Mini-season ends with Mariners not ready for 2021

With today's loss to the AL West Champion Oakland A's, the Mariners officially finished their part in 2020’s wild and wacky baseball season. It went about as expected, overall, with some interesting surprises and familiar frustrations, serving its purpose as an evaluation/on-the-job training ground for some players while failing miserably at that task for others. So, you might say the goals were a little different, but in the end it was just another Mariners season, done before October and watching other clubs play for titles. Even in crazy 2020, when you have to be really bad to miss the playoffs. Just three games better and the M's would be in the tourney instead of the Astros, who finished two games under .500 but still get to play on. (And we could pretty easily find three Seattle losses that could have flipped without much effort—that 7-3 lead going into the last inning in San Diego that became a 10-7 defeat tops the list.) So, yeah, not a typical season, but a typical result nonetheless.

But as we've said before, this season wasn't really about winning games, it was about seeing if the various prospects and new arrivals to the M's fold were ready to make this team a contender in 2021. And the answer is . . . not really. Some of the youngsters trying to jump all the way from Double-A to the Majors were overmatched and underprepared; the handling of the outfield left the club with more questions than answers there; relief pitching was once again abysmal; positive developments from some hitters may or may not be for real, as a 60-game schedule just isn't representative of a season; and despite some very welcome changes to the offensive gameplan, on-base skills continue to seem like a foreign concept to those in charge.

Let's break it down.

Marco Gonzales among A.L. Leaders, 2020
Wins 2nd (7)
ERA 8th (3.10)
W-L % 6th (.778)
WHIP 3rd (0.947)
BB/9 IP 1st (0.904)
IP 7th (6923)
K/BB 1st (9.143) 
HR/9 IP 9th (1.034)

The starting rotation should be in great shape next year. Of the six pitchers that ended 2020 in starting roles, the four lefties have all impressed—Marco Gonzales just keeps getting better, finishing the year with seven wins in 11 starts, a sub-1.000 WHIP, and was best in the American League at just 0.9 walks per nine innings and 9.14 strikeouts per walk; Yusei Kikuchi didn't end up with great numbers, but nevertheless showed improvements over his rookie season (though the quality of the opposition seemed to matter a lot—San Diego and the Dodgers roughed him up badly, you take his games against them out and his ERA comes down from over 5.00 to under 3.80); Justus Sheffield made huge strides in his development in going 5-1 and looks ready for a strong 2021; and Nick Margevicius made a surprise showing after moving into a starting role, notching three quality starts and displaying a solid repertoire of pitches. The right-handers didn't fare so well, with Justin Dunn and Ljay Newsome still having real problems despite obvious talents. Dunn needs to fond some consistency in locating his pitches, Newsome needs a better mix of options. They both should be big-league starters soon, but probably not when 2021's season opens. Meaning a free-agent signing might come into play again next year as it did this, and it may well take the same form: Taijuan Walker. Tai was solid in five Mariner starts before being traded to the Blue Jays—and outstanding for them afterward—and may well be amenable to coming back, but the Jays and 28 other clubs might have something to say about it.

Mariners relief pitching, 2020
W-L 6-13
ERA 5.92
K/BB 1.63
WHIP 1.556
BAA .258
OBPA .365
IRS% 49
SV% 65

The relief corps remains a giant liability for the M's and will need yet more renovation if Seattle hopes to contend in ’21. There are a couple of pieces there now that should be part of the plan—Yohan Ramírez will be around soon if not immediately, as his 16 appearances this year were largely impressive; Carl Edwards might yet be a factor if he recovers from his forearm strain without trouble; and Kendall Graveman could well be quite good as a reliever despite living down to expectations as a starter this season. After that nothing in the mix now can be said to be helpful in the near term. Anthony Misiewicz and Erik Swanson have value, but minor-league time may be best for them; Joey Gerber and Aaron Fletcher figure to get a season in Triple-A; Taylor Guilbeau may or may not be ready to go once he recovers from injury. The bullpen will need outside help if it's to be productive next year.

Catcher is, for once, not an area of concern. With new Mariner Luis Torrens showing he has what it takes to hold his own as a big-leaguer and Tom Murphy still under team control (and presumably long recovered from his broken foot), the position should be well manned. Torrens could stand to work on his framing skills and to get some more big-league at-bats under his belt, but has the makings of a solid player on both sides of the plate.

