Game 95, Mariners at Rockies – Improving the Offense

marc w · July 20, 2021 at 4:10 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Marco Gonzales vs. German Marquez, 5:40pm

The M’s strong run has them 6 games above .500, blowing their pre-season projections out of the water. Sure, their playoff odds have moved from “negligible” to “still below 5%” but they’re driven by those same projections. The problem here is that either by BaseRuns or pythagorean runs, the M’s really aren’t that great: their record using both systems (essentially stripping out sequencing and “clutch” stats) comes out at 42-52, a far cry from their actual 50-44 record. The bullpen’s been great, and they’ve been the clutchiest team in the game, but what accounts for this massive disparity?

The thing every projection, every system using run differential (which is all pythagorean runs are) is keying on is this: the M’s can’t hit very well. Before the year, they were projected to score very few runs, a product not only of an underwhelming/developing line-up, but also a park that supresses run scoring. They had a fair-to-middling projected number of runs allowed, but the problem was that they couldn’t take advantage of being average in one area if they were pretty bad in another. But that’s just what was *projected.* What’s ACTUALLY happened?

The projections….nailed it. The M’s are giving up 4.67 runs per game, which is a more than average, but it’s not a massive problem. What perhaps no one but the M’s pitching coaches and Jerry Dipoto saw coming was an elite bullpen that survived a faceplant from Rule 5 pick Will Vest and vaunted closer Rafael Montero to become the key element allowing the M’s to win close games and make a mockery of their run differential. That they’ve done all of this despite a swath of injuries torpedoing their opening day rotation is nothing less than amazing. How about the runs scored part? They’re scoring 4.1 runs per game, which is a bit more than you’d assume, just looking at their actual number of hits, walks, and homers. But here, the projections have been more or less right on. They were projected to score right around 4 runs per game, and to give up more than that. That’s exactly what they’ve done.

Even for some of the players, and even for players who are not hitting anything like their projected line, some of the projections are eerily accurate. Jarred Kelenic was projected by ZiPS for a 29.7 K% and a 7.6% BB rate. So far this year, he’s at 30.5% and 7.6%, respectively. Literally everything else about that projection hasn’t come to fruition; his OPS is nowhere near the mid-700s, and I think mid-20s in HRs is probably not in the cards for 2021, but it nailed the K/BB stuff. The same is largely true for Taylor Trammell, though not to the same degree.

The problem here isn’t just that the M’s have a high K rate. That might be expected due to the fact that they’re running out a very young line-up. The problem is what happens when they actually make contact. The M’s BABIP is the lowest in the game in part because they have the highest rate of infield fly balls. These are essentially always outs, so of course your BABIP will suffer if you hit them. The M’s, and the league, are hitting fewer grounders, but getting less out of them in part because the club doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard.

The New York Times has an article today about how the crackdown on sticky stuff has impacted strikeouts (down) and walks (up), leading to an increase in OBP. It will be interesting to see if the M’s can improve their BABIP and OBP given these changes. I don’t think it’s mattered a whole lot for the M’s staff, save perhaps Yusei Kikuchi, whose July swoon began a bit after the crackdown. Guys like Logan Gilbert, Chris Flexen, Kendall Graveman, etc. never had high spin rates, and don’t seem to have changed materially since June.

All of that has made it harder to identify exactly what changed with Gilbert, who was, again, lights out in the M’s last game. His fastball is about as hard as it was when he first came up, and he’s still prone to hard contact. His whiff rate remains so-so, but his command has improved markedly, leading to more strikeouts and fewer baserunners. There’s nothing really in the data that helps define what “rookie jitters” or “nerves” actually *does* to a pitcher. They don’t throw slower, they don’t change their release point, and for Gilbert, it’s not like he started out by walking tons of hitters. When batters put it in play, they still hit it fairly hard, but there are fewer balls in play, and he’s able to get whiffs when *he* wants to, and not in some 3-1 count. His growth has been unbelievable to watch, and he gives the M’s serious hopes for 2022, and more evidence (along with that bullpen) that the M’s player development group can be successful with pitchers. That’s important given the wave of pitchers they may need to call in in 2022 and 2023, especially if Marco Gonzales and Justus Sheffield remain a bit shaky.

But to really put themselves in contention for division titles in what’s looking like an increasingly open division in the next year or two is serious improvement in their offense. Moving from 4 runs a game to 4.7-5 is really, really hard to do, but starting with one of the younger line-ups around will help. Beyond mere regression in infield fly rate or BABIP, they need to figure out why the likes of Trammell, Kelenic, and potentially Raleigh are struggling in their first go-round in MLB, just as Evan White did. What was different about Kyle Lewis, and how can they turn Kelenic/Trammell around? Answering that will have as much to say about the M’s playoff odds next year as any free agent they may acquire.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: France, 1B
5: Raleigh, C
6: Kelenic, CF
7: Moore, 2B
8: Long, LF
9/SP: Gonzales

Tacoma destroyed Salt Lake last night 12-2 behind HRs from Kennie Taylor, Brian O’Keefe, Justin Hager, Jantzen Witte, and Jose Marmolejos. Logan Verrett was solid and got the win. Mike Curto discusses Taylor here; he was picked up early in the year (along with seemingly half of the team) from the Mets org, then was kind of without a team for a while, and was brought back a few days ago. The life of a minor leaguer; jeesh. Speaking of which, former Rainier and Mariner Ryan Weber was just picked up off of waivers from Milwakuee. He’ll start for Tacoma tonight.

Arkansas begins a series against Wichita at home at Dickey-Stephens park.

Everett travels to Hillsboro to take on the Vancouver Canadian-Oregonians.

Modesto heads to Fresno’s Chukchansi park to play the Grizzlies.


2 Responses to “Game 95, Mariners at Rockies – Improving the Offense”

  1. Longgeorge1 on July 20th, 2021 4:27 pm

    Bullpens are just like throwing mud at the wall. Some of it will stick. Unfortunately most of the time not for very long. A “long bullpen career” is almost an oxymoron. Even as strong as the pen has been a 50% or more turnover within a season and certainly between seasons is not unusual. Bullpens are necessary in today’s game but hard to maintain. To base hopes for 2022 on this season’s pen is more of a wish than a plan.

  2. MKT on July 20th, 2021 8:08 pm

    “To base hopes for 2022 on this season’s pen is more of a wish than a plan.”

    Very true, and the other element of this season’s success that is hard to repeat is this year’s opponents’ bullpens have had a habit of conveniently blowing up in the middle to late innings, giving the Ms just enough runs to stage a comeback and win the game by one or two runs.

    Still, a win is a win and the Ms have had a good number of them despite being in what I would call year 3 of a rebuild that one would have to expect would take a good four years. They have young players, half of whom hit like they belong in AAA, yet they’ve been winning with these young players.

    I’m not super-optimistic that the M’s current roster and minor league system looks ready to compete within two years. But even I have to admit that they’ve given fans some reason to believe.

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