Don't Get Happy (Yet)
Photo: ROOT screencap
Can Tim Beckham keep outhomering his errors?
April 6, 2019
Don't look now, but Your Seattle Mariners are the best team in the American League.
OK, no, they aren't, there are massive problems with them. But after ten games, the M's are sitting pretty atop the AL West at 8-2 and despite those massive problems are just one Hunter Strickland injury and one utterly predictable bullpen meltdown away from being undefeated. If Scott Servais had a better grasp of his bullpen they'd be 9-1.
What's going on? Weren't they supposed to suck this year?
Depends on who you ask. The conventional wisdom was/is that the M's are maybe a 70-75 win team. I personally went into the season thinking they were good enough for .500 or a little better. But I'd bet my Ken Griffey Jr. foul ball that nobody thought Seattle would be in first place by themselves after playing eight games against the allegedly superior A's, Red Sox, and even Angels and two against the White Sox, who have beaten the M's 44 out of 69 times (25 of 37 in Chicago) over the last eight years.
It's such a dramatic surprise that Twitter was awash with rumors or at least suggestions that the Mariners should snap up as-yet-unsigned relief ace Craig Kimbrel and they'd suddenly be contenders. This is a bad idea for a number of reasons, but the point is people have taken notice of the M's and done a collective Professor Farnsworth impression: "eh, whaa?" A remarkable offense has displayed real discipline at the plate, fantastic home-run power, and, perhaps most surprisingly, an adeptness at the hit-and-run, a play I had started to think was consigned to antiquity. Domingo Santana has been a particularly good practitioner of all three. It's encouraging to see, especially the plate discipline, as it indicates a new philosophy (or at least a new success with it) moving away from bashing for bashing's sake and toward on-base skills and line-drives. That approach should serve the M's well all season long and into the future.
The thing is, though, with the exception of Marco Gonzales' two home starts and Mike Leake's strong effort today in Chicago, the M's are winning despite themselves. Their defense has been abysmal—they lead the Majors in errors (16) and unearned runs allowed (13) by a lot, with shortstop Tim Beckham already with five Es and Ryon Healy, Dylan Moore, Omar Narváez, and Jay Bruce with multiple miscues as well—and you'd swear antacid stocks spike whenever Servais signals to the bullpen with what's been the world's most exciting (not necessarily in a good way) relief corps. The lineup is simply outslugging the defense and poor relief, and that's not a sustainable formula.
One of those problems is treatable: For the most part the bullpen meltdowns have been exacerbated by poor usage. It's not necessarily Servais' fault that the ’pen has included guys like Nick Rumbelow who are clearly unready for the big leagues, but it is his fault that he's called upon those arms when better, more reliable ones were available. It might be too much to ask that Servais change his ways when it comes to pitcher use, but it's possible. Instead of being locked into the idea that only a "long reliever" can go multiple innings, he might realize that, hey, Roenis Elías can pitch the eighth even if he got the last out of the seventh. Or that Matt Festa cruised through his inning on 10 pitches and he's plenty able to keep going. Or maybe don't bring in Zac Rosscup with runners on. Or maybe if Cory Gearrin throws eight balls in a row you get a hint that he doesn't have it today and get him out of there before he forces in runs on hit batters (while it's still allowed—next year the three-batter minimum kicks in). Sometimes there's nothing you can do—you bring in the best option you have and he's a mess, or you're stuck with the one guy that didn't pitch the night before because everyone else is gassed. It happens. But Servais still might learn not to inflict damage himself with dumb choices in the context of the moment.
The defense is another matter. The M's are, stupidly, carrying an eight-man bullpen and a bench of only three, so there is basically no prospect of late-inning defensive replacements that help nor are there options for starting a superior fielder on a given day, and with Dee Gordon, Mallex Smith, and Mitch Haniger (and perhaps Tom Murphy) the only solid defenders on the roster, we can look forward to a lot more sloppy play. It's great that the club hired Perry Hill to coach the infielders, but with the notable exception of Gordon, this infield group needs all the help it can get, particularly if Jay Bruce is going to continue as the regular first baseman. At some point this year Kyle Seager will return to action and/or J.P. Crawford will get promoted from Triple-A to help matters in the infield, but until then errors are going to be an almost-everyday occurrence, especially with a starting rotation that depends on ground-ball outs as much as Seattle's does.
So, yeah, this has been a pretty fun stretch. Let's hope the bats keep sizzling and the runs keep coming, but sooner or later a slump's going to take hold. So don't get too happy. They're going to lose some more, probably by the same method they lost the first game against the White Sox: unearned runs and the wrong relief choices (and sometimes, less predictable bullpen meltdowns). If, in another month, the M's are still scoring 7+ runs per game and within a couple games of first place? OK, then perhaps it might be time to contemplate the possibility of getting happy. Maybe.
That said, no matter what happens, the 2019 Mariners have proven one thing beyond any doubt: Win or lose, they are entertaining to watch. And in the end, isn't that what we really want?