Another Post About Willie Bloomquist

Willie Bloomquist has retired.

I hear a few heathens asking “Willie Bloomquist?”

Few who don’t follow baseball have ever heard the name. We of the True Faith, however, know it well.

Willie Bloomquist, aka The Bloodmouse*, is, IMNSHO, the most polarizing figure nobody outside the sport has heard of. He’s probably been the subject of as many arguments as Barry Bonds and Pete Rose combined. OK, maybe not quite that many, but over his fourteen year career, he’s been the subject of fierce debate.

* OK, so he’s only known by that name within my family. When he first came up to the majors, he was a bit on the scrawny side. Long names and narrow shoulders don’t mix well. All I could see on the back of his uniform in a three-quarter rear view was “Bloo[fold]s”. Bloodmouse was as good a guess as anything else for the unknown guy.

What did he do to provoke so much debate? He played baseball.

Not poorly. Not spectacularly. Jeff Sullivan has a nice summary over at Fangraphs of the Bloodmousian Controvery.

With one exception, Willie was an average player. No, make that the average player. In a sport where the stars specialize, he was a generalist. He could fill in at almost any position and give a league-average performance. When a team can only carry 25 players (and almost half of those are pitchers), someone who can give a competent performance in multiple roles is far more valuable than the bare numbers would suggest.

And that’s half of the controversy. Statistically-inclined analysts would look at the numbers and ask why the hell Willie’s teams paid so much for an average player.

The other half is that one area where Willie wasn’t average. Willie was clutch. At the beginning of his career, there weren’t any good statistics to measure players’ performance when it really mattered. All fans and analysts had to go on were gut feelings, and those, of course, are anathema to the statistically-minded. Many and loud were the arguments of Willie’s value in high-leverage situations.

But tools evolve, and as Mr. Sullivan points out, by one current measure of clutch performance, since he first came up in 2002, Willie stands at the top of the chart. And, extending the chart back to 1974 (as far back as the necessary data is available), Willie is Number Two.

He made have been a league-average hitter, but he got those hits at the right time more often than almost anybody else. That’s not a bad thing to be remembered for at all.

Statistics aside, Willie was always a fan favorite. He didn’t sell a lot of jerseys the way stars do, but he drew applause when he took the field. He showed up and did his job. And he did it with enthusiasm. He had that Everyman vibe, and the fans who came out to watch a baseball game responded.

In interviews, Willie’s suggested that he’d like to try his hand at coaching. His positional flexibility suggests he’d be good at it.

Too bad clutch hitting isn’t a teachable skill. (Situational hitting is, but there’s a huge luck component to clutch hitting. Anyone who can reliably teach luck, please, drop me an e-mail.)

Good luck, Bloodmouse, wherever you go next.

Ups and Downs

This is not a baseball post. It is a brief philosophical ramble couched in terms of baseball.

Yeah, OK, it’s a baseball post. Deal.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Well, maybe not. Aside from the fact that the line has been used before, things could be both better or worse.

The past week has been a vexing one for Mariners fans. We learned on Friday that in a stunning display of competence, the Mariners have landed Robinson Cano, unquestionably the best free agent available this year and widely considered one of the half-dozen best current players. That the Mariners grabbed him away from the hated Yankees made it all the sweeter.

Not everyone was thrilled with the deal (10 years, $240 million). Many commentators point out that this is Alex Rodriguez territory in terms of time, dollars, and expected career path (10 years, $250 million, declining rapidly in the later years). (The counter-argument here is that the Mariners have the money available, and if they’re overpaying for the last few years of the deal, they’re underpaying for the first few.) Interestingly, I haven’t seen anyone suggest that it could be Barry Zito territory (7 years, $126 million, largely stinking from day one); nothing is certain in baseball, after all.

From the fans’ perspective, there’s nothing not to like about the deal. It gives the Mariners’ fans hope, something that’s been sorely lacking the last few years. The adage “You have to spend money to make money” holds true in baseball* as elsewhere. The Mariners have failed to spend money for years; now we have a reason to hope that they’ll dig deep and pick up a few more needed pieces. Cano can’t rescue the team by himself, but he’ll certainly help (well, as certain as anything is in baseball).

* The As are a weird outlier here. On a consistent basis, they get more performance for fewer dollars than anyone else. Clearly, they’re investing something other than money. Since the Mariners are not the As, however, I’m going to figure that the rule applies.

From ownership’s perspective, it’s a win-win deal too. As noted, the money is available to get the deal done, and just having Cano on the team will give attendance a boost. More butts in seats and more eyes on TV screens equals more money coming in. At this point, even a modest improvement in the team’s performance–especially if they get off to a fast start–should mean big dollars all season.

Parenthetically, there’s an additional sign that the Mariners are willing to overspend this year; $5.8 million for two years of fan favorite Willie Bloomquist* is widely considered an overpay. In itself it may be too much, but in the context of the Cano signing, it does help support the message to free agents that the team is willing to spend what it will take to sign them. And let’s face it: when it comes to signing free agents, money will get you through times of no wins better than wins will get you through times of no money. (Apologies to Gilbert Shelton, of course.)

* Known in our family as “Bloodmouse”, due to a misread of his jersey in his first season. It can be tough to fit a long name across the shoulders of someone as skinny as he was that year. A few folds here and there, and you can see where the confusion arose.

So the weekend started on a high note. Then came Sunday. The Seattle Times ran a story which paints the Mariners upper management as incompetent meddlers who essentially sabotaged their own plan to rebuild the team by second-guessing the managers’ on-field decisions and abandoning the use of worthwhile player rating statistics. That everything the article said seems to confirm what fans have suspected for years only added to its perceive credibility.

Way to harsh our buzz, guys.

The cries of woe arose quickly. “We’ll never be able to hire another free agent again!” “The Cano deal isn’t finalized. He’ll never sign it now!” “WE’RE DOOMED!”

Let’s take a deep breath and step back for a second. Even in the worst case, this isn’t the end of the world. Assume for the moment that everything in the article is absolutely true. That would mean that the Mariners have come close to competing despite the best efforts of the guys in charge to foul things up. OK, maybe not “one good player” or “one good break” away from competing, but a .500 season has been in sight multiple times. Furthermore, you have to figure that agents, who spend much of their time dealing with upper management would have to have some inkling of what’s been going on. And yet the Cano deal came together. Other significant free agent deals over the last few years have come together. Remember what I said about money just a few paragraphs ago. If the dollars are there, deals will get done, regardless of the competence of the suits involved. And even in this doomsday scenario, if enough deals get done, the sheer competence of the players can overcome the incompetence of management.

In the real world, of course, it’s unlikely that everything in the Times’ story is completely true. Maybe the GM is throwing darts at a dartboard to pick his free agent and trade targets, or maybe he knows what he’s doing. We can’t tell from outside. All we can do is keep telling ourselves that the light at the end of the tunnel might not be a train.

So, with apologies to Charlie:

It was the pretty good times, it was the fairly sucky times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

In short, it was the off-season, just like every other off-season.