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The Mariners have succeeded doing it their way

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It’s been a good season so far for Seattle’s general stated plan

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Toronto Blue Jays
Magic!
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Today the Mariners begin a three-game series against the Tigers. Detroit hasn’t been the train wreck they were last year, but with two of their best players so far (Miguel Cabrera and Leonys Martín, yes) on the DL, Seattle is in line for what should be some tasty victories. At 21-15, Seattle is ahead of the pace most projections or individuals set for them this year. The way in which Seattle is winning, however, is right in line with their offseason mantra.

Following last night’s 9-3 throttling of Toronto, Seattle’s offense is sixth-best in all of baseball at a cool 110 wRC+. Their 4.64 runs per game are 10th in MLB, and every single hitter in their (ideal) starting lineup has been average or better.

Fangraphs

What’s been vital for the Mariners is the ability to put the ball in play, because they’re obviously not walking much. The past decade has taught hitters that strikeouts are not a huge issue if you’re making powerful contact when you do swing, and that’s lead a sea-change in approaches across the the league. Seattle is by and large going the other direction, and having success. Low BB% but low K% and doing damage early in the count has been a point of emphasis for Dipoto and his front office since his arrival, and it’s borne fruit so far this year. From an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci prior to 2016:

“There’s been a debate among people for years that there are players that have the walk ‘skill’—it is something they possess. The one thing we do know you can affect as a hitter is reducing the number of strikeouts. As long as you are able to control the zone in that way with two strikes and put the ball in play good things can happen.” ~ Jerry Dipoto

That philosophy has certainly borne fruit so far this year for Seattle, and its helped compensate for a mediocre rotation which, while controlling the zone, has done little else well.

Seattle’s starting pitching has been lackluster, although consistency, combined with the benevolence of James Paxton, has propped it up more effectively than in 2017. The team ERA sits at an inelegant 4.87 despite a 4.52 FIP/4.04 xFIP that suggests better days could be ahead. The team said they believed in their starting pitchers and unfortunately the rotation hasn’t backed them up. Two small points count in Seattle’s favor here, however. The first is that the pitchers expected to pitch, outside of Erasmo Ramirez, have pitched. The second is that, despite their early season struggles, Seattle is now just a hair shy of league-average (5.5 IP) for innings-per-start at 5.4 IP. The outings have rarely been high-quality, but when Seattle is getting deep enough into games to give their best relievers rest, they’ve by-and-large locked down victories.

The bullpen, then, is where things get most hand-wavy. Is it clever intent to have a segment of your bullpen seemingly designated for sopping up spilled milk starts? Or poor design to allow the milk to spill in the first place? Please stop spilling milk everywhere, Félix. It’s sticky and it smells.

Led by Edwin Díaz, Seattle’s bullpen boasts both the third-highest K% in the league and the third-lowest BB%. Unfortunately, as Juan Nicasio can attest, while your peripherals tend to bear out over the long-term, relievers are subject to nothing but short-term results. Without David Phelps or Tony Zych, the Mariners lack the depth of the potentially dominant bullpen they hoped for. Instead, they’ve adopted a Good Bullpen/Bad Bullpen approach, using their less tested/trusted options extensively when a starter struggles. Every close game, however, they dig into of Nick Vincent’s reserve of magic missiles, Juan Nicasio’s gashapon machine-style velocity selections, and Edwin Díaz’s heat death of the universe.

As Seattle’s Pythagorean W/L of 18-18 suggests, when they’ve been losing, they’re liable to lose big, but they’ve locked down their wins with a clear strategy. The danger is, now, one of overuse. Seattle has a fleet of starting pitchers in Tacoma and Arkansas who could provide minor upgrades, but haven’t taken a step this year. More pressing is the need for support in the bullpen to spread the innings out. Dan Altavilla is returning soon, Shawn Armstrong has made a solid case, and Nick Rumbelow is reportedly throwing off a mound again. The Mariners’ plan is working so far, but they’ll probably need reinforcements soon to keep this ship sailing.