Seattle Mariners vs. Boston Red Sox Series Preview (7/30-8/1)

Jared Wickerham

The Mariners face the Red Sox and get to face John Lackey, who's as good as he's ever been.

Date Time Venue Probable Pitchers
7/30 4:10 pm Fenway Park
Joe Saunders vs. Brandon Workman
7/31 4:10 pm
Fenway Park
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. John Lackey
8/1 4:10 pm Fenway Park
Felix Hernandez vs. Ryan Dempster

Off to Boston the Mariners go, where the Red Sox have coughed up the top spot in the AL East to the Tampa Bay Rays and now trail by a half game. The Yankees are in fourth place at 55-50. Fourth. Every time you have pipe dreams about the Mariners sneaking into the playoffs or making a run at a division title, think about that division and how fortunate it is that they don't have to battle in there. Toronto is dead last at 48-57, and they are above .500 against every team not in the AL East. Welp.

The Mariners brought up Brandon Maurer to replace Hector Noesi, and while they say it's for long relief, Maurer will probably get the start tonight if Joe Saunders is scratched and/or subsequently traded. Maurer hasn't been so hot in AAA, but is coming off a solid start and hasn't pitched since July 24th.

Even though the Mariners only managed a split against the Twins in Safeco, they remain five game under .500, and if there's any chance of remote survival or a miracle run, the Mariners have to travel to two excellent teams on the road and win. The Mariners can't afford to do anything less than a miracle at this point to keep up the "hey it could happen remember 1995" charade any longer.

Now that the fireworks have settled for a bit, the Mariners have a 96 wRC+, which is good for 13th in the majors. Above average the median! Even if you extend it to the last calendar year, the Mariners have a wRC+ of 95. The era of this franchise being completely miserable at hitting is over.

The good news is, now they're miserable at fielding! The Mariners have a -50.5 UZR, which is both horrible and amazing at the same time. The Kansas City Royals have a team UZR of +49.8. The Royals are nearly 100 runs better than the Mariners so far this season at defense. Unless you hate defensive metrics. If you do, this is probably more evidence to confirm your belief. If you loved them before, maybe you question them now. Sorry about that. It's supposed to be a fun fact. Have fun.

Let's talk about dingers real quick, and if it seems like the Mariners are hitting a lot of dingers, they are! They have 127, which is 3rd in the majors. The Mariners hit 109 in all of 2011. 101 in 2010. There's still 57 games left this year. In fact, there's a pretty good chance the Mariners will hit more homers than they've hit in any year since 2000, where they cranked out 198. 2006 is the year they have to eclipse in order to do so, with 172 dingers. Ding ding dingers.

Tomorrow's pitching matchup is the most interesting one of the series, where Hisashi Iwakuma will face off against John Lackey. Lackey's comeback is one of the weirder developments around the league. You don't see a lot of pitchers sign big contracts, come out flat, turn awful, then miss a year and a half with a major elbow injury only to come back just as effective as they've ever been at 34, but that's what Lackey has managed to do.

Lackey is sporting a 3.13 ERA to go along with his 3.93 FIP but 3.32 xFIP. His control is the best of his career, only walking 1.91 BB/9. He's generating more ground balls than ever before as well, as his GB% is up to 49.6%, topping his previous career best of 45.6%. The increased control and ground balls hasn't led to him missing less bats though, as he's striking batters out at a 21.7% clip, his highest since 2005. His velocity is exactly where it's always been. While a high LOB% has helped his run prevention, there's nothing absurdly high in his peripherals that suggest he's about to crash down to earth. Felix has a high LOB%. So does Iwakuma. This is legit. How?

For one, he's switched up his pitch arsenal a bit. In his later years, Lackey has leaned on his slider more than he used to, steadily increasing it from ~13-14% usage with the Angels to a career high of 28%. Though Lackey throws his slider more to righties (33%), he doesn't shy away from it to lefties (26%). By throwing it more, he's stopped throwing his curve nearly as much, falling from as high as 25% with the Angels down to 13% now. Lackey also used to throw a sinker about twice as much as he does in his later years, and now relies primarily on a four seam fastball (46%) instead of the sinker (11%).

Whatever Lackey has managed to figure out with this changed arsenal, it's working. What many assumed was essentially a lost career after his elbow injury is now resurrected and as good as ever. I haven't seen him pitch in 2013 yet, so I'm interested to see what's changed over the years.

The Mariners leave Boston on Thursday to scoot over to Baltimore for another three game series. No getaway games when travel is so close, so Felix gets to pitch at night even though his start falls on yet another final game of a series.

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