The Seattle Mariners are a team with a fascinating dichotomy attached to them. They are known, probably first and foremost, for losing. It’s very easy to make the argument that they’re the least successful organization in American sports. But there’s also undeniable greatness throughout their history, one that includes giants of the game like Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez, Ichiro Suzuki, and Félix Hernández. These were incendiary stars during their time in Seattle. They are also extreme outliers who burst out of the Mariners’ own bubble and joined the national conversation, something the team rarely did before they showed up.
Seattle’s baseball excellence is so dense, so contained in a small period of time, that simply being here for a decent chunk of time is enough to become a fan favorite. The sentimental value that comes with players like Julio Cruz, Jim Presley, Dan Wilson, and Willie Bloomquist is mostly due to the fact that they just stuck around for a while. In Seattle, the bit players who would otherwise get forgotten have a tendency to morph into cult heroes. Had they been Yankees or Cardinals, there’s no way they’d be cherished figures the way they are in the Northwest. Being goofy and lovable but only kinda good is what being a Mariner is all about.
But what about the bit players who were goofy and lovable and actually good? These are the unsung heroes of Mariner lore who were either lost to the passage of time, left Seattle before the city could truly embrace them, or traded for Mike Morse.
Leon Roberts - 1978
Here’s a thing that is absolutely true. From their first year of existence in 1977 to the year before Griffey changed everything in 1989, the Mariners only had nine position players accumulate 3.0 bWAR in a season. One of them was Leon Roberts, someone who I have literally never heard of. Even crazier, Leon Roberts is a white guy!
Roberts was the M’s primary cleanup hitter and right fielder, starting 123 games for a team that went 56-104. This is the same team that famously made seven errors in a single game, suffered six different losing streaks of at least five games, and didn’t have a single pitcher reach 100 strikeouts. The ’78 Mariners also hit just 97 home runs as a team, with nearly a quarter of them coming from Roberts alone. Even worse, they weren’t even playing their best guys for an alarming portion of the season. Manager Darrell Johnson probably robbed the team of a handful of wins by not giving Roberts regular playing time until mid-June.
The Mariners woke up on June 15, 1978 with a putrid 19-45 record. Their right fielder, a man named John Hale, was lugging around a .176 batting average and just seven extra base hits. Roberts, an offseason trade acquisition who had blasted a pinch hit home run in the 10th inning of the previous night’s game, took Hale’s spot for the June 15th tussle with the Yankees, and while he didn’t get a hit, he did have an RBI groundout against Goose Gossage. He would then start every single one of Seattle’s final 95 games, hitting .306 with 15 homers. The underappreciated outfielder also finished 33rd in MVP voting, which doesn’t really do anything besides make you wonder why the ballot even went that far.
He followed up the impressive ’78 campaign with another strong showing in ’79 (.271/.352/.451, 3.9 bWAR) before falling off a bit in ’80 and getting traded to the Rangers before the strike-shortened ’81 season. The Vicksburg, Michigan resident finished his career with exactly 900 MLB games under his belt, none more impressive than the class of 1978, which were almost sabotaged by his own manager before they could even begin.
Ed Vande Berg - 1982
|Ed Vande Berg||76.0||9||4||2.37||3.34||1.13||180||.201||3.2||1.5|
In 1982, Ed Vande Berg was a 23-year-old rookie pitching for a team that had little else going for it. Like every other Mariner team from the franchise’s infancy, most of the positives were canceled out by swaths of nothingness. Richie Zisk had a strong offensive season, as did Bruce Bochte, Dave Henderson, and Al Cowens, the team’s starting outfielders. Unfortunately, all the infielders were swinging pool noodles, with none of them producing an OPS+ higher than 80. In other words, while the outfielders were doing their best to put runs on the board, the infielders were all 20% worse than league average at the plate.
