If It Goes Right
Just yesterday, for most teams in baseball, the 2013 season ended. It ended for some on a higher note than for others, but the highest notes — those are still to come. They’re going to come in the playoffs, and in a short while, for the Mariners, the 2013 season will continue, in October. Go back to March and tell yourself you’d be reading this paragraph and you’d swear it was nothing but Seattle Mariners fan-fiction. Some fantasy by some blogger both under-occupied and over-imaginative. It still reads like a fantasy today, but that’s not because of the 2013 Mariners. That’s because of many of the Mariners teams that came before them.
I’m writing this post to try to make sense of how we got here. I mean, we’ve been on the ride all six months long, living day by day by day, but it’s helpful to look at the bigger picture, and just half of one year ago, remember how certain we were of how things would end up? The Angels, the Rangers, and the Athletics would feud for first place. We couldn’t be sure of the order, but we were sure of the participants. The Mariners were to be locked into fourth. The Astros were to be locked into fifth. We accepted this as fact, or at least as much as fact as one can before the actual season begins. The Mariners, even as the ideally improved Mariners, were going to be a fourth-place team, and we’d keep ourselves interested by watching for dingers and development. You remember when “D&D” was a fan rallying cry. It feels like ages ago. It was.
What the hell is “first”? How did the Mariners pull this off? Even as a team people projected as a potential surprise, they only qualified as a potential surprise because they weren’t supposed to actually be good. People also projected the Padres as a potential surprise. You saw what happened to them. It doesn’t make any sense that the Mariners did what they did, but if you widen your scope, the clues were there. Maybe more people should’ve seen this coming, by which I mean maybe some people should’ve seen this coming.
Go back to 2009. That wasn’t that long ago. Felix was the runner-up for the American League Cy Young. Franklin Gutierrez was among the game’s premier everyday center fielders. That following offseason, Jesus Montero was Baseball America’s No. 4 prospect. Justin Smoak was BA’s No. 13 prospect. Dustin Ackley was BA’s No. 11 prospect. Michael Saunders was BA’s No. 30 prospect. Note also that Kendrys Morales finished fifth in AL MVP voting. This team didn’t come into the season short on talent, and I haven’t even yet noted guys like Michael Morse or Kyle Seager or Hisashi Iwakuma or Erasmo Ramirez. Christ, and I nearly forgot that, in 2009, Jason Bay smashed 36 dingers. I’m not saying the key to success is to assemble a bunch of players who were big deals years ago, but this had all the makings of a hell of a core, and a hell of a roster. And look what just developed, before our eyes.
I remember, during the offseason, a few of us came to know a little more about how the Mariners’ front office worked. We weren’t fond of the changes, in personnel or in process, and I had more than a few conversations about whether or not it would be best to root for a crash and burn season. Something to allow the executives to clean house and start over. There was an argument in favor of it, even if we couldn’t be certain the front office would be replaced by a better front office. Remember, we fell madly in love with this front office a few years ago. Some of the decision-making stung. The John Jaso trade stung. The Jason Bay decision stung. Signing Raul Ibanez was weird, and so on and so forth. There was reason to believe the Mariners were no longer going down the right path.
But, a few things. For one, crash and burn seasons suck. They suck to witness, as all the enjoyment just gets ripped out of the game all summer long. For two, what would be necessary for a crash and burn season? It stands to reason that would involve a lot of young players not taking steps forward. Maybe some of them take steps back. Maybe some of them get injured. Had the Mariners done poorly, maybe the people in charge would’ve been replaced, but the talent would’ve performed at such a level that the overall team did poorly. That would be a long-term concern. And for three, there’s been method to the front office’s perceived madness.
They’ve remained committed to building from within and accumulating cost-controlled talent. They’ve drafted well, scouted well, developed pretty well. Look at the young players in the system. Look at the young players in the system before these guys took over. It’s night and day. This team has a present and a future, where those old Mariners had neither. And then as much as we made fun of the pursuit of experience and the pursuit of dingers…I mean, I’m not saying things worked out this way because of that formula, but there was that formula, and then things worked out this way. There might be something there.
To hell with lineup protection. Nobody’s ever found evidence of helpful lineup protection. But mentorship? Reduced pressure? Who’s to say? With some experienced blocks in the middle of the order, some of the Mariners’ other young hitters improved. Maybe, before, they were trying to do too much. Maybe, this way, they could stay within themselves, which means everything and nothing depending on how you think about it. When there’s pressure on you to perform, you can feel stressed, and then you can spiral. When there’s less pressure, you can relax a little more, and it’s funny how much better a relaxed mind is than an anxious mind. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, maybe I’m giving the plan too much credit, but I’m feeling positive and I’m feeling like giving some people the benefit of the doubt. At least, we don’t know that adding dingers didn’t help. Michael Morse slugged like he was supposed to. Kendrys Morales slugged like he was supposed to. Jason Bay bounced back. Practically everyone but Brendan Ryan contributed to the offense, making this a very different sort of Mariners team. A successful, watchable, enjoyable Mariners team!
