Month: July 2016

Jay Bruce: Rumors and the waiting game

I was catching the Rainiers rout of the El Paso Chihuahuas, 11-1 at Cheney stadium last night.  My friend Dave has an amazing season ticket package, kind of a flexible pass that allows him up to eight seats for any home game Monday to Thursday for $280.  As long as you use ’em you can’t go wrong.  And on a warm July night, Cheney is pretty amazing.

I was particularly interested in watching Dan Vogelbach, who the Mariners acquired from the Cubs in a trade for pitcher Mike Montgomery.  Unfortunately, the big left-handed DH went 0-4 with a walk.  Thankfully his teammates pounded out 16 hits, scoring eleven runs without the benefit of a homer.

This was my second Rainiers game with Dave in a week. I was completely enjoying myself when I heard a gasp from a guy a couple rows behind and rapid fire explanation the Mariners were trading for Jay Bruce. I was shocked, but quickly pulled out my iPhone and checked MLBTradeRumors for confirmation.  No, not so, the M’s are just in on discussions with the Reds for Bruce, along with a bunch of other teams, who will almost certainly be traded to somebody .

Ahhh rumors.  The stock in trade for all bloggers as we approach the trade deadline. Honestly, who knows what will happen by Sunday.  Yesterday I learned over my morning granola the Mariners traded struggling reliever Joaquin Benoit to Toronto for struggling reliever Drew Storen.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays
Drew Storen, freed from the friendly confines of the Rogers Centre, barfed up four runs in the M’s 10-1 loss to the Pirates at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

An effective set-up man and closer for the Nationals in 2015, Storen has bombed in 2016, the final year of his contract. Ten years younger than Benoit, Storen has a chance to improve his position in his quest for a new contract. Informed of the trade, Storen took the PC rout and tweeted out his praise for Ken Griffey, Jr., and Jay Buhner.    Unfortunately in his first outing in blue and teal in Pittsburgh, he coughed up four runs in 1.1 innings.  Note to Drew: don’t include “road trip to Pittsburgh” in your resume.

But since we have no actual deals to pick apart, let’s take a look at Jay Bruce and what he could do for the Mariners. The M’s are kind of a mess in the outfield. Off season acquisition Leonys Martin is one of the deals that has worked out as planned, providing the hoped for defense in center field, and more offense than Jerry Dipoto predicted.

Right fielder Nori Aoki has been a disappointment, both at the plate and in the field, spending time in Tacoma as a result. Aoki’s misplayed fly ball in last night’s game opened the gates for the Pirates to take an early three run  lead in the third inning.

Seth Smith and Franklin Gutierrez  share the role of left-fielder.  Both players have provided solid offense with a 119 and 116 OPS+ respectively.  But Smith is no whiz in the field, offering a -11 Defensive Runs Saved, and a -21.5 UZR 150.  That’s not good.  Guti remains an above average fielder with 0 DRS and 7.8 UZR 150.  So they almost split the difference defensively.

Jay Bruce
Jay Bruce to the Mariners?  That’s a rumor floated in a couple of sources. Would he be the right guy for the M’s?  Hard to say.

My guess is if the M’s make a move for an outfielder it’s to replace Aoki, and Jay Bruce could be that guy. After a couple of injury-plagued seasons, Bruce has rebounded nicely with a .271/.323/.572 slash and 130 wRC+.  He’s definitely a striker outer, but his 20.9 K% is the lowest of his career.  This plays much better than Aoki’s .253/.323/.333.  Though Aoki was acquired to provide on-base skills, outfield defense, and a little speed, his performance has provided none of that, and he is well below his career averages.

Defensively neither Aoki or Bruce are strong defenders. Aoki has provided a -5 DRS and -7.9 UZR 150.  Bruce is a -12 DRS and -20.6 UZR 150.  August Fagerstrom took a look at Bruce’s defensive metrics at FanGraphs, and determined that Bruce especially struggles going back on balls over his head.  That is not a deficiency that will play well at Safeco.

There is little question  Bruce will contribute even more to an improved offense. He has the balance of $12.5 million remaining on this contract year.  He also has a team option year for 2017 for $13 million and a team buyout for $1 million. So Bruce is not quite a rental, and if he continues to perform, he could be a fairly priced option for the M’s next year  The question is, what would it cost to get him? My guess is the Reds will be looking for young, controllable players as the Reds strip down and build around Joey Votto.

