BY SAM THOMSEN
It’s an overused cliché, but it’s true.
Pitching usually wins championships. Pitching, defense and speed, that is.
And the Mariners would do well to pay close attention.
How do you think the Kansas City Royals got to the World Series? Pitching, defense, and speed.
What formula did the World-Series-winning Giants use? Pitching and defense.
It’s what baseball people call “small ball,” versus the more glorious “long ball,” of home-run hitters.
The Mariners won’t reach the playoffs or win a World Series just by adding hitters to their anemic lineup. They’ll do it by strengthening their hitting and their already-strong pitching.
What does this mean for 2015? The Mariners have never-ending offensive needs. It’s clear the team needs more bats. But the key piece Seattle must focus on lies in the pitching department.
The M’s first offseason priority should be signing free agent Jon Lester, the Tacoma-born left-hander who finished with a 2.46 earned-run average in 2014, splitting the year between Boston and Oakland.
Lester is a classic veteran pitcher who knows how to get outs.
The 6-foot-4 Lester proves that effective pitching is about control: putting the ball where the hitter can’t smack it. Lester, 30, is a double-play machine. The eight-year veteran mixes speeds, jamming hitters with cut fastballs on the inside corner and following with sweeping breaking balls that thwart timing.
Successful pitching involves a mixture of mechanics, accuracy, velocity and changing speeds. Lester masters each. If brought to Seattle, he will help put the team over the top.
Lester will give the Mariners’ rotation the depth it needs to come together down the stretch, not crumble. The 1-2 combination of Felix Hernandez and Lester will be a Muhammad Ali rabbit punch to opposing teams. Just imagine combining Felix, Lester, and Hisashi Iwakuma with young studs James Paxton and Taijuan Walker.
Lester would complete the M’s rotation and help transform the 2015 Mariners into the 2014 Giants. He’ll design the Mariners for playoff dominance.
The only question the Mariners have to ask themselves is this: Does it pay to pay?
It’s always the question with a big-time free agent. Lester is being sought after by the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and Giants. The Mariners already showed they are willing spend money for a winner by signing Nelson Cruz and re-signing Kyle Seager.
Now the Mariners need to spend more to put themselves over the top.
Sure, big offense is sexy. American League MVP Mike Trout and a lineup of mashers propelled the Los Angeles Angels to an MLB-best 98 wins in 2014. But the Angels fell apart in the playoffs. Why? Pitching. The Angels ranked 15th in the MLB. Their early exit to Kansas City shows that good pitching usually beats good hitting.
Home runs are great, but they’re not enough. Small ball carries the day during October.
And even as the Mariners add hitters like Nelson Cruz, they can’t forget that.
The lack of consistent pitching depth choked the Mariners’ final leg in the 2014 season. The team’s hitting was never good. But it was good enough when the team pitched well. When the pitching crumbled, so did the team.
Pitching – not hitting – is why the Mariners were contenders, but ultimately not participants, in the 2014 playoffs.
Iwakuma, the Mariners’ No. 2 starter, posted a grimace-inducing 7.61 ERA in September. That should be the cost of coffee and a pastry at Starbucks, not a key stat during the season’s critical final leg.
Hernandez and Paxton – both vital members in the rotation – were battered for a combined 17 runs during back-to-back starts in the final week of the season.
A playoff-caliber team doesn’t do that.
Now the Mariners have a decision to make. Now they have to show how committed they are to making the postseason.
They have to land Lester.
Lester is a winner. But a winner isn’t cheap.
Sam Thomsen is a junior at Liberty Bell High School in Winthrop whose passions are baseball, the Mariners and writing. He has been following the Mariners since he could walk and has written several previous posts for Take 2, including one on Oct. 30, 2013 that urged the Mariners to sign Robinson Cano, more than a month before it happened.
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Mariners’ ownership must decide what’s most important.
But they should remember this: pitching wins championships.