The Mariners Really Are Better, But How Much Better?
With last night’s victory over the Blue Jays, the Mariners have now won six straight games and have improved their record to 49-57. That’s not great, but it’s better than the Marlins, Phillies, and Brewers have posted this year, and each of them went into the year thinking that they were going to win their division. That .462 winning percentage is a 36 point improvement over last year’s mark on this same date and a 96 point improvement over where they were on August 1st of 2010. If they maintain their pace over the final two months of the year, they’ll end the year with around 75 wins, a mark that is about what we expected from them heading into the season.
They also did something else last night — they pushed their run differential into positive territory, as they’ve now outscored their opponents 423-422 on the season. Again, comparing to the same date last year, the Mariners had been outscored by 63 runs, and they were 121 runs in the red at this point two years ago. So, yeah, there’s no question that this team is better than the last couple of years. Where has the improvement come from?
Maybe not where you might think. Yes, the offense has been much better on the road, but they’ve also been a lot worse at home, and using park adjusted numbers, the team’s wRC+ has only gone 78/79/83 over the last three years. How to deal with what Safeco is doing to offense as a whole this year makes analyzing the offensive improvement difficult, but Ackley’s regressed, Smoak hit his way to Tacoma (and hasn’t hit down there, either), and Montero has only hit lefties. The gains made from Seager and Saunders are part of the improvement, but that doesn’t really seem to be the reason this team is more competitive.
So, what about the pitching? There are some areas of improvement, as the team strikeout rate is way up (16% in 2010, 18% last year, 20% this year), but their home run rate is also up a bit and the walk rate is unchanged, so we’re not looking at a huge step forward from the pitching staff. Run prevention is improved (ERA- of 99 in 2010, 100 in 2011, 96 this year), but that looks to be mostly about defense (thank you, Brendan Ryan) and the timing of when they’ve allowed their hits. When you account for Safeco Field, the team’s pitching staff is really about average.
So, how has average pitching, still poor offense, and pretty good defense resulted in improvement? Because, to put it simply, the team underachieved the last couple of years. While the Mariners were bad, they weren’t as bad as their record showed. This is more along the lines of what you’d expect from a team with this kind of roster construction – they’re not good enough to contend, but they’re not horrible either.
It’s not the kind of improvement that should be making you jump and down with excitement for 2013. That would have required good years from the Smoak/Ackley/Montero trio and probably a bit more development from the big three pitching prospects on the farm. But, for the first time in a couple of years, the Mariners are putting a decent product on the field, they’ve stemmed the tide of attendance losses — attendance is actually up slightly at Safeco this year, in fact — and they got an answer to the question of what to do with Ichiro.
All in all, the season has been a bit of a mixed bag, and there have certainly been some high profile and frustrating individual failures, but the organization is showing signs of progress. Their upcoming road trip to the east coast is probably going to knock them down a few pegs, but the team is on course for a 75 win season with some promising improvement from some young players and further development of the farm system, which is basically all the team could have really hoped for this year. Not everything has gone as hoped, but enough has to make the Mariners worth watching. And that’s a nice change from August 1st of the last two years.