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Series Preview: Mariners (0-0) at Athletics (0-0) in Japan

Welcome back baseball.

Yomiuri Giants v Seattle Mariners - Preseason Game Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

Back in 2012, the Mariners began their season in Japan playing against the Athletics a few weeks before the true start of the regular season. The first game of that trip featured a 4-for-5 performance from Ichiro Suzuki, a home run off the bat of Dustin Ackley, and a brilliant outing by Félix Hernández. Fast forward seven years and Ichiro will likely be making his last start as a major leaguer during this trip, Dustin Ackley failed to capitalize on what might be his last opportunity to revive his career this spring, and Félix Hernandez won’t be making an opening day start for the first time since 2008. In many ways, this trip represents the close of one chapter in the franchise’s history and the beginning of a new one.

At a Glance

Mariners Athletics
Mariners Athletics
Game 1 Wednesday, March 20 | 2:35 am
LHP Marco Gonzales RHP Mike Fiers
Game 2 Thursday, March 21 | 2:35 am
LHP Yusei Kikuchi RHP Marco Estrada
Game Odds currently unavailable

Team Overview

Overview Athletics (2018) Mariners (2018) Edge
Overview Athletics (2018) Mariners (2018) Edge
Batting (wRC+) 111 (2nd in AL) 101 (7th in AL) Athletics
Fielding (DRS) 61 (1st) -23 (11th) Athletics
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 106 (9th) 100 (6th) Mariners
Bullpen (FIP-) 95 (6th) 94 (4th) Mariners

Welcome to another year of series previews. If you’re a regular Lookout Landing reader, welcome back. If you’re a new face, welcome home. Above, you’ll see a brief overview of the upcoming series: probable pitchers, game times, and a rundown of the Mariners and their opponents. Below, you’ll see the Mariners’ opponents laid out in more detail: projected lineups, key players, and pitcher analysis. You may have seen the new Stuff+ metric I introduced a few weeks ago—you’ll see those scores integrated into the pitcher analysis throughout the year. Finally, you’ll get a view of the big picture: AL West and Wild Card standings. As always, I appreciate your feedback and hope that these features continue to be helpful and educational.

For Ichiro, this series in his home country represents a chance to celebrate his incredible career and pay tribute to the massive impact he’s had on both sides of the Pacific. He’s already had a few memorable moments in the two exhibition games against the Yomiuri Giants, but the spotlight will shine even brighter on Wednesday morning. For Félix, getting passed over for his eleventh consecutive opening day start is just another step the organization has taken to distance itself from featuring him as their premier pitcher. Marco Gonzales earned the call with his breakout performance last year, but he—along with Yusei Kikuchi—represents the future of the Mariners. It often seems like Félix has recently become a reminder of the past that the organization so desperately wants to move on from. So, the Mariners will celebrate one franchise icon during this series while snubbing another, all while trying to look towards the future. It’s going to be an emotional couple of games.

The Athletics are looking to follow up a surprising playoff run last year with another Wild Card berth in 2019. Seven years ago, they began a three-year stretch of playoff appearances, though they never advanced past the Division Series in any of those appearances. After a few years of rebuilding, it certainly looks like the Athletics are ready to embark on another stretch of strong play for the next few years. It would be surprising to see them come close to their 97 wins from 2018 this year, but they should be in the mix for the second Wild Card spot.

The A’s made very few changes to their roster over the offseason. They declined to re-sign Jed Lowrie (he signed with the Mets) and traded for Jurickson Profar to replace him at the keystone. They also declined to address a starting rotation that was patched together after so many injuries last year. They re-signed Brett Anderson and signed Marco Estrada to join Mike Fiers, and, uh, I guess Chris Bassit and Frankie Montas for now. That’s an underwhelming group but they have a couple of young, promising pitching prospects in Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk ready to make the leap to the majors later this year.

