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

June 27, 2011 at 10:47 AM

Mariners and their Big 5 versus Oakland Athletics and their Big 3

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If you missed Geoff Baker Live! pre-game last night, check the video replay below, where we played you a clip of Eric Wedge discussing his plans to keep Michael Pineda and other starters pitching through September if the team stays in the race. You saw Doug Fister hit the double last night. Want to see him in batting practice? Watch this clip, in which we weigh the merits of trading him or Jason Vargas…IF, and only if it ever came to that.
I gave my two cents worth about the King’s Court and the one-man attempt of a fan Saturday night to replicate Friday night’s magic with Miguel Olivo on his own.
Somebody asked me whether Pineda is “a lock” for the All-Star Game. Hmm, not totally sure. Here’s my rundown of all-star potential Mariners. Do I think Ichiro deserves to go? Here’s my answer. Somebody wanted to know whether I think Franklin Gutierrez could be trade bait this year if his hitting improves. Another wanted to know whether Brendan Ryan’s emergence as a shortstop power makes Class AA prospect Nick Franklin expendable via trade. One viewer asked me to explain the difference between pitches in batting practice and a game itself. Good question.

On to the post…
Plenty of discussion sure to be had the next few weeks as the Mariners and their popgun offense try to stay in contention in the thoroughly mediocre AL West. Ever seen a team win the pennant scoring two runs or three runs per game? Well, you’re not about to. This team has to improve offensively, even to win a division where no team seems ready to reach out and grab anything.
Among the “stand pat” and “build for the future” crowd opposing any serious trades is a skepticism that this Seattle offense can improve enough via one or two bats in order to contend beyond the month of July.
That’s understandable. This offense will never score 800 runs in a season unless they start counting one run as two.
But here’s the thing. It doesn’t need to score that many.

To keep playing a broken record, this team needs to score only four runs per game to win the vast majority of the time.
The Mariners have lost only three games since early May in which they’ve scored four runs. And all three losses occured after the Mariners carried a lead into the opponent’s final at-bat and wound up blowing a save opportunity.
You’ll never get better odds than that.
The template for Mariners contention, in my mind, is the 2002 Oakland Athletics. At least from the pitching and run prevention side. That A’s squad boasted the “Big Three” in Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson as starting pitchers.
From late May onward, that squad overcame a 20-26 start and went 83-33 the rest of the way to win the AL West. That’s .716 baseball, folks. If the Mariners were to do that over their final 84 games, they’d finish the year 99-63.
Yes, they’d win the division.
Now, those A’s had something the Mariners did not — a competent offense. The whole Moneyball thing did work on an offensive front for Oakland, which relied on Miguel Tejada and a bunch of on-base freaks to score 800 runs. It wasn’t all Zito, Mulder and Hudson, even though the book certainly downplayed their crucial contributions. But yes, Billy Beane’s low-cost offensive strategy was important.
And the M’s won’t replicate it. But they don’t have to. First off, they don’t need to play .716 ball the rest of the way to win this division. Even .600 ball would get Seattle to roughly 90 wins and, the way things are shaping up, that could be just enough.
The other thing to consider is that the M’s don’t just have a Big 3. Right now, they have a Big 5. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look.


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First off, on the run prevention front, those fantastic Oakland A’s, with a bullpen dominated by closer Billy Koch, setup man Chad Bradford — of Moneyball fame as well — etc. combined with the Big 3 to hold teams to 654 runs.
The Mariners, so far, are on-pace to limit teams to 575 runs.
Yes, that’s a huge difference. Can the M’s keep it up? Who knows? But right now, the numbers are what they are and we’re nearly halfway done.
Even if Seattle regresses, it would have to allow an average of half a run more per game just to tumble down to equal with one of the better pitching staffs of the past 20 years.
Let’s look at the ERA of Oakland’s starting five versus Seattle’s:
A’s
Barry Zito 2.98
Mark Mulder 2.75
Tim Hudson 3.47
Cory Lidle 3.89
Aaron Harang 4.83
M’s
Felix Hernandez 3.19
Michael Pineda 2.45
Erik Bedard 2.93
Doug Fister 3.18
Jason Vargas 3.88
Even if you want to count A’s No. 4 starter, the late Cory Lidle, as part of a Big 4 — as many folks back then did — it’s tough to argue against the notion of a Seattle Big 5 that has that A’s squad beat in terms of ERA.
You want to argue FIP, ballpark factors, run environments and all that, go right ahead. Bottom line is, one team got four really good performances by starting pitchers and another is getting five. Throw in your best math, science, laptop and calculator equations and you aren’t going to convince me the M’s don’t have five very good starting pitchers going at the exact same time.
The A’s had a couple of back-end fill-ins as starters that 2002 season while the M’s haven’t had to go to that well yet. Probably will, especially as innings pile up for their guys, but not yet.
The big difference between the squads is on offense. And there is no way Seattle can catch up, except for importing A-Rod and maybe Robinson Cano to DH. That’s not going to happen.
But can these M’s find a way to score four runs per game? They’d shown an ability to do it roughly half the time until the past three weeks. Four runs per game is not a big deal for an offense. The M’s are averaging 3.5 per night already and they look terrible.
So, can a couple of bat improvements at two of the three trouble-spots — left field, third base and DH — make that big of a difference? I’ll say, yes, it could get Seattle up to four runs per game. That and Franklin Gutierrez showing up for the 2011 season should do the trick.
Those A’s of 2002 wound up scoring far more than four runs per night in playing .716 ball the rest of the way.
But here’s the catch — and it’s an important one for these Mariners.
Those A’s didn’t have to score all the runs they did.
In fact, they held opponents to three runs or fewer in 69 of their final 116 games — in other words, 59.4 percent of the time.
This year’s M’s have done it in 44 of their first 78 games — or, 56.4 percent of the time.
It’s almost exactly the same.
And technically, when you hold opponents to three runs or fewer, your team should win the game when it scores four times.
Yes, I know. Things change. And a 6-3 lead is easier to protect in the ninth than a 4-3 lead. Point taken.
But as I’ve already shown you, the Mariners don’t need to play .716 ball the rest of the way to win a mediocre AL West. Playing .716 ball likely gets them homefield advantage up to the World Series.
Playing .600 ball gets the Mariners to roughly 90 wins and should carry the division.
There’s a big difference between .716 ball and .600 ball over half a season.
And that difference will compensate for some of the leads the M’s will inevitably blow when scoring four runs per game as opposed to five or six.
The critics can calculate away. They can come up with reasons for why the Mariners won’t sustain this the rest of the season. For why Michael Pineda will succumb to the once-around syndrome. For why Jason Vargas will run out of steam. For why Doug Fister doesn’t get enough strikeouts and can’t possibly keep throwing seven or eight innings. For why Erik Bedard will inevitably get hurt.
Those are all valid points.
But do you know what? Those points will also hold firm next season.
The Mariners might never again get a Big 5 clicking better overall at run prevention than the Oakland A’s and their Big 3 or 4.
At this point, knowing that scoring a paltry four runs per game could help you win a divsion title, don’t you at least owe it to yourself as a team to try? Will a title in 2013 taste any better than a title in 2011?
I’ve seen a lot of baseball. Never seen a team with five starters and a bullpen getting these results for this long and not at least thinking about the post-season.
Here’s to taking your shots in life. To overcoming fear of success and the postponing of the inevitable. At some point, you have to go for it. Why not here? Why not now?

Comments | Topics: Brendan Ryan

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