Surviving The Black Holes

Over the last few years, the Mariners offense has been historically bad.  Every year the lineup seems to have more bad players than it does good.  In 2009 and 2010, the Mariners pitching was incredible but the offense was so bad that they couldn’t take advantage.  I don’t think I need to go on to describe how inept the offense was, you all saw it.

This year, the Mariners come into the season with a few more sure things (thank you, Cano) but the offense still has quite a few question marks.  What will it take for the M’s to overcome these question marks and make a push for contention (or just .500 ball)?  That’s what I’m writing this post about.

In baseball, there are spots in each teams lineup known as ‘black holes’.  You can call them other things like ‘Really Bad Offense’, ‘Piles of Poo at the Plate’ or ‘Chone Figgins’ but we’ll go with ‘black holes’ for this post.  A team can only survive so many black holes in a lineup if they want to be a decent team (especially in the American League).  This post will be a quick study as to how many black holes recent teams have had in their lineups.

I will take the Mariners, AL West champion and AL champion from 2011, 2012 and 2013 and take a look at their lineups, noting how many black holes are in each lineup.  If the position is a job share, I’ll try to take an average of the two players.  I’m using baseball-reference for all of my information.  I qualify a ‘black hole’ in the lineup as batting under .225 with less than 25 dingers and an OBP under .315.  All of those are qualifiers and if a player breaks any of those they aren’t considered a ‘black hole’.  When commenting on the players who are black holes I will throw in a few more Sabermetric stats because I prefer those but I decided to use some old-fashioned stats as qualifiers because everyone is a little more familiar with them.  If this catches on, I may change the qualifiers and stats I use over time.  I’m being pretty generous with those numbers but I think it’s also pretty reasonable considering baseball is a little bit more of a pitcher’s game right now.  I will also include the team’s player with the highest OPS anyone on the team with an OPS over .900 because I think a hitting star can help minimize some of the damage of a ‘black hole’.  So, here we go:

2011 Seattle Mariners
Black Holes:  3

C Miguel Olivo – .224 BA/.253 OBP/19 Home Runs.  Olivo wasn’t awful.  His OBP is certainly terrible but his slugging percentage was a little higher than most.  His OPS+ (which is a stat that basically takes a players OPS and adjusts it to the players ballpark) was 81, which isn’t good (100 is average) but isn’t absolutely disastrous for a catcher.
3B Chone Figgins – .188 BA/ .241 OBP/ 1 HR.  Wow, this is awful.  To be fair to the Mariners, he only ended up with 313 PA’s and then was replaced by Kyle Seager, who was pretty average that year.  This was as bad as it gets.
CF Franklin Gutierrez – .224 BA/ .261 OBP/ 1 HR.  This was when Guti started suffering from his problems.  Michael Saunders, his replacement for a little less than half the year was even worse.
Highest OPS:  Dustin Ackley – .766 (in 376 PA’s) Mike Carp – .791 OPS (in 313 PA’s)
Quick Thoughts:  This team also included a revolving door in left field, Mike Carp saved the position although he barely played there.  Brendan Ryan barely escaped as well.  Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, and Mike Carp were this team’s best hitters.  I don’t need to say anymore than that.

2011 Texas Rangers (AL Champions)
Black Holes:  0
None.  Their worst position player was probably Yorvit Torrealba who had a .705 OPS.  That would have been fourth best on the Mariners.
Highest OPS:  Adrian Beltre – .892 Josh Hamilton – .882
Quick Thoughts:  Here we see a team without any black holes.  They didn’t have any huge stars (although you could make a case for Hamilton or Beltre here) but were so successful because there was never a break in the lineup.

2012 Seattle Mariners
Black Holes:  4
C Miguel Olivo – .222 BA/ .239 OBP/ 12 HR.  Olivo makes the list again.  He was spelled by mid-season by a tandem of Jaso and Montero who were pretty good with the bats and awful with the gloves.  I’m keeping Olivo on here because by the time he was out of the lineup the Mariners were way down in the standings.  His OPS+ dropped to 73 this year.
1B Justin Smoak – .217 BA/ .290 OBP/ 19 HR.  Smoak brings a little bit of power and he walked a lot, which is why his OPS+ is 85 instead of 65, but you need more from your first baseman.
SS Brendan Ryan – .194 BA/ .277 OBP/ 3 HR.  Yikes.  While Ryan was okay the year before, this was the year he fell into the Figgins category.  His OPS+ dropped all the way to 59.
Left Field – The Mariners used a mix of Chone Figgins (.181 BA/.262 OBP/2 HR), Casper Wells (.228 BA/.302 OBP/10 HR) and Mike Carp (.213 BA/.312 OBP/5 HR) in left field that year.  Their OPS+’s were 53, 97, and 87.  Wells wouldn’t actually qualify but the other guys (mainly Figgins) drag him down here.
Highest OPS:  John Jaso – .850 (he had a 142 OPS+)  Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders each had a .738 OPS.
Quick Thoughts:  Four black holes is impossible to overcome.  Also, John Jaso was really good.  He had the highest OPS on the team by .112 points.  Then, they traded him.  Dustin Ackley barely missed being a black hole by .002 in the batting average category (all the other categories were below the marks).

