Greetings from somewhere over the midwest.
The Mariners open a seven-day, six-game homestand starting tonight against the Texas Rangers.
As a reminder, here’s the pitching probables for the Rangers and Nationals series …
Here’s the standings for the race for the postseason …
Some people have emailed or tweeted demanding me to follow the Jay Buhner mantra – expletives included – of focusing on the division title, not the wild card. That’s fine for them. But for now, the first reachable playoff spot – the second wild card – is the point of reference. If the Mariners get to within three games, then we can do some readjusting. It’s like my quest to marry Anna Kendrick. First thing first, I have to meet her and wow her with my charm and ability to navigate baseball reference, then dating, then marriage.
Way back (yes, November is way back) when I came to the Times I wrote that I wasn’t going to hit you over the head with opinion on a daily basis. Part of what makes baseball great is the variance of opinions, philosophies and analysis, which often leads to spirited debate. And I also learned a long time ago that as a writer/reporter, my job isn’t to tell fans what to think, but to use the access we are given to provide enough information for you to supplement your opinion. I could tell you I don’t believe in bunting – except in very limited situations – and list all the reasons why (wasting an out is No. 1), but that doesn’t mean you should or have to believe the same.
Usually I prefer to forgo the idea of “a take” for some level of analysis. Takes are for columnists. Sometimes they are just random thoughts as I fly across the country.
The Mariners have a scored 519 runs and given up 413 runs for a run differential of +106. That’s good considering they’ve finished with negative run differentials the last 10 seasons.
Not going to lie, the discussion of the run differential stat makes me prefer a Brandon Maurer fastball to the neck than listen to anymore debate about it. To use that one stat as a determinant of the team’s overall success or a predictor of overall finish is a little, well, shortsighted. It’s a good start, but it’s not absolute. And I really have never believed any one measure tells the story for a team or a player.
Let’s break it down quickly …
1. Early on the Mariners had a s0-so run differential thanks to one of the worst offenses in the American League and some starting pitching issues, namely the absence of Iwakuma and the injury to Paxton, that overworked the bullpen early.
2. The Mariners got to a positive run differential in May and June and got above .500. Why? The pitching solidified – rotation and bullpen, the hitting was very timely. Seattle at one point was hitting close to .300 with runners in scoring position, which was unsustainable, like me eating healthy. They also had some blowout wins in that span. Blowout wins can inflate run differential because, well, math. No advanced degree necessary.
3. Oh no, not July! The Mariners run differential started deterioating. Why? The pitching was still good, but that same anemic offense stopped getting timely hits and they didn’t score runs, hence they lost games.
3. The Mariners run differential has increased since the trade deadline. Why? The pitching is still very, very good. And they started scoring more runs thanks to a better offense – just call me Good Will Hunting. For the first part of the season, they went into games with 2.5 hitters. Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager accounted for the two full hitters. The others combined to be a half of a hitter. They needed to add more offense. The organization knew this. The nice elderly lady from Yakima, who left several voicemails for me, knew this. Everyone knew this. So they went out and acquired Kendrys Morales, Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia – not exactly a murderer’s row, but an improvement. With Dustin Ackley’s emergence from his annual first half hibernation, the Mariners have about 5 hitters now. And that seems to be better than 2.5.
Here’s the monthly splits …
So this new lineup is averaging 5.0 runs per game in August. It’s just my take, but I think you are going to win more games than you lose if you score around five runs per game and have the Mariners’ pitching staff.
One thing that sometimes get overlooked in the run of success since the trade is the improved defense up the middle.
The sample sizes are a little small to use UZR and DSR – both of which I have some quibbles with – but in the comparison test, it’s obvious that the shortstop position has been a defensive upgrade with Chris Taylor taking over Brad Miller. Taylor has been far from perfect over at shortstop. He’s looked like a rookie at times, committing five errors in 25 games. Taylor has looked more consistent on the routine plays. His footwork is noticeably cleaner than Miller, who had issues with taking too big of steps and putting himself in bad fielding and throwing positions. Taylor also seems to get better jumps on ground balls to his left. Mariners’ coaches always said that Taylor was the better defender based on fundamentals. We are seeing that. I’m not ready to christen him the next Brendan Ryan, but the defense has been better at shortstop.