Athletics Lineup

Player Position Bats PA BABIP wRC+ BsR
Player Position Bats PA BABIP wRC+ BsR
Robbie Grossman LF S 465 0.329 108 -4.8
Matt Chapman 3B R 616 0.338 137 2.6
Matt Olson 1B L 660 0.292 117 -2.2
Khris Davis DH R 654 0.261 135 -4.8
Stephen Piscotty RF R 605 0.290 125 -1.2
Jurickson Profar 2B S 594 0.269 108 4.0
Marcus Semien SS R 703 0.296 95 1.6
Nick Hundley C R 305 0.31 91 -2.5
Ramon Laureano CF R 176 0.388 129 4.1
All stats from 2018

As a team, the Athletics led the American League in position player fWAR last year. They scored the fourth most runs as a team and were the best defensive unit in the league. They were led by a breakout season from Matt Chapman. Always a defensive stalwart, he exploded offensively, improving his contact rate, power output, and reducing his strikeout rate. Across the diamond, the other Matt (Olson) couldn’t match his brilliant 2017 debut, but still managed to lead all AL first basemen in fWAR. Khris Davis batted .247 for the fourth season in a row—an unbelievable feat—but more importantly, blasted a league-best 48 home runs. That trio of hitters forms a potent core for the A’s but they’re also surrounded by solid contributors up-and-down the lineup: Stephen Piscotty put together a stellar second half after a very slow start; Ramon Laureano is a breakout candidate after a electrifying debut last year; and Jurickson Profar finally translated his lofty potential into actual production on the field.

Probable Pitchers

Minnesota Twins v Oakland Athletics

RHP Mike Fiers

172 19.5% 5.2% 14.1% 39.4% 3.56 4.75
Pitch Type Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 35.0% 90.0 2309 85 119 103
Sinker 13.5% 89.7 2240 46 58 106
Changeup 18.5% 83.8 1894 61 80 92
Curveball 15.8% 73.0 2780 78 98 84
Slider 17.2% 86.0 2391 110 41 91
Stuff+ Explainer

Mike Fiers joined the A’s late last year and provided a stabilizing presence in their make-shift rotation. He immediately started using his high-spin fastball more often, locating it up in the strike zone to generate more whiffs. Pairing his heater with his big, 12-6 curveball helped him improve his strikeout rate by more than seven points. That helped him keep his ERA low despite running a FIP more than a run higher. Even though he was getting more whiffs with his fastball, that pitch is also extremely home run prone. He allowed more than two home runs per nine innings with the A’s. They’re turning to him as their opening day starter because they simply have no better options. Their rotation has been decimated by injuries and their top pitching prospects are being held down in the minors to game their service time so Fiers gets the call.

RHP Marco Estrada

143 2/3 16.4% 8.0% 11.2% 24.0% 5.64 5.44
Pitch Type Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 49.2% 89.0 2302 101 92 96
Cutter 6.1% 85.4 2468 52 113 49
Changeup 37.0% 77.2 2021 137 110 117
Curveball 7.7% 76.9 2618 106 31 125

One of the few free agents signed by the A’s this offseason, Marco Estrada is hoping a change of scenery will help him regain the success he enjoyed a few years ago in Toronto. On paper, the move makes sense. Estrada’s batted ball profile is skewed heavily towards fly balls. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2012, exactly half the balls put in play off him have been fly balls, the third highest mark in the majors during that period. With a big outfield and expansive foul territory in their home park, the west coast marine layer, and a good defensive outfield, it certainly looks like the A’s have found a perfect fit in Estrada. The reason he’s so fly ball prone is because his fastball features the most vertical movement of any four-seam fastball in the majors. That makes it very difficult to square up—batters will either swing under it or miss it completely.

The Big Picture:

The AL West (2018)

Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Astros-x 103-59 0.636 -- Not Champs
Oakland-w 97-65 0.599 6.0 One-and-Done
Mariners 89-73 0.549 14.0 :(
Angels 80-82 0.494 23.0 LOL
Rangers 67-95 0.414 36.0 Rebuilding?

The Astros are the favorites to win the division again this year. In fact, you can just pencil them in for a playoff spot already, FanGraphs gives them 95% playoff odds before a single game has been played. The Athletics will battle the Rays, Twins, and Angels for the second Wild Card spot—the first spot is reserved for the loser of the Red Sox-Yankees battle for the AL East. The Mariners and the Rangers are expected to bring up the rear, with Texas projected to be the worst in the division by three games.