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The 2021 Mariners have a contact problem

Shield your eyes, gory numbers ahead

Cleveland Indians v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

I started writing this article way back in late April, when the team’s offensive struggles were becoming apparent; at the time, they were batting just over .200 (.211) for April, with an ominous OPS of .666. But there were still reasons to be hopeful: the team had just come off playing the Red Sox and the Dodgers in tough, tight contests, and the relative cupcake of a Baltimore series at home loomed on the horizon. A perfect chance to get right, I thought, and set this article aside. Instead, May has been an absolute sucking black hole offensively, with the team average falling to a 2015 Zunino-esque .177, and a spate of roster moves that feel more like reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic than they do actual improvements to a flailing team. Even the genuine improvement of Jarred Kelenic’s offensive spark has been stymied as he continues to adjust to the bigs and the rest of the team becomes increasingly injured, streaky, or ineffective. So I thought I’d check in on those article notes and see if anything’s changed, and if there’s any reason to hope towards the future, now that our Kelenic watch has ended.

How are the Mariners doing at dominating the zone?

Seattle is striking out the fifth-most in the majors, so you would say, not good! And that would certainly seem to track with their team wRC+ of 84, which is, incidentally, two points higher than that of the Detroit Tigers, the team that just swept them. The good news about Mariners hitters is they don’t expand the zone much, nor have they. Their O-swing of 28.9% is 6th-best in baseball, and the third-best in the AL. That’s right up there with Oakland (28.1%), whose announcers constantly like to remind listeners that the A’s are a very selective team; as you’d expect, the Padres and the Dodgers are the two best teams at this, expanding the zone a miserly 25% of the time. So the Mariners aren’t expanding the zone a lot, even though they are striking out a truly disgusting amount.

Even with the strikeouts, the Mariners are still managing to be top-10 in baseball in walks. They see a lot of pitches per plate appearance—just under 4 pitches per plate appearance (3.98), 11th-best in baseball and 7th-highest in the AL. That’s a little bit of a downturn from where they were in April, when they were 7th-best in baseball, just behind the Dodgers. It’s understandable that a team that’s as offensively frustrated as the Mariners might be starting to jump on pitches earlier in the count to try to ambush the fastball, but so far, that strategy hasn’t been paying off. They’re swinging at a league-average number of strikes, but they’re taking well above the league average: 29.9%, which ties them for second with San Diego. However, even as San Diego hitters watch a lot of strikes go by, they still strike out much less than the Mariners (20%), as their hitters pull the trigger where Mariners hitters more often watch the third called strike go by. In April the Mariners had the 8th-highest CSW% in the league; in May, it’s up to 5th-highest. So maybe Mariners hitters could do with a little less walking in exchange for a little less striking out and a little more aggression in the zone.

That’s a dangerous proposition though, because when the Mariners do chase, they’re the worst team in baseball at making chase contact, connecting only about half of the time. So Mariners batters are consistently walking a razor’s edge: chase and flail, or stare at called strike three? Even if they do swing, Mariners batters are fourth-worst in baseball at making contact. So, if you’re following along, yes, that means they’re damned if they swing, damned if they don’t, and then damned again one more time for good measure.

So when the Mariners do swing, what happens?

I’m glad you asked, hypothetical interlocutor. Back in April, the Mariners were making an average amount of contact, but putting very few balls in play; just 24.8%, 5th-lowest in the majors. Now, however, they have tumbled to the bottom of the contact leaderboard, just a tick under Texas and hanging out with offensively-challenged teams like the Phillies, a surprisingly poor Rays team, and, of course, our old friends the Detroit Tigers. You will not be surprised to hear that the Mariners have the second-lowest number of balls put in play in the AL behind, of course, the Tigers.

And on the rare occasion they do make contact, you will probably also not be surprised to hear that the Mariners do not make good contact. Their average exit velocity of 88 MPH is bottom 7% in the league, and their 5.4% rate of solid contact is also one of the league’s lowest. They do have a higher barrel percentage than one would expect for a team with such toothless offensive numbers (9.2%); my guess is that’s reflective of Mitch Haniger and Kyle Seager and their twin 89th percentile barrel rates (what nice co-workers, propping everybody else up).

None of these numbers will likely come as a surprise to anyone who has been watching this team flailing pool noodles in the box for the past two months, although at least it does put some numbers behind what the eye test sees (and also explains why, in addition to being painful to watch, these games are taking so dang long; they’re seeing lots of pitches before they strike out). Unfortunately, there’s not anything in the data that suggests things will get better. This isn’t a case of Mariners hitters getting unlucky on balls in play or balls getting sucked into the marine layer; the 2021 Mariners aren’t putting balls in play because they struggle to make contact in the first place. And no matter how much controlling the zone or working counts one does, at the end of the day, baseball is a game where you have to hit to win, and this team, currently, simply cannot hit. It doesn’t mean a lot to control the zone against a pitcher who strikes you out anyway because the bat is on your shoulder, or to work the count and get a good pitch to hit if you cannot do damage on the pitch.

I had hoped in setting this article aside at the end of April that things would improve, that the Mariners would dust the cobwebs off their bats and remember how to hit. And that could still happen: Kyle Lewis, remember, is running about a month behind everyone else; Ty France could re-emerge from the IL able to impact the ball again; uhhhhh Dylan Moore was looking like he was turning it around offensively before he went to the IL? The team has suffered a spate of injuries, for sure, and also has a ton of young players still just trying to figure out which way is up in the big leagues, but it’s hard to look at these offensive numbers, particularly these contact rates, and see a way out of this awful funk. As much as #FireTimLaker became a popular hashtag on Twitter after the last no-hitter, this problem is beyond a hitting coach, or a team approach or controlling the zone or whatever. It’s about a group of hitters who are among the worst in baseball at making contact, and that’s not a problem it’s easy to see a way around, or to see improving any time soon.