The switch from Austin Jackson to James Jones is monumental. Lloyd McClendon often lauds Jackson as a Gold Glove defender in center field. Some may debate he’s at that level, then again you can debate why Adam Jones won a Gold Glove there. But it’s obvious that Jackson is a significant upgrade over James Jones, who had his struggles. To be fair, Jones converted to center field last season. Prior to that he was a corner outfielder. And you could see that lack of experience on late jumps and meandering routes to fly balls. Jackson has no such issues. After a week of playing in the same outfield as Jackson, Dustin Ackley mentioned how surprised he was to see Jackson making plays on fly balls to the gap and how much ground he covers in such a short amount of time. Simply put for Jackson, the catches that should be made are being made.
Jesus Sucre only plays about once every week, but he’s a vast upgrade over John Buck. Sucre is really good. Not to go all catcher nerd, but his receiving is quality, he sets a good low target thanks to flexibility in his legs to sit low, he receives the ball naturally and can frame a pitch, he blocks the ball well and he’s got a cannon for an arm. All of those are things that Buck couldn’t do.
These upgrades help for a team that simply can’t afford to give away free runs. Even with the improved lineup, the Mariners margin for error is still small.
The additions of Jackson, Morales and Denorfia are nice additions. But a large part of the Mariners’ recent offensive success is due to this ….
There were no major mechanical changes. They’ve asked him to stand a little taller in the box, try to get him to stay tall through the ball and not glide into pitches with his front foot, but get down early. But really, it’s all between his ears. Ackley has stopped overthinking the situation. He’s also gotten more aggressive and confident with the fastball on the outside corner, driving it to left and left-center instead of taking it for strike, getting behind in counts and then being forced to take defensive swings on the pitch with two strikes.
If I had $10 for every time Lloyd McClendon say “our pitching is our foundation” or “our pitching is our backbone” since spring training, I’d be driving a new F-150 Raptor. This isn’t some new development. Really the pitching had to be the key when you looked at the Mariners’ offense on paper at the beginning of the season. And it’s stayed that way.
The Mariners’ starters have the best ERA in the AL and rate in the top 10 in most other categories. And this is with some some subpar starts from Erasmo Ramirez, Brandon Maurer, Blake Beavan and even Taijuan Walker and the absence of Hisashi Iwakuma for over a month and James Paxton for longer than that.
Meanwhile, McClendon has been saying for the last couple of months that he has one of the best bullpens in baseball. You really couldn’t argue with him based on the numbers. People are starting to come around to that notion.
For me, it’s the versatility and depth of the bullpen. They have two pitchers in Dom Leone and Tom Wilhelmsen that can give you two plus innings, while Danny Farquhar and Yoervis Medina have shown they can throw more than an inning. It’s why they can survive back-to-back bad starts from Young and Iwakuma this weekend.
Wilhelmsen’s re-emergence has been a huge factor. This was a guy that had to be sent to Tacoma last season because he struggled so much. This year he might be their most important reliever. On this road trip, he came out and gave the Mariners multiple innings in one outing and then came back on Sunday and worked out of a high leverage situation in the eighth inning, striking out Allen Craig with bases loaded.
Think about this, the bullpen has gotten this type of production with McClendon trying to limit Leone from going back-to-back outings and Brandon Maurer from appearing in three games in a row. Yes, Rodney can be an adventure at the end of games. But he’s been consistent enough that the Mariners didn’t have to make a change midseason, which is vastly different than past years. The relievers have said that continuity has been a big factor.
The conversion of Maurer to the bullpen and his subsequent success has been a huge bonus for this season and the future. It will make converting Wilhelmsen to a starter that much easier next spring.
If there were any concerns, it might be Charlie Furbush, who hasn’t been quite as dominant against lefties this season as in the past.
If there were any complaints, it has to be how long Yoervis Medina takes between pitches, particularly with runners on base. It’s almost 30 seconds. Throw the ball!