We Need to Talk About the Mariners

Are the Mariners good?

So. Here we are, at the end of July, and (as of July 28), the Mariners are eight games over .500 and just one game behind the division-rival A’s for the second wild card spot (a team, it should be noted, they play nine more times before the season is done, including seven of their last ten). 

Here’s where we should talk about the Mariners’ long playoff drought, or how they’ve had surprising starts before only to fade at the end, such as in 2018 when they were half a game behind in July only to finish 14 games out. But, we all knew better, didn’t we?

We knew that this season would be possible with Kelenic coming out of the gate on fire, Kyle Lewis continuing to progress after his Rookie of the Year worthy season, and James Paxton regaining his lost form on a return to Seattle.

Wait. None of that happened? How exactly have the Mariners got to this point?

To start, the M’s have not been a great offensive team. Through July 28, they ranked last in MLB in on-base percentage, and 26th in slugging– good for a 91 wRC+, making them about 9% worse than an average MLB offense. That’s also born out in the statcast numbers, which have the Mariners in the bottom five in exit velocity and hard hit %.

When they’ve done damage though, they’ve made it count (just ask the Astros).

By Fangraphs’ “clutch” metric, which measures “how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment,” where 0 is average, the Mariners have ranked first in all of baseball by a long shot, with a score of seven. To put that in context, the next highest score is Boston, with a 3.95. The gap in “clutch” between how well the Mariners hitters have performed to Boston is greater than the gap between second-place Boston and eighth-place Detroit. Seattle may be simply the fourth-most clutch hitting team in baseball history, but it’s probably not wise for the Mariners to hitch their star to that wagon, given that “clutch” isn’t really predictive of future results.

Yes, the Mariners have been “lucky” in that their hits have come at particularly opportune times that have swung the results of games, but there are also reasons to expect maybe their luck has actually been suppressed in some small ways as well. The aforementioned hitting numbers haven’t been great to this point, but the Mariners are also last in batting average in balls in play. The balls they are putting between the lines are going for hits at a rate of just .269, last in the big leagues up to this point. As we put the clutch number in context, some context is also helpful here. Out of over 1800 team seasons since 1950, the Mariners’ BABIP number would rank in just the eighth percentile. While their hits have been timely, they’ve also run into them way less frequently than should be expected based on the balls they’ve been able to put into play.

The pitching, meanwhile, has been fairly pedestrian, ranking right in the middle of the pack at 15th in pitching fWAR so far. Unlike the offense, there also haven’t been clear indicators of Seattle neither over nor under-performing on the mound, with a 4.41 xFIP nearly identical to their team 4.48 ERA. 

The starting rotation, in particular, has been perfectly acceptable, with the top three starters (Flexen, Kikuchi, and Gilbert) all sporting ERAs between 3.81 and 3.95 (though it should be noted that Logan Gilbert has in particular been very good since his first few starts, he’s striking out better than 11 batters per nine and walking fewer than 3 since June 1).

The bullpen has been a strength, though earlier this week Mariner fans (and players) were perhaps understandably confused about why a team winning so many close games was trading away their closer. In the end, though, the Mariners probably got at least marginally better swapping out Graveman for Castillo, and Castillo isn’t a free agent until 2025.

While Mitch Haniger and Kyle Seager are having great seasons at the plate, those aren’t exactly flukes, either. Haniger is right around his career average in terms of wRC + (128 this year vs. 125 for his career), and Seager has managed 20 home runs despite an alarming jump in his strikeout rate. 

What’s more, the Mariners have been without two of the young key cogs that were anticipated to make up the foundation of their outfield this year, with Kyle Lewis playing in just 36 games and Jarred Kelenic mostly scuffling across 135 PA in his rookie age-21 season.

Twenty-six-year-old Jake Fraley has mostly walked at every stop in the minors with double-digit walk rates until a 38-game AAA promotion two years ago but now seems to be carrying that skill back in a more extended run in the majors (although one that’s been cut short due to COVID this season). If the outfielder can keep his walk rate up he can continue to provide value for the Mariners, as he’s hit seven homers along with seven steals in just 149 PA this season.

Taken in sum, the Mariners have been a team with average-ish pitching with mostly poor hitting albeit the hits they are making are coming at timely spots.

Yes, the Mariners have been beneficiaries of extremely good timing and clustering of their runs when they’ve needed them, and that’s unlikely to be a true skill that will “stick.” But with decent pitching and reason for optimism between their veteran players meeting expectations and upside particularly with young outfielders, the Mariners could stick around for a while longer– especially given the nine games remaining against the A’s. 

Beyond this year, strange as it may seem to say for a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs in 19 years, with a pretty clear path forward with a young core in place and a blueprint for at least an average pitching staff, there’s good reason to be Mount-Rainier high on the Mariners.

Photos by Icon Sportswire and Wikimedia Commons | Adapted by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics3 on IG)

Sean Roberts

Sean Roberts is a baseball columnist for Pitcher List. His work has been featured on Baseball Prospectus, the Hardball Times, and October. He's still getting used to the DH in the national league. @seanroberts.bsky.social

One response to “We Need to Talk About the Mariners”

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