Potential early-season anomalies

 Through game two in The Bronx the Seattle Mariners appear to have rebounded somewhat from the five-game skid at Safeco Field. The final game of the homestand ended in a walk-off home run by Dae-Ho Lee, then the club beat the New York Yankees 7-1 Friday before beating a lefty starter 3-2 in Game 2.

The M’s entered play Sunday 5-6 on the year and while it’s weeks and weeks too soon to take any numbers, advanced or traditional, and draw any sort of conclusions, there are some positive trends. We’ll call them suggestive trends if they remain for six or eight weeks, but until then I’m calling some of them potential early-season anomalies.

It’s easy to buy what Nelson Cruz is selling — .279/.367/.558 through 11 games, though his strikeout rate is destined to rise (four whiffs in nearly 50 plate appearances after a 25 percent rate last season, the highest of his career) and with skipper Scott Servais protecting Seth Smith from left-handed pitching even more this year than the Mariners did a year ago, the veteran’s triple-slash isn’t out of line for being the hot-streak type start it appears to be.

The positive early-season numbers that are likely to prove random and/or lucky/unlucky are:

Leony Martin: .257/.333/.486
Martin has struck out 14 times in 39 plate appearances (35.9 %) and has raced out to his solid start thanks to a .368 batting average on balls in play. The two home runs are of course legitimate, as is the 7.7 percent walk rate, even if the paces of each don’t quite hold up.

Martin’s first 11 games are strange, though, because while the average and on-base percentage are fed largely by the BABIP, his strikeout rate is abnormally high, too — more than 13 percent higher than any other season Martin has played more than 25 big-league games. So, on one hand the BABIP will sink to more normal levels, theoretically shrinking the average and OBP in the process, Martin will make more contact than he has early on, too. The center fielder struggles versus lefties and 16 of his plate appearances have versus southpaws. That rate will change, too, as somewhere between 65-75 percent of the innings in the American League will be pitched by right-handed starters and relievers.

The most interesting part of Martin’s season to date for me is the swing itself. The Mariners, and by ‘Mariners’ I mean The Edgar Martinez, clearly have been working with Martin to try and help him create more backspin, which could help him hit more doubles and even a few more home runs. The bat speed is there, the swing hasn’t been over the course of his career. The club may be convinced, as are most scouts, Martin’s plate skills overall probably aren’t going to improve significantly. So, instead of focusing solely on more contact as if he’s a prototypical top-of-the-order bat — which clearly he is not — getting a few more extra-base hits may be the best way to increase his offensive value. This doesn’t mean Martin’s goal is to hit more doubles and homers — it’s to ‘control the zone’ as best as possible, like everyone else on earth, but with a better chance to take advantage of his bat speed.

Martin is 1-for-19 when his at-bat ends on anything but a fastball (four-seam, two-seam/sinker) with eight strikeouts. That will have to improve, but since about 40 percent of those offspeed pitches are from lefties, this, too, should even out some.

Chris Iannetta: .276/.400/.483
Iannetta batted .188 a year ago and while a .225 BABIP tells part of the story there, the veteran turned 33 earlier this month and his career average even after his solid start this season is .232. Iannetta’s career BABIP is .278, which if inserted in a vacuum here would drop his 2016 start to about .219/.333 to go with the two home runs.

How far Iannetta’s numbers fall from where they are now may be determined in large part to how often the club is forced to use him. This puts pressure on Steve Clevenger to hit some when given the chance to Servais doesn’t feel the need to push it with his No. 1 catcher.

It’s super early, of course, but Iannetta has tallied just the two extra-base hits, and really isn’t much of a power bat, anyway — career high in HR outside Coors Field is 11 and 22 doubles is his best since his Colorado days — so don’t shocked if he goes the rest of the season without hitting two long balls in 10 days.

The AVG-OBP differential of 124 is not out of line with some of Iannetta’s recent seasons, however, so there’s reason to believe that will continue to some level. If he ends the year batting .220 or so, the on-base levels should be around league average, which likely will be between .315 and .320 or so. Any power he produces above a .370 slugging is gravy, yet more than plausible.

Kyle Seager: .132/.267/.263
In Seager’s first full season in the majors he batted .290/.300/.435 in April, then .279/.339/.500 in May. The following year he batted .292/.359/.491 in April and .255/.324/.418 in May. In 2014 he went .225/.319/.450 in April and .272/.348/.447 in May. Last year Seager combined April-May for a .271/.327/.474 triple-slash. The first two weeks of this season have gone awry for the All-Star, Gold Glove third baseman, but yet again some of this, too, appears to be somewhat of an anomaly.

Seager’s strikeout rate is up a tad to 20 percent from his career mark of 16.8. His walk rate is up, too, however, which is why his .267 OBP doesn’t look as bad it might if he were running with a batting-average driven triple-slash. Seager’s batting average on balls in play is .143, 135 points lower than a year ago and 143 points below his career mark. This is going to even out some, even if it ends up the lowest BABIP of his career.

Seager started 2014 very slow, too — he was batting .121/.293/.212 on April 13, 11 games into the schedule — and caught fire to end the month the respectable line listed above.

It’s a misnomer than Seager is a slow starter unless you’re just talking about the first few weeks.

