseball post? I know you've all been waiting for some educational research to show up on the Musings! #Shocktober

Theoretically, two people with identical pre-requisite skills and knowledge could approach a situation with different mindsets. What Dweck's research has shown is that these two theoretical people, over time, will end up in different places. The person with a growth mindset is more likely to grapple with challenges, persist, and ultimately get better. A person with a fixed mindset is more likely to feel threatened by a challenge and avoid it, which results in a skill plateauing or possibly even fading.

It's not that mindset is everything, but it is clearly something. Moreover, there are ways to frame communication and rephrase feedback which promotes growth mindsets over fixed mindsets. Mindsets can be cultivated, or in sports terms, be coached. There are moves I make which research suggests push my students towards growth mindset in math. Sometimes I've paused and wondered if similar moves could be used in a minor league system. It seems like something that would generalize quickly and easily.

I don't know what McKay's program entails, but I thought about things like mindset. They matter, they have been shown through scientific research to make a difference, and sports have been more blind to them than just about anything else that could impact performance. This is why sports psychology has struck me as a field for potentially massive growth, and I've wondered who would be the first team to make an aggressive push into the field.

Answer: the Seattle Mariners. Shocktober!

Of course, there is a reasonable chance many (or all) teams are doing something with sports psychology. However, nobody with McKay's background has held such a significant leadership position, with the power and responsibility that such a position entails.

McKay is a bold hire, and if he works out like Dipoto hopes, the Mariners will enjoy a significant advantage over everyone else for a few years before other teams catch on. If he doesn't work out - oh well. The Mariners player development has been a disaster for several years now. It is the most logical explanation for why the team cannot develop MLB talent despite high draft picks that are consistently praised as good picks across baseball. The draft is a crapshoot, but it's not nearly as bad of a crapshoot as the M's player development track record suggests.

It is also interesting to see how surgical and open-minded Jerry Dipoto is. He kept Zduriencik's leadership in tact except for two key places, farm director and manager. Adam McKay brings a revolutionary approach to player development, and new manager Scott Servais comes from a background in player development. It's very obvious now that Jerry Dipoto believes the main (if not only) problem with the Mariners under Jack Zduriencik was player development.

Dipoto now has a manager who has never managed and a farm director who has never directed anything in a front office that he had never met until a week or two ago. These are the men charged with fixing the Mariners, especially given that nobody else changed. How could this possibly go wrong?

The plan has a self-evident disaster factor, but the Mariners player development was already a disaster. There is nothing to lose. This is an obvious situation worth taking a wild risk in with hopes of a massive reward. I kind of like this Dipoto guy.

Servais at Mariners Service

The Mariners have themselves a new manager. Scott Servais will take over the reigns. Tim Bogar will also reportedly be his bench coach. The hires are mildly surprising, but about as mild as mild gets.

I wrote my major Dipoto post two and a half weeks ago and predicted that we would see an infusion of Angels front office personnel. Both Servais and Bogar were in the Angels front office with Dipoto. They were obvious candidates to follow Dipoto up to Seattle. However, among the two men, Bogar has managing experience and Servais does not. Moreover, Bogar's managing experience includes lots of winning (albeit in the minor leagues).

So, it would seem more logical to hire Bogar as manager and Servais in another position. The men hired make total sense, but the positions are a bit surprising. However, Dipoto is considered more "new school," which means the manager executes the general manager's vision to a large degree. This is a paradigm shift for the Mariners as a franchise. Servais does not have the same leadership role within the Mariners as Lloyd McClendon did, or if you prefer to harken back to the good old days, certainly different from Lou Piniella.

The early takes on Servais's hiring are focused on his lack of managerial experience and how that is a trend in baseball at the moment. I don't think that is the most interesting angle in this story. Really, Servais provides us another glimpse into Dipoto's vision.

Scott Servais carved out a respectable 11-year career in the big leagues, which should immediately buy him credibility in the clubhouse despite his lack of managerial experience. Moreover, Servais's post-career experience all came in front office roles, and more specifically in LA of A he was involved in player development. So, this hire strongly suggests to me that Dipoto is placing a premium on developing the Mariners core that has already reached the major leagues - so much so that he was willing to hire a man without managing experience.

