Despite a lackluster July for the Mariners' offense, the club's pitching staff found themselves at the top of the charts by month's end. They led all American League teams with a 2.57 ERA and .258 BABIP, and finished a close second to the Angels and Rays with 236 strikeouts, 76 runs allowed, and a cumulative 4.8 fWAR.
From June to July, the Mariners boosted their pitching value from 4.7 fWAR with a slight uptick in strikeouts and a marginally lower BABIP. It wasn't enough to secure their spot at No. 1 for a second consecutive month, however, as the Angels' pitching staff tacked on three extra wins to their overall value and vaulted from tenth place to first place in the span of one month. According to FanGraphs, here's how the top five AL teams ranked in pitching metrics:
Even considering Anaheim's surge forward in the standings, the Mariners still came out looking incredible by the end of July. Let's break down their performances further.
These were the three best performers on the M's staff in July:
Running out of ways to praise Felix Hernandez has to be the epitome of first (baseball) world problems. Jeff Sullivan called Felix a "perfect pitcher" over on U.S.S. Mariner during his midseason wrap-up, and it doesn't get more straightforward -- or true -- than that. Felix is perfect. In five starts last month, he added three wins to his #FelixTo20 count, which is up to 12 through the beginning of August. Felix is averaging 4.42 runs of support on the season, but he has also been fortunate to pitch in four blowouts of 10-12 runs apiece. This month, his average was a solid two runs per start, with the M's putting up one or fewer runs in Hernandez's last two appearances of July.
Particularly frustrating was Felix's last start of the month on July 30, when the Mariners were shut out by Cleveland's Corey Kluber, 1-0. However, it also marked a new major league record for Seattle's ace, who successfully completed 14 consecutive appearances with at least seven innings pitched and two or fewer runs allowed. During the streak, which began on May 18 and continues through August (making it 15 consecutive appearances now), Felix allowed 19 runs to 416 batters, finishing with 66 hits, 20 walks, and 126 strikeouts in 114 innings pitched.
Last month, the Mariners went 7-4 in games started by Hernandez and Iwakuma -- and 4-10 with the rest of the rotation. Iwakuma held a 1.6 fWAR in the major leagues, second only to Chris Sale and his 1.7 fWAR in July. Excepting a 4-0 loss to the Orioles, during which Iwakuma gave up four runs on seven hits, the right-hander didn't allow more than two runs in a start all month. In games not started by Hernandez or Iwakuma, Chris Young accounted for three of the Mariners' four wins, limiting opposing hitters to two runs or fewer in three of his six starts.
One other point worth mentioning is the Mariners' superb bullpen, which finished fifth in the American League in July due to a surge in value from the Angels, Orioles, and Rays. Although their numbers weren't quite as sharp as they were in June, the M's pocketed 80 strikeouts, a .250 BABIP, and 1.2 fWAR in 83 innings pitched. In his first full month of relief work this year, Brandon Maurer led the pack with 15 strikeouts, four walks, an 0.64 ERA and 0.4 fWAR in 14 innings pitched. Close behind him was Fernando Rodney, who accumulated seven saves (including his 200th career save against the Orioles) and one loss in 11 opportunities, earning him the right to fire arrows anywhere he chooses, so long as he does it away from the Angels' dugout.
These were the Mariners' three worst performers in July:
Unfortunately, not everyone could craft record-shattering performances last month. After a lengthy vacation on the disabled list, Taijuan Walker had a much-anticipated return to the major leagues in late June. He was sent to Triple-A during the All-Star break to continue honing his skills, but earned a bit of the skipper's wrath when he returned with even greater control issues. In two starts, Walker dropped consecutive games against the White Sox and Mets. He limited opposing batters to four hits and three earned runs, but issued 11 walks in nine innings and lacked the run support he needed to convert the sloppy outings into wins.
As the season winds down and the playoff race heats up, the Mariners will have to look to James Paxton and Taijuan Walker to bolster the back end of the rotation. Walker's control issues and high pitch counts may not be a chronic problem, but they do appear worrisome in light of the M's poor offense. As great as Seattle's bullpen has been this summer, it's not fair to tax them with four or five innings of work every time Walker makes a start. With regard to Paxton, it may take him a few more starts to readjust to major league competition, but the potential payoff is great.
Ultimately, though, the staff's biggest problem is one out of their control -- a lack of adequate run support from a struggling offense. Hopefully, with the Mariners' new stock of hot-hitting outfielders and consistency from its pitchers, this team will be looking at another month above .500 by the end of August.
Your turn: What are the biggest challenges facing the Mariners' pitching staff going forward? Do you have faith in Paxton and Walker's ability to make full recoveries, or should the M's turn to outside help? Will Felix get to 20 wins before the season ends?