Of Tipping Points and Powder Kegs
Hottest Groks, dept.

Q.  Is there really such a thing as a team that "gets caught up in the excitement"?

A.  Sabermetricians have tried to tell people in uniform certain things, and the players and managers have resisted believing those things.

But!  The reverse is also true.  Everybody in uniform will tell you that teams hit "Tipping Points," because they have been there when it happened.  Lou Piniella saw it in 1990, and 1995, and 2001.  Pat Gillick knows what it's all about.  Billy Martin created a "Tipping Point" every single time he took over a new team, 6 consecutive times.

It can be elusive, like falling in love with your soulmate.  Some people have tried, five different times, to find True Love.  They didn't find it, and they will tell you that True Love doesn't exist.  They point at all the times people try and fail.  

Sabermetricians look at GM's who try to bring in a Straw That Stirs, and it doesn't work, and they conclude that there is no such thing as a Straw That Stirs.

If they took a moment, they might ponder the fact that all GM's believe in the idea of a Straw That Stirs.  We all know about July 31 in baseball.

SSI didn't concoct the idea of Tipping Points.  It is simply trying to listen to GM's, to add GM's knowledge light bulbs to its own sabermetric light bulbs.  Like Joe Morgan said of Sparky Anderson, "a lot of what Sparky says makes sense if you just listen to him."  Or something :- )

If SSI seems like it is inventing ideas, it just points up how utterly deaf we are sometimes to what baseball men are trying to tell us.


Everybody who has been there, will tell you there is a Culture of Winning, and a Culture of Losing.  They've been in the clubhouses, and they've breathed the air.  Some teams go out wondering what will go wrong tonight, and others go out expecting to find a way to win.  I don't know why non-athletes hate this concept so much.  :: puzzled ::

Erasmo Ramirez throws a slightly different pitch to Erick Aybar in the 4th inning on Tuesday, Aybar knocks in two runs, and the Angels turn around the game.  James Paxton throws a slightly different pitch to Albert Pujols in the first inning Wednesday, and Pujols creams it, and maybe in 2013 that's exactly what happens.

In the NBA that doesn't happen; no one play matters much.  But 100 years ago, John McGraw talked about "the game of inches."  It's ridiculous how hair-fine the margin between winning and losing is.  Depressed, beaten athletes sometimes give up those inches.

Not this team, baby.  The more they win, the more they'll fight to make those great pitches.


Two years ago, at age 49, I finally managed to get into shape.  It wasn't any one thing.  The motivational scales had been teetering for a long time, and then they tilted a little more, and then ...

.... one day I saw my blood sugar hit a number that I (not my wife, not my friends, but I) didn't like.

The next day, I was running stairs.  A year later, I had a new wardrobe.  A Tipping Point that I'd chased for 20-odd years, finally arrived.  It's elusive, the Tipping Point.  But it's out there somewhere.  Keep chasing it, my friend.


Bill James, some years ago, studied history's Cinderella teams.  He found that they did indeed get an extra 1-2 WAR* (* = I know, I know) from a lot of different players, up and down the lineup.  They're basically just caused by everybody having a good year together.   And the cause of that is usually 2-3 team captains starting out hot, and causing others -- Bill's words -- to "get caught up in the excitement."

You realize that the 2001 Mariners, who won 116 games ... they lost -25 more games the year before, and -23 more games the year after.  With all the same players!  

What happened in 2001?  Ichiro arrived, winning the ROY and the MVP.  The flamboyant, cocky Bret Boone went nuts, like 37 HR and 141 RBI.   Then, everybody* else had good seasons around them.  Every night that year, the M's couldn't wait to get to the ballpark.

Supposing the 2014 M's implode, and lose 90 games, would that change the fact that sometimes Cinderella teams jell, and surprise everybody?


Jack Zduriencik knows about Tipping Points, and that was what he was trying to chase when he grasped for Hamilton, and then Fielder, and now Cano.  Often, you try and you fail.  But there is such a thing as "tipping" a team into that realm to where everybody is suddenly fighting each other, to get up to the plate.

Felix by himself couldn't tip it.  But if Cano, and Miller ... and then Cano's protege, Smoak, did succeed in teaming with Felix to create that Tipping Point?  It's okay by Dr. D.





