So, 101 losses were Mat's fault?


Geoff Baker reveals that before the 101-loss 2008 season, Chuck Armstrong directed Bill Bavasi and Mat Olkin to give an objective assessment of the Mariners' chances to make the playoffs. Olkin, obviously aware of the M's Pythagorean overperformance in 2007, nevertheless offered the analysis that the 2007 M's were capable of winning.

Geoff characterizes it as Olkin-Bavasi analysis, but you know what that means.

If you're thinking that Mat Olkin takes a back seat as an analyst to Bill James, Ron Shandler, Tom Tango, Gary Huckabay or anybody else, you're mistaken. He has been on the cutting edge of sabermetrics since, I don't know, 1985 or something. For those amigos who judge by education, Mat has a law degree from Georgetown. We've known him off-and-on since about 1995. Mat is as brainy as it gets.

Olkin of course cannot discuss his work, which when compensated by the Mariners, is proprietary to the Mariners. But Chuck leaked the information that Olkin's analysis led to their mistaken attempt to win the pennant in 2008 -- so blame Mat.


1. This is a serious violation of ethical code, since Mat is not free to defend himself.


2. It's a fascinating piece of information.

Chuck is saying that the highest-level strategic decision -- to compete or not -- was based primarily on Olkin's analysis.

Let me read that sentence again. Has it dawned on you, that Chuck is essentially saying that his MOST IMPORTANT decision of 2008, was handed over to Mat Olkin?

It's interesting, that Chuck is pointing the finger at Mat. It's MORE interesting, what this implies for the role of saber analysis in the M's organization to date.


3. Critics will complain, well, it doesn't look like many player moves were dictated by any blinkin' sabermetrician. But: was Tyler Walker picked by a blinkin' sabermetrician?


4. I do think that it was reasonable to believe, in March 2008, that the M's could compete. Many people did. Few people predicted that Silva, Washburn, and Batista would run 67-65-90 ERA+s; these were three of the most predictable pitchers in baseball.

Nobody predicted Kenji Johjima for a 64 OPS+, or Jose Vidro for a 65. Even Richie Sexson-bashers didn't figure him for 11 home runs.

Cyber-Seattle is saying, right now, that the M's aren't out of it in 2009. If they lose 125 games, cyber-Seattle will still believe that their judgment was based on the best information at the time.

Well, the 2009 Mariners had Felix, Bedard, and three of the most reliable 90-100 SP's in the game. It wound up with a staff ERA+ of 91.


5. The 2008 train wreck, IMHO, was a systemic breakdown. It wasn't a random collection of bad seasons. This kind of systemic breakdown can't be predicted with a calculator.


6. Geoff's essential point is this: lots of teams employ stats guys. It's pretty tough to find teams that actually dance to the tunes their saber guys play. Geoff's broader point is that saber guys don't call the players correctly, as often as they might imagine they do. :- ) That even if they were handed free reign, you might be surprised how great it DIDN'T turn out.


7. Dr. D's comment on all this?

The problem is that statistics are backwards-looking by their very nature. -- Bill James

It's easy to say, "Joe Shlabotnik was worth $3.2M in salary last year." It's much harder to say, "Cliff Lee is on the verge of a bustout."

My absolute #1 complaint with saber dogma is that if a starting pitcher has been worth $4M the last three years, some guys think that a ballclub has no right to believe he'll do anything different next year. Yes, Virginia, there is a Pat Gillick. :- )

Yes, ballclubs DO have a right to point at a Cliff Lee and say, "You know what, that guy added a terrific cutter last September. I project him to be a better player than he has been so far." Some sabermetricians would deny clubs the right to make a judgment as to which player will improve.

Of course, there are times when it is not realistic to expect improvement. I agree that the "correct" projection for Willie Bloomquist is to project him to do what he's done before. But that is not true of Franklin Gutierrez, or Jose Lopez, or Nick Swisher, or Gil Meche.


Saberdudes do a good job of telling us what happened last year. I don't think sabermetricians realize how tough it is to predict the future.


