clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

A look at the Mariners' early problems

New, comments

The last three Mariners games have been more or less unbearable to watch. That doesn't mean it's time for fans to throw in the towel.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

I'll be honest: I didn't watch last night's game. I was at my school's Spring Formal, and while we were out in Boston Harbor being literal mariners I didn't feel the need to watch the non-literal Mariners play against maybe the worst team in baseball. Especially with Chris Young pitching. So if you think I'm a hypocrite for telling you that it's not yet time to give up on the M's, I understand. It's not like I'm glued to the TV set for every game, either.

That said, I'm here to tell you: it's not yet time to give up on the M's. Really. It's not.

Let's run through the Mariners' problems. Which are legitimate concerns, and which are just nothing to worry about?

Problem: Kyle Seager looks broken.

Stat Seager, 2014 Seager, 2013
wRC+ 64 113
BB% 14.3% 9.8%
K% 20.6% 17.6%
O-Swing% 25.0% 25.9%
Z-Swing% 58.7% 58.6%
Contact% 84.4% 82.6%
ISO .075 .166
BABIP .225 .290
IFFB% 11.1% 11.7%
HR/FB 0% 9.9%

...yeah, this is nothing. The difference between Seager's terrible 2014 to date and his good 2013 is based entirely on precipitous drops in three notoriously volatile statistics: ISO, BABIP, and HR/FB. His contact rate has actually climbed a little bit, while the swing proportions are exactly the same. His BB/K ratio is actually better this year than it was last year.

Some time soon - perhaps within the next week or so - Kyle Seager is going to go on a tear. Suddenly, everything'll be dropping in, a couple balls will fly over the fence, and as far as we're concerned it'll be like nothing ever happened.

And if that prediction doesn't come true... well, it's entirely possible that there's something in the deep peripherals that I'm missing. Unfortunately, Jeff Zimmermann's Batted Ball distance tool doesn't have 2014 data yet. There's not a large enough sample of pitches in individual parts of the zone to make strike zone heat maps really useful. Seager's LD% is terrible, but you know what takes an entire season to stabilize? LD%! It's like he's deliberately checking off every item on the list of peripherals that could cause an unsustainable cold spell. In the absence of any useful deeper stats, I conclude that this just isn't anything to worry about.

Verdict: Kyle Seager is boss.

Problem: Mike Zunino is hacking.

Earlier, I showed you an encouraging table. Now I will show you a less encouraging table.

201 different hitters have gotten at least 50 PA so far in 2014. Here is where Mike Zunino's plate discipline stats rank among those players':

Zunino Swing% Z-Swing% O-Swing% Contact%
Rank 1st 5th 3rd 185th

I mean, holy shit. I knew the dude was a hacker, but this is insane. He's swinging more than anyone else in the major leagues. The guys below him on the Contact% leaderboards have names like Adam Dunn, Chris Davis, Khris Davis, and Mark Reynolds. He has one walk in 2014, and it was intentional. It's fortunate that he's been running an absurd .260 ISO, because if he weren't, the Mariners would be getting basically zero production from their #1 catcher.

We knew that Mike Zunino was rushed to the major leagues, and now we're seeing the consequences. I still think he could use a couple hundred more plate appearances in AAA before the Mariners let him face big-league bendy stuff. That said, they are trying to win this year, and Zunino has big enough power and superlative enough defense that he's the best catcher in the system even when his plate discipline looks this awful.

The question with Zunino is the same as it's ever been. Can he learn to make contact while he's in the major leagues? If he can, then the Mariners are right to keep him up, since he's their best catcher now and having him with the big club isn't limiting his future production. If he can't, then they're sacrificing a great future for a mediocre present.

Verdict: Zunino probably just isn't ready to hit MLB pitching yet. You should accept that this won't be a great year for him with the bat.

Problem: Robinson Cano's power has yet to make an appearance.

On the one hand, we always knew his raw ISO was going to drop, because he just moved from a notoriously hitter-friendly division to a fairly pitcher-friendly one. On the other hand, I don't think anyone was expecting the Mariners' new $240MM man to be running a sub-.100 ISO after three weeks. Jack Z sank a lot of cash into this guy, and he's not immediately destroying worlds with the bat, so I understand why people are worried. I really do.

That doesn't mean there's actually anything to worry about.

Verdict: He's Robinson Cano. It's been two weeks. Relax.

