Mr. Know-It-All Breaks Down the M’s, AL West

Sorry, I’ve been under the weather a bit lately and coupled with dealing with page designers in Texas and getting familiar with a new system to put out the daily miracle, I haven’t done much blogging lately.

But Mr. Know-It-All has come to my rescue. If you’re a fan of the Mariners, you’re going to want to read this post. It’s as thorough and detailed and opinionated a piece as you’ll find anywhere at this stage of the preseason. And the real season, believe it or not, will be here before you blink an eye. The M’s preseason media luncheon is Thursday at Safeco Field, where new manager Eric Wedge and others will pontificate on the hopes and plans for the 2011 season. FanFest is Saturday and Sunday at Safeco, where you’ll get an opportunity to ask questions of players and the front office if you show up at the right times.

Mr. Know-It-All gets into sabermetrics and some bizarre statistics that I’ve never heard of. He compares the M’s players position-by-position with players from the other AL West teams — Texas, Oakland and Los Angeles. Grab a cup of coffee, or maybe a full pot, because it’ll take you a while to get through this. But if you’re a die-hard baseball guy, or gal, I recommend it. I’ll give you a couple of his opinions: Josh Hamilton is the best player in baseball, the Mickey Mantle of our era, and the M’s will finish fourth in the AL West.

Enough said. I’m anxious to get your take on Mr. K-I-A’s take. I will have to read it again myself to digest all of the information. Here ya go:

INTRO

My darling mother of sainted memory used to say you could tell who you should like and dislike when you were in Kindergarten, nothing changes as you grow older.  Similarly, if you look at player’s historical performance, say last year it might be a good indication how this year might be.  Sometimes a player is young and his career is ascending.  The reverse is also true, players in baseball don’t age gracefully, they usually fall off a cliff after a gradual decline.  If you value the players at every position using the same criteria and rank them top to bottom and then measure those rankings it might be a decent measure of how the team might do this year, at least as a starting point.

How to measure a performance?  There are a group of people, self named, called sabremetricians.  Sabre stands for the society of American baseball research.  Bill James is the person credited with starting this phenomena.  He is a great writer and very approachable.  The zenith is this concept called Wins Above Replacement Player, which means a calculation is made as to what an average player generates in the way of wins and then subsequently if each player is more or less than that.  Although it is very popular among Sabermetricians, a player primarily either collects bases or prevents others from doing the same, so if you used OPS for and OPS against that measure would be mostly captured.  OPS is the sum of a batter’s on-base percentage and his slugging percentage.  For a pitcher it’s OPS against.

Defensively, there is another measure used by our friends the sabremetricians when looked at is fairly intuitive:  Ultimate Zone Rating. It is defined as:   The number of runs above or below average a fielder is in both range runs, outfield arm runs, double play runs and error runs combined. Historically, fielding percentage and then range factor were the stats used but they were inadequate.  You could have great fielding percentage and be a slug with good hands and another player might have more errors but get to one hundred more ground balls in a season and the latter would be the better players.  UZR adds in throwing and double plays.  It is superior to either range factor or fielding percentage.  For catcher’s I used throw-out percentage.

When considering your team in the AL West if at each position they have the best player as measured by OPS and UZR then you will be very good.  If you mix in adequate pitching then you would be the best.  Each player was given an ordinal ranking 1-4 depending on offense and defense and pitching as the case may be.  The ranking being first to last in the AL West .  Generally it is a valid approach.  It breaks down a little when there is a significant difference between a player who is first and the second player such as the difference between Josh Hamilton and David Dejesus.  Dejesus is a nice player, but Hamilton is the best player since Babe Ruth.  If you keep your eye on him then the process should work.

Generally, the bulk of the offense for a team comes from the corner guys such as left field, right field, first-base and third-base, along with the designated hitter(dh).   When a team can garner offensive punch from their catcher, shortstop, second baseman and centerfielder then it gives them a real leg up.  Mariner fans remember the halcyon days of Junior and Mike Cameron, ARod and Brett Boone.  They do not have a middle infielder or centerfielder that measures up as those players do as we approach spring training in a few weeks. 

