Honor Where Honor Is Due
In the spirit of a surprising three game sweep of the best team in the American League (and yes, I know that they threw Gabbard and Tavarez at us, but we threw Weaver and Feierabend at them, so call it even), this post is for one thing – to give credit to the performances that have carried the M’s to a 42-33 record. These are the guys who have put the team on their backs and are keeping the team in the playoff race.
A great player who has put together a first half that is better than any full season he’s had in the U.S. The shift to center fielder has taken an all-star and turned him into an MVP candidate. He’s third in the majors in runs created, only 8 runs behind the slugging combo of Alex Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez, 5 runs ahead of Vladimir Guerrero, and a mind-numbing 29 runs ahead of Raul Ibanez, who is #2 on the M’s RC list. Ichiro is, right now, the best center fielder in baseball, and the main reason the Mariners are in playoff contention. If the season ended today, he’d be #1 on my theoretical AL MVP ballot. He’s had that great of a first half.
Calling Ichiro the AL MVP is somewhat controversial. Calling J.J. Putz the best reliever on the planet is not. Or it shouldn’t be, anyways. There isn’t even anyone who has a very good case for being in the argument. I could throw all kinds of stats out there, showing J.J.’s dominance, but we’ve all seen it on a daily basis – this guy is absolutely lights out. So, here’s my favorite number regarding Putz this year – yesterday was the first game all year where he was lifted for another pitcher, and I’m sure he would have pitched the last two innings yesterday if Hargrove would have let him. The first 33 games he appeared in, he was the last pitcher the M’s sent to the hill. When you put J.J. in, the game is over, and you can tell the rest of the bullpen to go take a shower. He’s the best relief ace in the game, and it isn’t particularly close.
Putz gives the M’s the best right-handed reliever in the game. Sherrill is arguably the best left-handed reliever alive as well. Hideki Okajima could make a pretty good case as well and Billy Wagner’s still awesome, but Sherrill is certainly part of the discussion. Lefties are 5 for 45 with 3 walks and 17 strikeouts against GS52, pretty much turning every LHB into an easy out. But right-handers aren’t touching him either, posting a .222/.216/.278 line. Overall, the league is posting a .419 OPS against George Sherrill. When you can bring a lefty out of the pen in high leverage situations with runners on base, and he turns opposing hitters into an average hitting pitcher, that’s a remarkably valuable player.
Kenji’s not going to make the all-star team, but he’s been a terrific player for the Mariners this year. He’s hitting .307/.340/.482 as a right-handed extreme pull hitter in a park that punishes right-handed pull hitters like no other in baseball. He hits for average and power while playing practically every day, and he’s not having the same problems behind the plate – primarily, stabbing at the ball – that he had last year. It’s amazing to think that two years ago, the M’s were cycling guys like Miguel Ojeda and Wiki Gonzalez behind the plate. Not anymore. Now, it’s all Kenji.
Okay, to be fair, it’s not all Kenji. Jamie Burke plays once a week, too. And man, has he ever taken advantage of his opportunities. In general, the backup catcher isn’t a vital cog in the machine. But, at the extreme ends of the performance spectrum, they can make a pretty big impact. Last year, the M’s had something like the worst backup catcher in major league history, letting Rene Rivera suck the life out of their line-up. This year, on a per at-bat basis, Jamie Burke has been their best hitter. The difference in value has been staggering, honestly. Burke already has more hits than Rivera had in all of 2006, and he’s made 54 less outs. Upgrading from Rene Rivera to Jamie Burke has already been worth a win in the standings, and the season is only half over. And he plays once a week! That’s remarkable.
Mike Hargrove’s Bullpen Usage
It’s not a person, so I’m making an exception here. Grover does too many other things wrong to be on this list as just himself, but this one aspect of in-game management, he’s done exceptionally well at, and he seems to be getting better by the week. He’s using J.J. Putz for multi-inning saves, letting George Sherrill face right-handers (sometimes, anyways), giving high leverage innings to Eric O’Flaherty and not sticking with struggling veterans like Chris Reitsma. Yesterday, he even used J.J. Putz in the 9th inning of a tie game at home, realizing there was no point in saving his closer for a save situation that could not happen. Bob Melvin used to drive us insane with his bullpen usage, and while I don’t think I’m ever going to be much of a Mike Hargrove fan, I’ll gladly stand and applaud the way he’s used his relievers this year. The M’s bullpen is, by far, the strength of the team, and Hargrove has leveraged this strength into a lot of wins.
There are other guys who are helping keep the team in contention by having solid years, such a Adrian Beltre, Jose Lopez, and Jarrod Washburn, but the guys listed above are the reasons this team is nine games above .500. These guys are the stars of the first half, and a first half that has the Mariners thinking about a playoff race in September.