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Mariners' offense stays steady in playoff push

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Seattle hit peak offensive production in August -- now, the trick is to keep it going through September.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Everything was working for the Mariners last month.

After going 11-14 in July, their offense ascended from last place in the major leagues -- toting 73 runs and 0.9 fWAR in 25 games -- to eighth place. They led the AL West with a 104 wRC+ and 19 stolen bases, both good for the sixth-highest totals in MLB. By the end of the month, they had improved enough to contend for the second wild card spot, finishing just half a game back from the Tigers.

This is how the AL West shook out in August, sorted by overall value:

Team PA Runs wRC+ fWAR
Mariners 990 123 104 4.0
Angels 1107 120 95 3.2
Astros 1094 122 101 2.7
Athletics 1064 103 85 2.4
Rangers 1056 105 75 0.2

With a total of 123 runs, the Mariners held a monthly average of 4.55 runs per game, their highest mark since May and almost double their average production rate in July. As of August 31, they held a 67-20 record in games where they scored at least three runs.

Seattle's high production rate was marked by significant improvements in almost every area. They came close to doubling their home run total, finishing the month with 22 homers, boosting their walk rate from 5.4% to 7.5%, and sustaining the third-lowest strikeout count in MLB, with 183 whiffs -- an average of 6.7 per game (the Red Sox trailed all major league teams with an average of 8.78 strikeouts per game).

Here's how the month shook out on an individual basis:

Highlights

These were the Mariners' five best hitters in August by fWAR:

Name PA AVG OBP SLG BABIP wRC+ fWAR
Robinson Cano 110 .305 .400 .516 .293 154 1.2
Dustin Ackley 115 .280 .325 .533 .276 142 1.1
Chris Taylor 80 .300 .375 .357 .396 114 0.8
Kyle Seager 110 .247 .318 .381 .244 101 0.6
Endy Chavez 54 .326 .404 .500 .389 160 0.4

Despite a few niggling health concerns, including a spell of dizziness and a sore right foot, Robinson Cano ranked fourth-most valuable among American League hitters in August. From July to August, he maintained a level defensive and offensive value. According to FanGraphs, the biggest change came with a season-high five home runs in 21 games.

"He knows when he’s good," reliever Joe Beimel told MLB.com columnist Tracy Ringolsby the day after the second baseman went yard in Seattle’s 11-1 blowout against Toronto. "When you know you are good, you can go out and play relaxed."

Of course, rubbing Adrian Beltre’s head for good luck didn’t hurt, either.

Dustin Ackley also cracked the top ten most valuable hitters in the AL, tied at 1.1 fWAR with Jose Ramirez, Jose Abreu, and Victor Martinez. He ranked fifth in home runs, with six, and stolen bases, with five. (Austin Jackson was one of the other eight batters to reach five stolen bases in August as well.)

Overall, Ackley saw considerable improvement from July to August, increasing his value from 0.9 fWAR to 1.1. He doubled his walk rate to 6.1% and decreased his strikeout rate to 12.2%. His home run count shot up to six on the month (best among Mariners hitters), and he contributed an extra 15 RBI, bringing his total to 24 in August alone – good for third in the American League.

According to FanGraphs, Kyle Seager’s value diminished slightly from July to August, scaling back to a modest 0.6 fWAR in 27 games. Although he racked up slightly fewer hits than he had in previous months, Seager stayed fairly consistent in his production rate, keeping a walk rate of 8.2% and churning out another four home runs to stay on pace for roughly 25 homers on the year. One area in which he demonstrated positive change was his strikeout rate, bringing it down from 18.3% to 11.8% in August. Looking at the big picture, he’s still the Mariners’ most valuable hitter, with 5.5 fWAR on the season.

Lowlights

These were the Mariners' five worst hitters in August by fWAR:

Name PA AVG OBP SLG BABIP wRC+ fWAR
Chris Denorfia 52 .224 .250 .286 .297 48 -0.4
Kendrys Morales 109 .255 .321 .388 .278 101 -0.2
Mike Zunino 70 .143 .229 .270 .219 44 -0.1
Jesus Sucre 31 .233 .233 .267 .333 37 0.0
Austin Jackson 120 .265 .308 .319 .353 79 0.2

There were few surprises here. Chris Denorfia completed his first full month in a Seattle uniform, filling in as a fourth outfielder and providing Lloyd McClendon with another right-handed bat. Toward the end of the month, Denorfia succumbed to recurring neck stiffness and began working his way back to the field with a brief stint at DH.

August also marked Kendrys Morales' first month since the Twins traded him away in July. Among qualified batters in the American League, he was the fifth-least valuable hitter last month, dragging -0.2 fWAR and keeping company with the likes of Derek Norris, Coco Crisp, and Derek Jeter. While splitting time between first base and DH, Morales made slight improvements on his season totals, hitting his first home run since June and raising his batting average from .216 in July to .255 with seven extra base hits and nine walks.

Mike Zunino was stuck in a rut last month. He nearly doubled his strikeout rate at a whopping 41.4% in 70 PA, accumulating 29 whiffs while reaching base just 16 times. Three times out of 16, the catcher reached base after getting plunked, bringing his season total to a league-leading 14. No Mariner has been hit as often as Zunino since Jose Guillen took 19 pitches in 2007.

Lloyd McClendon allayed some concerns about Zunino to the Tacoma News Tribune last week, citing the backstop's speedy advancement to the major leagues as proof of his successful future. "Are there going to be times when you wonder if he's ever going to get a hit again?" McClendon was quoted by the Tribune's Bob Dutton. "Yeah. He's also got more home runs than any catcher in the American League. He's doing a few things right."

Your turn: What do the Mariners need to do to stay competitive in September? What will their biggest challenge be in keeping the Tigers away from the second wild card?