I am a believer the M’s will improve when their pitching and outfield defense improve. Bruce at the plate would be a nice add, and if the package was relatively harmless or from the low minors I could be in. Walt Jocketty, Reds G.M. suggested it would be a mid-level prospect, whatever that means.   But Bruce is not a pitcher and does not play good outfield defense. Honestly, I’d prefer the Mariners save that outfield spot and take a look at Guillermo Heredia when he recovers from his injury.  He’s put up some  solid minor league numbers, played center field, would be a very good corner outfielder. Heredia would already be with the big club if he hadn’t jammed his shoulder.

When it comes right down to it, this is all just rumors-a-go-go.  By Sunday our heads will be spinning and checking MLBTradeRumors on the hour won’t be frequently enough.  Oooh look, talks about Tai Walker, James Paxton and Wade Miley.  Right. . .

 

The Felix we have

Nelson Liriano
Pitcher Nelson Liriano homers off Felix Hernandez in the second inning of Tuesday’s 7-4 win over the Pirates in Pittsburgh.

Yesterday the M’s went on to win their 51st game against a dangerous Pirates team, on the road in beautiful PNC Park, by a score of 7-4. The M’s are now 3-1 on what is a difficult road trip that takes them through Toronto, Pittsburgh and Chicago, each against playoff contenders.

The M’s won on the strength of their bats and solid bullpen performance.  Starting pitcher Felix Hernandez struggled for six innings, but managed to get the win to improve his record to 7-4.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Felix threw this team on his back and carried them kicking and screaming, to the finish line. The Mariners might win 1-0, or tragically fall short by the same score. Surrounded by ineffective banjo hitters, and past their prime run producers, The King managed to bob and weave his way to a Cy Young award in 2010, two second place finishes in 2009 and 2014, and six All-Star performances.

But in 2016, things don’t look so royally rosy. Though Felix struggled in 2015, suffering some epic meltdowns (helloooooo Red Sox,) we were all primed with fingers and toes crossed for a resurgent King in 2016.  It hasn’t happened. There is the calf injury, causing him to miss two months-two months the starting rotation has been a mess. But even when Felix has pitched, he hasn’t been the Felix we’ve known.

Teams are striking early against Felix, putting the King and the team in a hole.  Remember yesterday’s game against the Bucs? Three runs in the first inning and solo homer to Francicso Liriano (??!!!) in the second put the Mariners down 4-0.  Hernandez has allowed 17 of his 29 earned runs in the first three innings.

It is equally evident that just looking at some important 2016 numbers that Felix is simply struggling to get outs.  Compare these to his career numbers (in parentheses.)

  • BB/9: 3.4 (2.5)
  • Hits/9 8.3 (8.0)
  • HR/9  1.1 (.7)
  • K/9  6.9 (8.5)
  • K/BB 2.00 (3.34)

So Felix is allowing more baserunners and dingers-a deadly combination.  He’s also striking out fewer batters, making it much more difficult to get out of jams. This is reflected in important combination stats:

  • WHIP: 1.308 (1.175)
  • FIP: 4.54 (3.24)

His 2016 FIP is by far the highest of his career.

One other important difference between yesterday’s Felix and Felix in his prime is innings per start.  In 2015, not a great year, Felix made 31 starts.  Note: A start counts for only one category. Example a complete game counts only for complete games, not for 7.0 or 8.0 inning starts,

  • Felix threw two 9.0 inning complete games.
  • Felix completed  8.0 innings four times.
  • Felix completed 7.0 innings 11 times
  • Felix pitched into the 7th inning 4 times.

In 2016, Felix has struggled to get deep into games.  Felix has made 12 starts:

  • Felix has zero 9.0 inning complete games
  • Felix has not completed 8.0 innings
  • Felix pitched into the 8th inning two times.
  • Felix completed 7.0 innings three times
  • Felix pitched into the 7th inning once.

