How Seattle Mariners fans view the 2021 season likely depends on the prism they view the team through. An optimist sees an organization on the rise, albeit at a slow ascent. Those jaded by the franchise’s long, well-documented history of mediocrity remain wary of the Mariners’ rebuild. Fortunately, numbers can shed light on reality when emotional investments cloud our vision.
The Mariners have played 60 games, the same number as the truncated 2020 season. So, let’s consider how this year’s club is performing using its 2020 version as a barometer. Along the way, we can also discuss Seattle’s youth movement.
We should start by comparing the Mariners’ division – the AL West – to its final standings in 2020. Not much has changed.
AL West Standings
The A’s currently lead the way with the Astros close behind, which is similar to how 2020 ended. For anyone staring at the giant disparity between the 2021 run differentials of each club, bear in mind Houston outscored Oakland 35-9 during the first weekend of the season. Since then, the run differentials of the A’s (34) and Astros (40) are relatively the same.
After the big dogs, no other club looks like a contender. Obviously, there’s plenty of baseball left and anything is possible. For now though, the A’s and Astros are the class of the division.
The Angels aggressively upgraded the rotation in the winter and did a pre-Opening Day bullpen makeover. Yet, the Halos remain an afterthought despite their offseason moves and a $182.9 million payroll. Texas is in rebuild-mode and will be selecting very high in next year’s draft.
Ironically, a 29-31 record last year would’ve potentially earned the Mariners their first postseason berth since 2001. Not so much in 2021. During the first month of the season, manager Scott Servais and his squad Seattle had a respectable 15-12 record. But the team went through a rough patch in May being no-hit twice and outscored 139-96. The varying levels of success between April and May symbolize the uneven nature of Seattle’s 2021 season.
Anyone expecting the lineup would perform better than last year’s group wasn’t paying attention during the offseason.
It’s important to note that offense is down across major-league baseball. For this reason, I’ve included OPS+, which makes it easier to make comparisons between current and past players or teams. What we learn from the Mariners’ OPS+ is the team’s run production is 14-percent below average.
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.
For those more comfortable with conventional stats, Seattle ranks near or at the bottom of MLB in AVG/OBP/SLG. Furthermore, the 2021 Mariners have the lowest AVG in franchise history by a large margin – last year’s club holds the record. Servais’ unit also has the lowest OBP – the record (.293) was set by the 2011 team.
What’s become painfully evident through the first 60 contests is that the offense is too dependent on a small group of players – Mitch Haniger, Ty France, Kyle Lewis, and Kyle Seager. When these players don’t produce or aren’t available, run production tends to sputter. This reliance on the Mariners’ Big Four helps explain the team’s inconsistency this season.
To be clear, others have contributed. J.P. Crawford, Tom Murphy, and Dylan Moore have performed for short bursts. However, no one on the Mariners, other than the Big Four, currently rates as above-average from an offensive standpoint.
When we look closer at Seattle’s unproductive lineup, we discover hitters aren’t making enough contact and when they do put bat-to-ball, it’s not productive often enough. To demonstrate this point, I’m using my favorite metric – expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA).
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.
The xwOBA of Seattle hitters drives home the reality that only the Big Four are flourishing at the plate. With so many Mariners not even close to the league-average mark, it’s no wonder the team struggles to score runs.
Position Player xwOBA (50 PA min)
Mitch Haniger – .356
Kyle Lewis – .356
Kyle Seager – .346
Ty France – .327
MLB xwOBA – .319
J.P. Crawford – .285
Dylan Moore – .294
Sam Haggerty – .287
José Marmolejos – .284
Tom Murphy – .278
Luis Torrens – .275
Jarred Kelenic – .263
Taylor Trammell – .254
Evan White – .241
After missing most of 2019 and all of last year, it’s official. Haniger is still the Mariners’ best player. If the All-Star game were held tomorrow, he’d be the team’s lone representative in Denver. His .310 OBP is below league-average for non-pitchers (.316). But the 30-year-old’s power stroke is leading Seattle in home runs, doubles, RBI, AVG, SLG, OPS, and OPS+.
