An alternate hot stove strategy for Seattle

For over five years, the Seattle Mariners’ offensive output has hampered the team from being considered competitive at the start of the regular season. Consequently, the organization has spent the past two years aggressively courting offensive player-makers capable of leading the team to their first postseason berth since 2001. The arrival of 2014 American League (AL) home run leader Nelson Cruz and the complimentary bats of Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano should bolster the Mariners’ offense. But, will these acquisitions be enough to let Seattle emerge as a serious contender for the AL West division championship in 2015? Based on the team’s low offensive production over the last half-decade, there are several reasons for observers to have reservations.

A history of offensive futility
Since 2008, the Mariners have languished near the bottom of the AL in almost every offensive category. Despite the best efforts of the organization’s leadership, Seattle’s run production has remained stagnate with very little improvement over the past three years. Even the addition of perennial all-star Robinson Cano and the offensive emergence of Kyle Seager didn’t help propel the 2014 Mariners’ offensive output. They struggled in every element of run production; getting on base, advancing base runners, and driving in runners.

Mariners 2014 Run Production vs American League
Statistic SEA Rank AL Best AL Worst
Runs 12 LAA TBR
Hits 14 DET HOU
Home Runs 10 BAL KCR
Walks
14 OAK KCR
Stolen Bases 8 KCR BAL
AVG 13 DET HOU
OBP 15 DET SEA
SLG 12 DET TBR
OPS 15 DET SEA
Base running (BsR) 12 KCR CWS
Weighted Stolen Bases (wSB) 9 KCR TEX
Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) 12 DET TEX

Getting on base is paramount
Seattle has posted the worst on-base percentage (OBP) in the AL in the six out of the last seven years. Recently, league-average OBP has hovered near .320. Only three Mariners with more than 250 plate appearances surpassed that milestone in 2014; Cano (.382), Seager (.334), and Michael Saunders (334). Only Cano and Seager were full-time players and Saunders has since been traded to the Toronto Blue Jays. The Mariners’ offensive challenges were not solely isolated to hitting the ball; they were 14th in the league in hits and walks.

Mariners OBP (2009-2014)
Year OBP League Avg AL Rank
2014 .300 .316 15 (last)
2013 .306 .320 13
2012 .296  .320 14 (last)
2011 .292 .323 14 (last)
2010
.298 .327 14 (last)
2009 .314 .336 14 (last)

Adding Cruz, Smith, and Ruggiano is bound to help the team’s ability to create scoring opportunities. Yet, the level of improvement that these three players will deliver is unclear. Cruz posted a .333 OBP in 2014, which is on-par with the 2014 performance of Seager and Saunders. However, the 34-year-old slugger’s career OBP during 204 Safeco plate appearances is only .309. There’s no doubt that Cruz will dramatically improve the designated hitter position and even a sub-par 2015 by his standards would be a dramatic improvement over the ineffective production supplied by 2014 Mariner designated hitters.

Smith, who recorded a .367 OBP while playing his home games in pitcher-friendly Petco Park, appears to be the most likely of the three to flourish in Seattle. The left-handed outfielder has a career .361 OBP during 61 plate appearances in Seattle. Ruggiano has only had exceeded 400 plate appearances once since debuting with Tampa in 2007 and possesses a league average .319 OBP. A potential Smith/Ruggiano right field platoon has the potential to be effective, although subtracting the Mariners’ third best position player (Saunders) lessens the benefit of adding this tandem.

Driving the baseball 
Seattle was slightly better at slugging than getting on base, although they also underachieved in this category placing 12th in the AL in extra base hits. Cano and Seager led the team with a .454 slugging percentage (SLG) with Saunders close behind at .450. The only other teammates who met or exceeded .400 were Logan Morrison (.420) and Mike Zunino (.400). The Mariners will benefit from the arrival of Cruz’s .440 SLG at Safeco.

Running the bases
Team speed has not been a key element to Seattle’s offensive strategy. Fan Graphs’ base running metric (BsR) considers how many times a base runner has stolen a base, been caught stealing, took an extra base, and was thrown out while running the bases. The Mariners were 12th in BsR and finished near the middle of the pack in stolen bases. Outfielder James Jones accounted for 28 percent of the team’s stolen bases despite posting a sub-par .278 OBP.  The 26-year-old speedster was effective at advancing himself on the bases when he was able to get on base, which was not often enough for him to be considered a dependable weapon.

The Safeco effect
Safeco Field, always considered to be one of the most pitcher-friendly stadiums in the majors with a reputation for suppressing right-handed power, is certainly a contributor to Seattle’s offensive woes. However, it’s possible for a team to flourish in Safeco. The most obvious example would be the 2001 Mariners team that led the league in multiple offensive categories.  The 2002 and 2003 versions of the team also did well, proving that it’s possible to field a successful offense in the Emerald City.

