BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 08/06/2019

Thiel: Mariners, baseball ready for NFL cryosleep

In the small picture, the Mariners were no-hit by a stiff. In the big picture, big data and technology have screwed up MLB. And the NFL starts Thursday.

Commissioner Rob Manfred knows the baseball is different. He just doesn’t know why. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest

My seminal cringe-worthy Mariners game was the 1992 season opener. It was the first game following the stunning news a few months earlier that, from out of nowhere, international man of mystery Hiroshi Yamauchi bought the franchise from Jeff Smulyan to keep him from moving it to Tampa Bay.

Newbies to the Seattle sports scene may not understand that almost since the 1977 inception, the Mariners as a business seemed perpetually upon the hangman’s platform with a noose around the neck, waiting for someone to open the trap door. But this Japanese billionaire, with minority partners from Seattle’s new and old elites, seemed to have the resources and intent to get the charges reduced merely to bad baseball, thus unworthy of the death sentence of relocation.

A big deal.

So the Kingdome sellout crowd of 55,918 was in a magnum celebratory mood on Opening Day against the Texas Rangers. Randy Johnson vs. Nolan Ryan. Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzales and Ivan Rodriguez against Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner.

Ryan didn’t last five innings and the Mariners were rolling, up 10-3 with two outs in the bottom of the eighth. Happy baseball days were here again.

Then the Rangers scored nine runs in the inning and won, 12-10.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen,” said Bill Plummer, the ashen Mariners manager,  “nine runs with two outs in the eighth.”

The far frontier of baseball misadventure is a desolate place. But the Mariners’ pop stand is there, lights blinking, open 24/7.

Proof again was available Saturday in Houston, where the Mariners were no-hit.

Not by Astros aces Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole or new addition Zach Greinke.

They were smothered by Aaron Sanchez, a one-time star come to grief who had just arrived via trade from Toronto, where he had the most losses in the American League (14, including 13 in a row) and highest ERA among the league’s qualifying starters.

He went six innings, and three relievers finished off the 9-0 win. For the second time in 23 days the Mariners were held hitless. In the first one in Anaheim, the Angels were honoring the memory of late teammate Tyler Skaggs, and seemed to be at peak efficiency.  The Astros were just mowing the lawn.

The Astros threw a stiff at the Mariners, and he stiffed them. Yes, it’s a step-back season. But we’re talking about getting a single hit against was the worst pitcher statistically in the AL. Fercripesakes.

For  cringe-worthiness, I may stick with the ’92 opener. But I reserve the right to place a bullet next to Saturday’s game and reconsider at season’s end.

The abject futility of the ordeal fits in with a larger odious baseball narrative about tanking, as well as the fact that the industry’s game tactics have been reduced to a working-waterfront brawl among tired drunks — swing-and-a-miss, or home run.  For the 12th consecutive season, MLB is on pace to set a strikeout record, as well as topple the 2017 mark for most homers in a season.

The point is worth mentioning this week because it’s the start of the NFL season. Yes, they’re fake games, but they will out-draw the best MLB can offer. Times about four.

The hapless Mariners, and much of baseball, are upon entry into the sports version of a hypersleep chamber, like the one Sigourney Weaver used in Alien, a tube that induces the cryosleep necessary to preserve human functionality during long voyages into deep space.

With the return of the Seahawks, the Mariners’ voyage begins to seem longer, because not only are competitive rewards, always theoretical, years away, the franchise is in an industry producing an increasingly boring product — reduced capacity for rallies, diminished running game, over-reliance on pitching velocity and analytics-induced efficiency that bleeds the life out of the game and dis-incentivizes winning on an annual basis.

On top of all that, MLB, apparently without intent or even awareness, somehow compromised the very instrument of the game — the baseball.

A consensus grows throughout the industry that the ball, thanks apparently to improvements in manufacturing technology, has altered seams, a smoother surface and is closer to perfectly round. Which adds up to more aerodynamic flight.  All unplanned, according to the increasingly strident insistence of the baseball commissioner.

“Baseball has done nothing, given no direction, for an alteration in the baseball,” Rob Manfred said at the All-Star Game.

