How Mariners can “right” ship


The best word to describe the Seattle Mariners offense may be “enigmatic.” That’s been especially true in the month of June. During 14 games this month, the team has scored two or fewer runs – including four shutouts – in nine games, while scoring five or more runs in three other games. The end result is a team with a 5-9 win-loss record and an increasingly frustrated fan base.

This level of offensive unevenness isn’t a new challenge for an organization that’s sputtered at the plate for over a half-decade. When you break down the team’s plate appearances by handedness, it becomes readily apparent that the Mariners’ difficulties rest on one side of the plate. Entering today, Seattle’s .230 batting average against right-handed pitching is the worst in the majors – the current league-average is .253. Yes, that’s right, the Mariners are worse than 15 National League teams who permit their pitchers to hit on a regular basis.

The root of the Mariners’ problem against right-handed pitching is their league-worst .200 batting average by their right-handed hitters. The only Mariners right-handers who are above league-average against right-handed pitching are Nelson Cruz (.291) and Austin Jackson (.261). Seeing these stats won’t stir optimism in any fan who’s desperately looking for any glimmer of hope for a season that seems to be slipping away.

Despite the struggles of Robinson Cano and Dustin Ackley – who are hitting a combined .225 with 19-percent of all team at-bats against righties – the Mariners’ left-handed hitters rank 18 of out of 30 teams against right-handed pitching with a .251 batting average – six points above the league-average. Naturally, the left-handers should outperform the right-handers. But, not by such a large margin.

Unlike their right-handed counterparts, the Mariners’ left-handed hitters are not dead last in the league when they face a handedness disadvantage at the plate – they also rank 18 of 30 against southpaws. To some, this could be viewed as an encouraging sign. On the other hand, imagine how bad the offense would be if the lefties were as unproductive as their right-handed teammates?

Regardless of where the production comes from, the Mariners have to perform better against right-handed pitching or they’ll continue to languish at the bottom of the league in all offensive categories. So, where does Seattle go from here to improve? Let’s look at the key regular players who matter most to the team’s run production.

The good guys
Up to this point of the season, the team’s offensive success has been highly dependent on the performance of Cruz. But, he’s been cooling off during the last month – .269/.327/.366 slash and only two home runs in the last 28 days. Fortunately for the team, Kyle Seager and Logan Morrison have combined for eight home runs and a .306 batting average during that time-frame and Seth Smith has also contributed a .270/.372/.473 slash.

Austin Jackson – who struggled after arriving in Seattle last year – has done well since returning from a sprained ankle in last month, registering a triple slash – batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage of .305/.337/.439 during the last 28 days. Jackson has also performed well against right-handers in with a .261/.305/.338 slash. It’s realistic to expect that the 28-year-old can maintain that pace since his .261 average is actually 18 points below his career-average against right-handers.

Brad Miller’s .231 batting average isn’t great, but he’s performing well compared to his peers. Entering today, his .711 on-base plus slugging percentage ranks number three in the American League among shortstops who have at least 200 plate appearances. His weakness has been against southpaws – he’s only hitting .114 compared to his .259 batting average against right-handers.

The rest of the bunch
There are several players on the 25-man roster who may be able to help to the Mariners offense, if they can return to their career norms. One is vital to the team’s success, while the others aren’t likely to make a season-changing impact against right-handed pitching.

Robinson Cano
The team’s highest paid position player is experiencing the worst start of his 11-year career. By his standards, hitting .249 against right-handed pitching is abysmal – especially after hitting .327 against righties in 2014 and maintaining a .316 average during his career. Prospect Insider founder and co-host of The Steve Sandmeyer Show – Jason A. Churchill – discussed a change in Cano’s foot placement during his swing that Mariners’ manager Lloyd McClendon recently noticed during last week’s OFP Report.

If Cano’s tweak to his batting stance truly leads in a return to form, the Mariners offense will certainly improve. This team can’t possibly have consistent success against right-handed pitching without their star second basemen being productive. With that said, there are many holes in this team’s offense and they’ll need more than just the six-time all-star to contribute.

Dustin Ackley
To date, Ackley’s 2015 season has been a huge disappointment. For the first time in his five-year career, the 27-year-old has been part of a platoon. As a result, he’s only had 10 plate appearances against southpaws. Unfortunately for Ackley and the Mariners, the left-handed hitter is only hitting .190 against righties compared to last year’s .259 and .241 lifetime averages.

