M’s Quarterly Report: Rotation & Bullpen

“When the unexpected becomes the expected, strange becomes familiar.” Jason A. Churchill | May 20, 2016

Of course nobody saw it coming. Not even for a quarter of the season. And even if it concludes without an end to the 14-year postseason drought, the 2016 Seattle Mariners have been one of the better teams in Major League Baseball through 40 games.

A lot of things are going right for the club. Not everything, but most everything. What’s led the Mariners to first place in the American League West at the quarter point? Which areas are sustainable and which aren’t? How’s first-ever manager Scott Servais handling the job this far? We’ll get to all that in the Quarterly Report Series, continuing with the starting rotation and bullpen.

Starting rotation
Unlike last season, good health and strong performances have helped propel the rotation to a solid start. Entering this week, the Mariners were one of only six clubs that had used just five starters. Two teams — the Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres — have already used nine.

As the following table points out, this year’s rotation ranks significantly better in the AL in most categories compared to the 2015 staff.

Mariners Rotation AL Rankings (2015 v 2016)
Year RA/Gm IP IP/GS SO/9 IP BB/9 IP HR/9 IP ERA FIP AVG WAR
2015 11* 9 11 4 7 13 9 9 6 12
2016 2* 4 3 6 3  4 2 6 5 6
 * Total RA/Gm for pitching staff (starters & relievers)

By this time last season, number-two starter Hisashi Iwakuma was already on the disabled list and Taijuan Walker was struggling. Although Walker would improve after Memorial Day and Iwakuma would return in July and pitch a no-hitter a month later, the rotation was not a strength and further exposed the flaws of the bullpen.

This year, however, each member of the starting staff has been a solid contributor. Two of them appear to be ready to take the next step in their career progression.

For a pitcher who entered Spring Training for the number-five spot in the rotation during Spring Training, Nate Karns has been a welcome addition to Seattle. At this time, he’s the best pitcher on the staff. Thanks to his dynamic repertoire, the 28-year-old has been missing numerous bats — he leads the club in strikeouts-per-nine innings and currently ranks in the top-10 in the AL in that category.

2016 Mariners Rotation
Name Age W L W-L% ERA GS IP BAA FIP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 IP/GS WAR
Felix Hernandez 30 3 3 .500 2.47 8 51.0 .206 4.21 1.196 6.9 0.9 3.9 7.4 6.4 0.8
Wade Miley 29 4 2 .667 4.32 8 50.0 .255 4.57 1.200 8.6 1.4 2.2 6.3 6.3 0.3
Hisashi Iwakuma 35 1 4 .200 4.38 8 49.1 .286 3.92 1.399 10.0 0.9 2.6 6.9 6.2 0.4
Nate Karns 28 4 1 .800 3.33 8 46.0 .237 3.60 1.283 8.1 1.0 3.5 9.4 5.8 0.8
Taijuan Walker 23 2 3 .400 2.95 8 42.2 .240 3.71 1.125 8.4 1.3 1.7 8.6 5.3 0.4
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/18/2016.

Walker, like Karns, is striking out hitters at a high rate. Moreover, his walk rate is fourth-best in the AL. While the 23-year-old has experienced some struggles — including a sore neck that caused an early exit from a game — his early season performance hints that he’s on the brink of stardom. Perhaps, he’ll eventually inherit the role as staff ace from Felix Hernandez.

Speaking of King Felix, there have been whispers from pundits that Hernandez is slipping. They say, “What’s wrong with Felix?”

Much of the chatter about the Mariners ace has focused on his declining fastball velocity, but Hernandez’s command issues were the cause of his undoing in April. During his first five starts, the King was averaging five free passes every nine innings. Since then, his walk rate has dramatically declined to two walks-per-nine innings, which is much more “Felix-like.”

Despite his early troubles with velocity and command, Felix’s hard-contact rate (26.5-percent) is virtually the same as his career rate (26.8-percent). Also, opposing hitters batted .206 against him, which ranks number-six among AL starters. Anyone predicting his imminent demise is a tad premature.

The Mariners also have the luxury of having two potential replacements ready to contribute to the rotation, when needed. On the 25-man roster, left-hander Mike Montgomery is presently working out of the bullpen. But, he certainly could take a spot in the rotation when the need arises.

Since April 15, opponents are batting just .135 against Montgomery. During that time span, he’s allowed just one run in 16.2 innings pitched. Clearly, his transition from starter to closer has gone well.