What does all this say, what does it all mean?  Short term, it means that Felix is just another guy on a  struggling rotation trying to find himself every fifth day. Maybe he’s fighting through minor or major physical issues, maybe he’s in decline and this is the Felix we have. I have no doubt Felix remains a clubhouse leader and an important rallying symbol for this team.  I also have no doubt that Felix works hard every day, and it is a testament to his mental toughness and his knowledge of how to pitch that he gets knocked around and remains somewhat successful even if he isn’t dominant.

But we’d be fooling ourselves to think that Felix is an ace, a guy the Mariners can walk out, face another team’s ace, whether it is Dallas Keuchel or Chris Sale, and know it will be an equal fight. He’s not the guy the Mariners can count on for seven or more tough innings every fifth day. Perhaps we’re seeing the end of Felix Hernandez as a star.  Perhaps we’re seeing Felix in a pitching no-man’s land as his repertoire and approach to pitching begins to change with his aging curve and the wear and tear on his arm. Perhaps he becomes a different kind of pitcher.

I don’t know where all this leads.  But this I do know; Felix Hernandez is signed through 2019 for nearly $80 million.  My money is on the Mariners and Felix to figure it out with a plan to make him as effective as possible, perhaps in a different way. But it’s not likely that a major intervention, whether surgical or mechanical, will take place until after the current campaign is over.

So the Felix we have is the Felix we’ve got.  Here’s hoping he’s able to knock some rust off his game, and continue pitching with guile and toughness. And here’s hoping his teammates carry him as he carried this team for the better part of a decade.

 

 

What does the Mike Montgomery trade mean?

Dan Vogelbach

Managed to catch a goodly chunk of the Felix return on the radio during my interminable drive home from Bellingham.  It was another nice comeback and a really important win for the M’s.  Heard the ding of a text message from my friend Todd as I was driving, reporting Mike Montgomery’s trade.to the Cubs.  Todd was excited about the deal-and I became desperate to learn what we’d acquired.

Let me be clear-I believe Montgomery has been the most consistent pitcher for the M’s this year.  Though he’s had a couple of rough games out of the bullpen (compared to the rest of the guys, a couple is like microscopic,) but he’s pitched short, middle and long relief. He’s started a couple of games and been okay.  He also has the virtue of being young, cheap and controllable, fitting G.M. Jerry DiPoto’s criteria of young, athletic and controllable.

It’s also really tough to see the Mariners give up pitching, especially good pitching. The M’s remain within striking distance of the second AL Wild Card, but that can only happen if the M’s either acquire more pitching, or wave a magic wand over the the guys they have. So tossing AAA pitcher Jordan Priess into a deal that brings no major league ready pitching back is a bit of a head scratcher. Unless, of course, management is throwing in the towel and is reassessing this team, positioning it for next year. Of course, they would never say that.

This was a trade, so the M’s actually did get something back in return.  The headliner is AAA slugger Dan Vogelbach. The big left-hander is hitting .318/..425/..548.  Yes, he is hitting the shit out of the ball at Iowa City.  Why isn’t he a Cubbie?  Well, dude is 6’0″ and weighs 250 lbs, and can only play 1b and DH.  His route to the majors is blocked by Anthony Rizzo. at 1b, and, uh, there is no DH in the National League.  The Cubs also included AA RHP Paul Blackburn, a starter, in the deal. Blackburn was selected 56th overall by the Cubs in the 2012 draft. At AA Tennessee he’s started 18 games, thrown 102.1 innings, and struck out 72.  He’s 6-4 with a 3.17 ERA and 1.192 WHIP.  Not bad.

I know I’m tired from a week at journalism camp, but this deal doesn’t do it for me.  Look, Vogelbach has demonstrated that he is a helluva minor league hitter. He’s shown he has power and on-base ability everywhere he’s gone. But he’s also a really big guy.  In 2014 MLB.com carried an article about Vogelbach’s efforts to lose weight. Clearly his size is an issue. He is likely a candidate to play DH.  I feel like an awful person for even raising this, but didn’t we just try this with Jesus Montero? How does this fill the goal of becoming more athletic by the M’s?  Why do I feel like this guys is Jack Zdurencik’s wet dream?