A list of the vets who were there to "ease the burden" on our blue-chippers:
- Ichiro (who for all his greatness has never mentored any American or led a US clubhouse)- broken Guti- death-spiralling Figgins- the corpse of Jack Cust- Jack "I wanna cry out there" Wilson- Milton "I might punch you in the face for speaking to me" Bradley- entitled-and-pathetic vet Miguel Olivo- utility scrub Kennedy- "Mr. Anxiety Attack" Brendan Ryan- Raul Ibanez as a 4th OF who got 500 surprise PAs- Injured Mike Morse- Kendrys doin' his thing at DH
Most of those vets were 2011 when the kids landed. In 2012 it was Ichiro, Ryan, and Olivo with all the kids having to fill the MOTO. Seager and Saunders had success, most of the others faceplanted hard. In no year was there a legit MOTO hitter to spin the offense around.  Morales was coming off his injuries, Morse was a part-time player in Washington (and here, it turned out), Olivo was one of the worst-hitting catchers in the league despite his power. Ibanez was supposed to be a part-timer.
I was extraordinarily angry that the kids were being made to shoulder the whole offense themselves, and figured at 26-28 they were all gonna be minor stars somewhere else where they could hit 6th or 2nd instead of 3rd or 4th.
Now we have a convergence, of kids who are 26ish-with-experience AND a HOF hitter to stuff into the MOTO for 160 games a year, and whose brain all the kids are allowed to pry information out of.  Cano could have come in and set up his recliner a la Griffey of old, lorded his success over the locker room and been if not a King (since we already have one of those) at least a prince of this little fiefdom.  When he left New York some people did suggest this: he wanted some place to be adored where it would be All His and there would be no Ghost of Jeter over his shoulder all the time.
Not wanting to hear "that's not what Jeter would have said" may have some truth to it, but for us so far it's meant that he wanted a place where people would take his advice and he could help lead that team to greatness.  He is welcoming to the youth, business on the field, and cool as the other side of the pillow at the plate.
Then you look at Ackley.  The shrillness? Gone.  Smoak looks like he's setting up for a picnic instead of a trip to the dentist's chair. Almonte and Romero are showing all the nerves of a zen gardener on Prozac - a far cry from how their more-talented predecessors came into the bigs their first full season.
Remember when the offense of the Mariners fell apart the exact second that Edgar Martinez did? Not when Griffey left, or A-Rod, or Bone.  It was the loss of Edgar, the steady, placid MONSTER in the middle of the lineup who could chew up opposing pitching with a lazy blink and a flick of the wrists, that crippled us. We haven't recovered in the decade since.
But now, right now, we have as much ready young talent as we have maybe ever had. Jack obviously realized the deficiency in his plan; he's been searching for that straw for 3 years, as you said Doc.  Our problem has been that his plan B has been bad... but that's partly because he's been keeping his powder dry for Next Year's Straw.  No offense to either Fielder or Hamilton, but Cano sure looks like he was the perfect piece for this offense (even though he means we'll have to trade a potentially-great player in Franklin).
And the timing seems about perfect. All the struggling youth have the memory banks primed and ready to go with their thousand+ MLB at-bats.  They just need the light-switch to go on... and Cano is lighting up the room for everyone at the moment. There will be times that Cano has to carry us, but this first series wasn't one of em, and if McClendon and Cano can get all the young talent pointed in the right direction, look out. The Yankees don't have one regular under 30; Seattle's only regular hitters over 27 are Cano and Hart. Iwakuma is our only starting pitcher over 28.  We could have a nice window of greatness in us if the 2014 Ms can play the whole year with the same nasty calm that they attacked the first series with.
Bring on the As.


That if we'd hit on Fielder or Hamilton, we wouldn't have Cano.
This program could become a real embarrassment of riches. We just served notice to the Angels that they are yesterday, even with a 1954 version of Mickey Mantle in their outfield.
Kudos to the much aligned front office, for realizing who Cano was, clearing the salary decks, and then having the guts to go get him.
Great post, G. If this is the season we all are beginning to feel, I am so happy to have spent the last 4 (so well documented with the bullet points above) with you all. It will make the victory so much sweeter!
And btw, this is also the season that SSI asserts itself as truly, and undisputedly, the #1 Mariner blog. Sometimes, you just gotta endure for a while, and have faith in what you're doing. It also helps when you love doing it, and you have a passion for it (in this case, the team) right?
So great to see so many new posters! Keep it up, guys. The site gets a little clunky here and there, but always worth the wait!