So those conversations about replacing the front office look kind of silly today. This outcome is a lot better than that other outcome. I don’t even think the front office saw this coming. How could they have, and why would they have, given the competition? I think they just wanted the team to be okay, to take a step toward competing in 2014. But this is why it pays to upgrade even an ordinary team over an offseason. This is why there’s value in adding pieces to what you think might be a .500 ballclub. We can’t actually project that well, and every win projection comes with significant error bars. It’s seldom a bad idea to increase one’s odds of making the playoffs, because sometimes the playoffs are more within reach than they seem. The Mariners put themselves in position to surprise, and lo and behold, I get to write this post.
It’s funny how many more “moments” there are in a competitive season. It’s funny how there are so many heroes. In 2012, we had that combined no-hitter and we had the Felix perfect game, and those were amazing, but they were also two of the only moments to stand the test of time. The Mariners had some big hits and some dramatic wins, but the leverage was low since the team wasn’t going to the postseason. Low leverage reduces memorability. Increase the stakes and all of a sudden almost everyone on the roster has a critical season highlight. Everyone on the roster helped the Mariners get to where they are. Were it not for this specific equation of players and plays, where might things be instead?
I mean, obviously, we probably would’ve long remembered Guti’s three-dinger outburst. Regardless of the context, it’s not every day someone drives in nine runs with 14 total bases. But, geez, Robert Andino beating Mariano Rivera? The Jason Bay pinch-hit? Mike Zunino’s walk-off in his second-ever start? The four-game sweep of the Angels with the 11 home runs? Lucas Luetge nullifying that suicide squeeze? Luke Gregerson striking out the side after the bases were walked full? These are just the things I’m pulling off the top of my head. There have been so many moments, so many of them still vivid, so many of them still electrifying when I pull up the highlights on MLB.com. Every season, from the best year to the worst one, has special moments, but when they really matter, when they actually make a difference, they’re glued into your mental scrapbook. Everybody was a hero. Everybody did something we haven’t forgotten.
People talk about destiny like destiny exists. Google “team of destiny” and look at the number of results. Consider how many of those teams didn’t win the championship, or even make the playoffs. The Mariners aren’t riding the wave of destiny, just as the White Sox aren’t, either. But there have been those moments that made it feel like they were. There have been those moments where it seemed like something, somewhere, didn’t want to allow the Mariners to lose. The improbable three consecutive July walk-offs. The eight-run rally in Tampa Bay. That Bay pinch-hit, again. Felix, with the King’s Court at his back, giving the Royals absolutely no chance to do anything, abruptly halting their ten-game winning streak. In retrospect, that looks like the day the Royals were broken. Felix did that to them. The Mariners did that to them. In a clash of Cinderellas, the Mariners emerged decisively victorious.
I guess the last thing you need is more of a 2013 season recap. The 2013 season, after all, isn’t over, and we’re just now getting to the games of the greatest consequence. We all want to think about the playoffs, and the Mariners playing in them. But I think it’s been worth pausing to smell the roses, because it should be appreciated how we’ve gotten to this point. Don’t take this for granted. Even if the Mariners get wiped out, don’t take this season for granted. Every season is a learning experience, but this one’s been a treat. A treat we didn’t expect, but a treat for which we had a voracious appetite.
Is it crazy that Felix pitched like an ace? Is it crazy that talented young hitters hit like talented young hitters? Is it crazy that Guti didn’t have another freak accident or disease? Is it crazy that the veterans did what they were supposed to? Is it crazy that the rotation bent without breaking, and that the bullpen turned out the lights? Is it crazy that the baseball fans in Seattle didn’t disappear, that they just needed a team to want to come support? Is it crazy that the Mariners worked out? Is it actually, when you consider how it all happened? I’ll admit it’s a little crazy that the Mariners were the best. But the right error bars overlapped. There was always some probability of this, which means in some universes, it was going to happen. This happened to be one of them.
I remember wondering aloud whether seeing Felix throw a perfect game at home was better than watching the Mariners win the World Series. I wondered that seriously, when it seemed like the Mariners weren’t particularly close to contention. I don’t know if a few weeks from now I’m going to find out, but I know there still exists that chance. For all but a few teams, that chance is dead. What’s one more long shot? This team has overcome a longer shot.