On the pitching side, early Mariner icons Floyd Bannister, Jim Beattie, and Bill Caudill were rock steady. Most of the bullpen was too, as a matter of fact. Six different relievers turned in an ERA+ above 100, but none were more astounding than Vande Berg’s 180. On paper, this was a guy who had all the makings of just another nondescript roster filler.
Vande Berg was a 13th round pick by the Mariners in 1980. This marked the third time he’d been drafted; he was selected by the Padres in the third round in 1978 when the MLB held its Regular Phase draft in January. Then, after turning down the Padres’ offer, he was taken again by the Cardinals that June as part of the Secondary Phase. Yet again, the San Bernardino Valley College pitcher turned them down, packed up his beer bong*, and enrolled at Arizona State.
*I don’t actually know if Ed Vande Berg had a beer bong. They probably give you one on your first day on campus at ASU either way.
The Arizona State experiment didn’t quite work out in terms of improving his draft slot. After the Mariners grabbed him in the 13th round, Vande Berg made nine starts for Bellingham in his first taste of professional baseball. The organization apparently wasn’t thrilled by them, and they decided to turn Vande Berg into a reliever. While this probably wasn’t what Vande Berg envisioned when he declined contracts from two different teams and bet on himself to become a first or second round pick, it did get him to the big leagues quickly.
Just two years after the Mariners drafted him, the kid was ready for the show. “Did I think I’d be here now? Heck no, they took a chance just signing me,” Vande Berg told The Spokesman-Review. He didn’t start a single game in his rookie year, but he did lead the American League in appearances, getting six outs or more a whopping 10 times. Given his initial usage as a guy the Mariners brought in many times when they were already losing, the organization likely viewed him as a prototypical long relief mop up guy. They ended up with an incredibly effective pitcher who finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting. He would pitch two more seasons in Seattle and finally get the chance to start in ‘84, but never came remotely close to matching the value he had in ’82. To this day, Ed Vande Berg is one of just seven Mariner relievers with a 3.0 bWAR season to their name.
Rich Amaral - 1993
The 1993 Mariners were just the second group in franchise history to finish above .500, and utility infielder Rich Amaral was a surprisingly big reason why. To be clear, Amaral was not a great hitter. In fact, he was below average by several metrics. However, he did enough at the plate to earn the ninth spot in the order while showing incredible versatility in the field. Most of his value came from that versatility, as Amaral cycled through second base, third base, and shortstop, even getting seven innings at first base to complete his tour of the infield.
Luckily for Amaral, guys like Griffey, Jay Buhner, Mike Blowers, and Tino Martinez were around to do most of the heavy lifting. While they were hitting dingers and driving in runs, Amaral was doing things that go more unnoticed. He didn’t make a single error at shortstop and only committed one at third base. He stole 19 bases and whacked 24 doubles, and surely ingratiated himself to the bunt-happy Lou Piniella by laying down seven sacrifices. My favorite tidbit from Amaral’s 1993 season, though, is that he finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting despite being a spry 31 years old. His cup of coffee came in 1991, and he got 100 more at-bats in 1992, but didn’t fully exhaust rookie eligibility until he became the Mariners’ favorite substitute teacher at every infield position.
Rich Amaral was Willie Bloomquist before Willie Bloomquist, and he did enough to stick around for five more years after 1993, which meant appearing in the postseason in ’95 and ’97. The ’93 bunch might have been the first Mariner squad to crack the playoffs too if not for Edgar Martinez’s injury and the typical bullpen calamities that plagued them all decade. In classic Amaral fashion, he resurfaced with the Mariners in 2008 to teach them, of course, the little things. ESPN reported that Amaral was brought in as part of John McLaren’s offseason emphasis on pitch recognition, baserunning, and defense.
John Jaso - 2012
The bohemian catcher’s greatest contribution to Mariner history will always be catching Félix Hernández’s perfect game in 2012, but the entirety of Jaso’s season deserves more attention. In his only season with Seattle, Jaso started fewer games behind the plate than both Miguel Olivo and Jesús Montero*. Here’s the thing, though. Jaso was way better than those guys.