CATCHER: Behind the plate the Mariners brought back Miguel Olivo.  His stats last year with Colorado are miles ahead of Yorvit Torrealba who is the Angels’s catcher and Kurt Suzuki for A’s and Jeff Mathis of the Angels.  His throw-out percentage is vastly superior to the others as well.    This is the best positional comparison for the Mariners and yet it is not without risk.  This is Olivo’s second journey to the great Northwest.  The first time through town did not turn out well as he was unable to hit at all and fell into a great, great slump. 

Catcher Seattle Olivo 1 1
  Oakland Suzuki 3 3
  LA Mathis 4 4
  Texas Torrealba 2 2

 

Right now, I probably lost anyone over the age of forty who actually knows baseball.  Let  me explain, Defensively a catcher who plays 100 games in a year is involved in every pitch. Say 115 pitches per game or 11,500 pitches.  Olivo was involved in 892 plays across 111 games.  He threw out 33 of 78 base runners.  So 78 pitches as a percentage of 11,500 pitches is 0.68% of the pitches.  If you talk to a pitching coach and ask them what is a catcher’s prime responsibility and they will say catch the ball firmly and don’t lose strikes.  Watching Kenji Johjima catch Felix Rodriguez was like watching a guy trying to stab hummingbirds.  His mitt was forever moving through the zone and out of it and not still.  He was late to where the ball was going.  Umpire’s call as much on the movement of the mitt as they do location.  There were reasons he was late, but that is not today’s discussion.  That has been an issue for Olivo, not to the degree of Joh, but it is out there.  He also lets runners on base affect him.  Something to watch for this year, if specialized pet catchers per Felix start entering the equation.  Based on the criteria laid forward Olivo is the best catcher per offensive and throwing.  The offensive part of that is critical for the Ms.

FIRST BASE is the land of the big fly.  Hit some bombs, drive in runs and buy me some Cadillacs.  To be sure there are some players in the American League proper who bring much more than that, walks, high batting average on balls in play, even strong defense.  In the division what do we have going on?  Well, how about Snow White and the three dwarfs?  Kendry Morales although injured last year is much better than Daric Barton, Mitch Moreland and Justin Smoak.  Barton is a 25 year old, small for first base at 6’ 0” tall 204 pounds.  More of a doubles guy who walks, ten bombs.  By contrast Moreland is 6’ 2” 220 pounds, Morales is 6’1” 230 and Smoak the giant here is 6’4” 227.  Moreland was the second best prospect at first base at this time a year ago behind Smoak.  Smoak is 24 and Moreland is 25.  Smoak fizzled with the Rangers and was traded to the Mariners where the fire went out and he was sent to Tacoma and came back rekindled and had a great last three weeks of the season.  Moreland and Barton are similar players, good to great gap power, good sense of the strike zone, sort of like Mark Grace with a bit more juice.  Smoak could be better than that, but time will tell.  Like Mark Texeira a switch hitter with juice who walks well.  Another comparison might be Lance Berkman.  His splits suggest that he has great power right handed and he hacks a bit more from that side.  Left-handed he’s more patient and walks a lot more.  Power is good not great from left side.  Fifteen extra base hits in 263 plate appearances left handed and twelve extra base hits in 131 plate appearances. Just about twice as good.

If he sustains the last three weeks over six months he’s a monster.  I suspect that his second season will see a hint of a monster to come, certainly a good year.  For now I’ve got him fourth.  Morales is first, Moreland second and Barton third.  Haven’t said much about Morales, so I must remark that he is one of the best hitters in baseball right now and is also a switch hitter. If Smoak matures quickly he projects to this level of hitter at his peak, might see some of that this year.

1b Seattle Smoak 4 3
  Oakland Barton 3 4
  LA Morales 1 2
  Texas Moreland 2 1

 

SECOND BASE is another situation where one player is head and shoulders above the other three offensively.  Ian Kinsler by name.  In 2009 a monster year accrued to his stats and last year played only 109 games due to injury.  Still, he led this group with a .790 OPS, contrasted to his 2008 and 2009 OPS of post .800. Great player still only 28.  Howie Kendrick generated 41 doubles, 4 triples and 4 home runs in 644 plate appearances.  Great stuff.  He had 28 walks, which statistically means for all intents and purposes it’s impossible to walk him.  If he could learn to do that he’d make a lot more money, but it’s still good, just not great.  Mark Ellis for the A’s generates the type of stats that Kendrick could if he walked.  Good doubles, walks quite a bit,  .358 onbag to .313 for Kendrick.