Problem: Brad Miller's plate discipline has looked almost as bad as Zunino's.

This is a weird one. In this post's grand tradition of tables:

Miller's Discipline O-Swing% Z-Swing% Contact%
BIS data 40.4% 63.5% 74.8%
PitchF/X data 36.9% 64.1% 77.6%


This is why it can be dangerous to trust early-season plate discipline split statistics. In cases like Zunino's - where he's an obvious, extreme outlier regardless of which data set you use - it doesn't really matter whether you rely on Baseball Info Solutions' manually entered data or PitchF/X's automatically collected numbers. But in Miller's case, choosing a data set means deciding whether a player's plate discipline has completely fallen apart (BIS) or is just mildly worrisome (PitchF/X). The really weird bit is the contact difference. Shouldn't contact rate be easy to tabulate? Why is the gap there so big?

PitchF/X's data thinks that, over the last two weeks, Miller's plate discipline has been more or less exactly where it was last year. Baseball Info Solutions thinks it's been disastrous. Normally I'd be inclined to trust the automated system, but Miller's hilariously terrible 19/2 K/BB ratio lines up a lot better with the BIS data, so... who knows? Not me. For the moment, we have to disregard the plate discipline data, which doesn't leave us very much to work with.

The good news is that a lot of his problems have been caused by BABIP, the ISO's fine, and he's defensively valuable enough that ZiPS and Steamer still project him for 2.5-3.5 WAR. The bad news is that K/BB ratio. Still, it's way too early to jump ship on Miller, even if his plate discipline advantage over Nick Franklin might be smaller than we'd thought.

Verdict: The jury's out on Miller. Watch his plate discipline closely and wait for more data.

Problem: The pitching staff is in shambles.

In retrospect, the single worst calendar year of Jack Zduriencik's GM tenure was the gap between the 2011 and 2012 trade deadlines. During that span, he traded away Doug Fister, Erik Bedard, and Michael Pineda away for prospects - and the only player acquired in any of those trades who is still with the major league Mariners is Charlie Furbush. Whoops.

On the other hand, if the Mariners had held on to Fister, this April might've been even more frustrating. Can you imagine a DL of Doug Fister, Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton? Think about how much more annoyed you would be right now, and thank heaven for small favors.

Yes, the Mariners' current rotation sucks. Roenis Elias is barely getting by with a .222 BABIP and an 84.3% strand rate, Erasmo Ramirez has been a disaster after a strong first start, and the only other pitcher in the rotation is a guy that the team signed less than a week before the season. Felix is having his best season ever (again) at the head of the corps, but this group is still atrocious.

That said: this group is also going to improve pretty quickly. Hisashi Iwakuma is due back in one or two starts, at which point Erasmo will probably be bumped to the bullpen. Paxton's return should come shortly thereafter and send Brandon Maurer back to the minors. Taijuan Walker - fingers crossed - could be back in a month, displacing Elias or Young. The fact of the matter is that the quality of this current rotation has very little bearing on the team's prospects past April.

On the other hand, the bullpen really does walk too many dudes. This is just who Fernando Rodney and Yoervis Medina are, and until Carson Smith gets the call the control ratios aren't going to get much better. Get ready for some wild rides.

Verdict: The rotation past Felix sucks, but it won't matter for long. The bullpen is actually worrisome, though.

In the final analysis, there's just not that much sustainably wrong with this Mariners squad. Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano are fine. Mike Zunino probably won't really hit, but a catcher that frames as well as him doesn't have to. The only real wild card on the offensive side is Brad Miller, who's probably going to be OK. The rotation sucks, but that's because it consists of the team's #1, #5, #6, #7, and #9 starters.

Really, what about this team has been surprising? I count Dustin Ackley's resurgence (good), Brad Miller's wonky discipline (bad), and the complete implosion of the pitching staff (terrible). Everything else we either saw coming (Zunino, Smoak, Almonte) or is obviously unsustainable (Seager, Cano). Despite the last three nights' emotional gutpunches, I don't think the team's performance to date has been surprisingly terrible enough that it makes sense to have been on the bandwagon on Opening Day and off it now. For goodness' sake, their Pythagorean expected record is 9-7.

Mariners fans, I urge you: stay the course. This team isn't as good as its first three games, but neither is it as bad as its last three. If you give up now - before Seager and Cano get going, before Iwakuma and Paxton and Walker are back - you might miss one hell of a ride.