“The oldest and strongest emotion in mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft
H.P. Lovecraft died in 1937, meaning he never got a chance to be a Mariner fan. If he had, and somehow cheated death all the way to 2018, he’d probably be rightly terrified. For this year’s iteration of the Seattle Mariners are traveling deeper and deeper into the unknown with each day, producing a jubilant fear in the hearts of fans learning how to process these emotions.
Baseball, almost by nature, is a game of ups and downs. Virtually no one in the history of the sport is immune to slumps, and those who are get immortalized with bronze statues. When the Mariners finished the month of May at 34-22, it was partly due to a handful of players that had managed to swerve away from their first major slump of 2018.
Mitch Haniger came to the ballpark on June 1 with a .270/.355/.510 line and 41 RBI, just six shy of his entire 2017 total. James Paxton held hitters to a .197 batting average in that same time frame, whiffing 95 wannabe hitters in 74.2 innings. Take out his extremely non-Paxton outing to start the year (4.2 innings, four strikeouts, four walks, six earned runs, two dingers) and the numbers look even cleaner. Jean Segura’s average fell to .297 after an 0-for-4 night on May 12, and hasn’t been below .300 since.
That fear of the unknown had coagulated into a sustained bliss, like when you start dating someone new, maneuver the first two weeks, and realize that there’s a genuine connection here.
Today, nearing the end of June, on the tail end of the Mariners’ toughest part of the schedule, some of the sustained bliss has faded. Yes, the rabbit still emerges from the hat every so often, but the magician’s methods are showing some cracks. Never mind the mob of doubters pointing at the team’s run-differential. Who cares if the team insists on making every win a one-run win, sometimes living hilariously on the razor’s edge while doing so? If there’s something, anything to trigger the sirens and regression warnings, it’s some of the players’ decline in production during June.
John Trupin already highlighted Kyle Seager’s struggles at the plate this season, so we’ll keep from piling on Kyle too much here. Three other members of Seattle’s starting nine – Dee Gordon, Guillermo Heredia, and Mike Zunino – have each languished since the calendar turned to June.
Mariners’ June Statistics
If you don’t mind, I’d like to move the tour along here to keep you from staring at the more unsightly attractions. Ok, fine, I’ll bite. Yes, Dee Gordon has zero walks in the entire month of June. Walks have never been a part of his game, but a fat goose egg still raises some eyebrows. While sweet Dee was hampered by the toe injury for the latter part of May, he still finessed a 2.3 BB% thanks to the Detroit Tigers walking him twice.
During the month of May, in which nearly half of Gordon’s games came against the Tigers and Rangers, he put up a .278 average and thieved six bases without being thrown out. The average has only slightly creviced in June, but his three steals this month have been essentially wiped out by three caught stealings. While the speedster has a nine-game hitting streak in the works, he’s clubbed just one extra base hit in his last 59 plate appearances, a stretch that also includes zero stolen bases. All in all, Dee’s inconsistent June birthed a 55 wRC+ that could be greatly improved by finding the gaps a little more or re-gaining his stolen base stride. Gordon’s slap singles and infield hits may be artful in their own way, but the art carries little value if he’s not getting in scoring position.
As for Heredia, well, how can I put this delicately? You know when a rapper drops a spectacular mixtape, then follows it up with a wholly disappointing studio album? That’s kind of what Guillermo is doing. If May was his K.I.D.S., June has been Blue Slide Park.
After stroking .292/.418/.369 in 82 May plate appearances, supplemented by a 15.9 BB%, the Mariners’ Cuban outfielder has fallen victim to some June gloom. If you’ve been harboring thoughts about moving Guillermo back to a part-time role, you are not alone. While his defensive abilities in center field present Seattle’s best option at the position, those abilities can be supplied as a late-inning defensive replacement. The cure for all maladies is finding his swing again. If that comes from a brief relegation to the bench, so be it. Both parties would ultimately benefit in the end. If yesterday’s All-Star glove work was any indication, Mitch Haniger could ably handle center field to accommodate Heredia’s slide to the bench.
Mike Zunino, still undeniably good, failed to duplicate the joyous Junino of yesteryear. His 93 wRC+ for the month is excellent for a catcher, and in line with the number he posted in May. In striking out less and walking more throughout the month, Z was at a 96 wRC+ at the end of May. Still technically a below average hitter, but splendid offensive numbers for a catcher. The gripe with Zunino, as per usual, is his strikeout problem. Of 221 hitters with 50 or more June plate appearances, Zunino rocks the third-highest K% of the lot.
We’ll live with the strikeouts as long as the defensive value remains. Staying below a 40 K% for May was encouraging, much more so than the 42.9% of June, placing him between noted strikeout artists Joey Gallo and Matt Davidson. If he can live in the high-30s for July and there on, each moonshot will go down smoother and make each frame job a little more appreciated.
Playing the Red Sox and Yankees surely invited Lovecraft’s dreaded fear of the unknown. Heading into the gauntlet, the one uniform expectation was that it would be extremely telling. Running roughshod over the eastern empires would have meant that we had real treasure, while a total failure could have exposed fool’s gold. The Mariners are somewhere in the middle, with another shot at the Red Sox in a weekend series at their place.
Just as Lovecraft quipped, fear can be strong and consuming. When it’s for something unknown, the fear is only amplified. Having a slightly clearer idea of what these Mariners are after two tough series, my fear has been subdued by knowledge.
I know, as you probably do too, that the M’s don’t have the talent of these kazillionaire teams. What they do have is Wade LeBlanc, riding high, perhaps our most-qualified starter for a Friday night at Fenway. After that, a vengeful Mike Leake, undoubtedly sore about his subpar start on Sunday at Safeco.
They’ll end the weekend with a mountainous challenge. Facing Chris Sale to cap the schedule from hell seems fitting. Seattle beating Sale, and getting to the top of the mountain, could allow for some reflection from the peak. Knowing what it takes to hang with the Yankees and Red Sox, the most likely wild-card game matchups, can ease that unknown. If some slumping hitters primed for a breakout do so in Boston, we’ll know we’ve got a resilient group of climbers equipped for the toughest terrains.