I could make all kinds of excuses, but honestly the 2018 Mariners were just a difficult team to write about after about July 5th. All the things that went well in April, May and June-decent pitching, timely hitting and a different hero every night, dissolved into ineptitude, lassitude and tiresome losing baseball. 89 wins was a big improvement over 2017, but it was truly the most enervating 89 win season in history.
Even the playoffs didn’t really go my way. I rooted for the underdog A’s, clobbered by the hated Yankees. Then the Astros and Brewers, but all to no avail. A World Series featuring the Red Sox and the Dodgers? Really? Who do you root for in that? A meteor? A plane crash? The return of the bubonic plague?
But when it was all over, I had to ask what happened to the game I loved? More strikeouts than hits. Waiting around for a home run to win a game? This is analytics run amuck to ruin a game that used to be a chess match of skill versus skill. Now it’s simply a bet, a die roll and hoping for the best. This is the worst of 60’s baseball without the embarrassment for striking out. High 90’s heat versus launch angle plus exit velocity may be 2018’s idea of a good time. But if Rob Manfred really wants to know why people aren’t watching–this might be it.
Even so, 2019 is just around the corner. There will be trades and Hall of Fame voting to talk about. Spring Training isn’t all that far away.
Your Seattle Mariners are 46-26. That’s twenty games over .500, and about 16 more games over the break even point than I believed they’d be with my most optimistic predictions.
The M’s are a puzzle to many observers, especially to those who know nothing more about the team than what they see in the box scores and can plug into sabrmetric measures. How does a team with a +22 run differential hold the fourth best record in the American League? Their loss on Thursday night cost them their narrow lead over the Astros, who are finally starting to heat up all their thrusters. But the M’s are still 7-3 over their last ten games, losing a game Rays and a pair in a series split with the Red Sox. With the next six games all against the Red Sox and Yankees, there’s still room for a mid-June stumble against the best teams in the east.
But what if they don’t. There are a few different scenarios I’m thinking of for the Tour de Nasty. The M’s could have a super trip (for me, that’s anything above .500). Let’s not be greedy, say 4-2. They arrive in Baltimore with a run differential of +30. Great stuff right? Still close games in line with their performance, but they bump their record to 23 games over .500 against the best teams in baseball based on winning percentage. Scenario two shows the M’s arriving in the home of the Star Spangled Banner at an even 4-4. Their run differential stays about the same give or take a few. The nightmare scenario, in my view, is the M’s melt down entirely and they go 2-6 ish. Or the M’s manage to break even, winning a few in tight, Mariners one-run fashion, but get blown out in two or three games and return with a run differential below +15.
They’re still around 20 games over .500, still trailing the Astros, but they’ve gone toe to toe with the Bosox and Yankees and have only three games left with those bad boys in September.
Will the baseball press continue to claim it’s luck? Cliff Corcoran of the Athletic said the M’s run of one-run wins is not sustainable, that they are basically “coin flips.” though I suspect if you asked Ben Gamel, Mike Zunino and Denard Span about their effort to claw back from last night’s 6-3 deficit and win the game late 7-6, they’d find much relationship to tossing quarters.
Jeff Sullivan on Fangraphs, a former writer for USS Mariner and Lookout Landing, well acquainted with and exhausted by the Mariners’ losing ways’ acknowledges the M’s clutch pitching and offensive performances, calls them an “adequate team,” but labels their performance to date, a mirage.
Ben Lindbergh, writing for The Ringer, calls the M’s a fluke, and also attributing their winning ways to luck. He cites their modest position for pitching, 7th in park adjusted FIP, 8th in non-pitcher wRC+, and 16th in park-adjusted defensive efficiency. However Lindbergh also connects the Mariners’ flukiness with their current position with their years of absence from playoff baseball. Therefore, if they fluke their way into the playoffs, well, they deserved it, they’ve endured so much. Gee, thanks I think.
If you’re reading this, hey I’m just a fan like you. Probably, like you Mariners fan, I’m outraged when I read that my team’s daily travails to win a game by one run is meaningless, it’s on the same level as betting red on the roulette wheel. I say that because I watch most games on television and they struggle to score, get a lead and keep it. Why? Because baseball is a hard game, dammit. The M’s haven’t had many blowouts this season, have BEEN blown out a few times and that accounts for their tiny run differential.
