The M’s wake up this morning at 18-12. They are a half game behind the Angels and Astros who are tied atop the American League Western Division.
Improbable. Impossible. Who’da thunk it? Looking back at my pre-season predictions which suggested a rosy 84 win season and then became more pessimistic when the regular season began, suggesting a .500 club might be more likely, obviously not me.
But it’s early yet, and we still don’t quite know who this team is, though they are a pleasant surprise so far.
Some quick observations. In the big picture, the M’s don’t look like a contending team. They are a +3 runs scored, with a Pythagorean won-loss of 15-15. In the middle. For most offensive statistics–runs, 2B, 3B, total bases, the M’s rank right in the middle, 7th or 8th in the AL. There are a few anomalies. The Mariners are 11th in hits, and 15th in walks. Yet they are 3rd in batting average with .256, 3rd in slugging with .438, and they lead the league for fewest strikeout with 222 (Numbers from Baseball Reference.) League average for a team is 264.
Pitching numbers, again, aren’t great, but not horrendous either. The M’s rank 9th in team ERA with 4.64, but are 5th in XFIP with 4.01 according to FanGraphs. They rank 4th in walks allowed, 5th in strikeouts, but are 12th in home runs allowed according to Baseball Reference
So statistically–big picture statistics-this team is a fairly middling team with some specific strengths and specific flaws. They put the ball in play a lot, eschewing the generally high strikeout totals currently in vogue. Pitching, they give up a lot of home runs and that’s what seems to get them in trouble.
A look at their last ten games is interesting. They gave up more than four runs only twice, Chicago’s 10-4 ambush of Mike Leake on April 23rd, and the 6-5 loss to Cleveland and Corey Kluber on April 27th. Starting pitching went six innings or more but seven times including Erasmo Ramirez’s second loss and last night’s Wade LeBlanc start which we knew would be cobbled together.
The Dee Gordon Show is performing nightly at a ballpark near you, and if you aren’t watching, well, you’re missing out. Gordon is slashing .355/.380/.452. He’s tied for the league lead in hits with 44, leads the league in stolen bases with 14, and is in the top 20 for runs scored with 20. More importantly, it’s ridiculous to watch him get on base and create general havoc for opposing pitchers and opportunities for the hitters behind him. Trading for Gordon in the off-season was sheer inspiration.
Jean Segura, Robinson Cano, and Mitch Haniger have all cooled a bit since burning down the city of Cleveland, but were all offensive engines over the preceding ten day period. Those returning from the wounded list; Nelson Cruz, Mike Zunino, Ryon Healy, Ben Gamel, are all still trying to find themselves with consistency, but each has made a meaningful impact in games since their return from the DL.
Strictly from an eyeball point of view, this may be the best defensive infield the M’s have had in quite some time. Advanced stats love Jean Segura and Robinson Cano with 4 defensive runs saved each and solid UZR/150 ratings, but for whatever reason don’t like Kyle Seager, awarding him -3 drs. Healy also looks good at first base, maybe the best the M’s have had since John Olerud. From a spectator’s perspective, Seager has made some eye-watering plays in the field this week, beginning with the double play he turned with Cano in the first game of the Oakland series.
The M’s get a lot of grief about their pitching. It’s been better than I expected, though they have yet to resolve their fifth starter status. Felix Hernandez has found a comfort zone, in which he seems to cruise through six innings and then fall off a cliff. However, since being pounded in San Francisco on April 4th, the King has allowed three or fewer runs in his last six starts. Not the King of old, he is a newer and slipperier Felix who seems to still be learning on the job-or maybe we’re just learning who HE is. James Paxton appeared to be the Big Maple we hoped we were getting in his last start with 16 punchouts in seven really good innings. I’m anxious to see his next start. Mike Leake hasn’t been as good as he was for the M’s in his handful of starts last summer. He’s allowed a worrisome 17 runs over his last 19.1 innings. Marco Gonzales has had back to back good games after hitting a low point in his April 9th and 14th starts.
If this rotation won’t remind anyone of Boston’s or Cleveland’s or Houston’s, it feels adequate if healthy, if it continues to improve a bit, and if the front office decides to strengthen it heading into the trade deadline, assuming the M’s are still competing. However the inconsistency of the rotation is also probably the reason the team hasn’t run off a long string of victories.
The bullpen, despite Wednesday’s meltdown remains pretty darn good at the back end. Edwin Diaz and Juan Nicasio form a solid set-up closer tandem. Nick Vincent is another late-innings guy that has done great service for the M’s the past two seasons, but is really struggling. James Pazos, Chasen Bradford, and LeBlanc have all contributed to the team’s success, and filled in for a pitching staff that rarely gets past the 6th inning. Bullpens are bullpens. It’s hard to predict their success from year to year, even with all the same guys. I don’t think this one is any different.
So the M’s find themselves six games over .500 heading into a crucial series with the Angels for the weekend. I hate the Angels, so from the standpoint of measuring the team against a division foe, continuing progress up the AL pecking order, and fulfilling me own personal vendetta against the team from SoCal, the M’s need to keep on keeping on. Win those series. Go M’s