Despite just missing the postseason, the Seattle Mariners had a great season. Next year though, the team and its fan base cannot be satisfied with anything that does not result in a playoff berth. Preferably, an AL West division title. To accomplish such a feat, the starting rotation must improve.
Mariners Rotation Rankings
4.61 ERA (19th)
20.1 SO% (23rd)
7.7 BB% (11th)
4.66 FIP (22nd)
.255 AVG (21st)
.314 wOBA (15th)
.318 xwOBA (18th)
Realistically, the Mariners cannot settle by acquiring starters only capable of replacing the value of Kikuchi and Anderson. Instead, the organization must aim higher. With this in mind, I identified eight candidates capable of raising the ceiling of Seattle’s rotation.
Before naming names, a few business rules.
+ There will no talk about dollars or contracts. Boring.
+ Unless otherwise noted, assume rankings are against qualified pitchers.
+ Assume the free agent’s team can make a “Qualifying Offer” unless noted otherwise. If you want to know more about the QO, you can read about it here. Spoiler alert: players with a QO will cost their new clubs both money and draft picks.
+ The age on our tables reflects how old players will be on July 1, 2022.
Here are my candidates.
Max Scherzer, RH
Selling Points: Scherzer was everything the Dodgers could have hoped for when they acquired him in July. The 14-year veteran finished the season top-5 in fWAR, ERA, FIP, SO%, BB%, WHIP, and xwOBA. Now, he is in contention to win a fourth Cy Young Award.
Something that may pique the interest of Seattle fans beyond his overall awesomeness. Scherzer’s 48.3% fly ball rate was the highest in the majors this season. As we noted when discussing free agent infielders, fly balls at T-Mobile Park do not lead to bad outcomes for pitchers as often as they do at other locations across MLB.
T-Mobile Park Fly Ball Stats (and MLB Rankings) 2019-21
.261 AVG (21st)
.262 OBP (19th)
.840 SLG (22nd)
.444 wOBA (22nd)
.454 xwOBA (22nd)
While we are on the topic of batted balls, Scherzer’s 18.2% line drive rate was fourth lowest this year. Considering hitters had a .637 AVG and .907 SLG on line drives, that is another of many reasons the eleventh overall pick in the 2006 MLB June Amateur Draft will appeal to serious-minded contenders.
Since Scherzer was acquired in-season, the Dodgers cannot pin the Qualifying Offer on him.
Concerns: Time waits for no one and it will not wait for Scherzer, who turns 38 next July. Does this mean he falls off a cliff next season? No. But it is worth noting he was unavailable to pitch Game 6 of the NLCS due to a dead arm. The grind of the Nationals’ World Series run also affected the St. Louis, Missouri native in 2019.
Thoughts: It is true that Scherzer is on the back nine of a distinguished career. But the Mizzou product is called “Mad Max” for a reason. He is a tenacious competitor with a Hall of Fame pedigree. There is an intangible benefit to having such a presence on a team. Even if he ended up being a little closer to a mere mortal.
Selling Points: Rodríguez’s ERA and wOBA suggest a below-average performer. However, I believe the Venezuelan can be a top-20 pitcher. Why my optimism?
Rodríguez’s .289 xwOBA tied for 17th best among 99 pitchers facing 500-plus batters this season. Who tied with him? A potential Cy Young Award finalist we will discuss shortly – Robbie Ray.
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. MLB league-average xwOBA this year = .319
What immediately struck me on the preceding table is the large disparity between Rodríguez’s below-average wOBA (highlighted in red) and his superb xwOBA. In fact, the 0.41 difference between the two metrics is the largest for any of our 99 pitchers.
This major imbalance is relevant because wOBA is the actual outcome of batted balls, while xwOBA is what should have happened based on launch angle and exit velocity. A large positive gap for a pitcher suggests the results should have been better on balls in play than they were. So, what drove Rodríguez’s significant discrepancy between wOBA and xwOBA?
Perhaps the issue was the defense behind him.
Only 66.7% of ground balls opponents hit against Rodríguez were converted into outs by Boston defenders. That was the lowest conversion rate for any pitcher allowing at least 150 ground balls. In fact, the Red Sox ranked last in the majors at turning grounders into outs.
