The Seattle Mariners finally did it. By clinching an AL Wild Card berth last Friday, the franchise ended its 20-year postseason drought. Next on the agenda, advancing in the playoffs. To make this goal a reality, manager Scott Servais and his players will have to be on top of their game.

The Mariners have headed to Canada to take on Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre. A ballpark renowned for its raucous crowds, which could be intimidating to a visiting team short on postseason experience. Complicating matters for Servais’ crew, Toronto boasts a potent offense and a pair of formidable starting pitchers – Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman.

Despite these hurdles, all is not lost for the Mariners – far from it. This team is capable of taking two of three from the Blue Jays, even in a hostile environment. It won’t be easy, but certainly doable.

All the Mariners need to do is more of what they’ve been doing all season.

Draw Walks

Seattle finished the season with a 9.7% walk rate, second best in the majors behind the Yankees (10.1%). Continuing to earn free passes will be central to a successful October. Unfortunately, the team leader in walks (Jesse Winker) went to the 10-day IL during the final week of the season as did Sam Haggerty.

Still, other Mariners have demonstrated a penchant for reaching base via the walk.

Walk Rates of Regular M’s
Jesse Winker – 15.4%
Dylan Moore – 13.3%
Carlos Santana – 11.9%
Eugenio Suárez – 11.6%
J.P. Crawford – 11.3%
Cal Raleigh – 9.2%
Sam Haggerty – 9.0%
MLB BB Rate – 8.2%
Mitch Haniger – 8.1%
Adam Frazier – 7.6%
Julio Rodríguez – 7.1%
Abraham Toro – 6.3%
Ty France – 5.7%

It’s worth noting Jarred Kelenic (8.8%) and Luis Torrens (7.2%) have also been taking walks over the last month. Yes, their numbers are based on small samples. Nevertheless, it’s a positive development we shouldn’t overlook at the most critical part of the baseball year.

Having said all that, Blue Jays pitching has been extremely stingy at delving out passes to first base with the third lowest walk rate (7%) in MLB. On that note, Toronto’s Game 1 starter, Manoah, has a 6.5% walk rate. Furthermore, Gausman (3.9%) is third best among pitchers qualified for the ERA title.

Hit Dingers

As the season progressed, the long ball became increasingly important to the Mariners’ offense. Since August 1, the team clobbered the most home runs (86) in MLB. Just how critical did the home run become for Seattle’s run production effort?

Home runs accounted for 46.7% of the team’s runs batted in (RBI) this season – the fifth highest HR/RBI rate in the majors.

Highest HR/RBI% in 2022
NYY – 52.1%
MIL – 49.5%
LAA – 47.3%
ATL – 47.1%
SEA – 46.7%
HOU – 46%
PIT – 43.4%
TEX – 43.1%
TOR – 42.9%
MIN – 42.5%

MLB average HR/RBI% = 40.2%

Despite their improved proficiency at clubbing dingers, the Mariners only had a slightly better-than-average .400 SLG since the beginning of August. The reason, Seattle hit the fewest singles (273) and doubles (71) in MLB during this timeframe.

The Blue Jays won’t make it easy for the Mariners to continue their home run binge into the postseason. Toronto’s 1.12 HR/9 is slightly worse than the MLB average (1.09). However, Manoah (.73) and Gausman (.79) are top-15 among qualified pitchers.

Start Strong

When it mattered most, the starting rotation stepped up to propel the club’s postseason push. Among 118 pitchers facing 100-plus batters in September/October, three Mariners possessed a top-50 xwOBA –Logan Gilbert, Luis Castillo, George Kirby – with Marco Gonzales falling just outside the top-50 mark.

Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. 

Sept/Oct xwOBA
Logan Gilbert – .284 (37th in MLB)
Luis Castillo – .285 (39th)
George Kirby – .296 (49th)
Marco Gonzales – .298 (52nd)
MLB average SP xwOBA = .309
Robbie Ray – .323 (74th)

After pitching seven innings in the regular season finale, Gonzales is unlikely to be part of the roster in the Wild Card round. So far, Servais has announced Castillo as his Game 1 starter leaving Robbie Ray, Gilbert, and Kirby as candidates for the next two games in Toronto. That’s a good problem for a manager to have heading into a postseason series.

Some of you are probably looking at Ray’s .323 xwOBA and want no part of the southpaw pitching in Seattle’s first postseason series in two decades. Especially against a right-handed heavy Toronto lineup. That said, Ray projects to start Game 2.

For those concerned about Ray’s recent performances, I suggest considering how postseason games are managed in this era. Dating back to 2019, there have been 254 postseason games. The average outing by starting pitchers lasted 4.1 innings. Granted, openers were used on several occasions. But that doesn’t significantly affect the overall length of time starters have been sticking around in the playoffs.

SP Postseason Workload (2019-21)
6+ inning – 74
5-5.2 inning – 56
4-4.2 innings – 47
Sub-4 innings – 77

Basically, it’s up to Ray to deliver results when he takes the mound for the Mariners. If the 2021 AL Cy Young Award winner gets into a bind early, Servais will likely have a quick hook with his Opening Day starter.

