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Series Preview: Mariners (2-0) vs. Red Sox (0-0)

Happy Opening Day (part deux)

Now the fun begins. With the Mariners’ quick jaunt across the sea in the rear view mirror, they join the rest of baseball with a league-wide Opening Day. Rather than the staggered start we’ve seen the last few years, every single team will kick off the 2019 season on Thursday. The Mariners have clung to those two wins banked in Tokyo a week ago but they’ll face a stiff challenge back in the States.

At a Glance

Red Sox Mariners
Red Sox Mariners
Game 1 Thursday, March 28 | 4:10 pm
LHP Chris Sale LHP Marco Gonzales
60% 40%
Game 2 Friday, March 29 | 7:10 pm
RHP Nathan Eovaldi LHP Yusei Kikuchi
56% 44%
Game 3 Saturday, March 30 | 6:10 pm
LHP Eduardo Rodríguez RHP Mike Leake
55% 45%
Game 4 Sunday, March 31 | 1:10 pm
RHP Rick Porcello LHP Wade LeBlanc
60% 40%
Game odds courtesy of FiveThirtyEight (Explainer)

Team Overview

Overview Red Sox (2018) Mariners (2018) Edge
Overview Red Sox (2018) Mariners (2018) Edge
Batting (wRC+) 110 (4th in AL) 101 (7th in AL) Red Sox
Fielding (DRS) -26 (12th) -23 (11th) Mariners
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 91 (4th) 100 (6th) Red Sox
Bullpen (FIP-) 92 (3rd) 94 (4th) Red Sox

The Red Sox were clearly the best team in baseball last year. They won 108 games—best in the majors—and cruised through the playoffs on their way to their fourth World Series win in the last fifteen years. Mookie Betts won his first MVP award last year and will perennially challenge Mike Trout for that award as he grows into a complete five-tool player. J.D. Martinez elevated his offensive output to superstar levels, proving that his late-career transformation has a much higher ceiling than expected. Chris Sale could have put together a historic season but was sidelined by a troubling shoulder injury.

The core of the team that’s won the AL East three years in a row is still intact but the supporting cast around them might be a little weaker this year. The biggest flaw is their bullpen. Craig Kimbrel is out of the picture—though I suppose it’s possible he returns since he’s somehow unsigned still—and they didn’t bring in anyone to replace him in the ninth inning. Instead, they’ll be calling on a group of comparatively anonymous relievers and they project to be one of the worst relief corps in the majors. There’s also a serious lack of depth if any of their stars miss time due to injury. The Red Sox suffered from a serious World Series hangover the last time they won back in 2013, dropping from first to worst the next year. The 2019 version of their roster is set up to be one of the best teams in the American League again, but they’ll be hard pressed to repeat their success so easily this year.

Red Sox Lineup

Player Position Bats PA BABIP wRC+ BsR
Player Position Bats PA BABIP wRC+ BsR
Andrew Benintendi LF L 661 0.328 122 4.3
Mookie Betts RF R 614 0.368 185 6.9
Rafael Devers 3B L 490 0.281 90 2.2
J.D. Martinez DH R 649 0.375 170 -4.1
Xander Bogaerts SS R 580 0.317 133 -1.7
Mitch Moreland 1B L 459 0.288 100 -4.1
Eduardo Núñez 2B R 502 0.29 78 -6.2
Jackie Bradley Jr. CF L 535 0.299 90 5.7
Christian Vázquez C R 269 0.237 42 -2.1
All stats from 2018.

After a down year in 2017, Mookie Betts improved almost every aspect of his approach at the plate last season. His command of the strike zone combined with his elite contact ability and growing power make him one of the best hitters on the planet. But it’s not enough to have just one offensive powerhouse on the roster, the Red Sox have two. J.D. Martinez posted a career-high 170 wRC+ last year, the third highest mark in the majors, behind Betts and Mike Trout. Even though his power output regressed a little after his explosion in 2017, he also cut his strikeout rate by four points. Xander Bogaerts also enjoyed a mini-breakout of his own last year. All of a sudden, he started hitting for power in his age-25 season, increasing his isolated power by more than 50%. He’s always had a great approach at the plate and an excellent hit tool, but adding power to his repertoire elevates him to another level.

Probable Pitchers

MLB: World Series-Boston Red Sox at Los Angeles Dodgers

LHP Chris Sale

158 38.4% 5.5% 9.3% 44.2% 2.11 1.98
Pitch Type Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 39.0% 95.7 2355 132 164 114
Sinker 11.1% 93.1 2215 154 167 97
Changeup 15.4% 87.3 2041 158 134 122
Slider 34.6% 80.1 2493 78 134 108
Stuff+ Explainer

Through the end of July, Chris Sale had posted a 2.08 FIP backed by a ridiculous 6.27 strikeout-to-walk ratio, making him a shoo-in for the AL Cy Young award. But a shoulder issue sidelined him for most of August and he was eased back into duty during September so the Red Sox could lean on him during their postseason run. The key indicator for his health has been his fastball velocity. If he’s sitting around 95 mph, he should be just as dominant as ever. He recently joined the extension party, signing a five-year, $145 million contract extension earlier this week. The Red Sox must feel good about his shoulder if they’re committing that much money to him in his early 30s. If he’s totally healthy, he could finally win his first Cy Young award this year.

