M’s Quarterly Report: Rotation & Bullpen

After remaining in the 2016 wild card race until game-161, the Seattle Mariners spent the offseason making deals at a breakneck pace with one goal in mind– end baseball’s longest active postseason drought.

Just forty games into the current season, the notion of playing meaningful October baseball in 2017 is a fleeting dream after a devastating series of bad breaks and disappointing performances.

Can the Mariners get back on track and compete for a postseason berth? What are their strengths and weaknesses? In the First-Quarter Report Series, we’ll touch those bases and more.

So far, we’ve discussed the AL West and the club’s offensive production. Now, it’s time to shift the focus to Seattle’s pitching staff.

Starting rotation
It’s understandable why the emphasis is immediately placed on injuries when discussing the rotation. Losing mid-rotation arm Drew Smyly before the season even began and having Opening Day starter Felix Hernandez, James Paxton, and last year’s most consistent pitcher — Hisashi Iwakuma — join Smyly on the DL before mid-May is a significant blow.

To compound matters, the replacements — Ariel Miranda, Chase De Jong, Dillon Overton, Christian Bergman, and Ryan Weber— haven’t consistently performed and/or delivered enough innings during starts. In fairness, it’d be unreasonable to expect pitchers tagged for the minor leagues to perform like accomplished veterans.

As game-40 arrives, hope is the strategy with the rotation. Paxton could be back as soon as next week and King Felix may return by June if he doesn’t suffer any more setbacks. If all goes well, Smyly and Iwakuma may rejoin the team near the all-star break.

While the notion of getting the band back together in July sounds encouraging, it’s important to remember the starting staff wasn’t effective before being swept away by a wave of injuries in April. To see what I mean, here’s a comparison of last April’s rotation to 2017.

Comparing April Rotations
Year IP/GS ERA
FIP
K/9
BB/9
HR/9
2016 6.2 3.27 3.80 7.87 3.02 0.88
2017 5.5 4.06 4.17 7.67 2.47 1.33

When you review individual efforts of the Opening Day rotation, it becomes readily apparent Paxton was the only good starter in April. Sure, others had moments. But, they generally followed up a good outing with a bad or mediocre performance.

Opening Day Rotation in April
Year IP/GS ERA
FIP K/9
BB/9
HR/9 OPP AVG
James Paxton 6.2 1.43 1.49 10.8 2.6 0.0 .187
Ariel Miranda 5.2 4.58 5.20 7.4 2.7 2.0 .260
Hisashi Iwakuma 5.2 4.35  6.26 4.7 3.5 2.0 .237
Felix Hernandez 6.1 3.65 4.38 7.3 1.4 1.8 .327
Yovani Gallardo 5.6 4.58 3.76 6.2 3.7 0.7 .269

Hernandez’s offseason preparations have been publicized ad nauseam. However, before going down with shoulder bursitis in late-April, he was a veteran in transition delivering mixed results. The 31-year-old’s walk-rate improved considerably from last year’s career-worst, but he was surrendering more hits and home runs.

Essentially, Felix was allowing more base runners this year despite the decline in free passes. What he’ll be upon returning is unknown. Will his evolution from missing bats to pitching-to-contact proceed or stall? We won’t know for many months, perhaps next season.

Last year’s rock — Iwakuma — was anything but solid prior to going down with shoulder inflammation. As Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill noted, the 36-year-old’s walk and strikeout rates were cause for concern.

The following chart illustrates the gradual erosion of Iwakuma’s four-seam fastball velocity in recent years and its rapid decline this season. Perhaps, this was foreshadowing the shoulder inflammation. On the other hand, we may be simply witnessing age-related regression.

 

That leaves the last two men standing from Opening Day — Yovani Gallardo and Miranda. At least they were standing when I hit the publish button. The duo projected as number-five starters before the season and that’s what they’ve been through 40 games. Sometimes they deliver moments of brilliance, other times they stumble.

It’s worth noting Gallardo appears to be improving when the Mariners desperately need someone — anyone — to anchor their rotation. In his last three outings, he’s posted a 3.93 ERA and held hitters to a .282 OBP.

