Realizing they needed to shift from relying on a veteran core to build a contender, the Seattle Mariners peddled many of their most prized players during the offseason with a singular goal – reshape the organization.
It’ll be several years before we know whether this new strategy adopted by general manager Jerry Dipoto leads to a sustainable winner. Nevertheless, it’s still worthwhile asking how the Mariners are doing through their first 40 games with their re-imagined roster.
What’s working? What’s not?
We’ll try to answer those questions, plus much more in our three-part Mariners Thru 40 Games Report Series. Let’s begin by discussing run production effort.
Since there was an extensive roster overhaul last offseason, we should begin by comparing this year’s club and the 2018 version through 40 games.
M’s Offense Thru 40 Games
The Mariners are producing more extra-base hits in 2019. However, many non-counting statistics are relatively similar to last year in value and respective MLB rankings. One key exception is the most important offensive metric – runs scored/game is up significantly.
Seattle has also experienced dramatic changes with plate discipline – hitters are walking and striking out at a higher rate this year. Still, the club’s thunderous start to the season makes it more difficult to assess their overall 2019 performance.
What Have You Done For Me Lately?
From the season opener in Japan through game-15, the Mariners led baseball in every major offensive category and boasted the best win-loss record in MLB. Since then, run production has cratered with the team tumbling in the standings.
Since April 11, the Mariners have the worst winning percentage (.280) in MLB and outscored 135-105. The team ranks in the bottom-half of baseball in most of the categories listed above with the exception of extra base hits and walks. Only the Padres have struck out more frequently than Seattle has during the last 25 games.
While it was fun watching the Mariners mash for the first few weeks of the season, a return to mortal production was inevitable. Having four players with a 1.000+ OPS was an indicator of an unsustainable offense. Then again, the team can’t be as bad as their recent record, right?
Probably not, but let’s look closer at the individual performances of hitters. Reviewing their current and career production levels may help set expectations for each player and the 2019 offense.
Patience, A Virtue?
A recurring theme during Mariners broadcasts is the lineup’s willingness to take more pitches and work counts. Is that true?
The short answer is yes. This year’s lineup is averaging 4.11 pitches/plate appearance. That’s significantly higher than last season’s average (3.79), which was the lowest recorded by the club since 2014.
Having said that, you didn’t come to Prospect Insider for short answers.
Yes, the team is taking more pitches as a unit. However, the root cause for the uptick probably has less to do with new coaches or a new philosophy (we hear that a lot over the air) than the influx of fresh faces in the lineup.
Seven regulars – including Mallex Smith – from this year’s roster are averaging more pitches/plate appearance than the current league-average of 3.94. Only Haniger and Vogelbach were with the Mariners in 2018 and Vogelbach spent most of the year with Tacoma.
The other above-average pitch takers are Edwin Encarnación, Tim Beckham, Omar Narváez, Domingo Santana, and Smith. All were offseason pickups with only Beckham averaging more pitches seen than last season.
We’ll talk more about Beckham shortly, but perhaps taking more pitches is partially attributable to his strong start this season. Then again, maybe it’s merely the randomness of baseball at play.
Three players below the league-average line – Jay Bruce, Dee Gordon, and Ryon Healy – also have similar average pitches/plate appearance to their three-year marks. Does that mean they’re rebels for not listening to coaches?
It’s also important to note taking pitches doesn’t guarantee success – results matter most. Smith was near the top of the preceding list, but is now wearing a Rainiers uniform trying to re-cage his swing and approach in the minors.
And the Mariner who averaged the most pitches/plate appearances last year?
Mike Zunino, who slashed .201/.259/.410 with the highest strikeout rate (37%) among batters with 400+ plate appearances.
Bottom line: results matter more than how many pitches it took to get there.
Key Contributor wOBA
After just 40 games, it’s tough predicting whether players can sustain success or overcome difficulties. However, we may be able to set reasonable expectations by comparing the current productivity of individuals to their career norms. To accomplish this, I’m going to use weighted on-base average (wOBA).
In the past, I’ve used on-base average (OBP) in pieces like this. However, OBP treats all on-base events equally; this won’t credit the Mariners for their extra-base hit prowess. That’s where wOBA comes in.
We intuitively recognize a home run is more beneficial than a single to run production, but OBP doesn’t give additional credit for a dinger or any extra-base hit. However, wOBA assigns a value for each type of on-base event relative to its worth to projected run scoring.
Okay, let’s turn our attention to the 2019 Mariners.
The following illustrates the current wOBA for regular position players and their average wOBA for the previous three seasons. Contrasting these two values should provide us with a sense of whether batters are under/overachieving or on-track. In one case, we’ll find a ray of hope for a scuffling player.
