The AL West Champion Seattle Mariners….?
Entering the 2018 season analysts in the media had already qualified the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros for the postseason. The only question was, are the Red Sox or the Yankees the first Wild Card team? Well, not so fast pundits and pugilists, say the Mariners fans with a smile.
The Astros entered 2018 as THE Apex predator of the American League; the resounding favorite to both win the American League West and represent the American league in the World Series. The Mariners, on the other hand, are coming off another disappointing under .500 year that finished with an all too familiar September swoon. Well, it’s June 6 and the Mariners lead the American League West by a game in the standings with two games in hand and room to improve. I wouldn’t gamble my mortgage or a valuable body part on the Mariners defeating the Astros for the AL West division crown, but if you give me odds…. I would seriously consider it.
The Upside For The Mariners
Felix Hernandez has an ERA of 5.33 and a WHIP of 1.33, while Mike Leake has an ERA of 4.71 and WHIP of 1.29 (better than Marco Gonzales even though his ERA is worse) and Wade LeBlanc has started the fifth most games (seven) in their rotation.
Hernandez has pitched over 2,500 career major league innings and in 2017, he had his second worst season as a professional in terms of ERA (4.36). It isn’t a surprise to see some decline in his performance as the innings stack up, but he has been significantly worse in 2018. We are seeing a trend of starting pitchers struggling to get through a batting order a third time and King Felix has struggled to the tune of a 8.47 ERA in that regard, but he also has an ERA of 7.82 the first time through. It doesn’t make sense, especially with such a small sample size, that he has an ERA of 1.19 the second time through a lineup, but a 7.82 the first. It has to be a statistical anomaly or a game plan issue that should be easy enough to correct. King Felix has allowed seven home runs compared to one, and an OBP of .353 vs. .270 the first time through compared to the second. That has to improve purely with more sample and possibly a tweak in how he approaches hitters early in games.
Mike Leake is on pace for the worst season of his career by a significant margin. He has a career ERA of 3.99 while having a 2018 ERA of 4.71 even though his career WHIP (1.28) and 2018 WHIP (1.29) are almost identical. Leake’s peripherals, like HR/9, BB/9, K/9, are worse than they were in 2017, but this is his first full season in Seattle with the Mariners. His 2018 WHIP suggests that he has been a bit unlucky and with Dee Gordon returning to second base while Robinson Cano is out with a suspension, his Ground Ball % should improve from one of the worst of his career, and so should the Mariners overall performance as he pitches going forward.
Offensively, the Mariners aren’t the Houston Astros, but they aren’t the Miami Marlins either. They rank 14th in runs scored, 10th in team OPS and 14th in home runs with 69, three fewer than the Houston Astros in two fewer games and they have done all of this with injuries to Jean Segura, Dee Gordon and a combination of injuries and a suspension that has limited their best pure bat, Robinson Cano, to 39 games played and 143 at-bats.
They traded for power hitting Ryon Healy in the offseason, Mitch Haniger is emerging as an offensive star (acquired in a trade with Arizona in 2016) and Nelson Cruz continues to defy age with 11 home runs. This is an overall roster that can compete with the better teams in baseball. It isn’t a fluke or purely a consequence of an easy schedule, something we have heard a lot about early in the season.
The Potential Downside for The Pre-Determined Astros
The Astros appear loaded, but if you look closer, they aren’t the juggernaut that the media has portrayed them to be since their slim margin of victory, coming back from a 3-1 deficit, over the New York Yankees in the 2017 ALDS and eventual World Series championship. They rank 12th in home runs even though they are fourth in runs scored and sixth in team OPS, while they rank 12th in team OPS and home runs against right handed pitching. The strength of the Astros is their run differential and that is fueled by their historically dominant pitching while their weakness is a heavily right handed lineup and a bullpen that statistically looks dominant, but who look less so in person.
In 2017, the Astros had a run differential of +200. They currently have a run differential of +118 in only 63 games played, and that is without a single inning from Gerrit Cole, who is currently having the best season of his career, and Justin Verlander, who has pitched almost three times as many regular season innings for the Astros in 2018 (87.1) than he did in 2017 (34).
This Astros pitching staff has to slow down or they run the risk of having the best season, pitching wise, in the history of the game. This kind of dominance leaves plenty of room for regression and even a small drop off could be the opening the Mariners need to remain competitive for the AL West division title.
