In a season that’s been marked by the highest of highs (sweeping the Astros) and the lowest of lows (a series loss to the Blue Jays on the heels of a loss to the Astros that knocked them out of playoff position), consistent performances have been a little thin on the ground for a team that alternates between mowing down opponents and tilting at windmills. When the team was going really well, there was no shortage of heroes, a new one emerging each night. Stats will tell you the most valuable Mariner is Mitch Haniger, our surf-loving California golden boy, but we as a staff would like to recognize our personal favorites among the 2018 Mariners, the players who made the wins sweeter and the losses a little more palatable.
Isabelle: Nelson Cruz
* refastens Boomstick flag across chest, plants lightning bolt staff into the ground, lifts one hand to halt and quiet the parade of people clogging the streets *
Ahem, Nelson Cruz i-
* raucous applause *
Yes, Nelson Cruz is-
* hooting and hollering * * confetti and streamers rain down through the air *
* sighs, takes a deep breath to prepare to yell over the thunderous crowd *
NELSON CRUZ WILL BE REMEMBERED AS ONE OF THE GREATEST MARINERS IN FRANCHISE HISTORY!
* thrusts lightning bolt staff into the air, crowd roars, parade marches onward *
**Author’s note: It is imperative that the Mariners extend Nelson Cruz for a number of reasons, but particularly because the Mariners Hall of Fame requires that all inductees played for the team for at least five seasons.
Zach: Denard Span
Sometime in the middle of college I came to a realization which, at the time, was mind-blowing: standards are low. And they’re not just low in high school or college. They’re low in the real world. Displaying even a baseline level of competence with technology, math, or even interpersonal communication can leave people slack-jawed with awe.
Should people settle for “good enough”? Of course not. When you have so much more that you’re capable of giving the world, a job or task at which you’re required to be merely competent won’t satisfy you for long. But it’s an interesting phenomenon, and it’s one that I fear I’ve been conditioned into enabling as a Mariner fan.
There’s a reason why many Mariner fans became instantly enamored with players who are otherwise mediocre. In a vacuum, was John Jaso actually very good? Was Seth Smith one of the best left fielders the Mariners have ever had? Was the 2013 version of Raúl Ibañez a player that should have been starting on any legitimate Major League team? The answer to all of these is: not really. But when we’re comparing their performances with the rest of the early 2010’s Mariners, these players stand out as deities.
Can you draw a walk? Strike out less than 20% of the time? Catch a baseball with some regularity? Congratulations! You’re one of the top 15 Mariner batters by cumulative fWAR between 2010 and 2018 (seriously, John Jaso is number 14 for that whole time period despite being on the team for one year).
And that’s why Denard Span has been so incredibly lovable. He’s not just competent - he’s good. What’s more, he’s good in a fun way, and not in an “I guess Mike Zunino is good even though he strikes out 40% of the time because the bar for catchers is so fucking low” kind of way.
Denard Span can walk. Denard Span can hit the ball to the opposite field. Denard Span seems to generally recognize how to run the bases. In short - Denard Span plays baseball in a way that doesn’t make me want to headbutt a knife. For that, I will love him forever.
Grant: Marco Gonzales
There’s something to be said for a hometown kid who makes it big. It’s an easy story to identify with, a tale as old as time. It makes us feel like we’ve found someone who embraces this place not just as a realization of a childhood dream, but a home to love and cherish.
When the Mariners dealt for Marco Gonzales last year at the trading deadline, there was skepticism throughout M’s fandom, and with good reason. Gonzales was, at the time, a 25-year-old pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery with shaky underlying peripherals. And we were dealing our top prospect for him! It felt like a Jerry Dipoto overpay. His struggles with the M’s during seven starts down the stretch certainly did little to comfort the masses.
And then, of course, came 2018. Marco has cut down his walk rate from 2.7 BB/9 to 1.73 and his HR rate from 1.23 HR/9 to 0.99 while simultaneously raising his strikeout rate. He’s taken the ball in tough situations and delivered, he’s battled through injuries, and he’s been one of the most dependable members of the rotation. His 3.52 FIP puts him in the top 20 qualified starters in all of baseball, ahead of multiple Cy Young winners ostensibly still in their primes. And he’s done all this while being lovable and developing perhaps the #neatest friendship in club history.
