The 2017 Mariners have been everything their believers expected and their skeptics cautioned. Their outfield defense has been spectacular! They've been injury-prone and inconsistent. They've seen dramatic improvements from unheralded trade acquisitions! They've seen players traded away bolster other teams' farms. The bullpen has looked unhittable for months! They preceded that with blowing winnable games for months. They're in the thick of the Wild Card race! It's the weakest Wild Card race in MLB history. Regardless, dreamers and doubters alike would agree entering the season that their greatest weakness was their starting rotation.
Their starting rotation has been terrible, injured, and one of the worst units in baseball, yet Seattle remains in the playoff hunt. Is there any precedent for a team like this being a playoff team? As you can surmise from the title of this article, the short answer is no.
No playoff team has ever had a total FIP from its starters above 5.00. The Mariners starters currently sit at an FIP of 5.13. That’s one point higher than the 2003 Detroit Tigers, a team that lost 119 games.
No playoff team’s rotation has ever had a HR/9 over 1.50. The Mariners starters are allowing dingers at an extraordinary 1.74 HR/9 clip.
By fWAR, no playoff team’s rotation has failed to eclipse a minimum of 8.0 fWAR, even in the two-Wild Card era. The Mariners currently sit at 3.5, and are projected by Steamer to finish somewhere between 6.0 and 6.5. A 4.81 ERA places these M’s among the worst in history as well, around 390th out of MLB’s 400+ playoff teams in the last century.
The pathway to this disaster is well documented at this point. Seattle has started a team-record 15 different pitchers this year:
|4||SP||Felix Hernandez (10-day dl)||31||5||4||.556||4.28||13||13||0||0||0||0||73.2||79||38||35||16||21||0||69||6||0||8||318||100||5.19||1.357||9.7||2.0||2.6||8.4||3.29|
|5||SP||Sam Gaviglio (40-man)||27||3||5||.375||4.62||12||11||1||0||0||0||62.1||63||37||32||15||21||1||40||2||2||1||259||92||6.09||1.348||9.1||2.2||3.0||5.8||1.90|
|7||Andrew Moore (40-man)||23||1||3||.250||5.65||6||6||0||0||0||0||36.2||38||23||23||11||4||0||16||1||0||0||150||76||6.58||1.145||9.3||2.7||1.0||3.9||4.00|
|8||Hisashi Iwakuma (60-day dl)||36||0||2||.000||4.35||6||6||0||0||0||0||31.0||27||16||15||7||12||0||16||2||0||1||128||98||6.40||1.258||7.8||2.0||3.5||4.6||1.33|
|9||Chase De Jong (40-man)||23||0||3||.000||6.35||7||4||2||0||0||0||28.1||31||20||20||5||13||0||13||0||0||0||125||68||5.89||1.553||9.8||1.6||4.1||4.1||1.00|
|15||Ryan Weber (60-day dl)||26||0||0||2.45||1||1||0||0||0||0||3.2||3||1||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||14||190||3.14||0.818||7.4||0.0||0.0||0.0|
|Rank in 15 AL teams||5||8||8||6||1||6||2||8||8||10||15||5||8|
That doesn't even include Drew Smyly, who may never throw a pitch in a Mariners uniform. With Félix Hernández on the DL entering the home stretch, Seattle is investigating a potential waiver trade to bolster their struggling staff, which would add to that total. An addition would be good, but anything above Jhoulys Chacin seems like a long shot. As it stands the Mariners are tasked with outpacing the Royals, Rays, Orioles (?) and Angels (? >:( ?) with maple-tattooed Son of
Anarchy Peace and Prosperity James Paxton and four guys who quite honestly might not be in the rotation for any division leaders.
In 2016 the worst rotation in the playoffs belonged to the Baltimore Orioles. They didn’t strike people out, walked everyone, and started Yovani Gallardo and Ubaldo Jimenez a lot. The O’s rode their offense to the playoffs nonetheless, albeit a loss in the Wild Card game. How bad were those Orioles exactly?
Pretty rough. More walks than average, fewer strikeouts, and a collective ERA and FIP well-above the league-average 4.30. In the two-Wild Card era, those Orioles had the worst starting rotation of any team by fWAR, 18th overall.
This year’s Mariners staff is so much worse.
The M’s starters are 28th in MLB this year in fWAR and FIP, outpacing only the intentionally bad White Sox and Reds. While their walk rates are good, they’ve failed to generate strikeouts. They haven’t been bitten so much as mauled by the home run panther, and even as the league-average ERA/FIP for a starter is up to 4.48 this year the Mariners have obviously not been up to scratch.
Their struggles aren’t mysterious, of course. Hisashi Iwakuma has been hurt all year. Smyly has been hurt all year. Félix has been hurt much of the year. James Paxton was hurt some of this year. They’ve already set a club record for different starting pitchers, and you know Cody Martin (Brave Little Toaster) is going to appear out of a puff of smoke to snag a TBA start in late August somehow. The organization built a stable of fly ball-inducing experts to pair with The Marine(r) Layer, or Benny and the Jets, or whatever nickname you want to give the historically good outfield defense. Meanwhile: A) Everyone in MLB learned to hit homers well; B) The baseballs are juiced; C) Everyone moved in the fences and agreed not to say anything; or D) All of the above. The Mariners have been forced to ask more than could be expected of players who were not yet ready, or some who may never be ready. Of course their numbers are terrible.
The “worst” rotation in history to be dragged to the playoffs belonged to the 1999 Texas Rangers. Their 5.49 ERA is the worst MLB has ever allowed into October, and abysmal for anyone, much less a 95-win club like Texas was. In the height of the steroid era their numbers were, of course, contextual. A 4.96 FIP is similarly miserable, but when your ace is Aaron Sele and you trade for Jeff Fassero at the deadline in hopes that he’ll be your salvation, you’re getting what you paid for. Seattle is faced with a similarly dire rotation, with Paxton being followed by Ariel Miranda, Yovani Gallardo, Marco Gonzales, and Erasmo Ramirez. Paxton has been worth 4.2 fWAR this year. Look at that number, then look at the Mariners’ total number (go ahead, scroll up to the last image. We will wait). That’s not what should happen when you’re running out a cellar-dweller, let alone a contender.
And yet they’re still here, in sole possession of a playoff spot for the first time all season. Looking at what has happened helps us gauge what is likely to transpire in the future. Like the birth of a star, however, sometimes we are lucky enough to glimpse something entirely new as it bursts into existence. The Mariners will have to surpass precedents as old as professional baseball itself. Nobody said it’d be easy. Keep hitting, keep shutting the door, and keep running down 395-foot fly balls. It’s not the ideal plan, but it’s the one they’ve got. It just might be enough.