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The 2018 Mariners are late-inning bullies

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The hitters have feasted on the soft underbellies of opposing team’s bullpens, but this approach isn’t sustainable

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Cleveland Indians
(mari)NER NER
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Even though the Mariners technically lost the series to the Angels, they won Saturday night in such dramatic fashion it feels like it counts double. Trading offensive blows against the team that employs the best player in baseball and coming out on top always feels a little extra good, and that win felt like amazing redemption for this heartbreaker of a loss against the Angels, for which I was also the recapper, so DOUBLE REDEMPTION (sample line of that recap: “It was like watching a car crash, but the car crash is happening in your rib cage.” Ah, sweet memories.). On the broadcast afterward, Brad Adam made some offhand reference to the number of runs the team has scored in the late innings, and today—now that the buzz of that win has worn off to the point where I can’t smell colors anymore—I looked up the stats.

2018 Mariners Offensive Output by Inning

Inning # BA OBP SLG
Inning # BA OBP SLG
1-3 .264 .324 .399
4-6 .235 .300 .416
7-9 .266 .323 .479

All pretty much the same, until you get to that big jump in slugging percentage in the late innings. The Mariners have been doing most of their heavy damage late in the game, with 18 home runs in the final third of the contest, double what they produce in innings 1-3 (9) and still a significant jump from what they do in the middle of the game (13). They’ve also stolen bases at a greater clip (10, vs. just 12 combined in innings 1-6) and walked a hair more while striking out at about the same clip as they do in the earlier innings. The late-inning Mariners have been both patient and powerful at the plate, and that’s a deadly combination. The 2018 Mariners are not only hitting and getting on base more against other team’s bullpens, they are punishing every pitcher’s mistake in large, loud ways; this contact-oriented team is slugging just .395 against starters, but a whopping .504 against relievers.

This isn’t sustainable, of course. Of the Mariners’ 19 wins, seven of them have come against bullpens who have blown the game for their starting pitchers, and they’ve played the Royals, Cleveland, and the Twins, the three worst bullpens in fWAR in the American League. The Mariners have also struggled against elite starting pitching, as nine times in 33 games (or about 30% of the time, for you math whiz types) they’ve allowed starters to go seven or more innings into the ballgame. The Astros rotation is a nightmare matchup for any team, but in the series they played, Astros starters logged 29 innings and allowed just three earned runs. The offense has understandably struggled against some tough starting pitching like Kluber, Manaea, Gibson, and Cueto, but it’s also had a hard time picking up steam against [checks notes] uhh Brett Anderson, Martín Pérez, and Chris Volstad. Combine that with Mariners’ hitters distaste for lengthy at-bats (tied for fewest pitches seen per plate appearance in baseball this year), and you have a recipe for subpar starters that can go deep into games.

The Mariners kick off this next series against the Blue Jays, whose bullpen is 6th in the American League in fWAR, and then go on to face a better-than-you-think-they-are Tigers team. The strategy of waiting until the end of games to put on offensive fireworks displays may be thrilling, but it’s not sustainable, and they can’t expect to run into fortunate (for them, at least) injury luck like Andrew Miller being unavailable for both Cleveland series. The 2018 Mariners were built on the strategy that the offense could score heaps of runs to make up for a subpar pitching staff. So far, the starters have been more than holding up their end of the bargain, aside from a few blowout losses that tilt the ERA/FIP numbers. It’s time for the offense to start waking up earlier in games and take some pressure off a beleaguered starting staff—and fanbase.