Okay, Now the 2017 Mariners Are Interesting

On Monday, I wrote about how the Mariners were transitioning back to a speed-and-defense team, looking to cover up the weaknesses of their pitching staff with elite athletes in the outfield. In comparing them to the Royals of recent years, I ended the piece with a little bit of skepticism.

And, of course, another part of the recent Royals success was some magic, as they significantly outperformed their BaseRuns win expectations. If the speed-and-defense plan was a primary reason for that success, then perhaps the Mariners can copy some of that, but if the bullpen was the key to helping the Royals to win more close games than expected, then that’s probably bad news for Seattle’s ability to recreate that part of the formula. And that’s why we currently have the Mariners projected as an 82-80 team heading into 2017, putting them in line with other fringe contenders who need a bunch of things to go right to snag a playoff spot.

The outfield defense is probably going to be great, and the team will run the bases a lot better than they have in recent years. But winning with a thin line-up and a mediocre rotation isn’t the easiest thing in the world, and especially with a bullpen of one good guy and a bunch of random arms, the Mariners probably can’t count on repeating the Royals success. But given the moves of this winter, that’s clearly what they’re trying for.

48 hours later, and that description of the Mariners pitching staff is already obsolete, because this morning, Jerry Dipoto made two more trades, and in the process, made the team’s stockpile of arms a lot more interesting than they were on Monday.

Arriving in Seattle are left-handed starter Drew Smyly and right-handed reliever Shae Simmons, at the cost of one of the team’s few remaining quality prospects, and a few pieces of their farm system depth, which is quickly dwindling. But while moves like this continue to raise questions about the team’s long-term sustainability, the win-now Mariners now look a lot more likely to actually win now.

Smyly’s the big piece here, even if that seems weird to write about a guy who put up a 119 ERA-/108 FIP-/106 xFIP- last year. After holding batters to a .233/.290/.395 line through his first four seasons in MLB, that jumped to .253/.307/.456 last year, with his fly ball tendencies finally turning into a full-fledged home run problem. Among qualified starters last year, only James Shields, Josh Tomlin, and Jered Weaver gave up more home runs per nine innings, and Smyly fits right in with that group of pitchers who live up in the zone with mediocre fastballs, and get pounded if the location isn’t perfect.

So why get excited about a guy who throws 90 and regularly gets whiplash watching balls get crushed into the seats? Well, while home runs aren’t fun to watch, Smyly does a lot of stuff well when he manages to keep the ball in the park.

Despite non-premium stuff, Smyly misses a lot of bats. His 78% contact rate puts him in the same category as guys like Jon Lester, Carlos Martinez, and Justin Verlander, while he’s just a half-tick behind David Price, whom he was traded for a couple of years ago. There just aren’t many left-handed starters who miss this many bats with consistency.

And he doesn’t miss bats by just living out of the zone. Smyly also rarely walks anyone, and his control of the strike zone puts him in the company of pitchers with significantly better reputations. For reference, here’s every starter with a K%-BB% between 15-17% over the last three years, minimum 350 innings pitched in the rotation.

Strikeout Rate Minus Walk Rate, 2014-2016
Name IP K-BB%
Johnny Cueto 675 17.0%
Gerrit Cole 462 16.7%
Matt Shoemaker 415 16.4%
Felix Hernandez 591 16.4%
Cole Hamels 617 16.2%
Drew Smyly 388 16.2%
Justin Verlander 567 16.0%
Ian Kennedy 565 15.9%
Jason Hammel 510 15.8%
Hisashi Iwakuma 507 15.7%
Collin McHugh 543 15.7%
Kyle Hendricks 448 15.7%
Mike Fiers 404 15.5%
Jose Quintana 614 15.4%
Tyson Ross 397 15.4%
Phil Hughes 419 15.2%
Jordan Zimmermann 503 15.2%
Jake Odorizzi 525 15.1%

Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, and Jason Hammel are a nice reminder that controlling the strike zone isn’t everything, but most of the pitchers on that list are pretty good. Smyly is probably closer in value to Kennedy than he is to a guy like Hamels or Cueto, but it’s worth remembering that if he manages to keep the ball in the yard more often, there’s some legitimate upside here.

And Smyly’s fly ball ways aren’t all downside. In addition to helping him miss bats without dominant stuff, he’s also one of the game’s premier pop-up generators; only Marco Estrada generated infield flies at a higher rate than Smyly did last year among AL pitchers. This combination of strike zone dominance and pop-ups can be pretty lethal, and Estrada is a good reminder of what can happen if the home run problem changes course a bit.

In his last year in Milwaukee, Estrada gave up 1.73 HR/9, and was being written off as a guy without good enough stuff to pitch in a big league rotation. But over the last two years in Toronto, he got his HR/FB rate down to 9.3%, and as a result, he had two of the best years of his career. Smyly won’t run a .225 BABIP like Estrada did the last two years, but as an extreme flyball guy who gets a lot of infield flies and is moving to a larger ballpark on the west coast, there are reasons to think Smyly can run lower-than-average BABIPs, and combined with his control of the strike zone, that would make Smyly an above-average starter.

Steamer has Smyly projected for +2.5 WAR in 164 innings, while ZIPS came in at +2.0 in 143 innings, so both projections have Smyly as a quality pitcher when he’s on the mound. There are definitely durability concerns, given that he missed most of 2015 with shoulder problems and chose to rehab rather than have surgery, but a healthy Drew Smyly is a pretty good starting pitcher. And he’s replacing close-to-replacement-level arms, bumping Ariel Miranda or Chris Heston from the rotation, and hopefully reducing the team’s need to count on Yovani Gallardo, whose starts can now be skipped when off-days allow it. Swapping in Smyly for the team’s back-end arms is probably something close to a two-win upgrade.

And after adjusting our depth charts to account for these acquisitions, those two wins have pushed the Mariners projected record from 82-80 to 84-78. This still isn’t an elite team, but those two wins now push Seattle to the fourth-best projected record in the AL, according to Steamer’s forecasts. They’re still well behind the big three of Boston, Cleveland, and Houston, but adding Smyly to the rotation at least puts them in the mix with everyone else chasing those teams.

And that’s without factoring Simmons into this. While acquiring Mallex Smith to flip him for Smyly seems to be the primary motivation for the deal with Atlanta, the Mariners picked up another power arm for their bullpen, and if Simmons can stay healthy, he could be a significant asset as well; Steamer now projects him as the team’s second best reliever. A big part of the Royals success was finding lottery ticket arms to turn into quality bullpen pieces, and if Simmons is the team’s Luke Hochevar, that could go a long way to shoring up one of the team’s remaining weaknesses.

When I looked at the Mariners on Monday, I saw a team with an average-ish offense and a potentially great outfield defense, but a weak rotation and a questionable bullpen. With Smyly in the rotation and Simmons potentially in relief, both parts of the pitching staff have been improved, and you can now see a playoff-caliber pitching staff without squinting too hard, especially when you factor in the help these guys will get from their teammates.

Drew Smyly isn’t an ace, and the Mariners added two more high-risk players to a team that already had a lot of risk, but this team now looks like their playoff hopes are more than just hope-a-bunch-of-things-go-right. With another quality starter and a potential quality reliever, plus a solid group of position players, the Mariners look like contenders now.

As Eric Longenhagen will note in his post on what the team traded away, these improvements didn’t come for free. The organization has pushed in a lot of long-term value in order to make short-term improvements. But now, with Smyly around, they look improved enough to be somewhat optimistic about their chances next year. The long-term questions only got larger today, but in the short-term, this is starting to look like a team that could make some noise in 2017.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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