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With Opening Day upon us, there’s a buzz surrounding the Seattle Mariners that hasn’t existed for far too long. Credit an exhilarating 90-win campaign last year, the offseason addition of proven big-leaguers, plus the arrival of promising young players like Logan Gilbert, Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez, and Matt Brash with more youngsters not far behind.

Still, a lot can go wrong during a long baseball season before things turn around. We saw this firsthand with the Mariners last year. On May 23, they were 21-26 and a game away from the AL West cellar. Yet, the team persevered and went 69-46 over its final 115 games tying Houston for the second-best record in the AL during that span.

So, how might we gauge the Mariners’ performance even if their win-loss record is let’s say “less than ideal” around Memorial Day?

Personally, I’m starting the new season focused on the following stats, which I believe will be indicative of how key players and the team are actually performing.

The Walk Rate of These Pitchers

Once the season is underway for a few weeks, I’ll be particularly interested in the walk rates of Mariners Opening Day starter Robbie Ray, rookie starting pitcher Matt Brash, and reliever Yohan Ramirez.

Ray has always been proficient at missing bats. But one issue plaguing him during long stretches of his eight big-league seasons is walks allowed. That changed in a very good way last year when the 30-year-old improved his mechanics and went on to win his first AL Cy Young Award with Toronto.

Robbie Ray’s Walk Rate
2014 (8.1%)
2015 (9.0%)
2016 (9.2%)
2017 (10.7%)
2018 (13.3%)
2019 (11.2%)
2020 (17.9%)
2020 (20.1%)
2020 (14.4%)
2021 (6.7%)

MLB average BB% for starting pitchers in 2021 = 7.7%

Heading into the new season, the best indicator of whether Ray can repeat his 2021 success in the Emerald City may be his walk rate.

Brash possesses far less professional experience than his Cy Young winning rotation-mate. In fact, last year was the 23-year-old’s first full season of professional baseball. But allowing free passes has already been an issue for Seattle’s fifth starter.

In two minor-league stops at High-A Everett and Class-AA Arkansas last year, the hard-throwing Brash had a 11.9% walk rate. Repeating anything near this mark wouldn’t bode well for a freshman starter facing major-league hitters with better plate discipline than any opponent he encountered in 2021.

Considering Paul Sewald (39.4%) was the only Seattle pitcher with a higher strikeout rate than Yohan Ramirez (30.7%) last year, Ramirez could be a formidable weapon. That’s assuming he keeps a lid on his walk rate, which was actually excellent by his standards in 2021.

Yohan Ramirez’s Walk Rate
MiLB Career (14%)
2020 (21.3%)
2021 (10.5%)

Perhaps Ramirez’s elevated walk numbers prevent him from ever ascending to elite-closer status. But if the right-handler limits the free passes to a manageable number, he could be a breakout star for the Mariners this year.

Chris Flexen’s Fly Ball Success

Chris Flexen was unexpectedly the most consistent and dependable starter for the Mariners last year. Having said that, there was one statistical anomaly about Flexen’s 2021 that’s worth watching this season. The fly ball success of opposing hitters against the right-hander.

In 2021, opponents enjoyed much better results on fly balls hit off Flexen when the Mariners were the visiting team. Conversely, T-Mobile Park was the 27-year-old’s happy place.

Chris Flexen's 2021 Home/Away Splits
FB Out%
ERA
HR%
AVG
wOBA
FB Dist
Overall
79.5
3.61
2.6
.268
.311
316
Home
84.7
3.23
1.8
.257
.289
307
Away
73.7
4.06
3.5
.281
.335
326
MLB
72
4.27
3.3
.244
.314
318

Flexen’s overall fly ball numbers were good and not awful on the road. But the Californian experienced much more success when toeing the mound at the corner of Edgar & Dave. I’ll be watching to see if this trend continues. If it doesn’t, that likely signals bad news for the Mariners and Flexen.

Paul Sewald’s Barrel Rate

Following four frustrating seasons with the Mets, Paul Sewald found a home in Seattle anchoring a highly successful Mariners’ bullpen. As already noted, he boasted an impressive 39.4% strikeout rate that was fifth best in the majors. Still, there’s a metric from last season that I can’t ignore – opposing hitter barrel rate.