Another appealing aspect about Rodríguez was his knack for avoiding loud contact. The left-hander’s 33.7% hard hit rate was second lowest among starters with 120-plus innings.
Entering the season, there was concern over Rodríguez’s durability after he missed 2020 due to COVID-related myocarditis. But 31 starts and 157.1 innings pitched should have dispelled any apprehension.
Rodríguez’s age should influence potential suitors. He does not turn 30 until April 2023 making him one of the youngest starting pitchers on the market. This should matter to a club like the Mariners that wants to create a long competitive window.
Concerns: Rodríguez does not throw particularly hard with his four-seam fastball averaging 92.6-MPH this season. That in of itself is not necessarily an issue. But his four-seamer velocity has dropped two MPH since his MLB debut in 2015. Is that a problem? Perhaps not, but it is something worth considering when investing in a pitcher long-term.
Thoughts: Assuming good health, Rodríguez should be a top target by clubs, including the Mariners. He could potentially anchor a contender’s rotation.
Kevin Gausman, RH
Selling Points: Gausman was top-10 in multiple categories with personal bests in innings, ERA, FIP, WAR, WHIP, and xwOBA. Furthermore, the LSU alum was a workhorse for the Giants tossing 192 innings and delivering 20 quality starts, which tied for fourth most in the majors.
Since Gausman accepted the Qualifying Offer last season, he is ineligible to receive it this season.
Concerns: It is reasonable to wonder whether a pending free agent having a career-year can deliver similar success over the duration of a long contract. After all, Gausman did suffer some regression in the second half of the season. Following the All-Star break, his numbers were close to league-average or worse in some cases.
Gausman’s Second Half Stats (And MLB Rankings*)
4.42 ERA (52nd)
.276 AVG (72nd)
1.37 WHIP (67th)
.332 wOBA (57th)
.322 xwOBA (54th)
*Among 88 starters facing 250-plus hitters
Perhaps Gausman’s second-half swoon is attributable to throwing a career-high number of innings in 2021, which was 30 more than he tossed in 2019 and 2020 combined.
Something else to at least consider. Gausman has been a different pitcher since joining the Giants in 2020. This becomes apparent when you compare his 2020-21 production with San Francisco to the previous two seasons he spent with three different clubs.
It should be noted that Gausman’s home/away splits this season were very similar.
Thoughts: Am I suggesting Gausman is a flash in the pan or cannot succeed outside of San Francisco? Absolutely not. But clubs will have to determine whether they believe he can repeat his 2021 success or is likely to regress to his 2018-19 version.
Having said all that, we should remember that Gausman was the fourth overall selection of the 2012 draft. He has always possessed the pedigree to pitch this well. Perhaps his recent success is simply a matter of putting everything together and finally harnessing the talent that was always within him.
Robbie Ray, LH
Selling Points: Ray also had a career-year and was undoubtedly an ace for the Blue Jays in 2021. The 12th round pick of the Nationals in 2010 led the AL with 193.1 innings and was top-six in the majors in ERA, SO%, WHIP, AVG, and xwOBA. Furthermore, he proved capable of going deep into games and delivering outstanding results with an AL-leading 23 starts quality starts led AL.
As with Scherzer, hitters tend to put the ball into the air when facing Ray. His 44.2% fly ball rate was fourth highest this season. Perhaps this would play well in T-Mobile Park.
Concerns: On the other hand, Ray is susceptible to the long ball. This year, he allowed the fourth most home runs (33). Since the start of the 2016 season, the southpaw has surrendered 142 dingers – the most in MLB. Part of the issue is the Tennessee native allowed a lot of noisy contact. In 2021, his 42.9% hard hit rate was highest among starters this season.
The bigger issue to ponder with Ray is his massive improvement in walks allowed in 2021 compared to recent seasons. Will he be able to sustain this success moving forward?
Ray’s Walk Rate Through The Years*
*MLB average BB% for starting pitchers in 2021 was 7.7%
Thoughts: An important issue for interested buyers will be projecting which version of Robbie Ray they will be signing to a multi-year deal. Will it be the league-leader of 2021? Or, will clubs be signing up for the below-average pitcher from 2018-19 with the 4.53 ERA and 13.1% walk rate?
