It’s been a mixed bag offensively for the Mariners in their first four games this season. Not surprisingly, they have a 2-2 record. Some folks will gladly take that .500 mark, which compares favorably to the pace of 101 losses a year ago.
The offense, as we mentioned last night, is averaging four runs per game, which, in most cases, won’t get it done in a league that scores 4.5 per contest. It’s an improvement over last year’s 3.17 runs per game, to be sure. But it could still guarantee a season of 90 or more losses.
In an albeit small sample, we did see the Mariners do something rather unusual the first four games. The M’s took their share of walks, something they have not done in years past. They worked counts, knocked opposing pitchers from games before they’d gone seven innings (except Gio Gonzalez on Sunday, but he was pushed to the very limit) and were able to generate scoring opportunities even without a plethora of extra-base hits.
Going into tonight, the Mariners have 15 walks and a walk-rate of 9.6 percent, which is right up where the good teams like it to be — one in every 10 plate appearances. That’s good enough for fifth spot among the 14 American League teams.
Last year, the M’s walk rate was only 7.7 percent. That was fifth worst in the AL.
Jack Cust (photo above) is tied for the team lead with Justin Smoak at four apiece.
So, they’ve gotten guys on base. Seattle’s on-base percentage sits at .327 compared to .298 a year ago. And the offense is slightly better, though still not scoring enough runs to win most games.
As Eric Wedge said last night, the team has to do a better job of capitalizing on chances.
One of the reasons this isn’t happening? Strikeout totals.
With Ichiro on third base and one out in last night’s fourth inning, the M’s trailing 4-3, Milton Bradley had a chance to get the equalizer home. A flyball would have done it. Perhaps a ground ball to the right side. Instead, Bradley — for as good a game as he had the rest of the night — went down swinging.
Cust grounded out next. Rally over.
Bradley is far from the only culprit. The Mariners have been striking out quite a bit this early season. Once every four at-bats.
Only the Rays — at 26.4 percent — have been worse in the AL than Seattle’s 25 percent.
Last year, the Mariners were also second-worst in the league at 21.9 percent. So, clearly it’s early and the numbers have a chance to be skewed dramatically over only four games. But the M’s are striking out a ton.
It’s not all Cust either. He only has three strikeouts. Ryan Langerhans has six. Chone Figgins has five.
The Mariners are hitting just .205 with runners in scoring position. They’ve struck out 11 times in 39 at-bats during such situations — 28 percent. With runners on base, they’ve maintained their regular 25 percent strikeout rate.
When you don’t make contact with the ball, there is almost no chance at an error by the opposing team that can score that run with two out. With fewer than two out, a strikeout makes it tougher to advance or score the runner.
Seattle has only struck out three times in 21 at-bats with runners in scoring position and fewer than two out. So, the strikeouts haven’t killed every rally. But they’re probably not helping matters.
Like I said, it’s early. Langerhans and Figgins won’t lead the team in whiffs by the time this season is over.
But as far as trends go, the M’s are getting the runners on. A few strikeouts less and a few more hits, they could get that scoring back up to where Wedge wants it to be.
Of course, we knew coming in that the M’s were going to strike out a bit, what with Cust in there and everything. But he hasn’t really been the issue…yet. If he had been the issue, the team would be up around a 30 percent strikeout rate. In other words, the rest of the lineup needs to start making more contact, to take advantage of all the extra baserunners the M’s have had so far.
Whatever happens the rest of the way, the M’s would love to keep that walk total where it’s at and get that strikeout rate down to where it isn’t top-two in the league. They don’t hit enough home runs or score frequently enough to be able to withstand that many whiffs the way the good power-hitting teams can.
And again, it’s early. These trends can change dramatically from game-to-game. But for now, when you’re looking for differences between this offense and last year’s, it’s scoring a tad more, has improved the walk totals dramatically and has seen their already-high strikeout totals get just a bit worse.