Seeing a significant number of key contributors with a 2019 wOBA relatively close their three-year average should be an encouraging sight for Mariners fans.
Encarnación continues producing despite being 36-years-old. The slugger has been the topic of trade rumors ever since he joined the team last offseason. Nevertheless, until he’s no longer a Mariner, it’s reasonable to believe the veteran continues raising the parrot for Seattle.
Another newcomer, Santana, spent time in the minor leagues last year. Yet, the 26-year-old has delivered positive results during 1,000-plus MLB plate appearances since 2016. The native Dominican’s defense remains a work in progress, but he’s a safe bet to continue hitting.
Narváez has also endured criticism regarding work behind the plate. That said; he’s been far more consistent and productive at the plate than his predecessor – Zunino. This season is the Venezuelan’s first full MLB campaign, although he’s proven a capable hitter during extended stints over the last two seasons.
Viewed by most baseball observers as the Mariners’ best all-round player, Haniger started slowly. However, he’s improving lately and should produce at a high level. The bigger issue is whether Seattle signs the Cal Poly alum to a contract extension.
Another player often mentioned in trade speculation is Bruce. The lefty bat is hitting at a level similar to his three-year average, which is a positive development for a 32-year-old veteran returning from an injury-plagued 2018.
Like Bruce, Healy endured a tough 2018. However, the 27-year-old corner infielder has rebounded nicely with 16 doubles in 40 contests after hitting just 15 last year.
Rounding out our list of consistent players is Gordon. The two-time All-Star dealt with injuries too, plus he found himself bouncing between center field and the infield during a failed science project by management.
This year, Gordon is back at second base and a valuable member of the lineup again. Unfortunately, he was hit on the wrist by a pitch in game-40. Hopefully, that doesn’t have long-term effects on his season.
Something May Give
While some fans snipe about the shortstop defense of Beckham, those critics can’t be disappointed with his bat. The issue going forward is whether he can remain successful at the plate.
Through 40 games, Beckham has a .349 wOBA – significantly higher than during the three previous seasons (.315) with Tampa Bay and the Orioles.
Sometimes players are late bloomers, which may be the case with Beckham. Then again, it’s reasonable to take a wait-and-see approach with the 29-year-old until there’s a larger sample size available.
As already noted, the team recently dispatched Smith to Class-AAA Tacoma after he got off to a terrible start. Having said that, there’s a reason to believe the 26-year-old can bounce back from his offensive doldrums.
Smith entered this season with a .321 wOBA since 2016, although it’s important to note his first full campaign was last year with the Rays. Perhaps the Florida native doesn’t repeat his .339 wOBA from his breakout 2018 season. However, it’s fair to expect he can reach his three-year average.
Wait And See
The leader of our list – Daniel Vogelbach – doesn’t have a three-year history. The 26-year-old debuted with Seattle in 2016, but he entered this season with a whopping 146 career plate appearances.
Still, Vogelbach has demonstrated a superb strike zone knowledge, as evidenced by his 20.7% walk rate. The only major leaguers with a higher walk rate is some dude named Mike Trout and Joey Gallo of the Rangers.
I hear this Trout fella is pretty good.
In a vacuum, the Mariners should be productive throughout the season. They won’t be gangbusters as they were in early April, but this team isn’t as bad as it was during a recent six-game losing streak when they were being outscored 53-12.
Smith appears to have rediscovered his swing slashing .357/.400/.429 during his first 30 plate appearances with the Rainiers. If the left-handed hitter continues the torrid pace, he probably returns to Seattle very soon. His on-base ability and disruptive speed on the base paths will provide an immediate boost to the team’s offense.
If history is any indicator, Beckham regresses. How much is unknown, but don’t lose sight of the fact he wasn’t considered a key part in the run production effort entering the season. Hopefully, he won’t slide. However the team should be able to withstand it if he does.
Everyone else in the lineup appears capable of delivering similar results at the plate. That said; it’d be nice seeing more Vogelbach than we have. Factors affecting the 26-year-old’s playing time include a roster teeming with first base/designated hitter types and his history of defensive struggles.
Still, considering Vogelbach’s patience discipline and his monstrous power, he should be playing more often – regardless of the handedness of the opposing pitchers. It’s time to determine whether the former second round pick of the Cubs is a piece to build around or an experiment that should end.
There is one other factor, which could affect the Mariners’ run production through the end of the season – trades.
We’ve already noted Encarnación and Bruce have been mentioned in trade chatter. Both players could be on the move this summer, as could any other veteran not fitting into Dipoto’s long-term plans for the club.
We’ll save talking more about the Vogelbach situation and potential trade issues until part three of our series – roster review and potential trades.