“When the unexpected becomes the expected, strange becomes familiar.” — Jason A. Churchill | May 20, 2016
Of course nobody saw it coming. Not even for a quarter of the season. And even if it concludes without an end to the 14-year postseason drought, the 2016 Seattle Mariners have been one of the better teams in Major League Baseball through 40 games.
A lot of things are going right for the club. Not everything, but most everything. What’s led the Mariners to first place in the American League West at the quarter point? Which areas are sustainable and which aren’t? How’s first-ever manager Scott Servais handling the job this far? We’ll get to all that in the Quarterly Report Series, continuing with how Servais and his staff have managed the roster on a daily basis.
Scouting Scott Servais
For me, this really is a set of analyses of Servais and bench coach Tim Bogar. The pitching and hitting coaches are easily assessed by the consistency of the groups they handle. The manager is graded by wins and losses, mostly, but ignoring in-game tactics and the management of the arms is insane, since it’s so essential to a team’s sustained success.
Managers of players that perform have an easier job. Servais and Bogar have that on their side. But they did lose five straight in April and were swept at home last weekend by the reeling Angels. These are not only tests of the leaders on the roster, but the manager, too. The club climbed out of the five-game losing streak all the way to first place, and the sweep at home to a division rival to win two of three in Baltimore, who at the time led the American League East.
Servais and Bogar have not bunted excessively. They’ve bunted sensibly, for the most part, and haven’t asked hitters who shouldn’t be bunting for sacrifices ever — Cruz, Cano, Seager, etc. — to do so, even when a successful sacrifice might make sense. The decision to sacrifice bunt is a two-part question; are my chances actually better if I give up an out to move a runner to the next base? Sometimes the answer is no, but sometimes it does make sense. The second question is; Can this batter bunt? Not “this batter should be able to bunt, he’s a major leaguer.” The Mariners batters have rewarded their club with tons of production with no outs, a runner at first base who was not sacrificed to second.
The one strategic gripe I have is a small one, but a familiar one — the attempts to steal bases. Aoki is an average, at best, base stealer. Stop sending him, stop giving him the green light. With the way most are swinging the bat so far, there’s no need to force the issue, even with the better base stealers in Martin and Marte.
Handling the bullpen is perhaps the telling tale of a manager’s abilities to decide how his club is best equipped to win games. While I’d prefer not to see Peralta in the eighth inning, Benoit was hurt and Zych wasn’t throwing strikes consistently, leaving few options. For the most part, Peralta did the job. Not enough to suggest he should remain in that role, obviously, but for what they had to work with, it was understandable. Overall, Servais and Bogar (and Mel Stottlemyre, Jr.), get a passing grade in bullpen management, perhaps a B+, at least a solid B. The one area I dislike is one I would thrust on every club in baseball, and that’s the “role” game.
I’d very much kill the “this guy gets the eighth, this guy gets the ninth” type situation, unless I had the Yankees trio this season or the Royals group last year. For Seattle, I’d play matchup almost always, particularly leading up to Cishek in the ninth, and even occasionally in that ninth inning.
Nuno is very good versus left-handed batters, as is Furbush, who is likely return in a few weeks. Unless they are unavailable, I’d use them in high-leverage spots to face lefties in the seventh and/or eighth inning, then I’d go to my best bets versus right-handed batters — right now that’s Vincent, and in theory Benoit if he’s back to form after the injury and layoff. That might mean Nuno/Furbush gets the last out in the seventh, then another lefty to start the eighth, then hands it off to Vincent or Benoit for the next righty. And once Furbush returns, the advantageous options are truly endless. I don’t see clubs doing this anytime soon, especially those with a designated closer healthy and available, but it makes too much sense not to go that route. At the very least the Mariners should be doing it before Cishek’s time comes.
As long as things are working, however, it’s difficult to knock Servais and staff for their tactical work — so I won’t. In the end, I’d invite Servais to my birthday party simply for his approach to bunting. The rest is icing.
— Jason A. Churchill