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September 5, 2012 at 11:16 AM

Where this Mariners improvement has come from

Let’s forget the quality of opponent for a few minutes and assume the Mariners are beating who they’re beating because they have improved and can carry some of this over into next season. The Mariners are 30-20 (.600) in the second half after playing .414 ball to start with and they still had to earn some of those victories. As we saw last night, even when playing the Red Sox, you have to do more than just show up for a few innings and not execute the rest of the night.
So, what’s behind the .600 ball?
Let’s look at the park-factored on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS+) of the offense over specific intervals. Remember, OPS+ uses 100 as a baseline, so anything above it is a score above league average and anything below is below league average. A score of 105 would be 5 percent higher than average and 95 is 5 percent below. Ballpark conditions are factored in, so the “Safeco effect” is considered.
First half: 79
Second half: 84
Not a whole lot of difference, given how far below average both scores are. If you’re going to contend, you certainly want to be much better in at least the high 90s. Don’t forget, the second half scores include warmer weather at Safeco Field, plus the pitching of certain less-than-distinguished teams (teams we won’t discuss any further because I promised).
Just to make sure, let’s do a month-by-month look at the offense.
April: 86
May: 85
June: 77
July: 79
Aug: 77
So, up until five days ago, the Mariners have pretty much been the same team (or worse) at the plate, even with the weather warming up. The one encouraging sign over the past four days in September has been a 102 OPS+. But we’ll have to wait a bit longer than four days to see whether this sample holds up. Still, we can always hope.
For now, though, it clearly has not been an offensive uptick leading the way.
No, the .600 ball since the All-Star Break has likely come from something else. Let’s look at the pitching and defense.
Photo Credit: AP

First, a look at the same park-factored OPS+, but this time the OPS+ opposing hitters are managing against Seattle pitching. In this instance, a lower score is a good thing because it’s what the hitters are managing off the M’s.
First half: 95
Second half: 86
Remember how we discussed that a score in the 80s wasn’t going to cut it hitting-wise for a contender? Well, the M’s pitchers have limited opponents to offensive production that isn’t going to cut it for the other teams. For the Mariners, it’s been great. And it’s moved in the right direction.
Let’s break it down by month:
April: 101
May: 86
June: 107
July: 72
August: 99
So far in Septmeber, it’s been an encouraging 64, but again, too small a sample. Still, you can see how the pitching has been holding opponents to a below average OPS since June ended.
Is it the starters or relief pitchers? Now it gets interesting.
First half: 98
Second half: 80
Big improvement there.
First half: 87
Second half: 105
Ouch. OK, that’s not so good a trend. In fact, it’s hardly a surprise given the youth of some of these guys.
So, we can pretty much say that any major winning shift has been caused by the starting pitching more so than the bullpen.
One last bit here, let’s take a look at how much of the pitching improvement has been helped by the defense behind the pitchers.
Let’s take a look at the Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) by the Mariners on a month-by-month scale. I’ll put earned run average (ERA) in parentheses. Remember, if the FIP score is higher than ERA, it means pitchers have likely gotten a boost to their numbers because of the defense behind them.
April: 4.25 (4.14)
May: 4.21 (3.84)
June: 4.31 (4.31)
July: 3.35 (2.82)
August: 4.17 (3.75)
So far, in four September games, it’s down to 3.11, but again, small sample. Overall, other than July, when the M’s went 15-11 overall, the pitching has remained relatively level, with the defense appearing to help boost the ERA results in every month other than June. Let’s break it down into starters and relievers, using FIP. I’ll put the earned run average of the pitchers in parantheses.
April: 3.93 (4.00)
May: 4.31 (3.82)
June: 5.26 (5.90)
July: 3.42 (2.73)
August: 4.21 (3.59)
So far in September, it’s 2.82. So, yeah, overall the starters have been better in the second-half, but are getting a big boost from the defense.
Let’s take one last look at individual starters, their FIP and their ERA in parentheses:
Felix Hernandez 2.81 (2.51)
Kevin Millwood 3.90 (4.38)
Jason Vargas 4.70 (3.80)
Hisashi Iwakuma 3.93 (3.14)
Blake Beavan 4.88 (5.01)
So, from the stats, we can see Hernandez has benefitted a bit from his defense, but is so great that it doesn’t matter much. Millwood also has probably pitched better than his ERA indicates, but not always gotten the defense behind him. Vargas appears to be benefitting quite a bit from his defense and might have a much higher ERA on a lesser fielding team and a different home ballpark. Iwakuma is benefitting as well, but even on a lesser glove team, he’s still pitched as well as Millwood and that’s counting all of his early-season struggles and homer-prone ways.
Beavan pretty much is what he is. Could be a little bit better than his ERA, but what you see is what you get. What’s interesting is that his FIP score is almost the same as that of Vargas. One guy will cost the league minimum next year, while the other could earn between $8 million and $10 million in arbitration.
Here are some splits for Vargas in terms of FIP and ERA:
April: 4.29 (3.38)
May: 4.23 (3.51)
June: 7.19 (7.34)
July: 4.00 (1.64)
August: 5.04 (4.83)
Vargas had a brilliant ERA in July and that won him AL Pitcher of the Month honors and did help some of his team’s second half surge. But you can see that even his 1.64 ERA that month came with a FIP of 4.00 that isn’t too far off what he was doing earlier in the season when his ERA was more than double his July total. Again, with Vargas, the defense and ballpark factors always come into play. And any discussion of moving in Safeco Field fences has to look at how his numbers would be impacted when talking about a high-seven-figures annual salary.
So, after all this number-crunching, we’ve narrowed down that this second-half surge has come from the starting pitchers: most notably, Hernandez, Iwakuma and Millwood. Vargas had a great July and can still be a mid-rotation stabilizer, but the cost could be an issue.
Millwood also seems a likely candidate to retire at season’s end.
So, the Mariners, it would seem, if they want to replicate any of this going forward, would have to determine whether Iwakuma’s second half is for real (and can be carried over for an entire season) and then try to re-sign him if indeed it is. They will have to keep an eye on the cost of Vargas and whether or not it’s really too high and then, go out and bring in a free agent pitcher who can offset Millwood if he’s gone.
Oh yeah, the offense also needs to get better, just for the sake of not being terrible and then for the sake of offsetting any downturn in performance from the starters — especially Vargas and/or Iwakuma, or whoever replaces Millwood.
A lot of work must be done to maintain this winning pace.

Comments | Topics: Hisashi Iwakuma


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