2012 Oakland A’s (AL West Champs)
Black Holes:  2.5
Catcher – Kurt Suzuki (.218 BA/.250 OBP/1 HR) and Derek Norris split (.201 BA/.276 OBP/7 HR) catching duties for Oakland.  They were pretty bad, although Norris added a decent clip in slugging percentage.
2B Jemile Weeks – .221 BA/.305 OBP/3 HR.  Weeks added value in his baserunning and defense but his bat was pretty bad, he had a 73 OPS+.
SS Cliff Pennington – .215 BA/.278 OBP/ 6 HR.  Pennington was bad but the A’s traded for Stephen Drew at the deadline, who ran a 98 OPS+ for the rest of the season, which is above average for a shortstop.  I’m counting Pennington as a half.
Highest OPS:  Brandon Moss had a .954 OPS.  The A’s also had 3 other guys who had an OPS between .860-.870.
Quick Thoughts:  The A’s thrived due to their pitching and defense.  They were able to survive Weeks because of his defense.  They tried to upgrade catching and shortstop mid-season.  Both were upgraded at least to a degree.

2012 Detroit Tigers (AL Champs)
Black Holes:  0
The Tigers lowest OPS on the year was .659.
Highest OPS: Miguel Cabrera – .999 Prince Fielder – .940.  The Tigers also had two other players with an OPS over .855.
Quick Thoughts:  I’m always surprised when I think about the Tigers that they didn’t win more.  Making the World Series is plenty of winning but their downfall may have been the 4 guys in the everyday lineup with an OPS in the .600’s.  You can be a very good team with that, especially since those wouldn’t be black holes in my book, but you can’t truly be great.

2013 Seattle Mariners
Black Holes:  2
Catcher – The Mariners played 7 catchers last year.  Every single one of them qualified for ‘Black Hole’ honors.  I don’t want to talk about that anymore.
Shortstop/Second Base – Both positions were a tale of two halves.  Brendan Ryan was terrible (.192 BA/.254 OBP/ 3 HR), Dustin Ackley was bad before he moved to second base and Nick Franklin barely escaped the parameters (.225/.303/12 HR) although his slugging percentage makes up for it.  We’ll give this one a full black hole because the Michael Morse/Jason Bay outfield basically fits the parameters too.
Highest OPS:  Ibanez (.793), Morales (.785), Seager (.764)
Quick Thoughts:  The lineup did improve (although there were a lot of guys that were right on the border of being a black hole) but almost all the other parts of the team suffered.  Pitching, defense, and base running all got worse.

2013 Oakland A’s (AL West Champs)
Black Holes: 0
Josh Reddick was right on the cusp (.226 BA).
Highest OPS:  Josh Donaldson (.883 OPS) and Brandon Moss (.859 OPS).
Quick Thoughts:  The A’s didn’t have an OPS under .686.   The Mariners, last year, had 4 semi-regulars with one lower than that.  The A’s are incredibly balanced and while they may lack some star power they make up for it by not having an easy out on their team.

2013 Boston Red Sox (AL Champions)
Black Holes: 0
No one is even close, actually.
Highest OPS:  David Ortiz (.959) and Mike Napoli (.842)
Quick Thoughts:  The Red Sox didn’t have an OPS lower than .696.  Aside from Middlebrooks, their lowest OPS+ was 111.  This is why they were great.  Their lineup carried them.

Conclusion:  It’s easy to see that in order for a team to be great they need to limit their black holes.  The 2012 Oakland A’s showed us that it’s not impossible to succeed while still having some holes in the lineup.  They made up for it with their pitching and defense.  If a team is spectacular in one area, they can make up for a deficit in another area.  That’s exactly what all of these teams (other than the M’s) are doing.  The Red Sox and Rangers made up for a lack of pitching or defense with solid lineups, without holes in them.  The Tigers made up for some average position players who were good at defense by having two guys with an OPS at .940 or above.

What I do think is probably true is that it’s impossible to make up a deficit of 3 black holes (or more in a lineup).  The 2011 Mariners had one of the best rotations that I can remember but there was no overcoming have 4 sure outs in your lineup. Of course, I need more data and to study a few more teams.  I plan to do that at some point down the road.

What this means for your 2014 Mariners:

Well, their pitching should be really solid once Kuma and Walker come back.  Their defense should be much improved but maybe not to the point where it’s a huge strength.  I’d say the lineup could survive one-two black holes in order to contend.  So, let’s break down the starting lineup (or projected starting lineup).

We don’t have to worry about Cano.  He’ll be fine and, in fact, should carry the team like those high OPS guys in Detroit did.  Seager has never been in danger of being in this category.  Same thing with Corey Hart, assuming he’s healthy and gets back to himself at least a little bit.

The one’s I’m pretty confident in not being a black hole are Dustin Ackley, Brad Miller, and Michael Saunders.  None of these guys have ever been a black hole, although they have come dangerously close.  Ackley looked great in the second half last year and has carried that over to this spring.  Brad Miller is someone I expect pretty big things from and his contact skills seem high enough to where this wouldn’t be a big danger.  Saunders I’m least confident in, out of this group, but we’ve all seen what he can do when he’s playing well.  I think he can finally put it together.

Smoak should be fine but I’m still not fully confident in him.  This leaves the last outfield spot (I’m counting Hart as the DH), catcher and Smoak/Morrison.  If 2 of those guys can avoid being a disaster at the plate, I like this teams chances at being a .500 ballclub.  Again, I’m not extremely confident in those spots.  I like Zunino but he’s still young and adjusting.  Smoak and Morrison have shown flashes but they also have been awful at times.  Almonte (or whoever the last outfielder is) is a total wild card to me.

I plan to dive deeper into this subject at some point but that’s what I have for now.  Believe big!  Don’t suck, Mariners!

– Andrew

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