Earlier today, in one of my favorite pieces from a season filled with good writing, John wrote about his memories of past Mariners playoff dreams, and how the efforts of those teams imbued childhood memories. It’s something I think many of you relate to; growing up in Seattle, or surrounding areas of the Pacific Northwest, loving this baseball team. And they were so easily lovable then, flush with legitimate stars and Seth Smith-esque players alike, seemingly always in the thick of the AL West (though maybe that’s just years of nostalgia talking). I wish I had those memories. The first time I saw the Mariners play was not at Safeco Field, nor in the Kingdome, but in the aboveground pit of sewage and misery, O.co. My fandom developed in a time when the Mariners were peak, well, Mariners. Instead of Edgar, Griffey, Buhner, I had Ichiro, Raul, Betancourt and Mike Morse Part 1; you didn’t have to know much about baseball to watch those guys and recognize that they weren’t exactly an optimal team. The postseason was something to be enjoyed vicariously, through the success of other, smarter people’s teams.
I share my truncated fandom with you, because it made 2014 feel even more monumental. For many Mariners fans that was the first time the playoffs seemed like a legitimately tangible thing but now, just two years removed from that season, we find ourselves in a similar position, so it is natural to compare the two. Both teams screwed around, in one way or another, to create pressure for the final homestand of the season. It’s possible that, by the end of this season, both teams will have been waylaid by our less-than-friendly neighbors from the North (okay, technically, geographically speaking they’re South of us, but you get what I mean). If things end poorly, it is also possible that both teams may end with the same heartbreaking record. Inexplicably, all but one member of the starting rotation remain the same. Three of the top four WAR players are still in the top four. But actually, that’s a good place to highlight the differences between these teams too because, for all their parallels, these two teams are startlingly different.
Let’s look, for a moment, at the Mariners top 12 players by WAR in 2014 and 2016, courtesy of baseball-reference.
As a lover of symmetry, I find it wonderful that both Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton remain equal at 4th and 12th best WAR, respectively. Interestingly enough, since 2014 their values have both shifted by 0.4, with Iwakuma stretching from a 2.5 WAR player to a 2.9 WAR player and Paxton, due in part to fewer starts this season, has been worth 1 WAR rather than 1.4 WAR. Beyond that, we’re remind just how reliant that 2014 team was on good pitching; pitchers within that top 12 account for 14.8 WAR, while this season’s pitching top 12 have a mere 10.2 WAR. This is reinforced further when you look at the 554 runs allowed by the 2014 staff, as opposed to the 694 runs allowed in 2016 (and they say the ball isn’t juiced). On the other end of things, this 2016 Mariners team has had the kind of offensive season we didn’t think possible in the Safeco era. They’ve scored over 100 more runs than the 2014 team, and there are still three games left to play.
Now that I’ve done my due diligence, and offered a handful of numbers, let’s talk more abstractly about the differences between these two teams. First and foremost in my mind is that 2014 felt lucky, fluky even. That team was far from dominant, with just nine days spent at the top of the division, way back in April. They were shutout by opponents a staggering 19 times and were walked off in six games, while only winning two. In one-run games they were practically the anti-Rangers, with an abysmal 18-27 record. In stark contrast, our 2016 team clung to the division title for over a month, and has only allowed themselves to be shutout 6 times throughout the entire season. They’ve managed eight walkoff wins, maintained two different eight game winning streaks, and overcame a ten run deficit.
All of that and I haven’t even touched on the actual players on this team. Sure, there’s a noticeable lack of Endy Chavez this season, but I still maintain this has been one of the most fun-to-watch teams in years. They have the baseball prowess, yes, but they also have…dare I get cheesy now, the heart. You watch the way these men interact, on the field and in the clubhouse, and you can see teamwork functioning on an exemplary level. I don’t agree with everything Scott Servais has done, but what he set out to do in Spring Training, to bring the team together and let them have fun, has worked. We’ve had the Swelmet, and Edgar victory tweets, and the Mariners Games, and the best rookie dress-up day in MLB. We watch baseball for the game itself, yes, but we also watch for the opportunities to experience human triumph, even if it is only secondhand. That’s the thing that really sets this team apart for me; the incredible stories this team has given us. Dae-Ho Lee was a Hail Mary offseason signing who has since stolen the hearts of his teammates and fans alike. Guillermo Heredia hadn’t played a game of professional baseball in over a year, since defecting from Cuba, but he powered through the minor leagues and found himself on the grass of Safeco Field, catching catapulted water balloons for the Green Team. Hisashi Iwakuma wasn’t even supposed to be in Seattle, and he certainly wasn’t supposed to have made every single one of his starts this season.
I could go on and on, with further stories about this team, but I’d rather read about your own favorites down in the comments below. All that I’m left to remind you of now is that yes, there’s a chance this team may end their season like 2014, just one game shy of glory, but there’s also a chance for the pieces to finally all come together. We will live and die by the wins or losses of these next three days, but in the midst of all that I implore you to enjoy the smaller pieces of what makes this team so special. Watch the bullpen go through their elaborate pre-game high fives; smile when the ROOT broadcast once again shows Leonys Martin yelling for his teammates while leaning over the dugout rail; cheer your heart out the second you hear the crack of Nelson Cruz’s bat sending a ball soaring farther than you thought it could travel. For at least three more games this is our team, and they are all that matter.