A word of caution though. Gallardo missed two months last season due to right shoulder bicep tendinitis. Whether he’ll encounter arm-related issues this season is unknown. But, many times, a previous arm injury leaves a pitcher susceptible to a recurrence.

Even if Paxton, Hernandez, and Iwakuma return on schedule, it’s difficult to project how the Mariners rotation will perform. If the trio performs at pre-injury levels, that won’t be good enough — at least in the case of Felix and Kuma. As was the case last June, a collapsing rotation is certain to further expose an inconsistent bullpen.

It already has.

Bullpen
As with the rotation, injuries have affected the ‘pen. Last year’s Opening Day closer Steve Cishek, Tony Zych, and offseason acquisition Shae Simmons started the season on the DL. Since the start of the season, two Evans — Scribner and Marshall — joined the ranks of the wounded.

Here’s a comparison of Seattle’s bullpen through the first 40 games of 2017 to the season rankings for the last two years. It isn’t pretty.

Mariners Bullpen AL Rankings
Year LOB% SO/9
BB/9 HR/9
ERA FIP AVG WAR
2015 14 10 14 7 12 9 13 10
2016 1 4 3 12 4 9 3 9
2017 12 9 12 14  15 14 12 15

Overall, Seattle has used 18 pitchers in relief this season — including starters Chris Heston, De Jong, and Overton. While injuries have played a factor in the Mariners’ bullpen woes, inconsistency from the healthy has been a bigger problem.

During his short stint with the Mariners last season and Cactus League play this year, Dan Altavilla flashed future closer potential and appeared ready to be an eighth inning set-up man in 2017. While both of those scenarios may eventually occur, the right-hander has struggled with command this season.

Southpaw James Pazos has dynamic stuff. But, the 26-year-old’s command and control have betrayed him on several occasions, especially against right-handed hitters.

Opening Day closer Edwin Diaz has battled inconsistency during the early stages of the season. At times, he’s dominating. On other occasions, his command abandons him leaving the Mariners vulnerable late in games. Two weeks ago, Churchill noted Diaz was exhibiting a mechanical flaw.

 

Diaz subsequently appeared to clean up issues and get back on track. But, after surrendering a walk-off homer on Sunday and four walks in a save opportunity the following day, the 23-year-old was temporarily moved out of the closer role so he can straighten out his mechanics.

Despite the inconsistency from Altavilla, Pazos, and Diaz and the injuries suffered, there have been some bright spots in the bullpen. Veteran Marc Rzepczynski was a superb addition by general manager Jerry Dipoto. Primarily used against left-handed hitters late in games, the southpaw has held lefties to a .191 OPS.

Nick Vincent has assumed the role as Swiss Army knife once held by former Mariner Tom Wilhelmsen. The right-hander has pitched in multiple roles and has tossed the most innings of any Mariner used exclusively as a reliever.

With Diaz temporarily out of the closer spot, manager Scott Servais intends to go with a bullpen-by-committee selecting ninth inning relievers based on match ups. That approach didn’t pay off last night when Cishek and Rzepczynski blew a save by surrendering five runs in the ninth.

Considering the options available to Servais, it’s tough to criticize the second-year manager’s decision-making. That being said, when everyone’s the closer, you don’t have a closer. Getting Diaz back on track is critical to the Mariners future success in 2017. But, a bigger bullpen problem exists — overuse.

Pitching Workload Distribution & Results
Month SP IP
SP %
SP FIP
RP IP
RP %
RP FIP
April 142 63% 4.17 85.1 37% 4.43
May 72 56% 4.82 56.2 44% 5.73

While April was tough for the pitching staff, the month of May has been far worse. The rotation has thrown just 56-percent of the pitching staff’s innings this month.

To put that into perspective, last year’s starting staff carried 64-percent of the workload for a club plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness throughout the summer months.

If the Mariners’ can’t achieve a better-balanced symbiotic relationship between the rotation and bullpen, it’s going to be long summer in the Emerald City.

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who was sent to the Pacific Northwest by the Navy and then decided to stay. He grew up as a New York Mets fan and continues to follow them from afar, although he can be frequently found at Safeco Field observing the hometown team. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins

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