*If you really want to party, check out the team’s left fielders from that season.
Very rarely does a catcher get on base with as much regularity as Jaso did in 2012. Even rarer is the fact that he managed to do that and smash 10 home runs without being a mainstay in the lineup. Here is a list of every catcher to post a bWAR of 3.0 or higher, an on-base percentage above .390, and hit 10 home runs in less than 400 plate appearances.
If you throw out the guys who played before integration, you’re left with an even smaller sample, albeit one without a guy named Jocko. No catcher has matched this feat since Jaso, which is probably due in large part to coaches realizing that a catcher with this skill set should start every day.
The fact that Jaso was able to accomplish this without anyone really noticing is so perfectly Mariners. So too is the fact that – like Leon Roberts 34 years before him – Jaso was nearly undone by his manager’s poor tactics. For those wondering, Miguel Olivo and Jesús Montero combined for 0.3 bWAR in 2012 while stealing playing time from their teammate’s historic season.
Chris Young - 2014
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Chris Young was a lucky man in 2014. He was lucky to be on a roster after being signed and released twice by the Nationals, throwing zero MLB pitches in 2013, and joining the Mariners four days before Opening Day. He was certainly lucky to have a 3.65 ERA when his 5.02 FIP indicates that should have been higher. He was damn lucky to be third in the AL in home runs allowed and not completely reviled by the fans, and for the purposes of this exercise, he’s lucky to have a place in oddball Mariner history.
Chris Young helped keep the 2014 team afloat when most of its hitters were poking holes in the raft. He doesn’t have the nerdy, “Wait, he was THAT good?” numbers of other people on this list, but he does have a lot of fun memories attached to him. Remember, the 2014 Mariners won 87 games. That awkward birthday party of a team finished a game behind Oakland for the second Wild Card spot, and they didn’t miss the playoffs so much as the A’s ran out of time to collapse even harder.
While we all know this is a dumb way to look at things, the Mariners won 17 times when Chris Young started. Take away even half of those, and that hilariously enjoyable season becomes just another year of playing out the string. A quick glance at the roster tells you the 2014 Mariners had no business winning that much. It was King Félix at his most tyrannical, Robinson Canó and Kyle Seager carrying the offense, a very good Hisashi Iwakuma, and a bullpen blessed by some sort of sorcerer. That’s basically it.
Roenis Elías was a bright spot too, and worthy of consideration here, but the sheer absurdity of Young being on the team at all cements his spot. The fact that he was only a Mariner for one year (and won the World Series immediately after leaving, of course) only adds to his allure. So does the fact that my man was 6’10” and threw approximately 57 miles per hour. Here’s Young shutting down the eventual AL champions despite his high school fastball and a particularly porous outfield defense.
He was the personification of cognitive dissonance. We knew he was probably bad, but he just kept being good. We knew big guys pitched in caps lock, but he was more lowercase. We knew the Mariners should have been a mediocre team, but Chris Young did everything in his power to push them toward greatness. For that, we salute him.
1995: Jeff Nelson – Relief Pitcher
The terms “unsung hero” and “1995” will immediately conjure images of Doug Strange and the most famous walk in franchise history. But while undoubtedly important to the team, Strange only made 169 plate appearances that summer. Nelson, on the other hand, threw the most innings of any Mariner reliever and regularly went two or more at a time. His final numbers (2.17 ERA/2.58 FIP/1.08 WHIP, 30.2 K%, 220 ERA+, 2.9 bWAR) make you wonder why the team ever called on Bobby Ayala (4.44 ERA/4.10 FIP/1.45 WHIP, 24.1 K%, 108 ERA+, 0.0 bWAR) in big moments.
2011: Brendan Ryan – Shortstop
What do you get when a team’s best player is a shortstop that hit .248 with three bombs but fielded everything in sight? The 2011 Seattle Mariners, baby!