If the club opted to leave the ‘pen alone and keep Montgomery in his present role, James Paxton is at the ready with Class-AAA Tacoma. After struggling with his command in his first two starts, the southpaw has walked just three batters in the last 29 1/3 innings and has held hitters to a .202 batting average.

— Luke Arkins

Adding to Arkins’ Paxton notes, I saw the lefty last week and he was up to 98 mph, including 97 on pitch No. 77 — he was pulled after that inning. The funny thing here is, Paxton’s finally looking the part with consistency and health, and there’s absolutely no room for him in the rotation. Stay tuned.

The Mariners have the deepest rotation in the division and among the deepest in baseball. With Iwakuma struggling with command most of the season, however, Seattle lacks that veteran No. 2 type behind him. At times, No. 4 and 5 starters Karns and Walker have performed like a No. 2, but neither have seized such a role with consistent seven-inning efforts, and both are on innings limits this season, likely around 175 each. This means two things; One, there is room for Paxton, after all, and two, the club is set up to win regular season games, but not ideally for the postseason if they get there, sporting perhaps just one true frontline starter. We’ll worry about that in October, though.

For the record, if the Mariners made the postseason and it started tomorrow, I’d go Felix in Game 1, Walker in Game 2 and Miley in Game 3, using Karns out of the bullpen — where he might sit 94-97 mph with that ridiculous spike curveball. Yes, that’s right, no Iwakuma on the roster. ‘Kuma hasn’t been awful, but he hasn’t found the groove yet. It’s also worth considering Iwakuma out of the bullpen at some point, then either Paxton or Mike Montgomery can step in and throw some darts.

— Jason A. Churchill

Bullpen
To date, Seattle’s relievers have outperformed expectations. The fact that this group is excelling is especially impressive considering that the club has lost Joaquin Benoit, Tony Zych, Charlie Furbush, Ryan Cook, and Evan Scribner to injury. Despite these setbacks, the ‘pen ranks well against their AL counterparts and is leaps and bounds better than last year’s relief corps.

Mariners Bullpen AL Rankings
Year IP LOB% SO/9 IP BB/9 IP HR/9 IP ERA FIP AVG WAR
2015 4 14 10 14 7 12 9 13 12
2016 12 2 2 10 8 4 7 1 7

Being without two of his best relief arms from the Opening Day roster — Benoit and Zych — forced manager Scott Servais to juggle his relievers in order to reach closer Steve Cishek. The biggest challenge has been covering the eighth inning, which had fallen primarily to Joel Peralta and Nick Vincent.

The return of Benoit this week permits Peralta and Vincent resume their normal roles and adds some depth to the relief corps. The 38-year-old’s return also provides Servais with another experienced closer option when Cishek isn’t available or if he were to struggle for an extended period.

— Luke Arkins

The way the Mariners put together the bullpen this spring was nothing short of genius. Yes, genius. And yes, it’s the one area of concern that probably remains all season. In part that concern is due to the natural volatility and attrition of bullpen pieces. But there are talent questions, too, particularly in the late innings in high-leverage scenarios. Let’s get to the genius first.

Cishek has been among the better handful of closers in the American League thus far, despite two straight blown saves versus the Angels last weekend, one in which he didn’t pitch poorly — two ground ball hits and a bloop single served up the lead. With Benoit out, Peralta has been serviceable, if nothing else, and Nick Vincent has been terrific. I’d go to battle with Vincent as my sixth or seventh inning guy any day of the week. Peralta was picked up for peanuts, Vincent was acquired via trade with the San Diego Padres for a bag of Scooby Snacks and Cishek is guaranteed all of $10 million for two years. The injuries hit the club early — Scribner, Cook, Furbush — then again in April and May with Benoit and Zych. Yet you see above the production from the patchwork group. I hate to toot my own horn — never mind, I love it — but I said right away that Dipoto knows how to put together bullpens. He did it in Anaheim on the fly and for cheap and he’s doing it again now with Seattle.

Even if everyone were healthy — Furbush, Benoit, Zych, Cook and Scribner — they do lack that shutdown ability late in games. Benoit is 38 and it’s impossible to know what’s left in the tank there. Zych has lights out stuff but his control and command haven’t been there, yet, which is the separator between Carson Smith last year and Zych in 2016. Scribner is more of a middle relief option and Cook hasn’t been his former setup/closer self for at least two years. This is where Dipoto needs to go out and add another arm. I mentioned one or two possibilities in the latest Sandmeyer and Churchill podcast here.

— Jason A. Churchill

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