This time a year ago, the notion of the Seattle Mariners reaching the postseason was a far-fetched dream. A devastating series of injuries, particularly to their starting rotation, had derailed a once-promising 2017 season.
Twelve months later at Memorial Day, the Mariners are sporting a winning record and challenging for first place. Can Seattle build upon their early success and earn an elusive postseason berth?
In our Memorial Day Report Series, we’ll discuss that and more.
So far, we’ve covered Seattle’s run production. Now, let’s discuss the pitching staff.
As alluded to already, injuries were engulfing the starting staff a year ago. Drew Smyly was lost before the season even began and Felix Hernandez, James Paxton, and Hisashi Iwakuma hit the DL by mid-May. To date, the rotation is relatively healthy with the notable exception of Erasmo Ramirez and his lingering shoulder issue.
Despite the starting staff’s improved availability over last year, most analysts (including me) viewed it as the club’s weakest link. Early in the season, that assessment was true. Lately though, the rotation has been a strength for the Mariners. As a result, their ERA is creeping towards respectability.
Leading the invigorated staff is Paxton. As we predicted before the season, America is taking notice of the pitcher from Ladner, British Columbia.
Having an eagle land on his shoulder during the US national anthem made Paxton a nice story. But the big southpaw’s no-hitter earlier this month reminded fans and media outside the Pacific Northwest that the 29-year-old possesses top-shelf talent.
Paxton is clearly the Mariners’ staff ace and the one “sure thing” in the rotation. But the remaining cadre of starters has been somewhat enigmatic.
Once the staff ace, Hernandez’s struggles from last season have followed him into 2018. King Felix’s 5.58 ERA ranks him number-85 of 89 qualified starting pitchers.
Veteran Mike Leake got off to a rough start this season with a 6.00 ERA through his first nine starts. Having said that, the 30-year-old has surrendered just two earned runs during his last two outings spanning 14.2 innings.
Marco Gonzales is also trending in a positive direction. The left-hander’s ERA for the season sits at 3.60 and he hasn’t given an earned run in his last 19.1 innings. Also encouraging, Gonzales has completed the sixth inning in all but one of last seven outings.
The biggest surprise in the rotation has been Wade LeBlanc. The University of Alabama began the season in the bullpen, but moved into the rotation when Ramirez went down. In five starts, LeBlanc has a 1.71 ERA holding opposing hitters to a .214 batting average.
Still, ERA can be misleading. Too many factors outside of a pitcher’s control are in play. Most notably; defense and official scoring. With that in mind, let’s use xwOBA to further gauge the rotation’s effectiveness.
For those unfamiliar with xwOBA, it’s a Statcast product found at Baseball Savant. The basis of the xwOBA is quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) and outcomes not requiring defense (strikeouts and walks) to determine what should’ve happened to balls put in play.
We all understand pitchers (and hitters) can influence exit velocity, launch angle, strikeouts, and walks. However, they have virtually no control over a ball once it enters the field. For this reason, xwOBA has become my “go-to” stat when evaluating pitchers.
The picture isn’t as bright for the starting staff when viewed through the lens of xwOBA.The Mariners starting staff ranks in the bottom-third of the AL and are surrounded by rebuilding organizations or clubs not viewed as serious contenders.
Am I suggesting the Mariners’ recent success in dropping their ERA is completely misleading? No. In fact, a review of the individual xwOBA for each current starter should provide optimism, at least in the short-term.
Although LeBlanc is just ahead of Paxton, we all realize his xwOBA is the result of a small sample size. Through time, it’s likely to climb upward. It’s worth noting the lefty posted a .339 xwOBA last year. In other words, LeBlanc could end up being league-average or slightly better. That’s a good thing.
Naturally, Paxton is the true xwOBA leader of the Mariners’ rotation. Currently, he’s top-10 in the AL for xwOBA tied with several others, including Corey Kluber. The MLB leader at .229 is Justin Verlander.
Overall, Gonzales has been solid this season and he’s beginning to go deeper into games. If Gonzaga University product continues to stay in games longer, he can be a key rotation piece his season and beyond.
That kind of success might reduce the constant chirping from a segment of disgruntled fans who remain bitter about the Mariners trading former prospect Tyler O’Neill to get Gonzales.
Leake’s xwOBA is heading in the right direction too, but the right-hander still ranks in the bottom-10 of the AL due to the rough patch he endured in April and earlier this month. For that reason, more time is needed to fully assess the 31-year-old.
It’s worth noting, Leake had a .325 xwOBA during combined duty with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Mariners last season. A repeat of that number would be a huge development for the former first round pick and his current team.
To date, Hernandez’s xwOBA is worse than last year’s number (.360). The former staff ace continues to go relatively deep into games, but the results no longer resemble what he used to deliver during his glory days.
