Does Cliff Lee Make the Mariners Better?

Spring training is kicking off throughout baseball, which means most rosters are just about set and the focus turns to trying to decide how teams look going into the season.  Projecting the Mariners this season is difficult.  Most agree they’re a solid team, with projections ranging anywhere from 82-88 or so wins, but they have several players who could  surprise, both positively or negatively.   I’ll try to cover most of the major areas of interest throughout the spring, and today we’ll start with a discussion that’s been making the rounds lately.

No one (at least I hope no one) will say that Cliff Lee isn’t a significantly better pitcher than Jarrod Washburn.  Even during Washburn’s time in Seattle last year, when he threw probably better than at any other point in his career, I doubt there is a single baseball fan, player, or executive who wouldn’t have traded him for Cliff Lee at any point.  Even still, there is an argument being made that we can’t project the Mariners to have a better record this year due to Lee’s presence.  The argument goes like this: Washburn made 20 starts for the Mariners before they traded him, and in 11 of those starts, he gave up one run or less, running an ERA of 2.64.  Many analysts are making the claim that Cliff Lee can’t really be expected to top that performance, therefore Cliff Lee is only replacing Jarrod Washburn and doesn’t do much, if anything, to boost the Mariners’ projected win total past last years 85 wins.

At first glance, it’s a compelling argument.  Washburn did pitch well, or at least got good results.  But there are some flaws here:

  • First, as the sabermetric analysts have pointed out, projecting a team based on last year’s results can be tricky and even foolhardy.  The rest of the team is greatly changed, which will change the results the pitchers have.  Cliff Lee pitched on a different team (two, actually) and his results from last year can’t just be transposed onto the Mariners.  Lookout Landing and USSMariner have both touched on this recently, so you can check out their arguments. They know a lot more about this than I do.  Suffice to say, projections have a better chance of accuracy when done afresh each season rather than juggling players on and off of last year’s team.
  • Ultimately, we’re talking about how many wins Cliff Lee can impact.  Not every good performance from a pitcher results in a team win, or a bad performance in a team loss, so how did the team do in Washburn’s starts last year? The team was 11-9, about the same winning percentage as they had for the year. In those 11 games where he gave up 1 run or less: 7-4, good but not amazing.  If the team had won 15 or 16 of those 20 games, I’m not sure how you could expect more in Lee’s first 20 starts. But 11 wins seems eminently passable.
  • Speaking of those 20 starts, they were only 20 starts.  Barring major injury, the only way Lee doesn’t get to at least 30 starts is if he too is traded, which means the team is out of contention and none of this matters anyway.

There are other factors as well, such as a possible psychological lift for the team knowing they have Cliff Lee throwing, that aren’t necessarily measurable when projecting a win total.  I won’t try my hand at projecting either; there are plenty of projections out there and mine would be a total guess.  I feel fairly confident though, that even with Washburn’s mostly good results last season, Cliff Lee has to add at least a couple of wins to this team, not to mention a lot of swagger and a much more enjoyable pitcher to watch.  Interestingly, this is an instance where analysts who typically argue that numbers don’t capture the whole picture are implicitly turning to numbers for support, and the numbers aren’t there to back them up.

-Matthew

2 Comments

Filed under Mariners

2 responses to “Does Cliff Lee Make the Mariners Better?

  1. Cliff Lee doesn’t throw “the dolphin.” That makes this team at least 1 win better without him even throwing a pitch.

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