ADDITIONAL NOTE: If you missed my Talkin’ Baseball segment with Mitch Levy this morning, you can listen to it above. In it, I address our paper’s decision not to cover the Mariners this road trip, as well as how to interpret some of Hisashi Iwakuma’s recent success and, of course, Felix Hernandez’s Cy Young Award chances.
We’ve now seen the Mariners put together a 2-3 record the first five games of this road trip and I think we have some answers about the squad ahead of September. First, we can pretty much rule out any wild-card race, since being 10 back in the loss column with just over a month to go does not a contender make.
That aside, I’ve seen some positives from the team on this trip despite its losing record. The biggest is that the Mariners have been competitive in just about all five games except for the opener in Chicago. Now, if we look at the scoreboard, there is an argument the Mariners have been competitive in every game. More on that in a moment.
But the biggest thing I can draw from this road trip and the team’s second half of play thus far is that the Mariners are no longer a bottom tier team in the American League. That much is pretty clear, just from looking at Seattle’s record against teams that obviously are AL bottom-feeders.
The Mariners, with their second straight win in Minnesota last night, are now 11-0 over the past month against the Twins, Indians and Blue Jays. Throw the Royals into that mix and the Mariners are now 18-1 since the All-Star Break against teams that are arguably the four worst in the league based on their records and second-half play.
Now, you can’t go 18-1 against anybody in baseball without some divine intervention, or just the simple fact that you are clearly better. I fully expect the Mariners to win tonight and tomorrow in Minnesota and will be mildly stunned if they don’t.
As Jeff Sullivan put it so eloquently in Lookout Landing last night, when’s the last time that’s happened with the Mariners? That you expect them to win?
The only other time I can remember feeling so confident about the team’s chances of winning any stretch of games came last May when the M’s were fighting to maintain a .500 record and headed off to demolish the Padres in San Diego. The Padres coudn’t swing straight and the M’s dominated them from the mound in all three games. But we all kind of expected that because the Padres were brutal.
This time, I’ve kind of expected it when the Mariners play wither the Twins, Indians, Blue Jays or Royals, based on what I’ve seen from those clubs versus Seattle’s. And it’s tough to come to any other conclusion than the fact — a fact supported by an 18-1 combined record over six weeks of play — that those teams can’t beat Seattle.
When the Twins were in town a couple of weeks ago, one of the visiting writers sitting behind me in the Safeco Field pressbox opined that the Minnesota team had become what the Mariners were two years ago. That’s when it hit me that, yeah, it’s true. Two years ago, at the trade deadline, the Mariners showed up — barely — for a series in Minnesota and pretty much rolled over.
Seattle was in the midst of a seven-game losing streak and lost 5-3, 4-0 and 4-0 in those games. I wrote upon conclusion of that series that manager Don Wakamatsu would be fired in a matter of days because he’d lost the clubhouse and games like that series played in Minneapolis were indeed what costs field bosses their jobs all the time. Turns out, the team waited a full week more before firing Wakamatsu, but that had more to do with getting off the road and having his replacement ready to go.
But the bottom line is, the Mariners had no chance in those games two years ago. You knew it the minute they walked on the field. The moment a run was scored against them.
That is no longer the case. Now, even though the Mariners were swept in Chicago to start this trip, you had the impression they could win just about every game if the White Sox made one slip-up too many. Huge difference.
So, yeah, the Twins of today are the Mariners of two years ago, based on their play throughout the 2012 season. The Indians and Blue Jays? Based on their play the past 1 1/2 months, they might be worse than the Mariners of two years ago, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt since they did have decent first halves and now merely appear to have fallen apart through injury, apathy or whatever.
One thing pretty clear, though, is, they are not better than the Mariners. Nor are the Royals, though they’ve picked up some pitching since they last played the Mariners with a host of MLB failures and Class AAA call-ups serving as starting pitchers. The Royals, it turns out, were overrated by many people the past winter, not just on the mound — where injuries have hurt — but also at the plate, where their young, highly-coveted talent has simply not delivered the expected results. The Royals could be good one day. But playoff contenders? That was a bit of a hoot last winter and is a major laugh these days.
So, yeah, I think we can safely say the Mariners are better than those four teams, which marks a big step up for the club. Some of you might not be satisfied with leaving it there, but honestly, when you look back to the break, when the M’s and Twins were tied for the league’s worst record, it was tough to make the argument Seattle was better than any of those squads.
So, yes, there has been improvement over two years ago. This team is no longer a bottom feeder. It is now in the middle tier of AL teams and it’s tough for anyone to suggest otherwise.
What remains to be seen is where in the middle tier the Mariners currently sit.
Are they on the fringes, destined to be middle-tier the next few seasons? Or, are they right up near the top edge, to the point where they could pull a Baltimore or an Oakland next season and vault on up into wild-card contention?
