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The Mariners have been a little (un)lucky and good

If this year was gonna be anything, it was gonna have to be weird.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners
“Did I hit all the laser groundballs?”
Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

So much of baseball evaluation is attempting to determine the “true talent” of things. Teams, players, even individual pitches are measured not just by the results they achieve in the micro, but what they seem destined to produce in the macro. With an eye to this, there are dozens of ways we can appraise the Mariners so far. Even in as short a time frame as three weeks of games, what results seems to be “luck” versus what has been “deserved” can be debated.

The first gauge of luck is tricky to quantify, yet injury luck is arguably the greatest source of variance in the league from year to year.

The M’s haven’t been devastated as in years past **pummels a nearby tree** but the players who have been absent have been noteworthy. Mike Zunino, Ben Gamel, Erasmo Ramirez, and David Phelps were each expected to break camp with the MLB roster prior to their injuries. Nelson Cruz and Ryon Healy each have subsequently missed time, and Nick Rumbelow, who was a strong candidate for a bullpen spot in camp, has still yet to resume throwing. All told, that’s 99 days of DL time for six players from the 40-man roster, good for 13th-most in the league. Seattle’s health issues have not been as widespread as in years past or for some other teams around the league, but both the quality of the players who have been missing and the bizarre manner in which some of the injuries have occurred make me comfortable declaring them a bit unlucky in this regard thus far.

Another metric to judge Seattle is as simple as it is fun to say. BABIP.

By batting average on balls in play (aka any baseball put in play that doesn’t go over the fence, if you’re new) the Mariners have been mostly unremarkable. Prior to last night’s stifling at the hands of Dallas Keuchel, Seattle’s BABIP sat at .297, and a .217 display Monday night will drop that further. While the M’s are below the “average” of .300, the scale is somewhat tilted.

The players expected to hit 1-2-3 - Dee Gordon, Jean Segura, and Robinson Canó - lead the way with sky-high BABIPs all ranging from .386 to Canó’s outrageous .500 BABIP. While Segura and Gordon would be in danger of being pulled over while sprinting on an arterial, Robbie would barely raise an eyebrow hustling through a school zone. Canó is tearing the cover off of the baseball (more on that in a moment), and is spraying the ball to all fields, stymieing any efforts to shift him, but unless he starts to elevate the ball in the air, his hot start seems likely to taper a shade.

On the other end of the spectrum, poor Nelson Cruz had an .091 BABIP entering Monday and continues to hit lasers at folks with gloves, be they at shortstop or in the left-field bleachers. Decent athletes like Ryon Healy, Mike Marjama, Taylor Motter, and Guillermo Heredia are all trafficking in sub-.200 BABIPs, and should see their fortunes flourish more in the future. It all comes out as a slightly below-expectation wash.

Our next category is related, as we’ll evaluate by xwOBA, a statistic developed through Statcast and available via Baseball Savant.

We’ve used xwOBA a few times here at LL, but the crux of it is seeking to build on what BABIP tells us. BABIP lets us know the raw totals of balls in play and trusts the Law of Large Numbers to sort the rest out. xwOBA tries to evaluate the quality of the balls put in play and place a likelihood of value on that contact. For instance, a hard-hit line drive is significantly more likely to become a hit than a ground ball or a pop fly, yet BABIP treats these as equal. It’s imperfect and fails to take into account the horizontal angle of a hit (e.g. if a line drive was hit straight at the CF or into a gap) but it’s useful nonetheless.

As xwOBA would tell it, the Mariners have gotten less than they’ve deserved offensively. Their team wOBA entering Monday night was a respectable .326, but by the quality of their contact, it should have been a hearty .342. Seattle’s offense entered Monday night with a 118 wRC+ that was 4th-best in baseball (or 120 and 5th-best not counting pitchers) so it’s tough to say the Mariners have suffered offensively. Still, based on the hard-hitting ways of **checks notes** everyone not named Dee Gordon or Ichiro Suzuki, even as some grounders cease to find holes, hard hit line drives may find more gaps. The final measurements of fortune for today look at the pitching staff, and they are the trifecta of ERA/FIP/SIERA. FIP’s ability to isolate that which the defense cannot influence makes it an invaluable tool for evaluating pitchers, even as it, like ERA, tells a twisted tale early in the season. Seattle is 29th in the league by FIP with a grisly 4.91 as of Tuesday morning. Their 4.61 team ERA is similarly misshapen but only casts them in poor company like the Pirates and A’s instead of the catastrophic range of the Reds and Marlins.

What is most intriguing is SIERA (Skill-Interactive ERA), which you can find explained here. The crux of SIERA is that it acknowledges the influence pitchers have on the types of contact hitters make (groundballs vs. flyballs) and rewards pitchers for eliciting types of contact that rarely yield hits. By this, the Mariners sit at a more palatable 3.82, good for 14th in the league. Edwin Díaz notwithstanding, the Mariners consist mostly of guys who elicit a fair amount of fly ball contact. It’s unsurprising, then, that a team with strong defensive outfielders would run an ERA under their FIP, and encouraging that the pitching staff has shown signs of quality by any metric.

I’m unwilling to claim the Mariners have been “unlucky” as a pitching staff, but there is something worthwhile in their production so far. What we’ve seen is a team dependent on contact on both sides of the ball, which is a strategy prone to wide fluctuation. Subjectively, the unpredictability of results strikes me as a style that makes it less appealing to those of us who have grown to appreciate the consistency of a three-true-outcomes player. Instead, Seattle, in an offseason of frustration, has leaned into a surreptitious high-variance strategy: Put the ball in play and see what happens and let the other team do the same.

Oh, and then have Edwin Díaz.

So far so Good.