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

June 22, 2009 at 9:13 AM

Mariners “lucky” to be contending, or not?

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Here we sit, on June 22, with the Mariners now 2 1/2 games behind the first-place Texas Rangers and only two games back of the Los Angeles Angels. Providing once again, an example of why calling it a season and trading away your best players in early June is not always a good idea.
Think about it. The only thing separating the Mariners from first place at the moment is a blown 8-1 lead in Anaheim three weeks ago and two blown leads with three outs to go in Texas last month.
That’s it, folks. Erase those, and it’s the Mariners sitting atop the AL West.
Now, I know what you’re all thinking. These things even out over the course of a season.
Maybe that will be the case eventually. But so far, they haven’t.
The Mariners have lost four games in which they had a lead after the eighth inning. Three of those were blown in the ninth and one in extra innings. They have won two games in which they trailed in such fashion — overcoming a 3-0 deficit in the ninth inning to the Angels, and a three-run deficit in extra innings against the Oakland A’s in a wild game early last month.
So, that’s a 4-2 deficit they’re running in that heartbreaking loss department.
In other words, they’ll take games like yesterday’s when the luck swings a little more favorably towards them. There has started to be some talk about how Seattle may have already been “lucky” to this point, given how its run differential of minus-20 suggests this “should” be a 32-37 team rather than one that is 35-34.
That’s a fair argument, based on what we’ve seen in the past.
But let’s consider this in context, since all seasons play out differently from others that come before.
Can this season, for example, be considered the same as the 2007 campaign, in which the Mariners went 88-74 with a negative run differential that suggested they “should” have been 79-83?
Well, I’d suggest there is at least one common element in-play. That 2007 team had an excellent bullpen that enabled it to win a lot of one-run games prior to the relievers running out of gas as a group the final six or seven weeks. But that team’s starting rotation was nowhere near as good as this year’s. Remember Jeff Weaver and Horacio Ramirez? Of course you do.
Let’s compare the pitching staffs of the two teams in terms of park-adjusted ERA+, with 100 being the “average” around the AL.
2007 — 91
2009 — 119
So, as you can see, this year’s Mariners are 19 percent better than the AL norm at preventing earned runs, compared to nine percent below norm two years ago. That’s a significant difference, because elements of run prevention — especially solid defense — are less prone to streaks, or “luck” than run scoring can be.
Let’s look at the offensive production for a moment in terms of OPS+.
2007 — 103
2009 — 88
Again, the current Seattle hitters are 12 percent below league average as opposed to three percent above back in 2007.
What can we conclude from this? That the 2007 team’s ability to win a bunch of close games was probably due to factors much more “luck” prone than this year’s squad. That there is less likely to be a massive “correction” in the won-loss record this year. The 2007 team’s overall pitching really wasn’t all that good and some excellent relievers were forced to carry too much of the load before eventually burning out. That’s something every reliever from that team has pretty much acknowledged — regardless of what some have tried to suggest via stats. Why else do you think Rick White was coming into games in the eighth inning? For kicks?
The difference this year is that the starters — so far — have carried their share of the load. This defiance of the “run differential rules” isn’t all being done by overworked bullpen arms. We’ll see whether Erik Bedard comes back healthy and in similar form to before his injury because that could determine whether this pitching unit keeps performing as well. But so far, it’s a different world altogether from 2007.
And on the hitting side, the luck really hasn’t gone Seattle’s way. There has yet to be one of those hot-hitting tears by this squad as a unit. That team in 2007 had its share of offensive tears, which enabled them to go on winning streaks and offset some of the run differential damage caused by Weaver and Ramirez starts.
Not so in 2009.
The Mariners this year have played 69 games and have scored more than five runs in only 16 of them. They are 13-3 in those games, which shows you how good this pitching and defense is. Go on any kind of an offensive tear, this team will win almost every night.
But in a world where your team scores five runs or fewer more than 75 percent of the time — and where most teams give up about four runs per night — your run differential is never going to be great. Seattle has a shot at making its offensive side a little better by adding bats from within or via trade. But this team will probably wind up outperforming its “Pythagorean Expectation” by quite a bit — as it already has. Hard to imagine this offense getting much worse.
In the end, if these Mariners are to go anywhere, they will probably have to win a lot of 4-3 and 4-2 games, maybe even a bunch of 3-2 affairs.
The difference this year, as opposed to two years ago, is that the factors behind those victories will be less prone to swings of “luck” and less likely to fall apart when it matters.

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