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The extremophile Mariners

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Seattle is a team living (and dying) on the edge

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

One of my favorite bits of media is a YouTube series called ‘Monster Factory’. It’s run by our sister (cousin? Affiliate-in-law?) site Polygon by two of the internet-famous McElroy brothers. The premise is simple, and one many video gamers are familiar with; they take a game that allows you to customize your character’s design and test the absolute limits of that game’s capabilities. The show’s core ethos is simple enough for a single sentence, and it is just as true for the 2019 Mariners: no middle sliders.

If you’re unfamiliar with video gaming, you might be rushing to pull up some clips of Anthony Swarzak this year to counter that assertion, but in this case we’re referring to sliders on (typically) a scale of 0-to-100. The Mariners have carved out a space for themselves as a ~.500 team by being the mean of their parts, and perhaps the median, but certainly not the mode. As of Tuesday morning Seattle’s rankings in MLB have more zig-zags than a ski slope. Spurred by an initial discussion with commenter Tim B., I compiled a lengthier list of the Mariners extremes here:

On offense they are...

1st in HRs, runs scored, RBIs, and total games played (between 1-6 more than the rest of the league). They’ve been speedy as well, ranking 3rd in steals and 4th by the FanGraphs BsR metric used to encompass all baserunning value, supported as well by the 2nd-fewest GiDPs even with their league-high PA total. They’re in the top-five in MLB for numerous rate stats as well, however, including 3rd in ISO/SLG, 5th in wRC+, 2nd-lowest in GB%, and combining the 2nd-highest FB% with the 3rd-highest HR/FB%. Despite the recent struggles, the offense and run production has been excellent!

But about that run prevention...

The defense is, as anyone within a half kilometer of a Mariners game this year could grasp, atrocious. Is it a defensive metric? The Mariners are in last place by it. By DRS they rank dead last at -41. Defensive metrics are tougher to contextualize, I find, but comparing the Mariners to the rest of MLB is a bit like juxtaposing a pineapple and the concept of anomie. They are scarcely in the same realm of existence. The next worst team by DRS is the -27 Mets, and 20 teams are in positive numbers. Last year’s worst defense was the Phillies at -146, who were themselves historically awful, but the M’s are on pace to be worse than every other team since 2002 in the field. With other metrics it gets no better; the Mariners rank 30th in UZR, UZR/150, fielding percentage, and lead the league in errors with 45 - just over one per game.

The pitching is equally dichotomous. The starters rank 29th in MLB by K% but have the lowest BB% in MLB as well. With that lack of strikeout stuff and wretched defense, it’s hardly surprising that only the Pirates have stranded fewer baserunners once they reach base than the M’s starters. While those stranding struggles continue into the bullpen, the way the rest bears out does not. By fWAR and bWAR the pen ranks 29th and 27th respectively, with the league’s highest BB/9 and 2nd-highest BB%. Controlling the zone may be the mantra in innings 1-thru-6, but it has not sunk in the back end yet. Collectively, they lead the league with the the most hits and runs allowed, albeit merely the 4th-worst ERA- and 5th-worst FIP-.

It all mashes together for a 21-23 team with the run differential of... a 21-23 team. Few players exemplify the 2019 Mariners better than the winning run of last night’s game: Domingo Santana. Domingo has been a strong presence in the top and middle of the M’s lineup, recently working his way out of a slump to lift his wRC+ to 132, with a .281/.351/.497 line and a .216 ISO despite playing in a home park that remains tough on righty hitters even with its shortened fences. He’s clubbed eight dingers, spraying them beautifully across the field, like a thoughtful gardener giving his seeds room to grow.

Domingo Dingers
Baseball Savant

But for all his offense he’s been almost commensurately painful in the field, ranking dead last in Outs Above Average according to Statcast for any player of any position, and catching roughly 9% fewer balls hit his way than expected. The bat giveth, the glove taketh, the pitching flip a coineth. Those have been the edges the Mariners have balanced on all season, and there’s little to suggest that will let up soon. Embrace the extremes, enjoy the mayhem.