Barrels are batted balls with the ideal blend of launch angle and exit velocity. In 2021, MLB hitters had a .772 AVG and 2.591 SLG on barreled balls. Also, 84% of all home runs were barrels.

Last year, 436 pitchers allowed 100-plus batted balls. Sewald’s 12.6% barrel rate was 17th highest within this group. Another troubling sign – six home runs allowed in 17 September games compared to just four dingers in his first 45 appearances.

It’s possible Sewald’s late-season struggles were a consequence of fatigue. After appearing in 63 contests (5 in 2020) for New York in 2019-20, the 31-year-old made 62 relief appearances for the Mariners.

Anthony Misiewicz’s Hard-Hit Rate

In 2021, opponents had a 44.9% hard-hit rate against Anthony Misiewicz, which was highest among Seattle relievers with 100-plus batted balls allowed. As with Sewald, the southpaw’s performance cratered in the final month of the season.

Per Statcast, a “hard-hit ball” has an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher. A player’s “hard-hit rate” is the percentage of batted balls with an exit velocity of 95+ mph.

In June-August, Misiewicz held opponents to a .336 SLG, while allowing seven extra-base hits in 30 games. But in September, his SLG soared to .595 with seven extra-base hits allowed in just 17 contests. Perhaps the Michigan native simply wore down after making a career-high 66 appearances in a sophomore year following a truncated 2020 campaign.

Drew Steckenrider’s WPA

While Sewald and Kendall Graveman received a great deal of attention last season, the contributions of Drew Steckenrider to Seattle’s bullpen shouldn’t be overlooked. Especially in high-leverage situations. A useful metric to illustrate reliever success under duress is WPA.

Win Probability Added (WPA) credits or debits pitchers and hitters based on how the outcome of a plate appearance affects the chances of their team winning. For example, a late-inning home run in a close game earns a hitter more credit and the pitcher a larger debit than a homer in the first inning or in a blowout.

Since the best relievers are routinely thrust into high-stress situations, their WPA tends to be noticeably higher than peers with less success or experience in pressure cooker conditions. In Steckenrider’s case, he was outstanding.

Per FanGraphs, Steckenrider finished the season with a 3.07 WPA that was seventh-best among MLB relievers. Graveman was also top-10, while Sewald ranked 17th with a 2.57 WPA.

Top Reliever WPA In 2021
Josh Hader (MIL) – 5.05
Jordan Romano (TOR) – 3.82
Raisel Iglesias (LAA) – 3.67
Ian Kennedy (TEX/PHI) – 3.31
Kendall Graveman (SEA/HOU) – 3.24
Jonathan Loaisiga (NYY) – 3.24
Drew Steckenrider (SEA) – 3.07
Kenley Jansen (LAD) – 3.01
Tyler Rogers (SFG) – 2.98
Mark Melancon (SDP) – 2.95

Since WPA is a cumulative stat, we’ll have to rely on our eyes and ears early in the season to ascertain whether Steckenrider is still enjoying high-leverage success in 2022. At some point though, this advanced metric will help us determine how he stacks up against his counterparts.

Leadoff Spot OBP

Last year, the number-one spot in Seattle’s batting order produced a .321 OBP, which was 21st lowest in the majors and well under the .332 MLB-average for leadoff hitters. To generate more runs in 2022, the Mariners must do better.

If Spring Training lineups carry over into the regular season, it appears newcomer Adam Frazier will supplant last year’s leadoff hitter, JP Crawford, at the top of the order. That said, it’s possible Frazier’s on-base success falls short of what the team needs.

Frazier set personal highs in hits, doubles, AVG, and OBP playing for the Pirates and Padres last season. But his production cratered after the Pirates dealt the six-year veteran to the Padres in July.

Adam Frazier's Stats Before & After Trade To Padres
PA
AVG
OBP
SLG
OPS
OPS+
PIT
428
.324
.388
.448
.836
127
SDP
211
.267
.327
.335
.662
86

Am I suggesting Frazier won’t produce for the Mariners in 2022? No. But his .368 OBP last season may be an unrealistic expectation considering the 30-year-old’s career OBP is .344. Then again, Frazier reproducing his career averages would do wonders for Seattle’s offense.

