If the Mariners beat the Devil Rays, and nobody's there to see it, is it reflected in the standings?
Apparently yes, albeit not how you'd expect:
Not to get political or anything (and I mean that - any political comments will be instantly deleted), but it seems like we've been reading "Mariners play in front of sparse home crowd" as often as we've read "Bush approval ratings hit new low." Yesterday's 16,102 paid attendance set a record for the smallest crowd in Safeco history for the third time this season, and it's only the second week of May. That's bad. I mean, on the one hand it's nice to see the fan base take a stand against crappy baseball, but on the other it's kind of depressing, because there's no excitement in the ballpark anymore, and the tiny crowds serve as a constant reminder of just how far the team has fallen. To make things worse, I still think that this is a reasonably good team that people should want to watch on purpose, so seeing foul balls land in deserted seating sections is sort of a double whammy. It shouldn't be like this. I'd prefer to remember Safeco as the place where good Mariner teams won ballgames in front of 40,000 quiet fans instead of the place where bad Mariner teams lost ballgames in front of half that.
But hey, they won yesterday! Enough of that and we won't have to talk about low attendance ever again. Every little bit helps, even against Tampa Bay.
Biggest Contribution: Jose Lopez, +24.6%
Biggest Suckfest: Yuniesky Betancourt, -12.4%
Most Important Hit: Lopez single, +25.5%
Most Important Pitch: Branyan double, -12.2%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +4.5%
Total Contribution by Hitters: +37.4%
At least for one day, the Devil Rays out-Gil Meche'd Gil Meche. Gil threw something like 97 pitches in the first two innings, but a number of bad swings put on hittable balls and otherwise poor decisions limited the damage and allowed the Mariners to hang close in the game until the later stages, when everything unraveled for TB. Singles, walks, wild pitches, stolen bases...armed with a lead, the D-Rays took a page out of Gil's playbook and slowly and methodically gave it away, losing an entirely winnable game. It's nice to see these things from the other side for once.
I'm picking on Meche a little bit, which might be unwarranted given his final line, but I'm telling you, even when he's good he's bad. He always has the timid, delicate expression of a guy who's one bad break away from letting everything snowball, the kind of guy who'd take the high-leverage power reliever role we've all been clamoring for him to get for the past year or so and totally piss it away, making us look like idiots. If I had to choose my favorite simile, I'd say that Meche is like a model kit without instructions - all the pieces are there, but nobody has any idea how to put it together, so while you may luck into sticking the right bits together from time to time, in the end you wind up with a pile of crap that's nothing like the picture on the box. Inconsistent pitchers are occasionally able to figure it out, but the overwhelming majority of them don't, and the key is to not get fooled by their fleeting displays of excellence and hand them lucrative three-year contracts to help lead your team to first place in the AL West. Don't be fooled by Gil. His FIP is exactly where it was the year before, which was exactly where it was the year before, which was exactly where it was the year before, which was exactly where it was two years earlier. I admit that I got ahead of myself when I heard that he was going to start using the two-seamer more often, but now I recognize my error, and I implore you not to make the same mistake I did two months ago. He scatters decent starts in between mind-numbingly awful ones. Never forget about Bad Gil. The minute you do, you've set yourself up for disaster.
That said, I do have to give Gil credit for one thing he did yesterday:
We can talk about Rafael Chaves all we want, but what it comes down to is that a pitcher should always be his own best pitching coach, so it's nice to see Gil fixing his own problems for a change. The fact that he was able to make an adjustment on the fly is even more impressive. Flying open is one of those things that a pitcher does when he's rushing his delivery, with the result being that the throwing arm is left behind the shoulder and forced to release behind the ideal point (hence wacky command). It can be difficult to notice if you're watching, but it's easy to feel if you're the one throwing, because you can never get "on top" of the ball. While I'll stop short of letting myself be encouraged by this development, I'm glad that Gil has had enough remedial instruction that he can finally start identifying when something's wrong on his own. That should help him out when he's working with an unfamiliar pitching coach somewhere else in a few months.
