Were the 2009 Mariners any better than the 1990 Mariners?

by Blaidd Drwg

With the plethora of predictions for the Mariners 2010 season out, it got me thinking, how did a team which scored 640 runs in 2009 manage to win 85 games. Their expected wins were 75 based on run differential and they managed to get lucky and win 35 games by 1 run. I really think this was closer to a 75 win team that got lucky than an 85 win team that was that good (winning close games really isn’t a function of anything other than luck), so I wanted to take a look at the other AL teams in the expansion era that scored 640 runs or less. I did pro-rate the 1994 and 1995 seasons to 162 games to even things out for those seasons. I also expanded the list to include any teams who scored more than 640 runs but were within 30 of the Mariners totals. The list:

Year/Team Runs Scored Runs Allowed Diff Wins
2002 Tigers 575 864 -289 55
2003 Tigers 591 928 -337 43
1998 Devil Rays 620 751 -131 63
2009 Mariners 640 692 -52 85
2008 A’s 646 690 -44 75
1997 Blue Jays 654 694 -40 76
2002 Orioles 667 773 -106 67

Interesting that the M’s are the only team on that list to go better than .500. There are some historically bad teams and just looking at runs scored and runs allowed, the M’s best comp are the 2008 A’s, who are almost a dead on comp – the A’s scored 6 more runs than the M’s and gave up 2 fewer. The difference really was the A’s were essentially a .500 team in 1 run games at 25-24. Yes, a lot has been made about how good the M’s defense was last season and I don’t think the A’s were a particularly great fielding team, but is the defense really worth 10 wins over the run differential? I guess we will see how this plays out in 2010.

So all of this got me thinking, is there another M’s team that looks comparable? The closest I found was the 1990 M’s who managed a 75-87 record, scoring 640 runs and allowing 680. Digging down, there are an amazing number of similarities between 2009 and 1990 versions of the teams – They both had relatively young pitching staffs, they both played in stadiums that were slightly pitching friendly, neither team got any real production from their Catcher or Shortstops, they both had marginal starters with career years (Jarrod Washburn and Erik Hanson) and both teams had solid bullpens and above average starting pitching. They were both extremely good defensive teams.

Here are the stats comps:

Batting

AVG OPS OPS+ HR BB
.258 .716 90 160 421 2009 M’s
.259 .706 97 107 596 1990 M’s

Pitching

ERA ERA+ IP WHIP SO
3.87 112 1452.2 1.3035 1043 2009 M’s
3.72 106 1443.1 1.3339 1064 1990 M’s

The 2009 edition was a bit better pitching, which makes sense considering they were a bit better defensively and the 1990 team was a bit better offensively thanks to the huge difference in walks compared to their 2009 counterparts.

So what happened in 1991? The M’s went 83-79 for their first winning season in franchise history. The only significant change to the lineup was replacing a truly awful Jeffrey Leonard with Jay Buhner and Ken Griffey Jr becoming a superstar. The pitching staff was slightly better, despite significantly WORSE defense:

Field Runs Above Avg Zone Field Runs Above Avg
50.4 55.4 1990
-28.7 -32.7 1991

I am a firm believer in advanced defensive metrics and I believe that you need a solid defensive team in the field, but I am really at a loss to explain how the 1990 and 1991 teams could be so different defensively and still gave up roughly the same number of runs.

I am skeptical about 2010 Mariners team. They downgraded their offense, so 640 runs in 2010 might be a stretch, they still have too many free swingers in the lineup, and I am not sure that the pitching (starting and relieving beyond Lee and Felix) will repeat their 2009 performances. My prediction – 77 to 80 wins for this team IF Felix and Lee are healthy and pitch a full season with the team.

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