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It’s time to leave Chaos Ball in the past

These 2022 Mariners are better—should be better—than luck and circumstance

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

When I settled into my seat in the press box on Friday, not knowing exactly what to expect from the evening, I was struck by a team promo that started running shortly after the “Coast Guard warning a Toga Cruise to get the hell out of its way”-level foghorn blast that announces the gates to T-Mobile Park are now open. Across the ribbon boards and on MarinersVision, in between running score updates for the Yankees-Orioles game, the banner proclaimed: “EMBRACE THE CHAOS.”

And so they did. True to form, the Mariners won in a fashion that many were quick to describe as Chaos Ball, with Cal Raleigh obliterating a Domingo Acevedo slider in the ninth inning to send the Mariners to a walkoff, 2-1 victory, and their first playoff berth in over two decades, because why should anything ever be easy. There’s no way to describe the ensuing champagne-and-cigar bath, and an encore performance to 45,000-plus weeping/screaming/catharticizing fans, as anything less than chaotic.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

But even after The Clinch, the Mariners social accounts continued to promote the #EmbraceTheChaos hashtag, making the most out of what was initially graciously ruled a double in Saturday afternoon’s 5-1 win when two Athletics outfielders collided in the sunny poppy field of T-Mobile, prompting many to ask which team was actually still wearing their beer goggles. (Personally, I just have the same question as one of the Mariners players—I think it was Kirby or Festa—had on Friday night: “Who scheduled Saturday as a day game? I just wanna talk.” You and the rest of the greater Seattle area, friend.)

It feels strange to me to be arguing against chaos, because [Marie Kondo voice] I love mess. As a long-term student of narrative and story-making, when an author or entity truly surprises me with a plot twist I legitimately did not see coming? It’s such a delightful surprise it approaches the divine. It’s the reason I am so devoted to The Good Place; I’ve been chasing after the goosebumps I got in that first season like Helen Hunt in Twister (ironically, not a movie that narratively surprises nor delights). The 2021 Mariners would have made Thomas Pynchon blush. The old adage is that when you come to the ballpark, there’s a good chance you’ll see something you’ve never seen before, and while that’s true, I would argue no team had the density of “something you’ve never seen before”s than the 2021 Mariners.

And of course, the walk-off walk that inspired the whole thing:

Chaos ball has definitely been a thing before last year—there are no new plots, especially not in a sport as august as baseball—but specifically, if I may toot my own horn briefly, LL was chief in identifying “chaos ball” as a defining feature of last year’s team. For the 2021 season, our pinned tweet on the LL account was this:

Surely other teams have worn the Chaos Ball moniker but maybe none, or very few, were so anointed on the first day of the season. (I’m not a prophet, I just play one on the internet.)

But the 2021 Mariners are very different from the 2022 Mariners, and expectations of them should be different. It’s what frustrated me so intensely about the Mariners in May and June, when they were playing dismally, an unfortunate shadow which recurred here over the tail end of this season. This team has frequently, frustratingly, played beneath their projected talent level. But before we get too far into that, let me refresh your memory as to the 2021 Mariners Opening Day roster:

Where to start. How about the rotation, where there’s no Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, or Luis Castillo. James Paxton would throw 1.1 innings before being removed from his first start for what would turn out to be Tommy John surgery. Switching over to the bullpen, you’ll note there’s no Andrés Muñoz, who was still recovering from TJ surgery at the time, but also no Paul Sewald, who was Tacoma’s Opening Day starter that year. Dylan Moore was the team’s starting second baseman. Cal Raleigh was still taking reps in Tacoma and wouldn’t make it to Seattle until July, where he would struggle in his first big-league look. The team’s most consistently healthy outfielder was [checks notes] Dylan Moore, who you might remember from also being the team’s starting second baseman.

[Side quest: Wanna feel old? Here’s the 2021 alternate site roster, because remember, at the beginning of the 2021 season we were still up to our necks in the pandemic, rather than merely up to our knees. Even in a post-vaccination world, teams still had mass breakouts due to the close quarters they operate in and high contagion of the novel coronavirus—the Yankees had one in late May of 2021, the D-Backs in late July, making the pool of players at an alternate site a necessity.]

