In the mid-2000s, when blogging about baseball was at its apex, Jeff Sullivan was a must-read for Mariners fans. As the lead writer for Lookout Landing, his game recaps featured eloquent writing with deft observations, a wry sense of humor and useful information. But it was his use of advanced analytics that made you think about baseball on a different level.
Sullivan later went to FanGraphs, and that is when people in baseball front offices began to notice what others already knew — a baseball team should hire him.
In 2019, the Tampa Bay Rays, long considered to be one of the most progressive-thinking teams in baseball, hired Sullivan as part of their baseball analytics staff.
Sullivan was a recent guest on The Seattle Times’ Extra Inning podcast, discussing the Rays’ World Series run. He was at the crazy Game 4 of the World Series when Randy Arozarena fell between third base and home and still was able to score for a walk-off victory over the Dodgers when catcher Will Smith whiffed on the relay throw home.
Here is a snippet of Sullivan’s conversation with The Times’ Mariners beat writer, Ryan Divish.
Ryan Divish: What was playoff baseball like for you this year?
Jeff Sullivan: I cared a lot more about it than I was prepared for, I think emotionally. You know actually getting that last out against the Astros kind of reduced me to actual tears. And you know, having written about the Mariners for so long. I’m no stranger to crying about baseball, but this was kind of in a more positive way.
Divish: What was going through your mind during and after that crazy final play of Game 4?
Sullivan: You see the ball get hit and find that room in the outfield, and so at that point you’re just so elated that the game is tied that I don’t think we even noticed that Chris Taylor booted the ball. And certainly we saw Randy Arozarena going around third base and we saw him fall, (but) nobody noticed that Will Smith didn’t have the ball on his glove.
We have a former farm director of ours, Mitch Lukevics, he’s like the old-timer of all baseball old-timers. … He said on the bus after the game, he’d never seen anything even close to that before, and he’s been in the game 55 years. So I feel stupidly blessed that I got to see that in my second year of working for a baseball team.
Divish: Having watched the Rays over the past few years and seeing (manager) Kevin Cash pull starter Ryan Yarbrough when he was one out away from a shutout in Seattle, I wasn’t surprised he pulled Blake Snell in Game 6. There was a lot of consternation on social media. But if that’s how you play, that’s what you believe in and that’s what got you there, I guess you don’t deviate.
Sullivan: Let’s be honest, if you’re just looking at it on paper, if you take out a starter and then you get to replace him with Nick Anderson … well, Nick Anderson, the last couple years has been like one of the five or 10 best relievers in baseball. Obviously, part of this conversation is that Nick Anderson had allowed a bunch of runs in the playoffs, but I think it’s probably no secret by that point — just the fact that Snell did come out and that Anderson did come in at that point, pretty obviously, we were leaning pretty hard on what we assumed to be their talent levels. One of the things I guess you don’t really get to understand in the playoffs is exactly how tired pitchers are getting. … Obviously, in the playoffs, everybody is working on adrenaline. They get to sort of counteract how tired they are just because of the stakes of everything. But I think Anderson himself said after the game like, “Clearly I’m not 100%.” But I don’t know who was 100% at that point, but (it) does get worse as the game goes on. It’s no different for Blake Snell.
Divish: The debate afterward turned into another war on analytics. I hated what transpired because a lot of times both sides bunker in and call each other names. … I think you’d probably agree that the teams or people that can understand both aspects of it are usually the best in terms of understanding how baseball works.
Sullivan: Find a team that’s more analytical than the Dodgers. It’s just so senseless. … When that game was over, I know everybody was writing and talking about what happened, obviously. But I had the liberty to just not read a single article about it. You kind of make the decision to just say, ‘Look, it’s over.’ … There’s no benefit that’s going to come to any of us for reading people’s retroactive decisions at that point about Blake Snell and Nick Anderson.
Divish: I was happy for Mike Zunino. I wrote about him a little bit and the value he had and how frustrating he became to Mariners fans.
Sullivan: I feel bad for Zunino and his surface stats, but fundamentally the Mike Zunino game hasn’t changed from when he was in Seattle. The difference between a good Zunino week and a bad one is two swings — whether he hits two homers or he just misses them. … A Zunino bomb feels really different from like a Giancarlo Stanton bomb because Stanton just feels like he’s from another planet. But Zunino will reach the upper deck of the upper deck. And it doesn’t happen often enough. But he got (Houston pitcher Lance McCullers). So that was pretty satisfying.
And he’s got a great head for the game. He did a wonderful job of handling our pitching staff, (and was) very receptive to tips or things that we wanted to do specifically with him on the defensive side or handling the pitching staff side.
Divish: The Mariners are in the midst of a rebuild. Do you think they should’ve made this move back when you were writing about the team on a daily basis?
Sullivan: It’s a hard question to answer if you’re just trying to be sensitive to the idea of hindsight bias. … You could make a compelling argument that maybe the right people were not in place to handle that rebuild at the time, but those people were around. Who knows if they would have done well? …
It was clearly not working. You had multiple years there where you had the worst or the second-worst offense in the league. … Every so often, I’ll go back and look at the lineup. I started working with FanGraphs right after Felix (Hernandez) threw his perfect game (in 2012), which by the way, my current employer has much worse memories of than I do. But if you look at the Mariners’ lineup then, it’s just embarrassing what they were actually running out there outside of Felix.
You would want to say now, with the benefit of hindsight, the Mariners should have rebuilt, and they should have had different people in charge to do it. Because obviously the front office environment, it turns out, was dysfunctional. There were a lot of different messages throughout player development, (and) it didn’t seem like there was a very cohesive system in place. …
But I do think the Mariners have something going for them now, at last. They seem to be generating a lot of better players out of their system, their development seems to better and (they) have more people pulling on the same rope.