I get cranky when I hear comments that the M’s success this year is simply lucky, they are winning on a coin flip, they can’t sustain this success. I have read not one critique that can explain their one run win success. There isn’t a sufficient objective mathematically-driven tool that explains it, so the only explanation must be luck, coin flips and flukes. Writers soaked in sabermetrics can’t explain it so it must be magic. Their certain downfall has biblical certainty. Their success wasn’t predicted by projection tools at the beginning of the season, therefore it can’t be real, it doesn’t fit the narrative, it must be fake, flukey or whatever lucky is.
This is who we are. We just took two from your beloved Red Sox. . The Mariners are 23-10 in one run games. But they’re also 9-8 in blowouts. 6-0 in extra inning games. This is not luck. This is who the Mariners are. They are guts. They have chemistry. They know how to win, perhaps without the beatdown offense and flash of New York, Boston, and Houston. But ask the Red Sox if the M’s are lucky. They got knocked out of first place in the east on Saturday. Okay, it was just for a day but we’ll take it.
Your Seattle Mariners, on the strength of two breathtaking wins this weekend and three in a row over the Tigers are in sole possession of the second wild card spot and second place in the AL west. They have 1.5 game lead over the Angels. At 27-19 they have the fourth best record in the American League and the seventh best record in major league baseball.
Monday is the day ESPN comes out with their power rankings. So does the Athletic. They both have your Seattle Mariners ranked at a solid 14. That’s 14 behind those same Angels. That’s number 14 behind the Cleveland Indians they left a smoking wreck a few weeks ago. Behind the slow starting Nationals and Cubs, behind the Pirates and Cardinals with worse records, and behind the Arizona Diamondbacks that just lost nine of ten.
Just to be clear, all the writers don’t feel the same. CBS Sports have the M’s at 8, up seven spots from last week. Bleacher Report, has the Mariners at nine, climbing five from last week. USA Today has the M’s at 11, less middle of the pack but still well behind the ridiculous Angels at 8.
The two reasons given for the soft appreciation for what the M’s have accomplished to date are: 1) Robinson Cano’s suspension 2) a soft schedule.
Let’s deal with number two. Nobody gets to determine their schedule, Major League Baseball does that. The M’s haven’t played the Yankees or Red Sox, the bullies of the American League. They’ve struggled against the Astros and Angels. But just to be clear, they’ve beaten everybody else. Though the M’s lost the series in Detroit, their three of four wins over the Tiggers at Safeco, gave them a 4-3 season series win. They may have difficult days ahead in June when the schedule is very tough, but we don’t know that yet. Penalizing a team for games they haven’t played seem ridiculous. What is this, the college football power rankings?
The factor everyone drew attention to is Cano’s suspension. It is shocking. It is disappointing, and yes it will have an impact on the team. But it’s impossible to look at what this team has accomplished and not realize they aren’t letting this stop them. If you are an M’s fan and missed the games this weekend, you missed Jean Segura, Dee Gordon, Mitch Haniger, Guillermo Heredia, Mike Zunino and James Paxton asserting themselves as the new leaders of this team. You missed the heartwarming debut performance of Ryan Cook as a new bridge to Edwin Diaz who laid the Tigers low like a scythe through wheat. This Mariners group has more team spirit, they play for each other more than any I can remember for a long time. Will this team miss Robinson Cano? Absolutely, but these guys can play.
I can’t foresee the future. The M’s may go 2-26 in June (but I doubt it because they play the Orioles and Royals as well as all the tough guys.) But they haven’t played them yet, and it seems unfair to dismiss them when nobody expected them to be here, heading into Memorial Day with the wind at their backs.
Wake up Mariners fans, and look at the standing in your morning paper, or on ESPN MLB as I’m doing, and you will find your Seattle Mariners in second place in AL West. The also hold on to that all important second AL Wild Card spot. Given the travails of the last week, it seems miraculous.
