In the old days, back before there was Twitter or the Internet or any of this newfangled technology, baseball fans used to curse at the Baseball Gods, screaming and ranting about bad luck that their favorite team had befallen.
Most of the time, those cries were pretty unfounded. Sure, there are so many times during a game for something to bounce the wrong way that a couple are bound to go against your team. But over a 162-game season, things tend to even out.
So far this year for the Mariners, before Dae-Ho "Bae-Ho" Lee's walkoff homer (incidentally, the first rookie pinch-hit walkoff dinger in Mariners history, though that's a laundry list of qualifications), things had not evened out.
Let's take a look at just how unlucky the M's have been, and what we can expect going forward.
Over a full season, the league's batting average on balls in play (also known as BABIP) stabilizes around .300. It's remarkably consistent: over the past 15 seasons, the league BABIP has fluctuated between .293 and .303, with no clear shift after the steroids era.
If a team's BABIP is markedly lower than .300, one can expect that same BABIP to increase over time. This doesn't mean that luck "evens out," but rather that the team should still have a .300 BABIP over the rest of the season. Bad luck has no reason to continue.
And right now, the M's have been sporting a healthy dose of bad luck.
Home BABIP after 5 games is .193, that will go up— Jesse Smith (@JSmith_SEA) April 13, 2016
Don't worry - yesterday's walkoff win raised the M's home BABIP all the way to .199! That still puts the Mariners in second-to-last place in the league, one spot ahead of the Padres (because of course the Padres are in last).
How about overall, including that season-opening road trip? I'm glad you asked. Let's play a little game, called "Guess Which Team BABIP Belongs to the Mariners?"
If you guessed that last one, ding ding ding, you're a winner! The gap between 30th and 29th (the Rays) is bigger than the gap between 29th and 21st (that .274 figure at the top belonging to the White Sox).
This is, as one current presidential candidate likes to say, YUUUUUGE. How absurdly low is the M's BABIP right now? Well, I now present to you the complete list of teams with a season-long BABIP at .250 or below:
It's no coincidence that these are all clustered together. 1968 was such a pitcher's year that they lowered the mound afterwards, and 1966-1967 weren't much better. 1942, meanwhile, was during World War II, which leads me to guess that there's a connection between replacement players and less success with batted balls.
This means that, soon enough, the hard-hit balls are going to get through. They're going to find holes, rather than be magnetically attracted to Elvis Andrus' glove. And the Mariners will hit better as a result.
No more of this please, K-SWAG.
Hitting the Ball Hard
It follows that if you hit the ball softly, it's easier to field. If you hit it harder, then more of those are going to be hits. This is simple. And if you look up and down the Mariners lineup, you'll see a trend: These guys love to hit the ball hard.
Here is last year's hard-hit leaderboard, as tracked by Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information.
2015 MLB hard-hit rate leaderboard ... plenty of surprises, check it out pic.twitter.com/7n0ZXEjJ9I— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) October 6, 2015
Note that four Mariners can be found in the top 45, including three relatively recent acquisitions (Cano, Cruz, and Smith). This is no coincidence - the prevailing wisdom is that in order to beat Safeco Field and the marine layer, you need guys that can tear the cover off the ball. Plus, it's always fun to see guys absolutely demolish baseballs (see: Cano, Robinson, in the first series against the Texas Rangers).
But it matters a lot less how hard you hit it if you only hit it on the ground, and especially if you don't hit many line drives. This year, the Mariners are dead last in line drive percentage (14.3%, compared to a league rate of 20.4%) and fourth in baseball in ground ball percentage (48.7%, with a league rate of 44.6%).
And a year after finishing second in the bigs in hard-hit percentage, at 31.1%, the Mariners have fallen to 17th overall at 27.9%.
Even with the elimination of players like Logan Morrison, who would hit the ball quite hard (though hitting the ball was, admittedly, something of a special event) when he made contact, going from 2nd to 17th seems like too precipitous of a drop. Something tells me that Robinson Cano's .080 BABIP will trend upwards soon, for example, since the six-time All-Star has a career BABIP of .322. He'll start hitting line drives that steer clear of fielders soon enough, and the rest of the team will join him as well. Once that happens, expect some improvement in this area.
On the other side of the ball (man, that idiom really works way better in football), the M's have been, well, right around average. They've allowed a .299 BABIP, so there's no sign of forthcoming regression to the mean. The staff has done a good job limiting hard contact, tied for the ninth-best hard-contact rate allowed in all of baseball (and fourth-best in the AL).
With a 3.95 ERA, it seems like, based on the preceding paragraph, there isn't room to get better.
There is one sign, however, that the Mariners are pitching better than expected. It's related to the organizational philosophy: Control the Zone.
The new #Mariners front office regime is bringing an organizational focus to controlling the strike zone.https://t.co/zgV2HyTUq3— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) December 28, 2015
I really love the above video (and not just because I make a surprise appearance!). It's great that the M's are focusing on strikeouts and walks, and one major reason is that their value is higher than many think.
SIERA is a statistic readily available on Fangraphs. It stands for Skill-Interactive ERA, and as Fangraphs says:
while FIP and xFIP largely ignore balls in play — they focus on strikeouts, walks, and homeruns instead — SIERA adds in complexity in an attempt to more accurately model what makes a pitcher successful. SIERA doesn’t ignore balls in play, but attempts to explain why certain pitchers are more successful at limiting hits and preventing runs.
And while the Mariners rank just 18th in ERA, they rank 4th in SIERA, thanks to top-five ranks in strikeouts and bases on balls.
In other words, ERA doesn't accurately capture how good the Mariners' pitching staff has been this season. As a relentless optimist (sorry not sorry), I see that as a sign that the team is going to finish with a very solid year from its pitchers.
And, of course, if that can be combined with a little more luck at the plate, then this team is gonna be alright.