If Vogelbach’s route to the majors is blocked  with the Cubs, what about the M’s?  The Mariners have a platoon at first base with Adam Lind and Dae-ho Lee. Yes, they are each ten years older Vogelbach. And Lind has trouble getting on base.  But the M’s also owe him the balance of an $8 million dollar contract. And who tied the game today with an opposite field home run?  Who has a pair of walk-off dingers?  Yes, Adam Lind in all of his .261 OBP glory has had some pretty big hits for this team. At DH, that Cruz fellow, with cameo performances by Lee, seems to have the inside track on the vast majority of at bats, especially with the return of Nori Aoki, to fill Cruz’s  role in the outfield. And what does this mean for minor league first baseman D.J. Peterson, an M’s first round draft pick, having a terrific year in the minors after struggling the past couple of seasons?

I dunno, maybe there is another shoe that’s gonna drop and in a few days there will be another deal set up by this one. But it’s hard to see the team’s most consistent pitcher traded when it’s clear this team needs more pitching, not less, if it has any hope of making the playoffs. Maybe if they got back someone filling a clear position of need for now or in the immediate future I’d feel better about it. I know Dipoto went on the radio and talked it up,  but right at this moment I’m feeling the best get in this deal is Blackburn.

The Deplorable State of Mariners Defense

Kyle Seager error
Kyle Seager bobbles a ball on opening day in Texas.

I’ve blathered relentlessly about the shaky condition of Mariners pitching.  I haven’t focused quite so much on the M’s problems in the field.  A defense can make your pitching lots better, or can make it seem much worse.

There’s no nice way to say this.  The M’s suck defensively.  How sucky?  Well, let’s approach this from a few different angles. Let’s begin anecdotally.  Listen to the Mariners television coverage and resident M’s veteran and rooter, Mike Blowers comment on their lack of defensive prowess.  Blowers often turns to traditional stats like fielding percentage as his reference and we’re going to see that is not our friend if we’re looking for support. We’ll also see that advanced metrics show the 2016 Mariners to be lousy in the field.

Do they catch the ball?

Traditional statistics take a look at numbers of errors vs. numbers of chances and calculate a fielding percentage.  So lets take a look at that using the stats compiled at ESPN.com. We find the M’s rank 13 out of 15 AL teams in fielding percentage with a .982 rating, tied with the Angels. The M’s are also tied with the Angels for 13th for most errors with 58.  So near the bottom of the league for most plays converted into extra outs for the bad guys. Only the Twins are worse.  The M’s are also near the bottom of the league for converting those errors into enemy runs.  The Mariners have allowed 35 unearned runs in 2016. Only the Twins and Red Sox have allowed more, with 36 and 41 (!!) respectively. The Mariners have allowed lots of extra base runners, which also extended innings, and created lots of extra opportunities for opposing teams to score.  Their numbers are much worse than their division rivals:

  • Texas-50 errors, .985 fielding pct., 29 unearned runs
  • Houston-41 errors, .989 fielding pct., 21 unearned runs (best overall numbers in the AL)
  • Seattle-58 errors, .982 fielding pct., 35 unearned runs
  • Oakland-57 errors, .983 fielding pct., 22 unearned runs
  • Los Angeles-58 errors, .983 fielding pct., 29 unearned runs.

Using a less traditional measure, Revised Zone Rating (RZR) which measures “the proportion of balls hit into a fielder’s zone that he successfully converted into an out” (Hardball Times) the M’s are poor as a team.  Their RZR of .777 is 13th in the American League and considered poor to below average according to standards set by designer John Dewan of the Hardball Times.

Do they get to the ball?

The other part of defense is range.  Players who can get to more balls also make more plays.  Sometimes that means more errors because players are getting more chances.  But it can also mean that double in the gap gets caught instead of being an extra base hit that scores runs. Traditional statistics don’t measure this very well. When we were building our teams for Sherco Grand Slam Baseball we’d take a look at Assists and Putouts.  But that doesn’t really measure range very well. Using that as a measure the Mariners rank pretty much in the middle of the pack.

But range is better measured by a couple of advanced statistics, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR).

DRS combines many defensive ratings to reach a description in runs saved.  A rating of 0 is average.  In Defensive Runs Saved the Mariners rank 12th, behind the Rays and ahead of the woeful Twins with a -21 rating. That is not good, but much better than the statues on the Athletics who scored a whopping -70.