With Kyle Seager still on the books for salary, the Mariners ran it back, so to speak, for one final year in 2021, and the result was the Frankenlineup you see above. It wasn’t an obvious stepback like the dismal 2019 season, nor the Cirque de Soleil act that was baseball in 2020, but rather an almost-there approach that led to some devastating losses and some thrilling wins, and a good many wins that inflated the Mariners’ record like an Eugenio Suárez bubble. There’s a reason the revered site Baseball-Reference actually listed “fun differential” as a stat for the eternally, but especially that year, lovable-loser Mariners.

After the Mariners built their fully operational battle station of a bullpen towards the latter half of the season, it became a delightful bit of performance art to see how the team might pull out a win with a shutdown bullpen performance and any semblance of offense. They led the league in one-run wins in 2021, and it was exciting to see the bullpen take over a game in a tie or with a narrow lead. That also instilled a sense of confidence that somehow, some way, the offense would find a way to win the game, be it on a sac fly taking advantage of the still-new Manfred runner rule in extras, or something deeply stupid like a walk-off wild pitch. It was fun—chaos often is—but it didn’t feel sustainable.

Sustainability has been the buzzword for this current crop of Mariners, though. Not only does the club expect to win this year, but they expect to do so for many years. That was a chief point of the message Scott Servais delivered to both his players and a packed house at T-Mobile on Friday night: the Mariners are here, and they’re fixing to be a problem for the league for some time to come.

And mostly, their team composition supports that. Where the Mariners lacked starpower in their rotation last season, they went out and acquired two (baseball) household name pitchers to join young, home-grown stars in one of baseball’s top tier rotations. They have a set of talented rookies roaming the outfield, along with one of the longest-tenured and best Mariners, the one his teammates call Our Champion. They somehow replaced both the level of play and the team’s beating heart at the hot corner. They saw their rookie catcher grow into one of the best backstops in baseball. And they’ve handed out significant, long-term contracts to ensure that two of the current All-Stars on the team are signed for the bulk of the current contention window. They’ve come a long way from relying on walk-off walks to win games...even if they can still win that way sometimes, because of superior plate discipline, as a treat.

But we prefer this way:

Chaotic? Yes. But not relying on chaos. Rather, relying on a power-hitting catcher who, after a brief, bad turn at the beginning of the season, returned as an injury replacement and took this pitching staff in hand, as well as providing offensive highlights like Friday’s highlight reel moment and slugging over .500 while setting a franchise record for home runs from the position, none bigger than Friday’s. Relying on the offensive stars, and superior plate discipline for the star-adjacent, and the starting pitching, and excellent infield defense, and a powerful bullpen—that’s not chaos ball, even if it comes at the last minute or through forcing other teams to make mistakes. That’s just players doing what they’re supposed to do, what they’ve been brought here and developed to do. That’s just Julio being Julio, Logan being Logan, and so on. The machine that is the 2022 Mariners has coughed and sputtered many times this year, but if the 2021 team was a beater high school car, the 2022 team is a luxury car prototype—still with bugs to work out, but of a much more sophisticated design.

Contrary to the brand of world-beater baseball practiced by perennial contenders like the Dodgers or Astros, chaos ball is about disruption, and challenging the status quo, and reminding everyone baseball is weird. It’s time to hand Chaos Ball over to the Orioles, who basically took it anyway, as they experience the joy of seeing flashes of the future mixed with a lot of nonsense.

So instead of Chaos being the watchword for this postseason run, I’d like to propose something else, that similarly gets at the heart of this team while recognizing these outcomes aren’t produced by an accident, or a trick, or the baseball gods smiling kindly on Mariners fans for once, but rather by talent. It’s inspired by J.P. Crawford—taking up Seager’s mantle of Captain—making his grand entrance to the field prior to Friday’s historic game. (Sound on, please.)

The Mariners aren’t the strongest team in the post-season, but they’ve found a way to win games that, on paper, were not favorable matchups for them. They’ll need to do that again if the current Wild Card standings hold. I don’t know if J.P., like me, grew up loving the Goonies, but I do know one thing: Goonies never say die.