Following a home series loss to the Houston Astros, the Seattle Mariners record settled in at 72-56 for a .563 winning percentage. That winning percentage projected out over the whole 162 game season would capture 92 wins for the M’s. The last time a Seattle Mariners team won 90 or more games was in 2003, fifteen years ago. That team missed the playoffs with 93 wins. And like fifteen years ago, this Mariners club seems likely to miss the playoffs also, along with the 93-win 2002 team of sixteen years ago. Maybe Mariners teams have to win 100 or more, like the season win record tying 116 victory season of 2001, the last Mariners team to reach the post-season.
The thing about this season’s Mariners team, which will be of no solace to a long suffering fanbase, is that they are wildly outpacing their true talent level. At the conclusion of the Astros game on Wednesday, the Mariners had a negative run differential, -43 to be precise. With an actual record of 72-56, sixteen games over .500, the Mariners Pythagorean win/loss record, based on run differential, indicates the team should be 59-69, or ten games under .500. Understanding that runs in baseball often cluster, like the 1-11 and 1-12 drubbings by the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 17th and August 19th, Fangraphs has created a formula called baseruns that attempts to strip out the clustering effect. Using the baseruns metric, the Mariners record should be 62-66, or four games under .500.
Funny thing though. We don’t actually run thousands of simulations of any given season. We just play one. So, in this season, a team that, on paper, should be a sub .500 team is actually still in the hunt for the playoffs. And the fans are disappointed that they have gone from having the second wildcard seemingly securely tucked away to finding themselves 4.5 games back of an almost equally improbable Oakland Athletics team.
This season’s Mariners team has amassed some remarkably lucky records in certain splits. The team is 12-1 in extra-innings games. That’s a .923 winning percentage in games that are usually a coin flip, with the home team having a slightly weighted coin. In one run games, the Mariners have a remarkable record of 31-17. When the games have been close, the Mariners have been at their best, and, frankly, unbelievably lucky. When the games aren’t close, the Mariners are usually on the short end of the stick. Their record is 11-20 in blowouts, defined as five runs or more.
Fans don’t like to hear about wonky concepts like regression to the mean. They just want their team to win, especially when they haven’t won for a long, long time.
The Cracks in the Armor
On Wednesday at Safeco, you could feel the unbridled optimism of a fan base who are used to losing over time but have gotten almost used to winning close games this season and mounting impossible comebacks. Down 8-0 to the Astros, a solo homer by Nelson Cruz sent the crowd into a frenzy. But, in many ways, the solo homer was a microcosm of the faults of this Mariners team that luck has helped mask for most of the season. No one was on base.
For all of general manager Jerry Dipoto’s rhetoric about “controlling the zone,” the 2018 Seattle Mariners are terrible at one fundamental element – getting on base. Didn’t we all learn this with Michael Lewis’ expose on the A’s – Money Ball? Or if not with the book, surely Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill got us there with the movie. The number one correlation to scoring runs and thus winning games is getting on base. Remember those seasons when Barry Bonds would hit a billion home runs and not even get to 100 RBI? No one was on base.
This season, the Mariners are dead last in MLB in BB%. Last. Teams just ahead of the Mariners and their 6.7% walk rate are, in ascending order, the Kansas City Royals, the Chicago White Sox, the Detroit Tigers, the Baltimore Orioles, and the Miami Marlins. All of these teams are terrible, with the Orioles possibly closing in on an historically bad season and only the White Sox with any kind of bright foreseeable future.
The Mariners are 22nd in the majors in OBP, trailed by only teams with losing records. Up until just a few weeks ago, manager Scott Servais kept penciling in Dee Gordon at leadoff, the guy to set the table for the heavy hitters. To date, Dee Gordon has a .296 OBP and has taken a walk 1.6% of the time. The everyday 1B, Ryon Healy, has a .277 OBP and is walking at a 3.8% clip. With Wednesday’s performance, Healy improved to -0.4 fWAR and sent long departed Ichiro Suzuki to the bottom of the hitting WAR chart for the season.
And There’s Still a Sliver of Hope
With thirty-five games to go in the season, the Mariners have an 18.5% chance of reaching the post-season, according to Fangraphs projections. They need to make up five games in the loss column to the A’s. The four-game series in Oakland to close out this road trip could be critical. A sweep and the race is close. Going 3-1 would cut two games off the lead. But, a split or worse could effectively end any playoff hopes. That’s all assuming no ground is lost while in Arizona or San Diego before the series begins. Heck, the could gain ground before then.
For the season, the Mariners are 7-5 against the A’s with seven more to go, the impending four games in Oakland and then three near the very end of the season at Safeco. It’s worth noting that the A’s have been really, really hot to surge past the M’s. Going 17-5 in July and 13-5 thus far in August is a pretty torrid pace. It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that the A’s cool down, or the Mariners heat up, or both. It all comes down to September. And, there is a reason they play the games.