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.

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