Sonic Boom's picture

I've only been reading since this offseason and can't believe that it took me this long to find such quality and clever analysis and insight. I did not grow up in WA, moved here 6 years ago, so I'm a relative "new" M's fan, jumped aboard right at the hiring of Jack Z (figured it would be a good time to invest with the appointment of a new regime), and have watched nearly every game since. It's been rough, in fact, other than the team carrying Griff and Ichiro off and Felix's perfect game, not a lot if joy, but I had huge optimism coming in to this year and these guys are actualizing it before our eyes.
This next series is huge: Oak are the 2 time division champs, the big kid on the block, we're going in to their backyard- a place that loves 2-0 and 3-1 games, so hopefully we can continue the two out RBIs and Elias can give us 6 strong and the bullpen stays sharp.
Thanks for the great content and comments guys!


It is pure dumb luck that, of the last three marquee players the M's pursued, they sign the *right* one in Cano. I will take it!
I care not a bit about what the "experts" say about the Cano contract. Miguel Cabrera just got much the same deal to play DH*!
Sometimes you gotta go all in to get the ball rolling the right way. Inertia is a law of the universe. It doesn't just apply to falling objects and car crashes - I'm sitting in my favorite chair experiencing serious inertia right now.... Maybe just one more SSI article....


...after both the Smoak and Hart homers was priceless,
To me, it said, 'wait, am I dreaming this? How could this be happening so fast?'
And in considering tipping points, no small amount of credit to him.


As usual, there is too much in there to agree with, to single anything out.  Your little collection of bumper stickers at the top was worth the price of admission before we got to the meat and potatoes.  This wasn't an article... why?
It's about 10 degrees off center, but Sandy always said, you wanna add your big franchise FA the last thing you do...


We knew that Z had scouting acumen. And we knew that he was absolutely jam-packing the Mariner system with talent that he selected. And we knew that that talent was underperforming and that Z was trying to get a big name to help codify his whole stars and scrubs plan.
But we kept on losing and getting more and more frustrated...and all of the blogs that loved his internal-build strategy gave up on him.
Fly by your instruments...these are great players in the making...give them time and support and sooner or later...this had to start working, right? Z is far from perfect, but I am happy for him if this is the year he is finally vindicated.


And Fielder might easily have failed to have the same Straw That Stirs effect that Cano has had.  Certainly nobody had any idea that Cano would fix Smoak.
And yet, if Hamilton had caused us to draw a Fangraphs conclusion about $240M players as a concept, we'd have missed out on Cano, right? 
But yeah.  It was Zduriencik's dumb luck that he missed on Hamilton, and perhaps that's true also w/r/t Fielder.  But Jack was searching for True Love and we're glad he didn't become cynical :- )


...that you needed to make sure you added the big piece where you needed it most and you had to wait and find out where the hole actually was. 2B was an offensive disaster last year. Franklin is a promising young player but we have enough talent that we can't really afford to wait for Franklin...fix a big hole and make choices about the rest of your talent now that it's all hitting the beach.


There isn't a better person in the blogosphere than you - in terms of the way you handle others (I can certainly attest to this - I gave everyone plenty of reason to hate me before I calmed down and got married...LOL...but you were willing to give me a dozen second chances), in terms of your analytical skill, and in terms of your humility (yes...even with your frequent "we mean it in a good way" style shtick :) ). I don't know why the rest of Seattle is so threatened by SSI.


For a while there ... Montero ... then Smoak ... then Ackley ... who even remembers everything that went wrong ... finally, one day the stars just align?
We know, we know.  We're all talking like the M's won 90+ already.  :- )  That's cool.  If they implode we'll have properly enjoyed the vacation from pain.


