Your 2017 Seattle Mariners: The Starting Rotation

rotation

2016 was a tough year for the Mariners rotation.  It was plagued by injury and ineffectiveness that led to shuffling and reassignment to some pieces, and the acquisition of new pieces.

Gone

RHP Nate Karns, RHP Taijuan Walker

Reassigned

LHP Ariel Miranda

Arriving at intersection of Edgar and Dave

RHP Yovani Gallardo

LHP Drew Smyly

Organizational Depth

RHP Rob Whalen

RHP Chris Heston

LHP Dillon Overton

The Rotation

Felix Hernandez  RHP

Hisashi Iwakuma RHP

James Paxton LHP

Yovani Gallardo RHP

Drew Smyly LHP

If the Mariners have a glaring weakness, it is, based on last year’s performance, the starting rotation.  It’s not as though a knowledgeable reader looks at this rotation and suggests these guys all suck.  It’s that they definitely attained high levels of suckage last year, not in line with their career norms. I’m a great believer the M’s will go as far in 2017 as their rotation will take them, and the three factors that will contribute to that are health, a bounce-back, and fewer homers.

Stay healthy my friends

Hisashi Iwakuma and Drew Smyly are the only members of this rotation who made 30 or more starts last year.  King Felix and Gallardo both spent time on the DL recovering from injury.  In addition to spending time in Tacoma, Paxton’s 2016 was spent dealing with the nagging ailments that have afflicted him throughout his big league career.

The 2016 rotation was devastated by injury. Though the M’s thought they had prepared for that eventuality with Paxton, an extra pitcher, stashed in Tacoma, it didn’t matter.  Too many starts went to Wade LeBlanc, Cody Martin and Joe Wieland, with predictable results.

Though the M’s are better prepared, with Ariel Miranda, on the team for long relief and able to take a start, and Whalen, Heston, and Overton added to Martin in Tacoma-all with some big league experience-stashed away at Cheney Stadium, there is a reason they are not pitching in the big leagues. The other guys, when healthy, are better.  For the M’s to be competitive, the starters need to answer the call every fifth day.

The bounce back

James Paxton threw a career high 121.0 major league innings in 2016.  By all measures, ERA, BABIP, FIP, he showed improvement with a reinvented delivery that has baseball writers drooling and anointing him the next Mariners ace. Paxton is the only Mariners starting pitcher whose 2016 number improved over their career averages.

Hernandez had his worst year since 2008, enough to help us forget he should have won the 2014 Cy Young Award. By every measure, Felix was much less of a pitcher than we’ve come to expect-walks allowed, hits allowed, BABIP, FIP, fewer strikeouts, more home runs. It’s all there to be seen. We’ve seen ink spilled about his winter workouts, that he’s got a new off-season regimen with a new conditioning coach.  I hope it does the trick.  The M’s need their ace back in form.  One number to remember is 2,415.2.  That’s the number of innings the King has pitched in his career. It ranks 266th all time in baseball history. If Felix throws his customary 200 innings he will surpass really good pitchers like Bobby Witt,  Jimmy Key, and Brett Saberhagen in fewer seasons than it took them to reach their finales.  Hopefully, it just hasn’t all caught up with him.

Hisashi Iwakuma makes his mark in major league baseball with location, guile, and a nasty cutter sinking out the strike zone. In 2016 Iwakuma made all his starts, 33 to be exact, tying his excellent 2013 mark.  But that’s really the extent of the good news. Iwakuma allowed the most hits per nine innings of his career, and though his walk numbers were still only 2.1 BB/9, combined with the hits raised his WHIP to a career high 1.327. With more baserunners, and a career high 28 HR’s allowed, there were the makings of considerable unpleasantness. Overall, Iwakuma, despite his 16 wins was an average pitcher. I don’t want to paint too bleak a picture.  Iwakuma did throw some really great games, but there were far more stinkers than we’ve come to expect.  Can he bounce-back to be the able number two guy we’ve come to expect? At age 35, we have to wonder.

No Mariners player is in bigger need of a bounce back campaign than Yovani Gallardo. From 2009-2015, Gallardo made 30-33 starts per year for Milwaukee and threw 180-200 innings. Nobody is going to mistake him for Nolan Ryan or Greg Maddux, but for those seven seasons, Gallardo was a solid 2 plus WAR player, exactly what you’d hope out of a number four pitcher. Then Gallardo signed a free agent contract with Baltimore and the wheels came off, went missing and were completely misassembled. 5.42 ERA, nearly two runs above his career mark, 4.7 BB/9-well above his career mark of 3.4, lots of hits and home runs.  He was injured early in the season and came back bad.  Is there a guarantee he can approach his career norms?  No, but he has a track record and our fingers are crossed.

Drew Smyly was up to his neck in the great homer boom of 2016.  His H/9 ticked up from his career averages, his WHIP of 1.272 was only a little higher than career average.  But the HR/9 1.6 was a career high resulting in 32 home runs allowed.Walks and strikeouts were, however, within career norms.  Hopefully Smyly’s bounceback has more to do with location and working hitters differently, and not something physical.

Walks n’ taters

2016 was the year of the homer, as the total number of home runs hit in major league baseball increased by over 10%, or 600 homers. At times it felt like all the extra home runs were hit against Mariner pitching, though that wasn’t quite the case.

A quick look at two basic stats, however shows the tendencies of the 2017 rotation.  With the exception of James Paxton, every one had corresponding increases in their walk rate and home rates-numbers that go together like “Oh No!” and “Damn!”

BB/9 2016     BB/9 career        HR/9 2016     HR/9 Career

Felix Hernandez                             3.8                2.6                         1.1                       .8

Hisashi Iwakuma                           2.1                 1.8                         1.3                     1.1

James Paxton                                   1.8                2.8                         0.7                    0.7

Yovani Gallardo                              4.7                3.4                         1.2                     0.9

Drew Smyly                                     2.5                 2.5                         1.6                      1.2

Nobody quite knows why the home run rate has grown so fast the past two seasons, whether we’ve seen the worst of it and it will begin to decline or not.  The Mariners have invested heavily in a ball-catching outfield, but two things there is no defense for is a walk and a home run.  The rotation will have to make reductions in these areas if they are going to hold serve.

Evaluation

Last year’s rotation was not good.  Felix was hurt, Iwakuma and Walker were inconsistent.  Miley and Karns were bad enough that they were banished. Is this rotation better? Maybe.  The potential is there, but based on last year’s performance it is impossible to predict. Let’s just say that for the Mariners to make it to the playoffs, this rotation has to be better, and someone will have to step up and lead this group that seems like at best five number 3, 4, and 5 guys.  The improved outfield defense should help, but expecting four players to bounce back to career norms might be expecting a little much.

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