This is where Tim Bogar comes in. The bench coach is the manager's right hand man. He is the guy the manager always checks in with about moves, tactics, and strategy. Bogar's minor league managing experience will be valuable in this role, plus Dipoto knows he can work with Bogar and trusts that Bogar's tactics will not deviate from the overall vision Dipoto has for the Mariners.

The Mariners finished hiring the major leaders within their front office over the week but I have not had time to write about those hires yet. That post will come out tomorrow. The restructuring already suggested that Jerry Dipoto more or less liked everything the Mariners were doing, except in player development - but he really, really disapproved of what the Mariners were doing in player development from the looks of it. More on this later. All I am saying right now is that Dipoto is clearly focused on fixing the M's player development track, and hiring Servais as the manager fits within that focus.

Fixing Utley's Slide

There should not be room in baseball for a "slide" like this:

That's not a slide. Utley performed a hybrid between a flop and a roundhouse kick after he passed second base. The "slide" served no strategic advantage for Utley. It did not help him avoid a tag or get to the bag faster. The move had one purpose, and one purpose only. Break up the double play. Utley was successful, to say the least, and broke Ruben Tejada's leg in the process.

Incredibly, Chase Utley was awarded second base in this play - even after he trotted off the field assuming he was out. Sanity was restored to some degree by Joe Torre when he suspended Utley for games three and four, though of course the suspension is being appealed. Torre's decision might not have any ground to stand on, but I admire the effort. Something had to happen here.

With all that said, a juicy question remains: did the umpires screw up, or did they follow the rules? If they followed the rules, then how can the rules be fixed?

Unsurprisingly, Major League Baseball - the same group that created things like designations for assignment, super-two status, qualifying offers, and the balk rule - has a lengthy set of rules governing how runners are allowed to run. I have pulled the rules potentially relevant to Chase Utley as he barreled down on Ruben Tejada straight from section 7 of the the MLB rulebook. You can scour the section for other applicable rules if you want. Here we go:

Part 1 - Why was Chase Utley safe? Or, stated negatively, why was Chase Utley not out?

Here is what the rulebook has to say about when runners are out:

7.08 Any runner is out when --
(a) (1) He runs more than three feet away from his baseline to avoid being tagged unless his action is to avoid interference with a fielder fielding a batted ball. A runner’s baseline is established when the tag attempt occurs and is a straight line from the runner to the base he is attempting to reach safely;
Utley clearly broke towards Tejada to take him out. However, Utley's arm could have touched second base at any point. If his arm could touch, then he we was within three feet of the base. He was within the baseline according to this rule, so the slide itself was legal, or at least did not violate rule 7.08(a)(1).

There are more rules that could apply though. On to the next one, which still comes from 7.08, the situations that define when a runner is out:
(b) He intentionally interferes with a thrown ball; or hinders a fielder attempting to make a play on a batted ball;
Rule 7.08(b) Comment: A runner who is adjudged to have hindered a fielder who is attempting to make a play on a batted ball is out whether it was intentional or not. If, however, the runner has contact with a legally occupied base when he hinders the fielder, he shall not be called out unless, in the umpire’s judgment, such hindrance, whether it occurs on fair or foul territory, is intentional. If the umpire declares the hindrance intentional, the following penalty shall apply: With less than two out, the umpire shall declare both the runner and batter out.
This rule is more problematic, and it is hard to tell exactly how the umpires interpreted Utley's slam into Tejada. A very literal reading of 7.08(b) would suggest that it does not apply, because it only talks about batted and thrown balls. Tejada, very technically, was hit by Utley with the ball in his hand. Tejada clearly intended to throw, but the throw had not happened yet. Additionally, Tejada had been thrown the ball by another fielder, so the ball was no longer a batted ball either.

Theoretically, if the umpires judged that 7.08(b) was not relevant for Utley's play, then the comment also does not apply. However, the comment has something interesting worth noting. Chase Utley was ultimately awarded second base, which suggests that the umpires interpreted Utley as on the bag when contact happened with Tejada. The comment to 7.08(b) clearly gives the runner a base if the runner hits a fielder while they are on a bag unless the contact is judged intentional. The rulebook does not define intentional contact, so intentionality is entirely up to the umpire's discretion.