RHP Nathan Eovaldi

111 22.2% 4.4% 12.2% 45.6% 3.81 3.60
Pitch Type Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 40.8% 97.4 2134 135 133 107
Cutter 34.1% 93.0 2386 152 78 104
Splitter 13.5% 88.6 1479 143 71 92
Slider 11.7% 87.0 2176 146 88 149

Nathan Eovaldi has always had an electric fastball—before his Tommy John surgery, he was regularly throwing in the triple digits as a starter—but the results never followed. He simply couldn’t leverage his elite velocity into good whiff rates. In his first season after his elbow surgery, Eovaldi introduced two new secondary pitches into his repertoire—a cutter and a splitter—and that made a world of difference. Those two secondary pitches weren’t all that effective from a results standpoint, but they grade out very well per Stuff+ and made sure that opposing batters couldn’t simply focus on hitting his fastball. Adding two pitches to his arsenal also had the knock-on effect of improving the whiff rate on his fastball from mediocre to well above average. On top of that, he didn’t suffer the loss of command that many Tommy John returnees see in their first year back on the mound. With a healthy year under his belt, he should be just as effective in 2019 as he was last year.

LHP Eduardo Rodríguez

129 2/3 26.4% 8.1% 11.0% 38.7% 3.82 3.65
Pitch Type Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 42.0% 93.7 2196 102 132 89
Sinker 9.6% 93.5 2203 133 163 92
Cutter 15.5% 89.4 2253 96 74 106
Changeup 21.0% 87.9 2074 106 119 93
Slider 11.9% 85.4 2209 123 85 47

A lingering knee injury has prevented Eduardo Rodríguez from putting together a full season on the mound since injuring it back in 2016. He was able to put together his best season of his career last year, posting career-bests in strikeout-to-walk ratio, ERA, and FIP. Much of his success comes via an elevated fastball paired with an excellent changeup. Opposing batters hit just three extra-base hits off his changeup last year. But he’s always struggled to find a consistent third pitch. He’s dabbled with a slider/cutter—the pitch is thrown with the same grip but at different velocities—but he might have settled on the cutter last year. He threw that version of the pitch far more often than the slider and it was effective in limiting hard contact.

RHP Rick Porcello

191 1/3 23.5% 5.9% 13.8% 44.1% 4.28 4.01
Pitch Type Frequency Velocity Spin Rate Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 21.1% 91.7 2433 80 140 69
Sinker 28.9% 90.2 2352 84 78 114
Changeup 11.7% 81.9 1760 151 60 110
Curveball 14.0% 75.0 2824 66 97 77
Slider 24.3% 86.3 2555 136 67 93

Rick Porcello has vacillated between good years and bad years since joining the Red Sox in 2015. Last year was a good year, so I guess he’s due for a bad year in 2019. He’s consistently tinkered with his pitch mix since moving to Boston which might explain why his results have swung back and forth so much. Over the last four years, he’s dropped the usage of his sinker year-over-year and started throwing his four-seam fastball far more often. He’s able to generate a much higher whiff rate with the four-seamer but it’s also led to a corresponding drop in his ground ball rate. Last year, he started throwing his slider almost a quarter of the time, though the results didn’t exactly follow. It may have helped his fastball become even more effective however. We’ll see if all that tinkering pays off if he’s able to break that pattern of ups and downs this year.

The Big Picture:

Projected Standings (FanGraphs)

Team W-L W% Win Division Make Playoffs
Team W-L W% Win Division Make Playoffs
Astros 98-64 0.603 88.3% 95.1%
Oakland 85-77 0.523 7.3% 32.3%
Angels 82-80 0.508 4.0% 19.5%
Mariners 75-87 0.461 0.3% 2.3%
Rangers 71-91 0.440 0.0% 0.6%

Rather than remark on the commanding lead the Mariners have held in the standings for the past week, I’ll present the projected standings for the AL West in this section per FanGraphs. There are few surprises in the projections. The Astros are expected to be the best team in the American League and run away with the division crown for the third season in a row. The Athletics are bunched up with the Rays, Twins, and Angels in a battle for the second Wild Card spot. And the Mariners and the Rangers bring up the rear. At least the Mariners have a minuscule shot at surprising everyone with a 2% chance of making the playoffs [insert so_youre_tellin_me_theres_a_chance.gif].