Perhaps Servais starts Gilbert in Game 2 keeping Ray at the ready for a relief gig or to start Game 3, if necessary. Regardless of the path the seven-year skipper chooses, strong support from the starting staff will be vital to the Mariners’ staying power during the 2022 postseason.

Lockdown Relief

The bullpen has been a strength for the Mariners all season. Based on xwOBA it was second best in MLB.

Best Bullpen xwOBA
LAD – .274
SEA – .279
ATL – .279
HOU – .282
CLE – .286
NYY – .287
NYM – .288
SDP – .291
TBR – .294
MIL – .295

MLB average RP xwOBA = .302

Despite the great overall season numbers, the final month of the 2022 campaign was a bit bumpy for several relievers. Who can forget the epic bullpen meltdown facilitating the Royals scoring 11 runs in one inning on September 25?

To help illustrate those recent struggles, I segregated each reliever’s xwOBA into two sections. The first five months of the season and then September/October.

xwOBA of M's Relievers
Apr-Aug
Sep-Oct
Improvement
Matt Brash
.282
.235
.047
Chris Flexen
.335*
.290*
.045*
Andrés Muñoz
.217
.185
.032
Diego Castillo
.275
.248
.027
Erik Swanson
.235
.247
-.012
Penn Murfee
.239
.300
-.061
Matthew Festa
.273
.375
-.102
Paul Sewald
.230
.362
-132
* Flexen's SP duty included

What we find is the xwOBA of four Mariners regressed at the end of the season (highlighted in red). Having said that, Erik Swanson and Penn Murfee were still average-ish or better. On the other hand, Paul Sewald and Matthew Festa encountered noticeable turbulence. Sewald’s difficulties are particularly worrisome considering he’s one of the most valuable high-leverage arms in Servais’ bullpen.

Still, strong performances from Matt Brash, Chris Flexen, Andrés Muñoz, and even Diego Castillo in the final month of the season are encouraging. After all, the success of the Mariners’ bullpen has been a collaborative effort in 2022. This “it takes a village” mentality will serve the team well in Toronto.

Catch the Ball

Strong defense has been crucial to the pitching staff’s success. But there were uncharacteristic lapses in the field over the last month or so. Starting tomorrow, this can no longer happen. Giving the opposition extra outs due to misplays usually leads to early exits in playoff baseball. Especially for a team like the Mariners, which relies heavily on run prevention to succeed.

The “unearned run” isn’t an ideal indicator of fielding proficiency since it’s based on the flawed “error” stat. But the recent uptick of unearned runs does reflect the defense doldrums the Mariners endured over the final month of the season.

M’s Unearned Runs
April – 12
May – 5
June – 6
July – 3
Aug – 6
Sep/Oct – 14

While the Mariners have struggled in the field lately, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact the team’s defenders collectively ranked tenth in defensive runs saved (DRS) for the season. Remembering that zero DRS is considered league-average, Servais’ squad was average or better at many defensive positions.

DRS of Notable M’s
C- Cal Raleigh (14)
1B – Ty France (2)
1B – Carlos Santana (4)*
2B – Adam Frazier (0)
SS – JP Crawford (-3)
3B – Eugenio Suarez (-2)
CF – Julio Rodriguez (3)
RF – Mitch Haniger (4)
RF – Jarred Kelenic (3)

*Includes time with KCR

As you can see, Seattle defenders have performed relatively well. However, 2020 Gold Glover J.P. Crawford has experienced a large slide from last season (8 DRS). Whether this is a long-term concern or just an anomaly remains to be seen. In the interim, strong shortstop defense from Crawford is a must in the postseason.

Based on DRS, Cal Raleigh was third best defender among catchers with 500-plus innings behind the plate this season. From a conventional aspect, his 25 runners caught stealing was second best in the majors behind Philadelphia’s J.T. Realmuto (30). Raleigh is also considered an excellent pitch framer and game caller.

The DRS of Seattle’s main outfielders looks good heading into the postseason. Not only that, the arm strength of Rodriguez is 12th best among 155 outfielders making at least 100 throws this season. Kelenic also grades out well (39th) compared to his outfield peers.

One key defender not to be overlooked is Dylan Moore. The 30-year-old Swiss Army knife has spent time everywhere on the diamond this season with the exception of pitcher and catcher. Moore’s versatility makes him a crucial postseason weapon capable of starting at multiple positions or serving as a late-inning defensive replacement.

Looking Forward

As simple as it may sound, all that’s needed from the Mariners to enjoy success in Toronto is a continuation of what they’ve done all season. Take walks; hit home runs; excellent pitching backed up by strong glove work.

Sure, it won’t be easy. The Blue Jays are a superb team. Then again, so are the Mariners. By cleanly executing on the elements of the game that got them to the postseason, Servais’ squad will have an excellent chance at advancing to face the Astros in the ALDS.

Wouldn’t that be fun?

My Oh My…

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up as a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. In 2014, Luke joined the Prospect Insider team. During baseball season, he can often be found observing the local team at T-Mobile Park. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins