If the Mariners have gotten a lot of ink this season, it’s for good reason. After finishing with the worst record in the AL, and the second worst record in the majors, last season, they’ve surprised some people by hovering around .500 for most of the season. Since the AL West lacks a standout team, they’ve also hung around the division lead. As long as their pitching keeps rolling the way it has in the first half of the season they might never find themselves out of the race.
It’s pretty clear to anyone, even an NL fan who doesn’t delve much into the junior circuit, that the Mariners’ offense has held the club back. This has been the case for the past three seasons, during which the Mariners have been the worst hitting team in baseball to the tune of roughly four wins. But with their pitching staff they don’t even need a good offense to excel in the AL West. All they need is a mediocre one. The team with the best pitching in the league serves as an example.
It surprises no one that the Phillies starters lead the league in WAR. They are, in fact, 2.5 wins ahead of the Mariners, the No. 2 ranked staff. But if we go on overall results the numbers are a bit closer. Because of a lower walk rate, the Phillies starters have a collective 2.90 ERA to the Mariners 3.19. But the Mariners have allowed fewer hits — they have a .713 defensive efficiency to the Phillies’ .701 — leaving little separation in their staff ERAs. The Mariners staff has thrown 7.1 more innings in one fewer start, and so their collective defense (starting pitching and fielding) is probably right on par with the Phillies. Yet the two teams are quite separated in the win column.
With names such as Ryan Howard and Chase Utlley filling the Phillies’ lineup card, it might be reflexive to point out the great differences in the teams’ offensive prowesses and move on. But that greatly overstates the Phillies offense. As a unit they’re actually below average, at -12.8 runs, which ranks 18th in the majors and 8th in the NL. (Though they are second in their own division.) Yet they’ve taken that below average offense and dealt with it through pure pitching. With 55 wins they currently have the most in the majors by three.
(The Braves also serve as an example, as they have the second most wins in the majors despite an offense that is 22.4 runs worse than average — though they’re getting most of their production from the bullpen, where the unit’s 5.2 WAR leads by nearly two full wins.)
The Mariners, of course, are far worse than that — over 60 runs worse. It’s pretty obvious to say that their record would be better if their offense would be better, but in the case of the Mariners it’s repeated for maddening emphasis. If the Mariners offense were even mediocre, in the mold of the Phillies offense, they’d almost certainly lead their division. Even at the Braves level of offense they’d probably lead the way. That is the entire difference in the Mariners season. Even a mediocre, if below average, offense would put them in a favorable position.
This disparity is what makes the Mariners an interesting, if not frustrating, team this year. They’ve dealt with high-level problems on offense, and it has dragged down what should be a quality team. As I wrote last month, management is definitely on the right track in addressing the offensive problems, which makes them even more interesting. Already they’ve replaced their worst offensive player, Chone Figgins, with their No. 1 prospect, Dustin Ackley, who has already produced nearly 1 WAR during his three-week stint. They sent down Michael Saunders, who was horrendous to the tune of -11.6 runs earlier in the season. Now they’ve called up prospect Kyle Seager to see if he can help bring the offense to a mediocre level.
That’s all the Mariners really need right now. They needed to get rid of Figgins and Saunders, who combined to produce -33.1 runs at the plate. Next up could be Franklin Gutierrez, who, after starting the year on the DL, has been 13.2 runs below average at the plate in just 146 PA. Maybe he’ll improve as he gets into a groove and shakes off some of the rust, but something has to give there. Adding his total with the other two accounts for 46.3 of the Mariners 74 runs below average.
With these changes it’s highly likely that the Mariners have patched their offense to a reasonable degree. They’re not going to be above average in the second half, but as we see with the Phillies, they don’t need to be. With the best starting staff in the AL, a serviceable bullpen, and one of the best defenses, all they need is a slightly below average performance to make waves in the AL West. Despite the complications in the trade market, I can see the Mariners doing whatever it takes to bring in a solid hitting outfielder. It could make all the difference for them this year.
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