It’s safe to say that an early season grade for the Seattle Mariners bullpen would be in the D range, with some eager to assign an F. The operative word here though is “early.” While few expected such a rocky opening to the 2017 season, most were leery of the bullpen as it awaited the return of Shae Simmons and Steve Cishek. Those skeptics have been proven right, thus far, as the Mariners bullpen has melted down on several occasions in the first ten games, propelling it to 7.71 ERA. But a little closer look at the underlying numbers is a bit reassuring that this bullpen isn’t really this bad.
The Implosion Everyone Was Talking About
On Sunday, April 9, in sunny Los Angeles, the Mariners’ bats were banging away on Los Angeles Angels’ pitching. With a 6-1 lead heading into the top of the 7th, the M’s win probability set at 97.29%. After tacking on a run on a Mitch Haniger 426-foot bomb to centerfield, the Mariners’ chances of winning crept up to 98.53%.
In the bottom of the 7th, the Mariners’ bullpen took over the game when Mitch Vincent took the ball from starter Hisashi Iwakuma, who have given up 2 hits, 1 ER, and issued 3 walks. After a single, double, and a single by the Angels, Vincent got out of the inning with 3 H and 2 R and the score 7-3. Despite giving up the 2 runs, the M’s chances of winning barely dipped to 96.73%.
In the top of the 8th, the Mariners managed to tack on an insurance run on an Angels’ error and a double by back-up catcher Carlos Ruiz. Heading into the Angels’ half of the 8th inning, leading 9-3, the Mariners win probability stood at 99.23%. And then – then – well nothing happened in the bottom of the 8th and the Mariners’ chances of winning increased to 99.82%.
After the Mariners failed to score in the top of the 9th, the Angels came to bat with a 0.31% chance of winning the game. Casey Fien took the mound for Seattle and promptly gave up a homer to Albert Pujols. He then walked Cliff Pennington, gave up a single to CJ Cron, and then walked Ben Reviere. See ya Casey Fien.
Manager Scott Servais went to his closer, Edwin Diaz, and the details are too gruesome to go over in detail, but it is worth noting that with the bases loaded, no one out, and a five-run lead, Diaz’s chances of piloting the Mariners to victory still stood at 87.95%. The ensuing Mariners’ implosion or Angels’ rally, depending on your perspective, led to an improbable 10-9 Angels’ win which led the late edition of Baseball Tonight and probably would have led SportsCenter, if not for a quaint little golf tournament in Georgia.
Setting the Tone
In all likelihood, the bullpen debacle of “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” will taint the perception of the Mariners’ relief corps for the foreseeable future by fans who already had trepidations.
Indeed, again on Wednesday night at home against the Houston Astros, the pen didn’t pick up a good early offensive outburst that produced 5 runs in 3 innings and an acceptably mediocre outing by starter Yovani Gallardo – 5 inn, 7 H, 4 BB, 2 SO, 4 ER. The loser of the game, Dan Altivilla, gave up 3 ER in 1.0 inning and his successor, Dillon Overton, gave up another 3 ER in 0.1 inning. By contrast, the Astros relievers allowed zero runs in 5 innings with 0 BB and only 3 hits.
Between the Angels’ game and the Astros’ game, the bullpen gave up 13 runs in 7 innings. In those two games alone, Mariners’ relivers posted a 16.71 ERA.
There are, however, not great but encouraging underlying numbers for the Mariners’ bullpen. First, the BABIP for just relievers on the M’s is resting at an unsustainable .406. League average is usually .100 to .120 points lower than that, suggesting that in the first ten games relievers have been extremely unlucky and, except for Mike Trout and Jose Altuve, every hitter they’ve faced isn’t Ted Williams in 1941. Look for opposing hitters BA to come down as the BABIP normalizes.
Also, the pen’s 7.71 ERA isn’t supported at all by their 3.96 FIP and 3.66 xFIP. Given such a small sample size, throwing out the Angels’ game alone lowers the ERA significantly. Throwing out both the Angels’ and the Astros’ games (it’s only making a 10 game sample an 8-game sample), brings the ERA down dramatically lower.
While the relievers in Seattle may not be great, they certainly aren’t this bad. With the reported imminent return of Steve Cishek and by considering better underlying numbers, the bullpen should be better after a day off in the series against the Texas Rangers, a team with their own bullpen woes of late.