The M’s Make No Sense, And It Is Awesome

marc w · June 5, 2018 at 7:00 am · Filed Under Mariners 

The Mariners make no sense. May saw the team lose Robinson Cano to suspension, and see much of the rest of the line-up miss time due to injury: Dee Gordon, Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura, Mike Zunino all missed games and/or went on the DL. As you might expect, their offensive production dropped, and they averaged about 4 runs per game, far below the pace they set in April; they scored 10 or more runs 4 times in April, but none in May. The club that was doing fine despite *allowing* 4.8 runs/game in April saw their run scoring fall…and they’ve moved ahead of the Astros in the AL West.

This is bonkers, and it is 10X better than anything logical. The M’s pitching staff in April looked *just* like the M’s pitching staff last year – Paxton was good, and then they’d cobbled together a rotation with some fairly inconsistent guys like Marco Gonzales and, as much as it pains me to write this, Felix. Mike Leake was supposed to hold down the middle of the rotation, and he was fine, but clearly not pitching the way he did last September. More worrisome, they were still allowing far too many HRs. Their fly-ball heavy approach mixed with the new, more aerodynamic ball resulted in a lot of big innings, and so they’d need to hit enough to compensate. In April/March, the M’s posted the 2nd-highest HR/9 rate in the game.

In May, they’ve allowed the lowest HR/9 because sure, why not. Is some of that luck? Yeah, sure, but not all of it. Last month, the M’s had the second-highest rate of pitches OUT of the strike zone put into play. If you want to maintain a low HR/9, induce swings at bad pitches. It’s notable because their overall rate of pitches in play isn’t all that high, as it shouldn’t be considering their strong strikeout rate.

Moreover, the M’s may be benefitting from a return to form of their ballpark. In 2016, batters who hit the ball hard in Safeco did slightly better than Statcast’s “expected wOBA” measure would’ve predicted based on angle and speed off the bat. So did a lot of teams, of course, as Statcast was trying to catch up to the fact that the new ball turned more balls into HRs than before. Now Statcast’s measure, trained on a few years of DingerMania, is OVERestimating production, and Safeco’s a prime example. Using the same metric in 2018, batters at Safeco are hitting far worse than predicted. But if this is just about league-wide trends, how would that help the M’s? As I’ve said, no team was as vulnerable to a change like we’ve seen as the M’s were. They built a staff around OF defense and BABIP-prevention, and then the league made BABIP nearly moot. The point is: if the game or at least Safeco moves back towards pre-2015 levels in terms of HR-friendliness, this team looks a lot different. Yes, this helps Oakland too, and look at the gap down there at the Coliseum… but the M’s have a huge lead now, and fewer HRs league wide would make it really hard for Oakland – or others – to catch up.

Their schedule gets a lot harder now, as you’ve no doubt heard. They’ll be in Houston again, and they’ll play the good bits of the AL East for the first time. They’ve always known this was coming, and if you’d made a checklist of things you’d want to see before this next road trip, I think the M’s would check every box. I sure as hell never expected them to be in front of the Astros, but they needed to build a little cushion ahead of the Angels. They’ve done that. They needed to see a serious step forward from either Mike Leake or Marco Gonzales vis a vis their April production. They got it from both. They needed to see a major improvement in HRs-allowed. As detailed above, they aced this section. They needed to see more from their bullpen behind Edwin Diaz. Their bullpen just led the league in fWAR in May by a country mile. They needed signs of life from Ben Gamel. He’s been on a serious tear. The M;s aren’t perfect; the hitting is timely, but not exactly potent, there are still depth questions (Romine?), and injuries continue to mount. But they needed to make a move in May and capture the region’s attention. They simply couldn’t have done a better job of that.

Lookout Landing’s Isabelle Minasian wrote a great post about the *feeling* that this team produces, and like many of you have noticed, there’s a lot more M’s gear around these days, so clearly Isabelle’s not alone. The references to the last times the M’s were in first place in June – whether tied (2016) or not (2003) – still bring up painful memories for me. I still expect to hurt at the end of all of this. But watching a vintage Felix performance yesterday was pretty special, and it’s a reminder – for me, at least – that this team can be so much fun, and that I don’t WANT the M’s to make sense. I want them to dominate at some point, and that’s not what this year’s about. This year’s seems to be about a team being more than the sum of its parts. That’s not terribly sabermetric, but then, I don’t care about the average of 10,000 teams constituted vaguely like this one – I care about the 2018 Mariners.


4 Responses to “The M’s Make No Sense, And It Is Awesome”

  1. naviomelo on June 5th, 2018 7:31 am

    Great post. Heading down to Houston today to watch the Big Maple!

  2. sexymarinersfan on June 5th, 2018 10:25 am

    When does Day 2 begin? I can’t find the start times anywhere?

  3. nwade on June 5th, 2018 5:09 pm

    This article perfectly captures both the practical realities and the emotions of M’s fandom right now. Thank you for helping give it a voice!

  4. Tim B. on June 6th, 2018 10:19 am

    Thank you for an insightful analysis that also captures the mood of Mariners fans right now. Your words make me wonder if the effect at Safeco might revert back to the way things were in April at an unfortunate time…say, in September (or October!).

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