But as many travails as the Mariners are having, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are having even more. They’ve won four of their last eleven games, and have suffered a raft of pitching injuries. The Angels bitten by the injury bug include starter Matt Shoemaker on the DL, and starter J.C. Ramirez and closer Kenyan Middleton have had or are having Tommy John surgery. This may be the daylight the M’s need to surge past the Halos.
Felix Hernandez started Friday night’s game against the Tigers at Safeco Field. The Tiggers ran out Michael Fulmer, their best starter, though the M’s more or less mugged him on May 12th. It didn’t start out well as the King bequeathed the visitors three runs in fairly ugly fashion in the first inning. In a team effort, the M’s gifted Detroit a fourth run, unearned in the fifth inning. Felix lasted through six, and if his performance wasn’t inspiring, it is the six inning three run performance we’ve come to expect.
Meanwhile the M’s offense flailed haplessly away at Fulmer’s stuff. They managed only two hits and a hit batter heading into the 7th inning. But after Fulmer walked Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager to begin the inning, the M’s found a little spark. A Ryon Healy groundout, followed by a Ben Gamel single scored two. Walks to Mike Zunino and Guillermo Heredia loaded the bases in time for a Dee Gordon sacrifice fly. A Jean Segura single and a Mitch Haniger double later, and bingo M’s lead 5-4.
Whattaya waiting for?
To start the eighth manager Scott Servais wheeled out the much bunged up Juan Nicasio, who has looked anything but the set-up guy he was paid a great deal of money to be. Though he didn’t strike any Tigers out, he did retire the side on a somewhat improved slider and a fastball that reached 96. He was followed by Edwin Diaz in the ninth and he promptly allowed a single to James McCann. To keep it short, Diaz struck out the Mikie Mahtook (what a great baseball name) to end the game.
A Few Quick Observations
It’s hard to know if this was the most important game of the year. Is that possible in May? But the past few days, despite the comeback win on Tuesday, this team seemed adrift. Dee Gordon, in his interview with Jen Mueller post-game, suggested they were in the dumps. But believe it or not, your Seattle Mariners are in this thing, and they have to just win baby.
A corollary to just winning is just scoring. They were doing nothing against Fulmer and somehow ground things out until they could handle him in the seventh as well as the legion of bad relievers that followed him. There is energy and excitement on this team I haven’t seen before, maybe ever. Toss out the quiet professional model, and let Guillermo Heredia run through the crowd like Rick Flair. Let Edwin Diaz pump his arms on a punch-out. It’s good for baseball and it’s good for this team and this town.
The Felix Hernandez boo birds were out in force last night. His final line was: 6.0 IP; 6 H; 4 R; 3 ER; 3 BB; 4K His cumulative stats aren’t pretty either with a 5.53 ERA, 5.35 FIP and 1.428 WHIP, the worst of his career. He is not the $28 million dollar man the M’s thought they were getting when they signed him to his current contract. But here is what he is today. He’s tied for the league lead in starts with 10. Of those starts, the Mariners won seven. Felix has thrown 55.1 innings through mid-May. Last year he threw a total of 86.2 innings. This is the Felix we have. He’s taking the ball every fifth day and giving you about six innings. If three runs in six innings is the price of his start, it’s up to the offense to pay it. If you were expecting him to be Justin Verlander or Chris Sale, I’m terribly sorry. Will he be better, probably not, but he’s not nothin’. Check out Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb or Yu Darvish if you need some consolation. You remember them. They got the big free agent contracts heading in to spring training. They suck.
The final codicil to scoring is holding on to a lead and the M’s did that last night. Whatever adjustments Nicasio made really worked. His velocity was up and even though balls were hit hard, they were outs. A great step going forward. The M’s need an effective Juan Nicasio to hang on to their spot.
Like I said in my last post, it’s been a lousy week. But it could be worse, I could be the Mariners. So much bad, so little fun.
Let’s start with a week ago today May 11th. The M’s flew into Detroit expecting to play an evening game. They are fresh off another series win in Toronto. There was still a certain glamor surrounding the team after James Paxton’s no-hitter, Joey Votto’s comments notwithstanding. But instead of a game against the lowly Detroits with the momentum gods firmly in Seattle’s favor, there was a tarp on the field. The game was postponed, and a make-up double header scheduled for Saturday.