So that leaves the Ms.  Who’s going to play second base?  Here are the candidates:  Dustin Ackley former number one draft pick.  He rocketed through M’s system and was the pick of litter in last fall’s Arizona fall league.  Brendan Ryan, late of St. Louis arrived via trade this winter and Adam Kennedy, he of the great hands, professional bat and club house presence.  The whole thing is complicated by what is going on across the bag at shortstop with the Wilson brothers and the afore mentioned Ryan.  Jack Wilson the nominal starter since his arrival in late 2009 has been hurt, hurt and hurt since he showed up.  He played 31 games in 2009 and 61 in 2010.  For those that follow the team to spring training in Arizona, don’t be surprised if the M’s GM Jack Zduriencik offers Jack Wilson a free night out at the roller rink in Chandler, to test out his hammy for sure.  Here’s what is going to happen, sooner or later Ryan will play short stop and Kennedy will play second base and Ackley will try to be the first guy since Joe Dimaggio to hit .400 in the PCL.  Ackley is listed at 6’1 and 185 pounds on the M’s roster.  5’10 and 175 might be more real, but he can hit and play.  He will force them to play him.  Kennedy is serviceable and will not hurt them, but is not the level of player of the other guys in the division.

The follow on to that discussion is SHORTSTOP.  Ryan will play short stop primarily, even if Wilson is traded somewhere and the M’s eat most of his salary.  Zduriencik prays nightly that somehow Jack Wilson ends up on the physically unable to perform list or walks away like Johjima or Kazu-man did a few years ago.  Based on last year he’s the worst of the players when contrasted to Cliff Pennington, Elvis Andrus and Eric Aybar.  Not even close.  Offensively.  In 2010 Brendan Ryan came back from surgery done right before spring training.  In 2009 on a per game basis he made more plays than any short stop in major league baseball and he hit a bit. Good doubles.  Trader Jack believes he’s got lightening in a bottle here.

TRADER JACK’S  PLAN
It is now time for an afternoon lullaby with Mr. Know-It-All around the subject of  what is trader Jack up to?  Will we talking about him next spring or will he be thrown into the Fargo like chipper that is the M’s front office? What does it all mean Toto?  Auntie Em?

Safeco Field is like no other field in MLB now, by intention or not, it’s very, very different.  Does any park compare from the past?  The old Yankee stadium comes to mind.  The one where the monuments were in play, with the short right field and cavernous left field is it.  Not quite as big in left field, but with the weather, pretty big and not quite as short in right field, but short enough to get Joe Maurer dreaming about playing here.  So what is Jack doing about it?

He seems to be going after guys that can pick it regularly in the field and offensively, guys that can double, walk and run a bit.  Get a little pop here and there and win the game 4-2 at home.  Pitching wise he has a super star in Felix.  What follows from there is this, no walks, pitch to contact.  He wants ground ball guys, but with the park he’ll take flyball pitchers with three guys in the outfield who can go get it.

Last year the M’s were unable to get that four runs. They scored 513 runs the whole season in 2010, which is just under 3.2 runs per game. Borrowing from some work done by Jason Stark of ESPN, the Ms scored three or less runs in a game 103 times.  Remember the Ms had a dh last year.  It was a record.  No team in the history of baseball since the dh was introduced has scored fewer runs.  The last time a team scored fewer runs was, in a full season, the 1971 San Diego Padres, courtesy of Joe  Posnanski of ESPN.  Terrible team.  Nate Colbert and Cito Gaston were the best players.  Ever listen to Dave Campbell on the radio broadcasts on Sunday afternoon?  He DID play baseball in the major leagues, but he was not so good to sound so confident and condescending as he does.  They did have four starters with ERAs of under 3.48.  Their record was 61-100.  Very bad team,  so were the Ms.  Scott Spiezio’s dad played for that team.  Ugly uniforms to boot, similar to McDonald’s staffers.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/SDP/1971.shtml

Well so what do they have to do to be successful?  The 1965 Dodgers won 97 games and the World Series.  They scored 608 runs or 3.75 per game.  The 2009 Mariners scored 640 runs and won 85 games.  3.95 per game.  If you recall that team was hot and sometimes very cold.  In order for this team to win 90 games they will have to score far closer to 700 runs than it looks like will happen now.  But there is the map or general view of what Jack Z. is trying to do.  Pick it behind park affected good to great pitching, get four runs a game behind some doubles.

