The Risks: 2021

marc w · April 1, 2021 at 2:41 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

It’s opening day, a day for optimism. In a year of loss, polarization, and isolation, baseball is back to be a constant companion. It asks little, and simply exists along side you. You can go immerse yourself in it, but it’s not required. If you don’t want it right now, that’s fine. Another game will start in a few hours, or you can just come back tomorrow. I’m surprised at how excited I am for another 162-game season, and for that near-daily interaction with my imaginary friends on the radio and on TV. If you can’t be hopeful and happy on a day like this (and it helps that it’s absolutely gorgeous as I write this in the northwest), you may need professional help.

Around 8:00am this morning, the opening day match-up between Jacob deGrom and the Mets vs. Max Scherzer and the Nats was cancelled due to a Covid outbreak on the latter club. The new Detroit Tigers pitching coach can’t be with his own club, as he, too, tested positive, leading to contract tracing protocols and isolation for several close contacts on the club. That optimism, that happiness, that longed-for return to normalcy was *there*, but you had to wake up pretty early to really bask in it.

If you missed it, I’m sorry. It’s time to be brutally realistic, and to imagine all that can go wrong. This task is easier for us M’s fans, of course. With one opening day game already banged due to the pandemic, and with the M’s projected by many to post an equal or *worse* winning percentage than last year, this is not a difficult post to write. The M’s President admitted to service time manipulation, insulted two of the M’s most beloved players of different eras, and then got fired. The relationship with their top prospect may not recover. This post could write itself.

1: The Mariners Offense is Sunk by a Wave of Strikeouts

The Mariners opening day line-up includes *five* batters with either a career K% over 30% or at least one projection of 30%. They are bunched together from 5th-8th. Sure, sure, you say – this isn’t the preferred line-up, though. With Kyle Lewis out, the M’s have to use Taylor Trammell and Jake Fraley together, instead of essentially platooning them. The problem is, Lewis has a career 31.5% K rate.

Strikeouts are up throughout the league, and teams can be very effective offensively despite a lot of whiffs. The Rays won the AL Pennant despite finishing 2nd in MLB in team K rate. The White Sox struck out more than the M’s did, but hit enough to make the playoffs. It can be done. But it takes something to balance the whiffs – the White Sox hit for average *and* hit for a much higher ISO. The M’s can’t count on either thing, but they certainly hope to hit for more power in 2021 with Tom Murphy and Mitch Haniger returning, but both of those guys swing and miss, too.

For a lesson in the importance of strikeout rate, we can look back at last season, and the sad saga of the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers had perhaps the game’s best bullpen with ROY Devin Williams and brand name closer, Josh Hader. Those two helped the club post the second-best K% *for pitchers* in the game, en route to the 4th-most fWAR in MLB. But despite a great walk rate, the offense couldn’t take advantage of the advantage they had in run prevention. They’d been projected to be a contender with the reigning NL MVP, hyped rookie Keston Hiura, and vets like Lorenzo Cain and old friend Omar Narvaez. But they ended up worse than the sum of those impressive parts, as they put up a team average around .220 and one of the highest K rates in the game.

The M’s have kind of a bi-modal distribution of K rates, with Kyle Seager and JP Crawford posting very low rates, and the OF and catcher spots striking out frequently. But the club is built a bit differently than the club that started 2020…and put up the 8th-highest K rate. Gone is Austin Nola, a low-K guy, and in his place the M’s will use Tom Murphy (highest projected rate on the team) and Taylor Trammell. Dylan Moore, who has a career 30.8% K rate, will play all over, and the utility guys behind him include Sam Haggerty (16 Ks in 50 career ABs) and, at some point, Shed Long (career 26% Ks). The preferred line-up is K-heavy, and the back-ups…are just as whiff-prone.

And we haven’t even touched on the elephant in the room, here. Evan White’s K rate was over *40%* and the second-highest in MLB. He actually fared slightly better with men on base, but a K rate of over 38% in those situations certainly cut some rallies short. The good news is that he’s projected to improve markedly, cutting that rate by ten percentage points. The projections pull him strongly towards the mean, because there’s just not a lot of precedent for MLB hitters striking out like this.