Back in the spring, when the Mariners were pulling their whole "three-headed race for 2B" charade that gave all of us nightmares, one of the things that always came up was that Hargrove wanted Jose Lopez to start going the other way more often instead of trying to pull everything. We kind of laughed about it, saying things like "with the numbers he put up in AAA, Jose can hit however the hell he wants," but he still put in the effort to alter his approach at the plate, and it's turned out to be a valuable asset to his development. Mind you, I don't really know the extent to which he's start hitting to right field more often - spray charts are difficult and annoying to quantitate - but the opposite-field line drives are definitely there, and they've helped him have some success against the outside fastball where the same pitch left him flailing a year ago. In slow motion, you can see Jose using the same basic approach to going the other way that everyone was taught in high school - he's "throwing his hands at second base," leaving the bat head back to flick the ball at or over the second baseman. That's not what's so remarkable, though; even Brandon Fahey can pull that off. What's great is that Jose is being selective in when he uses that swing, in that he's still pulling inside fastballs into left field with power when he needs to. It would've been easy for him to try to hit everything to right field, kind of becoming the complete opposite of Adrian Beltre, but instead he's just using it as another weapon in his offensive arsenal in addition to the power swing he puts on pitches over the inside half. We'll see what happens when he hits his first extended slump, but for now, there exists the distinct possibility that we're seeing Jose Lopez blossom into a complete hitter before our very eyes. He's 22 years old.
I think we might also be seeing JJ Putz turn into a dominant end game reliever. It's hard to say for sure, since he hasn't even thrown 20 innings yet this year, but that splitter has just completely and utterly changed his pitching identity. Of the 70 batters he's faced this year, 25 have struck out. Of the remaining 45, another 25 have put the ball on the ground, meaning that only 28.6% of opposing hitters have been in position to do any kind of significant damage against him (for the sake of reference, Eddie Guardado's percentage is nearly twice that). That's pretty much unspeakably awesome. The bad news? As long as Putz is pitching like last year's Felix Hernandez, he's probably not budging from the closer role, meaning that we've lost one terrific high-leverage setup guy and gained someone who can hold onto a two- or three-run ninth inning lead without too much trouble. Bullpen management might've been the one thing Hargrove was doing pretty well through the early stages of the year. It sucks to know that now even that might be out the window.
Adrian Beltre went 2-4 to extend his hitting streak to six games and raise his BA to a season-high of .221. For the month of May, he's at .313 with a few doubles and walks. In case you forgot, we all got excited when he hit .321 last June with a few doubles and walks, but by July he was right back in the toilet. He didn't get the biggest contract in franchise history to hit occasional line drives and reach base a third of the time. As long as Adrian Beltre is hitting singles instead of home runs, we're getting ripped off.
Richie Sexson is creeping up on him at the bottom of the WPA leaderboard, though. Our four least valuable players so far this year have been Eddie Guardado, Sexson, Jeremy Reed, and Beltre. And the team MVP? Joel Pineiro. Who knew? Not only has 2006 sucked so far, but it's also been insanely and stupidly unpredictable.
Willie Ballgame's career line: .264/.311/.340
Willie Ballgame's career line, with steals: .257/.304/.388
He's not a good hitter, but there's something to be said for a guy who can turn a single into a double 89% of the time he tries. Of course, it's not really the same:
Run value of a double: .772
Run value of a single and steal: .655
Even when you try to cast Willie in a better light, he still comes up short. But hey, nice game yesterday. Yeah!
Doug Waechter against Felix tonight at 7:05. You might remember Waechter from the group of pitchers who totally suck. Or you might remember him from the group of pitchers who've had tremendous success against the Mariners, to the tune of a 1.99 ERA 22.2 innings. Or you might remember that both those groups are the same.