Are The Seattle Mariners This Good?

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The early months of the MLB season have been pretty good overall for the Seattle Mariners. Heading into the final, afternoon, game of the series against the Oakland Athletics, the Mariners record stood at 29-19, ten games over .500, and just two games behind the division leading Houston Astros, who sported a 32-18 record, for the most wins in all of baseball, even if not the best winning percentage (lot’s of games have gotten rained out this season, especially on the east coast). If the season ended today – and that would be weird if the MLB season ended before the NBA Finals or the Stanley Cup – the Mariners would finally end their 16-year longest playoff drought in North American major sports and Cleveland and the stars of the upcoming HBO Hard Knocks, the Browns, could hold that distinction.

But before Mariners fans download the Seat Geek app and start hunting for post-season baseball tickets, some perspective is probably needed on the season’s success to this point.

Much of the American League Central Stinks

Before the beginning of play on Thursday, May 24th, only six teams out of fifteen in the AL had winning records. And had the Cleveland Indians not eked out a 1-0 thriller against the Chicago Cubs the night before that would have been five teams over .500 and ten below. For much of the season, none of the teams in the AL Central have had winning records, and, as luck would have it, the Mariners schedule has seen a heavy dose of the Central. In fact, five of the eleven opponents the Mariners have faced thus far this season are the entirely of the AL Central.  Overall, Mariners opponents have a combined 248-286 record for a winning percentage of .464.

Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It has allowed the Mariners to bank extra wins above their projected total. Over at Fangraphs, the playoff model has added almost five wins to the Mariners pre-season projection, going from roughly 78 wins projected to nearly 83 wins projected. But, it does mean, as Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs recently pointed out, that the Mariners, going forward, will face the third most difficult schedule in all of baseball. The front loaded easy schedule is about to become a back loaded doozy of a schedule.

June and July Will Be Crazy

The next three series for the Mariners are all at home and all against below .500 teams – the Minnesota Twins, the Texas Rangers, and the Tampa Rays. The last game of the Rangers series will take the team into June. Then things getting interesting.

The M’s go on the road for a short two game series in Houston against the Astros, then fly to the furthest point from Seattle in the MLB universe – Tampa. Once they come home again, they will face the Los Angeles Angels, currently 27-22 and 2 ½ games behind the Mariners. Then the Boston Red Sox roll into town. Then there is a ten-game road trip against the New York Yankees, the Red Sox again, and the Baltimore Orioles. By the time the team comes home on June 30th, Mariners faithful should have a better idea of how good this team actually is.

July isn’t much better with three series against the Angels. As the Angles and the Mariners figure to be the top contenders for the second wild card spot, the nine head to head matches in July could prove critical.

Reasons for Skepticism

In addition to the cup cake schedule so far, there are also some underlying numbers that suggest the Mariners may be playing over their heads. For starters, the Pythagorean record of the M’s, based on runs scored and runs allowed, suggests that the team should have about 25 wins, rather than 29 wins. Each season sees outliers in the Pythagorean estimates, but for the most part, after 162 games have been played, the formula comes within about 2 wins of the actual records. Just a thing to keep an eye on.

Also, with the exception of James Paxton, the Mariners starting pitching has been mediocre, but has shown some signs of settling in. They currently rank 13th in the majors if fWAR, and 15th in FIP (fielding independent pitching), which is actually a bit higher than their actual ERA. What the Mariners cannot afford, on the tide of recent injuries and suspensions, is a Paxton DL stint.

Until just the last two or three weeks, the relief corps had hovered in the 20’s on the MLB leaderboard in both fWAR and FIP, but has improved lately, and given the relative weakness of the Al in general, they are 4th in fWAR in the AL and 4th in FIP. A large part of that rests on the young shoulders of closer Edwin Diaz who leads the AL in fWAR among relievers with 1.1, is striking out 15.99 hitters per 9 innings, and has a ridiculously low 1.78 ERA. Only the New York Yankees tandem of Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances, along with Carlson Fulmer of the Chicago White Sox strike hitters out at a higher clip out of the pen in the AL.

Finally, the rash of injuries has to stop soon. Following the Robinson Cano drug suspension, the Mariners played games over the week without either Cano, Nelson Cruz, Dee Gordon, or Mitch Haniger in the lineup. Now, Cano is not coming back until the middle of August and can’t play in the playoffs even if the M’s get there. Fortunately, Gordon’s fractured toe looks like it will only keep him out for the ten days of the DL stint, but you have to wonder how that will affect his number one asset – speed. Cruz and Haniger appear to have only minor injuries after both were hit by pitches  – Cruz returned Wednesday but went 0-4 with 2 whiffs and Haniger should be back over the weekend. The bottom line is, with so little organizational depth, the Mariners are always one injury away from a prolonged slump. The team needs to stay healthy.

Bright Side

The flip side of all the reasons to be skeptical is that these were the same reasons to be skeptical coming into the season and the Mariners are 29-19. Injuries are a concern for every team in baseball. Just look no further than the Los Angeles Dodgers. The quality of the pitching staff is about where it was expected and yet they have won. Sometimes things just go right. Maybe for the first time in 16 years they are finally going right for the Seattle Mariners.

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About Author

Brian Hight

Brian Hight lives in Seattle and writes primarily about MLB and the local Seattle Mariners, with a focus on advanced analytics. Occasionally, he delves into the NFL and the NBA, also with an emphasis on advanced statistics. He’s currently pursuing a Certificate in Data Analysis online from Microsoft, where he hopes to create a prediction model for baseball outcomes for his capstone project.

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