Hernandez’s hard contact rate is 10% higher than his career average and ranks in the bottom third of the league. Also trending in the wrong direction — a 10.1% walk rate that’s three points higher than his career standard and last season’s rate. Perhaps King Felix can reverse the negative trends and reestablish himself within the rotation.
Overall, the rotation has been what was expected. A staff headlined by a strong number-one surrounded by group of mid-to-bottom rotations arms. Having said that, the recent performances of Gonzales and Leake are promising. But Hernandez’s hasn’t and that’s somewhat troubling.
Next up, let’s take a look at the Mariners’ relief staff.
As the season approached, I expected Seattle’s relievers would be a strength for the club, even after David Phelps was lost for the season due to Tommy John surgery. There have been a few hiccups along the way, but the bullpen has been vital to the club’s success.
In fact, it’s been elite lately.
Unlike the rotation, Mariner relievers are sandwiched between the three AL bullpens generally viewed as the best — the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Houston Astros.
This is very encouraging.
Okay let’s look at the xwOBA of each Mariner reliever who’s faced at least 30 batters this season.
As with the rotation, there’s no question about who is the top dog. Edwin Diaz appears to have overcome command problems that plagued him in previous seasons. Now, the 24-year-old is one of the most dominant relievers in MLB. Still, there is one issue worth monitor going forward — Diaz’s workload.
Entering the Memorial Day weekend, Diaz had appeared in 25 games with 25.1 innings pitched. That puts the native of Puerto Rico on a pace to log over 80 innings this season. His personal best was last year with 66 frames.
Can Diaz sustain that pace throughout the season?
Fortunately, Mariners fans may never need to find out the answer to that question. General manager Jerry Dipoto acquired Alex Colome from the Tampa Bay Rays just as the Memorial Day weekend began. The right-hander had been serving as Tampa’s closer and will act as a setup man with Seattle and occasionally close out games when Diaz needs a break.
Some of you may be surprised Chasen Bradford is the next name on our list. But his 55.8 percent ground ball rate is tenth best in the AL. Bradford may not be viewed by the team as a back-end reliever, but the 28-year-old has proven to be an excellent middle reliever with multi-inning capability.
Conversely, James Pazos placing so high shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been watching the team this year. Pazos continues to miss bats at a high rate, but the true breakthrough for the Arizona native has been his walk and home run rates.
Pazos’ 1.4-percent walk rate entering the weekend was third lowest among all MLB relievers and the southpaw has yet to surrender a free pass or home run to the 43 right-handed hitters he’s faced. The 27-year-old has earned the confidence of manager Scott Servais through his on-field performance. As the season progresses, Pazos may find himself taking on a larger role more often.
Juan Nicasio has been inconsistent this season and was temporarily taken out of the setup role by Servais. That said; Nicasio has looked better in recent outings and remains a superb high-leverage option capable of pitching multiple frames.
Before going down with a groin injury, Nick Vincent was, once again, an asset for the club. The right-hander has seen a slight uptick in his home run and walk rates, but it’s relatively small.
Dan Altavilla is tough to gauge due to a shoulder injury that impacted his effectiveness before he eventually went to the DL. The now-healthy Altavilla just returned to the Mariners after spending some time with Class-AAA Tacoma.
Lefty specialist Marc Rzepczynski has been effective against left-handed hitters. However, he’s walked 21.4% of righty bats, who are batting .636 against him. Rzepczynski’s control issues with right-handed hitters is a carryover from last season (25.9% BB rate).
Veteran Ryan Cook isn’t listed on our table, but could prove to be an important contributor as long as he remains healthy. The right-hander has just four appearances with Seattle this year, but he’s averaging 95.6-MPH on his four-seam fastball. That kind of heat will always find a spot in any bullpen.
The club will likely avoid overworking the oft-injured Cook. The 30-year-old missed all of 2016 and 2017. Moreover, he hasn’t made more than nine appearances in a season since 2014.
Without looking outside the organization, there’s not a lot of pitching help available to the Mariners. Hence the move to add Colome.
As far as the rotation goes, Ramirez may return at some point. However, his throwing program was shut down on May 9 and it’s unclear when the right-hander will resume throwing.
Both Christian Bergman and Ariel Miranda have made a successful start before being dispatched back to the minors. They remain the “next men up” in the event. But the club appears to view each pitcher as a temp fix, rather than a more permanent solution to any rotation issues.
If the Mariners remain as competitive as they are now, Dipoto will undoubtedly attempt to add another rotation arm. Perhaps more relief help too. That said; nearly every team that thinks they have a chance at the postseason will have the same idea.
Then again, who thought Dipoto could land Alex Colome and Denard Span prior to Memorial Day?