The Seattle Mariners: What in Tarnation?

marc w · July 12, 2022 at 2:58 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

I left for a vacation in late June, and after a few weeks away and a few days to recover from jet lag, I now have the delightful task of trying to figure out why the M’s have become a juggernaut. When I left, Fangraphs had their playoff odds pegged at around 5-6%. Today, they’re at about 45%. A lot of stuff has gone down, but “losing games” wasn’t part of that. What…what happened here?

1: Is it the offense or the pitching/defense?

I think the big narrative at the beginning of the year was wondering if the M’s had improved the team enough to counterbalance the very likely regression in their luck. As one of the luckiest teams in recent baseball history, that was a tough ask. In May and into June, we got to witness an improved team battle not only a lack of depth, but actively *bad* luck; their BaseRuns winning percentage was *higher* than their actual one, in a darkly ironic twist.

If you asked Fangraphs, it would lay a lot of the blame for the poor start at the feet of the pitching staff. While their ERA was superficially good, their peripherals stank, and the bullpen was fast and loose with late-game leads at times. It all added up to a bottom-third staff, countering the contributions of what they saw as a top-third offense. Sure, the offense hadn’t done a whole lot of, you know, run scoring, but they played in a tough environment, and made solid contact and had sneaky power. Other sites, like BBREF, disagreed, saying that for all of their flaws, the pitching staff was keeping opponents off the scoreboard, and if they got a bit more run support, they’d be a decent group.

At this point, I think supporters of both viewpoints would claim victory. Since mid-June, the Seattle pitching staff has been amongst the league’s absolute best. In the past 14 days, they’re 11-1 with an ERA of just 2.21, and while their FIP is worse, it’s still quite good. The key has been maintaining a decent K rate while refusing to give up walks. Sure, sure, the strand rate’s ridiculously high, which is part of the reason FIP isn’t quite buying in all the way, but even FIP has them as the second most valuable unit in that time frame.

The “the pitching was never the problem” group nods knowingly, while the “the pitchers have finally stopped dicking around and started pitching well” people think they’ve figured it all out. What’s been fascinating is that the hitters have been remarkably consistent. FG has them as the 10th best group of position players for the whole season, but they’ve actually been slightly lower than that in the past 14 days. They’re hitting a bit better than they did in April/May, but then, so is everyone else. What *has* changed is their luck. After getting killed by the luck gods early on, they’re getting the best of both worlds now. Not only are they an improved team, but they’re a *lucky* improved team: their clutch score is 4th-highest in the past two weeks, even as their score for the entire season ranks 21st, and is firmly in negative territory.

2: So, WHY did the pitching staff improve? Is it just luck?

Eh, it’s hard to say, but there are some key reasons to think it might not be. First and perhaps most famously, Robbie Ray is back. He was clearly not the Cy Young version of himself in the early going, but he was also getting destroyed by sequencing. His mid-game adoption of a sinker has transformed him. It may not have mattered what pitch he started throwing – he needed a third look. Since the change, his sinker’s been good, but the difference is best seen in the results of his other offerings. His four-seamer’s no longer being hit hard, and his slider’s turned into a true out-pitch now that batters can’t simply sit on it.

Success with the slider’s one of the stories of this run, actually. And it’s not just Ray. Over the course of the season, Pitch Info’s pitch-type linear weights has the M’s as the best staff in the game for sliders. This is all the more remarkable due to the fact that some of their starters – Logan Gilbert and George Kirby in particular – haven’t fared well at all with their breaking pitches. To be clear, it hasn’t hurt them much: their fastballs more than outweigh that. But the fascinating thing has been watching how some of those sliders keep improving. With Ray, we’ve talked about the importance of the new pitch. How important has that been? Well, 5.2 of the 5.8 runs above average he’s notched with his slider have been racked up in the past two weeks.

Another pitcher’s made a very noticeable change to his slider and is also reaping the rewards: Andrés Muñoz. For the first part of the season, his slider averaged 86 mph, with 3.5″ of horizontal break. More importantly, it was released slightly lower than his high-octane fastball. Since mid-June, though, his slider’s release part has crept up towards his fastball’s. It’s also now thrown at 90 mph. He’s sacrificed horizontal sweep – he’s chosen to zig a bit as baseball zags towards “sweepers,” but it’s working for him. And why wouldn’t it? Breaking ball velocity correlates very well with results. Through mid-June, he’d given up 7 hits including 2 HRs and notched 21 Ks with his 230 sliders. That’s pretty good! Since then, he’s yielded just 3 singles and K’d 20 batters on 122 sliders. That’s much, much better.

Paul Sewald’s slider is visually gorgeous, but both last year and in much of this campaign, his fastball’s been the better pitch. Early this year, his slider came in at 82, with 7″ of sweep (per BrooksBaseball). Since then, he’s throwing it a tad harder, resulting in less vertical and horizontal movement. Since mid-June, no one’s gotten a hit off of it. I don’t think these changes are large enough to be the sole reason for the pitch’s improvement, but I do think a slightly different look from guys like Sewald/Muñoz who throw their sliders *so* much can make a difference.

The emergence or rather improvement from Muñoz has turned a solid bullpen into a great one. Penn Murfee and Diego Castillo already had their sliders pretty well dialed in. Castillo’s improvement had more to do with better results on his sinker than any mechanical changes to his breaking ball. But Muñoz has allowed the M’s to part ways with Sergio Romo and Drew Steckenrider and solidify the roles in front of Sewald. They’re reducing the volatility and variance in a notoriously volatile part of the club.