Ackley’s 154 plate appearances against right-handed pitching constitutes 14-percent of the team’s at-bats against righties. The former North Carolina Tar Heel will either need to dramatically improve soon or the team will be forced to go in another direction. Perhaps, the team is already changing course. Since the acquisition of Mark Trumbo, Ackley has started in less than half of the team’s games and has been used in several games as a late defensive replacement.

James Jones
The return of Jones from Class-AAA Tacoma has the potential to be nothing more than a minor upgrade. Yet, Jones – who played 108 games with the Mariners in 2014 – possesses two distinct attributes that should help the team.

The fleet-footed Jones can put a team’s defense on edge and bring a charge of excitement to the team’s fan base whenever he’s on base. Last season, he successfully stole 27 bases and had a league-best 96-percent success rate for players with more than 25 stolen bases. The addition of a player who had 15 stolen bases in the minors certainly helps, but Jones’ speed isn’t the only vital component to the left-handed hitter’s game. The second attribute that Jones possesses is simple and was just stated – he’s a left-handed hitter.

No, the 26-year-old isn’t going to put the team on his back and carry them to the postseason. But, entering today, Jones’ 2014 major league .250 batting average against right-handed pitching is better than the 2015 numbers of Cano and Ackley – who stands to lose more playing time to Jones.

Mark Trumbo
The newly acquired right-handed slugger has struggled since arriving. But, it’s reasonable to expect that he’ll be able to repeat his .241 career average against right-handers. That’s eight points below league-average, but would rank third on the Mariners.

Where to turn?
If the Mariners have any chance of being taken seriously as postseason contender, it’s clearly obvious that getting the offense on-track is paramount. Sure, the second wildcard lets teams perpetuate the notion that they’re still in contention well into September. But, the Mariners can’t be a realistic contender if they don’t score at a higher rate for a sustained period of time and hit close or near to league-average – especially against right-handed pitching.

That’s why the acquisition of Trumbo is so puzzling to me. In fairness to the 29-year-old, his .402 slugging percentage is 16 points above the major league average. But, the team needs hitters who have been more successful against right-handed pitching. His skill set – he rakes against southpaws and has power – is nice to have, but doesn’t necessarily guarantee a significant improvement.

Unfortunately for the Mariners, their minor league system has little available in terms of players hitters who could help the team get out of their offensive doldrums against right-handers. Several players with varying degrees of success against right-handers like Jesus Montero (.289), Patrick Kivlehan (.240), Stefen Romero (.266) and Franklin Gutierrez (.337) are most frequently mentioned by fans as possible fixes to the team’s woes.

Montero (.226) and Romero (.164) have not performed well against right-handed major league pitching and Kivlehan isn’t doing well at Class-AAA. “Guti” is a fan favorite and his ongoing battle with health issues are inspirational and he may be able to provide some value. However, he can no longer play on an everyday basis. That’s why the team will likely need to turn to the trade market and waiver wire to significantly improve their fortunes against righties.

About three weeks ago, Prospect Insider founder and co-host of The Steve Sandmeyer Show – Jason A. Churchill – provided several possible fixes to the Mariners. All of the players suggested by Jason – Michael Brantley, Carlos Gomez, Gerado Parra, Josh Reddick, Will Venable, and Ben Revere – would represent an immediate improvement against right-handers. Each player presents a different level of risk and reward, which Jason covered in great detail in his piece.

Final thoughts
There are a few reasons for fans to maintain guarded optimism – or at least hope – for the remainder of the Mariners’ season. Their best hitter – Cano – is the most likely player on the team to improve, Trumbo and Jackson will probably have career-average years, and Miller and Morrison are on-track to have career-best years. Unfortunately for Mariners fans, hope is not a management strategy that wins championships.

While it’s clear that the team can’t succeed in 2015 without a better version of Robinson Cano, the Mariners need more than just their 32-year-old star to reach the postseason. They have to minimize the ineffectual Ackley and Jones may help in that regard, but he’s an unproven commodity. The Mariners can either “hope” that Jones is up to the task or they can opt to add two more players who are more proven against right-handed pitching to complement Jones and the rest of roster. Otherwise, the chances of Seattle making the postseason for the first time in 2001 will fade away.

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