April report card: Grading the M's defense

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

New plan: Every day is Felix Day.

One of the difficulties in evaluating a player's spring performance is the waiting. At first, we chide each other for reading too much into an uncharacteristic blown save or an unusually successful outing. It soon becomes impossible to sit on our hands and wait for statistics to regress and small sample sizes to grow. We want to know what every pitch and every home run means, not just for the moment but in the long run.

Last month, the Mariners were crippled by their pitching staff. Starters were getting picked off by injuries left and right, Erasmo Ramirez imploded, and Felix Hernandez had off days that he could not afford. During their eight-game skid, the M's relinquished 46 runs and 11 homers to clubs like the Astros and Marlins.

Here's a brief overview of the highs and lows that plagued Seattle's pitchers last month:

Highlights

This was unequivocally the best April of Felix's nine-year career. He set new records in strikeouts (47) and wins above replacement (fWAR), earning the seventh-highest K/9 rate and second-highest fWAR in the American League. He's on pace to finish the season with 18 wins, just shy of the bar set by #FelixTo20 advocates. For the first time in his career, he recorded two double-digit strikeout performances within the first month of the regular season, beating both the Angels and the A's with 11 strikeouts apiece.

Behind Felix, the rotation was sparse and unreliable, save for newcomer Roenis Elias. Elias made a grand total of five starts, some of them mediocre, some of them passable, and one of them downright awful. His numbers were average, as much as you can read into numbers: a 4.18 FIP, 3.24 ERA, and 0.3 fWAR in 28 1/3 innings. He had the second-highest strikeout total of the M's pitching staff, but followed it up with the highest number of walks, too, at 14. Unfortunately for the Mariners' win-loss totals in April, Elias waited until May to fully come into his own, decimating the Yankees in their home stadium with a 10-strikeout performance.

If small sample sizes can't be trusted to evaluate players, that goes double for relievers. Fernando Rodney was used 10 times in April for a total of 9 1/3 innings. He earned five saves and 0.3 wins above replacement, good for the fifth highest fWAR among MLB relievers that month. More remarkable was his strikeout rate, a heady 14.46 K/9 with 15 strikeouts against 46 batters, more than either James Paxton or Chris Young earned in the rotation. Granted, not everything Rodney did resulted in imaginary arrows firing over the heads of his opponents. He blew one of Felix's quality starts, allowing Rangers' third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff the tying run on a wild pitch and center fielder Leonys Martin the walk-off single. He allowed six runs and six walks in the 9th inning. He induced this miraculous unassisted double play from Justin Smoak to preserve the lead in a 6-5 win. But, at the end of April, he's looking decent in the closing spot -- even if that's only something that can be said for the moment.

Lowlights

Who didn't get hurt in April? Or, perhaps more to the point, who owns the voodoo doll that sent every viable starter to the disabled list? If it wasn't Hisashi Iwakuma's finger, it was Taijuan Walker's shoulder... then James Paxton's back, then Walker's shoulder again. Blake Beavan arrived from Triple-A as a temporary stopgap in the rotation, only to succumb to shoulder tendinitis after his first start. Brandon Maurer emerged from the DL to pitch a scant eight innings, striking out seven batters and walking three. He was unable to complete more than four innings in either of his starts.

Meanwhile, Erasmo Ramirez remained perfectly healthy while nursing a 6.23 FIP through 24 innings. His -0.3 wins below replacement constituted the worst fWAR on the pitching staff, even including former Mariner Hector Noesi. His 20 strikeouts, good for third-highest on the team, were accompanied by 11 walks and 6 home runs in five starts. Erasmo contributed two losses to the M's eight-game losing streak, striking out eight batters in his last outing while giving up two home runs and three earned runs over six innings. Overall, Ramirez ranks second-lowest in fWAR among American League starters, and fourth-lowest overall. Although the right-hander was given a breather and sent to High-A, rumor has it that he'll be back in the rotation to pitch one of the doubleheader games in Oakland this week.

Thankfully, the Mariners have more to look forward to this month. Within the first four days, Hisashi Iwakuma returned to the staff in fine form, Maurer notched his first win of the season, and Elias crafted a career-best start against the Yankees. Although the M's can't survive on a diet of Felix Hernandez change-ups alone, they'll receive help from James Paxton and Taijuan Walker by the end of May, provided that both pitchers stay on track with their rehab schedules.

What do you think: Does Fernando Rodney deserve the closing spot, or should the role be handed to Danny Farquhar? Will the Mariners be able to fully recover from an injury-laden month? What are the chances that Felix gets to pitch every day?

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