Since Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) adjusts for a stadium’s impact and permits comparison of a player’s offensive contribution, using wRC+ can help provide insight into the effectiveness of Seattle hitters. Of the 12 Mariners with more than 250 plate appearances in 2014, only four were above the league-average wRC+ of 100. This suggests that the Mariners’ recent offensive woes are more attributable to an insufficient number of productive hitters than the dimensions of Safeco Field. Fortunately, the wRC+ of Cruz (137), Smith (133), and Ruggiano (113) indicates that Seattle has acquired three player capable of improving the team’s offensive production.

2014 Mariners wRC+ (250 or more plate appearances)
Player wRC+
Robinson Cano 136
Kyle Seager 126
Michael Saunders 126
Logan Morrison 110
League average
100
Dustin Ackley 97
Endy Chavez 97
Mike Zunino 86
Brad Miller 86
Austin Jackson 85
Justin Smoak 77
Corey Hart 70
James Jones 68

How did Seattle win so many games?
Simply stated, the Mariners recorded their most wins since 2007 by having one of the most effective pitching staffs in the majors; perhaps the best. Seattle’s prolific pitching compensated for their low run production. A statistic that illustrates the relationship between the team’s run production and run prevention is run differential (runs scored – runs allowed). It’s important to note that run differential only totals the combined efforts of run creation and run prevention. The goal of every team is to outscore the opposition; how they accomplish this goal depends on the strengths and weaknesses of their roster.

Mariners Run Differential  (2009-2014)
Year Runs/Gm Runs Allowed/Gm  Run Diff/Gm Wins Runs/Game (AL)
2014 3.91 3.42 .49 87 13
2013 3.85 4.65 -.8 71 12
2012 3.82  4.02 -.18 75 14 (last)
2011 3.43 4.17 -.74 67 14 (last)
2010
3.17 4.31 -1.14 61 14 (last)
2009 3.95 4.27 -.32 85 14 (last)

Recording a positive run differential for a season increases the likelihood of winning although having a run differential in the red doesn’t automatically doom a team’s season, nor does a possessing a positive differential guarantee winning. Look no further than the 2009 Mariners, who had a winning season and a negative run differential. More recently, the 2014 New York Yankees had a winning record and a negative differential, while the cross town rival Mets were in the black and only registered 79 wins. On the other hand, no team has made the postseason with a negative run differential since the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks.

Run Prevention
The Mariners’ were exceptional at preventing the opposition from scoring by being near the top of nearly every major pitching category and being adequate in other run prevention components, such as defensive runs saved (DRS) and the percentage of runners caught stealing (CS%).

Where the Seattle’s offense suffered, the pitching staff shined. Mariner pitchers surrendered the fewest hits and runs in the league and faced the second fewest hitters while recording the lowest staff Earned Run Average (ERA) and opponent’s batting average (BAA). If opponents were fortunate enough to reach base, staff hurlers were third best at stranding them on-base. The bullpen was even more impressive leaving 80.7 percent of runners on-base; seven percent better than second place Kansas City.

Mariners Run Prevention vs American League
Statistic SEA Rank AL Best AL Worst
Runs Allowed/Game 1 SEA MIN
Fewest Hits Allowed 1 SEA MIN
Fewest Walks Allowed 6 NYY CWS
Opponent Batting Avg (BAA)
1 SEA MIN
Opponent OBP
2 OAK MIN
Runners Left On Base % 2 BAL MIN
Runners Caught Stealing % 10 MIN NYY
Defensive Runs Saved 6 DET CWS

Conclusion
Despite being straddled with a lackluster offense in 2014, the Seattle Mariners barely missed a postseason berth thanks to their outstanding pitching staff, which surrendered fewer runs than any Mariners staff has during the Safeco Field era. With that in mind, would the team be better served to use their remaining resources to secure a top or middle-of-the-rotation starter and/or add more depth to the bullpen? Essentially, reinforce their strength in order to overshadow their weakness. Exploring this option should be considered.

Seattle has struggled with generating offense for over five years and adding Cruz, Smith, and Ruggiano are positive steps towards reversing that trend. However, these three new acquisitions combined with the yet-to-be-determined improvement of Brad Miller, Chris Taylor, Mike Zunino, Dustin Ackley, and Logan Morrison may not prevent the Mariners’ offense from hovering near the four runs-per-game mark and continue to be below league-average. Augmenting the roster with another average or slightly-above-average hitter would be beneficial, but probably not enough to propel the team into serious contention for the division championship. That’s why Seattle should consider adding more pitching, unless they plan to use their remaining resources to acquired an established all-star caliber offensive talent.

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