Today is May 21st and your Seattle Mariners continue to lead the American League West after 41 fun-filled, if sometimes harrowing, games. Yesterday they thumped the sad, sorry Cincinnati Reds, picking up win 24, to go 24-17 on the season. Today they’ll play for win 25, with Felix on the mound. By comparison, in 2015, the M’s won their 25th game on June 6th to end a seven game losing streak. The streak happened after clawing back to .500, 24-24 on May 28th. Bad stuff can happen in baseball.
Even so, it is fun to watch this team, Mariners v. 40.0, play. Winning makes all the difference. So what makes them better than last year’s execrable version?
So there’s a sabermetric term for you. Offensively, these guys just wear you down. They don’t give up at bats. The Mariners aren’t always successful. They had a very hard time scoring against the Angels last weekend with piles of base runners. But they are so much better than Mariners v. 39.0 who seemed lost, confused, and out of their element at the plate in high leverage situations. This team has quality at bats and wears out enemy starting pitching. In yesterday’s thumping of the Reds, the M’s had 110 pitches on starter Dan Strailly, who really had them in check, and prompted the entrance of the Red’s bullpen. For former M’s pitching coach, and current Reds manager Bryan Price, that’s like opening the door to the 7th level of hell. Seven runs later the M’s called it a day with victory 24.
A certain amount of this can be attributed to the team’s controlling the zone philosophy, which can only be successful if they players buy in and they have the skills. As a comparison between this year’s successful team and last year’s unsuccessful version, the M’s are league average or above in Swinging Strike Percentage (17.2%,) Fouled Strike Percentage (28.5%, 2nd in league,) and Pitches Per Plate Appearance (3.89.) Though these aren’t vastly better than last year’s numbers: S/Str 18.3%, F/Str 27 %, Pit/PA 3.88, it seems to be enough to allow the M’s to wear down opposing pitchers a bit more than in the past. That’s offensive toughness and grit.
Late game heroics
Last year’s team could score runs. Sometimes they’d score lots of runs. These things happen in baseball. Even the Twins, the Braves and yes, the hapless Reds will have games in which they can smile and know they just flogged their division leader. It’s only one game in their 19 game season series and they may lose all the rest of them, but it’s something to smile about for today.
The M’s have definitely had teams like that. For recent M’s teams, they’ve had to get ahead early and hope the pitching holds on. This team is different. It scores early, often and late. In 2016, at the quarter mark, the M’s biggest scoring innings are the 1st (25), 5th (26), 6th (27) and 7th (20) innings. Yes, there will be games when the M’s lose in shootouts, or are simply dominated by a great pitching performance. But if you like comebacks, this is the best Mariners team to be watching in years. Just for the record, this team is on pace score 768 runs, the most since 2007, a year their pitching staff also allowed 813.
When the M’s signed Korean/Japan League slugger Dae-ho Lee to contract leading up to spring training, I chortled, I snorfled, I scoffed. I did not believe a really big Korean guy was going to make the team and have an impact. I was wrong. I was really wrong. Lee has appeared in 25 games, often as a pinch hitter or in a platoon swap and managed to slash .273/.322/.600. He’s hit six home runs. By my count he’s won three games with late RBI’s including last night’s game against the Reds. Through a quarter of the season, in very limited duty, Lee has a WAR of .7. He is a good hitter. Yes, he’s big and strong, and sometimes gets badly fooled as he learns major league pitching, but Lee is a veteran, smart, makes adjustments and is unafraid to hit to right as he did last night, if it helps the team win. While it is my firm hope Adam Lind begins to awaken from his early season embalming, it is possible Lee is your future M’s first baseman.
Statistically and on the field, there is no comparison between the 2016 bullpen and last year’s arsonists. These guys-Steve Cishek, Joaquin Benoit, Nick Vincent, Mike Montgomery, Vidal Nuno, Joel Peralta, Steve Johnson, Tony Zych-have pitched surprisingly well and the results show it. The team is seven games above .500, winning a lot of close games, and there has been very little drama. Statistically, this team is in the top five or better in the league in virtually all traditional and advanced stats. It leads the league in ERA, in WHIP, in BABIP, and batting average against. They’re 2nd in K%, 3rd in xFIP. They’ve performed well despite a pile of injuries. I believe those injuries really took their toll during the Angels series, when the bullpen seemed ineffective due to overwork. It really points out the need for at least one more proven power arm in the bullpen after Tony Zych’s return. Maybe a deadline deal.
There will be burps
In closing, there will be times when this team struggles, as all teams do at some point this season. The Orioles, White Sox, Nationals, and Giants-all the division leaders, except the Cubs-have had their losing moments this season. The Cubs will almost certainly have theirs. It’s a long season. Earlier I mentioned the M’s were on pace to score 768 runs, but their pitching is on a track to allow only 596, one of the lowest marks in Mariners history. It’s looking like the Mariners are in this for the long haul. They look good as long as they can stay healthy. That doesn’t mean they won’t lose games, lose series or have a bad week. 121 games left to play. Let’s win as many as we can.