UZR is amazing statistics found in the Fielding Bible that tracks each defensive play and divides the field into zones.  A player’s range rating is determined by the balls he gets to in zones that are in, adjacent to and beyond his zone.  We’ll take a look at individual zone ratings soon.  But as a team, the M’s struggle with UZR.  They rank 12 th with a UZR of -17.2, with 0 being average.

Looking for a bright spot?  The Mariners have a positive DPR (Double Play Runs saved) of 1.2.

What does this all mean?

Well, the big take away is that the M’s aren’t very good defensively.  Measure it by any statistic you want, old statistics, new statistics, the M’s are a lousy defensive team.  If you are Jerry Dipoto and one of your team goals is run prevention, this team of guys is probably not the one that’s going to get you there.

The other point is that a bad defensive team makes a   pitching staff look much worse. A great example of that is in Cleveland where they supposedly had the best pitching in baseball that would take them to the ALCS (where they would beat the Mariners) in 2015.  But their fielding was so terrible, the Indians were nothing more than an also-ran. Today, the Indians have the best defense in the American League.  It’s no accident their pitching is also superb.  This weekend they will likely pass Texas for the best record in the AL.

Despite the shortcomings of the Mariners pitching staff, it’s impossible to believe the defense has not contributed to their struggles.  If the M’s are going to make a run in the second half, the defense must improve immediately.

 

Mariners: Buyers or Sellers?

Mike-Montgomery
Mike Montgomery may step into Seattle’s rotation. But will it simply leave a hole in an already depleted bullpen?

Smack-dab in the middle of the All-Star break, the Mariners will have to make a decision whether they are buyers or sellers with the trading deadline just a few weeks away. They find themselves 8.5 games behind the faltering Texas Rangers in the AL West, and three games behind the surging Astros in second place.  That’s right, as poorly as the M’s performed in their recent road trip, they actually gained a game on the Rangers.

Probably more important, the Toronto Blue Jays, playing quite well, have a five game lead over the Mariners in the second Wild Card race, with four teams between the M’s and Jays. These include the Astros, the Royals, the Tigers and White Sox, with games left to play against all but Kansas City.

Should the M’s go for it and try to acquire the help needed to win a playoff spot?  I think   we need to answer these questions:

  • Are they close enough to win with 73 games left to play?
  • Can they upgrade enough to catch the leaders?
  • What will it cost them?

Are they close enough to win with 73 games left to play?

The answer to the first question is yes.  73 is a lot of games left to play, and five games is nothing if a team catches fire.  You all remember 1995-well don’t get too excited that was a playoff run for the ages. And Oakland had a helluva run in 2002, but that doesn’t happen often either. Today FanGraphs projects the Mariners probability of making the Wild Card at 9.6 %.  That’s not a static number.  The more the M’s win and teams in front of them lose, the better that number gets. But on July 12th, that number isn’t very promising.

Confusing everything is the two different seasons the Mariners have had. For the first eight weeks, the M’s exceeded everyone’s expectations.  On May 25th the M’s were 28-18.  They’ve gone 17-26 since then, and are teetering on the edge of irrelevance. The question is, which team will show up when the M’s resume play on Friday against the Astros?

Can they upgrade enough to catch the leaders?

Without noodling around the question, the M’s biggest weakness is pitching.  Yes they could get consistent production from Adam Lind.  They could get better defense and offense in left field.  But the bottom line is they simply can’t score enough runs with this pitching staff as it is at this moment. The entire pitching staff is in disarray from the ace, Felix Hernandez, to the closer Steve Cishek.  The Mariners have used 23 different pitchers this year, which sounds like a lot, but it merely ties them with Oakland, Minnesota and Chicago.  Toronto and Cleveland used 24, and the leader in the American League is Texas with 26–things could be worse.

Starting Rotation

The team’s troubles really start here. In these past six weeks it has grievously under-performed.  Some of its troubles are caused by injury.  Other problems were caused by ineffectiveness.  On Friday the Mariners will return to action.  It is also the night of what should be Felix’s final rehab start in Tacoma.  Assuming all goes well, the rotation will look something like this : Hernandez, Iwakuma, Paxton, LeBlanc, Miley, Montgomer/Walker.

