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The failure of the Mariners rotation

If the Mariners are going to play at least one game more than 162, the team's starters need to start pitching deeper into games.

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Now, before that headline gets this post off on the wrong foot let me be clear: I am not calling the Mariners' rotation a failure. That sort of grand, sweeping statement is best left to the millionaire yell-persons you can find on your television from 2-5 every afternoon, on various media conglomerates.

The Mariners rotation was built to be a strength of the team. They traded for Nathan Karns and Wade Miley, and dipped beyond their intended depth in the company coffers to snatch away Hisashi Iwakuma from the evil clutches of Magic Johnson and Co. The rotation was designed to chew through innings, allow an improved offense a chance, and to keep an almost entirely new bullpen, consisting of reclamation projects and recently converted starters, off the field.

The rotation has not been a disaster. Despite sleepily losing the past two games, and an atrocious month of June, the Mariners are 43-41. Nothing has really been a disaster. But the idea of the rotation as a foundational asset for this team is long gone.

Due to a lingering foot issue last night Taijuan Walker was only able to throw four innings last night. It marked the thirty-second time this year a Mariner pitcher had thrown five or fewer innings. That feels like a lot, and based off team history, there’s a reason for that. The current pace spread out over 162 games would result in 61 starts of five or fewer innings. Here are the totals from previous Mariner teams, going back through the Safeco Field Era:

Mariner starting pitching appearances of <=5 IP

2016: 32 (on pace for 61)
2015: 46
2014: 53
2013: 51
2012: 41
2011: 36
2010: 38
2009: 51
2008: 59
2007: 45
2006: 46
2005: 50
2004: 44
2003: 30
2002: 39
2001: 44
2000: 45

A few notes here:

  • Bref did not count Adrian Sampson's "start" in Boston where he left before throwing a pitch, and I did not add it in, because I didn't know if other seasons had similar occurrences.
  • I didn't go back and check league average rates of starts like this over ever season, primarily because of time constraints. I can say that in 2016 the American League has had 414 starts matching this search criteria. Not counting the Mariners' thirty-two the rest of the American League is averaging 27.29 such starts. So the Mariners are indeed well below league average in 2016 in getting starters beyond the fifth inning.
  • Why the fifth inning? Because tradition, and the dumb arbitrary point of a pitcher "win", and the fact that I had to draw it somewhere. If you have a better suggestion, I'd love to hear it.
The Mariners' starting pitchers have not been "bad". Their 4.43 FIP is 9th in the American League, and 4.27 ERA 5th. But starting pitching is more than pure run prevention. The vast majority of baseball teams do not have the luxury of 3-4 elite innings of relief pitching every night. A starter helps his team's chances of winning not just by preventing runs, but also by working deep enough in the game to form a direct bridge to the best relievers in the bullpen. Mariner starters have done a fairly good job of run prevention, but far too often they have exposed the soft underbelly of the the relief corps, and it has cost them dearly.

For a team already forced to use nine starting pitchers, due largely to injury, these struggles are predictable, and it's hard to be too disappointed with the front office for the rotation's performance. But as we've said so many times about seemingly so many different facets of this team: There is the opportunity for a true post season push in 2016, and the rotation will need to start going deeper into games more regularly if the Mariners are going to take advantage of it.