Seager’s on-base numbers also lag behind. But the former North Carolina Tar Heel, who’s played in every game this season, surpassed his home run and double totals from last year. Moreover, his .346 xwOBA suggests he’s capable of higher production moving forward.
A wrist injury slowed France for several weeks before he went to the IL. It turns out all he needed was a little rest. Since returning, the San Diego State product is slashing .306/.346/.408 with five doubles in 52 plate appearances.
Unfortunately, Lewis’ season may be more remembered for a knee injury rather than the solid work he was doing for the club. The 2020 Rookie of the Year started slowly after missing most of April with a knee contusion. But he looked better lately slashing .268/.359/.411 in the 16 games prior to suffering a torn meniscus.
Crawford is currently batting at the top of Servais’ lineup and has been on a hot streak lately with his .320 OBP creeping above the MLB average. This is great news, although it’d be premature to determine whether the California native is the long-term answer at shortstop for the Mariners. After all, he’s yet to play in 100-plus games in any season.
Murphy started the season in a real funk, understandable considering he spent 2020 on the IL. The Buffalo alum has been more productive lately, particularly when facing left-handed pitching. Over the last 30 days, he has a .911 OPS when facing southpaws compared to .486 against righties. Perhaps the right-handed hitting backstop is best suited for a platoon. The Mariners utilized a similar arrangement in 2019 when Murphy had a career-year at the plate.
The challenges facing prospects breaking into the majors have been readily apparent during the early struggles of outfielders Taylor Trammell and Jarred Kelenic. Trammell was in the Opening Day lineup, but later sent to Class-AAA Tacoma after scuffling badly though April. Kelenic then arrived only to encounter similar difficulties.
When we look at the Statcast numbers of Trammell and Kelenic, we can see what they’re excelling at and areas needing improvement.
Trammell was excellent at drawing walks before going to Tacoma. Unfortunately, he was striking out at an unsustainable pace with a 41.4-percent whiff rate (misses/swing attempts) being an underlying factor. Still, the 23-year-old Georgian has demonstrated better swing discipline since returning from the minors this week. Obviously, a small sample, but Trammell has stuck out four times in 18 plate appearances, while hitting .294/.333/.588.
Kelenic’s struggle to create positive results is approaching historically bad levels. Yet, he’s maintained a manageable strikeout rate along with a slightly above-average walk rate. Moreover, the Wisconsin native’s 22-percent whiff rate is third lowest on the Mariners behind Crawford (17.7) and France (21.0). So, what’s the problem?
I’m a dumb blogger and not qualified to say what’s wrong with Kelenic’s mechanics. But he’s clearly not finding the ball with the ‘sweet spot” of his bat often enough. Sweet spot percentage (SwSp%) from Baseball Savant quantifies how often hitters produce batted-ball events with a launch angle between eight and 32 degrees. This season, balls hit within this range have a .587 AVG and 1.086 SLG. Kelenic is 10-percent the MLB average – that’s a problem.
Some may choose to focus on the very poor batting averages of Trammell and Kelenic and assume both are doomed to underperform expectations as Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, and Mike Zunino once did. Especially after Evan White struggled so badly as a rookie in 2020 earlier this season. But such an assessment so early in the duo’s career is an overreaction.
Despite offseason upgrades made by GM Jerry Dipoto, the pitching staff’s overall production numbers don’t look significantly better than last year’s.
In 2020, the starting rotation was Seattle’s strongest unit. That hasn’t been the case in 2021 with injuries and ineffectiveness dragging down the staff.
A huge blow to the team was Dipoto’s biggest free agent signing – James Paxton – undergoing season-ending Tommy John surgery after just one start. Other injured starters include Marco Gonzales and Justin Dunn. Gonzales just returned to action last Tuesday, while Dunn essentially took Marco’s place on the IL with shoulder inflammation.
The Mariners have used 11 starting pitchers, including Paxton and openers Erik Swanson and Robert Dugger. They have a combined a .354 xwOBA – only Baltimore’s rotation (.355) is worse. In fact, no regular Seattle starter has an xwOBA below the league-average mark.
Despite these seemingly discouraging numbers, there have been good performances.