Of these, only Iwakuma has been solid, and even he has not been the Iwakuma we are used to. Will a healthy Felix provide a consistent, competitive 7 innings per start? Is Paxton about to become a dominant flame-throwing monster? Can Miley resume the form he showed April 6 to May 22nd in which he was a consistent 6 or more innings per start? Is LeBlanc the guy we saw his first two starts, or is he the guy Houston dismantled July 6th at Minutemaid Park? How long will Walker remain on the DL?  His injury, while not seeming serious is painful and will require time to heal.  Should Mike Montgomery move from the bullpen to the starting rotation, creating one hole to fill another?

If there is an abundance of starting pitching available to be had on the trade market, the M’s should be early buyers.  My sense is there is not. Starting pitching league wide is thin.  There are plenty of teams nursing similar injury problems.  What is available isn’t that good and it is expensive to acquire both in trading and salary cost.

Bullpen

The Mariners bullpen had a brilliant April, but it’s been mostly downhill from there, as the relief corps was overused to cover for the faltering rotation. Injuries to Tony Zych, Joaquin Benoit and Nick Vincent depleted a thin bullpen.  Cishek has lost five games.  The team has a 13-18 record in one run ball games. But the discrepancy since May 25th is much worse: the M’s have a 3-9 record with four walk-off losses.

In addition, bullpen innings are mounting at an alarming rate.  With roughly 55% of the season complete, Cishek has thrown 40 innings.  His career high is 69.2 innings in 2013.  Mongomery has logged 56.2 innings in his role of reliever-without-portfolio in his first season out of the bullpen.  Vidal Nuno has 35 innings in 31 appearances.  His career high for appearances, often as a swing man, is 32 in 2015.

Though every bullpen member has had moments of shut-down lucidity AND instances of disaster, only Montgomery and Nuno have demonstrated consistent, cold-eyed close-the-door ability.  I might throw Edwin Diaz in that mix with another 20 games under his belt. The current bullpen of Cishek, Benoit, Diaz, Montgomery, Nuno, David Rollins and Tom Wilhelmsen does not give the Mariners the quality or depth it needs to regain its stride in a pennant race. Though help may be coming if lefty Charlie Furbush and righty Ryan Cook recover from their injuries, I’ll believe that when I see it.  But likely the M’s will have to acquire help for the bullpen if they are to compete for a playoff spot.  In my view this is the best place for the team to spend money and limited tradeable resources.

Buyers or Sellers?

In order to answer the question, there has to be some certainty what this team is.  Is it the April-May team or the June-July team? Because if they come out of the gate against division rival Houston and do a swan dive into an empty pool as they did on the road against the Astros a week ago, the game is probably up, and they should start thinking about the future.  On the other hand, if they play well over the next two weeks, they should be all in. It won’t be easy.  They have a home series against the Astros and White Sox, two teams ahead of them in the Wild Card standings, and then a very challenging road  trip featuring series with the Blue Jays, Pirates and Cubs. Just win baby. Go M’s.

 

 

 

 

The Miley we need

Miley vs astros
Miley was effective in a 2-1 loss to Houston on July 4th.

If today’s 2-1 loss to the Astros didn’t go quite the way we’d like it, at least there was a silver lining. The return of a functional Wade Miley, if he can continue, is a welcome reinforcement to the starting rotation.

Yes, Miley gave up both Astro runs. But his line was a respectable 6.2 innings pitched, 7 hits, 2 walks, 2 strikeouts and 2 earned runs. To be clear, the last appearance when pitched six or more innings was June 7th, a 7 inning 7-1 victory over Cleveland at Safeco.  Four of his previous five outings were of the five innings or less variety.  So today’s start was a breath of fresh air and a relief for this team.

Miley’s outing added a bit more buoyancy to a  pitching staff that is still gasping for air as they try to align their bullpen, wracked by too many injuries and too many games with three, four and five innings to fill. Tom Wilhelmsen came in and pitched a perfect inning, and David Rollins provided some excitement for the final out in the eighth.

If the M’s didn’t win, it’s hard to pin this one on the pitching. Lance McCullers is a fine pitcher who pretty much kills the Mariners.  His line going into his game against the M’s was 15.1 IP, 2.93 ERA, .182/.297/.236 slash allowed, with a record of 2-1.  Now it’s 3-1 with even better supporting numbers.