A committee created by Manfred nevertheless concluded that the ball has less drag. Another study done by sports data scientist Dr. Meredith Wills and published by The Athletic, came to somewhat similar conclusions. But no one is clear yet as to how the balls became different.

The upshot is an echo of the criticism that has followed the heavy use of quality data to improve efficiencies throughout the game: New technology will always produce unintended consequences.

For example: Who imagined at the 2007 introduction of the iPhone that its popular adoption would produce sharp spikes in auto accidents and deaths?

These are big-picture ruminations beyond the capacity of the Mariners to influence. Their task to get an end-of-the-bat squib past an over-shifted defense for a hit.

Plus they have to get their lounge act off the Seattle stage. The gridiron Beatles start Thursday.

 


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YourThoughts

  • coug73

    I suppose those two no hitters thrown at the Mariners will have *astericks in the record book. Minor league baseball no hit in the MLB deserves special denotation.

    • art thiel

      Maybe the offending teams should be designated as EST — extended spring training.

    • Steve Buckholdt

      According to MLB’s own website, https://www.mlb.com/news/all-the-combined-no-hitters-in-baseball-history, there have been 14 combined no-hitters in MLB history. The record for being on the bad end of most combined no-hitters is, you guessed it, the Seattle Mariners at 3. The A’s and Padres each have 2. When you consider that the Mariners have been in existence fewer years than the runners-up, it really showcases the Mariners ineptness.

      The very first combined no-hitter was in 1917. Featured some obscure pitcher named Babe Ruth as the “opener”. He walked the leadoff batter, argued with and punched the umpire, was ejected. His replacement got the runner as a CS and then mowed down the next 26 batters.

  • Effzee

    I wonder why we haven’t heard anything from pitchers when the balls supposedly change? They touch the balls up to 100 times per game, and thousands of times a year, including practice and spring training. Wouldn’t they notice a change in the seams, the smoothness of the leather, the weight, sponginess, or the way their pitches move or don’t move? It seems like a change in the balls would mean all sorts of changes in ball performance, not just in how far the balls fly?

    • art thiel

      Actually, numerous pitchers have complained. They feel small differences, but if they say something, it sounds like excuse-making. Verlander, who needs to not worry, was among the loudest. Also, read the link in the story about the data scientist who speculates the seam changes are responsible for increased blisters on pitching fingers.

      • Effzee

        Oh, cool! Thanks. I always wondered about that.

      • Husky73

        Verlander is easy to hate…handsome, intelligent, a great pitcher bound for the HOF, and then he rubs it in our faces with Kate Upton. I really hate that guy.

        • art thiel

          Don’t tell me. Tell him. I get along fine with Kate.

  • StephenBody

    A couple of thoughts:

    1. It’s not like DiPoto and Servais didn’t warn us all that the team would probably suck this year. THey went to great lengths to say it, It’s not fun to watch them beat themselves but we all got hoodwinked by 13-2 and, in typical Pollyanna style, we all thought, “Playoffs!” That is OUR fault.

    2. THIS: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/juiced-baseballs/ is a good scientific study of the current ball vs. the “old” balls. Obviously, according to the data, changes were made.

    I’ve had this theory for a LONG time: in bureaucracies and corporations or ANY human group, people who have nailed down the basic task often get creative to justify their paychecks. It’s how the WA State Food Service Manual wound up a WHOPPIN’ 486 pages, for info that could easily be covered in 75. Rawlings has folks who design and build baseballs. They find some new leather source, some finishing process, some new Big Idea for the composition of the Pill, and think, “Boy, won’t MLB be happy with these state-of-the-art improvements!”…never considering that “improvements” and “baseball” are somewhat conflicting ideas. They give the things a smoother surface, a shinier finish, a less dense core, and flatter seams and, Voila! – “juiced baseballs”. Rawlings is owned by MLB, of course, but that doesn’t mean that their engineers aren’t tweaking on their own. The balls LOOK identical and there’s Manfred, swearing up and down, Sgt. Schultz-like, that they “know nothing, NOTHING!” Maybe he really doesn’t and now that there’s an outcry, those engineers are Layin’ Low. Oblivious human ambition, distilled to its pure essence.