Double-headers are the devil’s work. Teams today aren’t built for double-headers. The M’s, typical of many of today’s big-league teams have starters that go 5-6 innings and mounds of one-inning relief pitchers. Manager Scott Servais must have been so cranky. Both teams were allowed to add an additional player to their roster for the day. The M’s chose right handed reliever Dan Altavilla, fresh off the DL.
Saturday, May 12: Game One Tigers 4-3
Lefty Marco Gonzales worked around ten hits in six innings of work. He held the game to a scoreless tie until the Tigers scored single runs in the fourth and fifth innings and then a two run homer to Jose Iglesias in the sixth finished off Detroit scoring. Newly called reliever Eric Goeddel finished the game, allowing two hits. Tigers pitcher Matthew Boyd was effective against the M’s, allowing three runs on only three hits through six innings. In the ninth, the Mariners loaded the bases with two outs and but Dee Gordon grounded out to the first baseman to end the game. The Mariners were 0-6 with runners in scoring position.
Saturday, May 12: Game Two Mariners 9-5
Felix Hernandez started this game and was hit early and often. He lasted only five innings and got pounded for eight hits and five runs. James Pazos, Nick Vincent, Juan Nicasio, and Dan Altavilla were excellent closing out the game, allowing only one hit over the remaining four innings. The Mariners got things going in the first on Nelson Cruz’s RBI single. Ryon Healy hit a two run homer in the fourth. Robinson Cano blasted a three run shot in the fifth to give the M’s the lead. The cherry on top came when Kyle Seager doubled home Cruz and Cano in the 7th, followed by a Healy double to score Seager.
Sunday May 13: Tigers 5-4
In his first start after his no-hitter, James Paxton was less than sharp, allowing three runs on six hits over six innings. But the real killer was the bullpen. Chasen Bradford allowed a run in his inning of work on a hit batter followed by a Julio Iglesias double. Juan Nicasio allowed a run on three hits in his inning. Though the M’s struggled with starter Blaine Hardy and a bevy of Tigers relievers, the M’s had chances to win this with the lineup going 2-13 with runners in scoring position. The themes for the week will be bullpen breakdowns and failure to hit with runners in scoring position. The true lowlight of the game came, however, when Robinson Cano was struck on the hand by Hardy, fracturing the 5th metacarpal, requiring surgery. Of course it could be worse, and it will be.
Monday May 14: Mariners 1-0
This was the makeup game for the April 6th postponement featuring snow and freezing temperatures. It was nearly postponed again due to rain. Thankfully, sort of, the M’s and Twins got this one in. It really was the Wade LeBlanc show, as the veteran lefty threw six innings of three-hit shutout ball. The bullpen wrapped things up, allowing one hit, and garnering Edwin Diaz his 14th save. The M’s eaked out a run in the 8th when Dee Gordon led off with a double, and scored when Jean Seguras bunt was obligingly tossed into right field by Logan Morrison. The M’s were 1-13 with runners in scoring position.
Tuesday May 15: Mariners 9-8 (11)
The day began with devastating news that Robinson Cano violated MLB drug guidelines and would be suspended for 80 games. The vacancy at second base was filled, at least temporarily, by veteran Gordon Beckham. This wild affair featured three comebacks to tie the game by the Texas Rangers, before Guillermo Heredia’s terrific walk-off single in the 11th. This game featured seven Mariners pitchers, and the three we think of as most important, starter Mike Leake, set up man Juan Nicasio, and closer Edwin Diaz, all failed. Kyle Seager and Mitch Haniger both had big nights.
Wednesday May 16: Rangers 5-1
Bartolo Colon pitched a super game, allowing four hits over 7.2 innings. As good as Colon was, Mariners starter Christian Bergman was every bit as good allowing only two hits over seven. It was left to the bullpens to close things out, and the M’s simply collapsed. James Pazos, Nick Vincent and Marc Rzepczynski all allowed runs in the 8th and 9th innings to seal the Mariners doom.