But it’s not like the M’s didn’t have their chances. Leonys Martin’s leadoff triple in the first inning was wasted when Seth Smith and Robinson Cano both struck out, and Martin was inexplicably thrown out at home when he tried to advance on a throw to first when Cano’s third strike was in the dirt. The M’s wasted a similar chance in the 7th, when they loaded the bases with no outs and Dae Ho Lee grounded into a double play with  Cano, the runner at third, forced out at home. Not much clutch hitting, and the unforced TOOTBLAN  in the first simply undid the few opportunities available in a tightly pitched game. Unforced baserunning errors and defensive mistakes have cost this team dearly. .

M’s cross the half way mark at 43-39

Seth Smith Grand Slam
Seth Smith hits his first career grand slam against the Orioles in Sunday’s 9-4 win. The Mariners four game sweep of Baltimore gives them momentum heading into a critical seven game road trip against Houston and Kansas City leading into the All-Star break.

Today the Mariners played their 82nd game; 80 games left to play in the season.  They clubbed Baltimore pitching into submission with all the elegance of a runaway jackhammer, just missing the team record for most extra base hits in a four game series.  For all the question marks the M’s have about their starting rotation, the O’s must be looking at their battle-torn quintet and wondering what the heck happened.

With the Mariners just crossing the half way mark an assessment is in order.  Clearly there are two distinct Mariner seasons at work here:  everything that happened before May 28th when the M’s were ten games over .500, and everything after.

Offense

Most of the past seven seasons were characterized by terrible offenses, even historically terrible offenses. That is clearly not the case this year. The Mariners have scored 407 runs just across the halfway stripe.  That’s about 800 runs in a season give or take.  The last season the M’s scored 800 runs or more was 2002, when they plated 814 runs.The M’s haven’t scored 700 runs since 2007.

What’s nice about this is it isn’t just a few guys. Everybody chips in, and everyone has had a big hit to win a game.  Even Adam Lind, who seems incapable of tackling a walk and nailing it in the scorecard next to his name, has had some big games and at least one walk off homer. It’s nice to see that Nelson Cruz‘s 2015 production wasn’t a fluke, and that Robinson Cano is having the bounceback year we thought he might have, and that Kyle Seager is having a little better Kyle Seager year than usual.  But how about Dae-Ho Lee? Together with Lind’s 11 home runs, the two of them managed 31 extra base hits including 23 home runs (not sure how Lee has only three doubles to go with his 11 homers!!!)

All is not perfect with the offense.

  • Is there an effective replacement for Nori Aoki’s at bats?  Despite his speed Leonys Martin is not a good lead off hitter. He has struggled to find his form since coming off the DL.  Seth Smith, despite his lack of speed, may actually be a better lead off guy.
  • The Mariners offense as a whole struggled in June. The team slashed as follows
    • March/April  .228/.319/.397  with 100 runs scored
    • May  .283/.346/.477 with 156 runs scored
    • June  .265/.320/.425 with 120 runs scored.

Though the M’s  offense obviously didn’t run and hide in June, I believe the team tried do too much as the rotation got further behind earlier in game after game.  Injury to Martin and Aoki’s relative ineffectiveness didn’t help.  I’m not quite sure what to make of  Lind’s miserable .278 OBP. When everybody is able to play a part to extend an inning and score a run or two, this team performs much better.  The long ball is a great weapon, but staying in the middle of the field works too.

Defense

This is an area that nobody talks about, but the M’s are generally a lousy defensive club. Let’s start with traditional stats. This team makes too many errors.  The M’s have made 53 errors, tying them with Oakland for 13th of 15 teams in the American League.  It also ties them with the A’s and Angels for 12th in fielding percentage at .982.  In terms of the less traditional range statistics, the Mariners rank in the bottom third in Defensive Runs Saved with -20, in UZR and UZR 150, and in FanGraphs overall Defensive rating with a -12.  The Mariners have allowed 36 unearned runs that might have gotten pitchers out of innings and preserved wins.  This is a required area of improvement for a stretch run. Outfield defense, in particular, has not been very good.  Looking for an upgrade in left field wouldn’t hurt.  The combo of Smith, Martin and Cruz just isn’t going to get to enough balls.

