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May 10, 2012 at 10:50 AM

Mariners showing improvement on offense one fifth of way through season

Last night marked the passing of the one-fifth pole in this current Mariners season and we can say with some certainty the team is showing improvement on offense. Not championship improvement — at least, not yet. But the team is no longer pushing historical limits as it did the past two seasons.
Some have noted that the pitching appears to have taken a marked step back.
I’ll agree with those folks. But here’s the thing: it’s not as important at present.
The reason being is that the current starting pitching staff — outside of Felix Hernandez — is not really designed to be part of any future contention strategy. Come 2014, there’s a good chance that no one outside of Hernandez will still be around. Heck, we can’t even guarantee Hernandez will be, but let’s assume for now that all the talk of him sticking here for years and years to come actually has validity.
Outside of that, it’s possible Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi are still here. But they are more interchangeable, back-end types. The team isn’t counting on them for contention. If not them, some other, similar pitchers will take their place. No, the guys the team is counting on to fill in behind Hernandez are all still in the minors, with the threesome of Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Danny Hultzen forming a big part of that.
So, that’s why the pitching doesn’t matter as much right now.
But the offense does because it is being anchored by players the team does hope will be around for years and years to come. At least, a good chunk of them. And we saw the last two years how even really good pitching was neutered by the lack of offense in Seattle.
So far, the Mariners sit middle-of-the-pack in runs scored, placing 16th of 30 teams. That’s loads better than being 30th of 30 as the M’s were in 2011 and 2010.
Photo Credit: AP

