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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

April 15, 2009 at 8:12 AM

Making pitches

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Don’t miss my Talkin’ Baseball segment coming up at 8:30 a.m. on KJR AM 950’s Mitch in the Morning Show. Also, don’t forget to tune in Geoff Baker Live! as tonight’s pre-game show, running from 6 p.m.-7 p.m. and leading right into the Mariners-Angels contest.
A look, above, at Jarrod Washburn in Oakland last week, He’ll take the mound tonight as the Mariners try to make it six wins in a row. Washburn is one of four Mariners starting pitchers to go at least seven innings while allowing two earned runs or fewer so far this season.
Last year at this time, eight games in, only Felix Hernandez and Carlos Silva had turned the trick once each. It took the team 16 games to get as many seven-inning, two-run starts as this year’s squad has already accomplished. So, twice as many games.
It took 20 games for the M’s to have four different starters — Silva, Washburn, Hernandez and Miguel Batista — do it. And those were some pretty good starts the M’s were getting in 2008 before everything feel apart.
So, to do what this team has in the opening week plus a day is quite astonishing. Only Ryan Rowland-Smith has yet to have an outing like that.
And it’s important. If a starter can go seven or eight innings, giving up only a run or two, you’re usually going to win. The M’s are 4-0 as a team in those four games, with only the Silva no-decision yesterday keeping starters at a 3-0-1 mark on their personal ledgers.
The improved defense has obviously made an early mark.
Mariners starting pitchers lead the AL with only a .635 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) against, and sit second behind only the White Sox with a .225 batting average against. Their 52 2/3 innings pitched is second only to the Twins.
And, importantly, their strikeouts-to-walks ratio is 3.08, putting them second behind the Royals. That means it isn’t all defense doing it for them. Mariners starting pitchers are striking people out at an above average rate in the AL and not putting runners on base via free passes.
In other words, Seattle starters have done an excellent job of making their pitches.
What worries me a little, and could crash this early season party for the M’s if not corrected, is the bullpen. On the surface, the relievers have done an outstanding job of preventing runs from scoring.
The 2.37 ERA for the bullpen is second only to Oakland in the AL. Their .173 batting average against is third best.
Here’s the problem, though. And it’s something we alluded to yesterday on the blog as baserunners kept piling up in the late innings. Don Wakamatsu mentioned it in Oakland the other day as well. The bullpen is still having command issues and has been walking a tightrope when it comes to getting out of jams. So far, the M’s bullpen has also been able to make pitches when it counts. But the stakes have been infinitely higher when they do because of all the other pitches not being made beforehand.
Seattle’s strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 1.13 is the AL’s worst. And the relievers have walked 16 batters so far, the fifth worst mark in the league. The M’s are only 11th best in strikeouts-per-nine innings at 7.36.
So, what does this tell you? That the M’s have stranded a whole lot of baserunners, but not by striking people out. Other teams have put the ball in play and the defense has been coming to the rescue of the bullpen. Not on every batted ball. But enough times. Mariners pitchers are not getting out of jams simply by overwhelming hitters to the same extent the starters have.
And that spells trouble if the relievers don’t start hitting the strike zone more and getting hitters to swing and miss.
You can’t keep putting that many runners on base and hope to get away with it. Brandon Morrow and Batista couldn’t do it in Game #2. Ever since, the M’s have avoided a similar implosion. But history and statistical odds say they likely won’t be able to get away with it much longer.
The paltry 13 hits allowed by the Mariners’ bullpen is the league’s best total.
It’s the reason this bullpen hasn’t blown more leads. All those balls being put into play by hitters are finding gloves. They aren’t dropping in for hits. Last year, this bullpen might have blown a few more games with inferior fielding behind it. But like I said, it can’t go on forever. At some point, this bullpen will start giving up some hits. Bloopers will drop in. Seeing-eye grounders will roll up the middle.
Franklin Gutierrez might also miss a ball one of these days. Hard to believe, but he might.
And when that happens, if a bunch of walks came before it, then some runs are going to start scoring.
So, not to rain on anybody’s parade here. Obviously, there is a ton of good happening with the pitching staff all around. But if it’s to continue, these late-inning command issues will have to improve.
We’ll get around to the offensive challenges at another point.



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