M’s Quarterly Report: Run Production

After remaining in the 2016 wild card race until game-161, the Seattle Mariners spent the offseason making deals at a breakneck pace with one goal in mind– end baseball’s longest active postseason drought.

Just forty games into the current season, the notion of playing meaningful October baseball in 2017 is a fleeting dream after a devastating series of bad breaks and disappointing performances.

Can the Mariners get back on track and compete for a postseason berth? What are their strengths and weaknesses? In the First-Quarter Report Series, we’ll touch those bases and more.

So far, we’ve reviewed the AL West. Let’s now turn our attention to the Mariners’ offense.

Based on run production through 40 games, the Mariners appear to be on solid ground. The club is averaging 4.85 runs scored/game — fourth best in the AL. Still, last weekend’s offensive drought in Toronto exposed a potential problem — a compressed lineup.

With Robinson Cano sidelined for the entire Toronto series and the bat of Kyle Seager relatively quiet, Seattle mustered just six runs in four games. Yes, a four-game series is a microscopic sample size. But, the inability to score without strong production from the heart of the order — Cano, Seager, and Nelson Cruz — could be an ominous sign.

Some may note the core three of Cano, Seager, and Cruz were the engines propelling the offense last season also. True, but the Mariners had a longer lineup than they do in 2017 making it easier to start and sustain rallies.

To highlight this point, I’ve broken down the lineup into three sections and provided a side-by-side comparison between this year and 2016. You’ll see a dramatic improvement in one area, status quo in another and utter ineffectiveness in the third.

Mariners Lineup AL Rankings (2016 vs 2017)
Spots Year PA BA OBP SLG
 1-2 2016 373 11 10 12
2017  380 1 1 1

The top two lineup spots have been superb throughout the young season. The primary stakeholders — new acquisitions Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger and injury replacements Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia — have been excellent table setters for the heart of the order.

Segura picked up where he left off last season when he led the National League in hits. Despite missing 12 games due to a hamstring strain, the 27-year-old is tied with Cruz for third most hits in the AL.

Before suffering an oblique strain on April 25, Haniger was leading the majors in fWAR. The 26-year-old still ranks second on the club in that category.

Both Gamel and Heredia were in the mix for a backup outfield spot during Cactus League competition, but the duo started the season with Class-AAA Tacoma. When openings appeared, each pounced on their opportunity and flourished.

Gamel strikes out about 20-percent of the time, but his 15.9-percent walk rate is best among regular players on the club. While approximately 1 in 5 of the left-handed hitters plate appearances ends with a strikeout, he doesn’t chases balls outside of the zone often (19.4-percent). That’s eleventh best in the majors among hitters with at least 80 plate appearances.

It’s not likely Gamel can sustain his early success. His .413 BABIP is sixth highest in the majors, which suggests he’s enjoyed some luck and his stat line will normalize. Still, the 25-year-old has proven to be an asset during the Haniger’s absence.

The right-handed hitting Heredia doesn’t walk as often as Gamel — just 6.3-percent. He’s a bat-to-ball type with minimal power who’s going to put the ball into play. The 26-year-old has the same swinging strike rate (4-percent) as Brett Gardner of the New York Yankees, which is fourth best in the league.

Whether Heredia can maintain his current .294/.357/.382 stat line is unknown considering the small sample size and his limited major league experience. But, he did register a 5.8-percent swinging strike in 107 plate appearances last year.

The next four spots in the batting order have provided mixed results for manager Scott Servais.

 

Mariners Lineup AL Rankings (2016 vs 2017)
Spots Year PA BA OBP SLG
 3-6 2016 693 6 6 4
2017 702 2 3 2

Cano and Cruz continue to deliver outstanding production from the third and fourth spots respectively. Cano is slashing .296/.362/.533 with eight home runs, while Cruz continues to produce without any sign of age-related regression. The 36-year-old’s 1.016 OPS ranks fourth in the AL and he leads the team with 10 dingers.

In the five-hole, Seager was enduring an uncharacteristic power outage, although he’s hit a homer in his last two games. Still, his .396 slugging percentage and four homers are his lowest at the 40-game mark since he became a full-time player in 2012.

It’s worth noting, Seager is still reaching base at a good rate (.340 OBP) and his 11.5-percent walk rate ranks number-24 in the AL. Perhaps, the 29-year-old’s power shortage is an after effect of the hip issue that sidelined him for most of four games in late-April.

On the other hand, Seager’s low power numbers may be nothing more than the randomness of baseball. Whatever the cause, Seattle will need their third baseman’s slugging prowess to improve as the season unfolds.

First baseman Danny Valencia got off to a terrible start this season. So much so he lost playing time to utility-man Taylor Motter and rookie Daniel Vogelbach. Of late though, Valencia’s bat has been heating up and his .252/.324/.409 slash line is trending towards his norm during the previous three seasons (.281/.334/.451).

That brings us to the black hole where rallies go to die — the bottom of the order. The main characters in this early season horror story have been Leonys Martin, Jarrod Dyson, Mike Zunino, Carlos Ruiz, and fill-ins such as Mike Freeman and Tuffy Gosewisch.

Mariners Lineup AL Rankings (2016 vs 2017)
Spots Year PA AVG OBP SLG
7-9 2016 464 9 5 7
2017 479 15 13 15

Management has aggressively attempted to address the lack of production from spots 7-9 by demoting Martin and Zunino to Class-AAA Tacoma and maneuvering players in and out of those last three spots. But, their efforts have provided little-to-no relief.

Initially expected to be an everyday player, the left-handed hitting Dyson has just 19 plate appearance against southpaws this season and only four since April 27 with three coming this week. The uptick in usage may be attributable to the current injury situation.

With the right-handed hitting Motter covering for the injured Cano, the super-utility player wasn’t available to play in the outfield. As a result, Heredia can’t cover center field when the opposition starts a left-hander. That leaves Dyson as the only realistic option for Servais.

To be clear, Dyson hasn’t been a bust — not at all. But, it appears the club views him as a platoon player.

Having said all that, the eight-year veteran’s bat is showing shown signs of heating up. His .319 OBP is ticking closer to his career norm, which is crucial for the club’s offense. Getting the speedster on the base paths more frequently helps kick-start the offense by providing more RBI opportunities for the productive top of the order.

Haniger’s return from the disabled list later this month will help lengthen the batting order. His presence should permanently push Gamel and/or Heredia lower in the order. That’s assuming three things — the lineup doesn’t suffer any injury setbacks, Gamel and Heredia remain productive, and Haniger doesn’t exhibit regression after returning.

As much as Mariners fans may not want to believe it, the best remaining internal options reside at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma — Martin and Zunino. Based on their respective career histories, neither player is likely to jump-start the offense. Nevertheless, their defensive value would justify a spot in the lineup — if they were close to league-average offensively.

As the season unfolds, continued reliance on a small cadre of players to generate run-production is fraught with peril. Even the best hitter occasionally slumps or misses a few days due to injury as we’ve already seen with Cano, Seager, and Cruz.

Sure, bounce backs by Seager and Valencia help. So will the return of Haniger. But, the Mariners need more offense from bottom of the order to offset the likely regression of players such as Motter, Gamel, Heredia, and possibly Haniger. Otherwise, Seattle’s run production may plummet as the season continues.

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. During the baseball season, he can be seen often observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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