It looks like the 2014 Mariners are going to be streaky. After a 6-1 road trip back east, Seattle dropped five straight to start the home stand before rallying for a win on Sunday. It was an ugly stretch too, as the club scored all of four runs against Nick Tepesch, Joe Saunders, and Nick Martinez before plating three against the Rangers bullpen in the eighth. They may not see a friendlier trio of opposing starters in a series all season.
Scoring chances have been hard to come by lately, but on Sunday, the Mariners did themselves no favors. In addition to a questionable bunt from James Jones in the first inning — let’s just assume he was bunting for a hit so we don’t have to break out any probability tables on that one — the Mariners stupidly ran themselves out of a scoring chance just an inning later.
Kyle Seager led off the second with a sharp base hit. Mike Zunino followed, and he worked a full count. Seager took off for second on the 3-2 pitch, and Zunino swung and missed. The third basemen was thrown out at second by five feet for an inning-killing double play. I don’t know whether Seager ran on his own or if manager Lloyd McClendon called it from the dugout, but either way, it was a really bad decision from just about every angle.
First, let’s look at Seager. Seager is a good ballplayer but he’s not a fast runner and he’s just 28 for 40 on the bases in his career. That’s not a terrible ratio in the aggregate, but considering that Seager was treating the play as more of a hit and run than a straight steal, it’s fair to say that he was more likely to be thrown out than not if the batter swung and missed.
That brings us Zunino. The Mariners backstop is one of the worst players in the league to hit and run with. He’s struck out in 31% of his plate appearances thus far and has struggled to control the strike zone all year long. Zunino only makes contact with two-thirds of the pitches he swings at — the league’s average is nearly 80% — and he swings at 40% pitches he sees outside of the strike zone, which is again considerably worse than average. So, not only is Zunino unlikely to be discriminatory enough to take ball four if it comes, but he’s also not a good bet to make contact if he does pull the trigger.
Finally, there’s the context. The biggest advantage the Mariners got from sending Seager was that it helped avoid a potential double play ball, a play that makes sense for batters who make a lot of contact or players who hit a lot of ground balls. Zunino is not that hitter.
In addition to his problems making contact, Zunino has hit the ball on the ground just 36% of the time he’s made contact this year. That’s not a super low figure on its own, but factoring in how often he strikes out plus a handful of walks, it turns out that he hits a grounder in under a quarter of his plate appearances. Considering that there was already a full count — which makes a walk or a strike out all the more likely — and that not all grounders are potential double play balls, the odds that Zunino bounced into a double play were really quite small. I’d estimate that Zunino grounds into a double play about 10% of the time in that situation, which is significantly smaller than the chance he’d strike out and a good deal smaller than the likelihood of a strike him out, throw him out double play ball. Which is, of course, what happened.
The sequence was made all the worse by what followed: Dustin Ackley smacked a double and then Willie Bloomquist singled to put men on the corners. Had Seager not run, the Mariners would have already scored and would also have had another out to work with. With two outs though, Brad Miller’s pop up ended the inning, leaving the Mariners off the board. They went on to win, rendering the impact of the second inning considerably less important than it might have been.
It was still bad baseball though, and it resulted from lazy, non-contextualized thinking. The Mariners can’t afford that. Seattle’s lineup has just two hitters with a wRC+ over 100 and McClendon regularly uses defensive minded players like Bloomquist and Endy Chavez at the top of his lineup. There’s just not a lot of room for error right now, necessitating that they do the little things well. On Sunday, they didn’t.