The Mariners have been playing some straight-up unsightly baseball lately. We knew it was a “step back” year, but sometimes it’s hard to feel like it’s not a “stepped in something” year. There’s no way to sugarcoat it: growing pains are tough. But, like pizza, even bad baseball is better than no baseball. Here’s how we’re coping with the season: what we’re looking for, how we’re consuming baseball, and the jokes we’re making to get us through the tough times.
Matthew: Step Back and Pick Your Pitcher
An important thing to remember about watching the Mariners is that you don’t have to. If the team is taking a step back, so can you. While I know that all of us enjoy watching the Mariners in some capacity, and would enjoy enjoying it, this year’s team has made it hard to do so. The occasional offensive outbursts hold much less enjoyment when they’re sandwiched by blowout losses, which have become far too regular. My advice? Choose a pitcher you really like and make a point to watch their starts.
Each Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi start carries a decent win probability, and you get to watch in real time as the lefties improve their game. Each Félix Hernández start has glorious nostalgia attached to it, even if the results are often less than glorious. Each Erik Swanson start provides an opportunity to do some armchair scouting and try to diagnose what works and what doesn’t work for the rookie. Each Mike Leake start has...Mike Leake? But if you like Mike Leake, you like Mike Leake, and you should watch Mike Leake. Different strokes for different folks.
John: Hone in on a Detail
My freshman year of high school was the beginning and end of my quarterbacking career in organized football. After three practices of being termed the ‘Jumbo’ QB, I was shifted to lineman, a position I had never played, nor paid attention to. I played left guard like a 14-year-old with about 60% certainty of where his limbs were at any given time. The next year I was promoted to left tackle, upping the difficulty with little extra guidance. To learn I turned to what I’d used as guidance in any other sport - aping the pros I watched. I began to watch games exclusively focusing on the left tackles, seeing their form, what they did well, how they struggled when they did. It is a process not unlike scouting, and it is an engaging exercise that translates well to baseball too.
We’re trained to follow the ball, and the camera angles on TV encourage it, but we can resist those habits. Locking in on how players—especially young guys like J.P. Crawford, Daniel Vogelbach, Shed Long, Braden Bishop, and others who are likeliest to be around in 2021—are moving their head, holding their hands, working their feet in the field, or any of a number of small affects that impact their performance. For pitchers, it can be the delivery, the pitch mix, or even details as minute as where they’re landing or how consistently they’re breaking their hands. Results are fickle, but process is always fascinating.
Kate: Learn To Love the Minor Leagues
It is not uncommon for me to have this setup, any given day: Mariners game on TV, West Virginia game on my phone, Arkansas Travelers game on MiLB.tv on my laptop, Tacoma game on the radio, Modesto game playing through Amazon Tap (Alexa and I have had some creative differences about what I’m saying when I tell her to “play Modesto Nuts baseball”). The games all start and end at varying times—usually the Power are done by the time Modesto and Tacoma start, or the Mariners are on the road—but there have been times they’ve all been going at once, necessitating the recruitment of other devices. I have been informed by John, the one time he saw it in action, that this setup is “crazy” and “unbearable” and “turn one of those off or you have to leave,” but I find the babble comforting, picturing myself as an old-timey telephone operator, floating above the din of a handful of different conversations, dipping in and out at will. While I would not recommend this setup for everyone [John: for anyone, you mean], even just following one minors game can provide a pleasant distraction to the foibles of the big-league club. Offense asleep at the wheel? Take comfort in any member of the Arkansas lineup getting clutch hits and clobbering dingers. Bullpen blowing the game? Listen as the Modesto bullpen harvests some souls in the California League. Poor defense pooping on the party? Watch the cannon arms of the Power cut down runners all around the diamond. The more games you have going, the richer your tapestry, and the softer your landing when the Mariners break your heart by giving away a late-inning lead in a game you swore you weren’t going to get invested in.
Tim: The Little Victories
Second place is, after all, just the first loser, so when you really step back and think about it, the Mariners aren’t going to fail any more than the team that loses in the ALCS to the [checks notes] Minnesota Twins? Weird timeline.