The comment in 7.08(b) looks like the most solid and reasonable explanation for giving Utley second base, even though it may or may not apply in Utley's situation. At the very least, the wording is vague enough to leave questions about what is and is not legal as a fielder transfers a ball from their mitt to their throwing arm. It would seem to make sense that the rules on batted balls and throws would extend to transfers, but 7.08(b) leaves wiggle room.

Also, perhaps more importantly, what constitutes intentional hindrance if Utley's slide into Tejada was not an intentional hindrance?

Part 2 - Chase Utley did not get called for interference. What is interference then?

The MLB rulebook dedicates an entire rule, 7.09, to interference, and a couple parts of it seem almost relevant with the Utley slide, such as 7.09(e):
(e) If, in the judgment of the umpire, a base runner willfully and deliberately interferes with a batted ball or a fielder in the act of fielding a batted ball with the obvious intent to break up a double play, the ball is dead. The umpire shall call the runner out for interference and also call out the batter-runner because of the action of his teammate. In no event may bases be run or runs scored because of such action by a runner.
In plain English, this rule says that a runner can't kick or swat the ball so that a fielder misses it. It says nothing about a thrown ball or a fielder trying to turn the double play around a base. So, Utley is fine according to this rule. However, 7.09(i) continues with the double play scenarios:
(i) He fails to avoid a fielder who is attempting to field a batted ball, or intentionally interferes with a thrown ball, provided that if two or more fielders attempt to field a batted ball, and the runner comes in contact with one or more of them, the umpire shall determine which fielder is entitled to the benefit of this rule, and shall not declare the runner out for coming in contact with a fielder other than the one the umpire determines to be entitled to field such a ball;
This rule, in other words, says that a runner cannot run into a fielder as they try to make a play...with one small piece missing. It is the same piece missing in 7.08(b). This rule clearly covers fielders making a play on the original batted ball, as well as any fielder in the middle of throwing the ball. A very literal reading of this rule would not cover the Utley-Tejada situation because Tejada, as stated earlier, had the ball in his hand. He was neither fielding a batted ball nor throwing it.

Rule 7.09 finishes by saying the penalty for interference is being called out, hence why Chase Utley clearly was not called for interference.

There are only two justifications for the non-call on Utley. The first possibility is that the umpires read the rules on interference extremely literally and decided the rules on interference did not apply because Ruben Tejada was neither fielding a batted ball nor throwing the ball. This is defensible within the current rules, but hardly within the spirit of the rules.

The transfer that Tejada was in the middle of completing before Utley broke his leg is a transitional stage between actions that are covered by interference rules. It makes no sense at all to have an entirely different set of rules for transfers than for fielding a batted ball and throwing the ball. Fixing this loophole would be simple enough: just add language in the existing rules that extends the rules to defenders in the middle of a transfer.

However, if the umpires looked past this small technicality in the rules, then they did not believe Utley's contact was willful or intentional. If this is the case, then the problem is harder to fix. It would require a culture shift in baseball with retraining of umpires and additional accountability until the new definition takes hold.

I see a third fix that could work nicely. Major League Baseball could take a page out of the NBA's rulebook and create a definition for a flagrant foul. In basketball, flagrant fouls are called when a player commits a foul in such a way that it clearly goes after a player instead of the ball. Flagrants are meant to deter from dangerous fouls and also cover up a potential loophole in basketball. Without flagrants, a team could tackle shooters before they can get a shot up and the foul would not result in free throws. However, flagrants always result in free throws, plus the shooting team keeps possession.

Major League Baseball obviously does not need free throw rules, but a flagrant could be defined as any play in which a batter, batter-runner, or runner makes contact with a defender in a way which does not improve their chances at evading a tag. This definition is still a bit ambiguous, but clearer than "intentional hindrance," the current standard umpires must use. In the event of a flagrant foul, the player would automatically be out and also automatically ejected. The flagrant foul definition would also cover collisions at home plate without the need for a special rule like there is now.

I am not opposed to crafty slides at second base that make double plays harder to turn, and I would hate to see this small art form neutered out of the game altogether. Runners have rights to bases and there is room for a slide to both improve their chances of being safe and make life more difficult to turn a double play. However, when someone uses their body as a two-by-four after they get past the bag, and subsequently gets awarded the bag, something needs to change.

