Marco Gonzales Mariners

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With Memorial Day upon us, it’s fair to say the 2022 season as a disappointment for the Seattle Mariners and its beleaguered fan base. Instead of battling at the top of the AL West division, Seattle is just a game away from last place. That’s a discouraging development for a team that won 90 games last year and came excruciatingly close to reaching the postseason for the first time in two decades.

So, what gives with the Mariners?

We’ve already discussed the team’s uneven run production effort in our first segment of our Mariners at Memorial Day series. Let’s now turn our attention to the starting rotation.

By The Numbers

Although the lineup has struggled to consistently generate offense, the effectiveness of the starting staff looms as a larger issue for the Mariners at Memorial Day. A look at the rotation’s numbers reveals it ranks in the bottom-third of MLB in multiple categories. This probably doesn’t surprise anyone watching this club on a routine basis.

M's Rotation Stats and Rankings
ERA
K%
BB%
WHIP
HR/9
wOBA
xwOBA
SEA
4.11
21.1
8.3
1.31
1.38
.329
.355
MLB
4.02
21.5
7.9
1.26
1.08
.312
.333
Rnk
18
17
20
19
27
24
25

Clearly, the rotation hasn’t been a strength for the Mariners. So, let’s look a little closer at the situation using the final metric listed in the preceding table – the expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) of opposing hitters.

Pitchers have some influence over exit velocity, launch angle, strikeouts, and walks. But they have virtually no control over a batted ball once it enters the field. Since RA/G, ERA, AVG, WHIP, wOBA are affected by defense, they may not always provide the clearest picture on what’s going on with a pitcher. That’s where xwOBA can help.

Expected wOBA uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls without the influence of good or bad defense. It also factors in strikeouts and walks. Essentially, xwOBA captures the key elements for being successful on the mound – minimizing contact, avoiding base runners, and preventing the most damaging batted balls.

Whether Mariners fans embrace or shun analytics, most will likely agree the starting staff’s xwOBA ranking feels about right based on what they’ve seen with their own eyes. Now, let’s focus on Seattle’s main cadre of starting pitchers.

The Starting Five

Logan Gilbert is morphing into the frontline starter the Mariners had envisioned. He’s one of only two Seattle starters with a better-than-average xwOBA. Gilbert has been susceptible to surrendering more hard contact than preferred. But the 25-year-old compensates by avoiding damaging barrels and striking out hitters at an above-average rate.

Starter xwOBA
Logan Gilbert (.320)
Robbie Ray (.328)
SP MLB average = .334
George Kirby (.336)
Marco Gonzales (.369)
Chris Flexen (.385)
Matt Brash (.430)

To the dismay of some Mariners fans, Robbie Ray isn’t performing like the AL Cy Young Award winner he was a year ago. Still, the Tennessee native’s sluggish start to the 2022 season isn’t the problem some fans believe it to be.

Winning the Cy Young Award and then signing a five-year/$115 million free agent contract with the Mariners has skewed the view of Ray in the eyes of some fans. Barring injury, Ray will continue to be a valuable member of Seattle’s rotation – even if he doesn’t win another Cy Young.

Why?

Ray delivers innings, which usually give his team a chance to win games.

Entering the Memorial Day weekend, Ray had completed the sixth inning in eight starts tying the lefty for most in the majors with Joe Musgrove and fellow 2022 Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes. Not every starter possesses the unique characteristic of being able to stick around when the going gets tough.

For me, the greater concern than Ray’s perceived issues are the uneven seasons of Marco Gonzales and Chris Flexen. The pair has delivered several excellent performances in 2022. But we’ve also seen an uncharacteristic smattering of clunkers mixed in.

Unlike their rotation-mates, Gonzales and Flexen don’t throw hard or heavily rely on strikeouts to succeed. Therefore, avoiding damaging contact is paramount to surviving deep into games. This season, that’s been a challenge for the pair more often than in the past. Hence, the unsightly xwOBA beside each pitcher’s name.

In several contests, the long ball has been the enemy of both Gonzales and Flexen. As a result, they are league leaders in the dubious category of HR/9 IP.