The M’s will post a below-average K rate on offense, and they’ll quite likely post a below-average batting average. They absolutely need to hit for power and walk at a decent clip, and that’s where the new ball becomes important. The league has said they were trying to reduce fly ball distance, and thus HRs, by tweaking the ball’s construction. It’s not at all clear that they’ve succeeded. But what does seem clear is that the new baseball *moves* more. Curves snap more menacingly, and fastballs move more as well. That’s pushed the K rate in the spring higher with the new ball as compared to the 2020 baseball. If there’s one thing the M’s don’t need right now, it’s the baseball giving pitchers an advantage.

2: The Mariners Finish with 74-75 Wins, Declare Victory

In a great piece on the AL West yesterday, Yahoo’s Hannah Keyser spoke to Jerry Dipoto about expectations for the year, and what results the M’s are looking for – what would constitute a success in 2021? Jerry Dipoto emphasized that he’s worked for years in Seattle to get people to focus more on process than results, and that the real key for the year is just to improve. He’d like to get just a bit better in every category: “we’re going to look just to get 1 percent better in every area with the idea that if we just get 1 percent better at our ability to get on base, 1 percent better at our ability to hold other teams down, to not allow runs, the way we run the bases.”

That sounds good, because those 1% gains compound across so many different areas, and because it’s reminiscent of what Gonzaga coach Mark Few said literally the day before this piece came out after his club demolished USC to make the Final Four. This is just what great teams do, right?

Not necessarily. If the club still sees contention as a year away, and Dipoto made it clear to Keyser that he does, they simply do not have time for incremental improvement any more. They could argue that, in 2019, the fact that the club lost 94 games was irrelevant – they were embarking on a rebuild. They can claim in 2020 that their bullpen was awful because they didn’t emphasize it, and that they were still running through a bunch of unknown pitchers to see what they had. At some point, the bullpen can’t simply go from a 5.92 ERA to a 5.81 ERA to a 5.56 ERA. The offense can’t go from 5.1 WAR to 6.0. They have to get *better* in a hurry. Gonzaga can improve at the margin, because they’re the best in their sport. The M’s have to pick up the pace.

One of the problematic aspects of the idea that the M’s have essentially solved their long-standing player development woes is that we don’t see it consistently. The club that’s helped Logan Gilbert become a top prospect is also the club that’s trotted out replacement-level bullpens in consecutive years. In that light, how much of Gilbert’s success is just a function of Logan Gilbert? If their coaching allows some players to improve, but struggles with others, that sounds remarkably like…every other PD group in the game. Several years in, it’s time for the M’s to show, and stop telling.

The M’s need to be near .500 for this to be a successful season. They can’t have some bright spots, some regression, and have it all add up to 74 wins. They absolutely CAN finish with 74 wins, and essentially every projection system thinks they will. But I have no interest in hearing from the club how that was a really *good* 74 wins, or a super-encouraging path to 74 wins. If the projections are right, it constitutes failure, period.

3: The Dip in the Quality of the AL West is Negated by Improvements Elsewhere

As we talked about yesterday, the AL West has gotten weaker in recent years. The Astros are no longer a juggernaut after losing Justin Verlander to injury, and George Springer/Gerrit Cole to free agency. Charlie Morton’s gone, Carlos Correa’s been injury prone. Now Framber Valdez is hurt. The A’s lost Liam Hendriks and Marcus Semien. If you squint, you see a clear path to the playoffs in a year, especially if the Astros lose Correa and the Athletics do what they always do and think about trading Matt Chapman before he gets too expensive.