Looking at the infield corners, first base obviously belongs to Evan White for the foreseeable future, and he has value there even if he hits .100; his superb defense makes the entire infield better and could easily account for 20+ runs saved over the course of a standard-length campaign. But as a hitter he just wasn't ready this year. He looked a little like Pedro Cerrano up there in 2020: Straightball he hit very much; curveball, bats are afraid. He played just 54 games this year but still racked up a full season's worth of strikeouts (84). That's not his game—in fact, all throughout his minor-league career his K rate was 20% and his on-base mark .361. Growing pains are to be expected when making that big jump from Double-A, and with experience those issues will improve. They may not get to where we'd all like them to be in 2021, but it would be shocking to see a 40% strikeout rate again.

Kyle Seager: 2020
Split Avg OBP Slg
1st 30 gms .291 .377 .515
2nd 30 gms .190 .333 .350
Home .297 .424 .527
Road .209 .314 .380
vs. RHP .268 .387 .464
vs. LHP .185 .280 .369
Night .269 .399 .420
Day .202 .284 .452

At third base, Kyle Seager had a better season than anyone could have hoped for, starting out strong and only fading during the last few weeks. In the end, his batting average wasn't much better than we'd come to expect from him, but the on-base percentage was fantastic at .355. Can it sustain? Probably not, sorry to say; his 2020 splits are problematic and suggest that over the course of a full year he'd have some hot streaks but not much consistency (too bad he can't face Ranger pitching every day). He was great in the first half of the schedule, and against right-handers, and at home, and in night games. The second half, against lefties, on the road, and during the afternoon, the numbers are very different (see chart). Still, it's encouraging to see that a healthy Kyle Seager can once more be a productive part of the lineup, at least as a platoon bat.

J.P. Crawford had a good year at shortstop; like Seager, he was streaky, with a strong start—.296/.405/.366 in the first 20 games, .192/.268/.329 in the middle 20, .283/.333/.317 in the final 20—making it tough to give a solid evaluation. His mid-season slump immediately preceded a brief absence from the team due to a death in the family, and those things may not be unrelated. 

Second base is a big fat question mark as this season ends. Dee Strange-Gordon's time as a Mariner is done, Shed Long was vastly overmatched (and then injured), Ty France prefers the corners, and Sam Haggerty wasn't even given a chance there. Dylan Moore seems to be the favorite to claim the job, but we haven't seen whether Moore's production this year was for real, just a hot streak, or some other form of mirage. If it was legitimately what we can expect going forward, then Moore would be a nice fit at the position. He had a good combination of on-base prowess, speed, and power that the M's could surely use. If, however, Moore reverts to his 2019 form or fails a PED test or something, Haggerty should get a look, but with so few games on his résumé it's hard to declare him a viable option. What is clear is that Long is not the guy, at least not right away. He might yet develop into an everyday-caliber player, but it seems doubtful; his future is probably off the bench in a utility role.

The corner outfield
Player OF starts 2020 batting line (PAs)
Braden Bishop 9 .167/.242/.233 (34)
Phillip Ervin 13 .149/.292/.189 (89)
Jake Fraley 7 .154/.241/.269 (29)
Sam Haggerty 11 .260/.315/.400 (54)
Tim Lopes 20 .238/.278/.364 (151)
Dylan Moore 24 .255/.358/.496 (159)
José Marmolejos 18 .206/.261/.411 (115)
Mallex Smith 13 .133/.170/.178 (47)
D. Strange-Gordon 13 .200/.268/.213 (82)

Manager Scott Servais and GM Jerry Dipoto screwed the pooch regarding their corner outfielders this year, so the outfield situation is a mess as the season ends. Kyle Lewis outperformed all expectations and he's clearly good to go at any of the three positions next season. Jake Fraley got hosed, left off the team after "summer camp" and used sparingly when he was active, so he got essentially no development in 2020. Mallex Smith started off in a slump and wasn't allowed to work his way out of it and he'll be off the team as a free agent if Dipoto doesn't put him back on the 40-man roster soon. José Marmolejos got a lot better at playing left field as the season progressed, but he's not an everyday option there. Dipoto picked up Phillip Ervin off the waiver wire for some reason, but he hasn't staked any kind of claim to any kind of role. The M's figure to get a healthy Mitch Haniger back for 2021, but that leaves one spot (presumably left field) without a regular presence. Servais and Dipoto could continue to use it as a rotating spot to cycle bench players through, but Fraley should be given the shot there that he was promised this year, at least at the outset of 2021. Too bad we didn't get any sense of his readiness this season.

