Mariner Musing: The Mariners are in first place atop the AL West Division - Salish Current
May 8, 2024
Mariner Musing: The Mariners are in first place atop the AL West Division
John Stark

“Rhymes with ‘Dandy’ ” … back when Randy Johnson wore a Mariners uniform, he was one of two M’s pitchers to date to win the Cy Young Award. Will fans see a third this year? Stay tuned. (Googie man, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

May 8, 2024
Mariner Musing: The Mariners are in first place atop the AL West Division
John Stark

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Counting the good things that got the team to a 19–15 record as of May 6

As we finished our celebration of Mexico’s 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla on Sunday, May 5, Seattle Mariners fans had reason to go right on celebrating: The Mariners were in first place atop the AL West Division.

The Mariners were in first place atop the AL West Division.

I wrote that sentence twice just in case the team gives me no more opportunities to do so in the long weeks of baseball that stretch before us in the fog. They were just a half-game up on the Rangers, after all.

But before we go all Eeyore on the team’s prospects, let’s savor the special things that got this team to a 19-15 record as of Monday, May 6:

Logan Gilbert

All this 27-year-old right-hander has to do to win the Cy Young Award is to keep up his 2024 form for five more months. If he manages to do that, he’ll be the Mariners’ first Cy Young Award winner since Felix Hernandez in 2010, and only the third overall. If you don’t know the name of the other Mariner who won the award before King Felix, you’re probably not reading this, so I won’t bother to name him. But I’ll give you a clue: His first name rhymes with Dandy.

Like many fans my age, I lament the vanished era when “quality start” meant the catcher walked out to the mound to shake the pitcher’s hand at the end of the game. (Not an original comment; I heard some old pitcher say it on a broadcast.) But the complete game era is as dead as the push-button car radio. In today’s game, when a five-inning start is acceptable, six is good, and seven is great, Gilbert has been great or near-great: 

— On April 23, he held the reigning-champion Rangers to two hits over six and two-thirds innings.

— On May 4, he two-hit the once-feared Astros over eight innings.

Gilbert’s ERA of 1.69 ranks fifth in MLB, but he has pitched more innings and given up fewer hits than the pitchers ahead of him. 

Pitching, other than Gilbert

After some early-April hiccups, the other starters settled in and did what we hoped they would do. The bullpen arms have been excellent too, for the most part. 

Bottom line: A team ERA of 2.98, the second-best in baseball, trailing only the Boston Red Sox. (The Red Sox? Can that even be true? In Fenway? Somebody double-check the math. Until that happens, we’ll have to rely on what MLB.com is reporting.)

Clutch hitting

A couple of highlights:

— Sunday, May 4: Catcher Cal Raleigh, threatening to become the face of the franchise, delivers a solo homer in the top of the 9th inning off Astros closer Josh Hader to give the M’s a 5–4 victory and a series win over the Astros in Houston.

— April 29: DH Mitch Garver delivers a walk-off homer that gave the M’s an improbable 2–1 win over the star-spangled Atlanta Braves. 

Unfortunately, “clutch hitting” points to a worrisome reality. A few things that worry me, starting with the biggest one:

Scoring runs

Have you watched a baseball broadcast lately? I know you have. Am I the only one bewildered by the complex tables of statistics that flash before our eyes, inning after inning? Hard-hit rate on sliders thrown by left-handers. Best OPS with runners in scoring position in the 7th inning or later. And so forth.

Call me simple-minded, but there’s still a lot to be said for the simplest of ways to judge a team’s offense: Runs scored.

The Mariners are tied with Oakland for 26th. Two of the teams with lower totals include the ghastly Rockies and White Sox. How on earth can the Mariners have a winning record? See “Pitching” above.

It would be wonderful if the Mariners had fewer late-inning nail-biters in the weeks ahead. To manage that, they will need to — you guessed it — score early and often.

Strikeouts

This was going to be the year of making contact, cutting down on all those unproductive whiffs. Out with you, Teoscar Hernandez! So what if the Dodgers think you’re a good cleanup hitter? What do they know?

Well, even without the admittedly free-swinging Hernandez, the Mariners have managed to strike out 346 times, good for second place in MLB and just one K behind the Red Sox — and the Sox have played one more game as of this writing.

Julio Rodriguez

The Mariners’ acclaimed young superstar and home run derby hero is on a pace to hit maybe six homers this year. 

Is that good news or bad news? I’m going to go with good. He was streaky last year, and if that’s any indication, he’s due for a hot streak. The Mariners have been winning without him. If he starts flattening baseballs again, he could elevate the team to the next level.

And yet, every time he strikes out with runners on base, I feel an indefinable sense of dread.

Mitch Garver

If all you can do is DH, you need to remind us of Edgar Martinez or Nelson Cruz. As of now, Garver is batting .156 with three homers. 

As with Julio, you could interpret that as good news: nowhere to go but up. How far up is Mitch Garver likely to go?

Well, in 2019, he hit 31 homers, which is astonishing, when you notice he did that in 93 games. But that’s another one of those good-news-bad-news things. That was Garver’s best home run year by far. Last year was his second-best, with 19. He had a terrific post-season for the Series-winning Rangers, but you could put together a pretty long list of players who are remembered mostly for their exploits in a single playoff run.

Garver has never appeared in more than 103 games. That happened in 2018. Injuries often keep him out of the picture.

J. P. Crawford

The Mariners’ leadoff man and team sparkplug is expected to be sidelined for weeks with an oblique strain. 

To sum up, the 2024 Mariners seem poised to keep us in suspense. Will erratic bats produce enough runs to cash in those dazzling pitching performances? Will the pitchers stay sharp, and healthy? Will team execs trade one of these young arms for a big bat? (If they do, it better be a pretty darn big one. Just a few days ago, there was speculation that the Mariners might trade a starter for aging, fading Cardinals star Paul Goldschmidt. Surely that was nonsense….)

After just four games, I predicted that the Mariners would win between 85 and 95 games this season. That still feels about right, and yet the uncertainty seems greater now than it did at the beginning. Surely the hitting will improve — but if it doesn’t, and injuries hit the pitching staff, these guys could dip into losing territory. On the flip side, if the pitching keeps up anywhere near its current pace, and Julio gets back to being Julio, maybe 95 wins is conservative. 

It’s been mostly fun so far. What else matters?

— By John Stark

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