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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

September 2, 2011 at 12:08 PM

Pitching now a bigger struggle for Mariners than hitting

felixcelebrates.jpg

(Photo by Associated Press)

It’s kind of been taken for granted by Mariners’ fans that their woes are centered around offense. Figure out a way to score runs, and the wins would follow.

I don’t need to go back over the woeful history of the Mariners’ offensive troubles last year, and how for much of this season, it looked they were headed for numbers that were every bit as bad. And yet, on the strength of their stalwart pitching, the Mariners still stood at .500 (43-43) as late as July 5, when they were just 2 1/2 games out of first place. That surprising run of contention was built around the fact that the Mariners could count on a well-pitched game virtually every night out from their starting rotation of Felix Hernandez, Michael Pineda, Doug Fister, Erik Bedard and Jason Vargas.

Something kind of interesting has happened since then, however. The Mariners’ pitching began to struggle in July, which coupled with an absolutely miserable offensive month (72 runs and a .574 OPS in 26 games) led to a 17-game losing streak and a 6-20 record.

The hitting, meanwhile, perked up considerably in August, but the pitching didn’t. The Mariners, dead last in the American League in most offensive categories all year, including scoring, actually entered the realm of respectability. After scoring 84 runs in May, 84 in June and, as mentioned, 72 in July, they shot up to 121 runs in August. And their August OPS was over .700 for the first time all year at .736. It’s not exactly the 1927 Yankees, but at least it doesn’t have to be prefaced by the phrase “historically bad,” as had been the case.

That improvement was accomplished largely through an infusion of rookies, most notably Dustin Ackley, Mike Carp and Kyle Seager, with contributions from Casper Wells and Trayvon Robinson before recent struggles.

The pitching decline, meanwhile, has come as the staff got younger as well after the trades of Bedard and Fister. But the fade, as mentioned, started earlier than that. The Mariners got sensational pitching in both May and June, ranking first in the AL in both months with ERAs of 2.98 and 2.82. But in July, their team ERA shot up to 4.66 (13th in the AL) and rose even more in August to 4.85 (12th in the AL).

Obviously, we’ve seen the replacements for Fister and Bedard have their ups and downs. Charlie Furbush, Blake Beavan and Anthony Vasquez have combined to make 14 starts since Aug. 1, with a cumulative 6.20 ERA. Michael Pineda seemed to hit the wall in July, putting up a 6.75 ERA in the month, followed by 4.70 in August — this after putting up stellar months of 2.01 (April), 2.81 (May) and 3.03 (June). Vargas, after a strong first half, has struggled mightily the past two months. He had a 5.09 ERA in July and 6.07 in August, going a combined 2-7. Bedard, one of the best pitchers in baseball in May and June, was injured throughout July and made only one start. Only Felix Hernandez remained consistent in July and August. His ERAs by month are 3.32 (April), 3.07 (May), 3.65 (June), 3.50 (July), and 2.84 (August), with a complete-game win to start September.

As the starters struggled, the number of innings required by the bullpen rose, and so did their ERA. Here are the month-by-month numbers of Mariners starters and relievers, with the team’s record in parentheses:

April (13-15)

Starters: 28 games, 169 innings, 3.78 ERA

Relievers: 26 games, 75 innings, 4.32 ERA

May (15-11)

Starters: 26 games, 175 1/3 innings, 2.93 ERA

Relievers: 25 games, 67 innings, 2.55 ERA

June (11-16)

Starters: 27 games, 191 1/3 innings, 3.01 ERA

Relievers: 24 games, 47 innings, 2.87 ERA

July (6-20)

Starters: 26 games, 163 innings, 4.64 ERA

Relievers: 23 games: 64 2/3 innings, 4.73 ERA

August (13-15)

Starters: 28 games, 169 1/3 innings, 5.10 ERA

Relievers: 25 games, 75 2/3 innings, 4.28 ERA

Note that the Mariners have been using four rookies out of the bullpen — Tom Wilhelmsen, Josh Lueke, Dan Cortes and Chance Ruffin, with predictably mixed results.

As is the case with the offense, the Mariners are using the final half of this season to try to evaluate young players and decide whether or not they are keepers. With Fister and Bedard gone, Vargas fading and Pineda under increasingly tight wraps, it’s far from the stable and productive rotation we saw in the first half. The bullpen, too, is more erratic than it was in the first half when David Pauley (also gone) and Jamey Wright were extremely effective in setup roles. Wilhelmsen has emerged, but the other youngsters have been up and down.

The Mariners can still count on a solidly pitched game whenever Felix Hernandez takes the mound. But for the past two months, not much else has been guaranteed.

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