Highest HR/9 IP (40 inning min)
Hunter Greene (3.1)
Elieser Hernández (2.9)
Nathan Eovaldi (2.5)
Josiah Gray (2.3)
Bruce Zimmermann (2.3)
Marco Gonzales (1.8)
Kyle Hendricks (1.8)
Madison Bumgarner (1.7)
Chris Flexen (1.6)
Jose Berrios (1.6)
Jose Urquidy (1.6)
Taylor Hearn (1.6)
Reid Detmers (1.6)

MLB HR/9 = 1.0

Realistically, the Mariners’ ability to rebound from their slow start to the season may hinge on how Gonzales and Flexen react moving forward. Over the Memorial Day weekend, both pitchers had superb outings against the first-place Astros. Whether the duo can build upon this success is a question time will answer.

Although he’s struggled at times since debuting, rookie George Kirby has stabilized the number-five spot in the rotation. Since his MLB career is a whopping four starts, we shouldn’t overthink the 24-year-old’s performance to date. As we saw with Gilbert last year, young pitchers endure growing pains and need time to develop.

For anyone concerned about Kirby’s start to his career, take a look at this side-by-side comparison of the first four career starts of Kirby and Gilbert. It appears Kirby is slightly ahead of where Gilbert was at this point last year.

First Four MLB Starts Of Logan Gilbert & George Kirby
IP
BB%
SO%
ERA
AVG
wOBA
xwOBA
Gilbert
16.2
4.1
21.9
5.94
.269
.331
.362
Kirby
20
2.4
23.5
4.50
.284
.337
.336

Workload will be a consideration with Kirby. To me, it’s reasonable to expect the Mariners will use Gilbert’s debut season as the roadmap for getting the Elon alum through his freshman campaign in one piece. With no 2020 MiLB season and Kirby limited to 67.2 innings last year due to shoulder fatigue, the Mariners likely restrict Kirby’s 2022 MLB and MiLB innings to Gilbert total last year (124.1).

So far this year, Kirby has tossed a combined 44.2 frames for Class-AA Arkansas and the Mariners. If the right-hander continues averaging five innings/start, he would reach the 125-inning mark after 16 more starts. My dumb blogger math estimates that would take him to the end of August. This assumes everything remains status quo.

To be clear, this is just speculation on my part. It’s solely based on prior comments made by President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto. Naturally, the team can choose to follow a different plan or could completely change course for a variety of real-world reasons.

While we’re on the subject of workload, one aspect of the Mariners’ starting staff that’s been a positive is its availability. To date, the team has used six starters with Kirby replacing fellow rookie Matt Brash, who had been ineffective after beating out Kirby for the fifth rotation spot during Spring Training.

In fact, the team’s starters have logged 260.2 innings this season – 62.1% of the pitching staff’s workload. Only the Padres’ rotation (63%) has taken on a heavier load than the Mariners.

Innings Pitched/Start
Robbie Ray (6.1)
Logan Gilbert (5.9)
Chris Flexen (5.6)
Marco Gonzales (5.6)
George Kirby (5.0)
MLB average = 5.0
Matt Brash (4.0)

With each member of the current rotation delivering at least the league-average amount of innings, the unit has collectively taken some pressure off the team’s relievers. That’s a good thing considering the bullpen has struggled to hold leads and prevent late-inning losses lately.

Finally

Assuming all goes well, the current group of starting pitchers might be enough to help Seattle return to relevance this season. But when does everything go well for the Mariners’ staff or any club’s? Remember, even the pitching-rich Dodgers used 19 starters in 2021.

As already mentioned, the Mariners have used six starters. But who is currently the organization’s best choice to step in, if a starter were to go down for a prolonged period?

At Class-AAA Tacoma, there are several familiar options with MLB experience – Justus Sheffield, Nick Margevicius, Asher Wojciechowski, Tommy Milone, and Daniel Ponce de Leon. Most are not on the 40-man roster nor are they performing particularly in the minors. In a pinch, one of these pitchers could fill a void. But for how long?

Perhaps the Mariners turn to one of their heralded pitching prospects. That certainly is plausible. Levi Stoudt is a name that often mentioned as the next young gun to join the big-league club. But what is your confidence level Stoudt, or any inexperienced starter, can join the rotation and make an instant impact?

It’s possible, although we’ve already seen with Gilbert and Kirby that the jump from AA to the majors is a big one. And let’s not forget the potential innings crunch Kirby could potentially be facing by August. By then, Stoudt could also be facing potential restrictions.

Not to be Johnny Dark Cloud, but it seems inevitable that at least one starter will miss time this season. Turning to the kids on the farm or minor-league retreads won’t help the Mariners remain viable into September. Realistically, if management is sincere about contending for the postseason, it will pursue and acquire another quality rotation arm from outside the organization. Preferably, someone with big-game experience and tread left on the tires.

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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