M’s Q-3 report: Rotation and bullpen

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

At the halfway point of the 2016 season, the rotation of the Seattle Mariners was in disarray and their bullpen ineffective. It looked as if the Seattle’s season was quickly slipping away, especially after going 10-18 during the month of June.

Then, the calendar turned to July and the Mariners slowly regained their footing and crawled back into the contention with just over 40 games remaining.

Hisashi IwakumaSo, how did the Mariners reverse course? Can they continue to build off their recent success and finally snap the longest current postseason drought in major league baseball? What role did manager Scott Servais play in the team’s rebound?

We’ll get to all that in the Third Quarter Report Series, continuing with the starting rotation and bullpen.

Starting rotation
Over the last month, Mariner starters have provided something that the club desperately lacked during their June tailspin — more innings pitched from the rotation.

How much better has the rotation been lately?

During Seattle’s 28 games in June, starting pitchers logged 152.2 innings. That’s an average of 5.4 innings-per-start. Conversely, the rotation pitched 171.2 innings in the first 28 games after the all-start break for an average of 6.1 innings.

Those extra innings certainly helped the bullpen get back on their collective feet until reinforcements arrived. But, the ability of the club’s starters to go deep into games also mattered in the win-loss column. Look at how the starting staff’s effectiveness influenced the team’s ability to win low-scoring games.

Seattle’s Rejuvenated Starting Staff
Month Starts of +6 IP RA/Gm *
Total W-L
W-L (+4 RS)
W-L (3 or fewer RS)
IP/GS
April 17 3.3 13-10 9-1 4-9 6.2
May 18 4.1 17-11 16-4 1-7 5.8
June 13 5.3 10-18 10-7 0-11 5.4
July  14 4.8  12-12  8-2 3-10 5.8
August  9 3.0  11-3  6-0  5-3 6.4
 * RA/Gm includes runs permitted by bullpen

Since the start of July, the Mariners have won eight games when they scored three or less runs. That’s more than the first three months combined. This success in low-scoring contests is directly attributable to a rotation that’s been routinely pitching through the sixth inning and an improved bullpen, which I’ll get to in a moment.

So, who turned around the rotation?

Although Felix Hernandez deserves credit for his performance since returning to the active roster on July 20, he’s not the only one who’s been logging the innings recently — far from it.

Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, Wade LeBlanc, and Felix have combined for an average of 6.4 innings during their first 21 starts of the second half. Plus, Wade Miley went six or more innings during three starts prior to being traded and Ariel Miranda — the player Seattle received for Miley — went six innings during his Mariners debut.

While the starting staff has been performing superbly over the last 30 days, there’s one significant concern hanging over the rotation as the club enters the home stretch — depth.

The departure of Miley combined with the demotion of an under-performing Taijuan Walker leaves the rotation woefully thin. That’s clearly on display this week with Paxton going to the disabled list (DL) yesterday and Cody Martin thrust into a starting role.

Optimally, the Mariners would prefer to have Paxton and Walker pitching every fifth game with the big league club, permitting LeBlanc to round out the rotation. In the interim, they’ll field a rotation with Felix, Kuma, LeBlanc, Miranda, Martin, and possibly Joe Wieland — he took Walker’s start last week.

The club could recall Walker to help, but that would contradict their stated goal of giving the 24-year-old an opportunity to re-harness his immense potential. Until he demonstrates he can go deeper into games, Walker doesn’t necessarily provide a better option than Miranda, Martin, or Wieland.

Here’s another illustration of how going deep into games has affected the workload and effectiveness of Seattle’s relief staff.

Mariners Pitching Workload Distribution (Thru Aug 16)
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
July 140 66% 4.52 72.2 34% 4.10
August 89.2 67% 4.13 43.7 33% 3.14

As the rotation picked up its fair share, the bullpen’s effectiveness returned to its April levels. This is made evident by the bullpen’s improved fielding independent pitching (FIP) in July and August, when their workload declined.

