Mariners built to win now


The Seattle Mariners are set to open their 2015 season tomorrow and, much to the chagrin of some fans, the team is this year’s “sexy pick” to make a deep postseason run. During the six-years that I’ve lived in the Puget Sound area, I’ve come to realize that being a favorite can create anxiety for some local fans.

That’s understandable considering the fact that Seattle along with Montreal/Washington are the only two Major League Baseball franchises  that have never appeared in a World Series. Yet, there are valid reasons for fans to have optimism entering the 2015 season. Why? The cadre of proven hitters that Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik and his staff have assembled will be able to compensate for any regression that the pitching staff could potentially experience.

Run scoring
Anyone familiar with the Mariners is well-aware of the organization’s recent offensive struggles. During the last five years, the team has ranked at-or-near the bottom of the American League (AL) in virtually every offensive category. Ironically, the Mariners have actually slightly improved their average runs-per-game (runs/gm) over the past two seasons. An area that didn’t improve was on-base percentage (OBP), which explains why Zduriencik has been constantly attempting to upgrade the team’s offense since the signing of second baseman Robinson Cano prior to the 2014 season. The roster that he’s constructed is capable of ending the team’s 14-year postseason drought.

While the acquisition of 2014 AL home run leader Nelson Cruz is the most notable addition to the team’s arsenal during this offseason, the acquisitions of veterans Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano, and Rickie Weeks will further “extend” the team’s lineup. All four of these players exceeded the league-average for OBP (.316) in 2014 and they’ve been above that mark throughout their careers.

Include Austin Jackson, who struggled mightily after being acquired last July, and the team is significantly better than last year’s Opening Day squad. Even if Jackson doesn’t completely return to his career OBP level of .336, the team has added five players who are significantly better than the players they’ve replaced. A side-by-side review of the likely 2015 Opening Day lineup compared to last year’s opener in Anaheim reinforces the fact that the offense will be far better than in 2014.

 As for the holdovers from last season, there’s no reason to expect that Cano or Kyle Seager will experience any appreciable regression in 2015. With that said, the remaining holdovers — Dustin Ackley, Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, and Mike Zunino – have yet to establish themselves as consistent and reliable contributors to the offense. Thanks to their new teammates, the foursome can positively contribute to run production by merely not regressing from an offensive standpoint.

A second order effect of Zduriencik’s deals is a much stronger bench, particularly in the outfield. McClendon is certain to mix and match Ackley, Ruggiano, Smith, and Weeks in order to optimize their production. Top to bottom, this Mariners team is far better than the one assembled for Opening Day 2014.

Pitching
The 2014 Mariners’ pitching staff compensated for the team’s below-average run production, as evidenced by the team’s positive run differential (runs-scored minus runs-allowed). Manager Lloyd McClendon and pitching coach Rick Waits masterfully guided the crew to an AL leading 3.17 earned run average (ERA). Their superb bullpen helped offset the unplanned losses of Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker, and Brandon Maurer to injuries prior to the start of the season and the poor performance of several replacement starters. Despite the setbacks, the starting staff led the AL in the fewest runs-allowed during 952 innings pitched (IP).

Let’s take a look at the projected outcome for the 2015 pitching staff; all projections are based on Steamer projections on FanGraphs.com. I decided to use fielding independent pitching (FIP) to illustrate last year’s performances and this year’s projections because FIP is a metric fashioned after ERA that demonstrates the quality of a pitcher’s performance by eliminating plate appearances involving defensive plays. In essence, the pitcher is not penalized or rewarded by the defense behind him. League-average for FIP in 2014 was 3.74. Despite an expectation that the pitching staff should regress from last year’s stellar performance, they are projected to have approximately the same FIP and be at the top of their league in 2015.

If the team can avoid the injury bug this year, the projected rotation should be much better with the addition of J.A. Happ from Toronto and having Iwakuma, James Paxton, and Walker for the entire season. Another encouraging development is the team has the luxury of having Roenis Elias, available at Class-AAA Tacoma. The southpaw was a 10-game winner during his rookie campaign in 2014 and will be primed to fill-in as an injury replacement or as a spot starter whenever needed. Having a quality starter at the ready in Tacoma will be a welcome change from the 2014 season.