Adam Lind: .192/.192/.231
Like Seager, Lind’s early-2016 numbers are absolutely an anomaly that will flip as the season progresses. One can argue Lind actually is a better pure hitter than Seager, posting OBPs of .360, .381, .357 the last three seasons, including his final two years in Toronto. He is 32 now, and while his BABIP (.278) cannot be blamed for his putrid numbers though 26 at-bats, his inconsistent playing time is indeed a legitimate factor. The Mariners have faced six left-handed starters in 11 games and Lind started just one of those games. Furthermore, Lind’s timecard looks like this: Started, OFF, started, 1 PH AB, TEAM DAY OFF, 1 PH AB, started, started 2 AB, OFF, started, TEAM DAY OFF, started, 1 PH AB. Them some spring training type work hours and that will change, too.

While I don’t expect Lind to bat .277 with a .360 OBP and 20 homers like he did a year ago, the guy uses the whole field with a line-drive swing and has proven he can rake right-handed pitching: .291/.380/.503 in 2015, .292/.353/.507 for his career. He’ll hit once he starts seeing his name in the lineup card more regularly, which means more right-handed starters. The Indians series in Cleveland this week likely will see the M’s face three straight righties, though it may be Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, one of the best 1-2-3 punches in all of baseball.

Bullpen: Five HR in 147 BF
While it’s fair to suggest the overall success of the M’s bullpen may not last (3.16 ERA), one reason to believe it could is the unlikelihood of the home run rate (1 per 29.4 batters faced) to stick for the entire season.

Last season the Mariners’ bullpen fell apart and ended up one of the four worst relief units in the American League. That group allowed one home run per 41 batters faced. The worst rate in the circuit last year belonged to the Boston Red Sox’s bullpen: One homer per 28.5, a mark the M’s are hovering around thus far in 2016. Considering Safeco Field and other factors such as pitcher type, they’re more likely to end up closer to last year’s 41.1 than anywhere near the 1/29.4.

To be fair, the M’s starters also have allowed five home runs, a rate which will rise, to be sure. They yielded 126 a year ago and the AL average was 114, so a slight uptick in rate there should be expected, but not as much the bullpen’s numbers should normalize to the positive.

Offense: .251 BABIP
We’re already seeing this normalize a bit for Seattle since arriving in New York, bit the .251 ranks No. 14 in the American League as for as much contact as the Mariners are and should be expected to make all season, this number absolutely will climb as the schedule matures.

The M’s are batting .226/.302/.396 through 11 games. Even if Iannetta and Martin become a little less randomly lucky, Lind, Seager and Cano will more than make up for that. There’s a great chance this year’s roster adds 10-plus points to last season’s .249 team average, and with that likely comes a league-average on-base percentage (.318 in AL in 2015) and perhaps an above-average slugging mark (.412 in AL in 2015, M’s finished at .411).

Future Trends To Watch For
I’m of the belief that if the big if turns his way, Franklin Gutierrez will mash lefties in 2016 like he always has, and even outperform his career marks versus right-handed arms(.242/.292/.365 ) by a long shot, though not to the unbelievable levels he did a year ago — .254/.351/.627, 7 HR… Felix Hernandez isn’t using his fastball a lot right now. He’s averaging about 90 mph on the four-seamer and sinker but per BrooksBaseball.net has thrown 58 percent offspeed stuff through three starts. The fastball usage may have to rise a bit, but the last two seasons Hernandez has thrown the four-seamer or sinker between 43 percent of the time and 44 percent of the time. That can be effective if his other pitches are consistent and he commands the fastball better than he has early in 2016. The trend to watch for here is the slider, as I noted after his Opening Day start. He hasn’t thrown it much yet — 5.7 percent per PITCHf/x versus over eight percent every year of his career — but he’s flashed the best sliders since at least 2012 this season and it’s a real weapon if it becomes more consistent, specifically versus right-handed batters.

Taijuan Walker‘s two-start sample is promising, if nothing else. He started poorly a year ago and has been better so far in 2016, but I’m talking about his pitch usage. Walker used his curveball just 7.8 percent of the time last year — with several starts featuring merely two or three — and threw 66 percent fastballs. He’ll enter his next start having throwing 56.5 percent fastball and nearly 13 percent curveballs. This suggests the pitch is at very least one he feels more comfortable with as well as one the new staff believes he should throw a little more than he did last season. Without it, Walker is throwing 93-96 mph fastballs, often up in the zone and without optimal command, and twp firm offspeed pitches in a cutter-slider at 90 mph and a split-change at 88 mph. His curveball sits 73-76 mph with late, sharp bite. He hasn’t commanded it well in the big leagues, but the raw offering is solid-average and should be thrown to batters regularly to give them a different speed to consider… Wade Miley has pitched very well in two starts, avoiding the base on balls and missing some bats with his sinker, slider and curveball and creating terrific deception and velo differential with his changeup (82 mph average versus 91.6 mph fastball). He’s served up twp three-run homers – one on a bad pitch to Prince Fielder and another on a pitch most batters wouldn’t keep fair, let alone hit out, but Adrian Beltre is a martian. Miley’s dealing right now and has been every bit the best of the starters thus far.

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Jason A. Churchill

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