Lloyd Let Go

Lloyd McClendon (wikimedia commons, EricEnfermero)
Yesterday the Mariners announced that Lloyd McClendon would not return as Mariners manager in 2016. This is not too surprising, given that the M's hired a new general manager. For what it's worth, Jerry Dipoto had several conversations/interviews with McClendon the last few weeks before making this choice. Still, given that Dipoto never had a chance to hire his own guy with the Angels, and he had significant disagreements with his manager, this is not a stunning result.

Lloyd McClendon was not a problem. Far from it. In fact, he is only the second Mariners manager to end his tenure in Seattle with a winning record. The other? Lou Piniella, of course. It is another datum point that points to the strangeness that was the Zduriencik era. Lloyd McClendon stands among the better managers in M's history. Zduriencik kept the M's GM post longer than anyone else. Ultimately their tenure will clearly be remembered as unsuccessful, but on some level they did better than everyone except the leadership during the M's golden years around the turn of the millenium. So, is it ultimately fair to call McClendon and Zduriencik failures? Some food for thought.

Anyway, it is more interesting to look forward at the moment and wonder what will happen. There are already rumored candidates for the Mariners manager position and the lists look both logical and realistic to me.

There will be plenty of time to talk about the manager though. That is a high enough profile position to receive media attention. Jerry Dipoto has done much more than make a decision on Lloyd McClendon. In fact, McClendon was the last of several dominoes that fell this week. Here is a recap:

  • Rich Donnelly (third base coach)
  • Chris Gwynn (farm director)
  • Trent Jewett (bench coach)
  • Lloyd McClendon (manager)
  • Joe McIlvaine (assistant to the GM)
  • Joe Nigro (MLB scout)
  • Mike Rojas (bullpen coach)
  • Duane Shaffer (MLB scout)
  • Ted Simmons (assistant to the GM)
  • Andy Van Slyke (outfield coach)
  • Pete Vuckovich (assistant to the GM)
  • Chris Prieto (was MLB coach)
  • Rick Waits (was pitching coach)
  • Edgar Martinez (hitting coach)
  • Chris Woodward (infield coach)
  • Tom Allison (pro scouting director)
  • Roger Hansen (assistant to the GM)
  • Jeff Kingston (assistant GM)
  • Tim Kissner (international scouting director)
  • Tom McNamara (amateur scouting director)

It is hard to say too much about all the moves at this point. Frankly, it would have been unsurprising if Dipoto let everyone go, with the possible exception of 'Gar. His standing within the franchise is too high-profile and I would imagine there was significant pressure to keep him.

If any move is interesting among these, I would say it is keeping Chris Woodward. That may signal something about Dipoto and what he is about. The next Mariners manager may not be able to hire his own infield coach, assuming Woodward wants to stay. I find it interesting, and maybe even surprising, that a GM has a clear enough vision of what he wants that he can find the right infield coach without knowing who the manager is. This suggests to me that the manager will work very closely with Dipoto, and to a noticeable degree be expected to carry out Dipoto's wishes and vision. This sort of relationship is certainly more "new age," with the team's leadership revolving around the general manager instead of the manager.

In general, I anticipate a mass migration from the Angels front office (specifically their baseball operations division) up north to Seattle. Dipoto was in LA of A long enough to hire many of "his people" in leadership positions, and given that he lost the power struggle there, and new Angels GM Billy Epler likely wants to hire many of his own connections, it seems that many of people Dipoto works with best are about to be free agents. MLB contracts typically run through October 31, plus MLB prefers teams do not make news during the playoffs, so it is doubtful that the Mariners will announce many (or any) new hires soon. However, it would be worth paying attention to Eppler and the Angels as they figure out who will stay and go. Anyone cut loose should immediately become a strong candidate to join the Mariners in some leadership role.

However, with that said, the Mariners front office under Zduriencik had more positions than Dipoto's heirarchy in LA of A. So, he might not replace some of the people let go. We will get more of the Dipoto's vision over the next few weeks as we get news of Mariners hires.

Jerry Dipoto

The Mariners hired Jerry Dipoto a week ago to take over the good ship Mariner for the foreseeable future. I wish I would have written about him sooner, I guess. This post would feel a bit timelier if this news was more new, but such is life. Also, in the meantime I have taken some time to do research. Plus, honestly, Dipoto was not going to do anything in the last week of the season. His job starts today.

