The Mariners have just wrapped up, by far, their most successful April of the decade. The team is 13-10. Mariner pitchers have the second best FIP in the American League, fourth highest K%, and eighth lowest BB%. Offensively Seattle's 105 wRC+ is fifth in the AL. It's bad form to paragraph break into a single sentence paragraph for emphasis but I'm doing it here anyway:
The Mariners (the Seattle Mariners, the baseball team we root for) are tied for the highest BB% in the American League, at 9.7%.
There has been a lot of reason to be excited, but the season is a long one, and we've only completed one of the season's six months. Despite their fine play in April they are still chasing the Rangers by a half game. Things are not perfect, and we may have to start judging this team by higher standards than those of a typical Mariner team. After all, the Seattle Mariners have the best run differential (+24) in the American League.
With all this foreign, heady context I asked some of the staff to share their biggest positive/negative takeaways from the season's first month.
The one thing I'm the most excited about is the continued success of Nelson Cruz. At the time of the signing, many people expected Cruz to be awesome for one year, average for the next, and bad-to-terrible for two. Here we are in year two of Cruz and everything still looks good. His wRC+ sits at 162, which is actually better than last year's 158. His strikeout rate, which is the only thing that has technically "stabilized" by now, is actually the lowest it's ever been in his career at 17.5%. He looks just like the player he was at the end of last year. For Mariners fans, that has to be relieving to see.
If Cruz can go the entire season without breaking down, the signing suddenly looks a lot easier to swallow. Not only that, but if the M's find that they aren't competing this season, they have a higher chance of flipping him at the deadline. Cruz is closing in on 36 years and showing no signs of stopping yet. It's still just April. But a hot start is much better than the alternative, especially when you're still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I'm excited and concerned about the same thing: the Mariners' ace.
He's only four starts into the season, sure, but Felix Hernandez - our King - has lost more than a tick or two off his fastball. After hitting between 92-93 MPH on his heater a year ago, he's hovering around 90-91 so far. Sure, his stats haven't taken much of a downfall: he's allowed one earned run or fewer in three of his four outings, and his ERA+ is a sparkling 197. But it's tough to confront the reality that Felix is now in his 30s, with an elbow history worrying enough that the Mariners insisted on a clause in his contract to get an extra year at $1 million if he misses significant time, and with worrying control thus far.
But as one ace is down, another has risen, and Prince Taijuan Walker looks ready to take over Felix's mantle soon enough. He was dominant on Monday, especially in the sixth and seventh. We've been waiting for him to break out for a while. After seeing him in the spring of 2015, I thought he was going to be dominant, but a horrid April put a damper on his entire season. This is the Tai that I hoped we'd see. This is the Tai I want to see for a long time. 25 Ks to 3 walks is an absurd ratio, and it's unlikely he'll maintain it, but if he can keep it close then watch out, world, because there's another superstar fireballer in Seattle.
What a ride April has been. The team, by all accounts, has yet to fire on all cylinders, with parts of the lineup still relatively cool (Kyle whaddup), and some strange bullpen usage, yet here we sit in the thick of things and above .500. I can't really complain about anything going on right now, yet I will. Kyle Seager, and I know it's typical of him, has had yet another slow start hitting in the middle of a lineup full of scary bats. There are larger holes than his own, first base looks like it could be an interesting year, but Kyle is someone this lineup is built around. We need that production to step up to it's normal heights.
The excitement has to be all about Robinson Cano. His bat is absolutely electric and that four game power surge to start the year really hasn't slowed down. We may actually be watching an MVP year here. As well, Tai Walker (my pre-season Cy Young pick) looks totally studly. Finally, Chris Iannetta has already accumulated half a win at catcher, Leonys Martin essentially the same in center field, and Nelson Cruz looks as if he just may terrorize the world again. The bullpen has been sorta fun, huh?
Let those #biztimes roll
Probably the player I was most worried for/excited about coming into the season was Ketel Marte. I love an underdog story, and a kid coming out of seemingly nowhere, on nobody's prospect watch list, to slash a .283/.351/.402 to provide a spark at the end of a dismal season was one of the few fun things about the 2015 Mariners. Trading away Brad Miller was an enormous vote of confidence in the 22-year-old, and we entered this season wondering if Ketel could replicate his success from last year. After a strong spring it looked like Ketel was ready to pick up where he left off, but they say spring stats don't matter for a reason. Ketel opened 2016 with three errors, already 1/3 of his total in 51 games last year, and went hitless in 7 out of the first 12 games. However, over the past week he's put together a seven-game hitting streak, with multiple hits in four of those games. His defense has stabilized and he's helped turn 11 double plays so far (the Mariners turned the 10th-most double plays in the league last year, and that number should only increase with the addition of Wade Miley). His walk rate is absurdly low, not even half of league average at 4%, so one will hope that turns around, but he's lowered his strikeout ratio to 16.7%, well below the league average of 20.5%. Overall, I'm not totally past being worried for Ketel, but I believe in his ability to learn and improve, and I'm very excited for a year where I don't panic silently every time a sharp grounder is hit to short. Also, the Ketel/Robi connection is a joy to watch, on the field and off.
*Climbs up the world's largest mountain*
*Digs the world's deepest hole*
*Whispers into hole:
"Felix's sharp decline in velocity"
*Refills hole, flees, changes name, goes to live in cabin deep in Appalachia*
When looking at the roster before the season started it was easy to be excited about a few things. However, if there was one aspect of this team that had the potential to be truly elite, it was the starting rotation. And by and large, it has been hugely encouraging thus far. Mariner starters are averaging 6.1 IP per start, and recently completed a full turn through the order with every starter pitching at least seven innings.
As with much of the team it is the rotation's depth that stands out. Despite a very fickle relationship towards the strike zone Nathan Karns has flashed an above average pitch arsenal, and just stared down Dallas Keuchel and the, admittedly last place, Astros on Tuesday night. The ability to have a number five starter able to go toe to toe with other team's ace is an enormous luxury.
Yes there are concerns about Felix, and Iwakuma has been far from dominant. But the Mariners' pitching depth appears to have them situated with one of the AL's best starting rotations, and that is a comfortable foundation to rest the team's hopes on.
Look, we've already discussed this a few times, and it's not an argument I want to get into again, but Scott Servais' bullpen management is freaking me out. He clearly feels that Joel Peralta is a pitcher that deserves the majority of non-closing, high leverage innings. Vidal Nuno is being left to gather moth balls, Tony Zych and his Dark Lord's Frisbee are being used in a mop up role.
I will grant that the bullpen has largely performed well above my expectations, and so I will cede the obvious possibility that Scott Servais is a genius and I'm just a doofus with a computer. But I keep waiting for the bullpen collapses, because they feel inevitable. Perhaps they are inevitable no matter what, but it seems Servais is at times hastening their approach. In a season where every win may actually count for something meaningful, here's to hoping the team's bullpen management doesn't cost them more than they can afford.