While the Mariners did win 89 games last season, they ranked in the bottom-third of MLB in runs scored. In fact, run production regressed to a level evoking memories of 2015 — the final year of the Jack Zduriencik era.
BOOTH: The Astros & Free Agency
BOOTH: Astros Pitching Pursuit
Good Start, Bad Finish
Through June, the Mariners were top-5 in the AL in batting average, OBP, slugging percentage, and wRC+. Then, the offense tanked along with their win-loss record.
During the final three months of the season, Seattle scored the fifth fewest runs (305) in MLB. Only the Padres (301), Tigers (296), Marlins (280), and Giants (255) plated fewer runs. Not the teams a postseason hopeful wants to be associated with.
By season’s end, run production trailed the competition by a large margin and by “competition” we mean clubs playing meaningful October baseball. The following illustrates the AL rankings for postseason teams and Seattle.
With the exception of batting average, the Mariners were closer to the worst teams than the best ones. Perhaps batting average doesn’t merit the level of emphasis it receives during broadcasts.
Just a thought.
Even more troubling for Seattle’s postseason aspirations; two of the most potent offenses listed above reside within their division — Houston and Oakland. Oh yeah, both boast rosters teeming with young players.
The Mariners do not.
For many, Robinson Cano serving an 80-game PED suspension was the root cause of Seattle’s offensive woes. After all, his season was off to a great start when he vanished in mid-May.
Losing Cano was devastating for sure, but the offense’s issues ran much deeper than just the prolonged absence of the five-time Silver Slugger winner. Here’s a comparison of the Mariners’ run production prior to, during, and after Cano’s suspension.
The Mariners’ offense was more prolific prior to Cano’s suspension and cooled considerably during his three-month absence. But run production remained stagnant after the eight-time All-Star’s return on August 14.
A Few Good Men
A more plausible explanation for the sputtering offense was an already short lineup contracting further without Cano. The club had just three hitters with 400-plus plate appearances and an OBP above the league-average mark.
There were other Mariners with good on-base ability — Cano (.374 OBP), Span (.329), and Ben Gamel (.354). But none of them started more than 80 games for Seattle last season. We’ve already noted Cano’s suspension. Span arrived via trade in late-May and a healthy Gamel started just 16 times after July 31.
While we’re talking about Gamel and Span, we should recognize the redundancy of their skill-set. Both are left-handed hitting corner outfielders capable of playing center field in a pinch. Gamel demonstrated better on-base ability, while Span provided more power. Bottom line: no more than one of these players is a Mariner next year.
Having so few full-time contributors with on-base skills doesn’t necessarily doom an offense. The Indians and Brewers only had four players matching our criteria but scored significantly more runs than the Mariners.
How did these two postseason clubs succeed? Minimizing the number of regulars and bench players with poor on-base skills. Seattle’s roster failed in both respects.
The Mariners had an MLB-high four players with 400-plus plate appearances and a sub-.300 OBP. Clubs with three were all bottom feeders — the Orioles, Padres, White Sox, and Tigers.
Seager’s OBP was nearly 60 points below his career mark heading into 2018; Gordon was 41 points under. This matters considering Seager had 65% of the Mariners’ plate appearances in the fifth lineup spot, while Gordon led-off 60% of the team’s games.
Some may suggest it’s unreasonable to expect the power bats of Healy and Zunino to reach base at a league-average rate. That’s why we set a .300 OBP as our cutoff. Coincidentally, both players have exactly a .300 OBP since the beginning of 2016.
Collectively, Gordon, Healy, Seager, and Zunino accounted for 35.3% of Seattle’s total plate appearances and delivered a combined .276 OBP. The group caused considerable drag on the team’s run production machine.
Not So Deep Bench
Not only did manager Scott Servais have a significant chunk of his regular batting order holding back the offense, he had few reserve players capable of boosting the run production effort when the need arose.
Fourth outfielder Guillermo Heredia had a league-average OBP, but his defensive prowess was the main reason he appeared in 125 games. The Cuban’s career splits suggest he may be best suited to serve as a right-handed platoon and defensive replacement.
Backup catcher Chris Herrmann produced at the plate during limited action. Unfortunately, the Astros claimed Herrmann off waivers last week.
Young first baseman Dan Vogelbach didn’t hit for average or consistently deliver power, but the 25-year-old did draw walks and reached base at a decent rate. That said; Vogelbach’s time with Seattle was primarily as an injury replacement for Healy in April and as a September call-up.
