Don't despair (yet)
May 5, 2019
Last month I said don't get happy. The hot start for the 2019 Mariners was likely a mirage, but there was still real hope that it might not be. The offense was really cooking in the first couple of weeks and the only concerns were that the bullpen would blow up and that the defense would give way too many runs. Was it sustainable? Probably not, but still...
2019 M's, first 15 games
|Runs per game||7.8|
|HRs per game||2.4|
|Strikeout rate (K/PA)||22%|
2019 M's, next 21 games
|Runs per game||4.1|
|HRs per game||1.6|
|Strikeout rate (K/PA)||28%|
Now the mood is different. From the high point on April 11th, when the M's sat at 13-2 and four games ahead of second-place Houston, Seattle has gone 6-15. Their 10-0 victory today in Cleveland saved them from sinking to the .500 mark for the first time this year, but the more we see of this year's Mariners, the more they look like a .500 team.
Which, to be fair, is right in line with preseason evaluations. It's just not playing out in quite the way anyone imagined.
There are, it seems, two versions of the 2019 Seattle Mariners. Version A has a powerhouse lineup that no one can keep down, with thumpers in seven out of nine spots in the order and that can be expected to plate seven or more runs per game. Version B has a completely impotent lineup that can't reach base much or advance anyone when they do because they rack up too many strikeouts. And it's anybody's guess which version will show up for any given game.
Both versions are managed by Scott Servais, which doesn't help matters. Now, Scott may be a terrific manager when it comes to handling the clubhouse and massaging the egos, I really don't know. He may have a lot going for him outside of in-game strategy and decision-making. We'll give him the benefit of the doubt there. And he is saddled with a three-man bench by GM Jerry Dipoto (though I imagine if he asked for a change there he could get it). But Servais has a tendency to depend on formula, on pre-plotted moves done before the game starts, rather than adapt to the circumstances of the moment, and that's been a problem. Even Version B can still win a game here and there if the opposition isn't allowed to blow things open, but Servais' less-than-adept instincts on when to change pitchers and whom to change to have led to some self-inflicted wounds. So, the close games or would-be close games that turn on a move made (or not made) here or there are probably not going to skew in the Mariners' favor as we continue on.
2019 M's, in victories
|Runs per game||8.1|
|HRs per game||2.4|
|Strikeout rate (K/PA)||25%|
2019 M's, in losses
|Runs per game||2.9|
|HRs per game||1.4|
|Strikeout rate (K/PA)||31%|
As things stand now, the Mariners need Version A to show up more than half the time to stay a .500+ team, which is not a knock on the pitching staff at all. The pitchers have, for the most part, exceeded expectations, despite three ulgy losses by 10+ runs (aided by a total of 13 unearned runs) on the last homestand. Marco Gonzales is making a strong bid for an All-Star nod, Yusei Kikuchi has pitched better than his modest numbers would suggest, Felix Hernández has found a new curveball-heavy style and been far and away better than most anyone expected him to be, Mike Leake has been, well, Mike Leake. The relief corps has been better than it looked like they were going to be, which, granted, is not saying a lot; but despite a composite bullpen ERA over 5.00, there are some nice surprises there—Brandon Brennan and Connor Sadzeck came basically from nowhere to deliver solid performances, and though Roenis Elías hasn't always been used in the best situations, he's done the job whenever called upon. The rest of the ’pen is a bit of a crapshoot, but things are starting to shake out as guys from the minors and the DFA wires are tried and shuffled through. But M's Version B doesn't seem to be able to score more than a run or two a game, so the mound staff needs to be near-perfect if that's who shows up with the bats. Especially since the brutal defense—with a Majors-worst 39 errors already!—can be counted on to surrender an unearned run or five.
The A/B split is quite stark. In 19 Mariner victories, the team has hit .292/.383/.551 and scored an average of 8.1 runs per game. In 17 losses, .190/.258/.370 scoring an average of 2.9 runs. This is actually not bad news looking ahead—yes, a few of those B-team losses came at the hands of elite pitching, and there are days you're just not going to hit Garrit Cole or Jon Lester, but the rest of the time this can be improved on. It will take some attitude adjustments, though.
The A Team (in wins)
The B Team (in losses)
The M's have become homer-happy. Understandably. They set the record for most consecutive games with a home run to start a season, they lead the league in home runs, and three Mariners are in the top ten for homers in the American League. But they've also become reliant on the home run, so much so that it often seems impossible to score without them. Daniel Vogelbach and Edwin Encarnación are doing it right—they're getting on base, and if they connect for a longball, so much the better. Ditto Omar Narváez. However, Domingo Santana, Ryon Healy, Jay Bruce, and to a lesser extent Tim Beckham have lately had an all-or-nothing approach no matter what the situation. Bruce is essentially a 21st-century Rob Deer now, a home run one out of twelve times up and a strikeout one of every three while he tries not to sink further and further below the Mendoza line. Healy hasn't been much better—after starting the season with a hot first week, he's flailed with a line of .198/.269/.365 since April 1st with a K rate of nearly 25%. From Santana's high-water mark on Jackie Robinson Day, he's been in a dismal slump to the tune of .159/.217(!)/.302 with a strikeout every third time up.
And then there's Mitch Haniger. Mitch hasn't been hitting much at home (.227/.311/.409) or against right-handed pitching (.221/.280/.478) and he leads the team in Ks with 45.
The good news is that, somehow, the Astros have had a less-than-overwhelming early season too. Despite being a mere two games over .500, Seattle is just two games back of Houston and there's a whole lot of baseball left to play.
There was so much improvement in the Mariners when it came to plate discipline in the first couple of weeks, and we still see it in at least the early portions of the games with the B team. But let's have some consistency there, at least. Get on base. Take your walks. Swing for hits, and if they happen to go over the fence, great, but remember there are other ways to score that don't require a 430-foot rocket into the upper deck. Use them. And maybe Seattle can stay relevant in the American League West standings well into the summer.