Yusei Kikuchi has been demonstrably more aggressive on the mound this year, which seems to be working for him. Ironically, his advanced metrics are noticeably worse than last year’s numbers. Still, the native of Japan has seen his xwOBA begin to decline recently.
While Kikuchi’s early-season performance has been promising, the pressing issue facing the southpaw and the Mariners is a right leg injury suffered in last night’s game. Losing the best starter on the staff for an extended period would be devastating for a rotation plagued by injuries.
Before heading to the IL, Dunn demonstrated encouraging progress, which is reflected by his steadily declining xwOBA. Hopefully, the former Boston College Golden Eagle’s absence is short-lived.
Surprisingly, Gonzales has struggled with command and control. He’s allowed significantly more walks and hard contact than usual. Then again, the Gonzaga product allowed just one run, while striking out six hitters and walking one in his first start back from the IL. By the All-Star break, we’ll know how Gonzales’ season is going.
After a solid rookie campaign, Justus Sheffield hasn’t shown signs of improvement. In fact, he’s regressed in several categories.
One constant in Sheffield’s outings has been the amount of traffic he’s created. Opponents have hit with a runner on base during 49.6-percent of their plate appearances against the left-hander. That’s an 8-percent increase from 2020. If you’re wondering if 49.6-percent is high, it is.
Among pitchers facing at least 200 batters this season, only John Gant of the Cardinals (50-percent) has pitched with men on base more frequently. A result of the excessive traffic is Sheffield not going deep in games. The Tennessean has finished the sixth inning just three times in 10 starts this year after accomplishing the feat in six of 10 outings in 2020.
Chris Flexen has given up a lot of hard contact and doesn’t strikeout a lot of hitters. However, he’s adept at avoiding walks and managed to pitch six-plus innings in half of of his ten starts. This matters to a rotation struggling to cover innings this season.
Rookie Logan Gilbert is just getting acclimated to the majors. So far, he’s maintained an impressive 4.1-percent walk rate. But his 53.8-percent hard-hit rate must drop considerably for the 24-year-old to be a viable big-league starter. Opponents have been teeing off on his four-seam fastball with a .386 AVG, which is problematic since it’s been his primary pitch (59.7-percent usage). Despite these issues, it’s way too early to assess the Stetson alum’s outlook.
The bullpen has been pivotal to the Mariners’ early-season success. Leading the way, Kendall Graveman, the team’s best reliever prior to going on the COVID IL. Offseason additions Keynan Middleton, Rafael Montero, Drew Steckenrider, Robert Dugger, J.T. Chargois, and Will Vest have also made positive contributions.
Erik Swanson – .226
Héctor Santiago – .240
Kendall Graveman – .255
Drew Steckenrider – .254
Rafael Montero – .281
Casey Sadler – .292
J.T. Chargois – .299
MLB Average (RP’s) – .314
Keynan Middleton – .315
Daniel Zamora – .315
Robert Dugger – .317
Anthony Misiewicz – .322
Paul Sewald – .344
Will Vest – .371
Aaron Fletcher – .361
Yohan Ramírez – .381
Wyatt Mills – .384
Middleton has been a dependable late-inning weapon for Servais. During Graveman’s absence, the Oregonian has been the best choice to close games and pitch in high-leverage situations.
Montero isn’t a fan-favorite thanks to the circuitous routes he takes to close out innings. The Dominican Republic native may not be the first choice to close games, but he does have value.
The Next 60
The Mariners have a decent record considering the injuries they’ve endured and the team’s lack of depth. Over the next two months, we should expect the big-league roster to continue morphing with an eye toward the future.
And let’s not forget 25-year-old Shed Long Jr., who’s working himself back into form with Class-AAA Tacoma after a lengthy absence due a shin fracture. All of these players – plus White, Sheffield, and Dunn – have a chance to shape the final outcome of the Mariners’ 2021 season and the club’s future.
Understandably, if we reach late-summer and at least some of these youngsters haven’t shown signs of appreciable growth as major-leaguers, the rosy outlook of optimistic fans will be tested. Meanwhile, the “Same Ole Mariners” crowd will have something else to chirp about in the offseason.
Such is the life of a rebuilding organization and the fan base supporting it.
My Oh My…
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