First of all, if you are thirsting for a hot take, I like the hire. I might even love the hire. Kevin Mather said he wanted a GM with experience that would not waste what remains of the Felix-Cano-Cruz prime. That makes good sense, though the task seemed awfully tall.

I saw only two experienced GMs that would be available and worth hiring: Dave Dombrowski, who the Red Sox swooped in and hired in a rather stunning move, and Jerry Dipoto. Maybe Ben Cherington too, once Dombrowski was hired by the Red Sox, but I prefer Dipoto to Cherington. While Ben has one World Series championship to his credit, and what appears to be a strong Boston farm system, the up-and-down massive roster fluctuations that he orchestrated in Boston seem unhealthy to me. He does not look to me like the kind of GM that would succeed in Seattle without blowing up the roster. Mather made it clear the roster wasn't going to be blown up, so at the very least Dipoto is the better fit.

Dipoto's background is intriguing, especially given his reputation as an analytics guy. He issued an ultimatum to Angels owner Arte Moreno because Mike Scioscia would not adopt some of Dipoto's data-driven suggestions. Dipoto resigned over the struggles, so he has some conviction in his beliefs.

What is unclear to me is exactly where and why Jerry Dipoto became an analytics guy. He broke into the majors as a relief pitcher in 1993 and carved out a modest MLB career that ended in 2000. He was with the Rockies at the time and immediately transitioned into their front office as a scout. Dipoto silently went about his business as a scout with the Rockies from 2001-2002, and then he scouted for the Red Sox in 2003 and 2004. He probably picked up his analytics bend in Boston, given that he scouted for them at the height of the Theo Epstein era. 2004 is when the Red Sox broke their long-standing curse. However, that's just a guess on my part.

Dipoto returned to Colorado as their director of player personnel in 2005 and then jumped to the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he held leadership roles in their player personnel/player development department from 2006 through 2011. He gained a reputation as GM material during his time in Arizona, probably thanks in part to how their farm system performed while he held a key leadership role. Here are some notable Diamondbacks draft picks while Jerry Dipoto worked for them in player development:

  • 2006: RHP Max Scherzer, LHP Brett Anderson, LHP Clay Zavada
  • 2007: RHP Jarrod Parker, RHP Josh Collmenter, RHP Evan Scribner, OF Golden Tate*
  • 2008: LHP Daniel Schlereth, LHP Wade Miley, RHP Bryan Shaw, OF Collin Cowgill, LHP Danny Hultzen (!)**
  • 2009: CF AJ Pollock, 3B Matt Davidson, SS Chris Owings, 1B Paul Goldschmidt, RHP Chase Anderson
  • 2010: CF Adam Eaton
  • 2011: RHP Trevor Bauer, RHP Jed Bradley, LHP Andrew Chafin

* Yes, the same Golden Tate that currently catches passes for the Lions. Fun fact!
**Hultzen didn't sign with the Diamondbacks, hence why he became a high M's draft pick later

That is quality and quantity by MLB draft standards. It intrigued the Angels enough to name Dipoto their GM after the 2011 season ended.

I will not say as much about the Dipoto Era in LA of A as this Halos Heaven recap (very much worth reading), but I will summarize the Halos Heaven work. Long story short, there was a power struggle between Dipoto and Scioscia from day one. This was further complicated by the blockbuster signings of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, both of which were largely negotiated by Angels owner Arte Moreno no matter the wishes of Dipoto or Scioscia.

Dipoto had some power in LA of A, but only so much. His payroll got engulfed by massive contracts he had no say in, so his trades had to focus on supporting pieces with an eye towards cost control. Supporting pieces, basically by definition, have strengths and deficiencies as players. If they had no blemishes then they would be stars. Dipoto had to find these players that he valued within a world where his manager had different values. The tension eventually boiled over and Dipoto left.

So, this is my long way of saying a few things. First of all, I am not convinced that Jerry Dipoto is an analytics guy. He certainly does not have the usual analytics background. For instance, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow worked for McKinsey and Company (a business consulting firm) and was COO of Archetype Solutions (his own consulting firm) before stepping foot in a baseball front office. Theo Epstein has an undergraduate degree from Yale and a juris doctorate (JD) from the University of San Diego that he earned while he was an intern with the Padres. These are the kinds of backgrounds that analytics guys tend to have. Dipoto's background is classic old-school: the former player who continues his life in baseball by going into the front office.