THIRD BASE.  Maybe the key to the team for the Mariners.  Will Chone Figgins of 2009 show up?  He is a real, real slow starter.  Not always, but there have been a couple of years of very bad starts, including last year.  Previously, he was left alone and he came roaring back to post good numbers.  Wak and Chone did not have that comfort level and without descending to pure tabloid status, suffice to say it did not help.  If he comes back, they score a lot more runs.  If somebody can hit third, fourth or fifth and bat over .200, they most certainly might score 200 runs themselves. Who else is out there in the division playing third?  Well shoot we get to see Adrian Beltre again.  He had a monstrous year last year. But the Red Sox picked up Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and he didn’t fit budget anymore.  He led the team in hits, extra base hits and rbis.  He’s a great defender, gets to a ton of balls and has a gun for an arm.  I think the Red Sox will miss him with Youk over there.  But here what do we have:

3b Seattle Figgins 4 4
  Oakland Kouzmanoff 2 2
  LA Callaspo 3 1
  Texas Beltre 1 3

 

This is where it helps to project a bit, UZR was used to measure defensive capability, but as in the case of Brendan Ryan above at ss, Beltre is the best 3b defensively and hands down the best hitter.  In 2009 playing 3b for the Angels Figgins had similar, very similar numbers defensively to Beltre.  So here is the revamped totals, assuming Figgins is comfortable and hits again.

3b Seattle Figgins 2 2
  Oakland Kouzmanoff 3 4
  LA Callaspo 4 3
  Texas Beltre 1 1

 

OUTFIELD: The best player in baseball is Josh Hamilton.  No one else is close.  Is a credible center fielder, will move to left there and hit and hit and walk.  Crazy power,  Mickey Mantle power.  Great hitter, runs almost as well as Carl Crawford.  Carl Crawford should be playing for the Mariners.  Would be perfect, offensively, defensively, in the club house, somebody should have walked up to Howard Lincoln, knocked on his head and said, “Hey Mcfly, anybody home?” Last thing I want to do is victimize that boob.  Crawford’s wasted defensively in lf for the Red Sox. I’m fat and slow and I could play credibly Boston’s left field.

So what’s the point of that set of remarks?  If this is 2003, the Mariners could have signed him falling off a log with 4 million in attendance.  Now that the franchise value has been pi..ded, err  frittered away, they can’t get him.  That’s Chuck and Howard’s legacy, not the 1995 which was put together by good old Woody Woodward.

We have Michael Saunders to contrast against Josh Hamilton, Bobby Abreu and David Dejesus.  Abreu has accumulated stats like Rafael Palmeiro did, year after year of good but not quite great play.  He has a career OPS of .888, which is good sneaking up on great.  524 doubles, 276 home runs, .400 on bag, .488 slug.  Does he have anything left in the tank? With Morales back, sure he’ll drive in 100 and score 100 again.  Dejesus, you ask?  Lots of doubles, walks, runs scored.  Four out of the last six years he’s had an OPS greater than .800.  Another very good guy.  Michael Saunders hit, well no he did not.  He looks like a great player should look, 6’4” 212 pounds and he runs well enough to play center field in major league baseball.  This guy fits into Jack’s strategy of catching everything hit in the air. 

He strikes out a lot, which is better than hitting into double plays a lot.  When you dig a bit there is an obscure stat that measures for all the balls you do actually hit (babip), what is your batting average.  Last year that number for him was .260 a decline from .329 the year before.  It suggests he’s not ready for this level of baseball at the age of 24.  Dejesus babip last year was .355 and his career is .320.  Abreu’s babip last year was only .292 on a career of .343.  Josh Hamilton posted a .390 last year which heavily influences his career number of .344.  His other three years have ranged from .315 to .333.  Unless there is a trade or Saunders jumps out this will continue to be a large hole for the Ms.  They signed last night Jody Gerut who is a guy that might have been a special player save for some serious knee injuries.  There is a good piece on him at the USS Mariner blog.  If Saunders fizzles, he could step in.

lf Seattle Saunders 4 4
  Oakland Dejesus 2 1
  LA Abreu 3 2
  Texas Hamilton 1 3

 

Has it been mentioned that Hamiliton’s OPS was 1.044 last year?  One description worth mentioning was George Brett with some big time whip in his swing.  Go out and see him hit bp, see him play, for the love of baseball.