That’s not to say that the newfound success of the relief corps is solely dependent on the starting staff going deeper into games. Yet, when the rotation sunk during the disaster known as June, the bullpen was sucked under by the resultant whirlpool of overuse.

Let’s turn our attention to a bullpen that has made a complete turnaround thanks to the shrewd maneuvers of general manager Jerry Dipoto.

Bullpen
The most influential and notable change to the relief corps has been the transformation of Edwin Diaz from Class-AA starting pitcher in May to major league closer by the end of July.

Through his first 32 games of his brief major league career, Diaz has the highest strikeouts-per-nine innings of any pitcher with 30 or more innings pitched this season. Rookie of the Year talk may be a bit premature, but the 22-year-old is certain to garner votes, especially if he helps propel the Mariners into the postseason.

As great as Diaz has been, he’s not the only one who’s made a difference lately. Let’s discuss several other upgrades that have been working for Seattle as this week’s play began.

Since returning from the Texas Rangers in late June, Tom Wilhelmsen has held opposing hitters to a .267 on-base percentage during his first 18 appearances and now finds himself as Servais’ go-to guy during high-leverage situations prior to the ninth inning.

With the exception of last night’s difficulties against the Los Angeles Angels, Arquimedes Caminero has done well since arriving from the Pittsburgh Pirates. The issue going forward is whether he can sustain his strong start with Seattle. If he can, the 29-year-old’s presence provides the club with another effective high-powered arm.

Drew Storen is another new arrival who has performed well during his small sample size stay in Seattle. The right-hander came over from the Toronto Blue Jays in a “change of location” deal that shipped Joaquin Benoit out of the Emerald City. After a bad first appearance with Seattle, Storen has been superb holding opponents to a .226 batting average.

Although he generally goes unheralded, Vidal Nuno has been a solid and versatile performer for the Mariners. The southpaw has pitched two or more innings on ten occasions is the club’s emergency starter in the bullpen.

The recent return of Nick Vincent from the DL has also provides a boost to the relief corps. In his first four appearances after returning, the 30-year-old struck out four and walked none in 3.2 innings. Unfortunately, he surrendered a game-tying home run to Albert Pujols last night.

Last night’s mistake notwithstanding, if Vincent can stay on track and return to pre-injury form, he provides the club with yet another high-leverage option. Suddenly, the back-end of the bullpen has much more length.

Yes, the bullpen has quickly become a bright spot, but reliever volatility is a never-ending challenge for managers and team executives.

Caminero and Storen have looked impressive. However, both pitchers are performing well above what they were doing with their former clubs. Will they be able to sustain their newfound success? Conversely, will they regress to their previous numbers?

In addition, the Mariners are in uncharted territory with Diaz. His workload and health will under close observation as the club finds itself getting deeper into the pennant race.

Fortunately, more help may be on the way.

Steve Cishek should return from the DL in the near future. His presence would be a welcome addition as either a right-handed specialist or a back-end option. Moreover, injured relievers Tony Zych and Evan Scribner are rehabbing and could help the team in September.

Finally
The  bullpen has been a strength for the Mariners during the past month, but the club needs to continue to field a competitive rotation during the homestretch. Otherwise, a repeat of the 2014 season is possible.

For those who don’t recall, Seattle missed an opportunity to play their way into the 2014 wildcard competition by one game. One of the key reasons they fell short was a lack of starters in September, when they shutdown starters Chris Young and Roenis Elias due to health concerns.

With no other reasonable options available, then-manager Lloyd McClendon opted to start Wilhelmsen on September 25. Running out of starting pitching with a week remaining in the season isn’t conducive to reaching the postseason.

That’s why the Mariners will need Hernandez, Iwakuma, and Paxton available and ineffective during the last six weeks of the season. If not, the club could be reliving history during the last lap of an otherwise exciting baseball season in the Emerald City.

About the author

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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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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