Moreover, Dipoto rose to front office leadership roles in places not exactly noted for their love of analytics. The Diamondbacks could have offered their vacant GM position to Dipoto in 2011 (he served as interim GM to finish out the 2010 season) but instead opted for Kevin Towers. He famously traded Justin Upton in 2013 and publicly stated that Upton wasn't "gritty" enough for the D'Backs. Towers also ditched Trevor Bauer in a curious deal that clearly boiled down to personality differences much more than performance.

Then there was the lengthy struggle with Mike Scioscia that has already been referenced a few times in this post. Reports surfaced that Dipoto could not get Scioscia to use scouting reports. This is pretty easy to believe based off of anecdotal evidence.

I have no doubt that Jerry Dipoto was at the forefront of analytics in his contexts. However, his most significant experience is with organizations that are noteworthy for their obvious disregard of analytics. I will believe the advanced analytics when I see evidence of them, which should pop up in Seattle if they exist in Dipoto's ethos.

So what is Jerry Dipoto going to do with the Mariners?

I think one of the most interesting questions is what Dipoto will do with Lloyd McClendon. Popular thinking suggests that he butted heads with old-school Mike Scioscia, so a similarly old-school manager like McClendon is obviously toast. I don't think the answer is that straightforward. Again, Dipoto's background suggests more than a splash of "old-school" pumping through his veins. Also, McClendon isn't a godfather-like figure in Seattle like Mike Scioscia was (and remains) in LA of A. The power dynamic in Seattle is very different, and that cannot be overlooked. If I had to guess I would say that McClendon gets fired, but I put that odds at something like 55-60% - far from a foregone conclusion.

What might make the difference with the McClendon decision is how willingly he starts players where Dipoto wants them to go. Dipoto is already on record saying that Safeco demands athletic fielders, which is a breath of fresh air for this blogger. That almost certainly means Nelson Cruz is a full-time DH in Dipoto's plan. Does that work for McClendon?

Dipoto's position would also suggest that Mark Trumbo is a first baseman or possibly traded. Again, is this fine with McClendon? It is hard to tell.

McClendon played both Cruz and Trumbo in the outfield extensively, but he also had few other options with the personnel Zduriencik put together. How much of that is a result of Z, and how much of that is a result of McClendon? Dipoto has to find that answer for himself, sooner rather than later. Maybe he already has the answer.

By the way, Fangraphs estimates that Cruz and Trumbo's outfield defense were 25.1 runs below replacement level. Just playing them at positions they can capably defend would squeeze over 2 more wins out of them, provided that Jerry Dipoto can find replacement-level defenders in the outfield.

In general, I would anticipate that Dipoto makes a ton of small, seemingly inconsequential moves that (hopefully) add up to magic. The Mariners had 6 players log at least 100 at-bats in 2015 with negative WARs. If Dipoto can find replacement-level players for all these at-bats that's worth another 3 wins right there.

When I say replacement level I am talking minor league free agents. The Shawn O'Malleys of the world. Willie Bloomquist in his "prime." Heaven forbid Dipoto even finds someone who contributes positive value! Replacement level players are not supposed to be hard to find, though Zduriencik sure struggled to find them in the back half of his tenure with the Mariners.

If you are keeping tally, between paying attention to defensive shortcomings and replenishing a scrap heap of replacement level players, Dipoto could improve the talent level of the Mariners by 5 wins. Then, suppose that Cano, Seager, and Felix bounce back and recover at least half of the value they slipped by in 2015. That's another 3 or 4 wins. Throw in two or three replacement level relievers that absorb some of the whopping 262 relief appearances logged by relievers with negative WAR and there are another 2 or 3 wins.

Add up all the wins and that's an 11-13 WAR improvement without signing a significant free agent or assuming a guy like Brad Miller, Ketel Marte, Taijuan Walker, or James Paxton blossoms into something more than they are now. Add 11 to 13 wins to the 2015 Mariners and they make the playoffs, so this is hardly a trivial improvement.

