The 2020 M's: Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, one pitching change at a time
Photo: Tony Gutierrez/AP
Sorry, Tai, your fantastic start will now be destroyed by your relief.
August 13, 2020
If last night's series finale with the Texas Rangers gave you a feeling of déjà vu, well, it's probably because you've seen this before. The 7-4 loss to the Rangers pretty much followed what we can now call a template for your 2020 Seattle Mariners. It hasn't played out like this in every game, but since leaving Houston after the opening series of the season, the formula goes like this:
- Begin with excellent starting pitching. Occasionally some bad luck will interfere, as it did Tuesday with Marco Gonzales' last turn, but for the first half to two-thirds of the game, the starter will keep the M's in the game, at worst.
- By the time that starting pitcher is out of gas or hits his pitch count, the other team will be staging a rally or will be within two runs of the Mariners' tally.
- At this point, manager Scott Servais will send for a reliever. If the Mariners are clinging to a lead or are tied, it will be an unsuitable reliever that is called upon.
- That reliever will allow the other team to score. If the M's were close behind, they will finish the inning further behind; if they were ahead, any lead will be cut from comfortable to slim or erased completely.
- The Mariners may or may not come back with offense of their own, depending on the quality of the opposing bullpen. Angels-quality ’pen: there's still a chance to win. Anybody else's bullpen: not so much.
Monday night's rout of the Rangers was an anomaly, as was the first game following that first Houston series, a blowout loss to the Angels. Otherwise, the formula seems to hold.
Offensively, the formula doesn't tell us much. Sometimes the guys seem to be on their game, sometimes they look flat at the plate. If they rack up a big enough lead or are facing a bad Angels bullpen with enough innings to go, wins can be had. Close games, meaning ones that were close in the middle innings? Next to impossible.
One takeaway from this might be just a blanket assessment that Seattle's relief corps is bad. And, yeah, on the whole that's true, but that's too simplistic a conclusion.
Just to mix things up, and because I sometimes get tired of Dave Sims, I watched the Rangers' broadcast of last night's game. It's often interesting to get the perspective of the other team's crew on the M's and how the game is playing out. The announcing team of Dave Raymond and Tom Grieve made several observations during the game including the following:
- Based on record and preseason prognostications, they felt the Rangers should be wiping the floor with the Mariners, yet they had lost one game and won the other by the grace of good fortune. They were surprised at how good Seattle starting pitching was.
- When Texas was mounting its comeback in the 8th inning against Mariner reliever Erik Swanson, they referenced more than once that the M's were late to get someone warming up in the bullpen behind Swanson. When a camera showed us Taylor Williams throwing in the ’pen, Grieve commented that Seattle "finally" had someone getting ready. By the time Shin-soo Choo had hit the sacrifice fly that tied the game, Raymond had said to Grieve something along the lines of, "don't you think it's odd that the Mariners have left Swanson out there this whole time?" and Grieve replied with something like, "well, as I said, they were late getting anyone up, so they're kind of stuck right now." Unlike Raymond and Grieve, I've been watching the M's all season and know what they don't: This is normal.
- When Williams came on to relieve Swanson and immediately wild-pitched the go-ahead run in to score, Grieve brought up a statistic he had looked up earlier: After entering the game with a lead, the Seattle bullpen's ERA was over eight and a half. I can't find that stat pre-tallied and don't feel like going over each box score to tally it myself, but it tracks; the overall ERA for the relievers going into yesterday was 6.25.
Now, for once the reliever that started the fire that burned down the Mariners' victory chances wasn't the obvious wrong choice for the moment (though the next pitcher that took a flamethrower to the mound emphatically was). The M's were ahead 4-2 in the 8th inning and went to Swanson, a reasonable choice to get three outs and he started off well enough, getting Nick Solak on strikes. Derek Dietrich whacked a hanging slider for a base hit, but the guy was having a great game, move along. Elvis Andrus then doubled, though, and the radar gun was not showing the 97s and 98s Swanson needs to be effective since his fastball is basically straight. That was the first indication Swanson could be in for a bad night. Then he hit pinch-hitter Todd Frazier with a pitch. OK, that's when you get someone throwing in a hurry down in the 'pen, right? Well, no, because this is Scott Servais, and he waits until runs are scoring before doing such things. But he didn't have to wait long, just five more pitches until light-hitting Joe Mathis poked another hanging slider that said "hit me" as it crossed the heart of the plate into center. Then the bullpen got going.
Sadly, the pitcher that got going was Williams, who had already shown himself to be, at best, volatile. By the time Choo tied things up and Swanson plunked Isaiah Kiner-Falefa to reload the bases, Williams was summoned whether he was ready or not. Even on good days, Williams has no idea where his fastball is going once it leaves his hand, so it was especially dumb for Servias to at that point be employing an infield shift with a runner at third base. With no defender anywhere near him, that runner could take a huge lead, 40 feet if he wanted to, and thus it was easy to score when one of Williams pitches didn't find its target and went to the backstop. The subsequent base hit was basically a given. Then he walked the next guy. That Solak flied out to end the inning was a generous mercy.
It is, I suppose, possible that there is a method to Servais' madness, that there is a deliberate strategy in play to put dubious options such as Williams and Bryan Shaw—as well as Dan Altavilla and Yohan Ramírez and Joey Gerber, pitchers who should be developing in the minor leagues except there are no minor leagues this year—in trial-by-fire situations. Something akin to testing for witchcraft by seeing if someone floats or drowns, and so what if they get beaten to smithereens because this year doesn't mean anything anyway.
I didn't say it was a smart method. Sure, it would be better to develop these guys in circumstances that don't crush them; and yeah, even in a weird spectatorless, extremely short season that only has the club playing a third of the league, winning games is better for the psyche of a young up-and-coming group than losing games is, but hey, this is how we roll. Besides, why get these young guys used to being in a pennant race, even an odd short one? It'll seem mean when the M's go back to losing 90 games a year.