Eleven and seventeen. If you'd have asked me where this team would be on May 8th, I wouldn't have guessed anywhere near 11-17. Maybe 17-11, but I don't think anyone thought they'd lie at the bottom of the division in mid-May. That's Bull Durham territory. Baseball can be a cruel game though, and so tonight the M's return home in last place while toting one of the worst run differentials in the league.
While the performance on the field hasn't looked good -- is there a way to look good while playing sub-.400 baseball? -- there are plausible reasons why the Mariners can expect their season to turn around soon. Some of the club's better players haven't caught fire yet, but beyond that, there are a few team-wide areas ripe for positive regression. Let's take a look at a few of the more obvious places where we can realistically project improvement:
Batting Average on Balls in Play
BABIP has been around for long enough that mentioning it in the midst of a poor streak feels like excuse making. There was a time when a lot of baseball analysis went something like 'X is over-performing and because his BABIP is high, we can expect regression.' Rinse and repeat. Nobody really wants to hear about BABIP anymore.
The thing is, the principle still applies, and the Mariners have had some poor luck on contact. With a .263 BABIP, they're tied for last in the league in the category. They probably won't have a good BABIP when all is said in done: they play in an offense suppressing environment, and they have a lot of lefties who will make outs hitting into the shift. But only one team has finished with a BABIP south of .270 since 2000 and even in a low-offense environment, it's not unreasonable to think that the Mariners will significantly out-hit what they've done so far. The 2010 Mariners hit .282 when they made contact for crying out loud, and half the players on that team couldn't hit the ball out of the infield.
Hard & Soft Contact
I almost don't want to mention the hard contact and soft contact metrics that Fangraphs recently unveiled. Any new toy like this is bound to have some kinks and the last batch of subjective batted ball data to attract scrutiny proved to be littered with human bias. It's best to avoid drawing strong conclusions from this data.
That said, the Mariners are second in the league in hard% and second to last in soft%. In time, we may find out that that's not necessarily good, but it's probably not a bad thing either. Hitting the ball hard is great. One statistical evaluation says the Mariners are doing that a lot. Celebrate appropriately.
The frustrating part is that the Mariners haven't really taken advantage of all those well struck balls. Remember their BABIP? It's really low for a team that hits the ball hard a lot:
That .263 sticks out like a particularly sore thumb. If we expect the Mariners BABIP to improve, and we probably should, the team's collective hard% can't make you feel less confident that they'll regress positively.
If you're wondering, Nelson Cruz isn't responsible for a disproportionate amount of the hard contact. He's second on the team in hard% behind Seth Smith, of all people, and within a fraction of Robinson Cano and Logan Morrison.
If you feel like the M's have hit a bunch of homers with nobody on base, you're not wrong. The Mariners are tied for fourth in the league with thirty-five dingers, but thirteen of those (37%) have come with nobody on base. The Angels, for sake of comparison, have had men aboard for twenty-four of their twenty-six home runs.
The Mariners aren't leading the league in solo home run percentage, but only the Rangers at 50% are significantly ahead of them. Some of the teams with similar solo home run percentages include Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Washington. Like the Mariners, those three clubs looked like decent playoff bets before the season, and like Seattle, they've gotten off to a slow start. It's hard to win a lot of games if your homers only plate one run. Since teams generally hit better with runners on base than they do with the bases empty, there's no real reason to expect this trend to continue.
Last week, Jake wrote about how the Mariners have played a surprising number of really close games this season. It's strange that the Mariners haven't won a single game by more than three runs -- the White Sox are last in the AL in runs scored and even they've done it twice -- but they also haven't performed well in close games. They have a losing record in one-run contests and they've already suffered five walk off defeats after only having six such losses in all of 2014. Games like those are essentially coin flips, and it's not unreasonable to think heads could come up a few more times in the future than it has over the season's first month.
You might also find it interesting that four of Seattle's six walk-off losses last year came before the first weekend in May. We've seen this stabilize before.
Smart Projection Systems
The Mariners have given us a lot of reasons to not like them. The smart projection metrics have heard those reasons too, but aren't really buying it. Fangraphs still thinks the Mariners have the second best playoff odds in the AL West, behind only the red hot Astros. Baseball Prospectus still doesn't think the Astros are all that good and projects the M's to catch Houston by the end of the year. For as badly as the Mariners have fared, the Angels and A's aren't running away with the division, and the only team playing well right now has spent the last half-decade as the doormat of the league. There's plenty of time for Houston to cool off and for Seattle to play better.
There are still problems with the roster, but some of the more egregious holes have been plugged. We now have a shortstop who can reliably throw to first base. We shouldn't have to give Willie Bloomquist more than a token inning or two in the middle infield anymore. Tyler Olson is no longer throwing in high leverage situations. This is a better and more balanced team than it was a month ago.
It's possible that the Mariners just aren't a very good team. Perhaps their lefties can't beat the shift. Maybe the bullpen won't improve, and there's at least a mathematical chance that this is a .350 team on days Felix Hernandez isn't pitching. It's more likely, however, that the M's are about to play up to their potential. We just need to see a few more line drives find the grass instead of a glove. Perhaps Cruz's next blast will come with runners on the corners instead of with the bases empty. We don't need Dustin Ackley to become an all star to salvage the season: we just need our talented team to produce slightly different outcomes. And there's a decent chance that they're about to do so.