3: Yeah, OK, but is it going to matter?

Who knows? What I do know is that the *way* they’ve won these games – hard-fought, taut games punctuated with late-game heroics – is objectively awesome. I definitely wish the M’s hadn’t dug themselves such a big hole, but this is as compelling a team as we’ve seen in a while. Last year’s team was incredibly fun, but fun like a CGI-filled popcorn movie. It wasn’t, you know, art, but it was cool to watch. The improvement in the line-up and the solidification of the staff makes this a bit more interesting, even as they may struggle to win 90 games.

But more important to the rest of the schedule is how the AL is shaking out. I mentioned a month or so ago that I thought that you might not *need* to win 90 to get a wildcard this year, unlike in 2021. The reason is that essentially all of the wild card contenders (outside of the M’s and some darkhorses like Cleveland) are in the same division. A division with a historic Leviathan in it. The AL East could go a number of different ways, but if the non-Yankees start beating each other up, that critical number of wins to get a wildcard keeps dropping. Well, since then, the AL East has…beat itself up.

There are a number of keys here, from Tampa losing Wander Franco for much of the spring (and now the rest of the summer) to the White Sox’s collapse to Toronto’s pitching woes to the unlikely emergence of a decent Orioles club. But it all gets to the same place: it’s much less likely now that you’ll have *four* teams in the AL East with 90-92 wins. It could happen, and Fangraphs’ still likes the playoff odds of the Rays/Red Sox/Jays better than Seattle’s. But critically, it has the Rays winning 85 games, while the M’s are at 83. This is well within the margin of error. And at this point, the strength of schedule difference between, say, Tampa and Seattle looms pretty large. A Wander-less Rays team facing the Yanks a bunch more times vs. the M’s taking on Texas and an Angels team that could maybe even trade off Ohtani? Yes, that seems aligned with my interests.

4: How do they get better?

In perhaps the biggest change from a month ago, the trade deadline is now Important. Whereas it was shaping up to be a complex-league flyer in exchange for Adam Frazier, the M’s are clearly buyers, and have to be willing to deal off some of their minor league depth. The pick-up of Carlos Santana’s already paid enormous dividends, and I know things get weird now if the M’s want to play France/Santana/Haniger once Mitch is activated, but we’ll take line-up crunches. The line-up still has black holes, and the M’s should endeavor to fill them.

The Royals acquired some prospect depth for a draft pick, and while it wouldn’t get them enough, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them sweeten a package in the next week with their first-round selection in Sunday’s draft. They have to be willing to let some of their more heralded prospects go and/or take on significant salary, but I’m not sure how they face the clubhouse without doing it. They’ve crept back into what was looking like a lost season, and they’re a far sight better than last year’s club. The league’s fallen back as well, and a few of the teams that looked like serious challengers – the Angels and White Sox – have essentially dithered away half a season. If you can’t make serious moves now, when can you make them?

Andrew Benintendi could be an interesting pick-up if the M’s had confidence Ty France could return to 2B. There are a lot more pitchers on the block this year, so if the M’s wanted to bolster the rotation they could target Luis Castillo or help the bullpen through Matt Moore or Michael Fulmer. The latter two wouldn’t cost much in prospects, but also have less scope to really change the outlook for the M’s. I’d like Moore’s left-handedness in a pen dominated by righties, though.


3 Responses to “The Seattle Mariners: What in Tarnation?”

  1. globalalpha on July 13th, 2022 7:21 am

    Welcome back Marc!

    Seems like the team is indeed in position where it needs to trade from the prospect talent to bolster the major league roster. Or they could have, you know, signed free agents in the off-season. Bottom 10 payroll is an embarrassment and inexcusable.

    Also there isn’t all that much prospect talent left now. Recent fangraphs update had them as the 22nd most valuable farm system, I believe?

  2. Stevemotivateir on July 13th, 2022 9:08 am

    I discussed France being used part-time at 2B shortly after they acquired Santana (and gave that a ton of thought), but I really wonder if that’s likely given the stress it would put on his shoulder. Then there’s the lack of recent experience there. I guess I’ll take it more seriously when we hear he’s working with Perry Hill before games.

    Regarding pitching, if they’re reluctant to give up prospects, I wonder if they might stick with internal options. Dollard could have his innings limited (now) and eventually be used in a swing role or as a MIRP/opener. Hancock’s late start to the season might conveniently have him ready for MLB about the time they need really need to start getting the current starters a breather.

    I’m in the they-need-to-add camp, and I’d have no problem with them adding a Snell or Castillo along with a bad contract to lighten the return. I just wonder if they’re more inclined to continue to bet on themselves if a killer deal isn’t there.

  3. bookbook on July 13th, 2022 1:04 pm

    I agree with the need to add, but don’t see all that many easy paths ro upgrades I’ll, now that Winker is hitting, Santana looks helpful and Lewis/Haniger are close to return.

    One top starting pitcher would be a big lift.

    I don’t think winning teams put Ty France at second base, where he wasn’t good even before he found his all-star level as a first baseman.

    Give Toro’s PAs at 2b to Moore, get Upton off the roster, and let the offense roll.

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