I confess I am not a soccer fan. I played in high school, even played a bit indoors in my 30’s, but those days are long gone. Watching soccer on television doesn’t interest me in the least. I’m regularly blown away by the number of friends who are drawn to the tube every four years, fanatical in their following of the World Cup and are shocked when I am not. Sorry, it’s a meaningless tour of “friendlies” that prove what–the U.S. soccer program still has a long way to go to be competitive with Brazil, Spain, and Germany? And those watching? Many don’t follow MLS, are Sounders or Timbers fans. They don’t have a special allegiance to a team, the sport or a player. It’s really a nationalistic venture: a little USA! USA! makes them feel good. Folks, this will not be the dry land equivalent of the 1980 Miracle on Ice.
Meanwhile, far, far away from Brazil, but in our very home town, the Seattle Mariners are a much improved team. As of this morning, they are tied for the last Wild Card spot in the American League with the Yankees and the Orioles. Yes it’s only June 23rd, but it’s been at least half a decade since the last time things were not hopeless on this date. The M’s definitely struggle. They are not a complete baseball team. But what is truly amazing, there is only one truly complete team and that is Oakland, who sadly are in the western division with the M’s. Let’s take a moment to look at who these guys really are. I don’t normally spend a lot of time on statistics. I think that’s more useful at the end of the season, but in this case I think their are some striking numbers that explain their ability to remain in the Wild Card race.
The current rotation of Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Roenis Elias, Chris Young and Erasmo Ramirez are ranked near the top in the American League by most statistical measures. If you like traditional stats, they are second in team ERA at 3.27. If you like BABIP, back to second with .270. Oddly their FIP is only seventh, but I think this has more to do with improved Mariner defense. The starters are strictly middle of the pack in strikeouts, despite the King’s position as second in the league in K’s. They are a little below the mean in home runs allowed.
Last year Felix and Iwakuma shone, while the rest of the rotation, with Joe Saunders, Aaron Harang, Jeremy Bonderman, Brandon Maurer and a host of others foundered. There is little question this rotation is better. Though I hate to admit it, even Ramirez gets better with each outing, enough so that he is competitive. He still hasn’t completely found his groove, but he hung in there long enough with the Padres to leave the game after six innings with a 1-0 lead. If Taijuan Walker and James Paxton ever do make it back to the majors, the M’s management will have some very difficult choices to make.
Last year, the M’s bullpen was putrid, vile, horrible. Something you made sure not to track in on the carpet. They were next to last in ERA, trailing only Houston. They were seventh in FIP. The Mariners had the second highest BABIP. They were second in walks per nine innings, and fourth in home runs allowed-two numbers that should not come into contact with one another, like matter and anti-matter.
But hey, it’s 2014 and life is different. All is cool in the bullpen, and the M’s have one of the better relief staffs in the league. According to FanGraphs, they are numero uno in ERA, fifth in BABIP and third in FIP. They are fourth in K/9 and next to last in HR/9. They are only seventh in walks per nine innings, but improving since the beginning of the year.
At the beginning of the season I saw the bullpen as a likely weakness. The players in the pen hadn’t changed much. I had high hopes for closer Fernando Rodney, but his early outings were such a circus those quickly diminished. They let Oliver Perez go to Arizona, where he’s one of the few players not stinking up the joint. But these guys pulled together and pitched well. When a team doesn’t score a lot of runs, a really good bullpen has magnified importance, and these guys have become really good.
Last year the Mariners were one of the worst fielding teams on the face of the planet. Perhaps in all of global history. Hyperbole? Maybe, but they were definitely the worst in the American league by a wide margin with a UZR rating of -73, meaning 73 additional runs allowed due to poor defensive ability–either errors, or below average ranges that allowed balls to drop into play. In my run up to the beginning of the season, I harped on poor outfield defense in particular. Last year the M’s outfield combinations of Raul Ibanez, Michael Saunders, Michael Morse, Jason Bay, and a host of others accounted for -58 of that -73 UZR rating.
Fast forward to 2014 and the M’s team defense is rated much higher according to FanGraphs. In UZR they are +17.3 and rated fourth. In overall defense they are rated third. Using more traditional statistics they are second. The Dewan, defensive runs saved rating (DRS) doesn’t like them quite as much, showing them 6th, but they are nowhere rated at or near the bottom of the league. Defensive statistics are most reliable measured over a much longer term, so it is unclear whether those I’ve cited are particularly telling, but it does suggest the defense is no longer the threat to success it once was.
Defense has a huge impact on a team like the Mariners who don’t score many runs, but have good pitching and play in a lot of tight games. It bails out the pitchers when they make mistakes, and it keeps innings to three outs.
Improved pitching, both starters and the bullpen as well as improved defense are reasons the Mariners are better this year. What does that look like? In the month of June the Mariners have given up more than five runs in a game once, on June 12th in a 6-2 loss to the Yankees. They gave up as many as five runs only twice. The pitching was a bit dodgier in April and May, the team is pitching and playing its best defense right now.
It’s when we discuss the offense the team becomes more familiar. Offensively, the team ranks near the bottom in every major statistic. According to BaseballReference.com the Mariners are 15th in on base percentage and OPS. 14th in slugging percentage and walks. Despite this, they are 11th in runs scored, ninth in home runs and first in triples. Last year this team scored 624 runs in its 162 games. This year, through 76 games, they’ve scored 301 runs. They’ve failed to score eight times in their 76 games, been held to one run seven times, and scored just twice ten times. As predicted, this team continues to have difficulty plating runners. If you can’t score it makes it a lot more difficult to win games.
But there is something gloriously gritty about this team. They have a little more team speed than in years past so they can take an extra base. They take advantage of other teams’ mistakes to advance runners. They sacrifice bunt. I know this is a dirty word today, but when a team doesn’t hit a lot, it’s an important tool to advance runners to scoring position. Their games are fun to watch because they are rarely out of them. They find ways to score runs late to take late leads.
So what does this mean?
Today the Mariners sit at 40-36. They are one of seven teams in the American League that have scored more runs than they’ve allowed at +37. They trail only Oakland and Los Angeles in the size of their run differential. Though the M’s have had some decent if not championship years since 2001, can you name the last year the M’s finished the season with a positive run differential? Try 2003. What does it mean? I don’t think it means the M’s are good enough to win anything meaningful. But because of their improved pitching and defense I think they’ll hang around the conversation about the Wild Card all summer. They will have losing streaks, but they should be short because their pitching and defense are so much improved. They will have winning streaks too, again, likely short because they simply have too much trouble scoring. It is two thirds of a really good team.
Is there any hope the offense will get better? Maybe. Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders, and Corey Hart are all on the D.L. Of those three, only Saunders has shown himself to be a consistent producer and a difference maker in the lineup. It doesn’t mean the others can’t or won’t, but they haven’t so far. Will the front office make investments as this team heads toward the July 31st trade deadline? I just don’t have the feeling they will. They passed on Kendrys Morales, though it’s clear the M’s really need a productive DH, and he was available for little cash and would have cost them nothing in players. This isn’t the 90’s. Bats will be expensive, in cash and prospects, and the ever penny-wise, pound foolish ownership group is unlikely to spend.
Regardless, this team will hang around .500, play good ball, and should remain around the Wild Card conversation. Maybe they get better, maybe not, but I don’t see them doing a catastrophic nose dive. When the U.S. comes home from the World Cup, pummeled by Germany, failing once more to get into the second round, there will be a pretty good baseball team to watch in Sea-town.