In that sense, this season is the ultimate distillation of the “process matters” mantra that many analytically-minded fans regularly recite. For a season like this, though, I take a different tack: the process is what it is and Jerry Dipoto will succeed or fail mainly down on the farm, at this point. But in the big-league club? It’s like last season’s game where Mike Zunino drew a walk in extra innings, to be driven home by a Dee Gordon game-winning home run in Oakland. That didn’t matter at all; the A’s took our playoff spot, Mike Zunino is gone, the season was, in terms of playoffs, a wash. But that’s amazing! DEE GORDON DROVE IN MIKE ZUNINO WITH A HOME RUN AFTER ZUNINO TOOK A WALK. It’s the most ridiculous thing, and it means nothing in the grand scheme, and yet it’s objectively incredible. So are:
- Tim Beckham bat flips
- Walking the parrot
- Yusei Kikuchi’s slider
Becca: Players Who Make Every Inning Count/Players Looking to Break Through
Here’s another reason to enjoy the Mariners this season: Following the players who are looking to break through and giving it all they have every pitch and play. They bring a passion and intensity that’s fun to watch. Towards the beginning of the season, Jerry Dipoto said that instead of rebuilding only with young, talented players who will develop over the next few years, he also looked for players who have already matured but who haven’t yet found a successful role on a big league team.
Perhaps the best example of this is Daniel Vogelbach. Vogey bounced around with seven different teams during his minor league career. From 2016-2018 he had a few stints with Mariners but was mostly in the minors. This year, he’s been a huge addition to the Mariners’ dinger-hitting offense. With his charming smile, energetic attitude, and powerful bat, how can you not love Vogey?! He’s already had many great moments for the Mariners, but most recently how cool was it for him to homer off of Brett Anderson in the first inning of Tuesday’s game against the A’s. This is the Brett Anderson who has only allowed one HR all season!
Another great example of this is Omar Narvaez. Narváez struggled last season with the White Sox, and was in more of a backup catcher role. This season, he’s already shown his powerful bat and his command behind the plate. He has also shown his leadership by catching for veteran Felix Hernandez every game of this season. Felix has praised Narváez for his decision making as a catcher. Narváez is making every at-bat count. He had a .875 OPS in April and a walk-off single Monday night in the 10th to start the homestand with a desperately needed win.
Finally, perhaps my favorite, is Roenis Elias. Elías started with the Mariners in 2014, was traded to the Red Sox after two years, then returned to the Mariners last season. He’s already shown his commitment to being a major league player, which involved fleeing Cuba on a boat in the middle of the night and somehow finding his way as an unknown and inexperienced player to the Mariners’ organization. He’s now back for his second opportunity, and it’s clear he wants to do everything he can to take advantage of it. His relief appearance on Tuesday night against the A’s was nothing short of magical. With only a run-one margin, he entered the game in the 7th and pitched 2 + innings with five strikeouts to close out and save the game. Elías is a guy who is always hungry and trying to cement a role in the bigs with the Mariners. He’s thankful to be back in Seattle, and whether he’s being used as a starter or reliever, he brings his A game every chance he gets.
Denise: Learn Some Things?
When times are tough I try to think about how I can utilize that time to make the eventual good times even better. Watching a team that isn’t actually very fun to watch can be a good opportunity to make a mission of learning more about the sport, if you aren’t already an expert in sabermetrics. The next time you’re watching a game, checking updates online or however you’re consuming these hard-to-swallow moments, and you come across a term like ErrR that you’d normally skip right over because it’s just a bunch of bologna the nerds are using to really bore up the game, you can endeavor to instead figure out what it means. It’s one way I’m trying to get through this season, anyway.
Then, instead of stopping at “well rats, such-and-such defender just booted the ball again,” you’ll have a better understanding of how that player’s overall defense impacts the team, whether the player is just going through a rough patch or really just isn’t very good, and you can look smart at work the next day when you say “get a load of the ErrR on so-and-so, talk about a large number, huh buddy?” or “I’ve seen a bigger wOBA on Susan in HR,” and everyone will wish they were just a little bit more like you. Assert your superior baseball knowledge and watch your popularity soar!
But really, if you’re a person who loves to watch the sport but hasn’t committed yet to learning the stats beyond batting average and ERA, this is a great time to do it—in a few years, when the games are hopefully a bit easier to watch, you’ll probably be happy to have a greater understanding of what it means and how we got there. And even if in a few years, the Mariners, you know, Mariner—knowing more stuff still seems good.