Dr D



Would you put me in that group, Doc? Do you think I overestimate my ability to make the right calls for a team?
FWIW, I believed in 2008 that we had a good club...a club capable of winning the I'd have taken the same ath as Olkin.

Sandy - Raleigh's picture

Great article!
One jump to absolutism that is subtle is revealed by your comment about Ty Walker. The analysis that "yes, we are close to the playoffs" was allegedly a result of sabremetric study.
But, why is it assumed that sabrmetric study would be involved in the selection of specific players? While it certainly COULD be -- there is nothing that mandates that sabrmetrics be utilized to the same degree in EVERY aspect of a ballclub. Certainly, you've GOT to have scouts to view the draft prospects, since you've got little to no reliable data to go on. So, the foundation of EVERY scouting department is going to have to have a healthy non-SABR arena.
In truth, the vast bulk of SABR studies are directed at individual performance - and scant little at team level performance. It could easily be a condemnation of the Seattle number crunching position that perhaps they focused on the (thin) team-based numbers, while ignoring too many of the individual player numbers.
That said -- the number crunchers can get every number correct - and the result can still be horrible. The number crunchers can tell you that Bedard has a world-class K-rate. They cannot tell you that his presence is going to result in the entire Seattle press corps saying only nasty things about the entire organization from the moment he sets foot in Washington.
The number crunchers cannot tell you whether Sherrill was a stabilizing force in the bullpen.
The number crunchers cannot tell you that Guillen's personality helped keep 3-4 key players motivated when they were scuffling.
The number crunchers cannot tell you that McLaren is going to freeze like a deer in headlights at the first bump in the road.
Yes, baseball is about numbers. But there is SO much more that goes into the numbers than raw ability. But, the number crunchers treat every player AS IF they are a strat-o-matic card.


No we don't, Sandy.
We produce numberical projections and analyses. That is not the same thing as saying we treat players like strat-o-matic cards. We don't treat players like ANYTHING...we are scientists looking for better "best guesses"...that's why sabermetrics ALONE can't run a baseball team...because we need other projection system was going to catch Cliff Lee's plateau jump...but if you told me (the evil number cruncher who treats all players like strat-o-cards and is therefore inept at baseball, apparently) that Lee had added a cutter in September and I went and looked at his September game log, I might have noticed that he dominated that month and I might have said "OK...we can't be sure, but let's put a thumb on the scale of maybe he dominates next year"...
No sabermetrician would EVER advocate that teams abandon all scouts, ye who enter hear. This ceaseless attack on the credibility of what we do sometimes makes me think you are intentionally refusing to understand us when we talk.
Only the overly arrogant will act like their projections are fact. I don't believe I've done that in the last several years of making projections when ccalled upon to do so. I've argued the logic of why I projected what I did, but I have never called someone braindead for thinking the opposite, nor refused to listen to scout-based motivations for believing something. A sabermetrician is not SUPPOSED to try to understand that which is not understandable by numerical analysis. We're supposed to do our job...provide top notch numerical analysis so that the GM or the fans or whoever is reading our work can see past the raw data and get a deeper understanding of the mathematical side of the game. Then the GM or the fans or whoever can ask the scout and make up their own mind who they think is closer.


Would you put me in that group, Doc? Do you think I overestimate my ability to make the right calls for a team?
Honestly believe you strike a real good balance there Matty. Since you axed. Almost everybody in the MC/DOV arena does, IMHO.
Never, not a single time, have I ever been thinking about your analysis, when griping about overconfident sabertistas. I feel like you've got a good handle on the limitations of the field, and an awareness that you personally don't have 950/1000 light bulbs on, and yet have enough confidence to press your position when you judge it to be sound.
Actually, it's more a loud minority that I'm grousing about these days. Probably the majority of the most visible saberdudes, these days, are aware of Craig Wright's "if you're right 60%, you lead the field" paradigm.


