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Mariners' pitching staff still the ticket to team's success

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Seattle's rotation faced a few setbacks in August, but their lights-out bullpen helped carry the team to a winning record.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

August wasn't the sharpest month for the Mariners' pitching staff.

As a whole, the team improved their walk rate and xFIP, but the starting rotation took a few more knocks than usual. They decreased their strikeout rate from 9.04 whiffs per nine innings to 7.40 from July to August and marginally increased their walk rate, home run rate, and BABIP as well. Where Seattle's rotation was ranked first in the league in July, it sank to 13th place in the American League after August.

These were the top five team pitching staffs in the American League in August, sorted by overall value:

Team IP SO/9 BB/9 BABIP xFIP fWAR
Rays 269.1 9.16 2.74 .287 3.44 5.6
Royals 261.0 6.90 2.14 .282 3.84 5.4
Indians 239.0 8.82 2.60 .279 3.31 5.0
Tigers 283.0 8.05 3.02 .315 3.75 4.7
Yankees 248.2 8.54 2.03 .284 3.12 4.3

By comparison, here is how the Mariners made out last month after dropping from second place to ninth on the list:

Team IP SO/9 BB/9 BABIP xFIP fWAR
Mariners 239.0 8.25 2.03 .284 3.12 3.1

There are some positive takeaways here. Although they finished the month with a lower overall value, the Mariners still led the league in strand rate (LOB%) with 80.4% and ranked second with a 2.79 ERA. Their bullpen was the fourth-most valuable in the AL, accumulating 1.3 fWAR and coming third in saves, with nine.

While pitcher wins are a fundamentally flawed measure of pitching prowess, the Mariners finished August with the fifth-best win-loss record, sitting half a game behind the Indians at 17-10.

Highlights

These were the Mariners' top three performers in August by fWAR:

Player IP SO/9 BB/9 BABIP xFIP fWAR
Hisashi Iwakuma 37.2 7.88 0.96 .243 2.92 0.6
James Paxton 27.1 6.59 2.96 .298 3.39 0.5
Chris Young 20.2 6.53 3.92 .308 5.29 0.5

Iwakuma started off the month strong. In consecutive starts against the Blue Jays and Phillies, he kept a scoreless streak of 14 2/3 innings and struck out 16 batters. As the season progressed, he faced a bit of a setback, giving up 3+ runs in back-to-back outings for the first time since June.

In spite of these struggles, Iwakuma still holds an 0.99 WHIP on the year. If he can maintain it through September, he and Felix (who carries an 0.90 WHIP this season) will be the third pair since 1920 to finish a season with a sub-1.00 WHIP.

James Paxton turned out his first full month this season, allowing an average of 2.4 runs and four strikeouts over 27 1/3 innings. Like Iwakuma, he contributed to one of the Mariners' two shutouts in August, going 6 2/3 innings against the Rangers and giving up four hits, three walks, and striking out four of 26 batters. It's as good a return as the Mariners could hope for, considering Paxton's prolonged rehab for his shoulder injury.

It's no secret that Seattle's strength also lies with its bullpen. In August, they allowed the third-fewest runs in the majors -- 24 in 87 innings pitched -- and tied with the Royals for fewest blown saves, with zero. Designated closer Fernando Rodney converted nine saves, good for third-best in MLB. Even so, he nearly tripled the number of hits he allowed in July and doubled the number of runs given up.

McClendon spoke to the Tacoma News Tribune about Rodney's performance, explaining that his relievers should receive no more than four days of rest before an outing so that their command stays sharp. "I like to see that guys have had three days (of rest)," he told the Tribune's Bob Dutton. "That means they're really fresh and ready to go. But when you start getting to four days, then rust comes into play." Unfortunately for the skipper, he's working with an eight-man bullpen, making it increasingly difficult to ensure that each reliever gets the right balance of rest and work.

Lowlights

These were the Mariners' worst three pitchers in August by fWAR:

Player IP SO/9 BB/9 BABIP xFIP fWAR
Felix Hernandez 32.2 7.44 1.10 .247 3.06 0.0
Erasmo Ramirez 7.1 3.68 2.45 .414 6.00 -0.1
Joe Beimel 6.1 7.11 0.00 .222 3.33 -0.3

Of course, it's not fair to lump in Felix with Ramirez and Beimel, who each saw fewer than 10 innings in the month. Ramirez displayed some of his best and worst work in August, shutting out the White Sox through 4 1/3 innings, then turning around two weeks later and serving up 10 runs and one strikeout to the Rangers over three innings.

While Erasmo erased some of the control issues that had plagued him during June, his command was shaky. A brief demotion to Triple-A saw the 24-year-old in the bullpen, where he pitched two innings of relief and allowed two hits, two runs, and three strikeouts. In September, as was mentioned yesterday, McClendon wants the young right-hander to continue pitching out of the 'pen, though he might see a start or two if necessary.

Ramirez wasn't the only starter facing command issues in August. In Boston, Chris Young pitched his briefest start since April, giving up seven hits, three runs, and matching a season-high five walks in 3 2/3 innings. It was enough to give McClendon pause as the team approached September, especially since Young's 151 innings pitched are the most the 35-year-old has handled in seven years.

Roenis Elias complicated McClendon's September deliberations even further, going 0-4 in five starts and racking up a season-high 15 walks in 26 1/3 innings. Like Young, Elias is also facing an uncharacteristically heavy workload, and couldn't quite find his footing after a 10-day respite in Tacoma. Although the 26-year-old has assembled a solid 1.4 fWAR season so far, he's also courting a 3.92 xFIP and has dipped below .500 with a 10-12 record.

Even Felix Hernandez didn't have his best month in August, though the setbacks he faced were hardly big enough to derail his position atop the AL leaderboard. He followed in Iwakuma's footsteps with 3+ runs in back-to-back outings for the first time since May. The lowest point of the month came in the Mariners' 8-3 loss to Washington, when Felix granted the Nationals a career-high four home runs. It marked the seventh time in a decade that the ace had given up three or more homers. Despite all of this, Felix still leads the American League with a 2.59 xFIP and 5.5 fWAR in 206 innings.

Your turn: What are the biggest challenges facing the Mariners' pitching staff going forward? Can Chris Young and Erasmo Ramirez recover from their command struggles in a playoff push?