Starting Rotation

I honestly believed this would be an area of strength for the M’s in 2016.  And for the first couple of months it was. The Mariners were in the top five for both most runs scored and fewest runs allowed-the building blocks of a winning season. But having massive disruption in a starting rotation is the worst thing that can happen to a team. There was the Felix injury, Hisashi Iwakuma was still struggling, Wade Miley forgot how to pitch and became injured, Nate Karns forgot everything he knew about pitching, and Taijuan Walker struggled with fear of being really hurt.  It all combined for really bad. Here are some useful stats for the starting staff

  • April-23 Games; 597 Plate Appearances; .240/.310/.370 allowed; 2.60 K/W; 14 HR’s allowed.
  • May-28 G; 681 PA; .256/.310/.456 allowed; 3.07 K/W, 30 HR’s allowed
  • June-28 G; 672 PA; .291/.347/.477 allowed; 2.55 KW; 22 HR’s allowed.

Though June seems much worse (and will become more evident when we look at the bullpen), in fact the rotation was in pretty serious decline in May.  Too many less than six inning starts, and this team allows a lot of home runs.  Today the M’s stand at 102 home runs allowed, number six in the American League (league average is 98)

With Felix, Miley, and Walker hurt, Karns ineffective, and Iwakuma inconsistent, June was a very tough month, and it show in the team’s 10-18 record. With more consistent performance from Iwakuma, Walker pitching with less fear,  James Paxton showing flashes of dominance,  the acquisition of Wade LeBlanc and Felix due to come off the DL, it still isn’t clear if this is a rotation built for the stretch run. With Boston, Texas, Anaheim and other teams suffering significant injuries and rotation failures may mean the M’s can get by with what they have.  But maybe they should join the Drew Pomeranz sweepstakes.

The Bullpen

Relief staffs are so fragile and unpredictable, it was hard to know what to expect in 2016.  The M’s stockpiled a nice stack of guys, but as the year began, a queue of injured relievers formed and has only gotten longer as the season progressed. Ryan Cook, Evan Scribner, and Charlie Furbush inaugurated the Wounded Reliever Society, and they’ve been joined by Tony Zych, Joaquin Benoit, Nick Vincent, and Jonathan Aro. Joel Peralta, Mayckol Guaipe, Cody Martin, Steve Johnson and Don Roach made the their trip up and back on the Rainiers Express.

Like the rotation, the bullpen has experienced good times and bad times:

  • April-58 Appearances; 64 Innings Pitched; .173/.245/.293 allowed; 3.30 K/W; WHIP 0.938; 7 saves; 5-2 record
  • May-83 appearances; 90.2 IP; .208/.231/.330 allowed; 3.30 K/W; WHIP 1.081; 6 saves; 5-3 record
  • June-81 appearances; 98.1 IP; .264/.344/.453 allowed; 2.63 K/W; WHIP 1.515; 7 saves; 2-8 record.

As you can see, June was catastrophic for the bullpen as offense allowed increased by about 50%. But that should be accompanied by some other important statistics.  The 64 IP in April was second lowest in the AL.  The innings pitched in May and June were the second highest in the American League.  The M’s had the second lowest BABIP in the AL during April and May.  In June it was the fifth highest.

There is little question in my mind that a bullpen that overachieved in April and May was way overtaxed in June.  While I believe Dipoto has done a great job of mixing and matching, and picking up pieces where he can, the bullpen is a weakness, further undercut by the performance of the starting rotation.  In order for the M’s to effectively compete for the pennant, they must add at least one and maybe two arms.

While the Mariners have righted a season on the verger of a catastrophic capsizing, it is far from clear that they have the goods they need to win a playoff spot.  They finished their highly successful homestand 7-2, four games over .500, and only one game out of the second Wild Card spot.  Their seven game road trip comes against two of their competitors, Houston and Kansas City.  It’s a tough way to finish off the official first half before the All-Star break.  It’s imperative, they not tank this trip.

After the break, their schedule doesn’t get any easier, with only six more games at home, and every series against a playoff contender.  July can’t be a continuation of June.  Go M’s.