Most baseball observers, including me, thought the rebuilding Seattle Mariners would finish 2021 with a losing record. Guess what? We were wrong.
I mean really wrong.
Seattle remained in wild card contention until game-162 finishing the season with a 90-72 record. By exceeding everyone’s expectations except their own, this fun club created a positive vibe not experienced by its fan base for nearly 20 years. Having said that, there are reasons for concern regarding the sustainability of the Mariners’ surprising success.
If it appears I am trying to remove the shine from a fun season, that is not my intent. The Mariners had a tremendous year thanks to a galvanized group of players with unwavering belief in themselves. But what is the point of taking a victory lap when the ultimate prize of a World Series title remains so far out of reach?
To remain on the path to championship glory, the Mariners must confront their deficiencies. No area on the team’s roster was more deficient than run production.
Brother, Can Ya Spare A Run?
Anyone watching the Mariners on a regular basis is familiar with the team’s struggles to plate runs on a consistent basis. The month of May was particularly rough when Seattle was no-hit twice and scored an AL-worst 96 runs in 28 contests. The lineup rebounded with 125 runs in June, although generating offense remained a challenge for the rest of the season.
By the numbers, Seattle’s run production ranked near the bottom of MLB in several categories. Perhaps most unsettling for Mariners fans moving forward, this year’s production was eerily similar to 2020 levels.
A stat worthy of further scrutiny is on-base percentage (OBP), which ranked 28th in MLB. Only the Marlins and Rangers were less proficient at reaching base than the Mariners. Think about that for a moment. All but one of 15 NL teams that regularly allow pitchers to hit were more proficient at getting men on base than a Seattle lineup routinely using a designated hitter.
To that point, the team’s broadcasts often highlighted the Mariners’ success with runners in scoring position (RISP). It is true that Seattle hitters were top-10 in AVG and OPS with RISP. But only 23.6% of the team’s plate appearances occurred with RISP, which was 28th worst in the majors. Essentially, the lineup did not create enough run scoring opportunities to flourish.
So, what was the problem?
How many of you remember Jacob Nottingham?
Too Short For Comfort
Nottingham’s stint with the Mariners was brief, but unique. The team claimed him off waivers from the Brewers on April 28 only to have Milwaukee purchase his contract four days later. On May 20, Seattle claimed the 26-year-old off waivers again. This time, he played in 10 games, including eight starts at first base and designated hitter before the Mariners designated him for assignment.
Overall, Nottingham had 31 plate appearances with Seattle tallying one home run with a .111 AVG and 30 OPS+. In the big scheme of things, this does not seem like a big deal for a club with 6,000-plus plate appearance this year. But it was.
The 2021 Mariners had too many Jacob Nottinghams. Well-below average run producers, who weighed down the lineup. The totality of their ineffectiveness made it difficult for the team to generate multi-run innings or extend rallies. For the purpose of our conversation, a well-below average run producers had an OPS+ below 90.
On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. As a result, an OPS+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average.
Other well-below average Mariner hitters included Dillon Thomas, Eric Campbell, Braden Bishop, Kevin Padlo, and Jack Mayfield. They, along with Nottingham, combined for 102 plate appearances this year – just two less than Evan White.
Mariners With A Sub-90 OPS+
All told, the Mariners used 18 non-pitchers possessing an OPS+ under 90, which led the AL. Some of these players were temps like the names previously mentioned. But Taylor Trammell and Jake Bauers had 178 and 202 plate appearances, respectively. Furthermore, Jarred Kelenic, Dylan Moore, and Tom Murphy each topped 300.
In the end, these 18 hitters accounted for 37.4% of Seattle’s total plate appearances this season. That is a staggering amount.
While every roster has offensively-challenged players, the best teams do not provide as many opportunities to these type of hitters as the Mariners did in 2021. To demonstrate this point, I compared Seattle to the three AL division winners – the Astros, Rays, and White Sox.
|* Non-Pitchers Only|
If you are wondering why the comparison of the Mariners to the three AL division winners, the answer is simple. This is the level of success the organization craves. Forget about the volatility of a Wild Card game. Beginning the postseason in the Division Series significantly improves the likelihood of reaching the World Series.
So, how exactly did the 18 Mariners with a sub-90 OPS+ influence the team’s run production effort?
The easiest way to illustrate the impact these players had is to do a side-by-side comparison with the eight Mariners above our 90 OPS+ threshold – J.P. Crawford, Ty France, Mitch Haniger, Kyle Seager, Kyle Lewis, Luis Torrens, Jake Fraley, and Abraham Toro.
It turns out that our “Bad 18” placed a significant drag on the offense compared to their productive teammates. Moreover, their combined production fell far below the league standards for conventional stats like AVG, OBP, and SLG. To be a serious contender in 2022 and beyond, the Mariners must find ways to minimize the number of ineffective hitters eating up plate appearances.
President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto and his staff will likely adjust course in the offseason to upgrade the offense. That said, the answers to questions regarding a long-time Mariner and several key youngsters will affect the front office’s approach towards lengthening the lineup.
It seems unlikely Seager remains with the only club he’s known. If the North Carolina product and the Mariners do part ways as expected, the team will have to fill the power void created by Seager’s departure. During the past five full seasons, not counting 2020, he averaged 31 doubles, 27 home runs, and a .450 SLG.
That’s a lot of pop to replace.
Not having Lewis for most of 2021 certainly hurt Seattle’s run production effort. The 2020 AL Rookie of the Year was lost for the season on May 31 due to knee surgery. Considering the Mercer alum suffered a major injury to the same knee and needed several years to regain his form, it is reasonable to wonder whether he will be ready for the start of the 2022 campaign.
After a tumultuous start to his MLB career in May-June, Kelenic enjoyed a September surge that helped propel the Mariners into contention. Still, the 22-year-old must demonstrate he can sustain his recent success over a full season. The team is probably counting on him to do so, which is understandable considering his prospect pedigree. That said, prolonged bouts of ineffectiveness from the Wisconsin native could significantly hinder run production in 2022.
Catching prospect Cal Raleigh also encountered troubles at the plate. Considering the relatively small sample size of his 2021 season, the 24-year-old’s numbers have little bearing on his long-term outlook. However, caution is advisable regarding how much the switch-hitter may contribute with his bat next year.
Raising The Floor
Realistically, Crawford, Haniger, and France provide the start of a foundation. Kelenic likely continues the growth he demonstrated late this season, which is a good thing. Furthermore, Raleigh figures to be the everyday catcher, while Toro probably gets a long look at whatever infield position the team settles on. After that, Dipoto and company could go in many directions to shore up the roster.
Regardless of the strategy employed by the front office, the end result must raise the floor of the offense well above the 2021 version.
If the Mariners experience another season with nearly 40% of its plate appearances going to unproductive hitters, the organization will not take the next step on its journey towards winning the Fall Classic. Instead, the longest active postseason drought in North America will reach its 21st year and essentially erase all the goodwill the current club cultivated.
That is an outcome nobody wants to see become reality. Not Dipoto and certainly not a Mariners fan base that chose to believe when no one else did in 2021.
My Oh My…
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