Thursday May 17 Tigers 3-2
Matthew Boyd pitched around six hits and two walks, holding the M’s to two runs. Though Marco Gonzalez was effective through 5.2 innings, the Tigers broke through for a run in the sixth. It looked like the Mariners would hang on, but Nick Vincent coughed up three hits and two runs in the eighth to let this slip away. However, Mariners hitters are not off the hook for this game. The M’s were 2-7 with runners in scoring position with opportunities to get more in the 2nd and 7th innings. The only good news was the return of Ryan Cook to a major league roster after more than two years of arm and shoulder miseries. Cook was effective in 1.1 innings and hit 97 on the radar gun.
Though the team went 3-4 for the week, it was a truly awful seven days. Start with the loss of Robinson Cano, a charismatic team leader and strong performer on the field. Add a bullpen with many unreliable pieces. In my view, nothing is more demoralizing than taking a lead into late innings only to watch the bullpen fritter it away. The bullpen cost the M’s three games this week, and prolonged Tuesday’s game into 11 innings, and more than that put a big question mark on Scott Servais’ ability to trust the players he has. Finally, despite Mike Blowers’ assertions to the contrary, the M’s were not good driving in runs this week. They had opportunities to win some games with a few timely hits, and they simply didn’t.
Right now the Mariners sit a half game out of the second wild card spot behind the Angels, another team that is struggling. Another win or two would put the Mariners in that spot as they try to close out a very winnable month of May, and head into a very challenging June schedule. I don’t know if this is the week that made or broke this team, but in September, if we’re shaking our heads wondering what the hell happened, this could be the week we look at.
It’s been a crappy week at work. Got word of a major curricular change for next year without being consulted. We were a day late meeting our deadline in the yearbook, a major no-no for May.
Not much of a week for Mariners fans either. Monday was the make-up day in Minneapolis nobody really wanted to make up, including Robinson Cano’s fractured hand. This was followed the next day with shocking news Cano was suspended 80 games for violating MLB’s drug policy.
Normally this would the my pronouncement at the quarter mark about who this team is and what is likely to happen the rest of the season If things go well or are interesting there would be lots of chipper observations and some hearty fan-blog cheer-leading. But finding a smoking hole where there used to be a Robinson Cano, All-Star and Future Hall of Famer does change things.
The M’s have conceded as much as they move Dee Gordon back to a more familiar 2b this weekend. Jerry Dipoto acknowledged he”s looking at the best ways to reinvest Cano’s $12 million lost wages in finding a center fielder as well as pitching investments. How the GM is able to parlay this windfall into the Mariners assets could well determine the team’s success moving forward.
As the Mariners head into the 43rd game of the season, they find themselves at 24-18, with the Detroit Tigers in town for a four game series. They are a half game out of the second wild card spot.
With Cano out, Nelson Cruz hobbled by several injuries to start the season, and Kyle Seager struggling to find the consistency that sometimes allows him to carry the team, I think we can stop talking about the Mariners core going forward. The offensive leaders are relative new comers to the team. That doesn’t mean that Cruz, Seager and, when he returns, Cano aren’t important pieces of the team. But right now, especially with Cano out of the picture, they aren’t the offensive leaders.
Dee Gordon .321/.347/.405 109 OPS+ 105 wRC+ 54 hits 24 runs 15 stolen bases
Ryon Healy ..278/.320/..588 145 OPS+ 146 wRC+ 8 HRs 20 RBIs in 25 games
In adding Gordon and Healy in the offseason, Dipoto has lengthened the lineup and made the core’s production less critical, because others are filling in. Periodically, such as the series in Cleveland, the whole team catches fire and leaves a conflagration in its wake. Other nights one or two guys seem to get hot and wreak their own blend of havoc. Whether the team prospers or not, it likely won’t be dependent on Cano, Cruz and Seager, but the others. We haven’t seen Ben Gamel and Mike Zunino catch fire yet. When or if they do, it could make an interesting team even more so.
Let’s be clear, there are times when the M’s don’t cash in on opportunities, leaving way too many runners on the bases. But it also feels like this lineup can score at any time. I’ve laughed listening to Aaron Goldsmith keep track of the number of innings in a game in which the M’s have scored, rooting for them to be the first to score in in all nine. With these guys there are nights when it seems possible.