Ty France’s AVG on Ground Balls

Last year, Ty France produced a 46.7% ground ball rate. His .323 AVG on grounders was eighth best in the majors among hitters with 300-plus batted balls. In fact, only five players had more ground ball hits than the 27-year-old did.

Most Groundball Hits (2021)
Trea Turner (82)
Isiah Kiner-Falefa (80)
Nicky Lopez (74)
Bo Bichette (74)
David Fletcher (74)
Ty France (71)

Still, it’s reasonable to wonder whether France can sustain his ground ball success moving forward. After all, Crawford had the same ground ball rate as France and produced a .257 AVG not far above the MLB-average (.248).

Something else to consider. Each player on the preceding list had a sprint speed greater than the MLB average (27 ft/sec) except France. The San Diego alum’s 25.3 ft/sec sprint speed was slowest on the Mariners and fell in the bottom 9% of MLB.

Jesse Winker’s Games Played

The biggest offseason addition to Seattle’s offense has struggled with remaining available during his five-year career. All told, Jesse Winker has missed significant time due to a variety of injuries – intercostal strain (twice), neck pain, right shoulder labrum subluxation, and hip flexor strain. As a result, he’s played over 120 games just once.

Jesse Winker’s Games Played (MLB/MiLB Combined)
2017 (132)
2018 (89)
2019 (113)
2022 (54)
2021 (112)

Considering Winker was top-10 in AVG, OBP, and SLG among hitters with 450-plus plate appearances last year, the Mariners desperately need as much of the left-handed hitter as they can get.

Outfield DRS

Defense isn’t just about how players handle balls within their grasp. Often times, it’s the number of balls fielders can’t reach that best represents their defensive prowess. We’re talking about balls dropping in that perhaps a rangier fielder catches. Or preventing a single to an outfield gap turning into a extra-base hit. This is a challenge Seattle outfielders may routinely face in 2022.

Enter DRS to help us gauge how things are going.

Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) is a comprehensive metric that captures all elements of a player’s defensive performance that’s expressed in how many runs a defender saved compared to the average fielder. Factors used to compute DRS include errors, range, outfield arm, and double-play ability. 

Last year, Seattle outfielders collectively ranked 24th in DRS. Based on the team’s Opening Day roster, there’s no reason to believe a significant improvement occurs in 2022.

MLB DRS of Mariners Outfielders
Mitch Haniger (1080.2 innings / -3 DRS)
Jesse Winker (831.2 innings / -5 DRS)
Jarred Kelenic (815.2 innings / -18 DRS)

DRS is also a cumulative stat, so the number of innings it takes a fielder to amass their total can be telling. Mitch Haniger was closest to league-average (zero) despite playing 250 more innings than the next closest player listed. Conversely, DRS suggests Jarred Kelenic had an abysmal season in the field. It’s worth noting -16 of Kelenic’s -18 DRS were accrued in center field.

The wild card heading into the new season is rookie Julio Rodriguez, who’s worked to improve his speed and range in preparation for playing center field this year. Through time we’ll learn more about Rodriguez’s defense based on the eyeball test and DRS.

Houston’s W-L Record

Seattle fans may not want to hear this. But to have a chance of winning the AL West, the Astros must stumble to give the Mariners a puncher’s chance.

Realistically, the Astros enter 2022 as the Kings of the AL West. So, it won’t be easy to overtake them. But as we recently noted, Houston’s roster is getting older, which could potentially result in age-related regression or a higher injury risk for key thirty-somethings.

The Mariners’ Fun Differential

When responding to questions regarding the Mariners’ very negative run differential, manager Scott Servais famously noted last year that his team had a +90 fun differential. If Servais’ club can build upon its success from a season ago, baseball fans might be treated to a fun differential not experienced in the Pacific Northwest since the storied Mariners teams of the 1990’s.

Wouldn’t that be something?

My Oh My…

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up as a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. In 2014, Luke joined the Prospect Insider team. During baseball season, he can often be found observing the local team at T-Mobile Park. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins

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