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The Mariners’ stars fell from the sky this year, but the floor collapsed too

The Mariners’ new role players stepped up this season, but the team fell apart around them.

Seattle Mariners v Texas Rangers
You’re hitting it so hard, Robi, in the air now, please.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Sometimes the creative process for writing on baseball involves watching the Mariners play baseball. Is Ben Gamel really exclusively hitting fastballs? Ha ha yes. Is *insert pitcher here* doing something differently and getting interesting results? Yes you are, Erasmo, thank you Jake. Sometimes, however, an idea originates because smart folks mention something and it sticks in my head. Thanks to Jeff Sullivan and Marc W, as well as an ongoing discussion we’ve all had this season, this piece was born.

The premise is simple: the Mariners have not gotten what they needed from their stars.

That’s an unfair statement to make in some ways. Every piece of analysis this season has been frustrating to write to some degree, because every bit came with the caveat that a third of the roster was on the disabled list at any given time. This year, however, injuries and all, Kyle Seager, Robinson Canó, and Nelson Cruz have been three of the most productive Mariners by most metrics. They’ve outperformed most of their collective projections, but the drop from lst year has been too much to surmount.

In Jeff’s piece, he looks at the WAR contribution by the top-5 players on each team as well as the production from the “next five” (the 6-10th best) on each roster. The Mariners top-5 rank 14th in the league, with James Paxton, Kyle Seager, Mike Zunino, Nelson Cruz, and Robinson Canó combining for 16.8 fWAR so far. While not terrible, with just 12 games remaining, that number lags well behind last year’s 21.4 fWAR generated by Canó, Seager, Cruz, Paxton, and Hisashi Iwakuma. The 4.6 fWAR difference is more than any one Mariner has generated this season, and is essentially the equivalent of removing an Anthony Rizzo’s worth of production from last year to this season.

To make that more visually pleasant (or upsetting, I suppose), I calculated the last 10 years of production by the Mariners’ top-5 producers:

Nothing too remarkable. The Mariners have understandably had higher numbers in years where they’ve been good, with 2009, 2014, and 2016 standing well ahead of the rest of the pack. With 12 games to go, the 2017 stars should surpass all but the top four teams on this list, even if the victories don’t translate into quite enough on the field. If you’re saying “um, excuse me, 2010 is the reason at least 20% of the Mariners fanbase said they gave up baseball, how are they up there with the good teams?” you have excellent curiosity and poor patience.

The 2010 team had stars and sucked, while the 2007 team which went 88-74, Pythagorean W-L be damned, did not. Having great stars can be enough to carry a team, but the best teams have balance. I calculated the percentage of the team’s production that the top-5 for each Mariners team had accounted for, and the last decade has been anything but balanced:

The stars of the 2017 Mariners have been less responsible for their victories than any Mariners squad in over a decade. Part of that is a lack of production. James Paxton’s dominance on the mound makes his absence from injury all the more glaring. Kyle Seager seeing his wRC+ drop from 132 to 105 (and his BABIP from .295 to .265). Robinson Canó hitting grounders like it’s 2015. The current top-5 was projected by ZiPS for 14.2 fWAR, so in a sense they have overachieved, but it has not been enough. That knowledge is especially frustrating considering this season’s Mariners have been the most balanced team in over a decade.

The increased production from role players has been apparent all year, and as Sullivan finds in his article, their “next-5” rate well. That group comes in at 9th in the league, with 10.2 wins above replacement from Jean Segura, Mitch Haniger, Jarrod Dyson, Nick Vincent, and Ben Gamel. Last year, Leonys Martín, Edwin Díaz, Mike Zunino, Nori Aoki, and Nate Karns combined for just 7.7 fWAR. That was a woeful 24th in production from a “next-5” group in 2016. In 2014, just 8.3. The depth of 2017 made up some of the gap from the stars above, but it wasn’t enough.

It also couldn’t conceal the rotting floorboards underneath them.

Marc W mentions the Astros as an example of a team that gets strong production from its top-5, but sees huge production from its “next-5” as well, and the rest of the roster in general. The same can be said of every team at the top of the standings this year, and I would wager almost every year. For ease of comprehension I’ve inserted the most pertinent chart from Jeff’s piece below, but really, go read it as well.

Fangraphs/Jeff Sullivan

All season, the Mariners were scraping the barrel to find production from replacements, and they kept coming up empty. The constant scramble for pitching, any pitching, was a disaster for months until finally Erasmo Ramirez, Andrew Albers, and Mike Leake arrived. Their potential for decency, combined with improvements from Marco Gonzales and Andrew Moore, are glimmers of hope for 2018, but have almost assuredly come too late to save this season. Finding production from the 11-25th men on the roster will be just as crucial as a rebound from the top-5.

The Mariners’ ceiling caved in on them this year as their stars either failed to reach their potential or couldn’t stay on the field, but as we search for heightened ceilings this offseason, let’s learn one lesson from 2010: to compete there must also be a floor.