Gerrit Cole’s K/9 is 12.78 compared to a career average of 8.85. His GB% is at 33.3%, down from a career total of 46.4%, while his HR/FB% is up to 12.0% compared to a career norm of 10.2%. Minute Maid park in Houston is much more hitter friendly than PNC Park in Pittsburgh and he has to pitch against American League lineups and the DH rather than a starting pitcher three or four times a night, but those changes in conditions don’t explain the huge jump in strikeouts or the .57 point drop in his 2017 BaBIP (.307) (Batted Balls In Play) compared to his career norm of .307.
Justin Verlander was fantastic in 2017 and he has been stellar once again in 2018, but even he has some room to regress. His K/9 is up slightly from 9.57 to 10.72 while his BB/9 has dropped significantly from 3.15 to 1.75, and his HR/9 has gone from 1.18 to .52, which if he can sustain it will be the best of his career. He has a Left on Base percentage (LOB%) of 88.3% compared to 79.7% in 2017 and a career of 74.2%. He has cut his HR/FB% almost in half in 2018 where it sits at 4.5% compared to a career of 8.2%.
I am not suggesting that the Astros pitching has been a fluke. 63 games is a small sample size, but it isn’t so small that it should be dismissed. What I am saying is that this level of dominance is going to be extremely difficult to sustain. Only one pitching staff can have the best season in baseball history and that’s what the Astros rotation is currently on pace to do. Their team ERA of 2.90 dwarfs the Washington Nationals 3.16 The Astros pitching staff, in 63 games, has pitched a full run better per game than the 13th. best pitching staff in baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays, who have a team ERA of 3.99. The Kansas City Royals rank last with a team ERA of 5.41, more than two and a half runs PER GAME worse. When the Astros travel to Kansas City to face their baseball team they are almost a field goal favorite before they get off the bus purely because of their pitching staff.
The AL WEST Play-By-Play
The Mariners aren’t a perfect team, but they have performed well so far and there is reason to believe they can maintain it or even play better. Robinson Cano will eventually return, the breakout seasons of James Paxton and Mitch Haniger are in full swing, the additions of Ryon Healy and Dee Gordon improve their overall offense while Denard Span enhances their depth. Their bullpen ranks eighth in ERA and they recently added Alex Colome to Juan Nicasio and Edwin Diaz. If the Mariners can find a serviceable fifth starter and if Felix Hernandez can pitch to a level commensurate with his disappointing 2017 season rather than what he has in 2018, which he can do if he just improves against his opponents lineup the first time through, then this is a pitching staff and offensive roster that can compete with the vaunted Astros. The Mariners have 15 of their next 19 games against the Los Angeles Angels (3), Boston Red Sox (17), New York Yankees (3) and rival Astros (2). It’s put up or shut up for the Mariners.
The Astros have a great pitching staff and there isn’t reason to think it is a complete fluke, but historic dominance is extremely difficult to maintain and that’s the bar the Astros have currently set. The offense is very good, but it isn’t the Murders Row that it has been made out to be and it is extremely right handed. That bodes well in a short series against a team like the Mariners or the Red Sox, whose best starters are predominantly left handed, but over the marathon of a major league season against the entire league, that is going to pose problems if they don’t acquire a significant left handed bat or two. Their bullpen ERA ranks fourth best in baseball (3.09), but if you listen to analysts they will tell you that Ken Giles is getting it done with smoke and mirrors and that they may need to add there as well.
The Mariners weren’t supposed to even appear in the Astros rear view mirror and yet, after 61 and 63 games respectively, they have a one game lead in the division and are already 15 games above .500 after finishing six games under in 2017. The Astros can’t assume this division is going to be the walk over that it was in 2017. The pitching staff has outperformed even the lofty expectations set for them and not only are they not running away and hiding, they aren’t even leading their own division.
I haven’t even talked about the Angels, who are 35-28 and three games behind the Astros in the standings. The Astros were 12-7 against the Angels and 14-5 against the Mariners in 2017. Currently, they are 7-5 against the Angels and Mariners and 8-10 against the Indians, Red Sox and Yankees. .500 baseball against your chief rivals and the best of the best in the American league does not a preeminent World Series favorite make.
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