Eric: The Vogelbachening Continues
In both our preseason coLLab piece reviewing the Mariners’ offseason and in the 40 in 40 preview on Daniel Vogelbach, I wrote at length about my hope that Vogelbach would get the playing time he has earned in order to prove once and for all whether or not he can stick as an everyday MLB player. So far, the results are very encouraging!
Would he have gotten as many starts so far if Kyle Seager hadn’t injured his hand, forcing Ryon Healy off the first base/DH logjam to cover third base? Probably not! But, exactly like I had hoped before the season started, Vogey got his chance to start regularly anyways and he is doing the damn thing. The plate discipline is otherworldly at times. He’s hitting in the big moments, too, delivering game-winning and game-tying home runs. There have been multiple anecdotes about how much time he spends reviewing video of at-bats and studying opposing pitchers. As hard as he worked to get to the MLB level, it’s awesome to see him continuing to work hard to do everything in his power to make sure he stays. I am so damn happy that he finally got his shot that and that he’s truly making the most of it. That alone has made 2019 worth following along through all the ups and downs. We are witnessing Daniel Vogelbach finally achieve his true calling of being an AL designated hitter and it’s everything I had reasonably hoped it would be.
Amanda: Look for the stories and the joy
”I think about the cosmic snowball theory. A few million years from now the sun will burn out and lose its gravitational pull. The earth will turn into a giant snowball and be hurled through space. When that happens it won’t matter if I get this guy out.”
Bill “Spaceman” Lee said this when asked how he stays calm in pressure situations. It’s a quote I discovered late in high school, and it’s something I’ve gone back to at many points in my life while stressing out over events with varying degrees of meaningfulness. And it’s true; in the grand scheme of the world and the cosmos, the Mariners don’t matter. The number of lives their win-loss record effects on a global scale is exceedingly minimal. Even so, it does matter to some degree. Who among us hasn’t had our mood affected by the Mariners? We can reason it away and think about cosmic snowballs, but the truth is, it does affect our lives and since we’re the ones living our lives, it matters to us.
The cosmic snowball is a good starting off point. On a personal level, I’ve watched a cascade of rough life things affect people I’m close to recently. It’s life, but it’s also hard. After rough events we often issue platitudes to be thankful for every day, to hug your loved ones, to learn to be grateful for what you have. This Mariners season is a crash course in fully cherishing and embracing the good moments while expecting and knowing the bad will come. This is a hard thing to do in life, and it can be easy to get wrapped up in what the Mariners can do (hit ALL THE dingers) and lash out when they don’t do it.
This season, so far, we have watched nine players make their major league debut. Nine dreams have come true, nine times years of sacrifice and grind has paid off. This season we have real live legitimate prospects and we get watch dreams on the cusp, and dreams come true. For example, Parker Markel was pitching in an independent league last year, hanging on for one final ride. He got to pitch in the major leagues at Fenway Park. There are beautiful moments happening in these games. The stories are wonderful. And you know what, life kinda sucks sometimes and eventually we’ll be hurled through space like a cosmic snowball. Before that happens though, we get to live vicariously through players experiencing pure joy. Part of baseball’s appeal has always been its stories. The 2019 Mariners have stories galore.
Nick: 10 Reasons to Watch the Mariners This Year
I interpreted this prompt as not so much how one could watch, but why one would watch. I think there are several reasons to watch (baseball!), but here are the ten best.
1. They’re playing on the TV in the bar you’re in and the bartender refuses to turn the channel.
2. You fell on the bar trying to reach the TV and now you cannot move your neck.
3. The EMTs are forcing you to keep your eyes open while you are face up on the bar because you have a concussion and if you fall asleep you might die.
4. Can JP Crawford drive the inside pitch?
5. The police are holding you for questioning in the bar because you threatened the EMTs and Cory Gearrin’s family.
6. Can Shed Long develop defensively enough to be a regular next year?
7. You have been ordered to watch every game by a creative and malicious judge as punishment for “borrowing” the officer’s pistol to “turn off” the bar’s television.
8. Will Justus Sheffield ever refine his fastball command and throw his changeup?
9. You are broke and alone and under house arrest and your neck will never be the same and by some fluke of your accident your body now only produces serotonin while watching the Mariners play baseball in 2019.
10. Daniel Vogelbach’s sweet smile.