Marcus Stroman, RH
Selling Points: Dating back to the start of the 2017 season, Stroman’s 3.48 ERA is tenth best among starters throwing at least 600 innings. The Medford, New York native delivered more of the same this year with a ninth-best 3.02 ERA.
With an average-ish 21.7% strikeout rate, Stroman is not a swing and miss pitcher like many of his contemporaries. Instead, his specialty is generating grounders. In 2021, the seven-year veteran had a 50.8% ground ball rate, which was seventh highest in MLB. He also demonstrated pinpoint control with a top-20 walk rate.
Stroman is an athletic performer and an excellent defender. The Gold Glover’s 17 defensive runs saved (DRS) since the start of 2016 is third best among pitchers.
Other than a 10-day IL stint for shoulder fatigue in 2018 and a torn calf prior to the start of the 2020 season, Stroman has been healthy. Even with those maladies, the first round pick of Toronto in 2012 has averaged 30 starts and 174 innings annually since the start of the 2016 campaign. This does not include 2020 when he took the COVID opt out.
Since he accepted the Qualifying Offer in 2020, Stroman is ineligible to receive it again.
Concerns: The sizeable -.033 gap between Stroman’s wOBA and xwOBA was the most negative among our group of 99 starters. What drove a disparity that suggests he might not have been as good as his conventional stats?
Although Stroman’s ground ball and walk rates were very good, opponents still managed to make loud contact. The Duke alum’s 41.8% hard hit rate was third highest among qualified starters. Something else to consider regarding Stroman’s wOBA-xwOBA imbalance, defense (good or bad) does not factor into xwOBA. The Mets ranked ninth in DRS this year.
Thoughts: While Stroman did allow a lot of hard contact in 2021, we should not lose sight of the fact he was top-30 or better in multiple categories. Perhaps that was a byproduct of having a strong defense behind him. Having said that, his history of availability should not be overlooked. It is something his new team’s GM will likely cite at Stroman’s introductory press conference.
Ideally, Stroman’s propensity to generate ground balls would work best on a team that emphasizes strong infield defense. I can think of a club in the Pacific Northwest that satisfies that requirement.
Selling Points: Our last entrant also had a career-season in San Francisco with personal bests in innings pitched, ERA, WHIP, FIP, and fWAR. DeSclafani was one of just five pitchers with two complete game shutouts this year, while his 3.17 ERA was 13th best in the majors. Furthermore, the former Florida Gator was top-20 with a .223 opponent AVG and 6.2% walk rate.
Concerns: DeSclafani is another pending free agent pitcher having a career-year. As we have already discussed with the others, the issue for prospective suitors will be assessing whether the sixth round pick of Toronto in 2011 can sustain this year’s good fortune.
DeSclafani’s wOBA-xwOBA difference does give us reason to take pause. His wOBA was 16th best among our group of 99 starters, but his xwOBA ranked 35th. This is likely a result of having a strong San Francisco defense behind him.
Speaking of the City by the Bay, DeSclafani’s home/away splits were relatively the same in 2021 with one exception – home runs. In 14 games at Oracle Park, he allowed 4 home runs compared to 17 in 15 road contests.
DeSclafani’s health history also merits discussion. He missed the beginning of the 2020 season due to a rotator cuff problem and made just seven starts for the Reds. This year, shoulder fatigue led to a brief IL stint in August. Furthermore, the New Jersey native missed the 2017 season due to a UCL issue that did not require Tommy John surgery.
Something else worth mentioning. DeSclafani did see his ERA jump from 2.68 at the All-Star to 4.03 for the remainder of the season. This may be attributable to his August shoulder fatigue and the truncated 2020 campaign that affected pitchers across the league this year.
Thoughts: If healthy, DeSclafani can energize a contender’s rotation. But that may an “if” some teams, including the Mariners may not want to invest in long-term.
Of all the position groups the Mariners may address via free agency, starting pitching comes with the most risk. Then again, the right additions would reap the greatest reward – a postseason berth and eventually World Series contention.
For me, the risk is worth taking. Adding two starters this offseason with at least one being a top free agent would go a long way towards making the Mariners a serious threat for the AL West title.
And perhaps much, much more.
My Oh My…
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