That said — the number crunchers can get every number correct - and the result can still be horrible. The number crunchers can tell you that Bedard has a world-class K-rate. They cannot tell you that his presence is going to result in the entire Seattle press corps saying only nasty things about the entire organization from the moment he sets foot in Washington.
LOL!! :- )
A razor-sharp variation on the Bill James "orange juice" rule. (In the 1980's, Bill would publish his player projections, and then say, "Hey, some of these guys will have spent their winters drinking orange juice instead of screwdrivers.")
You never know, with human beings.


Sandy, I've got a question for you.
Is it just me, or is that distinctive to Seattle? ... do you think the cities of NY, or LA, or Atlanta, would ever react with OUTRAGE to its ballclub trading a fairly-good #1 prospect for an Opening Day starter with a 10K rate?


I admit some relief that I have made a balanced (albeit sometimes abrasive) impression. LOL
I sometimes worry that I get a little bit lost in my own work...I see how well it works on a case by case basis....I see the gains I've personally made in my understanding of what the numbers mean...and sometimes I am guilty of speaking more absolutely than I probably should. As I am hoping to have a career in baseball, I know this is a very bad thing to do when dealing with a ballclub full of guys who will have different perspectives than mine.

Taro's picture

I don't know about this...the more mainstream analysis was that the M's were a sub-.500 team in '07 that got lucky.
My own beleif is that the bullpen probably helped them beat pythag to a degree, but in hindsight it looks like our talent level just wasn't that high.

Sandy - Raleigh's picture

First - Matt -- pretend I included the codicile "too many" before my number cruncher rant -- and feel free to exclude yourself from my angst.
I won't make the mistake again of speaking in absolute terms. There are going to be exceptions among the fans and pundits for every team.
As to the general question of the AJ for EB trade ... I think the response from fans of any organization are actually PRIMARILY dictated by the foundation perceptions of the organization in question. (To use a slightly dated analogy), In St. Louis, if they pick up Jason Marquis, the fan reaction is more likely to be -- "I wonder what they see there." In Seattle, the reaction is going to be, "We don't need Marquis - we need Pedro or Unit or Schilling."
Which is actually more of what I was trying to get at with my previous post. It wasn't really intended to be a rant against number crunchers -- so much as a rant against the willingness for the number crunchers, (or the ones paying attention to them), to lose sight of the vast array of variables that go into the production of those numbers.
My real complaint is more at the (and I believe this to be true for the vast majority of pundits, fans, coaches, etc.), perception that production is close to 100% related to ability. The mistake is not in the numbers - or the crunchers - it is in the underlying assumption that X production equals X "ability".
It is the belief that "if we just get X player in here, everything will be fine," that I shake my head at. The fans have watched player after player come to Seattle and bomb, (since Gillick and Pineila left). They blame the player selection.
I think the ire over the AJ departure was based on the memories of a farm system that produced Hall of Famers every 3rd year - PLUS the knowledge that imports come to Seattle to die - is the basic explanation for the explosive decompression from so many in regards to Bedard. (There were many OUTSIDE Atlanta that groused about the stupidity of Atlanta surrending Andy Marte in order to get Edgar Renteria. For most Braves fans, it was a shrug. Why? Because the Braves tended to be pretty smart with their moves for 15 years).
While the ultimate outcome of Marte for Renteria is not yet known - the Braves subsequently traded Renteria for Jurrjens. Marte posted an OPS+ below WFB in 2008.
In all fairness, MY perception that Seattle player development is harmful to most imports likely colors my assessment of the FA market situation. Spending 8/180 to get Teix might work out elsewhere -- but my general feeling is probably tainted by the impression that even if Teix is a legit 150 player today -- after a couple of years in Seattle, they'll turn him into a 110 player -- and it will be twice as bad in terms of drag and time as the Sexson deal turned out.
My current belief is that Seattle is served best by the SHORTEST FA contracts possible, because I don't see evidence "yet" of improvement in player development -- or perhaps better phrased - player optimization. The analyst who is convinced that Seattle's player assessment is the actual culprit of the previous 4 years is naturally going to have a different view.

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