Awfully glad that we kissed and made up, too.  SilentPadna always figured you were the most important commenter at SSI, in no small part because you serve as counterpoint much of the time.  But now that you're a pensioned MLB(TM) white badge, you add prestige to the bleachers :- )


I'm not holding my breath for Noesi after last night, but it would be VERY cool if Montero can regain some of the luster on his second run at things. Getting married and having kids can change a lot - including entitled laziness, we hope (remarkably, infants have no idea of Daddy's BP prospect ranking). I hope the Ms have Edgar visit Tacoma from time to time to whisper in his ear. As for Beaven, it sounded like maybe he was getting a handle on things prior to that last spring start, but then... The thing is, though, he's STILL younger than Elias or Paxton, Farquhar, Bawcom, or Medina. And Noesi could also finally get Cano and others whispering to him, have a bulb go on, and start pitching with the real stuff he's got.
But of the three, I'm really starting to hope Montero up and decides he wants to belong with Ackley, Smoak, Seager, Saunders, and Cano, and starts crushing the ball in AromaTacoma. Wouldn't that make Jack's year complete!

Sonic Boom's picture

This blog wasn't easy to find (unfortunately) but the content is so rich and fresh that it's a total must read (several times a day). I hope to post often (which is not my nature, more of a reader).
As far as this team, I definitely dig advanced stats as indicators, but I'm also firm on the human/relationship element. We can't forget that these are 25 dudes (plus the 8 managers and front office staff and scouts) that spend most hours a day together, away from their family and friends. Having a jerk has to have an effect- I'm sure it elevates some, but probably damages most, whether that jerk is the manager or a player. This team found the right star in Cano, who has been publicized in his leadership and generosity with his teammates. Zunino said it last night as well after the game- the chemistry is great on the team. This is unquantifiable, but very real. See the Red Sox or the A's of recent seasons, heck, see the Seahawks and the effect that Russell Wilson and Coach Pete have had in galvanizing the talent. Lloyd Mac, Waits, AVS and HoJo (and the other coaches I'm sure) are also crucial in this attitude change- kudos to them, it's going to be a fun year for us fans because these players are clearly having fun.


Zduriencik let the Angels outbid him on Hamilton and apparently the Tigers on Fielder, as well. He went 10 years on Cano, not on Hamilton or Fielder or Pujols, for that matter. I think Ithis occurred because he saw Cano as lower risk (I'd agree based on fitness, body type, age, and health history). I doubt it was because he saw Cano as higher upside. We'll see how it goes. Ten years is a long time and the number of middle infielders that age well past 35 is tiny*, but I'm betting on the first five years of the deal :)
While Cano is fun and maybe he has made it easier for Ackley, Saunders, and Smoak to relax, in the end the success of failure of the Zduriencik era is going to be determined by the same players that were going to determine it all along -- the draft picks and high profile talent acquired in trade. Cano effectively buys them time to perform, players and management alike, and maybe that is all they need after all these years.
I'm curious to see how it plays out. Smoak, Ackley, and Saunders seem to have struggled with the pressure of ML baseball. While Cano could be the pressure relief valve for the start of the season, if the team performs to its talent level, they will experience true pressure come September if the games actually mean something. I fear the lack of mental toughness will rear its ugly head again.
*The only middle infielders among the 200 best players (according to WAR at B-R.com) to have above average years after the age of 37 are: Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins, Joe Morgan, Ozzie Smith.


Three of the middle infielders you mention (Wagner, Collins, and Morgan), based on pictures, newsreels, videos, etc., were like Cano in build -- medium height, fairly thick in the trunk, very NORMAL to most fans. But is this also a body type that fits baseball (Mantle, Aaron, Kaline, Mathews, Rose, Edgar were similar)? -- that allows the performance of baseball skills with the least amount of stress on the body, allowing longevity?
The other physical group that have had long careers are the very light-weight for their height, -- Reese, Rizzuto, Pesky, Ozzie, Vizquel, Aparicio come to mind. But their performance is more limited, especially at the plate, than the more average-looking guys that nonetheless have nicknames like "Muscles" or "Tank".
It would be interesting to turn the question around to: what baseball player body type tends to sustain performance longest? My guess is that the not-tall, not-heavy but well-muscled, AVERAGE-looking guys like Cano really do the best - which is another source of baseball's popularity. And that very physical specimens like Hamilton and Kingman and Howard (thinking Frank, but also Ryan) generally have the shorter careers and years of stardom.


That's a critical point, Dr. K.
A guy bids $40 roto for Trout, and $30 for Holliday, and $20 for Zobrist ... he lets Holliday and Zobrist get away, but goes to $42 and lands Trout?  Agreed.  There is more going on than purely luck.

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