M’s Mid-Season Report: Rotation & Bullpen

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

WalkerForty games into the 2016 season, hopes and expectations were soaring for the Seattle Mariners. Then, unexpectedly, one of the best teams in Major League Baseball (MLB) became one of the worst in the span of just six weeks. The team that could do no wrong suddenly couldn’t catch a break.

What exactly caused the Mariners’ downward spiral? Can the team get back on track and compete for a postseason berth? Considering the team’s struggles, how is rookie manager Scott Servais handling the adversity? We’ll get to all that in the Mid-Season Report Series, continuing with the starting rotation and bullpen. Both units have suffered significant hard knocks during the past six weeks.

Starting rotation
Thanks to a spate of injuries, the starting staff quickly went from a strength to a liability within the span of a month. Since May 27, the Mariners have seen Felix Hernandez, Wade Miley, and Adrian Sampson — Miley’s replacement — head to the disabled list (DL). Moreover, Taijuan Walker missed starts due to tendonitis in his Achilles tendon region.

To compound matters, a pair of starters regressed during the second quarter. Miley was ineffective in his four starts prior to his trip to the DL — 20.2 innings pitched, 17 earned runs, 26 hits, and 11 walks. Plus, the southpaw didn’t look any better when he returned on June 29 — five earned runs and just four innings pitched.

Our first quarter report Cy Young selection — Nathan Karns — struggled so much that he was assigned to the bullpen last week. The right-hander hadn’t pitched past the fifth inning during his five starts in June, compiling a 7.33 earned run average during that stretch.

The bad news doesn’t stop there. It gets worse. Sampson suffered a season-ending elbow injury during warmups prior to his second start. In total, the Mariners replaced five starting pitchers within the span of a month.

The upheaval created by the rapid loss of arms left Seattle reeling throughout June. To see how far the entire pitching staff nosedived, look at the following table that illustrates their increasing ineffectiveness with each passing month.

Seattle’s Fading Starting Staff
Month Starts of +6 IP RA/Gm *
Total W-L
W-L (+4 RS)
W-L (3 or fewer RS)
April 17 3.3 13-10 9-1 4-9
May 18 4.1 17-11 16-4 1-7
June 13 5.3 10-18 10-7 0-11
 * RA/Gm includes runs permitted by bullpen

With Hernandez, Miley, and Walker unavailable, Seattle starters were completing the sixth less often, forcing the bullpen to cover more innings. Ultimately, the Mariners staff surrendered more runs (RA/Gm) and the team saw a dramatic uptick in losses in June.

Even though the club suffered significant misfortune in June, it’s plausible that the staff can get back on track before the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline. First, Hisashi Iwakuma has consistently gone deep into games and James Paxton has done a good job of replacing Hernandez in the rotation.

Furthermore, Walker appears to be healthy and veteran Wade LeBlanc has performed well during his first two starts with the team. Whether LeBlanc can sustain his crafty success remains to be seen. But, he’s been a revelation thus far.

If all of Seattle’s starters are healthy again and if they’re all performing as expected — two big “ifs” — they’ll be able to construct a competitive rotation from a pool that includes Felix, Kuma, Paxton, Walker, Miley, LeBlanc, and possibly Karns. On the other hand, it’s going to be a long summer in the Emerald City, if the Mariners rotation doesn’t improve during the second half.

Bullpen
June really was a perfect storm for the Mariners. The devolving rotation pushed an already suspect bullpen to the breaking point. In the end, the relief corps was unable to keep the team afloat. The following table illustrates just how much extra slack the relievers picked up as the season progressed.

Mariners Pitching Workload Distribution and Results
Month SP IP
SP %
SP FIP
RP IP
RP %
RP FIP
April 143 69% 3.78 64 31% 3.15
May 161.1 64% 4.30 90.4 36% 3.38
June 152.2 61% 4.36 98.1 39% 4.90

After the first month of the season, relievers were covering 31-percent of the workload and the bullpen performed well, as evidenced by their 3.15 fielding independent pitching (FIP). By June though, relief pitchers were covering eight-percent more workload and their FIP ballooned to 4.90 — worst in the AL last month. The Mariners can’t contend unless these numbers improve.

Although the bullpen has struggled recently, there have been several bright spots. Rookie Edwin Diaz made the jump from Class-AA starter to major league reliever in less than a month. To date, he’s fanned over 40-percent of the batters he’s faced and is now getting the opportunity to pitch in higher-leverage situations.

Steve Cishek has done well as the team’s closer and looks to stay in the job barring injury or a string of very bad outings. Mike Montgomery has adapted well to bullpen duty since transitioning from a starter in Spring Training and leads the club with 15 multiple-inning relief appearances at the midway point of the season.

Nick Vincent was proving to be an asset before heading to the DL last week with a sore back and Vidal Nuno has been a versatile performer who even made an emergency start when Sampson went down during his pregame warmup.

One reliever who hasn’t been doing well lately is eighth inning setup man Joaquin Benoit. The 38-year-old has already been shutdown twice for shoulder problems — once in Spring Training and once during the season. Plus, his hard contact rate jumped to 43-percent in June after averaging 25-percent for the first two months of the season. Benoit will have to improve quickly or the club will have to find someone else to be the bridge to Cishek.

Speaking of making changes, general manager Jerry Dipoto has been creatively attempting to improve his relief staff. He’s been shuffling pitchers between Class-AAA Tacoma and Seattle on a regular basis and parting ways with ineffective hurlers, when necessary. Moreover, the organization’s idea to convert Diaz into a reliever looks like a stroke of genius thus far.

The move of Karns to relief is intriguing because it presents the potential of having another effective power arm in the bullpen. Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill explains here how this could help both pitcher and ball club. Time will tell if the right-hander can flourish as a reliever.

Dipoto even added a player he traded away in the offseason — Tom Wilhelmsen. Whether “The Bartender” can return to his pre-trade form with is unknown. But, once again, the opportunity to add another effective power exists.

Despite the shrewd maneuvers made by Dipoto, it’s unlikely that the current crop of relievers can succeed, unless the starting staff gets healthy. Even then, more bullpen help may needed to keep the Mariners competitive throughout the season.

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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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