Sports exist to distract. The same can be said for so many different types of entertainment, but the hold is particularly strong with sports. For those obsessed, their ability to draw our minds away from occasionally burdensome day-to-day responsibilities are an essential, though usually not spoken about, part of their appeal.
At their peak, they make us forget that we're adults, that we have jobs, that we should probably get back to the long and growing list of things we should be working on and working towards. And sometimes, for those who can't go more than than a week or two without attaching a significant chunk of one's mental well-being to a children's game upon which we have no control, sports distract us from other sports.
And that's where we are in Seattle, where Sunday's events have a significant number of sports fans turning their eyes to baseball. Now, for most sports fans, unless you're from Boston—which, just, get out—you have your good team and your bad team. In Seattle, the roles have stayed the same for much of the past few years. Though, things are changing. I won't say the Mariners are on the same level as the Seahawks—because, come on—but the gap is closing.
Seattle, you have a baseball team again—and a good one.
Most here have seen me write that phrase or something similar several times before. On the eve of Opening Day last year, I wrote that the 2014 version of this team was "good enough to make people pay attention," and it did, delivering that bridge year we’d long been waiting on.
And, honestly, the reason I was confident the Mariners would be respectably decent was that the math said they would. When you looked up and down the roster, evaluating how much value the stars and role players could contribute, it made sense. And last year’s projection models backed that up.
Pegged for 81 or 82 wins—remember, these are median projections with room for sway in either direction—the Mariners were expected to be a middle-of-the-pack team. Interesting, at least. This year, the math says something else. The math says they’re one of the best teams in baseball.
Here, take a look at the Steamer-powered Fangraphs projected standings:
Again, the 89 wins for the Mariners and 90 and 91 for the top teams are a median projection—normally all teams need some over performance to get into the mid- and high-90s. But yeah, there’s one model saying the Mariners will win the most games in the American League, a touch behind the best teams in the game.
There’s one more full-league projection system out thus far, in Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA model, that isn’t as confident in the Mariners. It doesn’t have them winning the division. It has them winning 87 games, tied for second-best in the American League with the Red Sox, two games back of the Angels. Second-best in the American League—and that’s the more conservative of the two models.
If projections aren’t really your thing, that’s fine. I mean, all they’re doing are adding up expected performances from players, creating a total for each team and contextualizing it—but whatever, that’s alright.
Here, if it helps, are the Vegas odds for winning the World Series.
The Mariners have the 8th-best title odds in baseball, 4th in the American League. Oddly, Bovada gives them the third-best odds to win the American League, ahead of the Tigers. Weird. But yeah, still good.
Now, it’s important to remember that the point of Vegas odds isn’t to accurately capture each team’s odds of doing whatever it is they say they're going to do—it’s to make sure Vegas doesn’t lose money. So if large sums are coming in on the Cubs or other what are called "public teams," Vegas has to adjust the odds such that, if they do win, and we survive the apocalypse, Vegas is still able to break even or come close.
Then, of course, there’s the basic eye test. Sporting News has the Mariners winning the West and advancing to the American League Championship Series.
There are a few other publications taking note of what the Mariners have built.
Winter Report Card: The @Mariners quietly take a step forward on offense (via @CliffCorcoran) http://t.co/4wHvPCyMS9 pic.twitter.com/TT9ZYNxswq— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) February 3, 2015
Mariners poised to emerge as AL West power http://t.co/w7aYxrdyIE via @mlb— Lyle Spencer (@LyleMSpencer) January 22, 2015
Now, things could all go wrong, that I’ll acknowledge. Anyone joining now who didn’t experience the ride and the step forward that was last year is bound to have a healthy heap of skepticism related to the Mariners. Hell, most people who watched everyday last year are bound to feel the same. Part of that’s baseball, part of that’s the Mariners.
"They had the same type of years in 2007 and 2009, then followed it up with nothing," you say, which isn’t entirely unreasonable. Two times we thought the Mariners had taken the step I and others they believe they took last year, and two times they've fallen on their faces.
Here's the thing, which the regulars around here know, but newcomers might not: those teams weren't actually that good. The 85-win 2009 version was outscored by its opponents by 52 runs over the course of that season, where the 88-win 2007 squad was outscored by 27. The 2014 Mariners scored 80 more runs than they allowed, the sixth-best run differential in baseball.
Run differential is a simple stat, one that is frequently overlooked and discounted—because it does have its flaws—but it is important. Hell, general managers themselves use it.
While, as manager Lloyd McClendon says, "we don't start from 87, we start from zero," the Mariners still do have quite the base to build upon.
Beyond performance, there are the players. In Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, they have three of 2014's 20 most productive players—and have since added the league leader in home runs. Now, you shouldn't expect another 40-homer campaign from Nelson Cruz, but even something closer to his career line would be a massive step up from 2014's DH performances.
And stepping up is really the tone for this team heading into 2014. As we get closer to Opening Day, you'll see many a writer try to call the Mariners "this year's Royals," and while a World Series berth would be awfully nice, that's a poor way of phrasing things. The Mariners were already last year's Royals, and by some metrics even better.
That isn't to discredit the Royals, as that magic run was something else, but you ask anyone who followed this team all year and they'll say the Mariners were more than capable of making a similarly deep run—and that's why last year stung the way it did, and why anticipation is so high for this season.
If you were to draw parallels to the Seahawks—and this is something I'd generally really advise against—last year's Mariners were the 2012 Seahawks: good, and capable, but still finding their way. Now, this year is here.
But what's happened can't be forgotten, and if you weren't here for that part, just remember that you weren't. As Louis CK recently said, "Self-love is a good thing, but a little bit of self-awareness is much more useful to the rest of us."
If the Mariners are good in 2015, I could give a damn about how many bandwagon fans they draw. Caring not for how long I'll have to wait in line for beers, I want to see 35,000 at Safeco on a random Tuesday night in June. Just remember this is baseball, and baseball's tough.
There will probably be a handful of times in 2015 where we think it's all going to shit. That's the game. If you go 9-7 every sixteen games, that's 91 wins and the playoffs. You can't win every game against a bad team, and you can't just win out over the last third of the season to make everything right. It's a battle, and it's a slog.
But that's all part of the story, a story that looks to be getting to the best part. If you're joining us now, I don't blame you. Last year was as much fun as I've ever had as a sports fan, and this year should be better.
If you're new to LL, welcome—just read the community guidelines and you'll be fine. I recommend you join, because it's great, but yeah—seriously—read those guidelines.
Like I said last year, and like I imagine I'll say every year for as long as I write for this site: let's have some fun.