Center field is another critical defensive position and one that is hyper critical for the Mariners.  Anything that is achieved offensively is tremendous.  In 2009 Franklin Gutierrez had a tremendous year offensively and was hands down the best centerfielder in baseball.  Manager Wak had him batting second, third and as low as seventh at different times.  Being on a team this bad is hard and he is at the point of his career where he’s not a guy to bat third, he’s complementary and catches a ton of balls still.  If there is any offensive credibility this is another relatively strong position in contrast to their rivals. Having Torrey Hunter in rf helps this ranking, although Peter Bourjos may be a name to remember.  He’s very fast, has a plus arm and has some juice.  Let’s see how he adapts.  Coco Crisp can catch the ball and has some pop with 14 doubles, 4 triples and 8 homers in just 290 at bats.  He fits well with the A’s.

cf Seattle Gutierrez 1 1
  Oakland Crisp 2 2
  LA Bourjos 4 4
  Texas Borbon 3 3

 

Here are the OPS for the right fielders from last year in the AL West:  Nelson Cruz of Texas .950, Josh Willingham of Oakland .848, Tori Hunter of the Angels .819 and Ichiro .754.  Runs scored its 60, 54, 74 and 76.  Cruz, Willingham, Ichiro and Hunter.  RBIs it is 90, 78, 67 and 44. Hunter, Cruz, Willingham and Ichiro.  Let’s look at the defense metrics.  It’s complicated.  Willingham played left field mostly, but it’s possible to say that he’s slower than Hunter and Ichiro, but he’s got a big arm with seven assists.  Cruz had five assists and Hunter had two and Ichiro had seven.

Ichiro has ten straight seasons of 200 hits or more.  He also owns the single season record for hits, in that eventful year where he went by George Sisler.  First round hall of famer, maybe, certainly will be close.  He is what he is, which makes it hard to have perspective.  A Stradivarius has a tone like no other violin.  That is an apt metaphor for Ichiro.  In the context of an orchestra he does not generate big noises.  It is probably wrong to expect that he would.

Based on the criteria for doing this OPS and UZR, he’s the fourth best offensive right fielder in the division.  He did not score many runs last year, given that for most of the year the Mariner’s bat boy would put life size cardboard forms in the batter’s box when it was time for the third, fourth and fifth place hitter to bat.  Let’s say he gets his hundred runs scored anyway just for argument’s sake.  That would take the Mariners from 513 runs scored to 539 runs scored.  Almost an irrelevant argument.

If he played for the Red Sox or the Yankees he might score 150 runs or maybe 140, who knows.  When you consider the team’s approach, the fact that they got 29 home runs in total from Saunders, Gutierrez and Ichiro.  That total would weaken most managers in the knees if you told him that was what your outfield was going to do.  The Mariners have finished last or second to last in runs scored in the American league every year since 2003, except for 2007 when they came in 7th with 794 runs.  That was the year Ichiro was in cf and Jose Guillen was in rf driving in 99 runs.

There is an interesting cast to the four divisional rivals at DH:  Jack Cust for the Mariners, Hidecki Matsui for the As, Mike Napoli for the Angels and Texas weighs in with Michael Young.  In Texas case Michael Young may be used like Lou Piniella used to use Mark Mclemore with him playing in the field at first base, second or third or even short stop on a given day.  He works as a proxy.

dh Seattle Cust 1
  Oakland Matsui 2
  LA Napoli 3
  Texas Young 4

 

Jack Cust walks a lot and hits bombs.  The other guys are not at his level if OPS is the criteria.  Napoli played a lot of first base and seems to have maybe lifted or ate himself away from home plate.  It is surprising the Angels have not improved themselves there as of this writing they might.

