Mariners atop AL West but fan crew mutinous - Salish Current
July 8, 2024
Mariners atop AL West but fan crew mutinous
John Stark

Casey at the Bat. A hero? Well … mythical? Yes. Real-life batters are rated these days by the numbers, including OPS and WAR stats … and one Mariner fan is grateful that the team has three more months to work on those numbers. (Jcfado at English Wikipedia; public domain)

July 8, 2024
Mariners atop AL West but fan crew mutinous
John Stark

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

Commentary: The only good news is that three months of baseball remain to be played. During those months, will the Mariners trend up, down or sideways?

As I write this, it’s Independence Day Eve, and the Seattle Mariners are atop the AL West, with a three-game lead over the Houston Astros and their scary squad of dangerous hitters.

And yet the mood of the fan crew stalking the gory deck of the S.S. Mariner is mutinous, and rightfully so. The weevil in the ship’s biscuit is offense. 

Sometimes a single game is a microcosm of a team’s status. On July 2, the Mariners faced perhaps the best young lineup in baseball — the Baltimore Orioles. Mariner pitchers held them to two runs. Final score: Orioles 2, Mariners 0, with two hits and 11 strikeouts. Team superstar Julio Rodriguez contributed two strikeouts and no hits after manager Scott Servais made the shocking decision to bat him seventh.

But maybe not so shocking when you look at the numbers. Maybe seventh is higher than he deserves. That’s how bad things continue to go for Julio. As of now, he is one of the worst everyday players in baseball. Am I exaggerating? Nope. Just reporting. As of July 3, he ranked 136th in OPS at .618. Just eight qualifying players are worse, and one of them is Mitch Haniger.

(When I was a kid, OPS wasn’t on the back of the baseball cards, and I’m mostly a curmudgeon about many of the newer metrics such as WAR. But unlike WAR, OPS is a simple calculation that adds up two other simple calculations: on-base percentage plus slugging. To me, that seems like a pretty good way to measure a hitter’s impact.)

After the frustrating Orioles loss, my mood wasn’t helped when I turned on the end of the Dodgers-Diamondbacks game just in time to see last year’s Mariner, Teoscar Hernandez, deliver the walk-off hit in the bottom of the ninth for the boys in blue.

The Mariners are in first place mostly because — until recently — the two other contenders in the division were playing losing baseball. The Texas Rangers still are, but the Astros have fixed the warp drive and have won eight of their last 10 games, while the Mariners have won three of their last 10. The 10-game lead that the Mariners enjoyed on June 18 is melting away. A team can’t expect sustained success if it ranks 27th in runs scored, ahead of the dismal Athletics, Marlins and White Sox. 

This was supposed to be the year the Mariners cut down on strikeouts. How’s that been working out? Not especially well. The Mariners hitters lead all teams in strikeouts, with 42 more than the second-worst Oakland Athletics. 

Maybe it’s time to abandon the whole idea of cutting down on strikeouts. A recent report in The Athletic provided an in-depth look at how teams are devoting intense efforts to get their pitchers to strike out more batters. The ability to measure pitch velocity, trajectory and spin rate has provided pitching gurus with the data they need to get the most out of each young arm, at least until that arm needs season-ending surgery. 

Batters are facing ever-more-daunting odds as a result. During a recent Blue Jays game, former Jay great Joe Carter observed, “.250 is the new .300.” 

Rather than trying to avoid striking out, which is becoming increasingly more difficult, the hitter should be waiting for that one flawed pitch, and be ready to swing like hell.

At this point, the Mariners’ .540 win percentage translates to about 87 wins by the end of the season. As of now, the surprising Kansas City Royals have an identical win percentage, and are clinging to the last wild card spot that the Mariners may soon be chasing.

Baseball analysts and fans like me have been hoping that the thrift-conscious team management will go to market and come back with a big bat that could give the Mariners a chance at overall offensive mediocrity. But as of today, it’s fair to wonder if one big bat would be enough, given the fact that the team has zero big bats as of today. First baseman Ty France has the best OPS on the team, and he ranks 102nd among all major league hitters.

The only good news is that three months of baseball remain to be played. During those months, will the Mariners trend up, down, or sideways? Can they pull out of their current nosedive, or are they in the early stage of a sickening plunge? Can they repeat last year’s second-half hot streak, without repeating the late-season swoon? Will they end the season about where they are now, as a .540 team? If they do, will that be enough to get back to the playoffs? 

The Magic 8 Ball would be as good a way as any to answer those questions. 

— By John Stark

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