So settle in for the MLB equivalent of dumpster diving, or at least hope for it. That will be the first sign that Jerry Dipoto is doing his job well. It won't be sexy or headline-grabbing, but it's needed and relatively easy. He is going to find one or two lanky outfielders with no power but legs and a knack for running great routes as they track down fly balls. He will sign a handful of journeyman catchers that may or may not have a little bit of juice left in the tank. One or two of them will stick on the opening day roster. He almost certainly will bring in a few fly-ball prone pitchers, in particular ones with horrible home run luck in 2015. I haven't scanned the numbers yet to make a list of who these pitchers might be, but those are the kind of guys Dipoto should be able to get for nothing and he understands that Safeco - especially a Safeco with good defense - can hide the sins of fly ball pitchers.

Let the Jerry Dipoto era begin. Kevin Mather probably does not hire Dipoto unless Dipoto convinced Mather that he can make the Mariners a winner as quickly as 2016. Dipoto took some risks with the Angels, for better and for worse, so he was almost assuredly make some bad moves with the Mariners. However, he also built up some solid depth at the MLB level with the Angels, which the Mariners desperately need. Also, if Dipoto is as much of an analytics guy as many say he is, then he is quite open-minded to new thinking and ideas, especially given his background as a ballplayer. He had no qualms placing his stamp on the Angels when he was hired and he will likely do the same with the Mariners. I, for one, welcome his stamp and look forward to seeing what it looks like.

Season Done

I will have a Jerry Dipoto post up tomorrow when there is no baseball to think about. However, for one last time, the Mariners took the field in 2015 and squeezed out a legitimately clutch win. Seth Smith hit the deciding home run in the bottom of the 8th and Tom Wilhelmsen preserved the one-run victory in the ninth. The Mariners, for their troubles, probably got penalized for winning. A 76-86 season isn't wildly different from a 75-87 season, except that the win kept the Mariners out of the top 10 MLB draft picks which means they will have to give up their first round pick if/when they sign a free agent.*

*This is unfortunate, but not nearly as unfortunate as some people are going to claim. MLB draft picks are a step above total crapshoots. Free agents are much better bets to produce at the MLB level than any draft pick.

The 2015 Mariners were not all that different from the 2014 Mariners, believe it or not, despite a season that feels very different. The reality is that the 2014 team played better than their .500 talent, thanks in large part to a superhuman bullpen. It is also true that the 2015 team had roughly .500 talent and they squandered a number of games. Bullpens giveth and taketh away.

Here are the 2015 and 2014 Mariners were by WAR:

2015 WAR
2014 WAR
First base
Second base
Third base
Left field
Center field
Right field
Designated hitter
Top Three SP
Rest of rotation

Better Offense: 2014 by 1.8 WAR
Better Rotation: 2014 by 1.8 WAR
Better Bullpen: 2014 by 3.3 WAR

The 2014 Mariners won 11 more games than the 2015 Mariners with about 6.6 WAR more talent. WAR doesn't equate perfectly to wins, but it's the most perfect conversion of individual talent to team wins that we've got. Like I said, the 2014 Mariners played beyond their abilities by just a bit, and the 2015 Mariners played beneath them by just a bit. The end result feels like a large chasm but to some degree that is a mirage.

A difference of 1.8 WAR for an entire unit, like a lineup or a rotation, is razor thin. For instance, Robinson Cano was worth over 3 WAR more in 2014 than in in 2015. Kyle Seager also was over 2 WAR worse in 2015. Either of those players (not even both!) looking more like the 2014 versions of themselves would have wiped out the gap. Heck, even Mike Zunino was over 1.8 WAR better in 2014. These aren't even individual players taking steps forward - just not taking steps back.

As for the starting rotation, King Felix had an off year. He was worth over 3 more WAR in 2014. A return to form for him would have made for a 2015 starting rotation that was superior to 2014's.

So, depending on how you feel about the Mariners core players moving forward, it might not be too hard to imagine this team getting way better in a hurry. Jerry Dipoto will inevitably receive significant praise if/when the Mariners improve in 2016, and perhaps he will make some magical moves, but the 2015 Mariners were never as far away from contending as they seemed. For whatever reason, things just went wrong for them. The American League had lots of .500-ish teams, the Mariners being one of them, and a few subpar performances from key players were enough to sink them. That's what it meant to be True To The Blue** in 2015.

**Had to use the slogan one more time before the marketing department makes something new for 2016. The irony of this slogan might be what I remember most from 2015.