The Seattle Mariners are probably already screwed.
They’ve lost 4/5ths of their starting pitchers, retaining only Yovani Gallardo from their expected rotation. They’ve seen their breakout right fielder, their All-Star DH, their All-Star shortstop, and their All-Star second baseman miss time. Later today they will announce how long Jean Segura and Nelson Cruz will be out again. With all the injuries and underwhelming starts, this team hasn’t even had the decorum to crater, going .500 in the month of May and finding themselves at a poor but not abysmal 25-30 after June 1st. That’s a .455 winning percentage that has them 3rd from last in the American League. They’re also tauntingly just 4.5 games out of the second Wild Card spot, the same distance they were back on September 8th last year. June is a fair time to do away with the “it’s early” cautioning, but if you have been struggling to bury this season or buy into the idea that they have dug themselves too deep of a hole already, the clumped nature of the AL standings are likely to blame.
At the moment, the AL standings look like this:
Every team has played between 50 and 57 games, with the Twins at the lower end and the Angels at the upper. Putting aside that weather and scheduling absurdity, there are a couple things that probably stand out. First, goddammit the Astros are good. Second, woohoo, we’re better than the A’s at least! Third, the once-buried Blue Jays are now just three games back of a playoff spot. Fourth, there sure are a lot of teams clumped between .550 and .450. In fact, the Mariners are closer in winning percentage to the third-best Red Sox than the second-place Yankees are to the mighty Astros. Moreover, the cellar-dwelling Royals and their 22-30 record are unimpressive, but even they don’t scream dumpster fire. The National League, by comparison, has essentially six teams in the running and perhaps two others hanging on the fringes. The Cubs are 6.5 games back of the second Wild Card and are mathematically further from a playoff spot than the Royals.
Is this normal? Does this matter for the 2017 Mariners?
MLB instituted the second Wild Card spot in 2012. The results have been about as good as the league could have hoped for, with teams attempting to remain competitive for longer in the season and fans remaining engaged with middling teams since one good stretch could now be enough to deliver a playoff berth. By June 1st, there is still plenty to be determined, but usually a few teams have separated themselves, either positively or negatively. Take 2016, for instance:
Since baseball teams are all capable enough, most teams hover between .400 and .600 each year, yet even in this season that was noted for a wide-open race to the finish, we see clear separation at the ~1/3rd marker of the season. 2017’s Red Sox have a .547 winning percentage and own the 3rd highest mark in the AL this year, yet last year at this point they would have been sixth, and on the outside looking in on the playoff race. Besides their confusion at seeing a time-traveling baseball team, the 2016 American League would also be unforgiving for much of the 2017 AL. The top-tier teams had a more even spread of success and put the 8th-best team in the league, the Blue Jays, and their .527 winning percentage, 4.5 GB from the second WC spot, the same distance back the Mariners and their .455 winning percentage find themselves today. This is pretty strange.
In terms of winning percentage of their place in the overall AL standings (13th) the Mariners aren’t all that out of the ordinary in the two Wild Card era:
Again, if anything is going to stand out on this chart, it is likely at the ends. The Astros have been amazing and the Royals have been trash with a lot of moxie. The teal line of 2012 ends early because those were the halcyon days of the four-team AL West and the Astros sulking in the NL cellars. Oh to return to those blessed times. We also see that 2017 is quickly near the lower end of upper-tier teams and the higher end of lower-tier teams as well, looking most closely to mirror 2014 (the red line). Winning percentages can feel less tangible, however, so let’s look at this a different way - comparing teams each year at this point in the season by games back from the second Wild Card:
Now we’re getting somewhere. 2017 is keeping its head and its line on this graph low like a bandit with a haversack full of jewels. 1st place on this graph indicates the team in the 2nd WC spot at the end of June 1st, so the Mariners of 2017 are located 9th on the blue line. 2014 was packed even more tightly, but they’re close. There has never been a season in the American League where the worst playoff team and the worst team overall were so thinly separated, and that makes it difficult to rule anything out, even with this snake-bitten first two months. With so many teams tightly packed, one team making a run could quickly establish themselves, while an extended losing streak might be enough to sink a team.
Coming all the way back to the Mariners, it’s hard to say that this will be meaningfully positive considering the number of players on their MLB DL will likely be 11 by Friday afternoon. Who knows, they may get healthy and go on a tear. They may be sunk with the latest set of injuries and hope to use this trade deadline to retool and attempt to extract maximum value from one of the 10 other fringe “contenders” that this season of universal mediocrity has given hope. They may push the TNT lever and put everything on the block. In spite of their best efforts and the cruelest of injury luck, the Mariners are somewhat begrudgingly not quite out of it yet. So far, the American League has decided no one is.