    I tried to quit the Mariners. I really tried. Couldn’t. I love baseball. What can I say? But I always come back to Managing Expectations and I HAD TO give up ANY expectations for a team which its own GM and Manager and Front Office admitted would not be very good. If, in 2021, they’re still getting no-hit by some guy their opponent picked up at the local bus station, I’ll get irate then.

    But then…I don’t have to write about it every day.

    • art thiel

      Indeed, we had fair warning, and a kudo is awarded here for management candor. The problem is that with so many teams tanking simultaneously, the talent pool for difference-making players shrinks, reducing chances to survive the inevitable injuries/busts among prospects.

      Regarding the ball, you made a point similar to mine, in that in corporate culture, doing something different isn’t always better, particularly when uniformity of product is the paramount virtue. It’s possible that a new idea/tool may reduce production costs, but is that worth risking the inevitability of unintended consequences?

      • Husky73

        And now, Tim Beckham. Another in the Joe Btfsplk moments.

        • art thiel

          No covering yourself in Ripley glory. There are many survivors besides you. As the Mariners promised in the 95 stadium campaign, “green grass, blue sky.” It’s still there.

          • Husky73

            “Green grass, round my window. Young leaves that the wind blows. Yes it’s spring time, golden sunshine.” (Gary Lewis and the Playboys)

    • coug73

      I don’t know. What’s an appropriate baseball? How big should a glove be? Only sissy’s wear sun glasses? Tabacco chew, bubble gum or sunflower seeds whats appropriate? Things change, while the M’s stay lousy.

  • Tian Biao

    the Mariners are the zombies of Seattle sports, staggering around on the front lawn every night, all summer long. the problem is, I still watch them stagger around. I honestly don’t know why. they will no doubt prove immune to the hypersleep chamber. nothing kills them, nothing puts them to sleep.

    as for the baseball: can’t Rawlings/MLB just go back to making baseballs the way they used to? they still have the blueprints, the tools, the processes: it should be easy enough.

    as for the demise of baseball generally: I’m not so sure. Folks still like to get out on a nice summer night. but yes: football will erase baseball in most markets as soon as it starts.

    • art thiel

      Baseball for fans is part of a summer routine, and the owners count on that. In Seattle, a five-state magnet for summer tourists, there will always be many people who seek a pleasant night at yard regardless of outcomes. The business formula is nearly idiot-proof.

      Regarding the ball, I’m guessing that changing at midseason would only worsen the problem. I have no idea whether all of ’19’s inventory is already on the shelf.

  • Kevin Lynch

    Superb distillation. Thank you. It looks to my eye the M’s are likely to finish with about 95 losses. The strong start and some soft series down the stretch will save them from 100 loses. But where to go from here with this pitching staff? Next year could be 100 losses if the big bats and veteran leadership are not replaced. It’s hard enough to draw free agents here as it is. Jerry is a bright man but he has put himself in a tricky situation again where people might question what happened in L.A., when he and the manager had a falling out over strategies that forced a move by ownership. That manager was one of the best at his job in the last half century. Jerry’s strategies here are going to need some quick fortune.

    • art thiel

      Thanks. The relative absence of players developed on his watch with either franchise is beginning to loom over his career. The subsequent desperation often leads to rushing players (Mike Zunino) to their detriment.

      The Angels’ Mike Scioscia wanted no part of the analytics movement, and he had owner Arte Moreno’s ear and respect. So Dipoto lost. But he has John Stanton’s trust.

      The pressure of such bad baseball, however, plus the Lorena Martin episode, can also create unintended consequences.

      • Husky73

        When I think of baseball sabermetrics, I have the look of Jack Nicholson in the last scene of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

        • art thiel

          C’mon now. Bear down. Change with the times.

  • Husky73

    Good study in yesterday’s USA Today about a mechanical engineer studying the core and dynamics of the baseball at a lab at WSU.

    • art thiel

      Saw that. Good to know that WSU profs are reaching beyond BAC levels of student athletes to make helpful contributions.

  • DonMac

    Jesus, even one of the few supposedly good things DiPoto did via the Haniger/Segura trade now starts to look sketchy. Has anyone seen the line Ketel Marte is putting up down in Arizona? 318 (avg.) 24 (HRs) 66 (RBIs) 958 OPS, oh, and he’s only 25. Geez!