The starting rotation has been about what I figured. Paxton has become mostly good, though his Detroit game is a mystery. Felix has had good games and bad games, but he’s mostly putting in his six innings and challenging the offense to get some runs. Mike Leake has been good and bad. So has Marco Gonzales. It’s just not a strong group. Wade LeBlanc, on the other hand . . . give me some more Wade Le Blanc.
Unfortunately the bullpen really under-performed and cost the M’s some games. Edwin Diaz is a standout. James Pazos looks great. Nick Vincent found himself after a rough start. But crucial off-season acquisition Juan Nicasio, acquired in lieu of bolstering starting pitching, has been horrendous. In 19.2 innings Nicasio has allowed 27 hits and 14 earned runs. His velocity is down. He’s allowed 4 HRs and 8 2b’s. He’s far too costly a player to give up on so the M’s need to figure out whether this is a mechanical or physical problem. Nicasio and Mark Rzepczynski are on the naughty list.
Biggest Surprise: Jean Segura
Jean Segura, in his second year as a Mariner, just hits. He leads the team in doubles, can hit the ball to the left side, can steal a base. He seems pretty pedestrian in the field most of the time, but occasionally makes a brilliant play. He’s been amazing, especially in May.
Biggest Disappointment: Juan Nicasio
Nicasio is making $8.5 million to be the Mariner set up guy, pitch multiple innings, close if necessary. Dipoto signed him because he was so reliable last year, one in which he led the National League in appearances. Uh-oh. Could it be that overuse has led to arm weariness and his current ineffectiveness? I’m sure the M’s are asking the same question The team would be three games better if Nicasio did his job.
On Friday May 4th, driving home from work, I listened to a fascinating story on NPR. It was the eve of the Kentucky Derby and recent Congressional investigations into the use of Lasix in race horses to prevent in a horses lungs. I mean, race horses are amazing, they’re a huge investment. Why not let them perform their best and protect their health, right?
Well, Lasix is not allowed in all fifty states, for example the states in which the Preakness and Belmont Stakes are run. Lasix is also banned internationally from horse racing events.
Well, what’s the deal? Nobody wants a horse to suffer pulmonary collapse in a race. But at Churchill Downs, according to Erica Peterson’s story, Lasix is administered to all the Kentucky Derby entries, including those without signs of bleeding, four hours prior to race time. It turns out, the effect of Lasix is to cause horses to shed 25-30 pounds of water weight during a race, very much lightening the load so to speak and make them faster. In the case of horse racing, Lasix is a performance-enhancing drug.
I was shocked to hear about Robinson Cano’s 80 day suspension for PED use today. Shocked, and broken-hearted. According to Major League Baseball Robinson Cano used Lasix or furosemide to mask the use of another, unknown drug. In humans Lasix allows the passage of urine so quickly, detection of a banned substance is quite difficult. It is a banned substance by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and has been since 2008. While Cano might not lose 25-30 pounds of water in a ball game, he could also cheat and make it very hard to detect it by traditional urinalysis.
Lots of pixels are spilling on message boards about whether Robbie knew or didn’t know. Cano is a gazillionaire. He’s been in the league since the first testing regime began in January 2005, and has steadily ratcheted up through the current suspension levels agreed to by the players association in 2014. He isn’t stupid and he didn’t fall off the turnip wagon yesterday. It’s not doctor negligence. It’s very difficult to successfully charge and suspend a player for violating the drug policy, intentionally so. If Cano didn’t fight his suspension-costing him $12 million, what is a reasonable person left to conclude?
Cano made a conscious decision to break the rules. I’m not going to try to explain why he might have done it. He probably had the best of intentions, like finding a way for his aging body to stay on the field. But it’s wrong. I have argued fervently that PED use was and is wrong, especially in the days since players agreed to a testing regime and endorsed the level of punishments. More importantly he cost his team one of its most valuable players, not to mention his integrity and a shot at a likely Hall of Fame plaque.
I’ve spit fire and brimstone about this in the past, but that’s before one my own favorites was caught cheating. Cano was wrong, he cost his team, and I don’t buy the argument that he was dumb as a horse.