The past week has been nothing short of awful for the Mariners, as you all well know. The problems currently plaguing the team are numerous, ranging from some bad BABIP luck, to far too many injuries to far too important players, to just not being very good (some likely to play better than they have so far).
I originally set out to dig into the numbers and see if I could find more of a consistent, tangible -- and if I was lucky reassuring -- reason why the Mariners' offense has been so anemic, even by their standards. Coming into the year, many seemed to expect improvement, what with Robinson Cano, and a full season of Brad Miller, and a hopefully revitalized Dustin Ackley. Whoops.
What I ended up finding was something I thought was interesting, if not a little unexpected to me. Unfortunately, this won't be very positive, and could point to more permanent problems going forward.
As a team, the Mariners currently rank 9th in the league in Swing% at 47%, 10th in Z-Swing% at 65.9%, but just 18th in O-Swing at 27.8%. So far, so good. They are being aggressive in the zone, and doing a decent job at not swinging at balls. Normally, that kind of approach -- a generally good one -- will lead to some kind of success. You shouldn't expect a ton of strikeouts or weak hits from swinging at junk, and a good amount of walks seems likely.
What was surprising to me was that it seemed like the general approach of most hitters was pretty bad, towards either extreme. For example, Abraham Almonte seems to watch far too many strikes go by, digging himself a hole. I've said before that patience is great, passivity isn't. And on the other end, it feels like Brad Miller is swinging at everything he could, if given enough chances, get his bat to touch.
And those cases are both pretty much true. Abe is only swinging at 56.7% of strikes (league average is 65%), and Miller is swinging at 39.5% of pitches outside of the zone. The two extremes could be canceling each other out, leaving what looks on the surface to be a solid team as far as plate discipline is concerned, but is really filled with guys who either swing too much, or not enough.
But when looking at the rest of the team (apart from Mike Zunino who just goes up and hacks), the solid approach that the team numbers show seem to hold true. Just Zunino, Miller and Romero have O-Swing rates well above the average of 30% with Cano also holding a 31.8%, though that is below his career average of 34%. Then there are a few notable names who are swinging at balls 5% less than the league, including Kyle Seager (24.2%), Dustin Ackley (23.4%), Almonte (20.1%) and Michael Saunders (15.9%).
At this point, only three regular players have shown a tendency to swing when they shouldn't, and of those three, Miller is the only real surprise. Zunino had shown these tendencies before and was probably rushed, while Romero has never faired well in the K/BB category, and wasn't someone I expected very much from in the way of discipline.
A case could be made that some players have been too idle on pitches in the zone, with Seager (61%), Almonte (60%), and to a lesser extent Ackley (63.1%), showing too much passivity in the zone for my, and the league's (~65%) liking. I don't know what would be considered an ideal Z-Swing rate, so if anyone does I would love to know. I assume being well below average wouldn't bode well, but there could be some merit to waiting for your pitch, rather than simply swinging because the ball is in the magic box. On the whole though, the team seems to be okay in this area, being slightly more aggressive than the league as I mentioned at the beginning.
"So what's the problem, random guy on the internet?"
The problem is with the amount and kind of contact the team is making. While their team Contact and Z-Contact rates are about middle of the pack -- 16% and 14% respectively -- they are seemingly making some of the weakest contact in the league.
Here's where the sample size disclaimer comes, as Batted Ball percentages don't stabilize for a long while. But my argument is not that they have "earned" these kind of results, or that they will stick around, but merely that they have happened, so the stabilization shouldn't matter a whole lot here. I'm focused on what has been to this point.
The M's currently own a 17.6% LD rate, good (bad?) for 27th in the league. There has been a lot of talk about BABIP luck early in the year, and I would agree that there have been more than a few hard hit balls caught by the opposition. But they also aren't doing much to help themselves with a below average number of liners, average number of grounders, and above average number of fly balls, and even worse, infield fly balls. Those fly balls can be okay when a good portion turn into dingers, but sadly they haven't, with an 8.5% HR/FB, 23rd in the league.
I could be wrong, but what all these numbers tell me (again, some very, very noisy still) is that the Mariners just aren't barreling balls up. They are currently seeing the most balls in the strike zone out of any team in the league (tied with the Reds at 50.4%) but they can't figure out a way to capitalize on those opportunities. The Reds and Orioles, who flank them in the Zone% standings, have made a comparable amount of contact as the M's (85.3% for the Reds, 86.9% for the O's, which matches Seattle), but have much higher LD rates, at 22.4% and 22.7% respectively.
Maybe the Mariners are getting hit on the corners, while the Reds and Orioles are seeing more pitches down the middle of the plate. I don't have access to/know a way to find that out. But I doubt that to be the case, at least not to any substantial degree. It's early, but not early enough to think every, or even the majority of the pitcher's they've faced have been able to paint the corners all night, every night.
Again, LD% is extremely volatile for about...forever. These numbers
will,have to should change, as Robinson Cano creeps back towards where Robinson Cano should be, Kyle Seager figures out whatever is plaguing him (as Logan Davis outlined, it looks like it's probably bad luck and small sample size), and Brad Miller quits swinging and missing at everything, etc..
But I am not as confident in this team as I was coming in, small sample size included. They are getting plenty of opportunities to cash in and drive the ball, and they just aren't, at least not yet. And as early as it is, that is a little bit worrying. Players go into slumps, sometimes multiple players from the same team all at once. But players also fail for inexplicable reasons, and the prospect of that is what scares me, being subjected to as much over and over by this organization.
This is a team that is better than what they have been so far. But maybe not by all that much. Mariners.
Please feel free to tell me what I missed, as I am just one person looking at a whole mess of numbers, and laying them out as I go. Probably not the best way to do this, but the Mariners don't always deserve the best. God knows they don't always give the best to us.