Which brings me back to my original point. Sure, Marco might originally hail from Colorado. But that makes his dedication to Seattle all the more special. Welcome home, Marco. Welcome home.
Eric: Jean Segura
While I write this with a heavy and sullen heart, I cannot deny that Jean Segura has been a highly valuable source of joy throughout this mildly cursed season. It feels like the joy both hit its peak and then started its sharp decline with the All-Star Game, which followed the incredibly well-done and intensely fan-supported #SendSegura campaign to even get him in the ASG at a Final Vote winner. Segura made the most of his ASG playing time (in which Nelson Cruz gave up an at-bat to Jean) as he smashed a go-ahead, 3-run home run that would have given the AL the win, if Edwin Díaz (arguably the most valuable pitcher to his team in baseball in 2018) hadn’t uncharacteristically allowed the NL to tie the game. This led to Alex Bregman hitting the actual game-winning home run and robbing Segura of his rightful ASG MVP Award, and nothing ever really went very well for the Mariners or even really Segura after that point. He had the infection on his arm. He slumped. He allegedly had locker room beef with Dee Gordon, or vice versa, who fucking knows/cares. Anyways, geez, this was supposed to be about good things. Oh yeah, there was this:
Ahhhhh, I feel better. Jean Segura rules, okay?
Connor: Mike Leake
Wait, isn’t Mike Leake supposed to be boring?
Maybe so, but the fact remains that Leake has been the healthiest, most consistent starter all season for the Mariners. After six strong innings last night, he will almost certainly finish the year with the most innings pitched for Seattle, and has only failed to pitch five complete frames four times all season.
Mike Leake is boring in the sense that he doesn’t throw hard. He doesn’t rack up strikeouts. But his quick-working, pitch-to-contact ways are very pleasing to watch when he’s on. After a bumpy first six weeks or so of the year, Leake was locked in starting on May 15th, putting up a very nice 3.78 FIP through 109 innings across his next seventeen starts. No outing was more dominant than on August 15th at Oakland, in which he spun eight scoreless frames while getting out of exactly one jam via striking out the side.
“Innings-eater” has become somewhat of a pejorative in the last few years. The first adjective that comes to mind could be “mediocre,” or “fine,” or “meh.” In some ways, Mike Leake is fine, or meh. In many other ways, he is a model of reliability and consistency, and I have - for the most part - very much enjoyed watching him pitch this season. Oh, yeah, and he’s here for two more years. Amazing what Rayder Ascanio and salary relief can get you.
Tim: Dee Gordon
Well. This got weird and awkward, since Dee may have fought my favorite Mariner yesterday. As Kate noted to us yesterday this is not literally about the most valuable Mariner or we’d all just write up Mitch Haniger and be done with it. I wrote about my love of Jean’s passion for the game already this year, but I’ve almost equally enjoyed his up-the-middle partner’s status as team hype man, friend, and I guess sparring partner?
I don’t care. I love Dee. I love that he brings joy to the game every day; I love that he’s still in love with baseball, fights notwithstanding; I love that he’s going just as hard today, with a fast-sinking team in a wretched year for him personally, as he was at 24 games over .500 and 11.5 clear of the 2nd wild card. There’s a lot of different theories about fandom, about rooting for laundry, for greatness, for other things. I root for players like Dee, who give back, who are happy, who are, yes, fun.
John: Mitch Haniger
Surprise! My favorite Mariner last year has once again made the cut in 2018. After an injury-shortened 2017 that consisted of two torrid hot streaks on either end of the season and a shakier nougat in between, 2018 has been a full-time party. Mitch Haniger has been the Mariners’ most valuable position player. With deference to Edwin Díaz’s transcendence, Haniger’s everyday role likely gives him the edge on the whole, and all three WAR/WARP measurements concur. That is, in a literal sense, what defines value.