That, we still don’t know.
Because while the Mariners are now better than the trio of teams they’ve beaten the past month and the quartet of inferior squads they’ve feasted on since the break, the struggling nature of those opponents makes it tough to gauge how good the M’s really are.
Since the Mariners opened a series against Toronto at home on July 30, the Blue Jays, Indians and Twins have combined to go 20-63 (.241). That’s a pace that would garner a 121-loss season over a full 162 games — basically equal to the 1962 New York Mets, one of the worst teams in history.
In their worst month of their horrible 2010 season, the Mariners went 6-23 in August. Both the Blue Jays and Indians could match that this August. Even when the Mariners aren’t playing that trio of teams, they have still lost nearly three-quarters of the time they’ve faced other opponents, so this isn’t some Seattle-skewed stat. All three teams have collapsed and are just praying to get through the schedule with a month to go.
So, when we see that the Mariners are 11-0 against the Trifecta of Imperfecta known as the Blue Jays/Indians/Twins since July 30 and just 5-10 against all other teams, it makes it tough to properly gauge how improved they truly are.
When we see that they are 18-1 against the Twins/Blue Jays/Indians and Royals since the break, but 9-15 against all other teams, it also clouds the issue a bit.
Because 9-15 is actually a worse winning percentage than the .414 the M’s had at the break. Now, as I’ve said, you can’t discount the wins against the bottom-feeders. We have to assume the Mariners are now better than that .414 team because wins are wins and they have been winning.
But are they a .440 team? Or a .480 team? Are they really a .500-or-better team based on their 27-16 record since the break?
We simply don’t know.
Is that stellar pitching we’ve seen since the break really a sign of something permanent, or a function of the floundering offenses the Mariners have faced the majority of the time? Well, we know Felix Hernandez is for real. But the other guys? How good are they really?
This isn’t damning with faint praise. It’s a statement of fact: the struggles of the teams the Mariners keep beating makes it tough to tell how good they truly are.
Hisashi Iwakuma couldn’t find his catcher’s mitt last night. He wound up landing only half his pitches for strikes and was walking everybody in sight in the early going. And yet, he wound up with a one-hitter through six. Good pitching, or incompetent hitting?
We simply don’t know.
The Mariners lost three one-run games in Chicago to a better team. The quick, glance-at-the-boxscore analysis is that they could have won all three games because of the one-run difference and the way that luck tends to swing in those things.
But a closer look shows the M’s were down 7-2 in the ninth inning of the opener and 5-3 with one strike to go and nobody on base in the second game. The odds of winning either contest were a lot more minimal in the ninth inning of those games than your typical one-run defeat would dictate.
So, yeah, an optimistic Mariners fan would say that the team staged an heroic rally in the opener and almost pulled out a win. And that they nearly came back in the second game and could have won the third if not for the rain.
And an optimistic Chicago fan would say their bullpen nearly blew a fluke, once-a-season catastrophe in the opener, had a two-run cushion with an inning to go in the second game and thus easily survived Kyle Seager’s solo homer, then won a neck-and-neck third game.
So, which is it? Were the White Sox full value for the sweep? Or should the Mariners have pulled off the sweep?
Once again, we don’t have enough info to really know. But unless you think the M’s are going to keep scoring six runs in the ninth, it’s tough to argue they deserved to sweep. Could they have? Sure. But not because of any skill that will repeat itself moving ahead.
A Twins fan could tell you that Minnesota would have won Monday’s game if anybody but Hernandez was on the mound. Well, I think it’s optimistic of a Twins fan to suggest their team should win any game not forfeited these days, but technically they could try to make that claim.
Hey, for me, that’s the value of keeping Hernandez. He wins you those games. They can’t be discounted.
Based on the team’s continued record against the four clubs I’ve mentioned, I think we can safely assume they are better than the Twins/Blue Jays/Indians/Royals, as the standings indicate.
Now, over the final month of the season, we will hopefully get a better indication of how much better the Mariners are and how close they really are to being a true .500 team.
The 9-15 record against teams with winning records since the break is filled with plenty of one-run games as well. It’s possible the M’s could have a better mark against those squads if their luck evens out a bit. Or, it’s possible they’ve already maxed out their luck against those teams, with things like Hernandez’s perfect game and Carlos Pena’s ninth inning error going in Seattle’s favor.
Again, we don’t know because of the volatile nature of one-run games. That’s why it’s great that the Mariners have a month’s worth of games against more stable opponents coming up. So, we can get a better handle on where they truly stand and what is needed this off-season.
We can safely say the Mariners have improved over the past two years and since the break. Now, we’ll find out a little more about how big that improvement has been.
It’s not as sexy as thinking this is already a .500 team. But throwing the detailed context in there will also make the analysis a lot more accurate, whichever way it winds up going.