Starting pitching:

SP1 Seattle Felix 1
  Oakland Braden 3
  LA Weaver 4
  Texas Lewis 2
SP2 Seattle Vargas 3
  Oakland Anderson 4
  LA Haren 2
  Texas Wilson 1
SP3 Seattle Fister 3
  Oakland Cahill 1
  LA Santana 2
  Texas Hunter 4
SP4 Seattle Bedard 4
  Oakland Gonzalez 1
  LA Kazmir 2
  Texas Holland 3
SP5 Seattle French 3
  Oakland Harden 1
  LA Piniero 2
  Texas Webb 4

 

The measure used was OPS against.  How many bases per opposing hitters plate appearances did the pitcher give up.  There are other measures, of course.  If you look at Fangraphs or Baseball Reference other choices such as Wins Above Replacement value player.  It’s a measure against a computed average player.  OPS against is pretty tangible and approachable and is nothing more than what you see happened.

Five starting spots with actual players listed.  Seattle has five rankings from Felix with a 1 for being the best number 1 starter to Jason Vargas for a 3, Doug Fister for a 3, Eric Bedard as a four and Luke French as a four.  On average 3.  Oakland has Dallas Braden 3, Trevor Cahill 1, Gio Gonzalez 1, Rich Harden 1and Brett Anderson 4 or on average of 2.  Texas has Colby Lewis 2, CJ Wilson 1, Derrick Hunter 4, Tommy Holland 3 and Brandon Webb 4. Or 2.8 on average.  The Angels show up with Jered Weaver 4, Dan Haren 2 Ervin Santana 2, Scott Kazmir 2 and Joel Piniero 2. Or an average of 2.4

Last night word came out that the Mariner’s signed Nate Robertson a former Tiger starter who’s fallen on hard times.  Could be perfect for the park.  Not sure if he supplants Bedard or French.  At the end of the day enough has been written about Felix that further words would be gilding the chrome as it were.  He is a remarkable pitcher who benefits from pitching at Safeco.  Vargas and Fister are credible bottom of the rotation pitchers.  Vargas looked better than that through middle of August and thing fell apart after that.  Too many pitches probably the culprit.  Fister is prototypical for Safeco.  He does not walk anybody at all.  

Neither of them are special pitchers, but are credible major league pitchers.  Bedard could sell ice cubes to Eskimos, figuratively.  That he is on this roster is a measure of how much Jack Zduriencik yearns for left handed pitchers.  Time will tell, the trade for him had been repetitively documented as the worst in Mariner history.  If they were to get 200 innings out of him it would be a man bites dog event of biblical proportion.  His OPS against last year was .779 and the year before it was .895.  That is beyond horrible.  He is always pitching from the stretch, whether it’s a walk or a hit.  Last year every ten at bats he gave up an extra base hit.  The thing is he does not throw real hard and that is obvious from his stats.  He does not know how to miss bats and more than anything that is command of his pitches.  Throwing to spots with all of his pitches anytime in the count.  Somebody for the mariners sees something that reminds them of somebody like him who made it.  It’s time for him to show it soon.

Oakland 1, Los Angeles 2, Texas 3, Seattle 4. The beauty of baseball is that somebody can make the game slow down for them and figure it out.  Jamey Moyer is the obvious example of that.  Seattle needs that to happen for them.  Joel Pineda could be the number two starter, flame thrower stuff and a great season with Tacoma.  Based on that he would be a number two starter with a bullet, but there have not been any blessings of same that he’s the guy.  If he is they then probably have the second best pitching behind the As. 

CLOSERS are now the Steven Tylers of baseball.  Andrew Bailey, Fernando Rodney, David Aardsma and Neftali Feliz.  The premier measure of a closer is saves.  Last year it was 14, 25, 31 and 45.  Rodney, Bailey, Aardsma and Feliz.  Similarly their ability to keep people off base is a measure of their effectiveness:  Their WHIPs, which is (bbs+hits/innings pitched), .88, .96, 1.17 and 1.54 Perez, Bailey, Aardsma and Rodney.  Texas, Oakland, Seattle and Los Angeles.

Overall the pitching is much like the starters:  Oakland, Los Angeles, Texas and Seattle

Here are the early season PREDICTIONS:  1.  Oakland 2.  Texas 3. Los Angeles 4. Seattle.  Oakland has the best pitching, credible defense and a Moneyball offense.  2.  Texas is formidable offensively and is missing Cliff Lee.  They could buy somebody again and get better fast in June.  Los Angeles seems to be drifting.  Seattle has a plan, but they need to score another 150 runs as a team than they scored last year, which would be miraculous and probably not realistic to forecast.

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