But since Mitch has given the M’s so much this year, we don’t have to stop there. Seattle’s stressful Cinderella season seems to have smashed its glass slipper, but Haniger’s icy veins are the source of what dimming hopes exist.
Meetch is 12th among hitters in all of baseball in Win Probability Added, with three walk-off homers (Detroit, Tampa, and of course, the killing blow to Anaheim’s season). For all the struggles the Mariners have had filling the roles they’ve sought after, Mitch has been a skeleton key for saving the season. Need a power hitter in the middle of the lineup? April Mitch has got it. Gotta replace your Hall of Fame caliber 3-hitter? May-July Mitch can hold it down, and at least keep getting on base. Need a leadoff guy with on-base skills? How about dingers too, and almost single-handedly terrorizing the Astros and Diamondbacks?
All of this from a guy who seemed fated to be John Andreoli two and a half years ago. That’s what I appreciate most about Mitch. Not every hitter can make an adjustment and change their stars into All-Stars, but Mitch did. Here’s hoping he can spread the good word.
Jake: Edwin Díaz
I didn’t plan on Edwin Díaz becoming my favorite player on this team. I love how easy Robinson Canó make this game look. I dream of James Paxton’s deadly fastball/curveball combo. Félix is the King. But there’s just something about Edwin I can’t ignore. Maybe it’s his fire and bravado. Maybe it’s because the way he pitches is so visceral.
Back in May, while I was participating in the FanGraphs residency, I wrote what I believe to be my finest piece of baseball writing. It’s all downhill from there. Little did I know that deep dive into the evolution of Díaz as a pitcher would be his first step into my heart. Championing his candidacy for the Cy Young award began as a way to celebrate his historic season but has become a labor of love. The numbers speak for themselves. 53 Saves, tied for 5th most in a single season; 34 FIP-, 8th best in the modern era; 46.2% strikeout rate, highest in the majors and 4th highest in the modern era. We’re watching history unfold, right before our eyes.
Beyond all that, it’s the feeling that I get when he’s on the mound. The hairs on my arm stand up a little straighter because I know I’m watching something special. Knowing that when he gets that first-pitch strike, the at-bat is already over. Just laughing at the flailing swings he can get when he throws his slider in the dirt or when he burns his fastball right by someone. The moment he steps through that bullpen door, I stop whatever I’m doing and just watch the electricity flow.
Kate: Ben Gamel
I should be writing about James Paxton here. Pax gave us the Maple Grove, the best fan experience in baseball; he is the lone pitcher on staff with truly dominant stuff; he has a kickass, hilarious wife and unabashedly loves Harry Potter and seems like someone I’d love to hang out and drink a beer with. But the Mariner who is making me the happiest to watch right now is Ben Gamel. Gamel has had to battle for playing time this year, especially after the team made the head-scratching addition of Cameron Maybin; Denard Span’s excellent play and left-handedness unfortunately left Gamel the odd man out, especially given Guillermo Heredia’s defensive superiority in center field. It was a defensible move at the time, sending him to Triple-A, but it quickly became clear Ben Gamel is not a Triple-A player. In 94 plate appearances at Triple-A, Gamel ran a wRC+ of 151, with some straight-up Barry Bonds on a t-ball field numbers: a slash line of .349/.415/.554, a K-rate of 12%, and a BB rate of 10%. Despite knowing he didn’t belong there, Gamel accepted his assignment gracefully: he was a good teammate in Tacoma, friendly and accessible to both his fellow players and the ballpark staff; he kept his head down and worked hard. It’s hard not to root for a guy like that. Since returning to the team, Gamel has endeavored to show why he belongs here, coming up with a clutch two-out double against the A’s, and putting on a defensive clinic this Monday against the Orioles. I wrote about this a little today, but Ben Gamel cares a lot at a time when a ton of people, including some of his own teammates, are pretty much checked out on the 2018 Mariners. Things have gotten undeniably rough lately, but Ben Gamel gives me something to look forward to when I turn on the game.