The problem for the M’s is twofold. First, the gap between themselves and the best teams in the division is still sizable. The Astros have fallen back, but they haven’t yet fallen *apart*. They’re still projected to win over 90 games, and that’s pretty rarefied air. Second, in an environment with multiple wild cards, the division matters less. The M’s have been competing for years with clubs in the AL East for one of the wild cards, and that competition’s only grown stronger. The East has the defending AL champs in Tampa, the best projected team in the AL in New York, and a very talented Boston team that could surprise people. They’ve also got the Blue Jays, who’ve improved mightily and look very solid. Worse, the AL Central – long the worst division in the league, and thus not likely to supply wild card contenders – is improving. Minnesota remains a powerful team, but Chicago is knocking on the door. Even after selling off Francisco Lindor, Cleveland’s remarkable pitching development keeps them in the hunt.

The Angels and A’s are still a bit better than the M’s, and may be better in the years to come. If they play well, the M’s could pass one or both, as they passed Anaheim last season. It’s just that that isn’t enough. *10 AL Teams* have playoff odds greater than 20% per Fangraphs. The M’s odds are below 5% because there are so many paths to the playoffs for other, better teams. Worse, those teams are just as young – or younger – than the M’s. The Blue Jays got older this year as they push for short-term contention, but their stars were 21, 22, and 25 last year. The Red Sox best players were 23, 24 and 27. This is a problem the M’s will be contending with (or not) for years to come until they can figure out a way to ignore wild card races and compete for a division title. That hasn’t happened since 2001, though, a fact that you may have heard once or twice in recent years.


3 Responses to “The Risks: 2021”

  1. C. Cheetah on April 1st, 2021 5:34 pm

    Marc… this last week of writing has been fantastic!!!
    Thanks for all the thoughts, and topics to ponder… and idea of what we should be looking / hoping for.

  2. Stevemotivateir on April 2nd, 2021 11:40 am

    To be fair, I think Seattle has done much better over the last 3-ish years regarding pitcher Frankensteining. Adams, Magill, Brennan, Sadzeck, Ramirez, Williams, and Sadler are examples of gimmies that they squeezed some life out of. But then there are the home-grown guys…

    As promising as Sheffield and most of the starter prospects have looked, It would be good to see Delaplane, Gerber, Mills, and Fletcher assert themselves at some point this year in the ‘pen. That would put a dent in the 2022 shopping list which is looking like a doozy at the moment.

    My fear–and I really hope this isn’t realized–is seeing Crawford, White, and Lewis regress or fail to reach the bar; slow or underwhelming performances from Kelenic, Gilbert, Trammell, and Raleigh.

    I couldn’t care less about 2021 results. But a lot more than just good process is needed for Seattle to contend in 2022. They need clear-cut answers at a number of positions and a willingness to spend in the offseason alone may not cut it.

    That said, I could see Jerry being aggressive at the deadline and I’m not terribly worried about most of these top prospects (and younger players in general). Not yet, anyway.

  3. eponymous coward on April 7th, 2021 3:39 pm

    I couldn’t care less about 2021 results.

    You need to. It’s an order of magnitude easier to move an 80-85 win club to 85-90 wins than a 70-75 win club in one season. Going from outright bad to very good in one year is very difficult- it does happen (1990-91 Braves, 1966-1967 Red Sox), just like drawing to an inside straight happens in poker, but you don’t want to be in that position, just like you don’t want to be drawing to an inside straight. Having to come up with 15-20 wins in one year is not where you want to be (it also makes it way more likely that 2022 is the “around .500” year, and 2023 is the actual start of contention… oh, wait, that’s a goalpost I saw moving again).

    Marc’s right, a record of at least around .500 makes 2022 less of a mad scramble to put a contending team together with NO room for error; it implies that you know some group of Lewis/Kikuchi/Flexen/White/Torrens/Trammell/Kelenic are paying off as regular contributors over a full season to join Gonzales and Crawford as players you can rely on going forward for the 2022 team. A 74ish win team means more cases of “hey, White was still a trainwreck, what the hell do we do now”, or “Kikuchi is going to be a complete gamble if we use his option”. At this point, the team needs to start finding answers that get it to a .500 team and that can provide a base to build on. Lingering in the low 70’s isn’t making any real progress.

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