Herrmann, Vogelbach, and the remaining supporting cast produced 15 home runs and a .221/.294/.317 slash in 1043 plate appearances — 17.1% of the team’s opportunities to reach base.
For those keeping track, four unproductive regulars and an offensively challenged bench accounted for 52.3% of the team’s total plate opportunities. Suddenly, it’s not hard to see why Servais’ lineup struggled to sustain rallies.
The quickest way for Seattle to address its offense is to address the void in the lineup created by Gordon, Healy, Seager, and Zunino. I’m not suggesting the team moves any of these players, but something must change or Mariners fans shouldn’t expect better results next year.
Accepting free passes has never been part of Gordon’s strategy at the plate. But his 1.5% walk rate this year was historically low, even by his standards.
In the last century, only one player with 500-plus plate appearances had a lower walk rate than Gordon’s — Shano Collins (1.4%) with the 1922 Red Sox. Virgil Stallcup of the Reds had the same 1.5% rate as the Mariners second baseman in 1949.
That’s historic, right?
If Gordon had simply repeated his 3.6% walk rate from 2017, he would’ve reached base 12 extra times and had a .309 OBP for the season. Still below average, but 21 points better than reality.
Not long ago, Seager told T.J. Cotterill of the Tacoma News Tribune his issues were attributable to health. In 2017, he dealt with an oblique issue suffering several flare-ups this year. A fractured toe in late-June affected his 2018 play too.
Cotterill noted teams employed more defensive shifts against Seager than in the past, although the former North Carolina Tar Heel believes he simply wasn’t barreling the ball often enough.
He may be on to something.
The following table lists Seager’s OBP, percentage of barreled balls, and shifts faced during the last four seasons. Also included, a metric I often use when discussing pitchers — expected weighted on-base (xwOBA).
Using xwOBA is helpful in this situation because it accounts for both quantity and quality of contact and outcomes not requiring defense (strikeouts and walks). Essentially, we should able to better gauge what should have happened to Seager’s batted balls regardless of defensive shifting.
Clearly, Seager didn’t barrel the ball with as much authority in 2018 as he has in recent years. This affected his xwOBA, which was two points below the MLB average. It’s important to note the former All-Star posted the worst walk and strikeout percentages of his 8-year career, which also hurt his xwOBA.
Time will tell us whether health was Seager’s problem or he’s prematurely regressing.
Realistically, Healy may be no more than what he’s been through three big league seasons. A slugger with 25-plus home run, who doesn’t reach base at a league-average rate and delivers average-ish defense.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But the Mariners must determine if Healy’s production is acceptable from the first base position for 2019 and beyond.
Another sub-.300 OBP might make the decision an easy one for Seattle.
Zunino remains an enigma, although he probably shouldn’t.
As Prospect Insider alumni Brendan Gawlowski noted in The Athletic last May, it takes a great deal of effort to maintain Zunino’s swing mechanics. For this reason, he’s prone to slumps, susceptible to breaking balls, and a strikeout machine.
For me, Zunino’s walk rate is always the best statistical indicator of how the former Florida Gator is doing.
Zunino’s walk rate was below his career norm and 3% lower than last season, when he was at his best offensively. It’s not a surprise the preceding table also suggests he chased more ball outside the strike zone (O%), while swinging at fewer pitches in the zone (Z%).
Maybe Zunino rebounds next year. Then again, uneven offensive production coupled with defensive excellence is what we’ve seen during six seasons and 2,087 plate appearances and that’s what we should expect in the future.
The harsh reality is the 2018 Mariners didn’t have enough good hitters throughout the season to sustain a postseason run. Their lineup was too short.
Optimally, better production from Seager, Healy, Gordon, and Zunino helps extend the batting order and close the offensive gap between Seattle and AL postseason contenders. But more will be needed.
Bounce back years from the troubled foursome would be great. But what’s the likelihood they all rebound?
Then there’s the issue of replacing Cruz and Span. Gamel may offset Span’s departure, but there’s no adequate internal replacement for Cruz.
To that end, Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill recently identified a bevy of free agents who could help the Mariners at numerous positions, including right-handed power bats and an everyday center fielder.
If the Mariners don’t choose to grow their lineup via free agency or trade, the club is certain endure another frustrating campaign in 2019.
Isn’t it about time the organization delivers a better product?
Their beleaguered fan base certainly deserves it.