The designated hitter role offers a place to get Ty France some at-bats, and it's possible Marmolejos could see time there. What might work well is a timeshare between France and Seager at third base with the other playing some as DH. With Seager's splits—and the obvious need to keep him off the injured list—giving him some days off and letting him DH a bit might be wise.

Strategically, the M's employed a running game for much of the short season, which was wonderful; it was limited in its effectiveness, though, because in order to take advantage of steals and baserunning, you need to get aboard in the first place. Aside from the bullpen—clearly the numbers one, two, and three problems heading into 2021—the area in most need of help might be hitting coach.

Though they turned over much of the coaching staff, the Mariners retained Tim Laker in that role this year despite the club's 2019 performance that saw them finish next-to-last in hits, batting average, and strikeouts. This year the team's batting average was worse, on-base percentage worse, runs per game worse, you get the picture. Even with 2020's different priorities, this is of great concern, or at least it should be. Several Mariners arrived on the scene with histories of good-to-excellent on-base skills, either in the minors or in earlier Major League stops, yet under Laker's charge couldn't manage anything respectable. Why is that? It isn't universal, but discounting the mid-season acquisitions (France, Torrens, Ervin) and ten-year veteran Seager, only Kyle Lewis and Dylan Moore approached or exceeded on-base metrics consistent with their histories. Granted, minor league numbers don't directly translate to the bigs, but still, it's curious.

Is Laker ruining hitters by monkeying with their style? One player is a fluke, two is a coincidence, but three-plus starts looking like a pattern:

Player Years Level OBP BB% K%     w/Laker OBP BB% K%
Crawford 2016-18 AAA .343 12.5 17.2     2019-20 .322 10.5 19.4
Fraley 2019 AA-AAA .365 8.0 20.8     2019-20 .200 3.0 35.7
Lewis 2019 AA .342 10.8 29.4     2020 .364 14 29.3
Long 2017-19 AA-AAA .340 10.3 23.5     2019-20 .294 9.0 26
Lopes 2017-19 AA-AAA .342 8.3 16.2     2019-20 .315 7.5 22.6
Marmolejos 2017-19 AA-AAA .347 8.1 18.5     2020 .261 6.0 27.8
Moore 2017-18 AA-AAA .324 8.6 17.5     2019-20 .323 8.8 30.8
Seager 2011-18 MLB .325 8.2 17.3     2019-20 .333 11.0 17.2
Smith 2016-18 MLB .346 8.6 20.0     2019-20 .290 7.2 25.1
Strange-Gordon 2011-18 MLB .322 4.0 14.9     2019-20 .298 4.6 14.7
Vogelbach 2016-18 AAA-MLB .401 16.4 18.4     2019-20 .331 16.5 26
White 2018-19 A-AAA .362 8.5 20.9     2020 .252 8.9 41.6

With Fraley there's not enough of a big-league sample size to mean anything, White's season could easily be a one-off with adjustments from Double-A and pressure to live up to the contract, and the way Dee's been used likely factors in with him (he was never much for taking walks anyway). But can the jump to the big leagues really account for the entirety of Marmo's drop, or Long's, or J.P.'s? And Mallex Smith, he was already in the Majors and yet fell off the OBP cliff.

While this doesn't definitively point a finger at Laker as the problem, it sure doesn't make him look good. It will be interesting to see how Mallex, Vogey, and Dee do with other teams next year and compare. And if Laker remains here, we can add France and Torrens to this chart and see what happens to their OBPs after a spring training and full season in the fold. (And Ervin, if he's still here, but I kind of doubt we'll see him again.)

So. It appears the M's have some work to do before spring training rolls around, assuming the pandemic lets us play a spring training:

  • Get a starting pitcher
  • Blow up and reconstitute the bullpen
  • Hire a new hitting coach that doesn't discourage getting on base or otherwise get into batters' heads to screw them up
  • Get healthy

Do that and we might have something. The division is certainly ripe for the taking in 2021. Address these things and it might just be time. Don't address these things and . . . well, you know. Same old M's.

Comments

  • Posted by Bob on September 28, 2020 (56 days ago)

    It sounds like it's time to part ways with the hitting coach. Evan White has been screwed around with and his confidence looks gone. He's gone from a line drive hitter to someone swinging for the fences. How did that happen??

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