 The bullpen, which has many of the same faces returning, stranded 80.7 percent of base runners in 2014; seven-percent better than second-best Kansas City. Although bullpen performances have a tendency to fluctuate from year-to-year, the addition of the two youngsters – Carson Smith and Tyler Olson – should help stave off any letdown from 2014. Smith was impressive during his short debut last September by not allowing an earned run, while striking out 10 batters in 8.1 innings. Olson earned his way onto the Opening Day roster by having a superb Spring Training. The southpaw didn’t allow an earned run, while striking out 15 batters and walking none in 12.1 innings.

 Projecting 2015
With FanGraphs projections indicating that the offense will be more productive than it’s been in over a half-decade and that the pitching staff will regress slightly and still remain at-or-near the top of the AL, what should be the realistic expectations for Mariners fans? According to the FanGraphs, the team is projected to score 667 runs, surrender 609 runs, and win 88 games. They’re using Bill James’ Pythagorean Expectation formula, which relies on run-differential to project a team’s winning percentage.

Before going any further, it’s important to keep run-differential in proper perspective; it’s possible to have a winning record with a negative run-differential or a losing record with a positive differential. Both the 2009 Mariners and 2014 New York Yankees had winning records while posting a negative run-differential. Conversely, the New York Mets posted a losing record with a positive run-differential in 2014. Nevertheless, James’ Pythagorean Expectation formula has proven to be reasonably accurate in projecting a team’s winning percentage by using run-differential. Take a look at a comparison of the projected wins – based on run differential – and the actual wins that postseason teams and Seattle registered in 2014. The Mariners scored 634 runs and allowed 554, which resulted in a run-differential of 80. Based on the Pythagorean Expectation formula, Seattle should have won 91 games, but actually finished with 88 for a deviation of four wins. Being off by only four wins over the span of 162 games is a relatively close projection, which was the case for most of the teams that made it to the postseason last year. The average deviation for all ten playoff teams and the Mariners was 3.6.  The Oakland Athletics were the only team that was completely; they were projected to win 99 games and ended up winning 88. That large deviation can be attributed to the combination of Oakland’s torrid first-half – when their run-differential had the team on track to win a projected 109 games – and their second-half collapse.

The Pythagorean Expectation formula is not a perfect tool. But, it definitely can give you an decent idea on where a team could finish. With that in mind, take a look at the “Projecting the 2015 Mariners” table to see why Mariners should feel reasonably optimistic about the upcoming season. FanGraphs projects that Seattle will win 88 games and have a run-differential of 58 in in 2015. Assuming that the FanGraphs projection of 609 runs-allowed is the worst-case scenario for Seattle’s run-prevention, how would the team fare if they scored more runs than projected? If the team were to score the projected league-average of 682 runs, the team projects to win 89 games. Take it a step further and plug in McClendon’s stated belief that his team can score 700 runs in 2015.  Reaching the projected league-average or even McClendon’s goal are realistic expectations considering that reaching those marks would require the team to score only 48-66 more runs than they scored in 2014. For presentation purposes, I added in run scoring marks of 715 and 725, which are far less likely and would require career years from several veterans and breakout seasons from several of players like Ackley, Miller, Morrison, and Zunino.

Reason for optimism
Jack Zduriencik and his staff have primed this team to win now by adding several proven position players, who know how to get on base and score runs, and sustaining a pitching staff that’s good enough to be at-or-near the top of the AL. The Seattle Mariners may never be known as an offensive juggernaut because they play half their games at Safeco Field. But, this team won’t need to be to reach the FanGraphs projection of 667 runs and reaching the 88-win mark.

As far as reaching the 700 run goal set by the Mariners’ skipper, that’s an attainable mark that will hinge on the combined effort of Ackley, Miller, Morrison, Ruggiano, Weeks, and Zunino. With one day to go before the season starts, it’s up to Seattle’s faithful to decide whether to buy-in to upgraded roster now or take a “wait and see” approach with a team that’s been a disappointment for over a decade. I expect that, barring injury or fatigue, this team will reach the postseason for the first time since 2001.

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. During the baseball season, he can be seen often observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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