Scoring runs is about the most important stat you can come up with for an offense. In the end, this is still a results-oriented business. And if you do all the other things right, but somehow don’t score enough, it isn’t as easy as saying “Don’t worry, the results should be there in the next four out of five seasons.”
No, in baseball, jobs depend on producing wins every year and it’s tough to do that without scoring. So, in the case of measuring offense, the “results” stats like runs scored are probably just as, if not more important than the “process” stats like on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS).
Sure, you expect a team with a good OPS to score a good number of runs. But people who run baseball teams don’t keep their jobs because the team owner says “Hey, don’t worry about the run total, I know you had a good OPS.”
No, they keep their jobs because the owner says “Nice job with the offense this year, you scored a lot more runs! OP…Z, S, what was that called, again?”
Teams don’t win games by posting a higher OPS that the other team. They win by scoring runs and OPS (though measured as a result of something) is a process by which those run results are accumulated. Follow?
That’s why you still see teams preoccupied with players being able to hit with runners in scoring position (RISP). Even though the more advanced stats research show us that — over time — the numbers should balance out to where a player’s hitting with RISP is about the same as his normal batting average, teams sometimes don’t have that long to wait.
When a team is losing 15 games in a row and the cleanup hitter keeps striking out with RISP despite a .280 batting average, a manager whose job is on the line won’t have another 50 games to wait for everything to level out. I think, once again, this is where some of the disconnect between more advanced stats theory and real life baseball ends up crossing paths.
We all think we know how things will turn out over a complete, detailed “sample size” of 162 games. But when a team’s season could come down to its play during any given three-week span, you will see decisions made over shorter samples designed for shorter-term results.
Not really as big an issue where the Mariners are concerned. Even after a solid 4-2 homestand, they are still three under .500 and more than a half-dozen games out of the division lead.
But where offense is concerned, there are still shorter term considerations. If the team once again scores fewer than 600 runs, there will be a perception that not enough was accomplished and that could very well lead to changes and/or firings. Hitting coach Chris Chambliss likely would be the first to go and even manager Eric Wedge likely would not be on solid footing heading towards 2013.
And no matter how much teams tell fans what they want to hear about every move being made for the greater long-term good, it’s a little naive to believe that’s the case. We’re all human. We all have our survival instincts. No one wants to lose their job. Wedge doesn’t feel pressure to win and succeed because he’s got some secret bet with Mike Hargrove that he can win more games than he did after leaving Cleveland. No, he feels pressure because this is his livelihood. It’s what he’s paid to do and he wants to keep doing it. He loves the job, naturally. But he’s a professional, not an amateur doing this as a hobby. And that’s what makes paid professionals in baseball different from the amateurs who study it as a hobby.
It’s easy to toss ideas around and scoff at decisions when you’ve got nothing on the line. Much different to have to make decisions and seek results when your daily livelihood is at stake.
Anyhow, something else to consider about MLB and numbers that you may not have read elsewhere.
Back to the Mariners and offense, they sit only 25th in batting average at .234.
So, that appears to point to the big jump in run scoring being due to something other than more hits per at-bat. The team’s on-base stats are still abysmal as well, sitting 29th of 30 at .289. We know the Mariners aren’t big on going to the plate and trying to work a walk anymore, thanks to Wedge’s “attack-first” mentality in which walks are mere byproducts of not getting a hittable pitch. His hitters still haven’t mastered that yet, so they aren’t always hitting the hittable stuff and they sure as heck ain’t walking. So, that helps explain the low OBP.
OK, then, how in the world can the team be middle-of-the-road in run scoring if they aren’t hitting like a good team and aren’t getting on-base period even the way mediocre teams do? Isn’t OBP the be-all, end-all?
The answer is, no. No one stat is the be-all, end all. There is much that goes into offense. And in Seattle’s case, if the team isn’t getting many more hits than it once did and is nearly as futile at getting on base, logic tells us the quality of that slightly increased hits total must have gotten better.
In other words, the M’s are doing something other than “death by a thousand pinprick singles” against opponents.
Looking at their total bases, the M’s sit 16th out of 30, which is much more reflective of their run total. And the big reason for that is that Seattle sits fourth — fourth! — out of 30 teams in terms of doubles with 58. They also sit 15th in terms of home runs with 27.
Interestingly, the M’s only sit 24th in slugging percentage at .368. Still, that’s better than where they usually are — dead last.
Why such a big fluctuation in homers and doubles versus slugging percentage rank? Shouldn’t it all be ranked about equally, since homers and doubles form the bulk of a team’s slugging?
Simple answer: the Mariners have played more games than other teams. Not many more, but enough to impact the rankings.
And yes, once those ranks even out, the M’s could go from being a mid-rung scoring team to something in the bottom third again. Something more reflective of their 27th ranked OPS of .368 (dragged down by their very low OBP) or even their 25th ranked batting average. Probably not as low — maybe 20th-23rd or so — but a little lower down than 16th.
And yeah, lower bottom third is better than dead last by an historically bad margin.
I never said the Mariners had a contending offense. What they do have is the makings of a somewhat respectable one. The difference being, the team now has some bigger bats that can put runs on the board with a swing or two.
Guys like Kyle Seager, Jesus Montero and Michael Saunders. Think of how much higher it could climb if Justin Smoak was hitting anything and Dustin Ackley had not gotten off to such a slow start.
Anyhow, coulda, woulda. But you can see here how a few bigger bats have already made the offense better. How does this team actually put a real, mid-rung, 15th-or-16th-ranked-ranked offense out there without playing more games than anyone else?
Easy. Get the OBP higher.
Yes, the presence of big bats in any MLB lineup is huge. But you still still to get on base to really make them count. A 23rd, or 25th ranked offense isn’t going to win any titles. Put a 15th-ranked offense out there with a stellar pitching staff? You might have the makings of something.
The doubles numbers are a positive sign. But this team still needs fewer sub-.200 hitters as well as fewer “in-between” or “checked-swing” types. Once these players adapt to the new “attack first” approach and make pitchers pay for good pitches, the theory is that the walks will come because those pitchers will be more reluctant to throw strikes.
Having some big boppers out there will help that fear factor.
But it’s not enough for Jesus Montero to hit 20 homers. If he’s to be effective, he can’t have an OBP below .300. None of these Mariners can. That’s the new OBP Mendoza Line, not some Seattle comfort zone.
So, call it a beginning. But for anyone to start discussing contention, we need to see more hitters climb well beyond that .300 OBP mark. That’s when the big bats can be maximized to their fullest.
Yeah, I could have written this quicker. But hopefully, by walking us all through this exercise, some of the non experts and non-know-it-alls out there will have a greater appreciation for what goes into building an offense — both in theory and reality.

Comments | Topics: Jesus Montero


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